Aug 152016

Audrey Hepburn meanders down 5th Avenue, gazing into Tiffany’s display windows while casually nibbling a pastry. The most iconic flaneur of her – and perhaps any – generation, Hepburn may have made the little black dress famous in Breakfast at Tiffany’s opening scene, but what I remember most is her triumph of aimlessness. “Happiness is reading books and going on walks,” a Due West student told me last year. Or as I’ve already quoted J.G. Hamann elsewhere in The Wander Years, “When I rest my feet my mind also ceases to function.”

I don’t go on that many walks in Beijing. It’s a city built for bikes and taken over by cars, and though some of the canals offer decent promenades, I don’t know anyone who would call the pedestrian experience here particularly joyful. Biking, however, is a thrill a minute. I commute to work 15 minutes each way by bike, and the physical exertion is not the only thing responsible for my elevated heart rate – far from it. Which is to say, biking’s lot of fun.

So maybe it’s not surprising then that I found myself in 江水何村 (Jiang Shui He Cun – literally He River Village) this past weekend, simultaneously realizing I’d lost my joy of walking in its very rediscovery. I’d caravanned there on Saturday – nearly 150km from the city’s center but still within its limits – to hike 灵山, Spirit Mountain, the tallest in Beijing, on Sunday. After a dinner of fresh rabbit and goat (our B&B chef was a skilled butcher) with just enough baijiu to wash it down, and before s’mores, I stole away from our mid-2000s revival dance party to escape the neon and sodium glow of the village in search of the last remnants of Perseid’s annual light show.

I crossed a malnourished creek and headed uphill, past horses tied to their posts for the evening. For some reason, I always feel happier going uphill. Besides, up was where the street lights ended. And as the thump of the Bluetooth speaker faded away, I felt return, in a rush, the sensation of a traveler exploring an unknown town. Everything was novel, everything was ordinary, everything was important and nothing was. Through unshuttered windows I saw the soft blue glow of CCTV 5’s Olympics coverage, or the conclusion of a late dinner, cigarettes burning themselves out next to empty vessels. Four streetlights to go, then three, then none. The road turned to gravel, and the stars exerted themselves finally. After traversing all those light years, it’s a shame it’s the thinnest sheet of atmosphere that puts up the hardest fight. In front of me, just above the horizon, the Big Dipper drew an involuntary chuckle of recognition: it was the Big Dipper that greeted me every evening as I emerged from my tent, that summer I spent living in one in Vermont, now many summers ago. Their transportive quality may be the stars’ greatest gift to us.

The lights of He River Village well behind me, I found a low cement wall on the left side of the road, just wide enough to lie on. I focused on a point directly above me. A breeze I couldn’t feel rustled the leaves of a stunted tree to my left, and the music-box ringing of bells hung from restless necks drifted up from the field below. I had a million thoughts and none, was a part of the universal consciousness and utterly apart from it. And there, in the periphery of my vision, where the stars were brightest but unfocused, a flash. Then another. Faint like they weren’t real, but they couldn’t have been anything else: visitors from another world, tracing their lines of fire across our atmosphere.

Cloudy Stars

It was enough. I rose, brushed the dust off my back, and walked back down through the town. The hot coals and marshmallows were waiting where I’d left them.

 Posted by on August 15, 2016 at 8:14 am
Feb 182015

Erbil woke up this morning to news of a major Islamic State attack on the Peshmerga line defending the city, about 28 miles away, in villages along the road to Mosul. According to CNN, the attack began at 9pm last night, and the fighting was so close that coalition aircraft couldn’t bomb IS positions: the risk to Kurdish forces was too great. According to reports, had the thin defensive line broken there would be “little standing between ISIS and the Kurdish capital,” though it does seem the attack was less an offensive on Erbil and more of a diversionary provocation to draw the Peshmerga away from Mosul.

I came to Erbil more to get a sense of how a national identity coalesces after a period of trauma (basically the Kurds have been under attack for decades; they were famously gassed by Saddam Hussein amidst a genocidal eradication campaign after Operation Desert Storm, but also fought their own civil war in the 90’s and have been repeatedly persecuted by Turkey) than to learn about the effects of the emergence of the Islamic State. But the proximity of last night’s attack naturally made that more of an issue.

I couldn’t tell much from my hotel window, so I got online to see what the expats were talking about in an Erbil Facebook group I’d joined. Within 30 minutes of someone posting a link to the CNN article (CNN was ultimately the most authoritative source on the attack), there were more than 60 comments in the discussion. The mood was tense. First, there were several frantic requests for more information, and better sources. Then a plea to remain calm, mixed with some information via someone’s colleague who talked to a colonel on the front line basically confirming the CNN report. Then, I thought, the conversation took a strange turn. A few people started berating those who were posting information, saying that merely discussing the attack played into the IS propaganda machine; instead the narrative should be “the Peshmerga are attacking IS positions!” The conversation eventually reached a sort of equilibrium in which a few people shared false information (including one woman who claimed that planes couldn’t engage IS because the fighting was too close to Erbil – clearly untrue) and were quickly rebuked, most seemed to be more curious than concerned, and others continued to express general support for the Peshmerga and disapproval for sharing even objectively accurate news.

I’d had enough of that, so I went out and made for the center of Erbil, where the citadel – claimed to be the world’s “longest continuously inhabited urban area on earth [sic]” (Lonely Planet) – stands surrounded by Erbil’s bazaar, which yesterday was completely packed when I walked through just past noon. When I returned today just past noon, it was…packed. In fact, in no discernible way did today feel any different than before, somehow more disquieted, or subdued. Men sat together and drank tea, women browsed through book shops… at one point a couple of young kids walked by me and made it about 20 feet before they realized I was a foreigner and they could practice their English with me. “Hello!” they shouted. “How are you?” I turned and waved. As I continued around the citadel, I heard behind me perhaps the remaining extent of their English. “Thank you! I love you!”

So what is it like to be in a city 28 miles away from attackers the likes of IS? It’s hard to say, because it doesn’t seem to make sense to consider Erbil through that lens. Though it’s clear the Kurds in Erbil feel emotionally tied to their Peshmerga fighters (below, a picture of a Dodge Charger in a camo paint scheme and bearing the Kurdish flag, in honor, says the owner’s nephew, of Kurdistan’s militia), there’s no sense of hardship or of living under threat here. The normalcy is striking. I felt the same when I was in Sarajevo in 2010. Just 15 years after the city had been held under a choking siege while throughout the country Bosnian Serbs committed genocide against their Muslim neighbors, the dominant imagery of contemporary Sarajevo was that of young people hanging out in cafés, drinking coffee and watching soccer with friends, while others shopped for handbags in the city’s shiny new malls. I suppose the lesson here is: what else should you expect? I finished my walk thinking that Erbil today is yet another affirmation of the indomitable human spirit, a spirit that says “Thank you Peshmerga, fuck you ISIS,” and goes on about its day.

When I returned to the hotel I went back online to check the Facebook discussion. The attack had been definitively repulsed, but I was curious to see how things settled down, and if there was any new information. But when I logged on, the whole post was gone, erased in favor of a “Keep calm and support the Peshmerga” poster. On Facebook, just as on the street, it was as if the attack had never happened.

"Did you see my uncle's car?" Sarkawt asked as we munched popcorn in his small shop for men's clothes. "He painted it to honor the Peshmerga."

“Did you see my uncle’s car?” Sarkawt asked as we sat on plastic stools in his cramped men’s clothing shop, munching on freshly made popcorn. “He painted it to honor the Peshmerga.”


 Posted by on February 18, 2015 at 7:13 pm
Feb 182015

While road tripping in Oman, my friend Dan convinced me to finally join Tinder (aside: I’ve never joined any online dating sites, probably for the reasons mentioned in this great article from the editor of Modern Love). At the very least, I thought it might be a good way to meet people while traveling.

Turns out Erbil, Iraq, is not the global Tinder hotspot you might have expected. But after swiping right a few times my first afternoon here, I made my first Tinder match, a woman named Are. With her blond braided hair in her profile picture, I figured she was a Scandinavian expat.

We exchanged a few messages, and I thought we were heading for a meetup. That was until I mentioned I was American, and the conversation stopped. For two days. Then I tried messaging again.

Well, there goes my future security clearance

Well, there goes my future security clearance

Cool, thanks Dan. But I guess it’s like my dad always said: better the Islamic Republic than the Islamic State.

 Posted by on February 18, 2015 at 10:57 am
Feb 162015

Today we left Salalah at about 4pm and drove for 6 hours through the most barren desert I’ve ever seen, on our way back to Muscat. We set up camp in the middle of a sandfield, off a road off a road off the highway. I think this is the darkest place I’ve ever been, which means the stars are the brightest. While in Oman I’ve been thinking of the axiom that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on the Earth. That sounds fine and perfectly logical as an abstraction, but after spending my past five days driving through one of the world’s largest sandboxes and my nights staring up at half of everything we know to exist beyond our planet, it’s taken on a profoundly tangible significance. Still, my mind has been dominated less by a feeling of infinitesimal smallness, as I might have expected, and more by the romantic notion of how strange and wonderful it is to have formed bonds with other human beings among all the sand and stars.

And that is a little poetical to me because one of the few books I brought along on this trip is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Wind, Sand and Stars. He, of course, is the author of The Little Prince, my favorite book, which come to think of it takes place in a desert not unlike this one. It is there the prince meets a fox, who teaches him what it means to be tamed by someone. So maybe it’s natural that when my mind has wandered, occupying itself while traversing the vast stretches of tan, I’ve thought of you, and what we are, and what we are not: ribbons of black asphalt stretching to the horizon have a way of dividing the world with remarkable clarity.

But at night, the road disappears, and the halves fade away. We’re floating in space, and I look again to the horizon. There, where the sand meets the stars, exists only possibility.

Car, Tent and Stars

 Posted by on February 16, 2015 at 1:34 pm
Jun 182013

So I finally got around to processing my photos from Morocco. Taking it one country at a time I guess, and a little out of order. Some of these are pretty, I think. I wouldn’t mind going back to Morocco.

 Posted by on June 18, 2013 at 8:30 am
Apr 082013

I already posted some pictures from Burma under Favorite Photos, but after developing a bunch more for Facebook, I decided I should make use of my Flickr Pro account and upload them there. It’s all a little tedious to do on the MacBook Air, but at least now my non-Facebook friends can see these.

 Posted by on April 8, 2013 at 8:59 pm
Feb 202013

Part 2 of my skiing misadventure in Bansko.

I shouldn’t even have been out there – my legs were too tired. That’s what I’ve been telling myself all day today. I’d started skiing an hour before the morning lesson started, and instead of resting during lunch, I took another turn on run 5, about 2000 vertical feet that took me 25 minutes to descend. I was gassed, and I thought about skipping the afternoon lesson. I couldn’t bring myself to just go home, though, and I told myself our descent down run 10 would be my last. But I didn’t complete that turn because my legs were tired, and I didn’t fall right because I was lazy. Just a few minutes earlier, Nasko had made some comment about skiing being the only way down the mountain. Donna and I joked about a few alternatives. 30 minutes later I was on the back of a snowmobile, wincing with every bump as we made our way down the mountain. We stopped briefly to fill out some paperwork (for the insurance), and then, after a flurry of activity that began an hour earlier with a loud crunch and involved at least a dozen people, I was ushered onto the gondola, and I was alone.

Well, not completely alone. There was also a Bulgarian couple in the 8-person carriage, and a young British woman sitting across from me. I must have looked to be in pretty rough shape but I guess she couldn’t see the sling I was in, because about halfway through the ride she asked if I was ok, and her eyes went wide and she put her hand to her mouth when I told her id just broken my collarbone. “Oh! I thought you just had motion sickness from the gondola!” That would make sense – I’d been closing my eyes every time the cabin shook as we went by a tower.

I never got her name, but this young woman (I think she was around 20) was a huge help. She chatted with me all the way down the mountain, and then carried my skis when we reached the terminal. We took the elevator down to the medical center, and there was Georgie.

Georgie works for Pirin 2000, my ski school, and, well, it’s difficult to write about how caring he was yesterday. “John,” he greeted me, with the look of a concerned parent, or even an elementary school teacher, “what happened?” I just looked at him and gave him a one-shoulder shrug. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.”

Like David had on the mountain, Georgie walked me through everything that was going to happen. He helped me fill out the paperwork, took my gloves, helmet and goggles, and told me after I took a taxi to my hotel I should call him and he’d come with my things and trade me my shoes for the ski boots. He also said Pirin would reimburse me for the four days of rentals and lessons I wouldn’t use. I’d say that I’ve rarely been so impressed by a company’s customer service, but in this case I hardly felt like a customer, and their care didn’t feel like a “service.” After a few minutes, Georgie want back to the office and I waited to see the doctor.

Dr. Nicolai was a large man, and smelled of cigarettes, but even though we only exchanged a few words, I was confident he and his team knew what they were doing. After all, collarbone fractures aren’t that unusual. We got my coat and shirt off and snapped the X-Ray. So far, so good. I watched as the image loaded onto the computer, and I continued watching as Dr. Nicolai did a double take and said, “Humph.” Apparently, “humph” is Bulgarian for “Aw shit that doesn’t look too good.”


“Is it serious,” I asked. “Can you treat it here?”

He might have hesitated for a second, or I might have imagined it, before slowly turning back to me and saying, “…Nnyes.” He had me put my hands on my hips (“Put hands on hips. Stand still like soldier!”) and started to wrap my shoulders. The edges of my vision darkened, and by the end I was conscious that my legs were shaking.

But that was it. The nurse helped me put my coat back on – I skipped the shirt, figuring I wouldn’t be able to take it off later. Meanwhile, I’d asked if they could send me a copy of the X-Ray, and the technician brought me a burned CD. A burned CD? Is that still a thing? I took some shots of the monitor with my iPhone on my way out. Dr. Nicolai left me with a script for some painkillers.

Rather than taking a cab, I walked the couple hundred yards to the Pirin 2000 office, where I was greeted by much attention. Georgie brought me inside and helped get my boots off. David was there, too. I showed him the X-ray and he said yeah, that was quite a bummer because usually this was a simple break. I had at least two bone fragments in my shoulder in addition to a nasty looking displacement. To be honest I didn’t really know what the break was supposed to look like, but… yeah, I guess this was bad. Meanwhile, Nesko was walking around looking almost distraught. “It happens,” he kept saying, I think for his own benefit as much as mine. But we both started to feel better when Georgie poured us shots of whiskey and I had my second dose of pain medicine of the day.

There were lots of little moments sitting in that office that I’m sure I’ll remember, but will breeze through here in the interest (too late, I fear) of brevity. After seeing the X-Ray, Georgie was ready to put me in a car to Sofia for surgery, but after calling Dr. Nicolai we made a plan for me to go in two days (tomorrow, now) for another X-ray and possible readjustment, and a referral to surgery if necessary. One of David’s girls was crying from a fall she’d taken herself but seemed to feel better (or forget she’d even fallen) when I showed her a picture of my X-ray. And Joe, the 8-year-old I met on the first day who’d told me all about Harry’s bar, conveyed his deepest sympathies. David gave me his email address and said I should be in touch if I need anything, and I promised the guys at Pirin I’d show up in a couple of days with a bottle of whiskey. “Hell,” I said, “my lift pass is good for another 4 days – maybe I’ll take the gondola up and hang out with you at the lodge.”

And then I walked to the pharmacy and back to my apartment, picking up a doner sandwich on the way. I suppose the story ends with me writing yesterday’s blog post. I can’t say I slept well last night and I’m not sure how exactly I’m going to prepare myself to go out in public tomorrow, but I’m in high spirits. I’ve already started a claim with my travel insurance company, and I think they’re going to be really helpful. And since I won’t know much until tomorrow’s visit to the doctor, I shouldn’t worry about what might happen. But whether I need surgery or they reset my collarbone here, it’s probably not going to be a great day, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all the support coming from back home. So please keep those healing wishes coming, and I’ll post another update tomorrow. If you don’t hear from me, it’s probably because I’ve gone right to Sofia, but I’ll write again as soon as I can.

With love and thanks from Bansko,

P.S. I guess if there’s one good thing to come from this, it’s that I’ve learned that my natural response to pain is to laugh. I’m a little afraid tomorrow’s going to be a bit too funny for me though.

 Posted by on February 20, 2013 at 6:09 pm