December 21, 2007

Hairpin Curve, Redefined

La Cordillera de la Costa cuts through the northern part of Venezuela, separating Caracas and other cities from the sea and reaching 2700 meters at its high point. Climbing and descending the Cordillera (considered to be an extension of the Andes) to the sea, you cross at least four different ecological zones: semi-arid deciduous woods, subtropical rainforest, cloudforest, and arid coastal scrub, all in a time of about two hours by car.

The road from Maracay winds north through Henri Pittier National Park. Despite its small size, it is home to 43% of Venezuela´s bird population, and 7% of the world´s bird species, as well as to a host of other animals and countless--many probably uncatalogued--species of plants.

It is a steep ascent on a one-lane road, switchbacking continuously and tightly to the pass, then descending in the same fashion. From the outskirts of Maracay, there are no signs of inhabitation, just dense forest as far as the eye can see, interrupted only by the road that is perched on the steep hillside. And even the road seems barely able to co-exist with the jungle: huge groves of 5" diameter bamboo grow on what shoulder there is, bending under their own weight, creating an archway over the road, stems hacked back here and there to keep it under control. Pavement cracks, giving into the strength of tree roots and the force of water in the drainages. In every drainage of size, there is evidence of previous washout or landslides, successfully carving away at man´s attempt to tame and civilize.

Being on the road to Choroni made me think of a statistic a friend once told me. If civilization as we know it were to end, it would only take about 50 years for nature to reclaim her roadways: plants would re-colonize, tree and shrub roots cracking the pavement, inviting smaller plants to grow in the space. It all seems possible in a place like the rainforest; indeed, there is an abundance of life here, larger than we might ever realize.

Climbing up, up, up in the big baby blue painted Bluebird schoolbus, I was seated in a row of ladies in the very back of the bus. I felt strangely comforted by their presence, a warmth seemed to envelope me, the only foreigner on the bus, and I felt safe. And it turned out to be a good thing: I was completely ignorant to what lie ahead, the guidebook said nothing about the road we were setting out on.

The engine roared and groaned, churning as it pulled the bus up the road, curve after curve, the driver laying on the horn on every corner to warn oncoming traffic of our approach. It was loud and bellowing, like a train´s horn, impossible to ignore. On more than one curve, the driver had to back up and then go forward around the curve: we were just too long to make it on the first go. It was like nothing I have ever seen. Maui´s road to Hana or Glacier Park´s Going to the Sun Highway ain´t got nothing on Venezuela´s Road to Choroni!

It grew dark somwhere near the top of the pass. I could see the lights of Maracay, at the bottom of the steep drainage we had just traveled up. Thinking the worst was over, I let myself relax for a brief moment. Until the back end of the bus swung around yet another hairpin curve. Turns out the road is equally, if not more so, windy on the way down to the coast.

One of the ladies I was sitting next to had lugged an enormous mattress onto the bus, placing it in the aisle pretty much smack in front of me. There was more than one moment when I felt somewhat comforted knowing that I might have a soft landing if the driver overshot one of the gazillion hairpin curves.

Slowly the bus emptied as we descended down the mountain to the coast. I wanted to ask all of these people what they did, here in this seemingly isolated and remote community. Did they farm? I couldn't tell in the dark. I wasn't sure, but if I had to venture a guess, I would say that, like so many I had met here, they eeked out a living in whatever way they could.

It was two weeks until the Election. Signs plastered every vertical surface in Caracas and Maracay, for or against Chavez. But not in Choroni. Choroni, the tranquil beach town seemed far removed from the political--and even the social--quagmire in the rest of the country. Catering to tourists, countless hotels, restaurants, and retail shops seemed to thrive. The mood in Choroni was light and laid back. Laughter could be heard in the streets, the comical Venezuelan sense of humor and way with words reverberating, enveloping and inspiring me to talk to as many locals as possible. Entertained by the slang, I set out to learn as much of it as I could.

When I left for Venezuela, more than one of my level-headed friends questioned my judgement. Knowing Venezuela only for its politics, corruption, crazy President (yes, we all know what he thinks of our own president) and oil, people were pretty certain that as an American I would probably be a prime target for robbery and kidnapping. "And how is that different from being an American in any other country?", I would quip, sarcastically. In the moment, humor deflected the fear, but I have to admit, deep down I really was nervous to go there alone.

But like going anywhere, if you open your mind you won't be alone. If you smile and make an effort to connect with people, you'll almost always feel like you are safe. Sure there are bad apples, you just have to watch your back and use good judgement.

The arepas in Choroni were delightful. I have to admit that upon introduction, arepas were something I could live without. It is a somewhat bland white corn disk that is fried (in butter), split open and filled with a variety of ingredients: ham, cheese, sausage, mushrooms to name a few. Many Venezuelans eat arepas at every meal, making it by far the most popular national food. By the end of my trip, I had found the arepa to be quite agreeable. Cheap, and fast, it makes a perfect traveller's meal.

And they taste pretty good with a beer. Polar, the national brew, is served ice cold. The bottles are small, so they don't have time to get warm. Perfect for a lightweight like me! As much as Venezuelans love their beer, they love whiskey even more. They consume as much whiskey as the Irish per capita. A group of college kids showed up at Skydive Venezuela as part of a class project. Besides interviewing us (me in English so they could practice), they proceeded to imbibe numerous bottles of whiskey that evening, mixed with Coca-Cola (the other national beverage). It was my last night at the drop zone in Higuerote.

Choroni was settled 385 years ago, 2 km inland from the sea, for protection from the pirates that ravaged the coastline. Puerto Columbia lies north of Choroni, the original port serving the area. Now it is a backpacker's mecca, full of hip restaurants, posadas, and young crowds. Playa Grande lies to the east, a 10 minute walk from town.

Playa Grande, big and empty.

One of the many fishing boats in Puerto Colombia

Other more secluded beaches are accessible by boat, which can be hired for $30 or so roundtrip, the fare split among passengers. A few can also be reached by trail from Choroni.

I decided that I wanted to see the Road to Choroni in the daylight this time, so I caught the first bus I could up the mountain. In classical Latin American fashion, both the timetable for the bus, and the clarity of where the bus stop was actually located was sketchy at best. In typical American fashion, I found myself pacing, wondering if I was waiting in the right spot, on the right street. Asking a local for help didn't really help to clarify matters, which was my cue to take the lead of the residents of Choroni and just chill out. Really, could I possibly miss the groaning engine and bellowing horn of that giant blue bus?

I sat in the back, but not amongst the group of ladies this time. Instead, my co-passenger was a nine year old girl who boarded the bus about 3 miles outside of Choroni. She held in her tiny arms an enormous birthday cake with yellow and sky blue icing. It nearly dwarfed her as it balanced precariously on her lap. It was for her brother and she was taking it to school where there would be a fiesta for him. I kept smiling at her, and she hid behind thick, black hair: she was my polar opposite. I couldn't have been more different to her in outward appearance, really to anyone on that bus.

But instead of feeling out of place and uncomfortable and retreating to my iPod, I met the stares with eyes full of curiosity and admiration. In some strange way, I felt connected and like I could see a common tie between us, as people, the human race. That we are not so different; regardless of appearance or heritage, social class or culture, we are all striving for the same things in life, all wanting to fulfill the same basic needs. I felt such energy from everyone on that bus, it was invigorating. I had this strange sense that all the layers that hide our true, loving and kind selves had been peeled away, like the layers of an onion. I felt that I was in a place where I could be open and unaffected by society's pretenses, by pressures and expectations. For the first time ever travelling in Latin America, I was unashamed of where I came from because in that brief moment, the disparities no longer existed. We were all just people, living and breathing humans all here for the same purpose.

The road snaked south up the steep slope, back to Maracay, and my mind was quieted and contented by the amazing rainforest view out of the Bluebird's window. The little girl with the cake has disembarked long ago, and I was left to stare and observe on my own.

Knowing what lie ahead of me, on this adventure, for the winter, and for the rest of my days to come, I felt open to possibility and was instilled with a newfound faith and confidence--both in myself and in the world. Without a doubt in my mind, I would survive this bus journey on this crazy road, and the madness of Caracas. I would be safe skydiving, and I would try to recognize and live by the lessons it could teach me--just as all things in life have the potential to do. If we are open to it, even the smallest things can show us something new. Even this old creaky bus barreling down a backroad in the jungle brought me a level understanding I hadn't previously known.

Indeed, it is often the seemingly insignificant experiences that have the ability to repair, reshape, and ultimately redefine our point of view and freshen our perspective, like this simple trip to the coast did for me. I stepped off the bus in Maracay feeling alive and I reveled in the satisfaction of knowing that, for now, I was definitely travelling down the right road.

December 8, 2007

All in the Fly-mily

Thirteen years ago, George Aldana flew to Puerto Escondido on a skydiving plane, and never left: it was a classic case of being “Puerto’ed”. His car sat at the drop zone in Cuautla, some 12 hours north, for four months before his mother came to terms with the fact that her son really wasn’t going to be on the next bus back to Mexico City, and finally went to retrieve the car herself.

With wild dreadlocks almost reaching his lower back, and a content, Buddha-like grin on his face at all times, George could be the poster boy for la vida tranquila at the beach in Mexico. Surf shorts, a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off, and flip-flops--mandatory beach attire--don't do much to set George apart from the local surf scene, but everyone in Puerto knows who George is. He'll make you the best Tamarind Drug in Mexico.

Bar Fly is located at the east end of Zicatela Beach, just where the main street curves slightly toward the beach, right past Carmen’s famous “Cafecito”. Bar Fly has bright red metal doors that open to the stairs; the familiar smiley face logo is painted in white, drawn with a trembling hand, x’s for eyes and a crumpled mouth. You climb the stairs to the open-air and breezy bar that overlooks the ocean; looking up, you will almost always have a good view of the stars. Poured-in-place concrete furniture lines the perimeter, and a row of high tables and stools fills the space between the bar and these comfy benches. On any given night, you can expect to see surfing or skydiving videos projected on the white wall toward the back of the room.

The Bar Fly owners are 3 friends: George, Julio, and Beto.

Recently a new father, Beto spends part of his year in Austria, with his wife Katarina. Beto was the owner of the original Bar Fly, back when it was located in the Adoquin, the brick paved street just west of Playa Principal. In it’s first location, Bar Fly was tremendously successful, but closed 2 years ago when Beto couldn't renew his lease. The building owner's son wanted to open his own bar, the fledgling "Blue Station" that is still there today.

After the 2 years hiatus, Bar Fly is back, and better than ever; in a prominent location on Playa Zicatela, you can expect it to be hopping even during low season.

Julio has been in Puerto for 10 years, also a transplant from Mexico City. He worked for the original Bar Fly in the adoquin, playing music and mixing drinks. When Beto wanted to reopen at the beach, Julio took the opportunity to be part owner. He also jumped--literally--at the chance to learn how to skydive on the beach.

On any given weekday, after last night's business is taken care of, you might find the three loading up into the skydiving truck and heading to the airport to make a jump. One by one, Skydive Cuautla/Puerto Escondido nabbed and trained the three friends how to solo skydive, each one taking the Accelerated Freefall Course and now jumping on their own.

A lawyer by training, Monique was also Puerto’d 3 years ago when she came for the Christmas holiday season. “I was at a point where I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer, shortly after finishing school I knew it wasn’t for me,” she says. “I came to Puerto to figure out what I really wanted.” It wasn’t her first trip to the Oaxaquenan Coast, but it was the first time she considered staying. She stayed for one month, working for Beto at the original Bar Fly, but then ended up returning to Mexico to work and save some money so she could relocate to Puerto. After one month she came back to Puerto, and hasn’t looked back. She says her life in Puerto is simple, but very happy. “What more could a girl want?” she says. ”I have it all here; it’s beautiful and I am enjoying every moment.”

Many of these moments are spent running La Flayita (pronounced Fly-ita, a Spanglish word translating as "little Fly"), a joint venture between Beto, Katarina and Monique. It is a pink palapa bar, commonly referred to as the “little sister of Bar Fly”, with woven mats and funky floor furniture, including bean bag chairs and inflatable cushions covered in printed canvas, laid out on a brick floor. Wooden platforms sit right in front of the bar on the beach, with u-shaped rocking beds that are shaded by big umbrellas.

Closer to the water, chaise lounges can be rented for the day, with beachside service of food and drink. Serving up smoothies, juices, snacks, beers and cocktails in a chill atmosphere, La Flayita is by far the hippest bar on the sand.

They refer to themselves as the “Fly-mily”, and there really does seem to be a genuine sense of family, both in how they interact with each other, and in general how they intercept and in a way adopt their clientele. The vibe goes well with Puerto, which is described by many as “magical”. There is one thing for sure, while being served your fruity “Ticket to Fly”, or your famous “Tamarind Drug”, made with Tamarind pulp, mescal, and crushed ice, and always 2 for 1, you can expect to feel right at home while away from home. The Fly-mily wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photos, courtesy of Daniel "Pana" Angulo, Top to Bottom: George Aldana; Bar Fly; Beto's Family; Skydive Puerto Escondido; La Flayita, Sepia; La Flayita's Pink Exterior; La Flayita from the beach; The Fly-mily with Bar Fly-esque drawing of Beto and Katarina's baby the day it was born (in Austria).

December 4, 2007

Turkey Bowl, with Salsa on the Side

Once or so every month for the past six months, the subject of The Turkey Bowl somehow found its way into the conversation: A Brownsville epic, the long-running tradition (14 years) of a usually muddy and always gnarly football game in the park the day after Thanksgiving.

Ryan's eyes would brighten and come alive, as talk of the game conjured up memories of Turkey Bowls past. He described to me in detail and with great excitement the rules and traditions of the game; perhaps the most important one being that in order to play in the Turkey Bowl, the player-to-be must party at least one night before game day. He would tell me about the MVP prize ball signed by all the players, the half time show, the video that would be made and watched after the game--all details a real football fan would want to know. I, on the other hand, wanted to know about the food and where we would stay. What we would eat and how many people might be there.

Needless to say, our Thanksgiving plans were set (in August, mind you) once Keli and Reeber committed to holding the annual extravaganza at their awesome property and tree nursery in Brownsville, Oregon, a few miles southeast of Corvallis.

And so we made our plans. Ryan started panicking about his football fitness level; I started panicking about what to cook and bake. I was told to bring our favorite dish--gulp, how does one decide that? Not able to narrow it down, nor stop myself from going on a small-scale cooking binge that would make Martha proud, I decided to bring several. With two tarts, one pie, a huge mixed greens salad, and my friend Anna's famous Mediterranean Dip packed into insulated coolers, my nurturing instinct took over, and I asked Ryan at the very last second if he felt like we were bringing enough food. He laughed at me. I took it as a yes.

Thanksgiving Day was incredibly beautiful. Sunny and cold, the air crisp and light: the quintessential fall day was perfect for travelling.

We were some of the last folks to arrive. The majority had shown up Wednesday night and were in fairly rough shape from a big night in the Scar Bar, where it all takes place. The bar is in a huge converted garage, complete with wood stove, pool table, bar, kegerator, couches, and a Musician's corner with virtually every instrument under the sun: it was plain to see that this was a very musically talented crowd.

Dinner for 30 was served at the Scar Bar, lit up by candles and warmed by the crackling fire in the wood stove. Every flat surface was converted into tables, and we all lined up to pass through the amazing smorgasbord of food. And then we ate. And ate. And ate. And drank a few cocktails too. Did I mention that we ate? Then the music started, and the party really got going, until early the next morning.

Talk of the next day's big game was peppered with doubt, with some key players having second thoughts. Without them, there would be no game. NO Turkey Bowl?! Well, wasn't this the reason we all came here (for some, it was)? The actual holiday itself, the Turkey, the pies--they were all an excuse for two football teams' worth of grown men to go chase each other and slide around in the mud.

When it came down to it, the fate of the game lie in Reeber's hands. After several hours of negotiations the next afternoon, lots of begging, and Reeber almost signing the forfeiture document that was drafted in the wee hours of the morning, the pivotal moment came down to when I, little ol' non-football fan me, played the card that wound up sealing the deal.

Before I tell you the outcome, I must digress. I met Reeber and Keli over the summer in Corvallis at Brooks' and Alexis' house. I had made my Fresh Salsa, with heirloom tomatoes, plenty of garlic and other additions from the Corvallis Farmer's market. Having mentioned to Ryan that my salsa was semi-famous in some circles, I was a bit nervous to serve it to a whole crowd of people I barely knew. Keli tasted it, loved it, then told me it would be Reeber who would be the real authority, as he was a bit of a salsa connoissuer. From the first bite onward, it was Reeber who sang praises the loudest, and practically ended up drinking the juice when it was finished. Keli told me the night before, after Thanksgiving dinner, that my salsa is a serious obsession and told me that it even comes up in contexts that are unmentionable on this blog (!).

And so, I knew I had something to bargain with, knowing how much Reeber loves my salsa. In the forfeiture document, we wickedly included, in addition to giving up bragging rights, a "Reeber can never eat Val's Salsa ever again" clause. He gasped in horror. I then sweetened the prospect of playing some football by promising to make a batch of the red gold after the game if he would play.

He caved.

After some frenzied preparations of packing up game attire, the keg (!), referee outfits, and the entire sideline crew, we headed into Brownsville to Pioneer Park. It was perfect weather for a football game, a little chilly but clear and gorgeously sunny.

Kick off was set for 3:05 pm. It was to be a flag football game, but I was assured that it would be rough in spite of this.

And it was. To make a long story short, the Turkey Bowl ended in a tie, 28 all due to a broken nose near the end of the fourth quarter. Luckily we had a doctor on the team who came to Joe's aid. After a trip to the emergency room, and a few beers later, he was doing alright.

After a big batch of salsa, highlights of the game and lots of laughs watching the video, Turkey Bowl 2007 was over. It was a smashing success.

Thanks to Reeber. Without his unfaltering dedication to my Fresh Salsa, the Turkey Bowl 2007 might never have happened, and I would have been left wondering for another whole year what it was really all about.

Photos courtesy of Jon Bell, top to bottom: Scar Bar in festive fashion; Reeber almost forfeiting; The teams, post-game. Check out Jon's Blog for more photos, and plenty of fantastic writing.

December 3, 2007

Winter is Here. And so am I.

I've been a little quiet lately.

Actually, I have started several posts, but spread myself too thin and haven't managed to finish any of them. I have decided that Val's Ventures needn't be solely about my adventures in the wild, my travels abroad, or my insatiable wanderlust. It is time, as a testament to my newfound lifestyle, to let this blog be about my everyday life. Which, upon examination is every bit as exciting as skydiving in Mexico or watching for forest fires in the wilderness.

Just in a different way. As I sit and watch the pouring rain melt off the 20" of snow that fell over the past week (welcome to winter in the Cascades), and procrastinate going to work, I get downright teary eyed when I think of all that I have done over the past few months. Months of domestic productivity, unprecedented thus far in my seasonal lifestyle. I've cooked and baked, almost frenetically, never tiring of it--surely making up for lost time. Pear tarts, apple pies, Mega Lemon cakes; summer salads with Hippie Dust viniagrette, chile enchiladas, and Thai-grilled chicken breasts. I've gardened and pruned and landscaped. Built porches and fences and outdoor sleeping/yoga platforms. I've painted and redecorated, organized and revamped. In the middle, I've mountain biked like a fiend, taught yoga and practiced yoga religiously. I've even snuck in some dreaded runs in awful weather, just to get out of the house. And, we camped nearly every weekend all summer long. I've written, written, and written, recording it all, in Ride Logs, journals, and stories I would love to publish.

I've cared for pets--2 dogs and a cat--despite allergies and slight aversion to the messes they make. I've nurtured and nourished the boy, my soulmate and dear love of my life, whom is responsible for all of this lovely domestication. Who is the reason I live in the most darling little cabin in the shadow of Mount Hood, and is the man who finally reigned me in enough to settle me down a little. Dear Ryan, you are the love of my life.

And so it is.
Winter is here, and so am I.

I'm cooking and baking, still feverishly. It's walking downstairs to print something, then suddenly finding myself in the kitchen baking a cake instead. Now it's cross-country skiing, epic style. Some mountain biking. Knitting and lots and lots of yoga. It's shoveling snow and making wreaths. And a cranberry popcorn garland for my tiny potted pine tree. It's Spanish coffees with my dear neighbor and best of the best Anna. It's getting stuck in the driveway for several days, with nowhere to go anyway. It's interior design instead of landscaping.

These are the adventures that sustain my soul, kindle my spirit and nurture my mind. Yes, travelling is wonderful and I will never shake the wanderlust that has led me down so many perfect paths. But it is the everyday doings that really speak to me, that inspire and guide me to live each day as fully as I can. Always busy, always inspired. And always creating.

To December, lovely December, with all of it's projects, parties, and delicious food!

Photos, top to bottom: Dinner Party + Lassie; French Onion Soup; Chimney Cleaning; Eggplant Parmesan; Cross Country Skiing; Pork Tenderloin with apples and cornbread stuffing, action shot.