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Thursday, May 22, 2014
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
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.
Friday, May 9, 2014
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.