I often fantasize about the jobs I’d hold in alternate realities. Singer. Hair stylist. Travel Agent. I can’t sing a song that anybody would ever really say was worth listening to, and my bangs are terminally crooked despite the fact that I’ve been hacking them off myself for two decades now, but I do still confidently maintain that I’d make a fantastic travel agent. Continue reading
I have seen a good bit of the world, which for some reason has cultivated in others the mistaken impression that I might be a good source of counsel when it comes time to pack for a trip.
Let me assure each of you that this is not the case.
Mexico. It’s no place for a lonely soul. Back in 2004, I found myself marooned on an island there for 11 months in the company of a rather motley bunch.
There were the not-quite-local Mexicans, all of them mostly all connected in some way to the booming tourism industry, and none seeming to care much for my presence.
I met this guy on a tropical island in Belize once. Steven.
He was very New Jersey, and I feel somehow qualified to describe him as such although I have never even been to New Jersey: pasty skin, caterpillar eyebrows, and costumed always in an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt and a pilled-up Bowler hat.
Steven sauntered around town in a pair of tacky sunglasses, chain-smoking Colonial Light cigarettes and making frequent allusions to some obscure Internet business he was running.
The first thing you notice about El Salvador is the noise.
The music, I mean – music of all kinds, issuing screamingly forth from competing crackly amplifiers of every make on street corners of every make in towns of every make.
Music: everywhere, inescapable, inveterate.
I know the smell of Cuba, of revolution. I’ve never been there, but I swear I know it.
It’s Sharpie markers. It’s phony Cuban cigar smoke. And it’s the vaguely humiliating stink of being rich and white that rises up off you like a dead-meat odor when you stare, bewitched, into the eyes of a dead man who probably would have hated everything about you.
Hola de D.F.
It’s 6:20 p.m. and I’m just emerging from a nap. When I fell asleep, light was still pouring through the windows of our fancy colonial apartment. When I woke up – totally dark.
The sun sets early in these parts come December. No Daylight Saving Time. Mountains and tall buildings all around. And a pallor of smog that mutes out the wintertime sun before dinner.
Originally published in: Portland Review, Fall 2013
Puerto Vallarta is one of those glad and gamboling Mexican beach towns where everybody’s always stopping you to ask whether you’re married or not.
Back from my quick hop down south of the border. I’m working on a blog about the trip, but for now, photos, of us and some things we ate and drink, and the riotous color of a Sikh-Hindu-Tropical wedding. Que bonita.
So I wrote this letter to an old professor of mine.
So I’ve been thinking the past week or two about the request you made in your previous e-mail – for to tell you about my travels since I left the J-school.
I’m always sort of baffled and intrigued by the premise of Summing Up. As you may recall, my grad thesis was 178 pages long, when 78 may well have sufficed. Brevity has never been my strong suit. Despite that, or perhaps even because of that, distillation in any form strikes me as a useful, if slightly maddening, exercise. So I sat down and started writing out an answer and I guess in the end it was mostly a letter to myself but I’m going to send it along to you for posterity and whatnot. Onward!
“What the water wants is hurricanes, and sailboats to ride on its back. What the water wants is sun kiss, and land to run into and back.”
Seven weeks ago, as Morgan and I were packing to leave for El Salvador, I wrote this little lyric in the front of my little travel journal. It had been rattling around my head all that Saturday morning, and as consumed as I was with anticipating what the next month and a half would hold for us, I liked the obtuseness of the words. The way they hinted at some unexpected and much longed-for kind of chaos.
Anyone who has spent extended periods of time traveling, followed by extended periods of time not traveling, can probably relate.
I’ve always been perhaps a bit too enamored of the concept of The Shakeup. Of inviting noise and messiness into one’s life in order to bring the calm, still parts into better relief. During a long, long bus ride through the Salvadoran countryside a week or so back, I got to thinking about Me (a favorite subject!) and about which qualities define me most broadly. I came up with: Restless, curious, anxious, and, for good measure, throw in latent perfectionist tendencies punctuated by broad bursts of shocking laziness.
Mix all that together and I think you get a pretty good description of my mental state on any given day. It also goes a ways in explaining my lifelong obsession with strange and distant lands.
But my misadventures abroad have been pretty legion, as my poor, long-suffering parents would attest. I’ve come to accept the scrapes and bumps as par for the course, but they still smart.
How do you reconcile what you want with what you actually get, ever? Really, though, I’m not being rhetorical. How?
El Salvador was beautiful and warm and visually fascinating and full of wild smells and friendly locals. It was also full of salmonella poisoning and ill-wrought plans and shabby Internet connections and irrevocably changed places that bore little resemblance to their former selves.
And now I’ve been spit back out the other end of said hurricane. Where does all the whirlwinding of these last months leave me, besides just simply Home Again? Sort of at a loss for words and not really digging the whole premise of a contrived and self-contragulatory trip post-mortem. A clean, concise summing up of events feels wrong here, although I am working on a few longer-form narrative pieces about my time down south, especially with regards to what I learned about the civil war.
For once in my life, I don’t want to talk (IE, write) about any of it just now. Instead, how about I just show you two pretty pictures from two great moments? Yes? OK then.
Happy April Fool’s Day. I tried to pull the wool on Facebook by posting the outrageous claim that Morgan and I had purchased a piece of property on the beach down here and were relocating to El Sal permanently come summer. But I guess for anyone who’s even been remotely paying attention to the tone of my recent blogs, that would be a tough cookie to swallow. Or, how’s that go? A bitter pill? A crumbling cracker? At any rate …
What’s definitely, immutably true is this: It’s our last night here in El Salvador.
In anticipation of an early-ish flight, we’ve landed at a sweet little hotel in the center of big, nasty San Sal. It’s called Hotel Villa Florenzia Centro, and though it’s not much to look at from the outside, it’s got a courtyard with all kinds of great light and views and a surprisingly clean and pretty interior. Our room is up on the third floor, and aside from a broken window pane, I’d say we made out well. $15 bucks a night for clean, centrally located hotel digs with shower and television. How many capital cities can boast this? In Japan, $35 just barely got me a capsule pod in a high-rise building with a coin-operated mini-TV and a pair of rental slippers. Digression.
We spent the afternoon hopping buses from here to Metro Center, which is essentially a massive amalgam of high-priced shopping malls, colorful food courts and messy rows of market stalls. The trek from our hotel to Metro took us through some crazy rough areas of town. I am endlessly amazed by how massive and filthy and teeming with humanity the planet’s larger cities are. Of course, the cities of Central America have a unique kind of charm, what with the machine guns and the particularly colorful piles of garbage and the thumping reggaeton and the roving cows, goats and horses. OK, only goats in this particular city, but we were nonetheless taken aback by the sight of a man selling goat’s milk straight out of the creature’s teet, right on the side of a busy market street.
We passed the afternoon wandering through Salvadoran dollar stores, eating pizza and donuts, and playing arcade games, then we came back to the hotel to watch TV and rest.
The last time I visited San Salvador was pretty rough … I blogged about it then and don’t care to rehash, but suffice it to say, the misadventure ended with me wandering unbeknownst through the ghetto of central San Sal, dodging flying vegetables, and locking myself into my hotel room for like half a day with a bag of chips and some beer and a blessedly potent WiFi connection. This time around, hate to say it, having a man by my side emboldened me, and it also kept the would-be hecklers at bay.
Still. Post-colonial charm notwithstanding, this place gets mighty rough after dark, and we’re knee-deep in a purple-orange kind of twilight time as I write, so I doubt we’ll be venturing out again till the morning, when we head to Comalapa airport.
So we find ourselves at an end. I feel a bit sentimental, a bit exhausted, a bit road-weary, a bit wiser, a bit more aware of a few choice personal shortcomings that I’d do well to work on. This trip definitely kicked my ass in certain ways. It’s like this: if traveling during your 20s is all about learning to make bold beginnings, to question assumptions, to open yourself up to unpredictability, to accept adversity, to consider new perspectives, then if you get it right, traveling during your 30s comes to entail a new set of opportunities and challenges. Namely: hewing to principle, pursuing opportunities for deeper growth and learning, seeking authentic experience and asking bigger, better questions, both of yourself and of the places and people you encounter. It is a transition for me, but it feels like the right one to be working toward.
I have so much less to prove now. I know who I am and what I’m after. As we prepare to return home, I’ve got all kinds of new and better Spanish skills under my belt, a journal full of observations and quotes that I hope to turn into a finished, sellable article, and a deeper appreciation for the life I’m a creating for myself back in Oregon. This is the first time in awhile that I’ve had a home of my own to return to after a long backpacking trip. A beautiful home at that, with a big kitchen and a sweet little library/office that I’ve lately been daydreaming of . Morgan and I must be getting sentimental on account of our time away from that magical little beach house … last night we bonded with a beautiful, slightly stoopid boxer we found wandering around outside our hotel. He was sweet as pie and we let ourselves fantasize awhile about getting a dog of our own.
In the harsh light of morning, we semi-bagged the idea, and, in fact, I balked in terror at the idea of committing to something, anything, for (UGH!) 14-16 years, but you get the point. Life on the road is romantic and beautiful and painful and infinitely interesting. But life at home has its own kind of charm. Like, you know how amazing and life-affirming it feels to take in a massive breath of fresh air, just suck it down into your lungs and really relish for a moment the feeling of being a thumping, pumping, ever-evolving carbon-based life-form? That’s sort of what travel is for me. But, as author Terry McMillan so sagely pointed out back in the ’90s, you’ve also got to exhale. And that’s what home is for me. A long, luxurious breath out. The other shoe dropping after a deliciously protracted pause. The ever-anticipated and completely natural second act, so sweet in its inevitability.
I keep circling back to that word. “Sweet.” Because it is, really. All of it.
We’ve made it to our final destination … Suchitoto!
It’s a great little artsy mountain town an hour out from big, smelly San Salvador. We’re staying in an adobe house perched right at the very edge of a mountain overlooking Lake Suchitlo – La Villa Balanza. It’s at the bottom of the steepest cobblestone hill I’ve ever seen. Ever.
The views are crazy and so is the wildlife. Between the roosters, the cicadas, the orioles, the snarling pups and the roving band of drunken men that congregates outside our window each evening, it’s hard to fall asleep before midnight or to stay asleep after 6 a.m. A bat even flew into our room last night! So we’re siesta-ing a lot.
This note is coming at you from the wilds of eastern El Salvador. The semi-wilds, at very least.
We hadn’t planned to venture this far off the map, but things in Tunco just weren’t what we’d hoped for, so plans changed. Nobody’s fault, really. It’s just not the chilled out little enclave it once was. If I were 21 and looking to get wasted and laid, sure thing, give me Tunco with its noise and its clamor and its careless procession of fiestas. But I’m not 21. I’m 30-and-a-half. And it’s not just my changing tastes that cause issue. It’s my need, more and more, to be amongst my own kind.
So strange. Have you ever been somewhere that just felt wrong? In a deep and unsatisfying way? It was like that with Tunco, and so we cut our losses and begged our way to a partial refund from Papaya’s Lodge and were on our merry way, no hard feelings.
We spent a few days in the northeast of El Salvador – Perquin and Mozote, to be specific, both former FMNL guerilla strongholds during El Salvador’s bloody civil war. We did some pretty intense guerilla tourism up there and I’m working on a piece about it, to be unveiled at a later date. It was definitely the highlight of our trip, for me at least, and I got some amazing material and met some pretty awesome Guanacos. After that, we decided to hit the beach by way of San Miguel.
The bus ride to the playa was rather eventful. I struck up a friendly conversation with a talkative if slightly rough-looking hombre seated in front of us. He was sorta greasy and slick, but he spoke good English and I smiled politely as he told me how he used to live in Virginia, how he knew right away I was a gringa, etc., etc. Morgan was being super rude to him and refusing to join the conversation, and I figured it was simply because he didn’t like the locals flirting with me.
As soon as the guy hopped off the bus, however, Morgan was like, “Didn’t you see his hands?!”
Apparently, they were covered with “MS-13” tattoos, identifying him as a member of El Salvador’s most notorious and violent gang, the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (“Clever Trout Gang” in English). We tried to decide which would have been worse: if he and his companion had tried to start shit with us, or if they’d tried to be our friends. Probably, the friends scenario would have ended worse, we agreed, because how do you beg off a night out on the town in the company El Salvadoran gang members without causing offense? You don’t.
Sometimes I am not the most observant soul.
In any case, we eventually made it safe and sound to our destination, a long, thin double lot of beachfront paradise called La Tortuga Verde. It’s essentially a backpacker resort and turtle sanctuary located on a long, dusty road between Playa El Cuco and Playa Esteron in the far east of this tiny, vaguely mango-shaped country.
Tortuga is the pride of a blissed-out Miami Beach expat called Tom, and it’s as close to perfection as we’ve come on this bumpy, five-week sojourn. Cheap, clean rooms with screened in porches and huge bathrooms (nevermind the family of cucarachas that lives in our soap dispenser) hammocks everywhere, a full menu with some good seafood, and a big, clean pool.
The beach here is huge and empty and full of strange looking sea and sky creatures. I go running in the morning and walking in the afternoon and I wish desperately for a telephoto lens.
Things have been quiet since we arrived last Monday and we’ve slipped into a sort of routine.
Mornings, we wake up ridiculously early – say around 6 a.m. – and Tom and Morgan head to Las Flores, a point break a few minutes west of Cuco, for surfing. On their way, they drop me at Tom’s office in Playa El Cuco so I can hook up to high speed Internet and get some of my writing and editing work out of the way. Tom’s office has not got much to recommend it by way of atmosphere – it’s an empty, unvarnished first-floor apartment in the middle of town with a broken toilet, a plastic table and chair, a standing fan, and a single solitary boarded up window. It abuts a brothel / beer bar on one side, where I’m told the whores cost $3 and which I almost mistook for a regular bar on my first day in town. Most days, I leave the officina door open and the iron safety gate shut so I can watch the taxi drivers and the drunk fishermen wander in and out of the whorehouse. Sometimes, the ladies themselves even venture into sunlight, usually to escort a customer back to his car after the visit is finished. These women are dumpy and usually dressed in shiny, skin-tight, synthetic tops, but they don’t seem unhappy. However, my efforts to take in the scenery and breathe in a bit of fresh ocean air are often thwarted by a few key subversive El Cuco forces.
One: when the door is open, I’m easy to spot, and people constantly try to sell me mangoes and coco water and really ugly souvenirs through the metal grates. On Friday, a brown hand reached through the grate and push the inside door open and when I stood up to confront the intruder, I was greeted by a schoolteacher and a crowd of about 30 high school students all staring at me in bewilderment. I couldn’t figure out what they wanted, but the teacher kept holding up a little plastic baggie which appeared to be filled with pepper and asking for something indecipherable and I wasn’t in the mood to translate or pantomime, so I just shook my head and pretended I spoke no Spanish.
“No vivo aqui,” I kept saying, and eventually they gave up and went away.
My best guess is they wanted a pair of scissors, a drink of water, or perhaps were on a scavenger hunt of some bizarre sort. You figure it out.
The other issue with keeping the office door open is that the cocteleria across the street has by some stroke of fate come into an old fashioned jukebox packed to the gills with Mariachi numbers and terrible modern Spanish pop, and as soon as they’re up and about – usually around 7:30 a.m. – they start blasting it full tilt. I’m talking the loudest, thumpingest music you’ve ever, ever heard. Even from across the street, it makes my ears bleed and my stomach ache, and worst of all, they enjoy changing songs halfway through, which has always been a personal pet peeve. It seems like a losing strategy for attracting breakfast crowds if you ask me, but very, very loud music is sort of due course around here. I’m talking ridiculously, insanely loud, so loud it rattles your skull and you can begin to hear what the person a foot away from you is saying.
Tom, who is fond of punch one-liners, has made up a little joke about it:
Why do El Salvadorans play their music so loud?
To drown out the silence.
Bada-boom bada-bing. There is definitely some truth there.
At any rate, Tom and Morgan usually pick me up around 10 a.m. and we head back to Tortuga for breakfast and hammock time. I’ve been eating tons of fruit and eggies and suffering the bad coffee. Afternoons, we sun on the beach and by the pool, take siestas, go for walks, etc. A few days back, we took a boat ride out to the nearby Mangalay Bay, a twisty, turny maze of mangrove that feels a bit like the mini-Amazon. We also visited the shrimp boats in search of dinner that day, although too late, as they’d sold all their catch off.
Evenings are more food, more reading, a few Golden beers or coco locos if the mood strikes, and off to bed ridiculously early. We’re talking 8:30 p.m., here. I am definitely becoming an old lady. I like it.
Best of all, Morgan is doing some design work for Tom in exchange for a generous room/food tab, so we’re pretty much living for no cost these days. It’s wonderful, but all good things must end, and we’ll probably head out in a few days. We’ve got about a week left of vacation and we want to hit up Suchitoto before San Salvador and the airport. Supposed to be a lesser cultural capital and it’s on the way, besides.
There’s much more to say, but my thighs are stuck to this plastic chair and my laptop is overheating, so I’ll sign off. Photos and thoughtful, eloquently penned essays on the wonders of this sweet, slightly downtrodden country to come. We return to Cannon Beach April 2, soon enough that we’ve begun to make up a mental list of things we want to do and eat when we get back. Top of the list: good coffee and pizza, plus ribs at Bigfoot’s in Seaside for Morgan, hot showers galore, high speed Interneting, and, for me, lots of long-distance running.
PS: I bragged on The Facebook that I’d read 15 books since we arrived and someone requested a list. I guess I’m going to make myself look slightly less erudite when I reveal the full spread of titles, as many were cheesy, mindless indulgences. Ah, well. I’m up to 17. Here goes:
Books read during this trip, with authors included as I recall them:
“Empress Orchid” – Anchee Min
“Flint” – Louis L’Amour (The best Western writer of all times, introduced to me by my late Papa Tom. Gracias, Papi!)
“La Societe du Spectacle” – Guy Debord (Nothing does wonders for your Spanish skills like reading a book in French, believe you me)
“Tanner on Ice”
“A Long Line of Dead Men”
“Working” – Studs Terkel
“Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married” (Terrible but sort of awesome Brit Chick Lit … abandoned halfway through)
“The Wayward Reporter: The Life and Times of AJ Liebling”
“Salvador” – Joan Didion
“The Carrie Diaries” – Candace Bushnell (give me a break, it was all this one hostel had!)
“Start Something That Matters” – Guy who invented Tom’s Shoes
“Cat’s Eye” – Margaret Atwood
“Surfacing” – Margaret Atwood
“Light on Snow” – Anita Shreve
“At First Sight” – Nicholas Sparks (worst book of ALL TIMES! AVOID!)
“Shirley” – Charlotte Bronte (In progress, because I’ve gotten a hankering for reading material that will stimulate my brain instead of merely my spinal cord)
“Sophie’s Word” (In progress)
After almost three weeks baking at the noisy, busy beaches of El Salvador, we’ve decamped for the countryside. We got up at oh-dark-thirty this morning and waited for an hour on the side of the highway for a northbound bus, where we entertained ourselves by throwing bits of a granola bar at a brood of scabby chickens pecking away at the hardscrabble earth and dodging massive, wobbling double-trailer semi-trucks as they roared past a mere four feet away. Never to worry … bus 287 ferried us safe and sound from El Tunco to Sonsonate. It was a cramped and crowded ride, but as our brilliantly cast chicken bus climbed in elevation, we were treated to a steady breeze and some wonderful Mariachi music – a blessed departure from the massive quantities of Bon Jovi and bad Sublime covers we’ve been forced to digest in Tunco. In general, aside from a creepy dude staring at me for the whole 2.5 hour ride, it was most enjoyable. Our trip took us along La Ruta de Las Flores – The Route of Flowers – so called for the massive bunches of colorful flowers and foliage that line the road certain times of year. Things are a bit dried out now, as rainy season has yet to even begin to suggest its presence, but there were definitely some wonderful views of volcanoes and even a few swatches of red and purple.
We changed buses at the Sonsonate bus terminal, which was slightly filthy and gloriously noisy and teeming with humanity as the locals geared up for their morning commutes. Breakfast was 2 cafes con leche, plus a caramel donut and a little vanilla tart and this strange but also strangely wonderful parfait thing with layers of pie crumb, custard, whipped cream, fruit and candied peaches. Plus there was a nasty looking strawberry on the top, but I threw that out. It was more of a dessert than a brekkie, I guess, a concept that is, I think, highly underrated. I call it breakfessert and it’s at least as good as cold Chinese or pizza in the early hours, especially when preceded by a long, cramped bus ride in a strange and foreign land and accompanied by very strong coffee. So, yeah. Breakfessert. Pass it on!
Our visit to the bus station also provided occasion for a little fond reminiscence. As we wandered the dusty yard in search of autobus 249, I pointed out to Morgan the very spot where, three years earlier whilst embarking on the very same bus route, I’d almost shit my pants, 50 feet from of a public bano, and how would that have been for irony? I’d literally been forced to throw my backpack to the ground and make a run for it, opportunistic thieves be damned, because nothing else mattered in that terrible moment. I was feeling nostalgic this morning, so I made another visit to the bano of my discontent, and that particular sanitario is definitely as dees-goosting today as memory served. I literally had to step over a giant, smashed cucaracha to reach the toilet.
We were dropped off in Juayua at mid-morning sans map, but it’s a small and neatly laid out kind of place, so after wandering about for a mere 15 minutes, I managed to locate the Hotel Anhuac, which is definitely at least as cool as it was back in 2009. We scored the last private room and we’ve spent the day relaxing and enjoying the fresh air.
So far it’s been a slow, easy go. We visited the Black Jesus that Juayua is famous for (far be it from me to offend, but that’s what they call it … Cristo Negro … And that’s pretty much what it is), ate some amazing food at the weekend market and had a siesta. I’ve also been trying to read one of the Spanish-language papers every day to improve my vocabulary and keep up on current events. This eats up a good chunk of one’s day when you read as slowly as I do.
It can also lead to bad siesta dreams, as almost every story is about the machinations of the Zeta cartel (Yes, they’re a Mexican gang, but apparently they’ve hijacked the entirety of the Pan-American highway and its environs) and terrible car accidents and innocent families being slaughtered in their sleep. But if working in the newspaper biz taught me anything at all, it’s that the contents of a newspaper don’t, and can’t, and aren’t trying to, paint a complete picture of any given place. It’s just news. Alas.
Tomorrow, we’re going to hike to some waterfalls and see a coffee plantation. I’ll take tons of pictures, but I won’t be able to upload them, as I still have no computer cord. Again, alas.