Coming Home

22 Aug

I think this is going to be my last entry.  I’ve been back in the States for over a month, but between visiting Ana and other folks in Portland, Seattle, and New York and hosting my Guadalajaran friend Oscar here for two weeks, this is the first time I’ve actually gotten to to think back over the last 10 months in Mexico and Guatemala.  Now that I’m alone, it’s really tempting to try to sum everything up, to take stock.  I want to try to figure out what it all meant, how I’ve changed, what I’ve accomplished.  Plus, I’m gonna need a pat answer when someone asks me, “So, how was your trip?”  And I think I want that answer for myself, too.

But I don’t think things work that way.  We don’t experience new things — different as they may be from our past experiences or our routines — in discrete, digestible chunks, ready to be processed and turned into a list of triumphs.  Life is less linear, less intentional than that, even in hindsight.   Now that I’ve finally got the time and space to think about the last 10 months, I still have a hard time holding the whole thing in my head.  It’s the classic participant-observer paradox: you have no fixed point from which to view an experience that changes you profoundly, because you’re moving too.  It’s like hopping on a bullet train in a place you’ve never been to  in your life, catching wind with your huge grin as you lean out the window and love the ride, and then trying to sit down afterwords and draw a map of the strange country you’ve crossed.  There’s no way your map does justice to the actual ride.  It’s more like a cliff-notes guide that, if you’re not careful, eventually takes the place of the original novel in your mind.

Maybe it’s best to just think of this trip as a series of moments.  Insane moments —  “what am I doing here, on top of this very tall Aztec pyramid in the middle of a lightning storm” moments.  Self-congratulatory, “here I am with these two Dutch tourists in the middle of the jaguar and snake-filled Guatemalan jungle, bribing these machine-gun-toting security guards to get into the country’s most treasured archeological site at 4am to watch the sun rise from that temple that’s in the first Star Wars!” moments.  Moments of self-doubt.  Scared moments.  And, of course, bored moments (which never make it into the stories I tell my friends, though they’re no less a part of the experience than that crap-my-pants ”is that guy following me?” moment on a dark street in Xela at 4:00am, or the “that’s the most beautiful sunset of my life!” moments on the roof of old apartment building in Guadalajara).

I guess that’s what this blog, and the personal journal I’ve been keeping along side it, are for; a place to go to relive the disparate, discombobulated, juicy collection of moments that, when squashed together, made up the last ten months of my life.  My gambit is that that collection, well-preserved, will last a lifetime.  I owe it to myself to hang on to them because, ultimately, they’re worth far more than any Cliff Notes version I could come up with.   So how was my trip?  It’s complicated…


Volunteering at Loma Linda

5 Jul
I just made it back home to VT, after a long day of travelling from Mexico to Portland, a few job interviews in the Pacific Northwest, 10 fantastic days in Seattle with Ana, 5 days in New York with Tom (a friend from Vassar) and Oscar (a friend from Guadalajara), and a long, green train ride through Connecticut and Massachussets.  Phew!  I´m starting a new chapter now, trying to focus on being here mentally and soaking up all that´s great about being home — the food, the outdoors, and most of all being around people who´ve known me my whole life.  It´s comforting, and I hope that feeling doesn´t turn into claustraphobia, and the itching of the ever-present travel bug, too soon!  This will be my last entry (from this trip, at least); thanks so much for reading and for sharing your thoughts and comments over the last 10 months.  And, most of all, keep in touch!
I just got back from a hike through the Guatemalan selva at dusk.  Me and Moses, my trusty guide, hacked our way through a disused trail (in all honesty Moses did all of the hacking), past a city of various colored and sized plants and vines, to make it to the local watefall before night fell.  Wet, misty, muddy, rain-foresty…we finally climbed back on to the established trail as the crickets (I think) started whining and the sky went from dark periwinkle to satiny purple.
I´ve been here in Loma Linda, a tiny town of 1,200 3 hours and two buses from Xela, since Monday afternoon.  Tropical storm Alex has been dumping rain since I got here, and today was the first break in the action, long enough for us to venture out for a quick hike and make it back in time for dinner.  I´m staying in a little hotelito the town´s newly organized tourism/development organization built last year, and taking all my meals at Rosalia´s house, with her four brothers, parents, and multiple (maybe 6?) kids.  Wonderful mayhem!  Beans at every meal, eggs with two out of every three, but the super-sweet, steaming coffee and the fantastic company more than make up for the lack of culinary variety.  I got to watch Rosalia´s two-year old daughter catapult herself across the room and back into the arms of a slightly older daughter on a swing they improvised and hung from one of the ceiling beams today. Also, Rosalia´s  incredibly sweet, very puckered mother still giggles when someone brings up the fact that I put too much chile on my veggies at lunch two days ago, and went quiet and sour-faced for ten minutes until the pain subsided.
I came here to get a glimpse into rural life in Guatemala, to see how the other half lives here, away from the smoke-burping buses, cobbled streets, and coffee shops of Xela, where I´d been taking Spanish classes for the previous two weeks.  Since I got off the chicken bus at the bottom of Loma Linda´s long sloping street in the Monday afternoon rain, I´ve been so astounded, and humbled, by the incredible warmth and generosity of the people here.  Generosity isn´t even the right word…generosity is something you show towards a stranger.  Pascual and Rosa, the husband and wife leaders of the development committee, Rosalina, Moses, and everyone else I´ve spent more than 5 minutes talking to has treated me like a member of their family, invited me up for more super-sweet coffee or an afternoon snack, or to come by and watch a world cup match.
My first night here, Rosa and I talked for what seemed like hours after dinner, and she told me about all the other tourist/volunteers that have spent a few days, weeks, or even months here.  She remembers all their names, and funny stories about each of them, and talks about them like children who´ve left the house to go make their way in the world.  She told me that I should come down to their house to visit whenever I want, without knocking, and that I could ask them for absolutely anything I needed; that I was now a member of the family. I know this is going to sound weird in writing, but I almost broke down into tears in the face of her incredible warmth, and ended up giving her a good, long hug.
Something we miss traveling, maybe without realizing it, is being part of a family, of belonging somewhere,of having a place where people are happy to see you.  Or having somewhere you can go, and someone who willlook after you if you have a problem or just a bad day.  I know it sounds crazy, but I feel like I have that here, and I just rolled in two days ago!  It fills some fundamental need that goes unmet on the road, fills a part of you that doesn´t get filled up after months of hanging out and meeting interesting new people from around the world or visiting ancient and beautiful places.  It´s something we often reject when we do have it, to get a little indepence from our folks, to live in a more exciting place or to go to that college that´s perfect for us, but so far away we only visit home during vacations.  It may be a cliché to say that Americans tend to not value their family as much as people from other cultures, but there really is something lost when we live our lives in the pursuit of careers, or adventures, rather than in enjoying and cultivating the warmth and sense of belonging that comes with staying home (most of my Mexican friends don´t understand why I wanted to go to college 5 hours from home, and much less why I´m planning to move to the West Coast this fall).  Sometimes, it takes going to the other end of the hemisphere to realize what you´re missing back in the States, and I think I´m going to live  my life differently back home because of it.
Note:  Loma Linda´s ecotourism program, run by Pascual, Rosa, Moses, and other community members, is an important source of revenue for the town.  Volunteers contribute in a variety of ways, from teaching English at the local school to helping renovate their small eco-tourist hostel and harvest coffee.  If you´re in or near Xela and want a unique experience off the tourist trail, please consider getting in touch with these great folks and scheduling a visit!
You can visit the new facebook page for more information and photos, e-mail (checked once a week) or call Pascual (from Guatemala) at 57.246.035 or 49.962.110 , or e-mail or call Eleazar, who lives in Xela and is happy to meet to share more information about Loma Linda and schedule a visit, at 40.010.101 or 43.452.253 (Eleazer speaks a bit of english, too).  Loma Linda is about 3.5 hours from Xela by chicken bus, and you can stay for a day or two, or a month or two!

Volcano-hopping: Tajumulco and San Pedro

4 Jul

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!

Getting high outside Mexico City

3 Jun

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.

don´t fall dano!

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!

steep steep steep!

we found him on top of the mountain like this, zenned-out

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.

Journey to the Bottom of the Continent

20 May

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).

Some great day hikes to isolated indigenous communities on the canyon floor, and then a less-freaky bus ride back up and a train to Creel.

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!

The Streets Part II: The Noble Tamale

17 Apr

Tamale from a Oaxacan abuela. She traded us a bag of red salsa for half of my pb & j sandwich.

For folks here because of the East Montpelier Signpost article, here´s a direct link to the cross-continent bus trip story:  Bus-a-thon 2010.
OK, maybe calling a tamale “noble“ is an exaggeration. But they are irresistable, inscrutably hidden away in their corn-husk wrappings like a steamed, juicy Christmas present.  It is, I hear, foolish to attempt to make them on your own except under the strict supervision of a tamale expert.  The fact that they`re nearly always served up by craggy, hunched, tongs-wielding abuelas who preside over their steaming, stainless-steel tamale tubs like magicians conjuring something stupendous from an overturned hat, only adds to the tamale mystique.  They`re all the more impressive because they fit perfectly in your hand, can be munched on without utensils, and can be had for one of the 10 peso coins that seem to multiply in my pocket during the course of the day.
Of course, tamales are only the princes (or princesses) of a street-food kingdom that encompasses the entire pocked-asphalt expanse of Guadalajara, from St. Andres to Zapopan.  Also presiding in court are a million variations of tacos in puffy flour tortillas, crunchy fried corn tortillas, or steamed as “tacos al vapor.“ They`re filled with juicy chopped steak, picante chorizo, and meat from parts of animal anatomy that I`ve never heard of before, even in English.  Everything from the rotating kebob-style pork in tacos “ al pastor“ to the stewed, tangy lamb or fish stew in tacos cazuelas, the “lengua,“ “cabeza,“ and “cerebro“ tacos (which need no introduction), to my personal favorite, chicharron (tacos stuffed with fried pork skins), gets stuffed between two tortillas, piled with chopped onions and cilantro, and handed out 24/7 at puestos, taquerias, and cocinas economicas around the city.  (Check out a great guide to Mexican street tacos by Karen Graber here).
Street food is a huge part of what makes life in Mexico so vibrant, and is going to be a huge part of what I miss when I come back home.  Food here is both sacred and carnal; sacred in the sense that tourist-oriented theme restaurants are thought of as not only ridiculous and expensive, but as betrayal of nationally adored dishes, and a rejection of the generational cooking know-how curated by moms and grandmas across the country.   It seems that everyone gets real pleasure out of the food they eat, and that the men and women cooking up tacos and tortas at Guadalajara`s thousands of street food stands are hugely proud of their food.
I think this is something a lot of us crave, but never really experience, in the U.S.  When I was interning in D.C. last summer,  my co-workers (and most of my friends) were absolutely obsessed with sandwiches from PotBelly, classier version of Subway.  Lines snaked around the block every day as people spent their lunch hour waiting in line for a sandwich of packaged meat and bulk-order bread, served up by an assembly line of gum-chewing, blasé employees.  They eat it not because it gives real pleasure but because it`s something to crave in a city, and a country, that thinks of food either as fuel for your body, or worse, as untouchable avante-garde art.  In Mexico, food is a life-long love affair.  Deliciousness, and people unselfconsciously enjoying it, is all around you, all the time. It adds a dimension to life that I think I`ve always missed back home without realizing it.
OK, enough musing for now! Here are some photos of my favorite Mexican street food, and the home-cooking inspired by it! Provecho!

Springtime in Guadalajara

16 Mar

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.