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365 Days

May 2, 2011

It’s been 365 days since my first blog post.  And this may be my last, but I haven’t quite decided yet. 

I’ve been home for 3 weeks.  Many people have asked if my husband is happy that I’m home.  He seems to be, but says I’m still “on probation”.  Something about a 45-day rule until I regain “wife status”.

I have 6 or 7 half-written blog posts.  Some of them are about my very favorite places, and some are about my hardest experiences over the past year.  Therefore, they are the most difficult to write.  And now I’m back into the swing of the 60 hour work week.  So we’ll see. 

A few motivations to finish them:

1) To live up the the Pulitzer Prize that a lovely group of people I traveled with in Africa, self-named “The Party”, awarded me.

2) To showcase the work of my constant traveling companion, “Tripod” (so named by the intrepid Nasreen).

3) To capture these exceptional moments while they’re still relatively fresh, and before they get blurry in my mind.

4) To answer a few of my most asked questions: when were you most scared; did you get sick; were you lonely; what was your favorite place?

In any case, I’ve enjoyed keeping the blog and very much appreciate the comments people have written.  It will make the best souvenir of my 2010 RTW.

Super Badass Tubing in Mocoa, Colombia

April 5, 2011

My guide is the other Muscles from Brussels*, Filip.  He’s the owner of a brand new hostel in Mocoa Colombia called Casa Del Rio.  It’s the only hostel in the Putumayo Department.  The landscape is greenest green mountainous jungle.

First we put on helmets and life jackets.  Helmets – so this isn’t the type of tubing where 10 people hold hands going down the river, and one tube holds a cooler full of beer?

We have two choices of runs.  Choice one is 2+ hours.  Choice two is 1 hour or so, it’s the second calmer half of choice one.  Of course I go for choice one, being a Badass In Training*.

Filip asks “Do you want to practice getting on the tube?”  (IE: please practice getting on the tube)  So I do, and it’s hard, really hard if your feet are not touching the bottom of the river.  You have to be strong and fast enough to pull yourself up without flipping the tube over.  It’s not easy for the muscular Filip, and almost impossible for me.  I am however able to get on by going through the hole and scrunching my legs up and through – Filip’s legs are too long for this method.

We start by going down 2 waterfalls.  Yes, not just rapids, waterfalls.  By some miracle I pass them both without flipping.  You see most (all?) waterfalls at their bottom are followed by a pesky pool of turbulent water.  Hopefully you’ve landed on that pool pretty flatly and with speed, and you bob right out and continue downstream.  But often you get sucked into it, your back edge dipping down and the front edge of the tube flipping up.  If you don’t have enough speed to pass, you flip back into the vortex of boiling water.  This happens to me after the 3rd waterfall, after which I continue down the rapids following my tube which is tethered to my wrist.  I put my feet up and forward in the “safety position” to avoid my legs, for the most part, getting battered and bruised to S until I pass the rapids and get to a calm enough place to get back on the tube.  How could I have been so calm, so blasé with the first two waterfalls?  Beginners luck?  No, I see that no matter how good you are you can’t avoid getting sucked into some of the pools, and you can’t predict which ones, because it happens quite a few times to Filip too and usually at different places than it happens to me.

After one particularly hard dunking where I ingest a bunch of river water and come up gasping, Filip grabs my tube and leads me to a calm pool at the edge of the river.  It’s one of those rounded out pieces of softer rock, where the water enters at the downstream edge of the opening and curves back in a kind of large whirlpool to the upstream edge of the opening.  It looks calm, but the current is strong.  I think as soon as we get into it “how are we going to get out of here”?   We do circles in the whirlpool half a dozen times, trying to get a hold on the rock edges, but most of the rock is smooth, and the few edges are soft rock and just break off it our hands as we get pulled back into the whirlpool.  Filip gets off his tube and pushes with his legs off the rock, pushing my tube as hard as he can, and I paddle as hard as I can.  In this way I exit the whirlpool and continue quickly down the river.  I stop on the opposite river bank as soon as I can, which given the quick current and rapids is probably 200m down.  After waiting for what seems like an appropriate amount of time for Filip to have passed*, I start walking back upstream on the opposite river bank to make sure Filip got out of the whirlpool (not that I could have gotten him out regardless).  To get back upstream I walk behind, over and around several large rocks which obscure my view of the river.  When I get to a viewpoint of the whirlpool Filip isn’t there.  So, he’s either: gotten out and continued downstream, or he’s drowned, exhausted by the effort to push me out of the whirlpool.  I quickly turn around and scramble back downstream to my tube.  Thankfully, soon after getting back in the river I see Filip downstream on the bank.  He’s been having the same thoughts as me, thinking either I was downstream or had drowned.  So, it’s a happy reunion to say the least.

A little further downstream is the half way point, at an old steel bridge where we rest.  We both gush how happy we are to see each other alive.  It’s then I learn that I am Filip’s first tubing client.

He’d done the river before on test runs with local friends.  He asks me if I think it’s too scary for most tourists.  That would be a big yes.  He assures me the second half is calmer, with no big drops.

He says that his tolerance for scariness and danger is higher than for most people, since he does a lot of “adventure” sports like motor bike racing on a track.  I’ve been whitewater rafting 4 or 5 times, and this is many times scarier than any.

We continue down the second half.  It is calmer, but plenty exciting with lots more rapids, albeit no really high waterfall-type rapids.  I still flip a few more times, and get snagged on a tree after one flipping.  Thanks to the tree I have a long but shallow scratch on my upper arm – the most impressive war wound of the day.  I have several bruises and scratches on my feet, ankles, hands, legs, and both hip bones are strawberries.

I am completely exhausted and my arms are super sore from the paddling.  And I feel like a Badass.

Filip asks for my advice, since I’m his first client – would I recommend that he take tourists on the whole run, or just the second calmer part?  I recommend that he take them on the second part, and label the first part for crazy Badasses only.

*Note 1: I am a huge Jean-Claude Van Damme fan – I’ve seen Bloodsport at least half a dozen times.  My parents still have the pirated video tape in their collection of neglected pirated video tapes in the basement, where I watch it on occasion when I’m back home on vacation.  When my brother Ashton and I were teenagers, he used to rent martial arts videos for 1$ each from the store down the street.  So, I’ve seen A LOT of martial arts movies.   The JCVD oeuvre is among the most over-the-top, and therefore among my favorites.

*Note 2: Badass In Training – that is, someone like me who aspires to be a Badass, but is not quite fearless enough as yet to qualify as a true Badass, therefore Badass In Training

*Note 3: It feels like I waited a long time, but later Filip tells me it was about 3 minutes between the time I got out of the whirlpool and the time it took him to get out.

Still Alive in Colombia

March 13, 2011

Remaining days left until I fly home: 30

Remaining days left until I start work: 36

Remaining motivation to write blog posts: 2.7%

Dear blog readers –

I’m entering the home stretch of one year on the road.  Colombia has been wonderful, hopefully I find some motivation to write something about it, but I certainly don’t have it right now.  So, here is a brief rundown of Colombia so far:

2 weeks on the Northern Carribean with Ian: Cartagena, Parque Tayrona and the wild north of La Guajira Province.  1 week hiking to the Ciudad Perdida (lost city).  1 week as a beach bum and Carnaval in Barranquilla.  Currenly spending 1 week in the gorgeously green Zona Cafetera.  Then I will be in Bogota where Mom and Gabrielle will be meeting up with me for a week – yay!

Here is one of my favorite shots by Ian from La Guajira Province, at the far north of South America in Punta Gallinas.  We slept in these super wide delux hammocks.

hammock action in Punta Gallinas

Beach Life

February 8, 2011

I took my share of pictures of beautiful sunrises and sunsets, waves crashing, white sands and aquamarine water, during several weeks of hanging out on beaches in Mexico.  These are just a couple of my less typical and favorite beach shots, plus a video.

hammock action in Playa Del Carmen

more hammock action in Playa Del Carmen

These hammock pictures and video are from a cloudy morning hanging out in the courtyard of my hostel in Playa del Carmen with a cool couple from Seattle.  Daniel’s nickname is El Conejo (the rabbit in Spanish).  We bonded immediately over this, as Ian’s nickname for me is La Coneja (the rabbit, feminine).  Lisa’s nickname is La Muñeca (the doll).  Daniel is a Flamenco guitarist.  Listening to him practice from the comfort of my hammock was an unexpected but perfect way to spend a morning.

Tulum ruins

There are a lot of Mayan ruins in Mexico.  My favorite is Tulum.  These are not imposing pyramids like Chitchen Itza.  It’s a complex of charming small scale temples and palaces, in the most perfect setting on the cliff above the most perfect beach.  If I was going to build a temple (to worship what – sleep, cheese, skiing?) this would be the place, and the scale.  The architectural shapes are quirky, with many walls being at non-right angles, and door openings wider at the top than at the bottom.

I rented a beach bike and pedaled out to the ruins at opening time, 8:00am.  There were just a handful of tourists.  I walked around taking pictures like a giddy idiot, and then descended down to the crescent of a beach – perfect Caribbean green water and sand like powder.  In the water were just me and a couple of Europeans in Speedos.  When I got back up to the ruins the place was packed with bus groups………it definitely pays to come early.

That afternoon I saw the ruins again from the water, on a snorkeling trip with Captain Jose, in the “Love Boat” – his very brightly painted pink and green boat.

Tulum ruins viewed from the very pink “Love Boat”

Note: I am posting this from home in Virginia.  There is snow on the ground.  I’m here for a couple of days between Mexico and Colombia, because it’s more economical to get 2 roundtrip tickets to and from the US, than fly from Mexico to Colombia.  Crazy.  Ian is coming with me for the first 2 weeks in Colombia……….WOO-HOO!!!!

Watch Out for Mexican Carnies in Drag

February 5, 2011

I’m at the Valladolid Fair, accompanied by Johanna and Katrin.  All of the food stalls have banners with prices like:

 “4 quesadillas 4$”*

“pozole (stew) 4$”

The girls are hungry so we approach a waiter at one of the many tented stalls with plastic tables and Corona Beer and Coca Cola chairs.  He’s all man from the neck down – a broad and fat man in a polo shirt and baggy jeans.  But he has the grooming of a woman from the neck up – shoulder length orange dyed hair, the bangs pulled back in a ponytail, delicate hoop earrings, and shapely plucked brows.  Let’s call him Reina (queen in Spanish).   We sit down and take a look around.  There are a handful of other bad drag queens……..really obviously men, in men’s clothing, but with the hairstyles and facial grooming of women.  They remind me of a woman who spends a lot of time and money on her grooming, but she’s on the way to the gym – long dyed hair pulled back in a messy bun, perfect plucked eyebrows, and clothing for doing chores or working out.  Some are heavily made up and others have no makeup on.  They appear to be drag queens on a break…….sidelining as waiters at the county fair.

We really want to take some pictures but don’t want to be rude.  We ask Reina for an order of quesadillas, a pozole, and 2 drinks. 

As we eat we watch the queens.  We also watch the little kids in the nearby carnie ride – a shallow algae green above ground pool full of hamster balls.  Each ball is a 6 or 7 foot diameter clear plastic globe with a zipper.  A carnie opens the zipper, inserts a child, blows up the globe with what is essentially a leaf blower, and pushes the globe onto the pond.  The child rolls around frantically for about 60 seconds, like a hamster, then lies there in the bottom of the ball exhausted, bobbing around in the shallow trough of a pond until his time is up.

hamster balls

We finish eating and Reina presents us with the bill:

1 order of 2 quesadillas 8$

1 non-alcoholic piña colada 9$

1 juice 4$

1 pozole 4$

“Service charge” 4$

Total 29$

That is a lot of money in Mexico.  For 2 small plates of food and 2 drinks it’s robbery.  I’ve been in Mexico for 2 months and they never add a “service charge” to market or stall food.  If anything people leave a few pesos tip.

Kathrine asks “8$ for 2 quesadillas, are you serious, the signs say 4$ for 4”?

Reina replies, “Those are other businesses”. 

I ask “9$ for a piña colada, do Mexicans pay that price?”

He says yes and shows no emotion, is stone faced, completely passive, almost in a coma.  He must see that we are upset, but it doesn’t faze him.

So we pay……….we don’t know what else to do.  We get up and are steaming mad.  We walk for a few minutes through the carnival rides, and then stop to rant once it has sunk in that we’ve really been ripped off and didn’t put up a good fight.  We start to act out the things we SHOULD have said to Reina.  Like:

“You’re not pretty”.

Or, I grab my own breast and say “look, this is what a real boob looks like”.

Or, go buy a mask and say “you would look better with this on”.

Or, “take this churro and stick it up your arse”.   

Of course these are all very mature responses.  We speculate on Reina’s reaction – would he respond like the big man he is, or like a woman?  Punch or slap?

Johanna grabs my camera and we walk back to the place – no longer shy about appearing rude by taking pictures.  She walks up to a few feet from Reina’s face, asks him to smile and takes his picture….girl has some balls.  

the perp: Reina

Now that we have a picture of Reina for evidence we’re in a better mood.   We walk around through the stalls selling everything Made In China.  Katrin buys some heart shaped plastic glasses with clear lenses, and a tag that says “100% UV protection”, for 3$.

Katrin and Johanna sporting “100% UV protection” glasses

We go and talk to the ticket sellers at the fair entrance, and say we’ve been overcharged for some food and drinks and want to make a complaint.  They ask a security guard to walk us over to the fair office.  We follow him through the labyrinth of fair stalls and it starts spitting rain.  We get to the little one-room brick building with a folding table and plastic chairs, lined with pictures of the last 20 years of Valladolid beauty queens, and it starts pouring.  We hang out with the fair security guys for about 15 minutes, until they bring us to a fair official who will hear our complaint. 

in the fair office

I tell him that there is a group of men dressed as women, selling food, and they overcharged us.  I show him the picture of Reina, and the list of food and what we were charged.  A half dozen security guards and fair employees are looking on.  They gasp.  Yes, it’s a lot they agree.

We explain that it’s not the money that bothers us so much, it’s the dishonesty………….we don’t want this happening to foreigners when they come here.  The official says this is common; it happens to everyone not just foreigners.  As a group we walk over to the food stall.  Reina appears to be done working for the night, slumped in one of the plastic chairs.  I tell the official it’s him, in the blue shirt.  The official shows him my list, and Reina brings out a plastic laminated menu, which we didn’t have the foresight to ask for previously…………Yes, 8$ for quesadillas and 3$ for pozole.  Juice is 2$.  Piña colladas are not listed but signs around the fair show 4 to 5$.  Reina agrees to give us 4$ back for the piña collada, and 4$ for the “service charge”.  He hands me some pesos with a blank expression.  I put out my hand for more, and he hands me the rest.  We thank the official and pocket our little bit of money – more a moral victory than anything.  Reina isn’t even ruffled.  We felt violated, but now we feel a little bit better.

It’s pouring again as we thread our way back through the muddy lanes of Made in China merchandise stalls to the street.  We hail a cab.  I ask how much, expecting to get fleeced in the rain. He says a dollar fifty.  I ask to be sure I heard right “a dollar fifty?”  He says “yes, cheap” and smiles.  Yes, most Mexicans are honest, but watch out for those carnies in drag.

Note 1*: all prices have been converted from pesos to dollars

Note 2: all of the conversations with Reina and security happened in Spanish.  You know your Spanish is pretty good when you can lodge a complaint with the Carnie Police and get money back……..very proud of myself!!!!

Where Every Day is a Party

January 20, 2011

I was in Tehuantepec for less than 48 hours.  I didn’t know anyone when I arrived.  I got invited to 3 parties (fiestas), and I went to 2 of them. 

The women are funny, curious, confident and very friendly.  This is in striking contrast to the other parts of Mexico I’ve been to so far where women are quite shy with strangers.  In general they’re quiet and polite until they know you a bit.  But in Tehuantepec they wanted to know all about me – am I traveling alone, where I’m from, if I’m married, how many kids, what do I do, how old am I, etc.  Women at the parties and in the markets would call out to me Guera (pronounced where-a), which I take to mean Whitey. 

One of my Spanish teachers mentioned the towns of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as interesting places to visit because of the people, but that there wasn’t must in the way of tourist attractions.  The towns he mentioned were Tehuantepec and Juchitan.  He said that the women were very strong and worked outside the home, and that the men worked in the fields and at home, taking care of house work and children.  The women are curious and friendly, and if they see a stranger will likely ask them what they’re up to.  It’s important that the women remain virgins until they’re married, and the town of Juchitan in particular is famous for openly gay cross dressing men who hold the important role as sexual partners for local men before they get married.  It’s not uncommon for older married women to have young lovers.

From Lonely Planet:  “The southern half of the 200km-wide Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico’s narrow waist, form the eastern end of Oaxaca state….in 1496 the isthmus Zapotecs repulsed the Aztecs… and the isthmus never became part of the Aztec empire.  An independent spirit continues to pervade the region to this day.  If you stay around, you’ll encounter a lively, friendly populace, whose open and confident women take leading roles in business and government…..even though Tehuantepec is a friendly town, most travelers blow by here on the way to somewhere else. “

The women wear elaborately embroidered and brightly colored tunics called huipiles.  They are loose, made of thick fabric, and not figure flattering to anyone with a defined waist.  The women in general are quite stout……….as my aunt Lauren would say, they are “voluptuous”.    It’s refreshing to see women dressed up in pretty clothes though they don’t have girlish figures – no mom jeans here.  

There is a joke in Tehuantepec that goes something like: a circus comes to town.  There are acrobats, dwarfs, clowns, and the fattest woman in the world.  The people in Tehuantepec look at the “fattest women in the world” and laugh, and say no way, here is the fattest woman in the world.

There are several vendors selling huipiles and matching skirts in the upper level of the local market.  I went to check it out, and the ladies dressed me up as Tehuantepec Barbie.  Now you may be looking at this picture and thinking “Sariah looks like she ate a cow since the last time I saw her”.  I’m wearing jeans under the very thick velvet skirt, and a shirt under the very thick velvet huipil.  So ya, I’m eating really well in Mexico, but not that well.  The skirt and tunic are entirely hand embroidered and cost a small fortune.  The jewelry (necklace, bracelet and earrings) are made of gold coins.  I ended up buying a much more economical machine embroidered huipil.   

dressed up as Tehuantepec Barbie


These towns have many fiestas during the year.  Even during non-fiesta times, there seems to be an endless succession of fiestas anyways – smaller neighborhood ones.  I heard that the party for a wedding can last up to three weeks, and everyone in the neighborhood chips in to help with the preparations for everyone else’s parties by building shelters, cooking food etc.

The first party I went to was a “reconnocido de xhuana”.  The xhuanas of a neighborhood are a married couple who are “respectable and moral” and traditionally they act as judges or authority figures in the neighborhood.  The xhuanas change each year.  In January, each neighborhood church hosts an event where all the other xhuanas of the other neighborhoods come to the church and give money.  In exchange they are given one flower for each peso donated, and sweets, and every man and women greets each other.  The female xhuana of the church, along with the former xhuanas, counts the money and distributes the sweets and flowers. 

reconnocido de xhuana


counting the money donated by the other neighborhood xhuanas


The second night I want to a “Sentada del Nino Dios”, which means something like Baby Jesus Sits Down, hosted by Luz del Carmen.  This happens every January 14th.  There is a corresponding festival on December 24th where Baby Jesus Gets Up. 

Luz del Carmen’s street was closed, lined with plastic chairs filled mostly with men drinking beer.  The women and children were inside and I was ushered in and introduced to each lady.  The living room had bright pink walls and red velvet sofas.  There was a floor to ceiling nativity scene decorated with Christmas lights and a big lighted star.  The ceiling was hung with balloons and trailing moss.  We drank horchata (milky rice drink) and cookies.  

Baby Jesus and other dolls in Luz del Carmen’s house


A woman with her head covered by a lace shawl was the lead singer.  She sang several prayers, after which all the women and children responded by singing the answering prayer.  This lasted about half an hour, then a few little boys and girls – the god mothers and god fathers of Baby Jesus – were given the Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph dolls to carry.  They lead us on a parade out into the street and around the surrounding blocks.  We all followed with tiny plastic whistles and confetti.  Everyone sang the Mexican version of Christmas Carols, someone spontaneously choosing one after the previous one finished.  When we got back to the house it was piñata time. 

piñata action


The street has a rope hung across it with a pulley that’s always there to receive piñatas.    There were 3 piñatas.  The first one was the target of the mainly chubby young boys……presumably chubby from gorging themselves on piñata candy every night.  The second was for the girls, and the third was a free-for-all.

hunting for the last of the piñata booty


This is Clara in the hot pink.  She demanded that “Guera” sit next to her.  She’s 66, has 12 children, and will celebrate 50 years of marriage in 2 years.  She asked how long I’d been married.  I fudged it a bit and told her 5 years (it’s actually 8) because I knew what was coming next – she wanted to know why I didn’t have kids yet.  I told her I would start very soon.  She complimented me on traveling alone, that it showed my husband and I have a lot of trust in one another.



If you’re like me, you dread going to a party where the only person you know is the hostess.  But I had no awkward moments of being a wallflower wishing I could drop through the floor and disappear.  Everyone was super friendly, and I didn’t get stuck listening to a blow-hard who likes to hear the sound of their own voice which is a fate even worse than being a wallflower.  After the final piñata scrum I said goodbye and promised to send Luz del Carmen some pictures.  She walked me the few blocks to get a taxi, and I couldn’t thank her enough or find the words to tell her how I lucky I felt to be the beneficiary of such warm hospitality.

Graffiti City: Oaxaca

January 13, 2011

On a first walk through the city of Oaxaca, the graffiti is striking. It’s more fun and creative than mere vandalism. The graffiti ranges from crude spray painted scribbles to elaborate stencils, posters and paintings using many techniques. There’s a huge variety of styles and layers of graffiti upon paint upon graffiti.

Some of the graffiti is in illegal locations. Others are in legal spaces – more like murals than graffiti.

There is a book on the subject: Protest Graffiti Mexico . From the Amazon product description:

“On October 27 2006, when Mexican police opened fire on a crowd of protesters in the city of Oaxaca, killing three people, including American journalist Brad Roland Will, the world became aware of a social conflict that at its core was about the right to an education. Within hours of these shootings, graffiti calling the region’s governor a murderer was sprayed throughout the city. Unlike in other cities where graffiti is recognized as a form of public art, in Oaxaca, graffiti became a way of achieving social justice through community organization. And because teachers in Mexico are primarily women, the graffiti is very much inspired and made by women. Shot by Elaine Sendyk in 2007, the photographs in this book depict oppression, empowerment and the messages of struggle and revolt.”

I haven’t seen the book yet, but plan to get a copy when I get home. My photos shot in December 2010 re:

I  Current Events, Politics and Criticism of the Government

The most popular graffiti subject is Ulises Ruiz Ortiz (URO), former governor of Oaxaca. “Carcel a URO” means “put URO in jail”, and “Ulises regresa lo que te llevaste” means “return what you took (money)”. I’ve been told that in the election of 2004 that URO’s people stole votes from his rival Gabino. In the recent election in 2010, Gabino won with a coalition.

typical URO graffiti with dollar sign and clown-like ears


URO hangman


Ulises sucks Gabino tambien (also)


I believe that this drawing of a boy in a cart is meant to be a criticism of poverty, but nobody I asked was sure what the artist intended.

boy in cart


Anarchy symbols are everywhere. This one inside a flower is my favorite because it says a lot in just a few lines.

flowering anarchy


“Copola aguanta el pueblo se levanta” means “the people of Copola (a village in Oaxaca State) endure and rise up”


The next 3 photos are from one long elaborate mural with faces of political figures. Chuckie (pronounced hilariously as Chew-key in Spanish), or the muñeca diabolica (diabolic doll) was a figure in URO’s government. Apparently he’s short and has other physical attributes and a personality to warrant the nickname.



actor and singer (ranchero/mariachi) Pedro Infante (maybe)


far left: unknown politician (may be losing candidate in the election of 2010); center left: Filipe Calderon, president of Mexico; center: unknown; Right: URO


II  The Revolution

Emiliano Zapata was the founder of the revolutionary group the Zapatistas. He fought along with Pancho Villas to bring about the revolution in Mexico starting in 1910. A famous quotation from Zapata is “la tierra es de quien la trabaja”, meaning “the land belongs to those who work it”. In the opinion of a local I talked with, today some people and groups use images and names of revolutionaries for power and promotion without exactly fighting for or understanding the same causes.

Emiliano Zapata


This graffiti defacing a fountain was particularly horrifying to a local that I showed it to – she said the fountains are the traditional architecture of Oaxaca and what a shame to see graffiti on it.

head of revolutionary figure above fountain – nobody I asked was able to ID him


III  Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll

Maria Sabina is a sacerdota (priestess) famous for the use of magic mushrooms. She’s a popular figure on t-shirts of the Che and Bob Marley type. Apparently many famous people, including Mick Jagger
in his private jet, have come to consult with her.

above: Maria Sabina center: my classmate the lovely Kathrin; right: revolutionary of sorts with rifle and heart


Jimi Hendrix’s head partially obscures many street signs.

Jimi Hendrix sticker defacing a “5 de Mayo” street sign


IV  Other Stuff





Finally, my favorite mural in Oaxaca, celebrating one of the Mexico’s most important holidays, The Day of the Dead.

day of the dead mural


I showed my graffiti pictures to several locals in order to try to understand what they all meant. One commented to me that she never really noticed the graffiti, and that I had shown her her own city. Every day walking to and from Spanish class I saw something new – either because I took a new route, or because some new graffiti appeared, or because some had been painted over by a building owner. It was a great pleasure to observe all the color and life of Oaxaca, even though I only scratched the surface in understanding what the graffiti artists are trying to say.

What Not to Say in Mexico

December 28, 2010

Over the past few weeks a certain Spanish professor who will not be named has taught me a lot of Spanish grammar and slang. He’s also been most helpful in suggesting words and phrases to be avoided in Mexico. It’s nice to know what you’re really saying, but also kind of horrifying to realize what you’ve already said out of ignorance.

No. / Spanish Phrase / Literal English Translation / What You’re Saying in Mexico

1 / coger mi chaqueta / pick up my jacket / coger = to make whoopie, chaqueta = to jerk off

2 / me gusta niños / I like children / I really like children (creepy)

3 / me gusta a mi professor / I like my professor / I have the hots for my professor

4 / voy a planchar / I’m going to do some ironing / I’m going to make love

5 / hijo, pronouncing the “h” which is normally silent / son / son of a bitch

6 / hotel, pronouncing the “h” which is normally silent / hotel / hotel by the hour

7 / estar rascandose / to be scratching oneself / scratching one’s balls (not doing anything)

The Bamboo Train

December 7, 2010

view from the bamboo train

We catch the bamboo train just outside Battambang.  I don’t know what to expect when we sit down on the split bamboo platform and the driver pulls the chord to start the engine.  We’re quickly going about 20km/hr and have big grins on our faces.  We pass through a narrow corridor of bushes swatting our shoulders, the wavy line of the tracks ahead, passing rice paddies and crossing streams on open bridges.  The other passengers are the driver and two little boys.

Butterflies as big as birds, dragonflies, and fat blimp-like bumblebees fly by and around us.  A bright mint green and black spotted grasshopper lands on my arm.  I’m sitting with my bum less than 12 inches from the tracks.  The joints are not well aligned.  I feel the bump-bump as the first then second axle hits each joint.  

The bamboo platform is on a wooden frame that sits on two axles with bearings that allow the wheels to wobble on the very wavy tracks.  The sound is like the wa-wa of a chopper.  I can feel the movement through my butt and ankles pressed to the bamboo matt, sitting crossed legged.  It feels like a mild case of pins and needles. 

There is one set of tracks, so when we meet another bamboo train we get off and our train is disassembled to let the other one pass.  This is simple and takes less than a minute – 2 people can lift off the engine, then the platform, and then the two axles and put them to the side. 

train disassembled to let another pass

According to my guidebook the bamboo train may not be around much longer because the line is going to be improved for trains of the non-bamboo variety.  That’s a real shame as it’s the most fun train ride I’ve ever been on.

boy waiting for the train to start

On the Road with Sam, Chort and Mr. Han Houn

December 3, 2010

girls on motorbike spotted from the tuk tuk

For a tuk tuk passenger the ride is breezy and not too fast so you really see the view. And a great view it is. Cambodia is so GREEN. Smiling people on bicycles and motorbikes, skinny cows with a neck waddle skin flap, fields of pink lily pads with edible stems, rice paddies, wooden houses with hardwood carvings, ruins and Buddhist temples painted sunflower yellow.

skinny cow with neck waddle skin flap

soda bottle gas station

There are some real gas stations with tanks and pumps, but more common are the roadside stands with fuel in soda bottles. Many people prefer the stands because they’re way cheaper – no government tax on the fuel.

two cyclists getting a hand from a motorbike

school children on parade viewed from the tuk tuk

While in Cambodia I was re-reading a favorite old book, On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He writes “all the golden land’s ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see.” After our first tuk tuk rides, Nasreen and I concurred that tuk tuk is THE WAY to travel in Cambodia. It’s not as fast as a taxi, but if you want to see everything, there’s no better way except maybe by foot or bicycle. Hiring a tuk tuk driver for several days in a row is also a great way to get to know a local and lead us to some surprising experiences.

Nasreen and I spent several days each with drivers Sam, Chort and Mr. Han Houn. I already wrote about Sam in my Angkor Wat post. Here are a few highlights from our days with the other two.

In Kompong Cham with Chort

Chort means gecko in Cambodian. Pretty funny as Chort may be the biggest Cambodian I’ve ever seen, at about 6 feel tall, and not the typical super thin body. He explains that his mother nicknamed him gecko when he was a baby because he was so small and didn’t eat much. He then does a gecko imitation, pursing his lips like a goldfish and letting out a chirp-like “geck-o”.

Chort in his Leo Beer hat with his tuk tuk

He wears a Leo free promotional baseball cap that he won. He likes the cap, wears it all 3 days that he drives us. It’s very new and crisp looking. Leo is a brand of beer in Cambodia, but it must be made by and for foreigners, because leo means underwear in Cambodian, much to Chort’s delight. “You know briefs? B.R.I.E.F.S?” – pointing to his butt. “You know bras?” – pointing to his chest. Everyone in the house is laughing with us – his wife, brother and teenaged niece. We’re at the house for an informal cooking lesson, learning how to make Cambodian style curry. One of the main components is a large quantity – 3 or so cups finely chopped and then laboriously ground with a mortar and pestle – of fresh lemon grass from the yard. Lemon grass is a quintessential flavor of Cambodian cooking, along with coconut milk, citrus, ginger, garlic and fish paste. Chort says that lemon grass is easy to grown in the mud. “You know Mud? M.U.D?” Yes, we know mud.

in Chort’s house enjoying the curry we’ve all helped to prepare: Nasreen, Chort and his wife

Chort’s niece, wife, himself and brother

Chorts’s wife and niece are wearing pajamas. They are not going to bed – this is normal day wear for many Cambodian women.

Chort’s Dad passed away when he was 13. He is the youngest of 8 siblings. Shortly before passing his Dad asked him if he would like to become a monk, since he didn’t know if there would be enough food for the family after he died. Chort said he didn’t want to be a monk because they only eat breakfast and lunch, no food after noon, and he didn’t want to be hungry.

He wants to have tourists stay in his house, like a home stay, but he can’t yet because he doesn’t have a bathroom. He needs to save about $500US to build a bathroom. His house has a split bamboo floor which allows for lots of air circulation and is a natural air conditioning. The bamboo is shiny and smooth from years of foot traffic. The house is spotless and sparsely furnished. It would make a great home stay. Chort has been learning English for about three years and his playful sense of humor comes out in a delightful way with his simplified way of talking. Some great one-liners from Chort:

• “oh my God” in a valley girl accent
• when we asked if he’ll give us a cooking lesson, he agrees but says “I am not skilled” of his cooking (with some help from his wife the food was delicious)
• when showing us his wedding picture album (photo styling reminiscent of glamour shots) he says to me “you show these pictures to your husband and he will see that I am very good looking. Yes, he will be jealous I say” (I must say, Chort does look good in pink silk)

In Battambang with Mr. Han Houn

We spend two days with Mr. Han Houn driving to the sites in the country side around Battambang. The most striking was a memorial with a story book of carvings depicting the Khmer Rouge reign of terror starting in 1975 when he was 18. He was so malnourished, no food except rice porridge with too much water, that he was too weak to do the forced labor of planting rice from the standing up bent over at the waist position. So he sat in the muck and planted the seeds. He must work or be killed. Both of his parents were killed. Later he spent 10 years in the Vietnam army. He has four children and tries to teach them about the Khmer Rouge time. The difference between Chort and Mr. Han Houn is striking. Chort is charming, funny and well fed. Mr. Han Houn is serious, with a very thin frame and skeletor-like face with very prominent cheek bones – he is of the older generation who survived the killings and mass starvation.

Mr. Han Houn telling us about the genocide under the Khmer Rouge at a memorial near Battambang

No tourist to Cambodia can, or should, avoid learning something about the genocide. We went to the excellent Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Pen. However, I found learning Mr. Han Houn’s personal account to be more conductive to a deeper understanding.