A Dickensian Quest

I was blessed with an unparalleled literary education as a child. Through happenstance and luck, Mary Barnes, the saintlike mother of one of my classmates, volunteered to take a group out of regular English and expose us to the sort of literature that reveals elements of the human condition, instead of being chopped apart for a 10 year old to be able to identify a protagonist and antagonist.

For years, she would come rescue about 6 of us from the monotony of textbook English and give us first the “Great Books” readers, then moved onto one offs with Gene Stratton Porter, Poe, and other authors of note. She taught us to consume literature as opposed to merely reading it. We’d debate and argue the motives of Poe’s villains, and contemplate in heartbreaking agony the plight of Porter’s immortal Limberlost orphans.

For all the thank yous I’ve meted out in this life, I’ve never properly thanked Mrs. Barnes for a piece of my education which has given me more than the rest put together.

On bended knee Mrs. Barnes, I thank you.

I thought of her on my 27 turned 30 hour train ride from Cape Town to Johannesburg. Most people would think that such a journey was a hellacious horror to be avoided at literally any cost. However, as an American, the novelty of train travel has not yet escaped me. Besides, there is a dining car and I still had a bottle of Pinot Noir from 2004 to keep me company. It couldn’t be that bad.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Well had there been heat, I would have been correct. The Kalahari desert was getting down to about 15 degrees Farenheit, and that old steel box gets cold in the evening a helluva lot faster than it gets warm in the morning. I felt for a moment that my left asscheek and I were on the verge of ending our incredibly close 27 year attachment, but luckily that terrible fate was narrowly avoided.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Given that you can’t really stare out the window at the fantastic beauty of the South African countryside for a day and a half, I got into my Kindle and found something to sink my teeth into. I decided to try my luck with that greatest of Victorian bards, Dickens.

Having failed to get interested in Oliver Twist once, I felt that it was my duty as a reader to find out what all the fuss was about.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the main gist is this. An orphan boy named Pip is mysteriously invited to the home of a wealthy recluse, Miss Havisham. Upon arrival, he falls inexorably in love with her coldhearted niece, Estella. One day he is informed by a lawyer that he has been anonymously bequeathed an allowance and estate in trust, which allows him to become the sort of gentleman whom he believes that Estella could love. His transformation and internal conflict from blacksmith apprentice to high society London gentleman causes most of the action in the tome.

Mrs. Barnes, why didn’t you tell me about this Dickens chap?

Having read more than my fair share of bildungsromans (new favorite word meaning book about one’s formative years) I was immediately drawn to the internal moral complexities of an old Pip looking back on this time in his life with both wonder and regret.

As he escapes his humble beginnings, he starts to find more and more shame in that which he came from. While I’m no Victorian orphan, I found a few parallels in my own life, as all good literature will show a determined reader.

I grew up in first wave of Midwestern economic decimation. The halcyon days of the major factory bringing prosperity to small communities across the Rust Belt were just coming to an end. My town had three major employers when I was growing up, a naval weapons base, a Ford factory, and a GM foundry.

These were places where solid middle-class lives could be built. Overtime paid the bills when times were tough, but the wages were quite high. People drove new cars because of the employee discounts, and it wasn’t rare at all to see a union guy on the line with a boat behind his truck on the weekends.

Then the party stopped. Globalization took hold, and the world realized that paying these wages wasn’t competitive against labor in the developing world who would happily do the same work for ¼ of the price.

The Ford plant shuttered its doors when I was about 13, and the GM plant started phasing out the legacy union contracts, hiring back replacements from my generation at half the rate that their fathers made.

So this was the economic reality that I grew up in. When people ask me if I grew up wealthy, I usually reply that I grew up about 2/3s of the way up an incredibly short totem pole.

My parents wanted to augment my education, poor Mrs. Barnes couldn’t be expected to teach me everything that I needed to know in the world, so they sent me during the summers to Northwestern University.

Boy did I feel like Pip then. I walked in having no idea what wealth or talent even looked like. I thought that owning a small town car dealership provided all the fantastic wealth that one could ever in his wildest dreams desire. Then I met a few kids from Lake Forest, on the famed North Shore of Chicago, and the world became a different place. The children of famed authors, doctors and CEOs were sitting next to me, wondering who let in the peasant with his one faded Abercrombie shirt.

I was again blessed with another great name from my educational past, Joan Miller, who taught me that rich kids have no inherent virtues impossible for the lower classes to attain. They are beatable, so long as you aren’t competing in the arena of consumption. It took me a decade or so to finally believe her, but it was one of the more valuable life lessons that I’ve been party to, and I’ll go to my grave thanking her for it.

And so from there I set out on my own Dickensian quest. To become one of those rich kids, while retaining the virtues of my humble beginnings.

In hindsight, I should’ve set off for the Holy Grail o

Much more easily attainable.

So I set forth, first to Purdue where I held my Bedfordian roots proudly for all to see. Perhaps too proudly, as a certain fur draped dame in Switzerland loves to remind me. I retained the twang that was so graciously beaten into me by my high school classmates and tried my best to retain those friends from home as we went down our diverging paths.

I watched as more and more of my friends from home found themselves recipients of all expenses paid trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, while my new friends at school wondered largely “just who in the hell was fighting these stupid wars?”

I got the distinct displeasure of burying a few of those former classmates of mine, as Bedford slipped from a thriving community into the throes of an unemployment/drug use death spiral.

Slowly my pride in being from Bedford was falling away. I knew that I could never go back, never again live in a place that harbored people who wouldn’t even help themselves. My love started to get callous, and my new line about my hometown was, “a great place to be FROM, not in.”

I saw this reflected on many others who got “out.” There was no intention to come back, and only a nostalgic pain that the place was going to hell in a handbasket.

From Purdue, I got into the rarified air of high finance. Now I was with people who really knew what wealth was. The kind who could buy my parents’ house 3 times over with a quarterly bonus check. They weren’t what you’d call “good people” but they seemed to like me and they loved the novelty of having someone from “the farm” around.

I think I inherently knew that I had, in Dickens’ words, “no hope of any personal participation in the treasure” but I felt like I almost owed it to everyone back home to find out what these “Masters of the Universe” were up to in their mansions and clubs.

So I buffed up my “talking points” about home and strapped it to my chest. Literally, I was IND in the oil and gold pits of NYC. I talked of the virtues of a small town life, like I was heading back there as soon as the closing bell rang. I spat with disdain at the nonsensical waste of money around me, at the slavish devotion to appearances, and the complete disconnect with what I considered to be “the real world.”

At first it was just an act; I loved it all. I loved the glitz and the glamour. Beautiful girls from all over the world flocked to NYC, and having Easter dinner with a federal district judge in a 20 million dollar home in Connecticut, drinking $500/bottle wine was a dream come true.

I had arrived.

Unfortunately, as any good actor will tell you, at some point the character will consume you if you play him long enough. It gets even trickier when the character you’re playing is an earlier iteration of the man in the mirror. At some point I was trapped, between putting up a false face of disdain (outwardly failing in my initial quest) and actually embracing the life that I had come to enjoy.

Oh but fate’s means of arranging roadside conversions are unparalleled.

There wasn’t a single “scales from the eyes” moment, but one day I woke up and knew that the character I had been playing was right. This was absurd and it was unhealthy.

My rich friends had drug problems of their own, they were just with the more socially acceptable cocaine instead of homecooked meth. The jobs they held were given to them for one reason or another by some backslap connection, and they felt no real sense of satisfaction from any of it.

Those who had grown up in more humble circumstances were no happier, as they’d let their Pip die years ago, content to drink and womanize instead of thinking about the bigger picture.

The whole “scene” that people were so desperate to integrate themselves into was just a flashy set of distractions from lives neither fulfilled nor examined.

Some of the only people I met in the whole ordeal who were actually happy were the two idealists I found running the SEED Project. They’d both grown up in the rarified air of the NYC elite, but they were running an engine for the betterment of their fellow man. You could see it on their faces.

Graduates of Princeton and NYU, they’d seen all that money and the “scene” had to offer, and they made a conscious decision to work for an amount of money which would be considered poverty by any of their well-heeled contemporaries in exchange for having the creative ability to change the fate of children (and eventually a country) halfway around the world.

I was drawn to this, at first for the basketball (I might be a Purdue fan, but it still fills my heart with pride that Damon and the 1990 Stars hold the record for most people ever at a high school basketball game) but eventually for the stunning opportunity to actually HELP someone.

My own cause from home, my beloved Thornton Memorial Boys Club, was gutted by a group of people slightly higher on that very short totem pole. One by one, the men who had taught me the value of service unto others, men like Jim and Jeff Jackson and Jimmy Gratzer were fired through the petty small town machinations of a cabal of people whose collective ego far outweighed both their talents and abilities.

I needed something towards which to redirect my efforts. Something bigger than myself or work, and something outside of my on-again, off-again love affair with my hometown.

Noah and Romola generously offered to let me come help, so now I’m on my way to Senegal.

The race hasn’t finished yet, but my quest was always two fold. I’ll worry about the money some other day, best to get back to those small town virtues before they’re lost for good.

Another wise woman from Bedford once told me, “what of a man who gains the whole world but loses his soul?”

Mickey, turns out I don’t really want to find out.

From Main Street to Wall Street to no streets, the quest continues.

But Bedford, I miss you more than you’ll ever know.

Advertisements

Water for Elephants

“We’ve got too many elephants in Kruger.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Good morning. I’m fresh from a 4 day safari in the South African bush in Kruger National Game Preserve. I’ve spent a fair amount of time outdoors in this life, but nothing could have prepared me for the unbelievable wildlife diversity that I have witnessed over the past 4 days.

I was picked up from my hostel in Johannesburg, slightly confused as I had planned to leave a day later. Instead, I ambled onto the bus after a half of a cup of coffee, trying to email Noah and Romola so that they didn’t think I’d been mugged and left for dead after I left them on Friday night.

The email didn’t send, and sure enough, I had an email in my inbox questioning my continued membership among the ranks of the living. I was fine though, and we’d arrived at the base camp on the western edge of Kruger in one piece.

On the drive out, I was treated to a decent sampling of South Africa’s agricultural industry. Mile after mile of irrigated corn, citrus and grape fields flew by my window. Some had massive nuclear reactors in the distance, which made for a startling contrast of wide open space to the 5 open coned reactor chimneys in the background.

As we drove, we started to see various species of wildlife near the road. Ostriches, buffalo and various antelope species were seen browsing through the fallow winter cornfields. I have seen many things in cornfields during my Indiana youth, but until yesterday, I have never seen a pack of 150-180 pound baboons having their run of the place. It was quite a surreal sight.

Upon arriving at base camp, we threw our stuff into our Spartan but clean rooms, making sure to lock our doors, not from the threat of theft, but to ensure that the monkeys didn’t help us unpack as we went on our sunset drive.

IMG_0358

Adam, our 24 year old guide from Fairfax, Virginia, was an excellent host as he piled us into the open air 4×4 to start the drive. Within 500 meters, we saw a small group of bachelor Cape Buffalo browsing near the road.

I laughed as I thought of PJ O’Rourke’s line in Parlaiment of Whores about Tipper Gore. Something to the extent of her uncanny resemblance to a Cape Buffalo and the need to shoot for the kill, as there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded Cape Buffalo.

We also saw several giraffes, antelope and impala species on our drive, before coming upon two “tusker” elephants, the size of which made my Asian elephant ride look like I was on the kiddie carousel outside of K-Mart.

These beasts were absolutely massive, and were pushing down trees as big around as my waist like they were bowling pins. I could’ve sat there and watched these big boys browse around in the fading sunlight for hours, but there was more to see.

Further down the path, we came upon some wildebeest, and the voice of Sir David Attenborough started to play in my mind as he narrated the “Great Migration” wherein several million wildebeest migrate thousands of miles across the plain. Adam got to take part in the “Great Migration” a few years ago, and said that it was an absolutely breathtaking experience to see that many animals, each almost as big as a Clydsedale moving with instinctual abandon.

IMG_0449

IMG_0398

We finally made camp out in the bush, having a prepared dinner in a ring of pointy rocks (these supposedly dissuade charging elephants, thankfully I didn’t have to find out if it actually works.) As we sat and ate, we heard a larger herd of female and young elephants in the distance. To hear them cracking trees and stumbling across the plain as the mighty white carnivore gnaws on his chicken bone, well that was an ambiance that would be tough to replicate in a Manhattan restaurant.

The next day, we woke early and were taken out by Adam and Mombobo, a local guide for a 4 hour bush walk. While we weren’t coming face to face with many animals, (some hippos and an incredibly rare river otter notwithstanding) we were able to take some time to learn about actual life in the bush. From reading tracks, to discerning both species and freshness of dung piles, to learning which trees to burn and which to leave alone in a pinch, my savannah education is much further along than it was a week ago. The amount of information left in every square meter of the bush is astounding if you know how to process it.IMG_0338

 

The next day we travelled within the bounds of Kruger for nearly 10 hours. During this time we had not one, but two great leopard sightings. Words can’t describe seeing a cat like that in its natural habitat. It is both exhiliarting and terrifying, knowing that a predator of that size, speed and grace is within 30 meters of you. We watched this male for probably an hour, as he lazily stretched over a tree branch before finally becoming bored and stalking off across the plain. I was nearly shaking from the excitement of the whole thing. A leopard in a zoo will never compare.

IMG_0506

By the end of my journey, we’d identified nearly 50 different species of mammal and lizard, and countless birds. The guides all know to play to a Western audience by putting things in terms of Lion King characters whenever possible. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see a lion during our time at Kruger, only the day before a group we’d met had seen a pride of female lions take down and devour a giraffe, which must’ve been incredible.

Talking more with the guides about the state of affairs in the park, I was saddened by the news. Nearly 3 black rhinos are being poached every day. With the Eastern market (re:Chinese) paying nearly $150,000 US per kilogram of black rhino horn as an aphrodisiac (the average adult horn being between 4-6 kg) the incentives are massive. Kruger is a park the size of Wales, and patrolling that much is an impossible task. This year alone, nearly 600 rhinos have been killed for their horns, out of a population estimated to be 2500. In China, Dao elders have now made excommunication the ban for using such endangered species. Buddhists have always been against the senseless killing of animals, but the consumption at all costs culture of the Chinese elite continues to pay top dollar for these incredibly rare and beautiful creatures.

With respect to the quote at the beginning, the Kruger park has a carrying capacity of 10,000 elephants, and is currently running near 18,000. Most people would say more elephants are great, but the 400-600 kg a day that an adult African elephant eats, puts the ecosystem at risk if there are more elephants than the land can support. An adult will push over as mnay as 3 trees a day during the dry season to get ahold of the mosture and nutrients found at the root ball. The land simply can’t support that much destruction, even if it occurs naturally.

Therefore, hunting has to be allowed in Kruger. Many animal rights activists decry this, but it is for the good of the whole ecosystem. Adam thought that one could get an elephant permit for around $100,000, the money going directly back to conservation and anti-poaching efforts. I know my former boss will not eat at Jimmy John’s because of some pictures of Jimmy shooting large game in Africa, but in the case of the elephant, it is a necessary culling of a herd without natural predators. And if more land is bought to abut the preserve, that shooting will save more elephants than the one that was shot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Habitat destruction is a major issue. Adam kept bringing up the fact that there are 7 billion people on this earth and less that 2500 black rhinos. He has spent time going out to tag black rhinos, of the 20 he tagged in January, 3 have already been poached.

The effect this has on his psyche is marked, but he knows that there is really no way to combat the forces of a faceless market offering nearly one million dollars to people who scrape out a subsistence living.

Also, the farms that I saw on the way to Kruger have destroyed millions of acres of natural habitat. While it is funny to see a pack of baboons in a corn field, the fact remains that that cornfield is the one that is out of place.

Any farmer reading this, please don’t take a drink for a few minutes. We are destroying the natural habitat of lions, leopards, elephants, and rhinos for land that yields approximately 45 bushels per acre when planted in corn.

I put that statistic together last night and checked it 3 times because I was sure that I had made a mistake.

45 measly bushels per acre.

Even the worst farmland in Indiana will yield nearly 4 times that much in an average year, and we didn’t tear down any natural habitat for elephants to get it.

I sat and laughed at the absurdity of a world that allows this to happen. We’ve had more than enough food to feed the global population since the green revolution of the 1970s. Yet we are still scraping the most marginal of land, tearing down savannah, rainforest and jungle to do so.

Every action has an effect on this world. Even loading up that 3rd plate at Golden Corral.

 

An Enduring Legacy

A few days ago, I put a picture up with reference to our trip to the Diodi Primary School in Soweto. The focus of my post was headed elsewhere, and I really didn’t feel that I did justice to a picture and a place that were incredibly powerful.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Soweto area of Johannesburg is one of the poorest in the city. As we drove to the schools, the Western-style shopping malls and retail centers rapidly gave way to handpainted signs and low slung brick housing which in turn gave way to shantytowns of steel shacks on the dust covered plain.

39% of the students at the Diodi School are HIV positive.

39%.

When Caryl Stern, the chairwoman of the UNICEF US Fund, offered that stat on the bus ride over, I assumed she’d misread the fact sheet.

That can’t be right…can it?

I should’ve known better, people as driven and successful as Caryl do not make mistakes with statistics like that. The stats were spot on, and my view on the world quickly began crashing down around my ears.

Suddenly Africa became real. It was no longer a place simply transmitting tragic but ignorable news. Suddenly it was a real humanitarian crisis complete with faces and names.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As we entered the school, it was an amazing scene. I would guess that there were roughly 300-350 kids waiting for us in the center of the grounds, screaming and shouting to beat the band. Our group included the GM of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, players Greg Monroe, Andre Kirilenko, and various executives from the NBA and NBA Cares Foundation.

Greg Monroe leading the parade.

Greg Monroe leading the parade.

And me. I was there too.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

After a brief introduction, we broke up with about 75 of the kids in 3 classrooms, leading a small group discussion on “dreams.”

I’ve talked about dreams worth having on this blog. Living to the age of 30 is likely to be an unfulfilled dream for many of these kids.

And you thought that Lexus was important.

I was picked to be a group leader. The kids should’ve been rightfully disappointed that they got me instead of an international sports star, but I was still treated like some sort of combination of Elvis/The Beatles/Shaq.

We got down to business, talking about these kids aspirations for the future and the importance of education in achieving those dreams. Several wanted to be basketball players, an obvious choice given the group, but one little girl wanted to be a fashion designer.

We drew out our dreams (nothing like being embarrassed artistically by a group of South African 9 year olds) and then went around the table to discuss them. At that point, I had to choose one child from our table to present on our behalf, and Judith, with her unique dream of fashion designer was the ticket.

She and I walked up to the front of the class, as the NBA players presented with their kids. I felt 3 feet tall and invisible as I presented my dream of being an author, and talked about the role of education in my dream. Judith got up, shy as anything, and looked down at the ground as she whispered to the large group.

About 10 seconds into this, I stopped her, stooped down to look her in the eye and said, “Judith, you have a dream to be proud of. Look up and tell these people about it.”

Suddenly it was like a different little girl emerged from the one standing before me. Her voice became magically magnified, and she looked directly at the audience. When she walked back over to take her place in front of me, I whispered good job, and she beamed like she’d just been drafted by the Pacers.

We walked outside and the kids showed us some of the games that they play. Basketball wasn’t among them as the court was a rusted mass of 4 broken down hoops, but they taught us their form of dodgeball/cricket/Jenga and some chalk games that can be played with whatever rocks are around.

As Noah and I were playing, I felt a tug on the back of my shirt. Judith had been searching for me since we’d left the classroom. She very shyly said, “I want you to have this.”

It was the picture she’d drawn of her dream as a fashion designer.

I’ll attribute it on the dust kicked up by the game, but my eyes got awfully watery.

Judith walked away as I tucked the picture into my pocket. I scanned the grounds and came upon this little boy, very literally on the outside looking in. I walked over to him, unsure of what exactly I was going to say, but just wanting to reach through that tangled mass of barbed wire to let him know that someone saw him.

The resulting picture is as haunting as I’ve ever taken.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the West, much is made of racism. In America, it is truly the one thing that a public figure can never come back from. Ray Lewis was implicated in a murder, and retired a secular saint. Michael Jackson was a pedophile in all but criminal record, and at the time of his death was mourned publicly as if he were Mandela. Ted Kennedy left a girl to drown due to his own drunken recklessness, and died a respected senator.

However, if the charge of racism is leveled at you, look out. Paula Deen went from beloved TV personality to absolute pariah in roughly 20 minutes. The mere mention of racism is enough to make most politicians detach a hand from the constant wringing while they wet themselves. Donald Sterling, the NBA’s longest tenured owner, saw his team taken away for racial slurs stated in a “private” phone call with his decades younger mistress.

I think that much of this has lost the point of what racism is. Racism isn’t about a derogatory term, a slur or a joke. Racism is about the dehumanization of a group. Seeing people not as brothers and sisters in humanity, but instead as a lesser creature, the same as you’d look at a squirrel or monkey.

It is that dehumanization that allows conflicts like the one in Gaza to go on decade after decade. It is the legacy of that dehumanization that still haunts the African continent today.

That is racism, the true corrosive kind that adversely affects human lives.

Donald Sterling shouldn’t have had his team taken away for stupid remarks to his 20 something mistress. He should’ve had his team taken away for the systemically racist policies that he was found guilty of using as a Los Angeles landlord.

One instance was words spoken in private, betraying an absurd ignorance of life and technology but not actually impacting anyone’s life. The other kept actual people from receiving housing based on the color of their skin.

The difference is, one can be made into a soundbyte and played in 15 seconds. The other… requires a more nuanced analysis than Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless baying at each other like a pair of hungry hounds.

As I look at the legacy of European dehumanization on this continent, I am shocked at the level of racism that still exists in this world. Everywhere in Johannesburg has a wall topped with barbed or electrically charged wire. Sometimes both.

Riding home from dinner last night, I was talking to my driver about this. He was 10 years old when apartheid fell, and he told me that there was hardly any walls and barbed wire before that. This was largely because if you were black walking into a neighborhood of whites, you’d better have a work permit or you could be sent to jail or even shot.

As the institutionalized political walls of apartheid fell, real physical walls appeared.

Just like an alcoholic who puts the cork in the bottle without dealing with his addiction, the underlying problem remains. The legacy of dehumanization merely took on a brick and mortar face, as opposed to the hateful ones of politicians.

Unfortunately, that makes the next step in the struggle for equality that much harder. It is easy to rally international political support against a regime which systematically disenfranchises large portions of a population. It is much harder to whip up the same intensity in the face of endless, unnamed walls.

As I saw that little boy on the wrong side of the fence, the problem hasn’t been solved, it has merely evolved.

I’ve seen a lot of the world in this trip, but the most important part of my personal evolution has been the elements of the human condition that I’ve been exposed to. To stand in the middle of abject poverty, next to millionaire basketball players is a surreal experience.

The differences could not be more stark, nor the need for action greater.

For all the gutwrenching emotions that such a scene can bring, I couldn’t be more happy that I’m here, in the land of Gandhi and Mandela, seeing this with my own two eyes.

The world is not set into neat teams, us vs. them. We are all brothers in this shared condition we call humanity. Occasionally we need to remind ourselves of that. These kids depend on it.

The Virtues of Hostels

After a long day at the Basketball Without Borders showcase and a gutwrenching afternoon visit with UNICEF to the Diodi primary school in the Soweto district of Johannesburg, I stumbled back through the double gate in the high wall of the Ghandi Backpacker Hostel at about 10:30.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

As I walked through the bar to the back of the property, I ran into Heinz, the Swiss-German proprietor and Bob, a 60 year old American gemologist from right down the road in Louisville as they tried to solve the world’s problems over glasses of bourbon and rum.

I introduced myself to Bob, and asked Heinz about booking a safari to the Kruger National Game Preserve. As I sat debating options for lodge, treehouse or tent for the safari, a conversation ranging from history to diamonds to high school basketball broke out.

They also informed me that this hostel is so named because Gandhi actually lived here for nearly 2 years during his formative time in South Africa. Right here in these very walls, a man synonymous with the non-violent movement against imperialism and racism formed the thoughts that would someday change the course of the world’s second most populous nation.

I’m pretty decent with words, but I’m not sure we’ve invented one in English to describe the feeling of accidentally harmonizing with a hitherto unknown history.

I bet the Germans have a word for that. And I bet it is 45 letters long and impossibly to say without sounding incredibly angry. (Fabio/Marlene, please advise.)

Soon it was 1:30AM and I was totally knackered, my mind spinning from the wide-ranging conversation of the evening.

I did have one cohesive thought as I drifted off to the Land of Nod.

Of all the inventions of man to create a more perfect harmony between the people of different nations, my vote for the greatest is the hostel.

It is a melting pot renewed daily. The hostel system does more to break down the walls of preconception and mistrust than everything the United Nations has done in the past 60+ years.

It’ll throw a girl from Holland in with a pair of German cousins with the three Scottish girls with the solo traveler from Argentina and a couple Canadians to boot. There is usually a Gallic womanizer darting in and out between rendezvous as well, but only one person will actually see the man that the others think is a ghost.

Over the course of the next 2-3 days, they’ll each be swapped out for new faces but not before heading to this beach or that historical site. They’ll share sunscreen and contact solution, epiphanies and viewpoints, and maybe if they are lucky, some morsel from their faraway homelands if travels are still in the early stages.

There will be stories swapped about the university system in 5 different countries. Travel tips will be offered, swapped and accepted. You’ll share meals, and in the occasional hostel with a full kitchen, there will be the hastily thrown together potluck dinner with 5 different cuisines represented. Politics will be debated, almost always lightheartedly, unless an inebriated English girl decides that she wants to try her hand at “American-style political shouting.”

There will be a little language diffusion as well, usually in the form of profanity and toasting words.

For a few days, they’ll be a pretty highly functioning family, complete with a black sheep who has been given some funny nickname like “Klaus the Angry Kraut.” A few will realize that they are headed down the same direction and a traveling partnership will be formed.

Unfortunately for others, there will be that bittersweet morning of hungover packing, as someone is heading down the road in a different direction than the others. Facebook info will be swapped and pictures from the road will be liked. We may or may not ever see each other again, but occasionally you’ll be walking through a night market in Kuala Lumpur and there will be a long lost Argentinean girl standing there just like a storybook day dream.

Then we all go home, (well, almost all of us, some seem to travel indefinitely, lucky bastards.)

We’ll read the news on the way to work, and we’ll see that something has happened in some faraway corner of the world. A debt default in Argentina, an avalanche in German Switzerland, an earthquake in Ecuador or a new round of bellicose threats from North Korea to its much taller and better looking southern brother.

We’ll jump on the Facebook machine and check-in with our friends from that remote hostel in Laos or Cambodia or Spain. We’ll ask how they are, and get a real on the ground perspective as opposed to the processed, sound byte ready narrative we find in our media.

We’ll know how violent the protests actually got in Athens or what the Dutch actually think happened to that downed airliner. All the sudden, the world gets a little smaller, and the interests and narratives of a for-profit media get short-circuited by the brief rekindling of a 3 day friendship.

Hostels become laboratories for great ideas and deep conversations. There is no pretension, no need for political correctness, just people talking truthfully about the widest range of subjects you could possibly imagine.

The only even remotely comparable thing I can compare it to in standard American living, is the freshman year dorm floor in college. This is a substandard comparison though, because most of those kids will be from within 200 miles of a place and nearly all will be American. To any parent whose child has come back for Thanksgiving after that first big stint away, the changes in personality and temperament are usually incredible.

Imagine that process replayed with a more diverse cast of characters and situations…every 3 days for as long as someone is traveling.

The opportunities for growth are endless. So too is the constant bombardment on those engrained beliefs that we had held as sacrosanct “truths.”

I hope that my generation sees fit to elect foreign policy representatives who are alumni of this non-exclusive club. Don’t tell me how many years you studied Mandarin and Spanish in some Ivy League ivory tower. Tell me about your 15 year correspondence with the Chinese lawyer you met in Malaysia, or the Christmas cards you get annually from the Argentinean girls you met in your 20s.

Just like the politicians who have totally forgotten what “home” looks like, as they stare across the Potomac from their tony Georgetown condos, these highly educated frauds only know about a politically correct status quo. People interacting with people give rise to real breakthroughs in foreign policy, not blank faced bureaucrats sticking rigidly to a status quo.

It is an awful lot harder to look “objectively” at a number on a page in the “Expected Collateral Damage” column when the face of the Iranian on the top bunk floats to the front of your mind.

All this can be had for a night on a lumpy dorm bed and $5 to $25 a night. I guess you do have to have a smile on your face and a few requisite social skills as well.

Seems a pittance all things considered.

Forget the 5 star hotel. There’s proper traveling to be done.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

Good Morning Johannesburg!

New continent new thoughts. I arrived in Johannesburg about 1:30 yesterday afternoon, after a hellacious 31 hour/2 layover journey from Singapore. The incredibly unhelpful women at the Ethiopian airlines counter in Singapore had me all nervous that I was going to get tossed back to the winds of international travel at immigration due to my lack of an onward plane ticket, but this ended up being a load of bollocks. The immigration agent I dealt with, an African named Jeremiah, was as polite and helpful as anyone I’ve dealt with on this trip, and I even ended up spending a few extra minutes shooting the breeze with him after my stamps had been graciously applied.

So I was off to a good start all things considered, and I was supposed to be getting picked up by a driver from the NBA at the Jo-burg airport, so this was going to continue to be a walk in the park.

Just like the commentators curse on a perfect game, as soon as the thought left my mind, things went catawampus.

My driver was no where to be seen, and the internet wouldn’t let me make phone calls, only shoot emails, so after a half hour I decided to take my chances and jump on the train.

I say take my chances not because I was overly concerned about getting lost, (although I only had a neighborhood and hotel name to go on) but because crime in Johannesburg isn’t so much an unexpected incident as the cost of doing business. I figured in broad day light, surely I’d be alright, although with 50 lbs of gear draped both over my back and front, I surely wasn’t going to be in much of a position to try to defend myself if I wasn’t.

So onto the train I went. It was pretty straightforward (other than the pricing, which I’m pretty sure I got hosed on, even though it was all computerized.) Soon I was jumping off at the Roseland stop, climbing into the early spring sun and looking around for the Hyatt.

I couldn’t find one, so I started looking for a restaurant or something with WiFi. I found a McDonald’s down the road, which of course, didn’t have WiFi, but I took a load off my feet to regroup and figured I’d ask around and maybe get lucky.

As soon as I sat down, a boy who I thought looked awfully Chinese/Malaysian sat down next to me. He was a school kid, as school must’ve just let out because there were all kinds of white kids in private school uniforms. He started to make conversation (something about a massive backpack just screams “talk to me”) and I asked him if he knew where I was going. He laughed and said he didn’t, but he asked if I knew where he was going.

Next year, he is headed to the University of Oklahoma to study biomedical engineering. He’s yet to find Oklahoma on a map, so he was ecstatic to find an American who would vouch for the place. I told him I’d never been there personally, but I did briefly date a girl whose dad was a dean out there and she’d spoken highly of the place. He seemed relieved by my milquetoast review.

Finally I found an old man who knew where the Hyatt was. I trudged down the road until I came to the place. Now at this point I was an oily, stanking mess. I’d been on a plane for nearly a day and a half, and hadn’t seen a real bed or shower in 48 hours. I waltzed right into the Hyatt like I owned the place however, and within 5 minutes, I’d talked one of the front desk girls into letting me up to use the spa while I waited for my friends.

God bless her. I felt like a new man after 30 minutes in the steam room, plunge pool and the spa.

I headed back down to the lobby to wait on Noah and Romola and was promptly joined by about 30 flight attendants from Luftansa, an airline that still knows how to hire lovely flight attendants. After chatting with a few from Colonge and Dresden, I saw Dikembe Mutumbo walk into the lobby, big as all outdoors.

For those of you who don’t know who Dikembe Mutumbo is, I’m sorry. He was one of the first true African players in the NBA, and also one of the funniest. I’m currently typing this without the help of internet, but I’d imagine that he is every bit of 7 feet tall, and I know that he has size 22 shoes because I put my own meager size 12 foot next to one and almost fainted that a man can be that big. I didn’t have the cajones to ask him to give his famous line after a big block (a finger wag complete with, “No, No, NO!”) but he was as nice a person as you could hope to meet.

Behind him came the smaller, but still incredibly large Noah. It was a watershed moment as this was the first time I’d seen somebody I’d known before the trip since Benny left on June 5. 2 months of making friends on the go has been a blast, but occasionally it is a nice warm feeling to see someone you’ve known for a while.

I gave him a hug, the best that a 5’10’’ guy can give a 6’8’’ guy a hug and he laughed and pointed at Romola 15 feet away in a corner of the restaurant, who had been there all day.

Myopic vision runs in the family.

We caught up and talked about what’s going on, both in the US, the world and at this Basketball Without Borders showcase. He started pointing out the various NBA personalities around the room, from players to scouts to the coach of the Raptors who was kind enough to later sketch out a few base offensive plays for Noah and me.

The whole thing was just a little surreal, especially for someone who has been backpacking through the jungle for most of the last 4 months.

I hung around for a few hours, attending a talk about apartheid by the first South African Olympic chair after Mandela’s election. Finally I headed off to my hostel, as my budget wasn’t going to allow me to stay in the $150 a night Holiday Inn next door to the Hyatt where Noah and Romola were staying.

I initially thought about taking the train and then walking. That idea was blasted out of the sky like a Minnesotan duck on opening day. Everyone kept trying to impress upon me, “it isn’t IF you’ll get robbed out there by yourself tonight, it is a when.” I saw the wisdom of their words and jumped into a car arranged by the hotel.

It was quite a cab ride. I spoke with the driver on the way, and we drove past beautiful home after beautiful home, all surrounded by 8-10 foot walls and razor wire. I’m not talking a few; I’m talking every single one. The streets were beautiful, clean and tree lined, but there is obviously a vein of crime running unseen that is not to be messed with.

Whatever progress has been made since the fall of apartheid, there is infinitely more work to be done.

When I finally arrived at my guesthouse, it too was surrounded by a razorwire wall and had not one but two gates that had to be opened before I could enter. It is unlike any hostel I’ve stayed at yet though.

Once a single-family mansion, it was converted at some point into a hostel with one 20 bed dorm and several 4 bunk bedrooms. The place is beautifully designed, and for some reason reminded me strongly of my great-grandmother. Heinz, the proprietor was working when I rolled up. He let me in, started a tab in case I wanted to have a few drinks, and showed me the grounds. I could tell that the grounds were fantastic because no one was allowed out after dark. Even as I sit here writing this post at 7AM, a girl is trying to go run, but can’t get out of the compound to do so.

Danger really does abound in this beautiful land.

Today it is back to the BwB showcase, with some scrimmages and maybe another round of village visits this afternoon. I’m excited to see more of the area, as I’ll only be in Jo-Burg for about another 2 days before heading over to the Kruger National Park on the Mozambique border. I can’t wait to see some of the most naturally beautiful land on earth, as well as take part in a few game drives with rhinos, lions, cheetahs and the like in their natural habitat.

The world is always offering a new adventure, just make sure you don’t get mugged along the way.

An American Lazarus

Good morning from Singapore.

Waking up curled over two chairs in the Singapore airport, contorted into a fetal position far too compact for my size, I’m thankful again of my “superpower.”

I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime. And it doesn’t matter if a freight train or a hurricane is coming, you’ll have to send someone to roust me.

Spiderman can keep his webs, and I never really wanted X-ray vision anyway, Superman. I’ll keep my weaponized narcolepsy. It has served me incredibly well, especially in the always fluid sleeping conditions of Southeast Asia. Whether a dorm full of incredibly drunk 19 year old shouting Brits or the coffin berth of a 12 hour sleeper bus, I slap on a history podcast and I’m out faster than a fat kid in dodgeball.

The older I get the more I realize how fantastic this ability is.

I’m leaving Southeast Asia tonight, headed onto South Africa. I’ve spent the last 3.5 months on the adventure of a lifetime. I experienced the horrors of war, as well as came to a better understanding of America’s legacy in Vietnam. I got an up close view the charismatic, maniacal and efficient evil of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

I saw some of the most beautiful natural places on earth, from 5 mile long caves to pristine waterfalls, untouched and underdeveloped.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I got to walk in the ruins of one of the ancient wonders of the world, Angkor Wat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

I played with monkeys and rode on elephants.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I wrecked motorbikes and taught monks English.

Where's Switzerland again?

Where’s Switzerland again?

 

I got to see a military coup first hand, and debate political issues with people from a half dozen countries almost nightly. In three weeks I developed a bond with a man who taught me a lot about addiction and even more about the human condition. I saw a girl who was incredibly lucky to “only” have 40 stitches in her head, and I saw a surfer who was not so lucky as his lifeless body was pulled from the Bali barrels.

I agreed to travel hundreds of miles with people I’d met mere minutes before and “evaded” organ snatchers in remote Laotian towns. I learned to communicate with only hand gestures and a smile to bridge a language gap. I learned the art of Thai boxing at the hands of gentle madmen, and learned to cook the cuisines of a half dozen nations.

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

In short, I lived life. Frankly, a helluva lot of it. I grew more than I would have in the next 5 years of my “normal” life. I was in more uncomfortable situations in 100 days than I can count, but I managed to make it out of all of them with barely a scratch.

They say the best journeys are the ones where you find something you didn’t know you were missing. I found something better.

I found a man that I thought died years ago. A guy who laughed first and frowned rarely. The one who looked at the world with the endless optimism of the boy taken to a barn full of horseshit, started smiling before saying, “There must be a pony around here somewhere.”

He looked a lot like a guy who had become a nasty cynic. One who had been paid well to delude himself into thinking that he was smarter than everyone else in the room. One who thought that a growing number on a bank account was going to magically fix an unfulfilling life. One who had put a reckless love of risk before an awful lot of things that actually mattered in this life. One who’d forgotten that the happiest moments really are free, or damn near to it.

It isn’t very often that someone crawls out of an unmarked grave, but I’m glad I came across it.

That’s what meaningful travel does. It reacquaints you with the best versions of yourself. It shows you overcoming obstacles to reveal a character and mental fortitude you didn’t realize that you’d had.

And thank God it does. Otherwise I wouldn’t have found that man I thought had died. And he’s a helluva lot better than the one who got on a plane in Chicago in March.

Farewell Southeast Asia. You’ve done more for me than you’ll ever know.