Colours and shapes in Costa Rica

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After five days in Costa Rica (fault of too-quickly blurting an answer to the immigration officer when he asked how long I thought I’d stay – ALWAYS ANSWER THE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF ALLOWED DAYS!!) we are in Panama. More photographs of beautiful Costa Rica to come, but here are a few of the lovely textures and colours I found.DSC_7537
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A Side Note About Surfing

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The view from Monkey House

(Written April 12, 2015)

Yesterday, Shane and I went out into the surf at Playa Amarilla, one beach north of Playa Gigante, where we’d settled after leaving San Juan del Sur – the base camp for Nicaragua’s southern Pacific Coast – for the last time. Our hostel, Monkey House, clung to the edge of a high, exposed headland between Playas Gigante and Amarilla, and lying in a hammock under the tile roof over the patio, you could see down to both beaches as well as to the wild surf breaking in huge sprays of white over the exposed rocks. “A few weeks ago there was a big swell,” one of the other surfers told me as we sat watching the waves roll in and crash on the rocks below Monkey House. “The waves were breaking way out there –” he gestured out, maybe seventy meters from the rocks, much further than even the big set waves were breaking that day “– and we just looked at it and thought, fuck, you could surf that! So we paddled out and were just riding them all the way in to the shore. Fucking amazing.”

I looked out where he had pointed and saw the big swells travelling implacably in towards shore, pelicans swooping low over the face of the waves, and tried to imagine them cresting and breaking into ivory foam so far from shore. Already the surfers on Playa Amarilla seemed shockingly far out, the perspective so different from when you are in the water yourself – foreshortened, the distance from where you sit with your surfboard back into the sandy shore seems like nothing at all. From above, it is quite evidently a long-ass way, and the whole enterprise of sitting on a tiny foam contraption the size of an ironing board, waiting for bigger and yet bigger waves, seems a little bit absurd. Then you see a surfer paddle madly into one of those waves, vault to their feet and slice down the face, gathering the potential energy of the wave under their feet and shooting along the shoulder as it peels down the shore. Beautiful.

I grew up on the water, albeit the relatively protected waters of the Salish Sea off of Vancouver Island, and I have always loved swimming in the ocean. I find it to be a type of essential activity for ye olde homo sapiens, because it is a sure path to appreciating the bone-crushing and merciless power of Mother Nature – nothing to be done in the face of the ocean, its relentless waves and tricky currents, its fogs and winds, the bone-chilling endless cold expanse of it. Any activity where you throw your fragile human body at a natural force and have it indifferently pummeled into submission is, in my opinion, an extremely healthy reminder of our place in the world. And then you have surfing – in which the surfer is pummeled, yes, but occasionally surpasses the pummeling to achieve a transcendent harmony with the energy of the wave, moving like a suddenly sentient element of the sea that slips the two-dimensional line of the wave’s path towards the shore and swoops into the third dimension, cutting across line after line, cascading along parallel to the shore in a maverick communion with nature’s power.

That, then, is the thing I am trying to learn to do. Surfing. It is very difficult and the learning is slow, but I have a good teacher and yesterday at lunchtime we climbed down the cliff in the heat to Playa Amarilla. We surveyed the wave situation and then strode into the water, dipping our boards into the small waves to wash the sand off, and watching the incoming surf until it was time to jump onto the boards and paddle, Shane duck-diving and I turtle-rolling the incoming waves as we made our way out to the back. I had paddled into a few waves, more successful than I had been the previous days, when we spied a mountain of water rising in the distance. The swell had been building for the past few days and occasional sets of enormous waves had been rolling into shore, crashing so loudly on the rocks below Monkey House that the sound of it worked its way into my dreams: a phone conversation with my parents, in which I had to inform them that I was high-tailing it for Europe and would have no cell-phone reception for the next several years, but couldn’t get my point across because of the noise of crashing surf and the water showering down all around me – this, despite standing on a neatly landscaped university campus far, far from the sea. At any rate, the swell brought in a stack of enormous waves, giants that had me paddling far out, even beyond the headland of Monkey House, to escape the impact zone.

Once safely far out into the sea, I pointed my board towards the horizon and sat up on the board, rising many feet into the air with each swell – my view of the ocean momentarily cut off as a mountain of water rose in front of me, then the whole lineup of incoming waves made visible as the crest moved through me. Behind me and to my left, the jagged headland was absorbing enormous white-spraying impacts that scattered handfuls of foam across the oily post-wave surface of the water, some of it scudding all the way over to me and blowing up against my thighs. In front of me, a half-dozen pelicans glided along a rising wave, banking their wings parallel with the face of it and surfing the wind. To my right, the curving bay enclosing the surf breaks Colorado and Panga Drops: the whitewater and black bobbing shapes of surfers visible even at this great distance, and the swell marching in everywhere, promising a great ride or a spectacular wipeout, depending on your skill level. I waited, legs dangling in the warm water brought in with the swell. Watching the pelicans, and the rippling silver eruption of sardines along the water’s surface as they fled a predator – probably the red snapper that the fishermen had been pulling in all week. Anxiously waiting for the big waves to pass, yes, but also infinitely content to simply be there, poised in reverence to the power of the waves smashing rock into sand right next to me, letting those watery shoulders gently lift me up and down.

Postcard from Granada

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Amigos! Hola from Granada, where we have come to rest for a couple of days after wasting away for a week in the surfer’s paradise of Playa Gigante. Tomorrow we’ll hop back in Cochita and head for Playa Popoyo, one of Nicaragua’s most famous waves. There we shall stay until I get the hang of this surfing business, goddammit. For now, though, the pleasures of a (somewhat) reliable internet connection, a shower with water that is actually fresh (the running water in coastal towns being the dubious product of wells drawing from an extremely salty high water table), marketplaces with everything you could ever want to buy, and the beautiful tiled roofs, colourful churches, and ribbon-bedecked horse-and-carriages of Granada.

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TMI, lo siento

Graduation dinner, Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco

Hello from Antigua! I’ve been here for the past two nights, meeting with a friend-of-a-friend and – FINALLY – completing and sending the manuscript of my thesis research off to the publisher. It’s not published yet, of course, but this feels like an extremely concrete step to finally sloughing off the responsibilities of my master’s degree. I have edited that manuscript from my desk at the University of British Columbia; from a snowbound cabin in Vermont; from a magical circus loft in Montreal; from a Marriott hotel in Tallahassee, FL; from the Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco in Xela; from the Luna de Miel cafe in Antigua; and from countless other places along the road. I’ll probably be in Nicaragua by the time the reviewers’ comments come in, so El Salvador and Honduras, at least, will be free of the plague of THESIS COMMITMENTS.

I’m not sure if I can properly express how relieving this is – the prospect of being freed from my thesis. My master’s degree was an arena in which I felt profoundly inadequate. For three years, I spent the greater part of every day feeling the foundations of my self-identity crumbling away: I was revealed as an idiot, as slow, lazy and undisciplined, unable to make the intuitive leaps or master the new materials that had proved so easy for me in high school and college. A great blurred wall separated me from comprehending the material that I so desperately wanted to understand. I procrastinated. I was consumed by self-loathing. Eventually I finished my thesis and graduated, but I still consider the whole masters degree mission to be a failed one.

ALAS!*

Alas, and yet in return for my failure I learned many things I never planned on learning: how to travel through the wilderness of my depression and have compassion for those still inhabiting their own; how to value the parts of myself more essential than my ability to ace a standardized test; how to fail and yet carry on; how to trust my friends to know me and love me even when I am capable of neither.

Still, though. It’s nice to succeed at something. It’s nice to feel smart. And last week, for the first time in approximately 6 years, I did. Spanish school! Who knew?!

Hallelujah, and bring on the rest of Central America!

* Let’s be real, I also learned a lot about evolutionary biology, and I want to make a standard disclaimer that the UBC Zoology department was a fantastic place to be – I would never trade my three years for a different university or a different subject. “It’s not you, it’s me.” UBC Zoology is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, and the study of evolution has been infinitely rewarding to me. All problems originate with my own mind, and possibly also with the whole academic pyramid scheme, which, ask your nearest depressed graduate student… we are legion.

Graduation dinner, Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco

STEALTHCAM

So, before leaving home, I bought a little trail camera to mount on my dashboard. It is named, ominously, “STEALTHCAM,” and is intended for use by hunters who want to monitor animal activity in the bush. You can set it to take motion-triggered photographs, or to take photographs at regular intervals, and in general I have had it set to take one photo every minute while I’m driving. I bought it with the idea of eventually making a time-lapse video of the road, but I’ve run into a number of technical difficulties and may not follow through on that mission… However, I have many thousands of photos of the road, most of them incredibly boring, but also some diamonds in the rough.

First, the contrast… from Canadian winter to Guatemalan spring:

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And next, some of the many, many, many things in between. The camera is mounted using the highly technical method of sticky tack – the same sub-par white sticky tack that I swiped from my friend Caitlin as I left Vancouver, in fact – and is aimed either straight forward or a bit off to one side, depending on how the sticky tack feels that day.

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Medicine Hat, AB. Or, as I explained to my teacher yesterday, “El Sombrero Magico”

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Outside of New Orleans, I think.

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Arriving in Cuatrocienegas, Mexico, driving straight into the setting sun.

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Palm trees, awwwwww yeah.

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Pedestrian overpass, Mexico, and a fairly typical mixture of traffic. I remember riding in the backs of MANY such pick-up trucks, myself…

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Captured by accident while stopped at a highway services plaza in Mexico, very much like similar plazas in the US.

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Early Spanish lessons: highway signs. I’m sure you can figure this one out.

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Mexico: in general, very well signed. Road quality – especially on the cuotas – was very high, and the traffic wasn’t too hairy, even in Mexico city… in general, the traffic is just cars and trucks, not the terrifying mixture of cars, trucks, motorcycles, buses, minibuses, etc., that we have encountered in Guatemala. Also, in Mexico it seemed that generally people obeyed the lane markings. Not so in Guatemala.

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A more obscure sign. I actually still don’t completely understand what this means.

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PEMEX: the state-owned gas company (Mexico)

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I believe that this is in Piedras Negras (black stones) where we crossed the border.

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CITRUS FRUITS. THEY GROW ON TREES. ALSO COCONUTS. IT IS AMAZING.

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The incredible cobblestone road to Real de Catorce.

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Stopped for some roadside fruit, served up with salt, chili and lime.

 

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la policia!

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Jane and I deciding where to camp that night. Oaxacan coast.

 

A few photos from Mexico

More photographs coming soon – I have entries planned for some specific parts of the Mexico journey. These are just a few random shots that didn’t seem to fit anywhere else. We had our first day of language classes today, and I feel giddy with the belief that I can, indeed, learn a second language… Despite years and years of French classes, I have NEVER had this feeling before. I got all excited today and threw together a mangled version of the future tense for my teacher, and also explained the workings of my Steri-Pen UV water purification wand to the little girls in my homestay family. I think that they understood me. Maybe. “It is a machine… that makes the water… pure? When you working the machine, the water not having the… bacteria?” Wish me luck.

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Jane and Ben in Saltillo

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San Juan del Pacifico – a small, eco-touristy town in the mountains south of Oaxaca. Reminded me somewhat of Kodaikanal.

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Posters of the missing teachers, Oaxaca.

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Beautiful trees and church in Oaxaca

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Charming cafe that we sadly did not eat at, Oaxaca

Jane and I with flowers

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Hummingbird!

 

On the road: Montreal

For the last month I’ve had this idea in my head that before I put up this website, I would write a grand welcoming essay that would explain everything about my trip, and also most things about the last 10 years of my life.

…Seriously.

This is a large part of the reason that it’s mid-December, I’m almost all the way to the East Coast, and my blog is only just now rearing its head.

So. Instead of polishing the last fabulous sentences of my abbreviated life history, I am sitting at a kitchen counter in a loft in Montréal, chewing on the corner of my winter-chapped lower lip and wondering if I even know, myself, what really happened in the last 10 years of my life.

I think I must have some idea of what my trip is about, at least, because the things that I imagined might happen keep happening. For example: “Well, I’m just going to be open to what comes,” I said to myself. “I don’t have to be any particular place at any particular time! If I meet some interesting people, if I like a city, if something seems good, I can just stay for awhile. No plans.” I said that, and yet I kept making plans, setting dates, and never really envisioned the circumstances that might inspire me to stay somewhere. Et voilà: Montréal, an unexpected new friend, a gorgeous jungle of a loft full of circus equipment and various denominations of Artist, and a storm sweeping up from New England that has kept me here for a few idyllic extra days. It has raised for me the question of: when is a situation so good that I just stay? How open am I, really to the forks in the road?

The journey, though. The spirit quest. I left Victoria on Halloween; I’m bound for the Panama Canal. Where have I been so far? Olympia, Washington, where my gallant vehicle jettisoned her muffler a mile from the I-5 and I temporarily lost faith in my own four wheels – then all across western Canada and the prairies, making what felt like the elementary school reunion tour – then eastern Canada, mostly high school friends and other people I know from Victoria – then Vermont, for a thoroughly New-Englandy American Thanksgiving with family – then Montréal, where I was waylaid by the aforementioned Utopian Loft, and also finally discovered What Actually Happened At Caitlin’s Wedding (a cross-Canada mystery!) – then Ottawa, for an impromptu graduate school reunion – and then back to Montréal, where I return with you to the kitchen counter, now scattered with dinner ingredients and wine glasses and half-empty bottles.

I have a scarf to finish knitting and Christmas is close. My Canadian phone number has been disconnected. This afternoon I went grocery shopping with Leila, a French artist who is subletting a room in the loft, and when the clerk asked for a phone number to contact for delivery of the groceries we both held up our empty hands in hilarity and consternation: neither of us have active phone numbers. Earlier in the day, she had been walking around with her iPad to display the loft to a friend she was Skyping with, and I smiled and waved into the camera, masquerading as someone who actually belongs here. But possibly I could? Possibly another road trip prediction might come true, and from being a square-peg, sore-thumb, bird-of-a-different-feather graduate student, I might find somewhere to belong.

Approximately 15 cities down and 15 left to go before I hit the Mexican border.