Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Would You Call This Dark Humor?

Sometimes when you think you have it bad, you never really know. Last week, I was complaining about a racist cop, about being oppressed in a free society. Today, I get an email about how one of my best friends had just heard that eight of his friends have been arrested, and are being beaten and starved for having gay pornography in their homes. Living in a country that won't tolerate homosexual behavior was their crime.

Oppression? I haven't even seen the tip of the iceberg.

As he described what had happened, the authorities bursting into their homes off a "suspicious activity" tip from their neighbors, it reminded me of what the Nazis did to the Jews, a scene directly out of "V for Vendetta"; only this wasn't history, this wasn't a movie, this was only days ago. Here. Now.

I kept visualizing the only images mainstream Hollywood has given me and in picturing the same things happening to a friend that I consider a brother, I couldn't hold it in any longer. I cried as he told me, cried as I asked for help from a human rights lawyer, as I explained the story to others, as I type this now.

At the end of the day, we debriefed on the progress we had tried to make and in talking about this he just kept saying, "I can't believe this is happening. This is a nightmare. There is no God."

I tried to lighten the mood by talking about some irrelevant, superficial topic. Maybe something we used to laugh about. We once had a 30 minute conversation where we would only read to each other the most obnoxious porn titles we had ever heard. I don't think I ever laughed so hard.

Now he had begun deleting his collection. "A life's work," he said. "Deleting each movie was like being forced to wear a mask, to hide who you really are." I found it strange how erasing pornography could be so symbolic of oppression, yet at the same time it made complete sense. It was almost inappropriately humorous.

I told him he should have one more go at it before he deleted the last ones. Maybe I would too and we could "masturbate in solidarity". After a quick laugh, he said that he just couldn't. He was too shook up. Maybe in a couple of days. "Only if you feel it's safe," I told him. I never thought I would be saying that about jerking off, but damn, I really meant it.

It was, as I kept repeating to him, pathetically comical. But I hope he got to laugh, if only for a moment, to forget how lost this world has become. And maybe, just maybe, squeeze out a smile from these obnoxious jokes we were being forced to make.

Monday, December 29, 2008


I sat at my window smoking a cigarette, listening to Nina Simone's "You'll Never Walk Alone", a song I used to listen to in Honduras when I got lonely, never knowing the title of the song until I got back to Seattle. I was reflecting on the day's events, on how I need to reevaluate what has happened to me this past week and hating myself for yelling at my family. It's just not right. But the human organism can only take so much at a time. At least until it learns to handle more.

I've been back for a little over a week and the world looks differently to me. I see, feel, experience every moment. I can finally say that, well, I am happy. I realized that if you're just nice to people, you receive niceness back. People here in the US are just bred to grow up mistrusting the world and just being, mean. I figure, everyone deep down is a good person. You just need to bring it out of them somehow. Like my high school principal said in our graduation speech, "It's nice to be nice."

But sometimes you get disillusioned. You get carried away and you need a reality check. Mine came in the form of spinning out and running into a tree in my sister's boyfriend's Ford Explorer. A good friend of mine flew in from Denver to see her daughter for Christmas and being that her family didn't own any four-wheeled drive vehicles, she asked if I would be willing to pick her up.

I had the choice between my two wheel drive sedan (not happening), my mother's Mercedes that was buried in our garage, or my sister's boyfriend Eric's car that was already sitting in the street, free of snow since we had just dropped him off the night before at the airport. He had given permission to drive the car, so I thought that to be the safest, most logical choice.

I picked up Paia, and like most good friendships, they pick up right where they left off. We had gotten breakfast, shopped for Christmas gifts for her daughter and my mother, sorted out my problems at the bank, and finally headed towards her home.

I figured the street between the 7-11 and Chevron was safe to drive on. It was a flat plane and cars were passing through back and forth. Still, I cautiously drove about 12 miles an hour down the street that was normally regulated at 35. I guess we must of hit a ice spot because I soon lost control, the car spun out of control and eventually ran into a tree.

We called a tow company but being they were backed up due to the numerous crashes, abandonments, and stalls, they wouldn't get to me until tomorrow, if I was lucky. Being that I just ran uncontrollably into a tree at 12 miles an hour, and a local neighbor had his parked car rammed by a driver in a similar situation, I know I didn't want to leave it on the street. We decided to call the police. The public servants. The ones that serve and protect.

As we waited a Dodge Ram approached and the driver asked we would like him to help pull us out. He was Mexican, or South East Asian, I couldn't tell. I just knew he wasn't white. As he attempted to drive around the curb, I heard a glaring megaphone roar, "Sir, if you want to damage city property, I suggest you don't." I approached the officer and tried to explain to her the situation but she just told me, "Well, he can't damage city property in the process." Finally left with no further options and a line of 15 cars waiting behind us, she allowed him through.

During the tow, she then proceeded to ask me the typical questions. Driver's license, registration, insurance card. She asked details about the accident, how fast I was going, where I was going. I told the cop I was going about 10-15 miles an hr. Under her breath she mumbled, "There's no way this was under 15 miles an hr". The white neighbor who had gotten his car hit an hour ago interrupted by saying, "Oh no, I saw about 4 accidents today and all of them were going about that speed." After witnessing more interactions between us and the police officier, he later said, "Wow, she's being really mean to you two."

She wasn't very nice, but given my new revelations, I just figured she's had a rough day since accidents like this were happening all over the city. But then I saw a smile. I saw her joking around with the other white neighbors. When I approached, the smile melted.

(Officer): "You know you're really lucky I'm backed up. If I had more time, I would write you a ticket for reckless driving in hazardous conditions."

(Me): "Ok."

(Officer): "It's a serious offense."

(Me): "Ok."

(Officer): "No seriously, it's about $550.00 and a day in court."

(Me): "Ok."

(Officer): "No. You're really lucky we're backed up. Otherwise I'd write you this ticket."

(Me): "Ok. Thank you officer."

(Officer): "Okay. You have a good day now."

My friend indirectly asked the officer if she could have a ride home by complaining that she now had to walk home in the snow. The officer replied by saying, "That's what you get for being reckless and driving in these conditions." It would have taken her two minutes to drive my friend to her house. Instead she made her walk 30 mins, in the blistering 29ºF weather. She couldn't even carry the "Heeles" she had just bought her daughter. I had to drop them off with the tow driver.

The tow driver and the mechanic were judgmental. I could sense a bit of hesitation in doing business with me. The tow driver kept making sure I had money to pay. The mechanic treated me like I was some posh rich-brat who could "wait at Starbucks" while the car was being fixed. But after just a few exchanges they warmed up to me. They all let me change their minds. The cop was racist. Maybe she had a traumatic experience with people of color. I don't know. But hate like racism, hate that runs that deep in the veins cannot be cured by just a friendly conversation.

I came home and my family was relieved I was okay, but immediately began saying how I shouldn't of picked up my friend, how I shouldn't have ran errands with a car that wasn't mine, how I shouldn't of taken it in the first place. They were right in some respect, although I don't leave a friend stranded, I stopped to pick up a present for my mother, and the owner gave me permission to use the car. Sure I fucked up, but I was hoping for some slack from my own family. I guess I kind of lost it.

I was shitted on by everyone today. By the cops, by the tow driver, by the mechanics and now even by my own family. I had to eat that shit, said it tasted like strawberries and ask for more. Sometimes you just reach a breaking point. But you have to maintain your humanity. You can't let these things kill your hope that this Godforsaken place can still be saved. It just isn't worth it.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bad Day

I had a really shitty day today. To top it off, I came home greeted by the BBC headline that reads:

"Pope Benedict XVI says saving humanity from homosexual behavior is as vital as saving the rainforest."

What kind of fucking world do we live in?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Welcome Home

It was funny that the last person I talked to outside of the United States was Wes from Salt Lake City. A white, middle-aged financier who was ideologically to the right. A pro-capitalist. My virtual arch-nemesis had it been a year ago. But the one thing he disliked about his work was that he never got to see in person the change he made in people's lives. He eventually wanted to be a teacher, that and a football coach. "That would be perfect." The old me would have cut off the conversation. Before, I would have never found that out.

Because I had only carry-on bags, the baggage claim was our essential parting point. Since I could just go straight to the customs check, I decided to take down his email with the extra time. As I tried to approach the customs counter, a harsh voice barked, "Get back there!" I looked up to see a stoned-faced guard with a real "fuck-off" expression on his face pointing at me. I tried to explain that I didn't have any more bags before he interrupted by asking, "Can't you read?!" I must of hesitated because he soon viciously repeated, "Get the fuck back there!" I then saw the sign that read "Please Wait Until You're Called." I guess I was a bit thrown off. I mean I was coming from being treated like a human being in all these third-world barbaric countries, to arriving at one of the world's most civilized societies and being spoken to like an animal.

Of course he quickly directed me to be searched and I was greeted by yet another customs agent. She was nice enough. Asked me if I had gone to Antigua when I told her I started in Guatemala. But for about 20 minutes she entered something from my passport into a computer. When she finished, I simply asked if I could know what it was about. After some nervous glances, she told me, "It wasn't personal, it was just Top Secret." I couldn't know. I asked if I could at least have the name or number of the policy that allowed this. I felt as a born citizen, I had at least the right to that. Like day and night, her tone suddenly changed and asked in, as almost a threat, if I'd like to wait and see the supervisor, then added again that I couldn't know. Since it would have probably led to more trouble than it was worth, I decided to just let it be, thanked her, and went my way.

I went out and smoked a cigarette harder than I ever smoked in my life. It helped hold back the tears. Not tears because I felt discriminated (even though I was the ONLY one checked during the 30 minute search), but because all those old feelings of anger, hate, and vengeance began to surface again. I thought I had learned to leave those behind.

"Your security is our top priority." This is my country. The land of the free.

But on my way home, I sat next to a man from Leavenworth, Washington. I never got his name but it's what we talked about that was important. He worked odd jobs that forced him to frequently travel and was actually one of the first people I met that hated to leave home. He just wanted to be with his wife. Maybe he'd open a pizza parlor or a barber shop one day. He said, "People look for happiness in the wrong places. Sometimes it is right in front of them, in the simplest things." I appreciated that.

I had many emotions in me the last few hours of my journey but I think that last interaction happened for a reason. It taught me that even in the darkest places, there can still exist hope. After 17,885 cumulative hours of traveling, I finally stepped back into Seattle, and as we parted ways at the boarding gate, he shook my hand, smiled, and said, "Welcome home."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


The biggest weakness of the human design is emotions, yet emotions are exactly what makes us human.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


I'm going back home, well more like a short break, to recollect, to rethink, and to reflect on this past year. People say on a journey like this, you find some meaning of life. If there's anything I've learned, it's that there exists no one meaning. The only thing constant in life is change. I read and reread my blogs and I see my change. I carried a lot of hate and anger. I still do. But it is a demon that I am constantly battling and I think, I'm winning.

My friends tell me I should write a book about my travels. I tell them that if I write a book, it won't be about me. This journey, has never been about me. But about my teachers. The ones I met along the way.

It has been about the gracious hosts who proved that despite all the ugliness in this world, there is still always room for kindness. For all the boxers who generously shared their stories, opened their homes, and most importantly, entrusted me with their hopes. For every panhandler, begger, and street vendor that taught me my reflection through just being, them. For all the friends and family that gave their energy when I could no longer stand on my own. And for that special one, who showed me my capability to love unconsciously and unconditionally.

Thank you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Extra Baggage

I left my heart in Colombia but had it broken in Ecuador.

How can you break something that you left behind?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Farewell

When people ask me, "Of all the countries you've been to, which was your favorite?" Without hesitation, I say Colombia. You can't help but appreciate a country as complex as this.

There remains the tragic dichotomy where places exist to drink tropical cocktails on a beach resort, while simultaneously, villages are being destroyed and terrorized by both the ideological left and right, as this country currently remains in civil war. The drug trafficking continues to run rampant, political bombings still occur and there is probably the widest disparity of wealth of all the countries I've been to. But Colombia is special.

Through all of this, it is the most geographically beautiful terrain I've ever had the pleasure of traveling. I've had the inspiration of innovative artists instilled in me, tasted a delicious variety of cuisine, heard creative melodies tantalize my eardrums, and witnessed the most profound perseverance of the human spirit. Colombia is beautiful.

In some ways it is reflective of my own personal transformation. I don't love Colombia because I enjoyed every second. On the contrary. There were times where I felt absolutely miserable, considered giving up and going home, but by sticking through those tough times, I've been able to become a better person. I place Colombia in my heart because of the very fact that it put me through every possible human emotion. Here I've experienced happiness, depression, love, hate, anger, joy, guilt, redemption, and most importantly, forgiveness.

For all the smiles and cries, how could I not love it?

Friday, November 28, 2008

My Favorite Dutchie

Airports are strange places. A cauldron of emotions. Departures, arrivals, a melting pot of hopes and fears. I accompanied Soraya to catch her flight in Bogota and in noticing the farewells around us, I felt those exact same things. Before we left Medellin for Bogota, Soraya found it "strange to start missing a place while you're still there," an eerie premonition of how I predict to feel in a few days. But I've learned to enjoy the moments as they happen, to cherish the days she came back to Medellin. She had returned to visit me and another good friend, Luis.

A spiritual healer through the art of cuisine, Luis is probably the most passionate human being I've ever had the pleasure of meeting. He calls me "Samurai", not necessarily because of my Asian descent, but because he tells me I live by a code of discipline to accomplish what is needed, and oddly enough, he has been the only other person to hear of the book "Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai". Before I left he said he wasn't sad. He just said to both of us, "Go do what you're supposed to do".

Soraya and I had this thing where every time we saw each other or went our separate ways for just the day, we'd hug like it was the first or the last time we'd see each other. Our last hug at the airport lasted several seconds, with me lifting her in the air, giving a kiss on the cheek and whispering well-wishes into her ear.

It reminded me of my farewell to Gloria in Nicaragua. I wanted to grasp onto the final moments, maybe have just a few more seconds to share something between us, a casual comment, a deep aphorism. It didn't matter, just as long as it was something. Only this time I didn't want to take her essence. I only wanted her to find what "she's supposed to do" and maybe one day I'll have the foolish luck of seeing her again.

I guess you could say I've learned to cope with separation, letting go of the precious people, places and things you come to love. Sometimes it's simply a "see you later." Other times its a goodbye for good. Either way, I suppose what's important is that it is what it's meant to be.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


It's difficult to be aware of "Statey" holidays while being outside of the country. I didn't even realize it was Thanksgiving til I haphazardly called my parents and they immediately greeted with an enthusiastic "Happy Thanksgiving!", which was soon followed by my realization that I was sitting alone in an apartment in Bogota, eating wiener and cheese quesadillas that I made on a George Foreman grill.

Oh well. I was never much into celebrating the colonization of Native people anyways.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Just Like Any Other

Travelers say there's something special about Medellín. Something that keeps you here. The people, the climate, the environment. You'll never want to leave.

While I was saying goodbye to some friends at a local beauty salon, I noticed a new barber. He had braids and a very clean cut, so I thought it'd be nice to get myself lined up. Actually, it was more like he noticed me as he immediately approached me and introduced himself. Maybe he could sense we shared a similar style, spoke a similar English dialect, but for whatever reason, I'm glad I met him.

His name was George, or "Bori" as they called him for his upbringing in Puerto Rico. Cutting hair since 13, he lived all over the US, from San Diego, California to Jamaica Queens, New York. He was deported to Medellín after serving four years in prison. He had spent nearly his whole life in the States.

It reminded me of a guy I met in Livingston, Guatemala who caught my attention for speaking English with a New York accent. Arriving without a bit of Spanish, he also was deported to Guatemala two years ago, because apparently he was an "illegal alien", despite the fact he lived all 23 years of his life in New York. "The system doesn't give a fuck about you if you're black" he says. That seems to be true in every country I've been to thusfar.

I asked "Bori" if he liked living in Colombia. "Fuck no," he told me. Apparently three of his friends were gunned down within the last week inside his neighborhood. "It ain't that different from where I'm from but I spent my whole life in the States. That's what I know," he said. It was strange for me to hear that since I'm constantly surrounded by travelers trying to find excuses to stay. I told this to George and he said, "Well shit, if you got money, this place is paradise." I guess Medellín isn't that different afterall.

(Me, Alejandro and George, a.k.a "Bori")

Monday, November 24, 2008

Making Peace

Being in Medellín has allowed me to understand my time in Cartagena. It's difficult to arrive at a fair conclusion if you only have a myopic view of your surroundings, but it wasn't until I became defensive when one traveler snobbishly said to me, "Oh, you'll only need 3 days in Cartagena. It's shit", did I realize that I loved the coast. For all the trickery, anger, and sweltering heat, it still became a part of me.

In some ways I even preferred the coast to Medellín. In some ways it was just realer. People here in Medellín are friendly, but almost as if they force it onto you, like they need to prove something, so much, it no longer is about how they treat other people, but about what people think about them. Sure, the coast is known for its bluntness, but I've always preferred honesty to superficiality.

But when I went back to Cartagena, one thing that warmed me was to see the festivals. Not necessarily for the colors or the vibrancy of the well-tailored costumes, but of the people. It was nice to see everyone happy for a change. Nice to see everyone just forget about all that bullshit and party. It was a nice break, but eventually reality comes back.

After being in cities like Bogotá and Medellín, I'm beginning to understand maybe why Cartagenans are so angry. I don't think I've ever been to a place where the class divide was so drastic, so in your face, and in such close vicinity. I would probably be angry as well if I woke up everyday to flooded dirt streets and rotted wood walls, only to take a bus for half an hour and see the same luxurious high rises you'd find in Beverly Hills. Having to ask "why" without receiving an acceptable response would piss me off too.

I guess you could say I learned to make peace with Cartagena. Not with every street vendor that ripped me off, tour guide that lied to my face or even the kid that robbed me. But I think I learned to make peace within myself, because in the end, that's all we can really do.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Lost in Translation

Jose was his name, or as I always knew him, "mi entrenador" (my trainer). With probably the heaviest coastal accent I've ever heard, most days I never understood the instructions he barked at me while I worked the heavy bag and combinations on the pads were always wrong until I just learned to follow where he positioned the mitts. I didn't even know his name until someone else told me.

He said the boxing federation gave him 2.000 pesos a day for his 2-hour long bus transit, but the rest of his income was dependent on fighters' earnings. His most recent fighter earned a purse of 300.000 pesos. With the standard 10% going to the trainer, that left him 30.000 pesos to split, leaving about $7.50 USD for 3 months worth of work.

He was by far the most dedicated coach I ever met. The only one to show up on Saturdays. From 8AM to 6PM he was at the gym, even ate lunch in the gym and sat around helping whoever needed it; well after all the other paid trainers left to their homes.

We never really spoke until I returned, never really had any sort of casual or deep conversation, but there was always something there. Surprisingly, he was the most excited to see me when I returned to Cartagena, the only one to defend me when one boxer tried to stiff me for some money he owed. He looked after me, always scolded me when I carelessly left valuable items unattended. Maybe because he stuck by that cardinal code of the Sweet Science, that a trainer, always takes care of their fighters.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Too Many Slushies

For the first time I feel good traveling in a hostel, I feel somewhat normal. For the past week I've honestly been partying everyday in Medellín, sleeping an average of 4 hours and realizing that dancing is one of my life passions.

Josh and I are complete opposites yet he's one of the best people I've ever met. One of the only travelers I've gotten along with, perhaps a commonality in our own respective oddness. Josh hardly spoke a word of Spanish but he told me, "The best tool you have to communicate is your smile."

I've had some of the most profound conversations with my friend Soraya. Both of us are trying to figure out who we are and who we want to be. In some ways I've learned who I am by the type of people I interact with and likewise, the ones I choose not to. She doesn't like negative people and I tried my best to hide my pessimism, but also, I think I'm learning to leave it. I can't judge people's behavior, well, at least not intially. Plus, I still really want to be her friend.

I came back to Cartagena to see how my friends were doing. I ended up taking out two of the boxers during the Queen of Cartagena festival. Naturally, I paid for everything, as most days, the fighters can't even afford bus fare to the gym. It was then it really hit me how much of a privilege partying was. It hurt to have friends you really liked but couldn't see due to financial restrictions. I had a blast that night and the six previous nights in Medellín, but it wasn't free. These things cost money. The things travelers seek and do are luxuries. But I can't blame them for enjoying it. Hell, I do as much as anyone else would. I just wish people would acknowledge it more often.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Please Note

That the country spelled with two O's.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Lesson Learned

It took me 24 years and 7 months to learn this. A little bit overdue but hey, better late than never right?

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Still Confused

One of the hardest things I've found is how I constantly have to eat my own words. "Sit down and talk with people, share a few laughs, dance a few songs, hug each other." Yeah right. Do that in Cartagena and you'll be relieved of whatever valuables you have in your pockets. Things here have turned me cold, but at the same time a bit wiser. Although sometimes I feel too cold, a tainted perception, a loss of compassion.

They tell me, "don't ever give money, if you give something, give food. And if you give food, rip it in half so they can't resell it for money". One kid, a clear drug addict, walks around shirtless, shoeless and has some optical deficiancy where he can't open one eye. He always asks for food, money, something for me to give him. At this point, I've been numb to these requests, even if they really need it. I just ignore them, sometimes I even get angry.

The last time I adamently said "no", he started talking to me afterwards and asked whether I was in the movie "You Got Served". According to him, I favored one of the dancers. I told him I used to bboy. With a sudden excitement he recalled how he always wanted to learn, in fact he was still trying, but with a somber, almost apologetic tone, explained that he just couldn't, find time to practice.

After a few seconds of what seemed like a silent comprehension of the distance between his dreams and his reality, he said to me, "Pero bueno. Que bueno que puedes practicar. Eso es una cosa buena" (But good. How great that you can practice. That is a good thing). Then before he walked away, he patted me on the back, smiled and gave me a thumbs up. Maybe he wasn't such a bad guy afterall.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Let There Be Light

Palenque, Colombia. The first self-liberated African slave colony in all the Americas. Naturally, this also means it was and still is one of the most socially oppressed places today. But what always comes from struggle comes beauty. From Palenque comes wondrous music, the first international Colombian actor, and of course, the great "Kid Pambelé".

Antonio Cervantes, aka "Kid Pambelé", a boxing legend and national hero. He won the title in 1972 and with it, brought electricity, running water and telephone for the first time to his hometown Palenque. And people say boxing is a sport of brutes. Ironic that one "brute" can bring all the commodities of what they would consider "modern civilization". Or maybe those people just need to take a closer look into a world they never bothered stepping into.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Back in Venezuela

"I'll never have to do that again," I sighed with relief after finally crossing back into Colombia from Venezuela two months ago. Yet lo and behold, I'm back again, in need of renewing my Colombian visa that would have expired a day ago. At the second of the eight border revisions, they demanded I step into their office for a body search.

They started with the same sorry ass pat down and then requested I get nude, again. I protested, again. But this time my "where's it say that in writing" line didn't work. He just said I couldn't get into the country if I didn't drop my trousers. I told him I would take off the pants but the underwear was staying. He nodded. We managed to come to a mutual agreement.

If I had wanted to bring drugs into the country, I could have put them in my shoes, my hair, or somewhere in the other bag they didn't even bother to search. I felt singled out, picked on, nearly violated.

When I got back I was told they were looking for a bribe. I just felt they wanted to exercise their power, perhaps a plus to the money they never received nor asked for. In the sense of solidarity, the driver angrily recalled his experience in Miami airport, how immigration designates a line for Colombians only, how they do the same that they did to me, only semi-nude negotiations can't be made, the "random search" takes three times as long, and dignity is stripped down much further.

I thought about the US customs. I couldn't imagine them wanting a bribe (or at least their amount would be astronmically higher). You couldn't buy your way out of the humiliation and degradation. I felt like a 1 yr old baby crying over spilling some milk when the stonefaced kid next to me had gone days without any. Maybe it wasn't solidarity at all. Maybe it was a, "It happens. Quit whining and get over it".

I echoed someone else's explanation about how its because Colombia had a bad reputation, how everyone thinks about either the FARC or cocaine trafficking. One of the passangers said now it was going to be worse. Apparently some man in Barranquilla hired a hitman to kill his own son. The press was tearing this story apart.

It immediately reminded me of a case we discussed in an American Ethnic Studies course about a white woman drowning her baby in a river and then blaming a ficitional black man of kidnap and murder. I wonder why when discussing the US, people don't think of that or the dozen of other similiar stories I found on "google" when trying to find the name of that first case.

I guess the world is weird like that. Unfair to say the least.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Shadowboxing in the Rain

Moments of clarity come at the strangest times. For me it was after a friend's birthday party, running on the flooded streets of Cartagena at 4:30 in the morning. What started as a walk turned into a jog, which soon enough turned into a run. As the light drizzle became a heavy pour, I stopped at a dock and watched the raindrops overturn themselves in the water. They say that God is in the rain.

For some reason I threw out a left jab, then a right, then danced around and threw classic 1-2-3's. Shadowboxing felt like the only proper thing to do.

That night I saw how shallow human nature can be, how things like trust, honesty and friendship are manipulated for personal gain. I can't say I'm innocent as this was a strange reflection of my own actions; a self-inquiry of who I am versus who I want to be. I wouldn't say it all made complete sense then or even now, but I am starting to see this journey and myself more clearly.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Crashing Thoughts

(Parque Tyrona, Colombia)

The sea always reminds me of my father. He once went scuba diving in Hawaii and talked about it ever since. Snorkling, a near relative, perhaps a cousin to scuba, introduced me to that fascination my father fell in love with. Bunches of florscent dancing sea vegetation, schools of fish darting like sliver slits of light from an early 90s sci-fi movie, massive rock formations revealed themselves only after you dived well into their territory, as if they said, "Now you're in my world. Welcome." It was beautiful. I wish my father had been there to share my revelation.

I kept thinking that if somehow the water disappeared entirely and placed me back in the jurisdiction of gravity, I would surely plunge to my death from the height I was hovering above the ocean floor. In fact there were many ways I could have died. A slush of water into the snorkel, a leak in the goggle, an unidentified sea creature startling my breathing pattern, all would have been enough to put an end to a novice swimmer like myself. Perhaps that was what made it so enticing; the fliration with death, the prescence in forbidden territory.

For some reason while I glided over the coral reef, I wondered if the boxer that sold Mandarin oranges had ever gone snorkeling here. I guessed the more probable "no" and in the overdramatized scenerio I played in my head, began visualizing the astonished look on his face when I ran up and asked him, "How was it!?!" But no. The reality of this place was a mix of majority white faces, conversing either about the fear of being beheaded in Colombia or how much they were shitting in Bolivia. Why would they think twice about an orange salesman?

This brief visit back into the backpackers' circuit reaffirmed that it wasn't for me. I could feel my Spanish slipping just from being around English speakers. Within these past few days I've met people from 11 countries, though hardly any of them are from Colombia. It makes me wonder how much you can learn about a place if you spend most of the time around people who aren't from it.

It was a bit strange that the culmination of my travels should now come together in a place that at any moment could kill me. Yet in some ways it made complete sense. My simultaneous relaxation and excitement, my incomplete comprehension of the surroundings. Me, seperated by plastic goggles and a snorkel, always on the outside looking in.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Beat Back into Perspective

"No es porque son malos, es porque hay mucho necesidad aqui" (It is not because they are bad, it is because there is a lot of necessity here), explained my coaches as they suggested I move my bag away from the open spaces. That comment somehow escapes me during the rest of my interactions in Cartagena. One would first have to understand that Cartagena is the principal tourist destination in Colombia, meaning constant bombardments of souvenir vendors, panhandlers, and overpriced city guides. I've now been thrice the victim of thievery in this country, most recently by a punk 17yr old kid who swiped a memory chip when I wasn't looking. Of course he lied when I confronted him about it and I felt silly at the thought of physically threatening a teenager. But the blatant dishonesty is what gets me. The lying. I hope what my coaches say is true, that the behavior spawns from necessity and oppression rather than people just innately being ugly organisms.

But the gym teaches me something. Many fighters approach me with a hopeful smile, introduce their matrimonially tied names and respective weight class. They leave me their phone numbers and addresses. They ask me how they look after a sparring session. I suppose the combination of my nationality and unlikely continued prescence at the gym must translate into professional boxing scout. Or maybe they're just so desperate to get an opportunity that they might as well make a pitch to anyone from a place like the United States. I don't know how to tell them that I'm merely a sociology student who doesn't even have a real job. So I don't.

One fighter sells Mandarin oranges on the bus. On a good day he'll make a net total of 10.000 pesos ($6.25) if he sells out the carton. Most often he doesn't. With the costs of lunch and dinner, it's as if he didn't earn anything at all. When I took his picture, I wanted to help him with some bus fare and was deciding whether to give him 2000 or 5000 pesos. I felt shameful at my ability to fiddle between a fourth and a half day's work.

I don't know what the robberies did to me. They took more than mere material possessions. They took my compassion towards pepole, my ability to trust, a part of my humanity. I've been uncharacteristically mean to people, aggressively arguing with random street vendors and complaining to myself about it later. I've become exactly like those I once criticized.

But being in the boxing gym, training with fighters who actually do these things, puts a face and story behind it all. Knowing them instead of salespeople and rather just as people trying to feed themselves and their family, puts everything back into perspective. I can't say I've left behind all the rage instilled from the dishonesty and selfishness I've encountered, but I feel less of it between those ropes. It is like Katherine Dunn says: In the boxing gym, I am earning my right to be kind.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Two Faced

"Cartagena tiene dos caras" (Cartagena has two faces), was what Guillermo, the guard at the boxing gym told me the other day. Without any need for elaboration, I already knew what he was referring to. The taxi ride from the bus terminal to my hostal was like driving through the gritty streets of an LA ghetto to the paved marble of Beverly Hills, only it was a 10 min drive from each other.

At first we drove by streets filled with trash piled randomly along the roadside, rusted metal grills encrusted over broken glass windows and peeling paint jobs over molded wood that pleaded for renovation, I thought, "so this is Cartagena." But as we passed by the very blatant divider of the historic city center, my eyes were soon greeted by high rises and upscale speciality stores; a metamorphasis into a man-made paradise available for sale or rent to the casual traveler.

The hostal where I first stayed at and now work is located in the richest area of Cartagena, but ironically is my cheapest option as my employment earns the room and board. The boxing gym, unsurprisingly, resides in one of the more impoverished areas and the boxers come from even humbler origins as their neighborhoods don't even appear on the map plastered on our hostal wall. I enter and return to two different places everyday, virtually two different worlds. Each passing day making it harder to comprehend how such inequalities can be in such close vicinity and seemingly overlooked.

When visitors ask me what there is in Cartagena, I try to casually mention in between the Volcano tour and the Chiva party bus that in reality Cartagena is extremely impoverished and retains an underlying system of racial segregation, but most guests just reply with nervous smile and ask where the nearest beach is. Hell, I can't blame them. Most, after all, are on vacation. Perhaps they lead very socially conscious lives and I still haven't learned to lighten up. I've just lost too much faith in humanity to believe that.

(Outside of my hostal.)

(Outside the home of a fighter.)

("Barrio Bocagrande")

("Barrio Olaya")

These two neighborhoods are fifteen minutes away from each other.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Something is...missing.

I’ve always wanted to learn how to file taxes, I just never thought I’d learn it in Venezuela.

As I was sitting at my couchsurfing host’s dining room table, working on some old credit card statements, a stout and lofty figure crept into the house. By the “who the hell are you and what are you doing in my house” look on his face, I knew it was the owner Scot had warned would be pissed if he found me there.

And sure enough, he was, booting us both out and now for the past few weeks I’ve been helping Scot file nearly four years worth of taxes, working anywhere between ten and eighteen hours a day in a kind of hotel that charges by the four hours. I would be lying if I said I always wanted to learn fire-modeling, but here I am nonetheless, diagramming churches and simulating fires to calculate the time people would have to evacuate the premise.

Beyond the short lived revival of my geometry and calculus skills, this unexpected lengthy stay in Venezuela has been a twisted labyrinth of emotions, but most notably, guilt. I don’t think I’ve ever personally caused another person this many problems. I feel like everything I try to help with makes the next thing worse. It would have been better if I just never showed up at all.

I haven’t written anything for the past few weeks, frankly because I’ve felt like I’ve lost my ability to write anything readable. The words no longer effortlessly find each other, translating thoughts into sentences has become painfully difficult to the point where I’ve just lost my will to keep writing. This place has taken something from me and I need to move on to recover it. Maybe I’ll find my integrity there too.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Public Service Announcement

Turn off the idiot box. Turn off the idiot box. Turn off the idiot box. Turn off the idiot box. Turn off the idiot box. Turn off the idiot box. Turn off the idiot box. Turn off the idiot box. Turn.....

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Path of Most Resistance

"People have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it."

- Rainer Maria Rilke, 1904

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Epilogue en Venezuela

Alexis lost his first fights at both tournaments. I'm not exactly sure what he plans on doing afterwards, but I believe it will be continuing in his daily routine. Right now he only boxes part time, the other half he spends working at a factory that makes dish drying racks. He was the same fighter who told me the danger in his strata-2* neighborhood was "normal". I hope he can find more peaceful normalcy in his future.

Jeyson advanced to the semi-finals of the first tournament but eventually lost to a fellow Colombian who is headed to the upcoming summer Olympics in Beijing. In my opinion he was robbed of the decision at the second tourney. No shame in his performances and he doesn't seem to think so either. When I asked him if he saw a future in boxing, he seemed doubtful, saying he'd rather settle with something that allowed him to travel. China was where he would go first.

Pitalua, the "hothead", came up short in both tournaments, but accepted his silver medal with graceful sportsmanship. Of all the fighters, he had been apart from his family the longest, 2 years and counting, simply saying things between him and his mother haven't worked out. But I remember him telling me the reason he began boxing was for his mother, to give her a better life and for her to be proud of him. If and when they do reunite, I'm sure he will have accomplished both.

Fiader Hernandez placed a respectful third at both tournaments, having the difficult task of fighting his teammate at the former. These were to be his last amateur tournaments as he plans to turn pro later this month. This career change will force him to move from the strata-3 neighborhood of the athletic apartments to a strata-1, as the league does not support pro-fighters. Before we parted, I begrudingly exchanged my hat for one of his shirts, thinking it would be a small token of well-wishing for his uncertain future.

Cesár bettered his third place performance by triumphantly winning the gold at the following tournament. The look on his face reminded me of when he was reminiscing about art school. I couldn't be happier for him. I hope now the trip was worth it for him and his soon-to-be family. Before I left, he gave me one of his training jersyes and said "quiero que tengas eso, para un recuerdo de Bogotá, y ahora tú puedes decir que habia un tiempo que conocías Cesár Villanaer" (I want you to have this, for a souvenir of Bogotá and now you can say there was a time that you knew Cesár Villanaer).

This has been the longest and probably in the closest proximity that I've stayed with a boxing team. If I learned anything, it was the unselfish act of sharing. It was difficult to part with the hat that I really liked and traveled with for so long, but I remembered the generosity of Cesár and thought gestures like that needed to be passed on. To the final moments the team helped carry me as they insisted on me riding their bus as close as possible to my next destination. It wasn't until I descended those steps did I realized that I may never see or know any of them ever again. But I suppose I'm slowly learning how to accept the inevitable, and perhaps Cesàr was right. At least I can always say there was a time where we did know each other.

*Colombia is literally stratified. Cities are divided into sections called "stratas", ranking from 1 to 6. The number indicates accordingly the area's local income, availability of public services and so on. Strata-1 and strata-2 neighborhoods have the least amount of resources and unsurprisingly, the highest incidents of violent crime.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Civil Democracy

As I was jotting my thoughts down the other night, one of the boxers, Jeyson, asked me if I had another pen. I didn't but I told him he could borrow mine, thinking whatever it was, it would only take a few minutes. With nothing to do, I thought it would be a good idea to shower since we all had to share one between the 11 of us. As I stepped out half-naked in my underwear, the fighters were grouped around in a large circle, much like how one used to do in grade school. After a few awkward seconds and a couple of odd glances, I broke the silence by asking what they were doing. They told me they were discussing the problems with Bogotà's boxing league and were collaboratively composing a letter of their sentiments to the coordinators. They had needed my pen to list the changes they all had agreed upon.

The setting reminded me of my sections in college. Topics were brought up orderly, hands were being raised, all voices and input being heard. Never once did anyone speak out of turn, never once over one another. By the time I finished showering the meeting was over. I went to Cesàr's room and asked what kind of things they had asked for. He said for better accomodations on trips like this one, better equipment (as most of them had to share shoes) but most importantly the opportunity to study.

In Cesàr's case that meant art school, which he had to abandon for work when his father left the family. By the way he talked about art and the smile in his eyes, I would guess he'd much rather do that than work 10 hours a day and endure a 3 hr training session afterwards. Soon after, Jeyson joined us to elaborate on the situation, but before saying anything related to the meeting, he looked at me with a kind face and asked ¿Ya banaste? (Have you already showered?)

Throughout my stay with the team I've been asked a variety of "ya's". ¿Ya dormiste? ¿Ya comiste? (Have you slept? Have you eaten?) If I ever answered "no" to any of these questions, they would quickly scramble to find some recourse for me to receive the same as they had. One boxer, Fiader, used to even invite me to eat lunch back in Bogotà even though I had my own accommodations and it really could have got him in considerable trouble. Apparently during the meeting he brought up the issue of me having to pay for the second leg of my journey, which, to my discomfort, outraged many of them. They told me not to worry, that they were going to handle it for me, but I ended up paying anyways. It came out to about $70 USD for a week's stay, with the trainer only charging me for 5, and in Venezuelan Bolivares rather than Colombian Pesos. I didn't want to cause any of them problems back in Bogotà, and after Jeyson needed to purchase medication for a rumptured eardrum he received in his last bout, I figured it was the least I could do after all the kindness I had received.

Being with these fighters constantly reminds me of the incomprehensible imbalance in this world. Had Cesàr been in the States, perhaps the same circumstances would have passed, but it was his passion that made the difference. His passion represented how many people I've met along this trip that would kill to just have the opportunity to study. And to think in the States, people complain about their course load, stress over what to major in, and student athletes believe they are "forced" to study when others have to hold union meetings to become one. I almost feel a bit shameful when I tell people about my scholarship, embarrassed that there exists a world where one can virtually be paid to travel and I am living in it (although perhaps the catch-22 here is that I would have never realized it if I hadn't been able to travel).

But when I told Jeyson about my journey, he was just, happy for me. It really said something to me, the absence of bitterness that is. Despite my situation being somewhat reflective of the unfairness in the world, for them to just be happy that someone could experience such an opportunity, was well, big of them.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Candy Bar

It's interesting how the value of two weeks can vary depending on the person. For me, the decision to take this two week stint in Venezuela meant, well really, two weeks in a different country rather than another. Normally it would have meant money spent on food and lodging, but because I've been photographing and printing images for the fighters, they've been taking care of me; giving me leftovers from those who have to make weight or sneaking me meal tickets. It's even gotten to the point where the Venezuelan staff think I work for the Colombian press and just pass me on as part of the team. In addition to staying with a couchsurfer, this trip hasn't cost me much outside of the time.

But for many of the fighters' time equals money, two weeks means half a month's salary, which for most of them is the minimum wage in Colombia, or 250.000 pesos, about 150 USD. I asked one fighter, Alexis, what he spends his money on if he lives and dines in the athletic complex supported by the government. He told me "cosas personales" (personal things). When I asked him to elaborate, he said, "Como ropa, cosas por la casa" (like clothes, things for the house), which would seem perhaps like luxuries if the basics were already provided, but then he continued by saying, "Jugetes, cosas para mi nina" (toys, things for my daughter).

Another fighter, Cesàr, also has a child, or almost, as he pridefully showed me a picture of his 9 month pregnant girlfriend. I asked him if he felt it was worth it to miss out on two weeks salary at the eve of his child's birth and he told me, "Ahorita no mucho, porque vine en tercer lugar. Vamos a ver en el otro torneo" (Right now, not much because I came in third place. We'll see at the other tournament). Unlike travelers such as myself, they can't just say the experience alone was worth it. For them time counts; every moment, every fight.

It reminds me of my training sessions in Bogotà. After each day, the coaches would thrown down nutrition bars to the fighters. I never got one. Training in the gyms of all the places I've visited, I wanted to have the barrier of my nationality disappear, be seen as just another fighter. I sweated side by side with these guys, bled with them, collapsed in exhaustion with them, all in an effort to become closer, to just be part of the team. But I wasn't. In the end, I didn't wake up every morning hundreds of miles away from my family (well I did, but the reasons are worlds apart). In the end, I had choices. The sweet science was a hobby, not my way out or to "salir adelante" (to make it). In the end, I was still, a visitor.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

National Aggravations

The 38-hour bus ride from Colombia to Venezuela wasn't tortuous, but having to watch National Treasure three times was.

The attempted strip search by Venezuelan border guards didn't help either.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The 8 Count

These past few weeks have felt like a macrocosm of the first round in my second amateur match. I suppose the best way to describe my opponent was how the friends I invited thought, "Damn, I hope Nick isn't fighting that guy", as they watched him viciously rip punches into the heavy bag during his warm-up drills. Even I had thought I walked into the wrong bout when I saw his stout, stocky figure looming across from me during the ring introductions.

About 1 min into the fight I went down on a left hook, so hard that when watching the replay, a woman nearly fell out of her seat in shock. As I rose, I remember not feeling disappointed for myself, but rather embarassment for letting down all those I had invited. Therefore I continued. It was the first time I felt my body doing the exact opposite of what my mind was telling it. I wanted to quit. Instead I kept throwing until the bell signaled my survival. I walked back to my corner, bloodied and dazed; unsure what awaited me in the next round.

I've been hesistant to write this entry with confidence, afraid that another stroke of bad luck might strike me down again, but i'm starting to feel my legs back under me. I realize I was trying to jusitify that what I learned was worth what I lost, trying to make things "OK" too soon, like a fighter who jumps up after a knockdown instead of taking the full 8 count.

I am still hurt by my losses. It saddens me to watch the tanline on my finger disappear from wearing a ring that was gifted to me by my Moroccan friend Mohammad. Seeing necklaces brings a painful reminder of my former friend Afrose, who gave me something to protect me, though it seems to fail against my own negligence. The absent sound of colliding beads from the braclet Thao-Chi gave me represents how I've been feeling as of late, and Sergio told me the expired dog-tags he gave me represented the times he was happiest. God, it hurts to type and say that out loud.

But when I emailed him an apology, he simply sent a reply with the subject line, "Things Happen!" and was just grateful that I was safe. Akey told me that these things were irreplaceable, but in the end, they are just that, things. He said the people and memories they represented was what mattered and the important thing is that I haven't lost them.

I ended up winning the fight by a come-from-behind TKO in the second round. At this point I would be lucky to just finish the fight, though I'm not quite sure what that translates to in the context of traveling. I think I've figured out reasons for all my losses, all but the gifts from those most important to me. Perhaps in some ways it was to teach me to deal with loss, but in many, more sensible ways, it just reminded me how irresponsible I was. The one thing I am proud of is that through all of this I never vented my anger outwards, it was always towards myself. If anything, I am more unsure of my decisions and need to learn to trust myself again, rather than the places I am going to.

I've debated back and forth on cutting my trip short and coming home, but on a bit of a whim, I've decided to continue and follow the Colombian boxing team to Venezuela for an amateur tournament. I couldn't have made that decision without the unconditional support from my friends and family pushing me on. I feel like I can keep going, though on unsteady legs, like a battered boxer backed against the ropes, foolishly waving his opponent in; a tell-tale sign that a fighter is hurt, but ultimately, still ready for more.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Gastronomic Redundancy

I am getting quite tired of always eating chili, Thai coconut curry or Moroccan Tagine. And yes, I am still in Colombia.

Edit: I don't know what I've been eating, but it must have a lot of fiber in it.

Just finished watching Paris, je t'aime. It's amazing how they can squeeze in Asian stereotypes into a movie about love stories in France.