Managua: First Impressions & Reflections on Traveling in a Developing Country

“HABLAS inglés?”

I overheard the heavy Australian accented Spanish coming from the man on the telephone. His face was red, his brow furrowed, and his body rigidly leaned on the desk. The cord stretched across the desk to where the Nicaraguan employee was sitting. We exchanged glances. I raised my eyebrows. He shook his head. I widened my eyes and waved goodbye. I walked through the open courtyard, where the midday sun once again wrapped me up in its oppressive embrace. Once I saw the translucent blue of the pool, I knew how I was going to spend the rest of my day, my first day, in Nicaragua.

As I floated, I stared at the sky. Brilliant blue and fluffy white was being encroached upon by various shades of grays and black, a drifting sorted out puzzle whose focal point was increasingly menacing. I reflected on my first impressions of the country, of the capital city Managua, and my journey. I arrived with little more than my 60 liter pack and small daypack. I did little research in preparing for the trip, other than learning the basic geography of the city, and how to arrive at my first destination–Managua Backpackers Inn– where I had booked a one night stay. I did not want to be loaded with ideas gleaned from the experiences and prejudices of others. I did not want have a constructed image of Nicaragua and its people in the shape of my expectations. Nor did I want a list of places to see and things to do that would dictate the course of my days and travel. Rather, I wanted to approach Managua, Nicaragua, and the trip as a whole with an all encompassing emptiness.

I have found that when I am unburdened with expectations or structure, I can experience a completely unknown place and people with total flexibility, a child-like naïveté. That openness engenders present-mindedness, which in turn promotes an embrace of any and all experiences. It’s an opening up to the world so that the world will open up to you. In short, it’s a method to living in the now.

The thunder rumbled. I noticed the storm was directly overhead. I dried off, laid in a hammock, and watched the storm roll in.  Lightning lit up the sky, but without a visible strike. A brilliant yellow-green breasted bird dove from the starfruit tree to dip in the pool. It swooped back up over the barbed wire atop the red cement wall and onto its perch. There, it sang its song, which brought mockingbirds to my mind because of the boastful boisterousness.

I continued to reminisce on my experiences to that point, which were all of my arrival to the airport and taxi cab ride to the hostel. The descent into Managua had been visually stunning, and intellectually perplexing. The simultaneous sight of Laguna de Apoyeque, Isla de Momotombito, and Volcán Momotombo was too much for words. Hugging the coastline of Lago de Managua was the city of Managua, a grid of tin and clay roofed homes, a mosaic glinting in the sunlight and affixed to a dense green backdrop. The highlands surrounded the verdant valley, like a natural gate, with Momotombo as the ultimate sentry. I remembered thinking, “How could this be the capital city? Where were the skyscrapers? Or at least, a cluster of buildings taller than two stories? How could two million people be living down there?” Those immediate reactions had led me to the conclusion that Managua was going to be altogether different than anything I had experienced.

Laguna de Apoyeque, Isla de Momotombito, y Volcán Momotombo

Laguna de Apoyeque, Isla de Momotombito, y Volcán Momotombo

Managua: Home of two of the six million living Nicaragua

Managua: Home of two of the six million living in Nicaragua

During the landing, I had noticed multiple towers strung along the perimeter. Guards in military fatigues stood at attention with rifles slung across their shoulders. This exception aside, the airport reminded me of Akron or Tallahassee. It was an unimpressive gray building, with one terminal. Customs and baggage claim were located on the bottom floor. I had breezed through customs and made my way through dozens of families awaiting loved ones and touts awaiting people like me, the gringoes, when the first economic transaction experience happened (the $10 Entrance Fee notwithstanding). When traveling in developing countries, these experiences draw out the uncomfortable reminders of the economic disparities between traveler and local. It brings about critical questions that we more easily avoid in our day to day. It’s much easier to remain in a bubble of your own relative comfort when you have at least a basic level of Western wealth. (Basic: You can provide the basic necessities without incident on a consistent basis). Throw yourself into traveling to a developing country (or the impoverished neighborhoods of your own city/town, for that matter) and you must face your intuitive sense of wrong and injustice. These experiences force self-reflection upon the traveler, and/or trigger a return to the comforts of ignorance and escapism. It hadn’t been long after officially entering the country that I was considering this exact dilemma.

– –

“Amigo! Taxi? Necesitas taxi?”

“Señor, te gusta surfiar? San Juan del Sur?”

Eyes fixed straight ahead, I made my way through the initial wall of offers. I had learned via the hostel’s website that the taxi should cost between $10-20 US, depending on negotiation, and should take approximately 30 minutes. With that in mind, I collected myself, and accepted the first tout I found in open space.

“Cuántos?”

No response.

“Cuántos para el taxi?”

I waited patiently as I knew he wouldn’t discuss figures until he had me damn near in the car, thereby gaining leverage in the situation. I followed him outside where I was then introduced to the taxi driver. He greeted me with a smile and an extended hand. Once my large pack was stored in the trunk, we began the negotiation process.

“Veinte dos. Vamos!” The driver made the initial offer of $22.

“Noooo. Quince.”

The tout and driver looked at one another and spoke rapidly.

“Veinte.”

“No. It should be $15. Quince.”

Once again, they exchanged looks.

“Diez y siete.”

“Quince.”

A heave of shoulders and harder looks followed my stubborn response.

“Diez y siete”, the driver said, and horizontally swept his arm across the air between us.

“Okay. Diez y siete.”

As they parted ways, I wondered if I saw them exchange an eye roll and knowing look. Once I was in the taxi, my guilt set in. I had heard statistics that painted a bleak picture. Seventy five percent of Nicaraguans living on less than $2 a day. Nearly half living below the poverty line. Without knowing the source or veracity of these statistics, it was easy to remain uncertain about the depths of the poverty. But once the taxi wheeled me towards my hostel, it was impossible to deny the reality I saw through my window. The term dirt poor was evoked. Here, it was not an embellishment. Families hunkered under porches, away from the hard gaze of the sun, and watched the world pass by in front of their eyes. Street vendors hawked items in the median or alternatively walked in between the thick midday traffic. Children, barefoot and in tattered clothes, played in dirt alleyways. Though, their huge smiles indicated no worries about their economic plight. A young woman adeptly balanced a basket of sliced mangoes on the top of her head in between lanes at a busy intersection. Another man, whom we nearly hit, walked by with sandwich sized plastic bags of water. These were not the street vendors of Khao San Road in Bangkok hustling to sell cheap souvenirs to drunk tourists and backpackers. These were people selling basic items to their own people. And if many were in the same economic boat, how much could they possibly be making? What were they living on? And I bartered to save $5 on a taxi ride?

I struck up an intermittent conversation with the driver, Mario, as I often do on my taxi rides, to humanize the experience. I learned that he had two children, ages 18 and 13. I wondered if they went to school. How much did groceries cost? How much was rent? Mario easily navigated the traffic and its accompanying chaos (or at least it was chaos to my Western eyes). Passing barrio after barrio with more of the same scenes, I decided I would tip Mario.

Thoughts intruded in on any sense of self-satisfaction or peace of mind.

Does it help? Is this the embodiment of white guilt? Would it be patronizing to do so? My so called generosity demonstrating I could have paid the full price all along? 

“Estamos aquí.” Mario announced.

“No recuerdo. Has dicho que el dolár esta bien?” I asked.

“Si. Cordoba. Dolár. Esta bien.” He replied with nonchalance.

“Diez y siete…y dos para tus niños.” I declared as I handed him the negotiated fare, along with two extra dollars.

“Ok. Gracias.”

Was that the sign of a smile? Appreciation? Or did I imagine what I wanted to see? Did my presence here help the people? Should I have just dispassionately accepted the interaction as normal economic exchange? Or was I contributing to the systemic injustices by exploiting the value of the dollar in an impoverished country where goods and services are significantly cheaper by comparison? How was it all tied together? Could all of these things be true?

– –

I took a deep breath and pulled myself back to the present. These thoughts, the mental wandering. If I do not let go and sit with the discomfort, accept the inherent contradictions and confusion, the questions will pile on top of one another, with no conclusions, and often no resolution. Maintaining a healthy perspective that’s focused on now is the only way to preserve any shred of a peaceful mind. So I continued to take deep breaths, closed my eyes, and reminded myself.

Just as a wound will not heal in an instant, these questions will not be answered in one moment, and these problems will not be solved in one day. Everything is here and now. Do not try to flee this moment. Let these thoughts, feelings, and experiences be. Accept it all. These experiences are for you. Receive them openly and embrace any feelings. If it moves you in a different direction, go with it.

I wanted an end to the anxiety, a permanent resolution.“Yes, my tourist money helps these people.” would have been ideal. At minimum, I wished I could conclude that, “No, my presence here is negative”. But, I had to let go of that desire. I needed to see the process as the goal, not the end.

I have run from personal and interpersonal conflict or sought easy solutions. More often than not these solutions were selfish and brought about a conclusion that was best for me, at the expense of someone else.  Too often I have classified struggles, setbacks, obstacles, and challenges as negative that are to be avoided or quickly and decidedly resolved. Too often I have sought out only what is classified as positive: joy, contentment, exhilaration, triumph. My desire to avoid the former and have the latter ignores the power of vulnerability. It denies the human fact of my limitations and ignores the necessity of my humility. I have wanted to have the answers to my questions. I wanted them to be ones with which I easily agreed.

The fact of economic disparity begs the question for the traveler: Is responsible travel in developing countries possible? If so, what does that look like? What are the attitudes of a responsible traveler? What are the actions? On a grander scale, questions of economic and social justice as a whole naturally follow. And ultimately, your own personal fate is inextricable tied with those you see through a taxi cab window, or those you pass by on the street of your major US city. So what do you do?

These are questions for which I do not have the answers. There are no easy or pleasant conclusions. I do know that I am again provided another opportunity to turn the course of my personal history with regards to difficult problems. I do not have to run from these challenges or find a comfortable solution. I can sit with them, internalize them, and keep doing the work on myself. I can sit with them, ground myself in love and empathy, and be open to receive more wisdom. I can embrace the process and relinquish the desire for the end.

I took this journey with the intention of being open to any and all experiences. Two hours in, and I had been given the experiences. Two hours in, and I was being challenged. Indeed, I knew this country, the people, and this trip would challenge me to see more, learn more, to change, and grow. Here was the opportunity to align my actions with belief. These challenges are life and thus beautiful. With the afternoon thundershower underway, I closed my eyes, and escaped into a siesta.

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Love Lost, Los Angeles, and a Return to the Road

THE last time I was on the road was two years ago. I left the U.S. with few formal plans in September 2012 to travel throughout Southeast Asia. By the time I returned in December, I had visited Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines (and China, briefly). I also had scrapped plans to return to school for a Ph. D in philosophy in favor of a free-floating existence. In May of last year, I was once again scrapping plans. This time it was a trip to Costa Rica and Central America. I was in the midst of planning my next trip when I accepted a truth that terrified me. I had fallen in love and was ready to settle down.

So, I packed up and moved out west to Los Angeles. I had been visiting friends for years and surprisingly liked the city a lot. I felt at home. I also had a goal to live in a cultural epicenter of the U.S. while in my twenties (I identify four: LA, New York City, San Francisco, New Orleans). It was on one of these trips that I met her. It was before I left for SE Asia. I knew I fell hard, but was fully committed to my wanderlust and in no way ready to change my plans for someone else. We kept in contact over time and distance. I finally pushed aside my long held fear of commitment and took the leap of faith to follow my heart, albeit in a drastically different way. Similar to my travels, I had no idea what would come of the move. I simply jumped.

Though I moved to the home of Hollywood, real life isn’t like the movies. The love did not work out as I hoped. I experienced heartbreak for the first time. I was ready for love, a deep commitment. She was not. I knew that position well. It was humbling to be on the other side. True love is relinquishing the hold your ego has in order to create the mental and emotional space for the unconditional consideration and care for another into your life. Simply put, it is giving yourself to another without expecting anything in return. I am grateful for the experience, the challenges, and the love that was shared. I learned much from it all, most importantly, that I I am capable of loving wholly and truly, and that I am deserving of being loved the same in return. I learned to let go of myself, and then I had to learn to let go of her. Life is very much about letting go.

Faced with an apparent dead end, I contemplated where to go next. I considered planting my roots deeper and remaining in Los Angeles. I began a job search for a career change, with an idea to get out of education to try something new. Going back to a career appealed with the material comforts and social security that could give my life stability, inherited meaning. Los Angeles was a great place to live. However, I could not shake the feeling that I was trying to convince myself of this path.

No decision so important should hinge upon self-persuasion. The freedom of choice liberates us only by our courage to choose, instead of having chosen for us. That path still felt like a cop-out, a compromise of my life. I awoke one Saturday morning with a brilliant clarity. I threw away the job applications. I did not have to make up my mind, but instead had to trust my heart, my gut, my soul, my…whatever that ineffable spirit that resides within us that gives unspoken guidance on what matters most. I put faith in myself, the universe, and went my own way.

I once again purchased a one way ticket to travel to a place completely unknown. I am often asked the dreaded question:  Why?  It’s a question I don’t mind answering, but I find myself cringing when asked because my answer never seems to suffice for the inquirer. For wanderers like myself, I don’t think there is an easy answer. It’s a question I have never had to ask myself.  I do it because it’s what I like to do and it’s what feels right.  I don’t think it can be answered any better than that.

The road leads to Nicaragua. Tomorrow morning I board a plane in Fort Lauderdale. I will arrive in Managua with nothing but a backpack, a camera, and a faith that wherever I end up, it’s where I am supposed to be. It doesn’t always turn out as I hope, but it will turn out all right, no matter. It always does.

Us-passport

On The Road: Two Year Anniversary

It is interesting to note that when we—people in general—bridge a time span of communication, we tend to begin with a reference to the length of that gap.  Maybe it is because we can fathom something we can quantify.  It gives us perspective that we can easily comprehend.  What I really think we are remarking about, at least subconsciously, is change.  What I want to reflect and remark upon is change.  The qualitative changes that occur over time, the changes within and around us, can be difficult to grasp, but it is the only constant of life, as the adage goes.  Life is change, change is life. All cliches are truisms, and all truisms are true. (Indeed, Jack, indeed.)

When I began my travels, I had the intentions of keeping a journal and blogging regularly about my experiences on the road.  I soon found this to be an overly ambitious task that got in the way of actually traveling.  Clearly, I was and am not an experienced writer with great habits.  But here it is, two years since I left behind the old way of life and hit the road, and I have not told my family and friends much about my trips, other than the general updates while on the road, and superlative laced summaries upon my returns. More than that, there is much left untold about the inner personal journey I have been on, which has always been what this is about.  The places I have been, the people I have met, have all been the settings and characters intertwined with the big story that is unfolding, still being written.

I am continuing to sift through the memories, reflecting on the experiences, revisiting photographs. One thing has become clear.  Today, my previous travels, and my future adventures are not isolated  wanderings, but a manifestation of who I am, and who I am perpetually becoming. Maybe this is the coming of age portion of the story…I don’t know.  But I do know this is not something I am “getting out of my system” like some disease (or if it is, I will be glad to be ridden with Wanderlust for the rest of my life. In fact I hope to die from it.).  This is not an escape from the real world.  I take that back. It is.  But I have finally learned to stop associating escape with the pejorative connotation others have put on it and instead see it as an escape from a trap, a liberation from a cage in which I was confining myself.  That trap I set for myself which was trying to be happy living a way that was not for me.  I only had to see that the cage wasn’t locked and all I had to do was open the door to get out. I began to realize these things on my trip across the U.S. in the summer of 2011. The road led me back to Southwest Florida, Ohio, and then on to Southeast Asia. It continues to zigzag across the unparalleled landscape of the United States and will no doubt take me across oceans to foreign lands again, soon.

A friend asked me today if I was getting sick of living this way or was going to keep on going.  I thought about it for half a second before responding.  “Not one day goes by that I am sick of this or wish to go back.”  The answer was roughly the same sentiment when I first quit my job.  The difference today was that it was founded in a sense of rightness, not defiance.  This all feels right. It is no longer rooted in rebellion.  Maybe that’s how it was all along, and  it has taken me this time, these experiences, to realize all of this.  I have realized there aren’t compromises to be made with your own heart, your own passions, your own voice, your own destiny.  By following this I have come to find my place in the world.  I don’t know what I am doing here and I don’t know where I am going.  I still don’t know the meaning of this life, and could potentially not be any closer than I was before all of this. I am living one day at a time, simply trying to become better at living it. Maybe that’s all there is to it.

Detroit: Ruination and Reincarnation

Growing up about 100 miles south of Detroit, I regarded it with…well, I gave it little regard.  There was the animosity for anything Michigan that is inculcated in many Ohioans due to a college football rivalry on par with the fervor of soccer rivalries worldwide (despite the irony that no one in my family had graduated from The Ohio State University or the University of Michigan).  The grudge transcends sports and is a fabric of the culture, including influence on mundane daily activities.  One way this was demonstrated to me was my father’s insistence on purchasing any gas or other necessities before crossing the Michigan state line on trips to the Detroit airport, so “those bastards don’t get any of our tax money”.

It was simple.  Michigan sucked. Detroit was synonymous with Michigan.  Ipso facto Detroit sucked, too.  Outside of occasional flights out of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County airport, we did not travel to Michigan.   So I grew up indifferent to arguably the most intriguing and diverse city near me (granted, its competitors were Toledo and Cleveland, nonetheless…).  Then, there was the protracted collapse of the industrial behemoth, punctuated by the implosion of the automotive industry in 2008, that left Detroit in shambles and perpetuated my childhood avoidance of the city and entire state.  However, that all changed last summer.

I was living back home in Northern Ohio for the first time since I was 19 in order to spend an extended amount of time with my family.  A friend from college was living in Detroit and invited me to visit him.  I took him up on the offer and visited him in August.  My burgeoning wanderlust has led to many changes in my life, including the erosion of prejudices, even silly ones rooted in my childhood. It took me 26 years to shake my disdain for anything and all things Michigan, the Buckeyes be damned, but I finally looked forward to a visit to That State Up North.

Though brief, I immensely enjoyed my visit.  I found Detroit to be vibrant with earnestness, awash in persistence, and threaded with dignified blue collar charm.  Art, music, food, and small businesses seemed be rising up out of the industrial collapse, creating a sense of a culture resurrected, one of redemption.  There was a buzz about the city that was unlike any other place I had ever been.  This exposure completely reversed my opinions of the city and the entire state.  Amidst the urban decay, the city’s spirit was a dandelion growing out of concrete.

I was given the opportunity to experience the decay firsthand when Josh, a fellow amateur photographer, suggested we go check out a pair of abandoned city government buildings he had found.  He explained:

“The buildings we’re going to used to be city hall for Highland Park, a city within Detroit. I have visited the building a few times before; it’s actually one of the first abandoned buildings I have explored while in Detroit. I came upon it innocently enough: it was visible from my commute to work. I made a mental note to investigate further, and the rest is history.

I did have one eerie experience there, however. During my explorations, my senses are always on high alert given the risks associated with venturing into abandoned buildings in Detroit. Once, I distinctly remember it was a particularly hot summer day, I was inside of the city hall building when I heard a noise. I thought it might be a squatter, so I froze, waiting to hear more. A few minutes later I spotted the source of the noise, a stray dog. The dog itself had a very knowing look, perhaps due to its life as a stray dog in Detroit. It was more scared than I was, however. After a few minutes of staring each other down, it scampered out the back door, and I never saw it again. It shook me enough that I left right after.”

I told him I was down without hesitating, my fears privately withheld. We packed our gear and drove to the spot.  I caught myself sitting straight up and shifting in the seat.  I forced myself to lean back and put my foot out the window.  Less than 15 minutes later we crept passed the buildings, which were located on a main road about seven miles north of downtown.  Josh made a U-turn in the middle of the four lane thoroughfare and pulled into a lot with unkempt shrubs and trees.  Weeds grew up out of the concrete in an apparent act of reclamation.  Josh aimed the car to the back of the lot and parked behind one of the trees.  We exited the car, gently shut the doors, and walked up to the brick and mortar building.

Front of the Abandoned Highland Park City Hall

We walked past debris, trash, an old tire, accidental decorations of neglect.  It was nearly 80 degrees and partly sunny, yet I shivered as we walked up the steps into the open

Tongue-in-cheek Humor Graffiti

doorway.  I stopped at the entrance and took in the scene.  The paint was peeling away from the walls, revealing the eras like sedimentary layers. Graffiti was peppered here and there.  The floor was covered in dust, dirt, and debris.  A desk sat haphazardly with one drawer slightly opened. With its functionality a thing of the past, it was now a mere prop in this scene.  There were no sounds but the breeze and the gravely crunch of our footsteps.  There were hallways leading to rooms to our right and left, with an exposed concrete spiral staircase directly ahead of us.  I followed Josh into the room to the right.  Light became sparse. My eyes adjusted. My senses heightened.  I gripped my camera bag tightly.

“This is crazy.  It’s absolutely stunning, depressing, and scary all at once. Thanks for bringing me here.” I whispered, out of as much a desire to break the silence as to express sincere appreciation.

Josh drifted off to an adjacent room while I stood in the center of the room, straining to see my surroundings.  I turned on my flash and began snapping photos indiscriminately.  The images began to haunt my preview screen; a room in shambles, with the light fixtures still dangling from the halfway exposed ceiling, the paint again peeling away.  The floors were littered, a table laid on its side, doors to adjoining rooms were halfway open, menacing and beckoning, simultaneously.  The scene could have appeared in the latest post-apocalyptic movie.

Advanced State of Dilapidation

Advanced State of Dilapidation

I walked back to the atrium and not coincidentally where the light spilled in from the main doorway and windows.  I wandered down the left hallway and back into darkness. I squinted at an open door with something written on the glass facing me. I snapped a photo.  Just as I thought it said:  “POLICE”.  I snickered as I entered the through the doorway.

Files were strewn about the floor and desk.  I picked one up.  It was a receipt for a $105 speeding ticket from 1981, complete with the violator’s name, address, birth date, and social security number. A desk in the middle of the room still had a coffee pot and mug.  The mug showed a map of Hawai’i. I stood motionless and imagined its owner cooped up in this office during the Michigan winter daydreaming of another place, another time.  I considered the daily grind of bureaucratic life he/she must have endured.  I wondered if the mug was purchased on a trip to the islands, or perhaps bought locally.  But that was all in another place, another time.  What was once the symbol of a dream getaway was now another artifact left behind, a dream forgotten.

I inhaled deeply, exhaled, and exited the room.  I decided it was time to explore upstairs.  I wound my way up the rail-less staircase, which was partially illuminated by an opened backdoor on the ground floor and windows on the top floor.  The top floor housed more offices, as well as the municipal courtroom that I decided I would save for last.  Corridors to the left and right once again led to adjacent rooms.  I went down the left hallway. The hall darkened, but light spilled in through each doorway from the windows of the exterior rooms.  I approached the first room ahead of me, but its entrance was impassable, blocked by the door leaning off its hinges.  I peeked inside and saw that the ceiling was partially collapsed with the ground steeped knee-high in fragments.  I turned to my right and I entered the room directly next to it, which faced the parking lot.  A modest office with two windows, one with the blinds halfway drawn, still contained a bookshelf.  Though the floor was covered with trash and dirt up to a foot deep in some places, there was still a book remaining on the shelf (“Michigan’s Compiled Laws: Annotated Edition”).  I left the book lay, continuing my Leave No Trace philosophy in this urban wilderness.  As I peered around the room, I heard a sound, something like a shuffling of feet.

“Hey Josh. You up here?” I called out.

I hadn’t seen him since we parted ways on the first floor.  We had not discussed a plan beforehand and had not communicated since.  Recalling his story about the dog, I froze, listening intently.  Hollow silence.  I slowly began to move towards to the door when I heard the noise again.  I paused, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.  I gave myself inner counsel, reminding myself of the many experiences where I had been frightened only to later find out it was for no real reason.  I walked back into the hallway and towards the other side of the building, where the noise originated.  I continued exploring the other offices while I kept my hearing attuned to any new disturbance.  The doorways here were charred black.  Upon further examination, the room was charred around the edges and soot covered the ground.  I remembered reading somewhere that arson was most common in vacant buildings in urban centers.  As I snapped photos, I once again heard the shuffling noise, though much louder, much closer.  I moved quickly toward the sound and called out.

“Anyone in here? Hello?  Josh? Anyone?”

I entered the courtroom through the left side door and stopped in my tracks.

“Whoa.” I muttered aloud to myself, to no one.

The room was mostly intact. The judge’s bench still presided over the room with an aura of authority. The chairs were still in tidy rows, bearing witness to the proceeding now taking place, the erosion of time, the preservation of a bygone era.  Sharp graffiti art covered the exposed brick wall.  Light poured in through the window openings, with the former windows now broken glass on the ground below them.  One such opening still had blinds, but the right side was broken a quarter of the way down so that the remainder just dangled from the left side.  A gust of wind swept through the room from the left to right and as it did so, it caused the dangling blinds to shudder against one another, revealing my ghost.  I laughed.

Court in Session

While I was taking photos, I heard Josh approach.  I confessed being spooked by the wind and broken blinds, which sparked another round of laughter.  Then, we discussed the ruins as he set up his tripod.

“This place has a lot of energy about it.  It feels alive.  Like, I think about the lives that were lived day to day here, as well as the lives that were changed here in this courtroom.  You can just imagine a case being heard, all the emotions bottled up inside all involved.  I don’t really give much thought to or credence in ghosts, but a place like this…well, I just feel a lot of uncertainty.” I explained some of the private thoughts I had been chewing on throughout the adventure.

“Yeah, if only these walls…” Josh trailed off, as he finished his setup.

We continued to chat and shoot more photos, including some automated timer self-portraits to document our adventure.  We left the municipal building and went next door the fire house.  We snapped a few photos, but quickly left with our appetite for adventure satiated.  I gazed back over my shoulder as Josh pulled the car out of the lot, with a hint of nostalgia, knowing I was leaving a place and time behind that would not be again.

– –

It has been nearly a year since I was riding away from the Highland Park City municipal buildings in Josh’s Pontiac.  Upon reflection, two themes stand out to me about the experience.  The unknown always presents us with an anxious energy, part excitement, part fear.  I was bubbling over with that energy.  The former part would be most appropriately described as sheer childlike excitement.  Two children venturing into the dark corners of the playground, beyond the watchful eyes of authority, to the forbidden, liberated. Just as true of my childhood, my imagination ran wild in that place.  Daydreams, thoughtful repose, hallucinations, paranoia. I swung from end to end of my consciousness.  As I looked over the courtroom that day, I viewed it through the eyes of a 10 year old for whom the entire world was magic, a huge mystery to unfold.  I literally could not believe what my eyes were seeing because I did not know how to comprehend it.  It was beyond what I knew.  Instead of trying to box in that wonder, it was free to wander.  Where has that wonder gone?

The second part of the experience that stood out was the fear.  What exactly was I afraid of?  I could pinpoint a few things:  a squatter or opportunistic criminal, stray animal, a ceiling or floor collapse.  But really, these fears were unsubstantiated, and highly unlikely to have any credibility, anyways.  Too many horror movies, too much violence consumed through media growing up.  I, like the vast majority of Americans, live with this insane conception of the world as a dangerous place and other people as dangerous creatures.  Yes, there is danger in the world, yes dangerous people do exist. They exist at the fringes of statistical probability that you or me will experience it.  But it does not lurk around every corner dressed in all black or with canine features.  Our realest dangers are ones we welcome into our lives with open arms each and every day, cleverly disguised in the mundane.

“How could you have gone to that place?! You’re crazy.” was a common response when I told this story.  It is similar to the all-too-familiar warnings from others about how dangerous it is “out there” when I tell them of my travels abroad.  My response to this misguided advice is simple and consistent:

“Are you going to get into your car to drive home tonight?  Do you eat fried foods often? Do you exercise regularly?”

I went to the abandoned buildings with an understood calculated risk.  I do the same when I travel abroad (or anywhere, for that matter).  So while the fears may masquerade as fears of a rabid dog or desperate bum, that cannot be truly, deeply what I was/am scared of.  And I think my fear was revealed through the feelings the buildings evoked. Their state of ruin.  They had been abandoned by all of the people who once beheld them as an important part of their lives, left to vacantly rot.  These buildings’ lives, so to speak, had run their course, and were now close to their own death by wrecking ball.

All things pass.  Time marches on just the same, with never ending change following right behind. Or actually, rather, they are one in the same.  And it speaks the language of impermanence.  Nothing lasts, not even the essential parts of an empire.  No one could have imagined the buildings looking that way, being like that, when they were in their heyday.  Just the same, none of us can imagine our own demise at the height of our youth (or ever?). But, just like the crumbling of the walls, the cracking of the foundation, and the eventual demolition of those places, we will go, too.  We will be a thing of the past, and life will just continue on around our perished bodies.  It is terrifying to consider, but also deeply humbling.

The Courtroom Reacts to the Verdict

The Courtroom Reacts to the Verdict

Miscellaneous (aka the stuff no one ever pays attention to) (but you should pay attention this time!)

  • Josh’s photography can be experienced at  http://www.weissj.tumblr.com/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/weissj/.  Check it out.  The boy’s got skills.
  • More images of the urban decay in and throughout Detroit can be found at the website of two French photographers who made it a five year project to go around the city like Josh and me did for one evening.  So if you thought any of my photos with my basic Nikon DLSR were good, you should definitely check out these guys.  Unbelievable. (They even have a photo from the same buildings!) They even made a book out of it that apparently has sold many copies.