Friday, June 30, 2017

Buenos Noches - The Mexican Cartel




      Buenos Noches

               The sun was sitting low in the dusty orange sky of Mexico's central province, Michoacán. Big plumes of white and yellow dust chased our convoy of motorcycles down the road. Everyone had sun-kissed noses, calloused bums, caked on dirt from days of hardly bearable heat, sweat, and dust streaking our foreheads. The heavy vibration synonymous with a Kawasaki 650 motorcycle engine massaged my muscles in its familiar way. It was bliss to be back in the saddle, a feeling of freedom only a biker knows. It had been more than a month, nursing a separated shoulder, caused by high-siding my bike when inadvertently meeting a herd of cows on a dirt road in the mountains. I had been in Sayulita, a party town on the west coast, and what had been lost in time and liver health was gained by meeting my life partner and the four other people who will never forget this night.




                 We were a freshly born band of brothers, a testimony to friends made on the road, the brapp family was forged. And then there is Sara, the most beautiful, energetic girl who was just the right amount of crazy to pack up her life and jump onto the passenger seat of my motorcycle, even after hearing about how I have crashed and injured every girl who has ever gotten on my bike. We were four motorbikes and six adventure hungry friends, clad head to toe in protective gear, all bearing smiles inside our helmets.  Engines purring, stones flying, while the raw, beautiful country of Mexico unrolled itself for us around every corner. It was all too good to be true, but as the saying goes, it usually is, and this story is no exception. It was one of the best days of my life, until I found myself staring up into the barrel of a loaded AK-47 in a riverbed of Mexico's most dangerous province.  If you dare to explore the meaning of that, please read on.         


             Three days after leaving Sayulita together, we approached the town of Tepalcatepec just a few days before Christmas. A kilometer before the township proper,  we met two rifle-clad checkpoint guards dressed in army green singlets, jeans, sandals, and baseball caps. They asked the usual friendly questions; where are were coming from, where are we going, how big the bike engine is, and how much fuel the tank can hold, with the same exasperated expressions of bewilderment that usually follows. Sara and I were the caboose in the convoy and when we arrived last, the other four were already conversing in their broken Spanish. It was soon offered up that Sara speaks fluent Spanish, so the men approached our bike with gentle smiles and soft eyes. It made the rifles look no more intimidating than an old man and his walking cane.  At that time it was a small detail, after all, every gas station, convenience store, even Pizza Hut had a shot-gun clad show of authority standing guard outside. Guns are a regular showpiece and there's no separation between good and bad when it comes to the one who holds it, and more often than not it’s the official police you want to avoid.  After a few more smiles, some hand shakes and confusing twist of the wrist for directions into town, we were off and rolling again into the lingering sunset. I must emphasize on the importance of this conversation. It was just like the other dozen conversations we'd had with friendly gun slung security, but this passive conversation with the gentle-faced men is important. It would later be used in a pivotal moment that could very likely be the only reason this story gets told.

     

             We're not hotel travelers, we're budget moto hippies that find spots hidden off the track to pitch tents and have drinks around the fire. Our stop in Tepalcatepec was only to top up our tequila supply and vamanos to the next best wild camping option Michoacán had to offer. Just twelve kilometers out of town, we crossed a long bridge exposing a beautiful sandy river to our left, the sun still hanging on the horizon high enough to cast the last few rays of light that glimmered off the water. It was beautiful, perfect in fact for a group of six to lay their heads for the night. A kilometer off the main road in a deep riverbed of sand, we found a small forest grotto out of view, next to a nice fresh river to wash the accumulative days worth of dust from our sticky, grimy, bodies. It was yet again an ideal campsite, the third one in a row with a new group of rock solid friends having the romantic idea of an adventurous life.  All was absolutely perfect except for one thing....we were six gringos on motorbikes in one of Mexico's most savage drug running provinces. A place where the federal police don't go and the Army doesn't want to add any soldiers to the blood soaked soil. Foolish gringos.....we knew nothing. I'm going to be honest, I'm going to level with you...we were idiots. This was the beginning of many mistakes.


        Patrick, an ex-military veteran from the war in Iraq, needed to fix an electrical problem on his bike, so after the tents were set up, he and I got to work. Just then, a local man approached our camp wearing flip flops, swim shorts, grey t-shirt, and a wrist watch; a very typical dress code, except he also had a shotgun slung over his shoulder. He approached us cautiously as not to intrude, and hung a coy smile between his ears. He tried small talk with us like every other Mexican did as we are a curious novelty. The middle-aged gentleman allegedly was out rabbit hunting before sunset. He began passing our makeshift village of tents by following the river before changing his mind, turning around, and deciding he was going to walk in between our tents making sure to have a good look at everyone and everything on his way out. Hardly breaking a stride in our electrical repair, I heard a loud echo-less crack of the shotgun in the nearby distance. No one else seemed to notice or if they did, paid no mind to it.

      
         The sun was finally making its way around the opposite side of the earth when the rabbit-less Mexican returned with a gift of six grapefruits hanging from a branch. I teased him on the whereabouts of dinner, he smiled and in his basic English replied, "No rabbit today," despite the shot that rung out in the distance not long before. In hindsight, I'd spent two months camping and motorcycling through Mexico's wilderness and never saw a single rabbit. He skirted our campsite again and noticed we had two bottles of tequila sitting next to the makeshift fire pit. He asked if we were having a party,  claiming to be the village 'doctor' and if we needed anything, anything at all, he could get it for us. We declined generously but he persisted. "Food, water, marijuana? Cocaine?" Again we smiled and politely told him no. He began a steady retreat to his motorcycle parked a few hundred meters further down stream, but not before insisting he would be back later to have a fiesta. At that point all six of us chipped in to assure him that we were tired and going to sleep early and wouldn't be having a party. Getting the final word before taking himself and his shotgun home, "I'll be back later to check on you." All of us were feeling the same discomfort in knowing a local guy was insistent on crashing our camp later that night against our best efforts to tell him not to return.  Writing this down for you to read, it's clear that ignoring a gut feeling has never served me well. Although we didn't know it at the time, we were in the epicenter of the bloodiest, most active civil war in Mexico between The Knights of Templar Cartel, Los Zeta Cartel, and a local paramilitary faction (Autodefensa) made up by arming local farmers and villagers with automatic machine guns. The red flags were flying high and bright. We should have packed up. We should have rode out that very moment. We shouldn't have been there. We were stupid, blind gringos.





                  The day was gone and there was no moon to shed us any light. The night was crisp; we had a campfire, warm cooked food, with a belly full of tequila to top it all off. All six of us were down next to the water with our head torches illuminated, exposed to the same bridge we had crossed earlier. Beyond our own quiet voices, the sound of a car engine roared in the distance, piercing the tranquility of night. It was an unmistakable sound of a vehicle approaching us quickly, the engine revved high in a low gear to manage the deep sand between us and the main road. Two glaring headlights broke the peace of darkness, the beams swaying left to right, bouncing up and down, following the only path that led to us. The memory is still nauseating. I yelled out for everyone to turn their lights off and get into their tents as we scrambled wildly through the dark and up the bank. We remained silent as dead corpses, listening to the approaching vehicle.  I laid my hand on Sara's chest, feeling her heavy heart beat growing faster as I tried my best to control my own. My pulse was steady but loud; I could hear it thumping like a drum between my ears, becoming louder, deafening with every beat. The headlights now cast a deep contrasted shadow against the fabric of our tents from only twenty feet away. The rumble of the engine combined with the sound of my blood pumping adrenaline through my veins gave me the feeling my head was about to explode. The engine went static but the headlights stayed on. The drum between my ears went quiet, so quiet, I could have heard a spider crossing its web. I whispered to the others in their tents, "Nobody go out alone, if one of us goes we all go, the two girls stay hidden." Against my best wishes, the vehicle didn't turn around and drive away, but a door squeaked open and a heavy foot hit the gravel beneath it. Another door opened and the sound of feet sinking into sand was heard by all. CRUNCH, CRUNCH, both doors closed. My hand still resting against Sara, we hadn't the need to tell each other we were scared.

                  The air was thick as mud, our throats dry like dust. The footsteps crunched their way towards us in the sand just meters away from our tents before coming to a stop, only a few strides between us and them. Next came a sound that still stands the hair up on the back of my neck when I think about it. A man yelled out in a deep stern tone, "Buenos Noches." There was nothing but a dead cold silence in the pitch dark night in that river bed. I could feel Sara's heart quicken; my own nervous sweat trickled cold from my armpits as the seconds of silence ticked by. The voice rang out again, this time louder and in a more impatient tone, "Buenos Noches." Even the frogs and crickets held their breath for those following moments of silence. The voice rang out one final time in a harsh, deep and angry tone, "BUENOS NOCHES," followed by an unmistakable, "Chuck - Chick" sound of a gun chambering a round; the distinctive noise of metal parts sliding back and forth, a spring being compressed and a bolt caulked ready to fire. My hand never left Sara, it was the only silent comfort I could offer. Tim, my German riding partner, was the first to emerge as he was closest to the freshly loaded gun. Ismail, the tall Turkish-Canadian, Patrick, and I emerged directly after in order to face our interrogators.  As I climbed out of the tent I knelt down, looked Sara straight in the eyes, told her I loved her and gave her a kiss, closing the door. I didn't need to explain what that kiss meant. I believe its healthy to have some tough times together to build a strong relationship but damn that sucked.




        The three of us cautiously walked down to join Tim's side in front of the two silhouetted men standing in front of something that resembled a 30 year old piece of shit American station wagon.  The first man was roughly 5'9'' with a slim build, and holding an AK-47 with a big banana clip in his hands, round chambered. The other man was slightly shorter, a little thicker around the waist with a shotgun in his arms and a pistol tucked into the waist band of his jean shorts. They introduced themselves as the police, though their uniforms consisted of sandals and dirty singlets. The short man with the shotgun did most, if not all of the talking in very basic words of English. The bombardment of questions started flowing, gradually becoming unstable. It didn't take long for us to notice they were both drunk or high, probably both. The tall man would occasionally grow irritated, back away from us and prop up his AK-47 as if to get a good spread on us if he decided to open fire. The shorter one played the good cop pretending like he wanted to be our friend one second, then demanding our I.D's the next. In retort, Patrick asked for their identification since they claimed to be police officers. They both grew aggressive and confrontational, one of them caulking his arm back into a fist with an accusing finger pointed at Patrick in a way that only ends with a punch to the face. We backed off with our palms up visible for the men to see our dismissive place in this relationship and agreed to honor their request to present our I.D's. Up until then the interrogation hadn't gone so well, the entire event was a roller coaster of emotion, one second everything was fine, the next we were staring an assault rifle down the barrel. As I walked back to the tent for my I.D, I remembered the two girls we had met back at our hostel in Sayulita who had been waiting for their boyfriends to arrive. The two Australians never made it. They were found executed, shot in the back of the head and burned in their van in the province of Sinaloa, not far from where we were, and only two weeks prior. Were we about to be another headline in newspapers around the world?

             



            Luckily, up until then Sara and Rachel, the 5th and 6th members of the group, had still gone unnoticed, hiding quietly in the tents. We weren't sure of the intentions our interrogators had with four men, and I wasn’t letting my mind explore their intentions with two attractive women. As I opened the tent door to retrieve my I.D, Sara was in the exact same position, legs locked, sitting straight up with her arms propped against the ground to keep her supported, head forward as if paralyzed. She broke her trance to hand me the backpack with the drivers licence. I grabbed my fake laminated I.D, used as a decoy for corrupt police and instantly my guts hit rock bottom. My real drivers licence was hidden away in the air box of my motorcycle along with $500 USD and my credit card. It was a bad time to be caught using a fake I.D. Disassembling my bike to retrieve the original wasn’t an option, I just had to reach down, grab my little balls and use the fake. I looked at Sara and spoke to her softly. I asked her something I wish never to repeat.  "Sara, can you do me a favor? Do you think you can be quiet enough to sneak away and run?" Sara knows my reckless history – speeding through rebel controlled territory at night in West Africa, sinking a boat in the Canary Islands, and nearly starving to death in the jungles of Papua New Guinea to name a few, so she never doubted the severity in my voice with regards to one of us escaping. Without hesitation Sara answered, "No." Being close to danger is something I'm familiar with, I thrive on it so to speak, but this was more than I had bargained for. The body language and the growing aggression of the two men were telling me things were about to get worse before they got better. I was preparing myself for the idea that we were all going to die that night. I closed the tent without kissing her; the time for that romantic, wannabe-tough-boyfriend-bullshit was long gone. 


         
           I gathered everyone's I.D cards and handed them over in a stack. The short plump man questioned all of us individually on our nationality and the explanation we gave them. Patrick is a dual citizen, American-Canadian. He served a couple tours in Iraq before getting blasted out of the army by an I.E.D. Pat knows war. He has 'ALL AMERICAN' tattooed across his stomach, yet I had handed over his Canadian I.D. It was clear we were lying to them. They handed us back our cards individually, looking at the picture and the subject in front of them. They were doing their best to find a reason to light us up and we were doing our best to avoid it. Ismail seemed to have soothed them with his minimal audio-book Spanish skills by telling them we were harmless foreigners on a motorcycle trip. Every now and then the two-way radio would crackle to life in the car and the short stubby guy would lean into the window to respond while the tall one held us in his cross-hairs. Twenty painstaking minutes of this went by before they seemed more calm and collected, ensuring us they waned no problems and everything was "tranquillo". Finally, there was hope of making it to my 27th birthday. Thank fuck....


             
           My family likes to tell me I have a guardian angel looking out for me. Unfortunately, my guardian angel was still back in Sayulita getting drunk on the beach, that prick.  The two-way radio had suddenly sprung to life with new information. "Wait, wait, wait!" The aggressive, impatient demeanor had returned. The roller coaster of being shot or released was wildly tumbling towards the ground. I heard the radio this time, with my minimal Spanish I could hear the worst words blurting from the speaker. "Y la chica, la chica que habla español?" (What about the girl, the girl who speaks Spanish) These guys are organised crime, in this area they are the government, not something to underestimate no matter how worn their clothes are or unprofessional they may appear. The knew us. They knew of my girlfriend from the brief conversation we had with the checkpoint guards hours before. There was probably a thousand people with guns in that town who knew who we were. We lied to them and they caught us red handed. What was once a friendly release of custody became an aggressive return to our torment.




          The round short man sang out, "Where is the girl, the one who speaks Spanish?" I've never heard a silence so thick in my life. I imagined what a bullet feels like burning through my insides and what kind of mangled body would be left of my girlfriend. They were angry, we told them we were only four when the boss man knew we had a Spanish-speaking girl. Caught in our own lie. (Side note - Twenty seconds is a very long time when you're looking down the barrel of a gun.) We were four guys not really indebted to each other at all, the only one who really had something to lose was me. But there beside me stood three of the toughest guys I know, who never mumbled a word; not even with a gun in their face did they even consider giving up one of our own. Good lads, the very best of brothers. It was a stale mate, us looking at them, them looking at us. We weren't about to break and they weren't about to let up. I can't go over this situation enough in my head, wondering if I made the right choice, maybe the only choice. We were four against two, Pat and I sized them up, I've shot a few guns in my life and watched a shit load of movies about this stuff.... but they knew plenty about real life shooting and killing. In the end my choice was to speak up, I told them simply "Okay, I'll get her," turning around to retrieve my partner and offer her up to two angry drunk men with guns.      

Relationship goals 101.

       
    Before opening the tent, it crossed my mind that maybe she had a change of heart and had been able to slip away. I unzipped the door to find her still sitting there in the exact same position, still paralyzed. I knelt in close and told her she was being summoned. She already knew, able to hear the entire time, even picking up most of what came in over the radio. She broke from the trance and climbed out of the tent without hesitation. There was no real alternative. We walked together through the dark towards the car. I rejoined my place in the execution line as Sara lingered in the shadows, attempting to hide herself from the men. As she approached, the shorter man stared her down, rolling his hand into a fist and cracking his knuckles into the palm of his other hand. Despite her fear she spoke perfect Spanish, without a single tremble. Sara has a way with people, nearly every person, including myself, who has ever spoken to her tends to fall in love. Sara was just being Sara, charming the Mexicans in her charismatic way, answering their questions in a friendly happy tone, bit by bit defusing the explosive situation between us. And just like that, there were no more threats, tensed shoulders or clenched fists. He repeated all the same questions they asked us, Sara explaining it to them in clear Spanish, until they seemed satisfied with the explanation. Their demeanor changed again and it was all smiles and just good police work as far they were concerned. They told Sara they had only come to warn us about the scorpions; because apparently in Mexico, scorpions are more dangerous than two drunk, high, angry, armed men in the middle of the night. Who would have thought? Fucking assholes.



               After satisfying the big boss over the radio, the men wished us a buenos noches and retreated to their shit box car. I wasn't convinced; my guardian angel was still being a dick somewhere far away from here. During the forty minutes since their arrival, we watched the water level rise in the riverbed, swallowing up the sand underfoot. We waited on the river bank, knowing we couldn't rest easy until that car and its occupants were long gone. My heart was pounding, wondering if their car would start after having the lights on for so long. The lights dimmed, but the engine rolled over and came to life with a loud rattle. My guts began making their way back up to the stomach after spending the evening hiding in my ass. The motor roared and sand flew, but the car was stuck in the wet sand. Again, like a recurring nightmare, my insides nearly ended up in the sand. The four of us raced over to the car to help, the tall thin man got out of the passenger side, slung the AK-47 onto his back and we all pushed together while the driver put his foot down on the accelerator, throwing sand and rocks in our direction while the station wagon slowly gained momentum and found solid ground to collect its passenger.


 
         We stood watching the red tail lights grow smaller as the distance between us grew bigger. In the far off distance, the rabbit hunting village doctor from earlier came racing towards us on his motorcycle. Our new friends in the car stopped again and the motorcycle pulled up to their window. Not more than a minute passed before the motorcycle turned around, followed the 1980-something shit mobile station wagon out of the riverbed and they were gone, luckily never to been seen again.



Final Thoughts-

        It's taken me a long time to finish this story and make sure my head is clear so I understand what happened that night. I torture myself with questions. What if Sara had run like I asked her? What if they also discovered Rachel who had been quietly hiding in her tent the entire time? What if they discovered Pat was an American Soldier? What if we had said yes to buy a few grams of weed from the rabbit hunter? There's no way to know how things could have turned out that night had the circumstances been different, but we survived, we weren't robbed, beaten, or raped.  This is my story of the way I experienced it and although the other five people might have a different view of what happened that night, one thing we can all agree on is that it was an experience worth living, but not worth repeating.


More information on Tepalcatepec uprising- https://www.netflix.com/mm/title/80039606


More information on the surfers- http://www.mensjournal.com/adventure/articles/a-bad-break-in-sinaloa-two-surfers-murdered-in-mexico-w205312

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Cigerones Part 1 And The Seven Lessons Of Nick

              I look out the window and see the familiar mountain sitting alone to the east of the runway. The engines decelerate and the humming turbines slow as the captain prepares for landing. It was strange but somehow amusing to be landing at the same airport again, It's rare for me to ever return to the same place twice. I can remember almost as it was yesterday the last time I touched down in Malaga Spain, nearly 5 years prior whilst chasing a romance I had on two Swedish girls around Europe. I'm amused to no end thinking that I was chasing the idea of falling in love with a Swedish girl more than the reality of it, truth is I didn't know which one of them I liked more, but it was a great idea!


                    Only a few weeks earlier I had quit my job in Canada, speeding it across the country to catch the last flight to Ireland for the flight season. Only days after quitting my job I emailed my friend Nick from England. Nick's reply was brief but direct. "Yo Bro. I am near a place called Orgiva called Cigerones. Fly to Malaga or Granada. Its totally great here. I'm living in some ancient ruins. There is a room for you too. Building started this week. Alls all go matey. Also had the first combat school session this week. Meet my mum at the Malaga airport 2 pm, November 3rd. Get on down"

Lesson # 1 Nick is a special breed.

           I had the pleasure of meeting Nick while working for a tree removal company in Australia. My first impressions were he was laid back, had a receding hairline, was a lazy Englishmen, and way too old at 28 years to be without a stable career. This was the first of many inaccurate judgments I made about this English Gentleman of a special breed. I got to hang out with Nick a couple times for beers after work during that short stint working as an aborist before I got fired and spun up dirt in my boss's driveway with my 1988 1.6 liter Toyota Corolla. Nick was laid back, but smart as whip. Super friendly and had a couple of university degrees. One of his distinguishing features as you will come to find out in a moment is that he loved his marijuana, he would smoke it and read books and think about some crazy psychedelic shit, not what I was into but he did it with such grace I couldn't help but to respect him for it. Only a week before I got fired from that shitty job I had told nick that I was just saving up a bit of money before hiking 1000km's over 2 months across Australia's south west. I can still remember his ear to ear grin with a subtle head nod 'Cool man, that sounds like a right great trip' and that was the last I spoke to him before being fired and leaving in a hurry. I had no email, no facebook, no means of getting in touch with him again, just another transient relationship.. So I thought..

              Two weeks into the two month hike across the south west, I arrive at the campsite mid afternoon, tired, weak, and in need of a rest. As I approach the campsite, I can see someone standing on the top of the picnic table, arms crossed and looking away towards the forest in a ratty sweater, ratty shorts, and a full brimmed hat. As I get nearly to the hut, the guy turns around, he has a corn pipe in one hand of his crossed arms that's full to the brim with smoldering weed. "Oi mate, I finally caught you!" There was Nick, with that unmistakable ear to ear grin looking down at me. Turns out he liked the idea of going for a hike so much he quit the same job only a week later to join me, he got his housemate to drive him to the start of the trail and picked up all his supplies on the way there in about 30 minutes and spent the past week chasing me down and trying to catch me on the trail. What a cool guy. I remember seeing his crappy gear, lentils, noodles and a few clothes wrapped up in black plastic garbage bags. I had spent over a month preparing for the this trip and acquiring all my high tech gear, which obviously made me more capable right? Wrong... The second time I would judge Nick would be that night when I told him he would never make it to the end of the trail... Lesson #2 Never underestimate nick, he's a breed of a special kind



              That message was the last communication I had with him three weeks prior to actually touching down in Malaga Spain, Nick was one of those guys who you just have to trust and feel completely alright with it. So there I was in The airport looking around for Nicks mum, likewise Nicks mum was also looking around for me. I think its just Nicks way keeping the universe simple by not giving either one of us any details or information about the other. And simply enough, as I sat there under an information sign in the arrivals hall, long after everyone else had found their family or chauffeurs, I saw a middle aged woman looking around for someone, she likewise saw me looking around also, low and behold I was the scruffy ginger guy named Joe (what the hell Nick? Really?) and she was Nicks mom on her way to visit nick in Cigerones as she hadn't seen him in over a year. She was a lovely lady, I can see where nick gets his kind manners and her boyfriend Phil was a prude and a bit of a dick. As we drove from Malaga to Cigerones in a hired car, it was clear that neither one of us knew what to expect, this whole Cigerones thing was very vague, in fact so vague it wasn't listed on google maps or any information about it online at all. But it was Nick, Nick could convince a herd of cows to swim to America if he so pleased. So there I was on my way to see Nick for the first time in three years to train Martial arts in the Spanish mountains in a secret place of ancient ruins called Cigerones.. Holy shit was I wrong! 
Lesson #3 When dealing with Nick, NEVER assume anything.

            We finally wind our way up into the mountains of southern Spain to the base of a small town named Orgiva. Nick told his mom he would meet them at the bar at the bottom of the hill just across the bridge at 6pm. By 8pm we're still waiting in the darkening evening for Nick to appear, from where, no one knew. Nick always had a way of being places when he wanted to be. Phil was a quick temper, boiling up in frustration that his girlfriends son wasn't a punctual kind of guy, obviously the type of guy who cares way too much about things that matter too little.

Lesson #4 When dealing with Nick, never expect anything to be conventional.
                To the east there was a road, to the west there was a road, there was even a smaller dirt road that snaked its way down the mountain among the olive trees. Each of us staring down a separate in hopes of catch glimpse of something that might resemble our host. But this is nick we're talking about and just as the last available light was available to see without needing a light, there comes nick and his girl friend crawling his way up onto the road from under the bridge like a bloody pair of trolls embarking on an evening stroll. Filthy Nick, clothes riddled with holes and solid stain of dirt covered his exposed skin only darkening worse at his hands and feet. No matter the filth on his body, that distinctive ear to ear smile pierced the grime and his white teeth seemed to illuminate his face. That was Nick alright. Lesson #5 A special breed of Nick, not overly punctual but reliable as ever.
 
It's all so vague still, all of us loaded into the small rental car continuing on up the valley further into the mountains to this mythical place called Cigerones, Nick has a way of convincing you to do anything without giving away any details about what it is. I can smell him and his girlfriend, they're pressed tight against me in the back of the car, a very distinguished and clearly settled smell of body odour overpowers all other fragrance available in the air of that small European Skoda. I get a closer look at his state and can see the dark, heavily packed dirt under his fingernails, I notice his fingernails because he's chewing a long open wound running down the entire length of his thumb. The conversations went back and forth between Nick and his mom catching up on the little things, but he took a repose to look over at me and said with his convincing little grin "mate, you're gonna love it here, you'll fit right in" saying it in a little chuckle, overly amused about the fact that I hadn't the slightest idea of what the fuck I he was getting me into. Damn you Nick, I blindly booked flights to the other side of the world on a whim and you're chuckling at my feeble ignorance of what the next three months of my life are going to be like. Damn you Nick. I feel like cows swimming across the Atlantic. Lesson#6 Always trust Nick, even if he makes you feel like a cow.

We turn off the main road and enter into a small kind of run down village, jeesh I thought to myself, he might be so dirty from working in one of these farm houses. Oh no, not Nick. He Navigates for Phil directing him down past the village where the pavement finally runs out, Phil is outraged because its pitch black now and he can't see anything, furthermore he's cursing the entire situation because the rental company claims that damages to the car wont be covered on dirt roads. Nick chuckles and soothes Phil's growing frustration that its all going to be all right. In all fairness it was the middle of the night and we were literally driving up the center of a massive river bed in some unknown valley headed towards a place called Cigerones not mentioned on any maps or signs anywhere. Ten minutes of rough rocky and pitch dark driving Nick points off to the right and we drive up a steep little hump of dirt out of the rocky riverbed and into what's lefts of riverbed that hasn't yet been eroded by the spring time floods. The very first thing we see is what seems to be the remains of an old caravan, or a rubbish dump that had been blown up with a few sticks of TNT, it was hard to tell in the night. All around in the brief attention of light from the cars headlights were old broken cars, caravans, small piles of debris, and every now and then there would be a half finished cinderblock structure that had at least ten times more effort and time put into the artwork and paintings on its exterior than what went into the initial construction of the .... Whatever it was.....
Nick was ecstatic, chuffed at his own accomplishments of organizing this all three weeks prior with a single message. We hear an old fashioned fire bell being cranked by hand in the nearby distance, it was dinner time. Nick led us flawlessly in the pitch black, barefoot, dodging the broken bottles and random overturned rakes deliberately and instinctively as if this were his garden of a laborious love. We emerged from a thicket of canya bushes into a medium sized clearing of a mix between patches of grass and dirt. Off to the far right corner was a large circular structure appropriately named the dome. It was a framework of steel draped in layer after layer of blankets, old rugs, and a waterproof membrane to finish it off. Dim light could be seen from within the dome via its translucent side fabric. It was what seemed the only light in the entire surrounding acreage apart from the very seldom head torch seen coming and going, but mostly, just like Nick, barefoot people appeared and disappeared through the one opening in the dome with no aid of light at all. We remove our shoes, the only clean and fully assembled ones to be seen at the entrance. We enter the dome and packed full of roughly 18 people, men women, young and old, bodies where scattered between musical instruments and half a dozen burning candles. My first impression was that everyone was dressed in clothes cast for the inhabitants of Zion from the Matrix trilogy, not all though, some had smart shirts and the youth looked like they had recently returned from school, I can say thought that there were more dread locks in one place that I'd ever experienced before. There was a mixed smell of herbs, marijuana, wood smoke and Body odour, a little intoxicating for the newcomers, but no one else seemed to know there was any smell at all. The food came in three large saucepans, couscous, rice, fried veggies, and a tomato type of paste. Everyone broke from their silent strumming of instruments, group massages, and tokes from their pipes to indulge in the feast. There weren't enough plates for the 18 people and washing dishes seemed to be a sore spot for the communal census so it was suggested to eat it African style with only fingers and the thought was quickly swallowed up as the plentiful hands went into the dish from all 360 degrees. Trying to hide my discomfort, I joined in on the frenzy of feast, but after only my first handful, almost instantly the image of nicks oozing thumb and dirty fingernails came into my mind. Needless to say my appetite vanished.

               The night continued a way in which could have been on another planet as far as my first impressions were concerned. Convulsive dancing, deep throaty noises, mixed with drum beats radiating from any surface that could be pummeled with a palm. It was all too overwhelming, it was a big leap from only a few weeks prior being a site supervisor on two big projects, living in a bedroom community in a house with a big backyard to siting cross legged in a candle lit fabric hut witnessing dance moves that mimicked and exorcism. Nick finally guided me through a maze of footpaths away from the dome to an old dilapidated caravan that had thick black spray paint covering the side, window and door saying "FUCK THE POLICE" Nick told me everyone referred to this caravan as the 'fuck off caravan', or as I found out later on, the place where people go to have sex during a party. The caravan had a sideways piece of plywood as a door, a roof hatch that was permanently open to the elements and a broken window. There was a foam mattress and a couple sleeping bags scattered about covering some stains in the bed sheets. On either side of the bed were roaches from joints and fully expired candles melted flat into the wood. Nick gave me a pat on the back and headed off up into the mountains to his alleged ancient ruin he was living in, which at that point, sounded like a 5 star resort. As I lay down to sleep that night in my own sleeping bag, perfectly straight like a log, terrified to roll over in either direction in fear there might be a syringe hidden in the foam mattress somewhere, I learned my last and final lesson from Nick Lesson #7 Don't let first impressions rule you, especially when dealing with a special breed named Nick

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Writers Block


Start.... again......

To start and stop, ponder and wait, disrupt the flow of pen strokes pondering a perfection that will never come. This is where I went wrong, trying too hard to impress, to appease a reputation that was never there. Sit and let flow, dribble the carnage of mashed words in long lengths from left to right, I forgot the reasons behind the words, the healing they did and the lust for expression they once yielded. Writers block, the invisible wall that keeps pen tips withdrawn and keyboards cold. Live and let flow, let the words tumble onto the page as they come and sort the corpses out later, or let them rot, maybe that's the imperfections that make something so perfect. Motivation is like a temperamental spring in a mountain side. When it flows don't cup your hands and drink, only to find yourself begging for it when its dry. Find a bucket and capture its lusty cold wetness; use it generously knowing its a gift and not disposable. It's mesmerizing to watch the water dribble into a bucket, watching its ripples, splashes and the chaos of unpredictable turbulence but if patients is your virtue, the jumble of words follow each other one after the other in no particular order coming to form long string of sentences that might possibly have some rhythm and melody between their improperly used punctuations and law of the written language. But to start again, like rekindling an old coal stove from a winters past, nearly dead and cold but still clinging to life, scattered by ash of old stories told, a brief history of creativity and expression lay motionless and inaudible, patiently waiting the fuel to come when it seemed hopeless, that was a hobby long lost, a spring long dried up with only fossilized crustaceans sprouting from its vein. Get past my fears and let it flow. Writing, a therapy less known, quite often stumbled upon accidentally in some cases such as my own. I would have spent my entire life not knowing of this little demon inside of me was crying out to have its story immortalised on some spreadsheet tucked into the back page of 5th grade math book in a damp dark basement. That story might never be found but those words will outlive any breathing creature on this world for centuries to come. So there you have it, a rebirth to a million ideas that constantly haunt my thought, vibrating down a triangular hopper, condensed, conveyed, and defects denied until the mash of letters fall into their respective packages and later consumed.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Blood Stain - Papua New Guinea



                                     Blood stained fat saturates the earth in crusty layers. Hordes of flies cover sections of ground like an oscillating second skin. A cocktail of rotting flesh and mortal fear lingers low to the ground in a hazy sweat. The soggy smell finds its way to our hard working tongues; it’s a blessing we only get fed once a day in this slaughter house, it’s about all the appetite can stomach. The high pitch squeal of a pig makes even the most murderous of creatures search for their own shadow after death. It’s something so human about a pig’s squeal that lingers on my conscience. Pigs are sensitive and intelligent creatures; they possess characteristics that not even dogs can equal. When a pig is about to die, it’s fully aware of the fate about to come down upon its skull. The squeal isn’t a fearful yell but a pleading cry that’s always answered devoid of consideration. But this is the cycle of carnivorous life, silencing the beat of one heart to prolong the existence of another.
                                     The first kill will forever linger in my mind. “On a farm in Outback Australia, I run my eye down the sights on a bolt action rifle, readying my shoulder for the recoil it’s about to cushion, the 1300 pound cow stares at me dumbfounded only ten meters away and completely oblivious to the peril it’s in. My sights line up with the animals left eye, dark as black marble and deeper than the furthest reaches of space. A steady exhale of my lungs combined with a gentle squeeze of the trigger and those dark innocent eyes see no more.” I brace myself on top of the small alley built of cinder blocks, but this slaughter house in the outlying suburbs of Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea have no guns or ammunition, I’m handed a sledge hammer and further explanation isn’t required. The coworker behind me twists the pig's tail to restrain it temporarily. There is no language barrier here as I nod my head letting him know I’m ready for what comes next. My coworker lets go of the pig’s tail and delivers a cracking slap to its back, the pig in its last attempt of desperation runs the gauntlet only to be greeted by the business end of the sledge hammer being swung between my legs.  It dies quick, there is no pain, at least that’s what I tell myself to rationalize taking the life of another. There are some who will argue that killing is unjustifiably wrong but there is some peace found while browsing a local grocery store for plastic wrapped pork chops and instead of seeing a pink slab with a price tag, I see an animal that lived a full life and had to die so that I can live on.

                                     This is my new job, working for a Philippino run business killing and roasting full sized pigs over a charcoal fire. Clients come from all walks of life require our service to provide full sized pigs to be gutted, cleaned, roasted, and delivered to customers on aluminum foil trays. Anything from corporate Christmas parties to holiday family gatherings. Whatever the reason may be, a feast always ensues and the once trotting, squealing creature remains nothing but dry bone to which even the cartilage and marrow have been sucked clean. Jobs around the slaughter house and pig roasting compound vary from collecting water from a nearby well to supervising the cooking of the pigs and maintaining a steady supply of coals. Unlike my presence in South East Asia where white men are admired, they had little skilled use for me in the business and I spent most of my time picking chilies from the garden with the children until I was paired up with a gentle native man named Micheal to accompany him on a journey that had the potential to be the most dangerous car ride I will ever take.  
                                    
                                     In the compound we only slaughter and cook the pigs. The pigs are raised and farmed by a Chinese man in an area called 16 mile, named appropriately for its proximity to the center of the city. Naturally the further from the city one finds themselves, the more rugged and unmaintained the roads become and the less police presence is seen. 16 miles on narrow roads competing with ox driven carts and commercial shipping trucks whilst dodging pot holes and burned out cars quickly becomes less of a Sunday drive and more of a risky adventure for the average commuter, however we were anything but just passerby’s to the local rascals looking for a quick fix of cash for a simple heist. All trading in this country is done with good hard cash, the gangs of unemployed youth in the outlying suburban sprawl know that any truck heading to the pig farm has at least $500 of cash which paints a huge target on our truck to begin with, now throw a white man (me) in the passenger seat and the chances of being hijacked go from probable to very likely.

                                     It was imperative that we left just after the break of dawn, no camera, no wallet, nothing of value, one of our drivers was robber just weeks before during a late afternoon trip. Most of the rascals spend their days getting high and drunk so leaving early in the morning improved our odds due to the thugs still sleeping off their hangovers.  Michael my driver was shy at first but after our first stop at a road side vendor, he saw me buying some boa nut and mustard flower. I had no lime but he was all too honored to share his own supply of lime to complete the drug which sparked our friendship that followed. Michael spent 28 years in the PNG military being trained by the Australian and American Special Forces through the country’s military partnership. He was old and leathered but I’m sure he could still kick some ass. I’m glad we were on the same tame. I assured him I would be his security escort for the day, Michael erupted in a great laugh and grabbed at my hand in a rough shake to acknowledge the humour at my own fragility. Me being there was putting both of us in more danger than necessary but he was unfazed, in fact I felt such a sense of pride radiating from him during that day that I began to understand the faithfulness and sense of comradery these humble tribesmen had with each other. I knew from our short relationship together that if shit did go down that day, he would have been the first to take a hit or a knife for me.

                                     Our pigs were purchased without incident and the lack of urgency in the culture was apparent as we spent the rest of the day touring around the different villages his family members resided. I was shown around to some religious missions he helped build pointing out the roof he put on or the ditch he helped dig until we finally came to rest on the bank of a beautiful clean crisp river.  I’m not sure what it is about the PNG people but I’ve never connected with any other culture so quickly in my life. I hardly knew the ex-military sergeant for more than a few hours and yet we lay side by side in the tuffs of grass on the river bank exchanging our deepest and darkest secrets. We had a parallel understanding of life, a poor man helping me understand that money doesn’t bring happiness. I was talking to a soldier who grew up in a village where money would be used to start a fire or roll a cigarette. If they wanted rice they would trade it for coconut, if they wanted fruit they would pick it from the many trees, if they wanted meat they would hunt for it. They didn’t have flat screen tv’s, five day all inclusive holidays, air Jordans but yet they seemed to have everything needed to live comfortably without the complicated fabric of western demeanour. The only thing more important than a full stomach and roof over your head are the people who help you eat it and the warmth they bring around you.
“Well, Less is more, Lucrezia: I am Judged.
Thee Burns a truer light of God in them”
Andrea Del Sarto’ – The Faultless Painter.












Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Life To Your Story



"In the end the only thing that matters is your story" - Anonymous Aborigines Australian

The rock and roll of this boat sends familiar gulps of discomfort to my stomach. These waves, this tide, this sour salty smell so thick I can taste it on my tongue. A cold misty air bites at my skin and leaves its residue upon my beard. Like soft slick wet beads attaching themselves to the jagged sharp tips of freshly sheared neck stubble. I look out at the flat horizon composed of exactly half water and half clouds, searching hard to find its divide as the white caped waves blend so well to the misty white clouds above. I can’t see it yet but I know it’s there, beyond the curve in the earth is the land in which I was born, beyond those waves is Nova Scotia Canada, and beyond that horizon is my home. I can’t tell you how many boats I’ve been on since, I’ve simply lost count but this one I remember. I used to take this boat every summer to New Brunswick to visit relatives, years ago, a lifetime ago, before the days I could grow a beard in which this sticky wet air could grab. I’ve spent so many nights lying awake dreaming about the thought of my home, a comforting memory in which I wouldn’t allow myself hope of ever seeing again. I don’t why or what I’m afraid of finding in my old footsteps but I do know that being absent from them for this long was no mistake. What I do know is that we’re always searching for something whether we know it or not. To hike a mountain we aren’t looking for its peak, to kayak a river we aren’t looking for its source, to cycle a road we’re not looking for its end, we’re searching for the reasons in why we’ve originally embarked on them. To travel to world is not for the sake of chasing a sunset, it’s to discover the reason we left in the first place.
As this boat edges closer to the other side, I can’t help but to be reminded of the time I worked alongside an aboriginal Australian as we sat in the dirt next to a fire eating a kangaroo in the outback. I asked him how much money he gets paid for the work he does but what I was about to hear was the single most important aspect to living a full meaningful life. Without answering my question directly he told me this “We are the people of Arnhem Land and we believe in only one thing. Life is your book; everyone has a book be it white, black, rich, or poor. The only thing that matters is how full that book is and how well it’s written, because in the end, the only thing we have when we die is our story. All that matters between the day we are born and the day we die is the story we write for ourselves.” Ever since that day I try and fill every page per day with something worth reading, If I had to write my story it would go a little like this.
[[  There once a boy who spent his entire day standing on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean watching the sun rise over the water. He dreamed of travelling far across the vast lands and seas, believing he would find all the answers to life in the void from which the sun rose from the soil. One cold wet winter day the boy shivered away on the shore when he saw in the water a reflection of himself as on old wrinkly bearded man staring into the horizon dreaming of finding the source of the sun and the wisdom it held. Not wanting to grow old into a hopeless old man, the boy embarked on his journey and left everything he knew and loved to search for the place in which the sun rose. The boy spent years searching the plains of Europe, the deserts of the Middle East, the rivers of Australia, the Jungles of Asia, the rolling hills of Africa, and beneath the waters of the Indian Ocean. He was scared and timid at first but as the good and bad experiences presented themselves he grew braver, less hateful, learned languages, cultures, and religions along his way. Three years later, with thousands of experiences and tales of the adventures he had found on the road, he returned to the land of his youth from the direction in which the sun had set. As the man approached the shore in which he had watched the sun rise on that very same ocean so many years ago, there silhouetted on the rocks, still stood himself as a child looking for the hole in the ground In which the sun rose. The man walked up behind the boy completely unnoticed and placed his hand on the child’s shoulder. The boy looked up into his own eyes as a grown man and asked himself “Did you find the answers to my questions in the void where the sun rises?” The man smiled and said “I have found many things along my journey but I’m no closer to finding the answers you seek” The boy disappointed with himself, turned around and began to walk home with his head down. As he paced away, back against the rays of light, he noticed a long shadow of his body cast upon the ground from the early morning sun. He stopped shocked to see his friends and family were behind him only a few paces away the entire time but he had been too busy looking into the horizon to notice. The sun rose all around his body leaving his shadow cast out before him resembling a void in the earth.  The boy spread his arms and puffed out his chest until all he knew and loved fit perfectly within his shadow and only then did the boy find the answers. The man, still standing there, smiled and felt no guilt for lying about what he had really found, for he knew that if he hadn’t, the boy would have spent his entire life searching for what was behind him all along. As the child embraced his friends and family, the old man walked into the ocean and swam towards the sun looking for the things he never intends to find. ]]
I can see the land now before the bow appearing and disappearing with the rhythm of the sea swell. The freezing cold rain falls against the windows and the outer deck, 6 degrees and rain, it’s funny I’ve been gone for three years and this place exactly as I left it. The passengers on this ferry are getting antsy and moving towards the exits waiting for the gates to open. I sit here writing, watching, reflecting on my past and procrastinating going out into that weather, and ultimately retracing a road I’ve already traversed. I half hope for this boat to sink before it reaches shore so I can spend a few more months floating around the Atlantic Ocean in a life boat, giving myself more time to make sense of this crazy life, piecing together why I’ve ended up where I have and why others haven’t. Whatever I’m afraid to find in my past mustn’t be good if the ultimatum is to starve myself in jungles, exhaust myself on bicycles, and expose myself to deadly waters rather than facing my final demons found in the place where it all began. The temptation to turn south and embark on a new journey is hard to resist but I’ve been starring into a horizon for too long. It’s time to saddle up and embrace ones who have been here all along.  

 I’m almost home.