04 August 2016

It's Like Joe Cocker Said

The shine wore off at an island along the Mexican Rivera. It was supposed to be paradise, and maybe it was, but while I was there it was nothing but flooded roads and marauding mosquitoes descending in blood-seeking clouds. Not that it mattered; I was in bed, laid up with a mystery ailment that left me vacillating between lethargic and painfully tired. And worse was the worry. I had hit Mexico like a firecracker. Latin America was everything that I wanted it to be. But since that initial burst my sense of wonder had been dripping away. I wasn’t floating the way I usually float. I was forcing it—making a chore out of something extraordinary. I knew that I needed to stop the leak but I didn’t know how, and anyway I was tired.

Diagnosing the physical part was easy. I was dehydrated. I consulted Doctor Google and as usual the results were terrifying. Since I was reasonably sure that I didn’t have the Black Plague or a brain liquefying disease predominantly effecting African lemurs, dehydration seemed to make the most sense. In fact it seemed stupidly obvious once I added up the sun, the sweat and the liquid state of my stomach. And I must have had it bad because it wasn’t as simple as a bottle of Pedialyte and all is well. It took time.

While I was happy to have the physical diagnosed, I still had that leaking sense of wonder to worry about. My next stop was Colombia, where I was set to hike through the jungle to the fabled Lost City with Blake and Shane, my travel brothers. The three of us had ridden motorcycles half the length of Vietnam. Blake and I had hiked to the Base Camp of Mount Everest. I should have been jacked about this coming adventure. And instead I was having a hell of a time burying the annoyance of having my travel plans altered. Colombia was supposed to be months away. I was supposed to explore Central America first. Right there I should have known; the moment I found myself being rigid about travel when I know full well that travel is about reveling in the unexpected, I should have admitted the source of the leak, but I didn’t, I couldn’t, not without a little help from my friends.

I left my hotel at 11am on a Thursday intermittently chugging water and electrolytes. My flight wasn’t until 7pm that night, and I was in such bad shape that chilling at the airport seemed more inviting than a day at the beach. That first flight only went as far as Mexico City where I spent the night lying on a bench with armrests crossing my chest like coffin ribs trying to sleep through a predominantly Katy Perry soundtrack. Oh and my bad knee was starting to swell up. Not good. The next morning I caught a connecting flight to Bogota, went straight to the bus station and took a 20-hour bus ride to Santa Marta, where the Lost City trek was set to begin. By the time I reached my hostel the only liquid in my body had accumulated in my left knee. I was exhausted, anxious about my off balance brain, and afraid that I might not be able to do the trek at all. Yes, it was an unpleasant stretch. Yes, I was being an angst-ridden little suck-ass. Fortunately, this was the low point.

The boys had come straight from 9-5 America and they were walking a high-wire—hyped up the way I should have been. Seeing their excitement, feeling it, was like watching a little kid laughing at something simple. And I mean really laughing; tears in the eyes, hyperventilating, uncontrollably floored by the moment. You see that and you don’t think, “What is that kid laughing about?” you think, “What the hell is wrong with me? When did I lose that?” I’m not saying my boys are giggling children, they are grown ass men. But, they had the joy, pure and innocent and exactly right. And I was being such a fucking adult.

The swelling in my knee had gone down enough. My stomach was…it had been worse. We ventured into the Colombian wilds and I felt the garbage in my head crinkling and burning at the edges. The Lost City trek is an adventure, a 44km roundtrip journey through steep jungle foliage to the ruins of a city that purportedly predates Machu Picchu by 650 years. It was “rediscovered” by grave robbers in 1972 and didn’t remain a secret long. When gold figurines and other priceless treasure began hitting the black market authorities got wise. The ancient history of the site is fascinating and so is its more recent history. The latter half of the twentieth century was a time of unprecedented violence in Colombia. Most people blame the drug trade and that certainly played a role, but the source of the violence began with a political divide that became irrevocably severed following the murder of a popular presidential candidate in the late 1940’s. FARC and the other scary names you know can all be traced to that moment. The area we hiked through was once a war zone between rival guerrilla armies and a hub of the cocaine trade. Our guide like everyone else he knew was formerly employed by the drug cartels. When the government cracked down they gave the local people a choice; give up the drug trade and work to build tourism or go to jail. The setting was so beautiful and the people were so peaceful, it was difficult reconcile that a walk through Kabul today would be less dangerous than the path we walked had been not so long ago.

Over the course of the trek, Blake and Shane helped me get my wonder back. We didn’t have a jungle chat-session. They didn’t tell me everything was going to be alright. I didn’t tell them anything was wrong. That isn’t the guy way. They were excited about what lay ahead and we talked about possible adventures and possible paths. Shane had already traveled South America and had some great stories to tell. These things helped, but they weren’t the salve. The strongest friendships (for guys anyway) level you off. They give you the comfort of being known and they are an unspoken reminder that you ain’t shit. No matter what your current self-view may be in the presence of good friends you see yourself as they do. You see yourself trimmed down to the truth, plain and simple, and you come up, or down, to where you ought to be.

By the end of the trek I was wound up and ready to blaze across the continent. But, I hadn’t entirely stopped the leak. I knew where it was, I knew what it was, I had known all along, but I wanted to believe that I was too strong to be felled by that. I needed a final kick and my old roommate Josie provided it.

Josie and I lived together in Redondo Beach during the height of my run in the South Bay. She is an old friend of the no bullshit variety. She met me in Cartagena and we came to a simple travel compromise; she would stay in cheap ass hostels if I agreed to occasionally eat somewhere other than cheap ass restaurants. We did Cartagena, white sand beaches, Medellin, mountain lakes and Bogota (or Ba-go-da as she likes to call it.) We had a damn good time and there are plenty of stories to tell, but only one that fits this solipsistic little ditty.

Josie and I were on a perfect white sand beach lined with palm frond shacks, no WIFI, electricity limited to generators; away from it all. We were lounging in beanbag chairs which in my opinion are only slightly below hammocks in the chillout hierarchy. A breeze had begun to stir and the sun was sinking toward the horizon. Rum drinks hidden in coconuts were having lethal effects. I don’t know if Josie was thinking about anything at all, but I was thinking about business. I was wondering how much it would cost to purchase or lease one of the shacks. I was wondering how long it would be before infrastructure arrived. I was designing and plotting. I said, “I needed this. This is exactly what I’m looking for. Maybe this will be the spot, maybe not. But, it makes it easier now, having confirmation that it’s out there.”

You should have seen the look on her face. The pity that I of all people just wasn't getting it. As only good friends can she trimmed me down to the truth. The last of my bullshit fell away and the wisdom of retrospect hit quickly; immediately my resistance felt foreign and difficult to believe. Josie resumed her chill and signaled for another round. I snuggled into that beanbag chair and held on because I was floating again; two months in and I was finally ready to do this thing right.

My friends fixed what I was too proud to admit—that I had come to Latin America with fight in my heart. I talked about this trip being a unique blend of travel and opportunity. I talked about reveling in my present and letting that dictate my future. I said what I wanted to be true. But I allowed the future to sit heavy on the present. Pride, ego, an uneasy transition; I was scuffed up, pretending to be clean. I was reaching over myself and this amazing present grasping at a future that has yet to reveal itself. Like I said good friends are great levelers. Maybe I would have eventually gotten out of my own way, maybe not, it doesn’t matter now. My friends joined me on the journey and they reminded me to be me. And I am. Once again I am wandering with wonder, calm, content and utterly confident that what I want is out there waiting...and that it can wait a little longer.
      

29 June 2016

Tell the Truth, Teacher

Music bursts from trumpets and horns. I don't know the song but the sound is the sound of Mexico. The musicians are beneath a raised gazebo protected from the rain that has just begun to fall. It is a misty thankful rain that chases no one away. An old man all silver and grey twirls his wife unaware of all but the music and his girl. He is wearing workman slacks and a cowboy hat slung low. His wife is wearing a pretty white dress with blue embroidery that dances as she dances. And life dances around them; luchador masks dangle from a lazy string, teenagers use their hands to say what the old man can say with a glance, the food of my heart tantalizes like airborne phosphorescence. And it builds; the people, the color, the clamor—a shimmering vibrancy undimmed by the darkening sky.

I am a child of the American West and Mexico is a part of me. It is familiar to me in a blood-deep way and yet I’ve never truly known it. Growing up I wasn’t as curious as I should have been. I rarely dug deeper than tacos, tequila and radio stations that work on the lost stretches of Interstate 5. What I know as California is a mural painted over the adobe walls of old Mexico, a chipped mural with windows to a deep and interesting history. Like most “native” Californians, I have spent a lifetime ignoring opportunities to step into a different past. The signs are literally on the signs. Hermosa means beautiful. Nevada means snowfall. La Cienaga means the swamp. And Manteca means lard. California is, and always has been a treasure map to its Mexican and indigenous past. Maybe when you’re on the map it’s difficult to see, but now that I’m off and looking back, how obvious it seems.

And how sad the lie we’ve been told. Growing up we are taught a pop-up book, hail the Europeans, fairytale version of the Americas. Mexico’s role in the fairytale is well known. The Aztecs were at their height; successors to the Mayans, empire builders ruling from the island city of Tenochtitlan. Hernan Cortes sailed into Veracruz with his silver helmet and pointed beard and the locals thought a god had landed on their shores. He took advantage of their naivety. He huffed and he puffed and he blew their empire down. They outnumbered him 10:1 but his victory was easy and assured because he had guns and steel and the double thumbs up from Jesus.

Even as kids this smacks of bullshit, but we let it go because Teacher said it was true. And then with sharpened #2 pencils we jot down the rest of the fabrication bullet-point by bullet-point. Spain fell because it grew weak. Northern Mexico was washed away in the tidal surge of manifest destiny. Jungles were cleared and ancient empires became tourist traps. The beaches were annexed by the rich. Beautiful colonial towns became forever shrouded in a sepia haze of blown dust; helpless against the encroaching American West. Drug-dealers became kings and kidnappers. The nation, unable to step into the first world, continues to lose its citizens to its northern more prosperous neighbor. Pencils down. No hands raised. No questions asked.

I want to poke a hole in this bloated, rotting fairytale. Just one, but one that I think deflates the entirety of Teacher’s lie.

Say it with me now…

In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…

And 47 million people died.

95% of the indigenous population of both North and South America eradicated by disease within a few generations.

I’ll bet Teacher didn’t tell you that.

If it wasn’t Columbus it would have been someone else. The Old World was coming and the New World was defenseless against the diseases that would come with it. A few snotty noses, a few unburied shits and half the world fell into a disease apocalypse. Cortes and the rest of the conquistadors shot up a sick ward on fire. The United States ran rampant across North America opposed by fragmented remnants. We are taught that New World history is a story of domination and uneasy assimilation. It’s not. It’s a story of decimation, pride and reclamation.

I wandered through Mexico looking for stories. Not surprisingly most of the stories I found were about overcoming oppression and warding off the unwanted advances of the Old World. I tried to rethink these stories. I tried to forget the dangerous fairytale rhetoric about a fully fledged people being overrun by an older, stronger people. I tried to factor in the truth about disease and its effects. These are stories about Mexico and its people. These are stories about the Aztecs, Mayan, Olmec and a thousand other ancient indigenous people. But more than anything these are stories about the 5%, the survivors of the apocalypse.


I started my journey in Mexico City and once again the signs were on the signs; Calle Hidalgo, Calle Reforma, Benito Juarez everywhere. The city celebrates the heroes of Mexican independence and the political changes that helped shape the modern Mexican state. It is a metropolis with a wealthy business district, trendy hipster neighborhoods, a few stones from Tenochtitlan, lots of colonial treasures and the San Jose flea market I loved as a kid around every corner. It is a loud, lively, celebratory city. It would be easy to miss its underdog pride, but it’s there. At the intersection of Avenida de los Insurgentes and Paseo de la Reforma is a statue dedicated to Cuauhtemoc the last Aztec king. Cuauhtemoc assumed the throne when the empire was all but dead. Montezuma II had died in Cortes’ first wave of attack. His brother assumed the throne and died of small pox within months. The empire was dying of disease, under siege and politically fractured. It was anarchy wrapped in apocalypse. Cuauhtemoc took possession of the embers and he fought. When Cortes soaked his feet in oil and set them ablaze seeking the location of Montezuma’s treasure he remained silent. He never betrayed his people.

My next stop was Cuernavaca, a pretty little colonial town an hour or so south of Mexico City, the place where Cortes built his retirement castle. I went there because the King of Mexico told me to. Let me explain. It is 2008. I am at a hostel in Munich, bellied up to the bar, drinking what is quite possibly the best beer I’ve ever tasted. I am alone and trying not to look like I need a friend. Across from me is a loud, annoying group of dudes that I am just fucking sure are from Orange County. Trying to calculate the odds of Orange County following me to Europe, I don’t notice the tall guy that has taken a seat beside me until he says, “I just took a 12-hour train ride from Rome. I asked the front desk if they had a towel and they said, ‘Do you want a towel or a beer?” Smart people. I’m Dave by the way.” Dave and I spent the next few days wandering around Munich drinking beers the size of our face. Dave is a whiteboy from Ohio but he spent a good portion of his adolescent years living in Mexico. I don’t remember if he called himself the King of Mexico or if I gave him that moniker… Anyway the King insisted that I visit Cuernavaca, the place where he more or less grew up, and he insisted that I meet his friend Jorge.

Jorge turned out to be an outrageously kind and well informed tour guide. We drank the finest Mezcal and ate plate after plate of tacos you would never find on a stateside menu. He took me to the ancient temple of Tepoztlan and taught me that the pyramid steps were intentionally narrow so that worshippers were forced to look down, never disrespectfully up toward the seat of the gods. And we talked a lot about recent (historically speaking) Mexican history. Jorge is fiercely proud of his heritage, knowledgeable and a damn good storyteller. Here is one I didn’t know. If it sounds like the plot to B-movie remember that at the time Europe was ruled by a handful of intermarried families who had been humping each other for centuries.  

The year was 1864, Spain had been ousted and Mexico was still in the nascent years of its independence. As always the super rich and everyone else had different desires. Off the teat of Europe for the first time in three hundred years the rich kids were cranky and none too pleased with the upstart liberal government led by the populace hero Benito Juarez. Meanwhile to the north, the United States (which already felt that it had dominion over the hemisphere) was embroiled in its own bloody civil war. The royal families in Europe started looking for ways to take advantage of the chaos and distraction—the world was their board game after all. Napoleon III of France struck a deal with the rich kid minority in Mexico. He promised them an Emperor, an army and a big suckable European teat. The man he chose was Archduke Ferdinand Maximillian of the House of Habsburg (Austria). Max was a prince but not a first born son so it was unlikely he would ever rule anything in Europe. Naturally Max decided straight away that this country on the far side of the board game was his destiny. He crossed the Atlantic with his pretty Belgian wife Charlotte (who would became Carlota because it sounds more Mexican-y), a French army 30,000 strong and declared himself Emperor. The rich kids rejoiced and Benito Juarez and the young government moved operations to Veracruz where they carried on governing in full defiance of the naked Emperor and his foreign army. “Destiny” was not kind to Max. In 1865 the United States civil war ended and they immediately started getting huffy about Max’s charade. I believe Lincoln’s exact words were, “Monroe Doctrine, bitch!” Seemingly unaware of the geopolitics at play Max ordered his Black Decree which called for the assassination of 11,000 liberal supporters. Obviously this did not go over well. Around that same time Napoleon III did the math. Not enough cash flow + the Prussians again + a pissed off United States = bring the troops home. Without his bullying foreign army Max was left clinging to the top of the mast, ankle deep in an angry sea. By then even the rich kids were abandoning him in droves. He held out for 72 days in the town of Santiago de Queretaro but was defeated by liberal forces and executed by firing squad on June 19th, 1867.

Max and Napoleon’s folly had no lasting effect on the future of Mexican politics. With the invaders gone, Benito Juarez carried on with the business of governing Mexico for Mexico. He was a busy guy with a lot on his mind; global politics, settling strife on the home front, that sort of thing. But every now and then his thoughts would drift to Max and he would shake his head and all exasperated he would ask yet again, “What the shit was that!?”

From Cuernavaca I took a short bus ride to Puebla. While not a major stop on the tourist trail it was a place I had to see—hallowed ground for any California kid.

In 1862 Mexico was flat broke. The Mexican American War (1846-48) had been followed almost immediately by the War of Reform (Guerra de Reforma). Looking to mend finances at home, Benito Juarez suspended all foreign debt payments. The French Emperor pretended to be mad about the non-payments as an excuse to invade. He sent 6000 troops into Veracruz on a march toward Mexico City. They were met on the outskirts of Puebla by 2000 poorly armed, inexperienced Mexican troops led by General Ingnacio Zaragoza. At the time the French Army was considered to be the finest in the world, but in this particular battle they were crushed by a lesser foe. The Battle of the Puebla was a huge David vs. Goliath moral victory for the young nation. And echoes of that victory continue to resound. It is celebrated annually and in some ways daily in Puebla. And further north it is celebrated wildly once a year. It is the inspiration for my favorite bastardized American holiday, the unofficial start to summer in Southern California, the day we drink an ocean of margaritas and bath ourselves in guacamole. Cinco de Mayo! Cinco de Drinko!

And guess which French Emperor got his ass kicked in that battle? Napoleon III—the man who would send in meddlesome Max only two years later. Someone should have given homeboy a luchador mask because he loved coming at Mexico from the top rope.

Here is a scary thought. More than one historian has postulated that if France had won the Battle of the Puebla and gained control over Mexican territory they would have supplied troops to the Confederate Army in the United States Civil War. That makes sense I guess; destabilize the only threat in the hemisphere, lock down shipping routes throughout the Gulf of Mexico, but Frenchie and Johnny Rebel in the same camp? Come on!? I have to believe that if that had happened a giant suckhole of improbability would have opened up and swallowed them all.  

I love Oaxaca, both the city and the state. I spent two weeks there studying Spanish and absorbing life in a colonial town. It is a charming place—a place that seems charmed; as if it’s hidden in the woods just off the dangerous path. And yet, despite its tranquility, Oaxaca more than anywhere I visited, encapsulates all that befell Mexico and the Americas.

The Oaxaca region has been populated since 11,000 BC. Its landscape is harsh. Over the millennia many different indigenous groups flourished in the pockets between its geographical boundaries. The Zapotec and Mixtec people jostled for power regionally but it was not swallowed by a larger empire until Montezuma and the Aztecs invaded in 1457. When the Spanish arrived in 1521 the subjugated people of the Oaxaca region thought that perhaps prophecy had been answered and the Aztec would fall. And they did, but at an unimaginable cost.

“Before the first century (of Spanish rule) had ended, some nineteen major epidemics had come and gone. The exposure of the Oaxacan Indians to smallpox, chicken pox, diphtheria, influenza, scarlet fever, measles, typhoid, mumps, influenza, and cocoliztli (a hemorrhagic disease) took a huge toll. As a result the native population declined from 1.5 million in 1520 to 150,000 people in 1650.” 

Oaxaca rebuilt. The survivors remembered who they were and persevered until one of their own led the entire nation to independence. Benito Juarez was born on March 21st, 1806 in San Pablo Guelatao, Oaxaca. He lost both his parents and grandparents at a young age but never had any questions about his Zapotec heritage. He described his parents as "Indios de la raza primitiva" or "Indians of the original race of the country." Trained as a lawyer, Juarez began his political career on a local level before rising to national prominence. Throughout his career he fought for separation of church and state and the equal rights of all native people. He helped shepherd Mexico through the most turbulent time in its history and remains a symbol of survivors strength. 

I wandered through Mexico looking for stories and the more I learned the more indignant I became about the lies we tell. Here is how Wikipedia describes the horrors that befell Oaxaca. Remember 1.5 million people reduced to 150,000. Entire societies lost forever. 

"After the fall of Tenochtitlan, the Spaniards took over Oaxaca which led to the eventual decrease of the Native population and the increase in African slaves."

Read that again. Read everything that it does not say. Wipe the lipstick off that pig.

"After the fall of Tenochtitlan, European borne diseases ravaged the native people. 19 major epidemics reduced the population from 1.5 million to 150,000 in the span of 100 years. With no one left to work the land they had stolen the Spanish responded by kidnapping people from the West Coast of Africa and forcing them into slavery."

All of history is a story, but we have got to stop spewing these rotten fairytales. We need to start telling the true unvarnished story no matter how brutal it may be—a story that will make our children stronger. By teaching them that the great civilizations of the Americas fell with hardly a whimper to a handful of Europeans we are supporting the racist dogma of that long gone era. European superiority, the gullibility, barbarism and less evolved nature of non-Christian peoples. What are our children supposed to gain from that? We tell them that racism and subjugation are wrong and then we tell them fairytales that whisper superiority into their little ears. Burn the fairytale. Tell the truth. European diseases killed 95% of the native populations of North and South America. Civilizations were decimated to near extinction. Centers of science and learning died with them. The Europeans stepped into the void and took advantage for a few hundred years. Then from the ashes a new people arose; a mixture of indigenous and invader, a people the world had never seen before, a people who would grow strong and retake their land.

The truth teaches our children that even the greatest hardships can be overcome. It teaches them to condemn rather than celebrate subjugation. It teaches them to embrace their culture and ancestry. It teaches them that loss does not make you weak, it gives you reason to grow stronger. Aren’t these better lessons? Isn’t this what we should be teaching?

Tell the truth, Teacher.


In the year 2020 a small island will be discovered in the South Pacific. The inhabitants of the island will grow curious about the outside world and begin to travel. The novelty of their existence will make them instant pop culture stars. They will be embraced by the nations of the world. A small group will visit New York City, bringing with them diseases our bodies have no way to combat. It will start slowly, a flu sweeping across the Eastern seaboard. And then people will start to die. Panic will start to set in. Five years after their arrival twenty million Americans will have died from New Plague. The economy will be near collapse. There will be riots in the street, people demanding that the government fix the unfixable. 25 years in few will care about the remnants of the government. 100 million will have died from New Plague and the terrified remnants will be unable to see anything beyond survival and escape. Amidst all this the visitors from that small island will have flourished, unaffected by their own diseases. In a coordinated attack they will swarm Washington D.C., immobilizing and eventually wresting power away from the government. The American people will fight back, but they will be too fractured to overtake the invaders. With survival as their primary objective people will accept the new rule and turn their attention to family and community. A few will survive. Many more will die. After 100 years there will be only 18.7 million Americans—5% of a people who once thought themselves invincible. Their bodies will have learned to fight off New Plague and the rumblings will have started. Down with the empire! Down with the empire!

07 April 2016

Lulling

April 17th my parents arrive. May 8th I fly into Mexico City. These are the dates I’m drifting toward. Because my focus is on the future I’ve been letting stories come and go. To me this is a time between adventures, an inevitable lull in a long travel tale. But that is unfair because there have been plenty of stories worth remembering. 

Cebu, Philippines: It was night. It was hot. And I was wrecked. I had spent the previous ten hours lying on the floor of the Manila airport barely fueled by donuts, coffee and dim sum. A taxi would have been cheap and easy, but with the big Latin America adventure coming up I wanted to hone my budget travel skills, so I aimed for the Jeepney stand. Jeepneys are ubiquitous in the Philippines and you can take them anywhere for the change in your pocket. The line whittled down and I squeezed into a tin box decorated like a four-wheel acid trip—most of them are. Like a rube I said, “City Center?” The woman across from me laughed and asked me where I needed to go. I showed her the address of my hostel. “First you must take a ferry, come with us, we’ll show you!”

For ten minutes I caught glimpses of a dark city passing in the narrow space between passengers. At my stop (apparently) I put 8 pesos in an outstretched palm and watched it pass from hand to hand until it reached the driver. My guide was in her late forties or early fifties and jolly in every way. She took great pleasure in teasing me. “When we see my husband tell him that I was only helping you. He is very jealous!” The ferry cost an additional 13 pesos. As we crossed I was given a breakdown of the city; where each pier was located, the nice hotels, markets, restaurants. On the other side we met up with her husband and I thanked her for her help. “Wait wait,” she said. “I will take you.” She left her bags with hubby and pulled me down an alley where we got on another Jeepney. And then another. She took me straight to the front door of the hostel and would have walked me inside if I had let her. With her help I reached my destination a whooping $2 richer. Over the course of a long trip two dollars here and two dollars there starts to add up but that is secondary. The budget way is almost always the local way. It’s how you immerse in a place rather than hop from edifice to edifice. I got in a Jeepney and a local guided me through the real Cebu. She was kind and asked for nothing. She simply wanted a stranger to like her city. A taxi driver wouldn’t have given two shits.  

Koh Tao, Thailand: I was there to close out my life; sell stuff, file taxes, chill and save. I was expecting to be bored. Instead it turned into a succession of slow days and wild nights. When I was working I was working all the time. I had forgotten how fun Koh Tao can be when you have nothing to do. And I was surprised by how much separation the Philippines had given me. The island didn’t feel claustrophobic the way I thought it would. It felt like any other place I used to live. The last thing I packed was my red hammock. With a ticket for the night boat in my pocket I let the hammock sway. I was listening to a Spanish audio lesson, prepping for the big adventure.

Radio Voice: How do you say, “Do you want to drink something?”
Me: Quienes beber?
Radio Voice: Quienes beber algo?
Me: Shit. Algo. Something. Algo algo algo.

Push and sway.
 
Cebu, Philippines: My hostel was a filthy little horror show in a neighborhood with no food. I dragged my feet block by block sure that the next would be bustling with street stalls—a deep-fried oasis. Nope. The only thing I could find was a live music venue slinging burgers. The second I walked in fifteen pretty girls in blue mini-dresses suctioned onto me, rubbing my earlobes, caressing my sternum—blow jobs were clearly on the dessert menu. Normally I find these brothel-in-disguise places amusing, but I was tired and hungry so I just wanted the pretty mosquitoes to go away. I ordered a burger and a San Mig Light. The temperature of the room rose—testosterone puffing out steam. All around pink-faced sexpats were staring at me. Old wrinkly pervs, suddenly womanless, wondering who this young punk thought he was, stealing all the action. I ate my burger and didn’t flirt back. One-by-one the mosquitoes buzzed off in pursuit of easy money. The King of the Sexpats was sitting at a nearby table talking to a new pink face.

“Name’s Radar,” he said. “What’s your mood? Eenee Meenie Miney Moe.”

Ao Nang, Thailand: I was sipping bad Thai whiskey with my good buddy Blake. We were roommates in the Surat days and he was back for a one week visit. He is a “real” teacher now; 3rd grade on East Coast, America. The breeze was warm and the limestone cliffs were a window to a million years ago. These were the first drinks in what would become a five day bender. Blake was telling me about his job, which he likes a lot, but he is also concerned about the Monday to Friday grind, and more specifically the way yesterday, today and tomorrow tend to look the same. I felt a twinge of guilt because the 5:2 loop isn’t tangible anymore. It used to be within reach, an electric fence ready to zap me if I lost focus. But, I’ve gotten so accustomed to living out of a backpack that American Settled is no longer an electrified motivator. It’s just the way people live back home. Blake gave a speculative look at his half-empty glass of whiskey and said, “I didn’t think I’d be up for it, but this is kicking in. I feel good!” And so the madness began.

La Union, Philippines: My mouth was mucky with the residue of sleep. I was preparing breakfast; instant oatmeal with chunks of banana that I ripped off with my hands, instant coffee and a big ass bottle of water to wash away the muck. Behind me was a dilapidated room with a single naked bulb and fan that swept in noisy death spasms. I was steps from the sand with a clear view of the sea and the morning sky. The accommodation was basic but the setting was pure luxury.

I watched the gentle commotion of La Union; bronzed kids dragging over-sized surf boards, a stage being set for a concert later that night, vendors setting up tables at a local coffee shop to sell empanadas, natural honey, acai bowls and locally grown produce. This was a surf community on the rise—a place where local entrepreneurs were invested in each other’s success. I exhaled and a heaviness I didn’t know I’d been carrying went with it.

This trip to Central and South America is about more than travel; it is a scouting mission. I want to start a new business and I’m looking for my perfect beach town.
·         Known but feels undiscovered
·         Invested (or could be) in surfing
·         Affordable
·         A community that wants to grow without losing authenticity

And I am willing to be patient. My beach town is out there. I just need to find it.

Koh Lanta, Thailand: Day two of the bender. I felt better than I looked, so when Blake handed me a beer I didn’t object. It was 11am and we were sitting on a cement bench waiting for the ferry. “Just one,” he said, “To take the edge off.” I snorted. We crushed the first and then picked up speed. We ran through beers like we were on a Wipe Out course and we were. I don’t remember getting off the ferry.

BLACK. We are at a resort. How did we get here? There is no way I’m this drunk already. We took that purple ferry—to Koh Lanta—but where on Koh Lanta? Whatever, these are tomorrow problems. Where is the bar? We are lounging on pillows drinking big Leos on the rocks—Thai style. The bar has a funky reggae thing going. We agree that a nap would have ruined us. We are laughing at our own predictability. Is it sunset already? I should eat something. I should slow down.

BLACKER. We are at a different bar. How the f… Oh, wait. Yeah, yeah, I remember coming here. I’m holding a pool cue. There is a blonde girl in a white and black striped shirt looking at me expectantly. German? She’s German! I’ve been hitting on her…her…whatever her name is. Where is Blake? There he is, talking to that creepy dude that keeps hovering. I need to get him out of there. It’s my shot. Focus. Focus. And hit the big snowball.

BLACKEST. It’s morning and I’m curled up in the sand. There is a pebble in my mouth that is cutting into my cheek. I’m still drunk—drunker than I should have been at any point last night. A scorching self-loathing makes my skin burn hot and red. I force myself to sit up. I pat my pockets. My wallet is still there, at least there is that. Blake is waking up a few feet to my left. And there is that creepy dude! Not twenty yards away! What in the actual fuck! Blake and I walk back to the resort. He explains that he couldn’t find me in the bar or back at the room so he went out looking. He walked the beach in the dark until he literally tripped over me. Already face down in the sand he decided to sleep there. I’m mad at myself. Blake on the other hand is clearly amused. I know he is right. We’ll laugh about this forever.

Port Barton, Philippines: I love the vaguely undiscovered places and Port Barton sounded like my kind of town. I showed up at sundown with $10 in my pocket and no place to stay, which ended up being risky because Port Barton was a lot more rugged than I expected; a few criss-crossed dirt roads, electricity that only works in the evening, no ATM and more chickens than people. I had just enough money for a room and a meal. If I couldn’t figure out how to get money it would be a hungry hitch-hike to Puerto Princessa in the morning. I walked the dusty roads looking for something cheap and dirty. An older woman came running out of a nearby house. “Do you need accommodation? I have accommodation here!” Her name was Nelly and she turned out to be an absolute gem.

Nelly and her husband moved to Port Barton in 1983, when it “wasn’t so crowded.” They raised their children in the house they built not far from the beach. They retired with reluctance. Her husband would like to relax more but admits that it’s healthier to keep busy. Nelly wants nothing to do with lying about. Running her homestay, ridding the town of cock-fighting, tending to her farm, she’s got energy for it all and no time to slow down. She was quite the scholar in her youth, but started a family before she finished University. She is in her late sixties now and is itching to go back to school. Like I said, she is a keeper.  

I stayed in a little room in Nelly’s house for nearly a week. The money thing worked out. I was able to do a wire transfer to a local pawn shop and pick the cash up there. Port Barton was exactly what I had hoped it would be; long stretches of empty beach, hammocks strung from windblown palms, cheap eats and quiet nights. The travel circuit can be a blur of buses, beaches, parties and people mostly like you. It helps to step away; find a quiet spot to read books, nap away the time, and connect with locals rather than travelers. My room at Nelly’s was $8 per night and my favorite local eatery had a lunch special “Local Food + Rice” for about 70 cents. There were hammocks everywhere. I napped around. 

Nelly kept going on and on about taking a field trip to her farm. I was loving the beach chill and not exactly excited about it, but it was Nelly, I couldn’t say no. On my last day Nelly and her husband gathered their guests; me, a French woman who was living in Port Barton and writing a Philosophy book and a Polish dude who left home to disappear into the jungle and live off the land. He later told me with a straight face that making electricity from earth’s magnetic field is, “so easy.”


Wearing a floppy hat and carrying a walking stick Nelly led the way. At the end of the main beach we rounded the point and passed a litter of puppies prancing in the sand. A few minutes later I noticed that Nelly had one of the puppies in her arms.

“Did you take that?” I asked

“No! I talk to the man. He told me I can have a baby dog. This one will live on my farm!”

We crossed two more beaches, beautiful with nothing more than huts for harvesting coconuts. We turned onto a small footpath leading into the jungle and followed it to the top of a rounded hill and a clearing where Nelly and her husband kept their farm. It was a lovely little spot with fruit trees and fields of pineapple. Nelly served us sugary coffee and bread with peanut butter and I thought that was sustenance enough, but she was just getting started. Using all locally grown vegetables and coconut pulled straight from the tree she made an amazing soup served with rice. I gorged until my belly was round and still plucked a guava for dessert.

We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging. Nelly’s son had joined us. He lived on the farm and building it up was his great pride. This was tough for Nelly. He was a smart kid and an excellent student. She wanted him to become a priest. “He is happy out here,” she said. “I want my children to be happy.”

Nelly didn’t charge us a single peso for our field trip to the farm. She was fiercely insistent about that. “This is for my guests. Many times other people want to come to my farm but I always tell them no. This is not for them. It is special for my guests.”

“I’m glad you saw me walking by Nelly.”

And she smiled.

Karen Hill Tribe Village, Chiang Rai, Thailand: I spent five days alone in deep but comfortable isolation. The resort I stayed at was a pretty little place on the edge of the Mae Kok River. I was the only guest. The resort was in the Karen Hill Tribe village and all modern amenities were 30 km away in Chiang Rai. One day I decided to walk to the closest restaurant, a roadside joint near the entrance to a national park, it was a four hour excursion. The isolation was perfect, exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to hike, read, write and study. I wanted to detox from my recent wildness. And I did. The only person I spoke to during my stay was Nan the proprietor. He likes the quiet life and doesn't want too many tourists making too much noise. He is also something of an environmentalist. He does his best to educate the local tribes about the consequences of their destructive practices. He convinced the village to ban dynamiting for fish, but he hasn't been able to convince the rice farmers to stop control burning during the dry season. Throughout my stay skinny towers of white smoke rose from the hills making the air sting and taste of grim. "They only think about the money," Nan said. "They're poor, they need money now, sure. But, they don't think about our home. They don't care about the nature. This is no good." 

Nearing the End: I was looking forward to this like homework. I was excited to introduce mom and dad to Asia, but all that time between. I was worried that I would fill it with boredom, frustration and bitterness about the cause. Stupid really. I'm never bored abroad. And the last couple of months have proven why. This is a ride that never comes back around. It twists and turns, drops and climbs, but it never stretches out in a straight predictable line. I had all that time to kill and now it's gone. I tried to make it dull. I tried live simply and save my travel energy for Latin America. But the ride had different ideas. I went to the world's most beautiful beaches and ran wild at night. I reconnected with old friends and caught up on me time too. I veered off the tourist trail and met wonderful people like Jeepney Lady, Nelly and Nan.

I thought about being more practical, (well, I thought about thinking about it) but my happiness has never been on the long straight line. I like riding in the first car with my hands in the air shouting, "Fuck a 5:2 loop!" That works for me. That's why I live abroad with the weirdos and the wanderers and the harnessers of magnetic fields. 

But, a time of waiting can happen to anyone. So what would you do with empty months and nothing to do? Would you fix it? Would you stuff it full? Or would you just lull?




15 February 2016

Pants Are Not Important

I’m on a sleeper bus from Manila to Banaue. It’s cold as fuck in here. I’m wearing a hoodie cinched up tight and I shut off the air vents but neither effort made any difference. I’m not wearing pants. I’m wearing shorts and flip-flops because I’m from California and weather doesn’t change in my world. I hear coughing. I hear sniffling. I’m probably gonna get sick. I need this sleeping pill to kick-in so I can forget about my frozen balls. Maybe I should have worn pants?

When I was fourteen or fifteen I decided that I wanted to own a small resort on a tropical island and be an everyman about the place. I would tend bar and tell jokes and teach people how to wakeboard (because I was into that at the time). It would be a place that I was intensely proud of because every stitch of it was mine. When I was sixteen I found French Polynesia on a map, remembered that my Uncle Mike had said it was prettier than Hawaii, and decided then and there that Bora Bora would be my destination. I started studying French and the ins and outs of local government. Everyone thought I was crazy—a kid throwing himself into a dream that he’d never remember having. But I did remember. And as my adventures abroad grew longer people thought about that crazy kid, and his far out dream didn’t seem so far out anymore.

 I am at the top of a lush valley looking down. The hillsides have been carved into intricate rice terraces like an MC Escher sketch brought to life and grown green. Amazingly this valley has remained unchanged for 2000 years. Long before the Spanish or the Americans set their colonial boots in the Philippines the Ifugao people had created their master work. The terraces were about more than agriculture and trade they were the magnetic center of a proud people. In many ways that is still true today. The business of tourism has arrived but in an unpracticed way. The region is remote and it caters to outsiders with ramshackle newness. It took me more than two hours to hike up to this point. I’m tired. More tired than I should be. This is what I came to see but I’m not in the groove yet. I’m still in task mode; hike, take pictures, check check. It always takes time to adjust, to stop carving your name and moving on, to allow new places to color you.

I saw my former business as close enough to a dream come true and figured that over time I could learn to love it just the same. And it was awfully pretty. It had that gorgeous island location. The guests were happy and they laughed at my jokes. I had time to myself in the mornings before work. I didn’t have time to travel but that would come. It was a nice approximation. But, it was missing me. It wasn't my dream.

I’m wrapped in a blanket that looks like cowhide but isn’t as warm. I’m peeing. This is like the fifth time I’ve gotten up to pee tonight. Something is wrong. My body is rebelling. My forehead is hot and my feet are cold. I keep drinking water but the dry spot in my throat won’t absorb it. I’m turning door knobs now. I need an extra blanket and I’m alone in this place, locked in behind metal gates. This wasn’t supposed to happen yet. Every trip has bad days, but they were supposed to be weeks away. They were supposed to wait until I’m in deep and less likely to give a shit.

It’s not easy to share a dream. I’m not sure it should be done unless the dream was mutual from the start. I bought an approximation of my own dream. He sold a piece of the real the thing. Those are uneven portions and volatile ones at that. We have different perspectives on why and how the partnership ended, but I think it can be summed up fairly by saying; he needed me to be more like him and I needed him to be more like me. It ended, and that sucks, but I understand why. Aesthetically it was close, but my soul was never in those walls.

I’m in Sagada now, high up in the mountains of Northern Luzon. This place is seriously beautiful and has a great eco-friendly hippy vibe to it. I’m sure I’d be swimming in it if I didn’t feel like soupy dog shit. Yesterday I spent all day in bed. If I wanted to stand up I had to think about it for like ten minutes because I knew it was going to hurt that bad. I thought I felt a little better this morning. There is a bowl of yogurt in front of me, I can’t eat it. There is a cup of coffee in front of me, I can’t drink it. A few minutes ago I got so nauseous I blacked out for a second and came back covered in sweat. Is that bad?

Things end. Emotions burn off. And what remains looks pretty good actually. I’m better off financially than I was going in, I learned a few things about a business that has always interested me. And I got to live in paradise while doing it. I am a blue-eyed white boy from America with a college education, an interesting resume and enough money in the bank that I don’t have to work for awhile if I don’t want to. As far as the great big world is concerned that is hitting the lottery. What would you do if you had a little money and nothing but time? We are about to find out how I would answer that question.

The weird blackout sweat thing seemed to break my cold. I’m standing in front of the hanging coffins of Echo Valley. They are ok. Maybe my expectations were too high, but I don’t think so. I think it is one of those places that photographs well but feels like a teaser for tourists, like you’re being led through the gift shop instead of the real thing. Still it is an interesting tradition that dates back to the pre-missionary animist days. Sagada is predominately Anglican now and to get to the hanging coffins you have to walk through a church cemetery, but the local people maintain the right to be laid to rest in the old way. For the ritual the body is wrapped in death cloth and placed on a chair beside the hanging coffin. The family sits vigil and when they are ready the body is enclosed in its cliff side resting place. The decision to be buried in the old way is generally made long before death so most of the coffins were shaped and built by the people now resting within them.

Nothing but time and I can go anywhere. I spread out the map and waited for a region to pull me on a string, to fasten my heart like a runaway balloon. Central and South America; no other region came close. That part of the world has been a gaping hole on my travel resume, but I didn’t want pop-in for a couple weeks and pretend like I’d been there. I wanted to take my time, roll-around in it, disappear and reappear. And now I can do just that. The plan is to fly into Mexico City and travel south for as long as the travel cash lasts. And I want this trip to be different. I want to dig deeper than usual. Again I’ve got time. I’m projecting four months but maybe it’ll be six months or a year. I don’t know. I will definitely learn Spanish. I might stop and teach for awhile. I might enroll at a University and study. I might do volunteer work. I might find the perfect place to build the resort I've been dreaming about since I was a kid. I don’t know if this path will be better than the last, but maybe. And I can work with maybe. I can throw gas on maybe.

I slept hard and my cold is gone. I feel great. I’m on a bus. Again. This one looks like an old can of peas with glued on wheels. I’m traveling from Sagada to Baguio where I will catch yet another bus to a surf town called La Union. I was going to spend this trip focusing on productive type things, but I can’t. This is one of the most beautiful roads I have ever seen. It’s a winding nasty bit of business running along the ridgeline of a mountain range. There are sparse pine trees shooting up alongside the road and it could almost be the mountains of California if not for the terraced rice fields etching the valley below. I’ve been staring out the window for hours and the beauty won’t stop, it’s around every corner and down the center of every valley. I’m happy to watch, my mind is a clean and empty room. I’m in the travel groove. It took a couple of days to beat the sick and the gloom but I’m me again. I’m better than me. I’m me + traveling. The travel groove. The life groove.

This has never been a travel blog to me. It is an art project six years in the making. When I started MB Abroad I was very uncomfortable calling myself a writer or being called a writer by others. That has changed. I’ve realized that being a writer is more than the words you put on a page, it’s a born with it lens that defines how you interact with the world. I think in narrative. I speak in dialog. Look at my life; I clearly think that I’m a character in an unfinished adventure novel. And for the first time I’m cool with that. As you read through this entry you may have thought, “He just lost his business. Where are the punches? Where is the anger? He couldn’t have let it go already.” But, I have. The future I knew went POOF and one voice was louder than them all. It built and built and BOOMED; PLOT TWIST!!

I’m sitting on a porch outside my room. There are stars in the sky but the night is still deepest black. I can hear the ocean but I can’t see it. It is calling to me as it always does; singing about faraway places, promising that everything is going to be ok. But, I already knew that. I’m in the groove. I’m ready.

To write.

To live.

To never look back, wondering if I should have worn pants.

09 January 2016

The Postcard Project

UPDATE: The Postcard Project now has its own blog. Read the stories here: http://mbpostcardproject.blogspot.com/

I need a writing project. I have an idea. I need your help.

Send me a picture of an old postcard, a travel picture you love, or a picture of your someday place. I will use that postcard or picture to write a story. Not a story about you and your connection to that image or place. That is yours. The stories will follow my imagination. I have no idea where they'll end up, but we'll be in this together.

If you want to play along, and I hope that you do, send an image and a couple of lines about why you chose it to:

Email: mbartolomei@gmail.com
Subject: Postcard Project

MB Abroad