A scammer and a 49er walk into a casino…

21 August 2014 § Leave a comment

“I won the Nigerian lottery,” Tony said, deadpan. “Four million dollars.”

Tony, Heather and I stood ten paces from the door of Muckleshoot Casino, the most profitable casino in the country, according to the concierge. Tony met us for an Elvis Presley impersonator concert at the Galaxy Lounge. The last night of a seven-day run, the musicians flowed through the setlist like an oiled assembly line: tight rhythm, perfect solos, big smiles. During the encore, an inebriated woman stumbled on stage for a spot-lit moment with the wigged singer, and “Elvis” kissed her cheek as security ushered her offstage.

“All I have to do is send them $150,” he said. “I’ll pick the guy up at the airport in Seattle, and he’ll give me the cash. After expenses, of course.”

The fluorescent lights of the parking garage created a sort of halo around Tony’s stocky silhouette. I couldn’t see a smile forming, reassurance that he was joking. So I waited for the punchline. Heather looked us both over, sensed the gap in humor.

Tony lives in a tiny home on his sister Susie’s gated vineyard in rural-esque Washington. Armed only with a Chrysler 200 convertible, a monthly Social Security check, and his past, Tony navigates his 60’s with a Garmin GPS that doesn’t always show him the right way to the doctor’s office in Tacoma. Tony needs a defibrillator to replace his pacemaker, because there’s a higher chance that his heart will stop cold turkey than go arrhythmic.

As the gatecode-keeper, Susie determines who Tony should have as visitors. I’m allowed, but no one else, it seems, like the family of a young man he mentored. You see, Jeff stayed with Tony years ago, and stole a gun from Susie’s house. She pressed charges. Jeff went away.

Jeff was shot and killed by police in Wenatchee not long ago. The infant and the girl Jeff left behind are not allowed to visit Tony, per Susie. What if they steal something?

“It may be that I only have to pay $50,” he added. “They’ll keep a higher percentage, but I’ll still make three million dollars.”

“Sean,” Heather said to my agape jaw, “he’s serious.”

Tony was quiet.

Standing speechless in the chasm between the casino and the parking garage, I wanted to tell them about an episode of This American Life I listened to in 2008.

Ira Glass interviewed an American who operated an online forum dedicated to taking revenge on the Nigerian lottery scammers: when a forum user received a common spam email which read something like, Your great-great uncle, Arthur Hatterfield IV, left you an inheritance of 3,400,000. We would like to pay this sum to you as soon as possible: all you need to do is give us all of your personal information and $50.

The forum users would conspire replies, encourage the “trustee” to develop a relationship with the scammer: yes, I would like to receive the money. Please meet me in Somalia.

In one case, a Nigerian scammer took a series of buses across sub-Saharan Africa, in hopes of receiving US$50 – a huge sum. He emailed the trustee, a middle-class twenty-something in suburban U.S. America, and said that his bus was overtaken by guerrilla militants at the border, and he was stripped and tortured, broke in a country where he didn’t speak the language, and could the American please send some of the $50 to help him?

It was hilarious fodder for the online conspirators – nothing is true on the internet, after all – until the intrigued forum administrator followed up on the tale. He made some calls, and somehow got through to the scammer’s employer in Ibadan, Nigeria: yes, the man had gone off to Somalia, he must make money; yes, he called us about his bus, but he is on his own. We cannot help him.

The forum administrator told the story to Ira Glass, and I stored it in my memory, and think about it whenever some such email shows up in my inbox. No doubt Tony read a similar message, then looked up from the computer, out the window at the mansion and the vineyard – Susie’s little kingdom – and thought, well, fifty bucks isn’t much.

“Maybe the Nigerians will pay,” Tony said. It was getting darker outside the casino, and the fluorescent halo seemed brighter now.

I had just caught up to the fact that he wasn’t joking, or telling us some joke he played in his spare time.

“Tony, there’s no money!” I blurted, just as the pieces of hope slid together in my mind. The tiny home, the controlling sister, the missed doctor’s appointment; Tony needed to win the lottery.

If a man has nothing, I remembered from a scene in Flight of the Phoenix, as two men stood amongst the wreckage of their airplane in the Sahara Desert, give him hope.

I can’t help but think that by saying there’s no money, and by writing this, I am taking hope away from a man who needs it more than he needs four million dollars. Tony’s got more than his past and a GPS: he has a lifelong dream of seeing the San Francisco 49ers play in Candlestick Park, and I’d love nothing more than to sit with him in on November 2nd, as they play the Seattle Seahawks, albeit in the new stadium, as a gesture of apology, and love. That would be my lottery winnings.

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enlightenment in the cars

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.

Structured Roots

16 March 2014 § Leave a comment

Tonight, a relatively famous woman who writes riddles on her van asked me, where does the name ‘Structured Roots’ come from?

It was nighttime, and the parking lot was slowly emptying. Through huge, open garage doors, one could see young people scaling the chalk-covered walls of The Circuit. Muffled hip-hop beat down the chatter. Tiffany Hensley let the question hang in the air as she pulled out her smartphone to check the website. I did not seem to lose her attention.

“That’s kind of a story,” I replied, as I do when I don’t know an answer, or to stall for time as I make one up.

“Made you think,” she said. That’s her purpose in life. The reason for the riddles on the van, penned in permanent marker, is “to get more people to think more.” Across the whiteboard of the Sprinter van, in a slew of handwriting styles: a list of Amazing Facts, a chess board, a misquoted riddle from The Hobbit that still begs the right answer.

“Well, it ended up on the back of a notebook about 11 years ago…” I started.

Yeah, what? Tell the story right, Sean.

“When he was 16, my best friend killed himself,” I started again, watching her face. She didn’t respond. “Months later, I was writing in a spiral notebook in the living room of his mother, and sketched the words on the back, in wavy, root-like letters.”

None of this answered her question. In sooth, the words meant nothing to me, the ramblings of a young poet. She perused a beading website called Structured Roots. “Is this your site?”

“I guess I have neither,” I said abruptly.

She looked up. “Oh, is that it?”

I stared past the white fluorescent street lamps, mouth agape, into Portland’s sepia-toned sky. For years the title was just something on the back of a notebook that later entitled a Google Pages site whose link I rarely shared. For lack of something better. Ask my first editor – I was never good at titling anything.

And now, my first day back in Portland, the only place besides Alaska I’ve felt homesick for, friends’ Welcome Home messages unread in my inbox, home no longer a moldy hotel in India but a cozy basement lit warmly by rope lights and Buddha’s calm half-smile, and I realized that my life had neither structure nor roots; in fact, I’d consciously avoided both, tore them up and apart when I detected them, packed up and tramped off when they threatened my nomadism.

Tiffany had just taught a workshop in the climbing gym aimed toward climbers who “want to have stronger minds” – Concentrate and repeat positive thoughts; Mind over Body; What you think directs reality. In the climbing world, which is driven more by ego and physical accomplishment than meditation and strength of will, these ideas seem novel. Simultaneously, it’s Hippietalk 101, the mental art work of yogis, circus performers, festivalers and many people with whom I consort. I said none of this, because although I know some of these typical law-of-attraction tenets as truth, I don’t necessarily integrate or apply them.

As we spoke, one of her students approached Tiffany in the same dreamy, I-want-more-from-you-but-don’t-know-to-say way I have hung around teachers, workshop facilitators, and beautiful women after they said I can definitely change my world – for me, the fanfare represents only partial gratitude. It says loudly, often sans reciprocation, what else can you offer me?

The beauty of having a blog for me is multi-layered: first, it’s not a notebook – there’s less risk of losing what I write, and it does not weigh me down. When I write something, I publish it to the interwebs, and have little control who or what reads it or where it ends up – a constant lesson in letting go. The blog is in itself a structure of expression, where I am my own artist, editor and accountability officer, typist, secretary. Purer, perhaps, that I am not paid, receive little feedback, no deadlines. As for my roots, they are “in the cloud,” as the saying goes, their rightful place, accessible from anywhere and limitless in potential.

The Last Supper

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.

 

motorfreedom

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.”

“Right.”

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.”

“Okay. Coconut?”

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. 

Go.

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.

here we are.

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?

welcome to the woods

4 October 2013 § 3 Comments

The one-doe welcoming party sat, belly pressed against the earth, chewing with her miniature jaw, her rabbit-like ears turning this way and that surveying the sounds of a forest at dusk.

I tramped down the gravel driveway, picking at the grossest zit of the decade on the search for a parking spot for the camp trailer. The deer’s obsidian spheres stared me down, judging my threat level with a kind of apathetic curiosity.

Without my glasses I’m not sure how I saw the forest-colored animal so long past sunset; perhaps something within knew I was being watched. We eye-gazed for a long while — five or six minutes, which seemed to pass so slowly I thought my minute two she saw through me and all of the things I’d done, like the eye of God – all without moving, or apparent fear. At one point I raised my hands to anjali mudra, prayer position, and said out loud, thank you.

The doe chewed on.

Not that I expected a “you’re welcome…?” but I felt connected enough to the moment that I thought she might witness gratitude instead of my stress.

In the book and film Life of Pi, the main character was more distraught not by the departure of the tiger Richard Parker, but that in the moments before he would disappear from the boy’s life forever, the cat didn’t turn around to offer Pi an opportunity for closure.

Hurt by his own anthropomorphizing, Pi understood only much later that the emotional connection was one-sided: Richard Parker learned by necessity and association to coexist with the human boy on the life raft; it was the latter who’d formed the friendship.

When Heather walked our way, the doe’s ears flicked toward her footsteps. I put one finger to my lips, and pointed to the animal, but the deer had already risen and was trotting across the grass and into the forest. Our moment was over. Gratitude or none, I was to her another creature in the woods, and though we would have spelled ‘pray’ differently, the words sounded the same.

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