Kalahari Capitalism

November 6, 2010

I read a news story earlier today that really illustrates my problem with this capitalism we let run our lives. In Botswana, in southern Africa, there is a community called the Kalahari Bushmen. They have lived in the area for 20,000 years, longer than any world empire, longer than we like to admit civilization has ever existed. Now, because of the discovery of the world’s richest diamond deposits on their ancestral homelands, these people are being pushed off their land by the government, which, oh, by the by – is in negotiations with Gem Diamonds, a global diamond mining company. (they call them production, but come on now – these things come out of the ground: you didn’t make them – you cut and polished them.)

The Botswana government is actively pushing the Kalahari out of their homes, capping off wells, taking away water distribution trucks, removing storage tanks and water pumps. The Kalahari Basin is mostly desert, and the people there depend largely on underground water to survive. Without access to water, people and livestock die, and so the people there are slowly migrating, abandoning their ancient culture for the benefit of their government and a giant diamond conglomerate – how much of the $3.3 billion dollar payoff will ever reach the disenfranchised Kalahari people? How many of those diamonds will come here, be sold to American young men to give to their loved ones? It staggers that anyone could do the calculus of diamonds against human and animal lives and come out in favor of this destruction. It requires a dishonest and myopic view of the exchange going on, one which does not value life, which does not value humanity, or history, or culture.

Let’s do that math right here – the government of Botswana stands to gain $3,300,000,000 dollars, or roughly 11 million $300 iPhones. The remainder of the diamond deposit, which surely is valued far about $3.3 billion – else why would Gem Diamonds bother to excavate it? – will go to a London-based Diamond group with no interests in Botswana. Aside from mining jobs, the company will not be putting money into Botswana or the hands of the Kalahari Bushmen, rightful owners of the diamonds being poached out from under them. Look at those mining job pictures; don’t you want to do that? It sure worked out well for those Congolese.

Let’s go a bit more into that math – $3.3 billion dollars is still a good bit of change. There are 2,029,307 people in Botswana, as estimated by the CIA. That means the government stands to gain approximately $1629.17 per person in this deal. Is that impressive? Would you stand by and let one of the most ancient living cultures die out for $1629.17? How many thousands of dollars will it cost the government to throw the Kalahari off their land? What will become of these people, these ranchers, once their livelihood is taken from them? Won’t they become beggars, nomads, a burden on the system they now are forced to survive within? In all likelihood, the government of Botswana will spend much of their ill-gotten gains dealing with the problems arising out of the destruction of a people. Already, they have had the most costly court case in their nation’s history – how many more will there be? Then there are the costs of mining – polluted land, destroyed water tables, demolished ecosystems – generations off damage, all outside the calculation. Thus, does it not seem the calculus of government and corporation is flawed here – they give no value to the damage they do, and thus even from an economic perspective, this is no good deal for the people of Botswana, or for the people of Earth. We are all poorer for the loss of people different than us, for the loss of good land, for the destruction of life.

Capitalism is worthless in determining true values – if the calculation does not include suffering, environmental damage, human and animal loss, culture, art, language, or history, then the value being cited is accepted only through ignorance or conscious malice. Are $3.3 billion in imaginary value and a lot of shiny stones fair compensation for valueless true wealth and beauty? Capitalism says yes, but intelligence, emotion, and honestly will say no.

Yet here it is, in naked violence – a people, the ancient caretakers of their land, are forced by the thousands out of their homes under threat of death by thirst, all so that a soulless corporation and a corrupt government can dip their beaks. A culture is destroyed, a way of life forever shattered, so that people in the richest nations in the world can buy price-inflated rocks they’ve been programmed to need through manipulative advertising. The irony? Diamonds, these supposed gifts of love, would be so common if not for the market manipulation by companies like Gem Diamond that there would no impetus to mine to mine them in Botswana at all. There you have it – naked greed, supply manipulation, open robbery, corruption of government, destruction of true value for artificial, all to fill an demand that was created by the diamond companies themselves within the past 80 years – I can think of no better epitaph for the whole corrupt crony Capitalist system.

When the supposed libertarians and capitalist sympathizers of the world talk about freeing business from government, they are romanticizing the encounter. They mistake who is in command. Capitalism is war, fought by different means. It is the pursuit of profit at the expense of every other value humanity has ever held dear. It is the religion of the libertarian that the government which does not interfere with business is the best sort, but in this world the problem is not governments fighting against or blocking corporations from their actions, but instead from massive multi-national corporations so powerful that they can buy governments and surpass them completely. A land of free capitalism is a land where life does not matter, where profit is God, where all value ceases to exist save ability to money. Money has no real value. You cannot purchase love, you cannot have a life-changing conversation in exchange for any amount of it, and once it becomes the standard of value, then all life becomes valueless.

We are not the first people to have discovered the terror of capitalists run wild, but ours is the first generation to have to deal with the deathless global amoebas of the modern corporations. The governments we have today exist because our ancestors created them – the regulations on business exist because unregulated business creates a feudal state, ruled not by divinity-claiming monarchs, but by the profit motive itself – in the end, everyone loses. There will always be a better competitor, a more efficient, less human method of creating that good or providing this service, and as the dollar signs pile up, so do the bodies. The impoverished classes swell – we have never had more poor on this planet than today. We have never had more wealth on this planet either. The tiny ruling classes of each society shrink, as the very highest among them crush the others to rise ever higher. The actions of all humanity have never supported fewer so well. The bonepile grows, and eventually the last Capitalist will succumb, the final victim of the system we created and which grew to consume us all.

I hope mass consciousness will turn against the cancer we have set loose upon ourselves. I hope that we will stop this suicidal run before Earth is rendered unliveable, before all human life becomes slave to profit. Today it is the Bushmen, tomorrow it will be another people who cannot defend themselves, and one day soon it will be your and my time as well. I will leave it here, with a man who knew what we are dealing with all too well. Benito Musselini -“Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power”

-k

“If you’d like to let Gem Diamonds know how you feel about their business dealings, here is their contact page. Here’s the Botswana US Embassy’s info also, but I’m not sure they want to be involved in this sort of thing.

I Wrote This For You

December 23, 2009

I write this not for you, though there is a chance that you will understand what I write, that it will help you in some way. I do not write it because I want you to do anything, to help me in any way, to respond, or even to read it. I write it because it makes me happy to write, and well, what is more important then to spend life doing those things which make you happy?

I hope that you still have your open mind, for what I write here is strange, alien, uncomfortable to many. What I have here is an idea, a song, and the most rebellious suggestion in the world, perhaps. You might already have had it – I hope dearly that you have – because this is the sort of idea that betters everything it touches. I get ahead of myself – let me start where I really started, where my fingers began:

I worry that now, when torture and murder, aggressive world war, have become commonplace, accepted actions of the country I grew up in, that there isn’t a place there left for me. I’m scared, because I refuse to compromise my values just to live in a geographical region, and yet most of the people I love are right there. I wonder – what can I do, if they won’t leave, and I won’t come back, to ever see my family and friends again?

What scares me most of all is that they don’t even see the problems, so busy are they with the trivialities of each day. They just know I’m off “having a good time” in another world, “being young,” in the “time of my life,” before I settle down to “real life.” I am having fun, and that is good, but to them it is impermanent, irresponsible, and one day must be ended for me to live as a “normal” person – to live as they do.

It isn’t like that – this isn’t a vacation, this is a series of actions taken toward a goal of escaping the crushing, consuming prison of modern American life. I want out, need it, because everything I see outside is alive, and when I was in, all I saw was death – it almost killed me too. I broke out of that life and of that place, and in that I was transformed. I am not who I was, I cannot ever be that me again. I cannot come back.

This isn’t to say I won’t come visit – there are people there that I can help, dying slowly among the already dead – waking zombies, lifeless breathers, the ones too far gone. People too tired, too sick, too beaten and scared to cry out for it, but craving life still. I was one of those, and I can help those still in need. I may return to that place, but I cannot ever return to that life. If I do return, it will be as a free man, and it will not be to stay.

Still – pulling people out of a killing world isn’t good enough – no one should have to live like domesticated animals, like tools. No one should spend their life’s blood, energy, time in unhappiness, in pursuit of goals not their own. No one should, yet almost everyone does, and I can’t save them, because no one can save anyone else – they might be happier, but the problem is just transferred – now they would serve my goal.

I hope you understand what I write here, but I know that mostly you won’t. How could you? Words are an imperfect means of communication, and communication is a dream – we can only hope to spread what makes sense to us, and let everyone else interpret it as they may. I will say only this – modern life, with its obligations, debts, necessities, is not as joyous, or as fulfilling, or as happy, as it could be, and that is our fault. We are slaves by choice before we are slaves out of necessity.

It could be better, happier, richer for all if we simply let it, if we said “no” when we meant it, if we refused completely to be used by others for their ends, if we each did what made us happy. We aren’t required to accept a certain level of misery to live – we can change that through a simple refusal to work, live, or exist in any way that we do not enjoy.

Your goals are all attainable, if you would only stop sabotaging them. “Well that sounds good for other people,” goes the standard reply, “but I have an x and a y and a z, and so I can’t be irresponsible and run off like you.” Irresponsible! Obligations! You build those for yourself, then use them as the reasons for you imprisonment.

Yes, you do have to take care of certain things, you cannot drop your baby on the street and run off to India, but look around you, at the supposed restrictions on your life – who put them there? Whose choices led to their existence? We all create our own reality. You create yours. Those chains which hold you back from your dreams are of your own making, and came from your own choices and actions.

This is a good thing. A joyous thing. For if you created your own chains, then surely you have the power to break them as well. It does not matter how deeply you are indebted, how consumed you are by your job or unhappiness or obligations – all is removable if you desire. If you desire it! – this is key. Freedom is not license, but choice. It is not a belief system, only a simple question – “Am I happy?” – fueled by a raging desire for joy.

It’s true! People the world over have learned this, figured out what I write here of their own accord, and resolved to pursue their own ends forever more. I meet them, we cross paths every day, share stories, lives, hot meals, beds. I know who they are because they are the only happy people I see, the only happy people in the world. It is indisguisable, if you know what to look for. I can tell you what to look for, if you like.

These people are the ones doing nothing, drawing, painting, kissing strangers and running in the rain. They are the ones with holes in their shoes, with beautiful poetry at their lips. They laugh at God, because they have become God. If they discuss politics, theology, philosophy, they do even that joyously, turn handstands in the park, paint on the walls without permission. They are the ones who make living their art.

Make no mistake friend, there is a better way to live your life then the way you live it. There is a more joyous way for me to exist, for him with the guitar, for her with the curly hair and the frown. That better way is whatever makes you happier, allows you to feel and spread more love through the universe. If you want it, it is possible. If you seek it, you will find it all around you.

Courage is needed, great strength of will, an unquenchable lust for life and joy and love. Those things exist inside us all, untapped by most, unknown by many, but there nonetheless, ready to explode outward if and when we call upon them. You do not have to trust me, you certainly don’t have to thank me – this is not my idea, I simply found it lying in the road one day, picked it up, and found it fit me. We can share it – it will grow to accommodate us both, and more beside.

Really, it affects me not at all if you are happy, if you are enjoying your life to the fullest. It shouldn’t hurt me to see you so unhappy, and so unaware of your unhappiness. It is your life to live, but I love you, and I can’t bear to see you hurt as you do. I will help if you want, or leave you be if not, I just felt I had to try. I release you – go free, be who you wish, go fuck, go fight, go sing and dance, go learn, go teach, go travel, go do what you have always desired. Just go.

I love you always. Yours in freedom -k

A Beautiful Dream

December 9, 2009

Looking back on it, I can scarely believe my time in Antigua even happened. The entire experience has been so unreal, so strange, so mind-bendingly chaotic that I’m tempted to just chalk it up as a figment of an overtired and malfunctioning imagination. It would be so easy to throw up my arms and descend into gibbering madness and uncontrollable laughter, to scribble the whole experience out and toss it into the wastebin of my mind. I’d sleep a lot better if I could find some way to convince myself that was true – the only problem is that I can’t, because it did happen, and it wasn’t all bad. Sure – I fell again and now I’m left picking up the pieces, but something wonderful happened, and I was so incredibly fortunate as to have been right there in the middle of it. What else can I do but to try and record this gorgeous collapse? Can I? So what if I can’t? Does it injure the memory to fail in capturing the entire story, in finding oneself incapable of conveying the true feelings and experiences through inadequate words? Isn’t it better to try and fall short, if in doing so one can share even a small fraction of a mystical and incredible time? I don’t know if I can do even that – only that I am compelled to try. Perhaps it’s best to just treat it all as a dream. Yes, I’ll do just that. This is my story in Antigua – this was my beautiful dream.

The dream is shattered early on November 20th, at 9am or so local time. Like another awful morning in my past life, this one starts with ringing – not a phone this time but our doorbell, a favorite toy of the local shoeshine boys and traveling salespeople. I’m tempted at first to tell whoever it is to fuck off and go stick their head in an oven, but when your days end at 3, 4am, the absolute last thing you want to be doing is getting up at 9, putting pants on, and yelling at some shithead who is playing with your doorbell. I’m content to let them ring until their fingers fall off, to curl up in bed and just ignore whatever is going on. If they really want in, they would have gotten a key like everyone else. Still, my antagonist is persistant this time, the “ding, ding, ding, ding ding, dingdingdingding” coming faster and angrier with every passing minute, and I’m forced to consider an alternative – sitting on the roof and smoking cigarettes until they leave me alone. I’m saved from having to move by Guy, whose tolerance for repetitive, grating noises is low enough to force him out of bed by around 9:15. We start talking through my window.

“Hey mate, is that the door?”

“Yeah man, I was ignoring it. Probably some fucking street vendor or bored kid playing with the bell.”

“Well should I go answer it?”

“Only if you want to man.” He goes downstairs, I close my eyes, and when the evil bell stops ringing I smiled to myself – laziness accomplished. I’m falling asleep when V comes and knocks on my door.

“Hey mate, I think you should come down. My Spanish isn’t good enough for this.” There’s something about his voice… what’s gone wrong?

“What is it mate?”

“There’s 5 guys with rifles at your door. I think you should go down and talk to them.”

“I’ll be right down.” Sometimes even laziness has its limits.

I’m up, out of bed, searching for pants, one phrase in my head – Fuck my life! – there are times when you can see and feel exactly what is going to go wrong but can’t put it into conscious thought, and this is one of them. I don’t know what is happening except that it’s bad, and something in the back of my mind keeps telling me that this is it, the end – we’ve finally gotten too wild and gotten ourselves noticed. The spell or black magic that was protecting us has gone, fled into the night, and nobody cared enough let me in on it. I find a pair of futbol shorts on my floor, make my way down to the front door with a heart full of shattered dreams and a head racing with barely connected thoughts.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way – I’d come to Antigua to settle down, to be calm, get a respectable job, make a bit of cash before I lost focus and ran off on another wild adventure. After 2 ½ months on the road, crossing Central America backwards and forwards, my pockets and stomach were empty, and I was in desperate need of a break. Sure, I’d had a few days here and there, crashing at friends’ houses, being sick, living in beautiful calm places, but wild days and hard living had run me ragged to the point of collapse. A touristy colonial city like Antigua appeared be a great place to sit still for a few months and recover from back to back to back to back to shit-are-we-still-doing-this back adventures. Plus, I had been corresponding with a volcano climbing company in town and they seemed to have work for me, so why not be a mountain guide for 6 months or a year, lead tourists up beautiful landscapes, scrape together some money, and take off adventuring again? A guy can’t live on the cheap forever and this seemed like the best non-work I could hope for, so I left paradise (after my third time finding it in 9 months) and headed north. This would be a chance to write, to take stock, to organize my thoughts and life and maybe to work on that book that I seem to be amazing at not actually writing. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and I couldn’t be more glad either. It all comes back to a place called Te Quiero, my home and work and hangout for these past short weeks.

Te Quiero – an awful name for a bar, if you ask me, but nobody ever does. At first sight of their sign, a little voice in my head rolled its eyes and mocked gagging noises. Cafe I Want You, with all the sexual undertones that implies – who doesn’t want to go there for a drink? At the time I really didn’t care though, because I wasn’t interested in a bar. I already had found a dive bar to hang out at in town, and the last time I’d had a bartending gig, things had gone… poorly. Besides, I was out searching for a place to live, not a job, and armed with a list of rooms for rent that I’d gotten out of a pretty Canadian girl, I set out that morning to look at a few of them. Te Quiero was the furthest from my hostel, and so that was where I started at the crack of noon on October 24th – day zero of one hell of an adventure.

“The place isn’t half bad,” I think to myself as I step from cobblestone street onto cracked sidewalk and through the Spanish colonial doors. “Downright classy, if the looks are to be believed.” Pastel red walls give way to a tastefully decorated Tapas Bar, Cafe, and Theater. Crepe-paper boxes over the lights, framed sketches and sofas, plus a small wooden bar and kitchen along the lefthand wall. The place is rounded out by a few bar stools, Bob Marley telling me not to worry and be happy, and to top it all off, sitting behind the bar reading a magazine, a man named Tops. His signature dramatic corkscrew curl hangs down his forehead, and from the long-ashed cigarette he holds forgotten, he appears to be concentrating deeply. I break the silence.

“Buenos tardes, como estas?” He twitches slightly, surprised but unstartled, and glances up at me before responding.

“Bien, tranquilo. Como andas?”

“Todo cheque. He escuchado que tienes aqui un cuarto para alquilar – esta verdad?”

“Yeah man, suuure we have a room for rent.” His English surprises me, clear and unhurried, with an accent of British sophistication. Which is why my next question is a dull-witted “Hey man, you speak English?” instead of something better.

“Claro. I’m Tops by the way – half British, half Guatemalan. I manage this bah. Deloighted to by the way.” The last words, delivered in an over-the-top faux English accent, make me snirk – which I’ve just been informed is a snort mixed with a smirk. I like it, and claim it as my own.

“Hey man, I’m K, from – well from California and nowhere.” He comes around the bar, we shake hands, and fall to chatting about how we’d gotten to that present moment. I start to tell him an abbreviated version of my adventures, only to have him interrupt – “So do you want me to show you the place?” and off we go.

The place is fantastic – the bar opens up into a cafe with small tables, another bar off to one side, and a stage. As I stand considering the merits of living above a theater, Tops plugs something into an outlet, and I’m quite suddenly in love with that room – more crepe-paper shapes, wild curves and abstract bulges in red, orange, blue light up, splashing the room with just enough light that I could picture people making out quietly on the sofa in the back corner during a live concert, candlelit tables for two, soft reggae or small-time theater shows.

“Nice place,” I tell Tops after he’s connected a few other hanging lamps. “Really impressive actually – you’d never even know this was all here from outside.”

“Oh man, you haven’t even seen the start of it – you want to fly?”

“Fly?” It doesn’t fit with my understanding of our conversation at all.

“You know man, fly.” He holds his arms out like an airplane. I didn’t get it, and he gave me a look. “Do you want to get high?” he said slowly, and I feel like a kid almost, being offered a few coughing hits off a joint behind the tennis courts by one of the cool rebellious kids. I shrug – “Can’t see why not.” and follow him up the stairs.

The view up the staircase makes me grin – a small stone flight to the second floor, then inexplicably an twisted iron spiral to the third. Have I ever mentioned my love affair with spiral staircases? It bears repeating regardless. I love spiral staircases. They’re like redheaded Norwegian bartenders in that I really want as many of them in my life as possible. Thinking similar thoughts, I stop at the landing, but can’t do much more then look left-right before Tops is continuing up to the rooftop and I’m hurrying to catch up to him. Up the creaking metal stairs, I push through the decayed, barely functional door to the roof, and suddenly I know – just know – that I’ve come to the right place. The sunlight filtering down through the screen windows might be one reason, but pretty a picture as that is, the memory of it is forced out of my mind by the gigantic fucking volcano to my right. Volcan Agua, a few thousand meters of danger and possible immolation sleeping peacefully under a blanket of green and farms, and before it lies all of Antigua, tile and rusty tin roofs – a postcard view of sleepy colonial Central America. I stop mid-sentence, so arresting is the view

“Shit. Tops – this is incredible!” I exclaim, to which he simply smiles. “Turn around man.” I do, only to find myself facing 2 more volcanoes, further away but no less impressive – wisps of smoke drifting out of Volcan Fuego hinting at the power lying dormant beneath our feet. “What a place,” I shake my head, try to keep my jaw from dropping. “Sure man, whatever. Here, take this.” Tops presses a lit joint into my hand, and I reel. Here I am, dressed nicely, carrying around a bag of resumes and pretending to be a respectable human being, and the person I’m trying to impress is now offering me ganja, wisps of smoke still curling out of his nostrils. Who exactly am I trying to fool here? Fuck it – I switch gears, take a drag, and look back at the clouds sweeping over Agua. Exhale, breathe, inhale, think, think THINK! How the fuck do I keep finding this same place in different places? Handing the joint back to Tops, I close my eyes, grin, and ask when I can move in.

It was a joke, kind of – we still have to tour the rooms, Karla’s hair salon on the second floor, and the cramped attic bathroom, but it doesn’t really matter – so long as the rooms aren’t being used to store dead hookers I am already set upon moving in. I pull away finally after a good hour and a half talking and bullshitting with Tops, and it’s an effort – the man is fantastically interesting, and even if 90% of what he told me is complete and utter lies he has still lived a life worth living. I convince him to hold the room for me long enough to head over to an ATM, and step out into town. As I’m nearly out the door, Tops calls after me “Hey man, we’re looking for a bartender, so if you know any hot girls who want a job, send them over here.” Laughing, I go for lunch, consider and abandon looking at any of the other places on my list, and head eventually over to the outdoor trekking company where I’m going to start working.

Except that I’m not – tourism has been horrible ever since a bunch of dishonest money-grubbing fucks in the US decided to play games with the world’s money supply and made a killing at the expense of all the rest of us, and so there is no work to be had – nobody is leading mountain expeditions because nobody is paying to take them, and they have enough problems keeping their existing crew fed and working without adding another body. This is both news to me and a bit of a problem – I came to Antigua exclusively to work for this company, and a several-month, multiple interview process had led me to believe that I was coming into a sure thing – a guaranteed job. Rereading the last email they sent to me before I ditched a perfectly happy life in Leon, Nicaragua, I still come to the conclusion that I did at the time – that I was coming to Antigua to a job they were offering me. I mean, they even gave me a starting date! Granted, I was late a few days, but I notified them and everything… I mope a bit, but there isn’t much else we can do, and much as Sophie and a big loving dog help me feel better, I still walk out the door disillusioned and on-edge.

The reason for my stormcloud is the same reason I crash-landed in Antigua in the first place – I’m flat-on-my-ass broke, having spent 2 months traveling, backpacking, having one hell of a time and causing trouble across Central America. It’s been fun, but I’m completely out of money and need some time to reflect, write, and chill the fuck out for a bit. Antigua fit that bill because I loved the idea of leading people up mountains and volcanoes and getting paid for it, and the town itself is pretty fantastic – too gringo for my taste, but tolerably so if only because most of the expatriate regulars are cynical, over-educated alcoholics (Hi Cafe No Sé regulars!), and that’s my people. My communications with the guiding company went well, my schedule lined up with their needs – certainly this was exactly what I needed to be doing right?

Wrong – things I plan don’t work, never have, and this latest misadventure was shaping up to be more of the same. With few options, I make a few rounds of town looking for work, pass out resumes, speak with managers and owners all over the city, and the message is the same everywhere – no work here, tourism sucks, come back later. I spend the whole day getting turned down over and again, until dusk falls, and it’s time for me to head over to Te Quiero and decide whether to rent that room or not. The whole walk across town – all 7 blocks – I mull it over in my head. Should I stay here, keep looking for a job? It’s terribly expensive, it feels like a part of the western world, and I hate the feeling of Disneyland, Central-America-in-a-snowglobe that this place gives off. Still, I have to do something, somewhere, while I still have the cash to start a new life, and that window is closing – it might be here or home.

A mental cigarette later, I’m back at the little red bar, walking through the fading sunlight to soft salsa beats – it turns out that the neighboring building is a dance studio with free lessons on Monday and Tuesday. Another point to “move in.” I step into the bar and the groove switches over to Bob Marley – Makanaki’s kitchen, his music choice, and the default is always Bob Marley, with a little variation into the Groundation or Massive Attack realms. How to describe this man – “He was like a combination of Buddha, Jesus, and Bob Marley” as the man across from me just helpfuly pointed out. He’s right too – Makanaki is and was the coolest motherfucker on the planet, and certainly lightyears closer to enlightenment then I am. I could learn a lot from this man – another clear point for staying. Dreadlocked, dress shirt and torn jeans, with his signature knit cap, he greets me with a boistrous “Hey boy! Come in boy! Pase adelante,” and sweeps his arm across toward the back of the building. “Hey man, how are you? Como estas? Is Tops here?” “Yeah mon, arriba. You kno boy? Arriba, above, UP.” He almost shouts at me, pointing toward the ceiling. I grin and head upstairs to the roof, figuring I know what Tops is doing right now.

I was wrong, incidentally, but it scarcely matters because any thought I had of Tops is replaced by the spectacular fireworks show that opens up off my righthand side just as I push open the rooftop door. Close enough to touch, exploding out of nowhere a hundred meters away, I feel the pressure waves, taste the acrid gunpowder smoke, and I just can’t look away. What a sight! I stand there mesmerized until the final crackling pops die away and the world lies still again. Another point for staying, and that’s the match. I head downstairs with ears ringing, grinning like the idiot I am.

I find Tops in one of the bedrooms I’d looked at earlier, sitting at a desk looking far too serious to take seriously. “Hey Tops, I think the universe is telling me to move in here.” “Well good man, I’m glad to hear. Tell you what man, I think you’re just the right guy to move in here.” He comes around the desk, shakes my hand, and we do all the boring stuff you don’t want to read about – contracts, receipts, house rules, credit check, transferred keys, all that jazz. Or wait, no, we do none of that. I give him $150, he writes “24 Oct to 24 Nov” and his signature on a scrap of paper, and that’s it, I’m home.

I choose the bedroom I’d first seen, a pentagonal oddity with leopard-print sheer blinds, a crate, a lamp, a chair, a bookshelf, plus the best bed in the house, which is the only thing I care about. The door is cardboard almost and doesn’t lock, the walls are bare whitewash except for a crayon flower and the word MAYA written along one, and a pair of pastel butterflies across from it. I have sheets, a thick wool blanket, and a rug. There’s a bare bulb on the roof that makes the place feel like prison, but the lamp gives off a homely yellow glow that reminds me of living with my grandparents, so the light never gets turned on for long. Tops has been moving things, setting up since I left earlier, so I thank him, shut off the light, and we head downstairs to delicious vegetarian food at the hands of our Rasta chef. So good. I need to head home to my hostel if I’ve any hope of making friends tonight, so I turn down their offers of more drinks, and right before leaving ask – “Hey Tops, you still need a bartender?” “Sure man, just come back tomorrow and we’ll talk all about it.” Just like that I’m sucked in by the vortex of Te Quiero – home, job, hangout – I never had a chance.

I spend the night at Cafe No Sé, sipping whiskey and watching fantastic live music. I’m terrified at the speed of things, but all I can do is smile – I have a home, I might have a job, and I’m watching a man named Jueves play the hell out of a kazoo and singing dirty versions of Britney Spears and Spice Girls songs. What else does anyone really need in life?

What they need is a love story, which they would know if they ever thought about it hard enough. In this case, that comes courtesy of an Austrian beauty named Kirina. 24, quite the accomplished traveler, and in town studying Spanish before she takes off to backpack Central America – she has one hell of a story, but doesn’t everyone worth writing about? She came to Te Quiero a few times before I showed up, or so I’ve heard, but our stories clicked together like Lego from the very start, and afterward there’s just the one – slightly bigger, multicolor, and Danish for “Let’s play,” to stretch that analogy to breaking.

Our story starts where all good love stories do – a bar. My bar, which Te Quiero has certainly become by the time we meet. Falling into the life has been so easy – within a week I have free reign off the bar, in charge of not just mixing drinks, but of ordering, purchases, salaries, and everything to do with money, payments, and numbers. It’s an easy job, one I do well enough without thinking too hard, and sitting around telling stories, playing psychologist, and joking with our small-but-swelling crowd of regulars gives me just enough easy work to never feel as if I’m working. I’m in my element in small bars with good music, and so long as you can keep the attitude lighthearted – “chill out” says Tops 100x daily – the guests will follow suit. We play, never work, and between the constant rulebreaking and horseplay I’m never sure if this is my job or just a place that pays me to hang out and do something every few minutes.

Kirina comes in one afternoon to do her homework and get a break from a Spanish-speaking family and German-speaking classmates. “All they ever do is speak German, German, German all day. It’s so annoying – how can I practice Spanish like that?” as she puts it. The first thing I notice about her is that she’s outdrinking the rest of the bar, partly because she came in early and had a head-start, but also because this girl can drink. I play a game bartending where I keep track of what I’ve given everyone, and Kirina is winning hands down. The second thing I notice is that she smokes Marlboros like they’ll go bad if she doesn’t get rid of them quickly enough but makes it look downright sexy – chainsmoking as a turn-on. The third thing is her accent, gorgeous and foreign, and I can’t keep myself from being physically, bodily excited every time she speaks to me. I catch myself sneaking glances at her, head stuck in a Spanish workbook or vocab list, and I start to wonder whether I’ll actually talk to this one before she walks out of my life.

The answer is no, then yes. I don’t say much to her that night that isn’t transactional, instead telling stories to a pair of spell-bound travelers from Canada and Austria. I give them a few good ones – hitchhiking, prison islands, chasing women across 3 countries, paradise found all making an appearance, but I can’t focus on it because just behind them is this girl I want to talk to but can’t because I’m stuck behind the bar all night. Still, I’m consoled by her reappearance the next day, and we end up talking for quite a while simply because the bar is dead all night – Marlboros and cheap whiskey set the tone, and somehow we end up dancing at the end of the night. Actually, I remember how it happens – she says the worst part about white guys is that we’re afraid of dancing, and I can’t let that stand. I take her back to the theater and with the help of Tops’ incredible music collection off we go.

Barefoot we learn how to move together, slow salsa, rumba, foxtrot, swing. It doesn’t go very well at first, with both of us leading we go nowhere, and nobody can explain what needs to happen. Still, as we learn to work around the language barrier, to touch and sense and move each other, we improve quickly. Right about the time I’m thinking how intensely intimate this is, she catches me early on a turn and we’re there, eye to eye, bodies touching, and there’s nothing to do but kiss. And kiss we do, standing there alone in public swaying wobbly circles on our impromptu dance floor. Cautious at first, little soft pecks turn to big wet ones, nibbles and small bites. Tongues and teeth and lips, cheeks and noses and ears and necks get into the act. We stop after a few minutes and stand there holding each other. She says something in German – I whisper “I know – I’m attracted to you too,” and slowly lean in to kiss her again but then Makanaki comes back looking for me.

“Hey boy, dis guy up here he be wanting to pay an – OHOHO, whatchu doin’ back here padnah? Yeah, das rite, HahahaHAHA…” and he just stands there belly-laughing as I give Kirina my best eye roll and shrug – “I don’t understand Makanaki any better than you do” is the message, and she gets it. We head back into the bar, and go back to our positions – client and bartender. Strange – we both act as if nothing had changed or happened, but the whole rest of the night we catch eachother stealing glances and exchange secret smiles. We fool exactly no one, but still go outside, out of sight to kiss goodnight. Like the dancing, we get better at it with practice. Then she’s gone, I’m washing dishes, and wondering to myself – is this the girl I’m looking for? I know now, didn’t then, but it was the start of a beautiful relationship regardless.

The next day is a Tuesday, I’m sure of it because Kirina and I spend an hour that evening at a free Salsa and Meringue class. It’s not a bad place to meet people, especially if you like to dance, because chances are good that the people who take free dance classes are also the ones you can ask to dance at clubs. They’re also a good place to meet women. I’m having doubts about whether I like Kirina for her or because she’s a woman who likes me, and I figure the class might give me a chance to flirt a bit, see if I’m just lonely, that sort of thing. We do basic steps, and being me I can’t help but to modify them, with the result that my corner of the room collapses into chaos on a semi-regular basis. Still, nobody there makes me think that starting something with Kirina would be a bad idea, so that works out nicely. We don’t kiss that second day – it just doesn’t feel right. I know, perhaps just feel, that she really likes me, but I’m unsure how to go about starting a relationship with someone when we share no language in which we can express feelings or have deep conversations. How do you get close to someone when you can’t talk to them?

“By touching” is the correct answer there as it turns out, a solution we come to Wednesday night after a night spent dancing to a live show by the singer from the Buena Vista Social Club and some great players. Every Wednesday night these guys get together and blow the house away, and the dancers are pretty phenomenal. We show up late – I shut the bar down early and we race over to get inside. The place is packed to the walls with pairs of frantic, often drunk dancers and sexual tension – just like any good Salsa club ought to be. Sultry beats, macho Latin men dancing with bewildered tourists taller than them, goofy gringos doing their best, and a few pairs of dancers who truly make an art of it. Kirina and I aren’t there, but we give it a decent shot, grabbing a position near center floor and aggressively defending it with flailed limbs and bodies. Between sets we meet the singer – 74 years of clubs and drinks, of watching young couples fall for each other to the sound of his voice, of thousands of nights just like tonight, yet still in love with what he does, and friendly to everyone. He sips a short glass of something strong and smiles through our breathless hero worship. Somewhere during the night we’re no longer dancing so much as kissing gratuitously in public, so we bail out of the floudering party and head home.

I don’t have a house key yet, despite 5 or 8 days of Tops and Karla promising to get me one, so coming home is a gamble – none of the other tenants have moved in, and I’ve my fingers crossed that Tops was too lazy to walk across town tonight and is asleep upstairs. We’re kissing on the doorstep as we ring the doorbell over and again, and just before I lose hope that Tops will ever answer it, he swings the door open and we’re piling inside, being polite and thankful but really just trying to get upstairs and at each other – that carnal energy of a first time with a new lover running so strong that we’re idiots, all grins and knowing looks. We barely make it upstairs, and thankfully my door doesn’t lock from the outside as we make it in, collapse onto my low bed, and the rest isn’t a story for children or those who like to project their twisted morality on others. Here it is anyway.

We’re a mess of arms, hair, hot breathless kisses. She tastes like cigarettes, smells like hard soap and sweaty dancers, and refuses to wear makeup or chemicals. It’s intoxicating. I’m sure I’m just as wonderful smelling – having given up deodorant, shampoo, scented capitalist substitutes for sex hormones and the scent of a real person, I “stink,” by which I mean actually smell quite deliciously human. Words don’t matter any more, they never did anyway, and we’re breathing, gasping, learning how to touch each other. At one point she starts speaking German to me, and I don’t understand the words but I understand her. We play for hours, then collapse in a pile, sweaty, glowing, and feeling silly. We sneak up to the roof in our bare skin and smoke cigarettes in the cold night, but hurry back inside to still-warm blankets and fall asleep entertwined. It’s the first time I’ve slept with someone I have feelings for in 11 months, and we sleep the sleep of the innocents until her phone alarm starts buzzing at 6am, unholy hour, and suddenly she’s up and dressing, and I am too, and we’re laughing and kissing and it all feels so normal, so natural. I walk her home as the city arises, yawns, and stretches itself awake. We kiss on her doorstep and then I’m walking home alone, grinning ear to ear, and I can’t quite believe how good the day is turning out to be. Even finding out that I’ve locked my door without thinking doesn’t ruin my day, but it might have ruined Tops’ – waking him up for the second time in 12 hours earns me a half-asleep scowl. “Sorry mate, if you’d like to get me a key this won’t happen again.” We laugh about the night before, have a quick toke on the roof, and then I’m off to bed until noon, and by the time I’ve showered and eaten Kirina is downstairs doing her homework and there’s nothing to do except sit down and kiss her to the point of distraction and then some. Makanaki laughes, hoots, says incredibly dirty and suggestive things in Spanish and we can’t spare a care for him – it’s something beautiful we’re found ourselves in, and keeping it going is all we care about.

Tops gives me a book that changes my life a week into my stay in Antigua. It’s called Days of War, Nights of Love and if Tops is to be believed, the simple act of buying a copy will end you up on some terrorist watchlist or another. Hell if I know whether that’s true, but it is an incredible book, revolutionary, unflinchingly anarchist, a call to rebellion, a guide to living one’s life in a capitalist’s world if you refuse to be one. He gives me the tattered volume while we’re both on the roof one afternoon, watching the sun slowly set and talking about how to cope with a society you fundamentally disagree with. He interrupts me mid-sentence, pulls the book from his backpack and presses it into my hands.

“Here man, I’m going to lend you this. Read it, but you need to give it back eventually, ok? I mean, fuck man, they put you on an FBI list in the states if you buy this book, and I don’t need that kind of attention.”

“Sure thing man, what’s it about?”

“You’re an anarchist – you don’t have to tell me that, or even agree with it, but you are. You think too much man, it makes you dangerous to the System. This book is about how to live without the System, how to be true to yourself, and remove yourself from aspects of life you don’t like. Everyone who reads it tells me that it changes their life.”

Given a recommendation like that, the book had a lot to live up to, but it did that and more. From the first page until the last, then through 3 more consecutive readings, the ideas and raw energy of that small tome captivated me. The essays, drawings, short stories, poems, letters – the whole work of love – pours forth until I am reading them compulsively, and worse, I find myself agreeing with the arguments presented. Worse, I say, because the conclusions of those arguments follow so simply, so logically, and are in such agreement with my own life experiences, that I cannot help but to accept them all, and what conclusions they are! Never work except when it satisfies you, don’t own, find your own standards and live by those and no others, never obey, work alongside by never for others, put your love into everything you do – these messages and others I’ve “taken” from this book aren’t there at all, but are simply the inescapable decisions one must make if you accept the arguments made in Days of War. For someone like myself, who has always disagreed strongly with western society on a fundamental, structural level, to see my own problems, my own arguments written before me, to discover the existence of others, organized, working toward the goals I myself hold, it is lifechanging. This book throws me a Big Question – “If you know it to be true, that we must create our own way of life if we are ever to combat the status quo, why do you still live by their rules, still act as if the other way is valid?”

For at least a week I’m lost – completely unsure of what I want to do, overwhelmed by the coming actions I must take should I accept the inescapable conclusion I’ve come to. If western society truly promotes a suicidal, unsustainable, undeniably wrong way to live, and I think that a better way exists, and is reachable by us today, don’t I have to try and find it? I dodge around it for a week, exhaust every excuse, and finally decide to try it – to live as much as possible without helping gigantic international corporations, to be self-reliant, to know how to survive in my environment, to be able to provide food, water, shelter, a respectable life to myself and loved ones, to never buy what I can make or do not need, to help everyone who needs it, to learn always, to share what little I have without expecting reciprocation, to never pursue money, fame, or influence – the opposite, more or less, of what American values promote. It’s a difficult pledge to make, one I have since fallen back on, one I will falter on again and again throughout my life. Still, we are all hypocrites – it is a part of modern existence that such promises are nearly impossible to make, so dependant are we on a system of elite control and centralized power – at least my hypocracy will be part of an attempt to do better rather then out of ignorance, fear, or apathy. I still have the book, having lost contact with Tops after the collapse, but a promise is a promise – and since I promised I’d get it back to him, I guess that means I’ll never see the man again. It’s too bad, because the doubts, confusion, and truth that his book unexpectedly shoveled into my brain have changed me for the better, and at the very least I owe him a thanks, or perhaps a beer.

It’s the chance encounters with treasonous minds, the mentors in exile, the excommunicated prophets, that keep the resistance alive, ensure that mind-numbing television, hidden cameras, and a lifetime of scripted school and workplace drama won’t ever truly destroy the human spirit. Take Tops – this man was rich, part of the priviledged, educated elite of Guatemala, and he’s given it all up, thrown all the money, parties, women aside to live as a near-beggar, dedicating his life to breaking laws, opening illegal bars, to rattling the cages of those who live unquestioned lives. I’ve had the good fortune to run into dozens, hundreds of people like Tops, from school teachers masquerading at following the rules but sneaking me Howard Zinn at break, to dedicated anarchists squatting in abandoned buildings and spreading marijuana and opium seeds across the world, and everywhere in between.

In a world where we are constantly set against each other, rich versus poor, us versus them, political parties, religions, races, the only truly revolutionary viewpoint is to refuse to hate – there’s a hell of a lot of us thinking like this, and we’re constantly learning, testing, sharing. Groups like Crimethinc are growing, cooperatives, communes, free associations of all sorts, and it remains to be seen what comes from here. One thing I am sure of is that should we actually succeed in this endeavor, this attempt to live without the power structure of this world, those in charge will come down on us hard and merciless – power rarely changes hands without a fight. In the meanwhile I’ll keep rebelling for me rather then against them, continue refusing to live by any law except my own, and let you know how it turns out. Anyhow…

Back to the really fun story – Guy turns out to be right on, there really are 5 men with guns at the door, big serious-looking fuckers with big serious rifles. There’s a woman there also, and when I pop open our little door hatch to talk to her, she immediately demands that I open the door. I swing one door open, lean on the doorframe, try to play it cool and find out what is going on exactly. I ask the clipboard woman, who looks in charge of the situation, why they’ve all decided to come visit. She doesn’t smile, and instead tells me that she has a court order of something – Spanish legal jargon is just as deliberatly vague and confusing as its English cousin. I don’t understand so I tell her – “I don’t understand,” and she repeats herself. I shrug with a theatrically hopeless gesture, and as response I get a clipboard shoved into my face. Clipboard lady points to one line, I read it a couple times, and it clicks – eviction day.

I ask in Spanish “We all need to get out?” “Yes.” “Now?” “Yes.” “Right now?” “Right now.” “I’m going to call the lady who rents this house, I’ll be back.” The last one prompts a few more questions – no I don’t live here, no I don’t have a contract here, no, I’m just here – that’s all you need to know. Apparently that meant they couldn’t come inside, because when I invited them to come in and sit down the woman shook her head and glared. I walk upstairs none-too-slowly and find my phone in my pants in the corner. “Karla – you should come over to Te Quiero.” “Why?” “Because there are 5 guys with guns outside and a court order of eviction.” “Eviction?” “They want us all to leave now.” “No, really?” “Yes. Really.” “I’ll be there soon.” We hang up, and I lean my head against the wall for a few much-needed deep breaths. Why does this sort of shit keep happening to me?

Back downstairs, phone in the waistband of my shorts, I ask the angry woman to come in again. Same look, and I smile sweetly. I make coffee and eat garlic toast while sitting on the bar, still in my tiny shorts, with this whole gaggle of bored police and military-uniformed guys with guns, and the impatient looks of the woman from the courts. I’ve been awake for under 20 minutes at this point, and am fairly convinced I’ve made the whole encounter up, so I pass my time thinking about ways to test reality until finally Karla shows up looking flustered, with a lawyer riding in her wake. They start speaking rapid-fire Spanish with the matriarch in front of her flock, and it becomes obvious I am not needed or wanted around any longer. I walk up to my room, throw my arms up at the Guy, and start packing my life back into bags.

It’s not hard to pack up your life if you’re me, so I just throw everything into my bags, restuff the sleeping bag, fill the backpack with the only clothes I actually wear, and am just forcing the zipper closed on the giant pig bag when it occurs to me to ask if we are actually going to get evicted. Downstairs, no more dressed then before, I see Karla in the bar with everyone else outside. “It’s ok,” she tells me, “my lawyer told me he’s found a mistake on the documents – it hasn’t been properly done. We’re not going to leave – I’m sorry for scaring you.” “It’s ok Karla,” I respond, wishing I could believe her, “ I really wish this was the first time I’d gotten an eviction notice.” Looking out the doorway at the lawyer and the court woman, I see exactly the opposite result written on both of their faces, and head back upstairs to finish packing.

While I’m in my room, 3 teenagers arrive and start moving the hair salon downstairs, and we shoot knowing and “isn’t-this-sad” looks at each other as they pass the door. I finish packing, realize I have too many possessions to live as a backpacker full time, and wander downstairs to find the entire floor in chaos. The theater and cafe are in various stages of gone and the bar is a hive of bodies, piles of boxes everywhere, glasses, plates stacked on the bar, the freezer’s contents sitting on top of it. Those kids do good work. My bar has disappeared completely in under an hour, living room with it, and I reel. “Karla, can I help you move out?” sends me back upstairs to dismantle bedrooms, and the Guy and I move beds, dressers, bookshelves, down the stairs, with my monosyllabic non-listening nicely complementing his good-natured groaning at the job I’d thrust on him. We pass the next few hours in carrying rooms outside, until it becomes time to get the washing machine downstairs. The Guy and I are low-side on this beast, and 2 of the 3 kids are all that can fit on the other. Dragging the machine down one step at a time pulls something in the Guy’s back – he nearly falls backwards down the stairs. After that, I’m alone on the heavy end, and we barely make it down without killing me. I give Guy a look, but he’s obviously in pain, and he’s only lived here 2 days anyhow – moving out my apartment building and workplace isn’t his task.

After that Guy became photographer and we start moving the other heavy things out, as Karla and her friends clear out the breakables. We brute force a refrigerator, several coolers, a wardobe, some desks, and a piano out the front door, filling the sidewalks and more then half the street with the whole lives of 4 people, plus everything it takes to make a bar, cafe, theater, and hair salon, which it turns out is a house-size mountain when you put it all in a heap. While we’re doing this, a group of 4 gringos comes in and starts walking through the building. “Can we go upstairs?” our apparent successors ask. “We want to see the roof and the upper rooms.” The sheer gall – coming into the building we are being forced out while we’re in the process of being kicked to curb for their benefit – fury gives Karla’s deadpanned “this isn’t a good time” physical weight. The inconsiderate fucks actually start to argue with her until they realize they’re surrounded by angry faces, and then slink out. We’ve won a small victory, but lost the war. What sort of twats, what complete assholes do you have to be to come into that situation and act like that? If you’re ever in Antigua, be sure to stop by 1ra Avenida #9B and call them a bunch of shitsuckers, just for fun. The city is full of sad stories of brown people being evicted so that richer white people can move in, and there’s no fighting it in the Capitalist’s legal system, but a prank a day keeps the dog leash away, so why not go give them hell?

For whatever reason, this encounter kicks the legs out from under us, and the vibe sags. Fatigue sets in with a vengeance – we have an audience now – neighbors and passersby are gathering, and 4 of the gunmen still stand in pairs across the way, giving the whole scene a flavor of criminal misdeeds. We are obviously a pile of thieves being kicked to the curb for our terrible behavior. We must deserve it, otherwise why would the police be there? Fucking scum, good riddance to them! Surrounded by judging eyes, I look around at my co-conspirators – Guy, Kirina has just stopped by after Spanish classes, Makanaki covered in sweat and dirt, and Karla looking lost in the middle of it all. Everyone looks down, beaten, and something obviously needs to be done. But what? By who?

It’s a week and a day after Kirina and I met, and I’ve found myself in something of a rut – waking up to kiss her goodbye, eating breakfast, then sleeping or meditating through the morning hours has become my norm, followed by exercise on the roof and setting up the bar for the night, and then Kirina will be over from school and the rest of my day is spent working or spending time with her, and my nights as well. Te Quiero is changing for the better, with a growing crowd of regulars, a full schedule of live acts, bands practicing during the day, and wild illegal afterparties behind closed doors nearly every night. It’s a fun life, don’t get me wrong, but trading sleep for sex, drugs, and rock and roll isn’t sustainable. I can do it for damn near forever but it ruins my mind and body, and after one particularly vicious lamp-melting, chair-breaking, hedonistic all-night bender with the members of Woodser – this great local band – Kirina and I decide that we’re in need of a lifestyle adjustment. We’d first started talking about it Wednesday before the party, but it’s not until the aftermath of the next morning that we get serious about it.

“That’s it,” she tells me over her shoulder in the groggy afterglow of another too-short night. “We’re stopping doing everything – drugs, alcohol, smoking – everything. We need a break.”

“Yeah, maybe a weekend.”

“Ok, all weekend we’ll be good.”

“But what’s our reward? We need something to keep us honest, or we’ll just drink and smoke anyway.”

“On Sunday we’ll go out and get big steaks and drink whiskey.”

“You mean like a date?” I feign shock. “But here we have this beautiful relationship based on our mutual love of having sex with each other. Why ruin that?”

“Yeah, a real date.” She kisses me teasingly on the mouth and is out of bed and into her pants all in one great big letdown of a moment.

“You should never put pants on, ever. Why not skip class and stay in bed all day with me?” I ask this every morning and she replies with the usual – “No, you make me lazy. I came here for Spanish, not boys.” She spins half-out the door and gives me that heart-melting look. “No drugs, no cigarettes, no alcohol until dinner on Sunday, ok?”

“Ok, but only if I have to.” She’s out the door and I lie there wondering why I’m such shit at negotiating with women. “Should have gotten blowjobs into the agreement.” I tell the ceiling, and then I’m drifting off into a dream free of hangovers and ill-advised promises. 16 hours later I put a tab of LSD onto my tongue and blow that promise all to hell and back.

It’s a surprise to me too. The day starts off normally enough – I clean up the big fucking mess from another night of late-night partiers and too much booze, balance the bar’s books, make beer and food orders, eat eggs and bread and leftovers. Nothing unusual, nothing to hint at the craziness about to unfold in my mind. The day passes slowly without any of the usual smoke breaks, and that evening I drink ice water with lemon as I bartend. The promise isn’t hard to keep until 3 men come in looking like they’re out to drink until they hurt. Bars depend on this sort of crowd to keep in the black, and so I spend my night mainly in keeping them supplied with enough whiskey, beer, and vegetarian tapas. Other guests come and go, Minnesota comes in for a few beers and to tell a crazy story about a horny old man, but these 3 keep at it, and they’re still drinking steadily at 10pm when I close the doors. Then things get blissfully out of control.

“Hey man, do you want to do some acid?” Ricardo, the drunkest of the 3, asks me nonchalantly.

“I’ve always considered it a possibility. Do you have any?”

“Yeah man, I’ve got a little bit of everything, but we’re all doing LSD tonight. Want to join us?”

“Is it good?”

“Of course man, this is the real deal. Good shit.” He’s sweating slightly, and his eyes can’t focus on mine.

“Is it safe?”

“Fuck man, it depends on you. Have you done it before?”

“Never, but I’ve a bit of experience with hallucinogens.”

“Well, just don’t take a full tab – do a quarter every 2 hours and you’ll have a wild night.”

“Alright, why the fuck not.”

I live my life according to few principles, one of which I call the “why the fuck not” test. It works like this – if I am ever offered an experience, particularly one I’ve never had before, I ask myself why the fuck I would not want to do it. If I don’t have a satisfactory answer, I do it. I mull the idea of doing LSD over in my head, and as I’m doing so Ricardo drops a half-tab onto his tongue and starts laughing. “Come on already! If you don’t take it, these guys will.” I look at his 2 friends lounging on the couch, lost in animated rapidly-slurring Spanish – not the most encouraging sight – and back at Ricardo. “It’s real?” “Shit man, don’t worry so much. Of course it’s real. I don’t fuck around with bad acid.” Good enough for government work. I take the offered square of paper, no more then 1cm at a side, and stare at it a while as I balance the expenses and write out the next day’s purchases. Finally having shed my responsibilities, I cut a razor-thin slice off of one side and put it in the center of my tongue. “Here goes nothing” I write in my open notebook, pause a moment and follow it with “nothing is true. Everything is possible.”

There’s no immediate effect save an electric tingle that spreads across my tongue into my teeth. I feel a rushing panic, but the effect subsides and I don’t feel anything more for a half hour, so I cut off 2 more tiny slices, put another on my tongue, and hand the second to Makanaki. He laughs a big belly-shaking guffaw and yells at me from 2 feet away. “So good Padnah! So good! Pegale, fighting mambo!” and I can’t help but dissolve into giggles. The 2 English girls studying at the table in the front room give us pitying looks, and one of them tells me that her friends used to do a whole lot of LSD, and to please be careful. I assure her I will, and once I let them out the door and lock it, I put the rest of the tab onto my tongue. One of the other principles I live by is “never do anything halfway” and I’m not about to start now.

The tingle spreads past my teeth this time, rolls through my head, neck, arms, feet. I become aware of tiny vibrations in every inch of my body, and for a moment I feel giddy, full of potential energy. Then the waves grow, increase frequency and amplitude, and just as I’m worried that I won’t be able to hold them in any longer, the energy explodes outward, and instead of feeling just the vibrations of my whole body, I can feel them all around me, pulsating with beautiful music, changing with my every breath and movement. I do a slow piroette in the center of the room, absorb waves back in, breathe them out again. I clap to watch the waves I create. I grab my notebook as an urgent need to write sweeps through me and scribble furiously – all crazy rambling and a lot of talk about the “underground orchestra rattling through the pipes” and “raw potential” – nothing groundbreaking, but good notes for writing this whole section. I’m thinking too quickly for writing though, and give it up soon enough.

Meanwhile, the bar isn’t empty. There are 2 German girls and Makanaki playing music on Tops’ ancient jukebox of a computer, and one of them wants to transfer some music off of it. The computer can’t play music and do anything else at the same time, so I grab my laptop and just barely manage to get it turned on and working. Turns out one of the girls loves punk music, and I just happen to have buckets of it. We’re blasting the Dead Kennedys, Streetlight Manifesto, dancing in the theater and I can’t barely think, so distracting is the world-enveloping strings concert playing out all around me. I realize that I’m seeing interpersonal relations embodied physically, that I can feel evey subtle nonverbal cue between the girls and Makanaki, Tops, and myself. “Mak wants to fuck this punk girl” I see it so clearly – his vibrating energy is concentrated so heavily upon her that I’d have to be blind not to feel it. She’s got some energy going his way as well, but it’s negative – this relationship is one-sided, and I might be the only one who sees all sides. Punk girl is focused on the music, and a bit on Tops, and her friend is eyeball fucking the hell out of me – no hallucination needed to see that one. She doesn’t know me, or she’d know that Kirina has me and I don’t want her to let go yet. A flying German girl hits me out of nowhere and draws me back to the present. Tops is done transfering files and wants to put his house music back on, so our 2-body mosh pit dies out, and I go looking for something to drink.

In the kitchen I spend hours, decades trying to successfully get a glass off the shelf. With the light reflecting off a hundred cups and glasses I can see the whole world as a kaleidoscope and it’s impossible to grab any one of them. I have to turn off the lights to pull myself away from gawking all night. The group in the theater comes out – the girls are going home, Tops is going to bed, and all of Makanaki’s drunken Rasta charm can’t convince them to stay any longer. They go, and Makanaki berates me for letting them. “Come on Padnah! Joo let dem go and dey wanted to stay. Whatchoo be doin’ letting dat girl leave when she be wantin’ to get in bed withchoo? Yeahhhh Padnah, joo loco. Crazy. Lettin’ dat girl leave…” He goes a while like this, swearing, telling me how much of an idiot I am for letting 2 girls leave, and how he could have had that German girl if only I’d taken her friend to bed with me, and all I can do is smile – he doesn’t see the energy, feel the vibrations like I do, or he would know that there was no chance with that girl, that she was there for the music and free drinks that Tops and Makanaki think I’m too blind to see them giving her. Eventually he calms down and leaves, and I’m finally alone. I lay on top of the bar for a while, rocked gently by the waves rolling through the wooden countertop.

Nothing makes sense. Everything is clearer then it has ever been before. The contradictory statements meet in the middle of the street, embrace like old friends, and slip into the nearest dive bar to drink themselves blind, and still the orchestra in my head plays on. “The ship is sinking,” I think, and suddenly I want nothing more then to see my old friends again. I pull out my phone and call Chad. Poor bastard gets all of my weirdest calls, especially with Kel off in boot camp. “Hey man, how are you?” “Who is this?” “Your Guatemalan friend – the only guy who would call you from Central America.” A pause. “K?! How the fuck are you man? Where the fuck? What are you doing? Why are you calling me?”

The questions surge out, a firehose of excitement and frustration – it’s been months since I talked at length with any of the people I know and love, and the LSD brings out emotions stronger then anything – he’s so happy, so sad, so angry, so relieved to hear from me that it breaks my heart – I’m a bad friend these days. “You know man, you are my craziest friend right now. Kel is going into the Navy, Foxy is giving up her citizenship and moving to Australia, but you win hands down. What in the fuck are you doing down there?” “Surviving mainly. I have a bar now. And an apartment. And a girl. We have sex on the roof under the stars. Oh, and I’m on LSD right now. I had this desperate urge to call you, but now I remember that I’m broke and this is going to burn all my phone credits. Can I Skype you?” We hang up, and nerds that we are, dive onto laptops to video chat. I look at mine in complete misunderstanding and suddenly feel overwhelmed. How can I even relate to my old life now? Will my friends still be my friends? I can feel the LSD creeping up on me, taking control, so I slap myself hard on the cheek, then call Chad again. “Hey man, little problem with the whole Skype thing.” “What’s that?” “I’M ON LSD!” I shout and hang up the phone, laughing maniacally at the havoc I must be back home.

On the internets we reconnect, this time with video. I’ve been so long without a steady internet hookup that I’ve forgotten how small telecommunications have made the world. Right there in front of me is Chad, Rad, and Muey – 3 great friends, 2 guys I used to live with and Chad’s beau. The video shows all of them piled on Chad’s(?) bed, bewildered and amused faces staring at me. “Hey friends! You have no idea how good it is to see you again!” “Damn right we don’t – your video isn’t working.” “Right, how about now?” “It’s transmitting, but all we can see is black. Where are you?” “In a closed theater, sitting in the dark.” A pause. “Well – fuck, go somewhere with some light!” I grab my laptop and walk into the bar, flipping on the dull pink lights, and it doesn’t help a bit – bar lighting being what it is, seeing things around you clearly isn’t exactly a priority. I resort to sitting in front of the refrigerator, giving the crowd back home a ghostly silouette on a background of cocktail mixers and vegetables. “This might be the best we can get. Still, a dim outline seems pretty damn appropriate, no?” “Listen man, we can kind of see you, so that’s good enough. What the hell have you been up to? Weren’t you living in Honduras on the beach?”

It all comes pouring out, gushing words and stories collide, and at first I’m just spitting nonsense at them – hitchhiking 5 countries, chasing women, rum-soaked dance parties, the bar, friends and women and drugs and adventures, I wax rhapsodic, thrown as I am into my own delicious memories, and it takes a few minutes to focus my eyes and realize that nobody understands a damn thing I’m saying. On my screen I see 3 faces of complete disbelief, confusion. “Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh FUCK” says the lowest voice, “they can’t get me. This is going to be rough.” It’s only the beginning. I focus harder, try to tell them just one story, just one adventure, to cut it all down to a single experience that gave a taste of the greater whole. I tell them about climbing Celaque, the highest peak in Honduras, about our misguided inexperienced clusterfuck of a mountain hike, and it falls flat on its face. They get the story all right, but the message is lost in the distractions, tangents, and jokes. I’m too happy to see them, I can’t tell them anything meaningful, and right now in my mind everything has significance to the gills. “I’m just so worried you won’t be able to understand me any longer, that we will never be able to relate again,” I tell them several times, and despite our obvious connection and warmth, it soon becomes clear just how different we’ve all become. “Sorry man, we’ve all got work and school tomorrow. We’re going to bed.” I try my hardest to keep them, tell them I’ve discovered what happiness is, try to convince them to try, and they assure me that they’re happy in their lives, thank you. We say warm goodbyes, then sever the connection.

I shut down my laptop, unplug it, and just start sobbing. They’re my best friends, and they’ll never understand life outside the asylum, the reality behind the lives they live. They don’t get, don’t want to understand the destruction and murder that prop up their comfortable reality. They’ll never understand what it is to be hungry, to have to tell starving kids that you can’t help them, to pull passed-out drunks out of a busy street. They won’t ever understand that their way of life is killing the planet, that they’ve sacrificed their very humanity for Red Bull, trashy TV, and central air. They’ve become part of the problem, the one that keeps me up nights – the sustainability problem. Their lifestyle can’t be sustained without entire sections of the world being kept in poverty, disease, slavery, and the worst part of all is that they don’t even see, may never see, that their lives are a form of slavery as well, chained as they are to jobs, school, working for someone else’ cause, piled under credit card debt, selling their invaluable time for cheap substitutes and toys. I lay my head on the table and I can’t stop crying, deep stomach-howls of pain and regret. I can’t even show them the way – the only true revolutions are personal – you can’t pull someone into the light, only show them the path, but how can you show someone the truth when they’ve shut their eyes and cut off their senses? I may have escaped the pacifying cacoon of modern America, but those who haven’t don’t even know that there is an alternative. Like it or not, I’m on the opposite side of my dear friends in this fight – their work, their lives are the very problems I’m searching for solutions to, and in their comfortable lifestyles I see the ugly truth they don’t – that it won’t be possible for very much longer, and the longer people fight to keep up their absurd consumption, the more we’ll all be hurt in the end.

Eventually I cry myself out, wipe mucus and tears off the table, and wash my face in the bar sink. The LSD is fading now, shimmering out as the strings decrescendo into my standard perception of the world. I climb up to the roof, dying to see the stars, the mountains, the natural beauty that makes Antigua worth living in. It’s bitter cold, and I realize that I’ve been freezing for hours without a jacket – my nose is icy to the touch. I grab the wool blanket off of my bed, wrap myself in it, and sit on my terrace to watch the sun rise. I start talking to the world:

“This is all that truly matters. This planet, that sun, the thin atmosphere we breathe, the soil and light and water that sustain us, and everything here. Without them we are nothing, and without us they are still everything. Human life is nonessential, this environment, or this sort of environment, is absolutely critical. Yet we burn it, tear it apart, take the truly beautiful and make it ugly and useless, all to chase after little bits of worthless paper. What’s else can I do but to fight against that? What could possibly be more important then living outside of this murderous, self-destructive, out-of-control system? We’re fucked if we don’t change our ways, and it’s not profitable to do that, so is that it? Is humanity doomed to slowly bury itself under our own excrement, to pave over the world and destroy everything that sustains us? What can I do to make that not happen? WHAT THE FUCK CAN I DO HUH?” I scream into the freezing pre-dawn, and all of a sudden start laughing until the tears come again. I sit there for hours as the stars fade and the sun rises slowly over the nearby hills. A line from Tops’ book rises from my subconscious, and again I ask the unresponsive world a question. “How many more times in your life will you watch the sun rise? 20? How many more times will you think of a favorite childhood memory? We are all going to die one day, that is guaranteed. So why waste a single moment of this precious existence doing anything less then what fulfills you, then what makes you happy?” Nobody answers, the sun peeks over the hills, and slowly I unwrap myself and head downstairs.

The LSD is gone now, flushed from my system into the toilet in our low-ceiled bathroom. I take a shower but still can’t sleep, and I miss Kirina – I dress, go walking around town to watch it slowly awaken. Somehow I end up at the mountain guiding company’s office, talking with the girl at the front desk. I’m way too deep for her right now, asking questions no one has the right to ask, and she’s over it fairly quickly. A tattooed redhead comes out into the reception area and lights a cigarette, so I bum one off of her and try to clear my head. Lauri, 28, is a jeweler by profession, but her medium of choice is discarded electronic components as opposed to precious gems. Her right arm, from shoulder to mid-forearm is covered in tattooed gems, bright colors and wild shapes – it doesn’t lose her any points with me. She’s here in Antigua without a lick of Spanish, visiting just because she heard that some of the women here do fantastic weavings, and so she’s come to learn what she can and apply it to braiding and weaving with electrical wires. “They’re incredibly beautiful – some of the colors that come out of wiring are almost surreal in how gorgeous they are.” As if to prove her point, she pulls a large flower out of her bag, sculpted out of thin wire and woven cables. I tell her it is beautiful and she replies “I need to take apart the edges and do them again. Watching a woman weaving a scarf earlier, I realized a much prettier way to do it.” Artists – they’re never satisfied.

Cigarettes long spent, ashes settled on stone streets, we’ve smoked our short friendship to the filter. What else to do then but to invite her to come climb up to nearby mirador – lookout – that gives a fabulous view of the whole area? She goes to change, Sophie rewrites the “Acatenango hike” sign 8 or 20 times – artists – and once Lauri is ready we take off for the hills. We make it all the way to Te Quiero, then duck inside for a beer and some well-intended abuse from Makanaki. “Yah padnah! Joo got jooself another girl? Ahrite mon, buen hecho – disfrutela, eh? AhahaHAha pegale, fighting mambo!” and some more barely-connected nonsensical dirty insults follow us through the tour – so hey, this is where I live, come check out the roof, isn’t it great? Yeah, I’m a lucky fuck to live here, I know – and after exhausting the formalities it’s with a bit of relief when we take off again to go climb the hills. Nothing against my Rasta brother, but he’s a filthy mouth and an amazing ability to impose himself into any conversation, any personal moment – pretty much anything you wouldn’t want him in, he’s there.

Here’s what I mean – once Kirina and I were in bed, doing what two people who like each other do when they’re naked in bed, and right in the middle of things Makanaki comes upstairs looking for something. “Hey Padnah!” and I don’t respond. Jesus fuck, can’t we have a few minutes to ourselves before work interrupts again? “Hey Padnah! Where joo be mon?” We stop what we’re doing, lie there smiling like idiots and laughing quietly. Did we lock the door? No, but we’ll be fine. “Padnah!” He’ll walk past – why would he come into our room? He pops open the door, blinks adjusting to the light, then realizes what he’s seeing. “Wowwww, so sorry mon!” and he hightails it out of the room to our peals of not-at-all-ashamed laughter. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen this man embarassed. We’re naked, covered by just barely a blanket, and he’s the one standing in the doorway – yet just like everyone else who walks in on other people having sex, he blushes, stammers an apology, and escapes out door as quickly as possible. We lie in a pile and laugh ourselves hoarse.

Actually, that’s the first of two times we’re caught having sex that day. Tops is the second unwitting witness to our overtly public displays of affection, but unlike Makanaki, the poor bastard doesn’t have much of a choice. It’s the same day, 12 or so hours, a handful of drinks, and a night of club dancing later. Kirina and I, in our usual style, have just made it home from live music at Rickey’s, the colloquial name for a local handful of bars that share the same building. The front one, El Cielo I think, is the place where one of the members of the Buena Vista Social Club comes every Wednesday to play the hell out of a set of drums and set the beat for the best salsa dancing of the week. We had a shit time that night, complete with drunk couples throwing each other into us, people repeatedly stepping on Kirina’s feet, and the usual hassles of too many people in too little space. Still, we hardly make it home before kissing each other’s faces off, and instead of heading upstairs to the boring bedroom, we collapse onto the sofa and get eachother naked there. Everything is going to my liking until we hear a footstep and a sharp breath, and I spin my head around in time to see Tops spinning on his heel and leaving the cafe in a hurry. “Sorry guys!” he calls from the hallway to the theater, and we collapse laughing for the second time in hours – his embarrassment mixes well with our lack of shame and we can hardly move for the giggles.

After we recover enough to put pants on, Tops slips out to head home – apparently he had been sleeping in the spare bedroom upstairs until he was awoken by “a lot of noise” downstairs and came investigating – we laugh some more, kiss some more, and go upstairs to bed. Kirina laughs about this for days afterward, which even now after the collapse endears her to me – she put up with a lot of weird and wild shit from me, and never complained. Whatever I did to deserve this girl in my life, I’m glad for it.

Holy barely-concealed-bragging tangents, we’ve gotten well off course. I mean, that’s a goofy little story, but the point I’m trying to make goes the other way. I often question why people like Kirina actually put up with me – we’re 24 hours or so after promising to do 4 days of no drugs, no drinks, no cigarettes, and I’ve already broken nearly all of them. Later, when Laura and I are sitting on a wall overlooking the whole world, I break the last one as we share my last bent cigarette. The conversation passes hands with the drags, one smokes as the other talks.

“It’s just that I really like her, you know? Why am I diving into hard substance use on a whim when I’m happy with my life? I feel like I’ve got this wild streak controlling me instead of being the one in charge of experiences. It’s a rush, sure, but what happens when I lose my edge, fuck up, or take in more then I can chew?”

She hands me the cigarette – “Well, I think you’re too hard on yourself. Sure, you did a bit of acid, but that’s not the worst thing in the world – it shows you parts of your mind you wouldn’t otherwise see. Honestly, you seem too serious, carry too much of the weight of the world on your shoulders. It’s not always a bad thing, but look – there’s a lot of worse positions to be in. It wasn’t like you got heavy into crystal meth or anything. I mean, my family and friends had an intervention for me a few years ago, basically told me that if I walked out of the door I would also be out of the family. Heavy stuff.”

I give it back – “Wow, I had no idea. That’s crazy! You certainly don’t fit the meth-chick stereotype – I mean, your teeth are fantastic. When was this?”

“A few years ago. I’ve been clean for almost 4 years now, and just pour myself into my art instead. I don’t really touch anything these days – meth ruined drugs for me.”

“Can imagine why. LSD was a letdown to be entirely honest – too chemical, it felt all man-made if that makes sense. Too pure, too designed – I think I’ll stick to natural drugs for a while. So how long have you been supporting yourself with your work? Also, give me the lung cancer.”

She does – “I had my first real show in 2005, when I was living in Amsterdam. Someone actually bought a few pieces, and all of a sudden I was in demand. I think it’s always been that my materials are different – so many people work in precious metals, but there are only a handful of us using computer components.”

“What do you work with mainly?”

“Wires – there are so many beautiful bits of wire in computer cables. Sometimes I use bigger parts, set them like stones, but mostly wires and cables, things I can incorporate into other pieces and shape easily.”

I hand over the last inch of Marlboro – “Kill it. I wish I could do anything like that with my writing, but people don’t want novels any longer, they want 700-word blog posts, essays that tow a certain line, business pamphlets, short vapid articles that barely get skin-deep. The short attention span is destroying literature, and I can’t figure out a way to survive by writing on my terms. I’m only really decent at writing long stuff, detail, honesty – all the things nobody wants.”

“Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but maybe you can fight that by writing a collection of short stories. Then couch those stories in some compelling narrative – it’d keep people interested, probably.”

“Man what would I do without people like you? I’d have to write plot devices or something.”

“What?”

“Nevermind – look at that beautiful cloud over Agua.”

“Beautiful.”

Eventually we climb back down, talking love and live, and make our slow walk back to Te Quiero. Kirina is there, Tops, Makanaki, and everyone is happy, laughing, having fun. After my 2-day-long day, deep mental exhaustion folds over me – it’s all I can do to keep smiling, keep on my feet. I lie down on the couch, shoes on the armrest, and Kirina comes over to sit next to me. “I’m sorry” I whisper as she leans down to kiss me. “For what?” “For breaking our agreement. I’ve just smashed it all to bits.” My eyes are closed, breathing slow. She kisses me again, bites my lip and pulls slightly. “It’s ok,” she tells me, “I’ve smoked a few cigarettes.” “I spent all last night on LSD.” A pause. “Oh. Well how are you?” “Fucking exhausted. It feels like I can’t feel feelings today.” “Are you ok?” “I think so.” “Good.” Another kiss. It doesn’t fit – she should be mad at me, right? I’ve gone and fucked things up, binged on a serious drug, and broken our fresh-minted agreement – why am I getting treated so damn well? “Why are you treating me so damn well?” “Hmm? She’s lying next to me now, like after the night Guy locked us out of my room to have sex with my boss’ good friend in my bed. We slept on this same couch all night – curling up together now, her head on my chest, makes me feel good in a way few other things could have. “Why are you treating me so well? Shouldn’t you be mad at me?”

“No,” she says, “I like you. Why be mad at you for just being yourself?” I have no answer, and hold her closer. Having someone else who understands you and accepts you for who you are and still likes you – if there’s anything more precious then that, I haven’t yet found it.

I have my first real date in at least a year with Kirina shortly after LSD day – on her suggestion we go out to a place around the block for steaks and a bottle of wine. Well, that’s not true – we go out for steaks and whiskey, but the whiskey selection isn’t much to scream about, and so we do the wine thing instead. The whole thing was supposed to be our reward for not abusing our bodies for a few days, but after I broke the agreement on day 1, it just became us going out to dinner – we perhaps enjoyed it more with the symbolism torn out. It’s nice, really great place, if just fancy enough to make me squirm – all worn jeans and leather jacket, and Kirina isn’t dressed any better. Compared to our suit-clad waiter, we look just slightly out of place. Still, we eat, talk, undress eachother with our eyes, and get decently wine drunk, which probably happened before the eye part. It’s my first good salad in months, my first real steak since I left the USA. We enjoy ourselves, or at least I surely do. If Kirina doesn’t, she sure fools the hell out of me.

After steaks, wine, dessert, plenty of sitting, a pair of cheap cigarettes, we head home. Together we decide that Te Quiero is probably my home now – I have all my things there, it’s been weeks, and most importantly I take my shoes off now. The thought of home scares me – I don’t want one, I’m not comfortable settling down, and it feels more like a trap then anything. All of a sudden I’m panicked, and squeeze Kirina’s hand tight enough for her to notice. What a girl – she puts her arm around my waist, pulls me toward her, and looks straight in my eyes. “It’s ok,” she says in our wordless language, “I’ll help you. You can live here and still be true to yourself.” I’m so happy, scared, worried that I could cry, but instead I kiss a beautiful Austrian girl on a street corner in a foreign land. Things get better after that, and I come back down from the terrified edge. I can be ok like this. I can live in one place, work, do all those normal things, and still be me. Can’t I? Surely I deserve to belong somewhere, to be happy in statis like I am in frantic movement – we all deserve that, need it, want it deep down. Right?

I’m not going to find out – at least not now, not here. I could have, perhaps, but now we’re moving my entire life out onto the street corner and I’m losing everything once again – not just me, we all are, and it’s beginning to show. In the day-long process of eviction, we need something to lift our spirits, and what better then spirits? Time to fill the impulsive, party-saving jackass role. “Karla, I need to buy the whiskey from the bar.” “What?” “I want to buy the Black Label bottle, the whole thing.” “The whole bottle?” “Yes.” “Well… alright,” was just enough of an affirmative to send me grabbing cups, ice, and soda water from the fridge – the bar didn’t need them any more – and I set to mixing whiskey and water on the bar and piano. I pour 8 straight off, big triples, Guy offers the first to Lady Clipboard since she was frowning at me disapprovingly, and we laugh at her deepening scowl. Then we offer drinks to our gunmen, who also decline. Guy convinces a jogger to stop in though, and we get Karla, Karina, and a couple others to accept cups. Last Call at Te Quiero we call it, and between offering whiskey to the teenagers, cops, and everyone else who would look we soon have everyone smiling again. That is, until Clippy tells us that we’ll be arrested if we don’t get outside right now. We wheel the piano outside, the building is finally empty, and I keep offering out drinks until 2 passing bicycle policemen inform me that serving alcohol in the middle of the street isn’t a good lifestyle decision. After that we just sit, drink, and watch the man changing our locks as he works.

The doors closed, the signs removed, it’s obviously not our building any longer. The crowd disperses and between truckloads there isn’t much left to do except eat our leftover food, drink whiskey, sodas, and orange juice and play around with the camera and our possessions. We pretend to work the beauty salon or bar whenever we get bored or have an audience. I buy bread at the corner store to keep from falling asleep before 4pm, and at some point the Guy makes a flamethrower out of a deodorant can and his lighter, which naturally led to lighting cigarettes off it. No eyebrows were removed in the creation of this incriminating evidence.

After the flamethrower leads to a nacho cheese fight and a valient failed effort to storm the building by force, the sun slips behind the houses opposite, lights come on, and the day’s labor is dragging everyone down roughly in proportion to their whiskey consumption. Everyone is fucked, Karla is wearing my jacket and smiling lopsided, Kirina has long since gone home. The sun is setting over Acatanengo and Fuego by the time we pack the final truckload and Karla asks where we’re planning to stay. “We’ll get a hostel – I know a few places.” This being Latin America, that doesn’t go over too well and she offers us a bed in her house. Us being broke homeless people, that goes over swimmingly, and off we go with the final small pile of bags. Farewell Te Quiero, goodbye new life, goodbye friends. This is the end of something wonderful, and I’m too tired to even care.

Friends come to visit after I’ve been in Antigua a few weeks. Word spreads quickly among travelers, and once the message gets out that I have a house, a bar, a place to stay, people start to adjust plans to be in my area. The promise of a possible bed, good times, and a familiar face in an new town is a strong lure in this lifestyle, and before long the emails begin to trickle in. “Hey man,” they all start, “heard you were in Antigua – love to catch up with you. Would it be cool if I stop by? Do you know any good hostels?” I love catching back up with people I’ve met in passing, so I tell everyone “yes, please come, come sleep on my floor if you have to, come smoke on my roof and dance in my theater.” Within a couple of weeks in town I have guests tentatively coming into town at least once a week. Even a couple of my friends from back home express interest in coming down to visit. I tell everyone to come, and just trust that the schedule will work out.

Luckily travelers are by nature shit at planning – it’s in our blood, a tenet of our lifestyle. Tell a hitchhiker it is absolutely critical he be somewhere in a week and he might show up in 2 days or a month, if he can pull himself away from the lastest girl, beach, bar, to remember to come visit at all. Several people cancel, but a couple weeks into my stay the first legitimate visitor comes by. His name is Matt, he’s an Aussie, wears board shorts 89.4% of the time, and he’s a riot. We met in Nicaragua while we were both staying in a hostel called Bearded Monkey, and shared a lot of common acquiantances, traveled in the the same circles. Quality guy – like most of the people I choose to associate with these days, he’s a fucking bum – one of those smelly gringos who live out of a backpack and travel around on a budget somewhere between “shit nothing” and “fuck all.” He owns nothing, works only when absolutely necessary, and even then only so hard as he must. Being a smelly, penniless bum, he’s of course irresistable to women, and so while I’m a bit surprised to find him in my house one day, I’m much more surprised to find him there solo. “Just dropped her off at the airport man – real class act this one. She’s going into the Peace Corps, so I thought I’d give her your information. You guys could talk shop or something.” Oh jeeze.

It’s not that I have something against the Peace Corps – really I think it’s a good stepping stone for people looking to get into aid or development work. I had a lot of fun in the organization, and were it not for my particular situation I might attempt to work with them again. That said, the Corps has something against me – cultural insensitivity and rebellious tendencies, an inclination not to follow rules, and a vocabulary that leans too heavily on vulgarity are the high (or low) points. I’m nowhere near the best person to talk to about Peace Corps, being as I never even got sworn in before getting the boot in a quite spectacular fashion, and on top of that, the group hung me out to dry – here’s your plane ticket, here’s a few bucks, get the fuck out of here and never come back. The administration in Honduras isn’t on my Christmas list, but on the plus side every Peace Corps member from Honduras seems to know exactly who I am, at the price of my ever being connected to the organization. I still think getting thrown out was the best thing that could have happened to me from a personal development point, but it certainly colors my opinion of a group that would kick out a willing volunteer as much to prove a point as anything else.

Fuck it – she got my information, at some point later we exchanged brief emails, I wrote more or less the same thing I did just there, and that’s now over and done with. In the moment, with Matt in my house, I’m just happy to see a familiar face that isn’t one of my coworkers or a regular patron – one of the downfalls of the sedentary life – you get to meet and spend time with interesting people if you’re lucky, but they’re aways the same interesting people, and that just doesn’t stay interesting for very long. Fresh air, in the form of new people, new experiences, is always welcome as far as I’m concerned, even when the routine doesn’t change much. I still work all day every day, but Matt becomes one of the regulars, hanging out at the bar for a few days, eating Makanaki’s fantastic food, rolling tobaccoless cigarettes, and talking about god-knows-what.

After half a week he disappears again, but the floodgates are open, and it seems like open season for guests to come stopping by. Friends arrange for packages to be shipped to my house, girls tempt me with requests to share my bed – “Me and this girl who is totally going to turn me lesbian want to come visit? Can we take two-thirds of your bed?” – “Just so long as I get to be in the other third.” Life is shaping out to be quite a party, it seems, except that the guests never quite materialize. People push back dates, reschedule, and since I have no deadlines or blackout dates, I eventually start telling people to just email me or call once they’re in town. As it turns out, almost everyone flakes out or stalls too long except for a one guy, but his presence is influential enough to make up for it. The Guy, who plays a role in eviction day, is so named for the fact that he’s worried about the negative effect I might have on his reputation, or really for the negative effects of his own actions, is one of the people I most wanted to meet up again. We met originally in Nicaragua, like just about everyone I keep meeting again, and the first thing I noticed about him at the time was that he’s one of the few people I know with a crazy streak wider then my own. He’s big on long, crazy, winding philosophical talks, pulling every girl in the bar, funk dancing, and being the life of any party he comes within a few hundred meters of. His keen sense of timing led him to showing up under 2 days before we got evicted – just enough time to be a part of the collapse, and consequently star in all of the least believable parts of this dream.

Guy and I met in San Juan Del Sur, had some great talks, surfed, drank rum, danced with foreign women for a few days, and when it came time for me to move on we swore that we would meet again someday, somewhere – perhaps even travel together. I had almost forgotten about our promise until he sends me a message on the good old facebook saying he’ll be in town, and how about meeting up for a drink? “Get hold of me once you’re in town,” is my reply, and so I’m not completely surprised when Guy walks out onto the roof of our sinners’ paradise one afternoon unannounced. Warm greetings ensue, drinks are poured, someone runs downstairs for more glasses. We’re sitting in a circle on the concrete floor, rum and coke in the middle, the whole crew – Tops, Mak, Kirina, Yo, and a couple semi-regulars, Alan the traveling jeweler and French chef among them. “I really don’t like Antigua,” Guy tells me almost straight off. “I think I’m leaving tomorrow.” As way of response, Tops pours him a rum and coke, and I regale him with stories. After a few drinks and the tour, leaving tomorrow has been replaced with renting our spare room, and an hour or three after that Guy is sitting on our small stage playing Snow Patrol songs acoustic. Two hours after that he’s kissing one of Karla’s friends as we all do whiskey shots after hours, and another hour later I can’t go to bed because I’ve been locked out by my friend, busy shagging a 28-year-old divorcee with twins in my room. Oh, the classy company I keep!

Actually, I shouldn’t write it like that – comes out too negative. Fact is, Guy is one of the better friends I’ve made out here, and a big part of that is his crazy energy, which grants him superpowers like the inexplicable ability to pull every woman in the room simultaneously, and he exudes a general goofiness that he uses to render everyone unable to be pissed off at him for the idiotic (yet so endearing!) decisions that he makes on a constant basis. If he wasn’t as wild as he is, we wouldn’t get along nearly so well. Basically, if you’re looking to get into trouble and get out of it alive, Guy is a great guy to take along with you – he’ll steal all the prettiest women, sure, and he’ll be the star of the dance floor, the karaoke master, the most popular guy in the whole damn city, but as far as coat-tails go, his aren’t too difficult to hang onto if you want a guaranteed good time. The morning after he comes to visit, once Guy has woken up, his fling has cleared out, and I’ve gotten bored of trying to doze on the couch, we make a tequila breakfast – shots of tequila, eggs scrambled in tequila, garlic toast, eaten with volcanoes as backdrop on my roof – and with such a wonderful start we go on to have a great day, by which I mean another day of business as usual.

Guy is moving in – he decides on it that morning, and by afternoon has brokered a deal to stay and work in the bar with the rest of us. “It’s a dangerous trap man – I mean look at me, a month here and I’m almost domesticated!” I kid him, but he says he wants to settle down a bit, rest, write, the works. “I’ve been partying for months – I think it’s time for a break,” he tells me over and over, to the point where we both almost believe it. We tour town a bit, wander the market, climb a roof overlooking the bus station, but without money there isn’t much to do in Antigua, and after eating in a little comedor we’re back at the bar yet again – the black hole of my universe – and I’m back at work. Neither of us realize that this is Te Quiero’s last day, but if we did, I like to think we’d act similarly. All the regulars, all the routines, kissing Kirina to distract her from studying, Makanaki’s lone scratched Bob Marley album playing on infinite loop, deep talks with Guy about what truly matters – just another day at Cafe Te Quiero, and even with one minute left on the doomsday clock, everything is as it ought be.

The night before things burnt to ashes is a strange one. To start with, Karla stays at the bar all night instead of leaving after finishing her haircuts in the afternoon. It isn’t the only time she’s done so, but what Karla’s staying really means is that we all have to be on our best behavior, can’t sneak upstairs to smoke or hang out playing DJ and dancing all night – we have to pretend to be working even when we aren’t, or she’ll question our methods. It’s busy work really, and given my near-limitless freedom here when the boss isn’t around, it rankles me. Things get worse when Karla starts challenging my financial records mid-shift, forcing me to start explaining sales, outstanding bills, orders, all while serving drinks, remembering dozens of faces, and doing my normal work.

It had been a bad week up until that night – we had worked 3 days without being able to take salaries, partly because Sunday and Monday are slow days for restaurants and bars, but also because Karla comes frequently to clear out the cash drawer, and never leaves enough to re-order drinks or food, or to pay employees after. If at the end of the day we only have enough to do orders, then guess who doesn’t get paid that day? Nobody has ever complained about it since we all are committed to making this business work, but tonight Karla is agitated, accusing me of wasting money, telling me that my recordkeeping is bad when she can’t understand that net profit is never going to equal cash on hand, especially when the owner keeps withdrawling money without writing anything down or telling me. Eventually she gets to her favorite topic to complain about – Tops. Given that she is his major gripe as well, I’ve heard their complaints before. Still, we talk in low terms over the counter as the crowd sifts slowly down to just our usual gems.

“He never works! He just sits there and plays his music – actually his music is the thing I will miss most about having him here.”

“He does our promotions. Without him going out and bringing in customers, this place would be dead.”

“All he does is drink. I can’t have an alcoholic working for me. How can I have an employee drinking on the job?”

“Karla – if drinking while working isn’t allowed, your entire staff is breaking the rules almost every day.”

“What?”

“Nothing. So what do you want to do with Tops?”

“I think I have to fire him. He doesn’t do anything.”

I bite my tongue – these two have been struggling ever more frequently for control over the day-to-day operations of Te Quiero, and I’m too busy actually doing all of those same operations to get involved in power struggles. Truth told, Tops does do things – they just aren’t the things Karla asks of him. He’ll spend hours doing posters, organizing bands and events, and walking around town promoting the same, but if you’re slammed at the bar and every table is full in the theater, you’d better figure out a way to deal with that on your own – the most help you’ll get from Tops is a few beers served but not written down on tabs. “I hate money – I don’t want to touch it, just let me bring people in and you deal with them,” he told me my first day, and it’s as honest a statement as it is frustrating. Still, we’ve gotten used to it, Makanaki and I can handle a huge crowd, we’ve hired a new girl to serve tables, and the bar is picking up by the night. We’re on the verge of breaking into the town’s consciousness, and a huge part of that is the vibe Tops creates. Everyone is content to leave Tops to work his magic as DJ and professional schmoozer – all except Karla that is.

The problem is one of desires – when one person is concerned with money at the expense of all else, and the other wants to build the relaxed, welcoming atmosphere that all good bars need in order to survive long-term, strife is a natural byproduct of their interactions. Tops wants a successor to his old bar, “El Chillout” where you could come, get a free drink, hang out, put some music on the playlist, and do anything you wanted in the back rooms – no questions asked. Karla wants money right away to recover her investment into a bar and cafe that aren’t making the sort of profit she envisioned. Thus, my “manager” wants to have a huge happy hour, give away free drinks to the regulars, and let anyone who desires to hang out and enjoy the vibe – paying or not – and my “boss” want to see a steadily rising pile of money waiting for her every day when we do finances, which means that everything Tops wants to see is the opposite of what Karla demands of me. The only place where they overlap is in their joint desire to see us running illegal afterparties, because that’s when the serious drinkers sit down and drink seriously behind closed doors – some bars depend on this sort of thing, and we aren’t an exception – I once calculated half our profits as coming in from hours when we’re operating illegally.

The rising storm between Tops and Karla has been a long time in coming, and nobody is surprised that it has come to this present conflict – surprised perhaps that it is happening tonight, after a week of record profits, successful events, and wild parties, but timing aside, we all saw this one coming. Tops and Karla, both polite and civil to a fault – upper crust Guatemalan upbringing will do that – and so they have a brief stunted conversation at the bar as I’m closing up, neither saying more then absolutely necessary, no honest words come forth, nobody lets feelings get involved, and within minutes it is decided – Tops will go at the end of the night, and after that I’ll be manager of Te Quiero. Washing dishes at the corner of the bar, I lean my head against the shelf of glasses and close my eyes. I don’t know why at the time, but I know, know, with the clarity of premonition that Te Quiero is gone, if not already dead then bleeding to death slowly in a corner, life ebbing away into a warm sticky puddle. I tell the same to Guy and Kirina that night as we lie in the living room smoking and talking – they on the couches, me on the shag carpet. “I know it can’t last – the place has to fold eventually, but I don’t want it to happen yet, you know?” We talk until 3 or 4 in the morning, then retire to beds. The next morning I wake up to the doorbell ringing, ringing, ringing.

Karla’s house is madness – piles upon heaps upon shitstorms of things, an entire life’s worth of possessions with 3 businesses as icing, and on top of that someone’s phone is ringing off the hook. After getting everything inside, there isn’t anything left to do except sit in a circle in a 6-year-old girl’s room, roll a joint, and reflect upon what the fuck has just happened in the past 10 hours or so. The flamethrower makes another appearance here as well. After that I’m not sure of too much except that I’m too tired, drunk, high, and emotionally wrecked to be sure of anything. I passed out on the small girl’s bed that Guy and I would apparently be sharing, and while I think a few thing happen – a plate of food is placed on me, Guy plays iPhone games then starts eating using me as a table, eventually I slip into unconsciousness – truth is, I can’t be sure of anything at all. Yeah, that’s eviction day more or less. I’d be content to end the story here, but something happens after I fall asleep worth writing about.

At some point later I’m woken up quite suddenly by something – an arm? – hitting my neck and chest. I open my eyes to find myself shoulder-to-shoulder with a woman, the same woman who along with Guy had sexiled me from my room within a few hours of entering my life in Antigua. I’m staring directly into Guy’s eyes. He’s half-nude, the important half, and lying there on top of her. Caught en flagrante delictio like he was, you’d think Guy would stop what he was doing, or maybe pause, but you don’t know him. This legend keeps right on pumping away and greets me with a cheerful “sorry mate, I didn’t know what to do.” “It’s cool man.” Still going. “I didn’t expect it – she just came in here, took her pants off, and put her hand down mine. What could I do?” “I’d probably do the same mate.” Still he keeps going, and we keep bantering, the awkwardness having been overpowered by the fact that – well, what else could I do in that situation? Throwing a shitfit doesn’t help, I’d already interrupted the mood, and so we just keep laughing and talking until a third voice enters the conversation. “Would you shut up already?” she spits acidly at me, and it’s too much. I look at Guy, throw up my hands in that universal “is this for real?” gesture. “I know, right?” he asks, and while still thrusting starts berating her! “Are you serious?” he asks, “he was here first, and he’s been totally cool about all of this! Come on, show some respect!” Every bit the true friend, this Guy. It gets better though, because she starts agreeing with him, and apologizes to me. “It’s nothing, really,” I mumble, roll back over, and in a few seconds I’m fast asleep for the second time before 10pm. They never even pause. And that’s the end of eviction day.

The next morning is a weird one – waking up next to my new-old friend in a small bed just sets everything off right, and spending the morning in bed together, playing iphone games, working out what in the fuck just happened, and laughing about the sheer insanity of our lives makes it all the stranger. We don’t do anything until about 1pm, when we finally drag ourselves out of bed, and out of Karla’s house. She’s generous to a fault, like everyone down here, but we can’t abuse her hospitality any longer and so decide to take off. Setting out, laden with all the gear and shit that I used to think was necessary to survive, and watching Guy with only his small bag, I vow to get rid of as many of my possessions as I can afford to live without. The half-mile or so to the hostel is murder – I have well over 150 pounds of things – all the useless shit I haven’t been able to part with – and carrying them any further then across a room makes me want to die. Halfway to The Black Cat hostel I give up, hail a motorcycle taxi, and the driver proceeds to drive a long circle around town, taking wrong streets and eventually dropping me off a block from Te Quiero, and at least as far from The Black Cat as I was before. Fifteen Quetzales well spent. It’s a long walk with too many things, but eventually I arrive at the hostel, where a decent pile of my friends and acquintances are smoking cigarettes outside. Warm greetings, jokes, and a decent welcome ensue.

That afternoon passes in frantic packing, dividing gear, clothes, books into “Yes,” “No,” and “Maybe” piles. I have too many things, get frustrated, and take a long walk to reflect on how much of my life has fallen into the shitbin lately. The bookstore isn’t open, so I can’t even sell my library to pay for my hostel, and I’m rapidly running out of money. The guiding company across the street is always accepting donations, so I head back to the hostel, grab all of the “No” pile and a solid half of the Maybes, throw them into a bag and give 50 or 60 pounds of clothing, backpacks, boots, books, hats, socks, underwear, school supplies, a bit of everything to this great guy Kevin who promises to distribute it all to local charities for me. I almost skip back to the hostel, bag empty, heart lighter – it’s so much better to give your possessions away to then keep them. Try it sometime, you’ll see what I mean. The good feeling lasts all the way back to our cramped dorm room, where I faced my still-mountain of things, far more then I could ever fit into a backpack. I have a lot of work to do.

The next morning I feel more encouraged. Hungover, worn out by booze and bad decisions, but ready to move out. I’d spent hours separating possessions the night before, eliminating the unnecessary, the underutilized, the forgotten things I’d lived without for so long that I obviously didn’t need, and was down to just what fit in my backpack. Giving it all away, selecting a few precious things to send home, cutting away the fat and excess – it feels better then any therapy, a lifestyle enema if you like, and even if you don’t like, there it is. I’m left that morning with my pack, a small messenger bag of books and journals, sketchpads and my smoking kit, and this highly inaccurate list of possessions:

Things K Now Owns:

  • 3 pairs pants, none without stains
  • 5 shirts, none without holes
  • 5 pairs underwear (sweet REI backpacker stuff, an absolute pleasure for the junk.)
  • 5 pairs socks
  • 1 pair boots, 1 pair Sambas, 1 pair sandals with hole in right heel.
  • 1 leather jacket
  • 1 long underwear suit – it’s pretty flash.
  • 1 pair boardshorts
  • 1 pair futbol shorts (those of eviction day fame)
  • 3 bandanas/handkerchiefs/pirate disguise kits
  • Laptop, iPhone, hard drive, assorted electronics
  • Repair kit (epoxy, sewing kit, etc)
  • Medicine bag (GBH, heroin, no deodorant, cheap soap)
  • Sleeping bag, hammock, mosquito net, 2 tarps
  • Machete for street cred.
  • 1 water resistant jacket that I can’t use for fear it will never fit into its bag again.
  • Assorted shiny objects
  • 1 piece of Te Quiero’s front door that fell off while someone was kicking it in.
  • 1 towel, which renders the rest of this stuff extraneous.

That’s it – the total, more or less, of what I have left after giving away, donating, or shipping home everything else. It’s still a lot more then I need for any one place, but if you don’t know where you’re headed, it’s a pretty inclusive list to help you most anywhere. I have all the reason in the world to be happy this morning – my life has just been rebooted, and I’m headed off to somewhere, anywhere. There are sad parts too – Guy and I part ways – he has developed a sudden need to visit Cuba, and so just like that he’s off, with barely time for one of those manly handshake-turned-brotherly-embraces they’re always going on about. Watching him step out toward the bus station, I’m struck by a wave of envy – there goes a man who lives according to no rules but his own, and he still has the money to be uncompromising about it – if only I could be so fortunate. Thinking yet again about how I need to learn some trade I can practice on the road, I sling the pig bag over one shoulder and go off looking for a shipping company.

Problems arise – it’s a Saturday, and DHL is closed. The woman at the post office isn’t too pleased when I walk in at 12:58pm, and she refuses to help me. “We close at 1, come back Monday.” Sweating in the midday heat, I shamble back to the hostel defeated. That’s where I get a great surprise – V has finally made it into town, and checked into the same hostel no less. We reunite in the restaurant of the Black Cat, and after that my day gets a whole lot brighter. V, 24, and I met in Leon, Nicaragua, in a little hostel called Sonati – easily the best I’ve ever been in, a whole family of eccentrics, artists, lovers, musicians, and philosophers. The whole place is a bohemian paradise hidden in plain sight, and if you’re in the city you really ought to stay there before considering anywhere else – it really is that good. V is crazy – its why we get along so well – he’s Oxford-educated, has been traveling all of Central and South America, and is on a great spiritual journey. He makes art of life, by which I mean he lives life so well that I’m tempted to call it a masterpiece.

Plus, sometime in this first day he broaches what may turn out to be one of the pivotal conversations of my life. It starts with “hey man, so remember Rich? Turns out he knows some guys who teach paragliding in Columbia, and I’m thinking of heading down there after the new year to learn. $1500 for a month, accomodations included. Are you interested?” Of course I am – what in my entire life would lead anyone to conclude otherwise? Sure, I can’t afford it, but what else are loans and credit cards for if not for digging deep painful debt holes to climb out of in the mystical future when I’ve calmed down and want to hold a real job for a year or two? I’ve been thinking about it for a few weeks now, but really there is no need – I ran it through the “why the fuck not?” test, and it passed with flying colors. Who wouldn’t run off to Columbia to learn how too fly, given a lack of priorities, no plan, no compelling reason not to? And how to end this story while it’s still exciting? V and I talked about that, plus a lot of other things, while we spent a week in bed or close to it, recovering from some strain of superaids he brought with him from Nicaragua.

Some sort of epilogue – that’s what we need – closure, loose ends woven together, some sappy moral perhaps. Where to start? The characters have been scattered – Karla is rebuilding her life, trying to get the mountain of things out of her courtyard, and when we last spoke had located another building for her salon and perhaps a bar. I told her to name it “Te Quiero Más.” As far as I know, she’s doing fairly well for having had the rug pulled out from under her, although a few of the locals have told me that this sort of thing is none too uncommon for her. Makanaki is still around, and we’ve crossed paths a few times recently. When V and I walked out of town to go swimming in some natural spring-fed pools, he was there too, smoking a little ganja and sitting on a wall. More recently I ran into him while out getting sushi with Mara, the Dutch lawyer who spent some time in sick bay with V and I. It looks like our vegetarian chef is about to be a sushi chef too. I have great faith that the wandering prophet and I will meet again – I still have much to learn from him, for starters how to swear in 3 languages at once. Tops landed on his feet after being fired, and by Saturday night was announcing the grand-reopening of El Chillout, illegal and unlicensed, in some bar I’ve never heard of. Before I could head over it had been shut down again, and no, I still haven’t given him his book back. I will though – have to. Truth is, I haven’t seen him since the morning Kirina and I saw him outside the copy shop making Grand Reopening fliers.

Kirina is gone. A few days after the eviction she left town, headed north toward Tikal, Flores, and a whole Central American backpacking trip. We kissed for the last time on her doorstep, and I slipped a small card into her jacket pocket with my name and email on it. She hasn’t contacted me back yet, and I don’t imagine she will. We both knew the score, knew that once one of us left Antigua that we wouldn’t be us any longer. I don’t even know her last name, have maybe 2 pictures with her in them, can’t contact her if I tried – perhaps it’s better that way. I wrote this poem a bit after she left – I don’t think she’ll ever read it:

There’s something I should have told you,

that last night; before we kissed.

I wanted to tell you I love you,

and today you don’t even exist.

We stood on your steps –

our last moments together,

flames to lips, huddled close in the cold.

I knew what I wanted to say to you then,

but my words found no voice –

I was scared.

All that we shared to that point

was so beautiful, true.

A charmed love we had – without issue.

We knew from the onset,

that we would soon part –

ignored it, but a part always knew.

When together we came to that dreaded last call,

our hands intertwined, eye to eye,

I tried – failed – to push the words out.

The storybook ending sometimes turns out a lie,

I guess all things fall apart in due time.

Neither of us told the other “I love you” – not once. It wasn’t that sort of relationship. At the same time, I’ve rarely been so comfortable, so close, with another person without collapsing into major problems. Put another way, I’ve never dated another girl whose reaction to my LSD, bouts of uncertainty, manic energy, and craziness was to pull closer instead of pull away. Antigua and Kirina are tied together forever in my mind – it was unavoidable really. To go through so much with her at my side… I’ll just say I’ve rarely been so lucky. Kirina, I don’t know if you’ll ever read this, I don’t know if I want you too, but thank you for touching my life – our rooftop bed, slow dancing, your touch, that way you couldn’t look me in the eye without laughing – you’re a special girl, so please stop smoking a pack and a half a day or you’ll be dead and gone before your time.

There’s little left to report – once V showed up in town we decided to leave Monday for some beach somewhere, find a place to unwind, for me to write, for him to recover and relax a few weeks. Instead, he brought the plague with him and come Monday was bedridden. I caught it too, along with Mara our unlucky roommate, and for over a week we all lay there slowly dying. I never made it to fully immobilized, but V spent 4 days in bed, Mara nearly as long. We bonded on our common weaknesses, hacking coughs, sushi in bed, and machete ball in the dorm (only rule – be sober when you start playing machete ball). I gave the pig a warm farewell, shoved his heavy red ass into a cardboard box, covered it in $180 in 1 Quetzal stamps – that’s 1410 stamps if you’re wondering – and sent it off to my parents in the states. After that I just waited, blew my nose a lot, and became “that guy” – the one who never leaves the hostel, knows the staff way too well, and just can’t seem to get out of town. Every night for 10 days I went to my dive bar to nurse a beer and see my friends, and for the first week I said goodbyes every night. After that I just told everyone I would see them tomorrow. I kissed the redheaded bartender once, V kissed all of her friends, and we generally became a fixture of the tight-knit expatriate community in Antigua.

I got desperate to leave, and in the dying days of November more-or-less forced V out of town. Neither of us was happy there, but to live in the ruins of a once-happy life was just killing me slowly. I had stopped exercising, was eating shittily again, drinking too hard. Without the bar, my apartment, Kirina, life just sucked in Antigua, and when you’re going around like your life sucks, everyone gives you a wide berth. Even the late arrival of the two girls who wanted to share my bed wasn’t enough to extinguish my desire to get the fuck out of Dodge. Something had to change, so we left town, headed south, and 2 days later arrived here, Playa San Diego. It’s a quiet little beach town in El Salvador, and we’ve spent a solid week here, surfing, playing board games, writing, reading. I’ve gotten my health back, V’s found himself a few new demons, and it’s time to move on again. Monday I head north again, to Guatemala first, with Columbia beyond somehow. I don’t know what I’ll do from here, but if the past 9 ½ months are any indicator, it will be wild, obscene, fun, stupid, and life-changing all at once, and I’ll do a hideous job conveying all of the magic of this life to those who don’t already live it. It won’t stop me from trying any more then my crash-landings keep me from taking off again.

But what about a moral? What have I learned, what precious gems of knowledge have I gained to pass along? None, really. I know now that good business meetings take place on rooftops over whiskey and joints, that bars depend on atmosphere more then service or good product, and that an anarchaic little joint like Te Quiero burns bright and fast, a beautiful collapse, but I don’t think any of those can suffice. What about development? Have I perhaps become a better, stronger, wiser person from all this? Well, I have a newly-minted disdain for LSD, Kirina has convinced me to stop smoking cigarettes, and I’m back to exercising my mind and body harder then before – somehow that doesn’t seem adequate either. I don’t think there is a straightforward moral, because lessons are personal – the lack of universal truth, the impossibility that is universality in feelings, morals, in personal lives, makes that sort of lesson impossible as well – it’s not even worth searching for, to be honest.

No, if we’re got to have some sort of truth to end this tale upon, it ought be – can only be – the same morals of any anarchist’s story. We ought accept only those rules and institutions that we agree with, and eliminate from our lives those that we cannot accept. Live well, love much, and laugh often, strive always to be happy, fulfilled in what you do, and when a new adventure, opportunity, love affair, or story presents itself, ask yourself “why the fuck not?” and dive in head first. Life begets life – the harder you live, the more life you’ll see and experience, and the more you’ll connect with those around you. Refuse to hate – live so well, play so hard, live always with so much love that all of those trapped in the cages of mainstream society have no choice but to notice and join in. I’m off to another adventure now – another life beckons, the Columbian condors call, and I must go. Until the next time, friends – this was my beautiful dream, a little bubble of my life in a strange land. Yours always -k

I lied, there’s also thisThere is no universal moral code that should dictate human behavior. There is no such thing as good or evil, there is no universal standard of right and wrong. Our values and morals come from us and belong to us, whether we like it or not, so we should claim them proudly for ourselves, as our own creations, rather than seeking some external justification for them.

No Gods, No Masters.

I wrote this in response to an email I got from my old university, and liked it enough to post it on a website nobody visits. Enjoy?

Dear Maria,

I wish I could take your survey, but the fact is that ever since I escaped UCSB with my near-worthless BA in Philosophy, paid off my debts working jobs that required no semblance of a college degree, and fled to Central America, I have found myself utterly unable to do, or even imagine doing, anything that comes in a standardized form, which unfortunately includes the Undergraduate Alumni Survey. I apologize profusely, but as I sit here at 11am in a surfing town in Nicaragua, sipping delicious coffee between breakfast and whatever I might end up doing this afternoon, debating the merits of heading a few hundred miles north to visit a friend at her beautiful slice of beachside paradise or go instead to Guatemala chasing girls, I really just boggle at the idea of sitting down and filling out a survey about how post-UCSB life is treating me – instead, I’ll take the same 15 minutes and happily write this email, and probably better explain how my life has changed then I could in any survey. Plus, my internet connection is god-awful, and loading another page just doesn’t appeal to me. So sorry.

Here’s how my life has changed from UCSB to now – at UCSB I took a lot of classes that I found uninteresting, rote, and useless to my life. I wanted to take a lot of classes, don’t get me wrong,, but the ones I found interesting and useful all seemed to be parts of majors and tracks I couldn’t be a part of because I was busy getting terrible grades in History of Islamic Art and Architecture, or maybe Special Issues in Women’s Literature, which was really just 4 hours a week of some angry old crone raging against everything and anything with a Y-chromosome and a dick – I never thought I could hate attending a class of 40 girls and me, but that happened. Meanwhile in evolutionary theory classes, graduate PoliSci and chemistry, engineering, the classes I couldn’t be a part of and had to instead sneak into after the first few days of class, I learned all sorts of fascinating things – useful ones too – and did it all without ever receiving credit. I got shit for grades in my classes because I hated them, because I couldn’t get into the ones that were interesting, because I got shit grades. You see the circle here, don’t you Maria? Catch-22 in action, and I was stuck in the middle.

So that was UCSB, that and binge drinking, empty sex, a lot of hungover mornings, a list of jobs I didn’t like, and a lot of drunkenness. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t completely unhappy – I made friends, I had a lot of fun, and I grew up a lot – all parts of going off to college. Still, a year and quarter later, sitting here, I’m only glad I went to your college because of the value other people put on that stupid fucking piece of paper, the one I only like because it has Arnold the Governator’s signature, and I can one day show my kids Terminator then tell them that the evil robot from the future later got to run our whole state into the ground face first, just shitbagged us all. It’ll be worth a laugh when they don’t believe me, and then I go get my degree to show them his signature. Really, that’s the only reason I care about my degree at all – because other people act as if I’ve accomplished something when really I just threw money into the fireplace, jumped through a very expensive hoop, got my pat on the head, got my biscuit, and now I’m magically qualified to work other jobs.

UCSB is too expensive, top-heavy with asshole business school graduates posing as administrators, raising their own ridiculous salaries while furloughing workers, busting unions, throwing poor workers the scraps and gorging themselves on the obscene student fees and dues, extorting kids who just don’t want to be poor and working a shit job their whole life. Here boy, good boy, lookie what I got here – a diploma. You want a diploma, don’t you boy? A nice little diploma, you can work as a manager instead of a warehouse handler, you can afford the things that we pretend in the USA make you happy. Just reach a little further boy, put a little more cash fireplace, and everything will work out fine. Not a day went by at UCSB that I didn’t feel like a fucking hampster on a wheel, running always to find a better, happier life, and never going anywhere except down.

UCSB did help me though, with one thing. I learned at your university that the world I lived in, the one I was trying to become a part of was fucked and awful, not fit for anyone who ever wanted to be happy. Instead of looking to get ahead, to rise to the top, I started looking for a way out, found one, took it, and here I am in Central America, having the time of my life.

I don’t mean a vacation, I mean a full-on checking out and letting go, a clean break with the life I had and didn’t like, a way to escape the miserable cycle of awake, arise, eat, work, shit, sleep, awake, arise, supplemented by buying new and diifferent toys, things, devices, placebos for the real problem that life in the US style destroys everything it touches, corrupt the beautiful, corrodes the good, saps the value out of virtue, rewards blunt stupid drive for success at the expense of all other things. All for me, fuck the little guy – if they can’t stand up for themselves we can just roll over them and not even look back – it is an awful way to live, and UCSB perpetuates that uncaring, uninvolved, individually miserably lifestyle by being a big unfeeling diploma factory – put the money in, fuck around for 4 years, get a piece of paper, and welcome to the next circle of hell. No, I won’t do it, I realized, I would rather die then live like that – so here I am.

It’s a better life Maria, it really is. Adventure, friends from everywhere, a culture and language more expressive, kinder, more interested in your life and yourself. I imagine you have a home, kids, a husband, investments, a car or 2, a retirement account – a lot of things tying you to your life where you are, and perhaps you’re quite happy as well – I would hope so. However, the best thing I ever did with my young life is to have run when I had the chance, slipped the bonds of material society, tore my eyes off the TV, got sober(ish) and ran like hell. Thus far, I’ve never looked back, or been so happy as I have since I left. So thank you, and thank you to everyone at UCSB for the piece of paper Ahnold signed, as it has proven my key to getting the fuck out of Dodge, away from the life I hated, and into one I love. Still, UCSB was not a good time for me, and I’m thankful every day I’m away from that place – it’s not a very warm or friendly place, and I got the distinct feeling that nobody gave 2 shits about me except when I didn’t pay on time.

Thanks for reading, and good day to you. If you’re ever unhappy with your life, remember that the rest of the world doesn’t work like the USA, and there are places out in the world still where your neighbors know you, where starting conversations with strangers isn’t the mark of a criminal or dangerous psychopath, and where people you don’t know genuinely care about you. Oh, and it’s cheap as sin to live down here – I live twice as nicely on half as much, and don’t have to work all day every day just to keep a roof over my head. Well, take care, and remember to smile.

-k

Peace Corps Diary #3

March 21, 2009

Hello folks!

First, a restatement of one of my core philosophical beliefs in the form of a guiding principle for humanity:

Life Begets Death Begets Life Anew, For All Eternity.

This is true at all levels. From the lowest quarks, whose infinite probabilities are destroyed forever by the simple act of observation, then recreated when no one is influencing them, to the life and death of organisms, planets, galaxies, and the universe(s?) all things live, die, and are reborn in other forms. Death is simply part of life, which is part of death all the same. What we call “a life” is simply one section of the greater universal lifeforce, separated out from the whole so that we may tell stories about it individually. It is not ours to worry about death or life beyond it, only to make that portion of life which we call our own better in some small way. If we can do that, then we are improving life for all. As a self-aware, sentient, and learning species, it is our duty to improve on life, to guide it, and to spread it to all places where it may flourish. That, rather then simple species reproduction, ought to be our guiding purpose in all actions.

Or put more simply, make your life into the best story that you can possibly tell, and strive always to better the world around you.

Life is Most Authentic on the Frontiers

On the frontiers of the world, one sees the essential characteristics as if magnified – good, bad, greed, lust, envy, honesty, trust, charity, love – all played out in sharp relief against a background of hardship and unforgiving life. When the margins of error are smaller, when mistakes are more costly and failure as well, the true natures of people are revealed. It is as if necessity has stripped bare the very souls of all those it touches; obfuscation an unaffordable luxury. Honduras is one of those frontiers, and looking into the bared souls of the people here is proving to be one of my greatest learning experiences.

Buses

The buses here are a whole other experience. I have a theory about Honduran bus drivers, namely that they are chosen from the “best” of Honduras’ drivers, which means that anywhere else they would be called the worst drivers in the world. Chad, I’m sorry, you’ve got nothing on these men, who careen up and down mountains in the wrong lane, around corners, between pedestrians and traffic, barely slowing, and stopping only if the riders are unwilling to jump off as the bus drives by their stop all while driving 50 year old American school buses. They’re all nuts, but somehow they keep on the roads, get passengers where they need to be, and run with a very impressive degree of good timing and a solid schedule.

Inside is mayhem. Usually there are more people then seats, passengers balancing in the aisles, women with babies, kids sleeping in the seats, bags and boxes and piles of possessions. No animals yet, but I’m sure I’ll see some soon. The whole group moves as a mass, bouncing and swaying and supporting themselves as the bus driver tries to throw them all down a ravine. And into the middle of this all steps me, the token gringo.

It’s great because I don’t just draw stares, I actually get double-takes. Little kids are especially funny, because they’ll just stare unabashedly, while their mothers and fathers and older siblings look away politely. The young ones, the under-5 crowd, will just gape at this strange man with the funny hat and white face. I smile and make faces at them, and just try to enjoy the attention. A bus ride down here is at once a day’s entertainment, a great way to improve your relationship with your higher power of choice, a strong statement about the state of US public transit (honestly; it’s better here) and it only costs 6 Lempira. (about 30 cents) A bargain if you ask me!

Dogs in Honduras

One thing that really gets me here is the dogs. They really have a raw deal, and that’s here in a country where I feel that pretty much everyone gets the short end of the stick. Everywhere I go, I see stray dogs, ribs sticking straight through the skin, tails tucked between their legs, rooting through garbage trying to survive. At the same time, they’re being kicked, sworn at, spit at, and generally treated like scum by the people here, which, to be fair, they kind of are.

There are hundreds of strays just in this small town, and more every day, since nobody spays or neuters their pets, and they all just roam wild anyway. Still, every day I see another little stray puppy, battered and skinny, flea-bitten and weak, and I just want to take it home and nurse it back to health. And yet every day I keep walking, keep staring ahead, hoping that I’ll be lucky and won’t see its maggot-eaten body in a ditch later that week while I’m out running. I’ve been unlucky twice now.

A new stray appeared at school today, a little black puppy with white belly and nose, too-big paws and a loving demeanor. She’s already too small for her age, but still cute enough to garner a few scraps from the students. S (another student) and I played her a while, petting her, making her kick, and of course she had fleas, ticks, burrs, the works. We talked about starting a shelter for stray animals, but I have no idea where we would get the money or volunteers. Still, as a side project I’d love to try it.

The dogs people own are just that: possessions. They sleep outside, eat scraps, get kicked and sworn at, and guard the house. They’re never bathed, pet, or loved like dogs here – they’re work animals, and this land is too harsh to waste time babying tools. People here are always interested in how much I care for animals, petting the strays, playing with Panchito and Glifford (the house guard dogs) and generally paying attention to something that people really don’t even think about during their day. I guess the best analogy here would be someone who plays with the Roomba, but to be fair, I did that too in the house. (“Hello Robot!”)

Anyway, I will adopt a dog at some point, be it a stray or an unwanted puppy, and I’ll have a partner soon enough. For now, I guess I just have to keep being “that guy” and showing way too much love to the public nuisances. I can’t help myself! They (the dogs) are an analogy for the people of Honduras and other parts of the world – abandoned by the owners of the world, left to their own devices, hungry and hurt, fighting for their very survival. I feel for them both, the dogs and the people, and I hope I can do something to help them all before I’m through here.

An All-Starch Diet

Ok, so it’s not ALL starch, but it’s close enough. White rice, black and refried beans, corn tortillas, it’s pretty much all staples with some vegetables or occasionally meat thrown into the mix. It’s good, but you start to feel… heavy. Plus, it comes out with a vengeance, or not at all. Part of that might be my body not being sure how to adjust to this new food, but honestly you’re going to have some wicked shits now and again. (Sorry, brief aside: part of not being able to speak English much is that when you do get to speak it, you have a filthy mouth. We’ve all turned into sailors; it think it comes from an inability to express strong feelings in Spanish the same way we can in English – when we get to speak our native tongue, we overcompensate like a motherfucker.)

Anyway, the food makes you poop a lot, or if you don’t drink enough water, not at all. A few volunteers have had to be given pills already, and the results are hilarious to the observer – lots of running frantically to the bathroom as they get the bodily equivalent of a wide-open tap. So yeah, lots of poop jokes, lots of bland food, but at least we’re eating well. One of the reasons I’ve stepped up my running to 3 days a week, yoga 2/week, and exercises and calisthenics daily is that I feel like I’ve been eating bricks. The girls especially have to watch out here; it sneaks up on you and suddenly you’re all fatties. And we all know nobody likes a fatty! (sarcasm, some people are way into that sorta gig.) I need to switch subjects before this gets more incriminating or vile.

I get a lot of food cravings here. Mostly, they’re fleeting desires for something I know I can’t have – blueberry pancakes or a gala apple, (update, found the apples, they’re delicious) but some of them are ruthless and stick with you for the long haul. I’ve had vivid dreams about sourdough bread grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken soup, and every morning I crave loose-leaf green tea with honey and have to settle for Honduran coffee. (still great, but it’s like trying to satisfy an itchy nose by putting in eyedrops – close, but it’s treating the wrong problem.)

Really though, food is becoming more and more of a non-issue for me. Given no variety, I stop thinking about it, stop looking forward to meals, and just eat to stay fed. It’s boring, but it’s probably a healthier way to go about things. Not that there isn’t excellent Honduran food – enchiladas (really, more like tostadas for you in the states – in particular are amazing, but you just don’t have the luxury of eating variety most days, and so the palate falls asleep and you mow your way through rice and beans, beans and rice, with some delicious avocados (good lord, I almost forgot how to spell that!) mangoes and pineapple on occasion.

Security Concerns

One thing that I find myself thinking about more and more here is security, both mine and that of my possessions. From our almost-daily safety and security lectures, the idea is pounded into our heads that we WILL have security incidents, we will probably be mugged, or robbed, or burglarized, or have our pockets picked, and if we’re lucky, that’s all that will happen. We’re also taught that we shouldn’t fight back, that we need to accept the dangers, and that we can minimize the effects of these incidents by staying calm, cooperating, and just giving people what they want. (Usually your cell phone and money) I find myself very much not ok with this.

Perhaps I’m being stubborn, but the idea of giving up, giving in, and resigning myself to losing my things bugs me. Plus, on the off chance that my assailant(s) isn’t after just my phone, I want to be able to react, not just roll over and die.  In conjunction with the Peace Corps policies, I’ve been developing my own safety and security routine: the hope is that I’ll be able to better recognize the dangers around me, minimize my losses in case an incident does occur, and most importantly, be able to scale my actions in response to varied threats to my health and safety. Considering that the Peace Corps doesn’t teach action, only reaction, this ought to give me a leg up on any of my classmates.

First, preparation: all valuables get to stay home or hidden. I’d love to take pictures of everything, but wandering around with a camera is like wearing a 10 foot high neon “I’m a big idiot; please rob and kill me!” sign. Thus most of my pictures are going to be in my head, or in areas where I’m safe/at home. My money goes in 4 different pockets, and the big bills (its all relative) go into my shoe. The phone gets wrapped in a bandana and tied around my ankle. The dummy wallet with nothing much in it; 30-40 lempira, (about 2 bucks ) maybe an ID card, goes into my jacket pocket, and the $21 Honduran cell phone (more on this later) goes in my left front. My good glasses stay home; I wear the pair covered in spray paint and held together by superglue. In every way I dress down, trying to be just another face in the crowd. It’s not easy, since I’m lily white and the world is brown, but I manage pretty well for a gringo.

In my front right pocket I have my pocket knife, easily accessible and always sharp. This is perhaps my biggest liability and best preparation combined, and I have to be very careful about when/if I use it. Around here, having a knife means you’re a criminal or a gang member, which is really stupid considering A) all the real gang members have guns, and B) all the REAL gang members have AK-47s. My piddly 4” blade isn’t going to do anything about that, but at the same time, I’m unwilling to let myself go out completely unarmed into a dangerous world – I didn’t do it in the US, why would I do so in a part of the world in which I have a real chance of being a victim? Sure, I’m not going to knife a guy who is pointing a gun at my face, but if he’s pointing the gun off to the side while he’s going through my wallet and he’s within arm’s distance… I like to feel that I could at least make an effort at self-defense if I felt my life was in danger. At the least it’s better then the official “kiss your ass goodbye” policy that the Peace Corps teaches.

Similarly, I’ve started taking self-defense seriously again. Nothing fancy; just the meanest and most foolproof hits, hip-throws, elbows, shoulder-charges, and aggressive techniques I’ve learned. I don’t expect to use them, but if the situation presents itself, I want to be able to react quickly and correctly, and part of that is just keeping security at the forefront of your mind at all times.

From all we’ve learned, it’s the unprepared, the careless, the reckless who suffer the most unwanted attention and incidents, and so I’ll be none of those, keep myself invisible in crowds, and come out of this all ok. And in the off chance that I’m a target, I’ll be ready.

Dancing! One of the luckiest parts of my situation down here is that I’ve been accidentally paired up with X, a world-tripping, yoga-enthusiastic, street-smart, down-to-earth lefty type who just happens to be in my same program. Oh and she’s inappropriate and shameless for good measure. As it turned out, we live less then 100 feet away from each other, and I’m actually typing this while sitting on her bed. (Another Peace Corps rule violation, but not one I’m too worried about.) We’ve become amazing friends for having met a scant 2 weeks ago, and we spend almost all of our time together.

We run, do yoga, meditate, talk, swap stories, do homework together, place bets upon what ills will befall which of our classmates, and generally act like we’re joined at the hip. We’re very similar personality types, and so we get along like best friends after no time at all. Having her around has made this transition a whole lot easier. As luck would have it, she’s also a fantastic dancer, especially at salsa. A couple times now, we’ve just started dancing, either in the home or at a restaurant with a live band. She’s better then I am, but it’s great because as any dancer will tell you, having a great partner really makes you step up your game and improve. We’re still learning how the other reacts, but in just a few hours we’ve gotten a whole lot better, and we have room to improve for sure.

Last Sunday we headed down to El Paso, this strange little restaurant between Sarabanda (where we live) and Santa Lucia. (the nearest big town) X and myself, along with her host mother, walked down the road a mile or so to El Paso, this funky little “Mexican”-themed restaurant with live bands, rickety metal slides, and really disgustingly greasy food. Really though, we’d just gone there to dance, so I couldn’t care less. X, her host mom, and I danced a lot, even though the beat was so metronomic (bump bump, bump bump, bump bump, bump bump…) that I really don’t want to call it music. We did a lot of salsa, west coast swing, learned the punta mas o menos, (it’s all in shaking your butt) and tried to remember rumba and instead tripped a lot and laughed. We’re not allowed to drink beers during training, so we drank cokes out of straws (they reuse the bottles here, so don’t drink off the rim if you enjoy pooping solids and not having weird bacterial infections) and had a grand old time. I hope to keep dancing here – seems like a great way to meet people – and who knows, maybe I’ll even get good at it.

Nobody Cleans Up The Roads Here – Watch Your Step!

It’s almost a game here – dodging the animal excrement, garbage, tar, noxious-looking spills, oil, and god-only-knows-what-else that blanket the roads here. There isn’t any government here, not in the US sense at least, and nobody has figured out a way to make money off of keeping the place clean. As a result, the country, especially near the roads, is filthy. It’s heartbreaking really – our training area is in the middle of a national forest, and there is garbage, plastic bottles and bags, trash, food, broken furniture, and more choking the roadsides, ditches, and forests of Honduras.

What’s more, it’s an unofficial policy here to just throw everything you don’t want out the windows of your car, or just onto the ground if you’re walking. I’ve seen teenage mothers teach their babies to throw trash out the window, then applaud and kiss them as if they’re not destroying the world around them! It’s maddening, because this country is so beautiful if not for the piles of trash EVERYWHERE. One of my projects here really needs to be finding a way to pick up trash, but I just can’t figure out how. A lot of volunteers have tried and failed, so please try to think of some ways for me to get people interested in cleaning up garbage and shoot them my way!

Machismo is For Girly Men

Here in Honduras, like anywhere in the world, there’s a prevailing method of action, a cultural “normal” way to behave and act. For the men here, that norm is machismo, a very masculine, show-offy, dominant way of acting, particularly around women. Think chivalry mixed with being a sleazeball, but strong like drug-resistant tuberculosis or superAIDS. Machismo is what makes men here honk at any women they drive past, throw catcalls like construction workers, and offer to help with everything they catch a girl doing for herself.

It’s not their fault – anyone who doesn’t act like they’re God’s gift to women really takes a hard time from their friends, getting their sexuality questioned, taking all sorts of mockery for their inability to be loud, abusive, and vulgar – but it’s really heavy and it makes me feel bad for the women sometimes. The female role in a machismo society is very submissive, and I know that it must be like sandpaper on the female volunteers here especially. Worse, it’s pretty strictly forbidden, and potentially dangerous, to react to these jerks, so I can already see some of the girls pulling a teakettle and just steaming up and up and up. I wonder who’ll burst first.

Here’s a good example of machismo in action: me and the girls are coming back from running in the mountains, and we’re in running attire – shorts and tight shirts, with some leg showing, especially my hairy beauties. In a conservative country like this, anything that shows leg is scandalous, and so the little running shorts the girls wear throws the local boys into a tizzie – scarcely a car passes that doesn’t honk, with the guys riding in back shouting “I’ll see you later” and “Hey baby” to show off their English. It’s mostly because of this that we stay off the main roads in the first place, but seriously, a bunch of sweaty tired people should never attract this much attention. If the girls react to this treatment in any way, even if simply to look at them, it’s like they’ve given the guys a big flashing “please come mess with me!” card with gold lettering and a star sticker.

Thus it falls to me to play the stupid gringo, wave, shout muchas gracias, and maybe blow them a kiss if I’m feeling sassy. This is like kryptonite to these guys – being thought of as gay, or as being sexual toward another man is one of the worst things one can do – and so it really just deflates their egos and they leave us be. I tend to save this for the ones who aren’t right by us though, since I always wonder when/if I’ll push it to far, and have to deal with a very angry, pride-stung Honduran. I don’t know how far to push things, so for now, we just keep our heads down, take the catcalls and gringo-baiting, and comfort ourselves with the fact that the vast majority of Hondurans aren’t 16 year old overcompensating idiots with dirty mouths. Still, the machismo culture is one of the things I like least about the people down here, and I have no idea why the women put up with it. Fear? A cultural sense of inferiority? Probably a little of both, but that’s just depressing.

Staying Healthy, Honduras Style

Staying healthy here is really a case-study in risk management. Every day you get confronted with choices as to which risks you want to take with your health, and so most of staying healthy consists of making good decisions about what to put your body through. “Should I eat this street vendor sandwich?” Probably not, if you enjoy pooping solids. (there’s a theme here!) “Will popping my disgustingly large blisters open me up to infections, or will letting them tear make things worse?” I’ll let you know – I drained them yesterday, and so far so good. Running in my boots was a mistake I won’t be repeating soon, and continuing to run, hike, and play futbol on my poor blistered feet just compounded that. Chalk that one up in the “poor decisions” category.

Still, in every instance you have to make a choice, yay or nay, as to whether you’re going to put your health at risk. Because of this, your health starts to become an ever-present concern. I catch myself wondering whether that scab on my finger isn’t healing because it’s infected (it isn’t) or because it’s been a day and half since I cut it open. I rub hand sanitizer on myself, my phone, everything. I worry about whether the water that gets in my mouth and eyes during my bucket shower contains the sneaky microorganisms that will give me a tapeworm, or leave me praying to the porcelain gods for mercy. I guess I shouldn’t use the word “worry” because it isn’t so much that as it is a wariness, a nagging thought to be careful, to weigh my options before jumping into any action.

In that sense at least, being healthy here in all about being proactive. You need to get that cut checked out, and to tell the PCMO (medical officer) about your diarrhea. Don’t let that rash “get better on it’s own” because it might be something serious or a harbinger of things to come. Really, being healthy here means being just paranoid enough; too much and you’re going to be unfunctional, too little and you’re going to get some sort of cool flesh/brain/heart-eating virus that kills you. Finding that happy medium is a daily test.

That said, there’s a lot you have to resign yourself to. Your food isn’t as sanitary as it would be in the US. It happens. Get over it and eat dinner. Your host mom probably didn’t wash her hands after she did laundry and shooed the dog who never gets bathed out of the kitchen either. You can try to change her habits if you really want to; good luck with that. Likewise, you’re taking showers out of a bucket, living in a world where the streets are never cleaned, the dust is pervasive, the cars which aren’t smogged are driven by drivers who might not be licensed or just drunk, and the water comes in rusty pipes double their expected life. You’re taking a lot of health risks just living here, and if you can’t reconcile your need for caution with the reality of life here, perhaps Honduras just isn’t your bag baby.

As I write this, an ant has just crawled into my beer, which I will continue drinking because beer is a scarce commodity here – it’s the first I’ve had since leaving DC, and I’m certainly not going to toss it out because one little ant wanted to get her fill. Likewise, I have zero problem eating food with bugs in it, or things that have fallen on a reasonably clean floor.

Case in point: the other night I was hanging out with X, and she offered me a “minimo” a tiny, 3” banana that grows wild out here. I peeled it to find a family of ants had been gnawing at one end, and after a few fruitless efforts at getting them to leave, I just mowed down the whole thing. Extra protein. Again, calculated risk. A few ants aren’t going to kill me, and it was the only ridiculously adorable tiny banana I was liable to get that day. Why should I worry about something that I can’t change? And that, my friends, is the secret of being healthy in Honduras: consider the costs and benefits of every action, and don’t sweat that which is beyond your control.

My “New” Phone

Last email I wrote about getting a phone here in Honduras. I also told you all to call me if you got bored, which nobody did, which leads me to conclude that you all hate me. Seriously though, it’s 011 504 9576 2348 if you’d like to call me – it costs me nothing to receive calls, and though I have no idea what it costs to call from the states, it’s only 4 lempira (about 20 cents) a minute to call you all from here, and I can’t imagine it’s that much worse in reverse. Otherwise, skype call me! I’d love to hear from any of you, especially if you’re drunk at 4 am. I’ll be getting up for school anyhow.

Switching gears; my phone is pretty neat. In a lot of ways, Honduras is easily a half-century or more behind the US in terms of technology. They kinda-sorta have landlines, but they’re unreliable, expensive, and never really reached market saturation. Cable TV exists, but only if you’re rich and in the right parts of town. Cars are at least 30 years behind, except for a few luxury models that the rich folk drive around. (another theme developing here!) The roads are narrow and occasionally lit, and there’s next to nothing in terms of traffic lights or stop signs, even in very well-traveled areas. Outside of Teguz, the capital, I have yet to see a working stop light. They use traffic cops here by the hundreds, organizing and controlling the flow of vehicles, ala USA circa 1920 or so. My house gets water 2 time a week from an outside tap, the toilet flushes with a bucket, and the power drops out at regular intervals. Honduras has a definite infrastructure problem.

However, their cell networks and phones are very similar to ours – in some ways better. My $21 pay-as-you-go Nokia is virtually identical to my first indestructible phone back in high school, and it’s fast, intuitive, and the battery lasts days. It’s been 4 days since I changed it, and it’s at 80% battery. It turns on or off in a few seconds, does everything I ask of it, and if experience serves me well, I should probably be able to play hacky-sack with it for a few months with nary a concern. I’ve yet to go below 3 of 5 bars or drop a call, despite living in a country that is almost entirely mountains. The cell service here is solid, and you can find almost any phone you could imagine, if you’re willing to haggle with the right street vendor. It’s no iphone, and I’m certainly not going to trade internet access, music, games, a full calendar, contacts, and a million other features for this little brick with a flashlight built in, but as a phone and a distraction to thieves, this Nokia takes the cake. Talking on my phone, I forget the broken infrastructure and marvel at how quickly this technology is transforming the way Hondurans live and do business.

Simply put, Honduras is a prime example of a free market at work. There are few laws governing what can or cannot be done, and even less effective regulation. One upshot to this system is that the technologies that flourish are strictly those that have proven their worth to the populace – the cheapest, easiest, most useful things are the only ones that people here are going to save their meager earnings to buy. Thus cell phones have exploded, reaching all corners of the country, companies fighting each other for customers, with towers in every neighborhood. (if cell towers cause cancer, these people will find out really soon – there are towers in schools, on houses, in playgrounds; everywhere there is space and an open range, someone has a cell repeater up.) It’s all because of how useful cell phones are, and how much having one (or not) can impact your life.

Thus, without mandates, government money, or regulation, a very tight network of cell towers have blanketed the nation, and cells are cheaper then most else out here. This isn’t to say that free markets are all good – certainly Honduras has ample evidence and then some of the failings of a society run by capital – but in this instance, I feel like the executives of AT&T, Verizon, and all the rest of the US cell carriers ought to be dragged down here to see how real competition works.

Going to the Market

Last Wednesday part of our training class, myself included, headed into Teguz to practice negotiating and navigating our way through the capital city. It was a bit scary, since we’re none-too-sure of our Spanish skills, and frankly, because the Peace Corps wanted it to be scary. They gave us a destination, a bit of cash, and basically said “meet you there.” This was our first real test of our seriousness and ability to survive on our own.

Early in the am, I caught the bus in front of my house with about 17-20 other volunteers, which was in itself pretty hilarious. Bunch of gringos swarming the daily bus to Tegucigalpa definitely raised some eyebrows, but it also kept us safe. Who wants to rob someone who obviously brought a swarm of friends? More to the point, the Peace Corps didn’t want to lose anyone, so we were all assigned groups – to ride together for one, and to keep an eye on each other for two. My group of 3 did just fine, caught a cab, negotiated a fare, and took the 16 block ride to the market Zonal Belin for just over 4 bucks. That’s total, not individual fare! (anyone who’s been ripped off by a cabbie stateside, I’m sorry, but nyah nyah!)

After a harrowing ride of prayer and blind merging, we disembarked into a scene right out of Indiana Jones. Narrow, dirty streets, open air stands, vendors carrying goods from all over and yelling out prices, people pushing, and everywhere the smells and sights and sounds of a bustling marketplace. Like any good Americans, we strode into the supermarket.

To be fair, we were supposed to meet Victor, our facilitator, there, but it makes the image better. The “supermecado” here is just like the ones there, except it blasts old American tunes (they really love Air Supply, Bob Marley, and Hotel California by the Eagles) and there is a LOT smaller selection. For most items, you get the dominant brand (Coke, Crest, Betty Crocker) and one, maybe two generic alternatives. There’s not fruit or vegetables that aren’t tropical, and nothing that isn’t in season. Makes you a bit wistful for the USA, especially if you’re craving blueberries.

The pricing is kinda weird – some items, like soap, clipboards, toothpaste, are cheap as dirt, a buck or so if you’re buying generic – but some others, like American candy, are overpriced compared to back home. Gum is well over a buck a pack, same for skittles, M&Ms, and the like. It’s weird to pay the same amount for an 8-pack of batteries and a pack of trident.

After price matching at the supermercado, we run across traffic to the open-air market. Here the fun part begins – bartering, shouting, playing with the produce, jumping puddles, dodging cars and carts and donkeys, watching for pickpockets, getting lost in dead ends, choking on diesel, haggling with street vendors, buying pineapple out of the bed of a truck, and sticks of cinnamon from an old woman with a snaggletooth. If you ignore the little displays of cell phones and turn a blind eye to the radios and remote controls, it could be 100 years ago in America, or any dirty marketplace in the world today.

I’m in love with the place, and I spend 37 lempira (2 bucks) on 4 apples, 6 oranges, 6 bananas and another 6 on the day’s paper. It’s fantastic, and I’m pretty good at bargaining with the locals. It goes a bit like this – you find an item you want, wander up to the merchant, and ask the price. When they tell you, you grimace, bite your lip, and tell them it’s a bit more then you wanted to pay. Then you name your price, preferably something about 70% of what they told you originally. They’ll refuse, and you’ll tell them that you only want to pay the 70% price again, this time loud enough for the vendor in the next stall over to hear. If the first vendor is smart, he or she will offer you a price somewhere in the range of 80% of the original price. If he isn’t; the second vendor probably will, and presto, you’ve got your item at a great price. Buy it, and feel smug.

If neither is willing to meet the price you name, just thank them and walk – there’s someone in the market with a better price if you just keep looking, and chances are they’re near the middle. Look for vendors in bad locations – dead ends, corners, places that don’t get a lot of foot traffic. They’ll happily barter down, and you can find all sorts of cool stuff for next to nothing.

I could have spent all day there, but around 11:30 we left to visit the market, fought with another taxi driver (they add a gringo tax to all fares here – general rule, take 20 Lempira off and see if they’ll still take you) and rode to the Peace Corps home office. We got a quick tour of what might as well have been an embassy in a warzone, all barbed wire and barred windows, with a 10 foot wall around.

After the look-around, we boarded Peace Corps vehicles and rode to Burger King. It was really funny actually – the BK here was pretty much identical to the others I’ve been to – nicer actually then some I’ve seen. The food was identical, the prices too! It actually cost more for a greasy hamburger then it did for my cabfare and busfare for the day. Still, it was a taste of home, and a nice change from the plato tipico – beans, rice, and tortillas – that make up the day-to-day eating around here.  After lunch, all that remained was a short jaunt back to town, and we slipped right back into the daily routine as if we’d never left.

Getting Ruined at Futbol

On Saturday, classes get out around noon, and we had the bright idea of heading down to the local futbol field (that’s soccer for you yanks) to see if we could play with the locals, or just start a pickup game of our own. As it turned out, the regulars all wanted to play with us silly Americans, and so by the time we’d ridden the bus down to Los Canyadas to save ourselves a few miles walking, we were greeted by about 12 of teenage and early-20s guys and a few local girls.

We decided to play EEUU versus Honduras, and so the we all knew we were in for an uphill struggle – these guys pretty much play from 3-4 pm until dark every day – but at the same time it wasn’t malicious. We all just wanted to have a good time, and the game seemed a good way for everyone to meet up and have some fun. We started out really disorganized, playing what my dad, my old coach, used to call “cluster ball.” That means that the USA guys and girls buzzed around the ball like a bunch of bees, pulling out of positions, falling over each other, and generally playing a lot of bad soccer.

We got down in the scoreboards really fast, giving up 5 goals to none in the first half. Honestly, it was pretty pathetic, but we also had a goalie who didn’t block a single shot. What blocked shots we did manage came from some of the defenders, like myself, who put our bodies between the ball and the goal. At the half, a few of the guys were really demoralized and took off to visit the internet cafes and get food, so that left 10 of us American and one Honduran versus the other 11 Hondurans. Our subs had really been our saving grace the first half, and so before we got back on the pitch we set firm positions, and I took command of the defense.

Three girls, Shannon, Kathrine, Lindsey, and myself played a diamond D, with the girls playing man-defense and myself roaming the backfield to pick up runners, throw a few tackles, and double team their stars. It actually worked great, and our offense organized themselves as well – 2 guys running the sidelines and dropping balls to Randy, Bert, and our Honduran player. We got two goals to their none, and the second half ran about 15 minutes longer then the first. Eventually, as it was pushing on toward dusk Danny, one of the Honduran guys, blasted a fantastic shot into the upper corner of our net, and we called the game at that. 6-2 Honduras over EEUU, but nothing but smiles, high-fives, and laughter all around. They say one of the most important goals of the Peace Corps is culture sharing, and I think we accomplished this admirably. If everything else we do goes half this well, we’ll do fantastically out here.

Road Tripping Honduran Style

So that brings me to Sunday. Our second assignment has been to go and visit volunteers at their sites across Honduras, to get a feel for how people work, and to meet our future coworkers. Plus, it goes kinda unsaid that we all need a change of scene and a break. I was assigned to a guy named Jon, an engineer out in Choluteca, the 4th-largest city in Honduras, located 130 km south of the capital. It’s a big site for the Peace Corps, and so I’m in good company – 6 other volunteers are taking the same or similar routes to their volunteers.

After packing my bag with a change of clothes, plenty of socks and underwear, my laptop, and a few toiletries, I arranged with Shannon, Reggie, and Kathrine to ride together to Teguz. We hit the terminal around 9:45am, and from there S, R, and I took a taxi (another wild ride) to the Mi Esperanza bus terminal on the south side of the city. Pretty uneventful overall, until we hit the terminal and bus atendantes (fare collectors, helpers, busboys, kinda all-around labor types) swarmed us, grabbed at our bags, and all but kidnapped us into the various terminals of each bus company. It was pretty wild. Luckily for us, we managed to regroup and push our way into the nearest doorway. As it turned out, it was one of the terminals, and so we just bought tickets there on an 11:15 bus to Choluteca. A whopping 82 Lempira (4 bucks 25 cents or so) and we had our tickets.

I slipped across the street, leaving my bag with the girls, and went into a pulperia to buy a few drinks and some gum for the trip. As it turned out, I found a little shopkeeper who spoke passable English, not that he let me in on that until after I’d stumbled through the entire exchange in Spanish. Still, scared the crap out of me when he came up behind me as I was leaving to say “have a nice trip.” It was just weird to hear a voice in English, especially there. We talked a bit – he’d lived in the states for a while before returning, which may or may not have meant that he had been there illegally, which isn’t exactly uncommon here. Either way, it was a weird little exchange.

Loaded up with Fresca, Aguazul water, and chicle (27 L for the lot, for you keeping track at home) I got back to the terminal and swapped stories with Shannon and Reggie until the bus got there. Reggie has a great life story, but that’s not for here. Anyhow, we boarded the bus, took seats near the middle (statistically, it’s the safest spot) and read books or napped or looked out the windows as our long, hot, journey began. Met a doctor seated across from me; he was studying abdominal/intestinal medicine, and we talked about parasites and explosive diarrhea in Spanish. Chalk him up to the growing group of people who laugh and tell me how sick I’m going to get.

After a bit he passed out, the girls were in their books, and I couldn’t stop staring out the windows. It’s like another world, different even from the Honduras I’m just getting used to. It’s almost like Southern California in the south, all chapparel, stunted trees, and dry brush as the hills roll away from the 2-lane highway. What makes it different and unusual is that the familiar scene is interspersed with slash-and-burn farms, piles of garbage, starving dogs, broken down cars, tiny pueblos with rocky fields, and poor kids, adults, men, women, and children scraping a living out of the unforgiving land.  At every stop I bought something – a mango, a sandwich, a bag of water. I had to: it’s nothing to me, but to these people it’s the difference between living and dying, eating and going to bed empty.

I couldn’t help myself from asking “is this it? Is this life? Is this all there is? A fight for survival, a daily struggle to eat, to live to do it again tomorrow? Have I been stupid, or just naïve, to deny this fundamental truth?” Life is so simple when you have nothing at all. You eat, or you don’t. You drink, or you go thirsty. You fall in love, have kids, and die, and you fight every day to stay alive for the next. One day you don’t, and that’s it. Everything else is just gravy, the condiments of life. We delude ourselves into thinking we need this, or we can’t live without that, but these people put the lie to all that. We’re really just animals who think, and sometimes I question whether the whole thinking thing was such a great idea. I alternated reading Kerouac and gawking at the world flashing by as our driver swerved lanes, passing cars, trucks, buses, honked and cut the wheel, missed oncoming traffic by mere feet, and caused a ruckus.

I sweat a lot – it’s easily 95, and there’s no shade. The air coming in the windows is a furnace, and the smells of the world; shit, food, smoke, cigarettes, coffee, diesel, all flood in. I’m in love. I’m giddy. I’m tingling with the sheer pressure of life pushing against me; I can feel it all the way down into my soul, into every fiber of my being, into my very essence. This is how I was supposed to live – traveling, looking for truth, experiencing that which I’ve never before.

We hit Choluteca a bit after 3, hopped out, grabbed our bags, and were left coughing fumes in the furnace of the afternoon. A few people waiting for the bus looked at us, a few taxis honked and waved. Otherwise, we were just a few travelers in a city that didn’t care. Again, the tingling feeling, the rush. I found a shady tree to sit under and called Jon. He said that he and the other volunteers were waiting for us at Wendy’s down the road, and with him walking one way, and us the other, we met up rather quickly. Walking together now, we did the whole pleasantries thing, and made it to Wendy’s in a few minutes.

I kept marveling at how run-down yet familiar the town looks – like a dystopian Fresno, or perhaps Bakersfield. There’s a lot of one-story buildings, roads with potholes, tired-looking trees, rough, dirty, broken everything. At the same time, it’s easily recognizable as a town, though it looks deceivingly small, you’ve got all the normal parts of town that we do in the states; strip mall, fast food joints, a little legal district, a cathedral, a police station. It’s definitely a place I feel confidently at home in – much more then in Teguz, where it’s all overwhelming, or in Santa Lucia, where there’s nothing remotely like home.

A note on Wendy’s: there’s a lot of reasons not to buy fast food. It’s greasy, none-too-tasty, and more expensive then a lot of things here. Normally, there’s no good reason to buy it, which is why I shied away from it whenever possible back home. However here in Honduras (and really, to travelers everywhere) it has a few distinct advantages, namely that it’s (relatively) clean, unlikely to give you nasty parasites or germies, and you can rely on it to taste about the same wherever you go. Plus, here they actually try – since American fast food joints are more expensive then pretty much any lunch or dinner place, they’re actually really clean, well-staffed, and fast. It’s kinda funny to me that the Wendy’s we visited here is cleaner and the food better then any I’ve ever visited in my life. Just another Honduras mystery, I guess.

Not much left to tell here, at least not in this story. We hit our destination, met our volunteers, made new friends, talked, ate, and joked, and then went our separate ways. In my next message (hopefully sometime next week) I’ll write about the rest of this trip, since it’s turning out great. For the time being, this was my story, and I’m sticking to it. Feel free to call me whenever, write me letters, send me sacks of bricks or candy. I miss all your smiling faces, but this was and is the best thing I’ve ever done.

K over and out.

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