Kodachrome #1

Getting rid of the detritus that serves no function other than to take up space in my life can be a mind-numbing chore, but it also means unearthing boxes that haven’t been opened in, well, more than a few years.  But detritus is different than memories.  A box full of old photograph albums (remember those – when all photos were printed and carefully pasted into albums  – or thrown into a shoebox depending on their relative importance) opens a window into a past barely remembered and a self scarcely recognized.  Which is regrettable because those old kodachromes of people and places make up the paving stones of our lives.

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As I started flipping through the spine-broken and dust-bedecked albums I wondered what gave me the courage to set out on some of those adventures?  A gypsy soul for sure, along with a healthy dose of bravado.  In the long ago dark ages before the internet, email and full-time, real time connectivity, taking off for several months to the far reaches of South East Asia was a different undertaking.  If family or friends wanted to stay in touch with you they had to mail letters (yes, actual words written on paper, in an envelope, with a stamp) to Poste Restante, or General Delivery at a distant Post Office in Bangkok or Kathmandu.  Strangest of all, however, was that the system worked.  After several weeks and a few countries you could roll off a dusty train, heft your backpack and get into line with an equally bedraggled crew of travelers to find a packet of travel stained but most welcome letters from home.  There were always people sitting on the sidewalk right outside the post office, pack dropped and forgotten, devouring the news from home. It was like stepping back into a world you had to strain to remember, so different from the reality of your present.

Myanmar (or Burma as it was known then) was one of the strangest and most fascinating place I have traveled to – it really is the Land That Time Forgot.   It was (and is) difficult to get a visa into the country and travel is strictly controlled.  Nevertheless, we were in Bangkok and managed to get an elusive travel permit into Burma for 10 days.

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Fascinating doesn’t even begin to cover it.   Imagine a country frozen in the 1950’s – the few vehicles running were of that vintage.  The military junta had broken off diplomatic relations and isolated itself from the rest of the world, maintaining only the most rudimentary diplomatic ties to China.   “Currency control” was a piece of legal size paper that looked like it had been mimeographed and you were supposed to write down how much currency you brought into the country, how much you exchanged legally and where you spent it. Then you handed back the piece of paper when you left.  Not a word of a lie.  Here’s what actually happened.  You got the piece of paper, wrote some imaginary number on it, stuffed it in the bottom of your pack and didn’t bring it out until you were due to leave.  Meanwhile, you brought in as much whisky and cigarettes as you could carry from Bangkok and traded them on the black market for local currency.  The official rate at the time was about US$1 for 3 Burmese Kyat.  On the black market it was about $1:30 kyat – a more realistic valuation.  And yes, I have pondered why cigarettes and whisky were the currency of trade – human nature is remarkably similar no matter where you are.

Having been in Burma quite literally in the month before the military junta took complete control and placed her under house arrest, I became intensely interested in the life and career of Aung San Suu Kyi (phonetically Ang San Sushi) a Burmese opposition politician and chairperson of the National League for Democracy.  At the time the streets were full of armed military, but since that was not that unusual in parts of Asia, we didn’t think much of it – the protection of fools.  Ms. Suu Kyi is a nobel laureate who spent 15 years under house arrest – the first 6 of which were spent virtually alone – for her stance on democratic government and freedom of expression in Myanmar.

We stayed at the legendary Strand Hotel in Rangoon, much fallen from it’s colonial splendour.

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It had once been the home of many of Britain’s expatriot literary notables, including Rudyard Kipling, who lived and wrote there.   One of my prized possessions is a rather dog-eared copy of The Jungle Book that I bought at a second hand bookstall in Rangoon. It’s been with me ever since.

We travelled by train to the former hill station of Mandalay and took a riverboat down the Irrawaddy River to the city of Pagan.

Pagan is one of the wonders of the world  – built in 1057 it was sacked by Kublai Khan in 1287 and never rebuilt.   It sits on a desert plain, a ghost city of temples and pagodas.  Astonishing.

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I have had these pictures (below) on the wall in every house I have lived in since then.

Becasue of this personal experience I have keenly following the brutal political conditions in this isolated and strange country all these years.  Although travel restrictions have eased and the military junta has taken some rudimentary steps toward relinquising control, human rights abuses remain rampant.

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Reading List:  Working my way through Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch 22.   He was one of my favourite writers and this autobiography was published before his death from cancer in December, 2011.   Not an easy read – keep a thesaurus on hand, he was Cambridge educated –  but an incredibly well written book about a fascinating life and person.

In Heavy Rotation:  Alexander’s Million Years is such a visually creative music video. Watch it full screen (and maybe twice) to really get the effect.   I love knowing that there are people this creative out there making our world just a little more interesting.

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When is Enough Enough?

Our brains are smarter, and a whole lot trickier, than we might ever suspect.  Start thinking about something, say a buying a new black Porsche, and suddenly the world is full of black Porsches.  This frequency illusion is part of the phenomenon of confirmation bias, the tendency to surround ourselves with information that reinforces our preexisting beliefs.  As fellow blogger and author 

The Misconception: Your opinions are the result of years of rational, objective analysis.

The Truth: Your opinions are the result of years of paying attention to information which confirmed what you believed while ignoring information which challenged your preconceived notions.

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After a year of high stress, high wire corporate wrangling I’ve been spending a whole lot of time dealing with the big existential questions like “What should I be when I grow up”.  Seriously, do we ever get over asking ourselves that?  Or does it just go on forever?  Or maybe it’s more like “Now that I don’t have to be such a responsible grown up, what do I really want to do?”  So of course every second blog, story and TED Talk that I stumble across seems to be about downsizing and simplifying life, finding out what makes you really happy then just Doing It.

Two weeks of gypsy travel around Baja reignited a long held dream to put my “real” life on hold, get out on the road and not come back for a very long time.  Blogs like TinyHousegiantjourney fascinate me.  Jenna and Guillaume built their own Tiny House, loaded it on a trailer, packed up what remained of their life and just headed down the highway.   I am living vicariously through their travels, every day.

Another similar blog I followed for a long time was BlinkPacking, about living small to travel large, loading all your worldly possessions into a travel trailer and hitting the open road.

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What I don’t want to do is keep slaving away in a corporate wasteland, endlessly pursuing the acquisition of more “stuff” that we have been conditioned to think will make us happy. A bigger house, a leased BMW, a pair of shoes for every day of the year (I know someone who thinks this is a worthwhile goal in life – really).  LK and I are learning how much we really need, or really don’t need is probably more accurate.  And what we are learning, or he is teaching me, is about having time and freedom to do the things you really want to do.  And that’s not sitting in an office 12 hours a day, churning out PowerPoint presentations and spreadsheets so some fat cat corporate ladder climber can get fatter and richer.  The setting may have changed, but the theory hasn’t.  The 18th century factory sweatshop

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has been replaced by the Middle Class Sweatshop.  As Christoper Fowler puts it so eloquently,

Punishing days, psychotic bosses, unfeasible targets, sleepless nights, zero hour contracts, stress-related illnesses, hours far exceeding statutory regs…welcome to the world of the middle-class sweatshops.

Wageslaves … have no say at all in the decision-making process, are required to answer to bosses they never meet, and are hit with year-on-year rising targets that are simply unfeasible. Their opinions have no value, and they’re afforded no respect. Treated as replaceable units, they’re depressed by their jobs. Their work is stultifying, their pensions are now too low, the chances of a raise unlikely. They’re constantly worried about being able to stay in employment and meet payments. There are hidden currents of ageism and sexism working against them.

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As I am fond of quoting to friends, “this isn’t a dress rehearsal, we only get one kick at the can in this life, so we better make it a good one”.  When I’m sitting in my rocking chair (on a porch by the beach of course) will I look back and say “damn girl, sure glad I spent my entire life working to buy shoes and purses and flat screen TV’s”.  Or will I look back at a richly imagined, well traveled life and say “damn girl, you might not be rich, but it was a heck of a ride”.  I know which one I want.  I don’t want “work – life balance”  – I want a life!

Check out this list of 15 Things You Should Stop Putting Yourself Through by Luminita Saviuc on Truth Theory.

Number 1 – Stop Postponing your happiness for the future.  Treasure every moment and remember, time waits for no-one….decide that there is no better time than right now to be happy.

Number 3 – Stop Arguing for your limitations.  There are no limits to what we can be, do and have in life, except the ones we choose to impose on ourselves.

Number 6 – Stop Waiting for life to begin.  This moment is your life.  And if you waste this moment by waiting for your life to begin, then you will waste your whole life.

I’ve had enough and I’ve got enough, I don”t plan on wasting any more time. My lovely daughter is raised, educated and has flown the nest to make her own life.  I’ve downsized a couple of times and am slowly but surely giving away or donating all the excess stuff that feels like a weight whose only purpose is to tie me down. Having lived carefully we are blessedly debt free and have minimal responsibilities.  Clearly what we need is an exit strategy, because the Road Less Traveled beckons once again. I don’t know if it will be this month or this year, but I’m getting off the treadmill and getting on the merry-go-round of the rest of my life, because girl, time is a’wasting.

I’ve carried around an old book of Robert Frost poems since university, and he put it far more eloquently than I could ever hope to.

“The Road Not Taken”

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Home, it’s wherever I am with you.

No Bad (Baja) Days

No Bad (Baja) Days

Travel, that great writing inspiration. I should just find a way to make a living as a travel writer (well me and a few thousand other people). But I’d have to live up to the standards of one of my literary hero’s Paul Theroux. I must have read The Pillars of Hercules at least four times and have made my way through his entire oeuvre twice. Those literary dreams may not come true, but a recent trip driving the Baja Sur Loop in Baja California, Mexico, was literally a dream come true.

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We had originally been planning a return trip to Maui for our winter getaway, but the plummeting Canadian loonie was fast putting a US destination out of reach.  $0.80 cents on the $1 makes for some nasty credit card bills when you get home. Hunting around for another warm, beachy locale, Mexico seemed like a good alternative. Not being especially enamoured of the all-inclusive vacation we started looking at Pacific destinations like Sayulita (surfing!) and Bucerios, only to find they were completely sold out.  What’s up with that?  Turns out Hurricane Odile did some serious damage to the Los Cabos area in October, 2014 and lots of people re-routed to the Pacific Coast.  Smarty LK figured that might mean some good deals and an uncrowded trip to Baja – and he was so right!  The area is well under way to repairing the hurricane damage, although the hotels and some of the beaches along the Tourist Corridor between San Jose and Cabo were still showing lots of damage.

Baja California’s Mexican Federal Highway 1, the Carretera Transpeninsular (Transpeninsular Highway), spans the entire length of Mexico’s left leg, four lanes of smooth, uncrowded asphalt running through the desert with little dirt roads winding out to the water — the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Sea of Cortes to the east.  Miles of deserted, white sand beaches, whale-watching, crystal-clear snorkeling, cold beer and fresh fish from the pangas.

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Base of operations for our first week was Casa Terry, a sweet little casita located perfectly between Medano Beach and the marina in Cabo San Lucas.  The outstanding feature  – a rooftop deck complete with fairy lights and full outdoor kitchen for leisurely breakfasts and dinner on the grill with great wine.  Oh yes, if you haven’t been to Mexico in a while, there is a now a plentiful and excellent selection of primo South American wines available pretty much everywhere.  Beer and tequila is good, a good wine with dinner is better!

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Unless you want to spend the day on crowded beaches, being harassed by vendors, or in high pressure bars paying too much for bad margaritas, take Cabo for what it is – a good base – and get out to the surrounding beaches like Playa Santa Maria or Chileno Bay.  Finding them is a bit daunting at first – road signs are limited and a bunch of them were blown away in the Hurricane, so check out the local Gringo Gazette and trust the directions that go pretty much “get on Highway 1, drive to km65 and take the dirt track to the beach”.  It usually works out just fine, although there is not usually any additional signage — no “Playa Excellante this way”,” no “Turn Right Here Lest You Risk Hitting a Cactus Patch” and no “This Is Actually Someone’s Very Long Driveway, So Following It Is Fruitless” – just have a few cold Dos Equis handy for emergencies and hey, there are No Bad Days in Baja!!

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Day trips to the quaint, historic San Jose del Cabo and Todos Santos are a great alternative to the tourist boats.  Taqueria Rossy in SJ is a must-do, although the looks on our faces the first time we were presented with “naked” tacos – just fish or shrimp on a taco – must have been priceless.  With my marginal Espanol and some keen observation we figured out that you had to go to the “salad bar” for all the fixings.

Todos Santos had been on my must-do list for a long time, the Hotel California has been a long running urban myth as the inspiration for the “Hotel California” of Eagles fame.  LK had been once before and forewarned me it was a tourist trap and, as usual, he was right. Whether it is the real Hotel California is up for debate, but hey, it was a Hotel California and it was in a desert.  The best part was driving out of Todos Santos heading for La Paz with the Eagles playing while we drove “down a dark desert highway, cool wind in our hair”.  Ok, that was pretty awesome, with or without the smell of colitas!

Leaving Cabo we headed north to La Paz and then out to the East Cape and Sea of Cortez.  La Ventana and Sargento are two side by side fishing villages that also happen to be one of the top kite sailing destinations in the world.  Our favourite beach was Playa Agua Caliente – so named for the natural hot spring bubbling up through the sand right at the edge of the water.  Dig down a couple of feet and you have a natural hot tub, cooled by the incoming waves.  Absolutely magic.

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Of course it’s literally at the end of the road – you get on dirt and keep driving until it ends and that’s how you know you are there.  Rental cars have a short and nasty life in Baja!

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No big hotels (or anything else) here.  Just miles of beach, incredible wind conditions in the afternoon and peace.  If you have only experienced the Mexico of tourist resorts, you owe it to yourself to see the other side, without hawkers and time share touts shoving trinkets in your face, just regular people going about their lives.  We were treated with kindness, humour and whole lot of patience given our marginal Spanish.   Captain Kirk’s in Ventana was my favourite place – our little casita was the perfect place to spend a birthday.

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With our rented Jetta and local reports that the spectacular, but very rough dirt road along the ocean was in bad shape from Odile, we elected a day trip to Cabo Pulma, a spectacular reef and diving/snorkeling site, then wound our way through the mountains of the East Cape to Los Barriles, another small town on the Sea of Cortez.  If you have been wondering about personal safety and health, we never once felt unsafe driving in Baja and had only one 24 hour visit from Uncle Monte(zuma) – while in Los Barriles.  The one safety tip to pay attention to – driving after dark is treacherous  – not because of bandidos, but cows and burros!  We saw more than one poor creature by the side of the road and in Mexico, if you kill someone’s livestock, you buy it, not to mention the nightmare of dealing with non-existent insurance to repair the vehicle. Fortunately we had a sweet spot to rest and recover at the Hotel Los Barriles.

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And a local recommended the brand new El Gekko Beach Club for Happy Hour – it was very happy!

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We circled back to San Jose del Cabo and spent the last two days in a small local hotel in Cabo San Lucas.  Perched up on the hill, away from the Tourista Zone but still a very easy 10 minute walk into downtown, the Cabo Vista was a great place to finish our trip.

What we discovered is that it’s safe, easy and way more fun to stay in small hotels, where you meet lots of locals, fellow travelers and ex-pats, then being secured behind fences at an all-inclusive.  Driving in Cabo has some challenges, but then so does Chicago or LA.  The main roads are good, gas stations and Oxxos (the Baja equivalent of 7-Eleven) plentiful and people are friendly, welcoming and helpful.  The only thing better would be to take a month (or two) and drive the West Coast from Vancouver to Los Cabos, camping in the Westie bus.  Once we were out of Cabo and into the small towns it felt like we found a secret club we had only heard about by rumour before.  Baja California was everything and more, we only need more time  Next year.

Here’s The Sweetest Thing from JJ Grey and Mofro, because it really was “the sweetest thing being down by the sea, staring at the sunset” and there really are no bad days in Baja.