A Modest Proposal

This week’s episode is transcribed from my archive of handwritten notebooks.

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A Modest Proposal

Istanbul, Turkey; February 2013

The rock is special.  I found it at Wadi Rum when I was camped alone on a sand dune in the middle of nowhere.  It sparkled in the setting sun and grabbed a hold of my attention.  Its crystal structure bent sunlight into all the colors of the rainbow.  It looked, quite literally, like a droplet from heaven.  I even thought it might be a diamond.  But now I’m not so sure.  In the plain light of day and the harsh glow of fluorescent light, the stone does not look so magical.  It’s still nice and all, but I have my doubts.  It might be technically worthless.

Nevertheless, my plan is to give it to Ms. B..  Ideally, the presentation of the rock should be both dramatic and romantic so that she remembers the experience for the rest of her life.  A spontaneous overflow of emotion would be nice. Perhaps even some tears of joy.  I’m hoping to push the metaphor of our love story long into the future and the rock giving game as a symbol of commitment is a human tradition that goes way way back into the past.  The modern world has, of course, spoiled the narrative with crass commercialization, sentimental clichés and legally binding contracts but the underlying story is still a good one.  Two individuals decide to become a single unit… a couple… a family.  It’s a radical move.  It’s an optimistic bet on the future of the world.  The giving and accepting of the rock is the moment of destiny; the climax of the love story.  It is the moment when the happily ever after begins…

 Welcome to Istanbul!  There is a convenient metro station below ground at the airport.  It is cheap and efficient so that is the route we take into the city center.  Ms. B. is exhausted after 20 hours of travel time from New York via Amsterdam.  Dinner time now in Istanbul is breakfast time in New York and poor Ms. B. has been up all night.  I, however, am as chipper as cricket in a field of flowering clover.  It was a short two hour hop to get here from Amman, Jordan and I had a good night sleep and a healthy breakfast.  I was also here in Istanbul a couple of months ago so I know my way around a little.

The metro journey to the Sultanhamet neighborhood takes a bout 45 minutes total.  We have to switch from tram to train about halfway there.  On the train we have seats.  Ms. B. leans into me and rests here head on my shoulder as we exchange a few words but the train is crowded and the scene is not appropriate for much conversation.  She nods in and out of consciousness as we communicate non-verbally.  Ten thousand miles from my apartment on a subway in a foreign city but with Ms. B. asleep on my shoulder, I feel right at home.  After we switch to the tram, however, we no longer have seats.  It’s very crowded and we are lucky to find space to lean our backpacks against a center pole.  We hold on with one hand each as the tram rumbles slowly through the busy city.  Ms. B. keeps blinking her eyes open.  She looks dead on her feet… like she might collapse.  I look around at the many passengers on the crowded tram car.  Ms. B. and I are both rather blonde and we definitely stand out amid the dark haired, olive skinned locals.  Nevertheless, there is no sense of stress, discomfort or anxiety.  The other passengers pay us little mind.  Tourists with backpacks on their way to Sultanhamet is a fairly common sight on this tram.

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Manifest Destiny

Hi everyone.  I’m back. This website is now renewed for another year and my stonework season is finished so I will continue again with weekly postings of crazy travel stories and radical essays.  This is a travel story from my archive of handwritten notebooks.

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Manifest Destiny

Istanbul, Turkey and Amman, Jordan; February 2013

The story is… We have been following each other around the globe for all eternity.  In 1992 I was in Costa Rica and in 1993 I was in Ecuador.  She was in Ecuador in 97 and Costa Rica in 99.  In 2001, we were both in Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia).  But we didn’t know each other then.  It’s possible we collided inner-tubes on the river in Vang Vienne or shared a shisha lakeside in Phnom Penn but such encounters are neither documented nor specifically remembered. In 2004, we were both in South America.  She was traveling with her sister and I was on my way to meet an Argentinian love.  We knew each other then, but just barely.  Same hometown. Social acquaintances.  Friends of Friends.  We even exchanged a few e-mails.  Perhaps we will meet up in Bolivia.  But the timing didn’t work out.  I was in a hurry to meet the Buenos Aires Babe and she was on her way to Machu Picchu.  In 2007, we were both in Mexico at the same time.  We were pretty good fiends by then and I thought seriously about going to see her in San Miguel.  But she was involved with a friend of mine at the time and he was not with her.  Avoiding temptation, I went to Chiapas instead.  Then, of course, there was 2008-2009.  My harrowing trip through North Africa where so many things went wrong.  No, she was not traveling in North Africa that year.  She was home in Oneonta reading my travel stories about North Africa on the internet.  She was also the first person I saw on the streets of Oneonta when I returned from that trip broke, defeated and slightly traumatized.  She gave me a hug on Main Street and welcomed me home.  She offered to make me dinner some time for a proper welcome.  She was no longer involved with my friend.  I went to dinner a few days later.  And the rest, as they say, is history…

We’ve been together for almost four years now but I do not discard the possibility that we were together in past lives or future lives as well.  Sometimes it seems as if we have a connection that lasts for all eternity.  We’ve already been on a few long wanders together.  A big romp through Peru and Ecuador was the honeymoon trip and we also went on an extended journey through the campgrounds of the Southern United States.  She’s a good travel partner.  We always seem to find ourselves inside of fun little adventures.  This year, I came to the Middle East on my own for a couple months but she is meeting me for the second half of the journey.  These past two months of traveling is my longest time away from her since our togetherness began.  I just want to put my arms around her and give her a great big hug…

In two more days, I am flying from here in Amman, Jordan to Istanbul, Turkey in order to meet Ms. B.  Before I leave Jordan, however, I really want to see the ancient ruins of Jerash.  It’s only an hour or so away by public transport.

I set out after breakfast in the early morning.  Thankfully, I stop and talk to the guy at reception on my way out the door.  He tells me I want the north bus station for Jerash and he writes it down in Arabic on a piece of paper.  He also gives me a hotel business card with the name and address in Arabic. “If you get lost,” he says, “just give this card to any taxi anywhere and he will take you here.”

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The Promised Land

 

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The Promised Land

Amman, Jordan; February 2013

I think they are from Iowa in the United States, but I can’t say for sure.  They are middle aged with grey hair, expansive waistlines and Midwestern accents.  “I can’t believe we are really here,” says the woman.  “This is where it happened.  This is where it all began.  God told Moses that the lands of Israel belong to the Jews.  Look honey.  Isn’t it amazing?  The map points everything out.  All of Israel is before us.  Can’t you just imagine God and Moses standing here, on this very spot and God pointing it all out. All this land belongs to your people Moses.” 

“That’s why they call it the Promised Land,” says the man, “God promised it to the Jews.”

I am standing about ten feet behind the couple.  I am politely waiting for them to finish their turn at the lookout before I step forward to check out the special view.  We are on Mount Nebo; another Biblical tourism hotspot.  It is the dramatic setting for the closing scene of the Book of Exodus.  According to the story, God talked to Moses here and gave him the lands of Israel. Walking around the Mountain, it’s fairly easy to understand the origin of the story.  The view is spectacular.  All of Israel is literally spread out before me like a single plot of land.  I, myself, can almost hear the voice of god talking. “It’s all yours my son, it’s all yours.”  No doubt about it, the guy who wrote the story probably sat on this very spot and dreamed the whole thing up.  Sure, why not, a complex metaphor, a well designed plot and lots of interesting characters.  Put it down on paper and it will be a best seller for years to come. 

If you ever find yourself in Amman, Jordan, or anywhere else in Jordan for that matter, you have to try the lamb mensaf.  As a general rule, I like to sample a great variety of meals from the many different cultures I visit and when I arrived in Amman I intended to work my way through the full range of culinary possibilities.  But I had the lamb mensaf my first night there and I could not bring myself to order anything different for the whole week afterwards.  Oh my god… so delicious.  I could probably eat it every day for a year.  One of these days, I’m going to have learn how to make it myself.

When not eating lamb, I drink coffee and tea and smoke shishas.  I move from cafe’ to café and restaurant to restaurant.  I wander along the wide streets and meander through the narrow souks of the big city.  I don’t see many tourists or Westerners; it’s a very Arab and very crowded place.  There are ruins to see in the city; some ancient columns, a citadel and a Roman theatre.  I also have a couple of excursions planned.  I am going to see Jerash on one day and I want to go to the Dead Sea and Mount Nebo on another day.  I’m saving Jerash for the very end though and the Mount Nebo thing is complicated by the lack of public transport there.  I don’t really want a tour and hiring a car and driver for a day is a bit pricey.  While I hesitate, I have a few days to just hang out here in downtown Amman and learn a little about the proverbial Arab Street.  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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