Archive for the 'South America' Category

Not Watching the World Cup

Watching the finals, four years ago in Merida

Four years ago. Cement and humidity. Rattling bus ride, stomach-sick and backpack-heavy, up and over, along the coast and back in again. Everything laced in car exhaust and heat, the smoke off cooking meat, the horn blows of “Hips Don’t Lie”—and the crackle of television sets, shoulders hunched around the static glow.

I’ll admit that I didn’t really know what the World Cup was before the last one. Cause I’m American and we’re generally not aware of things outside our own culture (as captured by this Simpsons episode). But four years ago, I got a crash course: I was traveling during the entire duration of the World Cup. I didn’t know shit about the game, and kindly fellow travelers tried repeatedly to educate me, but it was pretty much a loss. What got to me, though, was the way the World Cup consumed the places I was in, and completely took over daily life.

It started slowly. During the first rounds, just a couple dudes holed up in the kitchen of the youth hostel on drizzly Bogota afternoons. They made a list of all participating countries, along with offensive, politically incorrect nicknames they invented with their apparent oddles of free time (the only one I can remember is “Portugal: Little Brazil”).

As I snaked through the murderous mountains, bus break downs and military checkpoints, the intensity of the World Cup gathered speed. By the time I got to the sweltering, smoggy Caribbean coast, it was in full swing: TVs pulled out onto the Santa Marta street corners, men on folding cars, kids crosslegged, staring transfixed. Colombia wasn’t even in the games. It didn’t seem to matter.

I’ve heard reasons for why soccer isn’t big in the US, and why football (American football) is—basically, that football is tailor-made for commercial breaks and thus commercialization, while soccer’s lengthy sets make it untelevisable, in the American sense. It seemed like a plausible explanation. “I must say, it’s rather nice,” the British girl told me, leaning in and soft-voiced, “to have this one huge thing that America isn’t really a part of.”

I was in Merida, Venezuela for the final game. It was like Super Bowl Sunday times ten—you couldn’t really do anything else but watch the game. So I hung out at my hostel and pretended to follow along.

We went out for a walk after the end of the game, to survey the goings on. The city was transformed into a Venezuelan sideshow: a choke of traffic, horns and revving engines, kids hanging entire torsos out of the windows of moving vehicles, everyone chanting: “Italia! Italia!” I could only imagine what it must have been like in Italy.

The energy of it, the global ecstatic energy, felt like an addictive, consuming and altogether foreign thing. Was this what was going on while Americans were busy tailgating and spending $6 for a Budweiser? The raw emotion of it reminded me of a Sherman Alexie poem I’d read years ago:

On TV, more soccer riots in Europe.
There would be riots in American stadiums
during our particular games
if the people who had reason to riot
could pay the price for admission.

Like anything, like any time you travel and are surrounded by some awesome and immersive cultural force, you want to feel a part of it. But there’s always that little twinge, that hint, a prickle in the back of your neck, that you’re separate, somehow apart from—that you don’t really understand, not deeply enough, and that you’ll always be a little on the outside.

Do you ever play that game with yourself?—“the next time this happens, I wonder where I’ll be.” Four years older, but not where I supposed: still in the US, still waiting tables, still scraping money together here and there for little trips. Not the life I expected, or the one I even wanted, but the one I’ve ended up in: arrived in, disoriented and unsure, a noisy bus station on the smog-choked side of town.

So I didn’t join in the fuss this time around. I didn’t watch the games or pretend to follow along, didn’t ride the train out to Civic Center on Sunday to sit on the grass and squint at a big projection screen. I didn’t tweet my predictions or try to seem more international than I was really was by feigning interest (ahem, covered quite nicely here).

I let it pass quietly, peripherally—like a party going on in the apartment downstairs, when you look around the dim light of your bedroom and sigh. You put in some ear plugs and let the noise fade, feeling the foam expand as you fall asleep. In the morning, life returns to normal, and you try not to think about where you’ll be for the next one, in another four years.

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Estudy of Estyle: Chilean Street Art and Figuring Out What the Hell It Is I Have to Say

There’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, but struggling to find the words to explain: the connection between travel and street art. I’ve had fumbling conversations in which I attempt to articulate it, flapping my lips like hands gasping at butterflies, trying to gather vague supports for an unformed thesis. An idea has been forming in me, very far inside my brain, amid the murmuring currents of subconsciousness—like a toddler without the vocabulary to express herself, feeling emotions she doesn’t understand, but only knows are true.

And then a friend posts a video on Facebook that starts to explain everything I’ve been thinking and struggling to say. Thank God.

Chile Estyle has released the first documentary in what I’m hoping will be an ongoing exploration of the evolution of the burgeoning and blossoming Chilean spin on the global phenomenon of street art. And in its coverage of the specifically Chilean take on the art form, Chile Estyle touches on what I’d felt street art is doing all over the world: revealing (like a striptease) just a little more of the soul of a place.

I’ve been hearing a lot about Chilean street art, most recently in a photo essay by Oakland artist Obi Kaufmann (discussed in connection to his recent mural here). We stood around The Oakbook’s small gallery space, and I listened to Obi talk about the distinctions of Chilean street art: materials lending a unique aesthetic (due to the relative absence of aerosol spray paint in the country), and the culture of muralism leading to the acceptance, even support, of the community (you’re more likely to see street art on the sides of businesses and schools than abandoned warehouses). I can’t say I saw a lot of street art when I was in Santiago, nearly five years ago. Something has changed.

Judging from the picture presented by Chile Estyle, the explosion of street art in Chile has a lot to do with the country regaining confidence and reestablishing its identity. Artists in the video talk about seeing work from New York, Europe, Brazil, and taking pride in the fact that Chile can contribute works just as valuable and important. But, of course, it comes with their own distinct style, a product of their own history and culture.

This one's for you, Mom

The video discusses “Chilean graffiti identity,” informed by the country’s tradition of political muralism. Uber populist and at its core revolutionary, graffiti and street art are seen as an extension of the self-expression that acted in rebuttal to (right-wing) major media outlets—“walls are taken much like a newspaper.” The tradition has lent a culture and community far more tolerant of street art than in most places of the world; it’s seen as “a gift for the people,” rather than vandalism. And, as Chilean street art has begun to garner international attention (like in a recent exhibition at LA’s Carmichael Gallery), it’s become a source of national pride.

How different this is from the culture of street art around the world. And more than just isolated vestiges of self-expression, one can take Chilean street art as a product of the country’s past and perhaps one of best reflections of its contemporary culture.

This is what I’ve been suspecting street art could do. In moments of blinding conviction, I’ve felt that street art, in its democratic and uncommercialized glory, can capture placeness just as well as food or architecture or music or any number of things people look to when they travel. In a continual cross-pollination of artists and influences, cities wear a bit more of their souls on their walls, as though the murals and stencils and wheatpastes were images from its dreams. It’s the way a city like Tel Aviv becomes a mecca for political street art, the way the aesthetic now known as Mission School bloomed in the alleyways of the 90’s SF Mission, whispering its stories in neon—and the way the tradition of political muralism paved the way and painted the walls for a purely Chilean approach to the art form.

And I still don’t have the words for it, the right or complete words to explain it all—because of course, virtually the same things could be said about all art forms, in how they inform and are informed by place. But something in me sparks when it comes to graffiti, in the same place of my brain that travel ignites. I guess the only thing to do is keep digging, poking, on the internet and down alleyways, until I stumble upon the thing it is I’m trying to say—painted on the walls in plain sight.

Temporal Permanence: Ruins, Street Art and the Narrative Beneath

The speechless candlelight made the images more powerful. The way the sage billowed, the music groaned, the little light flickered—it made the images seem less like a mural and more like the hallucinogenic remnants of a dream, bloody and hand-smeared on the walls of a very dark cave, or on the inside of your skull—which may be the same thing. Dancing on the under side of your eyelids, before swollen and searching pupils, this was the stuff of mushrooms and all-nighters, of contemporary graffiti and ancient cities, of Latin American travels and my Friday night in Oakland.

The showing of Obi Kaufmann‘s mural The Feathered Serpent at The Oakbook was less like an art show than a ceremonious seance. Painted in the fever and fury of a single day and night (and mushroom trip), the mural was inspired by the artist’s recent travels through Latin America. The distinctive flavor of Santiago’s street art scene and the whispering ruins of Oaxaca’s ancient city Monte Alban swirled around in the artist’s subconscious until a dream pushed images out, from one side of the brain to the other, through his fingers and onto the wall of the gallery.

I am not an art critic, journalist, collector or student, so I won’t try to review or surmise. Instead, I’ll let the artist speak for himself. Here’s his photo essay of Santiago street art on Artopic, and his written essay about the genesis and symbolism of the piece on The Oakbook’s website.

After checking out the essays, I got pretty stoked to see the mural. The work being travel-inspired got my antennas twitching. I’d been to both Santiago and Monte Alban, I love crumbly old ruins, and I really love street art (as you’ve seen before)—often for the aesthetics but more because, as a traveler, I find it reveals so much about the beating heart of a place. I was curious to see how it all connected.

Indeed, what I found most compelling about the work (aside from the spooky images and skeletal figures) was the way it blended seemingly disparate influences. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of similarity between the streets of Santiago and the ruins of the Zapotec city Monte Alban: vibrant color versus crumbled stone; modern versus ancient; temporality versus remains—a continent, culture and two millennia apart, what commonality did these two places hold? For the artist, it was some kind of communalism, each place informing part of a narrative that was at once universal and personal, regionally distinct and part of a bigger story. Obi saw the world, human history, in the cavernous, torch-lit intersection of two places that don’t seem to intersect. And if that’s not some damn good traveling, than I don’t know what is.

The artist

Travel often brings up puzzling paradoxes (thus the tired line, “land of contrasts”). How does one hold, in the same hand, the transience of graffiti and the permanence of hard stone foundations? Or, to extend the metaphor, how does a traveler simultaneously love the spontaneity of the open road and the rootedness of home? I think the answer, if there is one, must lie somewhere down beneath all that, in the narrative thread that ties this big world together—in the collective unconscious, if you wanna get real heady. Or at least, you know, in the images and scrawlings and paint smears that have now been painted over—a wall blazing white and sealed-lipped about the stories it holds.

Top Three Travel Secrets: A Chain Letter for Travel Bloggers

It reads as ominously as a middle school chain letter. Except, in the end, failure to perpetuate the chain isn’t sworn to result in untimely death or spinsterhood (which are more or less the same thing when you’re 12). Rather, in this chain, compliance results in access to a treasure trove of travelers’ secrets. And probably some new friends.

I was hit by two writers in the TripBase Blog Tag, spreading through the travel blogosphere like hot gossip around a lunch table. Or a dirty note during Math class, light-up sneakers in a mean game of duck-duck-goose. (The analogies could go on forever.) The idea is you write a post about your top three travel secrets: out-of-the-way towns, little-known restaurants, unheard-of hotels—“hidden gems” that lay glittering in the dimness of obscurity. Until now, that is.

Aside from amassing an ass-kicking list of previously unknown spots around the world, the other objective of the TripBase Blog Tag is to be build community and get folks involved. I can get down with that. In addition to the awesome ladies that tagged me—Stephanie from Twenty-Something Travel and Abbie from Miles of Abbie—I’ve already discovered some new writers on the TripBase list of bloggers tagged so far. (Best blog names? Dirtbag Writer and Snarky Tofu. Fuck yeah.) My hunch: the final list won’t just expose travel secrets, but also some bad-ass writers I hadn’t encountered yet.

They say you’re only as sick as your secrets. Here’s to travel health:

End of the hike: waterfall into the Pacific

#1 Palomarin Hike, Marin County, California

My work friend had been telling me about “the secret hike” for months. Huddled over our staff meals in the cramped bus station, she made rope-swinging into the clear lake, and the coastal waterfall at the trail’s end, sound like a dream. Or at least a damn good fantasy.

We finally coordinated a day off together in August and headed up to Marin to the Palomarin Hike. We grabbed sandwiches and drove up past Stinson Beach to tackle the 11-mile hike. And I gotta say, it was just as killer as she’d described.

The hike starts through rather typical dusty California coastal terrain, taking you past sweeping Pacific vistas us locals have grown accustomed to. After about 45 minutes, the foliage and trees thicken, and you eventually get to Bass Lake, a frigid-water lake that’s biggest draw is an old-school rope swing. You could while away hours here, but, seeing as though it was August in the Bay Area and foggy as hell, we were too cold to partake. We continued on, and ended up at the trail’s end, where a waterfall tumbles into an isolated coastal cove.

The good news: the hike, although long, is gentle and not too strenuous. Which means just about anyone could do it—including my smoke-a-pack-a-day friend and me, who was then recovering from swine flu (yes, really).

The bad news: the Palomarin Hike is a total word-of-mouth Bay Area secret. As is the way with Marinites, locals don’t want outsiders to know about their secrets or have access to them (see also: why BART doesn’t run to Marin). Locals take down street signs and signposts, meaning that you’ve pretty much gotta go with someone who’s been there. So if you’re headed to the Bay soon, just hit me up; I’ll take you.

Ahhh...

#2 Legzira Plage, Atlantic Coast, Morocco

Okay, if you’ve been following this blog for a bit, you’ve already heard me gush about the most deserted and beautiful beach I’ve ever been to: Legzira Plage, Morocco.

Talk about tucked-away: from Tiznit, take an hour bus ride, hop off at the faded roadside sign, and hike down 20 minutes. It’ll really just be you, a couple stray tourists, some fisherman and their donkeys—and the sandstone arches that dive red earth into blue water.

Among the handful of pink building that cascade down the cliff into the main beach, there’s two hotels that offer relatively cheap rooms. I went high-class and got one with my own shower, squat toilet (doin’ big things), and a window that opened onto the ocean view—for under $20.

Another bonus is the Moroccan street harassment factor, and the fact that Legzira Plage doesn’t have one. After a couple weeks of solo backpacking, sweating in long sleeves and fending off the barrage of “bonjour”s, it felt pretty damn sweet to strip down to my bikini and wave-hop in peace.

Kids on their way to school

#3 El Congo, Venezuela

The story goes that, when Europeans first arrived in what is now Venezuela, they came to the Lake Maracaibo villages, perched on stilts amid the marshes and water. Watching the village folks traverse the “streets” in handmade rafts reminded the Europeans of Venice—and they dubbed the place Venezuela.

El Congo, Venezuela is the most other-worldly places I’ve ever been. It’s only reachable by boat, a 30-minute ride through the hazy flat expanse of water, and you’ve gotta book a tour to get there. But surprisingly, the town isn’t the main draw of the tour. The Catatumbo Lightning phenomenon is what draws most people—mysterious, thunderless lightning that occurs almost nightly in the skies over Lake Maracaibo.

The road to Los Llanos was flooded when I was in Merida, so I opted to take the Catatumbo tour in its place. I hadn’t heard of El Congo, but it ended up being the highlight of the tour (the lightning didn’t really happen that night). The town had everything—a school, a fire station, a convenience store, even a Plaza Bolivar—all erected on stilts. Rumor had it there were a couple old folks still living in the town who’d only ever stepped foot for dry land to bury relatives.

It wasn’t an untouched Eden: El Congo was extremely isolated, making inbreeding a huge problem, and the town was quite poor. Sanitation was a major issue, with most refuse and human waste going directly into the water. Owning an actual boat was a sign of privilege. The less well-to-do had to construct their own floatation devices—this girl tied a piece of wood to some leftover styrofoam, dug a stick down into the mushy lakebed, and propelled herself along that way.

The thing that really bummed me out were the poor yapping dogs chained to the “front porch” of some of the houses. So much for getting a walk, little buddy. But hands down, El Congo was the most unusual place I’ve ever traveled to—and so far off the beaten path, there wasn’t a path at all.

So that’s my top three, scrawled not-so-jaggedly into the margins of a wrinkled note. Now to fold it up and shove it into another sweaty, unsuspecting palm. This could get good…

The French Won’t Save You: Recklessness, Fear and Safety Abroad

Military chillin in central Bogota

Military, chillin in central Bogota

We’d taken refuge from the soggy Bogota afternoon in the hostel’s dank kitchen, sat drinking coffee and swapping tales. Only my third trip out of the country, I sat quietly, listening to the boys one-up each other. No one could beat the Swede in zip-off pants.

He sat smugly, like a guru, doling out morsels of his tales in titillating tidbits. He’d dyed his hair brown, donned dark contacts, and backpacked through Iran, Iraq, Pakistan. He’d ridden buses rarely, walked mostly, and had almost been killed (purportedly) by an anti-American lynch mob. Sparks of awe and admiration flew from the enthralled eyes of other travelers.

One of the boys in his rapt audience turned to me, suddenly aware of my presence. He quizzed me on my basics: where was I from, how long was I traveling, did I speak Spanish. “What’s your itinerary?” was his final question. I bit my lip as he looked me over, sizing me up for what I was: an early-twenties American girl, not terribly well-traveled, with a mediocre accent and a minimal vocabulary. I recited my basic plan: Bogota, Medellin, Cartegena, Santa Marta and La Ciudad Perdida.

“Hmph,” he snorted. “Typical.” And with that, he turned his attention back to the blond god before him.

Fast forward several years and a couple thousand miles to this afternoon, as I rattled down the uneven pavement of Interstate 880, windows down and blasting NPR (yo, turn it up so it bumps). I’d just caught the beginning of a story on France’s proposal to charge tourists for rescues from risky spots while abroad. The hotly debated bill came about several months ago, prompted by a much-publicized rescue of French citizens who were captured by Somali pirates while pleasure-yachting around the Indian Ocean. Reportedly, public outrage at the travelers’ perceived irresponsibility was intense enough to inspire a bill that would require tourists rescued from dangerous situations abroad to repay rescue costs (aid workers and journalists excluded). A coordinating author from Lonely Planet was on hand to discuss the proposal and its implications, a discussion that centered around issues of travel safety, and real versus perceived dangers abroad.

Here’s something most independent travelers, including myself, rarely check before going abroad: the Department of State’s Current Travel Warnings. When you grow up amid a culture of fear mongering, it’s easy to get desensitized. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you think, the world’s sooo dangerous and I’ll get kidnapped and killed the moment I leave the US. Fear is one of three reasons discussed in Nomadic Matt’s article, Why American Don’t Travel Overseas. Once certain travelers step outside the country and see the rest of the world isn’t the depraved war zone it’s often portrayed to be, they get cocky. And brazen. And sometimes stupid.

Take that to the extreme: extreme tourism. I haven’t heard this term in awhile, but it was tossed around the hostel table in Bogota that afternoon. It refers to a type of off-the-beaten-path thrill-seeking travel that prides itself in brushes with danger. Real danger. As in, I’m-gonna-walk-through-Baghdad-just-to-prove-I-can danger. Implicit in this type of travel, I would argue, are entitlement and bragging rights.

Fresh stencil in Bogota

Fresh stencil in Bogota

Which begs the question: should risk-taking travelers enjoy the luxury of being rescued, at the expense of their countrymen? The French don’t seem to think so. Nor do the Germans. The United States—well, we don’t really need to worry about it, since so few of us travel to begin with. Reportedly vague and insufficient, the French bill also opens the door to a lot of loaded issues—namely, who decides what countries and regions are dangerous, and whether travelers are behaving recklessly?

I’ve been to three gasp-evoking places often deemed too dangerous for travelers (let alone a solo white girl): Caracas, Mexico City, the entire country of Colombia. I didn’t go to any of these places because they were considered dangerous, but despite them being considered dangerous. One I ended up in circumstantially, but the other two I sought out—I’d heard too many good things from other travelers. I did my research. Street sense and good luck got me through unscathed. But there’s certainly people who would have regarded my traveling in these places as reckless, stupid and asking for trouble.

I remember thinking Colombia was a lot like Oakland. Which isn’t true: armed military don’t roll through city streets, and you can’t smoke cigarettes inside shopping malls (not even Eastmont). But both places have a sort of infamy to them, a danger that either lures or deters. As in Oakland, many parts of Colombia feel totally safe; as in Oakland, other parts of Colombia continue to feed the unsafe reputation. To stay safe in Colombia, I did everything I already do in Oakland: don’t go out at night alone, stick to main streets in safe neighborhoods, don’t ride buses at night, check my back like a motherfuck.

The Swedish guy in the Colombian hostel reminded of suburban kids that move into Oakland warehouses (snark alert). They proudly tell you they live in the Lower Bottoms, Murder Dubs, Dirty 30s, Ghost Town. “The thugs aren’t that bad, really,” they tell you. Then, knowingly, as though they’re imparting some great gem of karmic street ethics upon you—“If you don’t bother them, they don’t bother you.” Then they mugged/assaulted/held at gunpoint, and they leave, go back to their suburbs bruised and bitter and hating the town they so recklessly glamorized.

There’s a certain romance with violence and danger that people who have no real experience with violence and danger have. It’s exciting, enlivening, visceral and real. It’s the wild-eyed rapture of Futurists (which for all of their sexism, fascism and idiocy still created some good art). It’s as easy to write off as the uninformed fear that keeps some folks away from Oakland, away from traveling, and comfortably cocooned in familiarity.

But neither side is right, neither view complete. They’re just two sides of the same coin—exoticizing someone else’s world, treating it as the Other, instead of attempting (however falteringly) to meet it, understand it and experience it as it is. Can I claim to have traveled so honorably? Not really. But I can claim to have tried.

DSCN1202_2_2

Good times with the Colombian military

Which could all be an elaborate rationalization for why the rules don’t apply to me—why I haven’t gotten into any real trouble while traveling, and why I would surely be rescued in the event of any dire incidents. And not expected to pay for it. (Because, after all, I’m not French.) But I suspect the truth lays somewhere muddled between all this, between embassies and travelers, the frightened and the intrepid, the streets of East Oakland, the seas of Somalia and hostel kitchen tables around the world.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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