Sunday, April 29, 2012

Travelogue 444– April 29
An Aside, an Homage

These are the dangers of food and of drink. I will speak first of the danger of ground salt. I am having a late breakfast at the dive down the street from the hotel. It's a tasty combination of eggs and ham. And that should be that; another breakfast in Puerto Rico. But I guess I tempt fate with my voluptuousness. I add salt, the kind you grind in the dispenser. You shake it out in large grains. It crunches when you chew. It crunches your tooth.

It's night. I've been drinking rum again. This time my motivation is escape, escape from pain. There a piece of my molar that slides back and forth, like the door to a secret chamber, one filled with nerve endings.

I'm browsing on You Tube, something I only do in emergencies. I am somehow, according to the whimsical logic of the internet, led to Ricky Gervais. He's a smart fellow. He's controversial. He thanks God he's an atheist. He has to answer for that in a serious TV interview. And he does.

Atheism leads me into options for Christopher Hitchens, who, for better or worse, positions himself among the front lines of the atheism debates. Is he an advocate? Apologist might be a better term. He's not playing recruiter. He says he wishes he could believe.

In defense of atheism, Hitchens says that at least there is no resort to wishful thinking. It's a point that I find pleasure in. It's true, and in my book, an honorable position. But it cannot stand as proof. Which is kind of my standing objection to atheism: lack of proof does not constitute proof in itself. That we cannot prove God's existence does not logically prove his non-existence Even Mr. Hitchens says so, preferring the term antitheist, which implies a dispute with the concept of deity.

Given the range of intellectual debates, I find the one about God's existence unengaging. On the one side, it's an examination of nothingness -- a favorite topic of the twentieth century, and one I find a little short on nutrition. The other side argues with passion for an abstraction. My passions tend to require more substance. If there were a polytheism club, I might join in. Seems like polytheism might have more logic to it, and certainly more fun.

Fortunately, there is much more to our friend, Mr. Hitchens, than his passion for nothingness. I followed him casually for years and years, greedily reading any essay and review I came across. I always had time for him, and I suppose this is as good a moment as any to say au revoir -- or not, I guess he would insist. He had intellect; he had courage. That some found him pompous doesn't surprise me and doesn't sway me. That some wrote him off because of his political convictions in later life does not surprise me, not does it sway me. I grew up with enough idiot political dogma, left and right, to discount politics as a measure of anything but one's intolerance and lack of humor.

Small minds latch on to conclusions rather than acknowledge the thought that leads to them. I didn't always agree with Hitchens, but I always enjoyed hearing him out. Intelligence is a pleasure, and such a scarce pleasure among the American Right these days, among a political movement that openly distrusts intellect. One can be forgiven for accepting that conservative positions are by definition anti-rational.

In fact, the human mind looks for and wants something to respect in one's opposition, and this is one of the sorest deprivations in the American political scene now. It bleeds us all of dignity and self-respect.

In one of the videos -- and I have to paraphrase because I don't log in to You Tube sober -- an interviewer tells him that so-and-so says he's just a loud-mouth, fat ass drunkard. Hitchens, who has already lost considerable weight and hair in his battle with cancer. 'Well, and what's wrong with that?' he replies, a wonderful, parting ambiguity. Indeed.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Travelogue 443– April 27

Take a right at the Burger King.

I've had to stop in a panaderia to ask directions. It's too hot out to wander and discover. Take a right, she says, at the Burger King. The panaderia has an open tile floor and glass cases along two walls. Along the third are some barren shelves. Along the third is the dusty window. Inside the cases are Latin cookies and cakes.

I return to the dense midday air. I find the Burger King, just past Popeye Motors, where the owner is standing outside operating a sound system, shouting at passers-by and playing salsa. He has a big blow-up Homer Simpson swaying in the sea breezes.

The city of Ponce is named after the great grandson of Ponce de Leon. Young Ponce was the leader of those who settled the current site of the city in the seventeenth century. His illustrious ancestor -- member of Columbus's second expedition and explorer of the Sunshine State, which he named Florida -- old Castilian for refuge-for-those-with-bad-taste -- was the first Spanish governor of the island. It seems only fair that the island's second city should be named after his family. The first city was named for John the Baptist, and I'm sure he felt that that was fair, all things considered. Originally Columbus had named the entire island -- Boriquen to native peoples -- after old Saint John, but subsequent travelers became accustomed to calling it the Rich Port, and the moniker stuck, demoting the austere saint to capital city.

I've set aside a day to see more of the island. The conference has confined me to San Juan. I decide on Ponce as my destination because I happen to see an article about an exhibit from the Prado at the Museo de Arte in Ponce. It's on the southern, Caribbean coast of Puerto Rico, whereas San Juan is situated on the northern, Atlantic shore. I've rented a car for the drive.

There is a haze over the morning, a gentle threat of rain. I sit out the early traffic, inching forward along several highways across downtown while listening to salsa music and compulsively adjusting the air conditioning. Then I reach the incline leading out of the city. The traffic quickens. The buildings disperse, and I'm over the ridge.

The interior is shadowed by the clouds. It's mountainous. It's tropical, but not in any cinematic way -- no skyless, Avatar jungles where you must wield the machete. This jungle belongs to a low-lying, seascape category of tropical, serious in its verdant fertility, carpeting the rugged hills, but showing a certain amiability and lack of ambition.

The landscape of Puerto Rico seems to unfurl in fast forward. You've studied the maps; the names come too fast. This is a small island. I've left the oceanside bowl that San Juan occupies. Already I'm descending into Caguas, a town that appears on the maps to be almost midway across the isla. There's only one more major valley and its major town inland. Beyond the lip of that second bowl, I spy the blue Caribbean horizon.

Before I search for the Museo, I tour the town center. The sun has banished the threat of storms. I stop in the wonderfully named Plaza Las Delicias, ornamented by a fountain with goofy lions spitting water, with statues of civic leaders of old; with the cathedral; and with a red- and black-striped nineteenth-century firehouse -- the first built in Puerto Rico; with old-timers sitting on benches in their sweaty shirts and bantering.

I'm fortunate to park one block from the notably pleasant Cafe Cafe. Anyone visiting Ponce must stop in. The walls are covered in local art; the tables are local art, painted over by a local, tattooed boy who signs as 'ManWe'. In this festive atmosphere, taking respite from the heat under the slow ceiling fans, I have the best food and coffee of the trip. I'm reluctant to venture out again, but I must in the name of art.

Take a right at the Burger King. In this humidity, the street past the Burger King is torture, featuring the interminable facades and grounds of public buildings that in extreme climates can only be seen as instruments of torture. Why did I walk?

The exhibit from the Prado is dominated by El Greco and Goya, neither of whom are favorites -- a fact I can confirm after another viewing, the former weird in all the wrong ways, and the latter completely unremarkable in my eyes. Mois, reductionist?

I'm in a mood. I stroll the air-conditioned halls, and I dismiss pieces I would usually marvel over: I'm a sucker for Renaissance and Baroque classicism on any other day. Today, I'm drawn to the Museo's prized permanent collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. There I find the usual red-headed beauties dwelling in worlds of intense detail and glittering color. The sheen, the romanticism, the weeping symbolism is usually too much for me. Maybe the Latin milieu suits this art well. I'm drawn in and ready to shed a tear for beauty and truth -- though I don't, quite.

Inspired, I will now make my way back to the car, and I will drive to the sea. I set out, pushing through the thick air, past the blank-eyed civic halls and past Homer and back to the Cafe Cafe for a quick shot of caffeinated fortitude. The center of Ponce is fascinating, a kind of funny art installation of its own, fragile stands of plaster and brick set like game pieces in the glaring sun. So many buildings have become empty shells, some leaving only free-standing bricks facades with windows looking in on high grass and wild flowers. The blocks are short; the streets are alleys; one walks them much as one might the halls of the precious museo.

I stand at the edge of the Caribbean sea. It's a blustery day. The winds are kicking up whitecaps all the way out. As I look south toward South America, I have to hold my cap on. To the guy on the other side of the Caribbean, it must look like I'm saluting.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Travelogue 442– April 22
Rum Diaries

The crabs move gingerly across the sand. They are pink, and it's as though they are tender from sun burn, returning from the beach as the sun hangs low over the condos and hotels to the west, as the first tones of crab pink creep into the ocean air. They are heading for safety underneath the planks of the deck. They seem to see me, watching them from a god-like height. They hesitate; they scuttle to the side. They dig among the sand and leaves beneath the broad-leafed trees. My gaze returns to the horizon. It is a straight line. It is blue. Everything resounds with the rolling of gentle waves.

The Pakistani has delivered me safely into the hands of the next stewards of travel, to the diligent airline employees and vigilant mavens of airport security, and to the pilots who tell stories to each other in the cockpit to stay awake. And I have logged my hours above the earth, flying toward the west, aiding the sun in turning the day toward conclusion.

I didn't sleep well during the night, so as soon as I'm seated on the plane, as soon as we're on our way, I nod off. My head swings from side to side across my chest. I wake and see the cities. I wake and see valleys under benign clouds. And then I wake and there is only the ocean. And again it's ocean. I am not able to stay awake, though the view becomes miraculous, and I sense that the order of dreams and waking has been upset.

The ocean is glowing. There are patches that are a bright aquamarine, a color almost green, and glowing as though there are lights just below the surface. Small islands appear with curious shapes, boasting strands of white sand and lagoons of dull green, and surrounding them is that glowing aquamarine. There are clouds that are pure white and big as cities, layered and high and molded into all types of detail. There are faces in them, somber civil servants from centuries past. They leave shadows on the surface of the ocean, detached and lost as ghosts. And then we're approaching for landing, descending over windblown waves.

Now the crabs are abandoning the beach. So are the people. The day is done. The sun is leaving the sky to cool. Above, a sliver of moon brightens. Along the straight road of the horizon, purple clouds are forming in a line, like priests in robes, progressing silently forward on pilgrimage. The waitress arrives with my rum. She returns to the long patio bar, where ice is dished into plastic cups, echoing like the work of bulldozers miles away. On the beach, sharp lights from mobile phones bob like fireflies.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Travelogue 441– April 21
Via Brevis

My appointment is at 6am.

I am waiting on Hoyne Avenue. Hoyne Avenue is not much of an avenue. Two cars could not pass between the parked ones. The buildings are humble. The avenue dead-ends just south, and Mary mentions there's a Target on the other side of the dead end. She repeats it several times, and suddenly Target is a landmark of some significance.

Right at 6am, the taxi arrives. The driver lets me in, and we set off. He asks about my home, my trip. He looks more closely at me over his shoulder, with the casual intensity of a pro. He's been driving for five years now.

I'm in Chicago, just for one night. Stephanie and Mark have driven me there from Michigan, and we all have stayed the night at Mary's on Hoyne Avenue. Past the Target and not too far away is the center of Lincoln Square. Mary says it's quaint. I haven't got my big city glasses on yet; I am able to discern only the slightest variation among the blocks of two- and three-story brick. There is a kind of main street happening. There is a string of small restaurants, which include our Mexican place. It's tiny, of course, packed carefully with tables and with suggestive decor, and there is a small crowd waiting to sit. We join them, standing awkwardly at the entrance, holding our bottles. It seems that very few restaurants in Chicago can manage a liquor license, and patrons are encouraged to bring their own. We've brought a bottle of wine and a plastic thermos of margaritas. Mary found a bottle of tequila and a bottle of mix that dated back to her housewarming party. We figure it's worth the chance.

I'm fascinated by the lives of big city taxi drivers and so I step right into this one's trap. I ask how the day or the night is going. Long, he says. He's been driving twenty-one hours. He says it's almost impossible to stay awake after twenty-one hours of driving. I nod compassionately, and glance at the road. He tells me it's good to have someone to talk to. 'After this many hours, nothing else works,' he says. 'Coffee.' He shakes his head. 'Food.' He shakes his head. "It takes a good, intense dialogue with someone. You know?' And so, for twenty minutes, my life depends on my conversation.

The time difference should work in my favor, but the margaritas and the late night, the futon bed and the anxieties of travel have worked on me. Last night I lay in bed thinking of next stops and next stops. This morning I'm dizzy with it all.

He asks about my work. I tell him about Ethiopia. He asks, 'Is it true that all NGOs are agents of American policy?' I cautiously say no, I don't think so. He says he gets a lot of mercenaries in his taxi, guys with military gear saying they work for NGOs, heading off to international locales. He sizes me up again in a long glance and a sly smile. 'Are you sure you're not military? I could see you with a sniper rifle.' I say, thank you, I'm flattered, but I've never even held a gun.

This is a suspicion that tails me like a spook. Short hair, long hair, grubby clothes or neat, it doesn't matter, people are always thinking I'm CIA. I'm sure it follows most international travelers in the choking modern atmosphere of conspiracy theory. I usually find humor in the idea of the CIA being super villains behind thousands of perfectly orchestrated mishaps around the globe every day, knowing how hard it is for most human beings simply to get out the door on time in the morning with matching socks. But there you go.

No, sorry, friend. I'm sadly trapped inside the very persona I present to you. His persona is far more interesting, He's half Pakistani. He sports the kind of long, frizzy beard that triggers odd muscle twitches in Middle America. He has a broad grin furnished with even, white teeth. He's big-boned and leans far back in his seat. His diction is educated.

'There's no freedom of press anywhere in the world like freedom of the press in Pakistan,' he declares. He paints a picture of innumerable factions writing continuous streams of abuse about generals and presidents alike. Karachi comes alive through his words, a sprawling megalopolis ready to skip to the head of the line. Did I know that before Bangladesh broke away, Pakistan was the third largest nation on Earth -- in population, of course?

We make it safely to O'Hare. He takes a last cunning look. 'And you're sure ...?' I'm sure. Are you going back, I ask him. 'Next summer, insh'Allah. That's why I'm pulling these crazy shifts.' Ah, well, may you find steady conversation. And the same for your pilot.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Travelogue 440– April 19
Pax Brevis

There's something like peace here. The sun hasn't risen yet, but he's throwing forward the fire in his soul, tinting the clouds red, his ruddy fingers thrusting forth in silent and exuberant mastery. This is my world. Every day this is my world.

I've been up since before the stirring of light. I lay on my back, waiting for the undefined moment when I think I can stir. In the meantime, I gather up fragments of the previous day.

The back porch sits high above the Thornapple River. We overlook not the other side of the river but an island. There are houses in there, but it appears to be uninterrupted woods. At riverside, there's a small, attenuated meadow. Half a dozen deer are chasing each other playfully. There's a flash of white, a bald eagle rising to his perch.

Entertainment is throwing the ball for dog, a bull-necked little guy named Chompers. He demonstrates great joy for us in his devotion to the ball. It's with undiminished and always new enthusiasm that he growls and chews on the durable plastic, tosses it at our feet.

My readers have been clamoring for a renewal of the blog. Clamoring! I sort through hundreds of emails every day: there's one from that young man who insists on calling himself 'Snooger', and who insists he hails from Michigan, the hallowed ground in which I awaken today. Snooger clamors.

And so I dress, and I stumble down the unlit stairs of the house to begin another day. I stumble into the unlit garage. I put on the clumsy shoes made for the beautiful Cannondale bicycle. I push the bike toward the door, but stop when I see there is a ladybug on the threshold. Gingerly I step over her, lifting the light-as-air bike frame.

I put on my gloves, though I discover that it's warm. The sky is neither a night sky nor a day sky. Between the web of tree branches, the color is a sober and muted blue. I mount the cycle and click the shoes into place. I set off down the first steep hill, coasting among the high trees, away from the river.

Almost two weeks I've been here. In a few days, I set off for more exotic places. Peace has been welcome. Peace is always timely.

Minnesota was her usual placid self, but her quiet hid deadly snares: like the break-in perpetrated on my innocent rental car, and the loss of my entire traveling self, stowed away as it was in that wonderfully durable bag from Target. All gone. A few weeks later, my hip rebels against the training schedule. I watch from shore as my aspirations for the May half marathon tank, sinking into metaphorical depths stained the bruised colors of a sunset very like advancing age. I leave for Michigan.

In the tiny township of Ada, there is a cafe that opens early enough for me. It opens early enough for a twittering covey of high school girls. They commandeer the next table and giggle about boys. It's true! I would never conjure such a bland image, but they literally giggle about boys. There's a new boy at school. I went on a date last night. Ooh!

I step out to admire the reach of fiery Helios. He smites the clouds with rare shouts of hope, so all-encompassing one doesn't sense a thing. But they enclose the skies. They embrace the earth.