Archive for September, 2007

Crisis in Burma

BEFORE I HEAD OUT I feel it’s necessary to at least write a short note about what’s going on in Burma (Myanmar) right now. The issue has been getting a good amount of attention from international media, but I fear that even with the world’s eye trained on the actions of authoritarian leader Than Shwe the situation will turn grim.

The latest report from the Bangkok Post says five people are feared dead after a clash between military and demonstrators, including one Japanese photojournalist who was shot. Another report says that roughly 100 Buddhist monks were rounded up and detained in Rangoon, the nation’s former capital.

From my limited understanding, the last time a pro-democracy movement rose up in Burma in 1988 nearly 3,000 people were murdered when the military fired into crowds of protesters (BBC). The Economist has a short history of the pro-democracy movement here, which is worth a read.

The sorry truth is that I’m really not sure what we can do as outsiders in this situation – but it is essential that we keep informed and speak out in any way we can. The people of Burma have long suffered under a regime that is both apathetic and murderous; this is the people’s inevitable uprising, and we cannot afford to sit idly by and see them crushed. For more updates on the situation from a culturally informed source check Fifty Viss blog, run by a Burmese-American student in California.

Eastbound Train (the last 2000 miles)

amtrak empire builder – seattle > chicago. photo by mrbula.

TOMORROW I HOP A TRAIN back to the Midwest. Back home I could say, knowing it might sadden my parents, but at least back to the place where I hang my hat. The place that I miss.

The ride from Seattle to Columbus, Wisconsin (the nearest station to Madison), will take about 42 hours. Not terrible. Except that I don’t have a sleeper car…the nights might be a little long, but I’m fundamentally against paying more for a train ticket than I would for airfare. I’ll just have to pack enough booze to knock me out properly as I’m sitting up.

But in all honesty, I’m looking forward to this final leg of the journey. Taking an extended train ride is a new experience for me and it will give a glimpse of yet another part of the country that I’ve left unexplored. Obviously since I didn’t bring a laptop this will be my only post for the next few days, which also means I’ll have plenty of time just to read, write and reflect. And listen to all the new stuff I packed on my iPod.

Happy travels all. Back in a few.

Poetry in the Pavement

view from a pint glass. vesuvio’s, sf.

WE’RE SCRAMBLING FOR CHANGE. A line of cars is queuing up behind us, and the Russian woman working the toll booth looks unforgiving. “Could ya help us out?” I ask, chagrined and holding one dollar less than needed for the toll.

“I cannot take less than five,” she replies, stone-faced with a thick accent. We don’t have five in cash, I say, so what then? “You will get a fine for thirty dollars mailed to you,” she answers. Sweet. Welcome to San Francisco.

The day is cloudy and I’m feeling a bit pissed from a seven-hour drive and the Golden Gate toll debacle. We park around the corner from a strip club – coincidentally adjacent to our hostel – plug the meter and lug our stuff up to the Green Tortoise. The employees at our hostel are changing shifts and so we just sit there while the meter runs. The woman working says we should just sit tight. “I’m just worried about the meter,” I say, tired and feigning patience. Well go feed it, she says.

We eventually get set up in our small room, and then go in search of a place to park the car for free. The key is finding a curb that won’t get streetcleaned until the day after we leave – we luck out at a place near Hayes Valley right next to a park. We pull our bikes out of the trunk, lock the doors, and hope the car will still be there six days from now. Then we ride away, down Grove and into the mad flowing artery of Market Street. It’s rush hour, and the feeling of blood moving in our legs after two days of driving is good enough to make us feel a little crazy. It’s car-avoidance meditation. In between and around. Pedal. Concentrate. Pedal.

We hit the Embarcadero – the main road on the northern waterfront – and whip around to Broadway. We hit a couple good-sized hills and push up them with all we have. I’m gushing sweat. We wheel in front of the hostel sucking air and feeling a great high of endorphins, buzzing with excitement of being someplace new. My bad mood has worn off. We take the bikes up to our room and then hit the street again in search of food. We’re in North Beach so it’s got to be Italian fare, we decide.

On a Wednesday night North Beach (aka Little Italy) is pulsing, and suave Italian men are out luring potential customers into their restaurants. A couple try their bit on Nick and I, but our thin wallets are more persuasive. After touring a few blocks I bust out the trusty NFT Guide and find that “Steps of Rome” should have a solid meal and only has two dollar signs next to it. But when we get there it seems a little spendy – is a little spendy – but the Italian guy is selling it really hard and we give. “Fuck it, it’s our first night.”

Bellies full and wallets stung, we step outside. The fit, grey-haired Italian man who ushered us in the door asks us how our meal was – Great, we say. Then he says something about going out to find women. “How is the pussy in this city?” he asks. We laugh, not quite believing that a 50-some-old man just said that, and then say we wouldn’t know anything about it (both attached men).

Then we see it. Right next door to “Steps of Rome” is “Steps of Rome Caffe,” the stripped-down, less romantic, less expensive version of the place we just ate at. Damn.

We meander down Columbus to find ourselves at Vesuvios, the favorite watering hole of Jack Kerouac. The alley that runs between the bar and City Lights bookstore (also a famous beat haven) is even called “Jack Kerouac Alley.” Steel letters sunk into the pavement of that alley tell quotes of Kerouac’s and other writers.

Nick and I sit in the second floor of the bar and sip on our pints. He takes a phone call outside and so then I just sit there and feel kind of inspired. Kerouac was just a person who sat in this bar, I think to myself, and who wrote. I take out my journal. A gorgeous cacophony of conversations drifts from the cozy wooden tables and out into the neon city night.

(Next: More San Francisco…)

Past the Nowheres of America

NICK ROLLED IN AROUND 1:30 p.m. at the train station in downtown Portland. Wearing a plain white t-shirt and shorts he looked happy as hell to be out of dodge – the past week had been rough. We picked up his bike from the checked luggage counter, threw it in the back of the car and then dipped out of the station parking lot, over the Burnside bridge and into a little Deadhead pub in Hawthorne for sandwiches and drinks. He ordered a double gin and tonic, I ordered a 12oz glass of beer. I was driving, I guessed.

Our bellies full of food and excitement, we blasted out towards Highway 26. About ten miles out we shifted to the 6, and finally onto the 101 Coastal Highway. Around us clouds crept over the pine-tree hills like fingers running through hair. We took the road fast, and corners even faster it seemed, ’cause we didn’t want to set up our tent in the dark. But as we plowed South the night fell, along with the fog, and we slowed our pace trying to see where the road was.

Just past the small town of Florence, Ore., there is Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park – and there were plenty of campsites to be had for a mere $17. We set up the tent by lamp and car headlights, staked it down and then jetted back into town for burgers at A&W. The guy taking our order says we might have to go out the backdoor after we eat. Why, I ask, what time do you guys close? “Nine o’clock, only probably not any more,” he says, understandably surly. It was 8:45. But we weren’t the only customers, and we were starving enough not to really care whether this guy got off a few minutes early.

We bought firewood, chips and beer and headed back to the campsite. Glistening stars above, we blew our outside world concerns into the embers of the fire. Three drinks each and a couple makeshift pillows was enough for us to knock out until the grey morning light. We had eggs and bacon at a little house-turned-diner called Pauline’s Place – a few genteel local couples eyeing our unshaved, unshowered appearances confusedly – before we were on the road again.

Nick and I marveled as we barreled down the 101 how much of the country is really just small towns and nowheres. Indian reservations and trees, trailers and coastline. Old town centers trainwrecking with Targets and Wal-Marts. As we sailed to the fringes of Eureka, CA, a couple scrungy guys sat with a sorry piece of cardboard reading, “Get us out of this shit hole.” All I could do was wish them luck.

We saw a curious number of groups of hitchhikers as we drove through Humboldt county – supposedly famous for it’s huge crops of marijuana. I felt like I was back in the 60s as we rolled past their dusty faces, back when the roads were filled with rucksack wanderers. But who were these kids? Where were they trying to get to?

Our destination the second night was Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and we got there just early enough to set up camp and enjoy the scenery before darkness fell. The trunks of the trees were massive, one base sometimes giving life to three or four separate trees. Just across from our site six guys in their thirties and forties rolled in on touring bicycles and set up camp – I couldn’t help but feel a bit like a wuss for driving. But cycling the West Coast would’ve been an entirely different kind of journey…it was enough to have our bikes for urban touring this trip.

We rose pretty early the next day (Nick feeling a bit hungover) and rolled out towards San Francisco. The redwood forest sprawled endlessly around us for miles and miles until we hit the grassy rolling hills that are so characteristic of northern California. Somewhere in between we paused just to soak it in – to take in a moment of stillness, of not driving. We stood there feeling entirely free and far away. We breathed. We belted up and took off.

(Next: San Francisco)

Photos from a Journey

view entire set on flickr. stories to come.

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September 2007