Mixed Media Work and A Poem: Crossing

This is a mixed media piece I finished before I left for South America. It is called “The Crossing” and is about Mexican laborers risking their lives to cross the border. I just finished this poem to go with the painting.

THE CROSSING

Not so fast.
Do you really think I won`t make it?
Death and I may sleep in the same bed,
But I was built for survival.
I will cross this chingado river
And this God-forsaken, pinche desert
To mow your lawn
Harvest your food
And clean your house
So that my children may eat.
Because – this I swear to you –
My children and death
Shall not sleep in the same bed.
Whatever it takes.
Whatever it takes.

Six Things I Have Learned from Three Years on the Road: Perspective

Perspective is a cliché in travel writing. Those who travel, the writers say, have a broader perspective and are supposedly more tolerant of their fellowman.

This is not true.

I currently live in Mexico, where Gringos regularly express intolerance for their adopted culture. Barry Golson, in his book “Gringos in Paradise”, tells a story told about a Gringa who lived next door to a church. Anyone who has ever lived near a church in Mexico knows that they are noisy places. Golson writes that the lady was tired of the noise and decided to do battle with her water hose, soaking the congregants as they left church.

Douglas Bower, in his post “When Gringos Attack”, writes of another Gringa who blasts her neighbors with a compressed-air fog horn whenever their parties get too loud.

Here in San Miguel, a woman recently told me that she picked up poop on the street from her neighbor´s dog, put it in a plastic bag and hung it on his doorknob. (Poop scooping is not a Mexican tradition.)

Complaints about fireworks are a perennial favorite on the Civil List, the most well-known Yahoo group for Gringos in San Miguel, and in the past week Gringos have been grousing about dogs barking. Someone suggested that they start a petition to get Mexicans to reign in their barking dogs.

When pigs fly.

Travel is definitely no guarantee of a broader perspective. Rather, it depends on HOW one travels.

Tours, cruises and luxury hotels certainly make travel safer and easier, but the curated experience is a bubble that does not provide much insight into how people live. Fast travel, with a “bucket list” of places to visit at lightning speed, may enhance one´s social status, but will do little to change one`s perspective.

It is also possible to live years in an expat bubble in elite enclaves, not speaking the language, interacting with locals only through maids, waiters or taxi drivers, with 100 percent of meaningful interactions limited to other Westerners.

What I have learned in three years on the road is that enlarging my perspective takes real commitment, a willingness to take risks, spend time outside of one´s comfort zone, learn the language and the culture, and establish relationships outside fellow travelers and the expat community.

All of this takes time, which is why I travel slowly.

And here`s the payoff.

I can roll with the flow. I will eat what is put in front of me and say thank you, sleep through fireworks, and bark back at dogs.

I have learned to operate on the fly, get things wrong, and keep trying until I get it right. I´ve learned to smile, ask for help, have a dictionary at the ready and communicate with hand signals.

We Americans are notoriously impatient. One of the way we identify newcomers here is how wound-up they are.

I have learned to wait in line with grace.

Until my bones turn to ashes if I have to.

The road has taught me that Americans have a lot to learn from other cultures, in particular, social skills like good manners and hospitality.

The road has taught me that the common thread that ties us together is that we all love our kids and want them to have a good life.

Also, pretty much everybody likes cookies.

Traveling emphasizes the value of experiences over things and has made me appreciate the people who make things with their hands, repair what is broken, dance their joys, create art from fear and write about the world they see.

Most of all, I have learned that I do not travel alone, but with the support of family and friends back home and in far-flung places.

You know who you are. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart.

Six Things I Learned from Three Years on the Road: Trust

I expected that one of the gifts of this trip around the world would be renewed trust in human beings.

It did not happen. What I found instead was better.

After three years of travel as a solo female, I have lost the flower-child, we’re-all-children-of-God trust I had in mankind. Instead, I have learned to keep my eyes open, be aware of the surroundings, profile (yes, profile) and pay attention to that reptilian portion of my brain concerned with survival.

Traveling, especially in countries where I don’t speak the language, taught me to pay attention to behavior, not words, to spot patterns early and to cut bait fast.

The reality is that the world is both beautiful and ugly. Some places are damned dangerous and corruption is everywhere – from taxi drivers to politicos. Many people cannot be trusted and others can only be trusted on a limited basis. Most relationships are transactional and transitory.

Today, I know the difference between acquaintances and friends and have sorted out who’s who. It took courage to tear off that veil. First, I had to learn to be comfortable being alone.

There are two dimensions to being alone: solitude and loneliness. They are quite different emotionally. They do not occur simultaneously, but each can appear and disappear within minutes of each other like flowers appearing and disappearing in the desert after a rain. It’s exquisite, actually, when I hold my seat (a meditation term), do not seek diversion and simply observe them arising.

Does the harsh reality of the world keep me from seeing beauty and kindness?

No. The realization that these qualities are rare has made me appreciate them more and cherish them when they appear. The difference is I no longer see the world though pink-tinted glasses.

This lesson was difficult to learn. I’ve seen poverty, human trafficking, illness, addiction, insanity and death. It’s not Disneyland out here, it’s life.

As I have traveled, this quote by Thoreau has been my guide: “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”

The gift of these three years was unexpected. As trust in other people has gone down, trust in myself has grown. I can handle just about anything now, from a coup to a hurricane. As a result, I’m not as afraid as when I set out on this trip.

I have been afraid almost all my life. I’ve never let it stop me from doing anything, but it’s always been there, a constant struggle with anxiety. For fear to subside has been the single biggest gift of the journey. Life may be harsh, but it is also amazing. Today, I live sturdily.

Six Things I Learned From Three Years on the Road: People Watching

The body is a powerful communication tool. I would much rather watch people than visit ruins. After three years on the road, I have become an expert people watcher.

The best places to people watch are well-lit and not crowded. Situations which provide a head-to-toe view and involve human interaction are best. I also like to change my perspective, especially in crowds, by watching from above.

My favorite places to people watch are outdoor cafes for street fashion; airports and train stations for greeting and leave taking; metros and plazas for daily life; playgrounds and schools for kids and their parents; markets and grocery stores for food and food retailing; and weddings and funerals for pivotal life events.

Being invited to a wedding in another culture is a people-watching goldmine. I have become a fearless people watcher. Yesterday, I joined a funeral cortege. The mariachis at the head of the cortege were hot and bored. Behind them, the old women were crying and the old men were stoic. The young people at the end of the cortege were chatting, laughing and immortal.

It’s important to watch across social classes as well as cultures. Museums give insight into one end of society, bowling alleys another. To miss either is an incomplete picture.

Use all the senses, not just the eyes. I took the photo in this post at a café in a museum in London. The couple was so much in love, it was a thing of beauty to behold them. I wasn’t the only one watching; an older gentleman in a pale yellow linen jacket and a Panama hat was drinking cognac and watching, too. Something about the set of his shoulders conveyed nostalgia and sadness.

The young woman wrote something on a napkin, which I retrieved immediately after they left. She had marked the napkin with a pale pink kiss and the words “I love you.” I still could smell her perfume. The man who was watching and I smiled at each other. He lifted his glass of cognac in a toast. I will die with that memory.

However, people watching can be tricky; it’s important not to get busted. Sunglasses are useful. So is tilting the head slightly away from the people being observed. Being engaged in a task reduces suspicion. Reading a book and taking notes is an activity that is effective and also allows the watcher to record what they are seeing. Newspapers are especially good because the watcher can hold them up, making them a perfect people-watching shield. (I’m also not above following someone discretely if I’m not done watching them.)

Things to observe when people watching: age, gender, social class, group dynamics (dominance, submission, respectful behavior, social distance), personal appearance, perfumes/aftershaves (Sniff the air) and emotions (happy, bored, nervous, angry).

People watching around the globe has taught me that some emotions are expressed universally, while others vary by culture. Once, in Tunisia, as I was watching two guys interact, my first impression was that they were angry. However, I dismissed my first take because their language naturally sounds more aggressive and people stand much closer to each other in North Africa than in other parts of the world. Then they stated slugging each other.

The lesson? First thought, best thought.

People watching hones situational awareness, which keeps the traveler safe. I have learned to pay attention to my own body reactions. If my gut is telling me something is off, I leave. I have nothing to win if I am wrong, but I might just save my life if I am right. The situational awareness I have developed through people watching over the past three years keeps me safe here in Mexico.

Not to mention some great material for writing.