Monday, April 26, 2010

Argumentum Ad Hominem

I recently put in for an office transfer with my work (my organization operates all over the place). My boss approved it, and I just got another approval from the director of the other office. I think an IM conversation I just had sums it all up nicely:

Matt: Sup.

Patrick: Yo.

M: How's Africa?

P: Good. Moving to Hebron in June.

M: I’m moving to Shababasaur. I can make up words too.

P: You’re an idiot.

M: At least I live in a real place.

P: Hebron = Palestinian city in the West Bank.

M: Seriously?

P: Yeah.

M: Why would you move there? God you're dumb.

P: To tell you the truth, I’m having a hard time articulating my motivation for this one.

M: My previous comment is a pretty concise way to do it.

P: There’s an element of truth to it.

M: How long will you be there?

P: Two months – until Ramadan. Month off. Then I might go back if I like it.

M: If you like it? What, like if the club scene is hoppin’?

P: Hah.

M: How are you going to come back to the States if you’re on the goddamn no-fly list?

P: Pff. Apparently there are a lot of expats there. Hebron and Ramallah are the hotbeds for NGO/political activity.

M: You remember Sean? He’s moving to Indonesia to do jungle tours or surf classes or something equally ridiculous. Sean is smart.

P: Does sound nice. South America is still on the itinerary. But honestly... that sounds less interesting than what I’m doing.

M: Hmm. Well, there you go.

The move isn't a 100% certainty yet, but I'd put it above 90. Check out the map in the last post for an overview of the scenery. I'm pretty psyched. For a country the size of New Jersey, there's a TON of stuff to see (New Jersey should really be ashamed of itself).

More to come.

More to follow....

(Click to enlarge)

Friday, April 16, 2010

Fes, Morocco - Southern Circuit Trip

“We’ll go now?”

“Well, I will. But I’m going alone.” I was beyond the point of annoyance and making a concerted effort to control my temper.

“Your friend said you want a guide today.”

“No, he didn’t. And that’s my friend, not me.”

“I have been waiting since ten o’clock,” gesturing toward a time on his watch, three hours past.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” I broke eye contact and began to walk down the narrow passage which lead from the riad to the city’s central market. He followed.

“It’s rude for you to make me wait.”

“I'm sorry, but I didn’t ask you to come.” Anthony and Al had stayed in the riad to avoid the conversation I was having.

“Why will you not come with me?”

“It’s not necessary. I prefer to walk alone.” I measured my voice as I spoke.

“Friend, please,” he caught up and walked sideways ahead of me, “why don’t I come with you?”

“No. I'm really not interested.”


“Because the words came out of my mouth.”

He paused, frustrated, to gather his thoughts. “You can call me later?”

“No.” It was the 2nd of 4 times I would encounter the faux (unofficial) guide.

In the off-season, when gullible and lazy tourist populations are in the decline, the shills and drug dealers of Fes are at their most determined. They will press each conversation to the razor’s edge of physical altercation, walk away, and re-engage a few hours later as if you were a beloved relative. The westerner’s hope that some fraction of unsolicited attention might be a genuine extension of friendship is invariably cause for disappointment. It’s a cancer on the touristic appeal of the city. Fortunately, the body is strong enough as a whole that most of the time the obnoxious little cyst can be overlooked.

Tourists, with their euros and dollars and SLR cameras, would not come to Fes if her charm had not been so astonishingly well-preserved over the centuries. The old medina has hovered at or just above the poverty line throughout its 1,200 year history. Buildings and avenues crumble artfully, doorhandles and cobblestones worn to a mirror finish; upkeep performed dutifully with an eye toward maintenance rather than improvement. Angular props, built with bound planks of plywood and paid for by the UNESCO foundation, are sporadically found wedged between buildings, preventing collapse.

The city’s main tourist attractions; a mosque, a school and a few tanneries have been so overgrown with additional housing and storefronts over the centuries that their facades are almost completely obscured. It’s only the odd ornately decorated, guarded door that will open onto a stunning ancient compound. It’s here where the city’s tourist dollars are really seen. Islamic calligraphy, painstakingly carved into porcelain and inlaid with jade is immaculately preserved within; youths tout fake designer jeans to tourists a few meters outside.

Automobiles are barred by police from coming inside the medina walls (easily enforced - there hasn’t been a car invented narrow or agile enough to navigate alleyways). Men lead donkeys, loaded with cargo between the souks as the means of bulk conveyance.

The three of us were staying in a beautiful riad that Al’s family had booked almost three years before. They’d had to cancel their stay and the proprietor had kept the deposit, insisting that there was no expiration date on its use. Riads are fortress-like housing compounds that traditionally house large families – often extending several lateral steps. Their rooms are built around spacious inner courtyards where most of the mingling and eating is done. Very little conversation is necessary to make them suitable for tourist intake as they are essentially built like boutique hotels – each wing of the family taking up its own, semi-enclosed unit. Beautiful and comfortable though it was, however, it was extremely expensive (for us). So we had resolved to stay only a few nights, and then head to one of the youth hostels nearer to the primary medina entrance.

I would vent my frustration with the city’s more aggressive salesmen a few more times before I left. One rug salesmen dragged me into his shop and started pouring glasses of tea while a few of his workers dutifully arranged their wares before me. I was thirsty, so I asked for several refills.

“You remember outside when I said I wasn’t going to buy any rugs?”

“Oh yes, no need to buy – just look.”

“Okay,” I said and drank my tea.

Fifteen minutes later, I had finished my tea and was on my way out of the shop - to the owner’s intense dissatisfaction. He finally postulated that I didn’t want any rugs because I was racist. “I live in Casablanca,” I told him in Arabic. He looked pissed.

Sales pitches usually start very soft (“come see my shop – just look and take pictures!”). Once you’re inside, some hospitality is extended to get you to stay. The hospitality is partially genuine, rooted in Islamic tradition. But once you’re sitting, the dealer rapidly becomes more assertive. Most shopkeepers bank heavily on the fact that Westerners often fail to apply analytic filters to what they’re told, being unaccustomed to having salesmen lie to their face. “This rug took 30 hours to make by hand,” “They sell for twice as much on Ebay,” “The dye will never come off.” All said with well-practiced earnestness and in disarmingly imperfect English.

Fortunately, the anger that they express if you ignore their pitch or poke holes in their assertions is equally disingenuous. In some cases, you can even circumvent their desire to take your money and have an actual conversation.

Fes is the reason people come to Morocco. It’s a glimpse at modern life trying to integrate itself with a largely impoverished, millennia-old city. And it’s a beautiful, stunning thing to see. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be real.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bribery and Assault Rifles, Cambodia

The AK-47 is a selective fire, gas operated 7.62mm assault rifle, first developed in the Soviet Union... Even after six decades, due to its durability, low production cost and ease of use, the model and its variants remain the most widely used and popular assault rifles in the world. It has been manufactured in many countries and has seen service with regular armed forces as well as irregular, revolutionary and terrorist organizations worldwide.

I pulled back the bolt on the charging handle and stared into the chamber for the third or fourth time, moving it out of the shadow cast by my shoulders so I could get a better look. The inside of the barrel was black, even in the sun - the first round was perched, ready, at the top of the magazine. My palms were beginning to sweat against the stock. A loaded AK-47 wasn’t as heavy as I thought it would be. I shifted it amateurishly in my hands before releasing the slide. A Kalashnikov is meant to function properly for decades with minimal upkeep. Its construction is rugged and simple. It has only 4 moving parts – about as many as a fancy wine opener.

I looked back at Adam who was staring at me in rapt attention. He'd been neglecting the cigarette between his lips - the dangling column of ash had burned almost to the filter. He raised his eyebrows and nodded his head at me expectantly. I looked at the owner of the gun, a diminutive Cambodian police officer who we’d befriended. He didn't speak English, so he just shrugged and gave a thumbs up.

As far as I could tell, all you have to do is insert the ammunition into the bottom of the gun, look down the sights and pull the trigger. Then anything on the other side of the barrel would be obliterated spectacularly. So easy a child could do it.

I turned back to the firing range and brought the rifle up to my shoulder, shifting its center of gravity to different positions relative to my line of sight. Staring down the sights of the most infamous assault rifle in the world was an odd sensation. I felt like I should be yelling at someone in Russian. My eyes locked their focus onto the silhouette a few dozen yards away... then closer, to the iron sights as the bobbed unapologetically over the chest and head of the paper man.

"Bang bang bang!" Yelled the Cambodian policeman. Fuck, I swore, and almost fumbled the gun. The little brown man started laughing so hard he cried.

I rolled my eyes and smiled as I readied the gun again. My mind was a little bit frantic: how many millimeters, how much pressure, how long until the bullets started flying? So I squeezed slowly, continually, purposefully. Thunder. My eyes snapped shut instinctually. There was a tremendous string of staccato explosions as the stock drummed itself into my shoulder. It ended the moment I released the trigger - no more than a second after I had compressed it. I opened my eyes again.

"Fucking awesome," Adam said behind me. The policeman said something excitedly in Khmer.

I stared downfield at the tiny holes I'd left in the paper. For all the noise and force, I sort of expected the paper to have been vaporized. But it just sort of fluttered pitifully. Two of the little bullets had fallen harmlessly onto the white over my imaginary foe's shoulder. The third had landed below the neck, about where the collarbone would be. I couldn’t tell if there were more.

Our assault rifle guide piped up again, saying a lot of things very quickly in Khmer. He was smiling and waving his hands around, apparently gesticulating a detailed explanation of something. At one point he lined up his two index fingers in a trajectory away from his eye which I took to mean “aim better”.

Adam and I had been introduced to our police friend a day earlier by a local restaurateur named Bruce. Bruce spoke good English, so we engaged him when we could - asking about his work, his family, his country. Bruce, like every other Cambodian we'd had the opportunity to speak with, was a cheerful and outwardly goodhearted person. He'd told us about his brother the police officer and assured us, almost pleadingly, that the broad understanding tourists held about the Cambodian Police (that they were corrupt and malicious to the man) was overblown. His brother, he said, never took money from foreigners - he couldn't even afford to buy his wife a present for her birthday. Bruce had never asked us for anything besides our bar tabs, and even then he had flatly rejected every gratuity we offered - so we asked if there was anything we could do to help.

"No, no," Bruce said. "But he is back in the kitchen with the dishes - you should meet him when he is finished."

Some hours and half a dozen beers later, Bruce's brother emerged from the kitchen and took off the apron that covered his police uniform. He put it back into a closet behind the bar, took out the AK-47 he had left there and slung it over his shoulder. When he sat down to talk to us, the presence of the rifle was a small elephant. Adam and I, both drunk, found it difficult to reconcile the competing horror and curiosity that it evoked - just dangling from his shoulder, occasionally bouncing against his chair as he spoke.

Learning to use it must have come up at some point in the conversation - and the idea must not have been new to Bruce's brother. His face lit up immediately. In fact, stories are rife in backpacker circles about the Cambodian police and military renting out their firearms to tourists. There are whole businesses dedicated to it. One British backpacker had sworn to me that he had been offered a live cow and an RPG to shoot at it for $200. Bruce did a bit more rough translating (which couldn't have made much sense by the time we slurred out the English and he translated it into Khmer) and we all agreed to meet the next day at noon.

The rifle was still slung over the little policeman's shoulder when we arrived. He and Bruce both smiled their bright white Cambodian smiles and waved to us as we approached. Adam and I both gave Bruce's brother the equivalent of $9*, and I threw in a postcard I'd brought from New Zealand. He seemed to be more excited about the postcard than he was about the money; holding in outstretched arms like he were hanging it on a wall. He clapped my shoulder appreciatively and started talking to us in Khmer as we walked to his truck.

None of this ever registered as a bad idea. Writing it in my journal the next day – “got in unmarked vehicle destined for undisclosed location with heavily armed Cambodian” – struck me for a moment as reckless.

We’d spent the first 10 minutes at the firing range (the land behind some guy’s house) listening to Bruce’s brother explaining things to us. We understood nothing. But the gesticulations helped. Somewhat surprisingly (and perhaps a little disconcerting) his arm waving, combined with what I had seen in movies, actually proved to be all the formal instruction that was required in loading, readying and firing the weapon.

I was pleased with my first salvo of rounds. If some foe of mine took a bullet in the chest, I felt confident that they would be fucked. Maybe even dead. I smiled and took aim again. In video games, you never aim at someone’s head with an automatic weapon right away. You aim somewhere on the torso (or “center mass” in gamer/military speak). It’s a bigger target and the recoil from the initial few rounds will usually raise the barrel a few fractions of a degree. So the 2nd, 3rd and 4th rounds will bounce upwards towards the head. I always thought that made perfect sense, and saw no reason why it wouldn’t work in real life.

I fired again, for a little longer, concentrating on keeping my eyes open. More rounds in the black; one of them through the neck.

“What’s it feel like,” Adam asked.

I fired off a few more rounds. “Fuck.”

I kept shooting until the rifle went ‘click’. Very Hollywood. I squeezed the trigger again to be sure. Click. I thought about it, and the weapon seemed a little bit lighter. Empty. I still kept it pointed in the air as I handed it back for fear a phantom round might still be perched above the firing pin.

It was an utterly foreign, almost euphoric, experience for the time that we were there. We took turns with the gun for an hour or so. Even tried to talk to Bruce’s brother for a bit, but without much success. Adam and I were getting good by the end. Even Bruce seemed impressed when I snapped in a new clip, leveled the weapon and deftly sent two fresh rounds into the silhouette’s face.

Broader implications of the experience would unfold over the next few days.

[*$18.00 USD is, as of 2007, 1% of the per capita GDP in Cambodia. The American equivalent would be $460.00]

Angkor, Cambodia

About 900 years ago, a guy named Suryavarman charged a rival prince's war elephant on foot. He leapt onto the animal, pulled himself up the harness and stabbed the rival prince through the heart with a sword. Thus, leadership of the enormous Khmer Empire was consolidated. A few years later, construction of the Angkor Wat temple complex would begin -- the architectural zenith of the entire region.

“This is so stupid,” a statement that has punctuated some of the better things I’ve done. “This is so stupid,” one of Caesar’s Lieutenants must have said, looking back at the Rubicon.

The moat around Angkor Wat was silver with moon and star light.

“It’s so quiet,” Lucy said. We all sat and stared, the absence of a response accentuating the fact.

The temple looked further away in the darkness. Like a range of hand-wrought mountains on the horizon. The causeway seemed to stretch for miles.

“There’s probably an unmarked grave around here somewhere for trespassing tourists,” Liam said. It was a flawed attempt at humor in Cambodia. There probably was.

We’d agreed not to use our flashlights to avoid detection, so I strained to examine my map by moonlight. “Ta Prohm, the jungle temple where they filmed Tomb Raider, is about four miles from here.”

“We should probably stay off the paths,” Liam said, letting his tone remind us of his initial reticence
“You’re probably right,” I conceded. I was nervous about getting caught, too.

“I’m alright here,” Lucy said. “We’ve been walking all day anyway.”

The Angkor Temples are near the top of the SE Asian tourist checklist. There are dozens of western-style hotels in Siem Reap, the nearest city, all of which operate Disney-esque shuttle services to and from the site. Foreigners pay $20 for a day’s access – about three weeks income for the average Cambodian.. There had been thousands of people there earlier in the day, crowding and jostling. Some annoyingly over-precocious English tween had blathered at me nonstop while I was trying to watch the sunset. Allowing children into museums or historic sites is about as good an idea as setting yourself on fire. Same goes for the obese. I’d had to wait in line for almost 20 minutes just to use some stairs.

We’d been walking back to the shuttle boarding point at the end of the day when Lucy stopped and said, “let’s just stay.”

“No,” Liam knee-jerked.

“Like, overnight?” I asked, already sold.

“Yeah. We’re just going to have to come back and pay [$20] again tomorrow. I’m surprised more people don’t just camp out here.”


“There’s nowhere to sleep here Lucy. And it’s probably illegal.”

“It’s definitely illegal,” I said. “I asked a policeman earlier.”

“We’ll be able to sleep if we get tired enough,” Lucy said cheerfully. “You can tell it’s going to be a warm night.”

We broke off from the herd and into the woods, up a hill and into a clearing overlooking the largest temple – Angkor Wat. Even off the trail there was no grass, just over-trodden dirt and worn branches that the multitudes used as handrails.

“I’m surprised more people don’t do this,” Lucy said as we settled in.

We talked for a few hours as more stars twinkled into being and the conspicuous silence was replaced by a din of cicada clicks. The occasional flashlight beam bounced mindlessly across the road in the distance. We’d stop talking and go stone-still whenever the dancing lights got close.

I was curious about what would have happened if we’d been caught. Doing something illegal in Cambodia is not the same as doing something illegal in the United States. In a Western representative democracy, penalties are legislated to be commensurate to the crime and are accurately enforced. A couple dumb kids staying overnight in a park get yelled at, or, at very worst, a fine. In a country like Cambodia, there is a disconnect between law enforcement and legislation. The power balance in a questioning or arrest is about the same as a mugging.

I had already paid one bribe a few days earlier (Border guards had demanded an “unofficial passport duty” upon entry, as well as an additional fee for the inconvenience of having to accept Laotian currency. It came to about $14.50 – exactly the amount of cash in my wallet.), and would pay a second before I left. It is a profound culture shock to be robbed by a police officer. A badge and gun are symbols of safety in my mind. But as is the case in America, officers are just regular guys who make a regular wage. The difference being that that wage in the US is enough to buy a new car every few years and put your kids through college. In Cambodia, it is barely enough to stave off malnourishment. And that disparity, in most cases, is greater than the value of integrity, or even human decency.

A steep fine, doubtless, would have been the price of getting caught in a national park after hours. The most worrisome element of such a payment are the theatric lengths that the officer will go through to get it. Horror stories circulate of backpackers caught with drugs or prostitutes who spend a few nights in jail while they wait for sizeable wire transfers. Such stories are all the incentive a reasonable person should need to avoid serious crime in Asia. Actual jail terms, handed down by a judge for something like drug trafficking, are only debatably more desirable than a death sentence.

We didn’t get caught that night. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you,” an American accent as I sat up slowly the next morning. It was still dark, but the noise of a forming crowd chattered through the trees.

“What time is it?” One of those default questions you can articulate while your brain is powering on.

“A little after five,” the American said – a man about my age with a big digital camera and day pack slung over his shoulder. “The park just opened.”

Made it, I thought. “Cool,” groggily.

“Did you guys sleep here all night?”


“You allowed to do that?”

“Definitely not.”

“Heh. Cool.” A like-mind.

I smiled and nodded. “Spot’s all yours.” I patted the ground. “Just don’t get caught.”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Reunification Express, Vietnam

This post is from a series of older journal entries I wrote about my trip across Asia in '08. The Reunification Express is the aptly named rail line that now connects the former and current capitals of Vietnam (Saigon and Hanoi, respectively). I covered most of its length on my way to the Chinese border.

I’d been on the train for over a day. The garbage smell had established its residence in my nostrils so thoroughly that I had to concentrate to notice it. The man in the bunk above mine snored.

I’d been lucky to find the bed. Its previous occupant had disembarked on the previous stop and I had managed to seize his spot the instant he stepped away. A quarter of a second later and someone else would have.

The sleeping cabins were cramped and filthy, but at least afforded their occupants space to lay down. The only horizontal space in coach was the aisle where the chickens walked.

There had been a sealed plastic bag at the foot of the bed containing sheets and a pillow. I opened it and threw the contents on the floor. They were dirty and worn – only packaged to appear laundered. So I was cold as I slept – the breeze broke past the window frames and my jacket was a pillow. First class on the Reunification Express.

Twenty four hours down, twelve to go.

* * *

The man who took my ticket at the Saigon station could have easily have been a thief as a station attendant. No one wore uniforms, no one spoke English, and everyone was yelling. It wouldn’t have actually mattered who he was though. I made my way through the clusterfuck of a waiting area and directly onto the platform where I chose a train car at random and boarded without impediment. The handle next to the door was worn, warm and damp with palm sweat.

I couldn’t tell where I was supposed to go because the part of the ticket I’d kept was entirely in Vietnamese. I just took the first available seat. I’d boarded the only train marked ‘Hanoi’, so I figured I would at least be going in the right direction (the Vietnamese use Roman script – an adapted alphabet developed by Portuguese missionaries in the 1600s – an incredible convenience when it comes to navigation). Whoever had designed the wooden plank benches must not only have been on a budget, but held a robust contempt for the concept of ergonomics and the comfort of his fellow man. I shifted uncomfortably as people filed into the car.

The older man sitting by the window to my right smiled happily and extended his hand and a greeting in Vietnamese. He was finishing a cup of instant noodles and threw the container on the ground after he had finished. It drew my attention to the floor – a cement of sunflower seeds, animal hair and tea leaves. The woman sitting ahead of me finished an apple and casually pitched the core into the aisle. Most of the passengers spat.

As the train filled, I came to realize that my bench was not intended for two people, as my privileged Western assumptions had led me to believe, but four. A woman and her young son sidled in next to me, boxing me tightly into the noodle cup man. They all seemed ecstatic to be sitting next to me. The woman immediately showed me a moisture-wrinkled photograph of her other children and nearly cried when I reciprocated with a picture of my sisters.

My assumptions that one’s presence in a tiny train car dictated the use of an inside voice also proved to be in error. Enormous families, 10-12 people, filling several benches, yelled jovially to one another. The definition of humanity changes at that density – an individual becomes a cell, language a din, sights and smells are an indistinguishable blur.

I was taken aback by the situation to say the least, but tried not to show it. I felt like a Muslim in a strip club. Everyone else was having a good time – I just felt dirty, claustrophobic and like I was in very real danger of losing my mind. [I’m not sure how to fill the stripper part of that analogy. Maybe they were the luridly writhing sack of semi-live squirrels that one guy brought onboard and flung into the baggage compartment – trapped, terrified and probably eating each other.]

The train rolled forward like it was powered by a hundred tiny men banging cooking pots together. People in my car clapped, presumably for the lack of boiler explosions. A guy fiddled with his window but it wouldn’t budge, so he spat his gum on the ground with everything else.

We rolled cautiously to the speed of 35 miles per hour, which would be maintained for the remainder of the journey. People really started to settle into their seats and made themselves at home. Blankets were draped over everything as make-shift partitions. Children wedged themselves into the overhead baggage compartments and slept. The noise was incredible.

I toured other cabins to stretch my legs every few hours. I didn’t have access to the first class sleeper cars. The attendants that guarded that side of the train looked at me with pity, as if I had carelessly trapped myself on the wrong side of the door. The 2nd class sleeper cars, though more expensive, were worse than the seated areas. Their occupants took further liberty in making themselves at home. Men were half naked and strewn across their bunks like dead birds below paneled windows. The refuse on the ground was so thick that it opposed foot traffic. And every room seemed to be overbooked – six beds, stacked three to a side without room to sit up, and always eight or nine people. I ate bananas and jerky to purposely constipate myself and avoid the horrifying prospect of having to use one of the overflowing plague chambers at the end of every other car.

The views offered respite. The route runs North-South along the incomparable Vietnamese coastline. From the right side of the train, the ocean is a near permanent fixture. Almost preternaturally steep bluffs and black-green jungles painted views to the left. Massive bomb craters were starkly evident – overgrown and camouflaged, but in deep, perfect circles. The rail lines, I assumed, would have been a popular target.

* * *

A child vomited in the aisle outside my room and for two hours the cabin attendants strode carefully over or around it. I resolved to get off at the next stop – Hoi An. My ticket would have taken me all the way to the capital, but I was finished.

The woman I’d shown the picture of my sisters to saw me gathering my things and gave me a little bag of rice balls. For all the Vietnamese I’d met who chose to conform to their aggressive and impersonal stereotypes, a gem like her will always brighten one’s outlook on the population as a whole. Her age struck me a few moments after I stepped off the train and bit into one of the little rice balls. She was just over 40 – maybe 45 – a child of the war. Her father and mine might have been enemies.

I didn’t want to stay long – there was too much I wanted to do up North. I’d just wanted off of the train. My disembarkation had been knee-jerk and illogical.

I stayed the night. A little bar a few blocks from the train station advertised rooms. There was a good mix of locals and foreigners sitting at tightly packed wooden tables inside and the bartender smiled at me from behind a screen of cigarette smoke.

I sat at the bar after dropping my things in the little room upstairs. The muscles that had been listing toward atrophy on the train refused to carry me for any further exploration of the town. It was times like those – sitting and drinking at a shoddy bar, happily eating whatever they brought out from the kitchen – I was happiest to be alone. I would be back on the train the next day, the opportunity to explore another beautiful Vietnamese town; wasted. But I didn’t care. And there was no one there to second-guess.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Scorpions Under My Tent - Rome, Italy

I probably looked like a lunatic. I was furiously molesting the bottom of my tent with the end of a 3 foot stick. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and the sun was still high, turning every rock on the ground into a skillet. I hunched over, trying to get a good view of the cracks and nooks that formed under the base of my tent, stick in hand, prodding away.

“Hey man. What are you doing?” He spoke with a Portuguese accent, but I couldn’t place which side of the Pacific it came from.

“Oh, hey!” Startled, I looked up, doing my best Wild Eyed Crazy Person. The end of my stick was still lodged under the foundation of my tent.

“Julian,” he said, sliding a large, beaten rucksack off of his shoulder and extending a hand, “you alright?”

“Patrick,” I said, shaking his hand, “There’s a huge fucking scorpion under my tent.”

“Fuck.” Emphasis on the ‘u’, to express dismay.

“Yeah.” I looked back down at my stick and wiggled it. “I’m trying to get him to come out.”

“I think I’m supposed to be staying in that tent, too. Where’d you get that stick?” His tone was of resolve.

There were 40 of the tents lined up under a shady cluster of trees at the top of a hill in the camp. There was a clearing a few feet away with a picnic table where you could look out over the suburbs of Rome. Each tent was meant to serve as a semi-permanent structure, like the ones you see in documentaries about refugees. Each slept two people. Or 6 if you’re from Somalia.

“There’s another one under that tree over there,” I pointed. The trees that crested the long line of tents were supposed to create some semblance of relief from the sun. Unfortunately, no amount of shade could keep the tents from becoming uninhabitable with heat from about 8 in the morning until the same time at night.

“How far under there is he?” it’s best to assign male distinctions to an enemy for whom you wish death.

“I’m not sure. I can’t see him anymore.”

“If he comes out, we should smash him with a rock.”

“Yeah.” I stared down at the gap in the blocks I was prodding.

“Can scorpions jump?” Julian asked cautiously.

I looked up from my stick. “No… What? Can they?”

“I think that’s what they heard. Because they don’t make webs or something, so they have to tackle their pray and… fuckin’, you know, stab it.” He gesticulated the point by flinging one hand at the other and making a hard, jabbing motion into his palm.

“Fuck.” Again, on the ‘u’.

“Yeah.” He leaned down and examined the rocks, wiggling a loose one with his own stick.

“Did you know they had scorpions in Italy?” I asked, clearing some dirt away from the base of another rock.

“Yeah. I saw a couple of them while I was walking; just outside Bologna.”

“There decent hiking up there?”

“Dunno. I walked here from Portugal.”

I looked up from my stick. “Seriously?”

“Yeah. It’s fucking far.” He kept poking. “From Porto.”

I still wasn’t looking at my stick. I was dumbstruck. “You walked across all of Spain, France and most of Italy?”

“I hitchhiked from Zaragoza to Andorra [Eastern Spain to the French border], but the guy tried to steal my pack, so I don’t do that anymore.”

“That’s awesome, dude.” Some of the bark was coming off of my stick, so I picked at it.

“You fly here?” Like he was asking what flavor sissy cake I preferred.

“…Yeah,” embarrassed. “So you’re Portuguese?”

“Yep. And you’re American?” He smiled up at me.

“Accent give me away?”

“Yeah. And you want to hit the scorpion with a rock. A Canadian would want to catch it and release it into the wild or something.”

I laughed and we both enjoyed our moment of masculine scorn for another people. That quickly subsided however, when I remembered that I had just seen a scorpion next to my sleeping bag that needed killing. The heat was probably making me complacent. I wiped my brow, furrowed it fiercely, and got back to work.

“I think I see him over here,” Julian said with equal parts excitement and anticipation. “Whoa shit, I see a claw.”

I grabbed a rock in my free and ran over. “Can you make him come out?”

“No. Look.” He knelt and pointed into the rocks. “He’s hiding under that big one.”

“We should use our sticks together and try to grab the claw like chopsticks.”

Julian looked at me like I was retarded.

“Seriously. Hold this rock.” I gave him the rock. “And give me your stick.” I took his stick.

“This is an awful idea.”

I ignored him and concentrated on my sticks. Two of the ends were fairly pointy, so I lowered myself and steadied them on my knee. I lined them up as best I could, holding each one between the thumb and index finger of either hand, and inched them toward our adversary. His brown claws wobbled back and forth as my sticks got closer. I couldn’t quite make out his body or tail. I saw Julian holding the rock at the ready in my peripheral vision. The scorpion shifted to the left underneath the rock; its claws still protruding into the open. I shifted my body weight so I could steady the sticks for the last few inches.

“You guys alright?” A girl walking by asked in a Spanish accent, startling me.
I rolled my eyes and Julian shushed her angrily.

“There’s a scorpion under our tent,” I explained, letting my tone express my annoyance at her intrusion.

She took a few steps backwards and was quiet.

I looked back down at my sticks, and began sliding them further forward.

It wasn’t necessary to move them the last inch or so forward, since as soon as they got close enough, the scorpion shot out of his hole and seized the end of the stick with his pincer.

“Fuck!” I spasmed, all but dropping the sticks. Luckily, in my moment of panic, I had dropped the end of my second stick down on the edge of the scorpion’s claw, trapping it in place. “I THINK I GOT IT!” Speaking louder than I intended to.

I pulled out the sticks quickly, pulling the scorpion along with them. As soon as it was out in the open, Julian hurled the rock down as hard as he could, completely missing the insect.


I fumbled the sticks, releasing the scorpion’s claw, dropping it to the ground. Someone shrieked. Maybe me.

Julian leapt past me toward the scorpion, furiously stomping at the ground. Dirt and dust lifted up around him, rocks tumbled from their places and profanities flew. When everything finally settled, Julian and I were staring down at an exceptionally dead scorpion.

“Cool,” Julian said, almost out of breath. The girl gave us a funny look and walked off.

“Nice work, man.”

“Thanks. You too …with the, uh, sticks.”


We stared for a few moments at the dead scorpion in silence before I spoke again:
“You want to get a beer?”

“Yes,” Julian nodded solemnly.

We turned away from the tent and started walking off toward the camp’s bar.

“You must be tired from walking all the way from fucking Portugal.”


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Family Arrives, Everyone Plays Tourist, Sarah is Momentarily Displeased with the Accommodation

“You have to be fucking kidding me,” Sarah said so softly that only those standing immediately next to her could hear.

Elizabeth heard her, laughed and skipped ahead to where I was walking. “Did you hear what Sarah said?”

We rounded another corner of the narrow dirt alleyway that ostensibly connected our rented apartment with the main cobblestone thoroughfare of the medina. Sarah’s displeasure with our course was understandable. Had the approach we walked been in any part of the United States, there would be strong odds that it did not lead to a refurbished riad apartment, but some kind of redneck drug factory or murder garage. I extended my arms slightly, tapping the dirty walls on either side as we walked. Men worked overhead on aggressively hazardous-looking wooden scaffolds, roping buckets of muddy cement to one another with a Gilligan-esque system of pulleys.

The apartment I’d rented was actually the quarters used for visiting groups of women for a much larger riad (family home built around a central courtyard). Islamic architecture is foremost family oriented, and secondly; built with a mind for introversion. On the second point, for instance; the largest, most important mosque in Fes is almost completely unrecognizable from the outside. It is so overrun with housing and shops that its facade has been completely buried. It’s only after locating one of its arched doorways and gaining entrance that you take in what a grand and meticulously artful building it really is. Large homes are similar. It often seems like the approach and facade are designed purposely to belie the comfort and opulence of the interior. Entry rooms for riads are often more expansive than the streets that lead up to them.

I was worried when we came to Fes that my family would be subjected to the same level of harassment that my friends and I faced when we first visited. But my fears were largely unfounded. Going totally unharassed anywhere in Morocco (especially when travelling with young women) it impossible, but Fes was much better than I anticipated. It’s widely known that there is a hierarchy of tourist marks. Touts and faux-guides will always ask a set of questions, in addition to making visual assessments, to determine which demographic you fall under. For instance, middle-aged American tourists with DSLRs hanging from their necks and fanny packs tied around their waists will be harassed far more frequently than scruffy Latin American 20-somethings with rucksacks on their back. (Though the latter will have to deal with drug dealers). The hierarchy of value of nationalities in descending order: Japanese, Korean, American, Western European, Gulf Arab, Latin American, Arab, Other. For tourist types: Elderly, family men, adult women, backpackers with good gear, backpackers with shitty gear and baggy French cheesecloth pants.

Utilizing the aforementioned information, I determined that my parents and sisters would encounter a near constant barrage of commercial offers and demands. But again, it was not the case. Apparently there is an exception clause to the whole thing. Nuclear families, traveling as a unit, are left alone. That’s the only rationale I can think of. Traditional Moroccan cities like Fes have a tremendous amount of respect for the sanctity of family, and I think it immunized us. When I moved off on my own, for instance, or when either of my sisters did, the shills were instantly on the attack. But travelling together; total peace.


It’s not so much thought or planning that determines the things I do. More often than not, it’s conversation, followed by impulse. While this may sound like the thought process of a crazy person, I’ve gotten pretty good at trusting my instincts. I mean, I can hardly argue with the results –life is pretty sweet. This entry, recorded mostly for posterity, should serve as the record for the origins of a future expedition.

“Jeff started dating a crazy Spanish lady who almost broke his knees,” Ben said.

A pack of illiterate Moroccans bayed obscenities at one another from the street below my window. Jeff and Ben’s travel packs sat conspicuously below the shutters. They’d arrived from Madrid and Paris, respectively, earlier that afternoon.

“Spanish chicks are awesome,” I said.

“No, like, we-almost-had-to-move-when-Jeff-broke-up-with-her crazy,” Ben clarified.

Jeff nodded and began to expound. “It’s hard enough to run your own business anywhere in the world.” He paused and gathered his thoughts. “Imagine the hurtles a single Western woman would face running a dive shop in Central America.”

I nodded in appreciation.

“Well, in the absence of a clear system for resolving commercial or personal disputes – typically called a ‘legal system’ in countries like ours – business owners are left to explore other avenues of conflict resolution. ...How do I explain this?” He asked himself.

Ben: “There was a phrase we heard once in a while when we lived there. If someone were to say, ‘I called a guy from Almirante’, it meant that they were having a problem. Almirante is on the mainland, so the person they called would be outside of the locus of reprisal of the island community. They would come to the island and solve the problem.”

“Usually by stabbing or knee-breaking,” Jeff said.

“Right. Like this coke dealer we knew...” Ben reached backward over his head and tapped somewhere near the top of his spine. “...right between the shoulder blades.”

“Fuck,” I said. “Like a hit? How do you know that wasn’t a regular drug-related shanking?”

“Oh, it was almost certainly drug-related. But it was also definitely contracted. Everyone on the island knows each other.”

“So if a strange Panamanian shows up and stabs a guy and then leaves, it was likely the whole purpose of his visit.”

“That makes sense. So what did you do to the Spanish lady?”

“Well, previously she paid $40 to have a guy’s knees broken. He was harassing her customers and trying to extort money off her to stop – generally being a dickhead and making her life miserable.”

“So she called a guy from the mainland?”


“What makes it even better is that this story didn’t really come out until Jeff was in the process of dumping her.”

“’You can never leave me.’ ‘We are together now.’ ‘You have no idea how much you’ll regret this.’” Jeff mimicked.

“Fuck,” I said again.

“Boca del Toro is nuts. Wild West meets Spring Break.”

“Does it get many tourists aside from guys like you?”

“Almost no Americans (of course) outside the sailing community, but definitely a fair handful of Europeans, Aussies and Israelis. It’s kind of situated at the end of the Central American circuit. And it really is beautiful. Crystal blue water, warm all the time. I bet the numbers only go up over the next few years.”

Jeff: “When we were there, a boat full of Argentine college girls pulled in and just dropped them for a week. Argentine girls all over the place – just laying out on the docks like caught fish.”

“Overall though, way fewer tourists than you’d expect. I lost count of our beach trip days where we were the only people on this 6-mile stretch of pristine sand.”

“I told you we were only going to be there for a week and a half, right? We met this bartender the first night who told us to be careful because ‘Boca will suck you in’”.

Ben laughed as he recalled the line. “Yeah,” he interjected, “We burned our return tickets the next day and lived there for two months.”

“We saw this apartment listed the 2nd day we were there... $300 a month, 2 beds, internet... and waterfront. With its own boat dock. What the fuck kind of $300 apartment is waterfront in a tropical paradise with its own boat dock?”

“It was stupid.” Agreed Ben.

“So we lived there. We just couldn’t come up with any reason not to.”

“Also, the one we took was $300 because we’re ballers, but you can go as low as 75. And those are just a few streets back from the beach. Little shacks with coconut trees and hammocks in the front yard.”

“I’m going.” I said. I was serious (and still am). I’d already partially tuned out, balancing logistics in my mind while they went on digging the hole I was wandering down.

“Two of the top-25 party hostels in the world are reachable by water taxi from our dock,” Ben dug.

“I drank rum from coconuts,” Jeff added.

“Done,” I said. “Seriously, I’m setting up fare alerts tomorrow. Where do you fly into?”

“Panama City. No direct flights that I know of to the islands, but the little Cesna shuttles out to them are cheap.”

“So done.”

“Keep me posted on that, man – I might go back down there with you. Still have a lot of friends down there.”

“I wonder how Edwardo is doing,” Ben said.

“Which one is that?”

“Our coke dealer friend.”

“The dude that got stabbed in the spine?”

“Well, it missed the spine. He’s good now, I think.” Ben said.

“That’s good.”

“Edwardo was kind of a dick.”

“Did you guys see much else of Central America while you were there?”

“Not as much as we’d have liked. Guatemala, Nicaragua – that’s why I want to go back.”

“I want to sail to Cartegena,” Jeff said.

My interest level shot up again. “Sail to Cartegena?” I gesticulated a sort of map with both my hands and pointed toward the bottom of it. “That’s in the Northern bit of Columbia, right?”

“Yep. The whole region is a huge hotspot for the ritzy sailing crowd. You either catch or pay for a ride down there with one of them. Or I guess there are a few commercial outfits that do it too.”

“How long does it take?”

“Five days if it’s done right – island hopping all the way down.”

“That sounds awesome.”

“And once you get there, I got the number of this hostel that organizes these five-day treks into the jungle where you can explore a lost city. Pre-dates Machu Pichu by 600 years, and no tourists.”

“Are you just making this up now?”

“No man. And if you pay the guy $6 extra, you can visit a cocaine processing plant.”


“Yep. The guy who gave me the phone number has a picture of Facebook of him just laying in a big pile of coca leaves.”

“Ugh – goddamn it. Why am I not doing all those things right now?”

“You have a job,” Jeff accentuated the word job with about three times its weight in scorn. Both he and Ben laughed at me.

Devil Music

Anyone who has heard the latest ‘We Are the World’ Haiti benefit recording could not be faulted for interpreting it as the death of music. That song is the Challenger explosion of pop. My offering here is for anyone so-affected:

Gorillaz - Plastic Beach

Jonsi - Go

Two stunning, near-flawless pieces of music. Some the earlier rap tracks on Plastic Beach get a little too weird, but Mos Def brings it all together toward the end. In 5 years, I think Jon Birgisson and Damon Albarn will be mentioned in the same breath as Thom Yorke as the most consistently excellent and prolific musicians of this era. At least I hope so.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Jeff and I Endeavor to Climb a Mountain, Fail, Still Feel Good About It

I’m going to start titling some of my blog posts like the chapters in a Lars Van Trier movie so people think something awful is about to happen. Then, when it doesn’t, they will be happy. Good plan.

Jbel [Arabic for Mountain] Toubkal is the highest peak in Northern Africa. I heard about it shortly after my arrival in Morocco and resolved to take a stab at climbing it. Plans were finalized when my friend Jeff announced his own enthusiasm for tackling the excursion while planning his visit. Jeff is a guy I know from back home. He hunts ducks with binary explosives and an assault rifle. Good guy to have on a mountain, I figured.

The bus from Marrakesch to Imlil – the trailhead for the hike up Jbel Toubkal – collects its passengers from a dusty street corner adjacent a cemetery. On some days. But not on the one when we were going. We stood for about two hours, kicking rocks into the road and telling dirty stories about third-world hostels until finally surrendering ourselves to one of the taxi drivers who had been beeping at us at 4-minute intervals since we began our wait.

“Two people 300 dirham,” The taxi driver said.
“For both of us?”
“For each of you.”
“50 dirham for both of us,” I countered.
“60 dirham each.”

The High Atlas range rises from the expansive plains of central Morocco like a mist-shrouded cliff face at the edge of an ocean [Pretty flowery description, no? Please take my usual avoidance of such effeminate language as proof of sincerity here]. ‘Intimidated’ is a gross understatement when applied to a pair of relatively inexperienced climbers approaching the range from over a hundred kilometres in the carcass of what was once a respectable Mercedes sedan. We saw the foothills first, and what looked like a low layer of cloud cover above them. The clouds, of course, were not. They were mountains.

Alternating gasps of dumbstruck awe and defeatedly muttered obscenity would be the soundtrack of the expedition. There is no portion of the trek that is not so epic in its beauty that one can help but to remark on it. And there is not one stretch of trail so relentlessly steep as to not implore you to turn back. (We would later find that, despite climbing the wrong mountain, we ascended, and subsequently descended, over 6,000 vertical feet of stone and ice over the course of 16 hours).

The hike is completed in 4 stages:
  • Ascent from Imlil to the refuge (situated in an alpine valley below the summit) [6 hours]
  • Ascent from the refuge to the summit [4 hours]
  • Descent to refuge [2 hours]
  • Descent to Imlil [4 hours]
Our first day on the trail was dedicated entirely to the venture from the Berber enclave of Imlil to the mountain’s isolated stone refuge. The route, whose beauty I mentioned earlier but really can’t overstate (see: pictures), proceeds upward from the village through a series of valleys and canyons, braced on either side between jagged Atlas cliffs. An expansive pebble riverbed just outside the first village is the last reminder of what even ground is meant to feel like. Thenceforth, each stride brings a knee to an acute angle somewhere near the waist and the air begins to thin.

There are three more clusters of Berber homes along the way – the last of which is perched over a series of glacier-blue waterfalls and haloed with whitened peaks. Pretty. After you stop seeing other humans, snow starts to splash across the trail and the pace begins to slow. This is about 4½ hours in.

The refuge, visible at the end of the last long ravine for a full hour before you reach it, is one of the loveliest sights of the trek – for only the promise of a bed and hot water. All ice and snow for the last hour. More cursing, heavier breath, elevated heart rates; cardiovascular systems struggling to keep check on the diminishing supply of oxygen.

To our surprise, the windows of the refuge were sweating with condensation when we arrived. 30 to 40 people were already present – their noise and bodyheat almost oppressive as we entered. The numbers were somewhat surprising, as we had only seen two other hikers heading in the direction of the refuge that day. It became apparent, however, that most of them had been staying at the refuge for several days – hiking up the mountain with skis each morning (and possibly again in the afternoon), and sliding back down. They were almost exclusively from Nordic countries – blonde superhumans who would wander up the mountain sideways, skis strapped to their feet and then fling themselves off cliffs to ski back down. We didn’t really talk to anyone. Mountain folk are strange.

Confusion and misadventure began at 5:00 the next morning following my soundest night of sleep in recent memory. After breakfast, I stood in front of the large hanging map near the front door of the refuge. “Where the hell are we?” I shouted to Jeff.
“By the mountain.”

I cocked my head sideways. It didn’t help.

We set out around 6:00, trudging determinedly up the kind of icefield Dolph Lundgren would drive a snowmobile across before launching it into a helicopter.

Crack, I heard from behind me. I spun just in time to see Jeff disappear from view and the split of a deep crevasse racing toward me. I leapt to the side, burying my dual-wielded ice axes into an ice-covered cliff face. A blackened descent into frozen nothingness had opened where I stood. Jeff was nowhere to be seen. “Help me,” I heard faintly as I pulled myself up the cliff. “Be right there, buddy!” I said as I tied a length or parachute cord around my torso and drew the .45 from my pack. Yetis had been sighted in the area.

Nothing from the previous paragraph happened. Just making sure everyone is paying attention.

So we continued up the valley from the refuge. And I’ll just cut to the chase here: We climbed the wrong mountain. Jbel Toubkal is situated in a range of other very big rocks. We chose the wrong rock.

Upon returning, I was asked by my girlfriend, bless her heart, “why didn’t you guys just go up the biggest one?” A reasonable-sounding, but misinformed question. If you were to ask a person standing in Brooklyn to look across the water and point out the tallest building in Manhattan, they would be able to do so easily. If that same person, however, were placed in an alleyway between two apartment buildings in the Lower East Side; that same task would be considerably more difficult.

Another friend of mine asked another equally reasonable sounding question. “Why didn’t you guys get a guide? They’re like $10 for the day.” Reasonable sounding but, again, misinformed. To have hired a guide would have required a degree of humility and respect for nature’s indifference to our survival that, quite frankly, neither Jeff or I possess. So a guide was out.

“But if you had hired a guide, you would have climbed the right mountain.”
“If Christopher Columbus had hired a guide, he would never have discovered America.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“You don’t make sense.” And that was the end of that.

So, by the middle of the second day, at the highest elevation we would reach, we came to the end of the road. At 13,000 feet, the ends of roads are dramatically demarcated with sheer, hundred-foot drop-offs. “Shit,” we both said, looking over the side. We sat and ate at the top of our little mountain for a while and watched the Mountain Vikings hopping along the cliffs on their skis like goats, jabbering to each other in their bobbly languages.

Regardless of the failure, I think the trip was a success. It was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve done in my life, and the payoffs (there were so many of them along the way) made the whole thing immensely rewarding. I plan to return as soon as I get another two day weekend. So expect another post like this in the future with more gloating and fewer tangents meant to distract you from what an idiot I am.