Brownsville: Another Misunderstood Texan Border Town

The state of Texas is known around the world for its cowboy culture, barbeques and country music -- but what happens along the Southern border areas? Does proximity to Mexico make it any different? A little over 180 years ago, Texas lived as an independent entity for a short-lived nine years. After this buzz-filled independence period, it became a part of the US in 1845. And the 15 years prior to that, it was officially a part of Mexico. Texas, like any other state in the continent of America (North and South America) has a pretty long history that we may on occasion see little of today in comparison to continents like Europe and Asia. It is the main reason why North America is often described by foreigners as “the new world.” But in reality, the continent has just as much history as any other place. Imagine the wonderful and warm land of what is known today as California or Baja California in Mexico being completely empty? Highly unlikely. That land has been used for a while now.Although the state of Texas has some historical similarities to its neighboring states of New Mexico and Louisiana, it also contrasts as a state that separated two modern countries during their foundation period, and still does today. But what is visible through its vast land, is only able to tell a few stories from dispersed time periods, and finding those areas which showcase these multiple stories is a tricky endeavor for the Texas traveler. Think of it this way: Texas was painted on multiple occasions, but not evenly, and what we see today is a canvas of a variety of colorful patches. The city of Brownsville, which is part of a region called the Rio Grande Valley (in short, “the Valley or El Valle” like the one in L.A.) is a town sharing a border with the Mexican city of Matamoros. Currently, its community is comprised of over 93% Hispanics, like most of the Rio Grande Valley. Its biggest traditions are the Charro Days Festival and the Latin Jazz Festival. These festivals are held dear to every Brownsville resident’s heart. The first represents the bicultural blend in the region, celebrated by both Brownsville and Matamoros in synchrony, through colorful performances, a parade across downtown, traditional food and music. The second, is a day filled with music and jazzy tunes stemming from Afro-Cuban jazz. It will make you wonder how much jazz has shaped not only American but also Mexican music.Food wise-- there are on average 200 Mexican restaurants in Brownsville, compared to the 600 in Austin and 1200 in San Antonio. Per their current population, that means: there’s one Mexican restaurant for every 900 people in Brownsville vs. one for every 1,580 people in Austin and one for every 1,250 people in San Antonio. So if you came to Austin for tacos, don’t forget to stop by the Rio Grande Valley. Lots more to choose from! The language in Brownsville is also built around the bicultural saucy blend. Most people speak what is commonly known as “Spanglish,” a balanced use of Spanish and English colloquial words within a few sentences. This is not to be confused with speaking Spanish and English so as to convey separate ideas. Actually, the Valley residents use Spanglish to convey one single idea, just like any other monolingual does with their specific language. The landscape in Brownsville is quite dreamy. It’s abundant in palm trees, which are scattered all throughout the southern region of Texas. This flora was not purposely planted and is endemic to the region, unlike other cities known for their beachy environment like Los Angeles and Doha.The municipal government has made it a mission to propagate the city’s descriptive slogan “On the Border, By The Sea” in order to fully encapsulate the city’s fabric. The slogan is quite accurate. It stands along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, with the downtown area only 28 miles away from the popular Spring Break beach of South Padre Island. The climate in Brownsville is warm and very hot in the summers, which is why it’s proven to be a destination for retired communities from colder northern regions in the US (locally referred to as the “Winter Texans,” makes sense doesn’t it?) The city’s border is as controversial locally as it is around the world today, especially after Trump’s use of the border as a rhetoric tool during his campaign and after, since 2015. In Brownsville, some people rarely cross the border while others do it every day. The same applies for Matamoros. Crossing from the US to Mexico is a quick drive, while the opposite can take a few hours depending on the day. The truth is, that a large percentage of both communities across the border have been exchanging services and goods for centuries, and have historically resided on one side or the other after the split of Texas from Mexico.Those who never cross, see them as entirely different entities, but those who have a blue passport (the American one), can easily cross every day. One of those people is me. What’s not to love about enjoying the vast Texan fields and the mountainous northern region of Mexico, all in one day? After all, it’s all just one big blend.


Siberia: Home to the Largest Freshwater Lake in the World

If you’re a fan of large bodies of water that are encompassing like the ocean yet very still and silent, then I recommend you visit this phenomenal place. It will make you feel an interesting contradiction of emotions, such as the notion of being compelled and very much at peace. Siberia is a province that extends along a large portion of Central and Eastern Russia. It is administered as part of the Russian Federation and made up of three geographical regions: Western Siberia, Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. It accounts for 77% of the country’s surface area. Vast regions of the province are uninhabited and most of its population is concentrated within large cities. But aside from its geographical constitution, what makes this region in Russia so unique that it is often referred to as its own entity?For years, I heard many stories about this vast and extremely cold land, and was curious to explore its unique cultural diversity. Before visiting the region, it was encrusted in my mind that it was made up of a radical blend of ethnicities. It seemed that Siberia was a large enough region and so prominent in character that it was often referenced to uniquely by its name rather than in the context of a Russian province. A few things I quickly learned while there was that it’s actually not cold at all during the summer. The average temperature in June is 59 degrees F. The population is conformed of 90% Ukranians and Belorussians, and the remaining 10% percent of native/indigenous Siberians. Russia recognizes 40 different indigenous communities living in in the region. These remote cultures were the image in my head when thinking of Siberia. Ever heard of the Australian photographer Alexander Khimushin? I recommend viewing his photographs of the indigenous Siberian communities for his project The World in Faces. They will leave you in awe.However, on this occasion, my voyage to Siberia concentrated on only one small part of the province: the city of Irkutsk. The reason for landing there was to take the Trans-Siberian Railway across parts of Russia, Mongolia and China (have I mentioned I’m a big fan of geographical and cultural transitions?) Irkutsk has one international and domestic airport, and arriving there from Moscow is quite the experience, since it means you’re basically traversing an entire continent. To paint a picture-- there’s a five hour time difference between Moscow and Irkutsk! Visting Lake Baikal from Irkutsk is quite easy, with available minivans leaving the city every few hours. One thing to note is the language barrier. Unless you’re fluent in Russian, navigating the road signs and directions can prove quite challenging. However, the local community was very attentive and kind to help. My host gave me instructions on how to find the bus that led to the town of Listvyanka, which is where most Irkutsk locals and tourists go to spend the day at the lake.I probably missed a couple of buses before actually getting on, since it seemed that no one was actually waiting, but little did I know I was simply misreading the signs, literally. The ride was about 30 minutes long, and stopped periodically along the road to pick up pedestrians. I rode at the front, in between the conductor and another passenger. It’s a pretty informal ride, which is my favorite cup of tea. Think of an Uberpool ride but with a much larger and unfamiliar group of people. Visiting Lake Baikal in late June meant that even though it was the summer, the water was still freezing cold. I wasn’t able to do more than dip my toes to get across to a floating pier. I felt as though my little toes would fall off. People around me however, were enjoying parties on small boats and sitting on plastic chairs placed firmly against the rocks at the shore, and children splashing around in the lake. The environment was lively. It’s important to note that Listvyanka is pretty much the entrance and beginning of Lake Baikal, which then continues to expand towards the northeastern part of Siberia. It extends up to 395 miles, which is eight times larger than Lake Michigan in the US and over three times larger than Lake Titicaca on the border of Bolivia and Peru (the biggest lakes in the continent of America).“Its presence is electrifying”What I was most compelled by when coming into contact with Lake Baikal was the feeling of being in front of the ocean, with no end in sight. It’s hard to say whether what makes an ocean so powerful is its majestic size or the sound of its crashing waves. In the case of Lake Baikal however, there weren’t any waves, nothing but a light splashing. There are no seagulls or seashells. There are mostly rocks, pebbles and sand. The water is clear, but not blue at all, just very transparent. Yet one thing that differentiates it from every other lake-- it’s massive. So much tranquility makes you feel like something is about to happen, and when it doesn’t, it brings you to a place of complete peace. Its presence is electrifying. Another thing to fully take advantage of is the fish and fruit markets. They extend along the main piers where most people gather. You can’t miss it. The market is packed with grilled fish, dried salmon, trout and fresh blueberries. My favorite part of all: eating an entire fish straight out of a plastic bag, and being able to fully hear myself chew on it while contemplating what seemingly appears to be a never-ending lake.


Why Mongolia Is Ahead of the Ecotourism Game

If your reason for travel is specifically tied to the concept of conserving the environment, then selecting your destination in terms of local ecotourism is a must. Find out why Mongolia is a country paving the way in this effort. The landscape of Mongolia is so ever-changing and abundant with grasslands, mountains and deserts over the span of just a few kilometers, that it brings to mind: where am I really? Landlocked between Russia and China, the country is home to a little over three million people, out of which approximately 27% live in nomadic conditions. Even teenagers embrace this lifestyle. So if you’re wondering— what makes this a country where ecotourism is possible? Read below. It’s one of the least dense countries in the world. Ecotourism has been defined by the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as ‘tourism in which the main motivation is the observation of nature, and is generally organized by small and locally owned businesses.’ Mongolia is made up of 28 cities, and its capital of Ulaanbaatar concentrates half of the country’s population, which explains why it’s considered one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. To put things into perspective, there are five people per square mile in Mongolia compared to the 92 residents per square mile in the US. Yes, that’s quite the difference.The second and third largest cities in the country were founded in the late 70s and 80s, which led to a radical urban population growth that went from 27% of the population inhabiting cities in 1955 to 73% today. Aside from these highly dense cities, the country is mostly made up of vast and ample grasslands, also known as steppes. The result: miles and miles of untouched land. With this in mind— you can almost guarantee coming into contact with some kind of nature related activity, ranging from horse riding, horse watching (a truly beautiful experience), sleeping in a yurt in the middle of a grassland or desert, to camel riding, climbing, and fishing. Additionally, the local communities have most control over the tourism industry, with even nomadic families welcoming tourists to their very own homes. Its wildlife is diverse and free. Travelers generally think of South African safaris when it comes to interacting with wildlife in its natural habitat, but Mongolia is actually an exemplary country in this area as well. Mongolia is home to a wide variety of wildlife, with a unique fauna and flora where most of the species are endemic to the region. During my visit, I was able to see eagles, camels, and many horses roaming free along the grasslands. A truly unbelievable sight. There is something very unique about seeing a herd of horses running free.It heavily relies on trains and buses for domestic transportation. As most of us know, cars, trains, trucks and planes can use a hefty amount of fuel. So if you’re trying to reduce your carbon footprint, then the best method to travel domestically is using the bus or train over planes. Luckily, the country offers a reliable rail system called the Trans-Mongolian Railway which connects with the Trans-Siberian Railway, which offers routes to Russia and China. Taking the train is a particularly convenient option over the bus, since the there are relatively few paved roads. As far as planes-- Mongolia has limited international air access, with only one international airport located in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Not surprisingly, these limited transportation methods are also affecting the country’s tourism development with the largest tourist group coming from China, which is directly connected through the rail system. Other factors responsible for a lower tourism influx are the harsh and long winter periods. The advantage? Today is a good time to explore Mongolia in its raw nature. Note that the relatively higher-peak tourism periods are in June, July, and August.It’s a historically nomadic culture. Whether it has intentionally done so or not, Mongolia’s long-standing nomadic practices are the reason why the country stands as a leader in modern sustainability practices. Living in a yurt or ger as is locally referred, means sharing resources. Generally, entire extended families live in a plot of land and move from one location to another based on weather conditions (e.g. setting up a yurt camp in the lower plains during the winter, and higher plains during the summer). The yurt camp that I stayed in with my mother and sister was made up of 6 large yurts and one outhouse (a pit latrine outdoor style bathroom, with a hole in the ground). The family that so kindly hosted us cooked meals in one large pot, such as stews and dumplings, and was shared amongst the whole family. Water was extracted from a few groundwater pumps. And the coolest thing of all-- the yurts are designed in such a way as to insulate the heat or cold, with its cylinder shape and pointed top allowing for an ideal flow of cool air during the summer. Historically, two events had an impact on why the nomadic lifestyle still prevails in Mongolia: the 1911 independence from Chinese rule breaking ties from Chinese agrarianism, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 which brought Mongolia to a market-based economy, putting the livestock under the hands of private ownership rather than the state.Our tour guide Ari Sune, a recent college graduate who speaks fluently in English described the engrained nomadic culture like this “Yes, in Mongolia we all accept the nomadic culture. I have friends who were born living like this, and it’s quite normal. It’s meant for the young and the old.”


What I learned about Buddhism in Yangon

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A Real Taxi Adventure in Ulaanbaatar Mongolia

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How Myanmar’s Open Borders Bedazzled Me

Borders around the world are varied and compelling by nature. They are a man-made delineation that intend to mark a distinction, and Myanmar is no exception to this historic tradition. It is a country with a strikingly different landscape than that of its neighboring countries, with one thing that highlights it from the rest: it was under a military dictatorship for over 48 years. What does that mean? It means that although Myanmar experienced tourism for decades, the amount of goods and people that came in and out of the country before 2010 were minimal. But to think that the country hadn't experienced tourism before that would be wrong. Read More