Month: September 2015

Mexico City

I think I may have summed up my feelings on Mexico City best when I said goodbye to my friend and wonderful host this morning: “I feel okay leaving because I know I will be back.” Since my first night here I have felt connected to the city, immediately liking walking around its neighborhoods and continually fascinated by the kind spirit of people I met – even if we didn’t share a common language. So I can’t imagine a life where I wouldn’t return to this city that so easily found its way into my heart.

My first impression of Mexico City was awe. Flying in over the urban expanse my jaw dropped – this is sprawl to the extreme. I had heard how large Mexico City was, but nothing prepared me for this. Not since Sao Paulo had I been so stunned by the breadth of a city, and even that was smaller. But once inside, that overwhelming impression faded away.

It probably helped that I was staying in incredibly nice apartment in a beautiful neighborhood, between Condesa and Roma, and on a charming street, Avenida Amsterdam. My first day I wandered these areas, through one park full of dogs, one with a David replica, and one with an antique etc. market. The architecture was surprisingly familiar, partly European and partly Gramercy in NYC. I kept thinking, “I could totally live here.” I stumbled across murals on the sides of buildings and a small exhibit about vernacular Mexican architecture on display in a public plaza. I ended that day with a piano concert in the gorgeous Castillo de Chapultepec followed by my first tacos and horchata, which were, of course, delicious. Not a bad first day.

Up next was Sunday and I decided to walk Reforma. I was not prepared for what that would be like. The street was shut down and covered with activity: bikes by the thousands, a large dance group in one of the roundabouts, and plenty of observers out for a stroll like me. I walked all the way to the historic center, through the beautiful park Alameda Central to the Palacio de Bellas Artes and on to the Plaza de la Constitucion, encountering a market, a brass band, and a parade along the way. It seemed like everyone was out and about. Since museums are free for locals on Sundays the lines for Museo del Templo Mayor and Palacio de Belles Artes were prohibitively long, but I was happy to just walk around and take it all in. Plaza de la Constitucion is lined by impressive, stately looking buildings that give the impression that important things happen inside (which is appropriate considering two of these are the Palacio Nacional and the Catedral Metropolitana). The Catedral Metropolitana de la Ciudad de Mexico is massive inside, and I happened to be there during a service, something I am very unfamiliar with. I was struck by the gravity of it all. I met up with friends to climb the tower up to the bells and ended up getting way more out of it than expected. We did see the huge centuries-old bells, but then we climbed all over the roof to get to another group of bells, all while a guide told us the history of them (in Spanish). I definitely recommend doing it if just to see the Cathedral and Plaza from above. I also recommend eating at El Mayor, where we had lunch, which overlooks Templo Mayor – great view, fantastic mole.

Two things in downtown struck me as very strange. First, the security guard at the Apple store entrance was holding a shotgun. Seriously? A SHOTGUN? Is that really necessary? Second was the abundance of people dressed as action heroes or Disney characters along the main pedestrian street. Batman was hiding behind a news kiosk, a minion was waving to people crossing an intersection, and Alien was offering 3 photos for MX$15. What strange amusement park had I wandered into? A friend tried to explain it by telling me, “We have a weird fascination with the US.” It was definitely weird.

My last day in Mexico City was dedicated to museums. After a leisurely two-course breakfast at Matisse, I walked the now-familiar route to the park in search of the Museo Nacional de Antropología. It was the most recommended museum from everyone I talked to so I figured I should see it. I was not disappointed. From the minute I walked into the courtyard and saw the giant carved pillar supporting a modern cantilevered roof I was taken with the building. As for the exhibits, it was all about the Mayan and Tenochtitlan rooms. Intriciate carvings, architectural recreations, and interesting history in digestibly lengthed descriptions came together in a captivating study on early Mexican civilizations. The upstairs dioramas, however, I breezed through in 10 minutes. Just not my thing.

Refusing to leave Mexico City without seeing at least one art museum, I switched gears and went straight for the contemporary Museo Rufino Tamayo. The building again instantly caught my eye – a contemporary concrete structure with a coffered ceiling and whitewashed parquet floor – but the temporary exhibits were a bit of a let down. Then I made it to the permanent collection and was completely won over. It’s a small exhibit, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in content. There’s just a handful of contemporary Latin American artists on display, but each one is given a wall with a description of their history and a few examples of their work. I couldn’t help but think of the MALBA in Buenos Aires when I saw most of them, and then my hunch that I had seen these artists before was confirmed when I reached Le Parc, who was featured in the incredible solo exhibit I saw last year at MALBA. I wrote down two names from this exhibit about who I hope to find out more. On my way home I took a detour through Polanco to see the more fancy neighborhood, which of course looked fabulous, and I vowed to one day return to Mexico City with more money and spend some time lounging at one of its restaurant’s outdoor tables.

Mexico City was a spectacular introduction to Mexico. There were some surprises both good and bad, such as the abundance of trees and parks scattered throughout the city and the constant presence of police in kevlar vests, respectively. But I left with an overall positive impression. I was introduced to the sights of Mexico – a diverse architectural makeup and a rich history next to a modern era; the sounds of Mexico – the call of the furniture/mattress selling/buying pick-up truck and a subway serenade; the tastes of Mexico – three ways of eating cactus and traditional dishes featured on a chef’s menu in honor of Mexico’s independence; and the people of Mexico – my gracious hosts, the genial maître d’ who took care of me at Matisse restaurant, the many patrons and employees of the cafe who tried to help me find a post office despite not speaking a word of English, and the man at the airport who picked up my check and wished me a pleasant stay in his country. The spirit of the Mexican people is warm, and that alone impressed me.

And with that, I left. Despite my obvious fondness of the city, I felt like I had to move on. The coast was calling my name and I couldn’t say no. But like I said, I know I’ll go back one day, because Mexico City has joined an elite group in my mind: Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Santiago, and now Mexico City are the cities in Latin America in which I could see myself living.

At Home on the Road in Mexico

At 3:00 am my alarm went off. Time to get up for my flight.

Last year that alarm was overwhelmed by anxious nerves that caused me to jump out of bed at the first note. This year I groggily exerted the effort to shut it up and stumbled to the bathroom to wash my face. That’s when it happened – out of nowhere a song popped into my head that would not leave me until I was speeding through the air thousands of miles above the earth.

Here I go again on my own
Goin’ down the only road I’ve ever known,
Like a drifter I was born to walk alone…

Somewhere in the recesses of my mind I was aware of what I was about to do, and apparently that somewhere decided Whitesnake was my best departure anthem.

Pre-Departure Face

Pre-Departure Face

So with an apropos 80’s rock anthem playing on repeat in my head, I went through the motions like the veteran traveler I had become. Nothing phased me about the flying routine: I swiftly removed and replaced my laptop and shoes; I easily fell asleep upright without even an eye shade; I was on the free Phoenix wifi faster than it took my coffee to reach drinkable temperature. No on-board meal or entertainment? No problem, my body remembered how to survive on snacks and my mind on wandering.

Then I landed. I had mild reactions to the stimuli that come with being in a foreign place, but I was still waiting for the “holy shit I’m actually here!” feeling to hit. Sure the signs around me were in Spanish, but I was just trying to see how much I could understand when I read them. And I had to go through immigration, but I just smiled at the colorful new stamp and was grateful that the officer continued my passport flow by putting it on the same page as Canada. And even though the questions I was asked were not in my native tongue, I just automatically responded with “Hola” “Si” and “Gracias,” even eliciting an, “Ah tu hablas Español?” To which I responded, “No no, un poquito.” I calmly walked through the terminal searching for and fairly easily acquiring the two things I needed – cash from an ATM and a Mexican SIM card. No big deal there either. Then I got an Uber (now that was a change from the normal sketchy cab negotiation) to my friend’s apartment.

I stared out the window at the new city passing by. I was fully aware of where I was, and I was excited about it, but it wasn’t stomach flipping, heart pounding, pulse racing excited, it was just excited like I was excited to go to dinner with friends last week or go on a hike in Vermont.

It’s like Whitesnake said, “Like a drifter I was born to be alone … Here I go again.” Let me try to explain it a different way – when you’re home, do you feel a stomach flipping excitement? On the road I am home. I cannot properly express my joy at being in Mexico City because it’s so natural that it doesn’t feel worthy of over-embellishment.

I may not be making any sense, I did only get 2 hours of sleep, so just trust me: I feel like I’m where I should be.

In case this is a strange let down of a post about my arrival in Mexico, I will leave you with a scene of how I spent my first evening here.

After dropping my stuff at the apartment, I realized how starving I was, so I walked two blocks to a recommended and delicious cafe. I ate my mango chutney pollo sandwich at a counter looking out at the street – no headphones, no books – watching life go by. I left the cafe and walked the ring of Avenida Amsterdam in Condesa, where I’m staying. In the center of the street there is a pedestrian path surrounded by varying thicknesses of flora through which I saw the diversity and attractiveness of the architecture here and the many bars and restaurants this area has to offer. As I write this, the sounds of a live band playing upbeat, dance-inducing Mexican music is wafting up to the apartment from one of those bars below. If you asked me to move onto this street today, I would say yes. If this first impression holds up, I have a feeling Mexico City will find a permanent home my favorite cities list.

This scene and the travel experience before it have one majorly important thing in common: I am back at it again, and I couldn’t be happier. I don’t feel lost or unsure of this decision, I feel like I have jumped right back into the swing of my life. Hopefully that is what this first post of Round Two: Round the Central America conveys.

Avenida Amsterdam

Avenida Amsterdam

36 Hours to Departure

Today I got nervous. It didn’t last long, but for a few minutes my heart was racing and my face couldn’t decide between smiling and crying.

Last night a friend asked how I was feeling about my impending departure, and my response was: “nothing.” I felt emotionless. I have talked many times now about my flight to Mexico on Friday and every time I feel no change inside myself. I could be talking about a walk around the block. I expressed more emotion over my ramen the other night. But this doesn’t mean I’m not excited. I’ve attributed this seeming indifference to two things.

First, I have been completely focused on being here, San Francisco, and with the people and activities that have consumed my time. And honestly, I am so happy to say that. I spent the end of Vermont longing for the next step, mentally moved on despite being physically not, and it resulted in some frustration. I haven’t felt that way here, which has allowed me to wholly put myself into this visit. Living for now is why I travel, and I’m exercising that philosophy in San Francisco.

Second, this is just how my life goes now. Another plane, another city, another country – it’s my normal. Sure I took three months to stay put in Vermont, but that’s what travelers have to do in order to keep going. Some people choose to work in Australia or Thailand, I happened to choose Vermont. I didn’t realize that I would start to view my summer as a phase in my journey until a stranger last week asked me what I do. Me: “I travel.” Her, after she recovered from her shock: “How long have you been traveling?” Me: “Almost a year and a half.” It just came out, a year and a half on the go, and I haven’t gone back since. I left my established life at the end of May 2014, and I haven’t reestablished myself anywhere since. In this way of thinking, Mexico City is not a huge leap, it’s just up next.

So why did I get nervous today? Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe thinking about the final motions I have to complete before getting on that plane in 36 hours made me finally feel like it’s really happening. Am I concerned that I got nervous? Not at all. I love it. Because whether or not that’s the reason, it’s the truth: it’s really happening.

On the Edge of Uncertainty

“I need these constant changes of structures, of people, of ambiances, of languages. They are very inspiring, they’re very romantic, they make me breathe, they make me tremble, they make me live.” – Francis Mallmann

This overcast, chilly San Francisco morning, I decided to take a friend’s advice and just relax. After I left Vermont I had a very active few days in Jersey City before coming west, where I had a very active weekend camping with 40 friends north of the city. Now I plan to have a very active two weeks seeing people and revisiting some old stomping grounds before I flee the country again. So today, I started my day by watching the Chef’s Table episode about Francis Mallmann. I had no idea how much this 50 minutes of escapism would speak to me.

Francis Mallmann, celebrated Argentine chef, starts the episode by saying that his life has been dedicated to a search for freedom. He goes on to speak about the need for constant change, for getting up from your chair and being in the outdoors, for a life that eschews the office norm in favor of taking risks in an attempt to conquer something larger, for living, as he puts it, on the edge of uncertainty. In addition to these incredible philosophical statements, the show is packed with the scenery of Patagonia, where he has his own island, and Buenos Aires, where his restaurant is located.

I’m in a transitional moment – I’ve left my summer residence of Vermont but have not embarked on my next international adventure yet – during these two weeks in San Francisco, which also happens to be the place I lived and loved for 3+ years and where many of the people who mean the most to me in life still are. It would be easy to ditch my flight and just stay here. The thought has crossed my mind. But this morning, Francis Mallmann reminded me why I cannot and will not do that.

I may have completed my first life-changing goal of Round the World travel, but that doesn’t mean I will stop finding new life-changing goals. I am putting no pressure on this next trip; if I come home after Mexico City fine, if I jump down to Patagonia so be it, if I stay in Guatemala for the entire six months great. The point of this round is to challenge myself in unknown ways. I know I can travel, I know I can be alone, what don’t I know yet? I have ideas about what new directions I could take, like focusing on learning Spanish or becoming a certified diver or volunteering somewhere I find along the way, but I have no commitment to any of these. The only thing I am committed to is being open to whatever may come my way.

Because as Francis Mallmann says, it’s the constant changes that are inspiring. How could I know what I need to discover before I get to the place that will lead me to the discovery? So thank you Chef’s Table for reminding me why I am leaving again, and how exciting it is to live a life on the edge of uncertainty.

My Stuff is Ready to Go

I’m all packed. Same Gregory Deva 60L backpack, same Fjallraven Totepack No.1, same packing cubes and system – I fell back into old habits pretty quickly. I’ve made a few adjustments here and there based upon my experience from last year, but despite saying that I was going to bring less I think that I am actually straddling the line between reduced packing and over packing. Here’s why.

I have two weeks in San Francisco first. This has led to a fairly blasé attitude about the shirts I am bringing. I have a third cube of clothing that is “for SF” and that I say I will get rid of when I leave, but just like the “for Rio” bag last year I have a feeling some of it will stay with me longer. I also threw in an extra of everything again, knowing that I technically have the space to fit it. And, since I have pretty much zero attachment to anything I’m bringing with me, the fact that I don’t mind ditching things along the way has contributed to the extra stuff – I admit it’s a bit backwards but thinking “I’ll just throw it out if I don’t want it anymore” resulted in more stuff sneaking in. Plus with the warm climate I’m going to they’re all small tank tops that don’t take up much room. So with that, I admitted defeat to myself and packed up everything.

But I still don’t count the “for SF” cube as being part of my 6-months-worth of clothing. So here is what I’m bringing for the trip, minus the supposed “for SF” stuff.

6 Months of Clothes

Clothes for 6 Months

Doesn’t look too bad right? 4 tanks and 4 tshirts, 2 long sleeves, 1 inbetweener, 1 cardigan, 1 dress, 1 jeans, 1 black yoga-type pants (hopefully to be replaced ASAP), 1 shorts, 1 set of sleeping stuff (shorts and tank), 9 socks and underwear, 4 bra types, 1 bathing suit (but top and bottom are reversible so it’s like having 4), 1 sneakers, 1 Toms, 1 Tevas (bringing the Tevas back), 2 hats, 1 gloves, 1 buff, and 1 scarf (not pictured, had to dig it out of a box).

One thing that is also more concrete this time is the notion that I will get things I need along the way. Like new pants. Last time I got thin loose pants in Vietnam that ended up being a great addition – mostly for hot weather temple days when I had to be covered up – and I’m hoping I’ll find something similar this time. They would replace the black yoga-type pants that I do not want to bring but packed anyway since I need some alternative to jeans. Picking up clothing and accessories that I needed was also a great excuse to get souvenirs.

Other things that are not pictured here are the same practical items I had last time – medical kit, hygiene stuff, collapsible 1L water bottle, sleep sheet, etc. If you’re really curious just let me know and I can list those out too, but it’s pretty much everything you’d expect.

My electronics haven’t changed either: Canon G16, GoPro, Lenovo laptop, iPhone 4S. They all worked so well why would I change anything? I did not end up getting the external hard drive like I said I would, I just couldn’t justify the price, so I’ll go with Google Drive again. It works fine, as long as I can get enough of an internet connection to upload. Plus now I know my camera’s memory card has enough space for over 6,000 photos. I did bring a back-up 4GB SD card again, but this time loaded it up with movies I forgot I had on my external hard drive at home. Since I am out of Sopranos (anyone want to send me seasons 4-6?) I need something else to entertain me when I don’t feel like reading. For music I am bringing my shuffle again, but I have tripled the amount of songs in my iTunes library. Just because the shuffle can only hold 150 songs doesn’t mean I only have to have 150 songs with me. This way whenever I plug in my shuffle it will randomly select a new batch of songs to load so I’ll have at least some change of music. I plan on doing that about once a month.

I did get travel insurance again: Explorer level through World Nomads. Now if something happens to me in the caves in Mexico or on a flight to the Corn Islands I will be protected. Better to be safe than sorry. All my important Google Docs have been updated and I made sure to scan in my license this time so if it gets stolen at a club again I will have some proof I can drive. Major oversight on my part last time.

So with all the logistics taken care of, I’m all set and ready to go. You’d think I’d be jumping up and down in excitement, but for some reason I’m pretty relaxed about all of this. Maybe because it’s become so routine for me now there’s no reason to stress. Or maybe it’s just not real yet, and I need to get on that plane before it sinks in. Or maybe the distraction of seeing everyone in SF first is pushing the international trip to the back of my mind. Whatever the reason, at least I’m not freaking out about anything. And now I can just enjoy my last weekend in the beautiful countryside of Vermont.

“One Year”

One of my summer projects was to go through the boxes I have stored at my parents’ place and try to eliminate some of them. It’s amazing how much stuff I still have from years past, and how much I still have yet to go through. But one of the boxes I did make it to was my high school notebooks. While the notebooks went the way of the recycling bin, I held onto the papers I found out of curiosity. When I couldn’t fall asleep last night I decided to read some of them. I came across one called “One Year.”

I don’t remember the assignment – it was in my American Literature class, in which we had to write a series of reflective journals – but I can guess from the title and first line that we had to write what we would do with a year of free time. Anything we wanted. Here are the first and last paragraphs of my response:

One free year. It sounds like a lot of time, but it is so hard to fit everything I want to do into one year. I want to see the world, spend time in the wilderness of Vermont or Alaska, live in the city, intern, work on my photography, play ice hockey and lacrosse, relax by the pool, and so much more. But it is impossible to do all that in one year. Choosing the most important enterprise requires a lot of thought. What can I benefit from the most at my age? What can I fit in the time of 365 days? What offers the most opportunities for amazing adventures and exploration?  The first two questions have many different answers, but in considering the third question one endeavor in particular stuck out: see the world. Granted, it is an extremely courageous plan, but just choosing certain places can cut it down to being doable in just one year. One day I’d like to have been to every continent but that will take many years, not just one. So in order to shorten the list I thought of where I have wanted to go for the longest. These four ventures are the places that I want to go to as soon as possible. They all reflect a way of life I wish to attain: spontaneous, relaxed, peaceful, and cultured.

As I finish this paper I can just imagine all the wonderful places I have written about and I wish I were leaving tomorrow. All of these locations have so much to offer and I want to absorb all that is there. Ultimately I choose travel because of the experience. There is no way to gain a greater knowledge about the world than to see it. As profitable as that is, there is more to it than becoming more cultured. Travelling is where I can really explore myself. Being away from what I’m used to and in completely different surroundings, sometimes even with new languages, is how I can really tell who I am. Can I adapt well to these situations? There is no way to know until I try. I hope that visiting all these places would bring out the kind of person I’ve always wanted to be, the person that is stuck inside but needs help being released. The entire experience would open me up more and each place would bring out a different quality in me. San Francisco would show the more relaxed part of me while Fiji displays the exotic. Australia is just the fulfillment of a life-long dream. Europe is for the culture. Hopefully every place will help me achieve peace in life and help me be the kind of person I want to be.

This paper is dated November 23, 2003. I have been saying that my Round the World dream started senior year of college, so I’m sorry to say that I have been lying to you all. It appears to have started junior year of high school.

It is an incredible thing to read the thoughts of 16-year-old me and be able to tell her: “you will do this.” And: “you nailed it.” That final paragraph is everything to me. The fact that I actually went to most of the places I talk about in the rest of this paper – San Francisco, the Great Barrier Reef, the Coliseum in Rome – and even accomplished some of the other things I mentioned in the first paragraph – interned, lived in the city, spent time in Vermont – is just icing on this cake from the past.