A Post Modern Christmas Story

If the truth is relative, the new “travel story” you are about to read is relatively true. Nevertheless, it is also “fake news”. The narrator and the characters depicted are creations of the author’s imagination. The events which unfold may be “universally true,” but they are not exactly objectively real. I like to believe that it is some kind of neo-mythology which I call “living fiction.”

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Winter Solstice… 2016. Ms. B.’s Dream…

“I dreamed we had another child. I was in TJ. Max.. Little a. was walking around ahead of me and I was carrying an infant in my arms.  She was a baby girl. Little a. is quite a bit older in the dream than she is now. At least kindergarten maybe even first grade. The three of us are walking around TJ Max. Little a., the baby, and me. You aren’t there. You are probably out building a stone wall or something. So there we are in the middle of TJ. Max when all of a sudden, the lights go out…”

If you have been reading my stories for a long time, you may be aware of my annual ritual. I started doing it 22 years ago and I find the process incredibly rewarding. At the end of my stone work season every year (early November), I go cold turkey and give up my four favorite indulgences… Coffee, alcohol, weed and ice cream. The first week or so is a bit of a challenge for the body and brain but after that, it just feels healthy. I continue “the cleanse” throughout November and up until the Winter Solstice so it usually lasts somewhere between five and six weeks. I like to think of it as a re-boot for my system. For metaphorical reasons, I complete the ritual at the exact moment of the winter solstice and it always seems, somehow, symbolic. I pour a strong cup of coffee and season it with some Irish cream. I pack a pipe full with some good local homegrown and consume the combination when the earth hits that special spot in the great rotation. I say my little poem and then see what happens…

Let there be light shining in the darkness
Let there be hope in a world of despair
Let there be wonder in the face of confusion
Let there be laughter filling the air…

This year, my timing is exceptional. I awake without an alarm clock at 5:22 am and the solstice is scheduled for 5:44 am.. I have plenty of time to prepare my provisions. To make matters better, I saw on the Internet that there is some kind of eclipse this year so it is theoretically the darkest night in 500 years. That should set the stage for a particularly powerful experience. Ms. B. and little a. are still sleeping when I awake so I crawl quietly from beneath the covers and head to the kitchen.

My concoctions are completed by 5:43 am and I go outside to the back porch. The morning is shrouded in absolute darkness. I sit on the back step, look up at the darkness and wait for the magic moment. I drink my coffee, alcohol and cream; puff the pipe and say my poem…
Let there be light…
I sit for a few minutes sipping my warm beverage and breathing the sacred air. Then I go back inside. Just as I reach my chair in the kitchen I hear a voice call out from the darkness…

“Da Da,” says the voice.

Obviously, it is my daughter, little a., and she has awoken in bed and requires attention. This is a fairly common occurrence in our home. I wake up before dawn to write but my fiddling around in the kitchen disturbs the little one so she gets up to interrupt my imaginary world. Sometimes Mama can nurse her right back to sleep but more often than not, she wants to know what Dada is doing so she comes out to see. Lately I have discovered that if I go back to bed and lie down next to them while Mama nurses, little a. returns to slumberland a lot faster and easier so I can go back to my stories sooner. So that is what I usually do.

Mama (Ms. B.) passes through the kitchen on her way to the bathroom. “I know you are enjoying your ritual,” she says, “but she’s been awake for a while now.”

So I leave my place in the kitchen and go back to the bedroom to lie down next to her. “Calm down Sweetie Pie,” I say, “dada’s here. You can go back to sleep now.” A few moments later, Mama comes back to bed and starts nursing her. As the three of us are lying there in the darkness, Mama tells me about her dream.

“I dreamed we had another child. I was in T.J. Max.. Little a. was walking around ahead of me and I was carrying an infant in my arms. She was a baby girl… So there we are, the three of us, myself, little a., and the baby, looking at the merchandise when all of a sudden the lights go out in the store. Fortunately, I have a flashlight in my pocket and I turn it on. We don’t take any merchandise but instead start making our way to the exit. Somewhat strangely, there are no other customers in the store. We reach the checkout line and it is empty. There is not even a cashier. It’s when we reach the exit that I have the realization. As we step outside into the sunshine, I reach down and grab ahold of little a.’s hand. Oh my gosh, we are going to have another baby. And that’s when I wake up.”

“What do you think Dada?” she continues, “what does the dream mean? Are we really going to have another child? What should her name be?”

“Well,” I answer, “if little a. is five in the dream and she is only 18 months now, we have a few years to think about it?”

I can hear Mama  smile and chuckle in the darkness but she doesn’t respond verbally to my statement. She continues nursing quietly as her and the little one drift back to sleep. Meanwhile, I lie there peacefully and think randomly about the symbolism of the dream.

I can’t help but wonder if she turned on her flashlight in the dream at the same moment I said my poem on the back porch. Ha ha. TJ Max., the lights go out… how perfect. The metaphor is so full of hot air, it pops like a ripe balloon… Mama and I have an amazingly good relationship. I love her and the little one with my whole heart and soul and I would do anything for them. Nevertheless, the universe is necessarily constructed of opposing forces so we do indeed have occasional issues. Actually, I would say that we have one underlying issue that shows itself in many different ways. The issue is a simple one. I have an aversion to “owning stuff” that is almost pathological. I believe that globalized consumer capitalism is a disease that is destroying the planet. In my theoretical revolution, I want humans to stop “buying” things from the “corporate empire” and start trading useful and beautiful things with each other. I realize, of course, that my imaginary revolution is really just a dream and I try to not be an extremist about it. I sometimes even compromise and “buy” a few “necessary” things from the corporate empire. Nevertheless, it is something that drives me just a little bit crazy. If human beings do not give up their crazy consumerism, the whole darn planet is certainly doomed.

Mama sort of agrees with me on an intellectual level but she certainly has no pathological aversion to owning stuff.  She is not exactly a materialist but she does like a few “things.” She also receives subliminal corporate propaganda when on social media and occasionally tells me about their official response to my doomsday narrative… Technology can save us from ecological destruction. If we just consume environmentally  responsible products, we can keep right on consuming.  Materialism and saving the planet are indeed compatible if people will just learn to buy responsible stuff…   Mama also sort of likes to shop a little, little bit. Now it is, of course, the holidays, so most of what she buys are presents. But her buying instinct is rooted in kindness towards others so I can’t really blame her. Nevertheless, it still makes me shake my head in frustration. How much more “stuff” do humans really need?

Anyway, as I lie there in the darkness thinking about all this, little a. releases herself from Mama’s breast and rolls towards me. She is sort of asleep now with her eyes closed but she still wiggles and squirms. She reaches out and grabs my arm with her warm tiny little hands and calls out a single word from deep within her subconscious, “Da Da,” she says. In response to her voice, something triggers inside of me and all of a sudden, the story of Mama’s dream makes perfect sense…

Having a child is the most optimistic thing that humans can ever decide to do. It’s a hopeful bet on the future of the world. Realistically, in my logical brain, I don’t think the future of the world looks very bright. The objective data suggests that corporate capitalism is on a collision course with oblivion. Unless the imagination revolution somehow manifests, there is not going to be a world left to raise children in… But Mama’s dream gives me hope. It is a beautiful prediction of an idyllic future. Yes, that’s right. There is still hope. It is possible… The lights will go out on the corporate empire and Mama will have the inner light to lead the little ones outside. The future is still bright.  We will raise our children in Paradise…

All of a sudden, I feel a slight kick in the ribs. Little a. has rolled over and made herself comfortable lying perpendicular with her head on her mama’s belly and her feet towards me. She is sound asleep now in the darkness but still manages to call out two more words from deep in her subconscious. “All done!” she says.

“You’re right Sweetie Pie,” I whisper, “the story is all done. I should get out of bed and go write it down.” As I climb from beneath the covers and make my way to the kitchen, however, I have one last thought. I realize the answer to Ms. B.’s question. “Well, obviously,” I say out loud, “her name shall be little c.” But Mama  and little a. do not hear me because they are sound asleep.

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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 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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City of Light

In a balanced universe, you can’t really have a city of darkness unless you also have a city of light.  As such, this week’s story is the companion piece to last week’s story.  It is also one of my personal favorites  For many years, I told several different versions of this to various audiences.  Indeed, if you are a friend of mine in the real world you have probably heard it before. Nevertheless, it was never printed or published in written form until now.  It’s amazing how much the world can change in just a few short weeks.    Happy New Year!

 

CITY OF LIGHT (Varanasi, India; January 1, 2001)

What is the essence of wonder? From where does the light derive?

The sun is high in the morning sky, when by train I arrive.

The smoky platform is busy and lively but not overwhelming. I was here in this city two weeks ago so everything is familiar, but somehow different. The train station is awake. Instead of sleeping piles of flesh, the humans are up and moving around now. Positive energy lights up the air. “Tchai, Tchai,”“Omelet, Omelet” shout out the vendors. Crowds circle around me. “Rickshaw sir, you want rickshaw?”

I know where to go today.  I’m not confused. Up the stairs, to the left, then right.  I exit the building and find myself by the cluster of rickshaws. I need a rickshaw to the ghats.  There is an empty cycle one right there. I’ll take that. “Twenty rupees to the ghats?” I say to the driver (peddler). Rickshaw man smiles big and shakes his head yes. I climb into the seat and off we go. My golden chariot takes me into the magical kingdom.

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