African Motorcycle Essays
"This was a 4,400 kilometer motorcycle journey through Mozambique, Malawi and Tanzania, which followed a pattern of what I like to call 'immersion travel.' Having a motorcycle gave me the freedom to travel away from the tourist track and catch a glimpse of true African life, in all its simple, elegant beauty."
- Getting Started
- An Unlikely Place for Answers (Part I)
- An Unlikely Place for Answers (Part II)
- African Racism
- Making the Transition
- My First (But not Last) Crash
- Alone Again (Just in Time to Face Disaster)
- One Last Hungry Night in Mozambique
- Arriving, Crud-Covered, in Malawi
- Supreme Times in Blantyre, Malawi
- From Blantyre to Lake Malawi
- From Cape Maclear to Monkey Bay (with one pit stop in-between)
- Riding North on the Lake Malawi Ferry
- Down Time in Nkhata Bay
- The Bush Grapevine
- Dar es Salaam
Other Published Essays
Tripwolf Blog Entries
Destination Music Carribean Edition
- A Summer Study of Music and Culture
- Hitting the Road
- The Music of Tobago, West Indies
- More Music News from Tobago
- The Current and Recurrent in Caribbean Music
- Puerto Rico is not just Reggaeton
- Jamaica- Roots, Rackets and Redemption (Part I)
- Jamaica- Roots, Rackets and Redemption (Part II)
- Jamaica- Roots, Rackets and Redemption (Part III)
12/12/08 10:06 AM
The essays that will appear in this space make up only a small part of my story, even though the events which inspired them rank among the most significant of my life. The early installments detail a six-month overland journey I made between Cape Town, South Africa and Nairobi, Kenya during the winter of 2003-04. I covered about 4,000 kilometers of this distance on a small motorbike purchased in the Mozambiquan capital of Maputo, and the experiences I had while riding it did much to set the tone of my continuing travels through Africa, the Middle East, China and Tibet. And so, at the risk of sounding pretentious, I will say that what follows should not be read simply as a 'travel journal,' since I rarely write things down for my own posterity. Instead, those who care to read my words will do well to approach them as chapters in a tale whose conclusion remains hidden, and whose central message articulates many aspects of the same truth.
Prior to buying the motorbike, I had spent two months touring South Africa, and after a close examination of my options, it seemed like the only rational decision to make. I relied on public transportation for the most part, and thought it gave me a better understanding of the locals' daily lives, this method proved to be less than ideal. Like many cash-generating entrepreneurs in the developing world, the combination of fierce competition and a low-budget clientele dictates that African transport providers walk a fine line between profit and loss. This means that most routes are served by minibus taxis that leave only when packed to capacity; and many take to the road despite being patently unsafe. I rode in dozens of these vehicles prior to purchasing my own wheels, and driving on bald tires, warped alignments, poor brakes and corroded floors was standard operating procedure. One taxi even had a pair of vise grips wedged into the steering column to take the place of a wheel.
There were many other factors that led me to seek out my own means of transportation, but in the end, safety concerns played a less immediate role than a sack of potatoes packed beneath my seat. It was shortly before Christmas, and the temperature was close to 100 degrees. I sat wedged inside a minibus that was lumbering north out of South Africa, trying not to count the minutes as they crawled by. About halfway into the journey, I felt an unpleasant itching sensation on my left calf. After scratching the area a few times, I looked down to see what was going on. To my utter dismay, I discovered that the bag was infested with cockroaches, and they were now using my legs as a means of escaping their stifling burlap confines. Because we were riding in such tight quarters, with a schedule to keep, I knew there was no point in making a scene, or demanding that the driver pull over. Yet at that precise instant, as we drew near to the border and I prepared to defend against a rising six-legged assault, I decided that there just had to be a better way.
An Unlikely Place for Answers (Part I)
Beline is a tiny beach town in southern Mozambique, about one hundred kilometers north from the capital, Maputo. Its main attraction is a large, often brackish lagoon, which is separated from the Indian Ocean by a thin strip of sand dunes and rocky hills. Despite being a frequent destination for egg-laying sea turtles, Beline's gritty, serene beuty is not enough to support a thriving tourist industry year-round. Consequently, for long stretches at a time, it can seem like an empty, forgotten place. Upon arriving there, my first thought about the place was to calculate how I could leave as soon as possible.
It was about ten o'clock at night--well after dark--and my dependance on public transportation was continuing to be a source of frustration. I had been in Mozambique almost a week, and after walking the dusty, humid streets of its capital during that time, I was ready for some fresh air. My plan was to meander up through the coast's scattered beach towns using the inter-city bus service, which everyone told me was far superior to the minibus taxis I now feared. Thankfully, these reviews were more or less accurate; even though conditions were Spartan, these buses were roomier and in a far better state of repair than the others I had taken. Yet, in my haste to leave the city behind, I execute a rookie mistake and jumped on the first bus whose driver said he was stopping in Beline.
As a reward for this carelessness, I received an impromptu introduction to the African phenomenon of the 'local' bus. Unlike in much of the west, where one takes a slower conveyance for reasons of convenience and location, local routes in Africa operate much like the airline industry: the more stops you make, the lower your fare. Apparently, I had taken the cheapest bus available, because it took a full seven hours--at an average speed of just under fifteen kilometers and hour-- to reach Beline. The journey was slowed by poor roads and frequent stops, but also by the sheer amound of stuff that the other passengers brought with them. Almost every time we pulled over, a frantic burst of energy would unleash itself, and the roof would gain or loose any number of jukebox-sized burlap sacks, while locals piled in with various combinations of children, vegetables, bicycles, chickens and goats as their 'carry-on' baggage.
This was all fun for a few hours, but by the time I arrived at Beline's only bus stop, the novelty had long since worn off. To make matters worse, as my bus's tail lights disappeared in the night, it now appeared that I had taken this ridiculously long ride only to be left in a ghost town. I asked someone where I could find a place to sleep, and he motioned down the road, to a hidden campsite whose four other tenants had arrived in well-stocked automobiles. I did have a tent with me, but to this point I had never assembled it in total darkness--even with my flashlight, it was difficult and frustrating work. When I finally got it together and crawled inside, I was feeling sorry for myself. All I wanted to do was get some sleep, catch the first bus heading north the next morning and forget I ever wasted a day coming to Beline. Yet in spite of my poor attitude, I could not shake the feeling that somehow, I was exactly where I needed to be. And, as it turns out, my luck was subtly changing there in the darkness; within hours, the perfect solution to all my travel woes would present itself, literally, as if from nowhere.
An Unlikely Place for Answers
I woke up in a better mood the next morning; still wanting to leave, but with my sense of haste faded to the point where I could relax a bit and enjoy my surroundings. I walked over to the small beach next to the campground and sat down in the early morning sun. It was here that the course of my trip would take a dramatic turn, as I met Greg, an electrician and bike mechanic from London. He was on holiday for two months, and kept saying how nice it would be to ride a 'bony' in Africa, where he'd be surrounded by animals and beautiful scenery, rather than traffic and drizzle. His ruminations awoke me to an obvious solution to my transportation woes: with a motorbike, I could head north at my leisure, carrying everything I needed to go far off the beaten path.
As an added bonus, Greg said he would teach me all I needed to know about bike maintenance, so that I could continue on my way once he had to turn back towards home. We hatched a plan to head back to Maputo, find two motorcycles, gear up for the trip and then hit the road. Greg and I found a bike shop a few days later and selected our respective wheels--mine a brand-new Honda 125-cc road bike and his a used Suzuki on/off-road model that was formerly a police bike in Swaziland. Because his choice was second-hand (and therefore already registered in Mozambique), Greg had significantly less paperwork to complete than I did, and he was able to take ownership a full ten days before me. So, as I set out to file registration papers and purchase insurance, Greg spent four days in Swaziland buying supplies and spares for our trip.
It took another two weeks of running around before we felt prepared enough to set out. In the meanwhile, we bunkered down at Fatima's--one of several backpacker hostels in central Maputo--and tried not to watch the water boil. As our tortuous wait continued, we saw a steady stream of young (and often comely) westerners pass through on their way north to the pristine beaches of Inhambane Province. I was getting antsy and eager to move, but Greg, in what would become a hallmark of our travel buddy relationship, kept reminding me to slow down, since we were on a different schedule as the others and it was foolhardy to begin a mission before the time was absolutely right. By the time my bike cleared customs, I had the paperwork necessary to drive it right out of the showroom. But since I had never actually ridden a motorcycle more than a few blocks, I did not yet have the confidence to pull out onto the capital's frenzied roadways. Instead, I drove it around the block for a good forty-five minutes, familiarizing myself with everything from the brakes and clutch to the turn signals. In the process, I attracted the attention of a neighborhood kid, who figured out what I was doing and started to mock me in English. "What are you doing?" he shouted, "That's a little kid's bike, man!" By now I was gaining in confidence and steadiness, so the next pass around, I started to beep my horn and shout back.
"I'm going to Malawi and Tanzania on this bike, smart ass. What do you think about that?"
"You'll never even make it to Malawi on that thing," he laughed back in reply.
"Watch me," I said, revving the engine to merge into the late afternoon traffic rush. "Just you watch me."
It's no secret that racial discrimination and iniquity remain a part of daily life in Africa. However, because the global media most often portrays these phenomena solely through the lens of post-colonialism, their true nature remains unknown to the majority of outsiders. And so, whenever genocidal violence erupts in places like Kenya or Rwanda, westerners who care are left to shake their heads and wonder why. Perhaps it would be easier to comprehend if such brutality took the form of an oppressed black majority storming from its crowded townships to attack symbols of the white establishment. Though still barbaric and inhuman, that scenario would at least make sense--one side hating the other's disproportionate opulence and lashing out to overturn the status quo. Yet, with one notable exception (Zimbabwe), where a fading tyrant still cloaks his ways with a veneer of black solidarity and empowerment, the Marxist era of African race wars has all but disappeared. In its place, festering behind the myth of united negritude, a darker truth now lingers: the most hate-filled elements of the continent's intolerance are decidedly intra-racial in nature.
I experienced a dramatic example of this acrimony first-hand while checking into a hostel in Maputo, Mozambique, with Greg and an African friend of ours named Amos. We had just hitched south to the city from Beline, where Amos worked as a bartender. A Swazi by birth, he grew up in Johannesburg during the apartheid era, and seemed accustomed to white people--who now impatiently yelled drink orders at him throughout their long winter holidays--treating him like a second-class citizen. As we approached the hostel, the black security guard out front nodded at me and Greg politely as he opened the gate. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw his affable expression change into a look of disgust when our friend walked by. Amos is a member of the Shangaan, a Tsonga-speaking ethnic group who were among the first black laborers to be recruited for work in South Africa's gold and diamond mines. There, his forefathers soon earned a reputation for hard work and efficiency which persists today. As a consequence, a Zulu acquaintance of mine told me, the Shangaan are often dismissed as common laborers, who will do jobs that 'prouder' tribes consider to be beneath them.
In some ways, the guard's reaction to Amos reflects the enduring success of the colonial regime's strategy of divide and rule, where by over-emphasizing minor ethnographic differences between local tribes, they established an artificial hierarchy, which in turn led Africans to fight amongst each other, rather than focusing on the true source of their oppression. But, to my mind, the episode also serves as a timeless reminder of how easily peoples' inclination towards self-righteous superiority can be manipulated into hate. After all, the Shangaans' dark skin and industrious reputation make them the recipients of a chauvinism which the colonizers exploited, but could not themselves create--or maintain. Apparently, it seems, there is just no limit to some human beings' need to find a social inferior who they can look down upon.
Making the Transition
Leaving an African city behind to venture out into the countryside is always a memorable event, particularly when you've been unrelentingly surrounded by concrete for weeks on end. On your way out, as you pass through the outer ring of industrial areas and transportation depots, part of the rush is due to a feeling of escape, of getting out even as hordes of others rush the other way. But most of it comes from the vastness of the scene that stretches out before you. By the time we finally made our getaway, Greg and I were joined by Isabel, a sexy nightclub singer from Murcia, Spain, who now lived in London. She had come to Africa for six weeks and liked the idea of riding with us because it would save her both the money and discomfort of taking buses. Like Greg, she was carrying only a small backpack, so they and their gear fit easily on his bike. This was fortunate, since all my camping gear left me with no extra storage space to offer them.
About an hour into our inaugural ride, we pulled over to rest and take a break from the scorching midday sun. During the interlude, while Greg and Isabel ate a leisurely lunch in the shade, I stood over by the forest, vomiting. This struck me as odd; I had been feeling fine all morning, and couldn't imagine that a sudden infusion of fresh air and green scenery would make me nauseous. For the previous few weeks, the time during which I had to face the certainty of this motorcycle trip into the bush, I had been bothered by a nonspecific malaise that sapped my energy and left me feeling both anxious and lethargic--though never nauseous. Despite having transportation and an almost limitless supply of spare time, I ventured out mostly just to gather supplies, passing the slow-moving hours inside of my hostel alone, waiting. I felt an almost desperate need to get moving, yet could hardly do more than eat, sleep and shower.
I see now that my listlessness and unease during those days was a consequence of the anxiety and tension that had been building up in me for almost a month. I was full of doubts; about my papers coming through, about my safety and about whether, even if things went well, I had the grit to undertake this journey. When I could finally navigate my way back to Greg and Isabel's table, I noticed how those familiar worries and unpleasant sensations were no longer with me, as though becoming violently ill had somehow purged my system of more than just breakfast. It felt as though, through the simple feat of standing fast against my fears, I had passed an important test. Even with the lingering sensations of wooziness and a severe case of cottonmouth, I felt like a new man standing there--indeed, for the first time, I felt like an adventurer.
My First (But Not Last Crash)
After spending a few days with Amos in Beline, Isabel, Greg and I continued up the EN1 highway towards Chidenguele, a tiny roadside village from which a maze of deep sandy paths meanders to the coast. Amos had told us that somewhere among these paths was a large freshwater lake with a camping-friendly sport lodge where we could spend the night. It was about ten tortuous kilometers into this labyrinth, when we were hopelessly lost and with less than an hour of daylight remaining, when I experienced my first real crash. With my companions riding ahead, out of sight, I lost control in the sand, swerved badly to my left and drifted into a low ridge at the road's edge. The impact of this collision sent me head-over-handlebars, and jarred the bike back towards the sand, where it ground to a halt. I landed hard but uninjured, and looked back to see my wheels in good condition--but minus the gear-shift pedal, which now lay beside me.
Not good. Even with all the disastrous scenarios that I had dreamed up and tried to prepare for, the possibility of facing roads like this in gathering darkness, with only one gear, had not even entered my consciousness. I leaned back on the ground, too shocked for anger or pain, contemplating the odds as I waited for Greg and Isabel to double back. The sun was going down fast, but just as our situation reached its bleakest, a pickup truck--or 'backie' as many Africans call them--appeared over the hill. The driver, a hulking young white man named Garreth, informed us that we heading in the wrong direction, and that we ought to come back to his parents' lodge before the mosquitos began to swarm. Then, seeing the severed metal slab that I was holding, he picked my wounded motorbike up like a toy and lugged it into his truck bed. Running into Garreth turned out to be a golden stroke of luck for us; his family's homestead was a rustic paradise, complete with hot showers, home-cooked meals and a blowtorch that successfully welded my broken gear lever back on. After spending four days there, our small party departed for Tofu, a tiny peninsular beach town that was to be our final destination together.
Greg, Isabel and I spent the next three weeks in sedentary fashion, lounging on the beach, eating fresh seafood and taking leisurely motorbike trips into town through the hilly, lush countryside. As our sixth week as travel buddies drew to a close, Greg announced that it was time for him to begin heading south again, back towards home. Isabel, who had planned to stay in Africa for only a few months, fell in love with an American scuba instructor named Jeremy, and decided she wanted to stay (the two of them are still together, and now run a small environmental collective which coordinates local efforts to preserve Tofu's spectacular marine life and delicate shoreline). And just like that, I was back on my own once more, heading north into the heart of Africa, where my courage and endurance would face their greatest tests yet.
Alone Again (Just in Time to Face Disaster)
The morning after saying goodbye to Greg and Isabel, I took one last swim in the ocean and then geared up for the three-hour trip north to Vilankoulos. I headed west from Tofu Beach to link back up with the EN1 highway outside of Maxixe, and then made a cautious right turn onto the tarmac. Within minutes, I came across a small commotion by the side of the road. As I approached, a grave-looking local turned at the sound of my bike and motioned for me to slow down. At his feet were the crumpled, bloody body of an injured man, and the smashed-up frame of a bicycle. There were no ambulances around, and the closest functioning emergency room was miles, if not hours, away. The man was lifted off the pavement and into the back of a small pickup truck just as a light rain began to fall. I rode past with a heavy heart, wanting to help, but knowing I could offer nothing to match even the meager aid he was getting.
It took me almost no time to pass through Maxixe, and before long, I was back out on the open road, foolishly riding at full speed. Moments later, as if reading the script of a slow-motion nightmare, two teenage boys on a bike swerved suddenly into my lane without looking. They were less than firty meters away, so my only option was to slam on the brakes; as I did, my back wheel began to fishtail on the slick road. I struggled to keep the bike under control, and reached my legs down to balance. But as my left foot grazed the asphalt and kicked back, I realized how futile this instinctive effort would be at such high speeds. There was no choice but to face disaster and just ride it out. I remember understanding--not just thinking--at this point there was a real chance I could be killed. However, I felt no panic; only a calm, almost ridiculous sense of acceptance for whatever might come. My worst fears were materializing in front of me, but even then I could not shake the gratitude I felt, as if some part of me knew that everything would be alright. The very next instant, when things looked to be at their bleakest, my rear wheel stopped sliding, allowing me to gain control of the bike and gently lay it down on its side.
I was now sliding along the pavement at about forty miles an hour, but because the roads were wet and smooth, there was almost no friction. I felt a slight burning on my right hip and shifted more weight onto the seat of my pants, where I slid for what seemed like hours. When I finally stopped, there was a small chunk of skin missing from my right hand, and my jacket sleeve was torn, but other than that I was unscathed. The bike had come through in similar fashion: one of the mirrors was cracked, but the engine never stopped running. As I started reattaching my loosened gear to the bike, I noticed several residents of the nearby village--into which the two boys had run after seeing me crash--staring at me as if I were a ghost. But they didn't know the half of it. For the second time now, my luck had held out in incredible fashion, right when I needed it most.
One Last Hungry Night in Mozambique
A few hours up the coast from Vilankulous lies Sofala Province, which serves as a gateway both to Mozambique's western border district and its less-touristed north. Because of the enduring political catastrophe in neighboring Zimbabwe, most visitors who progress this far do so while traveling to Zambia or Malawi, whose frontiers also converge in on the region. Those without their own transportation are doomed to a long, dusty bus ride through the Tete Corridor, a narrow strip of Mozambiquan territory that juts out into her three land-locked neighbors. I was going to Malawi, and thanks to a tip I received before leaving Tofu Beach, I knew of a better way. My source, a vacationing South African who knew the area well, advised me to take the EN 1 north until it ended in a town called Inchope. There, he said, I would find a crossroads pointing to a brand-new asphalt highway that traced a far more direct route out of the country.
I reached Inchope just before sunset of my second day, tired and hungry from eight hours on the road. The next morning, I set out early and found that, true to my friend's word, the highway was both scenic and smooth. A little before two o'clock though, I arrived at Caia, a tiny village near the banks of the Zambezi River where the asphalt ends, and, to my surprise, a 200 kilometer dirt road to the Vila Nova da Fronteira border crossing begins. Pushing hard, I went as fast as the bumpy conditions allowed, yet as the sun dropped lower over the horizon, it became clear that my options were dwindling. There was no electricity to light the treacherous road, and no hope of finding a guesthouse or campground ahead. I had no food, and even if I did reach the border in time, crossing over would put me in essentially the same position, only with less daylight and no local currency. There was no choice but to pull over and prepare for one last hungry night in Mozambique.
Soon after realizing this, I rode past a small farm and asked the woman standing there who it belonged to. She disappeared and came back moments later with her husband, a wiry, toothless man in work clothes. His name was Amerigo, and within moments of me asking to stay, he had already swept a place in the dirt for my tent and introduced me to his children. That night, after my hosts finished eating their dinner--I was famished, but asked only for water, since it was clear they had no food to spare--we sat under Amerigo's mosquito net, listening to the radio. I was up for hearing Mozambiquan music one last time, but he graciously insisted that, in my honor, we should find something in English. And so, I dozed off to the sounds of an evangelical sermon broadcasting from Zimbabwe, before awaking alone in the darkness and returning to my tent. Apparently, word about me had spread during the night, because when I emerged from my tent at sunrise, there was already a small crowd of neighbors sitting in the shade nearby, talking excitedly. As I unchained the bike from its tree and prepared to load my gear back on, one of the neighbors walked over. "Pneu furado," he said, pointing towards the rear. Flat tire.
Arriving, Crud-Covered, In Malawi
A close inspection of my flat rear tire revealed that the inner tube had a quarter-inch-thick slit just above the rim—small enough for me to ride until sunset, but big enough to empty during the night. To make matters worse, I discovered the canister of vulcanized rubber in my repair kit had punctured sometime earlier, and was now useless. I did have a tire patch, but without any heavy-duty adhesive, it was worthless. When I explained the situation to Amerigo and his neighbors, they responded by asking me for a small amount of money. I peeled off my second-to-last $1 bill and gave it to one of them, a teenager on a bike. After a brief interlude, the kid came back with a small container of locally-produced honey, the kind city-dwellers can only buy at Saturday morning farmers’ markets. Looking like they had rehearsed the drill countless times, Amerigo and company proceeded to spread a generous portion of honey onto the patch, which they then pressed firmly onto the tube. After checking to see that the patch was holding up, I thanked everyone for their help and said goodbye to Amerigo. I wanted to show him how much his hospitality had meant to me, so I gave him my only memento from home—a St. Louis Rams baseball cap, which he put on immediately.
Twenty minutes later, after changing my last dollar bill into Malawian Kwatcha and getting an exit stamp from Mozambique, I crossed through a short no-man’s land and was processed into Malawi by a man wearing pajamas. I prodded along for several hours, before reaching a dusty town called Thyolo, from where a two-lane asphalt highway stretches out into the country’s Shire Highlands. Blantyre, Malawi’s largest city rests atop this plateau, whose combination of warm tropical air and rising elevation produces short, frequent downpours throughout the rainy season. Under a patchwork of blue skies and gathering storm clouds, I arrived at the Shire foothills, where the plains end and the road begins to climb. At times the grade became so steep that my little engine could do nothing more than inch me forward in low gear, but its steady hum echoing off the rocks never wavered, never faltered even for a minute. I was going to make it.
Later, as I cruised around one particularly wide bend in the road, the terrain opened up to allow for a view unlike any I had ever seen. Behind me was the flat expanse of land I had just traveled, and down below, between me and the valley floor on either side of the road, was a swollen grey thundercloud floating above a rainbow. Despite being hungry, dirty and tired, I rode slowly from that point on, savoring every moment. The long and difficult mission I was about to complete had tested me severely, yet I had met every challenge along the way, and was now arriving in stinky, crud-covered triumph. I had no money, but the manager at my hostel took one look at me and agreed to accept my traveler’s checks as collateral until the banks opened in the morning. Then, after having my first hot shower in five days and scraping the dried dust out of my ears, I headed towards the restaurant, and the best damn pizza I had ever tasted.
Supreme Times in Blantyre, Malawi
After all the effort and adventure involved in making it here, I wound up getting stuck in Blantyre for an extra few days because of an odd twist of fate--my motorbike was smashed, while chained to a tree, by a drunken member of Malawi's Supreme Court. I was asleep when it happened, but, according to both the hostel's bartender and night watchman, at about 3:00 a.m., his honor staggered out of the bar with an attractive and equally inebriated "niece" in tow. It's unclear who was actually driving, but by all accounts, the car started up and just attacked my bike's tree like it had a ring of fire and a ramp behind it. The damage turned out to be minor, just a broken license plate, a few dents and a ruined bolt or two. To his credit, the judge left his name and mobile number with the guard; I called him, and after first sending one of his minions to feel me out, he agreed to come back and meet me at the hostel. Before seeing him, I Googled the name written on a scrap of paper he left, and began to get a sense of what an important man he was in Malawi. His name popped up on a number of constitutional rulings, and more than one case involving the country's President.
We met the next morning at eleven, and the judge, quite frankly, was a nervous wreck. The incident was big news with everyone at the local bus station, and more than one of them told me that I should try to extort a brand-new bike from him. Sweating profusely in the balmy air, he described what happened as a "freak accident" while I searched for missing pieces of my license plate. It was interesting to watch such a powerful man in his moment of humility, but I decided to let him off the hook right away. I informed the judge that the circumstances surrounding the accident did not interest me, and that I only wanted what his actions took out of my pocket. The estimate I passed on to him--not counting the license plate, which came from Mozambique--was 250 Kwatcha ($2.50).
The next day, a young man in a suit arrived to hand me an envelope and a signed note from the judge. In elegant handwriting, he apologized again, regretted that we were not able to meet under better circumstances and wished me a safe journey. The envelope contained 4,000 Kwatcha, which was more than enough to pay for repairs, by Malawian road insurance and pay the fine I got for not having said insurance. While driving without coverage was a bit irresponsible, in my defense, I had been too broke to buy food when I entered the country, so collision protection wasn't really an option at the time. Moreover, I only got written up because I ran into a spot checkpoint while on the way to the insurance company's office. But in the end it didn't matter, because everything wound up balancing out: the bike got fixed, I ended up no worse for wear, and my faith in the give-and-take of the universe was restored. And so, once again, it was time to start making my way north.
From Blantyre to Lake Malawi
04/19/09 10:32 PM
Before leaving Blantyre, I began to notice a growing level of distress around my stomach. A number of fellow travelers at the hostel got sick during my stay there, and after seeing a doctor, they came to the conclusion that food poisoning was to blame. Nevertheless, I set off for Lake Malawi immediately once the bike was repaired after its run-in with the judge, because I didn't think my condition was anything to worry about. Even with the constant uneasiness in my belly, I was still feeling vigorous and strong. I also figured that regardless of what the cause of this distress turned out to be--flu, food poisoning or something else--any doctor I visited would probably just tell me to rest and drink plenty of fluids as it passed through my system. The lake sounded like an ideal place to do exactly that, so I geared up to make the 200-plus kilometer trip the next day.
Leaving a few hours after dawn, I arrived at the main highway's turnoff towards Cape Maclear, a once-legendary lakeside resort whose fortunes have declined in recent years, partly due to the end of white-minority rule in neighboring Rhodesia. Based on the many descriptions of the region's past I heard while in Blantyre, I expected the lake road to be marked by a series of advertisements and informational signs pointing the way. Instead, I was greeted by a lonely, unmarked dirt road that stretched far into the distance. My map indicated that this was the place, but since I would run out of daylight soon, I asked two small boys sitting by the road "Which way to Cape Maclear?" They pointed straight, past the dirt road I was about to take. Relieved at having avoided a potential disaster, I thanked the boys and moved on, only to hear a chorus of stifled giggles behind me as I accelerated.
My instincts told me that I'd just been had, so I stopped a pair of young women walking north and asked them the same question. They pointed back towards the dirt road, and, to the utter dismay of my would-be tormentors, I made a wide, ceremonious U-turn while tooting the bike's horn and revving its engine in triumph. From the crossroads, it was another two hours' hard ride to the lake, and during that time, I saw no more than six or seven people. Eventually, I reached a second intersection, and this one had a sign pointing left for Cape Maclear and right for Monkey Bay (from where I would catch the Lake Malawi Ferry north in a few days). The road from this juncture wound its way through a lush tropical forest on its way to the lake, and after cruising past several incredulous baboons at the forest's edge, I reached the turquoise shores and booked two nights' stay at a lakeside campground. That night, while setting up my tent, I could not help but notice how, despite having eaten no food since breakfast, I was not the least bit hungry.
From Cape Maclear to Monkey Bay (with one pit stop in-between)
I emerged from my tent the next morning and was greeted by a scene of utter serenity: three meters from where I had slept, Lake Malawi's gentle waves were washing lazily up onto a rocky beach, while a hilly, tree-lined massif dominated the offshore horizon, framed by clear blue skies. There were clusters of fishermen mending their nets on the beach, along with a few women doing their laundry in the knee-deep shallows, but other than that, I was completely alone. Unfortunately, my peaceful surroundings were not mirrored by what I felt on the inside. During the night, my appetite failed to return, and although I still did not feel nauseous or flu-like, my strength and vigor seemed to be fading with each mad dash I made for the latrine. Over the next day and a half, I did little more than lie in the shade, drink copious amounts of water and force down the occasional meal of fruit, plain rice or fresh fish and vegetables. I was planning to board the Ilala, Lake Malawi's only passenger ferry, in Monkey Bay at 10 a.m. Friday, but before leaving I needed to cash some traveler's checks. The nearest town with a bank was Mutande, which sat ninety dusty, rugged minutes away.
About twenty minutes after leaving Cape Maclear, I began to notice that my engine was acting sluggish. By the time I arrived in Mutande, the bike had all but shut down. In my weakened condition, this might have proven disastrous, if not for the fact that almost every village and small town in Africa has at least one mechanic who specializes in motorcycles--which are far more affordable, and therefore more plentiful, than cars. After cashing in $200 worth of traveler's checks, I sought out the local mechanic, who turned out to be a fifteen year-old kid sitting in the dirt amidst a maze of tools, metal parts and motorbikes in various stages of repair. He stopped what he was doing and examined my bike for about thirty seconds before pronouncing his verdict: "Clogged fuel line because of shit in your gas tank." Evidently, while emptying my spare gas can into the bike's tank, I failed to notice that a leaf was swirling around inside. It seems that when I filled up at a roadside "gas station" on the way north from Blantyre, the enterprising young man with the plastic jug had poured me five litres of unleaded, and then threw in a sample of the local foliage at no extra charge. The mechanic told me that he could clean it out and get me moving again, but that I would have to replace the fuel line as soon as possible to avoid damaging my engine.
On Friday morning, I packed up my bike and made the short drive to Monkey Bay. After parking in the shade, I bought a ticket at the window and then walked into the harbor office to see about putting my bike on board as cargo. The man behind the desk directed me down to the docks, where a company official calculated the fee for 125 kilograms of cargo, while I tried to convince him that, despite what his scale said, the bike only weighed 100. Eventually, we agreed upon a price, and not long after, I was watching nervously as my wheels were hoisted onto the forward deck. By this point, I was feeling so poorly that even the morning''s moderate routine had completely worn me out. And so, once I saw that everything was (more or less) secure, I boarded the ship, walked up to the top deck and promptly fell into a deep, exhausted sleep.
Riding North on the Lake Malawi Ferry
To my surprise, I woke up feeling rested and healthy that next morning on theIlala. Despite the noise of the engines and the clamor of my fellow passengers talking, drinking and sleeping around me, I had managed to sleep for most of the time since our tardy departure from Monkey Bay. Now, the Ilala was at anchor, roughly 200 meters from the coast of Metangula, a Mozambique-administered island in Lake Malawi, and the ferry's third port of call. Originally built in 1949, the single-hulled steamer is legendary in African travel lore. It has been running its route up and down the lake uninterrupted, with only an engine overhaul, since it was transported from Scotland and assembled by the shore six decades ago. And though it often runs hours--or sometimes day or more--late, the Ilala serves as a vital source of supply and transportation for Malawi's lakeside residents, whose remote villages often cannot be reached by paved roads. Consequently, the boat's lower deck remains crammed with up to 400 heavily-laden Malawians at a time, and each arrival and departure sequence involves exchanging one mass of produce and livestock for another.
According to the schedule, this would be a brief stop, just two hours in the harbor before we fired up the engines again and continued north. I ate a small breakfast, and then sat lounging on the top deck while below, dozens of locals gathered their belongings in anticipation of being ferried ashore. The sunny skies and clear water made for an enticing swim, particularly when coupled with the fun of diving off the ship's top deck. I dove in, and although the other shore-bound tourists opted for one of the ferries, I decided to get some excercise and swim for it. There was no immigration office on the island, so I didn't need my passport, and after making a quick stroll around the port area, I returned to the water. Swimming back, the effects of my unknown illness made me strain a little more than I normally would have, but the surroundings were lush and peaceful, and it felt good to be active again.
Unfortunately, within hours of this swim, the organism lying dormant within my entrails sprang to life and went on a full offensive, leaving me as weak as a kitten by the time we arrived in Nkhata Bay. The crew was unloading my bike for me, but there was no way I could carry my overstuffed backpack off the boat, so I had to contract the job out. I hired a local kid who was panhandling on the pier, and despite his attempts to win sympathy from disembarking tourists by looking sad and saying "Just for bread," he was strong enough to carry the bag down with no problem (incidentally, this is just one reason why I feel travelers should avoid giving money to children who beg: most are not destitute, and usually just use the money to go and buy a coke). Once I paid him for his work and finished tying my gear down, I set off to find a place where I could lay low and recuperate.
Down Time in Nkhata Bay
In spite of everything, the sleepy lakeside village of Nkhata Bay turned out to be an ideal place to convalesce. It was quiet and shady, and though the hills made it difficult for me to reach my hostel, I somehow made it and booked a week at their campsite. Then, over the next several days, as my body endured waves of fever, chills and aches, I laid low in the shadows and let the illness run its course. Apparently, I was not the only one there in recovery mode; a young Israeli woman, sick with malaria, was occupying a spot up the hill from me, though we were rarely awake at the same time. I was never worried for my life, but the seriousness of my symptoms convinced me that I might as well try visiting the local clinic to see if they could help. And so, still feeling a little woozy, I guided my bike over the town's poor roads, to the two-room building that housed the only medical facility in the region. In the lobby, as I waited for the doctor to see me, I noticed a metric bathroom scale on the floor. The last time I had weighed myself was in Durban, South Africa, not long before I crossed into Mozambique and bought the motorcycle. At the time, I tipped the scales at a robust, sloth-induced 110 kilograms; now, after ten weeks on the road and ten days of illness, I weighed eighty-seven. I had lost fifty pounds.
As I stepped off the scale, a beautiful young Malawian woman entered. She was dressed in bright traditional clothing and held a tightly-wrapped infant in her arms. The doctor walked in several minutes later, and since there was no place for me to be, I motioned for her to go first. She nodded in thanks, and as he led her past me into the examination room, she began peeling her baby out of his blankets. In the brief moment that I saw him, my stomach turned. The boy seemed healthy and well nourished, but his skin was covered with enormous lesions that leaked a foul-looking, gelatinous discharge--I remember telling a friend in an email soon after that 'It looked like shit was flowing out of his skin.' Even today, I still think about that boy at least once a week, and wonder if the doc was able to make him better.
Unfortunately, my own encounter with the man did not fill me with optimism about his curative powers. He looked at--not examined--me for about five minutes, asked a few questions regarding my appetite and bodily functions, then gave me a bottle of pills, which I later discovered were for stomach worms (an affliction for which he did not test me). At that point, I realized I was on my own, and though it might sound ironic, the days that followed were among the most serene of my entire time in Africa. Now freed from the burdens of planning, getting supplies and mapping out my route, I was able to concentrate on just existing. I lived a quiet, simple life for several more days there by the shore, and during this time, I came to enjoy the fact that every completed chore--cooking, washing, fetching water--was done only out of immediate need. No frills, no indulgence, just me taking my fair share and living in the moment. As my energy and appetite continued to return, I started taking daily walks into town, swimming in the lake and sunning myself on its tranquil shores. Soon, I would be strong enough to continue the journey northward, but I now understood that my down time in Nkhata Bay was good for more than just a chance to rest.
The Bush Grapevine
I'm going to pause my narration for a moment here to discuss a powerful African phenomenon whose reach and influence span thousands of miles across tribal lines and international borders, touching rich and poor, tourist and local alike. I speak, of course, about the bush grapevine: gossip. Unbelievably, even in dispersed regions of Africa that have no electricity, scuttlebutt spreads across long distances with an efficiency that rivals the internet. This distribution does not compare so much in terms of pure speed, but rather in coverage, because while gossip through electronic mediums tends to reach only those who seek it, when something comes up the bush grapevine everyone hears it. Back in Maputo, during the endless wait for my motorbike's paperwork to come through, I learned of an expression the Mozambiquans have that reflects the prowess of their indigenous rumor mill. They say, "If you slap someone in the face in Maputo, and then drive nonstop to Beira (720 kilometers away), their cousins will be waiting for revenge when you arrive." This is in a country where less than five percent of the population has a telephone.
I heard about Gerard and Jennifer, the Swiss-American couple who was now hosting me at their guesthouse in northern Malawi, through the bush grapevine almost a month before meeting them. I was still in Mozambique at the time, trying to enjoy a quiet drink at my hostel before leaving on the four-day journey that would take me out of the country. A group of overlanders--tourists who choose to maximize their time in Africa by following long-distance, prepackaged itineraries in huge, distinctive trucks--poured into the bar area all of a sudden and started partying up a ruckus. Before retreating back to my tent, I heard several of them discussing a story about a European couple 'up north' who had been attacked by machete-wielding intruders in the dead of night. No one could provide any further details about where the incident took place, or if anyone was hurt. But this lack of information would not last long.
During the next few weeks, as I made my way from Blantyre and the Ilala ferry to Nkhata Bay (ever closer to Mzuzu, where the protagonists in this narrative live with their children), fresh details of the attack reached me at regular intervals. Against the odds, it seemed that the husband had managed to fight off both armed men and scare them away before they could rob his house or cause any serious physical harm. And yet, by the time I recovered enough to resume heading north from Nkhata Bay, the story of Malawi's heroic, hearth-defending white man was all but forgotten. Its place at the forefront of local conversation now belonged to an astounding new tale of survival that also arrived via the bush grapevine. This one told of a man from Southern Malawi who had come across a young male lion in the bush, and escaped near-certain death by waving his arms and screaming until the lion turned and disappeared. When I asked Gerard how he felt about his widespread, yet brief moment of fame, he was philosophic. "Well, it wasn't as big a deal as people make of it. I pretty much did the same thing as that chap when he saw the lion. That must have been really scary."
Dar es Salaam
It looks like my African adventure will be ending soon, at least if all goes according to plan. A part of me is still tied to the possibilities that come with keeping my motorbike and staying on the Dark Continent, but I found what I needed to find here, and have already begun the next phase of my journey—selling the bike and then making my way north into Kenya. Once I get to Nairobi, I will need a little bit of luck: my air tickets say “Sydney,” but the experiences I had in Africa have transformed both my soul and my travel itinerary. Although I am still quite curious about the land down under, my inaugural visit there will have to wait. I don’t know exactly why, but I now have an insatiable desire to see China and Tibet
Back in Mozambique, when I was still with Greg, nearly everyone we met would ask him why he was so into motorcycles. Without exception, he told them that it’s the only place where one can feel totally free. I’m not sure about it being the only place, but I’d certainly agree with the rest of his assessment. I’ve never felt more freedom than I did on that bike, plodding along bumpy dirt roads 100 miles from nowhere, crossing the mighty Zambezi River on a narrow pedestrian footbridge or coasting down the winding mountain roads of northern Malawi. Imagine a place that looks like the rolling fertile hills of Napa Valley on one side, and when you come to the top, you see a lush, terraced rock formation with hundreds of waterfalls stretching into the distance. Then picture yourself descending, hand off the accelerator, but foot always near the brake, towards the turquoise water of Lake Malawi as the late afternoon sun casts shadows all around you. Sometimes the rocks are close, and the water splashes down on the road. Sometimes the entire formation is in view, and you can take it all in.
These are the things I needed to find here in Africa: adventure, discovery and the magnificence of the world. I needed to see things that I never dreamed I would see. I needed to slog through the mud and shit for three days and enjoy the feeling of coming into port more than that of actually arriving. I needed to be hopelessly out of my element and trust completely that everything would be okay.
When I was in Blantyre, Malawi, still trying to fix the bike after its run-in with the drunken Supreme Court judge, I saw something memorable. It was during a Friday afternoon I spent at two friends' place in the local township, which they succintly described as "the ghetto." Around 5:00, one friend, whose name is Duncan, took me to look for a w t-shirt at the local market. We followed a route that was different from the road I had taken in, walking past many rows of small but immaculate front yards along the way. About five minutes into the trip, Duncan told me “We are in the poorest section now.” There wasn’t a huge difference, but the houses were made of less substantial material, and once or twice there was the unmistakable smell of accumulated human waste in the open air. Most of these plots were separated by handmade bamboo fences, which were effective at ensuring some degree of privacy, even in such close quarters. As we walked on, I heard music. A moment later we happened upon a small concert. A group of about twenty locals was gathering around the entrance to one yard, listening to a three man ensemble playing reggae. The thing that struck me most was how basic the instruments were. There was a guitar/banjo made from a metal trash can lid, a neck of wood and four or five wires strung tightly across. Empty plastic containers served as the percussion instruments, and there was a xylophone constructed out of wood and rope.
Everyone was having a grand time. Some people were dancing, and some were drinking the local homemade brew, but all of them seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves. One guy, who had obviously gotten an earlier start than the rest, kept poking me on the shoulder, trying to tell me the same well-intentioned, but ultimately boring, useless and repetitive things that all African drunks wanted to tell me: how there’s no problem, how I’m welcome, how in (insert city, village or country name) we don’t want trouble and fighting. Fortunately, everyone else who was enjoying the music kept telling him, in local dialect, to be quiet and let me listen. Eventually he did just that.
It was getting late, and Duncan was in a hurry as usual, so we only stayed until the end of the song, then clapped and waved goodbye. Looking back, maybe I should have stuck around longer, but it was enough that I saw this for only a moment. After living in the sanitized, often mundane world of St. Louis, Missouri, I needed to have my faith in humanity recharged. I needed to be reminded that the human drive to create and admire something fine can be strong enough to outweigh hardships that I could scarcely contemplate before coming here.
I needed to see people with nothing dance because life was so good.
So now here I am in the ‘Haven of Peace,’ as this city’s name translates from Arabic. Looking back, with my departure from Africa becoming more and more of a reality, I realize that my time here passed too quickly. It has gone by like the blink of an eye, a single, solitary instant where time was frozen in its tracks by an overwhelming array of sounds, smells and colors. I would give so much to be able to begin anew, to re-experience that first rush of air as I stepped off the airplane, or to hear the rumbling of my motorbike’s engine as I first left the city behind and gazed out at the tarmac road that stretched into the endless African horizon.
But I guess that’s the point. After all, the feeling of total freedom wouldn’t be nearly as precious if it could be stored away and experienced whenever one wanted. It has to be searched for earnestly, and can only be enjoyed by a heart that beats with determination, enthusiasm, patience, and above all, hope. I didn’t realize until quite recently that I made this journey not just to see Africa, but to learn from her as well. At times she has been a stern, almost overwhelming teacher—I long ago lost count of the number of nights that I went to bed, my body racked with pain and fatigue, wondering how I would summon the strength to face the rising sun—but that’s only because the secrets that she guards are so important.
This stage of the journey is almost over. Soon I’ll be a pedestrian again, and not long after that, I will find myself on an entirely new continent. However, I’ve seen what I came to see, and I learned what I needed to learn, so I can depart with peace in my heart. But I will definitely, definitely, be back.
A Summer Study of Music and Culture
Published June 18, 2009
In less than three weeks from today, I am leaving my life as a New York City writer, guitarist and high school teacher behind to embark upon an adventure of musical understanding through the Caribbean Islands. The essays that appear in this space will chronicle my experiences on the road, as I combine three of my life’s passions—travel, music and history—to journey in search of the ethnographic factors which are responsible for the region’s astonishing musical diversity. The central questions to be asked in the course of this voyage include: (1) In what ways did the combination of Native American, African and European cultures contribute to the emergence of Caribbean music; (2) How did each island’s colonial heritage (i.e. English, French, Spanish or Dutch) and economic orientation (slave plantation or settlement colony) impact the development of its own unique form of music; and (3) To what extent do these distinct traditions continue to influence eeach other?
My first destination is Trinidad, home to the musical styles of Calypso, Soca, Rapso and Chutney, among others. From there I will head northeast… through the Lesser Antilles to Puerto Rico, Hispaniola and Jamaica, the islands which respectively gave rise to Salsa, Merengue & Bachata, and Mento, Ska & Reggae. Due to the Caribbean’s lack of a comprehensive budget travel infrastructure, there is little in the way of ferry service or advance-ticket airfare bargains between islands. As a consequence, my itinerary at this point remains mostly unknown; I am booked to fly out ofMontego Bay, Jamaica six weeks after touching down in the region, and the path I follow between arrival and departure will be guided only by luck, intuition, opportunity and a search for answers to the questions above.
To maximize my efforts at discovery, and to help document my experiences along the way, I will also be traveling with an acoustic guitar and a digital movie camera. I understand that, for this endeavor to be a success, I must take as active a role in the investigative process as possible. So instead of simply buying CDs and going to museums or concerts, I hope to learn about the music by learning to play the music. Therefore, my plan is to seek out local cultural figures, performers and musical historians, ask them to teach me about their local music, and then film the interviews, jam sessions and discussions that ensue. Upon my return to the US, I will take all that I have gathered from the road and use it to make a documentary that is equal parts cultural study, travel guide, music compilation and personal narrative. Please come back and visit often, as I will be posting weekly updates, stories and photos from the trip. I hope you enjoy!!
Hitting the Road
Published July 2, 2009
The emotions that I feel on the eve of my departure are a mixture of excitement, nervousness, curiosity and a rising sense of amused bewilderment. This project contains many challenges, but perhaps none will be greater than conducting an effective overview of the Caribbean’s musical evolution, while avoiding generalized statements that gloss over each island’s unique experience. The intricacies of the region’s ethnomusicology do not lend themselves well to oversimplification, but my preliminary research has taught me a few broad truisms which are relevant to the study at hand: first, due to the brutality and greed of their European conquerors, most of the islands’ original inhabitants were eradicated within eighty years of Columbus’s arrival in the new world. As a result, the local Taino, Arawak and Carib Indian populations left almost no cultural legacy behind to impact future generations. Second, because these Native Americans died so quickly, the new world’s colonial masters began importing African slaves en masse to work their plantations and mines. The frequency and urgency with which this human cargo arrived reflected how much revenue the overseers hoped to squeeze from their territories, but it also had a direct impact on each island’s relative level of “Africanization.”
Consequently, Trinidad, which became a British settlement in 1797, imported far fewer slaves than Spanish plantation colonies like Cuba and Puerto Rico, and its national music style reflects this more moderate experience. Calypso contains percussive schemes that are unmistakably African, but lack the thumping beats and rhythmic claves that are central to other examples of Afro-Spanish fusion. Part of this divergence is explained by Trinidad’s early abolishment of slavery, which both stemmed the flow of Africans to its shores and brought about a mass influx of indentured servants from South Asia. Their presence filled plantation owners’ demand for cheap labor, but it also complicated the island’s status quo by introducing yet another marginalized, downtrodden ethnic group into the lower rungs of colonial society. It was around this time that the Trinidadian nationalist and anti- imperialist movements began to take shape, and Calypso would soon become an important symbol for their stated goals. As a direct descendent of the call-and-response “Kaisos” which helped Trinidadian slaves discreetly communicate while in captivity, the genre’s bawdy innuendo and biting socio-political commentaries became a creative way to criticize British policies without violating the crown’s strict anti-sedition laws.
Much like Dominican Bachata music and Hip-Hop in the United States, Calypso originated as a “lower-class” form of entertainment, and was derided by polite society as vulgar and crude. However, Calypso’s anti-establishment appeal soon made it into a fashionable diversion for the wealthy, and, inevitably, a lucrative source of revenue for opportunistic producers and promoters. Now, like these other genres, it seems to exist in a state of contrast between its original, “uncorrupted” form and a commercialized brand that dominates public airwaves. Such contrasts are just another reason why Caribbean music remains so fascinating, and why I feel the story of its evolution is one that has to be told.
The Music of Tobago, West Indies
Published July 13, 2009
After passing through immigration in Port of Spain, Trinidad, I proceeded in a sleep-deprived haze to the tourist information office and asked the woman there what my options were for finding tranquility; nice beaches and an authentic local music scene. She frowned and told me that most of Trinidad’s tourist facilities are geared towards business travelers, and the music scene is largely confined to the capital city’s frenetic nightlife. After hearing this, I gathered that Trinidad might not be the best place to start this musical adventure, so I bought a $25 one-way ticket to its sister island of Tobago. A pair of Americans I met on the flight introduced me to Marlon, a local friend of theirs who invited me to dinner and found me lodging at an inexpensive local guest house near his home in the town of Plymouth. After checking in and going for a sunset swim, I rejoined my new friends for an outdoor supper of grilled dolphin fish steaks, chopped vegetables and garlic bread.
As we relaxed in the balmy evening air, our host put on a CD shuffle mix that included some of Bob Marleyand Michael Jackson’s greatest hits. Sitting there sipping beers and listening to two of the world’s most renowned cultural icons, our conversation inevitably turned to music. We talked about how both men had achieved their fame by taking existing musical forms—Michael Jackson’s early work fused elements of Disco, R & B and Hip-Hop, while some of Bob Marley’s most beloved songs contain unmistakable characteristics of the lesser-known Jamaican Mento music—then adding their own personal vision to create something the world had never seen before. This led Shaka (not the name his mother gave him), a youthful, fifty-three year-old friend of Marlon’s, and an enthusiastic source of information about his homeland, to remark that Calypso, the national genre and most visible world-wide symbol of “T&T” culture, is still being influenced by Soca music, from which it emerged.
He told me I would soon have two opportunities to examine this phenomenon myself: the annual Tobago Heritage Festival runs July 17th-August 1st, and it provides a showcase for the island’s villages to honor their patron saints through songs, chanting and dances. When I told him that I might not be able to stay until the festival begins, Shaka told me that I ought to visit “Sunday School,” a longstanding Plymouth tradition which has nothing whatsoever to do with religion. Because many of the town’s musicians and artists work the hospitality industry, he said, they don’t get the chance to party much on the weekends. So, decades ago, someone got the idea to have a huge outdoor party on Sunday afternoons, where musicians can play, dancers can dance, and everyone can eat and drink their fill. According to Shaka and Marlon, this activity originated as a locals-only affair, but has since turned into a bit of a tourist spectacle. Nevertheless, they said, it would be a great introduction to the Caribbean music scene, and an excellent way to see how the current and the traditional continue to inspire and replenish each other.
More Music News from Tobago
Publihsed July 16, 2009
It’s been a busy week, and one in which I experienced more than my fair share of luck. The first instance of this came on a steaming tropical afternoon in Scarborough, the largest city of Tobago, when a young woman passed me wearing a t-shirt that commemorated the 200th anniversary (2007) of the island’sabolition of slavery. Despite being caked in sweat and the remnants of my vegetable roti lunch, I called out and asked about her shirt. As it turns out, she works for Tobago’s Administration of Community Development and Culture. When I explained to her what I was doing in the Caribbean, she overlooked my disheveled appearance and agreed to put me in contact with her superiors at the Cultural Division. My second major stroke of luck came about through the fact that my visit happens to coincide with a new administrative campaign to improve Tobagonians’ understanding of their cultural heritage. Ms. Victoria Pat Mitchell, an official in the department, called my local cell number the next morning, and gave me news that was better than anything I could have expected.
She and her colleagues in the Cultural Division’s hierarchy—including Mr. Claude Joseph and Mr. Kerry Cyrus, to whom I am also indebted for their help—had recently decided that it was time to start pushing back against America’s cultural hegemony over the region and inspire a resurgence of national pride and awareness among Tobago’s youth. As a result, she arranged not only for some local musicians to perform for me, but also for the Cultural Division’s own production crew to film the sessions, and provide me with edited copies once we finished. The following Monday, I received a thorough introduction to Tambrin Music, which Ms. Mitchell assured me was the authentic Tobagonian folk genre. I learned that the name is derived from the word “Tambourine,” the European instrument from which its circular drums get their design. Tambrin Music was invented by necessity; since Tobago’s European slave masters separated workers who spoke the same language and forbade the use of African drums, the slaves constructed new percussion instruments out of goatskin, discarded cheese containers and the bark of Latan plants. Tambrin dances, I was told, are grouped into two rough categories: the European-influenced Jig and the more Africanized invocation dance, the Reel. Like most forms of traditional dance, each movement has a meaning—though Tambrin may be unique in that its steps were once used to trace secret, coded messages in the dirt, where they could quickly be erased.
A traditional Tambrin band has five instruments: three drums, a steel triangle and a fiddle. It is said that the skin of ewes (female goats) are better suited for the higher-pitched Cutter and Roller drums, while the Boom (or bass) is generally constructed from the hides of males. During our first film sessions, I watched through the lens as The Professionals, one of only five authentic Tambrin bands on the island, performed the traditional ritual of “preparing” the drums with liquor, and then heating them to the proper softness over a palm leaf fire. I have now achieved a solid understanding of this island’s musical heritage, and an appreciation for the often horrific conditions under which its cultural identity was formed. The task that remains before me as I head north is to understand the extent to which this heritage, and its contemporary music, continues to be shaped by African rhythms.
To do so, I hope to take advantage of another chance encounter I had with a local musician who was promoting his CD as we filmed near Scarborough’s historic Fort King George. After letting me record a few minutes of his song, entitled “Mediocre Man,” the artist, named Farmer Dan, invited me to an open-mic jam at a nearby club this Thursday. With any luck, this opportunity will help me to answer these enduring questions, or at least point me in the right direction.
The Current and Recurrent in Caribbean Music (St. John’s, Antigua)
Published August 6, 2009
I left Tobago after seventeen days, having gained a solid foundational understanding of the island’s African heritage, and the impact which slavery had on the Caribbean region’s developing social consciousness. I came to Antigua, which sits roughly 520 miles to the north, intending to stay for only forty-eight hours before moving on to Puerto Rico.
My flight out of Barbados was delayed, so by the time I touched down at Antigua’s V.C. Bird International Airport, all the local Internet cafes were closed, along with any store where I could purchase credit for my mobile phone. With no communication opportunities and a hobbled right foot, my options were limited, so I cut my losses, jumped into the only shuttle bus still waiting outside the terminal, and booked a night at the Airport Inn. That evening, in a noisy, lonely hotel room, I picked up a tourist information booklet and discovered, much to my embarrassment, that I had unknowingly arrived during Antigua’s Carnival season. Given the nature of my historical-cultural-musical project, I decided it would be foolish for me to not at least give the festival a look. I went to bed and set my alarm clock for 8:00 a.m. the next day. After a fitful, mosquito-plagued night of sleep, I awoke early and topped off my phone credits at the hotel’s business desk. Then, I placed a call to my mother back in St. Louis; before leaving Tobago, I had emailed and asked her to contact her friends on the island—she vacationed here exactly forty summers ago—and see if they could find me a cheap place to stay for one night.
As it turns out, one of her contacts, a man named Winston Derrick, is a major cultural figure on the island. He owns a radio station (The Observer, 91.1 FM), a newspaper (also called the “Observer”) and hosts a three-hour talk program every weekday. I got his contact info from my mom and dialled his mobile number.
Winston immediately sent somebody to pick me up and bring me to the radio station, where he was preparing to go on-air. I waited in the lobby for thirty minutes before he came out to greet me. After chastising me lightly for almost missing Carnival, he asked about my project and what kind of success I was having. As I described my efforts, Winston eyes began to light up, and when I finished, he said “Come on, let’s talk about it on the air.” Five minutes later, I was speaking to Antigua live, telling the Observer’s listeners about my reasons for coming, and asking for suggestions about who to contact and what to see.
I only got one caller—Winston’s show is mostly about politics and there was much corruption and inefficiency to discuss that morning—but it turned out to be exactly what I needed. The man suggested that I contact Dobrene O’Marde, a local musical historian and Chairman of the Commission to Commemorate the Abolition of Slavery. I left a message for Mr. O’Marde, and when he called me back the next afternoon, he graciously offered to come to where I was staying and let me film our discussion. I told him all I had learned about slave conditions and early folk music in Tobago, and asked if he could explain the conditions and circumstances surrounding these traditional elements’ evolution into the modern forms of Calypso and Soca. He responded with an eloquent yet succinct history of his island’s culture from the mid-1800s to the present.
Among other points, Mr. O’Marde emphasized the continuity of Antiguan music’s status as a vehicle of social commentary and political awareness. Calypso, which originated in Trinidad, first began to emerge as a distinct musical genre around the turn of the 20th Century. Before that, traditional music on each island had emerged independently (Tambrin in Tobago, Chantey in Grenada, Benna in Antigua, etc.), based on rhythms and traditions preserved by slaves brought from West Africa. Despite the lack of contact among their inhabitants, these islands’ musical styles were quite similar to each other in terms of form, rhythm and purpose—the latter being for slaves to communicate, commiserate and preserve their sense of identity without their masters’ knowledge. Therefore, when Calypso, which took its early structure from the meter and simple four-line configuration of European poems and hymns, began to spread north from Trinidad, it easily took hold in parts of the Caribbean whose colonial experiences were similar. Since then, it has served as a unifying force and means of expression for a variety of social movements, including independence campaigns, black power awareness programs, political populism and those who wish(ed) to criticize their elected officials. It also gave rise to Soca—less politicized, though musically similar “party music”—which is now the dominant genre in the region. But, Mr. O’Marde concluded, in a cultural melting pot like the Caribbean, cultural dominance is fleeting, since no music can stave off outside influence for very long. Soca is now being influenced by the very roots that created it, along with outside elements like Reggae, Hip-Hop and Chutney. He feared that this vigorous mixing, along with the new technology which helps to create and spread it, might lead to a loss of those roots which have been maintained for so long, through so many different eras. But, he concluded, there is no way to stop the movement of ideas. “I guess we’ll see,” he sighed, throwing up his hands as we concluded our on-camera discussion.
Puerto Rico is not just Reggaeton
Published August 20, 2009
Much to my surprise (and contrary to what living in New York had led me to expect), Puerto Rico was not an easy place to find authentic live music. One reason for this is that public transportation on the island is of little use, unless you’re commuting between major tourist areas. As a result, I elected to rent a car in order to maximize my time during the brief five days before my flight to Kingston, Jamaica. Arriving around ten, I left the airport and headed southwest, to the mountainous region of Adjuntas, and the heartland of Puerto Rico’sJibaro Music. This genre, I was to learn, originated among Spanish-born settlers who migrated from Europe in the hopes of finding cheap land that wasn’t suitable for plantations. They represented the rugged ideal of the Puerto Rican frontiersman: independent, tough-minded and strong, not unlike their counterparts in the American west. Jibaro is unique among the island’s predominant musical forms in that it emerged independent of the West African rhythms and rituals that were brought by imported slaves. However, like most Spanish music of the time, its strum patterns and mournful, chant-like singing take their roots from Spain’s centuries of Moorish occupation and acculturation.
Among the mountains of Adjuntas, I found waterfalls, and lush, forest-lined roads, but no hint of any local flavor—even the plantation site I visited was closed for repairs. Feeling a little frustrated, but still upbeat, I proceeded south to Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second-largest city and birthplace of its Bomba and Plena musical styles. I checked into a hotel two blocks away from the National Museum of Puerto Rican Music, where I had an interview and tour scheduled for the next morning. I made it to the museum’s front door at 9:30 a.m., and the temperature was already 90 degrees Fahrenheit. With my crisp and fresh-smelling shirt now a dripping rag, I introduced myself to Kevin, the museum’s chief tour guide, and walked into the entrance hall. During our thirty minute on-camera discussion, Kevin echoed many of the same sentiments as the cultural figures I interviewed during my visits to Tobago and Antigua, namely: (1)slaves on various Caribbean islands, with no connection to the outside world, took quite similar steps to preserve the traditions and customs they had when taken from Africa; (2) this was most often done through dancing and drumming, often while mocking their captors or communicating without their knowledge; (3) in the decades following emancipation, these African folk rhythms were incorporated into new forms of music that were emerging/and or spreading throughout the Caribbean region—for example Calypso in Trinidad & Tobago, Mento & Ska in Jamaica and Bomba & Plena in Puerto Rico; and (4) these musical innovations were most often used as a means of social commentary or mobilization, “like a newspaper,” my host said. He also noted that one important difference between Puerto Rico and the other islands I visited was that its most famous brand, Salsa, was actually invented in New York City, among the community of Cuban and “NewYorican” expatriate musicians in Brooklyn and Spanish Harlem.
When asked about the future of his island’s music, Kevin shrugged his shoulders and told me it was anyone’s guess. But he concluded our interview much like his politico-cultural contemporaries of my previous stops by mentioning the current supremacy of a nontraditional, youth-driven “party music” that mimicked American hip-hop’s bling-bling flashiness, denigration of women and glorification of the “thug life.”
In Trinidad, Tobago and Antigua, this new style was Soca music, a Calypso offshoot which was all but unknown in the Latin Caribbean. As I would soon discover in the local hotspots of San Juan—where I inadvertently checked into one of the city’s gayest gay-friendly hotels—the reigning king of Puerto Rican music is called Reggaeton. And even though its popularity left little to find in the way of traditional music, Puerto Ricans everywhere I went were eager to talk music with me. Some enjoyed Reggaeton’s newness and energy, and viewed Salsa as “un-hip” and antiquated. Some, mostly women, were put off by its vulgar lyrics; some enjoyed both forms equally. Most were sure that something else would come along and shake up the regional music scene. “The one thing I AM sure of,” Kevin from the museum told me, “is that Reggaeton is not here to stay.” As a lover of traditional music—and a long-time fan of Salsa—I hoped he was right. But I couldn’t help but think that he was underestimating the intoxicating appeal of flash and swagger.
Jamaica: Roots, Rackets and Redemption (Part I)
Published September 2, 2009
After less than a week in Puerto Rico, I flew to Kingston on a Saturday morning, and due to the discordant state of travel in the Caribbean, found no option for the trip other than connecting through Ft. Lauderdale. I went to the airport straight from a night in the town in Old San Juan, and by the time I arrived in the Jamaican capital, it was already late afternoon. The immigration officer, unlike his counterparts in Trinidad, Antigua and Puerto Rico, would not let me into the country with just the name of a hotel chain listed as my local residence, so he held on to my passport as I visited the nearby tourist information desk. I had the name of a contact at Kingston’s Edna Manley University, and when I told this to the young woman behind the counter, she suggested a moderately priced guesthouse/hotel in the Barbican neighborhood, not far from the Bob Marley Museum. Despite almost leaving behind the bag containing all my previous video footage, this detour through immigration turned out to be major stroke of luck–in both positive and negative ways–for my quest to understand the state of music in Jamaica.
My plan was to relax and explore the local scene until Monday morning, then call the university and try to arrange for an interview–and perhaps some advice for meeting musicians. After that, I would reevaluate my prospects in the city and decide how long to stay before starting west towards Montego Bay and my flight home. The guesthouse turned out to be an ideal place to lie low and wait: It had high-speed Internet, a swimming pool and a spacious patio that looked out on a ring of low mountains north of the city. Most of the clientele were either Americans and Europeans who wanted to avoid the all-inclusive scene, or Caribbean-born holiday-makers and business travelers. Among the latter, I met Stuart Wilson, a Reggae musician and singer from the Cayman Islands, who was was waiting for a flight home after several gigs in Jamaica. We spoke informally at first, comparing notes on our musical influences, styles and experiences before moving on to more serious topics. After listening to him discuss such issues as life on the road, the economics of making music and the state of the industry in general, I asked if he’d be willing to speak on the record. He agreed, and I ran for my notebook and video camera, while his friends took pensive looks at their watches. On the whole, Mr. Wilson was quite upbeat and enthusiastic about his career and prospects for the future. He and his band “Love Culture” were touring at regular intervals and, according to him, playing all the “high level” venues. However, over the course of our interview, I got the sense that he felt restrained by the socio-economic parameters of his chosen profession. Many of the shows he plays are at tourist resorts and up-market hotels, where the clientele is dominated by white, middle-class tourists who come to hear
noncontroversial, toe-tapping island favorites like “Yellow Bird” and “One Love,” without a though to where the music came from or what it stands for. As a result, the lifetime Reggae musician said laughing, “sometimes we even play (the Calypso classic) ‘Hot, Hot, Hot.’” Mr. Wilson was clear that he respected whatever music his fans wanted to hear, but hinted that many performers in the region felt pressured to conform their physical appearance to this clean-cut, safe and happy vibe. “We still have a lot to achieve in terms of perception of artists.” he said, adding that he knew of artists “who would love to go dread (wear dreadlocks), but don’t, because, if they did, they would start losing out on gigs.”
Jamaica: Roots, Rackets and Redemption (Part II)
Published September 21, 2009
I arrived at Kingston’s Edna Manley College the next day around 12:30 p.m., which gave me enough time to meet my contact, Derrick Johnston, before making my way to nearby Anchor Studios for a 2:00 appointment with Bongos Herman. Derrick is the cousin of a colleague of mine in New York, and I figured that his experience as the college’s Senior Library Assistant would provide me with the resources I needed to better understand the conditions from which Reggae emerged. The literature he gave me included industry publications, government surveys and music genealogy texts, and they all pointed in one direction: Mento.
The topic of this little-known traditional Jamaican music came up several times during my conversation with artist/producer Robert Ffrench the previous evening. After he stressed that Rastafarians like himself viewed Reggae as the world’s most highly “evolved” form of music, I asked him what role previous genres like Mento had played in this evolution. The response I got was that each was a necessary, divinely ordained step towards the creation of a musical force that would spread around the world to deliver its message of revolutionary self-empowerment.
In other words, Mento, the product of a mixed Afro-European heritage, evolved (or was guided) into Ska, which evolved into Rocksteady and Dancehall, which then gave rise to Reggae. My academic research could do little to corroborate this spiritual perspective, but it did reaffirm Ffrench’s assertions about the common roots of Jamaican, and therefore Caribbean, music. Much like Tambrin in Tobago, Bomba & Plena in Puerto Rico and Antigua’s Benna Music, Mento is a unique product of the region’s unpredictable mix of slavery and cultural diffusion, oppression and social awakening. And although its impact on later musical generations is similar to the others, Mento is one of the planet’s only forms of traditional music that has continued its influence into modern popular culture.
I learned that many European and American filmmakers had come to Kingston in search of a greater understanding of Reggae, found what they were looking for and then forgot all the people who helped them once their projects were complete. With this seed firmly planted, Ffrench made it clear that setting up the in-studio jam & film session I wanted would not be free—“You will have to pay,” he said over and over again. I told him that I would be happy to pay for everyone’s transportation and refreshments. To ease his worries, I also said we could all negotiate a reasonable stake for them in any money that my project made. After he nodded his agreement to this in principle, I asked Ffrench what he thought a good ballpark figure would be—more so I would not offend anyone with an insultingly low opening offer. He refused to entertain the question both times I asked it, saying only “You will have to talk to Herman.” This struck me as a little bit strange, but after his passionate elucidation on the lesser-known aspects of Reggae’s metaphysical mission, I was willing to overlook the oddness in my pursuit of this story. It was therefore with great alarm that I arrived in the studio parking lot and listened to Bongos Herman tell me it would cost US $3000 for one hour of recording time with Anchor’s house band, and a couple of interviews after the fact.
His approach was classic high-pressure salesmanship; I had to decide on the spot, I could only pay with cash, and I could only deal with him. When I balked at his price, Herman dropped the figure in a hurry. He thought I was playing hardball, when in reality it was just an attempt to leave an uncomfortable situation without causing a scene. I would have been perfectly happy to tell the man off, but out of respect for Ffrench, who arranged the meeting for me, I held my tongue and looked for a polite way out. Herman came down to about $800 after only two minutes of my demurrals, having just told me that I was getting the price of a lifetime. I said that I would have to talk to my “handlers back in New York” about such a large expenditure, and this at last ended his unsolicited stream of counter offers.
As we walked towards the front gate, I offered to pay his cab fare, mindful of the fact that he came to meet me at his own expense. He demanded 5,000 Jamaican dollars (around $65 US), and it was about this time I realized that this whole thing had been a well-choreographed setup. After snowballing me with talk about brotherhood and redemption, Ffrench and Herman were now trying to extort me through a combination of guilt and awe. I didn’t want to be like previous documentarians that had left only bad vibes behind, and I was almost desperate to meet and jam with some of Reggae’s rising stars. These motivating factors, along with the fact that I came from New York apparently spelled “jackpot” to them, and the temptation to go for a big score was just too strong.
Earlier in our conversation, Bongos told me that he lived in Spanish Town, which sits less than five miles from where we stood, so I offered him 1,500 Jamaican Dollars for the cab ride instead. He feigned offense at this until I took out my phone’s calculator and showed him how 1,500 was more than he’d pay for a ride to his neighborhood from the airport. In my life, I have paid only three bribes to foreign policemen and government officials, and the end of this encounter felt just like those previous shakedowns. “Let me see what you have,” Herman said to me as I held out my roll of small bills. He took it in disgust, and as I turned back out towards the street, he shouted after me, “Call me tomorrow; let me know!” I’ve never had a problem telling lies of convenience to people whose moral fiber I have reason to doubt, so I told him OK, no problem.
This encounter had thrown me for a loop, though; it was not like Bongos was the first greedy musician I ever met, but his lack of restraint startled me. He was a successful, national celebrity and a globe-touring musician. He had been on stage the only time Bob Marley and Michael Jackson performed together, and was among the headliners at a major Reggae festival in St. Mary Parish. If a man who had “made it,” who achieved the dream of supporting himself just through playing and touring, was coming as me like this, what did it say about the state of his business in general? For the first time since leaving New York five weeks earlier, I began to suspect that the answers I sought might have to come by me leaving the island music scene behind for a while.
Roots Rackets and Redemption (Part III)
Published October 6, 2009
New York City, USA
I left Kingston as soon as possible after narrowly surviving the biggest shake down attempt of my life at Anchor Studios. In the five days since my arrival in the Jamaican capital, I had used the guesthouse as my home base; conversing, interviewing, playing my guitar and waiting for appointments that I hoped would provide information. It was here that I met Selaissie, a Rastafarian from Robin’s Bay who was down in the city escorting a lady friend to the airport for her flight home. Our rooms were stifling and cell-like, so we spent the afternoon of his departure hanging out together—me resting after my trip in from Puerto Rico, and him waiting for the hotel staff to enforce their 12:00 checkout policy. As we got to know each other, Selaissie began to tell me his story.
He grew up poor on the streets of Kingston, never knowing his father, but had managed to escape, and now lived a quiet life out in the countryside. He told me about his place up in St. Mary Province, that he had built with his own hands, and it sounded perfect to my weary nerves: no electricity, no traffic, no tourists. According to his descriptions, there was just ocean, peaceful green landscapes and the occasional thunderstorm. He invited me up as soon as my business in town was finished, and I told him I would be there before the weekend.
I had been traveling for five weeks when I met Selaissie, and during that entire time, this documentary project dominated the course of my thinking, almost like a mantra. “The project,” as I repeated to myself hundreds of times, was all that mattered. Even when pondering the most mundane details or errands, I would habitually ask myself which option would yield the greater benefit for my endeavor (white shirt or brown shirt; still camera or camcorder; both?). I can’t say why my negative experience with the Kingston musicians finally made me see the folly in this line of reasoning, but somewhere along the line, the project had become like a mirage. Every time somebody asked me what I was doing down in the Caribbean, I would give a different answer. Usually it was something about “research for a documentary on the region’s culture and history,” but the words were now ringing hollow.
The one common theme I had encountered during my island-hopping journey through one of the world’s richest musical melting pots was homogenization, and it bothered the hell out of me. Each stop on my tour left me with a stronger certainty that the region’s soul was slowly eroding into a sea of overproduced, heavy beats and misogynistic lyrics. By this point, I didn’t know if I was more concerned with the past or the present, and didn’t know if I was still interested in making a documentary or just telling an as-yet-unknown story. When I woke up the next morning, instinct was telling me to get out of town, so I made one last stop at the Edna Manley library to pick up a DVD copy that Derrick Johnston had promised me, and then set out with all my gear for Robin’s Bay.
Life at Selaissie’s place wasn’t easy; since he was technically a squatter, who moved onto land that nobody wanted and built himself a life up from the soil, there wasn’t much in the way of amenities. He lived on a steep, rocky hillside overlooking the coast, and his walkways were thick with sharp stones and tree roots that wreaked havoc on my sandaled feet. There was no electricity or bathrooms, and all the water we drank had to be carried in from town. The stilted guest cottage where I slept had a roof and a wooden floor, but only one wall—and no bed. Selaissie gave me some blankets and a thin pillow, which was all the bedding he could spare, and apologized for the sparse accommodations. He had invited me in earnest, and seemed genuinely glad to have some company up in his retreat, but was unprepared for my visit. It was now clear that when we said “See you soon” back in Kingston he never expected to see me again. But I was right where I wanted to be, so I brushed aside his concerns and headed towards his orchard to find some palm leaves for a mattress. As I trod up through the rich, grainy brown soil, Selaissie called after me “Use banana instead! And dry ones are better…less insects, mon!”
In spite of all this, there were many advantages to my Robin’s Bay detour: the guest cottage provided me withstunning views of the Caribbean, and I got to fall asleep each night listening to a melody of crashing surf, gentle breezes and the low steady noises of a forest in motion around me. Breakfasts consisted of freshmangoes and bananas picked off the ground, while lunch and dinner came from the sea. In the spaces between our meals, I largely kept to myself while Selaissie tended to his chores. During the long hours of solitude, I had time to reflect on all that had happened since I left New York. My adventure was nearing its end, and it had been nothing at all like what I anticipated. Flying into the Caribbean with no plan, only a ticket in and a ticket out, I experienced a run of luck that could make any cynic believe in the powers of fate, yet also felt strangely unfulfilled.
There were no great answers, no “Aha!” moments that came, just a vague sense of accomplishment and the hope that I would somehow be able to do it all again. By the time I left Selaissie’s for Montego Bay and my flight back to New York, I had made peace with these anxious sensations. The story I found did not turn out to be the happy, never-ending musical party fable that I hoped it might be, but it was a story worth telling, because it made me understand how universal the power of music is. Pursuing this story allowed me to experience first-hand how, regardless of our color, wealth or nationality, music connects us to our past, enlivens our present, and provides the rhythm for us as we march ahead to our common future.
A Conversation With Osman
Published October, 2008 at pology.com
On the first anniversary of 9/11, the Egyptian playwright Ali Salem wrote an open letter to Americans, expressing regret for the fact that one of his countrymen had assisted in bringing down the World Trade Center. Salem’s eloquent, thoughtful piece, entitled “An Apology from an Arab,” appeared in Time Magazine’s One Year Later issue alongside essays by John McCain, Andrew Sullivan and Rudy Giuliani.
In spite of its title, Salem’s treatise is more explanation than apology, and much of it is dedicated to lamenting the state of society in his native Egypt: “A long time before New York City’s Twin Towers were destroyed,” he wrote, “many towers in my country were brought down by this same brand of perpetrator…Art, education and the economy have all been leveled to a ground zero. I am convinced, though, that the problem we face is not religious, but political.” Salem’s central thesis is that, despite most terrorists’ self-righteous justifications, the forces that drive them to violence are, in fact, much more personal. “Beneath their claims is a sadder truth: these extremists are pathologically jealous. They feel like dwarves, which is why they search for towers, and all those who tower mightily.”
I first read “An Apology from an Arab” almost a year after it was published, and it made me uneasy, not only because Salem’s reasoning raised serious questions about the prosecution of America’s War on Terror, but also because it came close to supporting the simplistic rationalization that “They hate us because they’re jealous of our freedoms.” To my mind, attitudes such as this were in large part responsible for the United States’ hasty, unfocused response to the attacks, and the reason why so many Americans seemed to care more for revenge than justice. Living amidst this climate of fear and indignant rage, I began to crave a deeper understanding of the events of 9/11, one that could only be found by listening to people who viewed the attacks in a different light. And so, not long after completing graduate school, I put my house up for rent and set out into the world, searching for some real answers.
It was during the course of these travels that I met Osman, a Turkish Kurd (or Kurdish Turk, depending upon who you ask), in Copenhagen, Denmark. I was sitting on a park bench, writing in my travel diary and discreetly sipping a bottle of beer when he walked over and asked if he could sit down. Like many of the Muslims I met in Western Europe, he was quite interested to learn that I was American, and his conversation grew even more eager when I told him that I had been to Turkey, enjoyed it, and had done a lot of reading about US relations with the Muslim world. We began to chat in earnest. The thing that I will always remember most about Osman is that he wanted me to know he wasn’t stupid.
During our thirty minute conversation, he spoke boldly about world affairs, and offered to “prove” the veracity of his statements at a nearby Internet café no less than 15 times. For the most part, this was to convince me either that Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed had in fact been murdered because the British government was afraid they would marry, or that 5,000 Jews who worked in the World Trade Center were warned to stay home the night before 9/11. Osman was also very keen on talking about his favorite book, “The 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History,” by Michael H. Hart. Apparently, the Prophet Mohammed is at the top of the list, two places higher than Jesus, and this was an obvious source of pride for my new friend.
I have to admit that I wasn’t immediately interested in Osman, but there was an intensity about him that I found impossible to ignore. He began to open up to me as if he hadn’t been able to speak his mind in ages. He talked with passion and fire in his eyes, about great men like Kemal Ataturk and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (who led the campaign to create Pakistan as an independent homeland for British India’s Muslims). Only he didn’t call them “great” men. He referred to them as “big” men. After just a few minutes with him, I could see that Osman was frustrated with his lot in life. I sensed that he longed to be powerful and important, like the men he idolized, and that he wished to do great things for his people and his religion.
He told me that he’d had almost no formal education, but he was clearly a voracious reader. Most of his information came from the Internet, and the fact that these things had been published online was enough to make them infallible truth to him. I was curious to know what he thought of the United States’ conduct since 9/11. He said that he despised the way America’s government was brutalizing, either directly or “through the Israelis,” so much of the Muslim world, but that he could not bring himself to hate George W. Bush. “In spite of all that he has done,” Osman sighed, “he freed the Iraqi Kurds from Saddam Hussein. For this, we Kurds are grateful."
As we discussed Iraqi politics, including the cruelty of the Ba’athist regime, the plight of the Kurds, and the prospects for peace and stability in the future, our conversation inevitably turned to the ongoing guerilla campaign against the forces of occupation. For the first time since I’d met him, Osman paused. “I want to say something to you,” he began after a moment of silence, “but I am afraid it will make you angry.” I asked him to please speak freely, so he leaned in towards me and whispered excitedly: “The US will never win in Iraq because the men they fight are doing God’s work!” Osman had just sermonized at length about history’s most influential Muslims, and he now proceeded to explain what about Islam made it worth dying and killing for.
First, he spoke of the Ottoman Empire, the Muslim world’s largest and most influential imperial force of the modern age, which reached the height of its power during the in the 16th and 17th Centuries. He launched into a gentle tirade about how the Ottoman Empire was greater than that of the Romans, citing the former’s longevity, scientific achievements and tolerance of other religions as proof. Under Islamic Law, I was informed, Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religions in peace, leading to fruitful relations among the three faiths—“The best in history,” he said.
Furthermore, Osman explained, Islam was the greatest of all the world’s religions because it did not provide for a hierarchy of faith. He never asked about my religion, but since I came from America, and was drinking alcohol, he assumed me to be a Christian. “There is no Islamic pope, no bishops,” he said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “All men, regardless of their wealth or family, are equal before almighty Allah.” Even if I had wanted to, it would never have been possible for me to change Osman’s mind about any of these points. But it didn’t matter. I was more interested in learning why he needed to say these things than arguing that a number of Shi’a beliefs could be seen as an exception to his hierarchy-free view of Islam, that some Jews and Christians were in fact mistreated or forced to convert under Ottoman rule, or that the pope is the spiritual head of only one Christian denomination.
Nevertheless, throughout our conversation I found myself continually reminded of Ali Salem’s metaphor. This was clearly someone who felt like a dwarf among towers. He was incredibly bright, spoke flawless English and gave every indication of being a hard-working, determined young man. Yet he was so grateful to find someone who listened to his words, without dismissing him as just another poor, uneducated Muslim immigrant, that I could see just how used to being looked down upon he was.
Osman was not a violent man, and he saw himself as something between a friend and enemy of the United States—a nation whose government he loathed, but whose citizens he felt had the right to live in peace. Yet his combination of spiritual vigor and socio-economic frustration, made me question if his love for Islam could ever be manipulated into the kind of deep-burning hatred that could make him a killer. He clearly approved of the ambush tactics being used against Western forces in Iraq, but he told me he did not support the killing of noncombatants, women or children.
After hearing what he had to say, I was struck by just how thin the line between disaffected young Muslim and unrepentant terrorist might be. As far as I could tell, he shared a number of significant characteristics with the 19 men who perpetrated the crimes of September 11, 2001: religious zeal, feelings of marginalization, anger and disappointment with the Islamic world’s decline, and hatred for the US government. But Osman had no desire to take up arms and join the fight, al Qaeda style. For at least the immediate future, he would be content to look at the tall buildings of the world and dream of finding a place among them.
We parted company soon after he had finished making his point about the superiority of Islam. Osman gave me the traditional Arabic farewell, Ma’ Salaama, wished me a pleasant and safe journey, and then turned away. As I watched him go, I could not stop myself from wondering what separated him from so many young men who do take up the jihadist struggle. However, I quickly decided that any attempt to calculate these differences would be doomed to failure, for just as every human heart has the capacity for love and kindness, it can also learn to thrive on hatred and mayhem. But if I learned anything from my conversation with Osman, it is that the lack of any clear formula for prediction does not diminish the importance of reaching those whose harsh existence leaves them vulnerable to hateful, malevolent influences.
At this moment, there are millions of young Muslim men around the world for whom the phrase “You are either with us or against us” does not yet apply. They have not committed themselves to our destruction, but the combination of our aggressive foreign policy and the proliferation of intellectually dishonest anti-US material on the Web leaves them unwilling to stand with us against the true enemies of Islam. In order to make the War on Terror a fight that we can win, we must continue to pursue this latter group to the ends of the earth, while taking care not to persuade individuals like Osman that they have to make a choice between their religion and friendship with the United States.
I have never met a Muslim (or Christian, or Hindu for that matter) who hated America because of its freedoms or libertine ideals. However, I know many who continually recoil in disgust at what they see as Washington’s abandonment of these ideals in the conduct of its foreign policy. If Ali Salem is correct, and pathological jealousy is what drives men to into the arms of our sworn enemies, then I believe it is time for a fundamental reevaluation of our nation’s arsenal. Smart bombs and Predator drones are indeed mighty weapons, but their effectiveness against resentment and frustration pales in comparison to the power of hope. Rather than blasting friend and foe alike into submission, we should do more to cultivate the talents and aspirations of those who would happily join us of their own accord. After all, it is far easier to help build new towers than it is to clean up the old ones after they’re destroyed.
Published November, 2010 at borderhopping.net
There is a wonderful café in the space beneath my hostel here, and yesterday, a crew of my fellow guests and I spent several hours outside, drinking, eating and talking about life. During the course of our conversation, we spoke at length about the western world's preoccupation with wealth and success, and it was agreed that this ethos survives partly because life back home is just too secure and familiar. "Travel," one of my companions opined, "is an important element of self-growth because it forces you out of your comfort zone." The other guys didn't seem too taken with his thought, and he certainly didn't think he was being profound, but it struck me as a tremendous insight. There are few things more liberating than the act of casting yourself out into the world and letting go of all that makes you feel safe and comfortable. To me, when your body is both the object and instrument of your survival, you experience life as it was meant to be lived—simple, free and one errant step away from disaster.
After two uneventful weeks spent traveling through Sweden and Estonia, I was starting to question the wisdom of my chosen path through Europe. I set out on this trip to escape from my comfort zone, but the clean, safe and well-maintained cities of northern Europe left me feeling more domesticated than ever. All of that changed when I arrived in Riga, which is a hypnotic, beautiful city, but not in any conventional sense. The twentieth century was not kind to the Baltics, and scars from Latvia's recent brutalization are visible beneath the easygoing way of life here. Communism's collapse and the promise of EU membership have revitalized the country, and the general atmosphere seems to be one of hope for a brighter future, but this new optimism has yet to translate into widespread opportunity. As evidenced by Riga's startling levels of alcoholism, enduring poverty and strong undertones of post-Soviet gangsterism, life here continues to be tinged with depression and danger.
The other day a man died in the street, just outside of the bus station. I wasn't there to see it, but a number of witnesses told me how the man's half-shrouded body lay in the street for almost an hour before being deposited into a makeshift hearse and carted away to the morgue. In spite of all the pedestrian activity in the area—markets, cafés and bus patrons—it seems like such a lonely place to die. I can't say why a stranger's passing had such an impact on me, but in some ways, the event represents Riga in all its gritty splendor: amidst all the hustle, anticipation and regrowth, it becomes easy to forget those who suffer in silence. As I sip my sixty-five cent beers, party all night and stuff myself with meat and potato pancakes, I can't help feeling like the scores of pedestrians who walked past this man's body, paying his silent vigil only the slightest of attention as they went about their business. And so it goes, as the days here pass by with an intoxicating combination of excitement, healing, hope and tragedy.
Five Life Lessons for the New York Pedestrianby Colin Mulligan
Not long after being arrested for his part in a drunken Manhattan street brawl, Mark Twain described the city as “ceaseless buzz, and hurry…that keeps a stranger in a state of unwholesome excitement all the time, and makes him restless and uneasy.” Standing in court that morning—the judge soon let him go—Twain was still fresh from his New York society debut. He had just delivered a series of lecture performances to sold-out local audiences, and won lavish praise from both the Times and Tribune for his eloquent humor onstage. His status in the art world was on the rise, yet he professed not to feel comfortable walking the streets of a place where cultural accolades are rewarded generously. Twain’s visceral reaction to New York, when considered with his rapid-fire juxtaposition of the city’s highs and lows, seems to conjure up the presence of something alive within its pulsating flow of humanity. Something that endures to this day, connecting us all at the fringe of our senses, even as we unknowingly rush past each other on the pavement. If it exists, this entity would not always be pleasant to experience, since its reflection of the physical metropolis would dictate that it too became more frenetic and congested as time passed. However, as with the actual sidewalks themselves, if one could somehow look beyond all the superficial clamor, they would find a vast trove of accumulated knowledge and memory, with psychic traces of everything New York is and has ever been. This ever-deepening saga of movement, change and necessity echoes down the avenues in the same enticing, unnerving way it did more than a century ago. Most of us will not experience its full spectrum to the degree that Mark Twain did, but it remains in the open, offering much hidden wisdom for those who try to make sense of life in the greatest city on earth.
Lesson #1: Permanance and Ownership are Illusions.
As nature’s only beings that comprehend the concept of mortality, we humans delude ourselves into thinking that our contributions to the world will somehow survive the inevitability of time. But to the observant New York pedestrian in a hurry, this notion reveals itself as a fallacy within minutes. Nothing here, not even the most impressive building or much-treasured neighborhood institution, lasts forever. Buildings are torn down and replaced with high-rise condos or upscale supermarkets, while multigenerational shops and restaurants close their doors to make way for new mobile phone outlets. Life in an environment like this is exciting and spontaneous, but it also provides for enough movement and random chance to make what once looked guaranteed seem like it never existed at all. For example, no matter how long you’ve been maintaining your line down the sidewalk, or how clear the path ahead of you seems to be, something will come along to interrupt your progress and send you on a new route. That strip of open space you felt was “yours” because you were headed there first was never really yours at all. It belonged equally to the bike messenger zipping in and out of traffic, and the mother pushing her doublewide carriage, just as much as it ever did to you. The same is true with life, only on a much longer time scale: we think we own things, but are merely occupying them. And the plans we make so carefully can be undone in a heartbeat by someone else’s quickness, determination or carelessness.
Lesson #2: Manners, Patience and Civility keep Better Order than the Law.
New Yorkers are fortunate to reside in one of the world’s better-run cities, yet every so often, a major cog in the machine breaks down, threatening to upset the order of things. For the most part, Gotham’s residents survive these moments of discomfort and inconvenience by maintaining a sense of unity, commiseration and good humor. During the summer blackout of 2003 for instance, there was no looting, and no need for martial law, which many would have thought justified following the violence-plagued outage of 1977. Instead, the city was quiet, and in a sense, jovial. During the quarter century of time that passed between the two events, it had evolved, through days of despair and tribulation, into a place where people were willing to put aside their own frustrations in the interest of not making things worse. Similarly, New York’s promenades endure as a system of ordered chaos, where anarchy fashions itself into functionality simply because it has to. Most city residents I know would not react well to being told where they “should” walk, but they do accept that maneuvering with the flow of people is what gets them to work on time. The sidewalks, the city and the world as a whole survive best when a grudging compromise such as this is made between individual wants and communal necessity—a truce of least resistance, if you will. And it is the breaking of this truce, by those who are oblivious or indifferent to the order existing around them, that makes the existence of laws necessary. However, since it is neither possible nor desirable to enforce standards of pedestrian etiquette, the best everyone else can do is remain calm, keep their distance and remember Lessons # 3 & 4.
Lesson #3: There will Always be People Who Just Don’t Get It.
One of the great ironies of the city’s sidewalk life is how aspects that do exist under municipal regulation—like picking up after your dog—are also the ones most subject to egregious violations of common sense and civic decency. This is not to say that more kinetic offenses, like cutting off a hobbled old man or blowing cigarette smoke into a crowd of people, are excusable. But New Yorkers are a legion of fast-moving multitaskers, and the occasional moments of inattention and carelessness are inevitable from all of us. The nice thing to do in these circumstances is apologize, but failing that, even a simple recognition of our obliviousness can turn it into a positive encounter. Since our hurried mistakes make us look foolish, annoy others or put us in danger, we strive to do better in the future—and ideally, our sheepishness will register enough with the offended party for them to not take it out on the next guy. Unfortunately, a surprising number of people are too set in their ways to indulge in even this basic level of urbanity, and trying to reason with them on the street is rarely worth the effort. After all, if recent politics has taught us anything, it is that confronting someone about their errors is far more likely to solidify the behavior than lead to any meaningful changes. Those of us who already know why it’s bad to make other people clean up our messes should not despair though, because where the law of the land fails, the dictates of Karmic give-and-take prevail.
Lesson #4: If You Behave Badly, Expect it to Come Back on You
Living in one of the world’s most concentrated hubs of oversized egos teaches us that antisocial personalities can be the result of many causes—wealth, sadness, anger and greed, to name a few. Yet, despite the fact that inconsiderate behavior cannot be blamed on a single source, there is one element that seems to remain constant among New York City’s most annoying residents: nothing irritates them more than being put out by their own poor conduct. Neither the pack of six bar-hopping college students parading shoulder-to-shoulder through the Village, nor the pin-striped finance honcho, pacing with his cell phone on a narrow stretch of concrete, give a damn what we think at the moment. However, they can’t help but notice something is amiss when a person trying to pass startles them from their chatter, or can’t avoid spilling on them due to a similar lack of attention. (It’s unfortunate that spitters, litterbugs and profanity-shouters don’t face this kind of come-uppance as well, because, it might help lessen the prevalence of such behavior). However, as with other aspects of life, the lessons that are most obvious to us are the ones we must endure over and over again. For the more self-involved and myopic pedestrians in our midst, this means having to take in frequent reminders of how they are not important, wealthy or fabulous enough to escape the unseen forces that bend us all to their will.
Lesson #5: Heed the Lessons, but Forget the Rules.
The lessons above hold true in almost any circumstance or place, but viewing them as a series of steadfast rules would be a mistake for two reasons. First, unlike “No Parking” signs and open-container laws, lessons do not also come with a stipulated punishment for disobedience. Second, lessons are positive, affirmative things that don’t lose their relevance with time, whereas rules are a lot like reality TV: they can only teach you what not to do. There are no doubt millions of individuals around the world right now who live free from municipal restraints on their life’s enjoyment, while appearing to be earnest upholders of the law. And much like the New Yorkers who quietly sip beer from brown paper bags, or who know of a stretch of curb that somehow doesn’t get patrolled, they impose upon no one. If anything, they deserve credit for expanding their environment’s collective wisdom, not punishment for exploiting its blind spots. Such people demonstrate that in most aspects of civic existence, rules work best when treated as relative things, with constant experimentation and adaptation to find out what best helps the individual operate within the system. Following life’s lessons, instead of its rules, might occasionally lead us too far outside the established order. But once the apologies are made, the spills cleaned up and the fines paid, it will also leave us more gracious and affable in handling our mistakes, while reminding us not to be too harsh with other peoples’ imperfections. And as the lens of judgment gradually thins, we become more open to the spontaneous lessons offered up by life. We begin to harmonize with the great current of wisdom surrounding us, instead of just walking through it.
“Luck”by Colin Mulligan
One of the less-highlighted benefits of traveling independently is that it leaves adventurers with prolonged stretches of time in which they are alone with the road. I once viewed this fact as nothing more than an irritant to endure when my IPod's batteries were low, but over time I learned to embrace the solitude, and it in turn led me to many insights that I might have missed otherwise. Most significant among these is the revelation that, if the real point of traveling is to discover oneself, itinerant planning along the way should always take a backseat to the forces of intuition, coincidence and blind luck. However, it was only after I journeyed to the sacred cave complex of Drak Yerpa, thirty kilometers outside the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, that I came to see how luck can be a presence, a guiding principle that, much like prayer, is capable of leading us towards our highest aspirations.
The Yerpa caves rest high in a valley on the outskirts of Lhasa, three hours’ hike away from the nearest road. They are revered by Tibetans for many reasons, but most of all because Padmasambhava, the Indian sage who brought Buddhism to their land in the 8th century CE, is believed to have spent seven years at the hermitage, seeking his own inspiration and insight. According to tradition, the Buddha himself prophesied that Padmasambhava, "The Lotus Born," would come not long after his own death, to spread the esoteric wisdom of Tantrism. Central to these teachings is the concept of bardos, which are best described as the transitory, uncertain states humans pass through in the cycle of birth, death and reincarnation (bar means "in between" and do translates roughly to "suspended").
Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, explains that our experience of these intermediate conditions is determined by our level of spiritual evolution: "As we move from one bardo to another, both in life and death," he writes, "there is a corresponding change in consciousness, which through spiritual practice, we can intimately acquaint ourselves with, and come, in the end, completely to comprehend."
Since one of the factors that brought me to Tibet was my desire to experience this mystically infused Buddhism up close, traveling to such a sacred and wild destination as Drak Yerpa was an opportunity I could not miss. Unfortunately, I had less than three weeks remaining on my Chinese visa, so time was in short supply. In order for me to see Nam-Tso Lake and Mt. Everest, and still make it to the Nepali border before my papers expired, I needed to leave Lhasa within seventy-two hours at the latest. On top of everything else, I didn't have a tent or cold-weather sleeping bag, so I could not risk being stranded outside the capital once the sun began to set. All of this meant that I would have to make my way to a remote, unfamiliar place whose name I could barely pronounce, complete a twenty-eight kilometer round-trip hike and make my way back into town, all before 5 p.m.
To my energized and oxygen-deprived mind, the narrow window of opportunity—just enough time to make it to Drak Yerpa and back before dark, and just enough time to reach the border before my visa expired—was not a cause for concern. On the contrary, these restrictions of time and location felt more like an empty space in a puzzle to me, an opening whose edges and curves were tantalizingly close to matching a piece that I held in my hand. Up to this point in my travels, the necessities of date and place were never anything more than details to be sorted out through planning and forethought. Now though, these notions were evacuating my logical mind and taking on an almost physical dimension. Everything was laid out before me with such coincidental precision that the journey's challenges seemed more like an invitation than a warning. So, rather than indulging my usual worrying impulses, I decided to just make the trip and rely on whatever unseen force it was that seemed to be beckoning me forward.
The next morning, after eating a substantial breakfast of fried eggs, toast, one enormous pancake and ginger tea, I went down to my guesthouse's lobby in search of some advice. The woman at reception was eager to help, and she offered not only to find a cab for me, but also to assist in negotiating the best price. However, because my destination was outside the city, because the roads were bad and because I was headed to a Tibetan Buddhist shrine, she decided that it wasn't even worth trying a Chinese driver.
The first Tibetan she stopped told us he had made the trip a few weeks earlier, but that the previous night's rains meant the roads would be impassable. The second cabbie said that the trip was doable, but because conditions were so bad, he wouldn’t try it for less than 300 Yuan (almost $37) round-trip. I wasn't ready to concede defeat at such an early stage, so with admonitions of good luck from the hotel staff, I set out into the morning air.
Before seeing me off, the cheerful receptionist wrote the name of my destination in Tibetan script, so I would stand a better chance of getting help along the way. As I walked towards the outskirts of town, I began pointing my finger down to the pavement—the local equivalent of a hitchhiker's thumb—whenever a truck passed, but none of them even slowed down. After yet another unsuccessful attempt, I heard the sound of an engine starting behind me, and turned to see an older man preparing to pull his red Honda motorbike back out into traffic. Assuming that he was a taxi driver, I walked over and showed him my Tibetan-scripted destination. He read "Drak Yerpa" aloud slowly, then paused for a moment before motioning to the back seat of his bike.
"Ka tso ray?" I read from the 'Useful Phrases' section of my guidebook. He didn't answer this query, so I asked him again how much the trip would cost. In response, the man just shook his head, so I jumped on without another word and held tight. His motorcycle's engine was in poor condition, so we never exceeded forty kilometers an hour, but after ten minutes we sputtered off the main road, and pulled into a little driveway that led to a lumberyard. He turned off his ignition and then gave me the internationally recognizable signal for "I'm going this way, you go that way." After a moment, I understood: this fellow wasn't a taxi driver at all, he was just a nice old man heading in to work who wanted to help a stranger along the way. He refused to take my money, so I bowed in gratitude and waved goodbye. Looking back on the encounter, I realize that the old man had served as an unwitting messenger. I still was not convinced about the wisdom of my little adventure at that point, but the kindness that motivated him also forged an unspoken bond between us, and through it an important message was delivered to me: Keep going; keep believing and you'll make it.
Just then, as the man entered the fenced-in lumberyard, a taxicab came into view, and even from a distance, I could see that the driver was eyeing me with a great deal of interest. Figuring there was no harm in trying, I flagged him down and showed him my scrap of paper with the Tibetan writing. "I don't understand," he said instantly in Chinese (this was easy for me to pick up, since it was one of the phrases I used most while in China). He seemed game enough though, so I climbed into the back seat and gave him the one direction I could: yizhi zou (straight)! Within two minutes I could see what the Tibetan taxi drivers back at the hotel were talking about. As the road out of town ended and veered left, it became more of a gravel path. A gravel path filled with swimming pool-sized puddles and lengthy stretches of deep, sticky mud.
We passed a number of construction sites, a disused hydroelectric dam and then, despite my previous belief that it would be impossible, the road got much worse. There were several points along the way when I was convinced we were stuck, but my driver remained unfazed. Whenever the tires started to whine and spin, he calmly downshifted, hit the gas and powered through, without even taking the cigarette out of his mouth. After about fifteen minutes of this, we again reached solid pavement, and the road began to climb. A small, handmade sign next to the road pointed the way up to the caves, and my cabbie, true to form, turned left and accelerated up the rocky mountain trail. It took some explaining and a few wild arm gestures, but I soon convinced him that I did indeed want to make at least part of the ascent under my own power.
The taxi’s meter read twenty-eight Yuan; I handed him thirty, and didn't have to tell him to keep the change. Since we were in such a remote area, I figured the odds of hailing another taxi were not at all good. Stretching the comprehensible limits of "Chinglish" and pointing to my watch several times, I eventually helped him understand that if he came to this spot at 4:30 p.m., I would pay him 100 Yuan to take me back to Lhasa. He agreed, and I turned to make my way up the path.
Within thirty seconds of my hike's commencement, I ran into a young Tibetan man who looked to be in his late teens or early twenties. He spoke only broken English, but was able to ask me if I was headed towards the caves. We continued up the hill, and after rounding a bend at the top, we encountered his two friends, who were busy adjusting their packs. As fate would have it, all three of them were novice monks from the famous Drepung Monsastery, one of Tibet's oldest and most venerated religious institutions. They explained that this trek was a rite of passage for them, a pilgrimage whose sacred destination possessed treasures that would assist them through the bardo of their spiritual training and maturation.
They were all friendly and outgoing, but the young man I met at the base of the road was by far the most eager to chat. Out in the open air, away from the watchful eyes and ears of the Chinese authorities, he spoke to me about his nation’s current woes. His two favorite pronouncements were “Amerikah good, China bad,” and “Tibet Free!” Later, when he was looking through my guidebook, he saw the phrase Kuma du, which a Tibetan would use to say ‘Stop, thief!’ The young monk, whose name I have since forgotten, pointed to the English characters associated with this phrase and excitedly said “China, China!” As we continued on, the other two youths grew more talkative. They each took turns looking at the photos in my book, and asking for the English pronunciation of basic phrases like ‘What’s your name?’ and ‘Where are you from?’ In exchange, they taught me how to count to ten in their native language.
Almost three hours later, our small party arrived at the caves. The view was majestic, and as we stopped to rest before entering, our gazes were drawn down into the fertile valley below, leaving us barely aware that we were shivering in the cold. I found Drak Yerpa to be serene and beautiful, but also a bit perplexing. Each of the caves had a small doorway in front, but without the ability to read Tibetan script, I had no clue of their significance. Luck continued to be on my side, however, because as I prepared to make my way back down, a caretaker monk emerged from nowhere and led me to an unremarkable cave entrance that I would have missed on my own.
"Guru Rinpoche," he said over and over, speaking the name by which Tibetans call Padmasambhava, their patron saint. He showed me around the sanctuary, speaking in Tibetan as he pointed to various relics and offerings that were scattered about. I listened until he finished, gave an appreciative nod and a deep bow, then left a donation with him on my way back out. Although I would have liked to spend more time there, instinct was once again telling me to move along. I could not shake a subtle, yet unmistakable feeling that something was waiting for me down below, and it wasn't just a chain-smoking taxi driver.
I said goodbye to the Drepung monks at 2:30 and followed a lone pilgrim through the confusing and unstable pathways just beneath the caves. I passed him, and soon came upon a convoy of donkeys, each loaded down with supplies for Drak Yerpa's permanent inhabitants. After watching them round a bend up and out of sight, I turned back homeward and then found myself alone, entering into the most wondrous place I had ever been. The morning's difficult climb took place under overcast skies, but as the temperature continued to rise during my descent, the thick cloud cover burned off and gave way to a clear and brilliant mountain afternoon.
As I stood in the warm sunshine, the valley seemed to come alive around me, and the feeling recalled things I had long ago read about how Tibet's unique climate and geography play a vital role in balancing our planet's ecosystem. Along with the High Plateau's impact on the global jet stream, I learned, its fertile mountain valleys, like the one in which I was hiking, act like sponges that soak up the monsoon season's frequent downpours. These "bogs," as they are sometimes called, then somehow release the stored-up rain, which flows downhill, and eventually becomes the primary source of irrigation and drinking water for much of South and Southeast Asia.
Continuing onward, I began to notice ever-increasing amounts of liquid trickling down the slopes. It hadn't rained all day, but soon there was so much water flowing across the trail that I could not even recognize it as the same route I took hours earlier. Some of this cascading fluid came from high-altitude ice that had melted in the midday heat, but there was no question that most of it was emerging from the green slopes themselves. The further down I went, the more it came: the droplets became trickles, the trickles grew into streams, the streams were meeting up to form rapids, and as the process multiplied, the rapids grew and grew until they formed a monstrous, churning river at the bottom of the valley.
Standing in the midst of this great spontaneous current, it felt, in an intensely personal way, as though I was surrounded on all sides by the life force of two billion people. That moment, in all its elegant, unforgettable simplicity, was my reward for following the path that luck had laid out for me. There were snow-capped mountains in the distance, blue skies above and endless green fields below. Descending back towards the road with the warm sunlight on my face, I could almost feel the benevolent, nurturing hand that created it all, gently nudging me along the way.
Looking back, there were many lessons that I gathered from that day, but none was more important than experiencing how the expectation of good fortune makes one far more likely to experience it. Two days after indulging in a victory cigarette with my faithful, true-to-his-word cab driver friend on the ride back from Yerpa Village, I moved on from Lhasa and began making my way down the Friendship Highway to Nepal.
The next three weeks were filled with the same sort of guiding luck that drew me to the caves; after Nam-Tso Lake, I enjoyed four days of brilliant rainy season sunshine at Everest Base Camp, and then caught a ride in the supply truck of a French tourist convoy to within thirty kilometers of the border. I walked out of Tibet, carrying all my possessions down through a magnificent, water-soaked gorge to the frontier town of Zhongmu, thoroughly shredding the soles of my feet in the process. The next morning though, with twenty-four hours left on my visa, I hobbled the last few meters down to passport control, and offered my pen to a group of Italian travelers who were shocked enough by my bandaged feet to offer me a lift to Kathmandu in their Land Cruiser.
It was July 2004 when I took this last—hopefully not final—glimpse back at Tibet, and in the time since, much of what I came to understand there has been obscured by an extended dose of life in the modern world. I now live in New York City, which is a place where the notion of luck seldom extends beyond discussions of professional opportunities, cheap housing and finding a seat on the subway. And if these are the barometers of providence in this fast-paced, often cynical universe, then it must be said that fate continues to be a friend of mine—I enjoy my work, live in a rent stabilized apartment and am seldom compelled to ride the trains during rush hour. None of these things inspire me quite like that strange journey into the mountains outside Lhasa however, and this unfortunate situation drives home another truth I learned from the road: that disconnecting from our source of inspiration can make us question if we were truly inspired by it after all.
My world expanded somewhere along the way through Yerpa Valley that evening, yet I still struggle to find meaning behind the mystical experiences I had there. I didn't discover any universal truths during those transcendental moments, nor did I find a means of reconciling them into a lasting sense of purpose that agrees with my place in the modern world. This seeming lack of compatibility bewildered me when I returned home, and it made me cautious and hesitant about the future—exactly the opposite of what I learned to be during my trek to the caves. Relenting to the whims of fate in such an unprecedented manner led me across some kind of psychic boundary, but it did not show me how to remain on the other side. In a sense, my new surroundings reflect the unfinished spiritual growth that occurred within me while I was on the road, and this is at once a boon and a source of constant frustration for me.
The massive scale of human energy and movement in Manhattan dictates that everyone here, to some extent, abandons them self to luck each time they walk out the front door. Yet, much like the condition of my innermost mind, awareness of this karmic current does not guarantee success in harnessing it. Perhaps I returned, in both the physical and mystical sense, too quickly, or have stayed in this new place too long. Maybe I let the material nature of my surroundings deplete my adventurousness to the point where luck, instead of being a pathway to illumination, became just another possession to watch over.
Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that I am now suspended in my own unique bardo, a transitory state of awareness where I have chosen to leave my old self behind, without quite understanding why. Such a baffling conundrum, I now know, will never be sorted out through contemplation and fond remembrances alone; it can only be resolved under the same conditions from which it emerged, where forgotten skills and long-dormant instincts reassert themselves amidst uncertain or extraordinary circumstances. And in the end, perhaps this is the greatest benefit of independent travel: somewhere beyond our preoccupations and doubts, our plans, and even our luck, the road awaits—silent and patient, always ready to begin again where the previous lesson left off.
“What the World Cup (and Wikileaks) can Teach us About the World Order”by Colin Mulligan Unpublished
One of the best things about last summer’s World Cup football tournament was how well the on-field results served as barometers of participant nations’ social and economic health. Spain, which won the championship despite an ongoing debt crisis and looming austerity cuts, was a clear exception to this formula. However, for the competition’s also-rans, ranging from second place Holland to lowly North Korea, there remained significant parallels between performance and geopolitical reality.
The United States for example, somewhat distanced from past disasters on the international stage, continued to behave like a clumsy, indecisive giant, albeit with occasional reminders of its trademark dash and grit. South Korea and Japan, despite facing a slew of recent crises and rising uncertainty about the future, both made it to the knockout stage for the second time in three attempts—a feat that leaves them too powerful to be overlooked. And the Latin American countries, which showed tremendous resilience while struggling through poverty, financial collapse and earthquakes in recent years, staked their claim as the world’s most underestimated nexus of power. The region advanced more teams (5) beyond the first round than ever before, and did not lose a match until the final day of group competition.
More interesting though, particularly in light of the ongoing publication of candid American diplomatic cables, is what the results mean for the 2010 tournament’s biggest disappointments. Italy and France, two countries that pride themselves on their Latinate culture, fine cuisine and enjoyment of the good life, have brought home more than half of the World Cup hardware awarded since 1994. They were expected to win their respective groups, and possibly meet in the later elimination rounds, where any game they played would have huge title implications. Instead, both teams lost to unheralded opponents in humiliating fashion—France did not even score a goal until the waning moments of its final game—and committed the unpardonable sin of failing to make it out of the group stage.
When viewed casually, this Franco-Italian flop seems like a fluky, one-time fall from grace that neither side could have seen coming. However, a review of these nations’ recent World Cup showdowns suggests that their mutual ineptitude had been building for some time. In the 2006 trophy game, Italy beat France on penalties following a grinding 1-1 draw that grew more cumbersome by the moment. The 1998 World Cup saw host nation France progress through the quarterfinals with a 0-0 shootout win against Italy. Four years earlier, in the 1994 championship match, Brazil did much the same thing to the Italians, following a nil-nil snoozer that mercifully ended when Roberto Baggio’s potential match-extending penalty kick sailed over the bar.
Such lackluster results are indeed tedious, but there is growing evidence that they also signify more serious problems away from the pitch. First among these are significant questions about the quality of both countries’ political leadership: according to leaked documents published by the New York Times, a cable from the US Embassy in Paris last year described France’s President Nicholas Sarkozy as a “mercurial” leader, operating in “a zone of monarch-like impunity.” Other missives referred to him as a “naked emperor,” whose closest advisors were forced to tiptoe around his “thin-skinned” and “authoritarian” personal style. Speaking of his Italian counterpart Silvio Burlusconi, a June 2009 cable from the Rome legation’s Chief of Mission described a man who was “feckless, vain and ineffective as a modern European leader.” Three months later, newly appointed Ambassador David Thorne quoted sources close to the 74-year-old Prime Minister to suggest that his messy private life was making him unstable and vulnerable to extortion from organized crime groups.
Sarkozy and Burlusconi are among the most enthusiastically pro-American politicians that their nations have ever produced. To hear these men portrayed in such unflattering terms by US officials who won their support for tougher sanctions against Iran and North Korea suggests that the Americans’ concerns go far beyond idle gossip or personality clashes. Diplomacy is not football, and politics should never be confused with sports management; however, the two nations’ shared dysfunctions in these areas reflect a pair of ugly truths that the French and Italians now must face. First, archaic socio-economic policies and administrative spats are squandering their respective populations’ vast reserves of talent. Second, the brooding, dive-taking and overly defensive strategies that brought them past glory are now woefully obsolete.
France’s difficulties are easier to identify, but this does not make them easier to solve. Because of the country’s history as former colonial master to much of North and West Africa, the French national team and youth squads have long been stocked with players whose sympathies were not entirely with the motherland: Zinedine Zedane, one of the past generation’s most outstanding football talents, is the Marseilles-born son of Algerian immigrants. Almost half of France’s 2010 World Cup squad is of African or Caribbean lineage, while no less than three are converts to Islam who married North African women.
This is troublesome because much of France’s Black and Arab population exists on the fringes of society, in dreary suburban ghettoes known as banlieues, with little or no loyalty to the state. As the New York Times’ Roger Cohen pointed out in June, the problem is that “no middle ground binds the Muslim boys from the suburban projects and the clean-cut, middle-class French lad…It’s social and urban segregation…It’s the distance between the tenacious French imaginary of…integrating every immigrant and the facts of increasingly divided identity.” The French media was even more blunt in assessing the situation this summer, deriding less enthusiastic members of the national team as “scum,” and “guys with chickpeas in their heads rather than a brain.”
Five years ago, the US Embassy in Paris (then overseen by a George W. Bush appointee) warned that France’s real problem was "the failure of white Christian France to view its dark-skinned and Muslim compatriots as citizens in their own right.” The fact of their country’s failed attempt at secular integration, so clear to much of the world following the October 2005 banlieue riots, appears to have finally dawned upon the French people themselves. Jean-Francois Kahn, founder of the French weekly Marianne, was one of many writers to point out the agonizing similarities that exist between football and national life: "Listen to sports commentaries…analyzing the cause of our battering in the World Cup…one could think they are describing the state of our society or stigmatizing the way we are governed…depicting the Sarkozian power system…arrogance…vanity…contempt.”
Italy, which has experienced its own spike in anti-immigrant agitation, faces a more subtle, but not entirely different, set of challenges. During its crucial final match against Slovakia, the Italian side looked either bored or scared or both for more than an hour of play. Despite needing a win to avoid elimination, they created few real chances to score, and as a team spent more time on the ground feigning injury than they did attacking their opponent’s net. It was only late in the second half, when inevitability began to sink in, that the Azzurri started playing with any urgency whatsoever. And even then, after Italy’s lethal front men brilliantly racked up two—nearly three—quick goals, their defense remained woeful. Neither of Slovakia’s final two scores was memorable for anything other than the defensive inattention that permitted them.
This lackluster, insecure Italy that demonstrated itself on the pitch six months ago very much resembles the land I came to know during frequent visits over the last several years. Up until recently, I was in a long-distance relationship with an Italian woman, who I traveled to see as often as possible—sometimes for up to three months at a time. During these trips, I often noticed how much emphasis Italians’ collective psyche seemed to place on the country’s historical achievements—as if Italy’s cultural institutions still counted on residual checks stamped “Rome” and “Renaissance” to keep their doors open.
Such preoccupation with bygone eras is a part of what made the country so oblivious to the forces—and repercussions—of globalization at the end of theCold War. According to World Bank statistics, Italy’s nominal GDP reached $1.66 trillion in 1992; however, because of a sharp decline the following year, and a series of fits and starts in the subsequent decade, it would be thirteen years before that number was surpassed. And along with economic stagnation, Italy’s changing role in the post-Cold War international system also gave rise to a mortal struggle between old and young for control of their nation’s future.
My Italian friends are all creative and well-educated late twentysomethings, but only a handful are able to find work that pays them enough to move out on their own. During my last visit, they told me that even in the more prosperous north, Italy’s conversion to the Euro sent many jobs abroad to cheaper labor markets, while at the same time making life too expensive for people to live without the generous pensions and benefits that only older citizens enjoyed. Between 1990 and 2003, only Japan, Poland and Portugal saw higher increases in their public pension spending than did Italy, which now allots more than 14% of its GDP for that purpose. Because of such developments, I observed, young Italians often felt resentful towards their older compatriots, who they saw as fearful and ignorant of the modern world, yet unwilling to surrender the country’s destiny to those who could adapt to it.
This conflict between old and new was also exemplified by the bewildering web of roundabouts, two-lane roads and ultramodern Autostrada highways that mingle between Italian cities, while masquerading as a coherent transportation infrastructure. Driving in Italy can be a harrying experience for many reasons, but the combination of indirect, outdated routes and a youthful speed culture often make it downright frightening. Even the country’s narcotics laws, which went from essentially decriminalizing hashish oil to making penalties for possession equal to those for cocaine, suggest a mild case of civic schizophrenia.
It is therefore not surprising that, following Italy’s unceremonious exit from the 2010 tournament’s first round, many fans were quick to blame the team’s sexagenarian manager, Marcello Lippi. According to a series of angry editorials published in Italian newspapers, the since-retired Lippi selected too many older players—aged 30 and up—for his World Cup squad. This, the outraged authors wrote, left the Azzurri faithful rooting for a lethargic side that was unable to keep up with its more youthful opponents.
Such claims are not without merit, but surely all of a nation’s problems—either at home or on the pitch—cannot be blamed on maturity’s natural resistance to change. Perhaps this summer’s disappointing outcome was less an age-related fiasco than a systemic breakdown that ignored the real problems while creating fictional ones: aged or not, it must be noted that when the Italian side finally did let the dogs loose in their final group game, they looked unstoppable. AfterFabio Quagliarella’s dazzling pinpoint strike in stoppage time brought them to within one goal, it was suddenly the Slovaks’ turn to be uncertain and fearful—like sailors whose lifeboat had sprung a leak just as land came into view. So what does this all mean?
I have heard it said that “Italy gave birth to the Renaissance, Britain spawned the Industrial Revolution, and one can see the difference in their football styles.” This maxim, though never wrong, holds more truth now than ever before. Traditional European powers like England, Holland and Germany, who also face the twin pressures of demographic agitation and changing global trends, have survived recent challenges in stronger form than their more stylish and debonair rivals. It seems these Northern countries that employ a more forward, aggressive-yet-efficient style are also better at facing new challenges and painful readjustments as they arise.
The reason is because they focus more on harvesting the advantages of a multigenerational, multicultural roster, rather than simply playing defense until some form of leadership emerges. The Italian and French football styles, much like their surviving socioeconomic institutions, have grown so out of touch with current world trends that they face the prospect of future collapse. And, as is the case with other cherished Franco-Italian institutions that are coming under threat—the wine industry, for example—solutions will only be found by embracing long-overdue changes, while remembering the unique strengths that put them on the map in the first place.
America, take heed.
Al Ain United Arab EmiratesPublished October 18, 2010
I had an interesting conversation last night. It was almost 7:00 in the evening, and I had just hailed a taxi to take me from al Ain city, where I did some shopping and checked my email, to my campsite about 20km from town. Like every other cabbie who I’ve hired for the trip, this man, who spoke only broken English, asked me where I was from. When I told him that I was American, he nodded without emotion, and told me that he was from Pakistan. “From where in Pakistan,” I asked, and to make sure he understood the question, I rattled off the four cities in his country that I knew: “Islamabad? Lahore? Karachi? Peshawar?
“Near to Peshawar,” he answered. “Warziristan,” the remote, mountainous region of his country that borders Afghanistan. This is also the place where American ‘intelligence’ seems to think that al Qaeda heavyweights like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahari are hiding. “In my home,” the cabbie continued, “there are no police.” He was referring to Warziristan’s traditional autonomy from the Pakistani government’s meddling. Because of their location, unforgiving terrain and their tribal leaders’ violent mistrust of outsiders, Islamabad has always (until very recently, anyway) been content to follow a policy of live and let live with its north-westernmost provinces. His remark was a bit of an odd conversational segway.
“That must be nice,” was all I could think to say in response.
It has been just short of nine months since I had left home for my round-the-world adventure. In that time, I have almost completely lost my intellectual vanity; the part of my personality that wants everyone I meet to know just what a clever and enlightened American I am. But old habits die hard, and this part of my psyche that was responsible for my next question–a question whose answer I already knew. “They have Sharia’h there?” I asked, using the Arabic term for the strict interpretation of Islamic Law that gained worldwide notoriety after the fall of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime.
“Yes,” he said simply, nodding with pride. “Pakistan is a very big country. To have only one government is…(he was searching for the right words in English)…not good.”
“One government in a big country means that one man is very powerful. And THAT is definitely not good,” I observed, thinking of my own country’s past political and diplomatic mistakes–most of which could be traced to the whims of one ultra-powerful individual. Here I was, sitting next to a man that so many of my countrymen would be quick to dismiss as the enemy, or at least as a native from the land of the enemy, having a meaningful political discussion. He would probably not approve of my lifestyle, and I can think of few things that are less appealing to me than living under his ideal form of government. But we were agreeing.
More about Pakistan’s situation…
Across Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Provinces, movie theatres and music shops have been forcibly shut down in compliance with Islamic Law, and women there are now obliged to cover themselves fully when they appear in public. As a student of history, it is my opinion that nearly every instance where religion and government have been combined—the most likely exceptions being the early Ottoman Empire or Moorish Spain—has ultimately led to disaster. Yet the people of Warziristan and the other Northwest Frontier Provinces have made their choice, and barring the establishment of a formal regime that protects and shelters terrorists like the Taliban did, it is they alone who must deal with the consequences.
I came to visit the Middle East because this ancient land’s tumultuous and violent history has always fascinated me through art and literature, and I wanted to experience it for myself. In spite of the US State Department’s never ending stream of travel advisories and proscriptions against journeying in the region, I came without fear; and I have been rewarded with gracious hospitality and respect as a traveler–two other requirements imposed by Islamic Law, incidentally. I came because of my faith that, in spite of what CNN and FoxNews would have us believe, 99.9% of the world’s population is essentially the same: aside from differences in dress, language and custom, they all just want the freedom to live in peace, to be treated with respect, to follow their dreams, to worship the God that they serve and to see their children inherit a world that is better than the one in which we currently live.
On ‘Island Time’ in TobagoPublished January 27, 2011
Anyone who has traveled to the Caribbean island of Tobago knows that convenience is not one of its primary attractions. Roads here tend to be windy and narrow; blackouts and electrical surges are far from uncommon; and the weather can change from blue skies to monsoon-like rains in minutes. Even the process of getting here can be a major chore, since the island’s receives few international flights that don’t arrive from London or New York City—meaning that most winter travelers must haul their heavy coats and extra sweaters through at least one airport connection before arriving.
For those seeking ease and comfort above all else, this lack of expedience might seem to be a cause for worry. After all, shopping, cooking and driving are activities they most of us hope to get away from while on holiday. Yet, despite being one of the more rugged destinations on its block, Tobago does have enough infrastructure to satisfy the demands of the all-inclusive crowd. It’s southern half, which includes Crown Point International Airport and Scarborough, the capital, has more than its share of resorts, upscale restaurants, air-conditioning, luxury beach facilities and Internet cafes.
But this is beside the point. Because anyone who comes to this tropical paradise simply to be near the dessert buffet or first in line for the fitness center will miss what the place has to offer, and what it can bring out of them. Unlike its larger, more frenetic sister island Trinidad, which sits a short 25-minute flight away, the pace of life in Tobago rarely exceeds the norms of what can best be described as “Island Time.” Yes, it can be difficult to find yogurt or espresso, and yes, stores tend to open late and close early. But the upside is that having to wait for conveniences that ordinarily drop into our laps affects us in positive ways.
First, it helps us to take our time, thereby demonstrating how all the schedules we keep for ourselves make little different in the end. Island Time teaches us that not getting to the beach until 1 p.m. is perfectly acceptable, or that eating fish for both lunch and dinner is not “gauche” (or maybe it is, and we just stop caring). And for whatever reason, the laid-back pace of island life seems to be quite damaging to the concept of multitasking. Instead of weaving down the sidewalk, juggling an IPod, iced latte and Blackberry in between occasional glances up, people in island mode tend to talk when they’re talking, walk when they’re walking and enjoy themselves all the while.
In places like Tobago, which has miles of pristine, undeveloped beaches, offshore coral reefs and an inland tropical forest reserve, this is undoubtedly a good thing. Hikers, snorkelers, equestrian enthusiasts, bird watchers, surfers and SCUBA divers are among the many groups that will be enchanted by its beauty. However, since these things are unlikely to come find you on your hotel room’s private terrace, it pays to tap into your adventurous, can-do spirit and go exploring for yourself.
The best place to head is north, to Speyside and Charlotteville, two rustic fishing villages that are home to two of the island’s most colorful characters: the “Fruit King” and Rush, the madman of Pirate’s Bay.
The People You MeetPublished November 8, 2010
Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in a backpacker hostel knows how repetitive the conversation can be. For the most part, these are places where people from all over the world stop in for a few days of cheap lodging, beer and travel advice.
The unfortunate side effect of this is that relationships in such an environment tend to be short and superficial. In fact, the average first encounter at backpacker lodgings is so predictable that some travelers, myself included on occasion, will yield all of their vital statistics up front upon meeting someone new: “I’m Colin; I’m American; I’ve been in Africa for three months; I’m twenty-six. I don’t know how long I’ll be traveling through the region…”
While I was in Maputo, waiting for the sticky wheels of Mozambiquean bureaucracy to turn enough for me to register my new motorbike—it took three weeks—I met no less than thirty different people who were only in the capital for one night before heading north to the beach. It might have just been coincidence, but afterward I noticed that I started keeping much more to myself.
I always go out of my way not to be rude or condescending, because everyone has their unique story to tell, but keeping up with all the names, nationalities and itineraries attached to the stories reaching my ear can be a chore. So instead of walking around hostels with a notepad and pen, I started grouping my road acquaintances into groups, based upon the kind of travelers they were (or seemed to be):
The first category of backpacker I met was also the most common: people who weren’t interested in immersing themselves into a foreign culture, or even indulging in the basic conversational niceties with strangers from other countries. These types seemed to prefer hanging with their friends from back home, talking football and exulting about how cheap everything was, before following their guidebooks to all the can’t-miss tourist destinations the next day.
Even though groups like this were more or less the norm at youth hostels, there were many, many notable exceptions, and these travelers fall roughly into three main categories:
The adventurers, like the Swiss nurses who bought a Volkswagen Gulf in South Africa and drove it up the Sani Pass at five miles an hour. Or the two Frenchmen I met in Mozambique, after they had ridden their motorbikes south from Paris to Gibraltar, ferried across to Morocco and then traced the length of Africa’s coastline until they reached South Africa and began to round back up.
The socially aware traveler, who come to exotic locations not for relaxation and pristine beaches, but to seek out a greater understanding of the world, and make it a better place. These people, like the American artist volunteering for public health initiatives around Tanzania, or the Australian doctoral student studying ways to improve Africa’s resource distribution, are among my favorite to talk with, because their experiences have led them to understand that beauty comes in many forms.
The third type of traveler is what I like to call the LJPT—locals just passing through. These individuals are generally spending only one night in town, either accompanying a friend to the airport, or finishing up a business trip, and they can be a valuable source of information about their country. I met “Selaisse,” a friendly Jamaican citizen at a guest house in his native Kingston, and after an evening spent chatting on the patio, he invited me up to his house on the island’s wild north coast. In addition to the food and shelter that he graciously gave me, Selaisse also taught me a great deal about Jamaica’s ecosystem, biodiversity and infrastructure. He was a squatter who left the crime and desolation of Kingston’s Spanish Town neighborhood with nothing but a strong back, a few dollars in his pocket and the determination to start a new life. In the decades since he moved to the countryside, he had taught himself to farm, fish and make curative tonics from local plants and herbs. Now he lives in quiet solitude, making a comfortable living by making jewelry, and was hoping to turn his guest house into an eco-lodge for adventurous and/or socially aware travelers looking to enjoy a more authentic and rustic Jamaican experience.
So much of the beauty of travel comes from encounters with others, and for every ten loudmouth boozehounds or obnoxious, safari goers, you meet someone who makes a lasting impressions on you—older women journeying alone, locals struggling to realize their dreams against all odds and people whose travel-induced spiritual growth is reflected in every aspect of their personality.
In hostels I have met many people who were in the middle of great and daring adventures; people on motorbikes, walkers, hitchers and individuals who gave up the comfort of home to pursue more simple and meaningful existences. I was always enthused and recharged after meeting them, and it wasn’t at all important for me to know their histories or politics, or even their names. It was just good to know that they were out there, seeking understanding and self-discovery. As I write this, there are tens of thousands more, from all nationalities and backgrounds, spread across the world on similar missions. Some are seeking adrenaline, some contemplation and some human empathy, but whatever their purposes on the road might be, they’re all evolving in their own way. And each of them is contributing to the hope of a better world, one adventurous step at a time.