CDS Column: Traveling, Chaos and Comfort

Central American bus terminals are never easy. The word “terminal” is usually an overstatement: a dirt lot packed with people and stands selling fruits and cell phones and loose AA batteries, all crammed with buses pulling in and out and collecting people even as they leave. There are no schedules, no timetables, no assigned parking spaces, just a sea of rainbow-painted school buses lurching and stopping.

That’s Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. I’d just spent a week in the mountains to the north with a small non-profit, interviewing the coffee growers and pickers who make their living at the agricultural end of a latte. After a week of hiking hillsides and asking questions on health, hunger and human impacts, the team was headed to the airport to fly home.

But not me. I like to take advantage of airplane tickets when I have them, so I had an extra few days to head to the Pacific Coast. I was bound for a few days of sand and surf.

“There is a direct bus from Managua every afternoon,” my friend Rich told me. “The bus goes to Las Salinas. Just get off at Calle Popoyo.”

Popoyo is the kind of place people dream about: a dirt road to a quiet stretch of beach, the slow thunder of crashing waves, a handful of scattered surfers, water the temperature of forgotten tea and a few cheap places to stay with hammocks hanging in the shade. No stoplights, no horns and few tourists, only a soft breeze off the ocean. They’re planning to pave the road soon, Rich told me, so it’s going to change, but for now it’s paradise.

After a week of riding in truck beds and trudging through jungle, paradise sounded good. So I rode to Managua and headed to the bus terminal.

Unloading into utter chaos, I looked around. There were no indicators in the dust and dirt and hot sun what bus went where. The best I could do was walk up to one of the barkers standing near a bus and ask for direction.

“Las Salinas?” I said to the first one I came to.

“No,” he said, “alla,” pointing to a bus a few rows over.

I hustled over to the bus in question, dragging my luggage behind me. The barker saw me coming.

“Las Salinas?” I shouted over the din.

“Si,” he said, taking my bag, “Salinas.” He followed me inside and shoved my bag into the overhead rack. I slumped into the seat, ready for a few hours on bumpy roads.

Now, I’ve never set up a country. But if I did and there was a town called Salinas and another called Las Salinas, I’d make sure they were nowhere near each other. Maybe I’d pair them with some other identifier (like an associated state name, for example) to mark one as different from the other. Nicaragua, however, doesn’t. They leave it to a guy manning the door of a technicolor school bus to differentiate between Salinas and Las Salinas.

On Saturday, however, he was asleep at the switch. And so was I. I said Las Salinas, he said Salinas, and together we hopped aboard. Moments later the bus pulled out, collecting more passengers even as it left, and was on its way.

It wasn’t until we were an hour out, when the street signs started announcing Leon, Nicaragua’s famous colonial city far to the northwest, that I realized I was headed the wrong direction. I walked to the front of the bus, where the barker had become the ticket checker.

“Excuse me,” I said in imperfect Spanish, “but did that sign say Leon? I’m going to Las Salinas, which is way south of Leon.”

“No no,” he said, “Salinas is just outside of Leon.”

The man driving the bus looked over at us.

“Las Salinas?” he said. “Small town near the beach? That’s in the opposite direction.”

The barker and I looked at each other. He shook his head. So did I. “Crap,” I said.

Paradise was going to have to wait.

International travel is like that. In places like Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the western hemisphere, infrastructure is limited, and mishaps occur. But even in places like U.K., where we ought to be able to find our way, we get turned around.

But such errors aren’t errors; they are the point of going. Adventure isn’t the result of well-laid plans working out smoothly, it’s the outcome borne from a misunderstanding and a 100-mile trip in the wrong direction, or some other similar twist of fate.

When I embedded in Iraq I missed my flight home because my U.S. military escorts weren’t used to accessing the civilian part of the Kuwait City airport. The final days I spent with the soldier were some of the best.

On two separate occasions in Peru, I’ve wound up sleeping as a guest with a local family after finding myself far from anyplace offering a hotel room. Those nights each wound up being the highlight of the trip.

It’s hard to remember sometimes when you’re tired, hot and have been sitting on school buses all day, but these are the moments we leave home for. They serve as reminders of how chaotic the world can be, and how lucky we are to live in a place where appointments occur on time, where buses have schedules and potable water flows from every tap. Paradise isn’t just a secluded beach; it’s also a bus station with cushioned seats and a printed timetable.


This column appeared in this week’s Conway Daily Sun.

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#CoffeeLives

If you are into coffee, you might want to check this out:

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AMRDI is a Colorado-based NGO working on rural development issues in the mountainous landscapes and polar regions most affected by climate change. Their focus is on data-driven development solutions. They work on the ground to research issues of poverty, health and well-being in communities often far removed from policymakers and government services.

I am with them in Nicaragua now, where they are collecting survey data on local coffee growers. Coffee is a product targeted by terms like “Fair Trade” and “sustainable,” but there is very little oversight or on-the-ground research into just how much impact a $5 latte has on the people who grow the beans. AMRDI is in Nicaragua talking to coffee producers and pickers to understand those issues better.

IMG_1473.JPGI’m along to shoot video and document their efforts, working with them on their research and writing blogposts along the way. The conversations we are having are enlightening, and the living conditions of families who sell some of the highest quality coffee in the world are astonishing.

All of this work will eventually find its way into hard print, the sort of data that can help implement lasting change. But for now this is the early stages.

The trip is winding to a close, but if you want a look at what the short story check out the AMRDI blog. I’ve posted a handful of reports (day one, day two, day three and day four) on what it’s like tromping around the Central American mountains talking to people who grow the drink many of us consume every day.

And if you’re concerned about climate change and its impact on communities at the fringes in the high and polar places most affected, get to know AMRDI. Data-driven development work. Cool stuff.

A Snowstorm Together

There’s something about snowstorms.

Maybe it’s a result of growing up in New England, but when storm warnings hit, it’s an excuse to burrow in. When snow begins falling, everything slows. Cars creep along white streets, school gets canceled, and work gets pushed aside. Life becomes frozen in time. Plans and schedules cease to matter, it’s time to hunker down and watch as Mother Nature wear herself out.

When it’s daylight, snowstorms are one thing but after nightfall, darkness hides the growing blanket as it muffles out everything. Daybreak inevitably comes sparkling blue, and everything lays transformed.

That’s when the digging out begins.

We had one of those storms last week. It started early, and I hid inside as I usually do, fully dormant until the next day. When I finally left home, I came upon a woman scraping her car with one of those tiny ice scrapers meant for morning frost — barely larger than her hand, it was insufficient for a foot of powder.

I jogged over with my extended-handle brush/scraper. “Can I help?” I said, my scraper already digging into the drifts covering her passenger-side windshield.

“Thanks,” she said. “You don’t have to.”

“I know,” I said, smiling. “It’ll only take a minute.”

That’s the other part about winter storms I love: They change the rules of engagement. They force us out of solitary lives and encourage interaction. In a modern world, it’s easy to move undetected and anonymous, but winter snow rips us out of hibernation. It bring us out in front of one another.

I have a friend who moved from New England to California, where the weather is always sunny, warm and beautiful. “People don’t talk to each other,” she told me. “They don’t have to. Nothing forces you. You can get by on your own, no one ever has to call a friend because their door’s snowed shut or their car got buried by the plow. It makes life easier, but it also makes it more isolating.”

Community, by force of weather.

But storms offer more than that. It’s more than the neighbor who plows you out, or the friend willing to watch your kids so you can go to work. Snow transforms the rules that govern our daily life, leaving them meaningless, arbitrary markers. Norms go out the window, and in their absence the best of us comes out.

Speed limits, for example: The one time I feel least at risk of getting a speeding ticket is during a snowstorm. If you are able to keep your car on the road and avoid collision, you’ve won. You passed the test. No one comes close to 45 mph then, so why even pay attention to what the sign says? The “rules of the road” cease to be the rigid and dogmatic statues we are accustomed to. They are lost guidelines, so meaningless and out of reach they become laughable. Going 5 mph might be too fast, 15 mph leaves us in a ditch and 45 mph is nothing but numbers.

But the police are out on these nights. They are often out in force. But the snow transforms them from law enforcers to public assisters. They help us dig out, give pushes or call tows. This is undoubtedly what most of members of the police force signed up to do in the first place, to help people, but in the muddled mess of life they spend more time telling people what they can’t do than offering the friendly assist.

Snowstorms, however, recalibrate. They slow us down. They remind us there is no hurry, and in remembering that we remember generosity, thoughtfulness. Our police get to be what they always wanted to be for a night, and so do the rest of us. We remember we don’t live alone, that sometimes we need our neighbors, and sometimes we need to be neighbors ourselves.

I wonder what part snowstorms played in early democracy, that foundational American institution. What would New Hampshire town meetings look life if they could skip the harsh winter, if the democratic congregation was held in June, the summer sun stretching until 9 p.m.? With nothing to keep us indoors would we make time to self-govern? Would we abandon civic duty to take an evening walk among the fireflies? The early colonies further south lacked this democratic practice.

The town hall is a New England contribution, one perhaps tied to snow — because there are no luxuries in March. This is when storms often rage most furiously. And in a storm there is nothing more comforting than sitting in a room packed with neighbors dedicated to enduring the same elements, the same harsh wind.

I think of town meetings past when snow blanketed every street and yet conversations continued in gymnasiums and town halls over how to spend communal tax revenue. This is the time for collective decisions, a time when choices on governing are informed by the vulnerable nature of rural life. Democracy is a game best played as a team, and we blessed with days, December through spring, that remind us of exactly who makes our team.

Much of America doesn’t think about it that way. But then again, most of America has never enjoyed one of our snowstorms.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

CDS Column: 7 Billion Small

The world at times can seem quite full. Seven billion people all scratching out a living, with hundreds of different languages and customs. It sounds like a lot. But sometimes it’s not.

This past summer, I was working in Belize. I was there with an organization that takes American high school students around the world on volunteer service trips. The Americans were the native language speakers at a summer camp designed to teach Belizean elementary and middle schoolers English. We spent two weeks teaching and otherwise explored the country.

We were hardly the only program there. There were groups everywhere. Even our home base was not immune: There was a group of high school students there to learn about rainforest and barrier reef ecology, another group backpacking through the jungle and a third group of American middle school students who were doing adventure trips around the country interspersed with the occasional day of volunteer service.

This was at one rustic eco-resort, and there were similar groups at other sites across the country. It was a flood of Americans, all there to discover a new place and lend a hand. Our 26 kids were swimming in a sea of transplanted American youth.

Anyone who works on such programs knows there develops a brotherhood and a sisterhood among the staff. An affinity grows for others caught in the same situation, facing the same daily stress of chaperoning dozens of kids that aren’t yours. It must be the same among teachers, but in Belize there were no hallways or walls to hem them in, no busses home at the end of the day. We all worked from breakfast until bedtime, and at the end of the day the students hopefully settled back to their beds without incident. Hopefully.

That’s when we, the staff, would take our breather. We would sit together and chat. Program allegiances tossed aside, we would relax, sometimes solving as a team the complexities involved in individual programs.

It was in one of these impromptu summits that I saw the sticker. It was on one of the other program staff’s water bottles, a lobster next to the letters ME.

“Are you from Maine?” I asked.

“Yes,” the woman replied. “Originally. I now live in Oregon. But my family is still there.”

“Nice,” I said. “I live in New Hampshire. My sister lives just outside Portland.”

She smiled, and I thought that the end of it. But two days later I got an email my sister.

“I’m having dinner with a friend,” she said, “and my friend says her sister is working in Belize. Her name is Alison. Small world.”

“Tall teacher from Oregon Alison?” I wrote back. “No way! I met her the other day!”

Fast forward to now. The holidays are when people migrate across the country to visit friends and family. On Friday, I walked into my sister’s kitchen to see my niece and nephew, and there’s Alison, along with her sister, chatting with my sister. I couldn’t help but start laughing.

That alone might be enough to prove the world a small place, but these sorts of coincidences never travel alone.

Three summers ago, I was in Peru doing similar work, this time taking American high school students to build greenhouses at rural schools. With me were three other staff members — a couple from California named Miguel and Gigi, and a woman named Laura from Wisconsin who lived in Finland. We were all there for the summer, again to corral up to 30 American students at a time on multiple programs. It was two months in total, and we four spent a lot of time together.

For the couple, however, time off together was important. Miguel and Gigi did what they could to get away in the moments between programs, as well as most afternoon breaks when the students were there.

That left Laura and I to spend a lot of time together. We were paired by default, and while such a pairing could have been disastrous she had an adventurous spirit. Together we explored Incan ruins, traveled to remote villages, soaked in hot springs and got to know Cusco. We’d sit in the central square, me writing, her drawing, and enjoy the quiet of a student-less afternoon. Over the course of the summer, Gigi, Miguel, Laura and I all became close friends, but it was with Laura I spent by far the most time.

When the program came to a close I stayed in South America. I traveled to Arequipa and then to Chile. Laura, meanwhile, caught a flight back to Wisconsin and then to Finland. She and I stayed in touch for a time, emailing and chatting over Skype after I returned to New Hampshire, but life eventually caught up. We lost touch.

That was almost three years ago. Fast forward to Monday. This Christmas, I decided to draw my own holiday cards. I wanted to make them individualized, special, and I’ve been drawing a lot lately. So I bought card blanks at an art store and tackled a few, but inevitably it went slower than I’d intended. Most of the box sat unsent.

The day after Christmas I picked up the box, feeling a guilty about the remaining cards. On the cover was a beautiful line drawing showing just how creative cards could get, and underneath small print credited the artist. Four words: “Art by Laura…”

It was my friend. Her name was on my card blank box. I looked at the box and remembered her afternoon drawings in Cusco. Suddenly it was as if she was at my dining room table, in line form. I laughed out loud. I Googled to make sure it was the same Laura, and it was.

I tossed the box aside and wrote a much-belated email.


This column appeared in the Conway Daily Sun.

Favorite Stories

Sometimes we get to write about something we’re passionate about.

This past week I had the pleasure of watching my piece about Circus Maine, the Portland-based circus school I’ve been taking hand-balancing classes at, appear in the Portland Phoenix. The designers at the Phoenix did an awesome job, and Circus Maine gave us access to beautiful photos. The whole package looked awesome. It was cool to see. Circus is a mix of art, gymnastics and stage performance, and it combines the passion of all three.

And as if that wasn’t cool enough, last night I got to take my 9-year-old niece to a Circus Maine show. We found front row seats, and for an hour-and-a-half we watched the students and teachers give an amazing performance. After you write a story about how cool something is you think you know, but last night I was blown away. It was awesome. It makes me love what I do.

From the Backseat: Catfish 101

ssI got the weirdest note the other day. It was one of those Facebook message requests that comes from someone you aren’t friends with. Her name was Elizabeth.

“Hi there,” Elizabeth said. “This may be the strangest email I’ve ever written. I’ve been chatting with a guy on OKCupid who is using your pictures. I’m pretty sure it’s not you. The username is morethanever8.”

Next was a screenshot: a photo of me from a few years ago, taken in New Hampshire by my friend Brian when we were ice climbing. I’m wearing a red jacket, the hood is up, I’m smiling and looking right at the camera. It’s one of my favorite pictures.

But apparently, it isn’t me — across the bottom, text read “morethanever8.” My OKCupid alter ego is apparently 36 and lives in Roslindale, Mass. And his match percentage with Elizabeth was a solid 93 percent.

“If this is the guy I’ve been chatting with, why don’t you add up?” Elizabeth wrote.

I stared at my computer screen. Identity theft is not usually how I begin my mornings. I clicked refresh to see if perhaps I had misinterpreted the situation. But no, my picture was being used to lure unsuspecting women. Unbeknownst to me I was part of a catfishing expedition.

But Elizabeth was smart. She’d done some Googling. As a climber and writer, I’m pretty easy to find online. And after some reading and a spot of quick mental math, she went on Facebook. She found me and sent me a note. Catfished she wouldn’t be.

But she and morethanever8 had chatted it up a bit, and he’d given her his phone number. She included it in the note. Well played, Liz.

So I called.

It was my journalism background that made me do it. I had his number, and a good reporter does not shy away from the hard questions. As the phone rang, I felt the familiar tension in my chest of an impending argument, a feeling that marks the lead up to any contentious interview. It’s trepidation mixed with excitement, fight-or-flight by phone. Stories like these are always an adrenaline rush, and this one even more so. This time it was personal.

But morethanever8 didn’t pick up. After a handful of rings, he sent me to voicemail. His alter-ego, and yet he denied me. Who would date such a jerk? I left a message:

“Hi. I’m Erik. This is kind of awkward, but I got a note saying you’re using my picture on your online dating profile. Um, could you not? I mean, I’d kind of appreciate it if you took it down, thanks. If you want to talk about this, you have my number. Bye.”

As so often happens in online dating, I’m still waiting for him to respond. But a few hours later Elizabeth messaged to say morethanever8 had removed my photos. It was only in writing this column that I noticed her note said “pictures,” not just the singular “picture.” Eww.

I’ve told this story a handful of times now, and each telling gets a laugh. But it also raises questions. Several people have suggested Elizabeth is some sort of online dating ninja, that she couldn’t have found me based on just the pictures and maybe concocted the whole story as a ploy to get my phone number. Maybe the number I dialed was hers, people suggest.

But I don’t buy that. As a reporter I regularly find people on scant evidence. I believe Elizabeth to be my Hillary Clinton, not my Donald Trump; my pantsuited white knight rather than my con artist.

But morethanever8 I’m still confused by. Who is he? What was he thinking? Did he expect to pull off being me once it grew time for an in-person meeting? Or was this some other type of scam, one where the prize was something other than carnal? Did he know what he was doing? Would this ploy allow him to evade a meeting and thus detection?

I clearly don’t understand these things. Like some long-retired phone company employee who borrows an iPhone to make a quick call, despite my inside role I still have no idea how catfishing works. I know only that I got nothing out of it but this column.

I do, however, still have morethanever8’s phone number. Maybe I’ll try giving him another call today.


This column appeared in the Portland Phoenix.

Featured

Control

Someday I’ll write an honest story. An honest sentence. An honest word. Someday.

Sometimes driving I close my eyes. Speeding along the highway I pinch them shut and see how high I can count: one Mississippi… two Mississippi… three Mississippi… Sometimes I get to five. I’m always aiming for 10, but my fear invariably overwhelms me and my eyes snap open before I reach it. Maybe my car is a little out of its lane, but usually no. Usually I would have been safe for a few seconds more. Usually I would have lived.

I close my eyes and try again.

Reckless. Stupid. Crazy. I know. But I need it. I need it to remind myself. Because I want something different. I want control. I want to see the world, to know what’s coming, to understand it and be able to maneuver around the dangerous parts. I want to know everything speeding at me, to avoid the crash, to never be surprised, overwhelmed, heartbroken. I want my open eyes to be enough to live a life without hurt.

But it’s not. Open or closed eyes, I am going die. As fast as I may drive, it drives faster. It is coming for me, and that truth is one I’m scared of. I do my best not to be, but how do you hold out a hurricane? It is coming, and what it means I don’t know. I only know it comes bent on consumption.

So sometimes I close my eyes. Not to forget or to hide, but to make ready. Does it seem crazy, my closing? It is foolish and reckless with no possible gain. I know. I can agree with that. But it also may be my first honest word.

I love life. That is my honest sentence. I love the look and feel and sway of it, the way it kisses me awake in the mornings and slams me down some evenings. I love how the day brightens for me, how words like “precipice” roll off my tongue. There is so much amazingness, and its beauty overwhelms me.

But life is not within my control. It spins around me, a cyclone I somehow exist within. I am both part of it and at the same time separate, an inhabitant of it more than its owner. Life will never be mine to keep.

And neither is yours. Neither is anyone’s. With our eyes open we may become convinced otherwise, we may think we can wrestle some version of control, but that is the real crazy. We can’t steer. We can’t. Crazy thinking is we are in control. We can only watch the hurricane, our eyes our front porch.

I am crazy, and I am not crazy. I am only saying out loud what life whispers every day. Life is the crazy one. I am not its outlier. I am in its heart. As are all of us. This madness is all of us. You think yourself safe? Life will kill us all. Do your best to control what you will, but eventually you will see too. We will all see. We have no control.

It is terrifying, overwhelming, and freeing. There is an openness in closing our eyes and letting go of control. It carries a freedom: The freedom to be, the freedom to live, the freedom to love openly, the freedom to exist with our whole hearts. I close my eyes to embrace that vision. I close my eyes to remind myself, to see beauty, to let go of any demands and instead catch a glimpse of what surrounds me. Flying along through the madness I can see how little I need for my heart to feel joy. Suddenly perfection is everywhere, in you and in me. It needs no push, no refinement, no outside markers. It fills the room, spills into the hallway. It is overwhelming. It becomes the hurricane.

That is what I want. I do not want to control. I want to accept. I want to live. I want to walk alongside. I want to love, and to be loved, without conformity or comfort. I want to live in the wind.

I love you, and in loving you I want to control you. My eyes are open, and I want to see you, to know you, to know you will accept me and never be mad at me and never leave me. Most importantly that. I want to be loved like you want to be loved and I want to be free from hurt like you want to be free from hurt. I want. I want. I want.

But at night on the road I close my eyes. And I remember.

I do not want to control you. I only want to see you, to bear witness to who you are, to feel the pulse of your heart and the rise of your breath. To learn about you without the push or pull of my own interest. I want you to love me and only me and never anything else, but more importantly I want to not care about any of that. I want to watch you unfold, to forget your past and the future and see who you are, to be let into the guesthouse of your heart, to stand at the foot of your spinning life, to lie next to you in the whirlwind of time. No steering. No control.

For that version of love I need to be reckless. I need to fly down dark alleys and make it to 10, to 100, to 1,000. I need to let the winds come full force as I stand naked in the rain, feel the waves and blown sand rake my body. I need to let life overwhelm me and drown in its blackness. I need to let it all come, even hurt and death, and lie in peace. Let the silence slide over me. I need to lose. I need to forget. I need to fall.

And it is so hard for me. It scares me so much. I want control. I want to never hurt, never be alone, never feel anguish or loss again.

So I close my eyes. I do it to let go of fear. I do it to recover myself, to reignite my spirit, to remind me that hurt and loneliness and anguish are just more sand, more waves. If I love you out of fear I love no part of you, not even the idea of you. I love the idea that someone might see me, accept me, nothing more. You are an apparition, a placeholder. That is the place where the crazy lives.

So I close my eyes. I let go, and in letting go I learn to love fully. I learn to seek and explore without fear, to question what makes your heart shine rather than question your motives for shining. There is a recklessness to it, a foolishness. Discovering your heart and yet ignoring the urge to stay safe, rejecting the urge to control, is its own version of night-driving. It is another risk, one without gain. It is crazy, lost, bleeding. We all want to be loved. And we want that love to be steadfast, enduring.

Maybe letting go is the key. Maybe rejecting control allows two people to grow in time: If I accept you then I can watch you shift and change without it threatening me. If you can watch me shift and change too without it threatening you maybe we have a chance.

I cannot control these shifts; not in you, not even within myself. And with time yours may diverge from mine. I want to celebrate them as I celebrate you, because in truth they are you. Your growth is you. Your movement and momentary expression in the world is you. That spinning movement of self is the miracle we call life. Your body is just a vehicle, one you both live in and never own. I do not wish to own it, or you, only to honor.

But that is not our pattern. We so want others to “be themselves,” like they are some fixed thing. But they are not. You are not. You are more complex than that. How much have you changed in the last year? The last five? What are you if not those shifts?

To love you I must let you go. I must cede control. I must strive to see the person you are, not who you were or who I would like you to be. I must find your heart, your never settled, perfect, dancing heart. And if you are you you cannot be who I want you to be. Unless I only want you to be you, who you are. I cannot want to change that, even if loving you as you are means together we veer into oncoming traffic. So I forfeit control. I close my eyes. I let go of the wheel.

And perhaps I find a perfect story.