Would You Like Culture With That? (Location: Mazatlán, Mexico)

In a city engulfed by corporations and Americana, the essence of true culture is always changing.

Mazatlán, Mexico.  It conjures a precision of memories.  For many years my family met once a year to live, laugh, eat and drink, recounting memories beneath the Mexican sun.

We lounged like the afternoon’s iguanas, strolled and swam like leaves in the fall, shopped the Zona Dorada with red eyes, rode horses through the waves and parasailed as if we were birds.  For once a year, The Inn at Mazatlán became our home for two weeks, where we relished in relaxation as a family conglomerate stuck together by the sticky juices of squeezed limes and empty Margarita mixes.

But every once in a while, certain members would miss the reunion and due to my direction in various travels, I was one who often missed these annual Mexican fiestas.  After three consecutive absences, I was looking forward to the next year’s, which reintroduced me to a culture buried within the memories of youth.

As I sat in the back of a taxi outside General Rafael Buelna International Airport, located seventeen miles south of downtown Mazatlán, heat and dust drew in through the open windows and swirled around my head.  It smelled hot.  It smelled tropical.  I thought I caught a scent of a distant sea as a faded CD hanging from the rearview mirror flashed in my eyes.  On one side of the disc, Mother Mary gave me a reserved glance before rotating out of view.

An Unrecognizable Return

I watched out the window: a beloved Mexico and its culture, passing high-walled penitentiaries, catching drafts of burning trash and the odd pile of rubber.

The land was sparse to the city, impoverished with corrugated roofs and sheds, wiry fences enclosing pigs and cattle while chickens roamed freely.  Then, broken by an obtrusive power, gorging the expanse of the countryside, were paved lots of multinational corporations.  They found their way into a culture as Mexico fell to the global faces of Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

Noise and debris, rising dust-clouds of eternal heat, rapturous signals, stoplights and padded feet across cracked asphalt. Then the next race of unholy exhaust pipes flooded the streets.

I breathed in, and as tin and brick and corrugation turned to unfinished concrete harboring spikes of rebar, the city-center approached.

A culture, historic in its patternless flow of work, family and tradition.  Mix in nutritious rice, beans, corn tortillas and a few cooling cervezas.  And then birth the working-class as a mother interlinks her arms throughout five children before dodging traffic, and los federales rolling in their crisp black ’06 GMC pickup trucks and waxy Ford Mustangs, circling fat signs and stripped lands with their sweating asphalt and gymnasiums of cheap simplicities.

My heart skipped a beat at their infiltration.  But as I drew another inhale and observed the life surrounding, I continued witnessing a thriving Mexico.  The dust tickled my throat.  I coughed.

How unburdened can a culture remain?  I was about to find out.

Arrival at the Inn

The Inn dressed as usual.  Elegant in contrast with the streets beyond its whitewashed walls.  A new tower touched the sky with 215 luxury rooms crowned with one three-bedroom ten-person penthouse.   Larger pools.  Fully functional waterfalls.  Yoga classes in the morning and increased prajna after a night of drinks, chips, salsa and guacamole.

There were painting classes, weekly Bingo for the crowds accompanying time-shares in Branson, Missouri, as well as Mexican piñata fiestas for the kin Wednesday nights at seven.  With a restaurant on premise, The Inn was a self-sufficient community of lounge-chair tortillas here for a deep-fry.

I searched a meat menu for a vegetarian plate.

Culture? I ask:

¿La cultura? ¿ Dónde está la cultura?

Indeed, it wasn’t to be found within the walls of the large resorts and hotels fabricated for the broadening American and Canadian tourists, unless, say, you worked your Spanish with the maids and gardeners.

But outside, in the heat and noise, Mexico awaited.

Mazatlán Idol

One evening the family piled into two pulmonias (a crazed golf-cartesque taxi blaring an ungodly noise of music ranging from YMCA to CCR’s Bad Moon Rising). We drove north to La Costa Marinara.

Inside the seafood restaurant, I scanned for something traditional, simple, clean.  I came up empty.  Drink, talk, laughs of the previous evening, and then to eating.  After our meal, the American music toned down and the DJ slapped on a record of classic Mexican rhythms.

Suddenly, as if transformed into Mexico’s next “American Idol,” a waiter stepped onto the patio platform with microphone in hand.  He held it tight, not in nervousness, but passion.

With reverence, he sung his heart out, swooning the customers in love song.  One local, loaded with two of his buddies at a game table of empty beer bottles, joined and grumbled to the melody.  I cringed.

“Tom Jones!” my sister exclaimed.  Reborn and alive, south of the border in Mazatlán.

In all the years we had been coming to this restaurant by the sea, we never saw the bills paid and tables emptied as quickly as they had that night.

Visit From the Country

Señor Jones was not the only performance.  Directly afterwards, six blonde children dressed as Midwestern cowboys appeared.

Between the ages of five and fifteen years, they appeared out of place from the average Mexican; not only the pressed red-squared collared shirts, jeans and boots, with chaps, bandannas and dresses, but also their faces.

These six little children seemed to have come off the beaches of Santa Cruz with tanned white skin and sandy hair.  Let alone, it was nearing ten o’clock on a school night.

The DJ queued the music.  Georgia-born Alan Jackson, in thick accent, rolled with Chattahoochee.  In practiced timing, they kicked their boots’ heels in square dance.  Suddenly, I was transported on a stagecoach time machine to a backwoods Montana bar.

An American woman, apparently from a similar locale, clapped in dramatized exuberance.  “I love this song!  Love it!”  I didn’t dare look over, but from the far corner of my eye I spotted her Margarita bowl near bottom.

Signaling the end of the dance, the youngest three removed their plastic cowboy hats and bowed, before turning them upside down and requesting alms from each table.

Old Streets, Same Bathrooms

I walked back to The Inn that evening with my uncle on the main Avenue Cameron Sabalo.  We passed Japanese restaurants, American burger joints, tapas of Spain, and I thought of the real Mexican dishes in los pueblos y montañas: the simple rice and beans of the Latin world.

The previous day, my mother recalled the sole brilliance of the establishment known in more languages as simply: McDonalds.

“At least we can rely on a clean bathroom no matter where we might find ourselves in the world.”

Yes, Home Sweet Mickey D’s, along with other chains, soon to include Dairy Queen, Domino’s Pizza, Subway, Wal-Mart and Home Depot.

Culture.  Mazatlán.  The input of the West’s power, yet out on the streets, there was Mexico at its finest.

Yesterday’s Today

Blocks are now splashed with the primary colors of the restaurants’ and consumer stores’ façades, but the dust still rises, trash still burns, with the Chevy trucks and the workers down in the shades, mothers sprinting across traffic with young flailing and babies wailing.

Things and their monsters.  They let loose to dilute the beauty of this original culture. Yet cervezas y guacamole, no matter how diluted, still reinvigorate the Mexican culture of memory to the old and young.

Culture is life.  Life is change.  Change is Culture.

It is the beauty of the world, no matter how desperate, no matter how congested and overflowing, omnipresent like a McDo, in Mexico, India, China, France or across the street from your Ace Hardware chain.

Collecting Forks, Making Decisions (Location: The Traveler’s Road)

Experience is based on our personal choices, and we can bring as much or as little choice into the matter as we wish.

Life revolves; as the motion of the sun, as the pleating horizon and its contrasting hues from light to darkness and back.  The individual, from one’s perspective, is the traveler.  And upon all travels, there is a road to follow.

This road is full of choices. Which fork will you choose?

This question came to me long ago as an adage.  I was young, say nine years old.  It stated thus: “If there’s a fork in the road, take it.”

And I laughed.  I laughed until it hurt.  Who would put a fork in the road, and why would I want to take it?

It was a phrase filled with ridiculousness to my budding imagination, but one of deep wisdom as I grew into understanding.

The quote was read to me out of a book written by Pat Riley (one of the top ten NBA coaches of all-time according to NBA.com) entitled The Winner Within. I now see it in its full light.  I can taste the fork, the food of life from the past, present and future.  The flavors of choice.

The Life of a Student

Paris—its ancient European splendor discovered on one’s lap in the finest literature or upon the walls of the most selective galleries.

Five months I signed my life away and gave my word to family, friends, and Paris—I would be a student of the City of Lights.  But five months for the traveler is eternity.

The French classes, the home-stay with a lone parisienne woman, and the intense independence of a traveler buried within his consciousness.  The forks were many, arriving and departing, offering me choices in all directions.

Stay in Paris: the marooned traveler locked in a conceived commitment like a child to its bottle.  Return home: my mind, body and soul thirsted for a rest within familiarity, before the dusty lane of a lingering wanderer caught his scent afar once again.

I couldn’t help but sink beyond the mind-fuck of options into a wordless image of the road, where long curving paths travel outward, into movements of the unknown, guiding to new towns and hostels.  Flavors constantly pushing onward.  Possibilities endless.  The road limitless. Where was I?

From the start, way before the birth of my Parisian studies, I collected my forks.  This was my reassurance that I was okay.  Every choice in the road that led to the enrichment of adventure, shaped in spontaneity, was my destiny.  I was not lost.  I was not stuck.  I was on the road less traveled where the unabated borage of questions my mind teased me with was none other then normal brain activity.  I didn’t have to sit in mediation longer.  I didn’t have to eat healthier: rawer foods and purer waters.  I needed to breathe, observe and continue questioning until the choice felt right.  Until I made the decision to pick up the fork and own it.

My present moment—my past and future—rolled into one.  They were in my hand, on the fork, before sliding onto my tongue and across the palate.

The Manufacturing of Commitment

To commit is dedication.  With the soft pavement beneath my feet, as with the crisp steel shaping the idiom’s many forms, I’m dedicated to the life of the traveler.  Time in Paris was up.  I clearly saw my fork and I took it.

A thought is a thought.  Experience it.  Accept it.  Leave it at that and move on.

When a choice is made there’s a manufacturing of commitment.

“I will do this.”

You tell yourself.  You tell others.

There’s a response from all: Yes you will, or no you won’t.

And as word spreads around, a bond is created.  A thought, into speech, turned to action.

However, a choice remains at its origin in that plain thought.  Here lies the trouble: Perhaps you can’t let go.  Maybe, just maybe, you’re stuck because you took it too seriously, so whole-mindedly that there was nothing else to stand in its’ way.

A thought is a thought.  Experience it.  Accept it.  Leave it at that and move on.

Return to the Road

Although I thought about Paris from its conception, where I shared it, created it as my reality, and experienced it’s artistry for five months; whose commitment was it?

It was mine and I could change it.

Remember Cameron, you have the fork.  My conscience was speaking clearly.  You picked up the fork.  You own it now.  This is your life to decide what to do, when to do, without questioning why.  Feel your way through the flavors of destiny.

I stopped, took in a breath, and experienced the current circumstances.  A perceived commitment, which never existed, vanished for good as my path along the road became unblocked.  I let go and my movement proceeded, far from Paris.

No, I’m not married to any single thought.  I never was, and I never made a commitment, except to that originating decision to do it.  But then there is another, and another, and another, from the past, into the future sitting before me on the plate of the present moment.  And with my fork, I decide where, when and how I live this moment.  As my road evolves and revolves, new choices are made, affecting the current life circumstances.

I don’t allow someone else or something else to begin collecting my forks for me.  They’re mine.

In other words, it all comes down to this:  Bundled in a ball, simple enough for a nine year old to play with, Pat Riley continued, “Don’t let other people tell you what you want.”  Deliberately take it upon yourself to recognize and embrace your life’s choices.

Remember:  If there’s a fork in the road, take it.



Culture Hopping: Life is the Essential Ingredient (Location: Planet Earth)

Like a roasted pepper, you’re done: well cooked, charred on the outside, burnt and spent. But on the inside, hidden within the veil of life’s fire-burner, you’re soft and ready.  Anticipating for more.

However, it doesn’t come all that easy.  After the months, weeks, or maybe only the days of travel, you return home to the accustomed life once left behind, and there, piled with new baggage you were ready to unpack, you find yourself overloaded with a new beginning.

And despite how many times you attempt to escape from this, seeking the bliss of freedom discovered upon the open road, mixed within the world’s vast cultures—leaving, returning, leaving, returning—you are met face to face time again with this long winding road home.  It stares at you.  It tempts you.

Upon returning, afflictive emotions once erased resurface (hint: they never leave!).  In order to take this road, you know you must begin the new journey with your new bags; keep on traveling, keep on truckin’ to peel away your surface layers to reach that core initially sought.

You must emerge from the cultures of the ancient times of open-air fires with stone, brick and mortar to reveal the modern complexity of steal and chrome.  The time allotted is the progress made, and until then the core will not be exposed.  Instead, the fires will continue to char, and char, and char returning you back to the start of that winding path, through and through.  Call it culture hopping.

And You Are?

Whether Africa, Asia, Southeast Asia, Europe, South America, North America, or some distant cardinal tropic marooned from the flanks of one’s accustomed culture, the traveler is an explorer in the miasmic layers, colors and spices of the world’s cultures.  To have that desire for taste, for preparation and creative roast is to obtain the initial interest of discovering a lifestyle other than one’s own.

It is a yearning for experience, for knowledge, for an accumulation of wealth that can never be bought, taught or sought in books:  It’s the potential growth of the soul that comes with willingness, dedication and an awareness given the time and space to be sown in the soils of one’s consciousness.

Through the journey beyond, an epic tale of letting go and allowing the fires to char on their own accord, experience becomes wisdom.  It becomes that seed enriched with appreciation for life, a life involving a continued exploration of man, woman, Nature and their intriguing interwoven dynamics.  Alone, this path cultivates and further roasts one’s seed of awareness allowing the pepper to blossom and the fires cook.

For such a traveler, life is the essential ingredient.  Within mind, body and soul there contains essential components only fed when the traveler throws oneself into this very unknown.  This is where life revolves.

Certain characters are necessary for the traveler to embark and take upon these fires when ready:  Such one loves the unknown.

He or she loves taking this upon destiny like a parasite caught in flesh.  It is a necessity, a fertilizer sucked from the deepest soils, where the senses abide to the farthest root tips; stretching, distending, growing further and reaching for that appreciation of life, its beauty and the diversity which flourishes.  These cultures of humanity define the sustenance of life, and without their firsthand experience there would be no worth to the traveler in the life surrounding.

And so, with a firm grip upon an adventurous nature, a character ready and willing to let it all go for something without any future at all, the traveler within me tossed this mind, body and soul into the deep soils of the earth.  Seed planted, sustenance fed—my pepper of various layers, colors and spices began to sprout.  The fire was already provided.  I began my culture hopping.

Cultures Revealed, The Culture Transformed

I went abroad, explored the cultures of islands, of development and riches, of poverty and those stricken with the despair of unjust treatment to their basic human rights.  I went abroad and found turmoil in the markets, unlike my hometown grocer’s well stocked and aligned isles.  I was ingrained within these new markets like a spider in a neighbor’s web, weaving my thread with theirs, calm and observant with the people of Africa, Asia, south-north-east-west and beyond.  I spun more, throwing an innocuous trust within my surroundings.

Further, I found isolated pockets of forest, tropical with malarial mosquitoes and monkeys.   I saw fauna and flora of the imagination, and I let my own wander to color my thoughts with its fragrance.

Things filled my senses.  Life invaded me.  From one culture to the next, I let go, stepping deeper into the unknown.  And I let go once more.

Literally it all consumed me, and as the small seed, a sponge underneath the flowing faucet, I soaked in it.  I was free.  I was the traveler.  I absorbed this flow—people, thoughts, situations and circumstances, foreign politics, cuisines and their palates, lifestyles and manners.  They became a part of who I was, and who I sought to become.

From one individual to the next, from village to village, city to city, via bicycle, rickshaw, tuk-tuk, taxi, bus, train, boat—or by foot—I was culture hopping.  I was experiencing this life I knew and never knew.  It was withdrawn from within me where I allowed an awareness to manifest the road ahead.  And on every step, the journey started anew as the flames were fueled, the fires turning hotter.

Eventually, I was done.

The pepper: blackened, charred, burnt on the outside.  Work was now necessary to peel away the layers, and so the traveler returned home to the culture left behind.  There, after faced with one phenomenon to the next, culture hopping at its finest (the pepper well-done, the spider entombed within, a sponge oozing the sustenance of life), explorations changed courses and routes led homeward to the familiar lifestyle.  But through each interlope and interchange of culture there was that reunion affected by this so-called hopping.

It was a reemergence with the traveler’s old self, bags ready to unpack before discovering there were still more bags to be carried.

Still Traveling

Often it’s unexpected, meeting this thing left behind which is now present; all around you, within family and friends and customs and routines.  It is the traveler of the past; the traveler before the traveler was ever a “traveler”.  In essence it is the mind, body and soul in which everyone knew and everything expected despite the change.

Returning from Southeast Asia to southern California, my confidence and belief within my own self and the direction I was heading hit a steel-plated wall.  All happiness faded.

But now, unexpected, the new traveler facing the old traveler before the traveler was ever a traveler becomes paralyzed.  He or she is overwhelmed with the past culture amounting to that of the new various cultures adopted.  Known collectively as “culture shock”, there is no turning back.

The old sages comment, “Easy is the choice to begin or not, but once begun, better finish.”

And like a dish of foie gras to a vegetarian consciousness, like a Russian bath for the Hawaiian local, culture shock throws you into a chasm where the lights are dimmed to view only the faintest silhouettes ahead.  There is nothing left behind.  You must continue and accept a responsibility, for this very shock is the effect of your culture hopping.  It stuns, saddens—and more significantly—paralyzes the senses and any feeling of centeredness.

Questions arise again, afflictive emotions stir as remorse composes a symphony of disgust, despair and pain before the next layer of pepper is charred.  There’s never the chance of having the opportunity to live the life of its soft sweet flesh.  This is the case of reemergence into Western society.

Returning from Southeast Asia to southern California, my confidence and belief within my own self and the direction I was heading hit that wall.  Happiness gone.  Despair arisen.  Confusion ahead.   What I remember most having returned from the months abroad was entering that Ralph’s “superstore” on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena.

Culture shock as loaves of bagged bread—signed, sealed and delivered—shook with a consumerism’s shopping rage.  It was like an exemplified spree; carts with gargantuan mouths, open and wired to the teeth.  They could be stuffed full, occupying up to ten bags if willed.  There were meats, animals to be more specific, which now took the form of slice after slice, shank and steak and thigh and breast—or why not whole? My eyes witnessed the abundant glory to what a Newari family in the Nepalese Himalayas might perceive:  I’m in heaven!

No.  To me, having experienced the impoverished of India, Africa and Asia—as well as the freeway underpasses of California’s forgotten homeless; having walked the mountains and beaches where a family was considered lucky if a porter succeeded in bringing what they requested, this mass production of animals, genetically modified fruits and vegetables, and aisles upon aisles of sugared dumplings called Ding-Dongs hit my lower abdomen with an iron cudgel.

Cheeses and yogurts fermented beyond their expiration date.  Fizzing bottles of Coca-Cola and Dew blew their tops.  Bottles of water became dirty.

What happened to the market?  To morality?  What happened with globalization and to our care for others’ well-being?

No, I concluded, there was never a moral concern for life.  And there never will be.  What the hell am I doing here? I was culture shocked.

A Welcome Home

It’s the most difficult stretch of the journey; to return home to family and friends, to routine—to life as you once knew it—and apply successfully all the lessons of travel.  People look at you as they did in the past, but you say, you stand up for yourself:  No, I’ve changed.

The world revolves.

You see the news.  You have the luxuries you once forgot and indeed took advantage of in the past.  Daily life causes its stresses.  Anger, confusion, and all the other emotions come to greet you with a slap in the face, smiling like they’ve never done before.  Even those plates of food adorning your dining table are a blessing, but no one else seems to see.

Likewise, you yourself begin to struggle.  In your silent prayers you return your conscience back to the center and thank the sustenance before you and your family.  You thank the Universe for this life compared to others witnessed far away, an observance you’re beginning to forget.

As with most, the first return and its adaptation is the hardest.  You cope with it, you deal with it and you hopefully take in the lessons for your growth.  The second and third become easier due to experience, and with the appropriate placement of the lessons recalled, your life, whether traveling or at “home” in your own culture, becomes a continued journey of culture hopping.

You are the traveler and you feed this, caring for yourself with the practice of your experiences from the places you’ve been.  It is your new culture in which you live and grow from.  But how do you get passed the initial return, and the second and the third?

Over my travels, an unknown quote to an unreligious individual has reminded me of strength and courage: “God comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable.”  It is a message shouting there is always more growth to be had.  Once you think you’ve reached the top, you’ve actually hit bottom.

Greeted with the eruption of past habits and routines, I have taken the journey of reentering the life I left behind as a whole new opportunity to evolve further to that infinite goal.  And what keeps me sane throughout the process is the remembrance of the journey passed and how it’s still in its entirety churning within me.

Therefore, I’m brought to the present, the internal traveler awoken within to become the traveler of the present moment no matter what road I might be on.  I see family and friends; they might mistake me for someone of the past.

Sure, I’m still that person, but now I’m him, which includes this new traveler.

I see shelves of abundance in a culture appearing oblivious to the rest of humanity’s infirmities and I become grateful to have that awareness of the resources in my life, their precious blessings, and how most persons round the globe might not have such a luxury as the basic necessity of shelter to plates to eat upon, or surviving family and a network of friends.

I remember how I used to take things for granted, including as a boy that dumpling of sugar, the so-called Ding-Dong.  Hence, there is no need to despise it, but better yet be appreciative of the options and leave it for others who might harbor interest.  And I’m grateful for the world’s diversity and the cultures out there to be explored.

Though what remains most important, disregarding the adventure of external discovery, is the magnitude of a continued internal exploration.  It is an application of one’s new understanding and belief into mainstream life that keeps this cyclone of the Self gyrating.

Barriers discovered, analyzed and then toppled; passed through to advance further into the conscious Self.

Each step hosts the opportunity for growth—mentally, emotionally and spiritually—and with the continued practice of one’s lifestyle within the new surroundings of home, obstacles of daily living no longer appear as they once did.  Instead they take the form of that flame, licking the edges of skin to provide a tool to peel away the outer layers to reach its deepest core.  That fire is of love and peace, as is the core—as is the practice, the people and places—as are those once termed “obstacles”.

And So, To Hopping

Today, there is more of Asia, West Africa, Europe and more Central America, including my own culture, within me.

As a traveler with a continuous yearning for growth through an experience of culture hopping, and a lessening culture shock, I have come to peer through a cleared perception, recognizing the differences and similarities of each land and its people.  I have come to accept these cultural barriers as a part of this physical world, established in total for our growth.  Beyond these barriers, they dissolve and I perceive a life with the oneness of all peoples.  My heart opens as I remind myself and take recognition.  Happiness returns.

Yes, I’m still traveling.

Life keeps churning, and as a morsel within the stew—that spice—as a bubble in a boiling pot, I have only so long before I leave and transform, before I am eaten by my own creation.

In order to fill this duty with its finest, in order to allow the fires to masterfully complete its roast, a strive to dig deeper attains progress.  It is the act of reaffirming the underlying connection between people and their cultures.  It is the subtle continued establishment within the mind that they—we—have founded this very life and that we are here together to share it.  Through this realization, carrying for myself and reawakening from sleep each fleeting moment, the afflictive emotions associated with the road and the return into daily life subsides.

A roasted pepper, charred skin peeled, I am now ready to continue with the ingredients of this infinite stew of culture, traveling deeper into the feast of life.  Culture hopping is my vehicle of choice.

Labors of India (Location: New Delhi, India)

“Oshi, please. Uncle is waiting for us.”

I am sitting in a renovated immigration hall experiencing way too much time.

“Oshi, please!”

The lines are getting smaller, people shuffling, waiting.  A woman beside me shoos her young daughter away as she kneels on white marble, scribing black letters on an Arrival Card.

She finishes. Mother and daughter leave for an Uncle.

I’m in India; an India seemingly small compared to the first time I was arrived.  Over a year ago, I was intimidated to be in this massive democracy, a planet unto itself with flavors, scents, terrain and more diversity.  But today it appears minuscule after the other countries and cultures.

Planes unload their passengers.  Paces quicken.

On my plane, there sat a young British woman from the Gatwick area of London.  She was in India on work and explained she was part of a human resources company preparing a presentation at the University of Delhi.  The company was recruiting employees and those hired would be trained in London before returning to work at their Delhi offices.

Lines fill again.  Customs is full of Germans.  Their voices drown out over the CD skipping through the speakers.  Between the scratches, the music is something like an electronic Peruvian flute, and as time lingers, I see people moving to the rhythm.  Germans sway.  A woman in a purple sari trails her lace scarf.  It catches a breath and flutters to the melody.

As she rounds a metal pole forming the orderly maze of security, her luggage follows closely.  Suddenly, it cuts too close, rises over the aluminum base and tips over.  The music stops.

Apparently Hong Kong arrived, but I see no Chinese. If the flight exists, I’m expecting to observe pairs of backpackers and hoards of tourist groups—name tags, color-coordinated luggage plates—walking in circles.

My plan is to catch a 7:20AM train, the 2031 Shabati Express to Amritsar.  Currently, it’s 2:30AM and my desire to wander the New Delhi Railway Station at this hour is nonexistent.  So this large room suites me well.  I’ll stay until the uniformed workers decide to kick me out.

Hours later I discover the Shabati is booked.  Next available train is on the seventh—four days.  I forgo my plans; find a room and crash, sleeping for over twelve hours before checking out in the afternoon.  I head to Paharganj of New Delhi and before I’m awake I’m on a bus to McLeod Ganj.  The destination looms distant.  It will take fourteen hours.  I have no seat, only a front cabin bench beside the driver.

Sitting on top bags, my limbs quickly fall asleep as cold winter air flushes into a cracked window. One after another, the driver smokes his beedis as day turns to night.  The bus climbs into the Himalayas and behind the blaring Indian music, I can hear the roar of the engine and passengers in the back vomiting out windows.  Shortly, I join the ranks.

Paying for Your Mind: The Magic of Venezia (Location: Venice, Italy, Europe)

Venice.  Silence all but the jabbering tourists, grumbling water taxis and yapping dogs.  The days of Venice are mystical, a realm from an ancient water world.  Nights upon the isles are a mesmerizing mystery with foggy passages and cold stonewalls.  The gypsy coin peddlers back in Florence and Rome feel like a gossamer memory from youth.

Amidst the city, some four hundred gondolas make their rounds, kicking off enclosing walls for guidance as they pocket a romantic’s savings.  In their adept grace and good humor, the stillness of the narrow waterways off the main aquatic freeways simply adds to the hypnotic state found upon the lands of the Venetian lagoon.  Albeit, even the temporal condition of a traveler’s enthrallment comes with a price.  The fee for a few days upon The Queen of the Adriatic is priceless.


On the first evening’s arrival, a numinous fog hung onto the waters off the canal.  Wandering through the alleys, the walls and cobbles wet with dew, people shouted and echoed, their faces obscured by the condensation off their breath.  Things felt tight, empty, until the principal square of Venice opened into an expanse.  Piazza San Marco, where the 16th and 17th century walls faded into a dream as tours of pigeons and people gathered for feed and sociability.

Under the mystique of the sky, consumed by the omnipresence of these Venetian creatures, lights along the outside of the San Marco perimeters snapped into luminescence by the touch of a reclusive finger.  The crowds, under the trance of the sudden whim of magic, wailed in exasperation, and together they hummed, creating a synchronized tune amidst San Marco’s grandiosity.

Like the Doge’s command, the crowd’s choir quickly faded as Beethoven’s quintet raged with passion.  Outside a café, the classy four-piece band battled with another opposite the square.  From Mozart to Luciano Pavarotti into the classic modernity of The Sound of Music, the front ensembles in stiff tuxes fought each other for the thickest audience.  By feet, the music was free, yet under the carefree ambiance at a table in the piazza, nothing went without a charge.


With the appellation applied to the Adriatic city, every nook and cranny is entitled to the Queen’s throne.

At Caffé Florian, a small table draws up two tweed seats.  Settling into San Marco’s atmosphere, people watching and inhaling the thick sea air passes time as service flies away with a pigeon.  Eventually, a well-tucked and tight-fitted waiter consisting of frigidity and an empty tray appears without a gaze.  Eight euros – a glass of white wine.  Eight euros – a set of tea infused with lavender.  An hour ticks.  Nothing seems to matter but a refill.

Within Venice, twilight morphs into a yellow evening as street lamps alight like single shard from a dying sun.  The pigeons disappear, as do the clusters of families with their young throwing feed and karate-kicks.  Life appears to slow down as echoes through the street become more commonplace and mist from the November fogs settle atop shoulders.  Things feel vacant and the intimacy of a Venetian restaurant lurks between its neoclassical alleyways.

Café tabs paid, the cover charge for ambiance is no less surprising.  It’s complete with all of Venice; from the city’s Piazza San Marco with its gaudy basilica, its bell towers and their clapping ring upon each hour, to the historical empire, mystique seclusion, hordes of civilization, to the famed crafts of blown glass on the isle of Murano and the Venetian school of Renaissance paintings by the Bellinis and Vivarinis.  It’s the foggy ambiance of surrealism, whether sunny, rainy or dreary under a gray layer of high clouds.  In essence, it is Venezia and it’s worth it, including the supplemental music charge.

Looking around, the tables are full and will be for the remainder of the evening.  Therein, each person at each table pays a bill and coin of five and fifty euros just to sit and indulge in the magic of Venice.


With time’s strike upon the hour, the two bell towers ring and heads turn skyward.  The same hum radiates from the many mouths at that moment, looking up and then turning back down to smile and find the lover, the family, the friend or stranger with eyes of equal amusement.  Venice is a silent bustling paradise marooned from the cultures abroad where the Queen timelessly sings.

Waking in Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa sneaks up on you under the cover of darkness and smashes into your senses at the first light of day.  Molasses mixed with gasoline and diesel spews from exhaust pipes, filling the grills of the public lines packed with humanity.  Everything under the African sun thuds into 250 square kilometers of valley and pumps out a life bursting with tenacity.  Dirty, dusty and polluted—Africa’s 4th largest city is… surprisingly easy.  Catch a minibus from the roadside to a nearest transport hub and in an hour the whole sprawl is at your fingertips for less than a dollar (at the time of writing, 12 birr equals one US$1).  Hiking trails along the outskirts dot mountaintops.  Splashes of exotic cuisine from local injera to pans of pizza pie ring the clock.  Shopping malls for the elite and markets for the audacious (the Merkato being Africa’s largest) is vibrant with traditional to global commerce.  And nightlife thumps with labels of alcohol from around the world.

So how do you begin to navigate a rumpled city of 3 million people?

The answer: Step out onto the street, buy a bag of avocados from a vender, sit down on a stool to spoon a mixed juice (called spress) down your gullet and take a stroll.  Wander.  Breathe.  Smile at the smooth faces of Ethiopia.  And ask lots of questions.  You’re sure to find an answer.

Lily and I were riding a minibus to the Merkato.  Caught up by the innocent face of a child hung over the seat before us, I started photographing.  Everywhere in the city, strangers touch the heads of young kids as a sign of admiration.  In general, adults are physical.  They grab fingers when talking.  Arms wrap around shoulders.  Men walk together hand in hand as friends.  People care for people.  Children care for children.  Society is one grandiose family, including the homeless who gain their wages begging in the streets for their days’ meals—and they make it.

As we poked at the giggling youth, other passengers paid attention and brought the child’s cheeks from brown to maroon red.  Shortly, we reached the market; disembarked and walked into what the majority of locals (called habisha) and all foreigners (known as ferenge) consider the most dangerous neighborhood in all Addis Ababa.

A man on the bus who paid his dues to the enchanting youth turned to us.  “What are you doing here?”

Lily and I looked at one another.  “We’re here for the Merkato.”

The man gazed thoughtfully and nodded.  “Yes.  Really?”


On the ride we had learned of the man’s character.  He graduated from Addis Ababa University in journalism and was an avid runner.  “Do you know Kenenisa Bekele?”


“But the Jamaican sprinter you know?  Really?”

We nodded.  “Yes.  Usain Bolt, the current record holder.”

“But not Kenenisa?”

We shrugged.

EshiEshi.  Okay, I will take you through the Merkato.  My name is Endalk.”

This is the essence of Ethiopian kindness.  For three hours Endalk the Journaling Sprinter led us through a maze of alleys, shops and culture.  However, being a Sunday in a country of Orthodox Christians and devote Muslims, the market was low-key; not the expected miasmic chaos of an African bazaar deemed the largest of such a continent.  We felt safe.  We felt calm.  Yet faces turned towards ours while eyes beamed into our souls.  Undoubtedly, Lily and I were the only western individuals pasted white in a sea of slick black, and we were the only ones carrying backpacks seeping of a camera, two US passports and wads of cash.

Endalk was searching for a job.  “There is no work in this country.  I have a major in my studies, but still I find little.  Look at all these people with nothing!”

Bodies were everywhere—clean, dirty, ragged and crisp.  Humanity was thriving in all the ways possible.

“Then what do you want to do?” I asked.  “If there’s anything, any kind of work available, what’s your dream job?”

“I want to write for a newspaper, editorial and political topics; but you know, there is no way around the government.  They own.  They control.”

In the hours of strolling, our conversation ranged from the political to the orthodox to the relaxation of companions from varying cultures familiarizing one another.  Before long, we’re facing a group of Endalk’s friends in a small chat hut.

“Come in and sit.”

The room was square, roughly 4 feet by 5 feet, crammed with six bodies.

Chewing chat with a cluster of warm-hearted strangers in Ethiopia is akin to nirvana.  Lily and I were out of the sun in cool shade, hydrating our bodies while resting our feet with a cheek full of chat among new friends.

The four men didn’t speak a lick of English, so Endalk translated.  “They know you have a strong head on your shoulders and big hearts.  They want to invite you to a coffee ceremony at their house.  Will you come?”

Swallowing, we nodded.  “Of course,” we answered.

Smiles, laughter, Obama claps, and chat.  We took our leave under the wing of Endalk and continued exploring.

One deranged thing about Addis is a crosswalk.  In the West, crosswalks symbolize the movement of feet and the respect of self-transportation.  Engines halt.  Machines rest.  Bipedals progress.  Yet in Addis, like most otherworldly metropolises, the foot passenger is at the bottom of the food chain while spewing beasts of metal, steel and oil surge to the top lost behind the obscurity of their blindfolds.  Cross streets with care.  Look both ways, then look again in both directions before stepping into the streets.  Remember: Don’t hold your breath, and at the slightest breach of traffic (and with keen judgment in self-care) shuffle swiftly.  Cars won’t stop and buses won’t forgo their passenger’s eye; in fact, drivers will accelerate at the sight of your vulnerability.  It’s all or nothing when crossing a busy street, especially in darkness when impaired judgment is tenfold like a deer in headlights.

So be a wise mammal, one with a head on its shoulders and a big warm-blooded heart.  Breathe in the African air, even when passing those green rivers that emit the scent of raw feces stirring in an eternal batch of brown foam.  And don’t mind the random dismembered goat heads lying in the ditches and the rocky dirt roads torn asunder by torrential rains.  Remember to smile, be brave, and realize we’re all one people.  When in Ethiopia, give praise to the culture’s independence, which arises from a history that bubbles with creation and sustenance.  Sweetness is aplenty in Addis Ababa, a city whose English translation means “New Flower”.  She is a beautiful one indeed.

Seulam: An Ethiopian Welcome

Italy missed it.  The Emperor Haile Selassie created a new legacy.  Agriculture flourished with creative inventions of coffee and teff.  And people evolved with smiles on faces of unparalleled beauty.  Nestled within the Horn of Africa, this land is boisterous and unique; food specialized and faith ingrained deep with the freedom to believe.  Home sweet home, Ethiopia.

Twenty-four hours of transit to a different time zone upon a different continent in a world that revolves in different Time, all set in a calendar 7 ½ years behind the West.  Add one extra month (which proceeds the month of August) in a yearly cycle of twelve and you find yourself in Ethiopia. 

Abraham the driver pulled Lily and me out of immigration, led us to his van and trundled into the city.  It was after midnight on our clock, but Addis Ababa read 6:30pm, and on January 7th, 2010, the eve of Ethiopian Christmas Day, the streets were dark.  Black apparitions passed among the concrete shadows where little burning fires kept the shelterless warm.  Packs of dogs wandered across our van’s headlights, their eyes gleaming with a reflection akin to the haunted, and with a glint of color block office buildings draped with strands of Christmas lighting.  An odd mix.  A complete disillusionment to Western reality.  Breathe in Africa: that moist, dense air set within the exotic power of mankind’s nonsensicality.  Suddenly, I relaxed into the adventure. 

Fast-forward thirty-six hours and our circadian clocks matched.  We’re inside a stranger’s house with a friend from home who calls himself Henry Guterson.  It was a day of exploration like any day in a foreign city: sumptuous foods, crazed markets, the meters of walking and the barriers of language.  Soon we were climbing Entoto Mountain when a spontaneous invitation brought us to a coffee ceremony.  Inside the local’s mud hut, the three of us sat on a sunken couch as the family emerged in abundance: Father (abbat) and Mother (ennat) with seven sons (weund lej) and six daughters (sat lej).  Their friends crowded in too, staring and smiling.  We asked questions.  They asked questions.  We all used our hands and body language.  They understood and we set the groove:  Americans and Ethiopians before a dish of roasting beans called buna (or coffee).  Over red embers, the green beans browned in a splash of water, releasing a wispy tail of steam and smoke that filled our nostrils with a rich earthy aroma. 

“Where you from?” the daughter Yibekal Zewdu asked as she roasted the beans.

“America.  We’re all from the USA.”

Faces erupted.  “USA is good country.  Americans!”

We could see their happiness, their smiles stretching from one ear to the next: A rural family hosting a traditional coffee ceremony for three Americans, passing dabbo (bread), introducing us to their culture with apple-flavored hookah and chat (a mildly intoxicating leaf chewed and packed in the cheek).  A scratchy Japanese show played on their television screen as a dusty stream of sunlight poured through the rafters.  Nestled in a dark corner was a Christmas tree, constructed from a bouquet of fresh branches and garlanded with the ominous plastic colors of the holiday season. 

We sipped our teacups of sweetened coffee.  Shortly afterwards the Father spoke.

His language was in Amharic, Ethiopian’s official dialect among some 80 other indigenous tongues, but we quickly understood with the influence of hand gestures and facial features:  The sun is sinking.  It’s getting late.  If you keep climbing, you better hurry, because after dark there is danger for you.  He ran his finger across his throat, contorting his face with an open jaw.  You must leave.

 Later we got the picture.  There are jup or hyenas roving in packs in the mountains, and they’re always hungry.  So, with a donation for the family’s generosity, Lily, Henry and I took our departure amidst adult handshakes and children kisses.  We stepped outside and were bathed in the exquisite African sun, continuing our trek upon an Ethiopian landscape.  We each breathed deeper with the sense of cultural freedom.  Seulam and chow, my Ethiopian brothers and sisters.  Welcome and goodbye until next time.

10 Online Magazines That Survived (& will continue to survive) the Writer’s Market

It is often daunting to think of presenting your personality to an audience, whether in the form of art such as painting, drawing or sculpting, down to the very basics of speaking a hand-written speech to a rabble of family, friends and strangers.  You express.  You divulge in a passion.  But are you ready to share?

As a writer, you are an artist with words.  They are your tools like a paintbrush is to a painter.  And language is your color palette; a vast choice of styles, techniques and individuality.  Once the order is composed, the structure aligned and your voice vibrant with character, it’s time to reveal your creation and share.

But how?  What’s next is the submission process to expose your artistic skill as a writer to audiences that will gain a new perspective and understanding, and hopefully appreciate your abilities.  Below is a list of publications that cater to the adventurous, the culture dwelling, and the storyteller of the senses—lived by travelers, composed by travelers and read by travelers.  These peoples are your friends, and they’re hear to assist you in your passion.

Action 1 (Mandagho-Peace)

Travel Explorations
Want to expose the fearful?  TravelExplorations.com is an online magazine devoted to shedding grassroots light where there is media darkness, revealing a culture from behind the iron curtain by true explorers.  Real travel.  Real adventure.  Real investigation by undercurrent people.  No mainstream bullshit here.
Editor(s): Geir Moen & Stein Morten Lund
Submissions: Compose an article about your adventure, an exploration—a journey into the heart of “darkness”.  Spice it with your soul at 1,000-1,500 words and email the symphonic words to Stein@TravelExplorations.com

Inside Out Magazine

By backpackers and the independent wayfarers, this bimonthly publication is for those who prefer the new versus the old.  Instead of consuming, collecting and rotting within the four walls of daily routine, sell your shit, hit the road with a new lifestyle on your back and begin exploring the cultures of this planet.  Ready to share?  InsideOutMag.com
Editor(s): Helene Goupil
Submissions: Briefs, tips and facts; destinations to languages, health to the traveler’s life—pull your words into a structured alignment for the budgeteer and send it off to submissions@insideoutmag.com.  Upon publication you’ll receive $10-$20 for your expenses.

Go World Travel Magazine

“Honest, down-to-earth descriptive writing” is the focus of this magazine.  Prizing intelligent composition, GoWorldTravel.com wants more than the How to get there and the What to do.  They want the picture of a back alley in Fez painted in twilight mood and a spice market within Kashmir to tickle your nose and water your eyes—all with words.
Editor(s): Mim Swartz, Rachel Barbara & Sheri L. Thompson
Submissions: Travel within the last two years is good for description, so recall your memory or sculpt a new journey within a 500-1200 word article.  Check your facts before shipping it to submissions@goworldpublishing.com.  Include article location in the e-mail subject line with your pasted manuscript, word count, brief author biography and whether images are available.  $35-$50 upon publication.

The Cultured Traveler
Whether freelance or tour host/travel agency, TheCulturedTraveler.com works around a monthly editorial calendar with theme-based publications searching for stories about the unexpected, the bizarre and the eclectic.  Not only anecdotes, but facts, tips and resources are necessary for the all-around traveler’s account.
Editor(s): Patrick Totty
Submissions: With the regal elegance of an opera performance, conduct your language into a 1,000-3,000 word count and invest in the guidelines.  Specifics here, so follow the formats on the submissions page and prepare for edits, rewrites and a $25 sum after publication.

Travel Outward
Looking for a story of the senses portraying a unique destination combined with history, culture, people and your own melodic adventure?  TravelOutward.com is a place for your craft to evolve, develop and be shared via publication, focusing on that preferred destination.  This is not a place to divulge romantic sojourns in the arms of the jet stream’s cherubs, but a community narrowed down to intelligence and knowledge.
Editor(s): Laurence Constable & Harman Stinson
Submissions: Features from 1,500-2,500 words should be attached to an email to Travel Outward as a Word doc. that includes a brief bio with “Submission” in the subject line.

Devotion 3 (Statues-of-Chinta)

EscapeArtist Travel Magazine
Not for the faint hearted, EscapeArtist.com seeks the daring, the challenging, those who live, travel and express on the edge…possibly the cusp of insanity.  But the publication is not out to offend, simply to present intelligent writing about culture with history, purpose and flares of risqué.
Editor(s): n/a
Submissions: An article between 1,500-3,000 words flavored with the ribald and the daring that highlights a cultural expedition through the heart of the unknown.  Should be completed and either faxed or sent via email.  Check the Article Submission page for specifics.

Welcome to the worldwide writer’s circle of fellow explorers.  Set up as an online magazine, TravelMag.co.uk wants whatever you got, as long as it reads well, structured with a unique perspective and offers an angle that is possibly more esoteric than your standard publication.
Editor(s): Jack Barker
Submissions:  Travel away, then write away.  If your article is interesting, unique, lively, filled with senses and intelligently composed at an approximate word count of 2,000 send ‘err off in an email with accompanying photographs to ed@travelmag.co.uk

InTheFray Magazine
At InTheFray.org, writers are provided with a plethora of categories from reporting international news to travel narratives and today’s evolving art world.  This publication seeks everything that is cleverly written and allows readers to be a part of a progressive evolution.  Race, gender, activism, sexuality and ecological impacts are center stage.
Editor(s): Vivian Wagner, Annette Marie Hyder, Anja Tranovich, Matthew Heller, Liz Yuan & Naomi Ishiguro
Submissions: Check out the various sections featured in the publication, format your article to its specifics and submit your finalized piece including full name, email address and phone number to the designated editor of your selected category.  Pay ranges between $20-$75.

Get Lost Magazine
Seeking travel, adventure, natural history and lifestyle writing, GetLostMagazine.com is an award-winner with stories ranging from the basic facts and tips to the more daring adventure of description and risk.  Who eats acorns?  One man does, and he chose to write about it, discovering flavors akin to billy goat semen.  Not sure about either of those tastes.
Editor(s): Leslie Strom
Submissions:  Articles should be under 1,000 words and fall into the distinguished character of “top-notch”.  Paste article into the body of an email with accompanying photographs formatted as .jpeg or .gif and send to lstrom@getlostmagazine.com.  Don’t expect payment upon publication.

In The Know Traveler
You wanna be In The Know.  Readers wanna be In The Know.  So get In The Know and write to inspire.  InTheKnowTraveler.com’s number one priority is to inspire travel with acceptance and appreciation.  Readers of this online magazine want to learn about the world’s diverse cultures and those funky destinations, not in investigative reporting, but in the skillfully written articles about your traveling.
Editor(s): n/a
Submission: Correct grammar and punctuation, somewhere between 400-600 words, and send it on in with photographs to editor@intheknowtraveler.com.  Time to get published, but before you receive a whopping $10, be prepared to edit to the editors liking.  Then you’re In The Know.

Pain 1 (Thoughts-of-Another-Home)

Advice?  Keep traveling.  Keep writing.  Keep photographing.  Keep doing whatever you’re doing as long as you’re happy and respecting those around you.  You’ll be in the know no matter who publishes you.  Such is the traveler’s life.

Cameron Karsten’s New Travel Writing Blog

CameronKarsten.WordPress.com is my new Travel Writing blog.  This blog will replace my previous travel blog I’ve been using for the past few years.  TravelBlog.org contains approximately 100 articles written around the world portraying diverse cultures, spontaneous adventures, destination features and international events.  You can find this extensive collection at: www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/cam2yogi.

Discontinuing my TravelBlog.org account is a move to professionalize my travel writing: build a bigger audience and attract editors & publishers.  It’s my intent to establish a career as a published author and professional writer, receiving assignments by various publications like National Geographic Magazine and Christian Science Monitor where I will cover issues involving humanitarian progress, ecological impacts and progressive change for the betterment of our planet.

Please subscribe to this blog’s RSS feed to receive periodic updates, and peruse my previous blog to sample my articles of past travel journeys.