Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Blaming Game

It's been said that sometimes we need to travel the world to find what we had at home all along. On the 24th of December, my host brother described to me the events of the two prior nights when he had ventured out to protect his older brother from circumstances that have elevated since I last spoke. Apparently the one Nicaraguan gang member has turned into five: two from Nicaragua, two from Los Angeles, one from El Salvador and all from Mara Salvatrucha.

Had Sergio not gone back that night, Pablo would be in the hospital, if not dead. Thank goodness I had failed to convince him to stay home that night. However this whole situation has turned from preoccupation to irritation as anger and frustration filters through my emotional sieve.

I want to blame Pablo for his uncontrollable habit of irresponsibly drinking, but the realization that addiction is a disease, not a choice, makes me reconsider. I really have no idea what his life is like or the type of problems he has. Sergio tells me he holds in a lot of pain due to reasons I won't make public, so he drinks to run. I'm in no position to judge that.

I try to blame the gang members that have been threatening us, but knowing the history and social evolution of this gang, I know it's bigger than that. Often referred to as "Los Hijos De La Guerra" (The Children of the War), Mara Salvatrucha originated from refugees and the children of refugees fleeing from the El Salvadorian civil war, settling in California. As what happens to most displaced people relocated into ghettos (and ghettos are neighborhoods of racial segregation, NOT to describe something poor or malfunctioning), they form some kind of community organization against the xenophobia of the already settled demographic.

These common traits appear in all gangs, from the Irish gangs of the 1840s to the Bloods and Crips more than a century later. And behind all gang formations is some economic driving point. For Irish gangs it was the potato famine, a result of religious and social oppression. For the Crips (Community Revolution In Progress), it was deindustrialization. For local gangs in Seattle (and yes there are gangs in Seattle), like the Rascals or LRBs, it is often traced back to the communist wars of Southeast Asia. It is never as simple as just a bunch of punk kids that were born bad.

Knowing this makes me want to blame exploitation, those conflicts over ownership and distribution. It makes me blame the impurity of greed, regardless of skin color. But that doesn't absolve individual choice. People still need to be held responsible for their actions.

So I run around confused, desperately searching for something to be angry at, something to help explain this and ultimately I end up angry with my own life. Angry at the lack of struggle, angry that I didn't have something still too difficult to overcome to distract me from these thoughts my mind create.

But the point of Sergio's talk was to learn to appreciate my own life. The point was to be thankful of the sacrifices your family make that allow you to be in the position you are in today, as my own family has done. I realize now that being angry at my life devalues these sacrifices. It tells them their efforts were in vain. But there is some worth in struggle, some value in pain, maybe this is mine. I'd be lucky if that's all it was.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Second Chances

There are many euphemistic ways to describe a loss in boxing. Archie Moore "went" 4 rounds with the legendary Muhammad Ali. James Tillis was the first to "go the distance" with the ferocious Mike Tyson. I guess you could say this last Sunday I had the opportunity to be in the ring with Guatemala's National Champion.

Four months ago I first stepped into Xela's boxing gym and sparred with this contender. At that point it was my first training session in almost 8 months full of non-exercise and nasty lifestyle habits. Regardless of my disadvantages I fared pretty well. His wide shots and predictable style were easy to read. But in these last four months I half-heartedly trained as he improved exponentially; tightening his stance, shortening his punches and acquiring a national championship in the process.

Last time the coach asked me to fight in an exhibition match at the local university. I would have and would have lost badly, but an injured shoulder prevented it, something I wish I still could have done. However, this past week they asked me to fight again, a second chance, in a little town called Hüetan.

On the two hour journey on a dusty trek, the asphyxiation caused tearful pleas for air, the winding roads turned stomachs as they did cars. When we finally arrived, I found myself to be the only foreigner, greeted by constant chants of "Chino Chino!", inquiries of how to speak English idioms and glares of curiosity. Throughout the entire stay I felt somewhat out of place. The only place that felt familiar was inside that ring.

The first round went beautifully for me. I was landing right hand leads, the biggest insult in boxing. I was ducking, rolling, and even throwing counter punches in the Philly shell defense made famous by James Toney and Floyd Mayweather Jr. I successfully turned his aggressive attacks against him, and threw classic three punch combinations against the ropes with hardly a scratch on me. After the first round, I thought I had him. The second round, was a different story.

I had mixed feelings coming into the fight. I hypothetically wondered what it would look like for a foreigner to come in and beat the national champion. It would go against my ethos as being a respectful traveler. Foolishly, I decided to let him have a few blows to my face to even it up. The first two punch combination stunned me, surprised me and I took a step back, nodding in agreement with the strength of his shots. I responded with a solid body attack, although it appeared he didn't even flinch. It wasn't so much the strength of the following punches that caught me, but the speed and succession of them. I remember seeing my view slant diagonally and simultaneously go downwards, much like a first person point of view to someone dying in the scene of a movie. Even though I beat the eight-count, the trainer stopped the fight right after I slurred out in English, "I don't think I can keep going." He had knocked the Spanish out of me.

Like the many ways to soften the description of a loss, there are twice as many excuses I could make as to why I lost. It could be the 10oz gloves we used, when I've always fought with 12oz, the fact that in the last month or so, my head just hadn't been properly trained to take the hits, or that for the four hours beforehand, I sat with children in my lap in weather cold enough to see my breath. It could be that my stomach was being deceived and feasting off anxiety rather than proper nutrition, however that was a shared circumstance and if he simply is accustomed to such conditions, then he rightfully deserves that advantage. But the biggest reason I lost was because I underestimated my opponent, miscalculated the fight, and above all else, he was just the better fighter that night.

I can't help but feel disappointed, as most fighters do after a loss, especially a knockout loss. But my choice to do this in the first place wasn't about winning, it was about attempting to do something I was afraid of. During the long drive home I asked myself if I was okay with my performance and I think I am. I concocted numerous justifications as to why I gained more than I lost in this experience.

I got to visit Hüetan, a small village not frequented by travelers. I gave a story to my opponent of knocking out someone from the US, or China (as I was introduced in the fight). And on top of that I was given 60 Quetzales, equivalent to about 8 US dollars, the first time I've ever been paid to fight. Can't say it was a bad day.

(From the left to right: Felix a.k.a "Conguito", Alejandria, Me and Wendy)

(Me with the Guatemalan National Champion: Carlos Chavez)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Season's Greetings

Last night two white women came up to my host brother and I and immediately started shouting in what sounded like US American English, the name of their hotel and motioning with their fingers. My best guess is that they were asking for directions to their destination without any sort of considerate effort to ask in Spanish. Despite our response being made in fluent English, they chose to listen with their eyes rather than their ears as they continued to raise their voices, dribbling incomplete sentences composed of incoherent words to express their inquires. Apparently common courtesy is not part of their native tongue either.

Earlier that day, I overheard another traveler spouting some ignorant garbage about Guatemalans not understanding the benefits of healthy dining, thinking that the excess of unhealthy food is due to the people's glutenous attraction to "what tastes good" rather than maybe taking into consideration the simple equation that unhealthy food is easily movable and cheap, so therefore impoverished countries have an abundance of cheap, unhealthy food available to them, not because they are uneducated or inconsiderate of their own well-being.

Around the holidays I've heard that armed street robberies go up two, sometimes threefold. I don't even know how to feel about that. Most of the culprits commit crimes to give presents to their families, so maybe they don´t feel like a piece of shit the midnight of the 24th and their kids can be welcomed by a wrapped gift rather than an bumbling apology. Some of the victims tend to be travelers as they are assumed to have more money, which often times they do. For some, I feel bad for, like my new Danish friend Carston, who was robbed two days ago at gunpoint. The type of gun, he doesn't know, as I'm sure the possibility of death doesn't specify what caliber firearm is being shoved into your abdomen. From the little I know about the man, he's a good guy, and I feel horrible this would happen to him, yet part of me still feels none of us are ever purely "victims".

I really hate myself for thinking this, more so, fear myself for thinking this, but for others, like those whom I mentioned above, I wouldn't feel a hint of remorse if something similar were to happen to them. Stealing implies ownership which inevitably raises the question if these travelers really ever owned their belongings in the first place. Most come from places where the economic infrastructure is dependent on exploiting countries like Guatemala. People tend to forget that often times crime is driven by the surrounding conditions and ignore how those conditions are created. I'm sure many foreigners earned their keep honestly, but would that opportunity to earn an honest buck even exist if this exploitative relationship didn't?

Travelers take so much from countries they blaze through on their self-absorbed backpacking treks. They appropriate culture, burn through resources, and often times give nothing back. And rewards aren't always monetary. We seek stories, that, "I can't believe you did that!" reaction when we return home, and that is what we hope to acquire regardless of which society we harm in the process. People want to be so quick to say that they're not "that kind of traveler" or that they're somehow exempt from the global connectedness that we are all implicated in. Somehow people want to justify that the rules just don't apply to them. I only know this because I too once had these thoughts running through my head and am now confused as ever as to what I'm doing here.

Sometimes I think that travelers being robbed isn't always the worst thing, a small price to pay for the too often overlooked privilege that has been created by this crazy world. Sometimes I think things need to be taken back, because we've created a smoke screen of false justifications to keep what we really didn't earn. Sometimes I think we all need to know what desperation feels like, myself included.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Death Before Dishonor

After three flights, eight hours of trying to sleep with my face plastered on the fast food tables of the Mexico City airport, having fate mockingly place my departure gates in the furtherest possible terminal from my arrival gates, and spending seven hours of a five hour bus ride, I've arrived to my first stop, Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

The strenuous travel in the beginning sacked my awareness that I was even starting a life changing journey. It wasn't until we were flying above clouds of cotton candy consistency, did I realize how beautiful this truly is. I spent the next seven hours doing one of the things that make me feel most liberated: staring out the window of a traveling bus.

I know I may be technically breaking the Bonderman rules since I've already been to this town four months ago, but one thing I picked up while traveling last time is the differentiation between "visiting" a place and "knowing" a place. I find it interesting to think of places as we do people because in many cases, the people make the places and just like people, places change as well. Stores now close earlier simply because dusk falls sooner. The cadence of life changes with the seasons.

Upon the reunion of my old host family, I find another member visiting from the States. Sergio, a new host brother. We get along immediately since we both find passion in the combat arts and in contrast to his older brother Pablo, whom I bounded friendship with four months beforehand, Sergio does not smoke or drink excessively. Apparently other things have also transpired within those four months as Pablo has had some late night run-ins with Nicaraguan gang members. Sergio, the younger of the two, now carries a flip out police baton every time we go out. Strangely enough these type of situations are familiar to certain times of my adolescent years, but also foreign since I've already been able to say farewell to them.

Part of me thinks of leaving, but that realization is what stops me. People both here and back home in the States do not have that choice, they do not have that luxury of safety as a readily available option. From what I hear, Pablo did nothing to provoke this guy. He was only being his cheerful self and from what I remember of him, I believe it. Things like this are not fair. The reality of choice being restricted to some is not fair and I'm tired of playing an unfair game.

Of course I am not going to do anything reckless or irrational, so there is no cause for major concern, but I've realized that much of this journey has been about fear. Fear of loss, of accepting life and death, fear of the unknown. I spoke earlier of feeling free, but I know that it is only when one sheds their fear that one truly free. Perhaps this situation has been conflated to something it really isn't, which often times these type of things are, but this is a microcosm of what this entire journey is about. This is the first test. And I'm the lucky one, I'm the one being selfish and self-absorbed. This whole thing is not even about me, but about a friend who needs good people to stand with. I think I can manage at least that much.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

And Then There Was One.

Three months, twenty five days, a healed shoulder, hip-hop benefit concert, photography show, and Ricky Hatton 10th round KO via Floyd Mayweather JR left-hook later, I'm finally off. It's funny. I was originally supposed to be the first of the six to leave, but now I'm very much the last. I know the Bonderman panel want recipients to leave as soon as possible so they maintain the sentiments of their proposal, but if anything, my postponement only reaffirmed my beliefs.

In my essay I said that the things that I choose to do, the way that I am, are because of my friends, are for my friends, because they make me who I am. After this past week, I now know more of where I've been and less of where I'm going.

Before I left, I virtually met and reminisced with every person I've ever known for the last 10 years. For me, each conversation I had was like a memento on a certain point in time of my life and I got to take a walk through roughly its last decade, reminding me that you don't always have to leave home to go on a journey.

I parted ways with dear friends onto uncertain fates, strengthened my understanding of family, been told to of impacted the lives of others, experienced the death and revival of love, and had it all capped off with the perfect smile. I couldn't have asked for more.