FYI, dear readers - "Lawyers, Guns and Money" is soon coming to the end of its operational life. However, there is no need to panic.
And to give you less of a reason to panic, a new, less structured journal is now online regarding my new life:
I Hawk New York (http://ihawknewyork.blogspot.com
It will be more continuous, as I am now in New York full time and have friends and situations, both of the interesting ilk, that will appear quite often in its pages. I hope you come visit often and enjoy.
And now, to old business.
New York, New York, USA – June 2007
Most of my friends who have jobs don’t enjoy their jobs and spend most of their time looking forward to the next thing. I loved the many, short-lived jobs I had in college and directly afterwards, but I wasn’t making any money at it. I moved to New York and joined ranks with the corporate world.
Despite selling a bit of freedom for a better salary, my new life has quite a lot of good points. I write constantly and spend time with my friends. Besides, some of the absurdities connected with my work amuse me and give me lots of ideas on how to improve things to which no one will ever listen.
I had printed a bunch of name tags for my company’s new office space and I didn’t have time to waste on cutting each one out with scissors. I asked our facilities manager to get me a boxcutter. He came back twenty minutes later saying that the office supply store didn’t sell them in Manhattan.
“Probably worried about terrorism,” he answered. “I’ll go to the hardware store.”
I calculated in my head that six minutes into his next venture into Park Avenue, I would have finished cutting the tags out with scissors if I had begun when I asked for a boxcutter. The fact I had time to work that out and still have enough left to wonder if they sold boxcutters in Queens was pretty sad, until I calculated I had been paid US$15 to calculate it.
He returned, saying that hardware stores also did not sell sharp blades.
“This is ridiculous!” I reasoned. “You can buy a machete in Brooklyn and bring it to Manhattan on the damn bridge! Isn’t there anywhere in Manhattan where someone has figured that out and begun selling boxcutters?”
I then considered that 9-11 had been perpetrated by people carrying boxcutters or plastic silverware. Either way, wouldn’t that dictate you shouldn’t be able to buy boxcutters at JFK Airport? The point of terrorism is to inflict terror, and ineffective measures like the prohibition of boxcutter sales and not boxcutters themselves is the symptom of such terror.
I eventually called an army-navy store on Broadway. The owner told me he sold a Swiss Army knife but it was a model without a sharp cutting edge. I asked him if he was making that up, after which he hung up on me.
I had to make do with an iSlice, a small device from the “As Seen On TV” store that cuts paper but is harmless to the touch. Unfortunately, it is also harmless to laser-printed paper and I couldn’t cut it. In frustration, I somehow landed a deep scratch on my right forearm with it.
I stared at my arm and said to myself, “every time a New Yorker buys an iSlice, it means the terrorists have already won.” I ended up using a small blade I found in my keychain, which I often bring on airplanes. That afternoon, I went to Brooklyn and bought a Leatherman tool to keep around the office. Getting on the subway, a police officer saw the device on my belt and asked me why I had it. I was tired and frustrated enough to be a smartass.
“Because I’m getting off the subway in the Bronx.”
After getting dumped back on street level, I walked to the post office and mailed the tool to my office, less than five miles away, hoping that any terrorist trying to get a weapon into Manhattan was having more difficulty than me.
Near Gaza City, Gaza – May 2007
During a stay in Israel, everyone from farmers to fellow Americans to Israeli soldiers was telling me, “Don’t go to Gaza. Are you crazy? It’s suicide.” Unfortunately, I’m pretty dumb, and that made me want to go to Gaza more.
I wasn’t being entirely reckless and irresponsible. In fact, in most circumstances, I would have heeded the advice and stayed away. But I was given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see a place about which I was desperate to learn some truth and, I dared to hope, some good news. I was already in Israel and I had a few days left before I had to return to the States. Two of my friends, at the tail end of a tenure with an aid organization, were going to be there for three more days before evacuating to Cyprus and enjoying a well-deserved vacation. Since I had been offered their hospitality (more importantly, the protection they worked under) for those three days, I sorted out the various permits I needed from the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority. As a journalist, I seemed to be welcome.
As the time came to go, Gaza broke out into a de facto state of civil war. Hamas and Fatah, the two main political parties, began a street war in Gaza City. Hamas was gunning down anyone who looked secular and Fatah was arresting people who looked religious. Since Hamas had begun launching rockets into Israel again just weeks before, a relative peace the region had enjoyed for a few months seemed shattered.
It is important to note that when Hamas fires into Israel, it is not as much an act of war as many would imagine. The missiles they use cost about the same amount as a big Estes rocket and are slapped together in a slipshod manner. They are dangerous but so wildly inaccurate that if you aimed one at the center of a 30-acre field, you’d be lucky to hit the field at all. They are more useful for propaganda, as Hamas can honestly announce they are striking Israeli ground every day, although they are hitting uninhabited land in the Negev desert once every 12 hours.
Hamas television broadcasts show battalions of men firing missiles interlaced with footage of Israeli ambulances and crying Jews, usually taped from news stations covering the few attacks that destroy property. A chorus of men sing “The armies of the Jews have been defeated; Allah, be pleased by the sound of thunder.” These fallacious claims sustain their popularity in the Palestinian territories, although reality tells a quite different story.
So it was rare when, in an attempt to unite all Palestinians against Israel by triggering Israeli strikes and invasion in Gaza, Hamas fired 80 rockets into the Israeli settlement of Sderot in one day. The only person who needed major medical attention was an octogenarian woman, who was released from hospital shortly afterwards.
My friends in Gaza called me to say it was unsafe to move around too much, as Hamas and Fatah gunmen still roamed the streets, bringing the city to a standstill. They had managed to travel north to a small village close to the border with Israel but couldn’t go any farther as Israel had begun bombing Hamas targets nearby. I asked if there was anything I could do. They asked for food.
Most historians will tell you unequivocally that most casualties in war are civilians. The four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are still around, and with War comes Famine. Palestinians in Gaza were terrified to go out and open their business. School was cancelled, grocery stores were closed and people barricaded themselves in their homes with whatever they had. There were reports of fistfights breaking out over the last food that two families could find.
I had no food either and I had no vehicle to transport it. As I left Jerusalem by bus, I bought three pallets of bread. The baker gave me a discount when he heard where I was bringing it. I loaded the trays into the bus’ luggage compartment. Although I got a few funny looks, no one objected as I traveled to Ashkelon and convinced an American living there to drive me and the bread to the checkpoint on the border with Gaza. When I arrived, I handed over the paperwork I had from three different bureaucracies that was supposed to ensure my passage.
“Sorry, you can’t go.”
“What the hell you are talking about? I sorted this out months ago!” I was furious.
“Things are bad in there. You don’t want to go anyway.”
“If I didn’t want to go, why do I have the papers? Look. In, out and I’m gone. What do you want, money?”
After the guard thought about this for a moment, he still denied me. As a last shot, I opened the American’s jeep and showed him the bread.
“Food.” He looked at the other guards, who all shrugged. “All right, but it’s not my fault if you get yourself killed.”
It’s amazing how few people want to kill you when you’ve got food and are willing to share. It obviously didn’t make a dent for the thousands of Palestinians in peril, but the small village my friends had stopped in seemed happy about it, and there was just enough bread to avoid a riot over possession of it.
I gave each of my friends a big hug, as I had not seen them in a year and it was looking for a while like I wasn’t going to see them for a lot longer. As they loaded their things in the jeep, one of them gave me a kiss.
“Where did all this come from?”
“Jerusalem,” I said. “Should we tell them it was baked by a Jew?”
We left for Israel and then for Cyprus, and I had some of the truth I had been looking for. The fight in Gaza is for only a few people; all it is doing for the rest is closing their grocery stores. There is no wonder that hate and mistrust have been ruling the war for decades. But I was pleasantly surprised when the few Palestinians who spoke English told me that they thought their plight was mostly the fault of Hamas. Hamas told them lies, while a Jew baked them bread.
Gibraltar, Gibraltar – May 2007
The fast-paced nature of my travels usually leaves with only a day or even a few hours in a very interesting place that I would rather spend a week or more in. Most places are complex enough that they warrant more energy spent in them than that of a mere stopover. But as the nuances of a nation, city or even neighborhood may remain hidden to an observer after weeks of a stay, the general feel of a place can be gleaned in a very short time, after a reasonable what-the-f*** phase (see #54).
So I allow myself two different depths of looking at places. One is the more intimate impression of a place, gained through conversation and observation over several days at least, which is not often planned in advance. The other is filling in the blanks of an impression I get from reading and research. If I know I can spend only a short time in a place, I find out a lot about it so I can appreciate it more in passing. With a great love of minutiae and historical tangents, this method works well for me.
I was originally meant to spend an afternoon in the tiny British colony of Gibraltar, but I was frustrated with the decision and spent a day arguing (not to mention US$50 in fees) so I could remain there for the night and the next morning. I wrote to a Gibraltarian journalist who offered to put me up for the night and show me around during the day. Gibraltar’s airport is distinguished as the closest to the city it serves, so I enjoyed a brisk walk from the terminal through the colony’s North District towards its famed white monolith, the Rock of Gibraltar.
It was near there that I met the journalist. He was a short man of English extraction and displayed a few of the charming idiosyncrasies I have come to expect from Brits living abroad. He had a waterproof case for his cellular phone so he could use it in the shower. He kept referring to me as a “colonial” and told me not to “try any of that tea-party nonsense here.” Later, we had a heated discussion on whether it was Carrie Fischer or Lindsay Crouse who played Princess Leia in “Star Wars.”
Although he was misinformed in cinema trivia, he knew the fascinating history of his home inside and out. Gibraltar has the important position of being not only the gateway to the Mediterranean Sea but also the closest point between Europe and Africa. Exploration, trade and war have all crossed from one continent to the other over the narrow waters between Gibraltar and Tangiers. The Rock of Gibraltar, I learned, was thrust up to its 1300-meter height by the African tectonic plate slammed into Europe. The Atlantic Ocean broke through between the rock and Africa, flooding into the deep valley that became the Mediterranean Sea.
We stood at the base of the rock, looking across its grass-covered face. It had been put under siege by countless armies and changed hands several times but still withstood the battering of so many storms and cannons.
“It’s just a shame we kept the Spanish name of the thing,” the journalist said.
“Actually, it’s Arabic.”
I had read a decent amount about the area. “It’s ‘Gibar al-Tariq,’ after Tariq ibn Zeyad, the Berber general who conquered southern Spain in the 8th century. In fact, it’s funny that it’s called ‘the Rock of Gibraltar,’ since that means ‘the Rock of the Rock of Tariq.’”
He looked me over as if I had just asked to marry his only daughter and didn’t meet with his approval. I shied away a little as I realized I had just been rude. But a generous bystander broke the awkward moment for me.
“You’d be surprised how few Gibraltarians know that,” a man said as he stepped up behind us, “but you must admit many Spanish words are gifts of the country’s former Arab masters.” I was reminded of the moment in “Wayne’s World” when the surprisingly well-versed Alice Cooper related the origin of the name Milwaukee.
After a few moments of chatter, the man said he was a member of the House of Assembly, Gibraltar’s home government. As a present for my etymological knowledge of the colony’s name, he made me an honorary citizen of the city.
Pleased with my new adopted country, I went with the journalist to the airport the next morning. As we said goodbye, he handed me a five-pound note, saying “I knew where the damn name came from.” As he smiled and walked away, I looked at the back of the colorful bill to see, engraved next to the Moorish Castle, a striking likeness of Tariq ibn Zeyad.
"But," he yelled back, "I was pretty impressed that you did, too."
Timbuktu, Mali – May 2007
People travel for lots of different reasons. One of the most popular is the escape of a lifestyle. I hope that people never force themselves into a lifestyle they need to escape. The best reason to travel is to enrich your life and learn things about yourself and the world you live in that most people never get the chance to discover. As J.R.R. Tolkien has been so often quoted as saying, “not all who wander are lost.”
However, some who wander are lost. I have met a share of people that travel simply because they have never found a place they belonged and could never rest for long before moving on. I have traveled quite a lot but I move from place to place with a feeling that there are too many places I belong and I can’t wait to see them all. I am pulled to a new place, while some are pushed from the last one.
While in Antarctica, I met a person who had paid for an expensive cruise from South America. The ship he was on had educational programs and stargazing sessions, all of which he had skipped. On the first landfall, he stepped out of the boat onto the seventh continent, looked around for a moment and got back in to head back to the ship. All he wanted to do, after thousands of dollars spent and priceless opportunities missed, was to say he had been to all seven continents. He was a special type of lost person, traveling for a type of cosmetic fulfillment and ignoring the true fulfillment he could have had. With respect to the Beatles, my friends and I take the liberty of calling such people “nowhere men.”
Speaking of nowhere, even the most circuitous route across the world rarely brings a modern person to Timbuktu. The legendary city does exist and has for centuries, despite the amount of people I meet who believe it is fictional or disappeared long ago. Lost in the remote desert reaches of Mali, Timbuktu was on the trade routes for nomadic tribes and Europeans in search of gold, salt and water. Although material wealth is what made the city famous, knowledge is what made it rich.
Even now, Timbuktu is a center of religion and thought and has a long history of learning and thought. Along with gold and salt as products of the region came books. Little seems to have changed in Timbuktu since the medieval era. Outdoor bread ovens formed from clay sit in the streets and gather solar warmth for baking. The roads are carved from sand and rock with little pavement. Men in long robes of cotton and other fabrics sit in the yellow sunlight contemplating old volumes, their crackling pages holding years on insight between timeless leather covers.
It was quite a treat for me to walk the streets of Timbuktu. In an area more remote than where I usually go, transportation is limited and the city has not been a celebrated waystation for Western travelers since the advent of the locomotive. It retains some popularity among tourists drawn by its history or novelty but it is largely overlooked by the outside world. Local children were quite surprised by my presence in their streets, a white face among many darkened by years of sunlight. I was equally surprised, however, to meet a fellow white face in Timbuktu.
I walked into a small restaurant near the center of town for a quick meal. The only other man inside was wearing a T-shirt and knee-length shorts, and a red backpack was sitting next to his table. He stood out among others I had met during the day and I introduced myself. He seemed friendly so I sat down and asked where he had come from.
“Boston,” he told me.
“What are you doing all the way out here?” I asked. “How did you get here?”
“I’ve been in Africa for a few weeks,” he answered. “I started in Ghana and went up through the west and came here by bus.”
“That’s quite a trip,” I said. “Why are you doing it?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know.”
I would usually think nothing more of a claim like that. I’ve done enough things for no good reason or just to see what would happen. But something in his voice told me he wasn’t even looking for the reason he was on such a long journey.
“How do you like Timbuktu?” I asked.
“It’s not as cool as I thought it would be. It’s not really a city, is it?”
“It hasn’t changed much in a couple hundred years.”
He got up. “Well, at least I got the stamp in my passport. Time to get the hell out of here.”
“Where are you going next?”
“I don’t care.”
Not every trip should be about deep thought or reflection. I can get bored in museums and I do enjoy a good day at the beach. But I never understand nowhere men, who can put themselves in front of awe-inspiring sights and the cultures that lie within and care only about the symbols, such as a cheap souvenir or a footstep. Most travelers are guilty of that in one way or another but many of them make up for it with reflection upon the great visions they have been allowed. I doubt the man from Boston left Timbuktu with so much as a thought of what he was casting behind him. I don’t know why he was there. I don't think he did either.
Jerusalem, Israel – May 2007
Few cities have been as coveted and contended for as Jerusalem. It fell into and out of the hands of Romans, Muslims, Christians and Jews. The world’s most sacred sites add to Jerusalem’s low skyline as the fires of battles have strewn smoke into its horizon.
I had seen a few parts of modern Jerusalem before but it all seemed so rushed by circumstance. After more than a week in the Galilee and the Golan, I finally had one and a half precious days in the old city. I took a room in a small hostel at the edge of the Armenian Quarter and performed three pilgrimages whose overlapping lines have often split peoples into warring factions.
I circled the walls to Damascus Gate, a majestic castle-like structure that allows people to the northern end of El-Wad, the great central strand from the edge of the old city to Temple Mount. As I walked through the Muslim marketplaces, a great rainstorm opened onto the quarter and drenched the open stalls. I darted under an awning near the Third Station of the Cross, where El-Wad is met by Via Dolorosa, the legendary path of Jesus Christ’s last walk. From my hiding place, I saw a man slip in a puddle and fall, near the place where Jesus supposedly fell under the weight of the cross.
After half an hour, the rain did not let up. El-Wad was turned into a rapid river, washing tomatoes, paper and CDs down from where they had fallen into the street. I tried to walk on toward Temple Mount but struggled through knee-high water. The storm drains had been clogged by junk from the street. Shopkeepers had tried to push trash off the grates but abandoned the effort to bail out their stalls.
I found a broom standing against a wall and shoved it into the water over a grate. After a mighty heave, some of the garbage shifted and I saw a whirlpool form in the lake of rain. The force of water falling into the storm drain nearly knocked me over. I pushed harder and the water dropped even farther. The shopkeepers stared at me as I cleared the drain and the puddle ceased to threaten the stores. One old man came up and shook my hand, calling me “a good, strong boy.”
The rain finally slowed as I got through the security blockades around the Western Wall. It is one of the supports of the Second Temple, built for the Jews by King Herod two thousand years ago. The holiest site in Judaism, it is all that remains of one of the ancient world’s most amazing structures before it was destroyed by the Romans.
It is now lined with praying Jews at all hours. Orthodox men, tourists and Israeli soldiers all lay their hands on the old stones and stick written prayers into the cracks of the façade. The rain had driven away all but half a dozen faithful from the outside wall. I had a moment alone to lay my soaked hands on the rock and find a place for the pebble I had brought from my grandfather’s grave. I had only one prayer to write and leave behind: “Make this and all places safe for all.”
I crossed around the wall to Temple Mount, now home to the spectacular Dome of the Rock and the richly decorated Al-Aqsa Mosque. Female visitors are asked to cover their neck and shoulders as they approach by the religious police, who keep all but one gate to the mount closed to non-Muslims. I stood in front of Al-Aqsa, unable to enter, when I saw the man from El-Wad, who had called me a good, strong boy. Even over the objection of one Muslim man, my new friend allowed me a peek inside the mosque and the incredible carpets that adorn its floor.
I left through the northern gate and walked Via Dolorosa past the Stations of the Cross. Much of the sacred road is lined by souvenir shops and dealers of antiquities, but watching my feet slide across the smooth limestone paving, imagining the heavy steps of the condemned Jesus, let the noisy background drift away. I bought a small cross made of olive wood for a Christian friend of mine, and I held it tightly as I climbed the stairs to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The church, which has been there for seventeen centuries in one form or another, is a strange collection of structures and ornaments. Many sects of Christianity have sovereignty over a section, shrine or corner of the building, leading it to be the result of history and dispute more than architecture. Near the entrance lies the sepulcher itself, the stone upon which Jesus’ body was laid after his crucifixion. It is a great thing for a Christian to kiss the marble that covers it. I laid the olive cross on the smooth stone for my friend.
Jerusalem, often besieged by governments who wanted the city like a jewel to be worn, has survived within the city walls with its different cultures and religions within a few minutes’ walk of each other. Whether the status quo is contained by invisible walls, masked sympathy or silent cooperation, the city is now quiet and the rage and envy that encircles Jerusalem is the product of a tiny minority that cannot accept less than total victory. The one thing that the city’s history has taught us is that total victory is not only costly but short-lived. It is nice to think that the default position of a place like Jerusalem is peace.
New Orleans, Louisiana, USA – October 2005
I’ve been to some strange places and underwent harrowing experiences in many of them but none stands farther apart than Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I have never seen such a lethal and terrible combination of greed, mismanagement, human failure and natural disaster. Although I have been in more hazardous places before and after, my family still tells me that they were never so afraid as when I went to the ravaged Gulf Coast.
It is understandable. Many people are violent and many situations are dangerous, but it is traditionally one side against another and each side has an objective: liberation, conquest or vengeance. In New Orleans and elsewhere in the disaster area, everyone seemed out for him or herself and the objective was to save face, save homes or save a life. The early days of the disaster saw the problem attacked piecemeal, one situation at a time with no united front to back efforts up. Nearly two years later, it still seems as if no clear goals, either in strategy or tactics, were established and the poorest people suffered because of it. No one succeeded and no one failed, simply because no one knew what to do.
They ran around like confused children with ignorant parents, and so did I while I was a part of the relief effort. But, as anyone with children can tell you, they are the potential source of the greatest sorrow and the greatest joy.
It’s hard to choose what the saddest part of those three weeks was. It’s easier to choose the funniest moments. But the best time stands out in my mind very clearly. It was my visit to an old woman’s house as she returned to East New Orleans.
The northern and eastern parts of the city, including the now infamous Lower Ninth Ward, were the hardest hit by the floodwaters of Lake Ponchartrain during Hurricane Katrina’s wrath in late August. More than a month after the storm hit, parts of New Orleans were still underwater. It was not until early October that the city was fully reopened for people to return and assess all they had left behind.
For most, it was horrible. Houses had been half-submerged in brown water for weeks and the smell of mold and algae was unbearable in many neighborhoods. Some homes had been broken into and their edifices had been marked in orange paint when early rescue workers had checked them. Some of them had been looted. One house, barely left standing and stripped of all valuables, showed the signs of a prolonged stay after the first hit, with empty food packets lying on a stripped bed smelling of filth. As I inspected a local fire station, I noticed it had been abandoned so quickly when the water came that a rancid meal was still sitting half-eaten in the kitchen.
One old woman had been relatively lucky. She had been out of town visiting relatives in Georgia and her family demanded she stay with them until the government had given an all-clear for people to return. More than 80 years old, she was one of her neighborhood’s most distinguished residents after retiring for a career of foodservice. Her cooking was considered some of the best in New Orleans.
Over her lifetime, she had amassed a grand collection of photographs, music and souvenirs from lesser known events and people that had shaped the foundation of modern New Orleans. As I helped her and two contractors clear the way through mud and branches to her front door, she said whatever was left would be necessary to rebuild the city’s priceless culture.
I was afraid, as I was sure the other two men were, that she would be very disappointed when she went into her home. Since some of her windows were broken, the worst-case scenario was the house had been looted and all of her valuables had been stolen or destroyed. Seeing the high-water mark on her walls several feet high, the best we dared to hope for was that some percentage of her collection had survived flood damage.
As I lifted a branch and swept away some dirt, I noticed something I will never forget. Four sets of footprints, reaching through the thick mud straight to the pavement, sat firm and undisturbed on the sidewalk in front of her house. The mud had left a perfect mold of each boot’s sole, which could mean only that four people had stood in the rising water for a long time. I was mystified as to why.
As she forced open her door, she began to cry out that everything was missing. I went inside to look, and the water-wrecked bottom floor of her house was empty except for some furniture and appliances ruined beyond repair. I slowly crept up the damp stairway, and found something amazing.
All of her collection, every vinyl record and framed picture was sitting upstairs in a heap. Nearly all of it was as perfect as when she had left for Georgia six weeks earlier. The contractors helped her up the stairs and she screamed with delight, sorting through each object with increasing joy.
“What happened, then?” she shrieked. “I didn’t leave any of it here!”
The only scrap of explanation we ever got was from a neighbor who had waited too long to leave New Orleans. He was leaving his house amid panic when he noticed a few men, at least one black and one white, climbing through the woman’s windows and rustling around inside. The neighbor feared she was being robbed but could not stop them, as he was leaving all of his possessions behind. As he got into a friend’s car, he saw the same men standing outside her house, motionless.
They had moved her things upstairs, where they were least likely to be destroyed, then stood guard outside, steady as rocks while looters ran through town two steps ahead of the flood waters. Eventually, they had to abandon their post, but the mass of branches breaking the shallow water in her neighborhood betrayed how long they had stayed: much longer than they should have. It seemed their bravery had paid off.
Among her things were recipes for Cajun food, which I learned most anxiously. Whenever I make jambalaya or some of the pastries I learned from her, I think of the best to come out of a terrible situation. A few men held back hell and high water to protect a neighbor who would never know their names. I think of the Arabs who protected Jewish shops during the siege of Jerusalem, the black men who stood between my great uncle’s shop and a mob during race riots in North Philadelphia, and a hundred other instances of selflessness from people who had stood up when they had enough misery. It takes a good person to stand up for him or herself. It takes a great one to stand up for someone else.
Hakodate, Japan – January 2007
You’re an English-speaking traveler stranded in a remote section of Japan with no money and no Japanese language skills. You’re cold, damp and unemployed and you have a bad case of the jitters from a recent earthquake of moderate intensity. Your companion has abandoned you and the people you have met and befriended are all ten miles away down a long, snow-covered road. What do you do?
I don’t know about you, my friend, but I head for the nearest Union Jack.
No, that’s not the name of a bar, although there was an Irish pub in the vicinity. It’s the flag of the United Kingdom, the hub of an empire that brought the world railroads and telegraph lines and asked nothing for itself except tea, cotton, proxy soldiers, raw ore, taxes and a global market for its manufactured goods. All joking aside, subjects of the British crown are remarkably friendly and helpful for lost and lone travelers, Anglophiles or not.
Hakodate is the southernmost city of Hokkaido, the great mass of land at the head of Japan. The island is known for its pleasantly mild summers and abominably harsh winters. It is an unlikely destination for a non-skiing visitor to Japan in January, but I was curious about the place and I couldn’t turn down the offer of one of my closest and most generous friends.
I dated “Yuka,” a Japanese girl whose family lived nearby, in college. Although our relationship was mired in shyness and easily ended, her family and I liked each other just as much as she and I did. When they returned to Japan’s main island of Honshu in 2003, I received an open invitation to visit them in Yokohama, near Tokyo. I was finally able to take them up on it, Yuka was a student teacher in a village near Hakodate and was thrilled at the chance to bring a real live American to help her teach for a week.
After 10 days in southern Honshu after New Year celebrations, we took the ferry up to Hokkaido (during which she was sick on me) and had a few days in the village. I loved everybody there, perhaps even more than the friendly people I had met in Osaka and Hiroshima. They seemed interested in everything about me and the country I had come from. The students insisted I come on their field trip to Abashiri on the northern coast. Yuka stayed behind, worried about the weather report predicting a terrible ice storm.
Hokkaido was cold and snowy but its worst side came out on our return trip through the central mountains. When we finally arrived back in the village, our nerves were stretched and shredded by the storm we had driven through and the mild earthquake we had felt before leaving. To further complicate matters, Yuka had been scared enough by weather threatening the harbor that she had left the village and taken a ferry back to Honshu.
Thinking I could do the same, I took a bus into Hakodate with my last cash and discovered I had less than half of the money I would need to get back to even the most remote part of Honshu. All of my luggage, including the rest of my money, had been left in Yokohama with Yuka’s family. With no way forward and no way back, I had until sundown to work out a plan. With less than two hours until dark turned the cold into pure evil, I saw the red, white and blue of the Union Jack on the hill of the old district and headed for it.
I felt relieved when I got there. It was the British consulate! Hakodate was one of the three original Japanese ports opened to foreigners in the mid-19th century. As such, it had the earliest consuls and embassies of western nations. Unfortunately, when I went inside the lovely old building, I discovered I was too late, by several decades. The consulate’s bottom floor was now a tea room, and the flag was unfurled in the wind merely as a souvenir. I stepped out dejectedly and noticed a white man in a long black coat sitting on one of the wooden benches, enjoying the last twinges of twilight.
“Is there something I can do for you?” he asked in a heavy English accent.
“Well, yes,” I said through my shivering. “I’m a bit stranded here, you see, and. . .” I noticed immediately that I was speaking in a reflexive British style.
“Well, then, let’s see what we can do to help you,” he answered as he got up and flamboyantly brushed the snow off his coat. He identified himself as Lord Horsham, British envoy to Hakodate, the “local efendi, if you will,” citing the old Arabic title for diplomats and other dignitaries.
We walked down the hill toward the Hakodate Kokusai Hotel, a luxurious place that seemed out of place among the warehouses and octopus boats next to it on the harbor. He waved to the desk staff as we went to the elevator and up to his suite. I showed him my American passport and he pondered its cover for a strangely long time. Then he sat at the desk, rustled through some papers and produced an envelope full of receipts and postcards. I was ready to call housekeeping for a fresh lemon-scented towel and a straitjacket when he pulled 12,000 yen worth of crinkled bills from between two coffee-stained napkins.
“This should be sufficient for your comfortable passage back to the jewel of the Empire, eh?” he mused. “Ah, Tokyo. I envy you, my young Turk; to be young and free in Tokyo is a gift unparalleled.”
Aside from the eccentric filing system and the speeches in verse, Lord Horsham was kind and offering me money. I vowed to pay it back by wire once I had returned to Yokohama, which he accepted with a grunt and royal wave of two fingers. He also offered me the unoccupied room in his suite to stay the night in before. I hate to say it, but I only accepted after determining the door would lock.
The next morning, I awoke and opened my guide book to the section of Hakodate, where I discovered a rather large hole in Horsham’s claim to diplomatic status: the British consulate I had visited had been closed since 1936 and the entire building is now a museum. Although I considered the bad form of questioning my benefactor, I asked for an explanation as I said my farewells.
“Lord Horsham, I’m sorry to pry, but there hasn’t been a British envoy in Hakodate for 70 years.”
“Oh, really?” He paused for thought. “Well, if no one else is doing it, why can’t I?”
I nodded to him. “My lord, that’s perfectly right.” I shook his hand and went downstairs, where the desk clerk gave me directions to the ferry port.
“What is it with the Lord Horsham guy upstairs?”
The clerk spoke little English. “Lord Horse-uh-sh*t?”
I laughed at the mispronunciation, since it seemed an apt description of the odd gentleman. Through a labored conversation, I learned that he was a consultant to a British company and then began consulting for the Japanese after he was laid off. Since switching sides, he has been shunned by the British and moves from place to place on his pension and savings, living in expensive luxury while he slowly goes mad.
However, I had no ill will against him for harmlessly confusing me. He had given me the means to survive another day and get back to Tokyo. When I arrived, Yuka’s indignant father nearly prostrated himself in front of me by way of apologizing for her leaving me in Hokkaido. In what has become an intricate game of conversation, he acted angrier than he should have been and I acted more forgiving than I was expected to be. But all was righted, thanks to the intervention of the “local efendi.” When I wired the money back to the Hakodate Kokusai, I addressed it to “Lord Horsham, Envoy of Her Majesty’s Government.” I’m sure it confused any intelligence agencies, not to mention Western Union.
Paris, France – March 2006
Sleep is quite an interesting thing. On average, human beings sleep one minute for every two they are awake. Observing my cat makes me think that there are many animals for which that proportion is reversed. But the oddest things happen when a person is awake for two minutes and sleep for none.
People pull all-nighters all the time. Coffee and energy drinks power college students through 24-hour study sessions all the time. Millions of people work night-shift jobs that keep them awake dusk to dawn. Some of the rowdier parties of the world last even longer than one night.
But it’s different when you’re alone, quiet and without occupation. Everything inside you says you should be asleep, but you can’t or you won’t. You just lie down, sit or walk around, waiting for dawn and the deliverance that comes with other people being as awake as you.
Many independent sources agree that Charles de Gaulle Airport in France is crassly designed, notoriously unfriendly and unnecessarily difficult to get around. I already didn’t like it from my two brief visits to it when I was forced to stay the night in it.
I was returning from Istanbul with my girlfriend after a lovely vacation when our flight to Zurich departed late. Unfortunately, it was the same plane destined to bring us to Paris and it arrived far too late for us to catch the night train back to her home city. After numerous debates with the airline that resulted in a shrug and “tough luck,” we carried out possessions, including two Turkish rugs, through the airport looking for a decent place to spend the night. All of the benches had armrests, making it impossible to lie down anywhere except the floor. I laid out the rugs on the floor in a quiet corridor and watched my girlfriend fall asleep.
It was cold, the floor felt damp and three people had also chosen the hallway for a bunk. I couldn’t sleep and didn’t want to as long as other people were around. I listened to music until the battery in my MP3 player ran out and I was left in the empty airport with three hours left and nothing to do but pace and listen to the dull hum of electricity.
I walked the corridor’s breadth until I had memorized the number of steps from one end to the other, from one stairway to the beginning of the moving sidewalk. My eyes felt heavy but they did not close. I had a vision of myself standing in the middle of the hall with my eyes bulged out of my head and an unnatural grimace on my face. I shook my head to get it out; I felt like I was dreaming without sleep, like a plant growing without soil.
Many things visited me that night, including my old fear of flying. I became so petrified that an airplane was going to crash into the terminal that I ran down the escalator into the train station and picked a good place to hide in case I heard a jet engine. I was out of water and the sterile air pumping through the hall made me thirsty. I had been far more parched before, and I had probably been more tired before. I had just not expected the experience and found myself completely unprepared for it.
At 4:30 am, my body gave up. I collapsed onto the bench next to the rugs and sat motionless until my girlfriend stirred half an hour later. My body may have been sleeping but my senses were not. I felt paralyzed, aware of everything going on around me but unable to move. I watched the three men pack up their bags and go down the hall towards the terminal as I shook my hands and feet back to life and packed up for the train journey.
Until I got some sleep on the train, I jumped at every sound and shook away my girlfriend’s hand as she tried to hold mine. When I woke up at the end of the journey, I had the worst cold I ever caught.
Whenever I travel and I suspect even the possibility of tardiness, I pack a pillow and a blanket. Looking back on that night in Charles de Gaulle Airport, I should have packed a sleeping draught with a sturdy mallet as backup.
Buenos Aires, Argentina – February 2005
I cannot dance to save my life. I cannot dance to please my wife. I cannot dance while tending bars. I cannot dance while driving cars. I cannot dance to interpret. If I try, I scare my pet. I cannot dance to Air Supply. I cannot dance; I don’t know why. I can’t dance.
It’s not that I don’t like dancing. I would like to dance. I would also like to sing, but if I ever attempt a piece that is out of my deep and narrow vocal range, people start throwing things at me. When the things become heavy or sharp, it’s time to flip on the CD player and leave it to the professionals. Such is also the case with dancing. The last time I sincerely tried cut a rug was at my junior prom, and that experience insured I would not go to my senior prom. I am a good friend of several professional dancers. I love writing about and photographing dance. But I leave the actions to the professionals.
The Argentine capital of Buenos Aires is a dance to me. The people I saw walking through the streets and parks seemed so graceful and orderly. Some people wandered through the city with herds of dogs, bound to them by leashes that form a spider's web. There is a good living to be made as a dog walker in Buenos Aires, especially near the Embassy District, where the small plazas of grass and monuments are big enough to accommodate the animals. Even the walkers dragged along by their packs seem stylish in their hurry.
Argentina was on the rise again as a nation, having nowhere to go but up from its financial collapse three years before. The banks were run into ruin and the Argentine peso became nearly worthless. The crisis left thousands of Argentines penniless, but the restructured economy was slowly recovering. An old man stood with several boxes of fruit for sale near the city center. I asked for a pear, but when he saw a U.S. dollar emerge from my pocket among the pesos, he pointed to it and offered me the whole box. Years of relying on the dollar as dependable currency were still with many Argentines.
The buildings appeared more European than South American, with classical construction on Avenue de Libertador and aspects of villas among the embassies. Stylish stores and clubs with large windows boast their products and customers. A few blocks west, the streets seem quainter and less refined, with small convenience stores, newsstands and specialty shops. One man stood in front of his watch repair business, displaying his skill by working on a timepiece in the light of the sun. His nimble fingers were moving more ably than my legs ever could on a dance floor.
But out of all the neighborhoods, San Telmo was my favorite. It was a very wealthy barrio until a few decades before and its slow decline created a beautiful mix of tango clubs, bars, and shops of varying shapes and sizes.
It was Saturday when I was there, and a dance floor had been set in a sunlit square. I watched as a disciplined pair of dancers went through the moves of a tango. It is very strict dance, with deliberate steps and not a move out of place. After they christened the stage, people from the crowd picked partners and crowded onto the platform for the second song. I saw one child near the middle with his young mother as a tutor.
She held both of his hands tightly then got on her knees and pulled his small arm around her waist. She led him in a dance, but he soon got frustrated and ran off the wooden platform and onto the cobblestone street.
He and his mother might not have been ready to tango in San Telmo, but many others were: fathers with daughters, mothers with sons, lovers of all ages, friends and strangers. I stood on the edge of the platform for barely five minutes before a young girl asks me to dance with her. We can barely speak to each other thanks to my poor Spanish, but nobody is without a partner in San Telmo.
I did not do the tango justice. As I clumsily led the poor girl around the floor, I tripped and we nearly careened into the street. She stood me up straight and directed me until the end of the song, when she and her friends started applauding me on my attempted performance.
Amid the collapse of bureaucracies, buildings and banks, Buenos Aires' one constant has been its dance. Tango exists as a living, breathing entity, evolving and growing like a species. It displays the Latin, European and Native American components of Argentine culture in a series of sensual movements.
I ended the day in a tango club, watching dapper men and brightly dressed women move up and down the dance floor, with the occasional flourish of a twirling skirt or a reverse in direction. If I had the time, I would have returned to San Telmo and learned more of the steps, but, like a person, tango requires a lifetime to appreciate fully. At least for some of the Argentines, it was enough that I had tried.
Taipei, Taiwan – December 2006
An anthropologist would be amused at the idea of the United States “giving” something to the world. After all, with the exception of native tribes, America is a purely invented country and everyone in it is from somewhere else. What America seems best at is taking other nation’s gifts and ruining them (e.g. Taco Bell and televised polka nights).
But there are a few redeemable American creations that have taken strong root elsewhere in the world, and a big one is baseball. There are a few nations where baseball is more popular than in its mother country. A wiseass could make the point that the American sport was based on English cricket, but that is comparable to claiming that all-night raves are the progeny of tea parties.
The first to get a serious hold of baseball were the Japanese, who embraced it in the same years that its popularity in America was rising. The emperor was reportedly a fan of the sport and the people enjoyed the adversarial spirit mixed with the importance of a functioning team. As Japan expanded its Asian holdings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, baseball came along with them and it was established in Formosa, now Taiwan. The island nation, like Korea and Manchuria, suffered under Japanese overlordship and the Nationalists wanted to get rid of all Japanese influence after winning Taiwanese independence. That included baseball, but it was so popular that it stayed.
It was elevated to a point of national pride in 1968 when a ragtag team of Taiwan aborigines from Red Leaf Elementary School won the national championship and the right to play a better-equipped and better trained team from its old foe, Japan. Against all odds, the Taiwanese children thrashed their opponents in front of 20,000 jubilant fans. After that, there were few Little League World Series held in which a Taiwanese team did not make it to the final round.
It was more than the sport. It was the era of Nixon and Vietnam, when the United States was slowly turning away from Taiwan and developing relations with China. Beating the Japanese and the subsequent victories in the World Series kept the spotlight on Taiwan. If it could not be rated as a world power in war or politics, it could be one in sports. It also outlined the difference between islanders and the ethnic Chinese peoples, among whom the Taiwanese were often mistakenly categorized. Baseball became so important to the small nation that the 500-dollar bill now features aborigine youths in baseball uniforms celebrating a victory.
The Little League World Series is held in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home of the first team to win the contest in 1947. My parents live one county over from the city and I worked across the river from it for a few months. When I arrived in Taipei, I noticed many people were wearing baseball caps. They did not have the colors or logos of professional Taiwanese teams, but instead the emblems are their favorite little league contenders. One of the first questions I was asked upon being discovered as an American was not if I had seen the Statue of Liberty or the White House but if I had ever been to South Williamsport.
I made a big mistake by saying yes. I felt like Jason upon returning from the Caucasus; everyone wanted to know exactly what it was like, as if no man had ever set foot in the place. To be fair, South Williamsport is a town like many others in Pennsylvania and across the United States. It is very nice, very friendly and absolutely undistinguished from the next town down the road. But like other towns, it holds one jewel, like Groundhog Day, the cherry festival or the world’s largest ball of twine. South Williamsport’s jewel happened to be the one that the Taiwanese loved best.
I was bought drinks, given food and asked to reveal every detail of the town and the little leaguers that play there once a year. I was ready to stretch the few stories I possessed about the town to fictional and ridiculous ends, such as saying the mayor once chopped an oak tree into a perfect baseball bat and hit a ball clear across the Susquehanna River, but I didn’t want to feed their mania. At the end of the day, I retreated to the airport and continued to my next destination. I was sitting next to a man who looked like a Taiwanese islander and spoke decent English. He asked me where I was from. I told him.
“Is that near South Williamsport?”
I sighed, tilted my chair back and hoped that the next people I would visit were large-ball-of-twine fans.