In the 1920's, department stores in the United States still had "mourning" sections. Stocked with a somber selection of black garments and accessories. Death, and the subsequent grieving process, had not yet been reduced to a day, or weekend.
I arrived in Thailand almost a year ago to the day, to find an entire nation shroud in black. Black arm bands and ribbons, ties and slacks, skirts, dresses, t-shirts and hats. Swaths of obsidian fabric draped along bridges, wrapped around lamp poles, hung from facades. Thais of every generation were in mourning....and would be, as declared by the government, for an entire year. In just two weeks after the death of their widely beloved King, it was as if the country had been dipped into a well of black ink and pulled back out.
King Rama IX was the longest standing monarch in the world. A true renaissance man in every sense of the overused term. He's credited by many to have brought Thailand into the modern world. Put Bangkok against any other metropolis in the group of developing nations of SE Asia and you'll feel the gravity of that accreditation. Juxtapose Thailand's relative peace to the bloody fractioning of its neighbors, and one might too praise his achievement of a unified land. Certainly I, and millions of other travelers over the past three decades, wouldn't have enjoyed the beauty of their landscape without his stability and guidance.
Seven years ago I started wearing black. If one didn't know, you might think it was a fashion choice. I wanted people to feel my grief without having to talk about it, and historically, that was the point, right? It was a coping tool built into our culture, and societies across the world. I don't understand why Americans have grown away from it. Have you lost someone you've loved? What's more important than that space and permission to grieve? It is everything. In the U.S. we celebrate birth with baby showers, week long birthday celebrations, cakes, colors, and gifts...yet we stuff death into a stiff black suit for two days of funerals and wakes. The imbalance is elephantine.
Somehow black stuck on me. Maybe it's the ease...what's simpler than looking in your closet and matching black with black? Either way, when I touched down in Bangkok I didn't need a wardrobe change to pay my respects. It actually felt nice, to mourn. To extend empathy to others through color and silence. Now a year later, as the last few days of their year long observation draw to a close and Thais visually make the transition out of grief, I wonder who, too, the color of mourning may stick with....who's grief can't be socially or governmentally mandated to a day or a year.
It was a hundred year hangover. One I'll tell my grandkids about. I didn't plan it that way, but then again, you never do, do you? The night before one of the biggest sporting events of my life, I thought it'd be a good idea to go into a nightclub in Hamburg, by myself, steal somebody's bottle of Jack, and drink it until I couldn't drink anymore. Yes, "Why are you still doing this to yourself, Brad?", is an appropriate question to ask right now.
The event, was a soccer match. A Borrusia Dortmund home game. The stadium sits 80 thousand plus, and is known throughout Europe to have some of the best supporters and game environments. The closest thing to it in the US might be a Golden State Warriors game, except they've being doing this here for a hundred years. As it happens, US soccers brightest young talent in over a decade plays for Dortmund. More on all this later.
If we're predicting hangovers, the Drunk Doppler, I think we could all agree that there exists a set of conditions that, when introduced into the alcohol atmosphere, produce larger systemic hangovers. First, I was alone. When you drink with friends, or known entities, you have data points to help you predict the outcome of the night. Friends can also insulate you from risk. When you drink alone, there are no variables...anything can happen at the twist of a bottle cap...you're truly subject to the unpredictable nature of the universe. Second, it was the night before a BIG day. The excitement of the buildup often bleeds into the night before. Your anticipation buries you. It's why July 3rd, or say, the eve of your wedding can be so dangerous. Lastly, and this was the kiss of death, when you tell yourself, "I'm just gonna have a couple and go home early", you almost always seal your hungover fate.
If I told you I had a 10am bus to catch that morning to get to the game....what are the chances I made that bus? Absofuckinglutelynochance? Correct. Instead as my bus was likely pulling out of the station, I sank into the bottom of a bath tub for 30 minutes to wash away my pain and weigh my options. Options; get another 5 hour bus to match and have no time to pregame.....skip game altogether, find some fried chicken and wallow in sorrow...put down the plastic for an $85 train, get there before my original bus, and go down with the ship. What kind of man do you take me for?
After years of field research, and suffering, my twin and I developed a simple system to categorize hangovers. A hangover is measured in direct relation to the number of showers you take the day of it's landfall (sorry for the uncomfortable hurricane analogy right now, you'll have to get over it). Length of shower is a measurement tool which helps calculation, like wind speed, but it isn't absolute. A category 1, is typically a happy hour gone too long. A rinse, a coffee, and off to work. A Cat 2 is likely what we're all most familiar with...a good 15-20 minute cleanse to wash away the sin in the morning, and a refresher later in the evening to get you ready for another night out. A two can surely be cured with drinks at brunch. Once we enter into the next tier, things get hairy. A three likely means a shower as soon as you wake up, 6/7am. Two advils, fierce chugging of the Devil's cider...Gatorade, and back to bed, for two more hours of helpless sleep, and then another shower. Your third shower that day is between the man and the hangover. A Cat 4, rarely uttered much less experienced, has no timeline, but the plotted pattern is something like bathroom, bed, bathroom, kitchen, couch, bathroom, food...if you can eat, bathroom, and bed. The devastation from a Cat 4 lasts for days, sometimes weeks. It is usually followed by the empty oath to never drink again. Some weaker souls never fully recover from a four. The memory scars their drinking career for life. A category 4 in 2001 resulted in me never consuming gin again. Most people stop there. And with good reason. The final stage is reserved for only true degenerates. A Cat 5, much like a unicorn, and a 10 on the crazy/hot matrix, should not exist. No one would believe you if you saw or experienced one anyways. Yet, I have seen the Keyser Söze of hangovers during the summer of 2007, San Diego. I'll spare you the details, but somehow I lived to tell about it. I remember very little of the day, there must have been five showers. What I can say, is that at midnight of that unspeakable hangover...I stood in front of my roommates closed door...and contemplated knocking on it, for him to take me to the Emergency Room. I don't know what kept me from knocking, pride...shame...but before I mercifully fell asleep that evening, I considered writing a goodbye note to my loved ones. I literally didn't think I'd make it through the night.
By now I have finally arrived in front of the Borussia Dortmund stadium. Some divine guiding hand brought here. Cause between the German language barrier and my pounding headache, I can't complete a thought. After stumbling around the team store for 40 minutes, that divine hand would deliver another miracle. It ushered me to the ticket office, and placed in my palm, a ticket in the middle of the craziest fan section in soccer. For 17€.
Immediate regret. What have I fucking done. I can barely speak or stand, now I'm going to party amongst a bunch of maniacs for 90+ minutes. What have I done? I'm literally walking aimlessly in circles in front of the stadium. I've got a beer in one hand and a brat in another. Their like accessories. Merely for show. I hate ate two bites of the sausage and tossed it. The beer and I had a staring contest for an hour before I finally finished him off. It's now time.
I was like a twig floating across a river of people. They carried me into the stadium. When I eventually got spit out inside, I managed my way to the gatekeeper of my section, an area they call the 12 block. It's 40 minutes before game time, and the ENTIRE section behind the goal is full...in my haze I'd guess fifteen thousand people. The gatekeeper looked at me, looked at my ticket, said something in German about how I was supposed to be at the top of the section not the bottom...looked at me, smiled, and said it doesn't fucking matter. The guiding hand had delivered me once again. This time, I was at the helm of one of the most insane soccer parties I'll ever witness...I'm literally Leonardo DiCaprio standing behind Kate Winslet at the front of the Titantic...6 rows up from the field...clear view out across a radiant green pitch...with 15,000 screaming fans at my back. It may have been Elysium...I may have died on that train ride over...it's difficult to explain the circumstances otherwise.
The match was a nonstop party. Dortmund scored two minutes in, and didn't stop until they had hung five on poor little F.C. Koln. It featured every type of goal...a header, a crafty toe poke, a penalty kick, a beautiful chip. Each met with a song. Well, they actually never stopped singing for tow hours. The US wunderkind I mentioned earlier, Christian Pulisic, did show. Coming on in the 65th minute he looked hungry and eager, but by this point the game was already in hand, and soccer's gentlemen's agreement to not run up the score settled over the pitch.
Cool, right? Yeah, but maybe you're forgetting I'm still a 5 hour bus ride and 200 miles from my Airbnb, and bed. It is then when I'm posed with the biggest decision of the day. Wait 2 hours to catch my bus at 10pm, arriving by 3am in Hamburg, likely reaching my bed at 4am....orrrrrr...pay another $85 dollars I don't have to get on a train the leaves in 10 minutes and get me in bed by midnight....orrrrr...sneak on that train without paying and accept whatever fate the guiding hand as left for me. What kind of man do you take me for?
I would later refer to her as my stocky five foot grey haired angel. But in that exact moment, I thought she might deliver a just and exacting stroke of punishment for all the poor decisions I had made in the last 24 hours. I snuck on that train. And for the next 90 minutes she held my judgement in her hands. See, she wisely sniffed out my deceit and when I couldn't produce a valid ticket, told me to wait....she'd be back for me. I waited. And waited. And while she would pass me three more times, she never did ask me again for that ticket I couldn't "seem to find". God bless her soul. My sweet, sweet stocky five foot grey haired angel.
Maybe I'm just full of dumb luck, and there was no "guiding hand". The dumb part certainly fits. Honestly, I should have probably spent today answering that first question, "Why are you still doing this to yourself, Brad?", not writing all these words. But, mentally I'm still reeling from the aftermath of a Cat 4 hangover. That more existential examination will have to wait.
My AirBnB host in Hamburg is the 55 year old German version of myself. I hope. Kinda. Except I'd like a lovely wife, kid, and a Doberman. Anyways...
I've arrived late. Quarter past eleven. Of course he's still up, he's just having dinner. He leaves town tomorrow morning and still hasn't packed. Same. Btw...his name is David. His demeanor is composed, but his eyes are active. He can't hide his eyes. You ever met someone like that, body as still as sloth, but they've got Roger Rabbit eyes? My man is wearing two, or is it three, different types of plaid...I can't tell...its a plaid labyrinth...I'm lost in it. Around his neck is what looks like a skinny, extra long, dish towel. It's tied just so, two knots, enough to know he cares. David is polite, friendly even, while his eyes investigate me and gather intel. He tells a joke about Americans, and then tells me it's a joke. Germans, man.
David lives here alone. He's a writer, too. It appears he's learned the lesson I've struggled to learn. He creates best without distraction. The flat has no WiFi. No TV. He doesn't have a smartphone. He has an answering machine. And a radio. His apartment is a scrapbook with lungs. There are little trinkets, crafts, and books everywhere. I mention an airplane bottle of mezcal sitting in his kitchen, he says it's 30 years old!!! A Colombian sombrero is hung atop a CD tower. A photo calendar from a recent trip to India hangs by the kitchen. It is a kitchen, I think...I mean it walks like a kitchen, talks like a kitchen. He's got one skillet, one baking pan, a few plates, two bowls and a bunch of glasses. That's it. The fridge is like a Fisher Price my first refrigerator. It couldn't hold a holiday ham. David is living stripped down. Just the essentials matter, except for the clutter, but shit, in perspective, if this is ALL this guy has after 55 years of life...fuck, he's done good.
He's left me alone here for 9 days. I don't know about you, but if I'm 55 and I let some stranger stay in my place for nine days while I'm gone, that's saying something. I wouldn't let a stranger drive my car at this point in my life. I bet most of you wouldn't let me stay in your house for nine days unattended (tell me I'm wrong!!). Seriously though, there's something so freeing in this all. There isn't a locked cabinet or door (I've checked), his laptop is on the desk. People talk about peace this, peace that, well one path is letting go of attachments, right? We're all attached to possessions, identities...and place. This man is either the holy body of zero fucks reincarnated, or over the decades he's shed his attachment to his "stuff".
I have the tendency romanticize people, and moments. I'm actually pretty good at it. But you know, sometimes you just feel like you're meant to be somewhere. I didn't feel that when I arrived here, but after a day at this apartment, and here in Hamburg, I know I'm supposed to be here. You can tell me I'm full of shit, and you still might be right, but if you know anything about me then this last bit'll get you. In my rush to get to bed late that night I didn't fully take in my surroundings...so when I woke in the morning, I was quite surprised. Behind my headboard there's a bookcase, filled with Donald Duck comics, German literature....a book on the Cuban revolution. Tucked into a crack at the top, a dusty, fake, long stem rose reaches out over atop my head. A rose, for the man who leaves roses everywhere he goes. A rose. In Hamburg.
Grand avenues and bisecting streets cut through Barcelona like a birthday cake. Long, even slices running parallel or perpendicular to the Balearic Sea. From the water's edge, the city rolls lightly over the coast like sea foam. It's L.A., not New York. A sprawling mass, not a towering steel totem.
Due west from city center, atop Rovira's Hill, sits remnants of Spain's grotesque Civil War. Anti-aircraft bunkers and battlements, refashioned later as barracks. Reopened to the public in 2011, tourists and locals alike now climb the steps and walls for arguably the best views of the city. For 2€, a man will sell you a 25 cent beer while you watch sheets of sunlight blanket Barcelona's treetops and roofs. The smell of hash smoke comes free.
The blood hadn't completely dried on Spain's hands, when the world was thrown into a second World War. So dominating a force, and figure, were Hitler and the Nazis, one might forget the devastation General Franco left in Spain. When we speak of war, we often reference numbers, like death tolls, and visualize the destruction in photos of bloodied soldiers or destroyed buildings. Franco's forces supplied all that, indeed, and in some instances (Guernica) he provided a training ground for German and Italian military tactics. But when I think of the Spanish Civil War, I recall the death of poet Federico Garcia Lorca...and the dissolution of one of Spain's greatest literary movements, the Generation of '27. I see the loss of art.
"The Bunkers" viewpoint feels like one of the last brittle pages turned in the delicate, complex, history of modern Spain. When you peer down from its height, towards the nearly completed Sagrada Familia, you sense a culture's maturation. A new identity, a free space from which creation is born without the pain of their grandparents wounds. It's that freedom that's attracted me, and thousands of other immigrants and internationals. In this spirit, Barcelona has become like New York...a city that belongs to the world, not the country in which it resides.
For 30 days and 300 miles the Sea was my Shepard. Constant and true. Saying goodbye, was like seeing a girlfriend off to start a long distance relationship. Will she miss me as much as I miss her? How could I ever know. But my destiny, too, awaits. I've turned south. To Santiago. Filled with as much uncertainty as I had when I started. I'm more well equipped to handle the Way...but that hasn't dissolved the fear. It could end any day, as it has for so many others up to this point. The last 100 or so miles is about survival. The last stage of your journey is always the quietest. The focus more intense. Day 7 is different than day 40. I now have everything to lose.
Do you believe in omens?
In the fall of 2012, I crossed into the state of Sikkim, India. It's the little wart on the northeast border of the sub-continent. Sikkim is the step-brother of the Indian family. It looks nothing like a Slumdog or Sachin Tendulker. The official language is actually Nepali. I arrived about a month or two after a 7.8 earthquake rocked the state, causing landslides, road closures and extensive damage to one of the larger towns. The draw was a 10-day trek to the base of the third highest mountain peak in the world. Part of my self-assigned cool 😎 is finding adventures that aren't yet discovered by the backpacking-selfie-GoPro world. Everyone hikes to Everest base camp. Who the fuck knows about Sikkim?
Surprisingly, I had done my research in advance. Booking into a trek as a solo traveler would require a bit of maneuvering. It's illegal to make the hike with less than three people (remember this bit), so I'd need to piggy back on to another group. With luck, I found a company who assured me there was a group I could hop on. SO...I jumped in a jeep and rode 9 hours through the southeastern edge of the Himalayan mountain range, along dirt road and rock, tires tongue-kissing a cliffs edge that dropped 80 feet. I've yet to meet a better driver than I had that day. Upon arrival, I checked into the small trekking outfit my contact on the other side of the state had arranged, Red Panda Trekking.
Did you even know red pandas existed? I did not. With good reason I guess, they're endangered. Also known as the lesser panda (kinda harsh...what if I called you the "lesser Glenn") they're found in the eastern Himalayas, and continue through to China where they exist in their largest numbers. To give you a visual, it looks like a ginger raccoon. Funny enough they're the official animal of the state of Sikkim. Perfect. A male red Panda named "Rusty" briefly escaped from the National Zoo in Washington D.C. in 2013. As you see, as a species they simply can't be trusted. A ginger raccoon-like-escape artist...amiright?? If only I'd known before.
There are details about this story that mean nothing to you, and everything to me. They're not important here, specifically, but just know if this were a legal case, or I was drunk, I'd be listing every fact.
My soon-to-be sworn enemy running the Red Panda had one of those faces you want to punch. Not once, but multiple times. To drift further from fact....it seemed that in this very small town, his ego took great pride in handling the tourists and their money. I digress. Mr. Red Panda would proceed to tell me when I arrived that in fact there was NO group to trek with....though this "couple", "might", be showing up in two days....and I "can" trek with them. Two days. No couple. Mr. Red Panda then says, nobody is coming because of the recent earthquake (he definitely already knew this)....buuuuttt...he could send me solo, if I helped him forge an application saying me, and this couple were going together (illegal to hike with less than 3). I played along...cause fuck....I came a loooong ass way to do this. The application would take 48 hours to process. I had two days to think.
In Jon Krakauer's best selling novel, Into Thin Air, about the deadliest day in Mount Everest history, he wrote something that stuck with me those weeks leading up to my trek. That, in order to succeed in summiting Everest one must be exceedingly driven, but if you are too driven...you are likely to die. The greatest, thus gravest, mistake is not knowing when to turn back. The two evenings before my scheduled departure, that idea would grow roots in my mind like a weed at the onset of Spring.
By the morning of my trek, I had mostly made up my mind. I planned to heed Krakauer's wisdom. But I wanted one more reason. I got it. That morning I showed up and Mr. Red Panda informed me I would be making the journey with two men. One in his twenties, another I'd say was close to 50, maybe 60. Oh, and a donkey. Neither spoke English. From a thorough look over, I gleaned they probbbbably didn't have much education or CPR training (assumptions). With them was a sack of rice, potatoes and god knows what else. That was it. No fucking way, I thought, was my ass with little hiking experience or survival training about to hike for ten days in the absolute wild with these two dudes....when NOBODY else was on the trail. I told the Red Panda this, and well, let's say he was not happy.
Police got involved. Money was stolen/withheld. Insults were exchanged. A deep, deep, dislike (hate) was forged. And the "Curse of the Red Panda" was born. This was my first big failure or bad break (not induced by alcohol) after 7 years on the road. I was bummed. Pissed. Deflated. What travel karma had I picked up? Would I have made it through the trek with those men? If I broke an ankle would they have carried me 100km out of the Himalayas? Not a soul could be sure. All I could take away was the lesson. A drop of wisdom I'll carry with me forever. Know when to turn back. Be driven, but not blinded by it.
The night before I flew to Spain two weeks ago, eyes set on the Camino de Santiago, I was washing up dishes in the kitchen. As I put away the last cup, and cut out the lights on the way to bed I grabbed the remote to click off the TV. Simultaneously as I pushed the off button I glanced up and on the screen was an ad for "Red Panda" something or other. I can't be sure what it was exactly, the screen went black. But those two words and a cartoonish image of a red panda shot down the back of my brain to my toes. Denial. I didn't see that. Frozen. Smirk face emoji. More denial. Why the night before my trip? I couldn't unsee it. More importantly, my intuition couldn't unfeel it.
The next day I'm checking in to my flight, and I see the woman next to me take a picture of her luggage. Asked why, she said just in case they lose it. Huh. Yes, yes. You see where this is going.
TAP airlines is terrible. They scheduled my connection too close. And overbooked all future flights. My two flights to Sevilla, Spain, turned into five. IAD-JFK-LIS-POR-MAD-SVQ. And they lost my bag. I was assured though, it would arrive by Saturday. I had a train Sunday morning at 9am. The bag didn't arrive. I missed my $120 train. Sorry, TAP airlines isn't responsible for that. Break my glasses...haven't broke a pair of glasses in 5 years. Book new train. Keep up now... Plan to start Camino, get lost in town, form blisters from sandals. Pause Camino start. Begin again in the middle of a massive heat wave across the Iberian peninsula. 98-100 degrees in the north when it's typically 75-80...fucking climate change. More blisters. Pick up a stage 3 stalker (this chick changed hostel beds at 11pm to sleep in my room, invited herself to stay with me the next day, says weird shit, changes hostels in Bilbao to be close to me again, says more weird shit...oh and, crazy eyes). The night before I head out to hike again the cleaning lady throws away my hiking shoes...she's says she'd never thrown out shoes before. My knee is jacked up. Hostel pays for half of new shoes. Real quick, do you know how many size 13s the entire shoe department at the biggest store in Bilbao has? Two. Yes, two in the entire store. Spain ain't built like me. I've almost given in. Krakauer's words are ringing louder...the Curse of the Red Panda is alive. What awaits me next? I want one more sign. So I hike 14km the next day...the pilgrim quarters in the next town are fully booked...my new shoes give me two new blisters. I've got my sign.
I'm retreating to the south, and the ocean, for two weeks. I'm listening to my intuition, and my body. A little note..."irrational confidence in your genes" doesn't seem to work when you're 36 and slightly out of shape. If you think it's cool to rock up to daily hikes of 15 miles with cumulative accents of 3000 feet, without training, cause it's gangsta...it's not, you're not. You're just an idiot, like me. It also seems a greater force has opposed me until now. For what reason, not a soul could be sure.
How does the cliche go...if you lose, don't lose the lesson? I'm gonna hold this L for the next two weeks, and hold out hope for a shift in fortune. A new omen. The stalker chick told me that the Camino is a metaphor for life. In today's world of fast news and hot takes, the wisdom in life lessons seem to be increasingly endangered, much like red panda. So if I'm thankful for anything over the last few weeks, it's for this opportunity to reflect on my experience on the magically metaphorical Camino...and to cement a valuable life lesson.
Panda panda panda panda panda panda.
We sat on two park benches, angled perpendicular, just off the main town square. She cooked couscous over a small propane tank, and then onions, tomatoes, peppers and spice. He hand rolled cigarettes, told stories in German, through her, to me. I brought mussels in a sweet tomato sauce, sliced Spanish chorizo, a baguette and canned tuna. We spilled beer, and shared it. I peer pressure hit a joint. We talked about living with nothing, and the day being everything. I wonder...if you've never spoken to somebody who doesn't speak your language, have you spoke? The odds are I'll never see these two again, even with Facebook, and I'm fine with that cause, we shared what needed to be, when it mattered...in the moment. What else is left?
There was so much rubble in Berlin after WWII, they could've built a mountain from it. Well....actually, they did. And named it, "Devil's Mountain". Teufelsberg (its German moniker) today looks like any other massive hill, covered in shrub, tree and grass. Crisscrossed with hiking paths. But beneath...beneath lies 98 MILLION cubic yards of brick and debris. They pilled up so much shit it created the tallest point in West Berlin. I was told women were largely responsible for the effort, but can't confirm. It gets wilder. Beneath the rubble is a Nazi military-technical college. Allied forces discovered the under-construction facility....tried to demo it with explosives...but it was so sturdy that covering it was actually the best option!! Still better... Decades later, as the US and Russia ramped up the Cold War efforts, the United States NSA built a massive spy station on the hill. Part of a larger listening and intelligence gathering network named ECHELON. It's a massive complex of buildings, towers and domes. Now abandoned, these structures still stand. The best part yet...they are covered wall to wall with graffiti. Everything. The domes, the towers, small sheds, full warehouses. It's fucking amazing. Some dude will try and collect 10 euros or something to get in there, but there's ways to sneak in for free. It's one of those things that would be completely illegal in the US...or just never exist. The views from atop the towers are sweeping, and grand. It's unlike anything I've ever seen abroad.
Nothing good ever happens after 2am, nothing boring happens either. Maybe that's why I'm in Times Square at 5am. Riding a Citi Bike. Tripping on LSD.
Why is it the wildest nights always seem to start with modest intentions? How does two beers and in bed by ten turn into you damaging house plants and waking your girlfriend up at 3am to help you take off your clothes? We've all been there, don't you bullshit me. Innocently enough, that's how my Tuesday night started, at a dive bar in Spanish Harlem.
The Duck is everything you want in a dive. Cheap booze, a pool table, dim lighting, and randoms. Located on 2nd Avenue, the main drag running through Spanish Harlem, it's one of just a few bars that serve the neighborhood. Like an off-colored mallard in a flock of white, it's presence stands in contrast to the Latin marts and bodegas that cater to Dominican and Puerto Rican residents. Maybe that's why nobody in the bar looked like they were from the neighborhood, save the bartender, a cute, full bodied young thing named Rina.
At the end of the bar top sat a clean cut guy with perfectly manicured hair. He talked loudly, and often, schooling Rina, incorrectly at times, on bartending technique and the history of the Sazerac, all while jibber-jabbering at the guys playing pool. He's the type of person that talks to be heard, whose constant stream of words mask an underlying social anxiety, or insecurity. I avoided his eye contact, and resisted any type of engagement. You start a conversation with those people, and next thing you know they're in your ear for two fucking hours. As luck would have it, he cornered me outside for a cigarette. Damn cigarettes. And well, this was the tug on a loose thread that would unravel into what was one of the craziest nights of the road trip.
A shot turned into a beer, a beer to a shot, cigarettes to tacos, ten blocks to an apartment, an artisan pizza to a mushroom cap, a glass of red wine to a year old tab of LSD. It was that easy.
Now, the guy who I initially wanted nothing to do with was tossing me a pair of his black jeans. Apparently my jean shorts and vintage Le Coq Sportif tee wasn't gonna cut it in MePa/Chelsea. We hopped across the street to re-up on some black market cigarettes, and just like that, I was about to embark on my first LSD adventure.
....Did the bottom of my glass move? I think it moved. Why is there a bathtub in here? Oh yeah, the place is called Bathtub Gin. Say speakeasy three times fast. Tinctures, bitters, fruit. How'd that guy with a soccer jersey get in here? Those guys are definitely fighting. There goes the guy with the soccer jersey. Self regulating societies. McManuses, McManusi? The bartender is the boy in the painting. Pints. "What's your name where you from!" I'm a Walmart Supervisor. Marshmallow cream dreams. The paper towel dispenser has a face. Burlesque dancer from Vienna, VA. She's too cool for Vienna. "Ah she twerk." Strawberry short cake spandex. Strawberry blonde hair. Otis. Drake. Riding through the 6 with my WOES. Joint? Joints. Let's blow this joint. "Speaking of blow," said the Jazz drummer. Nose beers. Don't get caught on the down beat, make your time. Cross town to hop in. Bikes, you in? Green lights, BIG lights. Empty streets. Uber. He's staying, he's coming. Sunrise over the Bronx on balconies. Level 2 Sommliers. Ralph Lauren. Take me home. Hostel. Sleep? Ha. Stare at the ceiling for two hours. OJ and breakfast burritos. It's hot. It's 1pm...
In 1953, Francis Crick would co-publish the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA molecules, the most important revelation in the history of biology that would consequently open the door to genetic mapping, stem cell research, the future of medicine and most likely, mankind. Crick would credit LSD for his role in the discovery, and in 1962 win the Nobel Prize. Some years later, another man, named Steve Jobs, would acknowledge LSD as "one of the two or three most important things I've done in my life." His innovation would create quite an impact too. The list goes on.
Honestly, their association with LSD meant nothing to me, and it doesn't now. If you're doing drugs because someone you admire did them, and you're not in high school, I don't know what to tell you. What I draw from these gentleman, and my experience, is to be open. Open to new realties, perspectives and outcomes. By saying yes to the world, it's vibrations can carry you to places you never imagined, pushing your mind to create or discover something that never existed. For nothing new ever came from routine or reason.
It's now 6pm on the Upper West Side, and I've drug myself out of bed to go watch a soccer game. The United States would punt it's game against Jamaica, much like I punted most of my day in bed. Some Korean takeout helped soften the loss. Back on the A train, my thoughts hum over the tracks, taking me from today to tomorrow, and back again. If I close my eyes, I can feel the vibrations.
"Sin City".....more like, "Regret City". Not 24 hours into a six day Vegas stay (I know what you're thinking....six days in Vegas?!?!), I had enough to almost call it quits. Almost. The night before I dove head first into the shallow pool of promise and riches that is the Las Vegas casino floor. I chose the Golden Nugget in downtown Las Vegas as my battlefield, and the blackjack table as my point of engagement. It went well, really well. I had tripled my money, which was HUGE considering my budget and the prospect of another month and a half on the road. I boastfully texted a friend at 9am, and told him I'd been on the blackjack table for 10 hours. That was the beginning of my regret spiral, which ended with me losing everything, save the ensuing hangover. The toughest thing about Las Vegas, whether you're in the casino, nightclub, or strip club, is knowing when to walk away. It's a lesson many never learn.
This isn't where the story ends. It's where it begins. The following night in Vegas wouldn't be about regret, it would be about redemption.
Somehow I mustered up enough confidence (stupidity?) to go back to the Nugget on Wednesday night in an attempt to nobly reclaim my money. I swore off alcohol (ok...just two beers), and promised myself I would walk away when I recouped my initial investment from the night before. I patiently waited behind tables, looking for "my game", as if the universe would have a hand in this. As it turned out, maybe it did.
I first noticed his ear. Starting above the earlobe, he had small silver rings lining the outside of his left ear. Maybe 12 total. It's Vegas I thought, it attracts people from all walks of life! Sitting next to him, I'd then begin to notice his tattoos, most noticeably the poorly etched letters across his fingers below his knuckles. Most tattoo artists will stay away from hands and fingers, you know someone's all in when they get "knucked up". Still, I've got friends with similar tattoos, it's not that strange to me. What was strange was the guy he was playing with. Under a bucket hat from REI, and behind wire framed glasses, a pasty, articulate, and awkward guy with a baby face coached him on the rules of blackjack. They really didn't feel like friends, more so acquaintances, but they clearly had an established relationship, an understanding, a trust.
It seemed as natural as talking about the weather, which is probably why it's difficult for me to remember how it came up. You see I've discussed this topic, and situation, half a hundred times. Most people would bat an eye or choke, when the guy sitting next to you at the blackjack table tells you he was wrongfully convicted by the city of Chicago and spent 20 years in jail. Me? I didn't even pause as I replied that I have a friend who was wrongfully convicted and has spent 14 years in prison.
His name is Juan, and at one point he told me, "You could probably Google me and find out anything you wanted to know." You definitely can, I did, and that's what I'll tell you to do if you're interested. All I'll say about his case, is that the police planted blood on his shoe, and that's just one of a number of appalling aspects. Honestly, I wasn't interested in the case or the fact that he was awarded the largest settlement in the history of the United States for a wrongful conviction. I was more fascinated by what he was doing in Vegas.
Since his release, and subsequent settlement in 2015, Juan has been speaking out about wrongful convictions at engagements and conventions across the country. He's even been offered opportunities in Dubai and China. That week in Vegas he was there with his lawyer, the pasty guy in the bucket hat, addressing a group of criminal defense attorneys. While the association with his lawyer serves a dual purpose, that fact that he's chosen to be outspoken and carry the flag for others wrongfully convicted is the sign of a man working to move through his past, and find redemption.
Juan creates separation from his 20 years in prison, and three convictions, by calling it his "story". It's a psychological tool, oft used, which allows one's self to not be defined by what has happened to them. To you use a poker term, it's a tell, revealing that he has begun the all important work it takes to heal mentally from what I can only imagine 20 years in prison would do to your psyche. He likened the experience, and symptoms, to that of a soldier returning from war with PTSD. He still wears the scars. In his eyes, and mannerisms, you can see the damage...a hesitancy in his smile, a shift in his eye. It's nothing to be ashamed of, you can still see the pain of losing my mother in my eyes, but it's impossible to ignore. And to hear him tell it, he's not. He hopes to use his life as an example for others who will experience this daunting reintroduction to society. Personally, he plans to go back to college and get a Masters in Finance, so he can use his settlement money while avoiding the financial pitfalls that plague those who receive a windfall of money but have no idea how to manage it. NBA players come to mind. Either way, he was saying all the right things, and I could genuinely sense that over our 4-5 hours together he really wanted them for himself and others. I genuinely want them for him too.
I was down to my last $20 at the blackjack table. Juan had gone up to his room, and returned without his lawyer/friend. He was playing for fun, and I was playing to "nobly reclaim" my money from the night before. It did not look good. The dealer sprayed out our cards, and hit me with a 20. I stayed. She turned over a 19, busting the rest of the table out, and doubling me up. For the next two and half hours with Juan at my side, I would work my way back up from my last $20 and win the money I brought to the table that night and the night before. I stopped exactly when I reached my goal. I had learned my lesson, if you will, and earned my meager redemption.
Juan and I would sit for another 20 minutes at the blackjack table before he felt that he had had enough fun. We got up, and decided to take a stroll around the newly revived Freemont Street in Downtown Las Vegas. He shared some more of his life, and I mine. Something told me that trust was big for him right now. And while I like to think I earn my trust because of my character, I also can't escape that it was also partially due to an agonizing common bond.
With that, I'd like to dedicate this piece to the friend, and his family, currently fighting for justice in their wrongful conviction case. Peace to you, Justin, and the entire Wolfe family. May there be an end to your suffering, and an opportunity for your own redemption.
It's August in Alabama, and the heat hangs over Birmingham like a verdict to a guilty man. The humidity is so thick you have to breathe through your mouth. Sauna heat. My three block walk to an ATM felt like 30. It was a mistake.
History has brought me to Birmingham. 15 sticks of dynamite, Sunday school, and four dead young black girls, to be specific. Right? Isn't this why you know Birmingham? Segregation. The KKK. Martin Luther King Jr. 1963. The Civil Rights Act. The 16th Street Baptist Church.
The textbooks left out that there were so many bombings against blacks in Birmingham between 1947 and that monstrous Sunday, that residents referred to it as "Bombingham". So prevalent in one neighborhood, it was nicknamed "Dynamite Hill".
Whether you know this history, or identify Birmingham with it is irrelevant, cause they know, and they do.
Caddie corner from 16th St Bapist a bronze statue memorializes the four girls playing with doves. In the park, 20 steps away, another sculpture depicts two children standing behind bars with the words, "I ain't afraid of your jail". Further, another bronze depicts a policeman and his attack dog as it snaps at a young child. The most arresting sculpture stands near the end of the park. Two walls bracket a walkway, from them, snarling attack dogs leap out at you from staggered heights. Diabolically patched together from crude squares of metal, they force you to confront the inhumanity of Birmingham's scarred past.
As it happens, hours before I stepped into that oppressive summer heat, those deep wounds were reopened. A hundred miles away in a Montgomery court house, a verdict did hang over a guilty man. The last surviving church bomber, a Klansman, was denied parole. An onlooking group of NAACP members who filled the room, applauded the decision. Should he live to see it, the now 78 year old will be up for another hearing in five years.
Minutes before the bomb went of that fateful Sunday, the girls were changing into their choir clothes for a sermon titled, "A Love That Forgives". Some might ask where that forgiveness is today. I believe in forgiveness, but what I can't abide, were the 38 years it finally took to convict this man. For almost four decades as families suffered and mourned, he walked in freedom. So while standing in love, and forgiveness, I too applaud. I applaud justice. Finally served.
That scene from a movie, where a caravan of cars drives through the middle of the desert to meet another caravan, a trail of dust whipping up behind them. Upon meeting, they exchange captives, or nuclear codes, someone usually dies. That's how you cross the border into Bolivia from Chile. On the top of the altiplano, in below freezing temperatures, you disembark one shuttle, enter a shack, hand over $160 USD for a visa, and climb aboard the dusty black Toyota SUV that awaited you. It's an immediate cue to what this country will be like. That shack was a gateway. To this. To exposed, raw, unlimited natural beauty. Bolivia 🇧🇴
It was just a touch. Technically, a rub...against the back of my bicep with the flat part of her index finger between the first and second joint. Three strokes, up, and down. It sent a pulse throughout my body. And for five seconds, wiped away all my pain.
For 20 hours, 14 on two planes, I sweated, shivered, and suffered through a fever hovering in the low hundreds. Some might call it a 24 hour bug, I affectionately refer to it as day six of the seven day Full Moon Party hangover. Folded sideways across three seats on the 11 hour leg to Moscow, my body made up for 3 weeks of partying with no hangovers. Laying next to the bathroom I was bombarded with a steady crash of toilet flushes, floral deodorizing spray, the click-lock-slam of the door....and one savage Russian with a pocket full of zero fucks who decided he couldn't wait to smoke a cigarette. Savage.
Back to the rub.
I'm miserable, but just have 30 minutes left before I board a plane to Berlin. I've got two goals; don't fall sleep, and get on that goddamn plane....caaauuuse something tells me I don't wanna be stuck in Russia. By this point, I've already considered going to the hospital in the airport; I shit you not...I wrote a kind-of goodbye note to my brother in my phone just in case I had some sort of brain eating amoeba...guys, I was on the brink. And then she happened.
Really it could have been anybody, like that funny looking Asian guy who kept staring at me (well, maybe not him)...but when you're on your deathbed cum three airline seats cum torture rack, terribly ill...and alone...it was all about that brief, comforting stroke. We've all been there, right? Whether away at college, maybe vacation...sick and alone...you just want your Dad, your girlfriend's soft stroke of your hair, some chicken noodle soup. As I slouched over my backpack, face buried in my hand, for five seconds she filled that void. It was an honest action, she was merely getting my attention to let me know my glasses had fallen from my pack. I mumbled back, "Ah, thank you", barely making eye contact. But then, I let that touch sink in, and the affection in it dissolved my pain, my fear, my aloneness.
So now, here I am, laying in a hostel dorm bed in Berlin. Contemplating the importance of human connection, and touch. What a time to be alive.
It happens maybe once a backpack, maybe. If you're really lucky, one out of....I don't know...10, 20 vacations. It starts as a whisper, a word. "Pai". Passed on like a game of telephone. "Pai". Until the idea of it plants itself inside you like a seed. "PAI".
There are 762 curves and switchbacks on the road from Chaing Mai to Pai. A sign in the rest stop washroom reads, "Please don't vomit in the sink." It's a gauntlet eager travelers must pass to reach this Shangri-La of Northern Thailand. Some attempt the pass on motorbikes and scooters. Every couple hand full of riders take home scars as souvenirs.
The magic of Pai is something similar to the light in the eyes of two year old child. It exists, ephemerally. It cannot be created, only born into this world. I can describe it to you, go on about the canyons, waterfalls, sunsets, crisp air, and expansive night skies, but like that child's eyes, you MUST experience it, personally. Deeply.
The sad truth about life, is that most children lose their light. And one day too, the confluence of synchronistic elements that have created Pai's magic will erode. Erode under the of feet tourists that wash over the town like a persistent tide to coastline. Under the crush of capitalism, development, and the prospect of more.
I was lucky enough to spend three nights there, I could've spent a month, a lifetime. And even luckier to have shared it with a very special group of new friends, and one amazing woman. The experience only solidified a belief born some 13 years ago when I first began traveling. It's that the human experience is best when shared. I will forget what I "did' in Pai, the vistas and views will fade from my mind. But in my heart, there will rest a place, of what I felt. The magic. The love. The wonder. "Pai"
It was like The Amazing Race.
Up at 6am in Bangkok, 11 hour flight to Oslo, transfer, three hours to Leonardo da Vinci airport, rent a stick shift, drive 40 minutes to a small town in the north of Rome, speak broken Italian...ok, Spanish...eat at terrible burger at 11pm (the only place open), sleep, wake, cappuccino and two cigarettes....made it.
Escorted through a gated driveway, I walked onto a private terrace overlooking what could only be described as a Cezzane painting, kicked a glass table, and, finally I met her.
If, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery mediocrity can pay greatness," as Oscar Wilde once said, then Sasha (@sashaunisex) must at times feel like the 😊 emoji, while being stylistically one of the most unique and talented tattoo artists of her generation. Not only have others "followed" (read, copied) her style, some blatantly plagiarize her work. When asked, it doesn't seem to bother her (except the plagiarizing), but she is certainly on notice. Observing as well that other artists have moved into the temporary tattoo space she inhabited about a year earlier with her beautiful line of impermanent body art. She's more than just a tattoo artist, to limit her to that label would be to imply that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." (humble Shakespeare flex). She is not like any other rose, or tattoo artist. She is a complete artist manifested through tattoo, and her vision continues to expand through her clothing and accessories line. I'll stop gushing, and leave you with the biggest impression from those four hours in the tattoo chair, that, it is rare in this world to meet someone as nice as they are talented. So, take a look at her work, do the math on that, and work backwards.
If you're wondering, I got a rose. On my forearm. The one above, dummy. It's in memory of my mother. And I couldn't be happier with this incredible gift. But no more time for that...
Back in the rental car, dinner, five hours of sleep, hit the highway, gas station, 7am flight to Stockholm, wash and clean my tattoo in a VERY small airport bathroom with two Turkish dudes staring at me, ten hour flight to Bangkok, this woman sitting next to me must have elbowed me 20 times...no bullshit...BKK, hotel, sleep.
Indeed, an amazing race.
“The Middle East was better off with Saddam.”
From a three bedroom apartment in an upper class neighborhood of Amman, on live TV I watched as a dead Kurdish soldier hung from a lamp post. The victim of a well planned counterattack by ISIS into the Kurdish held city of Kirkuk, just days before Iraqi and Kurdish forces planned to retake the key ISIS stronghold of Mosul. Taking a sip of instant coffee from a Versace cup, casually scrolling through my Instagram feed, I thought to myself, “What the fuck?”
My brother once said, jokingly, “I can never visit the Middle East, I’ve watched too much Homeland.” As funny as that was when he said it, the average American….shit, every American…can’t deny the underlying truth.
Over three days I toured the stunning sites of Jordan; The Lost City of Petra, the Red Sea-side city of Aqaba, the enchanting desert valley and Sandstone peaks of Wadi Rum, and finally, a float in the Dead Sea. If you’ve ever dreamed of going to Jordan, go. Have no doubts. I’ve never been so spoiled, as my hosts, per Middle Eastern culture, went out of their way to see I was fully, if not overly, satisfied. It was a whirlwind of culture, coffee, and the best hummus I’ll ever have in my life (cliche, I know). But….there’s one thing that kept pulling me down. In those three days I passed through more metal detectors, put more bags under X-ray scanners, and drove through more security check points than I have in my entire life. I literally can’t count the security check points we were stopped at on the highway, it felt like one every 60 miles. By the last day it became reflex to pull off my sunglasses and flash my blond hair and baby blues from the front passenger seat so police officers didn’t have to search our car.
So it was, on that fourth and final day, from that beautifully appointed apartment, after all the security measures and the graciousness of my hosts, while watching as a crowd of civilians eased that limp dead body down from a lamp post, I had my “What The Fuck Moment”.
What the fuck do I, you, we, as Americans, really know about the Middle East? Or Muslims? The day-to-day reality of terrorism?
Follow me real quick.
A (narrow) majority of the American population hate...errr...have a palpable distrust...of Muslims and Islamic culture. Jordan is 93% Muslim and yet it's one of the US's strongest allies in the region. The instability of the region from the US lead Iraq War has put a tremendous strain on the progressive and highly educated Jordanian population. You could argue that outside of Iraq, they bear the largest day-to-day brunt of the United States' blunder (Jordan was bombed in 2005 by ISIS suicide bombers and a Jordanian pilot was burned alive by jihadists in 2015). King Abdullah II of Jordan, considered the strongest Muslim in the world, is on a personal mission to kill all 23 jihadists seen in that gruesome video of the pilot's death....he's got 8 so far. He also joined the US in airstrikes against ISIS in 2014. Trump, and his supporters, want to ban all Muslims from entering the country. Hmm...even these Muslims fighting ISIS with us? And just as a kicker, the US this summer agreed to give Jordan $60 million in aid as part of an agreement to accept Syrian refugees into their country (cause you know America doesn't want em). Jordan will, as they have for almost 2 million Palestinians who have fled their state over the past five decades. Yes, Jordan, a country of 6.5 million has already accepted 650,000 Syrian refugees. Wrap your head around that. All of which, threatens to increase instability, security fears, and unemployment rates.
So what does that even mean?!? Say China bombed the shit out of Canada forcing millions of Canadians to flood into Chicago, New York, Washington, and that those refugees stole your jobs. Say Brazil invaded Mexico and pushed dangerous Mexican drug cartels into Arizona and Texas, and that when driving through those states you were stopped every 60 miles, every day, on the highway to have your car searched. Say Jordanians thought every white nut job with a semi-auto shooting up schools or churches represented every white American Christian. "What the fuck?", right? That's a start.
And I didn't even cover IRAQ!!! Where Kurdish fighters (an ethnic group, 98% Muslim, that Saddam Hussein once committed genocide against!!) fight next to current Iraqi forces, forming the tip of the spear in the attack against ISIS (that global threat created by the vacuum of the Iraq War). Hmm...more Muslims fighting against ISIS when we don't want to? Iraqi Kurds (my hosts in Jordan), again, who's people were victims of the largest chemical weapons attack directed at a civilian-populated area in history, actually said to me that they thought the Middle East was better off WITH Saddam, the man who committed that atrocity against their people! HOLY SHIT!! WHAT. THE. FUCK.
I'm sorry. I wanted to tell you about this amazing hummus I had, and these camels...incredible creatures really, but this was all so heavy, unavoidable. And complicated. And not easy. Maybe now, it's not easy for you? To paint with such a broad brush. To condemn. To be ignorant. Like I was.
Cause the Middle East isn't an episode of Homeland.
And maybe, the region was better off with Saddam.
Valparaiso is like San Francisco 20-30 years ago, before SF became a Segway tour. A seaport town that undulates from the Pacific Ocean over steep hills. Tires rumble across cobble stone, vintage Pullman trolleys shimmy along the coast, providing a subtle backbeat to daily life. Rattle, rattle, break, break, grind. Houses are dipped in vibrant hues and plopped haphazardly along slopes and lookouts forming a neo-impressionist landscape. Murals honor the history and heritage of the city, but this is more than street art. Valpo is a living, breathing museum. There's street art installations attached to buildings. Street poetry. Galleries carved out of bedrock exhibiting local painters and abstract sculptures. Musicians play for their bar tabs on cobble stone corners. Bands can be heard from rooftops and balconies. This is the shit out of novels, an artistic enclave near its peak. You come for a week and stay a month. A lifetime. There's commercialism, tourism, just enough to sustain artists and the community. Valparaiso is walking that edge...it's found that sweet spot. A few steps to the left and it loses itself to money, like San Francisco or Austin, to the right, and it tumbles back down the hill to struggle once again.
Rio deserved better than four entitled swim bros that can't handle their alcohol, or tell a lie. Brazil deserved better than 3 months of US media coverage solely focused on Zika, pollution, fear, corruption and crime. If you've ever wondered why the rest of the world dislikes Americans, this is why.
Perched atop their peak of exceptionalism, Americans finger wag at the world. Inhaling infallible air, exhaling arrogance. Rather than celebrating South America's first Olympic Games, the rich diversity and remarkable landscape found in Brazil, US media outlets picked at the country like a mentally abusive spouse, and their angry mob of viewers spurred them on.
Ask a Brazilian. They'd be the first to acknowledge their faults and shortcomings as a developing nation. I wonder if Americans would be so forthcoming? If Los Angeles hosted the Summer Games this year (they are bidding for 2024) I wonder if journalists would write about the 44,000 homeless people in LA County.....how the development in Downtown marginalized thousands of families, causing Skid Row's desperate population to double. Will they mention the failed Metro expansion, that runs at a $30 million dollar deficit, supported by one of the largest subsidies in the world. Would they detail the oil spill in Ventura or on the Santa Barbara coast...mention the largest greenhouse gas disaster in US history this January in Aliso Canyon. Maybe they'd do a piece about that time 20 years ago when Atlanta hosted the Olympics and an American set off a bomb in Centennial Olympic Park, killing two and injuring 111. I wonder.
When it's all said and done, the biggest losers of this Olympics aren't those who failed to medal, it's those viewers and readers who were deprived a more holistic view of Brazilian life and culture. Covering stories on the Zika epidemic, political corruption, inequality, pollution and the largest recession in 80 years is essential to painting Rio's current portrait, they can't be denied, but equally important are the extensive cultural elements that when woven together create a tropical tapestry of color and sound unlike anything else in the world.
It's all too late now. The next news cycle is already upon us, journalists, and the world, have moved on. It would be nice though, wouldn't it? To really know what happened in Rio. How many of the millions of tourists contracted a virus from the sands of Copacabana beach like US reporters feared? What rowers suffered from the tainted waters? Which athletes were harmed or hurt? I did hear Usain Bolt say this was the best Games he's ever been a part of. Heard of some robberies. I did see the beach volleyball stadium rocking every night with an energy like nothing I've ever seen at an Olympics before. Saw a lot of partying. I read of a corrupt Irish IOC official, and of course, a few dumb Americans doing dumb American things too.
I guess we'll never know, well Americans won't. And maybe, for Brazil and the rest of World, that's a good thing.