The blue scuff on my boot from the stairs of Chefchaouen's medina faded just about a week ago. I sit above a street in my Lakeside district hotel in a city called Pokhara. The Himalayan foothills peek out of a foggy shroud to the north. Motorcycles and buses weave in and out of my window.
It's been some time since I last posted. Much has happened. I've been on three continents, leaving Chefchaouen I spent a few days in the port city of Tangier on the Northern coast of Morocco. I sat with some boys on the hafa (cliff) looking out at Spanish coastline, closer to a cruel mirage than an actual reality. At least to those boys. We drank tea and compared daily life. They asked me to promise to find them American women to marry. I told them such a thing was not possible. They looked at me bemused, "Your life is like our dream...we know it is not possible."
And I've walked along the port city, the famed medina, and the ending point, the limit of many dreams.
I sat in a hazy parlor that night with my white haired, traveled, and kind hearted host, Fouad. He had invited a few friends over for a late night dinner. Darija, Standard Arabic, French, Spanish, and English were all spoken over beer, wine, chicken and okra tanjine, bread and olives. His flat was on the second story of an ancien protectorate-era building. A single uninterrupted balcony ran from the front parlor to the guest bedroom where I was staying. Across the way was a large closed air market full of flowers, fish, parakeets, cats, and a lone fox, along with meats, produce and freshly caught fish.
A tapas bar called La Victoria glowed neon into the night, and by the time I had laid down to sleep for the last time in Morocco the drunks were being escorted out front door, shattering glass under the shadows of a few buzzing street lights.
It was time to leave Morocco, and for a few reasons in addition to my to-be-host canceling in Dakar I flew north on 28 hour layover in Madrid. Final destination: Budapest. In hindsight I wish I had worked some things out and continued on to Dakar. I had planned to look into some archives at the L'Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noir. Instead I flipped through pages of short stories by Paul Bowles from a collection I bought in an old library of Tangier and listened to Bob Seager "Beautiful Loser" in the Madrid airport all night long. But I can't regret my decision to change dramatically in my surroundings. Contrasts often bring the most interesting insights.
Sleeping in airports do as well. By the 15th or 16th hour the feeling of waiting became normal. Not an anticipated feeling of waiting but a standstill momentum, as the flocks of businessmen and "holiday" goers ebb in and out of boarding gates and the lights of the city glow and fade outside of the giant glass and steel portals, you simply sit, pace, visit vending machines, wonder if fellow over-nighters are on your flight, wish you had bought one more beer and jamon sandwich. I truly did miss pork in Morocco. And indulged accordingly.
So I put my boots behind my head and slept between airport benches looking at the shadow of low hills that surround the eastern side of MAD.
The beauty of Budapest emerges once you exit the Metro line from the airport, a bus and metro ride that passed scenery that reminded me of Rustbelt cities in the Midwest. A strange feeling of home. I stayed in the 5th city district not far from the Danube river and only steps away from the St. Stephan Basilica. The architecture was indeed magnificent. Only an hour into my walk around the surrounding blocks I came upon a protest rally near a metro-hub and McDonald's. It was a demonstration for Immigrant rights, open borders, and a rejection of police state tactics being used by European governments against migrants from Africa and the Middle East. Particularly, I think, from Syria. A Palestinian student took the mike and read a poem in Arabic titled "Passport". The demonstrators waved black and red anarchy flags, LGBTQ banners, and free-movement and open border slogans were declared through megaphones. The well dressed designer bag carrying shoppers from the nearby upscale stores held a mix of confusion, irritation, interest, and disgust on their faces as they passed by.
It is telling of the prevalence of the divide between the rich and poor (and I should add formerly colonized) nations that keeps appearing in what I encounter on this fellowship. The ability of free and easy international movement is recurrent in the discussions I've had with a young Nepali couple as well. And is symptomatic of larger and growing inequalities between the rich and poor throughout the globe.
On a flight from Abu Dhabi to Kuala Lumpur I listened to the Kendrick Lamar "To Pimp a Butterfly" album. And like the first time I heard it the ending track "Mortal Man" where an interview with 2pac is imposed over Kendrick asking questions. A shiver ran down my body when 2pac is explaining a metaphor he uses where the poor of the earth are literally the ground that will break open and swallow the rich. Without a doubt Bob Seager and Kendrick Lamar played a great soundtrack for traversing three continents in the span of two weeks.
After a few days of museum going and exploring I decided to dedicate the remaining week or so to some independent research I had been planning. Using wifi at a few cafes, a butcher shop, and my phone and collected PDFs I gathered over the summer I began the first steps of outlining some research into what could be called the legacy or effects of colonization in the conflicts over resource extraction. I found a beautiful library as well in the 8th district. I only wish I had taken photos.
After walking along the Danube listening to the poetry of John Trudel, thinking of America and stand rock, I made it to all the spots Anthony Bourdain visited in his Budapest episode of Parts Unkown. Following an (anti)hero of mine since my line cooking days of adolescence were nice shoes to fill.
My flight to Nepal took me on a two day layover to the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. Another world away from the places I've been. Spicy pork noodle soup blew me away. I think I could have died after that bowl and been satisfied. I had been craving Asian food since the first week I left the US. KL certainly satisfied that craving. Fiery broth with pork belly, crispy fired pork skin, buttery liver, bok choy, and thick rice noodles, served on small plastic table and accompanying chairs on the side of the road, my type of meal.
Just by chance a fellow Bonderman traveler Scott Haber was in Kuala Lumpur as well. On my only and last night in the city we grabbed some dinner and went to a lowkey jazz club called "No Black-tie." It's a rewarding experience to talk with someone who is their own way experiencing very similar things. I think an apt way of describing it is that all four of us, the lucky Bonderman Michigan graduates, are on a similar path along our own different journeys. Because it's not common to run across anyone who is traveling quite like us. For many reasons I think.
One, maybe the most obvious reason is that being awarded a 20,000 dollar fellowship in the name of whatever we desire is incredibly rare. Not to mention the length of 8 months for people just out of college who have little, or like me, no travel experience is a bit odd.
And on another, maybe deeper level or reasoning is the fact that we all are traveling on a journey with an ever-evolving purpose. And a deeply personal purpose. The fellowship is not a vacation, or as they say in Europe, a holiday where so much of the mindset seems to revolve around exorcized escapism. Where people have a mentality of escaping "real-life" though travel, versus the fact that this fellowship is very much our real life. Something we have all thought intensely on for at least a year prior, if not more. And I am sure it is a journey we all a sacrificing something back home for.
As two months of travel draw close I am understanding more and more what my purpose in this journey is, and what it can be. I also am recognizing my own struggles with this fellowship. I am constantly torn between the desire to continue on, to meet new people I never would have met, to see and experience ways of life and thinking that are both so familiar and close and yet so new and unknown to me. And at the same time part of me is always at home, or at least longing to be home. Back in me and Chauné's basement studio, and all I want to do is take back this decision of traveling and and be home with her. To wake up to the life we were making together; to smell fall along the Huron river as I have for the past 15 years of my life; to make spaghetti and meatball from scratch with wine and watch X-files togather.
And it's this paradox that each desire is at the same time the other; the desire to continue on is the desire to return home and this is what moves my journey and purpose forward. That I have to engage intimately with a environment and society that is forcefully new, one that pushes me to examine and grow in how I understand my self. This paradox or dialectic in my everyday desire and consciousness reminds me of, and helps me rethink a lesson that I was taught through teaching and mentorship in a summer camp called the Warrior Scholar Boot Camp. The lesson grew out of the model that a good friend and mentor Lumas Helaire has emphasized in much of the work he does. The lesson stresses that failure is absolutely necessary for success.
It is a simple enough lesson but rarely ever fully embranced. I'm coming to understand that the fellowship is deeply determined by aleatory events, things almost completely out of ones control. I embarked on this fellowship wanting to understand myself in a sort of national, ethnic, and identity context in new surroundings. But I quickly realized there was much more in what this journey offers. And I certainly am far from figuring that out. But I know in reaching ones potential, one must fail. You have to reach the point where without the insights and lessons of failure you could not go on to do better at your practice.
Of course much of what one gets out of travel is in the social-environmental contextual experiences, experiences that are of course invaluable. The ability to peer into and share worldviews and lived experiences with people form globally different walks of life is the most beautiful thing. But when you strip those experiences down, it comes to how you interact with the world, what do you give, what do you take. And one has to question themselves: are they giving the right things? Are they taking the right things? What do these experiences of diverse and conflicting perspectives and conditions tell oneself about that give and take?
This has been a massive post. And I have not even written on Nepal. Which by far has been one of the most insightful, beautiful, and challenging points of the fellowship. I'll save this for later. I'm holed up in a Pokhara for a few days with the intent of writing and meditation. So hopefully the break in posts will not be as long.
I remember about this time last year I decided I would apply for the Bonderman Fellowship. In the midst of my honors thesis and applications for doctoral programs in sociology I stayed up all night reading the posts of past and then current fellows, as well as googling towns, flights, all of that. I think one of the past fellows described a similar thing. Just a month ago feels like a lifetime, I can't imagine what next October will bring. I'd like to imagine living in Budapest with Chauné and her new kitten, Chupa (short for cupacabra).
I've been writing this for some time now, the sun has set and the sounds of night flood in my window. If you are still reading this, you have my deepest gratitude. And I apologize as I write much of this for myself. It is a selfish practice, yet deeply therapeutic and healing, as well an necessary tool of self-reflexivity.
My room is simple 12x8 feet, yet comfortable and at a rate of about 8.50$ per night...I can't complain. After a week or so in the villages with very little privacy (life is absolutely communal in Nepal as I have seen it, and definitely in the village- more on this soon) a single hotel room is much needed.
One final thought and precursor to my next post before I head out to search for diner.
As I returned for the second time from the Village named Dedhgaun, the bus back to the nearest town was incredibly full. I stress incredibly. I have not seen such a small bus with so many people on it. I'm sure the safe choice would have been not to climb upon the roof relying on solely my grip not to be tossed off by the numerous pits along the narrow dirt road. But I would not have seen the mountains, the snow capped Himalayans rising above the lush green hills and rice paddy vales. I would not have thought of the insanity of all the vast diversity of what I have been touched by the past month and a half or so.
And most of all I would not have remembered the title chosen by my Grandfather and Great-Grandfather George and Kyung-ha Kim for my Great-Grandfather's autobiographic and impeccably detailed memoir: "Though I Walked Over the Mountains and the Deep Vales." And although my journey was far less strenuous, and I only walked some way to the road in order to catch the bus, and had the luxury of a bus; and I was not walking across the northern portion of Korea into Manchuria to escape imprisonment or death by the Japanese occupation for being part of the Christian independence movement; and I have well trodden but high-end special field boots, not cloth and rope for sandals, that ride down through those hills captured how close I felt with the presence of ancestors. To walk in balance is to walk with the voices of seven generations back and the mindfulness of seven generations coming.
So now the blue scuffs on my boots are gone. Replaced with the dust of the hilly roads and trails along rice paddies and banana tree groves in the hills of Nepal.