Wednesday, March 28, 2012

France: Locked Up in Paris


Walking around Paris with a heartache was like breathing the nostalgic fumes of a city brimming with melancholy. An endless number of cars, trucks and motorbikes passed me. Even at this hour of twilight, they careened like a herd of iron beasts looking for a way home. I strolled over Pont de l'ArchevĂȘchĂ©, also known as Lover’s Bridge, stopping at its sloping peak where I could stand and watch the River Seine. The river cut right through the city like a large gray python, snaking its way across the commotion in search of the distant sunset, while its small fleet of bateaux mouches—“mosquito boats”—churned back and forth between quays.

The scenery was mesmerizing; it pulled my attention into a swarming buzz and, my soul into the folds of its momentous history. One day, somewhere out there, I thought, I would find a girl to love, one I would share all things good with. She was looking out from one of those rustic windows, gazing at the sky in wonder much as I was, musing whether someone out there was thinking the same thing. Much as I missed the one that left, this one here would never leave. That was the promise of Paris.

A sudden loneliness catapulted me back to my childhood, when the things we craved most were so simple, when the mind painted everything so pure and harmless. How did life become progressively more complicated and overwhelming? How did our smallest woes grow and multiply into such fearsome, greedy monsters that gave birth to an abundance of more qualms?

The air had grown cool as night drew a darkness above me. Stars sparkled like bright diamonds cast across a black ocean while the promise of a good night’s sleep descended on Paris. Throughout the city, the electricity blinked occasionally in a last-ditch effort at enticing everyone back to consciousness. A cannonade of bright displays fighting to hold our attention for one last minute; flashing neon beckoning from a myriad corner bistros and bars lining the major avenues.

I walked and walked, trying to repel the encroaching emotion which pulled at my heartstrings, and now I approached the gallant neo-modern architecture of the Centre Pompidou. In the daytime, this was a hangout for the city’s amorous youth. Young Parisians snuggled together, sitting along the gray granite stairs and floor.

An occasional outburst of laughter broke the buzz of conversations as lovers here and there exchanged stories, waving away the endless onslaught of hungry pigeons that found the courage to approach them. One day, I thought, I would find someone to bring here, and sit next to these lovers, and laugh. A photograph taken from anywhere, from any angle, would have captured the resplendent beauty and magic of this place. And in the evening, when dusk brought a silence upon the square, now with barely a remnant of its population left, the full impact of the Pompidou’s quixotic grandeur filled my thoughts with a yearn to see it again the next day.

And as I retraced my steps and reached Lover’s Bridge once again, I approached the thousand padlocks lining its railing. Each padlock with initials carved on it, a heart in the middle, a promise made between two lovers, eternally bound. I turned to look at the River Seine one last time. It was romantically lit like a storybook dream, and I wondered if that had been the problem all along. That I hadn’t engraved our names on a padlock and affixed it to this place, so that our spirits locked, as such, would forever stare at the face of this rustic romance.

And our love would eternally flourish here, every night, under the moon of Paris.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Shanghai Suicide

I imagine I had already been in China for nearly two to three months when, once again, I was awoken by blaring horns that screamed and yelled incessantly, as if I was above the floor of some colossal stock exchange.  It was routine really, and like German clockwork it would start with one single and solemn, “HOONNNK”!  Always just before six in the morning.  It was like the clarion call for a massive charge, or the first note to an ensemble played out by the Shanghai Phil(non)harmonic.  Every morning I would lie there in dread after that first horn and would think, “Wait for it…wait for iiit…and”, HOOONNK, HOOONNK, HOOONNK, THUDUMP, THUDUMP, BAMMMMMM, BOOOOOM, TADAT, TADAT, TADDDDDDDDDAT, BAAAANG, HOONNKKKKK!!! You see 1417, my concrete tree house on the north side of the international dormitory, unfortunately faced the street side, and countless upon countless constructions sites stretched out as far as the strained eye could see.  It was as if the municipal government had inadvertently over fertilized the once-great colonial city of Shanghai.

I would lie there and always at some point wonder, "What the (&#@!) am I doing here?"  It was later one of my greatest discoveries as to how inner peace can be attained by either years of mindful meditation, or a quick trip to the drug store to pick up some ear plugs.  This particular morning, having not stumbled on such deafening technology, I rustled from my bed and took a nice warm shower.  Followed then by a nourishing breakfast which consisted of Cup-O-Noodles, a quick trip down the hall for some hot water to cook them, and some wooden chopsticks.  My morning routines did vary quite often, but this specific one seemed nothing out of the ordinary.

I made a call back to The States to give and receive a report of the happenings of the last week or so.  Increasingly as my time passed in China, foreign became the familiar and I began to largely feel disconnected to what I had once known.  Often when I thought of America, the people I knew, the bar my friends and I would meet at every Saturday night, etc., it felt more like remembering a dream when you first awake.  I used to tell people that I felt like my world had exploded, and only a few refugees made it out alive.  When we discovered another inhabitable planet, we set up camp with the local population.  That is how I remembered the life that was behind me.  

Life alone, in a drastically foreign place, changes your interaction with the world in more ways than I can simply mention in one article.  Just not having your usual support system, if barely having one at all, changes the nature of turnkey events.  I cannot begin to express to you some of the moments of emptiness and loneliness that can crawl over you like thick mud, or a darkness with such physical presence it’s both blinding and suffocating.  In my experience they don’t last long, but are so piercing it feels as if infinity was tangled in a web of a few minutes.  I mention this because on this average, ordinary morning, an event would take place with a particularly striking effect.

While on the phone, immersed in updates, looking through the glass door to my little balcony, I saw in a half second a large object whisk past me.  It took nearly twice as long to hear the thud that ricocheted so profoundly, I swear I felt it.  This clearly was going to be no ordinary morning.  With a curiosity known to felines, I hung up the phone and approached my balcony fully unprepared for what I was about to witness. 

At first I couldn’t quite understand what I was seeing, and I believe now it was because my mind understood instantly what it was.  Like the first time you see the Grand Canyon, it just takes a moment to focus. A girl lay on her stomach 13 floors below me on the roof of the lobby.  Yet something else was wrong that I couldn’t quite understand, so off that balcony I stared until I knew.  I soon realized that what peeved my eye was the texture of her body.  It was completely crushed, and appeared much like a water balloon does when it lies on the ground.  You can’t say how you will react before witnessing such an account, but unfortunately I can.  I made myself bear witness to the tragedy that lay in front of me.  As horrific and uncomfortable as it was, I had to see this, I was meant to see this.  I forced myself to watch, as China’s red pooled around her body until she was half immersed in a small blood pond.  At the point I could take no more and nausea overwhelmed me, I turned, walked inside, and sat on my bed with my head buried deep in my hands.  I felt like I opened a door and an emotional tsunami raged upon me, flooding my mind, sinking my heart, tossing and turning me violently.  I didn’t have time to think about what was washing over me, I was already drowning in it.  I sat there in silence, without any other refugees, without anyone or anything to ground me to my past, and nothing outside of me to draw strength.  I was alone, in a foreign land, and being punched in the soul.

A week later I went to the 24th floor, flung open the hall window, and leaned half my body out to watch the world shrink below me.  Fear struck through every part, yet I held myself half outside the window and imagined if I were standing on this ledge, the very ledge that young girl had jumped from.  It was hard to imagine the fear, pain, and desperation she must have felt in order to overcome what I was experiencing with no intention of jumping.

Later I heard that she was not a student.  However, she was pregnant by one.  A Japanese student that left for Japan, and most likely would never return.  For those who may know, depending on the conservative nature of the girl and the community that she lives in, this is potentially a lethal social stigma.  Over time it has caused me to think deeply about societies and elements within our cultures that espouse fear, hatred, and judgment.  How hypocritical they are and how potentially deadly they can become.  To me this was never a suicide; it was a homicide that often many of us are unwittingly complicit.  It was no random act for her to jump from the top of the international dormitory.  She chose that spot for a reason.  She chose the time for a reason.  She had something to say and the reason I watched was because I needed to listen.  I am simply repeating her voice here and her message.  To all travelers that wander aimlessly or with a certain purpose, in pursuit of fun, adventure, or just to live a care free lifestyle, wherever you go and whatever you do, you impact those around you.  The culture you bring is your own and before you interact with another's, make sure to understand the potential consequences of your choices.  They can provide some of the most rewarding experiences of your life, or be irreversibly detrimental to yourself and others.

Dedicated in memory of the girl from the 24th floor.  I heard you.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Africa: The Savage and the Beautiful

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There is much to be said about safaris and such little space to draw the picture of a wild countryside where long, oval masks painted in tribal colors hang on the walls of lodges and stores; where wooden elephant heads stare at you from restaurant nooks; where the sense of unbridled wilderness pervades the air with its pollen of adventure. Kenya is a place whose people enthusiastically greet one another with a smile and say "Jambo." A place where you can temporarily rid yourself of dull jobs that await you beyond its vast borders, allowing the wild fire of Kenya to rekindle your childhood curiosity.

Traversing the deserted stretch of reddish plains by air, our Cessna ferried its way to Treetops, a lodge built on a hundred marvels: tree trunks. This is where Princess Elizabeth, before becoming Queen of England, once visited, and where many people of note enjoyed the exquisite charm of its lakeside repose. At night, the local wildlife can be observed from the lodge's high terraces, allowing you to snap pictures of hyenas, lions, and giraffes as they curiously wander towards the leftover dinner piled outside.

The next morning, after a safari-style breakfast which consisted of a long, wooden table with a myriad dishes and oak benches, we invited several of the bubbly patrons for an escapade into the heartland by plane.

Ten minutes later we nosed up into the sky and swung around a great lake whose satin sheen looked like a grey sheet of ice. Frightened by the engine's roar, hundreds of flamingos below took to the air, flocking away like pink scarves scattered in the wind. And silhouetted as they were, against the endless plains whose horizon touched the Serengeti, they injected in us a silence of awe as we admired a graceful sliver of Kenyan wildlife.

The plane soon tipped and landed on a strip beside a small village ensconced by brush and a running river which snaked off into the distance. Dozens of bare natives bathing in its murky waters stopped and eyed us in wonder as they emerged from the waters, pointing. And dozens of giggling children ran behind the plane's wings as it turned in one big arch and came to a stop. When the door swung open, the buzz of flies and children's yelps filled the cabin, touching hair, touching skin, beckoning us to its kin. Outside, merchants with earrings so large their lobes drooped like melted wax waved goods in our faces, and accepted cash or cigarettes in trade.

This was the beginning of a long adventure, but alas, as with all soulful exploits, it eventually kissed me away and left a wistful memory, one which reminds me that simplicity is often the most memorable thing. A simplicity like Kenya's raw beauty.

And as for I, you can rest assured that, one day, I will say this word again, "Jambo," and it will be greeted in like.

In the land of its kin.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Saudi Arabia: Beneath A Splendid Sun

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The moment I arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I was greeted by an orange sky which soon shed tears of sand and blood. Slowly, the distance was bathed in the eerie glow of a wounded world. The simmering heat cooled. The winds gathered. A blanket of clouds pulled over the city, running from horizon to horizon, shunning all sun in its wake save for its round, crimson outline bruised against the burning sky. A red sandstorm was upon us.

Darkness fell. A devouring blackness which lay siege to daylight for a good hour before its whipping winds and red haze yielded back to blue, leaving as quickly as it came.
In all my travels, I've never experienced such extreme power of nature over land. Such marvelous display of colors brushed on the canvas of our heavens. But just as foreign to me was Jeddah's void of tourism. Most countries I've traveled to gave off a worldly vibe, a sensation of commuters coming and going, voyagers, explorers, and backpackers on a journey. But Jeddah seemed reserved, shunning the masses. As if a city born from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. A city which looked historical, very foreign, where the hail to prayer from loudspeakers atop mosque minarets romantically called across its dusty streets. A peaceful flower.

Now there is a popular misconception that Saudi Arabia's people, especially its women, are repressed. But walking through Jeddah's bustling Corniche gave me anything but that impression. It looked more like a place brimming with fun and activities, and old shops (called soukhs) which shared space beside shopping malls that looked far more modern than many I've seen in Europea and the U.S.

One thing you will notice when roaming about, though, is the predominance of men. Due to their shy nature, women seem to walk or dine in large groups at the malls and restaurants but are rarely found elsewhere. And yes, they do wear veils, but many without the niqab which covers the face. Instead, a good number choose the more casual abaya, a veil which conceals only the shoulders and body, and which come in a variety of very fashionable designs.

Somewhere in the background of its dreamy lull leaks news of the outside world; a war in nearby Syria, a president exiled in Egypt or re-elected in Iran. But whether by design of its censored media, or the care-free nature of its citizen, I found myself shielded from all that was negative and disparaging. Jeddah isolates you fully, shies away from extreme capitalism and provides you with an Arabian experience unlike those of heavily-visited Egypt and Jordan. If you compared these countries to coffee, the others would be flavored coffee beverages while Saudi Arabia stayed true to a strong, home-brewed cup of gahwa.

Not a place for everyone, it's a far cry from Western appearance and ideals, yet Jeddah still holds a seductive allure with a welcoming and very attractive people. A desert pearl where great beaches tempt you to sit and revel under a splendid sun, losing yourself in a moment of imagination.

A moment of storybook fascination.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Time Traveler


I have been invited by The Traveling Bedouin, my best friend for nearly two decades now, to share in my thoughts and travels.  I pondered about my own blog and then decided that, much like traveling, it would be far more rewarding to experience this trip with a companion.
In sitting down to write and share whatever thoughts my fingers laid to print, I began to wander through all my travels.  It was like rummaging through the dusty travel section of an old forgotten bookstore.  I fingered through the pages of Asia, Europe, the Americas, etc. and found myself moving through the emotional spectrum of all the experiences that have been the architects of who I am today.
As I sat there like a spiritual medium that could tap into the many karmic lives they lived, I thought about what it really meant to write about traveling.  It was nothing to do with that one great place to eat, or that one site you want to photograph from a hundred different angles, or the next mountain crest that’s known for its sunrise.  If I were to write this, I might as well write another travel book that really would be at home in the travel section.  Instead, traveling for me has ultimately become more about the experience itself.  Therefore, that will largely always be my approach.
For me traveling is more about the challenges you encounter, and as many know or will know, traveling is certainly showered with no shortage of these.  It is about the people you meet, the gains you earn, the losses you feel, the fears that are real and imagined, the reality of dreams both realized and broken, it is about nothing and everything.  Ultimately traveling is about, and rests solely within, the human experience, about learning and growing, discovering, creating, and in the end as I sit and write, I realize it’s simply about you.
So as I trek through the history of my life like a tight rope walker dancing on a timeline, I see it the way God must see time.  Still, fixed, and accessible at any point.  No matter where you go or don’t go in life, we are always traveling through time.  We are all without question “time travelers” and in this time we become our own Descartes, and at many points in it we are defined and redefined.