02 April 2019

Jenny Doesn't Get It

Howlin Wolf whistles and catcalls that need no translation, familiar faces in oversized sombreros, Starbucks, McDonald’s, neon margaritas and fuzzy memories of Señor Frogs; this is the México my sister knows—the México she cannot shake. That’s my fault. I’ve been defending Puerto Escondido, telling her what it’s not, rather than telling her what it is. I need to remedy that. I suppose I could call her but where is the fun in that? Jenny, My doubtful baby sister. Do you remember when you were the happiest in life? I’m not talking about a momentary spike. I’m talking about a steady buzz of damn this is good. A couple of years ago, I gave that question a lot of thought. I was between things at the time and determined not to rush what comes next. My thoughts kept returning to the years I lived in small-town Thailand. I had stumbled onto a magic formula back then. The intrigues of a foreign culture, tourism but not too much, a low cost of living and local travel destinations in every direction. It wasn’t a matter of going back. Happiness was forward. I was convinced that damn this is good wasn’t confined to a specific place or time. It was recreatable, improvable—a steady buzz tuned to jazz. So, I went looking for Puerto Escondido. Coincidentally I started in México. I wasn’t following my gut or bucket-listing, it just happened to be the cheapest place to land. I immediately felt at ease, even in the madness of México City. There was a familiarity to México, California whispers, and yet so much to learn and so much to see. I had intended to breeze through, ten days, two weeks at most, I stayed for almost two months.
The State of Oaxaca, in particular, nearly made me hang up my backpack. The city of Oaxaca is an incredible cultural center; art, music, theatre, colonial architecture and the remains of once flourishing indigenous centers. Oh, and it’s mezcal country! From there you can follow winding mountain roads to the Pacific Coast where you’ll find quirky Puerto Escondido fringed by miles and miles of unspoiled paradise. By the time I got to Puerto I was already in love with the region. It ticked all the boxes. But, I wasn’t ready to hang up a hammock and call it a new life. I had planned for long and epic. I had to find out if even better was somewhere on the road ahead. It wasn’t. I went all the way to the tip of South America and spent the whole time looking back, dreaming about Oaxaca and those perfect little towns along the coast. Carrizalillo is my neighborhood beach. I live a block away. There are a hundred and seventy steps winding down the cliffside but its step forty-five that really matters. That’s when Carrizalillo reveals itself, unobstructed and time-stop perfect. I won’t bother with golden sand descriptions and don’t you dare look a picture and assume that get it. You don’t. You have to feel the stone steps beneath your feet. You have to feel all your grown-up bullshit fall away as you resist the urge to run the rest of the way down.
Here is why Carrizalillo matters to this story. Despite all my prepping and poetic prognosticating, I was nervous. I had flashed through Puerto. I had no clue what the realities of living here would be. I wandered through the neighborhoods looking for what I had been imagining. Rinconada was my last stop; a quiet out of the way area with a raved about beach. When my feet hit that forty-fifth step relief nearly buckled me. I thought, if I’m not happy living here, I’ll never be happy anywhere. Mom and dad came to visit a few months after I arrived. I looked settled. I wasn’t. If anything I was too preoccupied with the logistics; head down, paradise passing me by. I welcomed the break and the opportunity to play tourist in my new hometown. There are a hundred stories I could tell from that trip but the one that stands out most is the time you won Christmas. Remember? You sent me cash and said, “Do something fun, I trust you.”
I took them deep-sea fishing. We pushed off at 6am. The boat captain was a local dude who has been fishing these waters for more than thirty years and clearly hasn’t lost a drop of joy. In the breaking morning light we absently observed Puerto Escondido stretching and yawning; surfers and pelicans bobbing on glassy golden waves, kids fishing from the rocks with nothing but string, umbrellas being opened, sand being swept—life rarely seen in the moments before buenos dias. The first couple of hours were nothing but light breeze and deep blue. The boat captain looked nervous. He kept his eyes pinned on the horizon and stayed in constant communication with the other captains. He was looking for a sign, but what? “We have to find the dolphins,” he said. “They’re hunters. If we find the dolphins, we’ll find the tuna.” Suddenly, he spotted something in the distance. He yelped with joy and gunned it. The lancha ripped across the smooth sea. In the distance we could see a group of fishing boats moving quickly southward. The water behind them was a churning boil that seemed to be chasing them down. A spinner dolphin leapt skyward, perfectly vertical, turning 360° and splashing down. We raced ahead, joining the other boats. That’s when we saw the whole menagerie. Dart-quick yellowfin tuna trapped between the fishing boats and separate schools of dolphins; bottlenose dolphins having joined the spinners. It was an unreal scene. Even the captain was shocked by the sheer numbers. We couldn’t look anywhere without missing something unmissable. Imagine mom with her camera, bouncing from one side of the boat to the other, screaming that happy, Can you believe it! scream of hers. Imagine dad intensely watching the tuna shimmer and submerge: Give me a chance, Captain! Just give me a chance! Little sister, I am telling you, you’ve never seen them float like that. They kept reaching out, making contact, unable to believe that any of it was real without confirmation of each other.
We quickly hooked three fat yellowfin, far more than we could eat or than I could fit in my freezer. We didn’t want the moment to end but we knew that it was time. The captain called up a local restaurant and when the boat glided onto the sand a lady with butcher knives in the pockets of her apron was already waiting for us. Sassy as could be, she sashayed us to an ocean view table beneath the palms. We sipped cervezas while she cut the tuna into three-inch ruby red steaks. We gorged ourselves until a siesta became mandatory. On the way out, mom and dad gave everyone on the staff a tuna steak tip. “Gracias! Gracias! We had such a wonderful day!” they told their grateful but slightly bewildered recipients. Travel has been an inspiration for mom and dad. It’s got them daydreaming beyond California and the statelines of the West. They have R.V. plans and months abroad plans. They are reimagining someday and I couldn’t be happier. You’ve always been a someday girl. It’s where you go to escape and when your day-to-day squeezes too tightly, it’s someday that shoves it away. We’ve talked about the broad strokes of what could be but never the imagined details. I wonder if you’ve even allowed yourself to daydream that deeply. I wonder if the thought of 10am on a way off Monday feels like a wasted escape, or worse, a betrayal of the goodness you already have. It’s not, kid. We’re all chasing life with a lot less squeeze and here in Puerto Escondido that’s just the way life is.
I want you to visit, but more importantly, I want you live here—just for a moment. I want you to sink into my day-to-day. Spend your mornings sipping coffee in a hammock and floating in the sea. Eat street tacos and high-end Oaxacan cuisine. Pack a bottle of wine and find a sunset spot all your own. Hop on a motorcycle and drive up the coast to Chacahua or down to Mazunte. Discover how easy it is to live differently. Freedom of time isn’t about filling the space responsibility left behind, it’s about finding your own rhythm. I don’t know what rhythm you’ll settle into or where curiosity will take you but I do know this; Puerto Escondido will help you imagine 10am on a way off Monday, it will add memory and tangibility to the daydream. Close your eyes. Inhale. Exhale. Shake it off. México is not the México that you know. Puerto is my new damn this is good. You and I are trouble at home, imagine us abroad.
Still not convinced? Fine, I’ll say it the way you’d say it, “Oh, get over yourself and get your ass down here!” See ya soon, MB P.S. I have it on good authority that Señor Frog passed quietly in his sleep.


05 March 2018

The Iguana War

I am at war with an iguana. It lives in my house. Or I live in its house. At this point I am not really sure. It is ancient and slow. It should have become tamale stuffing long ago. And yet, I cannot get rid of it. I have tried. I have gone to great, embarrassing and even murderous lengths. It is an endless dance. He lunges for my flowers and I chase him with my broom. He scurries away but he does not hide. He perches just beyond my reach, staring at me with his tired old eyes. And I see it; that look that says, “Gringo! Leave me alone! You’ve only just arrived.”  

That undersized dinosaur is right. I have only just arrived. Maybe that's why I haven't said much.

A local magazine publisher contacted me about writing an article: A New Arrival's Guide to Puerto Escondido. I started and I stopped. I realized that I had nothing to say beyond my own how and why. I'll finish the article (the publisher is a tough lady to say no to) but not until I've been here long enough to look back. Here is what I had to say about why:   

“I am drawn to the ocean and the chillness of beach towns. The Pacific Ocean in particular seems to be etched into my DNA. I am happiest when I am close enough to hear it crashing against the continent. And yet, beach towns always leave me grasping. They are places of escape and the culture they cultivate is one of escapism. It is sun and surf. It is chelas and chill. Art, history and reminders of both are for older places, places unwashed by the tides. What makes this stretch of the Mexican coastline so unique is that La Ciudad de Oaxaca is not far away. Oaxaca is one of the most culturally rich cities in the world. It has theatre, music and incredible food. It is a city fiercely proud of its own uniqueness. I am a beach bum. I am an artist. I am an extranjero. I am a traveler in love with the stories history hides. I have found a thousand places to love. But never anything like this. Oaxaca down to Puerto Escondido, across Mazunte and Zipolite and back up; that loop seems to have everything that I need to be happy for a very long time. But I didn’t know for sure. I couldn’t. I could only leap.”

*Things unsaid: I am overwriting and avoiding the original motivation because who wants to hear about that...

Beach culture + art heavy Oaxaca--that’s part of it. Great day trips and weekend escapes along the coast--that’s part of it too. A gut feeling about Mexico and in particular the state of Oaxaca--no question. But those are Margarita reasons--they are the things you say when people come to visit and your life is rocking right along and with the slowest of heartbeats you wax poetic. What sent me searching in the first place was far simpler than that; I was tired. I was tired of uncomfortable beds. I was tired of living in housing that I hadn't chosen. I was tired of packing up my life year after year. I wanted a home. And I wanted to be closer to family and friends.  

There are several beaches communities here, each of which has a different vibe. My first week in town, I wandered around the neighborhoods looking at apartments and trying to decide where I belonged. An area called La Punta seemed to be the best place to meet people and have a social life but it didn’t feel quite right. I was waiting for fuck yeah! And I found it on the other side of town in a quiet little community called Rinconada. I loved the neighborhood. I loved Carrizalillo, the neighborhood beach. And I found an amazing apartment--maybe--potentially. It was an unfinished shell with cement floors, spray painted lines where the bathroom and bedroom would be and incredible ocean views in every direction. It was my chance to make a home in a place without memories. I strung up a hammock, closed my eyes and imagined what my place would look like.

And then I went to war.

It started with the bougainvilleas. I bought the prettiest plant you have ever seen. It was a riot of pink blossoms; a symbol of my life in bloom. Then the flowers started disappearing. Naturally, I blamed myself. I watered it more and I watered it less. I gave it sun and I gave it shade. Nothing worked. I was on the verge of replacing my bougainvillea with an unkillable cactus when my enemy revealed himself for the first time. I came home from the market, laden with supplies, and found him with his claws on my flower pot eating pink blossoms faster than I eat cacahuates with a cold beer.

At first, I just stared, dull-eyed and dumb. And then, I yelled at him in English and Spanish. I said, “Hey! Hey! Stop eating my flowers. Fuera! Fuera!” I needed something to whack him with. I picked up a broom with stiff red bristles. I jabbed him in the ribs. I must have looked ridiculous. Thrust! Thrust! Parry! Mary Poppins the Musketeer. The iguana retreated. I ran into my bedroom and looked out the window. There he was, sunning himself on my balcony, out but not gone.

I could not stay home waiting for him to sneak in again. I had things to do. I had an apartment to furnish. I had a new home to explore. And most importantly, I needed to find a job.

I know that I have talked a lot about starting a business down here. And I may. But what I am most interested in is permanence. I want to be able to trust in the foundations of my life here. And how I lay those foundations will be subject to this and only this: whatever I achieve in this life will come through freedom of time and chasing my own curiosity, not the hours I spend earning money. So, for now I am focused on freelance writing. I write children’s stories for an English language magazine in China and blogs for a TEFL school in Ireland. It is work that I can do from anywhere. I don't know if it will be temporary or a new path. I suspect that I'll end up dabbling in a few things. But I am determined to play it slow. I'm here and I'm happy, so let's see what patience brings me. Anyway, about that iguana.

For weeks, we battled to a standstill. He would creep out onto my balcony and I would chase him away with my broom. He feared the broom but he did not fear me. I needed advice. I started with the construction workers across the street. They saw me approaching and immediately started laughing. Clearly, they had seen my broom antics. They said, “Iguanas are delicious. Kill it. Tamales!” That felt a bit extreme so I asked the lady that runs my favorite cafe. She said, “You could buy different plants. Or kill it. Have you tried iguana tamales?” Finally, I approached my landlord. I figured other tenants might be having the same problem. She said, “Around here we eat them. They are great in tamales.” And then with hungry eyes she added, “If you kill it, let me know.”

Stuck between murder and a barren bush, I decided to go on the offensive. The iguana had gotten the stick. It was time he got the bristles.

The following day, I allowed the iguana to emerge from his hiding place and lounge on my balcony beneath the midday sun. When his scaly eyes began to droop, I moved in. I lowered the broom through the open window. I hesitated. Was I a hunter? Could I kill? I glanced at my flowerless bougainvillea. Enough, I thought. Enough. I gave him the bristles! I swept him over the edge! I watched my enemy spiral into oblivion and heard him thud against the sidewalk below. I pulled my broom back with a grim smile of satisfaction. He had fallen four floors. There was nothing left to do but collect the body.

I grabbed a plastic garbage bag and went downstairs. I opened the door and with near hysterical disbelief, I said, “No! No! No!” He was alive. More than that, he seemed awakened by the tumble. I stepped forward and he scurried around the building. He moved faster than I had ever seen him move. I stood on the sidewalk, holding my empty plastic bag, wondering if my enemy was immortal or just immune to the laws of physics.  

I wanted to believe that I had scared him. I wanted to believe that he would stay away. But I knew that I hadn’t and I knew that he wouldn’t. I checked the balcony obsessively. I worked in fits and starts. Anytime the ocean breeze rustled my flowers, I was on my feet, broom in hand, ready for battle. And then he returned. He crept into the sun, eyeing my flowers and licking his lizard lips. I gave him the bristles again. Again, he spiraled into oblivion. Again, he was unfazed.

This time, I wasn’t taking any chances. I ran downstairs and swept him into the middle of the street. A group of tourist girls eating at the corner restaurant started yelling at me, “Leave him alone! Don’t hurt him!” I said, “Callense gringas!” and kept on sweeping. The construction workers heard the commotion and came running out of the house whooping and clapping. They said, “Get it! Eat it!” I swept that immortal bastard down the street and around the corner. I would have swept him straight to the next beach but I ran out of road. I strutted back to my apartment sure that I had won.

He stayed away for a long time. I grew complacent. I went to Oaxaca for the Day of Dead Festival. I took day trips along the coast. I explored Puerto Escondido; confident that my flowers would continue to grow. And they did. They bloomed pink and beautiful. And the moment that I looked at them and thought, life is good, that sonofabitch came back.  

He crawled out of his hiding place and across my couch--while I was sitting on the couch! I jumped up and went straight for the broom. He ran into my bedroom and hid under the bed. I jabbed him and he scurried into the corner. He sat on top of my laundry basket and for some reason that riled me up even more. I jabbed him again. He bolted for the bathroom. I whacked him with the broom and knocked him out cold!

I was not about to leave an unconscious iguana lying on my bedroom floor, so I took a handful of paper towels and picked him up by the tail. He woke up and hissed at me. He bent upwards trying to bite me! I panicked! I threw him through an open window. I threw him hard and far. I winced; waiting for the sound of screeching brakes or screaming tourists. Silence. I crept to the corner and peeked out from behind the curtains. The streets were empty. And then I saw him, my immortal foe, glaring up at me from the street below.

And so it goes.

I have been quiet about my life here. I wasn’t trying to hide the good or bury the bad. I just didn’t want to say anything until it felt more real. Puerto Escondido, much like my apartment, began as an empty space absent memories or times gone by. It was a place that I hoped would eventually become a long-term home--a place that would reflect me and my approach to life. And it can be. I know that now.

The only thing left to do is to live with passion, curiosity and awareness of the moment.

Because my enemy is out there; waiting for the day when I am lounging in the sun and he is holding the broom.

12 April 2017

An Overdue Conversation

I am sitting on a stool lazily spinning a coaster atop a rounded wooden bar. You cannot see my face and hesitate unsure if I am daydreaming or need to be left alone. The space around us is smudged and dark like a pencil drawing haphazardly erased. There is the outline of man beside me; perhaps we are strangers or perhaps we are friends who have drifted off to private places. He has the same liquidity as the space around us, his shape constantly shifting—imposing, folded-in, kinetic, calm. You take a step forward to join us but stop abruptly when I slam the coaster against the bar with the flat of my hand. “Just fucking stop,” I say. The figure shrinks then swells. “What?” it replies. You sense its cracked bravado and tell yourself that you should walk away, but somehow you know that you can’t, and that anyway there is nowhere to go.

“Stop thinking,” I say. “You’re spinning in circles. And for what?”

“I can’t help it,” my companion replies.

“You can. They are little whimpers that you allow to get loud.”

The figure is withdrawn yet rolling within itself—a bottled storm.  “You talk about me like… Do you really think you could have gotten here without me?”

“Airplanes and buses. It's not that hard.”

“And that’s all you are, right? Walking tall. Cool as… Since you have it all figured out, Mr. Confident, Mr. Wise, answer me this. What happened to the stories?”

I shift in my seat all coiled discomfort.

“I haven’t wanted to,” I say. I’ve been busy living. I can tell it later.”

My companion settles into confident repose. “Lies amigo. The empty space gnaws at you. I can feel it.”

“The words seem predictable,” I reluctantly answer. “Like I’m forcing new places and new experiences into the tired old template of me. I am better than that. Or I want to be.”

“Yeah, well, shuffling through excuses and doing nothing is a super improvement plan.”

“What do you want from me?”

“A story obviously. What happened after Chile?”

I lay my head against the bar and groan, I am in no mood for once upon a time.  

“Nothing happened. I loved Valparaiso,”

“Then why leave?”

“Because it was perfect for right now, but right now doesn’t last. I’m going to be 39 this year. You do realize it has been seven years on the road? I love life abroad and travel but I need a home. I need one predictable thing in my life.”

“So bye, bye Valparaiso.”

"And hello, Mendoza; though not for long. Mendoza is the wine capital of Argentina and unless I missed it, mostly unimpressive. It is a big city about forty minutes outside of a farmland looking wine district. Coming from California it is easy to get judgy about the beauty of las bodegas but honestly it is not even the prettiest place in Argentina to sample wine—that distinction belongs to Cafayete in north. Now that is a beautiful spot! Anyway, here is what I remember. On my way to the vineyards I missed my stop by a good 10km. The bus driver was finishing his shift and offered to drive me back in his car. I hopped in and we chatted. He had lived in Miami for a number of years—in fact his son and Brazilian ex-wife were still there. He wanted to go back someday but visas are not easy to come by. And of course we talked about Trump. Everyone wants to dismay about that. The first winery I visited was nice but the wrong kind of crowded. I had the option to take the tour in English or Spanish. The English group was thirty strong, including a bunch of loud, drunk (no hammered) exchange students from Texas—the bad Americans, so obviously I chose the Spanish group. I missed a few details but I was happier for it. The second winery was empty save one dude struggling to order his tasting. I joined him for a few copas and heard an interesting story. He had given up the American life as well, but with significantly less wandering. He went straight to Antarctica where he has lived, winter and summer, for the last six years. He started off changing light bulbs which in Antarctica is apparently a full-time job and worked his way up the maintenance ladder. It turns out Antarctica is more than an uneasy alliance of scientists and mechanics. He made it sound fun. It seems to be a collection of mavericks clustered at the bottom of the world. There is a thriving gay community, parties big and small, a sharing of intellectual pursuits, live music; bold people celebrating bold choices—fascinating. And while Mendoza wasn’t great, the Malbecs were.”

“Sometimes it is the people you meet, right?”

“Yep. Strangers are often interesting but how often do you take the time to know them when you’re not on the road?”

“It must have felt good to be back, stretching your travel legs, seeing the world.”

I don’t answer. It is as though I didn’t hear him or have forgotten he is there. My companion tries to meet my silence with his own but he can’t hold on.

“It must be difficult though,” he says. “All that stopping and starting. You wander and wander; learning and experiencing, but accomplishing what? The experience alone should be enough, more than enough, but you feel rudderless sometimes. You feel like you are missing something obvious, an overlooked purpose or opportunity to take something that others have done and make it entirely your own. And then you flare because you should be past that kind of thinking. That is your American upbringing telling you to take it all. But you don’t want it all. You want a simple life that moves and adapts to meet your desire for new things. You want to always appreciate the simple, repeatable joys; the sway of a hammock, new music and a cool drink, food you’ve never tried, being centered and calm and knowing that there is nothing healthier than that. It is easier when you’re settled abroad. But on a trip this long nothing is settled. And so you have days full of joy punctuated by moments of discontent and like a criticism thrown into a volley of compliments you let that moment fester. So yeah, it must be difficult, sometimes.”

I don’t respond. As before I am a man alone.

“And then you went south, right? Patagonia?”

I inhale sharply, a daydream snapped. I seem surprised by his presence.


“After Mendoza. South?”

“Yes. Patagonia. I need a redo on that part of the world. I despise when people visit the two or three tourist trap places in a country and then declare the entire country a waste, “Maybe 20 years ago, but now…” Fuck you. Pick a direction, move an inch on the map away from that hole you’re in and you’ll see the real country unspoiled by people like you. And yet in Patagonia that is pretty much what I did. I thought Bariloche was beautiful. I thought El Chalten had amazing hiking and a great vibe. I thought the Perito Moreno glacier was one of the coolest things I have seen anywhere. And I thought the entire area was WAY too expensive—overrun by rich people wrapped in the REI catalog with their double walking sticks and their foot massages by the fire. But, I was doing it all wrong, skimming through touristy towns, staying in hostels, eating in restaurants and I had neither the time nor the resources to do it right. So I scraped plans to visit Southern Chile and Tierra del Fuego and booked a ticket north.  In order to truly experience Patagonia you have to go full Kerouac. Here is what my redo would look like. Fast-forward ten years. I fly my niece and nephews down to the bottom of the world and we set off on an epic camping adventure. We cruise around in an old VW van; set-up in a different spot every night, cook our meals around a campfire and fill our water bottles straight from the stream. We hike mountains no one ever traverses. I teach them the fascinating and tragic history of the Mapuche people and through friendliness and fortune we meet a few of their ancestors and teach them the art of making Smores. We do it the right way and Patagonia becomes everything I didn’t allow it to be.”

“If it hadn’t been so expensive would you have stayed longer?”

“No, I had already accepted a job teaching English on the Galapagos Islands, I had a timeline for the first time in a year.”

“I still don’t understand why you backed out of that. It’s the Galapagos!”

“Of course you don’t understand.”

“If it was about the…”

I raise my hand in a gesture for silence and my companion quiets down, his outline shifting into a position of obedience.

“Here is the thing about stories,” I say. “If you follow them through they tend to answer the big questions. So which do you want an answer or a story?”

“Apologies, Maestro. Please continue.”

“I found myself on a side street in Buenos Aires where dusty streetlamps draped the sky in tarnished gold. The street had been blocked off and was brimming with la gente de la ciudad, young and old. They sat around wooden tables, sipping wine and waiting for an invitation to dance. Tango is fading in Argentina. The younger generation (for now) seems mostly disinterested. But in a city of millions there are still many who cherish the artistry and drama of the iconic dance. The dance floor in the center of the street cleared out, making room for two professional dancers. My friend Caro, whom I met traveling Europe nearly a decade ago, pushed me forward, closer to the edge of the square. I hastily shoveled down the last bite of an empanada and nudged toward the spot she wanted to claim. Her boyfriend Emilo refilled our beers and her friend whose name I cannot remember explained the dramatic courting rituals happening all around us. And the dancers danced.

 “Every city is better with a local to show you the way, right?”

“Absolutely. It was nice of her to take the time. Travel friendships are like that; they start with a flash then burn long and slow. Anyway, there is more to say about Buenos Aires and Argentina in general, but let’s keep moving—across Rio de la Plata into Uruguay. I knew it would be a short trip, a week or so while my visa for Brazil was processing. My timing was perfect. The Uruguayan beaches are a hotspot during the summer especially for travelers from Brazil and Argentina AND it was Carnival. I had heard that La Pedrera (a beach town a few hours north of Montevideo) was the place to be. As usual I hadn’t booked anything in advance and that turned out to be a problem. I found a hostel for a couple of nights, but those were the lead up nights. The entire town was booked for the parade and the big party and so with more than a few wistful looks back at a swimming pool full of pretty things, I tagged-along out of there. A girl whom I’d met at the hostel arranged a ride in the back of van with a couple of Argentinean musicians to a nearby beach town called Cabo Palonio. I knew nothing about it going in but fell instantly in love. It is an Uruguayan hippie village painted with colorful shacks that dot reed covered hills and sandy dunes. Electricity is limited and internet non-existent. On the night La Pedrera raged I sat on the porch of my bungalow listening to the waves crash and the breeze blow and beneath their song, nearly hidden, a saxophone sang a lonely tune. I knew the musician and was happy to hear him play. Earlier that night we had sipped cool beer and talked about New Orleans and Jazz and the history of. My Carnival wasn’t wild or Samba rhythmic but it was certainly a memory worth keeping.”

“Are you still mad?” my companion asks.

“Yes, I’m still mad. I liked her.”

“I know you blame me for spinning like I do. I know you think I’m scared. But it isn’t that. And I don’t agree with you that knowing is always better. Isn’t wondering better when you are so sure it isn’t going to go your way?”

“That is such make yourself feel better bullshit. A perfect little beach in South America, romantic. You held me back. I don’t like feeling afraid. I don’t like not making the brave choice.”

“Yeah, well, blame me if you want, but you’re stronger than me, you always have been.”

I am petulant and he is defiant. He raps his knuckles against the bar.

“And then Brazil,” I say. “The last country on a year long trip and the place where clarity, or if you prefer reality, shifted my focus forward.”

“You mean that is when you decided to abandon the turtles, and the iguanas, and the finally learning how to surf like Slater….on the GALAPAGOS!”

He huffs and he puffs and I cannot help but laugh.

“Yes, that. I crossed into Brazil excited about the Galapagos. I knew there was no future in it. I knew that to stay beyond six months would be a panic move. But I figured it would buy me time to settle down and think. And what a place to think.”

“Exactly!” my companion erupts. “You love facts and logic. How about this: life expectancy for U.S. born males is 76.5 years. And you can’t spend .5 living in one of the most unique places in the world? How is that, this, whatever, not a panic move?”

I am smirking, amused by his fidget and roil.

“We';re getting there," I say. "Now anyone who has traveled South America will tell you that Brazil and Colombia have a unique and irresistible energy; a mixture of joy, sensuality and I guess, danger. I felt the energy in my early stops, Florianopolis and Foz do Iguacu, but it didn’t take shape as something uniquely Brazilian until I got to Rio de Janerio. That city is a playground of culture and nature; Ipanema Beach at sunset, the views from Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf Mountain, Lapa on a Friday night, listening to Bossa Nova and sipping whiskey in an old school lounge, stumbling across Vermelha Beach hidden in plain sight. Most cities are 2-3 day destinations but I could have stayed in Rio for a month and still felt rushed.  It is where I started to realize that Brazil couldn’t be tucked away in the past as a one-time destination. And then amidst all that wonder reality switched on.”

“The FBI switched it on,” my companion chimes in.

“Yes, in a manner of speaking. The school on the Galapagos informed me that due to new visa regulations I would have to obtain an FBI background check. This is not uncommon in the English Teaching world, but it is a gigantic pain in the ass, especially while traveling. I sent the school administrator a light hearted email about how they were asking me to purposely walk into a Rio de Janerio police station and ask to be finger-printed. It was a minor hiccup, but one that got me thinking.”

“Spinning. It got you spinning. I tried to bring you back to the present but you just kept pulling. It is always about the future with you. You tell stories about the present. You brag about the present. But, if I wasn’t holding you here, you would disappear into Tomorrowland.”

“You are right,” I say. “I get caught up too. But just hear me out. For months or maybe since the very beginning, Mexico has made the most sense as the next place to call home. I can’t shake those Oaxaca beaches. They seem to fit the dream perfectly; communities built around tourism but still deeply connected to the local culture, a high season for success and a low season for travel, the chance to mold a life centered on lifestyle. It sounds cold bullet-pointed like that, but…”

“Remember Amy from that hostel in San Augustinillo?” my companion asks. “She took the same trip years ago and ended up back in Mexico. Said she couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. You laughed at that. Latin America seemed too big and too grand for her little beach town to be the best of. But that isn’t what she meant. You are talking about long-term choices. And feeling is a part of that. It isn’t about finding the prettiest beach, the sexiest people, the deepest history or the highest mountain. It is about finding a home. Justify it with logic all you want, but you can’t shake Mexico because it feels right.”

“Bullshit,” I say. “I just like tacos and Mezcal.”

“And the Pacific Ocean because it reminds you of California. And the fact that California is only a cheap flight away. And because you grew up with Mexican culture ignoring it like a good little Estadounidense, but influenced by it nonetheless, and now that you are all grown up you want to take your little plastic shovel and dig it all up.”

“Yeah, plus tacos. So I was in Rio feeling weird; enjoying the place but dragging the weight of unmade decisions too. I don’t believe in signs anymore than I believe in luck but sometimes the Universe does seem to nudge. Amidst the background checks, maybe nots and really wants, a University in Mexico (located basically exactly where I want to be) contacted me about a teaching gig. My first instinct of course was to take it—take that safety net and go. But I decided to be patient, let it settle. I can be overly confident and quick about even the big decisions and I knew that this was a crux moment so I didn’t want to rush it.

“Came up with that all on your own, did ya? You just logically decided to feel it out?”

“Anyway," I say feigning annoyance. "After Rio I traveled to Salvador, the Afro-Brazilian heart of the country; a place where the humidity clings and the salty air blows warm, where hips sway to the boom bap rhythm of Samba and kaleidoscope colors swirl beneath the sweet buzz of street stall Caiparinhas. Salvador pulls you in. It unclasps your little hesitations and lets them fall way; turning back with a sultry smile as you step in time with its rhythmic abandon. The traditions and culture of stolen Africa are more alive in Salvador than anywhere else in the “New World” and nothing encapsulates this more than Candombie. Enslaved African priests seeking to preserve the mythology, culture and language of their people created a religion in their new home, one that intermingled the past with certain elements of their Roman Catholic present. They called it Candombie and made Tuesday their holy day. I was there to witness it. At 6pm the streets were quiet and the churches full. And then the drumming started. Beneath the pounding beat the colonial doors swung open and people poured out already dancing, their bright faces free of penance or austerity. Drumming and dancing; the circles swelled and then the whole mob moved following the musicians over cobblestone streets, past alleyways strung in white light and buildings painted in a thousand colors. A wiry dude with salt and pepper dreads led the dance and hundreds followed his improvisations. For hours the mad party moved from place to place until finally the drumming slowed and the sweat dried sticky—until finally sleep brought an end to the dream-state clamor of Salvador on a Tuesday.  

“All of that beautiful distraction and yet in the quiet moments you went right back to planning, solving your hypothetical problems, following what-if tangents and for what? Why worry about the unwritten pages? That Tuesday in Salvador was an impossible day. Why not string together as many of those as you possibly can? Why not refocus on the beautiful distractions and just float?”

“Because there is not enough free will in floating and you know it. It starts to feel like drifting away. You ping from place to place with nothing to cling to; new friends slide by, the home you started to build comes untied. The beautiful days used to be enough, but not anymore, it is time for roots or at the very least nails to the floor."

"I feel this big hole just sitting out there," my companion says. "Your plans, if they don't work... There are easier ways."

"I'm done with easier ways. That University gig would have been easy. The comfort of having a job, a visa sponsor, but it also would have meant having a life abroad that was in some ways puppet-stringed to someone else. Seven years is too long to walk back into those limitations. At least not without reaching for something more."

"Alright, so lay it on me. What's the plan?"

"Tranquilo. Don't you want to hear the end of the story?"

My companion vibrates with annoyance. "Not clever. Not nearly as clever as you think."

I shrug my shoulders like me is me.

"Like all little boys who play in the dirt and catch salamanders to scare their mom, I dreamed of navigating the Amazon; hacking through vines, wrestling anacondas. I saved Amazonia because I wanted one last bite of sweetness at the end of my journey. Earlier in the trip I probably would have shunned the organized tours preferring the challenge of an unconventional route but at this point I just wanted it to be easy. I signed up for a three day tour that included hammock camping, Piranha fishing, the works. It began with a long bus ride deeper into the interior and a forty minute boat ride deeper still. The first night we slept in hammocks hung beneath a flimsy tarp. We used a machete to fashion wooden spoons and banana leaves to fashion plates. We grilled chicken and sausage on bamboo skewers. I slept better than I had in weeks. It was rainy season and the river had swelled covering the edges of the jungle to the tops of the trees. The following afternoon we paddled through the flood plain searching for Piranha. Using bamboo rods strung with fishing line and baited with chicken we slapped the surface of the water (apparently this gets their attention) and waited for a nibble. At the slightest tug we would yank our poles upward and hope to see a silvery carnivore dangling from the end. I caught one. Everyone else caught more. Over the three days I saw tarantulas, bird spiders, toucans, parrots, a weird looking blind snake, and in the distance I heard howler monkeys howling. The highlight though was the medicine tour. Our guide showed us the plant used to make vaporizer ointment (the natural version smells amazing!) tree bark used for malaria treatments, a milky sap used to treat tuberculosis, an oily fungus used to make incense and sap that works as a natural glue. The meals were good. Everything was easy. I'm sure it's possible to go deeper and more dangerous but here at the end that was all the adventure I needed."

"And...," my companion says with a roll of his shadowy hand.  

"And the plan. Home to California--for a little while. I need to put some space between this trip and what comes next. I need to apply for a Temporary Resident Visa which has to be done stateside anyway. And I need to work. I started dipping into the business investment money somewhere in Uruguay and I'm feeling a bit uncomfortable about the cushion. I'll take whatever I can get but I want to concentrate on freelance work; digital-nomad type gigs that I can take with me. If I can break even in the early months, I can reduce stress and the chances of rushing into a mistake. Nothing is set in stone but I figure I'll be home until the beginning of August and then off to Mexico and the unknown. I have ideas of course but I won't know what's right until I'm there." 

"The same old dream," my companion says. "The dream that never fades."

We sit in silence. I seem unable to find the words, my body and face speaking of frustration.

“A year is a long time to travel," I finally say. "Maybe too long. I can still feel everything; the beautiful and the bruising, the stretches of peace and the moments of discontent. That won't last of course. Retrospect will dull the memories as it always does and I will tell my stories and remember the little epochs with fondness. But why did I travel for so long? I knew what I wanted all along. So why did I keep pushing it forward just out of reach?

My companion's outline grows dark and smooth, nearly reflective. 

“Because it is what you needed. Finding harmony in life is the same as finding harmony in a moment; you inhale and exhale. This past year was your whole life story taking a big, sweet, harmonizing breath. You exhaled, pushed it forward, until you were ready to breathe again."

I nod and then tilt my head back, admitting to the ether.

“I’m scared. So much is unknown and I so badly want this to work. I can't untie the knot. ”

“I'm scared too," my companion replies. "But what’s the worst that could happen?”

“Failure. We try our best and find that we don’t have the stuff. Or worse that the dream wasn’t what we’d imagined. How do you replace a 20 year old dream?”

“By loving our unpredictable life. I spin and you rush, but somehow it always works out. Succeed or fail, we’ll find a good story to tell, we always do.

My companion moves closer putting his arm around my shoulder. We are shadow and form.

“I’ll be stronger,” he says. “If you keep us moving forward.”

“I’ll slow down,” I say. “If you keep us in the moment.”

You feel yourself being pulled away without reaction or need for words. The edges of the scene become etched in obsidian black and in the shrinking distance we are indistinguishable; we are graphite, obsidian, gone.




07 January 2017

Waiting and Reminding Myself to Wait

There is part of me that hates to wait, that wants answers and action now. There is part of me (the stronger part) that trusts in the mystery of timing, the so far faultless truth that what is right will reveal itself with suddenness and feel like it had been there all along. And when it does I will act with quickness and determination. I will go or stay or build. I will do whatever feels right because if past truths hold true that feeling will leave doubt impotent and unreal like someone else’s words momentarily remembered as my own.

I began this journey in Mexico City way back in May. I talked about this in an earlier post but I was off balance in the beginning, the part of me that demands action had flared up telling me to clench and swing when what I really needed to do was breathe. That was a long time ago and I have come a long way. The red line on the map is where I have been and the green line is where I still plan to go. I have been myself again for thousands of miles and cruising ever since, but the travel money is running out and I don’t want touch the money that is supposed to finance a longer term future, so I really do need to make a decision.  

I have decided to wait for my answer in Valparaiso, Chile. It is a little San Francisco full of art and artists creating, music and musicians playing, hippies and fakers faking. It is bright and beautiful at the edge of a glittering sea but it is grimy and real too. Twenty minutes north the beach city of Viña del Mar is a reminder, maybe not of Hermosa, but certainly of Santa Monica. Farther south the coast has the rocky brutal allure of Big Sur. And not far east Chile’s wine district vines through the foothills. It is California, my heart, wrapped in an embrace and brought in close—it is a place to call home. 

But I don’t think that I will call it home—at least not yet. And that is difficult for me because as much as I love travel, the thing I love most of all is living in faraway places. Back home (for me at least) it is only possible to make every day new with focus and creativity because life on autopilot so easily slips behind the controls unnoticed.  When I live in a faraway place it is like autopilot missed the flight. A trip to the grocery store is stimulating, a walk around the neighborhood is stimulating; even after I have settled into routine and become a local of sorts, the minutia of day-to-day life continues to demand my attention and capture my intrigue. I don’t have to be actively focused on absorbing the world around me because I am always switched on, always living life at a low skin prickling hum.

The best way for me to maintain that lifestyle would be to start a new business. It comes with risk and extra effort but it is worth the struggle when the timing and location are right. Locations don’t get much better than where I am now but the timing… Instinct is telling me to wait, it is telling me to breathe and find a way to follow the green line--to see it through. And not because I think there is something better waiting. I don’t believe in better. I believe in what is right for you when and where you need it. I can’t really explain my reasons except to say that I am not in a rush and I trust that there must be a reason for that. 

Now that I have put the Latin America journey on temporary pause I need to find a way to earn money. In the past I have always looked for English Teaching gigs. It is a good gig and one that I like, but I would prefer to take on a new challenge. I am researching and applying, looking for surprising and interesting new ways to finance this near seven year journey around the world.

Seven years! That is just…WOW! Except not, because it takes time to see the things I’ve seen and go the places I’ve gone. When people ask me how long I’ve been traveling I don’t know how to answer. I don’t remember if I ever saw this as a time in my life or if I always knew that this would be my life. I am waiting and reminding myself to wait because there is no reason to rush or stress when you know that your future will be forever unfixed. The green line will continue to extend across continents and oceans, forever pulled along by a million curious questions. I know that I'll get there, wherever there is, but for now I am here in a city full of art, alive and humming low. 


22 November 2016

The Time We Accidentally Volunteered to Deforest the Amazon

Fat bellied Alfredo piloted our skiff down the Beni River shouting undecipherable words over oven baked winds. His wife Benita sat two rows ahead burbling stream-of-consciousness nothing. Only Lorenzo could be heard—Lorenzo the bright green parrot—Lorenzo the prancing bilingual lord of his own weird world.

Forty minutes down river Alfredo lifted the propeller out of the water and drifted onto muddy shores. The Beni is a tentacle of Mama Amazon. With enough determination and bug spray one could probably follow that watery grid straight to the Atlantic. We didn’t want to go that far but forty minutes felt too close to civilization and too far from the adventure we had imagined.

Tim and I had saved the jungle for Bolivia. Anyone can go Ayahuasca chasing with false shamans or monkey spotting with half the British Isles but overly proud road warriors like us need something different, and different of our own doing. We had made the rounds in the town of Rurrenbaque pitching our services. We explained that we wanted to volunteer with a local community; work, immerse, play with machetes. Several companies offered the same basic program; live with a local family, teach the kiddos English, help out when needed, $15 a day. We went with Alfredo because his sure-sure-whatever attitude was infectious.

We didn’t know what we would find beyond the gate of jungle foliage lining the shore. We understood of course that we weren’t going to go hacking through the dense and dark like conquistadors in search of El Dorado or floating down river on Baloo’s belly singing catchy tunes but we didn’t expect it to be quite so agriculturalized either. Alfredo and Benita’s simple wooden home is at the front edge of their extensive property which rolls back to impassable mountains and the start of the real jungle. Their property has been burned away and allowed to regrow into a wholly new ecosystem; high green grass, nests of thick shrubbery and the odd mango or grapefruit tree have replaced the jungle that was. The majority of the land is not being used for farming purposes; it is simply a burned world reborn.

The front of their house is where all the action happens. It is where the meals are cooked and the livestock roams. It is where sugarcane stalks are fed into a simple mill and squeezed for all their juice. It is where tourists come to gawk.

The sugarcane mill seems to be the Amazon version of the world’s Biggest Ball of Yarn. Several times a day tour groups pull off the river highway to watch Benita and at least one of her twelve kids make the juice. The tourists mostly fidget awkwardly sure that this roadside attraction is solely for their benefit. The interesting thing is that they shouldn’t feel so off balance. The sugarcane mill is a regular part of family life for Alfredo and Benita. They crank out cane juice the way you would twist the cap off a bottle of Coke. Occasionally someone from the community will stop by with ice and lime and everyone will gather around slurping up bowls of the good stuff. If foreigners want to stop and gawk, what’s it to them? As tourists we sometimes forget how weird it is to pay good money to take pictures of ordinary things. Imagine if a few times a week you got slipped easy cash to let a bunch of strangers gather in your home snapping pics and narrating video while you pulled the plastic off a Salisbury Steak, popped it in the microwave and tried to find a ballgame on the tube.

Alfredo and Benita wasted no time putting us to work. Their living room was a carpet of fallen leaves. Benita handed us sticks with fragments of a bush lashed to the end and told us to start sweeping. The jungle brooms were amazingly effective but it still took us quite awhile to clear the common areas. We didn’t know it at the time but this Sisyphean diddy would become a daily task.

Then like a Spanish speaking Cousin Randy, Alfredo announced, “Shitter’s full!” I took a look inside and the bulk had indeed crested above the rim of the outhouse seat. The whole thing needed to be broken down and shifted left. But first someone (me) needed to dig a hole—a very deep hole. Alfredo traced a 3x3 square and I put shovel to dirt. “Dos metros, talvez mas profundo,” he said. “Two meters, maybe deeper.” I squinted up at the burning sun and wrapped my shirt around my head. I chuckled at the absurdity of paying money to dig my own shithole. Fucking tourists.

At first it was fun. I am admittedly dumb when it comes to this sort of thing. If little boy me would have seen a game in it, man me still does. A few feet down the fun wore off. The sun was brutal, the space was tight and my shoulders were on fire inside and out. Feeling a bit picked on, I decided to see what terrible task Tim had been given. I wandered into the pasture behind the house and immediately saw billowing towers of midnight smoke. At the far end where mounds of cleared away brush had earlier lain was a dancing wall of magnificent flames and at the edge of those flames was Tim holding a burning branch, stabbing the unburned bits. He saw me approaching and smiled big. “I’m helping Alfredo with the fire.”

“You’re helping Alfredo with the…”

NO SHIT!! I’ve been digging a crap hole for hours and you’ve been playing with fire? Oh this is just… I will… I will charge admission to that shitter! I will bridge troll that shitter! “I’m helping Alfredo with the fire.” Super-fuckin-dooper. I love burn piles! You know this! I’ve told you this! I LOVE BURN PILES! FACT! Burrah! And with my inner-monologue still sputtering and muttering I went back to my hole.

The sun dropped low in the sky and the heat followed like a petulant kid. I was laid out on a bench by then, powdered in dirt, thinking back on the day. I wondered if Alfredo always made day one a challenge—a knockdown to see who would get up and who would scurry back to western comforts. I stood on wobbly legs and asked Benita if I could take a shower. She mumbled something about a pool across the river. As I tried to figure out if I had mistranslated, Jamil (one of Alfredo and Benita’s many sons) approached carrying a massive green fishing net. For historical record, Tim’s second job that day had been standing in the shade helping Jamil unravel said nets. Tim hopped to attention and helped carry their untangled project. Turning back Jamil asked me to get the shovel. Get the shovel!?

Fortunately it turned out the shovel was also an oar. Having motored to the opposite bank, Jamil skillfully paddled the skiff while Tim fed the net into the current. We fastened the trap with a water bottle buoy and hoped for buen suerte. We were net fishing in the wilds of Bolivia. We were in the Amazon beneath a dusky orange sky. Jamil and everyone he knew did this often. No one we knew ever had. My brain registered the uniqueness of the experience but with emotion and clarity turned way down. My tired mind was unable to properly absorb a moment that I knew I could not bookmark.

After fishing it was bath time. Jamil led us up the shore to a clear jungle pool. He handed me a bar of soap and I realized that I had understood Benita perfectly after all. We stripped down to our boxers and soaped up, sending suds and grime trickling down to the river below. Jamil asked us if we were ready for dinner. Ready? Mira… fill that hole I just dug with anything and I will eat my way to the bottom. I pulled dirty pants over wet boxers and laced up muddy shoes minus sweat soaked socks. As we pushed off, I dreamed about the deliciousness waiting on the other side.

Bread and cheese—we had bread and cheese for dinner. I almost cried. Tim seemed alright. Apparently lighting fires and untangling nets doesn’t leave much of a caloric deficit. Despite a gnawing stomach and molasses slow mind I enjoyed the evening. We sat around a long wooden picnic table, lit by candlelight, watching bugs singe themselves again and again. We talked about the weather and politics and the family’s forty plus year history in the region. It is clear that for them being born on the banks of the Beni River meant being born into luck. But they are worried about the fragility of that luck. There is something looming that is far more dangerous than modernization or the slow creep of tourism. Alfredo didn't want to talk about it. He forced a smile and changed the subject. His children reluctantly acquiesced; angry words and helpless gestures coming to a quivering still beneath the weight of obedience.   

The next morning I woke up and immediately picked up a broom. I swept with a wary eye on Benita bustling about in the outdoor kitchen, fully prepared to go chicken hunting if all that noise ended in a plate of bread and cheese. Fortunately it was a big breakfast; eggs, plantain mash and grapefruit straight off the tree. The monster in my belly belched and picked at its gums with a toothpick finally satisfied.

We were planning to go jungle trekking that afternoon at a place called The Canyon. It was Sunday, but Tim and I were still hoping to go into the village beforehand to get a look at the larger community and checkout the school where we would be teaching. We knew this volunteer project would be a fluid, loosely organized experience but assumed that come Monday our days would have a bit more structure. Whatever lay ahead was to remain a mystery. Alfredo unbuttoned his shirt, rubbed his prodigious belly and declared it too damn hot to move.

The canyon was a pretty afternoon diversion. We followed Alfredo and Benita through waste deep water past sleeping bats and between high mossy walls. It felt like a passageway to their secret hideout. The canyon isn’t big enough or grand enough to be a standalone tourist attraction; it would have to be packaged into a larger tour. Alfredo and Benita know that they have something but they aren’t sure what to do with it. It is a story you sometimes find in the less trodden places; exploitable but not yet exploited. Travelers know what travelers will pay for but in the developing world touristic opportunities often go unrecognized. If the canyon does get filled up with Japanese tourists wearing spelunking helmets and life jackets then I hope that Alfredo and Benita directly benefit. They seem happy though, and maybe this is selfish, but I hope their canyon remains a pretty mystery.

When we got back I bolted straight for the hammock sure that Sunday was to be a day of rest. It wasn't. On the far side of the pasture where the burn pile was still smoldering, Alfredo had left eight or nine wedges from a fallen tree that he wanted to use as seats for the sugarcane show. He gave Tim and me a wheelbarrow and told us to go collect them. We got out there and loaded up a few of the heavy bastards. I am stronger than Tim, (or so I thought,) and probably a bit of a hard work glory hound, so I pushed the first load. My hands were still aching from the day before and I couldn’t make it twenty feet without setting the wheelbarrow down. It sucked and the second load sucked even more. I asked Tim if he wanted to take a crack at the third load. Sunshine-y as ever he happily agreed. I smirked fully expecting him to struggle mightily. He lifted the wheelbarrow, wobbled a little and pushed forward at a surprisingly steady pace. AND THEN…honestly this is just unfreaking believable…and then that skinny guitar strumming vegetarian started to run. Run! I watched him bound across the pasture and kicked grass all the way back wondering how many Boliviano I should charge him per square of toilet paper.

Alfredo and Benita have a baby cow called Domingo. Domingo thinks he is a dog. He spends his days chasing chickens, nuzzling for food and napping in the shade. He hasn’t figured out belly rubs yet, but he will. Domingo’s mom died giving birth and Alfredo and Benita made him part of the family. He is a skinny little thing, all legs and ears and they adore him. If Lorenzo ever loses his lordship, it will be Domingo that takes it.

Monday morning Alfredo outlined our day while giving Domingo his bottle. Without a mama to scold him Domingo ripped at the rubber nipple like (surprise, surprise) a dog pulling on a rope. Alfredo just laughed and kept the little guy in a headlock. We had thought this would be the day that the real volunteering would begin but there wasn’t much on the agenda. Later in the afternoon Alfredo wanted us to help him hack a fire road around a dry section of jungle that he intended to burn down and use to plant yucca and maiz crops. The rest of the day we were free to swim, read, whatever.
Alfredo and his little buddy Domingo

Our original plan was to volunteer for 7-10 days but it was starting to look like our volunteer program was closer to a homestay with chores. From the beginning I had heard hesitation in Alfredo’s voice concerning our level of involvement with the community and he had reason. A week isn’t enough time to have any real impact as a volunteer. There were no community building projects outlined and teaching English for a week would arguably do more harm than good. It would disrupt the kids schedule and get them (or at least some of them) excited about learning only to have that opportunity taken away the following week. The truth is we were watchers. We were passing through with no expertise in engineering, medicine or business and Alfredo saw no need to use his own community for the advantage of two strangers. Fair enough.

However the inability to connect with the community left us in something of a lurch. We had wanted to get away from the tourist trail and learn about local life by hearing everyday stories from a variety of people. As wonderful as Alfredo and Bonita were the potential for experience at their house was limited. We had already fallen into an uncomfortable rhythm of occasional chores and sitting around waiting for meals. We were keeping ourselves occupied with books, music and conversation, but we couldn’t help feeling like unwanted guests awkwardly hanging around. On the other hand we had made a minimum commitment of seven days and didn’t want to upset our hosts by suggesting an earlier departure. We were doing the dance, back and forth, and that was before the fire.

That afternoon Benita handed us long sleeved shirts and dull machetes. She said something in her soft and lost way and led us into the jungle where we found Alfredo hacking violently at the border of a dying patch of foliage. All the trees and undergrowth in the clearing had been chopped and left to rot save a lone lime tree near the center. We fell in line behind Alfredo sweeping away debris with our useless machetes. I watched Benita wade through the tinderbox sea to the base of the lime tree. With typical slow grace she plucked limes and placed them in the basket of her shirt saving the last living things in that circle of dying.

The path Alfredo had hacked was clearly insufficient; a finger trace around the edge, smeared but not erased. Breeze rustled through in unpredictable gusts and Alfredo eyed its invisible path with disdain. He wanted to burn and the breeze was forcing him to keep the matches in his pocket. It was too late anyway. The sun had already set and darkness was well on its way. We went back to the house and got cleaned up. The fire could wait until tomorrow.

I was reading in the hammock and Tim was strumming on his guitar when we smelled the smoke, heard the crackle. We had barely stood when Benita appeared shoving buckets into our chests and pointing down the jungle path. We ran as quickly as we could and found a fire already leaping across the hacked away path. Other members of the community had arrived to help but their efforts to dampen the fire were pitiful. Half a dozen people were using coconut shells to throw river water on flames that were head high and growing higher. We ran down to the river to fill our buckets and immediately sunk into calf deep mud. The water was too shallow at the shoreline so I took off my shoes and waded into the river. For the next thirty minutes I stood in waste deep water filling buckets, pitchers and gourds as the community scrambled. I watched fan shaped palms, deep green and alive, wither and blacken beneath the onslaught of flames. I watched a sinister brightness defy the darkening sky. Tim brought me updates with every empty bucket. They weren’t trying to stop the fire, they couldn’t, they simply wanted to push it west, away from the community.

The buckets slowed and then stopped. The community had done what they could. The fire would continue to burn but their homes seemed to be safe. I pulled my feet from the muck and followed the shoreline back to Alfredo and Benita’s. Behind me the jungle glowed soft and orange. It was beautiful. Fucking tragic but beautiful. I was in a grim mood and sure that everyone else would be as well. I was wrong. When I got back to the house the firefighters were drinking sugarcane juice and joyfully recounting the adventure of the afternoon. We were all partially responsible for untouched Amazon going up in flames—Deforestation. And this fun? This is funny?

Sometimes it is hard not to be biased. We didn’t have a problem with Alfredo burning to plant crops. That method of farming is an ancient thing. And the area in question was small. He wanted to burn a little to feed his family long-term. Fine. It was the carelessness, the rush, the disregard for the unnecessary loss that stoked our bias. The burn pile Tim lit on day one was controlled, nothing living died. The fire that night, burned all night, because Alfredo didn’t want to wait a day. We saw it as contributing to global warming. We felt burned by the irresponsibility and couldn’t understand why the others did not. But maybe it's a matter of perspective.

Alfredo did not burn the exotic Amazon, he burned his property. He did not irresponsibly scorch the lungs of the earth, he accidently made the garden bigger than it needed to be. If the fire had happened on the property of friends or family I would not have been nearly as judgmental. It certainly would have felt like a mistake and plans to replant would need to be made, but I would have seen it as an accident rather than a tragedy. Part of me wanted to turn the incident into a statement about lack of awareness in the developing world—Western bias whispering judgment because I was somewhere from the stories. The truth is that however unprepared, however irresponsible, the fire did minimal damage. It wasn’t an attack on the environment it was simply subsistence farming gone wrong. Alfredo can plant his yucca and maiz for now but the Amazon has been there for millions of years, eventually it will reclaim its own.

It was time to leave. There was nothing but hanging around ahead and hanging around is not what we had been sold. And yet we hesitated. Alfredo and Benita had been so welcoming we were considering wasting the next few days just to avoid breaking up with them. Thankfully, Alfredo gave us an out. He needed to go back to Rurrenbaque for a night and invited us to join him. The plan was to stay at his house in town and return to the jungle in the morning. We packed our bags with no plans of coming back.

Alfredo was surprised but not upset by our decision. He insisted that we stay at his place anyway. I don’t think he believed us. Maybe he thought we’d get a quick WIFI fix and come begging for the jungle. I had no desire to stay at his house. As far as I was concerned the volunteer experiment was over. I wanted a hot shower and a restaurant meal. I had a polite refusal worked out in my head but as we drifted up to his house I found myself unable to say the words.

His entire family was there that night; sons, daughters, grandchildren, everyone happily buzzing about, everyone directly linked to Alfredo and Benita. Before we had even set our bags down beds were being made and snacks set out. It wasn’t what I wanted in that moment but it was exactly what I had been searching for; family life in the Amazon basin, Bolivia off the tourist trail.

I listened that night more than I interacted--sometimes to conversations near me and sometimes to motion and chatter from other rooms. It could have been a family gathering anywhere, it could have been any other day or any other year; you would never know from the simple noise that this was a family in danger. Bolivian President Evo Morales wants to dam the Beni River and flood their valley. His plan includes building a hydro-electric station and selling energy to Bolivia’s richer neighbors. His plan does not include compensation for Alfredo and Benita or the thousands like them. A bureaucrat wants to drown their entire way of life and I was worried about tourism and a few palms falling to the flames. 

Our beds were in a room with a dirt floor and shelves full of unsorted hoardings. A circus of bugs pulsed in and out around the naked bulb. I switched off the light and pulled the covers over my head only to be blinded by an even brighter light. With a flashlight tucked beneath her arm Benita began hanging a net around my bed, murmuring softly about mosquitoes. I tried to protest but to no avail. It didn’t matter that I was a grown man and an extranjero, I was a guest in her house and she is a mom, so whether I liked it or not she was going to tuck me in.

Benita shut the door with a gentleness only she could manage. Alfredo’s laugh boomed from the other room. And behind them the Amazon sang. 

It wasn’t perfect, but parts of it were. And that’s enough.