Tag Archives: adventure

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…

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Bus-a-thon 2010: Vermont to Guadalajara

29 Jan

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.

Checkpoints in the Jungle P2.

15 Jan

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!

Checkpoints in the Jungle P.1

14 Jan

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 thousandsHere`s a list of aid organizations working on the recovery effort; please take a few minutes to send some help their way.

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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.

One final note, though.  As I`m writing this, 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 thousandsHere`s a list of aid organizations working on the recovery effort; please take a few minutes to send some help their way.

Cheap Motels, Monarchs, and Eggy Wine

24 Dec

Adventures! My first three fantastic, wild months in Guadalajara were coming to an end, and my roommate Andy was leaving Mexico for Peru, so we decided to have one last adventure: a 10-day road trip across Mexico with Cuahtemoc, our hilarious and slightly paranoid Mexican roommate.    I’m now back in Vermont, snug in my fire-lit, cookie-filled home with my cats and parents, but  I’ve eaten, seen, and experienced so many new things in the last 10 days that I could live off the memories for months.  For now, my appetite for adventure is sated!  So, here’s what happened:

The trip started off with a bang.  Also, a crunch.  The bang came when we plowed into the back of a delivery truck that braked in front of us when we were trying to merge onto the throughway 5 minutes from our apartment. The crunch came when we pulled away, and the truck’s squashed bumper, which was attached to the frame with a shaggy blue rope, sagged even lower.  Temoc handled the situation like a pro, jumping out of car and shoving a $200 peso note in the front shirt pocket of the surly, mustachoied driver who stepped out of the front door.  The argument lasted about 30 seconds, and I heard the driver demand $2000 pesos for the damage.  Temoc said no, jumped back into the driver’s seat and we pealed out, swerving around the protesting driver.  Needless to say, we drove very, very fast for the next 20 minutes.  What a getaway!

We drove for hours through the slightly-parched, cliff-bound landscape around Guadalajara, and made it to a dusty working-class town named Zitácuaro.  The streets were filled with old cars and blinking neon signs on top of shabby casinos.  We saw more than a few brothels.  Looked like perfect spot to find a cheap hotel. Also, it easy drive from our objective, Mexico’s huge Reserva Mariposa Monarca, a biological preserve surrounding the winter habitat of  monarch butterflies from across the U.S. and Canada.   After a bit of haggling (again, Temoc’s forte), we ended up paying $3 to sleep on thin, springy mattresses in a cold room overlooking the street.

We woke up early, breakfasted on the white bread and peanut butter we’d nabbed from our apartment, and drove up into the mountains into the Cerro Pelón reserve.  We passed an interesting looking roadside stand in front of the entrance, tended by an old man who flagged us down.  We stopped in to see what he was selling, which turned out to be a drink concocted of fresh-pressed orange juice, a type of locally-made wine called jerez, and two raw quail eggs.  I was hungry and in the mood for something new, so I tried it.  The eggs were slippery and proteiny-tasting, the wine sweet and expansive, and the orange juice tangy and delicious.  After getting over the instinctual gagging reaction that kicks in when you slurp down two raw eggs, the drink was pretty good, almost like a red-wine mimosa with a protein boost.  The taste stayed in my mouth for the rest of the day.  Definitely worth it.

We pulled into the reserve and found a guide, Cesar.  He was wearing frayed jeans and shoes that didn’t look great for hiking, but as we started to climb the steep track into the forest, he quickly outpaced us.  Two huffing, sweaty hours later, we were at the top, in a piney forest carpeted with dead butterflies.  At first, I didn’t see any live butterflies, and was a little disappointed.  Cesar pointed to a shaggy-looking tree in front of us and said “They’re sleeping now.”  We looked closer, and the grey, shaggy mass that I’d taken for foliage took definition.  Orange-gray wings and white-spotted bodies emerged…the entire tree was made of monarchs!  In fact, all the trees around us were covered, from the lowest branches to the top, by quiet, gray, clinging monarchs…must have been millions!  As the sun emerged and began to warm their wings, the most precocious of them detached from the huddling mass and began flapping around in the sunlight.  Soon hundreds were populating the patches of sky above us, and the sound of their fluttering wings drifted down to us.  We watched them for forty-five minutes, seeing how they responded as the sun was enveloped by clouds and emerged, and lunched (more pb sandwiches and chips) while some of them landed on nearby bushes to dry their wings (by twitching them rapidly up and down).  Magic!

We descended back through the misty forest, and hopped into the warm car.  It was already getting that “road trip” smell, a mixture of well-used sleeping bags, piles of crumbs from cookies and chips, and damp socks.  We decided to push through (as Temoc would say, “Fast Tourism!”), and drove 12 hours through the heart of Mexico city and the middle of the country to make it to Oaxaca, where we had slightly giddy, very emotional reunion with our best friends from Guadalajara, who’d already been on the road for a week.  I love travel.