07 December 2013

Better than Killing Flies

 Boredom got the best of me today. I decided to go to the mall because mall cruising is the height of entertainment in Hofuf. There are other things to do of course; camel tipping, collecting mosquito bites by the pool, killing flies with Windex (bonus points for shooting them down midair). But, the mall is the thing. I left the compound at 3pm, at 3:02 I remembered that the mall doesn't open until 4pm on Fridays (Holy Day). It was too late to turn back so I went the long way and took pictures. Here is what I saw:
That's my apartment building on the left

It's Dec and still warm enough to hangout by the pool, so that's nice

Corner store. Zam Zam means Holy Water. They don't sell that, but they do have delicious flat bread for 1 SAR



I would love to visit both, but the Holy Cities are forbidden for non-Muslims




I don't know what Al-Hannus is, but it's epic here






The round about of death
Garbage is a bit of an issue here

There it is, rising in the distance--Al-Othaim Mall

YES!! *Note: I arrived at 4pm just as the doors opened. Unfortunately the mall closed again at 4:25 for prayers.

26 October 2013

Captain Clipboard and the Aveonauts

Taking a road trip with six relative strangers is risky business.

Taking a road trip with six relative strangers through the Middle East is well...

***

Once upon a time there was a man named Will...sorry called Will. (It's a British thing). Will was an erudite individual who loved politics and a bit of banter. He also loved Leah his American wife. Leah was a maker of granola and a baker of breads--a lovely girl. Will and Leah were living in the Middle East (where oil comes from) and looking for new jobs. Applications, a dash of fate and a man called Preston brought them to Shabaka, a magical place with a pool and ping-pong and a convenience store called Holy Water.  

At Shabaka they met vagabond teachers from a variety of places England used to own. They invited the vagabonds over for tea (another British thing). Travel was the topic of conversation; where have you been lately, my passport is thicker than yours, yadda yadda. At some point a map was Googled and a road trip was hatched. The vagabonds were overjoyed; the Kingdom, the U.A.E, Oman!

A sly smile crossed Will's face. He pulled a clipboard off the shelf beside him and drew a thick line through the first bullet point. He crossed one leg over the other and jangled his purple Crocs with satisfaction. The Captain had his crew.

Our desert ships were a white Chevy Aveo and a silver Toyota Yaris. For reasons of accuracy we nicknamed them, Shitbox and Gutless. Procuring Shitbox and Gutless was no easy task. Much of the burden fell on the Captain himself. While skilled with a clipboard the Captain didn't have the licence needed to pilot the vessels which left him in a precarious position as you can imagine.

I was given command of Shitbox. Zach from Seattle and Dan from New Zealand joined me for the maiden voyage. We didn't have the adapter needed to play our own music so we listened to the only English language channel in Saudi Arabia. Though the DJ never identified herself, she was clearly a sixteen year old girl.

Gutless was handed over to a young Puerto Rican man from Orlando. His name is Orlando. (No, really!!). The Captain, his wife and a tall Canadian man called Aaron joined him. Orlando is an electronic music aficionado and entertained the crew with such venerable classics as, "Smoke and a Fuck."

In retrospect our decision to drive through Saudi Arabia at night was retarded--full blown. Driving in Saudi is ball shrinking madness. Picture this if you will; a bunch of Wild West cowboys are given cars with no instructions how to drive other than a note on the accelerator that reads, "Press Here." They comply with a hard stomp and lurch forward, sideways, every direction really--firing their six-shooters in the air, hats flying off, mustaches flapping in the breeze.

Imagine driving through that. Now imagine driving through that at night.

At one point I watched in horror as a Dodge Charger veered off the highway and passed within six inches of Orlando's car before fishtailing back into the fast lane. The driver was going at least 100 mph. Amazingly Orlando didn't need to pull over for a smoke and a wipe.

After crossing the border into the United Arab Emirates there was an abrupt shift in the road conditions; the potholes disappeared and street lamps appeared, medians filled with abandoned wrecks and discarded garbage were replaced by date palms and flowers. This started what would become a persistent dialog of "Why Saudi? Why?" Saudi Arabia is the richest country in the region and not a single Riyal of that is funneled into basic infrastructure. The countries around it are flourishing in that regard. (With the exception of Bahrain which from what I can tell is Saudi with booze and whores.) And yet Saudi continues to let its deserts pile up with trash and its citizens die in alarming numbers because of reckless drivers and reckless roads. In the oil rich East, the part I've seen, Saudi is a lottery winner still living in a broke-down double-wide with a shotgun on its knee.

Anyway, those sweet ass new roads made for a smooth ride into Abu Dhabi, one of the gleaming new metropolises of the Middle East. It was past midnight and everyone was exhausted. We parked Shitbox and Gutless, checked into the hotel and fell fast asleep.

No one was expecting much from Abu Dhabi. It was a pit stop and a new place. So imagine our surprise when it turned out to be pretty great. Abu Dhabi is shiny and new. It has an obvious city plan that takes advantage of its natural beauty. Are you listening Saudi? Hello? Is this thing on?

In the morning we walked toward the Corniche which we knew nothing about other than the fact that it was "on the water."  The only plan for the day was to go to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque for a sunset tour. Shiekh Zayed is the sixth largest Mosque in the world.You may recognize it as the place Rihanna recently got booted out of.

The Captain, Leah, Zach and Orlando made it to the Mosque. Aaron, Dan and your narrator did not. Here's why. The Corniche isn't just "on the water" its on a gorgeous white sand beach framed by the rising city. I love the beach. Aaron loves the beach. Dan loves the beach. We had just spent two months on desert lock-down. No rare and impactful cultural experience was going to pull us from those azure waters. Beer could though.

By late afternoon we were sunburned and thirsty. We made our way to the Sheraton bar and downed six Kilkenny Red's while chatting with a retired Canadian cop who had been brought in to teach emergency management techniques to local forces. The job opportunities, especially in the U.A.E., are bizarre in their variety.

By the time we left the Sheraton we were in full party mode. We bought several bottles of vodka and gin and headed back to the hotel where the others had Pakistani takeout ready to gorge on. Most of the booze was intended for the following night in Dubai. It barely lasted through the meal.

Aaron, Dan and I spun out of that room like a liquored-up tornado. We hadn't been anywhere near booze or women for two months. With one well satiated it was time to find the other. Expat girls. On vacation. Oh, baby. We burst through the doors and I swear napkins fluttered off tables and bottles rattled on the shelves. When our dizzy eyes adjusted we deflated like a whoopee cushion. We smelled an imaginary smell. The bar was empty. The cover band was whatever. We ordered beers and went outside. We sat in three comfy poolside lounge chairs. "Let's chill here until things get better," we said. Three hours later a security guard shook us awake and demanded that we leave. Luckily we still had our wallets.

The old cities, the great cities, grew up the way we do. They started as little things in need of protection and nurturing. They gained strength and with it a false sense of bravado. They shouted their greatness while secretly comparing themselves to others. They conquered and were conquered. They learned. They became nurturers themselves. Through the centuries they developed an earned and immovable identity. And they continue to age with grace. Paris became Paris. Istanbul became Istanbul. New York became New York.

Dubai was squirted onto a petri dish and popped in the microwave. Ding! Megalopolis!

Dubai is the pinnacle of a new breed of city rising up instantaneously all over the developing world--clones, engineered future cities free of the pesky organic flaws of their predecessors. And yet, no matter how tall their buildings, no matter how vast their boundaries these new cities will never emanate humanity and soul the way the old cities do. I enjoyed Dubai. It's an interesting spectacle--a good place to spend a few days. It ain't Prague. It ain't Rome.

Funny story about Dubai and the Captain. About 50km outside of Dubai we started seeing signs for a toll road system. I watched the Captain check, double-check, triple-check, quadruple-check his clipboard. With each glance, each confirmation that the toll roads weren't on his ironclad checklist his aggitation grew. We pulled over at a gas station to purchase the toll road pass, which an extremely rude Filipina woman informed us we couldn't do because we didn't have proper registration for Shitbox and Gutless. The Captain's stress level was now apocalyptic. A guy who maybe worked there, maybe not, informed us that rental cars didn't need the pass. That was good enough for me. Not so much for the Captain. We drew closer to the city and the toll road warnings grew more frequent. Each sign made the Captain clench and shift in his seat. The grinding of his teeth was audible. The toll roads were a Kraken looming over the freeway ready to devour any car without a pass. The Captain spotted a sign that read, "Last free exit."

"Take it!" he commanded. "Just take it."

"Umm...no," I replied. "We're no where near our hotel."

His look nearly melted me. He didn't say the words but I knew what the Captain was thinking. He wanted to call me the name he reserves for the worst of the worst. He wanted to shout, "You WEAPONS GRADE CUNT! Do you not see the KRAKEN!!?"

Our entry into Oman was a bit rocky. We arrived in Muscat at dusk and stopped at a beautiful hidden beach to stretch our legs. Omani kids played soccer on a dirt lot beside the sea, while a blood orange sun set over the mountains. We let the warm waters of the Sea of Oman lap at our feet secure in the knowledge that our hotel was only 15 minutes away. Unfortunately it took us three hours to get there.
Shitbox lit up and waiting for bad directions

Our initial directions sucked. We circled and circled back and criss-crossed until our path looked like something a toddler had scribbled with a crayon. We stopped at a hotel we thought was in the general area to ask for directions. The cute lady working behind the desk was either stupid or conniving because she sent us to the opposite side of the city. We didn't find our hotel over there either and eventually we had to pay a taxi to guide us. Our hotel ended up being two blocks from where we stopped for directions. Zach and I were tasked with following the cabbie in Shitbox and Gutless. The prick drove through Muscat like he was auditioning for NASCAR.

From that moment on Oman was nearly flawless.

We checked into the hotel and immediately went to the Irani restaurant next door. We ordered hummus that was served with fresh from the oven flat bread, cheese and mint. We piled on saffron rice, lamb stew and roast chicken. Needless to say we were famished. Many of us ate there once a day for the remainder of the trip. We sat in the same seat and were served by the same waiter. He was hilariously stoic. Slim, with a butt-chin that could cut glass and a face of chiseled Botox he spoke few words, all of them monotone. We had a great time imagining his responses.

"You are so handsome!"

"Welcome"

"This is the best food ever!"

"Yes"

"Tomorrow you will have sex with the most beautiful woman in the world!"

"Thank you. I will not masturbate tonight." 

When the sun rose the next day and plans were made the group broke into smaller groups. Oman was the place everyone wanted to see and everyone wanted to see it in a different way. The Captain and Leah went with a friend to a place called Nizwa high in the mountains. Dan and Orlando went North to a beach town called Sur. Zach ventured off on his own. And Aaron and I aimed for Old Muscat.

The more of the world you see the less often you are surprised by it. It is always wonderful but the farther you travel the shorter the list of things you've never seen becomes. Oman was something I had never seen. Aaron either. It is 1001 Nights made real. It is place where wishes are granted and carpets are flown. Not literally of course, but even today it is obvious why ancient sailors docked at the ports of Old Muscat and believed those things could be true.

The site of the old city was clearly chosen with defensive purposes in mind. The natural defenses of the mountains bolstered by canon turrets that seem to grow organically from craggy rock outcroppings. What was once functional is now picturesque. It is a reminder that the strange and exotic world of Sinbad the Sailor did and in some ways does exist. Sit in a cafe in Old Muscat. Sip Turkish coffee and watch the cultures of Arabia come together. You won't be disappointed.

While you're there take a gander at the Sultan's look-at-me yacht docked in the harbor. It's the fourth largest yacht in the world and when he takes it out he is led by a convoy that includes a battleship and scout planes from the Omani air force.

The Sultan wrestled control of the country away from his father in 1970. He is revered in Oman, but he is without an heir. When he passes the royal family will have three days to chose a successor. If they are unable to do so, a secret envelope will be opened revealing the name of the Sultan's chosen successor. Old school.

 Oman is a wonder of natural beauty--natural beauty I naively didn't know existed in the Middle East. It has haunting desert mountains, clear starry skies, miles of pristine beach, Fjords and red sand deserts that roll on forever. We spent six days in Oman and I easily could have stretched that into a month or more.

Towards the end of the trip we met up with Richard, a friend of the Captain who is currently living in Oman. He took us to meet some friends of his who were camping on a secluded beach an hour or so outside of the city. The group consisted of Brit expats and a French guy all of whom were working in Dubai. The beach was glorious; warm seas colliding with desert mountains.

None of us wanted to leave the beach, but we didn't bring dinner and needed to eat. We intended to go to a seafood restaurant just up the road but it was closed. The only food we could find was an overpriced buffet at a swanky hotel. We followed up the over priced food with over priced drinks and just like that our night on the beach was all but gone. I unpacked my newly purchased sleeping-bag and rolled it out primed and ready to sleep under the stars. It was then that I realized I had purchased a child-size bag. I slipped in, pulled it up to my nipples and went to sleep anyway.

I woke up just before dawn with an aching need to pee. As I urinated on beach scrub, I watched the sun creep above the mountains. It gave the lower sky a faint glow of orange and pink without tarnishing the darkness and the pinprick pattern of stars above. I wanted to stay there taking mental pictures, but I was still tired, so I gave it a couple shakes and went back to my baby bag.

The next morning we drove to Wadi Al-Shaab. The drive was hellish but in the end worth it. Wadi's are permanent oasis' dotting the Omani landscape. Al-Shaab is the most famous and deservedly so. It is a long desert canyon filled with emerald freshwater pools. At the end you swim through a narrow crevice and inside is a protected pool with a waterfall. I have an awesome waterproof GoPro camera, so I decided to narrate my swim through the crevice. It was probably spectacular, unfortunately I  neglected to turn the camera on. I could have edited the remaining mishmash but why rob you of my lameness.


The drive home was easy. We spent an additional night in Abu Dhabi. We breezed through the borders. I came home to an empty fridge and desperately wanted hummus from the Irani restaurant. But it wasn't out there, Saudi was out there with its garbage and its Thunderdome roads. I had barely set my bag down and already I was missing Oman. But, whatever sadness I felt was fleeting because I don't believe in once in a lifetime trips. Every place can be revisited and Oman certainly will.

This trip would not have happened without the Captain and Leah. They organized and coordinated and dealt with a lot of the pre-trip headaches. They both have my sincere thanks for that. And so do the Aveonauts. It isn't easy traveling with a big group, especially through the Middle East, but we did it with very few flare-ups and a lot of great memories. Thanks for that boys.

The Captain and Leah

Nice background. Unfortunately you can't see his purple crocs.

The Aveonauts

Dan

Aaron

Orlando




Zach is the man in blue. I need a better picture.

     
Me



     
  

21 September 2013

A Man I Know

A man I know but know nothing about drops into a chair across from me. He sighs happy to be relieved of his own weight. The chair is red and gold with shards of plastic still clinging to its legs. It is not new. We are hidden away in a dim florescent room. I can hear water boiling in the background beside a tray of tea and instant coffee.      

The man seems to take great pride in his appearance and yet he is falling apart; chipping away while time blasts by. His receding hair is brushed tight against his scalp. His pants are too high. His tie is too long. He is Syrian. He is a man of God. And when he smiles it is a punch through from the inside that ripples the surface of his tattered shell.

Three months ago he decided to return to Syria--to the soil he was molded from--to civil war. "My family is in the north," he says. "In free Syria. A famous city, Alepo. I convinced my wife and children that I should go. I convinced myself, maybe. I told myself, if God will give me the chance to come back and live more, ok. I went to Turkey and crossed into my country. After only twenty minutes we were hiding in a ditch and the planes, high up, they were shooting at us. I was made to wear a soldiers clothes. It took me a long time to reach my family. I didn't plan to stay in my country for long, but I was there for forty days. There is nothing left. My country is like 500 years ago. You understand? Destroyed."

He stops because we are silent. His words are not an unburdening. To him this is a casual conversation over falafel and tea. He is a devout Muslim. God's Will is the bedrock of his existence. His unblemished faith assures him that there is a reason and the reason is just. Still, he does not know us any better than we know him. He does not want to offend. We urge him on with sounds of condolence; air sucked through teeth, weighty exhales, groans that spell pity.

"For twenty-six days my wife and children didn't know if I was alive or dead. There is no communication in the north. No internet. No phones. The government doesn't want this, you see? Two of my brothers have been killed. My father had four sons, now he has two. My younger brother was a doctor. A good man. He was operating on a victim when the planes flew overhead. The building fell down on him. It was very difficult being in my country. But, I would go again. If I had to choose. I would do things the same."

It is obvious that he is torn. He wants to divide himself. He want to leave pieces of himself in Syria with the family that was and keep the rest in Saudi Arabia with the family that is. He stands and dusts off his hands. I want him to continue. I want to know more. He is finished.

He points to symbols written on the whiteboard. He points to me.

"Ba. Bee. Boo." I say reciting variations of an Arabic letter.

His punch-through smile returns.

"By Gods Will," he says. "Step-by-step you will learn."

  

14 September 2013

So Far in Saudi Arabia

I got on a plane and disappeared into the Middle East. Since then I haven't said a word. I'm sorry about that.

It's been a busy few weeks--an adjustment heavy few weeks. It's early on Friday morning here, 6:30am, the start of my weekend. For the first time since I arrived I have nothing to do--a day to myself. I've had my coffee and had my toast. It's time to reflect. I'm way past due.

So far I am happy with my decision to come here...

So far I am happy with the gig...

So far I am happy with the people, inside the expat community and out...

So far... So far... So far... 

I say so far because so far I have been protected. Shabaka Prep, my new employers, know that this can be a difficult place. They've seen the looks you gave me before I left America, the doubt, the unshakable concern, He's smart. I should trust him. But why is he doing this?

Shabaka has done everything possible to neutralize that concern. I have been given a furnished apartment on a compound with a pool and a fully equipped rec room. I am taken to school and the mall and the grocery store by bus. If I was less curious I could skim across the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia without ever really seeing it--teach English to a room full of kids in costume and nine-months later fly fly away. 

But I am curious. And I am ready to be less protected. In order to tell you "why" I have to trust my curiosity. I have to let it illuminate the streets and souks. I have to let it illuminate the people. If I do that I will begin to understand. I want to give you access to everything; the colors bright and dull, the sounds of prayer, the smells of frankincense and spice. I want to learn truths about this place and I want to pass those truths on to you. I want to answer why in great detail. I want you to see. 

I arrived with a few irrational concerns, nothing too heavy or sticky, annoying flies that needed to be swatted away. For the most part they centered around Islam and the need to step lightly. There are five daily prayers; Fajr (pre-dawn), Dhuhr (midday), Asr (afternoon), Maghrib (sunset), Isha'a (night). When the call to prayer comes Mosques blare the message through speakers mounted to their exterior. An entire swath of the planet vibrates with a haunting and beautiful reverence. 


I'm an atheist and occasionally a dumbass. I didn't know what I was supposed to do when the call to prayer began. How wide of a berth was I supposed to give? What if I was outside? Was I supposed to dive behind a date palm and wait it out? I knew these were nonsense thoughts the moment they hit my brain, but hit my brain they did. It is easy to over-think a place before you've been. And the only way I know to rein that in is to show up and see what happens.

The first time I got caught outside (so to speak) I was at a mall. Ironically I was sitting on a bench beside a plastic date palm. I was checking my grocery list before I went into the market. The call began and my butt puckered just a bit. I looked around like, Oh shit the net's about to drop! I shook off the stupid and began to enjoy the beauty of a new experience. All around me metal gates descended over store fronts; Cartier, Sephora, McDonalds, Victoria Secret; Western edifices momentarily dimmed in honor of Eastern ways.

The woman beside me was wrapped in black. Only her eyes were revealed. She was wearing an abaya. All women, Saudi and expat alike have to wear an abaya in public. The call to prayer echoed down the mall corridors and the woman dropped her head, I assumed in observance. I looked away embarrassed. And then I saw the electronic glow. She was on her iPhone, scrolling and tapping. She had an H&M bag between her feet. She was waiting just like me. Respect and concern are different reactions. I had a foot in both. Her iPhone reminded me where to stand.

The city I live in is called, Hofuf. Its dusty and sandy and full of trash. There is a large souk (outdoor market) in the city center, and date palm farms here and there. It has a look of desolation from what I've seen, but to be fair I haven't seen much. It's been too damn hot; over 130 degrees at times. The one time I did venture into that surface of Venus bullshit I almost died. I went looking for a barber when the sun was center sky and extra mean. Yes, I am aware how dumb that was. I got lost. My sunglasses practically melted onto my face and my watch literally, literally burned my skin. I didn't have any water and couldn't find any to buy. I seriously considered huddling in the shade like a mangy dog until night fell. I never did find a barber.

Side note: On a later night expedition I found a great barber. The haircut cost me $3. The barber was from Pakistan. His buddy was hanging out on the couch watching TV, switching between Indian music videos and WWE wrestling. I'm pretty sure the only thing he knew how to say in English was, "John Cena!"

Part of my orientation for Shabaka included a "Discover Al-Ahsa" excursion. Hofuf is part of the Al-Ahsa region. Al-Ahsa is an oasis in the Eastern part of the Arabian peninsula with a history dating back thousands of years. Many Saudis consider it the best region of the country to work and live. The holy cities of Mecca and Madinah hold much greater spiritual and cultural significance, but in terms of lifestyle and overall tolerance Al-Ahsa is the place. The returning teachers warned us that the excursion would be a total suckfest, but that wasn't the case. It was sugarcoated for sure; drive past the scars and point out the shiny stuff. But it was educational too. And it was great to see what my new home had to offer outside of the bus route to school.

Environmentalism hasn't found its way to Arabia. The roads are strewn with litter. Last week I posed this question to my students, "If you drive through town what is one thing that you'll see EVERYWHERE?" Their hands shot up and they correctly answered: garbage. The awareness is there, the solution is not. And it may be a long time coming. I asked them to design a new product using recycled materials. Musaad and Abdul-Rahman told me they wanted to make notebooks.

"Out of what," I asked.

"We will go to the jungle and cut down trees," they said.

Sigh...

The weather is changing. The mornings are starting to feel cool and the evenings pleasantly warm. The heat induced lethargy is fading away and with it contentment is flourishing. I am finally settled. I am finally ready to sink into the routine of teaching, writing and travel I imagined when I took this job. And I am not alone. The people I've met here all have stories remarkably similar to my own. We are all penniless vagabonds who came here to save money and extend the ride. We desperately need that first paycheck and yet we are already planning how to spend it. We have a ten day break in October. We are going rent a car, two cars actually, and road trip through Saudi Arabia into the United Arab Emirates and down to Oman.

We may have our faults, but we know who we are--a bunch of damn travel junkies in need of an Arabian fix.





23 August 2013

California: Pieces of Home

I’m sitting at a desk in a room lit by a single lamp. It’s depressing in here. I rip a sheet of paper out of the typewriter and look at the ink stain letters with disgust. I typed them but they’re not mine—squiggles and nonsense—stupid. I crumple the paper and smash it into a ball; bang, bang like I’m trying to kill a spider trapped inside. I throw it on the floor. There are dozens of discarded attempts down there, scratching my ankles, irritating me more. I can’t write this blog.

Alright, that is a bit dramatic, but it’s tough to dramatize the delete button. And I really have struggled to write this blog. It’s not that I don’t have enough to say, I have too much to say. I wanted to describe California and discuss its history. I wanted to talk about my adventures. I wanted to talk about family and friends. I wanted to wax-on about the concept of home. I wrote and deleted, wrote and deleted, wrote and deleted. Finally, I decided to stop trying so hard. I decided to strip it down and burn off the blah, blah. This is what’s left; California as a collection of souvenir memories:


South Lake Tahoe
  • Watching my oldest childhood friend get married. Like most boys we had a You’ll get married first! bet going at one time. Ha! You lose! Or win. Whatever.
  •  Catching up with his family; a heart-to-heart with his dad, partying with his brother and sister. Kids all grown up, talking about being kids.
  • Visiting Emerald Bay with my parents. I hadn’t been there, not that I could remember anyway, so my parents played tour guide to their vagabond son. I enjoyed that twist.

Georgetown (Formerly Growlersburg)
  •   Listening to my parents talk about their future. This tiny gold rush town is where they plan to spend their retirement and they are really happy about it.
  •    Setting up a writing studio in my parents pool house/convincing myself that it wasn’t weird for a 35 year old man to be hanging out in his parents pool house.
  •  Taking my niece and nephews on a hike through the woods and telling them tale tales.
  •    Sitting on the back porch with my dad eating beer battered fish tacos and watching a family of deer cross the meadow he calls a yard. He looked like a man who felt lucky.

The South Bay (Redondo, Hermosa and Manhattan Beach)
  • Barreling down a hill toward the ocean on a cruiser bike known as The Green Machine and feeling fine.
  • A bonfire on a perfect Southern California night.
  • Sitting in a hot tub with people I love, eating Wheat Thins and taking pulls off a bottle of Jamison's, watching fireworks pop, pop, boom over the Pacific Ocean.
  •   Drinking god knows how many beers with a friend I met traveling; an Irish lad that had been living in New Zealand and just happened to be traveling up the West Coast.

San Francisco
  •  Being in San Francisco.
  •   Helping a friend say goodbye to The City.
  •  Soaking in the sun at Dolores Park on a warm breezy day. Drinking good wine out of cheap cups. Watching weird, wild, wonderful San Fran pass.






Livermore/Pleasanton
  • Seeing that the town I grew up in had changed for the better.
  •  Wine tasting on a Monday. Hearing the lady pouring samples gush about the owner of the winery and thinking, I went to high school with that guy he was kind of a _____.
  •  Hanging out with a friend I met in Prague, who happened to grow up in the same small town. Drinking beers and smoking hooka in his garage like it was 1995.
  •  Spending a day with my nephew that included kayaking, a water balloon fight and scaring people with a rubber snake.



Monterey/Carmel/Big Sur
  •  Remembering that California can always surprise me with its beauty.
  •   Driving over the Bixby Bridge and through Big Sur. There isn’t a prettier drive in the world.
  •  Quiz night at the pub with a friend I met in Thailand. Specifically seeing how much her friends love her. That’s always nice.



Sacramento
  •  A night out with old friends. One more for the road? A lot more than that.
  •  Closing out my America vacation at a Willie Nelson concert.

California was difficult to write about because I waited too long. I thought about writing a weekly post, but decided against it because I wanted perspective. I wanted to weigh each place and decide what they meant to me. And I wanted to settle in. I’ve experienced being away from home. But, what about being away from abroad? What kind of absence would that leave? There was so much to consider and I didn’t want to contradict myself so I waited.

I waited and you ended up with bullet points not stories; boo, hiss, boo. I leave for Saudi Arabia in the morning. My America session is over. Here is what I think I know; California is pieces of home and the rest of the pieces are spread out around the world. Home does not have a lock and a key. Home is the search. Home is where I come from and where I’ve yet to go.

Sing it, Willie







18 June 2013

Rome is just a city

Half napping on the flight in from Prague, I thought about the Rome that I know and worried about the Rome that I would find. My expectations were too grand. What if Everest was just an ant hill? What if Tahiti was a neon floating Vegas? What if Rome was just a city?

The Rome I know isn't real. Its an amalgamation of history, myth, movies and my own overactive imagination. My Rome is Romulus and Remus suckling on the wolf mother's teats. My Rome is a city-state with visions of grandeur rampaging across the known world. It is Pompeii raining ash and fossilizing a resort. It is Caesar betrayed. It is Augustus and the golden age. It is incredible advancements in architecture and civil engineering. It is a bloated empire crumbling. It is Constantine and the formation of the Holy Roman Empire. It is the renaissance. It is the eternal city. It is Fellini in black and white. It is Russell Crowe removing his helmet, staring down Joaquin Phoenix and growling out, "My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North...Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next."

Trajan's Column
How could the real Rome possibly live up to my Rome?

I walked. And the more I walked the more relieved I felt. My Rome was there. In the buildings and on the streets and in the air. Somehow it all fit within the confines of a mapable space. I was relieved that Rome was just a city--a tangible place I could visit and visit again. And I was relieved that my Rome, intangible and sprawling lived within the observable details.

I don't have a story to tell you. I wish that I did. Normally when I travel the stories develop in my head and when I sit down at the computer blogging is easy. That didn't happen in Rome. I had lunch in front of the Pantheon and tried to take notes and nothing came to me. I tried to edit the details and descriptions on the bus ride to the airport and it didn't work. Rome was a wordless experience. I went on a three day scavenger hunt looking for my Rome inside of the real Rome. I was/am stunned that I found it. Maybe I don't have a story to tell. Maybe I'm not ready to tell it. In either case I leave you with pictures in place of my typical ramblings.  



Trevi Fountain

Pantheon

The Spanish Steps

Saint Peter's Basilica