The Beach

16 03 2015

A lot of the traveling culture here in Mexico is dictated by sun-seekers from the north – people who have come to the same town every year for thirty years, or who have gotten stuck in a honey trap running some bar or hostel. Everyone who is traveling here has a special place, its name spoken in hushed tones in a crowded bar, the place at the end of the rainbow. It’s an old tradition. In “The Shawshank Redemption” it was Zijuatanejo. In “Y Tu Mamá También” the two heroes try to cover their asses after inventing the magical Boca del Cielo. Everyone here is looking for their beach.

And I guess I’m on a similar mission, when I think of it. It’s a pretty irresistible treasure hunt. From the start, I knew I wasn’t coming here to travel but to settle and live for a little while. And my standards have quickly mounted about where that would be. So let me walk you through the stops so far on my search.

Stop #1: Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo. I stayed there for two weeks, knowing I didn’t want to stay any longer, but also sticking in the quintessential honey-trap of a hostel where the group of friends was way too tight-knit, the hammocks were way too comfy and the beer next door was way too cheap. It was fun I guess, and interesting to spend a bit of time in. But I don’t feel called back.

Playa del Carmen is in the “Riviera Maya”, a.k.a. the strip of Caribbean beaches and resorts that attracts the most tourists in Mexico, crowned at its northern tip by the wan and twisted jewel of Cancun. (If you’re already pretty weirded out by the name of an indigenous people, who has obviously dealt with poverty and persecution in modern Mexico, being used as part of the marketing for a glitzy American-dominated “riviera” which doesn’t involve them much… then we’re on the same level. If not, I apologize, because this post is already way too Santa Cruz.)

So, the Riviera Maya. Obvious downsides: expensive; quite touristy, lots of private land (i.e. resort beaches). Not-obvious downside: it surpassed even my expectations how everything was privatized. The famous cenotes – underground lakes that dot the Yucatan by the thousands because of the porous rock – are almost completely privately owned and run by the people whose property they happen to be on, with no sort of cohesion. Imagine if Yellowstone was a pay-by-geyser basis, and there was no Park Service to tell you that Old Faithful exists. The whole thing was shockingly non-user friendly.

There were upsides, though. Certain beaches were truly gorgeous, with thick pale silty sand and a turquoise bathwater horizon striped by dark lines of rocks and seaweed. The other thing is that Playa wasn’t that segregated. The whole place was rich and expensive, with tourists walking out their hotel front doors downtown and strolling the same cheesy main promenade with everyone else. There was no market; the locals shopped in nice air-conditioned supermarkets (though you could find your cheap food if you wanted). The only thing that was pretty segregated was Spanish-speakers from Mayan-speakers, but it seemed like the Mayans lucky enough to be from this boomtown (or those unlucky enough, but plucky enough to adapt) have done pretty well. Lots of beautiful houses in town bore plaques on the front gates saying things like “Familia Ix’bele”, and billboards all over advertised the bilingual elementary school.

But after two weeks I felt trapped, not cradled; and so it was time to hit the road, newly partnered with my Playa co-worker Tamar, to find our own paradise.

Stop #2: Bacalar, Quintana Roo

Bacalar is at the southern end of the state of Quintana Roo, where the Cancun suburbs peter out and the madness dissipates, near the Belize border. Bacalar was just our pit stop on the way to the next horizon, but a really detailed hunt for the Beach would entail some more time coastcombing in the area, because I think it was a promising candidate. (Shoutout to Punta Allen, which one acquaintance of ours spoke of wistfully as his magical Beach. Unfortunately, it was too far out of the way for us.)

Bacalar is way, way tinier than any of the other towns listed here. And it’s actually a lake town, which was really refreshing (ha, ha). It’s only big enough to have a little town square with cool buildings, a bandstand and an old Spanish castle. It’s surrounded by jungle, and from the town square, a sleepy Malecon lined with vacation homes and cottages runs along the side of the lagoon. They call it the Laguna de los Siete Colores – the Lagoon of Seven Colors – because of its beauty, but also because it was formed by seven cenotes that eroded together.

The hostel we stayed at in Bacalar was extremely lovely. Pluses: a dock on the water; tons of cute dogs; an awesome array of hammocks. The water was so pleasant to swim in, and that night we watched in awe as a bloodred moon rose over the lagoon. Minuses: rather expensive. Rather too small of a town to accept that big a community of paradise-seekers without feeling segregated, honestly – though there were obviously Mexican tourists outside our hostel somewhere, and the town was fairly friendly. It helped (hurt?) that our hostel was weirdly overrun with Germans. I love Germans, but when you’re not in Germany and you’re frolicking by a lake with two Mexican hostel employees, two Brits and eighteen Germans… it does sort of set the tone. My Beach has to be fairly international, but also dominantly Spanish-speaking and Mexican. On we went.

Stop #3: San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas

This small mountain city is not a beach town, but rumors of it had drifted up to me in the North already, because it’s a major honeytrap where hippie travelers find their Beach. Extremely cold, extremely old, extremely beautiful, it’s the kind of place where even the gas stations and chain stores have been opened in priceless colonial buildings. The streets are cobbled and hilly and terrifyingly one-way, the roofs are of red tile, and the houses are painted a riot of colors that defies comparison – somewhat Spanish, somewhat Italian, a fever-dream of architecture that could really only be called San Cristobal-esque. The indigenous population was huge and non-Spanish-speaking and wore traditional furry scarves and dresses around the street, chattering in Tsol’tsel. They were honestly a majority. Churches were everywhere, painted pastel colors, their bells ringing and ringing.

San Cristobal is also known for its key part in the Zapatista uprising. On New Year’s Day in 1994, an army of socialist separatists 3,000 strong – mostly indigenous, claiming the Mexican government to be illegitimate – declared war on Mexico and descended from the mountains to take control of several towns in Chiapas, including the large and important town of Ocosingo. They laid siege to the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, setting fire to police buildings and breaking open the jail. On January 2nd, though, the Mexican military arrived with reinforcements. They pushed the Zapatista army back from San Cristobal and there was a fierce battle for Ocosingo. The rebels lost, and they retreated into the mountains.

Today, though, there is still Zapatista territory up in the backcountry which is completely out of Mexican government control. The Zapatistas have their own school system, healthcare system and army, and apparently the villagers who live under their control enjoy a good standard of life, thanks to sales of trendy fair-trade socialist coffee and the like in the hip circles of places like Germany. You can see the start of their territory from the city of San Cristobal, beyond the radio tower at the top of the furthest mountain. On the bus we took through the countryside, all kinds of houses and shacks along the road bore the words in messy graffiti, “ZAPATA VIVE”.

So you can already see how this place started collecting a community of hippie travelers. Let’s get to the detriments. There’s no beach, obviously – though I’m open to the possibility that my beach may be a mountain town. Mostly it’s just fairly segregated. The hippie community is robust, white or from Mexico City, and into things like gems and juicing and flowy pants made by the local indigenous whatever-they’re-called. On the flip side of the same coin, locals are obviously pretty over playing the host. It shows, in small but annoying patterns of aggression like the fact that no one will ever, ever move over for you on the super-narrow sidewalks.

Stop #4: Oaxaca City

So we traveled onward, into the state of Oaxaca. Including Oaxaca City (actually called Oaxaca de Juarez) in this list is kind of a fluke, because it’s too big of a city to be anyone’s Beach. It’s not the end of the rainbow, it’s the center of the melting pot. But it’s my favorite city in Mexico so far, and I have to write about it.

First of all, Oaxaca City is the perfect size: big enough to be busy, but small enough to be walkable and not too globalized. It’s a bustling center, but it is undoubtedly the center of Oaxaca, where indigenous languages gaily mix and artisans and farmers bring their wares from miles away.

Those who knew me when I lived in Switzerland might remember what I always said about Bern – it’s beautiful, but all in the same way; every Disneylandish corner could be exchanged with every other. If San Cristobal is Bern, Oaxaca City is the opposite: gorgeous but grimy, historical but well-used, cheap, confusing, richly cultural. For every brightly painted building there was another one whose paint was peeling, and another one of gray stone. Instead of a sea of red roofs, its silhouette was a spiny forest of TV antennas. At times the cobblestone streets almost looked like they could belong to a semi-dumpy French city, and honest-to-God I mean that in the best possible way.

And at every corner there was another interesting attraction: a cultural center with an art exhibit, a mezcaleria offering free tastings, a huge green Gothic dome, a towering bulbous kapoc tree. Bright yellow taxis zipped through the streets. Vendors were everywhere selling cheap, delicious food: garlicky roasted bugs (yes, I tried them and yes, they were good); quesadillas with delicate yellow flowers inside; horchata with pieces of cut fruit; fried empanadas filled with chorizo and potatoes. It is true, though, that the vendors there were a little on the aggressive side – more than anywhere else in Mexico so far – and it definitely got a little aggravating.

But we had to move on, because we felt the end of our search approaching. Which leads me to my current home…

Stop #5: Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca

Puerto Escondido is a surf town. And it’s not that small – think Half-Moon Bay, but more compact. I like the size. The main part of the town tumbles down a steep hollow to a gorgeous cove dotted with boats, sandwiched between a clifftop lighthouse and a long sandy surfing beach. There the town peters out into palapas, campsides and scrubby palm woods. I like the climate: not jungly, but humid and hot enough for palms, banana leaves and flowers. I like the beaches, warm Pacific swell. And I like the vibe. Considering how often I´ve seen this place alluded to – including from my former coworker, a Santa Cruz neighbor´s bumper stickers, and my living-off-welfare expat uncle – it´s obviously not undiscovered. So for it to still feel the way it does, I give the props to the people who have visited here. You have to have a damn good record of tourists with good hearts on good behavior to create a town this famous that still feels like this. (Though I´m sure the 7-hour, vomit-inducing drive through the mountains from Oaxaca City helps.)

The one thing I don´t like is the place I´ve been offered to work at. I won´t name it, because I´ve realized lately how powerful blogs can be in the post-Yelp world to make or break a business, and I bear no one any ill will. But when you´ve got a story to tell, you have to tell it, ya know?

So suffice it to say that though I´ve gotten an offer I can´t refuse (one day of work for every two days off, HEY-o), I am somewhat annoyed by the vibe of this hostel – extremely English-speaking, the type of people who take taxis into town to go clubbing and don´t even know how to get there by foot. There´s a bar here, and the worst part is that you´re not allowed alcohol from the outside. That´s like telling me this is my new home, but I can´t cook, ya know? And it wouldn´t be a problem if the bar felt like a home-base, giving free drinks with a wink and making things special to order… but the bar here does not hook it up, to the Nth degree. The only beers are Sol and Dos Equis, small size; there are no limes (and the bartender made fun of me when I asked for limes… like, okay? are we sophomores in high school?), the smoothie drinks are basically devoid of alcohol, the only mixed drink is Jungle Juice (no margaritas!), and the workers basically get 0 discount, or even slack for when we pay our tab.

So basically, it´s a completely shameless coerced take-back of the money I will supposedly save living here. Although I am fighting it. In part, obviously, by not drinking; though that´s a bit annoying in a self-proclaimed “party hostel” where my job is to mingle and play the host. And also by keeping myself firmly in check for food money, which is a pleasure – the incredibly cheap town market is nearby, and I missed cooking. Also, this hostel has a pool. So there ain´t too much trouble in paradise.

I´m eager to see how the next few days shape my opinion of this town and the little life that I´m supposedly going to have here. Updates when they arrive!


The Open Road Calls

17 02 2015

At the moment of writing this (which is not the moment of posting it, as the following description will probably make clear), I sit in the back of a small Sedan on the highway. My rideshare companions are in the front two seats: a 30-year-old Mexican guy (Fabian) who is helping his dad (David) move from Mexico City to Cancun. My only companion in the backseat is their cat, Clara, who has no idea that she will soon be let out in a new house in a tropical beach town, with new animals and smells and litterboxes to mark as her territory. No, Clara knows none of this, so for the first several hours of our trip (starting at 5 this morning) Clara meowed incessantly and stared ruefully up at me through her cage door, obviously believing I was the catnapper.

At one point Fabian’s dad let her wander around the car to shut her up, but this backfired when he had to put her back. He spent several hilariously awkward minutes wrestling with the clasps on the janky travel kennel, always thwarted by a leg or a well-placed paw.

“Do you need help?” Fabian asked, trying to glance back and also concentrate on driving.

“I don’t need any help! Just drive!” said David, who obviously needed help. It was a battle of man versus cat; proud Mexican pater familias versus cat-er familias. Cat was winning.

A few hours ago, thank God, Fabian had the brilliant idea of putting a blanket over Clara’s cage. Thus the conniving and ingenious Clara has been convinced that it she isn’t in mortal danger anymore but that it is, in fact, naptime. So the only sounds accompanying me in the backseat are Van Halen blasting on the radio, and the rush of the crickets that rises ongoing from the jungle.

It’s just approaching dusk, and both back windows are open so the wind will gnaw through the thick humidity. We are somewhere in the state of Tabasco, which is not where the sauce comes from (it’s from Louisiana). A beetle just landed on my computer screen, and is scuttling around upon the white background of Microsoft Word in strangely cute silhouette. The country outside is dotted with little ranches and meadows and houses and comedores, all very pastoral. In the spaces between, towering thickets of twisty trees and waxy pendulous leaves cling to the edges of slow brown creeks or swampy pools covered with water-lilies. If I stick my head outside the window, I can smell something far off that could be cocoa stewing on a wood fire.

Over the last three weeks, since I drove down my parents’ driveway in Northern California, I have traveled about 3,500 miles – the furthest I have ever traveled without setting foot in a plane. The journey has followed a pretty weird hurry-up-and-wait rhythm. Right now, I’m exhausted from taking an all-day-and-overnight bus from Mazatlan to Mexico City, which arrived this morning.

I didn’t so much as pass go or collect 200 pesos before I had rendez-voused with Fabian and was watching the sleeping streetlit avenues of Mexico City trawl past from the window of their car, as we fled from the morning traffic. By the time the sun rose we had left the city. Now as we inch deeper into the wilderness of the Yucatan Peninsula, the plan is to drive all night until we reach Cancun, making this my second consecutive night in a car.

On the other hand, the first leg of my trip was extremely leisurely – lingering here, couchsurfing there – (though I can’t say I got any more sleep during Carnaval in Mazatlán than I did on the bus). It’s been truly magical watching the climate change as I made my way slowly south, bit by bit, proving to myself that places which almost seem behind a mystical curtain are indeed on this same earth.

So where to start?

I guess I should start at the beginning.

First, a word about hitchhiking. I hitchhiked almost all the way through Baja California, and though it was successful, it was definitely one of the more challenging hitchhiking journeys I’ve been on. For starters, it gave me a weird feeling sometimes. From a certain perspective hitchhiking is a form of begging, and after a few days I started to feel crass begging for charity from people who obviously have less than me. The sour looks and aversions of eye contact eventually erode you psychologically, and they made me start to ruminate: Why didn’t I just drive my car? Why didn’t I just pay for a bus?

But for me, it’s really not about begging. So let me set down a little manifesto about why I hitchhike. You know when you’re a kid and you think you have the answers to all life’s problems? Like when you hear about world thirst for the first time and say, “Well why can’t we just drink the sea?” Or you see a homeless person and you say, “Why can’t everyone just give him their leftovers?” And when you start to grasp all the petty little reasons why not, it’s just this crushing awakening to how stupid and confusing and wasteful the world is? To me, the idea of how difficult and expensive travel is is one of those little frustrations: Why must I pay so much for a plane ticket when the plane is going anyway?

For me, to hitchhike is to give a great big middle finger to all those little assumptions that clutter up the world and make childlike logic impossible. It is to say, All these cars are going where I’m going and they’re empty, and you know what, there is something I can do about that. It is to say, F**k you, world – there is enough water on the planet, we can drink the sea. It is a triumph of childlike wonder, and it is a call that there is enough energy already being expended on the planet to make things happen.

The other thing that was challenging about Baja, though, is that it was so damn empty. There were just never that many people passing by one spot, and as a result wait times were long – sometimes an hour or more. It definitely became frustrating after a few days, not being picked up by car after car in the middle of nowhere, when people knew perfectly well that no one else was coming.

You probably never wanted to know how to politely interact with hitchhikers, but I’m going to tell you anyway. Honestly, my favorite reaction from passersby is the simple lack of eye contact, because it doesn’t call me to expend any energy interacting, accepting your apology, waving, etc. My least favorite by far is when people (especially young people) (WHO HAVE ROOM IN THE CAR) wave, grin, give a hang-loose sign, or God forbid, return the thumbs-up. This is pretty much the same as going into a small, struggling, family-run corner store and yelling, “I just love you guys! You guys are so great! I’m so glad this exists! Keep doing what you’re doing!!” And then running out again without buying anything. Without fail, anyone over 30 that picks me up talks about the good old days when hitchhikers were commonplace and you could hitch anywhere. I’m only 22, but the word on the street is that hitchhiking is getting harder and harder; and as such, fewer people hitchhike. If you think it’s cool that there are still hitchhikers in the world… pick them up. Otherwise there won’t be any anymore. Period. End rant.

Nonetheless, things went pretty well. For the first two days I got a lot of very short rides from local families and one bored delivery guy – sometimes in the open beds of pickup trucks, which was my favorite. On my third morning I had a particularly long and bleak wait time, until I was finally picked up by a camper van with Montana plates. The drivers were named Bob and Billie, and they were my guardian angels. First of all, they were driving a huge distance, through some of the most remote parts of Baja. Second, they were a ton of fun to talk to – hip Jack Kerouac folk from the old beat generation, who had lost none of their values. In fact, I have never found anyone that age who shared so close to the same values as me. It was remarkable. (Case in point, they pick up hitchhikers.)

The third reason they were amazing is simply that we enjoyed the same activity while driving: commenting on the changing flora and fauna. So we marveled as we crawled south and the desert slowly grew lusher, the brown weeds sown in one at a time with weird fuzzy boojum trees like something from Dr. Seuss, then tall slender cacti, and then gnarled little scrub oaks clinging to the mountainsides. Baja California is a stark and gorgeous land. When we crossed the border into the state of Baja California Sur, we crossed an hour forward into mountain time, or “hora de Guadalajara” going by the Mexican system which names time zones after cities. Bob said it was because before the road was paved in the 90s, it was far easier from southern Baja to reach the mainland than to reach the northern cities like Tijuana and Ensenada. The road was pretty nice, but there were still a whole lot of llanterias along the roadside, hinting at its days as a car-smashing journey.

Traveling alone is so funny: you’re incredibly lonely, except when you’re not. Friends can be found in unlikely places. There was Billie and Bob on the road, and then in La Paz there was an incredibly chill house of marine biology students. Hanging out with them was so like hanging out with Santa Cruz friends – jam sessions on the roof, bonfires on the beach, the search for the best manta ray tacos – that it was almost surreal that we were speaking Spanish the whole time. The biggest shoutout ever goes to Vinnie, Rebecca and the Marixas. I think I’ll be back in La Paz just to visit them.

And then on the boat the weird encounters continued: I ran into a fellow UCSC student with whom I have mutual friends, and together we made friends with three guys from the North on a massive bike tour together, and with a Mazatleco named Brandon going home. The six of us formed a sort of crew and hung out in Mazatlán for a few days, seeing two sides of the city: an extremely gringoey hostel, and Brandon’s world of favorite hot-dog stands and hikes to secret lookout points. Honestly, to me they didn’t seem very different. The Mazatlán I saw everywhere – and the one Brandon showed us – was a relaxed and liberal beach city, like many in California. Just with better street food, greener cliffs, crazier traffic and a starker, hazier subtropical light.

I think Mazatlán is MexicoLite in a different way than Baja, which is also MexicoLite. Baja rolls out the red carpet of English for its massive expat and tourist community, but the place itself is still very poor, rural and traditional. Mazatlán does not seem to be owned by foreigners, or cater to them too much – but it’s rich and modern to the point where it feels fairly globalized. The culture shock there is only a little zap.

So we fast-forward. Through the bus ride, further southward through the end of the desert: a mountainous, subtropical scrubland, like something from the north of India. Through the car ride, which had some minor incidents (a flat tire) but has generally been good, but long. Two interesting things about road-tripping in Mexico: Not only is shitty highway a serious danger to your car that you must consider, the toll stations all have randomly different prices, and David and Fabian would judge the coming highway based on the price. Whenever we were driving on a road full of potholes, they’d either say “No wonder, it was so cheap this time”, or “Can you believe we paid 150 pesos for this!?”. This is also how I was first introduced to the Mexican love for complaining about the government. But that’s an observation that I’ll expand on as it unfolds. The Mexican government, and people’s relationship with it, is obviously no small beast to snoop about nor to write about.

And I’ll sign off for now. I think with this part of the journey, I’m done with my addiction to following the open road. Like my many red and irritated mosquito bites, it has been scratched to oblivion and no longer wants any scratching. And I’m satisfied, but ready to rest my head somewhere that is not a moving vehicle. Next reporting from the shores of the Caribbean!

A Tale of Two Californias

3 02 2015

International borders fascinate me. I know that when you cross a border it’s the same air, the same climate, the same sky, etc. That it’s not some magical portal to another dimension but just a line drawn in the sand, a figment of the human mind.

But when you cross a border like the one at San Ysidro, you can’t help but get a mind-boggled high at how powerful the human mind is, that a physical border made of cement and barbed wire and can hold back the tide of non-physical things. Norms of dress; styles of cooking; family values; arsenals of jokes and decision-making methods. Here a curtain of concrete holds back the tides of two of the most hegemonically dominant, populous and powerful cultures in the world: Anglo and Latin America. Dark twins like the sun and the moon, cousins so similar (and so unable to see it) that they can do nothing but bicker.

Allow me to explain myself. I see this part of the world as an alternate reality, a slightly diverging string of history from my own. One hundred and sixty-seven years ago the United States army pushed the Mexican one across the Rio Grande, a treaty was signed, a line was drawn, and my homeland as a political entity was created. Since then the lands on either side, once one, have developed in different ways. Different heroes have won them, different people have flocked to them, and different governments have sowed them with highways. But the reflection is there, I can’t help but clearly see it. I’m still in California – a phantom, alternate-reality California. Guys my age in skate hoodies weave down the sidewalk in longboards. A cute girl with a scene haircut secrets a colorful little glass pipe into her purse. The streets are laid out on an Old Western-style grid with the only numbered streets I’ve ever seen in in Latin America – Segunda, Tercera, Cuarta, Quinta.

Walking across the border was as easy as pie, which was part of what made the whole thing so surreal. It was still late afternoon, and a plump moon, soaked with sky like a Tres Leches cake, hung low over the slum-covered hills. I walked over a long cement footbridge which wove as practically as it could above the maze of honking lanes, military enclosures and Mordor-like gates below. The crossing into the United States: that’s where the real madness takes place. And where, I’m reminded, I face repossession of my car if I ever again wrongly take the accelerated Fast-Pass lane. But that’s another story.

I reached a dramatic, final turnstile which you obviously could not return back through, over which the word “MEXICO” was emblazoned. I went through, and poof!

Okay, I admit the magic didn’t happen until I crossed the rest of the pedestrian walkway and descended the stairs into the steaming, hulking maze of the city. But suddenly then the streets were cobbled and had wide sidewalks and smelled of cologne and motor oil; old men were pulling grates over the storefronts; families lounged in plastic chairs in the shadows of long alleyways or weird half-built alcoves where wires spit electric lights; all the houses were painted garish colors, advertising their wares with even more garish photographs; and a bubbling of noise reached me: the noise of people out on the streets, getting their business done or returning from it as twilight closed in.

Tijuana is an unfortunate Gomorrah, half-hearted and embarrassed as it tries to python money out of visitors in the only way it knows how. It’s funny – as white Americans we imagine Mexico as a crazy loud place, because Mexicans get so silly with their friends, and our little middle-school selves consequently form frightened impressions of them whistling and shrieking with giggles on the bus. And it’s true, there are a few pieces of European comme-il-faut that collapse here (like traffic laws). But let’s dispel this now: on the whole, it seems to me that Mexico has a very shy, polite, sweet and spiritual culture. The hagglers in the streets here let you wander onward with a simple moment of eye contact and a “No, gracias.” The prostitutes lining up along the walls were mostly apple-cheeked mestizas, their doe eyes lined with thick kohl. Whenever I passed one I gave her a shy, apologetic sort of smile, and generally received the same smile back. It seemed so vulgar and sad. No slutty cackles or dance moves, with the exception of one older lady that slapped my ass. No faking it – just an offer implied, yup this is my job, no questions asked.

When I arrived I had recently eaten, and I don’t like girls. Tijuana is a terrible place not to be straight or hungry. Pretty much all that’s on the menu is girls and tacos (and the same few meh local beers, with Tecate, tragically, leading the charge).

I tried half-heartedly to find a hostel, but hotels were shockingly cheap, so I just grabbed a room. The hotel manager gave me a towel, a personal toilet paper roll and a bar of soap to take to the room myself. I got there and found that I could hear mariachi from the street drifting through the paper-thin walls, which were randomly red trimmed with turquoise. I imagine the way Mexicans paint houses and rooms, haphazardly: “Well, it can’t be beige, Mari-Flor down the street just did hers beige, how about red and turquoise?” I wish that would catch on in my neighborhood. If I ever inherit my parent’s house, I shall have this discussion with my sister. Sorry, Mom and Dad. Or rather, sorry, future next-door neighbors.

Despite my lack of hunger for girls or tacos, I went out anyway. I avoided a totally empty club painted with the rainbow flag and advertising “CLUB HAWAII – BODAS GAY,” and ended up following a street barker to an upstairs club where he promised me a free tequila shot. The club was throbbing dance music, and I was the only one inside. I bought the promoter a shot too so I wouldn’t take mine alone, and he hung out with me for a few minutes on the balcony, telling me about Tijuana. I can only imagine his boredom and desperation trying to to that job on a Monday night in February. Eventually he went back down to the street to continue the barking, and said that he’d be down there if I wanted to give him a tip when I left.

A more naive Ben of years ago would have been shocked that my conversation was only worth money to him. And after I bought him a shot too! But that was before I had been much exposed to the way poverty can shape a city and its culture. I now realize that that’s just what’s for sale here – love, sex, a trip of the mind, even a friend – all from people scrounging together another peso, another dollar, for years at a time. They flock here to hunker down and wait, wait to cast their dice, to risk everything for Tijuana’s biggest and most dangerous export of all: freedom.

I’m not in the market for that either. I gave the barker a tip on his way out.

Road Trippin’

31 01 2015

Well, I have recommenced my life on the road. And traveling is the main thing I do that’s interesting, isn’t it? So I suppose I shall keep this blog alive by writing updates about where I am and what I’m doing. I am now a traveloguist, self-indulgent and pretentious tho that sounds. I guess self-indulgence is the elephant in the room of all blogging, so. let’s embrace it.

I have spent the past week or so road-tripping around the Southwest with two friends from Chile. well, a friend and his brother – and there’s been plenty of awkward brotherly fights for me to ignore. But they have been perfectly lovely travel companions as we explored the deserts and mountains of the West.

Winter is a weird time to go on a road trip, but I felt the time was right with the following reasoning.

1. I hate to admit it, but the fracking gas. (That’s not wordplay. I mean, the gas from fracking.) It’s so damn cheap.

2. Travel is about finding experiences, not necessarily about being physically in a new place. Spending some quality time with friends who live halfway around the world is an experience not to be missed.

I’ve been thinking recently about Annaïs, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you have to just act as if any time with people you love is your last, because you never know. Time is truly precious. My friend Cristián had to return home to Chile from his exchange in California, early and abruptly, because of a similar tragedy to Annaïs’. And when he started bringing up the idea of a road trip, it was clear that we both ought to take advantage of this time together and go with the flow.

So we embarked – me, Cristián, and his brother Santiago. (Cristián and Santiago have a dog named Santiago, and they live in the city of Santiago. Don’t ask me if I understand Chileans, because I don’t.) Our first stop was Reno, where we stayed with Santiago’s former host family; after that we camped in Bishop, beneath the towering eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada. It’s a strange and lonely land, the Eastern Sierra: all sagebrush shivering at the skirts of the snowy mountains, and road signs that bear columns of the same word, in glowing letters, one above the other – Tioga Pass, Sonora Pass, Ebbetts Pass – closed, closed, closed. The passes were snowed in, but at the base of the mountains and onward down, all was solid brown. PRAY FOR RAIN OR SNOW, read the marquee of a church in one of the tiny towns along the highway.

Our first night camping in Bishop was freezing. The following day we drove and drove, determined to get to Zion National Park by that night. We drove through long gray deserts, and stony canyons, and then longer deserts again. We listened to dubstep. We listened to CCR. We listened to anything that would make the desert seem less monotonous. We entered Arizona – a land of utter emptiness. A few minutes later we crossed into Utah, which was much more populated. Orderly. Full of friendly grids of streetlit streets and a panoply of whitewashed names, sin ‘san’s or ‘santa’s: Ogden, Big Creek, that sort of thing. Welcome to the Mormon homeland.

Before we knew it we were setting up camp in Zion Canyon, completely in the dark. The first unzipping of the tent the next morning, revealing the red cliffs all around, was majestic despite the sleepy gray winter light. All day we drove from one viewpoint and mini-hike in the canyon to the next, seeing new vistas of the massive orange or pale yellow mountains; the endless smooth cliffs to which piñon pines cling. I can confidently describe Zion Canyon as Yosemite Valley with less waterfalls and more orange.

From there it only became more of a if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Utah experience. We decided to spend a few hours walking around Las Vegas, vowing not to indulge in any vices that would hinder our driving onward. (I did have a decaf cappucino, at an elegant Italian cafe in one of Vegas’ many elegant marble hallways. If it had been 10 in the morning and I’d been better dressed, it might have been very grand.)

Even without vices, we managed to get very lost wandering through the grand squares and galleries. It’s capitalism at its finest: magnificent malls lavishing expense to make their front yard more beautiful and elegant then the one next door; and fantastic people-watching, of the most American people in America, dressed their best. We parked in the Mirage, where there was a monorail. And a fake jungle. I think that all observations about consumerism put aside, on some level Vegas is just an adult Disneyland.

We drove on from Vegas and spent the night in a cheap motel somewhere in Arizona, where we lied about how many people were with us, and where I didn’t have to provide an ID or a credit card. It would have been an excellent place to hide out à la “Gone Girl” (if you haven’t read it, no spoilers cuz I didn’t tell you WHO was hiding or from WHAT, or blah blah blah, you r getting sleepy, u didnt hear anything.) (Ahem.) The next morning we drove through splatters of rain to arrive at an extremely misty Grand Canyon.

At first we couldn’t see a damn thing except a cloudy edge-of-the-world kind of situation; but lo and behold, the mist started to roll aside- the mountains swam in and out of miles of air, like approaching ships- the Chinese tourists oohed and ahhed- cameras clicked- and the clouds revealed the maze of weird valleys, plateaus, and jagged rock formations through which the tiny shining Colorado River winds. The amount of space was stunning, it was immeasurable. It was also very, very, very cold. (Cristián: “This is like the freezer room at Costco, where you have to go hunt for the vegetables!” You know you’re upper middle class when you a) compare a frozen mountaintop in winter to the produce room at Costco; b) go “hunting for vegetables”; c) all of the above.)

So anyway. After the Grand Canyon we drove with Jack Kerouac-like determination through the darkness, tumbling down the rocky frozen ranges and the desert mountains of the West to land at last in the honey-smog summer dream of SoCal, where we woke blinking this morning. I wish I had pictures to share here of the trip I’ve described, but I’m having a phone-computer compatibility problem – it involves Linux, don’t judge me, don’t ask. So you’ll have to believe me that the rocks really were red and the canyon really was quite grand.

And as of now I guess that’s me signing out. Thanks for reading; in so doing, you have officially helped validate my dirtbaggery. Republicans, let it be on the record that I will never try to collect unemployment to sustain this lifestyle.

So. To be continued??1!?

It Happened One January

27 02 2013

Ways The Israelites Got Out Of Egypt:

-parting the Red Sea

-Leaving before their matzah was done

Ways I Got Out Of Egypt:


-back of a pickup truck

-wading barefoot through a flood with my luggage on my back

Everyone told me I should write it down, so here goes.

It all starts with my friend Robbie. I met Robbie on the bus from Jerusalem to Eilat. We got along really well, followed each other to the same hostel in Eilat, and became inseparable.

Now Robbie was already planning to go to Cairo, which you need a pre-approved visa for. On his way to the Egyptian consulate in Eilat, he got astronomically lost and eventually an Israeli lady took pity on him and drove him there. In the car she told him about this place, which at first I could only remember as some name that sounds like “Rosh Hashana”, where we should go: a village on the beach an hour or so south of the Egyptian border, full of both Israelis and Egyptians. It’s actually called Ras esh-Shaitan.

Eilat kind of sucked- it’s a very Miami Beach type of place, not fun unless you want to pay for the buffet dinner and the dolphin show. So in the full spirit of YOLO, I decided to come with him.

At the border we were channeled through a ridicul0usly unprofessional barrage of checkpoints, double-checkpoints and tax agents before being spit out into Egypt. I’ve been to Egypt once before, but I forgot the true insanity of it. You have a feeling you’re getting ripped off kind of 24/7 because of this certain sketchy way people act during consumer transactions. Robbie got kind of frothed up during our first, frustrating haggle attempt (to get a cab). Then, as we drove off, the driver had to honk because a herd of wild camels was lumbering along the middle of the road. I think that was Robbie’s smack into reality. He dived for his camera while stammering, “Whoa. Whoa. That camel. Is eating. That bush. Right now.”

Less than a kilometer from the malls and brightly-painted ATMs of Eilat, the highway was a dirt road and the smoke of cooking fires rose from slums hunkering beneath the bare mountains. As darkness slowly fell, we passed a handful of old Crusader castles as well as an “I Am Legend”-level amount of unfinished construction. Mostly, though, we drove through total emptiness. It was just getting dark when we arrived.

Ras-esh-Shaitan, Arabic for Satan’s Head: a dusty beach at the end of the world, where the barren cliffs of the Sinai Desert howl down to a small flat space of thatch-roofed huts and withered old desert trees. There were twinkling lights strung in the trees, the camp was almost completely empty, and we got a cabin for less than $10 a night. That first night, it felt like an otherworldly, mystical place. Thin, secretive cats flitted through the shadows. There were open-air verandas with carpets and cushions strewn on the floor beneath them; the bathrooms had beautiful ceramic toilets but no roofs… and THE DOORS HAD NO LOCKS. This is an important detail and it’s going to come back to haunt us later.

but I digress.

On our second day we went to buy food in Nuweiba, which was more ghost-town unfinished construction. I literally watched a goat walk into the front of the supermarket, steal a tomato and walk out. We also discovered that the camp our cabbie had taken us to was one of two, and the other one – just across a little hill – had a lot more people: Bedouins, crazy hippies who stare at the fire until one in the morning, groups of bros from Cairo who brought bottles of whisky, lots of jam sessions. It was actually pretty crowded, since we were there during the two-year anniversary of the revolution, and they all knew there would be riots in Cairo. When you asked most of them how long they were staying, they’d go, “I dunno, man.” It reminded me of the land of the Lotus Eaters, which Odysseus visits on his voyage: almost sinister in its loveliness, because you could get trapped there forever.

Robbie left for Cairo on the next day, leaving me feeling kind of lonely. We became such good friends so fast and then parted ways, and mostly Ras-esh-Shaitan just reminded me way too much of Santa Cruz. I spent one more day there, being a social butterfly in the busier camp: chilling and not doing much. It was fun, but I was ready to move on. I did, however, find a good new crew of companions in the form of Lina, a soft-spoken girl who had gone to a private German school in Cairo; and her dreadlocked friend Hilel, who had lived in New Jersey.

On the day I was to leave, I woke up and my daypack was missing.

Now, I won’t go into any details that would keep me from running for office, but suffice it to say that I was somewhat hung over. This is important to the story because for the first hour, I was convinced that I had lost the bag myself. You guys know me. I do that kind of thing all the time. So I woke up and went, “Dammit, Ben, you done went and ate too many lotuses and left your backpack somewhere.”

I spent an hour retracing my steps of the past day, trying in vain to remember when I went where (I had eaten lots of lotuses), cursing myself and my stupidity. I was about to give up when I spied my bag lying on a rocky slope about 20 feet from my hut.

I froze, my eyes went narrow, and the wheels in my head clunked furiously trying to rationalize this with the “Hangover”-esque explanation I had imagined. “I must have walked by there last night…………” I thought, but the figurative ellipses were scrolling through my head at about sixty miles an hour.

I walked over. My iPod headphones trailed ominously out of the opening, plugged into nothing. Inside the bag were my jeans, and in the pockets of my jeans there was no wallet, no iPod and no cell phone.

When I told the guy at the front desk (well, the only desk) what had happened, a bunch of the Bedouins that were always loitering by the fire came over and started speaking rapid-fire Arabic to each other, asking questions. I answered as best I could, with a kid named Sohail translating. Then, at their request, I led them over to my hut and to the hillside where I discovered the empty daypack.

Thus began my very own personal episode of Bedouin CSI. Three white-robed and keffiyah-ed gentlemen warned me and Sohail to stay back as they scampered all over the hill, examining the tracks in the sand Aragorn-style. One of the guys, Ayesh, was the head honcho of the camp. Since he was also the chief of the local Bedouins, and there was no police station for twenty miles in every direction, Ayesh was the law in Ras-esh-Shaitan. “Don’t worry. One time a girl got a laptop stolen from her chusha, and Ayesh was back with it that night,” Sohail told me. “No one ever asked how he got it.”

I thought for a moment, with righteous fury, of Ayesh pointing a pistol at some thief, who blubbered for forgiveness and emptied a waterfall of stolen ID cards out of his pockets, begging for the tribe not to hold a blood feud against his family forever.

Somehow I doubted that would actually happen.

In any case, Ayesh and his cohorts disappeared over the horizon. Since I couldn’t leave without paying my hosts for the lodging, and I had no money to pay them with, there was nothing to do but wait.

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First world problems

21 03 2012

First of all, I have to point out, at risk of being pompous, that “third world” isn’t really a thing anymore. First world refers to the U.S. and Western Europe, Second World refers to the Commies, and Third World is everyone else. Since the Cold War is over, we’re not really the “first world” anymore, and third-world countries are just developing countries.

We think that people in developing countries are forced to do a lot of things they don’t want to do, but that’s not true. Really we are the ones who do things we don’t want to do. We comb Facebook for hours, hours, hours, and when it changes into Facebook Timeline we complain about it, howl about it… but we won’t stop. We can’t. “Addiction” isn’t the right word. We just lack a certain zest, a certain oomph, the ability to do something that in the split instant doesn’t sound appealing but that we know we would rather be doing. The ability to get out of bed. The ability to stop eating and go on a bikeride even though it’s cold outside and you have to put on your shoes.

It’s a bizarre, bizarre handicap, and even though I can see it clearly now that doesn’t mean I think I’ve wholly lost it. I guess our world is like a deep squishy mattress, impossible to gain purchase on, so that you can’t stand up and you just roll around uselessly in the satin blankets. I wish there was a way to blame it on  more than the world though. Because in Peru life wasn’t like that, and I really liked it.

When somebody says “Do you want to go swimming?” and you’re sitting on the couch watching TV and you glance outside at the overcast sky and you say “no”… some part of you knows you want to. You know. It’s like we don’t know how to listen to that inner voice.

I don’t know what to make of this thought, and that’s all. Just that now the First-World Problems meme has extra special importance to me. I’ve always said that there’s a certain mania for being the underdog in the human psyche; that the rich and powerful will do anything to convince themselves that their problems are quirky, down to earth and loveable. First-world problems is just an interesting manifestation of that. Now that I’ve been to The Other Side the memes seem not offensive, just a little sad, like a cry for help. Like you want to believe that you’re a loveable, set-upon underdog, but it’s a last-ditch resort. So you post a joke about your problem, and in the silence before your computer you wait for the drums to go “BADUM-CHHH!” and the people to laugh and cheer, wait forever maybe. Because if you truly admit that it’s not funny… you’ll have to fix it. And nobody’s laughing yet. But people “like” it, maybe. And if they do… what? you don’t have to feel bad you didn’t go swimming, that’s what. That’s what you tell yourself.

I think people want adventure. In a twisted way, people want serious problems. And yet they want success too. Like Batman and the Joker, like D’Artagnan and Rochefort; archenemies who can’t stop fighting and can’t live without each other.

In Peru, I seriously thought of deleting my Facebook. Back here that seems a little more needlessly drastic. But small steps. Like deleting some of the “friends” I really, honestly don’t care about and will never talk to. Like keeping a backlog of things I’ve been wanting to do, so when I’m listless I don’t just sink into Facebook. Playing guitar. Walking to the mall, riding a skateboard. Internet things too – looking up this or that on Craigslist, doing some research on a travel forum. Like doing things. Living in the moment.

Small steps.

“Let’s find some beautiful place to get lost…”

23 12 2011

The title of this post is a line from an Elliott Smith song. I am currently lost, but not in some beautiful place. I am lost in Orange County.

I think writing blog entries from strange places (and thus, having a laptop) is pretty much the coolest thing ever, because so many of my thoughts have a sense of place. This is one such entry.

I’m on my way back to L.A. after a crazy whirlwind two days crashing at my friend Sean’s timeshare in Palm Desert. One of my favorite things about the drive to Palm Desert was how on the way you pass a freeway sign that says “Indio – other desert cities – right lane.” Desert cities! Cities in the desert! It’s so… I don’t know, it just grounds you as to where you are in the world. Not where you are like, take exit 91a and then exit 46b and get off on the 405. That’s how people travel nowadays; using an iPhone with Mapquest you can circle the world and never know the name of a single town through which you passed. For some reason being more vague helps to be more descriptive. On the way back we passed under a sign pointing towards “Newport Beach – other beach cities.” If I ran the world all signs would be like that.

One thing I noticed about Orange was how there are no such geographic landmarks. I get that to an outsider most suburbs look like a blank slate, but even then I find you can get the hang of a place by thinking of it terms of landmarks that are, you know, not manmade. A lookout point on a hill. The county park. The edge of town. Orange County doesn’t have any of that stuff. It’s just a flatland that goes and goes, strip malls and strip malls with orangey stucco and lines of rustling palm trees between the stores and the parking lot. Each of the towns have names and little slogans. We dropped Sean off in 70-degree weather in Yorba Linda, “Home of Gracious Living”. Then we passed through Plascentia, “All-American City”, as proclaimed by a red, white & blue sign along the wide parkway we were driving on.

Here are the few observations I made for myself about the O.C.:

1. They don’t say “hella”. (let’s start with the basics)

2. Unlike in L.A., there are protected lefts.

3. Part of what makes these SoCal freeways such a hot mess is that exits branch off to the left and right. For my first few hours on Mapquest duty I was confused when my friend Sierra kept asking of a freeway merge, “Which side will it be on?” Even if you’re staying on one freeway you have to be in the middle lane just to hedge your bets, because at every merge there’s a riot of lanes going different directions, like fraying ends of a string.

4. All of the street names are in Spanish – usually precious developed-community names like “Calle de las Penumbras” – which casts a funny light on the “All-American” thing.

5. At the same time, everything is so American. We passed by Valencia High School, its baseball diamond shimmering with heat, fronted by a sward of manicured lawn and elegant monterey pines, and I couldn’t help but imagine a bunch of attractive people from a 90’s chick flick hanging out on the grass talking about where the big party is on Friday night.

Everything is just so pretty. It’s like Dulock from “Shrek.” I think the only thing that really irks me about the place is (was? We’re now safely on the freeway passing downtown LA) how green and perfect everything is, in light of one very specific thing about this weekend: the views of the OC kids toward water. They would tend to leave faucets on while washing dishes, turn on the shower and go fold their clothes while it got hot, that sort of thing. And when I called them out about it, they’d be like, “Oh, you Santa Cruz hippies. Bitching us out for squandering the gifts of Mother Earth or whatever.”

Those words echoed through my head as we passed by the green, green lawn in front of every house. I imagined the people in the houses turning on their sprinklers every morning, letting them go and go until the grass runs with mud and the extra water gurgles bleeding out onto the sparkling pavement, and not thinking twice about it because if you want your front yard to be pretty, that’s just what you do. It’s just so… bubble-brained. As my English teacher from high school would say, they live in Fantasyland. Like, these people have all the money in the world and all the prestige in the world, and they just don’t get why they’re lucky. They don’t get who pays for Orange County to be beautiful.

This traffic is ridiculous. I can’t believe I have to spend six hours driving home on Highway 5 tomorrow after this weekend’s GPS-failure shenanigans. I’m hella ready to get back to NorCal, brah.