South of the Zombie Apocalypse

Culture Shock

In my years of living in the Pacific Northwest I have sat uncomfortably in-between radicals from both spectrums of the political sphere:  Gun-toting, canned food hoarding, oath keeping Tea-baggers and radical anarchists caught in a perpetual pissing competition in which the only clear victor could be a bisexual, transvestite freegan that only eats meat if found in the form of a decrepit, bloated raccoon on the interstate.   I think the latter is a trait that both groups probably share.

In the spirit of dogmatism, both sides of these political bubbles have their own respectable conversation starter to lure you in.  I normally walk away in a huff:

“When I was in Vietnam” for the baby-booming paranoid right-wingers.

And.

“When I was in South America” for the hip Occupiers on the left.

Conversations that start like this can only end in one way.  He or she will become overly emotional, and most likely ridicule you for not relating to his or her experience the way they see fit.  You, personally, will never get a word in.  Whether they were bogged down in the shit trying to stuff their buddies intestines back into his hollow torso or rocking Bolivian babies to sleep in the remote Andes whilst fantasizing about breast feeding, you are just plain ignorant.  Aren’t you?

So, with that said.

When I was in South America, there was no shortage of experiences to write home about.  Many, I did indeed write home and blog about (volunteering, working, sharing meals with locals in small villages etc.).  Many others I kept to myself (Bolivian cocaine bars, extortionist police, shitting my pants etc.)

Life changing events intact, I have returned with countless conversation starters to last me until at least my late 20’s.  The real shock of an entire year crossing another continent on a bicycle, however, was coming back to the place I call home.

When I say home, I am not talking about the place I was born, though Los Angeles will certainly always be home.  I am not talking about where I had created a life before leaving, though Portland, Oregon is certainly a nice place to call home.  I am talking about the entire United States of America, and how weird of a society it has truly become.  And I say this, because, when I was in South America, it was evident that through all the poverty, all the corruption, and seemingly hopeless slum-life, there is this pride and a drive to preserve a torn, tattered and stitched social fabric that you cannot fit on a bumper sticker and slap on the back of an F350.  In all the greatness people in our country are capable of, why do we appear so fragmented now?

We can argue that we are succumbing to China’s economic might and the U.S. as a superpower is in a decline.  We can bitch about Wall Street. Wall Street can bitch about the government.  This all said and true, I am more appalled by the fact that as the virtue of intellectuality declines, any idiot with a tow-truck can have their own reality T.V. show.  Does 60 minutes even exist anymore?

Rewind.

The recovery from the Bush/Cheney years was slow, I admit.  Eight years of having our civil liberties dragged in the mud while we hung on by our fingernails really took it out of us.  As their time ran out in office the Iraq war was still raging.  I, a 20 year old of Pakistani descent had just successfully grown my first real beard and getting through security at LAX was harder than ever.  In 2008, our nation trudged to the voting booths.  Throats tired from yelling, feet sore from marching, the majority of America voted in Barack Obama as if to scream ‘do something asshole!’.  Political hibernation ensued.

10% unemployment, 150 drone strikes and thousands of unmarried gay couples later, the spell wore off and things were getting back to normal.  The country I left in mid 2011 appeared to be in a vague state recovery, for a time.  The economy was still shit, but the people of Wisconsin were speaking up.  Higher education cuts sparked a wave of protests that swept over the world.  By the end of the year Occupy Wall Street would declare class warfare, whether or not the 98th % even gave a shit.  At least my fear of a fascist Tea-Party takeover had been eliminated.

Fast-forward.

I can open a Peruvian newspaper and find in between the dog that saved an old lady from a fire and the epidemic of dying sea-gulls: riots; corruption; drug trafficking; anger at the U.S. and Europe; resource exploitation; white collar criminals; hunger.  This, as sad as it is, is often the reality of Latin America, and though it might not be apparent through meeting a proud Colombian or breaking bread with an Ecuadorian farmer, you can venture to many areas of any country and witness these anomalies first hand.  In this respect, I did find myself in the middle of riots; I have been set up to be mugged by Police; I spoke with ex-drug traffickers as well as those assigned to kill them in a clandestine effort to curtail our innocent high school kids’ access to cocaine.  The attitude:  Business as usual.

Since I have been back.  People ask me all the time: “Was it dangerous?”  And I never know exactly what to say.  Yeah it was fucking dangerous.  We rode bicycles on the freeway!  I could have been hit by a car.  Substandard health conditions and mosquito-borne illnesses make you sick and dehydrated.  But what people really mean by this is “did anyone rob you?”  The answer to this, of course, is yes.  People are desperate; they have reached a breaking point to where, sometimes, they need to rob and steal to survive.  Are they armed?  Sometimes.  Do they hurt you?  Not normally.  Does this happen in America?  Absolutely.  In fact, I feel more unsafe here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Here is why.

If you Wikipedia “serial killers” you will get a list of killers by name and country.  The U.S. by far has the most, followed by the U.K, Canada and Australia. The next 10 or so are western European countries.  What do they have in common?  They are full of white people that have been raised in extremely individualistic societies.  I consider this to be the U.N.’s failed states index equivalent for the first world.  There are very few of these types in Latin America.  So when I am drifting down the highway in Colombia, I can be certain there are people out there who want my money.  After all, I come from a wealthier nation and I am an easy target.  In an undesirable event they will ask me for my money at knifepoint, and worst-case scenario, they might hit me.  They will not, however, bind, torture and kill me.  Nor will they use my body as a sex toy, a meal, or just someone vent to about their mommy issues before I am stuffed into the trunk of a car, driven around the interstate system for a few days, and dumped in a river.

Unfortunately, when I returned to North America, not only were there still plenty of thrill killers, but people were shamelessly cannibalizing each other.  Weirdoes high on designer drugs I had never heard of were eating homeless people’s faces, and narcissistic Porn stars were mailing body parts to Canadian politicians.  The Zombie Apocalypse had begun and I was in a state of serious culture shock.

What the fuck is going on here?  Are we as a society really willing to go down this route of cathartic, nihilistic mayhem?  Do we really have to wonder why other countries think we are a joke?  We sit paramount over the world and in our own affluent boredom we are driven to the point of necrophilia and cannibalism?  This pattern, amplified by decades of neglect will put Mad Max way off the mark.  28 Days Later will be ideal.  At least Soylent Green’s systematic consumption of humans was organized into a cohesive job producing industry.

The future I imagined as I drove down the I-5 corridor in between Portland and Los Angeles seemed pretty grim.  Picture a world ruled by nomadic tribes of meth-smoking cannibals. Gasoline will only be fought over its use to render the powerful stimulant.  Mel Gibson will not save us.  And who is going to be laughing with their cheap oil reserves, burgeoning middle class, in-tact family units and cheerful “as good as it gets” attitude towards life?

South America.

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