Monthly Archives: December 2007

A reflection on Christmas before the New Year

I talked to my mom on the phone today and like all of you that are reading this blog right now, she reads this blog. She said that she read Mike’s recent post about Christmas and wanted answers, she wanted to know what I said in response to his question, what is the meaning of Christmas. I don’t know if this question is interesting to people because it is actually interesting or because it is clearly undefined. First, I must make the disclaimer that I do not mean to say that I represent the general Christian consensus on this matter. In fact, on this trip, I realized that I could more easily pretend to be Jewish based on knowledge than I can pretend to be Christian. This has actually given me a bit of anxiety when we pass a church and people want to go in. I have felt twice on this trip like a fraud. If someone asked me even the simplest of questions about Christianity, I could not answer. I mean I can’t even formulate a hypothetical question here to not answer because I don’t know enough to not know.

But I do celebrate Christmas at home. And I try to celebrate in some way or another when I am abroad, even though I am with my Jewish boyfriend, which as you can imagine always brings up some discussions.

Having been away from home for 4 of the last 6 Christmases, I find that the simple answers to the question, what is the meaning of Christmas have sort of faded. I know what I miss. I miss my family and being inside and it being cold out and eating a big dinner with my extended family. It always sounds so fun when I talk to them and they are all hanging out getting ready to eat. I miss waking up on Christmas morning and having nowhere to be. We stay in and eat breakfast together and watch Die Hard or another holiday movie, like Die Hard 2. We don’t go out to the store or to a friends house or to work. We usually make a fire and sit there. So, from what I miss, I would say the spirit of Christmas is defined by being with your family when it is cold outside and warm inside.

But that sounds too simple. What about the spirit of giving and charity, which my mother so eloquently brought up when I didn’t really answer her on the phone either? Well, I did like getting presents for people, that is/was fun, but that is so fleeting. They open them and then it’s over. What about the spirit of charity? A lot of our friends do extra charity work around the holidays, but I can’t honestly say that being removed from the in your face charity ads in the states that I really even thought about it anymore than I usually do. Except when I was specifically trying to figure out what it was about Christmas that makes it Christmas. There aren’t a ton of people collecting money that I can see and it seems to be business as usual here. The shops are a little more crowded, but nothing too crazy. Thailand was the same. There was a night market and a tree, but nothing special, no extra charity there either. I think France had some of the red pots, but not being a native French speaker, I didn’t get all of it I’m sure.

The point is, I still don’t know. The reason Mike didn’t answer the question in the blog was that I didn’t answer it in real life and even after a long discussion with the other Christians on Christmas, it turned out to be just a discussion and no real answers. I am finding that it means something really different to everyone. I realize how much it means to Mike that he is not a part of it and how much it means to so many others that they are, but it is still just a huge blurry blob of feelings that really is nothing at all. It really makes me think about the power of tradition and I realize that that is the spirit of Christmas–tradition. It is whatever you have done for years and years.

Unfortunately for me, my traditions will never mesh with traveling. This year was close, I was with a fun family drinking and eating at home, but it was still 80 degrees and we cooked meat on the grill instead of turkey or ham and we sat outside until after dark. Similar, but not my tradition. Mike is lucky, his Christmas tradition is transience and solidarity, which are both easy to find while traveling. Now I guess, because I have to end every blog on a positive note, I am glad that I have spent enough Christmases away to know what I miss. It makes it easier to recreate those experiences and times at home on days that aren’t Christmas. Every year when I come home from traveling, we make the following day Christmas, we do the same things that we used to do on the actual day and spend the day as a family and it is great. I get to have the chance to see that it really doesn’t matter what day you do it on, you can always have those feelings. I get the chance to slow and see that you can spend the day with your family or volunteer at a food bank or have a fire and buy people presents on May 10th or Aug 8th, you could even have Christmas everyday. Although I am sure you would start to miss other things, like the good old 4th of July!

Tom presiding over the grill. Xmas 2007 in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Mike at the market. Xmas 2006 in Mae Hong Son, Thailand

Celebrating Xmas the right way with treats and liquor. Xmas 2006 in Mae Hong Son, Thailand.

In the phone booth with “Sizeo,” our xmas tree. Xmas 2005 in Paris.

Unsober on Xmas with Sizeo, Autsy and Rob. Xmas 2005 in Paris.

Mike with Russian. Xmas 2004 (Mike in Goa, India, Azure at home).

If Xmas is a feeling, we celebrated for 2 months with Kim and Adam at the Chateau in St. Julian L’Ars, France. 2002.

Yeah. St. Julian L’Ars, France 2002.



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Thailand stuff is up

Hey everyone, we uploaded emails from last year’s trip and added some pictures, and now they’re up on the blog. Look on the left side and you’ll see some posts from 2006 and early 2007 – those are updates from Southeast Asia. If you weren’t on the list because we didn’t know or like you at the time, now’s your chance to live it for the first time.


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The dog saga

I was walking down the street in Punta del Diablo one morning and passed a dog without giving it any notice. I suddenly felt him hop up on my leg a little in a way that was so amazingly clear, amazingly communicative, as if to say “Hey! It’s me! Remember?,” in the same way someone might tap you on the shoulder. I looked back and he was wagging, smiling and I did recognize him as the dog that had been hanging around our house, that we fed every-once-in-a-while. He’d lay under Azure’s chair while she was reading and outside our door when – probably – he was bored.


The day before I had gotten spooked by a guy I thought was following us in the town. Turns out he was just weird, we think, and not a threat, but it occurred to me I should feed the dog more often so he would become loyal, protective of us so that if something did happen with the guy or any other guy, he’d be there for us.

It makes sense that it’s an agreement, an exchange, a relationship. We’re used to money-based exchanges so I didn’t register this as a non-monetary exchange because one party appeared to be begging for food. But when I looked at him that morning he didn’t have the ashamed, deferent look of someone who takes whatever he can get without giving back – he looked like someone I’d established a relationship with, a business partner with whom I’d dealt honestly. It was not begging, it was a trade, and he’d already been keeping his end of the bargain. I just hadn’t realized it.

On guard.

I indicated that I remembered him and he should follow me on my walk – I was going to take pictures at our rock – so he came along and hung out for a while. He followed me back to our house and laid down on the patio (never crossing in) while I ate breakfast. At the end of breakfast I enforced the exchange by grabbing the prior night’s leftovers and put them outside for him.

The exchange was our food – which we recognize as a commodity and vaguely as currency – for his time and protection. Not all animals can protect but every single animal has time. It’s the one resource every being is given equally and will continue to have throughout its life. We’ve traded away our share for other commodities, and we work hard in life so someday we might be rich enough to have it again.

Over the next few days the dog would show up on the porch at dinner time or we’d see him in town and he’d hang out with us for a while. There was one day of drama when another dog – one that looked like Lassie – was curious about us and our dog was really standoffish. The Lassie dog made friends with our dog, but I didn’t want any part of the new relationship (not much different than I am with humans) because I wanted to show our dog that I was loyal to him.

The drama!

It only makes sense in developing any kind of relationship with any animal that time-given will be a major component of it. It’s a gift, the only gift that we recognize as a commodity that can actually be given by someone with no material possessions.

We never got to say goodbye to that dog, but we’re pretty sure he’ll be ok without us. It’s a tourist town and the dogs are probably just as used to the 1-week relationships as the grocers are, and are probably just as hardened by it. Mid-way through the week we saw him hanging out at another little house, getting scraps from another couple. I wonder how many of those relationships he’s developed.

That’s him on the morning he hopped on me. He thought he was majestic.

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Something to look at

Punta del Diablo moonshine

I learned a lot about using our camera in Uruguay and this is one of my favorite pictures – a 15-second exposure of the ocean at night (this was late, no sunlight in this picture). It’s too grainy, and I think that’s an ISO issue… still learning, but I like it anyway.

That night the land actually looked like the edge of a sphere – a rock rolling in space – and the horizons were thresholds instead of limits.

The first time I got on an international flight alone I saw all these people (especially in business class) who seemed, somehow, to be participating in the most broad sphere of human communication… the bankers who regularly go from Singapore to London to Bombay and watch CNN and read the Herald Tribune in the top floors of nice hotels… international people’s chatter. I remember admiring them because they traveled these enormous distances as if it were nothing special, I remember wanting to be like them. I, in fact, made a goal that by the time I was 30, I wanted to be traveling internationally like it was no big deal, a weekend trip.

But I can see what a curse that would be, to not be in awe of something special. When I looked at the horizon that night in Uruguay, I felt like I could see the broadest sphere of communication, and CNN was not involved.

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Email 4: Back in Buenos Aires


On Monday Azure and I woke up from a siesta at about 7pm, stomachs still full of meat, we were slow and aching.  We were in this quaint but plain room on the second floor of a hotel in Buenos Aires, and the traffic outside the room had died while we napped – cabbies and bus drivers headed home for Xmas Eve. 

Though we knew it would only be a salad, probably a side salad at that, and probably split between the two of us, we stepped onto the street looking for something to eat because if we'd stayed in the room we would have felt like crap the entire night.  Buenos Aires feels a lot like Paris when you're on the street – small trees line the sidewalk, the sidewalk is made of tiles which are often loose, there's a good amount of dog poop on the loose tiles and in the morning all the shop keepers and doormen wash down the sidewalk with hoses.  The buildings themselves alternate between tasteful old and tasteful new, the old ones looking a lot like the common, gorgeous buildings that make Paris Paris. 

San Telmo

There weren't many people out that night, but across the street we could see a church service just getting out.  We crossed so we could walk through the crowd.  People were dressed nice, in white, they smelled good.  I saw a priest kiss a baby on the forehead as the mom carried him out of the church (the baby, not the priest).  The next doorway was the chapel and I ducked in – nothing special, really… pews and a bunch of idols.  But the chapel was attached to the courtyard where the service was held, and when I hopped a little barrier to go in there I was really struck.  The courtyard was immense, but the buildings were very high, so it felt like you were in a coffee cup looking up at the sky.  It was such a different atmosphere than other churches I've been in, having an open roof seemed fitting. 

Outside, walking alone now, I asked Azure what Christmas is actually about.  I mean, we know it's the birth of Jesus (though the date was changed for political reasons), but what is it supposed to make you think of?  To become?  I grew up not celebrating Xmas but you'd think I'd be inculcated with its message by now.  In Judaism, we have a holiday where you reflect on the past year and make amends, we have a related one where you think about the future.  There's another where we recommit to understanding what our freedom means, what it cost our ancestors.

On the street we passed a couple little kiosks (one-aisle minimarts) that had tables set outside and people sitting at them, which was unusual.  I don't know if I'm right, but I assume the people were the wives & kids of the employees, wanting to have Christmas Eve together despite the husband having to work.  The families were eating what looked to be pretty full dinners, right there at an improvised sidewalk cafe.  We were about 4 blocks from the main avenue, walking East toward it.  The food smelled good – it looked like a side of pork and a bunch of really red tomatoes with olive oil on them or something.

I asked about the meaning of Christmas because I wanted to write this email to you all, and I can't just pretend the holiday isn't happening when it clearly is, for most of the people I know.  I figured that if I wasn't going to write about Christmas itself, I could write about its theme obliquely, so that I was referring to it without actually acknowledging it.  That might work if I knew what it was about.

Azure wasn't feeling well.  We had reached the main avenue – Santa Fe – and the meat still wasn't sitting right (and, writing this 2 days later, it's still not sitting right with her).  So she made her way back to the room and I continued down Santa Fe looking for a diner or something.  The street was eerie – so wide, I think it's about 7 or 8 lanes each direction, and in a city with 20 million people there wasn't anyone out.  It reminded me of our annual "once-in-a-century" storms in Seattle, and how everyone makes a run on duct tape and water before barricading themselves inside and you can just feel the anticipation in the air, even if you're alone outside. 

Walking down Santa Fe, I spotted a corner diner that looked like it was still open and I went to the doors – yep, open.  I was a little nervous about walking in, getting a table for one and getting the sympathetic looks of, "Awww… he's alone on Christmas Eve.  I wonder what horrible things he's done to deserve this."  But I walked in and it was all tables for one.  Every one.  There were probably a dozen people there, and they were all single men around 40 years old, sitting alone watching men's gymnastics on TV.  Good crowd.  I ordered from the waiter an orange juice and a side salad.  They came and they were awful.  A kid walked in and went to a table to beg.  The waiter, I expected him to come up and shoo the boy out, but he put his arm around the kid and led him back to the kitchen where I assume he was fed.

Growing up, while everyone was with their families on Christmas Eve I'd go for these long walks around the neighborhood, up to Somerset Elementary, into the forest and down the streets.  I'd see families celebrating in their houses with the orange light and the streets were so quiet and I could see my breath.   I didn't feel left out at all.  I felt that for one night I had the entire world completely to myself, within and among my own (geographic) community as it faced inward, that everyone for one night forgot about the clouds & moon & trees.  That feeling – of being oil among water or the other way around – defines travel and also defines my experience on Xmas in Bellevue.  I still resist celebrating it even though I know Azure's family doesn't celebrate religiously.  I just don't want to lose the separateness.

I grabbed some rolls as I left the restaurant to give away as I walked home in case I saw someone who wanted them.  Still on the main street, I walked past a group of street kids and made eye contact with one of them.  I passed them, and as I crossed the street I looked back to see someone trotting after me.  One of the girls in the group came up and put her hand out.  I offered her a roll and she shook me off.  "Cambio?"  She wanted money.  I didn't give her any even though I had some loose change in my pocket.

Up the street now to the hotel, and there were a group of homeless men in an entry way.  I made eye contact with one of them and he smiled or nodded at me, so I offered him the rolls.  He took them and thanked me.

Last week I took this picture in Punta del Diablo.  It was a picture of a candle-lit restaurant at night, from the outside, with the moon overhead.  You can see people are together and warm inside, there might be music, there's definitely wine and good conversation.  If you look close enough, you can probably smell the food and perfume, you can probably hear the laughter.  But you can also see that there's action going on between the clouds & moon above, and there are dark corners on the ground as well.  The night is pleasant, beautiful and dramatic and it's interesting – enlightening – to be outside.

Much Love,  Happy Holidays,

Mike & Azure

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Seize the Cow!

The other night we went to dinner at a place in BA called Siga la Vaca.  You pay 40 pesos (13.3333333 dollars) and in return you get a full bottle of wine (for each person!), a pretty good salad bar and all you can eat meat from the grill.

At this point I should clarify something: I am not lying. 

The enormous grill has fillets mignons, tenderloin, ribs, intestines, chicken breast & pig parts… we by no means exhausted our options and when we go back I'd like to figure out what else is there.  Spotted owl?  Maybe.

People often ask how we can travel to all these places we don't speak the language.  If you were walking up to a grill and you wanted pork ribs or a medium-rare beef steak, how would you communicate that?

Azure, Taeko, Tally, Cow, Maya, Tom, Mike

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Email 3: Punta del Diablo

Relaxing with dog.

Hola Everyone!

To make several long stories short, we´re in a place called Punta del Diablo renting a little white house that´s directly across a dirt road from the ocean. The house has a bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen, and the kitchen table is under the window that faces the sea. The wind is constant, there´s nowhere in the town you can´t hear the waves. Diablo is a very small fishing village on the coast of Uruguay, about 1 hour from the Brazillian border. There are a few dirt roads and lots of beach, rocks, dogs, fishing boats etc. Apparently after xmas is the high season and the town fills up with tourists, and we´ve been here for all the time leading up to it where the townspeople repair rooves, spruce up their houses for rentals, etc. They don´t take care of the dogs, the dogs just run about, I´m pretty sure.

Yesterday I woke up with the sunrise and walked through the town as it woke up itself. The fishermen were already up and having their mate (mah-tay, the ubiquitous tea) before they´d all push their boats down the beach and out to sea. I walked past them all, past the main street and out onto the point after which the town is named… there´s an abandoned building out there that appears to have been a restaurant, so I went in and took a bunch of pictures of the destruction.

“Stop objectifying me.”

Wood, metal and glass in the abandoned building.

We spent the day walking around the coast, sitting on the beach or reading, whatever. There was a siesta in there somewhere. It´s always quiet.

At about 4pm we got up and I went to find our fish guy while Az stayed at the house and read under the awning. I bought some shrimp that was literally just hauled in from the water. I also bought some veggies – onions, peppers, carrots, garlic, sweet potatoes. When I got back home, Azure read at the kitchen table while I shelled the shrimp (for the record, she´s a fine shrimp prepper when she´s not engrossed in a romance novel) and we got the veggies ready, then we put it all in the fridge and walked the 5 minutes out to ¨our rock.¨

They tasted better than they looked. The shrimp, that is. My fingers tasted awful.

Some veggies.

Our rock is this boulder that has a ridge in it that´s perfect as a bench, a perch above the waves, pinning us against the ocean and sky. We sat there for maybe an hour and a half with the sun beginning to set to the northwest, kinda behind us as we faced Antarctica/South Africa, we sat and talked and didn´t talk, we snacked on foccacia bread, we watched the whole time the waves bashing the rocks, on a stage right in front of us, a show like fireworks, each wave different. I always get this feeling that I need to capture and catalog the beauty in a photo or something, like each wave is unique and significant somehow, and it shouldn´t be forgotten. But then I did the calculation and it turns out that over the last 10,000,000 years, 2 trillion waves have crashed at that spot, give or take. I´ll bet a lot of those have been forgotten. Once again, as with the gorgeous valleys we saw on the motorcycle loop in Thailand´s mountains, I just have to let it be and enjoy it when it´s happening.

Our rock, from the top.

There were two fishermen to our left, they use bamboo poles and instead of bait at the end of the line there´s a weight. The hook and bait are about three inches up from there on a separate line tied to the main line. While we were watching one guy got a fish on, set the hook, then lost his whole rig when the fish fought around a rock.

From our perch, we could see miles down the beach to the southwest and another half mile up the coast to the point. I could sit there forever, I swear.

The view to the Southwest.

Anyway, at sunset we walked back to our little casa and threw the shrimp in with the veggies, black beans and rice and covered the whole thing with this sauce called ChimiChurri which I can only pray they have back in the States. They probably do, they have everything back home. Az made the sweet potatoes into an amazing fried thing with more ChimiChurri and we poured some wine and had our dinner with candles. It was followed by chocolate, of course.

Finished product.

We´ve lived this day each day for a week now, and I don´t know why we´d ever leave, but we are leaving, tomorrow, going back to Buenos Aires. BA is sensational in a totally different way, and we´re excited to be there as well.

I would have sent this email sooner except Diablo´s internet was out since we got here. Some technological notes: since last year traveling some things have changed. In the hostels & internet cafes, EVERYONE (EVERYONE) has accounts on Facebook and Gmail. Those two things have taken over completely. Any traveler we meet we can be sure will stay in touch via Facebook, it´s amazing. Technology note #2 is that last year this email would have been lost if I´d been using AOL – the computer died in the middle of writing this and if it weren´t for Gmail auto-saving every few seconds, you would have gotten a two-sentence email: ¨It´s nice here. Hope all´s well at home.¨

Make sure you check out our blogs, as there´s other stuff there that I haven´t been emailing, including instructions on what to do with my remains, in case you happen to be the lucky one who deals with them. Azure also wrote a long, detailed post about all the coincidences (the long stories) that lead to us finding our little casa here in Diablo.

As always, send news of your lives and related gossip, it makes the world go round…

It´s nice here, hope all´s well at home,

Mike (& Azure)

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