It’s that time of year again, when I inadequately summarize the year that was with a line of statistics based on international travel. Here it goes: In 2019, I traveled for 159 days and set foot in nine countries: Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Hong Kong and China, and South Korea.
Australia doesn’t make the cut since I was only in the Brisbane airport for three hours, in transit to Papua New Guinea. I was only in Paraguay for about three hours as well. But since that wasn’t in the airport — I had crossed the border from Brazil and walked around — we’ll reluctantly count it.
Without further ado, here are nine photos from 2019. All are intended to convey something about human encounter.
Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
I loved Brazil, which I visited in March and April. It is a country enfleshed, where the body is fully present in the act of living. True, there’s a fair chance you’ll get robbed in a city like Rio de Janeiro if you stay very long, and perhaps during Carnival sprinkled with beer on the subway, but you’ll also ponder anew what it means to be in your own skin.
I recently read the following line in a book: I felt I had to extract my body from the narrowest margins of my life. The author, I think, would have found Brazil to be a kind of extraction device, a place to locate your body on a wider plane of existence.
A vignette: One night I jumped in an Uber with several people from the hostel and we ended up at a bar in the Lapa area of Rio. Locals and foreigners danced, and I contentedly watched from a chair against the wall. I’m happy to live in my head, and to observe things. Plus, I’m an awkward dancer. From time to time friends from the hostel would encourage me to join in, and I would politely decline. But after maybe an hour, a Brazilian woman, who had been dancing with enfleshed fluidity, broke her rhythm to walk toward the man at the wall. (It seems one can be a keen observer even while dancing.) She looked at me, held out her hand, and waited. She did not speak English, and she was not being flirty. Her eyes seemed to say: Don’t live only in your head, and don’t worry about being awkward. Just take my hand, and join us.
Salto Arrechea in Iguazu National Park, Argentina
Iguazu Falls is shared by Brazil and Argentina, and after a few days on the Brazilian side I went to the Argentinian side. I had planned to cross the border on foot — one can do it in under an hour — but the woman at Brazilian immigration who stamped my passport said I needed to wait for the bus. “Why can’t I walk?” I asked. “You can be robbed,” she replied.
I spent two days on the Argentinian side, and on the second day, for a few minutes, met Leandro and Flor, from Buenos Aires, at a beautiful waterfall called Salto Arrechea. They shared a sip or two of their mate with me.
Likan, East Sepik Province, Papua New Guinea
A highlight of 2019, perhaps the highlight, was returning in June to the village of Likan, where I had once briefly lived as a child and had last visited 27 years ago.
Reflecting on what made this homecoming so profound, it was, in large part, its simultaneously communal and corporal nature. First, the whole community was there to greet you when you arrived. Second, compared to what are often more polite or reserved welcomes back home — perhaps a smile and hug, but in general not a long engagement with the body — this welcome was characterized by physicality, something more than a quick handshake followed by a retreat back into respective spaces. There was verbal engagement, smell, embraces that left you off balance — and when that was done, in the days that followed, perhaps an old friend’s hand resting on your leg, or a child grabbing your hand as you walked through the village at night. Stories were retold, often reminding you of who you were.
Bodies lovingly in contact: what a good thing.
Aboard a ferry about to dock in Manila, Philippines
It was toward the end of a month in the Philippines that I arrived one morning by ferry in Manila. I felt weak and feverish — I had giardia — and wandered the streets of the Malate district looking for antibiotics.
I rested that afternoon and then at night went for a walk in search of a small meal. A man on drugs, down and out and zombie-like, stumbled into my weakened body. It rattled me. On the same sidewalk moments later I passed a young girl, maybe 12, defecating behind the lip ripped from a cardboard box, held in front of her for modesty. She looked up and smiled innocently and said, “Hello, sir.” It broke my heart. And once at the mall where I would eat, a woman well advanced in age propositioned me.
If giardia hadn’t already left me exhausted, the city’s in-your-face social ills would have done the trick.
Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei
I visited Brunei in early August. On a walk one evening at Kampong Bendahara Lama, part of the extensive “water village” in Brunei’s capital, the sweet couple in this photo, seeing my sweat, offered me a cold bottle of water. They have both done the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Tip of Borneo
One day at sunset, about a week after leaving Brunei, I met a wonderful family at the northernmost tip of Borneo in Malaysia’s Sabah state. Last summer, while crossing the street on the way to the mosque, the father was hit by a car running a red light. The impact broke 40 bones. He walks today, but visibly as one who was once flung in the air like a ragamuffin doll.
We talked about speed, short-term thinking, China, Malaysia, Trump, and the environment. We looked out at the beautiful northern tip of this giant island of Borneo and he said, “It might not be here tomorrow, not like this anyway.” Too many people, including business and political leaders, speed through red lights as if there is no tomorrow.
After the sun had set, the couple and their three daughters dropped me off at the restaurant where I would eat dinner. This family is one of the many things that make life beautiful, worth sticking around and contending for.
For three weeks in August and September, I visited Hong Kong, where all summer a political stand-off between protesters and the government had left the city tense. I was impressed with the creativity with which people protested, as well as the care they showed one another. On August 23 — the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way — Hong Kongers formed long human chains in several locations of the city. In a world in which the oppressive mechanizations of a state can feel impersonal and impossibly vast, there was something particularly poignant about strangers coming together to touch one another, flesh to flesh, and in so doing create something bigger than their individual selves.
While in Hong Kong, I made the short trip across the border to Shenzhen to visit an old friend — the fourth continent on which he and I have embraced hello — and to explore a little of this major Chinese city. It’s a very short train ride from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, and in traveling between the two I had the same sensation I once had making the five-mile walk from Bethlehem to Jerusalem: two places so close to each other, but world’s apart in their understanding of politics, their experiences, and the voices to which they give credence.
Crossing into the DMZ in South Korea
Late in September, I took the DMZ Peace Train from Seoul to the DMZ. To a degree I did not expect, here and throughout Korea, I felt a connection to my mom’s uncle, Emory Bennett, who was killed during the Korean War in 1951, not far from what is now the DMZ. Landscape is a kind of flesh, and in coming into contact with it, things, including history and relatives you never met, become more real.
2019 had many good things about it, but it was also one of my harder years. Loneliness, increasing financial uncertainty, self-doubt. I travel a lot, including into some dark places.
I go about much of life imperfectly, but I’m trying. I’m really trying. And I’ll keep trying in 2020. I’m still working toward several goals, including the eventual publication of several projects that have been years in the making, and the resumption of regular postings on this blog.
If anyone would like to help support my work financially in 2020, you can do so monthly via Patreon, where contributions begin at $2/month, or with a one-time contribution via PayPal. I can’t promise your contribution will bring world peace, but I can promise it will be used well.
Thanks to all who have been part of my journey this year, in big ways and small.