by Elston Gunn
An American decenter travels Europe and Asia...
|Chapter 1- brutus is an honorable man.
September 1st, 2006, outside of Udon Thani, Thailand.
The train pulled into the station all blurry in the early morning pre-dawn, the lights thin slits of yellow-white and orange piercing the misty black-blue, and I sped down the yellowed page of the battered book I had been reading, trying to finish the final paragraph of the chapter before dog-earing the corner. Cabin lights are faint in trains, especially in Europe, it seemed, but I managed in spite of my struggling eyes.
It was all so serene, the little bit of outside I saw in the walk between train and station, the sky as it grew a paler black and now blue, the trees with whispers of leaves on them, preparing for winter. The inside of the station was large, airy, with brass-workings and pipes and long slabs of granite and marble spread throughout and the ceiling tall, red, stark red, jarringly red. The lights were soft and mounted with large black iron brackets to resemble old torches, electricity mocking gas and kerosene. People pushed past each other in a breeze, no one looked at each other, faces solemn and cloaked in shadowy privacy fences, eyes at the floor. I headed out the front entrance and down wide stone steps that felt as if they leaned slightly to the left, and ambled down to the bottom of a dewy hill. The streets were still mostly empty, a few carts and women walking past carrying baskets; a few of the other passengers from the train followed me into the cool outside and were off down the street, eyes on the ground.
Here I am…free. I made it, finally, all the passport problems and Terrorist-List McCarthy witch-hunts and steel-eyed security, the fucking cops…here I am. Face forward, or suffer grave consequences…Don’t look back. And why would I, anyway?
America. I’ve given you all, and now I’m leaving. I guess I can’t take a cold shoulder like the next guy, right? No more yelling in picket lines and crowds swarming swat barricades, no more scamming food from the corner bodega, no more welfare lines and bitter glares and food stamps that never come and employment prospects that never return calls, no more crowded classrooms and ghettos, no more nervous jumps at benign noise-starts in alleyways dark just because I think it is my turn next; no more watching friends carve their own headstones…
I started my travel in Thailand, where my grandmother had lived and left not much older than I am now. I started it here hoping for some answers, maybe, or for lack of a better beginning, maybe both. It didn’t matter where I started, really, just so long as I got out. I could’ve gone anywhere, but I couldn’t stay there. America was no longer a country I knew; it is no longer a home for me…
The smells were the first oddities I noticed, the smells that wafted through the pocked streets. Shops opening window-less faces, the shady folk lingering in the looming dark and seclusion of the small still-shadowy alleyways, the people beginning to fill the scene with bustle and jaunt and movement, none of it penetrated the fog of little sleep jet lag and culture shock that swirled my brain; nothing but the smells. Exotic spicy, the smell of flowers and plants I’d never seen before, foods I’d never tasted. A cat scuttled from an open doorway and into the biting sun, stared me down with wide little yellow eyes, and bounded off down the sidewalk, in search of food or jollies or some sort of adventure.
I shuffled down the business district, enthralled by the people and sights. I must’ve looked lost, or dazed, and I guess I was a little of both.
I saw a small gray-haired woman propping the door to her shop open, and inside I saw bookshelves, and instantly my interest was perked. I had fallen into many a good book as comfort, just as many people did; it kept me in school, and off the streets. I had friends whose mother’s couldn’t say the same. Not enough people read anymore, as far as I had found, at least not back home.
I followed the frail woman inside, smiling and nodding at hers. I began perusing the dusty rows, many sizes and colors and fonts and languages. English stopped my scanning and I pulled the yellowing title from its sagging wooden cradle. I brushed it off, and flipped its aging cover open, turning a few pages and reading random excerpts. I turned toward the woman, who had been quietly sweeping at the far side of the room, and raised the book into the air, spine-first.
“Three dollar, American.”
“Do you speak English, by chance, Ma’am?” I asked.
“Yes, some. My daughter, she learn English for go to America.”
“Tell her good luck…she might be better off tryin’ Great Britan…”
“What can I help you with?” she said flatly and rhythmically.
“Well, I was wondering if you could recommend a good place to sleep somewhere close-by. I just got into town.”
“There is inn down road, about a block, on this street. It clean, and very reasonable price. Will you buying book today?” She asked, her face hard to read.
“Oh, uhh…yeah, I’ll take it. What’s the name of that inn, if you don’t mind…”
October 19th, 2010- Beijing, China.
So much traveling in the last four years…so many places I have been, things I’ve seen. All the things that have happened, good and bad, near and abroad. I had managed to stay reasonably informed on what had been happening in my former world, in America, and I didn’t like what I saw. A black man was finally elected president, Goddamn Hallelujeah! Lets all fuckin’ celebrate…who baked the cake? Forgive me if I don’t hop the next China Air flight back home to JFK, back to the old block, but one brotha in the white house isn’t gonna change a nation. It shows they might be ready, but everything that’s happened afterwards…they ain’t even in sight of any changes. A cloud had shadowed the country, and there didn’t seem to be a wind in the distance that could dislodge it and send it off into the atmosphere. Not even from a black jesus.
The hotel balcony on which I sat was thin and flat and I could barely stretch myself out on it, my tall American frame, which really now was just a tall frame. I lit a cigarette and, realizing I didn’t fancy one at the moment, it was tossed to the asphalt below. I breathed and it hung in the air shimmering and staring at me in the moonlight. It was full and bright and wavered in the high night sky, and I sat beneath it for a long time, as if I couldn’t pull myself away from its unblinking gaze. In the distance, a handful of miles away, Beijing hummed and shook and buzzed on, jittery and never sleeping; we’d passed many insomniac nights throwing ridiculous and mock-sinister faces at each other. I’d been here for almost six months, and I’d been in this hotel suite for most of it. A video-journalism job had fallen into my lap through luck (or fate, Tao’s dice roll, whatever); it was a small internet news-outlet that somehow had managed to avoid government censorship, although the stories they published were hardly sensational. I had taken residence for a little while, to save up some money, and then I’d be off again. The open road had begun calling my name, the way it always seemed to about this time of year, and her seductive song had begun my mind packing and heart fluttering.
It was gonna be another long day…the morning came and I wasn’t really ready to end my dance with the night sky but duty calls, for me, for the sun, for the dawning day. I dressed, ate (Cookie Crisp…what can I say, I have to have some reminder of the past). I hailed a taxi, I actually hailed a fucking taxi, and it actually stopped…this really isn’t the old neighborhood, is it…?
I scaled steps toward the upper-most floors of one of the buildings I kept conversation with on my sleepless nights (which seemed to be getting more frequent the last month), and pushed through a large glass door with small white Chinese characters spelling “The Beijing Informant”. A small chubby man in a security uniform too tight for him nodded at me and smiled as I passed his desk and into another room, filled with cubicles and activity, phones ringing shrill against a backdrop of low voices Chinese and English and other languages that ran together and sounded almost made-up to me. I headed for one of the handful of offices at the back of the clatter-filled room, with the name Chuntao Liang printed on it, and let a heavy fist rap on the wooden slab once, twice; two more quick, successive thumps.
I followed the voices command and pushed open the door, stepping into a small wood-lined office. There was a bookshelf on all four walls, filled with literature of all sorts, books and magazines and newspapers and more. There was a thick black desk, nothing extravagant, cluttered with the usual office clutter and occupied by a young woman, her face down-turned and focused on a manila folder lying in front of her.
“David. How are you this morning?” she asked, her English probably better than my own. She’d studied in the States, in New York no less, at . She went to a better school than I did, but she wouldn’t let on about it.
“I am doing well, Ms. Liang, you know me.”
“Damn it, David, will you ever call me Chuntao? I mean, its flattering, this Ms. thing, but…”
“I’m sorry, my mama always taught me to mind my manners. Somebody’s gotta have manners in this day and age, right?”
“I guess so, MR. Reynolds. Old Man Deng would like a private meeting with us in his office, as soon as is convenient, as he says. Would you like a cup of tea before we enter the whispering beast’s chambers?” Chuntao asked, standing from her leather office-chair and smirking at the little joke.
“I think so…I’ll need it to talk to him…”
“…so, we will have to be very careful there. They don’t like the press, and they fucking hate cameras. So we’ll be quick, see if we can find a few people to talk to who don’t mind talking to us, and then we get the hell out.”
It was just Chuntao, myself, and the editor-in-chief, Longwei Deng, a quiet very sharp old man who still bopped and skipped like the youngest of us, sitting in his office. It was a sort-of for-eyes only kind of assignment, top-level clearance type-stuff. Some assignment, it really didn’t matter, I just shot the footage. I kind of spaced in and out of the conversation, which was in broken English (broken on Deng’s part, at least) for my sake, but I caught the just of it…some little village not far south, Guiyu, where the townsfolk have taken to dismantling electronic waste, e-waste Chuntao calls it. Anything from computers, cell phones, pagers, if its electronic and its broken or obsolete, its probably in a pile somewhere in the city, waiting to be stripped of its still useful core components. Nothing major, just point where Chuntao wants me to, and watch our backs. No worries, mate.
Chapter 3- even the president of the united states sometimes must have to stand naked.
October 20th, 2010- Just North of Guiyu, China.
The trip didn’t seem to last very long, Chuntao and I exchanging stories about our sordid pasts, bouncing fiercely in the back of the van as Tony (his name wasn’t really Tony, but he insisted I call him that), the station’s driver and resident mechanic, a young man just out of his teens and fleeing Laos, sped happily down uneven dirt roads scarcely more than gravel trails. Chuntao told me of her childhood, growing up a military brat around the country, roaming until she was finally old enough to venture out on her own.
“That was five years ago. I got a job at the station, as a secretary, at first. I moved up the ranks, I guess you could say, and I love where I’m at. I wouldn’t leave even if the city was decimated. I still have the same little cramped apartment flat that I moved into five years ago…I am done with big changes. I’ve had enough of that in my life…” she said smiling, twirling her hair between her fingers, and I suddenly had a vision of her, ten years ago, as a school girl, constantly moving and leaving schools and friends and homes behind…twirling her hair between her fingers just like that…
We reached the outskirts of the city, and what hit us, or at least me, first was the smell…I must’ve missed the dark smog that hung over the cluster of shacks that comprised the backbone of the city; I had missed the darkened factories and smoke-stacks in the obscured distance, pumping cold grey serpentine wisps into the air...but I sure as hell didn’t miss the smell. It hit me like smothering revelations, pressing and working its way into my nose and mouth and trying to pull gags and coughs from me. It was putrid, like burning garbage, but also electric, like a computer that’s caught fire as well (which probably wasn’t far-off from what was actually causing the smell). Nothing grew on the borders of the city; the grass was shriveled and shocked-brown, lying broken and weak on the dry dirt. We saw no real plants, no real animals, and as we crossed the first bridge into the town, we saw nothing but broken huts and piles of garbage. Stacks of old computer monitors, shattered cell phones, a pile that appeared to be solely old microwaves; a kid sprinted in front of us and into a hut to our right in a flash of tattered shorts and skin clinging to malnourished bones, and we saw his parents- the first of the grim faces we’d see, of which there were sure to be many on that trip. It seemed the townsfolk didn’t like people poking around in their affairs, they clung to what they did fiercely, the consequences be damned. We turned a corner and the van shook us silly with another pot-hole and I finally saw the smoke-spewing relics in the near-distance, so in awe of how big they really were that I forgot to pick the camera up and start filming until Chuntao began tapping excitedly on my arm and whispering excitedly in Chinese…