Roads are the World’s Sidewalks

The hardest thing about coming back after a year of travel is the way my life keeps trying to bend me back into routines. Traveling made me crave unpredictability. It made me feel free. One of the ways I felt most free was walking. When I was in Yangon or Havana or Ho Chi Minh, I walked the way most people did, in the streets. Sidewalks were rare, a thing of the developed world. I got used to doing without them.

 

There are plenty of reasons to walk in roads. They offer the best unobstructed views for one. Most times though, they are the only way to get anywhere. In old Delhi, actual sidewalks are just places to store things. Streets are the only way pedestrians can exist. In Yangon too, sidewalks get filled with so many food vendors and markets, that the street is the only viable option.

 

I’m back in the U.S. now, land of reliable sidewalks, but somewhere in my travels, I embraced walking in the street. Now I can’t stop. I try to be careful, try to stay near the edge, near parked cars. I try to be smart about it. Still, I find myself stepping down off curbs more than I used to. Before my trip, if the sidewalk was full of people, I would step into the street, get around the crowd, and then hop back onto the sidewalk. Now I just stay in the street.

 

Like tonight. It’s about 8 o’clock and I’m off work. The streets are quiet. Not many cars pass. I step off the curb and take to the street. My computer bag bumps my hip as I go. I look up at the moon, then glance into the window of the Mexican restaurant next door, its windows plastered with green painted Christmas trees and yellow bells. I keep alert for cars in case an SUV comes whipping around the corner. After a few more strides, I move away from the parked cars. Stepping into the road unleashes something unscripted inside me. I’m not walking a narrow band of pavement. I’m in the middle of open asphalt. The sky feels bigger. I feel bigger.

I pass the camera shop and take a right into the Safeway parking lot. A car turns in behind me. I move

over, but when it passes, I steer back toward the center. I’m almost at my car. The hood gleams from

the night’s condensation. I stop short and stand in the middle of the open road. I feel as if

I’m not really here – in the U.S., or in Oakland, or in any specific place.

I look down the hill at the busy street below, where most of the cars drive up from – nothing. I

fish my keys from my bag, open the car and stash my bag under the front seat. I step back into the

road. When I do, I get a small dopamine hit of freedom.

 

The moon is out. The night is young. Time to walk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lucky Me

Sometimes it feels like traveling the world for a year was the craziest thing I have ever done. It was a singular task, to be sure, to leave home and witness the world’s beauty for 365 days. Now, almost six months after returning, I sit down and try to describe what I saw, to make my words a cupped hand around the precious flame of that experience.

Some mornings memories flood me. There was so much that moved me. Today, I remember this:

Our land rover rocked from mud encrusted tire tracks to squishy, loamy marsh land. I peered out my window seat, soaking in the green grassed water ways of the Okavango Delta in Northern Botswana, when I noticed something in a clearing. A glint of sun on a shiny, curved shape. I looked harder.

“Is that a tortoise?” I asked our guide, a young resident of the capitol city and an expert naturalist.

He turned and squinted. “No,” he said, his tone serious. “Not a tortoise. Pangolin. This is very lucky.

The land rover picked up speed as we jostled over to the clearing.

We arrived and circled around the creature, careful not to disrupt it. Prehistoric and reminiscent of an armadillo, it had rows of dusty scales, thick as slate roof tiles, some cracked and chipped. We stared down at the silent being. Out of its small head, two round eyes, black and unblinking, watched us. One man said he had waited his whole life to see one.

Those scales are what causes the pangolin to be hunted almost to extinction. Over 600 pangolins were recently discovered in a warehouse in Africa, all dead, all on their way to having their craggy scales ground into powder and sold as medicine. Our guide said spotting a pangolin brings luck and that he has gone years without seeing any.

I consider myself lucky to have come across one – not in a zoo  – but in life, on a grassy rise in a country I may never see again, on a day that is gone. I hope that it is not gone, that instead it is curled inside its underground burrow, safe from the black market trade, dreaming its primordial dreams.

 

 

 

 

The Backbone of Everything

As Aleppo falls, I think of an old Tibetan man who kept refilling my glass with buttery yak tea at a café in downtown Lasa. I think of so many of the people I met while traveling last year: the construction worker in Myanmar, who transported a stack of bricks on her head; the swimmer near Havana, who said, “I’m not a communist. I’m Cuban;” the driver in Swaziland, who, despite not wanting to become ‘just another taxi driver,’ did so in order to lift his whole family out of poverty; the hotel employee in Ho Chi Minh City who fixed Susan’s cane in an hour, so that her shoulder no longer ached every time she leaned into it.

The modest and generous people I met while traveling were the rule and not the exception. Meanwhile, their governments varied. Some were repressive, others neglectful. It was the rare one that seemed to listen and respond to its people’s needs. But I can only guess at this as an outsider. What I don’t have to guess at is where each country’s true wealth lay. That was easy: its people. Every day people were the ones who ran things and grew things and fixed things.

And so, as the Syrian government and its allies bomb those who grow things and fix things and paint things and heal things, I send a prayer for assistance. It is a prayer of love and survival too, and of this truth: You can never be bombed away or felled because you are the core of the world, the beauty of it, the backbone of everything.

Losing an Enemy

Cuba was my father’s first assignment with the CIA. He was young, only 26, when he began working at the Board of Estimates. His job was to monitor the intelligence on missile deployment in Cuba. “I watched the whole thing,” he said to me once, “saw the entire build up.” He joined the agency of his own volition in 1962. He had been working within the city manager’s office in San Antonio when he decided to fly to D.C. to interview with different agencies. The Cold War terrified him. “I thought the days of the US were numbered,” he said, “I really did.”

I traveled to Cuba for the first time last spring. As I walked the streets of Havana, my father haunted me. It felt taboo to be inside the country he had for so long considered ‘the enemy.’ At the same time, being in Cuba made me feel close to him. I think many children of spies feel this way. We feel close to our parent when we’re in the countries and places they were once assigned. His work at the CIA was more a calling than a job, and as a father, he was more absent than present. It’s not strange for me then to think of him acutely when I travel. That’s when I most feel his energy, his presence.

But Cuba was a place he never traveled to and yet I felt him there. He was a 1950s sort of person, a man who wore Brooks Brothers suits and horn rimmed glasses. Cuba feels locked in the 50s too, a place where old Chevrolets roar down avenues, passing faded, Cold War slogans that span buildings and billboards.

They say that the older generation of Cubans mourns the passing of Castro more than the young. Some say he is the only leader they have ever known. I wonder how Dad would have felt, if it would be odd for him, after so long, to finally lose his ‘enemy.’ Would it have felt, on some level, even bewildering? Then again, Dad was a practical person, someone who adapted readily to change, and there is no denying that change has now come. The future relationship between the United States and Cuba stretches out before us, long and uncertain. To me, it’s an opportunity. I wonder if Dad would agree.

Like an Albatross

One of the things traveling for a year revealed to me was how much stuff my wife and I had. On the road, we had very little – one suitcase, one backpack and one day bag. We got used to needing and using less. It felt good to travel light and wearing the same clothes over and over again was no big deal. What did that matter when every day felt new?

It reminds me of the black browed albatross I was lucky enough to witness in the Antarctic. They possess the amazing capacity to fly for years without alighting on land because their internal organs are surrounded by little air sacs. Every day that I watched them dip and rise in the air currents behind our boat filled me with a sense of possibility. They knew how to ride the world’s currents.

Coming back to a house of stuff was the opposite of that spacious Albatross feeling.
We had forgotten, literally forgotten, 3/4s of all the things we owned: furniture, clothes, tchotchkes, dishes, pillows, socks, etc.

Stuff management then, became our first task.

Towards this end, we sorted and piled and went through a ton of items from our pre-travel life. Once piles were amassed, I dragged the items to the curb in preparation of helping them find new homes. The pile included an old futon and broken frame, two old dining room chairs, plastic file cabinets, a wardrobe rack, an ugly and tired office swivel chair, two good office chairs, clothes, books, duplicate kitchen ware, a broken side table and a rickety wooden desk.

I arranged everything as invitingly as I could in front of the house and placed a “free” sign on the swivel chair. Over the next week or so, items slowly disappeared including the wardrobe rack, a file cabinet, and the two good office chairs. That was a start but what about the rest?

To handle the remaining things, I arranged for the Veterans Association to do a pick up. They came right to our door and took the clothes and boxes of books. This left the furniture to contend with.

I called some more non-profits. They wanted photos of the furniture that I then had to upload to their website before they would schedule a pick-up. This made me re-examine some of the items. The two dining room chairs were covered in a faded floral design and weren’t all that stable to sit on. The swivel office chair looked pretty mangy too. And then there was my Achilles heel: the lumpy futon and broken frame.

At that point, I broke down and did what I didn’t want to do, what I had resisted from the start: I called the city and arranged for a curbside bulk pick up. I had seen so much of the world in need of resources or overwhelmed with trash, and hear I was resorting to throwing some of my largesse into the landfill. It felt way wrong.

Another week went by with the free sign. A few more items were picked off but not the futon or the chairs or the rickety desk. I felt heavy with dread. Bulk pick up was just a few days away.

Then something shifted for me.

After two weeks of spending most of my waking hours of sorting, piling, moving and otherwise getting very intimate with stuff, I started to relate to our old junk as less junk-like. Maybe I could use that lumpy futon as a kind of chair pillow in my new, cleaned out office. And maybe the ugly swivel chair could be covered with a cloth and kept in use.

So two weeks after dragging it all to the curb, I brought much of it back to the house.
Some items have been put back to use like the surface of the old desk, which has been placed atop two of my wife’s file cabinets to form a new work area. Even parts of the rickety desk came back to the house, to be burned as wood in the fire place later this winter. Other items sit on the side deck, waiting for my office to be ready.

The city did come take the futon frame, too broken and splintered to be used, and a few other items, but most of the items has been or will be repurposed.

It feels good to have empty drawers in the bathroom, kitchen, and bedroom, and far fewer clothes hanging in the closet. Each day I walk through a less cluttered house, I feel lighter inside, more like an Albatross. And that feels amazing.

The New Fresh

I’m back after traveling for a year, trying to make sense of things. Who am I? Which life do I go back to? Sometimes I catch myself wanting to fill my days with completely unexplored paths and places. But then that’s not quite it either. It’s more than that. Or deeper.

What I’m really hungry for is to stay rooted in new ways of seeing.

That’s what every day was like on the road. Whether I was in Tibet or India or Myanmar or Australia, every moment was filled with people and streets and faces and languages and skies I had never encountered before. Every new eyeful and earful of world shook me out of my old ways of seeing.

I’m trying to keep my eyes on the new – walking to work instead of driving, cooking something different to eat, or taking photographs of kids on the beach in Santa Cruz, local stuff. When I don’t know what to do, I just sit in my uncertainty until something gets revealed, until I see the new fresh right in front of me.

What I learned in Cambodia

AwakeEveryone in Cambodia is young. Tuk-tuk drivers look like they are in their late teens or early twenties. Hotel and restaurant staff look twenty-something too. Outside the city of Siem Reap, young mothers walk along the roads with small children. Outside a handful of monks and nuns, I hardly saw anyone who looked elderly. People seem young because they are. 75% of the population was born after 1979, when the Khmer Rouge ended. Their brutal reign is the dark truth behind this demographic. When the Communist Khmer Rouge government ran the country from 1976-79, they emptied the cities and took away the middle class and anyone who was educated. Visiting Cambodia brought the Khmer Rouge and their atrocities to life. Their impact is everywhere. It doesn’t feel a thing of the past at all.

I met a man who told me his story. He was born before 1979 and when he was five, the Khmer Rouge took over and took his parents. He never learned what happened to them. He shared this calmly and quietly. I wasn’t expecting to be told this. I thought the trauma of the Khmer Rouge was something many people didn’t talk about but this man was open. He said he was taken out of school to work but that he was fortunate and met a man who raised him.

His face was somber as he told me. He told me about a former killing field turned memorial just outside of town. So one afternoon, instead of going to a temple we went to visit this site. There are thousands of killing fields everywhere, he said. It was located outside of town. He said every year a local politician comes to honor those killed there.

When we pulled up to the killing fields memorial, we got out of the car and walked over to some informational boards. There were photos of people forced to do hard labor, to build roads. A few other tourists around milled around. A donation box sat in the shade.

In the center of the site sat a burial container filled with what looked like bleached bones.

I thought, Those can’t be real, can they? The sides of the burial container were made of clear plastic. I stepped up onto the platform and leaned toward the Plexiglas. Some skulls were bleached white. Others were yellowed. Then I saw that many had molars still intact. Real jaws. Real skulls. It was like a stone dropped inside me. The man who had told us his story and who had driven us here leaned in over my shoulders. “I remember seeing people doing this,” he said. “I was a boy and I looked over a ditch and saw people working like this.”

Before we said goodbye, he showed us photographs of us family.

He told us that the education of his children was the most important thing. His parents were educated and this is probably why they had been taken. He seemed like a quiet man. But also a hopeful one. His children were his hope.

This is what I learned in Cambodia: it is filled with so many kind people. Tuk-tuk drivers gave directions. Nuns invited me into temples to receive a blessing. Our guide took endless photos of us and shared his passion for his country and culture with us. What I really learned is that Cambodia’s people are more beautiful than the ugly past that shapes them. They are more than they know.

King Gesar

Blog #12 King Gesar #2

Traditionally dressed Tibetan men in wide brim hats and heavy, dark coats, and women in long, multi-colored skirts stand near the entrance to the courtyard where I’ve come to take photos. I’m in Tibet for a week and during one of my wanderings a faded yak skull hanging on a shop door catches my eye. I move toward it and start taking pictures.

Just then, in a nearby building, I hear a man’s voice. He yells in a rapid, staccato manner and sounds angry. More than angry, he sounds vengeful. Is there a fight somewhere? But then his tone shifts and becomes more melodic. Maybe he’s chanting. I look up at where I think the voice is coming from and see a bank of windows. Several heads are all turned in the same direction. Then another traditionally dressed Tibetan couple steps into the courtyard and disappears through a doorway. I walk to the courtyard entrance and see a sign: King Gesar Storytelling Center. Is that what’s going on up there? I wonder. Some kind of story telling event?

I walk over to the doorway, push back a heavy cloth curtain and step into a grungy stairway.

Curious, I approach the doorway, push through a curtain and climb the stairs. My heart pounds hard from the strain of being 12,000 feet above sea level. As I climb, the singing/chanting sounds closer. On the third floor, I pull back another heavy cloth curtain and step into a room filled with small sofas and low lying tables. At the head of the room, a man wearing a white silk shirt and a white head piece holds a mic. The storyteller. His lips move fast and his words spill out. The whole time I’ve been listening, he hasn’t taken a break. His words have continued unabated, something I don’t think I could do. I can’t understand what he’s saying but whatever it is, he is telling from memory. No script.

People notice I’ve stepped into the room. I am the only foreigner here, the only Westerner. Heads turn. A woman looks over at me, then a few children. They smile and I smile. “What is this Western woman doing here if she can’t understand Tibetan?” they must be thinking. Even though this center is in the heart of one of Lhasa’s main shopping thoroughfares, I feel like I’m in a village high in the Himalayas.

I wonder if I should leave but it feels rude somehow, so I take a breath, find an empty spot on a nearby sofa and sit down. I focus on the storyteller. He’s talking as if he were in a trance. The family to my right is drinking tea. A boy half listens while he plays a game on his iPhone. Another boy smiles shyly at me from across the narrow room. I smile back. Now that I’ve sat down, adults from the other side of a nearby aisle turn to look at me. We smile.

A woman in traditional dress walks up and down the aisle picking up and dropping off thermoses.

The storyteller’s voice rises and falls. I pull out my journal to jot down what’s happening. If I don’t write this down now, I’ll forget important details. Just as I start to write, an extremely old man walks up the aisle, a dark cowboy hat on his head, his gate uneven. He sits down on the other side of my sofa and smiles at me. I smile and nod. He keeps smiling and watches me as I write.

As I scribble, I fold the pages of my journal so that he won’t see that my journal has a kitschy image of Mao’ face on the cover. I bought it at a tourist shop. It seemed wrong to put Mao – a man responsible for so much suffering and starvation during the years of agrarian reform in China – on the cover of a journal, but the shop seemed in on the irony. I’m only in China once, I thought, so I bought it.

But now I’m sitting inside a room of Tibetans, inside the so-called “Tibetan Autonomous Region.”

But being in Tibet is another matter. China’s grip here is clear. Military bases dot the city and check points are everywhere. When we first arrived, the airport felt like an occupied territory with Chinese military planes and helicopters sitting to the side of the runway.

But the dynamic came more into focus when we entered Lhasa itself. A huge blue banner stretched across the wide avenue announcing, “Welcome to prosperous, harmonious, legal, civilized, and beautiful, socialist Tibet.” Just beyond it, a huge sign featured the portraits of the last five chairmen. Mao’s face was at the top. It didn’t look kitschy at all.

But in this small room where a traditional storyteller tells a cultural story, the Chinese State seems distant. I’m just starting to relax, jotting down my thoughts and impressions, when I sense someone over my shoulder. The tea server stares down at me. She’s all smiles but I close the journal anyway. After all, this is a room devoted to the oral tradition of storytelling not the writing of it.

Just then a man two tables away approaches and asks me if I like Tibetan tea. “Yes!” I say.

A moment later a thermos is placed before me and the old man next to me pours me a cup. It’s tangy and buttery and like nothing I’ve ever had. In fact, it doesn’t taste like tea at all. It’s more like liquid butter. People turn to watch me drink.  Even though it is a bit sharp, I smile and give a thumbs up.

By the time the storyteller ends, I’ve drained my cup, making sure to finish it all.

I don’t want to seem rude or unappreciative. The moment I place my empty tea cup on the table, the old man takes the thermos and fills my cup again. I wasn’t prepared to drink more so I laugh. Still, it’s kind of him to pour the tea and I take another sip.

Five minutes pass and then the storyteller stops finally, putting down his mic. Although I don’t know what he’s been saying, I later learn that he has been reciting a story based on the mythic story of the Tibetan King Gesar. I also learn that the way someone becomes a King Gesar storyteller, is through a dream. The person wakes and begins to tell the story of King Gesar, a story he’s never heard nor read before. It’s a kind of divine knowledge and so telling this story becomes their calling. The storytellers travel Tibet and tell the exploits of this mythic king, a king whose story traces the history and outlines of the culture of Tibet itself.

I see it’s time for me to leave. I take a last sip of the yak butter tea, get up and make my way over to the counter to pay. I smile at a few more faces and thank the server. Afterward, I step into the gray hallway and make my way down into the courtyard below.

The guide books say the future of Tibet is unclear.

I think about the future of Tibet under so much Chinese control. The city of Lhasa is now at least 50% Chinese. Can it survive continued Chinese control and domination? But today, I feel I witnessed the strength and power of a culture told through story. Children and families had gathered to listen to the old story, the story of Tibet itself. I’d like to think that stories can heal us, that they can help us stay whole and free and strong. This then is my wish for Tibet.

The World Stops

Blog #11 The World Stops 3

The sounds of talking are distant, bouncing off trees and walkways. I’ve made the morning trek up Takao Mountain outside of Tokyo with my partner and many other tourists. Everyone has come to see the main Buddhist temple further up the mountain. Soon enough, I will see it too. It will be vibrant with color and burning incense and people. I will hear the chanting monks who walk in procession to and from their quarters, a procession announced by deep throated horns. They will light a fire and perform the Goma fire ritual by throwing sticks that symbolize human defilement into the flames. But that’s all for later. A rush of cool air penetrates me. I am standing before a seated Buddha, part of a smaller shrine on the way to the main one, and no one else is here.

It’s a relief to be inside this tranquility.

I step up to the seated Buddha and everything shifts. Externals fall away and I am in some deeper chamber inside myself. Is it the eyes that don’t seem to look outwardly? The formalized hands, the fingers, the wrist, all turned just so? A small sprig of red flowers grow just behind the statue. I feel hushed and crave nothing.

Maybe it’s the plain gray stone that quiets me.

My mind bounces for a second and I wonder when this Buddha was created. I remind myself to look it all up later – the meaning behind the hand gesture, the nuanced importance of the gaze, the historical context. Right now, none of this matters.

It’s like a reset button to stare into a face so self-contained.

As I stare at the Buddha’s tolerant expression, I shed the train ride and all the station changes my partner and I took to arrive here. I don’t think of the language barrier that surrounds me or what it’ like to be on the edge of a world I’ve no footing on.

The world stops. I breathe and listen and soften. And nothing else.

The Courage to Interrupt

I generally don’t like to interrupt, but sometimes it can’t be avoided.

I have difficulty interrupting others. I wait my turn, look for an appropriate opening, one in which I can respectfully assert my view without cutting someone off or talking over anyone. I generally don’t like to interrupt, but sometimes it can’t be avoided.

Like when transgender rights activist Jennicet Gutierrez interrupted President Obama’s speech at a recent White House pride event. Granted the press conference had happened just days after the Supreme Court had struck down DOMA, making it legal in all fifty states for same sex couples to get married. All the years that DOMA was in place were painful years for the LGBTQ community and now second class status was history. People wanted to celebrate. I understand that. I’m grateful that my marriage will now be federally recognized too. But Gutierrez says she was following her instincts. She had been invited to the event and hadn’t planned on speaking out, but when Obama talked about the gains of the LGBTQ community, she says she thought about her trans sisters – immigrants who face deportation and abuse inside US detention centers. She couldn’t let these abuses get papered over. She had to speak out.

And when she did, the president tried to shut her down.

“No, no, no…” he said. And, “Listen, you’re in my house…”

In the video, the room looked like it was full of LGBTQ advocates. And while it was disappointing to see Obama try and shut her down, it was far worse to see Gutierrez booed and shushed by her own community.

To see and hear LGBTQ activists silencing one of their own was painful.

As I watched, I felt the shaming. Maybe that’s because there’s an internal voice that is always telling me to shush. It says I should wait to talk when the time is right or when I’m invited to speak. Above all, it tells me to go with the flow and not rock the boat. Or ruin the party. Which is what the message seemed to be at the press conference. It viscerally affected me to hear how loud the mostly white crowd was against Gutierrez. The message was clear, “Don’t ruin the party.”

But what if the party doesn’t include you?

Just recently, immigration authorities announced they will consider housing transgender detainees in separate facilities in response to criticism about detention conditions. There is still a long way to go to translate these policies into reality, but it makes me think that maybe Gutierrez’s interruption was heard after all.