- The Train Car Dispatches: India and Sri Lanka
1/10/13 | 9:22 a.m. | North of Verkala
Morning time. We’re on a train and I’m watching all the men walk to work or school along the railroad tracks. It’s a hot, smoggy sunrise here at the scattershot outer reaches of Kollam. The world is waking, squatting on garbage heaps to take unabashed shits as we pass. So ugly it’s beautiful instead.
Trains shamble along slowly, here. A local man we met a few hours ago told us that when an Indian child arrives late to school, his teacher will often say: “You must be an Indian train!”
That is to say: Unreliable, slow-moving, prone to frequent, unplanned stops. The metaphor seems apt.
Today marks one full week here in India. This place feels in many moments like the shadings of a bizarre and elaborate dream. All the palm trees and garbage piles and cocohuts and garish mansions and grinning beggars and distracted street sweepers and crabby, sunbathing cows merely a fantastical, sub-subconsciously wrought amalgam of places I’ve already been – Thailand, or El Salvador, or Greece, or Korea. A land I willed into existence.
Of course, these twilight moments of deep introspection are punctuated regularly with the Hot, Sticky Reality of life in such a huge and beautiful and faraway and shockingly poor country. The lost rickshaw driver going in circles and circles while your stomach gurgles, waving off your pleas and your maps and your suggestions. The outrageous extravagance of the richest, most delicate vegetable masala you’ve ever tasted, buttery-soft on your tongue and served up at the edge of the glittering Arabian Sea by a smiling seasonal worker from Calcutta for a few shiny quarters. Long, angry rows of red ants marching over your bare feet, making your toes sting. Waking in the middle of the night with an overpowering sense of total disorientation and staring at the whir of the ceiling fan for a full minute before you manage to sort out your body’s location in the vast expanse of untried space.
Awhile back, a friend described the experience of negotiating reality in India as being squeezed through the cogs of some gigantic, rusty clock whose parts are lubricated with ghee.
“India always wins,” he warned me, when the plans for this trip were still loose and undecided.
Much of the time, traveling in India feels less like a battle, though, and more like a fumbling kind of waltz. One step to the front, then twelve steps back. And then maybe a couple more steps off to one side while you’re at it, until you’re less moving forward or backward than dancing in pretty, messy circles.
How does a person dance his or her way into the true heart of such an experience instead of merely bungling gracelessly around its colorful perimeter? I’m not sure if it’s possible. At least not in four-and-a-half weeks, which is the amount of time we’ve got to spend here. It can’t be easy, at least. Maybe not even if you’ve got years and years at your disposal, as some of the leathery, sarong-draped hippies wandering these beaches appear to have allotted themselves.
Indians often talk about their dreams and wishes in terms of multiple lifetimes – a woman approaches us in a city market and laments that she’d love to visit our country someday.
“Maybe in my next life,” she says.
Perhaps we’d do well to take a similar cue. A week or four weeks or four years or four lifetimes might not be long enough to erase the pleasant but undeniable sense of surface floating that I’ve had since we landed at 11:45 p.m. on New Year’s Eve a week ago. A year ago. A million lifetimes ago.
I’m buoyed by the persistence of long-ago dreams and my niggling best intentions and hopes, my expectations and my wishes and my assumptions and my bafflement. It’s hard to dive deep with so much conspiring to keep you afloat. You just keep popping back up. A human-shaped cork, bobbing indecorously.
Recognizing this was hugely important for me, I think, because it’s stopped me from groping ridiculously at any kind of deep insight or Authentic Experience. We have no itinerary, no cherished outcomes, save our sloppily scratched out lists of “Goals.” On mine: ride on top of a train, see a tea plantation, ride an elephant. Etc.
Mostly, we’re just kind of letting the wave overtake us and carry us to whichever strange and untried shore it pleases. Yesterday, we washed up in Palolem, Goa, an improbably idyllic and beautiful little beach town on the Arabian Sea.
Several Indians I’ve met have expressed to me some version of the following sentiment: dirty, poor, tiny little brown naked kids grabbing at your ankles as you slog through the alleys of a bazaar that has stood in the same location for a thousand years is not the real India. Rich, aristocratic types strolling through Mumbai, arms laden with pure silver “jingly-janglies” is not the real India, either. Flashy Bollywood movie stars with barrel chests and teeth as big and white as peppermint Chiclets? Also not the real India. The real thing is something less visible, something tucked away and inaccessible to the casual and not-so-casual visitor.
So maybe the metaphor we’ve been grasping at the past week is right in front of our slightly sunbaked nose tips: You will not find a metaphor. And that’s the metaphor. Instead, you consent to setting out along the dusty road you dreamed into being so many years ago, come what may, to the bare and banged up feet you will use to wander it, to the lessons given in the moments in which you feel either completely and terrifyingly out to sea or as if you have finally picked up the scent of the Real Path again after years of wandering through wreckage and mean wilderness.
And you open your hands every so often to gawk at the growing tangle of passing, offhand impressions you’ve collected that in their totality define this place, this moment: cows that cause traffic jams. Cigarettes that don’t stay lit. Frogs swimming in your toilet bowl. Million-watt sunsets. Power outages. Filthy money with pictures of Gandhi on it. A hand on your arm, pulling you into a darkened storefront you’d prefer to not be caught dead in. A man shitting leisurely on the side of the train tracks at sunrise. The smell of Nag Champa and the reek of open sewer muscling for primacy in your wrinkled, protesting nose holes. Instant coffee packets and crumbling candy wrappers floating around the bottom of your daypack. All of it.
A week of revelations, for sure.
1/14/2013 | 6:32 a.m. | South of Colombo, Sri Lanka
Got up way too early and boarded a southern-bound train out of Colombo. Sounds like a bad song lyric, I know, but then, there are no bad songs. Not really really.
Actually, we’ve no idea if or not said train will deposit us at the beach in Unawatuna, as we were given bunk instructions and boarded the wrong train entirely. Picture: six blue-shirted Sri Lankan railway employees crowded around our wrinkled ticket for the first-class 6:55 a.m. train, arguing and gesturing and scratching heads at the whistle blows at 6:25 a.m. and an engine on platform 5 roars to life. As a kind of default, most people around here say “Yes” to anything and everything, so they ushered us aboard on the quick, and as the train rolled out of Fort Station with us in tow, a conductor examined our ticket and shook his head.
“Different train,” he said. “But going same place.”
So. No first class A/C Observatory car for us. Not today. Instead, we’ve dropped out packs in a few empty second-class seats, wiped the early morning sweat from our foreheads, and resigned ourselves to a minorly lesser fate.
“You gotta roll with the punches,” Emily said.
This inspired me to belt out a few cracking bars from that old Steve Winwood song: “When life is too much, rollllllll with it baby / Don’t stop and lose your touch, oh nooooo baby.”
I can’t sing, not really, but I do appreciate Mr. Winwood’s sentiment in a new way since landing in this place. Today is still good. We’re ambling along at sunrise, the Arabian Sea washing up along an agatey-orange beach just 10 feet to my right, the old metal train fan whipping the stillish and already warm morning air into a pleasant, whirring breeze. Outside the window, the cows chewing and the pigs rifling and the world waking up to its business. Inside the window, the babies gurgling and the children pointing and the young men staring immodestly.
There are no bad songs.
1/18/2013 | 8:14 a.m. | South of Ella, Sri Lanka
It’s mid-afternoon and Emily and I are chugging along on this rickety little passenger train through the Sri Lankan Hill Country. It’s a windy route that’s taken us through countless and ever-astounding changes of scenery, from rambling, brilliantly green tea and spice plantations carved into steep mountainsides to low, soggy rice paddies nurturing brand new sprouts to dusty little workaday towns and villages busy with their mid-week duties.
I must have taken like 300 photos in the past four hours. Everybody stops and waves and smiles and holds their babies up for us to admire when we pass them working in tea fields or waiting at a train crossing. Sounds very off-the-mappy and authentic, hey?
It’s kind of not. They wave probably because we Westerners are seated in our very own Observation Car, which, as it turns out, is really just exactly like the second- and third-class cars, except with a few large, cracked panes of glass replacing the caboose’s back wall. Yes, we are part of a we. A large, amorphous mass of blue-green eyes and sandy hair, traveling along at a slow and jerky clip.
Awhile back, on account of some kind of problem with the train tracks, we stalled out for some minutes at the edge of a little hill town called Hatton. The event of our minor breakdown drew out half the town to the edges of the tracks, from wadi and betel vendors eager to capitalize on the delay to a few tiny gangs of Sri Lankan kids still dressed in school uniform and tie to the perfunctory swathes of curious, barefoot men on break from working and wanting to put in their two cents about the cause of the gum-up. To help out and maybe catch a little gossip.
I took advantage of the occasion to hop off the car and have a quick smoke (I’m on vacation; forgive me) and while I smoked, I exchanged a few easy words with one of the vendors, who begged me for a cigarette with a rather destitute look about his eyes, despite the fact that we’d seen a French passenger hand him one a mere minute before. He pulled out wads of rupees from his breast pocket to prove that the smoke in question was long gone, I told him to go buy his own cigarettes with said giant wad of money, and we both laughed.
The train track problem was duly solved with the assistance of about 10 local guys, who squatted around staring at the problem track and hitting at it with one very rusty-looking hammer, and now we’re back on the road again.
We started out our day in the hill town of Ella, a small but bustling kind of place overrun with monkeys and rotti shops and cluttered conveniences and many, many buildings in various stages of construction. Judging from the reactions of the locals, who were all very friendly and sort of bemused, tourism is only just recently kicked into high gear in these parts.
But humans are nothing if not masters of their domains – that is to say, quick to adapt – so we also spent time brushing off the ministrations of countless randoms hawking “Rose Quartz” through car windows (obviously just hunks of agate they’d picked up off the ground, but you can’t blame a person for trying, I suppose), shrieking at the pinched-faced monkeys swinging through the trees and swooping in among us, in search of mangoes and bananas, and turning down countless offers to “take photos” of local women whose arms were full of bundles of sticks, which they promptly threw to the ground upon our polite refusals. Very authentic, indeed?
Thing about traveling is, it’s mighty tough to sort out when your experiences and impressions are authentic and when they are complete bunk. And we crave a genuine and irreplicable experience, like most backpackers do, and we look for it everywhere, so the temptation is to perpetuate the ruse instead of unmasking it when you realize you’ve been taken in, or that you’re not nearly so far off the map as you’d been prepared to imagine.
Cases in point: Erin compulsively deleting any trip photos that have other Westerners in their frame, because that makes them not nearly so cool and friends at home might not be impressed by your train journey through the Sri Lankan Hill Country if they knew that you made it in the company of like 50 high-heeled, chain-smoking Russians on some kind of group tour. Erin asking the Indian chai walla to pour the cup of tea just one more time because she didn’t quite get the photo just right the first go-round. Erin sneaking photos of monks on the bus in Colombo because it’s just too irresistibly cool a picture, even though it’s kind of rude and the lady next to expresses her disapproval with a low cluck of her tongue. Erin paying some random Indian dude dressed in local garb and toting an ornately bejeweled cow with headdress around Vagator so she can take its picture. Erin paying another random Sri Lankan dude to let her hold his boa constrictor, Layla, around her neck, to the shrieking delight of a crowd of fascinated and horrified locals.
As a trained journalist, I feel conflicted by these indiscretions, even though I’m copping to them, even though it’s just vacation. I am somehow compelled to disclose the inauthenticities of my time away from the U.S. as well as to share the deeply genuine and intimate ones. And there have been many of those, too: meeting a man named Abdulla at the Carnakata Railway Station one Midnight and being invited to attend his upcoming wedding to the woman of his dreams, who will be presented to him in an overwhelmingly fetching show of splendor. (“She will wear so many ornaments! She will look like an advertisement!”) Talking with a Sri Lankan woman of similar age in a tour outfit shop about her life, her husband, the benefits of love-marriages versus arranged-marriages, and the proper age to marry and settle down. (“Women your age have no husband, they must seek help to find a proposal!”) Strolling along the Arabian Sea boardwalk at dusk and making friends with all the sweet little families splashing down in the water, fully clothed, the whooping groups of teenaged boys shyly asking to have their photos taken with us so they can post them on Facebook and earn a bit of cachet with friends for the feat.
It’s all beautiful. But it’s not the whole story, and the secret, often unspoken other half of it is this: everybody’s been everywhere before you. Yes, there are faraway places full of strange and wonderful and baffling customs, and you will visit them and eat strange and wonderful and baffling foods, and encounter people so shockingly different from you that there’s nothing to do but drink a flat can of Fanta together and have a laugh. Yes, there are countless hordes of people who have never spoken directly to an American, there are a lifetime’s worth of amazing and exotic corners to turn down. But no truly untried lands, or at least, few enough that I haven’t yet hit on one in 31 years and 33 countries.
It is an incredible and humbling thought, and making peace with it is just a part of the longer journey I’m on as a traveler.
Maybe it’s the hardest part. And, maybe because of that, it’s also sometimes the best part.
On we roll.
- Just a touch of 아리랑: Understanding the two Koreas
Over the course of his strange and relatively short life, North Korean President Kim Jong-Il amassed many nicknames: “Superior Person.” “Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have.” “Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love.” “Guiding Star of the 21st Century.”
Or, from the other side of the fence: “Paranoid Dictator.” “Totalitarian Murderer.” “Incompetent Troublemaker.”
In his home country, the dictator was credited with a laundry list of accomplishments befitting of the more fawning epithets: inventing the Internet, inventing the automobile, controlling the weather with his mind, setting worldwide fashion trends.
Now he’s dead, fallen pretty to “physical and mental overwork,” or so goes the party line, never-you-mind his penchant for Hennessey cognac, prostitutes and couch potato-ism.
Total economic destitution certainly does make for a pristine landscape. North Korea, 2006. Photo by Erin J. Bernard
I’ve been reading the obituaries and elegies and it seems that the only things everyone can agree on are that, A: there’s a whole lot about Mr. Kim we don’t know for sure, B: there’s a whole lot about him – and about North Korea, for that matter – that we’ll probably never know for sure, no matter what happens next.
The last-gasp Stalinist holdout may be sandwiched between the desolate outer reaches of free-market China and its bustling, astonishingly prosperous better half, the Republic of Korea, but North Korea is without peer in the depth and breadth of its isolation.
When I was in my 20s, I had occasion to visit both Koreas. During the time I spent living in the lower, luckier half of the peninsula, and during a brief weekend visit to the North, I came to understand these two countries as frenemies in a deep and complex sense.
The Zen Buddhists say that understanding the nature of reality is as difficult as picking up an egg with a pair of silver chopsticks.
Likewise, the nature of the reality that governs the North-South relationship is fraught with slick and slippery curves.
Any South Korean you ask will say that he or she favors reunification, and as the peninsula’s division is a product of very recent history (two competing governments, one backed by the Soviet Union and the other backed by the United States, were first established in 1948), most middle-to-older-aged South Koreans can still rattle off the names of at least a few relatives lost to the North. Often, though, they have no idea where these cousins and uncles and sisters are, or if they are still alive. Point of fact, there’s a South Korean television channel that, from what I could surmise, dedicates itself exclusively to broadcasting footage of tearful reunions among Northern and Southern family members.
I first moved to Seoul in 2005, to teach English at a public elementary school in a wealthy area just south of the city proper. It was a nice place, full of upscale coffee shops and wide, clean roads.
The month before my departure, I’d pulled out my atlas and located the city on a map. To my horror, I discovered that the South Korean capital was located a mere 70 miles from the North Korean border. In the days before I boarded the plane, I was plagued by nightmares about being chased by grim-faced North Korean guards, about big, oily gun barrels with smoke rising from then, of rotting concrete prison cells and suffering too terrible to name. But the truth was, after the day I arrived in Seoul, I almost never thought about my proximity to the Red North. For all it mattered in my daily life, it might as well have been 7,000 miles distant. Home felt closer in many ways, flanked as I was by American fast food restaurants and Nike swooshes and constant, unsolicited shouts of “Nice to meet you!”
At the time, it baffled me, but looking back, it sort of makes sense. Throughout history, Korea had the geographical misfortune of being located at the crossroads of warring superpowers.
In the aftermath of WWII, all that tugging and pulling finally ripped it clean in two during the Korean Conflict, which began in 1950 and was stalled – but never concluded – with a cease fire in 1953.
North Korea, to its eventual detriment, was claimed by the Soviet Union, while big-nosed American soldiers streamed into South Korea by the thousands. They still haven’t left.
In short, South Korea was a tiny and exceptional chunk of civilization that found itself on the right side of history at the wrong moment.
Hence, the south was partitioned off, implausibly, from the rest of the cold and unlucky Northeast Asian landmass, where the winters are interminable and most everyone remains shockingly poor. And like an iceberg cracked free of its moorings and caught by a steady westward current, South Korea drifted irretrievably away.
In light of all that remains unknowable about North Korea, the key to understanding it may well be to consider, first, the makeup of modern South Korea, and to paint the picture in relief.
One stifling October mid-morning not long after my arrival in Seoul, my new boss and I took a long and awkward drive to the Seoul consulate for yet another round of visa paperwork.
His name was Mr. Khang. His English was terrible, my Korean was non-existent. However, as just about anything is less awkward than abiding total silence in a confined space with a near-stranger of the opposite gender, we worked hard at striking up a conversation, an earnestness that led us, eventually, to the topic of the two Koreas.
Mr. Khang recalled that he and his brothers had to subsist on a single potato a day each in the days just after the Korean Conflict. Hunger was the backdrop to everything he did, and finding ways to fill his belly occupied his days and troubled his dreams.
By the time we came face to face four decades later, things looked very different, indeed.
Mr. Khang shared a posh apartment with his exceptionally attractive wife and two doe-eyed children, one boy and one girl. He had a fancy foreign automobile and, in said apartment, a huge freezer purchased for the sole purpose of storing massive quantities of kimchi, the spicy pickled radish that is the country’s national dish. He sat at the helm of a business that ran after-school English programs in public schools. (He also had the spare kit to treat his assistant, Mr. Kim – No, not that one – plus all the schools’ principals, to whiskey-fueled gambling-karaoke-hooker binges, but I wouldn’t know that part till later.) He was healthy and handsome by both American and Korean standards, with ruddy, angular cheeks, a toothpaste-commercial-smile and a thick mop of glossy black hair. He’d even given himself an English name: “Philip.”
His only physical flaw was a none-too-obvious paunch that hung over his Dockers when he sat down. He loved to worry over it, especially after finishing a big meal of kimchi chi gye or sam gyeop sal. With great ceremony, he’d loose his belt a few notches and cry out in English, “I need to lose my weight!”
But secretly, I think it made him proud. It meant something to him, that gut, although it took me awhile to get close to figuring out just why.
That day in the car after he finished the potato story, as he wove his fancy wheels in and out of a mid-morning traffic snarl, he reached down and grabbed playfully at the roll of flesh, laughing.
“Today all South Korea is big-sized!”
It felt true, and Mr. Khang was far from exceptional in his plight. I quickly noticed that the youngest generation of South Koreans, reared during the gluttonous, heady aftermath of unprecedented economic upward mobility, was looking a bit, ahem, portly.
South Korean is not a country that minces words, and its people have not taken well to that very forward-thinking and perhaps uniquely American “beauty comes in all sizes” saw. Instead, they teased me for my curves relentlessly.
My students quickly learned that shouting out “Tea-cha! How much you weigh?” in the middle of a lesson was a guaranteed crowd pleaser, sure to earn them the hysterical admiration of their peers for the rest of the day. And I was several times banned from trying on clothes in department stores by dour-faced ajumas who scolded me with the admonition, “You too pudgy!” (At the time, I was 5’3 and weight 135 pounds.) It irritated me to no end, especially seeing as a good 25 percent of my students were downright obese and on track to surpass me in poundage well before they reached the age of consent.
They craved Mac-don-ald-su, and sausa-gees and were indulged shamelessly by their doting mothers. The resulting bulge didn’t go unnoticed by the moms, however, who’d then scold their chipmunk-cheeked children in front of other mothers for being fat, or, to coin a Konglish expression, “big-size.” They’d encourage the girls to go on diets before they reached junior high. The moms seemed embarrassed, and more, straight baffled by their children’s relative heft.
It was one of a long, long list of things I just didn’t get.
The causal relationship between the heft of the youngest generation and their insatiable cravings for fatty, sugary American fare seemed obvious. But after a few months of grocery shopping and dining out in SK, I finally figured it out: they didn’t get it either.
American foods flummoxed them, and so they simply treated it like Korean food dressed up in different clothes.
I gave up trying to explain to the skeptical waitresses at an “Italian” restaurant near my apartment that butter wasn’t meant to be spread a half-an-inch thick over a piece of bread.
One of my university students, Wendy, was thrilled to no end when she landed a desirable job as a cashier at KFC (K-F-She). She cited a 25 percent discount on food as a major perk of her new gig. Sometimes she’d show up to class still in her red and white uniform and dress wig. Her friends sighed with envy.
In 2005, American-style buffets were all the rage in Seoul. Craving foods from home, a few Western friends and I once took a trip to a buffet near our neighborhood. VIPs Buffet it was called, pronounced Peep-su poo-pay in Korean dialect. (Say it aloud a few times. You’ll get it.)
It was a frightening and exceedingly unpleasant experience. An elderly woman literally shoved me aside to gain access to a freshly loaded platter of shrimp. I watched, astonished, as she picked up the platter and dumped the entire thing onto her plate. At every table, Koreans were bingeing on massive platefuls of starchy, fatty foods. I spent 15 minutes in line for a cone of soft-serve ice cream before I figured out why the line was moving at such a glacial pace: people were preparing 5-10 towering cones apiece, which meant that the machine required constant replenishing by an exhausted-looking teenager in a green VIPs apron and matching hat.
A Korean friend who joined us for the dinner said it was not uncommon for Koreans to gorge themselves at such restaurants, vomit into bathroom garbage cans, and then head back the buffet for another round.
They just didn’t seem to understand how to interact with American food. And it was no wonder. Korean “sweets” were usually made from some combination of sesame seeds, honey, beans and rice, which meant you could fairly gorge on them with some degree of impunity. I’d watch at lunchtime, astonished, as my students dutifully devoured their little partitioned lunchboxes of kimchi, quail egg, rice and pickled seaweed, then scarfed down massive bags of contraband chips and donuts they’d pick up at the convenience store at the school’s back entrance.
And all of this, just a decade after an estimated 3 million North Koreans died of starvation a quick few-hundred miles away.
How had this happened? Why had the fates visited such drastically different outcomes on a single people? And when the rift cuts this deep, what in the world is anybody supposed to do next?
I suspect that many South Koreans are more ambivalent about the prospect of a reunification than they’d ever care to admit to a foreigner. I’m sure the reasons are far more complex than my Western mind is equipped to understand. But I do have my guesses. As evidence by the ever-expanding girth of South Koreans and the figurative and literal disappearing of North Koreans, reunification would present cataclysmic economic and social implications.
The North and the South have been two for a mere six decades, but in that time, the South Korean per capita income has mushroomed to 15 times that of North Korea. (2008 estimates put South Korea’s PCI at $26,000 and North Korea’s at $1,700.) Infrastructure in the North stalled out after the Soviet Union collapsed, taking with it North Korea’s primary source of aid and sending the country into economic freefall. South Korea, on the other hand, is now home to hotshot electronics and car companies such as Samsung, LG and Kia, and to a people that are singularly determined to working their tails off to perpetuate the sudden abundance.
To call North Korea’s borders jealously guarded would be something of an understatement. Its citizens are forbidden from traveling into the world outside and, largely, discouraged even from moving freely between cities. Likewise, foreigners are granted sporadic and hesitating entrance, and their itineraries are carefully controlled by “escorts.” (Always at least two, so that the escorts might keep an eye not only on visiting foreigners, but also on each other.)
In recent years, in what I can only assume is a bid for desperately needed revenue, North Korea has opened its borders to foreigners. But it’s always only just a little, and usually for short spurts of time before some conflict or other slams the door back shut.
I was lucky enough to be in South Korea during one of those moments when a crack appeared, and I had the opportunity to visit the big, bad Red North for a weekend.
The experience, much like my experience at VIPs Buffet, left me feeling bloated, disoriented, and further than ever from understanding the Koreans as a people.
A couple of days before I was scheduled to depart on a bus for North Korea, Kim Jong-Il fired off a couple of long-range test missiles, to the outrage of pretty much everyone.
Tensions got tense, but my friends and I opted not to cancel our excursion, reasoning that we’d already paid a hefty deposit, and, well, we’d probably be better off getting caught in the place where the missiles were coming from as opposed to where they were heading toward, right?
Before departure, we were given a long list of weird, creepy rules. A cross-section:
• Cameras with telephoto lenses of more than160mm and binoculars with zooming capabilities of 10 times or more are banned
• All electronic equipment must be checked at the Guemgang Condo before departing for North Korea
• You must ALWAYS wear your ID (you will get this before you arrive in NK) around your neck. You will be fined if it lost or damaged
• Washing hands and/or feet is not allowed in the fresh water springs (fine is $15)
• Only US dollars and credit cards are accepted
• There are many large rocks with engraving done by the government. Do not touch or lean on these rocks
• You may not speak the names of Kim il-sung and Kim jong-il aloud.
• You may speak with the North Korean people that you meet, but you may not take random pictures of them, including pictures from inside the bus. In addition, please be careful of the conversation topics when speaking with North Koreans. DO NOT talk about politics, diplomatic relations, economics and other such sensitive issues.
After a night of driving, we arrived at the “border,” which was basically just a huge white circus tent. Inside, we and our belongings were herded through a long row of obviously fake x-ray machines.
We were asked to keep our arms raised above our heads, in a position suggesting at once guilt and surrender, with our passports and cameras held aloft for inspection.
On the other side, we were greeted by impossibly pretty, rosy-cheeked girls and a couple of dudes dressed in giant bear suits dancing around and crying out, “Welcome to North Korea!”
But it wasn’t exactly North Korea, or at least not the North Korea that you see on the nightly news, the North Korea I saw in my nightmares.
It was something lesser, though equally sinister.
We were to spend the weekend in a tiny enclave of the North that had been carved out by Hyundai Motor Corporation and renamed “Kum Gang San Village” for its proximity to Korea’s most beautiful mountain.
All said, we’d arrived in North Korea on a fortuitous occasion, our tour guide explained to us: it was Kim Jong-Il’s birthday, and in celebration of himself, he’d given everyone in the country a new shirt and pair of paints.
During my visit, I discovered three things: one, when you’re an outsider, perhaps the most distinguishing feature of totalitarian regimes is their boringness. Two: I do not do well with rules. Three: the tops of mountains are high, treacherous things, and prone, sometimes, to spiral impossibly, eternally out of reach.
Because I’ve always had a flair for the dramatic, I cued up The Gorillaz’ “Last Living Souls” on my iPod as we re-boarded the bus and drove into the country proper.
The land was green and glittering and shockingly pristine. Aside from a few trucks ambling along, apparently powered by piles of burning wood lodged in their beds, everyone moved about on foot or bicycle.
Red flags peppered the fields, underneath which real live North Koreans dug in the dirt and wheeled their wheelbarrows.
Atop hills, stationed in bushes, and lurking on the rooftops we whizzed past was the ever-present line of soldiers, standing stock-still, wearing sunglasses, gripping little red flags in hand.
If we tried to take a picture of anything, the tour guide warned, the little red flag would go up, the bus would pull over, and we’d be searched and seized.
The guy in the seat in front of me kept sneaking photos with his camera.
“Cut it out!” I hissed at him. “You want to get us killed?”
I had reason to worry: My screwups were legion.
First on the itinerary was a visit to a North Korean circus, which definitely sounded more impressive and exciting than it was, especially if you’ve seen footage of the crazy, colorful synchronized spectacles Kim Jong-Il and his father were so fond of putting on for visiting dignitaries.
Those sorts of showstoppers took place in the capital city, Pyongyang, perhaps, but not in Kum Gang San Village.
There, the “circus” took place in a tiny, dilapidated auditorium, and it mostly involved people in sequined leotards hoisting themselves up to the ceiling and back down again with long silk ropes while spinning around and singing. It was boring and depressing, and I slept through most of it.
We also took a trip to Kum Gang San mountain and its adjoining waterfalls, where I discovered that I was especially bad at following the rule about not saying Kim Jong-Il’s name.
I also discovered that in North Korea, it costs $2 to go poop. The rate drops to $1 if you need only urinate, or say you need only to urinate, but I was too nervous to push my luck.
The South Koreans touring with us seemed to have a slightly easier time of adjusting. I noticed that many of them had developed the clever workaround of substituting the nonsense phrase “Mm-mm-mm” when they wanted to reference Kim Jong-Il or Kim Il-Song in conversation, as in, “My, what a lovely row of outhouses mm-mm-mm has built at the edge of that waterfall,” but I kept forgetting, and soon discovered that an old Korean guy in a track suit carrying a walkie-talkie appeared to be trailing me.
In the quiet of the hotel room later on, I railed against Kim Jong-il to my roommate, calling him a fraud and a loser, then panicked when I discovered a listening device stuck to the wall behind the hotel mirrors.
I also got screamed at by guards for wandering too far from the tour group to check out a weird, gigantic mosaic of the Two Dear Leaders. The guards came running down the little flower-lined path toward me blowing a whistle and waving their little red flags. When they reached me, they grabbed my ass, offered me a cigarette, then took away my camera and force me to pose in front of the mosaic before letting me go back to the hotel.
Again, all of this probably sounds more exciting than it really was. In fact, aside from the nature excursions and bus tours, our group spent the bulk of the weekend milling about a large compound that resembled a shopping mall more than anything else.
My friends and I chatted, we argued, we ate tuna and crackers and we shopped in the souvenir store. We also frequented a few not-very-good restaurants, including a large, fancy sit-down number that sold $10 bowls of ramen.
It felt like spending a weekend at any tourist trap in South Korea, except in the moments when it didn’t.
The village was powered by generators, which tended to flicker in and out, causing the waitresses to blush prettily and orders to back up in the restaurant kitchens.
Everyone was improbably attractive.
The people working the fields never looked up when we drove by, even though a tour bus must have been an unusual sight.
And we were the only visitors around.
Keeping squeaky clean is something of a Korean national pastime, so my friends and I weren’t surprised to discover that the village also housed a traditional Korean bath, just a few minutes walk from the shopping mall area, and we figured it was a good a way as any to spend an afternoon in North Korea.
We hit the jim jil bang in late evening, accompanied by an escort.
We whiled away the hours marinating in steaming hot charcoal baths and icy green tea baths, and then when dusk came, we wandered to the outdoor bathing area and lay naked on a row of lawn chairs, sipping juices and cracking jokes. To our north, beyond the privacy fence, stood a sinister-looking, heavily wooded hill.
“I wonder if mm-mm-mm is hiding up there with a camera?” I whispered.
We all laughed giddily, but reached for our towels.
That evening, I was granted entrance into the hotel kitchen to microwave a bowl of instant ramen I’d picked up at the compound convenience store.
A group of cooks stared at me, gape-mouthed. It was the longest two minutes and 30 seconds of my life. We smiled back and forth, there was more blushing, but I couldn’t sort out what to say, and figured that whatever I said, it’d probably be the wrong thing anyway. So, for once, I shut up, grabbed my half-cooked bowl of noodles, bowed and returned to the hotel bar, where my tourmates and I proceeded to drink every last bottle of beer in the entire compound.
Later, I made fast friends with a drunk American guy whose dad worked for the CIA and a group of us cased the hotel, looking for bugs and hidden cameras (both of which we found) and speaking to each other the whole time in sloppy, whispered French.
In the wee hours, I awoke both myself and my terrified roommate by leaping out of my bed and, still lost in another nightmare, screaming at her, “WHAT do you WANT from me?”
The next day, we visited the North Korean seashore. It was rocky and desolate and sort of sad, and I had to have my camera inspected after I accidentally took a picture of a cannon wedged into the sand and pointed directly at Japan.
“That’s an old cannon,” the tour guide insisted. “It doesn’t work anymore.”
I filled my pockets with contraband shells and rocks, I followed the group once more through the fake x-ray machines, and I boarded the bus that would take me back to Seoul – It was the place I lived, but it wasn’t home by any stretch of the imagination.
Home, I was coming to understand, was a complex sort of thing.
There is a genre of native Korean folk music called “Arirang songs,” and they are well known to every Korean, whether Northern or Southern.
I’ve never been able to find an English equivalent for the term “Arirang,” or “아리랑,” but an older Korean woman I worked with once explained it to me like this: “Arirang means you have many hills yet to climb.”
In fact, the word itself is so old and ever-present that even Koreans are hard pressed to define it precisely, but it seems to speak of nameless sorrow and spurned love, of incredible, incredible struggle.
I wanted to get it then, but deep down, I really didn’t. How could I, coming from the place where I came from, where everyone was pudgy and accomplished and querulous and the view stretched out around us for endless miles? What did I know of true sorrow or long climbs or the kind of hunger that can never be sated?
It was a slick egg, indeed.
Still, between the beers and the boredom and the hungry, pretty North Korean girls and the ever-flickering lights and the gallons and gallons of ramen, I think that weekend in North Korea brought me a little closer to understanding what all of those earnest and achingly sincere 아리랑 songs might be getting at, and to understanding why the departure of Kim Jong-Il could change nothing just as soon as everything.
Look around you. There are so very many hills still to climb.
Why the Buddha Drinks Fanta
I used to go nuts for Fanta. When I was a kid, it was my default drink. Birthday parties, fast food joints, wherever, I always went straight for the orange stuff. There was just something about its impossibly fizzy, zingy flavor. The Japanese talk about a “fifth taste” they call umame. The word has no direct translation but means, roughly that a thing tastes just how it should. That it is a perfect exemplar of flavor. Normally, it’s a word used to describe savory, meaty fare, but, for me, Fanta had always had a perfect umame. Somehow, it even tasted more like oranges than an actual orange. I couldn’t get enough.
And when I got older and began to clock time in strange foreign lands, Fanta became, for me, became a bastion of familiarity. You can pick up a can of Fanta in most of the 186 countries currently in existence, although the recipe is always a little different. At last count, there were more than 90 flavors on offer, ranging from the exotic (lemon and elderflower in Romania) to the quirky (Toffee in Taiwan) to the downright bizarre (Banana Fermented Milk, anyone?).
Fanta traces its origins to scarcity. After a trade ban enacted by the allied forces during World War II prevented German Coca-Cola plants from importing a syrup essential to the production of soda, Max Keith, the Man in Charge, resolved to concoct a new soft drink, one that could be easily and cheaply made from whatever was lying around. In went pomace— the skin, seed and other assorted effluvia that catches in the filter when fruit is put through a press. In went whey—a smelly byproduct of the cheese manufacturing process. Keith once called it a soda wrought from the “leftovers of leftovers.” Junk, all of it, stuff nobody else saw any value in.
Rumor has it that the Nazi party took note of Fanta’s rising sales and entered into a series of clandestine business deals with Coca-Cola. At one point, Fanta cases even displayed gory tableaux of lions tearing apart Jewish men and women.
I’m 28 now. And I, too, can trace certain tangled threads of my core identity back to scarcity. To Not Enough, and the big, bad trouble it causes. Incidentally, I’ve pretty much lost my taste for Fanta soda. In fact, I find it noxious. Unsettling. And with a hint of metallic bitterness my 10-year-old palate was far too immature to detect.
I taste it now. Definitely.
The trouble started in Southeast Asia at just about the end of 2003. I was a stupid and self-assured 22, and I’d fallen in with Krisjna, a Belgian hippie. We’d hit it off over peanuts and warm whiskey in a guest house lounge in Northern Thailand. He grinned my way from beneath a corona of blond dreadlocks, banana leaf joint in hand, and I was done for. We’d been on the road together for more than a month by then, the rough equivalent of a two-year relationship in backpacker years. On Christmas Eve, we found ourselves in the tiny town of Muong Ngio, deep in the jungles of Northern Laos, where we’d rented out a bungalow from a guy named Sengdala for four bucks a night. Ours was among a handful of teak huts scattered across a patch of hardscrabble earth at the edge of the Mekong River.
I’d been hamstrung by e.Coli poisoning after an ill-advised swim in a filthy swimming pool several weeks previous and so I could no longer stomach alcohol, or much solid food for that matter. But I drank Fanta voraciously during that time. It was the only thing that settled my queasy belly and it became a panacea for my many fevers and dizzy spells.
Krisjna and I had decided to spend Christmas Eve in the town’s only bar, and as I sat on the dirt floor chasing Advils and Metronidazoles with a sweating can of that oranger-than-orange drink, we were approached by a small, dark-eyed boy who identified himself as Jai. He was 12, and Sengdala’s nephew. He spoke excellent English, and he shared my passion for sugary soda. The three of us sat up past midnight, slurping sodas and telling jokes, snapping photos with my camera.
Looking back, it’s hard to point to any clear indication that Krisjna and I were in trouble. Just one single moment stands out, after we’d said goodnight to Jai and were squatting before a smoldering campfire at the side of the road near our hut. I sensed, for just a moment, that we were being watched. Somewhere out past the flickering glow of the tiny fire, something was waiting.
There exists a kind of darkness in this world that Westerners simply cannot conceive of. An inky black that is only possible in the poorest corners of the earth, where electricity is scarce and the moon gets swallowed up by the jungle well before dawn. It was that kind of darkness I peered out into, trying to source my sudden and inexplicable discomfort. I saw nothing. So we stood up and headed off to bed, clutching hands.
We awoke some eight hours later on a cloudy Christmas morning to find that all of our things had been stolen while we slept. I’d lost my medicine. My passport. My money. My plane ticket. My camera. My journal. Ad infinitum.
In shock, we wandered into the center of town, where I crumbled theatrically into a heap in the middle of the dirt road, my head and belly aching. Krisjna yanked me up and dragged me, sniffling pathetically, to the tiny Buddhist temple at the north end of town. Inside the temple sat a large, roughhewn altar. We stared at each other and hit our knees. What else was left to do?
Before us rested a gaudy likeness of Budhha. A can of Fanta had been set on the altar before him, just to the left of a modest dish of white rice. It had been popped open and a tiny pink straw was jutting out from the hole. I sniffled some more, feeling gloriously downtrodden and pathetic. Krisjna reached out to squeeze my hand, and we groped in the cloudy half-light of that Christmas Morning, beyond words.
After a few minutes, a small boy in monk’s garb passed in from a back room. We disentangled ourselves and he bent down next to us, chattering away in Lao. Then he picked up an old coffee can from the ground next to the altar and rattled it. A few coins clinked noisily. I reached into my pocket. My hands closed around a Thai coin. It was the equivalent of 50 cents, and it was now all the money I had left in the world. I fingered it, even toyed with the idea of tossing it into that can, but then where would we be? In my darkest moments I might be known to kneel down and mutter out a quick and earnest prayer, but I’d certainly never had that kind of faith. The boy rattled the can some more. We shook our heads miserably. He grew frustrated and left us to our hopeless supplications. We departed, embarrassed.
* * *
That was a long, hungry Christmas. I spent most of it sulking in the hammock strung up outside our hut, staring blank-eyed out into the jungle, where there were no paths back, where land mines from the Vietnam War still waited, untripped, where everything suddenly seemed so much bigger and more sinister.
We didn’t talk much. Krisjna padded barefoot up and down the length of the single dirt road that ran through town. The nearest phone, by generous estimates, was a four-hour boat ride away. Already, my belly was growling. We had no cigarettes. We had no friends. I’d lost my medicine. What The Fuck were we supposed to do now? And, more importantly, why the fuck had this happened at all? Why had such a punishment been visited upon us? I slipped into a dark reverie.
I grew up Catholic. I’d always been taught that good works would be repaid in kind. But that day in the hammock, some belief I used to have about the deep good in this world died, got stubbed out into an old soda can with the soggy, rotten butt of another crappy jungle cigarette. I came to sense in those bitter moments that karma was nothing more than an old and mostly useless saw. I’d invariably returned wallets, taken the hands of small children separated from their mothers in large crowds.
Yeah, I’d stolen stuff sometimes. But it was usually out of some hyper-rationalized sense of entitlement: trolling the internet for free mp3s cause everyone knew that record companies were pure anathema. Palming grapes in the produce aisle cause, where I came from, a million pounds of fruit and veg were wasted every day anyway. These tiny rebellions seemed patriotic, somehow, justifiably vitriolic responses to greed and wastefulness. Like most Americans, I considered myself a mostly good person. And this was my repayment? What The Fuck?
* * *
It didn’t take long to sort out the culprits. The door to our hut had been constructed from a single plank of flexible wood. Thing was, if you pulled on it from the bottom, it bent. Not too far, but definitely far enough to allow a body passage through. It would have to be a small body, though. Say, that of a youngish boy, probably no bigger than about twelve. Jai.
The town’s police chief, an eighty-five-year-old man in a sunbaked blue track suit, showed up in the afternoon to take our report. He chewed on a frayed, nasty cigar, consulted closely with Sengdala and a decision was made. There would be no police report, Sengdala announced.
“It’s just too weird,” he said. “We can’t make a report.”
“But what are we supposed to do?” I asked, my hysteria rising again. He had done this. I knew he had.
“You drink too much. Lose your bags at the bar,” he said, smiling carefully.
“No!” I shouted, my body tensing up like some dumb, trapped animal.
Krisjna raked fingers through his mop of dreadlocks– a compulsive gesture of frustration I’d see many times in the days to follow– then pressed his balled fists into his closed eyes and said simply: “We’re hungry.”
The police chief was busy scratching notes onto a water-stained pad, squinting periodically off at the muddy Mekong, kicking the earth with a sandaled foot, avoiding our eyes.
Clucking his tongue, Sengdala led us to his restaurant across the street. He exchanged terse words with his wife in a kitchen doorway and an hour later, we were served two tiny saucersfull of curried vegetables. No rice. No water.
After eating, we scored a pack of smokes off a sympathetic British guy and returned to our hammocks. But we must have cut pretty pathetic pictures in our filthy traveler rags, chain smoking and staring forlornly out at a pack of kayakers whooping and shouting in the water down below, cause Sengdala returned at dusk to invite us to dine with him and a few of his brothers.
We supped on raw buffalo stomach cured in mint, scooped up with glutinous palmfulls of sticky rice. I didn’t like the idea of sharing a table with Sengdala and his ilk, considering that the food had no doubt been procured with the spoils from our overstuffed daypacks. I knew I should stop. This meat was the rough equivalent of blood money. And it would probably make me violently ill besides. But I hadn’t eaten in 24 hours, except for the disgusting curry stuff, and my appetite was insatiable. I swallowed great mouthfuls of the buffalo.
We talked little, watched the sky beyond the village bleed into a blackish blue as the sun dropped behind a jagged spit of mountain. Sengdala told us the growing swarm of backpackers who came up to his village by way of Ngong Kiao, of his lengthy preparations for a party to celebrate his daughter’s marriage to the police chief’s son in three day’s time. (Yeah, I know.) We nodded and shoved more meat into our faces. But there was no room for pretty fantasies. His post facto kindness indicated nothing, and we all knew it.
* * *
I think it’s like this: Anymore, Western culture is spreading fast. It’s rattling at the gates of Everywhere, rolling inevitably in with its big-bellied sails, belching colorful detritus. Krisjna and I were, I suppose, unwitting ambassadors from the fabled shores of that 365-day-a-year party, a place where orange soda rivers ran through crystalline cities paved in solid gold.
Before our three lives intersected, Sengdala had—whether through means or luck—come to assume the post of Richest Man in Town. And yet he lived in a house where we’d scarcely have been caught dead, in a village we only deigned to visit, where no one had ever had a hot shower, where a nightly hour of programming on a flickering console television hooked up to the town generator was an untenable luxury to which the entire village looked forward all day. He knew it. We knew it. And that fact made our simple presence humiliating. And that, in turn, made us targets. We came bearing backpacksful fancy gadgets and thick, smelly wads of foreign currency, lambs to the slaughter. And, just like that buffalo on which I gorged myself so insatiably, this wasn’t personal. Not really.
What happened between Sengdala and us was simply about the awful, awful shit that can go down when you reduce the world around you into its true configurations and come to realize that the calculus adds up only to Not Enough.
None of it was fair. But in the end, I was essentially as powerless as Sengdala was to change any of it. And when I came to recognize my own powerlessness, I began, also, to understand why I could, on occasion, steal from others with so little guilt or fear of reprisal.
In the end, accepting my own hypocrisy also meant conceding the hypocrisy of a twelve-year-old kid who could smile into my face, drink a can of soda on my coin some Christmas Eve in the jungle, and then make off into the night with everything I own; the hypocrisy of a grown man who would orchestrate such an act and then invite me to Christmas dinner. It’s why Fanta comes in all those disgusting, alien flavors. It’s complicated, but in another way, it’s the most logical thing in the world. It was never supposed to make sense! It was never, never supposed to be fair.
My jungle story goes on, and it gets worse. It involves weeks in diplomatic hell, bribes passed through slots in glass windows, getting ripped off on a bag of weed by a monk and a near-fire in a hotel room in the Lao capital city and countless packs of 30-cent cigarettes. Fights and teardrops and Western Union money transfers that I’d spend a year paying my frantic parents back for.
I got home, eventually, a little gaunt and bleary-eyed, yeah, but I got there. The e.Coli cleared up after a few tooth-jarring months and life moved forward.
Krisjna and I still write each other. Not often, but we do still write. We don’t talk much about the fights, or Sengdala, or the way I had to pawn my watch to pay for a hotel room. We’ve forgiven the universe most of that, and we are friends. As for Fanta, well, it’s been harder to get past, somehow. I slugged down a can of the grape variety in El Salvador a few months back and the taste of it made me wretch. It tasted like metal, like blood. Perhaps, though, it’s the smack of atonement that still rings so bitter on my tongue after all these many years.
You couldn’t really have called us friends, me and Joe. Mostly, we met when we met. It was always in the same little cantina, garish and neon, with framed photos of Pancho Villa on the walls and a storefull of butt-ugly souvenirs in the back. Usually, it was in the evening time, when I got off work and came to watch the bar filled up with the drunk, stupid tourists whose ships docked for five-hour stretches on our little tear-drop-shaped island.
Mostly, were mean to each other, me and Joe. Mostly, we argued back and forth across the barstool that sat empty, always, between us. It was like a demilitarized zone, keeping us just far enough apart to prevent any real violence.
And mostly, Joe was exceedingly unpleasant to be around. He was a terrible listener. He sweated too much and he spat when he spoke. He asked questions and interrupted before you could finish answering. All of the things that make you want to get away from someone as quickly as possible.
But there was something about him that I found hilariously, tragically irresistible. At one point, certainly, he must have been quite handsome: he had dirty blonde hair and an angular jaw and a lean, muscled frame. By the time I met him, he was pushing a rough-hewn 40 and his eyes were as cloudy as two sea agates. He owned two outfits and one pair of sports sandals. His only distinguishing features were the cheap Casio calculator watch he always wore and a rigid, skittish demeanor that persisted even in belligerent drunkenness, a stubborn hangover from his days in the military.
We laughed once in awhile. I liked watching him hit on drunk guys’ wives, right in front of them. It was just so outrageous. And I was fascinated by his stories. They were nearly painful to listen to. He’d been almost completely undone by a couple of tours in the Persian-Gulf War. His mother had died young, his wife had hung herself. I never sorted out how he’d ended up on that little Mexican island, but I’m sure the rest of the story wasn’t any happier.
I went to that bar most evenings. I liked the bartender, Joaquin. He was kind and shy and let me practice my Spanish. And Joe, from what I could tell, spent all day there, every day. By the time I’d arrive, he was usually three sheets to the wind and getting mean with the tourists.
Joaquin, the bartender, would lean over the bar and whisper, “He drink 14 beers today.”
If he were feeling particularly ornery, Joe would launch into long, spittle-laced rants about the American government and the way the army had destroyed his life. The words were like little rubber bullets pumping out of his mouth.
Joe on American currency: “Get rid of it! All of it!”
Joe on his dishonorable discharge from the military: “ Pieces of shit! I coulda been somebody!”
He actually said stuff like that. The kinds of things you think are only from the movies. It was almost too much to believe.
Somehow, I felt compelled to share Joe with others. He was a like a poorly behaved pet that you might teach to fart or nudge at with the toe of your shoe until it lost patience and tried to gnaw your foot off. And at the end you’d laugh an indulgent chuckle and revel in your superiority.
“Hey Joe,” I’d say, after chatting another free beer off whichever drunk cruisegoers happened to be in the bar that night. “Tell us about Santa Rosa.”
The mere mention of Santa Rosa, his commander in the Persian Gulf, was sure to set him off.
“He disgusts me,” Joe would scream. “Do you know what it’s like to live in a barracks? To smell another man’s stink? That bastard left me there! Disgusting!”
Sometimes, if the crowd was particularly lucky, tears would roll down his face as he gestured spastically. People would usually giggle or just look uncomfortable and try to get away from us. But I always loved the show, the eyes of the tourists hesitating between fear and a strange sense of awe that he managed to remain upright on the barstool at all. He had a way of swaying back and forth and sort of jerking his head around that made him look like one of those windup soldier toys, all mechanical and too slow.
All of this might make me sound like a terrible person, but that’s just how it was with us. We weren’t friends so much as receptacles for each other’s misdirected rage and loneliness. We’d plow through packs of cigarettes and buy each other Coronas, trading insults. We spent literally dozens of evenings this way.
And besides, he was mean, too. Joe constantly berated me for being out of shape, for smoking cheap Mexican cigarettes, for moving to a country where I didn’t know the language and trying to learn Spanish from a book, although he didn’t speak a lick of Spanish himself as far as I could tell and was, in fact, trying to teach himself German by the same methods.
He took every possible opportunity to remind me of my ordinariness. I’d sit at the bar with my teach-yourself Spanish paperback, scanning lists of vocabulary. And the insults would begin.
“You’ll never learn that way,” he snarled at me once. “Might as well just quit.”
I ignored him.
“My mom was a teacher,” he muttered. “I know.”
I ignored him more.
“I’m telling you…”
“Shut the fuck up, loser!” I shouted. “No one cares about your opinion!”
A Russian cruiseboat captain who had been trying to chat me up edged quietly away, I remember, looking shocked. I didn’t care.
Although my attempts to teach myself Spanish were the source of extensive ridicule, Joe constantly bragged about how hard it was to learn German.
He needed to learn it, he said, because the CIA was grooming him for covert operations in Europe.
There is no fucking way, I remember thinking.
“If this works out, I could really be back on top,” he’d say, holding up his tatty old German workbook.
And I’d picture Joe at a biergarten, wearing a seersucker suit and sunglasses that shot darts out the sides. Chatting up a busty barmaid and eyeballing some big Bavarian gangsters over the rim of his beerstein.
“Any day, I’ll get my orders,” he’d say.
I’d see Joe shimmying up the side of a building, thick wads of foreign currencies stuffed down his underpants and a panopoly of State secrets captured on a secret camera lodged inside his Casio calculator watch.
But the real truth about Joe was probably that he’d come to Mexico to drink himself to death, and that probably he’d succeed. I think we both knew that.
In the end, our friendship, if you could even call it that, wasn’t terminated so much as quietly abandoned. We didn’t declare our undying hatred of each other after a particularly vitriolic battle of words and storm off to opposite ends of the island. We didn’t high five each other goodbye and mutter no bad blood and pose for a photo. One day perhaps five months after we’d first met, I showed up at the bar at the usual time and he just wasn’t there anymore. Or the next day, or the next.
Joaquin didn’t know where he’d gone and there was no one else I could think to ask. I was fairly sure I was his only friend on the island, or maybe anywhere.
Joaquin and I cooked up a few soft theories on his whereabouts. Joe deported by the government. Joe in a stiff blue polo shirt selling timeshares at one of the resorts on the east side of the island. Joe hopping the ferry to Cancun, that swollen, filthy orifice through which so many lost souls will themselves to disappear forever.
“Maybe he’s in Germany,” I snorted.
We both had a laugh and I pulled out my pack of Montanas. I was suddenly free to smoke my shitty, dusty cigarettes without fear of scorn or ridicule. Free to study my Spanish book and nurse my guacamole gut.
Joaquin lit my cigarette, then hurried off to greet a pack of fat, sunburned tourists stumbling into the bar. I smoked furiously, listening to the silence, trying hard not to look at the empty barstools next to me as the sky beyond the cantina darkened into full-blown night.
Down and Out in Meanest Heraklion
The shower water is cold. And it stinks.
I stand underneath, cringing, and examine my body for wounds. Just above my right elbow is the imprint of a man’s hand. Four blue smudges evoke the memory of fingers, an angry crescent moon of dried blood rising where a thumbnail broke the skin. My knees are skinned, and the long, flat bone above my heart throbs when I run the soap over it.
Assault. I turn the word over in my mind as I scrub my blackened heels. It seems so clinical, so far removed from the warm, sticky reality of what I feel inside, standing in this shower in a filthy hotel room in the Grecian isles. Trying to figure out what exactly happened last night. I press against the spot on my chest and wince. It will become a compulsive ritual in the days that follow, pushing my flattened palm against my sternum, searching for the tender spot, checking mirrors hourly, waiting for the bruise to rise.
At breakfast, Ashley and Meggan are quiet, subdued. We push food around our plates, stare at nothing. We’re not ready to talk yet. When I complain about my chest, though, Meggan’s mouth drops.
“You don’t remember?”
Her eyes fill up. “You fell. They were kicking you.”
A hazy tableau switches on. Me, curled on the pavement. Far above, three large silhouettes. An Italian loafer comes at my head. I buck, and a kick in the chest leaves me gasping. Meggan’s face is white and terrified as she breaks into the pack and yanks my limp body upwards.
Ashley stabs at a tomato. “I wanna leave,” she whispers.
So we hightail it out of Heraklion in a rental car, heading west. I’m at the wheel. We’re still not talking, but last night hangs thick in the air, like the smell of something burnt. Megan chain-smokes. Ashley puts on her big black sunglasses. I square my jaw, ride the pedal hard. Ocean and sky bleed into a white mirage as I steer us along the winding road to Hania. I’m trying to puzzle it out.
Ok, I think. Ok.
So, we left the club sometime after three. They’d probably followed us awhile, these guys, two drunken locals. One threw his arm around Ashley. She cursed and shoved him away, then it started, right? He backhanded her, I know. Hard enough to send her flying into a wall. I remember how she crumpled to the ground, the rage in Meggan’s eyes as she came at them, her beer bottle shattering against the fat one’s chest. Me, jumping into the scuffle, clawing and kicking. Men running from the shadows and joining in.
Here, my memory breaks into disordered chunks. So little remains distinct: flashes of ragged breath and sharp pain, the tangle of flailing bodies, smashing glass, the crowd of men growing. Someone shouting, Run! My lungs screaming as we tore through a gray maze of alleyways, the gang close behind. Someone losing a shoe.
The memories come at me fast and senseless as I steer us away, Meggan silent and Ashley sleeping. Soon, the guardrails disappear, the edge of the road dropping straight off into the blue, interminable Aegean. My hand’s against my chest. My mind hurts.
They had our keys. Right? We stopped running. I turned. The fat one was standing under a streetlamp jingling them, laughing. He looked so ugly. I was exploding. I could hear my own heartbeat, and a high voice shrieking, “You bastard! I’ll fucking kill you!”
That voice was probably mine, because I ran at them again. Stupid with rage, kicking at their testicles. Feeling so furious and tiny. Then, we were running again, up a hill towards the safety of a taxi queue, falling into the taxi, damp with sweat and tears, Ashley’s small body quaking next to mine. Her whispering, “My nose hurts.” Me whispering back, “Let’s not tell mom.” Stumbling into the hotel, no water, no cigarettes, no food. Sinking into clammy sleep.
I’m driving way too fast. Beyond the windshield, the world is smearing together. How could this have happened? What on earth had convinced us we could fight a gang of full-grown men?
Once upon a time, girls were told to be nice, to defer. But by the time I hit puberty, the rules had changed, and I was programmed instead to fight tirelessly back. So I did.
By 26, I knew all the tricks. I could turn my keys into impromptu brass knuckles, I had a red belt in tae kwon do, I’d tossed beers in faces, thrown angry punches, stomped and raged until my fear of violence had short-circuited into some muffled whisper I no longer even heard.
In some masochistic way, I wanted the bad guys to come after me. But it was about respect, not vengeance. Because everyone promised me that it was mine, if I demanded it loud enough.
Yeah, right. I’d fought back, and all it’d gotten me was an Italian loafer in the chest. Cornered with the pack closing in, I’d lunged like a rat. It was instinctual, irresistible. And it got me precisely nowhere. But how could that be?
In the rear seat, Ashley is stirring. Meggan turns the radio on, and the plainative chords of an old Greek love song fill the car. The opened windows are swallowing the noise up, though, so she’s making it louder and louder, until everything else is drowned out, disappears. Until there’s nothing but the salt wind, the sound of a stranger’s heart breaking. And all of the questions.
As I watch meanest Heraklion fade to gray in the rearview mirror, my chest aching mightily, I begin to wonder if perhaps it’s all so much simpler and stranger than I’d been prepared to imagine. In a world so postmodern, the big truths are liable to reverse themselves without warning, the escape hatch and the blind alley becoming indistinguishable. Sometimes the sheep wears the wolf’s clothing. Sometimes the clock ticks backwards. And sometimes, you’d better just shut up and run.
The Road to Phoussy Mountain
Laos is no place for an armchair humanitarian: tiny, flea-bitten children shit freely on the sides of roads, currency is so devalued that people carry their money around in backpacks, and flushing toilets are untenable luxuries that many have never seen.
But there he was, never the less. Miguel. A flamboyant Spaniard decked out in purple fisherman pants and yellow flip flops, clutching his woven satchel and grinning at me over the rim a piss-warm bottle of the local beer. We met one steamy January morning at a bus stop in the northern jungle. Circumstance dictated our short-lived friendship: we were the only non-native folks waiting for an already-packed vegetable truck headed for a distant and questionable civilization.
Poor Miguel. He was a diehard vegetarian, and he emanated a softness the locals seemed to sniff out. Barefoot kids dressed in rags flanked to him, begging bits of candy and coins. Piebald dogs pitched and rolled at his feet, exposing sore-covered bellies. And he just kept on grinning, in love with the world.
Things started going downhill almost as soon as the truck arrived. We each managed to snag a few precious inches of open space on the plywood plank that was running down opposite sides of the truck, and then we settled in for what was sure to be a hellatiously uncomfortable journey. Just behind us, a squat, middle-aged woman hoisted herself one-handed into the truck bed. In her free hand, she had a duck. Its feet were tied together and it was flapping around like crazy, most likely in protest of the fact that was carrying it by one splayed out wing.
The woman confidently inserted herself into a four-inch space next to me on the seat, cutting off all circulation to my lower body. Then, without looking, she tossed her still squawking dinner in the direction of the bench across the aisle. It smacked into the side of the bed beneath Miguel’s feet, then landed awkwardly against a bag of rice as the truck lurched forward. It let out a pitiful quack sound, then buried its face in its breast, shivering, trying to lose itself in some recollection, no doubt, of far happier times.
The woman wiped her hands together in a satisfied, Glad that’s settled kind of way, shoved a wad of betel nut into her cheek, and jammed her left elbow deep into my ribs in order to make a little more space for herself. The elbow would remain there for the rest of the 7-hour ride, but I hadn’t noticed yet. I was more concerned about Miguel.
He looked close to tears as he reached under the seat and pulled the shivering duck out. It quacked meekly as Miguel cradled it in his arms, whispering soft words.
They sat that way for some minutes, enjoying a private, shared misery. I let my eyelids flutter.
Suddenly, Miguel’s voice rang out in alarm. I opened my eyes. He yanked his hands, still cradling the duck, sharply upward and stared in horror at the crotch of his purple pants, which were now saturated with a healthy pile of gray-green shit. The duck quacked again, and a few more drops of shit oozed out and landed in the aisle. Miguel grew irritated and quickly shoved the duck back under the seat.
“Does anyone has a napkin?” He called out, wringing his hands.
Two crushed rows of faces started back at him. A toothless man hanging off the back of the truck giggled like a schoolgirl. His friends, also hanging off the back of the truck, quickly joined in.
Miguel looked jealously at the bandana I’d tied around my face, bandito style, for to keep out the jungle dust.
I shook my head at him. “No way.”
We were the both of us already covered in the brown stuff and I wasn’t about to sacrifice my favorite hanky on account of his altruistic ass. Besides, it was near impossible to breath without it, what with the roads being so dry. Definitely not my problem.
He whimpered and fretted a bit more and I slipped back into my reverie, muscling the fat woman for a few more precious centimeters of wiggle room. She clucked her tongue, spat a thick red mouthful of betel-laced saliva onto the floor between our feet, and the pointy elbow came at me again. I closed my eyes and tried to envision a cigarette.
As Miguel continued his lamentations, I licked my dry, chapped lips underneath the bandanna and fought back irritation. What had he expected? Barcelona, this wasn’t.
“Ooooh,” he moaned, gesturing toward his crotch. “I am so dirty.”
I knew he was talking to me, but I felt slightly guilty about the hanky situation, so I kept silent.
Then, a minute later: “I hate this rides. I always gets dirt in the pussy!”
This caught my attention.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“You know, in the pussy. It’s dirty. From the dirt, and now the shit!”
My mind whirled. Could he possibly mean…. Could he really have… I glanced back at him, noting his quivering adam’s apple and three-day growth of beard. That definitely wasn’t it. But then what was it?
Then it dawned. We were on the winding road to Luang Prabang, one of Laos’ more cosmopolitan cities. However, in a place like Laos, cosmopolitan really only means that you might be able to score a dented can of Fanta, or try your luck at a forty-year-old payphone that would probably just gobble up your coins anyway. To whit: one of the city’s proudest landmarks was a largeish hill called “Phoussy Mountain.” At the bottom of the mountain sat “Phoussy Restaurant” and, my personal favorite, “The Phoussy Hotel.”
That had to be what he’d meant. I smiled to myself under the hanky as Miguel attempted to flick the drying bits of turd off his pants.
Hours later, we emerged from the jungle and sputtered to a stop in the middle of town. Miguel and I peeled ourselves off of the wooden benches and stumbled out amongst the shabby colonial mess that is downtown Luang Prabang. I lit a cigarette and tried to work the life back into my nether regions. Everything ached.
Just behind us, the fat woman retrieved her dinner from under the seat, again by a wing, hopped nimbly from the truck, and scurried off down the road.
Miguel’s face looked pained as the quacking faded and then was finally swallowed up by the din of early evening foot and moped traffic.
I thought about inviting him out for a beer, but he still seemed sore about the bandana, so I nodded goodbye instead. As we turned to head opposite ways in search of guesthouses, our Lonely Planets in hand, he turned and called out, “I’m gonna have a shower!”
Then, gesturing toward his shit-stained crotch: “My pussy is sooo dirty! Ja ja!”
I was floored. Forget Phoussy Mountain, Phoussy Hotel. He really thought he had something called a pussy. Poor, poor Miguel.
I couldn’t stop myself from giggling. He just nodded, grinning inveterately, and skipped off down the dirt road.
I supposed, if were a nicer person, I would have disavowed him of this unfortunate lexical mixup in his otherwise respectable English vocabulary.
I didn’t, though. Cause if I’d learned anything that day, it was this: the world is pretty much a nasty place. And, well, you’re pretty much on your faithful own.
I am sitting in a cantina in Playa Las Penitas, Nicaragua, staring hard at the ocean and working mightily to digest the last pill in a wicked course of antibiotics I picked up from a friendly medico back in Juayua, El Salvador. Azitromiacena, it’s called … A succession of fat white bullets that have fast killed off the strep infection nesting in my tonsils but that also set my belly rumbling and turn my brain as mushy as warm chorizo. My stomach is just rolling right now, so bad that all I can do is grip onto the arms of my plastic chair and think again about how much I hate this moment right here. I just fucking hate it. Cause, really, how many times have I been here before? In some tropical paradise on heavy, nasty meds, just struggling not to hate life?
On the road, it’s always something. Always. The days and weeks and months and years I’ve logged far from home have been punctuated by a neverending shitstorm of phlegmy lungs and pocked up legs and revolting digestive issues, the details of which I’ve spared from everyone excepting sympathetic fellow travelers and my mom, the doctor. And I never get quite used to it, never sort out how to handle the pain with any sort of grace. Instead, being sick far from home often seems to bring out the very worst in me. It always ends up me shivering with fever in some filthy hostel or other, popping Advils and poring over the “Traveler’s Illnesses” section in the Lonely Planet guidebook until I’ve just put the fear of God into myself, until every spine tingle or muscle twitch is indicative, certainly, of some terrible strain of malaria incubating and multiplying in my already blackened bloodstream, or of an inoperable brainworm, or of a terminal case of dengue fever, the kind that makes your jaw lock up and sets you seizing violently and ultimately sends you home to your weeping parents in a green body bag. I freak myself out all the time. It’s way too easy.
I don’t know how to change this, and, thing is, I’m not sure I’d even want to, cause such fears are not entirely without foundation. You see, in my more irrational moments, I’ve got a history of semi-serious medical issues to draw on for fodder. E.coli poisoning in the jungles of Laos. Walking pneumonia in Ireland. And, now, wicked painful strep throat in El Sal. But I must acknowledge, too, that fear has, perhaps, a lesser place in the scheme of my battles with my own spotty health than I’d choose to grant it. It’s far too little about good luck or shit luck, cause too often, whatever it is that becomes wrong with me is, on some level, pretty much all my fault. On a base level, logging as much time as I’ve logged in the less developed parts of the world verily guarantees you at least a few unpleasant run-ins with disease and illness. But it’s more than that, cause most every infirmity on my short-list of afflictions list can be traced back to some indecorous moment. Skinny dipping in filthy, under-chlorinated swimming pools. Chowing down on chicken tacos in ill-advised local markets well after dark. A steady diet of little more than booze, falafel and cigarettes for two months straight. I know this, and I acknowledge that the sometimes cavalier approach I take to my own health when I’m on the road has been largely responsibly for some of the more vexatious infirmities I’ve endured.
But in the end, I try not to be too hard on myself. I need only look around me to recognize that there is hardly the semantic room for blame when you’re talking about sufferance at the hands of foreign viruses and bacteria. It’s not just me who gets kicked to the curb. It’s most everyone. Just about every day since I got here five weeks ago, at least one friend has been hamstrung with throw ups or welts or aching eyeballs. In Laos, as I recall, I rarely went half a day without encountering the pitiful machinations of some poor soul retching and spitting into a squat toilet. It’s the inevitable cost of venturing out of the bubble, a penance paid since time immemorial by those intrepid and foolhardy souls who carry their bodies far from home in pursuit of adventure or pleasure or even simple salvation. Just about no one gets away untouched. After awhile, it becomes part of the journey, inevitable. A sure and disarming conversation piece when you find yourself in the company of other travelers. Fodder for jokes, even. A way of relating.
All the same, I still fight it. I travel with a portable pharmacopeia by now, a mess of pills and herbs and colorful salves. And in my daily perambulations, I take pains that others find excessive. I refuse to sit on toilet seats or brush my teeth in tap water. I wash my hands compulsively. And more often than not, I turn my nose up at seafood platters and creamy chicken stews in favor of considerably less risky (and considerably less tasty) cuisine, usually some version of noodles or eggs and beans. And I still get the shits, or the flu, or whatever. And it. Pisses. Me. Off. I’ve never found a way to stop hating it, cause the longer story of my life has been peppered, too, with sickness, even at home, ever since I was a kid. I’ve always spiked outrageous fevers, often up to 105 degrees. I’ve been plagued by throat infections. And thanks to a high blood-sugar content, I am a natural magnet for every breed and species of biting insect. There’s no two ways around it. It fucking sucks.
But whichever way the causal errors truly point, it occurs to me that perhaps I’ve been too hard on myself these past years. Perhaps, too often, I’ve slipped into seeing my body as a sort of unreliable travel companion. Bossy, prone to laziness, always insisting on a night in just when I’m really ready to really go balls out. But—and here’s the thing—unlike some obnoxious traveling companion that I might link up with in a hostel lounge or bus terminal and later begin to loath, my body is pretty darn impossible to ditch. I can’t drop it a note on the nightstand and sneak off to the next town some early morning before it’s quite woken up. I am stuck with me, with my ever-rumbling belly and my sugary, irresistible blood and my eternal clumsiness and my taste for local booze and my penchant for the worst kinds of mischief.
So where does it leave me? The only real option with teeth, aside from deciding to shove my passport into a drawer and just stay home, seems to be to try and choose a Zen-like approach to the whole mess. Gaining control of the mind by gaining control of the body and whatnot. I make it into a game sometimes. If, finding myself squooshed onto a chicken bus cheek-by-jowl with scads of ripe-smelling locals, my belly starts to gurgle menacingly, I often just close my eyes and pretend I’m in a sauna. The sweat beads down my nose and I clutch my middle and squeeze my eyes and reach for some kind of stoicism, like a lamb put to pasture in a heavy downpour. Then, the crush of humanity around me and the mess inside of me both become a test, wearing me down, yeah, but making me stronger, too, for all that bad suffering. Cleansing me, even. But “Zen reformist” might be a better description of what it is I angle for. Cause hard booze is still my antiseptic of choice. And I still let myself scratch compulsively at mosquito bites, though I’ve pared it down to just one at a time, so that the scars might accumulate more slowly, even as I satisfy my insatiable craving for relief.
And yeah, about those scars. After twenty-some-odd years, all these pink blotches speckled up and down my arms and legs like tiny stars read as constellations, telling the story of my hard-fought battles in the green, rolling hills and the hot, high deserts far from home. On my upper arm, I bear a tiny crescent moon in the place where a man’s thumbnail broke through my skin as he grabbed me and threw me to the ground. On my left wrist is the fuzzy oval of a cigarette burn. On my foot, a still-shiny gash from a rusty truck bed I scraped across while hitchhiking in El Salvador a few weeks back. My poor feet. They’ve definitely endured the worst of it. They were always a bit ugly, but they’ve become, by now, immeasurably trashed and busted up and old from too many jungle tromps and stinging coral reefs and drunken dives into beds of sharp angry pebbles or, even once, a fish pond in Thailand. But they have carried my body far. I try very, very hard not to forget that.
Of course, it becomes mighty difficult to hold that though in moments such as now. These horse pills set my teeth on edge and give me the cramps and make even a peanut butter sandwich sound pretty much completely unappetizing, which seems so poetically ironic, considering that the toxicity of what’s tumbling through my bloodstream would probably let me gobble down a shank of raw horse with absolute impunity just about now. And, to make things worse, I seem, since this morning, to be developing a mild case of the flu. (A virus, mind you, on which antibiotics, no matter the strength, have little bearing. Awesome.) But Zen or no Zen, this is the path I’ve chosen for myself. And I stand by it, stubbornly. All this discomfort is what I choose (that word again) to endure in exchange for what I gain from these adventures so far from home. So, yeah. My body. It’s weak sometimes, but it puts up with me. So I put up with it. We disagree, but I like to think we’ve come to an uneasy peace by now.
In the end, all of this bitching leads inevitably to one final question: if it’s so bad, if it warrants so much complaint, why keep doing it? Doesn’t such a choice just smack of apologism? But, I think, if you could see the view from where I’m currently sat, with the big red sun drooping low over a mighty ocean as the fishermen drag their trowels back inland and the thin scrappy dogs scatter across the darkening beach, whooping and howling, well, I bet you’d know my answer already.
The View from Here
I am sitting down to write this from a small, narrow room on the second floor of a withered edificio in the heart of Xela, Guatemala. It might not be entirely accurate to call this a “spare room,” as the family of five I’m staying with share just two bedrooms in the apartment across the hall. My place is a dark, damp affair with just a single window that looks out into a high-traffic hallway. The walls are painted a shade of orange that resembles Thousand Island dressing more than anything else. A few scattered frames hang on the wall, boasting tableaux of rushing rivers and tiny market streets. Not much by way of fresh air gets in, and it smells more than a bit like stale sweat. It’s a distinct aroma, the sour residue of all the warm, living bodies that have tossed and turned between these walls for decades and decades. For dinner, our host mother, Aurie, cooked us up plates of black beans, fried platanos and scrambled eggs. I dumped a few heaping spoonfuls of white, crumbly cheese on top and mopped the whole thing up with still-warm tortillas.
Earlier this after afternoon, I’d crossed paths with two American girls who have been staying here while they crash-course Spanish in preparation for a lengthy missionary trip. Building churches and tending to the lost and whatnot. I certainly have my misgivings about such endeavors, even when they are entirely well intentioned, but by this time of night I have to wonder if my movements as a backpacker are really any less invasive, any less—dare I say it—colonial. Hear me out. I’m paying 40 bucks a week to bunk up with a local family, meals inclusive. The best and most savory dishes, the choice cuts of meat, will be served to me. Then the father will eat his fill of whichever of the most prized tidbits remain. The mother and children come last, and will likely sate themselves on far simpler fare. Granted, that, on its own, is not necessarily something to feel like a shit about. Taking in boarders is a practice as old as it is universal: the weary traveler comes knocking and finds a hot meal and a warm bed in exchange for some coins or perhaps a bit of news from distant lands. But the world is smaller these days, and besides, I don’t come bearing stories. I don’t rattle off old bards, I don’t sing for my supper. I carry other, heavier things in tow: a suitcase full of fancy electronics and microfiber clothing. A wallet full of credit cards. And an Atlas-sized load of white guilt. Don’t misunderstand me. I bear good intentions, yeah, and a measure of cursory charity. I speak the language of the country I’ve come to see, or at least enough to smooth my passage, to move transactions and interactions along in a respectable and mutually comprehensible fashion. And I’m trying to learn more.
It’s just that it’s, well, funny. I’d always been told that privilege itself is nearly weightless, really, for those of us who enjoy a measure of it. The only ones who know its true heaviness are those who live out their lives on its stanky underside, where the scramble for rank is most brutal, where people rage and strain to shoulder its bulk, they say. But there are moments, when I’m far from home, when it suddenly seems a weight enough to topple me straight over. Example one: A few of us travelers were bitching the other day that we couldn’t sort out why it was so hard to get a decent-tasting cup of coffee in a place like Guatemala, renowned as it is the world over for its astonishingly tasty beans, its thick, smoky roasts. Then one of the more clearheaded of our bunch pointed out that it would simply cost too much, that most Guatemalans probably couldn’t afford to buy a cup of coffee roasted from the beans they broke their backs coaxing up from the rich, wet earth. Example two: someone stole my credit card out of a hostel room in Antigua a week back. By the time I figured out it was gone, they had already used it. The damage? Two-hundred simple bucks. It seemed such a pitifully small amount that I didn’t think twice about it. In fact, a part of me wanted to find the kid who had done it and just shake him and tell him that, for some of us, the world is so much bigger than a couple of thin bills. And then a part of me felt so terrible, because I’d been robbed and all I could do was reel at the pathetically nominal impact it would have on my life. It made me feel disgustingly impervious, as if I were stationed so far above some people in the world that even their attempts to cheat me only just bounced back off like little pebbles. Practically inconsequential, a minor annoyance, like cucarachas or traveler’s diarrhea. And moments like that get me to realizing, with some dismay, that I will probably never be able to wiggle out from under such a mentality. Especially not in a place like Guatemala.
And yet such thoughts seem so terribly at odds with the person I want to think of myself as, cause there is definitely a purist movement among the backpacker crowd, and getting into that club usually requires little more than finding some way to distinguish oneself as superior to others who are traveling through the same region. Maybe it’s doing a trip sans guidebook, or finding some secret Rasta bar where the joints go for local price. Maybe it’s talking an abuela down to two quetzals for your hunk of banana bread when your companions paid five. Whatever it may be, people, present company included, like to fancy themselves “travelers,” not “tourists,” and they’ve got the comparatively limited funds and the soiled attire and the woven bag and the quitted job to prove it. But the hairs split more than just that once. A few rungs up from tourists are the “Trustafarians,” rich kids who get around on dad’s coin and snort astonishing quantities of their travel budget up their nose. Next come the “Flashpackers,” who make no bones about shelling out for nights in cleaner hotels, who carry laptops and cell phones and will return to fancy gigs as investment bankers and engineers in a few months’ time. I could go on. After awhile, though, it all becomes so arbitrary in a way.
Cause in the end, probably, we are all colonizers in our own subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Forget big, bad empires that swallow entire peoples whole, that burn books and smash up temples spread their seed far enough and wide enough to dilute ethnic lines to the point of obsolescence. The new imperialism spreads by way of a much subtler kind of cultural co-opting, and we who choose to venture out of the bubble can’t avoid our status as transmitters. In the end, what does it matter if we come carrying a Bible or a Lonely Planet? (Serendipitously, also referred to as “the Bible” amongst the backpacker crowd.) We are all of us sentries, spreading Coca-Cola and Britney Spears and scads of other kinds of incontestable and sometimes humiliating evidence that in some places, life is pretty fucking cushy, indeed. Bussing it through Guatemala City on my first day here, I recall spotting about four McDonalds restaurants, a Sherwin Williams Paint store and—get this—a Hooters restaurant. And that was just on the way out of town. And what it comes down to is this: as a “person who travels,” I am forced both to witness and to participate in the slow bleed of Westernization-cum-democracy, every place at a time, an IV drip with a direct line into the bulging vein of destitution. And, man, aren’t there just fucking oceans of it? Yeah, I’ve seen the future. It is run by Mickey Mouse. And he’s slugging down a cup of Starbucks and farting out U.S. currency, his belly bloated from bucketfuls of shitty fried chicken.
But yeah, it’s a freaking matrix. I can only write what I’ve just written because I’m standing atop that imperialist hill, where the vanishing point is non-existent, where perspective spreads out infinitely and the true lay of the land reads like a messy patchwork of very unequal parts shit and dumb luck. And admitting all of this implicates me directly with too many things I hate, cause truth told, I wouldn’t trade stations, ever. I can’t help it. I’m just too soft and too sated by now. The living’s too good at the top. But man, for all the beauty in this world, the view from where I’m sat is sometimes a rough sight to behold.