From Mexico to Nicaragua: Part 1, our last night in Mexico and some typical traveler’s problems

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Playa Linda

 

Our last night in Mexico was spent on the coast of Chiapas. We slept on the beach at a place called Playa Linda, camping out under the palapa roofs of a man named Gilberto who approached us like many of the other Mexicans we met by the beach: shirtless, grinning, hair straggly with salt, welcoming us and offering us a broad selection of mariscos (seafood). As in many other places along the coast, we bought dinner and were permitted to set up our tent for free under the shelter of the palapa, Cochita parked nearby. Gilberto and his family had their house a bit further back from the shore, the rear guard for their collection of palapas advancing along the sand. Telenovelas were playing on a tiny television near the open kitchen where they cooked our dinner, with a fat baby asleep in a hammock nearby, oblivious to the overwrought young couple making out onscreen. The hotels and seaside restaurants of Chiapas all seemed to have a feature unseen in Oaxaca: large, low, freshwater swimming pools made of cement, the sides coming up a few feet above ground. Gilberto tended to his lovingly, pacing through the water at sunset, sweeping for debris, rejuvenating the chlorine. We never saw anyone swim in it.

That night, I ate a delicious plate of ceviche, drank mezcal on the beach, and then fell asleep in the tent with Jane for about an hour and a half, at which point I was woken by terrible pain in my stomach and spent the next four or so hours writhing and groaning miserably on the dirt outside of the toilets, enduring waves of piercing cramps that left me drenched in sweat and collapsed on the ground, or the cement stairs, or the broken-down plastic chairs, or the toilet with its tank boiling with frantic hormigas (ants); whatever godforsaken position I was when the pain struck me.

Fortunately (or unfortunately?) I had experienced this type of stomach problem previously in my travels, and rode it out, stoic in the knowledge that I just had to puke my guts up a little more and the offending particles would work their way through. Near the end, Jane sat with me and, to distract me, retold the sections of Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal that we had listened to that morning in the car. “So, he went to live with the Douglases,” she said, and I rose up in my sweaty delirium to protest, weakly, no, no, Dursleys.

Shortly thereafter I fell asleep and woke up, dazed, having forgotten entirely about Harry Potter. She was recounting a bit muggles seeing wizards in the workplace and I wondered vaguely what she was talking about – wizards? – and drifted off again thinking how strange it was, that I was lying on a yellow waffle camping mat on the packed sand of a seafood restaurant in Chiapas, with my college roommate by my side, the woman who was one of my first and best friends in that singular experience, while my very first car watched over us from the side, resting with my entire life crammed into her small trunk. Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal. Perilous Mexican ceviche. Journeys undreamt of in 2003, when I probably still had environmentalist aspirations of never owning a car. Soon after, I dragged myself back to the tent and slept till morning, when we woke and drove the scant few kilometers to the Guatemalan border.

a few pictures from Nicaragua

Nicaragua! Things that have happened: bid farewell to Ben at the Managua airport; bought a surfboard; celebrated my birthday with an enormous pinata; sprained my ankle; more-or-less healed the ankle; explored a half-dozen beaches of the southern Pacific coast of Nicaragua; learned about the hell-on-earth that is San Juan del Sur on the penultimate day of the Semana Santa.

The heat is a beautiful enveloping blanket, searing at midday when we walk up and down the steep dusty roads to the coast toting our surfboards; comforting at night when the wind blows through the thin screen of our tent; and always, always riding the fine line between sensuous and overwhelming. At noon today I stepped out of the shower, cool for an instant, then five minutes later wondered in despair if my skin would ever be free of sweat again. But now the ubiquitous wind is blowing, blowing, blowing towards the sea and the open second floor of the hostel is shaded and cool, perfect, paradisical in the sheer luxurious pleasure of warm air flowing over my body.

Some photographs:

 

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Handstand improvement, slowly. Playa Hermosa.

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Sunset beach-goers, Playa Hermosa

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Howler monkey – there are hundreds of them in the forest here, screeching to each other at night.

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Nicaraguan flag

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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!

 

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.

From Mardi Gras to Mexico: the journey continues

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Sunday costume – je suis un ananas!

I write from Austin, Texas. One week ago I arrived in New Orleans for Mardi Gras; two days ago I picked up my friends Jane and Ben and drove with them to Austin. Tomorrow we cross the Mexican border. The first leg of my journey is over, and from here on out I won’t be enveloped in the hospitality of old friends; I’ll be ‘hablo-un-poco’-ing my way into the lives of people I haven’t even met yet. I can’t imagine what awaits.

Mardi Gras was a dream, and I wish I’d had more time to spend in New Orleans. There are a few cities I’ve visited on this trip where I’ve felt like Yes, I could stop right now, park the car and just start living here. New Orleans was one of them. Unfortunately, it’s going to drown in a few decades – along with Miami – and I can’t decide if it’s brave or idiotic, romantic or head-in-the-sand, beautifully rebellious or blindly defeatist, to throw your chips in with a doomed paradise. Where were YOU the night the world changed forever? There is no such single night, really, and so every night along the road feels a bit like that. We’re poised on the edge of a precarious future, slipping further into it all the time.

Below, too many (and yet not nearly enough) Mardi Gras photos. Next missives from Mexico!

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Jakob on the way to Eris

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Eris winds its chaotic way through the streets towards the river

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The first of many, many, many marching bands I would see

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Beautiful faces in the crowd at Eris

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The jester, Eris

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Jakob on the railroad tracks as I walk on the wall beside them

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A moment of affection on the riverbank as the parade reaches its final destination

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The choir sings to close out the Eris parade

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Bacchus, where John C. Reilly threw me some Mardi Gras beads. 

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Bright lights and confetti at Bacchus

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LOUP GAROU, the canoe parade! Hands-down my favourite parade.

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Waterborne revellers

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The cacophony of being underneath a very low bridge with a very loud marching band and dozens of people hollering and banging their paddles

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Society of St. Anne’s parade, Mardi Gras day.

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More from the Society of St. Anne’s, Mardi Gras day.

 

 

Florida Keys

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Tallahassee, Florida. This morning I left Miami and began my drive to Clarksdale, Mississippi. “What brings you to Tallahassee?” the front desk clerk asked. “I’m on my way to see my grandmother in Mississippi,” I replied, which statement always makes me feel like (1) I’m Little Red Riding Hood and (2) I need to give some kind of explanation about why a West Coast half-Asian hippie has a Mississippian grandmother. Not that the front desk clerk, of course, gave a shit about anything other than fulfilling their company’s guidelines for friendly customer service.

Today’s entry is brought to you by ten hours on the road after not-enough-hours-of-sleep, and will therefore consist solely of photographs of the Florida Keys, where I was last weekend.

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highway through the ocean

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canals dynamited into the limestone by the army corps of engineers, so that everyone can dock their boat

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sleeping porch… basically, paradise.

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did you know: some species of bamboo can grow up to THREE FEET in one day, so fast that apparently you can hear it growing.

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palm fruits of some kind

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“the porch” bar in Key West

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feral roosters in Key West

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Bahia Honda beach

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sandpipers. I will never, ever get tired of their busy little legs.

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SPLASH

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Bahia Honda beach

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sponges



earthly possessions

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Apologies for the poor quality of this, but it’s 11:30 PM and I’m taking pictures of drawings with my phone in a dimly-lit living room.

The above is an accurate representation of the last week of my life: travelling on a lot of trains, both above and below ground, with nothing but the items shown.* It was – unsurprisingly – liberating. Things I missed having, in order of how much I missed them: my camera, my water bottle, my laptop, more books. Things I did not miss at all: additional toiletries, additional clothes, a sense of responsibility. Something about travelling so lightly made me feel like I’d fallen off of the radar, ceased to exist to the ordinary world. Slipped between the cracks, in a good way. The laws of convention stopped applying to me.

Q: How did I wind up spending a whole week travelling with only these few scant items?
A: An overly ambitious New York social schedule, and an excess of booze (consumed by both myself and others.)

For now, sleeping again in Pawling, NY. Tomorrow, Washington DC, and by the end of the week, Miami. Where temperatures will reach 26 degrees (I can hardly imagine it – we skated on a frozen pond this afternoon), and I will encounter alligators and swim in the ocean. A few more stops and then New Orleans for Mardi Gras (Feb. 17th), and then MEXICO. Sleep tight…

 

* Including the clothes on my back, which, for those interested: Doc Martens from grade 11, two pairs of socks, black jeans, underwear, bra, undershirt, button-down shirt, cardigan, silk scarf, wool scarf, down jacket, hat. And, oh, my wallet. And some lip balm.