How We Got Here

There are no such things as liberals and conservatives.

Forgive the pedantry, but allow me to explain:

These terms, so often made concurrent with notions of Democratic or Republican politics, left or right leaning ideologies, are designed ethical paradigms instigated in the late 80s and early 90s as a smokescreen for morality.  In other words, a “conservative” movement in the early 90s developed in order to position Republican immorality (defined here as intolerance of Others, capitalistic racketeering, and an assault on the Middle Class) as political ideology.  In OTHER words, Republicans invented the “culture wars” so they could mask their immorality as political preference, as their own ethics.

Morality is the ability to understand right and wrong.  Ethics are, among other things, how a culture behaves to substantiate their concept of morality.  The Culture Wars are false-ethics masquerading as morality.  It is impossible to argue that subjugating women, minorities, non-heteronormative people, the poor, the differently abled, etc. is moral.  Republicans, therefore, could not substantiate their fear and hatred as moral code.  Born, then, from this paradox was the notion that they were “conserving” American values, while refusing to acknowledge such values were those of a hegemonic, privileged minority.  The Culture Wars were a deliberate attempt to call what is obviously moral, humanitarian, and equitable “liberal” so Republicans could activate their anti-moral, anti-humanitarian, and inequitable agenda as “conservative,” in order to keep the violent, inequitable, and ferocious America “great.”

According to Christopher Newfield, professor of English at UC Santa Barbara, “The culture wars had a simultaneous economic and racial agenda for those who waged them.  Culture warriors [republicans] needed the kind of arguments that, in this post-1960s world, would block not only racial equality, but also the economic majoritarianism that was likely to follow” (Unmaking the Public University 70).  Newfield suggests that the creation of enmity between “conservatives” and “liberals” is rooted in distracting the greater public from the nefarious republican disdain for anything that threatened their agency.  Newfield continues, “In the world of the culture wars, inequality is natural and equality the result of unnatural intervention” (172).  This is why “conservatives” can support Donald Trump and why they can ignore the pain of others without jeopardizing their own sense of tentative morality.

This is also why there is no such thing as conservative or liberal and I refuse to acknowledge anyone’s hiding behind these terms as moral salvation.  These are linguistic rhetorical tools to convince a public that what is right and good and moral are somehow political preferences.  But please do not make a mistake here: there is nothing political about morality.  Though right and wrong are often matters of perspective, one thing remains certain: ideologies, values, politics, laws, and elections that strip people of rights and hurt their bodies are not and cannot ever be called moral.

In Beyond the Culture Wars, pedagogue and professor Gerald Graff argues, “A combination of affluence and geography has enabled more fortunate Americans to avoid noticing unpleasant social conflicts by the simple device of moving away from them” (5).  When we are comfortable, we do not wish to be made uncomfortable by the suffering of others—this would displace our comfort—so we rationalize that they deserve the suffering or that forcing an archaic value system upon them would solve their suffering.

In the months following Donald Trump’s dubious election as President of the United States, I’ve thought often of patriotism.  Having traveled all over the world, in knowing amazing people all over the world, it has been difficult for me to remedy my love for the United States and my horror at its insidiousness.  (Let me acknowledge here that this has been the plight of many less-fortunate than me forever).  In my most recent short story, I wrote about this difficult conundrum: “It was difficult to understand the beauty and ugliness of life, the horror and majesty, as they struck simultaneously.”  But I consider myself a patriot.  I serve the students of this country every day and do so with deep pride and affection.  I love the urban meccas of the country, the sublime wild of the countryside.  I’m reminded of Julian Barnes’s line from Flaubert’s Parrot, “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously.”  I do not feel good about our future with Donald Trump as President.  But I will do what I can to show this country where it is broken, because you make a place better when you try to fix its wounds.  You love it when you try to cure it.

But don’t call me a liberal.  I’m not one.  I’m a human who believes humans are humans and that every human deserves to have their humanity recognized.  And don’t call yourself a conservative if you think that means you are just politically “right-leaning.”  Because what it really means, historically and actually, is that you condone the immoral oppression of other humans because it is convenient to your privilege.  It is better to examine our own stances as they may intersect with those of others than to harbor down, secluded in shielded ignorance.  It’s really easy to dismiss me, to dismiss this as “liberal” rhetoric, but believe me when I say what I want most is to put a big band-aid on this trench-scarred nation of ours, regardless of how faulty I know the adhesive to be.

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Jeffrey Marko and the Cursed Novel

In the summer of 2010 I took a SEPTA bus pilgrimage, multiple times a week, to the Free Library of Philadelphia Central Branch on the Parkway to research a novel.  It was there that a friendly librarian, after helping me find countless texts, gave me her email address for when the book came out (I still have it attached to my notes).  It was there I learned that the Nazis euphemistically referred to the prisoners of death camps who were not exterminated immediately upon arrival as Permanents.

A few months later, on a pilgrimage to Europe for more research, I stood at the gate of Auschwitz-Birkenau with my dear German friend who said, “Now I must face my history” while I, part Jewish, felt but could not say, the same thing.  I felt transient, my impermanence there wedded to a persistent hunger that I knew, when we left (in the injustice that we could leave) would be sated in the nearby Polish town.

I never intended on writing a Holocaust novel.  The subject matter too complicated; the morality of the attempt too questionable; the utilization of such unthinkability too potentially immoral.  What I wanted to do with my second novel, Permanent for Now, was closely tied to how I view myself as a writer in general: I am not interested in creating, but in sustaining.  I do not cast bells, I strike them to continue the ringing.  In other words, as a writer, I wish to no more than sustain the mythological and social pondering that literature as an art form is so capable of doing.  I wish to take the ideas that came before me and recast them for new readers.  As such, I wished to extend a tired trope: the conflict of good and evil within the human.  The Holocaust was simply too appropriate a subject for this discourse to ignore.

In high school, I had a Military History teacher who warned, “If we hadn’t won the war [WWII], we’d be speaking German right now.”  His historical and cultural awareness was as short as his crew cut, but I had the gull then (I had mohawks then too, so I had a lot of gull) to posit that we wouldn’t know the difference, that English is a foreign language, that to be a young man in Germany in the early 20th century meant that you didn’t have much of a choice about becoming a Nazi, that these men were victims of circumstance more so than prone to evil.  These thoughts were unrefined (my teacher rejected them outright—American education!) but they got me thinking.  We often attribute Nazism to monsterousness, to evil.  But the Nazis weren’t monsters, nor were they evil.  They were human; men. And so am I, a man.  This all means that what was done to 6 million people of my ethnic ancestry by Nazi men could just as easily be something I would decide to do, if my circumstances warranted it.  In other words, the “evil” inside their man souls is, likewise, in mine.  This is a hard and complicated thought, but it was the driving force behind my writing Permanent for Now.  How do we rectify and live with the knowledge that we contain great capacities for good and evil?  Again, a tired trope, but nevertheless relevant considering who we are.  And in the wake of a time in the United States where Nazism has become once again relevant and hatred is the status quo, this book hopes to push its finger into the wound to instigate stinging.

I finished the first draft of the manuscript in late 2010 and spent the next two years revising it.  The subsequent four years are simultaneously a testament to the difficulties of the publication industry as well as the staying power of my narrative’s thesis.  In 2012 a publisher agreed to buy the book.  After discourse, edits, and plans, said publisher—like many fledgling organizations of the day—went belly-up.  In the course of the next few years, no less that two publishers were so interested in the book that we got to the copy-editing phase of the novel before it, too, was either rejected or the publisher could not follow through.  Then, this year, I signed another contract with a new indie publisher for the novel and for its winter 2016 release.  Last week, I received the regretful email that they, too, had become financially insolvent and would not be able to publish the novel.

It’s difficult to not feel that Permanent for Now is somehow cursed.  For a novel I’ve worked so hard on, believe so deeply in, and has become so relevant today (how I wish it was irrelevant), of course it is discouraging to once again realize that I must initiate the draining process of submission (oh, how accurate, that word).  But it also occurs to me that in a world where so many books are written and so many get no chance, this little novel of mine got so close so often.  That means there’s something there.  It means I have to keep putting it out there, that it will find a home, and it will eventually be read.

I’m no big fan of Stephen King (though he sort of is my guilty throwaway beach read on occasion) but in his book on writing, On Writing, he mentions that regardless of the circumstances of a manuscript, the writer has to believe in their work.  This is something I do not take for granted.  I believe in Permanent for Now.  And though I’ve written a lot since then, and written better things since then, I believe that it needs to be.  That those things inside of us need to be examined further.  That, somewhere, a librarian in Philly is waiting for her free copy in the mail.

Travelogue: The Alternative Spring Break 2016—Avery Co., NC

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I feel I owe a great debt.

Above my desk, stems inserted into the tracking of my window blinds, are miniature flags from all of the countries I’ve visited.  As I sit here, I count twenty-one, and that doesn’t include the Vatican or the United States, where my cross-country road trips have taken me to and through almost every state.  It doesn’t count Tanzania or South Korea, where I’ll go this summer.  They are spears with banners that sometimes fall on my head and desk when I drop my blinds too quickly.  I recover and reclaim them: Iceland from my coffee cup, the United Arab Emirates from my laptop, Belgium from the books.

The United Nations above my window is not intended to boast of my privilege (which, surely, traveling is) or my intrepidness.  I don’t write this now to shout, “See!  Look at me; I’ve got the old wanderlust—that Kerouac flanerie we so romanticize.  I’m Anthony Bourdain without the cooking know-how and dubious past!”  The flags are there because I’m a fool for nostalgia.  Moments of any day temporarily stall while I reflect on a meal, or a conversation, or an embrace, held somewhere in the world.  But it’s important—oh, so important—to know that my insatiable traveling, my intense intense desire to learn the world and all the cultures in it, did not come from inside of me.  These things were fostered by people.  People to whom I owe a great debt.

To Jay Halio, who led my Study Abroad trip to London my senior year of college, where I fell in love with cities, with literature, with theatre, with wandering alone.85880144

To Jessica Hudson, who met me at 330 am on Kovalam Beach in southern India to make me feel okay before we built houses for people who’d lost everything from the tsunami of 2004.100_2322

To Sandra Schmidt, who brought me to Ethiopia, where I fell in love again every single day.DSCN2176

These are people who led me in trips abroad who I think about often, because there isn’t a whole lot of me that didn’t come from those experiences.  As far as essential things in life go, those trips (and the scores I’ve been on in-between and since) are my DNA.  If you feel the brail of me, the topography will read: Ponce, Istanbul, Dessie, Kanyakumari, London.  My transcript reads Hanoi, Dublin, Cusco, Dresden.  My genetics, all Milan and Prague.

As deep as those pleasures are, I always feel I’m getting away with something.  When I board a plane, or rev a car engine, or feel the pull of the train; I feel a bit of guilt in my fortune.  For a long time, I didn’t know how to pay back the Halios, Hudsons, and Schmidts of the world; I didn’t know how to balance out all the surplus joy I was taking 12804846_10154012902522520_4496109748566329041_nfrom the geography of the planet.  Until, at the Community College of Philadelphia, a few other wanderers and I got together and had the gumption to design the Alternative Spring Break.

From the get, let me say that we didn’t invent the name, nor the concept, of the ASB.  For me, the development of the trip came from my desire to offer students a little something of the life I have because of the places I’ve been.  I wanted to be the cliché, to “pay it forward,” by leading a trip for people who may benefit from finding out a small truth as to how large the world is.  When I started teaching at CCP, I was instantly interested in leading a study abroad trip.  I was twenty-five, just a tad more idealistic than I am now (a smidgeon, really), and pictured myself leaning back against Horatio Nelson’s podium while my fearless students marveled at the constant epiphany that is travel.  I marched right into the Study Abroad director’s office (okay, I had an appointment) and proclaimed said enthusiasm, only to be told—rather bluntly—that there’s a lot of seniority that goes into which faculty can lead such a trip.  I was, then, a sadly ol’ adjunct, which means I didn’t have a lot of footing when it came to throwing my weight around.  Rather than slump into the slough of despond, however, I organized. DSCN1173

As a member of the Leadership Institute, which mandated that my group develop a project at the end of our instituting, we decided to pitch the Alternative Spring Break.  Here was the general premise, in two stanzas:

 

 

1) To promote travel and cross-cultural understanding in our beloved students.

2) To instill in them a sense of social responsibility in service.

The concept was simple: we load on a bus or plane, go somewhere else (anywhere else) and work with a community organization to serve our destination community.  The first year, we teamed up with Habitat for Humanity, as I’ve had a lot of experience with this organization and it was ready to accommodate a large number of students in its aptly-entitled “collegiate challenge” program.  As you can imagine—if you’ve already thought it—there was some push-back against our plan.  Questions such as, “Well, why go somewhere?  There are enough problems in Philadelphia to solve instead of going somewhere else,” arose to confront out design.  Ready with retort, I explained that the travel function was essential to this program.  Many of our students have not had the means to explore their world (even their own city!) and so are only familiar with their own surroundings.  The ASB was essential in showing students how vast their experience could be if they could find themselves in different settings.  Secondly, as most of our graduating students remain to live and work in Philadelphia, the idea was that, if we plant a seed of service in them, regardless of where that occurs, they will foster it back home.  In short, learn altruism elsewhere, and practice it here.12705649_10153998812482520_5840417967734665903_n

That seemed to quell the critics, and off to Sebring, FL we went.

The next year: New Orleans.

The next: Michigan (I took a sabbatical from ASB and wrote a novel in London).

The next: Chicago.

The next: Huntsville, AL.

The next: Avery, Co., NC.

I should mention that in some of these previous six years, there was more than one trip, to a variety of different locations; these were the ones with which I was involved.

Here’s what you have to know: I love my job.  I love my job with all my heart.  Most people do not understand how special it is to wake daily and teach your favorite thing in the world (literature, writing) to groups of intelligent and spirited students keen on what their education means for their lives.  I am very proud of working at a community college; I couldn’t imagine working in a university.  The mission of providing accessible education to communities for whom education has been denied since the dawn of higher education in America is something I consider every time I walk into the turn-of-the century gorgeousity that is the Mint Building.  Pedagogically, I view teaching as a profession, an art form, and a social service.  I’ll never be rich for it, but I am fulfilled in ways most folks will only read about and dismiss (maybe this is you—now).  I hate to borrow from Lou Gehrig (or any Yankee), but I know I’m the luckiest bloke alive, occupationally.

Walking into a classroom is a balm for me, a sweet panacea from anything the outside world can do.  I used to think, when I first started, that I’d love teaching because I would have the summers off.  That idea ended when, one year, while hiking the perilous Grinnell Glacier trail at Glacier National Park in Montana, coming within thirty yards of a grizzly DSCN1136bear, I found myself thinking about the Fall term, about all those new students, about the books we’d talk about.  Around me was one of the most beautiful vistas in all of the United States, and in my head, I was in a windowless CCP classroom flanked by cream-colored cinder blocks and a whole bunch of eyes vetting my aptitude.  Wondering if they could trust.

And yet, as fulfilled as I am in what seems Plato’s literal cave allegory (seriously, why are there always burnt-out lights?) the Alternative Spring Break has become something deeply treasured in my human experience.  DSCN1114Each year, I use my Spring Break to fly or drive somewhere where I can try to show students the world.  Where we can build houses.  I imagine my colleagues sipping coffee in European cities, or just catching up on sleep.  I’m sleeping on a futon, or a bunk bed, or a church floor, aching from construction work (I’m an academic, right?), and chilling the most recent crisis (“I NEED cold medicine,” “It’s too cold in this convent,” “Can we go to Walmart again?”).  But the truth is—the real truth, the main truth, and nothing but—I am giddy in love with hanging with these folks and doing these good things.

I don’t exactly feel like Halio, Hudson, or Schmidt (how could I know how they feel?) and I know spending a week in Elk Park, NC isn’t the same as a semester in London, but I think, if for even just one of them, that these trips are meaningful, I’ll do them until I retire.

That takes me to last month: to ASB 16, Avery.946749_10154012899052520_7813931098069567870_n

The sixth year of ASB, this one was special for me because it was my fifth chaperoning.  Half a decade traveling around with students and building houses.  Having spent the last ASB in Alabama as the only chaperon on the trip (which, despite that, was still one of my most memorable times) I was overjoyed to learn I’d share these duties with Jeff and Wes.  Because two Jeffs was too much for the students to handle, I quickly became Jeff (a) (as I am an English teacher) and the other Jeff became Jeff (1) (as he works in financial aid).  Wes stayed Wes.

Our altruistic motley this year was about as diverse as this planet offers, which accurately represents our institution and fully enriches our ability to interact with those beyond our own histories and experiences.  Multiple languages floated around, multiple religions were observed, multiple ethnicities abounded, multiple countries of origin were represented.  There was a nice mix of veterans—students who’d taken the trip in previous years—and newcomers, and the group—a benefit to any chaperon—soldered together to become instantaneously familial.

Our drive down was a straight shot, the road running parallel to Shenandoah and the Appalachian ridge, which took my attention perhaps too much from the road.  Expectedly, all of the students behind me in the 15-passenger van were asleep, save for my co-pilot, Amatullah, with whom I had a lovely five-hour discussion that spanned from education and pedagogy to her Hajj to Mecca.  Certainly, good conversation curtails road weariness.DSCN1155

In Elk Park, NC, we found our abode: a community center with attached living quarters (read: two rooms of bunk beds, a bathroom per sex—let’s not get into this right now North Carolina, but we’re looking at you—and mercifully, a fully stocked and capable kitchen for our present, remarkable cooks.  I have family in North Carolina, and always thought of them as intensely sweet and romantically apt storytellers.  There’s this strange slowness to the way they tell stories, drawing out the narrative in robust and endearing ways.  I remember listening to my cousin at my great-grandfather’s funeral, telling stories that lasted an hour but contained only fifteen minutes of real cosmic time.  And I was enraptured.  Here, in Elk Park, we experienced a similar kindness.  Carolinians opened their world to us: they met us, talked with us, shared with us their stories, and accommodated our every need.  When I take CCP students to a place that hasn’t experienced as much diversity as our beloved Philadelphia, there’s always a part of me that is at least conscious of the potentiality of conflict.  My haunches aren’t up, but they quiver.  As a chaperon, it’s my job to have an awareness for problems in my forethought and to mitigate any potential adversary wrought from the exposure of myriad cultures.  Perhaps a bit too cautious, I take seriously my role as protector on these trips, no matter the diminutive nature of the thought (i.e. these folks can handle themselves).  And yes, there were Confederate Flags everywhere; and indeed, we talked about them.  But our direct interaction with the wonderful folks of Avery Co reminded us that, despite what we might presume, there are humans everywhere who recognize that everywhere, we are humans.10360846_1271705189511124_1104294316813254707_n

There’s a lot of hurt in the world, but we can insist on mending

The beauty of the surrounding mountains was stalling.  If you need to understand my penchant for mountains, read literally any other of my travelogues.  Still, Avery, the secret that it still is (despite the rich Floridians building gated communities on mountainsides), provided us with all the authentic ruggedness we idealize when thinking about the great American outdoors.  We all come from a flat place.  There’s a lot of advantage to Philadelphia’s being so flat (bike riding, right?), but when we see what the Earth can do when it pushes against itself, it is impossible to not marvel.DSCN1141

We worked.

The lot of us, every one, put in enough sweat equity to justify a year’s worth of blue-collar work for a bunch of academics.  Students and teachers, whose noses are typically buried into the spines of books, hands cramped with typing, climbed 30 feet of scaffolding, swinging wild hammers, lugging timber, laying floor.  At one point, our master builder in Avery and new dear friend, Bruce, turned to me and reflected, “These students are really intuitive.”  He was referring to how, after the first day, no one had to be told what to do.  Angie immediately climbed the scaffolding.  Mijuel went right to the saw.  John located the hammers.  Lindsay found the extension cord.  Taylor sought out nails.  Monique went for the wooden planks.  Et al.  All picking up where we’d left off.  I responded to Bruce, “They’re like that in the classroom, too.”

Craig—one of the most enthusiastic Avery locals who welcomed us with affection, befriended a number of us, went jogging with a few of us in the wee hours of the morning, 12718148_10153998812387520_6702556598705345623_nand baked us cookies—brought his dog Chief, a 4-month old boxer, with him whenever he stopped by the worksite or our temporary home.  This was, obviously, a smart move, as nothing endures a group of people like a puppy.  As for me, Chief liked mostly to chew my beard.

If you are so inclined to put yourself in situations where you can summon the courage to instigate the unknown, this world will prove to you it is a very generous host.  I’d like for this to be true about our daily lives (and it can be), but when we travel, we are faced with the propensity of experiencing things wholly foreign to our human experience, which can prompt nuanced appreciations for ways of living beyond what we could have ever imagined.  In Avery, ideas floated around in our small, shared space about how to use our downtime.  We read various travel blogs, cross-referenced glossy brochures, and randomly queried our local facilitators about things to do.

Imagine my surprise when group consensus voted for my quasi-jestful suggestion of skiing.  I mean, of the 20-something group members, I was the only one who’d ever been skiing before; so, frankly, the idea of putting a bunch of neophytes on metal slats to precariously slide down an icy mountain on our “Spring break” went from being a comical suggestion to a dangerous reality.  But, I am democratic if anything, and so those who so chose to brave humanity’s various death temptations joined me in a van to head toward Sugar Mountain.  Did I mention it was night skiing?

On the speed lift to the top of the mountain—a quad I commanded by myself—I had to snuggle inward against the cold.  Toward the top, the resort did not illuminate the black DSCN1142diamond trails’ lights, which left the peak in essential darkness.  As the hanging V of my skis swept through this nothing abyss under me, I had one of those moments: those, so this is life, eh?, moments.  Never—read: ever—would I have expected to be on a mountain with CCP students skiing on an Alternative Spring Break, an evening after we worked all day building with Habitat for Humanity.  It might be a shame or it might be a necessity, but life doesn’t provide for too many of those moments.  Perhaps, if it did, it would blunt the force of the epiphany.  But there, on a random chairlift in North Carolina, I could only stare down at the abyss, shake my head quizzically, and smile.  On the entire mile ride down the mountain, glutes and thighs on fire (damn you fifteen-second Pocono slopes!), I was simultaneously extremely thankful and extremely hopeful that no one had yet broken a leg or torn an ACL.

I am not a gullible or naïve person, but I can’t believe that I can still be surprised by things after all these years.  You’d think that after ten years of taking classes in higher education, nine years teaching, reading countless books, and traveling to myriad and breathtaking places around the Earth, I’d be just about bored with it all.  But the surprises, man they keep coming, and man they keep knocking me from my toes to my heels.  And in Avery, it was not a waterfall in El Yunque or a market in Kanyakumari; not this time.  This time, it was a bunch of CCP students who, falling, bruising, braking by slamming into other skiers (I realized that the bunny hills are by far the most dangerous hills on the mountain), and getting up to brush of the snow and do it all over again, students who surprised me with their endless drive to surprise themselves.  Like Amatullah and Andrea, who never stopped.  Who, despite having no lesson (other than my dubious instruction on how to pie-wedge and French fry) ended up on perilous blue slopes, barreling down without fear, tipping the edges of their skis to near vertical drops with shrugged shoulders, and falling with an explosion of scarves, ski poles, gloves, and iphones all over the mountain.  Zig-zagging down in all my experienced pretension, I collected the shrapnel of their materials and slowed to a spray by the clumped bodies of downed students, hoping they were alive and intact, only to arrive at—every time—the laughs of endless hilarity.  They were absorbing every nuance of this new experience and did so with supreme glee; and I, the chaperon, felt kindled in me a warmth that fastened me to them forever.

When I came back to the lodge to rest and rub the blood back into my ankles (the million-foot stench of the rented ski boots wafting from my socks in a Pepe le Pew float that wilted flowers as I passed) I found some 21+ers enjoying a local craft while watching newbies tumble down the mountain from warm confines behind plate glass.  They saluted their professor/chaperon, who joined them in their reverie.

Abraham asked how I was.  The conditions: icy.  My quads: sore.  I’d never skied for so long before: that mile trek down from the very top that felt so good I must’ve laughed aloud—during an innocuous solo part of the route—and strained my legs in ways I’d never felt.  In such contentment, I skied right back to the lift, ascended, and did the whole thing again, before the current rest in the lodge with those very fine people. (He was probably just being kind; was looking for an “I’m cool.”  But I’m verbose, know what I mean?).

Abraham looked at me slyly, as he was wont to do, and replied, “I want to do it.”12814686_583152178502075_8520038480423932574_nContext is everything in rhetoric.  Anything means nothing without the specificity of environmental information.  All that exterior influences the interior.  Abraham is from Africa, had never donned skis before, and when I showed him how to latch his boots in, his otherwise penchant for athleticism ceded to the raised eyebrows of skepticism as he regarded me, wondering if I was serious.  Yep, I nodded, this is where the fun begins.

So, later, in his zest for experiencing the next great feat, he demanded through my reservation to join him at the top so he could try his luck getting back down in one piece.  Abraham’s skiing style was to touch the tips of his skis, tuck the poles under his arms as he’d no doubt seen countless times at such venues as the Olympics, become as solidly tense as possible, and aim for the bottom.  This worked okay in straight corrals, but in a long, swerving slope, it meant trampolining down the mountain as he’d fall to a heap in a pile of clothes and equipment, stand up, dust himself off, and go at it again.  We negotiated the entire mountain in 50-foot intervals, but we made it.  The whole thing a strange comedy: we humans go up just so we can come back down.  But therein was the supreme magic of the entire experience.  There was nothing special about my criss-crossing the mountain while glancing at the ranges beyond.  I’d been there.  But Abraham, skiing for the first time, summoning the incomprehensible bravery to attempt that route, may have been one of the most inspiring things I’d ever seen.  What drove him?  What drove Amatullah and Andrea; Angie, Jose, Leslie, Carmella, and all the others who went to do this new thing and do it with such daring?  What makes people, these people, throw not just caution, but themselves to the wind?  For me, the episode on Sugar Mountain has become a symbol for the entire Alternative Spring Break: we challenge everything we know, are challenged, and find something not at the highest peaks, but when we come back down.

And then there was Grandfather.

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Perhaps Avery County’s greatest tourist draw, Grandfather Mountain features a switchback road to a swinging bridge (reinforced metal; we’re not Indiana Joneses) about a mile above sea-level. This was all well and good—and beautiful—but like so many things in life: the best part of Grandfather was when we turned our backs to the attraction and DSCN1187went on the few-mile hike in the other direction, to ascend higher and higher, through more treacherous terrain.

 

For the last eight months, I’ve become an obsessive climber.  I go to the rock gym by my house two or three times a week, find myself bouldering in the Wissahickon as well as up the banister of my house, and looking up Youtube videos of the best ascents in the world.  Sometimes, I lose sleep over thinking through a problem (the term for a particular route on a rock).  Climbing is the ultimate exercise; it is simultaneously a physical feat and an intellectual activity: one must figure out how to ascend before attempting to actually do so.  There are calculations of gravity and bodyweight, endless finger strengthening exercises, 12794398_10154001418102520_5959901419387205323_nand negotiations of a toe about an inch or so on a chip in order to make a subtle move. But really, I’m not an expert climber, nor do I ever aspire to be.  I got into climbing because—genuinely—I love it.  I feel like a kid, simply trying to get my body up random things.  It’s the most fun thing I’ve discovered as an adult and, as I examine the various bouldering routes at CCP, or in the forest behind my sister-in-law’s rural Ohio house, or along the bombed out corridors of highway; I typically want to do little more than climb.  As my good friend Alex Wildman once asked, “You know who’s the best climber in the gym?  The one having the most fun.”

So, why not bring that to ASB Avery? Along Grandfather’s wonderful hike, there are a large number of bouldering problems one can attempt.  In seeing me try a few, a couple of the students, naturally, wanted to join in.  Now, I know what you’re thinking: what kind of chaperon takes students skiing and rock climbing for the first time?  You’re probably right.  This may not be best practice.  But I’m not going to deny anyone the intense intense joys of life just because I’m worried about a few fractures am I?

DSCN1212At any rate, there are makeshift ladders and ropes to assist on the more technical parts of the hike, but myself, Andrea, and Angie decided to forgo all of them, encouraging courage, in favor of bouldering the nearby crags in order to ascend.  Up the entire mountain, we slowly climbed our way via routes we discovered as we went.  And there, 5800 feet above the ground, these ladies were able to do some amazing things on the rocks.  They had no fear, and they beamed the entire way.  At a high vantage point, we met up with Sabreen, Leslie, Adam, and some others. We took in the panorama, breathed in the semi-fresh air (there was a controlled burn in the valley that spoiled this a little) and felt like safe little grandchildren on the lap of the mountain.  John looked out at the valley in amazement.  Amatullah laughed radical at the altitude.

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There’s just too much more to articulate, and here I’ve gone, rambling along.  I doubt many people could make it to the end of such a soliloquy, but I don’t care.  This one I write for those students, because once a year, I push myself to the edge of exhaustion during my “break” only to feel rejuvenated in my every day because of the light coming from these people.  You know, I tell people all the time that I never complain about my job.  When people see the end-of-the-semester stack of papers I tote around each May and December, they look at me with the wide anime eyes of shock and sadness and I just nod and say, Hey, it’s what they pay me for.  I’m one of the very fortunate few who gets to discuss the thing I love most with people I can’t help but fall in love with; then occasionally, I go hiking and skiing with them on mountains.DSCN1161

That’s worth the arthritis and blurred vision of research paper grading.

I could barely write the end of my travel journal this year.  In my tired scrawl, I wrote of my lack of creativity in the exposition, “Inarticulation at the end of a joyous burnout.”  Some extra nostalgia: some of the students, who I’ve had in class, are moving on.  Carmella, Angie, Danny; they’re off beyond CCP and ASB and every other acronym that means something to me.  And though I get heavy with the prospect of such a moving on, I’m called back to my favorite Whitman poem, “Song of the Open Road,” and perhaps one of the most important stanzas therein: “Allons! we must not stop here,/ However sweet these laid-up stores, however convenient this/ dwelling we cannot remain here,/ However shelter’d this port and however calm these waters we/ must not anchor here,/ However welcome the hospitality that surrounds us we are/ permitted to receive it but a little while.”

We all must go on.

From Avery, we went on, to Ashville and Richmond, back to Philadelphia.  From ASB16 we moved on, back to our studies and families and papers.

From it, we’ve gone; but in it—just maybe—we’re anchored.

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Vermont Travelogue for A. Wildman

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I remember Advent Calendars having a rancid kind of chocolate behind their ornamented doors.  They tasted like the painted paper that housed each day’s kitschy, Christmas-themed weirdness.  Perhaps I remember this so fervently because the entire month of December—when I was a boy—I’d wake up at-the-ready to rip through another cartoon evergreen or red-cheeked Santa face to get at the slightly yellowed, amorphously-molded chocolate piece.  My satisfaction at the treat was always checked immediately by the strangeness of the taste and the twenty-four hours of lamentation before I could have at it again.

I was a dumb kid.

Maybe the best stories don’t start with “When I was a boy…”; maybe we get too Freudian for our own good: all hunger and desire and wishing-well-holes for brains.  But Christmas is one of those things caught up in childhood.  I know this because I’m in my mid-thirties, am childless, and couldn’t care less for the 25th of December.  Nowadays, I think of pre-packaging: of how long those chocolates had to sit in their plastic places before moms could buy the calendars at thrift stores, of how much preservatives they must have put in them to keep through the end of the year.  Of how little they have to do with Advent.

Some of my best recent memories of Christmas don’t consist of egg nog, pajamas, and fasting to afford presents.  In 2007 I spent Christmas on my best West Coast friend’s parents’ couch, just outside LA.  I’d arrived after driving on a Kero-whacky road trip from Seattle in time to search for a pickle in the Christmas tree.  In 2010, in Dessie, Ethiopia, the proprietors of a hotel that was also a brothel erected (pun intended) a tree and decorated it with clouds of white cotton—ersatz snow—to make the American travelers feel at home.  In 2011, in El Salvador, I learned that you only say Feliz Navidad! on Christmas Eve, right before the fireworks, liquor, and dance parties ensue.  In 2012, my wife and I rode bicycles out of Chiang Mai, Thailand then climbed the mountain of Doi Sutep to the Wat that overlooked the region.

This is what Christmas has become for me in my adult life.  Gone are the days when I rise giddily for cardboard chocolate and tinsel, presents and carols (I’ve always hated the carols).  Perhaps, when I reproduce, as I’m so programmed to want to do, I will revisit these things subjectively, through the focus of tiny, widened eyes.  But for now, it’s all get out of dodge and prepare for something new.  To begin again.  Empezar.  An advent.

Enter Vermont: the Green Mountain.

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For the previous three years, I’ve been home for Christmas.  And let me make it clear that I’m not ruing family time or taking for granted any of the obvious collections of Christmas benefits: time off, big-full bellies, quasi-free stuff (the “quasi” because you pay into gifts for others, right?).  But I have to admit that each year, come end of December, I get an itch to move.  It may be the end of year=end of times, winter of discontent metaphor of end-life so richly portrayed in every literary text featuring the season, but I see the new year approaching like a trumpet-call toward some kind of oblivion and off I run.

This year, I was able to sucker Amy and some friends to come up to Vermont with me for my X-Mas expatriation.  As far as state destinations go, Vermont had every likeable quality: breweries, mountains for skiing and hiking, Ben and Jerry’s, coffee, the Appalachian and Long Trails, and the dubious assignment of being a state I’d never visited before.  One AirBnB on the side of a lonely mountain later and off we went, speeding north to vacate everything we know about holidays.  (Quick and interesting note: nearly everyone I spoke with after returning lamented their own Christmases—bemoaning family fights over politics that mirror more reality shows than government and bitter eternal familial grudges spanning decades.  And I’m the crazy one for emigrating?)

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For the week, we took to exploring Burlington, imbibing at too many breweries, hiking the Long Trail (a vertical trail stretching the entire length of the state), practicing yoga (you can take the kids out of the bourgeoisie city but can’t take the bourgeoisie city out of…), team cooking, jogging dirt roads past tractors, and not once realizing it was Christmas.  We searched for and found Vermont’s Holy Grail: the sought-after beer that never leaves the state, ranked as one of the best beers in the world (who does this?)—Heady Topper, another piece of Americana to sample from its aluminum housing.  I don’t know if it’s the best anything, but it was good.DSCN1064

But what I really want to talk about is Camel’s Hump.

When we recycle things so much, they can lose their inherent value.  Christmas doesn’t have to be about religion or shopping; sometimes, it can be about climbing a mountain.  And every once in a while, “a” mountain can become “the” mountain for a person, when it enters the mythos of one’s life experience.  When a mountain is so much more than a rock that it carves into you, putting its shadow-negative weight into your memory so that you carry it always, gladly.  And you realize: mountains are big things until they are inside of you.

Two US states use foreign idioms of mountains for their namesakes: Montana, which, inserting the ~ tilde of Spanishness equals “montaña,” or “mountain” (not too subtle there Big Sky State); and Vermont—truncating some French: Vert (green), Mont (mountain).  And what do you know, there are actually green mountains in The Green Mountain State.  There’s something about mountains that draws me—heights call to climb, peaks beckon like lighthouses, seductive as if up is where I’m from.  I’ve recently gotten into rock climbing, which adds to my already innate desire to scale rock faces and immense myself in wood.  When I’m there, on mountainside, I feel simultaneously an adventurer and an athlete, a journeyer and one in-tune with my natural surroundings.  Wherever I go, I look up; I aim my sight to the great heights, then trace them down to locate the nearest path up.  Little invigorates me like a mountain ascent; little satisfies me for so short a time that I must quit my sea-level environs to again look for where I can find sky.DSCN1072

Camel’s Hump is Vermont’s third-tallest mountain, is on the state quarter (remember when your grandmother was excited about these?), and—via the Burrows Trail—follows a stream to its apex, where a bald spot in the Alpine line makes for a—you guessed it—humplike promontory where the entire region opens to the hiker intrepid enough to try it in winter.  Our design was to wake early, drive to the trailhead, and ascend.  When we arrived, it was 18 degrees, and we knew there was a long trek in front of us.  It was only 2.6 miles to the ascent, which I thought would be relatively simple.  I was, splendidly, wrong.

We donned our costumes (Hadley’s jacket included) and took to the trail.  At first, it was delicate and fair-going; there was sun, flat land, and agile legs.  Soon, however, began a treacherous (read: fun) ascent along a river frozen over by the arctic temperatures.  The climb was perilous: we had to traverse using nearby tree branches, often following Hadley in her more wizened path decisions.  It was steep, mostly solid ice, and very slow-going.  It was amazing watching Hadley’s athleticism; timid about feats of agility normally, she made daring decisions: jumping six-foot gaps, climbing ice slides, etc.DSCN1106 It seemed she was enjoying the trail as much as her human counterparts.  There was some falling and an increasing cold, but the fresh-white environment was nothing like I’d seen.  It seemed an illusion—an optical trick—the odd whiteness of it; snow frozen to twig as if in motion.  From our photos, drenched in color as we were, the backdrop seems false, a department store paper background, a Hollywood green screen; us: superimposed.  Ultimately, it was the perfect backdrop for our challenging climb.

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Using much more time than we’d expected, we reached a small clearing about 0.3 miles from the summit.  Here, fortified by flasked bourbon, some of us pushed on to peak (Had came too).  The rest of the ascent was pretty ridiculous.  It was all up and it was all ice.  Without scrambling, we’d never have made it.  In fact, I even had to boost Hadley a couple times.  Eventually, however, exiting the timberline and meeting the clouds, we broke forth onto the mountain’s crown, the eponymous hump of the camel.  The temperature dropped; our beards were frozen stiff with our exhales, but we’d answered the call that reached us 4000 ft. below: come to the top of the mountain.DSCN1099

The valley, the ranges. No words.

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Going down was equal parts fun and horrifying.  Often, we simply had to sit and slide down long sections of frozen river, as we didn’t have crampons or polls. DSCN1102 There was a lot of falling, a lot of turtling (a word I’d learned hiking the Appalachian Trail that essentially means, when hiking downward on slippery rocks, let your feet come out from under you if you slip so that you land on your pack rather than some other unprotected part of your body), a lot of laughing, a lot of damning our mountain, and a lot of celebrating the ludicrousness of it all.  Darkness came quickly, but after what seemed hours and hours (six in total), we made it out just as dusk fell.

All of us were bruised, sore.

Aches.

Hadley: cold/limp tail.

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Flowering hip bruises.

Sprains.

But here’s the thing.

Beyond the pain, beyond the treachery of the whole thing, it’s important to understand what climbing that mountain meant.  It’s not all fun.  It’s not easy.  You challenge your body and your fear beyond capacity, you struggle, you hurt, but you reach the apex and make it out again, only to look for the next higher peak, the next ascent.  You see some of the most beautiful things on Earth. What that is isn’t just some random Vermont vacation Monday hike; it’s life.  It’s everything that life is and is supposed to be.  The bruises remind of the beauty; the scars prove endurance beyond the impossible.  I will not remember most of my life when I relinquish my living, but I will remember Camel’s Hump with my very good friends and very good dog—saddled with ice packs and soreness after, one thing that cannot be taken from us is the view from that peak, when it called us, and we came.DSCN1097

Just like living.  For that mountain, too, I come.

That night, I was reading Hiram Bingham’s seminal and controversial memoir Inca Land, about “discovering” Machu Picchu (he did no such thing).  Very strangely, I came across a passage where he spoke of his father’s teaching him to love mountains, “My father was an ardent mountain climber, glorying not only in the difficulties of the ascent, but particularly in the satisfaction coming from the magnificent view to be obtained at the top.”  I thought this was apt: glory in the view and the difficulty.  I never dog-ear pages, but I dog-eared this one.vermont-015

On the day our Vermont vacation ended, Amy, Hadley and I were the last to leave.  One last morning walk on the frosted grass, a last run through our haunted house, a few waves goodbye to folks from whom we live only a few blocks away in the big city to which we’d all be heading back.

I opened the attached garage and chose from a collection of sleds—blue-to-orange, toboggan-to-disk—the one that might slide the fastest.  I climbed the hill on the property slowly, aimed at the house, sat, lifted my legs, and let gravity pull me back toward the new year.  A new calendar.  An advent.

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—I dedicate this post to my friend Alex Wildman, whose abbreviated name indeed is A. Wildman, and couldn’t be more fitting.  Years ago, he sold me my first real pair of hiking boots and is now climbing a pretty steep mountain against cancer.  I have to say though, never before have I felt so sorry for the disease.  I think it picked the wrong fight.

Hold fast; all storms pass.

The Spray-painted Underbelly of Undulating Umbrellas: Bigotry and Complicity underneath the Glitter of the Mummers

It has been thus far well documented how much an abomination much of the Mummers parade has become for Philadelphia and the United States as a whole.  The abject, unapologetic, and pathetic display of racism, misogyny, and homo/transphobia illustrated by many New Year’s Associations are threatening to the very fabric of our democratic society.  Every year, we—as Philadelphians—have to be embarrassed by the hordes of draconian “tradition” who bum rush the PHL 17 cameras, undulating umbrellas bobbing like the booze in bellies, while their children learn how to hate.

To be clear, I’ve never liked the Mummers.  Maybe that one time I had a friend who lived on Two Street and we watched Penske box trucks blaring “Who Let the Dogs Out” (ten years after that was cool) while face-painted celebrants threw Pabst tallboys to everyone in the crowd (including kids) and the police just stood there smirking.  Maybe, at that time, I was like, “Wow, this is a real Philadelphia tradition.”  And maybe it is.

But maybe it’s time for it to be over.  Some things deserve to die out.

Because here’s the truth, whether Philadelphians want to hear it or not: the Mummers are shameful on three major counts, which can no longer be ignored:

1) The Mummers Parade is internationally televised, so a city that is on the up and up for progress, development, and prestige is beleaguered by a yearly reminder that smoking cigarettes and drinking Pabst on Broad Street while shouting racial and homophobic epithets is underneath Philly’s shine.

2) The Mummers represent the worst of Philly.  Philadelphia is a racist city.  Perhaps no more racist than any other city in the US, but unlike Chicago or New York or San Francisco, Philadelphia’s racism is on blatant display every January 1st.  It’s a foolish citizen of this country to claim that racism is extinct or dead.  As a culture, we like to cloak this (“Hey, we got a black president!!!”).  But the truth of the matter is we live in a city that is majority minority, but some traditions represent blue collar prejudices that have supposedly been eradicated from Americana.  The Mummers prove there is much to still be fought for—perhaps we should at least thank them for exposing the false consciousness of racial democracy in the US.  The majority of Mummers are blue collar, Christian, white, working class people with little education and experience in diversity.  I’m not trying to be a hater here; I’m just calling it.  The harshest thing about this is the people they hurt.  Imagine being black or Latin American or trans or a woman and—on the first day of the year, a time of new beginnings and clean slates—you see people in black/brownface cursing homosexuals and mocking trans identity, pissing in the alleys and punching people.  And here you are, in the fifth most populous city in the United States, this new mecca of industry and development.  Here you are in Philadelphia and this is what you wake up to in the new year.

3) The kids.  Racism exists because it is impossible to change the minds of weak-minded people.  We will never convince uneducated, inexperienced stalwarts of a bygone time that human beings should be treated as such.  It just won’t happen.  Our only hope as a species is that the next generations will advance and evolve beyond this blind injustice, allowing their sick forefathers—and their crass ideas—to die off.  I hate to be so blunt about it, but I think I’m right here—we just have to wait for them to die off.  Unfortunately, there are children both in the parade and behind the fencing of Broad Street and Two Street watching this.  They see mocking Jenner as okay.  They see mocking Mexicans as okay.  And they can perpetuate the fear and insolence when it’s their turn to don the golden shoes.

Listen.
I’m not hating on the Mummers just because it’s in vogue to do so.  I’m hurt by what I saw, because I have a tremendous love and pride for this city.  I see so much good and wonder here that I am thankful daily for living in its bounds.  But I also agree with Julian Sands, from his book Flaubert’s Parrot, when he says, “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously.”  So here you go Philly, do something.

January first made me want to move out of Philly; find some cabin in the Poconos where I can be a misanthropic hermit and not believe what I saw.  Then, I instantly realized that that solves nothing.  Rather than run: run to the suburbs, run to disbelief; I need to stay and challenge this.  And I happen to be a writer, so…

I’ve written about the Mummers in two pieces of fiction.  When I complain here, I do so only about the Wench and Comic brigades that participate in these indiscretions.  Note that I do not believe all Mummers participate in this behavior.  I think the Fancy brigades are amazing, I think the String Bands are remarkable; hell, I even think the Pabst consumption is awesome—it’s so Philly.  But things have to change.

Here are my suggestions:

1) Boycott the Mummers.  Until these things are addressed, we don’t go to the parade.  We don’t go to the museum.  We don’t give them money.

2) We punish the NYAs that participate in this behavior.  Yearly suspensions and defunding of any group where an individual of the group or the entire theme is racist/misogynistic/homo/transphobic.

3) The city defunds them.  Here’s the most important part of my diatribe: WE pay for the Mummers to act this way.  That’s right, the city gives money to this parade, which means my tax dollars allow for this to continue.  If there is a sustained silence, the city is complicit in the infraction.  I’m a fan of free speech—as a writer, I have to be.  And I’m okay with a bunch of racist idiots shouting about how racist they are because that’s their American right.  But I’m not going to pay to enable it.

Jim Kenney is a South Philly guy who probably knows thousands of Mummers.  It will be interesting to see how he responds to what should continue to be voices culminating in a banshee cry against this blatant and overt horror.

Until things change, I will not strut and my silly string will remain in its can.

Montreal and Two Grandparents in a Pushcart

Traveling forces people to understand that their human experience is not the human experience.

In the span of a couple months, I traveled to Montreal to run a half marathon, two of my grandfathers died, and I was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for one of my short stories.  This is how things come together.

In a lot of ways, it makes no sense to drive eight hours from Philadelphia to Montreal, bike twenty miles, run 13.1 miles, then drive eight hours home in time for work the following week.  In a lot of ways, such a decision is mired to criticism: convention yelling “Why!” as if adventure was a word soaked in the pejorative juice of expectation, tradition, and rudimentariness.  But when my Mamu died in 1995, my Papu (her husband)—who had already buried their two children—got a motorcycle license at the age of 78 and rode around the country, yelling “Why not?” back at a world that tried to break him; so, it’s in me to not make sense either.  Maybe there is something to blood relation; maybe there’s truth to the thought that progeny harbors some atomic thing of the ancestor.  Whatever the reason behind things, here’s the fact of the matter: I had never been to Montreal, so I went to Montreal.

By the Atwood Market on the Canal de Lachine, there was an art display that read: Je voudrais me reposer en paix avant de mourir (I would like to rest in peace before I die).  I don’t like to rest when I travel—ask my beleaguered wife, who I made fly from Vietnam to Brussels on her 30th birthday and hike into the Grand Canyon on her 32nd.  She’s no beach-chair bad-novel traveler, but likes to at least sit around a little bit when vacationing.  I have no human conception of this activity.  And this may be a character flaw, but as every second of travel is sacred to me, I am piously motivated to be in constant motion.  The requisite of sleep: my albatross.  To that end, maybe it was a good thing that she didn’t come to Montreal.DSCN0937.JPG

With my smoothie and panini, all ordered in the broken faux-formal French I had begun to learn, I sat alone at an outdoor table of the Atwood Market, watching children run through stalls of verdant vegetables and fruit, contemplating the city I had just spent the day cycling through to its extreme ends.

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Atwood Market

Later, when I’d tell the young lady who rented one of the rooms of her condo to me for the 48 hours I was there where I’d been all day, she’d exclaim, “Comment etonnant!” though she could have said, “Comment etrange!” (I was still getting used to listening to the particular phonetics of Quebecoise French).

What people always say is that Montreal is a “Little Paris” or that it is the “Paris of North America.”  What this really signifies is, to some people, any place that harbors French as the municipal language must be just like Paris.  (Mexico City must be just like Madrid!!).  Here’s the truth: Montreal is nothing like Paris (I’ve been to the latter three times).  It doesn’t look like Paris, it doesn’t sound like Paris, and it doesn’t taste like Paris.  But I don’t say these things to be dismissive.  When we begin to compare places—especially based on rudimentary elements like a shared language—we instantaneously create a hierarchy of derivatives.  One place must be better than another.  Trust me: I’m from Philadelphia; for a city so unfortunately stuck between NY and DC, such hierarchies become disproportionate from any one place’s grandeur.  All of this to say Montreal is its own place. DSCN0914 It has its own culture and architecture and food and language.  Go there looking for baguettes and sauces that end in aise and you’ve really missed the point.

For most of the year, it’s cold in Montreal.  The people, personalities a mix of the cosmopolitan urbanity of big cities and the charming self-degradation of most of Canada, tend to live in tiny apartments or condos that are their only protection from frighteningly oppressive winters.  In a Learned Helplessness sort of way, the roughness of the intemperate season is simply a part of life; one accepts one’s lot because there isn’t a lot else for one to do about it.  There is, I suppose, an attempt to frustrate the season through innovation and engineering, by way of the massive underground mall that takes uDSCN0913p most of the downtown’s subsurface space and simultaneously allows for pedestrian traffic in the more unbearable times.  But really, Montreal’s response to the oppressive winters—and this is the best part of the city—is to be one of the best outdoor cities during the truncated, calm, non-winter.  I’ve never understood the proposed dichotomy wherein folks suggest a separation between city living with the great outdoors.  Perhaps a better observation would be the oppositional binary of suburbia and the outdoors.  But in cities, people tend to spend much of their time outside.  True, we’re not talking woods and mountains here, but outdoors is outdoors.  In other words, there’s a lot of wild in civilization.  With Montreal, a city that only gets to explore the outdoors a few months out of the year, a great effort is spent in trading in the cramped condos for parks galore.DSCN0894

Parc du Mont-Royal is literally a tree-covered mountain bobbling like a beautiful boil out of the center of town.  Designed by Frederick Olmstead (of the “I designed Central Park” Olmsteads), Mont-Royal is swirl-sliced by bike and hiking paths that host more innumerable amounts of city denizens than I care to enumerate.  Most paths culminate at an observation platform that boasts views of the entire city and surrounding environs.

Knowing little of where I was or how I was to traverse the city mountain, I steered my bike in its direction nevertheless, content to get lost on its paths.  Under shade, I propelled myself against the uphill.  Having transported my bike the eight hours on the back of my car, I felt it would be criminal to not make the best of it; so I sped along the gravel, took detours through the dirt, and selfied my heart out with the downtown’s biggest buildings at my back.  I bought my Gatorade from a young woman at the summit (“Lequelle?” “Le bleu, s’il vous plait.”) and flew down the mountain without pedaling—stupid smile inescapably plastered to my sweaty face.  The mountain is Montreal’s jeweled feature, but there was much more of the city to explore and I had mere precious hours.DSCN0919  Writing back on it, it’s strange; the day I recount had such a long grandeur to it.  In progress, it felt neverending—like I was a bobbling cork adrift in the sea-tranquility of being alone in a new place (it’s weird to not hear your own voice; so I’d hum).  I don’t attribute this so much to Montreal itself, but to travel; when people take themselves so far out of the normalcy of their everyday lives, there can be a stunning result.  I like that cork bobbling metaphor; I’ve learned that there’s a sort of—je ne sais quoi—joy in letting rather than choosing every element of life.  Getting out of bed in the morning is as much an onus as it is a privilege to be amongst the world without really knowing or caring to know what the world will do to us in all its spinning.  One of my most blessed feelings is bumping into random people, other corks!, (people who woke up somewhere else, thought something else, wanted something else) and sharing some stupid space with them for some small time.  It really wraps the whole human business up in a pretty nutshell.  This is relevant to travel but maybe also to life.

There were protected bike lanes, there was that weird stadium where the Montreal Expos played, there was all the glory of poutines at outdoor cafés.  I rode through the city until my legs about gave out, then instantaneously chided myself because I had a long run the following day.  But, teeth blue and veins filled with sugar, I felt such an intimacy with the city.  Who cares if I died mid-marathon the next day?  At least I’d be buried there. DSCN0932

When I ran the half marathon the next day (surviving), I traversed bridges to and from islands, cocked my head curiously at the Biodome, negotiated the broken glass of the industrial river port, and ran just a little bit faster when the locals shouted, “Allez allez!”  The marathon medal might be cheesy, but bring on the fromage, because it didn’t hang so heavy that day.

There wasn’t a lot of resting in Montreal, but I was at peace, and I got it before I die.DSCN0897

 


 

Edgar Allan Poe taught us that, though we may never recover from the death of a loved one, it is a part of our human condition.  Represented by the raven, if we were to mark the sufferings of those around us, there would be an unkindness (the collective noun for ravens) circling the heads of most.  This is philosophy; this is literature.  What it hopes to illustrate and maybe thusly  negate is that there are aspects of the human condition—particularly death—that warp us, that bend us like vinyl records left in the backseat of a car in summer.  We are weakened at the fragility of those we cannot protect, of ourselves.  Stealing from Shakespeare now, we all owe God a death; it just so happened that two of my grandfathers paid their due within a couple months of one another.

Here is my eulogy.

In an incidental happenstance, one of my grandfathers was named Robert Walton, though this one did not chronicle the end of Victor Frankenstein in the arctic.  This Robert Walton was interned in a Chinese prison camp during the Korean war, ate tuna from a can, and idiosyncratically remained upstairs during family holidays if anyone in the family was sick (or, had been sick any of the previous weeks of the month).  He never spoke about being a POW, about what he went through, but I believe some of his unique personality traits were a direct result of what he experienced there.  Growing up, I seldom thought of it; that was just Pop Pop.  Now, I am grateful; because men like him suffered in war, men like me didn’t have to.  When he passed, the company fired blanks into the air.  After, I walked around the space the company had occupied, finding the spent shells to give to my relatives and to place on the windowsill by which I now write.

I did a similar thing when Papu died, a short time later, the shell casings littered intermittedly in the graveyard in rural West Virginia, where we had to drive wooded back roads for half an hour from the main road in order to find the plots where he would join my Mamu, his wife, and my grandfather Arch, Papu’s son.  Papu was really my great-grandfather and he died when he was 97, having buried his wife and two children.  When someone gets to be that age, it’s hard to be completely sad at their passing; the belief is that they’d lived a long life.  Perhaps a long enough life.  But one drawback is their funeral is rather empty.  You bury enough people—family, friends—and there’s little anyone to bury you.

This is not the first time I’ve written about Papu.  As a figure, a figurehead, a character, I am strangely drawn to him.  He featured greatly at the end of my first novel, Into the Everything, and in a more recent short story “Harold and Madeline,” which to date is—in my own opinion—my best work.  He was a strangely intrepid man; for most, who would deteriorate to nothing at the loss of all his immediate family, he found a strange purpose to life in simply living.  Upon an old hill in an old house that used to overlook a valley but for forty years now overlooked an Interstate, he orchestrated the myriad plans of the end of his life.  When I’d visit him (admittedly, regrettably: less as I aged too) he’d entertain me for hours with stories that can only aptly be called yarns about flying sea planes in Vancouver (see the Canadian connection?) and happening upon a concentration camp in Poland while a soldier in WWII (note this: it will be relevant when I begin talking about Pushcarts).  He told stories until I had to stop him, until I was too tired to listen anymore.  He never seemed to exhaust himself, never seemed to not laugh at his sad but energetic life.  The unopened mail he was sent piled on his coffee table (his eyes were too weak for him to read anymore) and cascaded to the shag carpet below, and he would look at me and remark about the remarkableness of my likeness to his son, my grandfather.  And I was saddled with the strange feeling of looking like a man I never got to know (he died when I was three), of looking like this man’s son, who he’d lost so many years before.

At his funeral, everyone said I looked like Archie.  My red beard (“You’re grandpa was so handsome.  He’s the reason I married a redhead.”), my stature (tall, broad-shouldered), my playing a stringed instrument (me: guitar; Archie: mandolin).  At Papu’s viewing, people looked over at me wearily, as if they were looking at a spirit, but also lovingly, like they missed that spirit.  I sat as still as possible, giving them that solidarity only achieved in the hope that one lives on in their offspring; I was also still as to not tremble.  The man in the coffin did not look like Papu.  He looked the way funeral homes did their best to remake vitality in inanimation: plastic and proxy.  Gone was the childish thought that he’d open an eye, look over.  Gone was a great-grandfather who, I’d learn—like me—liked to sleep with his feet over the end of the bed.

And I looked like his son.

What struck me most about how Papu was spoken about at his funeral was people’s remembrance of his guile to do whatever he pleased; to bob (perhaps) corklike.  The similarities between us felt so surreal, like someone was playing a trick on me.  But why would they?  I was that distant relative who lived in a big city out East; there was no purchase in picking on the Yankee (Phillie?), so I had to just accept that there was something elastic between us, stretching despite distance to hold a connection.

The shell from his military salute is on the same windowsill as my other grandfather’s, rifle casings side by side; I feel that elasticity even now, despite a distance that is more than geographic.Camera Roll 8-24 009


 

I’ve been writing more and more about the Holocaust, about Jewish identity.  My particular claim to Judaism comes from my father’s side, which is the other side of the family from which my two grandfathers died.  In other words, there was no special, organic or genetic reason that would connect my Papu’s war experience with the other side of my family’s extermination experience.  If anything, we’d have to begin thinking in some sort of metaphysical realm to justify all this.  I don’t think we should do that—it’s a blog (the sound of the monosyllabic phonetic seeming to indicate that meaningfulness should check its pretention at the door).  What I will do, however, is that silly, clever thing that writers like to do: connect two seemingly meaningless elements through prose and paragraph buffers that demand purposefulness in all of the randomness of our cork bobbling (I swear, I’ll stop, soon).

I wrote “Threads” after a Holocaust Literature class I took a couple summers ago.  It was published (graciously) by the same literary journal that nominated me for the Pushcart Prize: Glassworks out of Rowan University.  If you’re not my mom or my wife and you’re somehow reading this, go pick up the latest copy.  They’re real nice folks.

The Holocaust is literally so complicated that no literature could hope to do it justice.  Frankly, perhaps there is no justice in a thing so unjust, so writing about it is immediately futile and instantaneously important.  This is the thesis of “Threads.”  I can’t comprehend what went through Papu’s mind when his troop stumbled upon a concentration camp, but I tried to articulate it in fiction.  In “Harold and Madeline,” Harold (née: Papu) sends his wife a letter the day after they find the camp.  It reads thusly:

Maddy—

                                    Damndest thing.  There we are walking the fields—you should see the endlessness of the fields; it’s like the whole damn continent is uninhabited save for dry produce.  Everything almost yellow.  But there we are, field walking, and we hit what they’re calling a camp.  Well, I won’t bore you a bit about it, but I’ll say it’s a shame what folks do when pressed (or not).  Sometimes I try to figure what kind of species we are, anyway.  Mutts seem better, times (how’s ours?).  But all that’s morose.  Strange, main thing was it made me think of you all again.  Stronger, though, this time.  I sort of just began to feel appreciative.  Funny, huh, appreciative all these miles away.  But appreciative still. Don’t know why, miss your hair.  And don’t go around flaunting it when I get home and I complain about you arguing to always get what you want.  It’s the heat of the moment, Mad, remember that.  Don’t whip this old leaf out when I won’t move the couch or pull out a jutting nail.

                        Love to Archie, love to Kate.

                        —Har

That’s the best I can do. Two pieces of fiction talking about something I could never properly talk about.  There you have it.  And for that (well, for the other story, “Threads”) I was nominated for a Pushcart.  My first literary glory for failing before I ever started.

And here’s the thing: there’s no way in any world I’ll win this thing—there are like, what?, 1 million nominees?—but I’m still really honored for the nod.  Very seldom will something like this happen to a writer in their lifetime, so permit me for a second the vanity to hope Papu would be proud, Robert would be proud, that their grandson cared enough about their stories that he used them to make the war-torn world not seem so embarrassingly wretched.

I’m not yet at a place to miss them.  Perhaps I’m too near their deaths.  Or perhaps the trace of them in me is enough to keep them near, like the subtle gunpowder smell that remains in the shells of their salutes.  When that smell dissipates, maybe then I’ll feel something different, write something different.  I can only now pledge to try to live my life the way they did: to brave war so others won’t have to (I’ll have to figure this out), to live without consideration for correctness or worry of standards.  The best way to honor someone is to mirror their greatest traits.  So, if you can’t find me, look in the place you’d expect the least.


 

Running a marathon is kind of a stupid thing.  What bunch of geniuses got together and thought it would be a great idea to do something the body is not designed to do? DSCN0952 After my first full marathon, I told the Dean of my college and he said, “Didn’t the first guy who did that die?”  He was referring to Pheidippides, the soldier who died after running the distance between Marathon and Athens to deliver a message; what he was really asking was, “Why?”

But the only thing running through my mind as I finished teaching, packed my gear, affixed my bike to the back of the car, drove 450 miles, answered inane border questions, biked all over, ate too much (poutine: yum; Montreal bagel: eww), drank nothing (training, bro, training), ran around, packed up, and drove home was: “Why the Hell not?”

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Travelogue: Peru

DSCN0344            At 3 o’clock in the morning I heard the loose rap against my tent’s tarp door alongside what had become the typical call for mate de coca by young red-eyed porters with a thermos.  We’d known it was coming, the early start, and so our things were packed; but nothing really prepares you for the deep darkness—the Milky Way-seeable darkness—achieved at altitude on the Inca Trail.  Nothing prepares you, not even tea with 1/5th the alkaloid power of a line of cocaine.  I exited into the darkness, the headlamps of the porters illuminating first my face, than their thermos, than a metal mug of the Peruvian panacea for altitude sickness.  I burned my tongue with it, looked out at the Milky Way, and then at Machu Picchu Mountain, around which was the terminus.  The lost city.  The enigmatic Incan fortress or burial ground or summer vacation home of the king or whatever: the Machuest Picchuest citadel around.

I put on my boots.

* * *

DSCN0228  In being perhaps momentarily reductive, Peru is a country of relatively coexisting binaries; its duality pervades in its east-west geography which, like in much of Latin America, is represented by the nomenclature “orient” (East) and “occident” (West).  Lima, the capital, is a metropolitan, contemporary, post-colonial megacity in the middle of a coastal desert.  Spanish is spoken there.  St. Martin’s square—if not for the red-and-white striped flags—could be Paris.  Lima’s complement, Cusco, in the orient, is in the midst of the Andes mountains: a lush, verdant place where Incan culture thrives—where Quechua is spoken—, where there are guinea pigs on dinner tables and there’s a whole lot of altitude.

The complements continue:

Seafood of the occident, bone-in four-footed meats of the orient.

Westernized culture of the occident, native culture of the orient.

The grey marine layer of the coast, the grey rainclouds of the mountains.

The food fusions: Chifa (Chinese/Peruvian); Nekkei (Japanese/Peruvian).

The lavish haves, the abject have-nots.

I believe that every place in the entire world has something worthwhile to explore.  DSCN0454If one is intrepid enough, if one chances the fear of discomfort that absolutely comes with leaving home, than the world becomes this priceless thing; it reveals in its most unexpected corners its rarest prize: that it is worthy of being called our home.  Amy and I left for Peru for two weeks to discover its binaries, to walk around its mountains, but most importantly, to look in its corners.  Because life’s a panorama, not a telescope, we have to look out from the highest places, not just ahead on narrow paths.

Cusco

DSCN0255Cusco is over 11,000 feet above sea level, which means you’re going to wake up in the middle of the night with Vader’s mind-grip squeezing your lungs like a stress ball.  Sometimes, walking Cusco’s romantically antiquated streets can feel like running an uphill marathon breathing through a straw.  There’s just no air in the air.  Or, more sciencey mixed with slang: there ain’t a lot of oxygen in that jawn.  So it’s best to take Cusco as Cusco makes you take it: slowly.  And really, there’s no better way; the city is, after all, a delightfully beautiful place.  If you can ignore the camera-clad hordes of tourists (I’m not casting stones; I brought a camera) and the ware-peddlers abounding, you’re left with the remnants of two cultures particularly proud of their architecture.

It’s very necessary (S n P—throwback) for me to mention that the two DSCN0265aforementioned cultures did not coexist as well as their structures seem to beautifully.  Cusco, being the center of the Incan civilization, was home to temples and palaces that are all, essentially, gone now.  In the great imperial European way, when the Spanish came along, they determined anything not oriented to the Christian God heretical, and thusly tore down all of the Incan buildings in town.  In their stead, the Spanish built what we see now in Cusco: huge, ornate, cathedrals (seriously, there are four cathedrals in the center of town, which begs the question: how many do you need?) and buildings with ornamented balconies.DSCN0398  And because we in the West are so oriented to the West, the buildings are astounding.  But thinking so immediately calls into question the cost of such construction and the predisposition of preference: do I think European cathedrals are pretty because I’m a European descendant?  Psychology aside, it’s valuable to be mindful of how treacherous colonialism was (is) despite the beauty that remains.DSCN0264

In the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s center square, hawkers hawked and hawks (see: pigeons) scoured for leftovers.  The cathedral on the north side of the square was built atop the destroyed Incan central temple, rendering the ground holy in two cultures—something one can feel.  Interestingly, if not somewhat arrogantly, the Spanish built the cathedral out of the remnants of another destroyed citadel just outside of the downtown (Sacsayhuaman: epitheted phonetically as “sexy woman”).  So, the Spanish church is made from Incan stone on Incan religious ground.  In a lot of ways, this juxtaposition is very representative of Peru as a whole.DSCN0420

Passing through the Plaza de Armas, a bootblack told me my zapatos were malos.  Yo lo sé, amigo.  Yo lo sé.

It’s touristy; it’s loud.  It’s like any place in any town: it’s the historic center and it’s where you’re supposed to go.  So go.  But then, like hell, get out of there.  There are people trying to sell tourists cocaine, there’s a Northface store, there are people trying to herd you into every restaurant in a never-ending cacophony of bad food one-upmanship (here’s a great phrase to know: ya comi).  There’s a Starbucks.

The real sauce, the place you’ll find any—and it seems every—well-balanced Cusqueño enjoying a lunch is the San Pedro market.  DSCN0280There are tourists there, but most of them are too timid to sit on the long, parallel, white pews huddled close to fellow humans to enjoy a lomo soltado, chicha morado, and bowl of soup for around an American dollar from one of the hundreds of women nestled into 4X4 stalls with nothing more than ingredients and a stove.  No tables; no bullshit.  Obviously, this is one of the best places in the world.  Wherever you go, go to the markets.  This is where people collect their necessities and eat their lunches.  If you ever want to know where the locals are, they’re in the markets (and I don’t mean ACME).

DSCN0329DSCN0330We also trekked out to the Templo de la Luna, a cave-laden spiritual site in the mountains just north of the city.  We took a cab to the site and spelunked for a while before walking back.  Though I enjoyed the templo, the long descent from the mountain and through the outlying neighborhoods of Cusco was, for me, the treat.  Destinations are not as interesting as the routes that lead us to and from them.  The city opened itself up to us, a beige blanket, until we sunk beneath the rooftops and were again in its streets. DSCN0318

Back at the plaza, there was an Incan festival replete with music, dancing, and traditional garb.  Cusco’s motto is “Ciudad de todos”: everyone’s city.  And despite a history of violence and colonial subjugation, ancient customs seem alive in this handsome place.  Maybe “everyone’s city” is a euphemism of inclusion distracting from an oppressive reality, but standing there amongst the dancing people, not being looked upon sidelong at all, I felt the tremblings of something indescribable that—without my even knowing it—would hit me with might the next day.DSCN0380

The Inca Trail

In my travel journal, written under the glow of a LED flashlight in a tent while rain fell in toddler finger taps on the tarp, the sky so impossibly full of stars that I had to look away, was the only line I could think to write at the end of my first day on the Inca Trail: “And there’s nothing—NOTHING—I could do to describe any of this—so I won’t.”

DSCN0442     Despite my penchant for long dashes, this line resonates with me most in how I remember the trail now that it exists only in my memory.  And despite that night’s certainty of the sublime indescribable, it’s my job here, now, as a travel memoirist, to do the very thing I found impossible then: describe it.

The Inca Trail is a rite of passage.  It is a religious experience,DSCN0457 stretching from the aptly named Sacred Valley not too far from the city of Cusco all the way to Machu Picchu.  Really, it’s only around 30 miles and can be traversed in a couple days; but what it lacks in distance it makes up for in ecosystems, vistas, and ruins that are in no way ruinous.  (Note: the Inca constructed hundreds of miles of trails; what is now referred to as the Inca Trail is the previously mentioned stretch hikers can trek with the blessing of the Peruvian government).

There’s an easier way to get to Machu Picchu.  One can take a train to Aguas Calientes (which is just a nickname for Machu Picchu Pueblo, but even Google Maps calls it by the nickname) then a bus to the front gate.  And listen, this is okay.  I understand that physically, hiking thirty miles at close to 14,000 feet is impossible for some folks.  But, if you have the stamina and the wherewithal, the hike is a spiritual pilgrimage.  It was one of the more valuable experiences of my life and I would reDSCN0491commend it over the shortcut to anyone interested in seeing Machu Picchu.

So here’s where a little bit of controversy comes along: the only way to access the Inca Trail is via permit issued by the government.  I’m fine with this; the trail is in Peru, Machu Picchu is a global destination, why shouldn’t they be able to capitalize on the tourist economy?  I’m also okay with the mode of transferring permits to tourists: through trekking agencies.  What this means is that if you want to hike the Inca Trail, you have to pay to do so with a hiking group, which are mostly based out of Cusco and with which you must book your trip nearly six months in advance for the popular season.  Not all these groups are the same.  There’s a humanitarian outcry that should be heeded concerning the treatment of porters hired to carry tourists’ crap along the trail.  In effect, porters carry tents, water, food, and—for extra—even your personal stuff.  Some agencies force porters to carry despicable amounts of weight for low pay.  On the trail, we saw such porters, often wearing flip-flops, with packs that had no waist straps.DSCN0504

Aware of these pertinent issues, we did research and went with an organization called Llama Path, which, to the best of our knowledge, pays fair wages, provides a house and gear for porters, and limits the weight they can carry.  We pay more, but we also avoid some of the more nefarious enterprises of unfair human labor.  Even this being the case, it’s weird to have someone carry your stuff for you.  There’s a conundrum in it all: portering has servile roots and can be a frustratingly subjugative practice, but it is the only way to hike the trail and it gives people jobs in a country where jobs are scarce.  Most of the porters are from poor villages outside of Cusco.  Some don’t even speak Spanish (in favor of Quechua) and so carrying the propane tanks and water of paying tourists is a way to help them earn money for their families.DSCN0550

Beyond what the porters were mandated to carry, I carried the rest of my own stuff—about 50 lbs. worth—in my own pack; I just didn’t like another man carrying my crap.  And it’s not a bravado move; I just felt like a rich white guy (comparatively rich) who was trying to get a poor brown guy to carry shit uphill for thirty miles.  I know it’s more complicated than that, but I was very mindful of the problem when I was there.  We tried to be more responsible, but regardless, it was a tough reality of our being there.DSCN0532

The porters would hike in groups up ahead and set up camp for us.  They’d have food waiting.  I was never exactly sure what they felt for us (I can imagine), but they seemed content, at least in one another’s company.

The trek begins at Km 82 and follows the Rio Vilcanota for quite a while before heading up into the mountains.  On the second day of the hike, we scaled to Dead Woman’s Pass; at just around 14,000 feet above sea level, the pass is accessed by steep climb where hikers are forced to break every few steps because of the dearth of oxygen.  It was a challenging ascent, doubtlessly, but I was buoyed by the flow of other humans in similar struggle and for the DSCN0511promise of incomprehensible vistas upon arrival.  Getting there, a kind porter handed me a cup of mate de coca—a stimulant tea made from leaves of the coca plant and said to help with altitude sickness; this is dubious—which I took gladly.  I sat, laughed, and looked out over what may well be one of the more perfect sceneries our spinning stone has produced.  Agnostics believed a little more.  What was most apparent was why the Inca chose this land: they were as paralyzed and rapt with it as I was, as we all were.  As anyone would have to be, seeing it.DSCN0510

The vistas were incomparable; the Andes, replicating in crests as far as I could see, faded a shade the further away they got.  Some were rock, some were tree-lavish, some were snowcapped.  All were indicative of the mighty wonder that is plate tectonics, when the fingertips of the Earth’s crust steeple together to pitch the land where it seems we can’t go.  But being human, of course, we are drawn to them.  Mountains.  We’re drawn to them and we go.

The trail was everything and nothing I expected.  When I hiked the Appalachian Trail through PA six years ago, I was told that hiking great distances is something you do because there’s nothing else to do.  A trail tells you where to go, you just go.  And so the Inca Trail just went, and I went with it.

DSCN0560   The Inca sites along the way described a culture of artistry and industry only impeded by Western colonial trespass, but what was most astounding was their reverence for nature and community.  The Inca, like many other Native American populations, were very connected with spirituality, the Earth, astronomy, and brotherhood.  Sitting on the tiered terraces of one of the sites, I couldn’t help but think back on my own culture and how disconnected from spirituality (minus dogma) and reverence we are.  Our lives are so intellectual and independent that we may have lost something essential within ourselves.  Maybe we should examine our lives in a bigger context, as not an absolute but as a transitory action—a single leaf falling—that should be spent in the pursuit of connection.  Our existence is so incomprehensible, so primordially strange, that any hope to discover it is an immediate movement toward vanity.  The Holy Grail.  But really, we’re just people walking on a trail, who will get to an end.  So perhaps we should just meet others, treat them like little gods, have experiences, take what comes, and expire.DSCN0579

The Inca Trail is a special thing.  A difficult hike.  Ancient history.  Mountains.  And man does it get you thinking.

On the last day, after our 3 o’clock start, after the mate de coca, after a short final hike, we arrived at the first vantage of Machu Picchu, to watch the sun gently rise and illuminate our path there.  Sun Gate sunrise.  When the world was fully awake, entonces, fuimos abajo.

DSCN0602 We went down to enter the famed city.

And what we found—were tourists.

Hordes of them.  Flocks of them.  Tankards of tons of them.  Endless endlessnesses of them.  They bore make-up, perfume, flip-flops, fanny packs, and were often aggressive.  Machu Picchu was crowded, speckled with the diverse colors of tourists’ t-shirts.  It rang with the clicking of a million cameras.  It was Disneyland.

The truth is, Machu Picchu was an amazing place, but I think there is too much focus on the structures of the city.  For the Inca, the structures were just where people lived, where food was stored, etc.  DSCN0625The real treat was not looking in, but looking out.  In doing that, we got a sense as to why the Inca built their magnificent city there.  I’m certain that if one of the original architects could be there today, he/she’d tell us to stop looking at the structures and start looking out at all the wonder around the walls: the valley, the mountains, the river.  The Inca built Machu Picchu where it is using the same rubric by which we value houses today: location location location.

Machu Picchu was just a symbol.  It was an excuse.  Beautiful in the extreme for sure, but really just a terminus.

We’ve been warned often enough to know that favoring destinations over routes is a foolDSCN0634-hardy endeavor.  The trail, all of it, was, well, what was sacred.

I don’t know much about the world or existence, but I know this is right: traveling, walking, with loved ones and friends by your side.  What the Hell else is there to life?

LimaDSCN0650

Lima is a sprawling, big, complicated, grey, dirty, congested, insane, wild, convoluted city; in short, everything I like about my metropolises.  It is, like most cities, a place where the cultural heritage of present-day Peru can be found; it is the locus of art, food, and humanity: as 7.5 million folks call it home.  If you’re from a big city, like I am, you’ll find a lot of comfort in Lima.  You’ll figure out the public transportation system, know how to Yelp good restaurants, and know perfect sidewalk café people-watching etiquette.  You may also be more apt at stomaching the reality of Lima’s darker sides, not unlike those of many or any urban areas.DSCN0651

But wait.  It’s easy to get caught up so much in the grandiosity of a grand city and in doing so, forget to parse out the particulars.  After all, it is—and has always been—the small things about big cities that make them so special.  Lima is no different.  Generally, the commonalities among all cities force me to find more intrigue OUT of the metropolitan places than in, while traveling.  For these reasons, I deem it necessary to hang in a city for a few days.  Museums, cultural centers, restaurants. . .peace out.

DSCN0655  Perhaps one of the first things you’ll notice in Peru is that people are nice.  I mean, extraordinarily nice.  Extra-terrestrially nice.  Three hours before we were to arrive in Lima and taxi to our AirBnB apartment, we got word from the proprietor that the apartment had flooded and we were out of a home.  Without internet access or a phone, we boarded the plane from Cusco with a standing question mark as to our lodging.  But, in the great Peruivian way, our proprietor rustled around and actually got us a place to stay in her boyfriend’s mother’s apartment in Miraflores.  Now, I know what you’re thinking: that is the most hair-brained circumstance to ever find pleasing when entering a new and big city.  But let me retort to the presupposed question before its utterance: though it may seem uncomfortable at first, we ended up hanging with a legit Peruvian family, who not only were kind and accommodating (the mother, by the way, who didn’t speak English, told us we brought light into her house) but gave us a locals-only DSCN0719understanding of the entire city.  So before you book that hotel, where the only local you’ll meet will be paid to clean your unmentionable sheets, consider the advantages of accidently thrusting yourself into the world of happenstance, where the real magic happens.

If you’ve ever read a blog or travel book about Lima, you’ve probably read about a bunch of horror stories.  Narratives about bad travel experiences proliferate like Catholic bunnies in sardonic circles and pessimistic pow-wows.  You’ll inevitably hear about Peru’s crime, scam artists, and anything else that would worry your mother.  And though I grant that these situations surely occur, they are not what happens with the most frequency.  They are isolations multiplied to hysteria and often taken out of context.  (Imagine what a travel blog to Philly would look like!)  What’s good to remember is to remember that people are good.  Mostly.  If you’re in need, I firmly believe there will be someone to help you.  If this is a youthful arrogance, I’ll take it.  But in my experience, it’s real.  Fear draws too many people away from the experience of travel.DSCN0689

So don’t believe everything you read.  Strike out headlong into that old world.

Lima was a bit much to take in—the rambunctious city life—after spending four days on a spiritual pilgrimage through the Andes; but I’m a city boy at heart, so the metropolis is, ultimately, my home.

Lima, like all good cities, is a patchwork of neighborhoods.  Here, the economic disposition of neighborhood families is in huge contrast: the airport area of Callao is obviously less affluent while the economic center of San Isidro or the beaches of Miraflores are replete with gated communities, public parks, and high-end restaurants.  The schism between haves and have-nots is enormous in Peru and nowhere is that more apparent than its capital city.

We were in Miraflores because our first apartment flooded, but also, if I’m being honest, because that’s where tourists go.  That’s where people flock.  That isn’t to say we didn’t spend time in Callao or neighboring San Miguel; but the majority of our Lima-DSCN0715gallivanting was in the neighborhoods that expected to host international visitors.

Lima is also in stark contrast to Cusco.  There are skyscrapers, a tremendous stadium, hulking municipal edifices.  The key to understanding a city is understanding its public transit system, so Amy and I rode that puppy to its lengths to discover places further from the travel-books’ eyes.

In the downtown historic area we climbed down into catacombs of human remains and ate ceviche at an inconspicuous joint.  In Miraflores, we walked the parks along the DSCN0707cliffs that cast out into the Pacific Ocean while paragliders hung like hovering hawks over the surfers below.  In Barranco we drank craft beer (cerveza artesenal) and crossed the Bridge of Sighs holding our breaths (for a wish, duh).  In San Isidro, we sat in the shade of an olive tree in the Bosque de Oliver, before walking down the buffered median parks that separated the lanes of the main avenue.  Our goal was to exhaust ourselves in a relentless pursuit of city life.  We caféd at cafés every afternoon.  I read Harry Potter y el caliz de fuego in parks where Peruvian teenagers were ceaselessly DSCN0764and passionately making out.  We searched far and wide to taste Lima’s globally famous food scene.

This last point…yes!

From pork belly sliders at Mercado to a sixteen-course Nekkei dinner complete with ceviche ice cream (don’t hate) at Maido, Lima was exactly what they said it was: a DSCN0760food capital.  We ate tacu tacu, a sticky rice dish with sweet sauce and a protein.  We drank pisco sours and Cusqueño beer.  We even had a Lucha sandwich (which was a cheesesteak) with a jugo de mango con leche.

We got fat in Lima.  Gladly.  Greatfully.DSCN0754

And right up to the moment we were to depart, despite the perfunctory longing for home that occurs occasionally along the way, I languished over leaving.

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* * *

Five years ago, when I returned from Ethiopia, it took me nearly two months to reacclimate to the United States.  There was a sort of depression, a reverse culture shock, where I had to get used to my own country.  Returning from Peru, I felt a similar pang.  Traveling makes you look at your own culture and perhaps analyze it in ways that are more critical than you are capable of while plunged inside it.  It’s like how we don’t know what our faces look like until we happen upon a mirror.  Traveling is such a mirror, and sometimes our faces make strange gestures.  Sometimes there are scars.

DSCN0402Leaving home, we see more clearly where we live.  The United States is a country of velocity.  I love it and consider myself a patriot, one not concerned about criticizing my home where I see fit to hopefully improve it.  It’s beautiful here.  It’s scary.  And returning from a place where there is so much emphasis on spiritual connection, I can’t help but want to bring that here.  Maybe that’s a vanity, but there are worse things.  Peru taught me that I can feel like I’m in the Andes when I’m kicking through trash in Philly.

The Inca Trail beats in me through my heart.

DSCN0617And whenever I happen to think back on my too-few days there, whenever I hear the word “Peru,” an instant rush of recollection will descend upon me: dew.