The Sun and the Moon and Here We Are

Posted on 8 January 2018

The one-hour bus ride from Mexico City turned into three but at least buskers kept us company with their music. Traffic sped, slowed, and crawled to an almost stop. One accident ahead was all it took to throw everything off.

At one point, Teotihuacán was the largest city in the Western hemisphere, and one of the largest in the world, home to some 100,000 people, perhaps more. Moreover, though we don’t know exactly who built it, we do know that multiple ethnicities lived there. Its grandiosity is all the more staggering when you consider it was constructed roughly 2,000 years ago. Humans have really been very capable for a very long time. What else have we been?

Wandering Teotihuacán

Teotihuacán takes time to wander. We walked all over the city, and it was a city; from the Pyramid of the Moon, the Avenue of the Dead stretches out into the haze that obscures its end. We walked the paths lined with tall brush, approaching the Temple of the Sun. Jaguar growls repeatedly pierced the rustling in the grass as vendors showed off their wares. Teotihuacános had a panther god and today we still appreciate its representation: panthers biting skulls, intricately painted faces. Draw the threat close and perhaps you’ll know enough to survive.

The Pyramid of the Sun looms high. If people used to be shorter, the stairs would have been all the tougher to climb. And yet, we clambered up the 248 steps, resilient grasses poking out between the rocks, to reach the highest height we could and see out over it all. The grandiosity trembles as you look down from whence you came.

Teotihuacán StairsOn the Pyramid of the Sun

Archeologists and historians aren’t exactly sure why Teotihuacán collapsed. There was likely a fire, but why? One thesis posits that there was an internal uprising of sorts against the elite, who did, after all, ensconce themselves in the nicest buildings, displaying their status and likely hoarding the gods’ favor to themselves. This may have been complemented by environmental disturbance from droughts and volcanic eruptions, which set the stage by exacerbating class divides and grievances. At any rate, the city’s large population plummeted and it was abandoned during the seventh century. This rise and collapse forms a pattern; other civilizations in the Americas, such as the Maya, experienced booms and busts even prior to colonization.

Pyramid of the SunTeotihuacán Pyramids

We like to glorify those who came before us, whether they are of our own culture are not. People used to be in harmony with nature, we proclaim, and while we certainly aren’t now, it seems many prior civilizations were only bound by their more limited technology. Even when humans first stepped foot in the Americas, or in Australia and Oceania, we caused destruction, sending nearly all megafauna to extinction. And though over time many societies collapsed, or were conquered by others, humans as a whole proliferated, enlarging our footprint physically, atmospherically, and digitally. All the while we’ve warred, we’ve set body-altering beauty standards, we’ve manufactured societal divides based on gender, class, ethnicity, and basically anything we can figure out. There are exceptions to a degree, of course, but that means there is an overall rule, a pattern of human behavior. To idealize earlier civilizations and cultures is thus, in a way, to deny them their humanity.

On the Pyramid of the Moon

It is beautiful, the view from the Pyramid of the Moon. The Pyramid of the Sun looms to one side of you and the Avenue of the Dead stretches before you. There is beauty beside us and yet a questionable unknown ahead. And isn’t that how we are? Isn’t that how we’ve always been?

That night, back in Mexico City, we wandered the streets until we found a spot to have dinner. From our second floor perch, we watched the passersby as we ate our tostadas. Trickling by: a mass of humanity, varied, not knowing each other every one, coexisting, rising, falling, prospering, struggling. Here we are.

CDMX

Posted on 31 December 2017

Mexico City is encompassed by land and air, by mountains, hills, volcanoes, and haze. But it cannot be encompassed by words. Or not by mine. I saw a fraction of this enormous city. But I do have impressions, and those I will share.


Dogs

Claudio

With one of the three dogs who were our Mexico City flatmates.

I had no idea, but there seemed to be almost as many dogs as people on the sidewalks of the La Condesa neighborhood and nearby. It seems half of the people must have dogs. Dog walkers strolled with packs of ten, or let them lounge together in one of the many parks. People briskly took their dogs on laps around the block. We sat in a park and watched a woman play fetch with her two Belgian Malinois until a group of eager children approached and took over the task of throwing from her. So many types of dogs, happy and healthy! And, in case you wonder: poop on the sidewalk wasn’t really an issue.

Food

The Mexican food one typically finds in the U.S. isn’t really the same. Try this: a quesadilla with quesillo, squash flower, and huitlachoche. Trust me, corn fungus does taste good. Get those chilaquiles for breakfast. Join the queue for one of the popular street stalls. Have churros and chocolate (the drink!) for dessert. Non-vegetarians can venture into the territory of eating chapulines, that’s grasshoppers. But really, try something new. Burritos are good, but there’s a world out there.

Bicycles

Ecobici

An Ecobici dock on a tree-lined street. Typical and lovely!

For almost every dog I saw, there was a cyclist – and sometimes a cyclist with a dog jogging alongside. I was very impressed with the bicycle infrastructure in parts of Mexico City. Ecobici, the bike share program, seems to be commonly used, as I saw people cruising along on them all the time. I saw not just bike lanes, but protected bike lanes, what a dream! The bicycle infrastructure was better than in most U.S. cities I’ve lived in, and it was definitely being utilized. Though, bonus points for the guy I saw rollerblading down the highway, cigarette in hand, keeping up with the slow-moving traffic. There’s that option, too, it seems.

Green Space

Chapultepec Recycling

In Chapultepec. I was enthusiastic about the recycling and compost options on offer.

The street we stayed on was lined with trees, and trees divided the lanes of traffic. Almost every three blocks it seemed as if you would come across a small park. And then there are the huge parks. We spent some hours wandering in Chapultepec, the most iconic, which hosts museums and a zoo. And we also walked all through Parque Viveros, surrounded by other strollers, and by runners, and by groups of yoga and martial arts practitioners, and by picnickers, and by, as my friend says, “impertinent squirrels.” But those greedy little squirrels! I would stick my empty hand out and they’d pull it down, peering over to see if I had any food for them. Green space is important, and dispersed green space in such a large city is a wonderful thing indeed.

Amsterdam, CDMX

My running route.

Balconies

Mexico City has some wonderful architecture, but alongside the more grandiose buildings is the common and humble few-story apartment block or home, with a small balcony reaching out over the sidewalk. And there’s the second-story restaurants with their fresh air section, from which you can watch passers-by. Balconies are connections. There should be more balconies.

Palacio de Bellas Artes

Not a place to hang out on a balcony, but pretty nonetheless! Palacio de Bellas Artes.


I can provide these snapshots, but the city is beyond what I want to try to frame. We didn’t have enough time in Mexico City (when is there enough time anywhere?) but we traversed many miles of it, across many neighborhoods. Before we went, we were warned, be careful, about Mexico in general, and about the big city in particular, by people who’ve never been. And indeed, we were the only obvious tourists we saw at our gate while waiting for our flight. So I want to say this too: don’t worry, and visit Mexico City! I felt safe – and went for a run by myself and saw other women doing the same. It’s a big city, but what you can say of it is what you can say of other big cities, for good and for bad. But mostly for good.

Snake and Eagle

The Edge We’re On

Posted on 22 November 2017

You can tell you’re on the east side of the mountains. It’s drier, more grey-orange, scrubby. The ground smolders around us as we drive up to the trailhead, remnants of the summer’s fires. It’s getting angrier. The earth, I mean. And I understand.

The mountains are a great place to highlight precariousness. It’s not just that I nearly froze up walking along in a spot where the trail narrowed and the rocky land to my left slid down, down, down. It’s that even these enormous mountains are fragile, in a way. If you pay attention, you can tell. Mountains are edges: things hold on until they can’t anymore. And then something’s falling.

Hike to Lake Ingalls Hike to Lake Ingalls

Don’t walk off the path. And I mean because of the vegetation. It’s holding on. Until the snowpack is altered and the warmth creeps along the edges to where it is, anyway. Or until you step on it.

Well, we’re tramping around up here to see some of the vegetation: the larches. You can see precariousness in where they stand on the mountain, at a certain elevation, on a certain side. Altitude is necessary, but up to a point. And there’s the need for a certain light, a certain soil. They’re all over where you’re in the middle of them, but zoom out on a map and they inhabit mere slivers of the land.

Hike to Lake Ingalls 3 Lake Ingalls Mountain Goats

Mountain goats half observe and half ignore our scrambling, utterly clumsy to them, I’m sure. We’re clumsy creatures with a lot of power. The mountainside can kill us, but you know, we’re killing the mountainside in that we’re killing much of what is living on it, just in a drawn out way that’s too slow to easily discern. Or is it? When we bother to mind, we know we’re causing a catastrophe, and we can name some of what we’ve already killed. Most times we don’t, even when we’re reveling in the wonder of what we’re destroying.

Hike to Lake Ingalls 4 Hike to Lake Ingalls 5 Lake Ingalls

I didn’t have all of these gloomy thoughts on the mountain, only some of them. But mostly, honestly, I felt great, happy to be outdoors, happy to see this beauty, happy in the higher, fresher air, happy in the clean-looking snow, happy.

Look, and then don’t look away.


If you care about humans, animals, plants, fungi, and/or the earth, consider:

Just Another Existential Hazard of Being a Woman

Posted on 17 October 2017

This was originally posted on 13 November 2012, when I was living and working in Cusco, Peru. Though this was five years ago, and I am now based in Seattle, things haven’t changed. I was last harassed just over a week ago, and then less than a week before that. It is endless. It is a bombardment. It makes me angry. It limits me. So, here goes again. I haven’t changed the wording of this post because, sadly, nothing has changed. Maybe there is a bit more awareness thanks to (mostly) womxn diligently speaking out, but we also have a harasser in chief here in the U.S. The #MeToo campaign has spurred conversation, so I am (re-)adding this story (one of many) and also demanding: men, we need you to step up if we’re going to truly tackle the scourge of sexual harassment and assault.


I was asked if I was actually going to publish this post because doing so might make people worry about me. But yes, I will publish this post because if people care about me and are concerned, they should be concerned for the welfare of women everywhere. Because what happens to me on almost a daily basis happens to millions of other women around the world; if you’re upset about it then do something. Harassment continues because consistently people–especially men–turn a blind eye, effectively rendering it socially acceptable.

So, last Thursday I was verbally threatened with rape.

The view from my place in Cusco. I was threatened just around the block from my home.

But let’s take a step backward: almost every single day, almost every time I leave the house, men harass me. Today walking to work I got the obnoxious “hello, hello, I love you!” On the way home I got whistling. This weekend I had two men and a moto taxi closely following me and my (female, which really goes without saying) friends. Almost every single day men bother me. To them I’m a blonde, sexual piece of meat walking down the street.

But let’s step back again: this problem isn’t limited to my existence in Peru, oh no. Last summer in Kenya was worse. It took courage to dare to walk alone and when I did of course a man would try to follow me. Of course I would get asked for my number. Of course I would get comments about my appearance. Of course I would get men masturbating (yes! I’m fairly certain!) on the bus behind me because I couldn’t keep my hair from blowing in the wind (I’m such a slut, no? Shouldn’t I have controlled my hair?).

Step back again: I’m not only harassed in foreign countries. I’m harassed at home, where I don’t stand out. I dread running alongside the road to the park because about half the time I get men calling at me from their trucks. I always power walked home from class (inevitably after dark) so as to give men as short of a glimpse of me as possible. I don’t look men in the eye when I walk around. Even at home. Because I get whistles, I get obscene comments, and who knows if someone is lurking in the dark, hence my pepper spray.

But step back again: this doesn’t just happen to me–of course not! It happens to my female friends. It happens to us when we’re taking an otherwise pleasant walk together. It happens to us when we’re waiting to be picked up by the other to hang out. It happens to us when we are going anywhere, doing anything. In fact, the Thursday incident happened to me and a Peruvian friend both.

How dare we have the audacity to walk while female from a café about five minutes away from my house and the office at the terribly late hour of 8:30pm? How dare we, especially when it wouldn’t be possible (or economical) to catch a cab for five blocks? We were walking to my homestay when across the street from us two men, sitting comfortably in their front lawn, apparently making a sport out of threatening female passersby, began yelling in heavily accented English, “fucking bitches! Fucking cunts! I’m going to rape you!”

And what do you do when this happens? Freeze a little inside, walk faster, and once I was slightly more safely some houses away I thrust my fist in the air, my keys laced between my fingers as threats, as they always are after dark. And then the disbelieving questions to each other: “did that actually just happen? were we actually just threatened with rape?” And then the anger which is, for me, quite omnipresent: I can’t go anywhere without being a target! It almost always happens! And why? Because men have the power? Because they think women are objects? Because they simply can? Because when they do it, no one ever tells them to stop being pitiful scum and just lay off?

I’ve been harassed countless times; and I’m sure my friends and plenty other females could tell you similar stories. And not once–not once!–out of the hundreds of times I’ve been harassed, has anyone, has any man, told the perpetrator to knock it off. Never.

And it’s not like I’m always in an empty street, just me and the scumbag. And it’s not like I don’t draw attention to it either. I used to try to ignore it and walk quickly past. But ignoring doesn’t make people go away and besides, I’m done being a passive woman. I’m not going to shut my mouth and let people bother me. It has worked when I’ve yelled back: this weekend when the two men and a moto taxi were following my friends despite the fact we clearly weren’t going to talk with them, I turned and shouted (in Spanish), “go away!” They stepped back a bit but when they continued to keep pace with us, stare at us, I yelled “pitiful!” And lo, they backed off and let us be, even saying “sorry, sorry.” This incident was in fact on a deserted street, apart from us. But a few days before, in the Plaza de Armas, people abound, a disgusting male hollered at me the old “hello, hello, I love you!” I turned, cursed at him, and continued on my way but from the multitudes of people around, right there: silence.

For me, these streets are dangerous. Me in Cusco, in my typical attire – not that it should fucking matter, and it didn’t, because I was harassed all the same.

I believe that this a significant reason why street harassment, which leads to even worse, continues and is so prevalent. Here, or in the United States, people, especially other men, never stand up to the scumbags and tell them: “stop it! That’s not ok! In fact, what you’re doing is pitiful and disgusting!” And especially men I say, because men shaming other men would have more of an effect (males want to be accepted by their peers after all), but also because many men seem to care very little about the problem.

An illustration, which fit my point so perfectly I was seething afterward. Friday morning I go to the office to go to our project. I tell everyone in the office what had happened the night before; I wanted to warn the ladies especially, since I knew a couple who don’t live far. There were three men (or boys) in the room and about five women. The women, and one of the men (Peruvian) responded appropriately: “where exactly? When? Oh gosh, that’s horrible! Are you okay?” Here is how the other two men responded:

First man: oh, they were just practicing their English!
A joke! A joke about a situation in which I was threatened with rape. To which I responded (or snapped), “no, they were making a sport out of threatening women!”

Second man: oh, maybe they were drunk!
To which I responded (or at this point, rather snarled), “oh yeah, because drunk men don’t rape! I don’t care, if you have any inkling within yourself of saying things like that ever, then you’re dirt.”

So you see, the responses of women and many (in this case the majority) of men are quite different. One group expresses concern, and then anger, and then (as my Spanish professor and I do) begins brainstorming various reactions. The other group blows it off, excuses it, makes a joke of it. And this street harassment and everyone should know what else continues.

So, family, friends, anonymous readers: are you concerned about me? Are you concerned about your sisters, mothers, daughters, girlfriends, female friends? Because you should be. It happens to us all. And once is too often; this happens far too often. If you’re concerned, then, confront those jackasses whistling at anonymous women. Those women are us. Tell them it’s not okay or ever okay. Shame them. We have been taught all too well by history that atrocities happen when entire populations turn a blind eye. And this is a daily atrocity, the degradation of women who dare simply to walk around.

On a closing note, wisdom from the Manic Street Preachers: “who’s responsible? You fucking are!” (from “Of Walking Abortion”).

Erosion

Posted on 4 August 2017

I’ve learned I can simultaneously expand with wonder and implode with despair. It’s a hard thing, working in a beautiful place and knowing it’s degraded, its soils are crumbling, rolling into the lake, leaving scars of absence. It’s also a hard thing to be degraded, to be regarded either too hard or too little, so like the soil you run away and scars mark your retreat.

Walking back to my tent-room after tracking down documents, I’m greeted by a man who shakes my hand and then refuses to let go, he grips harder and I yank away and shuddering, hurry off. He knows exactly to where and I don’t like that. I have to work, or I don’t have to but I want to, we’re trying to do the right thing and write a decent, helpful report, but I sit on the edge of the hill and stare out over the lake a bit first. It is beautiful. I know it’s choking.

Gwassi Hills, KenyaSunset over Lake Victoria

At night, we stare out over the water some more. The sunsets are some of the most stunning I’ve seen. I read my book before bed. In the morning, before our tea and toast, we stare out over the water again to see what we’ll see: fishing boats, a smudge of a midge hatch, contrasting currents. I feel a bit more curious and energized. I think about the complex projects that can maybe help restore this place. But then I’m deflated the next time a group of men largely ignore me in a meeting about microloans. The only words for me are: hello, goodbye, and you should stay here and get married.

I prefer the words in my book, or the ones that I myself type, so I huddle back in my tent-room and do some work, or just sit in murk of discontent and unease. I can’t stay inside for long, though; it’s too beautiful.

Suba Tent RoomSunset Grass

With my colleagues I make my way down to the edge of the lake and I leave them for the women’s side of the dock. I’m happier there. I’m showered with smiles and questions and the ladies laugh at my swimming as they wash. They ask me if I’ll come back tomorrow. I wish I were coming back tomorrow. But I’m leaving tomorrow, with the men. Well, I should say there’s one man in particular who holds on too long, who grabs me close, who appraises me, who says things. He’s my boss.

I come back to these hills some weeks later, though, and now we sip tea in the dining area. We met my colleague in Kisumu after flying from Nairobi, after an hour’s drive from where I lived and worked. I was relieved to be with my colleague as we drove and ferried and drove from Kisumu, a buffer from him and the tense hours I’d spent just the two of us in the airport, on the plane. I was shown off to a government minister: look at her! His eyes pierced and I couldn’t avoid them. So now I was back in the hills, sipping my tea, and dissolving quietly, but more calmly, less rapidly than in those anxiety-tinged hours as I forced myself through the motions of politeness as I was subdued, devoured.

Tea Time

We visit gardens and offices and factories. We work on our report. We stare at the lake. I chat with the women. I shy away from the men.

Another Lake Victoria SunsetRed Clouds

One last sunset, and then we walk to dinner. The cook has made me another special vegetarian meal. She is very kind and seems as eager to make new dishes for me, as I am eager to eat her food. I’m eager to talk to her too. I ask her a lot of questions. I have learned a question is a friendly thing and I can’t, sadly, just be friendly because friendly is too much, friendly is dangerous. Except with women, of course. We get it.

Lake Victoria Current

The beauty crowds my emotions, and I feel bad about that because the hills are falling apart and the lake is curdling. I also feel bad for not enjoying myself but I’m curdling too. I’m getting mean. And I’ve learned I can concurrently appreciate and despise, for there are different components to everything. Currents cut through in different shades, they cut through me and they cut through this place. I love it and I am deeply uncomfortable. I’m disturbed and I’m excited.

More has travelled through these ravines by now. They’re six years deeper inside me. I’m sure they’re deeper in the hills too. Sadly.