Morocco For FLAUNT, Southeast Asia For BILLBOARD (head exploding emoji)

I HAVE TO WRITE THIS IN ALL CAPS BECAUSE I STILL CAN’T BELIEVE BOTH OF THESE WRITING ASSIGNMENTS HAPPENED LAST YEAR AND I’VE NEVER BEEN ONE OF THOSE COOL GIRLS WHO ACTS LIKE IT’S NBD WHEN STUFF LIKE THIS HAPPENS ESPECIALLY BECAUSE WRITING WINS ARE FEW AND FAR BETWEEN SO OKAY HERE ARE LINKS TO TWO INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES I WENT ON AND WROTE ABOUT THAT GOT PUBLISHED!!!!

We Toured Southeast Asia With the Ed Banger Crew

Drowning In Delight – A Morocco Tale

What I Look Like Tired, Ross Butler, And Morocco!

My official Moon Manor writer/director portrait taken on set December 2018 by @thisheartofstone. Looks like a back-to-school picture, and that’s how it felt too. Excitement, exhaustion, glee. We’re deep in post production. Magick is brewing. http://www.moonmanormovie.com

New PRINT story!! There’s nothing quite like holding your words in physical form, especially when that form is pretty as @flauntmagazine. Other than #rossbutler being such a nice dude, the highlight here was getting a teensy bit of redemption for the car accident I got into driving to the interview. Full story on newsstands and online: http://www.flaunt.com/content/ross-butler.

Gig of a lifetime!!!! Thrilled and honored and stoked to say I’ll be joining the @sol.selectas journey to Morocco as the caravan storyteller!!! All those years writing about my travels on this blog are paying off, no one was reading it (except my sister, love you sister) but I was finding my voice and now that translates to work and pinch me how is this real life?!! There are a few tickets left if you want to comeeeeeee. 🐫 http://www.solsahara.com

 

Crazy Sexy Cool

TLC was hugely important to my young self. The album CrazySexyCool was the crossroads of my childhood to adolescence. I had a bootleg cassette a friend recorded on her boombox because I wasn’t allowed to have it (they used swear words! they sang about sex!). I remember the main albums in my life at that time were Garth Brooks Greatest Hits and the Lion King soundtrack. I remember burying the Lion King behind my books and thinking “I’m too old for this, now I listen to TLC.”

With my tiny allowance I bought posters of T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli, but my mom made me take them down so I just moved them into my closet behind my clothes so I could go in there, listen to my bootleg cassette on my Walkman and peek at my heroes. A few weekends ago watching them perform at Kaaboo Del Mar (#RIPLeftEye) was a life dream, and I realized what I’d been connecting to so intensely as a kid. I was too young to know it, but subconsciously I was absorbing their messages of female empowerment. “Unpretty” “No Scrubs” “Waterfalls” … peer behind the catchy hooks and what they’re saying is “respect yourself, you’re more than your looks, be your own hero.” Their performance yesterday didn’t miss a beat, and they were so gracious to their fans. Thanks for everything, TLC. Love forever, Erin Granat, Your Fan.

Beyond grateful to have a job that entails me musing about concerts. Check out my Kaaboo IG Highlight over at @uproxxtravel, article coming soon.

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Went To San Francisco, Told A Story

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Went to San Francisco last week to read a new story for @backpocketpresents “Five Senses.” There were five storytellers, each reading about one of the senses. Mine was “Touch.” Somehow, being on stage speaking is when I feel the least self-conscious (I’m available for weddings and bar mitzvahs!). I fucking love storytelling shows and this was a gooood one. Told a story about what I call my “Telemundo Time” … when my life was so dramatic it rivaled any telenovela on the air. I might try to publish the story somewhere, but I probably won’t. Too many secrets revealed. Which is the beauty of storytelling shows, it exists once verbally and it’s gone forever. More, please.

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The True Story Of Travel Addiction

I used to feel happiest when traveling. Experiencing new places, new people, my only job to discover and explore. It was a hack to feel present, when in reality my inner life was fixated on the past or worrying about the future. My self-worth was based on what exciting new adventure I was cooking up. The truth is I was running – from responsibility, from commitment, from myself. My constant companions were anxiety, credit card debt, and a bunch of photos of the places I’d been that nothing to anyone but me.

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Today, being at home is as fulfilling as being abroad. I especially love my office. It overlooks the yard with the pond and the majestic tree. The light is more buttery and brilliant than anywhere I’ve yet seen. This is where I’ve cooked up Forever Flowers, essays and blog posts. This is where @machetebangbang and I have written Moon Manor, with our dog / cat / chameleon colleagues nearby. My office is on the other side of the bathroom, a weird secret hovel high up with the squirrels and scarabs. My mind feels good here. Passport stamps are cool, but inner peace is the best high of all.

 

Every Summer I Amtrak

Everything on the train is grubby, and it’s more expensive than a flight. But something happens to the mind when on the train. The tethers are loosened. You enter a meditative state. The most fruitful writing and reading time. Nature drifts by outside and you have the best seat in the house. You pass rivers and mountains not even cars can access. It’s the best of all worlds, I’m in a comfortable seat watching the world like a movie screen. Neighborhoods with neighborhood things—kids jumping on trampolines, clothes drying on the line, rusted cars and stray dogs. This trip was 36 hours, my longest yet. The Coast Starlight through the forest and the agricultural fields and the ocean. America’s great West Coast journeying Seattle > LA.

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The Other Tulum

Last month was my birthday so I ran away to Tulum for a few days. To me, this picture is México. Rather than the beach and margaritas and all that, it’s the dusty roads, the bark of raggedy dogs, the delightful, too sweet taste of Mexican Coke.

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Remembering my first visits to México as a tween, giddy to buy cheap beer without an ID, the rough streets of those early days of Sayulita where Beth’s family had a house and we had a whole other life we’d bi-annually dip into and be “G.I.T.s” … Gypsies In Training.  I decided last minute to come on this trip, so maybe I became a gypsy after all? But that’s a cultural appropriation – gypsies are a people who’ve been persecuted terribly over the centuries, the Coachella-fication of their aesthetic on par with Tulum’s tourists who know nothing about the tension simmering under the sunburned streets. But let me not travel down that path. This is a “HBD to me” post after all. Age just has a way of ripping off the blinders. 

Back to waxing poetic about the intoxicating magic of México. And thanking @our_habitas and @uproxxtravel for giving me wings to explore @artwithmetulum. A new year for new opportunities. Shameless hotel balcony selfies shall endure, however.

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I hope more festivals will take a cue from @artwithmetulum and #partyforapurpose. Four days of art, music and food centered around talks on sustainability and social change. I did a story over at @uproxxtravel if you wanna go seeeee. “The mission of Art With Me *GNP is to enrich the local community, preserve the natural environment and strengthen the artistic development of Tulum through conscious and sustainable practice. Art With Me has chosen solid waste management as the central environmental topic for its’ first year, due to the threat it has on the Mesoamerican ReefSystem (SAM), the ocean and the local people of Tulum.” This was a great sculpture at Art With Me by Daniel Popper. Installations like this were hidden everywhere in the beach and the jungle. Photo by Peter Ruprecht.

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An Ode To Hotel Rooms

I.
Hotel rooms strike me as the loveliest and loneliest places on earth
Everything is fresh, the illusion of perfect
A temporary home in a tower of travelers
When you don’t have to worry about clean towels or making the bed 
The mind can dive into more existential pursuits
The square of toilet paper origami
The smart appeal of bleach
A room service pre-order form, so you can eat bacon and eggs two minutes upon waking
52 channels to flip through, the only place left to watch basic cable and 
feel like a kid again

II.
But after a few days, your clean paradise becomes a prison
And it’s depressing to be in a room masquerading as your own but it belonged to the guy before you and the family after you and really it belongs to the maid
And the plastic key is so plastic
And they politely request in an aggressive way
That you check out by 11am
Where once the bland painting on the wall was blessedly free of personal attachment, it’s now offensive in its non offensive-ness,
And maybe you peek behind it and see a doodle left by a past resident
And you’re disgruntled you didn’t think to do something edgy like that
The bad coffee in its single serving pouch makes you mad because you’re a single serving person in a single serving room in this single serving life

III.
And so you go home, where the to-do list lives, and boxes that need sorting left over from when you moved in, and the oven needs fixing
But it’s perfect in its imperfection because it sounds like ice cream trucks and lawn mowers outside because it’s a neighborhood
And it’s a home
And it’s yours

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Our short film that pissed off the religious right, and unrelated realizations about skiing

I had my first experience with religious zealots! This was originally going to be a post celebrating that CONFETTI, the wonderful weird short film by @machetebangbang that I acted in and 1st AD’ed won the Vanguard Award for Best Experimental Short at the Lindsey Film Festival (hooray!), BUT THEN, friends who have since become very … passionate … about their religious beliefs started commenting on my Facebook that I clearly worship Lucifer and “serve evil at its core.” I appreciate social media being a platform for discussion, so I’m leaving the comments up. But spreading negativity and judgement does not interest me. You’ve been blocked.

On a lighter note, this is one of my favorite films I’ve ever been involved with. The irony is, it’s quite literally about spreading the light. WATCH it here. Congrats, team. This was one for the ages.

 

In totally unrelated news …

Uproxx Travel sent me to Sun Valley, Idaho last week to attend the Sun Valley Film Festival and to experience experiences, and it was my first time back on skis in 7 years and it didn’t suck. I told myself I quit skiing because it was too expensive, too repetitive, too obnoxious (rich white people sport). Growing up in the Tahoe area with ski bums as parents, I was skiing before I could walk. It’s the one athletic thing I’m pretty good at, and the one thing that was easy to quit when I wanted to move to Spain and needed spending money, so I sold all my gear. Getting back on the mountain last week was surprisingly emotional, and now I know the truth.

I quit skiing because it was too painful a reminder of my family being happy and together, before my mom got sick. She was an excellent skier, the best in our family, and skiing without her felt pointless and so, so cold.

But as I sat on the chairlift in Sun Valley, I remembered to remember the happy memories and not dwell on the sad stuff. And for a moment I was a kid again, my sister and I snuggled between my parents on the lift, life extending only so far as the next hot cocoa we’d get in the lodge, my mom glamorous in her ski onesie, all of us smelling like sunscreen, my dad rubbing my hands to keep them warm.

Another reason I quit is because when I was 7 years old I fell 80 feet off a chairlift (or was it 70 feet when I was 8? I have to check the newspaper article about it), and I’ve been plagued with extreme fear of heights ever since. But that’s a story for the article.

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Travels with the moon

 

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The moon is mysterious — always changing shapes, always rising and setting at different times. It’s a wild banshee compared to the sun, ever constant in its brightness.

The moon is alluring, too — so seductive that the tides move at her will (don’t talk to me about gravity, I’m being lyrical here). And yes, the feminine pronoun shall be used to reference her, because women have a special connection to that round lantern in the sky. The lunar cycle is 29.5 days long, the same length as a menstrual cycle.

I love the moon in a way I don’t love — or even notice — other celestial bodies. And so, after intending to do it forever, I finally went on a dedicated full moon hike. Meaning, I wasn’t out at night and “just happened” to glance skyward. Instead, I went out to purposefully hike by her light. It was an adventure available to us all, wherever we are, for free.

My moon hike happened New Year’s Day, the first full moon of the year. I was back home in Northern Nevada and had the wild hair (what a funny expression, is it just one singular hair that’s wild? where does this hair grow?) to get in touch with my inner pagan. It was time to check “moon walk” off my list of life experiences.

Following my wild hair, I went to the internet, which told me that the local parks and recreation department was leading a full moon hike around Wahoe Lake, the small body of water between Carson City and Reno. God love parks and rec departments. I’d never actually been to this lake, Lake Tahoe kinda steals the thunder of all lakes around here, so it seemed all was in “alignment,” as they say.

Here’s what happened when I arrived: http://www.uproxx.com/life/mega-moon-hike

Fear and Loving At the Key West Literary Seminar

I’m currently at the Key West Literary Seminar in Key West, Florida. My friend Ian Rowan is Technical Director of the Seminar and invited me down to soak up the presence and presentations of some of the most important writers working today. Jamaica Kincaid, Teju Cole, Joy Williams, Marlon James … to name a few.

I’m feeling intimidated … to put it lightly.

So I took a break to tour the manor Ernest Hemingway called home for 10 years here in Key West. There are 54 six toed cats that live on the property.

The house was lovely, situated right next to the Key West lighthouse. The tour guide told us ol’ Hem would use the lighthouse to find his way home from the bars.

The tour was a lot of anecdotes about Hemingway’s drunkenness and wife-hopping. Funny that’s what people are intrigued by. I wanted to hear about his writing rituals, his routines.

Maybe it’s karmic retribution for what a slog writing can be as an art form. Writers can behave badly, and it’s considered eccentric, charming even, and tourists will pay $14 half a century later to peep their bathrooms and closets. 

In the bookstore I bought Martha Gellhorn’s memoir, she was a novelist and one of the most important war correspondents of the 20th century, and Hemingway’s third wife. I feel like I shouldn’t even mention their marriage, and she famously wouldn’t talk about it in interviews, because she didn’t want to “be a footnote in someone else’s life.”

“Everyone behaves badly–given the chance.” Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises. 

 

What you can’t see in the following photo is butterflies are fluttering all around me like a goddamn Disney dreamland. Which is how it felt to be a surprise scholarship recipient for a @keywestliteraryseminar workshop. After visiting the butterfly sanctuary I read a few short stories over coffee, then went to hear luminaries such as Manuel Gonzales and Billy Collins discuss craft, poetry, and the writing life. Every now and then, life gives us a perfect day. This was one of them. 

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Releasing lanterns, hoping it’s not dumb

I wrote this last month for Uproxx.com, still ruminating on it. I’d always wanted to attend a lantern fest, but there’s something that feels inherently wrong about a pretty event that’s meant to pay tribute to those who’ve suffered. Like when celebrities have $10,000 galas for charity. I know the heart is in the right place, but I feel weird about it. I like the article, though. Been a big triumph this year to publish regularly. Think I’ll keep at it.

Releasing Lanterns With Messages Of Healing And Hoping It’s Not Dumb

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Still thinking about that eclipse …

There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t think about the total eclipse. The thrilling / terrible feeling of whoever’s in charge turning down the sun dial like “Watch what I can do, silly humans.” I’ve never felt so insignificant, yet interconnected. The only event that’s affected me in the same way was being in the room as my niece was born. Both experiences are tattooed on my soul. 

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A “pretty white girl” writes about Burning Man

Unpacking The Lies You Tell Yourself At Burning Man

Who knew getting hated on could be so rewarding? To date, the essay I wrote about my Burning Man experience (see above) has been read ­­­­­50,000 + times. This might be normal for other writers, but since I’m usually locked away in a long form narrative, this shit never happens to me.

I’ve felt elated, proud, shocked, seen, and – hurt. Because there’s also been a lot of backlash. By readers who hate Burning Man in general and thus hate the article (which is such a curiosity, to take the time to read AND comment on an event you’ve never attended but loathe intensely … Burning Man is so charged like that). And by Burners themselves who hate – well, me. Or at least what I wrote, what I represent, “everything that’s going downhill about Burning Man.” To get backlash from the community stings a little. Okay, a lot. I got called a Sparklepony. In Burn culture, this is very, very unflattering.

When I look back at what I wrote, in the midst of unpacking the rental van, hair ratted, bike chafed, picking playa dust out of my eyelashes, mourning the loss of my sleep schedule, hoping we wouldn’t get charged a cleaning fee on the van, getting charged anyway, catching up on bills and checking in with family, yeah I cringe at how obnoxious the article is at times. But in that haze of post peak experience deadline drama, I had no time to self-censor, no time to organize my thoughts beyond a brain dump of what the experience was like inside my neurotic, self-judgmental mind.

I agree with some of the detractors. I wasn’t there for my camp as much as I could’ve been, admitting lugging grey water in apocalyptic heat was the hardest physical labor I’ve ever done was a pretty embarrassing window into my privileged existence. But the comments that piss me off are the ones that refer to me as “just another pretty white girl.” This means my experience isn’t valid? This means I can’t have a point of view?

Would it have made a difference if I’d divulged that I’ve spent the last year as caretaker to my very ill father? That getting to spend a week feeling alive in the desert was the antidote to our endless ER visits. And that before that I was holding space for my boyfriend when he got run over by an SUV, breaking both legs and spending months in a wheelchair. And that he and I got our Burning Man tickets as the goal on the horizon when he would walk again. And that even though we’re not together anymore, my ultimate Burn highlight was when we found each other on the playa under the moon, marveling that he could not only walk but dance and ride a bike, and we held the solar shower for each other as we took little bird baths and discussed our favorite art installations.

If I’d shared all that, would it have made a difference?

Or is that just something a pretty white girl would say?

With that said, now I’ll do the only thing you really can do in life: focus on the light.

In this case: the positive feedback the article has generated. Readers who’ve shared El Guaco-esque experiences of their own, and the owner of El Guaco himself, who found me on Facebook to say El Guaco is his playa contribution because he’s an introvert and this is how he feels comfortable interacting with people.

Some other things I need to say:

–My heart is heavy for the man who ran into the fire, for his family, for those who witnessed it. I didn’t address this in the article because I wanted to gently shine a light on all the other aspects of the experience. I don’t have anything poetic to say about it, just had to acknowledge it.

–I love bike culture at Burning Man. It’s such a return to childhood, riding around with your friends, your bike posse. It’s the perfect example of the duality out there, hedonistic activities happening simultaneously as you get in touch with your inner child.

–Something needs to be said about baby wipes at Burning Man. They are a gift from heaven. That’s all.

–To save face, I know I should write more about my previous Burns, in response to the commenters who wrote that it’s sad I’d been 4 times and was still such a “spectator.” But that’s another article for another time. And I’m pretty ready to be done with Burning Man for the year.

The last thing I want to say is I’ve had haters before. I wrote a sex column for a semester in college that was so divisive I got both applauded by my First Amendment and Society professor, and nearly kicked out of school. Being the center of such turmoil was thrilling, and embarrassing. It was right after my mom’s death and I was in a very “fuck it” place in my life. I’d be lying if I said the backlash didn’t affect me deeply. I wanted to hide for the entire year following. What’s changed in ten years? Then I was writing for shock affect, this time I was authentically expressing myself and my experience. I think I just have a somewhat salacious way of moving through life. I’ve also had ten years of rejection and disappointment to get me primed.

Okay, controversy. Okay, Burning Man. I’ve said all I can say. I’m done. For the year. Or longer. Or not.

17 things that surprised me about Cuba.

Yes, 17 things. Because Cuba is the most unique place I’ve ever traveled. The sweet sharp rum. The magnificent crumbling buildings. The gorgeous people and their difficult history.

My trip came together on Christmas Eve and I arrived Havana the eve of New Year’s Eve, so I had little time to build expectations. Probably doesn’t matter. Even if I’d been prepping the trip for months I’d still be blown away. Thus, having gone into the experience a blank slate, here are 17 things that surprised me about Cuba.

#1) It was easy to fly there, in a complicated way. Commercial flights are now happening from the U.S. straight to Cuba, but you still need to prove you’re going for one of 12 “official” reasons (you can’t go simply as a tourist). But hacking the system is way more fun! We flew to Mexico City and bought a one-way ticket at the Cubana Air office, which took a few days to figure out and included exploring the Witch Market and a Lucha Libre match. It was a *tiny* bit stressful carrying all our cash around one of the most dangerous cities in the world (you can’t buy a flight to Cuba with an American credit card), but finding an open Cubana office also felt like a treasure hunt (they’re open for like three hours a day, an hour of which is lunch-I liked these people already).

#2) When you stay with a family, you become part of the family. The best accommodations in Cuba are the casa particulares, basically, renting a room from a family. For around $30/night, you get a clean room, breakfast, and the chance to see what Cuban life is really like. Maybe we got lucky, but our family was the shit. We went together to the beach, to the river, they drove us where we wanted to go in the city and helped us plan the rest of our trip. Two nights booked at the casa became six nights, and whether they like it or not, I now consider Martique to be my Cuban mom, Yoe to be the affable dad-who’s-more-like-a-friend, 19 year-old Alejandra to be my hermana pequeña, and the 13 year-old son (who’s name I think is Alejandro but seems unlikely, right?) to be the little brother I don’t really have a relationship with because all he does is play video games. They spoke no English, so I finally got to live out my dream of being the foreign exchange student with the cute accent who’s always saying funny stuff like “estoy embarazada” (meant to say: “I’m embarrassed” actually said: “I’m pregnant”).

#3) New Year’s Eve is NOT a party night. I’d imagined myself with new Cuban friends, rum drunk in the street as we salsa danced into the new year. I’d even brought a cheap gold “2016” crown from home (nerd alert!). This was not to be, however, as Alejandra informed me NYE is a family night, everyone stays in and has a big dinner. We were invited to feast with them, and had a delicious meal of chicken, pork, black beans and rice, plantains and tres leches cake (worth mentioning: the BBQ was a DIY creation made from an old propane tank). Two traditions were throwing a bucket of water out the door at midnight to cleanse the year past, and burning scarecrow-like effigies in the street (more tame than it sounds). After dinner we walked the dog to the neighbor’s house to play dominoes. At 1:30am Alejandra said she’d heard about a party at the Port we could try and get into (so it IS a party night, parties just start way late after family dinner?)…fast forward a few hours and we’re meeting Fidel Castro’s granddaughter at a swanky house on the water. ¡Felicidades!

#4) Cuban guys sculpt their eyebrows. The most lovely shaped brows I’ve ever seen were on the faces of the macho Cuban men. An unscientific visual survey confirmed they also shave their arms and legs. Perhaps they’re trying to keep up with the gorgeous Cuban women. Cuban is a melting pot of African, Caribbean, and European culture, creating stunning, mixed-race humans the likes of which I’ve seen only in Brazil. And they’re so sexy! Even the official uniforms of the girls working at the airport were mini-skirts and black fishnets.

#5) It is NOT possible to get sick of rum. It’s the nectar of life.

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#6) It IS possible to get sick of Adele’s new album. — It was the only music I had actually on my phone. No wifi meant no streaming meant Hey Adele, if you’ve called 1,000 times and no one is answering maybe you have the WRONG FUCKING NUMBER!


#7) It is possible to get SLIGHTLY sick of cigars. — Did you know cigars are just dried tobacco leaves rolled together? You’re smoking leaves. I didn’t know that. And they’re really green and pretty when hung up, like the pic. But they started giving me a headache, and/or that’s because it’s still legal to smoke cigarettes everywhere in Cuba.

#8) Cuba is freaking beautiful. I was expecting lovely beaches, but wasn’t prepared for the green hills, red soil, and exotic flowers. Like you see in Viñales, a country region a few hours from Havana. We arrived at night, so was blown away by the view that greeted us in the morning. I also didn’t realize a lot of the country was built in the 1500s and 1600s, creating a unique mixture with the buildings built in mod 1950s style. And! I was surprised to find out how big Cuba is, it’s the largest island in the Caribbean. A bus ride to Cienfuegos or Trinidad, two cities a lot of travelers visit, was 6 hours from Havana. And that’s staying on the west coast of the island.

#9) Cuba just got the Internet, but they still don’t have advertising. Some people told me the Internet came to Cuba 15 days ago, others said 3 months. As I experienced more than once on my trip, it’s hard to get a straight answer on anything in Cuba. I do know this: when Martique (the mom at our casa particular) said there was Internet at the park, I thought she meant there was an Internet cafe. I went looking for the cafe, and found dozens of people with their laptops filling every bench IN the park. As in, when Cuba decided to allow its citizens wifi, it became available only in a few select parks in the city. On some street corners (near parks) you can access it as well. Martique mentioned it was an effort to clean up the hotels, previously the only place to log-on, an unpleasant experience for high-paying tourists to find their lobby packed with Cubans vying for enough of a signal to make a 15-second video call to relatives in the States. She said they put extra benches in parks and now that’s where one goes to do Internet-ing, “como si fuéramos animales.” You still need to buy an Internet card, you get an hour at a time, which costs up to $7 in hotels, and there’s an emerging street hustle of selling the cards on the street for $1 or $2.

Not that they haven’t had content this whole time. From the Miami Herald: “Because of the severe lack of web access on the island, many people subscribe to the underground paquete, a weekly package of programming bought and sold on thumbdrives, or, for those who can afford them, external hard drives. The paquete sells for between 2 to 3 CUCs — the Cuban currency roughly equivalent to dollars — per week, and buyers can watch, among hundreds of offerings, recent episodes of Game of Thrones, Veep, and The Mindy Project.”

As a Communist country, there’s still a general lack of advertising. No messages shouted at you from billboards or bus stops. No images forced into your brain. No suggestions on what to eat, think, wear. Not being constantly plugged-in is something I always enjoy about traveling, but the lack of advertising felt like a cleansing of the palate.

#10) Cuba is FULL of tourists. It might not be a common place for Americans to go, but the rest of the world long ago made Cuba its playground. To the point that Habana Vieja (Old Town) is like visiting Epcot Disneyworld (why do so many tourists wear workout clothes or sweats when traveling? I get wanting to be comfortable, but you’re not working out, you’re not napping…no entiendo). Tourism is a very good thing for Cuba, however. When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, Cuba had an extreme economic collapse. From Lonely Planet: “Almost overnight half the factories closed, the national economy shrunk by 60%, and Cubans who had been relatively well-off a year or so earlier, faced a massive battle just to survive.” In 1993, attempting to revive itself, Cuba legalized the US dollar and opened the country up to tourism and limited forms of private enterprise. Tourism is how they’ve been able to recover.

#11) The classic cars aren’t classic on the inside, and there’s no toilet paper. All those beautiful cars from the 1950s? For the most part, the engines are new, and often the interiors as well. So you hail a taxi, and from the outside you step into a ’56 Chevy, but on the inside you find yourself in ’02 Peugeot. Also, lots of taxis that stop aren’t actually taxis, just people looking to make an extra buck. Which is cool. Also also, for some reason Cubans love to put Mac Apple stickers on their gorgeous classic cars. And, most of the old cars have one handle to roll down every window, so you have to pass it back and forth. Worth noting: January 2014 was the first time a Cuban was allowed to buy a car without a government permit in over 50 years. Not related, but also interesting: there’s a severe lack of toilet paper in Cuba. Paper goods in general. This is why you see people bringing toilet paper with their carry-ons at the airport, and why the pizza we ordered one night was served on printer paper rather than a plate.

#12) Cubans are the happiest, most welcoming people in the world. And they seem to love Americans. Considering the hardships they’ve been through because of Castro’s tricky relationship with the U.S. government, I was blown away by the sweet open demeanor of nearly everyone I met. When asked where I’m from and I answered “California,” somewhat nervously, I was always met with a huge smile and Bienvenidos a Cuba! and usually “we love America!” Then I’d say Fuiste a America? (Have you been to America?) and immediately feel like an asshole because leaving Cuba is nearly impossible for them. Both to get a visa, and to ever earn enough money.

So why are they so happy all the time? I have a few theories. It’s like there was a collective decision to make the best of it, considering they’re more or less trapped on their island. The attitude could’ve easily gone the other way, toward discontent and anger. It’s an example of what’s possible for the human spirit. A case for the “paradox of choice” argument. Does having less options make you happier? Dunno. But Cubans seem to have something figured out. I’ve never seen so many people in a good mood.

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#13) Cuba has virtually no crime. Is happiness the simplest antidote to violence (see above)? Google “crime in Cuba” and you’ll see across the board that Cuba is one of the safest countries in the world to travel. I’ve never felt more comfortable meeting strangers. Like our friend Rey, an older guy we met on a walk who ended up spending half the day with us, showing us secret spots of Havana and telling us about his life as a salsa instructor. Or Eddie, our tour guide in Viñales who arranged for us to stay at his mom’s house when all the hotels were booked. I did keep getting called “Bruchie” in the streets, which I eventually realized was a version of “Brooke Shields,” which I’ve gotten all my life (thank you thick eyebrows). But this didn’t feel threatening. In fact it boosted my ego quite a lot. Duh.

#14) Havana was the playground of the Mafia. The surprise here is more so that I knew very little about the history of Cuba’s revolution, and it’s a helluva story. My brief understanding (starting with the Revolution, though going back farther to the Spanish-American War and William Randolph Hearst’s role with yellow journalism is equally fascinating):

A) In the 1930s and 40s, Batista was in power, and at first he was a good guy and very progressive, then he became corrupt and took shitloads of money from the American Mafia, in exchange they got to do whatever they wanted in Havana (which is terrible and glamorous and why there are hotels with the height of 50s chic that hasn’t been updated since then, so thus is rundown as fuck). B) This upset a lot of people, including a young lawyer named Fidel Castro who led an uprising that resulted in the famed revolution of 1959 (Che Guevara was a big part of the revolution and in fact I saw his likeness all over Cuba, much more than Castro’s). C) The U.S. puts an embargo on Cuba because Communism was the worst thing ever at the time, and for other reasons I don’t fully understand (input welcome!). D) The Cuban Missile Crisis. E) Cuba becomes a shining example to the world for it’s literacy rate and healthcare system. F) Sugar plantations play a big role in all of this. G) The USSR is also very much involved. H) Fidel’s brother Raul takes over in 2006 because Fidel is 80 years-old and getting sick. Raul starts allowing things like private restaurants and more tourism. I) In 2015 the U.S. lifts the travel ban to Cuba (not entirely, just more than ever).

And that’s a terribly spotty account of Cuba’s last several decades, based on a traveler’s understanding as told to her by Cubans.

#15) Cuba has two currencies. This is a bizarre aspect of traveling in Cuba–tourists have one currency, locals have another. From the economist.com: “ONE country, two currencies” is one of Cuba’s more peculiar idiosyncrasies. The Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) are both legal tender on the island, though neither is exchangeable in foreign markets. The CUC is pegged to the dollar and worth 25 times as much as the CUP. But whereas most Cubans are paid in CUP, nearly all consumer goods are priced in CUC.” What this means as a traveler is you’ll be riding in a taxi with four locals and know you’re paying not just a different price for your ride, but an entirely different currency. It’s complicated and odd, and comes with all sorts of historical significance and reflection on current economic times.

#16) Santeria is one of the most common religions. Cuba embraces many religions, a refreshing experience. The people are open to all types of beliefs, one of which is Santeria–traditions from Africa kept alive by the slaves who were brought to work the sugar plantations, combined with Catholic saint worship. I also learned about Yoruba, an offshoot of Santeria that involves wearing white every day for a whole year. I visited Regla, where the main church of Santeria is located. I was scammed outside the church by two ladies who I think did black magic on me. I am purposefully glossing over all this because I intend to do a whole post or video on just this subject.

#17) Miscellaneous. A few final details that surprised me about Cuba. A) The Malecon (the long walkway between Havana and the water where everyone congregates to drink and drum) is as fun as expected. B) The art is incredible in Cuba, perhaps because the isolation means a unique, original style has emerged (and the Fábrica de Arte gallery/concert venue/cafe is one of the coolest places I’ve been in the world). C) I love cats. And I didn’t see that many at first around Cuba. Martique told me one night during the worst economic times all the cats disappeared. Because they were eaten. Note to self: research if this could be true. D) Cuban women aren’t allowed in caves because they steal the sparkly rocks (as told to me by our guide when exploring the largest cave in Cuba…could this possibly be true?).

And now we’re at the end. If you made it this far, you might not be as surprised as me to discover all these quirks about Cuba. Or maybe you’ll discover your own. I do know it’s the only place I’ve never seen an Irish bar in the world. The people are lovely, but it can be tough getting anything accomplished (you know you’re somewhere living in the past when Guatemala (our destination after Cuba) seems full of modern conveniences). But Cuba is 100% worth visiting, and I think I’ve left a piece of my heart there. But I always do that when traveling.

 

I always cry driving HWY 395.

Yesterday I drove home from Los Angeles to Lake Tahoe and cried the whole way.

Countless times I’ve done that 8 hour drive, since I was a kid and we’d go to LA several times a year from Tahoe to visit family. “Scenic 395” runs through Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous U.S., then through all the cute/weird little Old West towns that dot the journey from California into Nevada like Lone Pine, Bishop and Bridgeport. You transition from a desert landscape into the snow, passing Mammoth Mountain and the bizarre tufa formations of Mono Lake. The scents along the drive are: sagebrush, cows, crisp mountain air, exhaust, pine trees.

I was driving home for a joyous occasion, the birth of my new nephew, and my emotions were close at hand. I’d wanted to be at his delivery (I was honored my sister and brother-in-law even asked me to be there!), but he came two days early and as I packed my bag in LA he was already taking his first breaths in this world.

I was feeling down I’d missed such an important moment (though I kept shouting at myself “You’re not what’s important here! A healthy baby was brought into this world. Check your ego. He’s all that matters!”). Add in the LA malaise of traffic, helicopters, whatamIdoingwithmylife and amIevergoingtomakeitasawriteractressetcblahblah, and I was a total basket case. I cried what felt like ancient tears. But I didn’t necessarily feel sad, I just felt.

And I remembered another time I did that drive and wept like a heartbroken teenager. I was driving south on 395 that time, 5 years earlier, my big move to Los Angeles. I’d been planning to move to LA with my best friend Beth since we were 15, but now that it was happening I suddenly had a lot of reasons to stay put. I was leaving behind a life that allowed me to write prolifically, a cool cheap apartment, a job I liked, lots of friends, a boyfriend I was in love with. I had my two cats in the car with me, Chairman Meow and King Alobar, and I was all turned upside down. I listened to Fiona Apple that entire drive, sobbing and doubting and growing up by the second.

What punched me in the gut driving yesterday was how tremendously time passes. Lightning fast, yet full of life. Was that just 5 years ago that my life had an entirely different shape? The people in it were a different cast of characters. Now I have a whole new community of friends. I’ve had jobs and opportunities I couldn’t have known existed (although that’s why I was going, I didn’t know the details ahead, but I knew fortune favors the bold). Now I’m in a different relationship, a new boyfriend to love. Even the cats are different. Chairman passed away and Alobar found a different home. Now I have Lady Fluff and Kitten Coyote. But I’m still listening to Fiona Apple.

Driving toward home, toward welcoming a new life into my family, I felt gobsmacked by how much we change. Every year, every moment. I don’t know if it’s any sort of answer, but something feels connected in this: they named the baby Quest.

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A cold desert Christmas.

I had a cold desert Christmas. I visited my dad in his new home of Flagstaff, Arizona, and was amazed by the majesty of the land. We had Christmas dinner at the Grand Canyon. It was my first visit, and the site took my breath away (because the Canyon is awe-inspiring, and because it was really fucking cold).”We” was me, my dad, and John, the wonderful human I get to call my boyfriend. I’ve spent many holidays back home in Tahoe as the weird single LA artist cat lady, so being somewhere new with someone to call my own felt like Christmas morning all week long.

In addition to the Grand Canyon, we also explored the Wupataki ruins, the Sunset volcano crater, the mystical rock formations in Sedona, and drank in the stars via telescope at the Lowell Observatory. One word kept connecting these different experiences: perspective. I’d been needing a dose of the stuff. Lately, I’ve been trapped in the petty grievances of my lower mind.

It was fascinating to read about the natives who called Wupataki home, how they were in a constant struggle to survive against the elements yet thrived for centuries. Pottery has been found there but not the tools to make it, which suggests it came from elsewhere, which suggests trading between tribes occurred at Wupataki. The Sunset crater wasn’t much to look at from the base, but the lava flows around it were cool, and I was gobsmacked to read the placard calling the volcano a “geographic infant” because it erupted a mere 1,000 years ago. Telescoping the night sky at the Lowell Observatory (where Pluto was discovered!), we saw a “stellar nursery” located within Orion’s belt, which is literally where stars are born. Add in that poor Pluto isn’t even considered a planet anymore, and all this perspective made me feel one thing: grief.

Grief for all the times I’ve felt less than amazed to be alive. Grief that I spend a lot of my days without perspective. The perspective that this Earth is magnificent and I’m lucky to inhabit it for a speck of time.

So my perspective going into 2015: I’m grateful I have a healthy father, a car to take me to places like the Grand Canyon, and a witty handsome boyfriend to be my co-pilot. Here are some pics!

 

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Why I’ll never stop hopping fences.

I’m really fucking stoked on all the likes and new followers I got this week. Here’s a reblog of a post I think you fort sleepers will appreciate. Forever young!

Erin Granat

Over the weekend, I was confronted with a choice: go inside and join a group, or hop a fence and be with nature.

I’d been invited to a gathering by a friend, and was *supposed* to be acting sociable. But I wasn’t in the mood, so I hid in the bathroom. A woman came in. Her name was Uma and she had pixie hair. She said she was going outside, did I want to join? We pushed open a heavy door. The afternoon air was fresh and warm and a grove of trees rustled just beyond a chain-link fence. We sat and talked in the sun, then reached through the fence to pick blackberries. 

More than once, someone asked us to come back inside. Our rebellion seemed to bug them. But I was ready to take it one step further. To me, a fence doesn’t represent a barrier, it begs…

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ESSENTIAL EXPERIENCE: Sleeping in a fort under the stairs

I went to a cabin in Big Bear last weekend and indulged in a childhood delight: I slept in a fort under the stairs.

I came late to the cabin party so all the beds and couches had been taken. My good friend Diana, who’d organized the cabin weekend, said there was a hidden sleeping spot, a fort they’d made by tying blankets to the stair railings. There were pillows inside, it felt secret and safe. I claimed it!

This was a perfect turn of events, because lately I’m trying to act more like a kid. The closer I get to childlike experiences, the happier I feel. The more serious life gets–loved ones with health problems, taxes I still need to file–the more I find relief in seeking out the simple magic of childhood, when blankets could create enchanted hiding places, and life was as trying as my next spelling test.

I actually really like being an adult, but there’s a freedom in approaching each day with childlike wonder. To watch my babe niece, the magnificent Junely, playing in her kiddie pool, sunlight all around her, discovering the splashing noise her hands make in the water, is to remember that it IS astounding our arms move because our brains tell them too, and we can create sounds, sensations, anger, silliness, sadness, anything at all with our imaginations.

So that’s why I’m trying to do kid things every day: I dance around my room to silly pop music, I kick dandelions to create fairy dust, I eat dessert before dinner (try it!). And I sleep in forts. Diana crawled into the fort with me for a time, which was fitting, since we first met at 10 years old, when we’d spend hours turning our Tahoe homes into labyrinths of dreams, while outside it snowed and snowed.

That night in Big Bear, in the fort, I slept deep and well, safe in the kid feeling that life was easy, and I’d always be taken care of.

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The fort in Big Bear. Cozy. Secret. A place to dream.