Tuesday, April 26, 2016

#11: Belize. The Honeymoon.

There are moments in life that define who you are. For me, one of them was on a frozen mountain lake in Rocky Mountain National Park in the early winter months of 2011: this is when I asked my wife Jenn to marry me. So began a new era.... and to kick it off, we hadn't gotten 100 feet from that lake before we'd started planning our honeymoon. Some may call that a little extreme, but I guess that's what you get when your pair up two people struck with a bad case of wanderlust like Jenn and I.

And the ideas began to flow: I suggested a rustic lodge-to-lodge trek into Machu Picchu; she suggested a luxurious over-water bungalow in Bora bora. I suggested an adventurous tour across the cities of Western Europe, she suggested the near deserted solitude of the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean. And so started a new dimension to traveling (and life) I'd yet to experience on this level: compromise. If there were only some tool available at the time that would have helped us consider every option given our differing tastes, we may have resolved this quicker.

But alas, the compromising began. I accepted that I probably wasnt going to see the inside of a tent on our honeymoon, and she came to grips that there may have to be more to do than simply watching the tide come in as the sun set. After some extensive research and tips from friends, we finally agreed on a place. Heading towards the equator became an obvious choice given this was December, and it also turns out there are places with both mountains and beaches. So Belize it was. What also became clear was this trip should have some element of relaxation - meaning there was to be no long waits at bus stops where we weren't entirely sure we'd even be picked up, no crossing our fingers and hoping the last night train of the evening hadn't left before we made it to the station, and certainly no strolling into a city without a plan and trying to identify the least shady looking hostel that wasn't already booked up.

So here I was again, after thinking the Dominican Republic was going to be my last: we booked an all inclusive resort package with Coppola resorts, half in the mountains, half on the beach. Compromise. After learning that Renee Zellweger had taken the same trip with Coppola Resorts a few months back, our choice was confirmed: what's good enough for Bridget Jones was good enough for us.

We left the reception of our wedding early in the evening for our flight out to Belize City the next morning. Maybe this was a good choice, as by all accounts if I'd partied half as hard as most did that night I'd have been boarding the plane with a Gatorade, a splitting headache, and a motion sickness bag close at hand; not the ideal way to start one's honeymoon. In Belize City we quickly transferred to a van which drove us west past the capital Belmopan and deep into the Belizean mountains. By the time we were nearing the Blancaneax Lodge it was dark, and as we neared our destination, the driver was kind enough to stop and allow us to admire some of the fauna of the jungle under the headlights of the van: a tarantula crossing the road about 20 feet ahead. Unfortunately he wasn't aware of one of my new bride's cardinal rules in life: any spider that can be seen from 20 feet away warrants turning around and going home immediately. Luckily for me, we were way too far into the jungle and had too much sunk into this trip for us to turn around now, so on we went (after the hairy guy had finished crossing the road of course).

We passed a small airstrip (the one that Renee no doubt utilized, allowing her to bypass any jungle creatures which may spoil her trip), turned down the long driveway to the lodge which weaved through the think jungle, and were led to our bungalow whose back porch overlooked the Blancaneax river. Reportedly, Francis Ford Coppola had picked this spot for his lodge because it had reminded him of his days filming Apocalypse Now along the Mekong River in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. In hopes of avoiding nightmares I had intentionally failed to mention this to Jenn, but I couldn't resist sitting on the patio and squinting into the darkness imagining VC looking back at me from the jungle across the river. I popped open the duty free tequila, learned my new bride did not care for tequila, and began to very thoroughly enjoy life, realizing the next several days would be filled with the sound of rushing water, the peace of being far from civilization with the one I loved, and lots of margaritas that I didn't have to share.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Other 96%

"Traveling enables us to see the world through the eyes of someone else... to understand their aspirations and assumptions. It’s about empathy, which is not only important to the work of our diplomats but to all of us as we seek to understand different cultures as well as our own." - John Kerry.

Yes, that's right folks. I just opened with a John Kerry quote. For those of you that know me, you can now get back into your chair. Let's just say I think the guy is better at being a diplomat than he is at picking presidential running mates. In any case, there is a lot of wisdom in those few words. If you are keeping track at home, it was now 2011 and I've passed country number ten in my travels. At this point, traveling had begun to shape who I was. Yes, it's fun. It gets you miles away from the stress of everyday life both physically and mentally. It's like a giant weekend where Mondays blur with Wednesdays and Saturdays are the same as Tuesdays. But greater than all that: it's an education. It's a glimpse into how beautiful this world is. The Andes have stories to tell, but so does Argelia, the banana farmer whose entire life has revolved within the 10 mile radius of her modest mountain home. St Peter's basilica in Rome provides an education unmatched anywhere else in art, architecture and church history - but so does Davíd, the sophomore at La Sapienza who never realized that God was more than an impressive building and a tradition to follow.

A time or two when on my travels I've forgotten what a privilege I've had. I've foolishly asked a local in small town in making small talk "So, where have you traveled?" only to be met by a polite but revealing chuckle and smile followed by a response of "I don't travel," or even "we don't travel," "we" meaning everyone they know or will ever know in their small village. Every once in a while I'd meet someone that with a radiant smile on their face would claim they had plans one day to go to university in America, or that they had a friend of a friend that told them stories once of what it was like to look at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Usually after this I'd become slightly embarrassed, begin to connect the dots, and realize that the money I was spending on my trip was the per capita income of their country. Do they travel? Of course not. They survive... They live. But many of them live well - existing in a world where money is not an idol, it's just something that keeps the lights on and food on the table. It was in times like these that the statistics you hear become tangible: according to the Global Rich List and Investopedia.com, anyone that makes more than $32,400 annually is in the top 1% of the world's wage earners. Let me do that math for you: that's $15.52 an hour. I'm not going to get political here, but that is presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' proposal for a federal minimum wage standard. Yes, that's right: that means that by federal mandate, the entire USA would be among the top 1% of the wage earners of the world. Just food for thought.

In any case, The privilege that we have here is really nothing short of stunning. It's one we easily forget or choose to ignore...and it's exactly this ignorance that causes many to lose sight of some really basic and important things. I don't want to be the one to tell the girl in Sapa, Vietnam that she should forget about university in the USA, because by the time the paperwork clears (if it ever does) she'll be too old anyway. And I certainly don't want to tell the boy in the market in Morocco that if he ever wanted to find a better life in America that there's a chance he may be turned away because of the religion he follows. That's not America.

John Kerry was right: if we keep our eyes open, we can in some small way glimpse the lives of others while traveling abroad. If you really stop to listen, they have lessons to teach. They have stories to tell. They represent the other 96% of the human experience, and to ignore their voices is to ignore the reality of what it is to be a citizen of this planet.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Vida Colorado

A brief pause in our regularly scheduled programming:

This blog is now six years old and has evolved much over this time. Luckily, unlike a six year old child (unless you are cruel), you can change a six year old blog's name, right? So that's what I'm doing.

I'll be brief here and not bore you with an overly dramatic or verbose mission statement of this blog rebirth. But it has become ever convincingly clear that the title "What You Can't Talk About at the Dinner Table" is no longer fitting. Basically, the 23 year old unemployed guy that wanted to shout out controversy to the mountaintops is not who I am today nor related to any recent content on this blog; I resisted renaming for a while (even just throwing a "2.0" at the end of the title for a brief period of time to indicate that the original name and intent no longer necessarily applied), as that's just bad practice in the blogosphere: you lose followers, you confuse people, etc, etc...

But it's time. As I gave thought to what a fitting new name should be, I realized that it had been right in front of my eyes the whole time: the URL of the blog. I had created it only because whatyoucanttalkaboutatthedinnertable.blogspot.com was painfully long and cumbersome: Vida Colorado. The colorful life. Those Spanish speakers out there will note the impreciseness here given the gender forms do not properly match. But aha! You've failed to realize my punniness. Colorado means "colorful," but is also the name of my adoptive home state of four years and where I lived when I began this blog. Use of the phrase "vida colorada," while grammatically correct, is decidedly less punny. And I love my puns. Plus the URL "vidacolorada" was taken. Win, win.

So hopefully this title has legs for the next six years, as much as "Dinner Table" had for the first six. So a new era has begun for the "dinner table blog." May the old links break and the champagne run freely, welcome to Vida Colorado, stories, photos, and things (I think) worth sharing from my colorful life (with proper credit to the Centennial State, the place of my original inspiration).

Sunday, April 10, 2016

#10.2: Czech Republic. The Old Fortress.

In the spring of 1939, the city of Prague had a Jewish population of over 90,000. Today less than 2,000 remain. Most of these 90,000 saw their way through Terezín at some point in the early and mid 1940's and from there met their fates after being shipped to places like Auschwitz or Mauthausen.

While conditions in Terezín were "good" by comparison to the extermination camps of the east, what set this place apart from all others was its use in Nazi propaganda as a "model" camp where conditions were made to appear great and art and creativity were encouraged. Self government was allowed; there were cafes, shops, parks and circulated money. Artwork was permitted and even encouraged. Children's choirs performed operas and jazz musicians filled the streets with cheerful music.

There was a deception happening in Terezín unknown anywhere else. This "spa town," as it was referred to in Nazi literature, was where aging Jews could go to retire and live out their days in peace while the rest of Europe had to writhe in the agony of ongoing war. It was where artists could spend time refining their craft and performing for their fellow Jewish brethren. Red Cross inspectors of the camp were treated to performances by the children's opera, kids playing in the park, and the local government in action, with town meetings and all. It was as if all of Terezín's inhabitants were playing the part in a movie that they knew would have to end eventually; maybe some wanted to believe so much that it was true that they actually did; and those who refused to play the part? Welcome to Auschwitz.

Terezín today is an actual inhabited city; when we arrived there was little sign of life, though. Snow was falling and perhaps the cold was keeping its inhabitants inside and any other visitors away. The silence which follows newly falling snow; the lack of movement or signs of life; the drab paint on the old buildings; this all gave Terezín a somber if not eerie feel. It's a city caught in a struggle of commemorating its past and in establishing a sustainable modern economy. The struggle is a strange one: on one hand you can visit the crematorium which incinerated the bodies of the victims of Nazism and see Stars of David erected in memory of the mass murder going on here; but you can also sit down and order a goulash dinner in a restaurant occupying the former SS Officers' quarters; you can stay overnight in a hotel that used to quarter Nazi guards that advertises itself to be "a romantic getaway" (the silence of one particular era on its "history" page speaks much louder than words could).

Frankly, I left Terezín a little bit confused. As a WWII history nerd for years, I had lots of ideas and pictures in my mind of what a "concentration camp" should look like, and although this was not exactly of that same category, the old fortress of Terezín simply did not fit this mold at all. New life has blurred with old, and in a some small but odd way, just as in 1944, the town feels like it's still hiding something to this day.

The Jewish population of the Czech Republic after the war was virtually eliminated. Of those that did survive, many found a new start in Israel preferable to trying to rebuild a life in the same homes whose walls now told stories of horror and sadness. Their story is one we all should remember; a visit to Terezín is just an hour's bus ride out of Prague, and it's one you should take if you're there.


Monday, April 4, 2016

#10.1: Czech Republic. The Spared City.

Not many of us over the course of our lives are forced with a decision like Czechoslovak president Emil Hácha had in the spring of 1939. After much of his country had been dismantled piece by piece by his own allies in Britain and France during what has become known as Mnichovská zrada, or the "Munich Betrayal," he was now face-to-face in Berlin with a emboldened Adolf Hitler and presented with the most sinister ultimatum that a lover of one's country could be faced with: he was told that Nazi troops were already on the march, and to have his countrymen lay down their arms or Prague would bombed into oblivion. Upon this news the deceived and stunned Hácha, who thought himself on a diplomatic mission to the German capital, saw himself with no choice and signed the papers which reduced his nation to a Nazi protectorate for the remainder of the war, but not before the poor man literally had a heart attack from the whole ordeal, having to be revived by Hitler's personal doctor.

Hácha no doubt saved his countrymen from almost certain annihilation by the Wermacht and in capitulating also spared Prague from the destruction of the Luftwaffe. As a result, unlike many cities in Europe, Prague stands to this day intact as a city untouched for centuries. For my final spring break of college, I set out on my fourth trip with my two step-brothers to this incredible place. In a way, everything in Prague seems familiar: I'm convinced that every fairy-tale imagined by Disney was in some way designed after Prague with its towering hilltop castle, old stone bridges and fancy clock-tower. I kept waiting to discover the grungier side of Prague: like the graffiti covered Franco era tenements which I'd seen tower over the outskirts of Madrid, or the unlit alleys of downtown Lima which overflowed with trash and feral dogs. But it didn't come. The city was spotless on every corner.

You may think it odd for three 20 something guys, in a city known for its nightlife and "caution to the wind" type culture, but our days in Prague were in search of only a few simple things: good Czech beer and Don Giovanni. And not just any Don Giovanni... I'm talking Don Giovanni performed by nothing other than tiny marionette dolls hung on strings from above. To this day, I'm not sure if it was just a huge joke we were witnessing, or some very authentic glimpse of Moravian culture. In any case, we found the Don Giovanni and we found the good Czech beer we were looking for (at Restaurace U Dvou Koček. The top review is particularly insightful, I thought. And also perhaps somewhat telling: to actually find the good reviews to this place, you have to filter by only Czech ones. Americans apparently hate the place... but that makes me like it all the more).

On the second or third night in the city, snow began falling. The red rooftops slowly began to disappear under sheets of white, and the cobblestone plazas became slick and shiny. The next day we made our way across the iconic Charles Bridge and up the hill to Prague Castle, which the Czechs claim is the largest one in the world and upon not much inspection this is completely believable. From its hilltop perch, it completely dominates the city, which perhaps out of respect for its rich history has not produced a modern building anywhere near able to rival its imposing stone spires. After taking this giant structure all in, we made our way back down the hill with some hot mulled Czech wine and headed for bus 16 into the Czech countryside towards the city of Terezin. Though untouched by the bombs of World War II, Terezin reminds that Czechs were by no means spared the horrors of Naziism; underneath the beautiful castles, Rococo architecture and silly marionette shows lies a much more sinister story.