Currently I am traveling the world, a trip that now has me in the African country of Tunisia. Before that I was in Italy, France, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England.
When you travel on trains, boats and buses in other countries the subject of where you are from comes up frequently. It also comes up in bars, restaurants and hotel where your accent marks you as a back roads ambassador of sorts. I have discovered this sterling fact, people know Kentucky.
Living in Kentucky there is an ever present and irritating realization that your fellow countrymen think of you as a backwoods hick.
It’s annoying, irksome and there’s only one thing you can do about it: embrace it!
The U.S. is a family of 50 states and some of us have reputations. Texas is big and boisterous while California is fairly liberal and laid back. Kentucky is thought of as being somewhat slow.
Take comfort in this: the only people who have these idiotic ideas about Kentucky are your fellow countrymen.
Traveling abroad when I mention that I am from Kentucky people always know something about my beloved state. I met a frenchman in Nice who, upon hearing I was from Kentucky, demonstrated that his iPod contained the entire Bill Monroe and Loretta Lynn box sets. An athletic Aussie pointed out that Kentucky is home to the Louisville slugger that he was so familiar with from years of playing softball in Melbourne. In Riomaggiore Italy a bartender asked me if I was from the same place as the other Louisville slugger Muhammed Ali. “No, but close” I said. In Ireland a local fellow there admitted that he enjoyed bourbon more than the famous Irish whiskey.
Did you know that after Kentucky bourbon makers finish with their oak casks that many of them are shipped to Ireland for Bushmills and other distilleries to age their whiskeys? It’s true, just take the Bushmills tour.
A Canadian journalist on the train to Genoa knew that Diane Sawyer was from Kentucky and his wife knew that George Clooney was from there too. I thought it appropriate to mention that the Clooneys are more than just George, there’s Nick and of course Rosemary. While on the subject of actors, let’s not forget Johnny Depp.
When mentioning the word Kentucky people mostly know of the Kentucky Derby. The most exciting two minutes in sports is famous the world over and another Kentucky dominated sport is becoming popular too: basketball. If you want proof of that just look at the last Olympics where the NBA staffed team famously lost it. It’s true that basketball is a great sport, but not the NBA stuff. The NBA is primarily composed of overpaid millionaires whose egos overwhelm the game and each other.
It’s college basketball where you find the kids playing their hearts out with grit and steely determination. It’s called March Madness for a reason and Kentucky basketball is as good as it gets. I am including Louisville too. (Note: the winningest teams in the NCAA from the Bluegrass. #1. Kentucky, #12. Louisville, #18. Western Kentucky, #50. Murray State)
Internationally known, Kentucky is a fine place with a rich heritage and people are aware of it. We have nothing to prove so why do we have this problem in the U.S. ?
That’s easy, jealousy.
If you were to ask me to name the definitive cultural points of Indiana or Missouri I wouldn’t know where to begin. That’s nothing to be ashamed of, there are entire countries that don’t have an easily definable culture like Canada. Ever hear someone say “Let’s go out for Canadian food?”. I didn’t think so.
By the way, the first cheeseburger was served in Louisville. Did you know that?
It’s painful to hear Kentucky constantly joked about and the best thing that you can do is to embrace it. When you do that you defuse everything. If someone starts joking about Kentucky, add your own joke. You should not give people the satisfaction of getting a charge out of you. You have nothing to prove.
I have to deal with this myself as an American. When traveling to distant lands you have to have a sense of humor. Oftentimes being a lone American within a group of locals I find that the laughs come more often that not at my expense at first. The key is not to get defensive or upset, but to join right in and and laugh along. After a few minutes people learn that Britney Spears does not define me or my culture.
Jokes about Kentucky do not define us either. Shake it off because you can’t change it. Then after the laughs just go back to demonstrating what Kentuckians have an abundance of: determination and unbridled spirit.
There is an art, or rather a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. I thought about this Douglas Adams quote as I wondered what the hell I was doing standing on a platform 12 stories up in the middle of the Peten jungle in Guatemala. It so green that it made my eyes hurt, a reality made possible by the circumstance. It was dead center of the rainy season filled, no doubt, with ubiquitous malarial mosquitoes and here in my harness, tethered to a steel cable no bigger than my pinky finger, I was trying to muster up the courage to throw myself towards ground and, hopefully, miss. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Part of me thought that it would be a fun idea to go flying through the jungle canopy, but standing on the platform polling which of my parts wanted to do this, they were conspicuously silent. Nary a peep.
I understand that things fall at 9.8 meters a second and accelerate at 9.8 meters a second or expressed as an equation: v = a * t. Standing there, and taking important height, weight and wind resistance factors into account, I quickly calculated that I’d hit the ground somewhere between “oh shit” and “fuck me in both ears, I can’t believe I’m standing here”. Anyone? Still, the multitude of parts was silent.
So much for flying like the angels. It’s easy for them because they are unburdened by an understanding of Newton’s second law of motion. I know I know, I’m stalling.
Worldwalk. Available at Amazon.com
When I thought up this idea, Steven Newman was my first choice for travel companion. I know a lot of “travel people” and after a few drinks they think they are tough. Steven actually happens to be the genuine article. About 20 years ago he went on a very long walk.
Around the world.
For four years.
Thrown in jail four times and nearly murdered on more than one occasion on his journey, he is either the stupidest person ever or the toughest person ever. I know for a fact that he’s quite brilliant so you can rule out the former. He is also lucky. Very lucky. Yep, just the kind of guy you want on an adventure. I have the unique honor of being his brother. Not his biological one, but his real one. The difference? He brings a lot of joy and respect into my life and that is a measure of true family. He was my hero, who became my friend who became my family. Pretty damn cool I’d say and today, years after first meeting, I am in no less awe of his achievement. Order his book “Worldwalk” when you can. Trust me, you’ll be in awe too.
Steven looked at me and said “we came this far, no sense in turning back now!”.
Shut up Newman. I’m still stalling.
* * *
We arrived the day before into the rain saturated metropolis of Guatemala City in pursuit of our guy adventure. When taking travel writing courses I learned that it’s better to use strong verbs than adjectives. The strong verb appropriate for this was “drench”. The rain drenched us unceasingly at first and then only slightly more mercifully as the day went on. Arriving in the morning, our bus to Flores didn’t leave for another ten hours so we had nothing to do except to explore Zona 1 in Guatemala City. Frankly, for this essay, there’s not a lot for me to say about Guatemala City. I have been to the capital numerous times and it doesn’t blow a lot of wind up my skirt. It’s never been a destination for me other than my association with friends who live here and I’ve always been on the way to somewhere else. There are two things that stood out during our exploration of Zona 1: no one was smoking cigarettes and every other store we encountered was a shoe store.
Sitting in a restaurant, having our bargain basement priced pollo and papas fritas, we were discouraged by the television news. It didn’t take a spanish major to understand that the situation throughout Guatemala was dire. The country was receiving unprecedented rains resulting in numerous landslides everywhere. At least two landslides ended with buses and cars being swept from the road, burying all souls on board. People were homeless and shelters in some places were overflowing. Earlier the massive rains resulted in entire buildings being swallowed by a sinkhole opening up in the relatively impoverished part of Guatemala City.
This is significant because these were not tiny sinkholes. In fact, even calling them sinkholes is a misnomer. Natural sinkholes generally form when heavy, water-saturated soil causes the roof of an underground limestone cavity to collapse, or when water widens a natural fracture in limestone bedrock. There is no limestone directly under the city. Thousands of feet yes, but not immediately adjacent. No, there is something much scarier closer to the surface.
Giant Sinkhole in Guatemala City
Guatemala, which you may already know, is home to almost 30 volcanoes. Over time, and by that I mean tens of thousands of years, the country has been covered by layers and layers of pumice creating a not so solid crust that’s structurally similar to a sponge. Now imagine building cities on top of this surface. Cities that will not only suffer yearly rainy seasons, but cities that will also house millions of people, all using leaky plumbing that also erodes the land. What you end up with are the occasional euphemistically named “piping features” that open up to swallow everything built on top. Holes that are typically hundreds of feet wide and hundreds of feet deep.
Our mission? To traverse from Guatemala City north to the middle of the Peten jungle to Flores by bus and hitch another minivan to Tikal, a journey of about 12 hours.
We came this far, no sense in turning back now. Indeed.
Steven and I made it to Flores and amazingly in pretty good time considering the rains. There were numerous landslides to drive around but we managed to reach Flores and catch a minivan to Tikal in short order.
It was strange returning to Tikal again. My very first visit to Guatemala was to Tikal in 1990 and I immediately fell in love with this little country. I loved it so much that I went back two weeks later to explore Antigua. This was my sixth trip back and I never tire of this place. I don’t think I ever will.
It was a different time in Guatemala in 1990. A time of war.
The Guatemala Civil War lasted from 1960 to 1996. 36 bloody years that resulted in 40,000 to 50,000 people being “disappeared” (usually into volcanoes or the ocean) and more than 300,000 just being killed outright. When traveling to this remote outpost there was a real possibility of being robbed and/or murdered by the paramilitaries. Back then, Tikal was not quite as popular among tourists and I spent my entire time climbing all over the ruins with no one or no signs to to tell me what I could or couldn’t do. The government had other pescado to fry.
Tikal is massive. There are other contemporary Mayan places like Tulum and Chichen Itza that tend to get the publicity as the places to visit, but for my money Tikal is unbeatable. It’s the Maya equivalent of the old city. It’s downtown.
Once it was the headquarters of what was the most powerful Mayan empire of the day. It’s also the most understood since we know the details of the rulers and the investigation of the place has been extensive. Here some facts to scratch the surface. There are over 3,000 structures here, the vast majority of which have not been excavated. The largest structures are excavated and they are referred to as Temples I through VI. The monumental architecture dates back to the 4th century BC and apogee of this empire is best placed at 200 to 900 AD. The peak population was probably around 90,000 people. So where did they go? Who knows? It’s still a mystery.
Whether they starved, died or were taken home by the ancient astronauts, we do know this: the Spanish never conquered them. They were all gone by the end of the 10th century.
We also know this: they were a blood thirsty bunch of folk. You get a real keen awareness of this when noticing the sheer volume of sacrificial altar stones scattered throughout the complex. It made me wonder someday, while unearthing our civilization, if future alien civilizations will see our buildings and bridges and think “Wow! What an advanced people” and then they’re going to find the electric chairs and missile silos and think “Wow! What a blood thirsty people”. As a species, there are some things you can count on with us.
Regarding the Mayans, human sacrifice was downright mild compared to the Aztecs. Mayans would save the human sacrifices for big events like ill fortune, warfare and consecration of new leaders or temples.
Oh yeah, and they mostly used prisoners from neighboring tribes.
The main attraction is the Great Plaza. On the east and west stand Temple I (Temple of the Great Jaguar. 154 feet tall) and Temple II (Temple of the Mask. 125 feet tall). The North Acropolis developed into a funerary complex for the ruling dynasty. Each new royal burial would add a new temple to the top of the existing one. It is here you will find Temple 33 and in its substructure, a giant mask of Chaac. I had heard from a park ranger years ago that when prisoners were captured they were taken to see Chaac right before their execution. I must admit, looking at it gave me the chills too. It’s so damned intimidating.
Unlike 20 years ago, there are now wooden staircases to climb the structures. Staircases that, in the U.S., would immediately be declared hazardous and roped off. Built of untreated wood and maintained maybe once a year, I am reminded of another reason I love Guatemala. You can still die there fairly easily if you try. It’s a little terrifying at the time when you’re 90 feet in the air halfway up Temple V and climbing dubious 2×4 scaffolding.
There’s a lot to climb in Tikal and climb we did. Up all the temples and after a while the superlative adjectives just fail miserably. The Peten jungle is a beautiful place. From the top of Temple IV you can see that it’s jungle for as far as the eye can see and if you practice some mindful-awareness of your circumstances, you realize your tiny place on this earth. In that regard, it’s humbling, which is probably never a bad thing to be reminded of.
It’s also not a bad thing to be reminded that bug repellent can’t be slathered on enough especially during the rainy season. Every morning it was always the same routine: wake up and immediately survey the bed. Invariably there were splotches of blood where something feasted on me during the night. Bedbugs? Probably. All the bug repellent in the world didn’t seem to help my ankles which is where the buggers tended to bite. Steven however seemed to be immune. More of that Newman luck I suppose.
After a few days in Tikal we traveled back to Flores, the largest city in the Peten region with about 14,000 people. The old part of the city is on an island in the lake, Lake Petén Itzá, that’s connected to the mainland by a causeway. It’s not a very long minivan ride back to Flores and since our bus to Guatemala City didn’t leave until late we decided to go on a boat ride.
The Boat on Lake Peten Itza
The boat ride, like most things in the developing world, was agreeably cheap at around 10.00 for us both. It was good to get out on the water and just smell the lake and relax. The experience was everything I could have wanted in a spur of the moment ride. Confident captain, a weather worn vessel with faded colors to match and a pleasant dusk to enjoy it all. I like being on the water for the same reason I like being on a bicycle, it’s just instant zen. I’m not sure how to otherwise explain it.
It was about 6:30am, in the mountains heading back into Guatemala City when I saw that familiar look of horror on Steven’s face. We apparently had a close call with a boulder, as if negotiating the maniacal traffic weren’t bad enough. The bus driver was apparently in some hurry to get back to the city and would drive at a terrific speed, missing boulders and other vehicles at the last second.
I’m not a generally religious man but trust me on this, if you want to get a close and personal relationship with (INSERT YOUR DEITY HERE), bus rides in Guatemala are a great way to do this. When I first started riding the infamous chicken buses I would nearly gouge holes in the seats from holding onto them so tight. They are not called chicken buses because people bring chickens on board, although that happens from time to time. They are so named because the drivers routinely play pollo with each other on the mountain passes. Most of the time it’s safe (?!), but it does result in the occasional fiery bus crash down a mountainside with near certain death for everyone involved.
Here’s the easy way to imagine it. Just pack a metal coffee can with small mice, nails, a little bit of gasoline and broken glass. Now set it on fire and slam that against a wall as hard as you possibly can.
Enjoy your bus ride!
Volcano Agua (Taken While Descending Volcan Pacaya at Dusk)
Next stop for Steven and I was Antigua. We arrived no worse for wear in Guatemala’s third capital (the first two being destroyed), a beautiful place surrounded by three volcanic peaks. The most dominant one is Volcan Agua (12,400 feet) so named because an eruption in 1541 destroyed the original capital with a mudflow. It hasn’t been active for quite some time, but looking at it from Antigua, you are aware that it’s watching. Always.
The other two volcanoes are no slouches either. Acatenango is the tallest of the three at a little over 13,000 feet and it had its last eruption in 1972. Volcan de Fuego is famous for being constantly active at a low level. It consistently fires off every 15 to 20 minutes with a loud bang. It’s also the least imaginatively named of the three (Volcano of Fire).
Me on the street in Antigua
Antigua is a tourist dream. Everywhere are cobblestone streets with buildings of Spanish Colonial architecture. At the center of it all is Parque Central (Central Park) at the center of which is a beautiful reconstructed fountain. Also in the park on this day were school kids practicing their English and they set their sights on Steven and I. They peppered us with questions like “What did you eat for breakfast?” and “What do you like best about Guatemala?”. They were so enthusiastic at having real Americans to practice on that turning them down was never an option.
Then there was Club Habana. I have two great weaknesses I submit to when in Guatemala: Cuban Cohiba cigars and Cuba Libres made with Ron Zacapa Centenario Rum. We were in Antigua for a couple of days and after walking around, people watching and seeing the sights we ended up at Club Habana smoking, drinking and listening to a Cuban duo perform. It felt like what a 1950s club in Battista’s Cuba would’ve felt like I imagined.
Antigua is a nice place, but it has a much darker side that hits closer to home for me.
I worked for two years as a volunteer IT director for a non profit in Washington DC: the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC). It was there I met and became close friends with Sister Dianna Ortiz. Sister Dianna Ortiz is an Ursuline nun and was at an Antigua convent in 1989 when she was kidnapped by a U.S. trained Guatemalan army captain and taken to the basement of Politécnica, a police training institute near the US Embassy.
It was there that she suffered horrific torture. She was shown a picture of a woman who looked nothing like her and asked if it was her to which she replied no. Each time she answered no she was burned by a cigarette ultimately enduring 110 burns by the time it was over. It was after this that she was repeatedly raped and tortured (details of which I can’t bring myself to write).
It wasn’t as if Dianna was some sort of radical. She was taken because she was a run of the mill Catholic missionary who was unfortunate enough to be in Guatemala at a time when the military was hell bent on scaring the church. Priests, nuns, and human rights workers were routinely tortured for decades in Guatemala with the sole purpose being nothing more than to terrorize entire trades.
Dianna’s torture included having to assist killing another prisoner. She was handed a knife and with a torturer’s hands around hers, the knife was plunged into another unfortunate female prisoner at the Politécnica. She endured being placed in a pit of dead and dying people that included other women and children. Her captivity lasted for 24 hours, but during that time she ended up losing all memory of her life up to the abduction. She was only released when the American leader of the torturers, a man named Alejandro, instructed the other torturers that they had made a mistake in taking Dianna. They had the wrong woman (as if there was a “right” woman to torture). They had taken an American nun and people were starting to ask questions.
While working at TASSC, I had the occasion to see Dianna talk about her torture which she managed to do fearlessly and I don’t know how she managed. Sometimes, when others were talking about her ordeal, she would just put her head down and cover her ears and it ripped me up to see her in that state. She told me that having to talk about it again only made her re-live the experience. She would say that she felt guilty for years after the abduction because she thought that she was somehow to blame. Her shame was made even deeper by having to endure an abortion because she was impregnated during her multiple rapes. This is how you can hate people you’ve never met and I hated these people for what they did to her.
She is hands down one of the bravest people I have ever met. Dianna later went back to fight with two lawsuits in Guatemala and one in the United States. Lawsuits with the intent of uncovering U.S. paperwork of her torture. The U.S. government is a major funder of the Guatemalan military and it should come as no surprise that the State Department did what they could to cover up her torture.
Famously in a 1996 interview on Nightline, Cokie Roberts came out and insisted she was lying even though there was ample evidence of her ordeal. It should come as no surprise that Cokie Roberts’ brother Tom Boggs, worked for the law firm of Patton, Boggs and Blow, a law firm that was paid by the Guatemalan military to promote a positive images of the dictatorship and death squads in Guatemala.
My experience with TASSC made me realize that it‘s true that sometimes fictional characters can be more real than those people with real flesh and blood. People are capable of unspeakable horror and some things I am just never going to understand in a million years no matter how hard I try.
You can see Dianna’s story here, at least the first part. You can see the rest of the series at YouTube, but better yet buy her book “The Blindfold’s Eyes”.
* * *
Dateline: the market at Santo Tomás Chichicastenango, or as the locals call it, Chichi. This market has been a trading place for hundreds of years, even before the Spanish showed up. There’s a little place where I like to stop and eat a traditional breakfast before taking on the shopping. It’s scrambled eggs and mozzarella rolled into tortillas and covered by a black bean mole sauce. It is a great meal that I love so much that even now I have it almost every morning minus the tortillas.
Masks for sale at Chichi
Chichi is a large market covering several blocks with narrow walkways and vendors everywhere trying to pull you in to consider their handicrafts. Everywhere you turn something catches your eye. It’s a detonation of color with emerald greens, royal blues, cherry reds, and other bright, indescribable colors competing for your eyes. The textiles are famously multicolored and you can buy them incorporated in thousands of different items from jackets and bags to hammocks and purses.
It’s dizzying to say the least. It’s a dilemma everytime: so many things for sale with so little time and baggage allowance. The haul this time? A couple of masks, a shirt and some small worry dolls. The idea is that you place them under your pillow at night and they take your worries away. I’m not holding my breath, but I like the thought.
Now I’m standing on the platform again. Thinking back to it all, it seems like a dream which I suppose it is. All phenomena is a dream, or the as the bible says when it remarks that “This too shall pass”. I hope that Sister Dianna remembers this but it’s important for me to remember this too while I am trying to throw myself towards the ground in my quest to miss. There’s an Aztec proverb….
We only come to sleep
We only come to dream
It is not true, it is not true
That we come to live on Earth
I am comforted by this as I jump up in the air, throw back my head and fly down the wire into the unknown. Indeed, I have missed.
Russia celebrated a holiday on November 7 that under the Julian calendar, was in October. The holiday used to be called the “Day of the Great October Socialist Revolution”, but has since been renamed the “Day of Accord and Reconciliation”. That makes perfect sense as now we can only speak of the U.S.S.R. in terms of the deceased. November 7th would have been the 87th anniversary of the revolution that violently brought the Bolsheviks to power and proceeded to unleash the great experiment upon the now independent 14 republics that used to make up our former greatest natural predator.
My Bust of Vladimir Lenin
If you can think of a better day than this to haggle over the purchase of a 60s era aluminum bust of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the father of this nightmare, I’d like to see it. You could say that my haggle session with shopkeeper Acs Ballint was ironic, but even with stretching its fingers and standing on its tippy toes, that adjective doesn’t quite reach. My childhood days were spent in a rural Kentucky community known as Kings Forest, a place of working class folks happy in their trailers set just off the gravel roads. It was also a community with its own peculiar brand of fireworks courtesy of the Fort Knox practice range, which was on the other side of Price’s Field, adjacent to our land. I went to sleep many a nights listening to the practice fire that would be for real should those commie bastards ever decide on any invasion type shenanigans and in that regard I slept like the dead. What did manage to keep me up was the stark idea that the Soviets had a bull’s eye painted on Fort Knox. Every kid in Kings Forest knew this to be a fact and it made for ludicrously thought provoking conversation at our Algonquin round table of nine year olds: the bus stop.
Here’s an example of an exchange between me and my childhood friend Philip Heacock…..
Philip: “You know if there’s a war, we’re gonna die first”
Philip: “The Russians have a missile pointed right at Fort Knox and it’s going to blow everything up from here to Louisville”
If you doubt me, I have Philip Heacock ready to back me up that this ground breaking discussion actually DID happen.
Growing up with this looming spectre of annihilation was surreal to say the least. You can never really drive home the point to the kids today that in the not too distant past, we had an enemy equal to us that was, equally, bent on destroying us. No, talk like that just elicits quizzical looks not unlike those of a man who’s just witnessed a magic act of someone pulling a chandelier out of a walnut shell. Puzzling.
It was a time when you would watch the NBC Nightly News and were completely and utterly amazed that someone at risk of life and limb smuggled video footage out of the U.S.S.R.. They were always images of the type of a less than cheery Brezhnev at some reviewing stand watching numerous tanks and missiles drive by. Here’s a link if you’d like to re-live the time. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeoIHxSaEaU&feature=related
Of course we never realistically had to worry about the threat of sleeping under the flag of the hammer and sickle since the Soviet Union was about as stable as nitroglycerin on a wagon train. Other countries were not so lucky and this haggle session was taking place in one of them: Hungary.
The lights went out on Hungary in 1944 when, after World War II, Europe was being carved up into spheres of influence by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Hungary, along with seven other eastern European states became satellite states of the Soviets: the fabled Iron Curtain or, officially, the Eastern Bloc.
My Communist Hungarian Visa
Magyar Népköztársaság, the People’s Republic of Hungary, suffered the human injustices that we now know were commonplace in the satellite states and in 1956 the people were having no more of it. In late October of that year students decided to peacefully protest and among their demands was that the Soviets should leave. The police fired tear gas and then switched to live rounds. The Soviets, concerned that Hungary was not acting in a manner befitting one of its affiliates, decided to roll in the military in early November. It’s estimated that upwards of 20,000 people died in the uprising which one could assume probably didn’t phase Joseph Stalin all that much. He was, after all, the man who famously said that one death was a tragedy and a million was a statistic.
I thought about that earlier when walking around Budapest and stumbled upon the 1956 Hungarian Revolution Memorial, a bold headstone that had the numbers “1956” carved into it, surrounded by several Hungarian flags that had the coat of arms cut out. This was the common practice around the revolution since that coat of arms was a communist one.
This was my second trip to Hungary. The first happened right after the communists fell and Budapest at that time was a filthy, polluted, corrupt place. It had a thriving black market in currency and taxi drivers were commonly moonlighting as police informants who were more than happy to entrap you. I didn’t think I would ever be back again and getting extorted for money twice didn’t enthuse me to any future prospects of returning. I was exceedingly happy that I did come back because the Budapest of today is a sterling example of a beautiful stately capital.
“Oh Lenin he’s a bad man. Very bad man”. Acs’ mother said as she reached down to pick up the aluminum bust of Lenin after noticing my interest in it. “Yes very bad” I muttered back all the while mentally appending “……. but very good for my collection”.
After agreeing upon a reasonable price and Acs agreeing to throw in several Soviet medals, the kind commonly given to the populace by the party, I went outside and continued exploring Budapest’s main shopping drag, the Váci utca.
In a way journeying to these places is a way to come to grips with my childhood nightmare and here’s the best part: I now own a piece of this nightmare….as does Philip Heacock. I made a point of sending him some of the Soviet medals.
After all is said and done the Hungarians have their preferred coat of arms back. It contains the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen on top. Before the communists took over Hungary this national treasure was given to American soldiers to prevent it from falling into Soviet hands. The place where this treasure was guarded? Fort Knox.
I wonder if anyone is even going to be up here?” I thought as I turned off the smooth glide of State Road 601 and onto the gravel lane leading to the Bear’s Den Lodge. I was driving straight into the heart of a thick summer fog. It wouldn’t be reaching too far to say that there was less vapor in my shower this morning.
The Bear’s Den Lodge is almost at the mid point of the 2,167 mile long Appalachian Trail, often called “the AT”. Originally built in 1933 as an opera diva’s hideaway, it’s one of the most impressive hostels in the Eastern Region with its grand fireplace and turrets. Yes, turrets. The lodge rests in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the Appalachian chain, 983.7 miles north of Springer Mountain in Georgia and 1164.7 miles south of Katahdin Maine. To reach the actual halfway point on the AT you just need to hike north to the Pennsylvania state line and go north a few miles.
I checked in at the front desk, paid the agreeably cheap $3.00 camping fee and went about setting up house. I was very impressed with how easy the whole process was. Feeling quite brilliant for the accomplishment I swam my way through the pea soup mist and into the hiker’s room in the basement, filled with bunk beds and the mountain fresh aroma of feet and Folgers.
Hikers look forward to the Den because the shower is strong and laundry is done for the insanely low price of $1.00 (folding costs an extra $1.00). There’s even a pile of donated clothes you can choose from and wear while your laundry is being done. The same kind of clothes you would see in a missionary style clothing drive in Borneo, mismatched colors and faded sports emblems on sweatshirts. The sheer mathematical number of original fashion statements one could make from the pile were, to say the very least, mind numbingly dizzy.
Ladies and gentlemen, the experience of dropping in on the Hiker’s Room never disappoints. On any given evening the room brings together a most diverse group of people. There were two hikers from Hawaii, one named Gandalf and the other some generic name that was reminiscent of the vague gnome-elf-Tolkien-Lord of the Rings vein that I know little of and frankly am quite happy to let stay that way. Two other men were there, one from Philadelphia and the other, parts unknown. All were as nice as pie and as sweet as syrup. ( I have come to learn that everything reminds you of food on the AT ). Talk soon turned to the trail and how tough the day was with the rain. Gandalf was a teacher who previously climbed Kilimanjaro and recounted his adventure. This was of particular interest to me since I was headed to Africa’s tallest mountain in a few months. Another hiker known as “Wildman” had also been to Kilimanjaro and, endearing me even more, Nepal! Who would’ve guessed that in the middle of nowhere would I meet someone who knows what it means to smell the scent of burning human bodies on the banks of the Bagmati river? Remembering some mulberry bushes outside Wildman ran out to get some. He brought in a handful and they were extraordinarily delicious. I was not, according the wild one, supposed to overlook the flavor of the stems. He was right.
You have probably heard of the trend amongst hikers of the AT: nicknames. Everybody has one on the AT and sadly you do not get to pick your own. I say sadly because I would loudly protest my inevitable moniker of “Camping Savant”. Hearing these guys talk, and by this time there were about six through hikers here, it was obvious this was not their first encounter. Some had known each other for several weeks as they alternated between walking behind and overtaking each other. They talked of other hikers like “Bramble” a former Army Ranger who was making the Scottish proud by hiking in a kilt. If anyone knew the particular plaid pattern, or more curiously if he was wearing anything underneath, they weren’t divulging the information. There was a hiker named “Homeboy” who never stopped to enjoy the vistas or scenery: he powered his way up the hills like a machine and scrambled down the hills equally quick. He had a habit of humiliating the present company by consistently overtaking them, leaving them in his dusty wake and he was, amazingly, 71 years young. After a short time another gentleman walked in looking haggard and worn out. His beard and moustache made him the twin of Cuban strongman Fidel Castro. Turned out he was a local man who shaved, showered and slept at the Bear’s Den because it was cheap. It’s tragic that he was not a hiker because given his appearance and the fact that he was obviously high on something other than life, I would’ve called him “High Fidel-ity”
Taking leave of the hikers I decided to go outside to my nylon condo and enjoy the night. When I left the room the party upstairs was still in full swing. A girl scouts troup shrieked up a prepubescent ruckus with at least one girl vowing to say up til midnight. Their party reminded me of times when my daughter Diana would have her little girl get togethers when she was ten. Know this: ten year old girls have a shrill shriek that nothing in nature or technology can or would want to duplicate. I perked up and was immediately quite happy that I was staying outside amongst the monsters. At least if they showed up at my tent I would know to direct them to the smorgasbord of giggly Girl Scouts through the Den’s front doors. Unfortunately, there would be no brownie troup for the imaginary monster’s dessert.
Outside the rain was coming down very gently and steady. Glancing outside I saw a sight I won’t soon forget: a foggy, ominous, verboten darkness . Werewolves howling on the Scottish moors kind of dread. Jack the Ripper stalking the London streets portent. The fog was moving rapidly across the land and the lights from the lodge pierced the milky mist, reflecting off the suspended drops giving an other worldly foreboding to the forest and everything in it. I half expected to see ghosts marching on top of the lodge battlements.
Thoroughly amazed with nature I settled inside my sleeping bag. I pulled out my shortwave radio, started tuning at random and engaged in re-experiencing golden technological moments from my youth in rural Kentucky. Being a geography enthusiast from a young age I still love to read about other cultures. The shortwave shifted that interest into fifth gear as I would listen to Voice of the Andes from Ecuador, the Voice of America from Europe and the BBC. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand half the things I heard, considering that hillbilly was my native tongue. I remember stumbling across a station that seemed to do nothing but criticize the United States. More interestingly was the fact that this station knew things that were not being reported in our own media. Events like the US Navy’s seventh fleet amassing off a small Caribbean nation. That station was Radio Havana from Cuba. It was the first time I realized that the United States was not universally loved. Those supposed news events on the Voice of America and other stations were, in fact, propaganda.
Lying in the tent I learned that President Ronald Reagan had died and from Radio France International no less. The news traveled from California to France and back to my tent high on a Virginia mountaintop . Continuing my journey I got re-acquainted with my old childhood friends. BBC, Radio New Zealand and Radio Japan were still there. Unlike during my youth there was a greater selection in the shortwave bands universe due to the fall of communism. I listened to Radio Prague and Radio Tirana: both stations that were broadcasting from places that previously were behind the Iron Curtain.
In my youth every thing about the Eastern bloc countries was mysterious. In Kentucky you never saw news footage from these places and one could only guess at what life was like there. One thing is for certain, those countries did take to capitalism quite well and I’m living proof, I was robbed twice in three days in early post communist Budapest. Although the Eastern Bloc is no longer mysterious there is still plenty of intrigue on shortwave. Progressing through the frequencies I ran across one old friend who was still very much alive and kicking: the shortwave numbers station. A mechanized female voice that just kept reading numbers: 63542..253455..12126..
Let me say this right now for the record, when you’re in a tent, alone in the woods, in the rain, in the middle of the night and you hear cold, mechanized reading of numbers in your ear, you are creeped out.
What purpose do these numbers stations serve? Are they numeric instructions to spies? Do numbers stations exist to spread deliberate disinformation? Probably both. These stations have been on the air for several decades now and many countries operate them including, allegedly, the US whose transmitter, if it does indeed exist, operates, according to some, just outside Washington DC in the hills of Virginia, maybe. The FCC will not confirm the existence of US numbers stations.
Some of the talent behind the number readings are legendary. There is the Lincolnshire Poacher of England’s MI6 so named because of the English folk song that plays on a calliope before he reads the numbers, ostensibly because the calliope sound allows agents to find the broadcast more easily . Other times you know something serious is being conveyed as happened during the aborted coup against Boris Yeltsin in 1991. Russian number stations just repeated the number “5″ over and over for hours. And the worst run of all? The Cuban stations. They operate on a shoestring and it shows. There have been times when the numbers feed and Radio Havana would overlap. What the Cubans lacked in tech savvy they made up for in sheer entertainment value. One reader, known as the Cuban babbler, would sing her numbers at dizzying speed. I could probably tell you more about the Cubans but by this time “High Fidel-ity” had retired for the night and wasn’t in a condition to answer questions.
Then there is WBNY the Voice of the Rodent Revolution. If you are lucky you might find them broadcasting at the 6950 Khz frequency on the US East Coast. Their transmissions open with the song Peter Cottontail followed by numbers and instructions read by either Commander Bunny or Melvin Mouse. The self proclaimed goal of the Rodents? To overthrow the ape-human rulers.
A grand daddy long legs resting on the tent above my face was the first thing I saw waking at 8:30 am in the new time zone I officially designate as the Appalachian Trail Time Zone (ATTZ). Everything happens very early in the ATTZ. Emerging from my tent I was greeted with an overcast sky and the air smelled fresh just as it should after a prolonged rain. I noticed the temperature was quite pleasant, not too hot or cold, and thought about how nice a day it was turning out to be as I started breaking down my tent. There was another climb going on in miniature on my tent. Two slugs were scaling their way up the fabric, at a glacial pace. I thought briefly about something I had heard about slugs: allegedly pouring salt on them will kill them slowly and you can hear them scream. In a previous time when I wasn’t aware of the infallibility of karma I might have tried it out. The slugs would live to climb Mount Kelty another day.
Firing up my stove I started boiling water for coffee and really began to realize what a wonder the modern camp stove is. It only took a few minutes to boil water for my coffee concentrate and in just a few minutes after that, I stirred up scrambled eggs to go into some egg and pre-cooked bacon sandwiches. I don’t normally eat eggs and bacon in the morning but some traditions just endure in the wild.
Taking the short connector trail from the lodge you soon come upon the AT and the Bears Den Scenic Rock Overlook. It’s quite a stunning view of the Shenandoah Valley and if you’re there on a clear day you can enjoy a most exquisite sunset.
My goal on this day was to head south on the AT to the Sam Moore shelter and return. It’s about six miles all together, but it’s six miles on what hikers call the “Rollercoaster”, one of the toughest parts of the AT that follows a route below the developed ridgeline and crosses a succession of side ridges and hollows in a long series of tiring ups-and-downs. It’s much more taxing than a linear, level six miles.
The AT through the rollercoaster is rocky and crossed with exposed tree roots. The trail was to serve as a walking meditation. Normally I cultivate a mindful-awareness through sitting meditation but that certainly isn’t the only way one can develop inner calm. Six miles of watching every single step has a way of being relaxing on the mind and brutal on your calves. The Blue Ridge area eastwards to Washington contains massive numbers of equally massive rocks weighing several tons. What catches the eye most immediately about these rocks is that there is oftentimes a layer of quartzite in them. Previously, very previously, about 550 million years ago, this area was covered by a shallow sea and sediments of sand, clay, fossil shells and mud started to accumulate. About 360 million years ago, probably before you were born, the continent of Gondawanaland decided to plant a hard and violent kiss against the North American continent, then part of the continent Laurasia, and the Appalachian Mountains were born from the collision. The Appalachians were of dizzying heights in those days, taller than the Rockies are today. Millions of years of rain and erosion have whittled them down, quite literally to molehills from the mountains they once were. The tallest peaks of Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania are rather close to each other with the tallest of the three being Spruce Knob in West Virginia clocking in at 4863 feet. That is a lot of wearing down, if you consider that there several peaks in the Rockies over 14,000 feet. If the dwindling remaining majesty of these peaks do not impress, then think about this, the altercation between the continents was so violent that the sand became quartzite, the clay became phyllite and the fossil shells and mud turned into limestone. That is how the quartzite sandwich came to be, it marks the violent altercation between continents. Even more remarkable is that this isn’t the first set of Appalachian mountains. Prior to the continental collision, they had been built previously to dizzying heights and worn down to mere hills several times.
A few miles into my walk I had to cross a stream. The trail has come right down to the water’s edge and sure enough there was a white blaze painted on a tree on the opposite bank. A part of me just wasn’t thinking clearly, of course the trail would cross a stream. Hopping from rock to rock, I managed to get across, dry boots intact only to be met a few yards later with the sight of two blowdowns blocking the trail. A blowdown is quite literally just that, trees that have been felled across the path. I had met a few through hikers by this time, all had warned me about the blowdowns. It was quite difficult negotiating them, I certainly had a new respect for those steadfast troopers that had to cross them hoisting heavy backpacks, especially since the blowdowns were on a section of the trail that was on a steep hillside. Barely climbing over the first one I soon realized the folly of not owning a trekking pole that many hikers use. They are so versatile for support, crossing streams, pushing aside obstacles, flushing grouse, snakes and other trail hazards. I quickly remedied my situation by breaking a stick from the first blow down and faster than a politician can deposit his bribe money, I was over the second blow down. I left the stick against a tree that was decorated with an AT blaze so that the next hiker might have some assistance across the blowdown, all the while knowing that the next hiker would probably be me on my way back to the Den.
Is there room at the Inn ? I don’t know, I’ll find out when I get there. There is no Mary tonight, just me and the baby Ped.
I am on the road from Atar to Nouakchott and it’s Christmas Eve. There is no opening of presents, there are no television specials, just my tiger and me in the middle of the desert.
Stopped outside a police check point I briefly slip off my shoes to feel the sand squish between my toes. There is a cloudless sky this night and heaven is above. I don’t see Santa, but then again Muslim and Buddhist children are disqualified from receiving presents. There are only countless stars and stretching my arms skyward I am for a moment a conductor between the heaven and earth.
The sky here is always spectacular. Paul Bowles was right. Every other sky is a mere faint hearted effort in comparison.
The baby Ped and I are following a star in night sky. It’s the one straight ahead. It is the glow from the flashlight of yet another Mauritanian police official demanding a bribe.
The iron ore train to Choum from Nouadhibou was supposed to leave at 4pm but didn’t get going until 8pm. It’s the longest train in the world clocking in at two kilometers in length. You have the option of buying a couchette, a regular sleeper seat or if you are clinically insane, you can ride in one of the open top boxcars that holds the iron ore for free.
I did not regret choosing the seat.
I wouldn’t call it anarchy, but riot would come close to describing the scene as the train stopped to take passengers. Shoving my way on board with my backpack, I plopped down in my seat and watched as the compartment filled up. When the seats were all filled others tried to wedge themselves in between passengers and no one seated was going to have any of that nonsense.
They may have been filthy and smelly seats, but by golly they were filthy and smelly seats only meant for one person.
I dozed off to sleep and awoke at 5:00am in the middle of the nicest snapshot you could imagine. In the narrow passageway on the train there were about 10 people gathered, some sitting down and they had a gas ring fired up! They were making mint tea on the train! Laughing, smiling, and smoking cigarettes they sure were a happy bunch. The host shoved a small glass of the tea into my hand, I took a sip, stood up and was struck by the scene outside.
It was dimly lit and I could clearly see a sand dune about 60 feet tall. The whole out of doors was encased in a thick brown fog. We were quietly rolling through a sandstorm, a fact I confirmed by poking my face outside where I received an exfoliation worthy of a pricy salon.
I finished my tea, gave the glass back to the host who then eagerly started another pot of what they call Moroccan whiskey.
Nouadhibou is pretty much what you expect in an impoverished African city. None of the buildings are more than four stories high, they’re made of cinderblock covered with a kind of stucco. Between the buildings and the road is a strip of about 8 feet of gray dirt, sand and assorted litter which is also an optional driving area. Pedestrians having the right of way isn’t exactly a law, it’s more of a rough guideline. Mules pulling carts plod alongside cars in various states of decay, many of them Mercedes.
Brendan Reade is the latest addition to my list of people I most admire. He has been constantly traveling since 1978. Here’s the kind of guy Brendan is, he doesn’t just visit South America, he continues to the British Antarctic Territory.
We decided to walk to the shore, but only managed to get semi lost in a shanty town and sensing some danger decided to beat a hasty retreat. All the while I was encouraged and amazed at his tales of adventure.
* * *
Some of the best fish in the world comes from Mauritanian waters. It’s too bad they sold the fishing rights to the European Union though. Tony is a UK citizen motorcycling his way through Africa and he swears that the best fish he has ever had comes from here. I decided to test his endorsement and had the whole grilled corbine. Sure enough it was excellent. Unfortunately, in my enthusiasm, I managed to lodge a fish bone in my throat.
I stayed up the whole night worrying about the possible medical ramifications of this. The saddest part is that I was in an environment that was by most definitions very dreamy and romantic. I was outside, lying awake, looking at the stars, and the moon was directly overhead. Clouds were being quickly pulled across it’s face like a veil, on then off. The wind was nice and gentle, begging me softly to succumb to the call of the sandman. Even with the vast resource of the Sahara, the sandman is sometimes fruitless in his mission.
* * *
For the record if you find yourself suffering a similar fish bone misadventure, here’s how to solve it. Bite a chunk of banana, roll it around in your mouth to remove the sharp edges and swallow it whole. Assuming you don’t asphyxiate on the banana, that should dispatch the bone to it’s (your rear) end.
I was a man without a country. Morocco stamped my passport “Sortie”, french for “Exit”. Next stop was Mauritania, but I was not officially inside the country yet. I officially was not inside ANY country. Going from Morocco’s exit to Mauritania’s entry requires that you travel five kilometers through hard rocky hamada. There is however one very important point to keep in mind: it’s five kilometers of some of the most heavily land mined turf on the planet.
The guides routinely know how to navigate this no man’s land and thankfully we got through with no problem.
The visa was no problem either. 30 Euros and it was stamped in my passport. The Mauritanians were happy to see us and we pushed through with a minimum of fuss.
Good thing too because in my pack was a prohibited item in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania: Jim Beam whiskey. Islam preaches that Jim Beam is evil and after some careful thought I agree, he must be killed. Preferably slowly with Coca Cola and lemon.
It was 4:45 am and the Moroccan Royal Police and I were engaged in routine very familiar to me. I would fall asleep on the bus and then a member of Moroccan Royal Gendarmes would pull us over, climb on board and then jab me with his flashlight demanding my passport. My good humor was coming to an end and on this, the sixth time, I was taken off the bus and directed to the police shack.
One of the many Royal Moroccan Police Checkpoints
Are you enjoying Morocco ? The officer asked, eagerly snatching my U.S. passport from my hand.
“Tres Bien, Muy Bueno”.
I was so tired of this constant and unnecessary interrogation on my 14 hour bus ride through the disputed Western Sahara.
Western Sahara was the last of the Spanish African colonies to be vacated in 1975. Franco decided that a referendum was in order but King Hassan of Morocco had other ideas. He marched 300,000 civilians southward into the Sahara in a move known as the Green March. It was a success. Faced with attacking the civilians or withdrawing from Western Sahara without a referendum, Spain caved in and withdrew. Shortly thereafter an agreement was drawn up in Madrid to split the territory between Morocco and Mauritania.
No one consulted the native Saharawis and they were greatly determined to establish the Saharan Arab Democratic Republic.
Algeria, never one to miss a regional gang bang, ceded part of it’s hamada region to the Saharawi guerrillas and the Polisario guerrillas came out swinging. They proved too much for the Mauritanians who withdrew all claims to the region, but Morocco would not be defeated. The government constructed a series of heavily guarded desert walls and that is where we are today.
So why the constant interrogation of foreigners? The Royal Gendarmes are after writers and journalists. Admit that you are one of these and you can wave goodbye to your bus. There is no room in Western Sahara for those bearing witness.
“What is your profession?” The officer asked…..
“Computer Operator” I said.
He handed me back my passport and I climbed back onto the bus, awaiting the next interrogation.
* * *
The road south to Mauritania hugs the coast and if you happen to be on the right side you get tremendous views. Mostly it’s of cliffs that have been worn away underneath. The same kind that Wile E Coyote drills holes through and falls into.
It’s interesting for a few miles then it’s all the same.
* * *
Laayoune is quite impressive for a city that’s only been around since 1940. The bus arrived there at about 1:30 am and the city was still bustling. There isn’t anything to indicate that this is a disputed land until you see the white vehicles marked “UN”. It’s hard finding a room in Laayoune because all the UN people occupy them and will do so until Morocco successfully integrates the region.
* * *
Mohammed Siti. The man to see if you need a ride from Dakhla Western Sahara to Noudhibou Mauritania
The bus finally arrived in Dakhla at 5:30 am. I got a ride with a woman from the bus in a van driven by the kindest man in Western Sahara, Mohammed Siti. He dropped me off at a cafe and then came back an hour later to invite me to his house for sleep and breakfast. He also indicated that he could arrange a ride into Mauritania.
At about 10:30 am Mohammed drove me to the police checkpoint and introduced me to the transport, a Peugeot van. Into the back I went with five other souls and various boxes and furniture.
Republique Islamique du Mauritanie was next on the earthkora circuit or so I hoped. I did not have a visa to enter the country.