Author Archive
Ghost Lives

Ghost Lives

Mira!” Erika wagged a slim forefinger toward vendors, gawkers, and ice cream-smeared toddlers moving through the city of Oaxaca’s central plaza as she turned to face me. “You think you’re seeing people but they’re not people, they’re ghosts!”

Erika had taught high school for nearly thirty years and was a member of the state teachers’ union. She had recently participated in a strike for better salaries and working conditions—a strike that the government had crushed just months earlier. “Ghosts,” she repeated with a sigh. “Oaxaca exists in the past. Maybe all of Mexico does.”

It was early 2007. I had come to Oaxaca the year before as a freelance journalist to investigate the violent standoff between the striking teachers and the government. The state of Oaxaca’s governor, Ulisés Ruiz, had ordered state and municipal police to break up an encampment of striking teachers in the center of the city. The police had done so forcefully, with tear gas and clubs. The teachers had fought back, commandeering city buses to use like tanks against the startled police.

Human Subjects

Human Subjects

In 2013 I moved to Ndola, a city in northern Zambia, to work on an HIV research project. Ndola is the hub of the country’s copper mining industry, a bustling commercial center that draws entrepreneurs from South Africa and beyond. My organization worked with government clinics in villages around the Ndola area to provide HIV and family-planning counseling, care, and education. I’d recently graduated from a master’s program in public health, and a US-based research organization had hired me to co-lead a year-long study of HIV infection among women.

During the week, my office prepared truckloads of supplies—test kits, condoms, appointment logbooks—and shipped them to the clinics. Once every week, our doctors also treated patients at our headquarters in the city. Ndola, Zambia’s third-largest city, had a great need for affordable, high-quality health care. If at times the cityscape seemed picturesque to me—jacaranda-lined dirt roads, merchants bearing enormous bowls of vegetables upon their heads, uniformed schoolchildren gleefully walking back home at the end of day—there were always reminders of Zambia’s extreme, endemic poverty. For many of the children I saw, home was the sprawling encampments on the city’s outskirts—a maze of rudimentary, one-room structures that housed entire families.

Failing Grades

Failing Grades

I was torn about failing a fifth-grader. In a poor, predominantly black school, there were plenty of tests but few right answers.

Waiting in Antalya

Waiting in Antalya

It’s the late morning, and my wife Mardena and I are headed back to our hostel in Antalya, a city on Anatolia’s southwestern coast. We’ve just returned from a trip to the archeological museum, where we saw a stunning display of Roman mosaics set out under clear glass walkways. As we duck out of the 111-degree heat and into the hostel’s lobby, we come upon a young man, probably in his early twenties, standing with his head craned forward and eyes fixed on a TV mounted high on the wall. A Turkish news report is discussing the war raging in neighboring Syria. The camera footage shows smoke, rubble, and bombed-out buildings, but I have no idea what the reporter is saying. I ask the young man what is happening. “Assad is bombing Homs,” he says, his eyes still on the screen.

“My family is there,” he adds. “I haven’t been able to talk to them.” He speaks in a flat, almost stoic, tone, with a slight accent to his English. “My sister lives in Homs, but she can’t go out. She’s stuck in her apartment. She can’t get to my parents’ house.”

He glances at us, then turns his eyes back to the TV. “Hezbollah won’t let Syrian refugees into Lebanon,” he says. He pauses a moment, then adds, “Syria would not do that. Syrians are generous people.”

Only Poor People Take the Bus

Only Poor People Take the Bus

Hopewell-Mann is a predominantly Latino neighborhood in the predominantly Latino city of Santa Fe. Close enough to downtown to make it a short commute, yet a world away so that tourism doesn’t quite reach it, it’s a stark reminder of some of the inequalities present in this city. While the stunning adobe architecture downtown looks like it’s been preserved in aspic, Hopewell-Mann’s main drag is lined with big-box stores, fast-food restaurants, and cheap motels offering month-to-month leases. The neighborhood attracts a mix of the transient and the locally displaced, and not surprisingly, people downtown tend to avoid it.

Earlier in the year, I was a writer in residence at the Santa Fe Art Institute, which is located in Hopewell-Mann. One day, I asked a friend to drop me off at the mall downtown, where I needed to pick up a few essentials. From there, I planned to catch a bus and take the scenic route back home.

Calvin and Raul waiting at the bus stopWhen I finished my shopping, I headed over to the bus stop—which took several minutes to locate, thanks to its inconspicuous signage. When I got there, I saw the back of a white-and-blue city bus trundling into the distance. I’d missed it by seconds. According to the timetable, the next bus wouldn’t be for another hour. I was stuck. Just then, the rain began to pour.

Choosing What to Trade

Choosing What to Trade

Being a Peace Corps volunteer is about cultural exchange, but you don’t always get to decide what culture gets exchanged.

Halva with Tea

Halva with Tea

It’s a small coffee shop, a Shingle-style shack with blue trim, listed by Yelp as one of Laguna Beach’s best. Cookies and biscotti lie in a basket in front of the order window. The barista, an upbeat blonde woman in her late fifties, early sixties, comes over to me. As I’m trying to choose what flavor to put in my coffee, we start talking. She finds out I’m from Phoenix and asks what brought me to Laguna.

“My friend passed away two weeks ago. I’m here to clear my head,” I tell her. Hal, a pastor, was one of the first friends I’d made after moving to Phoenix a year and a half ago with my fiancé. He had helped us through some tough times.

She’s curious about where my accent is from. I tell her I was born in Iran. “But I have lived here longer than I have lived there,” I quickly add.

It’s a cool, sunny November morning. As she’s making my coffee, the woman spots the book I’m carrying in my hand, The Ministry of Guidance Invites You to Not Stay, by Hooman Majd. She asks me what it’s about. I tell her it was written by an Iranian immigrant who had left Iran when he was eight months old. When he turned fifty, he decided to go looking for his grandmother’s house halfway around the world, hoping to find his roots. He found the area, the familiar scents, the leftover mud walls. But he couldn’t find the actual house.

His story is not much different from mine, I say. Several years ago, I visited the neighborhood where my family used to live in Tehran. For the first time in more than two decades, I walked our old block, looking for the home I had grown up in. But it wasn’t there anymore.

Helpers

Helpers

On the three-month anniversary of the Paris attacks, an American visitor remembers the fear on the streets—and the kindness of strangers.

It was the last night of my conference in Paris, and I was sitting with some new friends in a Brazilian restaurant near the Avenue de la République. We had just wrapped up a day of panels and presentations on the topic of race at the Sorbonne, and the six of us—two Dutch scholars, an Italian, a Belgian, a French woman, and me, the American—had gone out to celebrate. I felt a bit sheepish, as an American, to be eating food from the Americas in Paris, but a few drinks erased that feeling.

We had just finished eating and were sitting around chatting when the once emptying restaurant became full of people again. A young French couple hurriedly slipped into the restaurant and sat down at the table next to us. The man spoke English to us. “Don’t go outside,” he said.

The people at my table huddled anxiously around him. People were running in the streets away from something, he told us. I glanced around the restaurant and saw that everyone was already staring at their phones. Looking at my own, I saw a news alert that said that several bombs had gone off in the Bataclan concert hall.

“That is just 1,000 meters from here,” the French man said, eyes wide. Some of the women around me gasped.

Mazatlán

Mazatlán

The sun was sinking, the day finally ending. I sat on the beach in Mazatlán, propped against my pack, swim trunks still damp under my jeans. At this hour, the beach was empty.

The night before I'd stopped in Mazatlán, a city on Mexico’s northwestern coast, to break up the long bus trip from Tijuana to Guadalajara. Back in Seattle, the Sunday travel section had made the place sound like paradise. All I’d found was a gloomy hotel room, an ocean too hot for swimming, Gila monsters splashing in an open sewer nearby, and a couple of scrawny teenagers humping alongside a broken concrete path near the beach.

The bus to Guadalajara would arrive in an hour, but I didn’t feel like waiting in the bus station. I opened up a book and started reading on the beach.

Lost and Found: A Conversation with Writer Philip Connors

Lost and Found: A Conversation with Writer Philip Connors

Best of In The Fray 2015. In his first book, Philip Connors went to the woods to learn what it had to teach. In his latest work, he delves into the dark memories of his family’s past, rooting out the meaning of a tragedy.

Cold Peace

Cold Peace

Best of In The Fray 2015. The Troubles are gone, but the anger and suspicion remain in Northern Ireland—especially in working-class Protestant communities left behind by the peace process.

Strays: Street People and Their Dogs

Strays: Street People and Their Dogs

I saw them everywhere in Europe: street people traveling with their dogs. How can a homeless person who can barely take care of himself take decent care of an animal? With love.