Wednesday, February 17, 2016

American gods.

"There was a sense of continuity on this island that scared him, and that he found desperately reassuring." - Neil Gaiman

I arrive at Lookout Mountain in Georgia while standing in Nashville, Tennessee. Even at 11:05am, the line for Hattie B's is out the door and into 40 degree January air. My eyes are fixed down into the mass-market paperback, my fingerprints overcast from the ink leeching off the pages of Shadow's story. He tied up, bleeding out in a tree as his wife and the dying'off American Gods arrived at Rock City and its seven'state vista atop the mountain for the novel's climax.

500 thumbed pages earlier, a "Caveat, and Warning for Travelers" cautioned that the settings in the story to come were real. Forgotten tourist traps, abandoned flags of optimism pierced into the Twentieth Century America ground just off the arteries of our interstate highways. Rock City the latest in a line that followed Wisconsin's House on the Rock, and Cairo, Illinois, and the lonely Kansas plaque stamped in the geographical center of the nation. To be looked for and found at the reader-turned-traveler's peril. As for what Lookout Mountain truly looked liked, in the moment I left it to imagination, to Neil Gaiman's description rather than the certainty of Google Images. My fingers were now too concentrated on the hot chicken and my plastic cup of beer.

After my lunch of Hattie B's it was into the heart of Nashville, parking my rental car off Lower Broadway and the honky'tonks still hung-over at noon on a Thursday. I turned the corner and headed toward the dormant light bulbs lined up, poised to belt out CASH the moment the darkness took over for the sun. There's far too much in Nashville to squeeze in to a 3 day bachelor party weekend, so I visited the Johnny Cash Museum on my own, on my day'early exploration of the city. Half artifacts, half interactivity, the not-quite-three-year old museum has everything a die-hard fan would want, and enough of Cash's work alive via technology to hook generations of new ones as well. The relics snaked the walkways and spanned decades. His guitar from the "Hurt" video, Folsom Prison inmate issue metal cups from his iconic concert there, his Air Force dog tags, a hand'improvised and crayon'colored Cash family coat of arms. But the item that struck me breathless is back at the start, in the very first case. 

Back in high school in Arkansas, Johnny Cash didn't even have a first name yet. The Air Force wouldn't force him to elongate his initial into a full word for another few months, so he was still simply J R. During his senior year, J R, the boy who would grow up to be "The Wanderer," who'd "been everywhere, man" went on his first real trip ever, to see a little of America before he signed up to serve her in the Korean War. It was on that Senior Trip with his classmates that he went to Nashville for the first time, the class taking a meandering, scenic way there. The museum has the lone postcard he sent his parents from his journey, scrawled simply "Having a good time," and a photograph of a pensive J R next to his two smiling friends from atop the same rock'cragged viewpoint as the one in the drawing on the postcard's front. A lookout with a seven'state vista. 

I never heard of Rock City or Lookout Mountain until about an hour earlier. Despite starting the book after me, my best friend made it to the pages of Lookout two weeks before I managed to. The novel came out a decade before this museum ever opened its doors, so I don't know when Neil Gaiman made it there and decided to put it in his work. According to the postmark, J R Cash made it to Lookout Mountain on May 4, 1950 and chose there to send the briefest of missives home from, that would, sixty-five years later, make it into a display case of a museum bearing his name. Preserving his legacy.

The timing is just about impossible. The random choice to start that book instead of dozens of others a month earlier. Four weeks worth of countless variables in reading patterns, 2 or 3 pages chipped away on each subway ride to work, that all had to go just right for me to hit page 485 and its obscure destination, with its forgotten charm just in time to see that lone postcard. Something mailed 4 months after Eisenhower was inaugurated, when my mother was not yet 2.

Some people will tell you that everything happens for a reason. Usually while you're under the weight of tragedy. When things are going well, coincidences are a wink from your Guardian Angel. Others will credit fate, or destiny, for even the slightest of life's alignments clicking softly into place. And they could be right, and even if not I'm happy they've found a life philosophy that works for them. For me, I don't believe in Jesus or in angels watching over me, or in anything as intricately planned and preconceived as destiny. The overlapping lives and experiences I see, and cherish, and am grateful to find myself a part of, a participant in, aren't held together by fate, but rhythms. The pattern of time is a melody, accompanied with simple words that everyone can relate to, but that carry in them the collected experiences of our centuries. A chorus that repeats and strengthens. Your confidence growing in each renewed familiarity. Life and shared memories, even those separated by decades, or by layers of narrative, are the lyrics of an American folk song. Cash's American recordings. They're simply random moments, no less gorgeous or poignant to the one experiencing them if they don't point to some greater being or design. For me, it's beautiful enough to let Johnny Cash yet again tell me a little more about the world we shared.

Monday, June 8, 2015


My alarm goes off exactly two hours before the bus leaves, and roughly two hours after I suffer nightmares about missing it. In another twenty minutes I'm dressed, the backpack I fully prepped the night before downstairs with me, negotiating a 4am check out with the confused kid working the front desk.

"Now? You're sure you want to check out now?... You know it doesn't open for two more hours..."

A few blocks away, my lobby-poured coffee and I reach the parked caravan of buses at 4:10am to be the third person in line, behind one of the countless couples making this pilgrimage together. Within a ten minute span, I'm joined by my other 2 trailmates from the Salkantay Trek and our guide, and behind us stretches at least a hundred more people, though anyone more than that is out of range of both the humming light bulbs and my disinterested earshot.

I pass the next hour mostly with my neck craned up in weak-interest at a rerun soccer game between Uruguayan and Colombian club teams, as behind me a flock of purple'clad elderly women from the States perform chakra chants, their hands tambourining down the center line of their bodies. Morning calisthenics in sequined hats. As the buses next to us rumble to life just before 5:30, a girl from a massive group way back in line tries to convince the couple ahead of me, in a distinctly American accent, to let their group of 20 jump to the front of line. When she walks back to her group, scoffed at, defeated, I take one last look at the massive group behind us before piling into the bus that drives us up the 20 minutes of switchbacking road from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu.

The headlights cut the darkness as we rise up Hiram Bingham Highway, panning across the backs of the hikers, the idealists determined to walk up to Machu Picchu by way of a grueling series of steps. With each switchback and tier up the mountain, the day greys awake, making them easier to see, their exhaustion obvious, even in the fledgling light. When we exit the bus, there's a group of ten, the fastest, already sitting on the steps before the roped'off ticket inspection counters. They're absolutely flooded in sweat, and staring challengingly at us bus-riders with a palpable arrogance, but even with that, they'd earned my respect. For their commitment and far more so, their speed. Because by the time the next set of hikers reaches our plateau, there's three buses full of people in line ahead of them. Their lack of quickness betraying their abundance of determination.

Past the ticket check, any hierarchy becomes moot, instantly forgotten. I'm one of the first 20 people inside Machu Picchu on the morning of May 15, 2015, nearly jogging around corners with the sweat'drenched Brits to the first viewpoint. The anticipation finally giving way to the arrival. And for those few minutes it's ours. We first'and'early'risers, we trekkers, the fast hikers. Any arrogance melted away into ecstasy, into a pure childish wonder at where we are. When we are. The rarity of its pristine emptiness. Just briefly, we tear glances away from the wondrous ruins to exchange dumbfounded smiles. The possible-temple, possible-noble-retreat, the fabled Lost City. The vision of Pachacutec and the obsession of Bingham. Machu Picchu. Its stone'chambered vacancy a vessel for our awe.

And the early alarms, the grueling stair'climb, the foresight of others who booked Inca Trail reservations seven or eight months in advance, it's all for these sprinting minutes that dissolve too quickly. Because we all know what a shit show this is about to be.

This is the cost of doing pleasure. The trade'off of travel in the modern world. Machu Picchu holds a near unique spot in our consciousness, even if we can't pinpoint why.  We know what it is, but not what it was. It was commissioned by the Incas' greatest ruler, but as an observatory, or temple, or simple vacation resort, there's no uniform agreement. What it is now is a pilgrimage. A box on a checklist, or a bucket list, or a prerequisite for backpacking credibility. An obsession, a headless sphinx to challenge us. Simultaneously the most unifying and polarizing destination I have ever been to. Because it draws so many of us, no matter what our background, or travel motivation, or degree of commitment. And yet everyone wants it to belong to them alone, feels entitled to that ownership. Maybe because its walls stood here for centuries, in obscurity, if not true total abandonment, and we want that fantasy of untouched discovery to belong to us. 

The paradox is that everyone deserves to see this. Whether at the bus station at 4:10am to ensure a seat on the first bus at 5:30, or hiking the near vertical stair'climb, or entering directly by the Sun Gate after trekking for days on the Inca Trail. Or those who came by ways that they sound embarrassed to admit but shouldn't be, the trains that start arriving at 8:00 and the later arrivals flooding in all the way from Cusco. No matter what tier of tourist or traveler you are, Machu Picchu belongs equally to you as well. But it's because there's so many of us drawn here for the riddle and beauty and legend of its emptiness that it overflows with a cacophonous humanity.

It doesn't ruin the experience, but it does make those first few minutes even more precious. The very first fraction of the nine hours that I spent at Machu Picchu, climbing and descending its terraces. Seeing the absence before the abundance. Viewing it in morning mists, the clouds blindfolding the mountaintops, the shyness of the fog as it clings to smaller peaks below, like fraying coronas of liquid nitrogen, before an ascendent sun burns it all away. Before that god is chased away by grey herds of cloud and then rain. The arbitrary undulations that have occurred and been observed for centuries. 

The nine hours is long enough to recognize the order of Machu Picchu itself, beyond the simple level of commitment of the travelers that reach it. Or the tiers of visibility the Peruvian climate allows, depending on the time of day, the whim of weather. Time enough to spot how the architecture of the peaked roof supports echo Huayna Picchu above. The seemingly'crude rock in the Temple of the Mountain that from one specific point near'perfectly mirrors the outline of the mountain peaks directly beyond it. The curved walls of the Temple of the Sun that evoke the same torreón of the massive Temple of the Sun in Cusco, the Qorinkancha. But also the empty hierarchy of what it means to discover. Hiram Bingham was credited as finding the Lost City of the Incas in 1911, but it was never really lost. Quechua families still farmed its terraces, Bingham himself saw carved names and dates of previous explorers in earlier years grooved into the steps of the Royal Mausoleum. Yet everyone, Peru's Ministerio de Cultura, certainly Bingham, clearly the vandalizing explorers, and the even earlier graverobbers, want it to belong to them alone. Feel entitled to that. In truth it belongs to none of us beyond a temporary guardianship. Caretakers for a lifetime, or a generation, or a few minutes if we wake early enough. But no matter what timeline or duration, that palpable arrogance will inevitably melt away, leaving only the endangered constant of the rocks and the mountains that surround it. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

My head is an animal.

"Yet modernity also gives us the self-questioning and self-doubting consciousness that permits us to understand that we lose something in its attainment." - Alastair Bonnett

“There’s a place I go to, where no one knows me,
It’s not lonely; it’s a necessary thing.
It’s a place I made up, to find out what I’m made of […]
Take me on to the place where one reviews life’s mystery.” – Matt Simmons

I’m drinking hot water with leaves torn and steeped for the alkaloid they secrete, trying to keep myself from vomiting. To prevent my brain from pulsating, my eyes from racking to blur. I’m drinking this because I’m higher than I’ve ever been. 11,150 feet above sea level, and throw in an extra 15 because the tea and I are on a second-floor balcony looking out on the Plaza de Armas, watching the peddlers of Cusco approach tourists with leather portfolios of bad paintings, or baby lambs in their costumed arms, coaxing the white faces first for photographs and then soles.

In truth, the mate de coca is overkill. At this point I’m on my third day of acetazolamide, a drug usually reserved for epileptics, but that currently is helping me prevent altitude sickness, both a literal and symbolic measurement of how dramatic a change being here is. Seven hours after landing in South America, I’m grounded but unmoored. Back in my familiar if not quite comfortable enclave away from time constraints, deadlines, unwanted appointments. Separated from the forced diplomacy of everyday life. With the drugs in my body, vomiting isn't a dominant worry, but there's a mental cloudiness mirroring the Peruvian sky I'm so close to that's gauzing up my brain. It could derive from the elevation change, or my only sleep coming during a red-eye flight, or just the shock of finally being here and the early stages of disconnect that that entails.

On this trip I go even further away from everyday routine than normal. Whether a response to how stressful my work life has become or to prove an ideal to myself, I’ve decided to go totally dark on social media during my trip. And aside from a small handful of necessary emails to loved ones, I’m entirely off-the-grid. I don’t check the news and the only headlines I see are the shouting Spanish print of tabloids I walk by on the city's narrow sidewalks. A life simpler and just as fulfilling as ours existed before the one of wifi hotspots and status as measured by Instagram likes that we know now and I want to experience it, if only for a week. Visit it for the fleeting solace it offers, experience a destination by totally immersing within it and cutting the safety cords of Facetime and iMessage to the world that I departed from. And prove to myself the lack of repercussions this choice actually has. 

The same rejection of modernity includes credit cards. I withdraw as many soles as I can from an ATM in the Plazeta San Blas and carry in my pocket the crumpled browns and greens and blues, learn to differentiate between the 2 soles and 5 soles coins just by feel. Like always, I'm confused by the tourists around me clinging to spending American dollars, running their sterile credit cards at every opportunity. Money exists only as an artifice, so why rob oneself of the sole experience of living on this exotic currency? Why sacrifice honest contact for the hollow pursuit of convenience?

There's a clear pattern of isolation in these thoughts, a bizarre focus on the negative to accentuate the inverse. And the contributing factors may be the elevation, the sleep deprivation, or the released alkaloids taking hold in my body. But the musings are faithful to my experience of South America, a land shaped for me by Gabriel García Márquez, and his intertwined triumvirate of life's experience: solitude, melancholy, and nostalgia. The inexorable emotional themes that will weave throughout our lives, if not telling the main narrative, then filling in the gaps of subplots told through whispers. The quieter times unseen and barely'spoken that belong by definition to us alone, though they are universally experienced. For so much of its history, this stretching continent has been a land removed, populated by a people in isolation. And its solitude has spawned an intrinsic tendency to internalize this experience. To at times seek company, but also to savor the role of detachment, to view it as therapeutic. Not all discontent is unhappiness. Some of it is introspection. 

And my current meditation, with these cups of steeped coca leaves, is that we're likely witnessing the death of something irreplaceable. That perspective is becoming a casualty in the modern world. 

We are the fulcrum generation. The aging Rubicon of humanity that remembers a life before technology devoured us in the name of convenience, but now reliant upon smartphones and social media and forms of communication so easy that constant participation in them seems requisite. I’m a contrarian, and a hypocritical one at that. I have no problem using my DSLR camera, its seemingly infinite capacity, shooting on memory cards, perhaps cheapening the photos as individual frames. But I’ve also held negatives down in trays of developer and stop bath, a dim red light above me, breathing the chemicals that rose up. I bring you these thoughts via technology, and you’re seeing these words on a screen, a compound of LED and RAM or LTE on your smartphone, but they were birthed longhand with pen onto paper. The words mean something to me, the scratchouts between these faint blue lines that you'll never see tell a story far more comprehensive and honest than the backspace button pushing thoughts back into the ether. 

And something of that earlier life and its nuance must remain if we're to retain our perspective. Shortcuts can exist as long as we retain the comprehensive maps of what's being glossed over. What rigors we've chosen to circumvent. And we must reserve the freedom to sometimes take those scenic routes, the longhand essays, the paper money with which we relearn to count and multiply with each change in borders and currency, the ability to unplug and then breathe deeply, and to do so with an air of melancholy. For the love of nostalgia.

Beyond Garcia Marquez's influence, there's additional precedent for focusing on the inverse. One native to not merely South America, but specifically Peru. Seven centuries ago, the Incas worshiped the sun, and patterned their geography and their lives around the precise movement of the heavens. On what they were able to see when the gauziness above pulled away. They mapped constellations, but not by assuming a connection between stars like their unknown contemporaries in the north or in Europe, tying light to light to create a fragile'framed bull or ram. Instead the Incas processed the darkness. They sought the void among the illumination in the night sky, creating fully formed bodies of its sacred animals with the massive gaps between stars. A llama, a fox, a snake not born of starlight, but birthed by the lack thereof.

Such darkness serves as a map. Not as a construct of the unknown or the negative, but of the forgotten. The antiquated way of doing things that still holds charm to those unafraid to stare into it and seek its patterns. Rediscover its mysteries when we manage to resurrect perspective.

Five mornings after landing back in New York, my return to sea level and what that entails, I was up early vomiting. My head throbbing with a hangover, vision blurred by the accompanying tears. The immediate cause was the combination of too many drinks with not enough food the night before. My motivation for consuming them stemming from a near'week of frustration; my uneasy return back to the machinations of the modern world. It was over in 45 seconds, but for the first time in these 5 days, I felt like I was fully back mentally. Re-ingratiated into the world I'd temporarily but successfully stepped away from. And in its own way, it was reassuring to know that my deepest sickness comes not from immersion in the unknown and authentic, not the climb to lofty altitudes, but in the inevitable descent that follows.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The red and the black, two.

I'm already in bed when the power goes out, so I only notice it happens from the sudden drop'off of air-conditioning. Outside my bedroom door are the groaning shouts of the Americans and Germans tourists in the common areas of the pousada, who miss it far more. Their conversations and Facebook uploads suddenly cut off. And even in darkness and separated by layers of solid wood and stone, and further layers less tangible, I register how their immediate panic hesitates only slightly before sprinting to annoyance. 

The pousada is in Olinda, an old colonial town outside of Recife, just about as far east as one can travel in South America. It's a locale that suggests isolation. We're far from the Lapa street parties that raked away my voice and my energy, one caiprinha and I BELIEVE chant at a time. Far from the watchzone parties on Copacabana that share this same coast, and impossibly farther from the mentality of the travelers down there in Rio de Janeiro. Here we're surrounded by Germans and Americans who came to be around other Germans and Americans. We're not immersed in the shouts of vibrant Chileans and Colombians, and sheepish Brits, and proud Iranians, the rich amalgam of cultures that a World Cup intertwines during its month of games. We're surrounded instead by those who came, not to see Brazil, but experience the borders of their own country extended to somewhere else. 

In fairness, by being here Derek and I had in a sense come to experience a small degree of that too. It was unthinkable for us to travel to a World Cup and not watch our country play. To see the best of our country (along with the worthless Brad Davis) fight on the world's grandest stage, and to be in the stands for those 90 minutes. To cheer purely, not for a club of capricious choice, but rather a country inherited by birthright. One game in Rio at the legendary Maracanã and one US game, in whatever corner of Brazil that may be. Our thought going in was to chase the biggest spectacle possible. And so, in analyzing the States' Group of Death draw, we thought it better to see Germany than Ghana or Portugal, and better the cultural and coastal Recife than Natal or the jungle outpost of Manaus. Which is why I'm in Olinda, near Recife, as the power goes out the night before the Yanks play Die Mannschaft.

I don't know if the other visiting Americans around us, those shouting impatient questions and dinner orders in slow, too'loud English, went to Rio as well. But their behavior suggests that scenario as doubtful. Because if they did they'd understand the context at play here. The everyday realities of Brazil that we're only hinting at experiencing. That this party, this tournament and the resources being diverted for it has a trade'off. Our first night in the country, Derek and I were a few dozen feet from a spontaneous protest that leaped quickly into haphazard demonstration, watching smoke from a canister weave with that born of cigarettes. As we ate a bit later, a chain of better'organized citizens streamed past our restaurant's open storefront for several minutes, shouting against the tournament's corrupt organizing body, FIFA. Two nights later, out in a pack of a few dozen travelers from our hostel, several of us were pepper sprayed indiscriminately by a Brazilian officer younger than us for stepping'back off a curb into the already'crowded street. We all paid quite a bit to be here for the games, but nowhere near enough to insulate ourselves from this still'developing nation's realities. Its growing pains. Our ignorance will not immunize us from the anger that many Brazilians feel over $14 billion being spent on a football tournament rather than on improving infrastructure, purifying water and paving more roads, funding schools for a wider'reaching public education, training and equipping inundated police forces in one of the world's most violent countries. We returned to our hostel late on our last day in Rio, one we'd spent out all day absorbing as much of the experience as our pores and synapses could handle, to a lack of running water and apologies in the form of endless free drinks from the staff. That utility failing under the sheer demand and pressure during the tournament, the Lapa and Santa Teresa districts swollen with life past the point of functioning. The drinks and a bit of perspective made our shrugging'OhWell easier. But I don't trust the 20'something man in the leather fanny pack sitting near me in the packed restaurant to understand these things, given that he's focused on complaining that his dinner being made in the 2'person kitchen is taking too long.

But we had been in Rio. And during our days there, Brazil played one game and so we took to bars near Copacabana to watch. Locals gathered in jerseys and shirts that screamed yellow and whispered green and blue, vibrant pigments reflecting a collective optimism for winning the tournament played on their home soil. My new friend Tommy and I drank Brahma tall boys by the ocean and watched their laughing conversations swirl by. With the game about to kickoff, we turned back toward the bar our other friends sat in, and saw the massive crowd flowing toward us, interspersed with an occasional phalanx of officers in riot gear.

They came down the main street on Copacabana, the last pavement before the sand yawns down to the water. With most everyone around them in those national team colors of yellow and green and blue, they marched in red and in black. The colors of Rio's working'class team, Flamengo. The colors of the rejected, the overlooked. The colors of regional interests. Local necessities trumping national aspirations. Then also the color of absence. Of nothingness. Or mourning for those killed too young. And with it the color of blood, from the drug murders in the favelas. From the rapes, and miscarriages, and vomiting from disease. Marching to call attention to the problems ignored by FIFA, valid complaints drowned under waves of PR and corporate sponsorship. They carried black banners, letters the size of the children some clutched in their arms, shouting COPA PARA QUIEN?... THE PARTY IN THE STADIUMS ISN'T WORTH THE TEARS SHED IN THE SLUMS.

They marched closer, bringing their rage and frustration, emotions if not contagious, then catalyzing. Their voices triggering my latent shame. Because I knew exactly where our money was going. The indulgent amount of dollars and reals spent on game tickets, stadium beers, official keepsakes for my five'year'old nephew, all branded with that FIFA crest that should stand only for disgrace. An organization whose highest tiers thrive chiefly off bribes. That was why we needed to come to Brazil in 2014. Because in 4 years the tournament will move on to a nation that, 4 days after the World Cup Final was completed, would be connected with shooting 298 civilians out of the sky to their fiery deaths. The stadiums in places like Saransk, Nizhny Novgorod, and Kazan to be built with steel, concrete, and other materials grossly overcharged, so as to further fund the cronies of an unapologetic dictator. And 4 years after that, the games move to a geographic flea of an island where an estimated four thousand immigrant workers will die building the stadiums, due to their slavish working conditions in unbearable Middle Eastern heat. According to some reports, those laborers include prisoners imported from North Korea. This is the organization we were inherently supporting, and for those paying any attention at all, the chants we heard during the march down Copacabana resonate as stubbornly as those inside the Maracanã. Our exhilaration from attending the World Cup travels back with a stowaway guilt that comes with sight and experience. The weight of perspective.

I said to some people once I returned that it felt less like we were visiting Brazil than just a giant soccer party, that happened to be held in Brazil. And that's the truth, when it comes to the positive aspects of my experience. We were at the World Cup. At the Maracanã. At those night'into'morning street parties in Lapa. But we were also in the FIFA marches, the FIFA blackouts, the FIFA protests and skirmishes, if not fully in the FIFA riots. And it was in those moments where I felt most that I'd earned the new Brazilian visa in my passport. The faint, too'used ink a shaded echo of their hand'sewn banners.

I remain in bed while the electricity is off, with this guilt dribbling in my head. It's how I keep out the muffled complaints of the tourists outside my room. The whines about how they paid for better than this. Totally uncomprehending that this brief annoyance for them is a way of life for the people of the country we've temporarily invaded. But I don't need to distract myself from them for long anyway. The drinking and the laughing resume before the power does. They have already moved on. They were never really here to begin with.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A decade under the influence.

The two'by'two photo shows a kid with raggedy'long hair and a glazed near'drunken look in his eyes, who has no hint of what he's in for. Ten pages later the fresh passport gets its inaugural stamp as it leaves North America for the first time, to London via JFK. Even with no true knowledge of the sport, I'm aware that there's a major soccer tournament going on that summer and I'm looking forward to cheering England on from London pubs packed with fans. It's not until I land and see the massive headlines that I realize a horrendously'taken penalty kick by David Beckham has seen England go crashing out of Euro 2004. The only sliver of the games I see is a bore of a final between Greece and Portugal, the lack of action enough to reinforce all the negative American stereotypes about soccer. But the lasting legacy of the event is that the world is introduced to new superstars Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, and at the same time I'm introduced to the world. It's that summer I buy my first legal drinks, at 20 on Tottenham Court Road in London, and then a month later in Huntington Beach, California, minutes after the midnight I turn 21. It's that summer I first see something beyond America and Canada- even if it's merely a toe in the safe'harbored waters of England.

Two Junes later I'm up early to beat the gym rush in Orange County, already 10 minutes into a turn on the elliptical when Costa Rica and Germany kick off, beginning World Cup 2006, an event I didn't even realize had been approaching. But from the flag'clutching team entrances, most of the other necks around me craned up at the hanging television screens as well. Timid cheers from the majority as Germany scored after just 6 minutes. Groans from those same people and a yelling vocal minority as Costa Rica answered back after 6 minutes more. Germany taking the lead again after another 5. Three goals in seventeen minutes and the hook was in me. Forever.

I devoured the rest of the tournament. McBride's bloodied cheekbone from DeRossi's elbow (that I still haven't forgiven the Italian for). Ronaldo knocking his teammate Rooney, and all of England, out on penalties, Zidane's headbutt and his shamed walk off the pitch and out of the sport forever, Italy raising the trophy just a half hour later as champions. From there I began to follow my favorite US players, all of whom played for the same small club in London, Fulham FC.

My remaining years in Los Angeles, the addiction became something to travel for, near and abroad. All the trips down the 405 to Carson for the LA Galaxy, starting with Beckham's first game to the seasons of spending far too much on field'side tickets with my friend Jared. And when it looked as though Fulham was so terrible that they would be relegated, dropped to an inferior league in England's football hierarchy, I flew from Los Angeles to London for a long weekend, determined to see them play a match at their home stadium at least once in the top tier. It was London again, me somewhat more knowledgeable this time about the sport and the city itself, but still a total novice when it came to travel. Soccer was the motivation for the trip, but not the totality. It was Fulham that catalyzed my journey, but it's one I remember for getting to sit in the House of Commons during a Parliamentary debate, for flea markets by the Thames and an absurdly cramped Couchsurfing experience. And conversations over endless pints with my friend Jenn who came with me and my other ones I caught up with there. Being back in London after 4 years and seeing Rooney and Ronaldo play together in for Manchester United in person just gave the trip its symmetry.

A year and a half later, when I used my passport once again, it was on a daily basis. For 19 weeks that fall and winter of 2009, I memorized its number like a second identity, its blue and red pages rarely leaving my pocket. My four and a half months of backpacking started in Russia and next took me to Estonia, where I watched the Premier League season kick off in a packed Tallinn bar, with newly'met friends, including an Everton Toffee from Melbourne and a Liverpool Red from West Virginia- Dave and Jonny. Their hometowns separated by ten thousand miles, and their allegiances by only a hundred'acre park in the same city of Liverpool. Weeks later it was a seeing an unforgettable 4-3 Manchester derby from the stands at the "Theatre of Dreams." I started checking off
the iconic stadiums with the same diligence as Europe's great cathedrals. Old Trafford, the Camp Nou, San Siro.

The list of how football intertwines with my backpacking is exhaustive, and that's only a sliver. Soccer has followed me on my travels both due to my love for the game, and its unique place in world conversation. Its all'pervasiveness makes it perhaps my easiest entrance into a Venn diagram with strangers on the road, akin to discussing travels with strangers when back home. When we backpackers discuss our journeys and are getting tuned out by others, what we're really discussing is self-discovery, introspection, self-awareness. Perspective. And when we're discussing football, we're discussing goals and golazos but also legacy, rebellion, historical context. Why FC Barcelona's motto is Més Que un Club, calling back to the days when its supporter stands were the only venue where the people could voice anti-Franco chants without repercussion. Where we were when Landon scored in the 91st minute against Algeria, to send the US into the group stage in South Africa. Our communal eruptions of celebration, and the instantaneous kinship when we recognize our team's badge on someone else's breast. Its corner flags provide tentpoles, allowing us a venue to discuss why we love the things that we love.

This decade of speedballing, of having my three chief narcotics of soccer, traveling, and alcohol coalesce into one, reached its triple milestone this summer of 2014. The same summer the world's largest tournament, the World Cup, came back to football's spiritual home of Brazil. I wish I could say it was a lifelong dream to attend the Cup, but that would be a lie. When it came to the States in '94, my father asked the 11 year'old I used to be if he wanted to attend one of the LA games at the Rose Bowl, and the little shit thought only briefly before giving a negative shrug. That moment, the 3 seconds of my indecision and juvenile thought process, is one of the more complex regrets of my life. The untaken Yes would have meant attending the World Cup with my father, and given me a few hours, like many afternoons of then, that grows more potent in retrospect. Loves and admirations both intrinsic and intentional. A pinot memory that aged into something priceless much later, even if I could never appreciate it remotely at the time. But the well'bent No I've folded over mentally in the two decades since I spoke it is what set up this trip. The decision that became my obsession, to attend the World Cup in Brazil. For my experience of the event to be not a fogged recollection from preadolescence, but made as a world'weathered adult. Eyes and arms and heart and passport wide'open to a new experience on a barely'met continent. 

Eight years of longing and three years of saving delivered me to Brazil in June, along with my one of my oldest friends, Derek. Like Jenn joining on the Fulham trip, my crazy just contagious enough to recruit a traveling companion. Our World Cup experience would be one game at football's Vatican, our Hajj to Rio's Maracanã, followed by one United States game, so that our cheers could hail from our hearts as well as our lungs. And so we spent seven days at the world's greatest tournament; one where, unlike the Olympics, everyone is watching the same exact game, the many'practiced leg whips and deft, improvised genius applied to the same lone ball in unison.

The cheap but true answer is that it was everything I wanted. Rio was the biggest party I've been to in my life, with an energy and happiness so pure that it ignored language, homeland, one's innate timidity. We Americans screamed deliriously on Brazilian sand for an Argentinian striker's injury'time curler past an Iranian keeper. Messi delivering his distinct magic yet again. We joined in with the Belgians, and local Brazilians, in cheering on the Red Devils' flair against an unimaginative Russian squad's mundane plodding. If there was a complaint of the trip in recapping it to friends after I returned, it was that I didn't feel like I managed to see Brazil, but rather that I'd been to a country that was hosting the World Cup, which just happened to be Brazil. But such complete surrender, a total shunning of anything of the world outside the tournament festivities, is in itself something only Brazil could achieve. A country used to indulging in its passions, rallying and recruiting for its most central one of all.

Coming back from the Kentucky Derby two years ago, I overheard a group of friends at an airport gate near my mine discussing going en masse to the Cup as their next shared adventure.  A group of strangers instantly recognizable in that they were almost identical to the one I had just left. We six friends that had reconnected at the Derby, a mixture of age and gender, united by a thirst for experience. Part eavesdropping, part savoring the last of that trip's sensory, I listened in. "If we're gonna do it, it has to be Brazil. After that it's Russia... and then what, Qatar? You think we're gonna be in our late 30s and be like, Hey we should go to fucking Qatar?!" And I knew exactly how they felt. It had to be Brazil. 

Two years and seven weeks later, Derek and I shuffled with the communal motion of a packed crowd toward a subway station in outer Recife, the one closest to the Arena Pernambuco, where Germany had just defeated the United States, 1-0. We thousands, victors and losers, all left ecstatic. The result we'd just watched ensuring that both nations were moving on to the Cup's knockout stages next week. In 18 hours, we would be at the airport heading back above the equator, ending our time at the World Cup. In those last hundred yards before we reached the turnstiles and the trains taking us farther away from this moment, screaming children pressed up against the fences lining the way to the station. They screamed at us like we were rockstars, clamoring with the same furor as though we'd earned the jerseys we wore, rather than purchased them. They asked for pieces of memorabilia from us as their souvenirs; the minority calling for the absurd such as jerseys, but most of them for simple buttons, flags, bandannas. Some craned out arms and palms and hopeful smiles, content with just our touch. Brief high'fives. The children were mostly under the age of 10, the youth of the distant suburbs of a third-tier town in a developing nation, one criticized for its crime and its economic polarity. In the months since I saw them, they've lingered as part of my World Cup experience, just as much as the street parties in Lapa, or massive watch parties on Copacabana. A resonance I thought had to do merely with their exuberance, the unique feeling of importance they'd allowed us visitors to feel in those last steps within their suburb. Or they echoed in my emotions because they weren't the children that had attended the game, but the ones who were content just to see the spectators pass by, to watch as the world, for once in their lives, came to them. Or maybe because they were just slightly younger than the age I was when I said no to my father, chose not to attend a World Cup in my backyard. The child I was, the antithesis of their emotions, their excitement subbed for my insensitivity, my ungrateful lack of appreciation. 

But those guesses are only partially true. Those children of São Lourenço da Mata still echo because at age 10 and 8 and younger, they were born at the same time I first traveled. Their lives coincide precisely with my following of soccer, football, futebol. If my exuberance for the sport and for the world I've come to meet a border check and passport stamp at a time could be personified, that excitement given hands and happiness smiles and passion a voice, it was those that stretched and called out to us this June, from the World Cup in Brazil. 

The two'by'two photo now shows an older man with a determined look in his eyes. And though the Brazil visa is the first stamp of his newly-issued passport, the retired book that preceded it, one warped and swollen with use, means he knows what he is in for. He is in his early'thirties, but also in his preadolescence. Still coming of age, in a life that will inevitably decay and expire long before his passions do.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Wave after wave.

She and I are already in the ocean when the rain starts, so it's of little consequence. Our clothes are up above the high tide line, discarded peels that we'll return to eventually. With the rain chasing the tourists and locals vendors away, there's no one along the beach who would want them and we have nothing of value with us, save each other's touch.

We came to watch the sunset, the last of our week in Costa Rica, but the storm clouds stretch lazily down to the horizon, and we have no hint of where the sun is behind them. Turning back from the gauzed horizon, we see three little girls along the sand, playing a wordless game. Only occasional chirps of their laughter make it to our senses above the sound of Pacific waves crashing between us and them. They stay for a handful of minutes, a few turns of their game, before the sprinkling speeds into downpour and chases them home, as it has already done to those far older. But the lone boy is more determined, more patient. Like us he's merely in swim gear, the cord around his ankle tethering him to a surfboard. He hugs close to the talismanic shore, staring like us into the abyss of the Pacific. I follow the path of his eyes back into the nothingness and the everything of the water, and under its surface I retake my lover's hand. We watch the waves swell in our direction and brace ourselves against the smaller ones, diving beneath for the larger. We sometimes stand, and sometimes kneel on the sandbed, our motions borrowing a fluidity from that which surrounds us. 

A 30'minute drive up the same coast is where we spent our last day, the hours preceding this obscured sunset, snorkeling briefly in the water off Playa Conchal, and galloping along the sand atop sprinting horses. A far longer drive north above this same coast is where both my love and I spent our childhoods, our adolescence, our early years as adults in California. The same Pacific Ocean that served us on weekends, on days we cut class to chase a better tan, unknown to each other completely, but both out there, experiencing the same unending pattern of breakers of our shared ocean. The Pacific of Kerouac. Of Steinbeck and of Didion. Or of a younger me. In not just Newport or Santa Monica but Kaanapali and Port Douglas and Ko Phi Phi. Even those different, foreign coasts still part of the same vast blanket of water to return to again and again and again.

As the rain picks up even more, we sink to the always'changing surface and watch the rain hit the ocean, water pebbling water, with our eyes just above it. A liquid typewriter to chronicle the afternoon forever into our memory. The mood behind our eyes undulates, from wonder, to gratitude, to a lust so pure it feels scandalous. In love with not simply each other, but this moment, and this pocket of coast and ocean. This set of waves. This life.

A brown pelican traces shapes in the air above our heads and dives down chasing spotted prey. I see it bring its empty mouth back above the water and I do the same, looking just beyond the bird to the south and spot the little boy again. He's laying on his board in the coming waves that are too gentle to surf. He stoically faces a line of boats that have anchored near shore for the night, their skeletal lack of sails making a crude ruler of the horizon. And as she and I clutch each other closer before going back to shore, the red sun blinks reluctantly through for the two of us, for the pelican, and for the boy. For those who waited and didn't abandon it because of a little rainfall. He turns back to us and we three share waves and smiles and calls of "luego" and we step out of the water, leaving the ocean to him. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Strange pilgrims.

"It was as if God [...] was keeping the inhabitants of Macondo in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation, to such an extreme that no one knew for certain where the limits of reality lay."  - Gabriel García Marquez 

"Oh.... ¿Hotel del gringo?"
"Sí, sí... hotel del gringo."

It's by that name, not its official one, nor the detailed address I repeatedly give that the other mototaxi owner knows where I'm asking to go. He then instructs the confused younger driver, the one I'm behind on the moto, and after the simple directions we're back off again. Two more turns and it's still my visitor's eyes that spot it first. Hand-painted yellow butterflies around the English words "Gypsy Residence." Like my "sí, sí," my confirmation of "Esta aqui" is muffled through a mouth shield. I take off the motorcycle helmet and pay him an inflated tourist fare, the crumpled green and red pesos equivalent to $3 US instead of $1.50, and I approach the gated door of the man I already know as Tim Buendia.

It's a decision I had to explain away two dozen times. Why instead of the Caribbean beaches, hammocks, and huts of Tayrona, I chose a meandering trip inland to a city of about 25,000. A sharp two-day detour away from Northern Colombia's worn backpacker circuit to a town with one hostel and no hotels. An odd pilgrimage during my first trip to South America to the hometown of the author whose liquid words brought the continent texture to me and made it an imbued land rather than an empty box to check. The too'aged writer who melted the houses of Aracataca into the ethereal atmosphere of Macondo- Gabriel García Marquez. I came to the streets that inspired him so that I could see something of what he saw. And while he long ago abandoned Colombia for Mexico, the nostalgia of Cataca for the labyrinths of a more northern modernity, something of what existed then still echoes. The pedestrian miracles that made his realism a magic one, biographies imbued with the impossible.

Tim is the town's only hostel owner as well as its only English-speaking tour guide. He came in 2008, opening his Gypsy Residence two years later, at a previous location on the farther outskirts of town. At some point, he abandoned his Dutch last name for the more surreal surname Buendia- that of the lineage woven in García Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. And while I don't remember where I first read the article that mentioned a hostel had opened up in the small hometown of García Marquez, or Gabo as he is lovingly known, I knew immediately what it symbolized to me- the coming end of the South America's solitude. The creeping'in of the Twenty-First Century, a second coming of the Banana Company's arrival that changed the lives of those generations a century ago, when international interests entered the grove villages of this removed continent with the new imperialism of unrestrained capitalism. One that brought a barely-concealed slavery and pillaging of both land and culture, flooding broom'swept casas with payment in the form of vouchers for kitchen appliances rather than a living wage. Massacres of still undetermined numbers when the machine guns held by white hands spit metal into brown skin by the thousands, for the galling crime of demanding a day off and pay above the poverty line. The United Fruit Company left long ago, both the Macondo of Gabo's stories and its inspiration of Aracataca; I saw its buildings decaying from behind a fence that kept myself and generations of the town's true residents out. But with South America hosting both the World Cup and Summer Olympics in the coming 3 years, with airline routes expanding and Europe growing increasingly domesticated and homogeneous with every passing EU session, there's no doubt the world will turn increasingly to South America for a rush of the unfamiliar and brave. An influx of visitors that will make English more prevalent and will for the first time divorce the unfathomable from the everyday.

But as of this December those crowds have not yet arrived. And for the two nights I'm staying in the town's only guest lodging, I'm also its only customer, the only foreign tourist walking its streets. And while I can communicate basics and rudimentary conversation spoken in a constant present-tense, my three years on Bs in Spanish lessons aren't enough to keep away the solitude of my foreign tongue. So the night before I take the day-long tour with Tim, he is considerate enough to take me out for a drink with his wife and eight-month old son. Like me, she grew up in a suburban town in Southern California, so while I can speak semi-passable Spanish to the tienda owners of La Hojarasca, a cafe named after one of Gabo's early novellas that's located next to the house where he was born, it's first-language English I'm getting to know Cynthia with, along with Tim's Western European fluency. We drink fresh fruit nectars more refreshing than beers as their infant son laughs with his impossibly innocent smile, which spreads to the nearby abuelas. The couple's love is a beautiful one to witness, absent of Gabo's darker recurrent themes; without the solitude of the true Buendias or the melancholy of Amaranta's shrouded hand. It's also out of place with the subtle but present misogyny of modern Aracataca- the images of bikinied import models airbrushed onto seats of the motos that snake around the carreras and their hungry dirt. Or like the recently-deceased resident, Perro Negro, an oak of man that fathered 39 children before dying, my guess is from exhaustion. From this stagnancy of gender and antiquated mores, something of their love stands apart. And if such disconcordance is obvious to me in the first few hours, I think surely it's been noticed by them as well. A rift that only amplifies their expatriate solitude. 

The next morning Tim and I set out and turn the circle of focus on the Aracataca I'm coming to know so that Macondo can appear. He's wearing his typical ensemble- a straw hat and an ankle-length sarong, while sporting a walking stick. A wardrobe that makes him "feel like a character in a Nobel Prize winning novel" as he says repeatedly. He urges that I also take one of the dozens of straw hats to shade from the aggressive sun. And while I grant him that, I decline the offer to also carry a walking stick. The first 20 minutes is more a tour of Tim's life than Gabo's, as we stop again and again to chat with townspeople Tim has befriended during his half-decade in Cataca. But it's equally enjoyable as the advertised itinerary, for in that way I meet the town, like the 95 year-old man, ten years older than García Marquez, who used to visit the ice factory by the river to see the workers cut the large blocks of ice into manageable portions. The venue that inspired the iconic opening line of One Hundred Years of Solitude

The tour takes us through scenes from Gabo's life and his novels. The train station, his grandparent's home with the workshop for the hand'hammered golden fish, like those of Colonel Aureliano Buendia, the Cataca river that germinated both the town and its name. To a horse'drawn cart that Gabo rode in in 2007, as he was slow'paraded around the streets of Cataca in what will almost surely be his final visit to the place of his birth. It now sits rotting in the "forest of magic realism," another of Tim's charmingly grandiose go-to lines. And the more we walk through Aracataca, the more of Macondo that seeps through. Our meandering pace through dirt streets is slowed even further by the darting of roosters being raised for cockfights, past blue'eyed dogs and stray pigs foraging through weeds and Caribbean shrubs. Walking with the soundtrack of a looped radio commercial shilling for a clothing sale ahead of the coming holy day. Through minute cups of lemongrass tea at dusk with a parrot inspecting the mismatching china from shoulder. Our strides trickle lazy like the brushstrokes of the residents who are repainting their houses, as they traditionally do every December in anticipation of the New Year- a tradition in Aracataca and the hundreds of small villages like it throughout Colombia. Tim and I eventually walk through the mostly waist-deep river, its soft sand forming to my beaten soles still sore from my trek to Ciudad Perdida. With school on holiday, children are spread along the banks and in the stream. A group of five boys huddle as one of their number preps a future meal, gutting and skinning a dead animal we eventually recognize to be a large iguana. Like almost everyone else does, the boys stop to look at us, we two bearded gringos in straw hats walking in tandem- a John, a Jesus, and a River Jordan. The lead boy gestures to his chest with the knife that simultaneously magnifies and dwarfs him and puffingly proclaims, "Soy macho." The boyhood need for masculinity more dear than the life of the endangered reptile he's beheaded. But we smirk and walk on, because we're neither native to this land, nor its moral judgments. And because to our left, two other boys are sprinting along the top of the water, their soles turning the liquid to solid and back again with each frenetic step, racing ethereal in the afternoon. There must be hidden sand just below the surface, but these are the children of Macondo, and so I'll never truly be sure.

Given such abundant magic, visible even to a brief visitor like myself, it's difficult to comprehend why the crowds are not already here. With so much of Marquez's inspiration prevalent, why for now its only pilgrims are strange. Only those that dream the very deepest. Those longing to indulge in and exercise their solitude. Aracataca has weathered the occupation and abandonment of the banana company without growing callous and modern, neither from internal industry nor external influx of tourism. But several times during our walk, Tim and I stop to purchase tiny bags of water. Little overstuffed clear tubes the size of a lone enchilada with corners we bite and tear to puncture. This is the only thing I can drink out of, as well as what I must brush my teeth with at night. The river we walked in, which somewhere along the line holds the discarded heads of iguanas, and torn bicycle tires, and forgotten t-shirts I can somewhat read through the opaque brown liquid- this is the town's water supply. Which is either untreated or so minimally it's effectively useless. Years of corrupt politicians skimming money and broken campaign promises have anchored the mundane to the magical, married the tedious to the divine. It's failed to bring the basic necessities to its citizens by not creating an effective water treatment plant. And it's also kept that money away from the dusty sites of García Marquez, choking the nascent tourism it claims to desire. It's a large reason that Tim's Gypsy Residence is the only hostel in the city, and why when he closes it in February, in less than three months, leaving Aracatca so his wife can pursue opportunities in California (a more northern modernity not unlike Gabo's Mexican expatriation), Macondo will once again be accessible to the outsider only in the pages of books.

Tim tells me that his move away temporary and I want to believe that is true. While I'm wary of a South America flooded with outsiders watering down its cultures, I still don't want to be one of the last Gabo-loving gringos to walk the sand beds of the Cataca or to stand in the cemetery atop crude but honest'built crypts at sunset, seemingly at eye-level with more African palms. I'm rooting for a middle-ground, a preservation of the balance that exists now; not because it's perfect, maybe simply because it's what I'm used to. Tim has an optimism that the town will grow, that the needed tourism infrastructure will be laid, and that at that point he will return to Aracataca and be able to showcase Macondo once again. New Gypsy Residence and all. I support his decision to leave completely. Not only because I want his son to have the comparative luxuries of a California childhood, or for his wife to be back near her roots, but because I want to read the book Tim plans to write about his time in Aracataca. For him to develop fully for readers the city that I can only begin to hint at here. And because I know from my experience of thirty years and forty countries that when there's a chance for our burden of solitude to be lifted, we must take it. If genuine, such authenticity can keep away our otherwise suffocating and melancholy reality.

My last night in Aracataca, I sit reading One Hundred Years of Solitude on a wicker bench in the Gypsy Residence. A few hours earlier I'd walked the museum grounds of Gabo's childhood home that also served as his birthplace, as the spore from which Macondo would later spring. Passages from his novels and his memoir that begins in the very house I'd stood were affixed to walls in large acrylic letters. Not many, but some of these individualized letters were fallen, missing, a small hint that kept bothering me for what it symbolized. That still'sandy infrastructure that had also allowed a regal cart to rot in an African palm forest a few miles away. From twenty feet in front of me Tim calls out "We've lost one of the great leaders of our time. Nelson Mandela." After taking time to think of his legacy and life, I inevitably returned to the lens of Gabo. The eighty-six year old author who is now living in Mexico, with the ruin of dementia feasting harder, his writing career most assuredly over. I thought about the future day when I'll make a similar proclamation about him. Is that what it will take for Aracataca to become a more popular destination? Death what is needed for proper recognition? Am I a pilgrim in the days before a flood? Or one decades after it's already crashed..... Given the poorly-planned infrastructure, the semi-corrupt government, the apparent declining importance of literature in younger American and British and world generations, the inescapable breath of solitude this city exhales, I come to accept that this city may never become the destination that either Tim or myself believe it should be. That though South America will surely come in from the obscure, the distanced, not every city will come along with it. That the life of García Marquez and the city that cradled him may pass undeciphered to dust like Melquíades' scrolls.

Shortly after we walk that afternoon through the ancient former ice factory we meander towards one of the central monuments the town has built to García Marquez. Like most of the tour that 95+ degree day, we aim for shade when we can, squeezing onto narrow sidewalks and crouching our 6'4" frames beneath overhangs of green life. Tim shows off his resident knowledge while he still can. It's depressing to think how few more people will receive a such a passport into Macondo.

"You know what kind of tree this is? Look at the fruit." I silently evaluate the tiny green baubles of potential until he finally helps me out. "Mango."
"Mango? That's surprising- mangos are a heavy fruit and those are very thin branches."
"Yes. Not many mangos survive."