Mexico Revisted

Note: I wrote this post before my trip to Mexico, but never got around to posting. The trip was different than I imagined, as trips generally are. But I thought it was worth posting anyway, and once I have my arms around exactly what did happen there, I will write to that as well.

Trips to Mexico punctuated my childhood with relative frequency. I don’t remember much from my first visit, but I know I was in Mazatlan. And the small terra cotta plate I painted in that part of a resort where they send children to be entertained hangs in my hallway, a colorful memento of my first steps in that first of foreign countries.

I spent other holidays there – spring breaks in the Yucatan, Christmas (and a quinceañera) in Guadalajara, a visit to Mexico City. I never knew to be afraid when I traveled, not the way we do now with State Department alerts and CDC websites. Back then it was about how many stuffed animals I could bring, or what kind of tan I’d have to show off when I returned.

A street in Puerto Vallarta Mexico

A street in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

As bona-fide Mexican-American, I found Mexico as foreign as any other far-off place on the map. I didn’t feel home in any sense of the word, but after two or three trips I felt comfortable. I knew what to expect in the city and what to expect in the small towns (2 pesos for toilet paper at the town square restroom).

But more recently, Mexico has receded from the list of next adventures I always refer to. The trouble there with drugs and violence makes me profoundly sad for the proud, hard-working people who must live among those demons. That their once idyllic towns and villages have become freeways for smugglers  (headed primarily toward the United States), makes me angry that I am powerless to help in any important way. What appears to be the “safest” way to visit is now my least favorite way to see this country – through the gated entries of all-inclusive resorts, where no one has to leave the comfort of a swim-up bar. I cannot visit Mexico in this way. It violates every instinct I have about how to get to know a country – through their home-cooked food, their festivals, houses of worship and music.

colorful home in Mexico

Colorful homes in Mexico

And so of course, feeling as passionate about the tourist-ready version of Mexico I don’t care to see, I’ll be taking a cruise on the Mexican Riviera to Puerto Vallarta at Christmas. I didn’t mean to join the cruising crowd, but it is a gift from my parents for me and my sister – and I’m never one to turn down a trip of any kind. So I’ll cruise to Mexico. I’ll have the comfort of a swim-up bar, and a twice daily cleaned room and as much toilet paper as I’ll ever need. But the two days we spend docked in PV will be my relief. My family, who share the same instinct for culture, will find our way away from the dock, beyond the Senior Frogs and caricature-like mariachi bands. We’ll use my mom’s fluent Spanish to quiz cab drivers on where they eat breakfast, ask women on the street where we can find a Mass on Christmas day, and follow the local crowd to the best and busiest market in town.

deck of the cruise ship

Seeing Puerto Vallarta from the deck of MS Zaandam

I’m sure we will appreciate the pool and air conditioning and unquestionably clean food when we return to the cruise ship. But we’ll know that we’ve seen more of Mexico than most of the people on that boat. Because we care enough about the country and the people to actually see them, for what they are, what they have been and what they will always be.

Guitar player

Serenade during lunch

Finding Rhythm in El Colorado

I am not very good at sports. Honestly, I was generally chosen last or very close to last on any team. There are a long string of coaches from elementary to high school who knew I only showed up at my chosen sport practice to chat with my friends. My mom’s best memory of my short-lived pee wee soccer career was watching me pick daisies in the backfield while the game went on around me.

But I love to ski. For some odd reason, my mother would bundle me up in all manner of puffy clothes and lug our skis, both annual ski swap purchases, across icy parking lots to spend what was likely a hefty amount of cash on a day of skiing. I’m guessing she liked the sport a little, too, although the first few years of my downhill education she spent hunched over as I teetered between her legs, hanging over her ski poles. No way was that fun for her – but it was an outrageous time for me!

As I got older, I got better and eventually started skiing faster and steeper stuff, all the while demanding better equipment. And money for lift tickets and lunch. She complied. I skied. I loved the speed and the near-death experience you can have while facing down a tree or leaning just a little too far back on your heels. I loved the icy air, and hidden trails between runs, and the rhythm of turns to get lost in.

English: Photo from the modern Santiago de Chi...

View of the imposing Andes from Santiago, Chile.

It was inevitable that when we went to Chile one summer in June that I would insist on a trip to a ski slope. It was winter there, after all, and the Andes shoot straight up behind Santiago. I could practically smell the snow from the city streets. We found a small tourist shop that rented skis and sold reservations for a bus up the mountain. I remember arriving at some early hour to pick up our equipment with a few ex-pats and tourists, and off we went. Straight up the mountain, on roads covered in snow and ice, in a bus with bald tires. There was only room for one car on the narrow road, so the morning route meant everybody was going up, and in the evening everybody went down. Like suicide lanes on city streets, only deadlier. I remember sliding backward for the umpteenth time when our bus had to stop abruptly while a plow pulled out the car in front of us, and realized someone had forgot to put guardrails on this particular switchback. Actually, all the switchbacks.

Lunch break skiing the Andes

Lunch break at the ski lodge, atop the Andes mountains.

We finally made it to the top, thanked  the many saints and angels on duty, and went about spending a fine day skiing the Andes mountains. El Colorado was the resort where we skied and it could not have been a more perfect day. Blue skies, fresh powder and view from the top of the world. I could not believe my luck! I may or may not have accidentally fallen off the side of the lodge deck while peering down into the city far below, but aside from that slight misadventure, I thoroughly enjoyed my first ski trip on the South American continent.

I still ski, and will continue as long as my legs hold me up. It’s probably the most expensive hobby one can enjoy, and every few years they change all the rules for equipment. But for me, it’s still about the speed, the sound, the rhythm and the icy, open air.

Heaven Enters on the Inside

Tulip in bloom

Tulip in bloom

It is late April. All my windows are open and I feel the cold air rush in and around my home. The new air is coming in and I can nearly see the stale, pallid air rushing out. The cold and newness is touching everything I own, giving a hint of what is to come.

I’m feeling particularly inspired now, though I have no reason to be. One of my favorite songwriters, Roseane Cash, said that inspiration is not linear. You are not always inspired by what has happened to you. Sometimes you are inspired by things that have not yet happened. I’m feeling the pregnancy of a moment not yet on the horizon. I’m not sure sure what to do with it yet, but I know that opening the windows and doors of my home, my heart and my life will let the cool touch of newness in where it needs to be. Change will occur where and when it is meant to, and my job is to be here and do what I know best – to observe and record what it is that has become my life.

My life is not always (or even regularly) filled with flash or even excitement. But it is always here, waiting for me as I awake, and standing steady by my side while I sleep. I can be grateful for that.  There is a bit of heaven that  awaits me, if I choose to see it. It is in the clouds that roll in and out of my view; the rain that washes everything clean, leaving a slash of green for weeks to come; in the moments where I know I am, finally, becoming the thing that I have been all along.

Cannon Beach Pilgrimage

Every year, like clockwork, my little family consisting of me, my sister, and my parents, pack up all the food in the known universe and make our way to Cannon Beach, Oregon, for Thanksgiving. There is no discussion of if we’ll go or not this year, but only of who brings what dish and if five bottles of wine are really enough for a four day weekend (five is not enough, it is generally decided).

Southern view from Ecola State Park

A coastline of peace and relaxation.

And so we all journey from our respective homes and meet in late fall in this misty, rainy, evergreen corner of the Oregon coast sometime before dinner on Thanksgiving. It takes two or three trips with the luggage cart to unload my parent’s car (my mother is not known for her frugality with food – we could feed the entire hotel with what she packs in the back of one small SUV). There is good food, and wine, olives and pickles. We eat, we toast and we settle in for four days of bliss with a room facing the ocean.

It’s always been odd to me how well we all put up with the rain on these long holiday weekends. None of us are fond of precipitation in general, but for some reason, at Cannon Beach it is accepted, even welcomed. There isn’t much other weather this time of year, so our expectations are pretty low. Even so, we have very high tolerance for walks on the beach with a face full of rain. Where else but here, where we all run and play on the wet sand like schoolchildren, could the worst weather be nothing more than a side note to some of the most fun we have as a family?

Cannon Beach has been a particular vacation spot on my mother’s side for longer than I have been alive. There is already much family history here, and we continue to make more. We visit the same rustic wine shop every year (even when we finally concede we may have brought enough to satisfy us all) and listen to the stories and advice from one of the best wine experts you’ll ever meet. We tour the art galleries and snatch the free postcards and art catalogs, which some of us will later take apart and post on cubicle walls. There is always a play at the community theater, and we always go, even when the same actress plays the lead year after year. My mother paints, we all read thick books, check the tide tables and decide which portion of the leftovers to eat next.

It is relaxation like no other when we are all here. We can do many things or we can do nothing, and we are as happy with the former as we are the latter. I think that’s why the rain is so tolerable. When you aren’t trying to work against it, cover yourself from it, or run away from it, you can just let it fall. It does no harm, and there is nothing more peaceful than the sound of rain falling on a tide rushing in.

Africa Behind My Eyes

I can’t stop thinking about Africa. The sights, the light, the sense of adventure that is sadly lacking in my day to day life. I think about the wind-blown coastline of the Cape Peninsula, the blue waters of Camps Bay, the nail-biting switchbacks on the mountain pass outside of Franschhoek. And the animals who greeted me so generously, showing a peace and grace with nothing more on their minds than survival and rest.

Hout Bay, Cape Peninsula, South Africa

There were no suitable pictures to capture the full beauty of this coastline.

It was a trip that I fear will never leave my system. Like a silent addiction that keeps pulling me in just when I feel I am free of it, Africa is a travel destination unto itself. I only saw a small fraction of its beauty, in the most pedestrian and tourist of ways, and I am still enchanted. I am determined to explore further, to leave the comfort I may desire, and to venture out – away from the fine cities and sparkling lights. To the rural red dirt roads, to the people who do not know my language but who will understand my smile.

Kudu

The dashing and exotic Kudu.

In the same way that my first trip presented itself, I believe I will know the right time to return to that continent. To a new country, a different horizon, a hotter temperature. Oh, the stories I will tell.

Cape Buffaloes in the Night

You haven’t really heard your heart beating out of your chest until you’ve driven into a herd of wild, ornery Cape buffalo at twilight in the back of an uncovered game vehicle. As the truck lights went dim, we were left with a single spotlight, aimed upward, over the herd of 150 or so silently grazing animals. The indirect light caught the eyes of the dark beasts and while we watched, they wandered within 10 feet and blinked back with glowing eyes. I held my breath.

Using a zoom, from far, far away, I saw my first Cape buffalo.

It was our second night drive into the South African bush at Sabi Sand Game Reserve. We’d already spotted the Big 5 (leopard, lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo), so every new encounter felt like icing on a heavily frosted cake. We’d finished our sun downer drinks while facing a rhino and her baby across a watering hole, when our tracker got a call on the radio saying the Cape buffalo had been spotted. And so off we sped through the dwindling light, all 10 of us tourists happily bouncing in the back of a Land Cruiser, waiting to see what we might encounter.

The rangers and trackers usually kept mum as to what animal we were headed toward. The radio conversation was conducted in a combination of Afrikaans and Tsonga, so tourists weren’t disappointed if an interesting animal wandered out of bounds for their lodge. After six game drives and some pointed questions to our guides, we quickly learned to understand the words for lion and leopard. Or so we thought – picking them out of an actual sentence was really just dumb luck, given the jargon and multiple languages.

As we continued our high-speed chase, I could feel the humid, fragrant air permeate my skin and blow through my hair. I exhaled.  It felt good to be ingesting that much clean oxygen and breathing in part of this place that was so far from my home. I giggled at the sheer fun of the ride and how few worries I had about anything at that moment.

We rounded a final bend and our ranger tapped the brakes and turned off the headlights. Straight in front of us, across one of the few open areas in this part of the bushveld, was standing a herd of the deadly Cape buffalo. Of course, we drove right into the middle of them all. I held my breath. The tracker, whose seat was welded onto the hood of the vehicle, kept his spotlight directly out of the eyes of the mildly curious animals, but illuminated them enough for us to see them as they wandered past.

We were told we could take pictures with a flash, but my hands were so unsteady from the rush of being this close to an animal whose head was literally bullet proof, I didn’t bother to try for a shot. And honestly I wanted to kill the Englishman in front of me who took shot after shot with his two foot lens and flash. That didn’t seem to be a good idea AT ALL. Despite the reputation of the Cape buffalo, not one animal looked even remotely interested in testing the nerve of the vehicle before it. Eventually the flashes stopped and we all sat in silence while the grazing animals moved around our vehicle. It’s that silence that I began to welcome on each of the successive game drives. When everyone has shot all the photos they can, and we just sit for a moment, taking in the wild of where we are while animals go about their business of survival. I exhaled.

After a few more minutes watching the herd move around us, our ranger turned back to ask us the same question he did after every animal encounter. “Shall we leave them in peace?”

Silver City Las Vegas

I used to go to Las Vegas every year. But I was in my 20’s and those kinds of things were acceptable. Now, I only return to get my occasional dose of neon tinted heat, $15 drinks and general revelry.

English: Las Vegas Strip

The Strip in all its glory.

The novelty and flash has dimmed a bit, and visits now leave me feeling unsettled. There’s always been a tarnished silver lining to the world I see in Las Vegas. It’s as if this over-the-top city is at the expense of someone or something else. Part melancholy, part mania, all covered with a thick veneer of glitter and excitement.

I know other people have a different view of this city. It’s about fun or removing your inhibitions, so we’re told. But isn’t that what makes us who we are? Our real lives, inhibitions and all, get us from one day to the next, and it seems disingenuous to toss that aside, for however long we are there, to be something we are not.

Las Vegas seems particularly adept and asking you to leave part of yourself at home before you visit, so it can be replaced by a louder, brighter, more exciting version. And that is where I think I see sadness – that some have accepted the notion they must leave themselves behind if they are to really enjoy all the city has to offer.

I don’t know of one person who doesn’t have a “crazy Vegas story,” myself included. No one has a “crazy Cleveland story,” or a “crazy San Juan islands story.” What is it about the city that asks us to leave all that we know to be reasonable and acceptable, in trade for experiences we would never consider anywhere else? And anyway, isn’t travel about leaving behind the everyday in exchange for something grander, if only for a little while? No, I tend to believe we take all of us with us when we travel. I cannot leave behind my inherent shyness, but the anonymity of travel makes it bit easier to overcome.

This isn’t to say Las Vegas isn’t worthy of a vacation for vacation’s sake. It’s a great hopping-off point for some mind blowing natural and man-made wonders. Even on The Strip, the garish glitz and seediness can be avoided at finer hotels with gardens, art galleries, and shows. And as a Seattleite, I can appreciate the heat of a 75 degree day in February. But I can no longer idealize a Las Vegas trip as a way to “lose myself,” or somehow get away from who I am. Next time I go, I’m taking all of me along – from the inner cynic to the shy observer. We travel well together, and in fact, have become inseparable.

Sequim by the Sea

I traveled to this small town by the sea more times than I could count in the last two decades. It was my grandfather’s home, and it required traversing a mountain pass, navigating a city and setting sail on a ferry just to get there. But in this place between the Olympic Mountains and the Straight of Juan de Fuca he was at home, and he loved it.

A view across Sequim Bay to Mt. Baker

My last trip to Sequim, WA was quite different. This time, Gramps came with us in a small plastic box as we traveled out to sea. With few words and a swirl of milky-white water, our family carried out his final wishes on a cloudless, perfect day.

It takes more time to grieve a loss than I imagined after his quiet death, no matter how expected or relieving that death may be. But this little town will always be there to remind me of the life he lived, how much he mattered to me and what we shared in spirit. And so I wrote:

Sequim By the Sea

A gentle breeze

A silent rocking

That thin strip of land that

juts out to sea.

It was here he made his home,

where mountains meet water

and rain turns to sunshine.

The light is cast in lavender

and time makes its way

slowly down the horizon

to the rhythm of the ticking clock.

The place that knew him best,

and now a place to rest.

I’ll Always Love You, New York

It’s never easy to visit a place you’ve heard about for your entire life. There are so many opinions and impressions already in the ether, you feel your own experience will be just a version of someone else’s trip. At least, that’s how I felt about New York City.

As a distinctly west coast girl, New York City was always the magical place that could transform dreams into reality, pass you over like lightning and break you down to your core. It was raw and honest, and always, always…out there somewhere. It took armour of many sorts just to survive, or so I thought. I was prepared to meet this city with my game face on.

When I finally touched down, I felt a welcoming I didn’t expect. That first afternoon of arrival, I walked through Central Park, felt the springtime warmth and saw the beauty in the nature and humanity huddled there. The rest of the trip was like a whirlwind, but I felt at home. I could handle this city, with its grid-like neighborhoods, status-leveling public transportation and a surprise around every corner. This city could be mine, if I wished it so.

The full heartbeat of New York City cannot be understood in just a few days time, I am certain. But I did catch a glimpse of the openness, the wide-open acceptance to come as you are, and the feeling of belonging people must have felt for generations. It’s true, the city does break you down to your core, but that is where we are all human and just like one another. I think that’s what makes the city easier to handle – because however marginalized we may feel in other parts of our lives, in this city, we can live, just as we do everywhere.

Wanderlust in the DNA

I am a traveler from a long line of of travelers. I was raised to look at the world through a lens of all the places I could see, one day. As soon as I could carry my own bag, my mother took me by the hand to visit places I had never heard of before- Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, Bangkok, Singapore, Santiago, Sydney.

It was an unusual upbringing, made no less strange living in a small rural community where most were farmers and ranch hands. Ah, but there are blessings to be had with a single mom raising an only child. Live cheaply, save religiously, travel boldly. I continue to live that motto. After all, there are still wilds I have yet to wander. The more I travel, the more I want to write. To share what I see and feel is in the spirit of a place.

Several months ago, I was awakened by a very vivid dream, and this is what I wrote:

I had a dream of Africa. South Africa to be exact. Cape Town, or so it would seem. Sunset, large ocean bay, tall coastal rocks, a community by the sea. Maybe I will go. Maybe I will see Cape Town. What an adventure on the other side of the world! And all because I dreamed of a road that led to the ocean where it met a town I had never seen before.

In a few short weeks, I will step off a plane in Cape Town. I can’t wait.