i. anecdote...or...the plucked contact
the only thing that would be fictional about the following story and subsequently following photo would be to say that it were fictional. before leaving for morocco, i spent some days in brooklyn with a friend of mine, whose name is the king of spain. he’s gone back to school and is taking a modern art photography course. he needed an incredibly handsome, buff, and deftly tan subject to shoot; so naturally, he chose me (nb, he never offered to pay me, something i’m still a little sore on). he asked me to take off my shirt (don’t worry, this doesn’t get weird), and to extend both of my arms; on the right of which he placed one chicken and on the left of which he placed two. apertures were adjusted, f-stops decided upon, and shutters clicked. then, the chicken closest to my head on the right, in an amazing feat of agility, swung it’s beak directly onto, thank the lord not into, my right eye. out popped my contact, and it landed, dangling precariously on my right cheek. by the time the king of spain or i realized what had happened, the chicken swung again and nipped that contact and swallowed it down. the photo shoot terminated instantly, both of us on hands and knees and in chicken shite, searching for a contact that was not to be found, unless we cared to perform a dissection, something i am not proud to admit i did consider.
with a belly full of resurrected parasites and a head full of ache and fevers and these strange twinkley mirrors, my legs kept moving because that’s what i do and so that’s what they did. the sky was turning red, i was turning red, everything was turning red, the sand was levitating, and i deliriously questioned if this were reality, but such distinctions are getting hazy, conditions above notwithstanding. the sand, dear lord that sand, it was everywhere, and the winds...well, i saw the eyes of the devil herself in those winds and they didn’t care nothing for me; and their indifference, as all indifference does, delighted me.
i was in the gold-blessed wide open desert with nothing to break the empty horizon except a few raggedy thorn bushes with plastic bags trapped and flapped in them, and if i was going to stop and have any sort of a prayer of getting my tent up, i needed something to break this gawdawful wind. and thorns and plastic weren’t going to do the trick.
so i rode on and sand was blasting and plastering me and it was in my teeth and beating unrhythmically on my ear drums and it felt like a son of a gun, but i had to keep going and that wind turned to my back and i couldn’t even keep up with the pedals and so i just sat and sailed, all the while desperately looking for something, anything, anywhere to stop. and when my eyes caught site of a collection of desert mud huts, i pushed and pulled and yanked and cursed my bike over too them, gave my beard a stroke, knocked on a door, watched that sky get redder and redder, and lord i shuddered. minutes later, the door slowly opened to reveal a fully robed arabic woman who, needless to say, was taken aghast by my unsightliness and i tried, in my best sign-language, to indicate i needed a wall to pitch my tent behind, but she (and rightly so) thought i was a raving lunatic and pointed down towards her gardens, and so i followed the direction of her fingernail.
now there were some trees down there, but the wind was having its way with them and the ground was so stony and hard and ploughed and uneven, i knew i wouldn’t get a wink of sleep; and too, those resurrected parasites weren’t wasting any time in taking care of business which meant i had some desperate business to take care of myself, and that sense of urgency is a stinger because it only makes things more urgent. all the while those winds just kept roaring and the sun was sinking and the sand was in my nostrils and i could have sworn it was the commencement of armageddon and i started repenting so hard for my sins that i caught myself recanting sins i hadn’t even committed. but i figured a little insurance policy in this department couldn’t harm.
hell’s bells there was nowhere to put my tent and i felt miserable and all i wanted at that point was to be eight again and in my bedroom with my nintendo and my parents bringing me some crackers and apple juice and telling me it was okay if i didn’t want to go to school tomorrow. god how i wanted that. instead i had sandpapered contact lenses making every blink an ordeal and i was terrified to let that pregnant fart go because when a fart ain’t a fart....well, it gets messy. especially so when there are no whirpool’s or maytag’s around to save the day.
so i’m just pushing through this field of lumps and stones and weeds not knowing where i’m going but taking consolation in that i’m moving (that’s what i do: move) and then i see a wall and behind it a house and i see some movement and i wave down a man and he comes over and unlocks the gate and i start my sign-language again and i remarkably ignore those parasites that i can actually feel swiss cheese’ing my intestines. he brings out another man, and i’m on stage again. then the third man, and by this time my script is down and the first guy is already bored having now seen three almost identical shows. there is a moment of silence. then some tense arabic is exchanged. i’m almost doubled over in pain with about one inch of colon to spare. and then, i get the nod and a smile. not just a place to pitch a tent. i’ve got a home.
but not just any home, my very own home. it’s vacant and they unlock it and direct me in, bike and all. they show me each empty room and indicate i can choose. they even show me a toilet, a hole in the ground, and i know i will be making good use of it, which i do the instant they leave. and glory be, put me on the cover of a magazine because i lost ten pounds in ten seconds.
then i crawled into my sleeping bag and was dead to the world. and thank god to that wind too.
several hours later, a knock on the door. a tray of olives, bread, margarine, and piping hot mint tea balance on the hand of the third man, the ultimate permission giver. i can barely tolerate to even look at the food, but i suck down the tea with this guy and speak in smiles and thank him profusely for his kindness and wonder at how fortunately things can turn out when it seems hope has run out. it’s like i’ve always said, you gotta not only have hope, but keep it. he leaves, i get back in my sleeping bag, and throughout the night am able to purge those parasites and all their productions with several urgent visits to that hole in the ground (which i made less of a hole...). the next morning i’m running at 70%, there isn’t even the faintest hint of a breeze, so i pack it all up and off i go.
to the roads of morocco. that are ruining me.
because of the kids.
i do not think i will ever go to a zoo again.
i realize, accept, and am fully aware that i am a spectacle. it’s hard not to be. i am glad to stand out on these one lane, full of blind curves mountain roads where traffic pauses in disbelief thus sparing me unguard-railed 1000 feet plunges to my certain death (but what a death that would be!). but i hate, dread, and curse what i cause as i ride through the small villages. cups of tea paused mid-journey between table and mouth. women, a pair of eyes with everything else wrapped in black, hurrying off the road to get as far away from me as possible. conversations stopped mid-syllable with hovering hand gestures yet to be completed. i try to smile, wave, nod acknowledgement, speak some token arabic phrases, pump my fist to the claps. but until you’ve done this (and i mean on a bike, not whizzing through in a car), you will never know how taxing; day in, day out....hour in, hour out....it can be. but really, all of this is nothing. nothing, by the way, is what i aspire to be.
this, however, is everything.
it’s the kids.
i have reached this point, and it hurts to admit this, but it is true: nature abhors a vacuum; i abhor the moroccan kids. why?
no kids here, i had my peace.
1. they stone me. though my body has yet to receive an impact, niAgA oLoS (my bike) cannot make the same claim. my favorite were the cliff kids. rocks fell all around me from fifty feet up. i pedaled as fast as i could banking that the little buggers weren’t good physicists. and then there was this one guy who almost got me with a ricochet off a wall. if he had called the bank shot and actually connected, i would have had to give respect.
just like i must give respect to good solid windows...
2. they plague me. if i stop for a break, no matter how well hidden, they find me. they grab for my food, they prod at my bike, they beg for money, they beg for sweets, they beg for pens. they sit three feet away from me and point and stare and laugh and mock me (often in groups of twenty). and this doesn’t occur for just five minutes. they stay as long as i stay. imagine, trying to read or eat or just relax, wishing to be all alone, and twenty kids are staring at you, mocking you, laughing at you, pointing at you, and yelling at you. i eat a date. the crowd goes wild. a spoonful of yogurt. the stands erupt. a sip of water. they start the wave. i lose my appetite.
maybe i should engage them in a game. but only if i get to be the thimble.
3. they plague me some more. i am horribly slow on these steep climbs that go on for miles and miles. as i pass through a village, the houses discharge all of their children in a symphony of screams. they walk next to me begging for anything. they grab at the flags on my trailer and try to pull them off. they jump onto my trailer. they grab at my trailer and pull anything they can get their hands on (they’ve only managed to swipe my trash bag (twice)).
i could be a camel jockey. maybe then i'd get respect.
4. they rob me. i stopped at an internet cafe, keeping my bike in view at all times. when i exited, my pump, bike light, and two water bottles had been swiped. gone. as a sweet and unexpected end to this story, all of the items were miraculously recovered by the manager who made the reacquisition his personal one man mission by employing the “good” kids to go track the thieves and items down.
similar to my cycling in central and south america: no potable water, no medical facilities, crumbly mud houses...but...high speed internet access.
and that’s the thing. there ARE good kids. like the “good” kids mentioned above that hunted down all my stuff, and i bought them all a yogurt to say thanks, after giving, if i may say, a bit of a heroic speech in english that was translated into arabic. and the kid who gave me directions on a dirt road and saw i missed my turn and ran, yelling and waving at me, to let me know. the kid that purchased (with my money) dates for me. and the group of school kids (whom when i saw them, i winced and braced for stones) that lined the road and just erupted in cheers for me. and the countless other kids that i don’t see.
come here little children, uncle hIrSch won't hurt you....
but these good kids, and i’m speaking from my perspective (the only way one can) here, are the rarities. the five leaf clovers. i still shudder recalling the day a stampede crested a hill running towards me at full steam as i was watering some roadside weeds. with a grimace, i constricted my urethra mid-stream, apologized to my prostate ("hang in there old buddy"), dashed for my bike, hopped on and thanked the almighty that a downhill awaited. and i left them all behind; out of, figuratively and hell’s bells literally, stone’s reach.
where there is a hill, there is a way.
i’ve tried everything, with zero success. learning how to say “please leave me alone” in their language. firmly saying “no” to all of their infinite demands. never getting angry. never threatening. explaining that i cannot speak their language and they cannot speak mine, so it is a lose-lose situation. all of this invites more of the same, and often worse.
not as bad as it was for this chicken. enjoy your wings!
i am not proud to say that i have taken to absolutely ignoring their existence. this has worked seldom and has failed frequently, but when you taste success, you stick to that tactic. and it makes me sick in my stomach to do this. i mean, they’re just kids. give me their shoes and undoubtedly i would be just as curious about me (though i like to believe i wouldn’t be a badger). but curiosity is one thing. stealing, stoning, and scowling are quite different.
but i don't feel good when i ignore people...but i do feel good when people ignore me....
but – you say – but hIrSch...you DO have money, maybe not much, but you DO have some. why not hand some out? share the wealth? where’s the harm?
this guy did not ask for money.
and now i say, yes, of course, i do have some money. but how do i decide WHO to give it to? if him, why not her? if them, why not that guy who didn’t even ask? if everyone, then i’m broke. so how do i do it? and, more importantly, does it really help when it is immediately spent on some type of overly-processed sweet cavity-conducive treat?
sometimes i think i expect too much out of life which means, of course, i'm only setting myself up for constant disappointment.
and now you say, but hIrSch, why not give the kids a little treat? a pen or a cookie? make them happy? brighten up their day? give joy?
we do all need joy.
and now i say, no. i NEVER just give kids anything. NEVER to the kids. you give to the kids, they will be asking until they die. and they will teach their kids to do the same. this may seem harsh, but i make no apologies for it. (before you get carried away, realize if there were a famine here, or if these kids were destitute, the story would be different.)
i rounded a corner and made a discovery of grand proportions...
...i recorded the following image to document this historic event...
...but then i sadly realized both that sir kodak gold beat me to it...and how unoriginal what i am doing really is. folks, it's all been done before and it will all be done again. please remove me from your hero list. however, i am doing this trip without supplemental oxygen. so put me in the books i say!
am i still bellyaching about these kids? yes. i am.
when i see movement on the side of the road. i pray for a camel. or a donkey. or a rabid dog that will mangle my achilles tendon rendering me unable to cycle in my last few glorious days before i become rabid myself and die in the desert to the delight of the buzzards who patiently wait. but when that movement is a kid, i stand up, pound the pedals, and never look back.
a muslim cemetary. i want to be put to rest in the desert too. but above ground so i can be pecked at. and then scavenged by the craftiest of all creatures, the ants. good lord almighty do not put me in some fancy schmancy $5,000 casket. that would kill me.
in minnesota, i once stared at a bear. a polar one. i looked through a thick sheet of plexiglass that allowed me to see this magnificent creature ripped from its homeland. for twenty minutes i stared. and that bear walked on the white (to simulate ice for me, the spectator. it did nothing for the bear.) painted rock. then it dropped into the water, swam three strokes, climbed out of the water, back to the white rocks, repeat repeat repeat. for twenty solid minutes, that was what this bear did. i started to feel sad. the girl i was with said the bear was doing the exact same thing when she was here a year ago. speaking of bears, the only bear i saw on the appalachian trail was in a zoo in new york. the appalachian trail literally goes right through this zoo. it was a good old black bear. and it just sat there, motionless. it had been given a big red ball to play with. the big red ball just sat there, also motionless. i stared at that bear for a while. watched families stop. kids point. dads taking pictures. i moved on to the mountains. where the bears should be but aren’t because we've taken what was and should be theirs.
the man in the mountain
now, i am that zoo. no admission charge. come one, come all. my next scheduled feeding is at 10am. don’t be late. unlike the bears, however, i am left to my own devices after my bowel movements. no shovels or hose-downs for me.
at this very moment, i was thinking, "what this place needs is some condos."
the kids have had zero impact in the decision i have made: i am off to europe. adios africa. i am sad about this. i am stoked about this. i am sad and stoked about most things in life.
the subject of the photo was meant to be the "5o days to timbuktu by camel" sign. however, i think it goes without saying that my beard stole the show.
i went back and forth daily. probed deeper. investigated details. not only were visas going to be an issue (logistical, monetary, wait time, and if i would even be granted one), but the necessity to get “travel permits” was the next roll of red tape i discovered. perhaps i could get that sudanese visa, but then maybe i could only get travel permits for certain roads in certain areas. which would mean i would have to pay for transport to hop around to the areas where i was allowed to ride. that holds zero appeal for me. it doesn’t sound fun. that and the very real possibility of being half-way through africa and getting stuck not being able to get any sort of onward visa sealed the deal.
please sir, can i have my visa? pretty please?
i want to RIDE my bike. and that’s what i’ll do.
v. jesus vs. muhammad (there are no winners)
finally, this is a dialogue i had with myself around easter time, which, incidentally this year, almost exactly coincided with the birth of muhammad.
the mauve is me. the mint green is also me:
today is an important day in my religion. our prophet jesus rose from the dead.
today is an important day in my religion too. our prophet muhammad was born.
tell me about muhammad.
he is god’s prophet, and he came to earth to help us know how to live. tell me about jesus.
he is god’s prophet, and he came to earth to help us know how to live. do you believe in jesus?
yes, i believe jesus existed and said some very important things, but i believe that muhammad is the true prophet and jesus is a false prophet. it says so in the qur’an. do you believe in muhammad?
yes, i believe muhammad existed and said some very important things, but i believe jesus is the true prophet and muhammad is a false prophet. it says so in the bible. tell me about the qur’an.
it’s the religious text i believe in and abide by. tell me about the bible?
it’s the religious text i believe in and abide by. where are you from?
i’m from morocco. where are you from?
i’m from oklahoma. i wonder if i were from morocco and everything i knew and saw and experienced was the qu’ran and muhammad, if that’s what i’d believe...
i wonder if i were from oklahoma and everything i knew and saw and experienced was the bible and jesus, if that’s what i’d believe....
the sun will soon set permanently - for me - on africa. africa is going nowhere. i am going somewhere. and maybe those wheres, on some distant day, will overlap again. there is plenty of future.