Border-hopping in Basque Country June 9, 2013Posted by Tracy in : Adventure , add a comment
BAYONNE, Aquitane department, France – The high-speed TGV train dropped us in five hours from Paris at the grand old station near the River Adour in Bayonne, and we began by wandering the narrow streets of the medieval city, gazing up at the gothic towers of its cathedrals and stopping for our first taste of the exquisite Bayonne chocolate. Bayonne, as we learned, is famous for the invention of the Bayonet – in 1640, on rue de Faure (Blacksmith street), to be precise. Nowadays it’s better known for its chocolate, its ham, and the big fiesta every summer drawing up to a million people and featuring a bull run similar to Pamplona’s.
We were here to visit Mathilde, a lovely woman I’d met online through Couchsurfing, and to spend the night in Bayonne before crossing the Spanish border in the morning. It was hard to believe that this vivacious young woman is 70, but when she began sharing the stories of her life, it was clear that she had jumped feet-first and kicking into life a long time ago. We shouldered our backpacks and made our way to her doorstep, where she showed us around her spacious and light-filled home, filled with antiques and trinkets from her world travels. She offered us an aperitif called “Kir,” a refreshing mix of white wine and Cassis or blackcurrent juice, and shared stories of her travels and her (mostly, but not always, good) experiences as a host to world travelers. (Unfortunately, the bad experiences were usually with Americans.)
Mathilde told us of her years teaching English to 50 young men at a tough school in Algeria just before the War of Independence broke out in 1962, leading to an expulsion of a million foreigners – herself included. Another story of European colonialism and years of oppression, coming to a head just as 19-year-old Mathilde, fresh out of school, was making her way in the world.
We learned much about history and more about a rich life filled with adventure and a love of teaching and sharing. Mathilde worked as a broadcast journalist for a few years in Vancouver before having a child and turning to teaching as a better career for a single mother; she taught in a rough school in Detroit before coming back to France, where she raised her son alone.
We invited her to dinner and she took us for a drive through the charming Old Town before ending up at the Maison de Cassoulet on the Nive River, where we enjoyed a hearty traditional Basque cassoulet stew with beans and duck, sausage and ham.
Back at home she served us a verbena tea and more stories before we finally retired at about 1 a.m. – up again at 6:30 to catch the train to the border. Mathilde insisted on rising early to prepare us coffee and share more stories before sending us on our way.
There in the tiny station of Hendaye, on the border with Spain, my old friend and former student, Javier, met us at the train station and took us on a tour that would be, he promised, the gastronomic experience of our lives. We were not disappointed.
San Sebastian is truly a jewel – the pride of Spain, and indeed all of Europe, and we were soon to see why. We began with coffee and breakfast pastries and a delicious type of soft custard special to the region. We took a walk on the promenade overlooking the spectacular Playa Concha, the crescent-shaped beach that makes San Sebastian one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, beach resorts in the world.
But beyond the beach, we were there to experience the city’s cuisine, for which it is rightly famous; San Sebastian has more Michelin stars per capita than any city in the world. Javier led us on a tour of his favorite restaurants serving pintxos – pronounced pinchos – the Basque word for little snacks, or tapas, typically served with drinks and conversation.
We began wandering the narrow, cobbled streets of Old Town San Sebastian, gazing up at the ornate wrought-iron balconies, hung with bright flowerpots and ferns, and made our first stop at Txondorra, whose exotic pinxto menu included such items as beef cheeks and kangaroo croquettes. I opted for one with a salad-like mixture of leeks and tempting Basque ham. Javier’s second-favorite, which he shared with us, was a small toast slice topped with carmelized onion, brie and sun-dried tomato on sesame bread. His favorite was a small sausage wrapped in a biscuit. “I’m sorry I didn’t share that one with you – it was too good,” he confessed.
The afternoon was filled with exotic combinations of ingredients such as quail eggs, vegetable baskets, roasted barnacles and foie gras topped with local spices. The best way to explain is to serve you a feast for the eyes – so, bon apetit/buen provecho.
And a few images from Bayonne – which is I am sure more beautiful on a sunny day, but it was charming despite the clouds.
The World on Wheels May 9, 2013Posted by Tracy in : Adventure , add a comment
For those who rely on a wheelchair, traversing the Great Wall of China or zip lining in Costa Rica might seem impossible. But at least two Houstonians, Lex Frieden and John Sage, are living proof that it’s not. Both decided long ago that their limited mobility would not be a barrier to their dreams of world travel, and both of them can boast itineraries that most people would envy.
“If I can get there, I can pretty much figure out how to get around,” said Frieden, a disabilities advocate who’s been called a chief architect of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Frieden, a quadriplegic who lost most of his mobility in a car crash in 1967, has received a tribal greeting from Maoris in the jungles of New Zealand, visited Kuwait right after the Iraq War, and explored the Great Wall 20 years ago, before a wheelchair lift was installed.
Read the rest of the story here
Danger vs. beauty in the Middle East April 9, 2013Posted by Tracy in : Adventure, Uncategorized , add a comment
Alfred and Joyce Goodman don’t consider themselves adventure travelers; you’re more likely to find them aboard a luxury cruise than a wilderness safari. Nevertheless, they came away from a recent cruise through the Middle East with stories that hearkened more from the pages of Sinbad’s fabled voyages than Travel and Leisure.
Israeli security guards kept a watchful eye as they passed along the shores of Sudan, and a fellow passenger regaled them with stories from a cruise in which her ship had been attacked by Somali pirates. Among the images etched in the Goodmans’ memories: a Bedouin guide raised with his nomadic family in the desert, a lost city carved in stone, and gold-trimmed minarets on a snow-white mosque.
For the Western traveler, the Middle East has always been a destination that thrills with the mystery of the unknown. On the positive side, it’s an eye-opening journey into another reality, one that is ancient and yet very modern. On the down side is the instability that has plagued the region, and never more so than now, in the years following the Arab Spring, as citizens struggle to take control from repressive governments.
Plenty of travelers, like the Goodmans, are taking the risks in stride and heading for the Middle East for the journey of a lifetime.
Finding the Global Fun Factor March 1, 2013Posted by Tracy in : Adventure , add a comment
For two decades, Deborah Luik flirted with disaster all over the world. This mercurial traveler, software architect and dog trainer was kidnapped in Cyprus, scammed in Portugal and harassed by drunks while pregnant in Japan. To Deborah, it was all part of the adventure.
Before she knew better, she rode an elephant in the traffic of Jaipur and hitched rides with a British officer through Wales and a Muslim porn smuggler on a camel through India. Naturally, when she got married, it would be with a fellow adventurer.She and Paul, a mechanical engineer, fell in love during road trips through northern Mexico and were married in Houston in September 1992. For their honeymoon, they headed for Costa Rica to go rafting. Naturally, it was rainy season, and they nearly perished in the floodwaters.
Three perfect days for Dad on the Riviera Maya December 27, 2011Posted by Tracy in : Adventure, Mexico, Nature tourism, Sustainability, ecotourism , 5comments
PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Quintana Roo – A light breeze moves in the jungle beyond our patio at the Grand Velas resort; birds call to each other with liquid notes, and my mother reads her Bible beside me as my father sleeps.
We’re winding to the close of our action-packed itinerary – maybe too action-packed, I reflect, but as Dad would say, “We had ‘er to do.”
Unforgettable moments flip through the slideshow of my memory: my father’s boyish grin lighting up in spite of himself as he stood, lifejacket up around his ears, the dolphin leaning in and kissing his cheek. Shaking his head in disbelief as our two waiters explained the special six-course meal that the famous French chef at Piaf, Michele Mustiere, had prepared for him, taking into account all of the complicated restrictions of his diet. Seeing him lying back on a canopied lounge on the beach, soaking up the sun and the attentions of an efficient and watchful staff.
My factory-worker dad, father of nine and grandfather of a houseful of rambunctious little ones, had never come close to such luxury. He hadn’t even known that it existed. A shadetree mechanic and consummate fixer of broken things, I found him examining the cooling system in our suite and chatting up the shuttle drivers and motorcycle salesmen we would meet along the way.
Tourists and Turtles May 10, 2011Posted by Tracy in : Adventure, ecotourism, voluntourism , 2comments
Story and photos by Melissa Gaskill
This blog frequently covers travel that makes a difference – trips that incorporate volunteering, are culturally sensitive, support local businesses, and respect the human and natural environment – or all of the above. I wrote a guest post about such a trip about a year ago, Turtle Rescue on the Eco Side of Baja. More and more places, particularly in developing countries, see this kind of tourism as a sustainable way to protect sea turtles. At the 31st Symposium on Sea Turtle Biology and Conservation, held in San Diego April 12-16, several presentations reported on programs that have seen success, so I thought I’d share them here.
SEE Turtles, a US based non-profit, promotes travel that supports conservation, organizing its own trips to Baja California, Costa Rica and Trinidad.
“We know tourism can be bad for people and animals, especially when done in an unplanned and uncontrolled way,” director Brad Nahill told symposium attendees. “Or it can have positive impacts, including direct financing of conservation and research, reduced dependency on direct use of resources (such as eating sea turtle eggs), increased monitoring, and an increased local constituency. We use local businesses, share commissions, and do additional fundraising, education, volunteer recruiting, and advocacy.”
Home at last (my Mexican home, that is) January 19, 2011Posted by Tracy in : Adventure, Ecovillages, Mexico , 5comments
It was sunrise when I saw my daughter Tara off at the airport, a tearful farewell to be sure, but one filled with joy at knowing that we are both following our dreams, and that the distance, as my sister Tami once said, is only physical.
It was the journey I had dreamed of and then laid awake nights worrying about: Would we really be able to pull it off? In the end, we did. We spent 10 action-packed days on the road, covering more than 2,500 miles – every step along the way, receiving reminders to SLOW DOWN and to take care of the present moment.
Some of those reminders were costly, others just funny. Many times I looked in the rear-view mirror at the utility trailer I was hauling and thought of my pioneer great-great-grandmother Caroline, who packed all her belongings into a covered wagon and traveled to the wilds of Missouri to start a new life. Apparently some of her pioneer spirit was my heritage, but in an era of internet, motor vehicles and airlines, it’s a much, much easier proposition.
Heading for Guadalajara January 12, 2011Posted by Tracy in : Adventure, Mexico , add a comment
COLUMBIA, Missouri – A shooting star snaked across the blackness of the night sky as we pulled out onto I-70 in our pickup truck, utility trailer in tow, a brilliant blessing on our journey. Some 2,000 miles of road beckoned, with a new home in Guadalajara on the other end. But for now, one last lingering visit with family at my brother’s house in Kansas.
It’s been a long, long journey since I launched the Esperanza Project a year ago, taking me as far south as Buenos Aires and full circle to the place that, Lord willing, will be my new home in Mexico. I found a casita for rent in the ecovillage Teopantli Kalpulli – the oldest ecovillage in Mexico and the subject of a story I recently wrote for Ecovillage News http://www.ecovillagenews.org/wiki/index.php/Indigenous_Past,_Ecovillage_Future. I was deeply impressed with the community when I wrote about it in January, and when my friend Levi told me about a house for rent there that cost less than my storage locker in Houston (truly!!!) I took it as a sign.
I’ve always thought that I would end up living in Mexico someday – not so soon, but finances are telling me, it’s almost time to renew my storage locker and after so much movement, I’m feeling the need to stop for a moment, plant some seeds, do some thinking and some writing, and build a solid base to launch my travels from. Teopantli seemed just the place.
My life has come full circle in a way this year. It was in Guadalajara that I connected with the group at Teopantli and also an indigenous rights group called AJAGI that works with the Huicholes. Long story short, as I was looking for guidance on the direction of The Esperanza Project, I was drawn back to Guadalajara where I will be working on freelance and book projects for the first part of the year and also be volunteering part-time with AJAGI and the Huicholes as I document their struggle to save their most sacred site, as I wrote at www.theesperanzaproject.org.
So just a couple of weeks ago I landed in Missouri and with the help of my amazing father found a truck and a trailer to haul my things. Many twists and turns along that trail, beginning with a bad transmission in the first vehicle, but all is working its way out. My daughter Tara has agreed to accompany me on this journey, and Saturday we drove to Houston to unpack my storage locker, sort out what I wanted to take with me to Mexico, visit with friends – Mona Metzger of Houston Green Scene and Lise Olsen of the Houston Chronicle and head on to San Antonio, to spend the night at the home of Audrey Lee, the dear friend who has backed me up on this journey more than anyone, receiving my mail, dealing with my emergencies and serving as a sounding board and emotional support. Yesterday we did much a much needed shopping trip, and now we are preparing to make our crossing. We decided to splurge our last night in the USA and got a room at La Posada, recently named the No. 1 hotel in Texas by Expedia – and it’s easy to see why.
The second part of the year I will resume my travels with a special focus on indigenous struggles to save their land and cuture.
I will be writing much more about all of this in the months ahead. Meanwhile I continue to pray for guidance and support as I chart my course and share the stories of those who are tending the fires hope from south of the border.
Conquering Tajumulco: Me and the volcano May 17, 2010Posted by Tracy in : Adventure, Guatemala , 2comments
XELA, Guatemala – At 4:45 a.m. on Saturday, eight sleepy people from five different countries showed up at Casa Argentina, bracing themselves for the adventure ahead: a two-day trek up Volcan Tajumulco, the highest point in Central America. I was among them.
The three volunteer guides from Quetzaltrekkers were going over the final details. Yesterday we had already met for a briefing and gone over the checklist for the trip. Below-zero sleeping bags? Check. Headlamps? Check. Down jackets and fleeces? Check. Rain gear, gloves, hats, thermal underwear?
Wait, I said, this was Central America, not the Andes!
Yes, but it was rainy season and our destination was 4,000 meters above sea level, where wintry conditions prevailed, especially at night and in the pre-dawn hours when we would hike to the summit of the old volcano.
Hope prevails through a bitter winter in Bancos de San Hipólito February 11, 2010Posted by Tracy in : Adventure, Indigenous culture, Latin America, Mexico , 1 comment so far
We arrived in the fog-draped settlement of Buenos Aires, Durango, just after 9 a.m. It had been a hard night’s drive through a pouring rain, enlivened only by the stories of my tireless travel companion, human rights lawyer Carlos Chávez of the Jalisco Association in Support of Indigenous People (AJAGI, by its Spanish acronym).
We still had nearly three hours to go before we reached Bancos, but meanwhile, a group of comuneros from Buenos Aires awaited a ride in the back of his pickup truck. Chávez jumped out from behind the wheel he’d manned since 10 p.m. the night before, greeting a shivering cluster of men with good cheer and a round of hearty handshakes. A breakfast invitation followed, and Nora, Cristian and Yaser, three other AJAGI members, joined us as we were led through what looked like a refugee camp. Nora and Cristian had passed the night in the back of the truck; Yaser was less fortunate, having passed the stormy night in Buenos Aires.
A bitter windstorm had ripped through the village, stripping the tin roofs from many of the mud-brick homes in the middle of the night as the residents slept. The unrelenting rains and near-freezing temperatures compounded the misery as residents tried to piece their lives back together.
Nonetheless, a visit from Carlos Chávez and the folks from AJAGI was more than reason enough for a gathering. One family with a sheltered outdoor kitchen still in good working order invited us to huddle together underneath as the rains began again, and steaming freshly ground tortillas came off the grill one by one to envelop home-grown scrambled eggs and savory pork-seasoned beans and potatoes. Family members clustered around to beam at us and urge us to eat more as we wolfed down what was likely their sole daily portion. But to decline would have been an insult, so we obliged.
The strange winds, the unseasonable rains, and the unthinkable snowstorm of two weeks prior were recurring themes in our visit. The summer rains didn’t come in time to water the harvest, and much of the corn crop dried on the stalk. Of what survived, much succumbed to fungus when the rains arrived late. And then, month upon month of winter rains – and now the tornado-like windstorm that has just descended upon them, the likes of which they’ve never seen.
Climate change is not a theory for the Wixaritari, the tribal people named Huichol by the Spaniards for easier pronunciation. They are convinced that they are living it every day, and they are seeing it in shorter growing seasons and strange weather patterns. They don’t know the reasons, but it worries them.
There’s no time to dwell on it, however. There’s firewood to be gathered, roofs to fix, children to feed – and, for some, a regional assembly to attend down in the valley in Bancos.
Spirits were high as we clambered into the back of Chávez’ well-worn and mud-caked Toyota pickup truck. Bancos is in a sheltered valley, and considerably warmer than Buenos Aires, up in the mountaintops some 7,000 feet above sea level. Also, most of these families originally lived in Bancos. The residents of Buenos Aires are modern-day pioneers engaged in the act of resettling and at the same time reforesting the land ravaged by timber poachers from the neighboring mestizo communities.
The resettlement is all a part of a larger strategy, devised by Huichol community leaders hand-in-hand with Carlos and the rest of the AJAGI team, which has provided legal and technical assistance for nearly two decades, helping the community reclaim 55,000 hectares of land that had been annexed away from their territory and encroached upon over the years. An estimated 140,000 acres are at stake, including a 10,720-acre swath separating Bancos from its core community of San Andres Cohamiata in the neighboring state of Jalisco. In a groundbreaking decision in 1998, the International Labor Organization ruled that the Huichol people had a right to the land based on ancestral ownership, even though they don’t hold legal titles – a ruling the Mexican government has thus far failed to acknowledge. Repeated pronouncements from the international agency received no response until last year, when the Mexican government finally ruled in Bancos’ favor – but with a catch. It failed to recognize the ancestral rights outlined in a key document called Convention 169, and so the case remains in litigation.
“The case of Bancos at one point was once described by the current director of the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Peoples as probably the most important case in the world” with respect to indigenous land rights, said Chávez. “If the case is resolved in the community’s favor, it will be of benefit to all indigenous people in the world.”
But this is only one of many strategies, one layer of the many layers of stories to be told about the Wixaritari people. I was fortunate to hear many of them in the past week, and I will be sharing them as time permits. Meanwhile, here are some images from the enormously resilient little community of Bancos.