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. 

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