Moments. Travel Notes (Excerpts)
Belfast, Northern Ireland, July 1996
I had been to Belfast before. With a friend in 91. We had walked down Falls Road and got scared. The impressions of barbwires, screened windows, militant graffiti, mobile roadblocks, and patrolling tanks with British soldiers sporting machine guns, were long-lasting.
This time around things were different. Whatever the 94 ceasefire might have brought politically, it definitely made Belfast look like an almost normal city. The one obvious feature of “the conflict” that hadn’t left yet were the murals. They should become synonymous for me with the city of Belfast. I thought what a great photo series they would make. And while I found the loyalist ones to be almost nothing but repellingly brutal and vulgar, I meant to discover an innocent and simple beauty in the republican blend of catholic iconography and nationalist Irish kitsch, or in the variations on Jesus Christ, the martyr, in the form of dead activists, mainly hunger-strikers, and here mainly Bobby Sands. It’s funny what political idealism and romantization can do. I swear, I felt proud being a Catholic when walking the streets of Belfast, and I felt seriously flattered whenever someone told me how easily I could be identified as a mick.
Houston, TX, June 2000
About 2.30 am. Greyhound Station.
I’m waiting for my next connection on the way to Florida. I’ve already been on the bus for over 24 hours. I’m tired, but I can’t sleep. I left Arizona in a pretty bad emotional state. I’m confused, and sad, and happy, and indifferent, all at the same time.
I take out my notebook and start scribbling down some thoughts.
“Are you writing a poem?” I look up and see the nice girl from the bus who had earlier asked me for some writing paper outside of El Paso before complimenting my tattoos. She sits a bit over to the right, glancing at my pen. It is the first thing she says to me since the brief exchange on the bus. I feel flattered that she’d even think I might write poetry. Unfortunately, I didn’t that night. “No, these are just some notes for a letter.”
It seemed courteous to keep the conversation going. “And you, what did you write in the bus earlier?”
“Really? Did it turn out alright?”
“Wanna read it?”
She hands me one of the sheets of paper I had given her, and I read a poem written in neat tiny letters about her boyfriend battling heart problems. It’s one of the most beautiful love poems I’ve ever read. I tell her that I like it very much. She seems pleased but used to these kinds of comments.
We talk about writing. She says she has written way over a hundred poems. She also tells me she is only 18. I ask her for more of her poetry. She says she didn’t have anything written with her, but she knows a few of her poems by heart. If I wanted, I could hear some. “Of course,” I say. She moves over and starts reciting a three- or four-minute long poem about some perfect imaginary love. It’s even more beautiful than the one I had just read. She tells me that when she first wrote it, she wrote it to God. Somewhat surprisingly, that made a lot of sense.
Suddenly her girlfriend, who was sitting next to her, gets up, walks over to the garbage bin, and pukes. My poet friend, whose name I either never knew or simply forgot, leaves to comfort her. I return to my notes.
An hour later we’re back on the bus. The girl disappeared somewhere in Alabama.
Nacfa, Eritrea, March 1997
I had gone to Nacfa to see the trenches and burned-out tanks of the civil war along the way, the underground schools and hospitals around town, and the so-called Revolutionary School, still operating in the newly independent Eritrea. Besides, Nacfa had been the base of the EPLF during the long liberation struggle, so there was simply a sentimental reason to visit.
I had been in town for not even two hours when I hooked up with some boys from the Revolutionary School. They took me along on the eight-mile hike to the school and showed me some of the underground buildings not too far off the dirt-road. They had been constructed by the EPLF to protect their clandestine infrastructure from being bombed to pieces during the frequent Ethiopian air raids.
At one point I mentioned something about repaying the great favor they were doing me, but all they said was that they were from the Revolutionary School, that this meant that they were “like fighters”, and that money didn’t matter. I thought I was in a bad socialist propaganda film. It was great.
Amman, Jordan, November 1996
This Australian girl and me had been to some hot springs by the Dead Sea. We hitched back to Amman in the afternoon. The last ride into Amman was with two very nice young Jordanians in a pick-up truck. There wasn’t a lot of room in the cabin. I had my friend sitting on my lap. Entering the city, we passed a line of hundreds of cars blocking the road’s furthest right lane. When we were wondering what was going on, the nice young Jordanians told us that we were close to Jordan’s first McDonald’s that had opened just a few days earlier. What we saw, was the line for the drive-thru.
Wellington, New Zealand, July 1998
The young Maori played guitar, the young Pakeha with dreads, and no teeth, rapped. Something about representing the Lower Hutt. I gave them a dollar. It was one of the best street performances I had ever seen.
Different Locations, Australia, 1997
Cairns: I sleep in a small city park which seems to be a regular sleeping spot for the city’s homeless. At around six in the morning, someone gently rocks my sleeping bag. I stick out my head. “Hey, bro, free breakfast around the corner! Come on, mate!” Three Aborigines let me get up and grab my stuff, before leading the way to the soup kitchen.
Tenant Creek: Sitting on a park bench, doing nothing, I get to talk to a few aboriginal men. They tell me how they’d walk for days from their mission to town. I ask about water. There’s always some to be found, they say, one must only know how. They weren’t as dumb as the white folks thought they were, they added.
Brisbane: Some medieval festival is held at Musgrave Park, lying on grounds of spiritual and historical significance to the aboriginal community. Aborigines usually frequent the park during both day and night. The festival is a commercial event. It’s five bucks to get in. Apparently, some agreement had been made with the Aborigines, according to which they would be able to leave and enter for free through a hidden side gate. When one of them finds us strolling along the fence, looking for a place to get in, he opens the gate for us. We were guests of his people, he said.
All over Australia they had told me to stay away from the Aborigines. They drank and they were dangerous. Because of who they were, the conservatives said. Because of what they’d been turned into, the liberals said. In either case, their conclusion was to stay away.
Different Locations, Northwest and West Africa, 2001
Rabat, Morocco, bus station: The young Moroccan sitting next to me had spent basically all his life in Germany. He had left Morocco with his family when he was four. The first time he had gone back to Morocco was when he was seventeen. He was supposed to deliver two suitcases full of hash. He was caught at the airport in Frankfurt. After he had done half his time, he was released from prison to be deported. He had never become a German citizen. He was now living in Morocco with his grandmother. He had a wife and child in Germany. He was in Rabat because he had been at the German embassy trying to get papers for his return. They wouldn’t give him any. He didn’t care about having been to prison, he claimed. But having been deported, he said, that was the worst. Well, maybe that was just macho talk. But maybe not.
Yoff, Senegal, some alley: The man I was looking for wasn’t there. I got talking to two young Senegalese. One of them had lived in France for a few years. Then he had decided to come back. Life there seemed too fast, he said. It was more laid back in Senegal. Too laid back, however. He now wanted to go back to France.
Banjul, Gambia, some beach: Someone had called the guy over. His clothes were torn, he had no shoes, and a big hat covered what probably were dreads. Supposedly, he had lived in Germany for a few years. “Hamburg,” he confirmed. Illegally. One day, the German girlfriend he had lived with got mad at him (apparently over another girl) and called immigration. They came, picked him up, and sent him back to Gambia. He did really badly when he first got back there, his friends told me. Now, however, he was slowly starting to get better.
Towards Accra, Ghana, hitchhiking: “You’re from Austria? I lived in Germany for almost fifteen years,” the lady on the passenger seat told me. – “And then what?” – “They caught me with my papers not in order.” – “And they deported you?” – “Yes.”
Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, some street: I wasn’t very friendly to the man with the mirrors when he first talked to me. I felt I got hassled too much in Ouaga as it was. It took me awhile to figure out that he didn’t wanna sell me any mirrors. He wanted to speak German. For almost twenty years he had lived in Hamburg and Berlin. Mainly as a cabdriver. He had a German wife, and a few children, but no citizenship. For four years he had made good extra money from selling drugs. Then he got caught. He did half his time, then he was deported to Ghana. Upon arrival in Accra, he had hung out with the policemen escorting him, he said. They had to wait two days for their return flight and knew the city well from numerous previous deportations. They had had a good time together. Now he was selling mirrors for a friend in Ouaga. His wife wouldn’t talk to him anymore. He had a few thousand Deutsch Marks cemented into a basement wall somewhere in Berlin. He would be allowed back into the country in 2003 or ‘04. I said I hoped the National Bank would still give him Euros for his Deutsch Marks then. He said that was what he hoped, too.
Asmara, Eritrea, May 1997
“Janet Jackson’s acting ain’t worth shit. She can’t even talk like she’s black, she talks like she’s white. No offense, but that’s just the way it is.” – Nasser, Eritrean-American L.A. gangbanger on a visit to the motherland for unknown reasons.
Bangkok, Thailand, May 1999
His story was strange. He was Eritrean, but had come to Bangkok many years ago on an Ethiopian passport, by now expired. The Ethiopian embassy refused to give him a new passport, since he was Eritrean. And an Eritrean passport he couldn’t get, because there was no Eritrean embassy or consulate. Besides, he wouldn’t have the money to buy a ticket home, anyway. He liked to laugh about how much money he owed the Thai government for overstaying his visa for years. So and so many Baht a day, which made billions by now.
I once used the few words of Tigrinya I knew and he asked me to stop ‘cause it’d make him cry. Another time, I bought him lunch, but he could only eat steamed vegetables, everything else he’d throw up, he said. When I met him at night, he was usually drunk and cursed me for having a bed while he had to sleep “with the dogs”.
He might still be around Khao San Road. Or he might not. I don’t know.
Berlin, Germany, December 2000
I was on my way back to where I stayed. I don’t remember where I came from. Oranienstrasse probably. In any case, I was in Kreuzberg. I crossed the bridge right in front of the big Turkish supermarket. It was dark, but that didn’t mean much, since it gets dark early in Berlin in December. As I was walking across the bridge I noticed about thirty swans gracefully circling the water. I stopped to watch them till I got cold. It saved my day.
Dakhla, Western Sahara, May 2001
“Non, nous, on prend pas d’argent! Nous, on est Sahraoui. Les Marocains, argent. Nous, pas d’argent. On est Sahraoui.” – I thanked them, and hopped out of the truck.