The pockmarked sign proclaiming UNLAWFUL TO LITTER is barely legible. Someone had blasted it point blank with a shotgun. I wonder if the vandal caught any blowback of ricocheted shells.
“See? This right here is Dulac bayou. We say down here dem boys do like they please,” says Herman. ”It take police forty-five minutes just to get out here, bro.”
His drawl is a stir pot of southern ghetto slang with Cajun and Creole sprinkled on to taste. The ‘bros’ ooze out as breauxs. “When people started gettin’ payouts from BP after the spill there was a lotta murders. You know, jealous family, jealous neighbors.”
He’d been calling me ‘bro’ since we first shook hands in his front yard early that morning. That’s when I first noticed he was missing half of his right index finger. It felt like days ago.
I’d been skittering across Louisiana backroads a few days, stopping for catfish po’boys and searching out “the real bayou”, whatever the hell I imagined that to be. My five month road trip across the country was sputtering to the finish line and to my surprise I’d begun daydreaming about things I’d fled in the first place: corporate jobs, apartments, relationships, routines. I’d finally hit a wall. Finally grown weary of couch surfing, of imposing on friends and family, of sleeping fetal position in the backseat of my car, of brushing my teeth in Starbucks bathrooms or sneaking into 24 hour gyms to take showers, of wearing the same clothes, of watching my bank account shrink like polar ice pack, of having no fixed address to give, of getting lost in places I probably didn’t belong.
This stretch of vagabonding - like the seven months of foreign travel preceding it - had been motivated by photojournalistic pursuits. I’d just left Alamogordo, New Mexico with my tail between my legs when a story about the life of drone pilots blew up in my face like a Hellfire missile after federal agents handcuffed and interrogated me for taking a lousy picture in the food court of an Air Force Base.
Worse, the aircraft mechanic I’d befriended who’d been my official escort on to base was now facing a bureaucratic shit storm and possible deportation back to Germany. The idea that I might have fucked up someone’s life in pursuit of a story weighed heavily on my mind as I drove east.
I was ready to get off the road, and yet, craved another story to delete that defeat.
That’s when I met Herman. He lived with his parents in a solitary trailer in Terrebonne Parish, home of reality TV show ‘Swamp People’ and child star Quvenzhané Wallis from ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’. I was driving aimlessly on sugar cane roads when a scene stopped me cold: two pit bulls were chained to a doghouse spray painted with the words “BEWARE OF DOG. WILL BITE” underneath a murderous-looking oak tree with leafless limbs splaying out like chaotic fractals.
I kneel to frame a shot of the scene and the pit bulls choke themselves silly on their chains trying to charge me. The wooden doghouse shakes like it might erupt from the earth and as I consider the strength of the dog collars the trailer door swings open revealing a grizzled man in a tank top and baseball cap. I lower my camera and give a wave, flashing a non-threatening smirk and explaining that I’m a lost photographer looking for the bayou. He sizes me up and hollers for his son to come outside. The pit bulls cease their snarling.
Herman looks to be in his late twenties, shorter than me, with beady eyes on a sallow face. Despite a brash prison yard strut he warms to me quickly and offers to show me around the trailer’s muddy grounds, keeping our trajectory outside the reach of the pit bulls. I don’t seem to be interrupting any great plans for the day. In thick woods behind the oak tree he describes encounters with wild hogs, where once he’d undone the chains on the family’s guardian hell hounds to watch them tear apart a doomed kuchon. The third pit bull is housebroken and even shares his bed most nights. “That’s my girl, man. I love that dog.” He strikes me as patently lonely.
Other stories pour forth as we slosh through fresh mud: this is old plantation land and the original owner supposedly hung thirteen slaves from the oak tree after the 13th amendment passed rather than honor their emancipation…the oak tree is hollow and Herman demonstrates how he once hid inside the trunk to duck the police…his father is Blackfoot Indian, his mother Italian…he knows a little French, a little Italian…he’d been the victim of a hit and run which made it hard to pass a physical and find honest construction work…an alligator once snapped at him from the muck-filled moat around this very yard as he walked to the mailbox, and so on.
I mention how I’m hoping to see alligators myself. “Well bro, you in da upper woods, but I can show you da bayou. Oh yes, my bruthah.”
Herman slides onto my passenger seat. On his lap I notice an orange-handled hammer coated in flecks of dried blood, or maybe peeling rust; it’s hard to tell.
“So, what’s with the hammer?”
“Bro, I probably killed hundreds of alligators with dis thing. See, what you do, you sneak up from behind when dey layin’ in the sun and smash ‘em on the back of the head in the kill spot. You’ll see.”
I feel a rush of opportunism: a poacher in the bayou had the ingredients of a rich and layered photo story.
We drive south towards the deeper bayou as he describes poaching modus operandi, tactics like blowing up creek levees with tiny dynamite to net shrimp and crawfish. No creature in his kingdom is safe, with other prey being turtle, white crane, duck, snake, and even raccoon. “Oh man, raccoons is da worst. It take a cold muthah fuckah. Dey cover dem eyes up with dey little paws and make a crazy messed up sound. But after like, you done a hundred it ain’t so bad, you know?”
Alligator meat is hawked on a black market to nearby restaurants, while the skins are said to be sold to a local surgeon whose side hustle is exporting them to Italy to become expensive purses and shoes. Herman alludes to a general distaste for the law amongst bayou folk, particularly Native Americans – mostly of Houma tribe - who resent further encroachments by the state on traditions and communities already struggling with coastal erosion and salt water intrusion from oil company pipelines. Still, his own protests seem more utilitarian: “like, if I want to get shrimp, I gotta buy a license, rent a boat, pay for gas and equipment? But how’m I gonna do all that if I got no money, you know? So we just do what we do.”
His accomplice since childhood had been his cousin, currently locked up in Louisiana state penitentiary serving 25 to life. Thick as thieves, they’d been. Herman recounts how he lost half of his index finger on a rusty wire during a poaching heist gone awry. His cousin had instinctively grabbed his hand to suck the blood and toxic grime off the mangled finger to prevent infection. “I miss my cousin a lot. If he was here we’d show you things you wouldn’t believe, bro.”
We park the car and skulk along reedy bayou banks in search of dozing alligators. Herman takes languorous puffs of a Black & Mild cigar and points out tracks in the tall grass formed by habitual slithering. “Damn man if it was summertime we’d a seen like ten already.” The tracks are the only sign of caimon the cold day produces.
A cocktail of relief and letdown courses through me as we walk back to the car, stepping over red shotgun shells and shattered beer bottles somebody used for target practice. Herman picks up a decapitated Modelo bottle and examines the broken glass like evidence, “dis probably from dem Mexican boys,” he wagers. We give up on alligators.
The sun is nearly down. My game plan is to make for New Orleans so I begin hinting to Herman that I need to hit the road. On the way back to the trailer we stop at a gas station so he can buy another Old English malt liquor 40oz. He insists on returning to the trailer to hang out, and we find his father kicked back in a lazy-boy smoking a roach and watching women’s wrestling on TV, transfixed by fluorescent bikinis delivering choreographed dropkicks in hypnotic tempo. I settle for a contact buzz and mill about the cramped, smoke-filled kitchen, curious about my surroundings but increasingly eager to leave them. Herman unwraps a fresh Black & Mild, sparking it on the toaster oven coils, then drawing my attention to the “Locked Down” section of a regional paper which features weekly mug shots of area sex offenders and thieves. “I don’t know why people in the bayou do this to each other man. Must be something in our blood.”
Eventually I gather myself and inch towards the front door, trying to find a graceful exit. Herman insists I spend the night in his brother’s room on a floor mattress covered with dirty laundry and fast food wrappers. I change the subject and new stories are shared: his father tells of the time he saw the fabled Creole Rugarou Sasquatch with his own two eyes, a monstrous hairy beast which crossed the road in two steps…he doesn’t bother locking the trailer doors because what good are locks against this Rugarou…Herman’s mother dabbles in voodoo and their land is haunted by a ghost called ‘The Fella’, the specter of a woman accidentally killed by a shotgun many years ago…Herman’s ex-girlfriend once got tossed clean off the trailer porch by this same bitter poltergeist, for which he was blamed and arrested.
Herman is getting noticeably drunker, and my hope that he’ll make a reliable ‘fixer’ for the story about illegal poaching that I’ve envisaged is draining with each swig. I continue feeling out a break in conversation. Perhaps sensing my angst his father finally says, “wait here” and goes rummaging in a bedroom closet, returning with a colossal pile of Mardi Gras beads, enough to disrobe half of Bourbon Street. He hoists the tangled mess into my arms without ceremony and sits back in the lazy-boy. Herman says it’s a gift and I stand uncertainly in the living room holding the ten pounds of purple and gold beads. What am I supposed to do with all these god damned beads? Then it hits me that my exit has just been granted. I say thank you, thank you, it’s a kind gift, I’m now looking even more forward to future Mardis Gras, and finally walk outside to the pitch black yard to chuck the pile into my trunk.
I turn to find an unsteady Herman shadowing me beside the car. He asks me to drive him to the gas station again. I oblige. At the station he brown bags another 40oz and cops another pack of Kools before excitedly introducing me to a local who referees an illegal dog-fighting ring. I snap a photo of them posing with their 40oz’s in front of an ice machine and drive Herman back to the trailer.
Halfway down the country lane his eyes widen. He wants to show me an abandoned slave house a few miles down the road. I take a quick mental inventory: what the fuck are you doing? just bail on this dude already, as I hear this same self oblige his proposal; my everyday aplomb now heavily taxed.
“Pull over here and shine the headlights on dat house.” I flip on the high beams, then watch him make the sign of a cross and mutter a Creole-sounding prayer before summoning me to follow him through a broken window of the dilapidated lavender and green house. “The spirits are strong in here bro, you know?” Mummified wasp nests adorn the ceiling, illuminated only by the flashlight app from my phone. An old lime green stove blocks the front doorway. “Man if my cousin was here we’d kick down that door and get dis stove for scrap money.” A prejudice against superstition provides minimal defense as my skin crawls, creep levels maxing out. The thought of cottonmouth snakes and jumping spiders and the overall tapestry of what I’m doing starts to poison my nerves. A creeping dread takes hold and I hurry back out the window. “See you at the car, dude; I’m done, I’m done”, I mumble.
Back at the trailer Herman remains unmoved in my passenger seat. I keep the engine running, anxious for him to pick up on numerous social cues that it’s time to part ways. His six gold teeth glow in the dark as my suggestions to call it a night go ignored. Herman says he’s never been outside of Louisiana, but wants to visit me in New York in “ten years when he gets his life together”. I take down his address, hoping a promise of future correspondence might pacify our parting. New biographical details begin to spill: he’s a two-time convicted felon…used to be in the crack game…an alcoholic with ADHD and bi-polar. “Man I thought you was my probation officer when you first showed up! Damn!”
I laugh nervously at the suggestion as paranoid vibes pollute the car, and suddenly he demands to know if I’m an undercover cop. “Bro, hold up, you ain’t been recording’ me this whole time, right? Man, I showed you all my poachin’ spots! You ain’t lyin to me, is you? We friends…right?” Alarms buzz in my head. The hammer at his feet now appears menacing.
I say it’s been cool hanging out and we’ll keep in touch, but I have three hours of driving ahead of me. He changes the subject and persists in the passenger seat. I grip the wheel and grit my teeth, staring blankly ahead at the freakish oak tree and dog house illuminated by the tungsten headlights. He pats his pockets and asks what happened to his pack of menthols. Did I take them? He tells me to drive him back to the store again to buy a new pack. “C’mon man, you’ve driven thousands of miles, what’s another five?” I’m unable to argue the point.
My palms sweat and right eyelid flutters - tics generally reserved for over-caffeinated job interviews – as we drive the empty road for maybe the seventh time. A few minutes of cavernous silence passes between us. I crack the driver’s window to let air on my face. “Bro, you ain’t gon’ ditch me at the store is you? Because that been done to me before. And that ain’t OK.”
At the gas station Herman instructs me to go inside and buy the smokes because he’s too faded. I make sure he follows me inside from the parking lot, locking the car doors with the key remote in my pocket. While standing in line at the register I see his crooked swagger carry him towards the men’s room, out of view. Without hesitation I sprint back to the car, jam the keys in the ignition and peel out of the parking lot, tires squealing like slaughtered pigs, smoke trails curling in the tires’ wake. Dumbstruck bystanders probably figure I’ve just robbed the joint. Or maybe nobody even notices.
I fumble for my phone in the void of the back roads, steadying the wheel with my knees, searching frantically for highway signs. My guilt from ditching Herman is offset by relief, and my heart rate settles about twenty miles outside of Houma. The sickly-sweet smell of his cigars linger in the car like a sour ghost. I reach over to roll down the windows and see two items on the passenger seat floor: Herman’s bloody hammer and the pack of missing menthols.
An impulse to lob them onto the side of the highway is overridden by another desire to balance the books, to leave things even-steven; I’ve done enough interloping.
The next day I find myself at a UPS Store in Biloxi, Mississippi where I ship the hammer and smokes back to Herman’s trailer as a freckle-faced cashier chuckles; he’s seen weirder things put in envelopes. I’m not superstitious, but that doesn’t mean I want vengeful voodoo hexes thrown in my general direction. To the alligators who meet the wrong end of Herman’s hammer: my condolences.
I include a handwritten note: “Herman, sorry to leave you at the gas station like that, but you were pretty drunk and I needed to get on the road. Thanks for showing me around the bayou. Here are your hammer and cigarettes. Take care bro.”
The second glass of whiskey goes down easier. I don’t recognize the label on the bottle but it looks top shelf, so I leave enough to permit my indulgence go unnoticed. My 90 year old grandfather probably won’t miss it though. His ritual of an evening Jim Beam has waned in recent years, along with other interests. Granted, the cup of entertainment options has never runneth over in this small midwest town.
It’s been over two months since I got back to the states after seven months of travel in Kashmir, India, Moldova, Ukraine, Romania, Turkey, Israel/West Bank, Jordan, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Argentina, and Chile. I kept meaning to sit down and write some kind of epitaph neatly summarizing my experiences since leaving the comforts of corporate employment in NYC to live out of a backpack and try photojournalism, but life provided no convenient punctuation marks, only ellipsis.
I was best man at my brother’s wedding in our Maryland hometown, a raucous Jewish-Filipino mashup whose reception featured the traditional Hora and Money Dances, respectively. Seven drinks deep, I did my best to deliver a minimally slurred speech, mostly penned on the 15 hour flight from New Delhi. Throughout the festivities I found myself giving unsatisfying answers to questions like “what was your favorite country?”, a question I’ve always found impenetrable but which now provokes Sisyphean neurosis.
Post-wedding, reality sank in that I was technically unemployed for the first time since graduating high school in 1997, so my sights refocused on getting back on the road with my camera to work on documentary story ideas. No better options were on the table. When I eventually brought my dad around to this point of view, he agreed to loan me his aging 2001 Acura with 180k miles. A practiced worrywort, my father was understandably reluctant, with one worry in particular being that the car would be “at risk” while harbored in NYC. I lived in Manhattan for over five years, but always as pedestrian, never driver. Cars and walkers are distinct species in the city, related only by a distant cousin: the cyclist. And within 24 hours I managed to fulfill all paranoid prophecies by getting the car towed, damaged and racked with $400+ dollars in parking tickets. Boom goes the dynamite.
After retrieving the car from the city impound lot, I noticed the NYPD had left something to remember them by: a dent on the bumper and a smashed tail light. The tow-truck driver had obviously backed the car into the same fire hydrant from which the car’s proximity had originally triggered alarms in some traffic cop’s quota loins, but when I confronted the impound supervisor with the evidence I was treated to a ballet of bureaucracy and excuses. I wasn’t about to hire a lawyer to fight the NYPD on this, so I drove off in defeat, cursing fire hydrants, crooked tow truck drivers, and my own stupidity.
A luckier turn arrived a few days later in the form of a wandering vagrant in the West Village. While I was loading the trunk in front of a friend’s apartment, a disheveled passerby approached, “hey man, you want me to get that dent out? $90 bucks and I’ll fix it.” I figured he couldn’t do more damage than the NYPD, so we shook on it. “Wait here, I’ll get my tools.” Five minutes later he was lying on his back on Bedford street with a blowtorch lit from a can of hairspray, softening the plastic bumper and hammering out the dent, as advertised. “There you go. Now just get some matching touchup paint for a few bucks and it’ll be good as new.”
With un-dented but blowtorch blackened bumper, I snaked up through foliage season in Vermont, Montreal, and Toronto, then down to Detroit, Ann Arbor, Chicago, and Gary with a brief detour back east to photograph the ugly aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, before returning to Indiana. During all this time I’ve primarily been living out of the car - every night contorting myself in the backseat in an arctic-grade sleeping bag that I bought ten years ago for mountain climbing. It’s not exactly Sealy Posturepedic, but it beats $50 for a shitty motel with bed bugs.
I’ve been in Indiana for almost two weeks now, trying to work on a photo story about basketball across the state. There isn’t much to do when I’m not out taking pictures, so after a few days of sitting around I agree to join my uncle who lives in town for drinks at one of the local watering holes: Randy’s Road House. At the bar, I sit next to a woman in her seventies named Marilyn who it turns out has lived down the gravel alley from my grandparent’s house for 30 years.
"So you must have known my grandmother Kitsy?"
"Oh yes", she says with an eager grin. "Kitsy was a friend. I had some lonely years when I first moved to town, and she was always kind to me. She knew I used to do theater and would invite me to join in family plays in the backyard. Once we did Count Dracula. Mm hmm, and I remember another time, she invited me to a seance. There were pyramids and crystals, the whole nine yards."
"Right, my grandmother was fond of the occult…"
"Well, I remember after the seance I went out and bought myself a Ouija board and made my two kids test it out with me. They didn’t believe in that stuff, but I’ll never forget, the letters on that board spelled out D-E-V-I-L. I took that thing out back, doused it with kerosene, and burned it right up!"
"Wow. I’m a non-believer myself, but that’s pretty wild. It’s a good thing this devil spoke English."
"And knew how to spell!"
We laugh and I drain my bourbon. My uncle is barking at the bar with other locals about all the new god damned parking lots being paved in downtown Batesville when there’s no new businesses opening up, just more god damned churches. An uneasiness envelops me and I grow anxious to leave town. This feeling is familiar after seven months of traveling, and starts to call from the void after a few days in one place. Continuous movement is my new normal. I worry that this inertia-induced claustrophobia will be a permanent feature, making it difficult to hold down a normal job or relationship. But if that’s the price exacted on me (besides that continent sized chunk of my life-savings that’s been melted) for trading another predictable year for the experiences I’ve had trying to do photojournalism, I accept the terms.
Back at the house, I find my grandfather unmoved in bed. He is sleep-talking again, and I can’t make out the words, but the tone suggests a reckoning of sorts: the restless pleas of a forbearing, uncomplaining man nearly at peace and ready to let go of this world but still dancing with a few stubborn ghosts. I can only speculate…unsettled arguments with my late firebrand grandmother, proud moments with his five children, unfinished business at the city office where he once worked as clerk treasurer, highlight reels of golf outings with country club friends, fossilized trauma from WWII where he detonated bridges with the engineer corps and helped liberate concentration camps. Unknown unknowns.
I consider what reckonings I will face at his age. I’m optimistic that I’ve crossed off at least one potential regret this past year, and still fresh in the back alleys of my mind are the eyes of thousands of strangers that met mine across those many months of travel…in markets, slums, roadside food stalls, desert petrol stations, farms, rickshaws, shop windows, bars, train stations, villages, mountain huts…the eyes of hustlers, street kids, businessmen, tribesman, refugees, bus passengers, farmers, beggars, soldiers, NGO workers, other travelers, sadhus, women in black burqas…sometimes passing glances, sometimes curious stares, sometimes suspicious. Their faces have by now blurred into a vague smudge, but the eyes have all merged into one pair, frozen in amber, always looking at me or through me…at the interloper with a backpack, DSLR slung over his shoulder, obviously not from around here, ethnicity anybody’s guess. These eyes don’t betray much, just a fleeting glimpse of understanding across a divided highway. But still, it’s enough.
I leave a goodbye note for my grandpa on the whiteboard with a sharpie. On my way out of town, I pass foreclosed homes, the funeral casket factory, a strip mall, and a baptist church with a tired mantra of a sales-pitch on its sign. Google Maps tells me to take the highway, but I miss the exit, turn on one of the backroads heading west, and begin again.
My last day in India, I spent the afternoon in a shiny new shopping mall in the Saket neighborhood of South Delhi. My stomach was wrought with cramps that had me doubling over in pain every ten minutes and the accompanying malaise had me hypochondriacal about parasitic giardia before my impending 15 hour flight to NYC. So I went to the mall to eat frozen yogurt, pop handfuls of probiotic pills, and revel in the air conditioning. I had been in India for a month, and things that jolted me even after six months of travel had become increasingly invisible. On the walk to the mall, I barely registered the acrid smell of street garbage mixed with the spices of street food, the dust in my face from the mud road, the people sleeping or perhaps dying on the side of the road, the omnipresent mobile recharge shops, the bulls and cows sharing my path, the flies buzzing round my head, the hordes of stray dogs, the beeping rickshaws nearly crushing my toes, the barefoot children darting past me in the alleys.
At the entrance to the mall, before passing through the airport like security, I looked up at a giant billboard and recognized a dark haired girl whom I knew from NYC. She was modeling in a clothing advertisement. It was a strange moment that seemed appropriate on the eve of my departure, as did the familiar logos in the Nike stores…the taste of Red Mango…the smell of perfumed soap from the Body Shop…the orderly rows of life-enhancing capsules at the GNC…the opioid-receptor hitting smell of Cinnabon…the sterile muzak of Coldplay wafting from the mall speakers like sleeping gas…the young people sipping chai while their digital reflections stared back at them on Facebook…the glossy shine of Nokia Lumia Windows Phone displays…the pamphlets promoting an iPad 2 giveaway…a poster for the new Bourne Legacy sequel…the convenience fees at a Citibank ATM.
I grew up in a Maryland suburb where a shopping mall was the town’s fulcrum and default gathering place. We had a strategically central man-made lake endowed with a Native American name and a metallic sculpture symbolizing the diversity of our community, but I will always remember the shopping mall as the blood pumping aorta of our town, the wallet-draining vena cava. Walking around that air-conditioned mall in Delhi a few hours before my flight - apart from a game of cricket playing on a sports bar plasma screen - it felt like I was already home.
After fifteen hours fetal position on a sweat stained bus from Delhi, we arrived in Jammu around 9am. Even this early the humidity was a sticky force field, a drag co-efficient on every intention. After sputtering in the morning heat we marked our driver and set off for Srinagar, the largest city and summer capital of Kashmir.
I was traveling with Massoud, a soft spoken Sufi about my age who split his time seasonally between Delhi, Srinagar and Denmark. Two nights before I had booked a night at “Abu’s Inn, Delhi” on AirBnB, but after multiple mishaps never checked in. In those situations the booking cost is forfeited and the host still gets paid, but the next day I received an email from Massoud saying I was welcome anytime as he felt bad about the non-refund policy. The next night I took up his offer and after sharing a dinner of chicken biryani and chapati off spread newspapers while sitting on the floor with a group of his friends I told him my destination was Kashmir. His eyes lit up and he said, you know what…maybe we can travel together…you can stay with my family in Srinagar…I can set you up with trekking in the mountains…my brother Maroof and I run a small travel outfit catering to European tourists in Kashmir…ok, when do we leave?
I was starting to drift off in the backseat breeze when we hit our first traffic jam in the Himalayan foothills. Rains the previous day had caused landslides, an obstacle the Indian Army frequently battles to clear. Along the road, families of middle class Indian tourists huddled in the shade of beached trucks, and we joined other vehicular refugees under a crumbling brick structure and waited for signs of movement while white robed Muslim men rested on tarps next to Hindu women in multi-colored saris playing poker. We ate curry flavored ramen noodles from an opportunistic roadside shack and after an hour everyone sprung from the makeshift quarters, darting back to deserted cars. This jerky pattern of man and metal would repeat for the next 16 hours. Getting there is half or possibly a lesser percentage of the fun, they say.
One source of entertainment on the journey were the cheeky BRO road safety signs: “If Married: Divorce Speed”, “Whisky is Risky”, “Better late than Accident”. These were complemented by italicized decals on the back windshields of all the shared taxis which ranged from “Girls have No Feelings” or “I Wana see Every Girl in Hijab & Every Boy in MASJID” to “Ya Allah”.
"Worst I’ve ever seen", said the young driver of the traffic, checking his slicked black hair in the rearview. Hours grinded away and as we slowly climbed the thunder of the mud brown river from the gorge hushed to a white noise hum. As night fell this made it easier to make believe we weren’t hugging cliff faces with no guardrails when our driver made video game maneuvers around blind corners to overtake other cars equally intent on shaving seconds off the journey. In daylight, Indian soldiers essentially reduced to traffic cops would sprint towards cars wildly swinging their batons to punish drivers for such recklessness but at night the adult supervision went mostly MIA and it was blood on the motorway. Earlier that day our own driver had almost taken a baton to the hand himself. I struggled to see how smashing offender’s driving hands would make them drive better.
When traffic hit standstill the drivers killed their engines and the line of headlights snaking the mountain went black, leaving only dots of fire from village huts and the burning ember of a hash joint our driver was smoking on the roof of his friend’s car behind us. When the engines revved again the headlights would flicker back to life in almost perfect sequence like a dynamite wick or Christmas lights. It was hypnotic to watch and reminded me of the invisible trails of pheromones ant colonies use to communicate. I’m not sure why because I’ve never seen ant pheromone trails.
Indian truck rigs are tricked out with all manner of colorful decor. Plastic Ganesh elephants and pulsating neon hearts resembling psychedelic flux capacitors are common, but so are swastikas and six pointed stars, which is all confusing for an Atheist Jew until remembering these symbols existed here for hundreds of years before the West re-appropriated them. The neon lights were migraine inducing, but supposedly they’re handy navigational aids on stretches of the road to Ladakh where the army requires headlights be turned off because Pakistan once shelled the road with RPGs. After fourteen hours some fireworks didn’t sound so bad.
Our driver’s buddy from the other car was bored and kept ditching his passengers to hang with us during the stops. Apparently he didn’t like his customers, they’d been complaining the whole way, as if he had magic powers to fix the traffic. I tried to cheer him up with a little Breaking Bad on my laptop in the backseat. I knew he couldn’t follow the dialogue, but I hoped he would appreciate the cinematography and acting of the best show on American television. Behold the splendor, my biasab, my brother, for here is the glory of my nation, our greatest modern artistic achievement, now bask in its demented iridescent glow.
"Where from, this show?"
"America, like me"
I looked up after a few minutes to see him sleeping - something I hadn’t done in over 30 hours - but soon the chain of headlights awoke again and he was walking back to his car as the jam uncoiled.
Massoud tapped me on the shoulder and I took out my headphones.
"I should have mentioned this before, but don’t tell anyone in Kashmir you’re an American. People will ask you lots of questions here, just don’t tell them anything. To be on the safe side."
In eleven years of traveling at every chance I’d never lied about where I hailed from. Even during the W. Bush years - especially aggravating years for Americans who enjoyed foreign travel - I always begrudged the cowards who put Canadian flags on their backpacks just to avoid another awkward political conversation. I’ve always bought into the notion that we’re all ambassadors and every interaction makes a tiny difference and all that jazz. But Massoud was a local whom I trusted implicitly, and even though I knew he was probably being over cautious, I heeded.
So the next time someone asked, it just popped in there, like the State Puffed Marshmallow Man, and I was Elijah from Switzerland. I guess I figured, if there’s one country that couldn’t possibly have pissed anyone off around here it had to be Switzerland. I wasn’t likely to meet a Kashmiri who’s cousin or buddy in Pakistan got blown up by a Swiss drone attack. No, we Swiss would never use drones. We didn’t even have a real Air Force, I was pretty sure, because every square inch of our country was covered in the magnificent Alps so there was nowhere for the jets to take off. My parents had even honeymooned in tents in the Alps in their traveling days. My history with Switzerland was voluminous. We had so much in common, us Swiss and Kashmiris, with our enchanting mountain ranges, our both being landlocked between countries that don’t like each other, and our love of chocolate. We would get along famously, I knew it.
It’s too hot to think on the minibus. A woman with a Jane Lynch haircut two rows up is cooling herself with an imitation Japanese fan, and for a while I am content freeloading dispersed wafts of air from her efforts. My seventh grade math teacher Mr. Barnes once told our temporarily air-conditioning-less classroom that fanning yourself is a waste of energy because it generates incremental body heat. I cling to this philosophy until the female Moldovan border crossing guard steps onto the bus and returns my stamped passport, which I immediately use as a fan.
We blast off again and the minibus careens over potholed roads at abdomen clenching speeds. The van lurches whenever the driver reaches for his cell phone. Air blows throughout the cabin from one open window on the driver’s side. An ankle length pink and green flower dress belonging to the girl in front of me ripples furiously from the wind. Her friend in a black polka dot dress is attractive despite a few acne blotches.
Bad Russian pop music is seeping through my noise canceling headphones playing Jack White’s latest album, “…I won’t let love disrupt corrupt or interrupt me…anymore”…accompanied by whooshing of huge truck engines as our vessel overtakes them on the two lane road, each time seemingly getting closer to a singularity of collision with oncoming traffic.
Two rosary crucixes dangle from the rearview. I never like the sight of those. Do drivers think they’ll be imbued with invincibility behind the wheel? Like a star power up in Mario Kart? No matter how shitty they drive the Virgin Mary will bail them out? And holy shit, this guy today is on a mission, maybe that’s why he doubled up on crucifixes. The van careens abruptly and the guy next to me begins to cross himself. Sir, have you considered how uncomfortable that makes others around you? That you feel it necessary to pray in public else the bus might flip off the road? Haven’t you noticed the two crucifixes up front? Nothing to worry about comrade. We’re in the clear.
The heat must be getting to me. Something like 97 out, no cloud cover. A swig of warm sparkling water does little to help. The bumpy road has carbonation escaping and dwindling every time the cap is opened and after a few sips it’s gone flat. The writing on the bottle is in Cyrillic but I recognize the Carpathian mountains on the tiny map printed on the packaging. An arbitrary red dot on the map is clearly intended to mark the bountiful life-giving source of the pure refreshing natural mineral infused H20 inside the plastic. Back on the farm there was an actual well at the bottom of a hill where we pulled freezing cold ground water. My hands would numb with pins and needles after filling a few bottles. You could almost taste the minerals.
The floral dress keeps brushing lightly against my ankle in the wind like a needy cat. I hear the driver’s Nokia ringtone and see his hand reach across the dashboard. Then everything goes tumbling. The yellow sunflower fields are spinning outside the window and blue sky becomes grey upholstery and bodies and crucifixes crash into me before the micro daydream dissolves away with familiar relief, and soon we are pulling into Chisinau.
Because, it would have been a shame to miss out on my first actual photography assignment, which is the reason I’m on this minibus to Moldova, a small landlocked former Soviet territory generally regarded as one of the poorest countries in Europe. It’s an unpaid gig but for a solid NGO who’ll provide actual drivers and cars to get around the country, a luxury I’m not used to. They’ll probably even have air-conditioning, but I bet they’ll drive just as crazy, they always do.
Days old buffalo manure and mud are still stained into the calloused cracks beneath my feet. After several scrubbings it remains. Fortunately for the Ukrainian family sharing the windowless sleeper train compartment with me for twelve hours to Odessa my feet don’t offend the olfactory. They rarely do, a genetic lottery ticket that pays dividends during extended travel.
It’s so hot in the compartment that lying still and trying to sleep is the only sane option; even turning the pages of a book seems to generate a sweat. I’m able to converse in broken Spanish with the father when he’s not sleeping. Turns out he worked in Argentina a few months. He wants to know if I’m in the Ukraine for the Euro 2012 football championship like the other tourists, and I detect familiar incredulity when I say I’ve been working as a volunteer on a farm near Khust for the past two weeks.
I got used to that reaction during my time on the farm. The local villagers couldn’t comprehend why an American from New York would come all the way to Ukraine to work in their village. My host would always just tell them “it’s a unique life experience”, which earned a suspicious nod and cautious smile.
I don’t remember who first tipped me on “WWOOFing”, but if I ever do I’ll send them something nice like a message on Facebook saying thanks. Someone in a hostel I’m sure, maybe back in South America. It was one of those shrugged aside travelers’ tips that builds a secret fort in your neurons until something coaxes it loose months later. I was driving a pint sized red Dacia Logan rental car fit for Tyrion Lannister around the Romanian countryside in Maramures when I recalled a website for volunteering on organic farms in exchange for room and board. Despite my sinuses being destroyed by hay fever the idea of staying put in a quiet rural place and doing some physical labor sounded appealing. For the hell of it I went to WWOOF.org and searched out farms in Ukraine, finding exactly one place listed. It was a buffalo farm in the southwest Trans-Carpathian region, just two hours by train across the border from my current station in Sighetiu Marmatieu. I created an account, paid $25 to register, emailed the farm, and two days later was on my way.
I arrived at the Rokosovo train station with the sun in mid-descent. The station was only a small shack adjacent to the tracks with a wooden house attached. I threw my backpack on the ground where the cattle fields met the gravel and waited in some shade for my ride, kicking pebbles and taking photos. After an hour passed the family from the small house must have felt sorry for me and invited me inside for dinner and lots of drinking. It was a 101 course in Ukrainian village hospitality that I would enjoy often the next two weeks.
Those two weeks were largely spent helping my host Olga - a cute, tom-boyish girl from outside Kiev - manage the daily business of the farm. She was in her early twenties with a precocious intellect and one of those people that really cares about animals. I recognize those people because by comparison I am not really one of them. It’s not that I dislike animals, it’s just that I don’t roll around in the grass hugging and kissing them. My minor allergies and general distrust of cats might partially explain it.
It was Olga’s passion for animals and preserving biodiversity (and a guy she was dating who previously managed the place) that brought her to the farm, which was home to the last remaining Carpathian buffalos in Ukraine. Beyond simply caring for the 48 beasts, Olga was milking them twice a day to produce all manner of aged dairy products - from mozzarella to yogurt - for which I eagerly served as taste tester. Twice a week we took the local bus into Khust to make the rounds. Her client base was steadily growing; buffalo milk wasn’t available anywhere else in that region and a monopoly on a good product isn’t a bad place to start a small business. Through Olga’s network of buffalo milk enthusiasts I met several fascinating characters, including the head of the remaining Jewish community in Khust and a ping pong playing basket weaving priest in the village. She was essentially for me what photojournalists call a ‘fixer’.
My duties in turn consisted of bottling milk, cleaning the stables, feeding the buffalos and horses, collecting nettle for the pig, doing dishes, and other miscellany. One hot day was spent collecting strawberries with a local family for ten hours. Another rainy one collecting endless mounds of hay and loading horse carts. Both alongside grizzled country folk well into their sixties or seventies whose stamina I can only describe as mutant. I don’t think I did much to challenge their stereotypes of city people.
The farm itself was owned by an elusive Russian oligarch with Ukrainian roots who bought the land and over five years constructed a tasteless summer home. The land encompassed a pond which previously served as the neighborhood swimming hole, but the man didn’t care to make nice with the locals and wouldn’t let them through the gates when he was in town, even on sweltering hot days. But he wasn’t there for most of the year, so Olga made sure to correct that policy. From what I could tell the farm belonged more to her than it ever would the guy with the title and deed. Her relationships with local families, passion for the land and animals and flora and fauna, and knowledge of how to actually run the farm was very real.
A typical night with a local family went something like this. Olga invites me to join for dinner at a house in the village. When we arrive the older of two sons is on the couch picking at the stalk of an oversize mushroom, while the younger brother watches a badly dubbed version of ‘Angel’ flickering on the small kitchen TV with a crucifix atop it. A skittish cat and purse sized dog chase each other around the room. The father is Yuri Jr and his eldest is Yuri Jr Jr. Yuri Jr. Jr. refills our small wine glasses at his father’s behest and we wash down the food with fresh birch juice. Nostrovia! With Olga translating, Yuri Jr. asks …
"what is your age?"
"as of this week, 33." I reply.
"ahh. me, I am 1978"
I gesture my hands together like I caught a very tiny fish to convey our close age.
"yes, but you look much younger", he says.
"but you have better hair", I reply
"but it is getting grey"
"but you still have more."
"yes but you have the beard. compensation!"
"true, you have to keep the balance."
We thank the family after more wine and I stumble back to the farm while Olga visits another buffalo milk junkie. I forget that earlier I had promised to share a drink with the farm’s gatekeeper and after he opens the gate for me I can only oblige his offer. We sit in his small office with the tiny old Cold War era TV showing a barely visible Russian talk show as he pours the bitter wine into a plastic cup thats shape for some reason reminds me of a chess piece, like drinking from a Rook with a handle. Now I’m at about a six on my drunk scale, and finally excuse myself back to the farm’s small guesthouse to sleep. At seven AM I’ll wake and do it all over again.
I didn’t have a farm in Ukraine, but for a few moments, it felt like I could have.
They led us from the street to a dark upstairs room behind beaded string curtains, the kind that tangle your hair if you aren’t on guard. At the table next to us was a tattooed man who looked like Russian mafia, or maybe a former Russian sailor, I couldn’t be sure because I had no idea how either one was supposed to look. A single exposed lightbulb provided just enough dimness to make out the man sitting across from us through swirls of smoke from water pipes and Turkish cigarettes.
The man was skinny with gaunt features, compulsively juggling his hands between a small cup of red tea, an eternal chain of cigarettes, and one of three Nokia mobile phones that were laid on the table. He was mafia, but only in the sense that he belonged to a criminal organization. This one was Syrian, we were told, and his crimes consisted mainly of the cash cow known as human trafficking. His customer base was mostly African and Middle Eastern refugees hoping to be shuttled from their halfway house of Turkey across the Greek border by risky and unreliable means costing up to $2000 per body. It was this we had come to discuss.
We were here as journalists. Photojournalists, more accurately. Amateur photojournalist in my case. First time student in a seven day photojournalism field workshop, to be fully accurate. Dude way the fuck out of his New York City league but discovering the thrill of deeply uncertain environments with equally uncertain people, to be honest. Two guys hoping to hitch a ride illegally into Greece to document firsthand the desperate lengths and risks that people take in hopes of reaching a better life. People from Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Tunisia, Egypt, Sierra Leone, Libya, Syria. Places most of us only recognize from skimming past photographs of mangled bodies, starving children, crying mothers, smoking remains, or a headline in Google News. For these refugees the promised land was Europe, and Greece was the doormat on the way to more socially forgiving Scandinavian nations. Imagine for a moment your life at home is so bad that you decide to risk your life savings and life itself traversing numerous foreign lands just to start again from scratch in a tiny, rain drenched hamlet in Norway.
All week we had been snooping around and photographing daily life in the Istanbul neighborhood of Kumkapi - a colorful ramshackle part of the city near the sea filled with refugees, dope dealers, street kids, and laundry drying on ropes tied between dilapidated buildings. On our second day a young man oozing bad vibes approached us on the street and made a polite throat slitting gesture in our direction. Another night we were walking back to our dive of an unlisted hotel when the sound of shattering glass was followed by a battle cry and the silhouette of a man chasing another man through the streets with a crowbar raised in the air. These moments set the tone for the week.
After hours spent idling in front of a notorious tea cafe in the heart of Kumkapi - making chit chat with shady characters such as the Libyan gentlemen who claimed to be a former Gaddafi bodyguard now ducking a UN bounty of $10,000 on his head - we finally earned the trust of the traffickers. Yes, they would allow us to travel for free as journalists along with the refugees as long as we didn’t photograph their faces. This would consist of jamming into the back of a minivan with up to twenty illegals, driving three hours to Edirne near the Greek border, then hiking three hours in darkness through the forest, crawling in mud if necessary to avoid the eyes of Turkish jendarme police, then crossing the Evros river on inflatable rafts. You then hiked through an area only recently cleared of land mines, hoping to avoid unforgiving Greek military police or private EU border security employees. Many refugees attempting the crossing die every year from drowning in the river, suffocating in the back of the van, or other miscellaneous causes. Sometimes they are killed by the traffickers when things go sideways.
My teacher was a war photographer who had embedded in Iraq and Afghanistan and was accustomed to hairy situations. I was simply a frequent adventure traveler with an interest in learning photojournalism in real environments, perhaps a bit eager to take things up a notch. We weighed the risks and decided to go for it. Both of us wrote “in case you don’t hear from me in 48 hours” emails to trusted friends with instructions to contact the US embassy in Turkey. However, our first two attempts to be smuggled never got off the ground because the traffickers canceled for one reason or another. Too many police on the road. Bad weather. Not enough customers. Finally on the third night a curveball was thrown, with the street lieutenants saying we ‘needed to meet the boss’. This development at least seemed like progress.
So now here we were, sitting across from the chain-smoking Syrian, both of us dressed absurdly like navy seals in all black and geared for a hiking trip with plastic bags to protect our cameras. In between nervous sips of bitter tea we attempted to negotiate our illegal passage into Greece. The boss was saying it would cost $200 a person to cross, money we didn’t have on us, and there weren’t exactly ATMs nearby. After ten minutes of unsuccessfully trying to convince him to take us for free, we went downstairs in the alleyway to discuss, and decided to bail. It just wasn’t feeling right anymore. It would be too easy for them to drive us an hour outside of Istanbul, receive a fake call from a ‘scout’ up ahead, cancel the operation, and leave us on the side of the road, out $200. Or worse.
We’ll never know how events might have played out. Maybe we would have been dumped on the side of the road. Maybe we would have been arrested by Turkish police and had our cameras confiscated. Maybe we would have taken an involuntary dip in the Evros river and gotten hypothermia. Maybe we would have gotten a couple good shots worthy of publication, that provided anyone interested a unique glimpse into a complex subject. Maybe, maybe.
There were too many wisdoms about the photojournalism trade and life lessons from my seven day workshop in Istanbul to recount, but the most important one was simple: I enjoyed it.
Swakopmund is a growing town on Namibia’s coast with German colonial underpinnings, beach vibes, sand-boarding, and oysters. On the outskirts of town lies the the Mondessa township, where the poorest residents build homes from recycled garbage plucked from a nearby landfill. During South African apartheid rule, the ‘Europeans’ took nefariousness to new depths by giving certain tribes better homes than others, thereby sowing tensions and jealousy between the natives to keep them preoccupied with petty infighting instead of united strongly against their rulers.
We only planned on one night in town but ended up staying four, despite a vague malaise I got from seeing so much German baroque architecture in Africa. The three of us had been driving 7-10 hours per day and camping across Botswana and Namibia for two weeks, and when we found decent rooms in a quiet hostel near the beach, I guess nobody was in a hurry to get back on the road.
My first task was finding the fastest internet connection in a place where most internet connections run on IV drip. The Indiana-Kentucky sweet sixteen NCAA basketball game was set to air at 4am local time in two days, and while normally I don’t spill emotion over sports, nostalgia for my midwestern college years, family tradition, and a genuine love of college basketball transform me into a foaming at the mouth baboon whenever I’m watching Indiana play. It had been a comeback season for the program, and I would not miss this holiest of holy games, even in Namibia.
After surveying the landscape, arrangements were made at a nearby internet cafe. I would wake at 3:45am and connect to their wi-fi from outside on the cafe patio. The owner told me to return before the shop closed to get the password and double check the connection worked. The man was a pale, three hundred pound local of German descent with a thick mustache, who I gather didn’t spend his off days at the beach. When the last customer left, we stood next to his laptop at the cash register, surrounded by kitschy Germanic memorabilia, beer steins, and antique curios. As he clicked and typed, he confessed his teenage son knew more about managing the technicals of the cafe’s business, then took the conversation on an unmapped detour, turning the subject to the increasing number of gay people visiting Swakopmund. “I have never seen so many in my life. And they all come to my shop. I don’t know why.”
"Maybe gay people also use the internet?", I speculated.
"Yes, but you must understand, seeing them…makes it difficult for people with urges."
I declined to engage further, and involuntarily scratched at one of the forty mosquito bites on my leg. When I stood up the large man was looming over me on my side of the counter. A chill ran up my vertebrae as I registered a hushed whisper, “ahh, but you must let me scratch those for you”.
For the first time I noticed the doors in the cafe were closed and locked, and felt a jolt of vulnerability. It’s a feeling that single female travelers probably experience on a regular basis while on the road, but for me it was foreign.
"Uhh, yeah…that won’t be necessary", I replied curtly, taking a subtle step backwards.
A torrent of action-movie scenarios flashed in my mind, but I brushed off visions of myself delivering a crane kick; something told me this lonely butterball making a misguided pass at a foreigner in his shop was harmless. Also I had never made it past yellow belt in elementary school, but more importantly, I wasn’t about to jeopardize my best chance at seeing the game, even if it meant enduring a few more moments of social discomfort. March Madness, they call it.
Probably used to it by now, he took the rejection in stride and the awkwardness dissipated. I paid $100 Namibian dollars per our wi-fi deal. We left the cafe and he spoke in Afrikaans to the building security guard, explaining not to be alarmed at the sight of a strange white guy on a laptop on the patio in the middle of the night.
Before exhaling a sigh of relief and making my exit, I asked where to find a good cup of coffee. “I must say, this would have been the best place”, he answered.
I crept out of the hostel dormitory at 4am, walking the empty streets under a full canopy of stars with the smell of sea salt in the air. Upon arrival outside the cafe I discovered the wi-fi was a bust. All that non-sense for nothing and now I was going to miss tip off. I bolted back down the dark alleys by the light of my headlamp to designated backup viewing station #1, a nearby bistro where I’d saved the wi-fi password earlier at dinner. It was slow, but it would have to do. I sat outside on the sidewalk in the dark, hijacking wi-fi, watching a choppy video stream. For the next hour I suppressed howls and curses for my Hoosiers with only the sounds of Atlantic ocean waves crashing nearby.
It was around 5AM with a few minutes left in the second half and my team losing, when two sillouhettes rambled towards me in the night. My pulse quickened and then slowed when I recognized it was only a couple returning from a late night out.
The smell of bourbon was strong when the man spoke, “my friend, I have to say, you are on the street in the middle of Africa with a laptop at 4 o’clock in the morning. Maybe the next guy who walks by won’t be as nice.”
I acknowledged that universal truth but explained the risk was calculated. My team was in the sweet sixteen, man.
"Oh really? What teams are playing? I used to play in the junior Namibian basketball league".
And so began a short-lived friendship with R, a magnetic local from Windhoek who proceeded to hunch over my laptop in the street while his one night stand babbled on about South African rugby.
The game ended as the first colors of daybreak bled into the horizon. My team had been knocked out of the tourney, but on the bright side I wouldn’t have to worry about where to watch the next game. Before returning to the hostel, R made a case for me to stick around town another night. He worked for an entertainment promotion company, flying around southern Africa doing events and concerts, and assured me there was a party I wouldn’t want to miss. Something about the film crew for the new Mad Max film currently shooting in Namibia. Once, he claimed to have helped organize and promote Lil Wayne and 50 Cent shows on the same day in Cape Town.
He didn’t have to twist my arm. After two weeks camping in the bush I was bored of the two girls sharing the car and craved new company. I met R at a beachfront bar where the film crew was having what seemed like a regularly occurring crew party. We ordered neat Jameson’s and took turns flaying the laptop DJ who was reading the crowd like a blind man. R had been a DJ in his younger days and explained the differences between African house music from Cape Town (more consistent, repetitive samples) and Joburg (more dynamic, varied samples) before we found ourselves talking local politics with the grey-haired parents of the bar’s owner. It turned out they were friends with the owner of the Namushata Lodge where I had held a baby crocodile in my hands just a week earlier. The mother showed off pictures on her Nokia phone of their “bombshell” daughter living in Cape Town. She swore she’d have fixed us right up if I weren’t just passing through.
As we walked to the next place, R confided, “a few days ago those people wouldn’t have been that nice with me.”
His uncle had been the second prime minister of Namibia - not long after the country had shed German colonialism in the early nineties - and had recently been called up to the majors again to lead the party in the fall elections. It was all over the papers.
"That explains the free drinks."
At the next bar my picture of R got a few more brush strokes. In between the visibly thumping subwoofers pounding American top 40 rap, I learned that he was perhaps the illegitimate son of an African-American multi-millionaire, whom he saw every other month. The father was an Atlanta based lawyer and entrepreneur who had dabbled in infrastructure business in Namibia over the years. I put two and two together.
"I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. I never talk about this stuff with anyone except my cousin who’s like my best friend."
It was probably the coke he had just done in the bathroom, a vice he didn’t try to hide, and one that had caused problems for him in the past. His other vice was watches. Also, women, and possibly cars.
"I used to own the only Bentley in Windhoek. Back then I also owned a few nightclubs, but I lost it all. Drugs, alcohol, bad decisions. I’m past that now. Now I’m just trying to provide for my son. Doing it proper."
Truths, fictions, exaggerations, I liked the guy, and hoped he would keep it together.
Before we called it a night he introduced me to his baby mama, who happened to be out dancing with her girlfriends around the corner. There were only so many places in town. They were separated, but he asked if I would provide air cover and tell her that the South African girl carousing with us was my wife, to avoid any suspicion. It was the first time I’ve told anyone I’m married. She asked why I wasn’t wearing a ring, and I mumbled something about never wearing it when traveling because I was always losing things.
On my last day in Swakopmund, our Dutch travel companion disappeared without leaving a note before our agreed departure time. We eventually learned she had been getting a ‘massage’ from the female hostel receptionist who of course also dabbled in alternative healing. While waiting for her to resurface, I went to put air in the tires and find a decent coffee; another long day of driving was ahead. I remembered the fat German bragging about his lattes, and I don’t know why, but I went back to the internet cafe, feeling an unfocused desire for justice.
If he was surprised to see me, it didn’t show. I explained that our previous arrangements had not been fruitful for me.
"And I even missed tip off. So, how about a latte on the house, for my troubles?"
He raised his eyebrows. “You are sure you did not watch your game here last night?”
With a grunt he went to the back to fix the latte. Back in the Toyota, I tallied it’s true cost at $100 Namibian dollars, a few minutes of social discomfort, and missing the Hoosier’s tip off. But I had to admit, the coffee was pretty good.
We drove from Kasane through 4x4 tracks in Chobe National Park, crossing into Namibia at Ngoma Bridge. From there we took the tarred road across the Caprivi - a strip of land famous for an abundance of elephants running between Angola, Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. As the sun began to set we turned off the main road looking for lodging, and heard an unsettling scraping noise coming from the bottom of the truck. A piece of the front grill had been knocked loose and was dragging on the ground. We followed signs for the first lodge we saw: Namushasha.
We passed impoverished villages next to a small airstrip before finding ourselves in front of a luxury lodge that surprisingly also allowed camping. The manager greeted us in the parking lot and wasted no time putting on the hard sell. He offered us a discount for the night, a free game drive with food, and the clincher: he would have one of his guys fix up our car free of charge. Sold.
The cause for courtship soon revealed itself: that evening the owner of the lodge was flying himself in from Windhoek by bush plane for an annual visit. The manager wanted the place to look busy.
At dinner that night we met the man himself, a Santa Clausish white bearded African named Juhan who owned several high-end bush lodges in Namibia. A godfather of Namibian real estate. He introduced his lieutenants, and we soon found ourselves taking nuclear grade shots talking about life in the bush. One of the men was a big game hunter who earned his keep taking wealthy international clients on lavish $30-$100k elephant hunting expeditions. I had some questions about that.
"The elephants are actually overpopulated in the Caprivi and cause problems for farmers. We work closely with the local communities. As soon as villagers hear an elephant gun fired they come running. Within 30 minutes the carcass is cleaned. Nothing is left. Not even the bones."
I tabled further inquiry, and thought I heard one of the lieutenants make a joke about taking the boat out for a midnight crocodile catch.
Orange tinted lightning bolts scattered across the purple African horizon. It was close to midnight, and seven of us were on a small motor boat cruising around a lagoon looking for crocodiles in Africa. The whiskey in my glass disappeared faster than usual and I silently blessed the saint who brought the cooler of alcohol onboard. I tried not to think about the hippos.
It was raining, but the storm was still far off. The manager who had earlier convinced us to stay at the lodge was now at the helm illuminating the boat’s path with a handheld spotlight which stopped working every few minutes until given a good shake. The boat’s engine had a similar sense of humor. In these moments, the boat would drift into the reeds in perfect darkness and silence, but for the sound of wind and the boat’s hull scraping the marsh.
"I had a farm in Africa…", whispered the captain of our hapless vessel. I hadn’t taken him for a Meryl Streep type.
He was a South African named Vellum who had worked for Juhan many years. He swore in Afrikaans as he worked by flashlight to repair the engine throttle wiring.
No sooner were we off then the manager was signaling to cut the engine. The spotlight had reflected the eyes of a crocodile. Vellum brought the boat in closer and we heard thrashing water and suddenly the manager - a man full of surprises - was holding a baby crocodile in his hands. We passed it around carefully like a newborn baby and took pictures with stunned looks on our faces before returning it to its murky depths.
The rain picked up and we headed back to the lodge. The manager hissed at Vellum to stop again. He had seen a hippo in the spotlight ahead.
Vellum turned course and the engine failed once more.
He worked furiously with the wires. I worked furiously with my whiskey. The minutes stretched like hours. I took refuge in a borrowed camera and tried not to think about hippos. Vellum got the engine working and in ten minutes we were back on land. It began to pour.
I knew the answer but asked anyway, “Is it ok to talk politics in Zimbabwe? Do people speak about these things in private?”
"No. Never. You will sleep in cells", the driver said.
I preferred the roof top tents so left it alone for the rest of the drive back to the Kuzungula border crossing into Botswana.
"Very sensitive subject", said the woman. "Too sensitive"
We had left our car in Kasane and crossed into Zimbabwe by taxi for the day to see Victoria Falls instead of going through Zambia. I disliked the idea of any amount of currency trickling into Mugabe’s corrupt coiffeurs, but my companions insisted on seeing the falls from the superior view of Zimbabwean soil.
We avoided a few pushy touts outside the park, paid the entrance fees, saw the gushing falls swollen from the rainy season, got drenched by the spray of mist, dried off, got a bite, then phoned the driver we had met at the border crossing to pick us up. We spent a total of three hours in the country.
Back at the Botswana border the guards asked in a gruff tone to see the driver’s papers, then quickly flashed gold-toothed smiles and allowed the car proceed to the gate. Old friends.
At the crossing I made small talk with a truck driver idling in the shade. He was transporting maize to Joburg from Kasane and would drive through the night, just as I had done the day before from the opposite direction. I warned him about the elephants on the side of the road and he chuckled quietly.
In Buenos Aires I had good luck with AirBNB.com, staying five nights at a top floor Palermo loft with Carlos - a Nigerian born, London raised, Buenos Aires seasoned Tango instructor and world traveler. He had just returned from ten days of silent meditation at a retreat when I showed up. Despite interrupting his freshly recharged inner peace, we hit it off and I spent most of my time hanging with him and sharpening my eighth grade spanish with his circle of portenos. He seemed to know and be adored by the whole neighborhood, gliding from one sidewalk embrace and cheek kiss to the next like an adopted dreadlocked prince of Buenos Aires.
In the gritty but touristy barrio of La Boca I sipped pumpkin soup while a new friend from Norway tangoed Milonga style a few feet away with the resident dancer. My knowledge of Tango contains two skimmed paragraphs from Wikipedia, and I didn’t know what I was looking at, but it was mesmerizing. Her eyes remained closed as she felt for the Argentine’s lead. The dark-haired Scandinavian had moved to Buenos Aires with the sole purpose of dancing Tango - as do a surprising number of people who share this obsession - and she spent almost every waking moment dancing. She would dance until five in the morning, take Tango classes during the day, collapse for a short nap, then do it all over again. Marathon benders like that are supposed to require Keith Richards biography amounts of synthetic stimulants to sustain themselves. I haven’t met many people so fully liberated and enslaved by their passion, but in her case it seemed almost logical. The majority of her adult life had been handicapped by debilitating chronic lower back problems until an experimental surgery gave her a new lease on life; the second chance would not be wasted.
By my last day in Buenos Aires I had nearly succeeded in convincing Carlos to buy a last minute ticket and jump on the same overnight flight to Johannesburg. He had traveled in Africa before, but never with the freedom of a 4WD, and he was eager to get back. He was the kind of guy accustomed to buying last minute plane tickets and throwing together a light pack two hours before a flight, but in the end the demands of his small business won out. We shared a final lunch at a garden cafe behind the Evita museum in Palermo and I jumped in a taxi.
In the airport they sell Argentine beef in the duty free section, right next to the glossy boxes of Chanel No. 5 and Johnny Walker Red Label. I considered how good the prime rib might taste on a braai grill in the African bush in a few days time, but had enough details to manage, and passed it by.