Thursday, May 31, 2012

Love Lock[down]

Ah, Paris.

En francais:  Ehh, Peh-rhee.

Ze city of romance [or having high expectations of finding one] has hit me hard.  As my host said one afternoon over baguette sandwiches along the canal:

"Joshua, you're already in love with the city.  I can see it in your eyes."

In celebration of my arrival in the City of Light and general inability to mask emotions, I've decided to post pictures [and, of course, commentary] of one of my favorite landmarks: the Pont des Arts, which links the Louvre and the Institut de France.  

As a statement of everlasting love [or friendship], couples will engrave/write their names/initials onto a padlock [the Love Lock], affix them to the fence along the river, and either keep the key or throw it into the river below.

I know, a river full of keys.  You'd think that the dinner boats passing beneath the bridges would eventually hit a large mountain of metal, but...  

You can buy these locks for 4 euro, or about 5 dollars, along the river from souvenir vendors.

Ah, friendship along the river surrounded by locks.  Le simbolisme.

Tourist boat!

Bonjour, Pont des Arts!

Sooooo manyyyyy.

Two men from the US!  But where's Mark?

I guess the breakup was JUST THIS BAD.

Parts of the fencing have to be replaced from the amount of locks...


"Your lips against mine."  ROMANTIC!!!

I did too.

Some other breakups are only bad enough to be Sharpied-out.

INDIA.  One of my favorites.

Mmm.  Maybe in another lifetime.

One of the more creative ones: attaching photos of yourself under Shakespeare keyrings.

I guess you could say the PEN IS mightier than the sword...

One can only hope...

More international ones!

Coline, we need to work on your creativity...

Even from Korea...


Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bonus Round

Before any French adventures are recorded...


Mission Objective:  Complete as many of the tasks on the To Do list provided by friend of a friend and return to the airport on time for your flight.
Location:  Mexico City, Mexico
Time Allotted:  14 hours (arrive 6:30 am, depart 8:30 pm)

TASK I:  Get rid of bags by storing them.

Even though I stood in line for an hour waiting to pick up my luggage, and then another hour in the wrong terminal to check said luggage into my next flight, and then trekked around the correct terminal to find that AirFrance was closed until the afternoon.  I dragged my wheel-less bag until I found the lockers and the cash exchange, leaving the airport at about 9:30 am.

Score:  10/10
Why?  All my luggage weighs about 19 kilos, or about 41.89 pounds.
Try walking around for three hours with that on your back.

TASK II:  Take the Metro out of the airport and into the city.

I like to think that my public transportation navigation skills have improved dramatically since I left the US.  Taking the time to ask the security guards how to get to the metro in Spanish, finding the metro was simple.

Score:  10/10
Why?  Ten months ago, I had to have written directions to use the NY subway.
Or, sometimes call in between changing tracks to have Matrix-like instructions directed to me.
Learning to navigate the subways in Spanish is a HUGE accomplishment

TASK III:  Head towards ZOCALO.  Coming right into the center of the city, you can see the cathedral, the presidential palace, and the remains of the Aztec palaces.

Looking for the tiny names of the neighborhoods on the metro map unfortunately isn't as easy.  And I found myself having to stare outside the window to look for the station names, and always up to the map posted in the metro itself.

Cathedral?  Check.  Lots of people praying, fancy stone carvings and sculpture, and that religiously stale smell of worship.

Presidential Palace?  Check...  But to be honest, I had no idea that it was the palace until after I took a picture of it and found posters of it later.  Key to doing tourist things: take as many pictures of everything you see, and then find out later if it's culturally significant.

Remains of Aztec Palaces?  This, I'm not so sure about.  I took as many pictures as I could have of old buildings; but none looked particularly Aztecan...  And the instructions made the remains sound so close to the cathedral and the presidential building...

Score:  7/10
Why?  I should've done research into looking for what I should be looking for.
Instead, I just blindly walked around taking pictures of what I assumed were historical monuments.

TASK IV:  Walk towards BELLAS ARTES through one street closed off for pedestrians.  It is a beautiful building that is a museum and an opera house, and you can go in for free to see the murals.

I ended up visiting three museums:  one of modern art where there was an Andy Warhol display of his work for Harper's Bazaar; another was of culture where I saw ancient Egyptian, Roman, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Maorian relics, and of course Bellas Artes.  It must have been a while since my contact had been there, since the entrance fee was beyond free.  To save time, I appreciated the artwork outside, the marble designs inside, and the European-style café.

 So man plus-sized models...

Score:  6/10
Why?  I certainly didn't find the pedestrian street.  Or even really get to see the murals.
Just the cool marble interior.
But I did get to see two other museums, albeit quickly and for free, but two other museums nonetheless.

TASK V:  Walk around ALAMEDA park next to the museum.

Alameda was closed, and therefore outside of my control.  Lots of construction happening, but I did get to snag a picture of Beethoven as an angel.

Score:  3/10
Why?  I only got to see the park from a distance.
And although the instructions said to walk AROUND the park, I only walked down one side.

TASK VI:  Walk towards another metro station called HIDALGO, and take it towards COYOACÀN.

Since I didn't get to walk around the park, I just entered through the nearest station (not Hidalgo), but I did almost fall asleep on the 30 minute ride to Coyoacàn.

Score:  8/10
Why?  I didn't use HIDALGO, but a station much closer and available to the museum.
Additionally, I got to recharge my physical batteries on the metro during rush hour.
Even though technically all day is rush hour in Mexico City.

TASK VII:  Go to Frida Khalo's house.

Check.  Although in looking for it, many locals gave me contradictory directions, most of them beginning with "It's not exactly known where, but it's nearby."  Fortunately, one woman literally took me by the hand and walked me down the street to its exact location.  She called me "mijo," shook my hand warmly, and continued down the road.


Score:  10/10
Why?  I was told to GO to Frida's house, not IN it.
I'm also a firm believer in asking for directions, especially in another language.
And when a stranger takes you by the hand to bring you to a stranger's house, I'd say you've done a fantastic job.

TASK VIII:  Go to Trotsky's house where he was killed.

Another time to be honest:  I had no idea who Trotsky was.  I just roamed around, asking if they knew where was "la casa de Trotsky."  Easily found, and painted bright red, it makes one question whether visiting the murder scene of an unfamiliar famous person just to say one did...

Score:  8/10
Why?  For the same reasons as going to Frida's house.
Except this time, instead of being directed by a woman, I got directed by a man selling churros on his bicycle.  Unfortunately, I was only one house away when the churro man pointed to the house.

TASK IX:  If you're there for lunch; go to the market, MERCADO DE COYOACÀN and try tostada.  You'll love it, really, it really is a Mexican experience.

INCREDIBLE.  The colors, the smells, the cost.  Going to one of these sit-in counters is an experience; you just choose one of probably 30 different meat/vegetable cobinations, and the chef will pile it on a tostada with a bunch of cream and cheese.  I had one with a bottle of sangria (unfortunately only a kind of grape soda, but still worth trying) for 35 Mexican pesos (about 2.73 USD), and I felt full.  Top it off with a small quarter-kilo bag of gomas, or gummies, for 15 (about 1.12 USD)Mexican pesos; and you have an apparently Mexican lunch.


Score:  10/10
Why?  Once again, I was led by a woman who I didn't know.  Interestingly, life conversations happened, all of which ended in her ultimate piece of advice:  "nunca te pierdas," or, "don't lose yourself."
Additionally, resisting the urge to buy wrestling masks, pinatas, dried fruits, and other foods in hopes of finding the tostadas takes an uncanny amount of discipline.  But when you find it...  

TASK X:  If you have time/choose not to go to COYOACÀN, take metro towards SEVILLA and look for REFORMA, the most popular street in Mexico City with many memorable statues and buildings.  OR look for EL BOSQUE DE CHPULTEPEC, a beautiful forest/park with lakes and a palace inside.  OR ask for directions for LA CONDENSA, the "cool neighborhood" full of bars; restaurants, and little shops.  OR close by is LA ZONA ROSA, the gay area of the city.

Two things kept me from doing any of these options: 1) running around for so long really take's its toll on a traveller's legs, and 2) general paranoia of missing my plane to Paris convinced me to be back in the airport by 5 pm.  Really, my legs felt a pain I haven't experienced since kalaripayattu classes in India.  I've grown up with the general rule of arriving three hours before an international flight, but looking back at my friend of a friend's message, only two hours would have sufficed in Mexico City.  Ah, le sigh.  What could have happened.

Score:  3/10
Why?  I could actually feel my alternate universe being created as I boarded the metro back to the airport.  Who knows what would have happened there?  Fortunately, I made it back to the airport on time, bought a French phrasebook, and allowed myself to attempt to study the language for about an hour and a half.  Interestingly, the woman sitting next to me in the terminal spoke Spanish, and we discussed being able or not being able to speak French.  Conclusion: worse comes to worse, pretend I'm from South America.

Bonus Bonus Points and Penalties:

+5 for venturing around with a backpack, even though many people highly suggested not doing so.  AND nothing got stolen.

+ 5 for speaking Spanish and using it to ask for directions.  Especially when you don't normally believe in asking for directions.

+ 5 for doing extra things while still sticking to the instructions.  Seeing extra museums, visiting extra shops, and wandering over to look at that pretty display of colors actually didn't take away from the short-lived experience.

+ 5 for getting an extra stamp in the passport.  Unexpected, and makes one look even more cultured.

- 5 for losing 20 pesos/less than two dollars.

- 5 for not drinking any tequila or cerveza while in Mexico.  IN MEXICO.
Overall Bonus Round Score:   85 points.

Passing, but not as much as I'd like to be.  If I've learned anything from this experience, it's to MOVE QUICKLY, cut your losses when you can, and pack even more lightly than you expected.  Even though your instructions are written inside a journal, you don't need to carry all those things with you.  Nevertheless, realize that only a few hours' worth of venturing around a city isn't nearly enough time to actually get to know it.  But at least you took a considerable amount of pictures to pretend otherwise.

[ Mario ]

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Constant

"This," the Nomad said, waving his arm across the milonga, "is what's been keeping me sane here..  To have something so regular, something you can depend on, is what makes traveling so much more bearable."

Here's what I've learned during my time in the milongas of Buenos Aires:  In the grand not-so-linear equation of your life, many things change.  Friends, family, lovers, enemies, schools, homes, beliefs, favorite foods, and even fashion choices.  Few things, if any, stay the same.  But, in the midst of all this fluctuating line that never really seems to have a terminal point, you can pick out patterns that - for some reason - keep appearing.

Rediscovering an idea from a favorite episode of a favorite tv series, I realize how important it is to have a constant, something to which you can anchor yourself, something around which you can make choices, something from which you can plant yourself and grow wildly.  Without this constant, wandering loses meaning and venturing loses purpose.  Everything that changes around you sweeps you off your feet, and not in the romantic sense.  You land facedown on the ground, and the pain that comes with it isn't only physical.

There's a moment when your life brings a sudden change: whether you're going to a new school, a significant other decides to end a reasonably good relationship, you move to another country, or you decide to buy a different/more eco-friendly bottle of laundry soap.  It's in this moment when memories come flooding back and you realize what made your constant.  It's in this moment when you debate on whether or not the change is worthwhile, and if you're making a terrible mistake in allowing it to happen.

You reminisce about the first dance, toes you stepped on, sweaty shirts at three in the morning, learning Latvian polka, smoker's breaths, wine nights, and life conversations you had.  You remember the one time you met someone, and the hundreds of times you sat with the regulars.  Because, hey, now you're a regular.

Some might ask you why you didn't go here or there while you were in said location, and for a fleeting moment you'll feel like the bottom of a spittoon for not making more of your time.  It's not when you sit down and look through pictures and remember the private jokes and the conversations over Argentine beer that you understand it all.  You did make the most of your time.  Not in the way other people would, but you did.  And it wasn't through going to this famous museum or going to this famous part of the country, but it was through the people you met, the friends you made, the fleeting encounters you experienced.

For me, the constant is a temporary family you build in a moment, whether it's one almost-brother, or a whole collection of locals and travelers.  You might not see them everyday, but when you do, a very large part of you is at peace in a considerably restless place.  The beauty of it all is that for whatever little time you have together, you've come together for that one moment because you needed each other.  For that one moment, you depended on each other to be there, to become each other's constant.  Without that, living would be





And when the time comes - because it always comes - you'll separate.  You'll have gained what you needed from that experience, and as much as you don't want it to, it'll end.  You'll have that one last round until five in the morning, joking about Disney Princesses and why the hell you want to go to Paris instead of Riga.  You'll impersonate Cher, and then talk about zodiac signs, and then you'll slip into British accents in which you debate on how to pronounce "The Avengers."  And finally, you'll talk about when you'll meet again, and even though you say you'll come back, there's a haunting moment when you don't know if it's true.

You never know what happens.

Earlier this year, I would've said that dance was my constant.  It is, after all, one of two major themes in my year abroad.  Now that I'm coming down to the last two and a half months...  I can't be so sure.  Dance has been my 'vehicle' [in the words of the fellowship] that has carried me around to where I need to go.  Interestingly, it's been the people I meet through dance that have kept me sane this whole time.  Sometimes I wonder whether or not the next site will be the same [absorb the culture, learn some of the language, meet people, dance a lot, walk a lot, etc.], and then I have to remind myself that it almost never will be.  It can't.  That's a factoid of life.  You are the thing that changes the most during your lifetime, a product of the equation made of interactions, culture, education, home, experiences, and even food.  You can hardly ever rely on one element to stay the same, and I believe that your constant at one point in time might not be the same constant at another [yes, a paradox if not a self-negating comment on this entire post].

Constants change too.  You can lose them, and you just as easily gain make them.

The only thing I can hope for is that a new constant will be waiting for me wherever I go.  I just have to look for it.

[ The Variable ]

Friday, May 11, 2012

10 Pounds, 1 Hour

An easy to follow step-by-step 'How To' tutorial for one of the most important skills necessary in life!  In less than one hour, you too can lose 10 pounds in one hour!


Step 1:  Despite the advice you receive from your fellowship interviewer ["If you get this fellowship, I'd highly recommend traveling like they did in the old days...  Without a cell phone, laptop, iPod, etc."], pack the laptop, charger, videocamera, and even laptop desk lock you think is required to travel.

Step 2:  Also pack considerably useful gifts that friends have donated to you in the greater purpose of traveling.

Step 3:  Travel.  For a considerably long period of time.  To places you've never been, have always wanted to see, and will regret if you don't do before you die.  Because, hey, you have only one life.

Step 4:  Use said laptop and accessories frequently.  Almost unhealthily, sometimes to the point where you think it might actually be detrimental to your experience abroad.

Step 5:  Three-quarters of the way through your year, use your laptop to desperately try to watch 'The Hunchback of Notre Dame' on YouTube, realize it's only an edited copy [for some reason with all of the gargoyle dialogue cut out], and allow the computer to automatically shut down.

Step 6:  After several attempts to shut off and on the laptop [about a week's worth of attempts, just to make sure], begin to slap and punch it.  You know, just to make sure something that's moving inside shouldn't be.  Logic.

Step 7:  Take laptop to a modern nomad you dance with at milongas, drink several bottles of Argentine wine with him and his computer nerd roommates, eat plenty of olives, cheese, and dulce de membrillo, and share life secrets.  Maybe even learn to blow smoke rings using the modern nomad's smokeless pipe.  At the end of it all, realize you still have yet to identify the problem with your laptop, and actually begin to do it at six o' clock the following morning.

Step 8:  Learn that all of the information on your laptop might be gone.

Step 9:  Upon high recommendation by your host, take the laptop three blocks away to a computer technician who's supposedly fabuloso.

Step 10:  Realize he is.  Not only does he identify the problem with the laptop and transfers the most important documents from your harddrive onto a thumb drive, he does it for free.  Feeling bad, donate your laptop and charger to him and buy another memory card for your camera [chances of uploading photos in the last few months are now slim] and a pair of headphones to replace the broken one for your iPod [why did everything technical I own broke down in the same 24 hour span?].  At this point, he may offer to sell everything to you half off.  Agree, and realize you just fixed most of your problems for about $22 USD.

Step 11:  While on this purge, give to your host the videocamera and laptop lock.  You won't need it now. 

Step 12:  Ask dear friends who have donated things to you for traveling where you should send their things.  Let them tell you it's okay to just give it all away.

Step 13:  Donate said belongings to your host, who knows companies that will certainly give these belongings to the people who need them.

Step 14:  Continue traveling, this time physically and emotionally lighter.


These fourteen easy-to-follow steps are now in your hands!  Good luck, future weight-watcher!  Lose that weight; no traveling life is worth living if you haven't done so.  Why carry broken things when you can leave them behind?  Mmm, symbolism!

I myself have tried it only once, but I can attest to the effectiveness of this program!  If I've learned anything from this How-To, it's this: losing weight in a healthy and safe manner can make you incredibly happy.  Incredibly.

Note:  Actual weight loss may vary.  I've lost about 10 pounds, but there's so much more weight I can lose before heading off to the City of Lights!

Note:  How do you continue to communicate with friends and family and update your blog regularly while traveling?  You don't.

Note:  However, you might occasionally run into a roommate, host, stranger, or internet cafe where they'll let you use one for a while.  Maybe.

[Tim O'Brien]