Like Fish

There are rules to being a good guest. In Malaysia, we broke them all.

This past week we’ve been living outside SM Success Mechanic shop in the town of Gelang Patah. The shop-owner, Jason Teoh, immediately took a liking to the Biotruck, admiring Andy’s ingenuity and, even more, his audacity to drive the thing around the world.

All the repair work he said For free.

With that, Andy and the team of mechanics spent a week under the bus, replacing wheel barings, filling the tires, repairing the wiring, changing the gearbox oil, and a whole lot more.

Each morning, Jason would idle his car into the lot and rouse us for breakfast. One morning he arranged a press conference and uncorked a bottle of champagne in  honor of the expedition. Come afternoons, when we were hard at work on the Biotruck, one his crew members would invariably show up to drop off some take-out chicken and rice.

The shop crew knew how to work hard and played hard.  Late evenings, they sat us down to Dionysian feasts. At their goading, we hammered our way through plates of crab, popped the caps off cold Heinekins, and navigated our palates through heaps of inscrutable but delicious Chinese entrees. Around midnight, when we’d leaned back in our chairs clutching our guts in surrender,  the waitress would mercifully upend all the plates and platters, dumping all the leftovers into a mountain on the table. She’d then gather up the cloth and haul away the fall-out.

The gorging was taking a toll, but throughout the week Jason served us a few rounds of an ancient Chinese beverage called Birds Nest. The potion—literally made from a bird’s nest—is known to boost vitality and clear up the worst cases of hang-over complexion.

Having not had my own place for nearly three years, I’ve grown accustomed to being in the role of “guest.” I have stayed long stretches in other peoples’ houses, visited their towns. It can be precarious—striking that balance between being a novelty and overstaying. But there are three rules to maintaining goodwill of hosts, which I’ve tried to implement, however imperfectly.

1. Bring your own bedding and towels and a gift.
2. Be an attentive conversationalist
3. Make yourself indespensible.

During our time in Galang Patah, this little set of bylaws which have served me so well in the past, proved to be worthless.

The problem wasn’t so much that we didn’t have our own bedding and towels; we did. But in the Biotruck living space is tight, and we keep nothing that isn’t absolutely functional. Mourn-it-and-move-on is the motto. In this lean spirit, Andy recently had to discard his map of the Annapurnas, and I have to box up several cute, but extraneous, sundresses and send them home.  There is no room to be sentimental or aesthetic. Unfortunately, this also means that we have to break Rule Number One: we can’t carry gifts to offer our hosts. As a pathetic substitute, we over-smile and pester them with thank-yous. I sometimes enlist my 3rd-grade level art skills and draw up a  crappy thank you card.

So, the least we can do honor Rules Number Two and be good conversationalists. Malaysians are a highly social bunch, holding court in cafes easily until 1:00 or 2:00 a.m.   Andy and I, however, couldn’t keep up. The language barrier always created a distance that our clumsy charades could not breach. Our rapport could be strained and difficult and we sometimes just sat there nodding our heads and dumbly gumbing our sea cucumber.

That leaves us with Rule Number Three: make yourself indispensable. Pick up their mail, take out their trash, maybe do a little weeding in the garden. If you do a good enough job and they’ll start to wonder how they ever got by without you. But between Jason’s many businesses, we were of no use to him. He already had a workforce of 2000 at his bidding. We’d have offered him cash, but he beat us to the punch, handing us a wad of bills to support the expedition.

During our week there in Gelang Patah, our every single need was met. I could hardly pry a sprig of tarragon from my teeth without someone handing me a toothpick.  If I drained my water glass, it was filled.  If I yawned at the dinner table, the driver would stand up and shake the car keys.

I’m still trying to figure out why they liked us so much. Who knew that a couple of hippies in a bus could ever inspire such royal treatment? No one here sneers when we park outside their business, or at our rumpled clothes. When the police drop by the bus, it’s not to tell us to park elsewhere, but to say hi and wish us well.

It all speaks to the relativity of perception, doesn’t it?  What one person calls “living out of a car,” another person calls “traveling.” What one person dubs “cheap,” another calls “environmental.”  One person’s “homeless person” is another’s “spiritual seeker.”

But it may well just be that our experience in Gelang Patah was less about us and The Biotruck and more about the intrinsic manners and hospitality of Malaysians. This is a high-energy country and economy is good. People are optimistic and there’s enough to go around.

They say that guests are like fish: after three days they start to stink. But if we were starting to smell, Jason and the crew at SM Success didn’t seem to notice. Or maybe they did, but chalked it up to too much Tom Yum. Whatever the case may be, we pulled out of the shop in Gelang Patah in good repair and good spirits and, as we turned onto the road to continue our long journey, our new friends set down their wrenches and air compressors and waved us goodbye. By the looks of it, they were actually sorry to see us go.

For pics of some of the best food and happiest mechanics in the world, click here

On the Bus

Until last night, I’d never given much thought to shipping containers. And if it weren’t for Andy’s Biotruck I don’t think I ever would. But yesterday the Biotruck arrived at the port of Tanjun Pelibas, Malaysia after an extended and inadvertent tour of Southeast Asia. We’d been long been awaiting this day, especially Andy, who had no idea when he loaded it on the ship in Calcutta that a series of miscommunications would result in it being lost at sea for over two months.

We arrived at the shipping yard early, cleared security, and embarked on a series of proceedings that would keep us there until after midnight. Unloading the container from the ship, the bus from the container, and ushering the bus through customs was No Small Deal and gave me about 15 hours to soak up the ambiance of the port.

It was hard to get comfortable there. The container yard employed a pretty much all-male force, and I was troubled that it was That Time of the Month and there was  no one around to empathize with my cramps, much less bum a feminine product off of. It was really hot there and–except for the oily unloading dock–there was really no place to sit, or anything to eat, or read, or do. I’m happy to concede that the problem might be mine—that maybe I just don’t have sufficient curiosity to appreciate a container yard. But it reminded me of a sensation I had on some of my in elementary school field trips to sewage plants or recycle centers: I was learning something for sure, but only sluggishly.

But just because I can’t relate to the shipping port, doesn’t mean it doesn’t relate to me. In fact, as I was watching the huge cranes raise and lower the containers against the skyline, it occurred to me that many, if not most, of the products I consume come through places just like this, that what I was witnessing was a behind-the-scenes look at global consumerism.

Maersk was the container company that was sponsoring the expedition by shipping Andy’s truck between continents. One of the nice things about Maersk is that they keep scorecards that feature a CO2 dial that is based on actual volume, routes and vessels making it easier for companies to monitor their carbon emissions. According to this scorecard, Andy’s transport footprint was 1/10th of what it would be if he were driving.

After waiting five hours for the container to be unloaded from the ship and then hauled over to the unloading dock, the real fun began. Because the Biotruck was the first private vehicle Maersk had ever delivered, there were a quiet a few snags.  For one, the truck was too wide for their loading dock ramps. So the trick was this: somehow they had to get it off the container platform, which stood a few feet higher than the dock. Preventing it from toppling off the narrow ramp and crashing to the ground would take a pretty steady hand; there was only about a 4-inch margin of error. At first Andy seemed willing to give it a try. He fired up the ignition, let it idle for a few seconds, and but then turned it off again. The risk was too big.

A team of ten stood on the loading platform scratching their heads as the sun began to go down in the Strait of Melacca. The workers hauled out wood blocks and beams and hammered together a makeshift extension to the ramp. It was a little doubtful whether wood was strong enough to support the six-ton truck, but it did widen the ramp by a few precious inches.

Andy revved the engine and the bus lurched forward slowly. Just as the front tires sunk onto the ramp the truck bottomed out and hung like a seesaw on the edge of the container. He shifted into reverse and backed up, shredding the makeshift wood ramp.

The workers set about rebuilding the ramp while a fork lift drove around to the back of the container and hoisted it up, tipping the platform forward so that the angle was less severe. Andy climbed back in the Biotruck and turned the key, only to find that battery was dead. They stretched a pair of jumper cables between the truck and the forklift and fired up the engine again. Andy pulled forward. The exhaust pipe peeled off the bottom with a huge ripping sound. Andy shifted back into reverse setting the front tires back onto the container.

By now it was dark–long past dinnertime–and we puzzled together under the yellow glow of the shipyard lights. Someone had the idea to drive the forklift around to the front of the bus and hold it up by the bumper and then slowly lower it as Andy steered the bus forward

Andy fired up he engine again and eased it forward onto the prongs of the forklift.  It looked precarious, but worked, and once the forklift got out of the way, the bus came flying down the ramp. Andy floored it down the aisle of the warehouse and peeled around the corner leaving a wake of chip fat smoke. I met up with him on the other side of the building where he was pushing the bus door open with his eyes wide.

“Let’s go save the world Christina!”

His sarcasm had clearly returned, but I was happy to see him revitalized. His sense of mission had been flagging after the truck got lost at sea and I was discouraged when he talked about abandoning the whole idea, dismissing the entire trip a failure, and in his darkest moments, declaring the planet’s future as completely doomed. I tried my best to buoy him by making our days dynamic and busy. I scheduled a compulsory boat ride through the Melaka canals, and prodded him through the night markets to ogle all the cool trinkets–childhood toys like slinkies and sidewalk pops.  While he played along, even lit up when I purchased two wire head-scatchers, somehow all the plastic-y tourist kitsch was only make him feel worse about the world. Even the man who held a crowed captive as he pierced his index finger right through a coconut was not enough to impress him.

Andy just grew increasingly despondent and rhetorical: Why bother? What’s the point?

I’ll admit I was starting to have trouble myself. Reports of crisp nights and crackling woodstoves had me longing for home, longing to escape the weighty humidity of Asia and walk under the big leaf maples of the ditch trail that I was sure by now were turning yellow.  Despite my ability to derive contentment from the smallest things—afternoon coffees and little walks– lounging on Facebook in cheap hotel rooms was not exactly my idea of an Expedition. My own disappointment was starting to mount.

I climbed down from the unloading dock and stepped up into the Biotruck to join Andy. After two months at sea, it was full of mouse turds and the dank smell of neglect, but for now we were just happy to be driving it away from the shipping yard it into the long dark. Behind us the huge cranes lit the horizon, facilitating the nonstop work of importing and exporting freight containers and enabling to the massive global transactions that make the world’s economies spin.

The next day we’d strip the sheets off, take them to the laundry, and procure cleaning supplies. We’d fire up the solar disco and get to scrubbing. There was a lot to do: We had a Biotruck to resuscitate, our idealism to reclaim.

Click here for photos


I feel so lucky. I must have said this a dozen times yesterday as Andy and I were settling in to our volunteer posts in Ubud for the Readers and Writers Festival—one of the top literary gatherings in the world. Each October here, dozens of fantastic authors from Louis de Bernieres to Kate Adie converge in a setting that couldn’t be more enchanting: mossy stone temples line the narrow streets, morning vendors sell bags of lustrous marigold blossoms and bougainvilleas petals for the morning puja—or prayer—rituals. Beautiful and simple meals are served up on banana leaves.

We arrived at the Festival and met up with Gabe, the volunteer coordinator. She’s a fan of Andy’s Biotruck Expedition and invited us to stay at her house where we’d have our own room, kitchen, Internet, laundry, and showers. She drew us a map, handed us the key, and soon we were steering our rented motorbike through rice paddy fields and coconut palms that flank the road to Gabe’s house.

The past three weeks have unfolded just like this—idyllic, easy, synced-up. At Timbus, we happed on great paragliding conditions and flew for hours along the coastal bluffs. In Pandang Padang, the white sand waters were the just perfect temperature and we swam around in the craggy coves for hours before dozing off in the Bali sun. But, in the end, these were just the minor boons of good weather and timing. Where our good luck really shined was on our train ride across Java.

We were moving slow the morning we were to depart–so slow that we almost put off leaving until the next day. But we arrived at the station on time and embarked on the over-night trip to Serabaya. We passed the 12 hours eating cashews and noodle soup, shuffling through our ipods, and joining a 2 a.m. karaoke session in the “restaurant” car. We screamed Sweet Child of Mine into the microphone while passengers curled up like  cats around our stools, somehow sleeping through our bleating imitation of Axel Rose.

We arrived safe, but the same train the following day–the overnight train to Serabaya and the same one we’d have been on had we loafed a bit longer–got off on the wrong track and collided with another train, toppling carriages, injuring dozens, and killing 36. Holy shit, Andy said spreading the front page of the newspaper across the breakfast table, showing me the graphic photos of the tragic wreckage, the quotes from traumatized survivors. That could have been us.

From the start, Andy and I have gotten along preternaturally well—so well that even our differences seem charming. We haven’t tired of mimicking each others accents–him exagerrating the nasaly “a” of the American accent so that I come off sounding like a mallard, and me poking fun at the prudish way he refers underwear as “knick-knocks” and calls pants “trousers.”

These are cultural differences, but there are personal ones as well. After a year of driving his biodiesal bus halfway around the world, he’s learned how to rough it and make-do and can jerry rig repairs on his engine with a pen knife. Meanwhile, I have a meltdown if my dress zipper gets caught or the handle of my wheeled suitcase gets jammed. Come mealtimes, he is content as a monk sipping watery broth at street stalls, while I run about scouting for bakeries that sell crossiants and lattes. I compliantly pull out my wallet when presented with a bill, whereas Andy double-checks the math and enters the seven stages of mourning.  I complain constantly about the heat, while he stoically endures.  All the same, we’re well-matched companions, picket-fence wary vagabonds, pilots, writers, peers, and just fundamentally get each other.

On our first evening in Ubud, we unpacked and I rummaged up something nice to wear. Come nightfall, we got to attend the festival’s exclusive opening gala to watch a traditional Balinese performance of Vegas proportions—a nonstop parade of gilded outfits and choreography. We ended the night clinking complementary glasses of wine at Casa Luna and swaying around to live music.

But, ack. great as it’s been, good luck always makes me nervous. Bad luck I understand. When I am slogging for months in some depressed state, I figure it’s something I brought on myself, that I’m “doing time” for some past offense. But when things start too feel a little too idyllic, I feel undeserving and brace myself for a fall, for the other shoe to drop. Always a seed of dread contaminates my happiness.

In Bali, the ephemermality of luck is well-recognized. The other day, my taxi driver tapped my 30,000 rupee fee on the dashboard to ensure a lucrative day.  And, each morning, the Balinese place offerings of rice and blossoms in front of their door to court good fortune from the gods. This afternoon, as we wheeled the motorbike over dropped frangipani blossoms on the road leading to the Festival, I wondered: what ritual, chant, or stick of incense could I light to keep our good fortunes going?

I leaned over Andy’s shoulder and shouted over the engine noise: I feel so lucky.

But I don’t think Andy gives much credence to luck, preferring to think he steers his own fate as deftly as he plied the motorbike around the stray dogs and morning vendors that obstructed the road. He replied in this manner of his that I’m still trying to decide is either a sort of charismatic arrogance or just plain good self-esteem.

We are not lucky, darling, he shouted back to me. We are good.

Holding Still

I am assuming the rhythms of life here at the Mesa Refuge, an artist’s residency located on the bluff of Tomales Bay in Point Reyes. I have a two-week stay, 14 whole days to slow down and sink deep into my writing. I am hugely grateful for the opportunity; it’s a gift bigger than my restless and undisciplined spirit deserves.

The house is high ceilinged and beautiful, the walls paneled in windows that reveal the expanse of bay and surrounding marshlands. The well-tended gardens that surround the perimeter release a scent of jasmine that breezes through the open doors and windows. Except for the calls of egrets and marsh hawks, there is almost total silence here. In my writer’s shed out back, I can formulate my thoughts while watching the wetland colors transform blue-green-red-brown in the shifting sun.

This morning was perfect writing weather and a heron flew over the marsh against the gray drape of sky. When he landed in the shallows, his blue body went dead still, and he stared at the water surface for what seemed like an hour. This vision of immense patience affirmed a truth about writing that I have more and more been sensing: that the trick to doing it well is not really a matter of logistics–plotting out action or deciding on tense. That the trick to good writing learning how to sit heron-still and to be quick on the strike when ideas come. I believe that the best writers are not those with the most talent, or the largest vocabulary, but the ones who can sit still the longest.

There is nothing to stop me from sitting still here. No noise, no interruptions, no social events. Even the most mundane tasks are covered; dinner is catered each night and a bag of coffee and a French press sit poised on the counter each morning. If I’m in need of a contemplative walk, there are 70,000 protected acres of surrounding land. If I am wanting for inspiration, there is a library full of books—many of which were written in this very house—Michael Pollan’s Omnivores Dilemma, Terry Tempest William’s Leap, Jeff Greenwald’s Size of the World.

If I get nothing done here, there is no one and nothing to blame. All my needs are met.

It’s a bit bewildering. I’m used to being knocked around and ignored by overwhelmed editors, to being underpaid and undervalued. Here, at the Mesa Refuge, it’s like time traveling back to the patronage system of the Renaissance. I am treated as if my work Matters– so much that there is a fresh rose placed near my bed, and an apology offered that the footpath leading to the overlook isn’t better swept.

The only obstacle left now is you, observed my mentor.  His statement is both true and terrifying. But lest I forget why I am here there is a desk in every room to remind me, and a dozen pens on every desk.

This is my commitment to myself: everyday for the next 14 days, I will sit my restless spirit down and focus. I will follow the lead of all the writers who have stayed here before—known and unknown—and assume their steady breath. I will enter the lineage of herons who hold so still out there on the marsh, patient, unmoving, waiting for a catch.

Thank you Peter Barnes for the gift of the Mesa Refuge.

Committed to the World

earthring chris

I’ve just launched a new project and am putting all my efforts toward it for the next 6 months. Please visit My new blog will be continued on that site. Committed to the World is a leap-of-faith, a cathartic opportunity to contribute something useful for the wider world, and at the same time examine my own attitudes about commitment. You can help by visiting the website and sending out the link! Get Engaged!

I’d love your help!!

For Huffington Post article, click  here

Eulogy for a Clunker: when my life broke down, an old van salvaged me.

I’ve never believed in naming cars. “Poodles” my friend Dana would gush, patting the dashboard of her green Rav4. “Go Squirrel Go!” my college beau would shout, goading of his little gray Datsun over some wash-out road.

Such pet names made my eyes roll-for I was sure that in this era of global warming, these dirty, stinking, polluting, hunks-of-metal did not deserve our love. Because despite their convenience, a car was a concession, not a comrade. Love was just not a politically correct emotion to have.

But ever since my mechanic, Bow, delivered the news last week, I’ve been gripped by sadness. I dropped my van off at his auto shop after it’d started overheating and waited out the afternoon in a nearby café. Then the call came in: Chris, it’s Bow. It has a blown head gasket.”

I knew all too well what that meant. It meant it was too expensive to fix. It meant the end of the road for my car. It also meant the end of an era.

The van had entered by life during a particularly rough autumn; a long relationship had ended, my 14-year old dog had died, my downtown apartment was bought out from under me, and I’d just quit a job. Unable to endure this clutter of losses, I opted for escape: I’d live my dream of being a vagabond-on-the-road. I crumpled the eviction notice on my door, and bought a Toyota Previa. It was the perfect travel rig: all-wheel drive, reliable, and just big enough to live in.

I’ve never been good with a hammer, but fueled by this new vision, my angst turned into industry. I unscrewed the back seats and set about building a bed. When it was finished, it folded into a couch, with plenty of room for storage underneath.

My mom was surprisingly supportive, one day ushering me into IKEA for sheets, pillows, rugs, shelves, and decorations. She even spent an afternoon helping remodel my van, outfitting it with a leopard print bedspread, red velvet pillows, yellow LED lights, and a posh rug. I knew right then that she was the best mom in the world.

Within a week I had the lifestyle down and was touring the western U.S. I drove through the redrock canyons of southern Utah, tracked down hotsprings in northern Nevada, and criss-crossed Colorado. I drove down the entirely of the California coast and then back up, cruising along the east side of the Sierras. I tooled around San Francisco, camped at the best paragliding spots, and parked at the base of the Tetons, where I woke each morning to million dollar views. I unlocked the secrets of the West—the crepe café in Shoshone, the best camp spots near Deadhorse Point, and the off-trail petroglyphs. Mom rooted me on from her bank desk the whole time, signing-off each email: “With Love, hobo-mom.”

My van now sits inert in the driveway, a remarkable 238,000 miles on the odometer. My stuffed monkey dangles from the hanger hook, and crisp sage leaves from the Alvord desert curl on the dashboard. The ashtray hangs open, full of pretty seashells from some coastal sojourn. Looking at my van’s wide windshield, its mud-splattered doors, I am reminded of how many adventures we shared.

Within its cozy confines, I wrote essays, read books, and watched movies. I had passionate arguments, made love, and slept whole nights with all four doors flung open, inviting in the night breeze and the sound of crickets.  While the miles ticked by on far-flung desert highways, I experienced the entire emotional gamut from loneliness to zeal. I felt lost and found and lost again. My van symbolized both rootedness and mobility, and seemed to contain everything in the entire universe. Friends marveled. Have any mustard? Got it. Playing cards? Yes. Origami paper? Sure. Lime squeezer? Of course.

Looking at it now, I see that my van is larger than the sum of its parts–greater than its four-tires, its steering wheel, and windshield wipers. It is greater than its blown head gasket. No doubt it’s been a blight on the planet (it got a lackluster 20 mpg) but it’s also been the realization of a dream, and has embodied my independence. It carried me away just when I needed it to and brought me back again. I was too proud to name it then, too ashamed to let on, but now as I move through the world on foot, unsure of just where to go next, I’m calling it for what it was: home.

California in May


It’s cherry time in California. I have crossed the state and everywhere pickers lean against old farm trucks, tailgates stacked with brimming boxes of Bings and White Rainers. I bought a bag for $1.00 and chewed their sweet flesh as I drove the Central Valley , placing seed and stem in my morning coffee cup.

I was returning from Yosemite. It was Memorial Day Weekend and my first visit to the park. I never imagined that in “the wilds” there could be so many miles of pavement, so many strollers, tents,RVs, bicycles and cars. Kids fed tame deer Pop Tarts at the campground. A woman pointed a finger into the early evening sky, enamored by a tic-tac-toe of pink contrails. Tourists from every place on the planet scampered in the raging mist of Yosemite Falls, risking it all on wet rock.

The park was brimming with humans and there were lines for everything: lines to get in, lines to get out, rush hour traffic polluting every hour. There were all the amenities of the city too—restaurants, movie theaters. An espresso stand served Irish Crème lattes–though I just bought a plain coffee. At the cream counter I opened two sugar packets and was dismayed to see a bin of tiny plastic creamers. I emptied eight into my cup, carrying in both hands a small rubbish heap to the garbage can. Yosemite Valley still has a long way to go in terms of sustainability. “A sacrifice zone,” my friend grumbled.

But the Ansel-Adams granduer radiated nonetheless: waterfalls thundered in the valley and sunsets turned El Capitan from gray, to blue, to pink, and finally to scarlet. Indian Paintbrush smoldered red-orange in the meadows and one evening, a bear trampled rushes and sedges in a distant clearing.

My companion Jeff and I took a hike and saw no one. Miles into the forest we sat on a granite outcrop and split an upscale snack of sliced tomato, basil, and mozzarella and took in our own personal view of Half Dome. I unwrapped a beer from the fleece jacket taken from the bottom of my pack. It was still cool when we opened it.

In San Francisco now the weather is hot, but hands of fog feel their way through the city, offering intermittent cooling and then moving on. Today I accompanied an actor friend to drop a headshot at the office of his talent agent.

We took the BART to the Embarcadero station. A walk up Geary Street led us to the building of JP-Talent. His agent greeted him and said that though he’d made the final cut for a cowboy role, he didn’t get the job. Robert was disappointed but not surprised. Work these days is scarce–especially in California.

We stopped at Swan’s Seafood for lunch. The diner has been in the same location since 1912, its same long marble counter a sturdy edifice that stretches the length of the narrow restaurant. Customers sat shoulder to shoulder and we wedged ourselves among them, assuming our place on round stools. Containers of horseradish lined the counter, along with bowls of tarter, jars of capers, and plates of bright lemons that sat like sliced suns. Behind the counter, the workers moved fast and happily, hammering pink lobsters shells, tossing half-halibuts across the kitchen and sloshing buckets of soap water into deep sinks, rinsing away the lunchtime fallout of skin, bone, and rind. Robert and I shared a salad: crisp iceburg, piecey crab, and curls of shrimp. Robert polished off two raw oysters -on-the-half shell that glistened like something forbidden.

We went to an art gallery and looked Salvador Dali’s block print depiction of the Divine Comedy. We sipped coffee among ipod clad hipsters. Finally, we found a bakery and I finished off this May in California with two sprinkled cookies.

Demon Dance

img_3227There’s nothing quite like wrestling your demons in a spectacular setting. For me, it took the form of a showdown with my darker emotions in front of a UNESCO World Heritage Site: Guanajuato.

My first day in the beloved Mexican city, I wandered the streets like La Llorona, the “weeping woman”—a ghost who according to local legend roams eternally with regret. To describe what I felt as “homesickness” sounds too cute—like calling typhoid the sniffles. What I felt was something more existential: total disconnection.

Granted, I was groggy after a red-eye from San Francisco. Listless and unopinionated, I allowed the cab driver take me to a hotel of his choice. It was bleak, dingy, and overpriced. I unloaded my bags, hauled them up the steps, and collapsed on the bed of Room 22. There I lay afflicted with a combination of discontents, the worst that solo travel has to offer: I was hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and inexpressibly lonely.

A montage of sounds wafted through the tiny window from the market below: the fast rhyming cadences of Spanish, the creak and clatter of vegetable carts on uneven cobblestone, and the inebriated melody of “De Colores.”  The streets were alive, interactive, flowing with life. I crouched in the darkness of my room, a soul afraid to swim.

“Don’t buy into this,” I reminded myself.

I’ve had this same sensation so many times—from my first experience at horse camp at age 12 to leaving for college. The feeling that I’ve made some grave mistake is overwhelming. It’s a demoralizing sensation, a loss of faith, and a complete undoing of everything I aspire to be: bold, adventurous, open to life.

I even start to think: maybe it’s time to settle down into a quiet predictable life.

I have yet to learn the art of arrival.

I peeled myself off the bed and went outside, wandering along the weathered cobblestone in search of food. With its curving narrow ways and baroque and neo-classical architecture, Guanajuato is as beautiful as Venice or Lucca. And like Venice, the town has had to contend with the problem of water. Until recently, torrential rains caused surrounding rivers to crest and flow into the streets. Rather than relocating to drier land, the inhabitants adapted by constructing dams and redesigning parts of the city.  Some of the building foundations sit four and five meters over the street.

The city is famous for many things, not the least of which is being ground zero for the Mexican War for independence. Here Miguel Hidalgo launched the first major insurgency against the local Spanish government in 1810.

It’s also a mining town and in the 18th century became the world’s leading center of silver extraction.  Shafts tunnel through the surrounding hills, the deepest being Boca del Infierno (“mouth of hell”) which plunges a sinister 600 meters into the earth.

Armed with mining wealth, the Guanajuatons possess the leisure and funds to cultivate sophisticated tastes. As a result, a strong sense of aesthetics defines the city. Most everything in Guanajuato—from the bronze statues and towering Basilica to a simple door knob or the neat arrangement of bell peppers at a street stall–seems touched by an artist’s hand.

I went into the first restaurant I could find–a casual place with vinyl seats, fluorescent lights, and sizzling chickens on a spit.  I was alone only a moment when a Mexican balladeer approached my lonely table with a serenade. It was a pathetic tableaux—a scene straight out of “Eat, Pray, Love.”

This was my breaking point. It was time to seize control of my own narrative.

I spied a woman my age sitting alone at a table across the restaurant.

In Jeff Greenwald’s one-man show, “Strange Travel Suggestions” he asks this question:  “Who are we when we travel, at our best?” In answer, he pulls out a giant Tarot card of The Fool: the happy wanderer, obliviously stepping of a cliff and into the unknown. There’s a feather of optimism in his hat, and a dog bounding along at his heels.

The Fool, Jeff points out, doesn’t passively surrender to fate; he turns to greet it. Whether or not he flies when he steps off that cliff is determined by moment-to-moment decisions: whether to sit alone in a cafe or to strike up a conversation; whether to spend the day lounging alone, or learning the local language and seeking out community. I think often of this travel wisdom, which has guided me on so many adventures. The philosophy is simple: believe in chance meetings, take strange suggestions seriously, and roam unnamed alleyways.

After devouring a couple of enchiladas, I decided to approach the other lone gal in the restaurant.

“Mind if I interrupt?”

She set down her pen, smiling and receptive. She was from Telluride and was also studying Spanish here.

After introductions, Rachel scribbled some hints for me on the edge of my Guanajuato map: the best budget hotel, internet cafes, and a good language school.

I soon moved into a new room, and enrolled in Spanish school. Later, I got an email from Rachel inviting me to go out.

Not bad for a first day: I had a school, a place, a friend, and plans for the following night. All the ingredients for happiness were in place.

The next day Rachel and I went for a long walk in the sun above town with Paul, another student from the Spanish language school. Rocks flanked the trail, red as Canyonland. Cactus and agave grew from the hillside. Rachel and Paul turned out to be great company, open-hearted lovers of travel.

Late afternoon I walked around town, waking at last to its beauty. In shop windows, I saw small statues of the Virgin de Guadalupe, Dia de los Muertos figurines, and stacks of sugary treats. I noticed how the buildings were a procession of colors—purple, orange, blue, green. Between them on the alley walls I saw spray painted skeletons — the bare-bone imagery of death was combined with flowers and regalia, adding up to a bright-bleak Frieda Kahlo aesthetic. These are the designs of a people unafraid to dance with their demons.

That night Rachel and I went to a nightclub in the Jardin, the town’s main square. There we met Andrew, a 25-year old midway through a two-year bike ride from Canada to Tierra del Fuego. His travel stories had me laughing, and as I laughed a life force began to percolate back through my veins.

Deeper into the night, a cellist played solo — and each slow pull of his bow filled the high-ceilinged Zilch Bar with haunting and sublime snarls. Come midnight we were moving from place to place. Hours slid by as Rachel and I salsa’d with men wearing shiny shoes and Cuban hats. We ended the night eating street tacos with roasted pineapple at 3:30 a.m.

I strolled down Guanajuato’s dark streets, noting landmarks to guide me home—left at the Basilica, a sharp right at the Cervantes Museum, past the bronze rendering of Don Quioxte.  I arrived in my room at 4 a.m. carrying two bouquets of flowers: roses and lilies from my dance partners.

I dropped the flowers on the table and fell into bed, feeling ‘in place’ among the old chip-paint buildings, in the valley of the Sierra Madre Mountains, and above the strange layers that make Guanajuato: the ghosts of rivers that once coursed through this valley, the network of silver mines dug on faith. My vibrating bones surrendered to the matress. Somewhere, La Llorena roamed restlessly. But I fell into a deep and contended sleep, the scent of roses and lilies at the foot of my bed.

I blame Neruda


I don’t know why, but I’ve become recently afflicted with a severe case of  inarticulate-ness, an experience of total grammatical-breakdown and incoherence which is making itself evident in this very sentence as I write it.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been studying too much Spanish in the last few days, obsessively trying to translate Pablo Neruda poems into English. Or maybe it’s because right now I’m getting distracted by the Brazilian couple who audaciously make out in the middle of this beachfront cafe. I don’t know. But, for now, as the very structure of the English language crumbles around me and I wallow in subject-confusion and intimacy-envy, I refer you to the wonderful and inspiring holiday blog of one of the more articulate people I know …

The Tent Village


Before leaving Kathmandu, I went to Boudhnath to walk a couple of clockwise  koras around the stupa. A Buddhist mecca and all around inspiring place, a visit to Boudha is often the perfect way to begin or end a journey. More than one mountaineer has spun prayer wheels here, believing the gesture is an auspicious start to a Himalayan expedition.

My morning at Boudha was a lovely one. The dome was lit like a half-moon in the early sunlight.  Tibetans were already out in force, shuffling around the monument with prayer beads swaying from their fingertips.  Some offered marigolds and tika powder to Buddha statues; others crawled on hands and knees, an act of both reverence and self-renunciation. All around the stupa, prayer flags hung illuminated, rows of oil candles switched and burned, travelers composed photographs, and clusters of birds pecked breakfast from walkway cracks. Everyone seemed possessed by a private mission, with a personal prayer, their own reason for being there.

Including me. At noon I had an appointment to meet a new friend at the Boudha entrance. James Hopkins is an American now living in Nepal. He’s carved a full life for himself, undertaking seriously Buddhist studies under a respected Rinpoche. He has other reasons to be there as well, having lately grown attached to a particular community near the stupa: A  village of beggars and among the poorest people in already-impoverished Nepal. They live on very little, calling canvass tents “home”  and procuring whatever food they can by shining shoes and extending their empty hands on the streets.

Frankly, the place sounded depressing. But James lit up when he talked about the village and was eager to introduce me to the community before I left Nepal.

After leading me down a side street, he took a sharp turn into a cloaked alley. The trash-strewn passage soon opened up to a field. In the field were rows of tents–a whole neighborhood cobbled together with tarps, fraying string, and knobby wood poles. When we entered the “house” of his good friend Bhimla, we were greeted with sparkling eyes and love. It wasn’t long before we were sitting among the family with biscuits and tea.

There is no doubt that James is a friend of the tent-village. Among other things, he’s helped them start a small industry. Using scraps of old saris and salvage fabrics, they hand-stitch quilts of the most spectacular colors. James sells these $140.00 a-piece–the exact amount of money needed to send one of the village children to school for one year. His hope is to leverage them from a life of begging by putting their inherent skills and creativity to use.

What struck me about James’ interaction with the villagers is that he obviously doesn’t feel sorry for them. And he shouldn’t. To my surprise, the village is truly a happy place, full of laughter and fun. And against what would otherwise be a backdrop of bleak brown and army green tarps,  the half-made quilts and bolts of fabric offer streaks of jubilant color and hope.

I will post contact info for the project very soon. I encourage everyone to consider buying a quilt as a Christmas gift!