Friday, November 30, 2012


I spent a couple of nights in an empty hostel in downtown Atlanta. It’s a strange city with two mayor highways cutting it by the middle. The distribution of businesses is odd too. You may have to walk ten blocks of administrative buildings and vacant lots to find a single convenient store. But the driving is not a nightmare as in other cities. I actually parked for free in front of my room. Locals complain about how unfriendly the city is for walkers. But it’s possible to walk. Even with the homeless infestation, it’s not as bad as it is in the West. The problem is that the walking is not that appealing unless you go to the suburbs or the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial.

The most fascinating thing of the city turned out to be a couple of acquaintances I made in the hostel. One was a brilliant TV producer, book writer and human rights advocate that were alternating residences between Washington DC and Atlanta. After a brief introduction in the hostel's living room, we got engaged in an interesting conversation about socio-politics that extended up to one in the morning. We stopped because a lady upstairs complained about the noise. This guy has an almost encyclopedic knowledge on every topic he touches, and quickly I resolved to make questions instead of arguments since I was getting beaten. The fact of having to do actual research for journalistic work gave him the proficiency of a History professor.  I checked one of his books and he has reasons to suspect the FBI is not very happy with his inquiries.

The other character was actually the manager of the hostel, a Jewish-American that claimed to have had a Nazi armband stained with the very blood of Adolf Hitler. The whole story was fascinating, and he claims to have been burglarized by neo-Nazis searching for the item. He actually changed his name as per his own account. I have no way to know if that’s real or fiction, but how many times you have a guy across the table telling such stories without drinks?

Those two characters and the attractive mature redhead upstairs where the only humans in the building; a Victorian wood house one hundred fifty years old that cracked at every step. You have no idea what conversations are taking place in the air if your only source of information is the Internet.

So, close this page and go to your local bar. Find a veteran, a journalist, a Holocaust survivor descendant, a priest reject...  You may buy or not their stories, that’s not the point. It’s not a quest for information, it's a search for human contact.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


As I mentioned in my last blog, my personal life became more interesting than the landscapes I was driving trough. But respecting the people involved implies not been able to tell the whole story. I’m not longer just looking at the window and meditating, I’m taking action. That was the whole purpose of “DoingIsKing”: shake the analytical phase and force some pragmatic adventures.

My thesis at the beginning of the trip was like this: If I think too much, I’ll be overwhelmed by the options and discouraged by existential conclusions. If I just act, I’ll create habits and get into a comfort zone and stop growing. I was trapped in the “thinking” phase for so long that I needed an ‘action shot’.

After four months traveling, parking in completely unknown neighborhoods, drinking beer with road workers, dating woman with phosphorescent hair, dancing in gay bars, sleeping in the same room with people hiding from the mafia, talking politics with BBC producers, furnishing with Netherlands carpenters, chatting about photography with Japanese students and babysitting with old friends grown older; I realized that “action” also has its burn out.

After Washington DC in Maryland, and Arlington in Virginia, I needed some space and silence to invite meditation again. So I took a long route at the top of the Appalachians. The Skyline Drive is so generous in views that you don’t have to be worried to miss one particular spot. I drove two days with perfectly clear skies and stop at creeks, meadows and valleys. The silence is so perfect that when you get out, the only thing you hear is the cracking sound of the car while getting cold. Then I went to the Luray Cavers. There the silent is so deep that you just hear yourself. It’s always an intimidating experience to hear your heartbeats, mostly because you don’t know the final number they are decrementing. In those cavers, there is a series of hammers electronically activated that hit certain stalactites in such a way that whole tunes can be played. The tour guide was careless enough to let me alone in that chamber and kept walking with the rest of the group. I sat down, press the button to initiate the sequence and closed my eyes. That was the sound of cones of calcium carbonate formed over millions of years talking to the calcium of my vestibular system just some decades old. I’m this minuscule instant of conscience through whish Nature enjoys herself.

Nature always humiliate me, makes me feel like I’m not gaining my place. Dignity is the only word that comes to the rescue. Pity is the enemy.   

Nothing in Nature inspires me compassion. It’s all a constant source of admiration. This craving thirst for glory calls our bones with the weight of the giant rock it once belonged.

Following my route south, I stopped at the Natural Bridge, an arc more than five hundred millions years old carved with water trough granite formations. I won't start listing numbers in feet and tons. The point is that we belong, atom per atom, to the realm of majestic things. Only our mind can contradict that physic fact. A brain that talks too much, ignoring the natural impulses of the heart, degrades a man into a couch and a speech into a bark.

Finally, I arrived to Atlanta, Georgia, where the body of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife have been kept in a crypt just one blog away from where he was born. Over and over again we keep placing big stones on the burial place of big men as if by doing so we release them from their misleading coil and make them wear one that weights as much as their actions.     

We use our mind to respond to the question “how to get there”, no “why not to bother”. The smarter we are, the smaller we get when choosing the wrong questions.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Scatological Paradox

I’ve gone through some very interesting experiences lately. This has been the most transforming sequence of perceptions and actions that I have been through since I came to the USA. This blog forces me to digest every town before moving to the next; a healthy process that I recommend to everyone.

But the problem with blogs is that they're public in nature, so I can’t expose every single detail here. One Costa Rican writer, Max Jimenez, used to say that we could be better writers if we just get over the fear of being known. But that’s not the only obstacle. Any number of people will also tie their personal life with mine (even inadvertently) and I can’t go on to make it public without their consent. I have strong reasons to believe I’ll never get that authorization.

So, let’s use the power of analogy and generalization.

I went to Washington. The capital always makes me think of sex. Not just for that monument but for the image of Arlington. Sex and death are great analogies: they are both natural hence people try to keep their references to them brief in normal conversation. We are scared of both but inevitably attracted to their symbols. We don’t like to be harassed or frightened, yet we pay to go to places where we are targets for both.

I call this the scatological paradox: Something that we reject and move towards at the same time. Our attraction to food and our repulsion of its byproducts represents many of the dilemmas we confront in life. How to be in love and not get dispirited by all the mundane details of sharing space? How to want a baby and not the diapers? How to tell the truth and not been alone?

It’s not just the disgusting things that we hide. We hide extremely positive things: unjustified optimism, ambitious goals, free hugs, kiss greetings and inopportune love. We city people are so diligent on been proper that we miss on the opportunity to live. None of the monuments I have visited was erected on behalf of a man with such an attitude. None of them were wary or lacked opposition. None of those creators made sarcastic remarks against their enemies; instead, they directly raised a sword and ran toward them.

I don’t think that loneliness is a price too high to pay. The company of cowards is sterile anyway.

The pursuit of affection is similar to the stock market: do you like to win very little very often or do you prefer to lose most of the time and one day hit it big? Common wisdom says that the first strategy is better. Mathematics favors the second choice if you have the guts to embrace it.

Some of us have no option but to develop bravery since the smell of routine and safety turns our stomachs. There can’t be such a thing as a shy dreamer.

Can you read the deeply personal history between lines? If not, I have become a good literary codifier. If you can, then you are personally involved.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Race of Dreamers

I went north and stopped in Princeton. A cousin of mine is studying engineering there. He was granted a scholarship and is now living in one of the most privileged university environments in the world. This campus is extraordinary. I can’t think of a better place to drive your mind into abstract subjects. There is nothing to distract you, and every square foot is a good place to sit and read. The architecture is delightful; sober and peaceful.  

I love the arrogant attitude of young people as they walk up and down. They want to change the world, and that’s the state of mind every human should hold in their twenties. They are reading the numbers, looking the facts and measuring the elements. The problems of the world seem pretty obvious at this stage, and they are going to fix it. Later on, they are going to experience a phase of humiliating reality. This humbling period, that comes on in your late twenties and early thirties, has the unintended effect of killing dreams. Losers celebrate that and use that lapse to confirm their bias. They will try to defend the thesis that “reality” is about routine, hard work and taxes. They'll love that confirmation since they are only capable of surviving in an aseptic world, where nothing is magic.  

Surpassing that phase is vital. After years of beatings and failures, you can decide to learn the rules but keep your dreams. The pieces on the chessboard don’t work the way books tell us, but that doesn’t mean they don’t work at all. The real rules are natural and beautiful and, as every natural and beautiful thing on Earth, they have nothing to do with justice.

Our dreams, then, get reborn, not as an innocent hope but as an aggressive project.

That evening in Princeton I walked into a sub shop. The owner in his smock was serving fruit juices behind the counter. The place was called “Tico” which is a nickname for Costa Rican used in Central America. So I started to speak Spanish with the man at the cash register – and it turns out that he was my boss when I was working as a Black Jack dealer to pay for my college. Now he is the owner of this business.

We talked for a long time about the big opportunities that this country has to offer. I told him one of my oldest observations: that this place has a permanent affluence of immigrants that are filtered for their bravery. Good or bad, people that come here have the guts to leave everything behind and start from scratch, even while learning a new language. That is a permanent infusion of dreamers. No other country has that advantage.  

I don’t mind seeing people with limitations. What I can’t stand is people who settle for something.

We don't have the option of quitting our dreams; that's like quitting being humans. A man without dreams does not amount to more than a dog. The fact of walking upright is just misleading.

The next day I went to Manhattan. I have been there several times before, but I needed another dose.

This is a city that I’d like to hug and kiss. I LOVE it! The vibrant rain of colors from those gigantic ads in Times Square, the crowd crossing the streets, the women in long coats with furry necks, the men in black suits, the teens skating in Bryant Park and the loud howl of ambulances: all was there. I’d never guessed that a hurricane had just crossed Manhattan. 

I went to Walt Street from the Empire State using the subway and, even with some routes floated, this city has no intention to stop. They are building a beautiful skyscraper in the place of the old World Trade Center. That night I saw the red lights on the cranes at the top of that construction flashing above the clouds.

That’s why I love New York. My soul gets reloaded just by walking 42nd street. This place reminds me that this is not just the land of the free, but also, and above all, the home of the brave. With so many cultures, races and religions, the only real identity is this: those who choose to keep dreaming.

Saturday, November 17, 2012


Philadelphia remained me how small are the places where big things happened. The first continental congress gathered together in a beautiful little hall that is smaller than some of my friend’s houses. The whole historic district can be walked through in ten minutes.

It’s more about the meaning we give to things. The broken bell that was hanging in the city hall is now a trademark for liberty, and now it has its own building for display. 

Another crowded venue is The Independence Hall, the place where the declaration of independence was signed. The portrait of John Trumbull is so iconic that people buy tickets and form in line to see it. The reality is that such meeting never happened; the delegates signed the document at different times, but that is not romantic enough, so the artist rewrote history for himself and now is his vision the one that inspires. 

The more museums I visit, the scarier I get by realizing how much we rely on imagination. We are so dependent that we need to imagine independence.

The separation of the colonies from England was nothing but a matter of common sense, as Paine put it. The real miracle for this country was to survive to itself. The fight against England proved to be politically shorter, militarily easier and less bloody than the fight that followed between the North and the South. But that story is harder to tell because there can’t be “bad guys” at the end. That is closer to reality as you can get, and no artist can represent the Union smashing the Confederates and been politically correct at the same time. The real heroism, in this case, was diplomatic: We are talking about legions of men butchering each other face to face during four years and then coming together to form the strongest federation in the world. Scenes of war are easier to paint since they can be delimited on time. The fight for tolerance is permanent and intern. No bell has toll yet for that victory.  

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Best in Her League

The bad weather in the East held me on Pittsburgh for a while. One morning I opened a newspaper and found that Madonna was giving a concert the next day at the CONSOL Energy Center. You may think it should be sold out, but there are always tickets for last minute buyers.  

First, you get to enjoy the show that the fans themselves put on. A collection of women in their forties wearing wedding dresses or having big hair ties with short shirts, as in Lucky Star. The crowd was full of nostalgia, which is ironic because Madonna itself is all about innovation.

The live show was the best I have seen, second only by The Wall. Madonna itself is a case study. Her legs have the strength of a thoroughbred horse and her energy makes any twenty years old pale. 

The usual sarcasm in these circumstances is to attribute all these to full-time trainers, surgery and money. But there are thousands of people with more resources and millions with more time which fitness doesn’t even approach this marvel. 

Underestimate the merits of virtue is one of the oldest tricks we use to avoid the responsibility of embracing it. This woman is a human delight and an industrial miracle. Even Elvis was heading down at his forties. Madonna packs stadiums around the world and arouses teenagers in her 50’s. This is the point when fans turn into devotees and brands become cults.

Seen her is a souvenir for pop culture and show business history.  

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Pittsburgh and the voice from the steel.

I drove through Cleveland, but I didn’t stay too long. The downtown was nice, but Google kept saying that it was an insecure city, and nowadays we pay attention to Al, the computer. That’s why I was surprised to find such a beautiful arrangement of parks and sculptures around Public Square. There is nothing more effective for a good first impression than lower expectations.

So, after a wonderful dinner nearby Terminal Tower I keep driving to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Any downtown will look beautiful after been in Chicago. Pittsburgh is a paradise for a civil engineer with all those bridges crossing the river from one side to another. You make a wrong turn and end up on an island.

But that is my tactic: getting lost and see what happens. In a moment I was heading towards a hill and I knew that a good view must be ahead. I got into a prehistoric rail that was used to transport people to the top one hundred years ago. They call it Duquesne Incline, and it’s nothing but a wood cabin that goes up and down, and they have it working out of nostalgia since it’s not practical anymore. No far away there was another view from a Catholic church that lies at the highest point of the city. 

When I have these panoramic views of cities, it always strikes me the idea of how many hours of work and lives are in those bricks. For some reason, I try to imagine the exhausted worker that came back from the construction place and lay downs beside an indifferent and equally exhausted wife. I imagine the life of the prostitute that was with him an hour ago and the desk of the city clerk that was her customer before him. I fantasize about the arguments about money in the municipality, the deals under the table that never got caught and those more lucrative that were completely legal. Then I imagine all the words, the steps, the yelling, the hammering, the laughter… and I browse the landscape one again. Man, we make marvelous things while going nowhere. What would we do with a single direction?

Going West, I found a church at the top of a hill surrounded by crypts. Then I remembered: oh, yes, we do have a single direction.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Chicago: The city that shouldn't had happened.

I got to Chicago on Wednesday, the night of Halloween. Once you start driving in the downtown it’s impossible to stop; the reason being you have nowhere to park. The place is a traffic nightmare. People use their cars as skateboards and make intrepid U-turns when you less expect it.  I finally found a spot in front of a 7-ELEVEN and paid the fare for the parking machine. Then I went to explore the atmosphere in that party night. 

The hostel was at North Avenue and Damen, a six corner intersection that was under construction. The architecture of narrow facades with dark alleys seems intentionally designed to hide bodies, and the rusty structure of the train rails that runs above the open streets kills the last hope for sunlight.

The first thing that I saw was a black Honda crossing at full speed in front of a taxi cab, crashing on one of its doors while avoiding a frontal impact. The guy of the Honda and the taxi driver got off yelling as in those movies portraying decadent cities in the opening credits. I kept walking but checking at the same time if any of the men was handling guns, ready to throw my chest on the ground. I almost did it, but not because of weapons but because of a massive vomit in the sidewalk that made me slide. After three huge strides flipping my arms, I manage to stay on my feet.

There were some small clubs and bars. I have no problem with decadence, but I seriously reject nastiness, and this is the nastiest downtown I have run into so far. The whole picture is revolting. The first thought that crosses my mind was “How many suicides these people have per year?” 

All and all, I explored some bars and found that people still keep some talkative features from the west, but they check the point of the conversation really quick, just as in the East. But Halloween night always has this show-off factor that makes the crowd more extroverted. The point of walking down the streets in a custom gives us a license to engage in socially acceptable ridicule. Many take the opportunity to disguise like they really are. It’s also a good chance to know who is dressing for the mirror and how is dressing for the public. I managed to have a pleasant conversation about politics with Frosty the Snowman and the Cabbage Doll. A homeless joined us, as he was already wearing the customs of desperation. Having spoken with many homeless people, I notice a pattern in their conversation: the perception that problems come from the outside and they have no control whatsoever. They keep for themselves the role of spectators.

The next day I got out of the hostel and drove my car away before 8:00 AM when the parking rules change. The city makes it complicated like “No Turns on Red Between 9:00 AM and 4:30 PM Monday to Friday... Except for Buses and Holidays” And they write all that under the Stop sign!

I couldn’t stop until I got to a building that will charge me $30 to get out and see the Willis Tower (still known as the Sears Tower). Well, I went to the top of the building to take my pictures as any devoted tourist and then went for a coffee not far away. The parking there was $22. So my car was spending more money standing still than moving.  

I explored some of the neighborhoods to be sure that my first bad impression wasn’t biased for the wrong corner. I then had the opportunity to see places even worse.

After that, I headed to a Motel 6 (free parking) and decided to leave the city. I’m not a tourist for misery; I had enough in my days. Still, I decided to give a little chance to a small club called “Spin” the next day. 

This is the old trick: you walk into a gay bar, all girls think you are in the team and engage in conversation. They don’t want the pressure of a guy who wants their number. After a couple of hours, I was dancing with five gorgeous girls and having a great time. 

The club promoted a shower contest among the customers. It was a bath shower in stage (with real water) and four people got listed to perform. It’s not the first time that I see people in underwear trying to dance in public, but it was the first time that I saw this combined with one dangerous wet stage. Three beautiful women and one guy actually risked their neck with their amateur performance. The price was $100, but it won’t cover the medical bills for a single slip, like the one I had with the vomit. In any case, it was refreshing to see a business owner willing to accept the risk for the show time.

Everybody was authentically having fun and not defensively avoiding it. One of the girls I was dancing with won the shower contest and she gave me her number. That’s the problem with this tactic. At some point you need to admit that you are not gay or keep going with the story arguing that you became lesbian.

That night saved my memories of Chicago. With the sun rising I jumped into my car and left for Cleveland.
I learned that the first atomic chain reaction was actually obtained in 1942 under the football field of The University of Chicago, without any warranty that the place would stand. After knowing the city, I suspect that was a calculated risk.