Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Forgotten Ones: Imperial County, CA

As the first few weeks of my trip come to a close, I'm getting more and more into the swing of my trip.  Most of the details have been planned for now, and my attention can shift from preparing, to experiencing.

This post is about my first photographic expedition since beginning my sabbatical.  While visiting a friend in Southern Cali, we decided we wanted an adventure, considering the likes of Sequoia, Joshua Tree, or Disneyland...  Inspired by my mother's creative cross-country trip with my brother and I as youngsters, we decided we'd heir on the side of something more unconventional and off the beaten path.  We ended up choosing to explore Imperial County, which had lots of unusual and interesting sights.  We read just enough to peak our interest, booked a hotel, packed, and left early Saturday morning for an action-packed weekend.

Salton Sea
Our first stop was a large lake, which had over time suffered from the insurgence of saline from the ocean, chemical run off from nearby agriculture, and irregular flooding from poor watershed.  The lake is rumored to be poisonous, killing off fish and water fowl.  Our imaginations ran away with us over the 2 1/2 hour drive, imagining sludge, slime, and death.  When we arrived, to our surprise, the lake was a state park, complete with picnic areas, beach, and kayak rentals.  We went into the visitor center, asking for the real scoop on the water quality.  The park ranger assured us this is merely a rumor, and that in fact the only problem is the salinity of the water, which increases seasonally, reaching toxic levels for the resident freshwater fish at regular intervals.  We were strangely disappointed, having expected to find something more dramatic.  "So, what is there to see around here?  Is there anything interesting to photograph?" I asked.  "Well, there are the dead fish," responded the ranger.  Apparently even though the lake is "perfectly safe," the banks are littered with dead fish.  Of course we had to investigate this ourselves.  As we explored, it was hard to decide which story seemed more plausible...  What do you think?

Bombay Beach
Just down the shore from the visitor center, right on the Salton Sea, is a town called Bombay Beach.  It was built in the 60's as a resort town with high hopes.  Due to the water quality issues and regular floods, the town was abandoned, leaving behind a few, determined residents (hovering just over 300 people).  The early infrastructure has degraded over time, now merely shells of their former glory.  Though quite sobering, it was a photographer's paradise.  It was easy to imagine how it might once have looked, and how harsh the return to reality must have been once the dream was crushed.  It makes you wonder what we are optimistic abut now that might collapse in 50 years….

Salvation Mountain
As you  continue around the eastern shore of the Salton Sea, you will find a truly unusual sight.  Salvation Mountain is one man's act of devotion to God.  He has created a beautiful, brightly-colored clay mountain, surrounded by trucks, boats, caves, and other sculptural elements, all painted with scripture, quotes, and words of faith and love.  As remarkable as this sight was, I have to admit that having spent all day driving around in the painfully hot desert, I was a bit fried by this point in the afternoon.  Had I been more refreshed and had we had more time, I would have enjoyed exploring more and being more creative with my photography, but these pictures give you an idea of the place.  Certainly very worth a stop if you're ever in the area.

Slab City
Continuing further down the same road is another alternative community.  Slab City is named for the concrete slabs that were once the foundations of military buildings in a now abandoned fort.  Left empty, the land has now been claimed by residents.  There is no infrastructure: no water, sewer or electricity, but there are hundreds on encampments set up.  They are determined to live, rent free, off the grid, and in their own way, developing a tight community in the mean time.  Some people have built ramshackle structures from found materials (wooden pallets are a favorite), others use rv's, still others set up tents, or generally create their own unconventional home.  While I found this excursion very interesting, I took very few pictures.  As these are people's current homes, it felt invasive and patronizing to photograph in this manner.  The following are the only 2 pictures I took, as they were clearly sights, and not just a home.

East Jesus
The last stop of our day was East Jesus, a folk art community within the bounds of slab city.  They use largely found or reclaimed materials to create thought-provoking sculptures.  I felt very pedestrian walking among such creativity.  This is another place I would have loved to spend more time, exploring small details and finding beautiful pictures, but sadly the intense sun and heat forced us to make this a quicker visit.  Despite the brevity, it was definitely a favorite of the day.

By now, our full day was coming to an end.  We were exhausted, dusty, and parched, so we opted to head to our hotel for the night.  It was a fantastic day of unusual sights and thought-provoking experiences.  It forced me to question a lot of things, namely:  What are the creature comforts that I really need and what can I do without?  What am I holding onto needlessly?  How do I walk through the world in my own distinct way?  How can we each share our voice and contribute to the larger rhetoric within society?  In what ways do we need to conform, and where is it better to forge your own path?....

I always feel inspired after being among those who walk the world in their own way.  It takes such inspiration, resourcefulness, conviction and determination to continue in the face of adversity, and I am thankful for the chance to think about things in a different way.  Maybe you'll take a trip to this neck of the woods?  If so, bring good walking shoes, all of your meals, and lots of water!

Thursday, August 4, 2016

What's Your Itinerary?

The worst is over.  I did all the unpleasant trip preparation.  I successfully moved out of my classroom, cleaned and rented my condo, and handled nearly all of the tiny details associated with this trip.  l am gearing up for my year away.   As I speak with people about my trip, the reactions have been interesting, and there have been trends.  The most common things I have heard are:
  1.  Aren't you just so excited?
  2. What is your itinerary?
Now, donn't get me wrong, these are perfectly reasonable questions to ask.  In fact, I think I've probably asked them myself before of others.  What I see now, being on the receiving end, is that I can't seem to deliver the neat-and-tidy answers that the askers seek!

With the first question:  Aren't you just so excited?  They're looking for me to gush about how lucky I am, all the amazing things I'm going to see and do, and they never seem quite prepared for my real answer:  "At the moment, I'm more nervous than excited."  Perhaps that's due to the nature of my trip, first ping-ponging between friends in the US before leaving the country in September, delaying the sense of "departure".  Or perhaps it's because there have been countless details to coordinate:  insurance, health care coverage, flights, accommodation, visas, packing, not to mention being prepared for both a wedding and Burning Man before I leave!  Or maybe, just maybe, it's me.  I don't tend to see things in simplified form.  Rather, I look upon my trip with a mix of emotions:  excitement, nervousness, sadness, fear, thankfulness, and task-orientedness (making up new words to suit).  No big endeavor like this, a year away from loved ones, can be simplified to one feeling.  Now, having said this, I want to be sure I've said that I know that I am incredibly fortunate.   I have one-year to get away from it all, and do whatever I want (until my life savings run out).  It took a lot of hard work, frugal living, and sacrifice, but I know how lucky I am.

Now the second question has been the real stumper:  What is your itinerary?  People are never prepared for how I answer this: "I don't have one."  It is almost always followed up with: "No, I mean, where are you going to go?"  As if I somehow hadn't understood their question.  This is usually followed but a slight chuckle from me, as I realize I just can't give them the information they want.  Most US travelers, are used to short trips.  They buy their flight and hotel package, arrange for the rental car, probably even pre-book a tour.  I get it.  On short trips, you don't want to spend any of your time away negotiating the details.  For me, planning that out ahead of time would feel like suffocation.  Any trip 2 weeks or longer, for me, is subject to the "no-plan" plan.  I book my flight, maybe the first night's accommodation....  and that's it!

For most people, when I explain this, there is a certain amount of short-circuiting that happens, faces struck with some degree of panic.  It seems my style of travel isn't for everyone.  The way I explain it to people is this:  teaching is a very regimented way of life.  Everything is routines, planning, organization, preparation, structure.  These things make me an effective teacher, but they slowly kill my inner artist.  Travel is my antidote: going with the flow, being spontaneous, and just seeing where life takes me.  The common misconception for people, is that having a fluid travel plan somehow means I am naive, like I don't realize what might be out there.  To my mind, it's quite the opposite.  I'm a very well-prepared traveler.  I have a standard packing list to cover all my bases, I read the Lonely Planet guides, read the state department's travel and health warnings, I learn some of the language before I go, and once there, I'm careful.  I've been to 24 countries, having spent probably close to 2 cumulative years abroad without incident.  

I believe it's possible to go-with-the-flow, and still be prepared.  I have a rough idea of where I want to go (and where I'll avoid), but for me, the beauty of travel is being in the moment.  I let the journey unfold as I go, rather than ticking things off a to-do list and rushing around stuck to a schedule.  I have traveled this way for short trips, but for long ones it's just not for me.  I prefer to slow down.  I try to hook into the local pulse, speak to as many locals as I can, get local suggestions on where to go and how to get there, and generally just try to be.  I hate rushing when I travel.  So for this trip, it is important for me that I don't have an itinerary.  I will keep in mind the things that I really want to do, but will let things unfold as I go, letting local recommendations, ideas from fellow travelers and spontaneous opportunities guide my trip.

So now, I find myself at the beginnings of my journey.  I have a year, my first flights, and some semblance of a plan for the next month, and after that?  Who knows!  All I know is that the journey will begin in Lima, Peru, on September 13th.

My mom, ever the editor, pointed out that my earlier draft of this post seemed very judgmental of itinerized travel.  That was not my intention.  Rather, my point is there is a time and place for that style.  In fact, I was remembering a very specific experience I had when I wrote that, and I'll share it with you here.  

I had just finished my travel in Fiji.  I was sun-kissed, awe-inspired, and relaxed after 3 weeks among Fijians, some of the most genuinely nice and friendly people I've had the pleasure of spending time with.  I checked in to a nice little hostel in the capital of Nadi to get ready to fly home.  I was settling in, looking through my bag, when my roommate came in, and we started chatting.  He was an Italian, taking a few months to travel around to a laundry list of countries.  He explained he had just arrived to spend 4 days in Fiji before he was flying somewhere else.  Our whole conversation was wrapped in a very frenetic energy.  Everything he did was fast, unpacking, talking, he was almost jittery!  His whole aura was in such contrast to what I loved about Fiji: a relaxed, warm, chill, welcoming vibe.  It made me sad to think that he was going so fast that he was going to miss out on getting to know that pace.  I know he is an extreme case and not how all itinerized travel is, but it is my experience with him that makes me even more committed to my schedule-less travel.  It probably doesn't work for everyone, but it works for me.