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.

Preflightal Cortex

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

I don’t even know where to begin with this day, somehow the idea of flying back to America has produced a fight or flight response; it seems as if I have already chosen flight once. So this story is about flight, through and through. I am going to be honest about my life: it hasn’t been normal for a long time, if ever. I don’t have any identifiable career path. I don’t have health insurance. I don’t have any money saved for the future. I have paid rent for a total of ten months in the past six years; I have essentially lived out of my backpack and car. I have been flying for a long time. I set off into the Sonoran desert two years ago by myself with a backpack. I felt like I needed to experience the world, to countenance the world as my bare self. I am not sure if I can explain this impulse to anyone who has never had it.  I came home to Utah after six and a half months, worked for six months and then I found myself crossing the border ten months ago into the unknown, or at this point, slightly familiar on a bicycle.

I am not actually coming back to America yet, just visiting for a month, but I feel like a dog when it sees suitcases sitting by the door. The pacing and salivating start as synaptic maps light up in recognition of similar circumstances, physical stress manifests with an unclear referent. All signs point to change, point to uncertainty. Is the kennel going to come out?

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

The kennel? What is this all about? When I think about America, it evokes images of frantic energy, flashing lights, insufficient time and people that seem lost. I like tranquility and having time to do read, write, relax, meditate, converse, hike, run, ride my bike, cook. I like being challenged, physically, mentally, culturally, linguistically. The concept of America is somehow synonymous with a kennel that will deprive me of the freedom to do these things and losing the ability to do what I love obviously worries me. It is the time demand, time that seems invaluable to me, time that is finite and all that I have, flowing past continually.

When I think about all of this and it is like when the kennel is brought out, suddenly the whining and panting begin, the urge to urinate on expensive rugs rises quickly. I want to run out of the house, into the street, into the unknown.

Lago de Atitlan, Guatemala

I wake up to swim, sip coffee, meditate, take an excessively long hot shower, and ruminate on the banks of the emerald expanse of the lake. I watch all of the advancing and dispersing waves from the water taxis ripple the surface, they wink at me when they meet, the sunlight glancing off the shifting angle of their surface. I rudely appraise them as the mug touches my lips.

I am languidly sipping my coffee with subtle alarms going off in the depths of my mind telling me to get it together, but I literally think like this: You are being irrationally anxious Alex. It will all work out, don’t stress out. If you act patient, calm and tranquil, then everything will be fine.

This works until I nonchalantly check my email and see that my flight leaves two hours earlier than I thought. The alarms are bellowing and my adrenaline is spiking, yet I casually pack my things despite the sweat pouring down my body.

I glide across the lake in a water taxi; I look outward, wishing all of the stunning scenery would pass by faster as it assails me with its resplendent beauty. I speed walk towards the bus stop, peeing on a fence that lines the road. The driver of the next bus mashes the pedal to build momentum for steep climbs, bracing himself against the window for the sinuous sections.

Buses in San Marcos
Buses in San Marcos

The ayudante is in a perpetual state of manic motion, scrambling on the exterior and swinging through the interior; I can only liken it to how Curious George would behave if the man in the yellow hat had given him several grams of cocaine before putting him in the cage and loading him on a bus, but Curious had courageously chewed his way through the steel bars and begun to frantically evade hallucinated men in yellow hats pursuing him.

There is still plenty of time. OH MY GOD THERE IS DEFINITELY NOT PLENTY OF TIME. I keep telling myself that it will be alright, that I am being irrationally anxious to fret each time the driver stops to pick up a

Hood ornament on a different bus.
Hood ornament on a different bus.

person that materializes out of a cornfield or slows down to send a text message. An hour before the flight takes off, 22km outside the city the police decide to stop the bus and have a roadside discussion with the driver. Be calm. Be calm. BE CALM? The fucking $800 international flight leaves in an hour. I was supposed to be there, what, five hours before to have x-rays taken of my genitals? To be asked asinine questions and have my pathetic possessions pawed by the prying fingers of the ever expanding surveillance state? To….AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH……

No, I don’t want your charity cookies or any of those fucking ice cream cones that somehow never melt and always look perfect! Aguas? Jugos? Frutas? No. Aguas? Jugos? Frutas? NO! STILL NO!

Inside a Chicken Bus

All of the chi infused into my 12 chakras by bathing myself in the healing and tranquil energy portal that is Lago de Atitlan has precipitated into fulminating anxiety when mixed with the reagent reality. We drop into the smog and traffic of Guatemala City and I get off the bus in front of a Walmart where I hail a cab. I manually force my charkas into order and calmly tell the driver that my flight leaves in 45 minutes and that I am therefore in a slight hurry.

He whistles. ‘Do you lose your ticket if you don’t make it?’

‘I am not sure.’ I sit thinking for a minute as he weaves through traffic.

‘I think I will make the flight as Guatemalans are friendlier, more helpful people than Americans.’ I am definitely trying to convince myself here, while offering a compliment.

I run out of the cab, thrusting sweaty money that I had been palming for the past 15 minutes into his hand. There is no one at the ticketing desks, although the screens still flash information regarding my flight that leaves in 30 minutes. I find out where the United Airline’s offices are located, run there, run past the door, run back and burst in amidst frantic gesticulations and panicked Spanish, likely conveying a level of urgency that would be expected of someone transporting a freshly harvested organ. After trying to persuade me to take a flight the following day, he accepts that I am not going to leave him alone unless I try to make this flight.

‘Can you carry those bags onto the plane?’ He asks quickly as we both look towards my massive bag stuffed with two handmade wool blankets and a kilogram of mole negro. I feel like this is a question that he should answer, not me, but I am definitely not going to say no.

‘Uh.. Yeah.’ I say this with one eyebrow raised and my head tilted.

‘Do you have any liquids in your bag?’

‘Uh…No.’ The  mole negro is somewhere between a liquid and a solid.

‘Okay, let’s go get you checked in.’

We run downstairs and he frantically pushes buttons. I get to security and there is almost no line, I fill out my documentation haphazardly and approach the desk. The customs official calmly scans my passport and glances at my documentation. I see a red popup box start flashing on her computer screen that says something about ‘Illegal Resident Alien.’ My hear drops, but she closes the popup and slams down the stamp. I am sent on my way.

I load my bags onto the conveyor belt and step through the metal detector. I watch the face on the woman monitoring the screen as my bags pass through. Come on, come on, come on. She halts the belt. She calls someone else over. Both of my bags are seized and pulled off to the side.

‘Are these your bags?’


‘Can I see your passport and ticket please?’

Fuck! 20 minutes. The mole! The waterbottle! All of the strange shit that I am carrying back!

After glancing at my ticket she looks up with a shocked expression on her face.

‘Sir! Your flight leaves in just a few minutes! You need to go! Run!’ She hands me my bags and sends me running. I want to kiss her and the ground of this amazing country.

I run through the tile floored terminal, my cowboy boots clomping and echoing through a place that is already not Guatemala. I already had my documents checked to make sure I was acceptable to enter this organized, capitalized, surveilled, clean, hierarchical world. I am not even the last person to board. I stare out the window as the smog and disorganized sprawl disappear as we ascend into the clouds.

There are TVs on every seat now, 100 channels of satellite TV that you can pay for with a credit card. It glares in my face. I resist looking at it, but it will not let me turn it off. Insurance, resorts, things, services. I briefly think about how one day they might just figure out that they should charge you to turn it off, to make the commercials stop, to have peace and quiet in your mind.

The ground is visible; there is something wild about this, something that alters perspective, not just visually. There was a time not very long ago when humanity had never looked down upon itself from planes, from space. Nobody had seen the earth from this vantage. It looks like an outpost destined to be reclaimed as nature patiently bides its time against the impudent intrusion. Everything in Houston, Texas glimmers with steel and glass. There are tall buildings at the center, where it is the most dense and the least green, before gradually becoming less dense along the spokes of concrete that radiate out from the center. These arteries are flowing with cars, but occasionally clot with traffic, flowing away from the heart, the pulse and flow will shift the following morning. In, out, in, out.

The identical houses on the outskirts remind me of a kindergarten project where we made a big model of a town and all of the houses and buildings were milk cartons. An empire boldly built out of milk cartons, one that lasts just until someone realizes that plastic bags or tetra packs are superior. It was just a project, just something that we had to do so that we could learn, but it held no importance beyond that, just a phase. Look what we can do! It was destroyed at the end of the year as we had no use for it anymore; we all moved on to do something else, we grew up and did something a little less crude, a little better, something with more meaning and more permanence.

Traveling lifts you out of the routine into the completely novel; everything is vivid, sounds are louder, smells are stronger, light is more beautiful. I marvel at the people, the fashion, the seriousness, the technology, the opulence. The smell of cookies and perfume pervades throughout.

Going through customs to enter the United States is one of my most outwardly despised, but inwardly relished activities. I make up my flight number on the entry form as I can’t find my ticket. As I wait in line I hear a security official speaking aggressively to someone. I look over to see a Muslim woman wearing a hijab being singled out and escorted away. She follows obediently, but her four year old son is not compliant. He is at the perfect height to run under all the elastic line dividers, laughing and dancing as he goes. The government official sternly orders him around to no avail, the mother looks on with indifference. He paces and tries to maintain his cool as the kid taunts him from just beyond his reach. This goes on for several minutes, the kid oblivious to all of the cold technology watching him, to the global inequalities, problems, terrorism, security, bureaucracy, religions… They finally corral him and then they are led away. He is wearing a diaper that I imagine to be full of feces that he similarly accepts with utter indifference.

I reach the customs official, he has a shaved head and greets me with stern formality. This conversation is authentic and occurred in front of a massive line of people, but seems like a hilarious parody of many that I have had previously.

‘What were you doing in Mexico and Guatemala?’

‘Riding my bicycle South.’

‘What do you have some sort of goal or mission? Are you out to prove something?’

‘Nope, just riding my bicycle because I like to ride.’

‘Yeah sure. That is cool and all. Yeah. Maybe you will have some story to tell your grand kids if you make it, if you don’t die. You need to start thinking though, you need to think about safety, you only get one life and you need to be careful, be careful with it.’

‘Yeah, but if we only get one life, then we need to live it, right? We only get one shot, one experience. I want to make it a good one.’

‘None of it matters if you are dead.’

‘Hmmm…..’ I figure I will be the one to end the discussion, better not to escalate.

‘Just be careful. You are all set.’

Salt Lake City
Salt Lake City

Many people feel the need to comment on my lifestyle in inappropriate contexts, as if they are threatened by it. This man and I view life as incredibly important, but reach different conclusions given this premise. This man concludes that he should avoid risks and sit behind a desk, calling it a life lived. I think that I do need to slow down, find peace and contentedness in a more stable life; I feel some exhaustion, some wear and tear, but my philosophy will never be shared with this man. I think about the neatly groomed dog in the SkyMall catalogue wearing a ThunderVest that ‘eliminates 90% of house pet anxiety,’ that looks like its eyes are bulging out as the vest forcefully constricts its breathing to calm it.

What is a life lived? It sounds like me and this guy are both suffering from the same delusion: that any of it matters. You can fight it until the bitter end, you can give in early, you can cryogenically freeze yourself, you can make monuments in your honor, you can leave a prodigious brood, you can write incessantly, you can just float along. Embrace the cage, howl at the moon, eat Alpo, eat butcher shop scraps, get neutered, chase bitches in heat, have a huge litter, hump a table leg, chase rodents, bark at the television, get rabies, get fleas, get groomed, stick your head out the car window, get put down by the man you worship or get hit by a car.

Salt Lake City

I refuse to live a story that has already been written, a story that is not my own and has a dubious ending. I think that life, that our one chance to live an incredible life, to sculpt our experience like a piece of art is bewildering, but it is the gift I have been given.

Then I land and it is turbulent; I am a mess of anxiety and indecision. What the fuck am I doing with my life? Does everyone here know something that I don’t? What am I going to do in the future? How will I afford to live? Why do all of these people have so many shiny things than me? I have no plan. Where am I going to live? Are all of these people just going to laugh at my dreaming, at my sincerity as some type naivety? Does anything that I have done matter? What is wrong with me? I am as lost as ever. I cannot believe all of the specious bullshit that I pontificate from a cloud pulpit that disperses as soon as the wind blows. I make choices and then get unhappy with the results? Anxiety about things you cannot change? What am I, a child?

I fight for a while, until I accept it all and let it go. We ultimately have the choice of how we perceive everything, of how we react. The mind can make hell out of paradise and find light on the darkest of nights. Life is a free gift that we should gratefully accept and do whatever we want with.

Salt Lake City

America is clean, safe, violent, opulent, unequal, prepackaged, natural, processed, beautiful, frantic, serene, creative, homogenized, paved, wild, free, a prison, corrupt, stable, transparent, a monster, a beacon of hope, growing, faltering, surveilling, protecting, bellicose, racist, integrated, religious, materialistic. America is a concept that emerges from the people who live here, it is all of these things.

Everything, all of it fades when I am immersed in the love of my friends and family. After all of this I am slightly less domesticated, a little more wise and none the richer.

My Mind In The Clouds

IMG_3222 I decided, once again to the chagrin of everyone in my life, to abandon my course, to follow my instincts and remain in this place so vastly different from anywhere else on earth, a place that felt like home the moment I arrived years ago, a place that gives breathing room to my mind and dreams. The pulse of the beating heart of the Maya can still be felt in the highlands of Guatemala. I am on some acknowledgedly interminable quest search for something that I cannot phrase in words, something that I experience in fleeting moments that arise under unreplicable circumstances.

I stare out the window, maybe a little bit high on diesel fumes, of an old American schoolbus that moves to the beat of reggaeton. Guatemala is an amazing and strange intersection between traditional culture and modernity, I watch a woman board the bus carrying a basket on her head with a cellphone against her ear. In Xecam,  I hop out the back door, something that still makes me giddy after enduring a childhood of prohibition, and begin hiking my way upwards towards Nueva Xetinimit. This trail has been used since time immemorial to traverse the IMG_3233highlands, it was hewn by the feet of thousands of K’iche’ villagers, the feet of guerillas during the civil war and the well shod feet of those who want to see a Guatemala  from a different perspective. The K’iche’ are an indigenous cultural and linguistic group numbering an estimated 1.3 million people spread throughout the highlands of Guatemala, one of over 23 extant native languages. The long dry season is nearing its end; dust billows out from under my feet with each step. I step to the side of the trail into the pines as mules pass, straining under loads of firewood that arc over their backs. Men hurry alongside with machete in hand, we smile and greet one another with a long drawn out Buenos deeeeas that I learned to mimic after spending months crisscrossing the altiplano as a guide for a non-profit, volunteer run trekking agency that supports local social projects called Quetzaltrekkers in 2008.

The trail opens up into fallow fields furrowed and sown with maize that await the rain. A few moribund pines dot the landscape, the sheetmetal roofs of Nuevo Xetinimit shimmer in the distance. I walk thinking about how to capture this place that I love deeply. I greet a family working in their milpa and gaze out over the fields blotched with cloud shadows. I love this place because… grrrr….FUCK! I feel something clamp down on my ankle and instinctively break it loose and drive my foot directly into the cloud of fur and dust whirling around my feet. I shout obscenities, pick of a fistful of dust and impotently fill the air with a cloud of dust aimed at the retreating dreadlocked mongrel. The family dispassionately shouts as a friendly gesture, but we quickly break out into laughter after a moment. No rabies..The only casualty is my sock.

IMG_3224I walk into Nuevo Xetinimit and approach two women sitting alongside a deep, dusty scar that cuts through the overgrazed and overworked plain. I greet them in one of the few K’iche’ words that I know, saqui’rik. I ask them how they are doing and they respond in K’iche’ accompanied with a hand gesture that says someone is going to come who speaks Spanish.

The farmers here, as in much of the highlands, scratch out an existence by planting maize, beans and potatoes in marginal soils on steep mountainsides. They hand plant, harvest firewood for cooking and live in simple adobe or block homes. They lead a precarious existence; it is a harsh landscape where there is either too much water or not enough. In the end of October 1998, Hurricane Mitch dropped a years worth of rain that fell nearly horizontal with high winds. The cornfields that provide the year’s sustenance were destroyed by the wind and water. Above Xetinimit the deforested landscape and sloped fields gave way, unleashing a torrent of rock and mud that left dozens of houses destroyed and two lives lost. Central America was left reeling.

Most of the villagers left to try again elsewhere and Nueva Xetinimit was born. Multiple families shared small houses for years as they tried to get back on their feet, there was nowhere else to go. Several children from this area have have passed through a school for children who would not otherwise have access to education called Escuela de la Calle in Quetzaltenango. Escuela de la Calle and Hogar Abierto are the primary projects that the funds generated by Quetzaltrekkers  fund. Quetzaltrekkers maintains close relationships with many of the communities through which trekking trails pass: in Nueva Xetinimit alone guides have joined forces to build a bridge, donate bicycles and provide school supplies.

Manuel Grinning in the Tunnel
Manuel Grinning in the Tunnel

What am I doing here? The village has spent that past 240 days working collectively to carve tunnels into the hillside in search of potable water. A project they undertook on faith, someone had an intuition that they would find water here. They dug two tunnels between 5-10 meters in length into the hillside, each one 1.5m high by 1m wide, before they found two trickling veins of ground water. Manuel, our liaison with the women’s committee tasked with building the project hands a

La Lavadera
La Lavadera

candle out to me and points towards the tunnel. It feels like an affront to my manliness, I grab the dainty candle and plod my way through the running water, crouching as I move further into the darkness and feel a rising panic as I think about the mass of earth towering over my head. Here, right now? In this tunnel? What if I died? They spent months in this tunnel, it is fine. But everything is fine until it isn’t fine anymore! I am too large! I feel like Alice. I try and balance myself against the ceiling and walls, but worry that this will only weaken the structure. I look and see Manuel’s grin lit by his cellphone at the end of the tunnel. He points to the water as it emerges from nowhere. I awkwardly turn around, quickly moving towards the light. Always move towards the light.

The guides from Quetzaltrekkers have agreed to provide the necessary materials to fortify the water source and carry water to the lavadera below. I am there simply to help facilitate the project. The lavadera is a washing station that currently sits almost empty, but will serve as a source of water for household consumption for several dozen families who currently walk several hundred meters to retrieve water.

Six women are clustered around the washing station as I approach, soaping, rubbing and rinsing the days wash. I am often cynical about aid from a theoretical perspective, critical about dependency and the inability of aid to achieve lasting results, yet I look on and imagine clear, potable water pouring out of a pipe and the effect that it will have on these women’s lives; it is a beautiful image.

I run back down to Xecam with a rock in each fist, ready for the cantankerous cur that never appears.

On a crisp and clear Xela morning I walk out the door of Casa Argentina with Santi, a guide, to find our friend Victor leaning against his pickup truck with a new dapper mustache above an unsmiling mouth and mirrored shades. He says nothing as we approach, until I stick my hand out.

‘Les gusta el new look?’ He bursts forth and starts cracking up.
We pile into the back of his pickup truck and head out to Tubofort. I think about the name Tubofort on the ride there, going back and forth: pipes are definitely sold there, but it isn’t a fort. Fort is also not a word in Spanish. I ultimately decide that the name is great: succinct, yet it has some flair. We wrangle and rope three dozen 6 meter PVC tubes into the back of the truck I sit in the back and watch Xela fade away as we head up to…Alaska?… the strangely named highpoint on the entirety of the Pan-American highway.
Dust devil sweeps across the landscape as Victor takes a leak.
Dust devil sweeps across the landscape as Victor takes a leak.

Manuel stands on the roadside grinning as we approach. He piles in and we drive into Nueva Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan to buy the rest of the materials. There is also a Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan where most of the locals here used to live; they had the chance to change this name that could only be described as cumbersome and unwieldy,  but kept it and added three more syllables.

Santi and Manuel
Santi and Manuel

We arrive in Santa Caterina (the town will be referred to by this name to avoid adding several extra pages to this post) only to be informed from the woman at the hardware store that the estimate she previously gave us was wrong: someone from the city called yesterday and the global price for steel rebar went up. Her gilded teeth wink at me as she explains the unfortunate position in which we find ourselves. I invoke the image of pitiful, dehydrated orphans to no avail.

We arrange for another pickup and a truck to carry materials. We load them down with cement, blocks and rebar before caravanning along dirt roads IMG_3239towards the project. Through the cloud of dust I look out on the volcanoes around Guatemala City and Lago de Atitlan stacked in the distance, clouds gently rising on their flanks. I only catch glimpses through pines as they blur past. I spend half of the time airborne while trying to hold together the rebar bundles that are coming undone without pinching or crushing my hand. Classic Guatemala.

IMG_3249I once read about a study by Geert Hofstede on the cultural dimensions of different nations around the world, where Guatemala ranked as the least individualistic country with a mere 6 points relative to the most individualistic country, the United States, with a score of 91 points. This can conversely be interpreted to reflect the degree of cooperation, or collectivist ethic, within a society. I feel this when I am here, it seems to permeate society and I think it may be what keeps bringing me back.

IMG_3253We arrive with the materials in Nueva Xetinimit and dozens of villagers hop to their feet, ranging from old women to young men with gelled hair. Blocks are stacked on backs, bags of cement are passed from person to person, rebar is carried in pairs, bundles of tubes are snaked up the hillside. Thousands of pounds of materials are unloaded in just a few minutes. The trucks leave and then I begin the descent to Xecam on foot with Santi.

The Inauguration

Traditional Male Dress
Traditional Male Dress

I am out working on other projects for a couple of weeks; the only news that I hear from the project is that it was short two sections of PVC pipe, which Santi carried up from Xecam on his back.

On a chilly, clear morning, I arrive slightly before the other guides from the organization for the inauguration; old men and women in traditional dress, teenagers in second hand clothes from the United States and little kids wearing a mix of the two lie around in the grass as I approach. We all sit admiring the project with mugs of atole de maiz in our hands. Manuel steps forth to express his gratitude for our collaboration on the project. One IMG_3261member of the women’s committee stands up and says the following in K’iche’, which Manuel translates into Spanish and I transcribe roughly:

‘Aqui tenemos la voluntad y estamos bien organizados. Terminamos con el proyecto en pocos días, pero no se pudiera hacerlo sin la ayuda de ustedes. Gracias a dios que hay personas con corazones como los que tienen ustedes.’ ‘Here we have the will and are well organized. We finished the project in just a few days, but it couldn’t have been done without your help. Thank god there are people with hearts like yours.’

Another woman steps forth and hands me a hand knitted sign thanking the organization to hang in the office. I also receive a diploma to add to my ego wall, once I have a wall that I can call my own and can afford to have it IMG_3279framed. We walk the length of the project and I see the sight I imagined weeks before: clear water gushing forth into the full lavadera. A few women look up and smile as they knead their clothing against the washboards already worn down from just a decade of use.

Guatemala is incredibly rich, it has taught me much about life. I want to give back and support what I see as right in the world; projects like this show the beautiful side of humanity. It is about coming together and working towards a better future one step at a time. Each step moves more than just a foot. Write that down.

A Free Man’s Worship

Friday the 19th began strange and remained that way. I ordered a licuado – milk blended with fruit – and sat on a stool outside a shack on the roadside in La Maquina, Guatemala; or The Machine. I work here. Don’t bother: There is no sign that says Bienvenidos a La Maquina or I would have stolen it already. I sat disdainfully sipping the licuado after watching the kid behind the counter pour roughly a quarter pound of white sugar into the blender. I got up and walked back to the car, sulking about what could have been.

I tried to pay for gasoline an hour and a half later and could not find my backpack. The backpack with all of my money, my camera, my ereader, and my journals. I began looking around the car. It has to be here since this is where it belongs. I tried to be cool, watching myself go through the motions. Maybe it is under these papers or maybe it is under this jacket that I have already checked three times. I seemed to be doing all of this for the benefit of the gas station attendant. Then I accepted reality: it is at the licuado stand. I frantically flew out of the gas station, punching inanimate objects and shouting obscenities. I would do this for a few seconds and then laugh at myself for being ridiculous; there is no sense in fretting about what you cannot change or do not have control over.  My pictures, my writing, my money! Fuck! It doesn’t matter, they are just things, if it is all gone it is the universe teaching me to be more mindful. NO! FUCK! I would give whoever has it all of my money, I would do anything….seriously…..anything. I flew over speed bumps and threaded my way through fields of potholes on my return journey.  I arrive in La Maquina, almost crashing the car as I saw the backpack miraculously sitting where I left it. I ran up and aggressively grabbed it by its body, like the scruff of an insolent puppy.

‘Thanks for guarding my backpack!’ I shouted.

‘Uh….yeah.’ The kid behind the counter seemed confused.

‘I left this here for several hours and everything is still here!’

‘What is in it?’

‘Oh…uh… my notebook.’ I pulled out just the notebook to show him. I never performed any of the depraved acts that ran through my mind that would be necessary to recover my backpack.

I hopped back in the car and returned to Retalhuleu; met with a machinist; caught a tuktuk to the terminal; and finally hopped onto a bus, after merely glancing at the plaque in front listing Xela as one of its destinations, filled with merry musing about my upcoming sojourn in Mexico for a ten day silent Vipassana retreat. I began reading “A Free Man’s Worship” by Bertrand Russell while I waited for a bus to depart and quickly became engrossed. As we thundered over potholes, the driver whipping the wheel and veering all over the two-lane road, I diligently maintained my deep concentration. I marveled at my aplomb; a bohemian vagabond deepening his erudition despite the pettiness and uncouthness that abounds.

‘Where are you going?’ I look up from my book slowly before responding to the ayudante’s question.

‘Xela.’ I smugly hand him 13 Quetzales, which I had already counted out, as that is how much the fare always costs. Everyone seemed to be laughing as they marveled at the gringo who knows the fares and routes on these rudimentary thirdworld transport systems.

‘We aren’t going to Xela; we are going to Coatepeque, but I can drop you off at a junction further down the road where you can get a bus  back towards Xela.’ He laughs at me and bellows out.

‘Oh. I uh..I saw the sign that…..Alright.’

I finished the essay as I sat sweating and pressed against 87 other people on the bus. 9 rows, 2 seats per row, 3 people per seat, count babies (sometimes as many as four per seat), count people in aisle, count ayudante that is occasionally on the roof. Sometimes you just read things at the right moment. The subject: Humanity under the blinding light of impermanence.

A Free Man’s Worship by Bertrand Russell

To Dr. Faustus in his study Mephistopheles told the history of the Creation, saying:

“The endless praises of the choirs of angels had begun to grow wearisome; for, after all, did he not deserve their praise? Had he not given them endless joy? Would it not be more amusing to obtain undeserved praise, to be worshipped by beings whom he tortured? He smiled inwardly, and resolved that the great drama should be performed.

“For countless ages the hot nebula whirled aimlessly through space. At length it began to take shape, the central mass threw off planets, the planets cooled, boiling seas and burning mountains heaved and tossed, from black masses of cloud hot sheets of rain deluged the barely solid crust. And now the first germ of life grew in the depths of the ocean, and developed rapidly in the fructifying warmth into vast forest trees, huge ferns springing from the damp mould, sea monsters breeding, fighting, devouring, and passing away. And from the monsters, as the play unfolded itself, Man was born, with the power of thought, the knowledge of good and evil, and the cruel thirst for worship. And Man saw that all is passing in this mad, monstrous world, that all is struggling to snatch, at any cost, a few brief moments of life before Death’s inexorable decree. And Man said: `There is a hidden purpose, could we but fathom it, and the purpose is good; for we must reverence something, and in the visible world there is nothing worthy of reverence.’ And Man stood aside from the struggle, resolving that God intended harmony to come out of chaos by human efforts. And when he followed the instincts which God had transmitted to him from his ancestry of beasts of prey, he called it Sin, and asked God to forgive him. But he doubted whether he could be justly forgiven, until he invented a divine Plan by which God’s wrath was to have been appeased. And seeing the present was bad, he made it yet worse, that thereby the future might be better. And he gave God thanks for the strength that enabled him to forgo even the joys that were possible. And God smiled; and when he saw that Man had become perfect in renunciation and worship, he sent another sun through the sky, which crashed into Man’s sun; and all returned again to nebula.

“`Yes,’ he murmured, `it was a good play; I will have it performed again.'”

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.

How, in such an alien and inhuman world, can so powerless a creature as Man preserve his aspirations untarnished? A strange mystery it is that Nature, omnipotent but blind, in the revolutions of her secular hurryings through the abysses of space, has brought forth at last a child, subject still to her power, but gifted with sight, with knowledge of good and evil, with the capacity of judging all the works of his unthinking Mother. In spite of Death, the mark and seal of the parental control, Man is yet free, during his brief years, to examine, to criticise, to know, and in imagination to create. To him alone, in the world with which he is acquainted, this freedom belongs; and in this lies his superiority to the resistless forces that control his outward life.

The savage, like ourselves, feels the oppression of his impotence before the powers of Nature; but having in himself nothing that he respects more than Power, he is willing to prostrate himself before his gods, without inquiring whether they are worthy of his worship. Pathetic and very terrible is the long history of cruelty and torture, of degradation and human sacrifice, endured in the hope of placating the jealous gods: surely, the trembling believer thinks, when what is most precious has been freely given, their lust for blood must be appeased, and more will not be required. The religion of Moloch–as such creeds may be generically called–is in essence the cringing submission of the slave, who dare not, even in his heart, allow the thought that his master deserves no adulation. Since the independence of ideals is not yet acknowledged, Power may be freely worshipped, and receive an unlimited respect, despite its wanton infliction of pain.

But gradually, as morality grows bolder, the claim of the ideal world begins to be felt; and worship, if it is not to cease, must be given to gods of another kind than those created by the savage. Some, though they feel the demands of the ideal, will still consciously reject them, still urging that naked Power is worthy of worship. Such is the attitude inculcated in God’s answer to Job out of the whirlwind: the divine power and knowledge are paraded, but of the divine goodness there is no hint. Such also is the attitude of those who, in our own day, base their morality upon the struggle for survival, maintaining that the survivors are necessarily the fittest. But others, not content with an answer so repugnant to the moral sense, will adopt the position which we have become accustomed to regard as specially religious, maintaining that, in some hidden manner, the world of fact is really harmonious with the world of ideals. Thus Man creates God, all-powerful and all-good, the mystic unity of what is and what should be.

But the world of fact, after all, is not good; and, in submitting our judgment to it, there is an element of slavishness from which our thoughts must be purged. For in all things it is well to exalt the dignity of Man, by freeing him as far as possible from the tyranny of non-human Power. When we have realised that Power is largely bad, that man, with his knowledge of good and evil, is but a helpless atom in a world which has no such knowledge, the choice is again presented to us: Shall we worship Force, or shall we worship Goodness? Shall our God exist and be evil, or shall he be recognised as the creation of our own conscience?

The answer to this question is very momentous, and affects profoundly our whole morality. The worship of Force, to which Carlyle and Nietzsche and the creed of Militarism have accustomed us, is the result of failure to maintain our own ideals against a hostile universe: it is itself a prostrate submission to evil, a sacrifice of our best to Moloch. If strength indeed is to be respected, let us respect rather the strength of those who refuse that false “recognition of facts” which fails to recognise that facts are often bad. Let us admit that, in the world we know, there are many things that would be better otherwise, and that the ideals to which we do and must adhere are not realised in the realm of matter. Let us preserve our respect for truth, for beauty, for the ideal of perfection which life does not permit us to attain, though none of these things meet with the approval of the unconscious universe. If Power is bad, as it seems to be, let us reject it from our hearts. In this lies Man’s true freedom: in determination to worship only the God created by our own love of the good, to respect only the heaven which inspires the insight of our best moments. In action, in desire, we must submit perpetually to the tyranny of outside forces; but in thought, in aspiration, we are free, free from our fellow-men, free from the petty planet on which our bodies impotently crawl, free even, while we live, from the tyranny of death. Let us learn, then, that energy of faith which enables us to live constantly in the vision of the good; and let us descend, in action, into the world of fact, with that vision always before us.

When first the opposition of fact and ideal grows fully visible, a spirit of fiery revolt, of fierce hatred of the gods, seems necessary to the assertion of freedom. To defy with Promethean constancy a hostile universe, to keep its evil always in view, always actively hated, to refuse no pain that the malice of Power can invent, appears to be the duty of all who will not bow before the inevitable. But indignation is still a bondage, for it compels our thoughts to be occupied with an evil world; and in the fierceness of desire from which rebellion springs there is a kind of self-assertion which it is necessary for the wise to overcome. Indignation is a submission of our thoughts, but not of our desires; the Stoic freedom in which wisdom consists is found in the submission of our desires, but not of our thoughts. From the submission of our desires springs the virtue of resignation; from the freedom of our thoughts springs the whole world of art and philosophy, and the vision of beauty by which, at last, we half reconquer the reluctant world. But the vision of beauty is possible only to unfettered contemplation, to thoughts not weighted by the load of eager wishes; and thus Freedom comes only to those who no longer ask of life that it shall yield them any of those personal goods that are subject to the mutations of Time.

Although the necessity of renunciation is evidence of the existence of evil, yet Christianity, in preaching it, has shown a wisdom exceeding that of the Promethean philosophy of rebellion. It must be admitted that, of the things we desire, some, though they prove impossible, are yet real goods; others, however, as ardently longed for, do not form part of a fully purified ideal. The belief that what must be renounced is bad, though sometimes false, is far less often false than untamed passion supposes; and the creed of religion, by providing a reason for proving that it is never false, has been the means of purifying our hopes by the discovery of many austere truths.

But there is in resignation a further good element: even real goods, when they are unattainable, ought not to be fretfully desired. To every man comes, sooner or later, the great renunciation. For the young, there is nothing unattainable; a good thing desired with the whole force of a passionate will, and yet impossible, is to them not credible. Yet, by death, by illness, by poverty, or by the voice of duty, we must learn, each one of us, that the world was not made for us, and that, however beautiful may be the things we crave, Fate may nevertheless forbid them. It is the part of courage, when misfortune comes, to bear without repining the ruin of our hopes, to turn away our thoughts from vain regrets. This degree of submission to Power is not only just and right: it is the very gate of wisdom.

But passive renunciation is not the whole of wisdom; for not by renunciation alone can we build a temple for the worship of our own ideals. Haunting foreshadowings of the temple appear in the realm of imagination, in music, in architecture, in the untroubled kingdom of reason, and in the golden sunset magic of lyrics, where beauty shines and glows, remote from the touch of sorrow, remote from the fear of change, remote from the failures and disenchantments of the world of fact. In the contemplation of these things the vision of heaven will shape itself in our hearts, giving at once a touchstone to judge the world about us, and an inspiration by which to fashion to our needs whatever is not incapable of serving as a stone in the sacred temple.

Except for those rare spirits that are born without sin, there is a cavern of darkness to be traversed before that temple can be entered. The gate of the cavern is despair, and its floor is paved with the gravestones of abandoned hopes. There Self must die; there the eagerness, the greed of untamed desire must be slain, for only so can the soul be freed from the empire of Fate. But out of the cavern the Gate of Renunciation leads again to the daylight of wisdom, by whose radiance a new insight, a new joy, a new tenderness, shine forth to gladden the pilgrim’s heart.

When, without the bitterness of impotent rebellion, we have learnt both to resign ourselves to the outward rules of Fate and to recognise that the non-human world is unworthy of our worship, it becomes possible at last so to transform and refashion the unconscious universe, so to transmute it in the crucible of imagination, that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay. In all the multiform facts of the world–in the visual shapes of trees and mountains and clouds, in the events of the life of man, even in the very omnipotence of Death–the insight of creative idealism can find the reflection of a beauty which its own thoughts first made. In this way mind asserts its subtle mastery over the thoughtless forces of Nature. The more evil the material with which it deals, the more thwarting to untrained desire, the greater is its achievement in inducing the reluctant rock to yield up its hidden treasures, the prouder its victory in compelling the opposing forces to swell the pageant of its triumph. Of all the arts, Tragedy is the proudest, the most triumphant; for it builds its shining citadel in the very centre of the enemy’s country, on the very summit of his highest mountain; from its impregnable watchtowers, his camps and arsenals, his columns and forts, are all revealed; within its walls the free life continues, while the legions of Death and Pain and Despair, and all the servile captains of tyrant Fate, afford the burghers of that dauntless city new spectacles of beauty. Happy those sacred ramparts, thrice happy the dwellers on that all-seeing eminence. Honour to those brave warriors who, through countless ages of warfare, have preserved for us the priceless heritage of liberty, and have kept undefiled by sacrilegious invaders the home of the unsubdued.

But the beauty of Tragedy does but make visible a quality which, in more or less obvious shapes, is present always and everywhere in life. In the spectacle of Death, in the endurance of intolerable pain, and in the irrevocableness of a vanished past, there is a sacredness, an overpowering awe, a feeling of the vastness, the depth, the inexhaustible mystery of existence, in which, as by some strange marriage of pain, the sufferer is bound to the world by bonds of sorrow. In these moments of insight, we lose all eagerness of temporary desire, all struggling and striving for petty ends, all care for the little trivial things that, to a superficial view, make up the common life of day by day; we see, surrounding the narrow raft illumined by the flickering light of human comradeship, the dark ocean on whose rolling waves we toss for a brief hour; from the great night without, a chill blast breaks in upon our refuge; all the loneliness of humanity amid hostile forces is concentrated upon the individual soul, which must struggle alone, with what of courage it can command, against the whole weight of a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears. Victory, in this struggle with the powers of darkness, is the true baptism into the glorious company of heroes, the true initiation into the overmastering beauty of human existence. From that awful encounter of the soul with the outer world, enunciation, wisdom, and charity are born; and with their birth a new life begins. To take into the inmost shrine of the soul the irresistible forces whose puppets we seem to be–Death and change, the irrevocableness of the past, and the powerlessness of Man before the blind hurry of the universe from vanity to vanity–to feel these things and know them is to conquer them.

This is the reason why the Past has such magical power. The beauty of its motionless and silent pictures is like the enchanted purity of late autumn, when the leaves, though one breath would make them fall, still glow against the sky in golden glory. The Past does not change or strive; like Duncan, after life’s fitful fever it sleeps well; what was eager and grasping, what was petty and transitory, has faded away, the things that were beautiful and eternal shine out of it like stars in the night. Its beauty, to a soul not worthy of it, is unendurable; but to a soul which has conquered Fate it is the key of religion.

The life of Man, viewed outwardly, is but a small thing in comparison with the forces of Nature. The slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death, because they are greater than anything he finds in himself, and because all his thoughts are of things which they devour. But, great as they are, to think of them greatly, to feel their passionless splendour, is greater still. And such thought makes us free men; we no longer bow before the inevitable in Oriental subjection, but we absorb it, and make it a part of ourselves. To abandon the struggle for private happiness, to expel all eagerness of temporary desire, to burn with passion for eternal things–this is emancipation, and this is the free man’s worship. And this liberation is effected by a contemplation of Fate; for Fate itself is subdued by the mind which leaves nothing to be purged by the purifying fire of Time.

United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that a new vision is with him always, shedding over every daily task the light of love. The life of Man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time in which we can help them, in which their happiness or misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy, to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection, to strengthen failing courage, to instil faith in hours of despair. Let us not weigh in grudging scales their merits and demerits, but let us think only of their need–of the sorrows, the difficulties, perhaps the blindnesses, that make the misery of their lives; let us remember that they are fellow-sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy as ourselves. And so, when their day is over, when their good and their evil have become eternal by the immortality of the past, be it ours to feel that, where they suffered, where they failed, no deed of ours was the cause; but wherever a spark of the divine fire kindled in their hearts, we were ready with encouragement, with sympathy, with brave words in which high courage glowed.

Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned to-day to lose his dearest, to-morrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate, to worship at the shrine that his own hands have built; undismayed by the empire of chance, to preserve a mind free from the wanton tyranny that rules his outward life; proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.

The Reality in the Rows

There are several sentences in this paragraph that need to be set to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song. Now this is the story all about how my weekend got flipped, turned upside down and I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there. I lay in bed on a Saturday morning, relishing the sunlight angularly splayed across my bed. My phone rings, I spring up and quickly answer it. I had anticipated this call as the night sky over Quetzaltenango erupted with dendritic shafts of lightning and a long anticipated deluge of water. I pick up my clothes off the floor and stuff papers into a backpack and run into the street, headlong into the maize planting season in the communities around Suchitepéquez, Guatemala. I whistle for a bus and as it comes near the windshield says “Lopez” and it has Jesus  in the mirror. If anything, I could say that this bus was rare. But I think nah, forget it. ¡Oye vos a Reu!

My curly hair expands outward as the magic school bus slowly immerses me in the coastal humidity. I get dropped off by the bus a kilometer shy of the mechanic’s shop where I will pick up the old champion of a Suzuki that I use in the field. I am walking against traffic in frustration until I hear someone shout:

‘Gringo!’ from across the road.

He runs to the curb with a mango in each hand. We stare at each other from across the road until there is a break in traffic. I run over and he hands me the mangos.

‘Por el camino.’ For the road he says through a smile.

IMG_3464I begin a pothole dodging drive, occasionally spraying rusty water out to the sides as the road itself becomes one large, unavoidable pothole. I shout out the window occasionally at teenagers on mopeds;  there is no time for patience when it comes to agriculture. A slate blanket of clouds smothers the fallow fields; men walk with purpose carrying machetes and hand hewn planting sticks.

I pass through Cuyotenango, prostitutes lean and leer from cantina doors in the early morning. A drunk pauses as I approach, staring into my eyes, the whites of his eyes cast against the backdrop of the brilliant blood pouring down his face. Nobody else seems concerned.

I currently work for a farmer to farmer organization that works with smallholders farmers on the Guatemalan Pacific coast to improve agriculture, livelihoods and food security IMG_3475through small scale experimentation. Farmers in this area of Guatemala, Suchitepequez and Retalhuleu, generally plant maize (corn) and sesame in soil depleted from years of intensive cotton monocropping that proceeded the land grants that occurred during or after the civil war. Sesame is planted purely for export, and maize for both sale and consumption. I am planting two different varieties of maize with the farmers that are nutritionally superior to the varieties that are currently planted in this region: Quality Protein Maiz and ICTA Maya. Farmers in this region traditionally only have access to information regarding seeds, chemicals, pests and weeds from rarely seen government officials or self-interested representatives from Monsanto or Disagro. We are trying to offer an alternative: I have collaborated with 15-20 farmers to set up small experiments on their parcels with the aims of introducing them to the experimentation process and these varieties of maize. We have been through the process of measuring and marking the experiment in the field; I am rushing to the coast to assist with planting to both monitor their experiments and to take part in the ritual.

I rattle through the shady tunnel created by a finca of Palma Africana; the symmetry is both beautiful and disgusting. My feeling is similar with regard to the strange smelling water that hits and cools my face from the sprinklers that line the roadside. I try to make it out to the field of Paula Jimenez in 2wd, but I am quickly mired in deep, slick mud as farmers knowingly snicker as they pass on bicycles. I wade out into the mud and lock the hubs, before emerging in a spray of mud.

IMG_3441I park the car before one daunting pit where a horse drawn cart wallows. I proceed on foot. I arrive late to Paula’s field, something that I see as a positive cultural adaptation to Guatemala on my part. I watch the farmers wander their fields, barefeet caked in black. I quickly come to understand the custom as I suddenly feel quite Dutch as my shoes are transformed into four inch clogs. I measure and remark an already planted experiment and make plans to return the following day to finish the planting of Paula’s field.

The day is fading quickly and I need to find somewhere to eat, somewhere to sleep and then be back here before 6am. I pass by a few other homes on my way out of town to check up on planting plans, navigating roads riven by rivulets. I eat five empanadas on the roadside, situate myself in the municipal building of a small town called Lupita and cool myself by dumping bowls of water on myself under a constant cacophony of grackles.

I sit reading Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut under a single dangling lightbulb as I am assailed by mosquitos. In amusement I read, ‘Kilgore Trout once wrote a short story which was a dialogue between two pieces of yeast. They were discussing the possible purposes of life as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement. Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.’

I hear a polite knock on the screen door and Daniel, Treasurer of the local development organization, pulls up a chair. We talk about the organization where I work and the challenges that Guatemala faces. Daniel explains the history of the village: Lupita was founded 17 years earlier by refugees returning for Mexico as the Guatemalan Civil War drew to a close in 1996. The founders came from indigenous communities in the highlands: Quiche, Quetzaltenango and San Marcos. There are still six different languages spoken in the community. The community has benefited from a high degree of organization, despite the cultural diversity. Community organization here is synonymous with agricultural organization; this has allowed the town to prosper through coordinated development projects.

Daniel sums up the government development and agricultural extension programs that visit the town by saying the following: ‘They love talking, but hate to get their boots dirty. We learn in the fields, we learn by doing. They pass out sheets about how to do technical things, like make organic fertilizer, to people who cannot read, then a farmer tries to do it and it doesn’t work because they didn’t understand how to apply it because it was never demonstrated. Everyone then thinks that organic fertilizer doesn’t work. It happens all of the time; I don’t even want to ask the community to gather for trainings or meetings from the government anymore. The people have no confidence in them and most of the time just hope to receive free fertilizer.’

‘How should an organization try to help people and make lasting change here?’

‘You should work closely with a few people that can create good examples. Show us what you’re talking about, show us the benefits. I went to university and studied agriculture, came back, and then tried to convince my father to try using organic fertilizer. He wouldn’t . If I showed him how to do it he might try it, but how does anyone expect to show up as an outsider and convince anyone of anything with words? You need to build trust and a relationship with the people and then they will listen to you.’

Nuevos Bracitios, Suchitepéquez, Guatemala

I wake up to the same raucous cackling, the intensity increasing as dawn nears. I throw my things in the car in a somnambulant daze and take off. The sky is light as I park in front of the house belonging to a friend named Catocho in Nuevos Bracitos. I slap him on the back as he mixes his seed with a treatment to combat pests, a neon yellow substance called Blindage, with a grin on his face. We sit down for a bowl of black beans and deep yellow tortillas made from a native variety of corn. Catocho and his wife were brought together, in my mind, by one defining and hilarious mannerism: they scream to communicate. They will shout at you from across the table about a mango or to offer you a delicious, cold drink.

Catocho began working in the cotton fincas at the age of six years old, something that was normal in the 1970s. He grew to be a man who is constant motion and energy, words coming out of his mouth in torrents punctuated with laughter. He is off to an early start today, spinning tales of bad harvests and about the time they accidentally planted all of the rows maize diagonally. Everyone is in high spirits; there is an energy in the fields and houses that is a release after months of anticipation.

IMG_3455The fields in every direction are filled with men, women and children thrusting planting sticks into the ground made soft by the rain. They expertly cast two kernels into each hole before gently covering it.  I  measure several parcels, help plant one and then head out to help Catocho. I leave the car at an impassable mudhole and walk through the fields with my machete, a few sticks and some twine. I pull off my shoes and fill up a plastic container that I sling off my hip with seed.  We plant seed that will yield hundreds of pounds of food nourished by the sun, rain and soil…..well and copious amounts of chemicals. The fields are  littered with colorful plastic bottles from frequently fertilizer and pesticide applications, the water in one puddle glows bright blue. The poor soils and imbalanced ecosystem here have lead to an unhealthy reliance on chemicals, both economically and physically, to yield a decent harvest.

We work silently, each in our own row. It is a meditative exercise for me; Catocho talks on his cell phone and still plants quicker than me.

‘I didn’t hire anyone. I just have one slow gringo.’ He looks over at me grinning.

After planting, we head back to Catocho’s house to eat lunch. Catocho quickly bathes and changes before we sit down to eat. His wife Gaby has set the table beautifully, in keeping with the auspiciousness of the day.

I check up on a few more parcels before Humberto, an agronomist with whom I work, and I rush out towards Conrado de La Cruz to mark a parcel there, racing against the fading day. Mango trees line the road, holding the last of the season’s bounty, much to my dismay as I often pick mangos out of the car window for lunch. I get out of the car at one point and wade out into a flowing stream,  which comes midway up my thigh, to make sure it is passable. I think that I learned this from Oregon Trail. I shrug at Humberto and he grins before plowing the truck into the chocolaty flow.  The fan slaps the water and the truck billows steam as it roars through the waterhole.

Linea A-13, La Maquina, Suchitepéquez, Guatemala

The rains are late here.  A-13 falls within the ‘dry corridor,’ something that local belief holds to have resulted from severe deforestation. I pass the following week in waiting, clouds perpetually looming in the distance. I mark parcels amidst the smell of rain and rumbling in the distance. I ask all of the farmers if it is going to rain and they always answer optimistically while looking at the sky.

The week passes without rain. On Friday morning I am awakened by a soft blob bludgeoning me in the face, interrupting my slumber in a bed made of straw.

‘What the fuck!’ I shout in confusion in the pitched black, windowless room.

I frantically grab around my face to confront my assailant. I grab a roughly textured, cool blob that takes both hands to corral before it urinates on me. I toss it on the floor.

‘What is it? What was that?’ Humberto inquires in concern from the floor where he lies.

‘A toad!’

‘What did you do with it?’

‘I put it on the floor.’ I start laughing.

‘You mean where I am sleeping?’

‘Yeah.’ He starts laughing as well.

To this day it remains a mystery how this toad got into the room, how it got onto the bed, how it gained enough force to bludgeon me from above with substantial force. There is simply no way realistic explanation. I briefly harbor suspicions that maybe Humberto is responsible, but I dismiss them as paranoid.

The one thing that I think that I, along with every witch or shaman, would agree upon is that this is a sign that it will rain today. I check a few more parcels and then wait. The sky unleashes a torrent all over Southern Guatemala that night, setting in motion the last round of planting.

IMG_3490The sky is clear, the cones of the volcanoes idyllically hang over the fields as the farmers plant a crop derived from a grass thousands of years ago; a sacred ceremony under volcanoes that have been shrouded in clouds for months. I plow through puddles once again, frantically answering phone calls regarding planting from all directions. I visited planted parcels in the morning and then plant all afternoon. Stab, throw, step, cover.

I eat dinner with Humberto at a family’s home in a town called Willy Woods. We repeat a ritual that keeps both of us contented in the field: eating stacks of ember toasted tortillas in Rosaura’s smoke filled kitchen. Chickens, a cat and a few puppies mill the room. I snicker to myself as Rosaura always makes noises at them and softly yells at them to get out, but never actually does anything about it.

IMG_3497The following morning we rise in the darkness to canvas different areas. I check two experiments before arriving at Cirilo’s house in A-13. We treat the seeds with a different neon blue treatment and then start planting with his sons; the four of us work two different rows, each one starting at an opposite end. We quickly shift the ropes and my inefficiency shines.

IMG_3499‘Let’s go to Los Angeles.’ Cirilo declares in jest.

‘Why? Do you want to plant corn there?’

‘No, I want to see the skyscrapers.’

‘I think we should go plant corn there instead.’

IMG_3501We finish up and scrub the pesticides off of our hands.  I decapitate a coconut and devour a mango, filling my beard with orange flesh. I get into the car in excited exhaustion, chickens and iguanas scatter as I clatter and clunk down the dirt roads of A-13.

What awaits these people? It is a question that is increasingly tied to the question of what happens to us, to the earth in general. The problems that Guatemala currently faces have not arisen overnight, but they are increasingly more apparent and exacerbated by our interconnected world. Inequality, resource scarcity, expanding populations and environmental degradation are universal problems that cannot be contained by borders, yet we live within an economic and political order that is currently structurally unsuited to deal with complex, global problems. I feel that, as individuals, we are left with several options:

1. Live in a solipsistic world and deny the reality of these problems.

2. Defer to some other hypothetical man’s infinite ingenuity as justification for personal inaction. To look towards technology as a solution to the problems that technology causes.

3. Recognize the reality of these problems.

  • Do nothing in despair/perception that one’s locus of control is limited.
  • Make mindful choices in your personal life each day to try and create a better world.
  • Actively work to create a better world using increasing interconnectedness; economically, socially, politically, informationally; to foster a counterbalance to these externalities.

Cloud Chasing Levity

‘El Capricho’ Km. 52 Cattle Inspection Station to Luis Espinoza, Chiapas

Trucks clatter and squeal me awake to a fetid trailer, rank with a pungent miasma. We roll our bikes out onto the concrete slab under a steely sky. Adam had told us the night before that he had been trying to learn to read English, but currently had no books. He also had timidly asked if either of us had a one dollar bill from the United States that we could give him as a memento from his time spent there. We give him ‘The Time Machine’ by Orson Wells and a crisp dollar bookmark; he hands us two manila mangos.

Riding on the highway changes the way that I think, I don’t notice it immediately. Highways are designed for going from point a to point b, the signage tells me so. I don’t know where either of those places are located, so I arbitrarily choose certain towns and meticulously watch the kilometers laboriously decline.  I whir through a wasteland of barbed wire that protects rolling green slash-and-burn-scapes. I could ride a highway anywhere in the world and likely have the same experience. I long for the rural roads where chickens run rampant, where dogs rambunctiously chase with no mal intent, where snatches of shouted English resound from hammocks, where our passing is enough to give rise to smiles and laughter.

IMG_2969We turn off near Raudales towards Tecpatan and sigh in relief as a chicken struts across the road to the bellowing of a hackled cur. Land slides frequently spill into the road. Everywhere water falls and then runs, the final arbiter on existence and form, necrotizing sizable sections of concrete. We luxuriantly weave across the road, traffic almost nonexistent. We drop into Luis Espinoza and are greeted profusely as we enter town; we find ourselves perpetually descending, to our dismay, in search of the municipal building. We pull up filthy and sweaty and begin shaking hands.

‘Can we stay here?’ I ask some  man indolently lazing in front of the municipal building, a man who could be a drunk or the mayor, it is difficult to tells sometimes without our culture of opulent ostententatious fetters.

‘Yeah sure! You can stay here, right in front of the municipal building on the steps.’ He confidently responds.

In the next half hour we meet all of the political heavyweights in Luis Espinoza political arena before finally receiving formal permission to spend the night. We are offered use of the showers, a very privileged and coveted service, and round the clock police protection. I answer endless questions on the front steps and pose for dozens of pictures on camera phones where I likely appear as some sort of hairy white blob. The police usher us into the municipal building to offer us a reprieve from the masses of adoring rubes. They grant us the use of their stove as well, but they continue questioning us with genuine interest.

‘I am going to try and get my mom to come see you guys, she has never seen anyone with blue eyes before.’ One of the police tells us bashfully. I always wonder if anyone is confused why all of the characters in my writing speak English and speak in strangely bland paraphrases.

‘Everyone is really excited for you to be here. Foreigners don’t come here, but most of us will never have the opportunity to travel like you do, so it is really interesting to talk to you… To find out about you and your lives.’ We sit around showing them photos and compare our respective pueblos. It is beautiful. I talk about poverty in America, food stamps, my childhood home being taken by the bank because my family was ineffectually avaricious. I cannot unfortunately paint my peregrinations out to have resulted from some sort of tragedy akin to the atmosphere stealing all of my topsoil and blotting out the sun. I am filled with rage at the inability of society to offer me martyrdom or elect me as an archetype of a generation.

Luis Espinoza, Chiapas to Chocasen, Chiapas

We met a dentist the night before who invited us to eat breakfast with him. He runs an icecream parlor that is a facsimile of an American malt shop, which happens to be attached to his dentist’s office. Damien and I roar laughing at the concept.

‘Would you guys care for some cokes?’ We politely decline at 7am and chortle.

‘What do you guys want to eat? Cheeseburgers?’

‘Oh any type of breakfast food sounds good.’

‘Make a few cheeseburgers for these guys!’

We leave, but we are not full. We are riding in search of food, our eye scanning for billowing smoke and our finely tuned noses aggressively flaring in pursuit of any trace of meat at any temperature above 45 degrees Celsius. A set of stairs strangely juts out into the street. Damien rams into it and topples to the ground in laughter. Two women come out of the door that leads to the stairs that he hit and cover their mouths as they laugh at him writhing on the ground. They then invite us inside to eat breakfast.

IMG_2971We climb most of the morning before a steep descent into Tecpatan where a few locals from Luiz Espinoza yell at us and stop to chat. The golden nectar of mango runs down my face and coats my hands; there is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of a mango binge. I cut up a mango for a few kids who watch me eat in amusement.

IMG_2973My mind is clear, my thoughts incisive and collected. I am not sure if I can ever lead a meaningfully happy life as a component of what I see developing around me. This morning it is clear, the disparate pieces are being assembled in my mind. The increasing stranglehold of a political, culture and economic system rooted in the diffusion of responsibility, in the faceless degradation of humanity to the level of groveling imbeciles subservient to an incomprehensibly complex, unsustainable system of material production with a nebulous purpose, yet deadly serious modus operandi. I try to understand it as merely a manifestation of our humanity, something that could only be different insofar as we are different. Sometimes my mind is gripped; fragments previously irreconcilable coalesce and find coherence through a perspective that painfully dominates my consciousness like a billowing black cloud enveloping me; my mind retreating into the synaptic orgy occurring in some strange corner of my brain indefinitely until I see some sort of colorful bird trace a streak through my unwavering vision in deft flight or I hit a pothole that gives me a prostate exam, then I realize that it all is and that it all isn’t.

IMG_2974We pass Copainala, dropping down to Chicoasen and the bottom of the river valley. We climb the narrow inclined streets to the police station in search of a place to stay, but are directed towards a boarding house. We walk in, dirty and disheveled (I am not sure why I keep stating this description, I should probably just preface most of my writing with the concept that I am perpetually filthy and pungent in an endearing way that most women find incredibly alluring and irresistible.)

I do not have the disarming apparatus of my bicycle to defuse the proprietress’s incredibly agitated pheromone receptors.

‘Good afternoon! We are looking for a place to stay, the police told us that you had rooms for rent.’ Looking back on it this is not a good introduction. She stares harshly at us before sternly and suggestively muttering:

‘You won’t like it here.’

‘Look, we just need a place to sleep for one night.’ I explain in confusion.

‘Here is what a room looks like.’ She glares at me in a menacing way, threatening me with what I remember as bared teeth. There is one lightbulb dangling from the ceiling, enough room for a bed and no window.

‘Perfect! Thanks, we’ll go grab our stuff from outside!’ I decide to melt her icy demeanor with my warm, boyish charm.

As soon as I load my stuff into the room, I sit down to eat peanuts. I have both fists completely full of them as she approaches.

‘Are you going to pay?’ She mutters in geriatric suspicion.

‘Both of my hands are full,’ I show her my hands, ‘I can’t right now.’ Small pieces of peanut spray out of my mouth as I laugh. Damien hears the conversation and comes out to pay her.

We walk around the small town and eat some street food as the elderly stroll, teenagers giggle and ride bike,s and adults rest from the day on benches.

We return to our lodging and I sit up for an hour or two talking with the proprietor as he rubs his belly and tells me about the indigenous tribe in Lacandon. A tribe of pure Mayan blood left untouched in the depths of the Chiapan jungle until the early 20th century. The sky breaks and I can see the stars for the first time in a week.

Chicoasen, Chiapas to San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas

IMG_2978The street we take to leave Chicoasen is the steepest that I have ever seen in my life. My arms strain and burn as I push my bike upwards. I finally summit and straddle my bike to set out towards Soyalo; the road in various states of decomposition. We follow a roaring river before switchbacking our way up to San Francisco Sarabia. A hundred meter waterfall casts rainbows as it pour off the cliff on which the town is perched. Old men with belt slung machetes amble towards the field, dispensing sage advice as I stop to sweat and pant. I don’t remember any of the sage advice.

IMG_2979As we keep climbing to Soyalo I curse the genial old men who gave me spurious information about the route, imagining each of their faces as I belittle their navigation and perception skills. Dark clouds overtake us in Soyalo. A chilly winter breeze sweeps across the fields, giving lift to both trash and vultures. I pour sweat and mash my pedals on an increasingly steep section of climbing. I eat fruit by the kilo, I don’t deal in grams or ounces anymore. The road planes out and leads us into Ixtapa.

I pull up next to a few men that greet me with sated post prandial stares and state, ‘We want to go to Chamula. How do we get there?’

‘It’s easy. You just go straight and then climb into the clouds.’ He points towards the clouds that have swallowed the mountains in the distance.

IMG_2982We ride out of town and the smooth pavement gives way to rough dirt that begins a precipitous descent into a canyon. We follow a clear river that boils white water over black rocks. I can hear nothing but the rush of water and the crunch of gravel under my tires. Strange abandoned buildings appear out of the growth, slowly being claimed by the jungle. We leave the river and ride through towering fields of criollo maize with the sierra still looming distant.

IMG_2985We pass through an indigenous village, several people peering out of doors and windows as we pass. The faces noticeable darker, contrasted with bright, resplendent traditional dress. We pass over another river and then look upwards towards the road incised at a daunting angle into the mountainside; I ocularly trace it until it disappears into the clouds. My back tire spins on steep sections. The afternoon passes quickly amidst frequently breaks as our weeks of consecutive riding begin to call in payment.

IMG_2986I ride ahead of Damien, my mind drifting in frustration with nothing in particular. Neither of us speak for a bit. I want to get there. Get where? Before dark? Why? We are out of water…so? I am just tired, so tired. And? I reach a moment where everything seems inconsequential. Nothing can touch me, nothing can take anything away from me. All the worrying, planning and fighting are all for naught. All the speculation and hypothetical situations are pointless. I can fight my way through the rest of the way to San Cristobal with no difference in outcome or I can embrace the trajectory that we are on.

We ride slowly, enjoying ourselves in acceptance of the reality that we will be spending a significant amount of time riding in the dark this evening. We arrive in a small town as the golden light before sunset strikes. We pass a bottle of honey back and forth, gulping it down as we look up at the climb ahead. Quite a few people gather in front of their homes and discuss us in Tsotsil and laugh at us as we chug honey. The road once again disappears into the clouds. I catch the glint of a guardrail in the distance; pavement ahead.

IMG_2992The final climb requires exacting concentration and effort, every time that I push downwards my legs quiver in protest. I grit my teeth and inhale voluminous breaths. I push myself to the edge of my limits and hold it. I fight, time a meaningless abstraction to me. I arrive at the summit and look back on the spine of the sierra and the floor of clouds below painted by the disappearing sun. My mind is vacant of internal ruminations as I feel my chest expand and contract. Everything is brilliant, gilded with light as I have never seen before in my life. Everything is perfect, I see myself, my life and the world in one brilliant clairvoyant oneness. I feel the energy and richness of life and every moment running through my veins. It all erupts and explodes within my head, beatitude burns within me. Everything is insignificant when compared to the crimson edge smeared across the sheared clouds by an exploding ball of gas that is the basis for all life or to the cold wind luxuriantly prickling my skin.

IMG_2996I ride down from this point in elation, my perspective changed. The day is done; in twilight we climb upwards until a gunshot rings out. I flinch, quickly swerve and look around. Damien hops off his bike and I see his front tire is flat. We examine the tire and the tube has exploded and the tire is completely worn through in several spots. After making the questionable decision to continue on this tire a week ago, it fails within spitting distance of San Cristobal at a rather inauspicious hour and IMG_3000location. We sit in the darkness on the roadside, the cold breeze pouring down of the mountain summits. We cut up the tube and reinforce the tire with this and ducttape amidst much laughter, laughter of abandon. We inflate his new tube and the tire bulges at this spot without any structure to constrain the internal pressure. Our headlamps pan the darkness, emerald animal eyes occasionally glowing and silently moving through the darkness.

We arrive in a small village and see the light of a small store. We pull over, haggard and delirious in the way that a day like this can make you, the world only gaining in absurdity. The residents are in an adjacent house, their faces glowing through a screen of smoke as they warm themselves around a fire. An old man cautiously emerges and is amused as we devour anything that he offers us. Women wearing luxurious black wool skirts gather in the room quietly whispering in Tsotsil with babies swaddled in robozos on their backs. Everyone is uncertain what to make of these gringos stumbling in out of the darkness on bicycles, but they find nearly everything that we do amusing. We sit under the porch light repairing Damien’s tire with more ducttape in front of an audience. Little boys retrieve their bicycles from their houses and ride in excited circles. Old ladies cautiously peer from afar. The little girls are incredibly cute miniature replicas of their mothers, they stare at everything we do and hide if I smile at them.

The light pollution of San Cristobal lights the clouds in the distance. We ride past a few small villages, the dogs barking through town as soon as one hears us rattling past at this hour. They charge us aggressively, but never bite. Rain starts gently falling on us. San Juan Chamula covers a mountainside and we pass through the outskirts on our descent into San Cristobal. Traffic flies past us with our dim lights, the road surface is variable and treacherous in the darkness. Damien and I quietly revel in our luck at having made it this far on the Macgivered tire, but I ride worrying about a blowout on the quick descent.

Not dying on this descent requires mustering every bit of focus that I have left; my mind is in a dangerous haze of exhaustion.

Another gunshot rings out and I look back as Damien hops off his bike on the outskirts of San Cristobal. There is no fix; our riding for the day is over.  A rock is impaled through the tire and tube at the very hole that we strove to fix previously. We stand two kilometers from the city center in the cold drizzle, so close.

I decide to be proactive and flag down a family in a pickup and explain our situation; they seem to pick up on the exhausted, desperate edge of my voice.

‘Toss your bike in back and we will go find your friend. Where do you guys want go to?’

The world provides. I am filled with gratitude. Every day through actions like this, the world is made livable, held together.

We walk down Real de Guadalupe, or Gringo Alley with Damien carrying his bags on his shoulders and lifting the front tire of his bike. Tourists pass in chic, flowing clothes that declaim their leisure through their impracticality; British accents loudly shriek from the front of the London pub; Argentines busk and Americans peruse storefronts. The eco tour operators. The boutique wine shop. The seriousness of all of this, the gravity and importance placed on anything and everything. It is laughable. A joke.  Night clubs? Televisions? Fashion? Trash dumps? Fiscal cliffs? Retirement? My pretentiousness?

I eat dinner and curl up in a ball. I have a dream where I am riding my bike uphill for what seems like days. I finally summit in a perfect village, radiant in noontime sun under an immaculate sky. I let my hubs gradually gain velocity as I roll over the highpoint of the parabola. I let gravity pull me through the wavering mirage rising off of the obsidian tarmac. I stare out over verdant valleys and towering craggy spines. The beauty overcomes me as I peer off the precipice to the left; my velocity is incredible. The feeling of effortless speed suddenly shatters as I hit an anomaly in the perfection that sends me hurtling through the air towards the mesmerizing view. I hit the glassy obsidian slick and begin sliding. I grasp with my hands, using my skin as a friction brake to avoid learning what flying feels like. I stop teetering on the edge with the feeling of being unable to move without falling.

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas

IMG_3105I read, wander and cook what I find in my wanderings. I run across old friends. I get parasites and empty myself out. I don’t eat for four days. I drink a lot of tea and sleep. I take antibiotics. I read about and watch documentaries on the Zapatista revolution. Two weeks pass.

San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas to Comitan de Dominguez, Chiapas

IMG_3115I start to feel the sun of the tropics, the sun of the coming spring. We ride past military bases teeming with feverish activity with no clear purpose and then through the autonomous Zapatista towns that they are meant to oppress. The towns look lifeless except for the signature colorful murals across the sides of the buildings. The riding is remarkable, but both Damien and I are quite ill. As we near Comitan, I see a IMG_3117haggard man climbing upwards on a bicycle nearly devoid of gear, apart from a few spare parts; the first other cyclist that I have crossed paths with while en route. I swerve across the highway. He tells me that he is riding for peace out of his exasperation with the escalating violence in Mexico, visiting every state in the republic to speak out in favor of action.

Comitan de Dominguez, Chiapas to Cuidad de Cuahtemoc, Chiapas

IMG_3122Damien is too ill to continue. After riding several weeks with one another, something that bring people together in a way that few other things can in life, we solemnly part ways. I worry about turning him loose, letting him fly solo. My options are limited though, it is either this or brutally clipping his wings. I decide after much consternation not to cripple him.

I ride under a vacant sky towards the end of Mexico, slowly sliding down a continuous downgrade, the heat growing as I descend into a hazy valley surrounded by rugged mountains. I come upon a roadblock, where cars and trucks stand motionless as a mob mills. I carefully approach, uncertain of my reception at this function as a denizen of a nation widely viewed as some sort of evil empire bent on world destruction using our very species as complicit slaves in the process. All eyes are IMG_3126focused on me, I look around and weigh my options. I lay my bike down on its side and something unexpected happens: they erupt in cheers. I am handed a manifesto expounding the abuses of the Mexican government and its corporate handlers. I sit on the pavement and read it before expressing my sincerest condolences.

‘Would it be a problem if I continued riding?’ I ask anxiously.

‘Not at all!’ The ringleader jovially responds.

‘Continue fighting!’ I shout to much cheers and applause.

I see another cyclist coming, we are both wearing huge grins as we cross paths. Javier began in the South of Argentina. We talk about our trips briefly, take a photo and part ways. I had always imagined this moment differently: The other rider would emerge from a sun scorched mirage as the wind swept sand and detritus across the road. IMG_3128Our pedal strokes both slowing as we size one another up. A hawk lets out a shrill screech from above. Her perfectly matched hand slides into mine, there is no ring. I look into her gentle eyes and something passes between us, I feel a jolt, not just between my legs, but somewhere deeper. On the right side of my body. My heart. I don’t let go of her hand, using it to pull her into a sweaty, heartwarming embrace. It turns out that we are soul mates, both of our mothers still cut up our Eggo Waffles, as they know how to do it best. We both used to dress our pet chickens up in clothes left over from our childhood. We both write blogs that nobody reads because they are rambling pretentious musings or too uncomfortably weird to read. We both adhere to a terrible strain of romantic philosophy that leads to a myopic focus on self-development and rejection of anything that does not accentuate our grandiose self-image. We laugh, we cry, IMG_3119we make love on the roadside with reckless abandon. I take a job training birds of prey to protect malnourished children from vulture attacks and teaching yoga to quadriplegics. She works for a social enterprise that offers subsidized ice cubes and teaches indigenous African languages to Guatemalan refugees. We hyphenate our last names. We have children that are so intelligent that everyone believes that they are borderline autistic. We are bequeathed an estate from a bitter widow who manages to secure her place in the afterlife through this last gesture of benevolence towards a family that could not be more deserving.

I feel elated and wallow in my greatness as I reach the Mexican immigration booth at Ciudad Cuahtemoc. It is strange the effect that accomplishing this goal can have on a person. The strife, the doubt, the suffering all fade, my success takes primacy. All of the luck and generous people along the way are utterly insignificant in contrast against the scintillating force of my will. I did this myself, look at me. Nobody does though, so I will write about it.

I sit eat on the Mexican side and sit across from a man with a small backpack and a machete. He eats with relish and purpose.

‘Where are you going?’ I ask him, knowing the answer.

‘Mexico, Mexico City.’ He cautiously answers.

We talk for a while about Guatemala and he seems to relax.

‘Is the border crossing hard?’ He asks me timidly. I explain the sad and dangerous realities of crossing as best I can.

‘Where will you cross?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Where are you going in America?’

‘I don’t know where I am going either.’

He leaves quickly with his machete, off to work in America. I sit sadly thinking about the tough road ahead of him beset on all sides by people who are going to take advantage of him, including at his final destination.

I sit in a strange lounge chair that faces the border inspection station and watch for a few hours.

Ciudad de Cuahtemoc, Chiapas, Mexico to Huehuetenango, Quiche, Guatemala

IMG_3129The climb begins. I pass a trash dump that separates the two nations, several people climb on the smoldering stain that spreads across the landscape. Anti-littering signs abound, they seem to actually be anchored in trash.  Vultures circle in the acrid air of burning plastic.

At the Guatemalan immigration station I am processed by the same agent that has been there the previous two times that I have passed. He is the best border patrol official I have ever seen, a paragon of efficiency with an air of politeness that is borderline reverent.  I have deduced from these three border crossings that he is deaf and mute. He never says a word to me as I pass through, he simply stamps my passport and sends me on my way each time.

IMG_31324100km exactly to this point. Immediately upon crossing the chaos of Guatemala begins; the chaos that I have come to love. People yell at me, kids run alongside, chickens crispin in vats of oil, stereos compete outside small stores, buses bellow and ayudantes shout.

IMG_3133I thought that the topes, reductores de velocidad, vibradores, speed bumps would disappear as I cross, that this balderdash would be seen as ridiculous by the practical Guatemalans not gripped by a tope-industrial complex. I see a sign warning the approach of something called a ‘Tumulo’ on a steep downhill. Hmmm.. that sounds pleasant and non-three dimensional. I think nothing of it until I am rudely jolted, my speed forcefully reduced. No, it can’t be! I repeat this process several more times until my disillusionment is complete.

IMG_3139I ride with the wind and shouts of ‘Gringo!’ at my back. I never researched this section. The scenery slowly changes and the air cools until I reach a high plain. As I ride I invent my own radio station, ‘Uno!….Cero!…..Cinco!….Puntoooo! Dos!….Tha Mixxxx!’ I yell this over and over again in my best rendition of a Mexican DJ/the guy who seems to do the voice for ever commercial in Mexico. The station consists of my unconstrained and oft non-sensical thoughts, a steam of consciousness monologue that vomits forth and occasionally carries a tune. I am pretty sure that I have lost my mind, lost it to my own personal radio station. I tune in and out. This blogpost is a transcript of the radio stations first broadcast.

IMG_3141I sleep in Huehuetenango and set out early. I drink coconuts and orange juice with raw eggs on the roadside as I perpetually climb towards Xela, my radio stations #1 hit becomes me yelling ‘Xela…Xela….XELAAAAAA!’ like one of the ayudantes on the old American school buses that traverse the highlands.

IMG_3145I ride into Xela with a feeling of levity, the future boundless and my life as pure potential.

How did I got here, to Xela, Guatemala, is a question that is far more vast than pertains to me or you. On the surface, I took one stroke with my left leg, then one with my right and then I kept going. An infinite sum of pieces, each infinitesimally small, comprises a whole.

I crossed vast vacant expanses. The wind blew, rain fell, I got sick, I got lost and sometimes I forgot what I was doing this in the first place. Then I took another stroke. Night after night I laid looking up at an ocular symphony in awe, in terrified awe of the reality of this inexplicable anomaly. The life will leave my body one day and I will have understood so little through eyes that are inherently mine and are only open for a brief period of time.

I will never know the answers to the questions that loom over us omnipresent and radiant like the sun. We can stare at the sun, stare at these unanswerable questions until we are blind and wander desperately groping for an explanation or a purpose. Our only other option is to let it illuminate our path, to continue walking with our eyes humbly downcast.

IMG_3208I pass a few days in contemplation before passing a sleepless night under Volcan Santiaguito as it roars and vomits forth a cascade of sanguine rock. I sit anticipating each hourly explosion and the accompanying raucous rasp; it is primal and riveting; it is terrifying and perspective altering. The ever salient question: what do I want to do with my fleeting time? Ash rains down on me. I decide that I should do something different, chase the loose ends that tantalizingly dangle in front of my face. The needle on my compass is not pointing North, it is spinning capriciously. I am not returning home.

I look back at all of this, well everything, in bewilderment and mirth. All of it an infinite sum, a discontinuous function if any piece of it were to be missing. I am still in Xela.

‘El Capricho’ Km. 52 Cattle Inspection Station

La Horqueta/Poblado 12, Veracruz to Cerro Nanchital, Veracruz

As I lay in bed, a crisp dawn never comes, only a gradual lightening. I only get out of bed as a baby cries and pots clang in the kitchen that is separated from my head by several inches of thin wall. I lugubriously eat, struggling to lift my spoon to my mouth. Damien feeds his leftover cereal to the chickens that graze around out feet.

IMG_2930We retrace our route a few hundred meters to get to the bridge over the Rio Uxpanapa  to continue towards Poblado 13. The parting words from the grandma’s frowning mouth are, ‘You are going to get rained on today.’ Thanks for that. The clouds are low and they start spitting on us as soon as we leave. We gradually climb and weave on a road pockmarked by potholes engorged with opaque water.

The rain finally comes after looming ahead for quite a while, always just a bit ahead in the mountains the tower over us. It comes in wavering sheets, green parrots scatter as we stop to rainproof our bikes. We enter a town and a strong gust sweeps IMG_2932down on us before the sky unleashes a deluge. We ride laughing as it pelts us; it isn’t much of a rainforest if you don’t get rained on. We duck for cover under a shanty on the roadside, the sound of the rain pelting the roof is deafening. We sit silently listening to the pitterpatter as we spoon out the inside of a cantaloupe.

IMG_2933The rain slows to a drizzle and we set out. The terrain becomes steeper and more rugged as we climb further into the mountains. I lock up my brakes and skid to a stop outside the mouth of a cave, stalactites looking like teeth as we climb enter. We descend down into the darkness and are greeted with the sound of running water echoing off the walls. A shaft of life illuminates a small river that runs through IMG_2944the bottom. I dip my hand into the current and am surprised by warm water. I shine my headlamp around examining a pool, a bat panics and screams past my face. I hold my breathe like I do near packs of pigeons, assuming that even the air that comes off of their wings could give me some sort of disease.

IMG_2934Motorcycles pass us every half hour or so, but we see no cars. The reason for this becomes apparent as we begin climbing the steepest section of road surfaced with limestone ledges, rounded river cobble and slick clay. I pedal hard and try to snake my way upwards before finding myself getting bucked off my bike and walking until a suitable spot where I try again. I repeat this a half dozens times until I have walked most of the climb. I reach the top where I cross paths with two guys on a motorcycle dragging an emaciated hound dog with a nylon rope cutting into its neck.

‘Where are you guys going?’ I ask while suspiciously eyeing the dying dog.

‘To Matias Romero.’ A city at least 100 kilometers from here.

‘With that dog?’ I ask with a cringe.


‘Is he sick?’ Trying to suggest that maybe the dog doesn’t look too good.

‘No, he’s fine.’ I look at him and am pretty confident that he will die today.

‘Incredible, simply incredible. See you later.’

IMG_2931The downhill is equally treacherous, my rear tire frequently sliding off rocks and my front tire wildly careening off obstacles. Suddenly the road smooths out and the dense jungle opens up into green pasture. The riding is easy as we build momentum and pedal hard. The entirety of this trip we have received answers of degree of diversity regarding the distance to Cerro Nanchital. The wind blows hard and we are soaked to the bone. Powerlines? check. Trash? check. Cars? check.

We ride across the Rio Nanchital and arrive into a town where an elephant would seem less of a spectacle than a couple of gringos riding around on bicycles. Everyone stares as we ride the main drag eating several lunches at several different eating establishments. A kid dangles his hand out the window and makes eye contact with me, I instinctively stick mine out and we have a serendipitous highfive without a word exchanged.

My bike is a muddy mess with a flat tire that doesn’t want to shift . We are in shambles and I am amazed when a woman allows us to roll our bikes into a hotel room and soil it permanently with heaps of damp gear. Afterwards we roam town asking the least rubeish citizens about the roads out of town. The answers are highly varied. We find an internet cafe where a group of boys outside passes half an hour yelling, ‘Fuck!’ and ‘Hey, what’s up man?’ I guess this sums up what our media culture imparts on the rest of the world.

We head out into the pouring rain in search of dinner. We sit at a restaurant staffed by five young girls who giggle whenever we say anything and huddle around the glow of a television with flickering images of immaculately groomed and painted milkfed stars bathing in sumptuous wealth and hemorrhaging sexual energy. The commercials flaunt flat screen televisions, makeup, processed food, cars. You need it, you will be happeier with it. Buy it. If you aren’t happier then there is something wrong with you, luckily we have a product for that as well. What do they think about this?

‘Behold through you as bad as the rest,
Through the laughter, dancing, dining, supping, of people,
Inside of dresses and ornaments, inside of those wash’d and trimm’d faces,
Behold a secret silent loathing and despair.
No husband, no wife, no friend, trusted to hear the confession,
Another self, a duplicate of every one, skulking and hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the cities, polite and bland in the parlors,
In the cars of railroads, in steamboats, in the public assembly,
Home to the houses of men and women, at the table, in the bedroom, everywhere,
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright, death under the breast-bones, hell under the skull-bones,
Under the broadcloth and gloves, under the ribbons and artificial flowers,
Keeping fair with the customs, speaking not a syllable of itself,
Speaking of any thing else but never of itself.’ – Walt Whitman

Cerro Nanchital, Veracruz

It is still raining, day three of rain. A cold front has swept over Mexico bringing snow to the North. We decide to try our luck and continue riding in the direction of a small town/ranch called El Desengaño, or the Disappointment. I debate dumping white gas all over the hotel room and burning its forever tarnished interior to the ground, but we will need that white gas for the coming days. Two locals draw us maps of the route and detail how we can get a boatride across the Malpaso Dam where the road ends. We ride out under a gray sky, sheeted in low clouds. The rain falls gently and consistently. We are prominent local figures at this point, our exit something of an occasion.

We take a righthand fork roughly a kilometer outside of town where the road has been recently graded. The slick red slurry starts spraying. My legs are painted in red, my bike slathered in it after ten minutes. A man, a foreboding figure, approaches us on his motorcycle with his entire frontside painted in copper mud, the whites of his eyes bold against this backdrop. My brakes start grinding, my shifts skipping. I look back and Damien is missing. I stop and wait as the rain soaks deeper into my clothing. He reaches the top of the climb looking dismayed. We talk briefly about our bikes that have been rendered useless in only a few minutes in this quagmire. We reach Disappointment without having to ride the 50km we were expecting.

We ride back to Cerro Nanchital in defeat. We find shelter under the awning of a building, flip our bikes over and shiver as we clean every component of our bicycles.

A man’s head pops out of a window nearby:

‘How much does your bike cost?’ I mumble something in response, his head disappears back inside.

I spend the next four hours getting my bike into a semblance of working order until a man pulls up in his car.

‘Do you guys need a mechanic?’ He amiably asks.

‘Do you work on bikes?’

‘Yes, a bit.’ He says this in a way that leads me to believe that he might know something about bikes.

I show him how my shifting is getting slightly hung up and I cannot get the adjustment right. He grabs my hex keys and screwdriver and works quickly. He turns screws, loosens the cables, shifts through the gears. He is extremely efficient at undoing all of the work that I have done and worsening the condition of my bike. I watch in horror as metal grinds, the chain binds, screws are wildly wound in different directions and his brow furrows in confusion.

‘Something is wrong with your bike, but I need to get to work. Good luck.’ I am deliriously incensed, laughing as a pace and curse the chummy clodhopper.

My tire is flat again as I try to head back to the hotel in confusion. My derailleur binds and snaps. I patch my tube once, put it back on the rim, another leak develops, I patch it. I start to pump it up and the tube bursts. I put in a brand new tube and it has already been punctured. I patch it and then find another leak. I patch it. I pump it up and the tube bursts irreparably. One tube left: a Chinese made tube bought from a greasy little bike shop in Amecameca. It holds. The rain pours day and night, steadily audible from our windowless room.

Cerro Nanchital, Veracrus to ‘El Capricho’ Km. 52 Cattle Inspection Station

The sound of rain buffeting the roof has abated and we walk out into sunshine. I ride my bike around to test it out and stop to talk to a cute girl that works at one of the restaurants. An old man emerges from the house to contribute to the conversation:

‘Where are you from?’

‘How much does that bike cost?’

‘What’s in those bags?’

‘Do you have any cocaine?’

‘Do you have any weed?’

IMG_2949We ride past the hogswallow that leads to Disappointment, it is a somber moment. Signs threatening dangerous climb and descent as I ponder slash and burn landscapes. The topes and the dogs are aggressive on this stretch. I taunt the dogs, howling and barking as I pass to stir them up. It is even better when Damien is still behind to draw their wrath. The roads and bridges here were build by PEMEX for oil and gas exploration according to plaques on the roadside.

We ride 50km without stopping, eventually merging onto a highway where we eat at a restaurant managed by a taciturn woman, terrorized by a half dozen children and presided over by an old cowboy. The kids scream and laugh; the husband quickly stands up and shoulders a rifle that somehow manages to shatter the preexistant raucous chaos with several shots. He walks into the forest to retrieve his bounty.

After we finish eating they show us their collection of jungle pets/living food stockpile. They lift the boxes off a few tepesquintles that peer at us in terror with  nocturnal saucer eyes.

We ride out in search of a camp after buying aIMG_2951 bunch of vegetables out of the back of a pickup truck. The road is lined with barbed wire guarding open pastures that would be unpleasant sleeping grounds. Not fit for someone of my position in society. But we come across a more befitting local in the drizzlely afternoon: the State of Veracruz Cattle Assessment station, managed by Adam who greets us in perfect English as we pull up. I explain our trip quickly and then get to the point:

IMG_2954‘Can we sleep here somewhere? Out there in the field or something? We have everything we need to camp?’ I ask as politely and pitifully as I can.

‘Sure, anywhere. You guys can sleep in that trailer over there if you want.’ He seems ecstatic to have visitors.

IMG_2956‘Are you sure?’ Damien asks.

‘Yeah. It is full of soda from a Coke truck that crashed near here last week, but you can just move that aside.’

So we set up camp in an old camper with the floor rotting out and collapsing. It is partly burnt down and sits on the manure covered concrete slab of a 24 hour livestock inspection station. We move IMG_2958hundreds of cans and bottles of soda to one side. There is used toilet paper inside the trailer and some poop in the corner. I kick the toilet paper into the corner with the poop and then move a file cabinet on top of all of it.

We cook dinner in the kitchen of the cattle inspection station with Adam and the security guard Johnny. Adam occasionally runs off when a truck full of chickens pulls up clucking or a silver cattle trailer arrives sluicing manure out of its slats. Adam  reminisces about America before showing us pictures of his kids and his ranch. We talk 1990’s baseball and I nostalgically recollect some of my cards.

IMG_2962Strange bugs flit and dart around the humming white lights, beautifully knocking themselves senseless. Metallic beatles, particolored moths, something that terrifyingly looks like a flying scorpion.

Damien looks at one of the particularly brilliant moths and exclaims:

‘This one looks like my grandma made it!’

No, I Don’t Want to Buy a Jaguar Cub or Cocaine.

Puxmetacan, Oaxaca to La Mixtequita, Oaxaca

I toss and turn, the night too warm for anything beyond the clothes that I wear to keep the mosquitoes off of me. The town comes alive with the rising of the sun, its rays piercing the clouds that fill the valley and buffet the mountains. A rooster’s talons click on the zinc roof as it struts and crows. An orange trees blooms and stirs outside the window; hummingbirds dart and stab the pungent pistils. I somnambulistically descend a foottrail down the steep mountainside to buy fruit from a woman’s living room. Here a man teaches me how to greet in Mixe, phonetically it is pronounced ‘mi-gep-ay.’

‘Puro Mixe.’ He repeats over and over again with a  smile on his face.

We disrupt some festivities as we leave town, parting the crowd as we walk our bikes through. After giving a brief speech thanking everyone for their hospitality, I awkwardly wait for the tickertape to rain down upon us before realizing that it is Sunday and the stock market is closed.

I sound like a dumb infant as I leave town, perpetually saying the same word over and over again. Mi-gep-ay! Everyone loves it though. We begin a general descent, with frequent interspersed climbs. The jungle is thick and the air stagnant. I dodge treacherous patches of marble sized rocks with Damien on my side doing the same, leading to several near disastrous incidents as we race into turns. Several pickup trucks loaded with passengers pass, dozens of eyes inquisitively fixed upon us from the bed.

The forest filled with strange bird calls and rustling bushes gives way to land co-opted for cattle. The approach of civilization is always apparent. I eat bananas, mangos, mandarins, guayabas, peanuts and chocolate as the next town remains ever elusive. It doesn’t exist on our map, only as a rumor. I ride in a ravenous haze in the early afternoon.

Scale in Service. For Sale: Semen and Insemination. Restaurant and Supermarket. Toilets. Ice.
Scale in Service.
For Sale: Semen and Insemination.
Restaurant and Supermarket.
Pens. Spring. Ice.

Then I hit pavement and give out a loud whoop and pump my fist as a few bewildered locals timidly gaze from the back of a truck. The pavement is so smooth, so easy…so unsatisfying. We limp into a roadside restaurant where I collapse into a chair and sip on a glass of agua de tamarindo.

‘Hey man, what’s up man?’ I hear in heavily accented, drunkenly slurred English. Fuck. I wince and slowly turn my head towards a nearby table.

‘Hey, how’s it going?’ I slowly respond.

‘Yo man, you from the United States?’ I am convinced that most immigrants learn their English from early 1990’s action films. Maybe Scarface?

‘Yeah….from Utah.’ He doesn’t pick up on my exasperation.

‘Oh yeah, Utah! I was a drug dealer in Indianapolis for four years. Mucho cocaina man. Haha!’ He is glassy eyed, stoned drunk. I hope this stops soon.

‘….until they deported me for no papers. I am going to go back soon. Fuck them man! I have fucking money man, those are my fucking papers! Hahaha!’ Would an immigrant to any other country than America proudly tell a citizen that they came there illegally, dealt drugs for a living, got deported and plan to return? How am I supposed to respond to this? I don’t say anything.

‘How much do you make man?’ He asks aggressively, his bloodshot eyes bulging forth.

‘Not much.’

‘How much does that fucking bici cost man?’

‘Enough.’ Damien and I try to maintain a steady conversation amongst ourselves to put an end to this.

‘See you later man! Hahaha!’ He stumbles out the door and hops into the driver’s seat of his taxi.

The waitress intentionally overcharges us. Trucks thunder past, vexing my delicate senses with dust. Children stare vacantly at a television. These people are materially richer than the people in the mountains, but infinitely poorer in another way. I want to go back to the mountains.

IMG_2920We arrive in La Mixtequita at dusk, interrupting a futbol game as we ride up. I ask about a place to stay and am told to talk to the police who are on duty for the night. We ride down the road to a restaurant with a hilarious old lady, her drunk illterate son, a 3.5 kilo rooster and a drunk midget who insists on speaking in English that I cannot understand. We stay for a while in good company. The head of the local police hears about our arrival and comes over to talk, offering us permission to stay in the town’s municipal building.

IMG_2918We stop to get snacks and a girl disappears for a moment before returning carrying her five year old sister who is fighting in terror.

‘They aren’t going to eat you!’ She declares amidst laughter, holding her sister out towards us before setting her down. She takes off running.

Nobody ever arrives to open the municipal building for us, so we sleep behind it, under a metal roof.

La Mixtequita, Oaxaca to Palomares, Oaxaca

A cow bellows in the corral attached to the municipal building long before first light. A group of men are already working on a pickup truck and howling in laughter. As we pack up they come over to talk. We quickly move from our trip to more pressing matters.

‘Haha… Look at the Australian’s bike, he is so poor that he cannot afford disc brakes!’

‘Why didn’t you bring down a white girl? You know? A little thing.’ He makes an obscene gesture with his hands that is appears to be universal amongst Latin American men.

‘You should come to San Juan Mazatlan in the mountains, where we are from. There are waterfalls and beautiful mountains and lots of wildlife. We caught a baby tiger up there the other day.’ He says casually.

‘A tiger?’ I play it cool as well.

‘Yeah, a baby jaguar.’ He holds his palm about 30cm off the ground to show me the size of the cat.

‘How did you catch it”‘

‘Oh we used a trap. Do you want to buy it?’

‘How much do you want for it?’

‘One hundred dollars. It’s  cheap. There is a guy coming down here from Chicago to take a look at it in the next few days.’

‘Oh….’ This jaguar is as good as dead and I cannot think of a way to change this outcome. In the next few weeks I tell several government officials and police officers about this exchange. Here is a typical conversation:

‘That is definitely illegal.’

‘Is there anything you can do about it?’

‘Oh, well somebody should. It isn’t my job though.’

We ride 20km of rolling hills into Palomares. We cross paths with the chief of police from La Mixtequita at a restaurant with a few friends. One of them lived in America for a while, so we have a fruitful dialogue about cocaine, banging white girls, getting drunk and eating at buffets. Somehow in the course of all of this he managed to get a DUI and was deported.

‘You guys want to buy some cocaine? Only one hundred pesos.’ He leers at us.

‘No. I am trying to lead a healthy life.’ I try to tactfully decline amidst rising frustration with conversations like this.

Cocaine and jaguars. Welcome to the Isthmus.

Palomares, Oaxaca to Poblado Doce/La Horqueta, Veracruz

IMG_2925One of Damien’s tires looks like it has leprosy with several sores and missing chunks. There is nowhere to get a spare that will not cost us several days, so we switch the front tire with the back and hope for the best. We stock up on supplies before heading out into the unknown. The entrance into the Ishtmus of Tehuantepec is called La Boca del Monte or The Mouth of the Wild. The road on my map is shown as nothing but dirt as it snakes through several small towns named Poblado 1-14 or Population 1-14. There is nothing in this region on our maps other than what lies along this small road until one reaches one of the two coasts.

The road stays paved as we pass through the final frontier town that  bustles with activity from the natural resource exploitation beyond. I receive varying and conflicting answers regarding the road ahead, but almost universally we are told that we should turn around and head to the coast. The air is filled with a miasma of decaying organic matter, cow shit and dead animals. Development?

We continue on a concrete road through pasture. Where is the adventure and rugged country? The swarthy savages clothed in loincloths that jump out of trees onto animals backs to stab them to death? The jaguars barking at us? The monkeys flinging shit at us?

What is it like to live in a town called Population 2? There is a sign out front built out of scrap metal with the village name spray painted over rust. Orange trees overburdened with fruit line the road.

IMG_2923We cross into Veracruz and are questioned by curious assault rifle wielding police. I keep my answers concise and we are sent on our way. The jungle slowly thickens, swollen beautiful rivers whisper to us from below bridges. In Plan de Arroyo we are flagged down by a local and I stop in confusion. He points at some vibrant orange and green iguanas tanning their scales in the sun. The town’s name either translates to River Plan or Gutter Plan, I prefer Gutter Plan.

IMG_2926We resupply in one of the populations between 5-8. Our map shows a town called Las Carolinas where we plan to spend the night and resupply on water. We are tired from the heat and the day loses its luster. We ride hard through interminable rows of rubber trees. The remote mountains of the Chimalapas lie to our right as we pass their flanks. I flag down a truck in frustration, the driver never having heard of a town called Las Carolinas. Over the clang of the diesel engine he tells us that we are only a few kilometers out from La Horqueta/Poblado Doce. We cross paths with a man on horseback a bit later who directs us to keep riding a bit further, town invisible in the incipient darkness. 117km later.

I ask for a place to stay at a small store, a woman who’s mouth has corners perpetually downturned into a frown offers to rent us her son’s room for the night. We spend an hour laying out all of our different maps on a concrete slab in front of the store for dozens of locals that encircle us under a dangling, dim lightbulb. I talk about our trip, waiting for the woman to show us to our room.

We eventually carry all of our gear through the living room, the rest of the family quietly taking stock of us. I quickly head out back and bath myself with bucketloads of water. We pass the evening chatting with the family about our trip and the area before cooking dinner on my small stove out back. They give us cilantro, oranges, chiles and plantains to add to our dinner. Our evening here is incredible, despite the matriarch’s defect of frowning at all of my jokes. The walls of the house are lined with dozens of photos of frowning family members. I want to make a joke about this, but I know how it will be received.

unknown road to unknown road

IMG_2730[2]The year previous the front of the municipal building in Oaxaca de Juarez was occupied by an indigenous group called the Triquis. I added this pigs head to draw you in and get you to read an otherwise biased and rambling rant about another repressed indigenous group. I am not sure why I am writing about this, other than the fact that I passionately told the Triquis that I would do so. I remember walking past and not thinking very much of the shanty town in front of the government building, my Spanish likely insufficient to understand anyways. I choose to stop this time as I walk past and figure out what is going on. I am quickly drawn in and told a harrowing tale. Many simply look on as I speak with one of the leaders as they do not speak Spanish. The group initially drew the ire of the Mexican government and the state of Oaxaca by declaring their desire to live autonomous from the state, in accordance with their customs. A demand similar to that of the Zapatistas in Chiapas, where several indigenous villages have lived independent of the Mexican government since the revolution in the mid-1990’s. This declaration made San Juan Copala politically unpalatable and divisive, but the Mexican government had a response derived from the Zapatista rebellion: use paramilitaries instead of actual government forces to wage a proxy war. Through promises of land, political power, weapons and money the government convinced members of another nearby village to form a paramilitary group called MULT to assail the village. Dozens were murdered in cold blood, their bodies littering the bullet riddled town square. The population of the village was forced to flee, seeking refuge in the city center of Oaxaca de Juarez with the hopes of seeking justice and recovering their village. Both state and federal governments have conveniently turned a blind eye.

Several military and police assaults have attempted to violently evict the blight that the occupiers pose. The night before Christmas Eve police forces descended upon the makeshift slum with force, literally beating the hundreds of homeless people away in preparation for the celebrations in the square. After another year they still huddle on a sidestreet during the cold nights, pictures of bloodied corpses taped to the plastic tarps flapping in the wind.

Oaxaca de Jaurez, Oaxaca to outside Cerro Pelon, Oaxaca

We set out in the morning to a flurry of goodbyes, it is strange when you get to a place and all the right people come together. Energy builds rather than dissipating. After two weeks in the city, a diaspora sets out: April and Chelsea on their bikes towards Palenque, Kyleen and Chris towards San Cristobal. The feelings of doubt and exhaustion have lead me to reevaluate my approach to riding, to eschew goal oriented thinking and focus on simply being mindful. To honor the piece of me that revels in connecting with people, of staring in wonder at the world that abound in life and beauty, to commit myself deeper into this trip than before, to lose myself in it. GO.

I do some research on the hypothetical route that I have seen only vaguely traced in my map through towns with names like Poblado 1-14. There is not much to be found, beautiful. The other options are riding either on the Carribean or Pacific coast highways, either of which sounds like a boorish slog. Damien and I set out together planning to ride the following route through the Sierra Mixe, through the center of the Isthmus de Tehauntepec and on backroads into San Cristobal. Google titles the map: Unknown Road to Unknown Road. We don’t discuss it too much, we simply agree to leave one morning.

We will try to follow the faint lines that wander through the jungle, not overly concerned about where it leads us. Turns are subjectively judged wrong only by certain premises, viewed with a different perspective they are whatever you want them to be. Pay attention. Confused readers or family members begrudgingly wading through my musings through some sort of obligation stemming from your desire to avoid awkward Skype phone calls: in all of my writing I am trying to share a philosophy that does not simply apply to cycling or traveling, it applies to every facet of life. It is my life’s work.

The city characteristically challenges our egress through traffic spilling uncontrolled and violent from arteries radiating from the city center in a blur of glass and steel. We ride shoulder to shoulder to continue conversations that seamlessly sweep from Noam Chomsky, finding meaningful happiness, economics, topes, Spinoza, agriculture, cycling, indigenous rights, environmental degradation, inequality, interconnectedness, mining, literature, our feces, globalization, the impossibility and undesirability of unconstrained growth, Wittgenstein. The challenges of our generation. Damien unselfconsciously unleashes a contagious roaring laugh at the world as he passes through it, whether canoeing through the Yukon Territories, walking the Pacific Crest Trail or cycling through the Americas. Cars narrowly pass with Doppler shifted horns wailing, protesting our egregious occupation of an exorbitant extension of the thoroughfare. This leads to more laughter.

IMG_2853 I lead us to a mescal factory, called El Espadin, outside of Mitla. A mule tows a massive stonewheel in circles which grinds roasted maguey over a stone slab, the juice is collected for fermentation. We knock back a few sample shots that give the morning a strange texture. The walls are lined with jars of mescal with snakes neatly coiled inside, scorpions arching in a final death throe and tarantulas preserved in poise.

‘We need to shake it mate!’ Damien exclaims with a grin. (I am going to give Damien a more Australian accent for my own amusement.)


‘I reckon if I stay here any longer I will wake up here in 20 years with an ungrateful wife and a half dozen children that I struggle to support with a corn farm in the desert. Mescal will give you roos loose in the top paddock.’ He roars.

This mescal factory served as the starting point for several adventures the previous year. I am riding a nostalgic road, one that lead to one of the stranger experiences that I have had on the road: a predawn gringo hunt in the woods outside of a small town called Cerro Pelon that lead to some sort of loose imprisonment for the night.

As we eat a woodfire cooked chicken on the roadside we laugh as a big white dog with something stuck in its foot prances instead of walking, all the while viciously lashing out at other dogs on the street.

Deciduous trees dot the mountainside of the Sierra Mixe, smearing brilliant reds and yellows across the landscape. Water cascades in waterfalls, trickles from cracks and slowly rolls off the points of leaves of grass. The chaos of the valley fades behind and below.

IMG_2855We crest a pass and are sent on a precipitous, curvaceous downhill marred with irregular deep potholes. I am nearly bucked off my bike several times, holding my breath as it miraculously does not explode on impact with the unavoidable. I keep my eyes on the road, reading the map of the surface. A driver approaches doing the same, she swerves completely into my lane as I silently approach at 45km/hr. I cut hard right and nail the brakes, adrenaline instantly coursing through my veins as I struggle to regain control of the bike.

After 15 minutes we are ejected into a small town that appears to grow nothing besides tomatoes. I harass the driver of a potato chip truck about the route forward. Coca-Cola, Frito Lay and beer penetrate into every crevice and niche of this country, and likely the world, that is accessible by bike. This is the reality of our world, making the drivers are a valuable resource. He draws a detailed map for us of the road ahead, far more detailed than the blurry, discontinuous lines on Google Maps.

We begin climbing again. The afternoon heat radiates off the pavement, each breath seeming to heat my body further, stoking me like a furnace. Pines dominate the landscape.

IMG_2860I find myself once again outside of Cerro Pelon with the night closing in upon us. I debate boldly entering town with a smile on my face and asking the head of the agency if we can stay in the cell where I slept last time. We ride on until spotting a small trail cutting up into a canyon. We pass the bikes over a guardrail before cooking one of my signature questionable dinners cobbled together from random items we bought on the roadside. Sardines, beans in a bag, rice, butter, bullion cubes full of MSG, chiles…..

Outside Cerro Pelon, Oaxaca to Santa Maria Alotepec, Oaxaca

IMG_2864I awake to a sky filled with shifting and rising clouds, the sun occasionally winking through. We hit the steep gradient as soon as we pass the bikes over the rail. We reach San Pedro and San Pablo Ayutla where we restock and eat breakfast above the gaping chasm that the city is anchored above. I seek out deep yellow handmade criollo tortillas, my journey leading me to a small lady at the end of an alley. She claps out tortillas in a smokey room so small that you couldn’t spin a cat by the tail without hitting one of the fire-darkened walls. She cackles as we talk about tortillas, her face hovering over the comal as the corn rises on the heat of the red embers.

IMG_2868We take a right hand turn on the outside of town that cuts steeply upwards. The towns water is supplied by pipes that funnel water pouring off of a sizable waterfall, as it should be.

I paperboy up the precipice that leads to Tierra Blanca. Chickens and turkeys disproportionately react to my incredibly slow approach, scattering in a racket. I build a map of the cloud shrouded sierra as my tires traverse the serpentine jagged spine: it looks like a mad tangle of yarn with little to no order. A man seems to be climbing a cliff with corn growing out of it, I gasp as he risks loosing his handhold on the surface as he waves.

IMG_2875We ride a road that is simply a gash cut into the mountainside by machinery, the road littered with rocks and debris from above. A town looms ahead on the spine, its sky blue church catches my eye first. We roll into Ascencion Cacalotepec where we lunch in a small shack that hangs over a cliff, we look down through cracks in the irregularly planed wooden floor to see clouds below.

IMG_2873A little girl of eight brazenly and uncharacteristically approaches us while her mother heats tortillas for us. She has never spoken to any foreigners before and asks us about what it is like where we live and why we are riding our bicycles.
She hands us some fruit as we set out, the whole family coming out to wish us the best.

IMG_2878A descent begins here that is strewn with potholes, landscape debris, animals and all manners of hazards that we navigate as we pedal and lean through the turns. What lies ahead is unknown. The mountains here are the most rugged and steep that I have encountered yet. There are gradients that deceptively lead into medieval tope traps. We cross a saddle that is just wide enough for the road, sheer drops on either side. I frequently brake and stop to take in the rugged landscape with bold outposts of civilization dotting the flanks. I am far away.

IMG_2880We pass San Isidro Huayapan, drop towards Estancia de Morelos in the river bottom below before winding our around the mountainside to Alotepec. A man who has returned home after 15 years in the United States chats with as for a bit at a fork in the road.

‘It is great since I have been back here. You have to pay for everything in America. Freedom to me is owning your own land, having free water, producing your own food, owning your time.’ He passionately explains. I vehemently nod my head in agreement.

The landscape at the river bottom is comprised of coffee and banana fields. Flowers waver around the small homes with coffee drying out front.

IMG_2886We pass men and women returning from the fields, wrestling loaded bags  of coffee with machetes dangling by their side. Laughter emanates from the rows of coffee trees. This sierra represents a surreal paradise to me. On the final climb into Alotepec I am pursued by a burro burdened with wood, I struggle to keep ahead. Several men emerge from the trees on the roadside carrying rifles, giving me a little bit of anxiety as they stand in the roadside and stare out at us from behind blank faces hardened by life here in the mountains. At one point more than half of the road has been consumed by the cliff that it dangles over, a gaping hole into nothingness. The white church of Alotepec stands like a beacon in the distance.

I ride into the town square and make a few circles in front of the municipal building, before sitting down sweatsoaked to shiver and wait for Damien. The sun has been lost in the gray sky.

‘Where can we sleep?’ I ask a few men sitting on the steps of the municipal building.

‘Anywhere? Over there?’ An old man in a cowboy hat points to some steps in front of the municipal building.

Friday night unfolds in a cacophony of dog barking, music, giggling teenagers as we cook dinner and relax. People stare at us and talk amongst themselves in Mixe. I feel like an exhibition, a representation for gringos in general. What rumors will start about gringos based upon my behavior? What if I ate an onion like an apple? What if I Damien and I did headstands and carried on a conversation for a while? What if I sacrificed something? Or build a shrine to an inanimate object?

IMG_2889They move us into the police station as night falls, the police sleep by our side waiting for….. I am not sure. We sleep under a mural with a quote from Benito Juarez that says the following: ‘Damn those who defend the town with their words, but betray it with their actions.’

Alotepec, Oaxaca to Puxmetecan, Oaxaca

IMG_2891Someone pounds on the door until the policemen wake up, which disconcertingly takes a few minutes. I stroll out to have a leak and am greeted with a luminous blue sky. The towering cliffs that back the town are illuminated. I stand transfixed with genitals in hand. I spend the next hour or two answering questions about how expensive my bike is and doing alternating impressions of the billowing loudspeaker that presides over town. The quality is mediocre and the Mixe sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher. Here is a rough translation from what I could gather, ‘The white devils have arrived and have arisen to drink the blood of the pure. We must eliminate them before the ball of fire in the sky reaches its apex. Assemble in the town square for the reckoning. There will be free flan courtesy of Mrs. Martinez. Juan, your mother called to notify us that you left your sack lunch at home.’

Turkeys and chickens peck the square.

IMG_2895I look at Cotzocon in the distance in sheer bewilderment, unable to discern a way. There are several ridges and valleys separating us. We start with a descent down a loose rock filled road, my hands cramping from perpetual braking. In Cotzocon we stop in front of a school to ask directions, the small schoolhouse empties rapidly. Dozens of children stare at us, refusing to answer any of our questions.

IMG_2900Over lunch I try and learn some Mixe words from the locals, they fade from my memory within minutes. Wizened old men burdened with coffee beans and firewood smile as we pass. We dismount and walk past packs of wary donkeys.

The road is wet red clay that sends us sliding occasionally. Damien falls to the ground several times on one descent, laughing the entire time. We rattle over solid limestone slabs in dark verdant tunnels. The air is fragrant with flowers and the smells of the jungle.

IMG_2905We reach our nadir for the day, Rio Puxmetecan. We peer off the bridge as a few men walk upstream in their underwear wielding spears. We ride down to the river and swim in the cool water of the river, white flowers dangle over its surface and drop petals. The young men show me a bag of fish they speared. A truck crosses the bridge, a rare bit of traffic on this stretch of road. Everyone starts screaming and running in their underwear up the river bank after the truck.

‘Watch out for the crocodiles!’ One of them shouts as he takes off. They catch a ride back to town.

IMG_2906We make our final approach as the sun cuts horizontally through the trees, slogging upwards towards Puxmetacan on a distantly near ridge. The sun sets as we ridge into town. I set a group of girls hysterically laughing by merely saying ‘hola.’ The gringo payaso.

2000 miles.
2000 miles.

We ride up to the municipal building drenched in sweat and delirious. I take off my bandana and comb my hair with my hand. I straighten the shirt that is stuck to my skin. I suavely explain to a group of men who we are and that we need a place to stay. I am told that I need to speak with the authorities.

I am ushered upstairs in a very formal manner, where I am told that I have to wait until the authorities are ready to see me. I am given a plastic lawn chair. I wait a minute before I am brought into a nice office with four men sitting behind hardwood desks with stacks of paper on them. They wear collared shirts like me, a sign that we are all respectable and trustworthy. I greet them and then give my story, being as polite as possible. They say that they have a spot for us and that we can wait below until we are notified that it is ready. I thank them and say a few kind words about the village.

‘Also, a kid told me that there were crocodiles in the river while I was swimming, are there?’ I ask hesitatingly.

‘No.’ They all laugh at me in a way that says hopeless gringo.

IMG_2910We wait on the municipal steps and watch young and old play futbol, basketball and light of fireworks. The futbol pitch overlooks a steep drop, it is the centerpiece of town. We are lead to a freshly cleaned house with matresses  laid out for us. We cook dinner and make hot chocolate, we accept many visitors who we regale with tales of our distant lands.

‘I am from America, but he is from Australia. The other side of the world! There are kangaroos there and women three meters tall. There are more toads and sheep than people and there president can’t read.’ This is generally how I shift conversations over to Damien so that I can write or read after a long day of riding.

The town, like most Mixe villages, operates relatively democratically. Land is communally held through the ejidal system, there is no buying or selling. It is given with the explicit agreement that one will serve a year working for the municipality for one year out of every two or three performing a variety of different functions that are randomly given. Although the nature of the job rotates, one stature or rank within the municipality increases over the years. The townspeople work together constructing houses, planting and harvesting. All community gatherings work like potlucks, with everyone contributing. It is hard not to idealize this place.

‘Can I live here?’

‘If you agree to work we would give you land.’ One of the village leaders sincerely tells me.

Massive moths circle the room and a gecko clicks on the ceiling. The PA here is preceeded by a futuristic sound effect, which is where most of its authority is derived from. The monotone Mixe message that follows seems inconsequential after such a regal introduction. Damien rolls around on the ground laughing everytime. I think about accepting the free land, but the PA system really lowers real estate values.

the whirl is why i wander

Tehuacan, Puebla to 30km outside Teotitlán de Flores Magón, Oaxaca

IMG_2807It is raining when I wake up, something that inevitably slows me down. I am run down, I am sick. I meditate for awhile, again watching my mind wander to changing my plan, rather than letting myself be and letting each day come as it may. I stand up with some sort of vague decision to let myself be free and revel in the moment. As I write this and think about my previous writing, I feel like some sort of directionless, depressed, single, jobless, middle aged man desperately reaffirming himself and his life through vague and alternative mediums as his life is a failure in the objective measures of society. I am not middle aged. I stand on an old brass scale in the courtyard of a hotel in Tehuacan, grunting and cradling my bike as befuddled diners stare. I am probably sweating already for some unclear reason.

Me: 72.5 kilograms (150 pounds)
My bike: 53 kilograms (127 pounds)

This is the weight of my bike with 8 litres of water and a days worth of food. I have absolutely zero clue how the weight of the bike got this out of control. I solemnly vow to mail my slingshot home against my own best instincts.

IMG_2811I struggle down a gradual slope towards Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca: the mezcal, chapulin and mole negro capital of the world. My mind and digestive tract have conflicting opinions on this region of Mexico. I crane my head to check out the cactus lined mountains that are shrouded in a patchwork of clouds and vegetated limestone cliffs. I cover 95 kilometers in six hours with at least an hour and a half spent procrestinating (avoiding something with the ostensible purpose of resting).

30km outside Teotitlán de Flores Magón, Oaxaca to San Francisco Telixtahuaca, Oaxaca

The night passes strangely as a chestnut mare and her foal traipse the rocky hillsides, we mutually spook one another several times.I sleep fitfully and am awakened by a fourwheeler passing by the grassy ditch where I sleep partially obscured by a trees. I pack quickly in panic that he wants to steal my slingshot or bicycle like a childhood nemesis

Horses and donkeys clomp down the pavement, the old Mexico.  Banana trees promise heat. I arrive in a town called El Chilar, a small town where I spent a night the year before as I hitchhiked through.

IMG_2813As I park my bike and awkwardly approach a house that evokes blurry memories, from the year before, of  drinking home made moonshine called mata ratas, or rat poison, out of coconuts with a man who was collectively referred to as Bill Clinton due to his, albeit swarthy, uncanny resemblance to the former president. The evening is also notable as the second time that I got drunk with an on-duty police officer in a one week period. Ever yells MATA RATAS! and grins as I amble closer. We both crack up laughing. We do some catching up, Bill Clinton is well…

IMG_2814Over the past few days the palms of drivers have gushed sweat as they recounted their experiences climbing from here to Oaxaca; prediabetic families collectively shudder and let tortilla masa tumble from the corners of their mouths as they speculate about the climb. UNA BICICLETA?

IMG_2815As I start climbing from Dominguillo I see an old, banner covered truck loaded with people and a bunch of spandex clad cyclists scattered about the shoulder. I stop to find out that they are on a cycling pilgrimage from San Migel Ocotenco on bicycle to visit La Virgen de Juquila in Juquila, Oaxaca. Juquilita is a 30cm tall statue was brought to Amialtepec, Oaxaca from Spain in the 16th century. In the 17th century Amialtepec was destroyed by a fire, along with the church where Juquila 2278313291_757d9708d1_zresided. She rose from the ashes, her skin darkened to the color of her devote indigenous following by the fire, to perform countless miracles. We don’t know what kind of miracles she performed, but the fact that she did so is not in doubt. She was then moved to gilded surroundings in Juquila that are befitting a statue that is, ounce for ounce, the most benevolent, charismatic and compassionate that the world has ever seen. You might find yourself asking: Has she ever been stolen only to return? Yes, countless times.

IMG_2816I leave the pilgrims in my wake. At least until they pass me, one by one, under their own power or holding onto the rope of a motorcycle. I begin to feel the climb, the mountains seem to reach endlessly into the sky as I look upwards through sweat stung eyes. Eight kilometers an hour means 7.5 minutes per kilometer. The key to suffering is to just keep doing it. I arrive last to the first break and am greeted with a mountain of mandarins, watermelon and questions. I walk around like a drunk, red faced and delirious. I am feeling the climb and look downwards into a canyon that doesn’t seem very far below. I ride off first, only to be passed by a peloton of cyclists in the next few minutes.

IMG_2818The profound thoughts that resonate through my incomprehensibly complex mind capable of infinite combinatorial thought: Yes! The top! Oh, No. Yes. Maybe. Wait….no. All the other cyclists have left when I arrive at the next break point, the truck starts its engine and the passengers shout for me to keep riding. I pedal past the only place eating establishment for many kilometers, skipping lunch. Plants grow in stature, become more verdant. A brilliant caterpillar crosses the road. I wince as a car nearly runs it over and then move him to the side of the road. I ride away worrying that he will walk out into traffic again, filled with genuine concern for some reason. I decide that he is a sentient being and it is his prerogative to commit suicide.

IMG_2823I stop and stare at the rockwall where the road gashes the landscape. A cactus guarded in intricate whispy spines crowned with brilliant flowers grows from a crack in the otherwise dismally grey wall. I am almost hit by a car as I wander out into the road to look at some flowers waving to me in the wind. Am I unconsciously taking an uncharacteristic interest in the flora and fauna solely to take breaks?

IMG_2826Up. Up. Up. I have sweated out all of my vinegar from the smell of it and there certainly hasn’t been any piss for quite a few hours. Clouds overtake me, the air takes on a chill. I desperately need a break, but I worry that the other riders are waiting for me. I find everyone shivering near a false summit, huddled in a Juquila shrine.

We ride with the dying of the day, under orange rays creeping out from under the cloud blanket, on a ridgeline at the top of the Oaxacan Sierra that fades out into the horizon. I mark the top at 47 kilometers of climbing. I lament my exhaustion as I seem to float down the backside of the sierra in a pothole hitting daze.

IMG_2836In San Francisco Telixtahuaca I stand shivering in the dark, in a state of exhaustion that I have never reached before in my life, as several men try to find a new clutch for the truck. After an hour of waiting we follow the truck to a large church courtyard where I will sleep with the pilgrims. I eat a few snacks and lift my spirits a bit. I talk about my trip and juggle. Several women compete for my company, so I graciously eat several dinners.

I pull a bag of cookies out that I bought for everyone in town and pass another strange night under the Oaxacan sky. I wake up at some point in the night in the midst of a strange dream where I am dying and the halogen floodlight that shines down on the courtyard calls me onward.

San Francisco Telixtahuaca, Oaxaca to Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca

I wake up to women mixing up atole under starlight. I pack my things and am ready to leave at 5am as we had planned the night before; we leave in typical Mexican fashion at 6:30am in the dark. My breathe is visible in the headlights of cars as they pass. My whole body shakes from a profound exhaustion, my vision starts to close in from the sides and I worry about falling unconscious into traffic, snot freely runs down my face and it isn’t even funny to me.

IMG_2837The sun glows behind the mountains before warming hitting me directly and seeming to finally wake me. I wish everyone my best as I ride into a city that stands as a massive mental milestone.

Stress has insidiously crept upon me, physically and mentally. I am on the verge of complete and utter breakdown. I am cerebral and disconnected. This trip has become too goal oriented. I imagined myself months ago tipping my helmet to mounted cowboys on tranquil cactus lined country roads before stopping to swing in hammocks and write as the day’s heat fades in the lonely desert expanse.

Our minds are strange; my mind projects into the future a labyrinth of forking paths, each turn beset with consequences, implications and rewards. The labyrinth is constructed from our personal experience and our unique perception of the world. We set about living as if this mentally constructed labyrinth were reality, only to for the entire edifice to change at the first turn, only to be reconstructed infinitely. We often wander in confusion, unable to connect our choices to their outcomes.

I had many expectations about this trip and it has gone very differently.  I am not enjoying myself at this moment, but learning is very rarely pleasant.

This is hard to perceive this without slowing down for a minute.

I lay exhausted on my bed and then begin to write.

the sea vibrates.
an energy coursing through its uncharted depths, its origin unbeknownst.
as it takes form and swells, pelicans float on the air rising off the surface,
it winks in the sun as it morphs and races forward,
the concave face inevitably collapsing.
white froth pours across the fathomless plain of sand
that is swept continually by a breeze similarly emergent out of boundless chaos.

trees and grass stir in the breeze,
imperceptibly growing; their colors gradually changing
as we orbit the sun and the seasons change.
greens turn to browns, buds turn to flowers,
flowers wilt in the cracks of rocks that crumble.

we are carried by a whirling frenzy,
our direction is unclear, our compass spinning as we float onward
carried by a force that lacks purpose or intent.
we try to navigate by philosophies, ideologies, religions,
all failing to guide us toward any end.
words ring hollow.

the means become the end.
we turn our eyes from the blinding sky toward the ground.
we build towers of steel, ensnare the world’s surface
with a net of wires and pavement.
we frantically cut, dig, level, extract, refine, replace, buy, sell, exhaust.
the scale ever grander, ever more complex.

a steadily rising tide, a gust, a phantom wave.
events occur and post hoc explanations come forth.
individual particles colliding, careening, amassing.
we are steadily whirling,
confusing having an explanation with having control.
knowing that we are spinning clockwise does not mean that we can stop it.

watch the world around you.
watch the ceaseless undirected activity.
watch the moments slipping by,
passing through your mind like sand through your splayed fingers.

feel the air passing into your lungs.
the water coursing through your body.
relish the flavors that wash across your tongue.
warm yourself by the rays of the perfectly distant sun.
watch the birds dancing on winds of chaotic birth.
live conscious of the vast world vibrant with life.

a beautiful serendipity in the universe.
as i look into your eyes i know you as i know myself, what it is to be human under the vast sky.
i judge not and forgive all.