a privilege of the era

Cochita about to make a river crossing in the Nicoya Peninsula

(Actually this picture is from Costa Rica)

 

I am in Panama. What am I doing in Panama? I know nothing about Panama. Most of what I know about Panama comes from this episode of This American Life, in which a ten-year old girl sends a letter to General Manuel Noriega, and winds up being invited to visit him in Panama as a sort of show of political friendliness. I have also skimmed the “history” bit of the Panama section in Lonely Planet’s CENTRAL AMERICA ON A SHOESTRING (which, let me tell you, only if you have pretty fucking fancy shoestrings… Lonely Planet just isn’t what it used to be, or have I gotten poorer?).

Is it disrespectful to visit a country without knowing anything about it? It seems so, a little bit – Shane and I are gliding through Central America as suits our convenience, choosing our movements according to weather, waves, and the price of hotel rooms, flashing our privileged passports and slipping through the borders without a backwards glance. Borders which – especially in this part of the world – have served so often as prison walls, arbitrary barriers trapping people in banana republics, in small schoolyards with bullies who bear the names Mara Salvatrucha or Las Zetas, in the equally helpless positions of being either in or out of favour with the United States (with accompanying meddling and/or misery), in dictatorship or “socialism” or sputtering pseudo-democracy. People die by the thousands trying to cross these borders every year, have the life of their family buoyed or broken by which side they happen to be on. The rainforest in all its billowing verdure swells up through Costa Rica, swarming to the edges of that country, and then thins out through Nicaragua and Panama, abruptly dropping off in Honduras – these invisible political boundaries transform the impartial wildlands as well as the human beings inside.

But here we are, preparing to leave Boquete. My car has been fixed. We are sitting in the hostel kitchen surrounded by home-foods – another one of the pathetically unimportant reasons that might direct the travels of people like us. Can you buy peanut butter? Real peanut butter? How about wine? When I lived in India, expats would have moved heaven and earth to get a bottle of wine. I, too, would have sold my soul for a glass of shiraz – but how totally absurd it all was. Still is. And yet we are in Boquete, stockpiling lentils and capers, and whatever other Western foodstuffs we couldn’t find in Nicaragua – squandering this greatest of all privileges on the whims of our spoiled palates.

Because it is a privilege – both of our passports and our money, but also, quite possibly, of this particular era in history. Who knows what will happen next? But certainly, never before in human history has such incredible mobility been available to so many. I am currently reading “Annals of the Former World,” by John McPhee, and he includes this quote from geologist Karen Kleinspehn:

“Anyone who wants to [drive across America], though, had better hurry. Before long, to go all the way across by yourself will be a fossil experience. A person or two. One car. Coast to coast. People do it now without thinking much about it. Yet it’s a most unusual kind of personal freedom – particular to this time span, the one we happen to be in. It’s an amazing, temporary phenomenon that will end.”

Maybe we’ll sort out electric cars and renewable energy and in a hundred utopian years everyone will be cocooning the country with the threads of their passage, from now until eternity. Maybe humankind is just going to sort it the fuck out, and Kleinspehn’s assessment is dated and pessimistic (the quote, I believe, is from around 1980).

But more likely, maybe she’s right, and the wild continent-crossing freedom that I am experiencing right now is a unique honour, something only one percent of one percent of one percent of humans born on Earth will ever be able to do.

Every age is fleeting, though. I’ve also been thinking much about Renaissance-era explorers and the notion of the blank space on the map. And of the aboriginal peoples they encountered, and the notion of a self-contained universe without colonialism, without Europe. How did the explorers see their moment in history? Did they feel it slipping through their fingers? Had they any inkling that soon the map would be filled, in every corner, with a level of detail almost incomprehensible even to the modern human? Surely the people of today are more self-conscious than any before us, paralyzed by information, overwhelmed by knowledge and freedom, pinned to the portrait of the world by a thousand satellites. Here I am, painfully cognizant of the the fleeting nature of these gifts, filled with dollars and youth and passport stamps, Google maps and cheap gasoline and the English language. I am soft-palmed and childless; I am full of the sure knowledge of invisible things. I look at the world and see DNA and plate tectonics and gravity – forces undreamt of by Columbus or Moctezuma! And I take it all and spend it on olives and beer and the search for the perfect wave.

I couldn’t tell you if this is right or wrong.

From Mexico to Nicaragua, an aside: Notes on Roads

A word about the differences between traffic in Guatemala and Mexico.

While camping in Oaxaca, beneath the palapas of a particularly friendly and sweet family that I hope to revisit on my way back up North (lord only knows when that particular adventure will happen, if ever, but you know, intentions for the future and so on), we complained to them laughingly about the excessive number of topes (large, ubiquitous, SERIOUS speedbumps) in Mexico, and asked whether Guatemala had many topes. The topes, it must be said, had become a running joke among us: the vast taxonomy of topes, from “shadow topes,” which are concealed by the lines of shadow that trees cast across the road, to “ghost topes,” which are topes that have been indicated by a sign and yet never actually manifest, to simply “oh fuck” topes which scrape horrendously along Cochita’s undercarriage and tailpipe. But when we asked our new friends about the tope situation, they replied in complete and concerned seriousness: No, there are not very many topes in Guatemala, and in fact it is a great concern and an indication of the inferiority of the country and its disregard for safety; how can roads be safe without topes? Guatemala, if it knew what was good for it, would invest as swiftly as possible in a sweeping program of tope reform. Topes for all!! Chastened, we dropped the subject.

At any rate, whether due to the topes or – more likely – to the increased poverty in Guatemala – the traffic over the border was immediately and profoundly more chaotic, mostly in the wild diversity of vehicles on the poorly-maintained single-lane roads. Everyone! Motorbikes (ranging themselves from powerful bikes with single riders, to rickety contraptions loaded down with multiple passengers plus a cargo of sugarcane or straw or towers of empty plastic bottles), pickup trucks with their beds crammed with people and luggage, lorries with bits of their overflowing contents flying off the top, cars of every shape and size and condition, wildly painted chicken buses, cartoon-like mini-buses on tiny wheels proclaiming LOVE JESUS on their windshields, horses, the occasional donkey cart, agricultural equipment, and every single vehicle scrambling aggressively to pass the rest of the traffic along twisting, dangerous mountain roads.

It wasn’t as bad as India, but actually, it was as bad as parts of India. And as beautiful: jungle now lining the roads, the traffic more dangerous but also more colourful, from the sunset mangoes cresting the top of a truck’s container, to the spectrum of t-shirts of passengers packed into pick-ups, dangling off of chicken buses, and clinging to the backs of motorbikes. Occasionally the mountain road would give us a slice of the view, hazy hillsides dense with forest.

Jane was driving, and she took it like a pro, gunning Cochita’s 1.6L of power to stay on the tail of passing cars, zipping past tractors and bicycles and snail-paced huge trucks then ducking back in the face of oncoming traffic. We drove all the way to Xela, without stopping, climbing to that beautiful mountain town where the streets are cobblestoned and precariously sloped and as narrow as the alleyways of Paris, forcing all of the cars to park with two wheels on the curb and two in the street and a prayer that the mirrors don’t get knocked off. Not that we didn’t encounter wild driving in Mexico as well, but it was mainly confined to the cities, where lane markings are regularly ignored in favour of cramming in an extra lane-and-a-half of traffic. (Truly, this seems to be a beloved tactic in most countries on earth – someone should get wise and maybe just paint narrower lanes.) And the cuotas (toll roads) of Mexico are fabulous, expensive but in better condition than many American highways, populated by fast cars that cost many times more than Cochita. Guatemala’s roads were the first taste of how deeply impoverished Central America is in comparison to North America (a continent which very much includes Mexico, in more ways than just road quality), and just how different each of these marvelous countries are. Mexico and Central America! Eight countries previously lumped together in my inexperienced mind as a vaguely Spanish-speaking mixture of jungle, beach, tacos, and a sprinkling of drugs and murder. You know, of course, that they’re all different. But you don’t really know, until you see for yourself.

 

Cochita Siempre!

DSC_5815

We are in Guatemala!* This means that Cochita (as we have now named the car; it means, approximately, “little female car”) has travelled the entire length of Mexico, from the frontera at Piedras Negras (Eagle Pass, TX) through the states of Coahuila, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Puebla, Oaxaca, and Chiapas before reaching the frontera at Hidalgo and passing into Guatemala. In all, it took us exactly two weeks: we left the United States on February 21st, and crossed the border into Guatemala on March 5th.

Let me tell you, first-hand, that two weeks is a very short time to drive from one end of Mexico to the other. The country is BIG, the road and traffic conditions are variable (though generally excellent), and there is so much to see. But we were racing against the clock to deliver Jane to the Guatemala City airport on March 6th, and so we hauled ass out of Austin at 5AM and catapulted ourselves south, leaving a trail of Freon in our wake and acquiring more and more broken español. Our glorious madcap rush found us barreling along the cuotas (toll roads) at 140 km/hr, easing Cochita over innumerable topes (enormous, mind-blowingly effective, undercarriage-scraping speedbumps), and careening around the curvas peligrosas (dangerous curves) of the mountain roads of Oaxaca. In two weeks, we stayed in the same place for more than one night only once: when we camped in a beautiful, deserted meadow in the mountains near El Capulin, at one of the sites where the monarch butterflies overwinter after their great migration. In total, we spent six nights staying in hotels of wildly varying quality and expense; five nights camping, all for free; and two nights staying in hostels, where the uniformity of the international backpacking community was further confirmed.

There were times at which I felt vaguely guilty for dragging Jane and Ben along on the trip. We had hatched the plan back in November, while I was visiting Jane in Illinois. In approximately the amount of time it took to drink two beers, they decided to drive through Mexico with me. It was a rash decision. I had advertised the trip as “tons of fun.” And now, instead of making lifelong friends on a delightful local bus, or flying from Chicago to the Yucatan in the blink of an air-conditioned eye, or even drinking whisky in the comfort of their own homes in Illinois, they were crammed into a tiny two-door Honda Civic, munching on off-brand Fritos and tolerating my fondness for Taylor Swift.

The fateful November conversation had gone something like this:
JENN: So, yeah, I’m driving to Nicaragua. I’m going to spend Christmas with some friends in New York, head down the East Coast, go to Miami, visit my grandmother in Mississippi, and then get to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. After that, I think I’ll pretty much head for the border.
BEN: Oh, sweet, I think I have some friends who are going down to Mardi Gras.
JENN: You should come too! I think Mardi Gras is going to be awesome.
BEN: Yeah, totally.
JENN: And then, ha ha ha, why not just jump in the car and come to Mexico!
BEN: Ha ha ha!
JANE: Hey, that sounds like fun!
BEN: And actually, I won’t have a job right then…
JANE: And I kind of want a holiday before maybe going back to school…
JENN: … Wait, for real?

And without much more discussion, really, I acquired two travelling companions for the Great Mexican Road Trip of 2015. Did they regret it? I wondered, especially during the first week of the trip, in which Jane and I both suffered greatly from a severe case of the flu. Did they wonder why the hell they were engaging in this arduous test of endurance, without even enough time to take full advantage of the opportunities car travel affords (exploring areas not easily accessible by bus, etc.)? Did 6’1” Ben’s knees just want to murder me dead? Did they flip through the Lonely Planet looking at the bus fares and comparing them to the thousands of pesos that flowed through our fingers at the Pemex stations? Certainly there were times when I wondered, myself, whether I shouldn’t have just left the car with my grandmother and booked a one-way ticket to Nepal. Why the inexorable desire to drive a four-wheeled advertisement of gringo wealth through a half-dozen countries all strongly warned against by the state department?

The road trip, though. The road trip. That’s the why. The romance and independence of the road, and the family-trip camaraderie of the backseat, yes, but so much more as well. There are things that you experience when you travel by car – or on foot, or by bicycle, or any other means in which you cross every single kilometer under your own steam – that are not experienced when you step inside a magical carriage and wake up the next morning in a totally different place.

Air travel, of course, completely occludes the areas in-between. Bus and train travel can be wonderful, and present their own unique rewards; the days I spent criss-crossing India in the sleeper cars of sardine-can trains were some of the most interesting days of travel I’ve ever had. When you drive, though, you see the transitions between places. The slow changes, the ways that one region blends into the next: in America, the way that New England gives way to the tri-state area, blending slowly through Washington DC and Virginia into the deep South, with the outliers of Miami and New Orleans keeping their own counsel. We blasted through Texas pretty quickly, but the whole border region with Mexico is like a third country. Then the north of Mexico with its endless desert and cartel domains, the influence of the United States very strong; the enormous throbbing heart of Mexico City; the vibrant culture of Oaxaca, and then the long journey over the cool, foggy mountains, descending endlessly to arrive at last on the beautiful coast.

To experience the geological and ecological shifts of the continent of North America has been incredible, and I would love to do this trip again but starting much further north, seeing the taiga thicken into forest and thin out again into prairies and deserts. Though the beaches of Chiapas are a far cry from Edmonton at -20 Celsius, I find that I’m left with a strong sense of the continuity of North America, rather than its fragmentation. Diversity, of course – inspiring, remarkable diversity – but commonality as well.

For now, Ben and I are beginning a week of immersive language school here in Quetzaltenango (Xela), Guatemala, at the Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco de Espanol, and thus I will have regular internet access (hurrah!) until the 13th of March.

The MAP has been updated with all of our stops in Mexico; in places where we camped, I have done my best to put the marker exactly where we were, so zoom in if you wish. I’ve also added a list of car troubles to date, which you may find amusing. Pictures coming soon!

* At the moment, “we” includes myself and my friend Ben; my friend and former college roommate, Jane, was travelling with us through Mexico but she flew home to Illinois yesterday morning.

happy new year from canada

TRUE STORY:

When I was an undergraduate student, I had a friend who lived down the hall and was prone to asking well-meaning but clueless questions. One day we were sitting in the lounge on the fourth floor and he turned to me and said, “Jenn, I have a question.”

“Sure, A,” I said, looking up from my textbook.

“Well, I was talking to S. And, you know, she’s on the golf team. So she was telling me that while she was at home in Ottawa over the break, she’d been doing some golfing…”

Long pause. “Yes?” I prompted.

“So, I was just wondering… do you have indoor golf courses in Canada?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “Did she say she was at an indoor golf course? I would have assumed she was just outside, like normal.”

“Right,” said A, leaning forward earnestly, “but how could she be golfing outside? I thought that you didn’t have any… you know, grass. In Canada. Isn’t it all just ice and snow?”

I corrected him, but now I’m wondering if he may have been right after all. I come from the weather-privileged enclave of the Pacific Northwest – Cascadia, if you will, the enchanted emerald region that my friend G hopes to one day be president of – and we do not have snow. We have a couple of inches of slush that melts long before Vancouver Island’s single snowplow can make a sad attempt at pushing it off the road and onto the perennially green grass. We have rain, and also drizzle, and clouds and mist and fog and a general sense of majestic gloom. If you happen to be looking out at the ocean or the forest, you might experience it more as an ancient, implacable fecundity – the mossy faces of evergreen islands being covered and uncovered by mists that obscure the division between shore and sea so that the swelling kelp forests unfurl like shining roots below the firs. Everything is alive and in motion, from the rain dripping off of mushroom caps to the tiny fronds of barnacles’ fingers combing plankton from the tide. Green and growing, 24/365.

This is the Canada I grew up in. Canada for wimps. As soon as I crossed the Rockies the snow began to fall, and temperatures were in the negative twenties all through the Prairies, causing my car to make an unpleasant strangled screeching when I started it up. This seemed like a reasonable protest. I had never even contemplated driving a car in such conditions and I remain faintly amazed that these ever-so-ordinary machines continue to get us from place to place, nobly skidding across frozen roads and breathing gasps of hot exhaust into the frigid January air.

Below the border, though, things were WARM. I spent Christmas in upstate New York enjoying bizarrely spring-like temperatures, even getting a brief lesson in barefoot running which included prancing across a muddy field on nothing but the tender soles of my own two naked feet. We wore cotton instead of wool and vetoed a Christmas fire because it was simply too warm outside. My car did not sound like an angry robot baby when I started it up.

Very relaxing. Then I drove back up to Montreal for New Year’s, and experienced what A might have been imagining when he thought of Canada: temperatures steadily dropping as I approached the border, snow accumulating on the ground throughout New Hampshire and Vermont, and then BAM – Quebec and -14°, frozen fields and snow in the forecast. It felt like I was heading into the Great White North, my foot on the accelerator speeding me away from positive temperatures beneath the wide gray sky. When I arrived in Montreal, I parked my car near the mountain and stepped out into the cold. CANADAAAAA!!! No golfing, and easy to imagine that the transition northwards is like this year-round: bare feet in New York, snow globe winter wonderland in Quebec. I spent New Year’s Eve bundled into a firelit chalet on the edge of a frozen lake, keeping warm in a variety of old-fashioned ways and sending up prayers of ardent appreciation for my homeland: her kelp forests and shivering frostbitten birch trees, her teeming Pacific shoreline and black, bubble-starred frozen lakes. Her jagged mountains and vast open prairies and deep woods and her people, her people most of all. The First Nations to whom the land first belonged to, and the generations of immigrants who have made our homes here, all of us shaped by this land as much as we allow ourselves to listen to it.

I am so grateful to have driven across this great country (well, almost across – apologies to Atlantic Canada, I promise to visit you in the future). Happy New Year from Canada. And farewell, Canada – in a few days I’ll be shooting southwards and not looking back.

Written mostly from a table in the Frist Campus Center, Princeton University

When I was admitted to Princeton, I didn’t want to go.

I was in grade twelve, sixteen years old and attending Esquimalt High School, and I lived in horror of snootiness and conservatism. I had only recently found the courage and inspiration to express myself exactly as creatively and freakishly as I wanted to, and it was making me happier than I had probably ever been. There was a scruffy-headed artist that I was innocently in love with. I played the double bass and danced with purposefully bizarre motions to any live music that could be found. Together with my best friend, we designed treasure hunts and performed nonsensical skits in the hallways and prank-called our friends. And then into this paradise dropped the famous Dean Hargadon “YES” letter: not yes from Yale, which I thought seemed vaguely arty, or yes from Harvard, which at least was HARVARD, but Princeton.

Princeton – the good ol’ boys club that I had visited during a school break, when the only student to be seen was the bland tour guide who told us the same things as the brochure and convinced me that I wanted to be at absolutely any school on earth other than Old Nassau. The prestige did not change my mind. Reading Fitzgerald did not change my mind. I wanted to go to McGill, live in Montreal, and be BOHEMIAN, for fuck’s sake. Beret and baguette and bottle of ink. What was the point of escaping the torturous doldrums of adolescent bullying and awkwardness, and Discovering Yourself as the kind of girl who wanted to wear four different skirts in four different colours, all at the same time, only to squander it on the toniest and most soul-crushing of all the Ivies?

Not that, as a sixteen-year-old native British Columbian, I had any idea what an Ivy League school even was. But I knew I didn’t want Princeton. I’m not sure if I would have actually refused admission; most likely my parents would have exercised their judgment and insisted. What happened instead was that the school flew me out to visit as a “pre-frosh” and cement my acceptance, a common custom among ritzy American schools that seemed unfathomably lavish to me. I would guess that 80% of my high school classmates had never heard of Princeton University. Most of them had never been to America at all. A round-trip flight from Victoria to Newark, NJ cost at least $600; we bought the ticket on Princeton’s dime and I flew by myself for the first time in my life, showing up bewildered but determined in New Jersey. This time the campus was alive and chaotic with students, and I was put up with a sophomore theatre major from Calgary who stuffed my bag in the corner of her messy common room and promptly dragged me off to see a play.

This was the play: THE WILD PARTY,* a musical based on a poem written by Joseph Moncure March in 1928. The poem was considered obscene enough to be widely banned. There was an orgy scene. I may have seen a penis; I can’t quite remember. How would it seem to me now? Certainly I’ve observed a lot more penises. At the time it was like nothing I’d ever seen, bawdy and arty and altogether strange, full of speeches I didn’t quite understand and lighting that cast body parts into abstract sculpture and songs that didn’t sound like anything I’d heard in a musical before. The acting was very good. The performers were confident and beautiful, and they seemed very old to me, though now I realize that they were very young. I fell in love with all of them. I had so little experience with the theater. It blew me away.

That night I lay restless and uncomfortable on the loveseat in the common room, curled up into a ball and watching through slitted eyes the shadows that the high lead-paned windows cast onto the cluttered floor. The hallways of the dormitory and the paths outside were full of trickling voices and footsteps as students went to and from Prospect Avenue, the road abutting Princeton’s campus lined with frat-like “eating clubs” in which most of the campus’s partying takes place. The Calgarian’s roommate had invited me to go out with her that night but I refused, awkwardly, terrified of these party houses that dedicated themselves to institutionalizing the elitist socio-economic hierarchies that were the very reason I didn’t want to go to Princeton in the first place. Also, I was painfully naïve, and knew it: I had never been kissed, had never been drunk, and in fact would not get drunk for the first time until my sophomore year at Princeton. I still thought of myself as a hapless outcast from the social life and mating rituals of my peers, and the idea of going to the eating clubs filled me with a thousand kinds of self-conscious dread.

When the roommate returned, jacket unbuttoned and purse slung carelessly from one limp hand, I shut my eyes and pretended to be asleep. I listened to her shucking off her ballerina flats and stumbling slightly on the debris blocking her bedroom door, and I curled further into myself, like a snail’s golden ratio coiling tightly around my decision: this is where I will spend the next four years of my life.

 

* Coincidentally, there was a woman who acted in The Wild Party who graduated that year, so we were never at school together and never met; but five years later, we wound up as teachers together in India and became friends, along with her husband. I am sitting at this moment in their living room, about to eat breakfast with their two young children before we go ice-skating and engage in other Christmas Eve activities.