From Loser to Champion – a twenty-year odyssey Page 21
The Man in the Middle Page 26
France ’98 – transformation from fan to fanatic Page 45
Barcelona – a harbinger of things to come Page 73
Prologue: It’s Sunday, July 9th, 2006 here at Berlin’s Olympiastadion, the site made famous by Jesse Owens’ remarkable four gold-medal winning performance in front of a xenophobic Adolf Hitler in the 1936 Olympics. Now, seventy years later I’ve just watched World Cup hosts Germany lift the sportsworld’s most coveted trophy by defeating the most prolific of all football playing nations, the samba kings of Brazil, in a rematch of the 2002 World Cup Final. In that game at Yokohama’s International Stadium, Brazil defeated Germany 2-nil to secure their fifth world championship; but today’s historic victory for the Germans was their fourth since the competition’s humble beginnings in 1930 when host nation Uruguay defeated Argentina, their neighbors to the north, 4-2 in Montevideo, just across the River Plate from Buenos Aires.
A more compelling script could not have been written for this, the single most popular sporting event across the planet. In fact, it is too good to be true, especially if you’re German, because I’ve just written the script myself. However, it’s not hard to imagine an outcome such as this when you consider the remarkable success that host countries have achieved in past World Cups. Remember South Korea’s surprising run to the semifinals in 2002, taking out both Italy and Spain before crashing to the Germans? How about France’s stunning 3-nil victory over Brazil in the ’98 final? And the Americans’ run of luck in ’94 before being ousted by Brazil 1-nil? Argentina won at home in ’78 as did West Germany four years earlier. The game’s creators, England, have only won the tournament once, when Geoff Hurst scored a historic hat trick in the ’66 final in London’s Wembley Stadium. Even the Swedes were able to reach the final in Stockholm in 1958 before Pele’s Brazilian mates crushed the home side 5-2. And of course the Italians won their first world title on home soil when they defeated the Czechs 2-1 in Rome in 1934. And as I already mentioned, Uruguay won the inaugural World Cup on home soil in 1930.
Home teams do seem to achieve remarkable success in the World Cup and there’s no reason to expect anything different in Germany 2006. But while the fantasy scenario I‘ve concocted could very well occur, the truly fantastical aspect of this story is that I’m at this game watching history being made. This game, the World Cup Final in 2006, regardless of who is playing, will serve as the culminating event in a year-long global odyssey – a journey of perpetual motion along which I will visit dozens of countries on six continents. Throughout my travels there will be many unique local cultures, new friends, challenges, and crossroads…but one thing will remain constant along the way…and that constant is PASSION. The kind of passion that one finds in such famous venues as the Bombanera (which means Chocolate Box) in Buenos Aires, Old Trafford in Manchester, the Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, the Stade Delle Alpi in Turin, Aztec Stadium in Mexico City, and the Nou Camp in Barcelona. These hallowed stadia and hundreds more like them are home to countless football clubs throughout the world – clubs whose fans’ veins run fast with blood the color of the jerseys of the teams they support.
Football, like other live sporting events, is real-time drama that unfolds in unpredictable fashion before your very eyes like a Shakespearean masterpiece or perhaps a Greek tragedy; and the passion of the players, coaches, and fans enhances that drama immeasurably. However, what separates football from all other sports around the globe is its universality and egalitarian nature; which is to say, football is loved the world over like nothing else. And it’s this universality of the game and the people and cultures that surround the game that I hope to explore throughout my travels. Because as distinct and wonderfully unique as our planet’s inhabitants can be, I believe that we all share many things in common including, among others, a love for sport and the drama that surrounds it. And through this cross-cultural commonality I hope to show how similar each of us is to our brothers and sisters across the globe. Because despite how much xenophobia and hatred is propagated in this world, I will demonstrate to you through my travels and my words that we are really a lot more alike than we are different. And using football as the conduit to understanding the wonderful cultures of the world, it is my hope and belief that the game we know and love has the potential to unite our planet’s people unlike any other single idea or institution that currently exists. Together, through football, we can make the world a better place.
At this point you’re probably scratching your head wondering how I plan to do this and how football – a game with the dubious distinction of attracting belligerent hooligans and occasionally serving as the impetus for bloodshed and war – can be used to engender a more peaceful time in this world. Well, let’s put it this way, if football were a religion, it would be the most popular faith known to mankind. In fact, more than one-third of the world’s population watched the World Cup Final in 2002. And with such a strong base of ‘worshipers’, football fans have the potential to alter the prevailing war-based paradigm that still seems to dominate our world to this day. And at times like these, when there continues to be so much trouble in the world, I welcome the opportunity to, in some small way, move us in a direction away from the seemingly never-ending cycle of geo-political conflict.
I hope to draw humanity closer together by using football as a lens through which to view the world’s cultures.
With that premise in mind, I will visit dozens of football’s most famous ‘shrines’ as I wander around the planet on a mission of goodwill and peace. But who am I? What type of ‘star power’ do I possess? Do I fancy myself to be some kind of 21st-century prophet looking to proselytize to the masses about the virtues of the Golden Rule? Well, not exactly; but through my travels I hope to raise awareness…or is it our collective human consciousness, rather, that I hope to raise? You see, I know that humankind can do better. And despite the fact that I’ve grown a bit rough around the edges over the years, I suppose that I’m still an idealist at heart and believe that each one of us has the potential to make a positive impact on the world in many ways both great and small. And as a self-proclaimed ‘Ambassador of Goodwill’, I will do my part towards that end.
The roots of wanderlust
When you stop to think about what some of the greatest influences in your life have been, what comes to mind? An amazing speech you heard? A spiritual leader? Perhaps a life-changing event or experience? Well, for me it was book, or more accurately, a world atlas. As a young child, perhaps even before I could read very well, I can recall spending countless hours staring at the maps contained within the pages of Goode’s World Atlas, Eleventh Edition published by Rand McNally in 1960, seven years before I was born. This hardbound geographical tome has had a profound influence on the person who I am today. Maybe my internal circuitry pre-determined that I would grow up to become a geography freak, spewing out obscure facts during games of trivial pursuit or shouting answers at the tv as Alex Trebek queries Jeopardy! contestants. But when I began scanning the pages of that atlas, the world literally opened up before my eyes. From that point on I’ve had a wanderlust that has only marginally been satiated. However, the travels I have planned in the next few years will go a long way towards satisfying my deep desire to explore the world.
Like most kids who grew up in the 70s and 80s I was a product of the tv generation. But when I did have a book in my hand, it was usually a novel with an adventurous theme. C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is where these fictional travels began for me. And like every other kid I knew I read Tolkien’s The Hobbit, an exciting tale of adventure into the unknown. And of course there was The Odyssey, Homer’s epic tale in which the hero encounters a myriad of strange creatures as he struggles for years to find his way back home. These wonderfully imaginative tales and many more like them played upon my sensibilities and intensified my yearning for travel.
As a senior in high school I took one of the most important classes of my life. Sitting in the back row of Mr. Keats’ introductory economics class – next to a good friend of mine who would one day live ten blocks from me in Portland where he managed Enron’s energy trading operation before the shit hit the fan – I would learn some of life’s most important lessons, like TANSTAAFL, ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’. The bald, wiry, screechy-voiced Mr. Keats also introduced me to the alarmingly high world population growth rates through the use of a chart which taught us the ‘rule of 72’. For example – if a country’s growth rate is 8% per year it will take nine years for that country’s population to double. I can still recall Ethiopa’s growth rate in the mid-80s was a stunning 4.1%, which meant that its population would double in only seventeen years. (Most western countries, by comparison, are close to having a flat growth rate). The wise professor also assigned us the task of keeping track of current events in various regions of the world. I picked Southeast Asia, perhaps because it was so mysterious to me, but maybe also because I figured there wouldn’t be too much news coming out of that part of the world and therefore I wouldn’t have to work too hard. I remember this being an incredibly eye-opening assignment. Another weekly task he assigned required us to analyze an article on a financial subject and also describe the political leanings of that particular writer and the periodical in which the article was written. This assignment introduced me to the awesome power that the media has on our lives.
To this day I still own the atlas that I used to meticulously study during my youth, however, my fascination with all aspects of geography – cultural geography, world history, cartography, etc. – has been a lifelong labor of love. My internal circuitry theory that I referred to previously was in fact confirmed during my grade school years when I would regularly score in the 99th percentile of map interpretation on standardized tests. I loved these seemingly irrelevant exercises, but could never have imagined back then what my geographical and spatial aptitudes would lead me to in the years to come.
It wasn’t until my college years at a state university in my hometown in upstate New York that I began to study geography in a more formal way. And although I majored in business administration, my true interest was in courses such as Urban Planning, Regional Planning1 , Cultural Geography, and the militarily useful Interpretation of Aerial Photographs and several others that gave me the required credits to earn a minor in geography. I usually stayed awake and earned virtually straight A’s in these classes, whereas I found the business program to be quite dull and filled with money-grubbing kids gunning for hotshot jobs in Manhattan with one of the prestigious (at that time) Big Eight accounting firms or some other unscrupulous multinational corporation. My overexposure to that homogeneous crew is partly responsible for my eventual move to Portland, Oregon, 3,000 miles away in the laid-back Pacific Northwest. Interestingly, this move, at the somewhat tender age of twenty-one, was the first time I had lived anywhere beyond the city in which I was born – Albany, NY. So in a sense, this coastal shift signified a defining moment in my lifelong journey of exploration.
My decision for this change in scenery was borne ostensibly from a desire to earn a graduate degree in urban planning at Portland State University – at least, that’s what I told my parents. However, I knew in my heart of hearts that I simply needed to live somewhere close to big mountains. Plus, I had heard good things about Portland. So almost on a whim, without ever having visited first, I packed up my old silver Subaru and headed west. Thirteen years later I’m still there without a thought of living anyplace else.
Sure, I earned that masters degree, but I took my time. The two-year program ended up taking me almost three years, far less than the seven-year plan my buddy Chuck was on. He’d already had a couple of years under his belt when I started in the Fall of ‘90 and he still had a couple more to go when I was finished. In the end, I didn’t think the program at PSU really lived up to its national reputation, but it still looked good on my resume even if I still really didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. That’s assuming I ever did grow up at all…something I’m sure my mother is still scratching her head and wondering since I’ve had such a checkered work history and never really did find my niche in the urban planning profession.
My mother…my poor mother. All she ever wanted for her baby was to get a good job and marry a nice girl who would then provide my mom with the grandchild she so desperately wants. Then maybe it would make her feel better when she’s sharing stories about me with old friends and family. As it is now, I know she occasionally stretches the truth from time to time in order to hide her embarrassment about my professional ‘failings’.
Several years ago when I was unemployed after being fired from my first real job by a tyrannical boss, my mother ran into Elaine Richter at the supermarket. Her son Craig and I went to Hebrew school together and we were good friends growing up, but we hadn’t stayed in touch since graduating high school. After learning from the lovely Mrs. Richter that Craig was doing his medical residency in New York City and that his brother Mark was in law school, my mother, too embarrassed to tell Elaine the truth, told her that I was working as an urban planner in Portland. When my mom told me this I was livid. “How could you do that!?!”, I pleaded. “You lied to Mrs. Richter!” It saddened and angered me to know that my mom was ashamed of my professional mediocrity.
Well, unfortunately for my mother, the roadmap for my life seems to have continued to run counter to what she had planned for me. I know she’d like me to settle down one day, and it might still happen in her lifetime, but she shouldn’t hold her breath waiting. For a while I really thought that that’s what I wanted too, but as my career has never really taken off and I’ve wandered from job to job over the years I’ve realized that the freedom to live my life the way I want without too many constraints is more important than the relative safety and daily drudgery associated with a nine-to-five job. And although I do have many happily married friends, I also have just as many friends who seem stifled by their ties to their spouse or children (or both). So for now, I’m happy to live simply and prepare for my global travels.
But just as the novels I read as a child were all fictional tales of adventure, my reading selections as an adult have almost exclusively been non-fiction travel stories. These incredible first-hand accounts have allowed me to vicariously experience foreign people, places, and cultures and intensify my deep longing to endeavor upon an epic journey of my own. A brief (well, sort of) bibliography of many of the readings that have helped add knowledge to my wanderlust will help you to understand why the time is near for me to venture out on my own. Brief descriptions of these works will follow in the approximate order in which I read them in the hopes that this will provide further insight as to how I’ve gotten to the point where I am in my life today – preparing to embark on an odyssey in search of the best qualities that humanity has to offer.
One of the first books I purchased upon finishing graduate school and saying goodbye to the monotony of textbooks was To the Ends of the Earth: The Selected Travels of Paul Theroux. What better author to start with than the man who the The New York Times Book Review referred to as “the finest travel writer working in English”. Following that unparalleled globetrotting compilation I came upon an amazing piece of work that introduced me to a cast of unique characters. Dayton Duncan’s Miles From Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier is a fascinating look at the people and communities in those U.S. counties that have fewer than two people per square mile. Obviously, these ultra-rural, often barren lands are exclusively west of the Mississippi. And since reading this book I’ve often found myself seeking out these extremely remote places as I wander around on one of my many extensive roadtrips throughout the American west. The next stop on my immersion into the genre of travel writing was Tim Cahill’s hilarious international compilation of short stories called Pecked to Death by Ducks. Cahill’s ability to inject humor into both his life as well as into print make him a road warrior of incomparable humanity, crucial qualities for anyone who hopes to befriend strangers throughout the world.
Soon thereafter I became increasingly interested in readings of a spiritual nature. The Snow Leopard, a classic tale by Peter Matthiessen and Peter Hoagland, weaves Buddhist philosophy into the authors’ quest across the Himalaya for the elusive snow leopard. I continued with that theme and that location with Himalayan Odyssey and The Abode of Snow back-to-back. That was followed up by a book given to me by my cousin Shalom Bochner who is now a rabbi in Santa Cruz, California.2The Jew in the Lotus by Rodger Kammenetz is a fascinating study of the similarities between the Jewish and Buddhist faiths, with great emphasis on mysticism. The author, along with a dozen or so American Jews of various denominations, traveled to Dharamsala, India to visit and study with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It’s interesting to note that the actor Richard Gere, less well-known his for devotion to Buddhism than for his roles as the leading man, was also a guest of the Dalai Lama’s at the same time as the entourage that included the author, and thus finds himself included in the story as an ancillary figure.
That study in theology was followed by William Dalrymple’s In Xanadu which also touched upon many ancient religions throughout Asia. The author traveled 12,000 miles along the route of the Silk Road from Syria through Iran and Pakistan before crossing into western China and ultimately to the fabled palace of Kublai Khan north of Beijing. Little did I know at the time that I read this book how central to world events this mysterious part of the world would become over the next few years.
The ‘epic trip through lands unknown’ theme continued to be prevalent in the books I chose during the latter part of the 1990s. The Ends of the Earth: Journey to the Frontiers of Anarchy by Robert Kaplan held a certain allure for me. I was hungry to learn about the places and cultures that seem most foreign to us here in America. This book’s subtitle ‘From Togo to Turkmenistan, From Iran to Cambodia’ satisfied my growing interest. Kaplan was able to capture the essence of the desperation and hardship that so many of the world’s people suffer through while also showing the humanity and strength of character that enables those same people to endure their harsh realities.
Next on my reading list is Jeff Greenwald’s The Size of the World, another epic tale in which the author travels around the world without ever leaving the ground. ‘Once around without leaving the ground’ was his motto. Traveling by virtually every mode of transportation imaginable, including cargo ship, Greenwald’s adventure is perhaps the single most influential piece of writing in helping me to conjure up the idea to wander the planet in search of football and the cultures I encounter along the way. Whereas I have every intention of flying whenever oceans or vast distances require (unlike Greenwald), I found myself to be completely seduced by the idea of global circumnavigation. Perhaps that’s why I next read Ian Cameron’s Magellan – And the First Circumnavigation of the World. But unlike Magellan, however, I hope to actually complete my trip without creating my own hubristic demise along the way. Magellan, you might recall, was killed by natives on the Filippino island of Cebu before his armada continued westbound for its origin in Europe. Perhaps trusting too greatly that God would protect him in his foolish attempt to subjugate the Rajah of Cebu and convert his people to Christianity, Magellan suffered from a combination of “religious hysteria” and a desire to make decisions against the advice of others. I hope to learn from Magellan’s errors and neither proselytize nor ignore the advice of those who hope to see me complete my journey. To become one with the cultures and the people I encounter will be a hallmark of my travels.
Following up on the heels of Magellan’s historic voyage I continued with the epic journey theme, thoroughly enjoying The Odyssey as I had never appreciated it as a child. Odysseus’ ability to assess strange situations and deal with every possible form of adversity that one could imagine was truly admirable. It’s a lesson, although this is a fictional tale, that each of us must take to heart if we hope to travel through terra incognita and arrive safely at home in the end. Staying with the oceanic theme, I voraciously read Sebastian Junger’s harrowing real-life thriller The Perfect Storm, which quite naturally was incomparably better than Hollywood’s version of this sad tale. I ripped quickly through this paperback while on my first major backcountry ski trip, in the Selkirk Range of southeastern British Columbia. As I read the detailed account of death by drowning I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between that and the danger of avalanche on my vacation and the potential of a slow, icy death buried beneath tons of snow. Ultimately though, the trip was a great success and I’m now an accomplished backcountry skier, having toured throughout the West on alpine terrain of breathless beauty.
And now we reach a flashpoint in my football fandom. On July 12, 1998, France shocked the world by dismantling Brazil 3-nil in the World Cup Final. The outcome was predictable to me, however. As I watched that match on a giant screen tv at the Golden Nugget Casino in downtown Las Vegas with a small wager on the home team, I for one was not too surprised when Les Bleus hoisted the winners’ trophy in the air at Paris’ Stade de France. Zinedine Zidane helped me to a ninety dollar payday with his two first-half headers to give his team a commanding halftime lead. I only placed a twenty-dollar wager on the game; or more accurately, two ten-dollar wagers, but I felt like quite the player when I cashed in my tickets. Oddsmakers had France as a 2.2 to 1 underdog, which to me seemed utterly ridiculous since they were the home team and I expected they would give Brazil a tough match. In addition, since I figured France could very likely win the game – and that if they were to win they would likely have to grab an early lead – I also put some money on France taking the lead at the half and then going on to victory. Oddsmakers had that as a 7 to 1 longshot; but to me it seemed more like easy money.
With a dozen or more Argentines in front of me rooting for their South American neighbors and a young French couple behind me quietly cheering on their countrymen, I enjoyed that game unlike any other I had seen before. That single event, perhaps more than any other, transformed me from an interested soccer fan into a fanatical supporter of the world’s most popular game – football. I’d been stricken with football fever and I still haven’t found the cure, but maybe I’ll find it out there on my travels.
So immediately upon returning home to Portland from Las Vegas I found a short-term tonic in the form of Brian Glanville’s seminal work The Story of the World Cup. His detailed accounts of both the games (including important qualifiers) and the periods during which the tournaments were held provides the reader with as much information about the world’s most storied sporting event as one could possibly imagine. It’s an invaluable resource to any football aficionado and I often refer to it whenever I’m curious about one of the past competitions.
Still on the soccer kick (no pun intended), I next read a short book about one of England’s most colorful footballers, Gazza, Paul Gascoigne. Ironically, this book was given to me by my old graduate school buddy Chuck who, like Gazza, has also had a troubled past and fought his own demons throughout his lifetime. And to think that Gazza’s career reached its zenith just before the English Premier League achieved meteoric international success in the last few years of the 20th century. Now, players like David Beckham and Ronaldo must deal with ever-increasing pressure as salaries have skyrocketed and media coverage of the world’s top clubs is a virtually non-stop endeavor.
After getting my fix of football literature I decided to read a dense version of The Travels of Marco Polo, a most fascinating account of one of the world’s pre-eminent explorers. This curious Venetian is considered to be the first Westerner to travel to the East. For decades he studied the peoples of Asia, living amongst them and ultimately serving as Governor of a southern Chinese province under the reign of Kublai Khan. It’s interesting to note that this ‘ruthless barbarian’ showed great tolerance of and appreciation for the diverse cultures that lived within his expansive empire. Perhaps he was just covering all of his bases for the judgment day that we all must someday face when he said, “There are four great Prophets who are reverenced and worshipped by the different classes of mankind. The Christians regard Jesus Christ as their divinity; the Saracens (modern-day Muslims), Mahomet; the Jews, Moses; and the idolaters, Sogomombar-kan, the most eminent amongst their idols. I do honour and show respect to all the four, and invoke to my aid whichever amongst them is in truth supreme in heaven.” Perhaps the Khan was an agnostic, much like myself, not really sure what to be believe in, but believing that there must be some greater force in the universe that we cannot truly comprehend and that this spiritual force shows no favor to the worshipers of any particular faith. After all, don’t all of the world’s great religions share the same basic themes of peace, tolerance, and compassion anyway? At their very core, aren’t all religions essentially the same?
My next reading selection continued with Marco Polo’s theme of traveling to lands unknown. Exploration a collection of ‘great stories of human endeavour’ edited by John Keay offers the reader gripping tales of global travel during the romantic era of exploration, the 19th century, when so much of the world was still a complete mystery to even the most educated members of society. On the one hand, this book saddened me at the prospect of global homogeneity as we enter the 21st century; however, on the other hand, this cross-pollination and heightened understanding of our ‘neighbors’ across the planet has the potential to bring us to a higher level of world consciousness.It’s this sense of optimism that I plan to share with the people I encounter throughout my travels. For history buffs looking for a more critical look at America’s past than you’re likely to find in your average high school textbook I strongly recommend Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Dr. Zinn, or Howard as prefers to be called3, provides a thorough analysis or our nation’s history that some might consider revisionist. It’s simply a perspective that most of us haven’t been presented. Among the many topics he delves into is the US’s less-than stellar history of foreign policy. It’s useful and instructive in that it provides the reader with a better understanding of how our nation’s past actions have contributed to the anti-American sentiment that seems to be prevalent in many places across the planet.
Amazon Extreme is the incredible tale of three young adventurers who traveled the full length of the Amazon – over 4,000 miles from a tributary known as the Apurimac high in the Peruvian Andes to the mouth of the river where it meets the Atlantic. Their exploits range from beautiful, to terrifying, to comical and keep you fully engaged as you view the Amazon’s wonders through their story. Similarly, John Krakauer’s Into the Wild is a riveting account, but with a tragic twist, about a would-be modern-day Thoreau who wandered into Alaska’s backcountry and never returned. In typical Krakauer fashion, in which he himself becomes obsessed with his seemingly obsessive-compulsive subjects, the author of the seminal Everest tragedy, Into Thin Air, keeps the reader fully engaged. It’s Krakauer’s ability to mix great writing with super sleuthing that makes Into the Wild such a quick and memorable read.
Feeling a bit nostalgic for my hometown, I next picked up a copy of William Kennedy’s O Albany!. This Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Ironweed, provides a complete history of the town where I spent the first two-plus decades of my life. The characters who shaped the former Dutch colony known as Fort Orange into New York State’s capital provide a unique legacy for Kennedy to explore in this interesting piece of literature. Naturally, I followed this up with Ironweed, the depression-era story of down-and-out vagabonds that Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep brought to life on the silver screen with tragic authenticity.
Deciding to continue with my rare foray into the world of fiction I stumbled upon a copy of Hemingway’s classic tale of a Cuban fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea. This heroically tragic tale about ‘the big one’ that got away brings to life the classic struggle of man versus nature in a short narrative that’s difficult to put down. Hemingway’s uncanny ability to add vivid color to the mundane activities of everyday life make for masterful writing and entertaining reading.
Later that Spring I spent a week traveling south from Portland to Las Vegas along the spine of the Cascades and Sierras, stopping to ski at a different mountain each day. When I was in the Tahoe area I bought a locally published anthology of comical yarns by one of America’s most renowned storytellers, Mark Twain. In Virginia City Nevada recalls some of the author’s more adventurous times first as a drifter and then as a reporter in this wild west frontier town. Like many great authors he injects considerable humor while introducing an unusual cast of unsavory characters and awkward and difficult situations.
Next, my thirst for adventure and love for wintry, alpine climates soon led me to becoming immersed in a series of books based in formidable, icy regions. Stacy Allison is an Oregon native who became the first American woman to summit Mt. Everest when she accomplished this historic feat in September of 1988. Not only did she overcome the disappointment of coming short the previous year, but she also had to battle the lingering demons as a victim of domestic violence. I had the good fortune of meeting Stacy when she was a guest on the talk show I produced.4 Her appearance was in conjunction with National Domestic Violence Awareness Week, but she was also more than happy to promote her autobiography entitled Beyond the Limits. Her triumphant story is empowering for both women and men alike and is a testament to the power of the human spirit.
Next up in my ‘icy adventures’ series was South to the Pole by Ski, a remarkable account of a brutally difficult and dangerous trek across the frozen Antarctic tundra through bitter cold and blinding storms. The nine men and two women pioneered a new route to the pole in accomplishing their goal.
Fortunately for me, my job as a radio producer meant that dozens of new books would cross my desk every month. Unfortunately for the publishers, however, only a small percentage of the authors would be invited as guests. But on the up side, this meant that I was privy to a wealth of free reading material. Next up on my list, for example, is Kieran Mulvaney’s fascinating, but somewhat academic At the Ends of the Earth: A History of the Polar Regions. His scientific and historic study of the world’s least hospitable regions details the negative impacts that mankind has wrought upon our planet and its fragile environment. Perhaps someday I’ll have the opportunity to visit one of the poles, however, I strongly doubt that I’ll be traveling to this part of the planet throughout my global adventures; although I imagine that there must be a makeshift icy soccer pitch at one of the scientific outposts in this remote part of the world.
Still fascinated with these regions and armed with yet another freebie from the radio station, I dove into The Ice Master, one of the most amazing adventure stories I’ve read yet. In 1913, at height of the golden age of polar exploration, a team of hearty adventurers on a ship called the Karluk set sail north from Victoria, British Columbia in search of the what their leader, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, believed was the last unexplored continent beneath massive sheets of ice. After being trapped in ice for months in the Arctic Ocean, during which time they drifted west from the northern Alaskan coast to just north of the Siberian Coast, the ship was crushed by the pack ice and finally sank. What follows is perhaps one of the most incredible tales of survival you’re likely to read. Captain Bartlett, with the aid of several members of his crew (most of whom did not survive the ordeal), managed to reach ‘civilization’ after trekking for weeks across hundreds of miles of ice. The native Siberian tribesmen that he encountered helped him reach the coast to the east where he found passage back to Alaska before eventually reaching St. Michael. From there Bartlett commissioned another vessel to find his doomed mates hundreds of miles to the north just as autumn was quickly turning to deadly winter.
I followed up The Ice Master with The Endurance: Shackelton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, another incredible tale in which that ship was also trapped and eventually crushed by pack ice. The following summer, in a daring and somewhat unbelievable rescue effort through raging seas aboard a tiny vessel, Shackelton and a few of his finest sailors managed to reach a whaling outpost on South Georgia Island after first having landed on the southern shore and then traversing a small mountain range. The entire crew was eventually rescued the following year (more than a year and a half since their ship had sunk) by their Odyssean leader after having survived another horrible winter in the Antarctic.
Still not yet having had my fill of Arctic intrigue and adventure, my focus next turned to another bit of radio producer ‘schwag’, the sad story of a Minik, a native of northern Greenland caught between two worlds. In Give Me My Father’s Body – The Life of Minik, the New York Eskimo, the title character arrives in ‘the city that never sleeps’ with his father aboard a ship following an expedition by the prolific Arctic explorer Robert Peary. Soon thereafter his father dies only to live out eternity as an exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. Much of Minik’s time as an adult is subsequently spent trying to achieve some semblance of justice by retrieving his father’s remains from the museum for a proper burial back home in his native Greenland. In this unique tragedy the reader gets a rare glimpse at the ‘glory’ of exploration as seen through the eyes of a member of the indigenous population. Let there be no confusion here, Minik’s story is tragic on a variety of levels, but perhaps the saddest thing of all is what it symbolizes – the end of native cultures throughout the world.
And that brings to an end a long stretch of polar adventures in my personal bibliography. From there we move onto one of the most popular soccer-themed books of the past decade. Everyone told me I should read The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro, the unlikely story of a small-time Italian football club that briefly flirted with the possibility of joining the country’s top league, Serie A. The author, Boston-basedjournalist Joe McGinniss, spent an entire football season (nine months) chronicling both the on and off-the-field exploits of Castel Di Sangro, a club based in the remote Abruzzi region in the hills west of the Adriatic coast in central Italy. In vivid detail he brings to life the many characters who are a part of the team’s extended family, including its Mafioso-style owner who lives in a grand mountain villa. McGinniss follows the team and recounts the passion of each game as they struggle to remain in Serie B throughout the long, arduous season. In the end, however, McGinniss makes one mistake that ruined it all for me. As a journalist, an observer, he became too involved in the team and destroyed almost all of his local relationships because he was unable to accept that the team was complicit in ‘fixing’ one of its matches. While I don’t condone that sort of thing, I also didn’t feel it was the author’s job to alienate all of his Italian friends because of his staunch disapproval for what they had done. For me this highly entertaining book is tainted. However, the holier-than-thou Mr. McGinniss taught me an important lesson through his writing – and that is, stay out of other people’s business…especially when you’re a journalist! It’s a lesson I wish someone had taught the football-loving author of this fascinating story. Still, I’d recommend this book to any fan of the game… but just accept it for what it is rather than injecting your own self-righteousness into the mix like McGinniss did.
The next title is one of my favorites because it combines several of my favorite topics: adventure, Central Asian culture and geography, Buddhist philosophy, and ancient history. The Ultimate Journey, by former New York Times book reviewer Richard Bernstein, is an incredible tale of the author’s travels upon which he follows the path of Lao Tzu, an ancient Buddhist monk who spent twenty years wandering and living throughout China, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and several former Soviet republics. This is a part of Asia where many cultures collide and Bernstein brings them all to vivid life as he makes his way through primeval lands.
Next, I stayed in the exotic lands of Asia for A Traveler’s History of India. I never did make it all the way through this detailed account of the subcontinent’s extensive past, but reading it brought to mind the first term paper I ever wrote. In the tenth grade I can vividly recall spending hours at the local public library researching India’s first prime minister and confidant of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru. It was there in Mr. Preston’s social studies class that my eyes were first opened to the complex world in which we live and the diverse cultures that enrich our planet. Since those formative years I’ve had an ongoing longing to encounter foreign lands firsthand.
But since I haven’t yet had the chance to wander about the planet (or more importantly – the money, the time, and the cajones), I’m left with no choice but to live vicariously through the writing of other more daring souls than me – people like Jason Elliot, the award-winning author of An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan. For several months Elliot lived amongst the various ethnicities that form a patchwork across the landscape of this mysterious land. His unique perspective intertwined with historical insights provide a wonderful framework for beginning to understand a land that has been in the throes of war throughout the course of history perhaps more than any other place on earth. And this unfortunate trend certainly holds true for the past century as well. But to learn more about the nation that was fairly recently ‘liberated’ from the iron grip of the Taliban, you need look no further than this brilliant work by Jason Elliot. With respect to my impending travels, it’s my greatest hope to attend a soccer match at the famed Kabul stadium where the Taliban regularly performed public executions, using the goalposts as a makeshift gallows. I really do want to go everywhere, not just the ‘sexy’ venues in Europe and South America.5
Returning to more familiar environs, both literally and literarily, I was wandering through an out-of-the-way thrift store in a crusty and quaint part of Portland when I came across a tattered copy of Ralph Friedman’s A Touch of Oregon: Lovesong to a State. His dusty anecdotes about long-forgotten places like Owyhee, Condon, and Fossil reminded me of what I had loved so much about the book Miles From Nowhere and why I absolutely thrill at the opportunity to drive for hours on end through the American West. There is something truly romantic about rural life and the (inner) peace one seems to find there; and Friedman’s adoring view of Oregon is worth a look whether you live in the Beaver State, Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, or points in between.
And now we come to a piece of literary brilliance that served as yet another pivotal moment in the formulation of my plans for global travel on a football-related theme. Acclaimed pop-culture author Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is a great read for any sports fan, but the book is so much more than that. It’s more like an autobiographical revelatory coming-of-age through a lifelong ‘relationship’ with one of England’s most historic football clubs, Arsenal. North London’s Gunners, ironically, is the team that I began rooting for a few years ago when the French manager of the club, appropriately named Arsene Wenger, began filling his team with a host of his country’s most talented and expensive exports, including the fleet-footed forward Thierry Henry, the impregnable midfielder Patrick Vieira, the powerful and smooth Sylvain Wiltord, and the deft and dashing Robert Pires. Hornby’s diary-like homage to his beloved Gunners, however, focuses upon a different era, or more accurately, different eras since this book spans more than two decades. It helps to be a football fan, but any sports fan, or for that matter anybody who can appreciate the universal comedy/tragedy that accompanies obsessive-compulsive behavior will enjoy this story. Hornby’s willingness to go to any length to attend a live football match is the passion that I hope to live, witness, and document wherever my travels take me in the year leading up to Germany 2006.
In search of some more inspiration I moved onto The Best American Travel Writing 2001, edited by Paul Theroux, who if you’ll recall is the author who I started my bibliography with more than a couple of dozen books ago. This enjoyably diverse anthology includes such writers as Muslim ‘heretic’ Salman Rushdie, the brilliantly humorous Tim Cahill, and the genetically-predisposed traveler Marcel Theroux. Each of the two-dozen or so short stories is packed with wonderfully descriptive people and places. In my own writing (and living) I hope to match the intensity that each of these authors brings to their narratives.
I absolutely love compendiums because they allow the reader to ‘travel’ to so many different places within a single novel. And that’s why my next reading selection was The Oxford Book of Travel Stories by Patricia Craig, a mix of fiction and non-fiction vignettes. Unfortunately, however, I found the writing to have a dry stodginess that was more mundane and pedestrian than the exotic, colorful tales I had become so fond of. It didn’t take long before my boredom forced me to cut my losses and move onto something more entertaining if only slightly more dynamic.
I had heard good things about the somewhat sarcastic Bill Bryson’s ‘runaway New York Times bestseller’ A Walk in the Woods, so I decided to see what the hubbub was all about. His farcical first-hand accounts of an impossibly ambitious journey along the Appalachian Trail were enjoyable, but certainly no match for all the hype that surrounds this mega-success. Sure, I found his anecdotes and storytelling to be filled with good-humor and colorful characters, but maybe because I imagined myself writing with more flair about more glamorous locales I never really got goose bumps from this book. Nevertheless, his countless encounters with various elements of Americana are worth giving this one more than just a passing glance. Also of note is that Bryson does an excellent job weaving scientific and historical information into his travelogue, adding greatly to his story.
Alright now...stay with me here. We’re almost done with my personal anthology of literary influences. Just a few more books to go.
Next on my docket was a book by a guy who used to live in my apartment building in the early 90s when he had first arrived in Portland. At the time, Robert Sullivan was writing articles for a variety of well-recognized national publications, including Vogue, The New Yorker, and Rolling Stone. I helped him with an article that he was writing about Generation X during the heyday of my age-cohort’s ascedancy from youthful slackers to entrepreneurial digital-age yuppies. Years later, after Bob and I had essentially lost touch despite living in the same town, he would spend endless cold and dreary days and nights with the Makah Indians at the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. They were preparing to renew their age-old tradition of hunting grey whales and Bob was there to cover every legal and logistical twist and turn in the planning and execution of this highly contentious event. A Whale Hunt is another bit of radio producer schwag that I had always meant to read, but just hadn’t bothered to pick up in almost two years. But once I did, I couldn’t put it down. Sullivan virtually lived with his subjects for long stretches of time and it shows in his analysis of the complex people and politics involved in the hunt. A few years ago he moved back to his native Brooklyn and consequently, I never randomly bump into him on the streets of Portland anymore. I did try to get ahold of Bob last time I was in New York, but never ended up connecting.
And now we come to my second most-recent choice of ‘pleasure’ reading, something that caught my eye while wandering around the Barnes & Noble along Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on a miserably dreary day in May. I was in the market for some new travel lit and perhaps a bit of a reality check too. Renowned adventurer Robert Young Pelton’s The World’s Most Dangerous Places, 5th edition, is an incredibly useful tome of information for anyone who plans to travel to exotic lands or just wants to get the dirty truth about the political strife facing so much of the world today. His wry sarcasm and brutally honest perspective combined with words of caution and countless weblinks makes this 1000+ page epic almanac-style book a fantastic resource that will serve me well throughout my global odyssey.
Among the many first-hand accounts of unimaginable chaos and anarchy is a tour through a war-torn Afghanistan by the author in late 2001, after America’s ‘War on Terror’ had begun. Pelton meets up with a group of American military special forces known as ‘The Regulators’ whose mission it was to protect and take orders from Afghan ‘warlord’ Abdul Rashid Dostum. It doesn’t take long before they’re involved in a “hellacious firefight” at Qali-I-Jangi, where the Americans would soon learn about John Walker Lindh, the now-famous kid from California who somehow ended up fighting in a jihad after leaving his madrassah in Yemen. It was Pelton who was the first to interview Walker Lindh and the photos you would see on tv of the emaciated ‘American Taliban’ were also taken by this most death-defying of adventurers.
While I have absolutely no desire to put myself in the middle of such bloodshed and conflict, I do hope to attend football matches in such questionable places as Baghdad, Teheran, Kabul, Cali (Colombia), Monrovia (Liberia), and other dangerous locales. Naturally, this all depends upon the political stability of each country at the time of my travels. Security matters have a way of changing very quickly sometimes.
But if there’s one thing that I took away from this cautionary manifesto, it’s this – get out there, go see the world…the world is a dangerous place wherever you go, so just be smart during your travels. Ironically, I was less than a hundred pages into the book when I found myself on the wrong end of a gun while walking along the Brooklyn Heights promenade overlooking downtown Manhattan from across the East River on a particularly dreary early June evening at dusk. But I remembered what Pelton had said about encounters with armed gunmen… “remain calm”. And that’s exactly what I did. In fact, I managed to convince my youthful assailants to just take my cash but let me keep my wallet. Despite their ‘generosity’, however, I didn’t hesitate to call the police, who promptly showed up to cruise around the neighborhood with me in the back seat. Within minutes the little bastards were face down in the dirt surrounded by several dozen of New York’s finest with guns drawn. What a crazy experience! But I got lucky even with Pelton’s advice. However, the moral of the story here is that no matter where you go danger is always knocking at your door, so be careful. It’s a lesson that I hope will aid me as I endeavor to circumnavigate the globe with as little trouble as possible.
OK, so ‘Dangerous Places’, as Pelton calls it, ended up being my next-to-last item in my all-too-extensive biblio. After a while, I had had enough of his terrifying accounts of human tragedy. It was entirely too depressing, so I thought I’d pick up something more upbeat. Welllll……sort of.
I ran into my old footie mate Matthew Moss, and I would learn that he practically grew up at Highbury, Arsenal’s football ground in North London. As a relatively new fan of the team, I was a bit awe struck. After telling Matt about my travel plans and the girls from North London (also Gunners fans) who I’d recently met at the rim of the Grand Canyon as the sun was setting, he suggested I take a look at Bill Buford’s homage to football hooligans, Among the Thugs. Here it is in a nutshell - naive young American meets slovenly, roguish Brits in the hopes of understanding their outlandish behavior and seemingly religious fanaticism for football. Buford exposes in shocking detail the game’s underbelly, the raw violence that has tarnished the world’s most popular sport throughout the past century. Through my travels, however, I hope to experience and write about a more comprehensive, enlightened cross-section of the footballing community. Thuggery seems so pase. As one reformed rogue explained to Buford from his new home in the tropics, “Great sex and sunshine are a much better way of living than being a thug.”
Finally, this concludes the seemingly endless synopses of books that helped to formulate my ambitious goals for global travel. And while I don’t proclaim to be the most well-read or knowledgeable student of the world, I feel strongly that this small library of books and several others that I have either forgotten to mention or no longer own a copy of have made an everlasting impact on the person who I am today. It’s ironic in a way since I used to shun novels as a child in order to spend more time with America’s favorite ‘babysitter’…that’s right…TV. However, since finishing graduate school more than a decade ago I’ve had the opportunity to read literature of my own choosing without the worry of ignoring more urgent academic pursuits. As a result, I can now almost never be found without some non-fiction publication that I’m hoping will serve to educate and enlighten me as I prepare for my global adventures – with the ultimate goal of producing a masterpiece of my own. Perhaps then someday there will be another ambitious would-be adventurer like myself, who compiles a similar list of his writing influences. And maybe, just maybe, Football for Peace by Aaron Corman will be among those listed.