Saturday, August 29, 2009

Reflections on Travel

1. What does it mean to travel? Specifically, what does it mean to travel to a place for the sake of its newness, for the pure experience of being there? What does it mean to seek out a thing in a different location? What does our sojourn do for mind and world?

2. The dead germans tell us that “inquiry is guided beforehand by what is sought.” Our desire to investigate a thing has at its roots a notion of what that thing is or at least what it might be like. These notions may not be explicit, but they provide a grid on which to place our future experiences. These sometimes implicit orientations and expectations are unsettled or undermined by what we take to be the truth of our experience. But often our activity of taking this meaning to be “the truth of our experience” is a dialectical adjustment of the old expectations that this so called truth has replaced. This adjustment brings a change in our expectations, which in turn alters the possibilities for our experience. If they were merely the first term in an ongoing hermeneutic process, our initial preconceptions would not be more problematic than those of anyone else. But the movement of life often forces us to suspend this process, leaving in its place an at least partially calcified receptivity to experiences. Thus, it is just as important for us to investigate our prior conceptions as it is to fend off the elements of life that limit new acts of perception.

3. The difference between expectation and experience is often distinctly perceived in the context of travel, in the distance between home and destination. Our ideas about places are woven out of endless currents of information. When these are places that we have yet to visit, we tend to take the phenomenon of “seeing for one’s self” as the test against which we measure our conceptions. “I hear that Fiji is such and such. I guess I will see it for myself.” Or “I can’t wait to see the the old church that I have read so much about.” The distant world is given over to us largely through media and other accounts. Since all accounts frame the world and all frames commit acts of emphasis and exclusion, we are prone to think of visiting a place as a kind of frame removal. This is why we take the accounts of those who have “been there” as more authoritative than those who merely convey secondary sources.

4. It is also why we endeavor to visit places that interest us. But in visiting, we often overlook what is often most apparent at home, that there is no such thing as frame removal. We experience all things from the frame that is our perception. If we do not condition our perceptions, we could travel to an entirely new place but remain in our usual world of meanings. We can visit a place in the sense of going without being there.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Religiousness and Atiak: Part Two

But meeting with Flo, the adwaka, wasn’t my first excursion into the currents of belief that ran through Atiak. Before that, I spent time with the local parish priest, the only other foreign resident of town, besides the Earth Birth homies. Such a figure is just returning to the scene out here. During the war, the catholic church pulled its representatives out so that they wouldn’t meet with bad fates. The return of a priest is a sign of stability, a token of the church’s renewed attention. It is therefore unfortunate that the priest is so unimpressive.

After meeting him for the first time, we went on a brief walk through Atiak, during which he said hello to people in the limited Acholi that he spoke. Before coming to the main road, we came upon a collection of huts whose doors all faced a clearing. On the ground sat a woman washing her face from a basin of water. She was bleeding profusely from her nose and her lips were swollen and bruised. A dozen children and a few women stood around her. The Priest asked someone in the crowd what happened. He received an answer then turn to me and Rachel, beckoning us to leave quickly. Rachel asked what happened. The woman had been beaten, he said.

Rachel pressed him quite harshly about why his best response to this event was to flee the scene. We were super outsiders, but he was literally Atiak’s supreme moral authority and he had come upon some seriously wrong shit. In Gulu, I saw the Nuns straight up remove children from abusive environments and send them to safer places. I have heard tales of Nuntastic confrontations in which the habit rockers cuss cats the fuck out for not acting right. So I expected a priest to be ready to kick in a door, to overturn the moneylenders’ table and send them crying out of the temple. Or at the rock bottom, to offer consolation to a woman who had just been beaten.

Instead, he told us that this is what African men were like. Presumably, he was excluding himself. He also told us that perhaps he would send a catechist to the scene to check on the woman and scold the husband. We asked him if he did this in the many times we saw him in the days that followed. We eventually just stopped asking.

I suppose, then, that it was my desire to complete an imperfect circle that brought me to mass on a subsequent sunday. The Church was a quaint structure, lacking the general extravagance of most catholic enclaves. Bullets from the war still sat within the brick and mortar of the outside wall. Pains of stained glass were missing from most windows. The simple benches that served as pews faced the altar, upon the wall of which hung a large statue of White Jesus in the absolute agony that was Roman execution. On the left front wall was a painting, a kind of close up of the Anointed One’s face. His eyes were turned upward as though he were in a kind of ecstasy. I found myself wondering what he might whisper to me if I could get close enough.

In front of the altar was a collection of drums and instruments I didn’t recognized. They were played by young people and their songs were just beautiful. Like they were playing to an audience of ghosts instead of the women and children that almost totally made up the crowd.

The Priest didn’t know enough of the language to address the church in Acholi. I don’t know if that was fortunate for me. He spoke the kind of sermon that I have heard pastors give on the radio quite a lot here. A sermon about the illegitimacy of other religions in the face of Christianity. He told his congregation to not consult witch doctors, to nourish themselves and find their answers only in the church. It occurred to me that most of the people in this town couldn’t read in any language; they couldn’t even crack a bible to determine things for themselves. All they had was this Priest.

A couple days later, on the radio I heard a woman reading the famed Pauline passage in which women are admonished to be “subordinate” to their husbands. The command was joined by simile to the relationship between the church and God. A few days after that I heard some women who had come for prenatal talking to Rachel about how there is nowhere for them to go if their husbands beat them. Once the dowry has been paid, they said, their families will no longer accept them. Their fathers will simply send them back. I have been told that it wasn’t always like this, that spousal abuse used to be a community issue and mad cats would be all up in your shit if you, the husband, abused your wife. Maybe this is true. But years of colonization, disease and war can change things. I guess I can’t expect a single papal emissary, who is after all a product of these forces, to make it better.

There is yet another encounter with the supernatural that I had in Atiak. On the night of a lunar eclipse, I pulled a card from a tarot deck. I flipped it over to discover that it’s face was completely blank. Olivia found this amusing. The forces that guide the tarot, she said, were telling me that I don’t need to be pulling cards. Whatever I am supposedly looking for, whatever answer I want, I already have well within my grasp. I laughed it off, but a slow torment followed me to sleep that night. I guess even the forces that one doesn’t believe in can hold great power. I can’t figure if that’s all the better or worse for belief.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Religiousness in Atiak: Part One

The term “witch doctor” falls with some dissonance upon modern ears. The witch is the figure that works magic or deals in witchcraft. She is the conduit of unseen and sometimes diabolical powers. But the doctor addresses only the seen. He sets out from the appearances and will craft ever new machinery to see deeper. He cuts the body into its meaning with a sharp gaze and brings health for which no sacrifice must be made. The merger of these terms feels like some contradiction, an insult of sorts to the doctor, whose profession we have learned to privilege against the superstitious confusion that accompanies the witch. The Acholi word over which the colonial power placed witch doctor sounds like something to the effect of ajwaka. The name of the ajwaka that I met was Flo.

She led us out of the coolish breeze of the afternoon into her hut. As we sat upon mats made from papyrus, she shooed away some stray chicks and laid a dried goat skin down in the middle of the floor. I had a feeling like maybe I was about to learn a secret, as though something had been kept from me for a long time but that now some kind of truth would be shared. We greeted her and I asked questions about her style.

She had been in the vocation for nearly 20 years, moving all across Uganda rocking her trade. Sometimes she was just rolling up on a new scene, sometimes she was fleeing the war and sometimes she was summoned by cats who felt her style. She hadn’t been in Atiak that long, but mad cats knew about her and she maintained ties with the town community leaders. Apparently, if ever cats rolled up on her talking things that were important to the town, she would let the authorities know about it. I couldn’t figure if that was a bit narcish or simply a version of community service.

I asked her how it is that she did what she did. She was like, let me show you my tools. She then pulled out a goat’s head and emptied from it an assortments of beads, coins and cowry shells. She handed me one in particular for closer inspection; upon it was the face of Queen Victoria. On the other side was knight-looking dude killing a dragonish creature. I tossed the coin back into her pile, where it came to rest by a bore’s tooth and a crucifix. I asked her about it and she assured me that she was a good catholic and she asks God to bless her work before she begins.

She said that when someone comes to her with a problem, she used these tools to figure out exactly what is wrong and what the solution is. The general style goes like this: she throws the beads upon the floor and begins a kind of communication with the spirits who tell her what needs to be done. Most often, the solution is to gather things from nature to make medicine. Sometimes, drumming and singing or animal sacrifices are necessary. There is a basic fee for the small jobs and the spirits will tell her what to charge if the task is great.

I asked her if the spirits of which she spoke were the jok. They were. She told me particular names of the jok and at some point in the list she told me of the jok rubanga. This spirit is responsible for afflicting people with hunchback, she said. It seemed that I had corroboration for p’Bitek Okot’s account; perhaps it was true after all that the early missionaries gave the name of the hunchback spirit to Jesus’ father. Despite an apparent research breakthrough, I found myself wishing that this were not the case; it would be a painful metaphor for the church’s disconnection from the people it claims to be serving. I asked her about the name and why it appeared to be the name that the catholics used for God. Either she did not have a clear answer or its clarity was lost between her and the TBA who translated for me. Perhaps I should have pursued the matter further. And perhaps there is no answer that reflects well on Papal authority.

I listened as she told me about people who she has helped. With the help of the jok, she has made barren women conceive. She has straightened out the hunchback brought on by Rubanga. I get the impression that she may have even made it rain on occasion. Take that, Fat Joe. She told us also that she had never been to a hospital or health unit, that any ailment that befalls her she cures with herbs or other means revealed to her by the jok. Once again I felt the mystifying connection between the supposedly supernatural and the physical. There are so many ways of putting the world together; it almost seems a sin to live one's entire life from a few limited grids.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Earth Birth Style

The other day I was laying in bed getting over a headache brought on by a rooster and a church service. I was brought back from the edge of sleep by Rachel, who walked in like, hey, do me a favor and hold this baby while I tend to its mother. Then she laid the infant against my chest and rocked exit. The baby was no more than two hours old; the remnant of the cord that bound it to its mama still hung from his belly button. It was a mellow creature, concerned only with sleeping and sucking on its fingers. If I moved at all or breathed too deeply, it would fling its limbs and make these noises that were just damn cute. It was a five pound ball of cuteness come to join me for a nap.

It is rare that the subject matter of a practice, once it has has been cleaned up, anyway, is so bloody adorable. But such is the Earth Birth style. They have averaged one birth a day since they have been here. Most of the births that they attend happen here at the compound, the site of all of their supplies and the best place to work with the TBAs who usually bring the birthing women in. On occasion, they get a phone call that brings them to a location out in the bush, sometimes miles away from the main road or the town center. Before they rolled up on the scene, there was only the maternity ward at the Atiak health unit to assist with births. It has maybe 6 beds and a staff of two nurse midwives. But Uganda has the third highest birth rate in the world and most of these births happen here in the north. When one considers also the war that waged in this region for 20 years, it becomes obvious that childbirth in Atiak has been in a prolonged state of crisis.

Of course, this problem has not escaped the notice of the government and NGOs. The past is filled with organized efforts to make things better. But these efforts have affected the scene either minimally or adversely. The wackness of these programs is derived from a general assumption of the unconditional goodness of western, hospital-based methods and training models. Even when they can potentially be effective, such programs need continued supplies of resources that this region simply does not have and won’t get any time soon. When the crisis of a particular area is declared “over,” the supposedly humanitarian attention it receives fades away. And when those streams dry up, people suffer from lack of care, just like they did before. This is why those Doctors need Borders.

Of course there are the attempts at training. But a problem with training programs is that they are one-sided. Perhaps the trainers presume the supremacy of their sources of knowledge. Perhaps they are forced to carry out a plan that was not drafted in the field. Whatever the reason, training programs, particularly those aimed at birth practices, have done more to eradicate the community’s ability to meet its own needs than help it. In the wake of World Vision, we find traditional birth attendants whose methods have earned them legal restrictions in their ability to attend births. The primary source of help has been trained out of its practices and pushed into obsolescence by the government.

But the birth rate looms in a country that has a host of other infrastructural problems. And Atiak is ground zero. Miles away from electricity, running water and a hospital, it feels the lack of care acutely. Rachel and Olivia want to shave some degrees off that angle.

The Earth Birth squad has carefully studied the previous styles. They have worked in sorry maternity wards and spoken with world vision officials. They have worked out theory in the halls of NYU and Rutgers and have rocked practice in New York and Brazil. The fruits of fundraising efforts have given them enough to properly start their program, to begin construction of a birth clinic in Atiak and conduct continuing workshops with the traditional birth attendants who want to get back in the game.

Until the clinic is built, the site of most of their work is at the contemporary compound in which the little baby slept in my arms. His arrival was attended by Olivia and a native TBA, Christine. By attending births together, they can share knowledge and observe one another’s practices. They talk about these practices at twice weekly meetings, where everyone learns about traditional styles and modern western practices that can be sustained. The point is to do whatever works in the context with the resources that are available. If you don’t have a clean razor, use the sawgrass to cut the cord. Since you don’t have pitocin, do nipple stimulation. Let her give birth in that position that works best for birthing the baby; there is no need to be confined to her back during labor. And so it goes. Find the most effective, sustainable practices and support them long enough for them to ride out with minimal external support.

Rachel returned to pick up the baby from me just as it appeared to be getting hungry. I brought it out to its mama, who began to give it booby snacks. In the great ideal, one day we won’t even be around to hold the little ones. I guess I gotta pinch their cheeks while I have the chance.

A Fractured Reflection: Limbo

Whenever I rock a sufficient exit from my home—or from my bike; not quite sure which—I get this dull sense of being displaced. Like maybe there is a psychic rubber band gently tugging on me, pulling me back to the spot where I sip tea. It accompanies the strange feeling that I get of being deep within earth at whatever place it is that I am visiting. Like my stepping off the plane or bus created a crater that I have sunk into. Its edges provide a kind of cover, a high wall against which I can rest and peep the shapes of new shadows. It occurs to me now that these complimentary feelings form a kind of limbo. It is a sense of being out there and nowhere, a feeling of suspension from my regular style. In this new place, the rules that normally guide my style find themselves attenuated or changed altogether.

Here in Atiak, I get such a feeling more so than anywhere else I have been. My purgatory is a respite from the anchoring statuses and responsibilities at home. It is a place of excitement and apprehension. But it isn’t a place of forgetfulness. Though I shovel rocks, record births and haul supplies, I dont really experience distractions. No text message summoning me to a hot spot. No motorcycle race to happily disrupt a workday. Even the movies on my computer seem deficient in their ability to slide me off into a dreamworld of magic. Yeah. On this scene, a thought sparked is a thought aflame and there isn’t much I can do to extinguish the conception. Not even go to sleep.

The Jewish homies say that dreams are one sixtieth prophecy. On this score, I wonder what fraction of my life is concerned with abandonment. Maybe I don’t wanna miss my next plane, maybe I don’t wanna step out on a great life project; I don’t really know. I know only that the dreams remind me that death can force the objects of our love to leave us. It is a reminder that few who have lived life need to get. Perhaps I have not yet lived.

Limbo is no more a place to get clear on things that any other site of reflection. It could be the place where you descend further into the icky depths of opacity. It could be the spot where you rock the eureka-like epiphany, sure. But to assume that it will be that, as the man said in No Country, is vanity.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Atiak Ambience

Despite an early morning torrent, the Atiak sand was mostly dried by the heat of the afternoon sun. I avoided the few puddles that remained on the road with a subtle push of the handle bars on the Yamaha DT125 I was riding. I was cruising pretty slowly, because I wasn’t rocking a helmet or gear and also I didn’t want to drop the bucket of placentas sitting between my legs. The container of maternal organs was the residue of a hectic set of days that were theoretically over. Their burial would mark a bit of chillness for the squad, who were headed to Gulu for a couple days of electricity and cold drinks. If we could fix the car.

I pulled up to the burial site and carefully dismounted the bike. This was the land on which the Earth Birth clinic would one day be built. It was bulldozed just a few days before and the dirt still bore the tracks of the ancient machine that leveled the earth. I met Louis, who was waiting for me, and we took the placentas and a poor quality hoe out to the edge of the land. I put on rubber gloves as he dug a small hole, then removed the top of the bucket and emptied its contents. Blood red membraneous flesh that had carried life for around 40 weeks slid onto the dirt.

It was just a few days before that I saw one of these up close for the first time. But such styles were a matter of basicness at the temporary compound, at which pregnant women rolled up for prenatal check ups and all out delivery. And because the only other spot for maternity care was the overstretched health unit, which was deeply understaffed, the Earth Birth squad and its affiliated native birth attendants constantly found themselves catching midnight babies. So the placenta bucket needed a lot of emptying.

I watched as Luis brought the earth down upon the umbilical status. It was a nutritious sacrifice to the soil and the remnant of human life that one could bury without grief or pain. It was like hitting two Invisible Children volunteers with one stone. Or birds or whatever. Luis said that he would stay on the land for a bit, rock a survey and add to his construction schemes. So I kick-started the yamaha and twisted the throttle. On the way back I breathed in some images of Atiak. People walking down the road holding jugs of well water, shovels and hoes, babies strapped to their backs. In an open field, barefoot school children played soccer. Women sat in front of huts selling okra, maize and ginger. In the church, a new parish priest from Tanzania sipped his beer. I waved at the police as I passed the checkpoint and parked the bike next to a dirty SUV with “peace in birth” printed across its back window. In just a little while, a mechanic would show up to get it in running order. We hoped.

On the way into the compound, I looked back at the bike I had borrowed. It had drum brakes. Next time, I would be sure to borrow a helmet.

Rubanga and Jok

The other day Luis was rocking construction of a retention pond outside of the temporary compound. We hired Francis to help. In addition to being the night watchmen for the town parish, Francis works construction. While he was working, I thumbed through a book he had brought with him. It was a catechism text, written in Acholi, with a picture of a Black Jesus on the cover. Well, it was clearly the regular white jesus painted brown, but you gotta start somewhere. Within its pages was written a name that surprised me.

When Francis finished work for the day, I asked him, what is this name, Rubanga? What does it mean? It means God, he said, the God that sent Jesus and such. Huh. I told him that there was a scholar, p’Bitek Okot, who said that once upon a time the Italian missionaries rolled up on the Acholi and began to ask them questions about who it was that created them. The Acholi could not understand what the white men meant by create, and eventually translated the word among themselves as “to mould”. Then they figured that the missionaries must be asking about how it is that some people get hunchback. So they told them; the jok rubanga molds us. The missionaries, at the start of their grand conversion schemes, figured that Rubanga was the holy father who created the Acholi.

Francis did not know what to make of this. He said that maybe it would be cool if I showed him the text in which this was written. He then told me about the difference between the jok and Rubanga, who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His english was pretty good, but I could not get clear on his own beliefs concerning this matter. At times, he seemed to say that he might call upon the jok if he needed something. At other times he seemed to say that the jok styles were not for him. But he did tell me of some rituals involving the jok and described the role that “witch doctors” have in this traditional Acholi style. Like yo, maybe if you get sick for a really long time and the hospitals don’t act right, we can take you to a witch doctor. This cat will ask for a fee maybe, then do some stuff and you will be healed. Or maybe there is a drought and the crops need rain. So the whole town might roll up to this one rock and sacrifice some good snacks to it. Then they leave, the rain comes and everything is all good. I remembered in a philosophy class back in the day the great master K. Wiredu told us that what we think of as African religion is really a deeply empirical venture. (Wiredu, incidentally, thinks that there is no coherent distinction between the natural and the supernatural. His argument for this is so simple it hurts.) So spirits or gods or whatever are always evoked for a specific purpose. And if the spirits don’t deliver, they get rejected. The spirit may lose power, people could stop believing in them and they could vanish altogether.

This is the impression that I got from Francis. He would say things like, yo, if you are rocking a religious style that looks nice, I might take it from you and practice it myself. He also said that Christianity and the traditional style of evoking the jok are really like bananas and rice. One does not seem to be better than another, but some people prefer one. I asked him if he knew anybody that preferred the jok style up to this day. He was like, yeah, of course, my grandfather. I will take you to see him.

That night the homies were all sitting , eating snacks and staring at the stars. The meager ipod speakers began to play Nina Simone. Sinnerman. It occured to me that Nina was singing about a utilitarian approach to religions. In a time of need, she ran to the river. Then she ran to the sea. She ran to the rock, like, what’s the matter with you rock? Don’t you see I need you? And, though he sent her to the devil, she ran to God last. Perhaps Nina was telling me about the death and birth of belief.

The next day Francis took me off the main road to a collection of huts at which his family stayed. He took me into a biggish dwelling in which an old man sat in a low chair next to a radio and a massive pot of water. This was Justin Otin, chairman of the Acholi Council for Traditional Culture. With Francis as a translator, we spoke at length about the traditional styles. Types of jok. What they are responsible for. Particular names of jok. The role of witch doctors. During our conversation, I thought more about the notion of the empirical emphasis in traditional religion. I remembered a few passages from my recent readings in colonialism. The medical missionary, says a scholar named Buchart, did a great deal in bringing about conversion because they were able to link care of the physical body with care of the soul. If a native cat rolled up with pain, the physician would give them something proper, heal them up, and the native would see this as a manifestation of european religious power. It was in the name of God that the physician rolled up on the scene, after all. So, while western cats don’t pay much attention to the fact that our oldest hospitals are founded by religious denominations, it is actually kind of a big deal here, since the health unit and hospital, that is, institutions of supposedly secular influence, played an important role in religious conversion.

From this perspective, it seemed to me that Christianity couldn’t not be the dominant religion here. There are crosses above the door in every hospital. And people go to the health unit just like they used to go to the witch doctor for cure of their ailments. As an institution of political, monetary and educational power, particular formations of churches, like the catholic church, rival governments. If one were to see this power as essentially religious, conversion would be the only sensible move.

Just as I began to wonder what would happen if a Christian in this region found his or her desires frustrated at the hospital or at church, Francis tells me that his grandfather knows a great deal of people who go to church but who practice the traditional styles in secret. He also says that there are a lot of cats who openly respect the traditional ways of belief much more than the church. I ask Justin if he himself thinks that Christianity is better than the traditional style that it replaced. He tells me that, if his son were to walk up in here with newborn twins, he wouldn’t take them to the church for their blessings.

I also ask them if there are any witch doctors in Atiak. They both laughed hard. There are a lot, Francis tells me. We passed one on the road on the way here.

Yeah. Now I have a date with a witch doctor. Naive quests for authenticity die hard.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Cities and Sin

Amsterdam and Las Vegas are to me, the same city. Amsterdam is more beautiful, of course. And if you are a 15th Century author with a manuscript that just screams excommunication, you can get your work published only in the Netherlandian metropolis. Though I think we all know who wins the Tom Jones comparison. Yeah, these are serious differences. But the sins. The sins of these cities are wasted on me, even as they call my name and ask me to get clear on what I am.

A while back, on a dark clear night, I hit the streets of Vegas on foot. From the outskirts, this is a quiet place under a large sky. But even from a distance, one gets the feeling that something is happening up ahead. There are lights that seem to never die, beacons for the adventurous. As I approached the style, I could hear music and voices. There is some golden distance where sounds stop feeling ghostly and begin to feel definite. Sometimes it is a mental distance, like what the hell was that? Oh, wait, it’s voices from downstairs. And sometimes it is a physical distance, like when one comes around a building or over a hill and that indistinct hum becomes a well-formed cacophany. (Just once I want to walk toward something and never cross that point. Though I wonder if I would keep walking.) And this is how it was with me. I heard the style and then I was upon it. A hotel connected to a casino. Cars out front. People carrying bags and babies toward the sliding glass entrance. Within it, the casino was riding out. Endless blackjack tables. A spot off in the cut with cats playing poker. A live band covering old hits in front of a packed dance floor.

I watched suave hands flip and slide playing cards. Chips exchanged hands. Expressions of enjoyment or disappointment or desperation graced each face. Sometimes all at once. I watched and though I was tempted, I could not join that dance. It does look like fun. But it also looks endless.

Homies often ask me why it is that I don’t drink. I usually say that I have a masochistic willingness to be sober. This is true to some extent. But I also have trouble envisioning its end. My cultural surroundings indicate a complicated relationship to alcohol. We think it is awesome, but drunk people kill people with their cars a lot. It can take the edge off a rough day but it is also the first term in many abusive relationships. Some cats rock it well and others really, really don’t. Maybe I am the kind of cat that doesn’t want to entertain the possibility of a question mark fate by taking a sip in leisure. Maybe I have already had some kind of insight into that fate.

The possibly corrosive substance that is wealth conditioned on chance seems equally dangerous. As does the seduction of the idea that, really, one can control elements of the game through research and practice. But this is the point where it becomes a matter of lifestyle. And I am sure many fall away before they uncover the meaning of the poker face. So I just watch. I meditate on the temptation, deny it and then I leave. I am some kind of voyeur of vices. Which makes Amsterdam a kind of paradise for me.

I rolled up in the town after midnight on a weekday. In just a few hours I had to return to the airport and complete the last leg of my journey to Uganda. Plenty of time to explore a new place. I rocked the exit from the Central train station and beheld an orgasm of architecture. Massive old churches and state buildings adorned with the kind of detail that would make you want to firebomb a strip mall. Major streets were also waterfronts, since a lake ran through the city on some Venice styles. The moonlight and the lights of the city reflected off its calm surface. Cars and taxis made their way down cobblestone roads. As did motorcycles, which took every chance they could to accelerate around traffic. But motor vehicles were far outnumbered by bicycles. There were thousands of them. In massive bicycle lots. Chained to lamp poles. Leaned up against walls in alleyways. This was a city for pedestrians, it seemed.

On the way to find snacks I heard mad languages. Dutch. French. Spanish. And English, which everyone seemed to be able to also speak. This place was NYC diverse and infinitely more beautiful. I ate snacks and wandered, following the ghostly murmur of the crowd. On every corner there was a coffee shop. And each one I could not enter for fear of a contact high. So I walked on, snacking on sweet pastries as I went. I knew that eventually I would pass through the fabled red light district. But I didn’t know what that meant until I came upon a window outlined by neon lights. Then I understood very well.

The alleyway glowed red from the lights that framed each glass door. A door that wasn’t curtained revealed a bedroom or a hallway and a woman who was the absolute embodiment of a very old masculine ideal. They looked out at the passing crowd and summoned people to their doors with unsettling gestures of invitation. It occurred to me that, really, there are two myths of the eternal feminine. There is the nurturing, man-needing, passive, emotional figure and then there is this, the completely available satisfier of masculine desire. Both are a kind of existential prison. The former will get you married to a super traditional dude and the latter will get you paid by a super traditional dude. Or anybody, really.

The end of the red light district was not the end of pastry-based snacks, so I ate more and kept strolling. Eventually, against all sense, I ran into some people I knew from Tampa. We walked the city until it was clear that it could offer us nothing more in the way of reflections on gender roles or delicious food items. It was late, after all. The Van Gogh museum was closed and the fantastical parks my friends spoke of were simply too far away. So I made my way back to the train station. I had another eight hours of flight ahead of me. On the way there I passed a Yamaha XJR 1300. It is a street bike sporting an oldish design that was quite beautiful. They don’t sell them in the States. Its tires, along with all of those on the bikes I had inspected since I stepped into the city, were worn to the edges. There was good riding to be had here. So much temptation, I thought.

Many hours later, I landed in Uganda.