sábado, 1 de febrero de 2014

Km 70,331: Frozen in Landmannalaugar

It takes some effort to reach Landmannalaugar, particularly towards the end of September. A rather comfortable Icelandair flight brought us from Amsterdam to Reykjavik, where we were whisked away in a 4x4 truck filled with food, alcohol, adventure supplies and two tough icelanders who seemed to know what they were doing. A six hour drive took us from Reykjavik through a road that may or may not have actually been on the map, crossing a never ending landscape of grass, gravel and ice. We got stuck in the snow at some point, but our hard-bitten driver jumped out of the bus and fiercely dug our way out of the snow while we whimpered in the cold. It was well past sunset when we reached the campsite by Landmannalaugar. Lighted by a few cellphones and flashlights, we half-blindly unloaded our bags and supplies and quickly headed indoors to prepare dinner and occupy our sleeping area.

I woke up early the next morning and headed outdoors for the toilet. I opened the door of the cabin and was completely stunned. See, I'm a chilanga, a native of Mexico City, accustomed to never ending asphalt and traffic jams, eye-stinging smog and crowds of people. With a population of 21 million, you may be anonymous but you are never alone. What's more, you are always surrounded by buildings, cars, furniture... man-made stuff. But we were in the middle of beautiful nothing, next to fuming geothermal waters, surrounded by majestic coloured mountains that might have looked exactly the same way for the last thousand years.

Atemporal landscapes are a rare thing. I had only seen a partially atemporal landscape once before. Back then, while standing on a virgin beach and looking into the sea, I had imagined that the deserted beach and the blue waves were exactly the same as someone may have seen a couple hundred or a couple thousand years ago. Without any man-made stuff, it was impossible to place that experience in a timeline and determine whether it was a landscape from 10,000 years ago or from yesterday. 

While our group hiked up and down the hills of Landmannalaugar, I looked into the horizon as far as I could, trying to find chronological references all around me. And failed. Landmannalaugar's landscapes, its colored mountains, smoking geysers and blue water, are frozen somewhere in time.





domingo, 5 de enero de 2014

Invading Montpellier, one wall at a time

A few days in Montpellier are enough to run through its beautiful sights, monuments and museums. It's rumored to be tremendously pleasant in the summer during the Estivales (a festival consisting of wine tasting and concerts), but it's not too bad in the winter either. After a week, it's likely that you'll start finding your way around the city's maze of medieval streets, corners and dark alleys included. And then, you might spot the first one.

A small and colorful mosaic of some sort of pixel creature, a space invader? In any case,  a unabashedly anachronistic decoration on Montpellier's old white walls. I smiled at the first one, but as more of them appeared right before my eyes on the walls of the city, I started taking pictures of them. And after I'd seen and photographed a few of them, I finally resorted to Google them and figure out what was going on.

The space invader mosaics in Montpellier were placed by a French artist appropriately named Invader, who has made it his urban artistic mission to splash cities all over France and the world with his mosaics. In fact, the invaders can be found in cities throughout Europe, in North and South America, Asia and Oceania.

The whole project is carefully planned out; the choice for locations and characters is all but random. The mosaics are strategically placed on visible places or in highly transited streets. It's even cooler in Montpellier, where the mosaics are placed as to form a gigantic space invader when seen on the city map. As for the invaders themselves,  there are no two identical mosaic creatures. Their designs are based on characters from Space Invaders,  one of the first widely available videogames. In other words, a technological fossil symbolizing the modern world which surrounds us.

It's not just that. Invader justifies his choice by saying that they represent exactly what he is doing is exactly that: invading spaces.

lunes, 1 de julio de 2013

Tales of toloache and mexican magic

"So" I asked "You guys really don't have any herb or magical spell that is used to make someone fall in love with you?"

My Dutch colleague stared skeptically back, as if I was out of my mind and asking silly questions. I couldn't understand why my question seemed odd and insisted.
"Seriously, I'm not making this up. It's common knowledge in Mexico, folklore or an old wives' tale if you will, that to make someone fall in love with you, you slip toloache in their food and it's done, they fall head over heels for you."

No, unheard of. But Google, Google would surely have the answer so I typed something like "magic to fall in love Netherlands" in my search bar. All I got back from Google were a bunch of articles and a few ads for amphetamines and ecstasy, what Google seems to interpret as the Dutch recipe to make people magically fall in love with each other.

Magic and superstitions are part of every day life in Mexico. In fact, much to my surprise I discovered last week that magic is such an everyday topic that toloache is sold at the Saturday market, right between a fruit stand and a candy stand. I approached the stall and scrolled through the merchandise: magic herbs, talismans and even holy water in an aerosol can, for your urgent blessing needs. I asked the vendor about toloache. Just like unicorns and other mythical creatures, toloache was this thing I had heard stories about but I had never actually seen in real life. The stuff of legends, right there, hanging innocently between bananas and Barbie dresses. Out of some sort of Robert Ripley-ian passion for oddities, I bought a small envelope of toloache for 20 mexican pesos and asked how it was supposed to be used. The vendor explained that I should use a small amount of the powder, just the tip of a small spoon, and put it in the food of whoever I wished to make fall in love. Not more, because it could be harmful, not less because it wouldn't work. And while mixing the toloache with the food, I should say a spell to make the magic work.

Toloache, according to Wikipedia, comes from a plant called Datura inoxia which is occasionally grown for ornamental purposes as it gives beautiful white flowers that smell pleasantly at night. Datura, however, also produces highy toxic alkaloids which happen to have the property of inducing delirium, a state in which one is unable to differentiate fantasy from reality. Upon ingestion of toloache, increased heart rate and increased body temperature are accompanied by an assortment of neurological symptoms such as amnesia, pain relief, bizarre behaviour and hallucinations, which I'm not really sure if you can argue are similar to falling in love or not. Either way, both acute and chronic use of toloache may harm and kill the brain neurons (neurotoxicity), cause intoxication and even lead to death. While you could think that wanting to love and be loved by someone is an understandable human need, poisoning the person that you want to fall in love with you is in general a dick move.

My sole intention being to have the toloache as an oddity for display, I was quite happy with my purchase. I thanked the vendor and put the envelope in my purse.
But she then added "That's only if you want to make someone fall in love. If you really want to make someone fall crazy in love because you want to get married, then before adding it to the food, you first have to mix the toloache with your menstrual blood. Works like a charm."


domingo, 23 de junio de 2013

Km 47,748: The unbearable relativeness of kilometers and the mortality of crabs

The internet warned me about this. Driving in Costa Rica isn't easy.

Despite what I could define as driving expertise as a consequence of thousands of hours spent driving in Mexico City, sorting out gargantuan traffic jams, floods and potholes, I am just a amateur in Costa Rica. We have spent the last two days in a driving destruction spree that, in addition to the increasing lack of precision of the metric system the closer you go towards the coast, are likely to push me to having a stroke before the week is over.

It all started when Luisandoval and I landed in San Jose and decided to take some money at a bank. I parked the car and was kindly asked by the guy taking care of the parking lot to move the car to another spot. So I did, and he kindly asked me to move it again so that it was facing the other way around. So I did, but then failed at my first attempt at backing up into that space. By then I had lost my cool and in my second attempt, I backed up into one of the traffic cones that was marking the edges of the parking space, caught it in one of the back wheels and essentially destroyed it in his face.

With some money in my pocket and some shame on my face, we left the bank and headed towards Puerto Limon and from there to Cahuita, on the caribbean coast. We took a road through the jungle, in between the mountains, which was initially wonderful as the mountains looked beautiful covered with mist. The stuff of movies: centenarian trees surrounding the road, waterfalls by the sides of the road and enough green everywhere to make your eyes hurt. However, things started turning sour when a tropical storm hit us and the road filled up with slow-moving vehicles headed in our same direction.

After an hour of driving behind trucks through the mountains at 60 km/h, desperately wiping the windshield every half-second or so, we saw a sign: "Puerto Limon 87 km". At this speed, we would be there in an hour and a half, so well before sunset. We felt encouraged and drove another fifteen minutes, listening to music and chatting. There we saw another sign: "Puerto Limon 87 km". This seemed a bit strange, we were pretty sure that we had gone further at least 10 km since the last sign, but perhaps we were mistaken. We played some more music, drove on another 20 minutes and then saw another sign: "Limon 87 km".

We weren't driving in circles nor were we on the wrong road, so what was wrong? Is the metric system in Costa Rica different? Do kilometers become longer the closer you are to the coast? Were we caught in some sort of Costa Rican Bermuda Triangle? We turned the music off and continued driving for ten more minutes and then finally saw the next sign: "Puerto Limon 85 km". We had probably driven more than 2 km since the last sign but after 45 minutes of being 87 km away from Puerto Limin, the spell was broken and we seemed to be getting out of the Triangle. We were looking forward to our next sign, which came up five minutes later; "Puerto Limon 87 km".

After 87 neverending km of curves and dusty traffic jams, we arrived to Puerto Limon around sunset. I decided my nerves were sufficiently wrecked for a single day and Luisandoval took over the wheel. He was in for a treat: if I had had a hard time driving on a main road during day time, he would have to drive on a smaller one at night. This supposes two extra difficulties: low visibility due to lack of illumination and the herds of crabs that take over the road at sunset.

It was an unavoidable crab genocide. Thousands of them covered the road and while Luisandoval did his best to avoid running them over (unlike the car ahead of us, who was a crab-killing maniac and made sure to get as many as possible), we eventually closed the windows to stop hearing the crushing of shells.

One hour later, we finally arrived to Cahuita. Tired, stressed and psychologically scarred from the experience, we're ready to enjoy the Costa Rican caribbean "pura vida".

domingo, 16 de junio de 2013

Km 45,665: Twenty four hours of tacos, earthquakes and tequila

Most of my delayed flight was spent in a coma, from which I only rose when we were coming close to Mexico City. Flying into Mexico City at night is a spectacular show; it would seem as if a never-ending cloth of light stretches out to the horizon, covering mountains and valleys. Light drips down the streets and avenues like blood through arteries and veins, bringing Mexico City to life.

Migration, luggage, customs and, after nine months of absence, an endearing re-encounter with my parents who were exhausted from a two hour long wait at the airport. In honor of stereotypes, our first stop was a taquería to eat some tacos. Having spent the previous night awake in a party and the entire day and most of the evening sleeping on the airplane, I was in circadian confusion and, by the time we went back home, I dragged myself to bed, laid my head to rest and closed my eyes. I felt so excited to be back in Mexico City, it almost seemed like I was shaking.



But then I realized, I was. And so was the bed. And the ground. And then the cars honking outside warned me that the entire city was shaking due to a trepidatory earthquake. The Papalote Children's Museum of Mexico City has taught me several things, including how one can safely rest on a bed of nails and how bubbles work, but one thing that really stayed with me (and will essentially haunt me the rest of my life) is the danger of trepidatory earthquakes. As an innocent and sweet nine year old, I went to the Museum and found a stand where you could build a house with wooden cubes and then simulate an earthquake. I made a house and simulated an oscillatory earthquake (moving horizontally). My house held for a good 20 seconds before crumbling. I then made another house and simulated a trepidatory earthquake (moving vertically), which didn't last more than a few seconds. I tried again, a different design, but it fell again almost instantly, teaching me that trepidatory earthquakes are far more destructive than oscillatory ones. Although there are a few man-made buildings and structures out there, capable of resisting oscillatory earthquakes, no engineer has been able to come up with a design that could resist a trepidatory earthquake. In other words, if you're in the middle of a trepidatory earthquake, in all likelihood the building is going to shake in an up and downwards motion until it collapses, crushing you underneath it.



In my mind, at least.


But as soon as I realized there was an earthquake, I jumped out of bed and ran around in panic, staring at the hanging lamps to see if they were moving, while shouting to wake up my parents. We waited off the earthquake under the frame of a door while a few neighbors ran outside bare feet in their pijamas. There is much debate about what are the correct earthquake safety measures. In school, we were taught that in the event of an earthquake, we had to crouch and hide under our desks. However, the urban legend says that rather than being a life-saving measure, this is a sentence to death as rescuers are said to have found entire classrooms of children crushed to death under their desks after an earthquake. The somewhat dubious triangle of life theory says that one is to crouch next to a sturdy and tall object, so that when the ceiling or the sky falls on it, it will leave a small triangular space under which we can hide. 

The only thing that is clear to me is that the 1985 earthquake and all the entailed destruction left behind a scar in the collective consciousness of all Mexicans. As soon as the earthquake is over, we all need to make sure that everyone else is alright, leading to the collapse of all telephone lines and networks. Facebook and Twitter are actually the fastest ways to discover if the earthquake was felt in other areas of the city and what kind of damage did other people suffer. The National Institute of Seismology has caught on to this and within a few minutes tweeted that we had just experienced a 5.9 earthquake on Richter's scale. Other tweets confirmed that it had initially been trepidatory and then changed to oscillatory and that no major damages happened in the city. Still, hard to go back to sleep with your eyes peeled.

The next morning was spent at the market. While my parents bought fruit and vegetables at the market, I spent a few minutes inspecting a stand where esoteric articles and magic herbs were sold. We came back home with a full load of mangoes, papaya, mamey, peaches, bananas, apples, pears, strawberries, melon, watermelon, plums, jicama, mushrooms, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, avocado, asparagus, cucumber, celery, pumpkin flowers and nopales (see food porn, below).

And finally, we went to the terrace to sip some tequila.


sábado, 15 de junio de 2013

Km 42,654: Washington's half-baked stories

I'm sitting in a waiting room at the Washington Dulles airport, waiting for my flight to Mexico. The aircraft has only just landed but needs to be cleaned and inspected before we can board. Another 45 minute delay or so.

It's been almost a year and 50'000 km since I started writing this blog. Even though I have been a neglectful blogger and didn't update as much as I would have wanted to, I have enjoyed the traveling as much as the writing and hope to be able to continue for another couple of years (or more). There are a number of half-written stories sitting in my drafts, waiting to be finished and published for once and for all.

I hope that the next few weeks will bring a lot of belated updates from places visited in the last few months (Udine, Geneva, Paris) but also a few stories from new places visited (Mexico, Costa Rica, Spain and my big fat greek wedding in Athens), not to mention new adventures with Julia during the Vierdaagse. So, stay posted.

jueves, 2 de mayo de 2013

Km 34,935 : Monarchy-derived anarchy in Amsterdam

Despite what Fox News may be spoon-feeding its audience, I wouldn't describe the Netherlands as a land of sin and chaos. I'd say the Netherlands is more like a land of jolly people who like to carry things on their bicycles and enjoy milk and sandwiches for lunch. Except on April 30th, the one officially authorized and celebrated day per year of rampage and havoc throughout the Netherlands. Every year on April 30th, the Dutch would morph into orange rampage-prone monsters and destroy their urban habitats by burying the city under plastic glasses and empty cans of beer. All this to celebrate Queen Beatrix's birthday.

Beatrix's birthday is in fact in January but the Dutch, practical creatures, have come to terms with the reality that weather in the Netherlands is often too snowy and generally inadequate to have the people embark on proper royal birthday celebrations in January. Instead, Queen's day was celebrated at the end of April, a better weather-prone date. Sadly, Queen Beatrix announced her abdication in January 2013, to let Willem Alexander, her eldest son, step up to the throne. Thus, April 30th 2013 would be the last Queen's day and as such, would have to be the biggest and most orange birthday party ever. Known worldwide for being extremely liberal and multi-culti, the Dutch seem to embrace with equal enthusiasm legalized (and taxed!) prostitution and regulated (and taxed!) sale of marijuana as they celebrate the investiture of the new king.

The celebration started a few days before April 30th, with the mass sale of orange paraphernalia to show your support for the royal house of Oranje-Nassau (whose color as you may have guessed by the name is, indeed, orange). Orange t-shirts, orange blow-up crowns, orange flags and, of course, orange hamburgers for your barbequeue.


Literally, the King's burgers. Monarch-approved beef for only €1.35...

A few days later, by the time we had our orange gear ready, on April 30th, Queen Beatrix became once again Princess Beatrix by signing an abdication document in Amsterdam and the crown prince Willem-Alexander became King Willem-Alexander. A sea of people flowed into Amsterdam. Some came to cheer for their new monarch. Some came to spend an agreeable day at the park with their family, skipping rope with other fellow orange-fevered Dutchmen and trading all sorts of junk at the Queen's day flea market. Others, with lower ideals, just went to Amsterdam to dance and drink beer.

Grown men dressed in orange rope-skipping and some guys who bought a bed at the flea market, to dance on it to the sound of the ever-present oompa-pa music.

While we didn't see that many people on the train to Amsterdam, we did have to fight the masses once we got out of the train station. We fought the masses on Museumsplein to catch a glimpse of the investiture of King Wilhelm-Alexander on the giant screens. We fought the masses to get a chance to pee and then for lunch. And finally, we decided to stop fighting the masses and just climb on a bus where a DJ was playing and dance. We enjoyed the last rays of sunshine while sitting in the middle of a street, tried to hitch a boat ride on the canals (but the captain was apparently too drunk to maneuver and almost crashed into another boat) and then we danced some more in the midst of a electronic music war between two DJs on the opposite sides of the street. The exhausting trip back home was surprisingly tranquil up unto the train station in Arnhem, where apparently half of Nijmegen's population and their mother had been partying. The short trip between Arnhem and Nijmegen was done with a colorfully drunk and loud crowd dressed with torn orange capes, broken orange crowns and dirty orange hats. The party must have been quite good as well in Arnhem.

The masses from below, in between and above (once we got on the bus)

All in all, the last Queen's day in the Netherlands was fun. It's some sort of exercise in Dutch integration because it actually doesn't matter if you're Dutch or not or whether you are a firm supporter of the Dutch Royal house. It's about whether you are willing to be part of something by putting on something orange to dance and drink beer with the liberal, multi-culti, maybe monarchy-supporting crowd who otherwise regularly enjoys steep stairs, bizarrely accurate gift cards for all occasions and cursing you with diseases. Queen's day was epic, but I can only wonder if King's day in 2014 will have the same oomph. 

But yes, there's only one way to find that out.