Sunday, July 31, 2011

Bug Bite - Part 3 of 3

Mexico City (D.F.)

   I had never before seen anything like Mexico City. Street vendors, tourists, beggars, business people, and paint huffing six year old children, walk among 800 year old Aztec ruins, 400 year old Catholic Cathedrals, and modern sky-scrapers. All of which share the same patch of real estate. College kids drink in the same bars as prostitutes. Displaced indigenous women sit on the sidewalk and sell hand made tlacoyos for thirty cents to the Americans and Europeans that reach down to drop the coins into their waiting hands. A beautiful park filled with miles of green grass and lush trees sits just a few miles from the trash dumps that hundreds of families use for food and shelter. Impeccably clean museums frame the history of the city with well preserved art and artifacts, while garbage and pollution help to spread sickness outside of those same walls. Massive Diego Rivera murals show the clash of the cultures that have come together here over the years. Modern subway trains cost twenty cents, and provide transportation for elderly grandmothers, grade school students, and petty thieves alike. The contrasts are unmistakable and unavoidable. The noises, the colors, and the smells of the place bombard you at every turn.

   These different worlds, thrown together in one boiling mass of humanity, produce a chaotic and exhilarating energy, and I was instantly drawn to all of it. But it also brought to the surface a lot of conflicting thoughts and emotions within myself. And as I walked through the city and interacted with the people there, I found myself beginning to question the validity of how I viewed myself in relation to other people.

   I had always looked upon the privileged classes with a degree of judgement and scorn. To my way of thinking, there was something inherently immoral about the accumulation of large amounts of wealth, in a world where dire poverty is so widespread. And I had never had any doubts as to which side of that struggle I was on. But then I found myself surrounded by people that wouldn't make as much money in a year, as I would make in a week, or even a day. There were millions of people struggling to survive in this city, and many of them had to choose between crime, prostitution, begging, starvation, or leaving their home and family for a foreign and potentially hostile land. And seeing this, I had to acknowledge that my own station was far more privileged than I'd ever admitted to myself. Because struggle or not, my options were virtually limitless.

   Here, I did not have the luxury of considering the lives of others through the lens of books and movies. I could not sit in the safety of a college classroom, and talk about the collision of cultures and its impact on those that are directly involved. The people in question were now all around me. They weren't photographs, or statistics in a sociology textbook. They were living breathing human beings. And I couldn't cozy up to the romantic notion that my working class status in the U.S., somehow automatically tied me to the struggles of the poor and oppressed worldwide. Here, I was forced to recognize and accept the fact that no matter where I fell among the income strata in the U.S., my status as an American citizen with full-time employment (and with the resources to travel throughout a foreign country), placed me among the wealthiest people in the world. So I now had to take all of the harsh judgement that I had applied to the people that Americans consider wealthy, and see if I could stand up underneath it myself. And one person in particular helped force that view to come into focus for me, more than anyone else that I met on that trip.

   It was our first night in D.F. I was sitting in a bar with the two friends that I was traveling with. The bar was on the second floor of an old building made of stone. Near the entrance, there was a small wooden dance floor that stood empty. On the other side of the room, sat a group of eight Mexican men and women, that all looked to be about twenty years old. They were clean cut, well dressed, and just loud enough give the impression that they were having a good time, but not so loud as to be obnoxious. A quiet, heavy-set, middle-aged woman was serving us. The rest of the room was empty.

   It wasn't exactly what we were looking for. We wanted to find something a little more lively. But we hadn't received any good suggestions yet, and all of the bar descriptions in our travel book seemed vague. In the other cities that we'd visited, we'd been content to wander the streets aimlessly and leave our night to chance. But we were all a bit apprehensive about the prospect of wandering the streets at night in a city that had such a notorious reputation for crime. So we sat with our beers, and talked about calling it an early night. We still had several more days left, before heading back to Monterrey. Perhaps we'd be better off waiting until we found somebody to point us in the right direction. And then we noticed two attractive young women sitting at a table at the other end of the room, and we decided to have another round of beers.

   We were half way through that next round of beer, and still debating the best way to approach a couple of women that were probably on the opposite side of a language barrier, when we noticed that a third woman had joined them. The significance of the language barrier, and any other social barriers, now seemed to be shrinking rapidly. Clearly this was just short of divine providence. Things had been falling into place for us throughout the whole trip, and from underneath the warm and fuzzy comfort of several beers, it looked as though it was happening again.

   And then our soft spoken waitress decided to help us out. When she came around to offer us another round, she suggested that we buy a round for the three women as well. Perhaps that should have been a red flag. Perhaps three unaccompanied women sitting in a bar in Mexico City should have been a red flag too. But we were seeing the world as we wanted it to be, not as it was. So we bought the round of drinks and asked the women if they'd mind us sitting with them.

   There wasn't any collective "Eureka!" moment for the three of us. But through a series of glances at one another, we did all convey to each other that we finally understood what was happening. We realized that the three women were prostitutes, and that they worked for the bar.

   We knew each other well enough to know that none of us were going to be purchasing another human being for sex. But we weren't sure of what it was that we were going to do. And now that we were seated at the table with the three women, it was an awkward topic to discuss.

   So we just talked with them. We bought another round of drinks for everybody, and we talked. We used what little collective Spanish was available to us, and they did the same with a seemingly equal amount of collective English. The uneasy feeling that had come with the discovery of their profession, began to fade away. And on the surface it almost became something as simple as three guys talking to three gals.

   My supply of Spanish ran out first, and I was initially content to sit in silence and observe. But after a while, I noticed that one of the women had a particularly short supply of English as well, which put her in the same boat as me. So I finished my beer and I asked her if she'd like to dance. She smiled and said yes, and we made our way to the otherwise empty dance floor.

   I put some money in the jukebox. She picked the songs. And we took a few spins around the floor. As we danced, I decided to take another shot at speaking with her. With just the two of us, we could talk at our own speed, and perhaps have more success with our words.

   We started at the beginning. We exchanged names again. I told her that I lived in Chicago, and she asked if it was really so cold there. I asked her if she had always lived in D.F., and she said that she was from an area not far from the city. She asked about my family, and I told her about them. She furrowed her brow as she took it all in, and occasionally she offered a polite nod. I asked her about her family too. I couldn't discern the details, but it seemed that they were no longer around. Then I asked if she had any children, and she gave me a smile that managed to be both sheepish and enthusiastic. She told me that she'd just had a baby three weeks prior. I asked about the father, and she just shook her head.

   I realized how personal our conversation had become, and then the thought came to me that perhaps that was the only type of conversation available to two people that have so few words to work with. Small talk, in its own way, is more complex. It often involves elements such as cultural references and inside jokes. Things which just don't translate well. But simple and honest emotions such as sorrow and joy are universal. And so are the comforts and concerns that inevitably accompany our relationships with friends and family.

   I had also become curious about her age as we talked. When we first spotted the women sitting at the table, I might have guessed that they were in their early twenties. But I was starting to realize that my estimate had probably overshot the mark in this case in particular, so I asked her how old she was.

   When she said "trece", I stopped in my tracks. I asked her again, thinking/hoping that perhaps I'd misunderstood her, or that my limited Spanish was failing me again. The second time she said it, she said it with a whisper. She had obviously noticed my surprise and discomfort. But the number stayed the same. This girl was thirteen years old.

   More specifically, this girl was a thirteen year old single mother. She was living in Mexico City without any family to help her. And she was a prostitute. Those facts punched me in the face one after the other. And on the heels of those facts came several more. I was sitting in a bar, buying her drinks, and talking and dancing with her.

   Somehow, in a matter of minutes, I'd gone from a guy that was out to have a few beers, and maybe talk/flirt/dance with a woman, to a guy that was offering at least a passive contribution to child prostitution.

   There was an unbearable amount of commotion in my head at that moment. I had no idea what to do. I didn't know which direction I should even start in.

   We left the dance floor, and I could see that the girl was embarrassed, and maybe a little ashamed. I wanted to do something to make it better for her. I wanted things to be other than the way they were. But more than anything, I wanted to be out of that building. I wanted to put some distance between myself and what was happening in that bar. I wanted to rebuild that fragile barrier between my world and hers. A barrier that had seemed so solid just an hour before.

   I did leave the bar. But I couldn't rebuild the wall. The shock of learning that girl's age, had blown open the window, and given full view to the ugly truths that I'd been choosing to ignore. My world was more closely tied to the world of that child than I'd ever wanted to acknowledge. And my role in the relationship was not as benign as I'd dreamed it to be.

   In theory, I'd had some awareness of my privileged life for some time. And I knew that my privileges came at the expense of others. I knew, for instance, that the products that I bought in the U.S., often came from countries where workers were underpaid and maltreated. And that by purchasing those products, I was supporting an unjust and immoral system. But I rationalized my decisions. I told myself, that I couldn't change the world, and that I couldn't possibly function in American society without supporting such systems. I told myself that I had to pick my battles and then move on with my life.

   But standing in front of that girl, I was forced to honestly consider the real human impact of that perspective. And, though I tried to block this process out, it also forced me to honestly consider what I truly felt in my gut about my place in the arrangement.

   The truth was, that from the moment I'd set foot in Mexico, I'd been enjoying the power and freedom that my relative wealth gave me. I'd walked around like a tiny benevolent dictator, doling out coins that came so easy to me, and feeling self-satisfied when I saw the enthusiasm with which they were gobbled up. That unequal distribution of power made me feel like a giant, and I liked it. I felt dirty and ashamed for liking it, but I liked it none the less.

   And I'd still liked it when we were talking to three prostitutes in a bar. I'd convinced myself that I was on firm moral ground because I wasn't going to have sex with any of those women. But the imbalance of power was still there. I had money that they needed, and I got to choose whether they'd get it, what they'd have to give me in exchange, and exactly how much I'd part with. The circumstances stripped those women of most of the equalizers that they might have had if we'd crossed paths in the U.S. And consequently, I was free of any insecurities or social anxieties that I'd have been subject to at home. It was an arrangement that was easy to take advantage of, but one that was in direct conflict with my view of who I am and who I want to be.

   I wrestled with that conflict throughout the remainder of the trip, and I still wrestle with it today. I still struggle, sometimes unsuccessfully, to resist selfish impulses, even as I acknowledge the adverse affect that my actions can have on others. I have yet to find a formula for ridding myself of those impulses and desires all together. But I am trying to be more honest with myself about the choices that I'm making. I'm trying to limit the rationalizations and the excuses. I'm trying to be honest with myself about who I am. And I'm hoping that that will bring me closer to being who I want to be.

   We stayed in Mexico City for several more days. We climbed the Aztec pyramids outside of the city. We went to museums and parks. We wandered around in the daytime, and soaked up the raw and vibrant life of the city streets. We ate wonderful food. We watched street performers. And then, eventually, we made our way home.

   I've been back to Mexico a couple of times since that first trip. It's a beautiful country, and it will always have a special place in my thoughts, because it was the there that the travel bug first took a really big bite out of me.

Joe, Me, Jason.
On top of a pyramid, outside of Mexico City.
   I've also had the opportunity to explore some other countries since then. And through those travels, I've made discoveries about myself and the people around me, that I don't think I could have made at home. I'm still drawn to the big cities. I'm still drawn to the unfamiliar. I still find plenty of profound beauty and human dignity among all of the widespread cruelty and tragedy. I enjoy getting out of my comfort zone. I like having to make conscious observations about unfamiliar surroundings. And I like the surprises, even when they're tough to handle.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011


   I met a man at a bar about six years ago. His name was Brian. He had Lou Gehrig's Disease. He was in a wheelchair. His body was thin, and his limbs were slightly contorted. He was 30-something years old. He'd lived a physically active life before the disease arrived. He'd done a lot of hiking, mountain climbing, boating, and martial arts. But his passion was for motorcross. He knew that he'd be dead within months, or possibly even weeks.

   He wasn't close to his family, but he'd had a group of friends that shared his active lifestyle. When his disease made that lifestyle unsustainable, they abandoned him. All of them. They stopped calling. They didn't come visit. They didn't write. They were gone. He was left to face death alone.

   He moved to the north end of downtown Chicago. That part of the city was easily navigated by wheelchair. He had money in the bank, and he made the bars of Chicago's Gold Coast neighborhood his new and final home. The bartenders and doormen all knew him by name. But he was desperate to be truly close to somebody.

   He told me all of this with a steady downpour of words. He had no time for pretense or subtlety. He could not afford to be cowed by the thought of rejection. He did not have the luxury of lying to himself.

   And I listened to all of this. I let the words soak in. I could feel the fear and the loneliness in every word that the man uttered. We moved together from one bar to the next. Faces that were familiar to him, helped him in and out of bars. Onto and off of bar stools. He drank gin. And he threw his naked pleas for companionship at me like a mad fisherman, furiously throwing his line at the water, over and over again.

   As the night inched closer to morning, he wound down. The urgency that had been in his words and movements began to subside. But there was no peace in the creeping silence. There was only defeat.

   When we prepared to part ways, he gave me his phone number. I don't know whether he believed that I'd call. I do know that he wanted that call to come. But it didn't come. Not from me.

   I was sincerely sympathetic. I was even curious. But I was also scared, and that was the emotion that won.

   I don't know how long I held onto the number. I don't remember how close I came to calling. I only remember that I didn't do it.

   I sometimes wonder how his final days played out. Whether he found somebody more courageous, or simply more caring, than me. Whether he had somebody to hold his hand as he died.

   I wonder what would be different with me too, had I made that call.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tidbits From The Beach

   I'm in North Carolina, at Sunset Beach. This is the fourth day of my vacation. Two friends of mine got married here a few days ago. They met each other about four years ago, and I met them both around that same time.

Bride and Groom
   We don't live in the same city any more. They've been in Denver for three years now. So I've only seen brief glimpses of their transition from the realm of dating to the that of marriage. I've visited with them in Denver a few times. I've seen the home that they share. Played with their dogs. Drank beer with them at their neighborhood bar.

   That view, however limited, has left me with a good impression. The seem to have a genuine tenderness with each other, and they seem to communicate openly and honestly. They're both thoughtful and intelligent people, and they seem to share common values and perspectives.

   And I feel confident that they have found connections with matters that are deeply personal as well. We all have various pieces of debris from our life, that we carry around within ourselves. They seem like they've found a way to share those pieces of themselves with each other, and they seem like they've grown together through that process.

   Its a remarkable thing to witness, no matter the vantage point.

Me on the left. Justin on the right.  Beach house roof deck. 
   I'm sharing a beach house this week with three other friends. We've had a lot of down time. I've been able to read a little. Write a little. Eat and drink a lot. Do some swimming and lounge in the sun. Things have slowed down. We have nowhere to be. We just get to be.

   We watched the sunrise on the beach after a night of great food, heavy drinking, story telling, and hard laughter. Three of us went running together yesterday morning. And I believe there is an ocean-side ice cream cone in my future.

Waiting on the sunrise with the groom.
   The slow and easy pace allows me time to see things in a different light. I can pause to consider the people around me as individual  people. With their own unique hopes and fears. Their own personal history. I hear the waves, and pause to consider the ocean of which they are a part. I can stare at the stars, and consider each as an individual sun. And the limitless possibilities of the universe begin to open up.

   Life is beautiful. And I'm going to go jump in the ocean now.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Where to Put Things

"I don't know where to put things, ya know? I really do have love to give. I just don't know where to put it." - Quiz Kid Donnie Smith

   I've been trying to learn how to write for roughly fourteen years. But for the most part I've kept the results of those efforts to myself. That doesn't mean that I have thousands of pages of writing hidden away in my closet. I don't. I have hundreds of pages at best, and most of that would be meaningless to anybody but me.

   Throughout those fourteen years there have been long stretches of time in which I wrote nothing. Though there have never been long stretches of time in which I did not think about writing.

   Fiction is what I want to write. There is a desperation in my gut to make that happen. But that desperation rarely succeeds in traveling from my gut to my fingertips. It happens, but not often.

   I can't give a full explanation of why I want to write fiction. I know that it started with falling in love with literature that was written by others. I know that I saw those writers use fiction to engage the more difficult aspects of living. I saw them use their characters and stories to explore the dark and disturbing elements within themselves. And I wanted that for myself. I still do. I also know that that explanation is far from complete.

   I created this blog in October of 2009. In April of 2011, I finally started using it. I wasn't sure what I'd do with it. I don't see myself using this space for fiction. But I felt like I needed to put something out into the world. I needed to get comfortable with the idea of other people reading the thoughts that I've put down.

   I also needed to develop some discipline. I needed a routine. A writer has to write. The fiction will not be there every day. It isn't there most days. But there is always something in my head. When the fiction isn't there, I can write on other topics. On the days that I can't seem to dig deep, I can sort through the things that are a little closer to the surface. That keeps the fingers moving.

   Sometimes I think the experiment has been a fruitful one. I've been writing almost every morning for the past few months. But I do question it too. Am I settling for the easy stuff too often? Most days I don't even try to write any fiction. I just go straight to the blog. Have I created a cheap and hollow replica of my honest desires? Am I settling for something less than what I want, because I'm afraid of the real thing?

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bug Bite - Part 2 of 3

   We arrived in Queretaro on a Saturday, and that was by design. Jason had been there once before, and he'd come away with a decidedly favorable impression of the city's nightlife. So we figured we'd soak up the night spots there, and then have the following weekdays to explore Mexico City's museums, parks, ruins, and so on. But those plans had one big hitch that none of us had been aware of. The federal elections were going to be held on Sunday, and it is illegal to sell alcohol in Mexico on election day. So from Saturday at midnight, through Sunday evening, the bars that we'd hoped to visit would be closed.

   We had actually heard about this a few days prior to arriving in Queretaro. But I don't think we really believed it. My own disbelief was rooted in the impression that I had of the country's legal system in general. The handful of cross border excursions that I'd made over the years had taught me that "illegal" in Mexico, really just meant "expensive". And even the term expensive was relative. But the closer election day came, the more we talked to people about this one day prohibition. And the more we talked to people, the more we realized that the bars really were going to close.

Lucha Libre Flyer
   Of course we didn't have to go out drinking at night in order to enjoy the city. I could just enjoy the daytime wanderings through the streets and parks. We'd have a relaxing weekend and move on. But I'd got the idea in my head, and it wasn't going away. (Election day also happened to be my birthday, and that probably added to my stubbornness.) And then those daytime wanderings brought us upon an alternative. While walking down the street, Joe spotted a flyer for some lucha libre matches. There was a full slate of matches scheduled for the night of the elections, and our derailed bar-hopping plans had just been rerouted to the colorful world of Mexican free wrestling.

   Before the liquor sales shut down, we grabbed a bottle of Cuban rum. (Good rum that was illegal in the U.S. because of an outdated, misguided, and inhumane trade embargo. But was readily available at a great price in Mexico.) And with most of that bottle in our bellies and an excited sense of mischief in heads, we arrived at Arena Queretaro.

Myself and Jason at Arena Queretaro.
   Arena Queretaro looked like one of the old high school basketball gyms in the movie Hoosiers. Though time had taken its toll on the place. In the center of the gym was the wrestling ring. Well worn, tattered, and taped up, the ring stood empty when we arrived. As did most of the seats. The rows of aluminum folding chairs were about ten deep on each side. And behind them stood the cracked and dirty concrete walls of the old building. We took a few seats in the front row and watched the other fans and spectators trickle in.

   I was later told that we would have experienced a much larger crowd had it not been election night. But whatever the hundred or so person audience lacked in size, they more than made up for in intensity.

   As soon as the first wrestlers took to the ring, they were greeted by cheers and jeers from the fans. One woman in particular stood apart from the rest of crowd and earned a permanent spot in my memory. The venom that she aimed at her enemies in the ring was both frightening and comical. Her face was red, her muscled strained, and the animosity in her voice might give somebody the impression that she was confronting the murderer of a loved one, rather than an underpaid b-list entertainer. But that alone isn't what made her stand out. Throughout the matches, while she spewed out hate filled obscenities that filled the gym, a baby of about four or five months slept peacefully in her arms. Not once did she hand off the baby to one of the merely mildly ruffled women in her party, who seemed content to shout an occasional admonishment or perhaps shake a fist at the ring. And not once did that baby show any sort of alarm at the fury that was emanating from it's presumed mother. Which led me to speculate that perhaps she is like this all the time. That thought led my down a whole other rabbit hole of questions. For instance, what might life be like for that kid, and for the man that helped produce the offspring?

   But I did eventually pull my attention away from the woman, and return my gaze to the ring. The view from the front row provided an interesting perspective on the wrestling. The punches and kicks were clearly not landing with full force. And they tossed each other around with moves that were obviously choreographed. But it was equally apparent that these guys were taking a beating. The sweat was pouring out, the cuts and scrapes seemed quite real, and the labored breathes coming from the ring were evidence that they were giving everything they had to the performance. And then they took their battles beyond the ropes.

Lucha Libre @ Arena Queretaro
   The first time a wrestler was thrown into the seats, the crowd squealed with mock terror and delight, scattered out of harm's way, and left the two men to fight it out on their own. The wrestlers punched and kicked one another among the fallen chairs, before finding their way back into the ring. The second time, the same thing happened, but on another side of the stage. And at that point I realized that they would probably make their way around to our side at some point.

   As that realization sank in, the excitement and the anticipation began to mix with the Cuban rum, and I turned to Jason and Joe, and told them that I wasn't going to move if one of the guys got thrown our way. I wanted to get in on the fight somehow. And just a moment later they came flying my way.

   I think it was the "good guy" that landed in my lap, but I couldn't be sure. Either way, I grabbed him from behind and held him in a full nelson. This was a pretty big guy, and I have no doubt that he could have shaken off my little seventh grade playground move with relative ease, had he chosen to. But both wrestlers embraced the improvisational moment. The one in my lap pretended to struggle for his freedom, while his opponent tried to stifle the laughter that I could see behind his mask, all while delivering heavy stomps to the prone man's chest.

   After delivering those kicks, the standing wrestler grabbed his enemy and threw him back into the ring and I nearly pissed myself with glee. I looked around and saw the chairs that had been knocked over, the spilled popcorn and cokes that littered the floor, and I noticed that the fallen fighter had left some of his blood on my pants.

   The absurdity of it all was absolutely beautiful. In that environment I could just let go of any attachments that I had to the realm of logic and reason and I could embrace the honesty and the simplicity of impulse and sensation. It isn't a state that I want to find myself in on a daily basis, but there is an undeniably cathartic release involved in the process of giving yourself over to those elements from time to time.

   After the last match, I left Queretaro Arena with an easy smile on my face. It was a quiet summer night in the city, and we rode in silence in a cab with the windows rolled down.

   The polls had closed, and as we rode down the street we noticed that people were posting what looked like results from individual precincts. Big pieces of paper with names and numbers printed on them, were stapled to walls. And the people passing by immediately gathered around to take a look. But it was a close and highly contested election, and the results were far from final that evening.

   That following morning we packed our bags and once again set out for the bus station. We had one stop left, before returning to Jason's place in Monterrey. Mexico City was just a quick ride down the highway and I was excited to get there.

   Mexico City was the red letter destination on that itinerary for me. I love the chaotic energy of large cities, and I knew that this was one of the biggest in the world. And in theory, I knew that I was going into something that was outside of my realm of experience. I'd listened to Jason talk about the place. I'd read about it. I'd seen it portrayed vividly in one of my favorite movies. But in the end, nothing that I had read or heard about could convey the sights, sounds, smells, and the feel of that city. In order to get even a taste of the humanity that that city is teeming with, I had to stand in it.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Bug Bite - Part 1 of 3

Zacatecas, Mexico - June 28, 2006

   "The sun has yet to climb the hills into the sky, but the town has begun to stir. Uphill somewhere, a rooster has been crowing for the last twenty minutes. Two European backpackers leave the hostel and march up the brick/stone street towards the bus station, preparing to leave the sleeping town behind. A stray cat sifts through a bag of garbage until he is interrupted by the garbage truck. Though far smaller and without the loud machinery and warning beeps of its American counterpart, the small white pick-up truck rumbles to a thundering halt, and the sound of its engine echos off the concrete walls of the small colonial era buildings.

   With the chiming of the church bells the sky turns a lighter shade of blue, as if awakening instantly to an alarm that has sounded every morning for several hundred years. And on cue, the sounds of a waking town join in. The clink of bottles from an upstairs apartment. The sounds of footsteps along the walkway. A baby crying in the distance. Traffic noise becomes more constant. Doors and windows open, and heads peak out to assure themselves that all is as it should be. A pack of dogs trot down the street, trying to sniff out scraps that the garbage men, or the cat before them, may have overlooked. And the chirping and tweeting of hungry birds fills the sky until they are overtaken by yet more church bells. This time, louder and more numerous, the sounds of the bells crash throughout the town, insisting that those who missed the first call rise and join the new day." 

   I wrote that in my notebook while sitting outside on the hillside steps of a sidewalk in Zacatecas. I'd gotten up early that morning to go for a walk. I'd been in Mexico for a few days, and I was experiencing the wonderful way in which traveling to an unfamiliar environment can awaken the senses and fill the head with a romantic haze.

   I'd done a fair amount of traveling before that. I'd been on road trips throughout the U.S. as a child and as an adult. And I'd ventured into border towns like Tijuana and Nuevo Laredo, to take advantage of the nightlife. But this trip was different.

   I was with two of my closest friends, Jason and Joe, and we had almost two weeks to explore interior Mexico. We started up north in Monterrey, and then moved south to Zacatecas and Guanajuato, before finishing up in Queretaro and Mexico City, and eventually going back to Monterrey. My friend Jason was living in Monterrey at the time, so we had the benefit of his previous travels throughout the country, as well as the tips and suggestions that he'd received from other people that he'd met there. That additional source of information, more than anything else, helped shape the format of that trip. And that trip in turn, prompted a major shift in how I viewed travel in general.

    We made our way around the country by bus. For a fraction of the cost of a slow and uncomfortable bus ride in the States, we got big comfortable seats, were given complimentary sandwiches and cans of pop, and direct routes with minimal stops. The buses were equipped with TVs that played bad movies, like George of the Jungle 2 and Daredevil, in Spanish. And as we rode them, we got the chance to take in the scenery.

   In northern Mexico, we rode through the empty desert for hours on end. The differing shades of brown dirt and grey rocks, were the only colors outside of our bus. It was like riding through the remains of an old black and white movie, with all of the props having been rounded up and taken away years before. I remember seeing storms far off in the distance, but they never caught us.

   When we arrived in Zacatecas, it was early evening. We went directly to a hostel that had been recommended by one of Jason's co-workers. I never wrote down the name of the place, but it remains one my favorites on an ever growing list of temporary homes that I've settled into while traveling.

   When we stepped into the old building that housed the hostel, we were greeted by a young man by the name of Ernesto. I don't remember much about Ernesto or his life outside of that job, though we did talk a little about that. But I do remember that he was an eager host. After we dropped our bags in our room, he took us on a tour of the small property. He asked us where we were coming from and how long we'd be in Zacatecas, and he talked about the city's people and history with an open and sincere affection. He showed us the refrigerator full of beer that was available for the hostel's guests, and explained that the tab was tallied up on the honor system. And then finally, he took us to the  rooftop, where other lodgers would gather, usually with several of those beers, and take in the view of the city while trading travel stories and offering suggestions on what to see and do down the road.

   We started off the evening on that rooftop, but were soon out on the cobblestone streets. We wandered from one landmark to another. An old church here, and an old tavern there. And as we walked, we kept running into small bands of boisterous revelers. We'd usually see a couple dozen to a group, but sometimes more. They had trumpets and guitars, bottles of tequila, and small ceramic cups hanging from pieces of string around their necks. Anywhere we walked, we heard their laughter and their songs bouncing around us.

   Once we made friends with one of the groups, we learned that these were politically motivated gatherings. The federal elections were just days away, and the celebrations were a sort of "Get Out The Vote" campaign for the candidates/parties that our new friends were supporting. A big part of me was quite interested in the political aspect of the tradition that we had stumbled upon. But the general feeling that I got from the people around me was casual and carefree, so I let my inquiries go and I embraced the music and tequila side of the party instead.

   We spent the rest of that evening on the streets and in the taverns. For the first time, I used a urinal while taking in a full view of the bar, and allowing the bar an almost full view of me. (That particular bar had crossed the gender barrier years before, so there were small saloon style doors separating the urinal from the rest of the room. And the location and visibility of that urinal did seem like a relic that was held onto for its novelty, in order to help the 100+ year old tavern capitalize on the tourist trade. But some of the darker and dingier bars that I discovered in Mexico had not yet crossed that barrier and were far less discreet.) We met a handful of other travelers, including a tattooed girl from Brooklyn that had a wonderful passion for Heavy Metal and was carrying around a donkey skull in a hefty bag. And eventually we made our way back to the rooftop, opened one last beer, and wound down with some quiet conversation under the big desert sky.

Joe, me, and Jason. Outside of El Eden Mine.
   We made the sightseeing rounds the next day. We took a ride on the teleferico, which gave us an awesome panoramic view of the city. We went on a tour of the old silver mine that the city was built around. Our guide showed us some of the natural beauty inside of the caves while explaining the brutality of the conditions for the men, women, and children that worked in them.  And after that, we walked the streets while munching on mangoes from street vendors and doing some people watching.

   Those daytime walks have since become one of my favorite things to do while traveling. There is a certain magic to the process of simply wandering around for hours, with no specific destination, taking in the sounds and the smells of a new place. The vast array of differences, both subtle and stark, between that new place and the more familiar surroundings of home, have a way of forcing the mind to open up. Because it's not so easy to put your head down and go through the motions of your day, when you can't quite recognize most of what is happening around you.

Me and Sancho Panza on the left. Jason and Don Quixote on the right.
   Something as simple as a search for helpful landmarks or an attempt to use a few new words from a foreign tongue, can get the wheels turning. And then little by little, the things that you do know begin to give way to the things that you don't know. You stop seeing passersby as a lump of motion, predefined and categorized in your mind. And you begin to see the individual expressions on the faces of the people that you pass. You may notice an odd gait on another walker, or you may take a moment to consider the intensity with which a small child can explore a patch of dirt. You might take in the woodwork on a door frame, rather than just passing through the door without a thought. Even something as common and mundane as a piece of litter, or the lack thereof, can spawn speculation about the environment in which you stand.

   Whatever form it takes, the awakening that travel can help facilitate is a priceless experience. And this is where I began to make that discovery.

   After a couple more days in Zacatecas, we made our way to Guanajuato. Guanajuato greeted us with yet another hostel with a rooftop patio. This hostel had a different feel to it though. It was significantly more quiet, but it was a peaceful, rather than an oppressive, quiet. The building was at the top of a small hill, at the end of a series of alleyways and narrow passages. Even the main street at the bottom of the hill was closed to automobile traffic because of construction, which just added to the quiet and out of the way tone of the place.

   The man that owned and operated the hostel was in his 50s. In the evenings, he came up to the rooftop and put some lean and stringy meat on the grill for his boarders. We bought caguamas from a store down the hill, and again spent some time exchanging stories with the other travelers. There were a couple of Americans that were regulars on the rooftop. One was a twentyish college kid with too much Dave Matthews on his ipod, and the other was a middle-aged man from San Francisco named Noonan. Both were in town for several months as students.

   Noonan had a zeal for story telling that was eclipsed only by the laughter that was always brimming among his words and that often erupted from his belly, overtaking him and everything around him. Whether we were on the rooftop with him, or tucked away in our room around the corner, there was never any doubt as to whether Noonan was around.

   The hostel's owner, whose name I can't remember, was a great help to us. From the rooftop, he was able to point out different destinations and points of interest around the city. Using that perch, he guided us to museums, statues, and old churches. And he showed us were we could get a hot breakfast and catch a World Cup match at six in the morning.

   The city itself also held a number of pleasant and/or interesting discoveries. Many of which we were unaware of when we arrived.

   We found El Museo De Las Momias on our second day there. The mummies that lined the halls of the museum were both fascinating and disturbing, and at least a little morbidly humorous as well. Wires were used to hold the bodies in the desired positions, and some still wore clothing that seemed strangely well preserved considering the century and a half or so that had passed.

   Not long after leaving that museum I ate the best damn torta I have ever had. We were eating at a small lunch counter that couldn't have fit more than four people. And whether it was the fresh bread and produce, the buzz of the trip, or some combination of the two, that sandwich was amazing. If I ever find myself back in Guanajuato, finding that little lunch counter will be at the top of my itinerary.

Joe, me, and the puffs.
   We had plenty of aimless daytime wanderings and nighttime bar hopping in Guanajuato as well. We found the world's largest bags of cheese puffs. We met more people. A group of teenagers from the city of Puebla taught us a new drinking game, which I think translated into "keep telling that chubby American guy that he has to take another drink". We found karaoke. And eventually made our way onto a late night dance floor.

   But after a few days of that, we got back on the bus. The next ride was quite a bit shorter than the first two. We had made it pretty far south already. And as we moved in that direction, I noticed a number of changes in our surroundings.

   The countryside in between the towns and cities became more heavily populated. The deserts of the north were replaced with rolling hills. Some of the land was crudely farmed and roadside produce stands spotted the highway. Political billboards sprouted up. The red and yellow of the PRD/PT alliance, virtually nonexistent in the north, was now inescapable. On the outskirts of some towns, goat herders and burro-pulled carts passed among the piles of used tires and broken toilets that littered the ground. Near other towns, the land was noticeably cleaner and more green. The broad hills sometimes covered with healthy looking farms, or low and wide trees and enormous cacti.

And then we arrived in Queretaro. A big, bustling city, complete with the noise, congestion, and chaos that often contribute to the electricity that only the world's larger urban areas seem capable of producing. We didn't find any vacancies at the first few hostels we went to in Queretaro, so we decided to settle in at a cheap, and somewhat seedy, hotel instead. It couldn't have been a better fit for that weekend. And with that development, I saw the birth of one of the most valuable lessons I've taken from the traveling that I've done over the last five years. Which is that, things will not always work out the way that you planned, but things will always work out.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Marathon #5, 6, &7 - Cleveland, Ohio - Memphis, Tennessee - Prague, Czech Republic

5, 6, & 7) Cleveland, Memphis, and Prague 

   I've already posted my reflections on the Cleveland Marathon, and I don't want to repeat myself. But I would like to reflect on the whole of my experience with marathons over the last few years. And I'd also like to take a moment to try to frame my thoughts on what lies ahead.

   Over the last 29 months, I've run five marathons. Because of that, I am in better physical condition than I've ever been in, in my life. I just turned 37 years old, and I feel better than I did 15 years ago. I've also used long distance runs to explore the city in which I live, and the places that I visit, in a way that I never could before. Countless new angles on the world around me have opened up through my wanderings. Running has helped me gain new insights into other individual people as well. Through talking with, and running with, other runners, I have learned more about their personal struggles and the ways in which they've worked through them. And I've learned things about myself, both positive and negative, that I don't believe I could have discovered any other way.

   Running marathons has been the single best thing that I've done for myself in my life. And I am awed by the idea that there is much more to come.

   I am going to run my sixth marathon exactly five months from today, in Memphis. From this vantage point, its difficult to say what exactly my goals will be for that race. I'll be able to get a more clear view of that when the training gets heavy this fall. But I'm looking forward to taking everything that that experience has to offer. And I plan to shave a number of minutes from the clock in the process.

   Five months after Memphis, I'll be running a marathon in Prague. A good friend of mine is moving there, and I can't wait to explore the city with him, and with that race course.

   In the meantime, I'll find a few shorter races to enjoy, and I'll also have countless other runs that don't involve a clock or any planned course at all. But I'm going to keep those marathons, both past and future, with me the whole way. Because that is where the prize is kept. That is where the growth and the light live. And even though I sometimes need to rest, that is the direction in which I always want to be moving.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Marathon #4 - Maui, Hawaii

4) Maui

   I ran my fourth marathon in Maui on January 23, 2011. My finishing time was 4:26:28. My heart wasn't in this one. It wasn't in the preparation, and it wasn't there on race day.

   I had some good races in between Berlin and Maui. I ran a 15k here in Chicago, and a half-marathon in San Antonio. I averaged 6:54 per mile in the 15k, which is the fastest pace I've ever had for any race. And one week later in San Antonio, I was able to finish the half-marathon in 1:35:03, which was also a personal best for that distance. And after I finished the race in San Antonio, I got the chance to cheer on a good friend as she ran her first full length marathon on that same course.

   But as much as those races helped me put the more negative aspects of Berlin behind me, I just couldn't seem to get myself excited about running in Maui. While training, I ran more than 15 miles only twice. But I'd already registered, and bought the plane ticket, so I was going to Maui regardless.

   The Maui Oceanfront Marathon is a small race. Just a few hundred participants, no full road closures after the first couple of miles, and no digital timing system. We started in a residential area, well before dawn, but we were quickly on the coast, which is where we stayed until the final mile or so.

   I felt great early on. I was moving fast and enjoying the scenery. But as the miles added up, it became clear that I hadn't prepared myself properly. And aside from the general fatigue, which was settling in earlier than I would have liked, I was getting pain in my ankles and calves that I believe came from the slant in the road.

   We were running around mountains, and the ground wasn't flat. The more steps I took on the uneven roadside, the more sharp the pain became. I slowed down as the pain increased, and I was fine with that. I knew before the gun went off that this probably wouldn't be my fastest race. And so I was fine with settling into an easy pace and just taking in my surroundings.

   But not all of that pain was a result of running on a surface that tilted inward. Much of it stemmed from my lack of training. And I can't leave that fact out of any honest account of that race.

   By the time I finished, I was hurting pretty badly. I didn't really care about the time, but given the pain, I certainly couldn't say that I enjoyed myself during the second half of that race. So once again, I found myself with some questions to answer, once everything had come to an end.

   Running 26.2 miles isn't something to be taken lightly, and I'd somehow lost sight of that. There are plenty of shorter races that I can run, and enjoy, if I'm not feeling up to training for a full marathon. So I need to make sure that I'm honest with myself about how much I am willing to commit to each race that I choose. And if I'm not ready to set everything else aside for a few months, so that I can give myself over to training, then I'm not ready to run a marathon.

   But after Maui, I was definitely ready to dedicate myself to several months of serious training. I'd had two straight races in which I couldn't be honestly happy about the way in which I approached them mentally and physically. And I was suddenly quite anxious to wash that sour taste out of my mouth.

   My next race was going to be much closer to home. And while I always look forward to exploring new cities, I wasn't looking at the next race as a vacation. Cleveland was three and a half months away, and that was going to be a business trip.