Family Travels Begin

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Dancing in the moonlight… Indescribable joy. An emotion so powerful it overwhelms reality. How did this happen to me? I know, this sort of thing happens to humans all the time on a regular basis all over the world. It has happened throughout history and will happen until the end of time. It is, you might say, the quintessential human experience. But still, I like to think I’m special. Has any father anywhere ever had it so good?

It started with intense anguish of course. All moments of great joy are preceded by tormenting anxiety. That’s just the way the universe is constructed. Joy and anguish… two sides of the same peso… You can’t have one without the other. Before the big moment, there must be the ordeal. In this particular case, the ordeal was intense…

All I want is a scenic spot to park where it is warm enough to camp and a beach within walking distance. We begin the quest in mid February in upstate NY and go south to Pennsylvania. We are hoping to stay the first night in Pittsburgh with friends but we get a late start and little A. has a meltdown in the back of the camper van shortly after sunset. Crying babies on busy highways are super stressful. We end up in a Quality Inn on strip mall road in everywhere America. As a hotel room in a corporate chain it is an adequate prison cell with all the necessary creature comforts. But it definitely doesn’t dazzle with originality. A Bonanza restaurant next door is our only dinner option. Corporate food and a corporate bed. Not surprisingly, I have nightmares and diarrhea. Apparently, my system doesn’t agree with “the system.” Continue reading

The Jihad Cafe’

As the vehicle slows to a stop in traffic on the interstate and the baby cries in the back, I can’t help but wonder if the traffic jam we are encountering was caused by the wreck of the Republican clown car.  It was not our intention to arrive in South Carolina on the day of the Presidential primary, it just worked out that way.  The great American spectacle unfolds and we are driving through the middle of it as we meander south in the camper van.  The TPP is approved, the largest US military budget ever is passed, more and more NATO military assets are moved closer to Russia, the blown up financial system is ready to pop but HEY everybody look at Donald Trump!

When I was in junior high school I used to watch professional wrestling on tv. Then one day, my older brother informed me that wrestling wasn’t real.  It was acting.  The wrestlers are characters in a story who are following a script.  The outcome is pre-determined.  I have thought the same thing about US politics since the 1990s.  This year’s presidential performers are sure putting on a show…

This week’s travel story is from the Middle East a couple years ago.  Not surprisingly, it has some connection to the ongoing presidential extravaganza.

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Amman, Jordan; February 2013

The Jihad Cafe

The first one I went to was in Turkey but I have probably been to a hundred since then.  I go almost every day.  They are everywhere in the Islamic world.  Comparable culturally to sports bars in the United States, smoking cafés are ground zero for male bonding and intense conversation.  Muslims don’t drink alcohol so tea and coffee are the only beverages but a variety of tobacco smoking options are also available.  I don’t speak Arabic or Turkish, of course, so I don’t understand the conversations going on around me.  But I like to sit in the smoky atmosphere and listen to the flow of foreign words as I sip tea or coffee.  As a general rule, I don’t enjoy tobacco products, but this whole shisha thing is kind of fun.  I’m not an addict yet but I am becoming an aficionado of cultural immersion.  If I want to understand their ways, I have to participate in their rituals.  We drink beer and argue about sports and politics in the U.S. while they smoke shishas and discuss Islam and jihad in the Middle East.  It really is the same bowl of potatoes.

So, here I am again, at another café drinking tea and absorbing the scene.  I have a balcony seat today.  I am overlooking a busy street in downtown Amman, Jordan.  Meanwhile, just inside this glass door there are dozens of crowded smoky tables effervescing with animated conversation.  I am searching for a sliver of peace in between the chaos of the outside and the chaos of the inside.  The server comes out the glass door bringing a bucket of hot coals and the loud conversations from inside come roaring out to the balcony. I am trying the mint flavored tobacco today.  The server uses some tongs to put hot coals in the basin of the shisha.  I inhale deeply as the tobacco lights up.  I know it’s not good for me but still, the burning sensation on my lungs feels good.  It has some kind of mystical power.  The server turns and goes back inside and closes the balcony doors.  I exhale a rather large cloud of smoke towards the sky above.  It feels as if a sensory volcano is erupting inside of me.  And then, all of a sudden, something remarkable happens.  I overhear a conversation taking place just inside the glass door of the balcony.  Somebody is talking in English.  And the subject they are discussing is jihad…

Amman, Jordan is the original Philadelphia that the Philadelphia in the U.S. was named after. The City of Brotherly Love in Jordan should now, however, probably change it’s motto to the city of Refugees.  Located at a crossroads of several war zones, Amman and its environs are home to one of the highest concentrations of war refugees on the entire planet earth.  There are Palestinian refugees and Iraqi refugees and Syrian refugees.  They crowd the cafés; fill up the buses and occupy space in the overflowing streets.  There are now more refugees than official citizens but the country keeps welcoming more.  Give us your tired and your poor and your hungry and your war torn.  We have no more space or resources but we will accept them anyway.

I arrive in the afternoon but the bus does not stop at a Central bus station.  Instead, I am somewhat unceremoniously dropped off on the side of a busy highway underneath an underpass.  There are, however, a bunch of taxis there so it’s not a problem.  The taxi takes me to a cheap hotel on Faisal Street somewhere near the center of all the action in downtown.  The ancient Roman theater is around the corner on the main road and the Citadel is straight up the hill that rises behind me.  But those are the tourist attractions.  For now, at least, I’m more interested in the everyday attractions.  I hope there are some good restaurants and cafés.

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A Pathway Not Much Trod Upon

Greetings from the great American roadway… Highway.  As we wind our way South in the camper van on the crowded roads of the United States, I tell Ms. B. about other journeys in far away places.    This week’s story is another in my series about fun travels in Islamic countries.  Pennsylvania is a long way from Morocco but the terrain is surprisingly similar and humans are nice everywhere.

The original title of this story was “The Road Less Traveled.”  I thought it was an appropriately respectful literary reference to Robert Frost’s famous poem. But alas, I have since been informed that the road less traveled has been traveled upon too much in literary circles. It has become a cliche. Wrapping my brain around that onion of irony caused my circuits to over-load so I slightly modified the title to protect my readers with overly sensitive circuits.

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Azilal, Morocco; Dec. 30, 2008.

Two pathways diverge into the horizon. To the left there is the main highway and a direct luxury bus that will take me all the way to the Promised Land of Marrakesh. To the right there is a side road and a crowded collective minibus that will take me to the mouth of the Todra Gorge….. On the map of Morocco, the Atlas Mountains cover the entire center of the country. On the southern side of the mountain range in the very center at the bottom is the Todra Gorge. Going north through the gorge and up into the mountains there are a series of dirt roads and poorly paved roads that continue climbing until they reach the village of Imilchil in the very center of the High Atlas mountains. From Imilchil, you can continue on more precarious, dangerous roads over and down the other side of the mountains to reach the main highway that connects Fez with Marrakesh. Between the Todra Gorge and the main highway is approximately 180 kilometers. There are no buses or regularly scheduled transportation services along this route but there are occasional trucks that take villagers back and forth between the various markets. Theoretically, if you have patience, and you don’t mind walking some or getting stuck in a village for a day or two, the route can be traversed without too much difficulty….. But there are lots of beautiful women partying in Marrakesh and the mountains will be very cold this time of year. I hate the cold and I love partying with beautiful women. It makes no sense to take the long way through the mountains. Come on Pat… It’s only a luxury bus. You can do it. Don’t be proud….. I don’t know, perhaps it’s a sign of some deep seeded psychological problem that I choose to suffer so. But, nevertheless, I do. The party in Marrakesh will just have to wait. I shoulder my pack and head for the crowded minibus to take me to the gorge…….

 It is Christmas morning when I check into Hotel La Valle at the mouth of the gorge. The gorge is an up and coming place for rock climbers and Hotel La Valle is kind of a climbers’ crash pad. I spend the day hiking up and down various side trails that branch off the central gorge. The scenery is spectacular with bright sunlight shining on massive rock walls. At one point, I hike over a ridge and circle around to reach the top of the gorge and look down from above. It’s always fun to stare into the abyss. I get a little lost on the way back and have to play charades with a Berber mountain man to find the right trail but I make it back to the hotel in time to watch the sunset from the rooftop terrace. I sit back, smoke some hashish, and watch as rays of sunlight illuminate complex images within the contours, cracks and crevasses of the massive red rocks. All in all, it is a very nice Christmas despite the fact that there is no heat in the hotel and the temperature is below freezing.

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A Restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere

The Amazon Jungle is a long ways from the Middle East. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a location more geographically re-moved from the Islamic World.  Nevertheless, it is all connected by the international news media and all the victims may yet unite against the common aggressor. This week’s story re-examines last week’s fear of travel theme from a different perspective.  It is a mirror in the fun house to last week’s story. Same author, different time… different reality.  If you read the two stories together, it is almost like passing through a time/space portal.

“But is it real?” says Ms. B. from the front of the camper van, “or are you making stuff up again?”

The story is fiction but it is based on a real experience.  In 2002-2003, I went on a 5 month journey that began in Rio De Janiero, Brazil and ended in Lima, Peru. I found the overall experience so intense that I wrote a novel about it.  The novel is not exactly auto-biographical though. The main character is a young and naive American on his first ever traveling adventure. He is also carrying a big bag of cocaine.  When I traveled all the way up the Amazon River in 2003, I was a fairly experienced traveler with many overseas journeys under my belt and I wasn’t carrying any cocaine.  But I did go to all the same places at more or less the same times as the young hero(David) in the novel and we did have several similar experiences.  The incident in the restaurant at the center of this week’s story really did happen to me but it happened in a different small town.   What is truth?  What is fiction?  You tell me because I don’t know anymore.

This story is also one chapter in the long novel.

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A  Restaurant in the Middle of Nowhere

April 2003.

David awakes in his hammock in the early morning and the area around him is a bustle of activity.  People are scurrying about, taking down hammocks, packing up suitcases and backpacks.    They are all getting ready to get off the ship.  He rubs the sleep from his eyes, climbs from the hammock, walks to the rail and looks at the river.  Sure enough, a rather large town is up ahead.  By the time he takes down his own hammock, packs up his pack and organizes his stuff, the boat has just about pulled into dock.  The final photos and goodbye hugs are being exchanged among the passengers.  A few people shake his hand, say goodbye in Spanish or Portuguese and even ask him to join in group photos.    The spontaneous short term community is breaking up.   The old guy, “Bobo”, is not around and neither are Catherine and Giroux, but the three Colombian amigos are there taking part in the fond farewells.  They approach David and offer to escort him to a hotel on shore.

A line has formed by the gangplank and passengers are now filing off the boat.   David and his three amigos join the line and are soon on the dock, solid ground; land again after seven days.  It feels kind of funny to walk around.  The legs need time to adjust.    They wait by the dock until they find Catherine and Giroux.  They lingered in their cabin before exiting so as to avoid the crush of the crowds.  When they see David, they wave and rush over to him.  Their mood is extremely optimistic.

“Feels great to finally be on shore again,” says Catherine. “Do you know where you are going to stay?”

“Bobo recommended the Garcia Guesthouse,” says David, “but I have no idea where it is.  These guys offered to show me the way.”

“Residencia Garcia?  That place is recommended in the guidebook,” says Giroux. “We looked it up last night.  It’s in Leticia, not Tabatinga.”

“Leticia is supposed to be a better place to stay,” says Catherine.

“Where are we now?” asks David.

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The Fear of Travel

Ms. B. won’t let me take little A. to the Congo yet so we are all going to Florida on a camper van journey instead.  Most likely, this first ever full family wander will involve at least a few escapades worth writing stories about.  In the meantime, I will be continuing with my series of stories about traveling in Islamic countries.  It will be interesting to see how family travel now in America juxtaposes against independent travel in Muslim countries then.  Perhaps there will be a way to mingle stories from the opposing worlds for interesting literary effects. Hmmm…  I guess that all depends on what happens.  Anyway, this week’s story is from Jordan in 2013.

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Amman, Jordan (February 2013)

The Fear of Travel

 The verifiable truth is; a lot more Americans die each year in household furniture accidents than die in terrorist attacks.  But household furniture accidents don’t sell news coverage; household furniture accidents don’t sell advertising revenue; household furniture accidents don’t sell weapons or war.  Household furniture accidents are boring.  As such, most people are blissfully unaware of the great danger household furniture poses.  That is unfortunate because… the good news is… your chances of getting killed in a household furniture accident are greatly reduced during the entire time you are traveling out of the country. But most Americans never travel out of the country. Less than 30% even have passports. Many people won’t travel because they are afraid of terrorists. And there you have the paradox.  While it is true that traveling outside the country may slightly increase your chances of getting killed by an act of terrorism, the reduction in the threat from household furniture more than makes up for that slight increase.  Reality is sometimes confusing but it does make sense.  Don’t be afraid of terrorists.  Be afraid of household furniture instead.  Go traveling.  You won’t regret it.

After my hike in the canyon near Dana, I linger at the Dana Tower Hotel for a couple extra days.  The food is incredible there and the couches on the rooftop terrace are nicely atmospheric for creative writing.  Indeed, I manage to complete my non-traditional story about Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments before I leave town.  I also have several interesting encounters with some fascinating people.

On one particularly delightful afternoon, I share a shisha on the rooftop terrace with an older backpacking dude from Austria.  As luck would have it, he is a man with a traveling gene similar to my own.  He works seasonally in Vienna and world wanders when he is not working.  He is presently in the midst of an extended Mideast journey that began in Turkey and circled through Iran and Oman before bringing him to Jordan.  He tried to go through Saudi Arabia as well but the Kingdom would not let him in.  With the worst human rights record in the region and perhaps the world, the Saudis are not too keen on independent travelers.   The only westerners allowed to visit them are oil buyers and weapons sellers… not tourists, travelers or journalists.  Now isn’t that just a fascinating little factoid. Meanwhile, my extended tour of the Mideast also began in Turkey.  I, however, circled through Cyprus and Egypt before arriving here in Jordan.  I, too, suffered through a case of journey interruptus for political reasons.  The passenger ferry from Cyprus to Haifa in Israel no longer runs so I caught a cheap direct flight to Cairo instead.  The best laid plans of world travelers are so very often interfered with by the mice and men of world governments and their petty disputes.  Sometimes, the world is just not fair.  Oh well, the Austrian and I meet at the crossroads of a roof top in Jordan and trade our traveling tales.  As the shisha smoke swirls up into the atmosphere, the stories stack together like stones in a stone wall.  How much fun are humans allowed to have?

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The Heart of Borneo

This is another story in my series about the incredible good times I have had traveling in Muslim countries.  I am attempting to provide a small measure of antidote to the Islamaphobic stories in the mainstream media.   This tale takes place on the island of Borneo in the nation of Indonesia.   The country of Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country on earth but the community where this story takes place is a mixed community of Muslims, Christians and animist natives.  Indeed, the couple that saves the day is a mixed couple with a Muslim husband and Christian wife.  Religion does not come up directly in the story because that is not what the story is about.  But I include this story in the series because of the important part religious and ethnic tolerance plays in the background of the story.

I should also mention that the character Hans Clean is the fictionalized version of a young German guy I met on a boat dock in Borneo and ended up traveling with for two weeks.  This story is one chapter in a book I wrote about the entire crazy adventure.  In the book, certain aspects of  “Mr. Clean’s” personality were emphasized in order to help the grand sweeping metaphor.  But in reality, “Mr. Clean” was not so bad.

Finally, I realize that certain aspects of this story are, perhaps, a bit sappy.  But this was all written right after I almost died a horrid death in the deep dark jungle so of course I was feeling sappy.  If you want to know what happened in the deep dark jungle you can always buy the book. http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/patryantravels

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The Heart of Borneo

Tiong Hong, Kalimentan, Indonesian Borneo; March 10, 2010.

It really is a beautiful universe.  The kindness, generosity and open hearts of the vast majority of human beings that occupy this planet never ceases to amaze me.  Yeah, I know, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.    With all the war, murder, rape and torture we hear about on the news, one could easily be led to believe that the vast majority of human beings are evil, rotten, nasty creatures.  But I disagree.    There may be a few nasty people out there, but they are really just a very small percentage of the whole population.   The conflict and despair we all suffer derives most frequently from miscommunications and cultural misunderstanding, not from evil people acting in evil ways.   Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I believe that if we strip away the metaphors and illusions that confuse us and look inside the hearts of human beings, what we will find at the very center is not fear, hatred and selfishness but a natural instinct to reach out to others with love…

When I awake on my fourth morning in the jungle, I am very happy to be alive.  I reach up and touch my neck and head.  Yup…it’s still attached…no blood, no scars, no open wound.  I guess the Dayaks really have given up headhunting.  I crawl from my tent and see my guides drinking coffee and laughing.  I’d sure like to know what they are laughing about.  They pour me some coffee and I offer thanks and then I say with a smile, “so, are we all ready to go to Tanjun Lokan today?”

“No,” says Rabun, “we return to Tiong Hong.”

“But look,” I say, “the river is down so we can go forward over the mountains.”  It’s true.  It didn’t rain during the night so the river has receded to the level of the first day.

Rabun points at his knee and says “pain.”

I do some charades to tell Rabun I will throw him over my shoulder and carry him over the mountain.  I also communicate to Tiong that he can have my tent if we go to Tanjun Lokan.  But the truth is; I have given up the possibility.  I’m no longer arguing with the guides, I’m just joking.  I’ve accepted defeat so I make light of the situation.  After a while, the guides realize I’m joking.  They are happy that they are getting their way.  I’m not sure if they laugh at me or with me but they do laugh.

Mr. Clean awakes and we pack up our stuff.  We start early, before the bees arrive.  The journey back is not particularly bad but not particularly good either.  The jungle is still beautiful but it loses a lot of its magic because we’ve seen it before and are now backtracking.  We stop at the first campsite to eat some rice and fish and are once again inundated with bees.  I don’t get stung anymore but their swarming behavior is an unpleasant reminder of the hell I have already suffered.  Thankfully, the stings on my leg and foot from last night did not excessively swell and my hip is doing much better now.  As a matter of fact, my only remaining bee issue is my swollen forearm that looks like Popeye.  But I’m pretty certain that’s going to be all right as well.  As we continue, we get harassed by more leeches and the air is oppressively hot and buggy, but these things are expected on any jungle trek.  So all in all, it’s a fairly typical all day trek through dense virgin tropical jungle.

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The Endless Journey

I gave up on mainstream news and network television almost twenty years ago.  After several trips overseas and an opportunity to look in on the U.S. from the outside, I no longer believed in the dominant narrative.  “America” has an agenda and the corporate mass media force feeds the public that agenda however and whenever it can.   I prefer to avoid exposing myself to that agenda.  A couple years ago, however, I joined facebook.  I am no great enthusiast for the time drain of social media but I am self employed and I thought it would be a good way to promote my business. Unfortunately, facebook comes with a newsfeed.  And the only thing worse than propaganda from the empire is propaganda passed on by my “friends.”  Ugh.

Honestly, I really can’t handle the Islamaphobia.  I realize that the Empire is waging a number of wars for asset control throughout the Islamic Middle East.  I’m aware that they have to demonize the people who live there in order to justify their imperialism.  But seriously, how can ordinary humans take that shit seriously?   I’m no expert.  I haven’t studied the Koran or taken college courses on the subject matter but, in the course of four separate journeys, I have spent over 16 months wandering around Islamic countries.  And my impression of Muslim people is so different from what I am exposed to through the media that it seems like a whole other universe.

For the next several weeks, I will be posting stories about my travels in Muslim countries.   This week’s story is an excerpt from one of my books.

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Attar, Mauritania; Jan. 19, 2009

The Endless Journey…

It’s five in the morning and there’s a knock on my door. It’s hotel reception informing me that my ride awaits in the street below. I stuff my pack full and descend to the dark street to find four Africans putting various belongings into the trunk of a 1970s era Mercedes. I approach the group and say “Noahdibou”; the name of my destination which is 400 kilometers away on the other side of the Mauritanian border. They don’t speak English but my meaning is clear. They nod yes, take my pack and stuff it in the trunk. Generously, the three younger guys crowd into the back seat and allow me the front with the old man driver. In a few moments we are driving through the dark streets of Dahkla, Morocco and on our way to Mauritania.

I arranged the ride the day before through a contact at the Hotel Sahara because there is no official public transport between Mauritania and Morocco. The reason for this is the long history of animosity between the two nations. The Western Sahara province of Morocco was once a Spanish Colony, was once independent, was once part of Mauritania and is now part of Morocco. The border area between now has a whole lot of landmines and many people have died in the relatively recent years trying to gain control of this territory. As the sun slowly rises and we make our way down the road, I can’t help but wonder what the hell they were fighting about. Nothing but sand and rock and dirt as far as the eye can see. Sure, it’s beautiful in a desolate, empty, awe-inspiring way. It brings to mind images of human insignificance by its vastness and endlessness. But fighting, dying, and killing for such nothingness just seems pointless. Actually, I had the same thought the day before when I made my way from Essoiara to Dahkla.   It was a 28 hour bus ride that only passed four towns but there were six different police checkpoints where they examined my passport and questioned me about my profession and family. Why all the fuss about infinite sand?
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