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The Geopolitically Pivotal Border Town of Palomas, Mexico

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Driving south from Albuquerque on I-25 is a surprisingly relaxing experience; unlike in Texas or Florida one can drive with the window down without breaking into an uncontrollable sweat. The desert landscape has a calming effect as I keep to the 75 mile-per-hour speed limit, blaring the country music (as always). In my mind, I laugh about the ridiculousness of driving four and a half hours to Puerto Palomas, Mexico. After all, it is a town that will likely be completely as advertised; it is a gritty, dusty, border town, one that a shoddily done Chinese documentary warns is becoming a “ghost town”. Still, due to my love for pivotal geopolitical regions, I know that I have to see it for myself.

 

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Southbound I-25. Image Courtesy Of The Author.

 

Staring out into the stark desert landscape while keeping a rented Nissan between the lines I realize that this is a good chance for me to clear my head after taking care of my father for the last month following his heart surgery. I liken this drive to one I took six years ago from Austin Texas to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, after feeling the need to get away from it all for different reasons. For generations, Mexico has provided an escape from reality for Americans and today I am no different than Jack Kerouac. This famous “escape from reality” has been embraced by country music stars who often sing about Mexico’s border towns in terms of “escape from reality” (Kenny Chesney’s Beer in Mexico and Charlie Robison’s New Year’s Day are two good examples of this phenomenon).

Even if heart surgery and aging parents are the reality, I reason that my journey might also be an escape from banality itself. Albuquerque, New Mexico is—like all the towns I’ve lived in in the United States (Providence, RI; Boulder, CO; Austin, TX; or Gainesville, FL)—full of the familiar sites of extreme consumption that all Americans know: the one street lined with a Target, a Wal-Mart, a McDonald’s, a Burger King, and maybe a Home Depot or a Wendy’s thrown in for good measure. In the end, however, it makes the outskirts of many American cities indistinguishable from one another. While this offers a sense of security for many—which I understand—it is also extremely boring (to me at least). Perhaps this is why I have always sought out the oddest of destinations in my life, from Tashkent to Tangier . . . and now Palomas.

Of course, escaping banality (or reality) comes with a price: the sense of “danger”, whatever it may mean. The United States Department of State “warns U.S. citizens about the risk of traveling to certain parts of Mexico due to the activities of criminal organizations in those areas,” specifically:

 

Chihuahua (includes Ciudad Juarez, the city of Chihuahua, Ojinaga, Palomas, Nuevo Casas Grandes and Copper Canyon): Criminal activity and violence remains an issue throughout the state of Chihuahua and its major cities. Travel between cities only on major highways and only during daylight hours.

 

On 7 July 2017, the U.S. consulate in Juarez, Mexico, said “There is a likelihood of additional violence among drug cartels in the areas of Palomas, Janos, and Nuevo Casas Grandes. Information indicates this uptick in violence is likely to continue through the near future.” Interestingly, the department of state has a similar warning for my other country, Turkey: “Carefully consider the need to travel to Turkey at this time, and avoid travel to southeast Turkey due to the persistent threat of terrorism”. Of course, to me this sounds comical. Yet, this kind of fear is a reality for many in the United States. I recall my dentist, as well of one of my father’s nurses in the hospital, inquire as to whether or not I was afraid to travel to Turkey to do research for my PhD because “it is so bad over there”. This kind of detachment from the world—from “reality”—is harmful to Americans (something I have written about in the past), and thinking about the similarities between Palomas and Turkey (in the eyes of the U.S. Department of State) makes me chuckle as I drive past the exit for Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. It is a fitting name; if the warnings of danger are the “truth”, what will the consequences be?

 

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Truth…Or Consequences? Image Courtesy Of the Author.

 

These are my thoughts as I exit off I-25 to Hatch, New Mexico, home of New Mexico’s famous green chiles, before continuing on to Deming and, ultimately, the border. After crossing under the I-10 underpass and passing through Deming I realize that I am the only car heading south on two-lane U.S. route 11 to Columbus, NM. The vast amount of emptiness is shocking and I wonder how people can live in the glorified no man’s land that follows the length of the U.S./Mexico border.

 

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Its a Half Mile to Mexico Amidst the Emptiness. Images Courtesy Of the Author.

 

As I near the border I head into a small parking lot that (apparently) used to serve a duty free shop; it looks all but abandoned now. Outside sits a golf cart adorned with an American flag, waiting to carry travelers across the border. The clientele waiting for the ride says a lot about the broken healthcare situation in the United States, since one of Palomas’ main draws is the availability of cheap prescription drugs and cheap dental care. Judging by the enduring lure of Palomas, Obamacare has not been as successful as its proponents may claim; that American citizens should seek dental care in another country—to combat the rising insurance costs in the United States—is unfortunate to say the least.

 

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Derelict Duty Free. Image Courtesy Of The Author.

 

I cross the border into Mexico with little fanfare, no one seems interested in me as I emerge onto what is…a dusty main street. Somehow, I am not surprised. Palomas is basically a single street headed south, the side streets branching out to the left and right give way to sandy desert after a couple blocks, constrained by the border fence (which is not quite a wall). Crossing the border the first thing travelers see is the Pink Store, an emporium of hand-made Mexican souvenirs that also doubles as a cross-border cultural exchange according to the Albuquerque Journal. Unfortunately, due to border violence from 2009-2011, most of the other stores in Palomas seem to have fallen on hard times.

 

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The Borderline (Top); The Pink Store (Middle); A Dusty Border Town (Bottom). Images Courtesy Of the Author.

 

I walk down the dusty main drag for a few blocks, past pharmacies and discount dental offices, before returning toward the border in order to exchange twenty dollars for Mexican Pesos. Local money in hand, I go to indulge in the kind of cultural exchange I came for: Mexican food. I head down the first side street headed west, parallel to the border fence, and find a small taco stand. I order off the chalkboard menu in my rudimentary Spanish—learned in West San Antonio—which fails miserably. Luckily a patron asks me, in English, what I would like and kindly translates for me. Apparently they have run out of barbacoa, so I choose a bean and cheese taco instead. As I wait I learn that the lady who translated my order lives in both Columbus and Palomas; though she is clearly Mexican the blonde blue eyed little girl with her looks like what many would call “American”. It is an example of the population mix that makes border areas so fascinating.

 

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Pharmacies and Decaying Buildings Define Palomas, as Well as Some Interesting Street Art. Such Is the Melting Pot of the Border Town. Images Courtesy Of the Author.

 

Sitting down to enjoy my taco with a view of the border fence, I can’t help but think about the illegal immigration debate in the United States. On 5 June 2017 CNN reported that two thirds of the 700 children at Columbus elementary school—on the U.S. side of the fence—live in Palomas. They are children of illegal immigrants who were born in the U.S. before their parents got deported. Because of New Mexico’s state constitution which provides a free education for all U.S. citizens, these children are bussed across the border every day for school. Given the current political climate, outlets like The Atlantic are worried that the election of Donald Trump will change everything on the border.

 

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Tacos With a View Of the Border Fence. Image Courtesy of the Author.

 

To me, the entire debate about illegal immigration seems absurd to say the least. After all—as Palomas shows so clearly—nations have boundaries. I was not able to order my tacos in English because…Spanish is the language in Mexico; it is not the United States. And that is ok, because Mexico is its own sovereign nation. That nations should enforce their boundaries seems—to me at least—very normal. Some accuse people like me, who believe in borders, of being “cruel” or “lacking compassion”. To me such claims lack validity not only because the term “compassion” is relative, but also because in order to understand the situation on the border people must actually visit, interact with people, and be able to empathize. To opine on (southern) border politics from Boston or Seattle (both extremely liberal cities by U.S. standards) is useless, it is an exercise in building moral superiority at best. Two AP journalists who travelled the length of the U.S./Mexico border put it well:

 

What we’ve found, from the near-empty migrant shelters of Tamaulipas state in Mexico to the drug-running corridors of the Sonoran desert, is a region convulsed by uncertainty and angst, but rooted in a shared culture and history unlikely to be transformed by any politician, or any barrier man can construct.

 

Borderlands certainly do have a mind of their own and it is unlikely that a single politician can change that. One of my favorite trips to a border town was to Yuksekova in Hakkari province in southeast Turkey. As the biggest town in a province that borders both Iran and Iraq, Yuksekova represents the meeting point of Turkish, Persian, and Arab culture (not to mention the ethnic Kurdish majority in the province). It is the kind of real diversity that has survived the Ottoman and Safavid empires as well as the modern nation states of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq; it is not the kind of manufactured diversity that typifies urban areas in “Western” civilization. In a sense, Yuksekova—like so many borderlands—is a timeless place. Palomas is no different, but to understand it one must understand people. And that means empathy.

 

While the fact that students from Palomas (who are American citizens) are educated in schools across the border is celebrated by media outlets like CNN and The Atlantic, there are others who disagree, and for good reason. American taxpayers are paying money to educate students from Palomas while the families of the students from Palomas are . . . not paying anything (since they live in another country and are not required to pay taxes to the United States). Of course this is an absurd situation, and one that residents of towns on the U.S. side of the border have every right to be upset about. That this situation is absurd should not be a surprise to anyone, it just takes a little bit of empathy to see things from the perspective of taxpayers in towns like Columbus, NM and Deming, NM.

Similarly, the debate about illegal immigration often devolves into an inquest on the morality of those who dare oppose it. Personally, I believe that illegal immigration is unfair to everyone, not only to residents of the United States, but also to legal immigrants to the United States regardless of their country of origin since illegal immigrants essentially “cut in line”, so to speak. But these are not the only two groups who are treated unfairly by illegal immigration: the illegal immigrants themselves are also treated unfairly. A tragic news story from 24 July 2017 details how ten illegal immigrants savagely died in the back of a truck while being smuggled/trafficked into the United States. If laws regarding illegal immigration in the United States were more strict—and if sanctuary cities (like San Antonio) did not exist—it is possible that this needless tragedy could have been avoided. Had the likelihood of apprehension—and subsequent deportation—been apparent, it is possible that ten human lives would not have been needlessly lost in the back of a semi parked in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Sadly, the politicians are not asking the right questions and we are likely to see more needless deaths in the name of “diversity”; no-one can try to empathize with those in the truck in order to see why encouraging illegal immigration is far from the moral high ground.

After finishing my up my taco I pay and the lady says, with a voice of resignation, “its cheap here”. I can’t help but feel for her and this broken community. I ask her about sites to see in Palomas and she directs me to the museums on the American side, in Columbus, because Palomas’ museum has closed down, likely because of the violence. Disappointed, I ask for a restaurant recommendation and I am directed to an amazing place. Although some patrons laughed at my West San Antonio Spanish when I ordered, I can honestly say that the steak quesadilla was one of the best I’ve ever had—on either side of the border.

 

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If You Every Find Yourself In Palomas, Support Local Businesses and Find Yourself Eating Here. Image Courtesy Of the Author.

 

Walking away from my meal I am disappointed that border violence keeps travelers away from Palomas; without traveling people will never be able to empathize with the hard working individuals whose lives depend on a functioning border culture. Without traveling, these same people will be left dependent on the news of CNN and The Atlantic, who look to sell a story by capitalizing on the tears of a little girl without acknowledging how illegal immigration and drug violence hurt both the United States and Mexico: Mexico gets rid of its lower classes, sending them to the United States, while the United States benefits from an influx of cheap labor. Unfortunately, this kind of illegal immigration does nothing but harm to the honest working class people on both sides of the border; both Mexicans and Americans are hurt by the failure to enforce border security. As if to prove my point, the abandoned shell of an aborted casino appears in front of me, its construction abandoned due to instability. As I explore the rain starts to come down and the streets of this dusty border town begin to turn to mud. I decide to cross back to the United States, passing the Mile 0 sign.

 

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The Aborted Casino (Top); The Once Dusty Streets Turn Muddy (Middle); Mile 0 and Speed Limit 5(!) (Bottom). Images Courtesy Of The Author.

 

Inside the Customs and Border Patrol building I am the only traveler subject to interrogation.

“Where are you going?”

“Albuquerque, New Mexico.”

“Where did you come from?”

“Rhode Island.”

“That’s a long way…why did you come here?”

“Pure…curiosity.”

“Curiosity? What’s in that bag? Did you purchase any drugs, alcohol, or tobacco?”

“No sir…its just some souvenirs from the Pink Store.”

The customs official has heard it all before and he waves me through. As I amble to the parking lot I take one last look at the border fence. After this short interrogation at the border, it surprises me that the idea of a “wall” should be so strange to people. Then again, I realize that most who opine on the subject—and who do not believe in borders—have likely never set foot in a gritty border town.

 

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Welcome Back…and a Rainbow. Because…why not? Images Courtesy Of the Author.
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The Case for Americans Studying Abroad (With Help From George Herbert Mead)

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Author’s Note: Parts of this post were written as an assignment for a graduate seminar in Classical Sociological Theory.

Sociologist George Herbert Mead’s concept of the “self” makes for interesting reading, even if it is presented in a manner that seems to be trying its best to be inaccessible to the layman. His theories are very useful when applied to the current state of Americans and their relationship to America’s role in the world. I read an article in The Atlantic recently about how a possible Donald Trump presidency could “change the world”. Even though I have my own personal doubts as to whether or not any particular U.S. President can, indeed, unilaterally change the country—let alone the world—I read on. The article makes the claim that the current world system, based on the post WWII order created by the United States through institutions like Bretton Woods and characterized by neo-liberal economics, is unequivocally good for the world. That makes me think—what does “good” mean? And is “good” for the United States necessarily “good” for the rest of the world? The interviewee in the article states “the record is pretty clear over the last five or six years that if the U.S. pulls out, things will get worse domestically in other countries, and they’ll become more fearful and more protectionist and more nationalist.” But who is to say that things are not bad now domestically in other countries? I can think of many examples where this is the case, and that is where Mead’s ideas are very useful.

Foreign Affairs ran a story last spring about how study abroad programs can make the United States “safer and stronger” by “opening the American mind”. As someone who enjoys traveling I have to agree, and George Herbert Mead’s ideas offer some perspective on why study abroad could help America in the long run. Mead states that

every human individual must, to behave ethically, integrate himself with the pattern of organized social behavior which, as reflected or prehended in the the structure of his self, makes him a self-conscious personality […] the sense which the individual self has of his dependence upon the organized society or social community to which he belongs is the basis and origin, in short, of his sense of duty (and in general of his ethical consciousness); and ethical and unethical behavior can be defined essentially in social terms (Mead, Mind Self and Society section 41; 3).

Mead’s ideas certainly are applicable to the individual, and I believe they can be extrapolated out to the larger “nation” and/or “state”. Is it possible that, since the United States is both geographically and culturally isolated from the rest of the world, many citizens do not have a “sense of duty” as regards the rest of the world? If the self is defined in terms of the other—and through interaction with it—as Mead argues, then it is possible that many Americans truly do not have this sense of ethics when it comes to international politics.

Interestingly, this separation of the U.S. from the rest of the world—and the relative isolation of its population—is reflected by the “asocial or personal aspect” of Mead’s self. This “differentiates it from, or sets it in distinctive and unique opposition to, the other members of the social group to which it belongs; and this side of the self is characterized by the individual’s feeling of superiority toward the other members of that group” (Ibid.). If we were to substitute the words “social group” for “international community” and “the individual” for “the United States” we would have a very good example of the concept that views the United States as “a city on a hill”; we are detached from the poverty and violence that plague the rest of the world which often makes many of us in the United States feel this “sense of superiority”. I have met many people who are, unfortunately, afraid to travel abroad because they have heard “its so bad over there”. Usually, I counter by explaining that living in a country where citizens are allowed easy access to firearms would be considered to be fairly dangerous in any other context; the point is it’s all about perspective.

George Herbert Mead’s ideas are very useful in the current geopolitical age, where American hegemony is in question. The self can only define itself in relation to the other; “it is the social process itself that is responsible for the appearance of the self; it is not there as a self apart from this type of experience” (Calhoun et al., 351). Like the individual’s “self”, the “national” self is formed in the same way. Without interactions with those from other national backgrounds, a national consciousness cannot be developed independently. Most nationalist identities are defined vis-à-vis other, competing, national identities. In the United States, this has not been the case traditionally. Rather, for the most part, American “culture” is imposed from the top down through cultural processes like music, movies, and sports. This does not, however, allow for an independent realization of what is “American”, or what it means in relation to other nations internationally. In order to foster a better understanding of what it means to be “American”, in relation to the rest of the world, I believe that social interaction is imperative. If America wants to continue to be a hegemonic power, it cannot neglect educating its citizens about the rest of the world; by doing so a more introspective—and ultimately stronger—American identity could emerge.

After all, the condescending “city on a hill” image is not really reflective of American values (at least not in the way that I interpret them). A recent New Yorker piece states that “The United States’ claim to moral primacy in the world, the idea of American exceptionalism, rests upon the argument that this is a nation set apart”. Of course, this is a highly conceited perspective that I—even as a patriotic American—find to be extremely misguided. The fact that the New Yorker ties it into race is even more disgusting:

The old presumptions hold that some element of national humiliation and decline predisposes nations toward fascism, or at least the appeals of fascistic movements. But in the U.S. this movement sprang up on the contrails of the first black Presidency—a moment that was, perhaps naïvely at the time, thought to be one of national affirmation and triumph. The unsavory implication here, of course, is that, for the cornerstone elements of Trumpism, that triumph was a national humiliation, that the image of an African-American receiving the deference and regard that the Presidency entails invalidated these Americans’ understanding of what the U.S. is, or at least what it is supposed to be […] In the broader context, Trumpism represents the demise of American exceptionalism, or at least the refutation of the most cogent arguments for it ever having existed in the first place.

This is just one troubling article that has come out following Donald Trump’s election victory, since Mr. Obama’s years in power have seen unprecedented chaos in the Middle East driven by American policies and arguably represent abject failure. To even imply that criticism of these policies is somehow racist represents poor journalism—the journalist’s job is to hold politicians responsible for their policies and a President’s skin color does not exonerate them from failure in office. As I have stated earlier, Mr. Trump’s presidency might just be a recognition that “American exceptionalism” has not only failed the United States, but it has also failed the world. After all, uninterrupted war—which Mr. Obama has presided over eight years of—is not the healthiest of situations for any country. Even if Mr. Trump wants to alter U.S. policies, he will still have to deal with the American deep state and its “deep secrets”. This in and of itself should temper any unilateral behavior on his part. In fact, the fact that state media’s Washington Post is already giving airtime to Islamists suggests that the stage is being set to discredit Mr. Trump before he even takes office.

These troubling articles have coincided with some troubling conversations I have had with close friends. While I respect these friends more than I can explain here—and I know they will be better scholars than I will ever be—their marked lack of knowledge regarding America’s role in the world is upsetting and tells me that we, as a county, would do well to encourage more international study at the college level. One friend told me that Mr. Trump’s election meant that his non-white friends were being threatened. When I told him that this was unfortunate and that such abject racists were disgusting fringe elements, I was accused of being an apologist for white supremacists. Unfortunately, I ended up raising my voice (and I apologize for that already) when coup—killed many people in Turkey during an attempted coup; actions speak louder than words for me. For some Trump detractors, it seems that the killing of “brown people” abroad can be completely swept under the rug, and that—to someone with an international outlook like myself—is just unacceptable. But that is the kind of thought process that American exceptionalism breeds! A second friend pointed out that my Turkish friends would not be able to come to the United States due to Mr. Trump’s proposed “ban on Muslims”. When I told this individual that my friends would have no problem getting a visa because they are educated and have been to the United States before, my friend was incredulous. “They need visas for the United States? They can’t just walk in with their passports?” was the reply. It was a typically “American” response, and fitting seeing as how the American passport allows the holder to just “walk in” to most countries in the world—174 to be exact , and this is one major reason that those born in the United States should really be thankful for the privilege they have. Sadly, this individual didn’t know that the United States’ visa waiver program  is—to use parlance that is in vogue following Mr. Trump’s election—very pro-“white”. The only non-European countries that enjoy visa free travel to the United States are Australia (white), Brunei, Chile, Japan, New Zealand (white) South Korea, and Taiwan. As if to make the list look longer, the U.S. State Department includes miniscule states like Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, and Monaco—like a bad joke. The Visa Waiver Program added this provision in 2015:

Under the Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015, travelers in the following categories are no longer eligible to travel or be admitted to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP):

-Nationals of VWP countries who have traveled to or been present in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011 (with limited exceptions for travel for diplomatic or military purposes in the service of a VWP country).

-Nationals of VWP countries who are also nationals of Iran, Iraq, Sudan, or Syria.

Brunei is the only Muslim country on the list; it is not a Middle Eastern country. When I told my friend that many Americans did not know the value of their own passport and that most foreigners have to obtain visas, it was insinuated that I was an elitist of some sort. It was never my aim, rather I tried to point out that life in other countries is very different than in the U.S., and that extends to travel as well. This friend then cleared up the misunderstanding: they had understood that Mr. Trump would be instating visas for Muslims traveling to the United States. Again, this is an example of many Americans who only vote (or protest) based on media hyperbole rather than any real knowledge of the issues. It is a sad state of affairs, when voters in the world’s foremost “democracy” show such ignorance in the face of the issues but I suppose it is just the way it is for now. I can only hope that more universities bring Study Abroad programs into their curriculums, since the world is opening itself up. Even if Mr. Trump’s presidency means a drawdown in American power (or application of said power) abroad, it doesn’t mean that we can afford to have a population left ignorant of the privileges they have.

 

Author’s Note: Readers; if you have a chance, please travel. It is the single greatest investment you can make in yourself over the course of your lifetime!

I’m Experiencing the Dystopia of an American Airport While American Olympic Athletes Distort Reality in Rio: What it Says About Wider U.S. Society’s Interactions With the World

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A few weeks ago I was returning from Turkey to the United States via Germany. I didn’t mind the eight-hour layover since it meant that I could drop into one of my favorite cities in the world, Munich, and have a relaxing summer stroll around the city. When I got to the border of the European Union I handed my passport and boarding pass to the police officer on duty. He took a look at the boarding pass and reminded me that I had a connecting flight in eight hours. I assured him that I was well aware of that, and that I was only going to take the train into the city for a few hours. He looked at the pages of my passport and just shrugged (probably thinking “this guy won’t miss his flight”); then he stamped me in and handed back the passport and boarding pass with a smile. And that was that. No elaborate questioning, just two people interacting.

I got a day ticket for 13.75 Euros and took the S1, getting off at Moosach. Since I am interested in seeing the famed Munich Olympiastadion, built for the 1972 Summer games, I head in the direction of the Olympic Park. The wide tree lined streets which feel like a mix between central and eastern Europe are peaceful and I take in my surroundings, my last tastes of Europe before returning to the United States. It is one of those times where the traveler thinks “what would my life have been like if I grew up here?”

The Olympic park is off the main street and when I finally enter it feels like a secret garden. The rolling hills and small pond make for an idyllic setting, one of those that could only be on the “old continent”. I hike up the tallest of the park’s hills and, at the top, am rewarded with a stunning view of urban Munich on the one side and natural Munich on the other. The day is calm and peaceful, August in Germany, and I feel as if my senses have been heightened by virtue of these few moments in this small pastoral greenery in the middle of Bavaria. I decide to grab an 11am beer at a beer garden—one of those things that would be impossible to do across the Atlantic—and think about my route to the center; after all no trip will be complete without a few jerseys.

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Beautiful Park, and the Beautiful Munich Olympiastadion. Images Courtesy of the Author.

Among the tourist hordes in central Munich I find a couple shirts from last season on deep discount—a Puma Borussia Dortmund shirt and Kappa Wolfsburg shirt. For lunch I head to one of the Turkish kebab places in the red light district by the Hauptbanhof; to my surprise the man behind the counter speaks Turkish to everyone in line except me (I am spoken to in German—guess I’m not Turkish looking enough). I eat my doner and watch a group of Turkish construction workers come in for their lunch, like the Mexican construction workers at the Mexican restaurants I would frequent in Texas. I can’t help but think how strange it is that societies get stratified like this, cheap labor from abroad creates a social hierarchy based on ethnicity—the economic system comes to define the ethnic group and create a new social reality where none existed before. Knowing its nothing I will change, I go back to my doner—the must-try snack of Germany that has overtaken the traditional German snack of bratwurst as the nation’s most popular fast food. Of course, the popularity of the street food itself shows how the imagined ethnic hierarchy can take on a mind of its own.

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The Shirts Spread Out on the Counter at a Munich Airport Bar. Because…I wanted to. Images Courtesy of the Author.

Back at the airport I myself get stratified into another kind of imagined hierarchy, this one based not on ethnic background but on nationality. I take the long trek to gates H43 through H48 at the Munich Franz Josef Strauss Airport. It feels like a Japanese death march, the long grey nondescript corridor leading to the special zone of the terminal where flights to the United States depart from. At the ID check kiosk I ask the man if there is anything beyond me—I do it every year, just hoping—praying—that it will change. But it never does. “Just a vending machine. And toilets. There is no restaurant or bar”. Since the disappointment on my face is noticeable, the gentleman levels with me: “I’ll give you the stamp—you have a while until boarding, it won’t board on time. Go back to one of the bars and when you come back just show your stamp and walk to the gate”. I thank him for being a human being and head to the convenience store for a Lowenbrau to pass the time. Its 3.25 Euros, and the lady accepts the 3.20 Euros I give her.

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Its a Lonely Walk to the End of the Line. Image Courtesy of the Author.

When I enter the boarding area at Gate H45 it feels like I have entered another world. Indeed, there is nothing to eat save for what one can scrounge from the vending machine with their left over Euros. My fellow Americans count their (Euro) pennies to perhaps purchase a small bag of potato chips as sustenance before boarding. There are not enough seats to accommodate all the passengers bound for a transatlantic flight so everyone stands around like refugees awaiting their departure to a new future. In the bathroom, the paper towel dispenser is broken and it is clear that the single rest room cannot possible satisfy the demand of four gates worth of passengers. I marvel at the chaos all around me that marks my trip to the United States, sequestered in a small corner of one of the world’s most modern airports. When I ask why we are sequestered as such, a Lufthansa employee tells me that it is for “security”. I can only nod, finding myself wishing I was back in the Olympic park taking in the fresh air of Munich instead.

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The Toilets Have Seen Better Days While We Stand Like Refugees. Images Courtesy of the Author.

After an eight-hour flight full of romantic comedies I find myself waiting in line for one hour at the Boston Logan International Airport. U.S. citizens are left in a hallway, being let inside to the main “processing area” in fifteen person groups. I marvel at the tight security—certainly the tightest I have seen on my journeys over the past summer. “These guys are crazy” mutters the gentleman in front of me, an Italian-American, and we begin talking. I find it amusing that entering countries in Europe rarely necessitates as much song and dance as entering the United States—my own country of residence and birthdoes. The man uses the word “dystopia” to describe the proceedings and I have to admit that its an apt description.

As the “cowboys” of U.S. Customs & Border Patrol “herd” me into the “processing area” where I wait to use one of the automated self processing passport scanners, I wonder how efficient this system is. While the process to enter the United States at airports is one of the most draconian I have ever experienced on my travels, the Mexican border is still porous and many Americans are up in arms when talk is made about increasing security on a border that has become so world famous that even people from as far as Africa are flocking to it. The man in front of me is as frustrated as I am when he mumbles “I don’t think they even catch anyone”. I have to agree—the police state mentality only exists in the world of airports, a realm that is dis-engaged from life on the ground outside. It’s a sort of nether region between the Orwelllian world and the real world. But it is also this emphasis on “security” that allows the United States to portray itself as an oasis of stability in a world rapidly becoming characterized by seemingly random outbursts of violence; it is a city on a hill while chaos swirls below. And that is where I now move into discussing this in the context of the sports world.


On 14 August 2016 four members of the U.S. Olympic men’s swimming team accused Brazilian police of robbing them at gunpoint in Rio de Janeiro when they were returning from a party. American Olympians Ryan Lochte, Gunnar Bentz, Jack Conger, and Jimmy Feigen claimed that their taxi was stopped by people posing as police officers and that money and personal belongings were demanded from them. The state media organ of the United States, the New York Times, was quick to frame the story as one reflective of security concerns in the Brazilian city when they wrote that the robbery heightened “anxiety over violent crime in the host city of the Summer Games” in the article’s opening paragraph. It is not surprising that the New York Times was quick to denounce Brazil and play up its instability, but they may be regretting their decision now.

Four days later, on 18 August 2016, it emerged that the swimmers had actually fabricated the whole story. In fact, if it was just a mere fabrication it might not have been so bad; instead it was an outright lie trying to cover up the fact that the swimmers themselves had been the ones in the wrong. They allegedly urinated on the wall of a Shell gas station, then vandalized the bathroom in a drunken rage and refused to pay for the damages. Mr. Lochte himself then claimed that he mistook the gas station’s security guard for local police—something I might have believed had I been born yesterday.

Police in Rio didn’t believe it either and charged Mr. Lochte with filing a false robbery report, and the swimmer was forced to admit that he “over-exaggerated” parts of the story which, I imagine, is the politically correct way of saying “I lied through my teeth”. On 19 August 2016 Mr. Lochte wrote on his Instagram (the post-modern form of apologizing, in which the most crucial part—looking the one you offended in the eye while asking forgiveness—is impossible): “It’s traumatic to be out late with your friends in a foreign country — with a language barrier — and have a stranger point a gun at you and demand money to let you leave.” For some reason, his defense hinges on his being in “a foreign country with a language barrier”; in Mr. Lochte’s mind this simple fact exonerates him for vandalizing someone else’s property. In all honesty it is an embarrassing defense, but one that cannot be separated from the situation perpetuated, in part, by the United States itself.

Take this small excerpt from ABC News’ 30 August 2016 story as an example:

“I think it’s everyone blowing this way out of proportion. I think that’s what happened,” Lochte, 32, said today on “Good Morning America” when asked whether he embarrassed the United States with his actions in Rio de Janeiro.

“Like I said, I did lie about that one part,” Lochte said of his claim that a gun was held to his head at a Rio gas station. “I take full responsibility. I’m human. I made a mistake. A very big mistake.”

Here Mr. Lochte is still downplaying his actions when he says it was “blown out of proportion”, and when he does admit lying it is only about “that one part”, the gravity of the situation—that there is a larger lie that is insulting to another country—is missed. Even when admitting responsibility, it is only on an individual level. “I take full responsibility”. ”I’m human”. “I made a mistake”. Of course, this focus on the individual can be traced back to the American ideals of individualism and “freedom”. But don’t think that Brazilians aren’t, rightly I may add, a bit perturbed. In a 18 August 2016 New York Times story Brian Winter, vice president for policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas, tells the truth in no uncertain terms: “[The episode] has tapped into one of Brazilians’ biggest pet peeves — gringos who treat their country like a third-rate spring break destination where you can lie to the cops and get away with it”. Although Eliseu Padilha, the chief of staff for Brazil’s interim president, Michel Temer, said that “This episode will not in any way interfere in the relations between the U.S. and Brazil . . . This could have happened with individuals of any other nationality,” I do not believe it. I’m not convinced that it could happen with individuals of any other nationality.

And this is where I return to the immigration line at Boston’s Logan International Airport. I have been fortunate enough to have been able to visit many interesting international (and domestic) destinations around the globe, something that I owe my parents a huge thank you for encouraging no matter the destination. Therefore, I have been able to see that all is not what it may seem. Of course the United States is a safe, stable, country. Of course in the United States things run fairly smoothly and with (comparably) minor disruptions when compared to some other places in the world. But—and this is important—that does not mean the United States is without its flaws, and it does not mean that other countries do not have their positive sides as well. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you can commit a crime in a foreign country—like vandalism—and expect not to be held accountable for it. Like the golden rule in life, doing unto others as you would want done unto you, there is the golden rule of travel: Do not do in foreign country what you would not do in your own country and expect to not face the consequences.

Too often in the United States we hear about “how bad it is over there”. “There” can be anywhere. It can be Mexico when we hear about the drug cartels. It can be the UK when we hear about the Brexit. It can be Africa when we hear about Ebola. It can be Greece when we hear about the financial crisis. It was Turkey when my neighbor, having heard the news about the 2013 Gezi Park protests, told me “I heard its really bad there”. Unfortunately, the judging that is implicit in such comments comes without any real knowledge of the situation. Just like the reporting done by the state media organ The New York Times, which rushed to emphasize security concerns in Brazil following the first reports of the swimmers’ “robbery” so as to frame the swimmers as innocent victims, U.S. newspapers are often all-too-quick to frame events taking place in foreign countries. (Note the use of the term “state media”—you might hear it mentioned in many publications in the United States, but never in reference to domestic media. This is an example of that framing). And, given that just 35% percent (a generous figure) of Americans have passports, many Americans are unable to visit places to see the truth for themselves. Although the number of passports in circulation is increasing, I tend to believe this is more due to the increased global interconnectedness of the world that necessitates a passport—if only for one trip—that then stays in circulation albeit unused. I even have friends who have passports but have never used them.

It is this combination—the desire to portray the United States as somehow above the fray of the world and the population’s relative ignorance of international affairs—that creates a dystopian reality at airports. It is also one that, unfortunately, sometimes results in people acting out and confirming the image of the “ugly American” abroad that is already present in people’s minds. Perhaps the most absurd thing about the whole incident is that Mr. Lochte really didn’t face any repercussions for his actions. Instead, he was handed a role on the reality TV show Dancing With the Stars. Only in America can you embarrass yourself, your team-mates, and your country and…be given a role on TV in the end. Life—and the American Dream—go on.

Extreme Capitalism Comes Home

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They say that you can’t go home again. They say it as if the concept that is “home” disappears the moment you cross that county line (or state line or city line). Before the last few days, I never believed this could be true. Home is in your heart right? It is a place where emotions are entwined with memories and experiences connected to space…right? In short, things that cannot be fabricated or replaced; these are things that cannot be replicated. The concept of “Home” is made up of moments—taken out of time—that (partially) define who we, as human beings, are. Right? Well…unfortunately, today I learned that this isn’t always the case. In fact, “Home” can be stripped away, whisked out from under you like the tablecloth on a cartoon’s table. Unfortunately—unlike as is the case in the cartoon—the items on the table (of your life) do not just fall into place just as they were before. In fact…everything is replaced in a disjointed way. Sure the items are still there, they just aren’t there in the same way.

Like I did a few years ago, when I took a walking tour of Istanbul, I decided to take a walking tour of the seaside village in which I spent the summers of my childhood. Since I experienced many pivotal moments in my life in this village, the place has a special meaning for me. Sadly—through the eyes of a grown man—the place has, inevitably, changed. Not, I may add, for the better.

On my Sunday walk I realize that my first route is blocked. A new construction site has, somehow, been built over the road. As if building houses (valued at one million US Dollars each) over the land that—as a child—I had picked figs in necessitates building over a road (which was, I may add, resurfaced just three years ago). But apparently it does; it is always more profitable to destroy and rebuild, after all. As someone who has never understood business—the concept of selling things at a profit (or taking advantage of people) is foreign to me—I cannot understand the changes that surround my childhood home. So I walk on, through the middle of a construction site. The workers stare at me with strained eyes, their neon yellow construction vests almost blinding in the sunshine of an early summer day, in stark contrast to their dark sun-tanned faces. Their eyes tell a story: “I was sent here to build houses that I will never, ever, have the chance to live in.” I fill in the rest of the story: They came here from towns and villages in Eastern Turkey that are now under attack, part of the struggle between the Turkish state and Kurdish minority that has been ongoing since the founding of the republic (for more on this, readers can access this—somewhat hyperbolic—piece from the New York Times). But there is money to be made, and I am in no place to tell people that they should not feed their families, even if it feeds an extreme brand of capitalism that just cannot support itself for much longer.

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I continue my walk thinking about how the US dollar is now three times the value of the Turkish Lira; just a few years ago it was fluctuating between a (comparatively) healthy 1.5-1.7. How will people afford the housing? Credit? Mortgages? We…. all know how that turned out in the United States…and the Turkish economy can’t handle that type of shock, reeling as it is from the recent bombings and resulting loss in tourism revenue.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.xe.com/currencycharts/?from=USD&to=TRY&view=5Y

Once in the main village I pass by what used to be a small market; one where small rotisserie chickens were sold and where we—as wayward teenagers—would buy beers for long summer nights spent on the beach talking about the future. The space now belongs to a company selling construction materials. Soon, I realize why the man’s market couldn’t compete in the larger, capital “M”, Market. Five national chains have moved into the neighborhood, all within—at most—a fifteen-minute walk of the closed market. It is basic economics—the national chain can sell at a lower price than the local corner store. It is sad. But it is also true, when the world is all about the bottom line.

I walk the familiar old streets out to the marina, where the white yachts of the rich are docked, floating idly in the blue expanse. One of the proprietors of a fish restaurant solicits a friend’s attention but I ignore him. I don’t have much of an appetite after what I’ve seen. And what I see next doesn’t make me feel any better.

On the return I come to the crest of a hill overlooking the new construction and I remember, at the end of the summer two years ago, watching bulldozers uproot the forest I had walked through as a child. Now, only two trees remain and it feels like a bad joke. The asphalt is covered in mud from an earlier shower and I see that even the crystal clear sea of my childhood is gone. The mud from the construction site is running off into the water; it is not a place I would like to swim and I wonder if the soon-to-be owners of these houses would agree. Pay one million dollars and not have roads or a beach? Not a good return on an investment but…who am I to say that? I’m just a guy that writes.

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Currently:

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Two Years Ago, with Half the Forest Already Uprooted:

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I finish my walk and head home, ready to do some more reading, but not before facing the visual assault of a brand new four story housing development being built behind my home. An ancient stone wall—built rock by rock by the hands of the farmer whose horses I used to feed carnations to as a child—has been demolished to make way for a concrete wall the color I would call “New England Winter Sky”. Who gave them the right to build a high rise in the middle of a small village? Well…the government did, of course. Without the consent of the state, nothing is possible in the modern world. And if all the state wants is to line its pockets then…anything goes. Its appalling and disgusting and it makes me want to know why greed exists in the world, yet I know the farmer—so many long years ago, had the same thoughts I have now when his land was encircled by development. May he rest in peace. I decide that, instead of reading, I’ll head down to the beach with a cold beer and watch the sunset. After all, the new development—despite its four stories—wont be able to bask in the sunset light like I can.

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The next day a friend and I come upon a small kitten in the village. It seems to have lost its mother and—certainly—does not know what to do now that it is all alone in the world. We play with it and feed it, watching it explore nature. The joy of rolling in the grass, the pain of a rose bush’s thorns; we quickly learn the pleasures and pains of life. I can’t help but wonder what it will do when all of the nature is swallowed up by human greed. Later, that same friend sends me a news story as I’m sitting at home: six people have been wounded and two killed in an assault at a night club in town after a disagreement between construction workers working on yet another new commercial development and employees of the club. I sigh and look out the window, thinking of the kitten. I wonder how it is doing. I think I might buy some cat food tomorrow morning. After all, we all need a little help in the world as we stomach the loss of our innocence.

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Author’s Note: The name of the place in question has been purposefully left out since this type of development can—and does—happen anywhere in the world, and indeed in any context. Industrial Football, for instance, is the manifestation of this phenomenon in sports as stadiums slowly disappear. Thank you for reading.

What to do in Atlanta? My Top Three Attractions in Atlanta

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I recently took a short trip to Atlanta, Georgia and—since I enjoy travel—I have decided to provide you with the three attractions I found most interesting in the United States’ ninth-largest metropolitan area. The order is in the order that I visited in; it is not an order of preference. Interestingly, most of the development in Atlanta started as a result of the 1996 Olympic games, one rare instance where hosting a major international sporting event actually had a positive effect on the city (what with the current traffic problems, however, I am not sure many locals would agree).

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  1. The Beginning: The World of Coca-Cola

Admission: 16 US Dollars (Plus Tax)

Time Spent: 30-60 minutes

 Opened in 2007 in its location near the Centennial Olympic Park (a continuation of the original museum, which opened in 1990), the World of Coca-Cola is admittedly an odd attraction. The first question I am asked, upon entering, is “what will you have to drink?” I resist the urge to ask for a Pepsi and go for a Coca-Cola Classic, served in an aluminum bottle. I am immediately struck by the almost cultish-aspect of the tour guides. They seem a little bit too upbeat. Indeed, when our group doesn’t give an enthusiastic enough cheer to one of our guide’s questions he notes that “we need to drink more Coca-Cola”. I am barely even able to stomach one bottle and shudder at the thought. After being lectured about Coca-Cola for fifteen minutes in a room filled wall to wall with Coca-Cola memorabilia (“the loft”), we are then ushered into a movie theater. Here are told not to take any video recordings and instead let Coca-Cola work its advertising magic on us before we are released to explore the rest of the museum alone.

The film’s effect is, I will learn later, similar to drinking too much Coca-Cola. That is to say, nauseating. It opens with a quote from the Italian writer and poet Cesare Pavese: “We do not remember days, we remember moments”. We are then subjected—as a group—to a six minute and something second advertisement for Coca-Cola set to Imagine Dragons’ On Top of the World. The group’s video—a spoof of the moon landing hoax—would have been more amusing than the images Coca-Cola provided for us; those of people “enjoying life”, for lack of a better term enjoying activities such as sky diving, surfing, and hanging out.

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For me the connection of emotion and memory to consumption is, honestly, disgusting. One would think that in order to relax and enjoy life all we need to do is…drink a Coke! The sentiments the video aims to elicit are as fake as the drink being advertised, but—somehow and some way—it works. Once released from the theater I see just how successful this connection truly is; the connection of the consumption of a soft drink to an individual’s emotional state (and even to the individual’s relationship with the nation-state, surprisingly).

The exhibits detailing the history of Coca-Cola tell the story not only of a soft drink, but of a country as well. We learn that every single U.S. state had a Coca-Cola bottling plant; effectively the country was united through the production—and consumption—of a soft drink. Later, in a second exhibit, we see the international reach of Coca-Cola; signs written in dozens of languages are intelligible only due to their color and font. The soft power of the United States (to borrow Joseph Nye’s term) was solidified through American cultural hegemony; within that framework Coca-Cola was but one tool—but a highly successful one at that. One exhibit even shows the subliminal effect of Coca-Cola advertisements on urban spaces: Post-cards of various 1950s cityscapes are shown and it is clear that, in every picture, the Coca-Cola sign is displayed prominently. My mind goes back to late 1980s Turkey when, as a child, we would spend one night at my late grandmother’s apartment in Izmir, Turkey, at the beginning of each summer. The giant Coca-Cola mural, painted on the façade of an apartment block nearby, was one of my first coherent memories of Turkey as a child. I decide to head to the part of the museum where the international is the focus: the tasting section.

I first heard of the tasting section in college. I expected Coca-Cola Classics from different countries to be on offer (since the drink tastes different depending on the country). Unfortunately, this was not the case. Instead, they offered a number of drinks produced by the Coca-Cola company internationally (such as Dasani water, Fanta, and Sprite). They claimed the number is more than 100 but I did not count as many. I then embarked on a whirlwind tour of the world (as shown by Coca-Cola), sampling sugared soft drinks dispensed from five taps representing Coke products sold on each continent. I filled my sampling cup while trying to dodge the children on sugar highs—I suppose the World of Coca-Cola is similar to Las Vegas for nine year olds: All the rules of “no soft drinks” and “no sodas” don’t apply for a few (literally) sweet hours. The result was—predictably—a headache and a stomach ache. But before the sugar kicked in and made me light in the head, I was able to make a few useful observations: Djibouti’s mint rendition of Coca-Cola is delicious (at least to me, the face of another guest after sampling this particular soda was contorted into an obvious show of revulsion). Uganda’s fruit punch-esque Fanta was decent—but not for those sensitive to sugar. Georgia (of Stalin, not peace, fame) had a decent Iced Tea, while I contemplated filling my aluminum bottle with Sweden’s Lingonberry soda to take home. The biggest loser was, undoubtedly, Italy’s Beverly. Its bitter taste—although pleasing to a fellow guest visiting from Connecticut, with whom I debated the soda’s medicinal taste—is almost like an inside joke. In fact the soda, originally to be a non-alcoholic aperitif, was discontinued by Coca-Cola in 2009 but is still holding its place at the World of Coca-Cola. Perhaps because so many people bash it.

Not For the Faint of Heart: Consuming Coca-Cola with Kids on Sugar Highs

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In the end I walked out of the World of Coca-Cola with a souvenir eight ounce bottle of Coca-Cola Classic, a light head, and a stomach ache. And—most likely—the resolve to never drink another Coca-Cola in my next thirty years. After all, it is never too late to make life resolutions.

  1. Interlude: Georgia Aquarium

Admission: 39.95 US Dollars (Plus Tax)

Time Spent: 30-60 minutes

The Atlanta Aquarium is apparently one of the the largest aquariums in the world. Since I arrive in the late afternoon, near closing time, upon entry I am told that I will not be able to see all of the exhibits and that I should focus on the “best exhibits”. Indeed, the “Ocean Voyager” is amazing and worth a visit, but I note that—honestly—you don’t need that much time to take in the Atlanta Aquarium’s exhibits. In fact, arriving late is a bonus at this attraction; I will gladly take less time for the chance to experience the exhibits free of crowds. Since I visited near closing time I had the exhibits virtually to myself: the school children were being herded out, while the families were readying themselves for dinner. It seemed that the only visitors left were those knowledgeable and older.

The peaceful setting of the aquarium is miles from the chaos of the World of Coca-Cola; the privilege of standing alone in a room facing a wall of glass looking into the water leaves me breathless. Fish—big and small, multicolored and monochromatic—live in perfect harmony, bringing order to the seeming chaos of the undersea world. For a moment it makes me reflect on humanity—we would eat one another alive, living in captivity (as we if we don’t already while living freely, but that is for a different discussion).

The first two exhibits, focusing on fish of all shapes and sizes, are the best. The more specific exhibits—containing, among other things, plankton, sea horses, star fish, and reptiles—are interesting but cannot approach the stunning experience of, literally, walking underneath the ocean. You don’t need a full day to see the Atlanta Aquarium, and I would recommend coming later in the day so as to get the exhibits more or less to yourself. Personally, I do not think I could have appreciated the majesty of the aquarium if I had been in a crowd. As is the case with many tourist sights in the world, it is sometimes best to arrive late in the day.

  1. The End: Georgia Guidestones

Admission: 0 US Dollars–Free

Time Spent: 10-20 Minutes

This is, perhaps, one of the more interesting road-side landmarks in the United States that I have visited, even after having visited the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. The Guidestones are located in one of the few places left in the modern world that can be classified as “the middle of nowhere”. A little less than an hour from Athens and two hours from Atlanta, down the kind of two lane highway that reminds me of carefree summer days, the Guidestones are located on the side of Georgia Highway 77 in a rural area of Elberton County.

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Many outlets, including the BBC and Wired, have done a piece on the monument and each interprets them differently. The BBC’s piece offers a neutral overview:

“It was this gargantuan granite deposit [in the area] that attracted a well-dressed man under the pseudonym of RC Christian to Elberton in June 1979. He approached the Elberton Granite Finishing Corporation’s President Joe H Fendley Sr about the potential cost of building a monument of substantial size, explaining that he represented a small group of anonymous Americans foreign to Georgia who had been working on a 20-year-long project as a message for future generations. Fendley promptly put him in touch with his banker, Wyatt C Martin, who was soon chosen as the intermediary for the project. Both men were sworn to secrecy.

On 22 March 1980, the Georgia Guidestones – four giant rough-edged stones encircling a centre slab with a capstone balancing on top – weighing 119 tons, were revealed to a crowd of about 100 people. One crowd member, a local pastor, immediately professed his belief that the stones were built for cult and devil worship because of its similar appearance to Stonehenge. On each side of the capstone, engraved in four ancient languages, were the words: “Let these be guidestones to an Age of Reason.” And written in eight languages – English, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Classical Hebrew, Swahili, Hindi and Spanish – were cryptic instructions for rebuilding society post Doomsday.”

A PDF of a book written by the Elberton Granite Finishing Corporation offers the creators’ point of view, while Wired’s piece offers very useful insight into the days while the monument was being created, calling it an “American Stonehenge”. Having been to the “real” Stonehenge I can’t see much of a similarity—the video surveillance itself is off-putting—and the message written on the stones is, indeed, eerie.

On each of the four slabs—reaching almost twenty feet in height—is a message consisting of ten short statements written in the aforementioned eight world languages (Wired’s diagram is below, courtesy of http://www.wired.com/2009/04/ff-guidestones/) :

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  1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
  2. Guide reproduction wisely – improving fitness and diversity.
  3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
  4. Rule passion – faith – tradition – and all things with tempered reason.
  5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
  6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
  7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
  8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
  9. Prize truth – beauty – love – seeking harmony with the infinite.
  10. Be not a cancer on the Earth – Leave room for nature – Leave room for nature.

 

Some view this as a message for rebuilding human society in a post-apocalyptic world; others view this as something much more sinister—the ten commandments of the antichrist. There is undeniably something sinister to the site due to its perfectly researched placement; it is a clock, calendar, and compass as well as a “guide” (see above). Others, such as this piece, see the guide stones as a message calling for a New World Order engineered by a secret society.

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Honestly, I have no opinion as to what these stones mean. The idea of a technocratic world order—uniting the world with “one world language” and “ruling passion and faith…with tempered reason”—sound eerily similar to the global capitalism we all witness where individualism is suppressed. After all, expressing opinions can be harmful to the “brand” in business—blandness is rewarded. Yet the idea of prizing “truth”, “beauty”, and “love” while “leaving room for nature” sound like classic humanist ideas that have been espoused in many cultures for years. The message is a strange amalgamation of fascism with liberalism; some of it useful and some of it dangerous; the Malthusian undertones in the first “commandment” are typically picked up on as the most frightening since the rising world population means diminishing wealth—and health—for everyone. Regardless of one’s views on the stones, they are certainly worth a visit. After seeing how the multi-national corporation Coca-Cola appropriates human emotion to sell an unhealthy drink—and after seeing how fish, both large and small, can live in perfect harmony while human beings clearly cannot—a visit to the Georgia Guidestones can certainly lead to a philosophical afternoon.

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Judge Not…Lest You Be Judged Yourself

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Place: Planet Earth

Time: 11:00 PM

I’m standing in a bar on a weeknight, it could be anywhere. I’m not alone, many people feel the need to break out of the monotony of their daily lives every now and then, if only for a few hours. I’m sipping on a whiskey and Ginger Ale, leaning against the wall as usual. Savoring each sip helps you take it slow. Kind of like life I suppose. I’m savoring so much, in fact, that I fail to notice the commotion going on to my left.

“Get out of here, stop injecting yourself into my situation! Youre such a b___!” A man is yelling at two women, directing his rage at one in particular. I just stand there, staring straight ahead. I examine the patterns on the wall. After all, this isn’t my fight. And it probably isn’t at least one of these women’s.

As the voices rise I gather that it is some sort of dispute over unfaithfulness—someone may or may not have cheated on the other. I don’t know the details, since I’m still staring straight ahead. I notice they eyes of everyone in the bar…staring back at me, past me, at the couple to my left. One man keeps making eyes at me, and all I can do is roll my eyes. Life is hard for everyone, who am I to pass judgment on someone else’s domestic dispute? It isn’t my dispute. And it isn’t anything I can fix. After all, if I could fix others’ relationships, I’d probably have my own, right? Or so my reasoning goes. And I continue with the Ginger Ale and whiskey, looking straight ahead without flinching. I hear a fist slam against the wall and the man in question walks past me, kicking the door open. He’s off into the night, his (now former, I suppose) girlfriend is still seated, smoking s cigarette. I move to the bar, for another. I hear the man who had been looking at me whisper to what I can only assume to be his date.

“I think he’s his friend.”

I give him a look.

“You know that guy?”

“Never seen him. In my life.” Even if I had…what’s it to him? I get my drink and go back to my wall and look out at the bar. The couples, when faced with this domestic disturbance, have redoubled their efforts to be loving to one another. The phones are out for selfies, the hugs are firmer and (one hopes) more meaningful. I guess its a useful social experiment: When faced with love gone wrong, people realize the value of love. Its an odd paradox of living according to others but what would one expect in a world where people measure their own lives by comparing them to others’ on Facebook?

Fifteen minutes later an elderly man stumbles in. Stocking cap with headphones, wearing a long trench coat to the middle of the shins which are covered by rainbow socks. He’s certainly disheveled, might even be a bum, but he’s got a twenty-dollar bill out and ready to drink. Just like everyone else who is…here…on a weeknight. I keep staring ahead but I notice all the eyes now turned on this new arrival. As he stumbles towards a seat across the bar people are whispering. An older man—they might even be the same age—takes out his phone and starts taking a video. I feel like he’s laughing at the man from a position of power; they are of similar ages yet—seemingly—in different positions in life. The stratification makes me sick, so I just keep looking straight ahead of me, trying not to notice the insulting behavior all around me.

The bartender takes a seat next to me and the man next to him asks about our newest visitor. I have to interrupt their conversation, if only for a minute.

“Y’all are sure getting a lot of amusement from sideshows tonight”, nodding at the girl who had been in a domestic dispute just minutes before.

“Yeah, I know that guy. He’s not drunk. He has Parkinson’s disease. That’s why he walks like that. But people think he’s drunk. Like look at that guy, taking a video.”

He takes the words out of my mouth; the judgments people are levelling on one another at this point would shatter even the most optimistic person’s views on humanity and I let him know my feelings. No one has the right to pass judgment on others based on baseless preconceptions.

Five minutes later the video taker orders a drink from the same bartender as he laughs at the old man. “He has Parkinson’s disease. That’s why he walks like that. He isn’t drunk.” The video taker looks shocked…another ten minutes and he’s out the door, ashamed and unable to look anyone in the eye. Before I go, I thank the bartender.

“Nice job tonight. You did well.”

Motoring From Ocala to Daytona

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Taking inspiration from Jeff Klinkenberg, I researched a few routes on Motorcycleroads.com and settled on the Ocala National Forest. I couldn’t have known at the time that it would take me from Florida’s past to its present over the course of a little over one hundred miles of asphalt and painted yellow lines.

Sometimes in life it is therapeutic to drive somewhere where there is no phone service, where it is almost as if you don’t exist. The Ocala National Forest fits that description perfectly. Florida route 19 bisects the forest north/south and offered me a perfect opportunity to disappear, if only for a few hours. At the beginning of the route I couldn’t help but take a picture of a bear crossing sign. Its up there with some of the funnier highway signs I’ve seen, including the “Farts” warning in Norway and the classic falling rocks design on European highways. Walking back to the car the silence is complete. There are no noises, at this point not even any passing cars. Just trees and the two-lane highway, a straight line that (I wish) went on forever.

I spend a few hours exploring the dirt roads that dot the forest, avoiding the pick up trucks that seem to appear in the middle of the road at the top of every crest. I guess people get too used to being alone in the forest, and I understand it. It feels like driving on tightly packed snow and I have a little fun before reminding myself that if I screw up the car I will be providing lunch, I suppose, for the local bear population.

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Back on the pavement I see a sign for Ormond Beach, outside of Daytona. After the natural solitude of the forest the beach will offer a different experience in nature for me and I turn the car east to the coast. As I head to the coast I think of the father’s words in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, realizing that—eventually—the forest will swallow Florida route 19. It’s only…natural.

From driving on dirt roads I go to driving on the sand. I find it odd that one should even be allowed to drive on the beach, it is an assault on nature. But it doesn’t seem like anyone cares. Looking up and down the sand one sees that nature has already been assaulted in the name of money. Hotels line the beach for as long as the eye can see. I smile at the birds that seem oblivious to the encroachment of humanity encouraged by greed.

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Further down the coast past soviet style condominiums, in Daytona Beach, I decide to get myself a piece of art, a little bit of southern kitsch: the airbrushed hat. I order my design and ask the man where he is from. I know its somewhere I can relate to. “I am from planet Earth” he says, laughing. No doubt many people ask the same question daily. I am offended that he would think I want to insult him, but then again I know the depths of human ignorance that he may have faced.

“I know that much.”

“Palestine. I am from Palestine”. Indeed, somewhere I can relate to. As I wait for my “art” I step out onto the boardwalk, staring at the beach roller-coaster. I guess this is life on the beach in a culture I never got to experience: Beach culture in the American south. Staring out at the water I think of the absurdity of life: a Palestinian airbrush artist making hats for people who (most likely) would not be able to point his home out on a map. Its odd, but it is what America should be. Everyone comes from somewhere, and everyone does something. Luckily for me, this man does his job well. For me it is definitely more than a hat, it is a piece of art.

On the way home I come upon the Mecca of human encroachment on nature: Daytona International Speedway. The track looms over the road in all its grandeur, the epicenter of American motorsport. For a moment I wish I could take my Saab for a test drive but preparations for the Daytona 500 are taking place.

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Forty minutes later and I am again in the middle of the Ocala National Forest, stopped at a four-way intersection on Florida route 40, running east/west. The sky is streaked in purples and oranges, another day ends in a watercolor. The past 150 miles have taken me through the various ecologies—and road types—of Florida: From Swamp to Beach; from dirt road to sand. I don’t know of another state that can offer such contrasts in such short distances and that, in itself, makes it a good day. The light turns green and it’s time to go, I find myself wishing all crossroads in life were this simple to negotiate.

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But they’re not. And that is why “motoring”, in the Gatsby sense, is enjoyable. Moments after the intersection I crest a small hill to find myself looking squarely into a pair of headlights. I slam the breaks and flash my brights, the erring driver squeezes between an SUV and eighteen-wheeler. And that’s where the fact remains: When going for a drive your life is in your hands, literally. If someone crosses the double yellow on a two lane your only recourse is in your hands. Perhaps it is the proximity to death that makes adventure worthwhile. After all, what of the world—or life—would we learn on the couch?

 

Drive sound track:

George Strait: Run

Survivor: Eye Of the Tiger

One Direction: Perfect

Jerrod Niemann: Drink to That All Night

Cole Swindell: You Should Be Here

The Oak Ridge Boys: Leaving Louisiana In the Broad Daylight

 

 

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