The Guesthouse Grapevine

Hummingbird continues…

How very strange to think about now… There was no internet at all when I went on my first ever backpacking adventure in 1992-93. My only communication with the homeland for the seven month period I traveled in Central and South America was through the many post cards I sent and occasional phone calls to my parents. I tried to stay current on international news by translating local newspapers and talking to other backpackers in guesthouses. But in many respects, the guesthouse grapevine seemed an unreliable source of information. The setting alone encouraged people to play fast and loose with the facts. Stories tended to repeat and vary and change from guesthouse to guesthouse and courtyard to courtyard. There was no official source of information to check, no Google to search it or Wikipedia to compare it to. There was only the authenticity of the speaker and the believability of the narrative. Was my young and innocent mind corrupted by the 1992 version of “fake news”? Or was my brainwashed consciousness cracked open by exposure to narratives outside the corporate news propaganda bubble?

When I first heard about the “Highway of Death,” I thought it was a bullshit story. I was in a guesthouse in Managua, Nicaragua in October of 1992. I was a naive and innocent first time traveler then who still believed in the holiness of the US constitution and the inherent goodness of “America.” I was aware of some of “America’s” crimes in Central America and was generally against US military actions overseas but tended to think the bad actions were the fault of certain bad actors or bad administrations (republicans). I certainly did not believe that the US government or the US nation as a whole was “imperialist or aggressive or militaristic.” Instead, I thought that the US was the world’s good guy; spreading democracy, freedom, development and progress to the rest of the world. But I met these two European anarchist dudes and they were not very nice. One was from Austria and the other was from France. They argued with each other about a wide range of subjects in the courtyard of the guesthouse. The only subject they agreed on was their fierce opposition to US militarism. I was the only “American” in the courtyard so they directed their anger at me. I was not really interested in defending militarism but I still felt like I had to defend “America” because “America” was a part of my “persona”. I was an “American.” They started with a rant about the US sponsored contra war right there in Nicaragua and moved on to a diatribe about Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. No it was not the “Vietnam War,” it was “The American War” against South East Asia. Then, they segwayed into Indonesia where “the Americans gave the go ahead,” for the massive slaughter of communists and socialists by mobs of coup supporters. Supposedly the CIA handed out lists of “communist names” to angry mobs and promised money for their murders. Then, in the African Congo, the CIA murdered the newly elected socialist prime minister and thereby started a long bloody civil war. Everywhere you go in the world there is a problem. And that problem is caused by the CIA or the US military… Yeah right sure guys, and the moon landings were fake and JFK was shot by Marilyn Monroe…

Somewhere during their dissertation on the crimes of America, they reached the very recent and still ongoing conflict with Iraq. According to their story, Kuwait was an asset of the United States. Oil wells in Kuwait, controlled by the US, were drilling at a slant underground to steal oil from Iraq. Iraq only invaded Kuwait to stop the US from stealing their oil. The US then used Iraq’s little invasion of Kuwait as a pretext to invade and occupy the whole region. The US military was at the beginning of a long military buildup in order to gain control of all the energy resources in the whole Middle East. They already had puppet regimes on half the peninsula and with the recent collapse of the protector state, the Soviet Union, a whole group of nominally independent states were now ripe for the picking as well. Iraq was first on the list but Lebanon, Syria, Libya and Iran were also supposedly targeted for conquest. The US military’s gruesome performance on the Highway of Death was a purposeful display of viciousness in order to scare the region into submission. The slaughter was ordered from the highest levels of the US government because the US was sending a clear and unequivocal message to the people in the Middle East… Supposedly, more than 50,000 retreating Iraqi conscripts were gunned down over a three day period as they tried to escape the war zone in Kuwait by fleeing along the highway that connected Kuwait City to Basra in Iraq. US warplanes shot up vehicles in order to cause a massive traffic jam and then started shooting the trapped and desperate men like they were fish in a barrel….

“No way,” I interrupted. “The United States military would never shoot at retreating soldiers. That’s not the way America operates. You guys are full of shit.”

“They weren’t even regular Iraqi army,” said the Austrian, “they were conscripts. Farm boys, shopkeepers, day laborers and students that Saddam force drafted into his military to fight his crazy battle. They certainly didn’t want to be there. At the first sign of battle, they dropped their weapons and fled. Some of them even raised white flags of surrender as they staggered helplessly down the Basra highway. But the US attack helicopters and jets didn’t care about any of that. They just opened fire and slaughtered. Most were shot in the back as they were running away. By all accounts, it was a merciless massacre.”

“I don’t believe a word you are saying,” I said defiantly, “slant drilling… yeah right. Farm boys with white flags shot in the back? Not a chance. That would be a war crime. It would be in all the newspapers. I read the New York Times regularly. If something like that happened it would have been on the front page. It would probably be in every newspaper in America. How come I never heard of it before? It can’t be true. You are making it up.”

“It’s true,” they insisted. “The Highway of Death story has been covered in many international publications. There is even a UN report. They want to bring war crimes charges but the US won’t acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction.”

“No way,” I shouted, “you guys are liars. America does not commit war crimes.” I pushed myself away from the table and stomped my way back to my room. I didn’t believe a word they said. How insulting. No wonder there are so many people who are anti-American when some people go around spreading bullshit stories like that….

It was about three weeks after my conversation with the anarchists in Managua that the malaria symptoms began to manifest. The vivid dreams/nightmares that tormented me for several years afterwards first began with that illness. At some point, I began to associate the dreams with the anti-malarial drug Lariam. But I don’t believe it ever occurred to me that the apocalyptic highway in my dream could be in any way related to the “highway of death” story from Iraq. Many years later, I made the connection because I was particularly fascinated by the relationship between “the highway of death”, the American imagination and the power of propaganda. I never did scholarly research on the subject but my anecdotal reality informed me that almost no Americans had ever even heard the story. I, myself, had only heard of it while traveling in Central and South America. For a couple of years after I got back I used to talk about it and ask people about it a lot. Talking about it while drunk always made me sound like a crazy conspiracy theorist. There was almost no mention of it at all in the corporate media so I sometimes wondered if maybe I dreamed the whole thing up. Every once in a while I’d see an obscure reference to “the incident” in a foreign policy story of a “radical publication” and I would confirm that the story was not a complete delusion. And when the Internet became available it was possible to confirm that it was, indeed, a true event. Or, at least, it was a story based on a true event. The anarchists in Managua may have been the first people to tell me about it. But many more travelers told me a similar story later on; including my Canadian friends in Costa Rica… Continue reading

Backpacker Madness

Hummingbird continues…

I saw the guy with backpacker madness in Managua, Nicaragua. He was pacing back and forth on the street in front of the guesthouse shaking his fist and shouting at the full moon that was high up in the sky…. “Homeless and broke on the streets of Managua. YES!! The perfect backpacker experience. He kicked me out. I can’t believe he kicked me out. The money is coming. I swear it is. He will get his money. All of it. Every penny. I can’t believe he kicked me out…. Ha ha ha ha ha! What an experience! Totally broke and homeless in Managua. I can’t believe this is happening to me!”….

I didn’t stop to talk to him. He had the moon for company already. I had met him a couple times before inside the guesthouse and I didn’t really like him. He was a talented artist, but he was also strange and not very nice. Now he seemed totally insane. I tippy-toed on past his rantings and ravings and slipped in the front door of the guesthouse.

The trail of privilege stretches all around and through the many different countries that make up Central and South America. It is a network of guesthouses, hostels, bars, restaurants and cafes that are all very Gringo friendly. Travelers of the lighter shade who usually speak some version of English (Europeans, North Americans and Australians) are always graciously welcomed at such places and are made to feel safe. Accordingly, such places always have an abundance of lighter skinned, English speaking travelers thereby making them even more inviting to other such travelers. Attempting to be as non-racist as possible in describing this phenomena, I would say that strangers in a foreign land are naturally drawn to other strangers who look and act like them. Some of the bigger cities even have a whole street or a particular plaza that such travelers tend to cluster around. Before I went traveling, I had no real conception of this phenomena at all. I first experienced it personally over a few months of Central America travel in 1992 and I have since seen it at different levels of intensity in every one of the fifty or so countries I have traveled in world-wide. I am not trying to say that these clusters of familiarity, these simulacrums of home culture are a good thing or a bad thing. I merely point them out as a true phenomena that does indeed exist. If you are a Gringo (white westerner), No matter where you go in the world, a psychological safety zone is always somewhere nearby. There’s a signpost up ahead… next left… the gringo trail… This simple fact makes international travel a heck of a lot easier.

In the Fall of 1992, the Gringo Trail in Central America was a very social route. There was no internet then but I had my “shoestring guidebook,” to show me the way. As I made my way from town to town and tourist attraction to tourist attraction, I also went from guesthouse to backpacker hostel to pension to hospedaje to guesthouse. Everywhere I went, I always encountered small groups of white westerners (gringos) who were easy for me to socialize with. Frequently, it was the same small groups over and over in different cities and countries because we were all traveling with the same shoe-string guidebook. We all hung out together. It was a little like a traveling circus or a caravan. There was no internet in those days, so no one ever had a reservation. The public bus would pull into a station and we would all jump off and spontaneously huddle together on the platform and compare guidebook reviews of places to stay. The local “scoundrels” would surround us trying to sell us on some “new” place while we would discuss back and forth the shoestring options. “I’m gonna try this one.” “I think we will check out this one.” “I’m gonna have a look at this one first, it looks cool.” “And look here, there is a bar called ‘Che’s Lounge,’ it is supposed to be a good travelers’ hub for information.” All right team backpacker… let’s break. Everybody dashed off into the streets to find their accommodation. It was a little like an Easter Egg hunt for grown-ups. A friendly competition to see who could find the coolest and cheapest place to crash for a while…

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Discovering the Gringo Trail

Hummingbird continues…

I first discovered the Gringo Trail on Caye Caulker Island in Belize, Central America in early October of 1992. But I found the golden ticket that showed me the way there several months before in June of 1992. Was it destiny… Or free will… that brought me there? Or an odd combination of both? Is there a script writer or director of this crazy play?  So many things happened by coincidence and serendipity that it doesn’t even seem possible. How did I transform from a lawyer into a stone mason? When I look back on the incredible sequence of events that unfolded in 1992-93; it really seems like a work of fiction. Nevertheless, I believe the story is true…

I remember now… It was during my last week of work before I finished my appointed position as an attorney for the State of New York in Albany. I had already turned down several job offers with corporate law firms because I wanted to take time off to travel. I had no specific travel plan but I had almost 15 thousand dollars in my savings account and I imagined I could live frugally for at least six months and maybe even a whole year with such a budget before I would have to go back to work. True, I did have a $400 a month student loan bill to pay and that would eat away at my savings over time, but I also had my own pick-up truck and a backpack with good camping gear so I figured I could avoid paying rent for the foreseeable journey. My immediate plan was to travel around the US and visit national parks. I was an overly enthusiastic hiker and camper and I wanted use that passion to explore the whole country. I also had a long-standing dream to visit the Amazon jungle in South America. But I had no idea how to organize such a trip and was not sure if it would be possible with my budget. There was no internet then and the only guidebook I had heard of was Frommer’s. My vague plan was to travel around the US and then maybe fly to Brazil in South America. I would have to find a reliable tour agent to set up some kind of tour. Or maybe I could somehow research a plan for visiting the Amazon jungle at the local library.

So, there I was, June of 92… playing pool at a bar called “Iffy’s” on Central Avenue in Albany, New York. Around the corner on Lark Street were all the yuppie/state-worker bars. But I worked with those people during daylight hours and I preferred a different sort of scene at night. Iffy’s was more of a working-class bar with very drunk people and a regular clientele of local weirdos. I wasn’t quite a “regular” myself but I was more of a “semi-regular ” because I liked to play pool and they had a decent table. Iffy, the Indian bartender, knew my face but not my name. It must have been around midnight when I lost my game, found a barstool, and sat down to order a final drink. That’s when I  met the strange character on the barstool next to me. I can’t remember his name of course, but I do remember what he looked like because his appearance alone made me laugh. He was a clean- shaven, tall and skinny white dude but he had a big fluffy afro that was so wild it could have been a wig. He was older than me but not old… probably late thirties or early forties. Most significantly, he had a crazy almost demonic grin on his face and sparkling, light-filled eyes. At first glance, I thought he might be tripping on lsd or just plain mad but when he turned and started talking he seemed perfectly sane.  He had been watching me play pool and he said something about how I was a very skilled player until my skills deteriorated as the evening wore on.

“No kidding,” I responded, “the more whiskey I drink, the less skill I have. It’s like a mathematical relationship. Inverse proportionality.” At that moment, Iffy came by and I ordered another whiskey on the rocks. After the drink transaction, my conversation with the strange dude continued and he asked what I did for a living. I told him I was an attorney who worked for the state of New York but my two year appointment was up in a week and I was planning to take some time off to travel.

“Oh really,” he said, “that’s interesting. Where are you planning to travel? I, myself, have just returned from a trip around the world.”

“A trip around the world?” I said. I almost spit out my ice cubes with disbelief. Continue reading

Escaping the Bubble

Hummingbird continues… (the story of why I quit the legal profession to become a world-wandering stone mason instead).

Escaping the Bubble

So, here I am, sitting in a small cafe in Bogota, Columbia in December of 1992. I am attempting to read a local newspaper with the help of my Spanish/English dictionary… Holy smokes. If I understand this article correctly, there was bombing last night in Cucuta. I was in Cucuta just four days ago. Some of the pictures accompanying the article look rather gruesome. Did the FARC do that or some paramilitary group? On another page there is a photo of Pablo Escobar riding a horse through the central square of a town. He is surrounded by what seems to be a cheering crowd. I wonder if the authorities caught him yet… As I flip through my dictionary to figure out some words in the first paragraph, I hear a voice. “Hello Mister. Where you from? Can I practice English with you?” I look up from my newspaper and see a very beautiful young lady. “Sure thing,” I say, “have a seat. My name is Patrick.” She pulls out a chair and sits. “My name Angela,” she says, “nice to meet you.”

Perception management. Manufacturing Consent. Brain washing. Propaganda. Reality control. Why do we believe what the media teaches us? Is it even possible to get beyond the illusion? Where does truth end and illusion begin? Here in the US that question is especially perplexing because over 90% of all media outlets (television, movies, newspapers, magazines) are owned by one of the same five corporations. And all five of those corporations are heavily invested in (intertwined with) the military industrial complex. If you live inside the US, it is very hard to escape the bubble. No doubt the different outlets provide thematic variations and they sometimes seem in complete opposition to each other on superficial topics like “politics” (Fox News vs. MSNBC) but the underlying dominant narrative of them all is the same and that narrative is American Exceptionalism… which is a slight modification of the concept of manifest destiny. The story goes like this: USA is the leader of the “free world.” We are the “good guys”. We are spreading the goodness of democracy and freedom and economic development to all other countries who are suffering under various types of dictatorships and bad economic systems. All other countries and people should look up to us and admire us. They all want and need to have governments and economic systems that work as well as ours. Most people on the planet earth really just want to leave their miserable undeveloped countries and move to the USA where they can live free in a developed modern democracy. But we can’t realistically take everyone into the USA so instead we use various types of aid (military and financial) to help other nations develop strong free market democracies for themselves…

When I began my very first journey to Central and South America in 1992, I didn’t speak any Spanish. I had taken a couple of Spanish classes in college but that was in the mid 1980s and barely a word had stuck in my brain. (Me llamo Patrick. Donde esta el bano?). But as I made my way South through foreign territory, I made a significant effort to learn the language. The method I employed to learn Spanish was fairly simple and straightforward. Every single day, wherever I was, I bought a local newspaper and did my best to translate it using my Spanish/English dictionary. I must say that my technique worked fairly well. Immersed in a Spanish speaking world all day long and slowly building my vocabulary with my daily lessons, by the end of my seven month journey, I could speak and understand a fair amount of the language. I certainly wasn’t fluent, but I could have real conversations and make myself be understood. Continue reading

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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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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