Category: Journal

Trail Tales

 

Five Things I Learned from Chicks

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One of my favorite restaurants is Or2k, a bohemian Israeli place in Kathmandu, Nepal. They serve middle-eastern vegetarian and play Marley, and Dylan, and Cat Stevens. The walls are decorated with blacklight mushrooms and Kokopelli—a sort of eclectic, retro-hippie, groove—très chic. It’s usually full of stoners, and backpackers, and young singles making travel diary entries. You sit on the floor at low tables and lounge back against bright cotton cushions. The food is good and the people-watching, entertaining.

I was camped there one afternoon with my laptop catching up on email when four Australians settled into a spot across from me. While they ordered, they bantered about in that affable Aussie style, three girls and a guy. As they were waiting for their food, one of the girls covered her face with both hands and began to weep. She was magazine-cover gorgeous: rangy frame, raven hair, aquiline nose, olive skin, chocolate eyes. The slender fingers covering her face ended in perfectly manicured natural nails. Her weeping seemed odd, out-of-place. I avoided eye contact and focused on my laptop. It was awkward.

Chicks Have a High EQ

As that elegant Australian wept, her female friend leaned into her and put an arm around her shoulder. She didn’t talk, or reason, she just held her. The third woman rose from her pad on the other side of the low table and nestled on the opposite shoulder, stroking the girl’s hair and dabbing her tears with a Kleenex. The guy sat awkwardly alone. Uneasy, he glanced about the room, fretting with his smart phone, trying to look preoccupied. The three women sat together for a good fifteen minutes, hardly saying a word—a classic EQ moment.

There are two ways to measure a person’s potential, IQ and EQ. IQ, the intellectual quotient, is a standardized measure of raw processing power. EQ, the emotional quotient, is difficult to estimate but it is a more critical life skill.

“Emotions guide everything we do.” Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence.

Emotions are like instruments on a machine. They measure systems. Men tend to ignore the emotional instruments or try to control them. Women tend to read the instruments and use emotional information to manage their lives.

Chicks Notice

I have five granddaughters. They’re all precocious little things: chatty, inquisitive, fashion conscious, and very observant. I was shocked one day when the oldest one, scarcely five years old at the time, told me I’d worn “that same shirt” on my last visit. My last visit had been the month before. I couldn’t remember what shirt I had worn the day before much less the month before. When I take her into the city for ice cream or lunch, she never fails to recognize someone. I seldom recognize anyone in town.

Chicks Nurture

Those young Aussie women made frequent eye contact as they sat together. Their consoling glances said volumes as they scanned one another’s faces and measured one another’s body language. The guy looked like he wanted to disappear.

Chicks Empathize

As the troubled woman quieted, the two consoling women began to weep, their tears discreet and sincere. It was a remarkable transition, as if the two friends were safety valves, releasing pent-up, toxic steam. Their lavish compassion made a public emotional train wreck look like a sailboat gliding on a gentle tide onto a sun-warmed beach.

Chicks Heal

The food arrived and everyone settled. As they sampled one another’s dishes, the three young women moved seamlessly into a somber face-searching conversation. The guy picked aimlessly at his falafel.

About halfway through the meal a precious little five-year-old British girl literally danced over to their table. As her father paid their bill and her mother watched from a distance, the little Shirley Temple announced herself in a cheery London accented greeting.

“Hello,” she said. “My name is Catherine. Do you like my new dress?” She spun around, flashing dimples, and curly hair, and rosy charm, her skirt flowing around her in a crayon riot. Everyone in earshot smiled and paused their conversation and watched with warming hearts. The table lit up and the melancholy girls hugged her, and laughed, and complimented her pretty dress.

I don’t know, but I suspect the child had watched the drama from across the room. And in her little female heart she knew exactly what to do.

Carey Richard is the author of The Poppy Field Diary, available as paperback or on Kindle.

Powerless

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I’ve always been more given to wandering than the itinerary. It seems to me the muse is in the meander. My first journey outside the protective womb of the deep south was to a dozing cane field of a town in southeast Mexico, Cosamaloapan.

I traveled overland in a wheezing International Scout with a Cuban. He was vague about his origin but I knew enough to figure out that he didn’t wash up on south beach in some fragile inner-tube raft. He carried himself like one whose family once held land, in a sort of noble resignation…one of those pathos kind of folk—cartoon exterior, prone-to-brooding, troubled.

We met some locals—rough, calloused ranch hands in starched jeans and pearl button cowboy shirts and crisp hats. We ended up sharing tacos in a grimy local cantina. The town sheriff slouched at the bar, harassing a plump young girl. He was a caricature lawman…open-shirt, hairy-chest, pot-belly, drunk.

Halfway through the tacos, he staggered over to where we sat and slammed a weathered pistol down on our table. The gun spun a lazy circle and stopped, its cannon barrel staring into my sinking soul. His bourbon scent wafted over us. I avoided eye contact. The ranch hands shuffled, timid and embarrassed. He asked me if I wanted to buy a Mexican trinket. I stared meekly at my taco.

I understood, in that time stricken moment, that I was powerless. I didn’t stand and swap insults with him. I didn’t move. I was a peasant, like the rest of the men around the table. I didn’t seethe in anger or proudly resist my emasculation. I focused on my plate and hoped I would survive.

Time stands still in moments of powerlessness—that proverbial stare into the abyss. I discovered in that eternal moment that I was not arrogant or proud or brave or witty, but neither was I a coward. I was a survivor—nothing more, nothing less. I would do what ever it took to live another day.

I thought of my two-year-old son back home. I thought I would like to see him. I thought I would like to live.

 

Carey Richard is the author of The Poppy Field Diary available on Kindle or paperback.

Kindness

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My first bus trip in a foreign land was an overnight into Mexico City from Vera Cruz. There was some discrepancy on my ticket and I spent most of the night standing in the aisle of that double-booked diesel. I swayed through the night, slumbering on my feet through town after darkened town. We crested a ridge at dawn and dropped down into the ancient crater that is Mexico City.

The bus station was on the edge of town. I had an afternoon flight to New Orleans and all day to cross the city. I was poor in those days and traveled on a tight budget. Down to a five-dollar bill and a meager handful of centavos, I decided to hold the five for lunch and struck out on foot, marking my way by the passenger jets that descended on a distant horizon. After two hours walking, the planes were still toys in the distance and everyone I stopped to ask for directions laughed and said, “Taxi, taxi!”

In a quiet municipal park, I asked an elegant, aging little man for directions to the aeropureto. He was French. Through sign language and broken Spanish and patience, I got through to him that I had no pesos and no comprehension of the city bus system.

He guided me with a gentle hand on my elbow to a corner bus stop and pulled a plastic bag as long as my arm from his suit coat pocket. He fished out a worn peso and waited with me for a bus with Aeropuerto emblazoned across the front headpiece.

He smiled and waved as I watched him recede into the distance. A wizened little blue-eyed Frenchman in a thread-worn suit. I have thought of him often through the course of my journeys. In a world gone to hell, random acts of kindness give me great hope.

Carey Richard is the author of The Poppy Field Diary available on Kindle or paperback.

Our Little Naivety

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The word Halloween evolved from an old Scottish term, All Hallows’ Eve, but the origins of the celebration pre-date Christianity. More than likely, it is a syncretism—a melding of the Christian All Saints Eve and the Pagan Samhain.

Samhain was a Gaelic harvest festival at mid-point between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. It marked the beginning of death’s season—winter. Life was precarious in those days and surviving the misty dread of winter was a legitimate fear. Death was more personal then. They washed their dead within their homes. They buried the soiled bed cloths in their fields. They touched death.

“Death is one of those smells you never forget—an odor that loiters in the chamber of your throat and haunts your hollow soul. It is a pungent, insidious thing that rouses your deepest fear. Once you know the stirring horror of that reek, you are forever changed. There is no turning back from that awakening.” —The Poppy Field Diary

On my wanderings in the developing world I’ve seen human bodies abandoned in the streets, floating bloated in rivers and lying alongside lonely stretches of highway. Though I have never been caught in a battle, I have seen it’s aftermath and I have heard the distant staccato of nightfire. In parts of the world, death is still personal.

Death has a certain odor. It’s quite different from the scent of those sanitized flower arrangements we encounter in sterile funeral homes. The scent of death is startling, fearful, awe-inspiring, sobering.

Our Halloween is such curious thing. For the children—a laughing romp through a cool suburban night and afterwards, hot cocoa; for the adolescents—mischief; for singles—raucous parties; for young mothers—a Pinterest inspired fall wreath and pumpkins on the porch.

It’s OK, I suppose, but like most of our rituals, it’s lackluster. By this Halloween 2014, we will have lost perhaps 10,000 to Ebola, 260,000 to the war in Syria and 150,000 to the drug war in Mexico. Conflicts continue in Southern Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Ukraine, and Palestine—on and on it goes. In those hot spots bodies are not quickly whisked away. Those folk don’t celebrate with cute little rituals that mock death. They don’t celebrate at all. But they think about it—a lot!

Happy Halloween

Carey Richard is the author of The Poppy Field Diary available on Kindle or paperback.

Rubbish

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I once saw a body on the street in Port-au-Prince. I had gone into town early to avoid the crush and the city was awakening to another sweltering tropical day. A corpse lay crumpled on the edge of a street corner, its position awkward and unnatural and disturbing. I knew at a glance the grotesque, filthy pile of limbs and rags would not stir to the breaking dawn. Someone did not make the voyage through the night. They had cast their garment to the curb and gone naked on some other journey to some undiscovered place. The grimy city moved along, unmoved. 

I moved along too, unable, or perhaps unwilling, to comprehend. Like the others in the busy market, I shuffled around the carcass, avoided staring and thought someone should do something. I don’t know if I was self-righteous or afraid or confused. I only remember that I judged the calloused disregard of my fellow dawn companions. I wondered how they could have no care for the broken, abandoned man while I too picked a careful path around the offensive pile of decay. In my self-absorption, I could not see my hypocrisy.

Many years later I sat on the ghats of the Ganges in the ancient city of Varanasi and watched a bloated corpse drift silent along the bank. As dawn broke, soft in the morning fog, ritual bathers made their pujas and vowed their sacrifices to their gods. They ignored the body that coasted in the flotsam nearby.

I watched unmoved and later felt ashamed, not ashamed that I did nothing but ashamed over my lack of emotion. I felt no stirring for that discarded, neglected person, cast like rubbish into the Ganges. I wondered if a lifetime of wandering had anesthetized me to suffering and loss. I wondered if I had lost my sense of compassion. I wondered if perhaps I was overwhelmed, burned out.

I once thought, in arrogance, that I could change the world. I thought I could help people become better versions of themselves. But life has humbled me. I have found that some of my righteousness is self-constructed.

People are slow to change. I am slow to change. I struggle to change myself and to change the world is more difficult than I imagined in my youth. I cannot change them all, or help them all but I can influence a few. I can help a few. I can make a difference to a few. And I can hope that I may find a noble ending.

Carey Richard is the author of The Poppy Field Diary, available from Amazon: Kindle $3.99 . . . Paperback $9.99