SitRep and Stats

Grizzly Bear – Two Weeks

I’m a little behind on this, so don’t mind I run through this at pace. I have few pictures to share on this one, so I’ll try to keep it short.

I’m writing this from Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s snowing outside. Really snowing. I have no jacket – dammit I just came from the jungle, I’m not ready for this madness! Anyway, I’ll return to the weather in a moment, before I update my current whereabouts.

Some Stats For Your Pleasure:

Total Distance Travelled: 7007 km/4354 miles

Time On The Road: 62 days

Average Distance Travelled Per Week: 790km/ 491 miles

Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador (sort of), Honduras (sort of), Guatemala, Estados Unidos de Mexico, United States of America

Number of Times Almost Accidentally Killed Self: 87

Number of Blog Entries Written: 38

Total Number of Visitors: 5,384

Avg. Number of Visitors Per Day: 35

Weight Lost: 5-6 kgs

Hair Grown By: ~2.60cm

Fingernails Grown By: ~4mm

Back Hair Grown By: Hopefully not much

Nights Out: 23

Avg. Beer Money Per Week: $15

Total Money Spent: redacted

Hostile Situations: 0

Music Listened To Most (According to Winamp): Grizzly Bear, Explosions in the Sky, Fleet Foxes, Animal Collective, Phoenix, Philip Glass, Boards of Canada, Beethoven.

Explosions in the Sky –

Phoenix –

Philip Glass –

Books Read:

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov

Herman Hesse: Siddhartha

Herman Hesse: Siddhartha. Started on Volcan Concepcion in Nicaragua, finished on Volcan Agua in Guatemala.

Richard Dawkins: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution

Jeff Somers: The Electric Church

Land, Power and Poverty: Agrarian Reform and Political Conflict in Central America

Michael Sandel: Justice: What’s The Right Thing to Do

Total Pages Read: ~2300

Films Watched:

Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon), Michael Haneke, Germany – 10/10

Antichrist, Lars Von Trier, Denmark/US – 6/10

The Informant!, Stephen Soderbergh, US – 6/10

Avatar, James Cameron, US – 9/10

Twilight Saga: New Moon, Chris Weitz, US – 4/10

Michael Sandel, Harvard Professor and, according to Wikipedia, the inspiration for Mr. Burns from 'The Simpsons'. Good 'ol reliable Wikipedia! But seriously, more on Justice later.

Sherlock Holmes, Guy Richie, UK – 7/10

Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese, US – 7/10

The Last House on the Left, Dennis Iliadis, US – 5/10

Vals im Bashir (Waltz With Bashir), Ari Folman, Israel – 9/10

Up In the Air, Ivan Reitman, US – 7/10

People Met: Not Enough!

Das Weisse Band, one of the best damn films ever made, in my most humble of opinions.

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King of the Copper Canyon Pictographic Tour!

Creel, Chihuahua in the middle of the Copper Canyon System:

Hopping back and forth between the mushroom shaped rocks in the inventively named Valley of the Mushrooms just south of Creel.

In life, most things are easier when you're going down and working with gravity. In climbing rocks, going down is usually spent wondering where to go in between bouts of contemplating one's mortality.

The Valley of the Mushrooms near Creel, Chihuahua. "Geography is just physics slowed down with some trees on top" - Terry Pratchett

The bizzare rock formations of the Valley of the Mushrooms. How does this come about? "Geography is just physics slowed down with some trees stuck on top" - Terry Pratchett

The Old San Ignacio Mission, dedicated to converting the locals, the Tarahumara, to Christianity, has slowly eroding their culture over the years.

About 15km south of Creel lies Lake Arereko, an artificial lake surrounded by wonderful Alpine-esque pine forest.

Panoramic shot from the valleys. We, an Italian aerospace engineer and I, took some bikes on the the 23km round trip around Creel to the Valley of the Mushrooms, Lake Arereko and to the Valley of the Monks and then up to the statue of Jesus overlooking Creel.

On the road just outside the Valley of the Monks. By this time, my arse was starting to feel the pain of the seat. The next day was somewhat uncomfortable to sit.

Tenacious tricket-selling kids running ahead of us to ambush with wooden crafts and wristbands ahead in the Valley of the Monks. We gave them biscuits instead of money. They looked hungry.In the Valley of the Monks - also known as Freud's Geography of Mind - has many phallic rock formations that made me think of nothing but... I'm not going to finish that thought.

All I could think of was this: If, as some misguided people claim, that the world is only 6,000 years old and that God made everything and that geology is merely him making things for us and not the result of 4.6 billions of years of natural physical processes, then was God feeling particularly horny when he designed this place? Oh, that dirty deity!

The Creel Stream winds its way down the canyon. It starts as this dirty, sludgy little trickle in the town and then opens up as more water joins it further down.

The Creel Stream from a horse path nearby. A German, a Finn and I walked down to the Hot Springs and then hiked out to another natural little pool about a kilometre away. The water was beautifully refreshing.

The Hot Springs near Creel. Personally, I think it's a bit of a pity about the artificial pools, but the water is very warm and the views are amazing. Well recommended.

More shots of the beautiful hike that is the Creel Stream. This sort of landscape is probably my favourite for hiking because you are never simply putting one foot in front of the other, you need to be agile and balanced and then hop, skip and jump your way through!

The watering hole where we stopped for a rest. Much nicer than the artificial pools and with a beautiful waterfall massage, too!

When I see boulders like that, I just wish I could turn into Gollum and jump, slide and glide all over them and feel alive.

Wandering back through the horse path to the Hot Springs. Gratuitous Ass and Landscape Shot.

Hitting the road again with a German by my side. Walking back up about 400m elevation and 3km is not easy after just relaxing every muscle in your body for two hours in natural hot spring water. I learned this the sweaty way.

On the way back, I spotted a donkey. I thought it looked a bit down, so I gave it my best positive energy. I don't know if it worked.

The natural male urge to ride anything and everything took over and I jumped on that donkey's back and tried to gallop away up the mountain, but this donkey just wouldn't take any of my crap. Wise move, donkey. Wise.

Pausing for a moment to bathe in the beauty of the Copper Canyon.

As I sit on my rocky throne, I gaze at the sun saturated majesty and yet still I worry about how cold it's going to get after dark. The human mind is not easily settled, but the rare moments when all there is is the moment are worth every vexed state and every confused mind.

The magnificent Basaseachi Falls, the highest in Mexico at about 294m.

It was quite fascinating watching the displacement the waterfall went through as a result of the wind. All the darkened areas around the base were hit by gusts and radically altering the path of the falls.

Basaseachi Falls aren't technically the highest in Mexico all the time. There's a seasonal waterfall about 200km north of there that is about 500m, but only for two months of the year.

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Need More Morelia

I have a cold. I don’t know how to convey that properly simply by writing and I don’t want to make everything look like it was written by a Scouser typing phonetically, but rest assured, I sound somewhat silly right now. After spending some four months in the jungle, on beaches and in tropical climates, getting blasted by the cooled air of the Copper Canyon has positively destroyed my vocal chords. Then again, it may be the fact that I took a 23 hour bus ride from Morelia, Michuacan, all the way to Chihuahua only to wait seven arse-destroyingly uncomfortable hours in the bus terminal waiting for a 05:00 bus to Creel, sleeping very little and not having any hot food other than a pizza that burned my mouth to pieces on the way. I arrived exhausted. But happy.

Morelia, The Undiscovered Gem

A typically Mexican scene in Morelia. Mariachis, beautiful cathedrals, trucks and expansive skies.

Mexico is celebrating 200 years of independence this year. Technically, it’s only been 193 since Spain

cut it off, but they’re rightly celebrating from the time independence was declared rather than when it was actually given by the higher powers. Their celebrating on their own terms. Good idea. Well, 200 years later and the Spanish have left them more than just a history of excessive cruelty and rights of access to resources that they already took. They’ve left behind some of the most shamelessly beautiful and ornate little cities dotted around the country with displays of wondrous architecture and mathematical and technological superiority for the Mexicans who stayed behind to enjoy. How kind of them.

Morelia is one such wonder. I hadn’t heard of it until about five hours before I d

ecided to go there and I’d be shocked if you have, too. It’s a hidden masterpiece of colonial design. From its wonderful baroque cathedrals to its awe-inspiring palaces, I rather rapidly ran out of exaggerated, non-generic phrases to describe its beauty. It really pushed my vocabulary of positive adjectives, for it is so pretty, so consistently pleasant on the eyes, that I simply had to shut up after a while for my companion, a very enjoyable Israeli with a somewhat darker sense of humour than I, was getting irritated with my constant exclamations of enjoyment.

The food was delicious. Aside from the usual selection of good soups, meats and that sort of thing, Morelia had a few places that made what they called “Gaspacho”, but we would probably call a fruit cocktail. Mango, banana, watermelon, melon, papaya and a variety of other fruits all sliced up into tiny cubes, jammed into a 750ml cup and topped with a generous amount of chilli powder and coconut shavings. It’s a full meal for 22 pesos -or about £1 or €1.20 – a marvellous deal.

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Mexico, Reviewed

The Palacio des Bellas Artes in downtown Mexico City. One of the most beautiful buildings I've seen in person.

As I said before, I have a new favourite country: Mexico. Sorry, Norway. I now have a new favourite city, Mexico City. Sorry, Stockholm.


Expectations Decapitated

There is a lot of Death in Mexico. A hell of a lot.

Let me begin by stating my expectations. I am not really a huge fan of gloomy metropolises dedicated to greed and surplus. London is the closest to us and it is by many accounts a thriving, culturally astounding behemoth yet equally, it is dull, grey and dirty with far too many people and swearwords. I have had many good times in London, it has many things to offer, but it does not hold a great place in my heart.

I visited Los Angeles when I was about seven years old. I didn’t really get to see much of it then except Universal Studios, Disneyland, that beach where the vain do pull-ups in front of women who are 60% plastic and some of the suburbs. I didn’t really get a feel for how vast that place was, nor for how smoggy and dusty it was. My father somewhat wisely chose to skip that part and meet us in the airport on the way to Hawaii instead.

Don’t get me wrong here, I had a ball in that mega-city! My mind was blown by Los Angeles at the time. It was the biggest city I’d ever been to, I was surrounded by flashing colours, roller-blades, boobs and garish late-90’s fashion and totally ignorant of the sweaty armpit of a city that lurked around every corner. Or so I am told.

Most of what we see of Mexico in Europe is from the USA. I now know that that is mostly lies and bullshit. They usually depict Mexicans as horrible stereotypes: lazy immigrant workers, cholos (gangsters), house cleaners, maids, farmers, mariachis and poor. It’s a total lie.

I know what you’re thinking: Hollywood… didn’t tell the truth?!? Well, it’s true.

Mexico City at Sunset

Mexico is so vast, so diverse and so rich that there couldn’t possibly be a “stereotypical Mexican”. I know the same couldn’t be said of any country, that stereotypes don’t exist and that the common perception is merely a result of ignorance (except maybe Germany…), but so far my impression of Mexico has been overwhelmingly positive and I have yet to encounter any of the stereotypes.

I was kind of expecting Mexico City to be like that. I was expecting it to be far too big, far too noisy, far too busy, far too bustling, dirty, smelly and uneasy. I was expecting it to be dangerous and violent. Drug wars everywhere. Moustaches. Mariachis shooting it out with pistols. Bullet holes everywhere. I was expecting it to be everything my father said it would be like. I was totally and utterly wrong in almost every way and so was he.

But, I only judge something on its merit and never on what I expected. I’ve seen people do this with films, books or music all the time and I really don’t get it. Why would you judge something you haven’t experienced on what you thought the experience would be? That’s a very strange idea to me. But people still do it all the time.

You can almost feel the electricity, the energy of the city as it stretches into the distance. It's scale is uniminigable, like trying to picture the size of the universe. It's quite literally 5 times the population of Ireland and 1/3 the population of the UK crammed into one massive valley.

Culture and Feel

There is so much culture here that I have experienced and so much more to be experienced. It’s half the size of the EU, for fack’s sake, simply the size of the place would generate cultural diversity. But it goes further than that.

Mexico City, with 21 million people, is one of the biggest cities in the world. It is also one of the most diverse. The architecture varies widely between gorgeous Spanish colonial constructs like the baroque cathedrals, ornate masterpieces of stone and gold, to the fine late 19th/early 20th century palaces in the middle of the city. The city’s skyscrapers are quite decentralised, so occasionally one comes across a massive tower in the middle of normal office blocks. These towers are mostly tastefully done. Mostly. At street level, it’s mostly unimpressive like most cities, but Mexico City is also shockingly green and full of life. Cheeky squirrels run around the parks in Coyoacán with total abandon, accepting treats from strangers. The massive indoor park at Chapultepec has all the museums and vast arboretum teeming with life. While walking around the streets normally, you can still hear birds in one of the many trees that line the pretty streets.  It is not a city devoid of life by any means.

Virgen de Guadalupe - Queen of the Mexicans and of particular importance to Mexican Catholics. "Calling Dr. Freud, Dr. Freud please to reception, Dr. Freud, your patient is waiting..."

Lest we forget, this is the city that inspired many great artistic minds like Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and José Orozco. It is a city with a strong element of the surreal to it. In modern parlance, that means you often say: “WTF?!?” while walking around and, I think, that’s a wonderful thing indeed. Murals adorn many of the walls of every major building. But the art is everywhere in the city – most of it makes no sense to me, but still looks quite wonderful. Muralism is a fantastic artform. Diego Rivera was a genius. There is a strong sense of the surreal to the place. Surrealism is based mostly on Freudianism and I had a great time trying to figure out some of the Freud in the works around the place. While walking in the park, I came across a ritual where fellows in traditional dress slowly rotated themselves down and around a pole with a rope tied to their feet while banging a drum. Good times.

The murals are incredible. Shocking, even. I was blown away by the scope and majesty of some of them. The power and emotion of the grand works are something that really need to be experienced first hand. There is a wonderful way to them. They seem to encapsulate many concepts and many ideas and tie them all together in a very convincing, very tight way. Incredibly, some of them, large though they are, seem to demand more space, as if they are in wont of expansion, the space to say more, to really speak all that is on their minds. The biggest and best of them cover years of history, tie them all  up with political expression and ideology and draw us in with their beauty.

To really get a feel, try this one by Diego Rivera. It’s too big to put on the page, so zoom in and take a look see.

Accomodation

I went in there with the right mindset. That probably made the difference. I went in their somewhat ignorant but with the desire to seek out the best of it. I have never been to anywhere like it so it seemed strange. I did a few things right. I chose the right hostel. It was a party hostel right in the centre with a very good international crowd mostly between the ages of 20 and 30 with a few road-worn old hippies to add to the atmosphere. That place partied almost every night and was simply organised, clean and relatively comfortable. It had a couple of guided tours for people to go on, but that’s not really my sort of thing unless I want to meet people. Just walking around the city with people from the hostel was very easy and lots of fun.  A great variety of excellent people kept on coming in from all over the world.

A Brief Complaint about Drunken Australians

…except for certain Australians, they were mostly good fun at the hostel. This may seem a little racist or look like some sort of colonial superiority or something like that, but seriously. Most Australians are quite nice and some Australians are wonderful people. I’m sorry if this offends you, Australians, but it’s just that the 20-somethings that travel to get drunk and take drugs in Europe and the Americas really piss me off – and I’ve met a few too many of them and I’m sorry if I’m not alone in this opinion. Generally speaking,  they’re loud, obnoxious, empty vessels with the personality of a road-killed possum and the manners of… well, a deported Scots/Irish/Englishman. Perhaps it is my prejudice from living in New Zealand and that natural disdain they have towards Oz,  or perhaps its just the ones I meet seem unusually dumb compared to the Europeans or Canadians or, even, dare I say, Gringos one meets on the road, but either way, loud Australians are the worst type of traveller I’ve met so far. Gripe over. Racist diatribe ended.

Anyway, so I ended up staying a whole week instead of just four days in Mexico City. The end result of that is that I am now somewhat behind on my plans and will have to skip the Mexican desert in favour of the Copper Canyon and the Arizona/Utah desert. No biggy.

Luche Libre

Lucha Libre masks. Very inventive and quite a lot of fun. I, for one, know what my halloween costume will be next year. I'm going to slap (and sweat all over) everyone just for the hell of it.

With the hostel, I took a tour to the wrestling that Mexico is so famous for. Lucha Libre, or free wrestling, is famous for novelty masks, supposedly tracing back to the Aztec traditions. This is just like American wrestling except they don’t even bother to cover the fakeness of it all. It’s pure showmanship in it’s most greasy form. It’s just a spectacle. Oiled up sweaty mean in panties slapping each other around homosexually, steroid pumped arms and legs flailing everywhere is …actually really entertaining, to be honest. Sometimes the acrobatics are great: they do flips and jumps and slides. Other times it’s the choreography as they set up complex sequences of moves and events. Slap to kick to hop and step and waltz and jump. It’s fantastic stuff. It’s not meant to be real. It’s just meant to be exaggerated, intense, masculine fun.

And it has and endless supply of boobs from both sexes. Good times.

Within moments, the head of the downed will meet the crotch of the attacker. Sweaty sound effects will be audible.

Museums

So many museums. Good God, they know how to do museums here. The Museum of Anthropology is ludicrously well done. It’s vast and there’s enough to see for two visits. I made about three or four hours before my brain started melting from information overload. I was raised on the internet dammit, we just can’t do it!

The Museum of Anthropology

Museums are like walking around caged versions of a country/demographic/civilisation/etc. with short explanations. The museum of anthropology is like walking around a wax-model version of Mexico, but somehow felt twice as tiring as walking around the real thing. Here, the differences between regions became far more noticeable. It was rather fascinating, expertly done and very, very worth it. I’ve been in sort of contact with maybe three of the indigenous populations on show. There were over fifty on display. Big country.

Parties

No post would be complete without a short description of the societies I’ve wormed my way into.

I arrived in Mexico City on Saturday. I booked into the hostel and then grabbed a German from my room and the other two Germans I’d been travelling with and we went on the search for a beer. We found one place with shisha. Good call. Then we moved on. We wandered around the main square, witnessed the beauty of the city at night and saw the massive cathedral in its illuminated glory. Then we, well, sort of crashed a party. We spotted a rooftop party in downtown Mexico City and we sought the entrance. It was on the top of an apartment building and we saw some people coming out of the door. We asked if we could go up. They were very drunk but they said yes so we went up. The view from the top was great. Then we sort of joined the party. They invited us with open arms and gave us free drinks cakes and other assorted gifts. They were a little older than I, mostly late 20’s, and were celebrating a birthday. They spoke great English and we all had a whale of a time.

Then, when the party on the roof was over, we jumped in one of their cars and drove out (singing Pink Floyd and Theme from Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the way just to add to the WTF of the situation) to an expensive, upmarket karaoke club in the bohemian nightclub district of Mexico City. Here, they all packed up into one sweaty little room and sang songs in drunken English or cheesy Spanish songs. Then when that was done, we drove out to another club. Here, they asked for 200 pesos entry, but after paying 150 for the other place, that was a little too much. So they spoke to the bouncers and let us all in for free. It was a dance hall with a carpet and chandeliers and there I was, not the tallest person in the room for a change, in hiking boots. Free bar, too. I got home some time around six.

…and was up for nine to say goodbye to the Germans leaving for Cuba. Then I met up with the same Mexicans I had partied with the night before for a barbecue and to watch the Gringos lose the Winter Olympics hockey final to Canada. It’s an anyone-but-America mentality out here. I had a great time, though my Spanish was terrible, but it was a really chilled, enjoyable Sunday afternoon. There they had beer with tomato juice, chilli, lemon and *gasp!* Worcester Sauce. Why the hell did we never think of that? It’s amazing.

Then, on Thursday, I went out again with some people from the hostel. We found a dingy, mural-covered cantina out in the middle of nowhere and had a few really authentic drinks. Then some locals joined us. Then the party finished and the locals invited us back to their place. The house belonged to a bunch of artists and paintings and designs were everywhere. They brought out more drinks and a variety of weird and strange musical instruments for us all. There was this unique guitar/harp combination, a digeridoo, rain sticks and singing. I even got to whip out the Mongolian Throat Singing I’d learned a while back and taught it to one of the locals who was very impressed. Absolutely wonderful night that didn’t happen at all as expected and was all the better for it. I also met a delightful Israeli who I’ve now been travelling with for about four days from Mexico to Morelia. Good times had by all.

All throughout, I just embraced the randomness of Mexico City and I was rewarded with priceless, bizarre memories. Fortune favours the brave  – and I was feeling particularly ballsy on this trip and fortune rewarded me justly.

The Food

I’ve eaten things I never expected to eat out here. Brain tacos, for instance. Texture is so important in food and this had the texture of dry porridge and the flavour of uncooked fat. It was thoroughly nasty, but I finished it because I am ballsy. Then I ate my other taco: tongue. Then the next one: ear. I almost threw up it was so weird. But I didn’t and now I can officially claim to have eaten BRAINS.

I have eaten this. Pig brain. Tastes pretty much how it looks.

Mexican street food is fantastic. The sweet goods  are amazing. The bread shops are divine – Mexican pastry is shockingly good and the doughnuts are beautiful. I’ve eaten some weird things out here, but since I can’t remember their names, I’ll have to let it go. Just know that it was mostly pretty damn good. I love this country’s food. So much better than our food back home.

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A Quick Self-Riposte

This is pointed at my previous post on Wonder in the modern age.

Dear Me,

You seem to have not considered several important things in your somewhat eloquent, if haughty, essay on the nature of Wonder in the modern world. I find that something makes your argument so very vexatious and for this reason I feel the need to riposte with respect, simply because I disagree.

You must forgive my somewhat pertinent tone, but you know how wrong you may be and how limited my time is. You bemoan the loss of that which humanity may never have had, mourning for something that never died because it may not even have existed. Most humans do not have a fascination in their immediate environment because that is ordinary. It is too familiar. What purpose, evolutionarily speaking, would such a fascination serve? For what reason would that trait be worthy of survival? The fact that we limit ourselves to fascination and wonder in the new and in those moments of rare elation is more valuable to us because we can then get on with the real purpose of life: to ensure it continues.

Though you complain about the lack of appreciation modern generations have for this world of ours, let me remind you that this may be precisely what spurs us on as a species. Think in larger timescales my good man. What good would it have been if throughout history we said to ourselves: “everything is great, everything is good?” For what reason would we then have to strive for a better future? What would be our whip to improve the lot of everyone, to progress as a society if we simply accepted that all is well? We may need to be unhappy or malcontent with our current situation because that malaise drives us forward. You appear to have neglected that idea in your post and the whole article suffers as a result.

I believe wonder should be limited purely to that which is real. Your section on religious ceremonies and mythology, where you question the superiority of scientific knowledge, is flawed because you seem to suggest that is okay to be awe inspired by the false, the unprovable and the non-rational. Good Lord, man! What caused such a change of heart in your normally sceptical mind? What great cataclysm has happened in your own life that allowed you to accept that such poor fantasy is on equal footing with the most magnificent achievements of science? That knowledge that we have now gained has been built upon by thousands of the smartest people over hundreds of years – and do you know what allowed that to happen? Let me answer that for you: the collapse of those institutionalised fantasies’ grip on the advancement of knowledge; the moment when the powers that be, those who claimed divine right to suppress alternative theories (especially those of greater veracity that would undermine the claims of the fantastic). Those fantasies that you seem to have given some sort of credence to could have been made up by anyone anywhere. There is certainly grandeur in some of the more persistent ones, but just because a story has the ability to self-replicate beyond all control does not mean that is deserving of being put on equal footing with the theories that help us understand the very real nature of the reality that we are in. Yes, many of these fantasies inspired greater feelings of wonder in the great unwashed than modern science does, but dare to convince me that such fantasy have contributed more to the advancement of the human race – regardless of their ability to inspire.

Instead of whining about the loss of wonder in the technology around us, let me posit an alternative that you seem not to have considered in your lengthy article. It is this: people should find wonder in something because it deserves it. My hand does not deserve to high feelings of wonder because it does not have the following characteristics: rarity or uniqueness. Many people have hands. So do I. It is not special, nor is it uncommon. Once we understand something, we need not lose interest in it as you seem to suggest people do – we need to find something special in it and that is something that only happens infrequently. You pointed to the iPod as an example of people just accepting wondrous technology, yet you seem to have ignored the fact that when the iPod was new people found wonder within it. Again, not every technological advance inspires this feeling and this may be a good thing because then we, humanity, have to work harder to find that new thing that will give us the same feeling again- though it may be several years later.

Look to the future, my good man. There you will find the wonder you yearn for. A new enlightenment awaits us somewhere down the line, have patience and it will come. Wonder is rare and it is special, but is always there for those who seek it.

Yours truly,

Yourself

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My Age of Wonder

The flag depicts an eagle devouring a snake on top of a cactus, the omen which the nomads that would eventually become the Aztecs set for deciding the location of their capital city Tenochtitlan - the site of which is now Mexico City. The green is for the land and beauty, the red for the blood of the soldiers, the white is innocence and purity. Kind of a classic flag with a big badass eagle thrown into the middle of it.

I have a new favourite country. It is a place like few others, a land of richness, diversity and excessive amounts of culture. It is a place where every region has something to be uniquely proud of, be it something they produce, something they have held for centuries or simply something they have perfected. It is a land of many languages, where the dominant tongue is spoken side by side with a tongue of ancient beauty. I have fallen in love with Mexico.

I love its meat. The markets of Oaxaca have this special method of smashing meat until it is almost flat, then barbecuing it right in front of you with some onions, some chilis and a few tortillas at almost a tenth of the cost for the equivalent amount of meat in a restaurant. I have never eaten as well nor as simultaneously bad as I have in Mexico. Many things are fried, cooked to a crisp, covered in fat, grease and arse-destroying peppers, but it tastes so damn good for something I know is so unhealthy. When you buy fresh meat from the markets, the result is sublime, the meat is beautiful – tasty, well-textured, soft, juicy and not too tough. Perfection.

I still haven’t grasped just how big this country is. It’s 1,972,500 km2 – roughly three times the size of France or quite literally half the size of Europe. That’s big. Really really big. Good times on buses await.

And I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but JESUS TAP-DANCING CHRIST MEXICO CITY IS HUGE!!!!!

The chocolate (an Aztec word, by the way) is unrefined, gritty and, I think, twice as tasty because it adds that extra layer of authenticity to it. It is a wonderful metaphor within itself: chocolate is a speciality from this part of the world, meaning (according to some sources) “bitter water”. Only with the addition of something unknown to the Aztecs, milk, from Europe, do we have the marvellous food we have today. Only with the synthesis of the two cultures, the two culinary styles, do we have one of the most popular and enjoyable substances on the planet. That’s what Mexico is. It is the purest chocolate, with many flavours, many variations, hundreds of artisans working every day to produce something new and exciting for the masses togorge upon and full their greedy guts. I have yet to eat my fill of Mexico and I don’t know if it is even possible.

To finish where I left off last time:

San Cristobal de Las Casas

View from the west hill, the city centre obscured by the trees, the suburbs stretching out into the mountains. Beautiful city.

With a colonial core reminiscent of Antigua Guatemala, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this city as much as I did, but with a cool combination of relaxation, bohemian vibe and good choice of company, I had a damn good time. On the bus over, I struck a conversation with an English woman and a Dutch woman travelling together from Palenque. Both turned out to be very good fun! San Cristobal has some excellent food and some of the best coffee I’ve tasted. The state, Chiapas, is one of the most important economic states in Mexico, being one of the most fertile and with a great variety of micro-climates well-suited towards great coffee and food. We ate tapas and drank Mexican wine from Baja California for about ten euros a bottle, with a free dish of bread and cheese included. Very Spanish. Then we went out and I drank alcohol properly for the first time in quite some time. A slightly staggered walk back to the hostel included what I dubbed a “Disney Moment” – where everyone breaks out into cheesy songs and showtunes about princesses and love and all that sort of thing. Good times were had by all except those who heard us without the extra musical appreciation afforded by slightly bar-deafened ears and a bit too much to drink. Great night out and my first of many parties here in Mexico!

Oh, you stylish devil.

We made our way out to a village called Chamula the next day. This is a mostly indigenous town in the mountains. Here, the main attraction is the bustling market place and the bizzare, Mayo-Christian church. Here, the rituals are based primarily on old practices and ways. Lines of candles are placed on the grounds before idols of Christian saints dressed in traditional Mayan dress as old incantations are hummed with a few words thrown in towards a saint or Jesus or something. It was all very bizzare, but rather fascinating. I felt rather like I was viewing an incomplete conversion or something from the early days of a a conversion, where the religious dates and rituals have been umbrella’d by Christianity, but the basic beliefs and practices remain the same. It felt like there was a long way to go before it was brought into the mainstream of Christianity.

"What time is it? Tequila time? Beer o' Clock? We make a party?" - Roman

Mazunte

I pitched my tent about five metres to the right of where this photo was taken. The point at the top left of the image is the southernmost point of Mexico and the place to watch those stunning Pacific sunsets.

After two days in San Cristobal, the Germans I spoke of earlier, Roman and Tina, and I made our way towards the southern coast of Mexico to a sleepy beach town called Mazunte. We chose it because it is small, relaxed and absolutely beautiful. The rocky cliffs at the side are great for jumping around on. Just over the hill from where I pitched my tent was a little beach that was perfect for watching the sunset over the Pacific. Every night bar one I went out there to watch it and feel the awe inspiring farewell wave of the sun as it lights the sky a peachy hue.

My main aim in Mazunte was to make an attempt at finishing the Brothers Karamazov. I managed to finish some 250 pages and now have about 100 pages to go. I decided to spend one more day in the hammock just to finish it off while Tina and Roman made their way to Puerto Escondido. So I got close to finishing one of the best novels ever written, but tragically stumbled at the finishing line. Now that I’m in Mexico City, I don’t think I’ll have a chance to finish it before the weekend. So close. So very close.

A Short Note on the Grand Politics of Height

…And a rather lacklustre attempted at not offending short people.

I measured myself in a pharmacy about a month ago. I came out at about 196cm or 6’5″ in the Imperial/American Backwards style. That’s pretty tall by European standards, a little above average by Dutch standards and, somewhat amusingly, gigantic by Central American or South-East Asian standards. In Britain and Ireland, the average male height is about 177cm, the average female around 166cm. Here in Mexico, the average male is 166cm (5’4″) and the average female about 155 (4’11”). As you may have guessed, this poses certain problems. Problem one: the staring. I don’t know if it’s just because I dress so sharply/oddly or look more unusual/awesome than most, but people tend to widen their eyes and gaze up and down as I walk past. On the streets and in the Metro, not a single person is bigger than I – and if they are, then they’re always white. More times than I can count, I have received comments of “!gigante!” or “madre de dios!” or words to that effect. Problem two: nightlife. In a club or bar, I tower over the locals. It makes it somewhat tricky to dance with any dignity on the dancefloor when most of the crowd simply sees my sweaty white head sticking out of the meleé, bobbing back and forth with the awkward grace of a giraffe in a herd of springboks.

I’m not really complaining. I quite like being tall. It commands a certain respect in many places. I was once protesting that filthy cult of $cientology in Dublin and a police officer who had a problem with our “littering” in the form of protest leaflets came right up to me and asked if I was in charge. People look to the tall for leadership – wanted or not. Then there is a hand-clappingly delightful bit of evidence in favour of a positive correlation between height and intelligence (see PDF of the case study here ), meaning we tall people earn more and have greater cognitive ability (wink, wink nudge nudge future employers). I’m certainly not the tallest, many people are significantly taller and far more graceful than I, but I think I’m at a comfortable level of height, agility, speed, power and bulk, whereas some other tall folk aren’t and for that I am somewhat thankful.

It’s just that there are some distinctly irritating downsides to being this tall. I haven’t had a fully comfortable back since I was about twelve, my neck is a mess of muscles and tendons that seem to hate supporting my enlarged skull and I have several bad bumps and scars upon my scalp from walking (and occasionally running and jumping) into door frames and pandejo-placed crossbars. Listening to short people has become tiresome, for the pain involved in lowering oneself  (phsyically, not mentally) to their level is usually not paid back in intellectual, emotional or conversational gain. Okay, now I’m being bigoted – emphasis on the former syllable – but you must understand that travelling out here in a system designed for people mostly about 30-40cm (a whole head) shorter than I is an occasionally bothersome experience and I’m feeling the need to push back a bit. But it could always be worse.

A Note on Wonderment and Its Loss in the Modern World of Science and Technology

Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love The World For What It Is

I am someone who believes wholeheartedly in the need for scientific understanding. Only with the advancement of scientific knowledge in the natural world will we finally be able to get the hell of this planet and head out and explore the solar system. Maybe when the Western World stops picking fights with those supposedly precocious, uppity poor countries and starts truly investing in technology and intellectual advances will we humans take that giant leap forward into outer space. For now, we must content ourselves with a hybrid system in most parts of the West. Some people have their stark, rational and fact-based understanding of their reality and some people have this magical, illusory perspective. There is certainly grandeur in both views of the world, but there is a lack of veracity in the latter. The majority of the people in Europe and the current generation of youngsters are probably the most enlightened, educated and informed people that have ever existed, with substantial explanations for the origins of most tangible natural events.

But there are those who believe in a world of wonder and magic, a world where things happen just because or because -insert deities here- did it. This is the world of fantasy, not the world of fact. Until relatively recently, I would have spoken with scorn, sarcasm or disdain for such a perspective, my rationalism suppressing my seemingly natural human tendency towards the fantastic. But in our modern technological world of stark truths, we have either misplaced or neglected the ability to be awed by our surroundings. I feel like we have lost that wonder that makes this world so beautiful. Is it superior to be aware of the orbit of the planets, the formation of our solar system and the constituency of the sun as opposed to believing that we are being spun by beings of immense power on a whim and a finger?  Or that a mystical, multi-dimensional being  in the shape of a serpent is directing light displays in our skies? Or that a chariot of fire and torches runs across our sky to wake us up and gives us the power we need to survive and, ultimately, thrive? There may not be truth to these claims, I may find them silly and nonsensical, but there is a layer of transfixing wonder to them all. Often, when we figure out the process or mechanism behind something, it can lose its ability to hold such a grip on our minds.

Would an Agatha Cristie murder mystery be as entertaining if we knew preciously what happened before we got to the chase? Sure, there is engagement and joy to be found in the tale, but don’t we lose interest as soon as we find out who the devilishly clever murderer is? After the denouement, it’s the end. The tale is over. The grip is released. The thrill of the unfolding mystery is gone. We lose interest and remember about 15% and then move on.

We have lost that wonder in our stark technological society. We take the workings of our iPods for granted and get frustrated when the unfathomably advanced tech within it fails us. We have some of the greatest achievements of mankind in our own pockets, in our cities, up in the air – even orbiting our planet. Do we appreciate them enough? Do I appreciate the laptop I am working on as much as I should? It took us thousands of years and millions of lives to get to the technological level we are now at and I frequently meet people who simply shrug their shoulders and just feel entitled to it without truly earning it. As Louis CK once said: This is what people are like now. They’ve got their phone and their like [look of frustration while miming texting] ‘uh... it won’t…!’ – give it a second! It’s going to space! Would you give it a second to get back from space!?! Is the speed of light too slow for you?!?”

The ancient cultures of the world knew wonderment. Modern Mexico knows wonderment. The religious ceremonies, the diversity in beliefs, rituals and ways of living contain numerous elements that are there almost purely to expand the feelings of wonder. The artistic beauty of this country is extraordinary. Colours, designs and symbols all contribute towards a rich, endlessly exhilarating display. Fantasy lives strong in this country. Escapism, both personal and social, is almost always available, but limited by the necessity of living and surviving within reality. Imagine, if you still can, the feelings of exhilaration and awe at seeing the wildest garbs, the most extravagant displays of humanity and then adding that extra layer of mysticism, where the visible is heightened by the transcendental. Sounds never before heard and feelings never before experienced all create this powerful moment. They bathe in their ecstasy. For thousands of years, this was  a great display that the rulers and spiritual shepherds of the masses put on every so often. They would present the people with something truly wonderful. This feeling lasts for a long time and is vital for the success of a society.

This is pretty much what most religious ceremonies represent. Most of the time, Christianity is exceedingly dull and grey, but it still tries to add that extra layer of magical wonder to its proceedings. The problem with Christianity is that it abuses that feeling of wonder, ties it all up with the deep psychological need to be protected from poor fortune and to escape death and organises people and societies into ways that have had lasting social damage and retarded the progress of humanity in many obvious ways. The feeling of wonder was abused in Europe for power and gain and, from my experience, we have now limited our ability to appreciate it – possibly out of fear or cynicism that it may be abused again.

I just wish we could have one without the other.

More than likely, most people that ever lived never attempted to truly appreciate their surroundings. They probably walked through streets, trees, meadows and beaches with the same dead-eyed acceptance that we do now. Travelling opens up that for us.

I wonder if wonder will ever return to the fore. My fingers crossed, because it is a beautiful thing that need not be reserved for the unfamiliar – there is plenty of wonder to be found in the familiar, too. I intend to find it.

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Bribing Police in Palenque

Making my way into Mexico, my first port of call was the Mayan ruins at Palenque. My experience here was somewhat different from my day at Tikal in Guatemala. I pitched my tent at a super cheap little place in the jungle next to the ruins. The city of Palenque itself has good tacos. That’s about it. So we made for El Panchain, a cosy village next to the entrance to the park. Once again… toilet woes. Anyway, the Germans Tina and Roman and I had a plan: we were going to walk to the ruins at 05:00 and watch the sunset from the main palace. Simple plan, really. We had heard it was perfectly possible to do so in Tikal so we assumed that we could do so here, too.


We were somewhat wrong.

We awoke at 04:00, again with the early starts, and started on the trail at 04:30 in the total darkness. It was about an hours walk to the entrance. However, we were stopped on the way by two police officers. One had a massive shotgun and a dirty moustache, the other had a silly cap, bad skin and a fancy mobile phone. We explained that we wished to get into the park and they explained that we would need to pay a “special entry fee”.

“Hnnmmm…. mille pesos”, the fat man said, stroking his chin. Thus began the haggling. We should have expected this, but luckily I have enough Spanish to say that it’s not just, we don’t want to pay too much, the ruins are very special, you’re very kind for letting us in and all sorts of schmoozy phrases to get us in without paying exorbitantly.

“But we are students, we don’t have much money” explained Roman the banker in terrible Spanish – he’s been using that excuse for about eight years now, ever since he was a student. However, being a banker, a German banker no less, the natural urge towards frugality lives strong within him.

Fat man with moustache was a terrible negotiator. We haggled in Spanish, throwing out a bunch of arguments. He sort of wandered about, just shaking his head. We tried for about 100 pesos each. No success. We raised it to 150 pesos, just under €8. The arsehole with the phone’s haggling technique consisted of looking busy on the phone and doing the shooing motion with his hand.

“If you don’t pay the special entrance fee, you don’t get in”, he would say and we would refuse. He would then try to shoo him. We said it wasn’t just.

We paid 200 pesos in the end – about the same as the entrance fee to Tikal. Not bad considering. We made swift progress towards the ruins.

Then we were caught by another guard, this time an actual employee of the ruins not a police officer. He also demanded a bribe to let us in. We tried to explain that we’d actually paid 300 pesos each to the police and that he said it was all inclusive. This guy was having none of it and demanded: “…hhmmmmm…. mille pesos.”

After a similar process of offer and rejection, we gave him a ten euro note, told him it was worth 500 pesos (actually worth 180) and a fifty peso note. He refused at first, but then we said: “..and fifty pesos!” and then he somehow accepted. He made us swear promises of silence, which we did. We also swore promises of silence to the police officers and had broken that promise to this guy about ten minutes later. Considering the amount of bribing and lying going on, I don’t know how he expected us to keep that promise of silence.

It was starting to get light so we made our in quickly to the ruins and hid among the palace, our fraud adding that extra layer of adrenaline to the illegal nature of what we were doing. The guard attempted to find us a further three times before he actually did. So we sat and watched the cloudy sunrise and were somewhat disappointed by it all. When the guard found us, he came up to us. He seemed a little scared and panicky. He could obviously lose his job if were found and he was found out, but he seemed a little rattled. Scrawled on his hand were some calculations – he had found out the conversion rate. He was not happy either, giving out to us for lying. We refused to leave, not after paying some 250 pesos for entry. He gave us half an hour as an ultimatum.

We got two hours of beautiful silence in the Mayan ruins, the sunlight shining beautifully low in the sky, illuminating the ruins in a way not available to the general public before we were kicked out at 08:15 (by some fat lady who muttered something about insulting the Mexican people by not paying entry). We kept our word and told nothing of the guard.

The ruins were much the same an experience as Tikal, even though we didn’t quite get to enjoy a full thirteen hours of them. I shan’t share my thoughts on the matter again, but know that it was quite wonderful sneaking into Palenque in the morning light. Unfortunately, I won’t have the pictures of this trip until Roman gets back home in two weeks, so here’s one I got off a Dutch girl in San Cristobal who was there at the same time as us. More on her later!

Templos de Los Inscripsciones to the left tells the story of Palenque in hieroglyphs while the Palacio to the right housed the Royal Family. The entire complex is set on a hill in the jungle with a vast variety of wildlife and wonderment within it.

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