My favorite shitholes

My favorite shitholes

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, he told me, just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” -The Great Gatsby

Many years ago, I and a few other expats were hanging out in someone’s apartment in Erdenet, Mongolia, playing a game of “Why it sucks” with an inflatable globe our hostess had lying around. The gist of the game was that we’d toss the globe up and catch it, and wherever the catcher’s finger landed (I think we went with the right-hand index finger) we all had to say why that place sucks. It was usually pretty easy—I remember landing on Somalia, for examplebut sometimes we had to be creative, especially when our fingers landed on some of our favorite places. It wasn’t fair to say, “Hey, I like it there!” We had to provide a convincing reason for why that particular place was, basically, a shithole.

It wasn’t lost on us that Erdenet, the city we were in, could be described by some people as a shithole. Small, poor, and isolated, it basically is a shithole, at least by most measures. If Erdenet was a shithole, though, it was our shithole, and we loved it.

A Soviet-built cement smudge on an otherwise barren stretch of hills, Erdenet exists entirely because of its copper mine, one of the largest in the world, and the mine’s slag heap looms over the southern side of the city. It’s prettier than it sounds, though.

EPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image
I don’t know, I find this Main Street attractive in a Miami-of-the-Steppe kind of way.
EPSON MFP image
This was always my favorite street to walk on.

EPSON MFP imageEPSON MFP imageEPSON MFP image

EPSON MFP image
See, the slag heap is kind of pretty.

I spent a year in Erdenet, and spent a good part of my very expensive Internet connection regaling my friends back home with stories of my more most off-the-wall encounters. Like the time my friend’s cows starting grazing in front of City Hall and got sent off to cow jail. Or how I’d go to a restaurant and instead of asking for the menu I’d ask, “What food is there today?” and oftentimes the answer would be “None.” Or how my neighbor’s car would stall whenever it stopped, so instead of stopping he would just slow down as he approached intersections. I described how in the summer the ground was scorched, dry and crunchy, and in winter everything was covered in a thick layer of ice, and spring and fall didn’t really exist except that in April giant sandstorms would sweep up from the Gobi desert.

And when my contract was up, and I had to return home, my friends and family were shocked that I immediately started making plans to return. “That place sounds like a real shithole.”

Which it was. But fifteen or so years later, all of us who were there playing “Why it sucks” that day have all found reasons to go back, at least to visit.

My students were middle schoolers then, and are now all grown up. I follow them on Facebook, and occasionally we exchange emails. For kids that were growing up in a very isolated mining town on the edge of Siberia, they have done remarkably well for themselves. A few are doctors now, and there are some lawyers in the mix, too. One got a degree from the London School of Economics, worked in Singapore, and then returned to Mongolia to forge a small business empire. Another has apparently become a very successful fashion model.

My brightest student that year was the math teacher’s daughter. Her dad was a driver, which was a euphemism for “unemployed,” and they didn’t have much in the way of money, but it was a loving household and this girl was one of the most innately talented people I’ve ever met. It boggles my mind to imagine what she could have become had she grown up in an environment worthy of her abilities, exposed to all the best things the world has to offer, instead of, you know, a shithole.

She’s done quite well with herself, though. Now almost thirty, she lives in Seoul with her husband, where they operate (and possibly own—my language skills are weak) a boutique hotel. I catch glimpses of her life on Facebook, on vacation in Paris, at a family reunion in Ulaanbaatar, remodeling her kitchen, or gushing over her young son and his wacky baby adventures. Judging from what i can understand on the comments on her posts, I am not the only one who is proud and a little jealous of the life she’s made for herself.

She came to America once, about ten years ago when she still wasn’t sure which direction she would go in. She spent the summer working at a hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She didn’t say as much to me because she knew how much I love my industrial northeast, but clearly America was disappointing. Before she arrived she had talked about quitting her job early and spending a week or two exploring America; in the end, though, she finished her contract, pocketed her money and went home, and has never mentioned going back to the States.

She wouldn’t be the first to call New Jersey a shithole.

I like New Jersey, though. Not all of it, but it’s my kind of shithole. Then again, I’m a big fan of the Bronx, which is considered a world-class shithole. And my only complaint about Brooklyn is that it isn’t shitty enough anymore.

Come to think of it, many of my favorite places are, at least to some eyes, shitholes. I love Tajikistan, for example. I had a great time in a city called Qurghonteppa, even though my hotel was freezing cold in summer and the restaurant’s “continental breakfast” was a half a roll of store-bought cream-filled cookies arranged on a plate with a dry cucumber slice on the side (there was a much nicer restaurant across the street, which is probably why they didn’t bother preparing breakfast). I strolled through town with a local high school teacher who had been born there but grew up in East Germany, and returned home when he heard that his old school had so few teachers that it was going to close.

IMG_0283.jpg
This is the only picture in Qurghonteppa proper.

I was in Jaffna just a few months after the government of Sri Lanka began allowing tourists back in. I can see from pictures that the city has since been cleaned up and restored to at least some of its former glory, but when I was there it was a postwar shithole haunted by hollowed-out bullet-scarred houses. In the middle of the street not far from my hotel soldiers dug out a covered foxhole from which they pointed machine guns out onto whoever was walking up and down that street. I had dinner at the home of a friend of a friend, a human rights advocate who sent his family to Colombo and then London but stayed there himself to speak up for others. His house was quite spare, even by Sri Lankan standards, and he described some of the hardships he faced in his line of work; but it was one of the most elegant dinners I’ve ever had, and the deviled cuttlefish was hands-down the best meal I had in Sri Lanka. Jaffna itself, wounded as it was, remained a beguiling and beautiful place, and I kept thinking to myself that this without much work this could become one of the world’s most celebrated beach towns.

IMG_3730IMG_3760IMG_3761

IMG_3719
Without much imagination, this could be a very lovely resort town.

IMG_3682 copy.jpgThe world is a beautiful place. Just about all of it. Beaches are beautiful, whether they are sandy or rocky, or if the water is blue or gray. Forests are beautiful, tropical or otherwise. Rivers, lakes, wide open fields, rolling hills, endless plains—it’s all quite beautiful. The austere beauty of deserts have been celebrated, and even raw wastelands in remote areas. It’s all beautiful. Cities, too, whether they are ancient or ultramodern, enormous or dinky.

So what makes one place great and another a shithole? I suppose it’s the eye of the beholder; my father, for example, once turned down a trip to Venice because he saw a picture of laundry hanging from a window and decided that made it a “ghetto,” which is my dad’s preferred version of shithole. I love New York, but I know a bunch of people who dismiss the entire city and wonder how anyone could live there. Personally, I find those sprawling anonymous suburbs to be shitholes, but that doesn’t stop millions of people from moving there. I’ve heard people badmouth Prague, Japan, and all of southeast Asia. And they weren’t just playing a drinking game with friends and an inflatable globe.

So, again, what makes one place great and another awful? I think at the end of the day it’s the people. When I look back on all the places I’ve been, the ones that pull on me the most were the ones where I made the greatest friends. And honestly, if you aren’t making friends, maybe you are the shithole. I think about my genius Mongolian student, who took a hard pass on America and is now enriching South Korea, both with her money and her beautiful family. And my friends who took their skills away from Germany and London and brought their talent and greatness to some very difficult places.

I’ve been lucky to go to all these shitholes and learn that no matter where we come from, at the end of the day we are all people, for better or worse. But mostly for better. Some of us are shitty, and some are pretty awesome, and most fall somewhere in between. We laugh, love, suffer, and deserve respect, pretty much all the same. We are all trying our best. I’ve been very lucky, indeed, and I need to remind myself from time to time that not everybody has been so blessed, and while I can judge or be upset, at the end of the day I get my best revenge by planning another trip to another shithole, and making my world that much bigger and more beautiful in the process.

 

Advertisements

Chapter 17: Isabelle

Chapter 17: Isabelle

1.

He lied.

He lied. He lied.

I know when I’m being lied to. When Father said he’d stay this time. When Lady Falmouth said we were safe. When Mr. Percy said he’d stripped the flesh off my father’s bones. They all lied.

Father had cut it too close but he was still a step ahead of Tantibus. Mr. Percy couldn’t have captured him and tortured him and still been at the house to greet us in the morning. Father had escaped.

Unless the crows could travel through time, but if they could then this would have all ended long ago.

Continue reading “Chapter 17: Isabelle”

To the ends of the world

To the ends of the world

I was waiting for a coffee in the cafeteria and the TV was tuned to a news channel of the sort that I only ever only watch under duress or while waiting for an exceptionally slow barista to remember what exactly goes into a black americano. My thoughts drifted all around as they so often do—should I order pizza for dinner? is this room getting darker or is it just me? if I had three wishes, should I wish to be able to get away with murder, or should I wish to never think about murder to begin with?—when a long infomercial for Mauritius came on and I was transfixed.

I have never been to Mauritius, or even considered going there, and until a few minutes after that commercial ended I don’t think I even knew where Mauritius was (somewhere in the Indian Ocean, sure, but close to what?). However, I stayed on and watched even though my coffee had finally come and I did, officially at least, have things I needed to do. The commercial was all soft-focus and wide-angle and featured beautiful people doing all sorts of things that I would never do under even the best of circumstances, like attending a folk dance (because remember, folk dancing is stupid—or so I learned at 13 and it has, unfortunately, prejudiced my views for life), or hanging out in a bar late at night with potential sex partners (okay, the commercial didn’t exactly say that would happen, but it was implied; however, I don’t like staying up late and I don’t like crowds, so bars aren’t really for me).

But Mauritius looked beautiful, and I rushed back to my desk and starting researching trips there. Because, apparently, all I want to do is travel.

I know I complained about booking a trip to Jinja just a few days after returning from Amsterdam, but it turns out that the only pause I need between trips is a few days. I’ve already booked a trip to Murchison Falls next month, and rented a beach house on Cape Cod for the summer, and found a place to stay in Amsterdam on my way there (having seen it in winter, I now want to see it in summer). I have tentative plans to go to Ethiopia in April, London in October, and I feel like I’ve put off going to Zanzibar for long enough.

Can I afford all this? Strictly speaking, yes. Is it a responsible way to use my money? Probably not. That couple from Up spent their whole lives saving up for one trip and never took it, and yet here I am complaining that I’ve been cooped in my home (which is, by the way, in some exotic locale that I have no business living in) for almost two entire weeks now.

But I can’t help myself. I like my home life, and my job, and I have plenty of hobbies. It’s not like I have a lot of time to fill. I barely sleep, and my stack of books to read is almost overwhelming (though I have made some progress this week, in keeping with my non-new-year’s resolution). I came dangerously close to getting a puppy last week—while I was trying and failing to have an honest conversation with myself about whether or not I could be a responsible dog owner, I noticed that all the plants I bought at the Flower Expo last month are dead now, even the succulents and the bamboo, which really isn’t supposed to happen (so no puppy for me).

And I have long-term goals, too, that I need to save up for. And yet, here I am, figuring out yet another trip. It doesn’t have to be Mauritius. I would love to take a road trip across Europe, from Lisbon maybe to somewhere obscure in the east. I’ve never been to Japan. I am convinced that it is my destiny to start a Puerto Rican restaurant in Australia (or perhaps New Zealand; my friends here from both countries make a strong case, and if it’s possible to get a decent mofongo in either place my friends haven’t found it yet), but I’ve never been to either place so I figure I should go and decide for myself. And of course there are the wonders of Africa that I am well-positioned to explore. It’s just…I have to see it all.

Do I? Is it something wrong with me? And why the urge to go to such remote places? Why not Vegas? I wonder if all the doomsday predictions on the news have convinced me on some reptilian level that I need to go far, far away and ride out the storm.

Or maybe that coffee just took way too long.

Chapter 16: Julian

Chapter 16: Julian

I pulled the door shut behind me, and the fear that it would squeak made my toes curl. If it did squeak, though, nobody heard.

The church was dark and cool and quiet. The noises from outside only barely made it through the thick stone walls and registered in my ears as a low hum. The fires on the hilltop and on the torches were just flickers in the stained glass. Our footsteps made little echoes, except for Isabelle and her bare feet.

She was imploring Asa to go home. “This isn’t safe for you.” She crossed the sanctuary and looked out through the windows to the east, towards where Asa lived, but I doubt she saw much through the stained glass.

I hoped that Mother was safe. I looked up at the big wooden cross and thought about praying but somehow I didn’t think that whispering to a block of wood was going to help much, especially since the people who were trying to kill us had whispered to the same block only earlier today.

Black Shuck had helped us, but he was dead now. “He protects the innocent,” the bishop had said. That he existed at all, a spirit dog who haunted the Broads, I could accept only after having seen Tantibus up close.

Mr. Percy was dead. He had been dead for hundreds of years, perhaps. Lord Edmonstone. My own father? I shuddered to think that we were alone, Isabelle and I.

“Asa,” Isabelle commanded in her firmest voice, “don’t make me scold you. I am going to open the door and I need you to run home. Stay in the shadows, and go home as fast as you can.”

“No,” he said stubbornly. “I won’t go.” And he stomped away from her.

His stomps echoed. I could hear Isabelle’s feet shuffle on the stone ground. And I could hear something else.

Continue reading “Chapter 16: Julian”

I resolve to be more resolute

I resolve to be more resolute

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions, because when I was young somebody told me that they never work, and when you’re young you’re very impressionable. For example, I once heard one of the robots on Mystery Science Theater declare, “No matter what the culture, folk dancing is stupid,” and that has been my attitude to that ever since.

I do periodically challenge/force myself to improve myself, or at least address some of my shortcomings. Like one time I resolved to turn myself into a Roxy Music fan. Another time I took up yoga. Because I can now touch my toes and sing all the words to “All I Want is You,” I would say that these challenges I give myself are generally worth the effort.

But they aren’t new year’s resolutions, because I learned when I was six that those never work. It just so happens that when I looked in the mirror and decided that I needed to fix some issues, it was New Year’s Eve. Totally unrelated, though. I would have made these resolutions in October if I’d felt lousy enough then.

First and foremost, I need to read something. After getting off to a great start in January (Moby Dick and The Goldfinch—loved the first, gradually came to hate the second) I didn’t really do much over the rest of the year. A few short novels, mostly read during the summer, and none of them especially memorable; two books on Russian history (a package deal on eBay); and some Shakespeare that I really should have read a long time ago: that was it. Oh, and I only made it through one of those Russian books because I was the only person in the office and there was literally nothing else to do.

So I need to fix that.

I also need to write more. I was doing an amazing (for me) job at the start of the year (that whole a-short-story-and-a personal-essay-every-week thing), but then work—my actual job, that is—finally got going and I didn’t have time to spend twenty hours a week writing. I understand that there are limits, of course, but the fact is that I could do a lot more than I’ve been doing. I could spend less time on Reddit, for example, or just staring at my chickens. Sometimes I just walk around in circles thinking about how I don’t have time to do anything except walk around in circles.

Oh, and in the fall I developed a weird obsession with a game called Fire Emblem, because it let me send a bunch of warriors into battle, and they could fall in love and have children, and those children were also warriors, and so I could send a whole warrior family into battle, which was violent but still kind of sweet. Somehow this was appealing to me, and consumed most of my evenings. And no, it doesn’t make any more sense if you actually play it. It’s just weird. And time-consuming. (And, yes, fun, but whatever.)

So I’ve put away Fire Emblem and taken books off my shelf and put them in a neat little stack so they can taunt me whenever I’m in my living room, and I’ve ordered a bunch of fresh books so I can have something new to look forward to. I can’t tell you what they are, because I’ve already forgotten, but tonight I’m going to start reading either a book of Chinese poetry that I found at a book market in Amsterdam, or a history of Mediterranean pirates that I’ve been lugging around for way too long. I’ll decide over a glass of wine.

And this morning I woke up at three-thirty for reasons that I cannot understand, and instead of poking around on the Internet until sunrise I poured myself some coffee and did a bit of writing. Only three hundred words, but three hundred good ones, I think. I am pleased.

Of course I should also work on being healthier, kinder and more generous, and maybe getting my car’s oil changed more regularly. But right now, learning again how to read and write seem like admirable enough goals, new year be damned.

Nile sunrise

Nile sunrise

I woke up in time to catch the sun rise. All was silent except for the quiet chatter of unseen birds and the steady murmur of the river rapids. A handful of fishermen glided back and forth on the calmer stretches of water. Eventually I sat in the restaurant with a coffee and a book, until the sun woke everyone else up and they joined me. Not a bad start to the day.

Continue reading “Nile sunrise”

Happy New Year from the source of the Nile

Happy New Year from the source of the Nile

I returned from the relative cold of Amsterdam to find Kampala gripped by an unpleasant heat wave. I guess it didn’t rain while I was gone, and without me to water them my poor plants have suffered. To think I was only gone four days!

The warm weather, especially after that little taste of cold, has switched my mind into a summer’s-almost-here mode, as if I were twelve years old and it was the last week of May and I couldn’t wait to get out of school. I was driving around town yesterday with my iPod on shuffle, and it seems my iPod agreed, because the playlist was all summer music, offering up reggae, some salsa, classic R&B, and a bunch of uptempo pop hits (a little Leonard Cohen snuck in, too, but it worked.) If Lake Victoria wasn’t infested with hippos and parasites, I would have made a beeline for the beach.

Continue reading “Happy New Year from the source of the Nile”