In Oaxaca, A Place For Friends

Sundays in Oaxaca are quiet. The stores are closed; the streets empty.

There is buzz around the churches, as families mill in and out dressed in their Sunday best. Near the Zocalo, children play with oversized balloons, pushing them high into the sky.

But otherwise, the city is silent.

On a recent Sunday, I decided to embrace the calm and seek a quiet resting place where I could sit with a healthy meal, an iced coffee and the words of Carlos Fuentes. The spots I had in mind were closed, so I wandered the streets until I caught sight of an entryway leading into a courtyard shaded in bougainvillea. “Yoga, vegetarian food,” the chalkboard sign read. I had found my place.

I entered and asked for a table. The kind-eyed host explained to me that here, they do things differently, that this is a place for friends. She asked if I wouldn’t mind sharing a table, and she gestured toward my new seatmate: an elderly gringo in khakis and a Panama hat.Inwardly, I groaned. The last thing I wanted was forced conversation with a senior citizen. I wanted to feel Mexico, not be reminded of home.

Outwardly, I smiled and sat down.

De donde es?” he asked.

De los Estados Unidos,” I replied.

“Oh, you’re American,” he laughed. “Could’ve fooled me.”

Uh-huh. I pulled out my book and set it on the table.

“Where in the States are you from?”

“New York.”

“Oh, I lived in New York. In Manhattan?”

“Yes, the East Village.”

He laughed. “I used to live right near you, on 4th between B and C. But this was a long time ago, in the 1960s.”

Now he had my attention. You had to be a certain kind of person to live in the East Village in the 1960s.

“Do you know Allen Ginsberg? The poet?”

I nodded. I only idolized him.

“He was my neighbor.”

From there, the conversation flowed: from his life as an art student in the ’60s, to my writing ambitions in the ’10s, to his sons, my sister, his newly remodeled home, my newly redecorated apartment. Mitch was a man in transition, having just retired after decades of working as a museum exhibit designer for the federal government. I too was in transition, on the cusp of returning to graduate school and charting a new career path. He had come to Oaxaca to draw; I had come to write.

I didn’t expect Mitch and I to have much in common, but we did. I was reminded of a basic travel lesson: the necessity of being open to new people and new experiences.

Throughout our nearly three-hour conversation, the host, whose name I discovered was Rosaura, kept us fed and refreshed with a three-course vegetarian meal: crunchy jicama salad, hearty chickpea soup and a yogurt-oatmeal dessert, complemented by hibiscus tea. At the end, she only asked for $35 pesos (about US$3) to cover the cost of the ingredients. Every Sunday, Rosaura hosts this special gathering in the courtyard of the Comala restaurant on Calle Allende in downtown Oaxaca. The morning starts with a yoga session, followed by a meal. All are welcome – so long as they are open to new friends.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

VIDEO: TEDx Talk On Travel Writing And Global Change

“Travel writers are obligated to meet people, to ask questions, to pay attention,” writer, editor and Gadling contributor Lavinia Spalding told the audience at TEDxParkCity earlier this year. “With that comes a heightened sense of awareness and observation, and some great rewards. On top of a great story, you gain a much richer experience.”

Her talk, titled “Travel Writing and Global Change,” explored the use of travel writing as a tool for sharing stories and inspiring action. And you don’t necessarily need to be a travel writer by trade to take part, she says. “It’s never been easier to write down our stories and find people to read them,” Spalding says. “I strongly believe that everyone here can write a story that makes someone care.”

Spalding issued a challenge to the audience, which we now issue to you. The next time you go somewhere, bring a journal, write a story about someone you meet and share it, whether it’s in an email to friends, in a contest at your local newspaper or even just on Facebook. Who knows? It might just spark a movement.

“There are seven billion people in the world and each one has a story,” Spalding concluded her talk. “I hope that the next time you travel you’ll listen to one, and then I hope you’ll tell it.”

Unexpected Offerings On A Return To Bali

Last month, I spent a week on the Indonesian island of Bali as a guest of the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. This was my first visit to that blessed place since I’d fallen in love with it 34 years ago.

Like me, the island had lost some of its innocence in the intervening years. Unlike my earlier trip, when the Balinese I met had simply welcomed me with wide eyes and hearts, this time most immediately asked me if I’d been there before. When I answered, “Yes, 34 years ago,” their eyes opened wide for a different reason and they smiled and shook their heads. “Oh, Bali has changed much since then!” they’d laugh, though many of them couldn’t say exactly how because they hadn’t even been born 34 years before.

Of course, to my eyes too, Bali had changed. The streets were much busier, clogged with trucks and motor scooters, than I remembered, and the towns were more built up; the road from Denpasar to Ubud was lined with many more buildings and fewer rice paddies than I recalled.

But in a deeper sense, the spirit of the place seemed hardly changed at all. During a few free days of wandering, I passed a number of festival processions flowing through the streets. Every day I was enchanted as I had been three decades before by the sweet, simple canangsari offerings – hand-sized compositions of colorful flowers on green coconut leaves, some graced with a cracker – that were meticulously placed outside my door and on bustling sidewalks, off-the-beaten-path foot trails, temple thresholds and business entrances alike. And while I realize I know nothing about the difficulties of being Balinese – the need to scrupulously follow rigorous traditions, for example, or the unpredictabilities of relying on a tourism economy – the people I met exuded a gentleness, tranquility, contentment and sense of sanctity in the everyday that was as exemplary, expanding and restorative for me as it was 34 years before.

But it wasn’t until my last day in Ubud that Bali’s soul-binding offerings really came to life for me.

%Gallery-171375%I began the day with a mini-pilgrimage to a paradisiacal place I had visited earlier in my stay. I had been introduced to it by a local expat named Liza who had taken my all-day writing workshop. During the workshop lunch break, she had described a beatific organic restaurant perched among the rice paddies, a short walk from central Ubud. She kindly offered to take me there, and the following day we met at Tjamphuhan bridge, walked a few minutes uphill along Jalan Raya Campuhan, then turned left up a wide paved driveway. At the top of this driveway was a sign neatly hand-lettered: TO RICE FIELDS SARI ORGANIK.

After a few minutes following this narrow path, and frequently having to step aside for a seemingly endless succession of motor scooters, we entered what seemed an enchanted land of rice paddies, palm trees and, here and there, one-story “villas” with red tile roofs. As we threaded through the paddies on this narrow path, we passed a spa, an art gallery, a couple of “house for rent” signs-of-the-times and a fledgling neighborhood of new homes called Dragonfly Villas. After about 20 minutes, we came to a sign and a stone pathway that led to Sari Organik.

An open-to-the-breezes restaurant of some two-dozen tables blossoming in the middle of verdant rice paddies, Sari Organik has one of the most exquisite settings of any restaurant I’ve ever visited. We sat in this tranquil place sipping juice from fresh-cut coconuts, and as sunset slowly gilded the paddies, the centuries seemed to slip away.

I went back on my last day to pay homage to Sari Organik and to see if it could possibly be as magical in the harsh light of midday. Happily, it was equally lush and glorious and vibrant at noon, pulsing with the peaceful energy of the land around it. I savored an omelet of organic mushrooms, tomatoes and onions, fresh-squeezed orange juice and delicious strong coffee, and struck up a conversation with a smiling, energetic woman who turned out to be the restaurant’s extraordinary founder and owner, Nila, who told me that her goal is to help the local farmers grow a diversity of crops organically, so that they can preserve the environment and become economically self-sustaining. (You can read more about her amazing story here.)

After that serendipitous encounter, I walked back through the rice fields, feeling singularly content. I had gotten to do just about everything I had been hoping to do on Bali, I was thinking. There was just one exception – I hadn’t heard a gamelan orchestra. I’d caught snatches of gamelan music at a couple of different performances during the festival, but I hadn’t had that soul-transporting immersion in the music that I remembered vividly from my first trip to Indonesia.

Just as I was having these thoughts, approaching the end/beginning of the path, the sounds of a gamelan orchestra drifted on the air! I could hardly believe it – it was as if my thoughts had conjured those notes.

I reached the sign for Sari Organik. To my right was the wide, paved driveway that led to the main street, but then I noticed to my left a narrow, hard-packed dirt path that paralleled a rock wall twice my height. The sounds of the gamelan were coming from somewhere beyond that wall. The wall disappeared into a densely vegetated interior, with a couple of red-tiled roofs visible in the distance. I figured that if I followed the path, eventually it would lead to a break in the wall where I could enter and discover the source of the gamelan music. I wanted to see the orchestra with my own eyes.

So I set off down this winding path, following the sinuous curve of the wall and the music’s tantalizing rise and fall.

I startled two workers who were on their way to restore a magnificent old house set among the paddies on the other side of a stream that paralleled the trail. They laughed and welcomed me to the forest. A few minutes later, a lone and lanky Western woman with a backpack passed me and pressed on into the green. After 15 minutes of ambling, I came to a lush setting where palm trees, twining vines, giant ferns and slick bushes with propeller-like leaves tangled the air. Still there was no break in the wall, and the gamelan music was sounding fainter and fainter.

I stood in the shade of that jungly patch, puzzling over what to do, wondering if I would ever find the break in the wall, when suddenly it hit me: I had already found the break in the wall; it was in my mind. Listen! I didn’t need to see the orchestra – my wish had been to hear the gamelan. And there it was, all around me. What more did I want?

I walked back down the path and the sounds of the music swelled in the shadowed air. When I reached a point where it seemed loudest of all, I stopped and closed my eyes. Gongs, flutes and drums gonged and trilled and boomed in layered patterns, lapidary high notes skipped like diamonds across a pond, bong-gong-gong-booming low notes reverberated in my ribs, rising and falling and rising, staccato and slow, each note like a drop of water from heaven, submerging me in a pool of otherworldly harmony. Time stopped.

After a while – ten minutes? twenty? – the music ceased, and the forest echoed with its silence.

Then the harmonies flowed anew, and suddenly I felt released. It was time to move on; I had a taxi to catch, a plane to board.

I realized that all day I had been regretting my imminent departure, despairing at having to lose this blessed place. Now Ubud had answered that need, bestowing one last canangsari-lesson that would allow me to leave: I didn’t need to see the gamelan to hear its music, and I didn’t need to be in Bali to have Bali in me. It was already there, gonging and trilling and booming, rice paddy blooming, and it always would be.

[Photo Credits: Don George]

Train In Vain: Four Days With A Pair Of Uzbek Prostitutes, Part Two

Read Part One of this story here.

Day Two

We reached the Kazakh border before lunchtime and there was an unbelievable commotion as scores of merchants boarded the train while others threw big boxes through open windows. Two men barged into our compartment carrying boxes of produce and a vicious argument ensued as my travel companions tried to prevent the men from stacking their crates in our compartment.

Ultimately, my companions succeeded, but the corridors became impassable as wild looking women with entire rows of stainless steel teeth began to set up makeshift beds on top of the piles of luggage and cargo. Feeling trapped, I stepped over all the bodies and cargo en route to see my friends, Brian and Sherry. I bumped into them in between cars, nearly tripping over a gaggle of pitiful looking women who had laid claim to a cold, grimy little bit of floor space.

Brian had clearly lost his composure.

“The Kazakh border guards are right outside and Natasha is screwing some guy in the room!” he exclaimed.”What guy?” I asked.

“Some skinny guy; she invited him in for a drink then the next thing we know she’s running her hand up his leg and resting it on his knee,” Sherry said. “We were up on our top bunks but she must have known we would be able to see.”

“She didn’t care, cause they just started going at it,” Brian said. “Maybe they thought we were asleep up top, but we weren’t.”

“At least she has a guy now,” Sherry said. “Before she kept flirting with Brian. She flashed her boobs at him once and motioned for him to like, you know, pull his pants down.”

“Where is she going?” I asked.

“She said she was going home to Turkmenistan,” Brian said.

Turkmenistan? Prior to the trip, I attempted to ascertain what countries I’d need a transit visa for while in Moscow and had been told I only needed a Kazakh transit visa, so the news that we were going to pass through Turkmenistan was an unwelcome development to say the least. Only a decade had passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the train routes dipped in and out of newly independent countries that some Muscovites barely acknowledged.

Brian and Sherry were paranoid that Kazakh border police would bounce them off the train, as they had no Kazakh transit visas, but the police took one look at the impassable train corridor and decided not to bother boarding the train, rendering my Kazakh transit visa an expensive passport decoration that took me half a day to get.

As we entered Kazakhstan, we left the greenery of Russia behind and entered a more or less barren landscape. Marina and Aliya brought nothing to read save a single celebrity gossip magazine, which featured an article on Britney Spears’ alleged nail-biting addiction, and Dima brought nothing at all.

We passed the time with small talk, card games and gawking at the occasional camel out the window. Before retreating to my top bunk for some rest, I popped into Brian and Sherry’s compartment to meet Natasha, their randy middle-aged drunken neighbor. She had the physique of a middle linebacker and dwarfed the skinny little man she’d been fooling around with. He still had a big smile plastered on his face and he asked to see my passport, claiming he’d never met an American before.

I handed it over and he and the others began to study each page carefully. I turned away to talk to Brian and before I knew it, my passport was being passed around amongst the gold-toothed women huddled in the corridor. On a four-day train ride, any form of entertainment will do in a pinch.

This is a five part series that will run in installments this week. Click here for part three of this story.

Read part one here.

[Photos by Illusive Photography and Adam Baker on Flickr]

United Cares About [Insert Customer Name]

We don’t know whether to shake our heads in disappointment or fall off our chairs laughing about this letter “giantreesemar” from Flyertalk posted. Evidently, the flier sent a letter of complaint to United Airlines, and received this incomplete form in return.

The background story, according to giantreesmar, is he had set up a fairly complicated award itinerary, with United promising to hold it for three days. The traveler then made another change with a separate agent, who didn’t mention the hold time. Looking it up online, the traveler saw it would be held until midnight. At 5 p.m., however, giantreesmar checked on the reservation and found all of the segments deleted. Straightening everything took another hour on the phone and added frustration.

Apparently the situation was eventually resolved, and United tried to send a letter of apology. But it looks like they forgot a few key components.

Reached for comment, United spokesman Charles Hobart acknowledged the error:

“We mistakenly sent the customer an unfinished response letter. We’ve reached out to the customer to apologize for the inconvenience and address the customer’s concerns.”

Giantreesmar, didn’t seem too worried, quipping online, “I will really enjoy my (SPECIFIC ITEM).”

In fact, he later followed up on the thread with an update:

Just got a call from United HQ and spoke to a nice woman who was very apologetic and noted that it is indeed “embarrassing.” I was laughing, and really do hope I didn’t get anyone in too much trouble because I’ve made mistakes like this myself and would be terrifically mortified if someone posted it on flyertalk

Either way, she noted that this was supposed to be the letter that accompanies some form of compensation for my prior complaint email, not necessarily the only thing I’d receive on the matter (as I noted earlier, I did get an email in about 4 days that was sort of standard boilerplate apology, but my complaint didn’t really call for a specific action other than fixing their site). Somehow the letter went from generating the template to sending before the agent got to fill in the blanks. Whoops.

Either way, she did say that SPECIFIC ITEM is on the way (although I didn’t ask what it was). I think this whole thing is more funny than frustrating, so the suspense will have to dog me a bit longer!

Also to her credit, she did listen to me explain my issue with the bug on their site (she referred to them as the dot com department) that mis-displays how long reservations are “held” until. We’ll see if it actually gets fixed now!

We’re glad everything got straightened out in good spirits.

[Via One Mile At A Time]