Sunday, July 3, 2016

When It’s Time to Go

It was Shakespeare or someone like that who said, “Parting is such sweet sorrow”. Places and people affect us emotionally and this is perhaps the thing of greatest beauty in life. Then again, these affective dimensions are not always positive, sometimes even quite the opposite. There are times when you know that, both parting and sorrow aside, it’s just time to go.

Since returning from down under in April, I have run another circuit through a few countries over the past few months (Cuba and South Africa), eventually landing me in the middle of nowhere at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique’s Sofala district. Here, things were supposed to slow down for a month while I soaked up this new landscape and worked my way into the myriad of projects and research going on here at the park. Sooner than later, however, I found myself teamed up with a bunch of Zimbabwean (Zimbos) farmers working on several of the park’s agriculture intervention programs in the buffer zone that surrounds the park. But before I get into all of that, some context:

Gorongosa National Park was once heralded as arguably the greatest nature reserve in all of Southern Africa. With a climate conducive to incredible vegetative production and a uniquely diverse range of habitats, Gorongosa was world-renowned as hosting some of the highest game densities on the planet including all of the iconic “Big 5” (lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant) in spades. All of that, however, was before the war--almost 2 decades of civil strife that that killed millions, filled the countryside with land mines, destroyed the economy and infrastructure, and perhaps unsurprisingly, devastated the ecosystem in Gorongosa as well.

With the cease-fire signed between RENAMO and FELIMO in 1992, both Mozambique and Gorongosa could begin the long process of recovery. What was left in the national park after years of conflict was unknown. Many communities of people had moved into the area as a refuge from the fighting during the war and, through the understandable necessities of survival, had impacted animal populations greatly. In the early 2000’s, the Carr Foundation began working in conjunction with the Mozambican government to revive and restore Gorongosa towards its original abundance--no small task, especially when considering that the cease-fire of the 1990’s had not brought peace, but instead, calm periods between periodically re-emergent violence. Still, Gorongosa National Park has made amazing strides and today represents a true gem of natural beauty for Mozambique, Southern Africa and the world.

The toll of the conflict, however, remains raw.

For anyone who runs into a Gorongosa elephant (there are over 500 in the park), this becomes immediately apparent. While elephants are always dangerous animals to encounter, the elephants of Gorongosa have survived a particularly brutal history of persecution. As such, they exude a fear and defensiveness towards humans that reflects their traumatic experience of violence. Elephant charges are common in Gorongosa (though rarely dangerous, if treated appropriately) and even for those unfamiliar with the body language of elephants, the stress and agitation they convey is unmistakable. Their emotions, like the emotions of many other animals, seem tied not only to the physical landscape of the park, but also to the historical crucible in which these modern populations once had to survive.

All of this, of course, is to say nothing of the human toll that the Mozambican civil war has had on the people of Mozambique. To offer a very basic metric that speaks nothing to the complexity and depth of this toll, but does indicate something about its meta-effects, Mozambique today remains one of the world's poorest countries.

In the buffer zone surrounding the park, some 150,000 people currently live. Through a series of interventions funded alternatively by programs from USAID, Irish Aid, and the Carr Foundation, the food security and livelihoods of people in this area have become a focus for development and assistance with the underlying idea being that increasing the sustainability of communities on the periphery of the park will reduce the pressure of the natural resources of the park itself. The work being done, while still in its first few years, has great potential to make significant contributions to both the human and environmental capacity in the buffer zone.

The only hang up, it seems, is persistence of conflict in the area. Even 2+ decades on, things still simmer and escalate between the two stalwart factions of Mozambican politics: RENAMO, holed-up and dug-in deep on Gorongosa mountain and in the Sofala region, and FRELIMO, the guys that run the government and the national army. And as we increasingly enter a phase of the latter, it seems time for me to leave Mozambique for now. The details of it all are steeped in the politics and context that I barely understand and hardly want to wade into in writing or otherwise. With the prospects and potential of doing work/research here in the future well-established, I am happy to change some plans and head to South Africa early to spend some more time in the Transkei with friends before making my way back to the states. It’s good to know when it’s time to go.

Here in Chitengo, that little bubble of a community at the edge of Gorongosa National Park, the geography of this place is pretty clear: the war is in the north, the buffer zone in the east, the Pungue river to the south, and the way out to the west. It’ll be a bush plane in the morning and Durban, South Africa by lunch.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

Back in the Transkei, a half-decade on

Winter on the Wild Coast is white-crowned, wind-tossed waves breaking along an empty shoreline. From the bluffs and rolling hills looking out to sea, migrating whales can be seen playing in the swell with such regularity that they almost become more of a challenge to miss. Turn inland, and the rest of the Eastern Cape of South Africa is nothing but big sky country as far as you can imagine and even then, a bit farther. Communities of concrete houses and thatch-roof rondevals dot the highlands above the river valleys after which they are often named. This is Nelson Mandela’s homeland, the place of the Xhosa people and their herds of stately Ngoni cattle urged along by young boys sometimes only half-as-tall.

In the mornings, the air is bone-chilling, laden with moisture as much as cold. This time of year, the sun is in no hurry to herald in the day, bringing the sunrise with it only after a long and lazy struggle against the horizon. The birds who, with few exceptions, are always the prudent characters in the forests of the Transkei, set about making short-work on the full morning air. Ibises and weavers and hornbills skip off of the treetops like stones across water. The coast is left to the plovers and gulls and cormorants who run their errands through the surf and among the rocks, searching out the morning’s taking and leaving the shells and detritus from their indulgences scattered about for the afternoon sun.

I spent a little under two weeks with a small field team working in the forests of the Dwessa-Cwebe and Mkhambati Nature Reserves--two incredible and also incredibly different biodiversity hotspots in the Transkei, a part of South Africa that stretches from the southern extent of the Eastern Cape northward, ending on the coast just west of the country of Lesotho. The forests here teem with a variety of floral and faunal life that can only be fully appreciated if taken in slowly. We passed our days working various forests plots that our head scientists, the indomitable Dr. Erica Smithwick, had set up some years ago with the help of a group of undergraduate students of which I was one.

Working in the Transkei and soaking in its landscape is incomparable in and of itself. And yet, I found the experience heightened even further by the nostalgia this setting still rings in my mind. It was 5-years ago now that I found my way to this place during my final year at university. It was during this initial 3-month trip that I got my first real sense of what kind of work I wanted to do with my life, thanks in no small part to Dr. Petra Tschakert, the professor and mentor with whom I would end up working and traveling with for the next few years. It was also during this trip to the Eastern Cape that I actually began this blog, initiating my own personal journey to learn about the power of the written word, the potential of my own voice, and my ability to communicate the things I was experiencing to audiences elsewhere. Then, of course, there were the (inter)-personal dimensions of this first trip to South Africa, but perhaps I will save that for another time.

Being back on the Wild Coast, walking the same beaches and forests that I had once come to know, was simultaneously incredible and also disorienting. In the intermittent 5-years, I have traveled literally around the world to more than a few different countries, living and working for a few years or months in some, resting for short period of time in others. I have grown remarkably, both personally and intellectually, through this wanderlust which still remains unsated. All of this I know and have recognized inherently, but still, seeing the Transkei and being absorbed once again in that landscape invoked an intense process of introspection that felt almost like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. The person I was when I first came here is, in many ways, incompatible with the person that I am now. I remember the idealism and hubris that accompanied that naive 22-year old into the South African bush. I remember the freshness and novelty of each interaction and each experience in my mind. I remember the feeling of confidence born out of books and ideas and few things real. I remember thinking I had any clue what was going on around me.

And here I am, certainly older and only-possibly a bit wiser. It is not that I have lost all of those things, just that a half-decade later, after working in development and academia, with NGO’s and government agencies in contexts around the globe, I have a much more tempered approach to the world, to possibility, to who I am and what I can hope to accomplish. The idealism is not gone entirely, but grand ideologies seem to hold less currency almost daily--nowadays, I tend to treat them more with outright derision as opposed to my once-enthusiastic trumpeting. All of which is not to say that such ideas are no longer important to me, far from it. It is only to say something about what I have come understand better: that ideas in-and-of-themselves are the easy part. The world hardly ever conforms neatly to such things anyway, regardless of one's intention. 

Who I am now seems most aptly surmised by Antonio Gramsci's “Pessimism of the intellect. Optimism of the will.” Such an admission would have disheartened 22-year old Mario, but in reality, it is not a sad or cynical place to be. In fact, I feel more liberated in my mind at this age, less tied to the stubborn prescriptions and authority of long-dead thinkers and writers, and more able to stitch together the philosophies and ideas that I find useful and applicable to my present work, efforts and experiences. I have gathered and built my own intellectual authority for myself from the things I have done, the places I have gone and the experiences I have had. In the meantime, my utopian vision has been shot to hell, but in its place, I feel as if I have constructed something infinitely more valuable: a role for myself to play in the world that actually exists.

As for all those (inter)-personal dimensions, I am still clueless. This is perhaps the only thing that does not seem to make more sense with age.

One of my last nights in South Africa before heading out to Mozambique for a month, I found myself standing on a beach at The Haven, a small hotel on the Cwebe side of the Mbashe river where I had stayed before. Storm clouds were sitting low in the sky, shuttering everything but the faintest orange-pink-purple hue of the setting sun. I stood there facing the ocean and remembered running the same coastline on a clear morning 5-years ago as a younger man. Being here was, in so many ways, like meeting my younger self; it was like giving my current self the litmus test of age to see if I was progressing as should be expected. The results: inconclusive. I think about the distances I have covered, both literally and figuratively, and I wonder if I will ever come to a place, a moment in my life, where I have gone far enough.

As a very special person recently mused to me in those same forests of Dwessa: in the West, it seems we need to go on physical journeys in order to also go on personal or spiritual ones. And while I wonder why this is, I also wonder if it is not the best thing in the world. Then again, I wonder if I would have a choice either way.

One foot in front of the other--keep pushing that boulder, dear Sisyphus.


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Some thoughts and moments from the road as of late

Gili Meno, Lombock, Indonesia:

My fever finally broke while I accompanied a Frenchman on guitar and before we began the second song my clothes were already soaked through with sweat. A wet rag of a shirt hung limp and heavy on my body, clinging with sticky hydrogen bonds to my shoulders which, in the tropical laze that had come to set pace the past few days, had themselves been well-bronzed by an equally heavy sun. The rupturing of my fever-addled levees was some time coming. I had spent the preceding day swaying in hammock looking out over the narrow channel between Gili Meno and Lombock and praying that, whatever this sickness was, it was not malaria. This was, after all, my vacation and as a matter of principal, I usually save the more serious maladies for fieldwork anyway. The efficacy of both cigarettes and local herb to treat this latest island bug was unclear, but certainly, of all the places to fall into a feverish stupor for a day or two, Gili Meno was by far not the worst: a small paradise where beer was cheap and plentiful, where one could sleep each night under the stars by the sea, and where magic mushrooms grew wild in the small groves between the palms across the island. And that Frenchman played one hell of a goddamn guitar.

It’s funny--I had been meaning to write about some of my traveling adventures for the past few months which, since the beginning of 2016 at least, have taken me literally around the world. In all the madness of flights and connecting flights, dubious internet connections, and nights spent on couches, air mattresses, futons, floors and hammocks in something like 10 different cities, a lot of those quiet moments that I feel compelled to reproduce in prose, however inadequately, have instead floated to the back of my mind. There they sit, buoying my mind and happiness even as I linger stateside for the eternity of a few weeks. It is good to see everyone though--that might be the only comparable feeling to being out and about for me, the feeling of seeing my friends and family again, that is.

Nambung National Park, Western Australia

There is nothing quite as still and haunting as the desert, except for the desert at night. In the blackness of a rare cloud-covered pre-dawn, I made my way down the narrow highway 60 north of Perth. My kangaroo count exceeded 20 and the novelty wore off--these fuckers are everywhere and would certainly present a significant liability to my rental vehicle regardless of its already tired and dilapidated disposition. The car itself was significantly used, but like my tireless war horse of a minivan back in the US, it had character and I liked that. It clicked and hummed and murmured and talked, protesting or begrudgingly endorsing every shift in gear, change of speed, or application of the breaks. I imagined myself some weary captain, with my every muscle and attention tuned to the voice and quivering of his battled-hardened ship. A romantic notion, indeed, but hardly resistant to the more pressing reality that if this car broke down on me, I would be rather fucked.

My idea had been this: drive early morning into Nambung national park and watch the sunrise play colors over the pinnacles (the great limestone pillars that protrude like a jagged Stonehenge out of the sand and silt of the desert floor). The trip would place me out of cell service (as the vast majority of Western Australia tends to be) and quite alone, about 60 kilometers from the nearest town, in the middle of Nambung and the desert. Still, I felt I had a solid plan and a hell of a day ahead of me, so I gently coaxed my vehicle along the dirt roads and through the labyrinth of limestone until I found a slightly elevated lookout from which I could commune with the spirits while enjoying the solitude of isolation in the brimming possibility of new morning.

I set up my small camp stove to boil some water for coffee, an essential companion to any morning, desert or otherwise. Filling the primer-cup of my wisperlite with white fuel, I closed the valve and lit a match to begin priming the stove. The flame, immodest and jumpy as always, quickly took on a here-to-fore unobserved behavior (and, having spent far, far too much time in my life doctoring, diagnosing, and treating misbehaving wisperlite stoves, I was aware of such details). The primer-flame grew to engulf the entire stove outlet in a small ball of yellow made all the more vivid in contrast to the pitch-dark night in the background. It was when the flame left the stove and started running along the fuel line, eventually consuming greedily the outlet valve of the pressurized fuel bottle, that I let fly an: “Oh that’s not good. Jesus fuck. Fuck.”

In an effort to save myself (images of myself as Two-Face came quickly to mind), my poor rental car, and of course, the very fire-prone landscape around me (the pinnacles in Nambung have very limited vegetation, but fire is always a threat in the desiccated landscape of WA), I began heaving arm-fulls of sand onto the small stove interspersed with rabid attempts to stomp out the flames. Like some crazed desert recluse, I found myself alone in an empty place dancing madly over an iridescent ball of flames. This lasted maybe 20 seconds, but felt like eternity; in response to every stomp or heap of sand I imagined an explosion. When finally I had reduce the threat to a steaming heap of bent metal and a conglomeration of sand-melted-glass in front of me, I sat down on the sand, heart-racing, lungs heaving, and dejectedly, still without my life-blood coffee. Such chemical addictions may be the end of me, quite literally. The stove carcass simmered angrily and defeated beside me as I calmed my autonomic functions. I now felt far lonelier in this place than ever before.

I attempted the feat of watching the sunrise instead without my coffee but of course, soon found myself asleep, only to wake after the sun had risen significantly in the sky. I spent the rest of my time wandering barefoot through the pillars and across the sand, occasionally stopping to read from a book I had with me, or to rest. What a idiot I kept thinking (and still think now), what a ridiculous way that would have been to go: alone in the desert, surrounded by nothing, killed by my own folly, hubris and misguided hermeticism. There is still plenty of time though, and the way this franchise has been going, I have no doubt that such a fate may still await me some day. Hopefully, not soon.

When I first got back to Allentown, I took the stack of mail that had been accumulating for the past few months down to the basement. With a flip of a switch, I put on the gas fireplace, pulled up a rocking chair and sat absorbing the mechanical heat while I paced through the endless series of statements, bills, notices, advertisements, invitations, and limited-time offers(!). About halfway through the pile, I set the remaining letters aside and buried my head in my hands--what in god’s green fucking earth am I doing here? How, and in what ways, is being saddled with the mindless chatter of a decaying Western culture better or even remotely preferable to life on the road? For convenience? Comfort? Dear lord--traveling may present its fair share of difficulties, challenges, discomforts, stresses and hardships, but nothing, and I mean nothing, can be comparably soul-crushing as the monotony of everyday spent somewhere comfortable. I say this as someone who always assumes being home will be a relief or a respite from the chaos and hectic pace of traveling, but once again, I am reminded that such a notion is born of the very cultural attitude that I seem to be struggling to resist. Life, however, in the very insularly and provincial sense of the term, needs to happen. I have a social security number, student loans, a job, and obligations (financial and otherwise)--I am on the grid, mother fucker. So romance and silent, dystopic, Orwellian horrors aside, I pick up the half-discarded stack of letters and keep flipping. No Penn State, you can’t have any of my goddamn money. Go fuck yourself and your cult of self-righteous idol-worship. Your football team sucks.

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Rules of life on the road (and rules of life, more generally): Never get arrested. I originally made this rule for myself while in Paraguay under the juridical auspices of the ever-corrupt Policía Nacíonal and the diplomatic guise of the US Peace Corps. This rule was expanded and reiterated as I continued traveling to communist countries and countries that are otherwise not well known for their leniency towards criminals, especially foreign criminals (Indonesia, for example). This does not mean a complete aversion to certain illicit activities, but instead, a strict policy of attunement towards local knowledge, custom and conditions along with a reasonable acceptance of risk. I should note: I have never before encountered any issue of this sort while traveling.

To date, Bali has been the only exception to this rule, but not for the reasons you think.

I arrived in Ubud a day before the yearly Ogohogoh festival, which heralds the beginning of Nyepi and the end of the Balinese yearly calendar. During the festival, massive effigies of demonic Balinese gods and goddesses in the Hindu tradition are paraded through the streets to music and drumming. The Ogohogoh’s are then convened at a central location where they are burned as an act of spiritual purification in preparation for the New Year. The whole scene is wild and maddening and, as with so many things in Bali, a complete aesthetic and sensory overload. It seems only fitting that following Ogohogoh is Nyepi, or the Day of Silence, in which every family remains in their home, typically fasting, meditating or offering prayers to ancestors. On Nyepi, as a means of encouraging self-reflection and cleansing, no Balinese people are allowed in the streets, a rule strictly enforced by the pecalang, or a local community police force.

While in the city, I stayed with a fantastic host family just off the main square in central Ubud. They were wonderful and took great care of me, providing heaping bowls of fresh tropical fruit every morning and an endless supply of tea and coffee. Not to mention that, despite some linguistic barriers, they were incredibly gracious company. On the morning of Nyepi following a raucous night of Ogohogoh excesses, I woke to find the family already engaged in the various mindful practices of the day. They offered me breakfast and told me that they would be remaining home for the day, explaining the significance of Nyepi and the various ancestral alters around the small household compound. Intrigued, I asked if I might be able to participate with them, but the answer I received was one that politely indicated their preference to celebrate and commune as a family. Message received, I prepared my bag and camera for a walk around town in the quiet and largely empty city streets, figuring this would give them some space.

As the name of the day unambiguously suggests, on the streets it was eerily silent. I saw almost no people, except the occasional neighbor at their door lighting incense, making offerings and saying prayers to the large stone gods and goddesses that guarded each household entrance. When I reached the main square I saw the first pecalang. He was young, slightly shorter than I with a checkered sarong swaying smartly as he walked the streets. Upon seeing me, he approached, asked where I was staying, and kindly asked that I return home. The rules of Nyepi, he explained, were to be followed by everyone, Balinese and foreigners alike. I apologized and he offered to walk me back. No sooner than we had turned around than another pecalang appeared, this one significantly less relaxed and visibly perturbed. He immediately began chastising me for my ignorance to which I pleaded equal parts guilty and apologetic. Flustered and with a final word of admonishment, he turned to accompany me home.

Off the cuff and as a seeming aside, he asked, “Where are you from, anyway?”

Now, usually when interrogated abroad, I will claim some more innocuous nationality without the heavy historical, emotional, and political baggage that US citizenship often entails. But in this brief unthinking moment, for whatever reason, instead of replying “Canada” or “Australia” or “the UK” I said, “I am from the US.”

My agitated pecalang escort turned on a dime and threw an accusing finger into my face in front of his own satisfied grin, “Of course you are,” he replied with a zeal that immediately told me that I had confirmed whatever preconceived opinions he had of peoples from the US.

“What happens if a Mexican breaks the law in the US?” he demanded.

“I am not sure what you are asking me.” I replied, nervously maintaining my calm.

“They go to jail! Don’t they. Well guess what, you’re in Bali and you broke our law. Now you’re going to jail!” He grabbed my forearm and began forcibly leading me in the opposite direction of my host family and presumably, towards the local jailhouse.

I am the first to admit that lots of anti-American sentiment, while perhaps misplaced at times, is nonetheless well-founded and based on a serious and highly-problematic history meddling intervention and neo-imperialism. Often in my travels have I, as the token American, been asked to account for my country and its actions, which I have never sought to justify but instead provide nuance and conversation. What more can one do in the face of the US’s unignorably and inexcusable hegemonic reality? That being said, never have I had the burden of my country’s troublesome history placed so squarely and wholly upon my own shoulders, and certainly never in a situation where my immediate well-being and impending incarceration were the terms of the exchange.

In what would have been an ultimately idiotic reactionary moment, my first thought when faced with the possibility of imprisonment in an Indonesian jail was to shake free of the pecalang’s grasp and make a run for it. Thankfully, the more level-headed of the two pecalangs intervened to reason with his colleague. While this did little to diminish the anger and frustration of the first, it seemed like progress was being made.

My Balinese being unpracticed (or non-existent), I could not tell what these two discussed hurriedly as I stood there, heart beating, forearm-in-hand of my would-be incarcerator. That being said, I imagined the conversation being something along the lines of:

“Do you know how much fucking paperwork and hassle it will be to put this stupid little white boy in jail? Just let him go home.”

I was led back to the home where we found my host-mother standing at the door, smiling and laughing and as happy to see me as if I were a long-lost son. I was ingloriously returned by the pecalang who no doubt explained to my host-mother, “Your white American got loose. Keep a better eye on him. He’s not very smart.” To the credit of her infinite graciousness and humor, she laughed it off and in response offered her own bit of chiding to the one pecalang for his bad-cop routine. I, for one, rightfully felt like a piece of shit and dipped between the wooden doors of the home quickly and without a further word.

When my host-mother herself came back into the compound, she saw me seated by my room in a wicker chair, eyes cast shamefully at the sky. She quietly disappeared into the kitchen, returning a few minutes later with an extra generous bowl of fruit.

“Please do not worry, it’s no problem, no problem” she insisted, “Here, have some fruit!”

What wonderful people. What a stupid, silly American. But what wonderful people.

Two dollars. That is the price for coffee at the local coffee shop in State College. The barista offers me the steaming mug along with a practiced smile. All I picture is Marlin Brando as Colonel Kurtz in the final scene of Apocalypse Now as he whispers off-screen, “The horror….the horror,” offering up his own summation of the world around him. Not that I am about to go all Heart of Darkness on everyone, but simply that it’s hard to reconcile two seemingly opposite modes of living: that on the road, and that of easy, suburban parochialism. Never one to waste a good cup of Joe, however, especially knowing how mercilessly such things can be taken from you in near-catastrophic incidents of desert escapism, I take the cup, drop a thank you and a small tip in the jar, and retreat to a seat in the corner where I can watch the traffic buzzing through this small-town café.

No doubt, so much of what I am able to do through my propensity for great and frequent mobility is a function of my own positionality and privilege. I do not mean to deride or dismiss the very world that has given me such freedoms, or the society which has bestowed upon me the privileged capacities of white male-ness. That is the thing about privilege anyway--you cannot get rid of it, and you cannot downplay it (unless you’re a total asshole). You can only acknowledge it and attempt to use it for good. I don’t know if this is what I do, and perhaps such a judgement is not mine to make, but still, I certainly do hope so.

I am a lucky sonofabitch to be able to travel the way that I do. And in the same token, I am appreciative and sensitive to the different decisions and/or dispositions that lead people to living their lives in completely different ways. I would be lying and a fool to give the impression that I have somehow figured this shit out and that everyone else has got it wrong. No--I question who I am, what I am doing, the decisions I make, and the road that I am on constantly. I have no idea whether this will all turn out alright, whether I am in fact sowing the seeds of my own demise (certainly, of my own destruction), and whether I am contributing a goddamn thing worth of good to this world I care about so deeply. I do know that, right now at least, what makes me happy, what excites me, what gives me a reason to wake up and buckle under when need be is the prospects of wandering and the endless allure of the road.

How buttfucking romantic. I know. How naïve. No doubt. But traveling makes me happy in a way that nothing else--no person or relationship, no accomplishment, or material thing--ever has. And with that, I don’t know what else to do except to keep moving as much and as often as possible. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Getting to Bali, Getting to Ubud

I can’t tell if the tranquil Hindu goddess in front of me is amused or annoyed by the flanking busts of hyper-masculine demons, but the contrast seems oddly appropriate in Bali, an island exuding the mindful care and attention of some other Asian cultures, and yet, facing the overwhelming realities of a tropical climate with its inclinations instead towards luscious, verdant chaos. How I got here, however--seated in a family’s courtyard garden tucked away along one of Ubud’s countless narrow gangs with my pack of Marlboros and pot of coffee that pours like motor oil and tastes like heaven--seems more of the latter.

Deep Outback

I boarded a plane last evening from Perth, Australia to Denpasar, Indonesia. The short flight was one of the more spectacular in my life but not for the service or anything like that. In previous weeks, I had the opportunity to travel north into the Australian desert on a short road trip. It was enough of an excursion to get a taste and provide at least a few moments to push my luck, but certainly not the full experience. After all, it is the oft-repeated, re-iterated, and re-enforced advice in Western Australia that ONE DOES NOT GO INTO THE OUTBACK ALONE IN THE SUMMER--advice to which I, to even my own surprise, was keen to follow (for the most part). But the flight over the northern desert at sunset on my way to Bali helped to fill in some of the missing pieces.

First, there is the sheer scale of the desert--once clear of the outskirts of Perth, there is little except for rolling bush, national parks and scattered small towns until Geraldton (about 5 hours north of Perth). After Geraldton there is, quite literally, next to nothing. It is here that the bush fades away leaving vast tracks of bare earth for many hundreds of kilometers. The few towns here function as oases of fuel along the few major paved roads which are otherwise unpopulated. Just to give an idea of the remoteness and emptiness of Western Australia more generally, consider this: the entire population of the state (by far the largest in Australia) is generously 2.5 million, with 2 million of those residing in Perth and surrounding areas. That leaves just over 500,000 people for the rest of a state the size of Texas, California, and Alaska.

On the flight, looking east over this land, a rare summertime cloud bank was rolled out like soft dough across the sky. Behind it was the dark, fathomless blue of a storm, penetrated only by yellow spires of lightning lashing harmlessly in the void of the outback (such storms I had the pleasure of watching from afar several nights in a row while I was in the bush--nature’s light show, indeed). In front of this cloud bank, on the western slope of the cumulous wall, the setting sun had settled into the warmest palate of sandalwood colors I have ever seen--equal parts pink and gold, radiating and amplified between the bare land and the sky and back. The desert itself was snaked by networks of dry riverbeds extending like the pulmonary veins of lungs that had long since ceased their breathing and as the sun sank in the sky these colors reached an almost fever pitch before quickly dissipating into the greyish-blue of late evening.

Denpasar and Kuta

But the desert is long behind now, climatically speaking, at least. Less than a couple hours by plane and we have reached the saturated cocoon of the near-equatorial tropics. Humidity: approximately 5 million percent. Temperature: at a certain point, it doesn’t even fucking matter.
The plane landed in Denpasar a little after nine at night and, in an impressively efficient manner, I had passed through customs, been asked if I was smuggling drugs in my rectum, collected my bags and found myself sitting in a taxi by half-after. My request to the driver was, at least in my estimation, rather straightforward: Hotel Bandesa, please. Off we go, meandering through narrow streets flanked on either side by tourists and an army of taxi (‘taksi’) motos and cars, seemingly two- or three- for every white person. The traffic was a mess, as it is in many of the countries I tend to frequent, but in Bali this is made all the more difficult by the fact that the roads are not only narrow, but also possess here-to-fore indecipherable lane and directional designations (to me, at least--the taxi driver understood just fine).

Every conceivable gap between cars was filled by motorcycles in an insane and unwinnable game of automotive Tetris. Navigation was not a matter of following a queue, but a matter of dipping into the opposite lane and passive-aggressively (though politely) cutting off any number of cars in front of you on your way left or right. ‘Sorry, sorry, so sorry’ the taxi driver would mutter unheard to the other cars he was gently cutting off, his apologetic hand gestures hardly much of a consolation amidst the fray. What was most amazing, in the midst of all this chaos, was how moderately the traffic kept moving along--despite the number of cars, motos and pedestrians dodging each other as well as food carts, street dogs and opportunistic shop owners, we were never at a stand-still, at least not for long. There was so much happening around me, so much aesthetic, sensory stimulus, however, that I found it hard to even notice the pace. I have never been much for the city anyway.

Kuta, the town just outside Denpasar, seems like mecca for drunk, white, college-aged tourists. For many of Australia’s misguided millennial youth looking for an international experience without any of the hassle, Bali (and especially Kuta) is their Cancun. And yet, here I was. Just another sweating white asshole among the masses, soon to learn that I had no idea where the fuck I was.

The driver dropped me off. Fifty meters down the road, he assured me, which was too narrow for him to enter by car, I would find my destination. Bags in tow, off I went.

Fifty meters.

A hundred meters.

By a hundred and fifty meters I realized he had dropped me off at the wrong hotel: Hotel Bena-Yesa was not Hotel Bendesa. I hopped another taxi with a driver who did not tell me he had never heard of the hotel until right when he was ready to drop me off. He assured me, it was somewhere. No doubt. After 30 minutes of walking around the charming alley ways of Kuta, each of which seemed alive and vibrant with nightlife, restaurants, live music, and outdoor bars (all I could think was how desperately I would like a smoke and a beer, let alone something to eat) I finally decided to hell with Hotel Bandesa and, for only about 10 dollars US, stumbled into a few bungalows at a home-stay somewhere in the pulsing center of the madness for the evening. I did finally get my beer and it was as cold as any I have ever had before. Thank christ.


In the morning, I woke to birds, a blanket of stale, tropical sweat and a lightly thumping fan--in my mind, possibly the most glorious way to wake. Outside my room was a small pool and an elaborate raised platform veranda, which are common in some of traditional Balinese culture. As the family of the home-stay began bustling about sweeping, the mother took incense and flowers to each corner and all entrances to bless the home. By the time my taxi arrived at nine thirty, I was as bathed in a gentle wafting aroma of lavender as I was in humidity.

Ubud is the city famously featured in the book Eat, Pray, Love, and while the prospects of re-living a white woman’s mid-life metamorphic rebirth tends to repel me on more levels than I care to recall, it is an important city for spiritual purposes. This being the week of the Balinese New Year, the festival of Ogoh Ogoh will be taking place in Ubud followed by the day of silence.

Bali in general is known for its uniqueness, which lends itself towards it popularity with tourists and an ever-increasing expatriate population, foreigners who, for one reason or another, just never went home. While the rest of Indonesia is predominantly Muslim (the largest Muslim country in the world actually), Bali is predominantly Hindu, but the spiritual and cultural differences do not end there. Balinese religion also incorporates many aspects of Buddhism as well as traditional animistic beliefs. The result is a gorgeous hybrid religion replete with a uniquely eclectic pantheon of gods and goddesses, an incredibly dense concentration of temples (there is a temple everywhere you turn), and an entirely distinctive aesthetic which likewise borrows liberally from the above variety of traditions. The combination of these things on the infrastructure and feel of Ubud is stunning.

Streets waft with incense from day break to sun down. Small reed plates filled with spices, flowers, and small offerings are placed in front of almost every household, business, and temple daily. And if the smell of burning herbs is not enough to heighten the senses, the narrow roads and uncountable alleys are lined with busts and statues of gods--some fiendishly terrifying, others peaceful and elegant, and still others somewhere in between. These figures can be large, sometimes stretching well into the second story of the house, and they can be small, tucked away in some small unnoticed crevice around an unexpected turn along the gang, covered in moss or stuffed full of flowers and offerings. Their pervasiveness and their incorporation into the overall aesthetic of the city gives the impression--and here is perhaps the animistic legacy in Bali--that these gods are everywhere. They are among us at all times, whether in overwhelming, monstrous proportions, or in the smallest of moments, the most forgotten of spaces.

Walking the streets mesmerized seems the order of the day. It is a complete overload of the senses--my eyes and nose and ears feel inundated with exotic stimuli that I at once feel drawn to and welcomed by. This is, no doubt, the epitome of the naivety of the white tourist in a new place. For sure, such enamored stories played a part in convincing any number of otherwise disillusioned foreigners to ditch the sterility of the West for the far-preferable wonders of the East. And so it is in Bali, and Ubud specifically, where so many still remain. There is poverty here, and an economy spurred on by the continued disparity between local and global markets; like so many other countries, Bali has fallen into a tourism-dependence, which brings in revenue, but relies on global currency deficits. Put another way, while so many foreigners have the opportunity and financial capacity to travel to Bali, so few Balinese have the opportunity to travel elsewhere unless they do so by working in the service industry. And for those in the service industry, the industry that employs some 60% of all Balinese, a university education is hardly a necessity--an unfortunate ceiling for the young people working hard to provide tourists (often university students or graduates themselves) with a nice experience.

But for now, the daily marvel of a new, exciting, beautiful place seems more than sufficient to distract me from such graduate school analytics. Other than the climate, Bali is so vastly different than anywhere I have yet been in Africa or Latin America. This is, after all, my holiday in celebration for the completion of my masters degree. Even for a radical left-wing Feminist Marxist scholar such as myself, perhaps little fun is permitted. Then again, fuck me, I am just another white jerk off with too much money in Bali. Might as well own that shit if the shoe fits, right?


Friday, January 8, 2016

Mont Gothics

            This is a small story about a small moment that I had recently. I don’t often write or blog about my time spent stateside, much less when I am traveling in another country, but I will take exception here. My reasons will appear obvious, I hope, though perhaps not.
            Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of once again wandering around in Adirondacks State Park in northeastern New York state. Some friends and I found ourselves, for the second year in a row, cozied up in the gorgeous Harris family home on the southeastern shore on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, compliments of the indomitable Lucas Harris (also my roommate). The house looks out across the lake into New York and up the dramatic slopes of the Adirondacks. The past year we had visited, I was able to hike a few of its more impressive peaks, all of which are challenging in typical Adirondacks fashion, but none of which put me at or even close to the edge of my comfort zone. This year would prove somewhat different.
            With a slightly different group of us in tow this time around, the first 3 days at the lake house saw limited hiking (though we did spend one day futsing around on the Three Brothers peaks), but plenty of fine times spent around the fire, eating amazing food, and drinking delicious Vermont beers. The unusually warm temperatures this year meant that, at the time of our stay, there was no snowpack to be heard of in the Adirondacks, even among the high peaks. Of course, this does not at all mean that hiking is impossible, just that the going would be messy and wet and cold, just not cold enough for snow. In the mornings, I couldn’t help but think how different the mountains on western skyline were than I had remembered. There were no snowy crowns to adorn their alpine slopes, no white-kissed trim lining the furs and evergreens along their spines. But the day after the majority of our group departed, with just Lucas and myself left, the mountains saw their first significant snowfall of the season. We headed south, crossing into New York state along the bridge at point at Chimney Point and drove into the high peaks. We were after Mont Gothics, one of Lucas’s personal favorites but a new peak for me.
            The day started out fine with a light bed of powder under foot in a forest obviously unaware of its own unassuming beauty. Only the patter of snow melting off of trees, our own voices, and the occasional bird song populated the late morning air. It was a cold, even at the low altitude, but as we started moving up the mountains, the weather gradually began to shift. The calm of the valley--a snowy cocoon in which one could rest quite happily for hours, days even--was replaced by buffeting winds along the slopes. The approach was significantly less inviting and implored one to keep moving so to maintain a decent core body temperature. There wasn’t time for much stopping anyway--we were, after all, racing to the summit to beat the sunset. With a 14 mile round trip up and down around 3000 ft. of icy altitude, it was in the interest of safety to have the most technical parts of the climb behind us by the time we lost the sunlight for the evening. 
            Things started getting hairy as we arrived at the first major slide on the southern side of Mont Gothics. Slides are slopes that are steep enough for avalanche danger in the winter time--occasional avalanches flatten any trees that might grow leaving these sections instead as bare, treeless channels along the mountain side. During ideal snow conditions, these can provide beautiful runs for alpine skiers. At the moment, however, instead of a deep snow pack, the slide was encapsulated in a massive sheet of ice that extended perhaps a kilometer up the mountain from its base in the forest below.

The first and largest of the slides on the southern slope of Mont Gothics. Starring Lucas Harris.

            Between the two of us, our equipment was limited and would later prove rather inadequate for the mixed terrain we would encounter. I was sporting a pair of crampons, however, these were not free-standing but attached to a pair of snowshoes, which made the going tough as the snowpack, even at higher altitudes, was insufficient. Lucas had rigged himself up a pair of screw-shoes--literally, a pair of trail running shoes with screws driven through the soles to increase traction. These choices of footwear would have been ideal for both of us in different conditions, but in the mixed snowy-rocky-icy terrain in the alpine zone, they would prove almost more of a burden than a benefit.
            Once past the largest slide, we began finding ourselves facing a series of smaller ones, also covered in thick sheets of ice. Unlike the largest, whose most challenging segment was flanked by a convenient staircase that had been built for hikers such as ourselves, these smaller slides covered stair-less segments of sheer rock. There were several of these that provided absolutely no traction--faulty equipment or otherwise--and had to be managed with some more creative methods. With the combination of poor footwear, a singular ice axe, and stubborn determination, we soon found ourselves at the top of a few of these sheer drops. Mind you, this was not without a  few nearly disastrous close calls, one in which I found myself sliding at full pace down about fifty yards of ice towards the trees below, stopped only by grabbing to some unlucky roots protruding from the ice.
            Soon, the weather began to darken--our clear morning gave way to a cloudy, cold mess--as we found ourselves, no longer on ice, but facing huge runs of bare rock. For some parts of the final approach to the summit, there were cables that had been sunk into the rocks, but we were still left at various points to hand-jam along large cracks in the granite slabs. It was steep, incredibly exposed, and seemed to get more technical and difficult every few yards.

Slabs of granite towards the peak.

            At a certain point, I passed a section of ice and rock that would prove significantly more difficult for Lucas and his specific array of equipment. Instead of stopping the climb and turning back, however, he suggested that I continue to the summit on my own and bag the peak, seeing as he had previously climbed it in years past. We had come this far and it seemed a shame not to finish the climb, so I carried on alone. Above this point, at well over 4000 feet of elevation and deep into the alpine zone that graces the tops of only the highest of the High Peaks in the Adirondacks, the technicality of the climbing only increased. At a certain point, only about 100 yards in distance and 50 feet in elevation from the summit, I sat down at the base of a large boulder and took in my situation:
            Above me was another quite treacherous section of rock and ice (treacherous enough, at least, to give me significant pause, which none of the previous sections had seemed inclined to do). I was rather far past my climbing partner, who himself was stuck on a section below. If something happened to me at this point, even a small injury, the state I was in would very quickly deteriorate from a challenging climb to a potentially life-threatening situation. At this point, I was about 7 miles and 3000 feet from safety near the summit of an exposed mountain with thick clouds moving in, little food, a dwindling water supply, shitty equipment, and a shear drop in front of me.
            This was, as few other moments I can remember, one of those times when I was confronting both my mental and physical limit. And as I usually do in such circumstances, I had to talk myself through my decision making process out loud. In the end, I guess my confidence in my own ability and my desire to finish the climb was strong enough to get me on my feet again and move me past this massive slab of granite in front of me. Beyond this point, I found the summit.

At the summit by my lonesome.

            It is quite a strange feeling, but one that I will try to do some justice here without falling too conveniently into any tropes of idealism or romance. I was alone on top of a mountain surrounded by the terrifying and inspiring absolutism of alpine silence. The clouds had rolled in and enveloped the summit muffling all sound. Despite the fact that below me on all sides was a 3000 foot drop to the valley floor below, I could barely see past 50 yards. I have never felt so exposed, so isolated and alone in my life.

Lost in the clouds: the view from the summit looking down 3000 feet to the valley below. Not much to see.

            Mont Gothics, despite the beauty it shares with the rest of the Adirondacks, is hardly a world-class mountaineering destination. I can only imagine the feeling that the primere mountaineers must experience on top of the world’s greatest mountains. But still, modesty aside, there was something about being there that was supremely affective. Here I was, on top of the world, as far as I was concerned, at least for a moment, all by myself, surrounded by a sea of clouds, lost in the icy, solitary embrace of the heavens. The air felt like a vacuum that emptied my lungs and reached to my core, grabbed my heart and began pumping it like it had never pumped before. There was, of course, the corporeal high from physical exertion, the intoxication of bodily strain giving way to the calm following the climax of great effort. But there was something else less tangible, but nonetheless manifest in that place and that moment.
            I am not a believer. I am not a man of god. I despise the church, or any institution for that matter, that might see me submit my thinking and practice to a rubric. I have not prayed since I was quite young. And yet, in the hollow tomb at the top of Mont Gothics, all by my lonesome, I felt compelled to reach for something. What I muttered was not a benediction or a prayer, per se, but as I figured in the moment--fuck it, I will probably never be closer to anything like god than I am right now.
            I don’t remember all of what was said. I don’t even remember entirely what I was thinking. All I can recall is that I folded my hands together and raised them to the sky, to the diffuse sun that was pressing hopefully through the ceiling of clouds above me.
            “Keep me safe. Help me be a better person.” That’s all I remember saying.

On the decent with the sun reaching through the clouds.

            I realize that I have made a habit of sharing many intimate personal anecdotes and experiences on my blogs over the years. For a long while now, I have had the opportunity to travel many places, see many things, and experience much that must seem strange to many people, and all the while, I have felt compelled to share this. Maybe it is my age now, maybe it is the fact that I am once again in a far, far away place and that sometimes my mind and my body feels tired and just wants to rest. Perhaps things have changed enough for me in my personal life that, when I read things such as is written above, I can’t help but feel it to be contrived and silly. The life we all live feels like a cartoon sometimes and I have found it increasingly harder to maintain ruse that somehow my experience and my perspective is meaningful, significant, or important in any way. It all seems narcissistic and navel-gazing. So I apologize for that.
            Still, sometimes I don’t know what else I can do with such feelings, such experiences. In the same measure, it would seem a waste not to try and express them or share them somehow. So for what it’s worth, I will continue writing--I just arrive in a new continent and will likely have much to ponder in the coming months--but I don’t expect it to mean much to anyone.
            To continue my already-belabored analogy, perhaps writing is like my moment on top of Mont Gothics. All of us, in our own solitary worlds, living our own solitary lives, trying desperately to reach through the clouds to someone else close at hand, or to see through the fog and catch the sun. We should be modest and measured in what we might expect from such efforts, but like Sisyphus, we must stay the course regardless.

            The descent was much quicker as Lucas and I were able to irreverently and ungracefully butt-slide down the larger segment of ice. We made it out of the forest long after the sun had departed. Back at home in Vermont, we feasted upon a massive meal of mac-and-cheese, sausages and delicious New England beers in front of a roaring fire. It seemed a fitting end to an incredible day. I didn’t talk to Lucas much about my time on the summit, but we did begin recounting our excursion in classic, exaggerated mountain-lore fashion.
            I now find myself sitting at a café in Perth, Australia in temperatures flirting with the 100 degree mark. Quite the contrast. And despite the fact that I am usually a much bigger fan of the heat than the cold (and don’t really mind 100 degree days), I felt compelled to take this time to write about that snowy summit half a world away.
            What a fucking trip.