Category Archives: travel

Camina conmigo

I went hiking for two weeks in Spain! Specifically the coastal route (camino de la costa) of the Camino Santiago (St. James’ way) in Northern Spain. It was amazing and also one of the hardest physical things I’ve ever done. I walked around 250 km in 10 days. I barely read or wrote the whole time (apart from journal entries and whatever I could find available in the albergues/hostels). It was great. In the hostels, I read Virginia Woolf’s debut novel The Voyage Out, Murakami’s short story collection After the Quake, and The Kite Runner. Today (back in Norwich) I read Balancing Heaven and Earth, a memoir by the Jungian scholar, Robert A. Johnson. Here are some quotes and some travel photos:

For the methods by which she had reached her present position, seemed to her very strange, and the strangest thing about them was that she had knot known where they were leading her. That was the strange thing, that one did not know where one was going, or what one wanted, and followed blindly, suffering so much in secret, always unprepared and amazed and knowing nothing; but one thing led to another and by degrees something had formed itself out of nothing, and so one reached at last this calm, this quiet, this certainty, and it was this process that people called living. (Woolf) (pg. 306)

I now believe that loneliness occurs when our lives are somehow missing one-half of a pair of opposites–being or doing. We can be very busy and surrounded by people yet still feel intense loneliness because our lives are dominated by ‘doing’; there is insufficient time for attentive solitude with our thoughts and feelings. I know many people in this situation, surrounded by others and yet suffering from intense loneliness. We often try to address this problem with still more doing, such as calling up a friend, going out on the town–anything to get rid of that painful feeling of separateness–but all to no avail. This is the loneliness of a life filled with doing, and I have found that most intelligent people in the West today have far too much doing with little or no time for being. When your life is filled with too much doing, the only cure for loneliness is a strong dose of solitude. (Johnson) (pg. 46-47)

Instead of asking what is good or what coincides with our personal interest, ask what is whole-making; what is needed for wholeness in any situation… This requires realigning yourself each day, each hour and each moment. (101)


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Dharma Bums

This was a really nice book to read while traveling nonstop for a month through California and Oregon (my big farewell to the West–oops I mean LEFT–coast). I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed this book so much if I hadn’t been on the move so much myself, but there it goes. I was surprised by how much this book both reminded me of The Savage Detectives, especially in passages like this one:

“Then I suddenly had the most tremendous feeling of the pitifulness of human beings, whatever they were, their faces, pained mouths, personalities, attempts to be gay, little petulances, feelings of loss, their dull and empty witticisms so soon forgotten: Ah, for what? I know that the sound of silence was everywhere and therefore everything was silence. Suppose we suddenly wake up and see that what we thought to be this and that, ain’t this and that at all? I staggered up the hill, greeted by birds, and looked at all the huddled sleeping figures on the floor. Who were all these strange ghosts rooted to the silly little adventure of the earth with me? And who was I?”

Overall this book made me feel happy and excited and appreciative of my wandering, rambling youth. It’s kind of like a Buddhist “On the Road.” It was also fun to read a book in which Gary Snyder (most famous alumni of my alma mater!!) is one of the main characters. The best parts of this book made me feel like a happy smiling Buddha sitting on the edge of a hiking trail, surveying the sunrise as I think back pleasantly about my weekend getting crunk in San Francisco.

My one complaint about this book is the treatment of the female character, Rosie, who ends up killing herself (sorry for the spoiler, but whatever). The narrator’s reaction to this seemed a bit cold to me and it kind of irked me–I guess he was just a typical macho male not able to deal with his feelings? Whatever, I think Kerouac is famous for not being super great at writing female characters anyway–I guess he just couldn’t cope with the Feminine Mystique. One of these days I’d like to write a book or story in which FEMALE characters do Kerouc and Cassady and Ginsberg and Into the Wild-type things. Why should the boys have all the fun, right?

In the spirit of travel and adventure, here are some select photos of my own epic Summer of Fun, taking me from Berkeley & the Bay Area, to Morro Bay and Sebastapol, to Ashland and Bend and beyond.

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Ema la Cautiva: Boredom and Indifference

How do you make literature out of boredom and monotony?

That was the question I found myself asking, over and over again, while reading Cesar Aira’s Ema la Cautiva (“Emma, the Captive”–there’s something about the English translation of the title that doesn’t feel quite right). Not because the book itself was boring (it’s hard to be bored when you never have any idea where the hell it’s going), but because it seemed to be about boredom more than anything else. I still have about 20 pages left to go, but I doubt that anything too earth-shattering is going to happen, which feels like a strange thing to say about a book in which a girl is kidnapped by Indians in the Argentinean pampas, after having been taken out there to live in a penal colony.

Apparently this was one of the earliest books that Aira wrote, back in 1981, and it definitely feels like a work that was produced early on in a writer’s development. At 200 pages, it’s much longer than 70-something page How I Became a Nun and The Literary Conference, and the surreal, dreamlike humor of the latter two is also distinctly missing. I definitely missed their crazy, crackling energy here; Ema reads much more like a turgid, slurpy opium-induced hallucination.

So what happens in this book? There’s a lot of marches across harsh Argentinean landscapes. Characters drift in and out (I especially liked the Indian guy named Bob, for obvious reasons). There’s a lot of smoking and playing of dice, by both Argentineans and Indians. There’s the occasional philosophical discussion about time, history and money. I liked how the Indians were depicted as bored as modern suburban families, retreating to their bougie lakeside getaways; it was definitely a fresh twist.

Is this book a parody of nineteenth-century adventure novels? What to make of the paper coins that a character starts printing in an attempt to stave off boredom? Or Ema’s transformation into a prosperous zookeeper of birds?

I don’t know what to make of this book. On the back there’s a quote by Aira in which he summarizes the book’s themes, addressing the reader as  “Ameno lector ” in the best Jane Eyre fashion. He explains how he came up with the idea for the novel: paraphrased, when he was very poor and working as a translator of Gothic English novels in which English women traveled over oceans to California to drink tea, he came up with the idea of writing una ‘gótica’ simplificada, a simplified Gothic novel. Y al terminar, he writes, resultó que Ema, mi pequeña yo, había creado una pasión nueva, por la que pueden cambiarse todas las otras como el dinero se cambia por todas: la indiferencia. ¿Qué pedir? ( “And in the end it turned out that Ema, my little self, had created a new passion, which can replace all the others in the same way that money is exchanged for all: indifference. What else could you want?”)

Is this Ema’s “passion” in the story? Indifference? There certainly are a lot of moments of her raising and lowering her shoulders in response to another character’s statement or question. It’s intriguing that he calls Ema “mi pequeña yo mismo,” “my little myself,” which reminds me of Flaubert’s similar obtuse statement of Madame Bovary, c’est moi. (I just realized that Madame Bovary is also called Emma. Hmm…) Is Ema meant to represent the closest figure resembling an artist in this story, in her attempt to collect and display pheasants, for no discernable reason other than that they’re beautiful? I don’t know how to interpret Aira’s claim beyond that.

Ema's faisanes. Good to know that they're a type of animal that actually exists.

So what am I left with in the end? Well… there’s a lot of descriptions of animals and nature, zoology and geography.  I had to keep looking up the names of the animals online in Spanish-English dictionaries; I’m still not sure if the ones I couldn’t find actually exist or not.The landscapes gradually grow more and more bizarre, with Ema moving from the pampas to the small fort to the Indian settlement to an Edenic lakeside until she eventually ends up in this insane land of ice and snow.

It’s hard for me to recommend this book, namely because it was so hard for me to read, but I definitely feel like there’s quite a bit to unpack here. I probably shouldn’t have read it when I was jetlagged and sick with the flu; I think I’m going to have to give it another chance another time. Ultimately, this book will remain lumped together in my mind with Toni Morrison’s A Mercy and the movie The New World, in the sense that it’s in the same genre of Young Girl trying to make sense of the new universe she finds herself in.

Speaking of The New World, the opening and closing Wagner song from “The Ring” is one I’ve been trying to play to myself a lot in my head lately, particularly when I feel that all is bleak and lost. There’s just something about the scenes of “Rebecca” frolicking in the English countryside that fills me with hope, like maybe it’s still possible to still see the world as a beautiful place.

I don’t know. I need to start (re)cultivating that ability to marvel at the world, instead of feeling like I’m bogged in and drowing in the same-old, same-old of day in and day out of dreary sameness (or sama-sama, as they say in Bahasa in Indonesia). I don’t know how much of this feeling of mine has to do with the fact that it’s winter, and that it’s grey and cold and snowy and icy day in and day out here in England, and it’s dark every day at 4.30pm. And yet I’m not excited at ALL about heading back to Portland on Sunday, since I feel like what’s waiting for me is more of the same wetness and rain and cold and darkness until freaking March.

So… I don’t want my life to be a like a novel that’s about boredom and indifference. So to end on a more positive note, I did go to Norwich on Monday in order to meet with my old creative writing professor, who gave me some nifty points of advice, including the following (because I just love advice):
– Let self-cricicism guide you.. it is important to cultivate that ability to be critical about your work.
– Write about what you know… what is most interesting to you?
– Read Elif Batuman’s critique of US Creative Writing programs in the London Review of books.
– Don’t worry about anything. Read a lot. Read critcism as well. Read the best critics.
– What is staying with you the most? What is your material?
– Read V.S. Naipul’s A House for Mr. Biswas and Miguel Street.

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Ringing in the new

A New Orleans antique bookshelf

Happy 2010 everyone!! Right now I’m at home in Portland, snuggled in my sister’s bed listening to the sounds of The Two Towers drift in from the living room. I’m trying to remember/figure out how to use a Mac again, after months with my clunky Toshiba, whose battery no longer charges and instead just dies immediately seconds after I unplug it. I guess it’s keeping in theme with in with the new, out with the–whatever.

It feels like I’ve been pretty much on the move since coming back from Mexico. I just got back from visiting Corey’s family in New Orleans. The good news is I now have a two-week space to breath and have a little space here in Portland before embarking upon the next step of the next journey, which is sure to be here before I know it. More on that later, for shure.

But I finished Wings of the Dove (finally, finally, finally!) on the airplane flying back from Denver today. I have The Ambassadors from my mom, an excellent translation of War & Peace from my sister and a book on organic gardening from the 1970’s from my boyfriend. I have a long list of books I plan to read at the coffee shop in Powell’s during my “time off”. Books about environmentalism and radicalism and gardening and nature and all of the things that I missed about PDX that those movie critics of Avatar probably would see as more left-wing propaganda. There’s also all the books belonging to my sister and mother and dad, lying around on the floor and bedside tables and scattered across the house, like random clues to a secret treasure hunt: Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, A Lexicon of Terror, Salvador, all of my dad’s old-looking books about Tibet. A small part of me actually feels a bit frantic and anxious, like: where am I going to find the time?! Oh, it’s so hard to balance reading and doing (though I guess you could argue that reading is a form of doing, or acting).

Anyway, in order to ring in the new year on an “adventure awaits!” note (and also because I think that the note that you begin with will reflect the note that you end with–well, ideally, anyway), here are some photos of my most recent excursion:

These old-looking photos are of some items from the private collection of Corey’s childhood neighbor, who collects Civil War-era antiques as a hobby. This one is a Confederate soldier belt buckle, with a bullet still in it. Do you think this could have saved somebody’s life?
I don’t think “japs” or “nips” could be used in screamingly bold text in today’s headlines

$100 Confederate state bill–it was the size of a graduate diploma!
King Cake– besides being quite tasty, whoever finds the baby has to throw the next party

Lake Pontchartrain–the 20-minute barrier between Corey’s parents’ house and New Orleans
At the NOLA zoo bathroom, apparently the 2nd-biggest in the U.S. after San Diego’s (the zoo, not the bathroom)

Baby orangutan! It had been rejected by its mother… kind of sad…
two (or is it three?) monkeys
“pongid” was one of Corey’s earliest nicknames for me
At the Louisiana-themed exhibit

the Loup Garou, or Cajun werewolf. Pretty interesting.

This amazing spider monkey was trained by zookeepers to stand (using its tail as balance) and catch grapes… or maybe it was really the monkeys who had trained the humans…
His little friends standing eagerly below.
We rang in 2010 in style in downtown New Orleans

farmers market!!
Biking along the Trace, a bike trail behind Corey’s mom’s house that runs for miles, kind of like the Springwater Corridor in Portland

Gotta love the Cajun hairstyle
We also visited a nature reserve with Corey’s mother, where we saw a ton of wildlife (mostly birds like woodpeckers and thrushes) and plenty o’ plants.
100% genuine swamp

This little tree growing out of a nursing log felt like a powerful metaphor for something
We even found some mushrooms, like these honey mushrooms!
The stinkhorn mushroom smells just like how it sounds, like catfood
A lot of trees that had been felled by Katrina were still on the ground, like this giant magnolia. I never knew they could get so big!

Woodpecker holes

And that, my friends, is New Orleans…


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Gabo in Nuevo Laredo

Even though this is my third week of living in Nuevo Laredo, I feel like the main thing I want to talk about is all the food I’ve been eating because that’s one of the things I find most exciting about being in Mexico. Like yesterday I went to this giant market with my co-workers and their kids that everyone calls las pulgas (the fleas). There’s a saying that “para calidad, hay que ir a liverpulgas” because apparently there’s a trendy department store in either Mexico or Texas that’s called Liverpool… hence the ironic play on words “liverpulgas.” For lunch we had a big steaming bowl of menudo, or soup made of lining from a cow’s stomach. I’m not going to lie to you… it was hard to finish. I poured on the little green chilis and onions and cilantro like nobody’s business. But yeah, I’m proud to say that unlike the tripe tacos (I could only eat one, and it made me horribly ill), I ate the whole bowl of menudo. Go me. And then we walked for what seriously felt like 2 kilometers through the stalls. I ended up only buying one shirt even though I seriously need more, I’m sure all my co-workers have noticed by now that I wear the same rotating set of six shirts every week.

The main thing I wanted to write about here, though, isn’t so much the food or what it’s like to live in Nuevo Laredo or what I’m doing here (you can read all that on the Kiva Fellows blog). What I wanted to say here was that yesterday I found a plaza right near my apartment that not only looks like a good place to go running, but more importantly, there is a LIBRARY right near by! Well, I guess it’s not really a library, because you’re not allowed to check books out, it’s a “center to promote reading.” But they have shelves and shelves of books of photography and novels in Spanish and English. I spent an hour reading “Richard the III,” struggling to understand how everyone was related but loving the hell out of it. I only left because the place closed.

The coolest thing is that it’s named after none other than Gabriel Garcia Marquez, autor nacional de la tierra de mi alma. Yes, apparently he donated serious monies to build the place and came to the inauguration naming ceremony and everything. Apparently (according to the informative plaques inside the building) Gabo has a special affection for Nuevo Laredo because it was the first part of Mexico that he passed through.

The reading center built right by the railway track, which is where he took the train with his family. It’s an awesome, well-lit space with a snazzy little cafe. And a children’s center that is filled with the EXACT SAME inflatable green turtles from IKEA that I wrestled mightily to blow up for the Boys & Girls Club! A strangely small, surreal world indeed. I wish I’d taken a picture for proof.
Garcia Marquez’s books translated into different languages such as Estonian, Czech and Danish.

Reading = Growing, and lovely old copies of Don Quixote behind a glass case.

Oh, it just all brought tears to my eyes, the sight of books lined up on shelf after shelf. It just seemed like such a tranquil, lovely scene of beauty in the middle of a city that gets such a bad rep from everyone. It’s discovering places like this that makes me so glad and grateful to have the opportunity to travel to cities that are brusquely dismissed as “not worth it” or “unsightly and dirty” in guidebooks. Lago Agrio and Coca in Ecuador. Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo in Mexico. Cali in Colombia isn’t exactly spoken of as a haven of beauty either. But I love these cities! It’s what I’m used to, what I grew up with. Cracked sidewalks covered in grass. Dogs with the dirtiest, most disgusting eye sockets you can imagine, all runny with pus and so gross it just makes you want to vomit. Street food. Sugary drinkable yogurt. Men hissing ooh beautiful white girl wherever I go (okay, this I can live without).

I think something a lot of people get out of traveling is the feeling that they’re suddenly experiencing what it’s like to see themselves through someone else’s eyes. When I moved to Portland I experienced the opposite effect; it was like suddenly and magically becoming invisible. Suddenly, I could blend in, I wasn’t the white girl with the hair that always inevitably stood out in the crowd anymore as an obvious foreigner. In Portland I can lie and say that I’ve grown up in Oregon my entire life and that I’d learned Spanish in high school and no one would ever be the wiser. How weird, right?. How funny that when I travel to Spanish-speaking countries I get the feeling like I’m coming home, that I’m returning to a comforting site of familiarity, that “standing out” as the obvious clueless foreigner is the state I’m more used to.

Some cartoon drawings hanging on the walls of the reading center.



Filed under books, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, library, Nuevo Laredo, travel

life, London, this moment in June

I just got back last Wednesday from a two week trip to England and Paris to visit friends and family. While walking through the streets of London, through Trafalgar Sqaure and down Tottenham Court Road (how grandiose and epic and historical those names sound!), I loved reciting fragments from Mrs. Dalloway to myself, muttering these precious sounding phrases under my breath: what she loved, life, London, this moment in June. What a lark! What a plunge! Feeling as she did, that something awful was about to happen. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so. (3-4) I felt secretive and powerful, walking around and muttering these phrases absentmindedly to myself, as though I was one of those ancient pagan female magicians mentioned in the footnotes of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, casting a spell of protection, or maybe just chanting a mantra.

She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. (8)

This is such a beautifully written book that no matter how many times I reread it, it never fails to shock me that Virginia Woolf killed herself. This is the number one book that I think of when I think of joyful writing, of writing that hums and writhes and wriggles in ecstasy from sheer joy and lust for life. It seems so puzzling that someone who could have written this also simultaneously decided that life, this life, was not worth living.

This book reminds me of something Tori Amos said about her most recent album: she said that she wanted it to be like a snapshot of time of what it was like to be a woman in this day and age. In Amos’ case, she’s chronicling the economic recession; in Woolf’s case, her focus is on Victorian society of post World War I. I’ll never really “know” what it was like to be a woman in that time and age (let’s stay away from the giant can of metaphysical worms). But Mrs. Dalloway is as engaging of a snapshot of a very specific historical period as they come. There’s tons of stuff to unpack here about post World War I society trauma and repression–you can easily make a parallel to the Iraq War, too (that’s another thing about this book that really got me: how easily you can apply it to life today, how contemporary it feels). “It was over; thank Heaven–over,” (5) Mrs. Dalloway thinks of the War, but of course it’s not (it never is), not for anybody.

No character better embodies the sense of the war not being over than the interestingly named Septimus Smith (his name is reminiscent of numbers, which feels important in a novel where the passage of time, the constant ebb and flow of “the hour, irrevocable” (117) and the ringing of the clocks is constantly emphasized). Septimus seems to suffer from such an excess of feeling that at times it sounds like an extremely bad acid trip: leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body; … the spaces between them were as significant as the sounds. This problem of “over-feeling” seems to emerge as a reaction to his initial condition following the death of his friend Evans in the war, in which he “could not feel.” And then, with such hyper awareness and overdose of sensory input, it’s little wonder that Septimus found it difficult to get through the day.

Septimus’ plight made me think of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception,: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” That seems to be Septimus’ problem; the infinity and deeper meaning of everything appears as too glaringly apparent to him, to the point where he can’t condense his experiences or make any sense of them anymore and they just become overwhelming. Upon viewing a motor car that contains someone in the Royal Family (perhaps the Queen? It’s never made clear), for Septimus it appears to him as “this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had almost come to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames. It is I who am blocking the way, he thought.” (15) He almost sees the centre, but not quite. At the moment when Septimus throws himself off the balcony, he cries out “I’ll give it to you!” (149) Is he referring to this ungraspable center, always out of his reach?

In the end, death seems to be the only way of bringing it all together, as Peter Walsh muses while the ambulance carrying Septimus’ dead body whirs by: “a moment in which things came together; this ambulance; and life and death.” (152) Mrs. Dalloway discovers this for herself as well, upon hearing of Septimus’ death of her party: “Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.” (184) In the end, Mrs. Dalloway “felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away… He made her feel the beauty, made her feel the fun.”(186) With this sentence, I feel like Woolf herself is saying that she’s glad that it is Smith who is doomed, the artist, madman and poet, as opposed to Mrs. Dalloway, the socialite everywoman, the woman of the earth. In Mrs. Dalloway, death emerges as a moment with a potential for understanding and knowledge, however brief. As Muriel Spark wrote, “Remember you must die,” and as Ali Smith writes (in her Mrs. Dalloway rewrite of sorts Hotel World, a highly recommended book), “Remember you must live, remember you most leave, remainder you mist leaf.”

This is a good book to read every other year or so, especially around the time when you grow a year older. (I just celebrated my birthday a few days ago.) There’s a lot of juicy “what-have-you-done-with-your-life? times-a-passin’!” passages. “How remorseless life is! A little job at Court!” (74) Remorseless indeed. It’s scary, overcoming so-called banality. I think that’s Woolf’s main point by making the titular character someone who could easily be mistaken for someone shallow and lacking depth: a housewife who likes to give parties, “the perfect hostess,” who at the same time is capable of these most incredibly poetic reveries:

“a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew large and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, ‘This is what I have made of it! This!’ And what had she made of it? What, indeed?” (43)

What, indeed. How do you define what makes a meaningful or non-banal life? To whose judgement do you need to subject it to? How do you know that you’re making the right decisions, that you’re taking your life in the direction it needs to go in?

Then (she had felt it only this monring) there was the terror; the overwhelming incapacity, one’s parents giving it into one’s hands, this life, to be lived to the end, to be walked with serenely; there was in the depths of her heart an awful fear. (185)

I dunno. It may sound cliched and silly, but lately I’m really digging the mindset that it is REALLY not about the destination at all, it’s gotta be about the path. It sounds so mundane and banal when you put it like that. What I mean is that we really don’t get anywhere. We’re just on the road. You can get some things, some goals, some destinations you’d like to arrive at in your life–but you will never get it all. There is no idealized plateau where everything is suddenly going to click into place for you, click, and all of a sudden everything makes sense and you wake up every morning feeling content and fufilled and satisfied and you never have to worry about feeling otherwise. I mean, c’mon–that is NEVER going to happen (as this excellent clip discusses). That is as utopian of a vision of humanity as you’re going to get.

But I like what Richard Dalloway thinks about his days as an idealistic youth:

“He had been a Socialist, in some sense a failure–true. Still, the future of civlisation lies, he thought, in the hands of young men like that; of young men such as he was, thirty years ago; with their love of abstract principals; getting books sent out to them all the way from London to a peak in the Himalayas; reading science; reading philosophy. The future lies in the hands of young men like that, he thought.” (50)

I couldn’t agree with him more.

Still, the sun was hot. Still, one got over things. Still, life had a way of adding day to day. (64)

During this particular reread, another theme that stood out for me was the idea of simultaneous connection and isolation between people. I especially like the part where Richard Dalloway visualizes his connection to his wife as a “spider’s thread of attachment.” (115) It feels important when Richard buys Clarissa flowers instead of jewelry for a present and embarks on a grandiose mission, “walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her.” (115) Richard confronts the problem of how difficult it is to say exactly what you mean: “The time comes when it can’t be said; one’s too sigh to say it.” He thus comes to embody a very modern problem concerning language, that “it is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.” (116) Or more specifically, to be unable as weel ignorant as to how to say what you feel. How do you give words to a feeling like “I love you” in face of a dilemma such as Richard’s: “thousands of poor chaps, with all their lives before them, shovelled together, already half forgotten; it was a miracle. Here he walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her.” Needless to say, when the moment comes, he fails at his mission. But it feels somewhat redemptive that on the last page, Richard becomes capable of telling his daughter that he is proud of her: “He had not meant to tell her, but he could not help telling her.” (194) So there’s some hope there, at the end, of being capable of speaking, of putting feelings into words.


Filed under death, future, travel, Woolf

Oh, Ernesto

The person who wrote these notes died upon stepping once again onto Argentine soil; he who edits and polishes them, ‘I’ am not I; at least I am not the same I was before. That vagabonding through our ‘America’ has changed me more than I thought.

The whole month of May has been swallowed by the 750-page behemoth that is Jon Lee Anderson’s biography of Che Guevara. I’ve been keeping Corey fully updated on the different stages of Che’s life for the past three weeks: “Che’s bumming around in Guatemala with not much idea of what to do with himself. God, it makes me feel so much better about my life!” “Che just arrived in the Congo. Things are not looking good.”

This whole month of May feels like it just got swallowed. I could write something about how it’s been a year since I’ve graduated and so now I have this great manifesto… but I don’t, so I won’t.

My favorite part of the book was the first part, entitled “Unquiet Youth,” mainly because it dealt with what I was most interested in: what Ernesto was like as a young man and what drove him to pick his particular life path. This was my favorite part because it was what felt most relevant to me personally, as a young person still trying to figure out the best way to manage my freedom, my privilege and my choices. It was almost with a sense of relief that I read about Ernesto’s lack of direction and pervasive sense of uncertainty following his graduation from medical school. I thought it was really interesting that even though Ernesto was surrounded by all these radical Communists, Socialists and Marxists in Mexico and Guatemela, it wasn’t until after (as opposed to before, or during) the American intervention/CIA overthrow that he made the decision that he wanted to be more involved. As he wrote in a letter to his mother, “The bad thing is that at the same time I haven’t taken the decisive attitude that I should have taken a long time ago, because deep down (and on the surface) I am a complete bum and I don’t feel like having my career interrupted by an iron discipline.” (162-163) I almost felt like cheering when I read this: Ernesto gives a big stamp of approval on bumming around for a couple of years!

I thought it was fascinating to read about the gradual formation and changes of Ernesto’s sense of self. It was really interesting to me reading about how your childhood can have such a monumental effect on you throughout your life: as a little kid, Ernesto was so constantly sick with asthma, he was babied a lot by his mother, but also developed this incredibly fierce iron will to compete (like in rugby) and be considered as “good” as the other kids. As the biographer describes it, his asthma also led to his sense of isolation and resulting craving for camaraderie, which the author sees as the main reason for Ernesto’s fierce adoption of the Cuban cause and intense loyalty to Fidel Castro. Being a guerrilla made him feel like he was a part of a group, that he had friends, he had comrades. God, it makes me wonder how my childhood is affecting my current life. It also makes me wonder if life can really be seen as a narrative this convenient, that this straight lines can be drawn from our childhood right up to the present day. I guess it’s helpful to think so.

When Ernesto adopts ‘Che’ as his name, I couldn’t help but think of Into the Wild and Alexander Supertramp. “Call each thing by it’s proper name,” he writes in his journal near the end of the movie, signing his death note with his birth name, Christopher. Man, how hard is that, trying to figure out what your proper name is! Talk about easy say, hard do. It’s something that might take a lifetime to do.

At one point, one of Che’s comrades says, “In spite of everything, you can’t help admiring him. He knows what he wants better than we do. And he lives entirely for it.” I think this is an accurate reflection of my own feelings. I could never, ever live like Che Guevara—hell, very few of us could! It takes an incredible iron will to do so. At times, he was a hardcore maniac to the point of insanity, justifying the executions in Cuba as “justice at the service of future justice.” (458) I thought it was funny how he was particularly enraged by “individualistic” university students with “middle-class’ mentalities: “perhaps in the students he saw his self-absorbed former self, and it rankled him. He had given up his self, his ‘vocation’ for the revolution; why couldn’t they?” The answer, Che, is we’re all different. We are all different people with different paths in life, and it’s not helpful to say that one path is better than others or is the “right” path or whatever. Some of us are constantly seeking happiness and contentment, others find it pretty quickly and effortlessly. That’s just the way it is. That’s what makes us so valuable as human beings, right? Our individual, crazy, unique messed-up selves, these ridiculous consciousness we’re carrying around in the mushy gray matter enveloped behind our thick skulls?

In the biography there are some parts that indicate that Che felt isolated at times, like he was living this double life, due to his commitment to the “revolutionary cause.” At one point he says to Alberto (his old travel companion from The Motorcyle Diaries) “I live like someone torn in two, twenty-four hours a day, completely torn in two, and I haven’t got anybody to tell it to. Even if I did, they would never believe me.” (608) As he writes to his mother, “I am still the loner I used to be, looking for my path without personal help, but now I possess the sense of my historic duty. I have no home, no woman, no children [I’m sure his wife and daughter were a bit bummed to read this], nor parents, nor brothers nor sisters, my friends are my friends as long as they think politically like I do and yet I am content, I feel something in life, not just a powerful internal strength, which I always felt, but also the power to inject others, and an absolutely fatalistic sense of my mission which strips me of all fear.” (433-434) I don’t know if I could throw my life in a similarly all-in fashion in pursuit of one single goal.

It makes me feel so young saying this, but I remember watching The Motorcycle Diaries with my freshman year boyfriend in theaters on our very first date together and being extraordinarily moved. I was particularly struck by the montage of black and white photos at the end of the different people that Alberto and Ernesto. Here’s an excerpt from my personal journal that I wrote on March 19th, 2005, (Gaaaah!) shortly after I came back from the spring break service trip to Juarez:

These are some things that I cannot quite get my head around yet:

1) The difficulty between making a connection between what you think and what you do. This is something I was discussing with Ian the other day in the rhodadendron (god help me, I can never spell that word) gardens. It’s very easy to think that “I”m liberal” or “I’m creative” or “I’m a good person”, but if you don’t acutally DO anything physical in this world that serves as a concrete, physical testament to that belief, well then it just doesn’t sound very realistic to say it anymore, innit? This is something that I admire very greatly about Che Guevara upon reading “The Motorcycle Diaries”: say whatever you might like about him, but he was extremely effective at forming a connection between his ideas and his actions. The equal images of a clenched fist and a mouth streaming ideas, resting side by side… I think I’m going to have to check out some books from the library in order to learn more about him and Cuba from a more academic, scholarly point of view, because all I’m going on here is the adoring worship of the people that I’ve been surrounded by throughout my life. I think it’s creepy that “The Motorcycle Diaries” affected me much more than I ever thought it would. At the time I just thought it was a big deal because it was my first American date or whatever, but look at me, I don’t know how many months later and still thinking about it. I guess it must have resonated very deeply within me, and I have this picture of my soul being struck like a guitar string and still quivering back and forth, months later.

I went on to rant a little about how I was changing my major to General Literature or Spanish as opposed to English and Creative Writing, because I felt it would be more useful. I used an interesting phrase, about “learning to balance the Howard Roark and the mother in me.” A struggle that still continues to this day. God, I’d forgotten how excruciating reading old journal entries can be. If nothing else, they serve as a reaffirming validation that yes, it is possible for people to change, and yes, I *have* changed since I was a freshman. Thank god. Anyway, I just thought it was funny, reading what I wrote all the way back then, in context of me in the process of finishing this enormous biography.

It was fun reading about Ernesto’s early life because his writings were equally melodramatic. I think he brought a very good definition to being a traveler rather than a tourist: roughing it, being dirty (his lifelong nickname was “El Chancho” (the pig) from how infrequently he changed his clothes and how nasty he consequently smelled), being as open and receptive as possible. I’ve been thinking lately that I want to try to be more like a “tourist” in my everyday life; that is, to adopt the same mind frame that I aspire to have while I’m traveling here in what I consider my “static” period: working, living in Portland. My definition of being a good traveler is to be as open as possible to new experiences, to try to stay away from judgment. When you’re having an experience, to not so much worry about quickly judging it or summarizing it as “good” or “bad,” but instead try to reflect that “oh, this is an experience that I’m having,” and just kind of try to be in the moment, and then reflect upon it in full later. I think this is a good way to avoid the kind of stress you inevitably run into while traveling: late buses, mean people, bad food. I mean, I run into that kind of stuff here in Portland as well, but to some degree it feels less heightened, less intense than it does when I’m in a different country… maybe because I’ve been living here for a while now.

Here’s to being a good tourist in everyday life.

Lying introspectively like Jorge Malabia on his back: a common motif among young brooding men of the Rio Plata region.

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This is my travel blog.

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Man, do I ever have a good horoscope for the new year, courtesey of freewillastrology:
Your main assignment in 2008 is to become highly skilled at feeling good. Does that sound like something you might want to do? (editor’s note: YES) If so, here’s the beginning of a regimen you could follow: (1) Be constantly taking notes about what experiences give you delight and what situations make you feel at home in the world. (2) Always be scheming to provide yourself with those experiences and situations. (3) Take a vow that nothing will obstruct you from seeking out and creating pleasure, peace, love, wonder, and an intimate connection with life.
Yay! Good to know. Meanwhile, here is a travel blog styled entry for the past week or so.

Friday December 28th– Corey arrives! I wait nervously at the airport arrival gate, surrounded by mobs of families. I envision terrible scenearios on my head: Corey doesn’t get off the airplane, there was no record of him having ever been on the flight, he disappears completely into oblivion. Fortunately, he steps out of security in one piece. We embrace with great enthusiasm.
– We drive home. Corey observes on how the driving here resembles Grand Theft Auto, and comments on how you could mount a camera on the car and put it on youtube for people’s entertainment. At home he is promptly introduced, one, two, three, to the siblings, British cousin and cats. Twin sister seems to be in a bit of a daze when they are introduced.
– We go out on the town, a barbarian horde. The car is so cramped I have to sit on Corey’s lap. We pick up two of Thomas’ hoodlum friends, who ride in the trunk and make our driver extremely nervous. Corey seems overwhelmed by the general dark griminess and gritiness of the Cali streets.
– After dropping everyone off, we retire to the sanctuary of my friend Andrea’s apartment. There is a reunion with several of my Colombian girlfriends whom I haven’t seen since high scool; much high-pitched squealing and screaming is involved. Also butt-slapping with Alex shouting, “Why do you never call me back, you slut?” A fair enough question. The evening is fairly mellow, with everyone drinking Club Colombias and talking. Thankfully another gringo boyfriend is present, so the conversation is mostly dominated by English. I think up jokes involving gringo boyfriend holding pens. Corey does very well (a theme for the entire week!) considering he is in a roomfull of people he doesn’t know. He almost gets into a semi-heated argument with gringo boyfriend #2 involving welfare for single mothers in the state of Louisiana. I gidily interrupt several times in an attempt to change the subject; fortunately in due time the conversation topic switches over to the fall from grace of Britney Spears’ little sister.
– The three of us (sister, Corey and I) take a cab to meet my little brother. We are in a neighborhood of Cali I do not know very well (I hardly know any of Portland well, let alone Cali, my sense of direction is utterly hopeless). I begin to feel, as they say in the Star Wars movies, “I’ve got a baaad feeling about this.” Little bro is at a party with throbbing lights and various sunglasses-wearing, gum-chewing characters. It’s a testament to this party’s sketchiness that my cousin later told me that around 5am when he and his friend Juan showed up, Juan took one look at it and was like, “Dude, we are not going into this party.” Anything that exceeds my cousin’s baromenter of sketchiness is thus VERY SKETCHY INDEED. Corey wants to leave and I don’t blame him; this is Advanced Introduction to Colombia as opposed to 101. I give my sister the cellphone and leave her and my little brother there. If there’s one thing about families, you can’t tell them what not to do. Corey and I thus retire for the evening.

Saturday, December 29th– A quiet day. Corey and I go on two hikes. One goes past my regular jogging route over the river (is it the rio Cauca? I honestly don’t even know… if there’s one thing that never fails to embarrass me, it’s how little I know about the country in which I live for basically 18 years).

We take a dirt road through the mountains to a valley that opens up over a soccer field.

We then scramble down the side of a hill and sit with our feet in a river, watching a family on the other side picnicking. I scratch my many mosquito bites.

In the afternoon we go to Parque de las Garzas, another nearby walk to my house. I am glad that I get to show Corey my neighborhood and perhaps make up for the disorientating near-horror that was last night.

We found a lot of ferns he got really excited about, which made me feel pleased and proud, as though I ‘d planted them there myself.

– That night, we go out on the town. We take a taxi to Martyn’s, the expat bar in the north. I use an address I found on an online blog that was possibly wrong because I swear I didn’t recognize the place that the cab took us. They wouldn’t let us in anyway since Corey was wearing shorts. We decide to walk to La Sexta (main disco-clubbing strip) and have a beer.

We also drink a bottle of aguadiente and have some grilled chicken with chimichurri. Corey is much more cheerful and relaxed than the night before; I think how much easier it is to get around and do the fun things that you want to do with only two people, as opposed to a group of them (even if it’s “only” three!). We enjoy watching the fruit tree bats fly around and eat the mosquitos around the light. Properly and pleasantly drunk, we then go to a salsa disco called Las Cascadas and have a brilliant time dancing. Corey claims people are staring at him, most likely because of his beard (I can’t believe I never noticed how no one Colombian has a beard here; I guess it makes you look a little too jungle treking, Marxist guerilla-esque).

Sunday, December 30th

We go on a family hike to Nirvana, not the state of enlightenment unfortunately, but a nature reserve about an hour and a half away. Corey takes many interesting pictures and stops to study the plants intensely several times.

We see a surprising amount of wildlife, including:

a giant spider,

an unidentified bird,

and a bee (wasp? hornet?) hive.

(not a wild animal)
The views of the valley were muy, muy bien.

For lunch we eat the giant trout from the trout farm.

It is of course delicious, and I of course end up eating practically all of my food and scraping the leftovers of Corey’s plate onto my fork or scooping them up with my fingers. Yum, yum. Corey enjoys drinking the poker. We make my sister gag by being smoochy-woochy. He pats her on the arm and tells her, “don’t worry, one day you’ll get to kiss a boy too!” I feel glad that he doesn’t let her push him around.
– The next day we left for Gorgona. In Real Time my family is leaving for Cartagena tomorrow, so this blog may just have to wait to get up to date on both that little adventure and this next one.

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