Sunday, December 9, 2012

Road Trip Benefits

I want to wrap up the experience of the last road trip in a practical way. What's in for you?

First, your job may have you trap in a vicious circle. The cycle takes your time and gives you money. With that money you buy things that consume the rest of your day and, sometimes, they demand even more money. A road trip not only cuts that process but also shows you that:
  • The world is big.
  • There is thousands of ways to make money, some of them more profitable and less stressful than the path you have chosen.
  • People are really happy with very little IF their social capital is big enough.
  • None of the adversities you have encountered compares with the misfortunes of the people that founded the cities you will see.
  • You will feel the obligation to match the beauty and the majesty of the landscape.
  • You will fall in love again… several times.
  • You’ll feel the urge of handwriting.
  • You'll lose weight, especially in cold weather.
  • For some reason you never get sick.
  • You’ll not want to be anybody else on Earth.
  • You'll feel (not just understand) that life can be lived in many ways other than the half dozen you ever considered. 
  • You'll realize how useless pictures are to grasp experience.   
  • You'll feel the distance.
  • You'll feel the silence.
  • You won't feel time.
"Feeling" is the missed piece of this Google generation. It’s not enough to see the numbers and say wow!

I circled the whole country, and the distance I covered was less than the one I used to drive from home to the office in one year. So I was already making the mileage but in an uneventful path.

Ok, yes, I’m single. But having a family makes the trip even more enduring. Remember this: a relationship is a collection of shared experiences. So don’t use your family as a pretext for inaction, use it on behalf of the action.

If you are happy, ignore me. You are there. But most of the people I have met know deep inside that there is something else in life. They are just afraid to lose the little piece of bread they have if they go to the oven. If you are in that state I have good news for your heart and bad news for your guts: you are wrong. Yes, life is a miracle, one that is worth to be repeated and propagated.

You know that you are really happy when you don't want to have sex, you want to impregnate. It’s an urge for giving. Is this assurance that the source of your happiness can never be exhausted because it falls all over like rain.

Cities are not another choice for living. They are the wrong choice. They generate humans alienated from their own nature, cynic as Scrooge, sarcastic as teenagers, indifferent as portraits, and bitter as bus drivers. 

We can confidently demolish all the existing cities and start from scratch. There is so much arid space that it’s unnecessary to knock down a single tree. A healthy city should expose the inhabitants to light, water, plants and animals. Public transportation should not be crowded by losers. Affordable facilities should be the reward for good character, not lame performance.

So, if you suffer from chronic depression, you may be reflecting the mood of the city. You can’t attain health from an unhealthy baseline.

But you don’t need to wait for the creation of the perfect town. You can give yourself a healthy dose of city life at some point and then move to a different environment. That requires a disposition for change that is rare in city rats. Road trips are just a mild exercise to build that state; to remind you over and over again that your world is not THE world.

You don’t have to wait until sixty-five to retire. You can retire from your past life and start a new one every 7 years or so. Don’t commit the sin of getting stuck in the same routine. That would be like living in Paris and having lunch every day at McDonald's. Don’t pass on the stimulating adventure of being in this world.

Friday, December 7, 2012

What Can A Mountain Do For You?

I’m back to the starting point; back in South Florida.

12,871 miles and 583.49 gallons of gas later, I’m here to evaluate the products of my journey.

The first thing that happens to you after a long trip like this is that you can’t see home the same way. This place looks different. It hasn’t changed much; it was me who changed.

After traveling through the best and the worst of US, I have to admit that Pompano Beach is ghetto. I walk with ease here just because I come from Central America, but for USA standards, South Florida is not one of the best places.

I saw that they are making pathetic robberies like grabbing your cell phone and running away. That’s revolting. It’s even better to have a gang of Colombians storming a bank with high caliber weapons; at least you need to be organized and have ambition. These criminals are just picking the wrong venue. With two more ounces of a brain, they may get into politics and steal in order of magnitude thousands of times bigger, all while attending social events and been applauded in the red carpet. But that you get with courage and organization. The kid that runs frenetically with that purse will never get there because he is already thinking too small.

And you may tell me: well, the damage is small too. No, it’s not. A raving dog can be located, vaccinated, trained, caged or ultimately killed. Small bugs instead are everywhere and infest the whole place beyond repair. If the mayor of Evergreen City makes headlines because he was caught cutting red tape for his fellow contractors, does that keep you from buying a house in there? But if the windshields of the cars are regularly crashed by bandits looking to steal CDs in your neighborhood, can you sleep well?

The face value of the damage is not the only variable in the equation. Big conglomerates of anything can be identified, controlled or eliminated; while small amounts spread like viruses and demand many times more resources to be eradicated. The big fish can be articulated within the system and even contribute for a while. The virus has nothing but the small goal of surviving.

If you change the goals of a bold criminal, you get a brave entrepreneur. That’s easier and more rewarding than trying to infuse ambition in a coward. Even when the coward changes his ways, he lacks the drive to accomplish anything, no matter how noble the goal.

And that’s what mountains will do for you. They will call the giant within. There's an endemic testosterone deficit. Too many people trembling for a salary: “Yes sir, no sir…” what kind of man is that? You give that level of submission on a battle, no at the office. If you are right, you are right and bleed all the way through. If the corporation can’t share your principles you make a move; you convince others of your ideas. If they don’t get it, go where others bright like you, or bright for your own. 

Oh, morality; you will find those questions on the road. Just be sure to make it big. Don’t be like the petty theft that runs with the lady’s purse. It’s never wrong when you win, just after you die and your enemies tell the story. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Saint Augustine - The Joy of Created History

I’m finally back in Florida, but instead of driving all the way south I decided to stay a couple of days in Saint Augustine. I visited this town a couple of years ago, so I was not expecting to be impressed, but I was. The place is even better, or maybe I’m carrying with me a new standard that makes me appreciate it that way. The weather was the one you would expect in paradise. Those narrow streets with charming shops make you feel like in a doll house. And the dolls were walking around too.

Now, I don’t fall for the historical claims of the city. Yes, it’s the oldest continuously populated settlement in the US from the time it was founded, but that doesn’t imply that you are going to find anything that old. I mean, the place was burned to the ground by pirates… twice. So when they point out things like “the oldest school in the country” what they really mean is the place where the oldest school has been rebuilt over and over again. 

But that’s ok. This town had no the intention to be a touristic attraction when it was created, and none of the buildings would have survived anyway. The last time I came, they were holding one single storehouse with the original material, and the place was clearly collapsing. This time I saw construction workers putting it together again and replacing 80% of the wood. After all, history is our present fantasy of the past.

In “Castillo de San Marcos”, a really impressive fortress, they have actors in Spaniard uniforms making tours and demos on how the artillery was used. They try to mimic Spanish, but you can’t understand a single world even if that is your first language. It’s a cute caricature, but tourists from Spain roll their eyes in indignation.

The scripts are written for kids, and they try to portrait pirates as something very Disney and funny, no as the scum they really were. Every time I visit a city surrounded by walls I try to imagine the nightmare of having to go to bed without knowing if, in the middle of the night, a group of bandits will come along, stole your goods, kill your children, rape your wife and burn your house. Certainly, lawyers are a drag, but I prefer that over the law of steel that even now rules some countries. I just think that by ignoring the misery of the past we lost the opportunity to stimulate gratitude for the present.

If you have a chance to visit this fortress, you will never regret it. The second level has walls at the high of the hip, so it’s a matter of time for an idiot to fall and make the city spoil the architecture with plastic panels or something like that. So go now that it’s pristine.

Ok, but the fact that history is used to put up a show doesn’t diminish my experience, the same way that knowing the real name of the actors doesn’t ruin a movie. The place glows at night, especially now with all the Christmas lights and the horses making rides in shiny carriages. The alleys are so lovely that people in trolleys practically high-five those sitting at the bars along the street. The beauty in the architecture of the surrounding neighborhoods makes it worthy to walk every block from one corner to another.   

There is no place for “clubbing” and that’s a good thing because the atmosphere is more for dining, walking and having drinks with live music. I found a couple of lovely red-neck places where I spent the nights. People always look at me strangely when I get in, first when they notice my accent and second when I order vodka instead of beer. But I always end up shaking hands and sharing interesting conversations. I prefer to target old people because I always learn something and also because I don’t have to compete with annoying smartphones. The last night I had a conversation with a seventy years old woman that lives a block away from the bar. She seems to be in the ideal retirement: a couple of hours from the house of her daughter, living in a nice safe neighborhood and making new friends every day. The muscles on her face show a resting smile.

The hostel I used was ok, but I got a rash for bedbugs. This hostel thing has its charm, but after a while, you can grow tired of the drawbacks. It’s lovely to wake up surrounded by twenty-year-old European girls in pink t-shirts, but you may also get a group of snoring bikers.

The good thing is that our minds work like history: over time I’ll start to forget the struggle, and I’ll gradually romanticize the beautiful details. In the end, we finish up with memories of little historical accuracy but huge entertainment value.

Monday, December 3, 2012


Last Tuesday I arrived in Savannah, Georgia. You never hear about this place, but I was curious to check it out. One of the road trip books I reviewed was recommending it as the most beautiful city in the US. The editor was quoting a European source, and once I drove in, I understood immediately why. Savannah is old, but not artificially so as other tourist destinations. The neighborhoods are authentically in disarray since the 18th century. But the level of chaos is just enough to make the view romantic. People have real lives in those two store Victorian homes with balconies covered by vines. 

The hotel I picked looked like an abandoned house. I got closer, looking for the “no trespassing” sign and opened a thin wood door leaf. On the other side, there was an office in the place of the original living room. A shy guy with shifting personality told me to come back at business hours (twenty minutes later). I wanted to see that house from inside, so I came back, and he showed me upstairs. Inside it looks like another house, perfectly well maintained and with this characteristic smell of old wood that transports you in time. All the secretive doors and cabinets were there. There was a cover fireplace, big closets embedded into the walls and a door to a creepy dark attic. I loved it. I was the only one asking for a room that night, so the whole place was mine.

The rooms are separated by glass windows, and just darkness can be seen on the other side. The rooms are secured with big metallic keys, so heavy that they can be used as weapons. You need to close two windows before going to the restroom, one of them facing an old white bathtub. To complement all this, a dark fluffy cat was walking through the cornices and glazing inside now and then.

I stood there two nights, but unfortunately, I didn’t see any old lady holding a candle or something like that. All the creepiness belonged to this world.

The downtown itself is full of small impractical parks, some of them with the remains of political figures underground. It was very usual to fertilize public parks with the flesh of local celebrities. Again, the disarray is just enough to make the place attractive. The trees where people were hanged are still there to tell the story, but those killed by law were left to rot for several days and then tossed away. That was the fate of an Irish immigrant woman. Her sentence was postponed eight months to allow her to deliver a baby. She was with child when she assassinated her master by drowning.

I also visited the Bonaventure cemetery, and it’s lovely. Crypts dated at the mid 18th century completely abandoned, eroded and gray, with terrifying virgins rolling their eyes to the heavens, covered by a thick layer of smog; a paradise for photographers.

But Savannah is more than an American Transylvania. The River Side offers a mile of bars, restaurants and candy shops in front of a rocky street that nevertheless is open to regular traffic, but you have to be careful in this speed reducer road. The brick buildings follow the standard of old looking alleys and intentionally unattended painting.

I loved the place. I'll definitely come back, maybe after passing away. Ghosts must have fun in here pulling people's blankets at night.

Small towns

On this trip, I have to stop in several small towns when it gets dark. Some of those places are so isolated and boring that I don’t even mention them. Like Mount Airy, North Carolina. That was the town where Andy Griffith was born, so there is a road with his name and even a museum of memorabilia. But nothing else ever happened there. For me, it was too much rurality. 

Before that, I ended in Charlottesville, Virginia, after tossing a coin at the end of Skyline Drive. That place has a perfect balance between rural landscapes and city facilities. The University of Virginia is there and I always love what colleges do to the city plan. Open spaces, plenty of walking friendly miles and just enough commerce.

I also visited Monticello, the iconic house of Thomas Jefferson that appears in the nickel coin. The place is certainly a peaceful spot on Earth, and Jefferson made the best of it by architecting and designing his own home. You can tell he may have done better with a second chance but is admirable taking into account this was just a hobby. He inherited this land and bought much more acres directly from the crown of England, including the place where the Natural Bridge is located.

It’s also remarkable how many slaves lived in Monticello. Only two were granted freedom, and that was because they were sons of Jefferson himself. That may sound standard for the times, but this comes from the man who printed the phrase “all man are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence. 

History, where it actually exists, is certainly enlightening.

Even three miles from Monticello, the Court Square is so beautiful, simple and peaceful that just sitting down on a bench is a relaxing experience. I’ve never seen the light falling as it does in Virginia. There are places that have a peaceful atmosphere that invites thoughts, and this small town has it. The little boulevard on Main Street will give you that dining and walk experience, not as hectic as a city but not as dull as a town. Jefferson knew it better, and that is why he’s still resting on his back at this place.