December 30, 2016

Mazatlan Musings

We headed down to Mazatlan to meet up with some friends and pass 8 days in an economy that was much easier on our wallets than California.  Even with free lodging, the cost of food and coffee in California was shocking after 9 weeks in South America.

Oh, man, Mazatlan is amazing.  Paved roads, modern cars, painted curbs, electricity, *laundromats that are reasonably priced* and SUCH GREAT FOOD!

Out for a day on the bay on the S/V Dakota
 The dollar is freakishly strong against the Mexican Peso right now, so the cost of living in Mazatlan was roughly similar to many of the places we'd been in South America, but the standards are much more developed.  Overall, it was very easy to see why so many Americans and Canadians choose to retire in Mazatlan. 
Best seat on the boat.
One drawback (for me) was that English is much more widely spoken in Mazatlan than where we were in South America.  I still got to use my Spanish and it did come in handy now and then, but often people wanted to practice their English. 

Tuna Carnitas.  Just think about that...
I was so very sad to leave the last location on our Sabbatical where I could speak Spanish every day.  I *really* enjoy struggling through life in another language and the feeling of learning every day.  If I had the year to plan again, I might consider doing a full year immersed in a single language.

The best part of Mazatlan was definitely spending time with our friends and getting to hang out with them on the boat, getting a feel for their dock-based life and comparing notes on their nomadic boat year vs. our nomadic stay-wherever year. 

We didn't really have a strong relationship with their children before, but after 8 days, we definitely have a sense of who they are. 

Getting to know our friends' and families' children has actually been one of the surprising benefits of this Sabbatical.  We didn't even consider it as something we'd be doing when we made our original plan, but because we've imposed upon and stayed with friends and family along the way we've gotten to spend time getting to know all sorts of hilarious and adorable little people related to the big people we know and love.

December 22, 2016

The Pearl (Steinbeck)

I was very happy to find an accessible literary classic based in Mexico that was set more or less in an area where I was headed (La Paz on the Baja side of the Sea of Cortez, not far from where our sailing friends had departed for their crossing to Mazatlan).

I read in bed and by the pool as an additional effort in my not-so-successful struggle to increase my literary education while getting the most from our sabbatical year.

The prose is chest-thumping poetry of rhyme and song. The seed is an epic story that’s been retold by the native peoples of the region over time and eventually shared with Steinbeck. But, Steinbeck’s version is written as a musically evocative pattern of simple short direct English sentences occasionally punctuated with Spanish and the unique sounds of the native peoples’ speech from the Sea of Cortez.

This work inspired me - reading and hearing the words in my head was a pleasure on every page, even while it was *so* depressing. I had forgotten about the sense of foreboding I felt ¾ of the way through Of Mice and Men, but this book brought it right back to me in all of its unique horrific building tension.

The native peoples and poverty in this book was quite the contrast to staying in Mazatlan, primarily hanging out with the sailing/cruising community, and occasionally interacting with the full-on dedicated gringo beach tourist community.

That difference between the parable Steinbeck wrote in 1947 and reality of where/what I was experiencing today helped me mentally tie together so much of what I was trying to process about the blending of the formerly (and sometimes still) thriving native communities in South America and the European immigrants into the current South American reality we experienced on our 2+ month tour.

If you are looking for a good classic Mexican-based novella (or a good intro to Steinbeck’s writing style), I highly recommend this one. (2 of my favorite excerpts below, for your reading pleasure.)

For it is said that humans are never satisfied, that you give them one thing and they want something more. And this is said in disparagement, whereas it is one of the greatest talents the species has and one that has made it superior to animals that are satisfied with what they have. 

The killing of a man was not so evil as the killing of a boat. For a boat does not have sons, and a boat cannot protect itself, and a wounded boat does not heal.

December 15, 2016

Prisoners of Geography: 10 Maps That Explain Everything About the World

I had so many goals for the sabbatical.  And I knew I would in no way come close to even accomplishing most of them.

But, frankly, this is how I roll when I'm at my best.  I dream big and too much.  Then, I try to make space for everything I'd like to have happen in my life, even though I know it is impossible.  Instead of lamenting all of the failures that are inevitable, I try to keep an open mind and recognize situations where it makes sense to focus and apply effort because life and luck have put me in a situation where hard work is highly likely to pay big results towards one of my goals.  Essentially, I am the opposite of focused until I decide that it's time to be committed.

This is a very long-winded way of saying that some of the many things I was hoping for myself out of this sabbatical were to become more educated with respect to geography, history, anthropology, literature, and language.  Literature, has been quite the struggle, thus far.  But, thanks to travel forcing it on me, I have happily increased my knowledge with respect to geography, history, anthropology, and language, primarily just as a result of going places and interacting with the people there.

I picked up this book at my local hometown bookseller on a walk while waiting for takeout to bring to the friends who were hosting us.  It was the first non-travel physical book I'd read in ages, which no doubt helped contribute to its enjoyment by me (I love the kindle, but I miss real books!).

More importantly, this book informed me on geography, historical military conflicts (and how geography affects them), and all sorts of stuff that I think classically educated people (or war history nerds like my husband) already know.

But I didn't know much of what this book explained.  Russia's population is only 144 Million(ish)?  There are all sorts of disputed land claims in the Arctic?  The current peace in Europe (during my lifetime) is actually the longest period of peace they've had in ages?  The population of Tibet is now 90% Han Chinese?  Argentina was a top 10 economy in the beginning of the 1900s? 

So, yeah, this book was a big hit for me (Maps and Data! What's not to like?).  First, it was well-written, with great maps, and easy to process (at the risk of admitting that perhaps it simplified things too much, but if your choice is over-simplification or nothing, you may want to opt to start with simplification).

I feel much closer to my goal of a geographical education during the sabbatical than I did before I read this book. If you are not a hyper-war-history-nerd who is likely to already know the basics of the regional geography and history of each of the chapters, I think you would find this book very well-written, enlightening, well-laid out, and interesting.  

December 8, 2016

What is Okay?

So, 5ish months in, one of the biggest things I've learned from this Sabbatical is that there are any number of ways to think about what is "okay." 

Santiago Street Peacock.
In my hometown, okay means the 24 hour grocery store is open all the time (I don't have to plan for food needs), the gas stations always have gas (I don't have to plan for travel needs), the ATMs always have money, but also everyone takes credit cards (I don't have to plan for currency needs), the electricity is always on, the water is always running and hot and potable, and everything *just* *works*.

Big Fish at GAM (

This backdrop of everything just working supports the Silicon Valley lifestyle I've had for the last decade plus, where I work way more than 40 hours per week most of the time because I don't have to schedule the downtime to manage the little life things like picking up prescriptions or bread or laundry.  I can just do those things whenever suits me, more or less.

Native Sculpture in Plaza De Armas

But traveling, even in the US and Canada, you leave a bit of that convenience behind.  On the road trip in US and Canada, we were checking in and out of hotels/motels and using laundromats while relying on shaky Internet and going through very long stretches of rural nothingness (including US federal and mid-western numbered state roads that were unpaved).  During our road trip, it was clear that basic things had started to take more time and so we started to build in more space and time to handle the unknown, even in our homeland, home language, home culture.

Enter South America.

Guess what?

Famous Bogota Gate of Graffiti from El Pez (

The South American idea of Okay is *very* far off of the urban US idea of Okay. 

Toilets?  Ideally they'll flush, but maybe dangerously close to overflowing, and *definitely* you can't flush your toilet paper (unless you're somewhere fancy, where they will have a sign bragging about how you shouldn't throw your toilet paper on the ground and should instead (gasp) embrace the fancy place you are and put it in the inodoro (you know, the thing that eliminates odors).

We didn't try any of the treats from the Woman of Ceviche in the Panama Fish Market.

Water?  Tap water was often not drinkable and gross even if not dangerous.  Occasionally it was straight up not potable (usually with a notice of work hours when you can't drink the water, but occasionally, in places like Lima, just embarrassing for a major city not to have this issue under control).  Unless it was known as bad or disgusting, we drank tap water and had drinks with ice on our travels and were very pleased not to get sick from the water on this trip -- we thank all of the cheap wine for keeping our systems extra sanitary.

Trash?  What?  Throw it out the car window.  Litter on the freeways.  Put it somewhere sort of near the extra-full bin.  Or, in the case of the rubbish strike in Valparaiso, just pile it up in the middle of the street for one full month of stink.  This was okay for them.  They were sort of upset, but not really.  They knew it would work out eventually, and they were right.  It did.

This an okay stove in Peru (Guinea Pigs fattening up by scraps in the floor not shown)

Safety?  See that ledge without a barricade?  Good.  Don't go over it.  See that rusty bit of metal?  Good, don't touch it.  The South American version of safety assumes a much stronger sense of self determinism and control than the US (perhaps Californian?) version does.  I found myself being much more thoughtful about my own safety there because I *had* to be.  I couldn't trust that dangerous situations would be identified for me, so I started to do my own surveys.

Time?  Definite commitments of time are not a thing in South America.  They acknowledge all of the variables that could go wrong and merely target general time goals.  Everyone hopes it works out, but if it doesn't no one is super upset, they just try maƱana. This is their version of Okay. 

Duck taped boots?  Just fine on our final portion of the hike through the Andes.
The German/Swiss/US time-billing culture, on the other hand, assumes that it is our obligation to manage our own variables to ensure we can meet time goals to ensure that third parties can depend upon us.  This is our Okay.  But there is so much infrastructure in place to support us in doing so that it is *reasonably* possible. 

This approach is just not remotely possible in South America and nothing brought this reality home to me more than the AirBNB host who waited 3 hours for us in the apartment.  She knew the earliest we could have arrived, and she just was willing to wait as long as was required for us to get there (after crossing the Argentinian/Chilean border in the Andes).  This was Okay for her.  We were very grateful.  But I couldn't imagine a Californian AirBNB host waiting in the unit for 3 hours for the guests to arrive simply because their flight/train/whatnot was delayed.

The Rosario fountain show was all kinds of broken.  But it, too, was okay.

In short, the way your local culture treats "Okay" is a serious issue that determines quite a bit of your quality of life.  High standards of Okay are easy for the folks who live there, but more than likely, if you are a service provider or otherwise working in that environment, a high standard of Okay is high stress for you, because you are not allowed any external excuses.  Meanwhile, a lower standard of Okay has lots of slack, much less immediate stress, and while traveling, for us, is much easier to handle assuming we build in the time for the assumed non-starts. 

Overall, I think in retirement I'd prefer to be in a less high-standard Okay society.  But, in an emergency, I think I'd much rather be in a society with a very high standard of Okay.