29 May 2014 § Leave a comment
On the Coastal Starlight Amtrak, yesterday morning, observation deck.
Is this seat taken? a man asked. Shane stood at the edge of my base camp, a corner of the lounge car littered with books, pens, shoes, socks, a laptop on the floor, next to a jacket-pillow.
Nope, I said, and removed from the next seat a kitchen of hummus, cheese, and a dive knife sitting on a plate/cutting board/storage bag of the best homemade tortillas in the world.
You look like you’ve been enlightened by travel, he said.
Yes, I replied, enlightened to a world of things I don’t know anything about.
Train culture fascinates me. Indeed, all culture fascinates me, but trains in particular – the blurring of socio-economic lines in public areas; the potential for someone to sit next to you with whom you may have everything, or nothing, in common; that everyone, no matter how rich or poor, who chooses to dine on the train, eats the same microwaved, overpriced garbage. Even a recluse can make friends on a train.
Shane and I stumbled through the first minutes of shallow travel talk as the guide on the PA announced a contest: whomever counts the correct number of tunnels we pass through in the Oregon Cascades gets a prize.
In the uncountable dark tunnels, lit by tiny track lights in the ceiling, we traded stories of big hard lessons from the road, and what it means to have multiple homes. He spent months in a Russian prison circa the fall of the curtain, accused of spying. I told him about hitching in European blizzards, and in the Alaskan winterdark. How we got out of our predicaments: other people. Connections, loved ones.
You remind me of that guy in that movie, he said, you know, he went to Alaska, and he died?
Into the Wild was required reading for me in high school, I said, but I think I’m done hitching. I’m tired of sleeping at truck stops, under bridges, with the mice and mice of men.
I’ve been compared to Alexander Supertramp more times than I care to admit. At first, I felt complimented. I admired his idealism, his thirst for adventure. I wanted to push as many walls over as I could, whilst listening to the real Alaskan bushmen, hunters and fishermen and roughnecks, the fathers and uncles of my teenage years. They said he was an idiot, a moron, unprepared. The wilderness gives two shits about you, they said. Alaska will spit you out. He deserved what he got.
When I moved back to Alaska in my mid-twenties, I connected with the outdoors far more than with people. I packrafted glacier-fed class 3+ rapids in rain slicks, a brand-new hobby, and one I learned by trial and error alone; I bagged peaks in the Chugach and Alaska ranges without any real training or background in mountaineering; I hitched across the state, and took multiday backcountry adventures, sometimes in late fall or early spring. Conditions which, if anything went wrong, could have killed me.
To top it off, I never told anyone where I was going. I lived with my mum, who worked often. I never left notes, rarely took pictures. Often I didn’t know where I’d end up until I got to an out-of-the-way trailhead. My car was registed to a fake address half the state away, and I didn’t carry identification on my person – the useless card would weigh me down, I reasoned.
Maybe I wanted to be like John Muir, to toss some bread and tea into a sack, jump the proverbial fence, and walk into the wild unknown. But Alaska doesn’t really have fences. For two years, my mum’s place as base camp, I trusted my balance, resourcefulness, and growing experience to carry me through my adventures. In retrospect, I’m fairly certain that I didn’t really care much if I died out there.
Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours hit theaters in 2011. Adventure movie by the director of Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later? Inspiration? Please! Sure, I’d thumbed through Aron Ralston’s Between a Rock and a Hard Place amongst mountaineering literature in bookshops, but never read it. The message reached me anyway.
In 127 Hours, the main character – played by James Franco – falls into a slot canyon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, and his hand gets wedged between the wall of the canyon and a rock roughly the size of a refrigerator. He goes through his gear: climbing rope, flashlight, camcorder, a bit of water; and imagines what it would take to get out of his predicament: eight strong men – who in the film appear as shadows in the relentless desert sun – pulling in sync on a line which might free the stuck young man below.
I pictured myself at the bottom of a whirlpool rapid on Alaska’s Sixmile River, or Sheep Creek (rivers I had no business running alone), or breaking an ankle near the summit of Bold Peak. I imagined facing off with a brown bear in the empty tundra of the Talkeetna mountains, and losing. Realistic situations, given my ambition. Then I envisioned the shadows of eight strong men, willing and able to help, playing cards back in Anchorage, because no one knew to look for me.
The point is that since the dangerous, unlikeable age of 23, I’ve learned some boundaries. My risk assessment is different now: why would I jump from the top of a fifteen-foot boulder, if I could walk nimbly down the other side?
If travel and adventure have enlightened me to anything, as Shane suggested, it is to the fragility of life. We humans are at once resilient and adaptive creatures, capable of creation, destruction, and healing. Yet it takes a relatively insignificant decision to alter the dynamic of life: half a second on a motorcycle, a moment’s hesitation on a mountain, saying a terribly inconsiderate – even if true – thing at the worst possible moment. Perhaps one reason we are so incredibly adaptive is that we are extremely sensitive to set and setting, and those who listen are the ones who learn, and thus, survive.
We’ve got work to do.
11 March 2014 § 4 Comments
My last supper in India: the upper room of a tattoo studio, King Circle, Mumbai. Fish curry and homemade chapatti – and two new dishes I’ve not heard of, even after two months in this country – a sign of only just landing. A mother’s steel food containers sit on a rolling office chair, three young men hunched over them, eating with our fingers. Yogesh the artist smiles humbly at my excitement.
“You like the food,” he asks, or says. In India, I can rarely detect a tonal difference between statements, demands, questions. The artist intern, I’ve forgotten his name three times and am now embarrassed to ask, leans over me to dip chapatti in the veg. “And the piece?”
I’m radiating happiness. Mumbai has been only good to me, this shop a sweet icing spread by getting lost in a district of colonial manors, technology institutes, and modern apartment buildings carved like Pharaohs’ tombs. I have no idea where I am, which is at least consistent with the rest of the trip.
And it doesn’t matter. The tattoo was perfect, a realization of a year and a half of touring mediocre or wildly egotistical ink factories when I wanted little more than a good font and an artist who was stoked on it, too.
It figures I’d get my first piece abroad. In India, no less, hours before boarding a plane to Singapore. The next afternoon, Bali.
“No seawater for 15 days,” Yogesh says. This is a definitive statement, I can tell, but argue anyway: But I’m going to Bali!
“Ten days then. You don’t want it infected. Believe me.”
Humility and art illuminate this man’s smile. He’s six months older than I, a motorcycle adventurer and successful business owner. His art style sings graffiti blues, peacock feather filigree and abstract shadows that could be trumpets or a woman’s hands – simple, elegant, as close to the poetic images in my mind as I’ve seen.
I came in on a hunch. Leo Tattoos lives between the humid dinge and grime of Mumbai’s metropolitan sprawl. I was lost, blocks from my last reference point, when I looked through a glass door at the bald head of Moses. Something, perhaps the oppressive heat, told me to go inside.
Moses had one-inch plugs in his ears, a thick black beard, and a head tattoo of an ancient warrior’s bone blade. He was a miniature version of two different men I’ve known, and when I think of the trio, I see uncanny resemblances across bloodlines and nations, native and diaspora. Moses, a kind man set to be married to a Swiss girl, made me a pair of rosewood earrings from scratch – cut the pieces from a ruler-sized slab of Indian rosewood, sat on the floor and filed the wood LEGOs down to smooth plugs.
While he whittled, Yogesh and I talked art. The studio emanated inspiration. A bike wheel, axled to the computer desk, spun nonchalantly as he cruised the web for photos. The black cupboard doors are covered in childish carvings, a cub scout with a pocket knife. On the walls, art within plywood frames; silent bells hang above hand-carved chairs. Vibrations of sandpaper static and tattoo gun buzz and a woman’s voice from the speakers collide mildly in the air-conditioned space. I feel grounded and welcome here. For a while, the four of us explore our respective channels, quiet and gathered, drawing and carving and writing ourselves with wood and ink. In each of our hands, a new self-portrait births every hour. Inspirations comes to procreate here, in search of willing students, mates, mediums of men of art and blood, music, expression the priority. I am honored to create amongst them.
Yogesh doesn’t have many tattoos himself. “I just haven’t found the right artist,” he says. He showed me his work. Everything custom, except for some Americans who want a photocopy of Ganesha on the shoulder. Most of his style comprises lines and shadows with words and eyes and filigree, accentuated with jazz notes, a simple fusion.
“What can you do with a five-letter word?” I ask.
He wrote my word – trust. – complete with the period, on a blank sheet of paper. “It’s a perfect design,” he says, tilting his head to look at it sideways. “What is your definition?”
That, I think, I’ve got a lifetime to figure out.
21 February 2014 § 2 Comments
The other day, I learned to ride a motorcycle from a beautiful woman on LSD.
Another lazy tropical night approached, its inevitable roar beginning. The sun fell through flimsy clouds like a meteor anxious to rest, and the frogs and crickets called in mates for supper. The deteriorated one-and-a-half lane road gave way to buses, rickshaws, motorbikes and the occasional BMW of wealthy Indian families on holiday. There were no rules on these asphalt paths, only unspoken recommendations to drive generally on the left side, and avoid hitting what may stand in the way: cows, water buffalo, stray children. Especially the cows.
“Wait, you don’t know anything about bikes?” Sasha asked.
“Let’s just start from the beginning.”
A Spanish teacher of mine once said she hated to teach intermediate students – they think they know it all because they can order food at a fancy restaurant! I didn’t want to tarnish the lesson because I thought I knew where the clutch and throttle lived.
“Okay,” she began, “This is the clutch!” She squeezed the lever.
“Right. Clutch,” I said.
“But the clutch on the left side.”
Laughter burst from her.
Aaron, Sasha’s boyfriend, left us to study motorcyclically while he ran to the top of the Monkey Temple for sunset. Apparently Hanuman was born up there, on Kishkinda Mountain, a pilgrimage site atop thousands of boulders inexplicably, irrationally stacked, collapsed, erect, broken, beautiful. Reflections of India herself.
Sasha, a 22-year-old German traveler, learned from her father at seven. He owns bikes from every decade since the thirties, including the little 60cc on which his daughter learned to ride. Besides that, I knew that she’d ridden a motorbike through North India for six months, and had been on this trip for one year and a half.
Despite her altered state, Sasha’s CV seemed legit. The basics: Throttle. Kick start. Clutch. Gears. Brake. I delegated tasks per limb. Brake, kickstart? No, clutch, kick, throttle. Throttle, Kick! She laughed and stumbled through the explanation. At one point, a local man from the coconut and soda stand came over.
“Something wrong? What happen?”
First lesson: humility.
“Nothing,” I said. “First time.”
I practiced accelerating in first gear half a dozen times down the driveway before she let me on the road. Ten feet forward, walk it back, start again. Where does the key go? Neutral, Throttle, Kick start.
Sasha ran behind me, long white legs and cleavage a silver screen on the Indian sunset landscape: in tourist hubs like Hampi, local men stared more subtly, but still. I might have looked myself, had I not just discovered a new variety of freedom.
I pulled over, and grinned. Got off the bike and jumped up and down, arms in the air. I was a kid who’d just uncovered a great secret, accomplished a far-off dream. Like, OMG happiness squared.
Sasha arrived, breathless. “That was great – you did it!”
Female Approval! The child Sean ran in gleeful circles cheering, hands waving, oblivious to traffic; I smiled.
We stopped again for sunset. The fiery meteor shamed street lamps with purest lavalight, fell farther between a giant V of harmless blue-grey clouds, and settled somewhere else, in a faraway West I didn’t know, but could.
Aaron returned from the monkey temple; Sasha bid me take it out one last time.
The wind was intoxicating. Jungle bugs smashed into my face. No doors, no seatbelt, no cabin walls. No windshield. No anything. Just a little engine, two wheels, me, and the road.
Suddenly it made sense. Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels; the cultish love for motorcycles; special hand signals bikers made to one another below the handlebars; bikers-only bars in the American West; the leather, long hair, and fuck-the-system attitude.
Puzzle pieces I’d been missing pinged on the radar. The point was to let go. To think outside the box was one thing, but to live outside it was entirely another. To travel. To write. To eat. To sense.
Some moments cause great rifts, shifts, shuffles. Gulfs are created, oceans form. Eventually, it takes great effort to reach the other side, which just a minute ago seemed close, and listening. Sometimes those moments take away that which we thought immovable. How to cope with loss?
The great boulder hills of Hampi appear to me as fistfuls of stone, crushed by a giant and poured from his hand, a great hourglass. The piles of broken rocks built castles of delicately balanced stones, its fissures and cracks not weaknesses but passageways: opportunities for thorny plants to thrive; challenges to climbers, clamberers, scramblers, adventurers of every sort.
Mountains become what we like them to be – sleeping giants, birthplaces of gods, home – yet remain mountains, infinite stillness that morphs and grows and breaks and builds over millennia, and all at once. Likewise, people are simultaneously themselves and the perceptions, ideals, expectations, dreams and loves of others. And, sometimes, we are mountains.
The ocean drained from this place long ago, its massive highway currents (remember Finding Nemo? Imagine if he had a motorcycle!) caused the great piles, most likely: I imagine the psychedelic, alien colors of coral reefs decorating the tropical desert landscape – fish darting between stones, the worn curves in rock that only water over dozens of thousands of years can achieve. I wonder when will the sea return. In an afternoon, a violent tsunami (not rare in this part of the world), or slowly, like a rising tide?
I am free of myself, and lost again. Quiet, but not silent. The little Honda between my legs purrs, a 150cc feline, leans with me, goes where I will it, the risk in our symbiosis ever a reason to straighten my posture, and keep my eyes on the road.
8 February 2014 § 2 Comments
Days pass in Udaipur, like beggars indifferent to rejection. The desert winter sun shimmers on Lake Pichola. This morning there is a record three clouds in the sky. Across the street, a blind man stands upon a speed bump, white cane in hand. Dark skin and cataracts. A sign hangs from his neck, half-Hindi, half-Hinglish, painted blue on white, an old traffic sign:
My Eyes Opration.
Please Help Me.
He holds a receipt book in his left hand, a record of those who do not ignore him. It is open to the second page. He’s got a five o’ clock shadow from last Saturday, and wears leather trainers, dirt-ridden and worn like the hands of the motorcycle mechanic who works next to Daiji footbridge.
Does this man know the yellow glow of the gold chain fitted to his neck? Does he remember the eyes of the young artist who walks by silently, a Western woman on his arm, who as a child brought the blind man food from his mother?
Can the man with the sign around his neck hear my steady eyes upon his, or the traces of my guilt for staring into a face of India which cannot, for once, stare back? In my ears, these are raucous, electric hums; my heartbeat amplified like the temple bells ringing in a nearby alley. We both turn our heads toward the clangor.
A group of boys line up at the metal railing outside Café Edelwiess; one, then three, then seven, holding metal bowls like topless kettles. Inside the bowls, sculpted men sit upon beasts, like Shiva Linga, covered in black oil and petals of marigold.
Kana, pani, one ragged boy says, over and over again. Food, water. He can’t be nine years old. He points to his mouth, then to the chocolate on my plate.
“Chapatis, sir, chapatis,” says an older boy, 12 or so, in clothes as dirty, and barefoot. They stand one meter away from our table, behind a chain hung like a velvet rope in a cinema queue line. There are no chapatis on screen; only Westerners and chocolate. My table is on the front line: other Westerners talk and eat behind me, deeper in the cave of the wall-less cafe.
I cannot use the Hindi phrase for sending away touts – nahi chaiye, I do not want. These children offer me nothing, want only my food. “Hello, sir, chapatis.” A hoarse, intimate whisper from the old beggar within the barefoot pre-teen: “Please.”
I’ve seen him squatting near a street fire of burning plastic at night to keep warm. Huddled in circles: community, empathy, and friendship. Things I cannot, and do not, offer him. So I ignore him, all of them and their pleas for kana; hello, please, sir, chapatis. Sir, please. Hello?
My book-wise glare renders me into another deaf Westerner, and they leave. I cannot, will not, eat in front of them, nor can justify teasing them with two sandwiches on my table, heaping with eggs and bacon. I pretend the sandwiches are not there. I write instead, holding the tears back because maybe they’ll think I’ll break, and then they’ll have full stomachs for the day, and return tomorrow – with hope.
I am an awful, selfish voyeur. Another white invader whose economic contributions profit hotels that shun locals as a cultural norm. A hotelier in Bikaner said, any unmarried Indian couple cannot, by Indian law, stay the night in a tourist hotel.
If, by chance, a foreigner befriends a local, the latter is typically not allowed in the foreigner’s hotel. The receptionists and owners of Dream Heaven in Udaipur, in the case of a British woman who invited a local restauranteur to have dinner with her, said the local was “a good Indian man, and is welcome here!” For others, they fear rape, or robbery, or some other sin for which we do not have a word.
After twenty minutes, the boy beggars give up on me, and walk away, determined as when they arrived. Hope is dangerous.
Or is it?
Who am I, exactly, that I would deny a child food, at the word of a rich man who said it would do them no good? How can one who has not known true hunger say such a thing? My friend, American activist Kokayi Nosakhere would be appalled, ashamed, dash our friendship to the dogs. His mission is to end child hunger, and in the past, I have said, with words and action, that I support him.
Do I support him now?
Who am I, again, to deny a request for a photo from a group of Indian men in a park, or from a family on holiday, or a few rupees to a woman in the park? Is it because I wish for a connection based less on currency, or prefer the barter economy of buskers or street artists, a penny for a song? And if these children have not even had the opportunity to learn an instrument, or how to use their voice but to beg to survive the day, or a mother’s callused hand?
What fucking right have I to project expectation or want upon a culture that asks so little of me? How audacious it seems to think, I want this experience to have such and such an impact on me; I need to see this or that; to feel the frustration, which leads me to write this. I harbor hatred for the roles we’re born into, the caste system to whom everyone here – not just locals – is subject to, inserted into a predetermined slot of economic import. I want to wriggle out, run away, and I want these children to know… what? That the grass is greener? That the law of attraction applies here, now?
What can I offer them? Freedom? Opportunity? The strength to climb an impossible ladder?
Oh, that I could offer them anything!
Already I deny the boys that which means virtually nothing to me, and could afford easily to buy each one of them a sandwich of protein and fresh-baked bread. I could likely pay for the eye opration [sic] of the blind man out-of-pocket. Not long ago, I wondered what gulf exists that would keep the “open-hearted” traveler in me from connecting with, interacting with, or relating to the people of my host country?
That gulf is wider than the Pacific Ocean. At the moment, for me, it is an uncrossable, unbearable feat. Airplanes and cargo ships could not bring me closer to the little boy three feet away, who has returned to the far side of the railing, outside this foreigner-owned café. He saw something in me, and came back for it. I fear for us both.
In the western, time-zoned, modernized first world, we live a day behind India’s each passing hour, where the beggars of the future ask help from travelers visiting from the past. How do we reply?
3 January 2014 § 1 Comment
In Holy Cow, Sarah MacDonald’s acclaimed travel narrative about two pivotal years living in India, she notices, while on a trip to Derradun, two white people who seem “determined to believe they are the only westerners to have discovered the delights” of the town.
Sarah arrived in India in 1999, just before the turn of the century, and the last BIG Kumbh Mela (which occurs once every 144 years). MacDonald was the quintessential “spiritual tourist”; many chapters of ‘Holy Cow’ narrate her trips to visit gurus Amma in Kerala, and Sai Baba near Bangalore (modern buddhas, both with millions of followers); a venture to the Pakistan border to get the low-down on the Sikh faith, and to wash away her bad karma at Kumbh Mela on the Ganges River. On a trip to Dharamsala, MacDonald was audience to hear the Dalai Lama speak, and left the town a couple of days later having adopted both Buddhism and Jewish faith. Perhaps the most enlightening side-trip was a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat, which served as the gateway to a softer narrative tone in the book, and noted her increased compassion for even sleazy Indian men who stare at her relentlessly wherever she goes.
That was all nigh 14 years ago – years before I started traveling, and a few years after Leo DiCaprio in The Beach (a film adaptation of Alex Garland’s bestseller) was accused of revealing certain traveler secrets to the masses. Inspired American kids newly introduced to the concept of ‘gap year’ headed off for Koh Phangnan, Costa Rica, and an armful of other destinations the 90’s “ruined” by ever-cheaper plane tickets, an influx of international travel magazines hitting the market, and other privileged white kids needing to go find themselves (disclosure: the author is also of a Caucasian, male, middle-class, US-American-with-identity-issues heritage).
It could be said that narratives like MacDonald’s ‘Holy Cow’ and Garland’s ‘The Beach’ paved a path riddled with backpackers and dreadlocks from Western Civilization to the exotic world. By the time I was born in the mid-80’s, Thailand and Bali and South America were already popular backpacker routes. I cannot speak to what Costa Rica was like before I lived there in 2011; it was probably cheaper, a little more “third-world” (a label many ticos cling to, despite the saturation of universities in the capital, abundance of IT jobs, and a bursting tourism industry), and certainly less gringo.
I write this from Pokhara, Nepal, on my first journey to the Eastern Hemisphere, though not my first time in a darker-skinned country where most light-skinned people donning The North Face and Arc’Terex (when a t-shirt would do fine), seem oblivious to, or deliberately avoid, other white people. Travelers. Tourists. People whom, at home, they might connect with because Travel, for us, is an essential ingredient to Life. The very act of exploring other cultures can open the heart and mind in ways life without a passport cannot.
So, we (my wife, who definitely has a passport) are in Pokhara, a primary tourist town of Nepal, at the base of famed Mount Annapurna, and base camp to some of the best trekking routes in the world (at least, the old guys said it used to be that way). There are other travelers here. Germans, Indians, Israelis, Americans, Canadians, Argentinians, French, English, Chinese. The list goes on. That doesn’t need to be said, but evidence suggests otherwise. We tend to not acknowledge each other while walking about the town. I am as guilty as any. I narrow my focus in search of “authentic cultural experiences,” in search of a long-lost place to which I am the first explorer. Maybe colonialism is genetic, and I carry the virus.
We have things in common, we white people. Not as much as the average Nepali might assume, but Pokhara is not where one goes to avoid other tourists. So be kind. Say hello. Maybe pick up some garbage from the lakeshore. If you’re really intent on straying from the backpacker/trekker route, it’s not difficult. Pick a random town on a map of rural Nepal, and take the local bus. Eat dal bhat, stop complaining about the daily power cuts, and learn useful phrases in the dialects. You’ll still stand out (some of us are “too tall for Nepal,” as our friend Josh says), and locals will probably still charge Westerner prices, but maybe they’ll cut a deal for a friend.
My wife decided to call on Ghandi’s wise cliché of being the change she wished to see. We walked along the shore trail, and she said hello to every westerner we passed. Virtually all of them replied with a smile and hello. Some with ‘Namaste.’ It doesn’t take much, I think, to change the world, no matter who you are, what color, or where you stand. Maybe that’s naïve.
10 December 2013 § 4 Comments
In 33 hours, we depart for Nepal.
Strewn across our candlelit basement: backpacks, toothbrushes, wool thermals, sandals (’cause we’re going to India, too, right?), cash, fire staves, lighters, cameras, knives, tea cups, and you-paid-what-for-that? tags tossed unceremoniously into the recycling bin.
I’m embarrassed by how many Apple products, Bluetooth and USB devices are laying around. More by how many have a place in my bag. Am I really going to bring the computer, I wonder. “Well, if I’m going to write a book…”
Two days ago, on a ninja drivehike to Hood River, the man who pulled up my zipper at my wedding asked, “if you added the cost of everything in your backpack, what would it be?” Jordan’s a 100% friend and climbing partner. A voice of reason, and challenge. Like, “Are you going to rappel this, or not?” and, “No, those aren’t the mushrooms you think they are.”
I’m counting the months until I’ll climb with him again. The number’s two hands high. When he asked about my backpack, I reconsidered the reasons I wanted to go to Nepal, Varanasi, Bangladesh, Burma. What a privilege to think, I can visit the Himalaya and the Ganges Delta, and the countless stories in between. To think, I have the freedom and money to visit some of the poorest regions on Earth, and what am I bringing to them?
The influence and love of my friends is a new type of fuel for me. So is a GoPro camera and a desire to connect. I still have my feet and feelings and eyes, but I’m having trouble justifying my existence. Should I stay in Portland and live my white western privilege out in the land of the less-free-by-the-day, should I dream, discover, and explore because Twain’s suggestion sat well with me?
How exactly do you travel, again?
I’m trying to remember; picturing my backpack full of used books and granola bars, Boris the eyeless spider hanging from a zipper handle, and how many times I slammed his stuffed cherry red spiderbody into the back seat of an old van in Alaska, a Cadillac in Ireland, the Mercedes of a professional bodyguard who took me from an icy highway exit to a train station in Luxembourg. How many people said they picked me up just for the fedora, or gave me a place to sleep for the night because… why? Because I was there, and they were there, and could we connect at our respective velocities, even for a few moments?
These memorial travel narratives make sense only to those who were part of the stories – that’s why they’re not popular with travel magazines. Those guys are looking for texture – the flickering candlelight on the wet wall next to the bed, or the sandy crunch of a sweet found on a pier in Zadar. How the bob-haired girl in the next bus seat took so many pictures along the Croatian coast, I thought the camera’s beep would break my brain. I imagined how the slideshow back in Saskatchewan would sound: “And then, we turned left!
Here’s some texture: tears that refuse to be absorbed by arm hair, ones that fall like fists from the edge of a broken man’s lower eyelid when he hasn’t been hugged in two years. When he’s not been told recently that he’s definitely a good man. When two of his attempts at Positive Role Model have wound up on the coroner’s table without reason.
For years, You, reader, have borne witness to my ramblings, off-beat rhythms and ill-placed anger, seen the development of a skill to intertwine suicide with just about any other topic, and may or may not have understood opaque descriptions of how broken I’ve thought my heart was. I’m not sorry. I’ve got a lot to off-load, and I tend to do that here – into a root system I named on the backside of a notebook eleven years ago.
I was looking for the surface tension of a magnifying glass, and accidentally burned a hole through the sun. Been trying to see clearly since, and in blurry waves, only feeling comes.
The backpack’s on the floor. It cost more than a rural Nepali earns in a year. Loading up my luxuries and trekking across the world – because it is my shellfish portal to enlightenment, to stories I’ll collect and share with the diminishing Western World.
That’s my intention: collect stories. To find the poetry in Nepal. As if Peter Matthiessen, Milarepa, or a thousand generations besides have somehow failed.
No, it’s not that I’ve forgotten how to travel – quite the opposite. I’ve learned to focus aimless wandering into purposeful movement. Despite the evidence. There will be time for child’s play, I assure myself, and the story-collecting continues regardless of where my feet tramp. Right now, I’m taking inventory, and finding the contents of a backpack matter less than the reasons I fill it.