I´ve had an eventful few weeks. Made it from San Cristóbal de las Casas in Mexico to Xela, Guatemala. Stayed there for three weeks with a wonderful family and brushed up my Spanish at a local language school. Also, did a killer sunrise hike to the top of the highest point in Central America, el Vulcan Tajumulco, with Quetzaltrekkers, and awesome non-profit that organizes hikes and treks all over Guatemala.. We hiked up to a base camp the first day, spent a rainy and cold night in our tents there, and then summited at 4am…definitely a thrill, and a highlight from Guatemala so far.
I´m now in San Pedro La Laguna, in Lago Atitlán. I was using the internet at a coffee shop yesterday, and some guys came in to organize a trip to the top of Volcán San Pedro, overlooking the lake, the following morning at 4am. I decided to hop in with them. We woke up to a warm, clear, dark early morning today, knocked off two hours of steady, tough climbing (one of the toughest hikes I´ve ever done!) and made it to the top just after sunrise (and just before the morning mist rolled in). The hike was muddy, with mini-landslides and downed trees in a few parts of the trail from recent rains. The view was absolutely amazing while it lasted…pretty much a straight look down at the whole lake and the surrounding volcanoes! It felt like being in an airplane, like floating above the whole lake on a tiny outcropping of rock. I think it´s gonna be tough to go back to east-coast hiking when I´m home!
Last weekend, I was the highest I´ve ever been in my life. La Malinche (a.k.a Matlalcuéyetl, Matlalcueitl and Malintzin) is a huge dormant volcano in Puebla and Tlaxacala states, east of Mexico City. The summit´s 14,641 ft—almost exactly half as tall as Everest—and very pointy.
Me, Kisiev, and his friend (now my friend!) Daniel bussed down to Puebla, where we met Miguel(ito) and Iris. Spent the night at Miguel´s mom´s house and then rocked la Malinche the next day. Slippery, loose-rock -strewn, steep slope for the last few miles (and hours)…fun, and definitely worth the altitude sickness!
Spent the next few days hanging out in and around Puebla with the banda…Miguel´s mom fed us some great meals, including a breakfast feast of chiliquiles con pollo and pirrian, sort of spicy, light orange mole type dish. Also got to visit Miguel`s god-mother`s homemade temescal (traditional steam room), where we steamed the soreness out of our post-Malinche muscles, rubbed ourselves with salt and honey, received expert (and spine-cracking) massages from his godmother, and chatted about politics. Lush! (sorry for stealing your word, Andy).
Then, a few days convalescing in my hostel in DF, a few days staying with Daniel and his parents in southern Mexico City, and back to the mountains! Dan, Kies, and I bussed down to Tepotzlán, a gorgeous little colonial town with a street market filled with excellent food.
Fried fish, long, veggie-stuffed quesadillas made with tortillas from blue corn, and super-refreshing micheladas (beer with lime juice and tons of spicy chili powder on the rim of the glass…too bad i was on antibiotics the whole time, so didn´t down one on my own).
Also, Tepoz is surrounded by cliffy mountains, and there´s a cool, old stone temple halfway up one of them. So, we hiked up to the temple, farted around a bit, and then continued scaling up to the top of the mountain.
Fun times with the banda, and once again, a sad goodbye as I continued on to San Cristóbal de Las Casas.
Just rolled into Mexico City (after a 20 hour bus ride from Chihuahua), and I wanna get out and explore! Still, got to get this off my chest before the next adventure—hiking a volcano with my friend Kisiev this Saturday (still don´t know which one) .
So, I spent the last week at the bottom of the deepest canyon system in North America, the Barranca del Cobre (a.k.a ¨ The Copper Canyon¨…apparently Spanish Conquistadors overzealously mistook pale green vegetation for copper lining the canyon´s walls.) I met Cici and Vincent, a Belgian couple on a month-long tour of Mexico, on the awesome Ferrocarril del Barranca del Cobre…a pretty impressive train that runs along the canyon and stops at a number of tiny villages perched along the rim.
From Bahuichivo (one such village), we took an aging converted American school bus, piloted by our fearless captain Eugenio, down the twisting, narrow road to the canyon floor (see video on upper right). We were all getting over some stomach issues, so the ride was an exercise in, well, self-restraint, so to speak. Luckily, I was scared sh&t-less.
Spent four relaaaaaaxing days at a sorta home-made ecohomestead/hostel in Urique on the canyon floor called Entre Amigos. Composting toilets (stocked with Mother Earth catalogs from the 70´s), solar-heated hot water, and papaya, mango, and grapefruit trees abounded! Also, right by the river…key for chilling out after day hikes in the hot canyon.
Keith, the owner wasn´t there, but I still got to take tortilla-making lessons from Maruca, a family friend and employee who was watching over the place. A lady in town (who loaned me a bag of flour when the abarrotes were all out) said I learned from the best. They were definitely delicious, and Maruca definitely got a kick out of the lumpy, mishapen tortilla freaks that emerged from my first few attempts (pictured below is one of the less-freaky tortilla freaks).
There, me and the Belgians rented bikes for the day and pedalled through a series of valleys with interesting rock formations (the Valley of the Frogs, the Valley of the Mushrooms, and the Valley of the Monks, which was (no joke) actually originally called Valley of the Erect Penises by its indigenous inhabitants, because…well, you´ll see).
Then, burnt crispy from the all-day bike ride, I said goodbye to the Vincent and Cici and bussed it up to Chihuahua with Daniel, a German army vet, Antonio, a diction and Literature instructor from Mexico City, and Francesca, a French business consultant. Chihuahua was kind of a rough town, although not without its jokes. Me and Daniel were assailed (in a repeat of earlier events in Guadalajara) but camera-phone bearing schoolgirls while taking a tour of a historical mural at the Palacio de Gobierno. We finally escaped and finished our tour, only to be whistled at by the prostitutes (at least one of who sounded, but didn´t look like, a dude) stalking the streets outside the run-down guesthouse where we were staying.
Later, me and Daniel had a great time at a dive cantina populated by two puckered old guys with canes, three surly waitresses, and another prostitute who kept checking out the window for clients. The jukebox was banging out Norteño love ballads for the first few shots of tequila, but then suddenly ran out of credit and went silent. Seizing the opportunity, I flipped through the catalog of discs and found treasure: Creedence Clearwater Revival´s Greatest Hits. So, I put on Bad Moon Rising, not sure if we´d be kicked out, and went back to my bar stool while the song loaded.
Then the familiar tune burst out of the speakers at full volume, and to everyone´s surprise, one of the seniors put down his cane and started dancing this great unselfconscious kind of salsa dance, arms upraised and fingers snapping, sashaying around the bar floor. We all of course started clapping and yelling ¨EY EY EY EY¨ (like they do here), and I rushed over to the jukebox to keep the tunes flowing. A half-hour later, after great success with more Creedence and some Daddy Yankee (he loved ¨Gasolina¨), we slapped on some Cumbia (good dancin´music) and all got out on the floor. Good times!
Hostel-bound here in Mexico City for now, due to surprise streetfood poisoning, but stoked for the upcoming volano summiting!
Things are getting beautiful here. Trees of all different colors are sprouting all over the place…at least it feels that way, since I never paid them much attention before they were bright purple or yellow. Baking hot at mid-day, but warm breezes all night. Deep purple sunsets. Ants diligently at work dismantling leaves from the highest branches of the tree in front of our apartment and trucking them the millions of ant-miles down the trunk and into the hole in the tile under our front steps.
Had a great visit with Sam; we`ve known each other since we were talking about Warcraft in the back of Eric Weis`s 7th-grade algebra class. There`s something really cool about being with someone you know really well in an environment that`s completely foreign to your relationship…like two kids from central Vermont hanging out in Guadalajara, Mexico. It`s calming, in a way…kind of reassures you that, even though you may only know a few people here and don`t understand half of what everyone says, you`re a real person, with a history and a home town.
Anyways, Ana`s coming to visit this week. Stoked for that! And in the meantime, here are some photos I took over the last few weeks when spring started happening.
I was looking through some old stuff on my computer, and found my application for the fellowship that brought me here last year. It reminded me why I`m here, and why learning Spanish is both a huge opportunity and responsibility.
When I first decided to learn Spanish, it was because I wanted to say “thank you.” I had arrived, sleeping bag in hand, at Blanca’s door just moments earlier. I would be staying in the cinder-block house of this family of maquiladora workers in Nogales, Mexico, as part of a trip for a college course on the U.S./Mexico border, and I couldn’t even say thank you. I had, of course, said gracias as Blanca, the mother of the household, began serving dinner that first night, but that garbled attempt seemed inadequate coming from a privileged American student who had literally just been airlifted into the lives of this struggling Mexican family.
I still remember the pregnant silence that descended over the table arrayed with bean stew, meats, homemade tortillas and guacamole; so many conflicting emotions and thoughts roiled in my head, but I was deaf and mute, unable to communicate with my hosts. Unable, that is, until Blanca’s sister Carmen joined us.
Carmen could speak some English, and upon learning I was in Nogales to learn about the border, she began recounting painful stories of migrants attempting to flee poverty and hunger in Mexico. She told me of children drowning in the moat-like canals lining the border as they tried to cross with their parents, of old women being abducted and robbed by smugglers, then left to die in the swaths of desert engulfing much of the border, and of cesarean sections performed with kitchen knives in Chiapan homes due to the lack of basic health services in rural Mexico. She told me that Carlos, her son, had lived in the U.S. since age two, but was expelled by the INS just after being accepted to a visual arts school when he was 18; he now earns less than two-hundred dollars each month driving a forklift at a landfill in Nogales. She told me it was too painful for her to go to the side of town where a twenty-foot corrugated metal wall separates it from Nogales, Arizona, and by the silent watchfulness of the rest of the family, I could tell she was speaking for them, too.
As the meal ended, Carmen, in tears now, thanked me for coming to Nogales and listening to her stories. Sick to my stomach and on the verge of tears myself, I found some small piece of redemption in her gratitude. Blanca’s family had given me so much and I had so little to offer in return, but maybe, for an American to travel to Mexico, to listen to the humanizing, heart-breaking stories of the people many Americans dismiss as “illegals,” was an offering in its own right.
Being such a big advocate of responsible travel, I decided to try taking the most carbon-efficient mode of travel to get back to GDL from Vermont after xmas: long-distance bus. More than anything, I wanted to prove that it`s doable, if not enjoyable. I was tired of the hypocritical dissonance between my climate idealism and my penchant for flying. And, admittedly, I didn`t want to wuss out on my former roommate Andy`s challenge to travel the 3,000 miles by bus. So off I went!
I cheated from the start, taking a train from Montpelier to New York City to save a few bucks and 5 hours. After 3 great days catching up with friends in NYC (thanks for the futon Fergy!), I woke up at 4am on a freezing Thursday morning to make it to the Port Authority terminal for my 6am bus. Got my ticket, an accordion of perforated glossy sheets for each of the stops on the my trip. It read like a band`s reunion tour through the south: New York, Washington, Richmond, Raleigh, Winston Salem, Charlotte, Duncan, Atlanta, Birmingham, Jackson, Monroe, Shreveport, Dallas, San Antonio, Laredo, and finally Nuevo Laredo and Monterrey, Mexico.
The next week and half was a bumpy ride of travel highs and lows. There was a great conversation with a young Iraq vet-turned pacifist on the bus from San Antonio to Nuevo Laredo. There was the anxiety-inducing run from the bus station to my hostel in the freezing early-morning darkness of Zacatecas, a city I`d never visited, using only a hand-drawn, un-labeled map I`d picked up at another hostel and a bumpy commuter bus. There was the quiet wonder of hiking lone in the mountains in Chinpinque park, outside Monterrey.
But there were there were also the drivers`terse, early-morning wake up calls blasting from scratchy loudspeakers as we rolled into depressed Southern towns in our fluorescent-lit, jam-packed buses. The physical discomfort of days without a shower, or real food. There were the desperate-looking riders waiting, sleeping, or sometimes just swaying in place in shabby greyhound terminals. And there was the sobering moment when I crossed the border into Mexico with just my passport and a signature, while hundreds of people die every year trying to do the exact same thing, but in the other direction, in the surrounding deserts.
Coming back to Guadalajara was like coming home after a long trip. The warmth of rekindling memories and friendships from last year was great. But the let-down of not being on the road anymore, of not being in motion, in emotional and geographic flux, made me feel idle and impatient. Living life on such a wide emotional spectrum is addictive. Even if you`ve just spent a whole week on cramped buses and dirty terminals, sometimes coming home can be the most uncomfortable part of traveling.
The next day was the leg we´d been waiting for, and debating, for days: the Carretara Fronteriza. Four hundred kilometers of jungle-skirting two-lane highway, thick with military checkpoints, howler monkeys, and indigenous communities. We waded through dense, bright green jungle yesterday, but now we were cruising past rolling green hills, distant blue mountains, and small farm plots fenced in by trees. Small towns materialized, bordered by rows of abarotes (mom and pop convenience stores) and pick-up truck fruit vendors, as we curved through the fecund landscape.
We stopped for a swim and lunch break at El Chiflón, a huge waterfall that pours turqouise green water into a brisk river. Disapointingly, the zip line that crosses the river just under the waterfall was closed for repairs…I got butterflies just looking at the thin cable stretching across the turbulent water.
Five more hours of driving (with one brief pause to let a monkey cross the road in front of us) brought us to Yaxchilan, one of the least-accesible and infrequently visited Mayan ruins in Mexico. After inadvertently landing the the middle of, and carefully extricating ourselves from, a heated dispute between the local taxi drivers and boat operators, we hopped on a narrow, long lancha and motored off.
We had been flying down the Ucumacinta river for about forty-five minutes, skirting the border between Guatemala and Mexico, before the grandmother (pictured above, first row, left, loving life) of the Mexican family that shared our boat gasped and raised her arm straight out towards the shore. Slowly, swatches of beige stone emerged from the dense green forest. Then crumbling, pocked structures. We passed two nearly-hidden buildings before swinging towards the sandy shore.
Walking into the park was like a weird dream…deadly quiet, except for occasional outburtsts from territorial howler monkeys, and nearly deserted. We hurried ahead of the others from our boat so we could be alone in the ruins. Joking to break the tension and quiet, we tramped along a vague, vine-laden path until a huge, mossy stone box came into view, blocking the path. We sidled up, and found a pitch-dark opening in the box. A doorway, of sorts, with warm, wet-smelling air pouring throught it.
We crept through with baited breath, cringing as we realized that the small squeeks just above our heads were a pair of tiny slumbering bats heads. Soon, the the darkness slowly abated and we emerged on a large platform, with a grassy lawn infront of us, the river bank to our left, and a steep hill on our right.
Crumbling stone structures stretched across the lawn; we recognized pelota courts, temples, houses, and staircases crawled up the hillside to our left. We spent a few hours exploring the ruins, taking side-paths to smaller plazas and structures hidden deeper in the jungle. I felt a deep sense of awe, and also nervous excitement…it felt like we´d stumbled upon a hidden city, whose inhabitants were watching us from the dark recesses of their abandoned buildings. The constant roaring of the howler monkeys only added to the Indiana-Jones feeling. An unforgettable experience.
We left at dusk as the attendants were closing the park, and hoofed it another few hours to Palenque, rolling into town exhausted from the drive and the adrenaline rush. The final score: 400 kilometers, 1 huge waterfall, six full-car searches by Mexican soldiers at checkpoints, one hidden ruins, and too many peanut butter sandwiches to count. The next day we toured touristy, but impressive Palenque. Then goodbyes, an overnight bus to Cancun, and a flight home for Christmas!
One note to start: As I`m publishing this post, more is becoming known about the situation on the ground in Haiti, and the death count from the recent earthquake may be in the tens of thousands. Here`s a list of aid organizations working on the recovery effort; please take a few minutes to send some help their way.
I´m sitting at the computer terminal in my hostel in Zacatecas, listening to the rain patter on the dark, cobbled streets outside. I´ve traveled almost three thousand miles in the last week, from wintery Vermont to rainy central Mexico, by bus and train. I´m tired, and pretty dirty, and recovering from a cold, but I´m on such a huge traveler´s high that it doesn´t matter. But, before we go there, I´ve got some catching up to do. The story of the last leg of my roadtrip across Mexico with my housemates, Andy and Temoc, remains untold!
Beginning the last leg of our roadtrip across mexico, we ditched Oaxaca with heavy hearts, and decided to get some distance. We drove through the whole day, and part of the night, arriving at San Cristòbal de las Casas around 2am. The road was amazing, full of extreme bends and cliff-side views of an absolutely epic, mountainous landscape. We passed dirt hillsides forested with cacti, and vast plains shrouded by layer upon layer of blue-purple mountains on the horizon.
After three days in mountainous San Cristobal we launched ourselves into the jungles along the Guatemalan border, camping and driving our way across the Carreta Fronteriza, a road running 400k along the Mexican-Guatemalan border. Some claim the road was built solely to facilitate the Mexican military´s control over the region in their efforts to restrict the movements of the Zapatista rebels in the bordering Lacondon jungle. Either way, it was lush, green, wet, misty jungle throughout.
We camped one night in the Lagunas Montebellos national park, a collection of five placid, forested lakes just on the Mexican side of the border. Our little lakeside campsite was run by a large family, who also had a rustic restaurant on-site and ran tours of the region. We´d barely pulled our stuff out of the car before Carlos and Jonaton, two pint-sized cousins, ran over, arms flailing, to ask us where we were from, and what our names were. They helped us build a nice fire, and we spent the evening chatting, fixing them peanut butter and bimbo (i.e. wonder bread) sandwiches, and telling ghost stories. Heartwarming!
That night, I feasted on a spiny, mean-looking fish at the family´s restaurant; apparently, it was caught in the lake next to our campsite just a few hours earlier. Looked kinda like a pirhanna…I´m glad it was already dead by the time I dealt with it. Despite the outward appearence, it was tender.
The rest of our trip in Chiapas will be in an upcoming post.