Passport Renewal and the Ensuing Separation Anxiety

Sending my Precious to the Land of Red Tape…
Separation from the passport, for any duration of time, can be a debilitating event for an independent traveler. Yesterday, with a heavy heart and sweaty palms, I double-wrapped my passport in a weather proof envelope, triple checked the envelope for the necessary proof that I exist, tucked the package in the priority envelope and slapped a delivery confirmation on my precious document and wished it a safe journey as it heads onto the State Department.

Why can’t my passport be good for 30 years, like my shiny new Arizona drivers license? I wouldn’t have to needlessly suffer every decade as my ticket to other worlds leaves my possession and enters the dark, surly world of federal bureaucracy. Poor thing.

In a moment of panic, I called the State Department to confirm the length of separation and the lovely lady on the end of the line assured me that in the event that I need my passport sooner than 6 weeks, I can call, cough up 60 bucks and they’ll push my little Precious on through the reams of red tape and get her back in my hands ASAP.

Such an attachment to a travel document may seem strange, but for the nomadic soul its a necessary requirement to feed an obsession of experiencing unknown destinations and unmitigated chaos. I carry my passport with me at all times, if I leave the house, that little document is tucked inside my purse. Without question. My justification- if I happen to be strolling down the sidewalk and someone stops me and says, in an urgent, authoritative manner, that I must catch the next flight to Tunisia and here’s the ticket, I can fulfill my obligation. I, at any moment in time, can hop on the next plane across the pond and be in a distant land.

That, dear friends, is the insane train of thought that runs through my thought bubble as I leave the house. Every time.

So, here I am, in the redneck Rivera, a place one would flee at a moments notice to any other destination, foreign or domestic, without my Precious. Without the document that says, “yes, I’m a real person, I’m not an ax murderer and my visit to your country will be beneficial to all of your residents,” or something like that. Oh, and my poor little truck has a broken axle and drive shaft, so I literally am stuck. Here’s where I get twitchy.

So, in honor of my Precious and her well-earned visa stamps, I would like to wander into the social ramifications of the passport.  Spawned, in part, from the most recent edition of Adbusters and last night’s Daily Show, so hold onto your panties- its a rant!

Why More Americans Need to Ship Themselves to the Developing World…
Landing in a strange land can be jaunting, at best. Odds are, you’ve just spent 14 hours or more crammed in a tiny little seat trying desperately not to sleep so hard that you cuddle up to your seat mate in your dreams but trying to at least drown the cries of the screaming infant three rows over with a few hours of sleep so you can speak coherently to the customs official who determines your entry to their country and hail a proper cab.  Your food was slightly runny and distinguishing between chicken and carrots was an unsolved puzzle and brushing your teeth in the airplane bathroom makes you want to vomit. So, needless to say, you’re exhausted, your stomach is growling and gurgling and you have three inches of fur on your teeth.

Once in the airport, as you try to fight the odd sensation of the swaying beneath your feet, you shuffle underneath a sign that states that you are definetely not from here.  You wait patiently as the stark, serious faces of customs agents inspect travelers documents, bags and faces for signs of ill-will or intentions of staying in country past their visa expiration. You glance around and see a melting pot of faces, a veritable scene from “Its a Small World” playing in real time right before your eyes. You glance at everyone and see these colorful little books in their hands. Everyone has one, they all have different colored covers and emblems and look so damn official. You share a common bond with these folks. You feel privileged. You feel special. And if you’re American, you think, damn, this little book is the most valuable piece of paper in this joint. Short of a diplomatic passport or paperwork indicating you are a decendent from the Monarchy.

Yep, even with the tarnished international reputation that the moronic W. administration provided for Americans, our passport is the most valuable one to hold. Obtaining a Visa from a country while holding that nice, dark blue passport is a simple endeavor with little questions and minimal fanfare. (I will leave my border crossing experience in Israel out of this article, for that would fill volumes and negate my previous point- but that country is its own little world, where logic is optional)

Back to my point. As you stand in line and see the value of the passport and all the people that hold one, you have to wonder, “why do only 30% of Americans hold a passport”? That statistic makes me want to weep. I get that not everyone is an international traveler, but what if someone just wants to take a jaunt to Canada or a tropical island? Or what if a person, on a whim, wants to visit the homeland of their ancestors in a distant land? And, truly, we are a privileged society, shouldn’t we embrace the freedoms others would fight and die to obtain and get the damn passport- just because we can? Isn’t that the American way?

Ask any Palestinian about a passport.  I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear their response. I met a Palestinian man who had to go to the police department in his local town EVERY morning to obtain permission to leave the city and travel one hour to see his wife and children- and they never let him go. Think about that for a minute. I met Tibetans who will never, NEVER, be able to obtain a passport. They don’t have a country. Imagine that. And here we sit, the most privileged country in the world (though, that’s debatable) and only a small fraction of our population every bothered to obtain a passport.  Much less use it.

A Bedouin child with her family outside of Jerusalem. The children play as the parents talk with us about the encroaching settlements and the loss of their mobility and freedoms.

A Bedouin child with her family outside of Jerusalem. The children play as the parents talk with us about the encroaching settlements and the loss of their mobility and freedoms.

I turn on the news and I look at the people making headlines- screaming, angry faces with tea bags hanging from their earlobes, costumes of colonial era patriots covering their white bulging waistlines carrying signs of hatred from a long ago era, that apparently never truly died, and I pause.

Seriously?  Have you people ever been to foreign land and witnessed another culture? Do you even hold a passport? Have you been in a developing country when the government collapses and social services, like trash collection cease to operate? Have they ever seen a city park turn into a landfill overnight, with mountains of trash, in 90 degree heat causing a cholera outbreak. I have, and it stinks. That’s what happens when you’re government goes away, nothing functions.  And the shit turns rank. Is that necessary?  I’ve seen what happens when children don’t have health care- its not pretty!  Is that what we want for our children?

But seriously, would there be so much hatred, so much bigotry, an over abundance of racism and intolerance if Americans obtained a passport and traveled to the countries they bomb, berate and belittle on a daily basis. Would we have so many battles over oil and the possession of natural resources if people disengaged from the “Second Lives and Worlds of Warcarfts and cable television news” and engaged in the First life, the one they are living?  Would Americans not stand up and demand peace and sound governance if they had left the couch and traveled to a country with over a billion residents all fighting to put food on the table or a country where the government just collapsed?  Would we fight so hard for the right to consume if we could witness, first-hand, the effects of our unnecessary consumption on other cultures and children in a distant land?

Maybe we should demand that in order to hurl racist slogans and carry signs of ignorance and bigotry, you must hold a passport and travel to a distant land, first.  Then protest. Maybe we should gather all our Senators, Congressmen and administration officials and send them to the countries they seek to control with wars, violence and unsustainable means of production.  Maybe we should gather all the CEOs and stockholders of the major corporations- and their lobbyists; Big Oil, Big Pharma, Big Agri, Wall Street and the military industrial complex and send them to the refugee camps that litter the borders of the countries with the puppet governments they install, manipulate and support with cold hard cash and see if our current foreign policies withstand their travels.

And well, I’m sure there will be opinions on this article, so fire way…  Keep it civil though, and slightly intelligent.

Turning off the Grid- “Things were better before there was television.”

Canning for Survival

Last week, the RV park gathered for their monthly donuts and coffee breakfast.  About 20 old-timers sat around over glazed donuts and talked about their world; knitting, beading, quilting, RV roof sealer, which vendor had the best deals on lawn chairs, and on, and on.  The women all gathered on the porch and showed off their latest creations and the men stood around the coffee pot and talked about cars, politics and the weather.

When I say old-timers, I’m referring to the median age of 70 and up.  I’m the youngest by 40 years or so, which makes the conversation even more interesting for me.  It fascinates me to think of the time span my fellow breakfast mates have lived through and the moments of modern history they experienced.

Happy J's RV park residents gather for their monthly soup luncheon.

Happy J's RV park residents gather for their monthly soup luncheon.

“Things were better before television,” one tiny little lady commented when the conversation drifted to stories of their childhood.

“We didn’t have electricity until I was in high school.” Another lady stated.  High school- can you imagine?  I always proudly state, “back when I was in college, we didn’t have cell phones or email.”  But wow, no electricity, and many of the ladies agreed with her.

“We didn’t get hot water until I was 16,” stated another woman.

“One summer, when I was 15, they pulled me out of summer camp to go home and can for the summer.  Mom was sick, and they came and got me and I had to can all the vegetables for the coming winter.  Took me all summer.  If I hadn’t canned the food, we wouldn’t have eaten at all that winter.” Carol the quilter made this statement and I just had to pause and take that in for a moment.

If I had to can my entire family’s food for the winter, we’d be in serious trouble.  I can’t even bake a loaf of bread properly, that whole patience and baking gene was not passed down to me.  Imagine the summer when you were 15 years old.  Canning vegetables for survival couldn’t be any farther removed from my reality at that age, or even now.

From the Great Depression to the Great Recession

The irony in so many of these folks lives is that they entered the world during the time of the Great Depression and now they are beginning to leave this world under the time period of the “Great Recession”.  But they know survival, they know sacrifice, they can create and they can endure.

And when I look at my generation and our troubles and woes through their eyes, I don’t quite know what to think.  On the evening news tonight, a story about long-term unemployment spoke to the rising trend in my generation of people who will spend years in unemployment.  And as I’m listening to this in the same room with my 87 year old uncle, who has spent a lifetime starting small businesses and making a living any way possible- and doing a great job of it.  I can’t help but wonder about our motives from his perspective.

Granted, we are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but politics aside, what does his generation think of a younger generation that sits around and waits for someone to hand them the same job they just lost?  When you spend a summer canning vegetables for survival, what runs through your mind when you hear about people spending 2-3 years or more out of work and resigning to the inevitability of joblessness? And, I guess coming from a service industry background, I have to wonder why we can’t just go get any job when the one we want is not available.  I know it requires swallowing quite a bit of pride and shoving aside our egos, believe me, I’ve done it, often.  But when we did we become so beholden to inevitability, rather then just changing our reality and seeking our own solution.

Conversing over coffee before the soup luncheon at Happy J's RV Park.

Conversing over coffee before the soup luncheon at Happy J's RV Park.

Finding our Survival Skills

When did we lose our survival skills?  When did we resign our fates to our bosses and supervisors and CEOs?  Why are we so afraid to seek the unknown and find a new skill or a new profession?  Why are we unable to just shift gears when troubles arise and plow forward into the unknown?

What will we do if canning food in the summers is our only means of survival?  I wonder if one day, we’ll be sitting around a table of donuts and pots of coffee reminiscing about the time the televisions went away and we learned to can our food and generate our own power.  I wonder when we are approaching the end of our years if we’ll sit around and compare our masterpiece quilts and handmade jewelry and talk about what life was like before cell phones and recessions.

Or will we be talking about the time we lost our jobs and failed to seek a better destiny for ourselves?  Will our conversation drift to the time when our government failed to function and we turned to ourselves for survival?  The time when we returned to community, farming  and family and rebuilt lives filled with sustainability and self-reliance. Lives where the television was turned off- permanently- and we learned to can vegetables from our own garden, build our own homes and knit our own sweaters.

I wonder if we’ll sit around our coffee and donuts at the end of our lives and say, “life was better after the television went away.”

authors note: I wrote this article Sunday evening during a windstorm with the RV swaying in the gusts and tried to publish prior to bedtime but could not access the internet. The following morning I wandered over to my trusty outpost with wifi only to find that the entire town had lost its internet, phone and ATM capacity during the storm.  Oh, the irony!

The Details of Our Lives & the Catalysts We Become Along the Way

Every man’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.  ~ Hemingway

I’m going to take a moment and delve into this quote for a bit.  I’m sure this topic has been written about extensively in the past, but every so often, I like to contemplate this point.

As a person who tends to value her nomadic tendencies over stability, quotes like this become a security blanket when things get a little grey.  So, I tend to reflect back on all the details of my life, how I’ve lived and if I died tomorrow, what would be my epitaph.  What would people who knew me say?

Playful Cousins

Playful Cousins

An interesting question.  For an artist, I’d like to reflect on a career of tear-sheets from amazing magazines, a couple pulitzers and maybe an award winning documentary or two- yes, I think Oscar needs to sit on my desk one day.  As a writer, maybe a nobel prize in literature or a best seller would help me feel that sense of achievement that has actual tangible recognitions from society attached to them.  Alas, I have achieved none of those moments of greatness- yet.  So, what do I reflect upon when I think of the details that distinguish my life from the person sitting next to me in the coffee shop?

Stories. Lots of stories.  Stories gathered from spending 15 years doing random things and traveling to the far reaches of America and the world beyond.  I look back on all the people I’ve met in my travels-people whose names escape me but with whom I shared true moments of time.  The old fisherman from Alaska who took my for a ride on his Harley in the deserts of Arizona; the driver from Madaba, Jordan who took me all over his town and would stop traffic to come say hello when I was walking down the street in his town;  the woman I photographed for a morning in the hills of Nepal who shared her precious, limited breakfast with me;  the man who shared beers with me on an late night Amtrak and told me the story of the love of his life passing away in his arms or the night I spend with fellow travelers on top of a Himalayan ridge in a chai walla, drinking chai, playing chess and listening to the World Cup on a radio.  Those are the details that have made my life rich.

People. My friends and family.  I can look back at the people I’ve shared moments with, people I’ve loved and laughed with, and feel a sense of fulfillment.  I’m inherently shy, but I was graced by my parents with their love of people and their desires to be social.  Conversation was a high commodity of my home and it was implied that you would partake in a soda, a beer or two or some coffee and conversation with my father on the porch.  Its just the way we were.  So, as an adult, I’ve been blessed with a wide and diverse group of friends.  I look at these interactions as a major detail that makes my life rich beyond anything that money could provide.  And I look at some of these friendships and see that our paths were altered by our crossings.

Catalysts.  I enjoy being a catalyst in people’s lives.  In a good way, of course.  I value this as, hopefully, a major contribution to people’s lives.  We all have catalysts in our lives.  Sometimes it’s an event, sometimes it’s a person; but those catalysts leave us altered.  Hopefully for the better.  I have a dear friend, a soul mate, who is also a catalyst.  She touches people’s lives and they are never quite the same again- her energy just makes people happy and calm.  My mom was blessed with this trait too and I like to think she has passed it along to her two daughters- though its manifestation in us is a little different than in her.  Point being, to be a catalyst in someone’s life that pushes them to see beyond their reality, to embrace the possibilities of their life, to question their role in society and how they live their life, is an amazing gift.  We all have the potential to be a catalyst and I believe that if you can look back on your life and see the positive catalysts that you’ve left behind- be it upon a large population that benefited from your giving or in individual lives that you’ve touched, through actions and words- than you’ve had a life well led.

So when I contemplate the bylines and awards that have yet to be written on my CV, I look to the stories I’ve gathered and shared over the years and I smile.  I look to the family and friends I am touched by and my heart is warmed.  I look to the catalysts I’ve created with those that I’ve interacted with and I think, if I were to face my mortality tomorrow, I’ve had a life well led.

And when I look at the heart-breaking images from Haiti, I wonder, what were the details of that person lying under the white sheet.  What were the catalysts that person left behind?  And what details will never be?

What are your details?  What moments and stories distinguish you from the person next to you?  If you were to leave this world tomorrow, what would people say about your life?

The Walkabout~ my interpretation and why I’m writing about it.

“Every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a West as distant and as fair as that into which the sun goes down.”   ~ Thoreau

According to the trusty Wikipedia, the walkabout is a rite of passage for male  Australian Aborigines coming of age where they would live in the wilderness for a period of time, usually 6 months.  Interestingly, in the same passage, this definition may have been misinterpreted by the white employers of the time and the Aborigines may have just needed to get out of town for a few days and were leaving regardless of the employers’ desires.  I’m paraphrasing, of course.

Walking to the Market

Walking to the Market

For most of my adult life, I have felt the need to just leave.  To pack up my belongings, toss them in “storage” or purge them, put my crap in a backpack and land my ass somewhere that I’ve never been before.  It usually happens rather quickly- though the restless buildup can happen months in advance and becomes enhanced if the words “salary with benefits” are thrown down or “year-long lease” is associated with my name.  Many have thought this is my running from something or my inability to commit, and honestly, at times that is sometimes the case.  But more often its the overwhelming desire and need to seek the unknown, an insatiable curiosity.  To test my boundaries and see just what lies ahead for myself when I chuck the conventions of normalcy and just open myself up to the world.

During my time at UNC, I was able to merge this wanderlust with my photojournalism studies and discovered the beauty of grant money.  I was able to diversify my walkabouts to India, Nepal and the Middle East and direct my wandering around social issues that I felt I needed to document and experience to better understand the world and my place in it. During these travels, I met many people embarking on similar walkabouts, though their motives were different, they traveled without encumbrances and itineraries and possessed such varying and enlightening perspectives of the world.  It seems that the community of wanderers is growing and I’ve met lifelong friends on these excursions- even though our time together was brief, we shared a common bond of travel that instantly connects two people.

A Foot in Both Worlds

One dilemma that us wanderers encounter in our “settled” lives is that very few people understand or can interpret this desire to just go.  I’ve been told I have many afflictions, that I’ll never marry, that I’ll grow out of this, that one day I’ll meet that perfect person and the wanderlust will cease.  And frankly, sometimes I want to believe.  Sometimes.  But the longer my feet stay planted in the “settled” world, the crankier I get and the more cynical I become.  And truly, the only thing that alleviates this is leaving.  Not a vacation, not a resort get-away or a weekend ski trip.  But leaving.  No return ticket, no itinerary and no real idea of where the adventure will take me, just that it has to happen.

I have a few friends with this similar affliction and recently we coined this term the “October Syndrome.”  For the restlessness is unbearable this time of year.  Plans fly, craigslist gets worn down and I check Emirates airlines and Amtrak for cheap tickets daily like its the Weather channel and I’m awaiting a blizzard.

A Street Celebration

A Street Celebration

Living Vicariously

What I’ve found interesting over the years is the number of people who are always asking me what’s next.  The past several years have been more sedentary for me with returning to academic life and trying to fund this lifestyle through commercial photography and multimedia.  And as people become more disillusioned with the modern situations and dilemmas they find themselves in, more people are asking what I’m doing.  My mom’s friends in particular are always asking her, where is Crystal now and what is she doing next?  I think they want to join me or at least try a walkabout of their own.

I find those questions to be a motivator and they provide piece of mind, when at times I am seeking a little.  Before I embark on the walkabouts, people ask me to share the stories, to write them down, to tell them a few tales when return.

This latest walkabout was actually a relocation and when it began, I had no intention of wandering (which is why I am wearing clogs in 6 inches of fresh snow!) but as soon as I boarded the Amtrak in South Carolina, I realized that I missed the train travel and I had grown a little soft in my sedentary life.  I missed the wandering.

So, it occurred to me that now is the time to embrace the Web 2.0 and now the tools exist to truly share these adventures with people who are interested.  This blog is going to be devoted, in part, to the art of the walkabout.  My interpretation of it, of course.  For I do agree with the Wikipedia definition. Sometimes I just have to go live in the “wild.”  For me, the wild is the unknown aspects of community, those little towns that have no real rhyme or reason and who have some odd conflicted relationship with the past and its own modernity.  Sometimes, the “wild” is the chaos of the developing world or the chaos of an urban landscape.  Sometimes, the “wild” is just chaos itself.  I crave the “wild” and I need the walkabout.  And I will share this madness with you and you can judge for yourself whether you need a walkabout of your own.  Or if you just want to enjoy the journey from afar.

“It is true, we are but faint-hearted crusaders, even the walkers, nowadays, who undertake no persevering, never-ending enterprises. Our expeditions are but tours, and come round again at evening to the old hearth-side from which we set out. Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return– prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again–if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man–then you are ready for a walk.”

From Walking, by Thoreau