Books Read ~ 2014

My Pre-Thesis PresentationI’ll be doing this list just as I have all the others from years past ( 2013, 2012, 2011). You get the name of the book, the author, the genre and the date completed. If the book was worthy of a note–positive or negative–I give it one. Otherwise, consider it an average book. If there is an *next to the book that means you’d be wise to get yourself a copy and read it.

My goal, as it is every year, is to read 52 books a year, that is on average one a week. One thing to note: this year I read almost 25% more than I did last year and last year I read 75, which astonished me. This year? Ninety and heading towards ninety one as I write this.

Anyway, let’s get to it:

1. Du Fu: A Life in Poetry trans. David Young: poetry, completed January 7, 2014

The single greatest Chinese poet ever. This is an excellent volume with which to get acquainted.

2. Time Among the Maya by Ronald Wright: non-fiction, completed January 12, 2014

This was a solid book in the context of my reading: I had just returned from Guatemala and Tikal in particular. Well written and interesting. But, since I returned to the Mayan region in the summer and excavated by hand a portion of a pyramid I no longer have any interest in the Mayans, at all.

3. The Purpose of the Past by Gordon Wood: history, completed January 20, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

4. The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown: history, completed January 23, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

5. The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins: history, completed January 24, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

*6. The Columbian Exchange by Alfred Crosby: history, completed January 24, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. This book really needs no introduction. Any man or woman who considers him or herself to be well-educated should have read this book at least once. Linguistics!

7. Becoming Mex-Am by George Sanchez: history, completed January 28, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

8. Christians and Pagans by Ramsay MacMullen: history, completed January 31, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

9. The Broken Spears by Miguel Leon-Portilla: history, completed February 1, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

10. Brown in the Windy City by Lilia Fernandez: history, completed February 2, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

11. The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels: history, completed February 7, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

12. Lieutenant Nun by Catalina de Erauso: memoir, completed February 9, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

*13. Cannery Women and Lives by Vicki Ruiz: history, completed February 9, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. This book by historian Vicki Ruiz is splendid. It’s a capsule of a time when collective-action was possible and immanent in America, even for minorities like Chicanas. Of all the Chicano history I read this year–and I read close to 20 books–this book was the standout.

14. The Albigensian Crusade by Joseph Strayer: history, completed February 9, 2014 Readings

Assigned for a graduate history course.

16. Saints and Their Miracles by R. Van Dam: history, completed February 15, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

17. History in Six Glasses by Tom Standage: history, completed February 16, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

18. From the Jaws of Victory by Matt Garcia: history, completed February 18, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

*19. Silencing the Past by Michel-Rolph Trouillot: history, completed February 23, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. However, this was THE book of the year. It is the gold standard of what post-modern theory and methodology can do to the telling and uncovering of history. This is a must read.

20. The Zoot-Suit Riots by Mauricio Mazon: history, completed February 25, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

21. Muhamed & Charlemagne by Henri Pirenne: history, completed February 27, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

22. Muhamed & Charl Reconsidered by Hodges&Whitehouse: history, March 1, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

23. Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon by Mauricio Pagan: history, March 2, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

24. City of Kings by Rosario Castellanos: fiction, March 16, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

25. Youth, Identity, Power by Carlos Munoz: history, March 17, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

26. Forces of Habit by David T. Courtwright: history, March 23, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

27. Raza Si! Guerra No! by Lorena Oropeza: history, March 23, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

28. Early Growth Euro Econ by Georges Duby: history, March 21, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. Readings

29. The Broken Road by Patrick Leigh Fermor: travel, March 31, 2014

The final installment of PLM’s great trilogy of his youthful excursion walking from the Hook-of-Holland to Istanbul. The first half was lovely, full of his excellent story-telling prose. The last half was clearly patched together by the editors in the aftermath of his death so as to get something published and finish the story.

30. The First European Revolution by R.I. Moore: history, April 4, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

31. Human Trafficking by Louise Shelley: anthropology, April 6, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

32. Medieval Women by Eileen Power: history, April 11, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

33. History Short Intro by John H. Arnold: history, April 14, 2014

Wanted to see how well the Oxford Very Short Introductions hold up across the board by starting with what I know: history. This one was okay.

34. Marginal Society Paris by B. Geremek: history, April 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

35. A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: essays, April 22, 2014

Another posthumous book, this one in all parts more coherent and well done than Patrick Leigh Fermor’s, but still lacking in that final draft kind of way. Reading it reminded me that we lost a future Nobel Prize winner when Sebald died. A Little Light Reading

36. Medieval Rural Economy by G. Duby: history, April 25, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

37. My Freshman Year by Rebekah Nathan: memoir, April 27, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

38. A Primer for World History by A. Burton: history, April 27, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

39. The Horse in Human History by P. Kelekna: history, May 3, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis.  A decent history of the role horses played in human history, not without flaws, however.

40. Nomads and the Outside World by AM Khazanov: anthropology, May 4 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis. The gold standard of anthropology on nomads.

41. Early Seljuq History by A.C.S. Peacock: history, May 9, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis.

*42. A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes: fiction, May 23, 2014

This was a very fun and interesting spin and take on Noah’s Ark. I highly recommend it.

43. Devil Colony by James Rollins: fiction, May 27, 2014

Garbage fiction, fun to read, good to clear the mind. Ultimately just rubbish. Life of a Student

44. The Burning Land by Bernard Cornwell: fiction, June 1, 2014

Garbage fiction, fun to read, good to clear the mind. Ultimately just rubbish.

45. A History of the Seljuks by Ibrahim Kafesoglu: history, June 13, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis.

46. Turkestan Down To Mongol Invasion by Vasily Barthold: history, June 19, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. Future source for Master’s thesis.

47. Earthly Measures by Edward Hirsch: poetry, June 20, 2014

*48. Ambivalent Conquests by Inga Clendinnen: history, June 21, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams. This book is the book to help the reader gain a better appreciation of the Inquisition in New Spain.

*49. Chess Story by Stefan Zweig: fiction, June 30, 2014

Zweig: what is there to say? Get the book, read it. You can thank me later.

50. Napoleon’s Defeat by Philippe-Paul de Segur: history, July 13, 2014

A personal memoir from one of Napoleon’s aides-de-camp. Quite fascinating inside portrait of Napoleon and how the myth got made. Simulacra

51. The Fire Gospel by Michael Faber: fiction, July 28, 2014

Garbage fiction, fun to read, good to clear the mind. Ultimately just rubbish.

52. Modern Inquisitions by Irene Silverblatt: history, August 10, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

53. Go Betweens by Alida Metcalf: history, August 16, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

54. Memoirs of a Revolutionary by Victor Serge: memoir, August 17, 2014

This was an excellent, if difficult book. One of the many books circling around Marxism I read this year. Serge is an important character in the early 20th century attempt to create Communism from nothing.

55. Fear by Gabriel Chevallier: fiction, August 24, 2014

France’s version of All Quiet on the Western Front.

56. Metaphysical Dog by Frank Bidart: poetry, August 28, 2014

57. The Professor and the Siren by G.T. Lampedusa: fiction, August 31, 2014

An interesting and edifying novella.

58. Recreating Africa by James H. Sweet: history, September 8, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

59. The Faces of Honor by Johnson and Lipsett-Rivera:  history, September 13, 2014

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

60. On Being Blue by William H. Gass: belles-lettres, September 16, 2014

In essence a long essay on the color and definition and uses of the word blue.

61. Women Who Live Evil Lives by Martha Few: history, September 19, 2014 

Assigned for comprehensive exams.

62. The Blindfold by Siri Hustvedt: fiction, September 20, 2014

Another post-modern novel. Well done. Not overlong. Compelling story of New York in the 90s.

63. The Mexican Frontier by David J. Weber: history, September 21, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

64. The Anti-Christ by Friedrich Nietzsche: philosophy, September 28, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. Reading

65. Foucault for Beginners by Lydia Fillingham: philosophy, September 28, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

66. Line in the Sand by Rachel St. John: history, September 29, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

67. Imperial Subjects by Fisher and O’Hara, eds: history, September 29, 2014. 

Assigned for a graduate history course.

68. The Great Seljuks  by Aziz Basan: history, September 29, 2014

Future source for Master’s thesis.

*69. America by Jean Baudrillard: philosophy, October 1, 2014

My first full Baudrillard text. Fascinating view of America by one of France’s premier post-modern theorists, especially in the context of my drive to Joshua Tree National Park this summer.

70. The White Scourge by Neil Foley: history, October 13, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

71. Origin Family, Property, State by Friedrich Engels: philosophy, October 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

72. Troublesome Border by Oscar J. Martinez: history, October 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

73. Three Essays on Sexuality by Sigmund Freud: psychology, October 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

74. Marx for Beginners by Rius: philosophy, October 19, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

*75. Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson: poetry, October 26, 2014

A great poem.

76. Civilization and Discontents by Sigmund Freud: philosophy, November 2, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

77. From Out of the Shadows by Vicki Ruiz: history, November 3, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. Color

78. Marx, A Short Intro by Peter Singer: philosophy, November 13, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

79. Before Homosexuality in Arabia by Khaled el-Rouayheb: history, November 21, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

80. Quixote’s Soldiers by David Montejano: history, November 24, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

81. Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste by Philip Mirowski: history, November 24, 2014

Blockbuster book that I will not recommend for the following reason: you must have a.) a background in theory and philosophy and b.) a background in finance and economics to get anything from this book. It’s a tough read but ultimately helped me connect the dots between the neoliberal agenda and why there was no reform after the Financial Crisis in 2008.

82. Warriors of the Cloisters by Christopher I. Beckwith: history, December 3, 2014

Future source for Master’s thesis.

83. Places Left Unfinished by John Phillip Santos: memoir, December 6, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course.

84. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1 by Michel Foucault: history, December 6, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. This was a disturbing book. In it one can see Foucault emerging as a neoliberal. Although he is not quite there yet in this text, he is getting close. The depiction of how power is distributed is also disturbing. The way he relates it, power is of its own self, indwelling, immanent. Human agency means nothing to it. Now, what is says about sexuality is fascinating: basically this: sexuality as the sum of being is principally a Western thing. Other cultures, like Islam and China and Japan don’t see sexuality as the defining aspect of humans, but simply as pleasure. Only the West obsesses about it, which is one reason the West and Islam don’t understand each other. We see Islam as repressed. They see us as debauched. Both views, from the viewpoint of the observer are valid. Study

85. Strangers in the House by Georges Simenon: fiction, December 7, 2014

My first Simenon mystery. Well done.

*86. Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn: history, December 11, 2014
Future source for Master’s thesis. This book should be read by anyone who considers him or herself educated. It’s a part of the modern canon.

87. How Greek Science Passed to the Arabs by De Lacy O’Leary: history, December 13, 2014

Future source for Master’s thesis.

88. The Landbreakers by John Ehle: fiction, December 21, 2014

This book captures the language of Appalachia better than any other I’ve read. It’s like reading Justified, but takes place in 1780s.

89. Red Doc by Ann Carson: poetry, December 26, 2014 Found Poetry

Sequel to Autobiography of RedNot as good as the first.

90. The Archeology of Knowledge by Michel Foucault: philosophy, December 29, 2014

Assigned for a graduate history course. Dense, difficult but important book in the emergence of Foucault as a proto-neoliberal.

91. Capitalist Realism by Mark Fisher: theory, December 29, 2014

92. Abolition of Political Parties by Simone Weil: theory, December 31, 2014

This is a book written in 1943 about the Free France exiles in the UK. It has relevance today for contemporary American politics. Political parties should be banned.

Any lessons from this year? No, not really. I read a lot of theory–and I am not ashamed to admit I read several “Beginner’s Guides to So-and-So” first before reading the full text of their works, Marx and Foucault being prime among them. I’m glad I did. It always helps give me a framework for understanding what’s being said.  If you are going to wrestle with the original text of philosophers and know how dense philosophical prose can be, I highly recommend this approach. Most of the theory I read was for one course, A History of Human Sexuality. This course confronted me with multiple ideas and constructs I’d never dealt with before. I can see why modern Anglo-American Conservatives despise the Post-Moderns: they have given historians and philosophers and anthropologists, etc . . . a way of looking at the world that de-essentialized core values, namely Enlightenment Values, and has shown what those core values were built on. For example, people have always wondered about the mindset of a man who could own slaves, have a slave girl as his concubine and write a document as magnificent as our Declaration of Independence, one of the great Enlightenment era texts. Using the tools of Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Lyotard and Jameson one can put Thomas Jefferson in his proper context and come to see how he could essentialize rights for white men, but not include all men (and women, for that matter). It wasn’t hypocrisy for him, it’s just the way Enlightenment thinking was structured. Conservatives don’t want to look at this, and yet they use the methods of the Post-Moderns to tear everything liberals and the Left have done. Once they wreck everything, the neoliberals come in and patch things up the way they want them. To understand how that happens you must read Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste by Philip Mirowski. Good Reading

I also read a fuckton of history. I didn’t read nearly enough fiction, but I don’t foresee that changing anytime soon, what with me being in grad school and all.

I did read five books of poetry. That’s something new I’ve been doing: reading a book of poetry all the way through. What I do is leave the book by my bedside and read a handful of poems every night. I must confess: Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog was pretty lame. My poetry professor, Edward Hirsch’s Earthly Measures, was quite lovely. And Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red was a real standout, although the sequel, Red Doc, was flat out weird and disjointed.

Any large themes? Yes, two. First, this was the year of re-investigating Marx and Marxist thought. I had done this in my undergad, as I almost did a Soviet/Russian studies degree. However, I was young and callow then. Furthermore, this year there are several books that I am reading that remain half done regarding Marxism, including Jameson, Marcuse and others. Second, this year was dominated by Chicano studies. Had you asked me a year ago if this is what I wanted to spend half my first year reading I would have said, “nope.” But I am the better for it theoretically, methodologically and personally. I have a much more realistic grounding of how America has totally dominated Mexico since 1846 and how one of the effects of that dominance is the persistent displacement of people North. This is the big secret no one in the US or Mexico talks about: the dominance, not undocumented labor, which is just a symptom.

That being said, the other half of my year was dominated by Central Asia, which included a return journey and a twenty page paper that now serves as the foundation for my Master’s thesis. The thing I’ve loved the most about this year has been my seminar classes, the rough and tumble of debate, the intellectual ferment, engaging with smart people on an almost daily basis. It’s been fantastic and reminds me that I made the right decision returning to school, no matter my age.

Bookshelf Porn

Diario de la carretera

I arrive, disembark and enter the massive hall the Mexicans call “TAPO,” the bus station serving the southern states of Veracruz, Tabasco, Campech, Yucatan and Quintana Roo. I find a taxi, negotiate a price to the north station and speed off.
Between Mexico City and Queretaro
“So, where are you going?” asks Sergio, the taxi driver. He’s a slight man, handsome in that Mexican way with little if any Indian blood, lightly mestizo, small nose, thin lips and greenish eyes behind round wire-rimmed glasses.

“I don’t know,” I reply, “probably Nuevo Laredo. I’ve been traveling for several weeks and it’s time to get home.”

“And where is that?”

“San Antonio, Texas.”

“If you like, stop in Queretaro on your way. It is my home town and I must tell you: it is old and beautiful,” he says, a smile beaming from the rear view mirror.

“Is there an Executive Class bus that goes there? And that goes from there to Laredo,” I ask.

“But of course, Queretaro is an important Mexican city. Many large corporations are there. Colgate, GE, Michelin, Samsung. It is very modern too.”

“I might do that,” I tell him.

He drops me at the north station and I wander inside. It is 3:30 PM. I have been traveling since 4:30 PM the previous day. A stop in Queretaro sounds great at this point.

A shower?


Relaxing walks in the old colonial streets Sergio described?

The next bus north leaves at 4:00 and I can be in Queretaro by 6:30 this evening or in Nuevo Laredo by 11:30 AM the next day.

An easy choice.
On the bus I meet Rodrigo—his cousin owns a little hostel on the outer edge of the old town. It seemed foreordained. Rodrigo calls his cousin, whose name turns out to be Juan Pablo and makes a reservation for me.

Looking out the window the landscape has changed subtly. The road cuts are of deep, soft volcanic soil. This is the rich, fertile core of the great Meso-American plateau.

Maize predominates, of course, but there is wheat and other grains and vegetables everywhere: each field bordered by rock fences and all that they imply: permanence, peasants and tradition. It is a gently rolling landscaped sculpted by the eons of annual rain that threatens to begin at any moment.

There is also the small matter of the light: gentle, slanting, almost Tuscan. I can see why my great-great grandfather settled in the area, he must have felt at home. On days like this I understand why he picked Mexico to settle.

The highways are full of buses and trucks, just as the earlier drive. I pass a restaurant with a polar bear holding a clock on the roof. Is this irony, sarcasm, a warning or just the crazy sense of humor of some random Mexican?
The bus descends into a valley, an aqueduct to the north and in the south a pair of skyscrapers that would be more appropriate in China or Singapore greet my entrance to Queretaro.

The taxi to my hotel costs three dollars and the traffic in the old colonial streets is abysmal, but I arrive just in time: the sun is setting.

The Blue Bicycle House sits on a hill and the view is all old world: aqueducts, pastels, the steeples of a hundred churches and shimmering dusk lights running up hills draped in the hues of a perfectly pink sunset.

You know, the shower wasn’t half bad either.

6 Agosto, Diario de Camino

Queretaro was not a place I’d ever thought I’d visit and yet here I am—and that is a story I will get to in a bit. Yesterday, the 5th of August, was one of those days where everything came together—the magnificent drive from Orizaba (Mexico’s big brewing town) up into the Sierra Madre Oriental, the chain of mountains that runs roughly parallel to the Gulf Coast. I’d boarded the bus the afternoon before at 430 in Chetumal, on the Caribbean Coast of Mexico, at the southern end of the Yucutan.

I’d slept most of the night and woke up just outside Orizaba. At this point, my plan was still get to Mexico City and catch the first bus to Nuevo Laredo, walk across the bridge and catch the first Greyhound home. But for the long drive up Sierra Madre Oriental full of blue skies and lush green mountains I would have. The Gulf Coast is terribly hot and humid but once I began the climb it breaks. After a month of inland Belize heat I had no interest lingering. The mountains here are semi-tropical with deciduous trees dominating until half way up and then the conifers show up. The valleys are impossible—filled with switchback after switchback, large 18-wheelers resembling insects thousands of feet below. I’m pretty sure the towering snow clad behemoth I saw was Malinche, named after the Cortes’ famous interpreter and later wife. As I crest the mountains I’ve arrived on a broad upland plateau that’s almost semi-arid, deceptive-like, but not. To me it resembled the Motagua Valley in Guatemala. But then I saw fields of golden flowers, agaves, century plants and maize everywhere.

I speed past restaurants called “Benedicion” and “Esperanza” and “Dolores Milagro,” the Catholicism runs deep here. And then I speed past towns with names like Huixcolotla, Acatzingo and Tlaxcala and the Nauhua runs deep here too, especially with Tlaxcala, the red city, city of treachery, the great unconquered nemesis of the Aztecs and Cortes’ best allies. Had they not allied with Cortes there would have been no Conquest.

And then my mind wandered, lost in random thought. But the fields persisted: perfect rows of maize bordered by prickly pears or agave, sitting between crystal clear streams running down to the Rio Panuco and cypress lined dirt roads that wooden shacks made of tin roofs and some cinder block lead to. Shepherds punctuate a landscape of lumbering volcanoes obscured by clouds, ready to erupt at any moment.

The high plateau ended as it must. I begin climbing downslope to the Great Valley of Mexico, having taken Cortes’ route. I turned a switchback and then the entire valley came into view. Bernal Diaz’s words, one of Cortes’ soldiers, were never more apt, “And when we saw all those cities and villages built in the water, and the other great towns on dry land, and that straight and level causeway leading to Mexico, we were astounded. . . It was all so wonderful that I do not know how to describe this first glimpse of things never heard of, seen or dreamed of before.”

What a world was lost by the Conquest.

More soon . . . in the meantime, photos can be found here.

The Road Beckons

Xunantunich's western friezeTomorrow morning I catch the southbound bus to Laredo at 900.

I’ll arrive in Laredo about 1145, walk across the border at International Bridge #1, take the city bus to the new primera classe bus station and catch the first available to Mexico City.

After that, who knows? I have to be in Belize on July 5th, which makes zipping across the Yucatan a tight schedule.

I’ll then be in Belize working on an archaeological dig for 25 days. I will leave August 1 for the Pacific Coast of Mexico.

And then, who knows?

I suspect you’ll be getting a boatload of posts on the ancient Mayans.

This is the best place to keep up with me while I am away.

Central American Photos

I’ll probably never get to finish writing the story of my adventure with Dad in Central America last year during the holidays. Sigh. Too much academic work. But, what I can do is present you with the last remaining photos from Tikal and Antigua, Guatemala, as I promised to do months ago.

Here is the entire set of Central American photos, all of them, including Tikal and Antigua, which I simply never got around to uploading, until now. Enjoy!

Decadent Anticipation

I realize as I sit here typing this is going to sound trivial and carping, like trite complaining. In all reality it probably is. But here goes.

Bahia Navidad

I travel a lot.

I traveled a lot before I got married and traveled some while I was married but travel was always a huge matter of conflict and it was just easier to not travel and not fight about it than it was to travel and fight about it afterwards. Maybe someday I will figure out why I married a woman who wanted to marry a nomad but wouldn’t let me travel? How did I let that happen? What’s that say about me?

But I digress.

Then I got divorced and moved back to San Antonio and promptly went to Central America for two weeks with my Father. Then I went to Joshua Tree for a week with a friend. I just returned from three and a half magnificent weeks in Central Asia with my Father. We’re talking about Antarctica over the holidays to see penguins. Yes, I am trying to catch up for a handful of missed years.

So, like I said, that’s a lot of travel.

But here’s the catch: I haven’t traveled alone since July 2009 when I went to the Mexican state of Jalisco, wherein I stayed at a little beach village called San Patricio/Melaque on the Bahia Navidad to be precise. And nearby, between drunken nights and memories of blowing conch shell horns on the beach and ceviche to die for I took up surfing in the Boca de Iguanas in the mornings. It was a divine three weeks, as I recall. Only late in the trip a friend showed up and the entire tenor of the trip changed. I only traveled with him a few days and then went home.

This leads to my complaint, if you want to call it that, I see it more as a recommendation or an endorsement: nothing beats traveling alone.

Absolutely nothing.Pelicans

It is rare and decadent. There is no one to please. No one to worry about. No one to keep me from doing what I want to do when I want to do it. No one to compromise with about this food or that, this place or that, nothing or anything. My only job is to live in the moment and like a dandelion seed go where the wind blows me. (I stole the dandelion line from someone by the way.)

And for the first time in five years I am going to travel alone.

I’m actually more excited that in three weeks I am going to get on a bus at the San Antonio bus station and ride to Mexico City and see a friend than I was about going to Central Asia.

After Mexico City I will make my way to Belize where I will participate in an archeological dig at Buena Vista and Xunantunich for twenty five days: no air conditioning, cold showers every morning and washing clothes by hand in the Mopan River old school-like. Up at five asleep at eight. Devouring every last drop of knowledge I possible can from my professors on the Maya and the practice of archeology.

After that I will meander–slowly–back to San Antonio by bus, but not before spending at least three days on the Pacific Coast surfing.
Colonias Returning Home From Work

No computer.

No smart phone.

No jealous woman back home demanding I Skype or wondering what the hell I am doing and why she hasn’t gotten a call, or a text or why so and so said something to me on Facebook. (No, really, I’m not bitter.)

Hell, I’ll probably leave the camera in the hotel room most of the time as well.

Nothing will come between me and the waves, except tequila at night and my pen and notepad, because I’ve learned writing by hand is where I find that train bound for glory.

It has been too long.

And I cannot wait much longer.

A Delicate Dance

Rolling into Flores as late as we did I stressed finding a decent hotel. Not to worry: La Casona de la Isla, a little boutique hotel (a term I use very loosely for Guatemala) came complete with hot showers, an air conditioner, two beds, a pool, wifi (for father’s epic iPhone addiction) and a lovely breakfast balcony view of Lago Peten Itza.

SPK FTW! (For you oldtimers out there, that means “Sean Paul Kelley For The Win!”)

Day-glow canoesOver breakfast, as day-glow dugout canoes with outboard motors slid across the lake and docked just below us, father and I decide to make for Tikal today instead of tomorrow, which in hindsight was an excellent call. Had we gone Saturday we’d have been fucked trying to return our rental car, not to mention that Saturday proved to be a gray, gloomy and overcast day, one not at all conducive to jungle photography, especially at Tikal. Instead, it was a “necessary day” (a day when father and I do our own thing, alone) on which I relaxed and walked around the island and did a little bit of Christmas shopping, but more about that later. Maybe.

We ate our breakfast, mine was a lovely pair of huevos divorciados, one egg covered in green salsa and the other covered in red—both divine—refried beans, fried bananas and as many of those little maize tortillas they make in Guatemala as I could eat. All washed down with carafes of fresh coffee right off the mountains.
Huevos Divorciados a la Gautematelco
The first thirty kilometers of the drive to Tikal was little but rolling and treeless grassy hillsides. I passed through them feeling ill at ease. Whole fields are depressions of black water and cattails, attracting all measure of birds but for some reason no mosquitos. Perhaps it’s the wrong time of year? Or we just got lucky? But I was not bitten by a single mosquito the entire time I was in the Peten.

This mostly treeless landscape—the jungle is not supposed to be open or have a horizon—had been cleared within the last three or four decades by rancheros. For you norteños that means cattle ranches. Here’s how it works: the pristine jungle is torn to shreds, or euphemistically speaking “the land is cleared.” Then cattle graze on it for three or four years until the grasses have sucked all the nutrients out of the soil. The cattle are then sold up north for ground beef to McDonald’s, Burger King and their ilk. We’re not talking about Kobe beef here. Then the rancheros move on to the next twenty miles of jungle they can clear cut and start the whole process over just so we can Super Size It!

The rancheros, all of them, have a bleak, worn out feeling. And though this is a deeply tropical landscape, one I am culturally conditioned to assume to be ever growing, inexhaustible, regenerative and forever waiting to re-devour civilization like some pathetic palimpsest of an Indiana Jones movie, that assumption is wrong. The exhaustion of the land here—although it is still green, and crazy with vines, succulents and other parasitical plants—reminds me of what happened to the exhausted land back home: our hills, once covered by a lush golden carpet of gramma, buffalo and other great grasses are now covered with the invasive Juniper we call Cedar, or other opportunistic species, which leach out what little nourishment remains and every January or February reproduce, causing an orgy of Cedar Fever from San Antonio through Austin clear up to the middle Brazos Country. Just as at home, here too the land has been gang-raped, and left to die. Will the rancheros here have the same good fortune of moving into the cities to build airplanes and cars like they did in mid-twentieth century America? Doubtful. And what of the eroded treeless hillsides, decaying rusted hulks of Toyotas, corrugated iron roofed shacks and plastic bags? Will the land be given another thousand years to regenerate like it was after the Maya collapse?

Ill kept fences, half up, half down line the road.

“To keep what in?” I ask father aloud, breaking the silence.

“To keep what out?” He replies.
Cleared Land
Unbranded cattle wander across roads as freely as chickens and dogs and pigs. Allspice and asphalt mingle in the humid air. The further in the Peten we drive the more lush the vegetation grows. On occasion half a hillside is bereft of any cover except grass. The other half, however, is a thick, deep pile carpet of flora sometimes olive at others a twinkling emerald under a leaden sky. The jungle is overtaking mankind’s scars now. The road is almost covered by trees. Bromeliads bloom, what specific species I know not, but the pinkish flowers add a wistful touch to the drive. The sun is high now and just beginning to burn off the morning gray.

Fewer lands and even fewer people have endured more surreal and hideous scars than what the Mayan’s have endured (and in many places still continue to endure) since the Spanish first arrived. This region of the Mayan world wasn’t completely conquered until 1697, and even then it was held only tenuously until after the great Caste War in the Yucatan during the 1840s. Even so, an independent city-state existed in Quintana Roo until the 1920s. That’s the Mayan model: city-states. Scholars have pointed out that the Mayan were to the Aztecs at Tenochitlan what the Greeks were to the Romans. It makes sense, even to this day, the way the Maya remain fragmented in the high cordillera of Guatemala, speaking several different languages, having endured genocide at the hands of the whites and Mestizos who rule Guatemala even now.

I recall myself as a callow youth (there goeth a man?) during the late Eighties piously reciting anti-communist bromides about dominoes and Castros and Ortegas. Such blasphemies I spoke, utterly oblivious to an unimagined suffering occurring at the very moment: families ripped apart, fathers frog-marched into the jungle to dig shallow graves and then executed, daughters raped, sons killed or those even more unlucky, pressed into the army to commit similar atrocities against “subversivos” in Guatemala.
All Gunned Up
No wonder I am ill at ease: a deep sadness permeates this place. It is a sadness I have not known since I visited Cambodia (I got stinking drunk the night I saw the killing fields. And you would have too, had you seen what I saw). Could it be the depth of historical loss? Profound silences echo across the Peten. One such echo is that of a single conscientious 17th century Spanish friar, Andres de Avendaño, who translated the Mayan glyphs into Spanish and how that single copy of his life’s work disappeared.

But it’s not just history’s loss. The hint of liminal brutality is present even now, for everyone, everywhere has an armed guard and all of them carry sawed-off pump action .12 gauges. Not only is the land exhausted, but so are its people.

Roadside HawkA largish bird in the middle of the road plucks me from my grim reveries. I grab my camera, focus and start shooting. Digital photography is fantastic. I can take as many shots as I wish and delete what I don’t like.

“What is he?” Dad asks.

“Here, hold the wheel,” I reply. “I’m trying to figure it out. He’s a raptor, for sure, but I’ve never seen one with his coloring.”

“And that is?”

“Kinda grayish, with darker stripes underneath, with a touch of reddish, but a kind of dirt red. He’s got yellow feet, yellow beak with a blue tip. Big yellow eyes, too!” I say and put the car in first, better to creep up on it while the camera is shooting. I get closer, snap more shots.
Roadside Hawk
“Strange. He knows I’m here and getting closer but he’s just hanging out. He seems quite comfortable in the middle of the road. He’s eating something but I can’t quite tell what. He’s a beauty,” I tell Dad. “Grab your binoculars, take a look.”

“He is a little on the gray side, but his breast feathers are lined, striped, definitely a hawk. And you’re right he’s got lovely yellow feet, a prominent yellow beak that ends in an almost blue gray curved tip,” says Dad.

The hawk watches me with a wide open gorgeous yellow eye as I get out of the car to snap more photos. I get too close and he flies.

But not too far, only twenty or thirty feet away and then he squawks, clearly irritated that I interrupted his feeding. I smile, knowing I have some nice photos, and my inner-Buddhist thanks the bird for his cooperation.

We drive on (short video of drive through jungle at link).

Several plain Chachalacas fly across the road and around a long curve I see a dozen Oropendola nests hanging like yarn covered tennis-balls from a Ceiba Tree, the tree Mayans believe connects this world with that of the underworld, Xibalba. Then we see a Bat Falcon. Why in the middle of the day, I don’t know, but still, there he was, orange and blue and white atop an empty tree.
Bat Falcon
The area around Flores and the Lago Peten Itza is a shallow limestone depression, the lake the deepest part of it. Peten Itza is an odd shaped lake: long and narrow, running from west to east and then cutting south, then even more narrowly cutting back east. It is in this smaller, southerly aspect of the lake that the Island of Flores sits. But we are now on the far eastern end of the lake, having driven all the way around it, at a small town, actually a village, called El Remate.
Map of Lake Peten Itza
The view along the lake is irresistible so we stop for lunch. We sit in an apsidal thatched-roof Mayan hut where hammocks hang from the piers. We order a simple meal of chicken, jungle vegetables and rice. I ask a local, sitting in a hammock, what kind of hawk it was we saw on the road in. I described it and then showed him a photo on my camera.

“This is what we call a Roadside Hawk,” he says in perfect English. I was disappointed with the name, but it certainly fit.

My surprise at his English registered.

“I lived in Nevada for a few years building houses,” he said. “Saved my money, came back, got married, built this restaurant and now I live in paradise.” He smiles and slides back into the hammock.
Lago Peten Itza
“It is lovely,” I return the smile and then walk towards the lake.

I bend down to see strange vegetal growth apparent in the limpid waters. Tempted to drink it, I know better, and yet I don’t get the sense the lake is overflowing with industrial effluents. If there were any pollution at all it seemed it should be simple runoff from a handful of small towns (more like large villages) along the lake and at worst, the lake serves as the sewer for Flores and Santa Elena. That hunch turns out to be true. The most recent study done in 2011 by the University of San Carlos and a handful of NGOs notes drily that most of the pollution in the lake is within acceptable levels but that the local communities need to be better educated in sanitation practices. Plus, the government in Guatemala City needs to invest in water treatment for the area as a whole to protect one of the country’s most important tourist resources. Good luck with that, I think to myself.

Coincident to my pondering of filth and its disposal a pig begins frolicking and wallowing in the lilly-pads, muck and mud lining the lake. He is as pink as pigs come and I wished, silently, to be around, when he was butchered for fatback. Organic bacon is hard to beat.Wild Bacon!

There were also half a dozen shores birds, sandpipers and plover-types poking, digging, snatching up whatever kind of bug life they could find with their long bills. The pig snorted at me, came within a few feet and probably caught my bacon vibe and trotted off.

I was unable to identify most of the birds for the pigs curiosity scared them off before I could get any decent photos. Regardless, shore birds aren’t my strong suit. One bird, however, was singing behind some growth about ten to fifteen yards out in the lake. He sang a high pitched, accelerating rattle and dumb old me is looking around trying to find out from which direction the noise is emanating.

I’m looking around to see just who is making this sound and then it gets faster, a jik-jik-jik-jik. Then it stops.

Then the whole thing starts again. Then I see him.

“Oh,” I say aloud, “it’s that ugly little brown bird out there in the mud flats,” pointing towards it for the benefit of my father.

Just as the thought clears my synapses and the words pass my lips that plain ugly brown bird jumps five feet straight up into the air, wings spread open.

My jaw hit the ground. The Northern Jacana (jacana spinosa) is, first and foremost a bird with the largest toes I’ve ever seen, each six inches long if not longer. The outside half of his wings are a delicate butterfly yellow—and to the Mayans butterflies are the souls of their dead loved ones—that blend into a thick, chocolate brown. At each main joint in the wing bones there was a gold medallion that made it look as if his eyes were in the middle of his wings. An unsurprising, but lovely, evolutionarily defensive adaptation making the animal appear to have a larger face than it apparently does. From where the breast meets the neck is a darker brown, merging to black all the way to the eyes, above which is a strange formation, like a medieval shield but sideways across the Jacana’s head. This gave him an oddly large yellow brow. When the bird looked directly at me, once he landed from his dance, he was decidedly neanderthalish.
Northern Jacana (jacana spinosa)
While I stood dumbfounded on the lakeshore, begging the bird to dance again so I could get photos this time, melodious blackbirds chanted from a power line behind me, and I fancied they were saying, “go ahead, dance for the stupid human one more time. At least he’s not trying to eat us.”

I was lucky. The moment was forever in his simple dance: rattle, rattle, jump. Wings open, glide, land, wings close.


And then he sprung up twice as high, did a three-sixty, as if to bow, and flew away.


The full sequence of the Northern Jacana’s dance can be seen starting here and moving forward.

The most recent photos can be seen starting here and moving forward.

The full set can be seen here. Enjoy!

Mayan Roads, Mayan Fog, Mayan Whispers

Quirigia StelaeUp at 530. Cold shower. Teeth a-chattering. Clothed. Grab bags. On way to airport. Arrived. Ticketed. Take shoes off. Security. On the jetway.

Then we wait inside the plane—almost a full hour—for clearance to take off from the brand new tarmac of El Salvador’s national airport.

“I’m not impressed with the airline,” said my Dad.

I think silently to myself, “you’re not impressed? What did you expect? Swissair? Singapore Airlines? This is Central America for fuck’s sake, old man.”

I browse through Avianca’s in-flight magazine while my father restlessly clicks and unclicks his seatbelt. I routinely flip to the back pages where they list their fleet. Avianca has a decent sized fleet for an airline that services all of Central America, Columbia and a handful of connections in the US. But not one of its eighty-one aircraft is an American-made passenger plane. There are no Boeings, only Airbus, Fokker and Embraer, a Brazilian-made regional jet. Then I think back to the drive from the border to El Tunco and realized, like Panama, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica before there were no American-made cars on the roads in El Salvador. So, what was once “our hemisphere” is no longer. This is not a political statement. You can take it or leave it, but the future has already been written and it doesn’t include the American dream.

We take off. Little El Salvador passes in a quick green blur. Mountains and volcanoes rise. And then more of both climb on top of the others. I have seen more volcanoes on this one trip than I have seen my entire life. The plane is flying not quite through the mountains, but only just over their tops. Twenty-minutes into the flight we begin our descent, which was much like landing in Kathmandu, turning and turning and turning and turning all the while slowly descending down towards a tiny little strip of concrete awaiting our plane. It was hair raising. The pilot, however, landed perfectly, I could barely discern the difference. Disembarking in shorts and a t-shirt I noticed the 58* morning cool quickly.

It took a while to rent a car but we managed. Now, I have an absolutely exquisite sense of direction—I’m also (pay attention here ladies) not afraid to ask for directions. But I was not about to drive in Guatemala without a GPS. So, in another strange bout of common sense I requested one.

“It’ll be $40 extra,” said the rental-car employee in a languid put out way.

“That’s fine. It’ll be worth every penny.”

And it was.

We hit the road. It took about forty minutes to get out of Guatemala City, which I would never, ever have been able to do without the GPS. Dad bought baby-bananas from a street-side vendor. (Why don’t we get the baby bananas that are almost pinkish inside in America? They taste the best, although they don’t look the best. Nevermind, I just answered my own question.) He paid the vendor with a US ten dollar bill—we’d not had a chance to hit an ATM or change money at the airport.

Best Bananas Ever“No change,” said the vendor.

Dad said, “feliz navidad,” and gave him the ten anyway.

The vendor, sincere in his good-luck-moment, replied, “feliz navidad mis amigos, vaya con dios.”

“Merry Christmas my friends and go with God.” Now, that was a blessing fit for the road we were about to turn onto.

The Atlantic Coast Highway cuts northeast across Guatemala, linking Puerto Barrios, Guatemala’s Caribbean port with Guatemala City, the capital. The first forty miles it’s a new, well paved dual-carriageway road through and down the mountains. Then it turns into two lanes, and often times both lanes are filled with big rigs coming right at you. You slow down. Sometimes you even pull over. They have the right of way by size alone. And when I drove around blind curves I was also extra-careful, ready for that one crazy bus-driver overtaking a slower car blindly. Good thing too because it happened on the way to Flores, more than once.
Soon we were out of the city, however, and the air was clear and the tension of driving eased a bit. The skies were impossibly blue and the light, white clouds were so close I could pick at them like cotton candy. In the road cuts was a traumatized geology, stories much older than any I could decipher, try as I might. The mostly igneous rock was faulted, cracked, crunched, uplifted and then turned back over on itself and folded once again for good measure. To top it off, literally, hundreds of meters of volcanic ash force the soft volcanic rock further down and compressed it further still. The wind ripped across the faces of the cliffside roads cut out of ash blowing a fine, chalky dust into my teeth. Further down came limestone as white as the cliffs of Dover. After that were several hundred meters of conglomerate, little stones of varied colors, shapes and sizes that had tumbled down ancient mountains, washed down ancient rivers and settled at the bottom of a shallow sea only to find themselves right back at the top of a mountain beginning the process all over again.

We passed into the semi-arid valley of the Rio Motagua. There in the roads I spied a green rock (I’ve covered this story here). I had to pull over, I think to my father’s annoyance. There it was, as I suspected: serpentinite. It all made sense. Gold precipitates into and through rocks like these, settling in the gaps and creating veins, some large, some small, that miners all over the world chase.
I then recalled a conversation I’d had in Nicaragua when Hernan mentioned a new goldmine opening, which I found odd, as I assumed most of the easy gold had been tapped out of Central America centuries ago. Apparently not. What’s it they say about assumptions?

We motored down the mountain, the phat baseline of Jane’s Addiction pounding in my cranium, followed by the harsh opening chords and Perry Farrell’s raspy voice, “Coming down the mountain/One of many children/Everyone has their own opinion/Everyone has their own opinion/holding it back/hurts so bad.”

I looked at Dad, tried to get him to sing along. He shook his head. Then for good measure, shouted out over the radio, “Jumping jack flash, it’s a gas, gas gas!”

“You’re nuts old man,” I said.

“Who’s driving whom down the mountain in a foreign country he knows nothing about?” he asked.



DadAfter winding through the semi-arid landscape of the Motagua Valley for a an hour or so I noticed a blue sign with a white symbol resembling Tikal on it, which clearly denoted ruins.

“We’re not going to make Flores by sunset,” I told Dad, “so, why not stop now at this place, stretch, take some pictures and see some Mayan ruins that are definitely off the tourist trail?”

“Sounds like a plan,” he said yawning. I’d waken him from his beauty sleep.

I took a right off the main highway into a what is clearly a modern, industrial and exploitative scene. If you didn’t know what you were looking at you’d probably find a contemporary banana plantation quaint—but under it all lies an ecological and human disaster.
Banana Republic
Banana trees lined the road on both sides. And these were tall, healthy specimens too, not like those I’d seen in Belize. Each of the banana pods (for lack of a more precise term) was bundled up in a blue plastic bag to protect it from insects or probably small mammals. Nothing but agricultural row after row after row of moderately tall green trees. Over it hung thick, luxuriant tropical clouds with enough blue in the sky to know we’d not be doused by water any time soon. We vaulted over a speed bump, slid to a halt at the gate filled with armed men and turned into the site: Quirigua, the place of the stelae.
American Redstart
The moment I got out of the car it was like an all out bird avian faunal assault. Quirigua occupies roughly 3 square kilometers of mostly jungle-lowland forest. The landscape had changed from semi-arid rain shadow of a hundred miles back to Caribbean lowland tropical forests. Amidst miles and miles and miles of banana plantations it’s a small green jewel of jungle such as it was a thousand years ago when the Mayan mysteriously abandoned the site, as they did much of their civilization. Now, with the jungle returned and most of the site preserved for future generations to excavate it’s the perfect migrant trap, a place where migratory birds congregate in a semi-natural environment, as opposed to foraging throughout a plain filled with banana plantation oozing pesticides. (This is a key reason many of our lovely warblers are dying off, it’s not the north American habitat that’s being removed so much as their Central American wintering grounds being destroyed wholesale.) It was with a rueful, sad sense of luck that I noted at least ten American Redstarts, dozens of Yellow Warblers, Hooded Warblers, Painted Buntings, Prothonotary Warblers, Blue-winged Warblers, Ruddy Ground Dove, Clay-colored Thrushes, Kiskadees, Kingbirds, two unidentified woodpeckers and the emperor bird of the day, the Blue-crowned Motmot.

Then there were the ruins. Exceptionally well preserved stelae, about a dozen that I know absolutely nothing about and looked on with a bewildered sense of awe. All of the loss here was unimaginable. As a historian I could sense it. I could smell the carefully decorated Mayan codices and calendars thrown atop fires by the conquering Spaniards. What better way to defeat a people than to take away their history.
Blue-crowned Motmot
“What kind of man burns books?” I thought to myself. “What kind of man steals such knowledge from the future?”

I continued my walk, growing angrier, unaware that the ground was wet from a recent tropical shower, that I could slip at any moment. I began climbing up the steps of the well-preserved main plaza, or acropolis as they call them here, and slipped on the first one. Grateful it happened here, instead of near the top, I took better care to live in the moment and let the anger at long dead Spaniards drift off with the mist of the jungle.Quirigia

The view at the top washed away any lingering sense of dismay. Big, bold magnificent rocks, set without masonry, perfectly aligned. What math such a people must have possessed? (My gut instinct was correct, as the Mayan’s I would subsequently learn, possessed some math more in advance of anything the West produced until the 19th century.) It was like an inverted pyramid going downwards into the ground, but then it’s sides rising up out of the jungle in a square formation. The solid whitish stone contrasting against the jungle green whispered a perfect rhyming couplet to the afternoon.
After wandering around and birding a bit we hit the road, losing daylight fast now. We crossed Lake Izabal, which drains the Motagua into the Caribbean. El Cruce, a small town growing up on the eastern shore of Izabal, was full of gringo tourists, fried chicken stores, bodegas and lavanderias. Adjacent to the mercado we saw a big Anglo-Santa Claus that would make Fox News’ Megyn Kelly proud.

Now our direction was northwest into the Peten. The shadows lengthened behind us and around sunset we passed through a narrow mountain pass, or gap (link to a short video). To our left Guatemala and the Peten. To our right, Belize, which Guatemala still claims sovereignty over, pissed off that they never got a road built from Puerto Barrios to Guatemala City by the British. We went through a police checkpoint and sped on into dusk, darkening and soon night, black tropical night. An hour on down the road and we were famished—having eaten no food that day at all except crap pastries from the airport in San Salvador. Civilized and organized little El Salvador was a world away from where we were now. In a small town we stopped at the Guatemalan equivalent of KFC, “Pollo Campero” or “Pollolandia” for fried chicken.

Best Fried Chicken EverFried chicken never tasted better. Did it matter that the floors were filthy? That the sink had only a trickle of running water? That a pair of dogs watched us while we ate? Was it a product of our hunger? Or was it the real, un-industrial, free-range poultry we were eating? I don’t know. I don’t care. I demolished the chicken, gristle and all.

Dinner promptly inhaled we drove on through the night. The road began twisting and climbing from 18 meters—the GPS told me this—to an altitude of 550 meters at the highest point. A chill was in the air and then a fog rolled in.

Fuck me.

Fuck me again twice for being so stupid.

Fog. Dogs. Chickens. Potholes. Speedbumps, called tumulos in Guatemalan Spanish, that were the size of the Matterhorn. There were Mayan Indians on bicycles and mopeds with shitty or no lights zig-zagging drunkenly along the road, in fog with absolutely no order or traffic lights or nothing. Add in insane Guatemalan bus drivers who will overtake you on a blind turn in the fog with their brights on and you can imagine the seriously white-knuckle drive I was enduring. All I could think of was some little Guatemalan boy darting out of the jungle to fetch a soccer ball and smash, he’s dead and I’ve just killed a kid in a foreign country and fuck me my life is now officially over.

I slowed down to about 20 kilometers an hour. Dad had no problem with my speed. Slowly, agonizingly we climbed back down the mountains into intermittent fog and then no fog but total darkness: there was no sign of people anywhere but at least the road was straight. An hour later and the jungle gave way to light: Santa Helena and the Isla de Flores, last redoubt of the Itza Maya and our home for the next three nights.

Now, would I be able to find a hotel at one in the morning?

Surfing, Theoretical Mathematics And Jesus

Me and the Queen MaryFirst morning in El Salvador. Got the drop on three waves, didn’t ride them long. Out of shape and out of practice. Surfing is decidedly not like riding a bike. You lose skills when you don’t use them. But it was fun. As a buddy I met at Popoyo in 2009 says, “El Tunco’s a nice easy right off the point.” And that’s exactly what it was: as it breaks off the point it’s then a long slow roller even novices like me can ride. They call it Sunzal or El Tunco (the name seems to be interchangeable by both the surfers and the locals). El Tunco refers a large lump of rocks on the beach that used to look like a pig before a hurricane came in and rearranged them. Sunzal seems to be a local word of indeterminate origin, but most likely Spanish and English that refers to the sunset. And this beach has some of the best I’ve ever seen.

If it’s an easy right off the point at low tide at high tide it’s a different animal. Then the swells get bigger and on occasion a nice tube forms, “but don’t count on it,” Alejandro, a Brazilian Spanish teacher from Los Angeles would tell me later. I paid my respects to the wave and paddled ashore.

During the midday hours I sat with Alejandro and had a few beers. He gave me the run down of every wave and break within fifty miles and then gave me the low down on the locals: who’s who and the local rules.

“I’ve been coming to Sunzal for seven years now. I know all these guys,” he said.

“See him,” he points, “the super skinny guy with the bleached orange-blonde-blackish mess on his head?”

I nodded.

El Tunco Rocks, Once Resembled a Pig, Since Then Rearranged By a Hurricane“Boris is the local big-talker. He’s always catching the biggest waves, out on some cove south of here or north of here, but no one ever sees him surf Sunzal. Everyone knows he’s full of shit, but everyone loves him because he’s fun to party with and he’s a good friend. When guys get kicked out of the house by their girls for surfing too much, he always lets them crash at his place.”

“You see that guy over there, with the hammer, carrying the lumber up the roof?”

“Sure do.”

“He’s Hugo. Watch out for him. He’s the local asshole, and bad-ass surfer, who’ll cut you off a wave in a heartbeat just to prove that it’s his wave and his country. Last year he crashed into a tourist surfer and broke his board in half, bloodied the guy up too. If you even see him near your wave, go somewhere else.”

Our waiter came by and asked me if I wanted another beer. I waved him off, “another beer and my day would be ruined. I’m hoping to surf this evening.”

He smiled and left me an Alejandro to talk.

“Our waiter, that guy, you know he’s real quiet, soft-spoken-like. His name is Jesus. That guy shreds everyone, he can practically spin a board 360* and land on it and surf the rest of the wave.”

“Not possible, Alejandro. You’re starting to sound like Boris.”

“No, Juan Pablo, listen to me. He’s that good. He won the local championship last year here at Sunzal and some people are trying to get him to go pro.”


It’s December and the tides are variable. The big swells come between March and October. Current high tides seem to be arriving at around four-ish in the afternoon. By that time the shadows lay long towards the east. The waves, water and sky in the west, however, are suffused with an ur-orange that I believe is the Platonic form from which all other oranges derive their orangeness.

What a Ride!The wave at Sunzal is long, 350-400 meters at its best. It’s smooth, good for pros and beginners alike. This time of year, December, it’s not a huge wave or even a big one—it certainly doesn’t have much of a tube, that part of the wave a surfer rides when he or she is totally covered by water and then shoots out of it. It’ll curl a little bit on occasion but not every set or even ever five to seven sets.

Fun fact: waves usually come in sets of three waves or five waves. And sets usually come in swells of five and seven. First: they are prime numbers. Second, apparently there is science behind this. It’s called a Mandelbrot set, named after Benoit Mandelbrot the father of fractal geometry and math. Brian Rothman recently called the Mandelbrot set, “the most complex mathematical object in existence. [It’s] a two-dimensional figure whose coils, sea-horse shapes and blobs rimmed by jewel-like clusters of islands defy any coherent description. It is made up of infinitely many resemblances of itself, no two exactly alike, which appear from its depths when one zooms in and magnifies any part . . . and it serves as a sublime tech mandala.” One philosopher even claimed the algorithm behind the Mandelbrot Set might actually be one of Plato’s eternal forms.
Mandelbrot Set
Bet you didn’t think you’d get higher math and philosophy while reading about a guy surfing in El Salvador?

Life is paradox and there is order in randomness, as fractals demonstrate.

Speaking of fractals, the high tide was in, the sun was a gorgeous gold, and bikinis pranced up and down the beach. (Oh, you didn’t think I wasn’t looking? How wrong you are! I may be recently divorced and uninterested, but I ain’t fucking dead.) It was time to surf.

I put on my board shorts, rash guard, grabbed the Queen Mary, walked half a mile down the beach and paddled out.

After an extensive paddle—hey, you try paddling a twelve foot board three hundred yards out into heavy surf—I sat on my board and surveyed the scene. There were about 15-20 other surfers spread out over two hundred meters, two within fifteen to twenty feet of me. I stood a good chance of a.) catching a wave and b.) not killing anyone with my ginormous surfboard due to inexperience. After a few minutes the first set came in. I paddled hard, but missed the first wave. Got my board back, on it, paddling, caught the wave but couldn’t stand—wiped out. Board shooting straight into the air and me thrashed and twirled by the waves.

Panting like an overheated dog I grabbed my board, climbed on and lay there for a moment catching my breath.

Playa El TuncoDigression: ever wondered why surfers have perfectly sculpted bodies? Upper bodies and lower bodies in perfect proportion for men as well as women? Well, it is the perfect workout. You swim with your arms and legs. You do core abdominal work when you are up on the board maneuvering. Yoga, too. Don’t believe me? See just how flexible you are when you get thrashed and tumbled by a wave like clothes in a clothes dryer.

While panting on the board awaiting the next set I began mentally composing an angry email to my ex-wife. Then I got angry at myself.

“What a stupid fucking thing to do on a wave,” I muttered. “Idiot.”

While berating myself someone paddled up to me.

“Como las olas Juan Pablo?” asked Jesus, “how’re the waves?”

“Great,” I managed to say without sound too exhausted.

Jesus, I’d come to find out, talking to him earlier while we waxed our boards, had lived in the United States for about a year. He’d been a dishwasher first and then a cook in South Carolina. Having earned enough money to buy a house and set up a surf school in El Salvador he grabbed a bus to Mexico and then home to El Salvador, only to return to a girlfriend who’d had left him. Unbeknownst to Jesus, his father had died when he was on the bus from Charleston to the Mexican border. He worked as a waiter now and spent all his free time surfing.

“The waves,” he told me that afternoon, “they’ll never lie and they never cheat.”

Playa El TuncoHe pointed towards the water. Another wave was coming, this one picture perfect, streamers coming off the top in a fine mist just like a snow banner blowing off Mt. Everest. I shook my head, not quite ready, still panting a bit.

Jesus smiled and then attacked the wave. He paddled hard then cut right so effortlessly it made me envious. On his smaller board he rode, cutting up and back, then left and right all the way inshore for twenty or thirty seconds. It was an elegant, beautiful performance. How anyone could call what Jesus did that afternoon “shredding” as if it were a violent act, like putting an end to a sheaf of top-secret documents and not call it a ballet on water is beyond me.

Speaking of, I had finally caught my breath.

I was ready.

The next wave rolled in and up. I paddled furiously, the futility of maneuvering my container-ship sized surfboard clear in my determined grimace. I barely caught the wave, stood up, but got on the board too far back. Unbalanced, I slipped backwards into the worst of the backwash there to twirl and roll underwater, salt water invading my sinuses until chaos abated. Have I mentioned having long hair in the surf sucks, too? Too often I come out of a wave with hair covering my face, salt in my eyes and another back-wave crashes into my face, which is what happened in this case too.

I shook it off. Literally.

Would number three be my wave?

No. I couldn’t get ready in time so another surfer made the drop, riding smoothly all the way in. It looked so easy, why couldn’t I?

Then I missed number four out of sheer incompetence.

Gentle reader, are you sensing a theme yet? Let me spell it out for you if you haven’t: I’m not a terribly good surfer. In fact, I suck. But I love being in the big water, feeling its power, respecting it, honoring it.

Alas, my breath was all caught up again and there I sat on my ginormous board when wave five swelled up, fat-like and pretty big too.

Looked to be a possible seven footer. Taller than me by far.

I paddled hard, furiously determined to get the drop on this one. And then it happened.

There is no thought, only pure action, I’m one with the tidal forces of the wave, which I am allowed to momentarily harness. I stand up on the board, just ahead of the curl, the wave’s crest. Moving my right foot slightly, much as a bird will move a single feather to turn left or right, I make the cut back for the first time and stay ahead of the break for an unfathomable ten to fifteen seconds. Just me, on the board, completely of the present, no past, no future. The eternal now.

SunsetI took the wave as far as I could, dropped into the water and walked out with pride.

I rested on the fine black volcanic sand of Playa Sunzal. Time passed as it inevitably does. Shadows grew longer across the beach and the shift from late afternoon gold to early evening orange happened at the fine line between subconsciously unaware and overt.

I got up and grabbed my board just as Jesus walked by. He smiled and said, “that was a good ride, Juan Pablo, like a pro.” And then we walked silently into the setting sun.

From 56 to 58: Vaqueros, Volcanoes and the Voice of the Road

Nicaraguan LifeDecember 17, 2013: Pelicans glide inches above the cresting waves. The rising sun glistens pinkish and oblique across the Pacific Ocean and carries me back to yesterday, where we left Granada about nine thirty in the morning—Hernán was with us—and the driver was a big, giant of a man whose hands never left the ten and two o’clock position on the steering wheel the entire trip, through Nicaragua, Honduras and to the bridge at El Salvador.

We passed Masaya, the town, and then passed the volcano of the same name, a low and not terribly active lava-maker that looks more like a shield volcano than stratovolcano, what with part of its side seemingly blown off.

Hernán inspects the pottery I bought the day before approvingly.

(Side note: Hernán, whom I’ve not yet introduced, is the most interesting man in the world and utterly unlike the Dos Equis clown. He’s the same age as me and his life could have been mine, just as mine could have been his. In due time I’ll tell his story. It’s worth telling.)

“It’s Chorotega,” he says, “designs from the indigenous people of Nicaragua before the Spanish arrived.” An Indian chases what appears to be a frog with horns, although I know it’s some kind of deer. The colors on the cup are earthy, soft fleshy orange, jungle green and clay brown.

We ride through the middle part of Nicaragua now—the most heavily populated, along the shores of the Lago de Managua. The hills are deforested, in the naked reddish dirt grow green stalks of corn against an ever present but moody sky. Cloudless now, but later?
Managua, the capital city and former den of the great communist plot to take over all of America, was modern, filled with new buildings, new cars (none American-made), surprisingly clean, but security was everywhere. That’s Central America for you.

Hernán points out a ‘Matapalo’ tree, “the biggest one in Nicaragua,” he says, “grows like a parasite over the roots of an older, hardwood tree, smothers it and takes it over.”

We passed from Managua straight into a landscape right out of South Texas, fertile but brushy, good dirt, not so many trees, cattle country and prickly pear cacti. The only difference was the tropical edge hanging over us, a sky now molten gray just waiting to unload.

“That,” points Hernán to a beautiful, wide, white-flowering tree, “is the national tree of Nicaragua: the Madroño.” I look closely at it and the subsequent madroños along the road. It’s clearly related to the Madrone tree found in the desert southwest, including my beloved Hill Country. It has paper thin bark that peels to reveal a red trunk, but the leaves are bigger, the bark peels less and it looks more natural in the tropics.

We pass Leon in a blur, “next time I will spend time in Leon, home of the revolution,” I promise.

After Leon we turned the car firmly northwest into one dramatic view after another. To my left sugar plantations lined the road, most in one form of harvest or another. In the distance the Flor de Caña distillery, in a feat of regal alchemy, turns sugarcane into the finest rum in the world.
Sugar Cane Harvest
Buses run down the Pan-American Highway, old Bluebird buses, known colloquially as “el Diablo Rojo,” red devils. Another odd thing I’ve learned about Spanish, their term for idioms, or figures of speech, is literally translated as ‘false friends.’ The strange things you learn on the road.

Campesinos (peasants) walked, rode bicycles and horses. One vaquero was even texting while riding his steed. Several species of dove lined the electric wires, kingbirds chased bugs, vultures kettled and the occasional Smooth-billed Ani flitted across a skyline of grain elevators.

But to my right the passage was much less pastoral, more like violently volcanic. The potential kinetic energy was palpable looking at cones of such perfection, built upwards, up towards the sky in a series of  identical eruptions. One had erupted recently (within one or two hundred years). The peak was grassy, and only the hardiest of trees grew on the lower slopes.
Nicaraguan Cowboys
A hedge of Herrisillo trees blocks the view. The dirt grows redder, fields of cane rise and fall depending on the harvest, many topped by the cottony white pyramid of the cane flower. A single line of white clouds scud across the blue until another volcano blocks out the sky with its lumbering, clumsy weight. Another perfect cone, this one smaller but with a perfect trail of gray smoke trailing the peak.

The vaqueros proliferate. The horses, clad in long leather saddles with noticeably absent horns from the pommel. No lariats in Nicaragua? Regardless, northwest Nicaragua is cattle country, where the rivers run muddy, wide and full of crocodiles. I count forty different shades of green—from the multi-hued slopes of San Cristobal, biggest of all Nicaragua’s volcanoes—to the Mesquite-like Jicaroro tree.

A billboard of Daniel Ortega, el presidente, waves goodbye as we pass into Honduras.

“Con Todos y por bien de todos,” it says. Adios Ortega!

Nicaragua is now but a reflection in our rearview mirror as we submit our paperwork and then drive on. I silently count the fifty-seven countries I’ve now visited. Fifty-seven countries in forty-three years isn’t too bad.

Between Honduras and El Salvador the continents and plates bend to create a bay of Pacific water without any measurable surf. It’s an awkward semi-circle ringed by rough hills of traumatized and fractured limestone, sliced and diced by volcanic intrusions: a white canvas slashed with red-black lines, like Eddie Van Halen’s Frankenstrat in reverse. A large tree grows in a soft field of green grass, but in its shade the grass has flowered white, a strange otherworldly sight of an hitherto unknown symbiosis.

The sugarcane dissipates, morphing into corn and bananas. The relative prosperity of socialist Nicaragua—where all the houses are made of brick—turns into the dire capitalist poverty of thatched huts, mud floors, straw beds and pigs and chickens wandering in and out of the house. The pink flowers of Tropical Oaks explode on the roadsides. A malnourished horse crosses the road towards an Ocellated Turkey pecking into dust blown down from deforested hills, looking for sustenance where none is to be found. We pass a truck with a large sleeping bed in its bed. Several campesinos wave. Cornfields grow at 45* angles or more on hillsides.
Honduras Life
There is little conversation today as we mostly absorb. That’s the way seeing country should be, alone in the moment, mindful that this is the only eternity that matters. But I lose the moment and silently curse my ex-wife—if only she’d given me a little freedom to wander around alone and not grasped so tight. Then I am mindful again, aware that “if only” is no way to live.

I turn back to the road, the giver of all things good: color, life, interludes, experience, and the hard comfort of being alone.

If the difference in wealth between Costa Rica and Nicaragua is significant that which exists between Nicaragua and Honduras is unfathomable. And yet I see a Little Caesar’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and the Golden Arches of Globalization in the southern Honduran town of Choluteca. Apparently Honduras has been made safe for American-style freedom, which must be a wonderfully comforting consolation to all those murdered for control of the drug trade to Estados Unidos.
Tropical Oak
Such ruminations, dark as they are, are interrupted by Hernán.

“We are at the Salvadoran border, Juan Pablo,” he says.

We say our good-byes. For they are long, complete with a genuine hug. I have grown fond of Hernán, my Nicaraguan doppelgänger.

Father and I plow through immigration and start the search for onward transport again. Luis, a former illegal dry-waller in Maryland approaches us. I negotiate a price and we are whisked away into dusk and then the dark. We pause for gas at a Puma. I haven’t eaten all day and order a “tamale con mystery-meat” and inhale it under a tree full of grackles making an ungodly racket. A grackle shits on me, “welcome to El Salvador,” it ca-caws, “country 58, you silly gringo.”

El Salvador passes in the dark—all I recall are three smells: burning plastic, diesel fumes and the musty-sweet smell of just harvested sugarcane.

At last I feel the humidity of the sea and the tang of salt on my lips.

We find a hotel room on the beach and I collapse, exhausted.