The “A Wrinkle In Time” movie: A Lament

22 03 2018

I want to write about “A Wrinkle In Time”, which I saw last night, just to mourn. It had so much potential, and I’m annoyed, fascinated and bewildered that they managed to mess it up so badly.

“A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’engle is my mom’s all-time favorite book, and for a while it was mine, too. I read the same old dog-eared copy that was hers as a kid – complete with graffiti from my later-to-be Auntie Sheri, who had taken it upon herself to fill in the blank of the book’s mysterious last line:

“We have to…” GO TO THE BATHROOM

But they never learned what Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which had to do, because there came a sudden gust of wind, and they were gone.

I saw it in theaters with my family and my friend Ted, who had apparently read it in fourth grade as part of a class. All he remembered was a random, one-page scene where the characters teleport briefly to a two-dimensional planet, and heroine Meg Murry describes the strange and horrible sensation of feeling steamrollered flat, until… “We can’t bring the children here! They’re humans, and this is a two-dimensional planet!”

The book is full of such weirdness as this – cerebral and clever, described brilliantly but with visuals taking a back seat, leaving one to wonder just how you could put this s**t on screen. But it’s definitely weird, so as I started reading early reviews of WiT that labeled it a mess of weirdness, I kept up hope, wondering if the critics just weren’t understanding or appreciating it.

I think I can sum up the reason why “A Wrinkle in Time” was bad with this simple contrast. “Wrinkle in Time” the book not only is about thinking, but demands you to think. “Wrinkle in Time”, the movie, glorifies the idea of smartness, while being dumb. Science – in the form of “Heck Yeah! Be a Girl who’s Good at Science!” – is just one zestless ingredient of many which are dropped into a bubbling slop of teenage empowerment.

Everything that is elegant and even-handed about the book is schmaltzy, in-your-face and over the top in the movie. In the book, clever and dense dialogue gives form to a plot that could easily be way too intangible. For example there’s the villain, IT (whom the movie decides to name an infinitesimally less confusing The It, refusing to have faith in the audience’s intelligence). In the book, IT’s power over people’s minds is explored in an extended sequence where Charles Wallace gets hypnotized by reciting multiplication tables. Meg tries all kinds of mantras, songs, and forms of meditation to keep IT out of her head, each time realizing that anything with a rhythm puts her in danger of falling into the overpowering, hypnotic heartbeat of IT. It would have been actor-centric and tough to film, but totally doable. Especially with awesome leading actors like Storm Reid and Derek McCabe. And I had thought that someone like Ava DuVernay, who’s previously worked on gritty movies like “Selma” where acting comes first, would have been up to finding the drama in such a sequence.

Instead, we get a chopped-up Transformers-like action spree, culminating with an explosive whirlwind in which Meg and Calvin must jump into a giant log to be flung a thousand feet. “Slingshot effect. It’s a physics thing,” Meg says. A PHYSICS THING? YOU JUST SURVIVED A 1,000 FOOT FALL! In an Indiana Jones movie, you know what, fine. But this is LITERALLY a story ABOUT PHYSICS, in which the plot hinges on nerdy kids realizing that their minds can save the day, and you just totally STEAMROLLERED the laws of physics in the very sequence which is supposed to add to the plot THE FACT THAT MEG IS GOOD AT PHYSICS. Ugh. Facepalm royale.

It’s the same thing throughout. Weird bits of schmaltz are interspersed. “You’re so precious,” the Happy Medium whispers to Meg, during a scene which is supposed to be about revealing the backstory of the Mrs’es (it gets cut) and the ominous whereabouts of Mr. Murry, but devolves into an emotional hugging scene. Um, can we stop empowering ourselves for one second to build like, a TINY bit of dramatic tension please? Later, Chris Pine exclaims, “The frequency is LOVE?!?” in the flashback where he learns how to tesser… throwing the entire twist ending, which gets its ton-of-bricks power by being the book’s only moment of magical realism, into the compost bin.

In the book, Meg learns to believe in herself because the nerdiest version of herself is what’s capable of learning to tesser, resisting IT, and outsmarting ITs spell on Charles Wallace. In the movie, she learns to believe in herself because Oprah whispers to her that she’s amazing, and Calvin makes smoldery eyes at her every time she mentions Science. It’s a freaking bummer, because a movie about the power of thinking for yourself could have been just as relevant and timely as a movie about loving yourself. It could have even contained the message to love yourself, in a subtle form. But either Ava DuVernay didn’t want to make that movie, or she didn’t read the book closely enough to realize it was in there.

So here’s the one thing. Charles Wallace was PERFECT. I would have thought that finding an actor to play a slightly psychic 6-year-old genius would have been harder than writing a coherent script based on a fast-paced YA novel full of crispy dialogue. But jeez, Disney sure pulled the ol’ bait and switch on that one. In fact, the casting is uniformly pretty awesome. I’m rereading the book now, and I have no problem at all imagining the three kids in the book as the three actors from the movie while the scenes play out in my head. Even Oprah was quite well-cast. She has that perfect, sonorous voice for Mrs. Which – “YYYOOUUU HAAVVE SSSOOMETTHHHIIINGG THAT IITT HAS NOTT!” – which would have been great, if she had gotten to say any of Mrs. Which’s iconic lines. Which she doesn’t. Reese Witherspoon is sort of miscast but does a great job anyway, and Mindy Kaling is straight up Mrs.-cast. While the other two are just upstaged by their ridiculously Bedazzled outfits, she seems distracted, immobilized and neutralized by hers.

And honestly, just the cut decisions. You cut all explanation of the science behind a tesseract, but you added a random exposition-requiring subplot where Charles Wallace is adopted? You took massive measures to make the film diverse, then went über-cliché and set it in Southern California instead of the nondescript small town of the book? You cut the twins, but added a completely irrelevant next-door-neighbor-slash-bully named Veronica?!? I’m sorry, but for a story about the struggle for the universe and the redeeming power of ultimate love, all this high school politics is just f***ing degrading. I get what they were trying to do – tangible example of how IT is the force of bad that can be fought with random acts of kindness, etc – but damn, it’s laid on with a shovel.

This has been a merciless roast, but I guess I justified writing it for two reasons. One, to champion the book, and how important it is for people to read it without associating it with this weirdness. Especially people of color who might have dug the movie for what it does, but will be forgetting it in a year because of its ultimate badness. The intellectual soul of L’engle’s tale, like academia in general, is worth reclaiming from an educated upper class in 2018.

Reason number two is an easy segue, and it’s to clearly state that AWiT does not suck because it’s diverse. It being so cool that two amazing actors like Storm Reid and Derek McCabe got to star in a genre that offers POC few opportunities is just another reason that I’m SO SAD that the movie turned out this bad. But you know what, we’ve had a big season for the growing diversity in movies, with Black Panther plus two gay love stories (“Love Simon” and “Call Me By Your Name”)… and the fact is, you can’t nail every shot.

I read the interviews with DuVernay and just glowed, hearing her talk about how wonderful it was to have this huge budget to “let her imagination run wild”. But you know what, I’ll go ahead and come out with the accusation – the one thing missing from “A Wrinkle in Time” was imagination. How do you realize onscreen a two-dimensional planet; a black shadow which is “horrible beyond description”; a creature which has a horse’s body and a woman’s face but is “not like a Greek centaur at all”; a “red miasma” which creeps into Meg’s vision as IT takes over? These are actual, meaty challenges for the imagination. And what DuVernay gives us is action sequences, couture dresses, and glitter everywhere. At one point Meg is tessering and glitter actually COMES OUT OF HER EYES. C’mon, girl, THAT’s the wildest extent of your imagination? Glitter coming out of her EYES?

At the end of the day, this story needed someone with a deeper and more thoughtful imagination than that. Regardless of the color of her or his skin. And whatever movie DuVernay ended up making, it’s like… Knock knock, I’m not sure who’s there, but “A Wrinkle in Time” definitely isn’t home.


Mexican Slang for the Californian Learner

5 03 2018

If you’ve ever met me outside of reading this blog, you’ve probably heard me rant about how much I love Mexico.

The reasons why are many, and largely idiosyncratic. Part of it, probably, is my original low expectation as an American, force-fed cautionary tales only to find the forbidden to be beyond my wildest dreams. Part of it is an urban aesthetic that plays to my weak points – a strange mix of the Spanish Old West, the Dickensian 1800’s, and mid-century Art Deco gleam. And part of it is just a personality match. You know – that one culture where you go “Oh yeah, I GET these people”. Like myself, Mexicans lack subtlety; are obsessed with food; are optimistic to a fault; do not tolerate FOMO; get big laughs from the little things; thrive on banter with strangers; and care immensely about what people think of them, except when people think they’re too loud or crazy, in which case they don’t care.

In fact, I would say that a lot of those things overlap not just with me, but with what Mexicans and Californians share in general. And it’s not just the culture. The longer I’ve spent in Mexico, the more I’ve started noticing something delightfully odd. Unlike when I’m speaking, for example, French, I rarely come across dud jokes, or untranslatable sayings, in casual conversation. In this post I am going to present my very weird discovery: Mexican slang’s huge amount of one-to-one correlation with Californian slang.

My theory is that if you’re a Californian learning Spanish, and you want to talk like a Mexican, you can express almost all of the most common 50 slang words you use with your friends without having to awkwardly deconstruct them, like describing something bougey as “too nice” or something lit as “a good party.” Hopefully aided by this guide, you’ll find that you can pretty much directly translate the laziest, most intimate version of the way you talk.

That’s the premise of this guide, but obviously it’s not perfect. For example, I couldn’t find a good translation for “cutty” – which to you non-Californians means sketchy in a good way, like a place where you won’t get caught. And there’s a host of Mexican wordplay which doesn’t have a Californian counterpart. (“Tengo hueva,” which equates to the extremely British “I can’t be bothered”, I couldn’t resist including.)

In addition, be forewarned that the (numerous) sayings which contain swear words do NOT necessarily correlate to the “badness level” of their translations. For example, “chorro” and “chingo” are much more PG than “shitload” or “fuckton”, with the latters’ compounding on 4-letter words. On the other hand, “naco” is much more spicy and negative than “ratchet”, and should probably only be used to describe impersonal things like situations – unless you really want to disparage someone. (The good news is that most of the words are dirtier in their English versions.)

This idea came from a funny correlation between the mega-Californian “dude” and the mega-Mexican “güey”, but really the English slang is 10% Californian and 90% just the language of American millennials. Whoever you are, I hope you’ll be entertained and educated by the list, which as far as I know is the only one of its kind. May it help you schlep your personality and sense of humor kicking and screaming into your second language!

Without further ado, I proudly present:


Asshole: cabrón

Bitchslap: un putazo

Bougey: fresa (also a noun for a bougey person; masc. also “fresa”)

Brewski: chela

To bring it (as in, be ready to party hard) / to kick it: echarlo

Bullshit: una mamada

Cool: chido / padre / chingón

To chat: charlar

To chill: cotorrear

Dope (adjective, not reaction): de huevos

Dope (reaction, not adjective): ahuevo

Dude: güey

Dumbass: pendejo

F yeah/hell yeah/yaaassss (jokey-emphatic way of saying yes) : Simón

For sure/go for it: dale / ándale

To fuck up / fuck over: chingar

Fucked up (as in, drunk) : pedo

Fucking / freaking / goddamn: pinche

Gimme a break: no me chingues

Good stuff / good sh*t: buen pedo

Good vibes: buena onda

Guy / chick: morro / morra

Hitch: ride (hitchiking: pedir ride / ir en ride)

Homie / buddy (much more than an acquaintance, but not necessarily a friend): cuate

Hustle: tranza (to hustle: tranzear / echar le tranza)

I can’t be bothered / can’t be fucked: tengo hueva / me dió hueva

It’s whatever: da igual

Janky: chafa (masc. also “chafa”)

Lame: mamón

Meh (as an adjective): equis

‘Murrica: el gabacho

No way / you’ve gotta be kidding me: no mames / no manches

Pain in the ass (person) : culero/culera

Ratchet: naco (careful with this one, it can be taken as a classist slur if used flippantly)

Screw-up (mistake) / act of screwing off or screwing around: una pendejada / hacer pendejadas

Seriously / for real: la neta

Seriously? / For real?: Neta?

Shitload: un chingo / un chorro

Shitshow: desmadre

Stoned: griffo / pacheco

Tough / gnarly (as a test, a ski run, etc): cabrón

Twist one up: forjar

What a pain (in the ass): qué hueva

What the hell / fuck: qué demonios / qué carajo

What’s Gucci? : que pachó?

What’s up / what’s the deal: qué pedo?

What’s up / the business (noun of dopeness, as in “That’s what’s up” or “This taco is the business”): la neta

Whipped (as in a servile boyfriend): mandilón

Whoa: híjole / órale


P.S. A NOTE ON APPROPRIATION. This list comes from the perspective of a traveler who has spent a happy time immersed in another culture. I realize that in my homeland of California, where “Mexican” is viewed more as a race than a nationality, a different context and quite different baggage comes with a guide to anything Mexican written by a white guy. In the hopes that nobody will ultimately be bothered by this, I emphatically invite the many folks who have a better knowledge of this material than me to comment, suggest, or correct to their heart’s content. 🙂

This Autumn In Asia, I Hit A Cow

18 01 2018

This is the belated account of the number 1 story I got out of my first-ever visit to Asia. And it goes pretty much how it sounds.

We were all biking through rural Vietnam at the time – 399 other tour guides and me. It was the week of our yearly Staff Ride, a Tough Mudder-meets-booze cruise sort of company party, if you can imagine such a thing. Get yourself to the given year’s selected location, and an all-inclusive week of biking and raging with coworkers awaits. This year the ride was in Vietnam, a stunt for which there had been much anticipation. I was not alone in planning an ambitious, month-long First Trip to Asia around the dates, intending to milk the pricey airfare it would take to get there.

The majority of us had already arrived in Vietnam when the news came: there was a typhoon coming in, to hit exactly at the spot of coast where we were supposed to ride for four days. This being Backroads, of course we assumed that typhoon schmyphoon, we were riding rain or shine.

But the complications started the day before the trip, which would start in the city of Hue. Most of us were in Hanoi, and rumors started flying faster than the city’s famous motorbikes: Are planes still landing in Hue? Did you hear that the entire Scheduling team cancelled their flight to Da Nang because the pass is closed? We’re taking the night train, it’s 22 hours and it leaves at 3, if you want to come. And so on.

Luckily, the rumor mill went both ways, and assured us that one plane had landed successfully already at the time me and my buddy Uroš turned our phones on airplane mode and put our tray tables in their fully locked and upright position. It was not raining when we landed in Hue forty minutes later, but it was clear that it had been. As in, massive-sheets-of-water-surrounding-the-city-where-fields-should-be type of clear.

Our taxi to the center splooshed through fords up to the bumper, edged up onto sidewalks, and otherwise played hot-lava tag through the waterlogged streets that wound into the center. Once settled in our hotel, we set off to walk to the bar where we had heard we would find everyone.

The water got deeper and deeper, until we were holding our shorts above the knees with our fists, like Cinderella trudging away from the ball. The fluorescent lights of a movie theater twinkled in the water of a traffic circle. The theater steps sank into the depths like the stoop of a Venetian house. Two fellows in a canoe glided past us. When we hit the first cross street, stepping from the sidewalk to the deeper water of the road was like encountering the continental shelf. Then we stopped, mesmerized, as a bus trawled down the lane, its wheelless prow cutting through the water like something out of a Miyazaki movie. Only when the bus got close did we realize that it was stirring up a foot-high wake. “Run for the stoops!” I hollered, and we leapt up to cling to the higher ground of the shopfront.

When we finally got to the bar, it felt like we had traversed oceans to reunite with friends from Croatia, France, Israel, and all the others. We were welcomed with shrieks of happy surprise: “How did YOU make it??” The high excitement led the night to develop into what ended up being known as “Staff Ride, Night Zero,” possibly one of the most raucous of the week. And that was all very well, because there was no riding to be done the next day. It had started raining again, and we were flooded in.

Over the next four days, we biked through lakes that submerged our pedals for blocks at a time; through fords that overflowed onto the road from thundering waterfalls; and through every kind of rain “Forrest Gump” had ever warned us about. The ironic part is that the day I hit the cow was the first sunny day of riding. The sun was shining, and the fields shimmered in the thick humidity that rose in wave after wave from the drying mud. What had felt like a dreamscape in the past days was suddenly incredibly alive. Cars and motorbikes beeped, little kids cut in and out on bicycles, ladies balanced sacks of vegetables and merchandise on their backs, old men rode water buffalo. And there were animals everywhere. Chickens, ducks, dogs, pigs, and cows. They owned the road– everyone would just beep-beep and swerve around them.

The particular cow which is about to become the star of this story was walking up the road in the opposite direction as us, right in the middle. I was riding in a big peloton of people, and when I looked ahead all I could really see were other bikes – not the people four, five, six rows in front of me who with little “Whoa!”s each swerved around the surprise cow, making our pack eddy around it like water around a rock. All except for me. I looked down at my directions at the wrong moment, looked back up, and only had a second to see a mammal-shaped wall zooming towards me when… BOOM! According to eyewitness accounts I flew over my handlebars, but I don’t remember that. All I remember is landing in a thunderous full-arm hi 5 to the pavement: SMAK.

A lot of people have asked me how the cow took it. The answer is this: the cow reacted like you would react if you were an old lady in line at the supermarket, tranquilly reading about the side effects of grape-flavored Tums, and some toddlers playing tag sort of bumped into your legs and knocked you off balance. You’d go “Ahum!” and give the kids a dirty look, then brush off your skirt and go back to ignoring them. And the cow basically did that, except that the noise was more like “MOOOOO-UAUGH!” as it stumbled sideways.

When the adrenaline wore off, I found that I could still ride on the arm, albeit quite stiffly and without much squeezing of the brakes. So I trucked onwards to lunch, at which point I need to take a detour from the story of the cow to describe one of the most extravagant meals I have ever eaten in my life. For lunch, Backroads had reserved an entire traditional indoor food market, paying the vendors to churn out all-you-can-eat of their respective concoctions. I have never had such a culinary free-for-all. Giant pots bubbled of dark purple mushrooms, gleaming honey-colored fish and thick red calimari stew. A salad bar served up crispy piles of sea worms garnished with frizzy greens and clipped flowers. Ladies furiously rolled thin pancakes around bunches of mint leaf and white bean sprouts. My friend Jenna opened a coconut, and steam billowed out like a vision from Xanadu. She reached in with her chopsticks and pulled out a single plump shrimp, dripping sweet-smelling golden curry sauce.

The bad news is, my arm was getting worse. By the time I got home from the ride it seriously hurt, and by the time I got to the gates of the closing party, I could barely bend it and it was grossly swollen. Realizing there was a problem, I did what anyone would do. I went dancing through the club in search of the resident doctor. (Since a lady from the office was married to an E.R. surgeon, who had been invited to come along just in case, that was a thing). Eventually we arranged an impromptu exam in the corner of the dance floor, and he informed me it was probably a sprain and wrapped a cloth bandage tightly around my elbow so I didn’t have to work so hard to keep it still.

“Do you have any Ibuprofen?” he asked, to which I replied something like “I think so.” Without another word, he tucked a fistful of gel-blue pills into the pocket of my linen shirt, patting them as if to say, “You’ll want these later.”

I found the pills when I woke up the next morning, unbelievably hung over and with an elbow throbbing worse than ever. I was still wearing the linen shirt, and though the pills had become melty enough to get fuzzy with particles of linen, none of the gelly interior had escaped. “Thank God,” I said, popping two into my mouth. Or at least, I would have said it aloud if my voice hadn’t been reduced to a soundless croak.

On the breakfast terrace of the hotel, it was post-party madness. In the second large medical irony of the thing, the night at the club had messed people up far worse than any of the riding. Someone had slipped on the stairs in front of the club and sprained an ankle. Someone else had tried to power-slide on the dance floor, and mowed their legs over broken glass.

I sat with two friends from Croatia, Lexi and Amanda – the former who doesn’t drink and the latter who does. That’s why Lexi looked at us with deadpan, blinking eyes as she mouthed in a nonexistent croak, “I don’t know how it happened.”

“Yeah, how do you feel?” Amanda asked me, in a voice like a dying bullfrog.

All three of us started with unhealthy scrapes of laughter, and the pathetic sound only made us laugh harder, until we were crying into our breakfast.

My arm still hurt as I walked around town later, though, and I started to sink into a gloomy mood. The doctor had told me that in three days, if my arm hadn’t improved I would have to get it X-rayed in order to address the possibility that it might be broken. The agony of not knowing gnawed at me, and I started churning out what-if’s. What if I hadn’t looked down at that precise moment? What if I had landed differently? I was supposed to travel Asia for a month, and I was barely able to put on a backpack, let alone climb or surf. What if I had done something a tiny bit differently, and it hadn’t happened?

But then I thought of a paradox : if I hadn’t hit the cow, I would never have known I had almost hit a cow. Thus, the satisfaction of knowing that I was okay – the satisfaction that I so desperately craved; that I could imagine so clearly – would be just as inaccessible in the other world as it was in this one.

And then I realized that if you believe in multiverse theory, there must be countless versions of me in alternate, doomed timelines, and that they must crave the exact satisfaction that sprained-elbow me has, but cannot see. What if I had fallen a little differently, and broken my back? Or gotten trampled or gored? Then I would be desperately yearning to have just sprained my elbow. I saw something obvious, but colossal in its obviousness: how lucky I am to be here.

I suddenly felt horribly sad that we humans can’t feel the satisfaction of that. I’m not wondering if we can’t — I know we can’t. Not viscerally. Your parents can tell you to eat your veggies because there’s kids starving in Africa; you can even see the kids on TV, feel your stomach turn at the horror of someone else’s situation. But generally, all it’ll make you feel is a vague sense of guilt, and the conscious acknowledgement that yes, it’s remarkable that you have veggies on your plate. It still doesn’t make them taste any better. Our brains just aren’t wired that way.

On my last night in Hoi An, my buddy Evan played a gig. He had arranged it with typical Southeast Asian chutzpah: by approaching Mango Mango Bar with the promise that if he played, he could fill the place to the brim with our coworkers. That’s pretty much what happened. From the unofficial Night Zero in the flooded center of Hue, the concert was a perfect unofficial closing night. It was amazing seeing so many people whom I knew, and loved, from so many different contexts: a best friend from Normandy and a best friend from Croatia, chatting because they met in Spain. The joy of human connections, weaving together to form a net. A nest. A place where you feel at home.

Amanda, the friend who I’d laughed with that morning about our hoarse voices, called me over randomly. She was a bona fide adventurer who had been trapped until a year ago at (of all things) a tobacco advertising job. Nowadays she had a blog for female travelers and a couple Ironmans under her belt. “Hey!” she said. “I wanna tell you something.” I sidled up. “I just wanted to tell you,” she said, “that I was SO stoked that you messaged me about my blog. That was so sweet, and it totally brought a smile to my face. I just wanted you to know that.” Damn, I thought. Considering how seldom we Backroads leaders see each other, what an awesome thing to make a point to say to someone.

Fast forward to New Year’s Eve, 2017. It was our night off, and I had just encountered a series of technical difficulties with my grad school apps, which were due to the next day. This resulted in my afternoon off being spent having a miniature nervous breakdown in the computer lab of the Hacienda Sol y Luna in Urubamba, Perú. I met my co-leader Kelsey in the bar afterwards, I could tell something was wrong with her, too.

“I have some really gnarly news to tell you,” she said.

I sighed. “You go first,” I grumbled.

“A plane went down in Costa Rica. With guests. Everyone on board died.”

My head spun. “All guests? Wait… was there a leader?”

“Yeah. I don’t know if maybe you know her… Amanda Geissler?”

The whole thing is still 100 per cent surreal. It breaks me to say it, but this job makes one excellent at saying goodbye. There are plenty of reasons why I might never have seen Amanda again. She might have quit tour guiding and decided to go to school in Wisconsin or some place. We might have just spent the next year with our schedules dancing around each other, never in the same country. There would have been occasional birthday Facebook posts, and plenty of warm memories. Maybe not more.

But since I can’t see her again, the desire to is terrible. To hear her rich voice, always rising a bit at the end of the sentence, like she had said the punchline of a joke and was waiting to see if you’d notice. To hear her suggest that we go to the beach, or do a workout, or use the rest of this gross Konoba Toni wine to cook something. To hear her shut down an idea with matter-of-factness: “No, he is NOT cute enough for you.”

Somewhere in an alternate universe, an alternate Amanda is continuing into her thirty-third year. But unlike the rest of us – in this shitty universe, or in that one – the thought has probably crossed her mind that wow, god damn, how gorgeous it is to be alive and healthy and traveling the world.

18 days have passed of 2018, but its newness is still in the air. And with that in mind, my wish for 2018 – for me, and for everyone who reads this – is to try to feel for just one second the joy of all the horrible realities you’ve escaped. Don’t just get guilty about it. Let it run through your mind until, for an instant, you are electrified by the idea of the stoke you should be feeling.

It’s not human instinct to honest-to-God feel that stoke, but we can try. Because not only do we have no idea what’ll happen tomorrow… we have no idea what almost happened yesterday. Who knows – you could have been that close to not being here at all.

Or, I dunno. You might have just hit a cow.

Huzzah & Namaste from Pennsylvania

28 10 2017

Of all the dramatic arrivals in my traveling career, I think flopping out of a taxi in the backwoods of Amish country and heaving all of my bags through the front gates of the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire has to be one of the weirdest.

There were two differences between me and the crowd of people around me. One, they were all dressed in kooky historical outfits. Two, they were all flooding outward, towards the gates, while I was going in. They had already eaten their turkey legs, had their mini fencing bouts and bantered with their favorite cast members, and they were ready to start their long drives back to somewhere probably outside of Amish country. I felt for them, I did. But I had come three and a half thousand miles to see my best friend from high school perform at her favorite place in the world. And made it with two hours to spare. I was going to milk it.

I left my bags in the back room of a wine shop, then followed the ghost-town street of the fake English shire as it curved down, towards an echoing roar in the distance. When I reached the lawn at the bottom, people were crowded around an arena where a jousting show was going on, complete with some sort of plot involving a kidnapped queen and pyrotechnics. “Oh army off ze Black Fo-rest! Come out unt play-ay!” the apparent villain called out, and with a flash of smoke and a wicked cackle, a bunch of extras dressed like black-clad demons scampered out from under the wooden stage, adding extra tension to good King Henry’s plight.

I loved it. Though it was awkward with no immediate neighbors or companions, I shouted “Huzzah!” when the king raised his lance and “Boooo!” when the villainous German knight raised his.

Renaissance Faires the nation over share the same culture, even ones with a few telltale MAGA hats floating around. My friend Alison and I used to go to the Renaissance Faire with our friends every summer in high school, costumes and all; and now I felt pleasantly at home.

After the joust Alison found me with a squeal of excitement and, not wanting to break character, chirped to some faire-goers, “Perrdon me. That’s me best friend!” before scooting through the crowd for a huge hug. Even chatting in a half-hearted and cheesy Irish accent as we strolled to her next show didn’t feel like a pain in the butt after not seeing each other in 4 years. That’s true friendship.

In order to get to this familiar bubble, it had been a very weird journey through the unfamiliar. Allow me to rewind: believe it or not, the same day as I watched the jousting I had also laid eyes on the original Declaration of Independence.

Here’s a quick summary of my impressions of Washington, D.C., where I had arrived the night before. Our founding fathers, god bless ’em for creating a great system of government, lacked seriously in imagination when it came to creating a capital. They filled the whole thing with the same grayish-white stone and the same stern busts of themselves, making for a pretty drab city. I suppose architecture becomes more beautiful as it ages; but if the pillars and porticos of the faux-Greek façades look that incongruous to me now, I can only imagine how heinous they were in 1836. And don’t even get me started on the Washington Monument, our nation’s giant phallus. I think it’s actually a pretty decent metaphor for America: defined by its giant phallus, but self-assured of its own classiness because it was erected in the spirit of brotherhood and liberty, and also is a Greco-Roman phallus.

I know, I know… the museums; the gravitas. I won’t pretend I didn’t shiver when I laid eyes on the White House, peeping serenely through the trees of the North Lawn. But for the most part, I was glad to be on a Greyhound bus to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that afternoon.

Pennsylvania is a cellar door. I mean, “Pennsylvania” is a cellar door: one of those words that sounds beautiful regardless of meaning. Pennsylvania is also extremely pleasant to drive through, although I don’t know if it would be equally pleasant to live in. As my taxi left Harrisburg and wound into the creaking hills, the autumn colors turned sharper. We passed through little towns straight from my childhood imaginings of eastern Gilmore Girls-esque Americana. Random observation, but this backwoods country was also hog heaven for signs, which I recently started an Instagram account about. It’s not the dorkiest thing I’ve ever done, but it may be in the top 15. (If you like signs it’s @signwatching, check it out I guess.) They flashed by now: “Homemade Root Beer”…. “Election Day bake sale”… “All-You-Can-Eat Pancakes”.

It turned out that Alison, to my amusement, lives in a pretty similar frat house-style bubble to me. There are a few differences of course, the main one being that they all work together on site each week; and so the cast of their little la-la-land isn’t constantly rotating. But the same dramas take up their lives: who would clean the kitchen at 6 a.m. the day after the big party, then complain that nobody cleans? Why must so-and-so monopolize the TV to watch all four Paranormal Activitys in a row? The same little joys take up their lives too: chatting about life with whoever’s brushing their teeth next to you; group viewing parties of movies; trips to monopolize 5 tables of the local diner. (Where you can discuss dirty things in an exuberantly loud voice and shriek with laughter, without getting the stink eye from everyone else in the restaurant. I don’t miss you, France.)

The day after the Faire was the first of the cast’s days off, and that night was the big Halloween party. I know this will come as a surprise to no one, but turns out that when it comes to Halloween costumes, Renaissance Faire actors are the most committed and formidable people in the world. Three of them dressed as Kronk, Yzma and Kuzco from “The Emperor’s New Groove” using only a single afternoon of snipping, sewing and taping the bounty of a thrift store trip. I cannot emphasize how perfect their costumes were, from Kuzco’s weird cylindrical golden hat, to Yzma’s two spindly eyelashes. BUT THAT’S NOT ALL. One cute couple dressed as Kim Possible and Ron Stoppable, complete with naked molerat (AND she’s a hot redhead who’s slightly taller than him – the true genius was their seeing it). Alison and two of her chick friends stole clothes from three of the guys and dressed as them. A girl walked in with a baggy Manning jersey, a sixpack of Bud, a pointed wizard’s hat and a long silver beard: Fantasy Football. A guy in a hipster outfit stared at you thoughtfully with his pen poised over a blank journal, then awkwardly shuffled sideways to stop you when you tried to walk around him: Writer’s Block. I was an extremely halfhearted Scrabble, trying to get people to tape Scrabble letters on me until Alison’s roommate lamented aloud that no one had worn her sexy corn costume. I quickly changed into the tight dress, then threw the board back over my head and spent several hours as Sexy Corn Scrabble.

The day after the party, Alison and I strolled through the empty Shire, with her chatting about who sings where and what shticks and bits take place at each village corner. We ended up at a giant AstroTurf chessboard where the live chess show happens, complete with choreographed battles to the death between the pieces. Since our three years without seeing each other, Alison had also gotten her yoga teacher certification. So we had decided to take advantage of the unseasonably fine fall day and do some yoga.

I have always been a bit bewildered by yoga. It requires you to be fully aware of your body, balance and muscles, which is exactly what I am not. Every sport I’ve become involved with, I’ve managed to scrabble my way into despite this. The other problem is that yoga instructors have a certain yoga-speak, which I honestly find hard to listen to without laughing. As a hippie from Northern California, I can’t shake the feeling that this makes me a horrible person. I love meditation, theories of energy, and other spiritual sh*t… but for some reason I can’t take yoga seriously.

The type we did on the chessboard was vinyasa, which entails flowy movements from one pose to another to another, a tai-chi-esque kind of dance. I thought I was doing pretty well, watching Alison and trying to guess what the parade of Sanskrit words meant (“Descend to shivasana”). The problem came when the movements picked up speed, which couldn’t be anything but funny in the unctuous, relaxing voice of the yoga video lady. “Let the stretch flow into the tips of your fingertips. Send energy towards the sky in a salute,” she started out, waxing poetic. Then I was caught off guard as her instructions started building up: “Let your left foot flow out in front of you. Plant the ball of your foot against the earth. Now raise your right hand to the sky… bring it beneath you, stretching towards your left ribcage. Place hand beside other hand. Left foot between hands. Hop back, right hand up – deeeeep bend.”

The other thing was that vague, anatomically imperfect instructions were mixed into sensible ones, catching you off guard with something like “Stretch your heart above your head” or “Plant your spine.” This became a problem when we had to lie on our backs, making the tiny yoga lady on the phone screen invisible. Her instructions were tough to visualize. “Feet knotted; right ankle behind. Rib cage yearns open. Arms salute the earth,” she declared. I glanced at Alison, who even in this ungainly position seemed to splay gracefully on the grass, like a maiden who had fallen asleep counting the stars in the sky. Looking made me lose my balance, and I wiggled my butt like a beached whale, then rolled over sideways onto my face.

But by the end, I “got” certain poses, feeling the intended stretch or the workout come out of a surprising position. Chatting afterwards, Alison agreed with me that there are always exercises you “get” and others you don’t. And the descriptions are sometimes good – sometimes really good; as something figurative like “Plant your spine” gives you an aha moment about what you’re missing to get the proper stretch, where a photographic description could not. I laughed through yoga, but at the end I was relaxed. So I got the desired effect.

My visit to Pennsylvania was too short, but I couldn’t help but be eager to reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Two days ago I finally rested my bags in my own room after six months away. I knew that this random mini-trip, tacked in right at the end, would be exhausting in some ways and refreshing in others. But I needed it. Relishing your parents’ shower and the familiar streets of the town where you grew up are important comforts, for sure. But with a job and life that burns through my people energy, there is nothing more comforting than to know that some friendships can last forever.

Running Away

22 10 2017

I’ve been wanting to write a post in this thingamajig all summer, but I’ve been unsure what to write about, largely because I want to keep this blog as a diary-style potpourri rather than a travel blog. The problem is that my life these days is travel. I find that my deeper thoughts and reflections are not left as long to simmer, and reach catharsis, when so many of the thoughts I think are reactions to new environments.

The changing season this year has been an exception, however, and the exception is just that: I am getting used to the lifestyle of travel. When I smell the peat smoke and watch the shining downtowns of the European cities where I work slow and darken, I know it is time for a change. Home for a few days or weeks – dinners with family, bars with friends, pilgrimages to the places where I grew up. And then preparations of a different style: packing cubes full of mosquito nets and tank tops; water purifiers and hidden moneybelts. I feel part of a rhythm. It is a completely absurd rhythm, and one that not many people follow; but it is still a rhythm.

When I was training for my job as a bike tour guide, two years ago, my friend Ted told me about something he had heard from other outdoor guides, called “flow state”. To get to flow state with any hobby means you’re good enough that you’re no longer bewildered or freaked out, but not so good that the challenge or the thrill is gone. We sat on the porch in Salt Lake City after training one night, listening to the wind hiss in the leaves of the aspens, and wondered when – if ever – we would reach flow state with this new, utterly bewildering job.

Well, after two years I think I’m finally getting close. I always knew (well… hoped) that one day I would be able to change a bike seat angle in a reasonably short time, or creep uphill in 2nd gear through narrow castle arches without dying of fear that I would scratch the van. What I didn’t realize was that I would get used to the traveling too: the simple act of living out of a bag, constantly going through airport security and switching SIM cards.

Maybe I’m a little bit jaded. Do I miss that feeling of overpowering adrenaline and manifest destiny, the first time I got on a plane to cross the ocean to Europe? Of course. But as much as I’ve always had a fascination with travel, I’ve also had a fascination with staying.

This duality was cemented in the bait-and-switch story of my growing up. I was a super awkward and nerdy kid, insecure about a bazillion and one things about myself. In high school, I glommed onto my gift for French as a way to get away – both in my imagination and eventually, as was the plan, for real. The whole thing came to a head when I crossed my fingers and sent in my application to my dream school, NYU. The wrong envelope came back, and in the crushing re-alignment of expectations that followed, I decided that the best actual second choice for me was U.C. Santa Cruz, right next door. Coming to the point where I could realize that required admitting that I had been enamored with the idea of running away for its own sake. I stumbled upon the fact that actually, the most fertile ground for our dreams is wherever we already have roots.

Sounds like a nice ending, but after one more life chapter in California, ta-da, here I am. Living everywhere around the globe and simultaneously nowhere. Did I forget my lesson?

Like I said, traveling all the time reduces a lot of you to reaction rather than action. So I think the core of the satisfaction I’m feeling at the end of this season is the fact that as I become more adept at the odds and ends of travel, I have more energy left over for action. I’m beginning to feel like there is a stable me at the heart of this whirlwind, driven by my actual personality and the things I want to do.

Within my lifestyle of travel, I am starting to figure out how to capture the joys that are not essential to travel. For our Staff Ride in two weeks, yeah, I’m stoked to go to Asia – but what it really means to me is seeing old friends again in a wacky environment; celebrating the end of the season; having a bit of a vacation. After that, in December, I’m going to Peru: I’m excited to get out in the mountains; to work with a small group of people which will become tight-knit; to have the challenge of a different sort of project. Stuff that anyone could be excited about, anywhere.

I say I shy away from wanting to have a travel blog, and the reason why is bound up perfectly to this mundane bit of musing. I started thinking about it when I read this article which waxes cynical about the travel blogging industry. It’s an industry I never would have thought much about, if left to my own devices. But various Internet patterns of mine (probably mostly listing what my job is on Facebook) have convinced my personal SEO shoulder imps that I want to see a constant onslaught of ads for this industry. When I scroll through Facebook, little windows tell me to “Stop working and start traveling”, or the alternative “Work remotely from anywhere” (photo: cute netbook against bare toes and a sandy beach).

I won’t even begin on the inanity of personalized Web marketing, because I have a sophisticated rant about this which I cannot write down in its entirety due to blood pressure concerns. (Hint: What’s the point of telling me to stop working and start traveling, when my Web history suggests that in fact I have already stopped working and started traveling?) Besides, there’s something buried in these ads which is senseless in a deeper way. These travel blogs are trying to sell travel like a typical consumerist carrot. Sure, it’s not a physical thing, but it plays the same role. Work hard at your sh*tty desk job, so you can have enough money to run away from it all and escape your sh*tty desk job.

I won’t lie, I see this effect with my clients all the time. Places become just names on a list. You “do” Iceland; you “do” the Cinque Terre. The adventure travel industry has grown massively; but all it’s achieved is that now people can go on any adventure and remain blasé.

Now, I’ll say with some pride that people have a great time – sometimes transcendently so – on the trips we lead. What they don’t realize is that the place only plays so big a role in that. Places are backdrops; when the backdrop is beautiful or exciting, it only does its allotted part in setting the stage. People have a great time on our trips because they are totally taken care of; being constantly given tasty food, interesting information, miniature tasks, and situations in which to interact with new friends. They’re all things that you already knew make for a good time, and that you can easily get some other way. If most of our guests did the exact same trip alone, all they would find out is that Croatia or Iceland or wherever has badly-marked freeway exits, and stores that close right when you’re hungry, and gnarly beggars that make you uncomfortable with your privilege, and grumpy supermarket checkout people, just like home.

At some point last year I was talking to my sister on the phone, and unloading a bunch of the things that had given me a bad week. Demanding guests, the stress of doing routes I didn’t know, rude Italian locals, an oncoming cold… whatever else it was. After explaining all this I finished in despair how guilty I felt for even feeling like this. I was so lucky, I was in Italy for free. What right did I have to be focusing on the bad stuff? She replied with one of the wisest things I’ve every heard from anyone. “Who cares?” she said. “It’s still your life.”

I guess what I’m trying to say is, the grass isn’t greener on the other side, so don’t quit your job and run away. Do your job, go to happy hour afterwards, chat with people of different races and cultures in the little break room and learn about them, get involved in local politics, hang out with your family, cuddle your dog, go to midnight premieres of Marvel movies, exercise, make model trains. Do whatever makes you happy, just live your damn life. And if you can’t manage to keep in mind how rich and exciting that is, than slap yourself out of it. Which you can do with one of any number of things. Including travel.


1 04 2017

According to Aztec legend, a beautiful young princess once lived in the city of México. She was promised to marry a handsome warrior named Popoca. Before they could marry, however, her beloved was sent away to war in the distant kingdom of Oaxaca. While he was gone a jealous suitor hatched a plot: he went to the princess and told her that her beloved had perished in battle, but that he would gladly take her hand in marriage. Reluctantly, the princess accepted.

One day Popoca returned safely from war, and the princess realized that her new husband had tricked her. Consumed with grief, she took her own life. When Popoca found out that his love was dead, he died of heartbreak himself.

But that night, two mighty mountains rose above the Valley of Mexico. One had the shape of a woman’s body, pale with snow; so lovely that she could simply have been asleep. The other was a mighty volcano which spat fire and smoke, towering over the woman as if to protect her. They were the two lovers, whom the gods had immortalized as mountains to remind the Mexicans of their tragic tale.

This story teaches us a few things. One: star-crossed lovers dying for ridiculously angsty reasons is obviously not a trope of European folklore, but one that encircles the world. Two: in case you don’t believe in volcanic activity, this is a great explanation for the two mountains that stand guard over Mexico City. Iztaccíhuatl (in Nahuatl, the White Maiden) is the smaller of the two mountains. It peaks out at a staggering 17,160 feet – more than one thousand feet higher than the Mont-Blanc.

You can’t always see the twin peaks in the smog, although classical paintings of the pre-pollution Aztec city always show them huge on the horizon, like the Rockies towering above Denver. It was this exact smog which had been giving me the blues and convinced me that I needed some mountain therapy. When some friends mentioned to me that they had contracted a guide and were planning to summit Iztaccíhuatl, of course I immediately said yes.

Rarely have I stepped into such a wild adventure. Climbing Izta was, without a doubt, the hardest thing I have ever done with my body. As if the climb itself wasn’t enough, there’s the intense cold; the treacherous rocks and snow; and the fact that the trail just goes, on and on and on.

Our plan was to start climbing at midnight, after an afternoon (and obviously early-to-bed evening) hanging out at the little base camp, La Joyita. We played all-terrain bocce ball, sat around shooting the shit, and just gazed up at the white-cloaked summit, which rose sleepily from its golden sconce of grassy hills dotted with oyamel pines.

The point was just to relax and let our bodies acclimate to the altitude. Of our group of eight, seven of us lived in Mexico City, at six thousand feet of elevation – and one girl had come from Monterrey, which is practically at sea level. The difference (not to sound like a Buzzfeed article) was shocking. Poor Lina was already super sick within hours of us arriving at base camp – headache, vomiting, the whole shebang. But in the frigid, headlamp-lit shuffle as we woke up later that night, she said she was feeling a bit better, and she started off with us anyway.

The first hours passed in a trance. Only faint suggestions of angles and shadows served to remind us the size of the towering crags we were scaling. At one point, we looked across the Pass of Cortes to where the snowy cone of Popocatépetl was still exhaling its unending ribbon of smoke into the sky. In the nighttime darkness, we could see where the underside of the smoke was touched by a faint red light, emanating from inside the mountain.

Around 4 a.m. we reached the halfway point, a mountain refuge called the Refugio del Cien. We spent a few minutes warming up inside. The place was as spartan as can be: a multi-tiered snore barn of bunkbeds, at that hour filled with sleeping mountaineers. Poor guys, sleeping through the constant chorus of laughs, rustling, mutters and headlamps brought in by every single summiting party which stopped inside the refuge just like we did. From the front step of the refuge, we could look up, up, up to the top of a mountainside that seemed to tower to the sky. The headlamps of people already climbing traced a faint ribbon of lights, all the way to the top – like a nighttime ski run, only in reverse. That was where we were going.

We put on our crampons and started up, and from there on is where it got really gnarly. The cold was bitter and vicious, even through two layers of gloves. And the altitude started to really take its toll. If I fell behind a few steps, then hustled to catch up, the exertion would give me a sudden dizzy spell. I did exactly that a few times on purpose, just because the exertion was the only thing that would warm me up, before realizing what was going on. Dizziness if you walk fast, numbly throbbing fingers if you go slow– take your pick. That was also the altitude where I started to feel heavy – as if I had been transported to a planet with stronger gravity than our own, or into the body of myself fifty years in the future. I had to brace myself mentally for every step as we trudged higher and higher.

Dawn was starting to twinkle red on the horizon as we crested the top of the ridge, where the scattered debris of a ruined refuge offered us places to sit. The beauty of the dawn was almost negated by the horrifying sight of how far we had left to go. Iztaccíhuatl really is shaped like a sleeping woman, and to make the summit with nothing more complex than crampons, you have to trek alllllll the way along the ridge which is her silhouette. The gnarly tower of rock we had just climbed was none other than her gently bent knee. Before us was a procession of peaks: the Hip… the Elbow… and finally, hideously far away in the ragged distance, the summit itself. The Breast.

The morning sunlight was spectacular glowing creamy-gold on the snow. But as we trekked, I reflected on why I love the mountains. I think the answer is that I love the way perspective and scale mingle, twist and surprise you at that border between two worlds: the surprisingly small human world below, and the surprisingly big alpine world above. We were in the upper world now; a frigid, lifeless, and alien world. The mist-screened hills which were slowly lightening below were so far away that they had no perspective or scale whatsoever. They might as well have been a painted backdrop. And it’s not that I realized that alpine mountaineering isn’t for me. But I realized that though I consider myself a lifelong lover of the mountains, this adventure wasn’t scratching the itch I know so well. This was a new experience, and it had a different, frightening sort of enchantment. Not the one I knew.

The hardest part was crossing the Panza, or the Stomach. As you could imagine (if you’ve ever seen a sleeping woman before) it was a long, even saddleback, covered with a smooth coat of snow. It looked deceptively peaceful – it was even flat! – but as soon as we stepped onto the snow field, we were hammered sideways by a freezing, biting wind that screamed over the low point in the ridge and down into the Valley of Mexico. The snow was thick, and just icy enough that you never knew if you would sink or if you wouldn’t. What had appeared from above like a stroll about the length of my block suddenly seemed like the length of a football field. I put a bandanna over my nose, but my breath made the cloth moist, and after a minute the mask only made my face colder. Bent double against the wind, we struggled on.

The instant we hit uphill again, on the other side, the wind died down and went silent. Without a single tree, bush, or piece of flappable debris on the Stomach to give away how hard it was blowing, it was like it had never existed.

We were close now. We actually left our backpacks on a stone knob above the Stomach before making the final push to the summit. During that last climb, I felt the effects of the altitude redouble – not making me sick, but just making me weak. With every new step, my body didn’t want to obey my brain. I felt lightheaded, like I had drunk too much coffee on an empty stomach, and then quickly stood up.

When we finally limped bedraggled onto the snowy knob of the summit, we discovered that the biting wind passed across it, too. We took our pictures, stared in a daze at the icescape below, and within five minutes, we were on our way down again.

Honestly, I didn’t really feel pleased with myself until further down the mountain. It was like waking from a trippy dream which exists in its own calm logic, and only then  reacting to how trippy it was. Maybe the altitude had changed our brain chemistry slightly.

There’s not much to say about the way down, except that it was long. Even after the refuge, we were freaking out at every corner which revealed the trail ahead, wondering how the hell we had climbed all of this in the dark without noticing it. But the refuge was really a turning point, too – it was when our brain chemistry returned. Suddenly, instead of solemnly concentrating on our every footstep, we were chatting, cracking jokes, talking about how f***ed up that just was. And it was where the sunlight returned to normal strength, too. At one go, I shed a rain shell, a puffy down jacket, my gloves, my beanie, and my heavy snow pants (under which I had been wearing jeans). We were back in the human world again.

Lina, the girl from Monterrey, barely made it down in a dehydrated, half-sick haze. She sat at the refuge recovering for a while, and I think our guides were considering getting her some sort of rescue mission. But in the end someone took her pack, someone else mama-birded her a river of electrolyte fluid (OK, from the bottle), and we all made it the rest of the way down together.

My buddy Erik had it the second-worst, presumably because he smokes cigarettes. He was hilariously grumpy during the last exhausting leg, even once we got back to the base camp and celebrated with fresh tacos and quesadillas folded in thick tortillas of blue corn. (“You have to eat, man. Here, have one taco.” “I GUEEEEEE-eeesss.” And so on.)

In the end, good humor returned to all of us, and when we got back to the twinkling lights of the city, we stumbled into Ubers to go home and collapse. This was two weeks ago, and I’m still not convinced that my legs are back to normal. But I’m not convinced it’ll be my last flirt with alpine mountaineering, either. Expectations are everything, and you just can’t foresee all the ways the mountain challenged us. Now I can, though, for next time. It was the epitome of type-2 fun. And I couldn’t be happier I did it.

Here I am, back in the heart of the human world. Here the mountains are of steel, glass and stone; the bounty is picked from taco stands and hole-in-the-wall cafés; and the drama of predator and prey is played out between social classes; locals and foreigners; pickpockets and plutocrats. This is the urban jungle where I only have three weeks left.

Yeah, I’m pretty stoked to be going back to a world where the days are spent on bikes, out in nature, or in sleepy and lovely villages. A world where work doesn’t get in the way of life, bit where work is a way of life.

But dear sweet Virgencita, I’m going to miss this place SO. MUCH.

Once again it comes back to perspective. A mountain can be small and picturesque if you see it from the city; massive and daunting when you’re at its foot…. and strangely small again when you look down from the very top.

In the same way, three weeks can be the blink of an eye. Or they can be the time in which a whole life chapter goes down.

I’m sure these three weeks will be a little bit of both.

But as usual, I’m plotting the latter.

It’s All In the Way You Look at Things

1 03 2017

If I were to describe the details of daily life in my current city, I think you’d be hard-pressed to figure out where in the world I was talking about.

In this place, dogs live on the rooftops; sidewalks lined with trees form promenades between the lanes of major streets; and the corners are lined with old-fashioned businesses like locksmiths, tailors and cobblers. Little old ladies play ancient folk songs on the flute outside the liquor store. Every day the same vendors come down my street: the gas man yells “GAAAAS!” in case the propane tank in your apartment needs a refill; the sweet potato man pulls a mini wood-fired oven on a bicycle trailer, and a whistle attached to the oven toots mournfully as the steam from the roasting potatoes escapes.

In this place, there’s a song for everything: a song you play when you say goodbye; a song you play when it starts to rain. People low-key believe in magic, and they go to the open-air markets downtown to buy potions and amulets when they want luck or protection. And the metro is a whole underground world where you can find shoe-shine men, pharmacies, barbershops, Pizza Hut, and even internet cafés.

Oh, and I forgot to mention – I share this city with about 22 million other people.

Of course, if you’re reading this it’s probably not news to you that I’m living in Mexico City. I was determined to spend this winter the opposite of how I spend my summers with Backroads, and I’m pleased to announce that I’m doing just that. I fill my kitchen with my ingredients, watch Netflix shows, have friends over, go to the climbing gym, take out the trash. Every morning on the way to work, I help an older lady who has a shop on the corner of my street to lift up the grille as she opens. “May God be with you,” she says as I head off towards the Metro.

A friend of mine had a rant once about how Mexico City has this strange energy. “We are twenty-two million here,” he said, “but more people keep coming. People come here, and they stay. Because people feel comfortable here. I don’t know why.”

There is a humanity to the people here that constantly awes me. No matter how late people are; no matter how crowded the sidewalk or the subway station; people stroll slowly so they can chat with their friends. People stop to listen to a busker then give him a coin. They say “Buen provecho” to all the strangers at the taco stand, and listen to the taco lady tell some random story about her daughter. Humanity comes first here – before work, before practicality, before all else. It’s probably part of what makes the city run so poorly, but I have to conclude that the net advantage is greater than the net disadvantage. Life here is a shitshow, but it just glows somehow.

Hand in hand with this humanity goes a certain respect for sacred moments. For example, every public space has a Virgin – usually a statue in a glass case, sometimes with flowers or even neon lights. The Virgin of the parking lot, the Virgin of the open space preserve. My favorite is the mural of the Virgin painted on the emergency room entrance of the local hospital. That mural, with all its vibrant blues and golds, was paid for by either donated money, or state money, that could have gone to medical equipment. Here in Mexico it’s a given: X-ray machine, check… autoclaves, check… mural of the Virgin, check. Obviously the emergency room needs a Virgin to bless the patients with her protection, write it into the budget, please.

If you were too type A this place could literally make you lose your mind. But there’s a certain magic to it, isn’t there?

I have been thinking about politics a lot, though obviously not as much as my compatriots in the United States. One friend who visited me told me that the release in tension was palpable when he got off the plane in Mexico – that he suddenly felt like everyone was breathing.

Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but I couldn’t tell you. What I can tell you is that one question I’ve gotten a lot from concerned family members is whether there’s a lot of anti-American sentiment here.

The answer is, yes and no. There are small signs. Letters in the windows of independent shops saying “LIQUIDAMOS TODAS LAS MARCAS GRINGAS”. The guy I buy my fruit from, always with something to say about some video of police violence he saw on YouTube. And when Trump canceled his meeting with Peña Nieto, the newspapers had a field day. But for the most part, people here are even better about it than Europeans. Instead of pelting you with accusatory questions about why your country can’t manage this, or insists on doing that, they just pat you on the back, roll their eyes, and say “Welcome to the club of shitty corrupt governments.”

On Election Day, I returned to California from six months living in Europe. My first emotions besides shock were confusion and curiosity. How could so many of my countrymen have voted for this man? What were they thinking, how are they suffering, why do they feel so passionately that the Democrats have abandoned them? My main reaction was a sort of nausea: I felt perturbed that I knew so little about what was obviously rotten in the heart of my own country.

The only soap-boxy thing I’ll say in this post is, most of my friends and family didn’t seem to have this reaction. Instead, they were angry and disgusted that our populace is racist, homophobic and dumb enough to allow this to happen. That worries me.

Like it or not, democracy is compromise, and around half of the people that voted (let’s not quibble) wanted this. The only way out is to convince them that what we believe works, works. And as it stands they won’t listen, precisely because we slur them as stupid, poor, hateful hillbillies when really they’re just suffering. A circle of hate.

There we go, posting YouTube videos of those idiots with country accents who can’t find Afghanistan on a map, shouldn’t they be ashamed of themselves, shouldn’t we be ashamed of them. Shouting facts that are just skewed enough from the truth that, though they may address the spirit of the situation, can be written off as illegitimate. (No, it’s not a Muslim ban – it’s a ban of 7 politically-sensitive countries which are all Muslim. No, Bannon isn’t a Nazi – he was the editor-in-chief of a news outlet that allowed Nazi-like ideas to be published in editorials).

They sound like little quibbles, I know. In some way they even sound like moves in a game of Devil’s advocate, which in the liberal world is the ultimate act of assholery. But they’re not. Trump won. In the aftermath of that, little details about how the liberal community might not be holding itself to the highest standard; might not be engaging moderates and opponents…. they should be important. To change someone’s mind, you need to put yourself in their shoes with an open heart.

It all comes down to perspective. For example, I love Mexico, but I have a coworker who would disagree. I mean, I’m sure he loves it deep down if he’s still living here. But he always comes to work with new stories about how people in the street “harass” him, calling him “güero” (they call anyone pale “güero”, even old Mexican men); or how Mexicans are “touchy” about politics, always saying condescendingly “You’re not American! We’re also in America” (I mean, they’re not wrong).

The other day we were talking about the Mexican view of politics and he went so far as to say, “Hey – don’t say Mexican in public like that. Say….. how about…. Turkish. Just because, you know, these people get touchy if they hear us talking about them.” At which point I snapped in utter disgust, “You know what, let’s talk about something else then.”

It’s obvious to me that my coworker is somehow getting this vibe because of the expectation he puts out into the world. When I’m talking with him, I sometimes almost question my sanity, because people here are so nice to me. For example: before one of my English classes, while locking my bike in the parking garage, I once spied this super cool elevator thing used by the valets, which I can only describe as a dumbwaiter for people. You stand on a platform just big enough for your feet, hold on to the rope the platform is attached to, and then press a button to start a conveyor belt that makes you descend through a hole in the floor – then another hole in the next floor; until you reach your story and jump off.

A parking attendant saw me watching this with glee, and he offered to let me go on it– “Allllll the way down, seven floors,” he said, “then alllll the way back up.” He glanced around sketchily. “Just not today,” he said. “When we’re less busy.” Ever since then, every day that same guy greets me with, “Güero! Today after class you can take the conveyor belt!” And every day after class he looks around and says, “On Thursday, güero. On Thursday no one will see.” To which I reply, “No problem, don. Whenever it’s easiest for you, don.”

This story also represents the penchant for flaky optimism which Mexicans and Americans share, and which Europeans despise. But you know what, the other day Don Arturo did let me ride the conveyor belt, and it was awesome. And it’s moments like these that make me think of my long-suffering coworker like… I’m not sure we’re living in the same country.

This example is purely positive and negative, but it also makes you wonder about how people can see exactly the same evidence and come to different conclusions. That doesn’t mean they’re crazy. It doesn’t mean they’re shitty people. I’ve made my coworker sound like a shitty person, but in all probability, he would tell the story so I sound like an oblivious, spineless Pollyanna whom all the Mexicans are snickering about behind my back. That would make me sound like a shitty person.

But neither of us are shitty people. And neither are Trump voters. If they flout their firearms with macho bravado, or if Islam makes them uneasy, some facet of their nurture beyond their control made them that way. I know this sounds sort of apologist, but I’ve never felt that thinking this way was more urgent. People are saying “scream” and “resist”, but you don’t have to resist by screaming. The only way out is discourse. The only solution is to listen, and to invite in.

If you say you don’t have the patience for that; that you just want to make sure you’re supported and surrounded by good energy in these dark times – fine.

But don’t think for a moment that it’s anything other than an act of selfishness. An act of which the price may very well be our country.

Politics in Mexico, by the way, are not so rosy right now either. It’s a well-known fact that the current political party got people to vote for them by giving out free X-Boxes. Last year the governor of Veracruz literally fled the country and disappeared, leaving a massive hole in the city’s budget. He still hasn’t been found. And to top it all off, it’s an open secret that the national government has carved a similar hole in the funds of the state-owned petroleum company – leading to a huge national gas price hike at the beginning of this year, despite the fact that the price of oil has just gone down.

It’s easy to come out with a pretty bleak conclusion that this is where our country is headed. Or worse, that this is where our country already is; and with our fabulous red white ’n’ blue ego, we’ve just managed to ignore it.

But perspective is important. And at the end of the day, being here in Mexico has given me a fresh perspective to process all the horrible things that have happened. We hold democracy to a pretty high yardstick. Maybe it’s healthy to remember that though we’re part of a 200-year political experiment, which is going pretty damn well, the world is still the same brutal place it always was. In the end – just as it always has been – all we have is our own dumb luck and each others’ love.

Keep fighting, folks. And in the meantime, ask your taco lady how her kids are. It may not seem like a lot. But these things start from the ground up.