Central America From a Bus Window: A Flashback

And so I left Mexico City behind. Great memories of friends, tacos and traffic, combined in fond times I’ll always remember with delight. Ahead of me laid the vast Central American continent. The goal was to cross it, powering through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and finally reach Panama. Dear Central America, we’ll be back in good terms. It’s just a matter of time. This time, our encounter was brief, but passionate. And made me want to walk you even more. From a bus window I watched you pass by, and border checks were my good friends. With moneychangers all around me, the occasional “pupusa”, taco, or beans with rice as pit stop snack, I even started enjoying this bureaucratic pause. After 5 days of travel, 73 hours combined in bus time, 7 passport stamps, 2 nights spent in roadside (cockroach filled) hotels, to finally see the skyline of Panama City on the rainy horizon was bliss, I have to confess. I expect to find a new love, and that love’s name is South America. Wait for me, I’m getting closer. If the winds are favorable, I’ll soon be in your arms.


Welcome to the Doll House

In Mexico City, a metropolis subjected to the rhythm of twenty one million pulses and steps, I set out to witness a unique place of solitude and devotion. Oh, and dolls.

Today is the day. I’m going to dive into the crowd, do some human slalom on the metro and head to Xochimilco. My idea is to leave crowded urban Mexico City and check out this weird island I have come across, the Island of Dolls. On the train are the usual metro dwellers and beggars, plus plenty of shouting peddlers selling everything from batteries to spicy chocolate. What I’m really not prepared for is this young Mexican guy’s performance. He is walking shirtless through the subway car, in a confident strut, shouting “no me julgues, no me ignores, da me tu propina!”, which means something like “don’t judge me, don’t ignore me, tip me!” When he reaches the center of the car, he suddenly unfolds his shirt, which he has been holding in his hand, and reveals a pile of shattered glass. He spreads the glass onto the floor, and I can’t help but stare  with eyes wide open as he tosses his body onto the pile only to quickly get  up again and shout some more, with no concerns at all for his bloody skin. I look around me but find no discernible reaction. Nothing. Just another normal day on the subway for most. For me, I guess, a weird omen of what is to come.

After two hours of bizarre metro time, I find myself in an idyllic, gorgeous landscape. I simply cannot believe I am still in the same city. Canals, empty little islands everywhere – and silence! Oh what a beautiful silence! Coming from the high  noise level of the Zocalo, the city’s main square, it is really blissful to hear only an occasional grumpy duck or the splash of a frog. I gladly let this wave of tranquility carry me into a brightly colored gondola, which slides with me through the almost still waters of Xochimilco. In the end, I have almost forgotten why I am here. I’m reminded, after about two hours, when a squeaky voice wakes me by shouting: “Llegamos guey!” The gondola is slowly approaching the Isla de Las Munecas, the Dolls Island, where I am greeted by Chope, a short, stumpy man sporting a straw hat and a simple smile.

Nomen est omen indeed. Everywhere I look, in the trees, in the rudimentary constructions, hanging in ropes, my eyes are greeted by dolls – all in different stages of decay, some even decapitated. Baby dolls, Barbies, little girl dolls. I am in the middle of nowhere, no-man’s-land, with swamps all around me,  and all I see is human shapes. Children shapes! Creepy sight? Bizarre, to say the least. The first question on my mind is, of course, why? Chope patiently explains that his uncle Julian Santana came to live on this island as a hermit fifty years ago. He left everything behind to live an isolated life in the wilderness. One day he saw a little girl drown and couldn’t save her. After that, Don Julian devoted his life honoring the soul of the girl he couldn’t save by putting up dolls which reminded him of her. He found them in the trash or in the nearby canals. He also believed the dolls would chase away the evil spirits that regularly visited the island and at the same time protect his crops. For thirty years, Julian Santana neveronce left his “haunted” but doll-protected island.

Juan Carlos, the gondola man, tells me that he brings quite a few of people here who want to witness Don Julian’s lifework. Some come at night, he tells me, the ones “que tienen una onda Voodoo, de Santeria”. I can see this place being a sort of magnet for occult enthusiasts and voodoo tourists. But the creepy aspect is not what sticks with me most. What impresses me about this whole story is the simplicity of a man’s life. A man who decided to turn his back on the world, to  live his own life for his own creed, in a literally self-created safe haven. To me, it really doesn’t matter how bizarre it is, it simply was his own.
As a travel experience, it was very gratifying. It was an escapade of contrast, which always pleases me when I’m on the go. To be in Mexico City, in the middle of the constant frantic city rhythm and to witness a life  of solitude, in the middle of nowhere, was fantastic. As I head back I kind of understand Don Julian’s self-imposed isolation. Sometimes you can only feel free if you live by your own rules, in your own space… independent and remote.

Anybody out there?

A journey into the American nowhere, looking for something alien – be it flying saucers or their stalkers.

They say Americans have always had the attraction to the vast unknown. The Wild West was the first frontier to be crossed, and outer space is the current mystery on their minds. This broad, unexplored space tickles the imagination. And there is another typically American phenomenon stemming from these same roots: the passion for the road trip. You, your car and the personified unknown on a straight road…I am on a journey to experience firsthand those two iconic aspects of America. Above me spans an endless sky, around me lies the arid landscape of the Great Basin desert. From Vegas into the wastelands. My road trip into this vast nothingness is also a mission to understand the fixation that many Americans have for… UFOs.

After hours of driving, I see a road sign marking the entrance to the “Extraterrestrial Highway.” Getting close. After a couple of miles of horizon-breaking straight roads I arrive in Rachel, the closest town to the Area 51 military base. A few houses here and there and a motel restaurant deliciously called the “Little Ale-Inn.” A sign for flying saucers self-parking tells me I’m in the right spot. I enter a small bar stuffed with all the alien memorabilia imaginable. Besides pictures of alien sightings, there’s also an “Occupy Rachel” alien doll, which shows some humor in light of the world’s current events. An old lady signing the motel guestbook tells me: “There’s definitely something out there and we came to one of the most important places to see it, Area 51.” Her husband adds: “The government doesn’t tell us everything about life on other planets. Look at Roswell, look at what’s going on beyond those hills.” He points in the direction of Area 51. I’m astonished by all this alien folklore and by the fact that people actually take it seriously. Maybe there are others out there, but I sincerely question myself if they are green. Also, they probably wouldn’t appreciate being portrayed on our mugs and ashtrays.

The people at the bar seem to have a different perspective. They’ve been working here for a long time… According to the chubby bartender “for too long.” When I ask the young waitress if she has seen any UFOs, she simply replies: “I’ve never seen any, but I’ve seen plenty of things I can’t explain.” The town of Rachel is right on the edge of the military base; which the waitress assumes simply hosts “secret military planes or something like that.” But look at where this girl is working. It’s a roadside motel in the middle of the desert called “Little Ale-Inn.” Of course they play along, it’s good for business. When I ask questions about this, they simply shrug their shoulders and smile.

“People see what they want to see,” a lady by the counter tells me. She is from Rachel, and sees “all kinds of freaks passing by.” I bet she does. That’s the beauty of being human, right? Any phenomenon can be translated into whatever interpretation suits you best. If you see a stealth airplane in the middle of the desert, of course it could be an alien spacecraft. She also adds that “the government wants to keep people distracted with all this, and people buy it!” With such an elucidating quote, I say goodbye. I drive out to Area 51, but all I see is a “Keep Out” sign and a government vehicle keeping watch. No UFOs, no fluorescent glare. Nothing strange, just the beauty of the desert as far as the eye can see.

Nevertheless, this trip has fulfilled its purpose: I definitely encountered some truly strange phenomena. In fact, the giant alien statue in front of a nearby warehouse, the “UFO tow truck” outside the motel and, above all, the people I found lingering around were among the most alien things I have ever come across.

Gun Control is Using Both Hands

A brief visit to a world where shooting an AK 47 helps unwind after a stressful day at the office.

7 pm in downtown LA. The sun is setting on the mirrored skyscrapers and I’m about to shoot a gun for the first time in my life. And I’m terrified. A guy asks me for a light. His name is Carlos and he tells me he just got off his job and is here “to get rid of the stress”. Somehow, I get it. I mean, everyone needs something to unwind, to relax after a stressful day. A game of pool, a beer with friends or why not firing an AK 47 military rifle?

I enter the gun club and am greeted by an older, austere Mexican fellow. After filling in my personal data, I testify that I don’t suffer from any mental illness, drug addiction or have any criminal record. Confirmation? I guess they’ll have to take my word for it. There is a myriad of firearms to choose from. Pistols, rifles, shotguns, automatic revolvers. “Which do you want?” I have no idea; I leave the decision to the gun clerk who promptly hands me an AK 47. I’m sorry, I can’t resist – an AK 47! I’m really astonished now. Not sure if it’s because I am going to shoot this thing or because you can actually “order” something like this from the gun menu. Feeling a little sick, I decide to just browse around the club. A poster with this mean looking dude holding a pistol, saying “This is my Glock, there are many like it, but this one is mine”. I see an American flag and next to it a “break in case of emergency” glass cabinet… full of Glocks. Very revealing.

Inside the range, I jump at the first blast. A deafening sound, and a constant clanging of falling shells, discharge after discharge. Even with the ear muffs the noise is deafening. “Keep the guns pointing upwards when not shooting”. This warning makes sense when I look up and see bullet holes all over the ceiling. I try to keep cool, but I must confess I feel like an alien in this place. Coming from Portugal, where it’s rather unusual to even see a gun, discomfort kicks in. It’s somewhat disturbing when you think how easy it is to take someone’s life. Suddenly, we have company. Six guys in their mid forties enter the range. They seem to be in sort of a competition, just for fun. “Six rounds, gentlemen, six rounds only! Let’s go!” Later one of them tells me: “It’s an escape, a weekly hobby. We used to bowl, but now we found something else.” It strikes me as odd to put bowling and shooting at the same level of leisure activity. Eventually I gather all my courage and shoota weapon for the first time in my life. It’s spine-chilling. Quite the adrenaline rush, a kind of primeval experience. I guess that’s what the people are looking for. When I stop to think, though, I can’t say I really enjoyed it .

 In Las Vegas, I later visited a gun store that also organizes tours. Gun Tours. The ad said it was a great idea for bachelor, bachelorette and divorce parties. If you want to celebrate, shoot a gun. What really impresses me is the normality of using guns in the US. In this part of the country, it seems like going to the gun store was as normal as going to the supermarket. Perhaps most telling is the bumper sticker I saw on a car: “Gun control is using both hands”. It seems to be the only real way to control it here.

Halloween Hollywood style

Lovely night to be in character, don’t you think? When in Hollywood, there’s no night like Halloween night to get out of the normality and be flamboyant.

Hundreds of thousands of revelers gather in West Hollywood in what is said to be the
biggest Halloween parade in the world. Wicked witches, a few grim reapers here and there, maybe a Dracula or two… after all it’s All Hallow’s Eve.  But instead of scary costumes, what catches one’s eye is the immensity of pop culture references in costumes, from OompaLoompas to the Occupy Sesame Street movement. Simultaneously, you can’t help but think that you’re wearing too many clothes.  Some girls in the classic “my Halloween custom is a bra and some panties”, plenty of drag queens, kinky policeman whipping around – all walk by in a see and be seen parade.

When you’re walking down the street, and a senior citizen of about sixty is sitting down, spreading his legs, (un)dressed with only a purple cape and a thong to match, you can’t help but wonder: “Where am I? Oh it’s Hollywood and it’s Halloween night!”

First the friendship, then the forge

How different modern California looks when seen in the light of a blacksmith’s forge.

The light of Barry’s forge is glowing almost as bright as the San Francisco skyline that stands behind it. It’s evening and we are high on a ridge in Balboa Park where Barry has set up his makeshift metal-working studio in the driveway of a quirky, mural-painted house of a friend. “A good day is a day of hammering hot metal”.

So, here I am, in the middle of California, not far from the one of the greatest high tech industry hubs, watching this craftsman perform an ancient art that requires patience, attention and devotion. I think what difference this encounter makes for my perception of California. Not all of it is Silicon Valley and microchips. I truly feel like a traveller, looking behind the scenes, finding the real stories, the most amazing idiosyncrasies of a place . A blacksmith pounding his hammer in California is hardly a stroll through the Walk of Fame.

Barry is a blacksmith by trade and inspiration, a “disciple of an ancient, elemental craft.”: “There’s an ancestral connection in my art. I need it. There’s a lot we can learn from it.” In his pieces he tries to remind people of the process of making the art, of the craft itself. He adds: “I never take out hammer marks, the process being as part of the art as the final result. Everything has its personalized ‘flaws’“. For Barry, art is unique and irrepeatable. But it is also functional. The idea that people use it, that it brings joy to them, it’s something…” he pauses, “reassuring.” He is the proud creator of more than fifty public artworks. But he also creates things people use in everyday life, fulfilling the original task of blacksmiths. He makes fences, benches, furniture – and memorials. Modern and ancient, artistic elaboration and practical use, hand in hand.

As the forge continues to blaze, Barry changes his tone: “My friend, I deeply believe in synchronicity. Nothing happens by chance. I’ve been kinda stopped in the last year, rough moments. You coming here is not a coincidence. It has given me the push I needed to start hitting the metal again!” I smile at him, not entirely sure of my role, but pleased that he’s creating again. We recall how we met, in my hometown Lisbon. My hostel work definitely has that brilliant, rewarding side of bringing people together. And now here we are, meeting on the other side of the world. Same feel. Totally different context.

As a token of our friendship Barry makes me an iron bracelet. It is on my wrist as I write these lines. “You see, blacksmith is a universal language, my friend. And bracelets are a very special way of speaking.” I cannot describe how meaningful this moment is for me. I  put down my camera and take his broad, heartfelt hug. I can hardly speak and I simply whisper “Thank you, my friend, I’ll carry this wherever the road takes me.”