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.


13 October 2016

Machu Picchu the Hobo Way

Machu Picchu can be an expensive pre-booked affair that leaves you feeling herded, harried and lost beneath a canopy of selfie-sticks, but it doesn’t have to. There is a better way—a hobo way. Here is how my friends and I went from Cusco to the top of Machu Picchu and back for about a $100 USD…beer not included.

We woke up at 4:30am on what might have been a Tuesday. Our hostel was situated in the upper corner of San Francisco Plaza and should have been dead quiet but the jackass volunteers were still awake and I shit you not listening to “Call Me Maybe” at a ludicrous volume. Already lightly packed for Machu Picchu we inhaled a quick breakfast and jumped into a cab. The internet had told us that the first bus was at 6am and that the ride to Santa Maria, the initial stop on our hobo journey, would take six hours.

For 10 soles we took a taxi to the Santiago Bus Terminal—a filthy little hole full of bleating vendors. Which is super fantastic because who doesn’t love multidirectional shouting at five in the morning. So the fucking internet (and yes I get the irony) lied. The first bus wasn’t until 7:30 am. We found a nearby hotel selling terrible coffee and a street stall selling palatable egg sandwiches and killed time (plus all the critters good and bad in our stomachs) for about 3 soles. 

We had to leave as early as possible because our plan included a big bus, a little car and a two hour hike along the train tracks to our final destination of Machupicchu Pueblo (also known as Aguas Calientes.) For the first leg we chose the Ben Hur bus company because they had the earliest posted departure time and a 20 soles price tag. Unfortunately, they didn’t even come close to meeting that departure time. When the bus pulled out of the station an hour late we had already eaten all of our road snacks and were starting to worry about our timeline. So imagine our annoyance when the bus promptly pulled into a petrol station to fuel up…

On a clear day the drive from Cusco to Santa Maria is a beautiful winding path through the Andes. This was not a clear day. A couple of hours in we hit a nasty fog bank that transformed those lovely roads into a horror show of near head-on collisions and reversals away from the edge of oblivion. The movie selection that day was Rambo: First Blood Part I. Foggy cliffs outside, a cacophony of machine gun fire inside—rolling towards Machu Picchu in a tin-box of death.

The skies cleared as we approached Santa Maria, but it was already 2:30pm and we still had a long way to go. We didn’t want to risk tip-toeing into Machupicchu Pueblo by the light of our headlamps, so we took a ride with the first hustler that approached us. He charged us 15 soles each to get to the Hydro Electric Station and the start of the railway path to Machupicchu Pueblo. We probably could have bartered but didn’t have the time. Our driver handled his beat-to-hell Subaru like tricked out rally car. He ripped across a gnarly road that jutted from the side of a cliff like a pouty lip deftly avoiding every pothole, stray rock and oncoming racer. With dust pluming and butts puckered we power slid into Santa Teresa and switched to a car driven by a fifteen year old kid with a penchant for terrible hip-hop. There was no extra charge for this transfer; the locals were just passing us off like Pony Express parcels.

From the hydro electric station it is a two-hour (maximum) hike along the railroad tracks to Machupicchu Pueblo. The train is a funky retro looking thing that costs an absolutely dumb amount of money. If you have dumb money go for it, otherwise hobo like us. A walk along the railroad tracks probably sounds terrible but trust me the scenery is not the stuff of smoke stacks and dusty derelicts you are probably imagining. It is a beautiful jungle canopy with expansive river and mountain views—a serene and impressive path that just happens to have a train running through it.

An important note: about 200 meters in the railroad tracks dead-end. On the right side you’ll see a path that leads up to a second set of tracks. The trail is no more than 50 meters. At the top hang a left and stroll straight to Machupicchu Pueblo.

It was past sunset and growing dark when we arrived. From a distance Machupicchu Pueblo is a fairytale like village nestled into a jungle valley, but as you approach its exploitative purposes become clear. Prepare to get hit by a tidal wave of ponchos and stuffed llamas. You can purchase Machu Picchu entrance tickets at the official agency near Plaza de Armas. They are open until 7pm if not later. Or you can purchase tickets ahead of time in Cusco if you’re into that sort of thing. There are several options, all of which are expensive. We opted for: Machu Picchu + Machu Picchu Mountain = 142 soles. We had wanted to do Machu Wayna Picchu as well but it was booked for the next three months!

All the cheap stuff is across the bridge from Plaza de Armas and there are more hostels than there are tourists to fill them so don’t worry about booking ahead of time. Unless you’re into that sort of thing. We found a decent joint for 25 soles per night and went out looking for dinner. The food in Machupicchu Pueblo varies from reasonable to wildly overpriced. One thing to be wary of: some restaurants will charge a “Local Tax” or “Service Tax.” This is total bullshit and you don’t have to pay it. Ask ahead of time and if they sneak it in refuse. Also, don’t order Mexican food. TA-RUST ME.

Machu Picchu opens at 6:30am and the mountain opens at 7am. The “hike” up takes an hour (or less) depending on your fitness level. We got up before dawn and found a buffet restaurant for 15 soles. After packing in mucho calories we made sandwiches and snuck them into our bags for later. Hobo style!

Here is a true thing: people are lazy. As we headed toward the trail we saw no less than five hundred people lined-up to take the carousel ride of buses to the top; people decked out in full-on hiking gear, headbands, walking sticks, the works. Take the freaking stairs you over-geared sloths! Seriously, if you call yourself a backpacker and take the bus, I will pull your card.

When I say “we” I mean, myself, Rhys, Tim and Josh. The boys and I had been traveling together for more than a month and on several occasions had said, “No matter what we have to stay together until Machu Picchu.” Sadly, we took “until” quite literally and got split up ten minutes after entering the park. Josh and I turned right toward Machu Picchu Mountain, Tim and Rhys wandered past toward the Sun Gate and we didn’t see each other again until near sunset at the hostel. PRESET A MEETING PLACE AND TIME. It is easy to get separated in the crowds and near impossible to reunite.

Machu Picchu Mountain was quite possibly the highlight of my day. The hike up is strenuous and there is no bus. Josh and I were the first ones to the top and for a few glorious minutes we had the mountain to ourselves. The views are amazing. You have a 360 degree panorama of the cloud shrouded valley and from that height it becomes clear just how well the mountains hide the ancient city. That spectacular vantage point will erase any doubts you had about how Machu Picchu remained unconquered.

You can’t wander around Machu Picchu. There is a one-way path and whistle blowing guards to enforce it. This was a bit of a disappointment as we had imagined exploring the ruins with the sporadic joy of hide-and-seek. Still, the city does not disappoint. You will have a hard time choosing between actual pictures and the mental pictures you badly want to burn into permanence. Bring a book, music, whatever helps you chill. Pack a picnic. There are several grassy rest areas that overlook the ruins and you will have ample time to sit back and absorb Machu Picchu and the fact that you’re seeing it with your own eyes.

Something to consider: the vast majority of people try to enter the park first thing in the morning, but it is open until 6pm and by early afternoon the crowds dwindle down to a few wanders. You may have to battle the midday sun, but a quiet afternoon without the crowds should more than justify the sweat sheen.

And this is how budgets go BOOM! Reunited we found a second story pizza place that overlooked the local soccer pitch. We ordered small beers (or thought we did) and the staff brought out 1-liter behemoths. As local dudes booted a neon ball to-and-fro we spiraled down a deep dark hole—4:30am and a forgotten jacket deep—rookies on “vacation” deep.

Rhys had broken his budget to buy the forgotten jacket, and only days before, so leaving it behind wasn’t an option. The club wasn’t due to open until 8pm and apparently only the police had the owner’s phone number, so we found ourselves trying to explain to the chief of the Machupicchu Pueblo police that we needed to recover a jacket, not because of a crime, but because we were idiots. The chief sent a pair of adorable lady cops to help us sort out the situation. I am not being sexist; they were honestly adorable and really nice. So anyway, after shouting up at the club owner’s apartment and getting zero help from his twelve year old neighbor, they suggested that we throw rocks at the window. No! No way! The lady cops shrugged off our vehement refusal and daintily tossed pebbles until the red-eyed owner emerged. He was none too pleased but Rhys had his jacket and we were on our way.

The adventure was over and all that remained was the chore of getting back. If like us you find yourself at less than 100%, I suggest you crank up a classic rock playlist, tuck your phone into the waistband of your pants with the speaker facing out and Carry on my Wayward Son.

We reached the Hydro Electric Station at around 1pm where dozens of cars and minivans were waiting to ferry away weary travelers. We could have backtracked the way we came but a minivan was only 40 soles (5 soles more than we would have paid for the taxi/big bus combo) and so away we went. Six hours passed on bumpy roads and the driver left us at door of our hostel; food was a priority, then a shower and finally sweet sleep—the memories could wait until tomorrow.

A quick review for you planner types:

Taxi to Santiago Station – 10 soles
Bus to Santa Maria – 20 soles
Taxi to the Hydro Electric Station – 15 soles
Entrance to Machu Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain – 142 soles
Hostel – 50 soles for two nights
Hydro Electric Station to Cusco – 40 soles
Meals – 60 soles (15 soles each, with cheaper eats available in the central market)
Beer – I’ll never tell

Total: 337 soles (or $99.25 USD)

I intentionally left out the names of hostels and restaurants because they didn’t merit mentioning, but if you have any specific questions about food, lodging, etc, I would be more than happy to help. OR just show up and wing it. In my opinion that is when the best adventures happen.    



24 September 2016

Notes from the Land of Adventure

Every traveler faces moments when the bumps and bruises threaten to overwhelm the wonder of it all--because it isn’t always wonderful. We live for the great moments and the fullness of our adventures in retrospect and while it is always the road that brings us to these moments of doubt, it is the road that brings us back.
It was 4am and I was lying on the floor of a shed that called itself a bus station. The metal gates were shut and locked and through the vents of the aluminum walls street lights shone both dim and harsh. I was twisted up in my own clothes and deeply tired. After forty-eight hours of border crossings and buses I was on the far side of limbo and losing patience with every exhale. Trapped in my own little tragedy I failed to register the other inhabitants of my cramped enclosure. But then I saw them; a dozen Ecuadorian women in traditional Ecuadorian dress, sleeping on the floor—waiting just like me. Their colorful shawls, the jaunty hats pulled over their eyes, their children nestled in the comfortable crooks; these women were in the early morning hours of everyday life. I was the thing that did not belong. I was a stranger out there in the world. I tried to sleep but sleep wouldn’t come. A million miles from home I watched the images of Ecuador shifting and snoring. Exhaustion, filth, muscles bunched and sore; none of that mattered now.

Travelers never tire of finding the same people wrapped in the colors and textures of different cultures. 

I was standing at the edge of a crater awed by the lake below. The wind was whipping up the walls vicious and cold. Everything was vast from up there and it felt like the world couldn’t get any higher. My friends were behind me. We were backtracking because we had taken the wrong trail—a dangerous trail and as a consequence every new bend felt wrong. In the distance a sheepherder was sitting on the hillside surrounded by her flock. I was elected to ask for directions so I climbed the hill and sat beside her. She was young, late twenties maybe, her face chapped and scarred from constant exposure to the mountain winds. She was wearing a bright purple and red shawl wrapped tightly around her body. I greeted her in Spanish and she paused before answering, taking me in with wide wary eyes. I smiled gently and asked her if we were on the right path. I asked her how much longer it would take to reach the town of Quilotoa. She answered with a nod and mumbled numbers. I had the answers I needed but I wanted to stretch the moment so I asked her simple questions about where she grew up and the sheep grazing around us. She softened and answered with words. We fell into a brief but easy conversation.

I will never forget the time I sat on the top of a mountain in Ecuador and had a conversation with a sheepherder in a language I barely know, and maybe she will remember the blue eyed gringo that stayed longer than he needed to. Unwrapped we were just a man and a woman chatting about nothing, but when two people treat each other as unwrapped gifts it matters. I am almost positive that sheepherder sent her son to protect me. Not long after we left her hillside a little boy appeared out of nowhere. He was maybe four years old, wearing a worn blue jacket and a woven winter cap. He had the same wind chapped face and wide wary eyes as his mother. My friends were behind us and they told me later that every time I got a few feet ahead the little boy would sprint to catch up. Anytime the path splintered I asked him for help and he shyly showed me the way. When the town of Quilotoa appeared in the distance he drifted away, knowing that I was safe and no doubt wanting to get back to his mother to tell her all about the things we had said.
Travel friendships exist on a different timeline; they bloom quick and lasting from the richness of shared experience.
 At the top of the Quilotoa Loop on what was quite literally a dark and stormy night, I huddled in a frigid room with my new friends Alex, Connie, Humphrey and Kate waiting for a tiny woodstove to warm the room. It was a night for stories but the stories saved in our phones were too soft, no match for the winds battering the windows around us. Half joking I said, “I can read you one of my stories.” I expected uncomfortable laughter and instead they bounced in anticipation. Suddenly my throat went dry and I flushed with embarrassment. Did they really want to hear my stories? Did I really want to expose that side of myself? If they had been work colleagues or barroom acquaintances I never would have. But I trusted them, I had just met them, but I knew I was safe. So I read them a story. And then another. It was a great night—a shared experience between friends who knew that even if their paths never crossed again they would always have the adventure that brought them together.

All travelers are addicts jonesing for the high of places that cannot be explained. 

Cordillera Blanca, Peru. The Santa Cruz Trek was one of the greatest travel highs of my life. My friend Taylor who did her field school studies there later asked, “Is it not the most magical place you’ve ever seen!?” I can’t think of a better description than that. It is as grand and varied and impossible to fit into three dimensions as the world gets. And my friends and I did it the hard way. Rhys and Tim had been traveling with me since the border of Peru. Josh and Helen joined us in Huaraz, a mountain town near the base of the trek. We shunned the organized tours and their luggage carting donkeys opting instead to rent our own gear and pack our own food (not nearly enough food it turned out). Over the next four days we hiked more than 30 miles at high elevation through dry river beds, icy mountain passes, and lush river valleys. We made campfires at night, listened to music and told old stories to the joyful amusement of new listeners.

Every day was an adventure but Day Three best encapsulates the ups and downs of our journey. We woke up early to a dead fire and ice on the ground. The sun was creeping over snow capped mountains but its warmth was nowhere near. Our camping stove had died the night before and would not be revived. We relit the fire and warmed water just enough to make room temperature oatmeal. With grumbling stomachs we hiked a short but steep hillside to a glacial lake ringed by behemoths of stone and snow. The sun was beginning to warm our prickled skin and the view instantly burned itself into memory. From there we backtracked to the trailhead and were already breaking apart. Who hiked with whom alternated throughout the day but after the lake we were never together as a group. After three plus hours of moderate hiking we began a nasty high altitude ascent to Punta Union, the highest point of the trek. At nearly 16,000 feet Punta Union offers views of some of the highest mountains in the Andes, glacial lakes, and wildly differing valleys on either side. Standing at those heights I felt both enthralled and frightened because how could I possibly hold onto anything but a faded version of what I was seeing. It started to snow and below we could see that the snow was falling as rain. We covered up and began the long slog down. By the time Tim and I reached Camp One, Rhys and Josh had already pushed on toward Camp Two. I was angry because the sun was close to setting and Helen was god knows how far back. Tim went to find the boys and I stayed to wait for Helen. An hour later I found her coming down the path, we picked up the pace and joined the others as dusk was turning to dark. The boys had picked a spot between the two camps at edge of a rushing river—a good spot, as much as I hated to admit it at the time. We talked in an unexcited way about how exciting the day had been. Exhaustion had temporarily sapped what we knew would become reawakened joy. Dinner was an utter failure; a pot full of half cooked, flavorless lentils that proved inedible even in our near starved state. With smoke driving us away from the fire we quickly choked down dry Top Ramen and shivered ourselves to sleep.

The trek was difficult and at times frustrating, but it was a challenge to be proud of. We didn’t have daypacks and donkeys. We didn’t have guides cooking us dinner and making us tea. We did it all on our own. We drifted at times but we came back together closer than ever. We held each other up and moved each other forward--overwhelmed by the rush of a magical place.

Every traveler occasionally misses routine; a kitchen to cook in, a familiar bed, the exotic comforts of normality.

We had explored ancient ruins, traversed Andean peaks and partied until the sun was high in the sky. We wanted to slow down and revel in the repetitive do nothingness most people are dying to escape, so we made a temporary settlement at a quiet hostel in Arequipa, a beautiful colonial city in southern Peru. Arequipa is known as La Ciudad Blanca which sounds romantic but is actually some imperialist racist bullshit. When the Spaniards invaded they forcibly removed the indigenous people and used sillar, a white or pinkish volcanic rock, to build white stone mansions and Jesus houses; white people living in white buildings—La Ciudad Blanca.

Choosing the right place to stay is difficult. Party hostels are barf receptacles for culturally ignorant vacationers and the truly local places are typically empty hotels that provide loneliness but rarely towels or toilet paper. Travelers look for the sweet spot in between—a place where they can get a good night sleep, chat with the staff in the local language and meet a social crowd of likeminded wanderers. When you find the right place there is an assumed level of safety; leave your phone charging or your computer on the bed, buy a round because you know it’ll come back—travelers always take care of travelers. Our hostel in Arequipa was right there in the sweet spot and together we represented a global contingent; The United States, Germany, Argentina, Australia, Netherlands, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and more. The language never stayed the same for the entirety of a conversation but we understood each other well. We were travelers who wanted to live cheap and enjoy shared meals. We were strangers in a new city who couldn’t avoid the allure of a night out. The boys and I stayed in Arequipa for nearly a week and aside from a walking tour of the city we avoided all things touristic. We went to the gym, shopped for necessities and tried to catch up on our various personal projects. It was a nice little home. And then our home was invaded.

The road is forever unpredictable.

Towards the end of our stay in Arequipa this fat boisterous dude named Leopoldo Ribeiro Neto showed up. He was Brazilian by birth and claimed to live in San Francisco working as a lawyer. Homeboy knew one speed, 100 mph. He cooked fantastic meals for everyone and led the charge to go out at night, plying the whole crew with Tequila shots. Everyone loved this dude; except maybe this Scottish guy who had lent him cash until a Western Union transfer came through. The two of them had been traveling for a few days and it seems Leo’s shtick was getting old. From the beginning I figured the guy was at least mildly full of shit, but I never anticipated what was coming. Leo started talking about all these airline miles he had accumulated and how they were set to expire in a few weeks. He offered to buy tickets for a few us at the hostel. We would only have to pay for the taxes and fees. A few people jumped at the opportunity. Leo booked the flights and promised to forward the confirmations. He let everyone know how much they would owe, anywhere from $100 - $300. Meanwhile the Scottish dude had a flight to Cusco that afternoon—a flight that Leo had booked. Leo was working overtime to get him to delay and stay in Arequipa for a couple extra days, but the Scottish dude wouldn’t budge. He said his goodbyes and took a taxi to the airport. No one for whom Leo had booked a flight had received their confirmation so persistence was getting less gentle and Leo was getting visibly itchy. He mumbled something about dropping off laundry and never returned. Josh, whose skepticism had been mounting throughout the day, got online and researched our oddball housemate. It turns out Leopoldo Ribeiro Neto is a notorious conman who has been scamming people at hostels all across South America since 2007—the airline ticket scam being his go to move. Not long after our Scooby Doo unmasking the Scottish dude returned from the airport—the flight of course had been nonexistent. All told the poor guy had been scammed out of nearly $500. No one else paid Leo for fake flights nor had anything stolen, but everyone felt exceedingly icky. While no great loss, I did lend that fat bastard $20 at the bar. If I ever find you Leo…

Speaking of which… A few days later we returned to Arequipa for a one night stay on our way to Cusco. I spent the day in a café working on this very blog. Getting a bit brain numb, I decided to call my bank and take care of a boring but necessary errand. While I was on the phone half listening to the call center guy, I glanced out the window and saw none other than Leopoldo Ribeiro Neto! He was walking by with some new rube, casual as f—k, still wearing the same stupid orange shirt. I hesitated, paralyzed by the impossibility. Then excitement took over. This was my chance to confront that fatty and get my twenty bucks back. I hung-up on the call center guy and leapt to my feet spilling a potted plant all over the floor. I left everything at the table, hastily apologized to the staff, and ran outside. I reached an intersection and looked around frantically, but the weasel was nowhere to be found. And he wasn’t in any of the nearby shops. I checked them all. Unsatisfied, I returned to the café and spent the rest of the afternoon distracted by every flash of orange.

The world is finite but travel is not. New places, old places seen in a new way, the oxygen of anticipation forever feeds the flames.

South America is feeding me now. I am traveling slowly and yet I cannot travel slowly enough. Everyday offers a new mountain to climb, a new city to explore, a new jungle to tip-toe through as I live out boyhood make believe. I am meeting new people, absorbing indigenous and European histories and learning a new language. All the travel lessons I learned long ago are true on this new continent as well; the wild unpredictability of the road, the beautiful predictability of people being people, the blooming of friendships and the bumps and bruises easily overcome. And yet it is all so new that I have hardly had time to write. I will try to do better, but please understand that the flames of anticipation are burning bright. Machu Picchu is soon; Lake Titicaca, the Bolivian salt flats and the mighty Amazon too. If I delay it is only because I am in the land of adventure blissfully consumed by the stories I will one day tell.    

"Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home."

Paul Bowles - The Sheltering Sky

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!