Tuesday, November 24, 2009

cusp of winter

Few things feel as wickedly self-indulgent as blowing off work to ogle the autumnal Sierras. Why yes, I'm supposed to be writing up my reams of tropical Mexico research. I should be tackling a section of steamy jungle every day, chipping off enough guidebook destinations in Chiapas and Tabasco that this project will be tucked away in a drawer before food goes in the oven for Thanksgiving. But ever since my plane home hit the tarmac, I'd been pining to see big mountains the way that people without phone or internet access brood for long distance lovers.
Minimal cajoling produced a willing road trip partner, and we headed toward the north shore of Lake Tahoe, listening to books on tape so her daughter wouldn't implode from the transportation boredom endemic to 7-year-olds. Since visiting for a research trip last summer, I'd been angling for a cohort to overnight at the Sierra Club lodge near Donner Pass. And since the snow was still a few weeks away, we had the whole damn place to ourselves, and we padded around in our PJs like it was our private country home. Any stray nighttime thoughts I had about the sprawling hotel in The Shining I kept to myself, as we built up a fire and busied ourselves with alpine jigsaw puzzles and an addictive journal of shield-your-eyes before-they-fall mountaineering accidents.
I'd also been meaning to explore the abandoned train tunnels and snow sheds just next to Sugar Bowl. Built in the 1860s by Chinese laborers for the Central Pacific Railroad the tunnels were blasted out by hand, with work continuing in the avalanche-prone area even during winter blizzards that stacked snow 18-foot-high. Armed with a headlamp, we dodged long puddles and occasional drips inside two smaller tunnels (7 and 8), but turned back for hot chocolate when the frigid wind blasted us near the 1659-foot Summit Tunnel.

Monday, October 19, 2009

hasta la próxima

At the airport hotel in DF on my last night in Mexico, my stomach was topped off with chocolate and churros, and I was already missing Chiapas.
My bus from San Cristóbal to the Tuxtla airport had descended through the clouds, where an enormous valley sprawled below and green mountains lingered beyond. Along the highway were huipil-clad women tending a herd of goats, and men in straw cowboy hats clearing brush, their pants ballooning over tall green rubber boots.
And it felt hard to leave San Cristobal. I'd finally stashed enough javelin-sized sticks near where I was staying so I could fend off irate territorial geese from all directions. The loudspeakers on water trucks, endlessly advertising ¡AGUA PURA! were starting to sound mildly poetic. Casa del Pan finally had tofu for sale every time I wandered in. The neighborhood dogs that napped along the street I took home seemed to recognize me, merely opening their eyes and stretching instead of jumping up to bark. And my friends' six month-old loved nothing more than slowly tearing the leaves off trees.

Friday, October 2, 2009

better than TV

At most hotels in Mexico, the front desk hands over a TV remote control along with the room key. Television is very important here, and for many, that remote is probably as important as the room access. And the main genre is the telenovela. Soap operas with no subtlety and loads of camp, the music crescendos with every conflict, hyper-feminine and  deeply masculine voices mirror cartoon characters, and the wicked always get their comeuppance. I haven't turned on a set for ages, but things here have been entertaining nonetheless.
the drama within
In the empty beach town of Puerto Arista, I gave up on finding any non-seafood and tore into my last Tasty Bite. For the uninitiated, Tasty Bites are spicy MRE Indian dishes so yummy you don't even need to heat them up. They're excellent for car camping but especially useful as emergency travel sustenance for vegetarians. I'd been craving leafy vegetables for two weeks, and the lukewarm saag paneer (spinach with cubes of cheese) made me feel all warm and happy. Until it didn't.
A half hour after eating, I realized that my heart was going turbo on the autobahn. I laid down and tried to relax, but this all-important organ refused to slow down. After a while I remembered the stomach medication I'd taken earlier in the day, and started googling possible adverse reactions. The doctor had told me not to drink alcohol, and harrumphed that I needn't deny myself anything else. But guess what? Cheese happens to be a mammoth no-no with these cute red pills. For hours, my pulse ran a double marathon. Huge bombs of thunder jolted me awake in the early morning, and my chest continued to thump away like a dribbled basketball.
drama in other people's living rooms
Hanging out with exotic foreigners has social cachet in small let's-sit-and-stare-from-the-sidewalk towns. Still, I was surprised when a 20-something bike taxi driver I'd met earlier showed up at my hotel after dinner. He'd brought his wife, and they invited me to their house for coffee.
They pedaled me a few blocks away and I was ushered into large low room marked off with a red curtain. Seated on plastic chairs, the woman's family watched a blaring telenovela episode set at the beach. The actresses played with tumbling hair and somehow kept their plunging necklines from misaligning, while the men played goofy cuties or sexed-up lotharios. Everyone greeted me warmly, and I shook hands with the elders. Then my hosts and the rest of the family tuned back in for the bonfire and bikinis. I tried to engage by helping a teenager with his English homework, but he became too embarrassed, his nervous laughter escalating into manic high pitched squeals. He eventually corked it and stood one foot away from the television screen, staring intently and looking soothed. I fielded family status questions every so often, but mostly I just watched them watch TV.
drama at home
Back at my hotel, the night staff was now on duty. The youngish man sat on the end of a couch in front of the loud lobby TV, canoodling with his girlfriend. He looked up just long enough to verify that I posed no threat, then put his lips back in business. Determined to find a puff of unsecured wi-fi, I roamed around the cement hotel courtyard, my laptop a divining rod. Passing the lobby again, I noticed another woman sitting beside the couple. Moments later, a shriek: "WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH MY HUSBAND?" It wasn't a cliffhanger in their cheesy telenovela, but a real live confrontation. A long silence hung before a woman sashayed past me out the back door. Screams and recriminations began.
With drama like this, who needs cable?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

cheese and things

Tapijulapa Cascades
Random things I've seen in the last few days:
  • a 20-something hotel desk clerk carving a pietà out of pink soap
  • bats buzzing near my head in a dank cave of stalactites
  • a shower head covered with mosquitoes
  • chickens scratching in the dirt, surrounded by a dozen frenzied chicks
  • a dreamy waterfall with no one swimming in it but me
  • dozens of men brazenly riding a rusted-out freight train
  • a very loud evangelist ministering to the passengers of an intercity bus
  • the intersection of two waterways, one muddy brown and the other a deep blue-green
  • a billboard for a political candidate whose first name is Darling
  • female high school students wearing Pepto Bismal pink uniforms
  • a young boy following me on his bike so he could talk to me as I walked to the bus
  • pickup trucks full of cops driving around and looking bored but sociable
  • a kitschy altar to Frida Kahlo in a pizzeria
  • an entire museum dedicated to marimbas
  • a store called "Quesos & Cosas"

Monday, September 21, 2009

life with public transit

Finally at Yaxchilan
Some days I space out over dinner and can't remember where I am or what the hell I did all day. Here's an example from a few days ago:

Reforma Agraria to highway junction (5 minutes)
From the village of Reforma Agraria, a rickety lodge truck drops us back on the border highway. I stand up in the back next to the luggage, watching the ground through holes  in the wooden floorboards. The van we're trying to catch passes 15 minutes earlier than usual, but our driver can't get the horn to work and signal for it to stop. We sit down in a cement shelter with a piece of lumber propped up as a makeshift bench, and notice a small cemetery behind us. Waiting across the street is a weathered man wearing tall rubber boots and holding a machete, and we exchange pleasantries. Your van just went past, he says, why didn't you stop it?

Highway junction to Pico de Oro (40 minutes)
We leave a piece of luggage by the side of the highway to make sure we get the attention of the next colectivo, which also comes by early. We're the only passengers, and after a while the driver tries to persuade us to head back the other direction. I worry that we're going south instead of north, but then realize that he just doesn't want to go to the end of his route. This section of road is paved now, but sports huge rain-filled potholes and the occasional landslide chipping away at the asphalt.

Pico de Oro to Benemerito Las Americas (30 minutes)
A few taxi drivers are playing cards under a tree, and look surprised to see foreign travelers. We arrange a private taxi to Benemerito Las Americas. An older man in a cowboy hat is sitting by the road the outskirts of town, and hails the taxi to share the ride. He falls asleep next to me in the back seat almost immediately. The driver tells the Teen that drug violence along the border has decreased in the past year or so, though he alludes to a recent local "massacre."

Benemerito Las Americas to Crucero Corozal (1 hour)
We switch to another waiting van, and the driver putters around town picking up his lunch before he finally leaves this dusty desperado-style town. A mile out, the driver stops again and idles in the middle of highway, making a phone call. Another van finally comes up behind and unloads more passengers for us. At the turnoff for Yaxchilan, a military checkpoint makes our whole carload get out for a bag check. We start negotiating with a taxi driver and didn't bother showing the soldiers anything.

Crucero Corozal to Frontera Corozal (15 minutes)
Whizzing down a road surrounded by high grass, our taxi stops to pick up a man standing by the side of the road. No houses or buildings are in sight. The driver continues along, dodging dogs trotting along the pavement.

Embarcadero into town (30 minutes)
On a shadeless street, I walk a mile round-trip to buy a tacky new hat, replacing the practically new one I lost somewhere earlier that day. Sweat pools on my knees, making puddles erupt though my pants. As I try on baseball caps, the vendor woman tries to convince me to buy a pink straw boater that looks like a giant Easter egg. It's layered with cobwebs - she must have been trying to get rid of this one for a while.

Lancha (long motorboat) to Yaxchilan ruins (40 minutes)
These boats now have thatched roofs, so you don't even need to wear a hat. The Teen takes a nap on the seats, jolting up when I spot a ceiba canopy with a half dozen howler monkeys.

Walk through Yaxchilan (1 hour)
We hear the intermittent rumble of howler monkeys, but a high tree comes alive with a crew of noisy spider monkeys. A cloud of mosquitoes start snacking on the Teen. She retreats back to the boat.

Lancha back to Frontera Corozal (40 minutes)
The breeze is the closest we've come to air conditioning all day. We retreat to our room and lie down for a bit under the ceiling fan.

Time for dinner again.

Friday, September 11, 2009

death by soy

My Way or the Highway
After witnessing a mere two specimens walking the streets of DF in face masks, the whole flu thing seems like a relic. At least until you notice the free hand sanitizer sitting on every front desk and building entrance, and oversize street posters with step-by-step instructions on how to wash your hands.

And yes, I did spot a few bike lanes here and there, as well as a decent-looking but unused bike parking area in the Auditorio metro station. If I have time when I pass through again in a month, I'm thinking about tracking down a bike at one of the free bike stations and seeing how many blocks I can go before I'm Frogger roadkill.

In San Cristobal de Las Casas, a lunch special at a popular traveler's joint turned out to include a bonus case of food poisoning, cramping me into a fetal position for two feverish days of matted hair and lethal gases. If I only I could do something more drastic than yanking them from the book. Like keeping them in, and shaming them with their own special warning box: "Colon Blow for Beginners." 

After becoming ambulatory again, the next day I had the odd experiences of defending myself from vicious attack geese, dodging starstruck young women as they tried to mob a hunky telenovela actor shooting a scene downtown, and having a 12-year-old show me hotel rooms (his afterschool job).
Tomorrow we're continuing south for a few days along the border highway next to Guatemala. The Teen has her I-device all charged up, and we're ready to explore the Lacandon Jungle.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

from the zócalo to zinacantán

Clean Hands
Ladies and gentlemen! Dust off that Spanish dictionary and charge up your currency converters! I'm on the road again in Latin America, this time to update the Chiapas and Tabasco chapter of Lonely Planet's Mexico guidebook.

Against the backdrop of a well-publicized flu pandemic, intermittent feudal drug war shootouts and the pressure of entertaining my teenage traveling companion, your intrepid scribe will be oohing and ahhing over some of the Mexico's best green places and giving a shout out to all the compas down south.
First stop: a few days of leisure in bustling Mexico City. Stay tuned for the answers to these questions and more:
  • Are face masks still a vogue accessory?
  • Does Caracas make DF feel like the sweet small town where everyone calls you honey?
  • Is the local government really building miles of new bike lanes?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

high sierra happiness

Alpine Meadow
I recently finished my first sola backpacking trip, a six day test-drive of the John Muir Trail. But until midway, when I jettisoned an excess five pounds of trail mix and dehydrated vegetarian protein, it was truly a hip-busting trial.

In times of high altitude semi-delirium, I kept my feet in motion by humming Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear the Reaper and the theme song from the Flintstones. Over and over and over again. I plastered the welts under my waist belt with chunks of moleskin and did my best to look jaunty when I crossed paths with fellow hikers. And I swore not to remember just the phenomenal alpine scenery, but also the times when I wanted to shirk my pack and slink away.

As a concept, pushing your boundaries sounds so inspirational and admirable, though so completely vague. Carting a food-overloaded backpack over 10,000-foot mountains? That's much more concrete. But it was so damn beautiful, with tubby marmots whistling at you on the trail, baby deer grazing in meadows and pure blue lakes reflecting snowy granite peaks. Yeah, I'll be back next summer.

Monday, July 13, 2009

attack of the testy seagulls

Bird Blockade
Alfred Hitchcock must have spent time on Anacapa while researching for The Birds. A chain of three almost-connected scrubby islands just off the coast north of Los Angeles, I'd been warned that Anacapa's resident seagulls weren't exactly kiss-kiss sociable. A friend had even recommended that I bring a helmet, but for some reason I hadn't paid heed. Can't countenance the idea of vicious attack birds? Imagine the reaction you'd get strolling through a parents' meeting at a nursery school wearing a sign that reads "child molester."
During nesting season, fuzzy gray gull babies plod the treeless ground like the wide-eyed infants they are, while screeching adults menace any and all humans (and try to eat each other's offspring). A quarter mile exploratory walk from my campsite evolved into a shooter game where I was the bonus target. Eerily surrounded and outnumbered by beach-variety seagulls, I'd hear a screech of avian rage and then the dreaded flapping sound. Hovering just overhead, a bloodthirsty beak would unleash a high pitched warrior cry, lunging at my ears. The really angry ones unloaded copious barrages of liquid bird poop, which thankfully missed me as I ran zigzagging back to the tent.
Now that you've ripped Anacapa off your must-see list, note that there is a plus side to this island masochism: kayaking. Anacapa's a kayaking dreamland, with cathedral caves to explore and iconic arches to duck through. Massive kelp stalks dozens of feet long trail along the water's surface, tempering the waves. Beefy male sea lions guard caves where their harems sleep, but often a lone sea lion will pop up near your kayak, with big button eyes that will make you forget all about those nasty winged things waiting to menace you on shore.
The 6-hour trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles along the I-5 highway can be a straight-shot snoozer, with ho-hum scenery and legions of pokey 18-wheelers blocking the lanes. If you want to learn something interesting during the drive, check out the Invisible-5 audio series. A free downloadable driving tour of the communities near the highway, it's an oral history of some of the region's environmental justice struggles, and an excellent way to get a sense of the geography flying by.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

death cab

Caracas Time
Who'd have thought it would feel so great to be going back to the U.S.? Yes, there's still a ridiculous war going on with my (yet to be filed) tax dollars, and Guantánamo remains known most prominently as a torture site instead of the locale for a really catchy song, but I'm really excited about being able to throw toilet paper in the bowl. To cross the street without dodging cars like a paranoid chicken. To live with an ambient noise level where ear plugs aren't necessary to stave off hearing loss. And the ability to find cookies that aren't made with lard.
My final research expedition was a roundup of handy hotels near the Caracas airport and a wild ride through the cargo port. The previous edition of the South America guidebook mentioned that savvy budget travelers could hitch a ride to Los Roques on one of the small supply ships that occasionally leave from the docks. Being prone to seasickness, the mere thought of a 12-hour shake-and-bake in a tiny boat made me queasy, but I dutifully chartered a taxi to investigate this extreme travel tidbit.
Besides the stacks of containers, the Bay Area ports I know have nothing in common with the mayhem of La Guaira, Venezuela's principal shipping dock. In La Guaira, monster cranes with wheels that dwarf cars tear through impossibly narrow corridors of freight containers, hoisting boxcars into the sky and tossing them onto others. The cranes scramble in all directions without warning, and unlike everyday buses, there's no supersonic beep-beep-beep when they reverse, and no spotter to made sure that car and truck traffic doesn't get squashed underneath.
At one point, my cabbie dodged around a wall and we were suddenly face-to-face with a gargantuan wheeled apparatus barreling at us with its pinchers grasping a multi-ton rectangular building block. I exclaimed a number of unprintable things, but the driver thought the most hysterical was "ohmigod," which he repeated with excellent English pronunciation. As the container cast a shadow on our car, I convinced him to back up so I wouldn't have a heart attack imagining the crane losing its grip and watching the container topple and crush us.
OHMIGOD, this place is crazy! Don't people ever get hurt here?
Ohmigod! Ohmigod! Giggle. Sure, all the time.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

crispy in the caribbean

Close to wrapping up the Venezuela-a-go-go-GO! tour, I'm on a speck of an island called Gran Roque, where the so-called streets are crunchy pale sand and the only auto seems to be a garbage truck. About half of the 1500 or so inhabitants walk around without shoes.
Like most visitors here, I spent part of the day on one of the archipelago's many islets. Some are only a few cartwheels across, treeless slabs of sand in danger of being swallowed up by the aquamarine Caribbean. Most have no shade, so as a Very Pale Person, I made sure to rent a big beach umbrella. I read while panting black chameleons took turns climbing onto my stinky leather sandals, and I swear that no more than a toenail protruded from that spot without 50 SPF or protective clothing.
Sun protection has been one of the sacred pillars of my life, and some of my earliest girlhood memories involve full body sunscreen greasings and being commanded to swim in a t-shirt. In adulthood, my closet boasts a magnificent collection of dorky brimmed hats, and still I wear a shirt in the water. So how the heck did I get cooked today?
The sun can bring you to your knees in the tropics, but now people tell me that the creamy white sand of Los Roques is incredibly reflective. Limping back to my posada after realizing the damage, I found a family kind enough to hack off a branch of aloe, which I've been reapplying every half hour. But it still feels like my legs are being ironed, and my final day here will be spent cowering indoors until dusk.
Besides the rocky hills capped by an abandoned lighthouse, my favorite thing on Gran Roque has been how well the locals entertain themselves. In the evenings, there's a game of lotería on one skinny street, a game akin to Bingo with an image-only board of vivid caricatures that resemble tarot cards. Players cover the board with coins, and someone calls out the spaces. Knife! Ladder! Avocado! I also saw kids shooting marbles, a trio of young women pitching bolas (like bocce ball), and a lusty soccer match. No doubt there's a hidden youth subculture engrossed in video game shootouts, but it seems almost anachronistic to see an entire community playing outside.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

stepping out in Río Caribe

Work it, girl
I've had a grueling itinerary for the last few weeks, and most days I can't remember where I woke up in the morning. When I finally reached the Caribbean coast in a smallish town called Río Caribe, I just wanted to melt and be rebuilt, but without ankles adorned with itchy bug bites, the glowing Rudolph nose and the two outfits perpetually crusted with dried sweat.
After a moment of catatonia in a posada hammock, I pried myself away at sunset to do a quick recon of the beach promenade. Most towns I've visited tend to lock up and head home by dark, but there was salsa pulsing from the oceanside plaza and a few dozen people jumping around in spandex pants and dampened t-shirts. I chatted up two women sitting nearby, who explained that the local government sponsored a nightly exercise class, and they encouraged me to participate.
Raise your hand if the last aerobics class you took was in the 80s. But I plopped down my daypack and joined the back row. There seem to be hunky Cubanos working everywhere in Venezuela, and naturally, the rubber band leading the class was one too. Though I went limp after half an hour, the locals - mostly women, plus one very energetic toddler - continued on, doing nonstop drills in the tropics without the benefit of air conditioning.
If you've done any traveling in the developing world, you probably have a contribution to what I call the motorbike chronicles - the extreme and incredulous sightings of ingenuity mixed with cheap personal transportation. Like a family of four pressed like panini onto a moped, with a 1-year-old dangling off the front and a month's worth of rice bulging over the rear fender. Today I witnessed my favorite so far: while holding on with one hand, a passenger balanced a partially sliced sheet cake in the other. The hot pink dessert must have been the size of a large pizza. I watched the bike jostle over potholes and through a low rain trench, but it looked like they had it down. Wow.
I must have been sending out special motorcycle signals to the universe. After asking for directions in a shop a bit later, one of the gray-haired men I'd spoken to had second thoughts about the quality of his instructions and tracked me down a block away to give me a quick lift on his motorcycle.

Monday, March 16, 2009

the enchanted life of a budget travel writer

The enchanted life of a budget travel writer
A cockroach-colored floor is a scary sight. Especially when you open the dank windowless bathroom of a cheap hotel room and the place comes alive with critters. I don't want to be a wimp, but one roach was so big that I thought it would bench press my shoe if I tried to squash it. The bathroom door will remain closed until I can stop thinking about the Steven King movie Creepshow where hordes of roaches consume someone alive. Strange bumps are emanating from behind the door, and I can imagine a hearty colectivo of cucarachas, the gargantuan and the itsy bitsy, all linking legs to rush the door. And after a 10-hour bus ride, I really really want to wash my face.
A trio of high school girls tracked me down a half block from the public library here in Puerto Ayacucho, hoping I spoke English. We sat down together for about half an hour, and I translated a passage on how to do mouth to mouth resuscitation. After a few minutes, a half dozen of their friends had crowded 'round, and we took turns sounding out funny English words that don't sound anything like they would in Spanish. I'm on a mission to teach Spanish-speakers how to pronounce "th" (stick out your tongue!) so my name doesn't get mangled so badly.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

real cowboys play harps

A very protective crocodile
In the belly of Venezuela is the Llanos, the land of grazing humpbacked cattle and spirited joropo music. Never heard of joropo? Imagine a syrupy ballad sung by earnest cowboys who pluck harps while accompanied by little four-string guitars called cuatros. When I boarded the bus that took me to the far-as-you-can-see flatlands of the Llanos, the driver's CD collection started to sound like a mix tape of drunkards yodeling like cats at 3am. It's a little hard on the ears at first, but after a while I kinda liked it.
I've been out of internet-land for a bit, but a while back I spent two days on the plains getting some R&R at the Hato El Frio, a huge private ranch with a biological station supported by an ecotourism project. Though thousands of cows wander over what seems like a bazillion acres, it's also a wildlife refuge that's more impressive and concentrated with animals than any zoo. In the rainy season, the parched region I encountered transforms to a wetland of biblical proportions.
I lucked out and was the only visitor at the hato, so I got to ramble around in a 4x4 with my own private guide. We talked a lot. About why hardly any Americans visit Venezuela, our favorite places to swim, Hugo Chávez (naturally), and the coolest animals we've ever seen in the wild.
With his experienced eye, I saw scores of amazing animals that would have just blended in otherwise. Tiny ground owls with ostrich-like legs, a young anteater sleeping in a spiky ceiba tree, the gentle side to side s-tracks of an anaconda, and my favorite back story, a black and white bird the locals call "the police." Like a speed trap, they stay silent until you're right on top of them and then they scream like sirens.
The entire earth seemed to be full of living things. In the shrinking watering holes, thousands of adorable snub-nosed capybaras splashed in the mud, looking like 3- to 4-foot-long hippo wannabes. Trees boughs bore huge pustules of termites. Scores of caimans held their pointed mouths open like wax figures until they got nervous and barreled into the water. Beefy mosaic-colored iguanas munched on grass and then ran like maniacs when we got within a few feet. And birds called scarlet ibises were the color of red lollipops, making me swoon when they spread their wings against the pale blue sky.
Every time we passed a sandy mound, my guide would point out the shells of turtle eggs that had been dug up and sucked out by raptors, so we stopped to poke around a bit when we came upon an undisturbed potential nesting area. Carefully walking, we spotted our first Orinoco crocodile in the water. It was a good 5 to 6 feet long, and it was lurking about 10 feet out before it suddenly sprang out of the water and sprinted up the beach in what seemed like one second. Yes, she had eggs here as well, and she wasn't messing around. We definitely got the picture.

Friday, March 6, 2009

from the teleférico to the treetops

Aerial walkway
In the city of Mérida, the world's longest, highest, and coolest-sounding gondola climbs the Andes to 13,270ft over almost eight miles. It's a highlight of Venezuela, and when I arrived it was completely closed, indefinitely. Damn. I knew it would be a touchy subject at the tourist office, and when I inquired about when it would be fixed and reopened, the representative almost banged his head bloody against the desk. Politics, pure politics, he said sotto voce. All the decision makers are in Caracas and we can't get an answer out of them.
With time ticking away before I had to move on, I taxied to the botanical garden. On weekends, they open a naturalist boot camp where you can frolic on an aerial playground in the upper canopy of tall trees. At least I'd be able to get off the ground somehow.
Bound and belayed in a climbing harness, the first challenge is to scale the round bamboo steps of a loose rope ladder dangling 40ft feet from a tree. Big feet are not helpful here. Once you reach a platform in high tree trunk, the next trial is to cross the planks of a slack and teetering rope bridge, positioning yourself exactly in the middle of each step so the whole structure doesn't skew away. At the end, you scramble like a spider to ascend a duct-taped (gulp!) net and then clamp in and do a Tarzan yell as a zip line ferries you to the next tree.
I was doing fine until I saw the next stage, a stroll across a barely taut rope, with only limp parallel lines for balance. Although I would be tied in, my knees began to quiver. My brain flashed to the movie Man on Wire about a fanatical acrobat who snuck in and rigged a line across the Twin Towers and then tightrope walked between them. But thinking too much can be toxic. Egged on by a cloud of mosquitoes salivating around my arms, I put my trust in the equipment and tiptoed across.
Flying down a final zip line to the ground, I successfully avoided the bulls-eye tree at the end and reunited with terra firma. I love Mérida.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

sand surfing

Medanos de Coro sand dunes 
A full face plant would have been the only way I could have had more sand on my body. A crust of scritchy dust clung to my arms, and my scalp was coated with a crunchy texture. Not that I mind being a little scruffy, but sometime you crave a good dousing with a garden hose.
A few minutes outside the breezy colonial city of Coro, tall cacti stand sentinel just before you reach the wind-combed 100-foot sand dunes called the Médanos de Coro. Drifts of gold sand threaten to reclaim the road, and hastily parked cars get trapped when drivers pull over without noticing unstable ground.
In the late afternoon, families toiled stiffly up steep inclines, sinking calf-deep with each step, their progress loosening a silent cascade that flowed like water. At the top, the ground hardened, and gusts painted your skin and blew surreal patterns into the hillsides. At the apex of one tall dune, two people jumped into a tiny yellow toboggan and flew down towards sea level, screeching like they were riding a runaway roller coaster.
I'd jumped off a bus to wander here, and now I couldn't get any to stop for me. Four or five of the local ambulantes, smartly draped in head coverings, looked concerned and encouraged me to start walking, but with nothing in sight but sand, there didn't seem to be anything to walk to. So I stuck out my thumb, and then watched private cars zoom by alongside the buses.
The vendors called me over to the median strip and one beckoned for me to follow him. Where to? He pointed to a shiny police SUV with tinted windows. Not one to willingly get arrested, I balked, until he explained that they'd offered to give me a lift back to town. The commanding officer took off his sunglasses, pulled out a lined notebook and very studiously took down my name (why didn't I give a fake one?) and country of residence. On the way in, they radioed in that they'd found a stray U.S. tourist named Bay Coe and were delivering her safely to the bus station.

Monday, February 23, 2009

bouncing between beaches

Rancho Grande Biological Station
Carnaval madness has begun, and the bus terminals have been jammed with Venezuelans stampeding to the beach for the puente (long weekend). Everyone totes dainty little daypacks and heaves along big communal coolers.
Northwest of Caracas, sculpted green mountains climb to 6000ft in Henri Pittier, Venezuela's oldest national park. Within the park, the beach towns of Puerto Colombia and El Playón are only 12 miles apart as the pelícano flies, but it costs serious money and a strong stomach to bounce over the ocean between them in an open lancha. Otherwise, the only way to go to both is to suck down a Dramamine and thread through the evil curlicues of asphalt (2 hours one-way) that separately lead to each from Maracay. In the middle, when you reach the respective summits, the heat lifts and you enter silent cloud forest of hearty bromeliads and gargantuan trees carpeted in cascading green vines.
On the 20 mile mountain road from Puerto Colombia to Maracay, the bus driver started the journey by revving up a popular reggaetón song with a catchy chorus that goes "Ven aquí rápido" (come here quickly). Over a route laced with deadly one-lane curves, he kept one hand free to blast the truck horn and made that rickety Blue Bird school bus scream over the pavement. Passengers grabbed their bags and braced themselves against the seats as gravity paddle-balled them from side to side. The faster we went, the louder he amped up the volume, until it reached concert stadium levels. As we zoomed through populated areas, a volley of water balloons shot through open windows.
Partway up the other highway to El Playón is the Rancho Grande Biological Station, a research station for university students, scientists and birdwatchers. The setting is a dilapidated and mildew-saturated hotel that was dreamed up by one of Venezuela's most infamous dictators, Juan Vicente Gomez. After he died in 1935, the workers heaved a sigh of relief and stopped working, abandoning the building to the jungle. The station also lets civilians overnight in an otherwise off limits area, so I sneaked upstairs to poke around until the caretaker appeared and toured me through the living quarters. Before you sleep there, he said, check for scorpions and spiders in the beds.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

purple pinkies

nuestro hotel
The election tally came in over an hour before I arrived in Caracas, with Chávez whipping up 54% of the vote to become candidate-for-life. On the highway into the city, my cab driver texted on his mobile phone, looping between lanes while telling me how crazy Chávez is. I made active listening noises and discreetly groped for the non-existent seat belt buckle in the back seat. We kept passing pickup trucks, the beds brimming with joyful flag-waving Chavistas decked out in red.
People I've talked to seem either ecstatic or disgusted by the election results. The city center is still plastered with "Sí" signs, stickers and graffiti, but the minute you head to a more affluent area, the landscape shifts to stark blue posters that say "No." Talk about framing the issue to your advantage.
I stayed my first night with a friend, in a neighborhood shaded by crimson bougainvillea and tall trees bursting with yellow flowers. It felt tranquil until about 6am, when an aviary worth of birds roosted nearby and raised a ruckus louder than my alarm clock. When I staggered into the kitchen for breakfast, jetlagged, there was even one small specimen flitting inside the kitchen window.
My first impression of Caracas? A dirty traffic-tied metropolis in serious disrepair, but nowhere near as scary as I thought it would be. The people I've chatted with have been super friendly, even if I had trouble understanding what they said when they drop key consonants. Strolling around the center in the daytime, it's easy to think that the crime stats are overblown, but everyone has stories to tell about violent robberies.
On a tightly packed metro car, I was mesmerized by all the purple ink-stained pinkies that identified voters. At home in San Francisco, everyone loves wearing the "I voted" stickers they hand out at the polling places, but I love the appeal of semi-permanent ink.
If you've ever seen a lost dog running down the street panting, with a dazed and frantic look in its eyes, it could have been me at 6pm yesterday on the busy pedestrian street of Sabana Grande. After walking for hours between mirrored love hotels, a lone backpacker shelter and a score of vegetarian restaurants that had already closed (curses!), I was beat. Although my clothes aren't anywhere near as tight as the local women's, I swear I was the only one perspiring. And since I can't just poke along like folks do here, I probably looked a little unbalanced, dodging oncoming pedestrians like I was in a video game. Watch out for those tired gringas - they'll run you down.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Venezuela bound!

Less than 24 hours until I'm on a plane bound for the Murder Capital of the World, more fondly known as Caracas. During my last visit to Venezuela a little over two years ago, President Hugo Chávez was reelected as I was visiting the lush southeasterly section of the country. And in honor of my upcoming visit, there's another big vote scheduled for the day I arrive. (Aw really, you shouldn't have!) But this time around everyone's turning out to decide whether the constitution should abolish term limits so Chávez can continue to run for president after he hits the wall in 2012. Yes, they've already voted on this recently, just in case the scenario sounds a tad familiar.

For the next 7 weeks, I'll be screeching around by freezer-cooled buses through the traveler hotspots of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, updating Lonely Planet's South America guide and smiling sweetly when people tell me what a charmed carefree life I lead. After multiple days/weeks/months of bluffing my way past bored front desk clerks so I can check out rooms, explaining to suspicious shopkeepers why I'm writing down their opening hours and racing across town to get into museums before they close, the charm can feel a little thin.

Here are a few things random items I've squished into my backpack:

  • a SteriPen, which magically kills all water nasties (no more buying overpriced bottled water!)
  • fistfuls of non-recalled granola bars I scavenged after the recent salmonella scare
  • my dive mask, newly tricked out with prescription lenses
  • two pounds of pecans for the friend I'll be visiting in Caracas (supposedly he can't find them there)
  • a groovy-green edition of writings by the 18th century Orinoco River explorer Alexander von Humboldt
This will also be the virgin voyage of my new RFID passport. So if you spy my data while I'm on the road, please give me a friendly shout.