"The world does not reward honesty and independence, it rewards obedience and service. It’s a world of concentrated power, and those who have power are not going to reward people who question that power."-Chomsky

"The trouble with self-delusion, either in a person or a society, is that reality doesn't care what anybody believes, or what story they put out. Reality doesn't "spin." Reality does not have a self-image problem. Reality does not yield its workings to self-esteem management." -J.H. Kunstler

"You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."-Dylan

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Truth as a Weapon


Using disguised, "noble" honesty as a means to hurt others is a simple, powerful, and potentially unwanted, unflattering string of thought that hopefully will explain some things. The idea came to me during my September '10 visit to Boise, but the truth is that it began with my half-sisters, Pam and Kim. To refresh: it was while I was at Michelle’s in June '09 that I learned how they essentially hid knowing me from the rest of their side of my family I had yet to meet. I’ve said that the tone of things changed with Andre. To a point that’s true, but perhaps the process really began during those few weeks in June.

When Mike and I arrived in Boise in September 2010, I was on the cusp of a quiet breakdown. The negativity had followed me from New York and combined with Ray and Andre to trigger a major crisis of introspection.   

Continuing a developing theme, "Truth as a Weapon" manifested during yet another moment of mirroring after which I began questioning my habit of writing exactly what I thought, no matter how difficult it was for the targets to read. Ray was just one example of where my “honesty” interjected confrontational negativity into my exploits which, before that fateful visit to Michigan in ’09, I had been spared from.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Abyss


 “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.”  
-Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil




I’ve never read much Nietzsche, and likely never will. I tried getting thru Thus Spake Zarathustra and couldn’t. However, these two sentences have helped articulate something that I’ve struggled with for nearly two years: The idea that when you dare to confront and examine the darker, less flattering parts of life, the Abyss, your own darker, less flattering traits are inadvertently revealed to you. I believe one of the most difficult and important choices one can make is whether we choose to see what inhabits our own depths. It’s the stuff of mythology, and nearly derailed me.

Nietzsche’s Abyss was introduced to me by Henry Rollins via my favorite podcast, WTF with Marc Maron. Despite being a comedian, Maron’s conversations typically pivot toward insightful, introspective examinations of our shared, needy, frail egos and how they influence our choices and relationships. In other words, how we’re all more alike in our fucked-upitude than we care to admit!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Chomsky: Education, Indoctrination, and Annihilating Independent Thought

"It's a big club. And, you aint in it."

From his book Understanding Power, this is Chomsky's response to the question, "Are you saying that the real purpose of the universities and the schools is just to indoctrinate people -- and really not much else?"


"The world does not reward honesty & independence. It rewards obedience and service."

Well, I'm not quite saying that. Like, I wouldn't say that no meaningful work takes place in the schools, or that they only exist to provide manpower for the corporate system or something like that -- these are very complex systems, after all. But the basic institutional role and function of the schools, and why they are supported, is to provide an ideological service: there's a real selection for obedience and conformity. And I think that process starts in kindergarten, actually. 


Let me just tell you a personal story. My oldest, closest friend is a guy who came to the United States from Latvia when he was 15, fleeing from Hitler. He escaped to New York with his parents and went to George Washington High School, which in those days at least was a school for bright Jewish kids in New York City. And he once told me that the first thing that struck him about American schools was the fact that if he got a "C" in a course, nobody cared, but if he came to school three minutes late he was sent to the principal's office -- and that generalized. He realized that what it meant is, what's valued here is the ability to work on an assembly line, even if it's an intellectual assembly line. The important thing is to be able to obey orders, and to do what you're told, and to be where you're supposed to be. The values are, you're going to be a factory worker somewhere -- maybe they'll call it a university -- but you're going to be following somebody else's orders, and just doing your work in some prescribed way. And what matters is discipline, not figuring things out for yourself, or understanding things that interest you -- those are kind of marginal: just make sure you meet the requirements of a factory.

Well that's pretty much what the schools are like, I think: they reward discipline and obedience, and they punish independence of mind. If you happen to be a little innovative, or maybe you forgot to come to school one day because you are reading a book or something, that's a tragedy, that's a crime -- because you are not supposed to think, you're supposed to obey, and just proceed to the material in whatever way they require.

... Some people go along with it because they figure, "Okay, I'll do any stupid thing that asshole says, because I want to get ahead"; others do it because they've just internalized the values -- it after a while, those two things tend to get sort of blurred. But you do it, or else you're out: you ask too many questions and you're going to get into trouble.

Now, there are also people who don't go along -- and they're called "behavior problems", or "unmotivated," or things like that. Well, you don't want to be too glib about it -- there are children with behavior problems -- but a lot of them are just independent-minded, or don't like to conform, or just want to go their own way. And they get into trouble, right from the very beginning, and are typically weeded out. I mean, I've taught young kids too, and the fact is, there are always some who just don't take your word for it. And the very unfortunate tendency is to try to beat them down, because they're a pain in the neck. But what they ought to be is encouraged. "Yeah, why take my word for it? Who the heck am I? Figure it out for yourself." That's what real education would be about, in fact.

... given the external power structure of the society in which they function now, the institutional role of the schools for the most part is just to train people for obedience and conformity, and to make them controllable and indoctrinated -- as long as the schools fulfill that role, they'll be supported.
 I mean, it's not very abstract: if you're, say, a young person in college, or in journalism, or for that matter a fourth grader, and you have too much of an independent mind, there's a whole variety of devices that will be used to deflect you from that error -- and if you can't be controlled, to marginalize or just eliminate you. In fourth grade, you're a "behavior problem." In college, you may be "irresponsible," or "erratic," or "not the right kind of student." If you make it to the faculty, you'll fail in what's sometimes called "collegiality," getting along with your colleagues. If you're a young journalist, and you're pursuing stories that the people at the managerial level above you understand, either intuitively or explicitly, are not to be pursued, you can be sent off to work at the police desk, advised that you don't have "proper standards of objectivity." There is a whole range of these techniques.

Now, we live in a free society, so you don't get sent to gas chambers and they don't send the death squads after you -- as is commonly done, and not far from here, say in Mexico. But there are nevertheless quite successful devices, both subtle and extreme, to ensure that doctrinal correctness is not seriously infringed upon.


Noam Chomsky
Understanding Power
pp 236-238

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Wandering Weed?

Welcome to website #4! 

No, I haven't taken up recreational pot use. Nor am I lobbying for legalization. During my short-lived days as a Naval aviator, an aircrew instructor gave me the call sign "Weed", and it stuck even after I returned home. I failed to pack it when I moved away for good...that is until a program director asked that I come up with a monicker (other than my already-fake name) for a midday radio show. Suddenly, as a reflex borne from a lack of creativity, I was "The Weed" for a few months until...wait for it...the station and I grew weary of each other! 

"The Weed" was ridiculous as a cartoon radio name, but when an old coworker suggested it for the new website, I liked the "back home" connotations. Perhaps it's because I've spent so long going doing everything I could to avoid that part of my life, but the idea of reconnecting with it, even if only in a small way, appealed to me. When I found a similarly named site with the description, "Weird tales of rabid, feral, and downright ornery tumbleweeds" I took it as a sign. Who's more of a rabid, feral and downright ornery tumbleweed than me? The Wandering Weed was born. Rejoice!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

2/26/11: Mexico Road Trip: Palenque

Saturday would prove to be the zenith of the road-trip. These are days that are conceived at a bizarre cosmic confluence where Life and Experience converge and create a torrent that can neither be dammed, crossed, nor navigated. Only ridden. These are the seldom-found days I live for. Days that toy with innate fear and contrived expectations while literally clawing at your senses and, upon reflection, leave in its wake deep traces on the soul. The sights, sounds, even the smells, remain---just mind’s eye glance away. Among the last few year's follies and escapades, this particular Saturday ranks near the top--along side my first night camping on the Pacific, the Oregon train-hop, and MasterCrafting the Willamette River on my weekend pass into Portland Aristocracy with Andre.

Friday, February 25, 2011

2/25/11: Mexico Road Trip: Agua Azul & Palenque

A faint shadow hovered over Dylancita (named for Bob Dylan) whenever we stopped: her peculiar habit of occasionally refusing to start! Particularly at military checkpoints, there was always silence and a holding of the collective breath when James prepared to turn the key. When it started, the Combi Gods were pleased. When it didn't? Well, five other people were available to push--much to the amusement of bystanders. It was a minor nuisance that somehow added an odd texture to the trip and was never a serious problem...except for two instances later in the trip.  One could have been literally catastrophic. 

James went about trying to find the cause on Friday morning. As handy as he was mechanically, he had a cavalier attitude toward tires, of all things! When I poked my head beneath, I saw that the left rear tire was less a tire than a ragged piece of worn rubber featuring a full, silver halo of exposed, busted bands! Horrifying! We had just spent a day snaking over mountains and bounding over topes! He was visibly annoyed when I told him he NEEDED to replace it but, moving his ego aside (so mine may take center stage), I take full credit for saving the Dylancita Party from certain peril somewhere beyond Ocosingo! I expect a medal and public recognition at some point...
In case you think I exaggerate

Thursday, February 24, 2011

2/24/11: Mexico Road Trip: Toniná


Aside from Canada and perhaps Iceland*, all cultures have redeeming qualities. While Brits excel at random acts of snobbery and snotty sarcasm, I’ve rarely heard them described as "skilled" drivers. Combined with learning to drive on the left side of the road it's clear that James has overcome staggering odds. On display was authentic skill; it wasn't easy snaking a power-steeringless Combi through Chumula’s tight, steep streets! 

I imagine the stereotypical NASCAR fan would resent James’s blatant literacy. Or, perhaps they'd just see all that readin', writin', and addin', as "faggy".** But, just for fun, imagine the redneck's horror (and repeated flurry of the word “fag”) upon seeing he also boasted mastery of the temperamental clutch and idiosyncratic gears! He displayed both skills flawlessly on Sunday, in reverse, while liberating us from the extortionist's hillside parking lot.

2/19-2/23/11: San Cristobal-Flux Capacitor...Fluxing


With entirely too much beef and chicken that would go missing in the hostel's kitchen, we had an excuse for a Saturday barbecue with James and Maarja. Several of us spent the afternoon gorging and discovered that Maarja’s Aunt and Uncle, Eevi and Jan, would arrive in San Cristobal in a few days. James and Maarja wanted to do something special with them, so we discussed a six-man Combi-roadtrip to Palenque. Suddenly, abandoning San Cristobal on Monday seemed rash, and as the day ended we had made plans to take the Combi on a more immediate mini-trip: to a nearby indigenous village, San Juan de Chumula, on Sunday.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

2/15-2/18/11: San Cristobal-Revolution and Domestication

Pardon me while I indulge myself by highlighting a distinction...and brag for a moment. 

The following few paragraphs are a clear example of what distinguishes your humble scribe and the countless, redundant "Moonbeam Travel Writers" who seem to fart politically correct cliches while babbling about things like an “amaaaaazing cultural diversity” found and bound together by a “common fundamental belief in human dignity, individual freedom, and national sovereignty” neatly encompassed, “both in name and atmosphere inside San Cristobal’s most famous night spot and social beacon": The Revolution Bar.

Horseshit. If you see this cloned hippie: beat-bathe-repeat.

Monday, February 14, 2011

2/8-2/14/11: San Cristobal-Jose Luis and the Galactic Station


Jose Luis
I loved Jose Luis’s place immediately! His was a large guest house in a farm-like setting that  reminded me of Asheville, North Carolina. The house consisted a large main room which worked non-stop as the kitchen, dining, and living area and maintained a rural Montana or New Mexico vibe. The wood floors creaked constantly enhancing the rustic, frontierish ambiance.

I found Jose Luis to be one of the youngest 57-year olds I’d met. He spoke good English thanks in part to having lived, married and had children in the US, and acted as though we’d known each other for years. I thought it was because he had met Chris in January, but this was just how he was with everyone

Jose Luis's Place


Bordering the large shared horse-pasture was the landlord, Olivier’s, peculiar three-level house that was home to several tenants including James the Brit and his Estonian girlfriend, Maarja. The building was intricately decorated with large horse-themed figures painted on the exterior and adding to it's distinctiveness was the shape: the main building's width was excessive in relation to depth; so much so that it almost appeared to be a converted barn. With mountains as a backdrop in the distance, everything combined to create an atmosphere that encouraged “presence”; potentially the perfect place to transition to Mexico. Even the dogs & horses had character! 


The Couchsurfer Wing was a rather large bedroom with a small, single bed along side several inflatable mattresses standing neatly made in anticipation of the Couchsurfer Invasion due over the next several days. This was, by far, the most elaborate Couchsurfing situation I’d seen or heard of!  He clearly had completely embraced the spirit of  Couchsurfing and was well on his way to becoming San Cristobal’s unofficial ambassador. 

We had arrived at Jose Luis’s just at the point where I was, physically, nearly ready to expire. My voice was virtually gone, barely a broken whisper and getting worse, but I ran on adrenaline long enough to get acquainted but before long the idea of hunkering down for a week allowed both mind and body to exhale...and my strange, persistent illness to take over.

I needed rest. That’s exactly what I did for the next couple of days. Aside from a trip to the downtown market for food and daily walks to the neighborhood restaurant, Sol y Luna, for huge dinners, there wasn’t much socializing. So little, that I became concerned that I was alienating myself from our host! Couchsurfers each day and, as our little room was quickly filling, I was lying in bed most of the time. 


I was feeling much better as the week went on the parties wound up. Jose Luis’s place became a beehive of activity hosting Couchsurfers from countries including the US, France, Romania, Spain, Argentina, and others. 

Among them was a group referred to simply as “The Hippies” who had arrived in a large, veggie oil-powered bus similar to the one Chris and I passengered to DC in ’09. Their unquestioned leader was a 20-something, dreadlocked, McGyverish character who could usually be seen tinkering with something  while heard speaking, knowledgeably, on everything else. My general opinion of hippies is documented, but as a well rounded man-of-skill, he was fucking impressive! 

James, Maarja, Jan, Alex
In addition to captaining the USS Veggie, he led a nearly cliche’ “hippie-band”; one evidently successful (and good) enough to fund their travels. The band/crew included his mother and two young French women: one extremely attractive and the other eccentrically odd. The latter reminded me of the woman in the old Hungry Like the Wolf video. I never felt safe within striking distance; she seemed ready to...bite.


Another interesting pair were Jan (yahn) and Alexandra, from Spain and Romania respectively. They had been traveling around the world for more than 5-years nonstop and had seen Europe, Africa, Iran, Pakistan, China, India, and almost everywhere else. They had recently traveled the States and were planning a visit to Cuba before turning toward Central and South America.

While I’m not typically impressed with other travelers, these two impressed me. Especially their original anecdotes and opinions about places like Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Africa. It’s all relative, but that made my hopping of freight trains and hitching Idaho seem a bit...stale!

Alex impressed me with a dose of much-needed frankness and unfiltered honesty. She was a traveling rarity in that, in private conversation at least, she was unconcerned with spreading sunshine and moonbeams. She possessed a blunt, honest authenticity combined with a pragmatic eastern European attitude; she wasn’t frightened to violate the warm & fuzzy Moonbeam Code and would tell you what she REALLY thought of people, places, and cultures--and it wasn't always positive! That kind of honesty potentially rubs Moonbeamers the wrong way!

Sound like anyone you know?

Laryngitis, and not speaking Spanish to begin with, brought a quick, rather intense, and important self-realization: until then, I failed to realize just how difficult it is for me when I'm unable to articulate and express thoughts effectively! From antiquated alcohol abuse, to radio, even to this writing, frustrated, self-destructive, often subtle tendencies became apparent--usually erupting when, due to either a lack of access to the words, or worse a base inability to interpret my own internal codex, I found myself being the metaphorical mute flailing in frustration at the world. 


As they say happens with the blind, this experience served to heighten another sense: listening and observing and, later in the week, when we joined Jose Luis and a friend for dinner and drinks that culminated with some influential insight into who Jose Luis was and a glimpse of what lies beneath the surface of San Cristobal, Chiapas and Mexico overall. Chris and I had already taken a rather keen interest in the Zapatistas and I always have an intense curiosity about various, hidden political & sociological layers wherever I am. Little did I know until that moment that we were staying with a relative expert on both.

Apparently, Jose Luis had been heavily involved in Mexican politics. So much so, that he had traveled to Cuba to “learn weapons” and at one time been courted to run for high national office. To hear him tell it, he somehow ruffled enough political plumage to find himself in jail; arrested by the corrupt elements in the government on fake drug charges...as a warning.

Through the conversation, Jose Luis freely admitted that since he’s left politics, he’s struggling to find a way to redefine/engage his political and social beliefs; a feeling I understood well. Jose Luis never dictated his manifesto, so I can’t say for sure that he was involved directly in the 1994 Zapatista rebellion. What I can say is that this conversation was educational, rather intense, and nudged open a door that, to that point, I had been quietly sitting outside since my arrival in Mexico and, with help, would silently tiptoe thru later.

Our conversation took place about the same time that Wisconsin’s teabagging, austerity hound governor was working to break his state employee’s union. Joe Luis had been watching CNN with disgusted interest, pointing out that his kids were Americans and US politics always affects Mexican politics. We shared a disturbed amazement that, considering our intense history with corporate Labor Wars, Americans were so eager and willing to rescind their own worker’s rights in the name of nothing more than Fake Tea. I’m stunned to this day how people will be manipulated into voting against their own DIRECT interest.

As my brother-in-law perceived well over a year ago, my political conversations and social beliefs often end friendships. This time, however, they forged one. I’d liked Jose Luis from the start but, not requiring anything worthy of authentic respect, it’s easy to be “liked”. I gained a great deal of respect for Jose Luis, and after hearing what I had struggled to say (at proper tone, for once!), I’d repeatedly hear him tell people that I have a “good political mind”, although I would always insist that, no matter what he said, “I wasn’t sleeping with him!” 

The first party was at Jose Luis', and an incredibly eclectic collection of nationalities, personalities, and ages. A traveling road-dog from Mexico City named Norberto was now among us inhabiting  his Couchsurfer Wing, and he turned out to be an incredibly charismatic guitarist providing live entertainment through the weekend.

Beyond his impressive musical skills, I was surprised to play witness to what I can only describe as an impromptu, interactive jam session, led by Norberto, and joined in by everyone else--on whatever they could find to play: cans, pots, pans, tables. Whatever.

It was fun to experience this spontaneous communal recital of The Rolling Stones Satisfaction and Sympathy for the Devil although having neither rhythm nor an ounce of musical talent, I excused myself by filming it! As the evening went on, we found ourselves chatting almost exclusively with James (the 25-year old Brit living next door) and his girlfriend, Maarja. I also found myself laughing a lot in the process! 



Norberto

Seeing James for the first time, I didn’t know what to think other than “blonde Ronald McDonald with a prissy little accent!” However, he proved to be much more interesting than that. They had already traveled all over Central and South America with an impressive flair for adventure.

Since arriving in Mexico, they had stayed for an extended time in Guadalajara, had bought a VW Combi in Mexico City, and were now staying in San Cristobal for a few months and waiting on a replacement for James’s stolen passport. From Mexico, they were planning to take their VW and explore the US . When they invited Chris and I into San Cristobal to find some live music, even though I was still feeling far from prime, we agreed.

Saturday’s tequila-filled party was next door at Kitti’s place, an exotic, exquisite Hungarian who lived in Olivier’s building along with her Argentinian boyfriend, Mauricio. Norberto reprieved his role as The Entertainer, and the party was again followed up by a trip downtown with James & Maarja. Growing quite fond of this couple, I remarked that I hadn’t laughed so hard and so often in a VERY long time. 
Kitti

A wad of pesos and a bottle of James’ rum later, we’d learned that they had nearly been held up at AK-point on a Venezuelan beach before their borderline-psychotic Colombian companion had intimidated their would-be robber with nothing more than gall by charging him and screaming something to the effect of, “You think your fucking gun scares me, Venezuelan? I’m fucking COLOMBIAN!!”

They told of scamming their way aboard a Caribbean-bound boat by telling the captain (falsely) that they were seasoned sailors, managed to pull it off for an extended time, and how James had been nailed by a stingray in the process. James told of visiting Machu Picchu and about getting a severe case of dysentery and having to be flown to Lima for treatment.

This was exactly what I needed to hear looking forward, and I was happy to be in the company of people who had done more, much more, than I had. When the four of us offhandedly discussed the possibility of taking their Combi to see the Mayan ruins in Palenque, we planted some incredibly significant seeds.

Carrie made another, rather surprising, pleasant appearance at Jose Luis’s Couchsurfing Compound over the weekend and suffered a shockingly (to me), intensly adverse reaction to Alex’s “generalizing” opinions on people, places, and things! I also learned that Carrie’s dad broadcasts Major League Baseball on the radio, and himself played for several teams in the ‘80’s. Our common interests in radio and baseball gave us something besides our slightly antagonistic world views to chat about, and triggered (rekindled, really) nostalgic second guessing that would nag to the end of my stay.

Our “plan” (ha!) from the beginning was staying with Jose Luis, at his “Galactic Station” as he liked to call it, for up to a week. Our last night there was Monday, Valentine’s Day and several of us Couchsurfers went out for posh, and expensive, stiff alcohol that comes in different flavors, to celebrate a birthday. It was a great, albeit pricey, way to wrap things up, however Jose Luis was conspicuously absent. Since the end of the weekend’s fiestas Jose Luis had become a bit reclusive, and it was clear that, for us at least, it was time to go...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

2/8/11: San Cristobal-Inadequate Introductions

Chiapas

Chiapas is an incredibly beautiful, fascinating place whose history, including the Mayan ruins in Palenque, draws visitors from around the world. Its very pheromones exude the essence of authentic and unapologetic revolution, revolt, and independence.

While Tuxtla Gutierrez is now its capitol, San Cristobal is the political and spiritual center of the local Mayan/Mestizo population, and an epicenter of the Zapatista movement that became a sensation for successfully revolting against the Mexican government in 1994. Images of Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa, Che Guevara, and Subcomandante Marcos are never far away and have even become an important part of the areas primary industry: tourism.

This is by no meant as a comprehensive historical account, but briefly the Zapatistas (EZLN) brand and market themselves as an indigenous movement demanding to simply be left alone to live their traditional way of life unmolested by the Mexican government.

During the '94 uprising, the Zapatistas occupied four cities in the mountains surrounding, and including, San Cristobal. After a bloody battle in Ocosingo, in the mountains a few hours northeast of San Cristobal, they eventually reached an edgy compromise with the federal government ending outward hostilities, but tensions continue today due in large part to what international watchdog groups described as a brutal government repression of the uprising. Examples included aerial bombardment of indigenous villages surrounding San Cristobal, torture, summary executions, and mass graves with much of the violence perpetrated against the unarmed, indigenous population of the area.

Being there 17-years later, it was eerily common to see fully armed troops stationed at various points around the city, particularly El Centro.





The compromise was mediated by Bishop Samuel Ruiz, who at 86 died less than a week before I arrived in Mexico. I don’t pretend to be a scholar of Ruiz, Chiapas, or the Zapatistas but his is a single story that seems to tell a great deal about the Zapatistas, San Cristobal, and Chiapas itself:


San Cristobal 

San Cristobal de las Casas is situated at 7,000 feet in a valley that's surrounded in all directions by lush mountains and the Lacandona jungle which combine to provide an impressive backdrop for its own raw, rugged, setting. The high altitude can take some getting used to and makes for a much cooler climate than one would expect from a city this close to Guatemala. The humidity was also a fraction of Cancun's.

Despite, or perhaps because of, very high expectations my first impressions were far from glowing and I'd wager very similar to those of most Americans—at least those free to admit it: dirty, congested, and overpopulated! It appeared filled with short, rickety, graffiti-tagged old dwellings held together with binder twine and duct tape and I wondered what about this city, aside from the shrewdly marketed Zapatista/Che angle, draws so many travelers, young and old, from all over the globe. It didn’t seem to transmit or resonate on any particularly remarkable frequency but I was also aware that I'm increasingly distracted from these things lately!

On the way in to the city, we passed a fenced off collection of dilapidated, flimsy shacks tenuously perched on a steep mountainside and where the poverty seemed revoltingly astounding. It reminded me of an urban Slab City, only dirtier and without the dropout's 30 year-old RVs. I also shot back to last spring and the tent cities beside Fresno’s train tracks. The obvious difference was that this was obviously a permanent situation where they’d built homes out of whatever they could find while stateside "down-and-out" Americans subconsciously clung to the “temporary” mentality of waiting for their part of elusive American Dream to make its heroic return. 

I had seen semi-permanent shelters along side the roads in and around Cancun as well, and suddenly found myself asking WHERE in the States a poverty-stricken person would be ALLOWED to erect a little shack and live in it! Can you imagine me building a wooden shack on the side of the road near South Beach or Santa Barbara? There's a reason America's long term homeless live in tents, beneath bridges, and next to the train tracks. They're constantly rousted from wherever they're an "inconvenient" reminder of Capitalism's limitations and, if the Machine is lucky, eventually shuffled out of sight. 

Inside this homemade tenement complex, I once again saw loads of kids playing with whatever they could find. There was a fleeting, familiar thought reminding me that happiness is relative; a poor, happy kid kicking his can will always be more content then the fundamentally miserable aristoBrat riding high atop his new pony. No matter how pretty his “pony,” it won't make him happy for long. Don't tell him though!

Congested traffic clogging narrow streets instantly showed the futility of driving in San Cristobal and I began paying closer attention to the ever-present minivan taxis I had noticed in Cancun and Tulum: the colectivos. Next to walking, the colectivo is the primary public transportation and inexpensive means around town for those who chose not to pay for taxis, which also swarmed the city. I was happy to learn that the collectivo cost $4.50MX (about 40 cents) as opposed to 30-40 pesos for a comparable taxi ride.

Later on I’d learn the catch, of course, was that you had to often share cramped benches with others along the way. It was not much of a catch because the folks sharing your ride were always polite, greeting each other with “Buenos tardes/noches!” when boarding and just interesting to observe! The people watching was exquisite, although the children always found we ridiculously tall, goofy looking gringos great curiosities themselves!


Despite being a city of 150-200-thousand people, there were few buildings taller than 3-5 stories, except of course for its prominent churches. They were the landmarks by which, since the streets for the most part looked the same, I quickly learned to orient myself. As we walked toward “El Centro,” the plaza area at the center of downtown’s cultural activities, my head was on a swivel; by now I’d noticed the variety of languages spoken on the streets and the people watching was always fascinating.There was no sign of anything overtly corporate downtown, at least not that I noticed. 
Guadalupe St.
The pedestrian street (Guadalupe) reminded me of Denver’s 16th St. Mall in that it was clearly the heart of a popular tourist shopping district. It was closed off to traffic with specialty shops lining both sides hocking everything from Ambar to the ever-present Zapatista trinkets. That being said, it stood in stark contrast, in both people and energy, to Cancun/Tulum. In a general way, comparing Mexico’s commercialized tourist meccas to San Cristobal would be something like comparing Daytona Beach and Dayton. 

By now, I had grown used to negotiating prices and having peddlers and merchants aggressively trying to lure me into their lairs. I'd quickly learned that they were not interested in any conversation beyond bartering, so a verbal escape plan was useless! It was much better to just smile and keep moving! Curiously, however, the panhandling tactic ceased on Guadalupe St.; it appeared that perhaps they had realized it was counterproductive, at least with gringos! 

Carrie
Carrie (left) and her friends
Returning to San Cristobal energized The Friar and he was immediately on his phone and leading the way to meet his friend, Carrie, and her cohorts for midday drinks. Thanks to my pesky little illness, I wasn’t much of a social butterfly and besides, for the first time ever, my voice had begun to vanish!

Carrie, however, was entertainment enough for everyone. From the beginning, she displayed a high-energy personality and proved to be that rarest of rarities: a woman who makes me laugh! (Some people label that sexist. Fuck them; for whatever reason it seldom happens so when it does, I appreciate it!)

Carrie and the rest of her American friends were, I believe, all in Mexico for a wedding and catching a bus an hour or two west to Tuxtla Gutierrez later that afternoon. Despite significant hippie characteristics and lacking both the accent and signs of inbreeding, Carrie willingly claimed Kentucky as home. At some point, she had simply decided to stay in Mexico...indefinitely...after the wedding. I liked her immediately.

Apart from her sense of adventure and talkative, humorous personality, the first things I noticed about Carrie were her height, (5’10” if not taller) and dark, sympathetic, thoughtful eyes that made me wonder (beyond humor and sarcasm) what was going on behind them. She was briefly exposed to the easily transmitted Enrique Virus the month before, and it became clear in time that this episode had triggered an unnatural fascination bordering on a self-admitted obsession with Latino “photographers.” A horrific, Sally Struthers style affliction to be sure.

Also, I at first naturally assumed Carrie’s voice was hoarse from overuse but as it turned out she was exiting the same laryngitis ride I was just boarding. Whatever it was, our shared illness had pestered her in varying degrees for several weeks so it was clear that this was not vanishing in a day or two. 

Chris had arranged accommodations at a Couchsurfer’s place on the outskirts of town. He had met Jose Luis in January and explained how he usually had several Couchsurfers on-hand and lived in a country setting where we would be able to stay for perhaps as long as a week. All we had to do was get there, which made for an interesting and pleasant 40-minute exploratory walk to the west end of the city. 


Leaving the shopping district offered a neat snapshot of life in San Cristobal. All the streets, with a few exceptions, continued to look the same while the name and numbering systems made no damn sense! I felt lost immediately, even though the route was straightforward with only a couple turns! The buildings were all block-long, indistinct strings of identical architecture with what seemed to be an abnormally high number of tiny markets; the same kinds I’d seen from the bus. Stray dogs were everywhere.

Being a virginal gringo in Mexico means continuous adaptation, in my case specifically in being an illiterate minority and all that entails. In Cancun, along with the signs, nearly everyone speaks English and you literally ARE your American dollars, so everyone’s smiling--as long as you’re spending them.

In San Cristobal it’s different. For the most part, few paid attention although I occasionally caught glances ranging from surprise (see: redneck spies unfamiliar black guy in rural Michigan) to disdain (see: redneck spies any black guy in rural Mississippi). Incidentally, if you’re offended by my barbaric “generalizations,” may I suggest we spend a week or two together in rural Mississippi this summer?

After hearing the American Bloodbath Media squawking about Mexicans hating, kidnapping, and killing what seemed like billions of "innocent" Americans, I was prepared for the worst but not shocked by the reality: general indifference. Furthermore, outside of the tourist areas I was struck by an overall polite vibe and the impression that locals were prepared for gringos to be assholes, but when given a reason to believe otherwise were eager to embrace it. Smile, look them in the eye, and acknowledge their existence, and passersby returned the courtesy with interest. 

As you can tell, I was in the middle of ecstatic sensory overload! Everything was new, expectations and preconceived notions were obliterated by the minute, and perspectives quickly re-calibrated. That would have some surprising results, even by my standards.

But first, there was the Galactic Station...

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

2/7-2/8/11: Cancun to San Cristobal-Mexico Real



There are areas where we as Americans have failed miserably. Public transportation is one. When Americans think of Mexican buses, they think of sweaty, overcrowded, chicken-filled, mechanically questionable jalopies lumbering down underdeveloped, bandit-filled roads. While I’ve heard they do actually exist, the general stereotype is horseshit.

Settling in aboard the Cristobal-Colon coach bound for San Cristobal, I thought of the South African woman I shared an over-packed Greyhound with in ‘08. She found American buses disgusting, the customer service appalling, and put the blame squarely on Greyhound’s monopoly. Although Cristobal-Colon is a Mexican second-class line, it’s one of several to choose from and in direct comparison, Greyhound is clearly the cattle car company in the conversation!

Due to bizarre ticketing, it was cheaper to go to from Tulum north to Cancun...then back thru Tulum before continuing the rest of the way to San Cristobal, so we returned south along the route we had come just a couple hours earlier along Quintana Roo’s Yucatan/Mayan Riviera coast. We again passed Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, and a few hours later approached the Belize border before turning west at Chetumal. Overnight, we crossed the states of Campeche and Tabasco, turned southwest, and in the wee hours of the morning finally entered Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas.

Fighting off the cold, I slept all night so saw nothing between Chetumal and Palenque. However, I felt plenty! The first thing I noticed in Mexico was a relative lack of order on the roadways, and the fact that speed bumps (“topes”) are everywhere! They often appear unmarked and out of nowhere forcing drivers (including those driving buses in the middle of the night) to choose between slamming on their brakes or potentially damage their suspensions.

It also appears that topes perform another role in rural Mexico: that of traffic cop. I never saw anyone one pulled over, and there surely are no policia drawing paychecks for just writing traffic tickets! It’s as though they take the attitude of, “Wanna speed? Enjoy your topes!” As I found out later, they’re even integrated into the occasional village’s entrepreneurial spirit.

Sometime early in the morning, I woke up to find the bus stopped and surrounded by fully armed, uniformed soldiers at the Tabasco/Chiapas border. Due to narco-trafficing and the now-famous drug violence in the northern part of the country, military and/or federal police checkpoints regularly accentuate the experience of traveling Mexico's roadways! They don’t check everyone, but you’re occasionally forced to present your papers and to submit to a vehicle search.

Despite the media’s blood-orgy, these checks still run counter to “probable cause” and everything we, for the most part, still refuse to passively accept in the States, thank God. At this point for me, they served as a critical reminder that I was not “in the States.” My combative attitude toward our “authorities” performing unprovoked “papers please” checks needed to be quickly and effectively stifled. Vocal idealism is fine, but not at the price of Mexican jail!
Chiapas
Once through Palenque, the sun rose and I finally saw firsthand the intense, raw beauty of the “Palenque Road”; a road destined to become very familiar. We were still at a relatively low elevation and partially surrounded by the jungle that conceals the famous Mayan ruins, but that quickly changed as the bus continued to climb along an increasingly dramatic combination of switchbacks and topes that made for a public transit thrill ride! Our driver insisted on using every millimeter of each side of this mountain road including nearly non-existent shoulders that often overlooked a cliff hundreds of feet high! He drove at top possible speeds, passing with at least feet to spare, and...you get the idea. “This fucker’s crazy!” was muttered more than a few times.

Snaking through these mountains offered the priceless, rugged vistas combining the type of jungles and mountains you’d expect to be concealing guerrillas. With the area’s revolutionary zeal, history of revolt, and the occasional Zapatista village, Che Guevara’s image is never far away, but even so in this setting I expected to see him sitting next to the road sipping mate' & reading Neruda.

With daylight finally came a glimpse of at least a portion of Mexico Real. As much as I had enjoyed myself, Tulum is not Mexico any more than Las Vegas, Hollywood, or Branson is the US, but until now there was no personal, firsthand image of what it actually was. That steadily changed as we crept through numerous, scattered indigenous villages between Ocosingo and San Cristobal.

A tidal wave of thoughts and observations struck, many about where they lived. Many homes were simple, one room, hand built wood shacks with tin, or even tarp roofs, and open glassless windows. Livestock roamed along side the road, and everywhere I looked, people were working…but were not “at work.” Men, women and children were all tending to land, hauling wood by hand (or often by “head”) up steep mountain grades, or tending to their never-ending string of convenience stores and little cafes, which all sported Coca-Cola signs!

I was so astounded at the sheer volume of Coke signage and advertising, that I was reminded of United Fruit’s (Del Monte) famously horrific exploits just down the road in Guatemala and began to try to photograph them!

My Mind’s Eye of Acceptability was still stuck on “America,” so the sight of what appeared to be simply a case of profound poverty and was initially quite troubling. However, at the same time something quietly told me that I just didn’t get it. How could I? That little voice warned me that maybe, just maybe, that was the cantankerous arrogance of an ingrained, rigid perspective. I love that little voice.

Something else that stuck out was that more often than not the women and girls were dressed in handmade sandals and traditional clothing that, being a relatively unfamiliar gringo, at first reminded me of Mexican Renaissance Fair costumes. I take no pride in admitting that, and mean no overt disrespect toward those who dresses up for ren fairs; at least no more than they've come to expect!

The soon-to-be stock phrase was, “you’d never see that in the States!” I would utter it a thousand times in the coming weeks, and it was not always meant as praise for American regulation, though at times it would be. It not only applied to things like 5-year olds playing in the road or chopping wood with an ax while their 7-year old bother cuts jungle overgrowth with a machete that's as tall as he is! It consistently applied to different aspects of everyday life: along side the road, on the streets, and in the local markets.

I repeatedly thought that this may be the unregulated Utopia some with a certain anarchistic or "teabagging disposition" strive for up north! It was also not lost that if you told them they were really fighting along side a corrupt plutocracy FOR a Mexican way of life, they’d punch you in your “commie, Mexican lovin'” mouth! Regrettably, that point would be driven home later with the attacks on collective bargaining in Wisconsin seasoned a little unique “outside” perspective.

Approaching San Cristobal, I realized that what I was seeing could be, if taken out of context, stolen from some generic publication decrying Mexican poverty and misery. Or worse: a Sally Struthers infomercial demanding my 35-cents a day.

At the same time, I could relate to what I saw. From my air-conditioned bus seat, I thought back to my own original dropout, self-sufficiency aspirations for this odyssey when I set out for the first time in ‘08 and how I would have enthusiastically embraced this back then. On some level, I admired that they had held on to a centuries-old way of life for themselves; one seemingly independent of the global economic machine. I loved how their world essentially ended at the horizon. I wondered if that apparent independence was worth sacrificing all of our creature comforts. Was there was something else at play here that transcended TV’s, cars, windows, doors...indoor plumbing?

Laugh if you like, but after miserably chasing the ghosts of careerism, ego, and financial trophies for years, I know there is. There's something about building and maintaining something sustainable with your family from the ground up that appeals to people at a deep, primal level. This is an ancient agricultural,  pre-industrial revolution way of life that, for all intents and purposes, was annihilated by "specialization." Some still reject the notion that the satisfaction this "building" brings can simply be bought.

I believe I got the metaphorical indigenous answer to my "is it worth it" question repeatedly as I detected unmistakable looks of disdain from the some of the villagers as we passed through. Not the, “Golly, I wish I had that” looks you would expect from the oppressed, miserably poor but rather looks of, “Get the fuck out of here.” But, naturally, there is much more to it than that. Something more than a little Kumbaya can cure!

All this from looking through a window for a few hours! 



My ass was asleep, and as ritzy as it was as compared to Greyhound, after 17-hours I was ready to be off the bus as we passed a huge military instillation and entered San Cristobal de la Casas late Tuesday morning. Mexico was now about to get interesting...

Monday, February 7, 2011

2/3-2/7/11: Tulum, Mexico

Checking out of the hostel and running around took most of the morning, and by the time we settled into our early afternoon bus south, I was ready to be rid of Cancun. In retrospect it was probably a combination of things: hearing Chris rave about how "expensive" it was in Cancun although, compared to the US, it seemed dirt cheap, plus an extreme curiosity to see what "real" Mexico was like as opposed to the place where the signs were also in English.


Before leaving the terminal, Chris recognized one of his traveling buddies from San Francisco and San Cristobal climbing aboard our bus! Enrique is a charismatic Ecuadorian world-traveling photographer who happened to be Couchsurfing that night in Tulum. He's also one of those guys that other guys want to be: young, handsome, smooth, personable, confident, and not to be bothered by the blase, mundane trivialities that typically cripple the masses! Enrique oozes testosterone, doesn't particularly care where it flows, is an excellent photographer, and I would learn the next day that his camera is not only for photographs: in Enrique's hands, it's an ice breaker.
I played the role of sightseer while Chris and Enrique caught up. That made for a nice 2-hour ride thru Playa del Carmen to Tulum. Once their we took a taxi a few kilometers out of town and to a relatively well known hostel Chris found via the Internet : The Lobo Inn. I had been slowly getting sick for a week or two prior to arriving in Mexico, so elected to stay behind while Chris and Enrique returned to Tulum for dinner with his Couchsurfer host. It was here that I felt a twinge of the potentially acute pain of my language barrier for the first time.


There were several interesting people at the hostel, including a couple Israelis, an Argentinian Enrique had encountered elsewhere in his travels, and Romain--a Frenchman living/studying in Cuba who was vacationing in Tulum. Thankfully, the Israelis and Romain spoke English, so by the time Chris returned I was on my second huge 30-peso beer from the store next door and having a great time despite the cold.

Friday goes down as one of my highlight days. Enrique met us at the hostel, Romain, the Frenchman, joined up, and the four of us set off to see the Tulum ruins situated across the highway on the Caribbean Sea.

I have long had a keen interest in the Mayan civilization so seeing any and all ruins is constantly near the top of my things to see. The fact that Tulum's ruins are set adjacent to the beach made the experience that much better, and it so happens that there is a phenomenal public access beach making it nearly ideal.

Frolicking in the Caribbean, I realized that this was the first time, at least on these travels, that I actually had gotten IN the sea. With the exception of Santa Barbara, the rest of California, Oregon, and New Jersey were always too cold.  I made up for it and had the sunburn to prove it.


Friday night continued what proved to be a fun, albeit expensive pattern of conversing and drinking in the Lobo Inn's common area. The folks staying there were from all over: Mexico, Argentina, France, Israel, Italy, Canada, the US, Korea, and even the Canary Islands.

One of the more interesting cats was Frankie, an enigma from Cancun who was just staying there...for whatever reason. He had a car and a great deal of knowledge of the area so he would take people on excursions to places like the nearby cenotes, a network of underwater rivers that periodically surface in the jungles or caves in the area. Later in the weekend, he snorkeled out into the Caribbean spearfishing, got an Angelfish, and let everyone at the Lobo eat it. The one image of Frankie I'll carry with me is how he was always smiling and walking around with his beer in a huge mug that reminded me of a king's personal stein.

It was an incredible place, but The Lobo Inn was quite pricey ($140 MX), so Saturday Chris ventured off to scout camping possibilities on the beach where he met an fascinating beach urchin, Mil, from India. He was intensely obsessed with the familiar idea of synchronicity with a a tireless, focused mind. He offered to share a beach side cabana with us that he intended to occupy with another traveler, but checking it out we learned that this "friend" of his had had his belongings stolen the night before. My warning sirens were blaring as we chatted with this supposedly unfortunate soul, so we decided to pass on Mil's beachcomber hospitality in favor of another night at the Lobo.
Mil
Saturday night was another beerfest, Chris ended up sleeping in the jungle somewhere between the road and the Lobo after failing to find Mil, and Sunday was the Super Bowl.  Chris had been contacted on Saturday by a Scandinavian Couchsurfer staying in Playa del Carmen who hoped to hitchhike with other people to Belize to renew her 180-day travel visa, which she said was about to expire. We made arrangements to meet her at the Lobo at 10am Sunday to head south, but when she arrived we learned that Maria learned on the way down that she'd miscalculated: her visa had ALREADY expired and that she needed to go to Cancun and have a lawyer straighten it out!

In addition to all of that, my cold had worsened and I was losing my voice, so we decided to relax at the Lobo for one more night to watch the Super Bowl. We were stuck the to the Spanish broadcast on satellite via Fox Sports, but that was less problematic than the absence of the American commercials! However, did you know that Joe Montana is hocking cheap Mexican beer these days? Ouch.

Monday was once again getaway day, and we had noble intentions to hitch south, but my cold had worsened yet again. Mil had also reappeared out of the blue and was making his way back toward Cancun hopeful for a flight to Cuba. My girlfriend and I had also begun discussions about her flying to Cancun at the end of March. Considering my declining health, it seemed like a good idea to perhaps simplify things and bus to our eventual destination: San Cristobal, Chiapas. I could spend a solid six-weeks learning at least rudimentary Spanish as well as about Chiapas and the Zapatistas.

By early afternoon, Chris and I were joined by Mil on the bus to Cancun beginning a 24-hour journey west to San Cristobal and a fateful landing at Jose Luis's Galactic Station...

Thursday, February 3, 2011

2/1-2/3/11: Cancun, Mexico

My flight's path was over the Gulf of Mexico directly to the Yucatan Peninsula, and seeing the shoreline I was struck that, other than Juarez across the Rio Grande from I-10 in El Paso, I was finally glimpsing something other than Terra Americana/Canadia for the first time since briefly living in Germany when I was 15.

As the plane descended, it was clear from the air that this was indeed another world; one I was eager to see with my own eyes as opposed to the controlled electronic agenda-driven snapshots we are inundated with in the States.


Yucatan Coast

Going from 9-below to a muggy 85 in a few hours feels good! As I stepped into Mexico for the first time, I was introduced to something that would quickly become familiar: Mexicans hocking goods and services to gringos. At the aeropuerto, it's transportation to Cancun. Chris had returned to Cancun from San Cristobal and I found him exactly where he was supposed to be holding a sign that read "X"--making fun of my persistent surname quandary. The idea that we had executed this little plan and were actually on the ground in Mexico was fun and though there was no clear-cut, long term plan other than getting out of Cancun and going south, this day was a long time coming...and now here it was.

We engaged in non-stop chatter into Cancun, but I found my attention span compromised by the scenes outside the window. One of the things that grabbed my attention almost immediately, aside from the lack of order on the roadways, was the glaring lack of regulation. There were people living beneath tarps and in flimsy wooden shacks along side the road on the edge of Cancun but to me the poverty was less shocking than the fact that they were permitted to do that! I remember seeing the same thing in various tent cities in places like Fresno, except that in the US these embarrassing capitalist warts are swept out of sight--under bridges and behind train tracks. Here, it's out in the open and is inescapable. My first 30-minute bus ride was also was my first subtle nudge in what would be a long, steady reminder to question our imposed and skewed definition of "freedom".

In the short term, Tuesday night's plan was simple:

  1. Bus to Cancun
  2. Hostel
  3. Beer
  4. Food
We are simple creatures after all.

The hostel Chris had checked us into was quite close to the bus station as well as 2-4 listed above. Since hostels in the US aren't hostels as much as overpriced, pretentious hotels, I had never stayed in one. Ours was 110 pesos a night (about $9.25), and our dormitory was shared with three other people: a middle-aged Canadian, a young French student and her Spanish boyfriend. The bathroom took some getting used to as well as it was unisex--including the showers.

Before long, we were sitting at a sidewalk cafe drinking Corona's, eating nachos, and chatting with Jose, a local sitting at the next table who spontaneously decided to invite himself over to join us. He spoke English, had been drinking all day, and was lamenting splitting with his wife. We had a great time, along with a predictably great many 100-peso Coronita buckets. Too many, in fact. Added to the tequila shots, they made for an expensive, partially blacked-out night.

Jose
Stop me if you've heard this story before. Despite the fact I've been only 29 for a number of years, I can't drink like that anymore. The recovery just isn't what it used to be so nights like this generally lead to wasted days-after. Thus, except for dinner and a trip to the store, Wednesday in Cancun was spent in slow motion. I was fine with that, the people were remarkably friendly but being nowhere near the resorts I expected and found Cancun to be a bit of a touristy shithole.


 
Thursday became getaway day and after a trip to Walmart and a bank to exchange dollars for pesos, we were off to the bus station for a ride down the Caribbean coast to a beautiful, memorable, and fateful date with Tulum...


Fun Fact: Upon my visit to the bank, I learned exactly how much the US bank where I'd bought pesos had (surprise!) raped me. I received nearly a full peso-per-dollar better rate in Mexico. The only nuisance was being required to provide the bank with a copy of my passport, but it's well worth it.