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.

In addition to helping build vocabulary, my daily habit of trying to read a local newspaper every day while I traveled through Central and South America also had several unexpected side benefits. First of all, it was an incredibly effective way to meet local people. I did most of my daily translations while sitting in cafe’s, restaurants and bars. At least a dozen times (if not many more), my translation sessions were interrupted by a friendly local who wanted to “practice their English” and help me learn Spanish. As a matter of fact, this technique for meeting locals worked so well it was amazing. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who is out there world-wandering and trying to learn a language except for the fact that local newspapers are a dying resource. Computers, phones and iPads, don’t do the trick. Staring at technology seems to create a barrier or shell that separates people from the outside inter-active world. Nobody wants to bother you. In my more recent years of world-wandering with my own personal screen to stare at, I’ve never been interrupted by a “nosy local” who wanted to practice English. I guess there are probably ways that technology makes communicating with locals easier (translation programs). But there is no doubt in my mind that screen technology inhibits real communication and connection between people a lot more than it helps it.

The other great side-benefit of my newspaper reading habit as I traveled through Central and South America was that it introduced me to political perspectives outside the US mass media bubble. Honestly, I was so naive and brainwashed before my first trip that it seems incredible in retrospect. But really, if you grow up inside the US and are immersed in the mass media bubble and are “educated” in the schools here, it is almost impossible to escape the dominant narrative. It is not as if I learned the narrative and chose to accept it as truth. But rather, the narrative was/is such a part of day to day existence that it had become my de-facto reality. Don’t misunderstand. I wasn’t stupid. I was a very educated young man. I graduated magna cum laud from university with a degree in Literature and Philosophy. I also graduated near the top of my class from a top 20 law school and I was a voracious reader of literature, philosophy, politics and economic theory. I had even read the Chomsky-Herman masterwork on the power of propaganda (Manufacturing Consent). I understood intellectually how mass media corporations used image and messaging to sway and manipulate the general public into supporting government policies. But I always believed that my extensive reading put me above and beyond the sheep of the American public. I understood and still understand the US legal system better than the 99%. Nevertheless, my understanding was so polluted by the background dominant narrative that my overall world view was hopelessly distorted and fundamentally naive. Until, of course, my world travels cracked the bubble of the dominant narrative…

After the young lady sat down at my table that morning at the cafe’ in Bogota, we proceeded to have a fascinating conversation by passing the dictionary back and forth. In truth, her English was a little better than my Spanish but I had been in Latin America at this point for almost four months so my Spanish had improved significantly. I could even, on occasion, string enough words together to form a complete sentence. We exchanged info about families, home towns and plans for the future. She was from a smaller city on the coast but had moved to Bogota to study nursing at the university. She was surprised to learn that I was from the US because she had guessed I was Dutch or German. She was also surprised to learn I was a lawyer because I didn’t look like one (no aparace como un abogado). What is a lawyer supposed to look like? Perhaps I was in need of a haircut. Most importantly, she wanted to know why I was in Columbia. I tried to explain that I was on vacation but she seemed to doubt me. “Americanos no go on vacation to Columbia,” she said, “they only come here on business. Drug business or government business.” I insisted that I wasn’t there on business and tried to explain with broken Spanish that I was on a journey of self discovery… A quest. I was making my way to the southern tip of the Americas and I was just passing through Columbia. But still, she didn’t seem to believe me or understand me and I wondered why. Was I using the wrong Spanish words? Finally, she came right out and stated her concern out loud. “I think maybe you are CIA or DEA,” she said. I was totally flabbergasted by her suggestion. “Oh my God no,” I said in English, “I am definitely not a US government agent.”

Ultimately, she must have believed me because she invited me to join her and a group of friends on a picnic in a park on the outskirts of the city the following day. Actually, it was probably my inability to speak Spanish coherently that convinced her I was telling the truth. The US government would not realistically send an agent to a country where he couldn’t speak the language. Unless, of course, I was only pretending to not speak Spanish as part of my cover. I remember being a little bit paranoid that evening when I returned to my room at the Hotel Italia… Maybe Angela didn’t believe me? Maybe she still thinks I’m CIA or DEA? Maybe she’s a secret member of FARC or some drug gang and tomorrow’s outing is a ploy to kidnap me… In the end, my curiosity about local culture overcame my paranoia about kidnapping and I decided to go on the picnic. Besides, Angela was super sexy and that fact helped me overcome my paranoia too.

The next morning, I went to meet Angela at the same restaurant where we had our initial conversation. She was there with two friends from the university (one young man and one young woman). After introductions, we proceeded to a nearby bus stop where we hopped on a bus that took us across town. We changed buses twice and were on the road for almost an hour before we arrived at a very nice state park. I have no idea the name of the park because it was more than 25 years ago but it was somewhere in the vicinity of Bogota. There was a small lake in the park and walking trails through a forested area. There were some wide open expanses of grass and a couple of pavilions as well. I specifically remember some giant boulders near the lake that we had lots of fun climbing over. It was a very popular park for families from Bogota. Lots of people were having picnics. Kids were running all over and parents were chasing them. In many respects, it was idyllic and peaceful and tranquil, like from a Hallmark card or a Norman Rockwell painting. It almost didn’t seem real because it was nothing at all like the image I had in my mind of crazy, violent Columbia.

When we arrived at the park, we were greeted by seven or eight of Angela’s other friends from the university (a mix of young men and women). Our total group for the picnic was more than ten people. I can’t remember any of their names now but I do remember that one of the young women was nicknamed “Gringa” by all her friends because she spoke very fluent English. Indeed, it was the presence of Gringa on the outing that made the whole experience so memorable. She served as the translator thereby making it possible for me to communicate clearly with everyone in the group. It’s amazing how much you can learn about a country by spending a day (or week) with a group of college students. A couple of the guys brought kites for flying and someone else brought a frisbee. We walked the trail through the forest and hopped across the big rocks by the lake. No one went swimming in the water because high altitude central Columbia was fairly cool in temperature. But we did sit on big rocks lakeside and dangle our bare feet in the cool water. There was a cooler full of beer and someone had a small bottle of aguardiente (sugar cane liquor) but we didn’t get drunk. The alcohol was merely with us to accompany the incredible barbecue lunch we (they) prepared in one of the pavilions. I was hoping someone would have marijuana and offer me some. But no one mentioned it and I was afraid to ask.

The incident I remember that helped pop the proverbial bubble occurred while we were eating lunch. I sat at a picnic table with Angela, Gringa and a few of the guys. I looked out over the expanse of grass and watched dozens of families enjoying a sunny afternoon in a beautiful park. There were frisbees, kites and lots of little kids running around laughing and chasing each other as smiling happy parents looked on with approval…

“I can’t believe this is Columbia,” I said out loud, “it doesn’t even seem real.”
“Of course it’s Columbia,” said Gringa, “what did you expect?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I replied, “more guns, drugs and violence. Isn’t there supposed to be a civil war going on here? And a drug war too?”

“But you are from the United States,” said Gringa, “the most violent country in the whole world. Don’t you have parks where people enjoy themselves? Why would Columbia be any different?”

“The US isn’t a violent country,” I said somewhat defensively, “we haven’t had a war there since the 1860s.”
In response to my comment, Gringa actually laughed. And then, to make matters worse, she translated my comment to everyone at the table and everyone at the table laughed. They then proceeded to all talk simultaneously in Spanish so fast that I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying except for the names of several countries where the US military had recently been involved in conflicts. “Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Kuwait, Iraq.”

“I don’t understand what you guys are all saying,” I responded, “but what I meant was, the US hasn’t had any internal wars since the 19th century. The conflicts you are talking about are all external ones.”
“Si’, se vende guerra afuera y no tiene guerra al dentro. Que mierda.” (Yes, you sell war to the outside but don’t have war within. What shit!). Said one of the guys at the table in a rather hostile tone.
There was no need for Gringa to translate the statement exactly because I understood it rather clearly just from the tone in his voice. I had an uncomfortable sensation at the center of my being. I felt a little nauseous. “Some American companies may sell war but I don’t,” I answered sheepishly, “and neither does the US government.”

“Tu pais quieres controlar todo del mundo,” said one of the other guys.
“Mucho violencia aqui en Columbia es la falta primera de los Estados Unidos,” said one of the young ladies.
“What?” I said. “I don’t understand.”
Gringa translated, “your country wants to control the whole world. And most of the violence here in Columbia is caused by the United States.”
“That’s crazy,” I said defensively, “The US believes in democracy, free markets and the self-determination of independent nations. We are definitely not trying to conquer the world. I don’t really know much about the specifics of the conflict here in Columbia but I do know that my government is not trying to control it or win it. We just provide military and financial aid to governments or opposition parties that have the same ideals as us. Some administrations or individuals within administrations may use illegal techniques to promote American ideals, but the legitimate government of the American people certainly doesn’t. Blaming Columbian violence on the US is just insane. We give you guys so much financial aid it’s ridiculous. We are trying to help you develop a strong free market democracy. You should thank us for our generosity not blame us for your problems. You should take responsibility for your own violence.”

After my rather lengthy discourse, Gringa translated it for the group. Then she herself responded to my statement in a very matter of fact tone. “Your country only gives military aid to Columbia,” she said, “no aid for education or health or anything else. They only give us guns. And those guns kill lots of people.”
In retrospect I can hardly believe my former brainwashed self but I almost responded to her by repeating that idiotic American cliche… guns don’t kill people, people kill people… (Thank god I didn’t or I would be embarrassed for all eternity). Instead, I said something more nuanced and intellectual but just as foolish. “That’s not true,” I said. “The US government doesn’t even manufacture guns; independent corporations do. The US government gives the Columbian government financial aid… money… lots of it. It is your government here that decides to spend that money on weapons instead of education or healthcare. You can’t blame the US for the choices and decisions of your own government. I agree that weapons manufacturers are bad businesses. I agree that Columbia should spend their aid money on something else. But that is just the way a free market economy works. Corporations manufacture products and try to sell them. It is up to buyers to decide what to spend their money on.”

“Escucho amigo,” (listen friend) said the guy who sounded hostile before but now sounded conciliatory. “Todo esta bien. Tu gobierno es loco y nuestro gobierno es loco. Pero, no es la falta de tuyo o nosotros.” (It’s all good. Your government is crazy and our government is crazy, but it’s not your fault or our fault). He then reached across the picnic table and handed me the bottle of aguardiente he was drinking from. “Tomas,” (drink) he said as I took the bottle, “tomas a amistad.” (Drink to friendship).
“Yes,” said Gringa, “drink to friendship, unless you are CIA. Then it is your fault.”
Everybody at the table laughed as I took a nice big swig from the bottle.

Of course, the above described conversation is not “true” in the literal sense. It happened more than 25 years ago and my memory is vague and addled. But I think it more or less happened that way. And really, the snippet of words here recorded was only the very beginning of an extended discourse that I had with this group of college students. By the end of the picnic, they all made it very clear that I was not only welcome in Columbia generally but I was welcome in their group of amigos. When the sun set on the beautiful park, most of the group adjourned to a bar in the University area and I went with them. I proceeded to get smashed out of my gourd on aguardiente and have ongoing half intelligible conversations in a mix of broken Spanish and English long into the night. They piled me into a cab when the bar closed and I made it back to the Hotel Italia shortly before dawn. Wow. That was some picnic.

The following evening I met several members of the group (including Angela and Gringa) to watch a live theatrical performance in a theatre near the University. The play was in Spanish and I couldn’t understand it at all but we went to a cafe afterwards for more conversation. The night after that I went with my new amigos to a party at someone’s house near the campus. On two other nights we all met at music venues to watch live music. The small Jazz club was especially impressive. A smaller group also took me on an excursion in the cable car that went up the small mountain to the tourist attraction church. Some of the others even came to the neighborhood near my hotel to meet me for drinks in local bars. In total, I stayed in Bogota for ten nights when I originally only planned on staying for two. I didn’t have any romantic luck with Angela, Gringa, or anyone else but I sure was lucky with the complete social immersion. I could not possibly have been more thoroughly included in the local college “scene.”

This was not the first time in my travels that I came across significant animosity directed at my government or home country (and certainly not the last). I think the first time was in Guatemala when the guest house I was staying at advised myself and the other Americans that we should leave our passports with them in the safe when we took the mini-bus to Tikal. Apparently, criminal/revolutionaries had a habit of stopping buses and robbing only the Americans. I also spent a couple evenings with some friendly Sandinistas in Nicaragua where I learned in graphic detail about US sponsored death squads during the contra war. In Panama, I received an earful from some locals about the very recent US invasion to oust Noriega that killed over 3000 locals. And then there was also some serious anti-Americanism expressed by locals when I was caught in the “revolution” in Venezuela. But the Columbia experience was more significant because it lasted longer and the critique came from friends. They welcomed me personally into their group and always treated me with kindness and incredible generosity. But they informed me in great detail about how my government was “waging war” on their country and how my tax money was responsible for so much of the violence their country suffered.

I will never forget the day I finally left Bogota and headed by bus to the tourist town of San Augustin. The military and police checkpoints seemed endless and I kept looking at all the big guns carried around by the cops and the military and wondering if they were, “made in the USA.” Then, while I rode the bus, I watched the on board entertainment videos on the screen above the driver. It was another selection of American movies with sub-titles in Spanish. This time it was a Clint Eastwood movie marathon. Bang bang went Dirty Harry on the screen above me and the great big bubble clouding my naive and innocent brain went pop!

To be continued…

And don’t forget to buy my new book about my backpacking adventure in, “The Middle East.” You can get the e-book here: A Journey to the Middle of the East

backpacking adventure in “The Middle East.”

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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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 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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