Dear friends,

 

Happy New Year, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and holidays to you! I hope you are in good health, warm company, and fine spirits as this letter reaches you – if so, you’ve beaten the odds; and if not, I hope this helps.

 

I am well enough; certainly in good health and in the loving company of my family, though as for spirits, I must confess those dive and soar as the waves of life roll past. I know that I haven’t written you in quite some time – I can say this safely because I haven’t written anyone in quite some time: it just hasn’t been a part of my life lately. Nonetheless, there is a certain tradition to the end of each year; a sense of finality and closure, and I’d like to do my bit to convey some of the fading wonder of my 2010 to you.

 

This time last year, I was in Nicaragua – a lovely country with wonderful, but far from home and family. I spent my Christmas with a handful of travelers and expatriates on a remote beach on the Pacific shore, throwing rocks into the ocean out of cell phone range, as far from the modern world as I could manage. For New Years I got disgustingly drunk with people I barely knew, making a complete ass of myself in front of a girl I had been trying to impress, and ended up burning a long list of everything I wished to remove from my life in a bonfire – I distinctly remember both “my ties to the country I was born in” and “the baggage of my past” being on that sheet of paper. Judging from my present position, that worked out amazingly well, and I’ve had no further problems in that area.

 

After the New Year, I hitched rides down to the capital of Nicaragua, rode buses to Panama City, and spent entirely too much time at border crossings in an attempt to meet up with a good friend and ride the same plane as him down to Colombia. Being as he had all the details on where we were going, it was only fitting I never saw him. Instead, I got into a late-night argument with a fabulous girl from New York, and we ended up traveling together and dating. (Let that be a lesson to everyone – if she opens the conversation with “Oh my God, are you still on your fucking phone?!” she is a keeper.)

 

Anyway, Natalie and I had a wonderful time, and after I convinced her to blow off her trip to Peru, we did a tour of some of the more beautiful parts of one of the more ridiculously beautiful countries on the planet. Seriously – find someone who has been to Colombia who will dispute the awesomeness of this country, and you’ve found a complete curmudgeon – congrats. America has Natalie largely to thank for rehabilitating her image in my mind: I guess I figured that if someone as great as her could come out of the country, then it couldn’t be all terrible. She and I spent about 3, 3 ½ weeks together, and then out of nowhere she was gone and I was alone again. Following a terribly overwrought airport goodbye scene and a crazy cokehead-driven bus ride north, what else was there for me to do except check into a mountaintop paragliding school for the next month?

 

I almost died there – not a joke at all – I’m a bad paraglider. I ended up in the bushes a few times, draped a glider over some power lines, and on my very last flight crashed into a tree and fell 40-50 feet to the ground. It’s no small miracle that I’m still here to tell this story. Still, it was a legendary experience, and nothing I’ve ever done before or since can directly compare. At the end of February, I said my goodbyes, packed my bags, and the very next morning took off to the airport. There I undertook one of the weirdest transitions in my life – torrential rain delay, 12 or 15 hours of flights (Colombian Airlines are great by-the-by) and then straight into “Snowpocalypse” – a huge blizzard with sub-zero temperatures. Did I mention I flew to NYC to visit Natalie in lieu of coming home? Yeah, that happened.

 

So there I am; torn jeans, pack of smelly clothes, t-shirt with volcanoes on it, and I’ve invited myself to come live with a girl I’ve known for less time than you’ve known the guy at your local gas station. Crazy, right? Definitely – crazy is a good descriptive word for the life I was leading. I got a cab to Natalie’s apartment, showed up extremely nervous she would just see me and slam the door, and instead was treated to a fabulous time with a lovely lady. She’d even “borrowed” a coat from some guy who had left it at a bar – good thing too, or I would have died of cold for sure! As it was, I invaded her life, she took me in with striking hospitality, and we made the best of the cold and poverty. It was a great time, made better by that strange sense of transience that comes from knowing one of you is going to bail out of town at a moment’s notice – As it was, I left just before her birthday. What can I say? I am a classy man.

 

What ended up happening is that I had placed a posting on Craigslist asking if someone was headed in the general direction of Los Angeles, and would they be so kind as to take a total stranger along with them? It worked better than I could have hoped: five hours after I sent my message, I received one from a man named Matt, who just so happened to be moving to LA. I called him, he sounded exactly like I didn’t expect a serial killer to sound, and that was good enough – the only drawback was leaving Natalie earlier than I wanted to. We had this fabulous goodbye; just like a romance novel really, and then she went off to school, and I went back into to the coffee shop to wait for my ride. Here’s how good this goodbye was – a little old lady came up to me as Natalie faded into the distance and told me that she only saw people part ways like that in the movies!

 

Then Matt called to postpone our departure – he’d found another rider who wanted to pay for gas. I went back to Natalie’s place, killed some time, and managed to delay leaving just long enough to see her coming home from the subway as I went down to the subway to head into the city. It was… the opposite of a romance novel goodbye. We made out on the cold sidewalk for a bit and then I – stupidly! – headed into Manhattan and let her get away again. As it turned out, Matt was running even later, and I was too broke to do most anything. I hung out with my cousin for a bit, and spent a couple more hours casually hiding inside the Apple store drinking cough syrup to keep from freezing and reflecting on how much better my life would be if I’d just stayed at Natalie’s place. Nonetheless, as a legitimate homeless person, I felt that a certain image had to be maintained – I’m sure the real patrons appreciated it.

 

Sometime after midnight Matt and I finally met up and began driving. The other guy – forget his name – and Matt rode up front, and I passed out almost immediately among the strewn books and bags and detrius of a man’s life uprooted. By the time I woke up, we were in Ohio. Illinois? Ohio. With 3 people you can swap drivers from here til next week, and nobody really gets tired of it, so it only took us 16 or 20 hours to get to Nashville, even after detouring to drop off Adam or Steve or Jesus at his family’s home and eat their peanut butter sandwiches. I took a few pictures – the best being a “Florence Y’all” water tower in Florence, and a street sign with Church going one way and Gay the other. Also, Matt pointed out the eye of Sauron on a local high rise. Finally, we found the Music City hostel, and made ourselves at home.

 

Nashville was a treat – country music Mecca, busking musicians everywhere, country dancing, swing bands, and we happened to pull into town right as the biggest college basketball conference tournament I’ve ever personally seen rolled into the city. Every night it was dance parties, every day strange adventures and surprisingly awesome Mexican food. With the foreign travelers and artists and drifters, I felt right at home. Matt and I enjoyed it all so much that we barely made it out of town with money enough for gas!

 

Lacking funds, food, and with my randomly-imposed March 17th deadline fast approaching, we booked it across the country. If you consider the 12 or so hours we spent at the home of the always-hospitable Becky and Seth in Durant as “on pause”, then it took us just under 48 hours to drive from Nashville to Venice Beach, where Matt and I parted ways forever friends. Speaking of friends, one of my best buddies Rad drove wayyy out of his daily life to come pick me up and buy me dinner that first night, and the gratitude I felt I still feel now. A friend will give you ride, but only a true best friend will come pick you up, tell you that you stink so badly that he’s not allowing you to go to a restaurant, and then buy you pizza! I spent the night with Chad and Rad, their respective girlfriends, and the infamous Jake motherfuckin’ Wood, who I’m sure you’ve heard of. If not, you really need to get out there. They took a lovely shot of me passed out about 3-4 hours after my arrival – It was a bit of an adventure!

 

However, all adventures end, and this one came to a pretty abrupt close just as soon as I made it back home. Little aside here – by this point, I have had a quite respectable epic adventure. I’ve crossed nations, I’ve changed continents, I’ve flown, I’ve crash-landed, I’ve met a girl, fallen in love, and moved in with her, I’ve made a handful of lifetime friends, I’ve been threatened with arrest and thrown out of very nice establishments. These first 3 months of 2010 have set an incredibly high bar for the rest of the year, no? Well, as it turns out, this is where the whole mood changes, and 2010 becomes the hardest year of my life.

 

If you didn’t already know, my younger brother is Schizophrenic. He’s not only schizophrenic – it isn’t a definition – but it’s certainly something you ought to know about the guy before you meet him, because once you do meet him, you’re going to want that sort of an explanation! Otherwise, depending on his mood and medication level, he’s going to strike you as anything from “slightly eccentric” to “Holy shit.”

 

When I first saw Ken after nearly 15 months away, I wasn’t prepared. At the time, he wasn’t diagnosed, wasn’t medicated, and while my mother had sent me many emails about his declining condition and her worries about him, there just isn’t any way to prepare for something like seeing your brother after his descent into madness. He was a wreck – not at first, when he came to pick me up and drive me home, but 3 hours later, when he began vividly arguing and gesticulating with someone imaginary in the hallway, it became very clear that something was horribly wrong.

 

The whole time I was gone, I had this snapshot of my family just as I had left them. In in, we’re all happy, smiling; I’m trying to shove the dog’s head in my mouth – we’re a normal, happy, family even if Dad takes blood pressure pills and Kyle had seizures as a kid. All of a sudden, we weren’t normal. That snapshot was bullshit. I had just been fooling myself all along. I walked into my family home and it was like a whole other family had inhabited the bodies of my parents and brothers. They were automatons going through the motions and each individually seeking to escape the terrible situation thrust upon them, and to come into that as I did, hopeful, ecstatic, energized to take on the world and beat it – well, it took the life right out of me.

 

To be fair, I was forewarned – my entire homecoming had been orchestrated in response to a series of emails received from Ken, mom, and a trusted friend while I was still in Panama. Actually, that moment I met Natalie – “Are you still on your fucking phone?!” – I was reading a lengthy email from Ken about how the parents didn’t understand him and were conspiring to lock him up in prison. It’s not so much I didn’t know, but really that I couldn’t see the situation accurately from afar – I didn’t want to, I wasn’t able to, I didn’t.

 

I abandoned pretty much all my plans upon coming home – Becky has warned me as we left her house that family problems tend to suck everyone in, and I’d sworn up and down that I would never, ever, for any reason, let that happen to me – driving across Arizona I’d sworn it to myself a dozen times. Yet within 48 hours of coming home I surrendered to the task at hand and started rebuilding. I put away all my photos – I’ve never shown traveling pictures to anyone, ever. Most of them never made it out of my camera except to be copied to my hard drives. My pack is still mostly packed, sitting in a corner of my closet, full of memories and trinkets. I swallowed my stories, let the fire in my eyes ember, and went into damage control – and what damage there was.

 

Mostly, I went into a tailspin. Transitioning from travel to home is difficult in the best circumstances, but going from full-on transience to sedentary life, trading hitchhiking for a desk job, and giving up writing, music, singing, and dancing all at once? That’s just a recipe for disaster. I fell apart, got a data-entry job for the Census, and the next few months are a blur of a job I hated, a home life I hated, and brief gems of home – letters from friends out in the world, free rock climbing with an old friend, and occasional escape to my sanctuary with Chad-Rad-Jake at the new “Boy’s House.”

 

I don’t mean to sound as if I wasn’t happy to see my family – I’m sure that comes across, but isn’t true – I was perfectly ecstatic to see them again, but to see them like this hurt like a sword through the chest. You never want to see your loved ones doubting their own existence, blaming themselves for genetics, or squirreling themselves away to hide from the failing family dynamic. Nobody who hasn’t been through a complete family meltdown can quite grasp how it undermines everything else in your life – we were all spending our days just trying to get up, work, eat, and get back to sleep again, and any day where all that happened without something else breaking was a good day. Looking back from right now, in a slightly brighter but still grim present, I have no clue how everyone pulled through that.

 

Slowly, it did get better. Ken got a diagnosis, new medication, birthdays passed, I got a job waiting tables, Dad graduated the police academy (3rd time through, those fucking bastards) and on the whole, things looked like they might be recovering. Also, some long-time friends got married, and celebration always helps to bring up the spirits. I mean, Ken did cold-cock me in the eye at one of the weddings after going cold turkey off his pills, and I started my new job with a fantastically swollen black eye, but we got through all that, and it’s been a gradual upslope ever since.

 

Yes, except for Dad losing his job, and my hours being cut so that I had to take a job washing dishes at minimum wage, and Ken’s recovery hitting a plateau, and Kyle’s grades, and Mom’s mental health, and the stolen trailer, and the broken pool motor, and the money trouble, and the arguments, and the silent malaise overshadowing every instant of our lives, it’s been a steady rise to the present. One might even say we’re quite lucky really – most people can’t take another crisis, whereas we’re so used to them that it’s all taken in stride. “Oh look,” one of us will yawn, “While we weren’t home tonight, the peaceful dottering old dog we all love and cherish fell into the icy pool and drown because she was too blind and weak to get out. How perfectly appropriate.” Don’t you wish I was making that up.

 

I think we’ve been cursed perhaps, or maybe pissed off Apollo or some of those Norse gods – not enough sacrificing, or insufficient lamentation. Perhaps life on the shit end of the stick was just too good for us, so we’ve been downgraded to the shit itself. I don’t really know the answer, but I can tell you that ever since I came home, it has been a struggle simply to wake up each morning and not sob myself back to sleep. What kind of person abandons his family to run off and have fabulous, unbelievable adventures while the people he adores fall apart? Who does that, and then, when it’s his turn to suffer along with them, spends every spare moment dreaming of running away again? Pray you don’t have to wrestle those demons.

 

And yet… I can’t bring myself to really believe that leaving wasn’t the best thing that could have happened to me. When I came back home, I was a strong enough person to deal with all the hardship and misery that this year has thrown my way, and still have inner strength to support my family. The old me, the one who never had to live on coffee for a week, the one who never had to fight parasites or crash paragliders or hitch rides from drunk drivers would never have been able to do what I have. Further, if I hadn’t been out of the picture, what’s to say I wouldn’t have just sunk down into the muck with everything else? As it turned out, my re-entry forced a lot of jolting and adjustment within the family – If I had been around the whole time, that unfamiliarity, that different view, would never have been what small help it was to swing things around for the better. Vagabonding forged me to survive, and it has been a welcome source of strength in these trying times.

 

Now, as the year and this letter come to a close, let me share a few future hopes and plans with you, so that we can perhaps end upon a much happier note. The holidays have been fabulous for us – we took a family ski trip in lieu of material gifts, and the change of scenery certainly helped to level out our mood swings. Tahoe is a very gorgeous area, we managed to visit between the massive storms, and the snowboarding, sledding, and horseplay were all therapy to us. Afterward we drove down to Grandpa’s house, did the family Christmas celebration, and managed to get home before family togetherness got the better of anyone. From there, I headed up to Santa Barbara to visit friends, wear a suit, and ring in the new year like a classy individual. It kind of worked – I spent the entire 31st sick in (someone else’s) bed, but managed to rally before midnight, got dressed, and between surprise visitors and good company, it was a great time.

 

My next step (which I’ve actually started already, since I’ve been slacking on writing this letter) is to take a leave from my job, fly to New York City to see Natalie again, then hitchhike to Oklahoma to live with Becky and Seth and write a book of my adventures. I’m looking forward to the coming year – with the family slowly recovering, I feel comfortable enough to leave again, and I’m looking at a job teaching English abroad. Travel and adventure seem to be my calling, so I’ll be doing as much of that as I can while I’m still able. I will have to work hard – I don’t have much money – but I’m confident that I can find what I’m looking for if I keep searching. For now it is enough to be back on the road, living out of a bag, and unsure of what tomorrow will bring. I hope that you all are living the lives you desire, surrounded by loving people, and happy with your present. If not, it is never too late to change your reality, and I hope that you do not settle for a life that does not fulfill your dreams.

 

I would love to hear from you, so if you ever have the chance, call me, email me, write me, skype me, facebook me, instant message me, (that’s still a thing, right?) send me a carrier pigeon, or send me a smoke signal. We live in the future – it has never been easier to contact each other!

 

Until next we cross paths, -k

Mark Twain

December 2, 2010

There’s a famous Mark Twain quote about the purpose of traveling being not to see the foreign world, but to return home and see your own country as a foreigner would. Now, Mark Twain himself was a pseudonym – a shadow of a real man – and there’s every possibility in the world that this is just a pseudo-quote being mis-attributed to someone famous: perhaps I’m just showing off my own ignorance by leading with the possibly fake words of a fake person. Regardless, in my experience there’s a lot of truth in that sentiment, and so I’d like to write a bit about the strangeness of America from the point of view of one who lived outside her boundaries long enough to notice.

 

It’s a hard subject to broach, because Americans are VERY touchy about our country – it’s as if we feel we must defend her like a kid sister whose honor is at risk. I don’t quite understand that, so I won’t pull many punches, but the ones I’m leaving out are the ones that I know will offend just about everyone without adding much to the discussion.

 

Outside the US, Americans have a near-universal reputation for being fat-assed, fat-headed, boorish, uneducated slobs. Several times out on the road I was complimented in this sort of fashion: “Wow, you sure are smart(well-educated/well-read/polite/in shape/etc) for an American. That little sting at the end lets you know that you’re different, that you’re exceeding expectations or something. It gets under your skin a bit, but not nearly so much as the average American abroad does. They’re just so goddamn blatant, so obvious and in-your-face… It’s like a game of “Where’s Waldo?” except with a 40′ neon sign floating over his head reading “RIGHT HERE MOTHERFUCKER!!!” Once I was out for six months, the average American stuck out in my mental radar only slightly less than the average Israeli, and believe me, that’s not a compliment at all.

 

It got to the point where I avoided Americans out of hand, not just because they didn’t have much worth talking about, but also because I didn’t want that guilt-by-association that comes with hanging out around the loudest, most obvious attention whore in the room. You all know the guy – he’s making a shitshow of himself, doesn’t even realize it, and in the process offending half the people around him while the other half search for a polite exit. I’ve even BEEN that guy once, arguing loudly with an Israeli in a crowded hostel. Ruined family dinner for a dozen people, made a complete ass of myself in front of some friends, and for what? Some pissing contest about Palestinian genocide and the right of all humans to live without a gun barrel down the throat. After that, I learned to keep my opinions under wraps a bit better.

 

Problem was, not many American travelers took the same tack, and I can think of enough instances of American tourists ruining the show for everyone that it makes me uncomfortable to associate myself with group at all. Whether it was racist jokes in English-speaking Belize, mocking half-Spanish in Antigua, or the every American in the entire nation of Costa Rica; the Americans I met who didn’t offend and annoy were so far outnumbered that I – like most adventurers – wrote off the whole damn nation.

 

What’s that they say about stereotypes? I’ve always heard that stereotypes are what they are because they’ve enough gems of truth in them that they become self-reinforcing. You see enough dumb fat Americans throwing money around and it just writes the narrative all by itself. There are some notable exceptions – I mean, I ended up falling in love with an American girl and we’re fast approaching a year together (if living on opposite coasts can be be considered “together”) and there are some truly fantastic Americans I met, befriended, and will forever be indebted to, like S&B out in OK. Still, I digress: my point is that Americans have an absolutely abysmal reputation abroad, and it’s mostly deserved. As a country, we don’t know dick about foreign politics, history, or the effects of our military on the rest of the world; we don’t speak foreign languages very well; we’re richer than anyone, and flaunt material wealth worse than most any other culture; and what particularly irks me is that we have this terrible habit of pushing ourselves – our culture, our language, our customs, values, and worldview – onto the world around us almost unconsciously, and as a result create bubbles – little USAs – in which we live our lives.

 

With all this negative reinforcing, I dreaded returning home. Even with my family suffering, with my friends waiting, with my entire old life calling out to me, I stalled, bobbed, weaved my way home because I knew I wouldn’t like much of what I saw. Colombia ended up saving me in that regard, not only because I found one American who went against every conception I’d been building, but also because that country is pretty damn modern – the difference between Bucaramanga and NYC is one of scale, not type. Sure, I went from mountaintop paragliding school to concrete jungle, but I was flying about a 600,000 person city daily and dancing in the clubes most nights. Certainly the transition from rural Honduras to the USA would have been more jarring. As it was, I’m really lucky to have had those intermediate steps into the country, because without them, without her, without the crazy half-cocked roadtrip across the country, I wouldn’t have seen anything I liked in this place.

 

Here’s what I remember of my first days back in the US – it was freezing cold, I had no worthwhile clothes, and I spent all my time hiding indoors. Coffee shops, mainly, with 25 or 40 other young people, all in nice new clothes, all with brand-new laptops, iWhatever, designer bag. Guys with chic purses infinitely less useful than my ratty old bag casually hitting on girls with designer shades worth more than everything I own, all while sipping $5 lattes. I have lived in entire towns with thousands of people and less overall technology than a cafe with 25 people in it. I remember blowing 2 days living expenses on a single meal for two, knowing it was the best (cheapest) I could get, and feeling guilt for being poor – I never felt that traveling, not once! I befriended taxi drivers, bodega owners, and waiters – anyone who would speak Spanish with me – because my English was strangely accented and halting. It took a few days to find the right words consistently. I remember stepping into Whole Foods for the first time, seeing an entire floor of fruits and vegetables, and almost falling down – I still can’t do supermarkets. The abundance of food is so scary, so viscerally uncomfortable, that I end up running into these places, grabbing whatever I think I need, and fleeing as soon as I can.

 

Abundance in general is unappetizing. I’m unable to make decisions between thirty brands of soda or 200 toothpastes. When I’m with others I manage to force it down, but alone I just stare – how the fuck does anyone decide what to buy? How can there be so much of so little? These things are so trivial, and there are so many people starving in the world… I do not understand what made it OK to stock so much food that it goes bad and must be thrown away, while a thousand miles south there are kids huffing glue living in alleys and stealing to survive. It does not compute, and much as people try – patiently, then exasperatedly – to explain to me how it’s all fair, and how everyone would do it if they had the chance, I simply do not understand. I hope I never do.

 

We all own cars, even those of us who scarcely drive. If not for work being 15 miles away, I would never drive my car, and realistically I could just hitchhike, or take a bus. I’m simply being lazy because I can. There’s shit for mass transit out here, but that’s mostly because there’s no demand – my 16 year old brother bought a car before he even got a license, and he’s not in the minority. If I was a space alien, and I came to California knowing nothing about the culture or the planet at all, I would assume cars are the dominant species and human beings their prisoners. Think about it – from above, the whole place is a grid of roads and giant highways connecting the parking lots of the world. Driving home from LA the very first time after getting back, I remember counting 16 lanes across the freeway – 16 fucking lanes! – Holy hell man… That’s so damn incredible that I cannot believe it just passes for normal among the hundreds of thousands of people who drive it every single day.

 

I guess everything becomes normal once you see it often enough, but it’s just like that bastard arrow in the FedEx logo – once you see it, it can’t be unseen. After seeing the world outside, I can’t unsee the spectacle of America. All this wealth, all this abundance, and yet… what’s missing? Why isn’t anyone smiling? We’re certainly not dying – just looking at all the fat people around, I know that we aren’t starving. There’s nobody forcing guns in our faces, the corruption in our society is manifested by bankers fucking over the entire economy, not politically connected mobsters running over kids in the road and getting off scott free. The problems of our corner of the world, while definitely serious, are so much more subdued than in – for example – Central America. So why aren’t we happy?

 

Is the veneer slipping? Have people started to see the emptiness at the core of this way of life? I wish that was the case, but truly, I think the answer is so much simpler: we have everything we’re taught to want, but can’t pretend we have what we need.

 

Abundance robs us of truly appreciating anything – this is true of the psychological and the emotional just as much as the material. I can’t begin to express how it felt to watch Avatar in 3D in Spanish after not watching a movie in 9 months. It was like being transported into the future and dumped off there for a few hours, and I’ve never before or since been so wrapped up in someone else’s fantasy. I’ve since seen the movie in English, and a hundred other flicks besides, and never come close to that same experience. Right now there’s a movie on in the background – a pretty decent one too – and I can’t give a rat’s ass about it. I’ve watched three movies this week. I have constant Internet access. I see my family every day. I can reach out to my left, pick up my phone, and call damn near anyone I know or have ever known, jump on Facebook, Skype Australia, or take a picture of my goddamn nuts and post it as a landscape of Iraq, and yet I can’t appreciate any of it! It’s always available – food, drink, fun, family, contact, all of it – there’s never a shortage, there’s never a danger of it not being around. Without shortage, there is no way to know what you have.

 

It’s not just me – the difference between me and most Americans is simply that I’ve seen the other side, and I refuse to take all this extravagance for granted. I think that if people could see how rare this abundance is, they might be a hell of a lot happier with their lives. I mean, if you understood just how much effort, how many resources, how much energy and work went into that new laptop or those fancy new shoes, you would love them as I do my 8 year old sneakers or my little netbook here. The lack of what we find most dear is precisely what makes it enjoyable when we do have it. In this land of instant gratification, material overload, and wild consumption, it’s just not possible to love things as you would nearly anywhere else.

 

I don’t mean to preach – I’m not some fucking saint. I can feel all the love being sapped out of me the longer I’m here. I can’t sit and eat 2 eggs and savor the bites like I once could, because a dozen eggs is less than the average table tips me at work. The first night I came home and slept in my bed, I almost died – this is incredibly comfortable! I have sheets with a thread-count, a pile of quilts and pillows that I once felt were necessary. I remember one night in El Salvador sharing this same size bed with three people: right now I’m lying sideways on it and my feet are still off the ground. The thing is, I don’t even think about it at all unless I force myself to. It’s just my bed, you know? Never mind that the Cerrato family sleeps four to this same size mattress every night, never mind that most people on this planet will never ever sleep on anything so nice – it’s always here, and so it’s just my bed.

 

It’s the same for most everything. Earlier today I snapped at my mom because she interrupted my computer game and train of thought. I routinely get irritated because my family members are invading my space, because they dare to force their way into my idle time. What the fuck is that, right? A year ago, right about now, I’m at a little beach hostel in El Salvador, sitting and smoking joints and just wishing I could see my parents, terrified I’m losing their faces. I actually freaked out for a while because I hadn’t spoken to either of my brothers in months. I tracked down Sim cards in ever country I visited, spent precious finite dollars on credits to call them long distance, and drank up every word they said. Skyping home was so rare I only got to do it a handful of times, and several times I was crying after ending the call – not sadness, but just because I was so happy to see that the people I loved were still alive and remembered me. Yet here I am a year later being short with my mother because she dares to come spend time with me. It’s almost like we can’t appreciate anything until it becomes an ordeal to have it.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason I see so much mindless consumption all around me here – people trading out clothes by season, always focused on the new phone, the next gadget or outfit or gizmo. We all are afflicted – unable to truly understand what we have – and when you combine that with the barrage of “YOU AREN’T HAPPY” ads in every possible medium, it’s the recipe for a dissatisfied people constantly searching for the next high. That’s the best metaphor I can write for it – we’re a nation of addicts, chasing that moment of pure satisfaction when we finally have it, with “it” so loosely defined that psychowarfare advertisers are able to bend us to this or that or the other product. Consumption is accomplishment, buying is succeeding, acquisition is the end goal. The problem is that once you have it, there’s no fun any more, and so we drive onward to the next high – that’s addiction at the very core mate, no joke.

 

With all this stuff, all these toys and goodies, Americans are still unhappy – I judge this based off the same index I use everywhere I go – are people smiling? Are strangers laughing or frowning? Take Honduras, for example: while I was there the country had a coup, and the interim government suspended the constitution. Like an idiot I crossed the whole country that day – the people I saw were all frowns, worry-etched brows, inward-turned souls. I managed to hitchhike into Nicaragua that day, slept overnight, and woke up to smiles, shouting, laughter – night and day from the other side of the border. Happy people show it in the same ways everywhere I’ve ever been, and if that holds true, people here aren’t happy. I think it’s safe to say that simply having (goods, close ties to family and friends, a secure life free of want) is not the key to being happy.

 

No; having isn’t enough. Having and appreciating – that’s the ticket. Without perspective, lacking the realization of just how fortunate we are to be in this place, with all these unspeakable luxuries, it all turns to ash. Think about it – how many kings, how many emperors, ever could call across the world? How many noblemen ever had electric lights or refrigeration, enjoyed tropical fruit after their French dinner, then listened to their Aussie friend’s band streaming across the Internet? Goddamn none of them did! Do you think it’s possible to appreciate modern medicine enough? We bitch about healthcare, but a hundred and fifty years ago they would have bled you out to treat that fever, or stuck leeches on your face to cure that nasty cut. And when is the last time someone invaded your home, burnt it to the ground, and claimed the land as their own? We are in the lap of luxury never before seen on this earth, and we’re either too stupid or too complacent to realize it. Perhaps that’s a big part of why so many people here aren’t happy. I hope so, because then the fix is easy – just go somewhere else, volunteer for the unfortunate, then come back home and bam – situation resolved.

 

And yet…

 

And yet…

 

That’s not all of it.

 

There’s another issue here entirely – the issue of what we’ve lost in chasing all this abundance. Community is gone, that’s for starters. One thing I never realized before leaving the US is that community is not a place (or a shitty TV show!) – community is a group of people who know and support each other. Some of the communities I’ve been around, I was lucky enough to become a part of, and that feeling makes up for so much hardship in life. The feeling when you go from the open market to the corner store to the central park and then the bank and meet no fewer than 20 people who know you and want to know about you is indescribable – I haven’t been able to find it here, and trust me: I’m trying. I guess the closest feeling is from my coworkers at the restaurant, but even that is more superficial and detached. Case in point: the other day I realized one of the other waitresses was unhappy and hiding it, and so I tried to get her to open up. The look I got… it was as if I’d slapped her, but all I’d really done is pry past the comfortable surface. In America, we put up barricades between ourselves and the rest of society, and rationalize it a thousand ways. At the end of it all, what we’ve lost is a network of allies and friends and loving relations so deep and wide that nothing we’ve possibly gained could make up for it. That’s a big part of why people feel so unhappy and alone.

 

We’ve also lost an appreciation for the free and open things in life. Think about it – how many people do you know that regularly explore their world? I’m talking long walks, climbing a hill, going into a part of town they have no purpose in being in and just wandering. I count myself among the very few who do, and even with a focus on it, I still rarely manage to get out and ramble – really, deeply ramble – more than once a week if I’m lucky. That’s such a huge loss! We have beautiful parks, wonderful beaches, gorgeous open spaces, but they’re all so unused – the people are gone, stuck to screens and TVs and jesus, it’s 3am and I’m red-eyed staring at a computer screen! We’ve gotten so caught up in the society we’ve built that it’s dangerously close to a prison for the mind. If we don’t get past that, turn off Angry Birds, cut out the TV reruns, and just get outside into this beautiful world, then we’re just going to pass that horrible practice on to our own kids, and then what? This world can’t afford another generation of self-focused in-lookers.

 

Alright, last point, but this one is a doozy – it builds on this last point, about looking outward. My biggest problem with Americans is that they don’t ever look outside their borders to see the effects of their actions on the rest of the world and it’s peoples. Those shiny cell phones and SUVs, those beautiful new clothes and that fantastic meal all came from somewhere, and increasingly that somewhere is far away and dirt-poor. If you’re upgrading your phone every two years, eating meat every meal, driving a block because you don’t want to walk, and then leaving your AC on instead of cracking the window, then I’m sorry to tell you, but your grandkids will grow up to spit every time they say your name. The resource abuse of this nation is sickening, absolutely revolting, and it’s driven by this blindered ignorance of cause and effect.

 

Here’s a quick one – cell phones require rare minerals to function. Those minerals come predominantly from areas like the Democratic Republic of Congo, a war-torn nation where rape is used to control populations, AIDS is endemic, and child soldiers are the norm. These resources, largely taken through companies and organizations controlled by US corporations and the US government, are removed in a manner that leaves almost nothing to the people who rightfully own the minerals being extracted. They are then shipped to China, refined in terribly toxic processes, and shipped to another factory that forms the components, which are themselves assembled by people who work 15 hour days and make less in a month than you would in a couple days at minimum wage. After all this, we ship the phones across the entire planet on container ships that could politely be called the most environmentally damaging vehicles ever created, at which point they’re driven all over the country and sold to you, the consumer, only to be abandoned a year or two down the line. At this point they’re bundled up and sold to India, where 5 and 6 year old children burn them is giant piles to extract the same precious metals that got all those Congolese women raped. Oh, and the kicker? These Indian kids use their family’s cooking ware to burn the phones because they can’t possibly afford another set of pots.

 

All this, so that we in the US can replace our perfectly good phones with the newest, hippest model. Rape, violence, environmental destruction, slave labor, more environmental destruction, off-shoring of US manufacturing, depletion of very rare and precious resources, and the deterioration of unknown numbers of lives, so that you can have the newest phone. Be honest – when you replaced your last phone, was it broken, or did you just want a new one? It’s not like we couldn’t extract US rare earth minerals, manufacture the phones here in-country, and design them to be modular and upgradeable from the ground up. No, it’s simply cheaper to do it abroad, and because we’re all willfully ignorant of the costs of our toys, we aren’t willing to pay more to do things the right (by which I mean humane) way. We’d all benefit! That’s the terrible tragedy of it – we’d all be better off if we simply did all this here in the US and didn’t export the damaging bits to countries that can’t fight back against economic imperialism. Ignorant, uncaring people will be the death of us all.

 

It’s not just phones – where do you think oil comes from? Why do you think gas is cheaper here than nearly anywhere else? Do you think those Arab states are democratically deciding to give us all their resources out of the goodness of their hearts? No – we prop up terrible dictators who oppress their people so that our nation can have their finite resources without the population getting their just share. Why do you think we’re in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen and giving weapons to Israel and selling them to Saudi Arabia and Egypt and bribing Turkey and fighting economic warfare against Iran, anyway? It’s so that American politicians don’t have to raise gas prices or explain to the American people that oil is a finite resources and we’re already past the peak extraction rates – in short, we’re risking world war so that Americans don’t have to conform to reality. We have the military and political power to do that still, so rather than face the bitter truths of this world, we simply steal, cajole, extort more than our fair share of the dwindling pile, and cross our fingers for the future. It’s the problem of the commons, taken global. I’m not saying we’re the only ones doing this, but as citizens of the imperial power, we’re certainly the (current) biggest beneficiaries.

 

Everything has a price, and someone must pay for everything we get in life beyond basic needs. If you’re on top of the pile, as we are right now, then you can make someone else foot the bill for a time. However, our nation is broke, our military is overstretched and losing an unwinnable conflict, and our leadership is bought and paid for by the same people who thought dismantling our entire manufacturing capacity for a quick buck was a great idea. This way of life is completely unsustainable, and one day it will come crashing down on our heads. Or really, on your children’s heads, because we’ve probably enough steam to ensure that we get ours before it all falls down.

 

In the end, I have my own delusion – I like to pretend that the prevalent unhappiness and discontent I see all around me is the start of a mass revolt against the emptiness of modern America. I prefer to hope that we can turn this sinking ship around and still make it back to shore. It’s not true – we should have started in Carter’s era – but you know what? I need this. I need to hope that this country won’t keep fighting in 75 countries, won’t keep consuming 25% of the world’s yearly resources for 4% of the population, won’t keep conforming to all the same terrible stereotypes that the rest of the world mocks us for. It’s not true, but it keeps me from abandoning my family and friends and moving off to New Zealand to be a shepherd for a little longer.

 

I’ll stop here – there’s no real point in going on about the uselessness of our politics, or the echo chamber we call news, because nobody here wants to hear it. If you agreed with what I’ve already written, then you’ll keep agreeing to the other bits too, and if you don’t, then you’ve already gone off to do something else. Just know that you’re being lied to constantly by every channel, by every magazine, by every billboard and sign spinner. You Don’t Need Anything More Than You Need To Survive. The sooner you get that into your head, the better off you’ll be in this life – but then again, that’s just this foreigner’s opinion.

 

Thinking

August 5, 2010

I wrote this a while back, after meeting back up with my good friend Matt when both of us had tried and failed the west coast thing.  It’s not happy – my writing rarely is – but I do like the sentiments expressed.

Thinking – truly thinking, pontificating, expounding, whatever – is a bit more difficult than it sounds. There are so many mental blocks to deep thought, so many distractions, annoyances, small needs that interfere with the process. Bodily functions take charge over the questions of existence – what a pity.

Even more, there are the man-made interruptions, the ringing phone, the neighbor’s music, the little chirp of iPhone yelling “pay attention damn it!” – there are thousands of these little pests, gnatting around and stinging wherever we lie unprotected. Still, it’s possible to post up in a hammock outside or a tree, turn off the devices of fake-world importance, and just think for a while, and that’s what I intend to do today.

I don’t have work for once – I asked for it off so that I could say goodbye to a traveling friend and not have to be in bed early. We went down to San Diego, hung out at bars and the beach, met some Irish girls and a South African singer, and watched open mic night. It was bittersweet, I don’t know where Matt and I will ever cross paths again, and though our shared history is timeline-short, it is simultaneously experience and memory-long – we are the sort of friends that can only come into being by shared adventure. We hugged goodbye in the middle of the street in Pacific Beach, and that was the end of that.

Something he said last night got under my skin though, enough so that all the drinks and dreaming couldn’t pull it out. We were talking about Los Angeles; her vast shallows of wannabe stars pretending to be the characters they want to play, when Matt turned to me and without pretense let this one fly – “They’re a bunch of liars – that’s what separates them from you and I. They pretend to be like us because it serves some purpose. We just wander because that’s who we are.”

It’s just who we are – hopeless romantics, drifting souls, forever on the road even when we’re standing still. We work best in transit, moving from place to space to state to mood. To remain stationary is to stagnate, to fall apart really. Yet here I am, same place, same space, as I was 3 months ago when I abandoned the road and got immobile. What has happened to this traveling soul?

To start, I’m much less poor (though still overall in the red) – after taxes I make some $600 a week, an enormous, ridiculous sum to me. I was marveling earlier over how I can pull money out of any ATM and it isn’t just a withdrawal against a credit card I can’t afford to pay. In practice, I never actually can do this because all of the money I have is tied up in paying off the bills from when I was just running up oweance, but hey, it’s nice to see the pile of debts subsiding a bit.

The cost I pay in order to pay off my bills is paid in time, energy, and sanity. I work one of my nightmare jobs – 48 hours a week, 4am to 12:30pm Monday through Saturday, overtime near-mandatory some days, business dress, doing motherfucking data entry. Here’s a brilliant idea – let’s take a world traveler, a hitchhiking adventurer, and shove him into a climate-controlled closet. Then we’ll pile on near-completely useless work, the sort that sandpapers heart and soul – just heap it on him. Nothing he does should make any damn bit of difference to anyone, and hopefully what little good he does is so diluted by layers on management, middle-management, upper-management, mid-upper-low-management, and the like that even should he strive to work hard and do better than asked it will never be acknowledged by anyone. Now surround him with an office-load of people so different from him that they might as well be another species – busywork junkies – shake well, and observe.

I struggle to stay motivated.

I struggle to get out of bed most days, as the phone alarm chirps “Wake up motherfucker, it’s time to go do that thing you hate!” and the warmth of bed is countered by formal pants and shirts I wouldn’t be caught dead in anywhere else. The human body isn’t supposed to get up and go sit in a chair for 8-12 hours a day, hidden from the sun, forbidden to pull the blinds or open a window. Instead I stare at a light bulb, sorting, scanning, keying in documents as if it made one iota of difference to anyone, anywhere, ever. “$12.50 an hour,” I think to myself, “$100 a day, a bit more if I work overtime. That’s $600 a week, give or take, and at this rate I should be out of debt in about…” (Scribbling on the notepad, carry the 7…) “8 months.”

Fuck my life.

No, wait, scratch that – I can’t even say fuck my life because this isn’t living at all. It’s dying slowly, the essence of what I absolutely do NOT want to do with my life, what I criticize in others, what I swore I would under no circumstances do once I got back home. Yet here I am, the hypocrite, the critic of the self-serving, circular, pointless existence whenever I see it, living exactly as I tell others not to.
The worst part is that I don’t really see an out. I’m not free until I don’t owe money. I can’t stop owing money until I earn enough to pay off my creditors. I can’t do that until I work some job long enough to earn the money to pay off my creditors. The economy sucks, so I’m competing in every instance against more qualified candidates – it took a month solid of job searching just to find the one I have now! Frankly, I don’t think there is a way out of this without refusing to play and just leaving, which, you guessed it, costs money.

When did we sign away our lives like this? Isn’t there some way to live without doing the things I hate day in and day out? It’s not like I’m gaining some vast convenience and reward for my labors – I can’t do the things I really want to, won’t any time soon, and even then I’m just gaining some small measure of temporary freedom in exchange for the vast skull-fuck of debt that ensues whenever I return. When you can’t even leave without owing them in the end, you’re not free and never will be. The money, and the need for it, isn’t going away. I can cut my consumption (not much more than food, water, oil, shelter at this point) a bit more, but the truth of the matter is that I’ll always need to pay for my existence just like everyone else. How I come about the means to do so – that’s where I still have some freedom.

It comes down to this – I need something, some job, some source of income, that doesn’t make me feel like a rat on a wheel every moment. They do exist, I’m certain, as I’ve found a few from time to time. Still, I’m complicating things because I want my job to support me, not the other way round. I’m sick of this notion of work being the central focus of one’s life! Jobs don’t define you any more than do hairstyles, and since we’re not forced into styling our hair that probably defines you more than a job you need in order to survive. I want to be mobile – I need to travel, to move, to explore and expand my universe – any job needs to take that into account. As is, the only times I get to branch out are when I take off after work one day, spend my day off doing something interesting, then skip a night’s sleep to get back to work again. It’s like committing mental suicide, inch by inch, as my brain turns to mush at work, gets abused on my free time, then rewarded by sleepless nights on the way back to square one!

It’s not sustainable, in any sense of the word – not the temporary job nor the extremely wasteful office (we burn reams of paper, piles of money, and shittons of electricity every day) nor even the attitudes involved – there’s nothing noble, nothing gained in swallowing your desires and loves before diving headfirst into a job that kills you slowly. All of it is just a measure of the weakness of your passions, and the strength of your self-delusion. It will come out, either an anger-quit after a bad day or a mid-life suicide or a late-life stress induced cancer, or perhaps in the very end, as your life fades and you realize you’ve succeeded in denying yourself everything that truly mattered in life, and now you’re alone and a failure.

There is no life when you deny yourself everything important to you – it matters not if your ideal life is far from the mainstream, well outside the “normal” of fake society. If you aren’t doing what makes you happy, fulfills you, propels you into tomorrow, then you are wasting your life, and that is the greatest crime. I know this because I’m doing exactly that, and once I was doing exactly what I wanted. The difference is immense, gigantic beyond words – it is all that truly matters to be happy, and yet I am not doing that. I am actively working against my aims, submitting inch by hard-fought inch into a life that is so pointless, so empty, so stupid and destructive that I question continuing every day. Why do I spend my precious life supporting a society I am fundamentally at odds with?!

I don’t have an answer for that. Perhaps I am simply too stubborn to die, too angry, too determined to be validated by the universe. Perhaps I still hope that I can find my answers, and know that to give up searching is the only thing I cannot do. I know what I need, what I want, what I cannot live without, but I do not know how to get it. That is, at the most basic level, what I lack – not motive, not drive, not goal, but connection between here and there – the ligaments and connective tissues of my life aren’t holding, and I don’t know what my next step is.

I can’t stop wandering – if I am certain of anything it is this. San Diego is mild, pretty, warm, full of beautiful people and wonderful weather. I will always love to visit. I cannot stand to live here any longer. Everyone I loved before I began wandering plans to stay in this part of the world, and I know that I am forever anchored by memory, by family, by love and friendship, to this place. I just wish that I could enjoy it more. Perhaps the secret is just to stay mobile enough that I can enjoy every visit without feeling trapped into the hyper-expensive, shallow, vapid, overtly and covertly elitist, racist, prejudiced society of southern California. I won’t miss this place when I go – only the people here who make it worth staying in.

God I need to hit the open road soon. Another few months and I think I’ll really go nuts. That’s the problem with thinking – it takes you places you’re actively trying to avoid. Maybe that’s why most people don’t do it.

Running A Marathon

January 1, 2010

At times the urge to do something crazy just overtakes me, and I can’t do anything until I’ve satisfied it. Most times it turns out great, but occasionally everything goes wrong. This is the story of one of those times.

2pm – It doesn’t make much sense – I’m sitting in Flores, Guatemala, resting in a beautiful island town after hiking 150km in 6 days, climbing Maya ruins, sleeping outside, and generally abusing my body in the Peten rainforest of northern Guatemala. I’m tired, beaten, feet swollen and blistered from my too-large boots, and more then anything I just need a good night’s sleep. Being me, I decide instead to see if I can make it from Flores to Leon, Nicaragua in 24 hours. It’s only 4 countries – how hard can that be?

After the necessary laundry, packing, and my first shower in 7 days, I buy an overnight bus ticket to Guatemala City, and resign myself to a shit night’s sleep in a bus – I strongly dislike “luxury” bus rides, much prefer hitchhiking, but I’d asked town earlier in the day, and there didn’t seem to be any long-distance truckers – my main form of transport – leaving Flores in my direction, and with so few stops between Flores and the capital, that option wasn’t working for me. Running out of options, I swallow my pride and lay down 160 Quetzales – damn near $20 – for a bus ticket across the country. “Too rich for my blood, but sacrifices can be made later,” I told myself at the time. Had I known just how right I would be, I might have just stayed in bed.

8pm – Friends come into town that night, so instead of resting, writing, and mentally preparing for the journey ahead, I throw that plan out the window to drink tequila shots and say goodbye to Mara, the beautifully unattainable Dutch woman I played machete-ball with in Antigua when we were both sick in bed. She tells me stories about monkeys pulling her hair and cleaning up shit all day – animal rehabilitation clinic – and I gush about the crazy ruins and latest adventuring. After she and her coworkers go barhopping to celebrate their night off, I make friends with some fire spinners and dancers fresh in town from some massive raves in southern Mexico. Their stories of hallucinating in the jungle complement my tales of bribing my way into archeological dig sites quite nicely, and right before I leave a disheveled man in a “repression no es seguridad” homemade T-shirt throws a full pack of Payasos – the cheapest cigarettes in the country – at me. “You might need them,” he tells me, and his gaze is so piercing that I can’t help but to look away before long. I did just resolve to quit, but hey, the guy might be right, so I slip them into my shirt pocket, shoulder my bag, and walk out into the night. Adios Los Amigos, and to my new friends as well.

10pm – The marathon starts off without much fanfare. I climb into a waiting taxi with 3 other travelers, bags in the trunk, and hang my head out the window in the cool night air. I really need a haircut, but it blows in the wind deliciously. At the bus station we pile out, buy tickets for the 11 o’clock bus, and I leave my bags with some Dutch guy while I water the pavement between some parked cars – no way I’m paying 2Q to pee in some hellhole bus station bathroom. Sacrifices. At 11 we all climb into the bus, tequila works its magic on my battered body, and I drift off within minutes.

Sometime during the night – I wake up with an electric jolt as the bus driver slams on his brakes and swerves wide right. From my seat at the left-side window I see a pickup truck and semi race past, neck-and-neck, on the 2 lane road. We’re practically in the dirt and the pickup shoots between the 2 behemoth vehicles without a care in the world. Good old Central American drivers. I’m too jazzed up from white-knuckle fear and the adrenaline enema to sleep again, so I stare out the window at the pre-dawn world – small houses, tin roofed, windows without glass, barbed wire fences in front of lush rolling hills – same as anywhere down here, I guess, and from my position behind the glass of a speeding bus, I feel too detached – it’s a movie, Central American Homes, and it’s none too excititng either.

Light streaks the sky, the sun grudgingly pokes its yellow head above the hills, and the world begins to come to life. Women and children and men going about their lives, chickens and cows and dogs stirring, and slowly life stretches, shakes itself out of slumber. How many more times in your life will you watch the world awaken? I want to be a part of it all, but I’m stuck on my side of the speeding glass wall, and the world flees out of sight – I have somewhere else to be.

I have no idea what time it is when we get into Guatemala City, but the place is bustling with bodies, choked with traffic, and everything smells like diesel exhaust. I want to cover my mouth and nose with something to keep out the choking fumes, but my handkerchief is still covered in my blood from a pocketknife accident, and somehow I think a bloodstained rag over my face might make me even more of a spectacle then I already am down here. At the bus station everyone climbs out, my Dutch friend takes off to Antigua, and shoulder my bag and start looking for my next ride.

Unfortunately, this is a private terminal, meaning the only buses that leave from here belong to the company I rode in with, and I’ve had enough of private buses for a while, so after consulting with some of my fellow passengers in sleepy Spanish, I learn that yes, there is a public bus terminal nearby, but it’s 10 blocks, and this is a bad part of town. “Get a taxi, you’ll be robbed,” is the consensus of the people I ask, and so I head outside to face the bane of my existance – taxistas.

The reason I hate taxi drivers so much is that their business revolves around ripping off ignorant travelers for huge profits – I’m not saying everyone does it, but it is most definitely a major strategy. They’ll rarely take you where you want to go, charge you double if they can get away with it, and it’s a situation where they hold all the advantages – how can I possibly know what a fair price is to ride across town when I’m not even sure where I am or where I’m going? If you’re getting a taxi in Central America, especially in capital cities, just resign to getting charged the Gringo Tax, and let it slide – no use getting upset about something that doesn’t matter. I find a taxi driver that isn’t actively yelling “Hey boy, where you goin’?” at me, and ask him if he knows where the public bus terminal is. “Where you go?” he asks in broken English, and I respond in Spanish that I want to go to the nearest, biggest, bus terminal, stressing several times that I do not, under any circumstances want to go to a station with luxury buses. We talk a while, he wants 50Q, and I want to pay twenty-five. He laughs, says forty, I respond with thirty. He turns and pretends to walk away, and I let him get all the taxi. Finally he turns and says he’ll take me for thirty-five, and I agree, throw my bag in the back, and hop in.

Negotiation accomplished, I sit back and hope he’ll take me where I’m asking to go. We talk about the usual things – him: where I’m from, where I’ve been, why I’m in Guatemala, me: where he was born, if he’s married, how are his kids – I have this conversation a lot because it helps to establish a bit of confianza with people around you, and it reminds me that we humans have a lot in common no matter where we’re from. His name is Carlos, was born in Chichicastenango, he’s been married for 5 years, and has 2 young sons and a daughter, in case you’re wondering. He also drives like the devil himself is chasing us, which it doesn’t take many questions to figure out. We weave perilously between buses, trucks, in and out of traffic. At one point, driving the wrong direction on a divided road, I regret that the seat belt was taken out of my side of the car. Carlos isn’t wearing his either, so at least we’ll go down together.
6:15am by Carlos’ dashboard clock, we pull into a driveway and he gets out, leaving the motor running. It definitely isn’t a public bus terminal, so I watch him walk to a nearby door and speak to a uniformed man there – Strange – Carlos gestures over his shoulder at me, and the man laughs about something – What’s so funny? – I see the other guy hand Carlos something that looks like money – oh no, this shit is not happening – and Carlos walks back over to the taxi and opens my door.

(In Spanish) “What gives Carlos? Why are we stopping here?”
“This is the station for buses to El Salvador. Your destination.”
“Where?”
“Here,” he points over his shoulder at the door with the uniformed man.
“Where? I see no buses.”
“The bus comes soon, go inside and buy a ticket.” God-fucking-damnit!
“Is this a direct bus station?”
“Yes”
“Why did you bring me here? I asked specifically NOT to come to a direct bus station.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Yes I did!” I’m livid, because this sort of shit happens constantly down here – taxi drivers get pay-offs to bring unsuspecting tourists to high-end hotels, expensive restaurants, and private bus terminals instead of their destinations, and most people don’t have the Spanish to argue. It’s a con game of the highest order, and I carry around a mental list of businesses I will never visit, simply because I know they pull this shit.

I climb out of the taxi, glaring at Carlos, and move to grab my bag. He pulls me by the shoulder and puts himself in front of the door. “Pay me,” he demands.
(In English) “Fuck Yourself.” (In Spanish) “No, you didn’t bring me where I asked to go.”
His look gets uglier, “Pay me gringo.”
“That guy by the door already paid you, thief.” I shouldn’t have said that.
“Thief?!” He’s pale with anger. “I’m taking your things if you don’t pay.”

We stand there for an eternal moment, locked in an angry stand-off, until the uniformed man from the door comes over and asks what the problem is. “He’s robbing me, and you’re paying him to do it.” My overheated comment just brings the two of them onto the same team, and they piously deny any wrong-doing. Fuck it, this is going nowhere. I grab my small wad of bills, take all the lowest ones and the coins and hold them out to Carlos. “Here you are friend, your money. Enjoy it.”
“This isn’t 35Q.”
“I don’t care.” I drop the money onto the pavement, coins scattering, elbow past him, throw the door open, and grab my stuff. I’m shaking with fury as I walk out to the street corner – no way I’m going to satisfy them by taking their bus – and begin asking passersby where I can find the public bus station. Quickly I learn that I’m fucked as there isn’t a major terminal in this zone of the city, the nearest city bus station is at the market 6 blocks away, and it’s dangerous to be in this area with a backpack like mine. “You should take a taxi” I hear over and again. Because that worked so well the first time. I swallow my pride again and head into the private bus station. Do you see why I can’t stand taxistas?

I pay out the nose for a direct bus to San Salvador, and comfort myself with the knowledge that I’ll be a country away in only a few short hours, and possibly make it to Nicaragua on schedule this way. The bathroom is the stuff of nightmares – no seat or lid, a piece of the bowl missing, green, brown, black, red(?!) streaks. The stench socks me in the face and steals my lunch money. I laugh the whole time I’m standing there. Back out in the main station, my bag is thankfully where I left it, and I notice a huge stain down one side – the baggage compartment is never clean, and I’m not going for style points, but it feels wet, so I open the top and investigate the damage. Everything on top of the bag is wet, fuck, my leather jacket is covered in clear liquid – what is this stuff? I run my finger across the jacket, sniff it cautiously, and smell mint. It tastes of alcohol and menthol. Suspicious, I open my medical bag, and yep, the small plastic bottle of rubbing alcohol I use to make my wounds hurt more is torn down one side, and the contents have spilled everywhere. For the first time I read the label, and apparently I bought menthol rubbing alcohol unaware. At least everything I own will smell fresh. I spread my clothes around to dry out a bit, but soon it’s time to board, and so I throw minty-fresh clothes back into my bag and go. “It has to get better from here, doesn’t it?”

7:30am – Another bus, this time with assigned seats and the coldest air conditioning I’ve felt in a while. I wrap my jacket around myself and try to sleep, but between the food sellers and cold I can’t manage to drift off. I have one unread book left, so I read disintegrating pages of Civil War-era letters, which is interesting only in small doses, and spend the rest of my time trying to see the outside world past my slumbering neighbor. I’m awful at riding in buses. A pretty young girl selling chilis rellenos walks past, and I buy 2, plus a bottle of water – if I’d known it was going to be my last meal for 30 hours, I might have gotten a third, but they’re delicious nonetheless.

Eventually we reach El Salvador, pile out, and do the passport thing. I had changed almost all of my money earlier, but I change the last 42Q to $5, and then we’re off again. The bus TV is playing some dubbed Jackie Chan flick, and I fall asleep as Jackie is using a Lamborghini and a samurai sword to rescue a kid in a wheelchair from some assholes with a giant hovercraft, and don’t wake up until San Salvador.

Sometime around 11am someone is poking me in the ribs, and I open my eyes to some cute kid giggling. I smile at her, and she says “we’re there” before running off. I stretch, look around – the bus is empty except for me and the driver, who smiles understandingly at me. I thank him, climb down, and thankfully my bag hasn’t walked off without me. From there it’s a short taxi ride with Roberto, who loves that we share a common name, is 21, unmarried, and has no kids that he knows of. We get along fine, laugh a lot, and for $4 he drops me off at the central bus station I’ve been at a few times before. I have to piss like a racing moose, but just as I’m walking into the station my bus rolls by, I chase it to catch a ride, and off we go again, crammed like sardines, backpack sitting on my very full bladder. To distract myself, I start up a conversation with the couple sitting next to me, and that’s when I learn that the bus ride is 3 ½ hours long. Sweet merciful fuck, what a ride.

5 hellish hours later we finally arrive at the next town, and from there it’s only 40 minutes to the border. I’m so grateful to get off the bus and find some sweet, precious relief, but I’ve barely hoisted my bag before the Frontera bus rolls by and I’m chasing after it waving my arms. Sorry bladder, take another one for the team.

At the border, I join the thin stream of people crossing to Honduras – not a lot of demand for it these days – and $3 later I’m back where it all started, and the familiar electric tingle climbs my spine. It’s not my home anymore, but I still tie a lot of memories and love to this poor country where everything went wrong for me. Just then I want to slap myself in the forehead – everything on this side of the border crossing uses Lempira, not dollars, and of course there isn’t a free bathroom to be found. I have to find a money changer, practically wetting myself, negotiate a rate that doesn’t completely rip me off, and finally, finally I can go take a piss.

Just kidding – I can’t find a bathroom, so I start asking, and everyone points me further down the line. Life is turning into farce at this point, the sort of comedy so painful it’s funny, and so when an ayudante from one of the buses starts badgering me, asking where I’m going, I just roll with it. “Guasaule,” I tell him, “I’m crossing Honduras to Nicaragua, and I want to cross at Guasaule.”
“That bus left already, you have to go to Choluteca.”
“I can’t stop overnight in Choluteca, I don’t have enough money left.”
He shrugs at me, “there is no bus, you have to go to Choluteca.” and makes to grab my bag.
“No thanks, I’ll hitchhike.” and I twist to pull his grip off my bag. Stabbing abdominal pains ensue. Oh yeah, that.
“Do you know where I can find-” but he’s already gone, running back to the bus as it pulls out of the lot. I really hope he’s lying, or I’m sleeping on the border tonight.

5:30pm – He wasn’t lying, as it turns out, but it took me getting conned, robbed, and extorted to be sure of it. After I find a bathroom and pay 5L to take possibly the most satisfying leak of my life, I skip out of the little tienda, buy a soda, and find a line of microbuses. They have to be going somewhere, so I start asking down the line where everyone is going, and if anyone knows where I can find a bus to Guasaule. One young man tells me his bus is headed to Guasaule, so I follow him, throw my bag in the back, and ask him what it costs. “100 Lempira” is his reply, and it seemed reasonable enough. He starts talking to the driver, and I’m starving but broke, so I smoke a cigarette and start a conversation with Niko, this 5 or 8 year old kid sitting on the back bumper of a truck. He speaks some English, so we practice a bit – I ask him questions about him and his family, and tell him never to smoke cigarettes because they make you ugly and kill you. I’m sure it was convincing

After 15 or 20 minutes of this, the driver starts his engine, I say goodbye to Niko, and hop into the bus. The ayudante asks me for my fare, and I hold out a 100L note. He grabs it, but instead of climbing into the bus starts sprinting across the road, hops a concrete barrier, and slips between a couple parked trucks. “Where is he going?” I ask the driver.
“I don’t know,” is his uninterested reply.
“Isn’t he your ayudante?”
“No. I don’t have a clue who he is” One smooth motherfucker, that’s who.
“Where is this bus going? Guasaule?”
“No, just down the road.”
“Oh.”

I climb out again, drag my bag over to some steps, and sit down. Mental cigarette time – The sun is setting, it will be dark soon, and there are no more buses or minibuses, no transport at all except from private vehicles. I could hitch I guess, but that gets dramatically harder once its dark out. I don’t have money for both a hotel and a bus, so if I do find a place to sleep – not a great proposition in this sketchy border town – then I’m pretty much going to have to hitch from here to another town with a bank. Plus, that ruins the whole “lets do this in 24 hours” game, so we’ll keep that as a last option. What I really need is a friend.

6pm – Luckily, I’m pretty good at making friends, and I’m not halfway though my cigarette when a young guy, looks about 20, sits down next to me and asks if he can bum a drag. “Have one,” I tell him, “they’re terrible.” We laugh, I light him up, and that’s how I met David, the first guy to really save my ass here. Turns out he’s a transit worker, is in charge of making sure international truckers fill out the right forms crossing into Honduras. He knows everyone on the border, where the trucks are going, where they’re coming from, and which drivers are likely to take hitchhikers. He also thinks my story of getting ripped off is hilarious, and says he’ll be glad to help me out. How’s that for making friends?

We finish our cigarettes, he tells me to wait around until he talks to a few people, and so I doze against the wall as David proceeds to tell absolutely everyone about the dumb gringo who got robbed of 100L by being so trusting. Everyone loves it, and I’m a local celebrity among the daytime drunks and young kids – the village idiot, more or less. I’m starving, and I have 134 Lempira – $6.70 or so – which could get me a good meal, except that I have to cross a border still, and might have to pay my driver for his help. I can’t afford to eat. I light another cigarette and think about something else.

Half an hour later David comes back, and tells me he has found 2 possible rides for me, which sounds great except that they leave at 8 if they can get through customs by then. This isn’t fun anymore, and knowing that I still have hours, 5 or 6 of them, of just travel time left leaves me feeling pretty lifeless. Still, what else can I do? I smile, thank David, and hand him a cigarette. He works nights, so officially he’s off work right now, and so we sit, talk, bullshit, and pass the time as best we can with no money or energy. After a while, another guy comes over, sits down, and starts asking me where I’m staying tonight. “Nowhere, I’m leaving in a truck in an hour or 2.” He doesn’t like my answer, keeps insisting I stay at a hotel, not just any hotel, but the one he’s recommending me. “Come on man, you don’t know how dangerous it is here – I do. I got shot 7 times.” and at that he lifts his shirt to show 7 bullet holes in his chest, stomach, arm, and one far to close to his dick for him to have shoved it in my face like he did. “Wow, lucky you lived.”
“Yeah, and I killed the fucker too.” wonderful…
“That’s, that’s good. Why did he shoot you.”
“Because I’m dangerous.”
“Oh. Ok.”
“Hey, give me money.”
“What?”
“Money.”
“What?”
“Give me money, I’m hungry.”
“I can’t – I have only a little bit, and I need it.”
“I need it too, come on man, give me money.” He’s pouting – what sort of gangster pouts?
“No.”
“If you give me money, I can protect you.”
“From who?”
“Dangerous people.”
“Like you?”
“Like me.” He flashes me a wicked smile, the sort you see on someone who enjoys causing pain.
“Here.” I give him 20 Lempira, and his whole demeanor changes.
“Wow man, thanks a lot! I’ll be right back.” And with that he goes running off around the corner.
I turn to David – “That was the weirdest thing that has happened to me all day.”
“Yeah, Mike is crazy.”

20 minutes later Mike is back, beer in one hand, cell phone in the other. “Here man,” he tells me, “I’m gonna hook you up. Do you have a pen?” I give him one, and he scribbles his name and a phone number on a piece of paper. “This is my old boss in Tegucigalpa. He can get you anything man – drugs, girls, guns, anything you want. Oh man, you’re so lucky I’m your friend man. Just tell him Cholo is your friend and he needs to help you out.” I look at this bit of paper, at Mike’s goofy grin, and back at the paper again. “Really?” “Yeah man, it’s cool – he’s loaded. Anything you want.” I shove the paper in my pocket, and thank Mike, tell him I’ll keep the number in mind. He bums another cigarette, David takes one too, and a passing drunk asks for one, so why the hell not? Cigarettes all around. We sit, smoke, and Mike bails right afterward, promising over and over that he’ll be right back, that he just needs to do something and oh yeah, if the guy who robbed me comes back, he and some friends will kick his ass and get me my $5 back. I never see him again after that, thankfully. I just give David a tired look and shake my head. What a day.

Around 10:30pm, after 5 mindless hours at the border, I finally catch a break. A trucker headed south to Managua is willing to give me a free lift straight to Leon, and so I thank David profusely, give him the rest of my cigarettes, and take off – still owe that guy back in Flores for giving them to me – sure, lung cancer might suck, but they helped me skip dinner. I try to start up a conversation with the driver, but he isn’t having any of it, and the passenger just keeps telling me I’m too gringo to understand him, so within 15 minutes I’m passed out completely, and don’t wake up until someone shakes my leg.

I startle, sit up too fast, feel faint, recover. The driver is looking straight at me, and telling me that he’s sleeping here, so I need to get out of the truck. I thank him, hop down, and set off into the bushes to take a leak. It isn’t until I’m done that I realize the passenger was a hitchhiker too.

“Hey gringo, you going to Nicaragua?”
“I was thinking about it. You?”
“Yeah.”
“Where is it?”

From where I am, we’re just sitting on a road somewhere, and since it’s an intersection, I have no idea which way to go. Thankfully my new friend does, and so we walk and talk and sweat in the warm night, hoofing it south to the border. He tells me that his father left before he was born, an American man who lives in Florida, and that once, when he was 14, they met. His father promised to bring him to the USA, but after 12 years he’s never heard from the bastard again. I tell him he’s better off without that sort of shit, and he agrees, but tells me the biggest insult that anyone ever did to him was that his father gave him $50 out of nowhere when he was 18. “$50!” he tells me “Fifty fucking dollars, and he doesn’t talk to me my entire life? What do I do with fifty dollars?” I can only shake my head and make a mental note to always, always wear condoms.

A while later, it’s the middle of the night, the stars are gorgeous, and the border crossing is unfortunately closed. We bang around in the office for a while, but even though the lights are on and the computers too, there’s nobody answering, and so we just walk across the bridge, and presto, we’re in Nicaragua. My Nico friend gets a bit spooked – “Did you see that guy?” No. “The one with the machete?” I shake my head. “Do you know what a machete is?” I point to the one hanging on the side of my bag. “Oh.” We walk on in silence. “I hope we don’t get robbed,” he whispers. I laugh inappropriately, too tired for all of this. Things are ridiculous – I’m sneaking into Nicaragua across the wide-open border with no money, walking right past an army base, and this guy is worried about thieves? I tell him that we’ll be safe, and we walk on a bit longer while he talks about his father.

On the Nicaraguan side, it’s the same story – open buildings, lights on, nobody home. It’s beginning to feel like a cheap horror flick, honestly, and we’re giddy and nervous – where the hell is everyone? Do they really leave things so un-policed? We’re talking, Nico and I, and just then a voice out of nowhere scares everyone shitless. “Hey, you need to go get a stamp to enter.” Very threatening. We look around a bit, find a guy lying a hammock in a nearby tree, and he points us back toward the building we just entered. We protest, he won’t have it, and so we walk back into the building to immediately exit the other side and keep walking – tricky tricky… From there, we’re good to go, discussing possible rides or perhaps sleeping in one of the nearby buildings, but at the final guard shack we’re caught good and tight, and while Nico is good – he’s a resident after all – I have to go back and get a stamp. “It doesn’t matter if nobody is working, those are the rules, and no, I can’t come with and do anything to actually help you.” The response of a lifetime bureaucratic turdburglar.

I wander back, debate at each building I pass where I could possibly sleep, and have just decided on an open piece of concrete between two shipping containers when I see a body moving around in the immigration office – somebody has to be up. I shoulder my bag and take off at a trot – I’m beat, and this isn’t fun any longer, but my luck holds just barely – there’s a large hairy man in his wife beater and boxer shorts walking around, and I’ve never been so excited to see so much of such a fatass in my life. I hammer on the door a while, shout, and after about five minutes he gives up ignoring me and we go through the passport stamping game. Finally! I’m off at a brisk walk to see what Nico has gotten himself up to, passing the army base – tresspassers will be shot – when a man on the base, in full camoflage with a rifle, starts waving and hissing at me. “Chele, venga.” I keep walking a few steps. “Vengase ya!” and his voice says it’s urgent. I turn and walk back to him – there’s just no pleasing guys with guns – they think they’re in change just because they can put holes in everything.

“What is it?”
“Are you walking to Nicaragua?”
“Yeah, I’m hitchhiking.”
“It’s really dangerous here. Really dangerous.”
“Ok”
“I saw a guy get stabbed to death over there last week.” He points in the direction I’m going. “Blood everywhere.”
“Ok, thanks.”
“Goodnight.”
“Goodnight.”

Warmed by his good news, I creep a little bit more cautiously back to the guard shack, knife out but concealed – it doesn’t feel dangerous, but the guy with the rifle has me spooked – the words “this is fucking ridiculous!” blare in my head, and I’m too tired to shut them off. Nico is still there, lying outside on his bag, and the guards are nowhere to be seen. I plop down next to him, and ask where the guard went. “They’re asleep inside.” Nice. We watch the stars a while, trade phone numbers, and lie in the dirt. Hours go past, we talk a lot about nothing in particular, share the last sips of my water, and a piece of bread he had from somewhere. Time crawls.

2am? Later? Time has long since passed the point of relevance, we’re dozing, when I hear a diesel engine rumbling – the guards are waving a truck through the gate! We scramble up, and I run for the truck cab a few steps in front of Nico. The driver looks at me, starts to say something, then rolls up his window and drives off as I shake my head – tough break. Still, not 15 minutes later another driver rolls up, and this guy would be happy to take us. Nico climbs in back, we toss our bags in, and I’m shoved into the truck cab, sharing a bucket seat with the passenger – I never figured out why – there was a ton of room in back, but they insisted on it. The 4 of us roll out, a “most overplayed of the 80s” soundtrack blasting, and with conversation impossible, I fall mercifully asleep.

Aside from a few brief jolts and sudden stops, I’m pretty much out – either asleep or staring at the stars – the entire trip to Leon. The driver can’t hear me over the screaming music and engine noise, the passenger is pissed off that I’m taking half of his seat. I lean my head out the window and stare at Orion. I miss you Matt, but I love that I can look up and see you every night, watching over us. I wonder if you ever wanted to do something like this? A tear crawls sideways off of my face – I still miss him, still want him back, but at least this time I smile. He’d be happy to know I’m better then I was, I know that much. The whole group is, almost – there’s still two we need to pull back from the self-destructive edge – but perhaps as a group, the group Matt made so strong, we’ll be able to do it. One day… I drift off again, wind in my teeth, hair like a bad 80’s rock band.

3:38am – I wake up in the parking lot of an On The Run gas station, and the sign across the street says Leon 3km. The driver is parking, the passenger asleep on my shoulder. We’re adorable, I’m sure. Dried drool, pushed by the wind, has actually wrapped from my mouth around to my right ear, and I stink, and I need something to drink. I thank them both, offer my useless 100 Honduran Lempira as payment, but they wave me off. I jump down, grab my bag out of the back, and after sticking my head under a spigot behind the station, wander toward town.

4am – Taxis honk or flash their sirens, and I wave them off. I can’t pay for anything. One driver is a bit more insistent – he pulls over to talk to me, and refuses to speak Spanish. He can’t speak English. I don’t understand him, and I don’t care either. I keep walking, he keeps driving to match my slow trudge. “Me take you drive man! Taxi ok?” At some point I kind of flip my shit and just start speaking broken English right back at him.

“No taxi no ok. No me have money!”
“Taxi! Me drive you (he makes exaggerated driving motions with his hands above the wheel) to town. Leon?”
“No taxi. Me walk. No money!”

It goes on for a while. I walk, he drives, we talk. I’m not in the fucking mood. Eventually I stop talking, and just concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other. He drives ahead of me a while, and right about when I think I’ve won, he climbs out of the taxi. Not good. My knife finds it’s way into my hand, the “leather punch” aka the “sharp as fuck part that fits in a balled fist” out and ready. This guy had better be stupid and overly helpful, or he’s getting a blade in the eye. I’m positively bloodthirsty.

As I walk up to his taxi, I try to defuse the coming storm – (in Spanish) Thanks for your help, but I don’t need a taxi – I was robbed at the border, I have no money, and I know where I am going tonight. I am going to walk, do not help me. Stay over there!” The last part is shouted, because he’s coming around the car toward me. “Stay the fuck away!” I shout, figuring that there is very little about that statement that doesn’t translate, especially when combined with my facial expression and stance. Apparently I was wrong, because he walks right up to me and grabs my backpack. “Taxi…” he starts, but I hit him hard in the chest. “No taxi – vaya a la verga, culero!” I’m yelling and looking for a rock – thankfully he backs off, looking hurt and confused. He goes back around his car while I stand there, blade out in one hand, chunk of concrete in the other, glaring daggers. He climbs into the driver’s seat and throws me one last sad puppy look before driving off. I wait for a while before continuing, and keep my weapons ready until I’m well into the town center. I have no idea if he was trying to rob me, hurt me, or was just the biggest idiot I’ve met in a while, but that guy unnerved me a whole lot more then robbery or extortion had.

Sometime after four I finally get to the front door of Sonati – 31 hours, more or less, since starting this marathon. I knock on the door, the night guard opens it, and lo and behold, it’s the same guy from before, and we share greetings as he lets me in. I’ve rarely been so happy to arrive anywhere as I am right that moment. I pitch my bag on the floor, fill my water bottle, and we talk a few minutes before he lies down in the corner to sleep and I – too jazzed to sleep – sit around through the predawn light checking my email, of all things. I’m actually too hungry to lie down, so I wander out around 6:30 to get a traditional plate, and that settles me – I barely drag myself home before passing out in the dorm room and sleeping the day away.

So that’s how that particular adventure ended – you’d better believe it was one of my worse ideas since I started traveling around down here, and that my bad decisions and utter lack of plans precipitated every one of the bad things that happened to me. Still, the end result is pretty impressive – look at a map and chart the route – Flores-Guatemala City-San Salvador-El Amatillo-Guasaule-Leon – four countries in one sprint, and in the end, all-included, it cost me about $37. I lost any financial records, so that might be total horseshit. I can’t look at the distances, being as I don’t have a map, but I think that’s worth a pat on the back. Really though, it was just training – after I find a way to leave Leon behind again, I’m going to be doing another hitching marathon from here down to Panama City, where I have plans to fly to Columbia (the whole boat idea fell through when it came to cost over twice the plane trip) and do a month of paragliding, reflection, writing, and wicked cocaine abuse. That’s all really – just a little tale of how even the bad times can be good, in their own weird way. Until the next time -k

Raul

November 7, 2009

His name was Raul, and he was once an illegal immigrant to the United States.  He came into California, worked picking crops, taught himself English.  He fell in love, married, had 2 daughters.  He moved from picking crops to chasing traffic accidents and recommending ambulance-chaser attorneys to the victims – an extra-legal profession, to borrow Joe Klein’s Orwellian Newspeak.  Eventually Raul got on the wrong side of a cop, and was deported.  His wife and daughters remain to this day in the US, and Raul has not seen them since he left.  He rebuilt his life, began to work at a textile factory in Honduras, but that shut down when the owners decided it was easier to move operations abroad then to pay their workers $240/month.  He’s been unable to find work since, unsurprising in a country that suffers 30% unemployment and whose economy is driven primarily by remittances from the 1,000,000 Hondurans living in the US, and after that by textile manufacturing, banana, and coffee production.  An export economy to the West suffers deeply when the US and Europe aren’t buying, and to complicate matters, ever since the military-led Coup this summer, tourism has been flat-on-its-face dead, leaving this writer to conclude that 2009 will go down as the year Honduras got brutally beaten, shaken down, and left for the vultures on the side of the road, a not-occasional-enough event in this part of the world.

Really – when there’s no money, no work, your children are starving, and there are a very small group of incredibly rich owners in your midst, what would you do?  If you answered “turn to crime” then you’re spot on – the poor in Honduras have been driven inch by agonizing inch into the sort of activities that would get one labeled a terrorist and possibly French back in the US of A.  Everything from massive surges in gang and drug-related violence, kidnapping, smuggling, roadblocks, hijacking, bus and taxi robbery, pickpocketing, underage prostitution, child and female slavery, damn near everything you’d want to limit if your goal was societal stability is rising, and rapidly too.  Not only in Honduras, mind you – every place in Central America is seeing the same problems, the same trends, as the global economy sags like a 70-something social butterfly who fell behind on her Botox shots.  As the bigshots protect their own asses and their friends’ Wall Street investment firms, the people further down the line take the hit all the harder, and this part of the world is pretty near the bottom of the totem pole.  No one has credit, liquidity, savings to fall back on – most don’t have an extra tortilla or cup of coffee to spare, let alone money.
The rich will survive this – even if they have to sell the extra Mercedes and the lake house, they will make it through, keep sending their kids to the right schools, showing up at the right events.  The middle class (in the US sense) will live as well, though not without having to cut out the Starbucks a few times a week, perhaps put off the new TV or those cute jeans for a bit.  It won’t be easy – many people will lose their mortgages, cars, declare bankruptcy, but you’ll eat at least.  The poor, the real poor, the billion people who live on less then $1 a day – that sixth of the world is, to put it politely, fucked. Just like the last time, just like the next time, the poor take it on the chin whenever the Capitalist system over-invests in tulip bulbs.
Ok, so what does this have to do with Raul?  It seems a good enough time to reintroduce our protagonist.  When I met Raul, I was in Choluteca, Honduras, hitchhiking north to friendly faces and a roof.  He was lying in the street near the market, facedown with an arm stretched dangerously close to the choking line of buses, trucks, taxis slogging through the narrow dirty streets.  In his hand, a small bottle of Catrachito, cheap gut-rot liquor, hinted at the cause.  I didn’t intend to meet him, I just wanted to move his arm out of the road, but as I did so he sat up with a start, scaring the hell out of me and coughing booze-scented pleghm on his dirty clothes.  I convinced him to move with me, and we sat in the shade of a nearby shop and shared a cigarette.
“Why,” I asked him after he told me his awful tale, “why are you doing this to yourself?  What about your family?”
He spat in the dirt. “My wife does not receive my calls.  She told me that she is sorry, but she needs a man who can support the children.”  He put his head in his hands, wracked by sorrow but still too proud to cry openly.
“Raul, why drink?  Surely there is something better, no?”  I asked so many variations of this, brought in God when I had to, but nothing penetrated his dark clouded eyes.  There was one phrase he kept repeating that hurts me still – I’ll try to translate it as best I can.
“I have worked like a slave my entire life.  All my life.  What good is there?”
He stared at me, and I could only shake my head – I don’t know.
I don’t know anything – I came down here looking for reality and truth, and I’ve found bucketloads, but none that penetrates quite like the poverty, the hopeless, lifelong, humanity-draining poverty.  It isn’t just Raul, it’s nearly everyone – coming from the US I had studied the victims of our economic policies, but I wasn’t prepared for the sights I’d see, the people I’d meet, the guilt and helplessness I would feel confronted with it all.  The mind rages – there must be a better way!  We’re not trying to help these people – how could we when we don’t even know they exist?  The poor, starving, dying, have no value in a system that cares only for productivity, shaving costs, trimming staff – maximizing profits has replaced human decency, and we all lose.
And yet… I’m no better.  After our talk, cigarette, and a few mouthfuls of water, I bid farewell to Raul, mouthed “I’m sorry” to his pleading eyes and outstretched hand, turned and walked away.  I had a bus to catch, a friend to meet, a hot meal and a shower waiting for me on the other end.  There are a billion Rauls, a billion humans like you and me out there trying and crying and dying to live.  There’s a way to help them, the means exist, but the will – that’s where we fall flat.  There isn’t any profit in keeping the poor alive, at least not one comparable to corporate piracy and waging aggressive war, and so until we change this fucked up system we live in, the Rauls of the world have to die – the bottom line demands it.

-k

Travel Photos

October 14, 2009

Finally got back in contact with Sjoerd, the guy I traveled all over Central America with in August, September. He has some of his pictures up over at http://picasaweb.google.com/lekkerzonderwekker – the guy is a great photographer, and since I don’t own a camera any longer, it’s one of the few chances I have to show you all photos of the places I am.

Take a look!

One of the things you always have to look out for when you’re on the road is the near-limitless pile of pushers, pimps, peddlers, and players trying to take advantage of the unwary traveler. Due to the fact that a whole lot of people like to travel, and a much smaller group are actually good at it, there has grown up in Central America a heathy culture of screwing over stupid white people – it’s a cousin to the other popular sport of shooting fish in a barrel. Now, I’ve no room to talk – I sit here sipping on a Fresca that I just overpaid 50% for since I didn’t walk across the street to check prices there – to be honest, it tastes a bit like wasted money, but a whole lot more like cane sugar, which beats the hell out of your American drinks and their high fucktose corn syrup – but I digress… The point here is that by the sheer virtue of being white, you are a target for all manner of schemers, thieves, troublemakers, and “the wrong sort of people.” You can minimize your chances of getting taken advantage of by playing it smart, not getting into situations you don’t understand, and not letting yourself get cowed by fast talkers, but in the end we all fuck up, make mistakes, and get into trouble – it is just a basic fact of life in a foreign culture.

Sometimes however, that just isn’t exciting enough – sure, you got talked out of 20 Lempira by a sad-faced boy, or someone picked your phone out of your pocket while you were sleeping on a bench in the bus station, or the taxi driver overcharges you substantially, but that’s not the sort of thing I can sit down and write a story about. No, to be worthy of a Citizen K adventure, you’ve got to go big, to really and truly fuck up to the point of putting your own life in danger. Here’s a story of how that happened, how we got out of it, and what we should have done instead. Spoiler: we survived.

How to Identify a Drug Pusher:

Someone you won’t meet often in the US unless you go actively looking for drugs is the peculiar fellow that I’ve taken to calling the Drug Pusher. The reason I won’t go so far as to call him a dealer is that he doesn’t actually have drugs most of the time, but sells them nonetheless – usually in the employ of a dealer but occasionally freelance, so to speak. How he goes about doing this is pretty interesting, at least to me. The Pusher goes about his life, travels the world, has another job sometimes, and meets absolutely everyone. He is a social butterfly, loved by all the little old ladies, popular with the girls, pals with every guy between 13 and 30, and looked up to all the younger kids. The thing that sets him apart from any other charming, well-spoken, popular young guy is that he finds a way to bring the topic of marijuana or drug use up very early on in meeting new people. It’s not subtle, usually some variant of “Hey man, are you new around here? I’m Larry, welcome to the neighborhood. Hey, weird question, you like to smoke weed?” To a positive assertion he’ll go on, preaching the taste, flavor, effect of the product he’s connected to, playing up the crowd before he goes in for the kill. He won’t ever offer you drugs, because he doesn’t have to – if you’re looking for something, you’re going to ask, and lo-and-behold, he turns out to be just the person you needed to meet. If you’re in a far-away land and want to engage in some healthy substance use or less-healthy substance abuse, the Drug Pusher is a character that will enter your stories from time to time.

How We Got Into Shit With Vlad:

We met Vlad (yeah, a Nicaraguan named Vladamir) in the back of a truck headed south. Sjoerd and I had our thumbs out, the driver stopped, we hopped into the back utility cage of the pickup and off we all went. As often happens when people are allowed to ride in the back of trucks, we weren’t the first bums who’d gotten a free ride – the 3 guys in the back gave us a once-over, we returned the favor, then everyone said their introductions and went back to standing around or sitting in the back of the truck. The exception was Vlad, the mid-20s Garifuna (dark-skinned) dude with an old American Eagle T-shirt, 12” pigtails, and slightly gapped front teeth that were hardly noticeable above the sheer force of his personality. Vlad, after warmly shaking our hands, started up a conversation with Sjoerd about fun things to do, and within a couple sentences asked him if he’d ever smoked weed. Playing it smart, Sjoerd admitted “yeah, a few times,” and pushed the subject down the road, but he and I shared a glance that said “well, do we want some?” It’s illegal in Nicaragua, we’re living hand to mouth and out of our backpacks – this is a bad idea. Yet, true to form, we didn’t immediately throw out the suggestion – be thankful for that, because if we had, there wouldn’t be this little adventure story for you to enjoy!

Twenty or so minutes down the road, after some random conversing and several more subject changes to and from drugs, our driver pulled up to his neighborhood and we – Sjoerd, Vlad, I – jumped out and started walking. While Vlad and I talked about his work (truck driving) his family (lived with his mother and little sister) and the town we were walking toward, Sjoerd and I were having a simultaneous non-verbal conversation about whether or not we should ask this guy if we can buy ganja. Combined, it must have looked ridiculous – 2 gringo-as-all-fuck backpackers and this big dude in a too-small shirt and pigtails walking along the highway talking inanities while the white guys shoot hand signals and weird looks at each other.

We walked a few kilometers, which gave us plenty of time to think things over. In the end, I asked Vlad if the reason he’d brought up weed so many times was because he wanted to sell some of it, and while he denied that, he did tell us that he “knew some guys.” Good enough – we followed him into town, Chichigalpa I think. Here’s where it got surreal: remember how he lives with his mom? Well, we went straight to his mother’s house and took a seat on the couch. Then, because Vlad is a pusher, not a dealer, we gave him the crazy-looking plastic bills with transparent sections that they call money here, and we sat around watching a National Geographic special on Fidel Castro in Spanish while he took off to get the product. The look we shared somewhere in here was priceless – “what in the fuck have we gotten ourselves into here?” – still, we’d taken a swan dive right into this one, and to get out was more difficult then just waiting to see how things turned out. We sat, played with the dog, and talked with 6-year-old Diana while we waited.

I was reassured by two things here – first was that Esmeralda, Vlad’s mom, and Diana, the little sister, were very nice, completely normal, and very friendly considering they undoubtedly knew we were buying illicit substances from their son. The second was that the dog, Rufo, was a fucking angel, loved being pet, and was one of the best groomed, fed, and most loving animals I’ve met in Central America. “Sure, Vlad sells pot,” I reasoned, “but his family is great, his dog isn’t abused, and everyone around here seems to like him – how bad can this really get?” Well… here comes that part of the story.

Vlad came back a bit later in the afternoon, right about the time I was sharing with his mother the intimate details of my time with the Peace Corps in Honduras. (which, incidentally, I just took the passwords off of here on Mental Cigarettes – check them out!) I opted to give her the abridged version, we said our goodbyes, and after Vlad slipped me a bag containing substantially shittier weed then he’d described, we were out the front door. Now, here’s the part where a person concerned about security would recognize that he had stretched his luck, come out thus far unharmed, and ought leave now before that all changes – being a different sort of person, the kind who seeks adventure at personal expense, puts his trust in the generosity and goodness of strangers, and consequently spends a lot of his time on the razor’s edge of disaster, I instead took a different course.

“Hey guys,” Vlad asked, “did you know that Flor de Caña rum is distilled here?”

“Here like in Nicaragua, or here like right here?” I responded.

“Right here man, we can just walk right up to the place, smoke, have a look around.”

“Sounds cool man, let’s do it.” I ask, then shoot a glance at Sjoerd, who nods. All of a sudden, we’ve an adventure on our hands, but we don’t realize what kind yet.

Vlad leads us across the street and a few blocks down before turning into a run-down block of homes and pulperias. Kids are playing soccer barefoot with a well-patched and scratched ball, a scrawny dog trots by, tail between her legs, plastic plate in her mouth. Families, not just one but a good 6 entire families, sit out in front of their houses in plastic chairs and on curbs, just sitting. In other words, it was any other poor neighborhood in Central America, with one crucial difference – everyone stopped when we walked into their midst – the game, the people talking, and instead they all glared unfriendly eyes at us. Well fuck – guess we’d found another part of the world where white faces aren’t welcome, especially when those faces are attached to the big bags that say “this person is richer then you, and for his pleasure, he comes to visit your part of the world just to fuck around.” It’s shittier when it’s true – I have no good reason to be here – I’m just passing through on the way to Costa Rica. I was about to mention this to Vlad when I realized something crucial – they weren’t looking at us, they were looking at Vlad with deep distrust.

I didn’t know what to do with this information – it didn’t fit with my train of thought, but I stole a glance at Sjoerd, and he’d seen it too – at least we were on the same page. Half a block down it got weirder – a smallish guy in a blue shirt and worn jeans whistled loudly, I snapped my head in that direction, started wondering if he was a threat, but then Vlad whistled back and waved. It still didn’t feel right, but if Vlad knew him… I let my mind slip back down a few notches – lets just smoke a joint, see a rum distillery, and get the fuck out of here. The guy in blue came up to us, slapped hands with Vlad, and introduced himself – “Mynameisdavid” he said in one breath, no spaces, the word vomit approach to English – thus Mynameisdavid he became. After the introduction, Vlad led us down a foot path, and Mynameisdavid followed – here’s the first point I decided that we needed to change the situation, where Juan Carlos’ warning voice broke through my comfortable reality – this was not a good scene.

Down the path a hundred meters, I asked Vlad if we could stop and smoke there instead of going all the way into the distillery – it was getting late, I said, and we needed to keep going south. He shrugged, we sat down on a log, and Sjoerd did his magic Dutch joint-rolling trick while I tried to keep Vlad and Mynameisdavid talking about themselves, about their families, histories, anything. Vlad took off his shirt in the clinging heat, and that’s when I saw the 4” ragged scar on his right shoulder – an unmistakable knife wound. “What’s that from,” I asked, wanting to see how he lied so I catch it again later. He didn’t though – “It was a knife, a machete actually.” I gave a low whistle, and told him he was lucky to still have an arm. “Better off then the other guy, he’s dead now.” was the reply, delivered straight to my face without blinking or smiling. I laughed, but it was forced. Sjoerd finished rolling the joint, and I’ve rarely needed one like I did then.

We sat in our little circle, 2 brown faces, 2 white ones, smoking what ended up being pretty awful weed. Actually, I don’t know to be honest – most of the marijuana high is your own perception of it, and right at that moment I wasn’t in any mood to be spacey and get lost in my own head. Instead, all I felt was wariness and fear – this was not a good situation. “When you are in a bad situation, change it. Take control – they have a plan, so get away from it.” Juan Carlos’ words, delivered to a frightened Peace Corps training class came bubbling up out of my subconscious. I felt the knife in my front right pocket, its weight suddenly magnified – but could I use it, even if I had to? Better not to find out.

“Hey guys, we really need to get going,” I said, “and we need some food before we go. Do you know a good cheap comedor or restaurant around here?” Change.

“Yeah,” Sjoerd chimed in, “I’m really hungry, lets do that.” Awesome wingman, this guy.

Vlad and Mynameisdavid shared a look, and even though it lasted an instant, the message was pretty unmistakable – Fuck, this isn’t going as we wanted. Good, I thought, exactly what we were going for.

After tramping back out of the same neighborhood, enduring the same warning yet scared looks of the families alongside the road, we were on the main road. Here I fucked up again – we could have turned right, walked along the busy main road straight to the highway, hitched a ride, and gotten the fuck out of dodge. We actually started doing this, but as we were saying goodbyes Vlad pointed out that we’d come from that direction and we hadn’t passed any comedores on the way in. It was true, and we were hungry – after a few second’s hesitation we turned left and put ourselves back at the mercy of 2 guys who quite definitely had bad intentions for us. Fuck. However, Vlad did give away part of the game here, telling us that the bus station was ahead of us, right near the center of town – it really pays off to listen to what information people let slip.

A few hundred meters down the road we got to a central plaza, a statue set in the middle of the road that cars had to swerve around – a great strategy, Sjoerd pointed out, for dealing with the problem of drunk drivers. The statue’s base had the marks to back that statement up. We circled around it, and ahead of us on the right was a little unnamed restaurant. The family that owned it was sitting out front, and we received a welcome that would have sent paint peeling back to wherever it had come from. “I know, I know, we’re in shitty company,” I wanted to respond, but couldn’t for obvious reasons. Going up the front steps, I headed into – well, I walked straight into this family’s living room and grandma – why does everyone do that here? The restaurant was apparently confined to the 2 small tables on the front porch, so I gave my best “yeah, I’m a dumb white person” grin and headed back out. Sjoerd was already seated, everyone laughed, just another of my bonehead moves. And so we sat down, alternating natives and gringos, around 3 sides of a small wooden table with a tired tablecloth and an even more tired jar of pickled onions in the center. It was awkward at best – really it was uncomfortable because none of the 4 of us wanted to be there, at least not together. Sjoerd and I were pretty happy about sitting down to eat, but not with 2 guys who had obviously malicious intentions, and they didn’t want to be sitting in public with 2 guys whom they couldn’t exactly rob or mess with in front of a whole family – thus, awkward. It was good though, because it gave us time to think, to plan, to change the situation more – time is almost always your friend when you’re trying to get out of a bad decision or five.

We ordered the cheapest plates on the menu, had a quick english conversation about offering our friends something to eat as well, and thus possibly get on their better side, but decided against it on the grounds that we’re totally broke – we offered them drinks anyway. Then, while Vlad sulked, sipped a coke, and stared off into the distance and Mynameisdavid wore my sunglasses and hollered and whistled at every girl between 11 and 35 who walked by, we ate some very dry but flavorful beef, rice, and beans. I would probably have liked it quite a bit, if not for the circumstances. We ate slowly, enduring the obvious impatience and uncomfort of our companions and the malevolent stares of our hosts, while sharing the looks of 2 prisoners resigned to prolonging their last meal as long as possible – ought to note that nobody ate the poisonous-looking pickled onions. At the end of it all, we reluctantly set aside our plates, paid, and got ready to left. I didn’t see it, but Sjoerd told me later that as we were walking out he saw the grandmother of the family crossing herself as we left – it really was that sketchy.

Leaving, my mind was going crazy – how can I change this situation? How can we get out of here without getting robbed or shot? Why in the fuck did I bring my laptop? Is this going to end up being my regrettable adventure? How do I even write this story? All of this was rolling through my head as we headed back toward the highway, and as I searched desperately for a way out. My chance came suddenly, and I have my Peace Corps teachers to thank for my quick reaction. We walked along the main road into town, 4 lanes wide, busy like Sjoerd’s mouth on free blowjob day. There appeared a gap all of a sudden, a few seconds wide at best, between the oncoming traffic, and we took it. I looked at Sjoerd, he looked at me, and we stepped quickly across the street to the center median – it worked partially – Vlad, who had been ahead of us, was caught unaware and left stranded on the far side of the road. Unfortunately Mynameisdavid had seen our move and followed us, and was trying frantically to signal at Vlad, who kept walking down the sidewalk without noticing what had happened behind him. About now was when Mynameisdavid began to get more explicit – first telling us that we owed them a gift for their company, then after I declined that, that we would regret not giving them what they wanted. “Remember what we did for you?” he kept asking, “We know strong people. You don’t want us to get them.”

I was very much in agreement with that statement – I didn’t want him to get anyone, nor did I want to spend much more time with Mynameisdavid. Sjoerd and I started talking in English about this point, about how we really hoped that a bus would pass already. I kept stealing glances over at Vlad, telling Mynameisdavid that no, I would not pay him even 50 Cordobas apiece for their company, and walking rapidly toward the highway. I’m honestly not sure what Sjoerd was doing at this point – my attention was elsewhere, the heady adrenaline rush of imminent danger pounded in my temples, and all I know is that he was beside me and in no worse (or better) situation then I. We shared a few looks as we walked – we wer both scared, but determined to not give in to a pair of petty blackmailers, especially when one of them was across a very busy, very wide road and the other was a foot shorter then I. Then a couple things happened at once: first, in what I would quickly list as among the most awful moments of my life, I caught Vlad out of the corner of my eye finally notice that we weren’t behind him and run to the road’s edge. The second more then made up for it however, because the next thing that happened was that a bus finally showed up behind us. “Sjoerd, there’s our ride!” I yelled over Mynameisdavid’s whistling, 4 lanes of cars rumbling and honking, and the sounds of the busy city. We stopped at the road’s edge, reversed directions, and waved like idiots at the approaching bus. Vlad, now realizing what we were about to pull, dodged out into traffic, but only made it one lane before narrowly avoiding getting his ass ran over by a bus – he was stuck between the dense-but-fast traffic, and I smirked a little – this might actually work out!

We jumped up onto the bus before it had stopped moving, and the driver pushed back out into traffic. I heard Mynameisdavid yelling and whistling, but he didn’t climb into the bus, for whatever reason – perhaps he couldn’t pay the fare, or maybe it had become too public a scene for him. Regardless, we’d made it, at least partly. There was always the chance that Vlad and his friends would follow us in a car, catch up to us, and beat us senseless or shoot our gringo asses – thoughts like this wove their way into my brain until I couldn’t shake them loose – Sjoerd’s too I imagine, because we both sat facing the aisle, packs still on, ready to bolt if need be. Still, as we rode down the main road out of town, it started to dawn on us that we’d dodged that particular bullet, and that we’d be safe to make bad decisions another day. Hit the highway, paid our fare, and hopped out – only one last thing to do. We needed a ride and fast, and so it was thumbs out at a brisk walk, and we headed south toward León. I kept looking into the cars that passed, expecting to see a huge muscled guy with pigtails any second, but nobody fit the description.

A few minutes on, a grey Toyota pickup passed us, then 50 meters down the road braked and swerved over. Sjoerd and I looked at each other – well, is it them? – passed unspoken. We shrugged, ran down toward the truck. The adrenaline began seeping out again, the heady rush overpowering. I skidded to a stop at the blackout-tinted driver’s window, which wasn’t rolled down. Fuck, it’s them! – No, it wasn’t, just a kindly male face, wrinkled around the eyes from a lifetime smiling, and his similar-age wife beside him. I asked if we could get a ride to León, they offered us one gladly, and off we went – suck it drug pushers, we’re gone! Wind in our hair, packs in a pile, we finally started to loosen up, laugh even.

“What a ridiculous, insane, idiotic adventure that was!”

“Can you believe what we just did?”

“God, I thought they were going to jump us!”

“Why didn’t we just leave?”

“Man, good thing we got them high – that could have sucked if they had reacted properly.”

“Yeah, that was a good practice run, with bad criminals instead of good ones.”

“Lets be more careful next time.”

“Agreed.”

And onward we drove, sun slowly setting, road unwinding before and behind, volcanoes in the distance, and Chichigalpa fading into the distance. I still don’t know if the name is really Chichigalpa, but I do know one thing – we aren’t allowed back there, Sjoerd and I. We burned that bridge to the ground the second we went in, bought drugs, and fucked over the pusher – our name is mud with all the wrong sorts of people. No matter, we learned a bit about ourselves, our ability to cope with bad situations, and came out alright and more knowledgeable. Experience, some say, comes from having made bad decisions in the past and learned from them. If that’s the case, I’ve gotten a whole lot of experience from this little adventure. The moral? What moral? I was doing something illegal, dealing with shady people, and made a whole lot of bad decisions followed by a few choice good ones. Keep your head on straight and your eyes open might be one. Don’t buy pot in Nicaragua might be another. It all depends on your point of view and what you’re aiming to do. Take this story as you may, and may it help you out someday.

Vemos! -k

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