Mittwoch, 28. September 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXXIII - Mexico: La Muerte, Tu Amigo Mexicano

This post contains imagery relating to death. If you are offended or scared of such imagery you, especially, should keep on reading.

In our Western culture, death is something that is traditionally locked out and denied. Not so in Mexico. Here death is ubiquitous, and people deal with its existence in very different ways than anywhere else. In Mexico, death is not an end, or something to dread. It's a part of life that is taken with the same amount of humour and celebration as every other aspect of Mexican life.

The Mexican attitude towards death has its roots in the pre-Christian religions. Unlike other indigenous rites, however, the Catholics never managed to erase the special relationship the locals had with death. Quite the opposite, it started spreading and establishing itself firmly in Mexican culture. Death symbols, especially skeletons, are found everywhere. You'll find them in churches, in bars, on t-shirts and murals. Death follows you in your daily newspaper and when you shop for groceries. But unlikely the European depictions of death, such as the medieval "Danses Macrabres" or the later "Vanitas" art, Mexico's Death is not a reprimander, but a jovial buddy who drinks, smokes and jokes with you to the grave. The sentiment of death being a joyous occurrence, or at least one to take with humour, has allowed artists such as Jose Guadalupe Posada to become one of the most influential caricaturists (and indeed artists) in Mexico. His skeletal characters have become so famous that they are almost national icons, such as the posh dead dame Catrina below.

One of Mexicos biggest, and arguably most well-known, fiestas centers entirely around the veneration of the dead. The "Dia de los Muertos" is a nationwide celebration of death and the deceased: People decorate the graveyards, set up altars with offerings for those passed on, and dress up in scary costumes for big parties and processions across the country. Candy in forms of skulls and skeletons are handed out to children (and grown ups) and while families also remember the dead and take care of the graves, the atmosphere is not very solemn. It is a time where deceased relatives and friends are close to the world of the living, and can take part in the celebrations.

The same goes for actual funerals. While walking around on the graveyard I had the chance to witness two, and it is very different from any other I have seen so far. There are marching bands playing pretty upbeat music, and the deceased is sent on his way with applause and cheering similar to a birthday party. That doesn't mean there are no tears, but the farewell is undoubtedly less glum than its European equivalent.

Funerals for children are especially cheerful, involving toys, balloons, and sometimes even Clowns! Named "Angelitos (Little Angels)", infants who have died before reaching full consciousness (and thus the capability to sin) are thought to require much extra consolation for their premature passing.

No one seems to be particularly bothered by the presence of imagery of death, and remnants are often openly displayed, whether it is the bones of a saint or the corpse of a beloved. It's almost a bit like Mexicans enjoy a certain amount of the macabre around them. Where else would you walk into a full scale art exhibition centering only on the topic of skulls?

A certain closeness with death is found even within the Mexican language. For example, graveyards are called "panteon", rather then "cemetario", hinting at a certain influence that the dead still have on the living.

Yet this refreshing, somewhat more healthy attitude towards death also spawns some pretty creepy outgrowths. One of them is the cult of Santa Muerte, a relatively recent religion centering around a skeletal woman clad in the robes of the holy virgin. Santa Muerte is a mixture of death goddess and universal protector and is mostly revered by people of dubious profession. The catholic church does not recognize Santa Muerte as an actual saint, yet the cult has an estimated two million followers and is growing.

Sonntag, 4. September 2011

The Travelogue, Part XXXII - USA: Conclusion


There's only one way to travel in the United States, and that is by car. Yes, you could theoretically use public transport, but that means you won't see much of what this country has to offer and what you'll be seeing is not the best end of it, either. Greyhounds and other transport tend to frequent only the most common routes, which means those economically important, not those visually or culturally interesting, and unless you only want to go from big city to big city they are only an occasional option. Most of the interesting bits lie far from the main routes, and if you want to see this country, you will have to get you own vehicle. This is also often true within cities, as American towns were constructed with cars in mind.

If you plan on traveling the USA the backpacker way, think twice. To the majority of Americans this mode of travel is an entirely alien concept and consequently there is virtually no infrastructure for independent travelers. Hostels exist only in big (or touristed) cities, and you'll find that they are either shabby or overpriced, very often both. In fact, getting a budget motel is often cheaper than a hostel and you are less likely to run into shady characters. Either way, the budget range is still around 40 $ a night, even for a dorm bunk bed (!) in popular cities, and you're not getting much for your money.
I reckon the best way to see the USA is by camper or even better, a car with a trailer, so you have independence from both public transport and expensive accommodation.

On the plus side, if you do have a car (rent it through a European site; often saves you about 50%!), America is very convenient. Almost everything you'll want to see has a well-paved road and a parking spot right in front of it, and driving here is literally a very straightforward affair. Be prepared to bring lots of caffeine though, as everyone drives along the totally straight roads on the exact same maximum speed which is the traffic equivalent of a lullaby. Also note that lack of proper driving lessons and a certain redneck attitude when on the road makes Americans some of the worst drivers on the planet. Road awareness seems to equal character weakness for many inhabitants, and you will need to make up for that with being extra careful.


In many countries American food is synonymous with junk: greasy, cheap and tasteless, and unfortunately that is not too far from the truth. The majority of American food, whatever nationality it might claim to stem from, is filling at best and revolting at its worst. It's usually lathered in fat and MSG, oversalted and the ingredients are poor, with the former probably being a product of the latter. Shopping in an American supermarket for good food is like trying to buy an Armani shirt at a Thai street market - the label might be the same, but the contents are very different indeed. Finding that the "Original Italian Parma Ham" is made in Wisconsin might amuse, the fact that it isn't actually cured and has "smoke flavour" added might befuddle, but that it contains only 30% meat should worry you. American companies manage to turn a simple product like Hummus (water, oil, chickpeas, spices) into a industrial cocktail of 27 different additions, among them emulsifiers, preservatives, colourings plus the ubiquitous corn starch. Even "health food" is laced with all sorts of dubious addtions that the lax American consumer laws allow.

But it's not all grim. Good food can be had, but it requires local knowledge and a well-fed wallet. Farmer's markets and food-conscious consumers are on the rise, but for now good food seemed like a white middle class hobby to me rather than a general ideal. In general I found that "American food" (Burgers, ribs, etc.) is the best taste for value, whereas all foreign food tended to be a lukewarm version of the original at twice the price, and mediocre even in expensive places. If you like good beer, however, do not despair. American microbreweries make some fine ale that is well worth drinking.
Food doesn't come cheap and you can expect to fork out around 20 $ a day (including tax and tips) on a backpacker's budget for food and drink. You can live off less, but then you'll likely be fat and slouchy at the end of your trip.


America's overarching social culture has both benefits and drawbacks for independent travelers. Where you come from matters little, and Americans are friendly, chatty and generally very helpful and happy to show you around. Except when they are unsure about your motivations or their surroundings, in which case they become excessively paranoid. You will find that in such cases, asking for the way will be met with suspicious glares or even increased pace and ignorance. Most of this paranoia is caused by America's media's incessant exaggeration of the various dangers in the country, and I cannot count the times I have been insistently warned of robbers, rapists and mountain lions, who always seem to be "in the vicinity" or "seen yesterday". Keep that in mind when trying to hitchhike.

As stated in the last post, Americans love to (or ought to) say 'yes' at all times, so don't assume any invitation to be serious and have a Plan B. In a very Japanese manner, social harmony is very important and sometimes the line between a good discussion and a unpleasant disagreement is very thin in America, where open disagreement is more often than not seen as a breach of social conduct rather than a healthy interchange of opinions. 

Private sphere and private property are very important concepts in American society, and you better don't infringe on either of them. Once you are allowed within either of them though, Americans are gracious hosts in my experience and will go out of their way to make you comfortable. Americans love to party, and in big towns fiesta is never far away. To avoid cultural irritation especially if you are female, accustom yourself to the Bump'n'Grind, America's national dance, also known as the Backrubber Tango.

Tourism Value

When I announced I was going to the States, many people asked me various version of the same notion: "Why? There is nothing to see." - "But, over there is like, you know, here." - "America? Why in the world would you want to go to that place?" For some reason there seems to be a sentiment that America is a place without much attractions, at least compared with more exotic places like Thailand or Brazil. Reality couldn't be further from the truth, and this leg of my trip has been one of the most impressive on my journey.

Another belief held dear by self-absorbed Europeans is that America is a country without culture or history. Well, if ancient cliff dwellings, Spanish and English colonial architecture, gold rush ghost towns and 300 years of human history of exploration, invention and entertainment aren't good enough for you, then Florence or Kyoto probably won't do it for you either. The American country has plenty of unique history to offer, and if you are willing to listen it will tell you your fair share of war and peace and human struggle, of alien gods and sunken cultures, and of heroes of renown. Many of this isn't necessarily marked (although mentioned) as a highlight in the big guide books, but well worth searching out.

In terms of contemporary culture, America has a lot to offer, too. I personally find that its appeal lies more in the various expressions of 'Americana' which scatter across town and countryside. If you stray from the (comparatively mediocre) standard fare of shows, entertainment centers and art galleries, America's contemporary culture is varied and diverse, sometimes bemusing and often openly hilarious. Where else would you find the largest ball of twine or the atomic testing museum? Where else could you tour an ethically aware porn studio or ride the world's largest rollercoaster?
Some of Americas museums, like the Denver Art Museum, are nothing short of excellent.

Yet America's most impressive sight is the country itself. From vast deserts and towering mountains to crystal-clear lakes and multi-coloured canyons, jaw-dropping scenery waits around every corner, sometimes within a mere hour's drive. Everything here is just bigger, wider and wilder than anywhere else on the planet, and America's nature has often left me speech- and breathless, as I looked around in disbelief. Even 'minor' sights, such as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, will leave you gaping in awe. Photographs cannot truly capture the sheer grandeur of this country, and I can only recommend you to just simply go and experience it for yourself.

On the downside, if there is something to see, then someone will charge you for it, and that is true even for state-run nature sights. If you have to fork out 25$ per person to see a giant hole in the ground that requires zero maintenance, then you know Uncle Sam needs your dinero pretty bad. 

Despite the expenses, the USA is a great travel destination. I cannot stress how utterly amazing the nature here is, and how it will leave you with inspiration and memories for weeks after. Many places, like Vegas or Silverton are worth visiting for their charming tackyness. As long as you're independent of public services America has great infrastructure for you to get around. Next time I come here, and I will come back, I'll come in some sort of mobile home, which saves time, money and energy. America suffers from an unjustified reputation as an unexotic and culturally uninteresting travel destination. Trust me, there is plenty of things to see here that you will blow you mind and tingle your spine. Yes, people over here don't know how to dress or drive, but you'll forgive them when they serve you another oversized 30% meat burger with coke - and a smile.