falling…

That night, August 28, two months after I set out, things came to a head. After Lima my trip had become more emotionally difficult. After I entered Bolivia I had been consistently dreaming of calling friends and having them not hear me, not answering the phone. I dreamed of talking to people through glass, of being in a car driving away and not having them hear me over the engine. There were things I needed to tell them that they were not worried about hearing. This was not the first time I had had dreams like this. I had almost the same ones when I visited South Africa for the first time at age 16.

For the first time on my trip I was homesick. I do not know if it caused the physical illness or visa versa or if they merely fed on each other. The truth is that I was tired from the cold and the altitude. I also had been eating poor food and sleeping only a few hours a night. And I was cold every night. For some reason I was not taking care of myself and the dreams got worse.

That night my camera and wallet were either stolen or somehow left in a taxi, I will never know. It happened because I was worn down and my defenses were simply nonexistent. I wasn’t even aware that I was missing anything until the next day.

Initially hardest blow was my camera. It was something to fight boredom. It was a conversation starter. It was an amazing recorder of my journey and I lost over 400 photos of the festival alone. But most importantly through it I could objectify the world around me. “It’s a pretty picture,” I could tell myself as I snapped away. It was a filter and I used it to give a lot of my trip direction. I did not know any of this until I lost it and in it I had lost my confidence.

I felt as if I were drowning.

Whenever I get this feeling I remember taking my PADI diving certification. A SCUBA diver has neutral buoyancy in water and controls his upward and downward movements (his buoyancy) by expanding or contracting his lungs, in other words by breathing. It is breathing itself that allows the divers to move effortlessly through the water. You only sink when you exhale and you only rise when you inhale.

It is almost impossible to get a new diver underwater for the first time without lots of extra weights because the new diver refuses to exhale! I was no exception though with practice I learned to fight the instinct to hold my breath underwater. Then on my first dive I was down 18 meters, the limit for beginner divers, and saw a big shark about 30 feet away. The shark was really really big. There was nothing I could do to fight my reaction, though it was the opposite of what I should have done: my eyes bulged and I took a big breath and held it, shooting straight to the top like a frightened cork. I was smart enough to breathe out almost immediately but the damage was done and I couldn’t relax enough to go down again for another 10 minutes.

Here a knee-jerk reaction took hold of me in a similar way. I couldn’t ignore that something was wrong but as I wandered the streets with folks in traditional dress leftover from the festival, I was confused as to what I should do.

It is one thing to vacation for a month but it is quite another to travel for an extended period of time. In order to travel for a year you must break off a lot of everyday ties and close up shop back home for awhile. This adds a certain sense of weightlessness and planlessness that is necessary for a long trip to succeed.

I sat in a greasy spoon diner watching local folks suck on coffee and down greasy hamburgers and as I often do when I’m in a tough spot I began focusing on plans. From how I would get past the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama to the question of forging onward tickets for countries that required them, everything was pulled into question. What would be my route to Brazil? Did I have enough money to travel for that long? I thought about how I needed onward tickets out of so many countries in order to enter them, would I have to forge them? If I wanted a new camera then the cheapest option was Paraguay, the shady smugglers’ capital of South America. How would I get there? What were the symptoms of Dengue Fever (which is rampant there)? In my weakened state everything was fair game.

I was lonely and alone in a foreign country. Perhaps this is what I had wanted from the beginning.

2 replies
  1. nathan
    nathan says:

    luckily i had my mixed tape a la sharon. it’s as close to woodie as you can get without being him.

    Last Thoughts On Woodie Guthrie
    by Bob Dylan

    When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb
    When you think you’re too old, too young, too smart or too dumb
    When yer laggin’ behind an’ losin’ yer pace
    In a slow-motion crawl of life’s busy race
    No matter what yer doing if you start givin’ up
    If the wine don’t come to the top of yer cup
    If the wind’s got you sideways with with one hand holdin’ on
    And the other starts slipping and the feeling is gone
    And yer train engine fire needs a new spark to catch it
    And the wood’s easy findin’ but yer lazy to fetch it
    And yer sidewalk starts curlin’ and the street gets too long
    And you start walkin’ backwards though you know its wrong
    And lonesome comes up as down goes the day
    And tomorrow’s mornin’ seems so far away
    And you feel the reins from yer pony are slippin’
    And yer rope is a-slidin’ ’cause yer hands are a-drippin’
    And yer sun-decked desert and evergreen valleys
    Turn to broken down slums and trash-can alleys
    And yer sky cries water and yer drain pipe’s a-pourin’
    And the lightnin’s a-flashing and the thunder’s a-crashin’
    And the windows are rattlin’ and breakin’ and the roof tops a-shakin’
    And yer whole world’s a-slammin’ and bangin’
    And yer minutes of sun turn to hours of storm
    And to yourself you sometimes say
    “I never knew it was gonna be this way
    Why didn’t they tell me the day I was born”
    And you start gettin’ chills and yer jumping from sweat
    And you’re lookin’ for somethin’ you ain’t quite found yet
    And yer knee-deep in the dark water with yer hands in the air
    And the whole world’s a-watchin’ with a window peek stare
    And yer good gal leaves and she’s long gone a-flying
    And yer heart feels sick like fish when they’re fryin’
    And yer jackhammer falls from yer hand to yer feet
    And you need it badly but it lays on the street
    And yer bell’s bangin’ loudly but you can’t hear its beat
    And you think yer ears might a been hurt
    Or yer eyes’ve turned filthy from the sight-blindin’ dirt
    And you figured you failed in yesterdays rush
    When you were faked out an’ fooled white facing a four flush
    And all the time you were holdin’ three queens
    And it’s makin you mad, it’s makin’ you mean
    Like in the middle of Life magazine

    Bouncin’ around a pinball machine
    And there’s something on yer mind you wanna be saying
    That somebody someplace oughta be hearin’
    But it’s trapped on yer tongue and sealed in yer head
    And it bothers you badly when your layin’ in bed
    And no matter how you try you just can’t say it
    And yer scared to yer soul you just might forget it
    And yer eyes get swimmy from the tears in yer head
    And yer pillows of feathers turn to blankets of lead
    And the lion’s mouth opens and yer staring at his teeth
    And his jaws start closin with you underneath
    And yer flat on your belly with yer hands tied behind
    And you wish you’d never taken that last detour sign
    And you say to yourself just what am I doin’
    On this road I’m walkin’, on this trail I’m turnin’
    On this curve I’m hanging
    On this pathway I’m strolling, in the space I’m talking
    In this air I’m inhaling
    Am I mixed up too much, am I mixed up too hard
    Why am I walking, where am I running
    What am I saying, what am I knowing
    On this guitar I’m playing, on this banjo I’m frailin’
    On this mandolin I’m strummin’, in the song I’m singin’
    In the tune I’m hummin’, in the words I’m writin’
    In the words that I’m thinkin’
    In this ocean of hours I’m all the time drinkin’
    Who am I helping, what am I breaking
    What am I giving, what am I taking
    But you try with your whole soul best
    Never to think these thoughts and never to let
    Them kind of thoughts gain ground
    Or make yer heart pound
    But then again you know why they’re around
    Just waiting for a chance to slip and drop down
    “Cause sometimes you hear’em when the night times comes creeping
    And you fear that they might catch you a-sleeping
    And you jump from yer bed, from yer last chapter of dreamin’
    And you can’t remember for the best of yer thinking
    If that was you in the dream that was screaming
    And you know that it’s something special you’re needin’
    And you know that there’s no drug that’ll do for the healin’
    And no liquor in the land to stop yer brain from bleeding

    And you need something special
    Yeah, you need something special all right
    You need a fast flyin’ train on a tornado track
    To shoot you someplace and shoot you back
    You need a cyclone wind on a stream engine howler
    That’s been banging and booming and blowing forever
    That knows yer troubles a hundred times over
    You need a Greyhound bus that don’t bar no race
    That won’t laugh at yer looks
    Your voice or your face
    And by any number of bets in the book
    Will be rollin’ long after the bubblegum craze
    You need something to open up a new door
    To show you something you seen before
    But overlooked a hundred times or more
    You need something to open your eyes
    You need something to make it known
    That it’s you and no one else that owns
    That spot that yer standing, that space that you’re sitting
    That the world ain’t got you beat
    That it ain’t got you licked
    It can’t get you crazy no matter how many
    Times you might get kicked
    You need something special all right
    You need something special to give you hope
    But hope’s just a word
    That maybe you said or maybe you heard
    On some windy corner ’round a wide-angled curve

    But that’s what you need man, and you need it bad
    And yer trouble is you know it too good
    “Cause you look an’ you start getting the chills

    “Cause you can’t find it on a dollar bill
    And it ain’t on Macy’s window sill
    And it ain’t on no rich kid’s road map
    And it ain’t in no fat kid’s fraternity house
    And it ain’t made in no Hollywood wheat germ
    And it ain’t on that dimlit stage
    With that half-wit comedian on it
    Ranting and raving and taking yer money
    And you thinks it’s funny
    No you can’t find it in no night club or no yacht club

    And it ain’t in the seats of a supper club
    And sure as hell you’re bound to tell
    That no matter how hard you rub
    You just ain’t a-gonna find it on yer ticket stub
    No, and it ain’t in the rumors people’re tellin’ you
    And it ain’t in the pimple-lotion people are sellin’ you
    And it ain’t in no cardboard-box house
    Or down any movie star’s blouse
    And you can’t find it on the golf course
    And Uncle Remus can’t tell you and neither can Santa Claus
    And it ain’t in the cream puff hair-do or cotton candy clothes
    And it ain’t in the dime store dummies or bubblegum goons
    And it ain’t in the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices
    That come knockin’ and tappin’ in Christmas wrappin’
    Sayin’ ain’t I pretty and ain’t I cute and look at my skin
    Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow
    Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry
    When you can’t even sense if they got any insides
    These people so pretty in their ribbons and bows
    No you’ll not now or no other day
    Find it on the doorsteps made out-a paper mache«
    And inside it the people made of molasses
    That every other day buy a new pair of sunglasses
    And it ain’t in the fifty-star generals and flipped-out phonies
    Who’d turn yuh in for a tenth of a penny
    Who breathe and burp and bend and crack
    And before you can count from one to ten
    Do it all over again but this time behind yer back
    My friend
    The ones that wheel and deal and whirl and twirl
    And play games with each other in their sand-box world
    And you can’t find it either in the no-talent fools
    That run around gallant
    And make all rules for the ones that got talent
    And it ain’t in the ones that ain’t got any talent but think they do
    And think they’re foolin’ you
    The ones who jump on the wagon
    Just for a while ’cause they know it’s in style
    To get their kicks, get out of it quick
    And make all kinds of rnoney and chicks
    And you yell to yourself and you throw down yer hat
    Sayin’, “Christ do I gotta be like that

    Ain’t there no one here that knows where I’m at
    Ain’t there no one here that knows how I feel
    Good God Almighty
    THAT STUFF AINÕT REAL”

    No but that ain’t yer game, it ain’t even yer race
    You can’t hear yer name, you can’t see yer face
    You gotta look some other place
    And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin’
    Where do you look for this lamp that’s a-burnin’
    Where do you look for this oil well gushin’
    Where do you look for this candle that’s glowin’
    Where do you look for this hope that you know is there
    And out there somewhere
    And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads
    Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows
    Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways
    You can touch and twist
    And turn two kinds of doorknobs

    You can either go to the church of your choice
    Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
    You’ll find God in the church of your choice
    You’ll find Woody Guthrie in the Brooklyn State Hospital

    And though it’s only my opinion
    I may be right or wrong
    You’ll find them both
    In the Grand Canyon
    At sundown

  2. sharon
    sharon says:

    you know, that’s probably the first time that entire poem made sense to me.

    i’ve just finished a two-day workshop entitled “Undoing Institutionalized Racism”. It left me in many of those same places…

    “And there’s something on yer mind you wanna be saying
    That somebody someplace oughta be hearin’
    But it’s trapped on yer tongue and sealed in yer head
    And it bothers you badly when your layin’ in bed
    And no matter how you try you just can’t say it
    And yer scared to yer soul you just might forget it
    And yer eyes get swimmy from the tears in yer head
    And yer pillows of feathers turn to blankets of lead
    And the lion’s mouth opens and yer staring at his teeth
    And his jaws start closin with you underneath
    And yer flat on your belly with yer hands tied behind
    And you wish you’d never taken that last detour sign
    And you say to yourself just what am I doin’
    On this road I’m walkin’, on this trail I’m turnin’
    On this curve I’m hanging
    On this pathway I’m strolling, in the space I’m talking
    In this air I’m inhaling
    Am I mixed up too much, am I mixed up too hard
    Why am I walking, where am I running
    What am I saying, what am I knowing”

    some of the things that were said, i couldn’t believe. i thought that i understood the idea of white privelege, but i clearly had no clue what i was talking about. i became paralyzed about how i could return to the school where i work, and how could i? how could i, as a white person, teach children of color without perpetuating everything i abhor? i was horrified and frightened and quite honestly, i felt hopeless.

    there are some times when you have to just force yourself out of bed in the morning to make sure that you are taking a step forward in life. it feels like a forced step, a fake step. but by doing that simple thing, getting out of bed, it can eventually evolve into something you look forward to. meaning: you will eventually move past your insecurities and fears if you keep your mind on the upcoming day rather than your current state of inactivity in bed.

    sometimes i wonder why i’m doing the things i’m doing. the past two days of training really hurt. i am horrified by the thought of being a racist. it is not something want, it is not something i chose, i was raised by loving, church-going parents, i did not ask to be born white. but these thoughts, i realize, are just excuses for not dealing with a difficult issue. i have to accept who i am, what priveleges i enjoy–whether good or bad–and then deal with it. and get up every morning and be a real human being–to have humility, to be honest and accountable for my actions, to be intentional, to ask questions, and to listen–and ultimately, to be myself.

    it is one of the hardest things i have done in my life, but it is one of the best things. this morning i had no idea what the day would become. i thought it would be awful, but it wasn’t. i was able to be honest with the people i work with, and i was able to make a really solid connection with a woman who i didn’t expect that to happen with.

    you put this poem in the right place, nathan…as a comment. it’s best to read it when you’re ready to read it–not as a required reading. it’s really an auxhilary reading.
    i hope that you’re doing well–you haven’t posted in a few days and i haven’t heard from you otherwise. perhaps you are having some good alone time, or being chased by a donkey being chased by dogs. whatever it is you’re doing, i hope you’re have a good time.

    and i hope you are still enjoying that tape.

    take care.

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