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!

 

Cochita Siempre!

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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.