Thursday, December 23, 2010

Falconeering in the Desert (Syria)

The desert is unusually busy this time of year, every twenty miles or so you can find an outpost of falconers, poor Syrians hoping to catch the world’s fastest bird, which they will in turn sell to Arab sheiks for prices occasionally reaching seven figures.
Haji too has falcon dreams. In eight years of coming to the desert he has caught one bird, which he sold for $9,000.
So how does one catch this rare feathered treasure, who’s only pier in aerial combat might be an F-14 fighter jet? With bait. When the Syrians see a falcon overhead, they release a pigeon, a tasty morsel for this bird of prey. But the pigeon has a trap on its back that that ensnares the falcon’s talons, forcing it to land where the bird is, at least in their dreams, scooped up by the locals for a big pay day.
We stop by a band of falconers, check out the video below to see how they equip the bird. Haji is seen briefly with the cigarette …

Smoking and Dental Plans in Syria
Speaking of cigarettes, I estimate that about 85% of people in the Middle East smoke, which means that what few remaining teeth most Arabs have are yellow and stained. Most Syrians make the British Book O’ Smiles look like a children’s fairy tale. It is rare to find a full set of teeth here.

The Trip Home
We drive through a sand storm. Haji shakes his head thinking of all his friends still in the desert less fortunate than us. We drive for hours, staring at the vast expanse of empty space around us. Even the German jokes have subsided as Annie sleeps in the back.
The sky looks threatening, but it doesn’t seem to be another sandstorm. “Those look like rain clouds,” I remark to Haji.
“Let us pray,” he responds.
An hour later it starts to drizzle, turning into intermittent showers. It is the first rain they have had all year. “Allah ahkbar,” (God is great) I smile at Haji.
“Allah ahkabr,” Haji responds with joy in his heart, “With the sand wet, perhaps we might go a few days without a sand storm. Maybe there will be more vegetation for our Bedouin friends and their sheep.”
“Let us pray,” I respond.
As I see it, the environment in the Middle East seems to be a lost cause. With sparse resources, huge families, a fast growing population, and seemingly zero environmental consciousness the Middle East had better start harmonizing with Mother Nature, or life will surely get worse there. Already river beds are becoming parched, water scarcer, and pollution blankets the entire region.
It’s not that I think the rest of us are doing well managing the world’s resources, it’s that the Middle East is probably most emblematic of the crucible mankind is putting the environment through.
Eventually we got back to Palmyra. Annie and Lars decided to head to head out onto the first buses to their respective Syrian destinations. I decided to hang out in town for the rest of the afternoon. As it turns out, I went to sleep, and didn’t wake up til long after the last bus had left. It looks like my trip to Jordan would have to wait a day.
Sunset in Syrian desert

Monday, December 13, 2010

Mass and Musical Slaughter of Small Birds in the Syrian Desert

6:30 AM: The silence of the desert is broken by operatic quality songbirds, accompanied harmoniously, that is if you are a weapons manufacturer, by an orchestra of gun shots. We wake instantly, bearing witness to the slaughtering of mass number of our feathered friends, a pre-recorded track of birds chirping meant to attract what little life there was (past tense) in the desert to its demise. The dead birds will be sold at market for food, the slaughtering is relentless. The longer it goes on, the more uncomfortable we get.
Haji is still asleep, hung over from his night of drinking. I shake him gently wanting to leave, he’s unresponsive.
“You guys want to go too, right?” I ask Annie and Lars. They nod. I ask Annie how to say “Get up now!” in German.
“Stehen Sie jetzt aufI,” I yell over Haji, hoping to replicate the same warmth of the average German, or Nazi SS Officer, whichever is greater. Annie and Lars shake their heads, in disbelief of my total lack of shame or manners. “Stehen Sie jetzt aufI!!” I command again, but Haji remains unresponsive.
“Stop using my beautiful language like that,” Annie complains.
“Stehen Sie jetzt aufI Haji!!” I shout once more. Slowly the blanket is lifted, Haji looks at me with bewilderment. “Richard, are you crazy?” he asks.
“Just teasing the German,” I respond.
“Oh,” smiles Haji, pulling the blankets back over his head. I wait a beat.
“Stehen Sie jetzt aufI!!!!”
Annie groans. Haji chuckles under the blanket.

You see, poor Annie was getting pummeled continually from all sides, the only girl amongst three, maturity wise pre-adolescent men, each with a third degree black belt in teasing. A typical joke went something like this- after smashing a fly, I look up and proudly state, “Now we have all killed something. Lars shot a deer, Haji has killed a rabbit, I just swatted a fly, and Annie, well … Annie is German.”
We teased Annie non-stop. She had no idea just how nationalistic she was until we got done with her.
Haji told her, “English is good for business, Italian is good for romance, French is good for poetry, German is good for giving orders, but Arabic, Arabic is good for all.” Annie was not a fan, especially as a journalist, that we were making fun of her harsh sounding mother tongue, but let’s face it, Haji was right.
Eventually Haji got up, and after, what was for me, an overly leisure breakfast, we left the Syrians to finish destroying their environment. I suppose we all have to earn a living …
Camels in the Syrian desert

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Caught Dead In A Syrian Sandstorm!

Dry hills of Syria
After saying our good byes to our Bedouin friends, we continued our journey, driving even deeper into the desert; that is if “deeper” was even possible. At some point when digging to the center of the earth, you start to come out the other side, of course, in this case, that other side was the Iraqi border.

Looking for a good place to camp for the night, the horizon seems to be getting darker, but those aren't low lying rain clouds. Haji, explains, “Ladies and gentlemen, brace yourself, we’re about to be caught in a sandstorm.”
Of course, this was new and exciting for yours truly, who ventured outside the car to see the sand storm up close.

(See the sand storm as we saw it in the middle of the desert)

Moments after we cut filming, a deluge of sand nearly blows us away. Strong winds whipping sand around like shrapnel, your body instinctively positioning itself in a fetal position attempting to limit damage to vital organs. The storm rages for several minutes around us. When it ends, sand is everywhere, in our noses, ears, throats, underpants… even cameras …
Annie’s Nikon has stopped working, sand has penetrated her lens despite her best efforts to protect her baby. She wipes it down, hoping to fix it.
Lars and I, though the experience itself was not exactly pleasant, feel emboldened and alive having survived what we just did. Haji suggests we get back to the car and look for a place to camp, as he would not be surprised if the next sand storm would be far stronger, and longer.
“How long can sand storms last,” I naively ask.
“Days,” answers Haji, with an air of morbid seriousness about our situation.

We get back in the car and start driving, seemingly aimlessly. Haji announces another storm will be arriving, we must find shelter. Ten minutes later it descends upon us, the dark clouds of sand blotting out the setting sun entirely. The wind howls, the swirling sand under its command makes visibility a joke, forming icy spears of high velocity shrapnel, denting the sides of our beleaguered car.
I laugh somehow. Annie starts to freak out- the fear of death. She wills herself to maintain some sense of control. At first it seems fun to tease her about it, an art which Lars, Haji, and I have attained black belt status. I start to feel sorry for Annie, barely able to continue keep up her Germanic stiffness, let alone her composure.
“Don’t fight against it Annie,” I explain in a calm voice, “there’s really nothing we can do. If we die, we die, it’s not that big a deal, just rest peacefully in the Now, that’s all we have.”
I feel Annie’s hands around my neck. She wants to choke me, despite my helpful intentions. Apparently I would make a terrible bereavement counselor.
Annie H and Lars Buckholder- not Haji
Haji apologizes, and tells us we likely won’t be spending the night under the desert stars. He knows of a place we can stay.
We drive around for an hour, relying on our guide's knowledge of the desert and experience. Eventually we find it, a small government owned building with a well, set-up to help the Nomadic Bedouin people survive.
Haji knows all the men here, there isn’t a large contingent of people, even in the Middle East, who want to spend their whole lives in this desolate tract of sand.
A strapping man greets us, shaking our hands, and offers the standard welcoming Arab gift of overly sweetened tea. We sit inside a very modest structure, hoping that the storm will pass.
Eventually the sands die down, though it takes several hours. By now it is pitch dark, the only lights coming from our structure and the few stars not hidden by the remaining sand clouds. Haji announces it is time to prepare dinner.
Over a fire we grill chicken and vegetables. It tastes fantastic, I could a eat a ton of this stuff, and I come close to the mark. We dine with the caretaker of the well, and his nephews, who have been hunting in the surrounding desert. A half-hour into dinner, a small truck pulls up. They know the driver and greet him as a brother.
His eyes go wide at the site of Annie. A white woman in these parts is an unheard of prize. His heavy flirtation becomes more aggressive as he consumes more shots of the hard liquor everyone except for me is drinking. He excuses himself. I feel uncomfortable, I ask Haji where he is going. “To get something to give you a proper greeting,” Haji reveals, chuckling.
I ask who the guy is. He's described as the village idiot, who no matter how long he has been out in the desert, can never find his way, getting lost every time.
Moments later the idiot reappears with a loaded shotgun. I ease away. He points it at the sky and fires three times. Then silence. No one’s dead, I’m half-surprised.
This is an Arab tradition for welcoming guests of honor. You can tell me all you want about embracing other cultures, I find this custom absolutely idiotic. Aside of the potential accident of having a drunk discharge a loaded fire-arm, those bullets have to land somewhere.
He continues his flirtation with Annie. Lars and I both remark to Haji that the idiot should take it down a notch. To her credit, Annie’s doing a marvelous job of staying friendly, without giving way. Eventually it gets too much for me. I don’t really want to insult the idiot with the gun, I just want Haji to intervene, which he finally does, in a calm, friendly way.
We eat in peace for a few minutes before the idiot starts up again. It’s not like he’s touching her inappropriately, it’s the energy of a stupid, horny drunk man, who hasn’t been around a woman, much less an exotic one, for years, and can barely contain his predatory instincts. Haji assures me he would never harm a soul.
Almost on cue, in an effort to impress Annie with his “power” he picks up his shotgun and points it at the sky. Lars is more okay with this than I am with it, but then again, Lars has been drinking. I hide behind whatever cover I could find. The Arab men take the idiot’s gun away, and wrap it in its cloth holder. We finish dinner in relative peace.
We’re sleeping outside, Haji makes the beds, blankets over ancient mattresses covering the desert floor. Forget bed bugs, we’re checking these babies for scorpions. We stay awake for hours, chatting, explaining our dreams, what brought us here. For me, it was partly an ex-girlfriend who I found out only a few months before had moved back to Europe and hung herself. Someone who you would look at, speak to, and say, “Oh my God, she is amazing.”
I look around, the calm, dark sky, the ocean of sand surrounding us. There isn’t a noise to be heard for miles, aside of maybe my heart beating as I think of her. Memories often seem like a dream. Did they even really take place? Perhaps this moment is a dream. Perhaps this is a moment of "Inception." I look around. I see no top spinning.
Desolate hills of Syria

Monday, November 29, 2010

Meet The Terrorists- Deep in the Syrian Desert

Haji picked us from our campground in the early morning, driving an old, enclosed, red pick-up truck. He had equipped the rear with blankets and pillows to make comfortable seating for Annie and Lars, who willingly agreed to sit in the back as I was taller. We climbed in and quickly departed, drawing closer each mile to the Iraqi border.
An hour later we rolled up to the last outpost of civilization, the last chance to fill up on gas, water up, or purchase a snack. The paved road ceased its existence. It was like we were explorers from the days when the earth was flat, and had arrived at the edge of the world. We took the plunge, falling into the abyss of the Syrian desert, 4 x 4ing over the sands.
There are a few shrubs, these aren’t dunes of Merzugga in Morocco where any form of vegetation has to overcome insurmountable odds to exist, but you surely won't find a mango tree here.

Mid East Environmentalism
Haji quenches his thirst with our most valuable commodity, rolls down his window and tosses out the plastic bottle, a gift for the desert. Instantly he has three environmentalists yammering in his ear, voicing our displeasure over his actions, Annie leading the prosecution.
Haji chuckles, and offers the following contrite apology: “Annie, I am truly sorry, I promise that next time, you won’t see me do it.”
That’s one thing about Arabia, environmentally, it is a disaster zone. Trash is strewn everywhere, recycling is a foreign word, and pollution, especially in the bigger cities, makes breathing the most difficult of chores. Environmental consciousness is nearly non-existent here.
camels in desert

We pass a heard of camels, which used to transport the nomadic Bedouin people across the desert, now having been replaced for those purposes by trucks. There are few, if any, wild camels left, all are owned by the Bedouins, and are actually highly valuable, with the cheapest camel selling for $1,500, the most expensive have sold for millions of dollars to Arab sheiks. I guess all that oil money has to be spent on something.

The Bedouins
We haven’t seen another car or person in the 80 miles we are into the desert, when we happen upon a Bedouin tent. Haji takes us inside.
Bedouin mother and her children

These nomadic people live their entire lives in the desert. Their tents stand erect with the support of only wooden poles stuck deep into the ground. They don't have enough carpets to cover the entire desert floor they sleep on. The tent covers were made of hand spun, woven goat hair and wool, at least partially protecting its occupants from the super heated desert sun in the summer, the harsh winds and the daily sandstorms it brings, and the often chilly winters.
Their income is entirely almost based on their sheep, and the milk, wool, and meat they provide. Each head of sheep is worth about $300. The sheep graze on what little vegetation the desert offers, once they have consumed one area, they must move on. It hasn’t rained all year, and the vegetation is now extremely sparse. It is a harsh life for our hosts.
Bedouin children

We are actually the first white people they have ever laid eyes upon. It is exceedingly rare to receive visitors this far into the desert, let alone tourists. They eye us with curiosity as Haji attempts translations, enabling some communications between the West and this deep desert Arab culture.
The children eye me warily, used to seeing maybe one or two outsiders per year, much less an alien with white skin. In the end, fear is swept away by the energy of fun.

(Watch as I ingratiate myself to the Bedouin children in this video by playing Monster with them.)

Culture Clash- The High five

(Watch Rich introduce the high-five to his Beduoin friends as they teach me various games they played to pass the long days in the desert.)

You want to prejudge people? Any of the men look exactly like an Al Queda terrorist in any video I have seen, but I found had nothing to fear here, though we three, rich white people were the only ones without guns. These people are just trying to make living, scraping by on the meager possessions they owned out in the middle of nowhere, in one of the harshest environments on earth.
Their minds hadn’t been poisoned with radical, "us versus the West, kill anyone who disagrees with us Islam," but rather they were gracious hosts, even slaughtering one of their valuable sheep, and cooking it over an open fire to fill our stomachs.
The more I travel, the more I realize just how alike people are in all corners of the globe, everyone wants to make a living, feed their families, be loved, and have fun. What more in life do you really need?

Next: Near death, caught in a Syrian sandstorm

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Kill Me, I'm American - Life in the Syrian desert + cartoons of Mohammed

I’m sure if you ever venture to the Middle East, you’ll find Arab culture to be overwhelmingly inviting. Enter any house, and the poorest family will lay out their best wares for you. There exists a general warmth and hospitality here that would humble most Westerners.
In Los Angeles, the prevailing attitude is “what can you do for me?” In Syria it’s, “Who are you? Tell me about yourself.” They really want to take the time to get to know you.
The average Syrian earns about $150 a month. Though beggars certainly exist, the majority of the population takes pride in being self sufficient, and as any just about any tourist has more money than all but the wealthiest of Syrians, you are seen much like a bee views a brightly colored flower.
Syrian children
But you don’t have to worry about being robbed of your proverbial pollen. Like the bee, they always want to provide you a service, or at least sell you something. I had one guy who persistently tried to sell me a headdress, and I told him that I didn’t want it, but that I would give him the money anyways. He refused. The challenge is, there are so many bees, and so few flowers. (it is the desert after all)
ruins of ancient Rome in Palmyra, Syria
I hadn't shaved in days. Walking through town I come across an old fashioned barber pole, probably imported here from the US in the year 1950. I enter the time warp; the interior matches. Two regulars sit on old leather stools, smoking cigarettes and reading the local newspaper, there just to pass the hot Syrian day. They speak no English, we communicate through sign language while the proprietor chuckles at our attempted communication while trimming a young boy’s hair. The warmth and laughter we share is genuine and mutual, though we don’t understand more a single spoken word of the conversation.
Now it’s my turn. The proud Arab barber sharpens his razor and goes to work. He is meticulous, pouring over every single detail, gelling my hair into shape as an added bonus, away from the listless mass I usually leave it in. He takes the blade to my neck. Like 99.9% percent of the Arab world, he’s not Al Qaeda.
He proudly displays his work, and charges me $4 for the shave, undoubtedly more than he would charge a local. I really don’t mind, I am happy to pay him for his excellent work, to share my pollen with him. I’m sure he’ll be able to make more honey with it than I would.
(me having my picture taken while I video Syrian kids playing with my other camera)
We walk through the remains of an ancient Roman town, which lies between the edge of Palmyra and our camp. I imagine how it looked at the time of Christ; bustling with soldiers, priests, and slaves, erecting these stone structures in the middle of the desert, an outpost for the great Roman Empire. Today, they lie in ruins.

Check out my view of some of the ruins.

For $10 a tour guide shows us where the Romans used to sacrifice animals to the Gods, where they laid their tables, and prayed. He shows us hidden artistic treasures of the ruins that would otherwise would be nearly impossible to notice. I can’t be sure he’s not making most of this up, but it sounds pretty good.

Meet Haji
Nearby the ruins is a restaurant with a camel out front. Like most businesses in this small town, it too has it regulars. Meet the big man on campus, Haji. His real name is Ahmed, but his parents went on a pilgrimage to Mecca when he was a child, which in the Islamic faith is called a “haj,” his friends all called him Haji. The name stuck.
Haji is in the middle smoking a cigarette, sadly this is the best picture I have of him
Haji was once a wealthy businessman, having lived in Romania and Hungary. He lost all he had worked for and saved during an Eastern European currency crisis, and came back to his hometown of Palmyra, where today he works jobs in construction and hopes to turn his building into a hotel, to meet, what he hopes, will be rising tourist demand.
He invites us back to his home. Haji is 43, and has two children with a woman twenty years younger than him. In Syria, men call the shots, and women dutifully obeys. Like any good father, it is immediately evident how much he loves his children.
Me, Annie, and Lars sit around talking to him. I ask him questions about what life is like here. Haji, having lived abroad, speaks by far the best English of any Syrian I have met.
“What do you think about Americans,” I ask.
“One of the things that hurts the most is that Americans know nothing about us. To them we are from another planet, like we were aliens,” states Haji, a look of sadness resting upon on his face, “The Europeans educate themselves on everything, I wish the American people would be more open minded towards us.”
“What about Israel?”
“It should not exist, but it does. That conflict will never be resolved. There is too much hatred on both sides,” replies Haji.
He laments the Iraq war and how it decimated Syria’s tourism industry, with the collective world fear created of traveling to Arab lands.
Haji, describes the sights and sounds of American fighters jets soaring over Syrian airspace at the onset of the war. He was working for a US construction company at the time, and an American pulled him aside, and asked Haji if he felt like killing him, if there was anything to fear. Haji’s reply was, “What could I possibly have against you. I work with you, I consider you a friend.”
Haji’s responses are largely measured, those of an affable man. That is til I ask him what he thinks about the Danish the cartoonist who created a cartoon with a depiction of the Prophet Mohammed (a strict taboo in Islam.)
A micro-expression of anger flashes across his face, then rather than try to hide his feelings the expression gains strength, and is finally expressed in words. “I tell you Richard, if I would find this cartoonist, I would kill him.”
Whoa. Strong words. At least he’s not trying to hide his feelings. I have a big challenge with human beings who assimilate some dogmatic rule into their identity, and a violation of this rule, could be considered grounds for murder.
“Would you kill me Haji, if I were to draw a stick figure and call it ‘Mohammed’?”
Haji laughs, “I know you Richard, you wouldn’t do such a thing.” … The sub-text is an undeniable warning.
“Do Arab people support Al Quaeda?”
“No, absolutely not. Our religion strictly forbids the killing of innocent people.”
“What about American soldiers?”
“That is a different story,” Haji answers.
He then offers to take us for a day and overnight excursion into the vast nothingness of the Syrian desert, alone with Haji, the harsh desert sun and wind, and the occasional hunter, toting his machine guns. With all we have been discussing, how could I possibly say no?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Desert Oasis of Palmyra, Syria- this way to Baghdad

This Way To Baghdad
We climbed into the “mini-bus, ” 15 people inside plus luggage, which, when you do math, comes out to about 7.8 people per seat. I stood, hunched over the entire way, praying that our driver would at least manage to avoid one or two of Syria’s famed potholes, which have been known to swallow full grown elephants.
The harrowing, deeply uncomfortable, ten minute ride to the Damascus bus station complete, and miraculously still breathing, we purchased tickets for the four hour ride to Palmyra, where ruins of an ancient Roman city are still being excavated.
We drive through the desert. Sandy, dusty, and when the wind kicks up here, watch out, as the ensuing sand storms have buried many an unlucky traveler alive, that is assuming they survived the onslaught of sand shrapnel being propelled at speeds faster than light.
Perhaps even more chilling was the sight of "Baghdad" on a road sign, and the knowledge of just how close we were to the Iraqi border, to the chaos my own country helped spawn.
green sign- Baghdad straight ahead!! Hooray!
Palmyra’s bus station is actually a couple miles outside the city limits. Imagine travelling from some distant galaxy through the vast nothingness of space to visit earth, and being dropped off on the moon. We were lucky there was a space shuttle to take us the rest of the way.
a date palm with more dates than you could ever eat!
A half mile outside the town’s opposite border, lies a Bedouin campground. Honestly, we could not have made a better choice of a place to stay. Drawing from a nearby, and rapidly disappearing, reservoir, drip irrigation has allowed the blossoming of a garden, a green island in this sea of sand.
With the owners keeping in lock-step with rightfully famous Arab hospitality standards, a massive ancient Roman wall sheltering us from the wind, pomegranate, date palm, and olives trees providing us fresh fruit and shade from the desert sun, a Bedouin tent to keep us warm at night, and of all things, a swimming pool to help stave off heat stroke, this place was as magical as Syria gets.

Our lush oasis campground in the backdrop of Roman ruins. (1:58)

Arab citadel atop the mount

the sun sets on the hills of the Syrian desert
A giant castle built in the late 1600’s sits atop a mountain. Perish the thought of ever conquering the citadel, it’s hard enough to make the treacherous walk up the steep hill. To gain access inside, you’d have to overcome a twenty-foot wide waterless moat with a hundred feet drop in case you didn't make the jump. Enemy soldiers should just announce their intention to chill out and watch the sunset to avoid being fired upon; at least it worked for us.
From atop the mountain, a panoramic view-- the oasis area, clashing with the harsh and barren desert which surrounds it on all sides, only a few precious drops of water keeping the army of green from being swallowed whole; the nearby town of Palmyra, and the red sun disappearing behind the Western hills.

See our view, post sunset (48 seconds long)

Annie, Rich Birecki, and Lars Burkholder atop the mountain
We stayed there a good forty minutes after sunset admiring the vista, and the peaceful, uncomplicated nature of the countryside. Entering into the tranquility of the meditative moment, I begin to wonder whether I am dreaming. Why we so often think every little challenge to be such a monstrous, life-threatening problem. Nothing seems real here, nothing seems important. Call it growth, that’s the way I like it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Metal Israeli Flag on the Ground in the Middle of the Old City- Damascus, Syria (desecrate or not)

To Desecrate The Israeli Flag

The Old City of Damascus is basically a huge bazaar, the center under a canopy like dome, dead by day, hopping at night. Walking around the area, one cannot help but feel a sense of antiquity, as if life might not have been all that different centuries ago.
I guess it's a rare place where Caucasians (both sentient and insentient) are not the standard of beauty.
The Grand Mosque of Damascus
We arrive at the Grand Mosque of Damascus. It’s impossible to miss; in the Old City, all paths lead to this proverbial Rome. Originally constructed as a Christian Cathedral dedicated to John the Baptist, its origins are still reflected in the décor, a beautiful blend of Christian and Muslim sensibilities.
Inside Syria's most famous Mosque
Outside Damscus's grand mosque
To gain entry we rent robes to cover our bare legs, as most of us were wearing shorts. The courtyard is beautiful and spacious. Iranian Shiite Pilgrims line-up at the tomb of Husayn, grandson of the prophet Mohammed, all extremely eager to place their hands on this holy shrine. We stay there, admiring the beauty of the place, watching worshipers stream in and out of the Mosque for forty minutes, before resuming our exploration of the Old City.

The Trodden Israeli Flag
Amidst the crowded street, we happen upon a metal Israeli flag prominently displayed on the ground. In fairness to the Syrian people, other than some aggressive shopkeepers trying to sell their wares, tourists rarely get hassled. The exception would be if you try to avoid stepping on the Israeli flag.
Mohammed: “What, you like Israel?!”
Me: “Umm—“
Mohammed: “If you don’t step on that flag, we’re going to shoot you.”
Me: “Ummm—“
Mohammed: “NOW!”

metal Israeli flag on ground in Damsus (well worn)
While I believe symbols only have the power people give them, I take issue with the energy behind the flag's placement, and the thought process of those choosing to step on it; both are hateful and divisive.

On the other hand … if I were to step on the flag and post the picture ... I went through a quick pros and con list —
Pro—I gain a billion new fans through the Arab world
Con—I really piss off about 10 million people.
"I said NOW!"
Pro-- I don't get shot.

People often perceive disrespect towards chosen symbols in the same manner they might a direct physical assault, and react as such. That's the challenge with the limited identity most human beings ascribe to themselves.
One act of hatred met in kind amplifies dissonance, making it easier to respond with violence, leading to war.
The counterpoint of this is compassion which directly counters the waves of negativity. Hatred cannot long exist in the presence of love.
I chose to walk around the flag; thankfully the bullet missed.

The Christian Quarter
We continued to the Christian Quarter, where we were promised Western style nightclubs which turned out in reality to deserted bars, albeit selling alcohol, a hard to find commodity in most Muslim countries. We purchased some beers, sipping on our cans atop mushroom shaped stools in a park, exchanging our travel stories, as we watched the ebb and flow of Syrian life carry on around us.
mushroom stools in the park
We arrive back to hostel in the wee hours of the morning. as I silently ascend the stairs to my cot on the roof, my first incredibly busy twenty fours in Syria now complete. I lay down and quickly begin to dream of a world where hatred is met by compassion and love.
I slept like a baby.

The journey continues in the desert of Syria- a town called Palmyra

Really good online sitcom!!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Damascus, Syria- - Dating, Israel, and the Mukhabrat under a Dictator

Damascus, Syria
Upon waking, I discovered that Annie had already gone her merry way, and not wishing to interfere with any day’s plans that my gracious hosts might have, I thought I would take off myself, but as I was walking out the door, I was called back to partake in a breakfast consisting of hummus and pita-bread.
Tim, and his roommate Adrian, both having been in Damascus for about a year studying Arabic, I began inquiring as to the ins and outs of the country.

A family of five children is considered small in Syria, with most parents having seven or eight.
The most important thing in any young Syrian’s life is to land themselves a good spouse. Neither Adrian or Tim has, or is likely to have, a Syrian girlfriend, nor would any male foreigner ever be likely to successfully court a Syrian girl because the mere rumor of her impropriety would greatly affect her chances of landing the best mate.
A young Syrian girl would never even bring a boy over to her house or apartment who is merely a friend, because of the potential damage to both her own, and her family’s reputation, such an action might cause.
The same does not hold true for Syrian men, as I met several who had Western girlfriends.
minaret of Syria's most famous Mosque
When I spoke of my planned trip and mentioned that I was planning to also visit Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel— they let out a collective gasp.
“What?” I asked, slightly startled.
“Never say that word.”
Immediately they made the zip-it sign, sliding their index finger horizontally across their closed lips. “You can call it a code name, we call it Disneyland. You never mention that word here unless you have something negative to say about it.” … A word with one approved context. For the duration of my Syrian adventure, I employed the term ‘Disneyland.’

Another thing you absolutely DO NOT do is to criticize the government. In fact, Tim told me that he once tried to pay Bashir Assad (Syria’s current dictator who inherited rule when his father died) a sort of compliment, stating, “Assad has done a decent job opening the country up.” The group he was conversing with suddenly became very uncomfortable, as the statement implied that Assad’s father had not done an exemplary job keeping the country open.
Why would such a seemingly innocuous statement make other Syrians uncomfortable? One word, the Mukhabarat- the Syrian secret police. In an effort to stay in power, (and avoid decapitation) most dictatorial regimes have massive spy networks, and Syrian sets the modern day bar. Its citizens have no idea who might be keeping tabs on them, so the topic of government is strictly off-limits, especially since, if they bring you in for questioning, it isn’t usually pleasant.
Here is a joke the Syrians have about the Mukhabarat that goes something like this:
“One day, the three greatest intelligence services in the world got together to see who was the best of the best. They released three foxes into the wilderness, and whoever was first to catch one, would earn the trophy.
So the Americans using their spy satellites and infrared technology catch their fox in twenty minutes.
The Russians, using a network of informants they set-up through the forest, catch their fox shortly after.
Both intelligence services, proud of their times, are waiting in the middle of the forest exchanging pleasantries. An hour passes, and they finally ask, “Where the hell are the Syrians?” So they go searching, and a few minutes later find a rabbit, tied to a tree, and the Mukhabarat are whipping it, yelling, “Admit you’re a fox! Admit you’re a fox!”

Tim and Adrian say hi to the folks back home. See, I don't make everything up! :)

Downtown Damascus on an unusually clear day
Thanking my hosts for their hospitality, I gathered my luggage and began my walk down the steep hill. I happened upon a cabbie washing his car, a doting father taking pleasure in sprinkling his young daughter with cool water on this hot day. A smile on my face, I asked him if I could get a ride to Egypt Air where I was told I would find a tour guide, and a cheap hotel nearby.
Finding nothing but travel agents, I went outside, and ran into three Belgian guys, Kristof, Simon, and Deiter who were on an adventure of their own. They too were looking for a hotel, and I asked if they mind me tagging along.
Eventually we came upon a hostel which had beds on the roof for $4 a night. Though certainly not as comfortable as the hotel I had booked, it was way cheaper, plus these guys seemed super cool. With the ability to cancel my $75 a night reservation, I decided to opt for the hostel. Fantastic decision. In the past, frankly, I was making too much money to try something like this, but recently, my income has dried up faster than a Middle Eastern riverbed.
The truth is, staying in hostels is really the way to go if you are willing to put up with the lack of comfort, as you are going to meet like-minded adventurers traveling for the experience, not just to see the immediate attractions/lay on the beach as most tourists do.
I have to give these guys props. You think I travel a lot; they purchased a car, and are driving from Belgium, through the Europe, through the Middle East, then to Egypt, and will complete their seven month journey at Cape Horn in South Africa, having driven a treacherous journey through all of Eastern Africa, including areas where, for safety reasons, if someone stands in front of your car trying to get you to stop, you blare your horn and if he doesn’t move you run him over. (otherwise your car will be jacked, and you likely will meet Reaper, Grim)
The Damascus crew: from left to right-- Rich, Dieter, Kristof, Lars, Annie, and Simon
Sitting in the hostel chatting with them, who do you think walks in? Lo and behold, Smokestack Annie. It turns out that most foreigners frequent this area of Damascus, so running into her again wasn’t totally random. Introducing Annie to my new friends, and adding a fellow American, a twenty-three year old from Portland named Lars to our group, we set out to explore the Old City of Damascus …

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Matrix of Syria

The Matrix Of Syria

Have you ever felt like the powers that be: the media, the political elite, the big corporations, are trying to blind you from the truth. You can’t see it, or really intellectualize it, but it’s there- like an itch in your mind that won’t go away. And that feeling, that itch, finally pulls you somewhere so you can rip off those rose colored glasses they have you looking through, and see what lies beyond the collective world view of your culture …
sunrise over the Syrian desert
I decided to go to Syria for two reasons.
1. My travel agent (Basel, who is Syrian), urged me to go.
2. I’m game

Many of you who knew of my plans also added “Crazy.”
At first I paid no heed to your numerous warnings, but shortly before I was set to leave, an idiot preacher in Florida threatened a Koran burning ceremony, in what was no doubt an effort to fill the cultural divide left by the events of 9/11 with peace, love, and understanding. The State Department subsequently cautioned against any unnecessary travel to the Middle East, my Mom begged me to cancel, assuring me of Mother’s intuition, my adopted brother, Chad, told me to be careful because I would surely be a target, and a Jewish friend assured me I would be killed if I went.

It is not common feeling for me, but I have to admit, I felt a twinge of anxiety boarding my aircraft, but that was probably more a function of the tiny propeller plane being seemingly constructed out of balsa wood.
Transferring in Romania, I ran into a platoon of US Marines on their way to Afghanistan for a tour of duty. I’m struck by the thought that not all these eighteen and nineteen year olds will return, and their steadfast belief that in sacrificing themselves, their minds, and their bodies, they are protecting their fellow citizens. I yearn for public figures to serve with as much honor as these brave soldiers.
I wished them God’s speed, and made a vow that I would do my best to bring some understanding between the US of A, and our implacable enemies of the Middle East (or so most Americans believe) with the goal that my son will never have to protect his country by handling a rifle, but rather by further cultivating the bonds of mutual understanding between peoples that helps make acts of violence and warfare nearly impossible.

The only other person transferring with me to Syria from my tiny plane was another American, who was currently living in Damascus studying Arabic, named Tim, and after a pleasant conversation through the flight, as our plane began its descent at 2 AM local time, I explained to him that my hotel reservation was for the next day, and I wasn’t exactly sure where I would spend the night, and if he was game and had room, I wouldn’t mind spending a few hours of sleep in his apartment. He readily agreed, and I now had a place to stay in big bad Syria. Maybe I travel too much by the seat of my pants, who knows.
Getting through immigration in the Middle East is another story though. I passed (or tried to pass) through five borders, and none of them went exactly smoothly. (Massive understatement as you will find out when I get to Israel) Waiting in line, I couldn’t comprehend why in the world it was taking so long. There were only five people ahead of me, but they were spending twenty minutes a person. The thought came, “And I’m American …”
Well, my turn finally arrived, and I walked calmly to the counter, and handed the immigration official my passport. My visa, (which by the way, costs Americans $141, a big FU from the Syrian government to the US of A, as they only charge the European Union $35) was immediately located by Agent Smith. He gazed at it for a minute, attempting to determine whether I had counterfeited it, then dubiously looked up at me, and asks, “You’re American?”
'That’s what my passport says,' I wanted to reply. Instead came an obedient, “Yes sir.”
He then proceeded to examine my passport with a magnifying glass for a full twenty minutes. He would start in the front, look through every page, turn it back over, and sift through it again and again, spending a good minute pouring over each page.
My suspicion that he was looking for anything to do with Israel was confirmed when, finally finished to what was his current satisfaction, he questioned, “Have you ever been to Israel?”
Not yet … “No sir, I have never been there.”
“Are you Israeli?”
“No. I am American.” (That’s what my passport fucking says!) Tim told me later that if you have an Israeli stamp on your passport, God himself could not get you into Syria, and they’re not helping you with your plane ticket home.
Metal Israeli flag on ground in Damascus. If you step around it, you might be hassled
Then he proceeds to ask me my address in Syria, to which I was exceedingly grateful that I had booked a hotel for the next day, because I think he might have been in the mood to send me back to America if I hadn’t. After casting me dubious looks on every follow-up answer I gave him, like when he asked why I came to Syria; “To assassinate Bashir Ashad,” he finally stamped my passport and let me through.
one of the ubiquitous photos of Bashir Asad, Syria's dictator
It was now 4 AM, and all foreigners were escorted to another room to wait for customs to search our bags. (In case we were smuggling any Israeli flags into the country and didn’t have a burn permit yet I guess.) I saw a European girl smoking a cigarette, and asked her whether she got the fifth degree as well. She was from Germany, her name Annie, and this smokestack would become a companion for the rest of my trip through Syria.
Tim had waited for me to clear customs, and since he was letting me stay with him, I offered to pay for the cab ride into the city of Damascus. I asked Annie if she wanted join us, she wasn’t sure, she had planned to find a hostel. Look, I just met Tim on the plane, it’s 4 AM, ride with us to Damascus. She cocked her head from side to side, and finally agreed. Tim, as if on cue, being a gracious host, offered to let Annie crash at his pad. She took some convincing (believe it or not) but finally agreed, and we were off.
Unfortunately, a fan belt was broken, and to combat his overheating engine, our cabbie would pull over every single kilometer, trying to reset the fan/let the motor cool. Every kilometer. I suppose if we had further to go, it wouldn’t have been nearly as amusing. Then again, I doubt he was laughing at all.
Finally, we reached Tim’s apartment, where I quickly fell into a deep, four hour slumber.
Waking up the next morning, gazing out the balcony window from atop a steep hill, overlooking smoggy Damascus below, I felt a bit like Alice, having just tumbled down the rabbit hole of Syriana.
Now it’s your turn. You take the blue pill, you forget you ever read this, you wake up in your bed, and you believe whatever you want to believe about the Middle East. You take the red pill, you follow this blog over the next week, and I show you just how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I’m offering is the truth.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

In Search of the Greatest Museum

In Search The Greatest Museum  (a silly entry by Me)

Giant Church in Vienna- the sky is the limit
A little bit about Vienna, Austria before I get to the real reason I was there.
#1-- It costs half a Euro to go into just about any bathroom. Sadly, there are few trees in the city, so this cost is often a necessity.
#2-- People don’t usually drink bottled water, they drink straight from the tap and refill their bottles from fountains in the park. They need to save money to pay for bathroom expenses.
#3—It is more expensive than the United States. A cheap hotel is like $80 or so and food also costs.
That’s a little back-ground. You can see a little bit of the city from the photos I took and labeled, now let’s take a look at the real reason that I was there!
There is only one thing I am interested here in Austria, to pay homage to the deity who I worship second only to JC himself … (and by JC I of course mean his Holiness- Jim Carrey) … and Austria’s greatest citizen of all time was of course, the governator of California, Arnold himself. Yes, I am polytheistic. So sue me.
Much as Muslims pray towards Mecca, I also pray five times daily, facing North East to Ontario, Canada, the birthplace of JC, but it is not coincidental that the birthplace of the great Arnold lies in the same direction.
“Where is the Schwarzenegger Museum?” I inquire, using my Arnold accent that I am certain will instantly endear me to all of Vienna.
“The what?” comes the reply from the diminutive fifty-year old man wearing bi-focals. Surely he has misheard me.
“Where is the Arnold Schwarzenegger museum?” I repeat, slightly less calmly.
“We do not have a Schwarzenegger museum,” he responds, a bewildered look on his face.
a view from the Danube Islands
“Hah Hah Hah,” I laugh deeply, “You joke.”
“Why we would we have a museum dedicated to Arnold Schwarzenegger?!”
“Because he is the greatest Austrian in history and must surely have a place of worship in his home country!” I retort with far less patience for this imbecile.
“This man is an actor. He is not worthy of a museum dedicated solely to him.”
I start to shake, “One day you will learn the true meaning of religion!” I retort, barely contain my anger from a volcanic explosion.
the park in Vienna. Lush, and impeccably kept
Viennese park
He steps backwards, not breaking eye contact, finally a “safe” ten feet away, he turns and scurries away.
Undaunted, I ask the next passerby, then another, then another. The exchanges pretty much began and ended the same way, though one lady thought, incorrectly, that I was joking.
After five such exchanges I come to the conclusion that Austria is comprised of nothing but infidels. If only they knew. If only they knew the truth; that if Arnold was around back in the 1930’s Austria he would have exposed Adolf for the little girly-man he truly was. He would have crushed Hitler like cheap china underneath a freight train. He would have smashed Adolf into a million little pieces and spread them to the outer realms of the Universe … but then again, admittedly, Arnold is no JC.
If Jim Carrey were in charge we’d already have world peace.

Johan Strauss
PS—In the last few days, my dear friend, Sandro Monetti informed that the first Hitler Museum was opened in Germany. If someone can open a museum, dedicated to this evil, then counter balance this weight on the world, the Austrians MUST open an Arnold museum … Or better yet, Canada can open a Jim Carrey Museum. I call curator!

(Oh suuurreeee ... dedicate a statue to Johan Strauss. Waaaayyy more people have heard of Arnold. Way to go Austria!)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Zaan Dann, Alkmaar, and the Beach

The prosecutor continues questioning the witness.

PA: “So what was the rest of Holland like?”
Dutch house out in the countryside
RB: “Aside of waterlogged, quite beautiful. I had seen most of what Amsterdan had to offer, and decided that I would venture into the countryside, although, at least originally I didn’t plan to go too far, just to Zaan Daan which is maybe 10 minutes by train outside Amsterdan.”
PA: “Something took you further?”
not many forests in Holland, we'll call this a wooded area
RB: “Well, at this time I had too many bags. I got onto the train wearing my backpack, my computer bag, and lugging two suitcases. My backpack had almost nothing in it, ninety percent of my items were stuffed into only one of my suitcases which weighed approximately a ton. It was hard work moving everything around, and after boarding, I slumped down in my chair, tired. I noted they didn’t give you a lot of time to get off and on, so when my stop arrived, I gathered up all my things, and trudged off the train. I realized right as the doors were sliding back shut that I was not wearing my weightless backpack, and that it must have fallen off my shoulders onto my seat. I slammed both my hands on the glass hoping this would get the train to stop/ get them to re-open the doors, but the train was bon voyage. My backpack, camera, and three hundred dollars cash was going to God knows where in Holland. Actually, God and the ticket counter, which I raced to, and explained what happened. The lady told me to come back in ten minutes. I went to my nearby hotel, checked in, said a prayer, and went back to the ticket counter. The woman was pleased to tell me the conductor had found it exactly where I described I left it, and that it was a few stations away in Alkmaar. I boarded the next train headed to Alkmaar, where I gratefully picked up my pack.”
PA: “Lucky you.”
one of millions of rivers in Holland, I meditated on the right bank
RB: “I have been lucky 98% of my trip man. I decided that I would walk around Alkmaar, and found it to be an absolutely charming town. After meandering through a shopping arcade, reminiscent of Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, I decided to sit and meditate by a partly wooded canal. Aside of a few cars passing, it was very tranquil and calm.”
PA: “Sounds nice.”
RB: On the way back, I found a grocery store and decided I would stock-up on supplies. They didn’t offer to bag any of my items, so I figured it was self-service, and grabbed some plastic. The guy behind me tried to tell me that I had to pay for the bag, but the girl working the check-out stand waived at him, non verbally telling him not to worry about it. The guy wasn’t being a stickler or anything, I felt he was really trying to help. All of a sudden I found myself in a conversation with him and two other Dutch (also known as Hollish) men. We spoke for at least an hour, about topics ranging from drugs, sports, to why Hollish men are so damned tall. The 6’5” guy, who I figured would have some basis for an opinion, unfortunately didn’t offer much conviction behind his theory of dairy consumption. I found them all tremendously warm and nice. One of them invited me to a festival that was in town that evening. I decided that I would go back to Alkmaar, and possibly journey to the ocean, the next day as well.”
PA: “How did that turn out?”
RB: “Wonderful. I returned to Alkmaar by train, a good fifteen minutes from Zaan Daan, rented a bike, and began my 20km ride to the beach.”
PA: “How was the countryside?”
a cow intensive field
RB: “Green, lush, beautiful, and extremely cow intensive. All that dairy has to come from somewhere. That was one of the most pleasant bike rides I have ever been on, aside of getting a cramp in my foot on the way back, and writhing on the ground like a diseased worm. Fortunately the cows didn’t say a word about it. The entire way, I was gazing upon green fields, canals, and a combination of old windmills, and new wind turbines off in the distance.”
PA: “So did you reach the beach?”
RB: “Indeed I did.”
PA: “Is it okay if I ask you a few questions about what transpired there, as there are numerous eyewitnesses?
RB: “Go ahead.”
PA: “Did you go out onto the sand?”
RB: “Of course.”
PA: “And do you know the name of the body of water touching the beach?”
RB: “The North Sea.”
PA: “The North Sea?”
RB: “The North Sea.”
PA: “And then what happened?”
RB: “I took off my shirt, and took what I had in pockets out.”
PA: “And someone commented on it?”
RB: “A woman told me I was insane. That the water was too cold. That I risked catching pnemonia.”
PA: “Did you jump in anyways?”
RB: “Are you kidding me?? I’d have to be the dumbest person in the world to actually jump in after that warning! What type of idiot do you take me for?”
PA: “So was it cold?”
moments before hypothermia set-in
RB: “Very.”
I urge all of you to visit Holland. It is a wonderful place, and in my opinion, for all the reasons I have mentioned here, “The Most Advanced Country In The World.” And the jury agrees.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

SEX AND DRUGS- In Amsterdan

architecture typical of Amsterdan

SEX AND DRUGS- In Amsterdan

When we last left our hero, the prosecuting attorner (PA) was cross examining him about drugs.

PA: “You think you sound good Mr. Birecki, claiming the Dutch are down to earth. That they are environmental stewards, and that they are ohhhh so advanced … but what about the drugs Mr. Birecki? Hmmmm … did you inhale?”
RB: “Yes, let’s DO talk about drugs, America, and the current state of the world affairs. First of all, marijuana and hasish is openly sold in Coffee Shops in the Netherlands. While it is not technically legal, it is what the Dutch call, “backdoor legal,” as sellers and growers pay taxes to the government that in the US go straight into the pockets of criminals.”
PA: “All coffee shops sell pot?”
Smokey's coffee shop in Rembrandt Square
RB: “There is a distinction in Holland between cafes and coffee shops. Cafes are places that sell coffee, pastries, sandwiches, etc etc. Coffee shops sell all this stuff, but also marijuana. I'll give you one guess were a majority of their profits come from.”
PA: “So did you inhale?”

the pot counter in Amsterdan coffee shop
Silence from the witness.

PA: “Mr. Birecki, may I remind you are under oath. Just because you believe this might cost you the Presidency one day, does not give you permission to dodge the question.”
RB starts to laugh.
RB: “Look, I really don’t understand why everybody considers it a big deal. Yeah, I have tried pot a couple times in my life, just a couple puffs in college, and when I first moved out to LA, and once with my ex who insisted that this would be the puff where I would actually feel the “glowing effects marijuana offers.” Frankly, it does nothing for me. I was in Amsterdan, I actually smoked an entire joint thinking that might change. All it did was make me just slightly spacey. I have NO CLUE why anyone would actually pay good money for it. To me it’s ridiculous.”
PA: “You’re just covering your tracks here to appeal to more conservative voters.”
RB: “Not at all! Let me appeal to the libertarians for a moment. What do I care what someone does in their private life. If someone wants to douse their brain in chemicals, that’s your right. As long as it doesn’t have a negative effect on other people, it’s no business of mine. I say legalize it all. Pot, heroin, cocaine—
PA: “How can you say that?? What about all the innocent children who would be adversely affected by their parents drug use? The lack of productivity at work because of increased usage?”
RB: “What about everyone who is already suffering from this? Look, the basis for legalization is very very simple. Assuming we legalize, the number of new users generated who currently shy away from narcotics because of prohibition, and I’m sure there would be some but not nearly as many as some people believe; whatever new suffering is created would be minuscule compared to the amount of energy and resources society expends on locking away users and dealers. And worse yet, prison essentially serves as Criminal University. Rather than being rehabilitative, they usually harden small time crooks and dealers into career felons, creating more misery for everyone. Now let’s talk about resources. The DEA has a budget of 20 billion dollars per year, and God only knows how much taxpayer money goes in the form of scholarships to Criminal U, to "re-educate" people who are usually merely seeking some sort of escape, or on the flip side, a way to augment their income by meeting the market demand.”
PA: “Most users don’t get thrown into jail for using, it’s because they committed some crime to get drugs.”
hope they aren't over-promising and under delivering. Such typical Aussies :)
RB: “And that is my point, if it were legal they likely wouldn’t have to, and the dope they would get would be pure, not tainted with cheap rat poison in the case of cocaine, or lead which raises the weight of marijuana. Not to mention, instead of the fifty + billion society SPENDS on this problem, the government could actually EARN money by taxing it. You want the funds to pay for Universal healthcare; legalize drugs.”
PA: “It’s not that simple.”
RB: “Says who? Look what is happening South of the border. Criminals are now running Mexico. Why? The market demands narcotics, and because it is illegal, people like me aren’t going to be selling it, but these people will. Mexico is actively being destroyed by increasingly well financed, well armed, and terrorist like cartels. Thousands of people have died, many more have gone missing, and the entire border region lives in a state of fear as to who is next. Meanwhile the price of drugs on the street is at an all time low. Not because demand is down, but because there is a glut of narcotics on the market, meaning our “drug enforcement” and all the funds we spend on it are extremely ineffective. We tried prohibition with alcohol and that essentially created the American Mafia. My entire life all drugs except tobacco and alcohol have been illegal, so people assume that’s just the way it is. Why? Prohibition of what the public wants simply is proven not to work.”
PA: “And what about the moral issues of drug use? Hmmm … We are giving people permission to kill themselves?”
RB: “Look, I don’t want people to do drugs, I don’t want anyone to kill themselves, but unless something affects others adversely, like drunk driving for which there should be SEVERE consequences, it’s not my right to tell people what they can and can’t do. Do you realize there used to anti-gay statutes on the books in the South where they could lock you away for sodomy? I mean, what do I care if someone putts from the rough. Frankly, this legalization for me is much more a pragmatic, economic issue than a moral one. And let me tell you, if any of you can counter my arguments here, I am all ears. I want to hear it! I dare you … I double dare you …

Rich gazes around the throngs of now quiet watchers.
RB: “That’s what I thought.”
Judge: “We are here to discuss the Netherlands. If I have to remind you again, you’ll be a guest of the county jail for the next thirty days Mr. Birecki, or is that also a waste of funds and resources?”
RB: “Your honor, the fact that Holland is on its way to legalization is merely another example of why I believe Holland to be the Most Advanced Country In The World. They are more pragmatic. Additionally, prostitution is completely legal. Another victimless crime that right wing Christians in the United States decry. You want to lock up some poor girl who feels she has no other option than to sell her body? Why, who’s getting hurt?”
PA: “So how was the red-light district?”
Red light above the door means open for "business"
RB: “Interesting. These girls, usually Eastern European I am told, rent out booths, and each booth has a little red light over it when a girl is available. Hundreds of booths with glass windows, and women hawking their own personal wares, rapping on the glass to get your attention as you walk by. If you want transsexuals, I am told the light is purple, but I didn’t see any of those. It’s right out in the open. The first time I saw it took some getting adjusted to. You walk by, girls in skimpy clothes inviting you in, and this wasn’t, technically, the red light district. I poked my head in. ‘Is this the red light district,’ I asked. ‘No,’ replied the girl in a Russian accent. ‘Is this the same thing as the Red Light District?’ ‘Would you like to find out?’ she answered, dropping her shoulder suggestively. I actually went out to the Red Light District that same evening. I found it fascinating.”
PA: “So did you partake in the pleasantries?”
RB: “This one girl, very hot, stage name Elena raps on her window. I go over. I’m curious, I’m talking to her for a few minutes. Her false façade of invitation wore off very quickly. I could feel so much anger and hurt inside her. I said goodbye, turned to leave, and she blisteringly, without elevating her voice, which made it more scary to me, tells me I wasted her time and that I’m obviously impotent.”
PA: “What did you say?”
RB: “Well first of all she’s Russian, so it’s not completely out of character.”
PA: “More bagging on Russia.”
RB: “You obviously haven’t been there … How could an insult like that trigger anything in me. It’s so ridiculous and out of context. An insult can only can only affect you if somewhere inside yourself you believe that it’s true. I am positive she expected and wanted me to react, this was her pain-body (Eckhart Tolle- Power Of Now) seeking some sort of fuel. I turned around, and very calmly and loving asked her why she felt that. She only got more hostile. And again, with warmth and love, recognizing how she was feeling had zero to do with me, I sincerely wished her good luck. She didn’t know how to take it, because a part of her realized I was completely open and loving, so her ego and pain-body stalled for a moment, before she replied with great venom, “I don’t need luck!” That was the end of my red light experience.”
PA: “Aren’t many of these girls with the so called freedom to choose owned by the Russian Mafia with no choice but to be there selling themselves.”
RB: “I have heard that, yeah, some of them I am sure.”
PA: “And yet, you are in favor of this? Keeping the Red Light District open?”
RB: “It’s going to happen anyways, better to be open about it, and the Dutch are. They aren’t hiding behind some idiotic moral pretense to try to keep people doing what people are going to do anyways. Nope, they make money off it. Freedom to choose man.”

The Prosecutor circles RB like a shark. He can’t find any blood in the water.

PA: “So you talked a lot about Amsterdan here, but much as you cannot judge the United states based on Las Vegas, there must be a lot more to the country?”
RB: “I gotta tell you, I liked the countryside, much more than Amsterdan.”

Tomorrow: Did Rich really go cow tipping? And what happened when he managed to shut down an entire dairy farm because of a pinpoint throw of a baseball that even surprised him? (but at least he won a bet)