the peace of mangos

'emirembe ya miyembe' i say to Ivan,
who swings from a fruited mango tree
in the timeless summer of Uganda,
sticky green orb in hand.

i am not talking with him: i am under a blanket
in wintry Colorado, an ocean, a continent,
two hemispheres and the world's economy apart,
knowing that this is mango season.
imagining these african orphans i love
rolling ripe mangoes under palm til they juice,
biting a hole in the top to suck them dry--
swinging from trees, hanging fifty feet up the canopy
to toss the ripest to waiting hands below,
each day dispersing in little bands to find fruit,
to pick bare the closest trees, promising fruits
to those who have stayed behind, never as fresh
as those moments from the trees, sticky-sweet.
no need for worry now about how many beans, how much posho
each plate will get: the yellow bar is open.

this is the peace of mangoes, emirembe ya miyembe,
for which i am longing, just a piece--
alone instead, at home, dreaming of Africa.


nothing short of a miracle, maybe: my fifteen-minute anchor

busyness. if i had to write life in the US in five words, this would be one of them: busyness. the bane of our existence, the bill of our subsistence, the heart of our existential angst. cell-phone-ringing-running-to-the-car-twelve-minutes-to-get-there-and-things-im-forgetting busyness.

it's something i learned to live without, to really mentally exorcise, during my time in Uganda. no more: like people with jobs and children or events to go to or hobbies to do or TV shows to watch or people whose jobs are so tedious/unpleasant that all the non-job time is needed just to recharge, i have joined the Great Stream of American Busy. my busyness is grad school, which makes few claims on my scheduled time, and massive claims--if i am to do it well--on my unscheduled time. that is, i only actually need to be in school about ten hours a week: five hours of classes, three hours helping a professor teach, two hours of office time. that's it. the real demand is reading--i probably spent 50 hours a week reading this semester, and the balance of time was synthesizing what i'd read into papers for class. and the insignificant balance of that time was spent doing the things i wanted, like spending time with others, or spending time with myself doing nothing in particular.

as the semester goes on, this balance of time lists increasingly one-sided--until the couple of weeks last month in which there was no balance, and i gave up all pretense of preserving it. life was work. read, write, read some more. revise and write again. can you believe i blew off my own mother and gave only a day to a friend who'd flown all the from Japan to see me? forget about balancing priorities. all this culminated in a 25-page research paper on Uganda, and a 15-minute presentation to be given in front of 100 people or so, these two projects being the only grades in the class.

the paper is more or less done. the presentation i gave today: tenth in line out of fifteen or so, i foolishly sat in the first row, presentation on my mind, and watched everyone else get up stressed and nervous and deliver their sweated-over 15 minutes of infamy. i was in the front row, as close as i could possibly be to them, and the nervous energy was palpable. i wasn't actually worried about my presentation until other people started giving theirs, but hearing the stress in their voices, the nervous ways their eyes darted, the strained looks people next to me were giving their presentation notes, i started to feel it, physically, painfully. my shoulders tightened. my chest condensed. my heart beat a tighter beat. in a few minutes i went from unearthily relaxed about this large part of my grade, based on a brief performance, to a flaming stress ball.

let me back up: there's a reason i'd made it that far with unearthily calm. i'm sure, having talked to the rest of the students in the class, i was the only one like that. this is because i made a promise to myself, just as the worst of the unbalanced all-work-and-no-play time was getting over a couple weeks ago, to give myself one concentrated dose of do-nothing time every day, to try and balance the weight of so-much-to-do time that grad school seems to be. i started meditating.

not much: i know what a realistic promise is, know what i'm capable of. i said fifteen minutes, told myself i could find at least fifteen minutes every day to sit down and do nothing but notice my breath going in and out. and that fifteen minutes of awareness would be my anchor in the other sixteen hours and forty-five minutes of headless-chickenness.

so it was: i calmed down about my giant research paper, made a plan to finish it as best i could in the time remaining, and did. same for the readings i was doing meanwhile, same for writing the presentation script and making the powerpoint. obviously, there wasn't enough time to do it perfectly, there was too much to cover. stepping back and taking a breather, i could see accepting that lack of time would be better than stressing over my inability to either create time or clone myself to get more work done. so i sat down, wrote out the presentation, refined it, made the powerpoint, had a nice evening with friends practicing and critiquing each others' work, and then i was done, stress-free. nothing short of a miracle, maybe, judging by the anxiety my friends were experiencing today. i even found a couple hours last night, as i should have been making final stresses and revisions to my presentation, to sew part of a quilt and listen to my intoxicated friend talk about his parents' relationship growing up. life is good.

good, that is, until i finally caught the the Flaming Hot Potato Stress Ball we were tossing back and forth in the front rows of the auditorium. what if i screwed up my presentation? what if my mouth got dry, i ran the powerpoint wrong, what if what i'd written was dumb, i went over time, was way under time, talked too fast, too slow, too quiet, clammed up, flabbergasted, failed?

presenters switched, my time grew nearer, shoulders tenser, chest harder. my heart was beating sulfur instead of blood, achey and ready to ignite any moment. meditation has made me aware enough of myself and my body that i sat there feeling myself get this way, tense up, not wanting to, like a child on a rollercoaster i suddenly decide i don't want to be on, barreling down a rickety wooden track. overriding in my mind was not the thought that this would all be over soon, or that everyone else was feeling the same, but just that this was bad for me, that i didn't want to feel this way, didn't want one ounce more stress in my body than absolutely had to be there. after all, i have to live in this body, be it, for a long time still.

so i took a breath. not a quick, busy one--a nice, deep breath, as though i was sitting at home in a quiet room during my fifteen minutes of concentrated-nothing time. that was a fantasy--i wasn't at home, i was minutes away from standing up in front of my professors and peers and trying to sound intelligent with my mind aflame and chest asqueeze. i took another breath, still pretending i was peaceful, staring at the woodwork on the bottom of the lecturn, and another one, slowly, deeply. and then i wasn't pretending anymore: i literally sat there and felt my heart slip out of double-time, my shoulders unknot, my chest unwind, breathing deep, breathing slow. i managed to sit for a minute or two, calm again, and actually hear what the presenter was saying. then i'd notice the tension creeping up again, and remember to breathe, and gently unwind the intensity.

this is my fifteen-minute miracle: knowing how to breathe. that's all i had to do to calm all that anxiety. don't get me wrong, it wasn't easy, the stress came back each time my mind wandered, and i'd have to remember to breathe again, but basically i got all those straps of anxiety to uncinch and fall off with some simple breathing. when it was my turn to get up, i got up, said my piece, pushed the buttons at the appropriate times, and didn't once flub my lines. i delivered the message it'd been so important to me to send, took some questions, and got a nice round of applause as the next speaker got up, nerves sparking fire.

this was the fifteen-minute miracle everybody else saw: my presentation. i didn't think it had been that good, or bad, but afterwards i got lots of sincere compliments, some from peers that really mattered to me: they thought it'd been good. a couple told me it'd been the best of the day. to them, maybe the miracle was how calm i'd been on stage, or how i'd managed to get enough sleep the night before, or to put together my talk that well with all the other work we've had on our plates.

i know the miracle was simpler than that: it was breathing. knowing how to stay calm enough to not get overwhelmed by all of it, and just do what had to be done the best i could. and so this is my way of living in the Busyness of our great United States: to make sure i balance the Hectic with the Fundamentally Non-Hectic, and better yet make non-busyness part of my business, so that it never gets overwhelming in the first place. because being busy is good, if you're doing something worthwhile. but the second you're getting stressed out to do it, mistreating yourself and probably others in the process, is it still worthwhile to do?

no. that kind of busyness needs a miracle. good thing we are one, and capable of more.



i haven't forgotten you. far from it. there are reams of unwritten blogs a-moldering in my head. there are computer keys at odds with me, because i haven't tickled them in unscholarly ways for days and months. i am at odds with myself, for not writing more. at serious and disturbing odds that i haven't evened my life-as-a-student enough to make time to digest it in entertaining ways for you, as i managed to during my life-as-a-volunteer in Uganda. if you've been reading awhile, i hope the reading has been worthwhile for you. it has been endlessly so for me, and my desire to keep it so has actually gotten in the way.

no, this is not writer's block. the real writer's block in my life is my inability to shut off from schoolwork and make time for other things, which i'm working on. i've simply been too busy since school started to write much, but i'm going to try to work on that (see the next blog). what i mean when i say my desire has gotten in the way is that i'd like to present things so neat to you, so comprehensively, that i hesitate to begin the story again mid-sentence, as it must inevitably be since i haven't written much in months, and lots has transpired which i can no longer lucidly relate.

so be it: let's just treat my life like a made-for-TV movie that you sit down halfway through and only figure out what's going on by the sordid events and dialogue that transpire after you've settled. only better.

in the meantime, i really am halfway through a book, two thirds through a novella, and an inch into a bookish work of fiction. they've stagnated with the rest, but as school holidays are coming soon, let me hope they'll get closer to completion and thus to you in the near future.

til then, adieu, thanks for reading.


my bicycle love story

is one of pain, forehead stitches, decades-old scars,
of broken ribs and countless bloody road rashes;

of loss, of bicycles left in foreign countries with familiar friends,
a collaged german monster left with Shigeru in Kanagawa,
a fifteen-year-old Specialized with Osupet in Uganda,
still the nicest bike in a town where everybody who has the money to own a bike bikes,
and no one has heard of an aluminum frame;

it's a story of childhood, a never-ending childhood that's almost
made its way into a third decade, grinning like a fool in rush hour traffic,
whistling down deserted midnight streets, playing guitar even,
done with work and friends but not with life or its wonder;

a story of freedom--from chores when i was a kid, from family when i was a teenager,
from society when i was old enough to sell the car, from helplessness
when i was abroad, and always from the tyranny of two feet;

a story of being the change in the simplest ways possible,

and always a story of love--for health, for friends, for travel, for freedom,
for this earth and all of us who live here, including you and i.


heavy laid

from the start i knew this was going to be a peach to savor: the way the fuzz balled under my palm, the way the juice welled up at the first touch of my teeth, cool and sweet. it was magic. better yet, the farmer who sold it to me said it'd been picked that morning--as fresh as could be, local and organic. on a hot summer's afternoon. mmmm.

so i laid my bike down and took a seat of the curb, a few feet from the steamy mainstream of farmer's market traffic, intending to enjoy my peach fully. this was, after all, the moment for which someone or ones had so painstakingly cared for this fruit from a simple green bud in spring to the invitingly heavy orb in my hand, at the peak of ripeness. how could i eat it with less than full attention?

nonetheless, the market was a riot of peoples and foods, little girls with their dads, 50something lesbians sampling roasted almonds, hippies from the hinterlands come to town to sell their crops. above all, beautiful women, in all the varieties a health-conscious university town can supply. strolling this way and that...

the fruit. right. sweet melange of orange and pink, i let it rest in my sight a moment, then laid my teeth where they'd first broken the surface, and drew them down through the flesh to the fattest part of the peach, juicy meat rolling on my tongue a moment before my mind caught up, neurons themselves tongue-tied trying to communicate the flavor.

they were nevertheless eloquent.

a second bite, this time sinking down to the core, delightfully cool and solid under my teeth, peach flesh pulling back to expose a section of dark red pit, like a dirty secret under all that fleshly armor. pushing my tongue through the cross-section of flesh i took a flavor sojourn from the sweet juice of the surface down to the tarter, firm flesh next to the pit--but what really caught me was how cool it was, almost cold down there in the center, nature's refrigeration on a 90+ degree day, still cold from the night before and a morning picking, sitting there in its crate in the back of a pickup box bouncing who knew how many miles from the country into Boulder, then sitting out all sunny day and still this cold? amazing. i don't fear to label such things miracles, they are. and most miraculous to those blessed to experience them. this was worth every cent of the dollar fifty i had to bike to the bank to get (paper money being something of a novelty these days).

a third bite, cutting up from the bottom to complete the trench started by the last, sweet cold fruit pulling clean away from the pit, shaped like the watershed of the pit's woody surface in reverse under my tongue, no peach like this ever had from a grocery store. as i am descending for the fourth bite a pair of legs too lovely to belong to any other than an even lovelier female pass, and i look up to see not this prime dame but a middle-aged man with a picture of planet earth on his shirt and another emblazoned on a blue cape behind holding a mini-guitar and a sort of half-grin under his white cowboy hat, talking with the proprietor of the roasted almond stand. my mind can't help follow along for a moment, into the vagaries of an article he had read just this morning, now that you mention it, being a social psych major, about social psychology and it said you there are three things, umm, Strength, Attitude and Something That Started With An M--a beautiful girl passes behind him, long black hair and a loose summer skirt, and i am back to my peace again. sweet peach.

the fourth and fifth bites do not fail to delight, as cool and naturally sweet as the first. it strikes me that this sweetness, this cool and dripping flesh, has never before been touched by man, is a gift mine alone from the Universe, to make into my own body, and i see in my mind's eye for a moment all that sunlight streaming in through the photosynthetic magic of leaves as raw energy meeting sweet Colorado water and nutrients brought up from the ground swelling the nub behind the flower even as it is blown away, and in the vernal dance of days a sweet pink sphere emerges, dangling delicate and sure in mid-air, its only knowledge of man the moment it is plucked from the particular branch that gave it life, said branch still represented in a twig and leaf protruding from the top of the peach. that was only this morning, and only this afternoon just now after an hour and a half learning about the Bloom Taxonomy of pedagogical terms have i arrived to choose it from among its brothers sisters and near relatives in one of many boxes set up under a white awning, and now just as quickly it is entering my mouth to be digested and made into Levi, most of it at least, shocking to think such a sweet thing as this could have truck with what i will eventually discard of it. all sweet things rot in the end, i suppose, save the idea of sweetness itself, something anyone can savor.

words tacked on the end or the middle of someone's conversation with the bakers across the way draw me up again to the fray of marketmakers, where i see two tanned girls paused midmarket in white dresses and cowboy boots, rapt on a pair of ice cream cones. they ought to be steaming in this heat. i do my best to see them as sisters of the universe and not another pair of peaches--much as they are both they are the first first and i need not mangle that order with an inappropriate gaze. too late. the peach again: another bite, fuzzy exterior folded back on its juicy interior waltzing through my sensory systems, and the pit is asking for release from its half-vanished fleshly heart, so i oblige, tearing it twig and leaf and all, eerily clean compared to the rest of the fruit.

it is a free-for-all now. i hear a band striking up somewhere in the distance, feel peace juice running down my chin, see a guy with a guitar and a big pack on his back take a glance and another through teh modern art museum's dumpster before ambling off down the alley, folded cardboard hitchhiking sign a gentle irony on his traveling back, as though advertising for a fellow traveler through whatever adventure he is in the midst of. i suppose those white dresses and cowboy boots are soliciting more or less the same, a companion on the long travel of life, but on looking they've been replaced by a bent old asian woman in a wide-brimmed hat, by an all-business lady with brimming bags under both arms, by a baggy-jogpanted 20s couple browsing brioches, then it's Captain Earth again still not using that guitar for anything other than an armrest, and i return to my peach and little patch of consciousness in this multicolored quilt. it has moments to live, like all of us, and lives them to the hilt, leaves me licking last drops of musk from my lips, a peach's worth of world heavier for the time spent here ingesting. it has been a glorious bit of fruit, and the knowledge that more such, though none exactly such, peaches await me in the forty or so years i have naturally left alive, is one of my great pleasures, as at the dusk of those forty years my memories of peaches eaten in at least as much appreciation as this one was will be an equally sweet pleasure in a life full of them.

it is time to fulfill our contract: as a friend once showed me to do on a different patch of grass in a different farmer's market on the edge of this continent where the redwoods meet the Pacific, i open the earth up just a bit and push the pit in, life-bearing seed that it is, knowing that was all it ever wanted, and close it again over top wishing it luck in the bearing of fruit, for all our sakes. that was a good peach.

then stand and swing my backpack over my shoulders and my legs over my bicycle and head off down the alley in the direction of that drifter, upwards and homewards and onwards yet, heavy laid with the goodness of the life.


it was a turning point in my life

yesterday, when i saw a plane in the sky.
we had just finished packing my things into my brother-in-law's truck, and catching our breath in the evening light there came the noise of a plane overhead. we looked for a moment, shiny manmade bird flying a thousand feet above us, then i said 'that's how i used to move.'


he was a ghost:

someone gone ten years or more, someone so buried in memory they had become themselves near fiction, just a few dusty memories in a growing mausoleum full of them. and yet there he was, real as the paint flecks still stuck to my skin, throwing frisbees with friends fifty feet down the park.

it was almost too far a gap to cross, like Orpheus entering the underworld. not only had we not spoken in ten years, the time we'd spent together was the low point of my life, and i a person so different from who i am today as to practically only be sharing physical features with my past. maybe he was the same, Ross. it was worth the risk to find out.

i told my mom and brothers to folf on without me, and jogged the fifty feet to where he stood, a grin welling up as i remembered him telling me about the worst christmas present he'd ever gotten, a box of second-hand clothes from his grandma. 'Ross!' i called over. he turned, and looked, and a for a second i was as stranger as he'd been to me seconds before.
then he said, 'Holy shit dude, Levi, what are you doing man?' and we were the same high school kids we'd been, or at least older people wearing those old clothes. mine hardly fit; it seemed he could still wriggle into his, but had grown out of at least some of the parts i'd shed as well.

he'd never left the area; we were 25 miles from the small town we'd lived in a decade ago. i was almost embarrassed to tell him where i've been and what i've done, because i didn't want to sound outrageous or make him feel like he hadn't done much in comparison, but he'd already heard about some of it, so i let the rest out. we had a nice little catch up, both happy to see each other and see that we were doing well.

then a silence came, and i saw that my family had in fact not folfed on without me, and that we'd run out of things to say. what do you say to a stranger you once knew? you can only wish them the best, only speak from a personal distance so great you're reduced to good intentions, like strangers who share only a few words of the same language.

then i turned, and we stepped out of those old skins, pinned new photographs to the old, discolored ones of mind, and forgot each other again in the flow of everything new.


albeit glowing

it is the last day of painting, my last day in south dakota, and i am working like a mad man to get everything done. in the space of these last three days, worked around presentations given here and there, i have tried to paint four rooms, mask and tape another, seal and paint it, then get it all stripped and the equipment cleaned up before i go. at 3:05, i am almost done. it's down to the wire: thirty minutes left before i absolutely have to be in the car driving so i can be back in time to throw all my belongings in a suitcase and get in my little brother's car so we can drive the eight hours down to my mom's place.

twenty-five. getting there. the rooms are stripped, the equipment cleaned, now i'm trying to get it all back where it belongs. twenty. i half-run from the north to the central building, a bundle of tools to put back in the office there, hoping there are no residents in the rec room to stop me.

i open the door: no one. phew. i get the tools put away, come out ready to get in the car and get home in time to pack, am walking through the lobby and--there she is. the quiet old woman i met my first day here, who was then only thinking of moving in, who is sharp as a tack but not so quick on her feet, doesn't hear well and speaks very soft, from what you can see is a good heart.

phew. i don't want to blow her off: i learned enough in Uganda about making time for people, saw the value in it. especially these people who have so little human interaction. i want to make time for them, want to brighten their day and to understand their lives as best i can. so i stop. she starts talking, in a thin wavering voice, telling of how she moved in, how her grandson came over, how she had broken her ankle trying to answer the door, how he'd taken her to the hospital and the case they'd put on and...

by this time i am well past my limit for leaving. i will come home to an irate younger brother who can't stand delays to leaving, and i know in any case we won't arrive before two in the morning; i'm also anxious to leave. but i can't leave her.

she is still talking about her ankle, about how her grandson said maybe he shouldn't come over because he makes her break her ankle, and this just about breaks my heart. out of time as i am, something in me goes out to this lady, who lost her husband and would really rather be back in her house in Reeder but just couldn't manage to keep up such a big place, and i don't want to break off the conversation early. she keeps talking.

i am really past my limit now. i know my little brothers won't understand why i'm late, why i'm still packing as they sit in the car waiting to go. i think she senses it. she says she will let me go, and as i'm turning she says one more thing i can't understand.

i turn, "what?"

again, i can't understand it. "what did you say?"

she plucks up all the volume her little voice has. "you have a nice smile. don't lose it."

there is something about a compliment from an elderly person that carries so much weight. you know it is beyond all calculation for gain or manipulation, it is something that's seen and said through generations of experience in life. i don't know what to say. "thank you," i manage, and i am walk-running to the suburban to get on my way, albeit glowing. i haven't had a chance to say goodbye to all the people i met working here, but somehow i feel like i just did, feel this is a fitting last line to a chapter of my life.

so i get in and drive 100 miles an hour into the next.


i was born here

driving down the main hill into Hettinger, i see on the other side of the town plains spreading empty to the horizon, late afternoon sun golden on the buttes. i imagine them filling, imagine this thousand-person town swelling in fast forward, plains populating with steel and concrete, buttes crowned with hotels and multi-million dollar homes, and this little main street, half its shops closed, rebuilds into the historic heart of an old downtown, little bistros and street performers and new civilization reimagining the old.

it all vanishes. i look at the plains again, at one-hundred-year-old Hettinger and the depopulating Dakotas, and wonder which is likely to happen faster, that new city or the end of humanity. and the sun setting on these hills, as it's done for millennia, seems to answer me.

this place will always be wild.


taking the puzzle apart

these days i work as a painter in a government-sponsored housing complex. most of the occupants are elderly: old farmers and ranchers, or their widows, who never made enough off the dry dakota land to settle somewhere nicer. most of them are single, and all live alone. the place is quiet. i sometimes feel it's like a native american reservation: not where these people would choose to be, living on government land, but the only place many of them have, so they stay[1]. their lives they lead here are unimaginable to me, frightening. what does one person do all day, alone in his or her apartment, without work or much physical mobility? what sort of loneliness is that, what purposeless at the end of one's life? my mind balks at imagining what everyday reality is for the occupants.

when i see someone around, i stop and talk with them. i want to understand who they are, how they live, want to lend them an ear if that's the kind of thing that would brighten their day. i know it would mine, in the same situation. as it is, i am alone eight hours a day, painting, and the time can get long. when i was working in the south building, i'd often see Harold in the community room, jacket on, leaning his short body over a table scattered with puzzle pieces. early in the conversation, he always says "I'm just about to leave," though he's there about half the times i walk in.

sometimes instead of him it is a kind, smiling, slightly spacey old lady with a speech impediment, sitting and working at the same puzzle. there are boxes and boxes of these puzzles on a shelf above the piano, and more hang on the walls, glued together. i had forgotten puzzles--forgotten they existed at all. i don't think i've done one in fifteen years, which is like saying i've never done one. yet here these old folks are, working at them day after day, usually one puzzle assembled and one more in the works. i will greet them, and they look up and we chat for a bit, me mostly listening, them wandering gradually back into younger days, or interior thoughts, then back to reality. from there they will either wander again, or tell me they don't want to hold me up, and i go.

today i started work in a different building of the complex, and met someone new. she looks like hell: purple cotton jog pants, bulky black coat on against the wind and drizzle, maybe early 60s but with lizardlike smoker's skin, long white hairs on her chin. she is outside smoking as the sun goes down, and i stop and chat with her awhile on my way to the car. we talk of painting and renovations, about how she came here and the life she led before in Minnesota.

somewhere in our chat she mentions she does puzzles. i'm surprised, because i've never seen her in the common room, or anywhere else for that matter. she says she does them alone in her own room, and she has to work straight through from start to finish, or her cat will bat the pieces apart. "Sometimes I'm there for nine hours or more," she says. "Oh you know, you don't cook much for yourself, or just something small, it's only once in a while I'll make something nice, so, well, I remember one time," she says, sort of sighing out her cigarette smoke, "I started a puzzle at four, and I must have been working on it until, well, one thirty or more."

nine and a half hours! i comment on how diligent she is. she says she has to be, because of the cat. her next line floors me "But I get faster, after I put 'em together and take 'em apart a few times. You get to know where all the pieces go."

she takes apart her puzzles and puts the same ones back together again.

i am shocked: this is the exactly the kind of thing i have been afraid of imagining happening in these rooms. here is someone who actually spends long hours putting together and taking apart the same puzzle, over and over. just doing it once seems monotonous to me, and she does it repeatedly. i cringe from how i am feeling her life must be.

my mind tries to soften this image somehow: she has a cat at least, so maybe as she works the cat is on her lap, or she is watching the TV at the same time, but i keep coming back to her at a kitchen table, a single light on, cigarette smoking, one in the morning, putting together a puzzle she's done before.

oh God., i think, this is a real time for prayer. she has moved me to pity, something i want never to have to feel. i pray that she is happy, that she enjoys her life, that the perception of what she's just told me as awful or pitiful is only in my mind and not in hers. that the lives all these residents here live, without visitors, most of them unable to drive, is happier than it seems. i pray for it as we talk.

she's noticed nothing, and has moved on to talking about her furniture, how she has too much but just can't bring herself to get rid of it. i am still with her and the puzzle, sitting in her quiet apartment, checking piece after piece to see if it fits.

though they're not my cup of tea, i think i understand why people do puzzles: it is the joy of finding order in chaos, of gradually seeing the picture on the box coalesce out of random little colored pieces. the little excitement of discovering the piece needed to complete the cat's ear, the ship's mast, the lamppost in the quaint Norman Rockwell scene of a small town skating pond. it is human to enjoy finding reflections of our own mind in the world, as we love the ordered noise of music, the logical beginning middle and end to the story we never have in life, science explaining the apparently random laws of nature. i believe the joy of doing a puzzle is something like this, not only seeing but making order and sense come out of misshapen colored pieces.

this, however, is not that. this is that, the joy of discovery, of finding order, then destroying it to do over again. i can even see the joy in destroying, i believe that's human as well (think of little boys). but to later build it all up again, the same as it was? to do it enough that you gradually remember where each piece goes? over the course of hours and days, mastering how the little jigs and jags fit into a coherent picture, making it happen again and again. is there still joy in that? it stretches my imagination to think so. may be i am unimaginative, and putting all those pieces together time after time is just as good as rereading a book, that you bring something new to it every time.

but it strikes me, talking with her on this cold evening outside her apartment stuffed with furniture, the joy she finds in it is not that at all. it is the joy of killing time. i have seen her come out throughout the day to smoke, and go back inside, not talking to anyone or going further than her concrete front step. she has no job, no family that visits regularly, apparently no friends in the compound.

what sort of life is this? i don't hear the good answer i am hoping for in the things she talks about, in the set of her eyes. i pray that i am only unimaginative, unobservant, missing the joys she finds in life. but i leave her, the cigarette smoked, to get in my car with something like relief. spending that time with her, trying to see life as she does, has been harrowing. is harrowing, driving home. the glimpse she's given me into lives there has not dispelled but confirmed my fears. it is a puzzle i am afraid to put together, afraid of the picture it will make. at the same time, i want to do it, want to see things as they do, whatever that is. learn what i can from how their experiences have led them to lead life.

it strikes me that life may be like a puzzle for her, that she lives like she does puzzles: that in fact the picture formed from the pieces of her life may not be entirely pleasant, or even all fit together, but alone in an apartment like that you grow tired of not putting them together, and so you put the same pieces together again, sifting through memories like older people do, always hoping this time they will be different somehow, fit cleanly together into a logical picture. or maybe this life she's living--they are living--this life without family, living alone in an apartment with nothing but time, it is missing something, is a puzzle that's incomplete, with pieces missing or misfitting, and they keep trying to put it right, put it right. and not being able to, it is satisfying at least to put together these idyllic puzzle pictures of classic american life, the ones they knew. the ones they lost.

she is a puzzle i haven't put together yet. one, as i find more pieces that fit, i am less and less wanting to finish, and yet drawn to. like her. maybe we have more in common than i thought.

[1] i've been thinking some, too, about the will to survive. a friend of mine here i sometimes go to lunch will lightly say she'd rather die than have something like colon cancer. i've heard lots of people say they'd rather just die when they reach a certain age: 30, 60, 100. but when you reach it, you are always ready to live more, no matter the circumstances. this also is human of us, is deeper, even, than human: this is life, what defines us at our deepest: the will to survive. beyond the quality of life, beyond the sacrifices that must be made to do it, we want to live. don't you?


'is he me?'

i asked myself as i took the change from his hand. overweight, greasy longish hair, Supervalu apron on his chest, working the register in small town Hettinger North Dakota, the place i was born. is he me?

the first time i was here, two days ago, i didn't say much. he'd given me a ticket for their weekly raffle, i'd politely inquired about how it worked, end of story. but i'd been just a little excited at finding someone else my age not obviously having moved on to the marriage-and-children stage of life. they're rare here--strikingly like the villages i'd visit in Africa, young people in dakota villages do more or less two things on finishing (or dropping out of) schooling: get married or leave.

today this iconoclast pushed it farther, talking to me something like my imagination had said he would. in the intervening two days of solitude, as i removed outlet faceplates and taped off light fixtures, i had imagined what effect our encounter'd had on him. me, i'm fresh out of Uganda, from a warm community of friends in similar places in life, and am still riding that current into the social barren that the Dakotas are for single late-20s people. he, on the other hand, he most likely (i imagined, masking rooms to paint) graduated from Hettinger High, was working this same job he'd had in school there, and somehow never took that step into the unknown that would have gotten him beyond where he is. instead he stayed, and that step outwards got harder to take as he stayed, among the familiar. i imagined he still lived with his parents, or his mom at least, and was an avid video game player, sci-fi reader. what he said confirmed at least some of these suspicions:

checking out at the counter with my bread and cheese and pasta sauce, with my get-it-because-i-can-it's-america-baby Butterfinger, he says "I heard that's an awesome game." his voice is straight out of Tri-Lambda: a bit throaty from disuse, undertoned with the grand style of oratory he likely carries on in his head during these days at work. he is commenting on a hat i have.

"yeah," i say, noncommittally, "i got it from my sister's husband, he manages a video game store."

"oh, that's like my dream job," he says, pushing the register drawer back into the till unconsciously, "to work at a video game store. or a comic shop."

and from there it's on: we have crossed the clerk-customer line, admitted our shared circumstances in small town dakota, and even found common ground. i admit that while i am not much of a video game player, i am a sometimes comic and an almost regular sci-fi reader. we talk more--the supermarket is dead though it's noon. he moves away from the register, turning to face a wall of Advil and Tylenol, and i understand he is under the managerial gun to be busy at all times, not to be seen idly chatting with customers. i imagine he has been talked to at some time in the past about bothering customers with speech from his sci-fi and comic-laden reality. i don't mind: it's good to talk with someone as irregular as i, if again as different from me as i from others here, and we talk facing the pain killers, me holding now this box and that as though considering what next to buy, he as though advising my purchase.

it comes out that he too is a writer: a writer of sci-fi, of a sci-fi trilogy about aliens invading the earth in the 1950s, at least that's the first book, and as i mention how that may be what the world's peoples need to unite, a common enemy, talk moves to the Watchmen and comic books and this and that. he is the quintessential never-got-past-it high school nerd, wallowing in his own nerddom.

and i wonder again if he is me. if i could have been he, could have been behind the register at a supermarket in a small town in the Dakotas, dreaming of the video games i would play, sci-fi i would read and write after work, horribly out of touch with the female sex and society in general. it is not such a far stretch: i can paint his life in my mind so vividly because i lean that way, because i am also an introvert, i also enjoy sci-fi escapism, i also once had a penchant for video gamery and also need to push myself to get beyond all that.

that's the sticking point, the one that has made the difference--i did push, got outside my comfort zones again and again until my comfort zone is so big it takes weeks to cross, has couches gathering dust in areas i might not pass through for years, but will still be comfortable when next i'm there. i got good at pushing, as he (i'm imagining) got worse. and i like him just for that, for being another version of me. he is obviously intelligent, describing the plot and justification for his novel, obviously introverted and creative if in a world-ignorant way, obviously chosen escapism over realism. i could have fit all those molds.

he is a potential friend, valuable as gold in these hills. more than that, he is a symbol to me of what i might have been, had i stayed here, of how i've changed and how much for the good it's been. undoubtedly the cirumstances of his life and mine have been different, and all the details i've filled in to convince myself we are in fact out-of-sync doppelgangers are likely as fantastical as the novels he plans to write. all the same, life's details are arguably as created as experienced, and these endear me to him as few others might, notwithstanding our only interaction is brief register conversation. i like him.

is he me? i ask myself, next time i see him. yes, i answer. he is me, just another road not taken, worthy of love and friendship, someone to be learned from. and in that spirit, over five dollar checkouts of bread cheese and butterfinger, we become friends.


Dear Reader,

Greetings, konnitiha, jebare emirimu. This is levi, your writer. First and foremost, I want to thank you so much for reading these posts. It's been one of the loveliest experiences of my life meeting people--friends and strangers--who have kept up with my blog the last couple of years, who know intimate details I forgot I'd even written here, who talk with me about characters in my posts like they'd met them too. It is lovely to have shared my life with you, and endlessly encouraging as a writer to know that the sharing was well-written enough for you to come back time and again, reading these (often sprawling) posts on my work, life and all things experienced therein.

It is over.

That is, Africa is over. For those of you who go even further back, when I was writing about my experiences on PeaceBoat, that's over and gone as well. I am home, in my own country, writing the first tentative lines of a new chapter, what will be an entirely different volume of my life, one lived (mainly) among my own people, in my own place. The moments of shocking cultural awareness, the bizarre stories from other ways of life, insights seen through all of that back into the common things we share, those will dwindle. It has been nearly two months that I've been back from Africa, and I am piecemeal becoming a fairly integrated US citizen. Do I still sing songs in Japanese under my breath? Yes. Am I still dancing like an African when I think no one's looking? Yes. Will that ever change? Probably not. But a telltale sign has crept into my everyday English: like a good Dakotan, I find myself ending every other sentence with a trailing "so...," a spoken artifice I have always disliked and tried to clean from my speech. Nevertheless, I've started saying it again, so...

So I'm not as much of a foreigner as I was. Things are getting normal again in a way I've been fearing they would since i left the country six years ago. That everyday, nothing-special-going-on kind of feeling you get when your current experiences superimpose cleanly on those of other days and years, and you could easily forget today happened at all--that feeling is starting to creep in. Soon as I settle, it will likely settle with me, unless I fight against it. I don't know if I will: there's a part of me that doesn't like to fight change, doesn't want to label something good or bad until it's been experienced as one or the other. There is something good in everything, right? I might even say everything here is something good--it's just up to us to see it.

So Africa is over, and Japan before that. But will the blogs stop? Is the music over? Did the lights come and is this the Fat Lady singing? No. Sweet reader, so long as you are willing to read me (and probably even after you're not), I am wanting to write you all the remarkable things I find in being alive. I fully hope and intend to find them right here in my own country, without the international icing we've developed such a taste for these past years. In fact, I am finding them. Life the past two months has done nothing but encourage me about how good it is to live here at home (wherever that is, exactly), and I hope you've found the few blogs I've posted on it as good as they've ever been. They will continue to be the best I can do, because nothing else is worth doing.

Thanks for reading.


Earth Day, 2010
Grand Island, Nebraska


old strawberries

driving north and west to Hettinger this morning, telephone poles repeating themselves into the horizon, the Dakota landscape flip-flops between ugly and beautiful in my mind.

before me on the road there are patches of yellowed grass pushing up through half-melted snow, lumpy buttes rising in the distance, sky neither gray nor blue, no sign of humanity save a farmhouse in the distance.

it is ugly: this is where i grew up, the endless yellow-gray nothingness of prarie, no color or distinguishing landmarks, possibly the flattest, dullest place on earth. it is beautiful: as i came to see it once i'd been out of the country a few years, it is possibly the most peaceful landscape on earth. the bottom of an ocean now gone, the land swells and stretches, grassed and treed in impossibly subtle shades of wheat, flint, rust and earth. the sky makes up for that subtlety in shameless dawn and sunset displays, brilliant as though the sky had drained all the land's color for just these few minutes. then the rest of the time it's dull--it's ugly. no, once you get a taste for what looks dull you just find it is beautiful--a more delicate beauty, like a Japanese garden or a lesser known Mozart. no, it's ugly. it's beautiful.

my mind flops a few times between these, then out of them entirely, a caught fish desperate for water. the world, it says, is a bowl of strawberries and cream. no matter how the strawberries look, how you arrange and process the ingredients, they are all good and good together. and when you eat them, my mind tells me, it's going to be delicious. so with the world.

this sends me deeper inside. i remember sitting around digesting after another amazing dinner one night with my Japanese host family. the dad went to the fridge and told me he wanted to show me what to do with old strawberries. there were some there past their prime, and he poured them in a glass bowl, then unceremoniously dumped some sugar on top of them, and finally a few glugs of milk.

'mix,' he said. this from an excellent cook in a cuisine that can require slices of radish to be not only of a certain size, but that their edges be beveled before cooking. a culture of renowned meticulousness precision and refined sensibility. what he said amounted to heresy, but you don't contradict your host dad. i mixed. the red strawberries and white milk and granules of sugar all came together into an indelicate pink mass, something that would never sell in Japan. then we ate it. it was lovely.

what i realized today, driving to work in the morning and watching the landscape flop from beautiful to ugly in my mind's eye, is that the universe is also a bowl of strawberries, cream and sugar. it doesn't matter the arrangement: if those lumpy Dakota buttes are mountains, if the grass is yellow or verdant green, if the sky is gray or blue or ochre shot with violet and amber, if they are witnessed only after days of arduous Himalayan trekking or from the windshield of an aging red Suburban. what is important is knowing the inherent goodness of all of it, like you know the cream, sugar and strawberries--dark patches or not--are good. any way you put them together, they are going to taste good. GIGO. and if you see the goodness in them, they can't help but be beautiful, whether they're a delicate whipped cream mountain studded with strawberries and sparkling sugar, or a la Shigeru: mushed up in a bowl. the goodness is key: to seeing beauty, to making good food, to living wherever you are in contentedly. our challenge is to see the good in things. every thing. including the dreary half-melted prarie i am driving through.

so what do you do with the same 26 mile morning drive through nothingness? what you do with old strawberries: you find the goodness in them, and enjoy it. a place like Zanzibar, or a dessert like you might get at an expensive restaurant, they're easy to see the good in. too easy. that's why i like living here: it stretches me, makes me better at finding goodness in things. in people. once you see the good in them, you can love them. once you see the good in where you are, you can live there (really live, not just waste time). once you know the goodness of its ingredients, you can eat your food with joy.

now let me spell out the slightly radical proposal i had a few paragraphs back: the world is a bowl of strawberries and cream. that is, the world holds nothing but good. i mean nothing: the most blasted landscape, the worst weather, the hokiest country song, the awfullest tasting food, the most annoying person in your day. good. strawberries and cream. eat it and love it, or die trying. that's what we have to do.


guilt and awe

morning awe
i float to work. from the heated cocoon of my car, i pass silent through a world of ghosts: all of lemmon, all of the dry windy dakotas, has been taken by white fog--not an early morning mist, not a precursor or substitute for rain: winter fog, frozen. it is an unearthly white, an edge to existence on all sides, a fading into nothingness, to blank air. the ground mirrors the sky: frozen white, covered in feet of snow, praries stretching white into invisibility, lumpy buttes in the distance blanketed blank. every thing i see, white: trees coated in ice, cars frosty or buried, the people you meet with snow in their skin, their eyes, their hair. only the black of the road holds some reality, and even that disappears in fog ahead. at times i am only driving on the darkest of the snow, hoping it is real, hoping it's the road.

through this wintry unreality i float, unreal myself at 65 miles an hour, warm and comfortable, carried further unearthly by the hare krisnas coming from my speakers, mysteries inner and outer dovetailing in morning mind.

i am at ease with mystery: i do not know if one hundred feet ahead stands a deer or a stopped car ready to spin me off the road, off the mortal coil. i do not know if beyond that mist there are still green hills, or mountains, houses or fields. i don't know if the name the hare krisnas chant is That Mystery's true name, or if It has one, or if It Is at all. for all i can know, i am alone in the world. it is faith and experience that paint beyond the edge of the fog, only a construction of the mind, even on clearer days. that's OK. i am not all-knowing. i don't even want to be: it's nice to have room for wonder, for awe. this morning, a simple drive to Hettinger has awakened both in me. may they never sleep.

how can i eat this?
for five dollars and twelve cents i buy eight whole wheat buns, a chunk of sharp cheddar cheese, a jar of roasted garlic pasta sauce, and a can of soda at the Hettinger Jack and Jill. it's more than enough for lunch: it's enough for two, at least. for five dollars. the glass jar of pasta sauce was a full dollar. it seems wrong somehow: how can all this food be got at such a pittance? how can this grocery store be so full of tasty foods getting old and discounted while our organization in Africa struggles to feed the kids corn mash and beans every day? and how can i go on eating this five dollar feast, loving them?

an answer
to say the world isn't fair is not enough: we have to accept it. good people die. bad people get power, get prestige, get rich. petty things keep us from loving each other, keep star-crossed lovers from crossing lines into true love. one day the sun will become a red giant and swallow this earth whole, like nothing. to say the world isn't fair is not enough: we have to accept it, have to understand which fights are winnable, and which are simple denial of facts. i will never live without taking life--even the Jain mouth-masked not to breathe in insects, brushing the ground before she walks, eating only the fallen fruit from the trees, she will tread insects, be the host to scores living and dying on her scalp, lessen the chance the seeds in the fruit she eats will themselves bear life. the sperm that fertilized the egg that became her did so at the exclusion of millions of other worthy sperm. call that original sin. our human desire for all-pervasive justice is at odds with the world, in which arguably the idea of justice doesn't exist outside our minds (and even inside them we can't agree on what it is). so am i going to eat in morose guilt, sure i don't deserve what i have? no. i'm going to do what i can to be sure everyone gets what they deserve, including me and all the people, plants and minerals that went into making this meal for me--first things, they deserve a little gratitude. if what i want is people everywhere to enjoy healthy abundant foods, it's a contradiction if that wish makes me not enjoy mine. what this meal does is remind me that i am fortunate, by chance as much as effort, and i need to spread that good fortune.

that's one answer to how i can go on eating this five dollar feast, loving my kids in Africa. because i know how things are, how i want them to be, and i'm doing what i can.


driving to hettinger

i see a piece of snow on the road break randomly, seconds before my tires hit it, further breaking it. what made that piece break?

from this blossoms in my mind a temporal extension of a description i once heard second-hand of a ugandan woman who'd died, of how her spirit fingers withdrew as out of the gloves of her real fingers, how she saw her spirit body gradually pulling out of her material one like mortal clothes, as she exited via the top of her head.

i start to imagine time being like that, withdrawing like spirit fingers from our place in space, that we'd still see space be affected, but in out of sync time, as though our footprints fell in snow before our foot did, or not until after it'd lifted again. i imagine a sci fi story i would write about someone who was pulled out like that, and how it would begin with a description of the 1950s flanger sound effect, made by rotating speakers pulling the same sound slightly out of and back into sync with itself, and how time would be like that for the main character of the story.

the rest of the day happened right on time.


diversity, silence and surprise in smalltown Dakota

working in silence
i am a painter. i owe my dad two thousand dollars for living expenses while in Uganda, and fortunately he recently bought an apartment complex that needs remodeling, so there was work waiting as soon as i'd gotten back. now every day i drive the 25 miles to hettinger, north dakota, and spend my morning and afternoon taking off electrical faceplates, masking doorframes, covering carpets and spraying paint. most of the time, i bring my computer, and though i spend the day alone, i am kept electric company by music, audio books or news broadcasts downloaded in the morning before leaving.

today i was about halfway to hettinger, in the houseless stretch of road where south dakota changes to north, when i realized i'd forgotten my computer. no music. at first, something like panic gripped me: oh god, what was i going to do all day? work in silence?

and then a voice deeper in me, the one that sat through a month of silent meditation, that rode bicycle alone across africa, that doesn't even always like all that music, said yes. what you are going to do is work all day in silence. is that so bad? is silence somehow scary? can you manage to be unmediated, unentertained, undistracted for nine hours in one day? yes.

so that's what i did: i unscrewed, i taped, i masked, i painted, i worked. in silence. well, not really in silence: i would sometimes realize i was singing, had been singing for some time, and probably sounded like a total loony to the elderly person on the other side of the wall, since i was singing my mental impression of the song, not the real thing. then i kept singing.

but most of the time, it was just quiet. just me and me, and the work. that's okay too. some people are uncomfortable with silence when they're with someone else. others are uncomfortable with silence when they're alone: they need the radio, the TV, the computer to be on, an I-pod at least. i'm not: i like me. there are more than enough things to think about for a day or a week or even a month. i didn't go anywhere for lunch, didn't chat with anyone that afternoon. i read a book while i was eating, then kept working, in silence again.

is that strange? i don't mind if you think so. according to how they act, i think most people would, when it gets down to it: they'd rather have the radio on, rather have a bit of distraction from what might become a lot of time with oneself. me too, sometimes. not today.

a very surprising thing
is that people are genuinely interested to hear about Uganda. when i came back from Japan, i usually had between one to three sentences before eyes became glassy, answers became monosyllable, and i could tell i'd completely lost my listener's interest. sometimes the opening words "In Japan..." were all it took.

so i was ready for my culture's cultural disinterest, came with a thick skin and a sort of truculent inner appreciation for what i'd done and seen, regardless of what anyone was going to think. i was ready for the glassy-eyes.

needlessly. one of the most surprising things about coming back has been the genuine interest people have shown in where i've been and what i've done. i can talk in threes and fours of sentences without losing interest, sometimes getting asked follow-up questions, and if anything am holding back more than i need to, out of the habit i picked up coming from Japan. in those days i came to understand the richly tapestried world i'd come to know and love was pretty uninteresting to most people in the States, and hard as it was to accept i learned to say little or nothing about it because i was apparently just boring my listener.

maybe it's working to my advantage: my cousin training his daughter in violin via the 'Suzuki method' said one of its tenets is to always stop practicing before she's had enough, so that her interest is always held. so maybe my closed-mouthedness about international experiences (blogs aside, that is!) is keeping people interested. or maybe writing about them the whole time i was there gave me a lot of good stories to tell. maybe i've learned to put things in a way that's interesting to someone with a much different set of experiences. or maybe Africa itself, the kind of work i was doing there, just holds more interest for people. i think that's it.

in any case, it's been lovely. i never liked hiding what to me was such an important part of my life, and though Japan continues to need hiding, Uganda does not. having ears for what i'm dying to tell, and a bit of understanding for the parts of life here that are harder to get back into, has made coming home that much easier.

smalltown dakota diversity
is not one of culture or race, it's one of personality. personality is the ultimate diversity you often sweep over in experiencing things from the surface level of a foreigner, is the deep learning you do from each person's own take on life, their own culture and the inner world they've created from it, how that world is expressed in what they say and do. if you want black people, asian people, mediterranean and sub-saharan people, the Dakotas don't have much going on. but if you're interested in different kinds of people, in different ways folks have found to live life, i am finding there's a lot to see in the small town Dakotas.


what else it's like being back

what has coming back to america been like for me? in a way, it's been like travel.

that is, i've been traveling for so long that the state of mind i got into traveling has stayed with me as i come back to this place which ought to be the end of my travels. i was pretty settled the year and some i was in Uganda. then i traveled for five weeks on my bike, enough time to thoroughly inhabit the traveler's state of mind, and only being back in Uganda for a week, i kept it (it was easier to say goodbye that way, than meditate on how i was losing a home, etc.). the four days i spent on planes and in Dubai was thoroughly travel. so when i got into Denver after all that, i still more or less felt like i was traveling.

that is, i felt i was in a special place for a short time, that things were to be done for the sake of doing them as there was little time to wait, that good conversations were to be had and not waited for, that i was seeing and doing things for the first time, familiar as some of them were. there are worse states of mind to be in.

and it just continued: through driving up to my dad's house in South Dakota, through the week i spent here with my sister and her husband, driving around to visit family, and even after they left, i've feel i'm traveling still. maybe traveling deep, moving somewhere different in life and not geography. i don't feel out of place, not like i'm not at home or that this place isn't familiar--i've spent enough time in Lemmon, though never in the house we are living in now, to take it as familiar. but somehow the special focus and hinging on moments that i have when traveling has stayed with me after coming back. maybe it's because i've been excited to be here for such a long time that it's like i've reached a destination i've been traveling towards for years (i have). or maybe i just learned something or things in those years of traveling that was valuable, and decided to apply them even after i've stopped awhile. i don't know. yes. probably all of those. but coming back, being back, has been like travel.

speaking of which, i am even a backpacker in my own house: the airlines lost my luggage, and i was left with only my carry-on, a backpack full of books and other impractical things too heavy to put in my already overweight luggage. they didn't find the rest of my things (i.e. clothes, toiletries, souvenirs, etc.) until well after i'd left Denver with my sister and her husband for South Dakota, so i was wearing the same clothes i had been since Uganda, lugging around the same little backpack as i made the final miles home. i still haven't gotten my luggage, just dug up some old boxes and bought what i couldn't find. maybe that's why it's all felt like travel... i'm still living from my backpack.

not all of it
can make it into words. some of it is probably inappropriate for anyone's thought than my own. let me sum up what it's like to be back:


things i am grateful for:

hot water in the tap
cold juice in the fridge
convenience stores
nonstop electricity
uber availability of cheese
being with family
nonugandan food
my luggage being found
dumb movies on bigscreen TVs
grandma dybe's caramel rolls

things i'm not sure how im going to deal with:

how much sugar there is in everything
how much meat there is in everything
how much trash i create trying to eat something
long drives in motorized vehicles
dumb movies on bigscreen TVs
my change from international to national
cute american girls
washing machines and dryers


what it's like coming back to the states

mental breakdown.
a disgust with all things first world, with the ignorant wealth of our country and its people, including oneself. an overwhelming sense of guilt for all of our unearned privilege, and a reluctant resumption of that privilege coupled with hypocritical regret for not having done something more, stayed longer, learned from the time spent in africa.

these are the sentiments you are supposed to experience when you come back from africa. reverse culture shock: economic shock. the change from poverty to wealth, i was told, is harder than the other way around, than adjusting to the difficulties and trials of life in africa. you return only to feel the people you left behind are somehow more real, more deserving of the good things we have than we are, we who so thoughtlessly have them each day and night.

that's what you feel when you come back from africa. reverse culture shock. do i? no.

coming back has been different for me. how? i'm not really sure. i've been back nearly two weeks now, and it's been stewing in the back of my mind the whole time, but i haven't yet put it into words. let me try. what has coming back from africa been like for me?

coming in from the cold
in part it's been like winters in south dakota, winters where no one wants to be outdoors, out of heating, but at times you must. and at those times no matter how much you bundle up, you are going to get cold. and you are going to curse the cold and wish you were back inside and generally be fairly uncomfortable for a time. and then, at some point, you'll have been cold for so long that it becomes the normal state of being, and while it's still deplorable, it's not really on the front burner of your mind, and you go on doing the rest of whatever it is you need to do outside, still remembering somewhere how nice it will be to go indoors.

and then you do, and that's what coming back from africa has been like for me. not a culture shock--this is where i grew up, after all, and being from somewhere is a little like riding a bicycle, though if you spend long enough away it's bound to be a little unfamiliar. you don't forget your home. what you do forget--or what you maybe never noticed--is how nice it is to be home, like you notice it coming indoors after a half hour or more outside in the snow and wind: how nice it is to take off your coat, your shoes, shiver a little bit as the cold air shakes out of your hair and you get warm again, comfortable.

coming back to america has been a little like that for me.

a kid in candystore.
what have i been like coming back from africa? i've been a little like a kid in a candystore.

i didn't get this feeling much in Japan, where they had the usual first world diversity of goods for sale, and those goods had the bonus of being new and interesting and in many cases tastier, cuter, stranger and higher tech than what i knew of in the states. i never really felt like i was going without there, or had the craving for something like a bowl of mac and cheese (which i would avoid eating in the states).

but in africa, oh baby, there ain't much in the way of comfort foods, in the way of aisles of candy bars and potato chips and cake mixes and juices and boxes of cereal. supplies are limited and hard to get, especially if you don't have much cash. and living there i gradually started craving the dumbest things i never liked in the states, like duncan hines brownies made straight from the box with just a couple eggs and some water, like peanut m&ms. when somebody'd get a care package from home, or buy something rare and expensive like cheese, we'd celebrate, we would partake of it with care and joy.

to exasperate matters, i spent the last two months of my time in Africa on bicycle, peddling through some pretty unfamiliar and remote areas, sleeping where i could and eating what i could find wherever i was. a trip like that, if it lasts awhile like mine did, will make you start longing for familiarity, for comfort. and comfort, for me at least, has quite a bit to do with food.

so coming back to america i have been like a kid in a candystore. every little podunk town i go to has boxes and boxes of cake mix, all kinds of vegetables from different countries neatly canned and refrigerated in lines, every gas station has candy bars and fountain pop and boxes or sometimes trays even of fresh donuts and long johns... all of it easily accessible, everything tasting like i remember it tasted from six years ago when i used to eat it sometimes. mushrooms? we got mushrooms, baby, as many as you want to eat, right down the street. wow.

when i came back from japan two years ago, i remember having a specific craving for pizza hut pizza. this time, i had no specific cravings. my craving was generalized: my craver was saying something like "all of that. yes, that's good, and that too, and that, and that." and so every day i have treated myself to a new thing, have rediscovered some tasty little item of the United States' deathly unhealthy and in-the-long-run-not-very-tasty-or-healthy-but-so-nice-right-now french fry basket of every day food. hamburgers. pizza. carrot cake with frosting. butterfinger candy bars. sour cream and onion potato chips. wheat bread. pickles. barbecue ribs. popcorn. grape juice. i've been out of the country long enough that all of this stuff tastes a little like that forgotten first time, has a slightly exotic air about it, coupled with a lovely remembered familiarity.

i've been working the last week or so, preparing apartments for painting, and eating out of the grocery store for lunch. i walk in and become like a round-eyed kid with so much fun stuff to try: my choice of twenty-five different kinds of soda, a whole row of different flavors of cheese and yogurt to choose from, and none of it more than a couple bucks at a time, which in the dollar-perspective is so much cheaper than any of the few of those things that were available as imports in uganda seemed from the local shilling-perspective.

so today for lunch i already had some wheat buns, a block of sharp cheddar and some pasta sauce in the fridge, but i went and deliberately bought a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips and a Butterfinger. mmm, junk food. i can't help myself. it's like i've been waiting so long for it, that i want to try every little thing in the whole store, in every restaurant, in each of the aisles except the motor oil aisle of the gas station.

i am a kid in a candy store.



walking away from the left luggage counter at dubai airport, i reflected that not much makes me happier than freedom: freedom from luggage, freedom from worry, freedom from physical constraints, freedom from hunger, freedom to think and speak as i please.

think about it. what feels better than being freed? today i am walking through the giant empty Emirates Terminal of Dubai International Airport swinging a single bag with a book and a bottle of water in it, headed out for a final day exploring Dubai. i feel like i've been loaded down with luggage forever: lugging my bike and panniers around the last month and a half, trying to deal with all my worldly belongings and fit the really good ones into suitcases when back in Uganda, over-stuffing my carry-on luggage to fit everything i could, and then having to carry them around everywhere in Dubai. i have a long tubular roll of woven mats and posters, a big backpack full of books that would've made my checked luggage too heavy (though it was 12kg/25lbs overweight anyhow). add to that a well-worn plastic bag with some food, a water bottle, book, laptop, etc., and you have a certified pain in the ass. i carried that pain around me the last two nights in Dubai, into and out of x-ray machines, security checks, elevators and bathrooms and endless uncomfortably-plastic-chaired lounges.

so today when i checked everything except what i really wanted into the left luggage counter, and walked away free-shouldered and ready to see Dubai, i was happy. i was happy because i was free, physically free. other kinds of freedom make me just as happy: the freedom you feel when you step on a bike and suddenly move farther, faster, easier than you did before, like the freedom of floating in water, a freedom from your own body. the freedom of giving away all your keys, like i did two days ago, of being totally unattached, just passing through, as i am today in Dubai. the freedom of having money, of not needing to worry about little details like how much the food i'm going to eat today costs, or whether i can afford a hotel room tonight (this is not currently one of my freedoms). et cetera. freedom is lovely.

i guess this sentiment makes me a good american. our national propoganda is all about freedom, to the extent that kids in the states used to ask me what it was like in those other countries i had visited "where they don't have freedom." come on. anyone can take a bath after a long day and feel gloriously free from dirt. anyone can sing somewhere alone and love the freedom of bounded speech turning unembarassedly to song. anyone can become conscious of what a freedom existing at all is, and be happy of it. as Sartre wrote, at the very bottom everyone has the freedom to say 'no,' whatever the consequences. and as i think Nietszche and the preacher in Camus' The Plague thought, everyone too has the freedom to say 'yes,' to accept what we find in this world, and make it our own.

i don't mean to impugn the United States and its ideal of freedom. there are freedoms there that people in other places don't have: freedom from worry about crime, from worry about hunger, from worry about lack of access to health care, from invasion or acts of terrorism by enemies within or outside the country. those of you who live in the States are probably thinking 'what? we don't have any of those those freedoms either!,' and the media would have you think that as well, much as at the same time it is supporting a propaganda of freedom that refuses to define itself, beyond the Bill of Rights. but compared to other places, the degree of these freedoms we have is tremendous. you will never have ultimate freedom: you are always constrained to your mind and its patterns[1], your body and its needs, your environment and its constraints. in this sense, no person on earth is free, and no government could ever grant it that freedom. but we can always get more free, like me today leaving my bags behind, and always get more conscious of the freedom we do have, like that sweet consciousness of health you have after recovering from a serious injury or illness (you lost it again, didn't you? why?). if you take time to notice it, being alive at all is a real freedom.

so i don't really buy the US, or any country, as the Land of the Free. it offers some freedoms other places don't have, and takes away others[2] but fundamentally it's YOU to make yourself free by them, and they are just decorations on deeper consciousnesses of freedom only we can give ourselves, the ones that will really really free you, 'emancipate yourself from mental slavery' as bob marley sang. the land of the free is not a place, not a political territory. it is a state of mind. and today, i am happy having it, happy conscious of the freedoms i have, feeling their balance against weights of constraint like illness (i'm battling a cold), penury (i've slept on the airport floor two nights for lack of money), missing my family in Uganda, impatience to see my family in the States, etc. i know today i am so much more free than constrained. whether that's the product of my environment, my teachers, or my own effort, it is lovely, and i am grateful for it. there are surely joys coming from duties and responsibilities taken on and done well, but today i am conscious of the joy coming from my freedoms. hope you are conscious of you own freedom to do the same.

[1] i had a friend who used to scorn the Christian notion of heaven as a place he wouldn't want to go, saying 'but i'd still be ME, wouldn't i? i'd still have all these thoughts and worries and be Dustin Stover with my own memories, just in heaven? f&*( that! i don't want to be this person again' --in short, that the real freedom of heaven would need to be a total getting-beyond of ourselves, or the glory of it would be limited by our own limitations.

forgive me for delving into a totally unrelated topic, but heaven might have gotten beyond that by: a) taking our souls and not our personal details as i'm told Hindus believe it happens, or b) being so glorious the very experience of it changes us, lures us away from all part of ourselves that keep us from experiencing it fully, naturally, out of sheer love and want to experience it as fully as we can.

or maybe there's nothing when we die.

[2] like the freedom to drink in public in Japan, or the freedom to almost-free health care in Uganda


three nights in Dubai airport

the nights were not as nice as the days. i arrived the first night thirty minutes after midnight, and by the time i'd taken the shuttle to the terminal and made sure my bulky bags were being checked through to the final destination, it was around 2am. i'd been sleeping on the plane, and all i wanted to do was keep sleeping. unfortunately, the best thing i could find, wandering around this giant, glittering, deserted and air conditioned airport at 2am, were some plastic chairs with unadjustable plastic footrests. after trying them unsuccessfully, and more wandering, i found an arrival lounge that at least was deserted and quiet, and after another unsuccessful attempt at the chairs, i laid down on the tile floor in the corner, wrapped in my not-quite-stolen Emirates blanket[1], and slept as best i could in the air conditioning and the overbright florescent light. fortunately, anticipating such sleeping arrangements, i'd brought a pair of sleeping shades found when packing in Uganda, and a pair of barkcloth shorts someone had given me that doubled as a pillow.

so i slept alright, turning every half hour or so to relieve pressing hip bones, totally unable to judge the time in the ever-bright empty room. some sixth traveller sense awakened me a few seconds before two men in the long white robes and turbaned headgear of traditional muslims entered the lounge and started walking towards me. busted.

they asked me who i was, what i was doing here (i thought that, at least, was obvious), why i hadn't gotten a hotel room somewhere, and told me it was time to go. a glance at the clock said 7:30, so it was time anyway, and i passed through immigrations and security and out into dubai. it struck me as ironic that i, the quintessential white man, had been questioned by security officials that would themselves have aroused suspicion in my country--and none of us up to no good.

the second night, having made a few halfhearted attempts at finding lodging, and being confirmed in their expense (think of it this way: one night in dubai would have been more than all 40 nights of my bicycle trip put together), i left the Burj Khalifa and its neighbor Dubai Mall after a sunset music-light-and-fountain show, and took the metro back to the airport. i wasn't really sure on the legality of me entering as though i was going to wait for my plane, and then leaving again the next day, but i knew i couldn't go back to the lounge i'd slept in last night. i figured the best place would be a departure lounge, where i'd be taken for one more napping connecting passenger.

so that's what i did: i worked my way back in through information, immigration and security, joined the throngs of other passengers actually leaving that night, and found a quiet spot to bed down for the night, this time hidden by a few rows of chairs and some chinese friends. this time i committed all the way, and unrolled my mukeeka, a Ugandan woven mat, and slept on it with my sleep-goggles on and my bags between me and the wall. the mat made the floor a touch softer, but i woke from time to time to see the lounge variously empty, full of passengers about to depart, or spottily seated with people in various states of sleep-seeking. when i rose for good in the morning it was to the sun out the windows, all my chinese friends replaced with folks headed for Australia, the guy on the seat above me watching some kind of translated manga on his laptop. i yawned, stretched, rolled up my mukeeka and headed out for another day in Dubai. i got some weird looks from the security personnel, who remembered me from yesterday, but had no troubles.

the next night i was legit in checking in, as i had a flight at 3am the following morning. having been so comfortable the night before (well, not actually COMFORTABLE, but slumberable), i went back to the same place, and after surfing on the free wi-fi til i got sleepy, had a nice little nap in the same spot. i was too anxious about missing my flight to sleep deep, though, and in a few hours wandered bleary-eyed to my gate for an early check-in, a second wait at an inside gate, and finally onto the plane. after watching the city lights of Dubai, including the Palm housing complex in the ocean, pass by underneath, i did my best to get some sleep sitting up in the chair, wondering if this was the last time i was going to have to sleep in all kinds of strange places because i'm traveling on the cheap. i was serious when i wrote i no longer really want to do it. nevertheless, i wouldn't be surprised if it happens again. i was even getting kind of used to it.

[1] i was going to steal it. sitting on the nice comfy plane into Dubai, having eaten the best airplane food of my life, i couldn't help reflecting how cold and poopy the floor was going to be for sleeping once i arrived. so i folded up the blanket and stuffed it neatly in my bag. then, around the time we were coming in to land and the flight attendants were collecting the blankets, i realized that was pretty much stealing, and that i didn't want to do it. so i pulled it out and gave it to the attendant. then i had the second reflection that since i was taking another Emirates flight in two days, i could just return it then, and rather than stealing, it would be something like unpermitted borrowing. too late now: all the blankets were gone. still, i thought i'd make one more try on the up and up (it never hurts). as we were filing out, and the attendants were goodbying us, i asked one if i could take a blanket, since i was probably going to be sleeping on the floor. i guess i was a bit inpolitic, because she said no, of course, it isn't allowed. then when i'd taken a couple of steps forward she leaned over and whispered in my ear "you can just put one in your bag and leave with it." well, that was all the permission i needed, so at the next available moment, seeing a blanket lying on the seats, i did so. stolen? maybe. did i return it? yes, on the next flight. and in the meantime, it really helped me out on those chilly airport floors. did i do something wrong? i'm not sure. it sure seemed right. i'll let Mr. Kant debate the details.


two days in Dubai

no longer American
just as i'm ready to go back to my country, i find out i'm not really from there anymore. at least, that's what i keep getting told: Dubai is an city of expats, so people are always asking about and guessing at where other people are from, and a main gauge of that is how they speak the international language, English. and more than ever before[1], i have been misplaced around the world. in fact, in the ten or so times i've gotten asked/guessed at, not once have they guessed the US! or even Canada. i got Germany, got Australia, got a lot of surprised looks when i said the States that indicated they were going to guess somewhere else, even got South Africa this morning from the security guy searching my luggage.

he was probably closest of all: i have an English i use for non-native speakers, and i think it's shifted this last year from being Japanese-friendly to being African-friendly. in other words, it sounds like the English an African (specifically a Ugandan: i didn't really have time to imprint how other East Africans were speaking English, though it was noticably different) speaks, and since almost all people here are non-native speakers of English, and would probably be baffled by a spout of Mmerrcininglsh (though i still see my countrymen here plugging away frustratedly), they get my African English.

in any case, i've been using my African English a lot more than my American English the last year and a half. and the four years before that, i was using Japanese-friendly Ingurishu a lot more than i was my native speaking style too. meaning, in other words, that i'm not really sure i CAN speak 'American' fluently any more. don't get me wrong: i am still totally fluent in English. but i just don't think i sound completely American anymore, even when i'm talking to a bunch of them. or rather--and this is weird--i think i can sound it, but i have to try. meaning American English has become another front i put on my language, like Japanese- or African-friendly English. maybe they aren't fronts, somehow, but separate speaking styles in my mind. either way, Dubai has made me realize i no longer naturally speak like an American.

think about that. it's pretty deep. when you live in another country, you're going to change your lifestyle a bit. you'll adapt to different foods, different medicines, different hygienic practices and social norms, etc. you'll learn some of the local language, and if needed you'll learn to speak so the folks there can understand you better. but it's a pretty far step to change the way you speak your native language so deeply you can't come back to it without trying. that's forgetting how to ride a bicycle because you've been on a trike so long. but that's where i am, five and a half years later: fluent in English, but not the English i was raised speaking. i'm a non-native native speaker, native of English but not sounding like a native of anywhere in particular (though surely i'm still closer to US English than, say, Australian). and that counts for a lot in the first impressions of people you meet: more than style of dress, behavior, etc., they base your nationality on how you speak. and since i no longer sound American, i no longer seem American to any of them, much though i guess i am, still.

is nationality something that can change? i mean, not legally, but personally? has my own identity also drifted along with my language, to be more of a world citizen than one of the US? passport aside, am i really American anymore?

i don't know. i know i have spent some time looking at my own country and its people from the outside. and i'm guessing after i go back there will be quite a few moments when i feel pretty out of place, right at home. so maybe this is best expressed like i used to say: that i've become some percent Japanese during my time there, and since have become a certain part African, and in the process have probably become a certain part simply international, a mocha-brown (like the africa-tanned shade of my white skin) mix of the colorful peoples i've been part of, the world over.

that's probably right. i am still American. just not completely. and i guess i never will be, again; the world has got into me. good--i'd hate to think i left for five years and didn't learn anything, or to hold the prejudice that speaking about what i've learned would somehow be better in one accent or another. one of the things i love about that very America whose English i've forgotten how to speak is its ideal of respect for and protection of what anyone has to say, regardless of accent. that's one thing five years of travel hasn't changed, and i guess never will. maybe i'm American after all.

[1] im forgiving Ugandans here, who consistently guessed i was from the UK, just because there is still a white man = colonist = British pattern of thinking there, though i sometimes got America or Germany.

nice line seen on an Emirates ad:
when was the last time you did something for the first time?

two days in Dubai
that's what i gave myself, a kind of bounceback time between Uganda and America, between what are sure to be two very different chapters in my life. a time to unwind one and get wound up for the next, and dilute both in the brew of a totally different place and people.

and different it is: i've never been anywhere like Dubai.

the moment i stepped out of the airport, i was reminded of Jordan: the scent of the air, a dry, mid-East air that nevertheless carries the scent and moisture of the sea. a quality to the sunlight that is a touch hazy, a touch whiter than it is in Africa or America. distinctively Middle Eastern.

that's where the comparison ends. the next closest place to it would be Singapore, which a friend of mine once described as 'the Disneyland of Asia.' i.e. richer, cleaner, newer, better organized, more unreal. if you travel in Thailand, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Laos, even Japan, life there is real. but Singapore? immaculately clean streets, new, tall buildings, everyone apparently wealthy, crime apparently non-existent, people apparently content... the kind of place where they can make chewing gum illegal.

Dubai is like that: a city too newly constructed to show any wear, a little city-state with a massive concentration of wealth, loading its square of land with skyscrapers, beautifying every little corner with a new statue, a spread of green grass and palms in a desert, totally idealistic in how far it can go. take the Burg Khalifa: opened last month, it is the tallest building in the world. by far: just look at some of the previous owners of that title, and their heights:

the Empire State Building, at 443 meters

the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, at 452m

Sears Tower in Chicago, 457m

Shanghai World Financial Center, 492m

Taipei 101, 509m

and now, the Burg Khalifa:
Burj Khalifa, Dubai, 828 meters (2,717 feet)

that's more than half again the size of the next highest, the Taipei 101. before that they were increasing by a few meters at a time, and now this thing puts them all to shame. it's amazing. it's awe-inspiring. it deserves its own section.

the Burj Khalifa
i didn't know much about Dubai as i stepped out of the airport, groggy from a sore throat and a night on the air-conditioned floor. what i did know was the tallest building had recently opened there, so tall as to be almost ridiculous. it seemed like a good place to start.

so i took the metro out, itself so new half the stations weren't finished yet, got out of the station and tried to get my bearings. only one was needed: the sharp, thin line i saw ahead, needling up into the sky. it was impossibly high: my eye followed it up and up, getting thinner as it climbed, lines reducing not only by design but by sheer distance to a top was nearly a kilometer/half a mile away, up! the morning sun was climbing behind it, giving the air a hazy quality, lightening the tower just enough that it seemed unreal, more like an artist's sketch left there in the sky, or something so close as to be mistaken for something far away.

but there can be no mistake: it's real. 828 meters/2,717 feet of steel and glass jutting up into the sky. you can never get lost in that part of town: just find the Burj Khalifa, and you've got your bearings.

i went on looking at it throughout the rest of the day. after awhile it struck me as too small, somehow: was that really most of a kilometer straight up? the distance plays tricks on you, making the regular pattern of nestled towers seem to get smaller as it goes up, til the ones at the top, which you know must be the same size as all the rest, look like little more than antennas up there.

the top doesn't move right, either: the tops of normal buildings move a bit as you move, change positions relative to you and the things behind them, as two fingers held at different distances from your eye will appear to move at different speeds when you move your head[1]. the Burj doesn't: maybe because there are no objects behind it to compare with, or simply because it is actually so far away as to be like a stationary object on the horizon, the Burj doesn't budge. this is disorienting as you walk, looking at it, like a pupil painted in the center of an eye will seem to look at you no matter where you go.

the Burj is equally inescapable: no matter where you are in Dubai, chances are if you look at the skyline, you'll see at least a few hundred meters of it jutting above everything else, a superreal needle up into the sky, somehow wrong to the eye. you get the feeling man wasn't meant to make anything that big, that it is an abomination[2]. and that brings me to another feeling i had about the place:

[1] that's called parallax, by the way.

[2] not to mention, as many might, the old correlation between towers/skyscrapers and male genitalia, and theories of masculine identity deriving therefrom. if one was to mention said theories, one would certainly have to conclude the architects, builders and owners of the Burj Khalifa are well satisfied with their display to other males, and status as 828meter alpha males the world over. one might further mention, if one was feeling rather free with words, a rambling imagination as to what sort of female genitalia might be made to match that tower, if ever there were a female need for such things as there appears to be a male. one might even imagine the two meeting in air, 828 meters up, and working their symbolic magic together, which would be rather disturbing. i'm glad i decided not to mention it.

Dubai: Babylon rebuilt being unwrapped.
giant, marvelous, half-finished towers in the desert. underwater hotels, manmade islands visible from space, a second tower of Babylon reaching for the sky. a shrine to money, a second mecca in the Middle East to the Other God, this one with near-universal following: Mammon, in the Old Testament. Money.

it is a fishing village rocketed to six-star metropolis and VVIP status through the discovery of oil and the encouraging of free trade. a place with a history so thoroughly in keeping with the American Dream that Americans are disgusted with it, jealous and somehow discontent that our mythology should have played out amongst the Arabs, that all these trappings of wealth be owned by Sheikhs with veiled wives and not the good Norm Rockwell Nuclear Family. that as we founder in economic turmoil half their city should be under construction, money and people and power pouring in, all signs pointing to success as our own signs sag towards failure.

in this light we want to mark it as evil, somehow, as wrong because we can't accept it as right when we, the chosen people[1] have not taken part. and so it is easy to go back to Daniel 9, and take this city as a sign of the end of days, because in a way it is: it is a sign of the end of our days--the US, and the West in general, that is--as undisputed global economic powers. the Arabs have taken us over. the Chinese, the Indians are likely to do the same. we are outstripped by our own ideas, by this thing we helped create, as Britain was before us, by us, their own colony. and so it continues: the building and rebuilding of Babylon, as our New York and Los Angeles once were, signs of the decline of one culture and the increase of the next, old ideas reinvented in new wealth and society.

[1] cf. the discussion in chapter nine of Joseph Campbell's Myths to Live By of the Torah, Bible and Qu'ran's mythologies of their adherents as the chosen people of God, thereby entitled to special privileges like dominance over all other peoples.

derivative: glory future
then again, i think Dubai has happened too fast: too fast to really define itself, to find a face different from those who came before. and so its malls are full of American and European stores, its lingua franca English moreso than Arabic, its basic goal unchanged from the powers before it, my own society.

surely, some things are uniquely non-Western: in the glittering new supermarket where i bought a hot round of bread covered in cheese and zaatar, there was a special gate in the wall of the meat section, with the heading PORK SHOP, and underneath, a sign: For non-Muslims. you would enter through, walk down a short hallway, and there could buy pork if your morals and desires allowed it. toilets were carefully physically separated, with attendant prayer rooms for those observant enough to pray to Allah five times a day as commanded. calls to prayer would echo over the mall loudspeakers at the right times. some architecture has distinctive Mid-Eastern influence, and old boats still ply the waterways. but for the most part, the new construction and most of the people living in it have a glittery, bland, international feel to them: you might be in London, San Diego, Taipei: there is little distinguishing the city, no idiosyncracies to fall in love with like you can in New York, or any city in Europe. it's too new: like a new car you hesitantly name, wanting a relationship but not having spent enough time together to really feel any name in particular fits. Dubai. UAE. why not?

looking through the Dubai Museum, built partially in the humble ruins of an old fort (itself not even 200 years old), with most of it in an expensive underground facility, i got the same feeling. there has been civilization in that area for a long time, but never much of one: a few people living around the sea and oases, trading and fishing and diving for pearls. 100 years ago, it was a backwater, and you can feel the pain with which this great city acknowledges its recent rise to fame, and how hard it's trying to make that history the most it can be.

no attempt can be enough: it was rags to riches, simply, and if Dubai is to be a great cultural center, it is something that will happen from here forward, with no grand old buildings to remind us of glory past. it is all glory future, if it is to be glory at all. a new Babylon still being unwrapped.

what i actually did
so, aside from random cogitations on the place, i spent my time here slowly, exhausted from quite a few nights of poor sleep and intense days at the end of my bicycle trip and time in Uganda. sleep in Dubai was no better, with hotels both prohibitively expensive and sold-out, meaning i slept on the airport floor instead (see below). the first day, i went to Burj Khalifa and the Dubai Mall, both massive and spanking-new complexes, and spent the daylight hours wandering through stores, eating foods i'd hadn't had in a year and some, sitting on public promenades reading or writing or watching people. i'd caught a cold/slight flu from being too tired and busy, so i pooped out quickly and spent most of the day off my feet, sitting here or there and soaking things in, but i made a good tour of the area. they weren't selling tickets to the top of the Burj, so i didn't make it up.

the second day i headed for the Dubai Museum, which wasn't amazing, then spent the rest of it wandering the streets around there, eating shwarmas and drinking fruit juice, watching grown men playing cricket in an abandoned lot, browsing through local grocery stores and peering at old mosques. i eventually found the waterfront, walked along it, laid down in some green grass under a palm tree, thought about the changes happening in my life, what good things i left and what good things i was going towards, smiling spontaneously to nothing at all. took a boat down the creek past the night lights coming out, wandered the night market, walked back to the metro station and went home (the airport).

not a very eventful two days, but that's what i wanted: a little space to clear my head, see a new place, rest up a bit to be in my best shape for coming home. some time to ease back in to the first world lifestyle, eat some good food, read and write. nice. and now, finally, i'm going home.