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.

Boquete, Panama: climbing Volcan Baru

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Cochita is in the shop with a broken head gasket, so we have been stuck in the mountain town of Boquete, Panama. Yesterday we decided to actually get off the couch and go do a bit of mountain-climbing; we didn’t make it all the way up, but here are some photographs from Volcan Baru.

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From Mexico to Nicaragua, Part 5: Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco

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Hallway at PLQ

Each morning I would wake up in my small bedroom (yet probably larger than any of the other two bedrooms), organize my things, and groggily head out to the kitchen, where Noeimi, the grandmother, would put food before me. Both parents would have already left for work, and Alejandra and Ayline would be in their school uniforms. One morning we ate cornflakes with milk and sugar, and Ayline set a small bowl for the cat, filling it with cornflakes and placing it on the table next to hers. The cat – thin, elegant, orange-and-white striped – jumped up and sniffed at the cornflakes but was not impressed, despite his frequently-demonstrated love of tortillas, and so Ayline asked very seriously if he would like milk, and poured the bowl half-full. Satisfied, the cat deigned to eat with us.

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On my way to PLQ in the morning

After breakfast I would walk for five minutes down cobbled streets to the school, shuffling along the narrow sidewalk beside its long yellow wall and then pushing open the large, metal-framed wooden doors. Typically of Spanish colonial cities, the building containing PLQ is bland and featureless, fortress-like, from the outside; but the thick walls encircle a graceful colonnaded courtyard, ringed by high-ceilinged classrooms. Opening the main doors to such a building is like entering a secret paradise, particularly to those of us raised in different architectural surroundings, where a long blank cement wall probably indicates a boring collection of cement boxes lit by buzzing fluorescence, rather than a gorgeous private garden and elegant archways.

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The courtyard cafe, PLQ

After entering this beautiful place I would sit in the courtyard at a small pupil’s desk with my teacher, Domingo. The classes were one-on-one and lasted from eight until one, with a break at 10:30 for coffee and snacks. I sat down at the desk on the first day buoyed by my success with my host family, and exhilarated at the prospect of being back in school – a place, despite my disastrous experiences in pursuit of a master’s degree, that I still feel excited by and at home within. Domingo straightened his books and papers and folded his arms in front of himself on the desk, looking at me with level dark eyes. He wore a white tunic with embroidery around the neck. “So,” he said in Spanish, “Jennifer. Tell me about yourself.” And so I commenced speaking Spanish, uninterrupted, for five hours, for the first time in my life.

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Ben and his teacher

We talked about many things, including why I love the study of evolution, whether or not facebook is the devil, and how fucked-up American intervention in Central America has been. PLQ has a strong leftist bent (at the “graduation” dinner at the end of the week, we all belted out the song “Bella Chao,” whose chorus includes the declaration SOY COMMUNISTA!) and tends to attract students who have interests beyond travelling and holidaying; my classmates included volunteers with organizations back in America helping undocumented immigrants, volunteers with medical and humanitarian organizations in Latin America, doctors working in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods in New York, and two hipsters from a bicycle cooperative in Minnesota who also had a largely Hispanic clientele. Then there was me: just driving through, man. Just staying a week. No plans. Never studied Spanish in my life. Passing through, passing on.

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An interesting collection of fellow students

We all became friends during the 10:30-11:00 a.m. coffee break/recess, when a bell would ring and we would all look up from our books and scramble for the little round café in the middle of the sunny courtyard. Inside there would be carafes of coffee and a huge basket full of approximately six types of sweet, airy breads, and we’d sit outside talking and balancing handfuls of the insubstantial pastries on our laps. I would unwrap my Tibetan shawl from my shoulders – the mornings were mountain-cold in Xela, but by the coffee break the air would have warmed up. Domingo and I usually moved our desk into the shade before resuming our lessons.

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Schedule of extra-curricular activities

In all, it was remarkably SCHOOL-LIKE. There was a wildly bearded man from Seattle who told me he’d never liked school before in his life, but finally, at PLQ, he was getting into it. “This is what it should have been like all along, man!” he enthused.

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.

 

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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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.

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