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Mindo Chocolate & the City of Trees

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One of the many waterfalls in Mindo Cloud Forest.

Vast stands of dark green trees fill my body with joy. Literal, transcendent joy; the kind that relaxes and clears your spirit. Welcome to Mindo, Ecuador, a city of clouded trees, concerts of frogs, and chocolate factories.

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Morning Clouds over Mindo.

After spending three weeks in Medellín, Colombia, and then two nights in busy, dry, bustling Quito, Mindo has been a welcome respite, and a reminder of the kind of place which brings me a literal, visceral peace. Riding the tarabita (cable car) over the misted forest to a hiking trail filled with cascades, I could hardly muster a movement except to let my jaw drop, a cliché but a true one, so positively stunned with awe I was by the thousands of tree inhabitants of this place.

Tree inhabitants! A city of trees, so verdant, so enrobed in mist. I didn’t mind the rain after I began the hike; given the arduous nature of the hike, a light mist brought relief.

I’ve had the privilege to visit many crowded tree cities, and while walking this trail my mind immediately connected to the store of images of all the other forests I’ve visited: jungles in Costa Rica and Guatemala, the hovering giant Redwoods of California, towering pines in Oregon, the cedar, birch and pine stands in northern Minnesota, and finally, the gnarled, mystical oak groves of my youth.

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Take the Tarabita for a ride over a verdant city of trees.

Perhaps it is true that being in a place that so resonates with your soul can more easily bring you clarity where before there was just an internal mess; for me this was true. When I sat down for hot chocolate, a bolt of understanding unfolded in my mind of what I needed to do in the coming years, of what I hope to achieve in this one life I have been given.

Yet we live lives of juxtaposition. While in one part of my being I felt peace, in another, I felt restlessness, and unease. Tomorrow I’m headed into one of the last empires of tree: the Amazon basin. When someone asked me why I was going there (so many bugs, and it’s hot!—to which I always reply, hello, I’m from Minnesota, where we inhale clouds of mosquitoes in the summers), why I wanted to visit, I answered: “I want to see the Amazon before it’s gone.”

Pessimistic answer, I suppose, but what else can I say, when deforestation continues to destroy and encroach on this precious parcel of forest? When mining companies and logging companies continue to buy up land from indigenous communities, their economic clout no match for a community whose lives flourished before, but now, relative to the economic status quo, are considered low-income, with few means, other than the growing ecotourism trade, to keep their communities in tact?

As I continue to travel and interact with other travelers, I observe more keenly how complexly rigid our world is, and how difficult to change, whether that be the wages of the cacao farmer for “fair trade” and “organic” beans (see below for more on this), or the campesinos in Mexico trying to change their lives for the better but are blocked by corrupt government practices once they are considered “leftist”.

Poverty continues to exist for the vast majority of people in the world; misery was the precise term a French journalist described the situation to me in Colombia; a desperate way of living for many that cannot change under the system of commerce and trade implemented by the corporations that control our lives.

A system under which cacao farmers never taste a finished chocolate product made from the fruit they grow; a system under which locals who welcome foreigners into their homes and lands will likely never visit their guests in their own countries and experience the wonder of travel for themselves; a system in which TVs fill restaurants and parade images of cars, homes, and the splendor of consumerism before the eyes of those will never have a chance to own those very things.

I look to the silent mass of trees for an answer, and though I receive their peaceful blessing for a moment, and a bit of clarity on my own life’s direction, I do not get any answers for the human condition, other than to offer what tools I have, my language for those who want to learn it; and to continue traveling as a guest in another’s home, a guest who is grateful for the opportunity to visit other lands and peoples. I am constantly reminded of the necessity to live with the kind of integrity molded and informed by the people I meet and the circumstances I observe, circumstance which include some of the world’s harshest realities.

Visit Mindo Chocolate Factory for more information on the cultivation of cacao in Ecuador. Jose and his wife Barbara own the factory, and buy fruit directly from farmers in the area around Mindo. While their products are not packaged “organic” or “fair trade”, they deal in Direct Trade, a practice most chocolate farmers and chocolate producers are moving towards, as the labels “fair trade” can be bought and often do not reflect fair wages. Cacao farmers tend to live on very little, even though their product is one of the highest demand products in the world. Additionally, farmers tend not to be able to afford the “organic” label as it requires a yearly payment to maintain, but large groups of farmers sometimes can get the certification for their farms in bulk. See here for Mindo chocolates, which you can purchase online in the United States.

 

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La Soledad, and Traveling Society

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El Poblado in Medellín, otherwise known as the tourist district.

One evening as my new friend Max and I were climbing the steep hill lined with lush plants to our student apartment, I asked him what he liked to read. He mentioned feeling both “social and lonely” while traveling, and for this reason, preferred reading spiritual texts while abroad. I was astonished that this laid-back, good-looking Californian man just beginning the prime of his life felt this way. My response: “Me too. But isn’t that life? Social and lonely?”

Leading up to this discussion, Max had asked me whether I liked traveling solo. I said, absolutely yes. To travel alone is like jumping on a boat and sailing; you get to stop as often as you like, at whatever island or port city, and spend however long you want there, with whomever you meet, often marvelous people you wish you could stay with for a longer time. Traveling alone drives you to go out and meet people, to form webs of community where none existed before, and for me this is nearly always a rewarding experience.

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We foreigners trying to learn salsa through observation. Son Havana, Medellín

Nevertheless finding yourself alone is alarming at times and comes unexpectedly: an evening out becomes an evening in with cerveza and a book when you realize you forgot where you were meeting a new friend, and that friend doesn’t respond to your Whatsapp messages. [The new friend, E— from S—–, is stressed because she lost her cell on the metro to ladrones, her mind being a bit out of sorts after having spent the afternoon with a handsome Australian from her hostel.]

But being alone, in a state of solitude, is not the same as loneliness. 

Solitude, at least for me, is usually a pleasing experience. There’s ecstasy in being alone, of sailing solo, of having complete freedom in every sense of the word; you go where you want to go, you meet who you want to meet; you change your itinerary at your whim. For those of us who have felt tied down, perhaps by family obligations, illness, or a relationship which ultimately led us to an inner dissolution of spirit; by financial constraints which keep you in a job that is equally dissolving; or by self-entombment, the incarceration by our own beliefs that we don’t deserve to be free, to be content, to seek what is best for us. If we are lucky enough to break free for a time we will find ourselves in a bubble of ecstasy, living life between the company of constant traveling society and a great solitude. At least, that’s how we feel, those of us afflicted with Wanderlust. Unless solitude flips into a state of loneliness, which is bound to happen from time to time.

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Traveling Society: Yasmin, Karine, Katrin, Hongda, and Chris.

When I asked my teacher Óscar  what he thought of loneliness, he looked up from his notes and said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world: “La soledad es la consciencia de la carencia del lenguaje.” [My rough translation: Loneliness is the awareness that language is imperfect.] I smiled at this concise description, knowing it was only the tip of an iceberg. Óscar is a brilliant man; one who has with scientific precision examined ideas, situations, and events from every possible vantage point and is prepared to give you a fully prepared opinion.

His answer, unpacked: loneliness stems from the difficult in fully sharing oneself with another human being, since all forms of language are ultimately inadequate, always a substitution for what lies underneath. His example: If you say, “I feel lonely” and I say, “I feel lonely, too”, are we feeling the same feeling? Not likely. Our feelings of loneliness have differing histories.

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Sandra, one of my teachers at Total Spanish, and I discuss our obsession for books, writing and cats. (El Gato, above, approves this message).

For those of us afflicted with Wanderlust, states of pleasant solitude and aching loneliness come and go. It’s part of the journey. For us, hostels and language schools are Heaven-sent. Total Spanish is a Spanish language school (see website here) in Medellín which provides a place of kindred minds, the perfect way to join a community for a short period of time.

At Total Spanish I’ve had the privilege to take four hours of private language class with several teachers, who happily discuss to my heart’s content whatever topics come up (while drilling me on grammar, including the subjunctive tense). I find with one teacher, Julianna, a fellow aficionado of psychology and self-growth, a bright woman possessing impressive knowledge of her country, language, and relationships.

Sandra, another teacher, and I find ourselves deep in conversations having to do with women, el machismo, and feminism. Being specific in our attraction toward men, we also wonder how we can find men with “el cerebro muy sexy”. As we are both brainy women ourselves, it’s not always easy encountering men who can live up to our cerebral powers. Shortly after our lunch, my eyes don’t shift away when I notice an elderly Colombian couple silently holding hands in an elevator; their at the moment word-less bond a prehistoric comfort I can only dream of at this point in my life.

To accept the occasional presence of loneliness is a necessity; and perhaps the community at large so strictly prohibits feelings deemed “negative” that I don’t have enough practice with feeling lonely—when loneliness hits, so does the desire to flee from it, to other countries, to new people, to books.

In the end, loneliness, like certain depressive moods, can activate one to action: after three weeks here in Medellín, after spending time making new friends, I can’t really say I feel lonely. I feel surrounded by a wonderful community of writers, teachers, and like-minded travelers. Traveling, in my opinion, offers a distinctive way of viewing life experiences. Being lonely is a universal experience, no matter where we are in life.

Cheers, my new friends. I hope to see you all again someday~

 

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El Punto de No Retorno

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A stream running through El Poblado, the tourist district of Medellín

Just two years ago, shortly after returning from a vacation to Costa Rica with my ex-husband, I slid into a precisely defined depression–one characterized by an awareness of lost intellect. Why? I could not speak nor understand the Spanish spoken around me, a language I adored and had studied in high school and college.

I’ll never forget how that mental disease spread through me after returning home, the days spent driving in the gray dawn of Minnesota winter wondering what I was doing with my life, feeling as if a metal ball and chain had been fastened to my head and neck.

Depression, mind you, is activated for different reasons. This particular variety–as soon as its lethargic grip lessened–was the kind that snaps you to attention, calls you to take action because you’ve realized you’ve lost something precious, something you once believed was threaded into the material of your spirit. I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere, and I knew it in my gut. Losing my Spanish was simply the tip of an iceberg gone under.

Fortunately, here in lovely Medellín, a city of Eternal Spring, embraced by lush green mountains and filled with brooks and green, my Spanish teacher Oscar assured me that my Spanish was coming back in tsunami fashion. “I believe you reached a Point of No Return while you were studying Spanish in college,” he explained calmly, while drawing an abstruse web of all possible verb tenses on the board. Needless to say, I felt a flush of gratitude toward him for reassuring me that something I’d worked so hard at was not lost.

I can’t help but think there are many things in life that reach The Point of No Return, and even if we thought we’d lost a thing precious to us, it might still be there, hidden, waiting for our return. Perhaps a talent we once nurtured and put aside for whatever reason, a friendship long let loose, a dream we boxed away believing that one day–after everything else was taken care of, worked out of course–there would time for birthing it.

After enjoying a honeymoon period of idealism in most situations, I tend to swing toward realism. When considering a concept such as The Point of No Returnit’s hard not to also observe the shadowy side of ourselves, especially in regards to those parts of us that take a wrong path and never turn round.

I had ample chance to consider this while taking the Pablo Escobar tour on my first day in Medellín, a city considered politically conservative and unfortunately, demonstrative of the great wealth disparity in Colombia. I went with a Danish couple from my hostel, led by Manny (see his website here), who grew up just across the street from Comuna 13 in Medellín. Comuna 13 is a neighborhood known for its violent history, whose impoverished inhabitants were, in the past, caught waiting to exhale between one gang confrontation and another.

Manny spoke frankly of his experience growing up in the 80s under Pablo Escobar’s reign, and how proud he was of the people of this city and the progress it has made in reducing violent crimes. Standing in front of the house and roof on which Escobar was captured and killed (Manny claims it was a suicide), he told us that one day he and his friend were biking home with a pistol, and seeing the police, believed they were going to get in trouble for possessing a weapon. When they noticed helicopters in the sky they realized the army was also involved, and it was not them the military were after–it was Escobar.

While the city has become a relatively safe and economically stable city in recent years due to peace pacts made between paramilitary groups and drug trafficking gangs, some, such as my teacher Oscar, claim it may not last.

Pablo Escobar’s helicopter landing pad at La Catedral, overlooking the city.

Questions swirl in my head as I cogitate the story of Escobar’s life and his descent into power-induced madness–a Colombian-style Hitler, according to Manny. When did Pablo Escobar reach his Point of No Return? When did he decide it was fine to kill the way he killed, to manipulate through plata o plomo, while continuing to be gentle and caressing toward his family? How do our brains become what they become, creating in us successful project managers who enjoy salsa dancing on the weekends, impoverished and ill artists wishing only to have more time to create, and murderous psychopaths worth billions?

And finally: Is there a way to control our paths, our neural chemistry and genetics (or perhaps, more correctly, our epigenetics), so that we can become the best we can be, without dampening our sense of empathy for others? So that our Points of No Return indicate lives of satisfaction and community, rather than unhappiness and madness?

Thank you Manny, for the excellent city tour, and for sharing your story.

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The Plunge: Cali’s Music Festival, and an 11-Hour Bus Ride through the Andes

Sometimes it’s best to just take the plunge and not worry about what you’re getting into. Less than twelve hours after arriving in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, I grabbed my backpack and headed out with two sharp Fulbright English teachers to the bus station and boarded the supremely air-conditioned Bolivariano bus for an eleven-hour ride to Cali, Colombia, for a musical festival.

Bringing a plastic bag in case you forget your Dramamine is recommended when bussing through the Andes. Likewise, try not to be jealous when you notice, after you’ve just lost your dinner into a plastic bag at Hour #9 around Hairpin Curve #26 that your literary traveling companions are contentedly reading their books, and not gripping the seat in front of them.

Sickness aside, el paisaje (countryside) of Colombia is absolutely stunning, and it was hard not to take video after video of the hazy afternoon sun setting over clouded green mountaintops. The middle-aged pediatrician who sat next to me happily talked about his country, his life as a pediatrician, and showed me the details for the music festival on his cell phone, lending another pleasant facet to the long ride.

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I ended up saying farewell to the English teachers after arriving, and the next day explored a bit of central Cali with a new friend from the Netherlands, who like me, was seeking—perhaps subconsciously—the roots and shape of our self-identity through new experiences. We spoke extensively of our home cultures, our upbringing, and mused over our obsession for extended travel. For both of us, there had been a sense of not belonging, and feeling like an outsider in our communities. My inkling is that this sense of Not Belonging has something to do with developing self-identity; once a person has this, there is a security that allows one to root into their home places. Our discussion kept reminding of Alice Merton’s song, “No Roots”. There is complexity in the desire to travel, and there is complexity in the desire to be rooted and stay in a place.

After lunch we made our way to the Festival de Música del Pacífico Petronio Álvarez, a five day affair attended by around fifteen thousand people. An enthusiastic 17-year-old Colombian I stood next to during the concert explained how this was one of the best festivals all year in Colombia, and he heartily hoped I was enjoying it. (Which I was, mightily). Africans brought as slaves to the coastal areas of Colombia in past centuries developed their own culture and musical styles that have become an integral and beloved part of Colombian culture. The festival is a competition of musical groups from the Pacific, all of which delve into the traditional rhythms and musical themes of that culture.

While I tried to my best to dance in rhythm to the addicting, heavy percussive beats that mesmerize the entire body, at times I stood still and let myself absorb the stunning nature of the festival; a celebration of human beings, a smattering of Americans, like me, and Europeans, like my friend from the Netherlands; of thousands of Colombians of Spanish descent, Colombians of indigenous descent, Colombians of African descent, all partaking in music, food, and dance, all celebrating the unique cultural expressions that have developed over time in this most surprising and diverse country.

On my long bus ride to Medellín the following day, I couldn’t help but think back on the conclusion my friend and I briefly surveyed over that savory bowl of Colombian fish soup. For those of us who, for whatever reason, felt we didn’t fit in, that our traits, our curiosities, our intense personalities were at odds with our prevailing culture, traveling offers a place for us to seek others like us, who mirror ourselves and offer understanding and an intellectual haven of sorts, and gives us a glimpse into the ways in which other cultures proclaim their identities in proud fashion.

Traveling moreover offers a space to get us outside of our deeply rutted brains, to offer a radical way to understand who we are while also forging relationships with people and places that will always be dear to us.

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Stay tuned for the next week’s post on the (controversial) Pablo Escobar tour, lovely Medellín coffee shops, and Spanish school.

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What is Home, anyway?

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Hostel Sue, in the La Candelaria District of Bogotá.

My sense of home has evolved much in the past year. I’ve been considering it more than usual this past month after I gave up my attic apartment and put all my things into storage and started darting between friends’ homes. The question finally presented itself while I was backpacking with my dear friend Malory last weekend in the beautiful northwoods of Minnesota. We’d set up our tent, had our chairs ready to go, and I’d even brought my expedition hammock to try out. We had, basically, a living room in the middle of a circle of cedars, on the edge of the boulder strewn Manitou River. It felt exquisitely homey. So I had to wonder:

“What is home?”

Is home a pile of books, a mound of ideas floating, playing in the air before me as I sit daydreaming on a couch or an overstuffed chair, a cup of tea or coffee, a bar of dark chocolate? Music from the piano, a woven rug laid before a flickering fire in the fireplace? A comfortable bed, a kitchen table? The sound of laughter from your friends and family in the living room?

I used to live in a lovely little house in South Minneapolis with a black cat and a German Shepherd, with a backyard and a garden. Even while I was grateful to have a home, the experience eventually suffocated me, for reasons I won’t go into now. While heartbreaking to leave it all, the leaving was inevitable. I had some sort of growing to do, a restlessness to wring out, and a journey to undertake. Some might say a journey of the soul, and I would believe that, even though I consider myself more a material philosopher than a mystic.

As I sit here, my first night in Bogotá, Colombia, at Hostel Sue, I understood completely for the first time that I am absolutely free for the next seven months to create Home wherever I am. Even at a random little hostel I find ad hoc through an app.

The same walls that provide comfort for those who choose to live in a house in South Minneapolis had become my shackles, my cage; the lack of a physical space that is my own has produced a deep joy. I don’t question it; I simply accept. I say this even while I dream of a home someday again with a piano, books, a table, friends, and a freshly uncorked bottle of wine about to be served.

That reality will come in time, I’m sure, but not for now.

For the next seven months, “Home” is my backpack, my mind, my heart, my ability to create spaces for myself where I am, the digital spaces in which I communicate with friends and family back home; the communal spaces here, where I will meet new friends.

As my dear friend Malory reminded me regarding the privilege and joy of travel: We enter the Homes of others–whether this is their country, their backyard, their school, their house or their apartment–with humility and open curiosity; and we leave filled with gratitude and a widened knowledge of humanity and the world.

And so, hello Colombia; thank you for receiving me and providing a land and space for my home this month. I eagerly look forward to partaking in your culture, your landscapes, your history.

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My old Home in South Minneapolis, Minnesota. The crew, whom I miss dearly (but they are in good hands now).
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Scorpions and Scrumptious Gallo Pinto in Costa Rica

Let’s address the issue of scorpions at once: Yes, there are scorpions, along with many other critters large and small in Costa Rica; but dang that’s why I like the place so much. So much in fact, I’m moving there Spring 2019.

One of the finest tours I’ve ever taken (and lucky me, I’ve been on this one twice) was the Night Tour led by Drake Bay’s resident entomologist, Tracie Stice, and her partner, Gian, a naturalist. Together, they lead groups of tourists through pitch jungle dark, spotting out of nowhere concealed wildlife for their guests; not only insects but snakes, amphibians, and mammals such as sleeping sloths.

Tracie has a knack for enchanting her guests: her voice swoops and dives as she describes the work of the slingshot spider, which catches prey by–you guessed it–using a piece of her web as a slingshot. Trapdoor spiders are equally enrapturing: they burrow into the side of a clay wall and wait for small insects to creep by its little “door”. We also encountered several scorpions during the tour, and I was happily prepared to squash the pesky visitor that night in my bathroom, thinking airily, “Oh, another scorpion!” Then WHAP with my sandal. (Tracie advises, very matter-of-factly, to shake out all damp clothing with the assumption there might be a scorpion nestled in there).

This wondrous tour (see details for the Tour here) takes place on a jungle trail running along the coastal region of Drake Bay, near the village of Agujitas, on the Corcovado Peninsula in Costa Rica.

Night tour aside, Drake Bay is one of the most marvelous places I’ve ever visited. The rugged coasts, still more or less remote despite the growing presence of tourism, embrace majestic sunsets, abundant wildlife, and a surrounding jungle environment that is certain to please the eye and senses of anyone able to visit. Getting there is also part of the adventure–either fly in and then take a jeep that drives through a river to get to Agujitas, where you’ll then board a boat that will take you to your resort; or bus from San José to Palmar Norte, spend the night, take the bus to Sierpe and catch a boat ride mid-morning to Agujitas.

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Werner’s Beach in Drake Bay

I had the privilege to stay a week in this jungle paradise upon invitation from my dear friend Mari, whose partner Werner manages a resort for tourists called Cabinas Vista Al Mar.

Werner built Cabinas Vista Al Mar in 1998 and has been hosting international travelers there ever since. (See here for more details on staying at Werner’s Cabinas). I helped with cleaning, cooking, and conversing with guests. My first morning had me up at 4:30am to help prepare French Toast for a guest over Werner’s outdoor woodstove–a storm passing through knocked out the power for the day so we used the outdoor stove to cook everything on. I also helped Mari prepare Costa Rica’s most common dish, gallo pinto, and arroz con leche. 

Both dishes are often accompanied with Costa Rican style coffee, brewed nice and thick through a chorreador, which is essentially a wooden stand with a sock that holds the grounds.

Easily one of the best days of my life was spent hiking along the jungle trail from the cabinas to Punta Rio Claro National Wildlife Refuge, about a 2-3 hour hike. I went with Tatiana, a fellow lover of animals and wildlife and a guest at the cabinas. Along the way we spied numerous monkeys, pairs of scarlet macaws and toucans (both plentiful in this part of Costa Rica), lizards, basilisks, crabs, and grass-cutter ants.

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Mari occasionally had errands to run in Agujitas, so I’d accompany her for the 45-minute hike. Once in town, we’d often get an icy Coke or a banana split–both items you crave in the heavy jungle heat. Crossing the aquamarine river to town, we paused to search out lazy sunbathing crocodiles, since they often lay about along the banks. Alas, both times we missed them.

Making Chocolate in Sierpe 

From Drake Bay I headed via boat to Sierpe to meet with Jim Cameron, a  chocolate farmer originally from Minnesota. He is the founder of Cameron Coffee, a business he sold years ago, but the name of which I recognized from local grocery stores.  Two years prior on a trip to Drake Bay, I’d met Jim, a connection Werner and Mari arranged, as they knew how much I loved chocolate–a 70% dark chocolate bar a day keeps the doctor away! This time I planned to ask Jim whether I could come stay in Sierpe and learn how to make chocolate with him. He said yes!

After my visit with Jim, I took the bus to Palmar Norte, where Mari had arranged for me to spend the night in a friend’s apartment. Her friend Otto was ready there with a key to help me settle in for the day. After eating a hearty meal at Soda Acuario, Otto’s restaurant, and chatting with him and his coworker, I spent the afternoon hiking in the hills, enjoying the wildlife. Some wildlife highlights: befriending a giant millipede and chasing exquisite black and turquoise poisonous dart frogs.

San José

Early the next morning I boarded a bus for San José where Mari arranged for me to meet a younger musician relative of hers, Mariel. Mariel and her friend Estefania merrily introduced me to the musical nightlife of San José, including a chill and cozy blues club called El Sótano, suitably named as it is literally the basement in a larger arts venue. There I got to try out Blue Orpheus on my soprano sax with the friendly band. My hope is to get back into music while in San José alongside my writing and teaching activities.

I stayed close by in Hostel Pangea, a pleasant hostel with friendly staff (one staff member who worked late shifts liked saying to me, “Buenas noches, Wo-OOOOOOOOOOF” when I arrived in the wee hours with my friends).

This hostel was just a few blocks from the club, as well as close to a delightful coffee shop I became quickly attached to, Café Miel Garage. This cafe called me back every day to write because of their open, friendly atmosphere and delicious postres. (See here for directions). When I told one of the baristas–who spoke flawless English, by the way–why I kept coming back, she smiled and said, “Que linda!”

With all my heart I recommend everyone visit Costa Rica. Chocolate farms, jungles, secluded rugged beaches, captivating wildlife, a welcoming culture, and so much more awaits you in this peaceful, paradisaical country.

Muchas, muchas gracias to Mari, plus your wonderful pets Jupe, Sol and Otto for hosting me in Drake Bay and arranging for my travels elsewhere. Thanks to Jim for showing me your chocolate farm. And XOXO to Mariel and Estefania for slipping me so easily into your nightly schedule for my four final nights in San José.

Mexico City: Un Taco al Dia es Alegria

There is so much more to Mexico City than tacos, of course. But my first full day there I had the glorious opportunity to try tacos al pastor (see right, above, large quantity of meat rotating on a spit) with spicy salsas, minced onion and cilantro–the first taste of what I now recognize as one of the best cuisines in the world.

Oh how I was won! Try them right off the street at a busy locale. Taste the salsas first before dropping that generous scoop onto your tacos; as I found out, one of them is a very spicy salsa made from habanero chiles. The Spanish verb for the process one will go through after dripping a spoonful too much of salsa picante de chile habanero is enchilarse, or to burn. Which I very much did. I also enjoyed chilaquiles con pollo or con huevos (fried tortillas, refried beans, chicken or eggs, and salsas).

Mexico City. It is perhaps a bit cliche (because in this day and age, one must be always and completely original) to travel when you need to heal yourself in some way or to get a new perspective or a grip on your life. But it is not cliche; rather, it is like medicine for an illness. Travel can truly help reset your mind (let’s ask a neuroscientist about this!) and re-point your toes down a path that is only yours. A caveat: I am talking about the kind of travel which brings you off the all-inclusive path, into a new culture. Resorts are relaxing, which is certainly healthy, but they may not extend your knowledge or challenge you. What I’m advocating is the kind of travel where you allow yourself to be open and willing to meet new people and see things without your usual framework–which is probably same framework that’s been jamming up your spiritual wheels for some time.

So I am taking the medicine gladly. I rode through many life transitions in 2017, including the end of a long term relationship, moving several times, a bitter job situation which prompted me to take stock of my career direction and ultimately decide on moving abroad. And then there was the national heaviness which has become a permanent cloud in my brain as many of us in the United States watched in shock when a popular TV and business icon took reins of the White House. Even while I pushed through it all with my best Minnesotan good cheer, it was,quite frankly, a tough year.

The desire to get away before starting a new job and to celebrate getting through the year occasioned a somewhat impulsive decision to go. I also needed and wanted to travel alone, which I hadn’t done in over ten years. I wanted to see if the person I’d been in my early 20s still thrived inside of me, and whether I’d have what it takes to do an around the world trip without a consistent travel partner. While hanging out with friends one evening, it struck me that a trip to Mexico City would be perfect for my budget and my mind. Many people had previously suggested I would enjoy visiting the capital city, so it had been on my to-visit list for a few years.

I purchased my airplane ticket; and within four days I organized for myself a two-week stay in a city known for its complex and layered history, delicious food, spirited nightlife, and nearly endless collection of museums. I bought extra data for my cell plan so I could freely use my phone to message and look up needed information such as hostels, taxis, etc.; alerted my bank of my trip; alerted my part-time employer; washed and packed clothes; cancelled upcoming appointments; and let myself get very excited.

Hostel Life. Upon recommendation from an acquaintance living in the city, Ryan Gray (check out his website here, by the way), I booked myself a bed at Hostel Mundo Joven Catedral in the downtown historic center of Mexico City. I was pleased with my stay there, though switching it up halfway to another hostel would have been nice. I almost switched to Roomie Hostel in La Condesa but did not like the vibe there. Other more experienced backpackers complained there was a lack of community space that fostered getting to know others; I however, found myself hanging out with people most every day.

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Groups of us would walk to go out to eat or out to bars. Taking an Uber was easiest for neighborhoods like La Condesa, which were much too far away for walking to from the hostel. My favorite bar was hands-down the Wallace Whiskey Bar in La Condesa. The live music was also excellent.

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Wallace Whiskey Bar, in La Condesa

I went to Mexico City to see artwork and visit museums, both of which there is plenty to see. My first full day, I woke up and went with a few new hostel companions, Isaac and Roger, to Castillo de Chapultepec. These two taught me how to use the metro, for which I was grateful. The metro can be overwhelming at first due to the sheer volume of folks riding it, but it costs only 5 pesos and is easy to learn. From our hostel, we took the blue line from Zócalo (which means center), one stop to Pino Suarez. There we got off and got on the pink line and took it to Chapultepec. Once you get off, you just ask a few people for the castillo and you’ll be on your way within a few minutes.  Metro Map here.

I also took the metro to the Dolores Olmedo Museum, which hosts an important collection of Frida Kahlo’s artwork, as well as that of Diego Rivera. To get to the museum from the Zócalo station, you take the blue line all the way to Tasqueña, follow the signs for the Tren Ligero, buy a card from one of the ticket machines (English is available), load the card with a bit of money, and then take the Tren Ligero to the stop called La Noria. The museum is just around the corner down the busy street by the metro stop. Though I just gave my card away because it was my last day in CDMX, you can easily sell you card to anyone nearby–plenty of people were waiting in line to purchase a card and fill it with pesos.

Back in the historic center of the city, I saw Diego Rivera’s murals in the Palacio Nacional (make sure to bring an ID with– they will hold it while you are inside) and the Palacio de Bellas Artes. Before or after you see the mural, Man Controller of the Universe, I suggest watching this synoptic and helpful video from Khan Academy.

I was fortunate enough to attract the attention of a retired Mexican history teacher who wanted to know why I wanted a photo in front of Trotsky’s image. We chatted a while and he gave me the sweeping analysis of not only Rivera’s murals but some of the others in Palacio de Bellas Artes. Interestingly, Trotsky’s first assassination attempt (unsuccessful) in the city was carried out by another famous Mexican muralist, David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose work also covers the walls in the Palacio de Bellas Artes.

Of course, I also had to visit Frida Kahlo’s house. But one should know that the house does not contain a large collection of her work–hence why I suggest also visiting Dolores Olmedo Museum. It’s a beautiful house, with a vibrant indoor courtyard garden, and a well laid out exhibition of Kahlo’s wardrobe (which was highly intertwined with her art and life).

*Tip: Please please please buy your tickets online ahead of time, and get there with your coffee a half hour before doors open (there’s a lovely cafe called Tierra Garat on the corner of Londres, the same street as the museum, and Av. Mexico). Even with a ticket there’ll be a line to get in, and once inside, the place gets packed–arriving early will offer a more breath-able experience viewing the rooms and getting to know Frida Kahlo the person.

Outside and inside the Frida Kahlo house. Lush colors and gardens. 

Other museums I visited included: Museo Nacional de Antropologia (an absolute must-visit); Museo Soumaya; and Museo Nacional de Arte. I’d say you could skip the last one unless you know there is a collection there you’d want to see. I was not overly stimulated looking at entire exhibit of dimly lit, religiously inspired 19th century oil paintings of persons pale and partly nude.

Flying cherubic heads did catch my attention, however–can someone tell me what they’re all about?

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My favorite painting: The Monkey and Cat Barbershop, by David Teniers el Joven 

At the Museo Nacional de Antropología, enjoy the alienesque fountain that towers over the inner courtyard, and admire the vast array of artefacts from several different cultural groups of Mexico, including the Toltecas, Maya, Oaxaca, and Mexica. The latter ruled the Aztec Empire and populated Tenochtitlan, the capital city located under Mexico City. They created the Piedra del Sol (Sun Stone), a famous round stone that is also known incorrectly as the Mayan Calendar. I first learned of it when I was fifteen years old in my first and favorite Spanish class and felt properly awed to finally see it in person.

A weekend away in Cuernavaca. A city also called land of eternal spring, I enjoyed an especially lively time here while visiting friends who shuttled me to their favorite places. To get to Cuernavaca, I took the metro blue line to Tasqueña; walked across a street with lots of vendors to the bus terminal, bought a ticket with the bus company Pullman de Morelos, and enjoyed a comfortable one hour ride with beautiful views to the terminal in Cuernavaca where my friend Alicia met me.

Right away Alicia and her son Alonso took me to a nearby pueblo called Tepotzotlán, where we hiked up for a lovely vista and rest on the steps of a temple called Teposteco, which was built for the god of pulque (an ancient form of liquor from the maguey plant, from which tequila is made).

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Made it to the templo, in crappy strappy Target sandals no less!
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Downtown Tepotzotlán
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Agua miel, a slightly fermented, younger version of pulque
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Trying different kinds of mezcal with Alonso
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Agua miel, perfectly refreshing after the hike.

The food and drink Alicia and Alonso had me try over the weekend was my absolute favorite of my entire trip. This included the extraordinarily delicious glass of agua miel I had after our strenuous hike; a lunch of itacates, a triangular version of tortilla that is thicker and has some crunch to it, with mushrooms called huitlacoches, which grow on the maiz kernels; tlacoyo de chales, another version of tortilla with meat inside; salsa de jumiles (an insect sold door to door, kept alive in a jar in the kitchen); and micheladas–beer served with flavoring, usually salt, lime, chile and other spices.

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Gorgeous city town square of Cuernavaca. The Sunday crowd, which includes two vaqueros relaxing. 

Back in the city, I was privileged to spend the day with Victor, a friend who is a professional Mariachi singer. He brought me to Garibaldi Plaza, a famous gathering spot for Mariachi groups, where we enjoyed tequila with sangrita casera, a tomato juice with spices. He ended up singing with friends while we sipped our tequilas at a famous musician hangout called Tenampa.

Later that evening, I went back to Garibaldi Plaza for a delightful evening getting to know folks at my hostel. We went to the rooftop bar of the Museo del Tequila y Mezcal, had drinks and food, and then toured the museum. Chapulinas–roasted grasshoppers–made it onto the menu that night.

The Pyramids of Teotihuacán. If in town, you gotta see the pyramids built by the Teotihuacanes, whose city flourished and perished before the time of the Aztecs. A peaceful society which focused on an ancient form of sustainable living along with dedication to mathematical design and astronomy in their religion and architecture, you’ll be awed and tuckered out after exploring the ruins of their city. Folks from the hostel did tours or took a bus out to the site; I was lucky enough to have a friend bring me there. We hired a guide on site, who provided a 2-hour tour. I recommend this unless you already know the history of Teotihuacán and its people.

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Contemplating the climb up the top of Pyramid of the Sun

Logistics, Safety, Etc. I beefed up my data plan before leaving so that I could use my cell phone anytime to message friends and have quick and ready access to information, use Google Maps, and call an Uber. Using the metro during the day felt fine to me, but I did make sure–as I would in any city–to hold my purse in a locked embrace when things got crowded and busy. Unfortunately a friend did have a cell phone stolen from his pocket after boarding the metro. Keep your most important things–debit cards, passports, etc.–locked in your hostel room during your stay. As it is a city, I also made sure to stay close to friends when out at night.

Petty crime is one thing. What about kidnapping or other forms of violence? I, along with my friend Joanna, another solo female traveler, were both told we might get kidnapped if we visited Mexico City. Both of us concurred that we never once felt unsafe while on this trip. Of course, I made sure to keep myself out of unsafe situations–such as going alone at night, taking a random taxi off the street, going off with strangers. Additionally, it is my understanding that, despite the atrocities carried out by the drug cartel in other parts of Mexico, much of this is enacted within the cycle of the drug trade, and targeted toward those involved in the cycle, not at tourists. Even still, we should be aware of our surroundings and keep ourselves as safe as possible. An article from the New York Times gives more details regarding safety for travelers to Mexico in this article .

Furthermore, I highly recommend this article by a favorite author of mine, Francine Prose, who urges us all to visit Oaxaca–my next stop when in Mexico again.

Getting Sick. Do heed the advice of avoiding salads and fresh vegetables and fruits, unless it is at a very tourist-oriented restaurant where they have sanitized their fresh produce. I made it most of my trip without trouble until the second to last night, when I had a salad at a city cafe and felt Montezuma’s Revenge descending swift and powerful only two hours later. I spent the night in agony, as will happen, hugging the toilet for dear life. Luckily a new friend from Mexico who also happens to be a doctor sent me the magical prescription for relief, which I purchased right away the next morning. Though the medicine made me drowsy (one contains antihistamines), it immediately took care of the stomach pain and I could eat more or less normally hours after taking the first dosage without having any more problems. According to a pharmacist friend, these drugs treat pain, nausea and vomiting. Plus an extra dose of probiotics can never hurt.

Sickness aside, it was thoroughly delightful trip, with many new friends made. Until next time, Mexico City.

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People in line for a blessing

Many thanks to Sonia, Alicia and Alsonso, Victor, and Viridiana for taking me around your city. I had such a grand time.