Tales of the Balkans

23 12 2015

Who can you answer for?

If someone asks you, about some cultural question, what do y’all think – vous, ustedes, whatever – could you speak for your extended family… or just your immediate one? What about the people that live on your street: do you belong to a place? Or do you belong to a group like a religion? What about the other members of that group? Could you speak for them?

Could you speak for your country?

For a friend’s birthday once, me and a group pooled money to give her a coffee-table book made by the guidebook company Lonely Planet, with a two-page spread for each country in the world. The separate pages on “Israel” and “Palestine”, as well as one on Kosovo, were tasteful, and yet highlighted the absurdity of the idea: The Israel page talks about an “age-old nation”; meanwhile the Palestine page mentions the point of pride that “Jesus was born here!” Who’s to say whether Jesus was born in Palestine or Israel? He was born in the Roman Empire, people. Flipping through the book, I realized how intensely we’ve come to accept the modern nation-state as the supreme geographical unit. And I realized for the first time how weird that is.

The Balkan Peninsula, where I spent a good part of my autumn, would fit easily into Texas. In the Lonely Planet book, this checkerboard of small countries filled 6 separate pages with fairly similar snapshots of farmlands, minarets and mountains. The entire United States, meanwhile, was a Manhattan skyline, a beach lined with palm trees and a street in Vegas all crammed into one page. Strange? That’s what I thought when I first came across the book – but hearing people’s stories in the past weeks, on one side of a border and then on the other, I’ve realized that there is some inherent human wish for our cultures and our identities to be validated by an official nation which is Ours.

I guess you don’t notice that until you don’t have it – and the people of the Balkans have gone to all sorts of lengths to get it. That’s the overarching story that unfolded during my trip through the region: from Italy to Bulgaria in about two weeks.

But as with so many things, I have to begin at the end – with Iveta, the friend who was the ultimate destination of my trip, and whose city, Sofia, was my last stop east. Bulgaria has a little distance from the tightly-woven Balkan conflicts, and so Iveta had a unique perspective.

“Basically, all the fighting started over religion and then ended up about land,” she began. “The thing you have to understand is, we Balkan people are really passionate. It’s really easy to get us to unite, but it’s also really easy to create some stupid stuff to divide us. There was Yugoslavia, and everyone was so excited about Yugoslavia. Then I think somebody decided to mess it up. And all they had to do was say ‘Yay nationalism!’, and now everyone is so excited about nationalism.”

Before I go on, I have a disclaimer. Weaving historical tidbits into my story comes automatically with a certain academic messiness. I’ve tried to at least say “He told me…” or “She told me…” when possible, but I still feel the need to disclaim: This post may educate you about some controversial and spicy stuff, and my version of it is not cited in even the least professional way. If you’re interested – look stuff up!


Here comes Balkans 101. The Balkan Peninsula lies across the Adriatic Sea east of Italy, and a history of migration and empire has made it a major crossroads. There are different ethnic groups – mainly Slavs (the ethnic group Russians also belong to) and the darker, more Greek-looking Albanians. And there are many religions: Orthodox brought by the Byzantine Empire; Catholic brought by the Venetian Empire; Muslim by the Ottoman. Until the 90’s it was all one country, called Yugoslavia. When people talk about “former Yugoslavia,” they’re talking about the Balkan countries.

“Croats” was originally the name for the Catholic Slavs who inhabit the Balkans, while Serbs were the Orthodox Slavs. This introduces two important concepts. The first is the weird (to me) idea behind many of the post-Yugoslavia states: one state for one people; one ethnic people. It’s the same idea behind, say, the State of Israel. They couldn’t get along in one country, ‘cus there were too many power struggles; so give ’em their own country. Right?

As an American, my deepest principles come down to the fact that for a government to treat two people differently because of ethnicity is a racist and wrong act. And saying “hey, you’re one of us!” counts as treating someone differently. So I’ve always been skeptical of this definition of a state, no matter where it’s found. “Croatia is a civilized, Christian country,” one of my hitchhikees assured me. And ironically, I felt the opposite of reassured – I felt a gulp of differentness, of unease. But for him, the statement was just part of what makes his home his home.

The other important fact wrapped up in this definition is Croatia’s identity as a Mediterranean country. Catholicism equals connections with Italy equals Westernness, to oversimplify the links in the chain. When the powers that be drew the borders of Croatia, the country of Yugoslavian Catholics, it was no coincidence. The borders were drawn to include the Catholic population that was, and is, mostly concentrated along the coast; because the Venetian Empire extended its influence (and its religion) via the sea. And in a lot of ways – the food culture of the olive and the grape; the sunny island-peppered coastline, the red-roofed architecture – Croatian certainly is Italy’s close cousin.

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The Hedonist Blues

25 11 2015

I’ve had some tough thoughts on my mind lately about Life with a monolithic capital L. These thoughts have been keeping me from blogging about a lot of interesting travels over the past month, nagging me with the feeling that unless I get this off my chest, any update will be… dishonest. Will be missing something. So I’m going to try to put them to pixels, but I’ll warn you. It’s gonna be a downer. Open a new tab now and have a subreddit about cute puppies at the ready.

The thoughts necessarily start with a small update, which is that I’ve been traveling around Europe for the past month, and will be for the foreseeable future. Long story short, a season of my seasonal job has come to a close, and until Aprilish I have to find something to do with myself. I look around at what my coworkers are doing for winter and I hear about ski seasons and South America, bike tours of Colombia and of California, climbing and camper vans, organic farms and picking up languages. What’s a boy to do? Enter the additional plot element of the Staff Ride, our company’s end-of-season bike trip/party – all expenses paid, except airfare. Everyone told me it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and why would I shell out to fly to Europe just for one week? So the rest is history.

I have become a hedonist. That is, I currently live a lifestyle fueled by hedonism. How should I spend my winter: A, B or C? The trick answer is that all of the options are about me. Whether it’s getting in shape or communing with nature, acquiring new languages or trying new sports, it all comes down to one choice: What would be more fun? Exciting, enriching, inspiring, exhilarating, they’re all cheap adjectives for the same thing – pleasure. And I have to wonder if there’s more.

I’ve been feeling nihilist, to misuse more philosophical terms. What I’m hoping nihilism means is the belief that nothing really matters. We, the human race, are rapidly destroying the planet as well as each other. With that in mind, I can’t help but observe that the Earth will be better off without us. There is nothing inherently right or beautiful about human culture. We are only beautiful to ourselves because we are us. Whatever strange, restarting world we’ll leave behind when we’re gone, it’ll surely be just as wondrous to the earth, or to God, or to whatever witness there is, as our era was. In light of that, there’s no reason to change our catastrophic course except for the simply selfish reasons of avoiding our own trauma and inconvenience. And those things are avoided just as well if you tell yourself, well, YOLO, we’re here to enjoy life while we can.

There it is in a nutshell: the path of least resistance. But I also am tormented by my own privilege in being able to think these thoughts, simply because for millions of others, life is not a treat to be enjoyed. What did I do to deserve all the things that give me pleasure, from wine overlooking the Matterhorn to the biggest version of Wikipedia being in my native language to living family members who love me? A whole lot of nothing, that’s what.

And at this point, though that fact makes me plenty insecure about my hedonism, I first want to touch on why this does not inspire me to forsake hedonism. It’s because the obvious alternatives – a solid desk job with a salary, working towards a career, being respectable – aren’t going to do anything to change the unfairness of the situation. Say I do something uber-responsible: go to law school, slave away to prepare for the bar exam, and then as a lawyer rake in bazillions and snag the swankiest apartment in Santa Monica. Then I would be harvesting the system for my unfair privilege, just like I’m doing now, except not enjoying it. What’s the point in that? No, no – the only thing that could call me to make a change would be doing something to help the millions of others who are less lucky. And I don’t mean just handing out ladlefuls of soup outside the church. I mean doing something big, or at least a piece of something big, so that the system gets a little better.

Which brings us to the next source of the angst. As a kid I was truly, constantly heartbroken by the rape of the environment, and it meant the world to me. As I grew older and learned about poverty and my own economic privilege, I sort of let my environmentalist feelings drop to a simmer. I realized that to worry about nebulous things like the climate and the polar bears is a rich person’s problem – the sad truth is that for industry to grow as fast as possible is the best way to lift people out of poverty, so they or their children can lead lives with 2 seconds of leisure time in which to enjoy nature.

But now, as the truly alarming signs of climate change begin to show, the other swing of the pendulum nags me. Our planet is unsustainably overpopulated, and solving its humanitarian problems will only lift more consumers up to help destroy the earth. Besides, there has never yet been a time in history without humanitarian crises. Even in the unlikely event that one will ultimately come, procrastinating on saving the Earth until it gets here does not seem like a plan of action that’s working.

The problem is that even this desperately honest conclusion – that we are killing our mother, wiping out the diverse community of life that birthed us – is still trapped in the box of rich-people-logic. To focus that much on saving the earth is a hopelessly selfish act, at best. At worst, it could be seen as willfully letting others die so that a more sustainable global population can live, which is heartless and cruel. Surely if we’re determined for humanity to weather the shitstorm of the mess we’ve made, it’s all of humanity, or we lose our humanity.

And that, dear reader, is the conundrum I am left with. The nut that I just can’t crack. Which is better: to save ourselves?

To save the world?

Or to save each other?

Some Thoughts About Gentrification

26 09 2015

I am very lucky. My latest job – as a guide/camp cook for a tour company – has taken me to some dreamy places this summer. From the orange canyons of southern Utah to the shores of the Great Salt Lake and the icy heights of Glacier National Park in Montana, it’s been a wild ride. And the luckiest thing of all is that my job currently has me home for a few weeks.

Home. I use the term loosely, since I am staying in Berkeley. There was a time when I would have laughed at the notion that my sleepy suburb was part of that monolithic paper town called the Bay Area. But adulthood has changed my perspective. After everywhere I’ve been this summer, I really do feel like I’m home.

The other day I was returning from working on a trip up in wine country, right around sunset. As I climbed up the white arc of the Richmond Bridge and the bay opened up before me, I watched the islands that dot the water drift past each other like backdrops in a marionette show – some golden and bare, others crowned with dark bunches of Monterey pines. And bit by bit, the skyline of the City unfolded from behind the massif of Angel Island: first the towers of downtown, from which the twinkling lights of the Bay Bridge were strung like a garland; then the pale stipple of houses on Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill; and finally the wooded slope of the Presidio, beyond which the sea spray hung like gossamer in the blinding gap of the Golden Gate. I looked at the glorious view, and didn’t even realize that I had taken a deep breath, and let my whole body relax.

But then I thought about an article I saw linked to on Facebook recently – as one often does, when one sees a beautiful vista, and wants to spontaneously ruin it. I thought of the title of the article: “A Surplus of Tech Killed the Loveliest, Liveliest City on the West Coast.” (Wonderfully concise, these modern online journalists.) And I couldn’t help but think, as I looked out across the water: Is this what a dying city looks like?

San Francisco is a city with a demon, and everyone is talking about it. If you’re uninitiated, allow me to introduce you to the conundrum. It can be summed up like this: Tech industry booms. Overnight, San Francisco goes from an old-school, mid-sized city, to a place upon which a flood of people with six-figure paychecks descend from every corner of the earth. Rent goes up. A lot. People get pushed out, and the culture changes.

That’s it, in a nutshell. It’s called gentrification, and it’s a word that is on everyone’s tongue around here. Average rent in San Francisco, according to this real estate group (found in a quick Web search for data), has gone up 60% since 2010. SIXTY PER CENT. The Bay is not an easy place to be poor right now, and I disclaim now that this is not a post about the dark edge of gentrification, the real problem of how it interacts with urban poverty. I don’t know enough about that to write about it, and for fear of disrespecting it, I want to acknowledge that. No, my fascination is unique to the Bay, where the snafu comes down to a particularly personal and particularly subjective heart: What happens when the soul of a city gets lost?

I have always believed, in case my description above didn’t make it clear, that San Francisco is the most beautiful city in the world. For that reason, I find it unbearably ironic that soon, the only people who will be able to afford to live in the most beautiful city on earth are those whose passion, livelihood and culture revolves around looking down at a screen. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly goes into the poisonous brew: a mix of the inherent link from technology to convenience; with, perhaps, the tendency of the titanic tech companies to offer services that allow their employees to live a private, charmed life behind closed doors. The controversy takes its first steps beyond the bank and the realtor’s office in dramas of entitlement, like this one, for example. And it all adds up to one overarching feeling among the defenders in this class war: that the new techie arrivals are taking up space, but they aren’t giving any of their time, money, intelligence or imagination back. And in doing so, are sucking this city dry.

It’s hard to analyze this situation without passing wild and unfair judgments. I want to acknowledge that before going on, so that whatever sounded unfair in the above paragraph, you can just pop a grain of salt with it and entertain the notion that this problem is not just the fantasy of crusty and nostalgic locs. And if you moved to the Bay for a job and you’re still reading, with all the crap you gotta get… you are a saint. I promise that this has dipped the deepest into vilifying that it’s gonna go.

So let’s start by playing devil’s advocate. Being from the suburbs, it has always seemed clear to me that cities change, and that’s why you live in the city. That’s the price of living in the city. That little Chinese place you love is going to close, but something else cool will open up where it was, because it’s the city. It’s like Game of Thrones. Nothing is immune. Right? You just roll with it.

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Mex and the City

23 04 2015

Everywhere in the great continent of North America that Latin-speaking people live, the horizon flickers with the long shadow of this, the third-largest city on planet Earth. It is magnetic and infamous. Destinies swirl around it; groups of friends and former lovers meet here. It is a city teeming with money, power, humanity, sex, art, culture, and ancient history. Throughout my journey everyone has constantly warned me that a new friend, an art gig, a secret show, can quickly turn a week here into a month.

How to even begin to describe the importance of Mexico City to the Mexican world? Its real name is DF – the Federal District. Like Washington D.C., it belongs to no state but to its own territory, which encompasses only the city. The Zocalo, its central square, is the largest public plaza in all of Latin America, and the 0-point of all the mile markers on all the roads in the country. In Mexico, when you say you’re going to “Mexico” you mean here – the center, the crux, the end and the beginning. The great numbered avenues of the city center are called Eje – axis – and the Latin world turns around them.

The very word “Mexico” comes from the Mexica, another name for the Aztecs. Mexico was, and still is, home to a huge diversity of indigenous people, languages and cultures. But the identity of the nation was forged here, even before Spanish contact, by the greatest and most brutal empire-builders of the Americas. On an island in the Lake of Texcoco they built their capital, a teeming metropolis of bridges, palaces and floating islands. The year Europeans first laid eyes on it, it had the same population as Paris, and its builders had never heard of the wheel.

The empire it ruled expanded ruthlessly upon the engines of warfare, state religion and human sacrifice. The city was conquered ruthlessly by the Spanish army, and since then it has expanded just as ruthlessly – until it sucked the Lake of Texcoco dry, filled the lakebed, and belched its infamous, eternal cloud of gray smog into the sky overhead.

I came to Mexico City because of a wedding. Rather, the wedding was in Cuernavaca – a sort of Napa Valley/San Jose equivalent, if you can bring yourself to believe that one city can fill the same role. The fact that you can drive an hour and a half, through rural mountains and fields, to a neighboring city and have it still be considered a “bedroom community” tells you something about the size of Mexico City. Cuernavaca is called the City of Eternal Spring because of the climate, but it’s also a city of eternal smog – the same cloud of smog that envelops DF. Moreover, Cuernavaca has been infamous in recent years for cartel activity. As my friend Miguel drove me from the bus station to his uncle’s house, he told me stories about slight brushes with the underworld his family and friends have experienced there. Apparently the brother of the groom, a former policeman, was once involved in a firefight in a bar. Unbeknownst to him, he fired on a cartel member. Since the police in that neighborhood were in cahoots with the cartel, boom – suddenly the police force had orders to finish him off. Only by quitting his job, moving, and having the good luck of an uncle who had married into a political family did he manage to get protected. He couldn’t be at the wedding, because he’s still on the hit list in that neighborhood.

Another time, a friend of Miguel’s was eating at a restaurant when three giant black SUVs pulled up. Bodyguards with guns took everyone’s cell phones for safekeeping before they allowed their charge to enter: one of the cartel bosses. Everyone had to stay inside until he was finished eating, to ensure that nobody called the police – and the cell phones were guarded to ensure that nobody took any pictures. When the boss left, the bodyguards redistributed the cell phones, and as a little thank-you, picked up everyone in the restaurant’s tab. That’s what happens every time a cartel boss wants to go out for a taco.

The restaurant story is a good introduction to the skinny on Mexican drug cartels, which is way less binary than I thought. The cartels are well-oiled machines as powerful and organized as the state government, and they’re constantly performing little acts of goodwill to keep the Mexican population on the fence about who they’re rooting for. More than picking up tabs in restaurants, apparently they fund a lot of projects in small, poor towns – the same towns where people “disappear”. But by keeping the crops blooming and the wells full in places of extreme poverty, they keep the fodder of revolution just damp enough that to ignite it is impossible.

Moreover, part of the story is how corrupt the Mexican government is. Apparently in the tourist center of Mexico City the members of Congress, completely known to everyone, literally act like a Mafia and extort a cut from every single business. Don’t want to pay your congressman under the table? Oops, your restaurant has violated health code because of that chair by the bathroom door, dale, bai. Long story short – in the wake of Ayotzinapa (which I’ll summarize later, in case you missed the news a few months ago), I really had an impression that corruption was like this: the cartel is bad, and the government is bad too because they work with the cartel. The real situation, in my opinion, is much more shocking.

Anyway, the wedding. The bride was my friend Miguel’s sister, and it was really amazing getting to see this huge moment for his family. I’ll gloss over the details, except to say it involved the body-of-Jesus cracker, lots of women fanning themselves, live music, tequila shots in hollowed-out cucumbers, empty beer cans hanging from the back of the “Just Married” car (it’s tradition, apparently, so the car makes noise); fireworks, silly hats, and a pair of live doves which were ceremonially released.

When the weekend was over we drove to Miguel’s house in the suburbs, napped heartily; and then I was on my way into the city proper, my mega-mochila on my back and my guitar in hand. (I had bought it for cheap in Puerto Escondido and meant to sell it, but in the end didn’t have the heart to). The bus wound through the streets before getting on the freeway, and as we descended into the Valley of Mexico I beheld the city in the distance: an unending field of stipple-drawing houses and uneven towers, spreading away into the gray smog like some post-apocalyptic infinity. The mountains on the other side of the valley were invisible, even in silhouette.

That was the day I first took the Mexico City metro. No other metro can compete in terms of cheapness and efficiency: a ride anywhere costs 5 pesos (about 30 cents), and in a city that sprawls out like Los Angeles, getting pretty much anywhere takes as long as it would in New York or London. Nor can any metro compete in terms of confusion, squalor or madness. I knew it would be bad, but I still wasn’t prepared.

Once I bought my ticket and went through the turnstile, the signs towards the train led me down staircase after staircase. Flickering yellow lights and orange pipes traced the maze of tunnels that thundered into the depths of the earth. Deep underground, even long before the train was in sight, I passed through galleries and corridors lined with vendors hollering out the praise of their wares, and even little pizza shops and taco stands. Every once in a while the whole thing shivered with a passing train. The tunnels were huge and round and pipe-like, with room for sweeping flights of stairs like something from the atrium of a ruined palace, plus two escalators abreast. I felt like I was going to the Chamber of Secrets, along with several thousand other commuters.

When I reached the bottom, I was faced with a river of humanity squeezing onto a narrow bridge to the other side of the tracks. My mouth literally hung agape, my hand hanging limply onto the guitar that was definitely a bad idea. But there was only one way through. So I swallowed my tongue, waited for a gap, and- SQUOOOOSH! ElbOW elbow ELbow flat-tire OW puuuush pushing, pressure, pressure, pressure! Slowly, like a tide, we were carried up the stairs and over the bridge. I probably pushed an old lady. An old lady definitely pushed me. Nobody made eye contact. I held onto the guitar for dear life, hugging it to my chest. And then we were across, and – bing! – the subway arrived, and the doors slid open.

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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.