people

40 Days in Mexico

I ended up spending 40 days in Mexico. What was supposed to be just the gateway into Central America became an extended exploration of our neighbor to the south.

I didn’t expect to be in Mexico so long, but I didn’t know the variety that I would encounter there. When I used to think of Mexico two things came to mind: beaches and tacos. Which was totally accurate, but there’s also much more to it. The coast does have beautiful beaches, but they jut up against dense jungle that spreads far inland, before it transitions in Chiapas to rolling hills and pine forests mixed with limestone mountains around lakes and rivers. Tacos are the staple of Mexican cuisine, and they are absolutely outstanding throughout the country, but it would be a shame to just eat tacos when the gringas, quesadillas, panuchas, sopas, pollo asadas, moles, elotes, tamales, and so many more things I’m forgetting are also insanely delicious. I could eat Mexican food every day and not get tired of it.

Beyond the terrain and food there’s a cultural importance that permeates Mexico, both historic and modern. Mayan ruins aren’t just around, they’re everywhere, and they range in style from pristine tourist traps to majestic hidden archaeological sites. It’s actually possible to visit so many Mayan sites that you can’t fathom going to another one, but you don’t regret seeing as many as you did. Towns of interest vary as much as the landscape, from the modern, bustling, energetic capital of Mexico City, my introduction to the country that immediately started my visit off on the right foot, to the quaint, beautiful, and still bursting with options San Cristobal de las Casas, my favorite town in Mexico thus far, plus everything in between like tourist-central Playa del Carmen, expat haven Tulum, and often overlooked but charming in its own right Vallodolid.

Then there’s the people. Everyone hears about the negatives of Mexico – the dangerous drug cartels, the kidnappings, the clash between the Zapatistas and the government, the bus robberies – but the negatives just make headlines. What I encountered was the opposite. I met helpful people, people who didn’t care if my Spanish was beginner at best, who wanted to make sure I liked their country, who took care of me, who greeted me with a smile. Whenever I talked to travelers about why they couldn’t leave Mexico the welcoming people were always one of the main reasons.

So at the end of the day I’m not surprised that I agreed to repeat my route and stay in Mexico longer than intended. I was never in a rush to leave. I feel bad that I underestimated my neighbor to the south, and that I didn’t give it the time it deserved earlier. I will probably go back to Mexico when I have to do a visa run from Guatemala. Because this beautiful country captivates everyone who visits it. And because of the tacos.

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Random Myanmar Observations

People in Myanmar all love the United States. Everyone asked where I was from and 90% of the time when I said USA they said “Obama!” They proudly told me that he had visited twice, once just at the end of last year. I even saw someone wearing a t-shirt with Obama’s picture on it and the date of his visit. So many people said they want to go to the US first – if they get to travel anywhere that’s where they want to go. USA is the best, they said.

The best food in Myanmar wasn’t where I expected it to be. I’d heard about street food in Yangon and Mandalay, that it was amazing, even though people kept getting sick from it. I ate the street food and ended up being fine, but that was all just okay to me. I found the best food in Myanmar in the small towns: I could eat the tomato salad in Bagan every day, or the tea leaf salad in Bagan and Inle Lake, and I’ll never forget the Nepalese restaurant in Kalaw.

The interactions I had with people who are from Myanmar are beyond any other country I’ve been to. I’ve raved about the people in Colombia for months, but even there doesn’t equal the spirit I witnessed in Myanmar. I don’t know how many times I can say how friendly they were, helpful beyond any expectation, and genuinely kind-hearted. I’ve felt a lot on this trip that I haven’t met many locals, that most of my interactions are with other travelers – it’s easier to meet them since we’re all in hostels together or on the same buses – but that wasn’t the case in Myanmar. For the first time I felt like I really got a sense of the people who live there, and it was great.

Last Stop in Myanmar: Yangon

Yangon is a big city. Bottom line. At first the former capital felt like it could be anywhere, but I soon noticed its distinct Myanmarness: the produce on the street clearly grown in the surrounding farmland, the food stalls with the water (or is it oil?) bubbling in the center to cook the skewers that surround it, or the ones with a dozen different dishes to accompany rice, the telltale red stains on the streets, the gleam of a gold pagoda rising up from behind the walls of traffic, and, specific to Yangon, the lack of motorbikes. They have been banned in Yangon and I didn’t realize until I got there how strange it is to me now to just have cars fill a street. I haven’t seen a city without motorbikes in so long.

I was initially worried that two days in Yangon wouldn’t be enough, but it turned out to be plenty. I had arrived on a night bus, reaching my hotel by 6:30 am, and after waiting in the lobby for three hours and being told my bed wouldn’t be ready till after noon I had to get out and explore. I did a self-guided walking town of Central Yangon, starting by weaving through the crowded sidewalks of Chinatown overrun with produce stands on my way to Sule Pagoda.

This pagoda is in the center of traffic and surrounded by dingy little shops. I didn’t bother paying to go in, I just wanted to see it from the outside. It reminded me of Patuaxi in Vientiane but much grander. It’s a shame the base is all covered in storefronts.

I took a short break in a patch of shade in the park, with a view of the Independence Monument and City Hall, before continuing my walk up a main avenue to the Bogyoke Aung San Market. This complex has the typical tourist market things like bags, jewelry, and lacquerware boxes, but it also has sections for fabric, wood carvings, and antiques. Antiques are a big concern in Myanmar; there are warnings everywhere about not being able to bring antiques out of the country. I didn’t get anything, just wandered, killing time until I could get into my room. On my way back I stopped for some street noodles and a spring roll – a steal at 800 kyat.

After finally checking in I waited till late afternoon to go see the biggest attraction in Yangon: Shwedagon Pagoda. I’d heard that if I do one thing in Yangon, this should be it, and I see why. The pagoda is not simply one structure but a whole complex of them, all ornately designed and shimmering with decoration. Unfortunately half of Shwedagon is under cover as it’s being worked on, but the top is still impressive, and even just wandering around could take hours depending on your pace. I spent three hours there, taking my time to soak in the architecture and waiting for sunset, when the lights turned on and lit up the spires against the darkening sky. As this happened the pagoda became a hive of activity: monks lit candles, people poured holy water on different statues, volunteers in an orderly line swept the ground, and all around people prayed.

While I was happy to wander alone, I had two conversations at Shwedagon that were the final note in the symphony of kind, friendly, talkative people of Myanmar. First was a girl just two years older than me. She asked to take a picture with me, then sat down next to me and we talked for a while. Beyond simply where I’m from and “only one?” (the Myanmar way of asking if I’m there alone) she asked what I thought was important for our lives. A deep question for a new acquaintance. She absorbed my response and said “thank you for your answer.” She was humbled when I told her my positive opinion of the people in her country and told me if I needed anything at all she wanted to help me. I said I was perfectly content, but thank you.

Second was a monk who, in his 70’s, is studying to become a teacher of Buddhism. After working 14 years in banking he left his profession to live the simpler life of a monk. We talked about mindfulness and how the base reaction to all things around us is like and dislike. Through betelnut-damaged teeth he explained to me the meaning of the days of the week in the Myanmar zodiac, and what the phases of my life would entail based on the day I was born. I just finished a good phase and am in a worried one until 35. Then I can marry and live in very good for 19 years. In my 50’s though I’ll have to move around a bit as a slightly bad patch comes back, but just 12 years later that’ll be over and I’m golden till the end. I was enthralled by his explanation, and he wrote it in my book so I could always have it and explain it to others. On a page now dotted with red spray.

Having done all the most popular attractions I wanted to in Yangon on the first day, my second day was relaxed. I had one task for the day: go to the National Museum. Just like mountains make me happy, when I’m a little overwhelmed in a city I’ve found that taking some time in a museum calms me. I remembered Phnom Penh and how at home I felt in the museum there; the same with Brisbane, Buenos Aires, and Rio. It’d been a while since I had been in a museum so it felt like the right thing to do.

I walked into the first gallery and was shocked at myself as I slowly observed the paintings and wood sculptures. I was emotional, overcome with happiness at where I was at that moment. I wonder if traveling has made me start to let down some of that emotional barrier I’ve always had up and actually acknowledge moments like this. Food for personal thought. Anyway, the museum started out great but as I moved up the floors it became less a museum and more an anthropological study. It didn’t help that the painting galleries were closed, but as I wandered through musical instruments, fossils, and mannequins wearing traditional tribal clothes I started to lose the initial joy I’d felt upon entering. It took just an hour and a half to make my way through all 4 open floors but for me personally, I don’t think I could have picked a better activity for my day.

On my way back I stopped for lunch at a street stall near the museum that no tourist must ever have stopped at. I walked up to the woman behind the curry stand and she looked at me with a terrified expression. She signaled for the only person who spoke English to deal with me. Through a few words I ordered chicken curry with rice and some side dishes – “all of the vegetables” – which I ate at a plastic table and chairs fit for a five-year-old. I swear I felt their sighs of relief hit my back as I left, but maybe they at least found some entertainment in my strange presence. From my side, this last chicken curry was by far the best I had in Myanmar, in the most random of places.

I treated myself to an iced coffee on the walk home and took an evening to relax. This was my final night in Myanmar; the next morning I would board a flight to Bangkok, spend another night in the BKK airport, then go to India. It may not sound like I did much in Yangon and maybe I didn’t do it all, but even just walking around was an activity there. I think I got a good feel for the city.

Yangon also confirmed something that I had a suspicion of before I even got there: cities in Southeast Asia just aren’t for me. With the exception of Chiang Mai, I can’t point to a city in the past three months that I really felt comfortable in. To me the best parts of Southeast Asia are the rural parts, the small villages, the places where the pace of life is slower and the scenery is the draw.

Mr. Steven’s Boat Trip on the Ayeyarwaddy River

My guest house had signs advertising a Sunset Boat Cruise on the Ayeyarwaddy River. I’d heard some positive things about it and was curious to see a little more of the area, as well as break up some of the temple time, so I signed up to go my second afternoon in Bagan. Great decision.

Steven, a resident of Sausalito, CA for most of the year, started the Renegade River Adventures as a way for visitors to see a different part of Bagan, and in the end help it improve. We were led down to the boat by an adorable kid from Myanmar who was Steven’s right hand man; three more Bagan teenagers rounded out the crew. The trip had four stops: the first and second were alright, but it was the third stop that left a lasting impression, and the fourth was just a pleasant way to end a great afternoon.

The first stop was at a temple and cave, where the most notable thing was not the place itself but the response Steven’s visits have gotten. This place used to be littered with trash, like a lot of Myanmar unfortunately is, but since he started bringing his boat trip here (the first to do so) people have taken on the task of keeping the land clean. Now they’ve built a road to access the cave – this is when I heard Steven refer to the new tourists arriving in buses as “air-conditioned tourists,” a term I thought was quite fitting – and a few people have popped up to sell trinkets. The second stop was at a beach for swimming. They set up chairs on the sand and we chatted with beer (sold on the boat by the boys).

The third stop was at a village. Steven’s trip is the only one that visits this particular village, and he is friends with all its residents. As we approached he cut the motor and told us a little about what was about to happen: we each received a lunch box full of oranges and a laminated picture. This village only eats what it grows, and it doesn’t grow any citrus, so there is a hole in the people’s diets. Kids love the oranges and now know that we will be bringing them; we were allowed to hand them out as we saw fit but had to come back to the boat sans oranges.

The picture was a person in the village we had to find. The people who live there have no pictures, of themselves or their families, so Steven collects the pictures that tourists take, prints them out, and then asks the next visitors to bring them to the person so they have a picture of themselves, and in order for the cycle to continue we had to take pictures of people while we were there.

I was unsure what to think of this when I was handed my picture, but as soon as I got off the boat and was surrounded by kids who wanted to show me the way to my guy I was wholly on board. I had three little escorts to find Uzo, in exchange for oranges of course, and once I reached his house I realized he was ready for me. He ushered me in to sit down and promptly placed steaming hot corn on the cob in front of me. He motioned to eat. He grabbed another tourist off the street to join us – Filip- and motioned for him to eat too. He also gave us peanuts with tea leaves and poured us hot tea. We used hand signals and a few words to communicate. He showed me his old Burmese currency and I gave him a US one dollar bill, which he tucked into his shirt pocket. He gave me a Burmese cigar. He showed us through pantomime that his wife was out harvesting peanuts like the ones we were eating. His son joined us, 7 years old, in school, and asked if I would like thanakha – a paste made from tree bark that is worn all over Myanmar for healthy skin and sun protection. He took me upstairs to apply some, and they showed us their altar to Buddha. I took pictures of them together, and they asked for a picture of me with the boy. I have never had an interaction with a local family like this. I was touched.

Filip needed to find his guy so we said goodbyes and thank you’s all around. I hope whoever gets Uzo’s picture that I took has as positive an experience as I did with him. More people helped us find Phillip’s person, and after an exchange of photos we had to head back to the boat, but not before we were stopped by another man who ushered us into his home to meet his family and have more corn and peanuts and tea leaves. They already had another pair of tourists there too. A teenage girl pointed to the ring on my finger, one of the two I got at the St. Kilda market in Melbourne, so I put it on her finger. She put hers on mine, and that’s how we left it. Every time I look at my left hand I am reminded of the kind spirit of the people in this village. It was an incredible experience that I was sad to leave, but the time had come to get back on the boat. Sunset was almost here.

We ended our day on a little sand island watching the sun sink into the river, Filip and I puffing on our gifted Burmese cigars. It was beautiful (even more than over the temples) and a perfect end to the day.

The next day I stopped by the local photo shop, Linn, and copied the pictures I had taken into the folder “Steven.” I hope they bring some joy to the people I met like they brought joy to me.

6 Months

Today is officially 6 months since I left the US. June 21 – December 21.

Technically, this means I have just 3 months left of my trip.

Realistically, I’m thinking this is halfway.

The past 6 months have been incredible. Setting out on this journey I knew I would have a life-changing experience but I had no idea how it would happen. I couldn’t have predicted the specifics – my reaction to the different locations, the fast bonds I formed with people, the parts of myself that have flourished, diminished, or been discovered along the way – but I could have predicted that at this point I would be addicted to the nomadic lifestyle.

Which is why it is too hard to give it up just yet. I’ve had my ups and downs, complete with “best time of my life” statements and the unfortunate travel fatigue, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Those moments are what make this trip complete. I’ve come to a place now where I am excited about the path of self-discovery that I am on, in addition to the ever-present excitement about the new places I am seeing. It has been a long journey to get here and it’s not over, not even close.

I don’t have any stats to give about how many miles I’ve traveled but I can say that I’ve been to 12 countries across 3 continents so far, all with their own language barriers and currency conversions, and might be adding a few new ones that weren’t on the original itinerary. I can say that there are certain cities, countries, or regions that have meant more to me than others and that I eagerly hope to return to one day. I can say that I have become comfortable with alone time, self-sufficiency, flexibility, embracing the unknown, overcoming obstacles, engaging strangers in conversation, and using hand signals to communicate. I can say that I miss people around the world who I did and did not know when I left 6 months ago, and that I have and will reunite with a handful of them as I keep going. To the people I knew before, you still mean the world to me, and I am so happy we’ve kept in touch. To the people I met in the past 6 months, you have made this experience the absolute best it could be and I thank you and can’t wait to see you all again, in the near or far future.

With the New Year approaching 2014 recaps are flooding social media. It’s hard for me to even process my 2014. It began when I officially declared I would be leaving on this adventure, and at the halfway point I boarded my first flight. Half a year dedicated to see-you-soon’s and half a year dedicated to nice-to-meet-you’s. It’s undoubtedly my most interesting year of life so far.

So cheers to 2014 and to 6 months gone by already. Hard to believe how fast it went, easy to believe how awesome it was.

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The People in Syndey

Sydney was a testament to two things: the travel community is wonderful, as are Kiwis.

I know what you’re thinking, “Kiwis again? Aren’t you in Australia?” Yes I am, and my first 6 days in Australia I spent a lot of time with a bunch of Kiwis, and it was great. Here’s how it happened.

I met Jesse in my hostel in Manaus, Brazil in July. We overlapped for just a day, but in that day we chatted a bit and swapped travel plans before going on separate Amazon adventures, hoping we would meet up again in Colombia. As I waited for my flight in Leticia I ran into Jesse in the airport. We talked excitedly about our Amazon experiences but were again going different ways, and unfortunately never did see each other again. But as you do with all new travel friends, we kept up on each other’s travels through Facebook. Jesse is from Sydney and had told me to let him know when I was going there, so as I got closer to my arrival I messaged him for suggestions.

The first thing Jesse said was, “do you have a place to stay?” No, I didn’t. The next thing I knew Jesse had messaged me and his friend and former roommate Amit, and I had a place to stay in Sydney. Amit was incredibly friendly, happy to have me stay at his place for however long I was in town. I learned that when Jesse left Amit had told him to send any travelers his way, ones that he thought would be cool to have around (thanks for thinking I was!), and I was the first one that had made it to Sydney. Amit opened up his home to me and I cannot thank him enough!

Christmas for Halloween

Christmas for Halloween

Adding to this great friendly situation was the fact that Amit had three of his best friends in town; they all grew up together in Auckland. I shared the living room, as well as a really fun Halloween night, with Phil, Pierre and Peter. Our last-minute costumes were purchased at the local grocery store, where thankfully they had out Christmas decorations insanely early so we went with this theme: Phil was Santa, Peter was a reindeer, Pierre was a present, and I was the tree. It surprisingly worked! Pierre and Peter were also my brunch, Botanical Gardens, and bar hopping companions on my last day in Sydney.

Going into this situation I had no idea what to expect; I was going off of a pretty quick impression of Jesse that he was cool so anyone he would send me to stay with would be too. It was the right impression. This group of fun-loving, friendly, hilarious Kiwis made my time in Sydney that much more enjoyable. And as always, they will all have a home in SF any time they are in town.

In addition to these guys, Karim from Wanaka and I followed through on our parting words to meet up for Sydney beers. He also needed to get his Vietnam visa, so we met up my first morning in town at the consulate and hung out all day at Bondi Beach. Karim was also my drinking buddy the next evening in Newtown. We had a fun two days hanging out in Sydney and have kept in touch, hoping to hang out again one day in Europe.

And lastly, my entire plan in Sydney came from recommendations. I reached out to Tom from BA for suggestions and his awesomely long and detailed response became the backbone of my time there, from which bus to take out to Bondi, Bronte and Coogee to the ferry to Manly to what bar to go to in Newtown or for a rooftop view in The Rocks. In the same vein, my trip to the Blue Mountains came from Josi’s adamant suggestion in NZ (as did the basis of my plan for the rest of my month in Oz).

I knew none of these people before I left for this trip. I can’t say it enough: I love the travel community and feel lucky to be a part of it. You’re all fantastic.

Pre-Departure Ideas Turning Into Reality: Travel Buddies

When I set off on this adventure lots of people focused on the alone aspect. “But you’re doing this all alone? The whole time?” Well, yes, technically. I planned it just me and set off alone, but in addition to having a few friends join me along the way I hoped that I would meet new friends who would become travel buddies. This was something I said before I left without really having proof to back it up; it was an idea more than a fact. Now I can happily say that this is very true.

This happened almost immediately when I met Kahlia in my first hostel in Sao Paulo. After three days together we planned to visit Salvador together post-Rio. We coordinated over a few Facebook message exchanges and one productive dinner, and we had a great 3 day trip together. Even though we had spent less than a week together it was sad to say bye. We shared new experiences that bond people: we slept in an airport, got into and out of a shady couchsurfing situation, and just generally explored a new place together. We still keep in touch, and I hope our paths will cross again one day.

I synced up with another traveler, Bobby, for the Amazon. This one was cheating a little – he’s my friends’ brother – but since I didn’t meet him till we were both in Rio I still think it counts. We realized we both wanted to go to the Amazon and the timing worked out well so off we went. As I’ve already said, my 6 days in the Amazon were incredible, and having an adventurous buddy like Bobby definitely contributed to that.

It was a recent experience though that most proved what I said at the beginning of this post.

I met Jasmin in my hostel in Cartagena. It didn’t take long to realize that we had a similar plan for our next leg of travel: we’d both be in Medellin for almost a week and needed to find our way down into Ecuador. We decided that a 20 hour bus ride and border crossing were probably best done not alone, so after a quick judgement on both our parts that we wouldn’t hate each other we decided to take on the challenge together.

This decision turned into 2 weeks of travel companionship, from leaving Medellin, Colombia on August 11th until we went our separate ways from La Paz, Bolivia on August 26th. We took buses the entirety of Ecuador, including the 3 days of pure travel to get down to southern Peru. We showed up at hostels last minute in the hopes that they had more than 1 bed. We ventured around cities and hiked an island. We ate local cuisines, killed time in cafes, and had our fair share of local beers and boxed wines. This portion of my trip would not have been the same without Jasmin and saying goodbye was especially difficult. I still hope we’ll meet up again in Argentina before our adventures take us to new continents (Jasmin is going to Fiji next!) but if our plans don’t align in this trip I’m sure we will see each other again in the future. (Side note: Jasmin is also blogging! You should check out what she’s up to: http://littlebutnotlost.wordpress.com/)

There are more people who I will remember with different locations – Rosa, Connie and Paulina had the same three day itinerary as me in Colombia, Val joined us for a stretch in Bolivia, Julia and I hung out in Santiago and then again two days later in Valparaiso, and Pete I see randomly in almost every country – and they are all a part of this journey.

So now I can say with full confidence that although I am traveling alone, I am not really alone, and I am sure I will meet more new travel buddies throughout the rest of this experience.