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Americans Divided?

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“We think that we are so divided in the United States, but when we sit here in this airport and look around we can’t tell who is who. That’s not really so divided.”

My brother in law said this to me as we sat in a food court eating cheap Mexican fast food at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. He was right. The divisions and polarizations that the United States currently believes it is experiencing is not even close to countries that are truly divided.

There are many countries where contending social factions look completely different from each other, have radically different histories, and speak entirely different languages. You walk into room and you can easily tell who is who.

Whether we wish to admit it, Americans are all bonded by an overarching identity. When I first heard someone say this long ago before I began traveling I thought he was nuts — “Of course I’m completely different than them!” I believed. But ultimately I was almost exactly the same as those who I targeted as “them.”

The cultural divides in the United States are relatively thin. Politically, both sides of the line are essentially the same: tribalistic, moralistic, biased-news-loving boneheads who go out into the street, hold signs, and kick and scream whenever they don’t get what they want.

This is what Americans do.

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My Uncle Went To The Moon

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My uncle has a tattoo of fucking Saturn or something on his arm. One day when we were kids my sister asked him why he had it. He told her that everybody who’s been to the moon has a tatoo like that. He told her that he used to be an astronaut. She believed him. She believed him so much that the next day of school she sheepishly approached her teacher and told her that she had a special message for the class to hear. She proceeded to get up in front of everyone and proudly proclaim that her uncle had been to outer space and had visited the moon, no less.

Of course, her uncle hadn’t really been to the moon or even to outer space, for that matter — he just had a tattoo of fucking Saturn or something.

I was reminded of this story when I told my seven year old daughter that her great uncle was one of the inventors of the atomic bomb. The difference was that what I told her was true. But if my daughter really did go in front of her class and deliver this message I’m sure she’d probably be laughed out of the room, as my poor sister was in the third grade.

I haven’t yet explained to her that her great grandfather — the old guy that we go out to the coast to visit on Sundays — won a Presidential Medal of Science, a MacArther Genius Award, and was part of a group that won a Nobel prize for discovering human-impacted rapid climate change, cutting world hunger in half, and coming up with key protocols for disaster relief.

But, then again, telling my daughter this would hardly receive a shrug. It’s not like he has a tattoo of fucking Saturn or something.

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Puerto Rico Vacation Ends

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My week long vacation to Puerto Rico has come to an end. I’m on a flight to Boston. In two weeks I should be heading back out to Central Asia. Back to work.

I couldn’t imagine a better vacation. The kids had fun on the beach, everybody got along, everybody did what they wanted to do.
We essentially just rented an apartment on the beach and let everyone go wild. There were no programs, no tours, no schedules, no obligations. One day we drove to the rain forest, and that was it for organized activities. We all just kind of hung out with each other, all doing our own respective version of nothing — I wrote, my one and a half year old ate sand, everyone else sat in a row reading their novels.

We returned to San Juan the day before our flight and the same went there. I played in the pool at the hotel with my seven year old and then just walked around the old city.

I was able to do enough work to get through the day — I don’t have the type of job where days off are realistic — and then went out and played. Although I have to admit that I relaxed as well.

It was a real vacation.

 

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On Cultural Appropriation

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“One thing that I would really get mad if everyone appropriated is challah bread,” my wife said.

I didn’t say anything.

When two groups meet one of the first things they do is copy each other — each side takes what they find useful, beautiful, or trendy and incorporate it into what they make and do. This is one of the main mechanisms through which cultures evolve — and cultures are always evolving.

It’s normal, so normal, in fact, that looking at the ways which one culture replicated the art and technology of another is one of the main ways that archaeologists produce models of who cultures interacted with, where they went, and something about the dynamics of what they did.

The flows of intercultural influence that can be seen via copying is a clear sign of power dynamics.

When a weaker culture takes from a stronger one it demonstrates a form of reverence, obedience, or simple practicality — if someone does something better you should copy it.

But is that really appropriation? Not really.

When the Roman empire was in decline there are reports that it was trendy for youths to go around wearing the clothes of “barbarians” in the name of rebellion, fashion, cuteness.

That’s appropriation.

The difference? Power dynamics.

The power of an alpha culture is bolstered when it is the copied and when it is the copier.

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I kind of resist getting on the new trends in travel. I have my old ways, they work, and I seldom have any real need to change them. But once in a while something comes up that rattles everything. Short-term apartment rental sites, like Air B&B, or those like Booking.com which offer short-term apartment rentals has been such a disruption.

Renting out apartments for a month or two has always been one of my common travel practice, but using short-term rentals sites to find them is something new — you used to have to look on bulletin boards in cafes and supermarkets to find them.

Some years ago this practice also wasn’t that common. Few travelers were really doing this, and it was very easy to get nice places dirt cheap.

Now that this practice has become widespread and there are people all over the world renting out their unused homes to travelers — and obtaining homes just to rent out — travel is being changed.

Short-term apartment rental sites are now allowing large amounts of travelers to stay in places they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. There is usually a distinction between tourist / commercial zones and residential. Short-term apartment rental demolishes this division. Almost inherently, apartments are in residential areas where people actually live. These were for the most part no-stay zones for travelers showing up in places where they don’t know anybody.

When you travel you basically need three fundamental services: transportation, food, and, if you’re not just camping, accommodation. Ultimately, you can get transportation to just about anywhere. Everybody eats, so anywhere that has people is also going to have food. The element that’s keeping a broader swath of the world at bay from travelers is accommodation. The places of the world that have hotels and hostels and guesthouses is just a sliver of the total places available.

Short-term apartment rental essentially puts more places on the travel map. New towns and parts of cities are being opened up to visitors that were basically closed before due to a lack of accommodation and a reason to go there.

My family and I never would have stayed on the beach in Vega Alta in Puerto Rico if it wasn’t for the apartment that we rented there via Air B&B. There were no hotels. We probably never would have known the place even existed.

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Vega Alta, Puerto Rico

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VEGA ALTA, Puerto Rico- It’s a soft sand beach with deep blue waves flapping gently against it. The sun is shining, a slight breeze. There is a broken down beach bar on one side and a broken down beach bar on the other side. There is a clutch of derelict beach houses, a few luxury ones. 500 meters away is a national park with trails that wind through a small forest that hugs a rocky shoreline. I’m told that there are giant lizards over there but I never saw one. I watch some local kids have a sandball fight. One runs over my one and a half year old daughter. I’m drinking a six pack of Coronas that I bought from the shitty grocery store around the corner that seems to be the only place to get food. It seems to be the style here to blast music from your car as loud as you can — the louder you can make it the cooler you can think you are. The people here are a mix of locals, what seems to be long-term seasonal visitors from elsewhere, and those who came over from San Juan 20 minutes away.

I can’t argue with this place. Who could?

I suppose I have to admit that I’m on a beach vacation. I’m suppose I’ve been on these before, but I never called them that. When I used to focus on writing about the traveling lifestyle I used to call this work. Seriously. It seems ridiculous now. Work is going into the depths of some half-developed middle-of-nowhere and trying to figure out what’s going on. Sitting on a beach in Puerto Rico watching my kids play feels like coming in from a storm — just what a beach is supposed to feel like.

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Family Arrives In Puerto Rico

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My daughter sees me standing at the doorway at the baggage claim at the airport in San Juan. Her face lights up, she yells “Dada!,” runs for me, and jumps in my arms. A few moments later little one and a half year old Rivka wobbles out and yells “Hi dada!” She hugs my legs. At the rental car station she roves around still yelling “Hi dada!” over and over, sometimes running across the place back to me to hug my legs again.

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve seen them last. I’ve been in Central Asia doing research for a new book. They really miss me when I’m away.

Something about this tells me that I’m at least doing something right.

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Arrival In Puerto Rico

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — I arrived in Puerto Rico yesterday. I never been here before and I’m not sure why. It’s a hundred dollar flight from New York or Boston — I figure I would have just said fuck it and hopped on a plane down here at some point before nearly reaching year 18 of my travels. I don’t need a passport to go to Puerto Rico and I can stay for as long as I want. Apparently, it’s a part of my country, a self-governing part of my country, a territory — an archaic leftover from another era.

My next book may be about territories — what are these places and why do they still exist?

I was expecting typical Latin America in Puerto Rico but I got something that actually should have been what I expected: a strange hybrid of Latin Caribbean and the USA.

I spent many years traveling between Mexico and Patagonia, tying in the Dominican Republic and Haiti every once in a while. I know this region rather well, but San Juan surprised me: it looked and felt like normal Latin America . . . without anybody in the streets.

I couldn’t shake this fact all day yesterday. The houses, the people, the music were all the same, but the street life was that of some South Florida suburb. It just didn’t exist.

I was staying in the “real city,” not Old San Juan, and the place was dead. You go to Miami…anywhere in the Latin realm of the world, and the street life is vibrant, these places are happening. You walk down the street, see interesting things, talk to people, and usually find yourself having a series of unexpected encounters. In San Juan all I found on the streets was myself, two junkies, and a screaming schizophrenic. Everybody else was in cars.

It was almost startling. The streets here didn’t seem particularly dangerous, just vacant.

I eventually wandered down to the university area, and found myself relieved — it was the Latin America that I remembered. Good action everywhere. I drank beer on a sidewalk patio and watched the scene as it rolled by. Music was blasting out of every window and doorway. College kids were drinking $1 beers in circles of friends. Local drunks leaned against the railing that served as the barrier between the bar and the street. A group of fat men were getting drunk out in front of the laundromat next door. I felt as if I returned.

It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled in Latin America.

I remember a walk that I took with my wife on the outskirts of San Cristobal in the beginning of 2012 where we made the decision to leave Mexico and go to China. We considered just staying there — life was easy, life was good — but there was something else that we wanted. A challenge, perhaps — jobs that actually paid something, a shot at a career. Mexico is excellent for 20 year olds looking to drink beer and score and for old guys … looking to drink beer and score. For anyone in between there isn’t much happening.

We left Mexico and everything changed. I began a project that got me my first book deal, I started writing for a Hong Kong newspaper. I suppose I could say that I earned my bonafides as a traveling writer. None of that had to happen. None of it was expected. None of it could have been planned for. I was in the right place at the right time working on the right project.

I wonder what would have happened if we stayed in Mexico.

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I was a real pain in the ass for my publisher, rejecting multiple covers for my next book. However, my steadfastness seems to have worked to both of our benefits, as they’ve come up with something that I feel is pretty good. Below are five options for the cover of “On the New Silk Road,” which should be out . . . someday. Please indicate in the comments below what one you think we should go with.

#1

#2

#3

#4

#5

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They are setting up the camera in a lobby of a five star hotel. They are playing with the lights, getting the levels right for the audio. They’re doing this for me. I will soon be sitting in front of that camera, those lights will soon be shining on me.

There is something about this that I like. The feeling I have when preparing to do these appearances isn’t fear, anxiety, or even nervousness, but some odd mix of appreciation, disbelief, and, yes, curiosity.

Appreciation because there are people who want to hear what I have to say — so much so that they are going to film me and put it on television. You often spend years researching and writing about something and nobody you know wants to hear you talk about it. You irritate your wife, bore your kids, find your friends rapidly changing the subject. You do these projects that you think are fascinating, ground breaking even, and it drives you mad that nobody wants to hear about them. Then you publish your book and all of a sudden everybody starts listening. Your work becomes the topic of conversation. People suddenly want to hear your stories. Crowds line up to listen to your talks. Radio personalities ask you questions. TV crews film you. You’re just saying the same things you’ve always said, the only difference is that you have been switched on. Once you understand how fine of a line it is between people not giving a shit and people caring about what you have to say, it becomes very easy to truly appreciate the latter.

Disbelief because it was such an improbable journey for me to get here. What, you want to talk to me? Seriously? Do you know that I’m just a fucking vagabond? It has been years that I’ve been doing these television and radio engagements but I still have this reaction. What kind of strange, upside down world is this that mere vagabonds are being called upon to share their analyses and narratives of major global developments with the world? The absurdity keeps me from taking these engagements — or myself — too seriously, and this takes the pressure off. I came up from the bottom; seeing how far I can get is tantamount to a game. This keeps everything fun.

Curiosity because I have no idea what’s going to happen. What are they going to ask me? What am I going to say? Am I going to kill it or bomb? I want to find out too.

Ultimately, before I sit down in that chair I know that if I do well, I do well; if I don’t do well then I have some funny, self-deprecatory story to tell. Either way, I kind of win something.

While I’m not going to say that I’m exceptional at these types of media engagements yet — I still have much to improve upon — I will say that I at least have something to work with. I feel comfortable. I like people looking at me. I enjoy walking into a room and having everybody turn their heads. I feel in control when I’m the focus of attention. I understand that this is probably one of the biggest assets that I have as a writer.

Writing is not a job for hermits.

When I got my first book deal I realized that I would need to go out and promote the book once it was published. I realized that I would need to get up on stage and sit in front of cameras. I have to admit that this inevitability left me a touch mortified. I’d never really done anything like that before. So I began studying; I began practicing. I used to watch videos of authors giving talks and being interviewed. I was amazed that nearly every single one seemed incredibly proficient at this — they all seemed comfortable, they all seemed incredibly cool. I understood that if I couldn’t find a way to do this too my days as an author would likely be numbered.

We have this vision of the writer as this loner, this awkward misanthrope sitting off in the woods or in an empty apartment somewhere. This generally isn’t true. The writer is often a person stricken with the awareness of their own inadequacy, stricken by the awareness of their own unrequited sense of grandeur. Attention is fuel in the tank.

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