Thursday, May 29, 2014

I've Moved!!

I've never been quite sure why I do this blog but as long as I enjoy it, I'm going to keep doing it. I've decided to leave Blogger so that I'll have more control over my site. Please visit me at:

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Boca Chica, The Dominican Republic: Part I - Please God.....

Day 1, 2:58pm

The moment the airplane lurches into the air is normally the most exciting part of the trip for me. It's at that moment that the adventure truly begins. At that point the trip is grotesquely bloated with an anything-can-happen type of energy. Who knows where I'll go, who I'll meet, what I'll see and do. It's like the rush of a gambler at a craps table the moment the dice leave his hand. It's the excitement of not knowing what will happen next.

But as the plane takes off this time, the feeling of excitement isn't there. It's replaced with fear and dread. Unlike other trips, this time I'm not afraid of getting mugged, kidnapped of killed. This time I'm deathly afraid that I might just be bored. This trip isn't like the others. I'm not headed to a destination that I've researched for months or dreamed of for years. This is a trip of convenience, a trip I'm taking because I have two days off and it has been more than a month since the last time my passport was stamped. I'm on this plane because it was the first ticket out of town. When it comes to travel, I'm like a junkie. I'm on this flight because I need a fix.

I'm headed to Boca Chica, D.R. From what I gather, It's a sleepy beach town filled with all inclusive resorts and miles of sandy beaches. If there is a hell, I'm certain I just described it. I can't imagine a more tedious, a more nauseating scene than an all inclusive beach resort filled with fat westerners gorging themselves and baking in the sun. Please God, don't let this trip be boring. Please God, let me have my fix.

Day 1, 1:14am

(I found this written in barely legible, large handwriting in my notebook the next day.) 1,000 words and 100 pictures wouldn't begin to describe my night in the Dominican Republic. I only hope I can remember it in the morning.

To Be Continued.....

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Bogota, Colombia: Lost in the Slums

The nice thing about Bogota is that it's streets are on a grid.  That meant that I could get as lost as I wanted and I could still find my way home, no GPS, no map, just old fashion street signs. There's no better feeling than being lost and I was totally fucking lost.  Somehow, I'd found my way to the worst part of the city. There were no tourists here and locals knew better than to visit this area. I was in a stretch of town that most taxis wouldn't come to.  I knew that I was on my own as I stood in front of a church that was frequented by drug addicts and prostitutes. It was the kind of place a person went when there was nowhere else to turn, the place to go when God was the only one left.

A young transvestite was sitting on the church steps. His hair was a mess and his makeup looked like graffiti. The strap of his dress had slipped down on his arm exposing his breast.  My immediate reaction was to help him cover his chest, but then I realized that it was his breast, not her breast and it didn't really mater anyways. As I looked at the dress strap in the crux of his arm, I couldn't help but notice the track marks.  I could tell by the look on his face that he was a million miles away. He had the look that only heroin could give. Coke, meth, speed and glue were all common in Columbia but you had to have cash to get heroin in these parts. I couldn't help but wonder about the kid's story.

Suddenly I was jerked back to reality by a sound of something scratching along the pavement behind me. I spun around to find a man with no legs pulling himself across the ground on his stomach, His jeans were shredded and his hair was caked with dirt and blood. It felt like I was living in a Hollywood zombie movie except that the zombies in those movies don't look near as real. I was expecting the man to stop and chew on my leg, or at least ask for money but he didn't do either. He drug his body right past me as if I wasn't there. I looked up from the man into the direction he was heading to find a slum worse than anything I could have imagined. The place was swarming with junkies. It was as if there was an invisible fence keeping them in. With their blank stares and crawling skin, never in my life had I seen such a concentration of addicts.

I was drawn to the street like a moth to a flame. I hopped on the bike and slowly approached the area. Half of the junkies continued to wander about in a trance like state but the other half followed me with their eyes. Their gazes seemed to weigh down on me with an immense gravity. I couldn't help but feel like a defenseless calf trying to drink from a crocodile infested watering hole as the junkies stared me down. I approached an alleyway when I was hit with the rancid smell of shit, piss and decaying garbage. Down the alleyway the walls were lined with tiny shanty homes with roofs made of plastic and walls made of cardboard. The ground was covered with garbage, rubble and human excrement but that was hardly noticeable due to the shear number of people in the alleyway. Some of them sat on the ground, some of them stumbled around and some lay flat on their backs but they all wore the same glazed over, trance like expression.

I knew that if I was able to find the words to describe the scene I was looking at, no one would ever believe me. That's when I had the worst possible idea. I thought that if I was quick enough and smooth enough, nobody would notice. I slowed my bike to a stop and and took the bag off my shoulder. Already, I was attracting attention.  A few men who were watching me stood up. I knew I had to be quick. I reached into my bag and brought my camera up to the brim. No one could notice but they did. One of the men yelled something at me and a few of them began to hurry my way. Shit! Shit! I knew I had to get out of there quick. More men stood up and the zombies began to waken from their drug induced trance. I pushed forward on the bike and pedaled as hard as I could. For a short time, I could hear the footsteps coming after me. I rode hard for more than a block before I dared to look back. When I did, I saw a group of men staring at me with their heavy gazes. Others had returned to their zombie like state and seemed to wander about as if nothing had happened.

Cities are immense places filled with diversity. As I pedaled through the slums, I knew that I was in one of the worst areas and that's what I had come to Bogota to see. But if I only told you about this small drug infested quarter of the city, I wouldn't be telling you the truth. The travel writer Gary Shteyngart once said:

Often I'm afraid. Not for my life so much. These days, from Ramallah to Baku to Asheville, the world is actually shockingly safe. I'm afraid that I won't get it right. That I'll bring to many biases. That I won't see the lies.

The truth is that Bogota is a place with many faces. It's a place with a horrific past fueled with drug wars and violence and a place with a promising future. It's a place with culture, diversity and a rich history. While I was there, I was offered a place to stay and fed breakfast by a college kid names Andres. A businessman named Felix took me around the city in his car and refused to let me pay for lunch. Never have I been so embraced by a people and never have I seen so much fear and terror in a people at the same time. I've come to learn that cities have personalities just like people do. Some cities have noting to hide and seem to be an open book. I can ride my bike around these cities for a day then bid them goodbye knowing that I have the place figured out and that I will never see it again. Some places, like Bogota, are amazingly complex. I've since made a second trip to Bogota and I have a feeling that I may make many more before I figure the city out.

I suppose that if I were to give any advice to someone traveling to Bogota, it would be this: Keep one hand in a fist and one hand ready for a warm embrace. At any moment, you'll never know which one you'll need.

*Disclaimer* The church pictured is not located in the drug infested slums. As I mentioned, I was unable to take pictures in that area. That picture was taken with my friend Felix who drove me to the Chapel of Guadalupe which overlooks the entire city of Bogota. Of the many beautiful scenes in the area, that was perhaps my favorite.

Friday, May 9, 2014

San Juan, Puerto Rico: Cock Fight

Some people go to Puerto Rico for the beaches, some go for drugs and some go for girls, others go because the age of consent there is sixteen. Me? Well, I'd come to see a cock fight. I flew into San Juan on the first flight of the day and the plan was to leave on the last flight that same day. "What! You're only going to San Juan for a day?" the lady seated next to me exclaimed excitedly. "No, I'm only going for about six hours." I replied nonchalantly. The round lady in a flowery dress and her equally round husband were just starting their two week vacation to the island getaway. "Oh, you have to spend more time in San Juan that six hours!" said the lady. "The place is amazing, the beaches, the Spanish Castle, the historic downtown filled with cobblestone roads and beautiful buildings. It's Paradise!" No matter what I said to the woman, she couldn't seem to understand that paradise was not my cup of tea. "Listen lady" I finally said out of desperation. "I'm just here for a cock fight." A look of horror quickly shot across the woman's face. Her husband turned and looked out the window. The rest of my flight went by in relative silence.

I hopped off the plane, onto my folding bike and rode. Once I got to the cock fighting arena I locked my bike up to a chain-link fence and walked towards the entrance. I passed a beat up Toyota as it pulled up to the curb. A man jumped out of the drivers seat, ran around to the passenger's side of the car and pulled a large cage containing a colorful rooster out of the front seat as his friends got out from the back. What a strange place I thought to myself, a cock in the front and friends in the back. I would soon find that in this world of birds, the rooster was king.

I watched a few fights full of wings flapping, beaks pecking and feathers flying. I couldn't help but marvel how healthy these birds were compared to their fat farm raised counterparts. These roosters were absolutely radiant. They were fed a healthy diet and had room to run. Their owners took pride in them and treated them well. In the United States, cock fighting is illegal, it's considered animal cruelty. Now if you ask me, the U.S. has it backwards. To me, the industrialization of the poultry industry is where animal cruelty takes place. It takes place in massive buildings stacked with thousands of tiny cages stuffed with birds who are kept alive and unnaturally fattened with a grotesque blend of grain, antibiotics and steroids. 

Eventually, I decided to wager twenty bucks on a scrappy little guy named Angel. I've always been a sucker for the underdog. Angel fought a valiant fight but in the end, he collapsed in the middle of the arena legs twitching, unable to get up. Soon his legs stopped twitching and he was gone. As I watched Angel die, it occurred to me that that is how I would like to go. Not necessarily in a pool of my own blood, legs twitching, but with a fight. If I'm Lucky, I'll die with my boots on living life and not in a diaper with my mind gone.

But this isn't a story about death, it isn't a story about cock fighting and you've probably realized by now that it's not really about Puerto Rico. This is a story about us and how we live our lives. 

If you look around, you'll notice that many of us go through life like a farm raised chicken. We waste our lives away in tiny cubicles working for bosses we don't like and earning money for companies we care nothing about. We sustain life on an unnatural cocktail of McDonalds, Taco Bell and Burger King. We fill our lives with meaningless shit like Iphones, Starbucks and Candy Crush and tell ourselves that we're happy. Very few of us live life like the now deceased cock named Angel who lived like a king and then punched that final time card in the sky with a bang!

I recently read a story online about a man who went missing in Mexico. Harry Devert was on a solo expedition through Latin America by motorcycle when he disappeared. He was traveling through some of the most dangerous, cartel infested areas in the world. In all likelihood, Devert is now dead and will never be heard from again. Below the article, readers posted comments like: "What an idiot for riding a motorcycle through Mexico." and "What a tragic waste of life to die so young." I have to argue that Devert's life was anything but a waste. I would rather live a single day to the fullest than waste a lifetime as I've seen some people do. From what I read about Devert, I can only imagine he was the kind of person who lived more in a single day than many of us do in an entire year.

I'm not suggesting that anyone purchase a motorcycle and head to Mexico. I'm simply advocating that we spend a little less time on the thousands of meaningless, wasteful and frivolous things that fill our days. Call in sick and take a road trip, turn off the TV and pick up a book, volunteer at a food bank.  Maybe a motorcycle trip south of the border is what you need. It's your life and only you can decide how to truly live it. All I'm recommending is that you spend a little less time wasting it and a little more living it.

In the end, I was able to see much of San Juan on my folding bike. By the time I got back to the airport and the end of 6 hours, I'd ridden almost 30 miles. I saw the historic downtown, the Spanish Castle, the cobblestone roads and the sandy beaches. In the end, I had to admit that it was a beautiful place, the island was paradise and if, by chance you are into that sort of thing, I would highly recommend it!

I couldn't resist the local skate park but I should have.

Friday, January 24, 2014

San Jose, Costa Rica: Conversations with Drug Dealers and Prostitutes

I remember looking at a bungee tower as a little kid in the late 80's and thinking "I have to do that!" Unfortunately, it wasn't until my mid 30's that I decided to fulfill that promise to my former ten year old self.  Once I had my heart set on it, I went to Google to find the location for my jump.  After hours and hours of online searching, I came to the realization that there was nowhere left in the U.S. to jump!  All the towers had been shut down due to liability and insurance concerns so I came to the only possible conclusion. I had to travel to a third world country to do the jump!  I needed to go somewhere the attorneys and insurance agencies hadn't covered with red tape, a place I would be able to jump to a possible messy death without anyone caring! Once I widened the search outside the U.S., I had numerous options.  I finally settled on an outfitter in Costa Rica that would be more than happy to push me off a tall bridge towards the rocky rapids hundreds of feet below!

When I boarded the plane to San Jose, I introduced myself to the captain.  "So, are you going surfing on the coast?' he asked.  "No, I'm going to San Jose." I replied.  The captain and first officer looked at each other suspiciously.  "Uh......What are you doing in San Jose?" the first officer asked. "Well, I'm going bungee jumping." I replied with a little hesitation after sensing some tension in the air. The pilots both laughed and exhaled with a sigh of relief.  They explained that the only reason people go to San Jose is for sex and drugs.  "Well not me, I'm going bungee jumping!" I explained with a smile. The pilots smiled and nodded to each other with an unspoken understanding that jumping off a tall bridge is a much better option than sex and drugs.

When I got to San Jose, I contacted the bungee operator to arrange a ride to the bridge.  The operator explained to me that just that morning, the Costa Rician government had shut down all bungee operations to investigate safety concerns. He said that he was unsure if they would be able to resume operations in the future.  I should have been distraught.  I had wanted to bungee jump since I was a little kid!  I had flown all the way down to Costa Rica for that sole reason. Surprisingly, I wasn't disappointed. I knew that some of my favorite adventures had started with an abrupt change of plans just like this. I would soon find this to be no exception. So I hopped on my folding bike and decided to see some of the city.

I made it half a dozen blocks from the hotel when a man yelled at me from the sidewalk "Hey Gringo! Hey Gringo!" I looked over to see a man dressed like Dr. Dre. Everything about him told me to keep moving. A voice in the back of my head screamed "Pedal you idiot!" But as my fight or flight instinct kicked in and the adrenaline started coursing through my veins, I looked at his face.  It wasn't the face of a gangster or a hardened criminal, it was the face of a kid!  He couldn't have been more than 20. Disarmed by the look of innocence, I kicked common sense to the curb and pedaled over to say hello.

"Hey man what do you need"? the guy asked in broken English.  "I don't need anything. You're the one that called me over, what do you need?" I replied.  I could tell the man was confused by my response.  "No, what do you need? Coke? Weed? Extacy?" the man asked.  Now that the situation was a little clearer and it was apparent I was talking to a drug dealer, common sense definitely dictated a quick departure. That's not what happened. I was intrigued with the man.  After making it clear that I wasn't interested in drugs, I held out my hand and told him my name.  Victor and I quickly became friends. Through his broken English and my broken Spanish, we seemed to get by alright. He told me that he learned English by listening to rap music. From his awkward use of slang and expletives, I knew he wasn't lying. When I told Victor that I was from Florida, his face lit up.  "I've been to Florida!" he exclaimed.  Turns out that Victor stowed away on a ship in an attempt to make it to the U.S. but he was caught as soon as the ship got to port.  Apparently the only part of Florida that Victor saw was the inside of a holding cell in Jacksonville before he was deported.

I think Victor was flattered that I showed interest in him and he offered to show me around a little. I was excited to see his side of the city and soon learned that Victor was more than just a drug dealer.  Just as many airlines increase their revenue by selling headsets and snacks, Victor was augmenting his drug sales by bringing clients to the prostitutes for which he would get a kickback. "You want a girl?" he asked.  "No Victor, an STD is the last thing I want to bring home from Costa Rica!" I joked.  From the look on his face, I could tell he didn't get it. "No Victor, no girls." I clarified. "Well if you want a girl, don't go there." Victor said as he pointed to a large purple building with a big sign. "That's where the Americans go. It will cost you $200." I smiled at Victor and told him that he didn't have to worry about me going there.

A few blocks later, Victor pointed to a much smaller building.  This one didn't have a sign but there were a few girls standing out front. "If you want a girl.." Victor started. "I don't want a girl!" I quickly cut in. Victor paused for a moment, I could tell he was trying to figure out how to phrase something. "This is the place where the Costa Ricians go. It's much cheaper here, $14 for sex." I nodded to Victor and tried to hide how blown away I was with what he had just told me.  As we approached the building, A young girl in a miniskirt and a tube top strutted over to us.  She said hello to Victor but stared at me the entire time.  Victor told her in Spanish that the gringo doesn't want sex.  To my surprise, her body language relaxed, her smile changed from one of seduction to one of kindness and she asked me my name. She told me her name was Bianca and I immediately had a strong curiosity about her life just as I had Victor's. Bianca didn't speak any English but she didn't seem to mind my broken Spanish.  A minute or two into the conversation Victor started to get fidgety. "I have to get back to work." he said.  He shook my hand and turned to leave.  "Victor wait!" I said. I reached into my pocket, took out ten dollars and placed it in his hand. "It was nice to meet you. Thanks for the tour" I said. From the look on Victor's face, I could tell it had been a hard year slinging dope in San Jose. He put a hand on my shoulder. "Thank you my friend!" he said with a toothy smile.

I said goodbye to Victor then turned to say goodbye to Bianca.  As I began to leave, Bianca started asking me questions in an attempt to make small talk.  At first I was confused. She knew I wasn't interested in what she was selling but then it dawned on me.  It was still morning time and the street was dead. She was bored out of her mind and just wanted someone to talk to.  I stuck around and chatted with Bianca for a few minutes but eventually the conversation ended the same way all my Spanish conversations end, awkwardly and out of vocabulary words.  I turned to leave and this time she said goodbye with a grateful smile.

In the few minutes I spent with Bianca I learned a lot about her.  I learned that she was originally from Nicaragua and she hadn't seen her family since she left because it was too expensive.  At the age of 14 she got pregnant and had her first child in Costa Rica. At 16, she had her second child. She was now 22 years old. Even though the money was much better at night, she only worked mornings so that she could take care of her children when they got out of school in the afternoon. By the way she talked about them, I could tell her kids were her entire world. The more she told me, the more I wanted to ask.  I knew that human trafficking and child prostitution were in big problems in Central America. All the signs pointed to it but I wasn't sure. I wanted to ask but didn't know how.  Vocabulary words like kidnap, and human trafficking weren't taught in my Spanish 101 class. Anyways, it didn't seem right to ask.

For the rest of the day, I rode around the city of San Jose but I couldn't stop thinking about Bianca and Victor.  Inside I felt broken and torn. I'd spent the morning with the scum of the earth, a drug dealer and a hooker. They were supposed to be terrible people. The problem was that I liked them. Victor was in a dangerous and unprofitable profession that barely maintained a life in the slums.  He tried to move up and get out but was sent back to Costa Rica.  Bianca was putting food on the table for her children one strange man and fourteen dollars at a time. These were miserable ways to survive and these two suffered every day. It was so easy to see them in pain when I viewed them as a  filthy prostitute and a crack head. When I was able to dehumanize them, it was Ok to see them suffer but now that I knew them, now that I liked them, the knowledge was unbearable. They weren't bad people. They were good people in desperate situations. The problem was that the more I biked around, the more people I saw just like Bianca and Victor.

As much as it hurt to see the poverty in Costa Rica, I needed to see it. That's what I had come for. My entire life, I'd lived in some of most beautiful, most affluent places in the world.  My paradigm was that of the American Dream. When I started this project of traveling around the world with a folding bike, I did it because I was tired of my skewed view of reality. I knew there was more to life than grande mocha frappuccinos, Apple products and the thousands of other frivolous things that filled my time. I knew there was more to the world than what I could learn from Fox News and the USA Today. So as painful as it was to see the poverty and suffering in San Jose, it was exhilarating to live life, to take the blinders off and view the world with eyes wide open. As I rode around in Costa Rica, I simply observed.  I didn't judge, I didn't condemn, I just took it all in. Yes, it was miserable to see the conditions in Costa Rica but God, it felt good to see this world for what it is, to witness a gritty, uncensored version of life I had never seen.  It felt good to be alive!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Slab City, California: A Magical Shithole

I was admiring the artwork in Slab City when I heard the bang of a trailer door slamming behind me. I looked towards the sound to find a large man barreling down on me fast. His long blond dreadlocks flew through the air behind him as the gap between us rapidly closed. I braced for a collision and expected the worst. Just as I was certain the man would plow me into the ground, he dug his heals into the dirt sliding to a halt just inches from me surrounding us both in a cloud of dust. The man had a giant intensity about him. I wasn't sure if he was going to hug me or hit me. I looked at his Grateful Dead t-shirt and marveled at how well the tie-die pattern hid the stains and grime.

"THAT THING IS FUCKING AWESOME!" the man screamed as he pointed at my folding bike.  My reply of "Um...thanks." seemed completely inadequate given the man's vehemence.  "I'LL TRADE YOU SOMETHING FOR IT!" the man yelled in a voice that was still inappropriately loud. Taken back by his offer, my mind was slow to produce a polite refusal.  The guy pounced on the silence and blurted out "I'LL TRADE YOU MY WEED FOR IT!" as he held up a mason jar full of something green.  I quickly came to two conclusions.  First, if I knew how to sell weed, that would be a hell of a deal because that much pot was worth a lot more than my folding bike. Second, the man was completely stoned and wouldn't make that offer otherwise because that much pot was worth a lot more than my folding bike.  I explained to the man the he had made a gracious offer but that there was a random drug testing program at my work and I couldn't risk getting fired.  For a second, the enthusiasm drained from the man's face but it quickly returned.  "WHAT ABOUT LSD? I HAVE SOME LSD IN MY TRAILER, THEY DON"T TEST FOR THAT!" The man spun back towards his trailer.  "No wait! I can't trade the bike, there are other places I have to take it"  The man hardly turned to acknowledge and sulked slowly back to his trailer. In most places, this exchange might have been a little strange but this wasn't most places, it was Slab City.

 Slab City artwork made from recycled materials

The Slabs, as the city is affectionately called by residents, are located in the middle of the California desert.  In 1956, the Marine base of Camp Dunlap was dismantled leaving a few concrete structures and a sea of slab foundations.  According to Slab City legend, it was Leonard Knight who then founded Slab City when his hot air balloon crash landed onto the slabs.  Upon arriving at The Slabs, Leonard received a revelation from God that he was to stay there and spread a message of love.  While the legend isn't entirely correct, there is more truth to it than most.  Leonard did build a hot air balloon but it never flew and by the time Leonard arrived in Slab City in 1984, it had already been populated by squatters for decades.  Leonard did however go on to spent the next 25 years of his life, until he was put into hospice care at the age of 80, creating a monument to God in Slab City.  It is a three story mountain covered with adobe and paint proclaiming God's love.

This truck was Leonard's first residence in Slab City with Salvation Mountain in the background

There is no running water in Slab City, no electricity, no sewage and no waste disposal.  With temperatures that surpass 120 degrees in the summer time, it's hard to imagine living there year round.  While there are hundreds of year-round residents, it's in the winter months that the Slab's population swells to well over a thousand.  While Slab City is an eclectic place to say the least, it's the people of Slab City that make it so fascinating.  Motor-homes, tents and buses are filled with hippies, vagabonds, retirees, drug addicts, artists, musicians and kids looking to find themselves.

One of the many residences in Slab City

I arrived in Slab City just as the sun was breaking the horizon.  I rode my bike up the dirt road and a man stepped out of his trailer completely naked.  He walked ten steps and began urinating onto the sand.  As I passed, he raised his hand high into the air and yelled "Howdy Neighbor!"

Most of the people I met in Slab City, welcomed me with open arms. One of my favorites was a young musician named Neil who described The Slabs as his winter home. The first time I saw Neil, he was walking down the road. With his thick beard and long black hair, I couldn't help but think he looked like Jesus with a lambskin coat.  "Hey man, there are a few of us up the the hill there. We're going to jam, you want to join us?"  I accepted the offer and walked with Neil to meet the others. There was a girl with fiery red hair and an accordion,  a skinny guy with a harmonica and Neil with his guitar. I sat down on a log and waited for the music to start when Neil handed me some maracas.  "Here man, you're percussion!" I told Neil that there had been a misunderstanding.  "I thought I was just going to listen to you guys jam, I can't even hold a beat!" Neil laughed and assured me it was easy.  We started up and Neil soon realized I wasn't being modest. "Hey man, It's easy, just watch my foot. Shake them every time it hits the dirt."  That helped a little. Neil had a fanatical love for music, the kind you need to make it anywhere in the music industry and I'm certain that if I'm ever able to say I once met someone famous, there is a good chance it might be Neil. Here is one of his music videos that was filmed at Slab City. 

 Neil Mallick                                                      Photo: Erin Audry

On the way out of Slab City, I ran into a man named Cuervo and his mule Rock-n-Roll. For a small donation, he offered to let me sit on the mule.  It was an offer I couldn't refuse.  I told Cuervo that I was thinking about heading down south to Mexico but I was concerned about safety and the drug cartels. Cuervo explained that he spends much of his time riding back and forth in the Mexican desert and that I had nothing to worry about.  He told me that he had even worked for the cartels smuggling marijuana into the U.S. with Rock-n-Roll. "You won't have any problems with the cartels, they always treated me well." he said.

Cuervo with his mule Rock-n-Roll

As I've traveled around the world, I've realized that my initial impression of a place is usually completely different from my final impression.  How strange it was then that my first and final impressions of Slab City were exactly the same.  I couldn't help but think that Slab City had to be the most magical shit hole on the face of the earth!  It was a place where absolutely anything and absolutely nothing could happen at any moment.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Detroit, Michigan: Modern Ghost Town

A hooker was arguing with the hotel manager over the hourly rate for a room as I walked into the dingy office.  She was tall and her high heels made her look even taller.  Her body spilled out of her cut off jeans and a tank top that was much too small.  Out in the parking lot, a fat and balding white guy nervously tapped the steering wheel on his van as he waited for her.  If you took a hundred random police descriptions of child molesters and their vehicles, this guy and his and his van probably would have matched at least ninety of them.  He gave me the creeps.  There was something different about the girl though.  She wasn’t the typical meth head that comes to mind when the word prostitute is said.  She had dark ebony skin and a body that would have made most models jealous.  As she turned to leave, we locked eyes and she stared at me with a seductive glare.  I couldn’t help but wonder if this was the best option a beautiful girl like her had, turning tricks with Hester the molester and his conversion van in a hotel room that you rent by the hour.  Fifteen minutes into my trip to Detroit and I was beginning to see what a desperate place it is.

I threw my stuff into the hotel room, grabbed my folding bike and hit the road.  As a rule of thumb, I don’t bike through rough areas after dark, especially areas this rough.  It was 11:00pm and I hadn’t eaten since noon.  My stomach forced me to make an exception.

As I stopped for a light, I pulled alongside another hooker, short skirt, tube top and stiletto heels.  This one was different from the girl in the hotel office.  Her face was covered with open scores and the few rotten teeth she still had were aching to fall from her mouth.  She had a twitchy energy that only comes from crystal.  She was your garden variety meth addict.  She glanced at me and broke into a sob.  The humane part of me longed to ask her what was wrong but I knew better.  There was something in the way she cried.  It was the sob of a bad actress who had landed the part with credentials unrelated to acting.  The light changed and I pedaled on.  I heard the clip-clop of her heals behind and wondered if I had misjudged her.  I looked back to see if she was ok but I was already gone in her mind.  Her head moved rapidly side to side looking for someone else to buy her story or her body. 

Up ahead, dark silhouettes darted back and forth across the poorly lit road.  I knew I had to get some food quick and get the hell back to the hotel.

Back at my hotel room, I was surprised by how clean it was. Don’t get me wrong, it was a shit hole, but it wasn't the slum I had expected. People often ask me why I stay in the worst hotel I can find. Those who don’t ask just assume it’s because I’m cheap. The truth is that I prefer them. Nice hotels are made for comfort. Their goal is to make you feel like you’re at home with their sleep number beds, mini-bars and cable-on-demand. If I wanted to feel at home I would have stayed at home. When I go somewhere new, I want to experience the place and a cheap hotel is the best way to do just that. I want to feel the heartbeat of the city reverberating through the walls. But there in my run-down hotel room the pulse of Detroit was so strong I began to wonder if perhaps I could have felt it in a Marriott or a Hilton. I'm sure it would have penetrated those walls too. So I put in some earplugs to drown out the sound of nefarious activities that occur in a hotel that rents by the hour and went to sleep.

In the morning, I hopped on the bike and rode and rode and rode some more. In all, I biked just over 50 miles in Detroit. between riding, I talked to people and climbed through abandoned houses and buildings. Parts of Detroit were a modern ghost town of unbelievable magnitude, vacant house after vacant house. I had huge streets all to myself with only the occasional car going by. There was an eery emptiness even in the heart of the city. I tried to imagine what it was like when the streets were full, the houses occupied and the factories working. I was grateful I wasn't in Detroit at that time. It would have just been another big city like Chicago, or New York. I was happy to see the post-apocalypse version of Detroit.

Detroit Statistics courtesy of The Wall Street Journal
  • Detroit's population fell more than 26% from 2000 and 2012 and totals about 700,000 – down from almost two million in 1950.
  • An estimated 40,000 structures or land parcels sit vacant or empty.
  • Some 36% of Detroiters lived bellow the poverty level between 2007 and 2011.
  • In 2012, Detroit had the highest crime rate for a city with more than 200,000 residents.

The Detroit Train Depot was a massive gutted and abandoned building.  From Miles away, you can see straight through the skeleton of a building.

The Heidelberg Project.  An area in Detroit where the vacant buildings have been reclaimed by art.