Posts Tagged 'offbeat'



I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow: Port Costa and the Past

In the hallway

It wasn’t the squeaking of the bats that kept me up all night. It wasn’t the way my shoulders dug in to the thin mattress that kept me rolling over, not the low-voiced howl of the passing freight trains that rattled me out of my half-dreams.

It was that I had to pee. And I was too scared of ghosts get up.

Not that I’m 7, and not that I actually saw or heard any ghosts. Just that, you know, I’m a wuss. The bathroom was only a couple doors down the hall. But I’d heard stories, of ghostly laughs and the clicking of century-old high heels, and I figured—why risk it? I waited until the gray light of dawn sank its fingers through the curtains, brushed the walls and illuminated the shadows. I relieved myself with incident.

The whole overnight to Port Costa, actually, went without incident, the kind that had been hyped and fore-warned: red necks, ghosts, bed bugs, cocaine-fueled partiers—I didn’t see any. What I did see: peeling velvet wallpaper, a spooky porcelain doll, fishermen tromping over gravel and train tracks, a stuffed polar bear, a dude playing a banjo and a whole lot of motorcycles.

We arrived after dark, weaving our way through the shadowed coastal hills of a regional park. The pavement gave way to gravel as we delved into a little valley, dim houses and an old chapel lining the one road of Port Costa. The road dead-ended into a wide parking lot, gravel, train tracks, the misty water of the Carquinez Strait. On one side of us was a three-story, dirt-colored old warehouse, on the other, the bay windows of the Burlington Hotel. That was it.

Inside The Warehouse

We turned the locked knob to the hotel’s door a couple times, until the banjo-playing dude on the corner told us we had to go across the street to the bar to check in. We entered The Warehouse, the main occupant of the 19th-century grain storage-house.  We stared stupidly for a couple moments, taking in the mish-mash of burlesque lampshades, checkered plastic tablecloths, mounted animal heads and vintage signs. We must have stood out—a man in the corner waved at us.

Turned out he was Howie, accompanied by Barbie, proprietors of the Burlington Hotel. They greeted us in what we’d discover was a typical Port Costa way: genuinely friendly and down-to-earth. It wasn’t the affected over-sweetness of a typical tourist town, nor the you-ain’t-from-round-here skepticism of an isolated small town. The vibe was unpretentious and warm, but not overly warm. It was the Goldilocks of small towns—just right.

Everything was just right about Port Costa: just enough overnighters that I didn’t feel too out of place, just enough decrepitude to make the hotel really really cool, just enough vestiges of history to make the town special—not undiscovered, but not blown up or theme-parky.

On the mantel in front of our room.

We wandered around the Burlington Hotel with our jaws dropped—it was the antique/vintage/ creaky dollhouse of cool we’d hoped for. But it wasn’t the stinky filth-pot Yelp reviewers and the Chronicle had made it out to be. Sure, it was faded and had the musty smell of an attic, but I had to wonder—had the people who’d called it dirty ever stayed in a cheap third-world hotel? Or a flea-bag American one, for that matter? It was no Courtyard Inn, but definitely one of the nicer hotels I’ve stayed in the US (not saying much, granted).

Maybe they’ve already started to spiffy up and straighten out, as the Chronicle article claimed. Aside from the lack of bed bugs and grime, there wasn’t a lot of raucous activity either. The other guests definitely looked like they were there for a good time, but the most debauchery we experienced at the Burlington Hotel was some middle-aged folks having a Hank Williams sing-along (I wanted in), followed by some late-night bed creaking (I did not want in). Pretty mild, really.

Ate all that!

As part of the Valentine’s Special, a $99 dinner-room combo, we headed back to The Warehouse for some good ole American eating. I’m usually a free-range, organic kinda girl, but I figured, meh, when in Port Costa. We grubbed on a whole lobster, one pound of prime rib, and unlimited salad/chili/chowder bar, washed down with soda served in a glass jar. My pants felt quite a bit snugger. A post-dinner stroll was definitely in order.

We tip-toed across the puddle-ridden parking lot, through an opening in the chain-link fence, and across the dark of gravel and train tracks. The nighttime mist made everything feel dream-like and removed, like we were somewhere much further away, like those weren’t the lights of a suburb blinking and sighing across the water. The way the Amtrack and freight trains’ horns would wail, the way their lights gleamed like animal eyes, how the heaved and rattled past—it made it feel like we were in some little pocket of the world, not quite forgotten by time, but where time just kind of rumbled past, without really stopping, leaving only a puff of exhaust and the echo of its cry.

Sitting on the rocks, I looked out across the water, and had a strange, back-of-the-head tingle. The lights of a far-off refinery winked in the billows of steam pouring out its towers, glittering like some kind of industrial Oz. Jagged fragments of memory came cutting back. “Fuck,” I said. “I’ve been here.”

High school. Malt liquor and weed and pills. We’d piled into B’s truck, drove around El Sob and Crockett looking for drugs and trouble, finding none of one and only a little of the other. We’d pulled into a parking lot, staggered across gravel. Refineries twinkling. Feet numb, and sides closing in, black. Cigarette smoke in my hair. Wanting to sleep.

My little kaleidoscope of fucked-up broken memories came out of some forgotten fold of my brain, stinging and still alcohol-damp. So I’d partied in Port Costa after all. Who knew.

The next morning, the town was mist-shrouded and dewey-eyed. I was dazed; all night I’d listened to the trains, thinking of all the other people who’d laid in that room before me, in the gray and shadows, listening to that same rumble and sigh. We drank teeth-burning from styrofoam cups and took another tromp around town, then further down the train tracks. Lots of killer photos ensued (currently, only the digital ones are ready; pro film shots will take plenty longer). Coolest find: on some rusty old rails, someone with a similar nerdy affinity for trains and travel left their mark:

The mild afternoon melted past, time a far away thing. The trains continued to pass, rumbling and horn blowing at a couple of kids poking around the rocks and rails of a once-great railway hub, filled with miners and shipyard workers and whores and ferry horns—and now, just the ghostly groan of the trains, passing, passing, but never stopping, no, not anymore.

Photos by Theo Konrad Auer. More on the way…

Where Do Dirtbags Go for Valentine’s?

One of Aly's photos from the Burlington Hotel

It happened like this:

Making the rounds last Friday at the Art Murmur, I came across the photos of a friend of mine, Aly Su Borst. They were pretty bad-ass: a series of self-portraits set in some run-down opulence that got my spooky/awesome sensors spiked. I took some photos on my phone. At home the next day, I showed my roommate, “Hey, Luke, check out Aly’s photos.”

“Oh, rad, Port Costa.”

“Where’s that?”

That’s how I found out about the overnight destination all the local dirtbags have apparently been partying it up in for decades. And like most things, I’ve found out just in the nick of time: the reputedly haunted, ramshackle old bordello/hotel that serves as the heart of the 250-person town of Port Costa (that despite being 30 miles from my house, I’d never heard of) has plans to spiffy itself up, and recently received coverage by the San Francisco Chronicle. I knew no time could be wasted—I booked a room for this Saturday night. It’ll be a Valentine’s weekend overnight the way I like it: full of bats, bedbugs, dive bar denizens and rock n roll.

The Chronicle‘s article made the Burlington Hotel sound like the very definition of “hidden gem”—not in the Tuscan villa sense of the word, but in the gritty, visceral sense—which is to say, the sense I dig the most. Whether it was in fact an old whorehouse, and whether it is indeed haunted by the ghosts of prostitutes and shipyard workers, one thing seems for sure: the Burlington Hotel is a relic of the Old West California, the one Jack Black captured in the book You Can’t Win—the one that’s all but gone amid the Botox and SUVs of Southern California, and the Blue Priuses and Tibetan prayer flags of Northern California. Which is why I want in.

It won’t be a relaxing, rejuvenating or romantic getaway. Its Yelp reviews reveal as much: “dirty,” “bad-ass,” “like a horror movie,” “whore-tel.” One person laments that it’s no longer the all-night rager spot it had been in previous years (frequented by the likes of none other than the East Bay Rats—nuff said). A raucous bar next door constitutes much of the clientele, including “bikers, transients, nazi crack addicts, and drifters. maybe tourists are in there somewhere, too.” (Really, there’s some effing gems on the Yelp page, read through that shit.)

Already pretty convinced, I came home from work the next night and found Liz and Melissa on the couch. “You guys ever heard of the Burlington Hotel?” They turned their heads slowly towards me. “Oh. Dude.”

They swapped debaucherous stories from their hard-partying youth—Liz being haunted in Room K, Melissa’s heshen friends getting permanently 86-ed (which apparently is saying a whole lot). “Make sure,” Liz advised, “that you bring your own sheets. Bedbug city, yo.”

I called to make a reservation, which wasn’t quite as difficult as the Chronicle article made it out to be. After a long succession of rings, someone picked up; muffled and scratchy, he told me they weren’t quite open yet, but to call back in a half-hour, and they’d be ready to “rock n roll.” I did, and they were. Butt rock blared in the background. All the rooms I’d been advised were the best were, of course, full, but I did get in on the “special” (Valentine’s Day special? probably not): the room and 2 surf-and-turf dinners for $99 total. Now that’s my kind of overnight.

Ridiculous photo from the Smokey's Tangle V-Day Photo Booth, February's Art Murmur

So sadly, since the Chronicle recently did a piece on the hotel, I’m gonna have to dig a little deeper to a) out-do their article, and b) find the right publication for it. The good news is that my partner in crime is bringing along his fancy camera, so the photos, well, they’re going to kill. Hopefully not literally.

Knuckle Bumps and Stomach Punches: VICE Under Fire

“Negligent.” “Contemptuous.” “Appalling substandard.” “Morally bankrupt.” “A modern version of a colonial diary.”

Ouch. It’s some harsh criticism that isn’t undeserved. The VICE Guide to Liberia, which I did a post about a few weeks ago, has ignited a cauldron of contempt on the blogosphere. Big-time media attention from CNN and the Huffington Post led to impassioned and eloquent arguments against the documentary, and some frighteningly truck-rally-esque endorsements. It’s got me thinking a lot about the travel series I’d formerly enjoyed and endorsed, despite its arrogance, and wondering: did VICE go too far?

Well, the answer is yes. Clearly. As I dug into the dozen or so blog posts, and the scores of ensuing comments, I learned more about the current situation in Liberia. VICE didn’t portray it fairly, or even close to fairly, and fell woefully short of providing the kind of context one would need to draw any kind of informed conclusions about the country. But I don’t think the series was entirely without merit, entirely evil and shallow. And buried beneath smirks and bro language (“heavy vibe” is used a lot), there’s still an emotional depth to the documentary that keeps it, for me, from being too simple of a case: black and white, Western and African, exploiter and exploited.

Most of the voices crying out against VICE are from people personally invested in the country—they’ve lived there, traveled there, done development work there. If I were emotionally linked to the country, I’d be pretty pissed too. Penelope MC’s post post relates stories and experiences of positive progress in Liberia, while Kate Thomas’ post shares some of the tourist-friendly spots. On The Faster Times, Adam Karlin delivers the most seething and meticulous critique of VICE I came across, picking apart the faulty journalistic practices employed. On the other end of the spectrum are the positive comments that fill the VBS website, which basically amount to a Beavis & Butthead “Whoa.” I found only one blog from someone with experience in Liberia that lauded the series, and the rationale there was a little odd. Christine Scott Cheng offered a more nuanced review, as does Ethan Zuckerman, arriving at the point that the series, however flawed, deserves to be watched. I agree.

A different view

The VICE Guide to Liberia paints a bleak picture—so much so that I was surprised, only a week after its release, to come across a New York Times article about the country’s burgeoning surf scene. I began to suspect VICE hadn’t captured the entirety of the situation in Liberia.

Indeed, one of the main qualms people have with the series is that it only shows the most fucked-up parts of Liberia, largely within the capital Monrovia. While it’s true that “this is just what VICE does,” I think that reasoning is a cop out. VICE hypes the situation: the first episode makes it seem like the war is still going on (though I’d argued subsequent episodes firmly depict the war as over), and the UN is claimed to be leaving the country, an incendiary claim that isn’t exactly true.

I don’t have any experience in Liberia, so I did what I always do in this situation: related it to Oakland. Someone could certainly go in to the worst neighborhoods of Oakland and do a series that made the whole city look like a dangerous, drug-riddled hellhole. And that would have pissed me off, for the exact same reason it did people invested in Liberia—the 80s are past, crime is down in Oakland, and a lot of people and organizations are working hard to enrich their communities. That being said, I don’t think going into those places, documenting and interviewing and excavating stories, would be entirely without value. They are hard, painful stories to hear, images to see, but they are true and deserve to be heard. More context certainly should have been provided—something like: “we went to the worst slums and interviewed former warlords”—so that the series didn’t appear to be a blanket of this-is-what-Liberia-is-like. But just because the stories featured weren’t representative of the whole doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heard.

Ambassador setting up a Girls Empowerment Center

Other arguments against the series include sensationalism, stereotype indulgence and bad-assedness. People argue that host Shane Smith is exaggerating the situation so that he can look tough, and the series more daring, and that in the process he dehumanizes his subjects, treating them like animals in a zoo. There’s a lot of validity to these arguments. The war is over-hyped, and less discerning viewers could certainly draw erroneous conclusions. Shane Smith, to me, looks scared and freaked out in most of the footage; rather than a bad-ass, as many of the site’s commenters lauded him as, he seems wholly untough to me. Not saying that I’d react any better, just that the series didn’t make him seem cool to me.

But the argument I’ve been grappling the most with is the stereotyping and dehumanizing one. Africa is again portrayed as a hellhole, Africans as savage cannibals. I can agree with this statement, but my experience with the series was completely different.

Granted, I’m coming from a pretty left-wing perspective, but to me, the series didn’t evoke an Us Vs. Them reaction. To me, it served as an exploration of how generations of war, poverty and exploitation create dire situations not easily remedied. It’s not an African issue, but a human one. What happens to former warlords and child soldiers? Do they try to reform and make amends for their actions, like Joshua Blahyi, or stay whacked and ready for combat, like former General Rambo? What about the kids growing up in all that, the women and all those folks just trying to live life as they best they can?

The most interesting part of the series to me wasn’t the shocking wartime footage or discussions of cannibalism—it was the visits to the boys school of former soldiers, to the brothels and heroin dens. Not because it was shocking, because it wasn’t, but because of the eyes of the people shown, the pain-beyond-pain. For me, it was incredible humanizing, touched on that part of me that makes me feel like we’re all connected, together in this often fucked-up world. I can see how that wouldn’t evoke the same reaction in a lot of viewers, and maybe the emotional depth wasn’t in the coverage at all, but in my own reaction to it.

At the end of his review, Adam Karlin touched on what the real shortcoming of the VICE series is, to me: “Bad travel is about going somewhere and reconfirming everything you thought you knew before you left, and this is exactly what Vice does in Liberia.” I don’t feel like anything was learned by the people making the documentary—they were shocked, sure, but their ideas and opinions about what was going on appear to have remained unchanged. I’ve never been on a trip like that, where something in my understanding didn’t change. And I hope that I can retain enough open-mindedness and humility not to ever.

Whatever the conclusions, one thing’s for sure: the VICE Guide to Liberia garnered a lot of attention for the country. And for VICE. It got people talking, even if they didn’t want to, and got people like me, who had a hazy understanding of the present-day situation, spending hours online to dig deeper and learn more. It won’t be easily written off, which means there’s more to it than mere caricature and hip packaging. And it might mean that VICE does a more thorough, honest job next time. Cause God knows they certainly have the resources to.

Forget the Guidebook, This is the VICE Guide to Travel

Dolores Park: "You would think VICE Magazine threw up there."---SF Comedian Ali Wong

At the risk of sounding like a gold-lame-wearing, ironic-mullet-sporting Dolores Park denizen, I’m gonna say it: I like VICE Magazine. And I fucking love the VICE Guide to Travel.

Quick run-down, in case you don’t know: VICE grew from a Montreal zine into global empire of youth counterculture, serving as a kind of hipster voice of a generation in what some could argue was the next CREEM magazine. By 1999, VICE had exploded on to the hip-slick-and-cool scene. A free, glossy magazine peppered with American Apparel ads, you’d find issues at trendy clothing stores and serving as coasters on your friends’ coffee tables, or stacked beside the toilet for inspirational reading material. Having reached new heights of hipness, VICE was nearly immediately deemed as have “been better” in previous years, in the perennial way that everything was better before it got big. But here’s a little secret about VICE: it’s got some killer articles. Some are better than others, for sure, and many breach a little too far into the snarky, too-cool-for-school realm. But I’d argue a good half of the magazine is usually filled with quality journalism, covering super interesting international cultural phenomena.

Which leads to the VICE Guide to Travel. It’s not Rick Steve’s, or even Lonely Planet. VICE goes to some of the most fucked locations on earth, “the kinds of places that nobody else wants to visit”; digs up shocking and bizarre stories; sends sweaty dudes in v-neck t-shirts to interview warlords/cannibals/other locals; films it all, and sets it to a soundtrack of doom, gloom and rock. It’s “edgy,” it’s “off-the-beaten-path” (to say the least), and it’s some of the most bad-ass travel journalism out there.

First, some clarifications on the meaning of “bad-ass.” Empty, self-serving sensationalism with no emotional depth or historical perspective is not bad-ass. And there’s plenty of that out there in the travel world.

A couple months ago, I complained about this kind of trying-to-be-bad-ass-edness in a post blog and subsequent Matador article. Later, I came across an article titled “5 Totally Bad-Ass Travel Experiences” that made me want to vomit. The article listed 5 “daring” travel experiences, two of which capitalized on some of the most heinous aspects of a country’s history. The perspective reeked of a privileged disconnect with the suffering caused by events like genocide and drug wars:

Home to one of the biggest genocides and mass killings in modern history, Cambodia is awash in guns and weaponry. It’s a pretty peaceful place these days but there are still opportunities to get a taste of the weapons of war.

Oh, well, bummer the murdering is over, but at least there’s still cool guns to shoot off. I wanted to reach through the computer and punch the writer. Granted, the article struck a personal nerve; I guess when you know people who escaped the Khmer Rouge, but who’s families all died in the killing fields, well, that takes the thrill out of shooting war weaponry in Cambodia.

What separates the VICE Guide to Travel from lame travel “journalism” like this is skill (they hire professionals)—but more importantly, approach. Traveling to some of the most depraved and damaged places in the world, VICE toes the line, certainly runs the risk of lapsing into one-dimensional exhibitionism and aren’t-I-cool pats on the back. Some in the series are stronger than others, but I’d argue that all stay true to the basic purpose of bringing obscure, untold stories from the gnarliest corners of the world to a Western audience. The liner notes of the original 2006 DVD explains:

The news is all bad. Sitting in our Western comfort, it’s easy to forget that most of the world is hell. War, disease, famine, genocide, and poverty dot the globe like big chunks of cancer. Basically, humans are fucked.

We thought we already knew something about current international events, but we didn’t really know shit until we set out and started doing some serious traveling. These aren’t vacations to Disney World, Paris or even some Outward Bound safari. These are trips to the places that you see once in a while on TV and think, ‘No way in hell am I ever going there.’

Well, we went so that you never, ever have to go for yourself as long as you live. We went, and we’re glad we did. Here are the stories to prove it…

What the VICE Guide to Travel offers is what some of my most difficult, but ultimately most illuminating, travels have: a new perspective on this crazy-ass world we live in. It’s tough to watch—the visit to the shell of a high school in the episode in Chernobyl made me tear up—but I think it’s some of the most interesting and important stuff out there in the travel world.

Which brings us to the new series, the VICE Guide to Liberia. The 8-part series is being released on their website; currently, the first 4 installments are up. Prepare yourself: this is some severely brutal material.

While I don’t think I’ll be going to Liberia any time soon, I’m glad that these guys did, and that the stories they found are getting told. In a world of SEO, Twittered trends and Top-10 lists, the VICE Guide to Travel gets down to the unmarketable, inconvenient bone of what travel (for me) is all about: seeing how other people live, and glimpsing into the strange stories that compose this world.

(Okay, so, it may or may not be a secret fantasy of mine to one day tag along on one of these installments. But for now, the website’ll due.)

Bolsa Blues: Adventures in Cuban Plumbing

This is half of a narrative written about my raucous New Year’s in Havana. The first, less-gnarly half is being considered for publication (fingers crossed and breath held), but I’ve decided that this side of the story is far too raunchy to get accepted anywhere. So, I’ll inflicted you all with it…

Bolsa Blues or The Other Reason You Should Always Carry a Plastic Bag in Cuba

I waken to a pale face in half-light. It looks down at me, desperate and pleading-eyed, washed in a light sweat and slashed by the stripe of sun that invades through the crack in the wooden shutters.

“Dude,” I croak. “What the—“

A tight-throat urgency cuts me off. “The toilet’s busted,” my boyfriend declares. “And I gotta crap.”

It’s New Year’s Day, and we’re stark naked in our tiny casa particular room, somewhere near the crumbling heart of Havana. The cigars, Rumba and rum of the previous night rumbles in our stomachs.

It’s the cardinal rule of Latin American traveling: never flush the toilet paper. A continent-and-a-half held together by a rattling grid of rusty old pipes, the Western traveler is beseeched by earnest signs Scotch-taped to the walls of restrooms: “Dear Mr. Customer, Please to not put paper in the toilet.”

It’s a hard-to-break habit of ours, this depositing of smeared bundles into the toilet bowl; it takes a couple days to train the hand to shift, move, not drop the paper straight down but into a wastebasket beside the toilet. It was only our third day; we had a couple slips. But surely, I assured Adam the night before, nothing extreme enough to reek pipe-wrecking havoc.

But the plumbing gods were watching, laughing, and struck swiftly with their reprisal. And my boyfriend, beset with hangover bowels, is paying the price.

I leap from the tangled sheets, hair sticking straight up and nude. I peer in at the toilet from the doorway. “There’s no way,” Adam answers before I can ask.

He’s right—the mess inside has disintegrated into a thick, gurgling stew at the bottom of the bowl, streaks running down the sides. I glance back at Adam, hunched over and leaning against the wall. “It’s bad,” he tells me.

“Let’s get dressed and go somewhere.”

“Yeah, but where?”

Attempting to smoke a cigar, the previous night

He’s right again—all shops and restaurants in walking distance have less-than passable, if any, facilities. I suggest taking a cab to the fancy hotels in Centro and using their lobby bathrooms, a tactic we employed earlier during our outings. Adam shakes his head, “I don’t think I can make it. I’ve been holding it all night.”

I suggest trying to use the casa owners’ bathroom. I then consider the vocabulary necessary to construct a plausible explanation, and nix the idea. “You could go in the trash can,” I laugh. He chuckles, grimacing slightly. “Or in a plastic bag.” We laugh harder.

Our laugh gives way to silence. We look each other in the eye and nod. “Lemme see if we have one.”

I begin rummaging through our piles of clothes, books, snacks, while Adam sits on the rim of the tub, mentally preparing. “Got it!” I exclaim, waving like a flag the small plastic bag that carried the crackers we’d bought during our layover in Mexico. I hand it to him with a reassuring smile.

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

I shut the door behind me. I intend to go wait politely on the edge of the bed, but the camera appears in my hands. I creep towards the door, inch it open. He’s squatting in the middle of the room, veins bulged in concentration, with the black bag clutched under him. I get him in the frame; the camera clicks.

“Oh, come on! What the fuck!” he shouts. I giggle and slam the door.

“Really, Lauren,” he says from the other side. “Is that necessary?”

“Yes.” I laugh hysterically as I examine the view finder. “Yes, it is.”

He emerges from the bathroom a couple minutes later, eyes down. “Well?” I ask. He looks at me, nods. I peer in the bathroom; he’s neatly tied the handles of the bag and set the bundle on the edge of the tub.

“What do we do with it now?”

It seems wrong to leave it there, in plain view, when the poor owners will have deal with the mess in the toilet already. I picture us sneaking into the kitchen and throwing it in the trash, but that doesn’t seem right either. Nor does our sheepishly handing them the bag and running out of the apartment. “We could hide it in a drawer and flush it when the toilet’s working again,” I offer half-assedly.

“Do you have any idea how awful it’ll smell in here when a bag of shit’s been festering all day?” Adam, always the practical one, retorts.

“We could smuggle out in my bag.” It seems like a viable option.

Adam gets off the bed, moving towards the window. “I wonder if we could open these shutters.” He runs his hands down the solid wood covering the windows.

“You wouldn’t really throw it out of the window, would you?”

“You wanna carry my shit in your bag?”

We pry the latch open and groan the hinges open. Daylight blasts into the room; our pupils wince.

Adam stands on a chair, craning his neck to see as far out the window as the wrought-iron bars will allow. “What’s out there?”

He steps off the chair, defeated. “It’s one of those air shafts. People have all their laundry hanging up. And someone’s got a garden down at the bottom.” I refrain from a bad joke about fertilizer.

We collapse on the bed and stare at the ceiling. “Well,” I venture, “we could just put it in the bathroom trash can. I mean, it’s already got our used toilet paper in it, so I doubt they’d really look.”

“I guess you’re right.”

We get dressed quickly. I gingerly bury the plastic bag beneath the top layer of used toilet paper in the wastebasket. I put the lid down on the toilet before we leave the room.

“Bueno dia,” our casa owner greets us warmly, looking up from the newspaper.

“Bueno dia,” we mumble (we’ve learned to drop our “s”s, just not our toilet paper).

“Quieren desayuno?” his amicable, aproned wife asks.

“Um, no, no gracia.” We stand there for a moment, awkwardly. I take a step towards the owner. “Um, pardon, senor.” I fidget, look down. “Hay un problema en el bano.” He nods earnestly at me. “Lo siento.”

Maybe it’s a situation he’s encountered before—poor plumbing meets the foreigner’s paper-flushing habit, topped off with a rocking drinker’s shit. We exchange helpless smiles, and Adam and I scuttle out the front door as fast as we can.

Down on the street, we feel relieved. Neither one of us can stop laughing.

“I think,” Adam declares, “that you’re the best person to be in a bad poo situation with.”

“Really?” I beam at the compliment.

Malecon

“Well, yeah. I mean, anyone can be practical. That’s not really what you need in a bad poo situation. What you need is someone who will find it absolutely hilarious.”

I take his hand. “I’m honored.”

We continue down the street, holding hands under the half-clouded Cuban sky, towards the Malecon, and a new year.

Che Marti-ni: The Cuban Cocktail of National Heroes

Oh, the sweet taste of revolution. And martyr worship.

There’s no escaping Cuba’s two biggest icons. Revered, quoted and placed on pedestals/t-shirts, these tragical heroes loom large in the national psyche. They give impassioned words and a photogenic face to the struggle for independence that has characterized the country for centuries. One, you’ve heard of; actually, you’ve had him shoved down your throat by starry-eyed ultra-lefties. The other lurks in the dusty corners of used bookstores, in the syllabi of Latin American Studies courses; you’ve heard his words, but never his name. Until you land in Havana.

Che stencil I saw around in Berlin. In case you can't tell, Che's wearing a Che shirt.

Okay, okay, I’ll tell you. One is Che Guevara, the Argentine renegade who’s become synonymous with Cuba, guerilla warfare and revolutionary politics. He’s arguably the country’s biggest cultural export, and a ubiquitous presence within Cuba (hey, an atheist country’s gotta worship something). This is relatively unsurprising as a visitor; what’s more surprising is this fetish they’ve got for Jose Marti. You could call him the OG—he advocated and fought for Cuban liberation from Spain, calling on the same ideas of Latin American unity and anti-imperialism that Che later did. But when you actually start to read his essays and poems, you wonder why in hell you haven’t been inundated with Marti your whole life too (one answer: he shoulda swapped the funny moustache for a guerilla beard—far more flattering). Even more intriguing is what lies at the intersection of these two figures, and what they reveal about the country that adores them.

Jose Marti and Che Guevara share more than just a saintly status in the heart of a nation. The die-hard revolutionaries were both privileged boys of good education, who gave voice and garnered fame for the struggles of Cuba. Both were seasoned travelers; both had a vision of a unified Latin America free of imperialism; both died fighting battle for their cause, the cause of “the people.” Both pumped out enough good quotes to rival Mao, and both are exalted in the streets of Cuba. And both were, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, guided by feelings of love.

"Viva Che." Etched into the sidewalk in Berkeley. Spotted this on my Marti hunt this morning.

Jose Marti was a 19th-century Cuban-born revolutionary, poet, writer, thinker and traveler. His writings about the Cuban struggle for independence captured the culture in a way no one previously had, and his words served as the voice of a people. So much so that the first lines from his famed poems “Versos Sencillos” were adapted as the lyrics of Cuba’s most famous song and de facto anthem, “Guantanamera.” But what’s most interesting about Marti is how his writing has endured, and the ways it’s remained relevant.

Already a national hero, Marti’s anti-colonial, pro-America (Latin America, that is) ethos was invoked during Castro’s revolution. Castro framed his revolution as an extension of the one Marti fought and died for, and depending on your politics, it’s pretty easy to agree. What fueled all Marti’s work was a fierce defense of justice inspired by a complex and tender understanding of human nature. I won’t play lecturer and drag you through tedious citations, as the Marti Wikiquote page serves as evidence enough. But the famous poem “I Grow A White Rose” captures the Marti sentiment pretty well:

I grow a white rose
In July just as in January
For the sincere friend
Who gives me his frank hand.
And for the cruel man who pulls out of me
the heart with which I live,
I grow neither nettles nor thorns:
I grow a white rose.

Che cigarettes, purchased in Peru. Each cigarette had a tiny Che on it.

And then there’s Che. Aside from being charismatic and hot as hell (yeah, I said it), Che’s enduring legacy, I’d argue, comes from his compassion. Not necessarily for his enemies, but for the people, the struggle. Sure, he had the bad-ass lines like, “I would rather die standing than live life on my knees,” but he also came out with quotes like, “One must harden without ever losing tenderness.” It’s not just rebel girls that swoon at lines like these; a whole nation does. And that says a lot about them, wouldn’t you say?

You definitely get beaten over the head with the two in Cuba, a combo that will flatten you faster than a Cube Libre (not really). Che’s legacy does retain a little more depth here than in the rest of the world, where the commodification of Che is more depressing than consumerist Hot Topic punk. And to be fair, the elevation and exaltation of national poets isn’t purely a Cuban phenomenon, but a Latin American trait; Gabriela Mistral is also pictured on the currency of her native country, Chile. (Imagine paying for groceries with a Walt Whitman note.) Call it the Latin flair for passion, but it’s enough to make a US Creative Writing major weep.

Wheatpaste in London. Che's image composed of corporate logos.

Together, Che and Marti conspire to create a revealing picture of the Cuban culture and psyche: revolutionary, lyrical, learned, passionate, martyred. Both figures have been reduced, their lives and work co-opted for the purposes of others, commercial or otherwise. And while the world is oversaturated in Che juices, Marti remains little-known, a recluse of national monuments and smelly old bookstores. But the true picture, I think, lies somewhere between the two—between national fame and international obscurity, the commodification and the worship, the intrigue of an outsider and the love of a people.

I’ll end with a Marti poem I worked hard to bring you. I once owned a Marti collection; who knows who I lent it to or what move it got lost in. I remembered a poem that captured the intricate relationship between colonizer and colonized, and decided to find it. Google gave me nothing, so today I missioned to 3 book stores and 1 library. In a dim, 4th-floor corner of an independent bookstore, I finally found the poem, in the lone Marti book stuffed amid the over-packed shelves. I slyly photographed the pages with my phone, and transcribed them. As far as I know, this is the only available translation of “Little Prince” on the web. Enjoy. And keep fighting.

Little Prince

This party is for

A little prince.

He has long hair,

Soft blond hair

That hangs over

His white shoulders.

His eyes appear

To be black stars

That move like the wind,

Shine, quiver and give off sparks.

He is my crown,

My pillow and my spur.

My hand, that bridles

Horses and hyenas,

Goes where e’er he takes it.

When he frowns, I tremble.

If he complains,

My face, like a woman’s,

Turns white as snow,

Then red, as blood

Pours through my veins.

His pleasure causes

My blood to ebb and flow.

This party is for

A little prince.

/

Come, my gentleman;

Come this way.

Come, my tyrant,

Into this cave.

When he appears

Within my sight,

It seems a pale star

Casts its opal

Brilliance o’er all

In a dark cavern.

/

When he goes by

The shade acquires textures

Like the sun,

That wounds the blackest clouds.

Behold me, at arms,

In the struggle.

The prince wants me to fight again.

He is my crown,

My pillow and my spur.

And, just as the sun,

Breaking up the black clouds,

Turns shadows

into bands of colors,

When he touches the thick wave,

He embroiders

My red and violet

Battle colors there.

So, my master wants

To return to life?

Come, my gentleman;

Come this way.

Come, my tyrant,

Into this cave.

Let me offer life

To him, to him.

This party is for

A little prince.

We Wish You a Merry Solstice, and a Non-Denominational New Year: A Muir Woods Solstice

Into the darkness...

Nature lover, pagan, hippie, cheapskate—call me what you will, but the Muir Woods Solstice Event ruled. And not just in a Wicker Man kind of way.

The free, annual event honoring the longest night of the year is uber North-Bay: wholesome, granola-y, non-denominational family fun, set amid old-growth redwoods and adorned with weedy handmade garlands. Luminaria-lit paths fill with white-breathed revelers, whose flashlights make the falling rain look like snow, or that scene from Edward Scissorheads. Puppet shows, antler-clashing Germanic dances and de-Christianized caroling ensue in an event that makes even a cynical 20-something (me) smile.

The promise of free entry and free hot cider lured me out on a moody Monday afternoon, to brave the bridges and highways of a Bay Area rush hour. On a slow Saturday, I’d gotten to chatting with some regulars at work, who gushed to me about the event. Traipsing around the damp dark of one of the Bay Area’s most impressive natural attractions had sounded like a damn good way to spend the longest night of the year. I grabbed a crappy flashlight and a hooded puff coat, roped a friend into riding shotgun and playing DJ, and we set out, sliding along the green curves of Marin, through afternoon sun that shone through the clouds like light into a church.

A ranger with plastic encasing her hat ushered us past the forever-full parking lot; we joined the assembly of cars lined up along the soft shoulder. We walked a muddy, pleasant 15 minutes to the park entrance. Slicker-clod kids tromped puddles as their parents juggled umbrellas and thermoses.

We arrived just as the crowd was thickening. A bearded ranger that looked like a nervous cross between a bluegrass singer and a surfer handed us a booklet of Solsticized/Muirized Christmas carols, complete with lines and titles such as “Deck the woods with luminaria,” “I’m Dreaming of a Green Solstice,” “O Redwood Tree,” and “Come All Ye People.” My personal favorite was “On the first day of Solstice / A Ranger showed to me / A spotted owl in a redwood tree.” The adapted songs captured the progressive eco-politics and non-religious spirituality of Marin better than an Anne Lamott novel. You know that stir a couple years back when right-wing Christians got their knickers in a twist over “Happy Holidays” replacing “Merry Christmas”? Well, these were the folks they were pissed at.

It was, as you might guess, a mellow crowd of nature-y families and local weirdos (a simplification that I suppose puts me into the latter category). We grabbed some cups of cider and strolled around in the intermittent rain, soggy sneakers and cold noses. The creek was full from the recent storm, the stumps mossy; everything felt wet and alive.

We joined the huddle of firepits and hunched shoulders encircling a small, makeshift stage. It was time for some wholesome, non-offensive entertainment. The crowd sang a couple carols, and was then held rapt by a story-telling performance featuring exuberantly portrayed animal characters that I’m sure have inspired several voice-over school rejections. We agreed that the confused shadow puppet show was most definitely the improved result of a flash of marijuana-fueled brilliance. We took it as our cue to stroll the now-dark trails.

Candles in white paper bags lined the trails, making it feel almost like we were walking through an altar. Raindrops held heavy on the tree branches as little kids ran past in a bobble of flashlight beams. Other than that, it was all sound. It reminded me of an interview I’d read with a travel writer (Don George?) who’d wanted to write about something other than the cathedral-ish quality of light in Muir Woods. He’d blindfolded himself and walked around, experiencing the famous woods with mostly just his sense of sound, and written the article from that perspective. It was true that it was a totally different Muir Woods without the light and the sight of redwoods—all rambling water and the solid, rooted presence of those trees, the way you feel a stranger in a dark room.

We got back to the caroling crowd just in time to catch the most bad-ass and spooky performance of the night, a Germanic Solstice dance by the Christmas Rebels (which sounds kind of punk rock). Composed of members of the German fraternal society California Rebels, the group did a slow, hypnotic folk dance that included antler-clashing and creepy flute playing. A bearded dude with a crazy eye hushedly explained the pre-Christian roots of the dance, which got back to the potent mix of fear and worship that fuels most religions, not just Paganism. Under the illuminated, snow-like mist, the clanks of the antlers and the wet clomp of the determined feet felt like a ritual not from long ago, but rather some deranged allegorical movie. Which is to say it was rad.

Toes numb and bellies hungry, we trekked back to the car under the dim halo of my flashlight. A half-grin of moon cut through the heavy clouds, and the earth rustled, sighed, pulled a blanket of darkness up to its chin and settled in for the longest sleep of the year. And Marin celebrated, the way Marin knows how: amid the trees.


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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