Friday, September 28, 2012

Cogitations 1

Backlog: 8/12/12

Well, we all know what they say about the best-laid plans of mice and men…our Kickstarter having failed quite epically, and us not willing to give up on our plan for the trip, we were forced to re-route and consider our options.  Though I suppose that there’s any number of hundreds of little things that we could have done to network the campaign better—create a “Proverbial Thousand Miles” Facebook page, for instance (although the new working title we’ve been throwing around is “People Between Borders”, because a surprising amount of people had no idea as to either the Lao Tzu reference or what “proverbial” meant…hmph)—at the end of the day it’s really “who you know” with this sort of business. With a few much appreciated exceptions, the folks who WE knew that were very supportive of the project had no money, while those who had money tended to call the project a “bad business investment”. Of course, since penciling in “make rich friends” on your to-do list is not only superficial, but also just a teensy bit odious, we’ll just have to hope that we get enough of a fan following via this blog (and the upcoming film, of course) to fund our next venture. Until then, a long and wild ride it will be.
                However, not to be defeated, the three of us sat down to palaver one day. JJ and I were on the cat-piss-smelling couch in our crumbling, concrete, ex-servant-quarters downtown apartment in Queretaro, respectively nursing a cigarette and an Indio beer at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Aaron, seriously pushing his glasses up his nose and looking something up on Google every few minutes, was roughly two thousand miles away using the Wi-Fi in his mother’s basement. Thus began a serious discussion of our future.  
                First off, the trip could not be as long as we had been hoping. That was a plain fact, and unless one or all of us either magically became independently wealthy in the next month—or decided to run up a credit card bill that would make Paris Hilton snicker—we needed to downsize.  This downsizing also included the breadth of our journey…doing the same number of miles, but faster, was far more likely to result in us spending MORE rather than less money in an effort to get a decent idea of the places we were in. And of course, there was the fact that plane tickets purchased this late in the game were likely to skin us even more than usual. It was a dilemma that none of us felt good about, but that had to be addressed if we wanted to ever be anything more than “those guys” who were “gonna do that thing”. You know the type.
We talked about Columbia, and it actually got quite a few points before we finally scrapped the idea. Colombia is a beautiful country, and I really think that the general gringo perception of it isn’t quite fair (kind of like the general gringo perception of Mexico), but the fact remained that none of us knew much about what to expect there, and my general mantra continued to ring true—that there’s a giant difference between taking risks and being a dumbass. When that line is blurred, AND you are responsible for the lives and well-being of more people than just yourself, AND you have a general gap in knowledge and very few contacts in a place, it is generally a good idea to err on the side of less dumbassery. Chile and Argentina looked more attractive, both socio-politically and in light of the fact that we had more potential contacts in these places. However, the fact remained that any flights we took to those countries were going to cost an arm and a leg more than those to a closer country, due not in a small part to the time-frame we were working in. And of course, there is always the fact that, eventually, we had to think about getting back. That meant either a round-trip ticket to placate customs officials or some serious squirreling away during the voyage. We talked about getting as far south on the Panamerican as possible, trucking on South through the various Central American countries until we were forced to turn back. But of course, the fact remained that all of us were pretty obviously foreign, non-native Spanish speakers, and may not always be received in countries off the beaten path—general populace aside, it has been heard through the grapevine that the territory in and around that part of the world tends to be a popular hangout for the Mara Saluvatrucha, and that is one battleground we are woefully unprepared to enter. After more trips like this, quite possibly. Right now, no. We even tossed around the notion of not leaving Mexico at all, but simply traveling around our adopted country seeing all of those famed places that we’d been “meaning to” for the last year. Not a bad plan for another time, but it was so far afield of our original one that we let it fall by the wayside.
Of course, those of you geography/tourism aficionados are probably already impatient with my storytelling, because the obvious solution has been staring you in the face for some time now. Well, too bad…I’m building dramatic suspense, and won’t have it ruined by the snotty, well-travelled intelligentsia. For those of you who object to the term snotty, well-travelled intelligentsia, rest easy…I PROBABLY wasn’t talking to you. But watch your ass.
I digress. At any rate, eventually we hit on it…Peru. Starting in Peru and making a general tour of the country would take about 3 months, the legal limit for a foreign tourist visa from either the United States or France (although the fine for overstaying is about a dollar a day, so we weren’t too worried about the wrath of the Andes raining down on us were we to fudge a little on the regulations). Peru also has an amazingly rich cultural heritage, as well as one of the most diverse collections of climate zones in the world, which meant that there would be lack of neither interesting new places nor histories (in addition, of course, to the face-to-face intercultural exchange that is the whole point of our project) were we to spend a lot of time there. We were already seriously considering the idea of starting another, similar fundraising campaign (this one through Indiegogo rather than Kickstarter, since they’re a little more relaxed on both the type of project they allow and the all-or-nothing funding model…stay tuned for updates!) and figured that if it was successful, it would be easy to cross the border from Peru into Chile—possibly even Argentina, if fortune smiled on us. If not, we could still figure out how to survive on prayers and garbage cans for three months before flying back. We also decided to go ahead and throw down for a return ticket to Mexico City, both as a form of insurance (squirrelling away has never been my style) and due to the fact that the Peruvian government gets a little peeved if you don’t have some sort of a return option in place. Plus, in the infinite wisdom of the airline companies, tacking on a return via AeroMexico was only about $80 more—a small price to pay for legal immunity and peace of mind.
And so, the plan is in place—barring death, insanity, or the government randomly kidnapping me as a test subject with which to start a new Super-Spy program, we’re on our way*. We’ve got our tickets, and all of us are reading up a little on Peru so that we don’t arrive quite the blue-eyed babes we are now. I won’t lie—it’s a bit of a disappointment given our original idea. I decided not to delete the first post on this blog, even though there is now a flying subject change in the material, or old-times sake. However, I also understand that that way lays madness. It’s still pretty badass no matter how you slice it to bum around Peru without a plan for 3 months, and there is a lot that we can learn from this experience. Plus, a highly sensible friend of mine (the kind everyone manages to make at one point or another, but about whom they NEVER stop wondering how in God’s name someone that level-headed and nice managed to survive middle school intact) had the good grace to point out that, no matter what the difference, comparing the is with the might-have-been is both foolish and unfair. He told me to think of it like NASA…the reason they’ve managed to go so far is that they think of each and every one their missions as training exercises, leading to bigger and better horizons every  time.  Even the moon landings are anticipating the future.
Being compared to NASA made me feel pretty good. And so, as time ticks on closer and closer to the day when we kiss our ordered lives goodbye and throw ourselves into a journey worthy of the annals of history, I just keep remembering that the famous “Earthrise” photo has always made me feel big rather than small—whether you look at the world telescopically or microscopically, it is only in the act of looking that one remembers how beautiful it is.
And of course, there is the fact that guinea-pigs are among the most annoying mammals that have ever had the audacity to exist, and eating one sounds cathartic in the extreme. But that will be a story for a later time.

*Although, in all fairness, I HAVE instructed my intrepid gentlemen that in the event of me being kidnapped for a Super-Spy program, they are to keep on track AND keep this blog going.

Friday, June 22, 2012

In the Beginning...

Before we get properly started, with all the ups and downs and new experiences and bouts with sickness and random lodging and rideshares and other exciting contingencies that international travel can hold, I suppose I ought to tell you who we are, and why the hell I'm quoting Lao Tzu in a blog title. I'll try to make it brief, and to the point--literature is my first love in life, and I have been known to digress, but I haven't yet been accused of talking simply to hear my own voice. Besides, I disagree with Holden Caulfield--"David Copperfield crap" is sometimes extraordinarily useful for pathos, not to mention fun to rehash later in life (just look at the poetry you used to write in high school if you don't believe me--yeesh)

First things first. What is this blog about? Basically, it will serve as a record, commentary, guide to a journey that myself and two of my best friends are taking through the continent of South America. Our goal is twofold--on the one hand, having very little money, a passing familiarity with the Spanish language, and an insatiable thirst for vagabond-like behavior, we decided to throw in all bets and commence with the coolest thing that any of us has ever done. On the other, having a very real belief that ignorance and stupidity are the main causes of almost every human problem, we decided to make a handheld, cinema verite-style documentary of the trip in the process. This is to bring the experience back to those who could not live it themselves, for both entertainment AND to serve a serious purpose. In a globalized world, we need to act like world citizens, not like apes gibbering in separate trees and throwing things at one another. To be world citizens, to engage other cultures respectfully in ways that both acknowledge and respect differences, but without discrimination, appropriation, or a false sense of entitlement, is paramount to the future of both our world and our species. And the only way to do that is to GO, to become strangers in a strange land, to be a good representative of yourself and your people, and to meet other "kinds" of people in a real context. Gandhi once famously said that you must "be the change you wish to see in the world". This means that those of us who want intercultural awareness, understanding, and autonomy to replace racism, ignorance, and the (post)colonial mindset have a responsibility to one another. The exchange of information expunges stupidity, just as the exchange of culture expunges stereotypes. But I digress...I told you I would.

Santiago de Querétaro, Querétaro--the current home of Julien and I
Our approach to and goals within the project have evolved over time and planning, but the start of it all was quite simple. Julien and I were sitting outside the house one day, kicking an empty Coke bottle back and forth across the concrete and talking vaguely about the future--him about buying a house in Paraguay and starting a language school there, and me about the possibility of finding a scholarship and starting up my postgrad at a big European school, like Oxford, as much for my own benefit as to flip the bird to my tiny redneck hometown--when it dawned on me that these were rather lofty goals for the time being. Not impossible, mind you--I would never go that far--but somewhat vague and oscillating. Ever since I was old enough to understand that the world didn't end at the mountains, I have had an almost pathological desire to strap on a pack and "Jack Kerouac it" through the world and all it has to offer...hence the journeys I have taken thus far, including through the university. After all, not to sound preachy, mental terrain is just as challenging, exciting, and necessary as physical. Besides, finding a suitable vagabond-style travel partner, with the proper mixture of adventurousness and mental wherewithal, is more difficult than you would guess. We aren't new to international travel: he's French, I'm an American, we generally communicate in our lingua franca, Spanish, and this conversation was taking place in Querétaro, México, where we met and where we had both been working as language teachers at the local university. Long story short, I kicked the empty plastic bottle off to the side, looked him in the face and said "You know, bro, we could do something else. We've got good heads on our shoulders, and neither of us is ready to settle down just yet. When the semester ends, vamanós a la chingada [let's get the hell out of here]. We both want to see South America. Let's just go."*

"¿Vamanós? ¿Los dos?" ["Both of us?"]

"Si guey. Chinga su madre." ["Yeah dude. F*** it.]**

Our proposed route through the continent. Open to spontaneity, of course.
Me and Julien, gallavanting around Queretaro
From that moment on, we were hooked. It was his idea to make a documentary along the way--for my part (as much as I've realized after the fact how perfect of an idea that is, for all of the aforementioned reasons, as well as the possibility of making enough money to both pay back my student loan and to fund our next trip), at first I was ready to make the journey just for the sake thereof. Having no idea how to go about planning such a thing or making a movie, I asked all my old university contacts for advice (including a VERY helpful friend of mine in the film industry who heard about our plan, gently slapped us upside the head over Facebook chat for our hodgepodge approach, and pointed us in the right direction), made a promo video introducing the world to our plan, and began the delicate process of telling my various schools that I wouldn't be back to teach again next semester. Our third member, Aaron Grobman (another American, an old university friend of mine and quite possibly the most intelligent person I have ever met) joined our cause later. When I asked him why he wanted to be a part of the project, he shrugged and said "I have a lot of friends, doing cool things all over the world. I don't want to get old and just be that guy with the cool FRIENDS." Julien and I decided that that was as good a reason as any, and better than most. From there on out, we were three.

Aaron, apparently singing to a tree

The name of the project, as I mentioned before, comes from a quote that is quite possibly better-known than the man who said it: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step" (Lao Tzu). Our journey will be far more than a thousand miles, but the sense of the saying holds its own nonetheless. The sheer scope of our journey is astounding, and even as I sit here writing these words right now (at the risk of inspiring a derisive snicker from some of you reading this) I feel myself going a bit tharn and trembling at the sheer physical and existential weight of such a distance. But that is not important. What IS important is taking that step. We've committed, we've completed the delicate business of family-communication, and we'll be on our way in just a few short months...this project is a big deal, and come hell or high water, barring death or insanity, we're going to see it through to the end.***

*Like I said, most of the conversations that take place between me and JJ occur either in Spanish or a sort of Star Wars-esque Spanish-English combo. Think Hans Solo and Chewbacca --they speak different languages, but understand each other just fine in the midst of either an aerospace battle or a drink with the Twi'lek girls. I've translated most of the dialogue into English for your benefit, but there WILL be a lot of circumstantial Spanglish on this blog. Just to let you know.

**I learned Mexican Spanish, including all its colorful little aphorisms and bad words, with my Mexican friends "en la calle". As a result, I have a bit of a sailor mouth. I will do my best not to offend anyone, if you in turn do your best not to be Puritanical...there are worse things to worry about in this world than certain phoneme combinations that have been deemed "bad". For my general opinion on profanity, look no further than these two gentlemen, whom I often disagree with politically and yet have a certain unshakeable common sense on many topics.

***...which will be much, much easier, as I launch into the unpleasant but necessary business of fundraising, if any interested parties are willing to help us out. This is the link to our current Kickstarter campaign, with which we are trying our best to raise $10,000 by July 22. If you can see your way to donating even 5 or 10 dollars to our cause, it would be both appreciated and rewarded (literally--check out the page to see the rewards we created!). Getting money isn't the purpose of this blog, but it IS something that will help us immensely in carrying out the journey.