Those midnight hallucinations passed and it was time to start the day. I was staying at a hotel near the Irbil Airport (Irbil also being spelled Arbil or Erbil) called the Sipan Hotel. Heading for the breakfast buffet I noticed odd news being broadcast. In morbid silence there was a series of shots zooming in on puddles; puddles in streets, puddles in yards, and puddles in parks. Apparently these puddles were putting Iraq in gridlock. I scoffed at the puddle drama.
My driver was late. We were supposed to be heading to Soran Kurdistan two hours ago. We made our way out of the city and soon we were racing through the plains of Mesopotamia. From the horizon, I saw those Mongolian hoards charging their cumulus white steeds in reenactment of 1258’s great drama. We drove down a steep hill and streams of water were carrying rocks down with us. The puddle drama was worth that mourning silence I saw on the news. The fog and rain was so bad that we stopped at a roadside market.
There were watermelons for sale. I picked one up with the intent of purchasing. The driver refused to let me pay and I indulged him. He went to buy my watermelon, but, then, the shopkeeper refused to let him pay. Stealing the driver’s gift, the clerk covered the charge. I guess the economy here is based on some complex system of hospitality and gift exchange (Malinowski would have a field day). I was confused. I didn’t know if I should thank the driver or the store manager, or both. Staring at those watermelons, memories swelled inside and I recalled my first frightful nomadic steps:
The word California was becoming a mantra, awkwardly replacing that beautiful word and syllable “om” with five flashy ones: “Caaaaaaallllllliiforrrrrrnnneeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaa.” Listening to Phantom Planent’s “California” –before the hit show O.C. – the word came to represent everything inaccessible in my small town. For me and a few friends, a trip, no, a sojourn was becoming imminent.
A fortunate series of events brought the California trip into fruition. Jeremy had been debating between going or staying, but he seemed set on a sedentary summer. Then, he read the first chapter of Rick Warren’s, “Wild at Heart”, and, slamming the book down, he called me. With evangelical urgency he told me, “The time is nigh, and we should leave tomorrow.” I had that basket of envelopes the high school graduate is blessed with and I thought I had money to blow. Only now do I realize, in the great balance of life, I will pay back every cent of those graduation gifts. So we packed our things and got ready to leave. After intense persuasion, we convinced Jordan that El Dorado did in fact exist and it may lie somewhere between Toledo and L.A. He was recruited into our fold.
Jordan apparently realized after buckling up that the faster he drove, the sooner we could get there and the sooner we could come home. A furious dash to the West Coast followed, leaving Zion National Park, Rocky Mountain National park and the Grand Canyon in the dust of our Ford Taurus.
A hippie, who somehow harvested a crop of small watermelons, welcomed us to our first spit of California coast: “Welcome to the best beach in California bros! Watermelon?” Fuck yea we’ll take some watermelon hippie dude.
Well, it turned out that that beach was terrible. There was glass in the sand, trash in the waves, and hard rocks in the water made walking look like a rite-of-passage. We left, and in awkward silence we returned to the car, each of us hoping this wasn’t all we came for.
It was getting late and we were looking for a place to stay on Ocean’s Boulevard. I remember feeling like I was a foreigner, waiting for someone to call us out as posers, failed dreamers: “You guys aren’t from around here.” I saw a rat scurry up a palm tree.
Despite my graduation booty, our options were limited. I was basically bankrupt by the time we got into L.A. Did I spend my money on drugs? Gambling? Maybe too many hookers? Maybe a classic Western stick-up? Nope. It was smoothies that left my wallet frozen in my back pocket. I had spent Denver to California in one cold tremor. “Wh…wh..where we gonna stay guys?” sipping my last smoothie with crack-like fidgeting.
We found a parking garage and snaked our way up to the top. We were pretending to be calm. Then, as our breathing made the air thick and windows began beading from our respiration, it became clear that there was a general phobia to slit the windows open—all those demons of Hollywood needed was a tiny crack to slip into. A brotherly argument ensued: “Crack your window” “Why” “Yours already is” “Increase circulation” “Dude”. These fraternal confrontations are precipitous; in these moments, mere observations are laden with family histories and the suggestion to “move your feet” can carry the weight of a Godfather betrayal and subsequent violence.
Anyway, the windows were slightly opened, and from sheer exhaustion we began to drift asleep. I woke up suddenly. Was there a noise that warranted an arrest of my REM cycle? Or was this all a smoothie hallucination? I pulled out my at-the-ready Leatherman, thrusting it into that green globe of a fruit and carved out my ration. Jeremy and Jordan heard a smoothie-vore munching into something. “Are you eating the watermelons?” It was 4 a.m.
On top of a parking garage, in humid congregation, we had a fruitful fellowship.
Why and how we remember certain events is unknown to me. Why I taste Strawberry Kiwi at the first showings of winter only furthers the mystery. But, on my way to my teaching post in Soran Iraq, I remember the first trip that brought the roads of travel under my feet. I remember the fears of a young sojourner and even when surrounded with the choicest comforts, the novelty of travel was terrifying. Now, 9 years on, with a watermelon in hand, I’d gladly visit hell if I could find the visa office.