Cycling Cuba, Part 1

“You choose your destiny… And we'll indicate the right way.”

-Sage from Cuban road atlas.

 

Folding bicycles, check. Bedazzlement for said bicycles, check. Sandals, check. Awesome girlfriend, check. Engagement ring sewn into belt bucklefor said awesome girlfriend, check… Cuba, here we come!

 

If there is any advice I can offer on traveling in Cuba it would be this: Leave your expectations at home and it is better to think of Cuba as an adventure rather than a vacation. In this spirit my girlfriend and I drove to Shelton, Washington on a cold and rainy night to check up on a pair of early 1990's Montague Bi-frame folding bicycles we found on Craigslist. At the time our argument in favor of getting the two rusted and corroded bikes was their packability and at $200 they were cheap enough to ditch in case our trip went bust.

 

My dreams of cycling Cuba had been incubating over the past eight years, ever since I met a Swiss cyclist in Guatemala who had biked the island and raved about his experience. My Cuban cycling dream was shared by my girlfriend Annelisa which I put down as number eight thousand three hundred fifty nine as to why she is awesome and sealed the deal on my decision to try and marry her. In the days leading up to our departure I made clandestine ventures to the jewelry store and schemed about how I was going to pack a rather expensive ring through multiple countries over several months. In the end I found my answer in my belt whose attributes included a bottle opener on the buckle and a small slot in which I could sew the ring. It was both hidden and safely on my person at all times…. Genius!

 

Our bikes meanwhile were shaping up to be a fortuitous purchase. Despite their corroded and rusted appearance from being on a boat and stored in a garage for twenty plus years, they turned out to be in sound condition. We outfitted them with sets of mustache and cruising handle bars and they both fit into a single bike bag. We named them Lottie and Padiushi and how the love would grow. I lashed an old aluminum backpack frame to the bikes and we were set. Bikes on my back and ring in the belt around my waist, we were off to Mexico for a couple of months before heading to Cuba.

 

Like many Americans I had plenty of impressions about Cuba but very little understanding. The majority of what we know about Cuba is filtered through the lenses of propaganda, political bluster, the vocal exile community, and an exceptionally turbulent history. For a country hardly visited by Americans, Cuba manages to provoke strong opinions and contrasting ideas perhaps more than any other country in the world. I admit that my own naive impressions of Cuba had been largely fueled by images of classic 1950's Cadillacs and Pontiacs and the amazing sounds of Cuban music; think Buena Vista Social Club, Los Van Van, and Benny More. The reality, I would soon learn, is always more complicated than the idea. This is especially true of Cuba.

 

Arriving in the Havana airport we stepped out into the humid Caribbean air and set to putting our bikes together. It's an half hour project and we received perplexed looks from Cubans and foreigners alike, but it was well worth the twenty five buck taxi ride into the city. My initial impression of Cuba was as idealic as my imagination. We rode the highway from the airport to Habana Vieja (Old Havana) with classic 1950's American cars and buses packed to overfull flying by. Half a dozen men sat listlessly around a broke-down motorcycle and side-car, a horse and carriage merged onto the highway, and we saw a young man sleeping on a mound of boxes in the back of a dump-truck. We rode down the Malacon into Havana with waves crashing over the sea wall. To say Havana is falling apart would be an understatement. The center looks like a cross between a bombed out Soviet block city and the skeleton of 1950's American glitz deteriorating in the salty air. Even this fueled an idealic impression of Cuba, yet as soon as we stepped off our bikes in the city, a far more complicated Cuba began to emerge.

 

One can not know a country or a culture that is not their own, especially as a tourist and especially if that country is Cuba. But it is helpful to understand how profoundly complicated the history of Cuba is and indeed the Caribbean as a whole. To think of the Caribbean one must think in terms of spheres of influence. Beginning with the 'discovery' of Hispanola (now Dominican Republic) by Columbus, every ocean going power of the day would stake a claim on the Caribbean. This is why we have Spanish speaking Cuba, French speaking Haiti, American Puerto Rico, the British Virgin Islands, the Dutch Antilles, even the Scottish had a brief if ill-fated dalliance in the Caribbean.

 

The Caribbean's largest island has been the subject of more interest and influence than any other. After the native population was wiped out shortly after Columbus' arrival, Cuba was ruled by the Spanish until the 1895 war for independence. Following the Haitian slave revolt in 1791, Cuba would host tens of thousands of fleeing French immigrants and this influence is evident throughout the country, especially in the colonial city of Cienfuegos. After Cuba's independence, the country invariable fell into the realm of American influence which eventually culminated in the mafia supported Batista dictatorship from 1952 until 1959. Castro's revolution against Batista would then swing Cuba as far from the west as possible into the open arms of Soviet Russia. And finally, in an ironic twist, Cuba would find itself largely isolated and abandoned following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990's. These days Cuba is supported largely by aid from Venezuela and tourism dollars primarily from Canada.

 

It is impossible for a foreigner to understand the Cuban experience. But I can, within my abilities, illustrate the context that Cuba finds itself. With seventy precent of Cuba's population born after the revolution, with economic and political changes slowly taking place, it's a place where many of our old impressions no longer hold water. It is a Cuba where 1940's infrastructure, 1950's cars, and 1960's revolutionary propaganda contrasts with a young and restless population who were not there in the fighting of the wars of their grandfathers. The cars and the buildings can stay the same, but the people are always changing… that is to say, this ain't your 1960's Cuba.

 

After several chaotic days in Havana we bused several hours southwest to the province of Pinar Del Rio. While the cities tend to be frenetic and youthful, the rural face of Cuba is entirely different. It was here where we began our real cycling adventure through the pancake flat and gorgeous tobacco growing region for which Cuba is so famous. Our destination was Maria La Gorda (Maria the Fatty), one of the most isolated regions at the southwestern tip of the island. Like many places on the island, Maria La Gorda is not serviced by regular tourist buses which means it is only accessible via car, prepackaged tour, or in our case bicycles. As we cycled further west the cars were pleasantly replaced by cattle and horse drawn carts. Rural Cuba is a place where tourist infrastructure is virtually nonexistent, buses are for Cubans only, and often times there are limited places to stay for foreigners. Yet the rural areas are where the fabled Cuban generosity and smiles come out in force and where we were so often the recipients of the most genuine kindness. We flew a pair of Cuban flags and posted a pair of Cuban license plates which instantly endeared us everywhere we went with calls of “Cuba!” and “Adio!” greeting us as we flew through the small towns.

 

We rode until dark and when we finally asked about a place to stay in a small town we learned of another of the many institutionalized devisions between foreigners and tourists. Casa particulars, the rooms Cubans rent out of their homes, are divided into foreign and Cuban casas, both with strict pricing and guest reporting requirements. More often than not in the rural towns the casa particulars were for Cubans only. When we approached the owner of a Cuban only casa they would nervously weigh the options before them. On one hand the $20 we would pay nearly matches the fixed monthly Cuban income which tops out at about $20-30 per month. On the other hand, the $1000 fine they may incur by renting to a foreigner could be tantamount to loosing one's home. In the end, I believe it was not wanting to turn away two young bikers into the night that drove them to open their doors to us. It was in these Cuban only casa particulars where we had our best view of Cuban life. We feasted on lobster that night and in the morning we talked for hours over extremely strong and sweet Cuban coffee.

 

We beat rubber the rest of the day arriving at Maria La Gorda after eighty some kilometers under the Caribbean sun. Like most of the best beaches on the island, Maria La Gorda is monopolized by a government run hotel. We attempted a clandestine camping venture that night on the beach and were promptly eaten alive by sand flies who, like vampires, only come out in the night. We submitted to the resort that next morning. It was here where we found our own little slice of Caribbean heaven on a completely secluded beach ten minutes walk from the hotel.

 

Beautiful isolated beaches are a Cuban specialty, and there at Marea La Gorda I saw my opportunity. It was time for action, so I secretly cut the ring out of my belt and found a coconut on the beach. Annelisa had been raving about her coconut cracking skills all week, and after some effort I was able to pry the husk off the coconut. Using a rock I smashed a small hole in the top of the coconut to drain the water out and I quickly slipped the ring inside.

“Show me your skills,” I said tossing the coconut and a large stone to Annelisa. She started smashing away and the following scene went a little something like this: Smash, smash, smash, smash, crack, pry, crack again, look of astonishment, lots of kissing and declarations of “Hell yes I will!”

 

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Palenque 2012: Countdown to the Lamest Apocalypse Ever!

Palenque 2012: Countdown to the Lamest Apocalypse Ever!

Here is what set the Mayan apocalypse apart from other doomsday predictions. First of all, it was new and fresh. We hadn't yet heard from the Mayan's about doomsday, and by apocalypse prediction standards that means you're batting 100%. “The Mayan's, they've like never been wrong on this one!” The next thing the Mayan apocalypse had going for it was that it was not a biblical apocalypse. Sorry Bible, but after so many bad calls it's time to pass the torch. At this point if you hear the words 'biblical' and 'doomsday' in the same sentence, then you can bet it's sure to be a snoozer. Finally, they had already made an apocalypse movie about the event which was, by the way, fucking awesome no matter what the critics said.

 

It was under these pretexts that my fiancé and I made our plans to attend the solstice in Palenque since we were already traveling in Mexico. I started brushing up on my Mayan history and bought an end of the world iPhone app to get ready, but it wasn't long before early troubling signs emerged questioning the apocalyptic nature of the end of the Mayan Calendar. More troubling than the rumors was the source themselves, from scholars of Mayan history and the Mayan community itself. Yet thanks to the American media, the drumbeat of doom was still sounding loud and clear and I was able to convince myself that these so-called “Mayans” and “scholars” were just interlopers intent on ruining everyone's good time anticipating planetary extermination. Besides, you can always expect some asshole to poke holes in your armageddon and it's up to each individual to keep the faith. But don't think that I haven't been burned before. I had been an early enthusiast of the Heaven's Gate cult and had I been old enough in 1994 I surely would have run off to California to join in their suicidal apocalypse. In 1999 I was practically salivating over Y2K, and most recently I had been gunning for Harold Camping's doomsday of May 21, 2011 after he and his Family Radio International ministries put up thousands of billboards for the event. After a decade of disappointments it was becoming increasingly clear that Christ had better things to do than wipe out humanity. It was time to start looking outside the box and so I latched onto the Large Hadron Collider. As we're all painfully aware by now, time and space did not unravel when the collider came on line and as far as I know they're just pioneering new frontiers in physics over there in Switzerland or wherever it is. I was left with only the Mayan Calendar and somewhere deep down I knew that this was the last great hope.

 

We arrived in Palenque on the morning if December 20th after an all night bus-ride from Cancun to discover the international rainbow festival taking place at the same time. I like hippies as much as the next guy, but their good natured new age spiritualist ways seemed to clash with my expectations. They talked about the birth of the next age and energy and such topics that seemed to me very off point.

 

“New age my ass,” I would say. “When those temples open up for the aliens or when Jesus comes down on a righteous bolt of lightning to lay waste to the land… then whose gonna be talking about the new age?”

 

We visited the ruins where hippies from the rainbow festival were holding hands in chant circles at the entrance, and we walked through the beautiful forested ruins. I imagined the mighty city as it once was, the Mayans packing the temples with aliens or explosives and rigging a detonator against the long count calendar. We joined a group at the top of one of the temples for sunset, and as the sun fell below the trees I slapped my hands together in a, “Well, I guess that's the end of that” sort of gesture.

 

On our way back to the town of Palenque I day dreamed about the myriad possibilities it could all go down. Floods, aliens, astroids, zombies, plague, raining fire, a simultaneous and unexplained launch of all nuclear warheads… the possibilities are endless and tantalizing. My favorite involved a giant spear wheeling Jesus in Mayan garb in epic battle with Godzilla and an army of dinosaurs. Yet fate, being the cruel wench that she is, would shortly bring a small apocalypse down upon us in the form of a lost camera that evening as we hurriedly departed the van on our way back to the city. I am a veteran of loosing treasured things while traveling including completed journals and three months worth of photos. This was just another in a long list loosing things, yet it always sucks to loose something irreplaceable. What was more troubling however, was how bummed I felt considering the imminent end of the world.

 

Intent on not letting the loss of the camera ruin the end of existence, we made our plans for a midnight venture to the ruins even as the skies clouded and light rains began intermittently. Then, right on cue at midnight, torrential rains began and there was rumors among the hippies that the pilgrimage to the ruins and the morning celebrations were being canceled. Meanwhile, the rainbow festival camp was flooding with many bags and even several campers being washed away in a flash flood. It was beginning to seem like things were picking up steam, yet in the end that was about as apocalyptic as things got. We woke up the next morning not to screams and maniacal laughter, but just the rhythmic sound of rain on tin roofs. We mad up some signs about our missing camera and visited the ruins again. The rainbow kids had more or less taken over the joint and they made an awkward pair with the local Mayan community who had their own relatively modest celebrations and rituals. In some ways it seemed like an awkward first date which was not helped by the relative monolingual nature of the rainbow kids.

 

Later on we visited the rainbow festival camp which did have it's own post apocalyptic feel going on. Half and fully naked hippies stalked around in the mud blissfully unaware that they were trashing an otherwise pristine piece of forest. Indiscriminate fires burned here and there, cars and RVs spun their wheels in the mud making their fresh tracks into the forest, while the locals who owned trucks carted the rainbow kids back and forth to town. My fiancé and I chatted with them about the flood and we walked around feeling dreary until I kicked a downed palm frond burring a large thorn into the tip of my big toe. Did anyone know palm fronds are armed with large sharp spikes their entire lengths? Overall it was kind of a depressing scene and despite the fact that I had now accepted there would be no apocalypse this year I was still disappointed with God's half hearted attempt at flooding the rainbow camp. I took my bloodied toe and my girlfriend, and we boarded a truck back to town.

 

In the days to follow I scanned CNN in a relatively desperate search for news of the fiscal cliff negotiations, but something inside of me had died. I doubt I will ever again be able to bring myself to believe in another foretelling of the precipitous end of the world. Certainly an astroid or another other unforeseen event could could wipe out the world as we know it at any moment, but the odds of that seem dismally slim and it's something that can hardly be predicted. For me it was back to the busy work of living with relatively petty grievances about lost cameras, stubbing toes, and a bout of diarrhea that would see me through the holidays. I've resigned myself to the fact that the world will keep on spinning and I will keep on living for a period of time unknown to myself or anyone else. In the doomsday predictions game I'll be making the safe bet from here on out yet it's still a prediction that is no less disturbing or horrific than any other I've considered. So I will sign off with this dire warning to you all.

 

BEWARE, Doomsday is coming! Year 7,600,2012 AD: Sun becomes red giant, wipes out the universe. THERE IS NO ESCAPE!!!

 

 

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Día De Los Muertos in Oaxaca: The City, the Valley, and the Sierra.

The following article was published November 15th, 2012 by Travel Culture Magazine, at

 

Día De Los Muertos in Oaxaca: The City, the Valley, and the Sierra.

By Brent Swartz

 

I stand on a hilltop, where the cemetery takes the most central position of the village, next to a three by five foot hole and a bucket of bones. The bones were most certainly disinterred while making room for the plot's new occupant, a reminder that even in death the old must make room for the 'relatively' young. From the village below bells ring, bassoons bellow, and trumpets hail the procession that is making its way through the streets and up to the cemetery. It's a rowdy affair, at least in comparison to our sedate and melancholic funerals in the United States.

It's October 31st, the first day of Día De Los Muertos, when infants are welcomed back from the afterlife. Oaxaca and the country at large has been abuzz with anticipation for this most important celebration in Mexico. The markets are feasts of color with literally bails of marigolds, flor de muertos, and crestas de gallo flowers being sold and carted off to the cemeteries. Throughout the state of Oaxaca there is not one, but many Días De Los Muertos, with each town or village demonstrating its own flair, character, and reverence for the dead. These differences are illustrated in the cemeteries themselves which come to color and life leading up to the festivities. The main cemetery in the city of Oaxaca, the Panteón General, largely consists of elaborate marble tombs encircled by a columbarium. While in the Sierra Norte, where we were hiking that day, cemeteries are often times simple stone gardens on a hilltop in the forest.

If one could be so bold as to categorize the regions around the city of Oaxaca, then you could divide them into three parts consisting of the city, the valley, and the sierra. From that point in the sierra overlooking the funeral procession we would loop to the city, through the valley, and then back to the sierra for several small tastes of the different takes on this incredible celebration. Día De Los Muertos is rooted in ancient pre-columbian Mexico, and celebrating in this largely indigenous region is what makes Oaxaca an amazing place to be at this time. Yet, what made it truly exceptional was the kindness and openness we experienced as Oaxacans threw open their doors inviting us in for traditional hot chocolate, meals, mezcal, and conversation about death and family.

The 'we' in this story is myself and my partner, traveling companion, and all around rockstar Annelisa Tornberg. After three days hiking in the sierra we headed back to the city and ended up where many Oaxacans do for Día De Los Muertos, at the Panteón General. On November 1 the children return, and at the Panteón they are memorialized in elaborate alters throughout the cemetery with photos of smiling school children atop the flowers and offerings. In Mexico, a tomb is not only a sacred spot but also a place to sit, and scores of people sat on friends, family, and stranger's graves listening to Mariachi music throughout the cemetery. Masked and costumed characters lurked between the gravestones and children played till late in the night for what was anything but a morbid atmosphere. Seeing such a revelatory scene take place, in a cemetery of all places, the meaning of the celebration began to sink in. Death is the great leveler that comes for us all and is something we must come to terms with; either in a full embrace as they do in Mexico, or in a silent and mournful manner as we often do back home in the States. For me, a cemetery is being chased by the Headless Horseman from Sleepy Hollow and a place my grandfather lies where I have not visited since the day he was buried. Amidst the flowers and music I realized that I would not tremble so in the face of death if I could be so assured that my children and grandchildren would welcome me home by pouring half a Negro Modelo on my grave leaving the rest for me after a thirsty trip from the afterlife. If only we would turn cemeteries into gardens, children chasing butterflies between the gravestones.

There were also parades in the streets and after our surrealistic experience in the cemetery we caught the tail end of one of these Comparsas de Muertos. I caught the eye of a woman standing in a doorway who was holding an unlabeled green bottle. We had one of those connections only found between those possessing mezcal and those desiring it. This connection quickly turned into a bond as she rushed across the street to share her homemade 'all natural' mezcal.

“Como te llamas?” she asked. “Brent,” I replied. Brent is a name with no Spanish equivalent and particularly difficult to pronounce especially for the tipsy. “Oh, Branch,” she said. This would become a theme for the rest of the night. Several minutes later her niece walked out the door and accidentally pulled it closed behind her, locking the entire family out of the house: tired children, ninety year old grandmas, and all. Yet no fear, because 'Branch' was to the rescue. I scaled a cement telephone pole making sure to duck and avoid several of the low slung electrical wires. Only when I was on top of the fifteen foot wall did they start calling, “¡Cuidado Blanca!”; fateful words, “Beware of Whitey!” I edged across the roof in order to drop down into the courtyard looking for the forewarned dog, while the woman out front yelled “Wench, Wench!” Which was apparently the next incarnation of my name. I was able to subdue the 'beast' with a few “hey poochie poochies” and a scratch behind the ears for what turned out to be a glorified lap dog. “Bienvenidos!” I yelled throwing open the door to their house, and for the rest of the night we imbibed in animated conversation and homemade mezcal. The lovable Doña of the house was named Minerva, and as she pushed more mezcal upon us she traded turns with her two cousins in lecturing us about the importance and history of Día De Los Muertos.

“Ay, como te llamas? Jesus?” She asked. At this point I was whoever she wanted me to be. “Si Minerva, yo soy Jesus.” “Ahh…” she says. “Chu chu entonces,” 'Chu Chu' being a nickname for Jesus.

With sweeping hand gestures and a rising and falling voice, she went on and on about this thing called death. “Tu piel es blanco, y mi piel es marrón. Pero ambos tenemos el mismo color de huesos.” “Your skin is white and my skin is brown. But we both have the same color bones.” In essence she was saying that the substance of one's self is found beneath the skin; in the end life is fleeting and we're all the same color in the boneyard. Eventually we stumbled from the house and into the street with gracias, adios, and a promise to return the next week for lunch. It must have been two or three in the morning and none of them had yet gone to bed; neither sleepy children nor ninety year old grandmas.

We spent the next two days exploring the valley where the majority of the marvelous arts, ceramics, carvings, fabrics, and other crafts are produced, and we visited more cemeteries. In the town of Ocotlán the weekly Friday market fell on November 2, coinciding with the final official day of Día De Los Muertos when adults are welcomed from the great beyond. We walked down the street towards the cemetery, banked on both sides by marigolds which are the traditional flowers used to mark a spirit's return home. Once in the cemetery, each family seemed to have their own ritual: a dash of mezcal on the ground and a shot placed on the raised bed of earth, an older woman knitting with her feet propped up on a tomb, a plate of mole or pozole at the foot of a grave. Several young men were lighting cigarettes and placing them on a headstone for what I am sure was the eternal delight of that particular spirit. Finally, at three o'clock, goodbyes were said and all the spirits were whisked away until the following year. This moment effectively marked the end of Día De Los Muertos despite the fact that most of the living would remain in the cemetery till late that night. Yet there was one final place where Día De Los Muertos was to live on…. So back to the Sierra Norte we traveled for 'El baile en el cerro,' the dance on the mountaintop.

On our prior visit to the Sierra Norte, while bouncing around the back of a truck, we met an older señor and his wife from the village of Cuajimoloyas. Midway up the mountain we stopped to collect flowers for their alters and they told us of 'El baile in el cerro,' which marks their final day of celebration for Día De Los Muertos. The aforementioned mountaintop hosting the dance is a pronounced rocky bluff that dominates the town. Two brass bands played Banda music for the villagers, who were dancing by noon, and the occasional party goer went soaring off over the village on a quarter mile long zip-line. Annelisa was propositioned to dance by none other than our friendly señor with whom we had ridden up the mountain and picked flowers the week before. They danced what I've come to call 'the Mexican two-step' and we were invited to his home the following morning for breakfast.

On our last morning in the sierra, while everyone slept after a late night fiesta and the spirits had presumably long since departed, I walked alone to the edge of town and the cemetery. The Sierra Norte has a certain way of gathering the clouds, which then quickly burn off as they spill over the top of the ridge into the valley. The light streaming through the trees and the retreating fog was particularly beautiful that morning. Even though I've never been what one would call an especially religious man, I still call this God's light and am yet to find a more fitting description. The wooded cemetery, resplendent in it's flowers and location, was peaceful and a far cry form what I would call the lonesomeness of cemeteries I've been accustomed to. Let's face it, this dying thing can be some lonesome business, and the loneliness is what we fear most from death. Our tales of ghosts and spirits tend to be those of cheerless ones haunting houses and hotels with nothing better to do then change television channels and slam a couple doors here and there. And our cemeteries are often forgotten places with plastic flowers bleaching in the sunlight. This was my eighth cemetery in six days, and it's funny how a veritable cemetery tour could be one of the most life affirming experiences of my life. Then and there, I made a promise to myself to celebrate death and to make damn sure my friends and family see that I'm doing it. For I do not want my grandmother, nor my mother or father, nor anyone I love to tremble in the face of dying, believing they may be forgotten in a lonely cemetery. I want them to one day look for a path of marigolds and know that for at least these days every year they will be remembered, welcomed, and treasured.

 

 

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The Legend of the Ola

After two fabulous week in Guanajuato filled with music, theater, and nights on the town, we headed back to Mexico City to meet up with Brent's Mom, Beryl. From there, the three of us made an escape to the beautiful Pacific Coast in Oaxaca State. We spent a few days at La Punta in Puerto Escondido learning to properly relax in the heat (aka find a hammock and don't get out of it all afternoon), surfing, and discovering the importance of securing your mosquito net tightly around your mattress. Further West along the coast we came upon the perfect little beach getaway- San Agustinillo. Being slightly cooler, breezier, and with safer swimming, this little fishing community is sure to become our family's holiday home away from home. While I tumbled and floated among the waves, Brent mastered the art of standing on his surfboard and riding the wave all the way to shore. It was here on the coast where we encountered the incredible story of the Ola. In print for the first time, we bring you the life, and The Legend of the Ola.

The Legend of the Ola

They call him the Ola, the Shaman of the Waves. His power animal is the pelican, and you can see it in the way he carves pipes. The same way pelicans use the updrafts off the waves he soars down the pipes. He can fly man, I've seen it. His tribe surfs the pipes down at the Esco, and I was just a boy when I made my first pilgrimage. Hell, I hadn't even been born yet. And if he accepts you into his tribe, he accepts you into his family. He marks you, with a wink and a nod which means your Shocka-bra. And if you're Shocka-bra, then that means your OK with God. Family… man, that shit is for life.

When I surf other breaks in other places, I always dream of the wicked pipes of the Esco. Whenever I great my fellow brahhs on the beach, it's always with a colloquial 'Hola.' But if you listen for it you'll hear the pronounced 'O,' as in Ola, the Spanish name for the wave, the name of the shaman. And I listen real good for their response, that subtle 'O', for Ola in return. And if I hear it I turn round and say, “Hey Brahh, you ever been to the Esco?”

He'll look back real serious, and if he says, “Brahh, I was born in the Esco,” then that means you've found a fellow believer. A fellow Seeker.

I still remember the last time I saw the Ola. And I guess you could say since that time I been searchin'. Not only for my own olas, but for the Ola. The surfing had been wicked sick that day with tight ass pipes off a strong southerly wind. How was I supposed to know what was going to happen? Had I known… oh hell, what's the point in looking back at the shore. We got a case of cervezas and a basket of fruit and we hiked out to La Punta, the point, where we felt the power of the waves crashing on the rocks.

“One day,” began the Ola. “I'll be moving on.”

Mal noticias amigo.

He went on as was his habit of doing. “That's right, I don't know when and I don't know where, but I can feel a wave a-coming. “Feel the waves fellow brahhlitos y brahhlitas.” Everyone of them coming across the ocean, born out at sea. Traveling miles and miles just to get here, just to get to you. They begin practically as nothing, maybe the wings of a butterfly in India or a falling tree which stirs the breeze across the ocean. Just the way your mother may have batted her lashes at your father. Just a little thing at first which releases all that kinetic energy. Love man, it's all just energy.”

We chew on this for a while, sipping our beers and thinking, just digesting what it is the Ola tells us. He's deep man, real deep.

“Everyone of us,” he continues. “We only have so many waves to surf. You can't pick your waves, you can only be ready for them when they come. Is it going to break right or left, is it going to be a pipe or what? You just got to be there in the moment. And if you're sitting on shore, then that's just too bad. This wave came all that way just for you and you just let it crash on the shore? That's the only sin I ever heard of. Now listen to me, my brahhs, my family. When that wave comes for me and I take it, I need you all to remember that you've never needed me. Because the wave is inside of you.”

I didn't like the way the Ola was talking. Man, what would we do without him? I didn't even want to think about it. He came up to me later on saying, “Why you looking so glum my little brahhlito?”

I toss a rock into the ocean.

“Seeing you grow up on these waves man, it's given me a lot a joy,” he says. “But you're not a little boy anymore. You're a man. But you're running. Running from what? I don't know. That's for you to figure out. Did you know that waves come in sets? Sets of fourteen. Tell me now, what happened to you when you were fourteen?”

I search my mind and I can't think of a thing. Then it hits me. “Lost my pops when I was fourteen,” I say. To be honest I'm not sure if it was fourteen, but it was thereabouts. But I go on, “He didn't die or nothin. Just up and ran off with some Vegas hooker he met online. I ain't seen him since.”

“Little brahh, that wave passed. It's come and gone and it's energy has washed back into the ocean. You can't look for the waves when you're only looking back at the shore. Look to the sea my brahhlito, be ready, and when the wave comes you be ready to shocka-bra.”

I look out at the sea again.

“How old are you now?” He asks.

“Twenty eight.” I'm actually thirty, but I know what the Ola is getting at and I want him to see it through.

“Well son, sounds like it's time for a new beginning.”

The next morning the Ola was gone, board and all. The family couldn't keep together after that, like the spirit had been taken out of us and we scattered like sheep without a shepherd. We went our different ways, and my way was back into my parents' basement in Santa Monica. I'm still surfing though, still searching for my olas. And still searching, for the Ola.

 

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Guanajuato: Don Quijote and Cervantino Festival

The following article has been published in Travel Culture Magazine, at

Guanajuato: Don Quijote and the Cervantino Festival

Looking out into a Guanajuato neighborhood on the edge of downtown.

Arriving in Guanajuato, you catch a brief glimpse of the city before the bus dives subterranean. The underbelly of the city is a network of tunnels, relics of the mining days when Guanajuato was the greatest producer of silver in the world. The bus stops, you push and are pushed off with the twenty somethings arriving from all over México. Emerging from the tunnel into the main plaza, the Jardín de la Unión, is a spectacle in itself; great colonial buildings, cathedrals, and theaters overlook the streets that are conspicuously absent of cars. In fact, only a handful of one-way streets are passible by car while the rest of the traffic is diverted into the tunnels. This leaves walkways and open plazas which are the perfect setting for the spectacle you have actually come for, the International Cervantino Festival.

Painting in Don Quijote Iconography Museum.

I stumbled upon Cervantino Festival and Guanajuato in 2007, ironically while I was reading Don Quijote de La Mancha. The city is largely a tribute to the book’s author Miguel Cervantes, hence ‘Cervantino Festival,’ and by all appearances, Don Quijote is the city’s unofficial patron saint. This singular image of the crazed knight and his loyal squire riding the countryside punctuates the city and the festival perfectly; there’s a madness and an errant purpose to the celebration. In the forty years since the festival has been officially recognized, it has grown into what is considered the most important arts and cultural festival in Latin America, and one of the five best festivals of its kind in the world, according to the European Festivals Association. How else, if not for Quixotic ideals of grandeur, could a small street theater group performing Cervantes’ short works, called Entremeses, develop into the modern Mexican bonanza that Cervantino is today? The festival is more than just a chance to party. In the Mexican celebratory tradition, it is an affirmation of life, and Cervantino is a portrait of a modern México: Vibrantly artistic, culturally rich, and embracing it’s history while excited about it’s future. This year I was returning for the fortieth annual Cervantino, with my lovely girlfriend, for this most Mexican of celebrations.

Street Performer Extraordinaire

We arrived in Guanajuato several days prior to Cervantino to get a good grip on the city before the festivities. Yet it was clear the city was already gearing up for the party with crammed buses of young people hailing from all parts of the country and the world. ‘Soy de Guadalajara,’ ‘Soy de Monterey,’ ‘Soy de Aguascalientes,’ ‘Soy de Shanghai,’ ‘Hi, I’m from Wisconsin.’ The performances on the docket were equally diverse with this year’s invitees of honor hailing from Poland, Austria, and Switzerland. Yet every continent was thoroughly well represented with acts from Argentina, Columbia, Togo, Mali, China, Russia, Portugal, Spain, United States, you name it. Cervantino is a people’s party and tickets for any of the official shows rarely exceed twelve dollars. There are also plenty of free shows, street theatre, roving music trains, and espectaculous de la calle, (literally translated, spectaculars of the street.)

Annelisa and Brent atop La Bufa

You certainly won’t want to lose out on Guanajuato through the haze of Cervantino. Artistic and historical roots run deep as it was the birthplace of the painter/muralist Diego Rivera and was pivotal in its role for Mexican Independence. Guanajuato’s preoccupation with Don Quijote and Miguel Cervantes also contributes to the completely original character of the city. Anyone with even a passing interest must visit the Don Quijote Iconography Museum to see the splendid works of art inspired by the mad knight and his squire’s errant adventures. Moving on to the Diego Rivera Museum you walk through the artist’s childhood home getting a glimpse into the early life and works of the most important contemporary artist in México’s history. Just down the street you find the Alhóndiga, a menacing square building which marks the site of the first victory of México’s war for independence. However, the building also served a more grim purpose when, after the Spanish retook the city, it was the site of the infamous ‘Lottery of Death,’ and displayed the heads of independence leaders at each of the four corners. The inside is currently a museum dedicated to the Mexican war for Independence and home of the impressive staircase murals by José Chávez Morado, which depict the history of Guanajuato. Finally, for those who want to get outside, you can hike the rocky bluffs to the Southwest above the colorful buildings in the valley. With moderate temperatures, amazing walkability, beautiful architecture, vivid history, and a fun friendly vibe, Guanajuato is a wonderful place to visit any time of year for any purpose.

After a few days exploring the city and gearing up for the festival, we attended the opening performance, which was a Polish dance and music group doing ‘Chopin Rock’ at the Alhóndiga. In addition to being an important historical site, the Alhóndiga takes center stage (if not geographically) for Cervantino performances. Classical piano by an elderly gentlemen complete with tuxedo tails led into modern interpretations of Chopin by a spry, long haired pianist who used beads and scarves in the piano wires to alter the sounds for a unique effect. Finally, a full band took stage and rocked Chopin for the crowd and for the modern ballet that took place before them. The tempo progressively amped up and the ballet came to a terrific finale. When the stage finally went dark the music picked up again and acted as the soundtrack for an impressive fireworks display. It was a Wednesday night, I was psyched, and it was only the beginning of the three week festival.

Argentinian Tango & Flamenco Orchestra

In the street is the best place to begin and end a night in Guanajuato over Cervantino. The climate is perfectly mild when hanging out in the shade, and three o’clock is an ideal time to sip a cup of coffee on the patio of a cafe. Coffee transitions to wine, wine transitions to light Mexican beers, and your attention is drawn more and more to what’s going on all around. The night starts to get underway and at some point you are swept away with the rising tide of people in the squares and music in the streets. A favorite gathering place is at the steps of the cathedral in the Jardín de la Unión, where costumed musicians lead classic Mexican folk songs. As the crowd swells around them they take their music to the streets leading the callejoneada, or if you will, the ‘Guanajuato party train.’ And you just got to get on board because the party ain’t gonna wait for you.

There’s much to chose from at this early hour, from live music in the bars, young rock musicians in the smaller squares, street performers, and of course the singing musicians leading their followers through the calles y callejones (streets and alleyways). Not to mention the hundreds of official shows taking place. These shows range from street theatre to children’s puppetry, modern rock to classical music, modern dance to traditional ballet, Mexican artists, and international flavors. Cervantino has something for everyone. Among the performances we saw, each one exceptional, was a Malian singer who had everyone on their feet at the Ahóndiga, Ballet Folklorico from Sinaloa México, Cuerpo Mutable which was a modern dance group from México City, big band Argentinian tango and flamenco, and so many more that I won’t continue to exhaust in list form. The performances were professional and original, and every one of them rousing and memorable.

Cathedral in Guanajuato

After the pre-party and the evening performances, the after party begins. If you’re there on a weekend as we were, then you’ll want to get tickets to the tunnel show, where a city underground is opened up for a techno and electronic dance party. I’m not a natural fan of this type of music, but it’s hard not to get swept up amidst the friendly and grooving revelers in the packed tunnel. We were led to the tunnel by some rather intoxicated kids from Aguascalientes, we drank Coronas with student from México City, and then were pulled to the front of the stage by a Fulbright Scholar from Kansas City. On our way out we met up with a crew from Monterey who lead on to Los Lobos bar where we got a case of beer, clambered upstairs, and were subsequently lectured on the difference between Scottish and German bagpipes by a traveling musician. Who knew there were distinctly German bagpipes and that they even predate Scottish bagpipes?

Techno Tunnel Dance Party

As the night wore on it was off to other Guanajuato staples starting with the creatively named El Bar (The Bar), for some latin pop and dance tunes. As no night is complete without some salsa, we finished at the late night favorite, Las Damas, which was as much a toe stomping and bumping match as it was a dance club. But the music was live and spirits were high as everyone jostled to the beat and sang out loud to the songs they knew. When the salsa pop anthem, ‘Yo No Se Mañana,’ came on, it was a full sing along not unlike the treatment Americans give ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ by Journey, but admittedly a bit more in tune. As all good nights in Guanajuato end as they began, on the street, we made our post dancing quest for tacos del pastor. If the vertical spinning grill with layers of pork topped with a pineapple reminds you of a gyro grill, then you’re probably on the right track, as this was inspired by Lebanese immigrants to México in the late 1800′s; think Selma Hayak and Carlos Slim. At five in the morning, eating these delicious tacos, I find myself particularly grateful for Lebanese immigrants to México. We stumbled home certain that the party would keep jumping until dawn and beyond, and we left it to those with a little more grit to finish the night off for us.

Over my years of traveling in México I have become hopelessly in love with the people and the culture. This is not to say that México does not lack for problems. Drug violence is a daily reality for many people while many others still struggle with basic necessities. The disparity between the rich and the poor is staggering, and the recently elected president is a member of the PRI party, whose previous reign lasted 70 years until 2000, and is largely responsible the chronic corruption and dramatic income gap that plagues México. On this point however, one could argue that much of the PRI’s success in the last election was due to a lack of competent or sane alternatives. Guanajuato is neither an excuse nor an exception to what happens throughout the country. Cut from the same cloth, it simply stands as an example of the multifaceted Mexican experience. And Cervantino is an example of a México comfortable with its history and excited about its future. There are indeed increasing opportunities for young people and there is a pervasive sense of pride and optimism as I travel throughout the country.

It’s difficult, no it’s actually impossible to draw broad conclusions from one experience or one place about a country and its people. Still, the Cervantino Festival could only take place in México, and if it doesn’t explain, then it at least illustrates a vivacious, artistically excited, and culturally mature country defining its own future. As I learn more about México’s history and traditions I am continually struck with how unique and impassioned are the people. And as I hear the soulful sounds of singers and guitars filtering through the streets and alleys of Guanajuato on an October night, I think to myself, ‘Only in México.’

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Bienvenidos Guanajuato. Viva Cervantino!

Balcony along a Guanajuato callejone

Arriving in Guanajuato you ride on a crowded bus full of college aged kids through tunnels and across the hills of Mexico's central highlands. Around a final bend and nestled in a valley is the striking city of Guanajuato. It's history as a colonial silver mining city, once the greatest producer of silver in the world, and it's present as a cultural and artistic pioneer come together to create one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities in the world. The first and most apparent quality of the city is its walkability. Relics of its mining history are the tunnels that traverse the city drawing a majority of it's traffic underground. What is left on the surface in lieu of cars and exhaust are pedestrian avenues, tree-filled plazas and squares, great cathedrals, colonial buildings, and hundreds of miles of callejones which are the narrow alleyways throughout the neighborhoods. Cars exist on only a handful of cobblestone one-way streets in certain parts of the city.

Don Quijote Iconography Museum

Guanajuato is the birthplace of Mexican Independence, the muralist and painter Diego Rivera, and the great International Cervantino Festival. The Spanish novelist Miguel Cervantes is revered in this city, and by all evidence their patron saint is Don Quijote de La Mancha. For three weeks in October Guanajuato draws thousands of performers from across Mexico and the world for its annual arts and cultural festival. Cervantino is considered the most important artistic and cultural event in Latin America and among the top five best international arts festivals in the world according to the European Festivals Association. With performances ranging from a Polish dance and music group doing Chopin Rock, to the University of Guanajuato theatre group performing the original Cervantes shorts (entremeses) that gave rise to the festival nearly sixty years ago, Cervantino has something for everyone. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans and foreign tourists flock to this modern Mexican bonanza which may may be the biggest party you have never heard of.

Guanajuato cathedral

After the day's performances the after-party begins. Roving groups of singers band together and walk the streets gathering a parade of tagalongs. The group's numbers grow until they are a party in themselves meandering through the calles y callejones. Street music and theatre on the steps of the cathedrals are the backdrop to packed squares, bars, and salsa clubs. Stop by the Plaza Los Angeles and sit on the edge of the fountain to listen to young rock groups, or on the weekends, descend into the tunnels for DJs spinning electronic and techno dance groves. Groups of inebriated singers punctuate the infectiously enthusiastic atmosphere until sunrise.

Guanajuato and its Cervantino Festival is a portrait of a modern Mexican city. An idealic portrait yes, but vivid and accurate nevertheless. It does not paint over Mexico's problems ranging from drug violence on the boarder to poverty in Chiapas. But it is a people's city and Cervantino a people's celebration which is modern and quintessentially Mexican. It is a place where ancient and colonial history meets modern artistic culture, and looks boldly ahead.

Entremeses (the original Cervantino theater shorts)

 

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Mexico City and A Question

Views of Mexico City from our hotel.

We are setting off to Guanajuato for the Amazing International Cervantino Festival after an incredible couple days in Mexico City. I am left with a question that I would like to principally direct towards the teachers I've had in the past and the educational system in general. Why have I not learned about the incredible history of my own part of the world? Being in Mexico City one can not help but admire and somewhat envy Mexico's strong connection with its own history. This is certainly influenced by the mistico culture, which is the mix of both Native and European heritage, such that the majority of Mexicans have an indigenous heritage. However, this is no excuse for the fact that we up north know little to nothing about the culture and heritage of what we call the Americas prior to colonization.

Anthropology Museum

The great pyramid of Cholula, still being excavated near Puebla, is by volume the largest pyramid In the world. The third largest is the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, north of Mexico City. The scale and history of these locations are beyond belief and well… come on America! How did I not know all this? Once I am able to swallow my indignation I am able to focus on the incredible scenes of Mexico City. We ran around the city on the ridiculously efficient subway system visiting different barrios from the bohemian Roma district to the party centric Zona Rosa, to mellow and artistic Coyacan where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera once lived. We also visited the Anthropological Museum which puts together an incredible history of Mesoamerica (also known as American history.)

Staring contest

Mexico city itself is a bustling concoction of street performers, business, rush hour subway traffic, beautiful architecture adjacent to poorly maintained store fronts, and hip neighborhoods with live music and mezcal. On Friday night we discovered that Mexico does indeed produce some delicious IPAs and Red Ales, and then moved on to Mexican staples like Corona while cheering on our new favorite luchador, Mistico, at Lucha Libre.

Our reenactment of Lucha Libre.

 

 

 

 

Diego Rivera, a Catrina, and his wife Frida Kahlo, depicted in one of his murals.

 

 

 

We visited the Diego Rivera Mural Museum and also saw his masterful murals at the Palacio Nacional. His stairway mural incorporates over a thousand characters as it illustrates the history of Mexico from ancient through modern times. He is depicted in his own work many times over as a child, a frog, a dog, a baby, and as a priest lustfully leaning over a prostitute. He was uncompromising in his work and it is incredible to see a depiction of governmental corruption, religious hypocrisy, the subjugation of indigenous people, and communist ideals right there in the house of government power. The idea that this could exist anywhere in the United States let alone in a governmental building is laughable. Again, come on America!

Annelisa at Teotihuacan

On departing Mexico City, we went to Teotihuacan to explore the Temples of the Sun, the Moon, and the Avenue of the Dead. These incredible temples rise above the landscape like mountains and the ambition of their construction is astounding. Later in the day men, women, and children began arriving in traditional Mexica dress and wildly plumed head dresses. They gathered at the base of the Temple of the Sun, burned incense, and began drumming as they performed a traditional ceremony and dance. Again, it was hard not to be jealous of a people's strong connection to and knowledge of their own history and culture, and a little irritated to have known so little about it growing up.

Una niña participating in the Aztec ritual at Teotihuacan.

 

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