Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, “There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” As my wife and I sit side-saddle, opposite each other on an ATV going up a mountainside just outside a little town in Mexico called Petatlán, I couldn’t agree more.
Our driver’s name is Manuel and, though I took the required two years of Spanish in high school and have spent quite a bit of time in Mexico, I don’t understand much of what he’s saying.
“Something something this is where they grow the coffee.”
“Those are something something trees.”
“Something something pineapple something something.”
There are moments where I think I understand everything he’s saying, and moments where I know I understand nothing. Thankfully my wife has retained most of the Spanish she learned, so she’s able to translate between Manuel and I.
After spending an hour and a half holding on for dear life as we bounced around, always dangerously close to the edge of the trail, our fifteen-person crew and entourage of five ATVs made it to the top of the Sierra Madre del Sur to tour a rural farm and eat lunch with the family that tends it.
As we pulled up to what felt like it had to be the last house on the mountain, we were greeted by a gaggle of dogs, cats, goats, chickens, a rooster and a pig—some curious and craving attention, others very concerned (the pig was beside himself, trying, unsuccessfully, to hide underneath a few banana leaves). After the stampede subsided, the patriarch, Jesus (fitting name for a mountaintop patriarch, right?), made his entrance, walking up to each of us with a limp to give us a hug.
As you would expect for a mountaintop home first built in the early 1900s, its construction is rather sparse. A collection of buildings, really. One large building, a single room that serves as the family’s main living quarters. A large half-indoor, half-outdoor room that looks like it’s used as a church of some kind. A kitchen and dining room that’s indoor but surrounded mostly by chicken-wire screens so it feels like you’re outdoors. And what I’ll call—for lack of a better way to describe it—a siesta room full of hammocks, a card table, and the family’s stash of homemade wine (this was my favorite room, obviously). Jesus is quick to point out their new 18″ TV, DVD, and speaker system, though he’s also quick to point out that, because they’re so high up in the mountains, they don’t get much picture out of it, only audio. They’re just happy they can at least listen to fútbol at home now.
After a quick tour of the facilities, we walk to another corner of the grounds, where he shows us their coffee plants, explaining why he stopped selling to commercial buyers like Starbucks. Apparently, for Jesus, Starbucks tries to buy at a lower price than it takes him to produce and distribute, so the coffee is now only produced for family and friends that live on or near the mountain. Same goes for his cocoa; he makes over 100 kilograms per year, but has to be highly selective about where he sells it and who he sells it to, so he doesn’t spend more on distribution than he does on production.
It’s a lesson in basic corporate economics: Spend less than you take in, and only on a product you actually make, and can actually make you money.
A lesson most entrepreneurs I know could surely learn and thing or two from.
Turns out, this mountain is an entire economy of its own. Locals buying and selling to locals. Somebody tends the ganado (cattle). Another grows maíz (corn), another arroz (rice), another frijoles (beans). Jesus and his family are responsible for café, chocolate, medicinals and herbs.
And this is what I love about traveling. It’s one thing to walk into a conference and learn something about the world with your designer Nikes, your iPad in a DodoCase, and a name-tag slapped on your chest. It’s another thing entirely to be bone-tired, having practically dragged yourself out of bed at 6am, wearing some crappy old running shoes, chugging coffee, and being strapped to an ATV and driven up a mountainside by somebody you’ve never met and whose language you don’t speak.
Doing things you’ve never done is how you learn about the world, and doing those things in a culture you’ve heard or read about is how you learn that you don’t understand as much as you think you do.
Some people say travel is about finding yourself. I say it’s about finding yourself in other people. Culture is, in fact, made up of people who are just like you, but just different enough to—hopefully—teach you something.
Empathy is, after all, experience, not observation.
It’s experiencing firsthand
and the mundane,
and realizing that we’re all experiencing varying degrees of something that can only be described as… human.
You can’t learn that on the Internet.
You can’t learn that from somebody else’s experience.
You can only truly learn that by going.
After the tour we played a rousing game of dominos, then sat around the family table, eating homemade tortillas, beans, sopes, chicharones (fried pig skin) in tomato sauce, and a seasonal squash salad. We drank homemade wine, coconut water and coffee, and I ate like un cerdo feliz.
Bottom line: you (read: we) should get out more.
Last week’s Digest focused on the start-up economy and was a bit more on the serious side. This week, I think you should get out from behind your desk—or at least plan some time to make that happen this year—so here are some articles and quotes about the whimsical world we live in:
‘Kick Out The Jams—Detroit‘, by Anthony Bourdain
This is it.
The last episode of our second season of PARTS UNKNOWN.
And I’m glad it’s set in Detroit. Because Detroit, for many Americans, is an abstraction—truly, if incredibly, a part unknown.
One only need look at some of our representatives who, a while back, were actually suggesting that it might be okay to let the beleaguered auto industry fend for itself, to leave Detroit to its fate to see how blithely willing much of America would be to point the gun straight at their own heads and pull the trigger.
Detroit isn’t just a national treasure. It IS America. And wherever you may live, you wouldn’t be there—and wouldn’t be who you are in the same way—without Detroit.
Detroiters hate what they call “ruin porn.” And it’s understandable the unease and even anger that must come with seeing tourists, gawkers, (and television crews) come to your city to pose giddily in front of abandoned factories, public buildings, the symbols of former empire.
I, too, I’m afraid, am guilty of wallowing in ruin porn, of making sure we pointed our cameras, lingered even, in the waist high grass, overgrown gardens, abandoned mansions, crumbling towers, denuded neighborhoods of what was once an all powerful metropolis, the engine of capitalism.
Looking back, if I were to compare Detroit’s mentality to any other city, I’d look to New Orleans. Both city’s hardcore, born and bred “ain’t never leaving” home teams refuse to even consider living anywhere else—no matter what happens. It takes a special breed.
So, this show is not about what went wrong. Or how bad things are. It’s about improvisers. About what it takes to dig in and stay. I hope, that even among ruins, audiences will see what I see: an extraordinarily beautiful city—unlike any other in America—still. It’s where so many of our uniquely American hopes and dreams were forged—the things that make us who we are: the automobile, the highway—the dream of mobility— for ALL Americans. Credit. Music. It’s where the American Dream was created. And it’s STILL the American Dream—if a different one that we are, all of us, together, sooner or later, going to have to figure out.
He may be too mainstream for some of y’all, but Anthony Bourdain is the best, and I’m glad he tackled Detroit for the finale of Parts Unknown season 2. I went to Detroit in September of 2012, and I have to say I agree with Tony: Detroit is lawless, but Detroit is beautiful and Detroit doesn’t quit. It’s a case study on what it means to think you know something about a place before you’ve been there. You think you know Detroit: You don’t.
‘Vintage Posters from the Golden Age of Travel, 1910-1959‘, via BrainPickings
Mid-century graphic design gave us such treasures as Saul Bass, the WPA, and science ads like we haven’t seen since. From the Boston Public Library’s Print Collection comes this stunning collection of vintage travel posters from the Golden Age of Travel, when railways stretched across America and Europe, swanky ocean liners brought elegance to international waters, and the roads swelled with automobiles. Armed with these vibrant visual ephemera, travel agents and ticket salesmen ushered in a new era of excitement about the adventures of travel, channeled through the language of design.
My first design internship right out of college had me working alongside a master of texture and cultural references, so we spent hours talking about how computers and software are ultimately just tools to help communicate a message. Vintage travel posters were an object lesson on many mornings when I would first enter his small studio in Glendale, and are ultimately responsible for my love of graphic design and my love of travel. An effective travel poster romanticizes not only the culture, but the designer’s interpretation of that culture, by choosing to highlight certain things over others. It’s their style that makes it come to life.
‘52 Places to Go in 2014‘, via The New York Times
Truth be told, I haven’t looked through the entire list. Thankfully, from what I have seen, I’ve already been to at least four of them this year. While I don’t expect you or I to get to all 52, having a lofty goal is always a good thing, right?
Portrait of Jesus at top by yours truly.