travels.08-9

December 30, 2009

Here Comes Me

Well, this will have to be a short one cause I’m still feeling flu-like and really should be in bed. But I’ve had these big thoughts tugging at my line all evening and they won’t stop bouncing around my head.

It’s the end of a decade. I have officially been an adult for 10 years, now. Forty seasons. So much has happened. Things both good and ungood. So so so much.

Maybe it’s the lo-grade fever I’ve been running all day. Maybe it’s the H1N1 vaccine I sprang for this afternoon. Maybe it’s the sudden snowstorm that hit St. Helens quick and dirty just as the newspaper went to press this afternoon. I don’t know. But I feel the overpowering urge to clean up and out. I want to rid myself of everything that is old. This means deleting old profiles, e-mail accounts, closing bank accounts, getting rid of clothes and clutter, all of it.

And, most importantly, elminating waste from the less tangible parts of Me. I carry a pretty sizeable junk drawer of old crap around inside my head, I think. Which seems strange considering the fact that I’ve tried to keep my physical existence simple, minimal. The fact that I have a car and a lease and a cell phone and a job by now is pretty impressive and unexpected in itself. I’m hoping that it signifies that I am trying to transition into the next phase of my life, but I know deep down that those are the easy things to change. It’s the messy rootlessness inside that might take some doing.

I’m working on some goals for the twenty-ten. Yeah, I know, I said a blog or three back that I’m swearing off self-improvement kicks. But I changed my mind. Mostly, I just want to keep working on my art and my writing and the research I started in grad school. And my Spanish, too. I want to take some time to seriously consider what lays ahead for me. I have been hatching a new five-year plan. It involves more writing, more school, and, in a year or two, another move, most likely. And, of course, a nice long backpacking trip, too. (South America for summer 2011, anyone? Ashley says she’s on board.) It feels in a lot of ways like the culmination of everything I’ve worked for so far. But I’ll leave it at that for now, cause it’s still in the planning stages.

By the way, I recently discovered this beautiful acoustic John Lennon album. It is changing my heart, bit by bit. Listening to it feels somehow like waking up. My favorite song:

Look at me
Who am I supposed to be?
Who am I supposed to be?
Look at me
What am I supposed to be?
What am I supposed to be?
Look at me
Oh my love, oh my love

Here I am
What am I supposed to do?
What am I supposed to do?
Here I am
What can I do for you?
What can I do for you?
Here I am
Oh my love, oh my love

Look at me, oh please look at me, my love
Here I am
Oh my love

Who am I?
Nobody knows but me
Nobody knows but me
Who am I?
Nobody else can see
Just you and me
Who are we?
Oh my love, oh my love, oh my love

That’s all for now. Time for some feverish dreams. Then a city council meeting in the morning and a possible trudge through the snow to get to work. Here comes the new decade. Huh. Freaking finally.

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December 29, 2009

snow day

It’s snowing. I guess all that white stuff points to the official start of my first winter home in Oregon in way too many years. I have to go stand outside in the bitter cold and take photos for the paper and I’m fighting the flu besides, but otherwise, things are wonderful. Incidentally, the sunrise this morning was pretty insane. I have a partial view of the Columbia River and Mt. Hood out my kitchen and bedroom windows and, well, yeah. Check this out:

The best part of being home is getting to spend more time with long-neglected friends and family. Me and all four of my siblings also finally got together for a portrait with our dear old pops. Here we are:

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December 24, 2009

Gulf War Joe

You couldn’t really have called us friends, me and Joe. Mostly, we met when we met. It was always in the same little cantina, garish and neon, with framed photos of Pancho Villa on the walls and a storefull of butt-ugly souvenirs in the back. Usually, it was in the evening time, when I got off work and came to watch the bar filled up with the drunk, stupid tourists whose ships docked for five-hour stretches on our little tear-drop-shaped island.

Mostly, were mean to each other, me and Joe. Mostly, we argued back and forth across the barstool that sat empty, always, between us. It was like a demilitarized zone, keeping us just far enough apart to prevent any real violence.

And mostly, Joe was exceedingly unpleasant to be around. He was a terrible listener. He sweated too much and he spat when he spoke. He asked questions and interrupted before you could finish answering. All of the things that make you want to get away from someone as quickly as possible.

But there was something about him that I found hilariously, tragically irresistible. At one point, certainly, he must have been quite handsome: he had dirty blonde hair and an angular jaw and a lean, muscled frame. By the time I met him, he was pushing a rough-hewn 40 and his eyes were as cloudy as two sea agates. He owned two outfits and one pair of sports sandals. His only distinguishing features were the cheap Casio calculator watch he always wore and a rigid, skittish demeanor that persisted even in belligerent drunkenness, a stubborn hangover from his days in the military.

We laughed once in awhile. I liked watching him hit on drunk guys’ wives, right in front of them. It was just so outrageous. And I was fascinated by his stories. They were nearly painful to listen to. He’d been almost completely undone by a couple of tours in the Persian-Gulf War.  His mother had died young, his wife had hung herself. I never sorted out how he’d ended up on that little Mexican island, but I’m sure the rest of the story wasn’t any happier.

I went to that bar most evenings. I liked the bartender, Joaquin. He was kind and shy and let me practice my Spanish. And Joe, from what I could tell, spent all day there, every day. By the time I’d arrive, he was usually three sheets to the wind and getting mean with the tourists.

Joaquin, the bartender, would lean over the bar and whisper, “He drink 14 beers today.”

If he were feeling particularly ornery, Joe would launch into long, spittle-laced rants about the American government and the way the army had destroyed his life. The words were like little rubber bullets pumping out of his mouth.

Joe on American currency: “Get rid of it! All of it!”

Joe on his dishonorable discharge from the military: “ Pieces of shit! I coulda been somebody!”

He actually said stuff like that. The kinds of things you think are only from the movies. It was almost too much to believe.

Somehow, I felt compelled to share Joe with others. He was a like a poorly behaved pet that you might teach to fart or nudge at with the toe of your shoe until it lost patience and tried to gnaw your foot off. And at the end you’d laugh an indulgent chuckle and revel in your superiority.

“Hey Joe,” I’d say, after chatting another free beer off whichever drunk cruisegoers happened to be in the bar that night. “Tell us about Santa Rosa.”

The mere mention of Santa Rosa, his commander in the Persian Gulf, was sure to set him off.

“He disgusts me,” Joe would scream. “Do you know what it’s like to live in a barracks? To smell another man’s stink? That bastard left me there! Disgusting!”

Sometimes, if the crowd was particularly lucky, tears would roll down his face as he gestured spastically. People would usually giggle or just look uncomfortable and try to get away from us. But I always loved the show, the eyes of the tourists hesitating between fear and a strange sense of awe that he managed to remain upright on the barstool at all. He had a way of swaying back and forth and sort of jerking his head around that made him look like one of those windup soldier toys, all mechanical and too slow.

All of this might make me sound like a terrible person, but that’s just how it was with us. We weren’t friends so much as receptacles for each other’s misdirected rage and loneliness. We’d plow through packs of cigarettes and buy each other Coronas, trading insults. We spent literally dozens of evenings this way.

And besides, he was mean, too. Joe constantly berated me for being out of shape, for smoking cheap Mexican cigarettes, for moving to a country where I didn’t know the language and trying to learn Spanish from a book, although he didn’t speak a lick of Spanish himself as far as I could tell and was, in fact, trying to teach himself German by the same methods.

He took every possible opportunity to remind me of my ordinariness. I’d sit at the bar with my teach-yourself Spanish paperback, scanning lists of vocabulary. And the insults would begin.

“You’ll never learn that way,” he snarled at me once. “Might as well just quit.”

I ignored him.

“My mom was a teacher,” he muttered. “I know.”

I ignored him more.

“I’m telling you…”

“Shut the fuck up, loser!” I shouted. “No one cares about your opinion!”

A Russian cruiseboat captain who had been trying to chat me up edged quietly away, I remember, looking shocked. I didn’t care.

Although my attempts to teach myself Spanish were the source of extensive ridicule, Joe constantly bragged about how hard it was to learn German.

He needed to learn it, he said, because the CIA was grooming him for covert operations in Europe.

There is no fucking way, I remember thinking.

“If this works out, I could really be back on top,” he’d say, holding up his tatty old German workbook.

And I’d picture Joe at a biergarten, wearing a seersucker suit and sunglasses that shot darts out the sides. Chatting up a busty barmaid and eyeballing some big Bavarian gangsters over the rim of his beerstein.

“Any day, I’ll get my orders,” he’d say.

I’d see Joe shimmying up the side of a building, thick wads of foreign currencies stuffed down his underpants and a panopoly of State secrets captured on a secret camera lodged inside his Casio calculator watch.

But the real truth about Joe was probably that he’d come to Mexico to drink himself to death, and that probably he’d succeed. I think we both knew that.

In the end, our friendship, if you could even call it that, wasn’t terminated so much as quietly abandoned. We didn’t declare our undying hatred of each other after a particularly vitriolic battle of words and storm off to opposite ends of the island. We didn’t high five each other goodbye and mutter no bad blood and pose for a photo. One day perhaps five months after we’d first met, I showed up at the bar at the usual time and he just wasn’t there anymore. Or the next day, or the next.

Joaquin didn’t know where he’d gone and there was no one else I could think to ask. I was fairly sure I was his only friend on the island, or maybe anywhere.

Joaquin and I cooked up a few soft theories on his whereabouts. Joe deported by the government. Joe in a stiff blue polo shirt selling timeshares at one of the resorts on the east side of the island. Joe hopping the ferry to Cancun, that swollen, filthy orifice through which so many lost souls will themselves to disappear forever.

“Maybe he’s in Germany,” I snorted.

We both had a laugh and I pulled out my pack of Montanas. I was suddenly free to smoke my shitty, dusty cigarettes without fear of scorn or ridicule. Free to study my Spanish book and nurse my guacamole gut.

Joaquin lit my cigarette, then hurried off to greet a pack of fat, sunburned tourists stumbling into the bar. I smoked furiously, listening to the silence, trying hard not to look at the empty barstools next to me as the sky beyond the cantina darkened into full-blown night.

December 23, 2009

Seven-Odd Trick Pony

I’ve been at my new newspaper job for a mere three weeks, but it’s already becoming obvious to me that I use, like, the same five tricks all the time in my writing. Here’s a rundown of the repeat offenders, but quick-like, cause I’m at work and only on a short break.

Words I overuse:

“Slated” as a clever alternative to “scheduled.” (As in, “The initiative is slated for the March ballot.”)

“Insists,” as an easy segue into an opposing point of view. (As in, XX insists that other school district’s TAG programs have continued to thrive despite budgetary issues.)

“Thrive.” (See example used for “Insists.”)

Clever little writing saws I overuse, that are perhaps not so clever:

Starting a tricky paragraph with a question. (As in, “The upside? The flooding only damaged 75 percent of the office. The janitor’s closet and the handicapped restroom were untouched.”)

Starting my background paragraph with “Through the years” or some variation. (As in, “Through the years, XX has earned a reputation for asking the tough questions.”)

Using a question as a lede, against the advice of every journalism professor I ever had. (As in, “Ever wondered what Santa Claus does in his time off, or how he navigates occupational hazards such as fiery chimney flues?”) I’m told this is a terrible idea because if the reader’s answer is “No,” then they have no reason to keep reading. Oh, well.

Ending stories with a quote because I’m too lazy and uncreative to think of a snapping summing-up. (And, no, I’m not providing an example on this one because you already know what I mean.)

December 16, 2009

Green

It’s Thanksgiving morning.

I pull on a tatty pair of jeans from the floor. They feel cold and soft, like an old lady’s skin. I button, staring blankly out the window to the road beyond. A forgotten offshoot of the Pacific Coast Highway. Route 6, Netarts, Oregon. It’s not a place where you mean to end up. It’s more like just somewhere you get sidetracked, sometimes perhaps indefinitely. I see it happen all the time to the tourists in their burgundy sport-utility vehicles, to the fair-weather fishermen in their yellow Macs and their big, silly galoshes. And it’s sort of happening to me. I’ve been living here a month by now. I run my hands down the old-lady skin, wishing suddenly that I’d driven the two hours home to my family. Something crinkles. I dip my fingers into my left pocket and curl them around a thin, papery wad. My mind jumps and I yank it out into the light. A ten! It feels fragile, almost furry in my hand. I want to buy something. Right then. I know, somehow, that it is the only thing that will keep me from dissolving into a puddle before lunchtime. It has been a rough week.

Out there, beyond the street, a small convenience store. People like to stand outside and smoke sometimes. I watch them from my bedroom window at night. I gave up cigarettes awhile back, but I think suddenly how it might be nice to get my hands on some harder stuff. Beer. I need beer. I tangle with the jumbled sleeves of a black hoodie, slip into my moccasins, head outside.

The air is damp and almost sort of chewy. Just about 200 feet beyond the convenience store, the ocean thunders. It rains. I scurry across the highway, between cars. Inside, where it’s warm and the fluorescent lights hum, I wander the rows of canned creamed corn and BBQ potato chips. I snag a box of Stovetop Stuffing and shuffle to the beer case. Heineken. My favorite. There is just enough money in this ten for the stuffing and a six-pack. I purchase my treasures, scurry back across the street to my tiny, dilapidated cabin, and I begin drinking. It is just after 9 a.m.

By lunchtime, I am sloppy drunk. Four beers into my six-pack. I line the empty bottles up on the table in front of the window and I kneel in front of them and I stare through to the distorted reflections they are sucking up from the ordinary kitchen around me. It’s a greeny, lumpy world in there, full of impossible shapes. They stare back at me like questions that can’t be answered.

I am hungry. I pull out the sort-of-sad courses of my Thanksgiving feast. A bowl of lumpy mashed potatoes that I feel so stubbornly proud of. Some canned veggies. I boil two pots of water, one for the stuffing and one for hard-boiled eggs so I can make those little deviled eggs with the zingy filling in them. I drink more. I pull a frozen turkey hock out of the fridge and throw it into the microwave, a microwave that’s so old it’s built into the stove and has buttons like a telephone and a handle like the one on the ice chest outside the convenience store and underneath the temperature dials it says “Microwave Control Center” and it scares me a little to be in the same room with it when it’s on. I drink some more.

At two, I carry my feast into the living room-slash-dining-room-slash-entryway. There is no furniture except for a giant TV my uncle gave me. I sit on the floor in front of it and I pop in the only DVD I have: Season Two of the Golden Girls. I gobble down my food and I laugh a little to myself and I consider visiting the bar up the road for gin and tonics when my meal is done. I like the bartender. Her eyes are dumb and kind and she tells me funny and sometimes terrible stories about the locals and says she thinks my life sounds exciting. It makes me feel better about myself, about having landed here, however improbably and for however long.

But suddenly, I feel so tired. Too tired. I shove the empty plates and bottles to the side and rest flat on the floor, just for a minute. The TV drones on. I note without caring that the carpet smells terrible, like mildew and cocaine. I am half-asleep on the floor. I giggle. My mind whirls. My brain is full of Stovetop stuffing. The ceiling pitches and I am suddenly terribly thirsty. It is an overpowering thirst, an itch in my throat. I think of the way the nature channel sometimes shows footage of bears out in forests rubbing their backs against old, scratchy trees to get rid of their itches. I wish I could do that, but with my throat. My tiredness and my thirstiness battle. How can I be this thirsty when I just drank six beers? How I can I get up for water when my body feels so heavy? It reminds me of when I was nine and I had to have an MRI, the lead apron they draped over me. I’m tired of feeling so heavy.

If I could just think for a second, I think. If I could just get rid of everything unnecessary, all this green beer and all these distractions I never find a way to see beyond. If I could just get clear. I keep getting sidetracked, I keep losing my place. Every time I stop paying attention, I lose my page, my coordinates and then it just feels like cartwheeling. It’s like a waltz and I’m getting the steps all wrong. Life cheats left and I cheat right and it’s awkward and strange and sort of hilarious and beautiful. But it’s hard, too. I close my eyes to rest, just for a minute.

I tumble into dreams.

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December 14, 2009

Why I Will Always Be Greedy, And Probably Also Poor

For as long as I can remember, I’ve entertained fantasies of getting to go into one of those little phone booth-looking things that shoot wads of cash up from the floor. You know, the kind where you get like two minutes to grab all the money you can, oftentimes in front of a live studio audience? I thought about this often when I was a kid. I even had a whole strategy worked out. I planned to wear an oversized t-shirt with an unusually tiny neckhole so I that could catch lots of money by fanning it out in front of me and then, when the money was trapped inside the shirt, tucking it back into my pants, which would be stretchy for this purpose. And the pants would need to have pockets. Definitely lots of pockets. But I knew, too, there would be other things to consider beyond simple attire. Cause, paradoxically, greediness isn’t the quickest path to riches when it comes to money-filled phone booths. Oh, I’d seen what usually happened to those ill-informed suckers who’d stand stupidly inside the booth, clawing frantically at the swirling air. They became, inevitably, inefficient, panicked, and the whole affair would end up rather embarrassingly for the contestants, who ended up with nothing to show but a couple of fistfuls of fuzzy, tattered ones and perhaps a crappy sponsor prize like Aspercreme or Folger’s Coffee Crystals. Pathetic! Insulting! I, on the other hand, had the system beat: Yeah, I’d spent a few madcap seconds leaping about the phone booth with my shirt fanned out. But as the seconds ticked down to zero, I’d calmly tuck my shirt in. And I’d become very still. Focused. The audience might well gasp in concern and surprise. (In the fantasy there was always an audience.) But I’d pay them no mind, for absolute concentration, I knew, was the only way a person could get hold of any of the small number of extremely large bills that are almost inevitably whipping about these kinds of machines. I’d become a Zen master, deftly plucking hundred-(and perhaps even thousand)dollar bills from the frothing mass of piddling, wrinkly, almost-worthless ones. My feat would most certainly make me rich, and would probably earn me a hearty commendation from the waxy-faced host and the cowed audience on my superior intellect and deft maneuvering. It was sure to work.

*    *    *

As a child, I was also invariably obsessed with the concept of shopping sprees. I compulsively stuffed entry boxes wherever and whenever I encountered them. I loved the early-nineties game show, Shop Till You Drop, whose catchy tagline deemed it The Wildest Shopping Game Ever. The show’s 90-second bonus round involved a couple choosing to keep or “exchange” a variety of gifts at any one of ten faux-storefronts in the set’s proxy “shopping mall.”  And sprees of this sort weren’t just the stuff of non-fiction. Owing perhaps to the abundant opportunity for antics-doing and Life Lesson-learning that the troubled, irresistible concept of Something For Nothing offers, shopping sprees also constituted the bad plotline of a thousand terrible sitcom episodes during the same era. The Bundys on Married… With Children went on one. The considerably more upscale Keatons on Family Ties went on one. And so did the Golden Girls. I can still recall the almost unbearable tension and anticipation I felt as I watched Rose shovel steaks into the cart whilst Dorothy shoved a giant salami down the front of her pants, never-you-mind the double entendre, and the clock ticked down to zero. It was almost too much!

*    *    *

These sorts of fantasies also found their way into my dream life, perhaps because I spent so many of my pre-sleep hours awake in my bunk considering them, scratching out lists of the things I’d buy if I won a million-zillion dollars. (Once for Christmas, I even recall asking my parents for  either A: A Hickory Farms Assorted Meats and Cheeses Gift Basket, or, B: A briefcase full of money. I got neither.) In one such dream, I found myself standing at the bus stop near my house. I looked down to discover that the gutter and drainage grate was filled with coins and soggy bills. I scooped up great handfuls of money and shoved them into the pockets of my winter coat. I felt powerful. Glorious. And LUCKY.

Another dream that I had on several occasions in 1985 involved me waking up to discover (joy of joys!) that my entire bed was made out of candy. Blood-red suckers, sticky wads of taffy, impossibly fluffy cream puffs. In the dream, I’d break off a chocolate bedknob and lap up long, lazy strings of caramel as they oozed down into my bedclothes. Inevitably, for whatever reason, I was always wearing the same yellow nightgown. Then I’d wake up with a start. I’d sit up and turn expectantly toward the headboard. But Alas! No ribbon candy, no licorice latticework. Only a crooked row of boogers from the times I picked my nose in bed.

I’m almost 30, but I still have dreams about this stuff. Strange consumer dreams where I’m just grabbing everything I can. And an unsettling number of them feature me stealing either from the Goodwill or from immediate family members. I had another one just last night where I was in the condo my father used to live in when I was a teenager. He wasn’t home and I was really going to town on his place, man, shoving all sorts of expensive kitchen gadgets and home décor into a cardboard box. When I was done there, I moved onto the house my mother lived in during the same period, where I found fancy imported soaps and leather glove gift sets. All of these treasures and more went into my cardboard box. I filled it and filled it but it never got heavier, almost like it had no bottom at all. I felt slightly guilty, I guess. No, actually, that’s not true. I felt great! The guilt, and a strange sense of disappointment, came only after I woke up.

*    *    *

The point of all this? Well. What troubles me is the extent to which my money-and-prize-grubbing fantasies and dreams have ultimately turned out to be at odds with my life as it is. And I’m not just talking about the inevitable ways. If my subconscious has been trying to tell me anything over the years, it’s that both money and the stuff you can get with money are pretty darned great. And yet, I chose to become a journalist, which means in practical terms that I earn less than most janitors, and I can pretty much guarantee you I get a lot less respect than they do. Janitors are a little creepy sometimes, but at least they’re considered good, hardworking people. And they have unions and all kinds of other stuff to make them feel valuable and important. I don’t have to swab toilets, yeah, but I get shit on my hands in less literal ways most days of the week. And nobody is throwing me any kind of party or trumpeting my good works to the ends of the earth. In fact, a good chunk of the time, when I enter a room, I’m not even offered a chair. And I chose this! It wasn’t some piece-of-crap-endeavor I fell into cause there wasn’t anything better to do. I spent good money and valuable time to get where I am. And I’m glad for it, but it does strike me as a little odd. And a little at odds.

So. If we reject the premise that they are reflections of my true, latent desires, what ARE these dreams and fantasies trying to tell me? Hmmmm…. Well, they might represent the fact that I am a product of the 1980s, THE decade for fatuous self-indulgence. They might represent the consumer culture of that era and the bad daytime sitcoms that were its detritus, sitcoms that haunt my dreams and cloud my frame of reference to this day. But, I guess, if you don’t try to go too deep, they might also just simply represent the fact that it’s fun to get stuff. We’ve all heard the old saw about the famous study that followed lottery winners for whatever-number years after they hit the jackpot and found that… Surprise! The general happiness quotient of those lucky SOBs ultimately changed quite little. If they were crabby and peptic before they became millionaires, they remained so. Conversely, if they were charitable and upshot before, they also remained so. I, for one, don’t buy it, and in fact I hate it when people reference this ridiculous study in casual conversation, usually in some misguided attempt to prove that people should be less shitty and grabby cause they’re incapable of being satisfied anyway. I definitely, definitely don’t buy it. And you shouldn’t either! Why? Because, let’s get real. Money is pretty fucking awesome.  In the end, for me then, I suppose these fantasies are a modified version of The Dirty Thought. Chilly, unending afternoons at the office, some people might slip into reverie of a night in the fabled bedchambers of Johnny Depp or that chick from High School Musical. Me? I dream of candy palaces and all the cash I can shove down the front of my stretch pants. And what’s the difference? Maybe either brand of fantasy indicates nothing more than this: the fact that you can lust after something while at the same time recognizing that you’ll probably never get your mitts on it, and the fact on top of THAT that your desire is in no way dampened by knowledge of the fact that you’ll never get anywhere near the object of your desire, either because of choices you’ve willingly made along the way or because the sight of you would no doubt repulse him or her instantly, well, that’s just one of those weird quirks of being human. Our fantasies might be twisted, they might be over the top. They might even occasionally hurt the feelings of the people we love. But let’s be honest, here. They just some how feel so darned good. I, for one, am not about to start making apologies for my darker desires. You probably aren’t, either. Matter of fact, I’d bet money on it.

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October 15, 2009

Announcing… Sheer Glamorous!

As we speak, a mad-skilled friend of mine, Miss Emily W. Sussman, is launching her new web magazine, Sheer Glamorous. It’s a collaborate venture set to feature all sorts of amazing non-fiction writing and photography.  I’ll be donning the hat of photo editor for upcoming editions.

Click forward to experience Sheer Glamorous. You won’t regret this.

October 14, 2009

where’s erin?

Woah, man. It’s shaping up to be quite the October. I started my job at the paper in Tillamook a week and a half back and I’ve been camping out at my aunt’s place in Rockaway Beach until I find something more permanent. Here’s a quick shot I snapped with my cell on one of my post-work rambles:

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It’s not too shabby, eh? The house, too, is insanely gorgeous but it doesn’t have wireless internet, or any sort of internet for that matter, which is why I’ve been incommunicado for such an outrageous length of time. (There is wicked fast internet at work, of course, but my days are packed so full that I can’t spare even five minutes to update you all as I’d like to.) But tonight is a special night. Tonight, I made the amazing discovery that if I camp out in just the right spot on the east-facing side of the house, I can pick up the wireless internet from a hotel across the street. It feels like being awakened from the dead! Or at least from a long, long sleep.

What have I been doing with my spare time without access to the internet, you might ask? Well, if I wanted to make myself look good, I’d definitely start describing all the cool-ass stuff I did this weekend, such as take long walks on the beach, do some sketching, write in my journal, work on my book, and even a bit of meditation. (Don’t make fun. I’m feeling fuzzy and jumbled, it helps.) But if I were being totally honest, I’d also feel compelled to admit that I’ve ingested copious amounts of bad television programming, as well. It was getting so out of control that I had to ground myself from Mr. TV starting Sunday morning. Seriously. I’d watched at least seven full hours of America’s Next Top Model and Supernanny between 6 p.m. Friday night and 10 p.m. Saturday night. In my own defense, I was exhausted from my first week at work and needed to decompress. But it was getting ridiculous. So no more bad TV. This won’t be as hard now that I have Internet again! O, glorious wastings of my time!

As for work. I am currently being trained to wear a number of hats, but mainly my days consist of running the classified and legal sections of the paper, keeping the books in order (no mean feat, esp. considering my atrocious math skill), dealing with customers and doing all sorts of other business-y, secretary-y stuff. (Like, for example, I’ve learned to transfer calls and to run credit cards and to use those calculator things that print everything out on a roll of paper!) The learning curve is pretty much at a 100% incline, so week one was straight exhausting. But I’m starting to figure it all out. It is definitely fascinating to learn about the business side of a newspaper. It’s amazing how as a reporter you are so intimately involved with a publication, and yet you could easily go years without every really understanding the specifics of how a paper generates and keeps track of profits. I’m still a writer at heart, but I am stubbornly beginning to concede the astonishing elegance of numbers. It’s genius, math: A digital framework for organizing an analogue world. It recorrelates the universe into a binary code. There are only two possible options: Either things add up, or they don’t. Reality, although still not always pleasant, attains a comforting neatness. Yes, it is. And if not yes, then no it isn’t. If nothing else, it’s given me a new frame of reference for interpreting reality and that is sort of cool.

I’ve made a few flubs, among them knocking over a giant accordion file that someone had just spent hours organizing and hanging up on the boss’s wife while attempting to transfer her over to the boss. Luckily the people I work with are hilarious and awesome and they just make fun of me and we all move on.

The weather has been amazing. We’re talking 70 degrees. At the Oregon Coast. In October. Normally, it’s not even usually 70 degrees at the Oregon Coast in July! I’ve been enjoying it immensely. Although a big, nasty storm rolled in this morning and the windows on either side of me are now glistening with raindrops. It’s quiet here. I’ve got lots of time to think, to do my thing. Only one minor annoyance: some weird, gross guy hangs out in the bushes in the empty lot across the street from the beach house. I see him in there at least once a day with two yippy little dogs. I suspect (know) he’s smoking cigarettes and probably also pot when he sits in there. What I’ve gathered is that he must be telling someone (wife or mother) that he’s “taking the dogs for a walk” and then when he’s gone he sneaks in there to secretly get high. It’s like a trick a teenager would play. (Not that I ever did anything like that when I was a teenager. But some other teenager might do it, I mean.)

So. Week two. It’s only Tuesday and I’m already tired, but I’m trying to keep up with my sleep and I’m taking my herbs every morning and I have a visit home to Portland to look forward to this weekend, so my spirits are high.

I’ve been working hard on a few more personal essays. They’ll be up soon. Hang on, little tamales!

P.S. Here’s one more. Can I just say how happy I am that I have a job in the newspaper industry (even if I’m not reporting yet) and that I get to stay in glorious Oregon? It’s the most beautiful place on earth! Come visit me, somebody!

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September 22, 2009

Two Photographers I’m Currently Digging

Seriously, these guys are insane. Awesome.

Jean-Yves Lemoigne: Mad French Surrealism

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Click here for more Jean-Yves Lemoigne

Rune Guneriussen: Mysterious Norwegian Hyperrealism Kind of Stuff

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Click here for more Rune Guneriussen

September 21, 2009

Good News

It has been a busy September so far. I’m currently back in Portland after a week and a half on the East Coast. I had to make my way out to D.C. in a hurry to help my sister of the injured ankle take care of baby Sawyer. While I was there, among other things, I saw Michelle Obama and got together with a whole bunch of friends from the University of Missouri. The j-school certainly has a very decent showing in our nation’s capital– Mizzou grads are everywhere. Just before I headed home on Saturday, I was offered a position with the Tillamook Headlight-Herald, a weekly newspaper on the beautiful, rainy Oregon coast. I now have 2 weeks to pick up and relocate  for what will hopefully be the last time for a good while. I’m so tired of moving… I’m planning on continuing to work on my book on the side, though. Finally, I will be a paid journalism-doer. Aside from the low pay scales, journalism is really the best profession out there. You are essentially getting paid to go out and talk to people about random things, to take pictures of them doing other random things, and then to write a story about what you learned at the end. What could be better?

Other news: I attended my 10-year high school reunion on Saturday night. It was hilarious and awesome and awesomely hilarious! I’d been feeling super apprehensive about the whole thing, but it was good to see all those folks from so long ago. All the free-flowing booze loosened everyone up and we found ourselves unwittingly transported back to 17. Crazy. My last bit of news is that I have, as of late, had the good fortune to get to spend lots of time with Zach, a guy I knew way back in high school but hadn’t seen in a dozen years. Frequent activities have included going for rambling walks around various trendy Portland neighborhoods, sampling tasty PacNorthwest microbrews, using our collective brainpower to work out sudoko and crossword puzzles, and eating as much spicy food as possible. Shoutout!

I’m getting close to being finished with another personal essay. I’ll post it soon. In the meantime, a few new shots of my niece, Sawyer Morales.

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September 17, 2009

The Foreign Service Reading List

I’ve toyed with the idea of joining the Foreign Service at some point in my life, and I heard rumor a few weeks back that the FS had put together a list of recommended reading for those interested in trying their hand at the foreign service entrance exam. (Ostensibly one of the most grueling exams of its kind… Of the 20,000 applicants who test each year, 17,000 fail. What’s more, the bulk of those who do pass are weeded out by an equally grueling oral exam.) Out of curiosity, I dug it up.

I have to admit, I’m feeling a little underwhelmed by their selections. But it is a place to start, I suppose. Call me a snob, but I find it hard to believe that reading a Malcolm Gladwell book would really be an appropriate way to prepare for an exam that is supposedly this cerebral and complex. But it is definitely a place to start if you are interested in improving your cultural, geographic, economic and political literacy. Check it out:

Current Affairs

-U.S. News and World Report, The Economist, Time, Newsweek.

-A major daily newspaper such as The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times

-Journals such as Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, The New York Review of Books
English Language Usage

-Strunk, W., Jr. and White, E.B. The Elements of Style, 4th ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1999. ISBN 020530902X

-Chicago Manual of Style: The Essential Guide for Writers, Editors, and Publishers, 15th ed.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003. ISBN 0226104036

-United States (culture, foreign policy, history, politics)

-Davidson, J.W., et al. Nation of Nations: A Narrative History of the American Republic, 5th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. ISBN 0072870982

-Feagin, J.R. and Feagin, C.B. Racial and Ethnic Relations. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003. ISBN 0130995339

-Hirsch E.D, Kett, J.F., and Trefil, J. The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. 3rd ed. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2002. ISBN 0618226478

-Norton, M.B., et al. A People and a Nation: A History of the United States, 7th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. ISBN 0618375899

-Rosati, J. The Politics of United States Foreign Policy. 3rd ed. Belmont, CA : Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2004. ISBN 0155058843

-Woloch, N. Women and the American Experience, 4th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2006. ISBN 0072932848

World History and Geography

-Atlas of the World, 12th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 0195221478

-Craig, A.M., et al. The Heritage of World Civilizations, 7th ed., combined vol. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006. ISBN 0131926233

-Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs and Steel. Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (April 1, 1999) Language: English ISBN-10: 0393317552 ISBN-13: 978-0393317558

-Gilbert, Martin. The History of the Twentieth Century. (Harper, Collins Publisher, 2002)
Area Studies

-Bose, Sugata and Ayesha Jalal. Modern South Asia: History, Culture and Political Economy (Routledge, 2004)

-Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and bin Laden,From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. New York: Penguin Press, 2004

-Fromkin, David. A Peace to End All Peace. (Owl Books, 2001)

-Gordon, April A, and Gordon, Donald L. Understanding Contemporary Africa,( 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, Inc., 2001. ISBN 1-55587-850-4)

-Judt, T., Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Penguin Press HC, 2005. ISBN 139781594200656

-Kepel, Gilles. The War for Muslim Minds: Islam and the West. (Belknap Press, 2006)

-Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas. (Basic Books, 2002)

-Pomfret, John. Chinese Lessons. (Henry Holt & Company, 2006)

-Rosefielde, Steven and Stefan Hedlund, Russia After 1984: Wrestling with Westernization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

-Rumer, B. and Zhukov, S. Central Asia: The Challenges of Independence. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998. ISBN 0765602547

-Skidmore, T.E. and Smith, P.H. Modern Latin America. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 0195170121

-Sutter, Robert. China’s Rise in Asia: Promises and Perils.(Rowman and Littlefield, 2005)

-Yahuda, Michael. The International Politics of the Asia Pacific: Since 1945. (2nd edition, Routeledge, 2004)
Consular and Immigration

-David A. Martin (Editor), Peter H. Schuck (Editor). Immigration Stories.Publisher: Foundation Press (August 5, 2005) ISBN-10: 158778873X. ISBN-13: 978-1587788734

-Motomura, Hiroshi. Americans in Waiting, The Lost Story of Immigration and Citizenship in the United States, Oxford University Press, Inc. 2006. ISBN-13 978-0-19-516345-2; ISBN 0-19-516345-1

-Reischauer, Edwin O. and Jansen, Marius B. The Japanese Today: Change and Continuity, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2003. ISBN 0-674-47184-9

-Salyer, Lucy. Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law Studies in Legal History). Publisher: University of N. Carolina Press. November 1, 1995. ISBN-10: 0807845302. ISBN-13: 978-0807845301
Economics and Public Policy

-Hall, R.E. and Papell, D.H. Macroeconomics: economic growth, fluctuations, and policy. 6th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2005. ISBN 0393975150

-Mankiw, G. Principles of Microeconomics, 4th ed. Mason, OH : Thomson South-Western, 2006. ISBN 0324319169

-Rushefsky, M.E. Public Policy in the United States: At the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century, 3rd ed. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2002. ISBN 076560647X

-Shultz, G.P. and Dam, K.W. Economic Policy Beyond the Headlines, 2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. ISBN: 0226755991
Management and Human Behavior

-Gladwell, Malcolm. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Publisher: Back Bay Books;Reprint edition (April 1, 2007). Language: English. ISBN-10: 0316010669. ISBN-13: 978-0316010665

-Griffin, R.W. Fundamentals of Management: Core Concepts and Applications, 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005. ISBN 0618472428

-Moorhead, G. and Griffin, R.W. Organizational Behavior: Managing People and Organizations, 8th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 2007. ISBN 0618611584

-Schneider, S., and Barsoux, J., Managing Across Cultures, 2nd ed. Harlow, England; New York : Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2003. ISBN 027364663X

-Twomey, D.P. Employment Discrimination Law: A Manager’s Guide : Text & Cases. 6th ed. Mason, OH : Thomson/South-Western, 2005. ISBN 0324271301

Click here for more info on the Foreign Service

September 15, 2009

Lake Billy Chinook, Oregon

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Over Labor Day Weekend I visited Central Oregon. Here are a few shots.

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September 14, 2009

More! Better! Faster! Deconstructing the Cult of Self Improvement

So it’s one quick month after my 28th birthday. Another year done. As per usual, I’ve marked the occasion by plotting out a few goals. My birthdays have often been occasion for all sorts of (pointless?) exercises in self-reflection and (figurative) self-flagellation, all the long way through my obstinate teenagehood, though the rash indiscipline of my early twenties and the charged, hypercritical self-questioning of my late twenties. This year, though, I’m determined to keep things simple. So here goes.

In my twenty-eighth year, I will:
•    Finish more of the things I start
•    Ditch cigarettes for good
•    Become a paid journalist
•    Stretch daily
•    Stop my incessant fretting

As per usual, I’m also finding myself semi-obsessed with trying to sort out whether the gone-away year has been one of the Good or Bad variety. And, as per usual, too, I can’t quite decide. It makes me a little nuts, all this sifting back through the bits of good and ungood, noting all the things I’ve accomplished or, more often, failed to accomplish, ticking off points toward and demerits against a far-off but very real chance at redemption. Thus, my days in their totality are reduced each year to two neat rows of checkmarks.

This year’s tally definitely suggests some need for a more focused approach. I can’t even really remember what specific goals I had hoped to accomplish in my 27th year, so how am I to take its true measure? I guess, though, my amnesia suggests that I probably didn’t succeed at many of the aspirations I cooked up 365 or so days back. Why does this keep happening? The problem appears to be that I have too many goals. They are conceptualized, always, with such pointed concentration and such great enthusiasm. But I am heavily frontloaded, you see. My fatal flaw is and always has been my enormous propensity for distraction. I’m interested in the generalities of everything, which often translates to my being interested in the long-list-particulars of just about nothing. That old “jack of all trades, master of none” saw probably holds, here. (Also, perhaps, the one about a runaway train. But without the hint of vague tragedy that the metaphor usually implies. If I’ve gone off the rails, I’m probably not careening off into some deep and depressive chasm. I’m just dozing on my big metal side in a pleasant, useless meadow, staring hard at the pretty weeds while the days slip behind me and my parts gather rust.)

But I digress. Back to the Yearly Tally. I have begun to notice that all of these bouts of tatty handwringing and all of these loud declarations about ways I’d like to improve myself trace broad arcs around a single, central problem. (Or perhaps it is merely a question?) What I can quite sort out is whether I currently am, or ever have been, truly happy. With or about anything. Or anyone. At first blush, it sounds bizarre, I know. But I’ve come to suspect that this question probably plagues most citizens of the Western world incessantly. And I have a theory about why.

Ready? It works like this. As human beings, we like to assess and label and categorize. It helps us make sense of the messy, confusing welter that is Daily Life. And in the Western world, valuing as we do individuality and efficiency and studied self-awareness; and, our basic and not-so-basic material needs being consistently and easily met, we find ourselves with lots and lots of time to make generalized assessments of ourselves as either Happy or Unhappy. Working forward from that state of happiness or unhappiness as a starting point, we then subscribe to all sorts of explanations and qualifications about our relative state of well-being, which can be folded loosely into four schools of thought:

1: We aren’t supposed to be happy, and if we are, something is wrong with us. Thus, unhappy people are justified in their evaluation of reality as mostly unpleasant and the burden is shifted to the cheerful to modify their outlook to more accurately reflect What Is.

2: We are supposed to be happy, and if we aren’t, something is wrong with us.  Thus, happy people are justified in their evaluation of reality as mostly pleasant and the burden is shifted to the depressive to modify their outlook to more accurately reflect What Is.

3: Happiness and sadness are relative. Thus, both Happy and Unhappy individuals are justified in their evaluations of reality as either mostly pleasant or mostly unpleasant. And no one need shoulder the onus of modifying his or her worldview.

4: Happiness and sadness are at best problematic, and, at worst, categorically irrelevant. Human emotion is too fluid to be crammed into two simple states. Thus, both Happy and Unhappy individuals need not waste energy attempting to evaluate them as states of being.

But it’s what happens next that has me just a little bit suspicious. Whether we ultimately see ourselves as justifiably or unjustifiably happy, justifiably or unjustifiably unhappy, or both, or either, or neither, we are funneled down those various chutes and spit out through a single opening. And the place where we land looks like the glided entrée to a gigantic shopping mall more than anything else. Really, have you ever thought about how much money we Americans are goaded to shill out for books and drugs and gadgets that aid us in either altering or modifying or simply reinforcing our chosen worldview? It’s like we’ve been deemed unfit to navigate our own realities, to direct our own shows. We are asked instead to hand the reigns over to folks much better suited to the task. And I’m not talking about the postwar Old Guard of grumpy, lantern-jawed psychoanalysts with and cold metal speculae and high Viennese accents and flat, hypnotic affects. The new Cult of Self Improvement, with all its baubles and its magic pills and its lengthy, purple apocrypha, is spearheaded by a new guard of markedly hipper stock: Oprah and Dr. Phil as proxy-confidantes who aren’t afraid to tell it like it is; hack herbalists as best-selling authors whose credibility rests upon the outrageous fiction of a white costume lab coat and a scrappy beard; big pharmaceutical outfits who overfish the public waters by casting their nets unconscionably wide. (See: “Have you cried more than twice this week? It could be depression!” See also: “Do you ever feel nervous in a roomful of strangers? It could be social anxiety disorder!”)

Implicit is the warning that if we choose to steer ourselves in spite of the warnings of this team of Would-Be Psychologists and Pop Gurus, our lives will play out as graceless and often completely bungled attempts at developing and maintaining meaningful relationships. We are led to believe that we need the assistance of this mealy-mouthed team of analysts and its kit of magic tools to successfully complete the simple act of interpreting our own reality. And this assistance comes with a price tag. Call it the Depressive-Industrial Complex, a sub-economy built up around promoting the extraordinary delusion that most human beings are dim-witted and incapable of any sort of meaningful introspection.

I myself have subscribed heartily to such dictats since a rather tender age. It started when I was 14 and I randomly checked out “The Road Less Traveled” from the library. I can’t remember where I’d heard about it, or from whom. I do, however, recall the eagerness with which I subscribed to the author’s lengthy diatribes on the merits of self-discipline and faith. It made me feel better, somehow. More complete. I was hooked. When I was 15, I schlepped “The Path of Least Resistance” around in my backpack. At 16, I stole my dad’s copy of “The Celestine Prophecy” during a boating vacation. I raced to beat him to the end, desperate to understand it in the way I thought he wanted me to.

What could possibly have compelled me to adopt such a hobby? I suppose I liked the looks of surprised approval my age-inappropriate summer reading list garnered from adults, looks that normally came my way in pitifully short shrift. (Not too surprising considering the fact that my other hobbies were Cable Television, Smoking Pot and Pretending I Could Skateboard.)  And I laid it on thick, man. I’d say things like, “I want to live a loving and honorable existence,” or, another favorite, “I’m trying to discover my purpose by examining successions of coincidences in my daily life.” I boldly announced that I wanted to start a course of Prozac.

I didn’t know what these things meant. I suppose I believed in them, at least as much as one can believe in anything without truly understanding it. (Which is probably quite a lot.) But more than that, I simply liked the idea that I was improving myself, even if the ways in which these improvements would manifest remained mysterious and intangible. What was important was this: I was becoming a better version of Me with each passing day. The idea had enormous appeal, especially considering the fact that I was struggling to come to frustrated terms with a more basic truth I’d stumbled upon at some point between the year I stopped being either little or cute (11) and the year my parent’s marriage combusted (15). It was becoming clear to me that, in spite of its intensely interesting twists and turns and its occasionally heady outpourings of joy, this living business was a largely unpleasant affair, too full of clogged drains and spaghetti-stained T-shirts and losing lottery tickets. Such a legion of ways to be disappointed and dissatisfied! That, in itself, was enormously disappointing and dissatisfying to me. And so I subscribed heartily to the Cult of Self Improvement. I began journaling daily. I taped affirmations up next to my mirror. I tried to meditate.

My parents encouraged me completely. Of course they did. They could be broadly classified as yippies, upper-middle class and professional, but Portland-bred and crunchy to the core. At their urging, I had started therapy at six in order to learn how to better express my emotions. I grew up parroting schmaltzy phrases such as “poor/good boundaries,” “owning natural consequences” and “earning trust.” I attended family meetings in which talking sticks allowed each member his or her turn to voice grievances and respond to accusations. Through the years of my growing up, a revolving team of psychologists taught me to keep close and careful tabs on my own behavior. When I was eight, my mother gave me a poster with sugary poem written by 80s self-helpnik Virginia Satir that read, in part, “I know there are aspects about myself that puzzle me, and other aspects that I do not know. But as long as I am friendly and loving to myself, I can courageously and hopefully look for solutions to the puzzles and for ways to find out more about me.” It hung above my bunk bed, and I read it each night. I wanted so much for it to be true.

Now. I’m not saying I’m not grateful for all that I learned. I’m also not saying that I wasn’t very probably in dire need of such wisdom, such insight. I was a strange child, way too sensitive and prone to stomachaches of mysterious origin, and who knows what kind of adult I would have become if left to my own sometimes destructive devices? At the very least, all of it has aided me in becoming a decently content and well-adjusted twenty-something. (There were a few dark times, but even in the hours of my greatest discontent, I never did get that bottle of Prozac. And I also never seriously considered eating a gun. I’m proud of those things.) And on the collective level, all these exhortations must certainly have encouraged us citizens of the Western world to hold ourselves at least marginally accountable for how we treat others, and how we treat ourselves. Love them or hate them, these mouthy tomes and the people who pen them, in their vast and ever-expanding plurality, function as a powerful social force in America. And I still believe that is largely a force for good.

But here’s my big issue with the whole thing: I’m not entirely convinced that I’m really any Happier or any more Well Adjusted than I would have been had I abandoned the whole project back when I was my surly 13 year-old-self. If I were, why would I continue to agonize each year over my own personal happiness quotient? And wouldn’t I be achieving goals instead of simply rewording and recalibrating their contents each birthday in hopes of better success? Shouldn’t I have found some way of putting myself to rights by this late hour? Cause, to be honest, in spite of my eager apprenticeship, my default mechanisms do not thus far seem to have surrendered themselves to any sort of Paradigm Shift. I still suffer from an inadequacy complex. I still judge others for holding views different from my own and pretend to listen to their arguments when I am really just constructing a snappy retort. And I am still prone to irrational and very noisy inner monologues of self-criticism. (Which seems poetically ironic considering the fact that I am completely unable to shoulder criticism from others. In fact, it makes me furiously angry. If someone honks at me during morning rush hour for an artless traffic dodge, I fume till lunchtime.) What if I’d just kept hitting off my little marijuana pipe and sating myself on a diet of Must-See Television Programming? What if, instead of cultivating this obsession with the state of mind of my state of mind, I’d just sort of skimmed the thin surface of things and avoided these (unanswerable) questions instead of obsessing over them for two (TWO!) entire decades, just gotten quietly on with the business of living? On one level, it’s a silly question to ask, because it embodies an insoluble paradox: I can only reflect on the person I might have become from the perspective of the person I endeavored, concertedly, to become instead. And I must profit at least somewhat from the wisdom I gathered from all those ridiculous self-improvement guides and those silly birthday ponderings and those boldly scripted lists of oft-abandoned goals. But, still, it is a question that bothers and distracts me constantly.

All said, there’s no shame in getting hamstrung by the Big Questions. They are important! And the process of considering them helps us to become better-adjusted and infinitely kinder human beings, I think. But in a market society as opportunistic as this one, our incessant questioning makes us vulnerable to the exploits of an ever-expanding army of psychologists-cum-salesmen, mercenaries who commodify the individual and collective Western project of Seeking True Fulfillment by peddling questionably helpful products to legions of people just like me. People who make lists and set goals and desperately seek an elusive sense of contentment. People who feel frustrated by their seeming inability to retain enough focus to make headwind on those aspirations, who wonder compulsively if their failure to do so means there is something really the matter and are thus compelled to keep buying these corny books and these powerful psychological sedatives, to fatten the coffers of this new guard to the busting point even in the face of infinitely-diminishing returns.

Subscribing to the view of happiness as product that can be bought and sold is deeply misleading on several levels: first, doing so suggests that happiness is the highest state, which is definitely open to debate. Second, the Commodification of Happiness implies both that happiness exists in limited qualities and that we lack the methods of production necessary to manufacture it ourselves. Third and most problematically, parading Self Improvement as an end and not a means invokes a logically flawed rhetorical challenge: The term “improvement” suggests a continuous act, not an end goal. And, as I’ve found, when the goal is improvement, the work is rarely clearly defined and thus remains infuriatingly unfinishable. There is always more and better to be done. And then we’re just chasing golden carrots, faster and faster. At that frenetic pace, the mile markers get tough to spot and so we fail to recognize that we are moving in a circle, ever widening, sure, but a circle just the same.

Perhaps, then, I’ll skip out on goals this year, just jump the tracks in favor of that eternally leafy meadow. Cause honestly, I’m tired of thinking about all of this. It seems to be getting me nowhere. And if I’m going to go nowhere, well, I’d just rather be sitting down while I do it.

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September 2, 2009

Tunneling Out: A Quick Meditation On The Not-So-Unfettered Self

Just a few weeks home and already I’m getting antsy and stressed out. Sort of longing for Life Stripped Bare. Wanting to regain that version of Me who doesn’t lust after fancy cars and cigarettes and steady income and all those other kinds of cushion.

I ate some lemon cake today. Man, was it tas-ty! It was the kind that comes in a little cardboard holder that’s made to look like a baking tin. (How postmodern, yeah?) The kind that tastes almost too improbably lemony, the kind of lemony that is just so impossibly zesty that your teeth ache down in their roots and the sides of your tongue go ZING! But in a good way. The kind that tastes like it’s made from oil, not butter, and from syrup, not lemon rind. The kind that you could probably leave unrefrigerated and uncovered for a few long weeks in the heat of summer and still chow down on with relative impunity. Yeah, it was good. So good, in fact, that I ate several large pieces. I might even have eaten another piece, had there been more than a thick corner slab left when I got to it. After it was all gone, I sat down on the couch with my bellyful of cake and I flipped the TV to a crime documentary profiling the childhood of Jeffrey Dahmer. The documentary featured lots of interviews with Dahmer himself. During the interviews, Mr. Dahmer described the processes by which he mummified the heads and genitalia of his victims and even recalled how he’d used meat tenderizer to decrease the chewiness of a human-bicep steak. After awhile, I started to feel slightly nauseated. And I started to feel concerned.

It’s just this: I’ve begun to fear that staying here in Portland is going to make me fat and lazy and boring and, worst of all, complacent. That if I stick around much longer I’m going to get stuck here on my grandmother’s couch and never do another exciting thing again.

I’ve lately entertained fantasies of keeping a garden. Problem is, I’ve never managed to stick around anywhere long enough to last a full cycle of seasons through. In fact, it occurred to me the other day that the only piece of furniture I own is a toaster oven. (And a car, I guess. Is a car furniture? It does sort of have chairs in it. But, Onward!) Don’t get me wrong. All of this fretting and hand wringing isn’t a rally against the Cult of Things. I love things! I amass them astonishingly quickly and really do enjoy them when it comes down to it. In my life, I’ve collected everything from bottle caps to plastic lunchboxes to Pez dispensers. Ask anyone who knows me. What’s different is that I am regularly forced to part with all these beloved things. It is sometimes agonizing, but I do it nonetheless. And I secretly like it.

It’s also not about pushing some studied agenda of anti-consumerism. Yeah, the contemporary vox populi is composed largely of fat, insatiable semi-zombies who perhaps care more than they should about filling their spare garages and their romper rooms and their already-bulging trouser pockets with whatever useless trinkets are at hand. However. I maintain that anyone who falls far enough to the right or to the left of the ideological spectrum to condemn those who quest after the material is at best ignorant of the realities of a world in which Democratic-Nationalist-Capitalism functions as an all-powerful powerful cultural and social force, and, at worst, an outrageous philistine. It can’t be helped. Not at this point.

Nah, it’s more personal than all of that. It’s about what happens when all of these meditations on conspicuous consumption are turned selfward. This is about Me, and my trying to sort out how I’m going to conduct myself in this life. I’m more confused than most, but One Thing, at least, has become scissor-sharp in its clarity: you can have everything if you’re willing to give up everything else for it. I am normally suspicious of any language that evokes false binaries, but I think the dichotomy holds, here. You can, within reason and dependent on your luck and your trying and your God-gave gifts, amass quite a lot of shit in a lifetime. Cars, microwaves, vacation rental properties, whatever. And, conversely, you can, within reason and dependent on the heartiness of your constitution and your innate stubbornness, make your way through the modern world in a very ascetic fashion. But at some point, you do have to choose. And not choosing? Well, that’s also a choice.  And that’s what I’m getting at. I’m hedging, here. My indecision about whether to sate or summarily resist my impulse to gorge myself on oil-based confections and true crime television programming stresses me out, and because of that stress I find myself doubly inclined to spend the rest of my life chow-hounding lemon cake and watching Real Bad TV.

I’ve said it before, but sometimes I really do feel like my whole life so far has been a battle between opposing instincts. In this case, the battle rages between my inveterate Packratism and my desire to be completely portable. And also, I guess, between my loneliness and my desire for absolute freedom. I don’t know what it all means. What I do know is that I miss the absence of longing. Here, at home, I find myself craving ever after too many things that can held onto but not kept, sensed, but not actualized. Things that titillate but don’t fulfill. Not ever, not matter how long or how insistently we gun after them. And I’m not sure I like it. Not one little old bit.

August 10, 2009

A dubious announcement

I have been busy… Applying for jobs like mad in places near and far (hearing very little back, eh, except a few bites from short-term gigs in Thailand and South Korea that I’m not really very interested in anyway) and catching up with old friends and trying to figure out how to reestablish some sort of normalcy in my life when everything remains so inveterately Up In The Air. One interesting development: I’m sorta trying to write a book. Aw, man, that sounds so ridiculously pompous. I’m pretty sure everybody “writes a book” at some point. Or pretentiously declares a plan to do so, dives into the task with single-minded obsession, then abandons the project quietly after a month or two. Why? I’d guess cause most people are lazy and quick to distraction and cause writing a book. is. fucking. hard. And that’s to say nothing of writing a book that is: actually good, actually sellable, and actually ultimately read by anyone. Although perhaps I’m not even qualified to judge the relative difficulty of such a task, seeing as all of my well-intentioned attempts to “write a book” have died a similarly painful slow death, sometimes before I even ever sat down and got around to the writing part. I don’t know. Short-form writing has always been my preference. It seems so much harder to pull threads of discourse and thought and narrative together when they get so interminably long and tangled up with each other. It’s hard enough for me to get back out the other side of a 2,000 word newspaper feature.

But I still sort of want to try something different. Besides, my dad says I should “write a book.” He’s “writing a book,” too, actually. Problem is, I’m far more interested in immersing myself in editing and commenting on his project than on taking up one of my own. That’s at least until I get to thinking of how cool it would be to have written something, anything, that is decently funny and interesting and perhaps spends a few years on a shelf at Powell’s Books. And then I get to thinking of who might write the foreword and what travel stories I would include in it and what sort of angle would make it unique. Do I really need another Project? When we were struggling to finish our theses, a classmate and I used to joke that we’d developed adult-onset ADD during grad school. But seriously. Focus is a big issue for me. Maybe actually somehow following through on just one project for just one serious once would do me good. But I’m going to end this now cause there’s a cool show on the travel channel right now about these hugeass mountains in China and I’ve sorta been looking at teaching jobs there and this blog posting is starting to bore me. And. Off the rails I go.

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August 3, 2009

From A Coffee Shop, On A Monday

I’m squandering time in a coffee shop on Hawthorne Boulevard. It’s my first Monday back home in Oregon and I must admit, I’m feeling a little shell-shocked after all that time in the Midwest. Traffic on the drive over was atrocious. Plus a black coffee at this here cafe is almost three bucks and it took a two-hour wait before I managed to snag a table with access to an outlet and an unobstructed view of the street outside. Not to mention the fact that this place is crawling with hipsters. Everyone’s all tatted out and freaky looking. They are fun to check out. It’s all fun. The tasty food and the good music and the motley bunch of patrons sipping tea and reading high-minded tomes all around me. But it is different. I’m trying to stay positive. I’ve started applying for jobs and am trying to wedge myself into a manageable routine again. We’ll see what happens and how long I end up staying.

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August 3, 2009

Back In Portland Land

Well. I rolled on into Portland, Oregon, late last Friday evening. I came by way of Missouri – Iowa – Nebraska – Wyoming – Utah – Idaho – Washington. It was quite the trek. All said, I clocked somewhere around 31 hours of driving, split up into three days and two ways. Carleigh, a friend from way back, came along for the journey. We spent our first night in a shitty hotel room just outside of Cheyenne and the second in Salt Lake City visiting Corey, my roommate from year one in Columbia. It was quite disorienting, this last week. All said, I set foot in three countries and eight states in a mere seven days. The cross-country drive was further complicated by the fact that I broke my big toe badly just before it was time to pack up the old Chevy Cavalier and head out of Columbia. Awesome timing. Booze makes me so wicked and clumsy. Add to this my license plate tags were expired and my turn signals were out and you’ve got quite the misadventure. And now I’m home. Just like that. It feels strange after these two long years in the big, empty Midwest. Plans for the immediate future: find work and a month-to-month lease in Portland proper, catch up with old friends, and head down to Bend and Sunriver for a little vacation time in the high deserts of Central Oregon. I’m looking for work here in Portland and also abroad in South Korea and beyond. We’ll see what washes up.

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July 27, 2009

Last Words from South of the Border

Something I wrote before I headed home… Better late than never?

7.24.09 | Aeropuerto International Tegucigalpa | 9:40 a.m.

I am sitting in a coffee shop in the Teguc airport at the very butt end of my travels south of the border. Sipping an iced coffee and pondering the day of transit ahead of me. It will be a shockingly quick trip back to where I started, at least in comparison to the 24-hour treks I’ve clocked on ways home from Asia and Europe. I hop on my first plane ‘round noon and will set foot in the front door of my house in coMO by about 10:30 tonight. I remain perpetually amazed by the ease with which we are now able to move around the earth. It extends the snaking reach of that fabled “beaten path” considerably, yeah. And it makes it pretty much impossible to get anywhere that others—make that multitudes of others—haven’t gotten first. But it is still a gift.

My last night in León ended up fun. My friend Ian and I cruised around the city at just about sunset and got some awesome photos of all the Iglesias near parque central. He is working toward a degree in Latin American studies back home in Arizona and his enthusiasm for everything was contagious. We stumbled upon this huge outdoor manifestation commemorating the 50th anniversary of the murders of four young Nicaraguans who’d staged a peaceful demonstration in protest of those in power at the time. Lots of music and a big reenactment of the event. I took wicked photos. Then, we played a game of battleship, drank a few beers and said our goodbyes. I spent the rest of the evening chillin’ outside the dorm room of Via Via with Gregory, a lawyer from Mass who has spent the past year traveling all of North and South America on his motorcycle. Pretty badass. He’s got some serious road creds by now, Che Guevara-styled beard and all.

Early yesterday morning, I hopped a bus back into Honduras, which took considerably longer than planned. Shocking, I know. The holdup occurred because we had the misfortune to pass through a town where a huge demonstration was going on. I couldn’t tell if it was in opposition to or in favor of the ousted president, and I wasn’t allowed off the bus to go find out. So we got parked, right next to the protest, really, and had to wait for 3 hours for everyone to get finished with their chanting and fist pumping before we could continue down the winding road to this huge, rickety capital city. It was interesting to observe the protest. I know that the potential for random violence is very real in a country muddling its way through a military coup, and the danger shouldn’t be minimized. But what struck me the most was the fact that the protest read more like a town picnic than anything else. Everyone seemed to have shown up. Popsicle vendors mulled through the crowds. Friends and neighbors sat on logs or emptied oil barrels in the shade, telling jokes and slapping each other on the back. It got painfully hot sitting on that bus in the heat of high afternoon, let me tell you. And I hadn’t brought anything to each but lime peanuts and felt far too lazy to read any of the thick non-fiction tomes I’d shoved into my daypack. So, mostly I craned my neck out the window and, when that got dull, I slept.

I stayed last night at a place called Hotel Guadeloupe 2. It was nice, although I was pretty worked up when I arrived cause my taxi driver totally ripped me off on the fare and I didn’t realize it until I was in the taxi and I’d already agreed on the price. By then, it was too late to do anything except scold him in Spanish for lying to me about the exchange rate and watch him squirm in his seat and claim to be “really bad at math” and try to change the subject by telling me about how he used to be an illegal immigrant in Houston until he got caught and deported. Anyway. I spent a bit of yesterday evening cruising around the neighborhood surrounding my hotel, but there wasn’t much to see aside from a bunch of tile stores, a few dilapidated auto shops and about three hundred banks. Plus the men were really obnoxious and kept bothering me and shouting things like “Hi-lo, baby!” so I ate a few baleadas (amazingly delicious quesadilla-type things), picked up some beer, and trotted back to the hotel just as a summer storm started to roll through. I had a decent room and a TV with all the cheesy Spanish-language programming my little gringa heart could possibly desire, so I spent the evening lounging in bed watching dubbed episodes of Seinfeld and America’s Next Top Model, a bit of Fox news for laughs, and an awesomely terribly Hallmark made-for-TV movie about some crazy woman who is obsessed with her dead sister’s husband and keeps trying to kill everyone. It might not sound like the hippest way to spend my last night in Centro America, but what can I say? The big cities in this part of the world haven’t felt very safe for a solo female traveler. Aside from Cairo, I gotta say they have been the sketchiest cities I’ve ever visited. Give me Bangkok or Paris or Tokyo, no problem. But Guat City or San Salvador or here? It’s, well, different. Scarier and a little more sinister. Like anything could and will happen at any moment. As if more than a few people around are quite prepared, if the opportunity should arise, to take their catcalls and ass grabs to the next level. All of this brings me to something I’ve been thinking a lot about. Every trip I log, I always get a little nostalgic with wondering if it will be the last trip I take alone. That, of course, being code for me wondering if I will finally meet someone to travel with. And that, of course, being code for me wondering if I will, after all this time, finally have a boyfriend again. I watched couples a lot on this trip. I watched them sharing joints and groping in corners at bars. I watched them bickering at bus stops and tightening each other’s backpack straps. I watched them huddle together over their travel guides, debating various routes and means. It looked nice, I gotta say. I thought about that last night, when the sky started to grow dark and I trotted quickly back to my hotel. If I hadn’t been alone, would I have really been so contented to spent the evening alone in a hotel room watching bad TV? Traveling solo tests your mettle and your courage and your ability to navigate reality without a co-pilot, to make and live with decisions for which you can hold only yourself to account. But having someone else makes you brave, too, in a different way. Especially when you’re a girl. It makes you more adventurous. Less inclined to ferret yourself away in some locked room or other when things get hairy or you land in a strange new place without a map. And it’s just plain more fun. I mean, I’ve seen so many amazing and wild and incredible things down here, and I’ve wished so many times that I’d had someone next to me whom I could have elbow in the ribs and say Look at that shit! A wild gang of pigs on the beach in Nicaragua. A Michael Jackson impersonator in Xela. A buffed-up local with a little blue boombox jumping rope on the edge of a highway in the pissing rain outside Antigua. And just this morning, a bicyclist who’d latched onto a pickup truck going a solid 45 M.P.H. down a busy thoroughfare. Pictures just aren’t the same, and they secretly bore people, anyway. Ah, well. It was an awesome trip nevertheless. Maybe next time…

This morning, I rose at dawn and headed back out to the main strip for my last bean-egg-platano-tortilla breakfast, which I gulped down with the World’s Worst Cup of Coffee. Before I could stop her, the woman at the coffee shop filled my little Styrofoam cup about halfway up with sugar. The coffee itself was called something like “Real Indian Coffee,” and its logo is this real proud-looking Indian chief decked out in the Cherokee-style headdress, like something straight out of a spaghetti western. How very colonial. But don’t get me started. The coffee was so sugary I practically had to chew it. Eesh.

And that brings us to now. After five weeks, four countries and twenty cities, I’ve hit the homeward leg of my trip. Quick stock: I am short one pair of Chacos, an almost-new point-and-shoot camera, a credit card and a few various articles of clothing, including a prized scarf I picked up in Florence years back. My body is a spotty constellation of bug bites and tiny scars. And I’m guessing I don’t smell so very hot. It’s been an embarassingly long time since I’ve worn clean clothes, or, really, since I cared if I were wearing clean clothes. (I think the last time I did laundry was back in El Salvador.) But no matter. Aside from my stinkiness and my perpetually rumbling belly, I feel pretty solid this morning. And ready for home.

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July 22, 2009

Well. I’ve been happily incommunicado for the last five days or so… After Las Penitas, I headed to a place called Rancho Tranquilo. It’s really way out in the middle of nowhere, a little mini backpacker paradise set just at the edge of a deserted beach in Jiquillo, run by a gringa named Tina who ditched her life in the U.S. as a computer programmer to buy a little parcel of land and some out buildings, which she’s turned into a gorgeous little hostel right on the water. There was definitely no internet, no phone, no nothing really, except what could be bought from the tiny pulperia a few plots down. Which was mainly cigarettes, cookies and Gatorade. Stuff like that. I had a wonderful time hanging out with Tina, her boyfriend Dennis, and the random mix of travelers who passed through. We took several field trips to visit friends of Tina and Dennis. Most of these involved tasty food, tons of beer, and brutal rides down very unfinished roads in the back of their old, failing pickup truck. I took the wheel myself once and it was pretty hilarious. The truck has no rearview mirror, the keys tend to drop out of the ignition, the brakes are pretty much shot and the clutch is finicky as hell. But I had a fun time of it.

Now I’m back in Leon. Crowded, crazy Leon, with all its honking and its dust and its chaos. The place is definitely growing on me, although I had a couple of very unpleasant run-ins with a local kid when I was here a few days back. It was strange. I was cruising around town checking out the sites, and as I rounded a corner right near parque central, I felt a hand smack me on the ass. I whirled around in fury to chew out the culprit and found myself face to face with a filthy eleven-year-old boy. Dressed all in red and totally barefoot. I was too surprised to whip up any sort of clever insult in Spanish so I just gave him the death stare and groped for some words. He laughed evily and shouted, “PUCK YOU!” Then he ran away. So, yeah. A little weird, right, but things got weirder. A few hours later I was wandering through the town’s biggest cathedral, clicking a few photos and enjoying a break from the often-oppressive heat that rises from the pavement around here in these intense, stinking waves. The cathedral was a madhouse, kids running around all over the place. One had a handful of waterballoons he was throwing at the high, white walls. Others were scrambling through the pews, pounding their fists into the wood. I was angling for a nice picture of the arched doorway when the kid in red stepped in from outside. He could see that I was trying to take pictures so he jumped all over the place and made nasty faces and did everything he could think of to ruin my photos. When I tried to exit past him, he started shouting at me, demanding that I take his photo. I ignored him, thinking it was best, and he ran up behind me and hit me on the ass AGAIN! Then he tried to push me and started up with the “Fuck Yous” again. I was ready this time and started screaming at him and told him I was going to get the police to arrest him (yeah, mean, I know, but this kid was pure evil!) if he didn’t get away from me. Then he came at me again and, I am slightly sorry, but only slightly, to say that I took the plastic bag of souvenirs I had in my hand and swung it full-force at his head a couple of times until he ran away. By this time, I was pretty worked up. Real out of breath and upset. Then, I looked up and realized that everyone within a 100-foot radius was staring at me in astonishment. Ooops… I felt really weird about the whole thing afterward. I mean, I am crazy about kids. And I think they deserve the protection of adults, at almost any cost. And they definitely shouldn’t be struck. But this kid was so sinister and aggressive that I didn’t feel any real guilt about it until now, when I sat down to type this up and got to thinking about how it might sound to others. All I can say for myself is that I just can’t tolerate being abused, even if it’s by some poor, filthy kid. I mean, imagine him growing to full size and becoming some crazy rapist. He’s definitely on his way, and I don’t know who’s to blame. Is it his culture, for encouraging these types of macho displays? My culture, for affording me the privilege of humiliating the poorest people in this world by walking careless among them with my inadvertent displays of wealth, my flashy camera? I don’t know… But at a certain point, the morality of it becomes irrelevant. I think of myself as a peaceful person, but I seem to respond, inevitably, to displays of agression with my own equally aggressive outbursts. And I don’t really care to change this.

But onto lighter things… I’ve bought a bus ticket for Honduras tomorrow. I’m heading to Teguicigalpa to check things out and to prep for my flight home in two very short days. I can hardly believe all that’s happened during the last five weeks. It feels like I’ve been gone a lifetime… I have more great pictures to upload, but I’m sitting in the restaurant of Via Via Hostel waiting for some food so it’ll have to wait.

Well. My food just showed up, and then Ian from El Tunco walked in the door… Good to see a friendly face. More later.

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July 17, 2009

Last Morning in Las Penitas

I’m chillin’ out on my last morning in Las Penitas here at the only restaurant in town that has internet. These people are pretty hilarious. They seem fairly annoyed whenever I show up and attempt to order things! I am always careful to confirm that a restaurant or whatever is actually open, cause families usually live in their places of work and it’s not always easy to tell. And I try hard to be polite, but it still always seems I am inconveniencing them terribly. For example, I really need to go to the bathroom, but I went over to the outhouse a moment ago and discovered that it was clogged up and flooded out. I didn’t want them to think I’d done it, so I politely informed them about the problem, to which the mujer responded, “Well, we’re too busy to fix it. Can’t you see I’m cleaning right now?” So no bathroom. Also, I asked for a menu and never got one. Then, I ordered a coffee. Never got that either. So no brekkie fo me.

Yesterday, the town power was out the entire day. It made for a peaceful time, definitely. I tanned on the beach and did some writing and read a copy of Vanity Fair cover to cover. (An awesome magazine, by the way. Some really good reporting in this month’s issue!) I’m getting bored, though, so I’ve decided to head into Leon for the night. Apparently, there is some sort of big concert going on in town. I heard about it from an American girl who’s been down here awhile. We chilled out last night. She was super upset cause she has a romance going on with a local surf instructor guy and apparently, his crazy baby mamma showed up yesterday evening in quite the fury and she had to run away cause the woman was large and scary. She was pretty bummed so I went with her for a banana split. Man. My own particular vacation has been pretty low drama. That’s a good thing, I guess!

Tomorrow, it’s off to Rancho Tranquillo, some sort of isolated backpacker ranch further up the coast that’s run by a San Franciscan woman who decided to drop out. Then I’m gonna visit a few coffee plantations and make my way to Tegucigalpa. My vacation is fast winding to a close. And I have a 30-hour drive across the U.S. to look forward to two days after I land in St. Louis. Ugh. At least I don’t have to go back to school!

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July 17, 2009

To Health

Good God. I am sitting in a cantina in Playa Las Penitas, Nicaragua, staring hard at the ocean and working mightily to digest the last pill in a wicked course of antibiotics I picked up from a friendly medico back in Juayua, El Salvador. Azitromiacena, it’s called… A succession of fat white bullets that have fast killed off the strep infection nesting in my tonsils but that also set my belly rumbling and turn my brain as mushy as warm chorizo. My stomach is just rolling right now, so bad that all I can do is grip onto the arms of my plastic chair and think again about how much I hate this moment right here. I just fucking hate it. Cause, really, how many times have I been here before? In some tropical paradise on heavy, nasty meds, just struggling not to hate life?

On the road, it’s always something. Always. The days and weeks and months and years I’ve logged far from home have been punctuated by a neverending shitstorm of phlegmy lungs and pocked up legs and revolting digestive issues, the details of which I’ve spared from everyone excepting sympathetic fellow travelers and my mom, the doctor. And I never get quite used to it, never sort out how to handle the pain with any sort of grace. Instead, being sick far from home often seems to bring out the very worst in me. It always ends up me shivering with fever in some filthy hostel or other, popping Advils and poring over the “Traveler’s Illnesses” section in the Lonely Planet guidebook until I’ve just put the fear of God into myself, until every spine tingle or muscle twitch is indicative, certainly, of some terrible strain of malaria incubating and multiplying in my already blackened bloodstream, or of an inoperable brainworm, or of a terminal case of dengue fever, the kind that makes your jaw lock up and sets you seizing violently and ultimately sends you home to your weeping parents in a green body bag. I freak myself out all the time. It’s way too easy.

I don’t know how to change this, and, thing is, I’m not sure I’d even want to, cause such fears are not entirely without foundation. You see, in my more irrational moments, I’ve got a history of semi-serious medical issues to draw on for fodder. E.coli poisoning in the jungles of Laos. Walking pneumonia in Ireland. And, now, wicked painful strep throat in El Sal. But I must acknowledge, too, that fear has, perhaps, a lesser place in the scheme of my battles with my own spotty health than I’d choose to grant it. It’s far too little about good luck or shit luck, cause too often, whatever it is that becomes wrong with me is, on some level, pretty much all my fault. On a base level, logging as much time as I’ve logged in the less developed parts of the world verily guarantees you at least a few unpleasant run-ins with disease and illness. But it’s more than that, cause most every infirmity on my short-list of afflictions list can be traced back to some indecorous moment. Skinny dipping in filthy, under-chlorinated swimming pools. Chowing down on chicken tacos in ill-advised local markets well after dark. A steady diet of little more than booze, falafel and cigarettes for two months straight. I know this, and I acknowledge that the sometimes cavalier approach I take to my own health when I’m on the road has been largely responsibly for some of the more vexatious infirmities I’ve endured.

But in the end, I try not to be too hard on myself. I need only look around me to recognize that there is hardly the semantic room for blame when you’re talking about sufferance at the hands of foreign viruses and bacteria. It’s not just me who gets kicked to the curb. It’s most everyone. Just about every day since I got here five weeks ago, at least one friend has been hamstrung with throw ups or welts or aching eyeballs. In Laos, as I recall, I rarely went half a day without encountering the pitiful machinations of some poor soul retching and spitting into a squat toilet. It’s the inevitable cost of venturing out of the bubble, a penance paid since time immemorial by those intrepid and foolhardy souls who carry their bodies far from home in pursuit of adventure or pleasure or even simple salvation. Just about no one gets away untouched. After awhile, it becomes part of the journey, inevitable. A sure and disarming conversation piece when you find yourself in the company of other travelers. Fodder for jokes, even. A way of relating.

All the same, I still fight it. I travel with a portable pharmacopeia by now, a mess of pills and herbs and colorful salves. And in my daily perambulations, I take pains that others find excessive. I refuse to sit on toilet seats or brush my teeth in tap water. I wash my hands compulsively. And more often than not, I turn my nose up at seafood platters and creamy chicken stews in favor of considerably less risky (and considerably less tasty) cuisine, usually some version of noodles or eggs and beans. And I still get the shits, or the flu, or whatever. And it. Pisses. Me. Off. I’ve never found a way to stop hating it, cause the longer story of my life has been peppered, too, with sickness, even at home, ever since I was a kid. I’ve always spiked outrageous fevers, often up to 105 degrees. I’ve been plagued by throat infections. And thanks to a high blood-sugar content, I am a natural magnet for every breed and species of biting insect. There’s no two ways around it. It fucking sucks.

But whichever way the causal errors truly point, it occurs to me that perhaps I’ve been too hard on myself these past years. Perhaps, too often, I’ve slipped into seeing my body as a sort of unreliable travel companion. Bossy, prone to laziness, always insisting on a night in just when I’m really ready to really go balls out. But—and here’s the thing—unlike some obnoxious traveling companion that I might link up with in a hostel lounge or bus terminal and later begin to loath, my body is pretty darn impossible to ditch. I can’t drop it a note on the nightstand and sneak off to the next town some early morning before it’s quite woken up. I am stuck with me, with my ever-rumbling belly and my sugary, irresistible blood and my eternal clumsiness and my taste for local booze and my penchant for the worst kinds of mischief.

So where does it leave me? The only real option with teeth, aside from deciding to shove my passport into a drawer and just stay home, seems to be to try and choose a Zen-like approach to the whole mess. Gaining control of the mind by gaining control of the body and whatnot. I make it into a game sometimes. If, finding myself squooshed onto a chicken bus cheek-by-jowl with scads of ripe-smelling locals, my belly starts to gurgle menacingly, I often just close my eyes and pretend I’m in a sauna. The sweat beads down my nose and I clutch my middle and squeeze my eyes and reach for some kind of stoicism, like a lamb put to pasture in a heavy downpour. Then, the crush of humanity around me and the mess inside of me both become a test, wearing me down, yeah, but making me stronger, too, for all that bad suffering. Cleansing me, even. But “Zen reformist” might be a better description of what it is I angle for. Cause hard booze is still my antiseptic of choice. And I still let myself scratch compulsively at mosquito bites, though I’ve pared it down to just one at a time, so that the scars might accumulate more slowly, even as I satisfy my insatiable craving for relief.

And yeah, about those scars. After twenty-some-odd years, all these pink blotches speckled up and down my arms and legs like tiny stars read as constellations, telling the story of my hard-fought battles in the green, rolling hills and the hot, high deserts far from home. On my upper arm, I bear a tiny crescent moon in the place where a man’s thumbnail broke through my skin as he grabbed me and threw me to the ground. On my left wrist is the fuzzy oval of a cigarette burn. On my foot, a still-shiny gash from a rusty truck bed I scraped across while hitchhiking in El Salvador a few weeks back. My poor feet. They’ve definitely endured the worst of it. They were always a bit ugly, but they’ve become, by now, immeasurably trashed and busted up and old from too many jungle tromps and stinging coral reefs and drunken dives into beds of sharp angry pebbles or, even once, a fish pond in Thailand. But they have carried my body far. I try very, very hard not to forget that.

Of course, it becomes mighty difficult to hold that though in moments such as now. These horse pills set my teeth on edge and give me the cramps and make even a peanut butter sandwich sound pretty much completely unappetizing, which seems so poetically ironic, considering that the toxicity of what’s tumbling through my bloodstream would probably let me gobble down a shank of raw horse with absolute impunity just about now. And, to make things worse, I seem, since this morning, to be developing a mild case of the flu. (A virus, mind you, on which antibiotics, no matter the strength, have little bearing. Awesome.) But Zen or no Zen, this is the path I’ve chosen for myself. And I stand by it, stubbornly. All this discomfort is what I choose (that word again) to endure in exchange for what I gain from these adventures so far from home. So, yeah. My body. It’s weak sometimes, but it puts up with me. So I put up with it. We disagree, but I like to think we’ve come to an uneasy peace by now.

In the end, all of this bitching leads inevitably to one final question: if it’s so bad, if it warrants so much complaint, why keep doing it? Doesn’t such a choice just smack of apologism? But, I think, if you could see the view from where I’m currently sat, with the big red sun drooping low over a mighty ocean as the fishermen drag their trowels back inland and the thin scrappy dogs scatter across the darkening beach, whooping and howling, well, I bet you’d know my answer already.

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July 15, 2009

Dispatch from Leon

It’s a sticky, sweltering mid-morning here in Leon and I am enjoying a cup of coffee in the Bigfoot Hostel’s restaurant before I head out to catch a sweaty, crowded bus to Playa Las Penitas. I gotta say. The staff here wins the award for rudest and most pretentious in all of Centro America so far. They get really annoyed whenever you ask them any sort of question and this one dumb woman always pretends that she can’t understand me, even though my Spanish is perfectly decent and has worked fine everywhere else. But whatever.

The trip here from San Sal was a 12-hour mission. I set foot in three countries before lunchtime yesterday: El Salvador, then onto Honduras, then straight through to Nicaragua. A productive morning! The Tica bus was expensive, but well worth it. I got to Managua around three yesterday and then caught a mini-shuttle on to Leon. Now I’m ready to quit the big cities for awhile. I met some cool girls here last night and may catch up with them in a few days somewhere along the coast, but I’ve decided to keep going it alone for awhile. It feels good to be with my thoughts again, although I miss my friends terribly. It’s strange. I’ve traveled alone on pretty much all my adventures, but when I was younger, I used to get so depressed if a few days passed and I didn’t meet anyone. I was always looking for guys and the next party. It’s different, now. I’ve not really had any vacation romances on this trip and, weirdly, I am fine with that. This trip has been more about meeting cool girlfriends (the platonic kind!) and just doing my own thing. I was a bit surprised by this, but it actually makes me happy. I think I am finally maturing.

I’ve also been giving some serious thought to what I’ll do for work when vacation is over. I am considering the Peace Corps, mostly because I am really interested in international development and perhaps working for the Foreign Service, and I know that former Peace Corps volunteers get to skip a big chunk of the admissions process. I’m just not sure, though. I’m also still considering going back to Korea, as well, and perhaps just chillin’ in Portland for a bit. All my stuff has been in storage for like eight years by now! That is too crazy.

I’m gonna run. I gotta go pay the evil troll-doll woman behind the counter for my cup of coffee. Next words comin’ at you from Las Penitas!

July 14, 2009

quick picks from El Sal

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Self-portrait; alone in smelly San Sal, El Salvador

ghosty town; El Salvador

July 14, 2009

Trapped in Smelly San Sal

Well. It’s been nuts these last days. Countless hours bumping up and over and down and through countless valleys and mountains and I’ve managed to bring my tired body here, to this filthy hotel room in San Saldavor, the big bad capital city. Alone. I finally said goodbye to all my friends in order to get a bit of solitude and “me-time” at the end of my vacation. I parted ways with the last of the bunch, Kaj and Sam, this afternoon at the bus terminal. I gotta say. The silence is almost deafening, and that’s saying something, as this hotel is very, um, active. It has a lot to do with the fact that they seem to have torn down and begun rebuilding more than half of the hotel. The construction zone begins about four feet from my door, awesomely. The hotel also offers a pay-per-hour option and some very boisterous patrons seem to be exercising the option in the room just to my left. This city is nuts, and not in a real good way. I tried to walk around by myself for awhile this afternoon, but I have no map and no guidebook and so I ended up cruising a nearby market. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. I was the only gringa for miles and people (men) kept shouting and hissing at me. Then someone threw—actually threw—a vegetable at me. It hit me in the ass, to the great joy of a whole crowd of onlookers. Whatever. I found a nice taxi driver who took me to the supermarket to stock up on food for the 12-hour bus ride I got comin’ tomorrow a.m. I am headed to the beaches of Nicaragua to finish up my vacation by the ocean….

Juayua ended up pretty awesome. My sore throat went away fast thanks to the industrial strength antibiotics I’ve been choking down. I tried all kinds of tasty food at the Juayua weekend market, including amazingly awesome fried frog and a bit of rabbit. Also, Sam, Kaj and I found this insanely huge pair of men’s underwear on sale for a dollar and we had hours of fun with them. Did you know that you can fit six grown people into a single pair of boxer shorts? It’s true, I swear.

Backpackers: 1 Giant Underwear: 0

Oh, and did I mention that on our way to La Palma yesterday, our bus got caught in the crossfire of a high speed chase? A pack of cop cars was after some dude in a shitty beater and they zoomed past just to our left, shooting away. Crazy. I’ve never been so close to bullets before.

July 9, 2009

Down But Not Out in Juayua

I am sitting on the porch of the Anuac Hotel in the colonial mountain town of Juayua, El Salvador watching an amazing rainstorm. I left Playa El Tunco yesterday. The beach was awesome, but I’d started to feel as if I weren’t doing much of anything there besides lazing around and going to the beach, so it was time for a change. Much to my chagrin, I’ve contracted a nasty case of strep throat. I was feeling unwell yesterday morning, and by the time the three-and-a-half hour, three-bus tour to Juayua was over, I was covered in goosebumps and running a fever of 103. I went to the doctor this morning and he confirmed what I suspected was going on; a throat infection, probably the result of one of my illicit trips into fancy resort swimming pools in El Tunco. So now I’m on heavy antibiotics and forced to lay low while friends do cool things like visit waterfalls. It sorta blows.

Juayua is definitely a change from El Tunco. We’re at a much higher elevation and it has a way less touristy feel. There is supposed to be some sort of amazing food fair come the weekend at which you can sampled everything from fried rabbit to frog’s legs. I am so game! I may try to make it to a volcano tomorrow if I’m up to the task. I plan on staying around here till the end of the weekend, at which point I’ll hit one more stop in El Salvador and then try to head over to Honduras if things have settled down there. I’m sure hoping they will. I have a feeling airlines don’t reroute tickets for free on account of military coups…

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July 9, 2009

beach batch

Below, a quick photo wrapup of the week that was in Playa El Tunco, El Salvador…

Yeah, I'm cheesy...

Pacific ocean, I have missed you!

"Downtown" El Tunco

We gorged ourselves on tasty local brew

We gorged ourselves on awesome seafood

In lieu of fireworks, Ian lit Paul's chest on fire

Celebrating with fellow countrymen on Fourth of July

July 7, 2009

Lazy Days in El Salvador

Papaya Lodge; Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

Well. It’s been a long, hard week of lazing around in hammocks, drinking copious amounts of Cuban rum, and working on my still-pretty-sorry tan down on the black, sandy shores of the lower Pacific. Life is pretty good at the Papaya Lodge and Playa El Tunco is definitely one of the chillest places I’ve ever been. During the week, it’s a laid back surfer destination, but come the weekend, it fills up with wealthier El Salvadorenos here for hard partying and beach time with friends and family. The restaurants ain’t cheap, but I’ve been subsisting mainly on cheese sandwiches made from ingredients picked up in the closest town, La Libertad. There is also a Papusa stand open most nights where they cook up these amazingly awesome tortillas mixed with chicken or pork or beans or cheese or any combination of the four. They go for 35-50 cents a pop and are so yummy. We hitchike into La Libertad every few days for supplies but otherwise, the days are pretty lazy. I can’t believe it’s been a week already! I had an awesome Fourth of July. I spent the evening drinking rum and playing card games and hanging out on the beach with a big group of people staying here at the Papaya Lodge. We had four other Americans among us and so we ended up blasting a bunch of cheesy American-themed songs on my iPod. There were no fireworks to be found, but one particularly industrious kid from Arizona, Ian, started lighting his armpits on fire  and things devolved from there.We finished the evening by sneaking into a couple of fancy resorts.

Sunset; Playa El Tunco, El Salvador

A few shit things did happen in recent days. The breaks here are pretty powerful and the tide tends to come in fast and hard. I was out swimming with Kaj and a new friend, Alison. We were having a great old time splashing and fucking off when a huge wave came rolling in from out of nowehere and knocked us all flat. We were giggling about it until we looked up to find that the wave was washing all of our belongings out to sea. We had some pretty valuable stuff with us, including an iPod, a camera, and a prized sarong from Egypt. I managed to grab my bag as it was headed out, but the camera and iPod are pretty much ruined. It sucks.

Of course, all good things must end and so a chunk of our group is moving on to the mountains. There, we’ll probably do some hiking and waterfall jumping. Should be a nice change of pace. I’ve never been able to sit on my ass on a beach for more than a few days at a time before I go crazy with boredom.

July 3, 2009

First Words From El Salvador

Sorry for the lack of blog updates. I couldn’t hook up to WordPress in Xela and so fell a bit behind. Technology is awesome, but it’s also a pain in the ass. Anyway, I copied and pasted the past weeks’ journal entries from my computer below so y’all can get an idea of what I’ve been up to…

Kaj and I are now chilling out in El Salvador. She had planned to head up to Lankin, but discovered that the trip there would take two solid days and when we found out that our friend Stav was in El Salvador, she decided to join me in my move south. We decided to forget the shuttle when we found out it cost 35 bucks. Instead, we spent a very arduous day chicken bussing it across the border and down to the ocean. I think we must have changed busses at least 4-5 times and spent, in total, about 9 hours getting down here. It went fairly well, although some creepy dude was bothering me for most of one of the busrides. He wouldn’t stop staring and a few local guys behind us told us they thought he was going to try and rob me. (Why is it always me?!!) I wasn’t that worried because all the other folks on the bus had his number and were watching out for Kaj and me. It was just irritating more than anything else. I’d forgotten how much it annoys me when people stare at me too hard or too long. I used to go completely nuts sometimes in Korea. It is such an unsettling feeling to be under someone’s microscope, especially when you are hot and cramped and tired and dirty anyway. We also got stopped by a few cops with guns when we were trekking it across the Guatemalan-El Salvadorian border, a long-ass walk in the midday heat when you are trucking your bag along, let me tell you. The cops mostly just made us stand under this tree while they looked at our passports and interrogated us about how we’d met and what our plans were and me in particular about what might be in my bag that was making it so heavy. We flirted a little and got away without being searched, thank God. It was way too hot to stand outside for long… It is definitely much warmer here, although I’m not complaining. I am sitting, at the moment, on a deck at the Papaya Lodge at Playa El Tunco. I can see and hear the mighty pacific ocean a few hundred feet out to my left. It occured to me the other day that I hadn’t seen the ocean in more than a year. It feels good. This town is tiny, really more like just one long street with a bunch of surf shops and tiendas and a few restaurants right at water’s edge. And there are a couple of fancier hotels down the beach a ways. They have awesome huge pools that are fairly easy to sneak into after dark. If one were so inclined… Ha ha. Last night was interesting. This is supposed to be a great spot for waves and surf bums seem to have gravitated here from all over North and Centro America. They’re fun to watch. I want to give it a try myself, but I was too lazy today, and exhausted from the trip here. I am mostly just killing time with a new bottle of Havana Club and hanging out with a big and random group of kids. Some are friends I first met up with back in Antigua and San Pedro and others I’ve just me here. We have among us a few Americans, a few Israelis, a few Welsh kids an Australian and a Dutch. Today was a lazy day at the beach, then Kaj and I hitchiked it into the next town with one of our new friends to change money and get groceries. I discovered that no one in El Salvador is interested in exchanging my Guatemalan Quetzales for U.S. dollars, the currency used in this country. I have about four bucks to my name right now and it is super annoying, although it is nice to use familiar currency again. Everyone keeps asking me how much all the silver coins are worth and why in the world we make our dimes tinier than our nickles. I guessed that it was because back in the day dimes were made from real silver and nickles were always made from nickle. That could be complete nonsense, though. Anybody know? Anyway, we hitched a ride back to the beach with a random surfer dude and his wife and daughter in the back of a VW Bug and now I’m sitting here thinking about trying to upload some photos and video before the evening begins. I’ve been lazy, yeah.

July 3, 2009

This has been a mission of a 24 hours! Yesterday afternoon, I developed some sort of low-grade stomach issue while Kaj and I were Interneting and working on Spanish homework at a café near parque central. I rallied it long enough to visit a used book store, where I picked up a ragged copy of “Around the World in 80 Days.” I’ve always wanted to read it and it seemed appropriate. Plus newer release were about double the price, so. I hit the sack early and was up early, as per usual, in order to make it to my 8:00 Spanish lesson. My tutor, Zulmy, and I have gotten quite close. She is around my age and is studying to be an English teacher. We have these awesome conversations about life and our dreams. They are pretty halting, owing to my still very intermediate Spanish skills, but I love it nevertheless. This afternoon, we took a field trip to a nearby market, where she quizzed me on the names of various fruits and vegetables. Then, we drank hot cacao at a famous chocolateria in Xela, where we crossed paths with a periodista by the name of XX. He is a very famous journalist and union man here in Guatemala and I introduced myself and asked what advice he’d give to a journalist just starting out. I didn’t catch all of it, but I think the basic gist was that we should learn to recognize the truth as a complex thing, and to avoid writing the story before we actually know what the facts are. My belly was still rumbling, but after lunch Kaj and I headed to another café for more internet and more studying. We ended up forgetting our key and Dona Antonieta was not happy. We stood outside the gate knocking for about 10 minutes before she let us in. Kaj immediately proceeded to knock over a giant tub of water, breaking the tub and spilling water everywhere in the process. Strike two, which elicited more irritated mumbling. Dinner was hilarious. We’ve gotten really into watching this insane telenovela called “Cuidado Con El Angel” (Taken Care of by the Angel). The plotline, if you can call it that, involves a very beautiful and very unlucky woman who is constantly beset by troubles. The woman recently had a baby with her very handsome Argentine lover, but the she accidentally fell down some stairs and a homeless couple kidnapped her baby and took it to a hut. Then she got in a fight with the lover on a busy street and as she was running away from him, she tripped on a curb and fell into an SUV that happened to be driving by. The car didn’t see her and kept driving and she got clocked by the rearview mirror, which shattered on impact and rendered her mysteriously blind. Now she has to undergo emergency surgery and to make matters even worse, her secretly evil best friend is trying to steal her lover away. So anyway, we were at this really crucial point in the episode when the eye doctor guy was giving her and her parents the news about the surgery. We were munching away at our empanadas and rice and veggies (a small portion for me of the rumbling belly) when the power straight went out and we were all left in total pitch darkness. Dona Antoineta tried to guide me to a cupboard where she kept the candles, but as it was stacked with all sorts of dishes and porcelain and I didn’t want to destroy anything more in her house, I gave up and felt my way instead out into the courtyard and across to my room to find my lighter. I stepped on a dog and knocked down a few pots and pans on the way, but we got the candles lit just in time for the power to switch back on. Intense!

Tomorrow, we will say goodbye to our friends in Xela and head back to Antigua. From there, Kaj and I will go our separate ways. She wants to head up north to Lankin and Semuc Champey but I am ready for some beach time, so it’s off to El Salvador the day after tomorrow. I want to find a nice, warm place where I can get settled and do some writing and hang out barefoot a week or three. It is balls cold here and I’ve had enough.

July 3, 2009

Rainy night number whatever. We just finished dinner with Dona Antonieta. Tonight, she cooked fried potatoes, chicken and cornbread. And the everpresent home made tortillas and crumbly white cheese. Delicious. Today, Kaj and I visited Chichicastenango, this massive outdoor market that is supposed to be the top spot to pick up textiles and other handicrafts. (I hate the word handicraft.) The bus ride there was a mission! Definitely the scariest one I’ve ever been on. I shot some crappy video on my little Canon point and shoot and definitely want to post it on my blog. The market itself was super overpriced, but the whole day was worth it when we hitched a ride back out of Chichi in the back of a local family’s pickup truck. They had tonight’s dinner still squawking in a few cardboard boxes with little windows cut into them. Those chickens made the most pitiful noises! The view was gorgeous, though, and things got even more interesting when the driver stopped to pick up about 20 bags of concrete. We rode the rest of the way perched atop them, right alongside the ill-fated chickens squabbling in their tiny corrugated prisons. It was a good day. For those of us living out lives at the tip top of the food chain, at least.

I am still trying to get rid of the massive quantity of space cake I brought with me from San Pedro. I usually eat a bit in the afternoon, just after lunch and just before siesta time. They do me nicely but they are too strong for my particular taste.

So, yeah. Now it’s rainy night number whatever. Some friends went out to watch a movie at a nearby café but I am interminably lazy these days. I think it’s a combination of hot sun, space cake and a new, strange place. And all the thought swirling around my goofy head. I’m chillin’ in my bed right now listening to Kaj sing funny old songs. She’s currently on “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” We spent the evening doing our homework and watching this DVD I bought at the market today. It’s got four old movies on it starring this Latin American actor named Vicente Fernandez. Heard of him? I think he’s Mexican. They are awesome. And hilarious. And awesomely hilarious. Random bursts of song, pretty Senoritas, the works.

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July 3, 2009

Stuck indoors on this drizzly Xela night. I’m told it’s unsafe for women to venture out unaccompanied after dark. Kaj is sleeping off a bad reaction to some of the space cakes I bought in San Pedro. Which has me trapped and feeling a bit antsy. And still vaguely high. The past few days have been a blur. I’m doing five hours a day of one-on-one Spanish instruction. When I finish at 1 p.m. I’m usually pretty ragged and tired. Taking lots of naps and trying to keep up with writing.

I’m trapped at the house and unable to hook up to internet.  Let me tell you a bit about “here.” I’m staying in a stuccoed compound of the sort so common in Central America. Mazes of old rooms with enormous, gauzy-curtained windows and high ceilings all lead out to a middle courtyard full of viciously colored flowers. A huge cement kitchen overflows with mismatched dish and pot sets. Baskets of market vegetables sit waiting to be rinsed and two tiny dogs named Tiffany and Bobby dart around underfoot, snarling at the wheels of my suitcase and cruising for snacks beneath the table come mealtimes. We eat in a narrow dining room where the TV is always on. Telenovelas, mostly. There is no way in or out of Dona Antoineta’s place except for a tall, warped wooden set of doors that must always be kept locked. The streets just beyond it are classic modern Guatemala, full of broken cobble and poorly lit tiendas and buzzing with locals on their way wherever. But in here, time seems either to drag its heels languidly or to stand still entirely. The walls are a history; curling yellow college diplomas trapped in ancient frames, faded portraits of long-dead relatives, old calendars, embroidered tapestries featuring Guatemalan maidens dressed in traditional attire. Dona Antonieta keeps the place spotless, but it retains a crumbled, moldering feel. Down the hall from my room, candles burn in a dark narrow enclave that showcases an elaborate shrine to Mother Mary, It’s full of old dolls and strange statues. When Kaj and I asked to bunk up here together, I was told that if I wanted my own room they could move a mattress into the shrine. We opted to share the other room instead. The walls are painted in a mosaic of colors. Purples, yellows and turquoise blues that wrestle with the noisy floor tiles for dominance.  The outdoor bathroom is rustic but clean. I discovered a few minutes ago, however, that the water has gone out, and so the luxury of hot showers, the first truly hot ones I’ve enjoyed since I got here, must be left for the next few days. My body is covered in some sort of strange bug bites. They itch terribly and I feel restless. I hate that I can’t go out on my own. It’s nothing I’ve ever experienced and I feel a bit like part of a harem, trapped as I am between these four tall concrete walls. I don’t think all of this solitude is necessarily good for me. Idle hands and whatnot. I’ve spent most of this evening smoking out in the courtyard and reading a trashy detective novel on loan from Kaj. Trying not to think about the itchiness and thinking hard about faces from home. I’m feeling road weary and bored at the same time. How is that possible? I keep thinking to myself that I need just to get to some little beach town where I feel safe, easy. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m planning on jetting off to El Salvador come Wednesday.

June 25, 2009

The View From Here

I am sitting down to write this from a small, narrow room on the second floor of a withered edificio in the heart of Xela. It might not be entirely accurate to call this a “spare room,” as the family of five I’m staying with share just two bedrooms in the apartment across the hall. My place is a dark, damp affair with just a single window that looks out into a high-traffic hallway. The walls are painted a shade of orange that resembles Thousand Island dressing more than anything else. A few scattered frames hang on the wall, boasting tableaux of rushing rivers and tiny market streets. Not much by way of fresh air gets in, and it smells more than a bit like stale sweat. It’s a distinct aroma, the sour residue of all the warm, living bodies that have tossed and turned between these walls for decades and decades. For dinner, our host mother, Aurie, cooked us up plates of black beans, fried platanos and scrambled eggs. I dumped a few heaping spoonfuls of white, crumbly cheese on top and mopped the whole thing up with still-warm tortillas.

Earlier this after afternoon, I’d crossed paths with two American girls who have been staying here while they crash-course Spanish in preparation for a lengthy missionary trip. Building churches and tending to the lost and whatnot. I certainly have my misgivings about such endeavors, even when they are entirely well intentioned, but by this time of night I have to wonder if my movements as a backpacker are really any less invasive, any less—dare I say it—colonial. Hear me out. I’m paying 40 bucks a week to bunk up with a local family, meals inclusive. The best and most savory dishes, the choice cuts of meat, will be served to me. Then the father will eat his fill of whichever of the most prized tidbits remain. The mother and children come last, and will likely sate themselves on far simpler fare. Granted, that, on its own, is not necessarily something to feel like a shit about. Taking in boarders is a practice as old as it is universal: the weary traveler comes knocking and finds a hot meal and a warm bed in exchange for some coins or perhaps a bit of news from distant lands. But the world is smaller these days, and besides, I don’t come bearing stories. I don’t rattle off old bards, I don’t sing for my supper. I carry other, heavier things in tow: a suitcase full of fancy electronics and microfiber clothing. A wallet full of credit cards. And an Atlas-sized load of white guilt. Don’t misunderstand me. I bear good intentions, yeah, and a measure of cursory charity. I speak the language of the country I’ve come to see, or at least enough to smooth my passage, to move transactions and interactions along in a respectable and mutually comprehensible fashion. And I’m trying to learn more.

It’s just that it’s, well, funny. I’d always been told that privilege itself is nearly weightless, really, for those of us who enjoy a measure of it. The only ones who know its true heaviness are those who live out their lives on its stanky underside, where the scramble for rank is most brutal, where people rage and strain to shoulder its bulk, they say. But there are moments, when I’m far from home, when it suddenly seems a weight enough to topple me straight over. Example one: A few of us travelers were bitching the other day that we couldn’t sort out why it was so hard to get a decent-tasting cup of coffee in a place like Guatemala, renowned as it is the world over for its astonishingly tasty beans, its thick, smoky roasts. Then one of the more clearheaded of our bunch pointed out that it would simply cost too much, that most Guatemalans probably couldn’t afford to buy a cup of coffee roasted from the beans they broke their backs coaxing up from the rich, wet earth. Example two: someone stole my credit card out of a hostel room in Antigua a week back. By the time I figured out it was gone, they had already used it. The damage? Two-hundred simple bucks. It seemed such a pitifully small amount that I didn’t think twice about it. In fact, a part of me wanted to find the kid who had done it and just shake him and tell him that, for some of us, the world is so much bigger than a couple of thin bills. And then a part of me felt so terrible, because I’d been robbed and all I could do was reel at the pathetically nominal impact it would have on my life. It made me feel disgustingly impervious, as if I were stationed so far above some people in the world that even their attempts to cheat me only just bounced back off like little pebbles. Practically inconsequential, a minor annoyance, like cucarachas or traveler’s diarrhea. And moments like that get me to realizing, with some dismay, that I will probably never be able to wiggle out from under such a mentality. Especially not in a place like Guatemala.

And yet such thoughts seem so terribly at odds with the person I want to think of myself as, cause there is definitely a purist movement among the backpacker crowd, and getting into that club usually requires little more than finding some way to distinguish oneself as superior to others who are traveling through the same region. Maybe it’s doing a trip sans guidebook, or finding some secret Rasta bar where the joints go for local price. Maybe it’s talking an abuela down to two quetzals for your hunk of banana bread when your companions paid five. Whatever it may be, people, present company included, like to fancy themselves “travelers,” not “tourists,” and they’ve got the comparatively limited funds and the soiled attire and the woven bag and the quitted job to prove it. But the hairs split more than just that once. A few rungs up from tourists are the “Trustafarians,” rich kids who get around on dad’s coin and snort astonishing quantities of their travel budget up their nose. Next come the “Flashpackers,” who make no bones about shelling out for nights in cleaner hotels, who carry laptops and cell phones and will return to fancy gigs as investment bankers and engineers in a few months’ time. I could go on. After awhile, though, it all becomes so arbitrary in a way.

Cause in the end, probably, we are all colonizers in our own subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Forget big, bad empires that swallow entire peoples whole, that burn books and smash up temples spread their seed far enough and wide enough to dilute ethnic lines to the point of obsolescence. The new imperialism spreads by way of a much subtler kind of cultural co-opting, and we who choose to venture out of the bubble can’t avoid our status as transmitters. In the end, what does it matter if we come carrying a Bible or a Lonely Planet? (Serendipitously, also referred to as “the Bible” amongst the backpacker crowd.) We are all of us sentries, spreading Coca-Cola and Britney Spears and scads of other kinds of incontestable and sometimes humiliating evidence that in some places, life is pretty fucking cushy, indeed. Bussing it through Guatemala City on my first day here, I recall spotting about four McDonalds restaurants, a Sherwin Williams Paint store and—get this—a Hooters restaurant. And that was just on the way out of town. And what it comes down to is this: as a “person who travels,” I am forced both to witness and to participate in the slow bleed of Westernization-cum-democracy, every place at a time, an IV drip with a direct line into the bulging vein of destitution. And, man, aren’t there just fucking oceans of it? Yeah, I’ve seen the future. It is run by Mickey Mouse. And he’s slugging down a cup of Starbucks and farting out U.S. currency, his belly bloated from bucketfuls of shitty fried chicken.

But yeah, it’s a freaking matrix. I can only write what I’ve just written because I’m standing atop that imperialist hill, where the vanishing point is non-existent, where perspective spreads out infinitely and the true lay of the land reads like a messy patchwork of very unequal parts shit and dumb luck. And admitting all of this implicates me directly with too many things I hate, cause truth told, I wouldn’t trade stations, ever. I can’t help it. I’m just too soft and too sated by now. The living’s too good at the top. But man, for all the beauty in this world, the view from where I’m sat is sometimes a rough sight to behold.

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June 24, 2009

notes from Xela

I am writing from an Internet cafe-bar in Xela. Unsurprisingly, it’s called the Buddha Bar. I think there must surely be a place called the “Buddha Bar” in every country on earth. It’s so punch and interlingual. I look like pretty much a gringa with my woven bag, my outrageously bright green Aladdin pants and a Gallo beer, but oh, well. It’s kind of the tourist costume around these parts.

At any rate, Kaj and I decided to head out of San Pedro this morning. It was hard to say goodbye to Henry and Stav, but the “Amsterdam of Guatemala” is a bit much after a few days. Tourists hit it hard and the place itself felt a bit unsavory. I definitely got grabbed once and yelled at a lot. And last night when Stav, Kaj and I were going home, a very creepy man started following us. We couldn’t lose him no matter what we tried, so we actually had to go back to the bar where we’d left the guys we were hanging out with in order to have them escort us home. Yuck. It’s just such a powderkeg when you have that many wasted white kids stumbling around a place where most have so little. I don’t think it’s really anyone’s fault.

The shuttle ride here was a mission! A very nice, clean shuttle picked us up at the dock of San Pedro but as soon as we got out of the valley, we were dropped off at a much smaller and grosser van. The driver, who couldn’t have been a day over 15, informed us we’d have to wait a bit because the van had somehow gotten two flat tires. I eventually ended up in the very back where it smelled as if the exhaust pipe was emptying directly into the cab. The carbon monoxide was thick in the air and I had a lot of trouble breathing. We were with a Norweigan couple and their two kids and all of us were sorta craning our necks out the windows to try and avoid the worst of it. But I felt a lot less sorry for myself when we drove by a massive bus wreck. Turns out one of the ubiquitous “Chicken Buses” had tipped over at a curve. It was a mess. One side of the bus was totally smashed in and people were scurrying all over the place. If nobody died, I’d be amazed. Luckily, it was a short ride and Xela is beautiful so far! It’s definitely a big city, but it has a real nice feel and lots of parks. Kaj and I are both doing a week or two of intensive Spanish lessons and a homestay with Guatemalan families. It is awesomely cheap… $45 bucks gets you a week with a local family and all meals. Another $125 a week gets you 25 hours of one-on-one Spanish tutoring. Unreal prices compared to the U.S. or even Coasta Rica.

So I’m onto a “settling down” leg of my journey. Honestly, I’ll be glad to rest somewhere awhile, get my bearings. We are totally disoriented right now, especially after 4 days in the time warp that is San Pedro. I’m guessing I’ll have lots more time and opportunity to keep up with my blog and other private writing stuff. I feel a bit as if I haven’t accomplished much so far here besides bumming around and meeting random cool people and drinking beer. But it takes a few days to get acclimated to Central America, I think. It’s so amazingly beautiful here, but Mexico it ain’t.

That’s all for now.

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June 23, 2009

I am heading out of San Pedro to Xela tomorrow morning with Kaj. We´re going to do a homestay and Spanish lessons for a week or two. Henry and Stav, on the other hand, will continue on to Guatemala City together. I feel like the four of us are getting divorced! Sad… Here are a few pics from San Pedro.

(L - R) Erin, Stav and Kaj

scary doll

dock

June 23, 2009

que onda?

I am returning to my severely neglected blog on this hot, stick morning in San Pedro. I have written up several long posts on my computer but I can´t seem to find a computer that will let me put them up.

Things are fairly well. Someone stole my credit card from the hostel back in Antigua and my belly has been rumbling a bit, but I feel pretty good. I am still with Henry and Stav and we´ve picked up a Dutch girl, Jai. (Sp?) This town is definitely a bit rougher and less touristy than Antigua. And cheaper, as well. I feel a little off track today. It has been too hard to find reliable internet so I had to drop my online class. And I havent´t gotten to do much journalism cause I´ve been too busy, um, well, partying and cruising around checking out all the new stuff. I do have mad awesome photos which I hope to post soon, but it´s not enough. So the next stop is Xela, where I´ll do a two week homestay and crash course in Spanish. I think that will set me a bit right.

Something awesome… I met the guy who wrote the Guatemala Lonely Planet the other day! He was super friendly although we felt a bit silly going up to him and asking if he was, indeed, the dude in the picture. He told me they are looking for writers, esp. women, for Central and South America. So I´m definitely gonna check into that. I have a few other story ideas and leads but I think until I get settled somewhere it´s gonna be just too tough to get any writing done.

Anyway, in that vein, I gotta run. Pics and better posts are on the way!

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June 20, 2009

Some Recent Shots

Stav and Henry

In Antigua

Iglesia

Antigua Street

Volcano!

Hiking to the Top

Molten Lava... My shoes melted!

Hola de Guatemala!

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June 20, 2009

quick update

It’s a gray, cool day here in Antigua. I’m feeling a bit ragged from a big night out, but tortillas con queso and pear juice are fixing me up quick. I’m planning to head out to San Pedro La Laguna with Henry and Stav today. It’s been called the Amsterdam of Central America, whatever that means. I’m just excited to chill in a hammock next to a lake. Somehow, it never quite feels like a vacation to me unless there is a large body of water involved. I am definitely eager to head out to the coasts in a bit. But first, some time in San Pedro, maybe a hot spring or two, and Spanish-language classes in Xela. I’ve got some story ideas together but so far I’ve been pretty lazy. The most I’ve done is chat up a photojournalist from San Fran. I think we might try to get together on something interesting. We’ll see. Unfortunately, I cannot upload any pictures because these PCs are total dinosaurs. Annoying. More in a bit.

June 19, 2009

coco loco

in Guate

Ugh. I’m a bit annoyed cause I spent a whole bunch of time typing up a long and thoughtful blog entry on my laptop and have just realized that the document isn’t compatible with the hostel’s internet computer. Thanks, Word. You amaze me continually with your awesomeness. So, yeah, I guess a short hackjob of an update will have to do in its stead…

It’s night here in Antigua and I’m winding down for the evening. I’ve pretty much spent all of the past few days hanging out with my two new friends, Henry and Stav. Henry is a hilariously self-deprecating lawyer from London and Stav is a laid-back computer programmer from Israel. They are both pretty cool and insanely well travelled. We’ve been spending lots of time together doing stuff like eating tasty Guatemalan food, drinking awesome Cuban rum (they have Havana Club here, my favoritest rum in the entire world!! Of course, it’s unavailable in the U.S. so I haven’t had any since I lived in Mexico.) cooking food, shooting the shit, etc. Tomorrow, we’re getting up before dawn to hike to the top of a nearby active volcano. At the top, we’ll shake each others’ hands and roast marshmallows over the lava. Sorta touristy, but I’m still excited. I’ve taken some real cool pictures, but unfortunately I haven’t uploaded my favorites, yet, so a few from yesterday will have to suffice.

I’m planning on hanging out here in Antigua for a few more days and then I think I might head down to El Salvador. The beaches are supposed to be amazing and you can take surfing lessons! I’ve always wanted to give that a try.

I’m too tired to write much more right now. Guatemala is awesome and awesomely beautiful. I even met three kids from Portland in a bar last night! That was sort of a trip…

June 17, 2009

buenos dias!

So, it’s morning. I slept kind of weird on account of my total disorientation with this place. I hate getting anywhere at night cause it just throws you off. Plus there was nothing to hang my mosquito net from so I had to sleep with it draped over my face and dreamed of being stuck in a giant spiderweb as a result. But I only have a couple of bites, so it was worth it. Breakfast was refried beans and eggs on toast and then, following a lukewarm shower with some cool Guatemalan apple shampoo, I signed on to catch the first shuttle out of here to Antigua. First orders of business there are to find a place to stay for a week or so, pick up an adaptor plug and get my butt moving on my Web development homework. I am seriously tempted to drop the class and just hang out and explore and drink some Guatemalan beer, instead. I’m sick of school!  I met a girl at breakfast who has been here doing environmental research. She warned me against going anywhere alone after dark, which sucks! But, noted. I don’t know how often I’m going to get a chance to update this blog when my trip really gets in gear, but I’m hoping to post lots of pictures and entries during the next five weeks. OK, I’m out.

June 17, 2009

First words from Guatemala City

Whoah.  OK, this is gonna be clipped and riddled with errors because I have like 5 minutes left on my computer battery and I can’t find an outlet and it’s midnight and I haven’t slept in almost 24 hours. So. Yeah…. woah!!!

As I write this I am sitting in the courtyard of a little posada in what appear to be the suburbian outskirts of Guatemala City. It was a crazy-ass night. I was trying like hell to avoid landing in Guatemala City after dark because I’d heard it can be sketchy sometimes. It was. First I couldn’t find my luggage anywhere and somehow accidentally wound up outside the ticketed passenger area and had to follow a random-ass dude into a super-creepy room where my bag was waiting. Then, as is the custom outside of airports in most places, I was accosted by a whole throng of dudes with signs advertising their hotels and taxi companies. I’d met a few American dudes at the baggage claim and one of them had passed on the name of a cheap, safe place, Dos Lunes. So I picked a guy at random and managed to haggle him down to half his original fare. I still got ripped off. But I got less ripped off, thanks to my somewhat existent Spanish skills. The guy got totally lost on the way to the hotel and kept asking random people on bikes for directions. Then we pull up to this weird military checkpoint thing and a dude with a MACHINE GUN comes up to the car and starts interrogating my taxi driver. From what I could understand, the driver didn’t have any sort of identification and so these militia guys got pissed. He kept saying, “Please, I’m just a poor man from the country!” Meanwhile I was sitting in the back of the taxi sort of laughing at how weird and freaky the situation was. And then two other militiamen come up. One is brushing his teeth and one is trying to pump air into his bike tire. There’s some random Spanish-language soap opera blasting from a tiny black and white tv sitting on a concrete slab. Then there’s more arguing and they insist on looking in the trunk and finally, the gates open and we are allowed to pass, although the toothbrush guy insists on tailing us on a bicycle, so you can imagine how fast we ended up driving. We got lost several more times and finally ended up at the posada, which is run by a Dutch guy. He explained to me that this hotel is in a really “fancy” part of Guatemala City and that the citizens of the neighborhood all chip in to have these militia guys guard the area, essentially rendering it a compound. Apparently, there have been major issues with banditos terrorizing certain areas of the city. But he congratulated me on getting to the airport for a mere 40 quetzales, although he says it was still an exorbinant price.

So, end of story, I’m here in this funny courtyard getting eaten alive by mosquitos and just relaxing. It’s amazing how much this place reminds me of where I lived in Mexico. The smell of the air, the feel of the streets and buildings, everything. It actually made my eyes tear up when I first arrived because it was just such an overpowering feeling of nostalgia… Anyway, tomorrow I head into the city to catch a bus out to Antigua. From what I can gather, the 2 or 3 hour ride costs like 70 cents. Awesomely awesome!! So cheap!!

June 16, 2009

charity

Something I’m working on. Feedback?


You know, I’ve begun to notice with some concern and dismay that I am growing meaner. When I was younger, I loved everybody. The hippies and the street kids and the crazies and the lazies, strung out or stubborn or facedown in their own sick, all of them so inarguably worthy of existing, I was sure. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I guess I saw myself as some kind of savior, all of them there but for the grace of my spare change. I shared unstintingly in those days when I had so much less. Packs of cigarettes, change and bills, leftovers from meals out placed gingerly on the rims of garbage cans so some poor schmuck might not go to bed empty-bellied. But things change. You get older. You work a few shit jobs with long hours. You sate yourself on lentils and spaghetti through years of schooling and watch your bank account go negative with no small measure of unease. And your patience for those who choose another path starts to drain away like water from a leaky kitchen faucet.

One by one, all those vagabonds and misfits have been unceremoniously ejected from the fold of my goodwill. Yeah, I’ll still toss change or cigarettes at the real old bums down on 9th St., the late-stage alcoholics who reek of urine and so much need. But that’s about it. A scruffy gang of street kids hit Columbia a few weeks back. Maybe it was because I was slogging through the butt-end of two very long years of grad school, racking up 12-hour days on my thesis and just feeling generally exhausted and terrified at the rate at which the industry I’d been preparing to enter was imploding in on itself, but I got real nasty with them after they hit me up for change a couple times. The mere sight of them lazing in Peace Park with their filthy dogs and their dreadlocks and their rollie cigarettes filled me with irritation. It seemed so derivative, so outrageous. I suppose it isn’t really so difficult to trace my animosity back to a truer source…  I remember a time not so very long ago when I fell in with a group of anarchists and radical communists back in Portland. It was a brief moment, really, just after I’d finished my undergraduate degree, a misdirected interlude that came about mostly cause I was lonely, and cause I had seen only enough of the world to know that some things in it probably weren’t how they ought to be. They seemed so romantic to me, especially the one called Brent, who refused to wear deodorant and played Bob Dylan songs on his guitar and owned little more than a writing desk and a dirty green couch that was only just big enough to fit the both of us if we slept squished together on our sides. I parted ways with those kids quick enough, though. And really, I didn’t have much choice, cause their transgressions were fucking legion. They’d tried to bomb a Starbucks with homemade Molotov cocktails. They’d humiliated me by calling me a “bougie” cause I insisted on showering every day, cause I had a CEO for a father, cause I sometimes turned my nose up at the crusty loaves of olive bread they pulled triumphantly out of the dumpster behind a local bakery. Brent got mean, chastised me at length for my revolutionary illiteracy, for my consumer sensibilities, for my love of new clothes. And there were whispered rumors that several of them belonged to the Earth Liberation Front, an anonymous fringe movement dedicated to “liberating” the environment from exploitation through violent means, mostly arson and vandalism. Some figures list the monetary fallout from their guerilla warfare in the millions. It really wasn’t me, and so I moved on. I’ve never quite been able to sort out, though, whether it was I who had rejected them or they who had rejected me. And it’s taken me a long, long time to admit how enormously much that bothered me. I don’t know. In America, perhaps the more privileged contingent of the U.S. population is accustomed to moving up and down the class ladder at whim. I’d always just assumed that I’d be allowed to choose, that I could move among and between circles, that I could have both rich and poor friends, that my charity entitled me to  some acceptance among the ranks of those who had less, who were less. Saying goodbye to those Portland kids was probably a turning point of sorts. It got me thinking that there are a million ways to be naïve, that most of us, especially when we’re young, are prone to gobble up bits of knowledge here and there and then to stretch those tiny nuggets of insight far beyond their capacity. Cause probably, reading a 150-page biography of Karl Marx never made anyone a Marxist, just like being poor, whether by choice or flat hard luck, never made anyone noble. Just like being rich, or at the very least, being not-poor, and being not-sorry for being not-poor, didn’t automatically make me a piece of shit.

You know, I hate the way all of this sounds, but somehow I think it’s important to admit it out loud. Cause in two hours I’m leaving Texas to head off into the wilds of Central America, to some of the poorest countries in this hemisphere where I will participate in the inveterately colonial ritual of “tourism.” I’m off, pockets full of cash, to go another round with my white guilt, with my anger over my white guilt. I’m not even a Christian, but sometimes I think, just man. That Jesus. I can’t sort out how he managed. All that need. Everyone so desperate to be saved. All that fasting and praying. And probably lots of weeping, too. I always imagine him as this soft-spoke kind of guy, slightly built, easy to tears in moments of great feeling. I could see him coming upon those dirty kids in the park and just drawing his hands up over his mouth, too moved to speak, overcome by love for these kids whom I’d cast aside, they who cursed and spit and begged beer money off people whose lives were, in truth, probably just as peppered with bad luck and hard traveling as their own. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about religion, here. I’m talking, simply, about how we choose to understand our obligations to others. This stuff is anything but simple. But it’s got to be sorted out.

June 16, 2009

stoppage

I am marooned in Houston. I got bumped off the 11:15 fight to Guatemala City and now have to sit my ass in this boring airport until 7. They plied me with a $350 flight voucher (knocked up to $400 when I told them I was really scared about landing in Guatemala City after dark… heh heh, I’m sneaky like that…) and 20 bucks worth of meal vouchers. But it still sorta sucks, cause this means I got my ass up at 3:45 in the a.m. for straight nothing. Ugh! At least I have my toothbrush and some magazines. And I’ve discovered that if you sit on the ground right outside the Continental President’s Club, you can pick up their free wireless instead of paying eight bucks. I’m sneaky like that, too. Man, I should write a book.

And I’m guessing also that these vouchers probably work for mixed drinks and beer, not just food. I’m off to test that theory.

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June 16, 2009

Pre-departure

It’s 9:45 p.m. I’m catching a shuttle out of here at 4:30 tomorrow morning. As per usual, I am not finished packing. I’m having enormous trouble paring down the sizeable cache of crap that I’ve convinced myself I absolutely cannot survive without… Ugh. The problem is compounded by the fact that I have to lug all my textbooks for the online Web development class I’m taking, plus my laptop and two cameras and a tripod for any journalism stuff I decide to get into. I have long entertained a fantasy of heading off on some trip or other with nothing but a simple daypack. But the symbolism is trumped, always, by the potentially very sucky reality of heading off to a foreign country without all my beloved gadgets in tow. Like: I picked up a badass polyurethane fork-knife-spoon thing today. I had to have it! It is sooo cool. And probably sort of unnecessary. Also, I’m sort of starting to waver on my decision not to bring my hammock. The problem with budget travel is that it sort of necessitates bringing a lot of shit you already own as opposed to just “picking up” stuff as you need it. I am already on an extreme budget (15-20 bucks a day, not counting transport but counting lodging) and will be subsisting largely on peanut butter tortillas and beans & rice as it is. There won’t be any picking up on this trip. If I find myself without some necessary item, I’ll just probably try to suffer through… I don’t know. I’ve been a terrible packrat since I was a very young kid, which is weird considering the fact that my mother is the most dedicated ascetic I know. All of her possessions in the world fit into the single room she occupies in my grandmother’s house. I drive her crazy with my treasures. And I plan on accumulating more in Central America! Send gift requests my way. Otherwise, you’ll probably end up with something woven or maybe a tasty bag of coffee.

Next dispatch will probably be comin’ at you from south of the border. I don’t have any hotel reservations yet. My hack plan is to land in Guatemala City around 2 and immediately hightail it to Antigua, as I’ve heard that Guatemala’s capital is super sketchy and dangerous. Wish me well.

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June 7, 2009

one-trick pony.

For some reason, I woke up around five this morning with a whole bunch of ideas for freelance projects bouncing around in my head. I’d been up ’til one the night before watching weird documentaries on Netflix, so maybe that did it. I’m hoping that when I get to Central America I’ll be able to hook up with others interested in pursuing creative projects. I’d like to do some digging around for undercovered stories, anything unusual or bizarre; or maybe even just bust out a few budget travel pieces I could sell when I get home. I’d love to chat with other journalism-minded people, especially those with some photo-j skills. There are so many directions to go in… I want to get out of my bubble, though. I’ve noticed that I tend toward the same themes all the time in my writing, which is cool, but it’s getting dull. Hit me up!

June 5, 2009

t-minus approximately eleven days

I’ve got my plane ticket all booked up by now. I take off June 16th. Between now and then, I’ll be packing up my room, searching furiously for jobs, and defending my thesis. (That happens Tuesday. Luck!) In the end, I decided to fly into Guat City and out of Tegucigalpa (sp?), Honduras. It was a mere four bucks more and I’m usually better at making lines than circles anyway, so… I may also spend some time in El Salvador. I remain determined to forgo an itinerary and am trying to keep this whole thing pretty lo-key… Cheap as hell and minimally stressful. My rough plan is still to eventually settle in a town that I enjoy, rent an apartment for the short term, and work on freelance journalism and my intro to Web development online course. But I’m sure I’ll be doing a good amount of screwing off, too. Joiners?

Oh, and in case anyone was wondering, I got my ticket at www.sidestep.com, an awesome discount ticket aggregation Web site. I recommend!

Please send any suggestions for cool stuff to do in Central America my way. Or, even better, pay me a visit!

I’ll be updating this thing regularly. Keep up with me if you want.

May 18, 2009

Hasta.

Plans have changed. I’ve decided that I’d rather eat paint chips than spend the summer in coMO. It’s nobody’s fault, really. Just time to move on. Summers are pretty here, lots of outdoor music and drinking and hiking, etc., but I’ve got my sights set on Guatemala instead. I can do my final online coursework there, plus bone up on Spanish and hopefully meet a new crowd. I defend my thesis June 9 and am looking at heading south of the border around the 15th, just so I have time to get everything formatted and make corrections. Then I’ve got till the end of Summer, when my lease ends and I quit Missouri for good. Tentative plans have me driving back to Portland in August to decompress and ponder the next steps. I’m applying for jobs here and there but nothing has panned out as of yet. I’ve admitted to myself that I may end up back in Korea if I can’t find work in the States… Not thrilled about that.

Erin’s oh-eight destinations:

International – Straight None (School sucks!)

National – Portland, OR; Columbia, MO; Washington, D.C.; Chicago, IL

____________________________________________________________________

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