Monthly Archives: September 2011

Lost In Music



I never thought about it until my niece, no more than 8 years old at the time, mentioned it: “Uncle Mike,” she said. “You’re always singing.”

Hmmm. Kid told me something about myself I never stopped to think about. Singing or humming a tune was the norm for me. Mention a word – any word – and without missing a beat I could sing a song right off the top of my head that included the particular word. How’s that for talent? 🙂

An old Army buddy – Larry Vaughn – once came to me with a song he had heard. It was Sister Sledge’s “Lost In Music”. Larry said that was henceforth my theme song. He said I lived for music. Very true. When my friends were just getting hip to some “new” artist, usually I had long known about said artist.

I realize now that music is my life. It has always been there, through good and bad times. Music is what pulled me through. And music has been ever-present on my journey around the world. Fact is, I could never make this trip and remain sane without my music. On those very long bus trips I plug in my iPod and I’m transported by a song to someplace other than the smelly bus with livestock I’m sitting in. Okay, I exaggerate a bit. Most of my travels by bus have fortunately been in high-end buses with all sorts of comforts. A few here and there have left much to be desired. But you get my point, don’t you? Without music to soothe the beast within, look out world!

My iPod Touch is so loaded with music that I had to shut down other features – such as loading photos on it – to make room on its 32-gig disk. And my taste for music is extremely eclectic – there isn’t a category of music that is not loaded in that treasured device. I can go from listening to hip-hop, to pop to rhythm and blues to country to rock to country to opera and classical in minutes. Music for all my moods 🙂

I am especially fond of some artists that are not exactly mainstream and others who are. And some albums in particular I could not go without. Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In The Key Of Life” I listen to time and time again. And Erykah Badu always inspires me. The British duo known as The Lighthouse Family take me on a journey every time. And I would go to the ends of the Earth for a Gotan Project concert. Then there’s Kings of Leon, Green Day, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, 80’s music and much more – thanks!

My trip would end immediately if the music Grinch stole my music. I’d pack my bags and just go home. And that’s no exaggeration. Okay, maybe a little 😛

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A Fractured Arm Leads To Bolivian Obsession

The first time I saw the Salar de Uyuni, I was sitting in the waiting room of my doctor’s office, with a fractured right arm. I was 16-years-old, tall and skinny with a big afro – I looked like a pencil with a big eraser. Wouldn’t have taken much to snap a bone in my stick-figure body, and indeed it didn’t take much effort when my childhood friend Dickey pulled my arm right out of the socket at the elbow.

We were walking home from school and we spotted a cigarette lighter on the ground. It was one of those cheap plastic ones that come in a variety of bright transparent colors. With its transparency, the fuel inside was visible. This particular lighter was orange and judging from the amount of fuel, it was brand new.

Deep in conversation, Dickey and I walked along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, toward home. The conversation came to an abrupt end when we spotted the lighter. Our reaction? He looked at me, I looked at him and without a word, we both made a mad dash for the lighter.

Dickey was not as fleet-footed as me. He was beefy bordering on fat, but he could move fast when pushed. On this particular day, he wasn’t as fast as I was. I got to the lighter about a second ahead of him and snatched it up, scraping my knuckles against the concrete pavement – ouch! He only managed to grabbed my fist clutching the cigarette lighter. He tried to pry my fist open to grab the lighter, which was sticking out a bit. Had I had it solidly in hand, maybe he would have backed off. Instead, he continued to pry the lighter out of my hand, but I did not budge. Our struggle for the lighter became a full on wrestling match in the middle of Flatbush Avenue – and you would think some adult would intervene? – people instead just walked by as if nothing.

Summer months bring rain to the Salar de Uyuni

Then it happened. Dickey yanked on my extended arm so hard that it popped right out of the socket at the elbow. All I heard was a snap, crackle then a pop! I dropped the lighter in anguish.

I never had experienced such pain. Dickey and I walked the rest of the way home, he with the lighter in his pocket, me clutching my arm. The next day my arm was so swollen at the elbow, my mother took me to the doctor. The doctor at first determined that the arm was not broken. I could still move my fingers. He sent me home with an order to ice it. Then the next day my doctor’s office called to say the X-Ray had revealed a fracture and that I needed to return to see the doctor. That day I left my doctor’s office in a cast that extended from my wrist to my armpit. Nice going Dickey!

Okay, the truth is both Dickey and I were both at fault. We were two dumb teenagers horsing around. And when that happens, sometimes someone gets hurt – boys will be boys, you know. He did feel bad about it. And every chance I got, I reminded him that he owed me big time! He didn’t fall for that. We went on being friends, as if nothing.

In some strange way, I have Dickey to thank. Had it not been for that fractured arm, I never would have landed in the doctor’s office with the Nat Geo subscription. There on the table in the waiting room, there were several month’s worth of Nat Geo magazines. I picked one up and started to thumb through it and there it was – the Salar de Uyuni – or in English – the Uyuni Salt Flats. I thought, where in the world was this place and how could I get there – like soon?! Like most images in Nat Geo, the photographs were absolutely stunning. I then read the text: Bolivia.

Uyuni has since been embedded in my head. This desert where instead of salt the land is an expanse of blindingly white salt – often under inches of water that reflect sky and mountains during the rainy summer seasons – has crept into my dreams. I have long wished to visit Uyuni, and every time I have met someone lucky enough to have visited, I peppered them with questions. And now, living in Calama, Chile, a few hours away from Uyuni, I think my decades-old dream to visit is near. Or so I hope.

Salar de Uyuni during winter months. Water gone.

I am determined to visit Uyuni, but tit-for-tat global politics may have something else to say about that.

I EXPLAIN: The president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, hates the United States. As if to drive that point home, he has aligned himself with avowed enemies of the United States. He has also used Venezuela’s oil riches to influence other countries in the region, one of which is Bolivia.

The president of Bolivia walks in lock-step with the president of Venezuela. When Venezuela is mad at the United States, Morales feels the need to show his loyalty to Chavez by, frankly, doing something stupid. That stupid thing – which amounts to shooting himself in the foot and hurting the Bolivian people – was to make it more difficult for U.S. tourists to visit Bolivia. Morales imposed a $135 visa requirement on U.S. citizens, placed strict limits on how long they could stay in Bolivia, and imposed other rules that work like a charm to turn away Americans. It’s not that Morales wants Americans to stay away – au contraire – he wants Americans to continue to visit and pay a “reciprocal” visa fee, about the same amount that Bolivians are required to pay to gain a visa to enter the U.S.

Only problem with Morales tit-for-tat approach is Bolivia – the poorest country in South America and one of the poorest in the world – needs those millions of tourists dollars it once got from visitors from the United States. There was a time when 1 in 5 visitors to Bolivia was from the United States. Since the new requirements that number has dropped. Some Americans don’t mind paying the fee – frankly, some who are backpackers on a budget can’t afford it – but what makes Bolivia even more a country to be avoided are some of the other roadblocks Morales has put up, aimed at just sticking it to the United States.

As I started researching what is required to enter Bolivia as a U.S. citizen, I literally got a headache. I mean, for instance, must bring a photograph of a certain size with a red background only? If the background of the photo is anything other than red expect to be turned away and sent back across the border or on the next plane. For a country and a people badly in need of tourism dollars, how stupid is that? Politics.

Now, I believe in reciprocity. Brazil, Argentina, Chile and others have such laws in place. These laws state we charge your citizens what you charge our citizens to enter your country. But in some of these countries, Chile for instance, you pay nothing if you cross the border by land. In other words, low-budget backpackers are not hit with a large fee. When I crossed the border from Peru into Chile, I paid nothing.

And some countries only require the fee, not that you jump through hoops, as Bolivia does. Foolish, if you ask me.

So, I must make sure that all my I’s are dotted and my T’s are crossed as I make my way to the Bolivian border in coming weeks. I am taking no chances. I will be marching down to the Bolivian Consulate in Calama, Chile, to inquire exactly what they need from me. Would be a shame to come this far and only come as close to Uyuni as that National Geographic Magazine spread my dear old friend Dickey unwittingly led me to.



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Something To Think About

Randy Brameier lived 13,904 days. He died 14 years ago at age 38. Diabetes gradually overtook him.

He was a friend and colleague. We would leave the office at least twice a day to go on “jaunts” to buy coffee and snacks or lunch, but the underlying purpose of our walks was to talk about and clear our minds of the insane things we had been working on that particular day as news reporters in New Jersey shore (United States) towns with ample crazy news. Randy had his serious side, but also a great sense of humor and he could make light of a bad situation like no other. We would laugh when we really should have been shaking our fists and cursing the planets.

“What we have is a failure to communicate,” was his favorite saying around the office. It seemed our bosses were always failing to communicate. Randy used the “failure to communicate” line in the face of challenge and adversity brought on indeed by a failure to communicate. After so many failures by the head office, what else was there to do but make light of the repeated missteps.

As I’ve stated here before, hours and hours spent traveling on a bus leads to hours upon hours thinking about the mundane, but sometimes about life. What should I do? Where should I go? Should I return home to find another job in journalism? Should I settle down? Should I just plain settle? Am I doing the right thing? Should that guy really be wearing yellow? Questions, questions.

When I recently saw the above poster on the Internet as I sat on a bus at work picking up a weak wi-fi signal, Randy came rushing back into my brain. As if it were yesterday I could hear him saying his classic failure to communicate line. Made me smile. But then I paused to examine the content of the poster, oddly placed on some Malaysian website written entirely in Malay except for the words on the poster: “Your Failures Do Not Define You.”

I’m not sure Randy would have run with this particular mantra. He was too much of a wisecrack to go around reciting such hefty prose. But then the whole notion of failures in life hurled my cluttered brain toward a conversation-turned-debate I had earlier in the week with a friend.

We were chatting via Skype. When we began to discuss turning points in our lives, I didn’t think it would be such a big deal when I told her “I love my life.” Her expression quickly changed and she responded that it was alright to love my life, but to voice that sentiment was not okay. She argued that it amounted to crass bragging and was insensitive to others whose lives aren’t going so well. Ohhh-kaaay!

I don’t claim to be Mr. Sensitivity, but I’m far from insensitive when it comes to the downtrodden. Been there myself, after all. I know a thing or two about being down and out. But how is expressing one’s happiness wrong?

After a volley of exchanges on the subject we agreed to disagree and moved on. (Hmmm…maybe I should have said I hate my life and gone for the sympathy).

In life we are pleased when we are doing what makes us happy. One of the things that makes me extremely happy is travel. My love of travel came at a very young age. I was always drawn to maps and could study them for hours. Geography was my favorite subject. It still is.

So now that I am fulfilling one of my life’s dreams – to travel around the world – I can truly say I love my life. Not that I didn’t love it before. I’ve been blessed with experiences few can claim: Visits to all but one of the U.S. states – Alaska get ready for the celebration of my arrival – travel to all but two continents – Australia and MAYBE Antarctica here I come. Meeting some incredible people worldwide, with more ahead.

Now I realize that there are countless others who would love to do what I’m doing, at least so they tell me, but because of circumstance and happenstance they can’t – or won’t.

Randy’s life was short. Jon Chamber’s life was short. Gayle Westry’s life was much too short. The list of peers who have died young is too long. Their brief time on Earth serve as a reminder that life is too short and there’s much to be seen and to be done. Follow your heart. If you like to cook, cook. If you like to climb, climb. Fulfill your dreams! A don’t fail at communicating to yourself and to others what makes you angry, sad, but above all, happy. And recognize that indeed your failures do not define you. Dust yourself off and next time around do for you that which makes you stand up and say I LOVE MY LIFE!  There is no greater feeling.

For me, it’s the love of travel. Or a simple matter of remembering an old friend.


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