How come you’ve got children?

How do you mean?

 

Well, if you’re set on being an English travel writer in the high style, what you clearly don’t do – like Patrick Leigh Fermor, Freya Stark or Colin Thubron – is have children. You’ve got two, I see from your biography.

And a dog.  I suppose travel’s become such a commonplace that we naturally fit it into our lives rather than make it its glorious focus, which might fairly describe, say, Freya Stark’s approach.  You’re right that it makes a difference, one that’s largely to do with compromise; while preparing my latest book, Meander, a lot of negotiation was involved before I felt I had my family’s blessing to travel for a full month at a time when my girls were just 7 and 11. The question is whether the book would have better one if I had travelled without such time constraints.

 

“San ping sake,” I tell the server. Three bottles of sake.

When she returns a few minutes later with the fresh pitchers of warm rice wine I pour shots for myself and my friends. Sitting directly to my right is a young Californian who’s been in Beijing for just under a week. I toast to him on this evening, one that marks both his first night out in the city and his first sake experience.

At the table next to ours a group of local men wearing the green jerseys of the local soccer club are also imbibing sake. I make eye contact with one of them.

“Sake feichang hao,” I say. Sake is very good.

With this simple statement the red-faced Chinese man and his equally crimson companions acknowledge the group of foreigners with a chorus of “hellos” and offer to fill our glasses. With cups brimming, my new Chinese friend clinks his sake vessel to mine and says, “ganbei,” which translates to “empty the cup.” All of us drain our glasses and continue to “ganbei” for the better part of an hour.

By the end of the aggressive drinking session the China newbie is grinning a happy drunken grin and surveying the loud, smoky restaurant with a look of awe. We pay our bill—a ridiculously cheap 150 Yuan (around $25) per person for three hours of all you can eat and drink—and spill out into the night, chatting and laughing our way to the next spot, a Western style bar teeming with dolled up Chinese girls.

We find seats among a group of them at a back corner table. Somebody pulls out a hash joint and it makes its way around. Drunk, stoned, and cozied up to a sexy young local, the newb leans into my ear and says, “Man, is this a pretty typical night out?”

I tell him that it is. What I don’t tell him is that he is now one of the Lost Boys of China.

China is a fascinating place to live. A new world power only rises up once every three or four generations, and being in the midst of the phenomenon is a truly unique opportunity. That the latest power to emerge is China, a country that a century ago ended 2,000 years of imperial rule and had a population existing primarily on a subsistence level, makes the storyline all the more compelling.

But it’s not just historical implications that make the Middle Kingdom an exciting destination. Life here is enormously entertaining. I’ve yet to experience a place that on a daily basis intrigues, challenges, and shocks me to such an extent. I forever have the sense that just around the corner something totally whacky awaits.

In the last month alone I’ve seen columns of old women dancing in step to tinny music blaring from a boom box, an exploding construction site, a mother encouraging her child to defecate on a sidewalk in Shanghai’s swankest district, and a box of “Obama” brand erection pills for sale. I’ve been recruited by ladyboys to star in a striptease and by a restaurant owner to sing “Hotel California” in front of a packed house. To a foreigner in China, madness is the status quo.

True, living in a country with more than a billion people, where language and cultural differences can seem insurmountable, brings its fair share of frustrations. But the upside is that accomplishing basic things, especially when you first get here, can feel heroic. Just buying produce at a market can be immensely satisfying. You strut home with those fruits and vegetables.

And as this evening demonstrates, being a foreigner in China has a number of fringe benefits. Back home, I’m just another white guy. Here, I’m a White Guy. This distinction is not only conducive to getting free liquor and female companionship, but can result in job offers (from companies eager for foreign human capital), forgiveness for a wide range of outrageous behavior (owing to the fact that you may not understand Chinese customs), a general celebrity status (especially true as you get away from big cities), and other perks.

So why, then, given all the reasons why life in China is fantastic, did I recently have a Skype conversation with a friend in New York about sharing an apartment in the city? Why do I wistfully look at my family’s Facebook pictures? Why do I regularly peruse booking sites for a cheap flight home?

It’s because in many ways, I have digressed since moving to China. Before coming here I led a fairly adult life that consisted of such quotidian pastimes as driving a Subaru, birdwatching, gardening, and oenophilia.

In China, I don’t even know how to read. With the vocabulary of a toddler I gesture, grunt, and throw out the odd, poorly-pronounced word to get my point across. Half of the time in this country it’s all I can do to maintain bowel control.

While here I am Peter Pan, a perpetual child who runs around with the Lost Boys and has adventures. China, in other words, is my Neverland.

Of course, the longer I stay here, learn Mandarin, and become accustomed to Chinese culture, the less fantastical it all seems. But I’m more committed to gratification than assimilation, and given the already-tall order of deciphering this enormous, diverse, rapidly changing country, the madness could continue indefinitely.

It won’t, though, because I’m certain that at some point, I will leave. The only thing left to decide is when to officially call off the China Experiment.

This is easier said than done. Every time I think I can’t stand another moment in this overcrowded, polluted nation of spitting, smoking, and horn-blaring people I experience a breathtaking moment that could only happen here and which leaves me gasping for more. Going home would also mean a much higher cost of living and the renouncement of my privileged White Guy status. Furthermore, anytime I talk to people back home and describe my life here I’m reminded of just how rock and roll it is.

But like a rock star, there comes a point when the act becomes more pathetic than cool. I’m reminded of this as I sidle up to the bar to order a round of shots.

To my left sits a balding white guy wearing a cheap sport coat. He sloppily makes a pass at a young Chinese girl who smiles uncomfortably and retreats into the crowd. Undeterred, the man takes a swig of his beer, lights up a smoke, and tries his luck on the next girl to approach the bar, who similarly rebuffs him.

While it’s difficult say when, exactly, one goes from being a Lost Boy of China to a Dirty Old Man of China, it’s easy to tell the difference. One remains a child at heart. The other could very well support child prostitution.

Far be it for me to judge this man. It’s just not where I want to be at his age. By then, I will have resumed my days of car ownership, tending the vegetable patch, ornithology, and deriding shiraz.

After all, I didn’t come to China because I think a comfortable, bourgeois life is contemptible. I just wasn’t quite ready for it. My goal, in a nutshell, is to be able to tell some damned good stories at dinner parties when they’re once again part of my social life.

Like, for example, the time my buddies and I met a group of girls at a bar in Beijing, got into a punchup with their boyfriends, then, after being kicked out and moving to another spot, shared a drink with a Chinese businessman who invited us to a “sexy” karaoke bar and paid for everything, including…

Well, there are some things that probably shouldn’t be discussed at a dinner party.

 

Wish You Ate Here

By Dan Coxon

Travel

Imagine an island. A perfect desert island, a sandy coral atoll with a grove of palm trees at its leafy hub. Imagine sitting on the fine golden sands, a palm frond spread beneath you, dipping your fingers unashamedly into a plate of food. The fish was caught only minutes earlier by three young boys in a leaky boat, one of them bailing out the bottom while the others swam with shortened spears; the yams were pulled from the ground that morning, baked on an open fire that still smolders at your back. You close your eyes as you work the meal over your tongue. The warm island breeze caresses your eyelids.

Ask me for my abiding memories of the time I’ve spent on the road, from the extended trips to Australasia to the weekend breaks in San Francisco, and you may be surprised. While the sights would undoubtedly make an appearance – Alcatraz, San Diego Zoo, the reefs in Fiji, the monoliths of the Australian outback – it won’t be long before the conversation turns to the topic of food.

It’s curious that culinary experiences should form such a large part of travel’s appeal, but I know I’m not alone in this. Celebrity chef Paul Prudhomme famously said “When I travel I normally eat club sandwiches, or I bring my own food”, but for those of us without our own restaurant kitchen the lure of exotic cuisine is part of what draws us to pastures new. What we see, or hear, or smell while away from home undoubtedly imprints itself on our memories, as do the people we meet when we get there (or, indeed, while we’re still en route) – but the tastes of the unfamiliar are often what come back strongest, like the lingering tingle of a perfectly-spiced taco.

I can’t tell you what I ate two days ago, and I may struggle to recollect last week’s meals, despite the fact that I cooked most of them myself. And yet I can recall in precise detail the calf’s liver and polenta eaten at a hotel restaurant off a small square in Venice, the smoky patatas bravas in a standing-room-only tapas bar in Madrid – even the cheap bento box bought from a tiny convenience store in downtown Tokyo. (That meal was eaten in a nearby park, while local teens chowed down on Big Macs across the path.) It’s not just the quality of the food that remains in the mind, either. Food bought on the road will never earn Michelin stars, but somehow its memory still dallies on your tastebuds long after you return home. Anyone who’s eaten a gristly, gravy-sodden Australian pie will confirm this. Clearly it’s the travel itself that lends an extra spice to the dish.

This may not have always been the case. Sir Francis Drake returned to England bearing the potato, and early visitors to India marveled at the exotic array of spices, but it’s hard to imagine every historical traveler being won over by the food they encountered. As recently as the 1980s, touring sports teams would often eat bland Westernized dishes in their hotel’s restaurant when on the subcontinent, for fear of contracting food poisoning before an important game. It’s only in recent years that the tourism industry has fully accepted our hunger for culinary adventures – perhaps due to the improved efficacy of anti-diarrhea medication. Or maybe we’ve all genuinely embraced the global melting pot that has accompanied worldwide migration.

Whatever the cause, it’s clear that food and travel are now the perfect pairing. A brief glance at the Travel Channel’s schedule reveals Food Wars, Bizarre Foods, Man V. Food Nation and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations at the top of the menu. We travel to indulge ourselves and to sample new experiences – and nowhere do these two blend as perfectly as in the food we eat.

Of course, when one talks about international cuisine there’s always the risk of pretension, the ghost of the amateur galloping gourmand. You can spot these when they insist that one absolutely must try the steak at the Four Seasons in Sydney, or they wax lyrical on the wine lists in Bangkok’s boutique hotels. For these culinary explorers the travel is secondary to the food, and they’ll happily bunker down in a hotel for their entire stay – as long as the chef has imported those miraculous truffles from Italy again. It’s all about the cuisine, and before long the travel gets buried beneath a heavy cream sauce and shavings of caramelized parsnip.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course – we don’t want to tread our own path of traveler’s pretension. But part of the joy of food is its endless variety, and nowhere else do we experience this quite as forcefully as we do on the road. There are those of us who like to experiment with our weekly diet even when we’re at home, but it is travel that truly encourages us to challenge our palates. Sometimes the menu itself is indecipherable – sometimes there’s no menu at all. But as long as we can point and politely ask please, there’s a pure pleasure in sampling new tastes, in broadening our sensory horizons with a plate of steaming hot… whatever. It’s an experience that takes us back to our first explorations of the world, and the reason so many children bite, lick and suck their way through their formative years. We grew up learning to taste our surroundings – when we’re traveling we fall back on old habits.

Maybe this helps explain the rise of street food through the culinary ranks, for anyone who has enjoyed the unique pleasures of the vendor’s cart across the globe will tell you that it’s one of the most visceral experiences any culture can offer. Walk through a market in Asia and you’ll encounter a kaleidoscope of sounds, smells, colors and tastes, a chaotic patchwork of the senses that can range from the sublime to the overwhelming. Here there are no menus, no waiters – no table, even. Just you and the food, a sampling board of new experience that’s as varied as it is foreign, taking you back to a time when every taste was unique, every texture exotic and new.

And it explains why the flavors of different cultures stick with us long after we’ve returned home, too. Most cities are gradually modernizing their way towards anonymity, most fields look like every other field you’ve seen, but in a simple forkful of food you can discover tastes, combinations, and entire worlds that have never been open to you before. It’s why I can still recall eating jellyfish in Hong Kong six years ago, when I can’t remember the burger I ate last week. Or the fried pig’s ear crackling on my tongue in Barcelona, while the turkey we ate last Thanksgiving has passed from memory. When we travel, we do so in search of novelty – and nothing is as fresh, or as new, as a previously undiscovered flavor bursting on your palate.

It’s why I can still recall that grilled reef fish my wife and I ate on a tiny tropical island in Fiji, the flesh succulent and spiked with red chilies picked from a local bush. Why I can remember the sweet yams that went with it, scooping the flesh from the skins as we went; the coconut milk sipped from fruit that had been cut from the tree only minutes earlier. Nothing brings back the memory of the brilliant, clear ocean and unspoiled sands quite like those flavors, the flavors imprinted on my tastebuds like a unique barcode to a place and time. In my mouth they become a time machine, transporting me back to the sun, and the sand, and the soft whisperings of the sea. Another world on the end of my fork.

I recently turned 30 in a city I can’t comprehend, surrounded by people I barely know.

These strangers who packed into my apartment on the evening of October 14th come from Canada, Spain, Mexico, Argentina, England, Indonesia, New Zealand, Australia, America, Scotland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and Germany. They are in Beijing for work. I am here for reasons that become less clear by the day.

What started as a long vacation has turned into an extended slog in a city that threatens to make me mad. There is nothing comforting about Beijing. It is hard and cold like stone.

Traffic snarls the street with perpetual trumpeting horns. Unimaginative high rises are obscured behind polluted skies. The entire city is under construction 24 hours a day.  Twenty billion people grind against each other in the shadow of a Dark Tower. In a metropolis hungry for resources, it is that most precious of commodities—humanity—which is scarcest.

Illiterate, barely able to understand what is said, here I am a child who’s wandered far, far away from home and is lost, looking desperately around for a familiar face.

Somehow through the haze I find one, then another, and still more. Each of them is cracked. All of us, Broken Ones. We have to be to choose a life in the Grey City. But they keep me from losing my mind and for that I love them dearly.

The first two through the door on the evening of October 14th carry the biggest bottle of whiskey—a full 4.5 liters—I’ve ever seen. It is, in fact, not a bottle at all. It is a Tank, the contents of which are a weapon in the fight against loneliness and proof that we’d rather destroy ourselves than face down the Void.

Waiting for the other guests to arrive we have a glass on the rocks and acknowledge the calm before the storm. With a bottle of booze this large, chaos is all but assured.

Over the next few hours it is unleashed. One by one the beautiful strangers file in bearing gifts and kind words. We drink, laugh, sing, and dance, forgetting the nightmare city that sprawls around us. We huddle together for warmth in the cold, sad night.

The Tank has its way with me and I awake in the morning covered in my own sick. All that remains of the mad saints is empty cups, broken glass, sticky floors, cigarette butts, and a large turd on the bathroom floor.

That monstrous pile of shit is unglittering reality welcoming me to my third decade on Planet Earth, seeming to say, “If you thought life was going to get better from here on out, think again.”

I spent my twenties in a state of wandering restlessness, trying my hand at five careers and living on five continents. If those years were about experimentation, about finding what I was looking for in this life, then my thirties, I reasoned, would bring some measure of peace through the application of wisdom gleaned.

But considering that I awoke as a 30-year-old under vomit stained sheets in yet another foreign country, that the inaugural event of this life milestone was scraping human feces off of tile, that I abandoned a cozy life in my beloved New Hampshire for a drunken existence in loathed Beijing, a more plausible conclusion is that ten years of wanderlust and self-indulgence have solidified into a permanent state.

In this life that I lead anything is possible and yet nothing is sacred. It may be a moveable feast, but by necessity, the people I meet along the way can be little more than plastic cutlery.

At times this bothers me tremendously and I wish to return home, to be surrounded by family and old friends. Two years ago I acted upon this urge and moved back to New Hampshire. I bought a car, rented an apartment, and nestled into the bosom of my motherland.

Home, however, didn’t really feel like home anymore. Just as I’d changed, so too had the people I’d left behind. The once-interconnected narratives of our lives had broken off into separate threads. We’d become strangers.

The place did, of course, have a certain familiarity about it. And while comforting, this was also consternating, because it made it feel like I had never left. Seeing myself pasted against the backdrop of my childhood, I could scarcely believe I’d spent years out in the world. My memories of that time felt like they could just as well have been something I read in a book.

The little hobbit, back in the Shire, was wondering if he’d really traveled there and back again.

I’d returned because I was tired of being a man without a home. With the discovery that I still didn’t have one, I decided to keep moving on. Because that’s what gypsies do.

Whether by birth or force of habit, a gypsy is what I am. I roam the vast plains of existence, following the herd of new experiences that sustains life. When all that remains are bones, I move on.

Which is what I’ll do now. Where’s next I’m not certain. I just know that, for the time being at least, there is nothing more for me in this Grey City at the edge of the desert.

Perhaps if I do find peace in my thirties, it will be through accepting that there is no going home. There is only that next push that reveals wonder I can’t anticipate and sadness I can’t forget.

And beautiful strangers to remind me that no matter where I end up, there are reasons to stay and start over.

See some of the Beautiful Strangers

 

In the weeks preceding my arrival in Beijing I did some preliminary research into popular daytrips from the capital city. The most well known is the Great Wall of China, which, depending on the section, is easily reachable within an hour or two.

Reading anecdotes on a community traveler’s website, I came upon a report from a man who visited the Wall and found himself in a compromising situation due to a discrepancy between his gastrointestinal tract and the local fare. With no time to spare, he found relief behind a small patch of shrubbery, although apparently well within eyeshot of fellow Wall-goers.

I had no trouble believing this account because I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Asia, and a considerable amount of that time has been spent wondering whether my headstone might read: “Here Lies Brian Eckert. He Died On the Shitter.”

Traveler’s diarrhea is typically caused by exposure to organisms which a non-native person has no immunity to. The clinical description of this illness is “three or more unformed stools in 24 hours, commonly accompanied by abdominal cramps, nausea, and bloating.” Practically speaking, it means you find yourself at the Great Wall of China about to shit your pants.

When living in Korea, my expat friends and I described bouts of traveler’s diarrhea as “The Korea Shits.” Adapting this title to other locations, bouts of ass-pissing in Thailand are known as “The Thai Shits,” in Vietnam “The Nam Shits” and so on. Thus, I came to China fully prepared for a bout of “The Chinese Shits.”

I didn’t have to wait long for it to strike. On my second night in Beijing, coming home from a bar, I had to squat next to a row of parked cars and let loose. Through my first 29 years of life, I’d never had to shit on a public street, something I took (a perhaps shocking amount of) pride in. After 48 hours in China, personal history had been made.

While such rogue bowel movements usually subside after a couple of months in a new country, they continue at regular intervals in China. As my Beijing buddy told me in partial jest, “Man, I haven’t had a solid shit in over two years.” Here, three consecutive days of compact feces is cause for celebration. More often than not, you find yourself gazing into the bowl at something that resembles sand and mustard. Or a ball of molasses and used band aids. Or what it would look like if a dog got into a garbage bag containing Oreos and discarded barber shop hair and vomited it up.

Enduring the China Shits in the privacy of one’s own bathroom is unpleasant enough (aside from the obvious reasons, most Chinese bathrooms smell like a reptile cage). Worse is when it strikes while you’re out and about. With a bit of luck, you end up in a bathroom with Western-style toilets. If you’re unlucky, you find yourself staring into the grill of a Kia, hoping you’re not shitting on the back of your shoes. Somewhere in-between these bipolar fates is a third: the squatter.

Anyone who didn’t grow up using a squat toilet is wholly unprepared to use these glorified holes in the ground. Unless you’ve spent several seasons as a baseball catcher, the squatting position is almost impossible to maintain with any postural integrity. Walking down a street in this part of the world you see vendors squatting on the sidewalk offering their goods for hours on end. It’s not uncommon to encounter a group of squatters immersed in deep conversation. These people can squat for days.

Not Westerners. Try it. Be sure to keep your feet flat on the floor. No rocking to and fro. Back straight, chest out. It helps to rest your elbows on the inside of your thighs. If this isn’t difficult enough, imagine now that that you are holding this position over an oval-shaped pool of water and trying to make sure your poopie ends up in it.

Of course, in an emergency, you’ll be glad that the shit is going somewhere other than down your leg. But for beginning squatters at least, any piece of loose clothing is a liability. You poorly understand your turd’s trajectory. My advice for the neophyte squatter, then, is to strip completely naked.

Also: lock the stall door. I forgot to do this when using a squat toilet for the first time. I was at a bus station in Korea, uncorking a long weekend’s worth of victuals, when the door swung open and a handful of Korean men were privileged to a money shot of my hunched, naked body. Fortunately, I have no shame. I gave them the thumbs up and asked one of the few things I knew how to say in Korean at that point: “Goguma joayo?” (Do you like sweet potatoes?)

I wish somebody had been there with a video camera to capture that scene, as it perfectly embodies the adventures of pooping in the Far East (and, come to think of it, the entire expat experience there).

As for China, I plan to visit the Great Wall this weekend. I will be packing binoculars, a camera, sunscreen, a waterproof jacket, and a wad of toilet paper. Because bowel control in China, like the assumption that the Middle Kingdom will be the world’s next superpower, remains far from certain.

2/2 The Road to Jackson Hole

The roar of the V8 under my feet feels very American as we climb through the foothills of the Northern Rockies, yellow/green grass, red/pink rock plateaus like specialty cakes crafted by time and erosion, off to the left deeper foothills, browner, dotted with conifers, the path we drive through treeless, only scrubby brush and hearty grasses, a perfect cross between prairie and western plateaus.

The road is flat and mostly straight, speed limit 75, black cows munching on grass–content to chew and flap their tails–rarely will you see a lone cow stray from the group–sad in a way that I can see them now as something natural and beautiful, soon to be only cling wrapped, sliced pieces of flesh, dredged through terrible cutting machines, consumed by somebody with an appetite for meat but never able to appreciate the beauty of a lone cow chewing on the pale grasses of the plains.

Entering Wyoming, moving Northwest, tree cover here is thicker–low, dense conifers, stout and hearty. Trees say a lot about a place–tropical trees sway with long, loose branches and naked trunks, like a scantily clad, dreadlocked island native. The trees here are short and tacit–little mountain men.

We have sliced through the initial barrier of the foothills and are nestled in a flat line between them and bigger hills to the left. Passing large ranches, ‘real’ ranches, hundreds of acres in size. I imagine working the land here, waking up to bacon and coffee and pancakes and working all day, stopping only for lunch.

Train tracks dip in and out of the landscape, sinking off into the distance. Something about trains is fascinating–long, ugly steel beasts, and yet beautiful, mythic, invoking a sense of timelessness–sameness in a changing world–romantic–reminiscent of the great American work ethic–so large and yet stealthy–creeping through the land with a steady chugga chugga and at times a lonesome whistle that at night pierces, shrill, into your room, into your head like a Blues chord, as if to say, “Don’t be lonely, everything is OK, the train is still going–everything is still relevant.” While other machines are left discarded by the side of the tracks the train keeps on–same old cars and smoky engines–unflappable, as though my grandkids will someday see the same ones–they have an air of immortality, like the mountains forever a part of the landscape–but I know this to be untrue, they will someday crumble, mere wreckage, and then dust.

We crossed the continental divide some time ago and now too are flowing downhill towards the Pacific. But we won’t make it that far. I have trouble believing the Rockies resume close by as I stare out across the prairie but I know they remain hidden behind the clouds to the West, rise up like a fortress–beautiful but also sinister. A mountain ages like a man–slowly creasing and sagging and breaking down–worn away by time until finally gone–dust.

The snow and slope of the land gradually are getting steeper until the mountains that a while ago appeared painted on the horizon are all around. The rancher’s fence that lined the farmland is here, except now rolling up and down with the rise and fall of the land and almost buried in snow. The familiar pointy, tall, skinny conifers and thin, wispy Aspen of the Rockies have returned. We have entered the Teton National Forest, and two mighty moose trudge through deep snow, diplomats to this pristine land.

Driving provides a lesson for life: keep moving and things will change–no matter how far off what you’re going for appears–stay on the path and it will happen–all of a sudden you’re there and it’s surreal because for so long the road was somewhere else–passing through countless points until at last it’s the one you want.

2/3 Reflections on Jackson Hole

One of those times you see somebody else that looks like you–and momentarily they are you–and I see upon their face my own expression–eyes ablaze with joy looking up on steep slopes surrounded by rocky cliffs and trees and the outline of skiers and boarders descending dark against the white background. It snowed all morning but later the sun burst free and as it did felt like a privilege–which is what I see in the eyes of the stranger that is me–humbleness, wonder, thanks for the deep snow and vertical drop and sun–a religious experience, deeply spiritual–but somebody in line jokingly moos and I see the other side–we are cattle, each of us no more important than the other–perhaps some better stock but all doing the same thing–standing in line, gear in hand, telling stories that are just an attempt to stay relevant. It’s why I write this story, to tell that I was there, I skied Jackson Hole, I descended its steep rocky slopes, the sun was out the snow was deep and I’ll never forget it or the looks on my friends’ faces as they laid and rested in the snow, only their grins discernable behind thick clothing and bug eyed goggles–looking like spacemen on the moon, adventurers on their own strange, alien planet and as I remember their faces I also remember mine–my face on another–the face of joy we all wore but was no more important to the mountains than cows being herded through machines and packaged and sold. A mountain is indifferent to all.

2/4 The Return Voyage

Each portion of mountains has a distinct look even among a large chain–the Rockies of Wyoming have a different look than those of Colorado–but they do appear similar, as though cousins. The fairly blunt tops indicate the toil of millions of years of erosion–these are old mountains, some of the oldest in the world–but once they were never here at all–and so it will be in the future–mountains to dust–dust back into mountains–someday a great sea may cover this land, with the top of Jackson Hole an island jutting up through the blue depths–the descendants of cowboys and ski bums making a living, diving to explore the decaying remains of a chairlift.

But for now we are above sea level and it is a glorious sight–rolling along through a valley, the sun breaking over a peak and flooding the land with a blast of light–everything covered with a film of frost– and when the sun hits the land it sparkles and the branches of trees stretch outward like hands straining for the warmth of the sun. All living things reach for the sun, the only certain God.

A fog rolls over the valley, clinging to a river that winds through the trees like a serpent of mist. I imagine myself as a great adventurer starting a day of travel on foot–seeing this same view–taking a moment from his quest to enjoy the vista–I am alive–this is real–no mission is so great as not to take time to enjoy the moments of beauty, such as the epic landscape laid out before me–this is the adventure–everything in between.

Towns proudly display population signs of one and two hundred–horses outside in stables–steam coming from their nostrils, matching the smoke rising from the chimneys of houses that are all warm and snug inside. Few things are more satisfying than a roaring fire on a cold day, the feeling of triumphing over the elements. Men here have beards and cowboy hats and denim and drive trucks–tough and silent and grizzled and yet possessing a simple kindness–a traditional way that keeps them human. Here they are sheltered from the terrible world not too far away–this is a sanctuary–wildlife and mountains and rivers and pure white snow–hidden from the world of man–cold, dirty, greedy, loud, crowded. Living here is a firm stand against the society that cheapens it–fouls it–destroys it. Staying here is a decision to stay human and as I drive through Wyoming I briefly regain the innocence the world has taken away.

Writing should speak for itself. Good writing does. But with this piece, I feel a brief primer is in order.

I recently undertook the Sisyphean task of typing up a collection of journal entries that encompasses the nearly ten months I lived and traveled in southern Africa. This is a task made difficult not only by the sheer volume of words (close to 200,000, I suspect), but by the at-times illegible, roughly-hewn writing, which as often as not was written on the road, in a chemically-altered state, or some combination of the two.

Jack Kerouac wrote by the principle “first thought, best thought,” although even the master of the road manuscript learned that he was not above editing. In putting together this piece, I sought to retain the raw, visceral reflections that poured out of me while encountering such a spectacular and challenging part of the world.At the same time, I was fully cognizant of the fact that in its original form, much of what I wrote made sense only to me (and sometimes, not even to me). In order to form a more cohesive narrative, I moved individual passages around, inserted punctuation, and changed the odd word for the sake of clarity. But otherwise, what you read is straight from the heart, the gut, the ass, or whatever part of me it is that demands the words be written.

February 13, 2009

All of life is a waiting game—a preparation for the grand tomorrow on which day all demons shall be banished…

…There are many tomorrows on a trans-continental flight, but scarcely any todays.This pilgrimage at 32,000 feet is indicative of the human condition: the cramped and bored masses, wishing the moment away.And what awaits but uncertainty, unknown joys and terrors…every man yearns for a prophet, a taste of the supernatural, because it relieves the angst of making choices…

…At 32,000 feet all conversations feel a bit forced.Why am I going to South Africa?Where to begin…

…Every man at some point looks upon his life with the eyes of a distant stranger.What could be: the twisted half life of what is, always shimmering on the horizon, briefly igniting a spark to throw it all away and embark on some damn fool’s errand.It is a rebuke of the sensibilities we harness each day, those bricks out of which we’ve built our personal empires, the bedrock of those things that fill our lives…

…For all of the wisdom of our fathers they never once said to us, “You will build a life and afterwards always wonder what could have been.”…

…How can I hope to explain to a stranger in business casual what I have trouble myself understanding?What words will I string together to describe all the passion that’s been put aside, the yearnings that have been marginalized, a mental tickle that says things should be different?Instead I use language he can understand: I tell him I fell in love, which is true, only not the whole truth.In loving her I have merely recaptured the ability to love—and a man in love believes all things are possible—he is a glutton, eating everything before him but never full—he belches; defecates and rolls in it.To be in love is to have boundless energy.I love her madly, but not only her—I want to make love to the world, lay back with a sigh, satisfied, but thinking always of more, more, more…

…What awaits as I step off this plane and walk into her arms?Is it love I feel or love I seek?Infidelity already lurks in my heart, for it is Africa that I truly lust for… a place where beasts and chaos reign supreme…

… Oh Africa!How I long for you!Oh Africa!I lust for thee!Oh Africa!Give me a reprieve! …

…Let me hear the sounds of lions at night and roam among the sun-bleached bones of those fate did not favor in the morning…

…..I want to be surrounded by the possibility of death, because living in a cage of logic is already dying…

…I seek mayhem…upheaval…bring on earthquakes and hurricanes…sweep my old life away into the sea…leave me naked on the ruins of what I’ve built…

…It’s not often that one can see a new chapter of their life unfolding, but that is precisely the view before me as the plane makes its descent into Johannesburg. The African continent comes into view, conjuring up a wealth of imagery as varied and twisted as the mind that tries to make sense of it.Of all the places to start over, Africa seems to be the best …

… The Africa of my mind is a picture of an old, faded map with an unfolding line marking my travels.I will make it to Kilimanjaro, stand atop the roof of Africa, stare out across the continent and have a view similar to what God must have had when his work was at last done and he could rest…

…Starting over…what is it like?At 10,000 feet and descending, I know not, but I know the pure adrenaline in my gut is enough. If this ecstatic doubt is an indicator, then I’ve been living my whole life asleep.To start over, in Africa, in love…

…Love and Africa.Now, this is all I know.The plane touches down.I pass through the required checkpoints and collect my bags.I step into a lobby, baggage in tow.She rises to greet me.I am in her arms again.Love and Africa.Now, this is all I need…

…I am better than fate.I am stronger than the universe.I am a man.

February 14, 2009

I have scarcely a night to dream big African dreams before we are on the road. Up by 4:00, casting a shadow on the still-cool tarmac by 6:00…

…nothing is set or decided, but for now we set a rough course down to Cape Town and from there up to Namibia, where we shall be swept up and away into The Heart of Africa…

…She holds my hand as she drives and I love her. We are together, our lives condensed down to a small white Toyota…

…driving through the Cradle of Humankind we pass a lone hitchhiker, his dark features reflecting under the bright sun—in his single, outstretched thumb I see the history of humanity laid bare—starting here, wending its way northward to new lands—the growth of many races from one—he still in the birthplace of man and I, returning in an automobile—here, in the plains of Southern Africa, history has formed a strange circle…

…We stop to refuel in the kinds of small towns that make ghosts out of men. A worker finishes pumping dinosaur bones into the tank and I tell him to have a nice day, but what I really mean is, “I’m sorry.I don’t know how things came to be like this either.”…

…We drive all day and make the town of Nieu Bethesda just as dusk is beginning to break.To get there we follow a long, winding dirt road that picks its way through the rocky, crumbling remains of mountains…

…The first day of the journey calls for a bottle of wine and we share it in the common room of the hostel with a Canadian woman who says she has come to Africa to save the lions, but who I suspect has really come to save herself.No 35 year old insurance salesman from Calgary sits up in the dead of night knowing her mission in life is to protect a creature 10,000 miles away.Lions are a symbol of her discontent, of a longing for something more out of life than cold-calling strangers and trying to get them to buy a new policy…

February 16, 2009

The sun is nearly down when we reach the town of Uniondale.We find the name of a youth hostel and head there.She is scorched and exhausted, wants to go to bed.I, in a similar state, oblige.But as I lay there, the desert night calls to me.Restless, I rise to sit alone outside….

…The proprietor, a man of about 60, sits on the stoop, smoking slowly, each long inhale seeming to encompass a universe of silent rumination. He at first seems aloof and rude but turns out to be the type of man who finds no value in senseless chatter.He offers me a cigarette.I don’t smoke but I accept.We puff away in silence; the sound of the paper burning is clearly audible among the cricket chirps and nighttime rustling of unseen creatures….

…He is a counterpoint to my youthful restlessness; where I flounder he is fixed; where nothing ahead is known for me he lives in this familiar world…

…He rises wordlessly and enters the house, reappearing with a fiddle.The case opens with a click that resounds in the darkness.The instrument is old but the strings look fresh and strong.He raises it to his shoulder and draws back the bow.I lay back, smoking, propped up on one elbow in the cool grass.I imagine he plays for me, but this is not the truth.He plays for himself.I am merely a witness to his strange blues. He stops occasionally to take a drag off of the cigarette that lies smoldering at his side.Several of them burn down to the filter…

… He finishes, packs the fiddle away, rises and enters the house.I remain, in silence, but I can still hear the music, telling me everything I need to know, filing the spaces between my thoughts with a wordless chorus…

…He has killed me softly with his strange blues.His song speaks to the road ahead.

February 17, 2009

We drive downtown to the main church.The Boer Farmers who migrated north from the Cape to escape the rule of the English built their newly-founded towns around these places of worship, the detailed craftsmanship of this building reflecting their ambitions for a good life, a beautiful life, a peaceful life…

…I walk around it, snapping pictures.I’ve not had any use for God since I refused to return to Sunday school at the age of nine, but churches always instill in me the sense that without myth, the world would be a very ugly place…

…I look at the small white car, the steed that carries me and Emily through the wasteland—we are together against the world, but also separate; horribly alone in our own quests…

… Everybody needs their own church, squat, solid and beautiful, built in the center of the vast, perilous wilderness of their own mind….

…I gaze through the fence at the well-kept grass and handsome stone work.A woman approaches from behind and says something in Afrikaans. She is the cleaning lady, old and toothless, her hair in a handkerchief.I beg her pardon that I only speak English.

“Would you like to have a look inside?” she translates.

“Yes, very much so,” I say….

…She unlocks a back door and I climb a set of stairs up past the bell to the very height of the church.From there it is a tentative walk up a ladder that is leaned against a shuddered window.I push it open and step down onto a circular terrace that surrounds the tower…

… A church is built to make people feel humble.The towering roof, the detailed craftwork, the stern-faced biblical figures, all are bent towards reminding people of a higher power in whose presence we are hopelessly small. To that end, I say let the people of Uniondale congregate up here on Sundays, rather than suffer under the heaviness of stone and wood…

… Let them be accompanied up the rickety staircase by the cleaning lady who has spent decades inside this hallowed building and has nothing to show for it but stubborn pride and arthritic fingers…

… Let them climb the wobbling stairs past the cobwebbed gears and levers of a massive bell, the booming metallic voice of god, which summons them to worship each Sunday….

…Let them stand on this terrace where with one glance they can size up their entire sleepy town, where they live and will die, where the great expanse of the Karoo is overtaken by mountains to the south and where beyond that, mountains fall into the sea.The view from here can make one feel smaller than any preacher’s words…

…Let the people see pigeons perched on stone crosses, roosting in the eaves of the highest point of the holiest building, defecating wherever they please, years of shit accumulated upon the House of God.Then, they will be humbled, truly.

How come so much of your writing, both fiction and non-fiction, takes place in Brooklyn? And in Manhattan too, for that matter. Your newest book, Not Now, Voyager, has a lot of both places.

Maybe I should be called a regional writer. I grew up in Brooklyn, and even though I moved away at seventeen, it left its claws deep inside me. So much of what I’ve seen and done since is measured against my early memories, the house, the street, the school, the neighborhood. Not that they’re all great memories. The truth is that when I was living there, all I could think of was escape. I thought Brooklyn was boring. It was boring. And yet now, I seem to find it fascinating, in retrospect. It was a kind of closed community, with its own ways and habits, and those kinds of places are always intriguing to look at. (Today Brooklyn is completely different, of course, no longer boring. When I go back there, sometimes to look at the ocean or walk on the Boardwalk in Brighton Beach, it feels exotic.) As far as Manhattan, I’ve lived in the same neighorhood for many years now, and it feels like its own little enclave. I’m not so aware of place when it comes to architecture, stores, and so on. It’s more the feel of a place that grips me, the look of the sky at certain hours, where the sun sets, the sounds and smells, the general aura. I’ve written about other places I lived in—Rome, Honolulu, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis. But I always return to New York. It’s the place that feels right for me.

 

How come you’ve traveled so much, especially when you say in Now Now, Voyager that you don’t like it?

Some of it was for pleasure—visiting European countries for the first time as a young person. My husband and I lived in Rome long ago when he had a year-long Fulbright grant, and that was great. It wasn’t traveling—it was living. I had a grocery store, a bakery, all the things you need for a life and don’t get as a tourist. A lot of my traveling has been for work. I never had a permanent teaching job because I wanted my time for writing, so for years I lived like a nomad, taking one-semester jobs here and there, all over the country. But I was always a bit of the outsider, and I liked it that way. I didn’t want to be part of a large institution and have to obey its rules.

 

How did you manage to write so many books and teach and raise a family?

I really don’t know. Sometimes I wonder myself. I guess because I didn’t do much else. I don’t really like vacations that much. I like working. Those early books—I loved writing them. When I could sit at my desk and dream—that was what I liked best.

 

You have two grown daughters, I’ve heard. How did having and raising children affect your work?

Oh, what a question. I could write a book about it, and maybe someday I will. It’s very hard, as everyone knows. Almost impossible. Many contemporary women writers have families, but if you think about it historically, the writers we remember today, the very best ones, say Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen—they didn’t raise children. Still, I don’t think I would have been a better writer without children. I probably would have been worse: loving and raising children taught me about life, and gave me so much to write about. When my kids were young, I would swear to myself that I’d put my work first; I thought a serious writer had to do that. But whenever the kids needed me or even wanted me, I dropped everything to be with them. Sometimes I wanted their company as a relief from writing. And I was very lucky: I had daughters who loved reading and writing, so I could spend hours reading to them and with them, which was part of the world of books that I loved. They entered into that world with me. The hard part, of course, is dividing your attention and your emotional energies, because both activities are so intense and demanding.

 

Do you ever think of what you might have done if you hadn’t become a writer?

All the time. I think I would have been good at running an organization or program of some kind—not a corporation, maybe a non-profit. I like to make order out of chaos and to tell people what to do. But I never got the chance to boss anyone around, except when my kids were very young, and that didn’t last long. I always wanted to play old popular tunes in a piano bar and have people drop bills into a wine glass on top of the piano. I wanted to sing and dance in musical comedy. But I think those things are pretty much beyond me now.

 

Do you think you’ll keep writing forever?

Probably. I used to write because I loved it, and it was an escape from daily life. Now I think I write more out of habit. It’s simply what I do once I’m up and dressed. I like translating—I’ve translated several books from Italian. Maybe I should have been a translator, I mean full-time. Translating has all the pleasures of writing, finding the right words, the right phrases and rhythms, except you don’t have to make the stuff up. That’s the hardest part.

 

Are you glad you started publishing when you did, in the 1980s?

I certainly am. I feel like I got in under the wire, before publishing started selling out to the conglomerates and the whole industry began disintegrating. I was at the tail end of a long and wonderful tradition of honorable book publishing that’s pretty much history now—or exists only in pockets here and there–which is very unfortunate. And I was lucky in having a terrific editor, Ted Solotaroff, who was loyal through my first six books and became a close friend. It’s much harder for younger writers now.

 

Do you have any advice for younger writers?

Nothing about how to get published. Business was never my strong suit. My main advice is, Read. Read great books carefully and learn from them. Don’t read only your contemporaries. You can learn a lot from the dead—remember they were once alive and struggling too.

 

 

They say the captain always goes down with the ship. But what about the crew…are all those on board bound to this same fate?

From Friday to Sunday a group of us had been holding an extended birthday celebration for a friend in Clarens, a small mountain town in the Free State, South Africa. Sunday morning found me and Pieter sitting at a picnic table outside of the hostel drinking coffee, writing poetry and surveying the wanton destruction of the previous night’s party in which anything flammable and not bolted down had found its way into the bonfire. I reflected upon how the word party may be the most inclusive verb in the English language. It can be used to denote anything from the most benign revelry to something like an orgy with Latvian immigrants all wearing Viking hats.

I had indeed partied last night. Suffice it to say that my overindulgence led to a drunken bellicosity that left me with few allies by morning. Luckily, Pieter had himself consumed heroically, raised his own hell, and passed out early enough to miss my tirades, making him my companion of choice by default. Our friends in this life are not as often those we seek out as those we find ourselves backed into a corner with.

He was one of those South Africans who don’t often speak English. This is not to say such people are lacking in ability, but rather their Afrikaans heritage monopolizes their cultural identity. He worked for Radio Pretoria, a bastion of Apartheid politics. Read: completely racist. I’d found in South Africa that racism was the elephant in the room like booze is for a recovering alcoholic. I often felt while talking to certain people that they were one transition away from a racial tirade. Pieter was one such person. While nothing racist had yet come out of his mouth I felt certain he was one in the way that at home I’m positive the guy buying Busch Light beer has at least two vehicles in his driveway that don’t run.

A rule of thumb while traveling abroad is to stay out of local politics. Of course, this is not to say that one doesn’t notice certain things. De jure South Africa is 15 years removed from Apartheid. De facto South Africa is one where a black government has failed to deliver the promises of an equal society to all but a few, where one in three people live on $2 a day, where whites drive around in cars and live behind gated properties while blacks live in cramped shantytowns without electricity and beg for work on the side of the road, where a large number of blacks, while not locked up during curfew, are desperate enough to kill you in cold blood for a few bucks and a cell phone. In accordance with that traveler’s dictum I steered clear of any polemic on racism. Yet I couldn’t deny that in modern South Africa, equality is still a dream of the future.

At about ten a.m. the rest of the group turned their bleary eyes on the outside world. Their base pleasantries to Pieter and me may have been due to hangovers but I could sense hesitation to approach our poetry jam. By now we’d moved past coffee and onto beer, which seemed the only logical conclusion in response to the past three days. We would keep this train rolling at the risk of abrupt sobriety derailing us. Pieter and I had singled ourselves out as an odd couple united by disgrace and a love of poetry. At least, I assumed he was producing flowing verse on the beauty of nature. After all he was writing in Afrikaans and very well could have been commenting on the Negro’s inferior cranial capacity.

The morning slogged on in a fashion typical of post-revelry. We all went for lunch as a final token of celebration. Over greasy fare and several more beers it was decided that I would catch a ride back to Pretoria with Pieter, who lived close to where I was staying. After eating we returned to our quarters to gather our things before departing. From somewhere on the property somebody played a song entitled, “Kaptein, Span die Seile” (Captain, span the sails) which in South African vernacular would be described as “zeph.” (think white trash). The song is at best a ballad, at worst an assault on music as we know it, but goddamn if it isn’t catchy. I parroted the chorus several times and it stuck. It was an appropriate verse to sing while loading my things into the back of Pieter’s white Mercedes. I serenaded him with it as he made the final preparations, which seemed to please him. He was my Captain, and his stout build and roomy, powerful German auto offered a degree of security.

While saying goodbye to the others they expressed concern over his level of intoxication. I had a brief thought as myself as Ishmael, a wanderer lured in by the mad Ahab promising adventure and reward while really only pursuing his own monomaniacal goals. However, those fears were overshadowed by my rule of thumb that people who drink heavily and drive superior machines are trustworthy. “Kaptein, span die seile!” I announced as a vote of confidence. The eight cylinders roared to life and we were off.

The road out of Clarens was one of expansive views of sky, plains and mountains. Upon rounding a corner and seeing a particularly fine view we pulled over to write poetry. Even though we’d spent most of the morning together we hadn’t spoken much to each other. It wasn’t awkward because I knew he was shy about his English and I also felt a silent camaraderie with him which came from a common purpose. We were two men in adoration of nature and poetry. While we were stopped he pulled a bottle of whisky out of the trunk.

“Help yourself,” he invited.

Well,” I figured, “better to be drunk with him than to sit here sober.” This became especially true as he revealed a propensity for driving at high speeds. All at once he gunned the car up to 200 km/hr and passed several cars like they were standing still.

“Fuck I love this vehicle,” he proclaimed. “I hope you like a bit of speed.” It was not a question but an ultimatum. I assured him we were on the same page.

“Yes Kaptein!” I said. “Fuck yes! Span die seile!”

He chortled, but there was a hint of madness in his voice.

The needle passed 200 km/hr, 210, 220. He steered with one hand while the other passed the whisky bottle to his mouth. The cars in the oncoming lane flashed their lights. 230, 240. He veered back to the left, cutting off a truck and the approaching line of cars whizzed by a bit too close for comfort.

“So, do they have guys like me in America?” he asked.

What, drunken, racist madmen?” I thought. “Yes, lots of them,” I replied. He seemed disappointed.

“And what about this kind of scenery?” he said.

“Sure, out West,” I said, “but not in the Northeast, where I’m from.” The whisky had loosened our tongues and we conversed amiably to a backdrop of stunning scenery.

We stopped again for a poem and a piss. In one massive chug he finished the whisky and threw the bottle into the bushes with a grunt. He then produced another from the trunk. I was all for a little booze to pass the tedium of a long drive, but this was bordering on excessive. As we pulled away he ran through the gears and reached 250 km/hr in about ten seconds, nearly running into the back of a car before swerving around it and then back in front. I gripped the edges of my seat and again thought of Ahab. I recalled the last scene of Moby Dick where he is caught by his own harpoon and pulled down into icy depths by the whale. Only now, a member of the crew was entangled with him. I realized with horror that the White Whale was the Mercedes. We were being dragged inevitably to our deaths on the back of the powerful beast. I thought perhaps I should demand he slow down and gain some control, but I didn’t want to provoke him. I wondered what my role was in the story. Was I Ishmael, the thoughtful, reflective but non-confrontational survivor or Starbuck, the one who sternly objects to the Captain’s madness but ends up perishing?

The smaller country highway gave way to the N1, the main vein which runs the length of South Africa from Cape Town in the south to Messina on the Zimbabwean border. The White Whale held the road expertly despite Ahab’s loose grip. This automobile was meant for top speed on an open road, which was one of the few points of consolation. As we merged onto the N1 there was a police road block pulling people over at random.

“Oh shit,” said Pieter. “I can’t afford to be pulled over. This vehicle isn’t registered.”

Never mind the fact that you’re totally shitfaced,” I thought. I was, in my own way, unregistered as well. My tourist visa had long ago expired. I wondered what the penalty was for being an illegal alien accomplice to a drunken man with an unregistered vehicle. Perhaps if I turned on the Captain they’d show leniency. Yes…mutiny was my only option…

We made it through the blockade and both of us sighed with relief. To celebrate, Pieter took a long swig off of the bottle.

“Your car really isn’t registered?” I asked, probing for an explanation.

“No. I took the case to court last year and won. I don’t support the government. It’s my right not to give my money to them,” he said.

I took “don’t support the government” to mean “hate the blacks.”

I pressed ahead tentatively. “So, what political party do you support?” I asked

“Ach!” he exclaimed with disgust. “It’s all a bunch of bullshit. Majority rule. It’s a pity. The blacks have fucked this country up.” As he said this he grew agitated and the White Whale drifted a bit into the next lane.

“A fucking pity,” he said and punched the dashboard lightly, further drifting into the adjacent lane.

Here it comes,” I thought. “Change the subject. Obviously he can’t drive and focus on his hate for the black man at the same time.”

I switched the conversation to chauvinistic small talk. The thought of degrading women seemed to ease his mind….for now. Still, the specter of a racist outburst and a total descent into madness hung about the car. The White Whale had yet to submerge and take us to our deaths, but I didn’t know how long we could stay above the surface.

The White Whale barreled down the center lane, the Mercedes emblem looking like a periscope to guide the way. Up ahead in the road was a flash of something yellow.

“I’m fucked now!” said Pieter.

In a moment the grim reality dawned on me as well. The yellow was the vest of a traffic cop. We were being pulled over. Surely this was the end of the line. There was no way the driver of this speeding, unregistered vehicle didn’t reek of booze. I clumsily shoved the empty bottles under the seat and tried to look casual. The cop approached the window and said something in Afrikaans. I could make out “180” which I knew must be our speed. The limit was 120. I made eye contact with the officer, trying my best to not look like an illegal American. The men carried on in Afrikaans and I imagined it sounded something like this:

Officer: License and registration, please

Pieter: Well, actually, this vehicle is unregistered.

Officer: Oh, so you mean to tell me that in addition to smelling like a distillery and driving well over the speed limit this vehicle is illegally on the road?

Pieter: Come on, give me a break, just this once, please, I beg you.

Officer: When you’re blatantly breaking three laws? Are you serious?

Pieter: Yes, well, it’s my right because you goddamn blacks ruined this country.

Officer: Well, you deserve it because you treated us like dogs for so many years. You’re in my country now, honky.

Pieter: (begins to write down something) What’s your name? I’m going to report you to your owner. Mdelgaba…is that with one clicks or two?

Officer: Smart guy, huh? We’ll see how clever you are when I haul your ass into the station and hand this car over to my friends for scrap.

Pieter: You black son of a bitch.

Officer: Cheers, whitey. Have a nice day.

Did that really just happen? Are we really just driving away scot-free?

“Did you see what I’ve just done there?” Pieter said, laughing.

“What the hell did you say to him?” I asked in disbelief.

“I told him I’m a freelance reporter and that I’m going to write a favorable story about him and his department in the newspaper. Did you see me take his details down? He actually believed me!”

This man is a legend,” I thought. “He’s some sort of mad, twisted, drunken, smooth-talking genius.”  I congratulated him and acknowledged that the incident was too close for comfort. I was tempted to heap praise upon him before realizing it was his fault for getting us into the mess in the first place. Or was it? I was beginning to lose the ability to make sense of things. I felt a strong allegiance to this man for some reason. Perhaps I’d been locked inside the car for too long, or, was his madness rubbing off on me? Was I becoming no more than Ahab’s protégé? Laughing, I took a gulp off of the bottle and encouraged the Kaptein to give her some gas.

It was nearly 6:00 which meant darkness was firmly established on the mid-June evening. I hoped the cover of darkness would provide safe passage but also realized it could bring out the worst in a man. We were less than an hour from home and things had settled down considerably after we’d avoided the grips of law enforcement. The White Whale moved at a steady 150 while Ahab quietly took sips from the bottle. Perhaps the close call had put some sense into him.

Along the side of the road bushfires burned. When I asked Pieter about them he answered, “The bloody blacks. They want to destroy everything the white man has built.” I couldn’t connect the dots between burning grass and his racial explanation. But it was clear I’d reignited the Captain’s madness.

“My friend, I tell you, this country was fuck all before the white man came here. There were no roads, no hospitals, no government, nothing. We turned this into a proper civilized country. Before us it was a country of savages and they want it to be that way again. I tell you, Apartheid worked. A lot of people didn’t like it but at least there was progress. This country was growing. Now, it’s turning into nothing again. I tell you, these bloody blacks are savages, the way they burn things down, kill people for fuck all.”

If there was somebody to tell, “I told you so,” then would have been the time to say it. The racial tirade that I’d sensed simmering all afternoon had been unleashed.

“Have you ever been the victim of such things?” I asked him

“Yes. I’ve had a knife held to my throat. I’ve been jumped and beaten. People I knew were brutally murdered on farms. I tell you, it’s horrible. They’re butchers. Trust me. This isn’t your country, you don’t understand. Peace is not possible with these people. They’re animals.”

What could I say in response? Surely there was no changing this man’s mind. We drove along in silence, the fires burning brightly in the night.

Somewhere on the edges of Johannesburg we exited the N1 and turned onto another highway which led northeast to Pretoria. As we did a “whump whump: sound began. It was the unmistakable sound of a flat tire. We pulled over to check and confirmed that the back left tire was totally deflated. Cars whizzed by on the highway dangerously close. Pieter got the jack out and we set to lifting up the car. This proved difficult because where we had stopped was on an awkward pitch. Each time I got the car up the jack slipped out. Pieter put the car into neutral and tried to ease back to a flatter spot but the entire section of road was uneven. We’d been at it for over thirty minutes and our tempers were growing short. Just then a taxi van pulled up behind us and a man with a big smile jumped out.

“Is this a hijacking?” asked Pieter, raising his arms.

The man laughed. “No my friend. I’m here to help you,” he said. He pulled a beefy hydraulic jack from the back of the van and helped us raise the car. It held steady and we were able to swap the flat for the spare. We both thanked him profusely.

“My friend,” said Pieter, “I’m in your debt. This is a symbol of a new South Africa, white and black working together.”

The taxi driver smiled and said, “Of course. How could I not? We must help each other.”  We shook his hand and he pulled away with a friendly toot of the horn.

Back inside the car I felt certain the uncanny timing of a black man stopping to help two white guys right after the driver had insulted the entire African race was beyond mentionable irony. However, I felt as if I had to say something. “You know, despite all of the terrible things you hear about white on black crime in South Africa I haven’t had anything even close to dangerous happen to me since I’ve been here. If anything, I’ve found the guys to be really friendly and helpful. Like that taxi driver. No white people stopped to help us and they’re the majority of people on the road.” I waited for a change of heart, an admission of overreaction. Instead, all I got was:

“One in a thousand of the kaffirs are actually fucking human. I tell you, in almost every break in, every home murder, it’s the maid, the gardener, somebody you trust, who’s helped you raise your family or business, they’re the ones that fuck you over. They may not kill you or rob you themselves, but they’ll let the criminals in.”

I thought again of Pieter as Ahab, of the mad captain’s pursuit of the White Whale and what it actually stood for. The captain of the Pequod was driven by rage and revenge. His tale was a warning against the madness and destruction inherent to believing in something too much. Melville wrote:

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning; to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil; — Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby-Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

I understood the symbolism properly now. The Mercedes was not the White Whale. Pieter’s White Whale was the black man. In that race of people he’d found a singular object to direct his rage. To him, they were the cause of all of life’s ills. Only the restoration of Apartheid or an equally oppressive system would allow him to feel at peace.

The Mercedes pulled up outside of my gate. As I said goodbye to Pieter I realized that he was a hero of the Shakespearian mold: bold and charismatic yet possessing the tragic flaw of hatred. I was very fond of the man and could even understand his racism. It was the essence of the banality of evil. Who’s to say I wouldn’t feel the same if I or my family or friends had been the target of violent crime? Had I never made a racist joke or reflected upon the vast dissimilarities between people of different skin color and culture? I had many times. Did that make me a racist too? The difference perhaps between being a racist and not isn’t the preference of one race over another. Cultural misunderstandings are natural and should be expected. The truth lies in the acknowledgement that, despite differences, equality and unity are possible. A racist is a totalitarian. Their world is bipolar, hateful and cruel. An Ahabian view on race, or anything for that matter, leads to tragedy, destruction and death.

The conclusion of our saga was like an alternate ending to Melville’s classic in which Ahab survives the fate of his own mad hatred and is given another chance to pursue reason. And, like the original Moby Dick, there was another survivor. As my feet touched down on solid ground I at last knew my role in the tale. Call me Ishmael.

 


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Yes, I agree, I deserved to be sat next to a big fat person for thinking Jesus, I hope I don’t have to sit next to a big fat person on this flight.

Yes, I agree, I deserved to be sat next to the biggest, fattest person on the flight after watching this person in particular walk down the aisle and thinking Jesus. Like that one right there.