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.

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.