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?
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.
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.
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
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!
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.’
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.
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.
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.