July 3, 2010

I'm On My Way - European City Tour 2010

I leave in a couple of days for a 6-week, 6-city tour of Europe; places I've always wanted to see and a couple of cities I can't wait to see again. For those of you whose curiosity is just too much, I'll be going to these locations in this order: London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Stockholm, Rome, Dublin, London ... and then back to my tiny little flat in Kuwait.

For the next few weeks, I'll be blogging my daily adventures (or the usual boredom of sitting around in my hotel room) with photos, videos, and witty dialogue. Or something like that.

But before I go, I'll start this whole thing off with a song that I play right before I leave for the airport...ever since my first trip outta the States way back in 1990. It's upbeat enough to get my blood pumping and true enough to jump start my frame of mind.

Here's a link to the video:

Go ahead. Sing along with me.

July 1, 2010

Bus Ride – Guatemala 1993

It’s my last 2 days in Guatemala, and my idea is to save money and time. I need to get from Tikal to Guatemala City…so of course I take the overnight Express bus. I’ll sleep the whole way – all 200 miles – and arrive at the airport the next morning, just in time for my flight back to the States. Smart. Easy. Fun.

So…imagine riding a roller coaster, while you’re hopping on a pogo stick, during an earthquake. The first leg of the bus trip was on the highway out of Flores, and by highway I mean the dirt/gravel road, which zigzags its way through ravines and hillsides and rainforest. The contents of the bus – including packed rows of about 40 people, luggage, children, and yes the stereotypical chicken – are bounced, tumbled, and jarred at speeds of around 50mph. I am sitting near the front. All I can see out the windshield through the grime and surrounding darkness is a mass of oncoming green briefly spotlighted by the headlights, but a split second before impact the bus turns, the rear tires skid erratically, and more clouds of brown dust billow through the windows.

How dangerous is this? Well, a couple of hours into the trip, the bus pauses in front of a bridge, and by bridge I mean two foot-wide timbers laid across a 20-ft gully. With sound as the bus’s front wheels moving onto the wood, every passenger protests. The driver finally agrees (yes, he does put up quite an argument) to allow us walk behind the bus, listening more than watching the creaking/cracking progress of the vehicle in one of those special moments where you realize that maybe, just maybe, that driver is on some sort of suicide mission.

For the next 2 hours, my joints have worked loose and my head and arms are dangling crazily with each new jolt. Then, suddenly, the dirt highway ends and the paved highway begins. Smooth. Modern. Peaceful. We all release a uniform sigh as sleep will finally come. Until the military road blocks begin 20 minutes later.

Soldiers yelling in Spanish – a situation far beyond my “soy vegetarian” memorization – and randomly poking our luggage with the muzzles of their automatic weapons. I’m a firm believer in avoiding prison, especially the foreign kind, so I meekly stare at my feet and do whatever everyone else is doing. At one point, a military officer boards the bus and gives a stern 5-minute lecture. He’s barking orders. No one moves. So neither do I. Then, with another harsh command, we all slowly get up and off the bus. We’re now standing by the side of the road at the edge of the thick forest, while a Captain yells some more. His soldiers are thoroughly searching the entire interior of the bus, and my mind drifts to pleasant thoughts of … oh, Midnight Express. Add in a little Missing. Thank god that I practiced raising my arms and screaming “Soy Americano!” before traveling here. I feel fully prepared. (In the case of Marist rebels, I also tried out “Soy Russo!” Hey, I have no problem denying my country of birth if it means I don’t get a bullet in the back of the head.)

Here’s a time to mention a good idea I came up with all by myself before boarding the bus, and by good idea I mean something which is really idiotic in actual practice. As a protection against highwaymen, I decide to hide my passport in a money belt, but not strapped around my waist (like most normal paranoids); instead I tie the pouch around my upper calf. See, my trousers hide it, and if searched it’s unlikely anyone will find it. Brilliant. Except for the fact that when military people are screaming at you, reaching down to pull something hidden from under your trouser leg is not the best of ideas.

But I’m lucky if not smart. No demands for identification. No accusations of spying. No palms out for bribes. They stop. They search. They leave. After a good 3 hours of this at different locations, we finally pass all the military checks, and the paved highway continues unabated once again. A deep, desired, dreamless sleep finally takes over. For about 30 minutes.

Ah, sunrise! But I probably could have slept through that, except that we are now on the last leg of the trip, which winds into the mountains north of Guatemala City with its gorgeous scenic view, and by scenic view I mean a potholed highway clinging to the cliff side – on the left was the oncoming traffic, on the right was a sheer drop of maybe 200 yards to large boulders with sharp jagged edges and remnants of broken vehicles scattered about. The double yellow line down the middle of the road is pure symbolism; nothing but a mere distant reminder of what others might call obligatory traffic laws. Oh, but not here. My bus passes everything without hesitation: trucks, cars, bicycles, motorbikes, a mule and wagon, pedestrians, other buses. My bus passes slower traffic while going blindsided around curves, over hills, in groups of 2 or 3 other cars. It’s an act of unconditional faith or unbelievable courage. I have a perfect view of the oncoming destruction as the opposing traffic is doing the exact same thing. At the same time.

The highlight is when we are passed as we are passing as two opposing cars are passing each other. At this moment, 5 vehicles are squeezing by each other at highway speeds, all honking their horns.

Eventually, Guatemala City emerges over the last hill and before my heart rate settles down to the low 3-digits, we are inching along the crowded city streets. After 12 hours and a lifetime, we reach the bus station. I stumble out exhausted, but still in one piece. My organs feel tangled and my hands shake a bit. But everything is fine. I mean, it's only a bus ride. No reason to get all dramatic about it, and by dramatic I mean falling to the ground and kissing it, like news reels of returned hostages, acknowledging to god that I'd actually follow through on all those promises I made in exchange for one more day to live.

illustration by Bryan Norris, 1995

ABD Bakery – Cairo, Egypt 1994

I feel a 1930s Depression-style run-on-the-bank fervor coming over me. I worm my way into the local bakery – 20 million people live in Cairo and at any time of day half of them are here. The crowd spills out the front door onto the sidewalk; inside, it’s shoulder to shoulder with little room for error. The idea of an orderly line is ridiculous. This is a mob. We’re here for satisfaction and heaven help the workers if they run out of goodies.

ABD Bakery seems nondescript on the outside, but simply follow the locals’ lead and you’ll be greatly surprised. Some donuts and a few dried up pastries? Oh please! Never underestimate the ability of a handful of dedicated Egyptian bakers.

Cairo-ites take their desserts seriously. The shelves here are lined with the best vegetarian (I had to throw that in cause this blog is called veggie-a-go-go, right?) pastries I’ve ever eaten. I’m not qualifying this with one of the best, because almost 20 years later I’ve yet to find a bakery that can match the taste and quality of from this one, tiny, overly crowded madhouse.

Choices are made by luckily grabbing the attention of a counter staff (a bit easier being the tall white guy in a sea of Egyptians). No one here speaks English, but that’s not necessary. I point. I give a number. Then, I eat chocolate cookies, vanilla cookies, chocolate cookies with vanilla topping, vanilla cookies with … well, there are about a hundred cookie types, so I’ll move on … cakes, brownies, chocolate swirls, almond clusters, donuts, honey buns, and another million choices that are impossible to make but also impossible to pass by.

I’ve never considered myself strong willed when it comes to sweets. The words “Oh, that’s enough for me.” don’t pass my lips until I’m bloated and my eyeballs can’t seem to stop jiggling. So, entering this bakery was a huge mistake – not that I would have avoided it, if forewarned. (Still, I can pretend to have some self-control, can’t I?) What was a supposed one-time curiosity visit became a daily elbowing through the crowds to work my way to the front counter. Oh, don’t worry. I received as good as I got. Okay, another confession: not really daily. More like two or three times a day. Okay one more confession: sometimes I finished my selection before I finally made it to the cash register. Then back in line for another round. A good guess is that I’m not the only one. I think there may be a few individuals trapped inside of this bakery, forever making the rounds – counter to cashier to counter to cashier.

Ah, the eternal cycle of sugar highs.

Previously published (in a slightly different version) in Vegetarian Travelers magazine by KT and JR, 1995
photo link: http://farm1.static.flickr.com/224/535496760_4fa874a0c2.jpg?v=0

June 27, 2010

Expectance of Sacrifice – Washington DC 1990

“It’s quite simple,” the personnel director says to me. He rocks ever so slightly in his swivel chair. The fingertips of his hands press against each other, flexing back and forth. His desk between us – an expanse of mahogany – is absolutely empty except for a single miniature palm tree rooted in a terra-cotta pot, hand painted with Mayan sun gods. Hanging on the wall over his left shoulder is an autographed photo of Paul and Linda McCarthy. I know it’s real. I was there when it was signed.

“Your department can’t afford to have you gone for so long,” he says, not looking at me but watching his fingers. “You should have cleared your vacation through the proper channels.”

I clear my throat and speak slowly. For a second, I feel like I’m translating my thoughts into another language. “This trip is very important to me.”

He looks up but his face is so expressionless that I’m not sure he heard me. Of course, the obvious unspoken question wedges itself between us: Is he really saying I can’t go when my flight is only six hours from now?

I’ve been planning this 3-week trip to Europe for the past two months – my first overseas trip. My first holiday from work in over 2 years. Every day I’ve talked, joked, and laughed about it; I’ve shared travel plans and itineraries. An hour before this meeting, my department had a small bon voyage ceremony with tea and scones. So, I actually did let him know. I let my department manager know. The whole damn organization knows. Only not in writing, not on the official form, and that’s his leverage.

“We need you here. This is a crucial time for the movement.”

The goddamn-mother-fucking movement. Two years of devotion and at last I’m sick of the expectance of sacrifice; I deliberately restrain from rolling my eyes. Everyone working here is on a bare bones salary. We easily log 50 to 60 hours a week. Add to that the weekend demos and nightly work parties – as if buying orange juice and bagels makes it a “party” and not just another 2 hours of work. No overtime pay. No bonuses. Just the occasional pep speech: We’ve all done our part; now do some more.

However, that doesn’t matter as management engages in a slow painful haphazard deconstruction of its workforce. About 5 months ago it was diagnosed as a brief economic downturn; now it’s rumored to be gross financial stupidity.

Here are the numbers: 5pm every Friday the personnel director makes his rounds through the different offices to initiate another wave of the unemployed. In the beginning, it was usually 5 or 6 at once and the collective shock would reverberate throughout our building. We never know in advance who is going, but we always know the when. After 6 straight weeks, they announce all the layoffs are finished – and there is much celebration. At the end of the 7th week, another 3 people are fired. This past month, it’s a single person per week, and we all thank god that it’s not us. Stretching past its 13th week, around 3pm every Friday you can feel the nervous shudder in group preparation. We’ve gone from 130 employees to 55 in this span of time; a psychological torture mimicking the exact animal experiments we’re trying to ban.

He’s staring, waiting for a concession.

“I need to make this clear,” I say. “Absolutely nothing is going to stop me from getting on that plane.”

His eyebrows raise. He takes a short, quick intake of breath and I know he didn’t expect that response. Yet he’s not upset. This is the same man who last week waited until 7pm for an employee to complete a 70-hour workweek before firing him.

“I can’t guarantee that your job will be here when you get back,” he says calmly. The corner of his mouth twists upward, ever so slightly, and I know immediately I’ve just helped cull one more paycheck off the books, one more step forward for the movement.

previously published in slightly different form: http://www.spillwayreview.com/flashethics.html