Inside a Managua Police Station: Theft, Perspective, & Helping One Another

A tickle. My eyes remained closed. A familiar tiny sting, followed by a tingling sensation. I looked out between lashes, groggily coming to consciousness. Rain pattered on the tin roof and blooped on the pool. I rolled my head to the side towards conversation in accented English. German. Unmistakable. I turned back and closed my eyes again. I scratched at my ankle, then my bicep, my knee. I became increasingly aware of the multiple sources of tingling with each moment that passed.

Finally, I gave in and opened my eyes. I sat up in the hammock to survey the damage. I counted seven and acknowledged this battle lost. I made a mental note to resort to chemical warfare before future siestas and looked up to the gray sky. Nicaragua. I am in Nicaragua, I thought to myself. A smirk emerged with the thought.

“Buenos días”, the German voice announced.

“Buenos días, indeed.”

“I am sorry if we disturbed you.”

“Oh, no. It’s all good. No worries. I mean, está bien.”

The German voice belonged to a young woman, who sat in a red plastic chair against the wall. On the wooden picnic table sat the Australian man I passed upon my entrance. His shoulders drooped a bit, but he spoke eagerly with the woman.

“So, yeah, it’s official. I can leave Nicaragua! That’s why I tell people it makes a difference to work through a travel agency, and to get to know them. I am going to have send my girl some flowers or something!”

“Congratulations!” The woman responded with a smile.

I pulled myself out of the hammock and walked to the table. I plopped down and straddled the bench.

“I take it you have had quite an experience here?” I asked.

“You could say that, mate. I was supposed to leave Nicaragua about two weeks ago. I finally get to leave tomorrow.”

I laughed.

“Okay, this sounds like a good story. What happened?”

He sighed, then went on to tell the tale. It was a prime example of a traveling nightmare: Chicken bus. Stolen bag. Everything gone.

“Oh shit! Damn, man. That sucks. So why did you have to stay?” I inquired further.

“Well, I was supposed to travel through the States. But the new temporary passport I was issued via the Australian embassy in Mexico did not have the US Through Visa. I need that to pass through the States. Your country, no offense, is not the easiest to deal with when it comes to traveling. I asked if I could still enter to catch my connection and they wouldn’t talk to me about it. They said come back and see us in two weeks. They didn’t care that my flight was in a couple of days. They basically said, ‘It’s not our problem’. So I missed my original flight home. Since then, I’ve been back and forth with my travel agent to book me a new flight that doesn’t go through the U.S. I just found out they booked it for me. It has something like four layovers, and I don’t even want to think about how much it cost.”

He took a deep breath and chuckled.

“Well, you seem to be in fairly good spirits,” I noted.

“Yeah, mate. I really don’t care at this point. I’m just glad to be going home. When it happened, I wasn’t shocked or upset or angry. I was just a little annoyed at myself for allowing it to happen to me. But, I understand why it happened.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, I was on the Tica bus, you know the locals bus. I had my bag in the rack above my head. I was holding onto it. But then I started talking with the person next to me and dropped my arm. Two minutes later I put my hand back up and my bag was gone. Bam! Just like that…” He snapped his fingers.

“Wow. Damn.” I replied open-mouthed.

“But, I mean, it was merely opportunistic. In a country with this much poverty, I should have known better. And I’m not condoning stealing, but I also understand it.” He concluded.

He continued, “I think the worst part is going to be explaining to the guys back at work how I lost my badge.”

“Wait, you’re a police officer?!”

Laughter all around.

“Yes, yes I am a Federal Police Officer in Australia.” He admitted and hung his head with a smile. “I am sure I won’t hear the end of this for awhile.”

“So it goes…a humbling experience, no doubt.” I added.

“Now, I just have one big task left. In order for my insurance to accept my claim for my stolen items, I need to have an official police report. And I need to have it before I leave tomorrow. And I don’t speak any Spanish.” He said, and drew out the ‘and’ each time.

“Damn, well good luck with that!”

I laughed at the notion. I imagined this guy walking into a Managua police station without being able to speak the language. On top of that, he needed to have something done quickly. He laughed along with me.

“Yeah, I don’t have my hopes up too high. But, the guys at the front desk here said there should be at least one person at the station who speaks English. And it’s supposedly just a few blocks from here. So I am about to head out for that. Wish me luck.”

“Well, I speak a bit of Spanish. How about I join you? Maybe I can help with the translation. And I am curious to see how this saga comes to an end.” I offered.

“Yeah, mate. That would be great. You ready to head out now?”

“Yep, just lemme go change out of my board shorts and put my stuff away.”

As we walked out of the hostel, he extended his hand.

“Oh, yeah. By the way, my name is Anthony, or Ant.”

“Jameson, mucho gusto.”

This was my first adventure more than one block away from the hostel. I took in my surroundings.The sky still threatened to rain. We hung a right onto a smaller side street. Two men clambered to the top of a tree, machetes and handsaws in tow. They hacked and sawed furiously. The limbs and branches fell down into the street without warning. I walked through some of the debris, avoided a passing car by inches, and falling branches by a few feet. I laughed nervously and watched Ant walk below the men. We took another left at the next street. The sidewalk was under construction. An excavator moved mounds of dirt. Three men with pick axes dug away at the remaining concrete. I swung out into the street, around another pile of tree limb debris, stopped short and turned sideways to avoid a passing produce truck.

We rejoined where the sidewalk remained intact. We struck up the usual traveler conversation about current and past travels. Ant explained the current trip was a two week vacation, a “quick getaway or vacation as you Americans call it”.

He explained he had been traveling for 15 years. He had done a number of round-the-world trips lasting months on end. He had lost count of the number of countries he had visited.  He told me about adventures of swimming with sharks and rays in Belize, playing with unchained tigers in Thailand, climbing the base camp of the Matterhorn in Switzerland, kiteboarding in Bali, volcano trekking in Nicaragua, and on and on. He also was deployed with the U.N. to conflict torn areas near Australia like East Timor. I asked if he had ever encountered anything like his current problem. He had not. This would be the first time he needed to use his traveler’s insurance. As we chatted, we approached a busy intersection. I noticed a squat building with faded light blue paint on the opposite side.

“I think that might be it.” I announced.

We stopped and watched traffic careen through the intersection. Staccato beeps of motos and deep bellows of truck horns filled the thick mid afternoon air. The cross traffic stopped. We began to cross. We stopped abruptly. Perpendicular traffic plunged into the intersection and veered off to the left. At each open interval of the turning traffic, the cross traffic advanced. We stood firm, rocks diverting the flow of water. I looked behind me, and then to the right, and made a run for it. I turned around to see all traffic stopped as the two women nudged their way across the street. Ant walked along with them, a huge grin on his face.

“I see you. Do as the locals do, eh?” I remarked.

We walked up to the smudge-streaked glass door covered in noticias and walked into a crowded waiting room. I felt the familiar, uncomfortable feeling of being the object on display. We approached the only desk in the room. A man in a plain short sleeve blue button down shirt sat at the desk. He spoke rapidly with a woman. Once the woman reluctantly took one of the few remaining available seats, it was our turn.

“Hola. I need to file a report,” Ant declared to the man.

His brow furrowed, well worn wrinkles spread across his forehead.

“Hola. Buenas tardes. Necesitamos una persona se habla inglés, por favor.” I interjected.

“No hablo inglés.” He shook his head slowly.

“Nadie aquí?” I persisted, despite the intuitive sense that he would not be eager to oblige us even if there were someone around who did speak English.

“Nadie.”

“Mañana?”

“No. Nadie. Todas días.” He shook his head with each response.

“Okay. Vamos a volver con una persona que habla mejor español.” I relented.

“What did he say?” Ant asked.

“He said he doesn’t speak English and that no one here speaks English. Not tomorrow, not ever. And I said we would come back with someone who speaks better Spanish.”

“Do you think you could try to speak to him in Spanish and try to get the report?” Ant hopefully inquired.

“No, man. My Spanish is rusty to begin with, and I don’t have the vocabulary for this specific context. And given how many people are here, I don’t think they are going to go to great lengths for some extranjeros who had their shit stolen, and cannot even speak their language fluently. I suggest we go back to the hostel and find someone who speaks fluently, maybe one of the guys working there, and have them come back with us to help with translation.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. Okay. Let’s go.”

We picked up our conversation as we returned to the hostel. We talked about our families, life on the road, and the mutual passion for exploring unknown worlds and people. Upon our return, we considered who we could enlist to help us. After a few polite rejections, Ant’s face lit up.

“Oh, Rolando! The guy from Peru.”

“I have not met him. Who is he?” I replied.

“He is a great guy from what I know of him. But he does not speak much English, so that has made it kind of difficult for us to talk at length. Maybe we could talk to him and between your Spanish, and his English, explain the situation?”

“Sure. Sounds good.”

We found Rolando sitting in the first outdoor courtyard. He typed away at his laptop. He looked up when Ant said Hello. Ant explained his predicament in English.

“Entiendes?” I asked once Ant finished.

“Si, si, si. I will help. It is no problem,” Rolando responded.

“Really, mate? Are you sure? It’s okay if you don’t have time.” Ant replied.

“Claro. It is good that I help. Si te ayudo, vendrá de nuevo a mí. How do people say in inglés? Karma? Si? I finish my work. Then we go. Está bien?”

“When? How long?” Ant inquired.

“Porque la estación de policía cierra a las cuatro.” I added.

“Ah, si, si. En una hora y media? Está bien?” Rolando offered.

Ant looked at his watch.

“It is 2:00 right now. Could we maybe leave in an hour to make sure we have enough time? Is that okay?”

“Si, si. Está bien.” Rolando replied without hesitation.

We bid him goodbye and walked to the second outdoor courtyard. Ant found an open hammock and announced his intention to take a siesta. I thought of his plight. Despite all he had been through, he had remained upbeat. I recalled the first time I noticed him. I sought to distance myself from him. Why was that again? The phone call! He had been clearly frustrated. I had sensed that. Yet, since that point I had heard nothing but optimism, passion, and humility. His actions spoke loudly when you considered what he had been through these past few weeks. That positivity was palpable. I spent the next hour reading as the rain softly fell around me.

“Si, si, si. En cuantos minutos? Si, está bien.”

I looked to see Rolando on the phone as he entered the courtyard. He nodded at my wave. Ant slowly opened his eyes and looked up at Rolando, who now stood over him. Soon, he was off the phone.

“So, I talk…um…with a person I know. We will go meet him. He will help us.” Rolando explained.

“Okay, great. Right now? And where do we meet him?” Ant sat up.

“We go now to a different police station. I think, maybe a short cab ride. Está bien?”

“Yeah, of course. Está bien.”

We hailed a cab down the road from the hostel. Rolando spoke in rapid Spanish to the driver. The driver nodded his head. We hopped in. As we traveled cobble-stone and concrete streets in varying degrees of disrepair, we passed more barrios. Men stood outside on street corners. Their conversations paused to gaze at us as we passed. I peered through an iron bar fence that ran along the street. Children ran barefoot along dirt alleyways, with huge smiles attached to their faces. Our driver beeped intermittently at other traffic, pedestrians, and the occasional dog or pig that blocked our way. The steady beat of Reggaeton played quietly from the radio. We turned onto a wider street that teemed with pedestrians of all kinds. Each side of the road was lined with street vendors and stalls. I saw goods and foods of all types. The car slowed in order to snake its way through the river of humans, dogs, chickens, and pigs. Eyes peered in through the open windows at us. The car stopped. Directly ahead the road veered right away from a narrow walkway. A large sign hung over the walkway which I could not translate but interpreted as an entrance. Past the sign was nothing but tiny stalls, outside of some were different frutas y verduras.

“Mercado Orientale”, Rolando pointed ahead. “We are here.” He also announced.

Ant paid the driver the 60 cordobas and we got out. Rolando pointed to the left, towards an enclosed compound, replete with armed police. Beyond the barbed wire adorned gate and fence were several one story, drab buildings. Parked outside were a number of motorbikes, trucks, and police cars. Uniformed officers milled about the courtyard. As we walked towards the compound, a man waved to us. Rolando and the man embraced. They spoke with smiles on their faces.

“Anthony, Jameson, this is Mendoza.” Rolando led the introductions. After the formal greetings, Mendoza led us to the gate where an armed guard awaited us.

“Hola. Buenos días.” The guard extended a hand, shook firmly, and then closed the gate behind us. Heavy metal clanked together.

The police officers who stood inside the courtyard talked and laughed with one another. Their faces turned serious. They nodded their heads as we walked by. Once we entered the compound their conversation and laughter resumed. Mendoza approached an open office, knocked, and saluted the man at the desk. Following a brief conversation, he returned and spoke with Rolando. Rolando nodded, and said “Si, si.”

Then, Mendoza walked down the hall to another office. Again, he saluted. Officers strolled in and out of the offices. They greeted one another warmly each time. One officer entered, curtsied, and effeminately said “Hola jefe”, to a course of laughter from the others. I laughed quietly to myself.

Five minutes passed before Mendoza returned with another man. He introduced the man as the lieutenant that would take the report. We followed the man down the hall. The hall was dimly lit by the sunlight streaming in from the narrow windows that lined the top of each office. I peaked into each office as we passed. 

The walls of the offices stopped two feet short of the ceiling. This gave a sense of openness. It also meant you could clearly hear each conversation. The second office to the left contained a man who pecked away at a typewriter with his index fingers at his desk. The next office housed a man in a white tank top undershirt, with jean shorts that drooped below his waistline. He flailed his arms as he spoke. The large female officer looked at him with raised eyebrows. She cut him off and told him to sit down. In yet another office, two female officers sat behind desks that were perpendicular to one another. One lazily watched a television in the corner of the room. The other folded items into a plastic bag as she listened to a third female, a civilian, wail on and on about her hijo.

We turned into the last office on the right side of the hall. Inside were two desks, one where the lieutenant took a seat facing a turn of the millennium IBM desktop computer, complete with a tower next to it. Sitting on the other desk was an antique typewriter turned up on its end in an apparent state of perpetual disrepair. Rolando stood next to the lieutenant, with Ant by his side. Mendoza and I stood next took one another near the door, all forming a half circle around the lieutenant.

Office in the Managua Police Station

Office in the Managua Police Station

“Pasaporte.” The lieutenant declared.

Rolando turned to Ant and asked for his passport. Ant handed his newly issued temporary passport over to Rolando, who handed it to the lieutenant. He opened it up, and pecked away the information on the keyboards with only his index fingers.

“Edad?” The lieutenant asked sharply.

“He wants to know your age.” Rolando explained to Ant.

“Thirty seven”, Ant responded.

“Treinta siete”, Rolando interpreted.

This process continued on for an hour. The lieutenant barked out questions, Rolando translated them in English, Ant answered, and Rolando interpreted them into Spanish. At times when Rolando struggled to translate the Spanish into English, I assisted. The room turned very somber when the questions turned to the items stolen.

“He needs to know each item that was stolen and how much it was worth.” Rolando explained to Ant.

“Okay. Olympus camera. Three hundred dollars.” He started.

Mendoza raised his eyebrows.

“Canon 7D with three lenses. Probably around $8,000.”

“Ochocientos?” The lieutenant asked for confirmation that we had said eight hundred dollars.”

“No, ocho-cero-cero-cero.”  Rolando and I responded in unison.

“Qué tipo de cámara?!” Mendoza exclaimed.

“Cámara professional.” I explained. I grabbed my imaginary lens far out in front of me to mimic the size of the lens.

“Ohhhh. Cámara professional.” Mendoza gritted his teeth and sucked in air. He turned to the lieutenant and explained.

Ant continued to list the items. Wallet with $200 U.S. dollars. Passport. Driver’s license. Samsung Galaxy 4s. Police badge.

“Policia también?” Mendoza asked and pointed excitedly at Ant.

“Yes. Yes, policia.” Ant responded again with his head down, a smirk spread across his face.

Mendoza turned and chatted excitedly with the lieutenant. Both burst into another fit of laughter. Rolando and I both laughed at the entire scene.

“Mañana los titulares en el periódico: Oficial de la policía de Australia robaron en Nicaragua”, Mendoza exclaimed while he held his imaginary newspaper.

The lieutenant, Mendoza, Rolando, and I all laughed loudly. I clapped my hands and heaved forward in another round of laughter.

“What did he say?” Ant asked.

“He said tomorrow the newspaper headlines are going to read ‘Australian police officer robbed in Nicaragua’”, I explained to him.

Ant laughed.

“Yeah, I knew that I would never hear the end of this. I am glad everyone is having a good time with this. I am just doing my best to bring a little more joy to the world.” Ant replied with a smile.

The lieutenant asked Ant to look at the screen to confirm the details. Then the lieutenant spoke to Rolando and Mendoza.

“We are finished. It is printing in another office. Let’s go.” Rolando motioned towards the door.

We followed the lieutenant across the hallway into the office with the two female officers. One of the officers stood up to allow the lieutenant to sit at a desk with a printer. The printer hummed loudly and beeped as it printed, and then whizzed as it returned to the next line. The paper had perforated edges and was connected in one sheet, with perforations also separating the pages.

I remembered seeing these printers when I visited my father’s business as a kid. A bit of nostalgia washed over me. When the noise settled, the lieutenant ripped at the last perforation, and handed a copy to Ant. We shook hands with him and thanked him. Mendoza led us back outside into the courtyard and to the gate. The officers all solemnly nodded once again. The guard at the gate shook our hands once more. Mendoza told us to wait as he walked further down the street to get a cab for us.

“No es seguro aquí.” Rolando explained.

“Yo se. Yo se. I figured that.” I responded.

Mendoza walked up with a cab rolling along next to him. As we approached the cab, the driver said something to Mendoza, and then left. He shrugged his shoulders. He turned and whistled for the next cab he saw. It pulled up, he spoke with the driver.

“Okay.” Mendoza declared.

We shook hands with him and thanked him. We hopped in the cab, shut the doors, and weaved through the river of people and animals back to our hostel.

“So how do you feel?!” I asked Ant.

“Mate, I feel so good. So relieved. I never thought I’d actually be able to get this thing.” He said as he held up his report. “And I would have never been able to do it without the help from you guys and Mendoza. I owe you all big time. So thanks again.” He continued.

“No worries, man. Glad to help.” I responded.

“Of course. It is what makes the world go around, to help one another.” Rolando explained.

“Well, beers on me when we get back to the hostel.” Ant offered.

We all laughed.

“Sounds good to me. What do you think, Rolando?” I asked.

“Está bien. Todo está bien.”

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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

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.

Three Star Hotel in China

The Nissan transport van took a slight right to exit the freeway and we continued down the off-ramp at the same speed, which from what I could see was about 80 kilometers per hour.  As we careened towards the intersection that displayed a green light, the driver was honking the horn like a mad woman.  As I felt the vehicle slow down slightly, I finally exhaled; the relief was short lived as I made out why the driver was beeping as if to say “Clear the way! We have no brakes!”.  The intersection was a free-for-all.  Cars, trucks, bicycles, motorbikes, and pedestrians were crossing from the opposite direction in between the vehicles that were turning in front of us, much like a daredevil game of Crossfire with humans and vehicles instead of small steel balls.  The driver continued to honk, while slowing down to 45 kilometers per hour. As we made our looping left turn, we narrowly avoided colliding with two pedestrians, a motorbike and two cars that abruptly stopped just short of our path, along with an old man on a bicycle who had continued on in front of us, pedaling as if he was taking a lovely ride along a beach boardwalk.  The driver then slammed on the brakes as we entered a huge stop and go mass of traffic.

The driver edged up on the far right shoulder of the three lane road, cutting off a car behind us, and inched by the truck in front of us, sped past and ran parallel with a human sardine can on wheels that I deciphered to be a public transit bus. Cars beeped. Trucks honked.  I heard the low din of masses of people, like I was approaching a football stadium down the block. The road narrowed ahead to two lanes with street vendors and pedestrians milling about only 100 yards ahead, and yet the driver accelerated.  As we approached the end of our lane, traffic stopped and we were side by side with the bus, so that each driver glared at one another accusingly.  An old west showdown here in the Far East.  My driver, a middle aged Chinese woman with a stern expression and hair held up in a  bun with two pencils, edged forward in front of the bus at a 45 degree angle, honking the entire way, as if she was incredulous that the bus driver had not yielded to her!  Maybe she was incredulous. I think she was incredulous, because she opened her window and leaned her head out to stare back at the driver.  All the while we were keeping our creeping pace.

This all happened so…naturally, that I never really felt worried for my wellbeing.  I was shocked, for sure, but it had the feeling of just another day in Shanghai.  As we started and stopped along the street, I saw people, Chinese and only Chinese, milling and mingling about all around on each side.  The left side had an open public space where there was some kind of concert, or demonstration, or I don’t know.  There was a large crowd listening to a man on a stage who chanted out indecipherable phrases set to a rhythmic bass line and percussion. On my right was a wide alley lit by street lamps, which illuminated stalls and cart vendors crunched side by side with different foods and produce, along with locals moving from one to the next.  It resembled a colony of ants, marching in tune to their steps and fulfilling their roles; but this was a different species from which I was accustomed, and for the time being I was being given a tour in the glass encapsulated vehicle in order to observe the peculiar patterns.

The van began a slow right turn onto a side street. Pedestrians stopped and/or jumped to the side to avoid be bumped by the van.  There was a small shop with men standing outside smoking, peering at me with solemn faces, the exhaled smoke swirling around their faces, giving me a gangster impression. The street was a dead end with a five story white building on the right with illuminated neon Chinese characters running up the side.  The van pulled up in front and stopped. A man smoking a cigarette took one last hit and threw it to the ground and walked to my side of the van.

Where was I?  Who was this character?  Did I just get scammed?  Am I safe? What the hell should I do?  How the hell did I get myself into this in the first place?

– –

Ah, yes.  The last question.  After I had beat Chinese immigration, I retrieved my large pack from the baggage claim with no problems.  I consulted an information desk where I could access wifi and was told to head to one of the airport’s restaurants. I had not made any lodging or transportation plans.  My thought was to see how I felt after the marathon plane ride and determine the best course of action.   I had also been connected with a friend of a friend living in Shanghai the previous day and was to check to see her response about suggestions and the possibility of crashing on her couch.  I ordered a beer and set out to connect to the internet. Shit!  I had only left 27 minutes of battery life. Time was of the essence. My laptop struggled to connect, facing problem after problem. Tick, tock. After getting some assistance from a waiter, I finally connected. I was sweating bullets, literally and figuratively, trying to not think about the implications of a dead laptop.  I would have charged it, but I failed to purchase a power adapter to fit my U.S. plug into an Asian power outlet.  I actually didn’t even consider it.  Did I mention this was my first trip outside of the U.S.?

The connection was slow, but at last my email page loaded and I saw the bolded response from the acquaintance with the preview of the email stating: “Hello, Jameson! I’d be happy to offer some insight/suggestions.”  I clicked on it and whispered: “Go, go, go!” Suddenly, I stared at a black screen.  As the sand of the hourglass on my screen sifted from top to bottom, so too did the invisible battery life hourglass, with the last sands slipping away before the email could load.

“You fucking idiot. How could you not think of the power outlet adapter?  Why did you have to run the juice down so low? Why didn’t you make some plans for Shanghai, or at least research the damn city?” I scolded myself.  I felt far, far from home.  The world around me felt like it was closing in, collapsing like a slow leaking punctured balloon, and folding down upon me.  Anxiety, alienation, and isolation, my three unwelcome, but inevitable, companions had now joined me on the trip.  I sat in a stunned, sweaty silence sipping my Kirin Ichiban.  After I finished my beer, I methodically closed my laptop and returned it to its place in my daypack.  I watched my hands and felt my feet push the chair from the table.  I allowed my legs to lift me up, knees cracking as usual.  I walked out of the restaurant, noticing how soft the carpet felt.  The carpet:  faint blue, red, and white squares intersected with triangles. The waiters, waitresses, business travelers, couples, and families all moved their mouths and displayed shifting facial patterns, expressions.  But I didn’t discern meaning.  I allowed myself to be pulled along, back down the escalator.  I walked down the long corridor, looking at, but not seeing, the different signs.  I about-faced and retraced my steps.  I stopped. I stood. I was lost.

“Here you are right now. This sucks, there is no denying that. But it’s your reality. Accept it. Deal with it.  Your positive energy is sapped, so just figure out a way to get to a hotel and rest up for Bangkok.”  Private counseling.

I returned to the same information desk and asked the same woman for information on hotels.  She asked me to wait a moment while she called someone.  Soon another woman, an older woman, presumably an authority figure appeared and asked me to come over to her desk.  She gave me a laminated sheet with two columns, bearing two choices. I looked over the sheet, but was still somewhat stunned and did not comprehend what I read.

“Would you like stay here by airport or in city?” She inquired.

“Close to the airport.”

“Three star or four star?”

“What’s the difference in price?”

“Four star is 635 Yuan. Three star is about 300 Yuan.”

“Ummm…what is that in American dollars.”

“Four star is…about $100 American dollars.  Three star is about $50.  You get free shuttle to airport from three star, too.”

“Okay, give me the three star.” I responded without hesitation.

“You go wait over there. I call. They come soon.” She motioned me off to the row of chairs in the middle of the atrium.

I immediately began second-guessing myself, thinking I should have just picked the four star, given the Chinese interpretation of three and four star hotels may be vastly different than mine. But before I could do anything about it, a man carrying a cellphone from the 1990s and a shoulder bag approached me.  “We go”, he stated. This man led me up an elevator and out of the airport to the Nissan transport van, which was more dirt and grime gray than white, with no hotel logo or signs at all.  Just a plain van with a female driver wearing a pissed-off-at-the-world facial expression.  Little did I know at that time she apparently was, indeed, pissed off at the world, and I was just a new minor inconvenience to transport from point A to point B, pick up man to drop off man.

– –

The drop off man opened the door and reached out to grab a bag.  I handed him my daypack and shimmied out of the van with my large pack. He extended his arm out, palm up, towards the entrance to the white building, apparently my hotel. I hesitantly walked into the lobby.  Two men sitting on a beaten leather couch, smoking cigarettes, stared at me as I entered. A squat coffee table sat in front of them with an ashtray full of butts.  A couple appearing to be my age or younger were at the counter, which was staffed with two young women in secondhand polos.  The couple turned and glanced my way and said a few words back and forth, letting out a hushed laugh and turned back with smirks on their faces.  The drop off man stood off to the left near the passage to get behind the desk and spoke to the receptionists and pointed to me.  Everyone in the room laughed.  It was the most uncomfortable wait. I launched plots of escape across the spaces of fear and worry in my head.

Should I ask for a taxi?  Walk out? Ask if I was in the right place?  But, no, no, just ride this out. No time to act rash.  This is your reality. This is your fate. Accept it. Embrace it. Feel the awkwardness. Feel the alienation.  Believe in the goodness of people and not the irrationality of your fears and worries. Now you know how it feels to be a minority in a white man’s world.  You’re on the other end.  This is what it feels like?  My god, this is uncomfortable.  I feel belittled; mocked; less than.  And I can’t communicate with them; I don’t speak their language.   This is their world.  I am expected to sit back, remain quiet, and keep with the program.  And this is just a tiny shred of the minority experience.

Compassion welled up inside of me and overtook the anxiety, the worry, the fear.  This is why I am here, at this moment, right now.  To experience this.  To feel this.  To dispel my worries, my fears.  All of the work on being empathetic and cultivating openness and tolerance to others of different races and cultures…all of the work in the education field for equity…all of that shit…all of my experiences in the States had never put me here:  the minority in their world, living by their rules.  All of my white privilege bullshit was gone here.  I was thankful for the humbling experience.

After the couple paid up, they walked past, glancing my way with those same smirks glued to their faces.  I approached the desk and asked for a bed for one night. I returned the girls giggles with a smile.  Both of my credit cards did not work, they said.  I pushed out thoughts of being ripped off and asked if they took American dollars.  They did. I paid my $50, was given a room key and directions, and off I went, laughing and smiling to myself, at myself, for being pulled into this situation, and the entire learning process that happened.

I took the elevator to the fourth floor. The halls smelled of stale cigarette smoke and floral air freshener.  My room was directly to the left. I entered the room key, and opened up to walk into a narrow hall, with wood floors.  I laughed throughout my entire tour of my digs for the night. Paint chipped off the walls, which also had some nice touches of water stains. Outside of the window, an enormous neon sign advertising a restaurant glowed, making me feel I was walking down the Vegas strip and not a hotel room.  The bed was low to the ground and stiff, completely stiff.  The bathroom had sliding glass doors, with a design of a half-nude woman on the tiles of the left wall. The shower had a thin curtain, replete with mildew stains at the bottom.  The constant gurgling of water running through pipes overhead, dull roar of a large crowd, intermittent beeps and honks, and occasional shouting in the hall outside my door serenaded the room like a skid row tenement orchestral piece.  I laughed as I listened and reminded myself.  Roof over my head, hot water, running toilets, bed to sleep in.  It’s all good.

After reading and writing a bit, I laid down in bed around 8 PM.  Given all of the travel, it didn’t take long to fall asleep, even despite the neon haze and urban racket.  Aside from waking up around 1:00 AM to a commotion of men and women arguing and yelling directly outside my door, and again around 3:30 AM to an itching sensation (followed by brief paranoia that there were bedbugs – there were not), I slept just fine.  I woke around 5 AM and felt refreshed, and accomplished, and one thought:  Well, that was an experience, man.

And then, oh shit…I fly to Bangkok today.  Bangkok, Thailand!  Strange journey, indeed.