“We do not take a trip; a trip takes us”

John Steinbeck did not only write some of the most acclaimed pieces of American fiction. He also possessed the rare talent of making any account of events compelling, a knack for turning even the slightest observation into a riveting reflection of something vaster and much more complex.

In 1962, Steinbeck published his travel memoir, Travels with Charley in Search of America, an account of a road trip he took alongside his blue poodle, Charley, across several states of the US, from Maine to Texas, in search of “americanness”, were such thing to exist.

Steinbeck left Sag Harbor, New York, on an all-equipped truck called Rocinante, with Charley as his only company, on a project that would last three months. He was to go out, talk to as many people as he could, see as much as he could, and come back to write about what he had learned of his country.

However, the real inspiration for it was the itch to get going, to leave, the need to travel and move and see other places, a feeling Steinbeck is familiar with: “When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.”

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Steinbeck by Sonya Noskowiak, 1935

As it often happens when one gets in a car with a full tank and nothing else but the urge to being someplace else, an adventure began. Rocinante took our protagonists on a quest that would prove both impossible and revealing, a journey through the forests of Maine, the redwoods in Oregon, the trailer parks in North Dakota, bear encounters in Yosemite and unlikely friendships in the Mojave Desert.

This is a wonderful book, a memoir, yes, but also an exercise in writing as a means of discovering something else, something more, in what has been seen, felt, done, traveled. For many writers, the act of writing is an aftermath of experience, a way of understanding experience. And it is so for Steinbeck, who does not try to recreate the experience of his journey, but rather describes everything around it, hinting too at the impossibility of describing the “americanness” he set out to find.

The simple writing of the book was for me a reminder that a story is by no means an experience, but a way to approach experience. That is perhaps why we travel, because during the trip itself, nothing is a story and everything is an experience. Afterwards, we cannot access that experience —”I can’t even imagine the forest colors when I am not seeing them”, writes Steinbeck—but we can narrate it and give it new tints and colors of understanding and comprehension. perhaps only then we can realize its importance.

This book is one of the best non-fictions I have ever read, and I thought I would just point out some topics I loved.

On the nature of traveling

“Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”

The book begins with Steinbeck’s urge to move, to be somewhere else, to travel. As the plot advances, Steinbeck points out that he found the same need in people he met along the road, people who looked with a bit of jealousy his truck and the freedom that represented being “on the move”. Why do we travel? Could it be there’s a biological need, a nomadic gene buried deep in us still? We move for various reasons, but the kind of traveling this book is about is not the one motivated by “sensible” reasons —a job,  better opportunities, an annual holiday—, but the one that is unexplainable, an urge for adventure that begins not with a destination in mind but with a desire to move. The way Steinbeck poses the questions that come with traveling reveal many aspects about our culture that are directly related to this quest for adventure.

a journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. and all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. we find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip;

On disposable culture

One of the things that I found specially interesting was the mentions of consumerism and the overuse of plastic. The book was published in 1962 and Steinbeck had already detected the first consequences of the packaging culture, the first outlets of one of the most pressing problems we are facing today, fifty years later: “Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.”

It is not only the dumpsters but the rapid growth of cities that Steinbeck marvels at, small towns turned into great urban areas, factories replacing suburbs. The cultural causes and implications of our environmental problems are sometimes overlooked; the links between “the American dream”, fast-food chains, fast fashion and cultural homogenization and our environmental challenges are something worth examining not only to understand but to better demand and think of solutions that, to be effective, have to involve a bigger change and even a complete rethinking of our economic systems. On this note, Steinbeck writes, “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction”.

On writing about places

“What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.”

This is a quote I’ll have in mind every time I write about a place. Have you ever taken a trip with someone just to come back with completely different experiences and opinions about it? Or have you perhaps revisited a place to find it a disappointment from what you remembered, or surprisingly better than you remembered it? Perhaps the most interesting part of traveling is that you take you wherever you go, your eyes and your ears, your feet to tread the earth, your own mouth to taste the food.

A written account of a place can just account for a place in a certain time, under certain conditions, and that’s why both traveling and writing are endless expeditions. One can never know a place completely, much less write about it completely, and that’s the thrill of it: “So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.”

On the experience of nature

“Can it be that we do not love to be reminded that we are very young and callow in a world that was old when we came into it? And could there be a strong resistance to the certainty that a living world will continue its stately way when we no longer inhabit it?”

These questions were motivated by the redwoods in Oregon. It is easy to be fond of nature when it is already tamed by culture—a garden, a park—, but there’s an element of uneasiness in being out in the wilderness. We have come to think of nature as a “pretty thing” to be taken care of, but isn’t nature a dangerous thing? We have our cities and our homes against it and we still fear it, but so many of us are still drawn to it, much in the way the early romantics were, not to groomed trees and rose gardens, but to cliffs and rivers, to thunder and lightning, dark forests, to things that live and behave in a way that is for us both strange and familiar, that frightens us but of which we can still sense a part in ourselves.

a journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. and all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. we find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip;

 

On the impossibility of really knowing the place we come from

The purpose of Steinbeck’s trip was to find what his homeland was, who his people were. When introducing myself to people from different parts of the world, there’s always talk of “traditional” Mexican things—the food, the dress, somehow people expect you to drink tequila and know how to dance—. At such times I feel like I’ve perhaps failed as a Mexican, for I cannot see what these things have to do with me. The things that connect me to my homeland are much simpler and much more complicated, and have nothing to do with flags or national anthems. They’re more about the mountains and the climate, a passionate defensiveness, an easy laughter.

Whenever I go too far north or too far south I find that the people there are very different from me, but on a closer look, I see they also share things with me, small things like gestures, stubbornness, a playful dispositions. There must be something, something about the land and its history, something I will never be able to rightfully put down because it’s too close to me. Reading Travels with Charley I felt like I was not alone in this defeat: “From start to finish I found no strangers. If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively. But they are my people and this my country. If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself.”

I found in this book hundreds of things to think about and such a pleasure to read. It is a genuinely fine piece of writing, an essay much in the Montaigne style, mixing personal anecdotes with other reflections, everything connected together by a story, a story about two friends on a road trip. Honestly, stories don’t get much better than that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cancún & Playa del Carmen

This Summer some friends and I visited the area known as the Mayan Riviera, which comprehends some 140 kilometers along the coast in the state of Quintana Roo, México. We made base in Playa del Carmen and drove to different towns and beaches along the Riviera from there. Although Cancún is a very popular and touristy place, it is also one of the most beautiful spots of the south of Mexico in terms of nature: sand as white as snow, the clearest, bluest water and lots of vegetation. Also, not everything is big chain hotels and luxury resorts, recently there has been a boom in ecotourism in the area, so apart from finding ecological, little hotels along the coast in Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancún, you can also enjoy nature in many of the natural reserves (like Sian Ka’an) and see some of the native animal species (like sea turtles, jaguars and monkeys) without harming their environment.

Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is 50 minutes away by car from Cancún International Airport. We stayed there because it is a bit cheaper than Cancún and is right in between Cancún and Tulum. There’s a lot going on in Playa, as well as many beaches that are worth visiting, although in my opinion they’re not as beautiful as Cancún’s. This season I got to see the problem that has been haunting the Mayan Riviera for the last couple of years: sargasso. While we parked out battered rented car some 600 meters away from the beach, we could already smell the decomposing seaweed. Even when it is a real environmental threat possibly caused by global warming and the authorities are doing everything they can to take it away from the beaches, it is not really harmful in any way. Every beach we visited in the Riviera had the same problem, except for the islands.

In Playa del Carmen we went to Playa Paraíso (although many people recommended us to go to Mamitas), and we had a nice, quiet time once we walked away from the hubbub around the parking area. Most public beaches are busy during the Summer, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a quiet spot if you walk far enough. As it happens in many places in México, vendors of all kinds of food and drinks (specially coconut water and fresh mangoes), so a towel, sunscreen, a book and some cash will be all you need to spend a morning in the beach. There are some hammocks and umbrellas for rent, too.

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Playa Paraíso and sargasso.

Playa del Carmen’s most famous street is called the Quinta Avenida, a long street that goes parallel to the beach and where you can find all kinds of shops, restaurants, cafés, malls, bars and nightclubs. During the day it is nice to take a stroll there as you can find many places where they sell handcrafts and traditional food. During the night, this is definitely the place to go for dinner and drinks. We had really nice cocktails at a place called Patio 8, and would have gone partying to Mandala, but went home instead (*sigh*).

The Quinta Avenida is a really interesting place to be at night, full of street performers, mexican pop culture everywhere and in many bizarre shapes and more foreigners than locals (as I think happens in all of the Mayan Riviera’s touristic places). The atmosphere from the bars and nightclubs seemed to reach the streets, people would walk along singing, sit on some bench to talk or eat ice-cream, boisterous laughter came from everywhere. All in all, I think Playa del Carmen is a perfect place to have one of those relax-during-the-day-party-at-night holidays. Not being our type of holiday, it was good to only spend the nights there and two or three full days.

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Cancún

Cancún is perhaps the place in Quintana Roo I am most familiar with and my favourite time to go there is definitely October. The weather is good all year round, altough Summers can be rainy and too hot, so the “colder” months are the best option, but bear in mind that December and January are the busiest, so everything from flights to accommodation will be more expensive. This year we went in July and it was perhaps too hot, but not too crowded. Cancún’s hotel zone is in the furtherst end of the Riviera, a street with hotels and seaviews on both sides, and also some of the prettiest public beaches.

 

On this trip we did not spend much time in Cancún itself, but we had a lot of fun in Playa Delfines. Parking there is free and renting some chairs was cheaper than in other beaches (300 mxn for the whole day). It is a nice beach to practice surfing and other aquatic sports, but if you want to do it you should arrive really early; when were there, arounf 12.00 pm, the waves were already too strong. The beach is a typical Caribbean beach, with white sand, clear blue water and many palm trees and vegetation. It is a good sport for a run too (the beach is 30 km long), or just to relax. We found that around 4pm many people started coming with beer and loud music, so perhaps the mornings are better if you’re not carrying beer and a speaker yourself.  

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Playa Delfines

Cancún, just like Playa del Carmen, is a great place for partying, but not being big on parties myself, I recommend you leave Cancún to find more exciting day activities and less crowded natural spots. You can visit any of the beaches along the hotel zone, or you can just visit one the nature parks along the Playa del Carmen-Cancún road, like Xel-Há, Xplor or Xcaret. Xcaret is definitely my favourite, because even if the admission is a bit more expensive (around $1,800 mxn), it has a bit of everything: you can be there from 8am until 10pm, swim in cenotes and underground rivers with all equipment included, have food in many different restaurants, see the wildlife (monkeys, jaguars, flamingoes), while being sure you’re not damaging them in any way, snorkeling in the sea, doing some more extreme things like ziplining and scuba diving, and finally enjoy some dinner or drinks while watching traditional mexican dances. If you’re only into adventure and extreme sports, however, the best option would be Xplor. Of course you can also find other cenotes on your own, as well as water activities in public beaches, but I really recommend any of the parks as a one-day activity.

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Xcaret
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Xcaret

Finally, when it comes to food, both Playa and Cancún offer great food from every place in the world, as well as wonderful mexican food and mouth-watering seafood. I believe, however, that both cities offer a kind of travel experience that is becoming less and less interesting for me: luxury resorts, fancy restaurants and giang nightclubs. But I am also happy to notice that ecotourism is making a big arrival in the area, as well as in some other areas of my country (Yucatán and other parts in Quintana Roo like Tulum and Holbox being ahead in that respect). Few things beat the beauty of the Mexican Caribbean, but it saddens me to see that what has made these cities famous around the world is also very damaging for both the environment and the local people. If you’re interested in reading about harming tourism in Quintana Roo, this article might be helpful (athough the author mistook Quintana Roo for Yucatán).

My Scottish Road Trip

Last year, after a brief time in Ireland, some friends and I took a plane to Glasgow to start a ten-day trip that would forever transform everything I thought I knew about traveling. Although I had loved Ireland, a couple of bad experiences had dimmed my excitement for the Scottish adventure— what if the mountains were not as impressing as I imagined them? Anyhow we made our way north, leaving behind rows of green hills and castles, to come across… more green hills and castles. In Ireland I had noticed some thorny shrubs with small, bright yellow flowers that grew everywhere (they’re called gorse). They were heavily abundant in Scotland too. I had expected similarities between the Irish, English and Scottish landscapes, but nothing I had seen before prepared me for the northern parts of Scotland.

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Photo: Julia Karmel. Arms open to adventure.

I had being in Edinburgh before, but Glasgow was new to me (everything I knew of the city came from ABBA’s Super Trouper). Our plan was to get a car there and start driving north, through Oban, Kyle, Skye, Inverness, Cairngorms, Perth and, finally, Edinburgh. We had listed some places we wanted to visit, mostly mountains, lakes and castles, and we had made an itinerary of the Youth Hostels we’d spend a night or two in, but the road and how that would turn out remained a mystery. In the first place, none of us was used to driving on the left side of the road; in the second place, none of us had much money to spend; and to top it up, we had known each other for just some months (I had never even met one of the guys before), so how we’d get along remained a mystery too.

After doing some exploring in Glasgow, we finally hit the road. That first day was mainly a familiarization with the road, buying supplies and leaving the car every time a landscape seemed interesting. Once we made it to Cairngorms National Park, the stops became constant, we explored the areas around the lake, walked without a fixed direction, talked and ate under the trees, took pictures. The park is beautiful, cool but sheltered from April rain.

Loch Ness

After that we kept going north. We had planned to spend a few hours in Inverness and take a look at Loch Ness. The little Airbnb we got at Inverness smelled like curry and we didn’t spend much time in it, except for sleeping and preparing food. The weather here was a bit cruel, winds blowing strongly and freezing nights, although Inverness Castle and the cathedral, lighted up with yellow lamps, gave the city certain charm. Our nights there were calm, there were many pubs and restaurants, but they closed early and those we managed to find open were almost empty. I believe the most exciting night was when we had the terrible idea of buying Chinese takeaway and eating it on the banks of the River Ness. Fifteen minutes after we had sat on some monuments we couldn’t feel our hands, so we decided to go home. The food was no good either.

The same river, though, guided us next morning all the way to Loch Ness. That day was clear and the wind blew playfully, strongly when we arrived tho those silvery black waters. A lake that seemed to extend towards the horizon, indefinitely, and could have been mistaken for the sea. On the opposite bank, visible from where all the visitor points and shops are, stands a small castle, or I should say what remains of a castle, Urquhart, some ruins from the 13th century. To get there we got on a boat called The Nessie Hunter, whose owner told us a great deal about both the Loch Ness Monster and the history of the castle. Once we were on the boat the wind became colder and stronger, the water looked pitch black, reflecting the sun’s light with little, cold white circles that fluttered with the waves, almost hypnotically. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t look for Nessie in every and each one of those ripples of water, that strangely dark water, impossibly cold.

Eilean Donan Castle

When we left Inverness we made our way to Kyle, driving along the shores of Loch Carron and Loch Alsh, and found another fortress dated back to the 13th century, at the shores of Loch Duich: Eilean Donan. As it often happens with many castles in Scotland and Ireland, Eilean Donan has been restored and it is now a museum with tea rooms and restaurants, you can even hire the place for a wedding. We obviously were satisfied with just sitting next to Loch Duich and eat the sandwiches we had brought with us, looking towards the castle.

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The days in the road were long and both tiredness and the lack of alone time made us want to spend some time in silence, wearing headphones in the car or, in my case, find some time to read. The only book I kept from my trip to Ireland was Joyce’s Dubliners, and I read a story every once in a while. I was not upset I barely had time to read though. The long drives with no phone signal, the harsh democracy when choosing what we’d play in the car and the short nights in hostels made me aware of many different kinds of company, besides of that of books, to which I was accustomed to. We listened to each others stories about our countries or our plans for the future, about places we had been to, bands we had seen live, stupid things we had done. We listened, too, to the stories of anybody who wanted to tell us theirs; the boat owner from Loch Ness, the hostel workers, the barmans from those little local pubs specialized in whiskey. We talked much and listened even more, during brief stops on the road, on some broken boat at the shores of some lake, covered in scarves and sweaters, our pockets full of Cadbury chocolate.

Isle of Skye

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Photo: Julia Karmel. Neist Point, Isle of Skye.

After Kyle we crossed the Sound of Sleat channel to get to the Isle of Skye. The fascination that Scottish landscapes had awaken in me was exacerbated there. Wide extensions of land, all the shades of green and a new one for use, a lighter green than that of the main island, gigantic stones of an almost black grey, washed white at parts from the roaring sea. One day we made our way to Portree to spend a couple of nights there. Portree is the largest town in the island and it wasn’t hard to find a hostel near the bay. The hostel was the perfect location between Neist Point Lighthouse and The Storr, the two things we most wanted to see in Skye.

The Storr is a mountain located in the north of the island, in an area known as Trotternish, some twenty minutes by car from Portree. The name of the most famous pinnacle of the mountain is “The Old Man of Storr”, because its gaunt, tall structure resembles an elderly can with a cane. The walk to the top takes around an hour and it becomes more and more challenging as one ascends. We were there in the last days of April and we didn’t find more than five people there. I had a brutal cold then, but the view from the top pinnacles was something I will never forget. Land, water and clouds spread before me, mixing, melting, the deepest green, indigo and grey. I thought then I must have been at the very top of the world.

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The crew at The Storr.

Skye exemplifies the intimidating majesty of nature, a grandness that inspires both admiration and fear. After  days among mountains and lakes, I could not but realise that we often misunderstand nature— we read the the creases of the land, the waves of the water and murmurs of the wind through the trees and bend them to our docility fantasies. Here though, I had before me a hostile land, a dangerous land, with its own will and a stout refusal to be tamed or even understood. And it was much more beautiful than the best tended garden.

After Skye we got back in the car, this time west bound, hoping to find something like The Storr there. Neist Point is in Durnish and the walk towards the lighthouse begins near Glendale. The first part of the way is a path surrounded by ligh green hills and from there we had our first view of the lighthouse: a simple white structure on top of which rests a small column, all on top of a cliff against which the waves crashed violently. The closer one gets to the lighthouse, the more dangerous it is to approach the sea, the path disappears and gives way to a series of rocks of different sizes, some half submerged, from which we hopped to see a bit of the lower part of the cliff. The lighthouse itself is around a hundred years old, filled now with old furniture. From the top of the cliff the islands that are between Skye and the Atlantic are invisible, so it looks as if an infinite extension of sea divided Neist Point from America. On the way back we stopped over the giant rocks to rest, taking advantage of the little sun we had that day, lulled by the sound of the sea and the occasional squawks of the seagulls.

Glenfinnan Viaduct and the end

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Photo: Julia Karmel

Then we made or way back to the Main Land, where our first stop was Glenfinnan, specifically the viaduct, close to Loch Shiel. We stopped there because that’s where the Hogwarts Express goes through in the Harry Potter films. There is actually a train passing in mid May, sadly we were too early to see it. After Glenfinnan we drove along the banks of Loch Eli all the way to Fort William, were we rested before making our way to Oban, where we would sleep.

Oban is a little town close to the Islandof Kerrera. It was our penultimate stop of the trip, afterwards we’d make our way to Edinburgh, from where each of us would continue our separate ways. In Oban we walked around the town and learned to drink Scotch in a small distillery where dozens of Scots had gathered to watch a soccer match. What I remember the most about the town is the bay, a half-moon on whose shores were piled up boats in all conditions, of all sizes and colours. Even when Edinburgh was the last stop, Oban was the end of a way of traveling, with no big cities to go to for comfort, a way of traveling in which a lake or a mountain was never too far off and in which we could look at the stars every night.