Monday, August 15, 2016

No Man Is An Island

        My decision to visit Greece was totally and completely motivated by the fact that for twenty-one days in the British Isles I endured that passive-aggressive, constant and persistent drizzle that resembles a sneeze in substance; and because of it, I have acquired a cough that not even the warmth and hospitality of all the kind Scottish and English hosts I have been staying with can clear away.
        So I decide to leave one island for another--a warm one, with a beach you can swim in without fear of hypothermia.  That, and the cost of airfare are the only criteria for my decision to spend five days in Kos, a small island of Greece.   In my cold-infused haze I have no recall having seen Kos in the newspapers not even a year earlier--I have not yet put two and two together as to why tickets are so inexpensive.  

        In fact, it isn't until I already am in Kos, perched precariously on the edge of my budget hotel bed facing the patio door, catching the snail's pace internet based in the pool area.  In my web search for a tourist's itinerary of  Kos I pull up a tragic and familiar image from a news article.  The photo is of a three-year-old boy washed up dead on Kos' shores, a casualty of the massive exodus of refugees resulting from the so-called Islamic State that has rocked the Middle East with a reign of terror in the name of Islamic fundamentalism.  

        By the time I have booked my ticket,  approximately 300,000 refugees have washed up on Greece’s shores in the preceding year, mainly on the islands closest to Turkey such as Kos.  Many took to the high seas on cheap, plastic, inflatable rafts taking only the items they could carry on their persons.  The UN High Committee on Refugees estimates that approximately half of the registered refugees have been children.  Upon arrival refugees in Kos posted tents right on the shoreline they washed up upon, within arm's reach of middle-class, European vacationers.

        At the start of the refugee surge in the summer of 2015, Greece was still reeling from its economic near-collapse, having undergone a heated negotiations to receive approximately 320 billion Euros in financial assistance from the European Union it needed to maintain some semblance of socio-economic and political stability.  Even still, Greece wades through troubled waters pre-dating and completely unrelated to the Syrian crisis. 

        And yet, here it is, this troubled nation on the forefront of an unprecedented immigration crisis exceeding that of even World War II.  With not much to spare, in 2015 the Greek government struggled to coordinate resources and services provided by international non-governmental organizations.  For the better part of  the summer of 2015, when they first began to arrive in Kos, without food, clothing, shelter, or any intake infrastructure, refugees who couldn't afford to stay in hotels often took sanctuary around historic ruins providing bits of shade from the unrelenting Grecian sun.  Some refugees were loosely organized around the Captain Elias hotel, an empty and abandoned resort with a crumbling interior and no electricity or running water.

        And, while no attacks by refugees or harassment of vacationers have been reported, the Greek tourism industry reeled, their resources and moral turpitude being tested by an unwitting situation.  In my internet research I come across one news story quoting a local, “Please write [that] we are not against these people, our heart reaches out to them, but our only industry is tourism and tourists aren’t happy,” he sighs, impatiently waving a hand.  “They want peace, peace of mind.  How can they have that with all of these tragic figures lying around everywhere?”

        Not much further down the queue of articles is a story about a protest mounted by locals against the construction of refugee intake center in the mountainous area of the island.  A group of 2,000 of the island's 30,000 locals marched around the construction site, concerned that their once idyllic island and place of business will be branded internationally as a refugee destination.  The center is designed to UN-standards level to provide necessities for 24-48 hours before the refugees are accepted into neighboring European countries. The situation turned ugly as the protestors began rushing towards police barricades resulting in tear gas and hand grenades.  

        Suddenly my escape to Fantasy Island became political. 

        Having no intention to return to the UK before clearing my cold, I take up a recommendation from the Lonely Planet to contact particular aid organizations they've screened as being legitimate.  As a New Orleanian, I am familiar with the concept of vacationers who travel to volunteer in effort to be part of a recovery, all the while enjoying local tourist amenities.  It is both an awkward and delicate procedure and I try to avoid the condescension inherent in such an act, so I look to be discrete.  I find a facebook page asking where I can donate and receive a response within minutes with a P.O. Box.  I respond that I am physically present on the island and would be happy to donate the suggested provisions in person.  No response.

        I look up the other organizations recommended by Lonely Planet and other media sources and find either old or expired websites.  One article suggests talking to a local to find a legitimate agency, but given the recent protest activity, I am not about to ask the hotel owner or waiters--the only Greeks I've encountered thus far. 

        Feeling somewhat befuddled I inhale the hot, salty air filling my small, immaculate hotel room.  I descend and walk two minutes to an ocean, along streets lined with at least half a dozen empty and abandoned hotels, whose blight clearly predates the refugee crisis.  Coming from a city where abandoned buildings are increasingly re-purposed as apartments, office buildings and low-income housing, I am curious as to why none of these buildings have benefited from the funds dedicated to constructing new buildings for refugee intake.  By now over $1 billion Euros have been allocated to the countries at the forefront of the refugee influx but here there is no obvious economic surge from any non-governmental organizations who have might have moved to the island to process the world's largest refugee crisis since World War II.  Perhaps the funds have only begun to trickle in.  Or perhaps the locals would rather take a pass.
        In the island suburb of Kardamena where I am staying, it is cheaper than the rest, and my budget hotel, like most of the island's shops and restaurants, are laden with British university students bemoaning about the food but praising the exchange rate and the cheap alcohol, sauntering in and out of the restaurants and banks wearing minuscule bikinis and no shoes, amidst disapproving locals shaking their heads.  These fair-skinned phenomena are easy to avoid, however, and I do so by easily by walking straight past the line-up of hotel pools and directly into the beautiful, turquoise blue, Agean sea, where I let the sparkling, gentle waves pass over my head and envelop me in calm.  After a while, I sit at a restaurant and let my eyes rest on the view of the waters from which I just emerged.

        I decide to rent a bike from a middle-age man named George, the third George I've met that day.  He is used to tourists and his English is good.  He owns a fleet of scooters, ATV's and a few cars, and is not, however, used to tourists renting bikes.  An avid cyclist himself, he asks me if I am comfortable riding around in traffic.  I tell him that I am, coming from New Orleans where I bike more than I drive, and ask him if there are any areas I should avoid.  He does a double take and laughs, "No, you are safe here.  Perhaps there are things you can teach me about riding in a city."  We digress into biking experiences and other outdoor tall tales, as you do when you have a love affair of outdoor gear.  We bond instantly and make fun of the callow English tourists who ask to rent vehicles in their swimwear, carrying a beer bottle as accessory.  We talk about his beautiful island and map out a few cyclist journeys. 

        Only after we bond over outdoor gear do I dare to ask, "George, if I wanted to make a donation to help the refugee situation, where would I go?" 

        Like a medieval gate at the castle walls, I feel a wall of distrust descend.

        "What refugees?  Look around.  Have you seen any?  I don't see refugees.  Don't believe what you read in the newspapers.  There's no refugees for you to take pictures of."

        I am a bit dumbfounded and hurriedly look for a tactful out.  Silence.  He continues,

        "There were refugees for the past couple years, but now, none.  Now all you have left are economic immigrants, they aren't refugees, they just want to make money somewhere else.  You can tell when you see them.  You can tell how they walk.  The refugees, they walk with their children close by their side.  The economic immigrants let their children wander, they litter.  Look, if you want to help the refugees and the people of this island, go to restaurants, go drink some beers.  Enjoy the island with your hard-earned money and help local business.  This is better than charity." 

        Though I have many family members who were refugees from Vietnam, I myself am a daughter of two immigrants who came to the US to obtain university and post-doctorate level education.  I also live in a country that admits approximately one million immigrants a year for a variety of reasons, from refugee status to reasons purely related to diversifying our population; I cannot relate to his moral distinction between political and economic immigrants.  But his body language tells me that I have struck a nerve--he's not interested in discussing the nuances of diaspora and the modern world, and I am a guest in his country. 

        So in a conciliatory manner I offer, "Well perhaps I misheard about recent events.  My family is from Vietnam and there are many immigrants and refugees that came to the States, so I wanted to see if there was some way I could do what others have done for people in my family since I am here anyhow."

        He accepts my offering.  "I admire that.  You know, there are many Vietnamese immigrants in Athens.  Very good business people.  You know when Greeks marry the English, always a divorce.  When Greeks marry Vietnamese, they are good marriages.  Vietnamese are hardworking, like the Greeks.  But these economic immigrants, they lie around the beach wearing their outfits, they do not try to work, and it's bad for the island." 

        George does not seem to espouse the "people in glass houses" principle.  Twice in the past six years Greece was on the brink of bankruptcy, relying on a bailout from the European Union in the order of magnitude of over 300 billion Euros.  Greece's national unemployment is at 25%, with an inflated government, and corruption resulting in tax evasion, with some estimates as large as 80 billion untaxed Euros kept in Swiss banks.  With national policies adopting a statutory retirement age ranging by profession from 45 to 61, the national pension fund comprises about one-third of the Greek budget, one of the largest per capita in Europe, causing much discord among the EU countries paying into the 300 and some billion Euros in assistance.  

        Greece suffers from no stereotype of being hardworking. 

        In George's presence, I am silent on the matter, as it is a complex one, and I am a guest in his country.  But my silence allows George to act as his own devil's advocate. 

        "Well, who can blame these people, wanting to leave their country that is being blown up by terrorists where they can't even think freely.  You know I've seen some working at a car wash and thought, they are like the Greek."

        Another brief silence and then he doubles back.

        "It's just that they wear their clothing, they are fully covered and they are at the beach.  It is as if I was in another country wearing these shoes everywhere (pointing at his flip flops) where it is not normal.  And they all wear purple and yellow.  It's just...awkward.  We are not used to having so many of these Muslim people here."

        George is a kind man, but he is wrong.  Greece, even the small island of Kos, has known Muslims on its shores for centuries.  This is first revealed to me in my sight-seeing, after walking up a hill, on a curvy, cobble-stone street lined with bouganvillea flowers.  At the top of the hill is clearly a structure indicative of a previous, Islamic presence. 

        It is the Eski Mosque constructed in the 16th century and at one time it graced a densely populated Muslim quarter.  The community in which the Eski Mosque once thrived was comprised of subjects of the Ottoman Empire, a time during which Greek Orthodox churches were given legal powers and privileges and maintained their congregations, as evidenced by the fact Greek Orthodox churches of the same era also inhabit the island. 

        At the turn of the twentieth century, the population of Muslims in the Dodecanese Islands (of which Kos and Rhodes are the largest) was as high as 11,000. (The island's current, and presumably largest population is approximately 30,000).  The population of Muslims decreased in Greece with the 1923 Population Exchange Agreement with Turkey, but the communities in Kos were unaffected given that the Dodecanese Islands were still subject to Italian Rule.  Not until 1947-1974 did the Muslim communities start to see a decrease, due to the islands' conflicts with Greece leading to the eventual incorporation under the Greek state.  The 1960's leading up to the point of unchallenged Greek rule (1974) was marked with frequent acts of discrimination.  Anecdotes record theft of produce and slaughtering of cattle on farms, and destruction of storefronts in the towns.  Schools became discriminatory and continuation into university became more and more difficult for Muslims.  Thus, the vast majority of the Muslim community left, their Greek property and citizenship revoked.  However, some Turkish Muslims remained even after 1974, and approximately 1500 descendants of this community remain on Kos.  Many who stayed abandoned the Turkish language and Islam.

        So in fact, the Syrian newcomers to the island who don their hijabs are not the first to do so.

        Kos is a beautiful island and it is easy to understand why multiple generations of people from a different country and different religion would want to settle here.  When I'm not cooling down in the translucent turquoise waters I wander through the island's ancient alleys and garden-lined streets.  

        I walk into the main square and see remnants of other cultures and their time here on this tiny island.  The castle fortress of the Knights of St. John left by the Italians, a re-purposed mosque now serving as a cafe restaurant in the town square, and the remnants of ancient Greek temples and towns, all sit within a stone's throw of one another. 


        Despite its prominence in all the online and print guidebooks, I encounter not a single other tourist at the ruins of the Western Excavation.  

        And, as I meander among ancient columns, I literally stumble upon in-tact mosaics.

But the grandeur is not without signs of decay.  There is trash at one corner of the excavation site, and evidence of a homeless residence in one of the ancient quarters.  

        The weeds are overgrown and through much of it I am walking waist-high through grasses growing over this ancient town center.  The signage is faded by the sun, and there are coke cans and water bottles strewn about.

        There is graffiti and litter in the square of the plane tree under which Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, purportedly taught his students.   

        With two bankruptcies in the past six years, maintenance of these national treasures have fallen by the wayside. 

        After my conversation with George I abandon my efforts to make donations to the refugee NGO's in person.  It is something better executed through a deliberate effort after research and contacts, rather than as a result of an unwitting awareness and effort to mitigate my holiday guilt.  In my five day wanderings I encounter no sign of any refugees or economic immigrants donning hijabs, in purple or otherwise.  It is clear that by the time of my visit,  the refugee intake infrastructure has been relocated from the island's idyllic shores to further inland near the mountains, tucked away from the eyesight of tourists.

        As I wander through the checkerboard of oceanfront views, beautifully stark, ancient ruins, and tourist cafes and restaurants bedecked with thematic Greek decor, so too does my mind.   

        If--after centuries of Islamic people from Turkey living on these shores--we issued a genetic test to the servers, the tour guides, and the policemen all in my eyesight, what ethnicities would these results reveal in one person?  And the 2,000 protesters? And George?  And would those results make any difference to the state and community response of the incoming refugees?

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

- John Donne (1624)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


San Miguel De Allende: Mirage in a Desert

"What makes the desert beautiful,' said the little prince, 'is that somewhere it hides a well...'"

- Antoine De Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

           I eventually learned to love Mexico City but I'd be lying if I didn't confess having suffered a near coronary upon stepping off the plane into the Districto Federal.  Maybe it was the fact for my first meal, I inadvertently ordered a soup that had a flaming shot of mescal poured into it.  Or maybe it was trying to sleep in a hostel that resembled what I imagine purgatory to be like.  Or the conversation I tried to have with some Mexican travelers from Monterrey who insisted on conversing with me in Spanish about Buddhism.  And though I had every intention of soaking it all in, I just wasn't ready for it quite so suddenly.

        So it made perfect sense when the conversation about Buddhism evolved into a conversation about a small town a four hour drive further into the desert called San Miguel de Allende.  In the guidebook I have borrowed there is no mention.  So what if this was a conversational suggestion made at 2am after a couple of tequilas?

        Barely half a dozen hours later I am curled up in a contorted fetal position on a bus, trying to catch up on the sleep I didn't get during the hostel snore-a-thon.  I am groggy when we drive past a couple of industrial towns in the middle of nowhere.  Other than that, the vista is a bit bleak... hundreds of miles of cacti, brush, chaparral-covered volcanic hills.  Dry, dusty and desolate, even in December someone could die of dehydration out here without a soul to notice.  Eventually the bus driver pulls over to the side of the highway without uttering a word other than the name of my destination, leaving only a cloud of dust for me to swallow.

        My God.  What have I done.

Dry desert on the way to San Miguel De Allende
         I'm picturing my parents having to fly down to claim my body in an unmarked shack serving as the local morgue.  After fifteen of the longest minutes of my life, a taxi appears, and with my backpack bouncing on my tailbone, I desperately chase him down on the other side of the highway.

        "El Centro por favor," not knowing what exactly the center town entails, gambling heavily on a church, a plaza, possibly an ice cream push-cart.

        A mere seconds pass when we enter cobblestone streets carving through piles of brightly-colored Spanish stucco buildings, illuminated bell towers, and a panoramic vista overlooking a hillside town dotted with lights.  In the center, as suspected, is a Spanish cathedral, gracefully illuminated.  Snacking on fresh churros in one hand, hot chocolate in the other, I wander around a stunning town square, and my biggest concern is to not spill the hot chocolate as I cross the cobblestone streets.  For a while I see no Westerners and hear no English.  My plaza companions are well-dressed Mexicans.

          In a cafe I eventually encounter something of a curiosity:  an elderly gringo, possibly in his eighties, skin light as day.  To his companion he mumbles something in American English, but then just as easily orders his drink in perfect Spanish.

         Later that evening, I am seated a bit awkwardly on the corner of my bed, in attempt to invoke the wisdom of wikipedia on my smartphone in my charming but budget hotel with concrete and stucco walls.  (Turns out that colonial-style walls are not so wi fi-friendly.)

        The town was originally named after a man of the cloth named San Miguel who, with the help of dogs, discovered a spring and founded the town under Spanish colonial rule.  Ironically, the town also bears the name of Ignacio Allende, the Spanish nobleman turned insurgent who fought for Mexican independence from Spanish colonial rule.  The town was his birthplace and the first to declare independence from Spain.

         The town of San Miguel de Allende won its political independence from Spain, but cultural independence it did not.  To this day its architecture is pure Spanish colonial and was such when it was discovered by Stirling Dickinson, a wealthy American Princeton graduate, trained at the Art Institute of Chicago, fresh off a stint in World War II.  At the time of his arrival the city had been long suffering from an economic decline with the collapse of the mining industry and general post-war blues.  So enamored was he with the town that he first became the director of the newly created art school, the Escuela Universitaria de Bellas Artes, and effectively lured a number of his fellow veterans armed with education stipends from the GI bill and eager to continue their international experience.  He then started his own institute after accusations of Communist sympathies led to his dismissal.  Quiet and unassuming, Dickinson lived modestly despite his inherited wealth, and by his own admission was a mediocre artist at best.  In his days as an art teacher, he instituted a curriculum based on Mexican culture and tradition and was fluent in Spanish.

        Eventually the economy had been fully transformed from agricultural to one based on tourism.  Today, visitors from all over Mexico are driven to its abundance of galleries and theaters, all featuring local artists and musicians that since flourished beginning with the influx of expat investment in the 1940's.  Inconvenient enough from the capital city and devoid of beaches or resorts, the foreigners it attracts tend to prefer aesthetics and culture.  English is seldom heard on the streets and the art schools place heavy emphasis on Mexican-rooted culture.  Diego and Frida are the icons of choice and no one mentions MTV.

        Despite my best intentions in my five days here, I've failed to make it inside a single gallery or museum.  Instead I've managed to while my time away wandering up and down the cobblestone streets, through the artisan outdoor markets, the produce markets, the public squares.  I have sat inside the towns' cathedrals staring at life-sized sculptures of the Passion, I have stalked my favorite fresh churro vendors, and I end every single night listening to live music be it Latin jazz or Mexican folk.

           With the restoration of colonial structures funded by American expat investment, San Miguel de Allende has been likened to Disneyland.  I am the first to be embarrassed by loud American tourists.  It is a city that once existed as a Spanish colonial city before the Americans got here, and the "Disneyland" was eventually resurrected by a group who chose to serve in a war against Fascism and racism, and returned home with a new appreciation for culture and a desire to create art, and learned to speak the language.  Not the most terrible set of Americans I've run into;  certainly less distasteful than the twenty-something set in Mexico City I overheard from the other side of a cafe clarifying to a Mexican that they hailed from "Brooklyn, not New York."

        And of course, the story of Dickinson in itself is intriguing.  A mediocre artist himself, he seemed to be more blessed with vision than artistic talent;  not only did he move to a foreign country, facilitating the creation of a fine arts school, but he also effectively convinced his brethren to leave their homeland to do the same.  To have lived part of his life in war to support his political beliefs, then to turn his energies to an equally daunting task of creating and facilitating art and beauty--it is an ideal easy to admire.

        As an American traveler, I belong to one of the most elite demographics on the globe.  As in the case of Sterling Dickinson, the effect of American money has an impact of exclusion every place it touches, despite even the best efforts to avoid this.  But if only we can at least funnel the effect of our wealth to in some way facilitate the flourishing of art and music.  I aspire to one day be as much of a contribution to the art and music of a traditional culture as at least one American has done before me.  Sterling's impact was undeniably a form of colonialism, as is my sheer existence as an American in Latin America.  But it is one I can stomach--alongside those freshly made churros.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Punch Drunk

"There was an old ring proverb that "Youth will be served," but the annals of the ring offer a great number of exceptions."

- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Croxley Master"

       At the not-so-tender age of 36, I decided to enter the ring and box a 21 year old, former college athlete, in her 1st year of law school.  It was a long-time coming, three years in fact, that I first walked into a boxing gym and started training.  After about a year, I finally felt ready for a fight, but it took two more years before USA boxing changed their amateur rules: no longer was I prohibited from fighting anyone under the age of 34.  The pool now enabled me to fight anyone between 19 and 40 years of age.

      From the very beginning, I declared boxing a mere hobby.  Yet that seemed irrelevant once Mike, the owner of the boxing gym and promoter of New Orleans' renowned Friday Night Fights, found me an opponent  a month and a half before the fight.

Frank the Trainer

      Next step was to find a trainer.  The deal with boxing trainers is a whole story in itself for another day.  In short I have gone through more trainers than underwear--with varying levels of articulateness, reliability, sleaziness, and criminal records.  The most previous trainer was a woman, and my favorite thus far.  But Anika was also a burlesque dancer and recent law graduate with extremely little time to spare a month and a half before my first ever fight.

      Then I found Frank.  Forty-six years old, former boxer himself turned private eye.  He and his twenty-three year old son have been gym rats for as long as I've been coming to the gym plus decades more.  As soon as my fight is set, I corner him and successfully implore him to train me.

      "You've decided to inflict bodily injury on another human being, Kim.  Now you have to live with this decision."  Those words were his first to me at the end of our first training session.  They were an indication of the intensity of the days to come.  But they did not indicate the level of pain I would be inflicting on myself.

Training Days

      Jumping jacks with a barbell in my hands, being spun around in the ring 20 times 'til I was dizzy, then taking a knee right before launching into punches running into the center of the ring, then 100 sit-ups to cool down.  For sparring, my partner was another of Frank's stallions, except 21-years-old, fit as an ox, and with Olympic aspirations.

     I am reasonably fit for my age but the regimen was exhausting and at no point did I enjoy an evening free of aches and pains.

      But in sparring I surprised Frank.  I surprised them all including the ever-cynical Mike, when I punched a contact lens right out of Scottie's head after she gave me a bruiser under my left eye.

      My reputation amongst the gym rats began to improve noticeably:  after a couple of gnarly sparring sessions, fist bumps were at an all time high, a seal of approval within this population.

      "I'll be honest Kim, I didn't think you'd be able to handle her, but now I think it's even.  You got heart kid, you got heart," says Mike.  From a man who owned an overweight pit bull and typically only spoke for the purpose of telling dirty jokes, this was high praise.

       Translation:  I can take a punch.  By all accounts, including my own, my advantage was internal--and lay deep underneath that belly fat I was striving to reduce.  In our qualifying spar, my opponent had superior arm strength and fitness; but truth be told, her face contorted to near tears after each punch I landed.

      The fact that she was sweet and hard-working was all irrelevant.  I wanted this fight.  I thought I didn't care about winning but the more I trained, the more I craved victory.

      I was not a particularly nice person over these six weeks.  Jamie was my opponent, and she weighed 10 pounds less than me a month out from the fight, despite being at least 1-2 dress sizes larger.  And it was likely that she was losing weight as she trained.  As a USA-Boxing Association-sanctioned event, I could not weigh more than 5 pounds than her.  To get there I had to stop drinking alcohol, a martyr-like act in a town like New Orleans, especially for a music manager.  I cut out most forms of fat including my beloved butter.  And it brought out my worst:  I picked fights with my band, I became ornery around loved ones.    By fight day, I was 10 pounds lighter.

      "Why" was the question asked most frequently of me in those weeks before and even after.  Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure why.  Clearly, I relish the difficulty in the task and the feeling of physical strength after training.  Adrenaline is a drug I enjoy.  And Frank, in all his verbal awkwardness, brought up another reason.  "Things have been tough for me out there there.  I lost a lot when my mom died a couple years ago and I am still rebuilding my practice.  But this place and this body, this training is the one thing I feel I can control."  Like Frank, I believe that for me too boxing is about gaining a sense of control.

      However, ultimately I believe my desire to box is because I am a born weirdo; my family will attest.  Despite all my privilege and education, I left the legal profession and have been selecting steadily less lucrative jobs.  My personal life is on a comparable trajectory as I select partners with increasingly unlikely odds of success.  And as for amassing wealth and stability, for my first house I chose a formerly blighted one in a historically dangerous neighborhood in New Orleans.  It would seem that my motto in life has been, "Why do things the easy way?"  

      But it truly has not been a conscious effort to be difficult.    After one of my less spectacular sparring sessions of getting the brains knocked out of me, I would not give up.  Frank ended that session with the following observation:  "I bet you were a real pain in the ass to your parents as a kid."

      He was right.  I was a difficult child, and I still am difficult.  Maybe that's why I like boxing.

Fight Day

      On the morning of fight day, it is raining cats and dogs, threatening to shut down the fight which is scheduled to be held in a parking lot of a bar and a Burger King.  I am dejected, hungry and cranky.  For consolation, I call my closest, gentlest friend, Taylor, a vegetarian jazz musician who has spent significant time in Vermont.  In consolation, he offers, "Well, maybe you can take up another activity that's not so concentrated on just one event, ya know?"  He is struggling for words, completely unable to understand my draw to boxing.  I try my best to gently end the phone call before he can suggest I take up yoga.

      Eventually the skies clear up and I check in for the fight.  I'm barely within 5 pounds of my opponent despite having lost 10.  I'm cranky as hell and have already snapped at the gym owner who has annoyed me to no end.  I sit down for my check-up and the doctor introduces himself as "Rocky."  I laugh uncontrollably.  "I mean, just for tonight?   Is that really your name?  Do you box?"  He explains that he doesn't and that's it's a family nick name.  Dr. Rocky checks my blood pressure, purses his lips and says, "That's ok, you're fine."  Frank glances over and looks at the numbers.  I'm confused given that I've always had an extremely low blood presser.  Frank also purses his lips, "That's normal for tonight, right doc?"  He confirms, "Yeah they all get amped up right before and she'll be back to normal after."  I don't bother asking for the numbers.

       About 30 friends and acquaintances have come on my behalf to cheer me on.  I appreciate their support and nervous of not disappointing them with a loss.  Co-workers have made a "Vicious Vu" sign to rally me on.  I have problems remembering names.  I have no intentions of ever doing this professionally, but I am nervous.  I am the the favorite, bets in the gym are placed on me, but I am clearly the underdog physically.  Three rounds, a minute and a half each.  Objectively very doable but subjectively inducing fear in my heart.

      Inside the ring the lights are bright.  I can't hear a thing except Frank.  "You've got to take this first round, you can't let the judges question your strength."  The bell rings and I explode into a fit of energy.  She is fighting completely differently from how she sparred, moving backwards almost constantly.  Despite her superior strength and fitness, she is on the ropes twice.  Bell rings.

       As I plant my butt on the stool, Frank says, "Keep going.  You need to get as many punches in as you can because she's strong, and you're not gonna knock her out."

      Round two starts and I'm still at it.  But her strength finally rears its ugly head and she lands a left straight in my head.  I am as unstoppable as her left straights which she is able to land even as I return her to the ropes.  Suddenly, just as the bell rings my nose feels hot.

       The crowd goes wild as the ring card girls strut their stuff and I use the melee to urge Frank to stop the nosebleed.  He shoves the q-tips as far as he can but unlike in training, he stops short of using the spray and blocking the flow with petroleum jelly.  I'm confused...what gives?  "Make it stop Frank!"  I am determined to keep fighting and I'll be damned if the judges stop the fight for a little nosebleed.

      In round three I am tired but I don't stop moving forward for fear that if I do I'll fall.  All the training tips, the techniques of stick and move, moving out of the southpaw's way, I've thrown it all away.  It is because I've looked into my opponent's face, and only I can see the abject fear in its contortions.  She is so much stronger than me, but her mind is not.  She looks dangerously close to tears, despite landing more right hooks in my face.  My nose won't stop bleeding and the ref calls for the doctor.  I implore Dr. Rocky and he lets me go back in.

      Round three ends and we are both exhausted.

      Back in the corner Frank attends to my still-bleeding nose as I dangle my lifeless arms.  For the first time that night I see my friends have taken up the entire front side of the ring.  Nose still gushing, I raise my lifeless paw in the air and with a big, dumb smile on my face they erupt in cheers.

      Back in the middle of the ring we wait for decision.  She clearly possessed more strength and physical control but I landed plenty of punches and consistently held the offensive; she was on the ropes at least three times.  In my mind I am Manny Pacquiao but in my body I am a lump of jelly.  Not until the ref raised my opponent's arm in victory was I able to discern who won.

      I stumble back to my corner more dejected than I previously imagined.  Frank gives me kudos and assures me that I didn't disappoint.  From the corner of my eye I catch Mike across the ring.  He gives me a nod and a wink.

      On the way to the fighter's section, Dr. Rocky rattles off a series of questions to check for concussion.  "What's your name, what day is it, where are we?"

      "I'm Kim Vu-Dinh, we're in New Orleans, and I just lost."

      He pats me on the back.  "You fought well Kim.""

      Immediately after my wraps are removed, two of my professor friends steadily make their way towards me with a beer and a flask of whiskey, and after a sip, I am immediately in good spirits--evidence that they are in fact my smartest friends.  I am congratulated by a series of friends and co-workers.  My vegetarian friend hugs me and is on the verge of tears.  I am high on adrenaline of boxing and losing.  Throughout the night I'm approached by at least half a dozen strangers of all races, genders, and sizes.  Clearly some were boxing-followers, some were fellow fighters, some I'd never met.  "Good fight, kid," and "Hey lady, I thought you had that one."  It was decent consolation after a physically painful loss.  A couple of the gym rats straight-up bear-hugged me.

      It was not until the end of the night, in the privacy of a porta-potty did I feel tears roll down my face.  I tried so damn hard and I lost.  That and my nose hurt.

      Surprisingly the day after was the hardest.  I had been training hard for a month and a half, two hours a day 4-6 days a week, yet those six minutes left my body in abject pain I'd never before felt. The day after was a cold and cloudy one, and the vegetarian drew me a bath and iced my nose, took me to a movie and picked up take-out.  The bruising around my eyes set in and my nose hurt to no end.  Despite even sparring half a dozen times with a fighter better than my opponent, I felt a touch of shock--both body and mind--which took me by surprise.  Chatting on my phone with a friend, he pointed out, "Well sure, it was just four and a half minutes, but it was like a four and a half minute car accident."

      I've been reasonably successful in my life, but I have failed before and I know what disappointment is.  But this was definitely the first time for me that failure was accompanied by physical pain.

      A couple days later my face is bruise-free and looks more or less back to normal but for weeks I'm left with a tender nose to remind me of my defeat.  Friends ask if I'll do it again.  "Maybe," I answer.  "Really?  Why?"  

      And though I can't explain it, I know I probably will.  In its own way, it was a journey unlike any other...I remember the few minutes in the ring, and get a little punch drunk.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

At Home In Central City

Mardi Gras Indians on Washington Ave on St. Joseph's night in the Central City Neighborhood of New Orleans
Five years ago when I was living in a cabin in Alaska with a tree growing on the rooftop, I would have been incredulous had you told me that I would end up buying and living in a house in a historically high-crime neighborhood in the middle of New Orleans.  

And yet somehow here I am, walking my dog through a mixed income housing development where just two years before stood arguably the single most dangerous public housing project in the country, former stomping grounds to New Orleans gangster rappers Li'l Wayne and Juvenile.  But my decision was not made brashly; only after having worked in the neighborhood for two years did I decide to make the single largest investment in my life in the Central City neighborhood.  The cultural prevalence of second line parades, brass band culture and Mardi Gras Indians made the decision to buy a rehabbed historic house attractive to me, almost as much as the affordability factor.  After working in low-income housing development for a non-profit which developed houses in an area about a quarter mile radius around my current house, upon signing my closing documents I already knew which blocks were family friendly, and which blocks were criminal, where the neighborhood organizers lived, as well as the dealers and the druglords.  

And so it came as no surprise when I got a text from my friend and neighbor, while I was out drinking cocktails at the Columns Hotel in the posh Garden District neighborhood just half a mile away, enjoying a perfect evening listening to live music being played by the band I manage on the side.  "Someone got shot on LaSalle, get ride home from one of the boys."  Or another text a week later, "Were those gunshots?"  I confirmed that they were when I rode my bike past an ambulance and a score of police cars.  This event was proceeded by a stabbing two days prior.

A day later I walk two blocks from my house to the historic and dilapidated graveyard on Washington Avenue.  There are scores of mausoleums lined up over three or four city blocks, and it is picturesque as the sun sets behind them.  
Graveyard on Washington Ave on St. Josephs Night

This night belongs to the Mardi Gras Indians, a secret society of African-American New Orleanians who spend tens of thousands of dollars and months of their year sewing elaborate costumes comprised of beads and feathers arranged to resemble the regalia of Native Americans.  The tradition supposedly originated as a commemoration of the Native Americans who gave asylum to escaped slaves.  Today it means much more.  Tribe members are typically low-income people or once were, and generally claim stake in neighborhoods flanking public housing projects.  And though many of the City's projects have been demolished and redeveloped, the tradition remains.

Tonight it is St. Joseph's night, a celebration in which scores of tribes of Mardi Gras Indians greet the sunset in full regalia, mock-fighting with one another.   The selection of St. Joseph's Day is rumored to pre-date World War I, when Italian Americans celebrated this religious holiday throughout the city, enabling the contraband celebrations of the Indians to occur reasonably undetected.  St. Joseph's marks the last episode of the Mardi Gras Indian season, the final battle, whereas the previous appearances (Mardi Gras Day and Super Sunday) are more community demonstration events.  And unlike the first two events, there is hardly a caucasian spectator or telephoto lens to be found.

It is my second time going to St. Joseph's but the first time I am able to walk from my house.  I meet up with some friends and we wander the streets, just blocks away from the shooting that occurred a week before, or the stabbing days prior.  Despite being a little behind with work at my day job, I discipline myself to go out; it is all I can do to remind myself why I decided to choose a home right in front of all of this violence which, from this proximity, has left my mind a little fogged.  

In the dark I can smell the half dozen barbecue vendors selling their wares, and can hear the rhythms emanating from Indian drums.  I see a shock a feathers spinning almost uncontrollably, illuminated by a lone street light.  I am surrounded almost exclusively by African-Americans.  I have just enough alcohol in me for a little buzz, the best state in which I can absorb chaos immediately before me.  It is a New Orleans that is just five miles from the tourist-laden French Quarter, and it is the New Orleans I know and love.  

Central City has been described by more than one friend of mine as the Caribbean section of New Orleans -- replete with celebrations, music, Afro-influences, street food, brightly colored houses, and also poverty, working people, potholes and crime.  It has remained fairly untouched by the forces of gentrification, a little pocket of three public housing projects flanked by workforce housing.  Since the redevelopment of the housing projects the buildings have changed, but many attitudes of outsiders have not, and those who do not know and love Central City fear it like an impending plague.  

Living here it is hard to understand certain things.  Who gets murdered, and why, and why not me.  And why my drug dealing neighbors down the street whose life decisions I loathe are kind to me, and pick up their dogs feces in front of my house.  How there can be murder at the same time that there is kindness is a phenomenon all over the world that I never been able to understand.  

Particularly when I've traveled, there have been times in my life where I have found myself in peculiar situations, not understanding precisely what led me there but knowing that it is the right place for me at the time.  A little faith, and a whole lot of love for the intangible thing I'm in search of that I know is there.  Being homebound in Central City is one such moment.  I hope and pray that the violence goes away soon.  And I know that the good things are real, and that these traditions will stay in these very blocks I walk my dog in, as they have for a hundred years now.  It is strange but good to call Central City my home.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Stormy Weather

They say bad things occur in sets of three, and after hearing my story, even the least superstitious of you might agree.  

At the beginning of this summer, I was on the brink of a major transition.  For the first time in my life, I finally found a place so culturally rich, so entertaining, and so professionally stimulating that I decided to buy a house.  It is not something I pictured happening at the ripe age of 35, single, and without children, but there I was, preparing to move out of my apartment in the elite dollhouse Riverbend neighborhood of New Orleans, into the distressed, predominantly African-American neighborhood of Central City.  It was a move I took time to make after moving here--a year to be exact--and it has taken another year for the blighted house I identified as my future home to finally complete construction, under the direction of the non-profit housing developer for which I work.  I was scheduled to close the first week in August.   

I can say without exaggeration that after living in nine different cities in the past 17 years, it is the first real commitment I have made in a very long time.  

This decision was not without tests, three of them to be exact, all of which occurred in the month of August.  But now it is September and I can look back knowing that I have learned invaluable lessons about commitment, friendship, and this place called New Orleans.

A Collapsing House and a Demolition
A New Orleans summer is not without its challenges, and this past one was no exception.  June and July brought monsoon-like showers that beat down on the city and its aged housing stock, many of which were left blighted and abandoned after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.  One such house loomed eerily next to my targeted new home and I only signed a purchase agreement because I knew that the monstrosity was on the City's demolition list.  It was rumored to be a once a historic home, characteristic of the Caribbean architecture imported here by freed slaves originating from the West Indies.  But by June of 2012 it was a decrepit mess with a caved-in roof, serving as a squatting location for homeless junkies looking for a dark corner in which to shoot up.  Its owners were wealthy residents living in one of the most elite neighborhoods of New Orleans, who claimed for years that they were saving to fix it up.  Twenty thousand dollars later in back taxes the property made its way onto the City's obligatory demolition list, but not in time to keep it from collapsing under the pressure June rains, causing it to crawl closer and closer towards my would-be home just days away from completing construction.  On July 27th, after a thunderstorm, it looked like this:

It made its way on the fast-track to demolition.  I was slated to close within days, and after an analysis of my Asian lunar calendar fortune, I was instructed by my mother to avoid, at all costs, closing or moving into the house on August 3rd, 4th, or 5th.  Despite the convenience of asking friends to help with the move on Saturday August 5th, I heeded my mother's advice.  The move was scheduled for August 6th, two days before I was scheduled to leave the state for a friend's wedding.

On August 5th, the City conducted the demolition of the neighboring structure.  I stopped by to find a pile of rubble, disturbingly close to my would-be home.

And on further inspection, I saw my the bedroom of my little house was not spared.

Repair work started two days later by the general contractor who had been hired by my work.  I stayed in town to make sure all was in order with the repairs to begin and missed the wedding of my long-time friend in California but still had time left in my planned vacation.  In my absence my pets stayed in my apartment with a friend who agreed to house-sit.  I hoped to get away from the commotion for at least a little bit and relax in California for two weeks with my nieces and nephews.

A Fire
I was not in California for more than four days when I learned that the apartment building where my stuff remained, with my pets and my house sitter,  caught on fire.  The handyman and plumber, fond of my dog Milo, came into my apartment even before the firefighters arrived.  They called me while I was in California to tell me that they saved my dog.  

But they forgot about my cats.  

After a flurry of phone calls, the cats were eventually saved by firefighters on a second trip into my apartment, this time escorted by the housesitter.  The fire made the evening news.

Though the fire-starting culprit lived in the apartment above mine across the hall, the entire building filled with smoke, and after all was said and done, the entire structure resembled a war zone.

My apartment was covered in soot, some of it drenched in stale water from the fire hoses.

I came back the next day, and after sending a few texts, several friends offered housing,  petsitting, help in packing and moving.  My boss offered a place in her own home for me, and also offered that I move into the new house before the closing date; the general contractor sped up repairs, working his crew overtime on the weekend.  

My friends moved me into the home which was not yet mine, pets and all.

A Hurricane
And, after two weeks of putting the finishing touches on the house that would be my home, with closing prolonged by my lender for a few more days, Hurricane Isaac decided to pay New Orleans a visit.  With my pets just barely starting to eat and poop normally again, I was in no mood to relocate them.  So-called expert predictions on Isaac's scope varied from a category 1 to a category 3 back down to a mere tropical storm.  Mayor Landrieu declared a state of emergency but did not require evacuation.  

A self-selected group of friends with strong stomachs decided to stay in town, and Hurricane pods were formed as designated by neighborhood and friendship proximity.  The decision amongst five of us was to hunker down at my house, located geographically on the incline of the flood plain, which did not see too much water during Hurricane Katrina.  

Three of us were Hurricane newbies, unused to the howling sounds of winds, rain, thunder, of  crackling houses busting up, of transformers throughout the neighborhood blowing once every few hours.  While I distracted myself with the tasks of hosting, others would crack jokes, suggest games to play, or help prepare the next meal.  We had all cooked up our perishables for that night, in contemplation of power outages and failing refrigerators.  We ate like kings, and frequently so, in order to pass the time.  

"It's not the Hurricane that sucks so much, it's the boredom without electricity," said Ryan, a veteran of Hurricane Gustav.  I spent my energy prioritizing items to be cooked next, and frozen yogurt to be made, based on a hierarchy of perishables.  I focused on cleaning and making sure my guests were comfortable.  I focused on hosting my first dinner party which happened to be in honor of a hurricane.  I focused on whatever I could to distract me from wondering if this newly rehabbed 100-year old house would keep us all safe and dry.

It did.  While others had rows of downed trees, missing siding, yards of shingles stripped from their roofs, collapsed fences, I counted on one hand the number of missing shingles.  Massive oak trees and medium sized banana trees took out fences, windows, and power lines.  We were lucky, I was lucky.  And for the second time in two days, I burned incense in gratitude to and in memory of my grandmother as tears quietly trickled down my cheeks.  The worst part was over.  Well, almost.

For two more days, we hurricane buddies gave eachother space but also stuck together, some of us going to work, others whiling the daytime hours with busy work in our houses, all of us staring down the dark, hot, muggy night, in the blackness of a place that once was and still is a swamp.  With no air-conditioning, no fans in our own homes and neighborhoods, we all gravitated to the French Quarter, the one neighborhood in town with electricity, spared from the blackout by the sole subterranean power grid in the city kept perfectly in tact.  We ate and drank like newly released prisoners, though we had been eating and drinking for the past two days just to stay sane.

The company helped us all get through the hot, sticky nights, as did the battery-powered karaoke machine, and our determination not only to stick it out, but help one another do the same.  And maybe the alcohol helped too.  The heat was a relentless, unforgivingly moist heat.  My heart wished in vain that Isaac had enough mercy to at least leave a little breeze.

By day four of no electricity, my determination waned and I second-guessed my decision to stay.  I did not contemplate that riding out the storm also meant enduring the merciless dank heat without power, and I accumulated less than 10 hours of sleep over the span of four days.  I took brief naps at houses that had  their power restored earlier than mine, and for one night I even camped on a friend's couch with my dog while her cats took refuge in her bedroom.  

In the daytime, I rode around the city, taking in a scenery of downed oak trees tangled in electrical wires in the wealthiest neighborhoods.  I saw tanks parked in front of French cafes, and the National Guard scurrying about in various spots.  

I saw electrical lines drooping from tilted poles, and portions of fences completely missing, wind-borne elsewhere.

The storm hit on Tuesday and not until Saturday evening was I able to enjoy the privilege of hearing the whirr of the motor on my central air-conditioning kick back on, of feeling the breeze from my ceiling fans, or of enjoying the sound of music from my computer.  Some of my hurricane friends had left town as planned for the long Labour Day weekend, others had their flights cancelled, and those of us remaining in town continued to check in on one another, for safety and for moral support, to stay sane after a hurricane which was more of a mind-bender than a natural disaster.

At some point my co-worker Charles called, a life-long New Orleanian who lost everything in his Lower Ninth Ward home in Hurricane Katrina, and said, "You're not a virgin anymore, baby girl!  Congratulations!  Wooo hooo!"  Isaac to him was a blink of the eye, his family safe and sound, well-fed by his hurricane-ready barbecue grill.  Charles and his family weathered Isaac and its merciless heat like professionals.

In the process writing this blog entry, part of me is surprised that I didn't pack my pets and bags and hit the road for good.  My first real attempt at commitment seem to be jinxed, and a different me in a different city might not have stuck through it, overwhelmed by negativity.  But instead, thoughts of this past August and all its disasters give me comfort.  I think of my new neighbors who stood by my side when a chunk of the house in between us flew through my would-be bedroom during a demolition; the new romance sparked between two close friends--never having met one another before--who came to my rescue to move my remaining possessions out of a charred apartment building; the hurricane-inspired slumber party-bender and the company of friends working hard to distract one another from the stress of impending natural disaster; my own brief hurricane romance involving a third generation barber whose swimming pool I enjoyed in my third day without electricity; and most certainly, the beautiful house in which I now sit, hurried to construction completion by general contractors who felt empathy for me and my odd housing luck--a house which kept me, my pets, and my friends safe and dry in a nasty little storm.   

New Orleans is a test of loyalty with its hurricanes, heat, and dysfunctional infrastructure, all of which work against those of us who live here, even in post-disaster times.   But the past month, with all its misfortune, served to galvanize existing friendships and spark new ones.  The way I see it now, bad things happen everywhere, so if they are going to, there's no place I'd rather be than here, and I am proud to call New Orleans home.