NY ramblings XXX

I am washing dirty lettuce leaves for dinner. I promised myself a proper meal for one tonight, I promised myself an actual sit down deal with a main dish and a side salad instead of the quickly put together sad plates I have been chomping on for a week. I scrub each leaf with my fingers under cold running water, the dirt so encrusted. My break from work has been short lived. Under 24 hours, actually. I told myself yesterday that I would not take any more assignments until next week, but the freelance life is a feast-or-famine business, and I have a mortgage and bills, and expensive travel tastes to boot. My hands hurt under the cold water and still the leaf is soiled, each dirtier than the one before, it would seem. Why would I think of a little break? I like to work, anyway, and I have nothing else to do. Except when I promise myself a proper dinner. I keep washing my leaves. It is so rare to see a vegetable this gritty here. I am not bothered by the aching fingers or the stubborn grit: this is the way lettuce should be. Lettuces are dirty and to be washed, this one reminds me of my parents’ orchard and its ugly heads of lettuce, bursting with flavor but almost interred in dirt: lettuces with a happy vegetable life, home to tiny snails, having fed a number of critters before they get to be picked and washed and purged thoroughly to feed us. I used to have cable and cringed at how many of the lettuces in the cooking shows were chopped straight out of the bag. Dirtless, flavorless, aseptic, lifeless heads of lettuce. I think of what sad lives commercial lettuces must have had growing up, because I think outrageous stuff –lettuces so depressed they lose their zest and taste, go figure, that’s the way I have been wired for better or worse. And I am now smiling, smiling so hard that I feel every wrinkle strained in my withering face, five pristine and large leaves of dark romaine lettuce beaming back at me, I am smiling to have these thoughts and wondering how many idiotic thoughts like this must be ‘thunk’ daily by people who don’t bother to share them so that I feel less alone in my weirdness. And I know I can’t help but type it up, type it all up with my stiff, cold, smarting fingers, for anyone who might be reading to feel less alone in their weirdness.

Eurasian ramblings II: Beijing

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The automated immigration system at Beijing Capital International greets me verbally in impeccable European Spanish after introducing my passport details. As if this was not surprising enough, Google and all my messaging services are working just fine as I wait in line for the physical border passport control, so I quickly Whatsapp my mother, who has recently joined the twenty-first century, but that’s another story and shall be told another time. I follow the very clear indications to the baggage reclaim, get on the terminal train, and the next time I check, the illusion of Internet normalcy is gone. The Great Firewall seems to kick in only after you’ve been actually admitted to China. How can it be so precise, I wonder.

I have done my homework and know the public transportation I need to take, but I am naked without Google Maps. The truth is I am naked even with Google Maps, and I fear that I will get horribly lost. I wish I had taken captures of my trip route in advance, but it is too late now. Luckily there is only one train line to the airport and no room for mistakes. The arrival is as smooth as can be, as smooth as Taipei a few years ago and definitely smoother than Tokyo: I bought the ticket from a machine, I am on the right train, I know where I need to change and I am, I realize all of a sudden, the only Westerner in this train. I have no idea where the bunch of non-Asian people who were in the passport control with me just a few minutes ago are, but they are definitely not here. Every woman in this train is pointedly avoiding to look at me, while every man in this train is doing the opposite and looking at me with what seems to be great amusement. There is no subtlety or furtiveness whatsoever: they just LOOK. “Do I have monkeys on my face?” pops in my head. Spaniards ask that when somebody looks at you insistently. But the camera phone says I don’t. I am standing against a white hand bar under a very white light coming from the window and looking tiny and quite white myself.

Two youngish men who don’t seem to know each other talk to me in English. “Here come the engineers”, I muse, and I can’t quite suppress the smile as this thought comes. I am never wrong about this. A stranger who is friendly to me out of the blue is either shitfaced or in the hard sciences, often both. I am not wrong this time, either. One is a computer scientist studying in Switzerland. The other is a physicist who studied in the States and now works in finance. One of them is in fact far from sober. They wish me a nice stay. I don’t know it at the time, but these two minutes are the only tokens of kindness and hospitality I am about to receive in this city.

The underground station I am changing lines at is huge, and again the fear of getting lost invades me. But I find my line alright. I do get lost trying to find my correct exit to the street afterwards, and I see a cold terror in the commuter eyes that meet my searching ones. “Don’t”. I am very far from being lost to the point of asking for help, but I understand the message. I walk this way and that way in sharp alertness to find the signs for my exit, but no luck. I decide to just get out and I find myself in what looks like an aisle in the middle of a huge boulevard with lots of traffic. I see over and under passes to get to the street proper, only I don’t quite know which way I need to go, because this was not the subway exit I should have taken. It is very hot already. I think I need to go south, but even though it feels sunny, I cannot see the sun in the sky. I see that two armed policemen of some sort are walking towards me and a rush of panic grips me, but they turn around suddenly and start walking in the other direction. This, I will learn today, is normal: policemen patrol the streets up and down in pairs, and each pair seems to have a set number of meters that they need to cover before turning around. I am moving as fast as my legs can take me away from the armed men under the weight of two backpacks and of a merciless sun that I cannot see in the sky, a sky that is completely white, eerily white, and this I find remarkable enough to pause and articulate. “So this is Beijing. It’s a sunny morning and you are not able to see the sun.”

By a stroke of luck, I have been progressing in the right direction and quickly discover the buildings that I need to use for orientation. I am saved, I am not lost, I can breathe again. The hostel where I am staying is gorgeous inside, the surroundings are the opposite. The trip to my starting point has gone well and been painless enough, but my first impressions are formed and nothing will happen to change them over the next few days.

I have not seen anything yet, and I will discover stunning sights soon, but this is not a beautiful city.

I have not found any obstacles yet, and I will navigate them when I soon do, but this is not an easy city.

I have not been wronged, and nothing will happen to threaten my safety or well-being during my stay, but this is not a pleasant city.

Beijing is not the city of one’s dreams.

*The header image has no filter of any kind, nor has been manipulated. That background is indeed the sky.

The interpreter’s ramblings VII: Tips to fight illegal immigration

“If you’re worried about illegal immigration, there are two big things you can do:

1. Stop denying climate change.

2. Stop using illegal drugs.

Point number one. Guatemala lost 90% of its corn and bean crops in 2018. Entire towns that had been half starving for years, eating nothing but corn tortillas with salt as nourishment, simply did not have ANYTHING to eat after last year’s crops were completely ruined. The climate pattern change is affection millions in the Dry Corridor and there is no greater driver of human migration than hunger. It’s as simple as that. What’s happening in Guatemala now will be happening here, too. Your children and grandchildren are going to face starvation just like rural Guatemalans, and if you refuse to inform yourself on the facts, you’re only going to get more and more brown people at the border. Hunger does not understand about zero tolerance policies: we have received hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans at the border this year. Over 40% of Guatemalan children (almost 80% of indigenous children) are chronically malnourished. Let me say this again: 90% of corn crops were LOST last year. This year has “not been so bad” and already 61% of *all* crops have failed. I have to say this again: over half the crops of the whole country have been lost in 2019 so far. If you’re a racist and don’t want brown people pushing their way in, please realize this: the more you vote to make America great again and against the environment, the more hungry people you’ll have knocking in at the border.

Point number two. 90% of all the cocaine consumed in the United States passes through Guatemala from the two largest issuers in the continent (those are Colombia and Venezuela, if you’re wondering). Cocaine trafficking has gone up 400% in Guatemala in recent years, and if that was not enough, super labs for synthetic drugs are appearing everywhere in the remote Guatemalan Highlands. American demand for drugs is unquenchable, and this feeds both violence at the source countries (translation: people fleeing from violence) AND human trafficking mafias. How so? Because drugs are smuggled into the United States through LEGAL BORDER CROSSINGS. Human traffickers profit from the desperation of people facing violence and starvation in the source country while at the same time creating chaos in the destination country: a zero tolerance policy means that we have to divert resources to secure borders from undocumented humans – abort their crossing, arrest them, process their claims, deport them back. Drugs are not getting into the country with five feet tall half-starved indigenous Guatemalans who get detained the minute they try to cross and don’t speak a word of English. The mafias are charging thousands of dollars to poor people trying to reach the border and they are promoting their business all over Guatemala, as I unfortunately know too well from my own first hand sources. The harshest the US government on illegal immigration, the better for the mafias: they organize more caravans, create more chaos and have to worry less about their narco operations being busted during the border crossing”.

I wish I could speak personally to every single zero-tolerance policy supporter in this country and tell them something along the lines I just wrote above. You want to be a racist? I can’t change that. But if you want to see FEWER brown foreign people around, you’re voting the wrong guys.

Thanks for reading. Over and out.

Eurasian ramblings I: delayed, not denied

I injured myself badly the first week after I got back from my Transmongolian trip this year. I am made for toil, I am dead, I do not feel, I do not deserve, I do not tire, I do not stop, I just push on, I need no one, I walk one hundred and fifty thousand steps a week on roads hard and soft, bent over the weight of two backpacks lugged about every two or three days, on four hours of sleep a day for days on end, because I can, I still can and I know I won’t one day. But because it wasn’t every fiber of my body that hurt most after five weeks of pushing myself, I went to the gym the very next morning after arrived. And the next one. And the next one I tore my hamstring and limped my way home while grinding my teeth and driving my nails so deep into my palms I could feel the skin breaking.

When I cannot work out, there is no outlet. I allow myself to slip and drink and drown my senseless existence into oblivion once or twice a year, and the rest of the time I just jump and lift and kick and punch and sweat the hurt that has no cure away. But sometimes my body reminds me it can’t take it anymore because it is made of stupid flesh and stops me in my tracks, and then all hell breaks loose inside of me.

When I am on the go in an unknown place, I have so many things to anticipate, to take into account, to be scared about, I have so many strangers to watch and to fear and so many little notes to write down and things to dream awake of during the long hours I’m alone; even with the experience of years of travel, with the unspoken comfort of knowing I have the physical endurance to get me out of some pickles and the never-talked-about-enough point of ultimately having the money to get me out of others (your average travel blogger never mentions that, but I am no travel blogger), there are still so many challenges, such an alertness, such a sensory overload, that I get a feeling of enjoyment of being alive without having time to think of all my shortcomings and demons that work and workouts barely keep at bay during the rest of the year. When I am away, I am out for myself, out for a little game of survival, and I want to win the game. It is a strange feeling for someone who wishes to die every night: I never want to die less than when I am testing myself away from direct judgement, and I never want to die more than when I first get back to the comfortable places I know and love, where I am no longer a face nobody knows in the crowd, and those faces who know mine remind me without words that I am made for toil, I am dead, I should not feel, and I most certainly do not deserve, and to have thought otherwise momentarily is a signal to drown that recent survivor into oblivion as a welcome back to reality.

I arrived in Beijing after two days of travel in full beast mode. I came home to be betrayed by the same strong ugly legs that carry me spartanly through all my wandering ramblings. The next few weeks were miserable enough to make me get rid of all my other ramblings, the useless characters waiting to be posted for a full round of indifference. And yet, even though I am aware that this sort of opening up is a big part of why the faces who know mine silently remind me that I am a waste of space and time, I feel like rambling again as soon as I am able to think of something else in the evenings besides what I wish for every night. It can’t be helped.

Jamaica, Empires and Sitting in the dark

If you exclude the US, Jamaica has been my first time setting foot in an ex-English colony. The colonial past is something that I unfortunately think about quite often, and not because I am one of those nostalgic Spaniards who miss the ‘glorious’ past and think fondly of ‘the Empire over which the Sun would not set’, a trend that’s been growing among my countrymen in these times of xenophobic nationalism and lack of reason. Xenophobic nationalism and oppression are relabeled ‘nostalgia’ nowadays in Spain, go figure. But I’m losing track, as always. I was saying that I do think about the colonial past of Spain often because I have clients who are openly hostile to me the minute they hear my pronunciation of the letter Z in Spanish. And while the openly hostile Latin Americans are a minority, a degree of latent mistrust, sometimes in jest, is always there between Spain and the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. So, what does this have to do with Jamaica? Bear with me; I’m getting there.

There is something extremely familiar about life in Mexico, in Argentina or in Puerto Rico for me. My friends from Ecuador, Peru, and Chile bring back awfully familiar reports of life. Cuban and Venezuelan acquaintances paint a picture of daily life that I can see with no effort at all. I’ve met people from Panama to Paraguay, from the Dominican Republic to Uruguay, and I hear their accounts of life back home and I can ‘touch’ it easily – it’s a different setting, but there is a very profound, common core of ‘Spanishness’ throughout the Americas; it is the language, but there is so much more, for better or worse. There is, however, no ‘Englishness’ to Jamaica. There was nothing with an even remotely familiar flavor of England in there to me. Sure, the cars drive on the same side of the road, and the official language is English, and children wear uniforms in school (brightly colored ones, mind you) but, strangely, to me at least, that does not imprint a strong Englishness to Jamaica. I found this lack of Englishness striking, shocking. I have no idea what I was expecting. Perhaps some sort of Caribbean Gibraltar, I don’t know. My first sights of Jamaica were exactly those that materialize in my head when I summon the words “third world”. Roadside derelict shacks. Sheet-metal roofed shanty villages. People in the street doing apparently nothing. No lights inside stores and food establishments; locals do their indoors shopping and beer drinking and eating with the lights turned off. The latter is indeed what I observed first. Not what I first saw, not the thing that struck me most, but definitely the first thing that I observed in Jamaica: the lights come on for the white visitors if they walk in, but Jamaicans sit in the dark. Jamaicans sit in the dark. This apparently tiny thing was, to me, a tell-tale of an abyss. I was not expecting that Englishness would have washed off the face of Jamaica entirely, and the question is: did it wash off, was it ever there in the first place?

I sense, and I’m not saying that my perception is correct or complete, I sense a huge difference between what the English and the Spaniards did in their bloody quests for world domination; a tremendous difference in the legacies left behind by the two long-gone Empires. One, it seems to me, only thought of taking as much as possible, and did not care if the locals were left hanging; the other was just as grabby, but tried to cover its tracks, or clean its conscience, since perhaps it was just a matter of arrogant pride and Catholic guilt: let’s play God and ‘create’ these humans and their societies in our image or we’ll feel guilty about it. Guilt is a curious thing for us Catholics and has played a big part in the history of Spain. Atonement takes strange shapes through time. Jamaica is a black country because diseases brought on by Spaniards wiped off virtually the entire native population of the Antilles, including Jamaica, for instance; the island ended up repopulated with slaves from West Africa. The guilt narrative makes an awful lot of people in Spain buy into the “at least we gave them something back, unlike the English” and that leads many to believe outrageous lies like “Spain didn’t do slavery, unlike others”. But given that one cannot change the past and I am not denying any of its horror, the question of what legacy is better assaults me again and again. I’m very conflicted about this matter, and its multiple variants and implications kept me awake at night in Jamaica, sitting in the dark, even though Jamaica itself is but a token of other places; its value to Spain and to England was tiny back in the day, and I have the suspicion that the English conquest of Jamaica must have happened as a ridiculous beef between England and Spain, both countries having juicier lands to despoil at the time. And this brings me to that other point of latent mistrust towards the former metropolis. Again, I’m not thinking about Jamaica in particular, but about the world at large. Was it better to leech off a nation’s resources and make their everyday nature turn Spanish… but stripping them of so much of what must have been their local flavors, depriving them of the enormous variety of human life as must have been found throughout such a massive continent? Or was it better to leech off a nation’s resources and give them precious little in return, letting them keep their local flavor and peculiarities… but at the same time feeding a wild resentment against all things foreign, against all those who took and took but gave nothing back? Like I said, a latent resentment runs deep against Spaniards in the Spanish-speaking world, but not against all things foreign, and is by no means as generalized, not even against Spaniards, as I can guarantee it is in Jamaica. For a country that is famous for their laid back style and friendliness, I assure you that an awful lot of Jamaicans in the country are positively seething against all things White and Western either openly or just beneath the surface. Analysis is not my thing, though, just observation. I am not saying they do not have plenty of reasons to seethe (we tourists alone must be enough to set anyone off, but this is another story and shall be told another time). My knowledge of old British colonies is admittedly zero and I rely on nothing but literature, films and recent historical events that are common knowledge, but even this meager basis suggests that what I’ve perceived in Jamaica happens elsewhere, too. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novels alone are superbly suggestive of a marked animosity of the locals towards the foreigners, but this really, really is another story that shall be told another time, if I ever end up writing some Book Ramblings for no one to read; and let it be said in passing that the Nobel Prize in Literature should go to Ngugi this year if there is any sense of justice left in the world of literature. There’s nobody reading at this point, so I feel pretty comfortable rambling my Jamaican ramblings off a bridge.

I’ve sometimes felt sorry that the “least Spanish” of my known Spanish-speaking world be precisely the Central American niche with which I’ve worked more closely all these years in the US, because it’s more difficult for me to follow their logic sometimes. I’ve also felt grateful for it sometimes. They are more foreign, their daily life and ways of thinking less familiar, less ‘touchable’ to me than those of other Spanish-speaking immigrants. And it’s perhaps because Spain did not entirely assimilate the whole region into its Old World ways, therefore many of their local societies and flavors were better preserved and still survive to this day. Interestingly, they are also the most distrustful of us Spaniards, and I’ve surprised myself just now realizing that. There is a weirdness that is both wonderful and incredibly frustrating about many of my rural Guatemalans, and the same is probably true of other communities that I’ve had less chance to interact with (rural Bolivians come to mind). The same wonderful and frustrating flavors are to be found in Jamaica, and I will never be able to answer the question about “what was better” colony-wise. I piss myself off asking questions I deeply dislike and writing ramblings that are no answer. How does one start writing about the hard stuff? How does one start writing about questions one does not want to have and knows not how to answer, about the stereotypes that have much truth in them against one’s will, how does one start writing to describe all the nuances, all the grays, all the rays of light that do not dissipate the blackness in the cave but give it an unmistakable cheer? How does one stop sitting in the dark?

I guess not having a clue is what makes me not a writer. But the little boycotts I set up against myself are another story and shall be told another time.

Beauty ramblings III

When I was 4 or 5 years old, my favorite swimwear were a tie-on yellow bikini bottom with a purple octopus, and a bikini bottom that depicted a watermelon, red and green with black seeds. I remember them distinctly; they represented the maximum happiness of beach time anticipation, and they were the last bottoms-only swimwear that I had. 6 or 7 was usually the age when mothers stopped letting girls wear bottoms-only to the beach, and I do remember my first full swimming suit with affection, too; it made me feel proud, like I was already a big girl. But that pride did not last long, because ‘big’ carries a lot of weight with it, no pun intended. The last year of the octopus and watermelon bottoms was also the last year I had no awareness about being big, the last year of untainted beach happiness, and the last year I had a tanned belly. The last year until right now, 30 years later.

I’m sure one can get nostalgic about any surroundings in connection with their past. Tall buildings, noises of a big city, great plains, small towns. For me it is and will always be the sea, the sand, the smell of the Mediterranean. I liked it too much to renounce it altogether, but I spent a good number of years avoiding it as much as I could. I strove for the greatest degree of paleness that I could achieve, because paleness is my ideal of beauty (one I can’t have, like most things that I want!), but also I shun the beach because I did not want to be seen. I can say that in the present tense, actually: I don’t want to be seen. It is something so hard to put into words that I am struggling to write this Note as a therapeutic exercise –what all my Notes are, after all, only not all the Notes are written blurred behind a waterfall of tears. Anyway. I started working a lot, a lot, on myself after I turned 30, and as of now my pining for the sea is bigger than my self-consciousness, so I jump at the chance of sinking my toes in the sand every time I go to Spain. I’ve come such a long way that I even own bikinis and have exactly zero qualms about going topless. But there’s a trick: I only go to the beach very early in the morning, when I know there is no chance of seeing anyone that I might know. I leave way before the sun has had a chance to do its thing, before anyone from my past can show up and recognize me as me. The thought of being so exposed in plain daylight around people I know (except for exactly four of my closest friends) fills me with dread. And this is why having a tanned belly now, 30 years after the last time, is one very big deal to me.

Just a couple weeks ago, my friend L. suggested going to Jamaica for her spring break. She is the kind of woman that makes me feel particularly miserable through no fault of her own, the kind of woman who is everything I can never be. Tall, beautiful, gorgeous body, adorable, self-confident, great style. It took me several days to give her an answer; she insisted that I should go, that I had to go, that it was madness to refuse going on the unspoken grounds that she was too beautiful for me to be seen next to her. I am only aware of how crazy this sounds now that I see it written, but it’s the absolute and ugly truth. But alas, the last album speaks for itself: I ended up going. I did not realize that this trip, and talking about all that goes with it, would become such a big part of the intensive, ongoing mental workout I’ve been painstakingly practicing on myself for the past few years. Travel documentaries do not show women who aren’t beautiful on the beach. It’s almost as if we don’t have a right to exist, but we exist, but we don’t want to be seen, so don’t agree to being filmed or photographed, so we’re not shown, so we don’t have a right to exist… vicious cycle. It’s not the end of the world to be seen the way you are, with all your flaws, especially when you’re so careless about putting all your monstrous non-physical flaws out there as I am. Why is it so much worse for me to display a hideous body than it is to display a hideous train of thought?

This morning I took a picture of my tanned trunk against the white jumper and knickers I used as pj’s last night. It’s such a strange effect to see the colors reversed: the whiteness of fabric that’s usually black against the darkness of skin that’s usually white. I almost convinced myself to post it, since the very act of having been able to even take such a picture of myself is empowering and the feeling is pleasant enough. It’s still plenty difficult, though. But I can post the photo that I love most from this trip, one that reminds me of a 5 year old sunchild who rolled in the sand in a yellow bikini bottom with a purple octopus.

There’s still work ahead, but the dark times of avoiding one of the things I love most in this world are well behind me.

NY ramblings XXIX

In these days of blood-curdling cold, I cannot help but think of the many volunteers and workers on reinforced homeless rescue patrol trying to save people from dying in the streets. There are +70,000 homeless people in NYC, and over +60,000 sleep in shelters every day. Extra efforts are made to carry the thousands who do not to shelters when temperatures drop to severe life-threatening levels. They are often the most vulnerable; people with severe socialization, substance abuse and mental health issues. We ordinarily turn a blind eye to the homeless as a coping mechanism, but I always think of those who do not, even more so than the people at risk themselves. Those who walk the streets, write down the names, suffer the abuse from fellow human beings who are often sick, dehumanized and extremely difficult to deal with.

This is not just in the city. I also spare many a thought for those on winter homeless rescue duties right here in Northern Westchester. Many of us could think homelessness does not happen in our wealthy suburban areas, but sadly that is not the case. Sometimes you have to walk to notice. The homeless gather every night by the Police Station and are picked up and brought to emergency shelters in churches right here. This week it’s the Methodist Church, next week it’s the Presbyterian, the week after is the Episcopalian, and so on. I believe every church in town participates in the winter shelter program, as well as a good handful of congregations in nearby towns. The users are driven to another facility twice a week for showers. These people have nowhere to go and we would find them frozen to death in our streets if it wasn’t for those who think of them and run these programs.

Days like today make me feel anxious about the level of desensitization that we must achieve to survive the brutal environment of New York. I wonder how the homeless patrols do it. How they manage, how they cope, how they find their strength to go out in the cold and try to save a person who rejects salvation.

Days like today I am not in love with New York.

And days like today make me realize that, after 9 years, the unthinkable has happened and I must really, truly, madly, strangely love New York, after all. Strange highs and strange lows, that’s how my love goes. Against my will, of course. But that is another story and shall be told another time.