photos by nacrowe
so there i am at SUVARNABHUMI AIRPORT in BANGKOK (pictured below) just hours after leaving MYANMAR and my intense year of teaching there. im waiting for a 10 hour+ connecting flight to HAMAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT (pictured above) in QATAR which will in turn connect me to an even more insane 17 hour flight stateside. as an aside, DONALD TRUMP only hours before had decided to cut off ties with the ARAB nation, despite seeming to forget that our naval fleet was stationed there. but thats another story in itself.
i just remember sitting there taking it all in: the architecture of the airport, the fact that i was lying supine on an extended couch with built-in charge port and hassle free high-speed wifi. traveling is stressful, but this moment wasnt.
what people fail to realize is how beautiful these foreign airports are. and they should be. when visitors arrive, even those just passing through en route to somewhere else, obtain an impression about a country through infrastructure.
SUVARNABHUMI for its part is an absolute gem of an airport. and im an expert on that. i've been to countless airports in over 60 countries worldwide. this airport is setup for the comfort of all tiers of travelers. same with HAMAD INTERNATIONAL in QATAR. the terminals there had geodesic architectural roofs that both evoked palm trees and ARABIC calligraphy. both airports were clean and efficient and at no point did i feel like i was in a cattle call. being in those airports felt like an experience.
now i understand that both those countries are essentially run by hereditary dictators that largely curtail freedom of speech and impose ethnic violence. that and in the case of QATAR utilize what is effectively slave labor for the construction of stadiums for the upcoming WORLD CUP. sadly that labor policy is all too common in the ARAB states as a whole. so i understand all that. absolutely. in some cases i even saw that shit firsthand (looking right at you KUWAIT). not supporting their actions whatsoever, but man i have to hand it to them, those hereditary dictators did create two incredible modern airports. as propaganda by way of architecture goes, both are top notch examples.
now im going to fast forward to JFK, the worst entry point for a supposed world-class democracy ever.
i arrive and the first thing you notice is how dilapidated and crusty the international terminal looks. its an embarrassment. you are yelled at several times to stay in line and eventual you are dumped into the customs section. there are two lines, one for US citizens and those holding visas and then the other line for everyone else. while standing in line full of a wide spectrum of humanity, all tired after a 17+ hour flight, we are all besieged by a wall of televisions all tuned to FOX NEWS where SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS was giving a speech about the then-current MUSLIM ban. she was literally talking about that room and others like. people visiting family, playing tourist. normal stuff. just seemed so incongruent with reality.
at that point you had one of the TSA agents pointing to the non-US line travelers and pointing to the customs officials at the gate. "now when you get up there, no funny business, okay?" this officer declared. "remember, no funny business, SPEAK ENGLISH."
i wanted to crawl in a hole and die i was so furious. first time back home post 2016 election. WELCOME TO TRUMPLAND.
the thing that always gets me is that from the American perspective, we feel like these people should understand what a blessing it is for them to be here. we fail to realize that AMERICA is not special. people aren't any freer here or more intelligent or hardworking than they are in EUROPE or ASIA or SOUTH AMERICA or AFRICA or CENTRAL AMERICA. the whole concept of AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM was a mirage we bought into while our infrastructure and way of life was crumbling around us due to greed and economic disparities. when i see JFK or LAGUARDIA, or to a lesser extent NEWARK, airports i'm reminded about how the AMERICAN DREAM is as failed a reality as these crumbling hollow remnants of yesteryear's optimism and ambition about the future.
but that is what i see as an AMERICAN. just think about the message we send to foreigners, you know, those people that we say we dont care about yet compare ourselves favorably to. just think of what they see. if i was them, i'd connect through CANADA if possible and just fly over us.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
everything is so depressing at the moment. seems the complete balkanization of the AMERICAN body politic is in full free fall right now. you have a president with tyrannical ambitions kicking the tires on what he can get away with in terms of utilizing the military against his own people.
i've seen this movie before. i lived through it specifically in VENEZUELA, NIGERIA and MYANMAR. when i read about unmarked federal officials with a dubious chain of command carrying out protection details against protestors i have flashbacks to seeing colectivos in MATURIN who were off-duty cops that attacked and killed protestors against NICOLAS MADURO. when i see TRUMP using military helicopters and the might of his forces to clear away protestors for the sake of a lame bible photo op, i think back to living in LAGOS in the mid 1990s and watching the police burn markets with glee. the learned hatred by some of my students in MYANMAR against MUSLIMS as manifested in them dressing up as "terrorists" for HALLOWEEN is mirrored in TRUMP and the REPUBLICANS blanket animosity and racism towards the non-white population. to this day i still wear it as a badge of honor that i didn't stay on after my first contract in MYANMAR at a job where my employer didn't have the moral fortitude to challenge the students against racism. the ROHINGYA CRISIS was taboo and never spoken about. what a wasted opportunity.
i've seen personally how injustice erodes unity and corrodes the national psyche. there is a choice being made right now by our fellow AMERICANS that wear a badge and plead an oath of fidelity to the constitution. at some point they are going to have make a decision on who they serve: the people or this dictator. if they collectively choose poorly we are all fucked.
but that isn't why i'm writing this. i do have an example of an individual who during a time of civil unrest made a selfless, patriotic decision and great personal expense on behalf of his fellow compatriots. and ironically this example is set in the BALKANS, specifically ALBANIA.
i've made mention before about my experience as a PEACE CORPS volunteer in ALBANIA and my nationwide literacy project that resulted in me presenting a paper i co-wrote at CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY. i have also mentioned before how during my initial stay at my original placement site in the border town of KUKES (10 miles from the KOSOVAN border) resulted in me getting assaulted and ultimately relocated to another city.
what i haven't spoken about before is my former landlord in KUKES, whom i wont identify by name out of respect. in 1997 the ALBANIAN economy, already the second-poorest in EUROPE, took a sharp nose dive after the government lost a reported $1.2 billion due to involvement in a pyramid scheme. the result was countrywide civil unrest. some have described it as a civil war.
in terms of the police, many abandoned their post. but not my former landlord. he went down to the station and personally defended their stockpile of weapons from would-be looters. his feeling was that the last thing that this powder-keg of a situation needed was more firearms and ammunition. the looters came and turned his own gun against him.
i've seen his through-and-through scars. he showed them to me the night of my assault, telling me that i was a PURO KUKESIAN. that i couldn't leave. my assumption is that everything worthwhile in his community comes at a price and my efforts to educate was worth that price. i still hold him in the highest esteem for his service to his community at their hour of need. a true hero and patriot.
when i think now of our current crisis where the police-citizen relationship is coming apart at the seams, my hope is that our compatriots on the other side of the blue line will display some solidarity and empathy with those who have suffered. they are there in their current position to serve and protect the citizens, not the state.
hopefully they realize such en masse before we find ourselves in a new TRUMPIAN hell-scape we can't return from.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
life's funny sometimes.
the summer before 6th grade i got in a BMX bicycle accident. a very serious one that landed me in the ICU for several days and came perilously close to paralyzing me or worse. i was very lucky. literally my head missed a curb by inches and no, i was not wearing a helmet.
that was back in '96 and since then i have had a fascination with bikes in general and i'm almost certain it comes from that experience. i've ridden BMX bikes since but for whatever reason i've never owned once since the accident.
this is not to say that i haven't conquered other fears. i've long hated/feared flying but have been in innumerable flights my entire life, including twice on a helicopter (BRAZIL and ZAMBIA). i've had a strong fear of being trapped since childhood, but have learned to really enjoy SCUBA DIVING (LOS ROQUES and ISLA MARGARITA in VENEZUELA).
but for me there is something about bicycles that equates to a sense of freedom. in JAPAN my exploration of my neighborhood only really got underway after getting a multi-speed cruiser that i rode to work in (sighhh, that thing was awesome) and later in MYANMAR where i was teaching the only real mode of transportation was via scooter (taxis were inefficient).
i ended up getting a HONDA CLICK which had a 125cc engine and really flew. for me it was almost too fast. driving in MANDALAY was insane because literally nobody followed any rules of the road out there. at any moment cars, trucks, scooters, street dogs, chickens, whatever might come at you or cross the road from either side. it was dangerous. but i have to say that the idea of getting out of work and driving through flooded rice fields with water buffalo gently lifting their heads out of the paddies while in distance you could see the golden spires of buddhist monasteries is something i will always take with me. i loved that scooter and how it gave me the ability to really explore northern MYANMAR.
i believe my fear of accidents died with that scooter since twice i had to jump off it to avoid other riders making careless decisions. both times i got scraped up but luckily broke nothing. driving a scooter in southeast ASIA can be pretty gnarly and i credit it with getting me over my slight phobia of BMX bikes.
gopro footage from my scooter in MYANMAR
so since coming back to the states almost two years ago i was long considering obtaining a BMX bike. what is funny is that i went to a bike shop in central NEW JERSEY multiple times, initially to educate myself from the staff and later to purchase something. i learned later after buying my bike that this shop is owned by SCOTTY CRANMER, a local NEW JERSEY BMX legend roughly my age who is tied with DAVE MIRRA with 11 X-GAMES PARK MEDALS. what is interesting about this is not his numerous medals, but his story of recovery.
in 2016 he got in a terrible bike accident that initially left him paralyzed with restricted motor skills. by sheer will the dude got himself to eventually be able to walk again and eventually maintain his balance well enough to stay on his bike for short periods.
the idea that i bought my bike from a store where there is a shared experience with the owner is not lost on me and it seems rather funny and poetic. only gives me further motivation to keep riding!
if you get a chance i recommend his YouTube channel as it is inspiring to see someone continue to support other riders in spite of his setbacks. it shows a true love of his sport and the community around it. dude is, no joke, an inspiration.