Returning home

I’ve been home in Adelaide a couple weeks now, re-acclimatising to Keep Left, long hours of daylight, and the strange sound of the Australian accent.  I’m planning to spend the next few weeks writing, back-dating this blog, filling in all the stories I wasn’t bothered to write while I was travelling, because there were to many other interesting things to do. The San Andreas Fault might even turn into a zine…


Connecting flights

On my way home, I am going to Vancouver for three days to visit my sister.  I’ve booked a flight from Cancun, which goes via Chicago.  Leaving Cancun at midday, and arriving in Vancouver 9:30pm.

The flight is delayed by an hour and a half due to a tropical downpour.  An hour of this time is spent sitting on the plane.  Everyone’s lugguage is soaked through while being loaded on to the plane.

Half an hour into the flight, the captain makes an announcement.  “It seems that the toilets aren’t working.  Amidst all the chaos that caused the delay in Cancun, the toilets were not serviced.  We can’t continue a six hour flight without toilets, so I’ll pull over just ahead in New Orleans and get them fixed.”  This is not an exact quote, because, being American, he managed to say all this without ever using the word toilet.

I’m thinking this would cause a further delay, and quite likely cause me to miss my flight to Vancouver tonight, but since there’s nothing I can do about it, I see no point in getting worried or upset.  I’ve never been to New Orleans.  A close up view from an aeroplane window could be really interesting.

A few minutes later there is another announcement.  “Although the toilets don’t work all that well, they do kinda work, so we’ve decided not to stop in New Orleans, and continue through to Chicago.”  This is met with applause and cheers.  The announcement continues: “ However I would suggest you refrain from drinking too much water until you arrive in Chicago.”

Upon landing, “Welcome to Chicago.  The weather is clear skies and eight degrees.”  Eight.  I don’t know my Fahrenheit scale well enough to translate this, but it is well below freezing.  I look it up.  Minus 15°C.  I’ve never experienced such cold, and I won’t be experiencing it now.  I wonder if there are people sleeping out tonight, or people who don’t have heating.  Do people freeze to death here?

I’ll have 45 minutes between this flight arriving and my next flight leaving.  This should be plenty of time to walk from one gate to another.

I am wrong.  It’s more complicated than that.

As I get off the plane, I am given an express connection card, effectively a permit to jump to the front of queues, and told to hurry.

I walk quickly along the corridors, and come to a checkpoint.  I go to the “express connection” counter.

“Your customs card please.”

“I don’t have one.  I’m not entering the US.  I’m transferring to an international flight.”

“You still need to fill in the form.”  He gives me the card, and I tick a few boxes.  My fingerprints, all ten of them, are recorded, and my photograph taken.  These will be kept by US border security for all eternity.

“I see that you were recently in the United States for three months.  What were you doing here?”

In my mind I reply in an exasperated voice, “You don’t need to interrogate me, I’m not entering your country, and have no desire to do so.”

Out loud I say politely “I rode a bicycle down the west coast.”  Although not entirely true, it sounds a lot more purposeful and complete than any other answer I might give.  Customs officers like easily-explained reasons for travel, and I’ve learnt by now to always have one on hand.

I have ticked the right boxes, and answered the exam questions correctly.  I am allowed to pass.

I collect my luggage,and run with my backpack along another corridor, and it’s not clear where I need to go next.  I ask someone in a uniform.  “ Take the train, get off at the thirs stop.”  I run in the direction he points, go up an escalator, and onto a train platform.  As the train pulls in, I get a brief sense of the temperature outside, and am immediately inside the warm train.  Did that man say first stop or third stop?  I’m not sure.  The first stop passes before I can see any way to find out which stop I need.  If I get off at the wrong stop and need to take another train, I will miss my connection for sure.  At the second stop I see a sign listing the stations.  It isn’t entirely clear, but the third stop is likely the one I need.  I get off and run along another corridor.  There are a few others running.  Its quite fun.

Now I’m in a hall with check in counters.  I ask another uniformed person where to go, and he directs me to the security checkpoint.  I jump the queue to put my bags and shoes on the conveyor to be screened.  Everyone must remove their shoes.

I am then directed “This way please.”

“No.  I’m not going in there.”  Thankfully I’ve been through this process before, so know what I’m being asked to do, and what my options are.

I am being directed into an X-ray machine.  It is now common practice to x-ray all passengers before they board.  Both the health affects of being subjected to radiation, and being made to stand with hands raised above the head as if its an armed hold-up, lead me to choose the “opt-out”.  I am surprised that so many people submit to this treatment.  Quite possibly they don’t know what is happening.  I don’t see any signs or hear anything informing people of the x-ray process, but I am in too much of a rush to notice.  At my previous experience of US airport security, in San Jose, the only information was a recorded message “please let staff know if you do not wish to be x-rayed”, which would be easy to miss if your attention was elsewhere.

The alternative to the x-ray is to have a woman run her hands over every part of my body.  Only my face, my nipples and the soles of my feet are not touched.  She even puts her fingers through the belt loops of my trousers.

At the same time, I see my backpack on a table beside me.  All the contents are being removed.  Why does my bag need to be searched?  I’m not taking it on board, I’m going to check it in.  Then I realise that in my rush, I ran straight past the check-in counter.  I could take the backpack on board with me, but that would involve thinking about which of the contents would be considered a security risk, finding them in the backpack, and giving them up.  It seems easier and quicker to check it in.  While I’m thinking this, I hear an announcement from a speaker.  There is so much noise and activity around me that I don’t catch the exact words, but its something like “Kim Hill, this is your absolutely last chance to board your flight to Vancouver.”

“That’s me.  They’re calling me over the speaker.  That’s my flight leaving now.”  I say this to the man searching my backpack, having been released from the body search.  I was hardly aware of it, with so much else going on.  “You don’t need to search my backpack, I’m going to check it in.”

“If you want to check it in, you’re going to have to go back through the security checkpoint.”

I repack by bag, and carry it, and my shoes, to the check in counter.

There is no queue at the counter.  I am told “you can’t check your bag in now, its too late.  That flight is leaving right now.”

“No! I want to get on that flight.”  After all I’ve been through to get here, I don’t want to miss the flight by a few seconds.  “ I don’t mind if my bag doesn’t come with me and arrives tomorrow, but I really want to get to Vancouver tonight.”

“You need to travel with your bags for international flights.  I can call through and ask for the plane to be held for you, and you’ll have to take your backpack on with you.”

The woman from the check-in counter walks with me to the security checkpoint.  I take out the sunscreen, mosquito repellent and the jar of hand-made chocolate that Federico gave me as a present. All liquids are considered a security risk, and not allowed on board aircraft.  My water bottle needs to be emptied.  She is unsure whether the chocolate constitutes a risk, as it is solid, not liquid.  I leave behind the sunscreen and mosquito repellent, and at the last minute grab the chocolate and put it back in my bag.  Surprisingly the bag passes screening without needing to be searched.  I don’t need to be body-searched again.  The helpful lady points me to the left, and calls out “good luck!”

I sprint in the direction she pointed, in my socks as I don’t have time to put my shoes on.  I don’t know which gate my flight leaves from, and expect that because boarding has closed, it won’t show up on the display screens.  I run past a few gates that are unattended, until I come to one where there are staff I can ask.  They direct me back the way I came.  I needed to go right from the security checkpoint.  I sprint in my socks to the gate.  It is deserted, apart from two ladies who enquire “Kim Hill?”

“Yes!  I made it!”  I shout and cheer, and thank them profusely for holding the plane for me.

I run down the corridor to a plane full of waiting people, and start pouring out the story of what has just happened to the man seated next to me.  He says “Relax.  You made it.  You can relax now.”  Although it is probably a request to shut up and leave him alone, I appreciate his saying this and make an effort to calm myself.  The last hour has been quite an adventure, and I really appreciate the help that all the airport staff have given me to make it possible to be here now.

In the in-flight magazine, I read an article about new computer technologies.  It includes this quote from a technology developer:  “A generation from now, children won’t know the difference between that which is a computer, and that which isn’t.”  As well as being grammatically awful, I think this prediction is highly unlikely.  It seems more likely that children will see the abandoned or reappropriated aeroplanes and airports, and find it hard to believe that they were ever in common use.  In the same way that we who have grown up in modern civilization would see stone tools, and not comprehend that people actually used them.  That there ever existed a world where people could take off to the other side of the world with so little effort, and relatively little money.  Where sunscreen and mosquito repellent threatened national security, and national security threatened everyone.

If I tell this story of my connecting flight to children a generation from now, it will sound fantastical, impossible.  I can hardly believe it myself.  That I can afford to fly across the world, on an income that by Australian standards is well below the poverty level.  That I can be in a tropical downpour and three hours later I’m in the coldest winter.  That anyone who enters an airport is suspected of terrorism.  That although a plane gives passengers the most amazing view of the world, most people don’t bother to look out the window.  And that it is all considered so normal.

Neighbourhood Book Exchange

On a street corner in a suburban neighbourhood in East Vancouver.  Children’s books on the lower shelf, others on the upper two shelves.  One side is a pin board for neighbourhood notices, the other is a chalkboard. Around the door is written “Got a book that you don’t need?  Leave it here for others to read, consider it a neighbourly deed.”

On the post: “Feel free to take a book or donate a book.  Please do not leave boxes of books here.  There is a charity book donation box at…  If you notice any problems with this book box please contact… ”

While I am looking at the books, a child and his mother walk by.  The boy runs over to the book box.  “Mum, I want to get a book!”  His mum persuades him not to get one now and carry it around all day, but get one on the way home.

El Jardin

The main house at El Jardin

“El Jardin Medicine Farm Project at Palenque.  A sacred place of sharing and living in tune with nature.  A paradise of gardening in this unique jungle climate, spiritual practices, creative tasks and tastes (tropical fruit smoothies, homemade chocolate and bread from the clay oven).  Cabins, hammocks and camping available.  Communal kitchen.  Love and light.”  Some complicated directions follow, which include a vague map of the paths to take when walking for half an hour through jungle.

I see the poster at a hostel in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas.  I’ll be going through Palenque to get to Guatemala. I resolve to visit El Jardin.  My travels in Mexico so far have been in cities, staying in hostels, doing tourist things and wondering what I am doing here.  El Jardin sounds like just what I have been looking for: a place far from any city, where I can contribute and learn about local ecology and culture, and meet interesting people.

I try phoning a few times, but never get a dial tone, only a recorded message.  I don’t understand the Spanish, but I’m guessing it’s something like “this number has been disconnected.”  This has strangely little effect on my resolve to visit to place.

Palenque is a ruined Mayan city, a popular tourist attraction.  The Palenque village is six kilometres from the ruins, and along the road between the two, a number of hotels, campsites and restaurants are secluded in the jungle.

On a shuttle bus from Palenque village towards the ruins, the man behind me asks where I am going.

“I’m going camping at El Jardin,” I reply.

“El Jardin?  I don’t know it.”  I’m guessing he is a local, and familiar with the area.  He seems surprised to hear of a campsite that he doesn’t know about.  “What’s the name of the person who runs it?”

I remember seeing the name Martin on El Jardin’s website, and offer the name.

“Martin?  Yes, I think I know the place.  You might have some trouble getting there at the moment.  It’s through the national park, and there is a military checkpoint on the way.  They might not let you through.”

A military checkpoint?  To get to a campsite?  I hadn’t anticipated this, it wasn’t mentioned on the poster or website.  Surely someone walking to a campsite would be allowed to pass?

As he gets off the bus, he adds “Tell them you are visiting Martin.  Good luck.”

The following stop is mine.  As I step out of the bus, I am already standing in front of a soldier.  I had expected to walk a way before coming to the checkpoint.  I am glad to have not had time to prepare for this, to get myself nervous about the encounter.  I’ve never come across a military checkpoint before.

“Hello,” I say to the soldier.  “ I am going camping at El Jardin.”


Can I come through?”


I try the suggestion of my friend from the shuttle bus.

“Do you know Martin?  I am going to visit Martin.”

“Don’t know him.”  And then “Martin doesn’t have permission for tourism, for having people stay.”

I’m not sure whether to believe this, especially given the claim only moments ago not to know him.  However, I’m clearly not going to get through, so I turn back.

In hindsight, attempting to go to a place that involves walking for half an hour through the jungle, with vague directions, when it is close to dark, and I don’t even know if the place exists, or if anyone will be there, really, it’s not the most thought-through idea I’ve ever had.

There are numerous hotels, campsites and cabins along the road I’ve just come along, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find a place to stay.  I walk past one that looks too up-market for my taste and needs, and at the next campsite I am put off by the presence of a large tour bus.  The third place doesn’t display a name, just a sandwich board by the road proclaiming “we have cabins”.  Through the trees I see a sign saying “youth hostel” which for some reason makes me feel comfortable about choosing this site.  I book in to a dormitory, which turns out to be not a dormitory, but a cabin with a palm-thatched roof and flyscreen walls.  There are two single beds, and I have the room to myself.  The whole establishment is nothing more than six cabins, surrounded by jungle.

I’m feeling the need to talk to someone about what has just happened at the checkpoint, to process my thoughts, to make sense of it all.  I say hello to a couple walking past from another cabin.  They return the hello and continue on their way.  I guess these are not the people I need to talk to right now.

I ask at the reception desk where I can get dinner.  There is a restaurant directly across the road, one ten minutes walk to the left, and another ten minutes walk to the right.  I turn to the right.  The decision is arbitrary.

I decide that if there is someone eating alone, I will approach them and ask if they would like some company.  I wouldn’t usually do this, but the need to talk to someone right now has overruled my reserved nature.

The restaurant is outdoors.  A stream runs along one side, and the jungle is all around.  The air is hot and humid.  At each of two tables there is a woman sitting alone.  I walk past the first woman, and approach the second.  Again, the decision is arbitrary.

She is reading a book.

I say “Excuse me, are you here alone?  Would you like some company?”  She looks up, and seems taken aback by the question, and unsure how to respond.

“I don’t want to impose.  If you prefer to eat alone…”

“No.  Please.  Sit down.”  She closes the book.

Her name is Tina, and she is from Germany.  She has also arrived today from San Cristobal.

I tell her my story of what happened at the checkpoint, and she is surprised when I mention El Jardin.

“El Jardin?  You are going to El Jardin?  I also want to go there, and I was turned back at the checkpoint too.  I am surprised that you have heard of this place, and want to go there.  Not many people know of it.”

She has been to El Jardin before, and is returning.  She tells me that the checkpoint at the national park entrance is open all day until 4pm, after which it is closed to everyone.  She is staying in a cabin tonight, and will walk to El Jardin in the morning.

She lets me know what to expect there, and is concerned that I might find the situation challenging.  “They are hippies, spiritual people, there is a lot of chanting, you might find them odd.”  I assure her that I have lived in a lot of hippy communes before, and not likely to be scared off by a bit of singing.

“It’s quite basic, you have to get water out of the well, there is a composting toilet, no electricity, no walls on the cabins, and they use ash to wash the dishes, because they don’t want to use chemicals.”  I’ve never heard of anyone washing dishes with ash, but it sounds like a good idea.  As to the rest, it doesn’t sound much different from many of the places I’ve lived.

“There are about 10 people there most of the time, and a few campers coming and going, but not a lot.  There aren’t many travellers who are sufficiently interested in El Jardin to make the effort to get there.”

She asks what I think of the hype around the Mayan calendar and 2012.  She seems genuinely interested to know my thoughts, rather than just making conversation.  We are in the heartland of the Mayans, where people still live the traditions of thousands of years, and it is two days until the new year, so the question is particularly relevant.  “I’ve never given the idea much attention, but the last few months, the world has been changing at an ever-increasing pace.  I can’t see it continuing like that for much longer.  Right now, it seems almost inevitable that something cataclysmic will happen before the end of the year.”

She asks about my spirituality.  “I don’t think of myself as spiritual, I don’t follow any tradition.  But I definitely feel guided.  Like there’s something outside of me that always tells me what I need to do, so I never need to make decisions, I just know.  Like tonight, I came to this restaurant, when I could have gone to any.  I spoke to you rather than someone else, and you’re exactly the person I need to talk to right now.”

We arrange to meet in the morning to walk to El Jardin.

Beautiful Things

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The main square in the city of San Cristobal de las Casas, in Chiapas, Mexico, holds an artisans market.

The market is full of beautiful things.  So many.  I get lost in it all.  Every stall, every item, more beautiful than the last.  I am overwhelmed by the beauty.  How can this many beautiful things exist in one place?  I feel sorry for the rest of the world, that it does not have these beautiful things.  I want to take all these things with me, take them out into the world, and share them with everyone.

I’ve never had any interest in things before, never felt the desire to Have, but these things are so shiny, so colourful, so glowing with beauty that they call me to touch them and take them.

Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden

teosinte grass – the plant that corn was bred from

I took a tour of the Ethnobotanical Garden, to learn about all the local plants and their traditional uses.  Here’s some of my notes.

There are 16 indigenous ethnic groups in Oaxaca.  The region has a great diversity of flowering plants.  All the plants in the garden originate from the state of Oaxaca.  Corn, beans and squash were domesticated here.  The first domesticated plant was squash.  Some seeds traced to 8000BC were found near Mitla, archeobotanists can tell by morphological changes in the seed that it is a domesticated plant.  It was at this same time that plants were first domesticated in the Euphrates.  In the years 8000BC – 1500BC gradually more plants were domesticated.  In 1500BC the first villages appeared.  This reads like a primary school research project essay.

Rosita de Cacao – little rose flower.  It’s not cacao.  The flower is used in a traditional drink called tehate, which is made from maize, cacao, the toasted ground seeds of mamey fruit, and the rosita flower.  Dried powdered tehate stores well and is easily portable.

Five species of peppers were domesticated, three in South America and two in Mexico. Chilli peppers are high in vitamin C, they clear the sinuses and release endorphins.  To the Aztecs, peppers are magic, and ward off evil and disease.  They are also a preservative, and for this reason have been adopted worldwide.  An active ingredient capseisin blocks pain signals to the brain, and is used in pharmaceuticals.  It is also analgesic, it encourages blood to flow to the surface.

Tomatoes were domesticated in Mexico, but were considered poisonous in the rest of the world.

Maiz creollo is the locally cultivated corn.  The first domesticated corn was found to be in 4250BC. Teosinte is the grass that corn was developed from.  It is a multi-stemmed plant, with many seed pods, and doesn’t look like a promising food plant.  Grasses are mutable, and it was a mutation that led to domestication.  In 7000BC the domestication process began, and by 4250BC the domesticated plant was dependent on humans.

The earliest evidence of plant domestication was found in the mountains of Oaxaca.  Once domesticated, these plants spread quickly to other regions.

chapote or kapok tree

To the local indigenous people, trees are sacred, representing the gods and the universe.

A tree known as chapote or kapok is especially sacred, and represents the connection between upper and lower worlds.  The Mixtec creation story tells of people originating from trees.  The tree was stabbed with an arrow by a god, who split the tree open and people sprang out.  A carved bone found in a tomb at Monte Alban shows a picture of a tree birth.

This tree is not used for timber, as it is sacred.  The seed pod contains a fibre, which is used as a stuffing material.  It was used for lifejackets until a synthetic alternative was developed.  The fibre is still used in Africa as insulation.

flowering deciduous tree

Some drylands trees are deciduous so as not to lose moisture in the dry season.  They flower in the dry season, then the seed falls and is ready to germinate in the rainy season.

Agave plants (called maguey) are used as fibre, and become important throughout the world in the 1700s as it was used to make shipping ropes.  The fibre was also used for bags, hammocks, sandals and fishnets.

Fermented maguey juice is called pulque, and is similar to beer. It was used in rituals by priests and nobles to honour the gods, and also as a tonic for elderly and sick people.  Pulque disappeared from use for a long time, and is now making a comeback.


Opuntia (prickly pear) fruits and pads are eaten, and the cochineal bug that feeds on the plant was used as a red dye.  In 1774 hundreds of tonnes of cochineal were exported to Spain.  The building of Oaxaca was funded by the trade in cochineal.  In 1870 a synthetic dye was created, and by 1914 cochineal was no longer used.  Changing the pH of a cochineal dye manipulates the colour, so by adding lemon juice or soda, a range of colours from yellow to purple can be created.

opuntia / prickly pear