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.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Proceed On an Empty Stomach

Probably the worst thing you can do while watching the first ten minutes of Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, is eat a big bowl of chili.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

"We Return From the Place Where We Came From"

"I take another breath. Smoke my Newport to the butt like it's the last mothaf#*ka left" - Tupac Shakur

I've been gone for almost six months now, but its felt like longer. Traveling has a strange effect on time. It condenses the hours into minutes, makes the days feel like months. Nicaragua feels like a year ago. Guatemala another lifetime. I've been reading through my blog, observing my transformations, noting the experiences that got me here and unsuccessfully trying to predict of where I'll be. I recognized that most of my entries have a hint of a morbid tone, perhaps the darker side of what is supposed to be a bright, colorful journey; but we are organisms of emotions and happiness is only one of them. I can gladly say that I've been fortunate enough to have what I can consider one of the best days of my natural life on this trip and maybe "there won't always be more. Maybe happiness was that moment. Right then". But that doesn't mean pain can't be beautiful.

My immersion into boxing gyms has allowed me a unique opportunity to understand what probably is a sliver of what its like to be near the botton of a country that already doesn't have much, and from my experience, has been one of the safest ways to do that. I've heard so many stories, witnessed so much struggle, that I'm beginning to feel the weight of it all consolidating. You might think that repeatedly hearing how boxing saved someone's life would start to sound like a broken record, but it doesn't. Seeing people quite literally fight to better themselves never gets old. But I've almost had a sick attraction to these tales, it gave me this sense of gratefulness for my own life, like it helped me ignore my own problems.

For the past two weeks I've been waiting on medical results from a biospy to see if I have cancer. It is as if this particular practitioner likes to make it as dramatic as possible. Each time I'm given a date to call, each time I prepare myself to hear the news that I may die soon, I'm told to check back, again, and again...and again. It's like a cruel gameshow that keeps cutting to commercial before revealing what's behind door #1. In some twisted way I almost wanted to be positively diagnosed so I'd have an excuse to go home, not so much because I was homesick, but because there are so many things I would do over again on this trip, so many times I want to relive. My thoughts focused on the different stories I would seek, different pictures I would take, never thinking about how I would have to fight for my life, how I'd have to "face the hours".

I only told one person about the possibility of my having cancer and immediately regretted it when I realized it was selfish of me to worry anyone in the preliminary stages. Everyone seemed to be dealing with their own equally troubling problems and I'm in no position to say if one's person's issues are worse than another, despite all that I've seen on this trip. It feels like those that I knew are going through so many transitions, so many changes that I wonder if I'll recognize their person when I get back. People are staring new careers, getting married, having kids, some just released from prison, others still there. I can still remember the faces of those I left behind, but will they be the same? Will I?

I know I won't. Maybe this biopsy is a wake-up call. It made me realize that during the motorcycle accident in Nicaragua, nothing flashed before my eyes, not because I didn't care about life, but because I didn't think I was going to die. I don't want to die. But at least I can say I was able to live one of the happiest days of my life and even luckier to be able to recognize it in the moment. Then, I didn't have to worry about anything, no social expectations, no obligations. I remember one moment when I just told myself, "don't worry, everything will work out". And it did. All I had to do was let fate carry me away and enjoy the ride. I was free.

But then you crash back into reality, which for me is being in Bogotá. I could feel things getting progressively worse. Twice the victim of petty thievery, the possibility of being diagnosed with cancer, and now, with all on my mind, irresponsibly losing my bag full of expensive electronic gadgets, has just been...too much. It's not the monetary value of these things, it's what was inside them. The wallet was a gift from Akey, the phone had a guitar recording of my friends from Costa Rica, the bag, had, God, irreplacable items from those that mean the most to me in my life. I feel that I've been stripped of everything that has meant anything to me. I'm trying so desperately to find the lessons in all this, make sense of why I deserve it all, but it's so hard. I feel so weak. But that is what life is. It is exactly what I've been repeatedly told on this trip. "La vida es una lucha" (life is a fight) and "you can't find peace by avoiding it".

Update: I just found out I don't have cancer.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

"Gracias a Boxeo"

I walked into the boxing gym of Bogotá greeted by stares of curiosity and eventually asked exactly what the hell I was doing there. As I tried to explain my desire to join the gym, an argument erupted between two of the boxers where they wanted, of all things in a boxing gym, to fight each other. At first I was a bit surprised to see the coach not do anything, but looking back on it now, it was probably because he didn't have to.

The fellow fighters kept them apart, at times lifting them in the air, all the while smiling, joking, and laughing so much that it took me a few minutes to realize an altercation had even occurred. At one point they began doing a mock imitation of a bullfight where one fighter would run through the shirt of another, while the rest of them would shout "¡Ole!" You could feel a real bond between them. One boxer later told me "somos los mejores amigos" (we are the best of friends), probably because for some of them, their teammates are all they have here.

The interesting thing about boxing in Bogotá is that most of the fighters are not from Bogotá. Most come from the impoverished regions of the Atlantic Coast or areas more heavily affected by the country's social turmoil. Many are Afro-Colombian, the race most disproportionately representative of the politically displaced. Almost all have moved here to live in a dormitory of athletes, sometimes a day and a half's worth journey away from their homes, all in search of a less crowded, better funded training facility. When I asked one Afro-Colombian fighter which ones were actually from Bogotá, he said with almost a chuckle, "los blancos" (the white ones). I took his semi-humorous, racially defined response as an invitation to ask if he felt any discrimination here in the capital. As if I had asked whether 2+2=4, he replied "si, claro" (yes, of course), but with the exact same tone said, "no, nunca" (no, never), when I asked if there was any in the gym. Boxing, like many other arts, is like that. To your teammates it doesn't matter what you look like or where you come from. All that matters is what you bring inside that squared circle.

Yet at the same time where you come from does matter. It is usually the motivation to join the gym in the first place, which is why you'll find most gyms packed full of the socially marginalized, the ones society said to forget about. When I asked one fighter what his neighborhood was like, he said, "Esta bien. Hay de todos. Hay bastante inseguridad, ladrones, gamines, viciosos, de todo pues. Pero no. Normal." (It's good. There is everything. There is a lot of insecurity, thieves, street people, drug addicts, well everything. But no. Normal.) He combined the stark contrasts so fluidly, said it so nonchalantly that I just had to simply ask if he considered it dangerous or safe. Being that the last word I said was "safe", he quickly interrupted, "es peligroso" (it is dangerous), to make sure I didn't get the wrong idea. My roommate Andrea told me this was reflective of Colombia's normalization to violence, which I'm guessing is a coping mechanism to help maintain your sanity in such unstable surroundings. But normalcy should not be confused with complacency. I asked the same fighter if he liked living in his neighborhood and with that same dark humorous tone said "aparte que me gusta, me tocan" (apart from whether I like it, they force me).

A few days later I spoke with one of the boxers involved in the altercation. The day beforehand he had stormed out of a training session for reasons I couldn't understand due to the language barrier. He just seemed like, what we in the boxing community call, a "hot head". But when I spoke to him he was calm, reserved and articulated with charm. During our conversation he kept using the phrase, "Gracias a boxeo" (Thanks to boxing), like how one would normally say "Gracias a Dios" (Thanks to God). He told me the most difficult part of boxing was being away from your family, which in his case included six months of living inside the gym before a space opened up in the athletic dormitory. He described how "los ratones te quisieron comer" (the rats wanted to eat you), while mimicking a miniature nibbling mouth with his hands. But he said "vale la pena" (it was worth the trouble). Now, "gracias a boxeo", he is able to both study and box, and is currently finishing up his high school requirements. According to him, this is indicative of how the sport is changing, how most fighters' lives change for the better after gloving up.

In the end the two fighters never made up. They never shook hands or made official peace like their teammates had wanted, but at least they were eventually able to walk by each other with nothing more than a threatening glance. The next day they were training side by side, at times even jesting with one another as if nothing had ever happened. And that's exactly what the sweet science does. It takes away some of that aggression from those that have been instilled with so much by their surroundings. It combats some of that painful history that people are just inexplicably born into. But it doesn't cure everything. Sometimes during the minute in between rounds or after training sessions, I see the boxers sitting alone. I notice a recognizable, yet indefinable look on their faces. A look of frustration, of pensive aggression that at times is directed at the wrong people, like teammates, but channeling such emotions peacefully is difficult. In order to do that you'd have to understand why fate chose to give you such a life, understand why the world is unfair to begin with, and of all things, accept it.