Tag Archives: .JOSH

Yesterday Rebellious

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The city of Santiago de Cuba’s motto was coined by its native son, rum distiller extraordinaire, and beloved mayor Emilio Bacardi: Rebelde ayer, hopsitalaria hoy, heroica siempre. Rebellious yesterday, hospitable today, heroic forever. Kinda makes Winnipeg’s One Great City feel a whole new kind of inadequate.

More than an inspiring motto, however, these words provide a vey necessary framework on which to hang the tapestry of Cuban politics. It’s a complicated tapestry, and even the bit we’ve seen on this trip is full of holes, but I hope it at least gives an impression of the reality here and the unique lessons it offers. Of course, critique and discussion are always welcome.

And so let’s begin this narratively-convenient trilogy with Cuba’s rebellious yesteryears:

Nearly every Latin American nation follows the same story arc: colonization by brutal Spanish conquistadores, revolution and independence from these arbitrary powers, and finally (and presently) decades of instability brought on by ruthless U.S. political/military intervention. Examples of this include Pinochet in Chile, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and of course the Zapatistas in Mexico.

America wasted no time in meddling with Cuba, even getting involved in their war for independence from Spain. Cuba’s struggle for independence has become widely known internationally as part of the Spanish-American War, even though it was instigated by a heroic anti-slavery act by a Cuban farmer and fought almost entirely by Cuban soldiers. When Cuba finally won its nationhood and began writing its constitution, America refused to withdraw their troops until the fledgling Cuban government included the infamous Platt Amendment, which essentially granted America the right to intervene in Cuban politics whenever it deemed necessary. Thus began the cycle, typified by so many Latin American countries, of coups and rigged elections that favored leaders who would serve Washington’s interest.

The spark that finally ignited Cuba’s war for independence was provided by Manuel de Cespedes, a wealthy farmer who freed his slaves, telling them “You are free regardless, but if you want true freedom, you should take up arms with me against the Spanish Empire”
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Cuba’s cycle was dramatically broken, however, by a few scruffy idealists who would later become some of the most controversial political figures in the world. It was to find the courageous roots of this now-complex revolution that Sara and I followed the footsteps of Fidel Castro, his brother Raúl, and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara into the jungled mountains of eastern Cuba, to an abandoned guerilla camp known as La Comandancia de la Plata.

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Castro’s movement against the brutal American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista had already gained some popular momentum after he lead an ill-fated attack on the Moncada in Santiago de Cuba. Batista had turned these former military barracks into a prison for political dissidents, and the artifacts and photos now housed in its museum are a testament to the horrific torture and execution that was commonplace here throughout the 1950s.

Castro’s bullet holes riddle the entrance to the Moncada. Though the invasion was unsuccessful, the act of defiance inspired the people of Santiago to support the revolution.
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But I digress. The revolution truly put down its roots here in the Sierra Maestras, where the rebels spent nearly a year training, recruiting more soldiers from local communities, and sending representatives to garner financial and public support from Mexico, Venezuela, and even pockets of the U.S. From their camp under the jungle canopy, they frequently saw Batista’s planes blindly bombing the mountains in hopes of smoking the rebels out.

Sara gazes out at the jungle from the camp’s kitchen/dining area.
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Looking out from Fidel’s spartan bedroom. Its height is due to network of trapdoors and ladders below it, so attackers would never know which door he was going to come out of.
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Radio Rebelde. At the very top of the mountain sits a little hut, still filled with dusty, antiquated radio equipment. It was from here that news of the struggle was broadcasted to the masses, preparing them for the insurrection that was to come. As a result, Castro’s revolution had the people’s support throughout the country, making it possible for them to sweep the country from east to west once they had the manpower to take on Batista’s army. This objective was completed on January 1, 1959.
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Perhaps the most interesting part of La Comandancia de la Plata, however, is the reason it was built in the first place. The original plan did not include camping for nearly a year while training an army in mountain enclaves with literally no infrastructure except that which could be made from palm trees (though it certainly adds to the romanticism that now surrounds the story!). The original plan was for Fidel to invade Batista’s strongholds in Sanitago at the exact moment that rebel sympathizers in the city took up arms on the inside. Santiago would have become a rebel-controlled city, a well-equipped base from which to launch a nation-wide attack.

But that’s not what happened. The rebels were to arrive in Santiago from Mexico (where the Castro brothers had been exiled after the Moncada incident) in a yacht, but they were several hours late because a man had fallen overboard during the night. According to first-hand accounts of Fidel’s own fighters on the yacht, they started pressuring Fidel to leave the man for dead, knowing that timing was crucial for the invasion to succeed. Fidel insisted, however, that their revolution would not begin by abandoning one of their own, and ordered them to drive the yacht in circles for hours until, miraculously, the man was rescued.

As a result, the rebel sympathizers in Santiago launched their attack from the inside at the prearranged time, but didn’t stand a chance without the support they were expecting. Batista was alerted to the plan, and had heavily armed troops waiting on the beach when the yacht finally arrived. Of the 81 men that Fidel brought with him on his yacht, over half were killed. The survivors fled into the mountains, where they did the only thing they could: build a camp and start over.

Ultimately, through sheer determination and strength of character, La Revolución did succeed. And it did so with its ideological integrity intact, as Fidel promised it would that night in the yacht as they searched for a single drowning soldier. In hindsight, though, I wonder what the survivors of the ensuing massacre (Fidel among them) felt as they counted the number of lives that those hours spent searching had cost.

That, it seems, is the theme of La Revolución: heroic idealism versus pragmatic results. Every step towards justice requires sacrifice, but at what point does the sacrifice become a whole new form of injustice? Cuba offers no easy answers.

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One More Time With Feeling

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In the planning period of this trip (which, characteristically, took place two days before Sara left and lasted about half an hour), we tried to think of the best use of our post-Tuxtla travel time.  Of course, the ideal would have been to spend some time volunteering with the Zapatistas, but that requires a minimum of a year membership with an explicitly Zapatista-supporting organization, as previously mentioned, so no dice.  How, then, could we capitalize on this brief time in order to make ourselves as at home here as possible?

Almost immediately we were hit by an answer so obvious it made us laugh out loud: WWOOF…that network of hippies and survivalists that, back in 2011, tossed us to the winds of zealot communes and anarchist hideaways, thus making us feel so incredibly at home in Argentina.  So, four years since first stumbling upon this ‘organization’ (in the loosest sense of the term), we returned for another round.

Mexico is not the same WWOOFer’s paradise as Argentina (I don’t know if any country on earth boasts as many anti-establishment granola-headed rastas as our original home-away-from-home).  Nevertheless, we managed to contact a fellow in a tiny village near the tip of the Yucatan peninsula who needed help running his dream business: a backpackers’ hostel with a small restaurant supplied entirely by his own garden.
As experienced WWOOFers, we knew to expect two things:

  1. Immediately upon arrival, we would be given a full apothecary’s complement of sweet herbs and foul fruits to cure all the maladies we’d been secretly carrying around with us for our entire lives.
  2. Absolutely nothing.  The only constant in WWOOF is that there are no constants.

The first expectation was immediately fulfilled.  After the fourth consecutive noni smoothie specifically designed to keep us regular (seriously, we’re in Mexico, staying regular is the least of our worries!), Sara wondered aloud whether we were ever going to chew again.  Fortunately, in this case, the shaman party was only a welcome.

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The second expectation was fulfilled almost as quickly.   It turns out that our host’s ‘dream business’ was exactly that: a dream.  And, like a dream, parts of it were richly detailed (like the seashell-studded kitchen, or the rustic swinging picnic table), while other parts remained completely vacant (like the garden that was literally a jungle of shoulder-height weeds, or the outhouse with only half a roof and several inches of rainwater on the floor).  We could never quite pin down whether it was a lack of money, time, or motivation, but what had started as a very exciting vision had clearly stalled.

Hostel!

And so we received our vaguest WWOOF assignment yet: in exchange for a lovely bedroom, we were to put in a half-day of work doing lo que quieren (ie: whatever you want).  Each day we set to work to solve one of the vast array of homesteading problems that confronted us.  The Abe Hildebrands and Terence Bergmanns in our lives would be very proud!

We cleared the jungle out of the garden. We made space for the sugar cane to grow. We finished the roof on the outhouse. We replaced the rotten wood on the wall of the outdoor kitchen. All this would have been far, far easier if we had had the necessary tools and materials, but it would have been literally impossible were it not for our co-WWOOFers, a French couple that epitomized creativity and industriousness. Merci beaucoup, Beatrice et Jean-Claude, for keeping us safe and sane!

The rest of each day was spent enjoying the mellow pace of life that is intrinsic to both Latin America and tiny towns (and therefore exponentially compounded in tiny Latin American towns).  Drinking out of chilled coconuts, wandering through the nearby ceiba forest, following Team Mexico’s path to a Copa de Oro victory, and frequenting the local pizzeria pretty much sums it up.  Our village, Solferino, was also a perfect launching point from which to explore magnificent Isla Holbox, but that, amigos, is another post to come.

What we assume was a garden many moons ago, now overrun by jungle.
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Sara carries an armful of jungle back to the actual jungle, and the garden becomes a garden again!
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Jean-Claude and Sara have slightly different reactions to the land crabs that occasionally wander into our yard
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Sara enjoys a coco frio…
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…while I pour one into our farewell-supper stirfry.
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This guy also found his way into the stirfry.  When I told the shop-owner that there would be 4 or 5 people eating, he insisted on selling me the whole thing, giving me a detailed explanation of which body part could be eaten by each person.  When I said ‘gracias’ and walked away, he shouted, with a mix of panic and offense, “¡Olvidaste el higado!” (You forgot the liver!) That’s it there in my left hand.
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Sara versus the rotting wood wall in a grueling battle of attrition (eventually the non-bendy nails ran out and they called it a draw)
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My battle with the bathroom roof was similarly exasperating, but the toilet paper seemed slightly drier after the next rainstorm, so we’ll call it a success.
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Summer kitchen before…
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Summer kitchen after!
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¡¡¡Somos campeones!!! (Well, WE aren’t, but being in Mexico as they take home the Copa de Oro must count as winning something)
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One last breakfast at the swinging picnic table
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WWOOF, you’re like that weird friend from junior high that most other people don’t understand and who, quite frankly, drives us crazy most of the time. But you’ve seen us through a lot, you always show us a good time, and you bring out a side of us that no one else quite does. We’ll keep you around.

(Also, in the event of nuclear apocalypse, you’re probably our best hope for survival. So thanks.)

Solferino brekkie :)

Zapatism@!

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Finding the Zapatistas was no easy task.  For two days in San Cristobal I felt like a pinball, bouncing between shop-owners/bus-drivers/fellow-travelers asking the same question in different ways, and this was after having exhausted Google of all possibilities weeks earlier.  Finally, after many raised eyebrows and “why would you want to go there?”s, I had found myself the name of one of the five Zapatista communities, and the one driver in town who went there on a daily basis.

I met the driver at the pre-discussed 7:00am, and by a very Mexican 8:30 we were off.  My three fellow passengers wore traditional Mayan garb and seemed genuinely happy about the foreigner in their midst, which was encouraging.  They even let me have the front seat after gawking at my height for a few minutes.

We passed the hour-long winding jungle drive in silence, my head a mess with questions:  What was I doing here?  What right did I have to go poking around a foreign country looking for one of its most marginalized people groups?  What if it wasn’t at all what I expected?  What did I hope to accomplish?

To which my head responded:  In 2007, when Mexican media moved its focus from the indigenous struggle in the south to the drug cartels in the north, the Zapatistas turned to the public in order to stay present in the world’s consciousness.  They actually invited foreigners to visit and to take word of their situation back home, thus maintaining the public support that prevents the Mexican government from quietly selling off their land to foreign companies.  I’m not sure if scruffy Canadian backpackers were who they had in mind, but that’s what I had to offer.

As for what I expected?  The Zapatistas are a shining success story of indigenous self-determination and fair trade enterprise, both things that I truly believe have the power to change the world.  I wanted to learn from them, or at the very least pay my respects to an inspiring people.

We crested a hill and were quite suddenly greeted by this:


YOU ARE IN ZAPATISTA REBEL TERRITORY.  HERE THE PEOPLE SPEAK AND THE GOVERNMENT OBEYS.

In retrospect, I think this sign serves a double purpose.  It intimidates, certainly.  But for those inside, who have experienced horrific violence at the hands of the government, it is also a comfort.  And a reminder of hard-won battles.

Besides the sign, a locked iron gate is all that can be seen from the highway.  In a little brick kiosk at the end of the gate stands a man wearing a black balaclava.  Despite being a tad unnerving, the black balaclavas are worn in all Zapatista interactions with the outside world as a sign of solidarity with each other.

The faceless guard asks me for my passport.  I give it to him.  He looks it over and writes my name in his log book.  “¿Organización?” he asks.

Shoot.  I had heard that visitors were rarely admitted without being part of an explicitly Zapatista-supporting organization (of which there aren’t any in Canada).  He sees me bite my lip in hesitation.

“Why are you here?” he asks.

“To learn about fair trade coffee and indigenous autonomy.”  This is true, but I’m also totally going for the buzzword approach.

He looks at me suspiciously, then says in Spanish, “it’s pretty early in the day, how did you get here?”

“Uhh…that guy,” I respond, pointing down the highway where the car has long disappeared.

The guard raises his eyebrows then, assuming a person with malicious intent would have come better prepared, swings open the gate for me to enter.

I am brought down a steep hill to what seems to be the Main Street of a regular village: houses, school, general store, a mechanic, and a ‘town hall’ sort of building.  The only difference is that each building is extravagantly painted with Zapatista imagery, explaining their history and declaring their independence.  I ask if I can take pictures, and am told, “Yes, please take pictures of our story,” (motioning to the murals), “but we do not take pictures of people.”

So, as promised to my balaclava-clad guide, the art of the Zapatistas:

Zapatista Autonomous Rebel High School
Language centre, classes in Tzotzil (local indigenous language) and Spanish

“The United States seems destined by providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of freedom.”  
-Simon Bolivar, South American revolutionary leader

Talk about identifying with the land (also, the sheep is a key source of food and clothing) 
“This is my people, a brave race who with a stone will bring down castles” and “There is no weapon more effective than truth of thought.”  It is immediately obvious that positions of strength in Zapatista art are just as regularly depicted as feminine as well as masculine.

Head office of the coffee co-op that serves as the community’s main income

Despite many attempts to categorize them as Marxist, the Zapatistas have always maintained that their philosophy is derived from their own Mayan culture rather than any Western political camp. I think the strongest evidence of this is the gender equality that exists within this world apart. I have visited isolated agrarian communities before, and one of their hallmarks is a sharp gender divide. Not so with the Zapatistas. From the brief time I spent there, men and women interacted (with me and with each other) on level ground.  They also frequently apply the use of the @ symbol at the end of words, a combination of the ‘o’ and ‘a’ that signify gender en español.  This was not an attempt to be ‘progressive’ or ‘feminist’ (as it would be under Marxism, or any Western order for that matter), but rather an uncontested fact of life inherent to Mayan culture and preserved in this community. This is not to say that the Zapatistas have created some kind of utopia, but rather to illustrate how much would be lost if cultures did not have the autonomy to preserve themselves on their own land.

So did I get what I came for? I can attest to the fact that there are communities in southern Mexico that have schools and hospitals with no government assistance whatsoever, thanks to the Fair Trade movement that they helped instigate. So yes, in that regard I did. I had fantasized (and even prepared some questions for) a sit-down interview with some community elder, and that will obviously have to be saved for another visit. But as I sat on the porch of the town hall, watching a regular family of four wash their truck (parents jokingly reprimanding their kids for being lazy and spraying them with the hose until an all-out soap fight broke out), I felt truly honoured to have witnessed a glimpse of life behind the Zapatistas’ gates.

How Fair Trade Changed My Life

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(and more importantly, the lives of thousands of indigenous Mayan people living in Chiapas)

In 2008, I took a nap in the UofM arts’ lounge, only to wake up and find myself in the middle of an Engineers Without Borders planning meeting for a fair trade coffeehouse.

(Why on Earth they didn’t stay in their own swankier, lice-freer lounge is a mystery to me, but it worked out well nonetheless).

I got involved with the planning meeting, even asking Sara to help me despite the fact that we were just friends at the time (she agreed because she was secretly deeply in love with me).  Through some kind of butterfly effect, that coffeehouse turned into many years of studying political science and economics in an effort to better understand the barriers that developing countries face in maintaining self-sustainability.  Also, Sara and I got married as a result, so bonus.

(Quick explanation of fair trade: free trade is great between ‘peer countries’, like Canada and the States.  When a developed country forces free trade on a developing country, however, it’s like Sidney Crosby insisting on playing hockey against a 10-year-old.  By charging a price that is technically higher than the international market requires, fair trade provides time and support for the developing country to build their own industries in their own way and thus beat Sidney Crosby at hockey.  For more explanation and less mixed metaphors, see Kicking Away the Ladder by Ha-Joon Chang.)

(Quick explanation of Sara being secretly deeply in love with me:  She wasn’t.  Apparently.)

What does any of this have to do with Chiapas, Mexico?  Simply put, fair trade started here. Since finding out that Sara would be spending a month here, I have researched the dramatic origins of this movement with the hopes of actually meeting the people behind the product. What follows is the super-condensed version of how the Zapatistas started fair trade:

In 1994, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  One of the stipulations of NAFTA was that no land could be communally owned, as this was seen as an economic inefficiency.  In direct defiance of their own pre-existing laws, the Mexican government then started selling indigenous land to the highest bidder.  Enter the Zapatistas, a well-organized indigenous movement named after the people’s revolutionary hero from almost a century earlier, who to this day have protected the Mayan (Tzotzil) land from government and corporate encroachments.

Though the initial uprising was armed, the EZLN (Spanish for Zapatista National Liberation Army) has been a peaceful occupation of their own land for 21 years.  They have withstood bribery, false treaties, and horrific government-backed violence.  Furthermore, the Zapatistas have gained international support and recognition for their transparency and the gender-equality that exists within their communities.

The Zapatistas have one goal: la autonomía.  To protect this autonomy, visitors are carefully screened and rarely admitted.  To support this autonomy, they have developed a sustainable coffee industry and have reached out to businesses in the developed world, asking them to buy their product for a few pennies more than the Nestles and the Folgers of the world are offering, thereby funding their schools and hospitals without any assistance from the government.  This idea has spread worldwide, and is commonly known as the Fair Trade movement.

Employees at Maya Vinic coffee shop here in town show off their siphon skills with some local fairly-sourced brew.  
And so, with a belly full of coffee, I set out in search of this incredible success story.

Solo, like Han without Chewbacca

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I arrived at my hostel in Cancun mid-afternoon.  The trip from the airport to el centro was wildly complicated, yet I felt more confident than ever as my Spanish appeared shiny and well-lubricated (being the opposite of rusty), i was not the only one leaving a veritable monsoon of sweat everywhere I went, and I didn’t get lost even once!

Yet when I finally collapsed in my dorm-bunk at El Mundo Joven, I felt something I have never really felt before: homesickness. 

Chalking it up to an immense lack of sleep, I took a three hour nap, but did not succeed in shaking the feeling.  The truth is, I have never travelled completely alone.  Even when I’ve gone places on my own, it’s always been with an organization that has essentially provided friends (er, classmates/coworkers) for me.  I’ve always admired my dear wife’s independence, but haven’t really bothered developing much of that myself.  This was going to take a little more effort on my part.

I get an F for EFFort for that first evening, as I basically wandered the sketchy neighbourhood humming Boulevard of Broken Dreams forlornly to myself (okay, that’s a melodramatization, but you get the point).  Over the next few days, however, I’ve employed four different strategies for travelling solo.  For anyone who’s interested: here they are.

Strategy 1: Screw friends, just go it alone!

Despite reading that Chichen Itza was a total tourist trap, I resolved to sign up for the next day’s tour, which left at 7am.  Thus I was guaranteed to get out of bed and at least see some history.  Which I did.  And it was awesome.

You know that game where teams try to get a rubber ball into stone hoops without using their hands or feet (á la Road to El Dorado)? Well there’s the hoop.  The only detail that pop-culture has mistaken is the fact that it was not the losers who were sacrificed, but rather the MVP, as determined by a panel of judges.  This was, we were told, a great honour.  

Look closely:  The ceremonially-dressed priest is posing with the game’s MVP (or part of him, at least!)  

The legendary Chichen Itzá: NOT a tourist trap by any means, its architecture is filled with insanely meticulous details that tell the date, time, and phases of the moon with incredible accuracy. (Also, saying yes to every “can you take a picture of us” request is a great way to make friends!) 

Nerd-alert: our informative and hilarious tour guide showed us this nifty Mayan multiplication trick inspired by the diamond-back patterns of rattlesnakes.  Math Week 2016, Margaret Parkers?
 

Final stop: a giant cenote (ie: sinkhole), terrifying to look at, lovely to swim in.  

Strategy 2: Shamelessly ask people to be your friend

Following a coworker’s recommendation, I researched nearby Isla Mujeres, Cancun’s quieter neighbour, named for the mysterious clay statues of women found by Spanish settlers.  The friendly flight attendants/pilots I’d watched crazy magic tricks with the previous night were all gone or staying in, so I was opting for a repeat of Strategy #1, when a friendly-looking British gal walked into the hostel kitchen.  “Wanna go to Isla Mujeres with me and rent some bikes?” I said.  “Yep,” she replied, and that was that.  It was wonderful to have a travel-friend to chat with who was equally okay with driving a goofy golf cart (bike rentals were nowhere to be found) down barely-wide-enough paths that were probably not intended for golf carts.

The Carribean Sea, sans tourists!  
Louise, my very British travel buddy, successfully driving down the right side of the road.  

The spirit of Isla Mujeres: a childhood spent harpoon fishing!
 

Strategy 3: Put yourself in a desperate situation and let providence find friends for you

This one is probably the least recommended, but highly effective nonetheless.  This morning I set out in search of  Las Zapatistas (more to come on that soon).  Upon arrival, it was clear that the combi-driver’s promise that “hay muchos taxis para regresar” was not entirely well-founded.  This wasn’t all that concerning until the guard, indicative of the welcoming-yet-intensely-protective nature of the Zapatistas, made it clear that visitors were not permitted to wander around for hours while waiting for a ride, and there was nothing but mountainous jungle in every direction.

Very fortunately, a kind Valencian couple who arrived shortly after me on a private tour of rural Chiapas saw my rather disconcerted expression and offered me a ride.  That ride turned into a very informative trek through more of the nearby indigenous communities.  Muchisimas gracias Daniel, Sara, y Victor for letting me tag along!

Great folks to spend a day with (Sara, it felt VERY similar to our parapente afternoon 🙂 )  

A friend of Victor’s, who cooked us a delicious lunch!
 

The four local varieties of corn.  Colour-arrangement look familiar to anyone?  

Strategy 4: Appreciate solitude

This has always been one of my greatest strengths, aside from long-distance running and knowing anything about football.  Obviously this statement is a blatant lie.  But as I sit at this table-for-one in San Cristobal, (with a lightning-footed Mexican couple dancing to ridiculously catchy Latino jazz in a tiny patio clearly not intended for dancing or movement in general), I am learning to appreciate just soaking in the atmosphere of a place on my own (besides the 5 million internet users that have access to this blog, but hey, baby steps, amiright?)

 I’m pretty sure they’ve inserted a subtle request for more whisky in ever song so far. 

In sum, solo travelling has been a very fun, very valuable experience.  I’ve learned to truly value new friends, as well as my wonderful Facebook/Snapchat/Skype buddies (geez, whatever happened to email, eh?).  Looking back on this blog, however, I’m so excited for saratreetravels to be reunited again in a few short days.  There’s nothing like sharing amazing experiences with the person you’ll be reminiscing about them with forever!

One Night in DC

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We really don’t need any more proof that airline ticket prices are truly the most arbitrary thing in existence.  But if we did, my night in Washington DC could certainly be it.

After a truly wonderful week spent in Ottawa visiting friends and family, I am now making the long and incremental journey to meet up with my estranged wife in Tuxtla, Chiapas, Mexico.  The cheapest flights into Mexico are through Cancun, and the cheapest way from Ottawa to Cancun, according to the airline gods’ whimsy-du-jour, was to spend a night on the set of House of Cards (er, I mean, the capitol city of the most powerful nation on earth).

So with eleven hours, a camera, and the assumption that I’d be able to sleep on the next day’s plane ride (an assumption that did not take into account having the middle seat between two very rotund gentlemen), I set out to see the monuments to the visionaries that, with varying degrees of success and opposition, worked to build a better world.

First up: the Washington monument  

Chez Obama

 

I can only imagine the kind of farmers’ market the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts on..  

Now, I confess, I thought the Lincoln memorial was just him in a chair, and didn’t realize that the chair sits in a marble re-creation of the Acropolis.  I spent a while staring at the map wondering how I’d missed a mind-bogglingly large statue of the greatest president, only to realize I had to actually venture IN the giant Grecian temple.  

 

A tiny, foul-smelling elevator takes you down into an underground museum of sorts, depicting Lincoln’s struggles to maintain the Union, and his personal conviction that all humans are created equal, and that slavery has no place in said creation.  A truly inspiring leader, orator, and man of faith. 


Finally, having acquired a bike, I made my way much more efficiently to the beautiful and powerful monument of one Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
   

  

   

May we all have the audacity to believe.

(…like this guy, who despite five hurricanes has ensured that someone (often himself) has always been at the White House gates to remind the public/media/powers-that-be of some simple truths, 24/7/365 since 1981!)

  

Wind, Sand, & Stars

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In the last few years, I’ve discovered that the places dearest to my heart are the frontiers, the places that exist on the very edge of civilization, reminding you that man is just one of Mother Nature’s children (and by no means her favourite!). Antarctica and Churchill are examples of this, and now Merzouga can be added to the list. Although the snow is replaced by sand, and the penguins and polar bears exchanged for camels, there is still the exhilarating peace and quiet of an untouched landscape. And, looking at the map and seeing all the roads end like loose threads, one has to ask, “What’s past that?”

Answering this question, at least somewhat, was the main attraction of our trek into the heart of Morocco. The sun was already low in the sky when Sara and I started fumbling with our aforementioned headscarves. Reasonably proud of our turban skills, we walked out behind the riad where our local guides (with far more skillfully-wound turbans) were prepping in the stable. We had seen this stable the previous day – an open-air adobe enclosure where camels happily munched on heaps of hay – but we had kept a respectful distance. That was about to change.

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Camels are fascinating creatures. Judging from their bizarrely long lips and spindly legs that seem to bend every direction except the one you’d expect, one would think they would be very awkward animals. Somehow, however, they manage to be incredibly graceful, hoisting their rider effortlessly into the air and trudging through seas of sand without sinking. We mounted our steeds and ambled single-file (you know, to hide our numbers) into the dunes of Erg Chebbi, beyond where any road could physically be built.

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It only took a few minutes for the riad and the last of the vegetation to disappear completely. After another half-hour, we stopped to appreciate the sun as it set magnificently into the ‘sand sea,’ as it is known in Arabic.

Note our camel-back… on a camel’s back!!
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We rode on as stars began appear in the dusky sky, mesmerized by this foreign planet we had stumbled upon. Reaching the top of a particularly high dune we were able to see, down in the ‘valley,’ two rows of tents reminiscent of the ones we had seen nomadic Berber families living in. These were our homes for the night.

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It’s easy to understand why carpets are so emblematic of this part of the world: they are heavy enough to not blow away at night, they somehow scrape sand off your feet without then transferring it to the next person’s feet, and you can build HOUSES with them!
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We enjoyed yet another delicious tagine, the listened to our guides jam with some traditional Berber instruments for a while. Somehow I ended up with the drums, which was fun, but fortunately their requests for me to sing were short-lived.
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Once the jam session had petered out, Sara and I scaled the next dune for one of the most incredible shooting star shows of our lives. We’ve enjoyed many a clear night with beautiful stars, but we’re also used to incessantly shivering at the same time. Laying in the warm sand long enough to actually see certain stars set and new stars rise was truly unbelievable.

The next day started at 5:30 for a few reasons: One, contrary to popular belief, desert nights are actually blisteringly hot, and we were more than ready to abandon any thoughts of sleeping in our carpet-sauna. Two, because of said heat, it’s best to get an early start to the day before the sun gets too high. And three, and most importantly, it’s not everyday you get to see the sunrise over the Saharan dunes.

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After being thoroughly awe-inspired (and only singing the Lion King song once), we re-mounted our camels and set off back to Merzouga, retying our turbans every few minutes as various orifices filled with sand (the wind had picked up significantly overnight). Truly the most incredible climax for an unforgettable trip.

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