Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On bracelets

I bought a bracelet today. Two young girls, no more than 6 or 7, crowded around me at the ghostly white temple at San Juan Chamula, offering various items to sell, pleading with their small, dirty hands; their faces wearing more years than their age.

Chamula is a small remote town. On market day, the plaza in front of the main church is crowded with merchants from the surrounding villages. Chamulan men wear white or black woolen vests and large cowboy hats. Inside and around the temple, the locals strictly enforce a “no photo” policy. Young children run over and block the views of foreigners trying to sneak their cameras out; foreigners eager to capture a shot of the local culture, a trophy to their cultural sophistication, all the while treating it with disrespect and disregard.

The inside of the temple is gorgeous. There are no seats, just a thin blanket of pine needles on the ground. Candles line the floors and walls, sending smoke swirling up to the ceiling, dancing in the rays of the light. Tzotzil women from nearby villages in beautiful deep blue and red garments set up make-shift alters, brushing away the pine needles and laying out candles in rows and worshipping until the candles melted into small wax rorschach blots on the ground, the flames dissolving away. Young children in black woolen dresses sit beside their parents, slowing learning the rituals passed down for generations. Sometimes gazing around the smoke filled chamber with as much confusion and bewilderment as the few gringos wandering around. Every now and then the boom of firecrackers for the ongoing Christmas celebration would reverberate throughout the church, briefly interrupting the prayers and songs of worshipers inside.

After awhile I head outside as I hear approaching music, I open the church door and see the entrance surrounded by Chamulan men in colorful garbs and a full band; locals are waving pine branches and incense began a slow journey to the heavens, until dissipating in the cool breeze sweeping over the hills. Nearby, firecrackers are set off, first one sent soaring over the church, followed by a series of large deafening blasts. I walk over to a nearby pavilion and watch the celebration for the next hour.

Two young girls approached me. You turn down dozens of kids like them a day. The deep black eyes staring at you. Their dirty fingers gripping yours. They plead and they beg. And you say, No. Shake your head. And pretend to have no money. You have money. More than they could dream of, but not enough for all of them. So you turn down most. I found myself unable to this time, unable to resist their cute pleading voices and faces, found a bracelet I liked and let them tie it around my wrist.
Reading at a Zapatista café in the afternoon, young children wander in and out, asking to shine my beaten and worn boots. They offer little animal figures, more bracelets, scarves. Children from Europe and America play around them.

I sit and read. Two kids sit on the steps outside the door. Sometimes they look over. Sometimes I avoid eye contact. I don’t want them to come over, to be forced to say no again. Almost in shame, I bury my eyes deeper into my book. Like many tourists, backpackers, and travelers, I’m tired of reality intruding on my vacation.

It reminds me of the mobs of kids in Mali, twenty or thirty kids swarming you at every village. Sometimes not asking for anything, just grabbing your hand and following you around, tiny fingers fighting for any part of you that they can grab. I think of the kids at Angkor Wat. You buy one bracelet and suddenly a dozen desperate faces peer up at you, until you can barely fight your way from the crowd to the next ancient temple demanding your attention, demanding you turn away from flesh and blood.

It’s easy to get annoyed at the constant begging. You often get frustrated and perhaps turn away more rudely, more forcefully than you should. I remember one of my first weekends in Sierra Leone. I was tired from work and heading into the market. Someone began nudging me from behind, asking for money. I shrug him off and turn around, annoyed at the intrusion of my physical space. I turned and stared at a young boy, probably no more than 12 or 13, holding up the two stumps left where his hands used to be. He must have been no more than 6 or 7 when they were hacked off. His hands final farewell, before they fell to the chopping block, probably the mocking RUF question, “short sleeve or long sleeve?”

In Mali, a friend of mine and I talked about cultural differences, where the child may simply not understand someone with wealth not sharing it. The community ethos, or communitarian spirit was so much stronger. It was natural to share whatever you had. A group of kids approached us asking for money. Their cloths ragged and torn. Bare feet against the dirty ground of Segou. The Niger River cutting its way through the sweeping desert hills. We replied by asking them for money. They took out what few coins they had, held it out in their tiny, dirt-caked palms, and offered it to us.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Feliz Navidad

All of Tuxla spread out before me like a glittering field of fireflies. I couldn’t help but remember the firefly colonies at Kaula Selangor, Malaysia. Here, from above, on one of the mirador’s overlooking this city, mountains sheltering the capital of Chiapas, it seemed almost alive as one, one colony, natural and organic. The poverty and urban dirt shielded by the darkness, and the cold night warded off by new friends.

Mexican music filled the air, and the young Mexican kids and adults from the city shared local drinks, stories, and dance moves as Christmas was celebrated in their unique way.

Early that evening, I had left San Cristobal with my two new friends (Mexican and French). Her family was kind enough to invite us over for Christmas dinner. Sharing a family meal, listening to various American and Mexican pop songs on one of their cellphones, drinking coronas and sidre, and bowing our heads for the blessing, I truly was blessed to experience those moments.

It has been awhile since I had the warmth of a family for Christmas. In 2007, I was with Tuareg’s under the canopy of stars in Timbuktu, enjoying the freezing cold of the Sahara and the sweetness of the local tea (the first cup is "bitter as death," the second, "as sweet as love"). In 2008, I was in Chiang Mai at a local festival. In Tuxla, it was nice to be around a family again, to feel the warmth of those who cared about and loved each other.

Perhaps the irony of traveling is I’ve gone so far to find magic, when the strongest magic is back where I’ve left it.

Feliz Navidad.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Traveling solo

You’re almost never alone on the road. I’ve been in Mexico around 5 days now, and I’ve been with people almost the whole time. In Tulum, I went to Coba and a local fair with a nice Austrian. In Palenque, I met a variety of people: a couple professional tattoo artists and metal heads from Norway, a Korean girl who went caving with me behind Misol-Ha (exploring the dark reaches of the cavern with a small torch until we reached a several waterfalls), a group of students from Hong Kong at Agua Azul, and a Guatemala girl who lived in Paris and worked in Pakistan with architectures without borders. The professional tattoo artist explained to me how he learned by ordering a tattoo kit and then asking friends if he could practice on them. A few of his better or (more daring friends) agreed, and he learned the trade by experimentation on his friend’s skin.

On the road from El Pancham to San Cristobal, bouncing from colectivo to colectivo, I was traveling with a French mechanical engineer and we met a Mexican girl on the way. We ended up hanging out with her for the rest of the day, wandering around San Cristobal, grabbing helados late at night, and exchanging travel stories. Today, I head out to meet them around noon to visit some local museums and then go salsa dancing with some of her friends for Christmas eve.

Such is the solitude of being a solo traveler.

A prelude and reflection – part 1

“A weed is just a flower that’s misunderstood.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m on the road again.

Many of my friends at law school asked about what I do while traveling. I suppose before I restart my travel blog, I can offer a short snapshot.

A year ago I was at Bakong Temple in Battambang, Cambodia. I met a group of Khmer kids from a nearby highschool and they told me about a cave below the temple. They asked me if I wanted to join them, and we headed down the side of the mountain to find it. With cellphone flashlights and candles, we plunged into the depths of the cavern, squeezing through tiny passageways, the pitch darkness only rarely broken by the cracks in the ceiling. Rays of light danced in the swirling smoke of various incense altars scattered along our winding path, like ballerinas flittering in and out of existence. We finally found the main open cavern. A single string of golden sun hung down from the roof. A small shrine lay before us. We turned off our lights and lit the few candles by the altars. The cool, dampness hung on my skin, but instead of coolness penetrating within, it was a warmth from the candles, from the Khmer kids whom I talked to in a smattering of Khmer and English. The silence consumed the air, and this moment became truly sacred.

I travel to find moments like these. It’s not about the pictures in front of Chitzen Itza or the Great Wall, but those rare moments where something magical and sacred happens, something that can’t be caught on film but only carried around as some deep part of you. It means taking time to leave the beaten track, find the random and mysterious, even if it takes days or weeks to discover those few memories.

Over the years, I’ve collected many of these moments: finding rocks to juggle for Tibetan kids in the Sea of Bamboo near Yibin in Sichuan, China, or watching the sun set over the mountains in Hsipaw, Burma, sharing tea with the lone monk in the temple on the ridge. It’s teaching Khmer girls around Ta Phrom how to dance to heavy metal music, or loosening up street kids near Angkor Wat’s Roulos Group with juggling until they make you a necklace of flowers and present it to you. Or having tea with Taureg’s for Christmas night in Timbuktu, under the glistening canopy of stars.

It’s squeezing into the cramped cave full of worshippers near Uspatan, sleeping in monasteries in Burma, and hitchhiking on construction rigs out to the Baia de Gatas in Cape Verde. It’s having locals in San Antao give you grogue to keep you warm on a cold night as you struggle with the last stretch of a hike or trying to learn Bambara from kids in Mali.

And it’s juggling in parks in NY and meeting kids and seeing the joy and wonder on their faces. Because magic, real magic, exists all around us, and while traveling isn’t necessary to find it, it sometimes reminds us, reminds me to keep looking, to keep seeing the world anew.

One of my favorite Japanese artists, Yoshihiro Suda, would finely sculpt every day plants and weeds, and place them in hard to find locations in museums. Discovering art – which was often merely a finely crafted depiction of the common (and sometimes common nuisances) – would become a magical experience, an experience we could replicate if only we could peel back the scales on our eyes. Then we can find the romantic poetry in order and the every day, like Gabriel Syme in G.K. Chesterton’s theological masterpiece, The Man Who Was Thursday. Or as Alan Moore commented in The Watchmen:

“But the world is so full of people, so crowded with these miracles that they become commonplace and we forget... I forget. We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from the another's vantage point, as if new, it may still take our breath away. Come... dry your eyes, for you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg. Come, dry your eyes. And let's go home.”