Writing with Letters

March 9, 2010

All of this was written over the course of 22 February, 2010 – 9 March, 2010, the vast majority on 23 Feb while I was sitting in airports all day.  Most of it is true.  Some of it is hyperbole.  I’m unrepentant on that last bit.  Enjoy!

I almost died today – came within a few feet of high voltage lines, crashed into a tree, fell 30-45 feet at high-speed, and crashed unceremoniously to the ground in a tangle of paraglider and branches.  It wasn’t the first time, either.  Today’s collision marks my 4th tree landing in 2 weeks of paragliding school, and while it wasn’t my worst, it was my last flight of the program, and the reason I won’t be getting certified to fly solo from this school.

It got me thinking as I climbed trees, machete in hand, to cut my wing down once again – about all sorts of things, but really how there are so many things I need to communicate to people in my life, and how I’m absolute shit at doing that unless really hard-pressed.  I mean, if I die now, there’s a solid forty percent, sixty, ALL of the story that won’t ever be told, a lot of hard-earned lessons and truths wrestled free for no real purpose except my own erudition.  I’ve been ok with that for a while, but… Well, today also marks the final day of a year-long traveling circus, and that I suppose means that it is now time to process a bit of this madness, chew it up and spit it out and suck it up again until the whole mess is somehow more digestible.  Since I dodged that oh-so-tragic-but-woefully-appropriate death on the final day of a grand adventure, I can’t think of any better way to tell another bit of the story than to write out a series of letters to those who have touched my life these past weeks and months, some short, some long, some meaningful, some silly, and to try to tell the story that way.  Now just isn’t the sort of time for traditional narrative, though I must ask – was there ever one?

Vish – this starts and ends with you, my friend.  Your crazy idea, crashing my party in Guatemala to spread ideas of flying as eagles is what spurred my rush south, turned plans of hitchhiking Mexico on their head, inspired me to dream bigger, wilder, more recklessly than before.  Of course, since neither of us had flown before it wasn’t like we could have known that without having come down here and tried it! On the one hand, I must thank you for setting this all into motion, while on the other I want to crack you upside the head for being so damn similar to me!  Running off, chasing beautiful women, doing what makes you happy and fulfills you – it sounds so pleasant, and from where I’m sitting it definitely is.  I’m sorry we never got to meet back up after Salvador really – those one and three night stops in the same hostels just weren’t enough, not even close!  We’ll have to cross paths again soon, just as surely as I’ll have to come back to writing you.  First though, here are a lot of letters to everyone else!

Natalie – Remember first meeting?  There I am, wild hair, 40 or 50 hours into a wild travel marathon across 3 countries, stinking of road, bone-weary, patience worn too weak to be fucked with.  Finally, a wifi connection, I can find out about the declining homefront situation, say the goodbyes I dodged in leaving Leon so quickly, catch up on life.  Just then, a voice – “Oh my God, are you still on your fucking phone?” – it was so brash, annoyed without reason, confident crossed with familiarity, served up by a redhead with sexy librarian glasses and red hair pulled back.  You sounded American, and I wrote you off then, telling myself that you weren’t worth it, that I was too tired to be bothered talking to another dumb judgmental hostel girl.  And a gringa, to boot…  Quite a strange first introduction, which we smoothly turned into a very friendly bitter argument over psychiatry, politics, mental services, healthcare… my image of you as dumb bimbo dropped, to be replaced grudgingly with admiration – your story, your battle, is the sort that deserves respect.  I don’t know how, but by the end of the night we were promising to share a plane to Colombia, friends of some sort.

The world’s worst pancakes, rings in freezers, and we’re just way too comfortable – Why did we ever let each other so close, so quickly, so fully?  It worked out well, but it might well have been disaster the way we threw everything to the universe.  Speaking of disasters, the story almost ended itself right away, when my “don’t bother with reservations, just walk onto the plane” strategy left me watching helpless as you walked away – it wasn’t as bad as the second time in Bogota, but something about the way I felt told me that to let you walk away would be one of the bigger mistakes in a life full of them.  I bummed and cajoled my way through the ranks of ticket sellers, baggage handlers, and computer jockeys and found a flight a few hours later to Cartagena, one way, cash, just me and my bag of machete, lighter fluid, knives, and the like.  I needed it all, so I just shoved everything controversial into my backpack, had it wrapped in about 2000 layers of green plastic, and checked the lot with crossed fingers.

Security didn’t know how to deal with me – the guy about had a stroke when I emptied my pockets!  “What is this?” he hissed at me, holding up a new blue ballpoint.  “A pen” I told him, trying not to laugh.  “You can’t have this – it’s a weapon,” and there went my writing utensil.  Well, one of them anyway, since the carry-on bag has twelve or twenty more.  Belt, shoes, and that special little wand led detective dipshit to my heinous crime – a dollar’s worth of change in my hip pocket – and I was off the hook.  Considering I’d been in Central America for a year, the airport felt like commercialism’s bastard assbaby, and after a couple hours uncomfortable wandering, I made it into the plane and almost airborne before passing out.  I almost missed seeing Cartagena from the air!  As it was, I changed money, freaked at how expensive everything was, took a taxi to the hostel you said you would be at and didn’t find you, and just bummed around the rest of the afternoon feeling foolish.  What if I was wasting my time trying to find you?  Wouldn’t you just find me excessively creepy and stalkertastic?  I gave up trying to find you before long, and just crashed out at the Hostel Holiday, in those glory days before the staff didn’t actively dislike us.

I shouldn’t have worried – we went together like really big people and tiny coats, sex and chocolate, rain and dancing outside, rich kid parties and poor college students – fantastically.  It still amuses me how quickly we became an item, became inseparable, and broke all of our plans and promises in order to spend more time traveling together.  Equador probably would have been great, but you couldn’t be bothered to leave, and paragliding never even crossed my mind for a few weeks.  Instead, we bounced around, lived like our lives depended on it, and had exactly one pissed-off flip-out say things you don’t mean argument.  That aside, it was so wonderful, so real, genuine, and fun that I couldn’t believe when it ended.

Another airport, another city, not our primary language, the same scene – we’re late, you’re leaving, and I don’t have a ticket.  Once more I had to stand there and feel helpless hopeless as you walked through the gate and out of sight.  I’ve been developing a strong dislike for airports, I might mention at this point, and not only because here I still sit in one, six hours after arriving, three weeks after we split ways, and still a few thousand miles away from ever seeing you again.  These concrete duty free jungles – they’re enough to kill a guy’s soul without him even realizing it, like the hole in my pocket that eats change quietly over the course of the day, it’s a cancer.  At least it lets me play Socrates a bit more, wandering the market and taking solace in all that I don’t need.

Oh, and I’ll just write it here – I’m broke in a way that rarely exists outside of bad car accidents or political systems in Banana Republics, and that’s what makes my idea of coming to visit you in New York City, the belly of the beast, the gaping maw of Global Capitalism (for another few years, perhaps) all the funnier, right?  What could be a better decision than to run out of money and then come to one of the most expensive places on Earth?  Perhaps doing the same thing, except in the middle of winter, without bringing anything warmer than jeans full of holes, a ratty leather jacket, and gloves I cut the fingers off of.   Shit, I must be some sort of genius.

Distraction – there seems to be a theme here in the airport today of running quickly past with a worried look on your face – so far I’ve seen a couple stewardesses, a heap of passengers, a couple assorted uniformed peoples, and just now a guy in full military dress with a xbox gripped tightly under one arm.  Weird stuff, right?  I guess so long as it isn’t everyone running in the same direction at once I’ll be ok.

Anyway, it took me about 40 seconds after kissing you goodbye to realize that was a mistake, but another week to do something to remedy it.  I’m basically making my life as hard as possible (recurring theme?) in order to prolong the magic, if I may steal an album title.  I’m reasonably sure NYC is further from home than Colombia, a fact I’ve asserted into existence without anything, not even a casual glance at a map, to back me up.  Let’s pretend it’s true anyway.  Point is simple – you’re worth it, even if this blows up in my face, it’ll be worth the scar tissue just to see your face again, to kiss your lips and hear you telling me to cut the drama.  Scar tissue?  Fuck, it’s not working!  I really can’t wait to see you again, even if this airport, the weather, this universe, my meager finances, and the entire Harlem Globetrotters are set  up against me!  I must go now, though I’ve much more to say, because there are more letters to write.  I’ll talk to you in person soon.

Aside – This is going to be ugly, slapdash, pegged together, and double disjointed like all you freaks! (Hi Alex) I keep moving around, different waiting areas, hallways, tile floors, these godawful divided benches you can’t sleep on, stinking carpet chairs, all the threadbare faux class of air travel – a million people, a thousand bad perfumes, a gorgeous Colombian woman every twenty-eight seconds – this stuff distracts, confuses, draws the mind and hands and eyes away from their careful collusion, and I’m starting to dislike the letter-writing limitations I’ve placed arbitrarily upon myself.  Even scarier – the Internet works mockingly slowly, so I’ve nothing else to do  but pump the music and let the fingers do their magic tricks.  Besides, we’re pages in already, and I’m hardly one to back out of commitment because it’s going down brutally in flames.

Becky & Seth (Seth & Becky) – I feel like now, six or so months after we split ways in a flash on a  San Salvador street corner, I finally understand where you were then – what you were feeling, the doubts and fears, the sense of nothing worthwhile accomplished, the glee and guilt and gut-rocking uncertainty.  It’s not easy being here on the razor’s edge between lives, arms windmilling and body arched, trying desperately to hold onto one reality yet unable to resist looking back, down, over your shoulder at the What Might Be below.  Becky – I still have something you wrote, the Day after Thanksgiving in Honduras piece you gave me a copy of.  I read it still, share it with friends when I want to give them a little mouthful of another life.  Your words are so vivid, sharp yet warm, and they take me back to a time before I spent my time crash landing into and out of everyone else’ lives.  Not a bad time, not my sort of time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t miss it, right?

Seth, I’m sorry we never got a business off the ground in Honduras – I’m pretty rubbish at the business angle of anything, but your ideas weren’t bad.  When I get back home I have a couple things I want to run past you, import/export sort of ideas, bringing in goods that are too scarce to places like Colombia, Guatemala, Panama, where there is still a big markup on gadgets but not a huge competition in tech luxury goods.  We probably could have made it work in Santa Rosa, but you’ve far more important things going on, and I just couldn’t sit still long enough, patiently enough, to build up the market and customer base and oh god just writing those words brings me back, drags me into this place – this drab, gunky airport, it’s Panama now, but it could be anywhere.  Where do you think airports get their carpet?  Who decided “art deco kitsch” and all the classical muzak you’d ever have nightmares about was going to be the go-to mode of every international terminal?  If we hypothetically found that person, who’d be down to give him a good old-fashioned chain-gang beating with me?

I never thought I could get so OVER Western culture, but I did – that happened somewhere, sometime, and now it’s too far gone for my own good.  Four minutes off the plane, I’m getting pushed by fat, stupid, rude Americans in their rush to go into Subway and insult some locals.  Fuck, I hate these people – it’s not everyone – there are a lot of good, normal, smart Americans in the world, and you meet them all the time while traveling.  The problem is that the greasy porkfuckers that the entire world (really, the entire world!) associates with Americans are so obnoxious, toxic, caustic, so easily hateable that they act as a sort of force-multiplier effect unto themselves.  One of them quickly becomes the loudest, most obvious, mostly cellulose, cultural and genetic embarrassment in the entire time zone, and from then on there’s no way to avoid or ignore their presence!

“Hey, girl!” one gargles at the overworked fast food slave, “Gimme oneuh dem sammiches, whatchacallit, polo.  No, no, not that one, jesus, lissename!  Polo, you know, chikkin!” Cue arm flapping.

No joke – this happened.  I saw it.  Everyone saw it.  Some thirty people stopped and watched the American doing the chicken dance and butchering Spanish while she muttered about how incompetent the poor Panamanian girl on the other side of the counter is.  What in the fuck is that!?  Who comes to Central America with no Spanish, then openly starts insulting everyone who can’t communicate with them?  Why does nearly everyone I see doing this sort of shit have to be from the same place as me?  I’m sick of telling people where I come from and getting reactions from “oh.” to “ugh, I’m sorry,” to my favorite, the abrupt turn around and walk away.  I didn’t choose to be from the place that rapes the world’s poor!

Anyway, I was going somewhere else with this, and it was mainly in the direction of not realizing just how heavy, all-consuming, terrifying yet liberating it is to be on the very cusp of going back home.  I know it won’t be easy, that I’ll do a spiral dive into the ground most likely, that adjusting and accepting and compromising will suck the life out, but I also know that you both have done it, gone there and come back, and I think you’re still yourselves, holding out for what you love, doing what you think is important.  Right guys?  Right?!  Please let me be right…  It’s a pretty fairy tale I use to keep myself sane, so even if it isn’t, don’t tell me Santa Claus doesn’t exist just yet – I couldn’t take it just now.

What I want to tell you both is that I love you so much, you were my friends when very few people were, you played a huge part of my safety net through the hard times, let me tag along as I was finding my feet, and when it came time to stumble off and survive on my own in these strange lands, you were there to cheer and make every day we had together the more beautiful.  I treasure our times together, living in your funky house, cooking, climbing that crazy mountain, hitching all over the West, the way you just smiled when Sjoerd and I took off for months and left you holding all of our things.  Talks over tea, pastels, crepes, TS Elliot, the way you let me drag you down into sin and crazy stupid games and never stopped laughing, Seth’s crazy-genius inventions, Becky’s paintings, that hammock-slinging game where you hit your body on the wall on purpose, yoga, and sleeping sick as a dog on your Ninja Turtle sheets – you two have been some of the best friends I could ever ask for.  I never meant to drift so far out of touch, still don’t want to, and I guess this is partly my way of reaching back out to you both.  Perhaps it’ll be easier to communicate once I’m back home, probably it won’t, but I’ll make the effort if you’ll do the same!  Much love, and I’m sure we’ll meet again soon.

Sjoerd – Hatford Doma (Godverdomme) buddy!  Where have you been all my life?  I think as long as I’m handing out blame for the situation I’m in, you have to get a lot of the credit.  It was you, after all, who said “Hey, lets hitchhike to San Jose, Costa Rica” when we were blind drunk after the Rivera wedding, and overnight changed our path from Guatemala, Belize, Mexico to 180* south and the best times of my life.  Without that one crazy night who knows where we would be?  Well, you would probably be right back where you are now, to be fair, but I might be dead in a ditch in Mexico, long-since home, or still living in Honduras, or… well it doesn’t matter where I might be, because right now I’m here, that airport thing I keep talking about, surrounded by well-dressed travelers with scowls and too many bags, and I can’t stop laughing inside and smiling outside as I think of how well things worked out.

I will say this one thing – you should have brought the trumpet!  That two-day trip, dance party and wedding, turned into one of the best adventures of my entire life, and without you I could never have done it.  We have this great personality overlap, where one of us says something godawful stupid, like “hey, let’s go see if we can live on an abandoned prison island” and then the other says “yeah, that sounds great,” and then we’re stuck in a creepy building that smells like batshit and ghosts and oh-dear-jesus-why-is-that-doll-nailed-over-the-doorway?!  We made a fabulous traveling team, just as we made a great kitchen-bar-drinking team.  I still wish Dan had come with us for some of the fun bits – poor guy only got the hard work and missed out on most of the really great stuff!  Still, three is a crowd for hitching, so perhaps it worked out for the best – I don’t know, never do, but what I am sure of is that you helped set me onto this crazy path of adventurous wild living and I owe you the world for it!

We really need to stop chasing the same women though, especially if we end up traveling together again, which we definitely ought to.  The drive-across-Africa plan was a good one, even if we dreamt it up over rum and karaoke in Leon – oh man, I wish you’d been in Leon some of the later times I stayed there!  There were such good crowds, entire schools of Norwegians that somehow we didn’t meet the first times, Dutch people everywhere, a live music scene, dancing and parties and friendships we barely scratched the surface of.  Come back sometime, and tell me when you do, so we can get out there and live wild again.  I didn’t think I could make such a lifetime friend in so little time, over such awful jobs and such poverty as we chose to live in!  The Casa Kiwi – I’ll have to work hard to find a worse job than that – remember the day we both quit and Chaz started chasing cows and hitting them with sticks because she was so angry at us?  That’s a whole other crazy saga I need to write up, and perhaps now that I’m not living an adventure a day I’ll have time to do just that.  Until we next meet, this Black Label is for you my friend!

X – Yeah, I guess I’ve stuck with the single letter motif too long to use any of your seventeen given names, but I think you like it better this way.  When I think about it, you were my first friend after I left – thought Randy was, but the whole trying to punch me in the face thing cured me of that – and I owe you a lot from our short time together.  I wasn’t prepared for life in Honduras, didn’t have the language, nearly none of the skills, and I came into that program with nothing comparable – no international travel, no exposure to other cultures, nothing at all – straight from spoiled US life (and to think, I used to believe I had it rough!) right into the Cerrato family homestead.  I would have freaked out a good deal more if I hadn’t had you to give the whole thing a sheen of relative normalcy.  Seven people in three-ish rooms?  Tortillas with mantequilla for breakfast? Bucket baths?  Nothing too difficult when I’ve a friend who seems to be better than me at absolutely everything, and not only that, enjoys it too.

Small wonder I was so enamored of you in the early months, and even smaller wonder you weren’t exactly about to return the same feelings.  I only feel bad that things got weird after I was thrown out and had to fend for myself.  I never asked you to interject yourself between the WatSan team’s politics and my own situation, but like a true friend you did anyway, even as it hurt you.  Thank you for trying, even if there wasn’t much hope of my salvation or return to the cool kids’ club!  When did it begin to feel like you were taking care of me?  Probably well before it began to show through – you’re strong, moreso every time I see you, which, incidentally might not be for a while, considering my current airborne status, an hour out from NYC and freezing to death.

A hundred thank yous, X, for the small kindnesses, home cooked meals, letting me sleep on your floor, the open arms and doors, for allowing me to help out with small projects and make a fool of myself from time to time.  You’ve really a knack for governance and management, which simultaneously makes me jealous and want to run far away to places where there isn’t much of either… Ah well, I wouldn’t be me without it.  I love your stories, our dancing, even the completely arrogant domineering part of your personality started to grow on me by the end!  I’ll never forget that when the entire Peace Corps took a shit on my head, you risked your status within the program, your career and reputation and all those supposedly valuable things, just to sit with me and grieve a bit.  Thanks friend – I owe you a dozen.  I’ll be seeing you around, I expect, since our worlds do overlap just a tiny bit, and for all the dumbshit things I do, losing track of true friends isn’t one of them!  Take care of yourself down there, and let’s keep in better touch.

Alex – You’re the new kid on this list, and perhaps the only reason I kept at paragliding after a straight disaster of a first week – I nearly killed myself battling high voltage lines that first morning when you showed up, and was just sick of it all, from the technically unforgiving fly site to the people to damn near everything, and then all out of nowhere you’re there, excited and ready to learn.  I couldn’t stomach the thought of quitting and complaining about danger and possible death right in front of someone who hadn’t had a fair shake at it yet, and as it turned out those next 48 hours or so were when the whole thing clicked for me and I finally felt more like a pilot than a guy on the verge of falling out of the sky.  Lucky break too, because unless I’ve sorely misread you, I’m pretty sure we made real friends real fast – something about being stuck in bunk beds and having the same lame sense of humor?

That might be part of it, but we both know it isn’t the real reason – we came together at a time when we were at the same point, the final days of year-long trips, and together forced ourselves through the “freak out and dread it” part of going home by reminiscing, telling stories, talking about our lives, and just reminding each other that life does go on, that we are more than the situations we’re in, the places we live.  We want similar things, to do something we find value in, to control our own path, to surround ourselves with the sort of people we relate to, and have the freedom to pursue what we love.  At least, that’s my read, but since you put up with my shit for as long as you did, I don’t think I’m far off!  I think you’ve a good shot at it too – you have your passions pretty well sorted, know the people you need to break into the industry you want to work in, and you seem pretty well motivated – add in some pretty ridiculous dance moves and rockstar hair and you might well be writing your own paychecks.

Here’s where I’m scared though, for you and me both but I’ll write it to you.  It’s really easy to get trapped by the way you live your life, from the job you work to the company you keep, and while I haven’t any indicators that you hang out with the wrong sort of folks (I’ll excuse you paling around with me since you were forced to) but you’ve been working primarily in exactly the sort of industry that grabs you by the ears, slaps you around, and eventually bends you over and makes you its bitch.  Maybe you’re into that, but I’m pretty sure no, since escaping your job and the reality surrounding it was a big motive in leaving.  It wasn’t healthy, the work consumes every aspect of your self, and in the end you’re basically tarnishing your soul bit by bit in order to feed yourself – it’s no way to live, and if you aren’t careful it is the sort of work that will turn living into surviving, into dying day by day until you look into the mirror one morning and can’t remember the last time you felt truly alive.

You made the right decision once, in getting out and living for yourself a bit, but it seems as if you’re poised to go right back into the same under a different guise – closer to what you want in terms of proximity, perhaps, but I just don’t see how working in finance, even if it is finance for the industry you love, is going to get you even one step closer to doing the real work that you want, helping people and not entities.  It’s a dangerous game, because as you know better than I, once you’re in that job is your life, just like everyone else who gets in.  You work and everything else comes secondary – something that this last year ought have shown you the futility of, if nothing else!  I’m worried for you, because I see how truly happy you are now – I called you a beautiful person because that’s the best way I can put it – and I can’t bear the thought of seeing you lose that spark and get muddied up in the gears of unfeeling corporatism again.

Ask yourself, perhaps – what best serves your goals, the ones you spoke with me about?  How can you most directly help the people who you care about, the artists and bands as opposed to the industry that holds them back and profits from their art?  Surely there’s a better way to do that than finance!  If your goal is to get more profit to the bands, why not use your same skills to help bands negotiate better contracts, or find sponsorship for events, or organize indy labels to work together and get the big dinosaurs out of the picture altogether?  If that isn’t what you’re looking for, there are a thousand ways to help bands promote, organize, and share their talents that don’t require big labels, and if you’re serious about giving power back to the musicians, that power is going to have to be wrestled away from the labels.  You can’t make that sort of difference working from the inside, because the entire thing, the structure of the modern music industry is built around the necessity of big corporate labels – reality doesn’t require them, but they’ve made a nice niche that sure does!  If you want to make positive difference, that probably means doing something big, something authentically yours, and something radical – that won’t happen from inside the finance department at Universal.

That’s all I’ll say there, perhaps too much already, but I’m writing as much to me as to you.  We’re in similar ships, and I hope that neither of us is forced to compromise our loves, or lives, or our values for mere survival once we get back into the fake world.  I’ll be rooting for you, and waiting for that book too!  Maybe if I keep bugging you for updates it will motivate me to do something myself…  Don’t hold your breath.  Again – fantastic meeting you, we had a ridiculous time, and seriously – practice the PLF.  That is not a beginner’s paragliding site, not even close, and it just might save your life someday.  Trust yourself and you’ll go anywhere you desire.

Russell – Here’s the thing man – you’re serious all the time, like 99.999% pure business, pure business time, and I’m out to make everything into a big jumble of bad jokes and chaos.  We get along like styrofoam and gasoline, to be honest, in that when we’re together we stick to everything and burn.  That’s an awful analogy, please wipe it from your memory.  What I mean is that we’ve personalities that don’t mesh all that well, and that came out especially during paragliding training.

It’s a hard sport, and people might die if they don’t pay attention and learn quickly, but much as you drill that into us, there are some gaps in your program that pretty directly affect us, the hapless students who wander up to the flying school based off friends’ recommendations and Lonely Planet.  It’s great that you get us doing practical training within minutes, that we’re kiting and flying the wings, practicing takeoffs on the very first day.  I much enjoy getting into the grit of the sport early, learning by doing (badly), and making my mistakes – it makes me feel much more involved than I would otherwise, gives me a real show of where I need to improve.  That said, your program has a couple bits where I think you need to change, or you’re likely to lose a student sooner or later.

I’ll start with the most direct – you need to learn how to constructively criticize, because from your instructor position you are very much the person we most depend on in the early days and weeks, and if you’re not someone we can trust, respect, listen to, then you’re going to end up with students who don’t take you seriously, who don’t want to listen because they’re sick of hearing your voice!  I’m serious – it gets to the point where you can actually shut your students down – not just me mind you, but all of us – because you’re relentless in your critiques, and you get pissed off at people who have been Paragliding for a matter of hours.  It shows in your voice when we don’t get the takeoff routine perfectly down after maybe 15 attempts, when we set the wing down too hard, when we’re not correcting quickly enough.  I know it’s frustrating to see the same mistakes over and over out of hundreds of people, but you must remember that while these things are second nature to you, we are still thinking the entire process out – center, lines, accelerate, push up, keep running, head out, long strides, arms back, superman, correct, pendulum, keep running, check lines, forward, correct… It’s a lot to process, and when the guy yelling commands over the radio can’t keep the frustration out of his voice, it’s about the most demoralizing thing in the world.

We react to it in different way – some of the students outwardly shut down, get frustrated themselves, start to make mistakes, and eventually have to take a break.  Me, I found myself wrestling with my own brain to just listen to you!  That’s dangerous man, really dangerous – I would just start to tune you out whenever you started lecturing, not because you were wrong, but because you deliver these scathing critiques in a tone of voice that says “you’re worthless, you’re an idiot, you’re wasting my time.”  Never mind the words, your tone and body language are those of the expert pilot but of the frustrated teacher who doesn’t want to be doing this.  Don’t think I don’t understand the dangers of the sport – as your most infamous treehugging pilot I know them better than most, but I found myself on your shit-list early on, and by the day it because harder and harder to listen to your words.  How could I, when you’re basically telling me to fuck off in your commands?

I’ll never forget that last flight, with me heading into power lines and fighting not to hit Richie’s house, and your dripping, contemptuous “what the fuck are you doing?” over the radio.  Not helpful, not professional.  If I hadn’t cleared those lines by half a meter, that could have been the last thing anyone ever said to me.  The same theme played out a few other times, when I wasn’t doing what you asked – first contempt, then abandonment.  I know you think that you know what is best for me, but really, if a pilot isn’t obeying you despite obviously hearing what you have to say, is it possible that you don’t have the whole picture?  Ordering me through the landing routine when I’m 40 or more meters up, then groaning that I never listen isn’t helpful or necessary.  A lot of times we only have seconds to react out there, and small mistakes can lead to death or serious injury – at no point should you, the professional, be letting you, the angry person, take control.  We depend on you to keep us alive up there, and excess radio chatter doesn’t help, especially when it’s insulting.

In a similar vein, I don’t think you should be training beginners to fly at Ritoque, period.  I don’t see it as any surprise that every student seems to hit the ground too hard a few times there, because as any pilot who comes there will tell you, it’s a very technically challenging site.  Why did whatserface break an arm?  Why did people end up in the hospital daily my first 3 days in town?  Why do all the visiting pilots have close calls in their first few flights?  It could be all chalked to pilot error, and to be honest, every single incident can be charted to that as a direct cause, but that just brings the question one level higher – why are there so many pilot errors?  Ask the pilots, and really, think about it yourself – that is a very dynamic, very technical site, and there are a huge amount of variables – from ground moisture to wind direction to cloud formation – that utterly transform the whole area.  It’s the equivalent of punk ethos – the only rule it conforms to is constant nonconformity.  When the conditions change so much, so rapidly, it forces pilots to adapt quickly and correctly, which isn’t so bad except that many of us have never, outside of the book we read at your school and the brief videos, seen, heard of, or experienced anything quite like what we now have to deal with!  It makes better pilots of us to learn this way, but it also puts people in a huge amount of danger with only their wits and a radio line to you guys on the ground to help us.

If I knew before I started what I know now having completed the course, there is not a chance that I would have come to Ritoque to learn, not as a beginner.  That is an intermediate-advanced site, and you’re sending complete novices off into the air and hoping that conditions don’t get too hairy.  When nothing changes too rapidly, we usually end up ok, but what happens when we’re landing in a 45 degree crosswind on our third flight, or sinking out rapidly into that awesome ditch before the landing zone?  People without experience in the air are being asked to make decisions and judgments that we don’t have any business making, and worse, are doing so without proper warning.

I dug my own grave – before I headed up to fly with you guys, I was thoroughly warned.  Vish told me it was a P3 site, I saw Steve in the hospital, translated for him even!  The guys told me a few stories, and I was still dumb, young, and brash enough to head up there to see for myself.  What about the others?  I warned Alex a bit, but the new students?  Why aren’t you teaching the PLF, making us practice deploying reserve chutes, talking about uncollapsing wings, getting out of stalls and spirals, making us focus on safety and our own health before throwing us into the sky?  How about an honest lecture on the dangers before we start flying?  Are you worried that students will get scared and leave?  You owe everyone who comes up there the truth – you need to tell them about the accidents and mistakes and dangerous spots before we make them ourselves.  Not doing so conveys a sink or swim attitude, which is great except when things literally translate to die or fly.  If you’re not more careful, if you don’t teach us the basic survival skills, then some student is going to be me but a bit less lucky, and is going to end up in the power lines or crashing to earth and not getting back up.  You’re going to have a student die if you don’t teach emergency skills.

All of that aside I had a fantastic time, which sounds ludicrous after all this but is the absolute truth.  I’m glad I did the course, near-deaths and all.  I just wish I could have had some advance warning on the terrain, on the dangers, on the possibilities and problems.  I’m a better pilot than the people who learned on the bunny slope, I wager.  I’ve had more experience in more conditions, better flights, and had to think and react on the fly much more than anyone who just had to fly down the bunny slope a couple of dozen times.  I only worry that someone else will come down a bit differently, fly a bit lower over the power lines, hit the ground a tiny bit harder.  We’re very fragile, human beings, and while a certain level of risk is inherent to this sport, your students deserve a little more warning before being thrown off the cliff, as it were.  Thanks for putting up with me, I guess – it seemed like you really didn’t want to after a while.  I’m not bitter, but you really know how to make a guy feel unwelcome.  That’s ok though, because I’m gone, and you won’t have to deal with me again.  Take care of yourself man, don’t believe everything on Prison Planet, and smile once or twice.  Life is good!

Sofia – When I first met you all I really knew was that you were the Swedish girl, blonde and blue, who had made friends of all the local paragliders in Bucaramanga.  You spoke a whole lot of Spanish with a Colombia accent, knew just about everyone in that community, and had a level of confidence I found simultaneously intimidating, alluring, and confusing – combined with the fact that we never quite spoke beyond trading jokes for days in passing, it left me quite ready to write you off as another pretty face I’d never meet again, honestly.  I’ve never been one to go to ridiculous distances to meet people unless I know it’s worthwhile, but as it turned out we had a great intermediary in the Jake the crazy Alaskan.  Without him, I don’t think I’d have anything to write you about, or to thank you for.

Remember Jake?  How could you not?  The guy is a one-man party, a dancing machine, the sort of fool who could drink and dance and be the life of the whole party until dawn if only you let him, then do it again the next night, and the next…  Once he was medically forbidden to fly, (possibly due to the effects of eating a two-pound hamburger in a matter of minutes, but that is a story for another day) Jake quickly tired of life on a mountainside, and started going to more and wilder lengths to amuse himself.  He found you and your friends, got accepted into the paragliding cool kids club, and eventually dragged me in as well.

It was my great fortune, because you guys really know how to have a good time.  Your birthday party was ridiculous – from the little tienda where everyone comes together and drink, to Club Tiger, to the shenanigans at that $5 all-you-can-drink nightclub, it was a wild time.  Who knew that losing all my money playing drinking games and getting molested by drunk fifteen year olds could be so fun?  I mean, it certainly didn’t help my paragliding career, but I can’t complain – fun times and good memories are worth so much more than sound health in old age.  Tapadas, Tapados? – that game was so good at parting me from all my money – lowest number buys the round seemed to translate to “K buys every round he plays, unless Sofia is there to pick even worse” and it seems like the hands-down best way to make friends with the locals.

Actually, that’s what I need to write about here – you’ve gotten in so well with the community, become a part of their lives, that I was both jealous and inspired.  You speak like them, use the same expressions and gestures, live with them and cross lives with everyone.  You’ve become part of the family because you don’t hold back, don’t hide from the new and foreign, and open yourself up to the world.  I admire that so much in you – it has been one of the hardest things for me to learn this past year, how to leave myself vulnerable and open to strangers – but you seem to have done so completely with this group.

You were honest with me as well, even when that meant you weren’t making friends – even when that meant a disdainful comment on my lack of flying savvy or a goofy face when you caught me staring.  I appreciate it precisely because I know how difficult it is to be truthful with others, and have struggled to do the same for so long.  I’ve gotten better at it, but you’re leaps and bounds ahead of me.  Thank you for that.

Still, I don’t know if you realize it, but there is something you’re hiding from yourself.  I’ve seen only the outlines of it, the smallest glimpse, but I think there’s something I ought tell you – you’ve lost the magic of paragliding, the love is replaced by fear and bad memories, and it might never come back.  Not that I blame you – had I taken the same fall that you did, come so close to the face of death, I don’t think I would have ever stepped foot onto that launch site again.  Still, you’re so caught into the paraglider family, with all of your friends being pilots or girlfriends/boyfriends of pilots, that I worry somewhat you might get pulled back into it without really wanting to take part.  There’s no shame in staying far away from a sport once the fun of it is gone, no matter how much everyone around you wants to you back in the fold.  I don’t know if they’re pressuring you now, but I imagine they will be before long – it’s in the nature of boys, bold pilots, and Latin men, and when they’re all three… Well, you’ll see it soon enough, if you haven’t already.  I guess I’m just encouraging you to do what you want, not what makes your friends happy.  Peer pressure is a wicked thing sometimes, especially when it comes to throwing yourself into an activity that demands such concentration and precision of you.

Aside all that, it was a pleasure and an honor making friends with you.  That one night, when Alex and you were inventing sex positions on all the bunkbeds, was priceless, really ridiculously fun, and without you I couldn’t have gotten into the same group of friends as I did.  Sorry for not coming out to play futbol or volleyball, and for not supporting the “lets do things that don’t involve binge drinking” movement – frankly I would have, if not for it being my last night!  If you ever come up to the US, you’re welcome wherever I am.  I owe you a place to stay at the very least, after being my link to such good people and good times!  Here’s hoping we cross paths again someday.

Dale – This one is for you, crazy Canadian!  Don’t fret that sometimes you’re wrong – we all are, just let it slide.  You’re a great guy, but I felt like half the time we were tip-toeing around you to avoid pointless arguments, and the other half stringing you along to get a cheap laugh.  There’s no shame in just smiling and taking a seat when the whole world is against you and seems to be right!

That said, you did say something that stuck with me – “the first thing,” as you put it, “the first decision you must make, is whether or not you’re going to take off.  From that decision come all of the other choices.”  That stuck with me, especially after I took a wicked crash on a flight I didn’t want to take in the first place!  At least you warned me…

My family – Sitting here in a chilly Brooklyn cafe, with this fantastic trip winding now to a close, I’m staring reality in the face and preparing myself to re-enter the once-familiar and now terrifying life back home.  Most likely I’m going to be miserable, just down in the gutter, when I first get home, and I want you to know that isn’t your fault.  It never was, never will be, but you’re going to have to deal with my unhappiness most directly, and for that I am sorry.  It isn’t fair to you, in the face of such love and support, but honestly I mean you no harm, and wish you didn’t have to see that side of me.  For what it’s worth, I’ll hide the worst from you, keep it to myself because to show you, to see the hurt in your faces, is more painful than any of the regrets and frustrations I might vent.

The reality is that I really don’t like living in the US, and not just because I found life so much more enjoyable, challenging, authentic, REAL in Central America.  Things are just so much more convoluted, unnecessarily complicated and frustrating at home.  It runs from the mundane – expensive living, ID checks, security cameras, rules, to the really fundamental – I can’t stomach my actions, efforts, brainpower, and labor going to support a nation that does such terrible things around the world.  When I left I swore that I wouldn’t ever again aid a terror state or benefit from my status as an American, and yet here I am retreating tail between my legs, coming right back home, crashing into my old life, old room, my own past.  I’m doing exactly what I don’t want to in coming home, but believe it or not that has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with you guys.  It’s the sense of failure, of betraying my values that I hate so much, not you guys, not my flesh and blood!

And yet…  Regardless of what I do, I know there is no way I can convince you not to live in the US, or to internalize the feelings I’m going to have to vent from time to time.  I can’t hide my disdain for this system, not so long as it keeps crossing my path, keeps popping up into my life.  I’m probably going to be a negative, angry piece of shit for a while, at least until I can start planning to get out, run away again.  I just wish I could get you guys to come with me, to leave this failing empire and live somewhere that isn’t trying to start wars or rule the world.  Still, mom and dad, I know we’ve had this argument and I can’t win – there isn’t any way I’m going to convince you I’m not some sort of liberal or terrorist lover because I don’t love the nation, and there’s no way you’re going to convince me that the US is where I ought to spend my life, so perhaps we ought drop it entirely – the arguments lead nowhere except tears, and when it comes down to it, I’m absolutely ecstatic to see you all again.

I’m amazed that it has been a year since I saw you all, that I’ve missed an entire round of birthdays, holidays, and family gatherings.  It slipped by unnoticed!  I never thought I could get so disconnected, so easily, from all of your lives – the guilt tastes bitter, leaves me feeling unsatisfied whenever I’ve thought of it, and so for the most part I’ve hidden it deep inside.  Isn’t that terrible?  Burying thoughts of family, or those people I love most, feeling guilty because I keep hiding from them, and allowing that guilt to bury things still further.  I’ve been a miserable son lately, hiding out in far-off lands while you’re all having such a hard time at home, but just knowing that has driven me further into seclusion, made me hide further and deeper in my own life, in the day-to-day mundanities.  I owe you all an apology, because you’ve been nothing buy good to me, and I’ve been so disconnected and ungrateful.

It will be a great day when I can finally see you all again.  There will be tears and laughter and dad will probably give himself a hernia trying to pick up the whole family – I love you guys so much that just thinking about it brings a smile to my face.  It will be a great reunion, moreso because I keep delaying, keep pushing it back with side trips and detours and road trips with strangers.  I’m sorry for being the son who can’t stay put, can’t stop moving, can’t keep close to the family.  I know it hurts every day we’re all apart, because it hurts me too, but I just can’t sit still!  There’s this wild bug in me that cries out “do more crazy things, have more fun, get out there and give it your all, because this is all you have, this one life, these few brief moments alive.”  I can’t deny myself any more than you can, and so I know that as I laugh into the wind with sheer extasy of living, you’re all sitting patiently and waiting for me to come home.  I’m a selfish bum, but I swear I’ll make it up to you when I get back home.  I love you all so much, and I’ll see you soon.

Natalie again – Thank you again for NYC, for Colombia, for stealing me that jacket from Steve, for the laughs and the criticism and the doubts and for being real – thank you for everything.  You’re a beautiful person, and I’ll write you a worthy story as soon as I’m able.  Keep in touch, keep in touch, for fuck’s sake don’t drop off the face of the planet!  You know everything I want to tell you already, I think, so I’ll leave it here.   Until the next time, friend, there is a scavenger hunt in your room – I got bored.

Vish again – Here we are again friend, back at you, reaching the end.  I hope there’s some sort of narrative appearing here, in all of the letters, in all of the stories half-written, sketched out.  I owe you a dozen letters by now, and miss our long drawn-out conversations every time I’m sitting down alone – which, these days, is a whole hell of a lot.  I’m in NYC now, Brooklyn usually, Manhattan when I feel like taking the subway, and I’m too poor to spend much time outside.  Instead, when I’ve done enough walking around and people-watching and sitting in parks, once the fingers start going numb and the teeth chatter, I head back to the 2nd Stop Cafe, this legit little worn out coffee shop, and write until my eyes hurt or the endless cups of strong brew get to me.  It’s a life, I guess, but it doesn’t compare too favorably to what we were doing in Central America, what you might still be doing, and what I wish I was doing today.  It’s just so unfriendly, so isolated in the crowds that I want to start doing handstands in the street, and might except I can’t do handstands too well, and I’d get run over by a taxi.

I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining too much – I’ve had some great times here with Natalie, with this crazy Aussie pair named Steve and Steve, with my cousin as well.  It’s just that life can’t be the same here as it was there, and I truly like life there better.  I know you’re thinking about heading back home, and I think you probably ought to go see your family and new nephew, but I encourage you to take the same advice I gave to Alex above – don’t forget what you know now, don’t let this life fade and pale in the London fogs and life at home.  I’m fighting it now, right now, today, because I can already see that I won’t be able to live as I did on the road once I get home, settle, and replant myself there.  I’m scared, no terrified, of the prospect.  Part of me thinks that is just silly – how could I possibly forget what I’ve learned, felt, experienced?  Yet at the same time I can feel myself losing the language, losing the memories – it all has gone so damn fuzzy, so heartbreakingly vague, and it might as well just be a dream.  Without my torn clothes, scars, and care lines, I could so easily discount it.  How easy it would be to lose it all!

We spoke about not tying ourselves to the past or defining ourselves but what we have done, been, or seen, and I have tried to live as we counseled each other, not letting my ties to this present moment be overwhelmed by what has already been.  However, I wonder now what to do when the past was so good, so positive, so formative.  Is it possible, do you think, to keep the lessons and experiences without letting them guide me into some specific future?  I want to keep it all, but I know that if I do it will become impossible to approach the present openly – in essence, I would be trading a future of limitless possibilities for one narrowed by my actions.  It might not be bad, but what am I losing?  There’s that great unknown that comes with facing the world innocently, and I fear giving it up willingly.  No matter how good I feel about this adventurous life, it seems quite possible that I’m missing something far better and won’t even recognize it if I’m not careful.  The present challenge as I transition into a new life is to keep the values and lessons, friendships, loves, adventures, and memories from disappearing while also keeping them from completely dominating my present and thus future.

I wager that you are going to be facing the same soon, if you aren’t already – all good things must end in due time, and you seemed ready at our last meeting to cut your travels for a bit and see how the settled life suits you.  I admire that courage – I’m going in kicking and screaming now, with reality essentially dragging me by the toes into a sedentary life.  I wish you only the best my friend, and never forget that we still have a book to write!  We should talk soon, or at least keep an email exchange going.  I have to much to ask you – about Katarina, about your travels since we last parted, about your family and ideas and  paragliding, and other topics that will spring naturally out of our conversations.  I apologize for taking so long to write – it has been a busy month, in a busy life, but that is no excuse for going so long without conversing!  I hope you are well, and I’m sure that we will speak soon.  Take care friend, and keep your beautiful spirit alive!

It comes now to this – a coffee shop, an adventure ending, lovers parting, and the world spinning serenely onward.  I’m not sure what the future holds, or even where I’ll be tomorrow, but I am sure that it will be fantastic, wonderful, spendid, adjective-ful – how could it not, when the world is such a wild and magical place?  The transition back to the USA hasn’t killed me, and tonight I leave on a cross-country drive with someone, or someones, that I haven’t yet met.  I need to pack, I need to shave, I have no money, my hair is sticking up like a lunatic’s.  I probably stink, but that won’t stop me either.  I’m a sucker for this life – I’m mad about it, head over heels, and there is nothing I have ever seen or done or loved or touched upon that could make me give it up.  I’ll figure out how to keep going, how to keep drinking the ambrosia, until the day I die.  How I know this I don’t know, but that not knowing hasn’t stopped me before, won’t stop me this time either.  It’s just a feeling I guess, one that permeates my soul and body, mind and spirit.  This is perhaps the only truth I know – I am happy when I live the way I do.  I don’t regret what I’ve done, and just hope I can share some small bit of it with you all before I go.  Go where?  No where – it’s the action that is important, not the destination.  Until the next time! -k

Advertisements

One Response to “Writing with Letters”

  1. Paul Says:

    well alrighty then!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: