Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Ice Cream Guy

I needed a break from the Mexico pictures. I post this photo of Ice Cream Guy from my first day of summer break, back when the sun was still coming out and it was warm.

ICG is eating (having a good time with?) a cone of organic ice cream. These two girls with a cooler were coming around to people asking them if they wanted to try some of the girls' fresh organic ice cream in all these different organic flavors. Girl, I heard you. You said it was organic. I mean organic. But why should anyone believe them? I only believe things are organic when the person telling me that is wearing clay colored wool socks with no elastic and some weird kind of sandals that are probably really bad for your feet but were made by sheep in Central America or something. You know that shit's organic.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


I generally stay away from tours. As much as is possible, I take a bus to the place I want to visit and take my time. Chances are that I'll likely have done some reading about the place beforehand to get at least a minimal grounding in what I'm looking at, sitting on, walking through. I've had some pretty boring or just plain bad tours in the past where all I really want to do is go at my own pace. I don't want to hear the guide repeatedly reassure the group that the citizens of Cusco are not gay despite their city's rainbow flag. I don't want to hear Ferris Beuller's history teacher read me the fast fact boxes for three grueling hours. So I go on my own when I can.

But there are no buses to Zinacantan. I signed up for a tour in what was the most visually appealing office with people who smiled and answered my questions patiently. What was so cool about this tour was that the visit to the town involved going to a family's home and sitting in their packed dirt floor kitchen on little chairs (think pre-school size) and eating tortillas and beans and cheese and salsa before topping it all off with some of the regional home brew liquor while our guide told us about the place and family.

This is a kitchen shot. The tortilla production continued while we were there. I effing love tortillas.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


It's way hotter than it looks.

Tulum was praised by friends and colleagues who'd made the town and its ruins part of their travels, or pardon me, their vacations, in the past. "Don't forget to try..." or "You should stay at..." Don't do it. As Mark, a 20-something young man I met on my bus escape out of Tulum put it, "This area is made up of a bunch of scuzzy little towns, like this one."

Before the attack begins, I want to clarify that statement as far as I am concerned. It resonated for me for sure and put words to the confusion I was feeling at not having the time of my life in Tulum. Can't speak for Mark. Nothing can touch the powdery white sands and Caribbean blue of the warm ocean water. The uncared for cabanas, the little tour information palapas and the few beach clubs (read: a few chairs or beach beds that a hotel owns) of the northern beaches, the many families and European tourists on holiday - all those things help to create a beach environment not unlike those of my experiences here in the states. That coupled with the economic necessity of staying at a hotel in the seemingly uncared for little town equals a great big "What's the big deal?"

There was a bar on the main street, Tulum Avenue, that has a big screen over it playing music videos on a loop. I don't remember how many times I heard the same Britney Spears song blaring as I tried to sleep in my palapa roofed room at L'Hotelito. Ear plugs only help so much. I guess when I say scuzzy, I am thinking of a lot of the restaurants and other tourist-centered businesses that seemed to think, as far as I could tell, that by virtue of their demographic, they didn't have to try that hard. The tourists would come no matter what. And they did. To the sad and dim little hotel rooms with bathrooms that could've benefited from every chemical cleaning product the planet has to offer, to the bike rental shops with rusted bikes to the Mexican-Chinese restaurant (no Chinese people in sight). People came. The proprietors, the employees, didn't have to try to hard to bring in the lost visitors just looking for a place to have their morning coffee or spaghetti dinners.

But how about the ruins? The ruins, I thought, would have to be the saving grace of this leg of my travels. Every spot along the way I was determined to find at least one thing I liked. (This was a goal that I articulated only when things weren't so immediately hopeful.) I was mistaken. The ruins at Tulum themselves are not the disappointment. Rather, it is the environment that is constructed to show these reminders of the Mayans that once ran the show around there. The site can only be described as an archaeological Disneyland, with the appropriate ropes, lines, guides and water attractions. And don't forget to spend your American dollars in the "library" on your way out.

The feria artesania on the way to the parking lot was a let down too. Magnets, sombreros...And no shortage of customers. Why do people travel far from home to places like this? And enjoy it? My time in Tulum, my expectations and the reality of the visit, got me thinking about these questions. So I did get something out of it.

And for what it's worth, I never rented the rusty bike to check out the southern public beaches past the more expensive beachfront hotels. It was too damn hot for me to make that kind of ride without keeling over along the way. My guidebook gave the impression that I'd have found nothing but beach, and maybe my own little stretch of it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Devotion, San Cristobal

There were a few of these in the Templo Santo Domingo. I've grown used to small towns in Mexico, like this one - small despite it's big reputation, having what seems to be one church for every 10 people. Grown used to it, expect it, and really, I love it.

A guy I met on the red eye I took down to Mexico City asked me if I am religious. If you just scrunched up your nose and said, "Huh?" out loud, well, that's quite an appropriate response. Strangers on a plane and such a personal question. Who but political pundits and clergy talk about religion in personal conversation these days? But the question came during the course of a long on-off conversation where this guy asked me questions and I answered them. At first I tried to assert myself by initiating some of the talk myself, but then I decided to stop. I was curious about what he'd ask next, because there was definitely going to be a next. An there wasn't necessarily a connection between the last question and the next. "Dolphins or manatees? Are you religious?"

So, after a short pause to think about whether I wanted to answer this question to a 99.9% stranger, I did. So I'll tell you too. It's easier to start with what I'm not. I'm not religious in the sense that I identify with an organized religion. I appreciate and even long for the ritual these groups bring, but I cannot reconcile myself with the political choices so many of these groups have sustained for so long. I don't feel open, spiritual or compassionate in a setting that promotes judgment as part of its theology. But here's what I am (and I usually shy away from using this word out loud): spiritual. I believe I'm not alone. I feel a connection to the world at large, to my fellow human beings - even the rotten seeming ones. I believe that love and compassion are very powerful. It's this small handful of things I am able to articulate that help me travel alone to a place I've never been, where my grasp of the language is not so solid and be okay, even have a great time.

Traveling alone is a mixed bag. What's great is that you wake up every day, you decide what you're going to do, and then you do it. That feels great. You meet all kinds of new people. Now granted, a lot of those are one time conversations - this isn't necessarily an effort to make a bunch of forever friends. Those one time, or one town, conversations, are often very rich and certainly memorable. This meeting people part, though, isn't always easy. You can't force it.

There are bound to be certain parts of your trip where you feel kind of lonely. That's when you start noticing all the groups of friends and couples around you. And they're likely not in it to meet new people. They've got their people. You might, as a solo traveler, go a whole day where the only talking you do is the ordering of your lunch or asking how much a bus ticket is. And while some of those days can feel pretty nice and relaxing, when their the lonely sort, it's the worst. But I've got some good medicine for that: I find one of those old colonial churches, step inside and reflect. I think about what's going on for me - why I'm feeling the way I do, what I need, what I'm trying to get out of my trip...all kinds of stuff. And then ten minutes, half an hour, an hour later - enough time to see a few streams of the devoted and tourists wander through, I feel pretty alright and I leave.

And then, I have a good rest of my day. I've just simplified the whole process a whole lot, but that's the gist of it. Airplane guy was on his way to Colombia for two weeks and he was not a Spanish speaker. When we got off of the plane in D.F. and were on our way to immigration, he said, "I'm sure missing home right now." That reminded me of when my friend Abby picked me up to take me to the BART station so I could get to the airport. I said, "I don't want to go anymore." I don't think I've ever said anything like that when I've traveled with others. So I wanted to tell plane guy about my church thing - if he felt lonely, to just find a church, go in. But I didn't. There wasn't enough time to explain my thinking around this sure cure. And it felt too private to share with the 99.5% stranger (we made some progress over the course of the flight).

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On the street - Chiapas

When Rodrigo, a friend I made in San Cristobal, saw the series of photos I took of the top image he said with a hint of exasperation, "You Americans always take a picture of that." He also said at one point, "We Mexicans love our colors," and ain't that the truth.

Every street has at least a small pocket bursting with color. And it fits, because it's not just that one house or two on that one street or two. It's everywhere. Unimpressed with another photo I took, Rodrigo said, "Oh. A blue house." But he just doesn't get it. The house wasn't just blue, it was a striking bright blue that could serve as a landmark for commercial jets to know exactly where they were. Crayola, Jelly Belly, M & M's - they could never replicate the color. Maybe Kool Aid, though.

There are homes here and there in my neighborhood that do something interesting with their exterior paint choices, but it is certainly not a cultural norm, much less an expectation. In fact, those are the houses that neighbors whisper about, roll their eyes about, worry about, "They're driving down our property value!" But maybe I'm wrong. I do live in the bay area. We've got some freaky deakies 'round here who do all kinds of stuff that scare people from the suburbs and Midwest. But I suppose the question is, is can they do their freaky business with style?
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