A Nomad Returns

bulgaria

I’m back.  It’s not like I stopped writing.  I just stopped doing things here after I was asked to become a regular contributor at Pointless Overthinking, a slightly odd but very international blog that seems to be growing in popularity at a rate that is best described as “exponential.”  Bogdan, the blog’s creator, is Romanian.  Back when I first started writing for him, we exchanged a few interesting emails about the weird train trip I took from Istanbul, Turkey, to Bucharest more than a decade ago now.  I’ve now done nineteen pieces for Bogdan’s PO.

I’m reminded of how much of a wild-haired nomad I used to be.  My trip to Bucharest can serve as Exhibit A.  On a whim, back when I was living in Turkey, I jumped on a bus from Ankara to Istanbul and then climbed aboard a rickety train—there wasn’t a restaurant car or anything of the sort—for a twenty-plus hour zig through mountainous Bulgaria until we came to Sofia and then a zag at the capital that would take us to our final destination.

When I left Turkey, I had no guidebook in hand, no maps of Romania, no list of “must sees,” and not even a room reservation.  I was flying by the seat of my pants.  I was flying while blind.  I was simply flying—high above the clouds—and was probably a touch giddy due to a bad case of oxygen deprivation.

I arrived in Bucharest and somehow bounced around until I took a room in a weird, Soviet-style hotel in the heart of the city.  The place could have been the setting for a Franz Kafka novel.

I spent the next week wandering, stumbling upon things, seeing visions, and was eventually nearly mugged by three bandits posing as police officers.  The three wanted my money, but I wanted it even more than they did.  After a brief bit of wrestling on the sidewalk, I prevailed though I was a bit ruffled and scuffed after the encounter.

I wrote this whole thing because I mostly wanted to come to a point where I could ask the following question:  Why ever travel with a guidebook in hand?  Guidebooks only tell you what others have seen, usually see.  They tell where the herds travel and graze.  Why do what others have done and usually do?

By the way, that’s a very serious question that requires some major contemplation.

November 30, 2018

cars and buses

During the entire time I lived abroad—nearly two decades—I never once had to own a car.  Today, in San Antonio, my wife and have two.  It’s not that we want to live this way; it’s that we have no other choice.  There is certainly a bus system in San Antonio, and I have done research about how I might use it to get to work, but it’s not practically possible given where the stops are located, the number of bus changes I’d have to make, and the infrequency of these multi-passenger vehicles.  When I lived in Poland, in the city of Tarnow, a place with a tiny fraction of the population of the Alamo City, there was a more sophisticated public transportation system than what I find in this monstrously large metropolitan area.

So Europe kicks America’s butt when it comes to having figured out transportation.  I have lived on the continent and been a tourist in just about every European country and can provide firsthand experience to bolster such a claim.  Americans like to think that they live in the freest country in the world, but how much freedom do they actually have when it comes to daily travel?  Freedom is about having choices, and the average American has almost none when it comes to how he or she gets to and from work and such.  We have the automobile and that’s it.  The car industry, along with its buddy Big Oil and Gas, seem to own the country and have disproportionate power in determining how we live our lives.  We all know these powerhouses have played a pivotal historical role in having prevented America from developing a European-style public transportation system.

So my wife and I own two cars.  Of course, we have to insure these vehicles and register them and pay yearly inspection fees.  We have to fill their bellies with gasoline.  This means we literally spend hundreds of dollars, if not more, on a yearly basis to keep these two machines legal and in working order because we have no other choice.  This is money we could save or spend in much more meaningful ways on our home or on travel or what have you.  Of course, every American is in the same boat.  That’s one of the reasons the middle-class is being squeezed to death.  How much richer would Americans and America be if we could invest in affordable public transportation and ween the nation off the automobile?

Because of everything I’ve said in the previous paragraphs, I don’t think it would be strange for me to conclude that we don’t actually own these cars.  Instead, they own us.

I don’t especially like being owned by two high-maintenance mechanical divas.  Their moodiness drives me bonkers.  Not long ago, for example, I went to our garage and tried to start our Nissan.  I inserted the key into the ignition and turned it.  Nothing.  I tried again and again but the thing wouldn’t fire up.  I eventually ended up having to have my wife take me work.  As it turns out, there was something very minor having to do with the battery.  The mechanic looked at it for a few seconds, made the tiniest of adjustments, and the thing started up and purred like a contented kitten.

Because I am an American, I have had to learn a lot about how to find a good auto mechanic.  I have also learned that they speak their own indecipherable language, have their collection of secret code words.  They are the mystics we mere mortals turn to when our garage beasts get sick or simply want to make our lives a bit more complicated than they already are.

 

 

November 27, 2018

jacky and johnnie

This past Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, my wife and I drove—south to north—up Interstate 35.  We started in San Antonio and ended up in the beautiful village of Georgetown, Texas, my hometown and the place my father and stepmother live their idyllic lives as retirees.

Of course, there was food—they don’t refer to Thanksgiving as “turkey day” for nothing—so we ate it.  And we drank.  And we sat around long after the vittles had been consumed and were snaking through our digestive systems.  And while we sat and let the nutrients do what nutrients do, we talked and laughed and reminisced and smiled at one another across the dining room table.

Off and on, between gorging ourselves in ways that distended our already distended bellies, we watched football and took discreet naps while sitting heavily on a couple of large L-shaped sofas.

We woke up Saturday morning and Janie, my stepmother, suggested that we drive up to Burnet, a town located in what Texans call “the Hill Country,” to visit Jacky, my dad’s youngest brother, and Johnnie, his wife and survivor of cancer, a disease that had caused her to lose her hair but none of her spunk.  Everyone thought it was a great idea.

Everyone in the family knows and openly talks about how Jacky has become something of an eccentric.  He doesn’t like to leave his house very often except to hunt and fish.  He gets up at 4 a.m. every morning and is obsessively clean to the nth degree and beyond.  In fact, he has a large workshop behind his house and those who’ve seen it jokingly say that a person could eat a meal off its concrete floor.

The result of all this was that I expected our visit to be somewhat awkward.  This expectation was exacerbated by the fact that this would only be the second time I’d seen my aunt and uncle in the last twenty years.  So I sort of knew what to expect but sort of didn’t too.

After an hour of driving, we found ourselves in a wooded area not far from Lake Buchanan.  We parked in the driveway, were met by Jacky and Johnnie in the front yard, and then were escorted through the house and out the back door where we all took seats on a lovely screened back porch.  I spotted a rustic rocking chair and made a beeline toward it.  We all took our seats and then began to ooh and ah about our surroundings.

The backyard was huge with several large cottonwoods and oaks, all of them shedding leaves in the autumnal breeze.  Johnnie said something about how this was their favorite place to sit and be still and quiet.  She also mentioned how this was medicine for her psyche.  She said they ate out here and even slept out here when the conditions were right.  I understood how all this could be true as I felt myself decompressing and unwinding.

There was a large and melodious wind chime hanging next to me and I mentioned how pretty it sounded.  Johnnie then told the story of how they’d come to own it.  According to her, on the day they were coming home from her mother’s funeral, Jackie, knowing that his wife was feeling profoundly sad, stopped at a roadside market and bought it while she sat in the car.  Upon returning to the vehicle, he handed it to his wife and said, “This is a little something from me.  I hope you’ll think of your mother when you hear it.”

So, on the afternoon of our visit, we sat and listened to the chime while Johnnie told this story.  One or two times, during her telling, she paused and wiped, using the back of her hand, a tear a two that had rolled down her cheeks.

It was a sad story but a beautiful day, made even more so by wonderful fellowship among kin and kindred spirits.

 

 

 

 

 

November 21, 2018

buddha

We have this guy named Albert who cleans our writing center late every afternoon.  Not long after he started coming around with his brooms and things, I found out, sort of through the grapevine, that his janitorial colleagues call him “Blanco” because that’s Spanish for “white.”  As it turns out, because of his age, Albert has a full head of silver locks which he loads up with something sort of oily and then combs back away from his face.

By the way, I’ve mentioned this before, but it never hurts to remind people that I live in San Antonio, Texas, a place some sometimes call “The Alamo City.”  In this part of Texas, Spanish (or Spanglish) is the language of choice.  So it probably won’t surprise you to hear that Español permeates every aspect of life here, including the way people conceive of things, such as the color of Albert’s hair.

I like Albert a lot.  We always sing the Working Man’s Blues when he comes around.  Obviously, he’s slightly lower than I am on the hierarchy totem pole, so his blues are especially heartfelt.  And I always lend a very caring ear.  I try to put myself in his place, but it’s hard to imagine what it must be like to try to live on what they pay him.  I sort of get it because I once worked many menial jobs, but that was way back when I was a hungry student.  Today, by Albert’s standards, I’m what you might call a Fat Cat.

It’s hard to think of myself as a Fat Cat when I have such shallow pockets.  But I guess I sort of am one when I compare myself to some of those around me.  In the overall scheme of things, though, I’m about the skinniest feline you can imagine.  As a matter of fact, without even sucking my stomach in, I’m able to slip throw the narrowest of crevasses.

Often, when Albert’s around and we’re not talking the way two working men talk, I like to just sit and sort of allow myself to Zen out.  By that I mean I like to watch him, out of the corner of my eye, move around the center.  I know this might sound weird, but ever since I was a child, I’ve had this odd ability.  If I watch someone—it doesn’t have to be directly watching but sort of obliquely watching—moving about or engaging in some kind of repetitive action, it sort of calms me down and I become nearly Buddha-like.  I am able to slow my heart, silence the chatter of my mind, end the death of my cells, and fall down into a deep hole of profound self-awareness that I find to be blissful.

So I sometimes find myself able to achieve this odd tranquility when Albert is around.  I wouldn’t even try to explain this phenomenon to him for fear that he’d report me to whomever he’d need to report me to so that the men in white coats would show up, straitjacket in hand.

 

 

 

November 20, 2018

middle east

We have this new guy teaching part-time at Palo Alto College.  Mohamed Qashou, my Palestinian-American buddy and a guy who teaches math and engineering courses, introduced him to me one morning several weeks ago.  To respect his privacy, I’ll simply refer to him as “Jay.”  Jay of the beard, mild manners, and soft voice.  Jay of the quiet and introspective personality.

Like me, Jay has more advanced degrees than he knows what to do with and spent a lot of years teaching a variety of writing and similar classes in places like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt.  The first time we spoke together, we discovered that it is highly likely we were both teaching in Turkey and Egypt, in the same universities and at about the same times, though we didn’t know each other while we were living in those places.  Our conversation seemed to prove, as is sometimes said, that the world is an exceedingly small place.

Jay likes to wear Nehru jackets with short sleeves to work.  I am not surprised by this since he is married to a Pakistani woman and spent quite a lot of time in that part of Southeast Asia.  Like me, he lived for a great many years in what is called “the Islamic World,” as if a place could be defined solely by the religion practiced there.  He became a Muslim, but I’m not for sure how long ago that happened.  According to Mohamed, upon his conversion, Jay took Abdullah as the name he uses when he is with other practitioners of the faith.  When we talk, though, I always refer to him as Jay.

Jay dropped by my office early this morning because he was bothered.  Over the weekend, there had been a major conference on the topic of the MENA region in San Antonio.  Why, he wondered, hadn’t the gathering been better advertised?  He just heard about it by happenstance after it had already finished up.  He would have certainly attended, he said with a frustrated look on his face.  I voiced similar thoughts after he’d spoken.

We started talking about things we frequently see on TV, like how these so-called Middle East experts go on CNN, MSNBC, ABC, and CBS, and spout all manner of expert opinions based on what?  Some of them have never lived in that part of the world.  They’ve studied the region and its people in the cool way an entomologist dissects butterflies.  They even occasionally jet overseas, to a place like Istanbul or Cairo, for a few days.  While on such a trip, they hole up in some expensive hotel room, have a handful of conversations with local academics and politicians and the like, and then return to the United States to lecture the whole of America on Muslims, Islam, Arabs, North Africans, the Gulf Region, religion, culture, and fanaticism, among many other subjects.  We both found this both preposterous and aggravating.

I can’t speak with any sort of precision about Jay’s actual experience overseas, but I lived for four years in Abu Dhabi, capital of the UAE.  While there, I worked for that country’s military on one of their bases.  I taught their male citizens.  I lived amongst the many immigrants who call Abu Dhabi home.  I had a barber from India, a best friend from Sri Lanka, and regularly bought bread from Afghan bakers who prepared that food staple in a traditional tandoor.  I would chat with them while they baked.  Once my order was done, they’d wrap the hot naan e Afghani in regular newspaper and I’d carry it home.  I was in that country during September the 11th and watched the place as it prepared for the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.  I distinctly recall there was a nervousness throughout the region at that time as the giant American military machine began to awaken and move about like a colossus.

After that, I moved to Ankara, Turkey, and taught writing, research methods, critical thinking, and philosophy at Bilkent University, a great place of learning, for nearly half a decade.  While there, I had several Turkish girlfriends and traveled into every nook and cranny of that vast and beautiful country.  I went south, north, east, and west by train, dolmus, plane, bus, motorcycle, and a variety of private vehicles.  I went into dusty, remote and ancient villages where the locals decorated their faces with primitive blue tattoos.  I traveled to Istanbul and Izmir, large and cosmopolitan places that seemed very European.  I went into places where few tourists had ever ventured.  I saw things and did things I never dreamed I’d see and do.

In 2008 I moved to Cairo, Egypt, after being hired by the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.  From day one, Cairo blew my mind.  A crazy, more chaotic urban experience cannot be imagined.  By that time, I was already a world traveler and had had seen many cultures and a lot of different ways of living, but nothing had prepared me for living in the belly of the beast that is Egypt’s capital.  In 2011, the Revolution kicked off in January, following closely on the heels of what had taken place in Tunisia.  I decided to stay in the city even after almost every foreigner had bugged out and the place went full Mad Max.  I survived but got something akin to PTSD.  Then, Morsi was elected, fair and square in a genuine election, only to be the victim of a military coup approximately a year after he’d taken office.  Then came the Rabaa and Al Nahda massacres and the national insanity that followed.  Political prisoners were jailed, protests were snuffed out, the average citizen became paranoid in the old way.  Egypt slipped back into an authoritarian black hole and the citizens quit dreaming and speaking and acting out in ways they’d grown accustomed to during the brief period that followed the fall of Mubarak…

November 1, 2018

stoicism

I love my job.  I use my years as a university instructor of research methodology, literature, academic writing, philosophy, and critical thinking to manage a writing and learning center at a community college in a very cool part of San Antonio, Texas.

Our center is blessed to have four incredibly dedicated and talented tutors, all of whom have bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English or a related field.  It’s easy to manage people who are bright and resourceful.  Actually, I’m supposed to show them how to do things and to act as a mentor, but I find myself—on a daily basis really—learning things from them and feeling mentored myself.

One of our tutors is a guy named Michael.  He recently graduated from the University of North Texas with a kind of interdisciplinary degree and calls himself an expert in Tejano music, especially the part it plays in Mexican-American culture.  I really like him for a number reason.  For one, he is very much an intellectual and wants, eventually, to get his PhD and become a professor.  He’s also he’s very passionate about politics, and anyone who’s read any of my blogs understands that this makes us brothers in arms.  (He has said, on more than one occasion, that he has friends who are quite active in a variety of anti-fascist organizations.)  I have not pushed him for details on what his friends actually do and he has not voluntarily offered to say more than what he’s already revealed about them.

I mention Mike because he’s both cool and also recently said something that really got me thinking.  On the day he delivered his words of wisdom, it was a quiet time in our writing center, so we had an opportunity to chat about a variety of subjects.  Somehow, I can’t even remember how now, the subject of my goatee came up.  (I’d let it sprout out again after being clean shaven for months.)  While talking, I confessed to having mixed feelings about it because it’s so grey now.  I told him that it had been jet-black and really groovy back when I was younger.  After hearing this, he crossed his arms—I’ve noticed this to be one of his mannerisms—got that half-smile look on his face, and then said, “So you’ve got grey hair.  Embrace it!

His words were exactly the right ones to speak at exactly that moment.  They made me realize how much of an imposter I sometimes can be.  I mean, come on, I call myself a stoic, have read and studied all the great stoic texts, including Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, a book I would advise every human being alive today to read and to ready carefully, and yet here I was whining about having facial hair that was a little discolored due to age.  Michael’s words embarrassed me and made me realize that I need to live stoicism not just understand its tenets.  I need to fully accept that I am getting older.  That I am aging.  That this body I have is, slowly and inexorably, fading away.  I may not be dead yet, but I am certainly on my way down the path.

By the way, the stoics believe that one of the few things we can count on is that decay and impermanence are part of the natural order of things.  Thus, fighting against the aging process is like trying really hard to keep the sun from rising in the east each morning.  Michael had helped me see that embracing my greyness was a way of practicing stoicism.

I want to finish by thanking Michael for giving me a metaphorical slap in the face.  I certainly deserved the sting of his words.

October 30, 2018

I lived in Egypt from 2008 to 2015.  That put me in the country during the 2011 Revolution.

After the Egyptians flexed their collective muscles, others, including the Americans, were inspired to follow suit.  (Everyone remembers the Occupy Wall Street movement, right?)  Activists squatted in Zuccotti Park just like the Cairenes had done in Tahrir Square.  Then the movement metastasized.

Eventually, though, the occupiers dispersed or underwent a metamorphosis.  (Energy of that sort never fully disappears.)

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about Zuccotti Park and Tahrir Square.  And I’ve gained some insights about what happened in those places.  For example, I’ve come to see revolution as a metaphor. It is a kind of human flowering that occurs even during a drought.  Actually it occurs because there’s a drought.  That makes it very ironic.

Revolution is an ending.  It is a beginning too.

It can also be seen as an expression of that which can’t be fully expressed.