Saturday, December 27, 2008

mangrove update

So, I went on another man-yak adventure in the manglar and discovered the source of all the rice krispie snapping and popping. Turns out it is some clam like animal breathing through the mud. Finding things out is an imagination killer, here I was thinking that it was the mangroves rocking in the breeze, or maybe small mangrove spirits communicating with one another. I guess a little shell breathing in the mud is pretty cool.

cocktails from the city

I love San Francisco, I miss San Francisco. The City combines so many great things at once, bohemian undertones, a riotous history, a potent melting pot of cultures and fantastic food. We also have quite the history of cocktails, and it seems we are still making an impact, or at least the nyt says so. Read on...

Friday, December 26, 2008

the haps in costa rica

(Images, from top to bottom, Newly macheted trail and a 'walking palm,' the view from the 'hotel' back down on the disco and dining hall, the famous Rara Avis spine destroying tractor)

I'm in my new christmas sarong sitting in my hotel room in cuidad josefina reflecting on where the last year has taken me. Christmas passed with fewer fireworks but more beach as well as an entertaining round of Secret Santa with my group. It is a bit strange to be divorced from the strange consumer culture of Gringo Christmas and realize what the rest of the world does for the holiday. Strange, but incredibly liberating, I completed all of my christmas shopping in a 15 minute stint on line (books for brothie and pops, an orion magazine subscription for momma and lucky eva). Here christmas seems more to center around family, fireworks, drinking, tamales, church if you are so inclined and/or salsa dancing in the street. I have come to conclude that the Latin way is preferable though there is the possibility of injury by renegade fireworks.

I spent most of the afternoon with Isaac (a fellow tour leader) on the beach discussing why latin/gringo relationships do and do not work, as well as why we need a new name for gringos other than calling ourselves "Americans," which the Ticos find incredibly offensive. The Ticos have a point, America in fact includes both the north and south continents as well as greenland (I think). So the word, American, is kind of a general geographic area, not specific to our country. I am pushing for Statesians, that or Unidians, either really works, or Gringo.

Additionally Isaac explained how he feels like the heavy Gringo influence in Costa Rica has been eroding the core of Latin culture, namely the family. It is true, globalization, mobility, etc, etc... the world's leaning towards mcdonalized homogeneity has an affect here. Isaac reckons that family is more of a responsibility in the States rather than a priority. I feel like that is a pretty generalizing statement, but it has roots somewhere.

Generally in my travels I do see the erosion of a lot of traditions, the revival of others, I see good things happen as the result of tourism, and bad things too. With most of life, I am realizing that it is best to live well, with integrity, to try to do the right thing when presented with choices, and accept what we can't change. It can be hard watching tourists feed monkeys food that is going to make them sick, but I also can't talk to every tourist. I also don't want to be some over aggressive angry chick muttering about how bananas make monkeys sick, how your camera's flash disorient animals, and that yelling in english or botched italian at spanish speakers doesn't make communication easier. I have learned to try inform the people that I can and to pick my battles, and some things I am just learning to accept quietly. Good news is I can brainwash my passengers into believing anything I want, namely convincing them not to buy non-sustainably harvested hardwoods, that feeding animals is bad, that the tap water in monteverde is the best in Costa Rica and it is a crime not to drink it, oh and introduce them to the wonders of guanabana the world's best juice.

Other things worth mentioning....

I finally saw a huge fat male resplendent quetzal and was so excited I forgot all about taking a photo. He sat for 15 minutes, threw up two avocado seeds (a much smaller variety than hass), took a poop, and then flew away. How can you not love a bird that feeds almost exclusively on aguacate?

Rara Avis
is my new favorite place in Costa Rica. It is a jungle lodge, 12k out in virgin rainforest only reachable by foot or on the back of a tractor, complete with rastafarian tourguide Wilburth and amazing fried chicken. Riiiigght???

Finally, an important lesson, just because you think you learned how to dance Cumbia once while you were drunk does not mean you will remember how to do it when you get drunk again and try.

Feliz ano nuevo.
damn I need to find the enay on this machine.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I have a new obsession: mangroves. Man are they a cool ecosystem. I had the chance to go kayaking last week in the mangroves near Manuel Antonio. It was a 3 hour trip, some how I ended up being the only one in a single, but I managed to just keep up.
Mangroves grow in the places where fresh and saltwater meet, they grow in the mud that is deposited by freshwater on its way out to the ocean. The way that they survive living in the oxygen poor mud and water is by growing these crazy root systems that are exposed at low tide. Different species use different systems to accomplish respiration, some have little snorkel like tubes that stick out of the mud, some grow father up the shore line, some have tall root systems that stick out of the water. Ooooo they are cool.
But the best, most amazing part are the super tall white mangroves. They can be 10-20 meters tall, have long trunks and amazing roots that support their heavy trunks. They only grow back from the main canals as they need firmer mud to support them. Along the canals grow the shorter more bushy red mangroves and the pine mangroves.
The nice part about being in the kayaks is that is was super quiet, we could hear everything, and mangrove forests make a lot of noise. Sort of like a bowl of rice krispies, cracking and popping, I am not sure what makes the noise but it is really amazing. The whole thing reminded me of the life of pi, when he gets stuck on that island for a while.
On the paddle back home we fed some capuchin monkeys palm fruits (one of their normal foods, unlike bananas). My passengers were totally stoked on it, I was pretty impressed but kept my distance, I still haven't gotten over the monkey attack in Nicaragua.
There is something so magical about being out on the water under your own command, sans motor, just cruising along. I think that the weirdness or other worldliness of the mangroves makes the whole thing more special.
okay I am going to take my dreamy self and get ready to start my next trip.

la gemma perdida

coming at you live from San Jose, Costa Rica, ciudad Josefina, with a smog induced sore throat and jonesing for the ocean iiiiitttttttttttttttttt's Hemma!
Ok, so I have been sucking it up on the blog the last while. I keep telling myself I am going to get online and make it happen but life keeps getting filled up with other things. I am not sure what those things are but I have a feeling work might have a bit to do with it.

Mostly the last while has been dealing with the beast of a cold front that trampled its way across Costa Rica. I have never bitched so much about the weather in my life. It was so wet that my shoes started to mold and I forgot what the sun looked like. Finally it made its appearance making my last crew of passengers very happy. I threw myself on a chaise lounge and burned the crap out of my left armpit, so much for sun protective deodorant.

I've been off for the last couple days in SJO, not my favorite place to be stuck, but it does have its charms. I managed to get about half of my clothes stolen (yes mikee I have just decided going au natural is better) so when ALAINA arrived I made her go shopping with me. Shopping has lead me to a cultural observation here... regardless of your actual size everyone here thinks they aren't bigger than a medium which makes shopping and a griga gigante pretty frustrating.

More importantly has been the incredible amount of laughter that has occurred as a result of Alaina y Gemma in Costa Rica. Not unlike most times it is hard for me to recall what exactly was so damn funny, but here are a couple of my top moments...
telling the story of Eva puking in the cab on my, oh wait I mean ALAINA'S jeans in spanish
ordering extra whipped cream on our tcby sundae the day I decided to stop eating dairy
jumping rope in mall San Pedro

Alaina thinks that I should share that I have bought a jump rope in another attempt to not be an embarrassingly out of shape ex-athlete. Good idea dad.

Otherwise it has been randomness, laughter, a bit too much pilsner, an amazing trip kayaking through the mangroves (i should write more about that) and my first sushi since leaving the states (if that isn't a reason to love San Jose I don't know what is).

Saturday, November 15, 2008

barrilettes gigantes

Being in Central America long enough to see giant kites twice is pretty amazing. On 1 November, Dia De Los Santos the sky is filled with huge kites calling the souls of the dead back to earth. Though other pueblos also celebrate in this way the two best known places are Sumptango and Santiago Sacatepequez.
Last year I went to Sumptango and had my first taste of pollo pibil sitting near the kites in a dusty field. This year after a crazy morning of yelling at shady tour operators in spanish (no I won't pay $7 to be crammed on a chicken bus full of gringos) Alaina, Erica (alaina's mom) and I made it to Santiago. Unlike in Sumptango the festival itself takes place in the middle of the village cemetary. People walk on top of freshly dug graves of dirt, decorated by marigolds, families eat picnic on top of cement crypts painted garish turquoise, little boys pee on the backs of grave stones with their abuelos standing near by, cerveza Gallo is left below the wooden crosses as an offering. It is classic highlands Guatemala, busy, loud, chaotic, and gorgeous.
Families with 4 generations present watch the kites launch into the air. The crowds suck in a collective breath as the kite takes flight, exhales the same "ahh" or "ohh" as it suceeds or fails. Children fly smaller kites, running across the uneven dirt to get them started.
Some of the kites aren't finished until the late afternoon, all morning crews stand there glueing together the tissue paper to the thick bamboo skeleton. It is a thing of beauty, months of planning, thousands of dollars spent, all for one day.
Posted by Picasa

Monday, November 10, 2008

playing catch up

I know I have been a bit mia from the blog scene for most of october. I don't have so much of an excuse, unless having too much fun is acceptable. So I may stick with that. Mostly what happens is the choice comes down to tying myself to the tiny eee pc and writing about the stuff that has happened or going out and living life as it comes. But of course things have happened that are worth putting words to. So I will try and give you a quick and dirty sense of what october was all about...
place: seoul, korea
duration: 9 hours
mode of transport: airport shuttles, moving sidewalks, feet
Not being the most organized of travelers (a damning admission for a tour leader) I didn't realize that I was going to have a nine hour layover in Seoul until the last minute. Luckily the day before leaving Phnom Penh I had the chance to pick the brain of PCV whose family happens to live in Seoul. He mentioned there being a Kimchi museum in the city, so after checking out Korean culture at the Korean Culture exhibit in the airport and making a traditional paper dish, I jumped on a bus to the city. This of course was a far more complicated process which required talking to many a tourist office, bumbling my way through and atm, buying a bus ticket and finally escaping the airport. But I did make it out of the airport and all the way to some bizarre underground mall where all things Kimchi are housed.
The museum itself was kind of a let down. I mean I think I may have had unreasonable expectations including un montón de kimchi and maybe being able to try to make some myself. On the other hand you can pose yourself next to a mannequin so it looks like she is feeding you kimchi, but I didn't have anyone to take a photo of me doing it. I did learn about the health benefits of Kimchi and finished up the whole experience with a quick lunch of korean fried chicken and many a sauce at some packed mall cafe. Then it was back on the bus, and back to the terminal to smell every Hermes perfume I could find, and debate purchasing overpriced duty free goods.

place: marin county, california
duration: 6 days
mode of transport: gti, feet, mountain bike
It took me a couple of days to de-asia myself. Which meant washing out the Cambodian dust from all my clothes and eating sushi. I also did a ridiculous amount of online purchasing, and hung out with NAR NAR RAR! Oh and I voted. Just so you all know that, I did vote, Dan at the civic center hooked me up with a ballot and I got to practice my democratic right and darkened the bubble for OBAMA. And before I had the chance to unpack mary completely I was off again to...

place: Chicago, illinois
duration: 7 days
mode of transport: alex's merc, the L, feet, one van cab driven by a polish raver
Chicago was COLD. I spent most of my time fighting with Bubbe over how cold my feet must be, which resulted in the purchase of a pair of brown ballet slipper-esque shoes. Apparently you can't wear flips 12 months out of the year in Illinois. Alex showed off urban living mid-west stlyes, and I enjoyed my last tastes of life in the states. Things learned during my time in chicago: Milwaukee is banging, I hate urban driving, there is good mexican food in the middle of the eeuu, I should use "I" statements rather than forcing my political opinions on impressionable children, and one can make a delicious kuguel with rasin bran rather than corn flakes.

place: Antigua, Guatemala
duration: 2 days
mode of transport: taxi, foot
Upon arriving in Guate I found myself without Mary, which meant, no bag, no change of clothes and two days stuck walking around in my new shoes that at that point had caused my heels to bleed. The next two days I spent waiting for my bag, harassing taca, and eating Korean food. There is a korean restaurant in Antigua, run by a Korean guy. And there is KIMCHI. Holy hell.
Finally Mary showed up, flops were put on, and my smile was regained.

place: Xelaju, Guatemala
duration: 6 days
mode of transport: chicken bus, foot, taxi
Two chicken buses, a light coating of guatemalan dust, a quick taxi ride from Minerva to Las Flores and I found myself dancing in an embrace with ALAINA. Holy holy shit. Nothing like seeing a good friend in a bizarre location. The days were spent dancing to prince, madonna, and michael jackson, eating peanut butter by the forkful, telling stories in spanglish, practicing irregular verbs, cooking to motown, and laughter by the bucketful. Alaina, like me, is not so good with travel plans, we had to cut out of Xela a day early to meet her mom in...

place: Antigua, Guatemala again
duration: 4 days
mode of transport: chicken bus, microbus, foot
Back on the chicken bus to chetumal, than a chase for the bus to Antigua, a ramble to the hotel and we were back. Erica arrived late, but the next day we all reunited over a big fruit breakfast. Something that will forever have changed me is the perpetual availability of tropical fruit here. I get twitchy with out a frequent dose of pineapple, papaya, mango, and melon. mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.
My next trip started on Sunday so besides a jaunt to Santiago for the barilettes gigantes (which deserve their own post with photos) I was running from internet cafes to the korean restaurant to one of the hotels to queso y vino for most of my time back in antigua.
On sunday, the arrival day of my trip I came down with some g.i. bug. So the night before leaving for honduras Alaina held me as I shivered through the night. Big up to the Garries. I love you guys.

Time post Antigua has been mostly spent under the sea. Some of my friends out on Utila have convinced me that getting my dive masters may be the next step for me, I am pretty excited.

I'm in Granada, Nicaragua currently witnessing some pretty wild reactions to yesterdays Mayorial elections. Not quite the same as what just happened in the states. I was with my whole group eating red snapper and watching the states turn blue. It was a pretty amazing thing to witness. The most inspiring part was seeing the international reaction, I was with only one other American, and yet everyone in the bar was plastered to the tv. Change is coming man, change is coming.

More to come on giant kites, maybe some photos, and all the next adventures.

Friday, October 24, 2008

svay chrum

Though these images can't capture the dust, the taste of soy bean juice, the sounds of pigs screaching before dinner, the long conversations with Michael as we waited for electricity, they do convey at least some fragments of my time in Svay Chrum. Thanks again to Michael and her lovely Cambodian family. Ah kun. rice paddies
along the road towards the wat

sunset at the bridge

rooftop laundry

first day of school

Thursday, September 25, 2008

elephants at the wat

I went to Angkor sometime last week. It was rainy to start, but the weather got with the program and kept things cool, but dry. Later in the afternoon the cloud cover broke up enough to afford me some nice looking light.I have been a bit apprehensive about writing about Angkor. I feel like it was one of those things I heard so much about, how impressive it is, how inspiring and amazing. But this is the thing, they had elephants. Ok so I know that is weird comment, elepants, but you have to keep in mind I hang out in Mundo Maya, there were no elephants there, no horses, no llamas, no beasts of burden to speak of, no wheels. Now I am not trying to compare Maya pyramids to Khmer temples, I just feel that the elephants explain why I feel a bit less bowled over by Angkor. They had elephants to carry those big rocks while the Maya carried them on their backs. But yes, they are beautiful and impressive works of ancient architecture, elephants or no.

The first day I took a tour with some friend's of Michael. We did the whole guide thing, with a tuk-tuk, complete with lunch at the expensive tourist restaurant. I dig on having a guide, as long as you can get a good one, they point out interesting things, give cultural context, and for me make big piles of rocks make a bit more sense. Another part of the guide thing is that they won't get you lost. My second day at Angkor I went back to do some sketching and painting, entonces I didn't have a guide. Though I had been there the day before I still managed to get lost over and over again. Obviously getting lost means getting to discover things on your own, it also means that you can miss some things entirely.

It was really nice to sit and watch the world pass by, and to slow down viewing the faces of Bayon to the speed of my pencil. Plus, being the sketching Barang you become a bit of a tourist attraction yourself.

Images (from top to bottom)
Elephants on the road towards bayon. The exterior of Bayon as seen from the north. Takeo's eastern side. Flags within the temple on the top of Takeo. Alter in one of the entrances of Angkor Wat.

Monday, September 22, 2008

on the road in kampuchea

We're back in Siem Reap after a couple of bone jarring, gut wrenching days of travel. On the way up we found ourselves mired down in deep mud twice. The first time just outside a small village about two hours north of Siem Reap. M and I spent the 45 minute pause chatting with the locals, including the two in the photo. The second mud caused delay came just after the turn off from the main highway about 3k from the guest house we were headed towards. After a couple minutes of watching the wheels spin we abandoned the driver and our guide, opting instead to walk the kilometers on the muddy road towards the promise of a shower.
We had made the journey to check out the eco-lodge in Tmatboey of the NGO M has been volunteering for and to pick up another PCV who had been teaching English to the local guides. It was actually a very very cool place in the middle of no where. Though I would not suggest it to just anybody (I woke up the next day sore from the ride) but if you like birds and really getting off the beaten track it was a pretty epic adventure. We got mistakenly taken on a bird watching trip to see the endangered white shouldered ibis, which ended up being much more cool than I might have thought. You can check the place out, Sam Veasna Center.
Over night the rain fell fast and hard and we knew the next day the roads would probably be in a worse state. They were. An ankle deep creek from the day before had swelled to almost cover the doors of our Nissan truck. The driver ended up with water in his foot bed after we managed to cross the damn thing. Add to this, four of us were crammed across the back seat of the four door cab. Uncomfortable as it was, being jammed in was a bit better than the jostling around the two of us had suffered through the day prior. Luckily on the ride down the only thing that brought the car to a complete stop were the herds of cows that created grid lock on the one lane dirt road and we made it back to Siem Reap in time for a late lunch.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

solving those mysterious mysteries

One of my favorite parts of travel is interacting with different cultures and coming to know some of their subtleties. But some of those things feel unsolvable, or inappropriate to ask about, and then they become mysteries. One such thing was the inexplicably long nail that many Asian men sport. I never knew really how to broach the subject, I heard all sorts of bizarre rumors about its meaning and felt awkward in bringing it up. That is where having a cultural expert as one of your best friends comes in handy. Michael's 18 month tenure in Cambodia means that she is well versed is almost everything Khmer. Meaning she knew the answer to the mystery of the pinky nail.
So here comes the answer... ready??? you sure? No, it does not signify anything perverse or strange, but is actually a way of showing you aren't a manual laborer. This points out an interesting value in Khmer society, that people want to display the fact that they do not work with their hands. I find this fascinating because it plays into the larger story of how our bodies themselves can be read as cultural texts, many of our culture's values are conveyed through the way we care for and decorate our bodies.
Now if I could only figure out why they prefer pink toilet paper in Central America....

sophisticated lady

The story that follows is being shared in the tradition of turning my embarrassing foibles into entertainment (poorly written entertainment maybe). If you have a weak stomach, or just don't like hearing about as we put it in spanish, vomitando, don't read on. Otherwise...

Though the road from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh is quite smooth, any bus ride can be destructive after enough vodka. The night before had started innocently enough, but somewhere between $1 drinks and the desire to dance things got a bit carried away. Never the less M and I were highly motivated to get ourselves to PP, and upon awaking at 8:30 we somehow felt that taking the 9:30 bus was a better option than waiting for the 12:30. I admire our enthusiasm, really I do, no matter that we missed the 9:30 and instead found ourselves booked for the 10:30. Finding ourselves with a bit of extra time we spent half an hour bumbling around procuring water, noodles, and bread for the bus ride, promptly throwing ourselves on to what we though was the bus at 10. Of course, this being Cambodia we weren't on the bus, we were on the shuttle to the bus, which meant changing buses in the rainy muddy mess that is the Siem Reap bus stop. Safely on board I had a stunningly terrible realization, I was hungover, and not in that, “Oh, my head hurts.,” sense. No, no, more in that, “Holy shit, I might die, but before that happens I am definitely going to toss my cookies,” sense. As much as I tried to talk myself out of it, had a distinct feeling that vomiting at 60kph was in my near future.

Luckily I have experience with this type of thing, there was an incident some years back where I emptied my stomach into a pint glass to a chorus of shouts from my mom while sitting shotgun in one of my family's cars. Additionally I spent most of my childhood suffering from motion sickness (severe enough that I had never driven down Highway 1 until I was in my twenties). So when it comes to throwing up I can give you a 30 second window before it is going to actually happen. Which means that I had enough time to hide beneath my scarf, procure the plastic bag that contained the remnants of my coconut bread and vomit straight into it, all the while Michael took photos of the proceedings, after which a very adorable Khmer couple across the aisle took pity on me and passed motion sickness pills across. I thought it would be smooth sailing after all that, passed out for a while, only to be awoken by the panic of needing another plastic bag. At this point I had the previously filled bag precariously stuck inside a larger plastic bag, in my panic I somewhat missed the bag and managed to coat the back of the seat, Michael's calf, and a portion of the floor with regurgitated water before aiming the rest of the mess into the bag. Now we had to petition the couple across the aisle for another bag to bag the now leaking other bags in. Luckily it was only about ten minutes to the first rest stop where I was revived by a bowl of noodle soup and green tea. This meal is conveniently a fantastic cure to hangovers, restoring precious salts and fluids in one easy to digest bowl. Meaning that by the time we got back on the bus I was feeling rough, but generally okay to suffer through the next 5 hours of bus ride.

And no, I will not be sharing the photos, I draw the line there.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

toul sleng

I think that one of the toughest parts of travel is confronting the darker parts of a country. There is an impulse in travel to idealize, to skim off all the good parts, and not look at reality. The problem I find with that approach is that it ends up feeling empty, sanitized, and false. Though seeing poverty up close, people with diseases, people missing limbs, children begging for food, is not what we go on vacation for, it is also part of the places many of us choose to travel. How we interact and understand the people from the country in which we travel to says a lot about us as people and the places we come from.
Cambodia takes it beyond just dealing with our reactions to poverty, Cambodia asks us also to face a brutal history, a history many of us know little about.
I am not an expert in Khmer history, but through my previous travels in SE Asia I knew a bit about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rogue. But until my trip to the Tuol Sleng genocide musuem the atrocities that occurred in Cambodia during 1975 until 1979 felt like most history, distant, relegated to dusty gray photos, and having little to do with my present. Tuol Sleng is like a slap in the face, the history jumps out at you, dragging you through the interrogation rooms, sucking you into the eyes of the prisoners, and leaving you at the end reeling and wondering at it all.
Though the trip to the museum was not what I would call pleasant, it was the most worthwhile thing I have done since I have been here. It gives this country and these people context, something that makes me feel like I have actually experienced Cambodia rather than just, "doing" it.

one of the interrogation rooms, where prisoners were tortured

one of the larger interrogation rooms, numbers were painted on the wall marking spaces for individuals

the exterior of building "C" where the majority of the prisoners were kept in individual cells of brick or wood

brick cells constructed in the interior of building "C"

photos of some of the prisoners in building "B"

Monday, September 15, 2008

tot umbee kampuchea

view from the tuk-tuk leaving russian market

central market

outside the national palace

the girls of phnom penh

mikee with tea post pedicure

peace out lonely planet

I feel that the guide book might be evolving. At least I really hope it might be. Two recent indicators of this are Urban Lowdown and Sean Bonner's Metblogs. I learned about Metblogs through a feature in Good. These are both new discoveries, and I am not telling you that they are any good, though they might be, I'll have to explore them a bit more before I develop and opnion on either of them. What I like about them, or the idea of them is that maybe, possibly, those damn writers at the Lonely Planet will no longer dominate the world of backpacker style traveling. And man, do those writers make me crazy. More than them, it is the travelers that won't make a decision with out the LP's approval. I mean I get it, you want to have the inside track to a place, but often times a LP writer may only spend 10 minutes asking questions about a place, and never stayed there or eaten there. The implied advantage of these sites is that local people write them, they really know these places, and they don't have to write a whole book about a whole country in 5 days. So that is my spiel on guidebooking, that is until I get my shit together and write my graphical guide to central america. Oh, one last resource for you facebook addicted or avoiding travelers is Matador a social networking site for travelers. Do it up.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

i heart PP

Phnom Penh is like an ex-pat, do-gooder, NGO flavored, 'let's help these people,' explosion. Wow. Combine that with the remnants of French colonialism and you get kick ass pan au chocolate made by a street kid, who has been newly trained in the secrets of french gastronomy. After breakfast you can head out and buy yourself a wallet made out of brightly colored recycled mosquito netting. End the day having a drink at the FCC with the other ex-pats wearing their, "I voted for Obama in Cambodia" t-shirts which retail for a staggering $15. For that price, as I said to Mikee, those t-shirts better be made in the USA by well paid union workers.
Sarcasm set aside, I really do heart P squared. It has all the makings for a refreshing stint back in the city, wifi, cappuccinos, thai food, americans, western supermarkets, and rock bottom priced dvds. Michael and I headed back to P2 after two nights in Siem Reap. She had some official Peace Corps scavenger hunt planning to do, and I had to be there as moral support, or something like that. Mostly I ended up enjoying the gastronomic offerings of a ex-pat developed city and tried to not get in the way of official PCV business.
Inspired by all the delightful discoveries that Meesh shared with me, I thought I would pass along the tips. First off we stayed in Golden Gate Guest House on 278, along the same street are a number of delightful discoveries, the boom boom room where you can get your ipod loaded with the latest tunes, top banana (Mikee's favorite guest house), and a delicious Thai place (the name escapes me). Another feature of 278 is Maharaja, where all the PCV like to indulge in the gut bomb of Indian breakfast. Right around the corner is, semi-famous Garden Cafe in it's second incarnation, Garden Cafe 2. Besides GC2, is a very very cool recycled product boutique, Smateria. Their products are made from plastic bags, old mosquito nets, and tetra-pack. It was started by two Italianos, and now is a cute little place filled with friendly Khmer, happy to let you snoop around and decide if a wallet will fit your passport and five currencies.
If you are feeling like a traveler with especially full pockets, or just feeling the need to have a shwanky afternoon head over to the devastatingly cute and gastronomic blocks of 240. There you can stock up on killer baguettes and french cheese at VeGGy's, wander down the street for croissant and dragon fruit smoothies at the shop, where all the IT people feed, and buy chocolate for your Khmer sweet heart at Chocolate (the shop's chocolatiere off-shoot). The Shop is that kind of place that makes you feel cooler and more with it than normally your hairy legs and dirty sandaled feet would allow. My first time in there 3 french business men were 'doing ' breakfast in pale suits and crisp blue shirts, meaning I stuck out like a sore thumb, but they do a mean cappuccino, so who cares?
Another ex-pat hot spot is Java, which besides serving Illy coffee, also displays local art and organizes cool events, like Architecture and Urban Design month. Finally another cool food meets art place is Friends they have a little boutique and a restaurant near the National Musuem. I fell in love with their cookbook, From Spiders to Water Lilies. The restaurant is a sort of Jamie Oliver deal, teaching kids about the biz and arming them with a set of marketable skills.
Most of the things that the sell in the little shop are recycled items, in the same vein as Smateria. It has been very inspiring to witness so much positive grass roots community stuff that Phnom Penh has to offer. Almost every cafe you go into talks about how it uses local produce, fair trade coffee or helps disadvantaged youth. The cynic in me wonders how many of them are doing as well as their mission statements, carefully constructed in english, might imply, but the optimist in me hopes that it is an indication of the direction the world might be headed, that finally we might be learning from our mistakes.

Friday, September 12, 2008


My arrival in Phnom Penh was the stuff of noir novels or movies in which everybody smokes. I always find late night arrivals strange and disorienting. I would probably be a bit more successful with the whole thing if I were a bit more tortured and poetic. Ah well, I am just not a late night artiste (say it in a over done bad french accent). Instead I drag myself to the immigration desk to procure a visa, chose the slowest immigration officer to stare at my passport, arrive at the luggage carousel as two employees are about to take it off to god-knows-where, wander through customs and find myself in the steamy Khmer night air.
There waited for me a taxi driver with a sign with my name on it. I had a moment before I left where I decided any attempts to be a hardcore traveler after 24 hours of travel was a bit beyond my interest and booked an airport transfer. So there was no time to stand and smoke a hand rolled cigarette while inhaling the heavy tropical air. I just gave the man my bag and settled myself in the back of the cab. Though it was past eleven some of the tuk-tuks still roamed the street, people were still cooking in brightly lit street-side food stalls, and the city had not yet succumbed to that eerie late night slumber distinct to cities.
I arrived at my hotel, climbed the stairs and fell on to the bed. By then the hour had past 12, finding me minus a monday, but able, via the hotel's wireless, to talk to my parents. What a blessing and a curse technology is. We can never fully disconnect, and yet we can find a way to connect with the people we love over distances that 30 years ago were prohibitively expensive to surmount.
Tuesday morning I grabbed a tuk-tuk to the bus station where I boarded a two story deluxe bus to Siem Reap. I fell victim immediately to an introduction to Khmer karaoke videos, which though featuring water wheels and crying Khmer girls sitting in the brown river waters, don't compare musically or visually to their Thai counterparts featuring flashy motos. I combated the musical assault with a combination of my ipod and a book.
That being said I did spend a bit of time staring out the window as Cambodia slipped by the windows. It is the rainy season here, so much of the very very flat land is either flooded by mud brown water or covered by the soft young green of rice paddies. The landscape gains height from the straight trunks of palms that stud the landscape. The sky was a tumultuous mix of grays, purples, and blues, fighting with the sun for dominance over the scene.
Midway through the ride we made a stop at a typical roadside place, as I got off the bus I found myself in a swarm of pineapple toting kids all trying to win my 2000 riel in exchange for their fruit. The women carried baskets of fried tarantulas and decapitated fried frogs. One of the little girls showed up with a live counterpart, a huge fuzzy spider clinging to the front of her well-worn dress. They all giggled and explained that the frogs were frogs, tried to stick the spider on me, and wanted to practice their English. Amongst that pack of kids, frogs, and spiders, I found myself strangely not suffering from culture shock, rather than reeling from difference, I almost felt more at home on this Cambodian roadside than I had arriving back in the states.
I've been missing the chaos, the rhythm, the mud, the life of being on the road. It was nice to be back in a bus with my only responsibility being keeping myself entertained. After staring at all the fruit, pineapple, tamarind, rambutan, durian, I got myself back on the bus and settled in to my green pleather seat, with its lace head cover, and fell asleep for a good hour.
Upon waking I started thinking about the upcoming reunion I was headed towards. My primary purpose in visiting Cambodia had been to go see one of my best friends, Michael, who has been here for the past 18 months with the Peace Corps. The last time I saw her was on Valencia street in San Francisco. Our paths crossed for a brief laughter filled five minutes before I hopped in a car on my way to SFO where I was to catch a flight to Singapore. Michael on the other hand had just arrived in San Francisco for here Peace Corps training. Fast forward to last tuesday, I pull up in a tuk-tuk outside Siem Reap's Blue Pumpkin to a leggy blonde sitting outside reading Al Gore's book on climate change. I had escaped the muddy bus station, hopped into a tuk-tuk and now was but 2 meters from Mikee. Needless to say there was a lot of laughter, hugging, and stories to be shared, which is what the last week has mostly been filled with.

Monday, September 8, 2008

thank you please...

I've just arrived in Seoul, Korea, passed through ridiculously slow security to a chant of, "Thank you, please," repeated in sing song by the Korean security girls dressed in khaki polyester uniforms. Now I am in the windowed terminal watching the sun creep towards the western horizon. My only real glimpse of Korea was a smattering of islands silhouetted on the rippled silver of the sea not far from the airport.
It is about eleven hours from SFO to Seoul, I kept myself entertained with my new favorite magazine, GOOD, and a book that came highly recommended, Three Cups of Tea. Of course, both have left me feeling equally optimistic and depressed about where the world is headed. A topic to which I feel many words could be dedicated.
Good talks about the poor state of the Public School in the US, while Three... documents the efforts of an American mountaineer to build schools in Pakistan. Education, and I am not talking calculus and chemistry type stuff, but the basics, reading, writing, 'rithmetic, is something that, at least in my opinion, everyone should have access too. Yet in our attempts to help educate the world I often wonder with our western ideals and ideas what impact we end up leaving.
I consider this stuff a lot. In my job we like to proselytize how low impact and sustainable our way of traveling is. Many travelers love to be arrogant about how they are giving back, how they stay off the tourist trail, and how they live like locals. But at the end of it, we go home, or go somewhere else, and I wonder what is left in our wake besides empty water bottles.
In another fantastic book, Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, the author talks about his impact on the l0cal people he develops relationships with. As I have spent more and more time in Central America I often find myself torn. I don't want to perpetuate ideas of American wealth and prosperity, I want to be generous with friends, but not feel like I am buying them or that they are exploiting me. I end up feeling my hands are tied. And the more I read the more unsure I feel. A bright light in all this thinking were two quotes that I felt at least made a lot of sense to my thinking, they follow....

It may seem absurd to believe that a "primitive" culture in the Himalaya has anything to teach our industrialized society. But our search for a future that works keeps spiraling back to an ancient connection between ourselves and the earth, and interconnectedness that ancient cultures have never abandoned.
-Helena Norberg-Hodge

"Tell us, if there were one thing we could do for your village, what would it be?"
"With all respect, Sahib, you have little to teach us in strength and toughness. And we don't envy your restless spirits. Perhaps we are happier than you? But we would like our children to go to school. Of all the things you have, learning is the one we most desire for our children."
-Conversation between Sir Edmund Hillary and Urkien Sherpa, from Schoolhouse in the Clouds

I'm not sure any of this makes much sense, but it is a glimpse of what is swirling around in my noggin as I am on my way to see Miss Kohan out there in Cambodia. Than you, please.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

te extraño

Nestor next to his newly repainted van which is still missing its bumper.
Isla Ompetepe, Nicaragua

Long exposure on the beach. Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua.

Summit of the "Extreme Hike." La Fortuna, Costa Rica.

Early morning on Ometepe. Isla Ometepe, Nicaragua.

Friday, September 5, 2008

what to pack...

My friend Alaina is getting ready to head off on an adventure starting in Guatemala and has been asking me for advice on packing. Of course being the opinionated girl that I am I have a lot of ideas about packing.
The thing that I think is the most important is your pack. I am a bit of a brand monogamist when it comes to packs, osprey being my favorite. I've been traveling with my pack, Maz, a waypoint 60 for the last couple months. Though the design of the day pack is a bit funny, she is pretty much bomb proof and some how manages to fit a mask, snorkel, 7 scarves, my 5000 guatemalan bags and pouches, a kilo of chiapan chocolate, t-shirts, chaco sandals, chaco flips, running shoes and a pair of nicaraguan sandals, you know, all the essentials.
I have a habit of naming all my packs, Maz, short for Mary, was named after another bag toting babe, Mary Poppins. Many of my passengers have commented on my ability to fit a lot into my packs, not unlike Mary's carpet bag.
An important feature in a travel pack for people like myself is a front zip, rather than a top loading pack. I have a tendency to let my stuff explode all over my hotel rooms, something that has been reduced by the appearance of Mary on the scene. Front loading packs mean you have much easier access to all your stuff, which means you never have that, "Fuck, I packed my tooth brush on the bottom of my pack AGAIN," moment.
Another part of choosing a pack is size. I rock between 50 to 60 liters. I personally don't think you need more space than that unless you are planning on spending all your time in the backcountry cooking for yourself. I always have dreams that I will downsize into a 30L, but with the job, and being on the road so long, I have a tendency to bring comfort items and collect a bit of a library.
Next major piece of advice... DO NOT pack a full size towel. When I see someone with a towel strapped to their pack the same things run through my head... mildew, dirt, waste of space, and who the hell told you to pack that? Do yourself a favor, pack yourself a travel towel (get a lite or ultra lite variety) or pack something even more versatile, a sarong/pareo. A sarong can be a towel, a blanket, a dress, and what you want out of the things you pack is that they are versatile. If you're not going to use something a lot then it is probably not worth packing. Things that often fall into this category: heavy hiking boots, pairs of underwear numbers 8-21, dresses only for salsa dancing, kilts, and curling irons.
Beyond that things that I can't leave with out...
playing cards, good for making friends, good for distracting yourself
my ipod, i am hopelessly addicted
my moleskine journal, for sketching, note taking, and writing
chaco flips, best best best flip flops in the world (the pair i have now are 4 years old)
Otherwise for the most part you can find everything you need on the road. If the locals aren't using it, you probably don't really need it. A good resource for packing is the travel independent website.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

geek out

Oh my. I know I can get totally geeked out over silly things, cheese, good pens, fonts, i.p.a.
Still buzzing from hanging with the artsy types in Copenhagen I have been preparing for a more artistic mission on my upcoming trip. Hence the geeking out over mechanical pencils, sketch books, maps, and the like. This all lead to an epic internet binge where I unearthed some exciting stuff.
First thing is Good magazine's cool map that details famous journeys. I think it is worth a bit of an explore, especially if you enjoy a bit of good design. I fiddled around with it for a bit looking at Kerouac crossing the states, and the trans-siberian's epic journey spanning asia.
Though very different Good's map somehow reminds me of the hand drawn maps from Mark Elliot's guide to southeast asia. I used this book extensively while I traveled through the region. Before I arriving I couldn't really grasp the usefulness of the thing, but it quickly showed it's true colors. The maps were way more convenient than all that usual wordiness and the book was missing all that strange commentary that the Lonely Planet writers feel free to include. It is not the book for you if you want a hand holding guide book, but if you are more on the pirate, yarh-ed out end of traveling you might dig it, or you might not want a guide book at all.
In my dreams I will someday write a similar graphic guide book to central america, the problem is I keep getting mildly distracted by other things. Bad excuse I know. One such thing is project inspired by Valeria. She broke my heart when she showed me Stefano Faravelli's book on his travels in India (In viaggio con l’elefante). If I never had a desire to learn Italian and move to India before, I did after looking at this book. Learning Italian so that I could read his writing, and India because, well it's India. I also stumbled upon the blog of a drawing course in Italy that also focuses on documenting travels in a similar manner.
So now my plan is to drag watercolors and pencils to Cambodia and spend my time drawing and painting the days away, while of course laughing my ass off with Michael. We shall see how it goes.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

go read this book...

I come across a lot of amazing books in my hours spent on buses, trains, planes, and waiting for all of those things, as well as for people. One that has really struck me, and cast a new light on travel for me is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. Travel writing for the most part inspires envy, or at the very best appreciation in me and usually that is because I am in the place or the region which the writing is about, but this book was different.
It got me thinking about the reasons behind my love for travel. Even better than that provided me new ways of enjoying and looking at my travels. I would wax on but Alain says it all much better than I can, so I will leave it to him.

Friday, August 22, 2008


I have been thinking a lot about inspiration over the last couple weeks, where it comes from, why we find certain things inspiring, and how to put all that inspiration to good use. My friend valeria has a cool blog, an online notebook of inspiration of sorts. I put the link to it on the sidebar for easy reference.
The nice thing about inspiration, for me at least, is that I find it in many places. Probably too many places, leading me to a kind of unfocused spazzed out enthusiasm where I end up feeling full of ideas of which I am not sure how to put to use. A frustrating and common feeling for me, which leaves me fiddling, but never feeling like I've accomplished much.
Somewhat inspired by Valeria, I feel like it is time to push this blog in a slightly different direction. Not to worry, stories of my flailing spanish and foible-filled adventures will still get billing, but I will also try to be a bit more of a travel resource as it were, actually give you all place names, and real information. It feels a bit daunting, but I am trying to have faith that I can do it.

To start...
Hands down most exciting place in London for me is the Borough Market (London Bridge tube stop). I spent this morning there in gastronomic paradise. I usually have to start at Monmouth Street for a cappuccino, where they tell you the name of the cow that made the milk you are drinking. After tasting their coffee and milk you understand what the big fuss about single origin and small producers is about. I will admit part of my love for Monmouth is the care and pride the take in what they do. Each of their coffees has a story to it, a story they want to share with you (check out their pdf of coffees on their website).
Monmouth is somehow affiliated with Neal's Yard cheeses, which if you are down with cheese is probably heaven. My brain kind of spazzes out everytime I end up the place, I can never remember the names of the cheeses I buy (I need to remember to write them down in one of my 1500 moleskines), and I always end up feeling like blowing the whole day's budget on cheese is a-ok. It is probably what most 15 year old boys feel like when in the presence of the cheerleading squad.
Another required stop on the tour is at Brindisa for a chorizo sandwich. Oh my god. If I were going to choose my last meal, this would be part of it. Grilled happy little roll, olive oil, rocket/ruccola/arugula (depending on your preferred idioma), some kind of roasted red pepper, chorizo. I would provide the required food porn of this, but I always end up eating the sandwich before taking a photo comes to mind.
Otherwise there is just a lot of shit to drool over and curse your lack of kitchen with, or you could just eat your way through the place. Market days are friday and saturday, with a sort of half assed showing on thursday, but if you are in town on a tuesday go anyways, it is worth it. I promise.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

ikea, youkea, wekea

I have been in Scandinavia for most of the last week, visiting an old friend and a newer friend, and generally soaking up all that Northern European stuff. My friends live in Copenhagen, which has been a joy to visit. Somehow the idea of going on holiday to a place like Copenhagen seems like something someone far hipper than I would do, and yet here I find myself sticking out like a sore thumb with brown hair, wearing beat out nicaraguan sandals, and dirty jeans, all the while missing the accessory de jour, an argentinian scarf.
The thing is not being up to date on fashion kind of comes with the territory when you are American and in a place where jean technology is decades ahead of what we are wearing in the United States. Additionally I have discovered that my dad would be way in fashion if he were still rocking the same style as he was in the early seventies and living in Denmark. I saw a Danish truck driver today who was a dead ringer for him in his old photo albums. Who knew my pops had his finger on the pulse of hipster fashion? He was just a bit before his times.
Valeria who hails from THE place of fashion, Italy, claims that all scandinavians look the same, fake blonde hair and crazy jeans. I would say there is a bit more variation, but as a general rule there is a bit too much peroxide use for my liking.
Style and design, I have learned is taken very seriously here. Ikea is just the tip of the design iceberg, and everyone has their own take on neutrals and white accesories. I think the approach here is pretty awesome, but I usually find myself attracted to this type of aesthetic, so I am no too surprised. The thing I find more exciting is the way the Scandos dig on coziness. In fact the Danes have their own word for that cozy friendly feeling you have when you are all snuggled in with friends, a nice bottle of wine, a fire crackling away, and candles lit, hygga. And god knows in a place like this where the nights come early one needs all that to chase seasonal depression away.

Monday, August 11, 2008

post-kastoori post-wedding pre-denmark

Things that make me supremely happy:
1. Kastoori tomato curry and the newly discovered cauliflower cream, even if Indian food makes me feel like I might end up with another case of montezuma's revenge.
2. Laughing about the same five quotes that David said while we were all sitting in the porch feeling like we might die from our hangovers.
3. Trying to get rid of the above mentioned hangover by throwing my u.p.i. battered body into the rough sea with my whole family, alysha, cousins, and annie, while getting stared at by english wet suit wearing boogie boarders.
4. Finally figuring out the London bus system.
5. Buying a ticket to visit Andreas and Valeria in Denmark.
6. Eating toast with marmalade for nine days straight.
7. The fact that Eliot is now officially, 'in the family.'

Thursday, August 7, 2008

beer, alysha, annie, and the dueling macs

Soooooo.... life changes fast when you are Gemma. I swear last week I was in Mexico, wait last week I was in Mexico, and now I am in the Old House, abusing the wifi with Annie and Alysha attempting to get drunk before purchasing plane tickets to random countries in Europe. It's good to be back with native english speakers laughing about the poor state of the American Dollar.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Mamma Trish y Pappa Elvis

Cenote outside of Valladolid

El bano de la reina, Palenque.

On the way to San Cris.

Graveyard, Chiapas

swimming the halocline

I am running a family trip right now which means that my life pretty much means guiding a really really nice Danish family through the Yucatan. And because they are so nice we didn't go to Tulum (overrated) and instead ended up swimming the afternoon away in Yal-ku lagoon in Akumal. It is the kind of place where giant parrot fish like to come hang out and the kind of place that makes me incredibly happy. The reason I like it so much is because of the halocline, the meeting of cold freshwater from underground rivers and the warm water from the sea. When the two waters mix everything becomes a swirling blurred vision. But if you dive below the point where the two waters meet it suddenly becomes crystal clear. Somehow in that swirling green water, chasing parrot fish, I felt totally at home.
I've been down here for nearly 10 months now and though this is not completely home, I have a sense that neither is California. I worry that no place will ever completely hold me, that I will always feel a longing for another place. Maybe that is just the curse of the vagabond.
Somehow the image of the two waters, both clear on their own but hazy upon mixing feels like my position in the world. Some people live in fresh water and things are very clear for them. Some people live in the sea and things are very clear for them too. And some people live in the halocline, and though we catch sight of clarity at times, more often we live in the haziness of being able to live in both environments.
Lately life has been teaching me that no way is right, no way is better than another, everything just is. As we learn to accept the way things are, the way we are, my haziness is no longer a curse, but a thing of beauty. So that is where I find myself, swimming along in the beautiful confusion of the halocline.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

guate guate guate....

I am a little pissed at Guatemala. She stole my heart back in October and still hasn't given it back. And then the other day she once again bowled me over with her beauty. It may be hard for some people to believe that there are still huge parts of Guatemala that I haven't seen, but it is true. The road from La Mesilla to Panajachel via Huehuetenango is one of those places. And damn is that ride gorgeous. Worn limestone hills that look like emerald camel humps give way to sheer water carved canyons cradling rainy season brown rivers. Along the roadside one catches glimpses of women weaving on back strap looms, men carrying impossible loads of wood on their backs, and the fresh green of the growing maiz. Through the mists of Cuatro Caminos, past the market at Solola, to our first glimpses of Guatemalan Volcanoes. Then Lake Atitlan finished the journey, gracing us with a beautiful showing of blues and purples as we rolled down the hills towards her waters at sunset.
The only thing that would have made the journey better would have been doing it by chicken bus.
Most of this time in Guate has been spent doing various tourist activities. We had a hilarious visit to Maximon, in his new house. This time I did have my camera, which lead to two underexposed very expensive photos, (now my mom may still put me back into her will if I can only get her to forgive me for the quiche debacle). Another entertaining portion of the last week has been practicing my chicken bus calls with Tiago, a fellow tour leader. I think he may have me beat, but he has latin blood, so I figure I am still the best gringa at screaming, "GUATE GUATE GUATE!" or my personal favorite, "CHICHI CHE CHICHI CHICHI CHE!"
The most poignant and beautiful experience that I have had in the last week was when Tiago got me to go out and visit a small town outside of Antigua. The place is Santiago Zamorra, and when you organize a tour with their women's weaving cooperative they will come get you in a pick up truck. Then you ride out for half an hour, through the fields of maiz, cafe, and frijole to Santiago. There the women will meet you, tell you the story of their town, about their cooperative, about the kids they support and teach you things like how to grind coffee. It was another reminder of what makes travel important and good, those moments where you really connect to another person, when you realize that your being there is making a difference, that we are all truly in this together. Plus as Tiago says, the food is so good, you could be enticed to go out there for nothing else, so between the Pepian and the amazing community it was a satisfying afternoon.

Monday, July 7, 2008

the good stuff

I think one of the great flaws in the human brain is our tendency to focus on the bad stuff. Sometimes I snap out of that cycle and realize what a stunningly great place we live in, how blessed we are to have this chance at being human. Today has been one of those days. I am writing this from highway 180 in the state of Campeche, Mexico.
I spent the morning shooting the shit with my driver Pasqual, who has determined that besides having a small mouth (which sounds weird in translation) I am also atrevida (which translates, at least in mexico, to something like daring and playful). While my group was checking out the ruins at Uxmal we went and got gas, I drank an epic amount of jugo de guanabana and kept throwing the seeds at things, sometime that thing was Pasqual. What can I say? I am pretty sure I still am about 5 years old.
After picking up the crew we headed out on the road. At the state border we were stopped by a super guapo soldier who wanted to check that we weren´t carrying fire arms or drugs in our van. I of course got right into conversation with the soldiers and ended up spell checking their poorly edited sign which concluded with, "hava nice day." They tried to convince me that a local english teacher from Toronto had written it, but the Canadians are way better spellers than that. Anyways after grabbing a photo with the men in uniform we loaded back up to drive away, and as we were pulling back on the road one of the soldiers were pretending to dig out the sign.
I think that one of the things I will miss most in leaving Latin America is the playful approach to life that most people take. People here (for the most part) are more interested in having a human interaction than just getting the job done. An attitude that leads to a lot of laughter at arms and drug patrols.
With that I will leave you.

Friday, July 4, 2008

once dias

I had eleven days off. It was strange to have all that time of freedom. I didn´t consider what I wanted to do that much. One thing was obvious, a visit to Hopkins, to Kisment, to my home, was in order. Hopkins was a discovery back in January, when my ferocious crew of she-goddesses and I had departed Guatemala in search of a new year adventure. We found ourselves first in Placencia, oft accidentally named Placentia, but soon bused our way north into fate, into Kismet.
Tricia, the owner of Kismet says that some people are meant to be there and others are not. Lacey and I found it after two hours of walking the dirt roads of Hopkins, as if we were drawn there by an add suffering magnet, or the beautifully hand painted signs.
Walking up the sandy track to Kismet for the first time, I remarked to Lacy how much it reminded me of Pt. Reyes, a place near both of our hometowns. It ended up being a foretelling comment, as Trish the owner turned out to have lived near by in Bolinas for a number of years.
Kismet is probably not for everybody. I have seen others reactions to the place, one has to have a certain love for disorder and chaos to feel at home there. One has to have a certain love for life to love Kismet. It is a place that thrives on humanity, authenticity, homemade bread and love. And when you love Kismet, it vortexes you, it sucks you in. Even when you have left it, it feels as if it has held on to a part of you.
Part of the beauty of Hopkins, and Kismet, is the people that populate it. Elvis, Trish, Dave, the CD man, the chickens, the laughing children, floating coconuts, the straggling travelers, the staring tourists. It all seems to come together in some sort of symphony, the lone sounds ugly by themselves somehow weave themselves into a delightful tune. Elvis and Trish though, are my favorites, my mom and dad.
Often while traveling I find myself feeling raw, opened up and thirsty for home. Only one place has made me feel that I am home, that same feeling of slight annoyance yet total dedication to a place and its people. Kismet is that sole location. Even after months in Guatemala, days passed in Antigua, nights slept in the same hotel bed, have never rendered that feeling. Only Kismet has that honor and duty to me. Why that place?
The wind, the sea being at your doorstep, the kitchen table where I can sit and draw and read and eat bread with mango jam, Trish making me nachos in the afternoon, book shelves of books, outside showers, dogs that lick your feet. How can one not feel at home? How can one not feel compelled to sweep the floor of sand, to wash the dishes?
I often wonder if all this time south of the border has made me soft. I suppose it has, but I think that that is a good thing. I think that maybe that is what we need more of up north. I think all this romance and love for people in places that Latin America stirs up could benefit us all.
With that I leave you.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

cenotes, isla holbox y fotos

Just put up a couple more photos online. About 2% of the many I have right now. I am in Valladolid, hanging with Kerri for my last day off. We went to the local cenotes today and ate mayan soup for breakfast, it's been a good day.
We spent the last two on the Italian hideaway of Isla Holbox, rumor has it that the name means barefoot. I spent most of my time lusting after nutella, eating nutella, and using the internet. Kerri visited the whale sharks. The island was very cool, small, sandy, reminded me a bit of Thai islands, though everyone spoke spanish. It was a nice time, plus it was fun to go somewhere new.
Thee are more stories to be told about Belize, Hopkins, and bread eating with Elvis and Trish. I will get there I swear!

Monday, June 23, 2008

heellooooo myyyyy naaammme is whale shaaark

Yes I will admit the description, "Oh shit! Today wins as the best day EVER." Was not a sufficient explanation for the titillating title. So I am making an attempt to explain what the hell happened out there off the coast of the northern Yucatan. First thing first, you need to know I have been hell bent on seeing a whale shark for a while now. I dragged an entire group of 15 people some of which had never snorkeled before out on the open ocean with out dramamine to suffer through 4 hours of rough seas, vomiting, and saw not a single whale shark. I will give that group credit, not a single one blamed me for the hard headed fiasco. All the same when it came time to encourage another group to accompany me on my second attempt, this time in Mexico, I felt a little apprehensive, but this new crowd of passengers would not be deterred. I will admit that even after my stunning defeat in Honduras I was still excited by Jose's description of ten whale sharks, manta rays, and huge sea turtles that he had seen the day prior.
To set the stage of the trip you need to know a couple things about the night preceeding our 7 am departure...
1. that night we went on a pre-dinner sunset cruise which concluded with me vomiting over the side of the boat (seasickness, not alcohol induced)
2. i didn't go to bed until 4 am that night
3. all i had for breakfast was a granola bar
So at 6:45 when we headed out to the dock I already felt like hell, but was also hell bent on seeing these HUGE fish. I made it all the way out to the feeding grounds without incident, but around the time of our first manta ray sighting I found myself hugging the gunwale and watching the remains of my granola bar float past the boat. By the time we saw the first whale shark I was already puking up florescent yellow bile. The seasickness really isn't that important, really the only reason I bring it up is to emphasize how amazing the whale sharks were. Because as soon as I saw them I didn't care that I had been vomiting all morning or was ass tired. All I could think was, "damn, that is a HUMONGOUS fish!!!!!!!!!!!!!" (And yes, Eva, whale sharks deserve multiple exclamation points, they are that f-ing cool.)
The amazing thing about this location in Mexico is that not only was there one whale shark, there are many whale sharks. All swimming around with their mouths open sucking down huge amounts of water. They are a nice slate gray with white spots and pink mouths. And man, can I say it again? They are really big.
We got to work right away sending the first two people into snorkel with the sharks. They were a Japanese couple and it was pretty funny to see their reaction to getting in the water with this animal. The boat captain kept yelling, "GO! GO! GO!" and then "SWIM! SWIM! SWIM!" And they kept lifting their heads out of the water and just staring at us like, "CRAZY! CRAZY! CRAZY!" And I kept thinking, "If these people are the only ones who get to swim with the whale sharks and the whole time they were staring at us, I am going to loose my shit." But it turns out, you just shit your pants when you get into the water with an animal like that, and it is hard to react, even to simple commands like, "go!" and "swim!"
Emily and I were the third group to go in the water. And I am jumping in thinking I am all hard core with my fancy snorkel and mask. Right away I start swimming after the shark, and then all of a sudden it hits me.... that marine biologist said something about what to do when the shark swims at you.... was it swim away like a crazy person or stay still or act big and growl or crap your pants? And right after that my thoughts go to the fact that though whale is in the name, shark is too. And sharks eat people right? Then I start to wonder who the hell is breathing so loudly and then I realize it is me, freaking out, and breathing like a crazy person. And then I see the damn thing, and it is even bigger when you are in the water with it. FUCK. Then I realize that what I am feeling is the most amazing adrenaline rush I have ever experienced and I start swimming after the shark all over again. My breathing slows down a bit, and I start to get closer and it is..... wow. I find Emily and grab her hand and we swim with the shark, and Jesus, our guide, for like five minutes. It keeps turning towards us, and though I am still scared, it is that type of scared that really should be called awe. Here we are out in the middle of the ocean swimming with the whale sharks.
We start to loose the shark and Jesus tells us to stay where we are and he is going to catch up with two other people in our group. So now Em and I are floating in the swells while the boat and Jesus swim away. Emily starts talking about other sharks and how she thinks that the whale sharks must scare them away with their size. But I am thinking that people-eating sharks aren't a good thought path to go down and am trying to focus on my happy place, about dappled whale sharks swimming through the green water.
After a rest of about half an hour, along with emptying my stomach again, I got to go back in. Though I was still a bit nervous I just swam after the damn thing, this time it was shark 542, a female. She cruised along for a long time about 2 meters under the water, I was swimming just off to her left, some how managing to keep up. Minutes went by and I kept staring at her gills flaring out, pulling the water through them. It was quiet, just the wooshing sound of water going by and my own breathing, and I began to feel like I had fallen into the deep peacefulness you can feel when diving.
I am realizing now that I am not sure I have been blessed with the vocabulary or writing prowess to really convey what an amazing experience the whole thing was. But there you go. I'll leave it at that.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

dios dice...

God is currently running an ad campaign in Guatemala city. This is not a joke. There are billboards all over the place encouraging you not to drink and drive, to enjoy each day, and they are all signed lovingly, “dios.” I think that God is a pretty convincing advocate against drunk driving, but it is to no avail. Back in April el Diaro, one of Guatemala’s papers printed alarming statistics about Chicken Bus drivers. Amongst those included were, drivers driving under the influence and those driving without a license. Just yesterday I was on a high speed bus drive through a fog laden mountain pass. It is a wonder that my grandmother hasn’t come down here with a posse of jewish bubbes and dragged my ass back to the States where the weather and the driving tend to be a bit more predictable. On the other hand I don’t think she is keeping up with the news in Central America.
The other thing that has been catching news lines is the prompt, or even early arrival of the hurricane season, on May 31st with the appearance of Alma. Her stint was over shortly, only to be followed up by Arturo, or Arthur for you gringos. Today is the first moderately dry day I’ve had since Honduras. Most of my passengers are fascinated or horrified by this change in the weather. Some of them have yet to see the sun down here, which is a shame, but hey it is all part of the experience right?