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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!!!!
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.
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$
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.
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$.
We go and talk to the ticket sellers at the fair entrance, and say we’ve been overcharged for some food and drinks and want to make a complaint. They ask a security guard to walk us over to the fair office. We follow him through the labyrinth of fair stalls and it starts spitting rain. We get to the little one-room brick building with a folding table and plastic chairs, lined with pictures of the last 20 years of Valladolid beauty queens, and it starts pouring. We hang out with the fair security guys for about 15 minutes, until they bring us to a fair official who will hear our complaint.
I tell him that there is a group of men dressed as women, selling food, and they overcharged us. I show him the picture of Reina, and the list of food and what we were charged. A half dozen security guards and fair employees are looking on. They gasp. Yes, it’s a lot they agree.
We explain that it’s not the money that bothers us so much, it’s the dishonesty………….we don’t want this happening to foreigners when they come here. The official says this is common; it happens to everyone not just foreigners. As a group we walk over to the food stall. Reina appears to be done working for the night, slumped in one of the plastic chairs. I tell the official it’s him, in the blue shirt. The official shows him my list, and Reina brings out a plastic laminated menu, which we didn’t have the foresight to ask for previously…………Yes, 8$ 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!!!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Anarchy symbols are everywhere. This one inside a flower is my favorite because it says a lot in just a few lines.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jimi Hendrix’s head partially obscures many street signs.
IV Other Stuff
Finally, my favorite mural in Oaxaca, celebrating one of the Mexico’s most important holidays, The Day of the Dead.
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.