Tuesday, April 26, 2016

#11: Belize. The Honeymoon.

There are moments in life that define who you are. For me, one of them was on a frozen mountain lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in the early winter months of 2011: this is when I asked my wife Jenn to marry me. So began a new era.... and to kick it off, we hadn't gotten 100 feet from that lake before we'd started planning our honeymoon. Some may call that a little extreme, but I guess that's what you get when your pair up two people struck with a bad case of wanderlust like Jenn and I.

And the ideas began to flow: I suggested a rustic lodge-to-lodge trek into Machu Picchu; she suggested a luxurious over-water bungalow in Bora bora. I suggested an adventurous tour across the cities of Western Europe, she suggested the near deserted solitude of the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean. And so started a new dimension to traveling (and life) I'd yet to experience on this level: compromise. If there were only some tool available at the time that would have helped us consider every option given our differing tastes, we may have resolved this quicker.

But alas, the compromising began. I accepted that I probably wasnt going to see the inside of a tent on our honeymoon, and she came to grips that there may have to be more to do than simply watching the tide come in as the sun set. After some extensive research and tips from friends, we finally agreed on a place. Heading towards the equator became an obvious choice given this was December, and it also turns out there are places with both mountains and beaches. So Belize it was. What also became clear was this trip should have some element of relaxation - meaning there was to be no long waits at bus stops where we weren't entirely sure we'd even be picked up, no crossing our fingers and hoping the last night train of the evening hadn't left before we made it to the station, and certainly no strolling into a city without a plan and trying to identify the least shady looking hostel that wasn't already booked up.

So here I was again, after thinking the Dominican Republic was going to be my last: we booked an all inclusive resort package with Coppola resorts, half in the mountains, half on the beach. Compromise. After learning that Renee Zellweger had taken the same trip with Coppola Resorts a few months back, our choice was confirmed: what's good enough for Bridget Jones was good enough for us.

We left the reception of our wedding early in the evening for our flight out to Belize City the next morning. Maybe this was a good choice, as by all accounts if I'd partied half as hard as most did that night I'd have been boarding the plane with a Gatorade, a splitting headache, and a motion sickness bag close at hand; not the ideal way to start one's honeymoon. In Belize City we quickly transferred to a van which drove us west past the capital Belmopan and deep into the Belizean mountains. By the time we were nearing the Blancaneax Lodge it was dark, and as we neared our destination, the driver was kind enough to stop and allow us to admire some of the fauna of the jungle under the headlights of the van: a tarantula crossing the road about 20 feet ahead. Unfortunately he wasn't aware of one of my new bride's cardinal rules in life: any spider that can be seen from 20 feet away warrants turning around and going home immediately. Luckily for me, we were way too far into the jungle and had too much sunk into this trip for us to turn around now, so on we went (after the hairy guy had finished crossing the road of course).

We passed a small airstrip (the one that Renee no doubt utilized, allowing her to bypass any jungle creatures which may spoil her trip), turned down the long driveway to the lodge which weaved through the think jungle, and were led to our bungalow whose back porch overlooked the Blancaneax river. Reportedly, Francis Ford Coppola had picked this spot for his lodge because it had reminded him of his days filming Apocalypse Now along the Mekong River in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. In hopes of avoiding nightmares I had intentionally failed to mention this to Jenn, but I couldn't resist sitting on the patio and squinting into the darkness imagining VC looking back at me from the jungle across the river. I popped open the duty free tequila, learned my new bride did not care for tequila, and began to very thoroughly enjoy life, realizing the next several days would be filled with the sound of rushing water, the peace of being far from civilization with the one I loved, and lots of margaritas that I didn't have to share.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Other 96%

"Traveling enables us to see the world through the eyes of someone else... to understand their aspirations and assumptions. It’s about empathy, which is not only important to the work of our diplomats but to all of us as we seek to understand different cultures as well as our own." - John Kerry.

Yes, that's right folks. I just opened with a John Kerry quote. For those of you that know me, you can now get back into your chair. Let's just say I think the guy is better at being a diplomat than he is at picking presidential running mates. In any case, there is a lot of wisdom in those few words. If you are keeping track at home, it was now 2011 and I've passed country number ten in my travels. At this point, traveling had begun to shape who I was. Yes, it's fun. It gets you miles away from the stress of everyday life both physically and mentally. It's like a giant weekend where Mondays blur with Wednesdays and Saturdays are the same as Tuesdays. But greater than all that: it's an education. It's a glimpse into how beautiful this world is. The Andes have stories to tell, but so does Argelia, the banana farmer whose entire life has revolved within the 10 mile radius of her modest mountain home. St Peter's basilica in Rome provides an education unmatched anywhere else in art, architecture and church history - but so does Davíd, the sophomore at La Sapienza who never realized that God was more than an impressive building and a tradition to follow.

A time or two when on my travels I've forgotten what a privilege I've had. I've foolishly asked a local in small town in making small talk "So, where have you traveled?" only to be met by a polite but revealing chuckle and smile followed by a response of "I don't travel," or even "we don't travel," "we" meaning everyone they know or will ever know in their small village. Every once in a while I'd meet someone that with a radiant smile on their face would claim they had plans one day to go to university in America, or that they had a friend of a friend that told them stories once of what it was like to look at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Usually after this I'd become slightly embarrassed, begin to connect the dots, and realize that the money I was spending on my trip was the per capita income of their country. Do they travel? Of course not. They survive... They live. But many of them live well - existing in a world where money is not an idol, it's just something that keeps the lights on and food on the table. It was in times like these that the statistics you hear become tangible: according to the Global Rich List and Investopedia.com, anyone that makes more than $32,400 annually is in the top 1% of the world's wage earners. Let me do that math for you: that's $15.52 an hour. I'm not going to get political here, but that is presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' proposal for a federal minimum wage standard. Yes, that's right: that means that by federal mandate, the entire USA would be among the top 1% of the wage earners of the world. Just food for thought.

In any case, The privilege that we have here is really nothing short of stunning. It's one we easily forget or choose to ignore...and it's exactly this ignorance that causes many to lose sight of some really basic and important things. I don't want to be the one to tell the girl in Sapa, Vietnam that she should forget about university in the USA, because by the time the paperwork clears (if it ever does) she'll be too old anyway. And I certainly don't want to tell the boy in the market in Morocco that if he ever wanted to find a better life in America that there's a chance he may be turned away because of the religion he follows. That's not America.

John Kerry was right: if we keep our eyes open, we can in some small way glimpse the lives of others while traveling abroad. If you really stop to listen, they have lessons to teach. They have stories to tell. They represent the other 96% of the human experience, and to ignore their voices is to ignore the reality of what it is to be a citizen of this planet.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Vida Colorado

A brief pause in our regularly scheduled programming:

This blog is now six years old and has evolved much over this time. Luckily, unlike a six year old child (unless you are cruel), you can change a six year old blog's name, right? So that's what I'm doing.

I'll be brief here and not bore you with an overly dramatic or verbose mission statement of this blog rebirth. But it has become ever convincingly clear that the title "What You Can't Talk About at the Dinner Table" is no longer fitting. Basically, the 23 year old unemployed guy that wanted to shout out controversy to the mountaintops is not who I am today nor related to any recent content on this blog; I resisted renaming for a while (even just throwing a "2.0" at the end of the title for a brief period of time to indicate that the original name and intent no longer necessarily applied), as that's just bad practice in the blogosphere: you lose followers, you confuse people, etc, etc...

But it's time. As I gave thought to what a fitting new name should be, I realized that it had been right in front of my eyes the whole time: the URL of the blog. I had created it only because whatyoucanttalkaboutatthedinnertable.blogspot.com was painfully long and cumbersome: Vida Colorado. The colorful life. Those Spanish speakers out there will note the impreciseness here given the gender forms do not properly match. But aha! You've failed to realize my punniness. Colorado means "colorful," but is also the name of my adoptive home state of four years and where I lived when I began this blog. Use of the phrase "vida colorada," while grammatically correct, is decidedly less punny. And I love my puns. Plus the URL "vidacolorada" was taken. Win, win.

So hopefully this title has legs for the next six years, as much as "Dinner Table" had for the first six. So a new era has begun for the "dinner table blog." May the old links break and the champagne run freely, welcome to Vida Colorado, stories and thoughts from my colorful life (with proper credit to the Centennial State, the place of my original inspiration).

Sunday, April 10, 2016

#10.2: Czech Republic. The Old Fortress.

In the spring of 1939, the city of Prague had a Jewish population of over 90,000. Today less than 2,000 remain. Most of these 90,000 saw their way through Terezín at some point in the early and mid 1940's and from there met their fates after being shipped to places like Auschwitz or Mauthausen.

While conditions in Terezín were "good" by comparison to the extermination camps of the east, what set this place apart from all others was its use in Nazi propaganda as a "model" camp where conditions were made to appear great and art and creativity were encouraged. Self government was allowed; there were cafes, shops, parks and circulated money. Artwork was permitted and even encouraged. Children's choirs performed operas and jazz musicians filled the streets with cheerful music.

There was a deception happening in Terezín unknown anywhere else. This "spa town," as it was referred to in Nazi literature, was where aging Jews could go to retire and live out their days in peace while the rest of Europe had to writhe in the agony of ongoing war. It was where artists could spend time refining their craft and performing for their fellow Jewish brethren. Red Cross inspectors of the camp were treated to performances by the children's opera, kids playing in the park, and the local government in action, with town meetings and all. It was as if all of Terezín's inhabitants were playing the part in a movie that they knew would have to end eventually; maybe some wanted to believe so much that it was true that they actually did; and those who refused to play the part? Welcome to Auschwitz.

Terezín today is an actual inhabited city; when we arrived there was little sign of life, though. Snow was falling and perhaps the cold was keeping its inhabitants inside and any other visitors away. The silence which follows newly falling snow; the lack of movement or signs of life; the drab paint on the old buildings; this all gave Terezín a somber if not eerie feel. It's a city caught in a struggle of commemorating its past and in establishing a sustainable modern economy. The struggle is a strange one: on one hand you can visit the crematorium which incinerated the bodies of the victims of Nazism and see Stars of David erected in memory of the mass murder going on here; but you can also sit down and order a goulash dinner in a restaurant occupying the former SS Officers' quarters; you can stay overnight in a hotel that used to quarter Nazi guards that advertises itself to be "a romantic getaway" (the silence of one particular era on its "history" page speaks much louder than words could).

Frankly, I left Terezín a little bit confused. As a WWII history nerd for years, I had lots of ideas and pictures in my mind of what a "concentration camp" should look like, and although this was not exactly of that same category, the old fortress of Terezín simply did not fit this mold at all. New life has blurred with old, and in a some small but odd way, just as in 1944, the town feels like it's still hiding something to this day.

The Jewish population of the Czech Republic after the war was virtually eliminated. Of those that did survive, many found a new start in Israel preferable to trying to rebuild a life in the same homes whose walls now told stories of horror and sadness. Their story is one we all should remember; a visit to Terezín is just an hour's bus ride out of Prague, and it's one you should take if you're there.


Monday, April 4, 2016

#10.1: Czech Republic. The Spared City.

Not many of us over the course of our lives are forced with a decision like Czechoslovak president Emil Hácha had in the spring of 1939. After much of his country had been dismantled piece by piece by his own allies in Britain and France during what has become known as Mnichovská zrada, or the "Munich Betrayal," he was now face-to-face in Berlin with a emboldened Adolf Hitler and presented with the most sinister ultimatum that a lover of one's country could be faced with: he was told that Nazi troops were already on the march, and to have his countrymen lay down their arms or Prague would bombed into oblivion. Upon this news the deceived and stunned Hácha, who thought himself on a diplomatic mission to the German capital, saw himself with no choice and signed the papers which reduced his nation to a Nazi protectorate for the remainder of the war, but not before the poor man literally had a heart attack from the whole ordeal, having to be revived by Hitler's personal doctor.

Hácha no doubt saved his countrymen from almost certain annihilation by the Wermacht and in capitulating also spared Prague from the destruction of the Luftwaffe. As a result, unlike many cities in Europe, Prague stands to this day intact as a city untouched for centuries. For my final spring break of college, I set out on my fourth trip with my two step-brothers to this incredible place. In a way, everything in Prague seems familiar: I'm convinced that every fairy-tale imagined by Disney was in some way designed after Prague with its towering hilltop castle, old stone bridges and fancy clock-tower. I kept waiting to discover the grungier side of Prague: like the graffiti covered Franco era tenements which I'd seen tower over the outskirts of Madrid, or the unlit alleys of downtown Lima which overflowed with trash and feral dogs. But it didn't come. The city was spotless on every corner.

You may think it odd for three 20 something guys, in a city known for its nightlife and "caution to the wind" type culture, but our days in Prague were in search of only a few simple things: good Czech beer and Don Giovanni. And not just any Don Giovanni... I'm talking Don Giovanni performed by nothing other than tiny marionette dolls hung on strings from above. To this day, I'm not sure if it was just a huge joke we were witnessing, or some very authentic glimpse of Moravian culture. In any case, we found the Don Giovanni and we found the good Czech beer we were looking for (at Restaurace U Dvou Koček. The top review is particularly insightful, I thought. And also perhaps somewhat telling: to actually find the good reviews to this place, you have to filter by only Czech ones. Americans apparently hate the place... but that makes me like it all the more).

On the second or third night in the city, snow began falling. The red rooftops slowly began to disappear under sheets of white, and the cobblestone plazas became slick and shiny. The next day we made our way across the iconic Charles Bridge and up the hill to Prague Castle, which the Czechs claim is the largest one in the world and upon not much inspection this is completely believable. From its hilltop perch, it completely dominates the city, which perhaps out of respect for its rich history has not produced a modern building anywhere near able to rival its imposing stone spires. After taking this giant structure all in, we made our way back down the hill with some hot mulled Czech wine and headed for bus 16 into the Czech countryside towards the city of Terezin. Though untouched by the bombs of World War II, Terezin reminds that Czechs were by no means spared the horrors of Naziism; underneath the beautiful castles, Rococo architecture and silly marionette shows lies a much more sinister story.

Monday, March 28, 2016

#9: Argentina. The "Class."

I'm not sure why I never took the chance to study abroad in college. I've always been skeptical of the actual academic value of doing so (beyond the simple fact that living in a foreign country brings about inevitable "cultural" education), but nonetheless it's an opportunity which in retrospect I'm surprised I passed up. But all this made me jump at the opportunity for this next adventure: an overseas "class" in Patagonia on "outdoor leadership." I use the quoties with as much facetiousness as possible, as the "class" simply meant I had to keep a travel journal and plan out and pack a meal for twenty people in the backcountry. Well the travel journal was actually something I probably would have done anyways.... And as for the meal? Let's just say each bag of rice I packed in was worth about one credit hour.

Not since Spain had I been on a large guided group trip like this one to Argentina. Through Miami's Outdoor Pursuit Center, a group of twenty Miamians, my girlfriend and me made our way down south for a trip divided between Buenos Aires and Patagonia. The freedom provided by being out on my own has always seemed a much preferable alternative, but this trip was a nice change of pace, and if nothing else forced me to spend time in Buenos Aires which I imagine on my own I would not have considered. We took a few Spanish lessons, which were just enough to educate the girls in the group what to yell at the Portenos if they were groped in the subway and we got a fun two hour crash course in Argentine Tango, the dance I'd already spent an entire semester in college attempting to understand but still appeared as some sort of injured praying mantis when I attempted it. Yes, all of this probably falls into the category of "typical touristy things to do in Buenos Aires," but one does not simply come to this city to just enjoy the weather (which in January is incredible by the way). On account of its vibrant cultural life and trendy urban vibe, Buenos Aires is often called the "Paris of Latin America" - I can't much comment on whether this is true, but I'll just say if I ever make it to France, I hope Paris is enjoyable enough that it may live up to the name "the Buenos Aires of Europe," because as far as cities go, up to this point in my life it was certainly near the top.

After a memorable few days in Buenos Aires topped off (no pun intended) by a rooftop New Year's eve sendoff complete with champagne and Argentine tapas, the group boarded a plane for Calafate for the second half of the trip: Patagonia. A few hours in the air and we were deep in the south of the country. At 50° S, Calafate is about 1,000 miles from Antarctica (think L.A. to Denver) and at this time of year the sun didn't begin to set until 10:00 PM. Thankfully being there in the middle of their summer saved us most of the extreme conditions which can go along with being this close to the end of the world. We settled into a backpacker's hostel in the nearby small town of El Chalten and got ready for our few days in the backcountry of Los Glaciares National Park.

Though these were the same Andes I'd seen a few months before in Peru, the Patagonian version was of an entirely different variety. These were not like the Peruvian Andes: impressive mountains covered in jungle and rising from lush river valleys dotted with small villages and the occasional road or trail beneath them. Nor were they like the mountains of Colorado: the towering but slowly rising alpine giants that build out of the foothills to form the impressive but inviting range that is the Rockies. These were altogether different: they are as uninviting and inhospitable at their bases as they are at their peaks. Unlike anywhere else where one can approach a mountain gradually, these ones stand towering above you and forbid all but the most determined to even approach. They are guarded at their bases to the east by massive slowly moving glaciers and to their west by a barely passable expanse of frozen tundra. I couldn't help but draw the comparison between a mighty peak like Pikes in Colorado which has been emasculated by a road which takes anyone with a car to its summit and Cerro Torre, which on the other hand demands respect: to reach its summit you must endure a week long vertical climb up an exposed rock face after traversing across a crevasse filled glacier to simply reach its base. Climbing Magazine likened the journey to being mauled by a rabid dog, "unpredictably violent and outrageously inevitable." If Pikes Peak is the Kim Kardashian of mountains, then Cerro Torre is Mother Teresa, you're going to have to work at it if you want to seal the deal... she aint havin' just anyone. The last few nights of our time in the backcountry we spent in the climbers' camp near the mountain where those planning on making the trip up spent sometimes weeks just waiting for a brief clearing of the clouds to hurry to the rocks and begin their climb.

My time in Argentina was memorable for many reasons. First being that it was my last guided group tour. While I don't like the lack of freedom and privacy this affords, it provided for a great template when I inevitably began planning more on my own (in fact I've planned entire trips completely stolen from REI's group travel itineraries). It also was the first trip I'd taken with my girlfriend Jenn, a key test along the way of our compatibility as travel companions. If we failed this one, I'm honestly not entirely sure we didn't have a deal-breaker on our hands. Luckily we turned out to not just survive, but really enjoy each other's company (even earning the nickname "Jurt" from our hilarious group of friends... doesn't quite have the ring of "Brangelina," but probably beats "Kenn," I guess.) and from here on out, the "we" in almost all these stories will mean "we" as in my wife and I (things didn't turn out so bad as it happens).

At this point I had developed somewhat of a theme in my travels if you had not picked up on it: everywhere I'd been (with the exception of Amsterdam), was a place where Spanish was either primarily spoken or of much use (as in the case with Italy, where Italian is basically close enough to enable at least basic communication). I used to think that being well versed in the spoken words of the country to which you are traveling was a hugely important thing. After my Argentina trip, I began breaking myself of this notion, and have not been back to a Spanish Speaking country since with the exception of a few hours in Spain last year. As is the case with many aspects of American citizenship, there are perks to holding that blue passport and of being an English speaker: we speak the de-facto language of the world... and I've been to few places where knowing "please," "thank-you," and having a certain skill in the game of Guesstures did not provide for all one needs in the way of communication. So good-bye Argentina and Latin America. Don't cry for me.

Sorry. I had to.

P.S. Please bear in mind in the photos that follow: If you asked an Argentine they would tell you that to dance the Tango one must exercise as much passion as doing "the deed" itself. In the most PG-13 way possible I tried to capture such emotion in a few of these photos. Think "culture" not "creepy," but I'll let you be the judge.

P.P.S. My apologies for potentially offending any Coloradan - or maybe anyone at all who appreciates the outdoors - for comparing Pikes Peak to Kim Kardashian. There's also a joke in there somewhere about Pikes being the most prominent peak in Colorado and a certain Kim body part .. but I didn't want to overdo it here. I'm absolutely not too classy for that, though.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

#8: Peru. The Sacred Valley.

Quick housekeeping note: They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, if that's true these posts just got several thousand words longer. Or if you are like me, have just given you an excuse to skip to the pictures and be done with it rather than doing any reading. Whichever you prefer, from here on out rather than attempting to attach tiny thumbnails of pictures to these posts, you'll see embedded links to my photo-site. Eat your heart out. 

In the general theme of this whole series of 'the bucket list', Peru had absolutely been on the top of mine for several years. Throughout my childhood we had this ethereal photograph taken by one of my dad's friends hanging on the wall that always gave me wonder. It was not those crystal clear wide angle shots of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu that you will find on the cover of National Geographic (or to an extent, in the photos below), rather it was a simple shot of a mist covered stone circle erected by the Inca, off to the side in an area of the ruins that tourists don't even venture as nothing seems very special about it. It was in an area that the Inca used to hew the massive stones for the building of the city, but these stones are so perfectly placed in a circle they seem to indicate that there was a ceremonial purpose to these particular ones. This was my impression of Machu Picchu growing up: not the Disney World of impressive ruins and panoramic vistas of the Andes that most envision when they picture the place... but one shrouded in mystery and of unanswered questions about the native culture that seemed to have suddenly abandoned it hundreds of years ago. Why was almost no gold discovered at this site that was purported to be the luxurious home of Incan royals; they being of an empire that we know forfeited countless galleons full of it to the Spanish when they were conquered?  Why have only bones of women been uncovered upon its discovery? Did the men all go off to war to never return? What exactly took place on the (coincidentally human size) altars which seem to be designed and placed in such a way as to pay tribute to the sun and the surrounding mountains?

As a kid, I'd ask my mom about the picture. She'd tell me there was a mighty culture that was once there; kind of like the 'Indians' of North America, but bigger and grander and more mysterious. She'd tell me my dad often spoke of wanting to go but never did. He was always one who was enamored by native American culture: he could spend hours walking around a freshly tilled up field in Indiana just looking for arrowheads or any trace of the tribes that once lived in the area. He'd make his own tools in the way they would have been made hundreds of years ago out of rawhide strips, wood and stone in attempt to recreate the lives of the men and women who lived in America before we did. Everything about their culture absolutely fascinated him, and now myself as well. It was for him that I was now making the trip here and finally coming face-to-face with this mystery which I'd seen hanging on my living room wall since I was a child.

In telling the story of the trip, I'll let one of my older blog posts (which by complete coincidence, I wrote five years ago almost to the day) speak for me. It is the story of coming across road construction in the middle of the otherwise uninterrupted jungle landscape in the Santa Teresa river valley right outside of Machu Picchu. My thoughts of the whole experience haven't changed much since then, so I figured I'd just post a link rather than retelling it all. But I can't help but note if my dad were there he may have had more appreciation for how changing times can be bittersweet and that development can often spoil Mother Nature in irreversible ways; how there was a time when men behaved as if we and Earth were dependent on each other as we realized our fates were inescapably intertwined. This all may be putting words in his mouth, but I do know this for sure: at the very least he'd have certainly been walking through that construction site looking for Incan arrowheads.

What preferences put Peru at or near the top of my bucket list? That one's easy:

Affordability: 100/100
Architecture: 50/100
Cities 50/100
Culture: 50/100
Food: 50/100
History: 50/100
Nature: 100/100
Outdoor Adventure: 100/100
Relaxation: 1/100
Safety: 50/100

(spoiler alert: a few countries down the list are soon upcoming)