Buscando a Alex

The Metropolitano in Lima is much more than just public transport – if you let it, it can carry you from dream to reality and vice versa. It is truly a bargain.

You set out walking towards the Metro station that is only a few blocks away from the heart of Miraflores. Beautiful people abound in Miraflores; the sound of heels clicking resounds as people go from cafes to restaurants to shops with smartly-attired canines. Lovely old couples dance in the main park amidst well-fed stray cats that stretch and preen.

Vista por ultima vez SIN ROPA = Seen for the last time WITHOUT CLOTHES.

Tourists saunter around staring at the world through the screens of phones and cameras. Verdant trees line the streets with leaves that flutter in the breezing that is blowing off of the Pacific. Luxury cars emerge from towering walls topped with electrified barbed-wire.

You stop for a coffee and overhear two American girls talking and staring at their phones.

“Ugh look at this guy – Pedro – he just superliked me. Uhhh BYE.”

“How are you even on Tinder right now? The WiFi here sucks. This site says that the Art Museum is cool.”

“Yeah, but it isn’t here on the list of the top five things to do in Lima.”

A few stops away and you enter reality. As you step off the train people look at you strangely; you can tell that you are out of place. A few of them will stop to tell you that you will be robbed. Most people hurry about with their purses or backpacks clutched to the front of their bodies. Trash blows around on the greasy streets or lies heaped in piles. You try your best to keep your wits about you, while at the same time avoiding tripping on any crumbling sections of sidewalk or inexplicable gaping holes. The people whose office or shop is the street look out at you from weary eyes set in faces that appear to have long ago tired of this place. The sidewalk and road are used as shops with cars, bicycles, televisions, and appliances in various states of disassembly or repair strewn about. You have to step over mangy dogs and parts as you walk. The air is filled alternatingly with smells of frying food, urine, truck exhaust, and trash rotting in the sun. Reggaeton blasts out of cars and stereos as bottles of beer are passed around. When you ask for something specific you are told, “Hay de todo” and then are told where it can be found.

Buscando a Alex = Looking for Alex

You sit on a bench eating popcorn and watch the world go by. You reflect upon your life. How are the hands that some people are dealt so different from those of others? How nice are the bed time stories that we are told about equal opportunity, fairness, and justice that let us fall gently back into our dream. An elderly lady frying dough hands gifts you a heaping plate smothered in honey saying that she wants you to have nice memories from Peru. You think about how the current president of Peru, under threat of impeachment for receiving bribes in order to steer a contract to a Brazilian construction company, just brokered a deal to pardon a former president of the opposition party that was convicted of “serious crimes against humanity” in order to avoid being removed from office. The former president oversaw death squads that killed thousands of indigenous people in horrific ways and directed the forced sterilization of over 300,000 women. He was just released.

You have dinner later with friends. The topic of Peru’s independence from Spain comes up. You say the following:

“I am pretty sure, like most independence movements, it was powerful people looking to get more power, control, and wealth for themselves. The revolution happens, but the same power structures stay in place. I imagine the people of Spanish descent continued to control the land and wealth of the nation, but they simply no longer had to pay taxes to Spain. But not much changed for the poor or indigenous people. That is how the revolution happened in the United States as well.”

A very well-educated and clearly wealthy Peruvian girl responds in perfect English:

“That is not how it happened here in Peru. It was for the benefit of all Peruvians since we don’t have racial groups or classes like that here – we are all of mixed descent.”

She looks nothing like the people without electricity or running water in the mountains. You don’t say anything because you don’t want to make a scene in front of a group of people that you have just met.

You are a gringo.

The Riddle of Riddles

Whether I was drawn here initially by sheer luck, skin walkers, or crystal vortices I am not sure. What is important is that I am still wandering the desert, floating down rivers, and hiding in the shade during the height of summer – this place has slowly carved a chasm in my soul. There is something about the timelessness and ruggedness of this place: in the rocks from a time when no life existed on earth, in the mysterious drawings left on cliff walls and boulders, in the juniper trees that burst forth from cracks in the rock, or when a thunderstorm turns the desert into a series of rivers and waterfalls.

IMG_3624I have learned to read the canyon walls as books that tell stories of otherworldly landscapes in their leaves: shallow azure seas that teemed with life, towering crimson sand dunes, volcanic eruptions that leveled coniferous forests, a supercontinent that spanned half the globe, or one small waterhole that dinosaurs frequented. It is a monument to cycles spanning time frames that are incomprehensible to us. In the depths of the canyons at night I often imagine myself hurtling through space amidst the shimmering sea of galaxies as a mere speck on a speck. In those moments I feel completely free.

I have come to feel a bond with others that have lived and died here over thousands of years. Those that have farmed these river bottoms, hunted game along these creeks, roamed these vast expanses, and boldly run these rivers. In untold numbers of canyons I have crouched on my hands and knees to marvel at the still visible finger prints of people in the mud of granaries, examine desiccated corncobs, and compare my own hands to the white outlines others left on the walls. I ceaselessly ponder the figures crowned with horns, wraith-like figures that fade into the rocks, the spirals winding into nothingness, and the big horn sheep dancing across the patina of desert varnish. I cannot explore or read enough. Each alcove and ledge offers the possibility of the unknown, and each additional visit a chance to put together another piece of the riddle.

Traveling here can be difficult, but the rewards of being swallowed by the canyons are immense. Others since time immemorial have sat along the shore of the river and looked out at the vultures soaring along the cliffs with wonder, gazed with awe at the bighorn sheep living out their lives on crumbling vertical ledges, and have tried to decipher the ceaseless murmurings of the river cutting through this land of stone. It will change you. I learned to see what is written in the canyons and sky because one man was so enraptured by these places that he spent his life  sharing them with others.

Thanks Dee.

Forget the Finches

A rainforest can appear vacant and silent, but there are some people who say that there are more eyes than leaves, that you just have to keep your mind blank in order to see and hear the life.

IMG_3536 (1280x1280)Madagascar is a small continent, massive and isolated from mainland Africa for over 70 million years. Geographic isolation and a variety of unique ecosystems ranging from desert to rainforest have led to the evolution of an incredible array of diversity, the likes of which exists nowhere else on earth. 90 percent of the reptiles and amphibians are endemic – a number which accounts for two thirds of all known chameleon species in the world. 80 percent of the 10,000 known plant species are endemic, as are roughly 50 percent of the birds. Oh and the lemurs have radiated into dozens of species filling a broad variety of ecological niches – some are the size of mice and others the size of children. The beauty of the adaptive radiation exhibited by the lemuroids and the rodential tenrecs make Darwin’s finches look like a flock of inbred sparrows.

IMG_3151 (1280x1280)Seeing an animal means recognizing a sound or animal form that fits a pattern latent in the mind. This process is innate, but takes cultivation. Maybe it is a set of golden eyes or a rustle in the canopy. Or the strange, beautiful humming noise a Milne-Edwards Sifaka makes just before launching sideways from one tree to another until it disappears through the jungle. Possibly the haunting horn-like wail of the Indri Indri cascading through the forest.

Everything in the rainforest is alive. Leafs jump through the air on two hind legs. Sticks sprout legs and crawl. A group of flowers bursts into a kaleidoscope of butterflies. A gigantic centipede has IMG_2963 (1280x1280)leeches riding upon its back waving furiously in the air looking for a host. A small frog living inside the cup created by a broken stalk of bamboo. A Giraffe Beetle awkwardly poised on the end of a perforated leaf. Life growing upon life.

Variegated packs of birds move through the forest amidst a medley of songs and chatter. Blue Cuoas jumping from branch to branch, swallowing tree frogs whole; Madagascar Paradise Flycatchers diving through the lushness trailing long white feathers; and Crested Drongos making regal sounding proclamations.

IMG_3107 (1280x1280)Under the impenetrable blanket of the canopy the night resounds with a cacophony with barks, beeps, trills, and hums of frogs. Other nocturnal creatures are furtive and carefully climb through the trees with nary a sound, like the Eastern Wooly Lemur and the Brown Mouse Lemur. Their presence is only known by the reflection of their gilded eyes through the branches. The eyes of the Leaf Tailed Gecko offer no reflection; one must discern its aborescent disguise amidst myriad other dead leaves dangling from a branch.

Chameleons crouched into leaf-like forms can be found stoically sitting on the ends of branches to better feel the approach of predators. Some are less than an inch in length, others more than a foot. Some are rose-colored, others are emerald, sky blue, grey, white, black. All of their eyes move independently, but with equal suspicion.

IMG_3383 (1280x1280)In the center of the country, rugged, seemingly barren granite mountains burst forth from the plateau. A thick fog often envelopes them as the moisture laden air rolls in from the east. There is no towering old growth forest here – this high desert teems with life at a different scale. Out of the proliferate cracks in the granite massif pours forth spring water about which gather flowers, ferns, mosses, and bugs. IMG_3380 (1280x1280)These microcosms abound with tiny insects traversing a world of undulating sand particles and plants that give the terrain a surface area hundreds of times that visible from human scale. Shy, incongruously neon Carpet Chameleons wander the plains below. Rainbow Bush Grasshoppers clumsily jump about in a confidence likely rooted in their toxicity. The night is quiet as frigid air descends off the mountain and the lights of our galaxy begin to wink on and shimmer against the black unknown.

The west has arid desert that is home to baobab trees and cactus. The vegetation takes hundreds of years to grow in the harsh dry environment. You could walk along in this landscape dying of thirst indefinitely, but there is a chance that you would come upon one of the canyons that slice through the landscape as verdant gashes of life. These perennial streams are lined with tropical vegetation that shakes with flying lemurs and echos with the calls of birds.

IMG_3387 (1280x1280)In walking amidst such profusion and diversity of life I am reminded in a profound way that we are part of a vast organism. Wandering in the wilderness is a mental odyssey to our origins; with proper attention you can see the eternal cycle of death and rebirth that has stretched on since the dawn of life. The chameleon crawling up your shirt with its oven-mitt hands; the leech sucking away on your inner thigh; the malaria carrying mosquito buzzing around your head; the wild, edible berries along the trail; and the lemur urinating on you are striving to reveal a fundamental truth about existence.

Explore Mauritius

It is a strange undertaking to simply arrive somewhere with the intention of undertaking a project, but with limited knowledge of the place, an inability to speak the local language, and no idea of what type of project to undertake. There were the additional constraints of having only five months worth of time and quite limited financial resources. I found myself last November in just this situation. For the first few weeks I watched insects crawl on the walls, read books and papers on climate change the environment, tested if I could give myself diabetes with mangos, figured out that the local beer made my hands and feet itch, and contemplated the human condition. I could identify many things that other people should be working on like pollution, waste, energy production, food security, education, inequality, corruption, and industrial tourism. Mauritius was not very different than the majority of the world in the problems that it faces, but many were more acute due to the constraints of living on an island. None of these areas seemed appropriate for me to delve into though.

After a month I felt no further along. I could not help but think that I could not find anything to do because I had an incredibly limited skill set and simply was not up to the task I had set for myself. If you need a problem to deal with you can always create one yourself. The first project that I needed to undertake in Mauritius was to help myself as the malaise and boredom were too much. I abandoned the illusion of altruistic action and returned to just IMG_4609 (1024x768)doing what I enjoyed. I set about exploring the scattered remnants of natural areas on the island. I found happiness in the quiet of the forest and the inspiration on the peaks. I breathed deeply in the open, relishing the reprieve from the oppressive concrete sprawl and sugarcane wastes. It did not take long before I had hiked all of the well-known trails and peaks. I began scouring the internet and asking around to uncover new frontiers. I began bringing my GPS with me, taking photos, and writing about the trails. I hiked during cyclones in the howling winds and rain. I baked my arms in the tropical sun and came home sliced to bits by vicious tropical plants.

Thus I found my winter project in the creation of a website called Explore Mauritius. I aimed to compile a detailed comprehensive guide that would enable Mauritians and tourists alike to experience the same joy I felt in the limited remnants of nature on the island. Additionally, I hoped to foster a stronger community around outdoor activities to protect these areas for posterity. In sharing something that I love I managed to combine many of the various skills that I already possessed and also learn a few new ones as I designed the website itself and the interactive map that became the centerpiece of it all. The map was built using Google Fusion Tables as the platform and Garmin Basecamp for editing tracks.

IMG_5682 (1024x768)The number of people who use the website and are getting outside is growing every week. I stumbled into doing exactly what I intended to do at the outset.

Mustachius

I am no longer marooned on an island in the Indian Ocean. My departure had overtones of finality as it is unclear when I will make it back to a part of the world that is about as close as I can come to the opposite side of the world from Utah (see Map Tunneling). In my head I said goodbye to the faces of friends; the stress over my failure to learn French or like baguettes and foie gras; my disgust with the hoards of overweight, leathery tourists sunning themselves like glutted Komodo Dragons; the miasma generated by the billowing smoke of trash fires; my addiction to the fried, rolled curry deliciousness that is roti; my fragile mind addled by boredom that bristled with the shouts of the crazy lady that lived next door, the CD of Christian music that played on repeat everyday, and the kid who made noises like Moses Hightower from Police Academy. I reflected that I was orphaning my interminable project – exploremauritius.org (I wrote about the project here) – to map out the trail systems and natural areas of Mauritius. I felt proud of this child, but realized that I would no longer be there for it and could merely hope that it goes out into the world and labors arduously forevermore. I sat in Charles de Gaulle airport and kicked my feet up in anticipation of the joy I imagined that deadbeat fathers experience when they leave home into the bliss of utter irresponsibility.  No more ballet recital or parent teacher conferences, just cheap beer, Pizza Bagels, and Eggo Waffles. It never came; I was not cathartically transmogrified. Mauritius still occupied my thoughts – in that moment I felt a deep connection with the place, it felt like a part of me. The foundations of my life philosophy were shaken by the thought that being a deadbeat might not be so easy as it is impossible to fully abandon anything. I furrowed my brow, deep in contemplation. I wanted to give form to Mauritius, to find a way to relate to it in a more concrete manner.

I groped for parallels with every object around me. Mauritius is not like a notebook, a smelly sandal, a bag of dried fruit, or a trashcan. The exercise felt ridiculous after a moment, but maybe I didn’t have to create a convoluted analogy, maybe the answer was right under my nose.  The thought that Mauritius has no readily apparent utilitarian raison d’etre shed some light on the matter; it is bold and vain. After ruminating on this thought for a few minutes I felt the fingers of my hand gently twisting the ends of my mustache. Sacre bleu! Mauritius is most akin to the baroque mustache flourishing on my upper lip that I call ‘The Rajah.’

It is an ever-flowering wellspring of youth that brashly bursts forth with joie de vivre on a face that otherwise is a monument to functionality in a steady state of decay. It exists largely on aesthetic grounds, serving as a reminder that life in the end is a gigantic practical joke. Mustaches are not all tickles and giggles though – vanity has a cost. A mustache of any complexity requires two utilitarian hands to regularly groom it and twist it into shape – it is not capable of supporting itself. A mustache strives to look effortless, pristine, and independent, but this is only the appearance it offers from a distance. As one comes closer the heavy traffic that the mouth requires to support a variety of superfluous appendages like mustaches must pass through the baleen-like barrier of the mustache. Countless flavors and smells accumulate in profusion – the rich and the rotten. The existence of a mustache requires adaptability to changes in the dictates of style, a recognition that the upkeep grows correspondingly with time and complexity, and there is always a risk that it will simply run it course. Mustaches draw ire and accolades, but in the end both are senseless; it is just there – it need not be justified or explained.

A Setting of One Foot in Front of the Other

This day I would begin an odyssey that would shake the weltschmerz from my girdle. I would walk the coast of isle peopled with inhabitants whose languages remained completely beyond the ken of my discerning ear and whose clime would test my mettle to the utmost.

I arose with my nerves steeled for the unknown. The day’s heat proved formidable even though the cocks had only just begun to crow. At I had minimal information on the route, but I had at least been assured by various learned acquaintances that the public beaches were fair grounds for the setting of camp and that there was food for the eating.

IMG_3764 (1024x768)I walked out the main gate of our compound and turned to the right, despite the plan that I had to turn left. The sentry who assiduously guarded the entrance paced the road and as a speaker of my native tongue was likely to inquire what my plan was. The reasons being too complicated to explain drove me to bravely change course. I endeavored to head due north on a series of rarely trod bovine paths beset on every side by brambles and vegetables of a rather spiny nature. I was forced to turn back upon my trail multiple times as I navigated these wastes strewn with refuse. My tunic was sodden after a mere ten minutes.

I marveled at inexplicable concrete castles along dirt roads that were not only devoid of nobility or gentry, but there was nary a groundskeep or caretaker to be seen. I was led to wonder what chicanery inspired such frivolity.

IMG_3749 (1024x768)I reached the northernmost point of the island– a sign marked it as Cap Malhereux – and then began walking towards the yoke of the eastern sun. The Orient proved to be sparsely populated compared to the Occident. The paths were rife with mechanical conveyances that threatened my life at high velocities  with little room for refuge.

I walked along the beach when possible and gazed upon uninhabited, rugged northern isles that local lore spoke of as inhabited with the most bizarre and uncomely reptiles imaginable. I shuddered at the mere thought of these blind boas and neon lizards. Previous travelers had assured me that they had exterminated all such fauna from this island.

IMG_3757 (768x1024)I made frequent pit stops at shrines along the coast. I approached one from a distance that was dressed regally and appeared to be of significant import, only to find that upon closer examination the figure had a half simian half man face. I never have seen such a creature on this island. I later found out that this thing was called Hanuman, a beast that once mistook the sun for a mango and tried to eat it in his youth. A story that I venture to say is preposterous.

My feet had already begun to ache and blister. I sought respite in the shade of a food hawker’s stand. I shared a mirthful moment with a group of shirtless men gathered around a booth who laughed at one of the few utterances that I was able to manipulate my tongue into uttering in the local dialect: ‘Un roti de poisson avec beaucoup pimen.’ After saying this the locals will hand you a roll filled with spices, fish, and chili.

IMG_3760 (1024x768)My exhaustive research indicates that prior to 1638 there were no permanent inhabitants of this tropical island. The Dutch had a colony on Mauritius from 1638 until 1715 when the French took control of the island who held it until the British came in 1810. It has a history of being passed around like a lady of the night and appears to have few of its original natural charms left. The creole language that is native to these islands is a mix of African Bantu language, French, English, Arab languages, and Indian languages.

IMG_3762 (1024x768)

The chili in the food left my mouth ablaze and brought tears to mine eyes, which I promptly stifled to avoid doing injury to the perception of my peoples. Thence I tried to hug the coast and avoid the majority of the traffic.  Beads of sweat materialized from the ether upon my forehead and rivulets cascaded down my face. I strode in the darkness granted by the benevolent branches of trees. Many of these trees were brilliant and quite unlike anything that exists in my native land. They loomed magnificently over the road and gave me the impression that I was part of a grand procession. I was marveling at the splendor of existence, when a long ratlike creatures scurried across my path and slinked into the undergrowth and leaf litter. I deeply regretted how this creature befouled the image that I had conjured in my mind.

IMG_3770 (1024x768)The coast retreated from the road, but thankfully the breeze continued to caress me with the gentleness of thousand butterflies flapping their wings. I found myself adrift in a vast sea of sugar cane – what a delicious sight!

I passed through a city called Goodlands. I stuck my hand into the reddish soil and it crumbled into dry dust before sifting through my fingers. The name Goodlands seemed to have been given to the place in jest. It was at this moment that I realized that I was over a league away from the coast, somehow my stalwart navigational skills had foundered.

IMG_3785 (1024x768)I reached a place called Poudre d’Or with the sun having passed west of its apex. After shouting at a local man I was informed that the name of the town translates to ‘golden powder.’ After another bit of time I managed to find cold water and a fried noodle dish called mine frite. I relished both to a degree that would be lewd to place in print and would besmirch my literary reputation.

I laid down in a park and drift into a blissful slumber. I waved a greasy turkey drum stick in my hand at passersby and pontificated on a subject that had been troubling me.

IMG_3790 (1024x768)“Hear ye, hear ye. It is not only the earth’s ancient failure to provide conditions that are conducive to the building of civilization in the untold leagues of deserts, tundra, and mountains that mar her countenance that I wish to discourse upon this day, but rather a topic of more vexing concern: our grand civilizations are now under constant threat from unruly tides that threaten to inundate our coasts, a dearth of water in the hinterlands that makes the sustenance of our barleycorns difficult, and mercurial tempests that terrorize our lands.”

“It is unconscionable, it is abhorrent to the sensibilities of the most brilliant of species for whom this domain was erected. I decry that there is only one thing hindering our limitless expansion and we are therefore engaged in nothing short of mortal combat with this final foe – the earth. I ask thee how shall we respond: Can we subdue this wily savage and gentrify it or will we humble ourselves and accept that parts of it shall forever remain indomitable due to their immutable and uppity constitution?”

“If we accept a position as a mere vassal we will have to recognize and abide by a myriad of constraints and implicit duties of stewardship, therefore I exhort my intelligent and sensible listeners to push onward towards the culmination of a task that began many millennia ago. Our laudable and infinitely brilliant minds – those that have allowed mankind such success in outcompeting every other species and shaping our very environment – shall not prove themselves insufficient to putting an end to this irrational and immoral savagery that we have heretofore put up with. I proclaim that it will be no more difficult than bottling lightning or leashing a cloud!”

The cackle of a group of roustabouts drinking away the afternoon woke me with a start. I was planning on sleeping in the park, but the men sitting around drinking cider and the amount of trash sent me walking. I was disappointed as the isolated pristine white beaches that my mind had conjured and held onto like a prized mirror-finished marble had become tarnished by the corrosive effects of reality.

roostercubeThe inhabitants of the island had pasted a variety of posters along my route with the intent of advancing their chosen candidate for political office. The content of the posters seemed, like many of things on the island, impenetrable to me. One party used a picture of a rooster pecking cubes to represent their party and the primary candidate in this region had a name that is unprintable. I withered under the late afternoon sun. I provisioned in Roche Noir near the coast where the proprietor warned me about the perils of being waylaid on the coast by thieves.

I was walking without relish and had entered a very remote region. My feet felt as if they were being rendered into ground meat as I trod onward under the tangerine sun. It had rotated around the earth and now dipped below the trees with a tangerine tint. I tossed my pack down, took off my shoes, and then hobbled into the ocean like a bipedal crab. The sea trembled with anger and its menacing vibrations broke against the black rocks of the coast. I laid down in the water, casually relieved myself, and stared out at the horizon hoping against meeting a kracken or giant devilray upon this occasion.

I reluctantly returned to the beach to cook dinner while there was still light. I sautéed various vegetables to which I added small fishes. The sun painted the distant isles rouge as I suspiciously eyed the foreboding, dark clouds on the horizon. It seemed prudent that I move with haste to make ready my canvas.

The first drops began to fall. I had obtained a new big top canvas after great difficulty immediately before my departure that I began to assemble, but I was dismayed to find that it would not come together. I sat down in consternation with the realization that this was a death knell for this undertaking – I would have to return embarrassed to my abode and make designs for another journey. I prayed to my normal god, but also ventured to offer a few kind words to that monkey figure that I had seen previously in the day.

IMG_3808 (1024x768)I set off down the beach. Fortune favored me and I was rewarded with the discovery of a vacant beach castle. I approached the building and unloaded my rucksack under a tree. I curled up in the unerected canvas of my big top, but was immediately disturbed by an odor that led me to believe that the place could be nothing other than a feral cat latrine. Sheer indolence left me impotent to move and I hunkered down with unshakable fortitude. I was thankfully able to drift off to sleep each time there was a break in the rain.

I woke up and saw a break in the clouds that permitted me to gaze upon the scintillating night sky. I ruminated on the shapes and patterns that stars created in the sky. What was clearly a bear to me other fools held to be a big dipper or just a random group of stars as if god had merely sneezed them into existence. I began to get damp and shivered intermittently. I didn’t even once think that I was a miserable wretch. Eventually an orange glow in the east lit up my red eyes.

IMG_3798 (1024x768)I went down to the black rocks again to make breakfast and tea. The night had left my mind blank and it was easily hypnotized by the sound of the waves. I peered into small pools that teemed with colorful, furtive fish and gangly, writhing starfish. I saw what looked like a miniature black and white flying Arabian carpet floating through one pool.

IMG_3818 (1024x768)I set off down the beach heading south. The wind misted me with salty air. I reached another beach and I started a conversation with a guard while I waited for the bathroom stall to open up. It seemed to help pass the time as I was in dire need of the toilet. He asked me a few questions about my native land and then asked me about an incident that I had not kept abreast of due to the nature of my travels.

“I was watching the news yesterday and it said that black people were rioting because police shoot a black kid,” he said.

“Yes, but you see it is a really complicated situation,” I was not sure how to respond.

“No. No. The blacks are all bad,” he said confidently and reassuringly. I was soaked in sweat from colonic concentration.

“My friend, life is tough for a lot of people in that part of the world. It would be hard for me to relate the difficulties to you,” I had to pause and take a deep breath to keep the sardines from jumping out of my can. “But I can assure you that the darkness that courses through the hearts of my countrymen exists here just the same. The dodo is just…” I trailed off as I saw a stripling exit the bathroom and ran with the utmost gentility.

Squirting Ink as a Form of Self Defense

While I saved and planned my departure for Mauritius I felt like I was in an extreme delayed gratification study, staring at a mango on a plate for months on end. Why not stay home? What is the sense in all of this wandering? Why is there so much joy for me in caroming off in an unknown direction? My drive to undertake adventures and explore the unknown has always been hard to explain.

IMG_3665 (1024x768)On the plane to Paris I wrote the following: “For me it seems that adventures and the mystery of life unfolding are the single greatest joys in life. There will always be sedentary jobs, possessions to accumulate, things to be learned through perseverance, and debts to amass and service. Death will always haunt us as an omnipresent specter though. The potential ways to live a life seem as limitless like the earth itself. Maybe I am just not meant to sit and work in – as Mark Salouka says – paint factories. I sleep better under the stars. I feel best when I rise with the sun. I often find myself want to run wild and break from the rational non-sense of society. Another justification seems to lie in my perception that society, science, religion, and technology fail to explain the mystery of mysteries. Exploring seems to be the realization of my philosophy regarding life in some way. It could be said to be pointless, self-serving, futile… but this logic can be turned against most of the activities that other people spend their lives doing whether it is working for a financial services company, designing multi-billion dollar Iphone applications that allow teenagers to send one another self-destructing photos of their genitals, of wealth accumulation, or of working in a paint factory.”

But I am not alone. About 3500 years ago it is estimated that Pacific Islanders expanded their territory to islands that would require up to several weeks on the open sea to reach. What made them go into the blue unknown in search of islands that they didn’t even know existed? About 15,000 years ago the first waves of explorers are estimated to have crossed the Bering land bridge and roamed across two new continents. What made them go out into that white unknown of ice and snow?

I recently read a book titled ‘The Song of the Dodo’ by David Quammen, a tome on the history of evolutionary biology and it was there I stumbled across the idea that maybe this part of me is not unique. It appears that many scientists believe that this nagging curiosity is a defining characteristic of homo sapiens. In conjunction with the development of our complex brains and limbs seems to have come about a set of traits that helped us expand out of Africa and to ultimately inhabit almost every tract of land on this planet in about 60,000 years. These traits drove us far and wide; we crossed open seas on boats, we walked across land bridges, we floated down rivers, we flew planes.

IMG_3661 (1024x768)Not every species shares this same propensity though. There are others, like the Mauritian Kestrel, that refuse to even cross small clearings in the forest. There must be evolutionary environments and genetic endowments that reinforce this trait and others that would make it a disadvantage. Explorers of any species have the ability to sow their seed far and wide. An adaptable generalist species would seemingly benefit from this trait and reinforce it as more progeny means a higher proportion of a particular set of genes in the pool.

I began doing a bit of research and stumbled across an interesting National Geographic Article entitled ‘Restless Genes.’ The author, David Dobbs, expands upon this idea. Here is an excerpt about the gene DRD4-7R:

“If an urge to explore rises in us innately, perhaps its foundation lies within our genome. In fact there is a mutation that pops up frequently in such discussions: a variant of a gene called DRD4, which helps control dopamine, a chemical brain messenger important in learning and reward. Researchers have repeatedly tied the variant, known as DRD4-7R and carried by roughly 20 percent of all humans, to curiosity and restlessness. Dozens of human studies have found that 7R makes people more likely to take risks; explore new places, ideas, foods, relationships, drugs, or sexual opportunities; and generally embrace movement, change, and adventure. Studies in animals simulating 7R’s actions suggest it increases their taste for both movement and novelty.”

And this part strikes home for me, it seems to be a natural corollary to the idea of a restless gene:

IMG_3648 (1024x768)“Among Ariaal tribesmen in Africa, those who carry 7R tend to be stronger and better fed than their non-7R peers if they live in nomadic tribes, possibly reflecting better fitness for a nomadic life and perhaps higher status as well. However, 7R carriers tend to be less well nourished if they live as settled villagers. The variant’s value, then, like that of many genes and traits, may depend on the surroundings. A restless person may thrive in a changeable environment but wither in a stable one; likewise with any genes that help produce the restlessness.”

I have always been looking for ways to justify this part of myself, but maybe it is just genetic , maybe it isn’t something that can be subjected to analysis. I think it may have been said best by Hank Williams:

“I can settle down and be doin’ just fine
Til I hear an old train rollin’ down the line
Then I hurry straight home and pack
And if I didn’t go, I believe I’d blow my stack
I love you baby, but you gotta understand
When the lord made me
He made a ramblin’ man.

Some folks might say that I’m no good
That I wouldn’t settle down if I could
But when that open road starts to callin’ me
There’s somethin’ o’er the hill that I gotta see.”

Rambling

My papers were not quite on the up and up, so I shaved my face and cut my hair. I put on a button down shirt, khakis, and placed two pens in my front pocket to lend myself legitimacy under the weary eye of the immigration officials in Mauritius. At this point in my life I can confidently say that I understand bureaucracy pretty well, so I printed out – in triplicate – any and all documents, regardless of how superfluous, that had a seal, signature, or my name on them. On the way from Salt Lake City to Mauritius via Paris I wielded these papers like a weapon no less than three times. I think that their efficacy lies in their threat of monotony.

IMG_3682 (1024x768)I approached the immigration desk in Mauritius calmly and told the woman the following after our pleasantries, “The government just said to give me a tourist visa until they finish processing my visa application.” See what I did there? I presented the outcome that I wanted with no other options. I avoided the hours of waiting in queues that I had heard of others experiencing in similar situations.

The only problem though was that she handed back my passport and then looked up from her papers and asked, “Which company is it that you normally work for here?”

I stumbled here, “I don’t work…for…I have never been here before.”

She stumbled, looked both directions, and then said, “Oh..okay. Well thank you, bye bye.”

I had a 30 day business visa instead of a 90 day tourist visa. I cursed the two pens in my front pocket.

Impressions

I had spent so much time reading academic papers and books about Mauritius, examining numbers that attempted to quantify it, and analyses of its problems that I arrived with a brain filled with sociological mush without a pinch of reality. There are no measures of net beauty, blissful slumber opportunities per capita, food deliciousness index (FDI), gross hammock oscillations per hour, or gross domestic laughter. But I think that Mauritius would score high on all of these measures. There are also never any news stories announcing that the world is okay or exhorting us to do nothing as an overwhelming wave of peace has swept through the region. The remedy for this condition is to taste the mango.

IMG_3673 (1024x768)The birds wake me each morning with the rising of the sun. Mangos are falling off of the trees on our street and my only competition is the birds. A pack of family dogs patrols the street outside our apartment. I pass my first days lazing around in IMG_3670 (1024x768)and about the turquoise sea that merges with the sky if you screw your eyes up in just the right way. I still have not seen a jet ski in Mauritius and I could count on one hand the number of guns that I have seen – both things bode well for a country in my mind. The people are amazing here – friendly, content, and welcoming. Culturally, it is midway between Europe, Africa, India, and China. You hear it when people speak and in the food you eat. Roti – the national dish of sorts – is the best food in the world rupee for rupee. It consists of a fried flour wrap filled with assorted sauces, chilis, and curries that is readily available whenever necessary. Mauritius is a sauce country, this seems to exemplify its culture to me.

IMG_3642 (1024x768)We visited the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden and saw a dozen or so tortoises imported from all over region. Despite their ersatz environment, I was mesmerized by their beauty as they charged at us from the other side of the pen after their lunch was delivered. The largest was 150 years old. It was nearly as interested to watch the packs of French tourists touting IPads descend upon the pen.

We bought a Suzuki motorcycle with 125cc’s of Merlot colored fossil fueled fury. I turned 30 and wanted to go explore the southern part of the island for my birthday. I turned out into the left lane and we started the epic 40 mile journey south on the main highway. Rain began to fall on us early on as midday clouds gathered around the pinnacles of the Moka Mountains. The mountains rise as forested islands in the midst of a boundless expanse of green sugarcane not unlike the blue sea that the islands of Mauritius rise up from. It felt like we were flying with the engine roaring; I wanted to howl and make obscene gestures at the elderly, until a pair of them passed us in their miniature car going twice our speed. We passed mansions on dirt roads in the middle of nowhere, slums, dilapidated colonial buildings, gleaming skyscrapers, textile mills, and a tuna cannery. I muscled the bike through the concrete tandoori oven called Port Louis by splitting through traffic and riding the shoulder. Lauren complemented me on my driving with a flattering comparison to a fictional symbol of masculinity and daring from Hollywood, but I self-effacingly deflected the remark by comparing myself to a cat on a skateboard acting on pure fight or flight responses. We stayed at a friend’s place in Flic-en-Flac, a coastal town along the west coast.

IMG_3707 (1024x768)The mountains around the island are all remnants of the giant caldera that formed the island and then collapsed. Black River Gorges National Park encompasses the majority of the mountains on the southern part of the island. It also happens to contain some of the last remaining old growth forest – less than 2% of it remains on the island – and consequently the majority of the remnant populations of many endemics like the Mauritius Kestrel, Mauritian Flying Fox, Pink Pigeon, and Echo Parakeet. The Mauritius Kestrel population was as low as four individuals in 1974 – the rarest bird on earth at the time. The numbers have rebounded, but remain modest. There is a limited amount that can be done when the primary problems that a species faces are habitat fragmentation and destruction.

IMG_3710 (1024x768)We packed up early and left to explore the park. As we drove into the park a mongoose slinked across the road a disappeared into the brush. The mongoose was intentionally released by the government to help control disease bearing rodents, despite the knowledge that it had previously wreaked havoc elsewhere. It was less than a decade before the government was striving to eradicate the mongoose after it decided that chickens and all manner of other animals were as good as or better than rats.

We walked several well groomed but poorly marked trails that switchbacked up the mountainside. All of the forest through which we passed appeared to have been logged at some point. I didn’t notice it until a few hours had passed, but the forest seemed impoverished of insects; I saw a few butterflies and dragonflies, but not much else. We reached a lookout and looked down valley upon the sea. A few white Tropic Birds with their tendril tails rode currents below us. I paced around the overlook trying to take in everything and then suddenly I saw two bright green birds streak across below me. I tried to contain my giddiness as I hollered for Lauren to come see the Echo Parakeets. The parakeet had rebounded from as few as ten individuals to as many as 300 through the remarkable efforts of a few dedicated conservationists, in fact the same ones that saved the Kestrel. We looped back and hopped on the motorcycle. I hooted in my helmet as a Crab Eating Macaque loped across the road in front of us as we rode back to Flic-en-Flac.

Octopus Project

IMG_3741 (1024x768)We awoke at 5:45 the following morning to return to Pereybere and then catch a ride to the east side of the island where we had a meeting to examine a UN GEF funded project building octopus burrows for fisherfolk out of reclaimed telephone poles. The director of the organization in charge of the program, Environmental Protection and Conservation Organization (EPCO), explained that the program arose after declining fish catches drove many fisherfolk to work for the government mining sand to feed the insatiable demand for concrete on this nearly treeless island. (The concept of sand mining is possibly a better example of a mind numbing and endless task than working in a paint factory.) The problems with sand mining eventually became apparent and the industry shifted to the crushing of mined rocks. This left many fishermen out of work with few directions to turn. The octopus burrow project was designed to both help rehabilitate the fishery and help sustain the fisherfolk. We wanted to see how it was working.

IMG_3738 (1024x768)We boarded a handmade wooden boat with a fisherman named Dost – a Creole word that means friend. We puttered out towards the surging whitewash of the reef break and looked back upon the Bambous Mountains above Grand Reviere Sud Este. The water was absolutely clear and less than two meters deep. I leaned over the gunwale, which listed the boat to one side, in order to peer down at the kaleidoscope of coral.

I jumped into the other splendorous world that covers 70% of the earth’s surface and stuck my snorkel in my mouth. The fish seemed sentient and curious as we examined one another. They let me get close to admire their incredible forms and scintillating scales, and colors that surely exist nowhere else. The fish would disappear and reappear as they wove their way through corals with shapes that seem floral, cerebral, and dendritic. I found one large lobed brain that teemed with a miniature microcosm of colored fish. I gestured Lauren over and we relished the beauty of it in a complete absence of words.

IMG_3724 (1024x768)Dost gestured us over and we followed him over to an octopus burrow. He began prodding into the burrow with a rod and drew an ink spraying ball of arms out that he grabbed as it tried to make its Houdini-esque escape. It grabbed onto his arm and he repeatedly had to tear it loose. I stared with rapt attention as it furiously changed colors and patterns. He let it swim for a moment and it descended to the bottom, felt around, shrunk its size, and changed to match its surroundings. It is not just an octopus. The symbol ‘octopus’ does not begin to convey the beauty and complexity of that animal. Nor does ‘coral reef’ begin to encompass what I saw.

I identify with that octopus – how it changes to reflect its environment and how it strives to defend itself by spraying ink. I think that I might be doing that right now. We ate it later.

Earth is an Island

I am leaving to spend the winter in Mauritius, an island 45km in width by 65km in length that lies approximately 2000km east of continental Africa. The island serves as a rare case study in ecology as it is one of a few places to have remained uninhabited by humans until recent history. It has a robust record from visitors and inhabitants of the native flora, fauna, and changes that the island underwent over the past 400 years. Not only was the island devoid of humans – it was devoid of land mammals all together. A circumstance that came about due to the island’s young age and the challenge that relative isolation poses to the introduction of land mammals. This void provided the opportunity for a plethora of spectacular endemic reptile and bird species to evolve, which fostered fascinating accounts from the first human arrivals.

Early accounts – the first in 1598 – described large flightless birds and included preposterous drawings of them that attracted significant attention in Europe. The bird came to be known as the Dodo, the etymology of which is thoroughly contested. The birds had lost the ability to fly as a result of an abundance of food on the ground and a lack of predators. Many were hunted and noted by sailors, a few explorers documented them over the years, and a couple of them were reputed to have made it to other continents aboard ships as curiosities. Portuguese and Dutch sailors continued to use it as a way point where they could fill their holds with upside down tortoises – which could live for years in this fashion and provide fresh meat during their voyage– and to hunt goats and pigs that they had introduced. Eventually, a day arrived when there were simply no more Dodos to be found. The last reliable account of a sighting occurred in 1662 – sixty years after humans arrived. Extinction was not a concept at the time, therefore many commentators and scientists obstinately argued that the bird was mythical and never had existed. It took over 150 years before there was scientific consensus that it had existed and its extinction had been induced by humans. The Dodo has taken its place in our collective consciousness due to its distinction as the first recorded case of human induced extinction.

The story of Mauritius does not end with the demise of the Dodo. Humans, as they have done in every corner of this planet, brought rats, mice, and pigs that predated reptile and bird eggs. Forests were cut to export hardwood, then for building materials, then for tea plantations, and then for sugar plantations. Goats grazed what had been razed. Africans were imported and sold as machinery to work the sugarcane. The population grew exponentially. A few people became wealthy. The patience and resilience of the giant tortoise proved insufficient, the hardwood heart of the forests fell, the exotic birds lost their homes and their cacophony grew faint, and fewer colorful geckos lit up the day. Dozens of species quickly and almost silently went extinct over the coming centuries. Some of the first environmental protection laws in the world sprung up, and then were ignored out of political and economic expediency.
Today, 1.3 million people live on the main island, mostly near the coast. The seas are rising and the weather is changing. Annual mean temperature has gone up .74C relative to the 1961-1990 mean. Yearly rainfall averages are down 8% since the 1950s, with more of it coming during extreme events. Resources on the island are strapped. Only 25% of the island remains forested. 90% of the cultivated land is occupied with sugar cane which has to be exported to purchase the 80% of the island’s energy which comes in the form of imported fossil fuels.

Mauritians face even greater challenges in the coming years due to climate change. The Mauritian government and the UN International Panel on Climate Change projects are dire. It is projected that the mean annual temperature will rise by 1-2C by 2060, 1.1-3.4C by 2090. Decreases in precipitation will continue, but the likelihood of tropical storms and destructive storm surges will increase. It is possible that 50% of the island’s beaches will disappear by 2050 due to changes in sea level and more forceful storm surges. Utilizable freshwater resources are anticipated to decrease by up to 13% by 2050. Fisheries are expected to be disrupted as sea surface temperature changes shift migration patterns and cause consequent changes in ecosystems. The third largest coral reef in the world protects the islands, but 80%-100% of live corals would perish with a 3.28C increase in temperatures, a realistic possibility by 2100.

Mauritians have recognized the threat that climate change poses and have taken steps to mitigate and adapt to anticipated changes, despite recognizing that the nation is minimally responsible for the plight it faces. In 1991, the island created the multi-sector National Climate Change Committee. In 2010 the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development created a Climate Change division. Through these institutions the nation has created a National Climate Change Adaptation Policy Framework, a tool that guides the government in taking necessary steps to adapt and mitigate with the aims of creating resilience and sustainability. Why haven’t we done the same?

On Islands

Islands have always gripped the imagination of writers from Aldous Huxley to Kurt Vonnegut to William Golding. They provide a setting or system with limits that are tangible within the human mind where a chain of actions can unfold and conceivably reach its limits. Islands have allowed us to speculate on inequality, ecology, happiness, evolution, and societal structures.

7.1 billion of us live on an island that is adrift in a vast sea of space.

I remember in my economics courses learning about Robert Malthus, a scholar in the 19th century who postulated that, “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man.” He theorized that earth had a finite amount of land, but people had a seemingly infinite ability to procreate and generate needs. This would one day lead to a catastrophe if we walked blindly into the future. In many of my classes he was dug up just to be refuted as a prophet of non-sense through the invocation of the deus ex machina technology. Was he wrong?

We have been on this island as a species for around 200,000 years and we have thoroughly transformed this planet during that time. In that time frame we have managed to populate every corner of this planet. Elizabeth Kolbert, in The Sixth Extinction, calculates that there are roughly 50 million square miles of land area that is not covered by ice. Of this area, roughly 27 million acres have been directly transformed through agriculture, pastoralism, logging, mining, and the building of civilization. Three-fifths of the remaining 23 million acres is forested, although not necessarily virgin. The other two-fifths are mountains, deserts, and tundra. Kolbert’s primary focus in the book is an examination of our present time, one that many have come to refer to as ‘the sixth extinction.’ There have been five other mass extinctions since the dawn of life on earth, precipitated by various reagents, but climate change has always been a significant factor in the collapse of species and ecosystems. She estimates that, “one-third of all reef building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.” The reasons are complex: a warming planet, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, the snowball effect of biodiversity loss, competition from introduced species, the globalization of microbes, and most important of all: the incredible speed at which all of this is occurring – the same problems that Mauritius faces, but on a grand scale.

A parallel concept is that of the anthropocene, one that has been advocated by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen to denote our ‘human-dominated geological epoch.’ It is clear that we will leave a mark in the geologic record through carbon deposits from our fossil fuel use, from nuclear fallout, from dramatically morphed landscapes, and through the mass extinction event that is currently unfolding. He cites the following reasons for consideration of the concept:
Human activity has transformed between a third and a half of the land surface of the planet.
Most of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted.

Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial ecosystems.
Fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the oceans’ costal waters.
Humans use more than half of the world’s readily accessible fresh water runoff.

Back to Malthus: It looks like he was wrong in some ways, and right in others. Our island no less has finite limits than any other island does; it is just vaster in terms of resources and its ability to act as a pollution sink – we have billions of palm trees instead of the proverbial one. The areas, like Mauritius, where limits have been reached are simply able to acquire what they need from elsewhere, but at some point there aren’t any more elsewheres. Technology has enabled us to do more with the finite resources that are on this earth and we have perpetually pushing our limits. A major part of the growth and progress that humanity has made since the industrial revolution began a few hundred years ago was made possible through the exploitation of non-renewable fossil fuels, metals, and minerals. We have also over-exploited resources that are renewable like soil fertility, game, fisheries, and forests. The technology that has enabled this form of growth has been of a kind that merely enables us to use and move these resources at a faster rate to enrich the present at the expense of the future. There seem to be cries resounding from every corner of the globe and in every field that we are approaching or have passed ecological limits, and have entered uncharted territory.

Creating a Better World

I feel a deep connection to this earth, not as a mere philosophical standpoint, rather in a way that completely shapes my worldview. It is grounded in an awareness of reality, of the atmosphere entering and exiting my lungs, of the rainwater that fills my veins, and of the sun’s energy in my food. This is my home. My values and ethics are derived from this connection. I spend months each year sleeping outside, staring at the stars. I travel to other countries to satisfy my curiosity about other landscapes, people, and animals. I enjoy eating exotic and delicious foods. I like being able to explore this place and enjoy a rich life.

Recognizing the reality and depth of our ecological crisis, and not just an abstract concept, has been a difficult road for me. I experienced years of cognitive dissonance, holding discordant views that lead to internal conflict. I saw myself as being enriched by something that was paradoxically destroying the very thing that I loved and was creating suffering.

Many years ago I started the process of letting go of a future that I had been socialized to believe was our destiny. In this dream there were no constraints, humans were in control, technology had an infinite ability to address any problems that humanity faced, and the economy would grow perpetually – we forever would have more freedom and wealth. Inequality was not an issue as there was plenty. In this dream we are all atomized individuals, beholden to no one or anything – without limits. I had to pass through the five stages of the Kubler-Ross Model: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. This dream is dead whether we like it or not.
I wasn’t sure what to do with about it, how to respond. The acceptance part comes at little easier if we realize that this conflict is based in a broader myth: that we need an extractive, exploitative economy in order to grow ourselves out of scarcity – the primary driver of human suffering. According to this view, as long as there is poverty and hunger in this world, then to do anything but grow as quickly as possible to ameliorate these pestilences is immoral. It follows that we need to transform this world into a place fit for human habitation. And so we justify every new power plant built, every gallon of carcinogens dumped into a river, every missile launched, every ton of carbon spewed into the atmosphere, and every tank of pesticide sprayed from an airplane.
What takes precedence: the environment or humanity? Mu! The two are one and the same.

We are bound in a symbiotic relationship with everything else on this earth. It is not possible for us to do damage anywhere without damaging ourselves. A relationship requires that both parties give and in doing so both will be made better off. The earth has always been able to provide enough, but it has been misallocated, wasted, or been minimized by the – never scarce – capacity for dissatisfaction in humanity. Will we let the specter of scarcity and our tendency to exploit drive us towards a situation in which we face the true horrors of scarcity? What is the alternative?

Until recently I had been looking towards myself – and each individual – to change our lives with the belief that in this fashion humanity could change overnight and we would avoid the looming catastrophe. This individual died along with the aforementioned dream – there never was an individual. We are facing a global crisis and we need to look towards collective, community-based solutions.

Revolutions occur when new information appears that is irreconcilable with the dominant framework or zeitgeist. The dominant mover of civilization seems to be the same one that, up until this point in history, has been on a linear trajectory: the centralization of power. From groups, to bands, to villages, to cities, to city-states, to nations, to? Through warfare, trade, finance. Civilization in the past few hundred years under the reign of fossil fuels has advanced more towards this goal that at any other point in history through globalized markets, industrial scale production, and almost instantaneous communication. It has also enabled an unprecedented concentration of wealth and power. Power structures are most concerned with maintaining power and therefore action to deal with our ecological crisis simply cannot manifest from within a system that is its driver and primary beneficiary. It has been decades since we became aware of our current predicament and we have only deepened the crisis whilst our current system has scrambled to assimilate a reality with which it is wholly incompatible.

There are many prescriptive actions to take, but ultimately civilization needs to evolve to fit the planet, rather than the other way around. We are currently wasting our days away in contemplation while standing at the start of the path towards a better future, unable to take the necessary steps. The challenge we face is so truly daunting as there is one thing that technology cannot help us to overcome and that is ourselves. We need to expand our collective social conscience, ignore that voice in our head that demands more, and in doing so we will create a better planet.

“I believe in political solutions to political problems. But man’s primary problems aren’t political; they’re philosophical. Until humans can solve their philosophical problems, they’re condemned to solve their political problems over and over and over again. It’s a cruel repetitious bore.” – Tom Robbins

The Coyote and The Combine

I wrote a book. I delved into writing full time after I quit working construction in New York this past February. There were many reasons why I quit, but mainly it had to do with the company using improper permits to perform mediocre quality work with underpaid undocumented immigrants (and me) in hazardous work conditions (subzero temperatures without a heater) for six days a week. It was blatant exploitation. We were often not paid for weeks on end, despite the contractor running around picking up the tab in Manhattan bars. We were just trying to get by though and there we succeeded. There could be a story here about how this experience inspired me to undertake this project.

When I think about my life, I can see it as nothing but a story that I write. I think that our minds are first and foremost story generating machines. They take disparate, bewilderingly complex events and string them together into storylines, beliefs, and judgments that make reality appear intelligible. We classify them with single words and devise crude chains of causal logic. We ascribe motives, emotions, and traits to individuals and they, to us at least, play the roles that we have scripted for them to play. We go through each day simply fitting events into our storyboard. Thus each person builds the universe.

A closer look, a break with our myopic perspective, reveals a far cloudier and uncertain picture – there are myriad perspectives. Stories have an incredible amount of power in shaping our view of ourselves and the world around us.  I used to believe that I was defective, as if there was some sort of quality control somewhere with an objective measure for determining the quality of a person. I once believed that life was a material quest and that success was having as much as possible; that I had to assiduously work in a box and be a lawyer, doctor, or businessman; that we were created by a god to pillage this earth and that this is to be called progress, that the world is a dangerous place and people are inherently bad; that hitchhikers are straight off skid row – depraved addicts and sexual deviants running from something.

I wrote about myself as an anomalous character running amok and making a mess of a script that had seemingly already been written. The original script did not include: howler monkeys, guns pointed at my head, drugs, motorcycles, hitchhiking, volcanic eruptions, Spanish cokeheads, saintly truck drivers, car accidents, foreclosure, or wandering just for the sake of wandering. I sure am thankful for these additions though.

I turned my journals from a winter of hitchhiking into something in the Bryant Park library over the course of a few months. I am not sure that I am finished with it. I do feel the need to give an explanation for why I did this, but I feel like I would just be composing a story that was an amalgamation of various book jackets.

Some people believe that coyotes are a form of god, others believe that they are vermin that we haven’t won the war against yet. I do believe that if you sleep on the ground it is impossible to get up on the wrong side of the bed.

Flying the Coop

Some people call it New York; others call it The Great Satan. I called it The Empire of the Straight Line. Anyways, I knowingly went into the maw of a beast that I had previously contemplated and watched wearily from a distance. It is hard to resist anthropomorphizing the city into a slovenly, unhealthy, greedy blob that perpetually rumbles with indigestion as it greedily ingests and consumes ever increasing amounts of people, energy, and raw materials before belching, vomiting, and sweating out their waste forms in all directions. So I am not even going to bother trying. I am certain it would trade its grandmother into sex slavery for mid-level tickets to a Bruce Springsteen show at Madison Square Garden. It is an obsessive compulsive patient that strives to control everything around it and a self-admiring insomniac. It is left brain biased; possibly afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome that manifests itself in an uncompassionate and grinding obsession with logic, rules, and order that create a create an awkward social environment.

This spring I left on an Amtrak bound for Salt Lake City via Chicago. As the train exited the station I got an erection that lasted for hours and made walking around the train a challenge. I did not socialize during this entire period, but it wasn’t really an optioon as there was yet no observation car.

I found an audience after leaving Chicago with whom I could share some of the sentiments and ideas that I had refined in New York – a recent college graduate from Wesleyan named Anna on her way West for the first time. She asked what I did when I was in New York. I told her that I founded and ran a non-profit called the Anti-Alliteration Alliance. That we worked to rid the earth of the societal scourge that is rude redundancy and vain verbosity through selling voodoo dolls of Wall Street executives. That being said, I told her that I didn’t want to talk about work though as writing was my passion and I wanted to share some ideas that I had been honing over the past few months. I gently began by explaining that our conception of history and society revolves around the idea of progress measured through material production and technological complexity – more speed, more mobility, more choice. That this gives the illusion that humanity has been on one continuous march towards a better future – effectively justifying the extermination of other cultures, environmental degradation, poverty, and the liquidation of millions of minds. That the quantifying logic of our material society demands exchange for everything, that everything be accounted for, and owned. And I informed her that it is simply impossible to question this conception of history from a materialist perspective that is so deeply socialized into us, as by its very nature it cannot assimilate all of the other essential human functions unless they somehow can be fit into a scheme of material production and consumption. I wondered aloud how you place a value on love or community or peace? I asked of her: Is not a civilization that finds peace, establishes equality, harmony with its environment, takes care of its young and old, meets the spiritual and material needs of everyone, and offers a deep sense of community a superior and highly productive society?

I posed the question of what the hypothetical destination is for this run away train? Is the apotheosis of our society to unshackle ourselves from the limits imposed by the natural world and to live free in the ceaseless hum and glow of a technological cradle strung together with wires and tubes that meet all of our physical needs? It would be the triumph of efficiency, production, and control. We would be machines within this system and corporations would still be people.

I confided to her that this logic needs to be supplanted, that we need to return to our roots in the natural, primal, and animalistic. That we needed a way to demonstrate the true nature of existence. I told her – with a glance in either direction at the baby boomers taking pictures incessantly with their IPads – that we could break with many of the implicit assumptions through ritualized sacrifice. There would be no exchange. There would be no material progress in the act. We would ritualize the reality that death and change are the fundamental characteristics of life. I told her that my idea was to start an institution where we would all sacrifice something that we loved – we would pile it together and set it ablaze. I could see her nervously wringing her hands in her lap. I self-consciously added that people and animals were not within the scope of this idea. Although maybe we could simply eat the baby boomers? I grinned and raised my eyebrows. It would solve a lot of problems as the tribute paid to the top of our pyramid seems rather unsustainable. I added that there would definitely be drums and dancing.

I casually mentioned that New York is the embodiment of this hyperrational, homogeneous, sterilized ideology. The rationality is manifest in the straight lines, in the ceaseless hum, in the endless efficiency, in perpetual striving towards nothing. I informed her that I was not a robot and consequently during my time in New York I regularly had to repress urges to run amok, howling through the logical confines lewdly waving my genitals like a blueballed baboon. I delved deeply into myself and told her that this stemmed from my curiosity and my bewilderment at the nature of existence. That I can see that there is something unknowable and immeasurable coursing through the molecules of everything on this earth.

I told her that the turmoil that we see around the world currently is a manifestation of the irreconcilable nature of our economic, religious, and political institutions and man’s evolving image of himself as an interconnected, monocrop set to overrun the earth. We now see our ability, from many different vantages, to shape our environment. We see the reality of the spaceship earth; interconnectedness and oneness is indisputable. A glimpse of the finite is seen in the confines of our spaceship. The only way to grapple with the problems that humanity faces is by turning inward, not towards technology, further division, and complexity, rather through finding a way as individuals to realize the inherent beauty, joy, and tranquility in simplicity. The perpetually striving and greedy individual mind needs to become a thing of the past. The future needs contentedness that stems from more creation, collaboration, sharing, learning, sex, music, dancing, movement of the physical body, family, and meaningful work.

Her face throughout the conversation seemed marred by an amalgamation of intrigue and terror. I assured her that I was unlikely to do anything in the immediate future.

I left for Colorado and slept outside for the first time in months; for six years I had slept outside for over a hundred days a year. I stared up at the night sky and saw innumerable stars. I realized that if my eyes were more sensitive the entire night sky would be white with light.

I left one morning from Hotchkiss to hitch towards New Mexico to visit my dad. I caught a ride with a lady named Brenda who had me ride the first hour in the back of her pickup bed, but then moved her arthritic husky to the back and invited me up. I reached for the seatbelt and she furrowed her brow before scornfully saying, “Oh you are one of those?” She was wearing her seatbelt though. She alternated pulls between Crown, Bud, and her pipe as she wove along the sinuous mountain roads and occasionally swerved off onto the gravel shoulder. The anonymity of hitching makes it a beautiful platform for storytelling. Brenda had two sons and lived for most of her life in Trinidad, Colorado. She ran businesses – a cleaning service, a thrift store, a small restaurant – and never made it clear if she had an old man. I glanced from her face to the road and felt a small pang of adrenaline each time she swerved outside the lines. Everything felt apart abruptly when her son was shot to death, her other son joined the Navy, and she went on the lam. I am generally a brick wall to sexual innuendo and subtlety, but there were enough overt references to her abysmal sex life to set off alarms. She shouted at an elderly lady hunched behind the wheel of a Volkswagen as she ran her off the road for driving too slow.

I got dropped off in Gunnison and began walking through town in flip flops. I chuckled with the realization that hitchhiking in flip flops had the benefit of being quite disarming as very few serial killers and rapists likely wear flip flops. So I was feeling pretty good about my prospects. I quickly caught a ride in a pickup with a guy named Brian who showed me the carcass of a deer that a snowplow had hit and launched high into the limbs of a tree. I ended up outside of Salida.

An old grey station wagon slowly passed and then stopped ahead. I jogged up and a gravelly voice billowing smoke said, “Take your time, no need to rush.” I tossed my pack in back and jumped into the passenger seat next to a grey haired woman in a peasant dress with a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth.

“Joy.”

“Alex.”

She guided the car up the pass and into the barren and expansive San Luis Valley. She was from Vermont, but had lived out West for a few decades and currently lived in a strange community called Crestone that lay against the mountains near the Great Dunes National Park. It was an intentional community that had never fully developed – a still born hippy dream. Maybe it lacked intent. She at one pointed lived there for a year without any water or power. She had slowly converted a yurt into a permanent structure. She lit each cigarette with the fading ember of the last and carefully answered all of my questions.
“Here and there a few people come into the community and cause trouble. We drive them out ourselves – there are no police there, they never come out our way. Sometimes we have to organize posses, you know, without the horses and rifles, but still a posse, to run ‘em out.”

“What do you do for water and food?”
“Well there definitely isn’t an abundance of either. We get by. There are some wells. We aren’t too sustainable though; we can’t really grow much this high.”

I got dropped on a desolate stretch near the Crestone turn off. My next ride was with a young guy named Dirk who was red-eyed and giggling from the moment that he pulled up. He cracked up at anything that I said. I never could really ascertain why he was out in this area, but he rambled on about exploring some formerly productive mining claims.

I ended up on the roadside in Alamosa. I quickly caught a ride from a guy named Carlos who was streaked with tattoos. I liked him the moment he opened his mouth though and we kept each other laughing. He talked freely and frankly about his time in prison for grand theft auto. He took hits off of his dugout pipe and waxed poetically about turning his life around, the history of the area, his family, and love. He went out of his way to show me the oldest church in Colorado.

I couldn’t find a ride in Conejos as darkness descended. I stood on the roadside next to an abandoned building as the desert wind buffeted and chilled me. My dad ended up picking me up. I lay on his floor and listened to his erratic breathing punctuated with gasps and coughing; he sounded like a dog chasing something in a dream. I wondered what was breathing? He got up at 4:45am in pitch darkness to head to work each day. He then came home late and drank wine with abandon. I wondered later on what it is that he is chasing in his waking dream?

I missed the tranquility, space, uncertainty, heterogeneity, and inherent joy of nature. I missed life’s adventure. I learned that a long distance relationship with the Milky Way doesn’t really work; you have to make eye contact at least occasionally. I had time to slow down for the first time in months. Suddenly I saw that the tempest raging in my mind was just cancerous thinking in which our society was mired metastasizing, a useless and ceaseless spinning of gears. I thought that I would never assimilate into New York, but it colonized my mind instead. If you don’t know who the maniac is on the Amtrak within the first few hours – it is you.

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