In a canyon in Oman I had my last drink. It was my Champagne Birthday, which fell as usual on Halloween. I’d planned this final indulgence the way a killer might a murder, which it might as well’ve been given that I was saying good-bye to a part of me and a part of my life. As all who’ve travelled know, good-byes are the closest we ever come to knowing death, a sort of practice for the real thing and the reason most people have the good sense to stay just where they are.
This particular farewell wasn’t so much a decision, as a conclusion. One I’d reached about a month earlier poking around Lebanon. I was sitting by the seaside one evening in Jounieh, sharing a shisha with the warm breeze coming off the Med. After the usual search I found a place that somehow resisted the urge to overwhelm the ambience with loud music and obnoxious television sets, where the sea and the sounds she carried from Beirut may be enjoyed. Sitting at the edge of the water, I opened up a little brown Moleskin notebook with the title: Lebanon (47) – a handy way of organizing notes and keeping a country count. So there I was with the usual companions.
First I described the scene, my usual trick to get the writing juices flowing:
I am down by the sea now, smoking shisha tobacco from a hooka – as has become my evening habit in Lebanon. I have been placed opposite a young Lebanese couple who are speaking in French. The first star is out. Jupiter perhaps.
The sky is dying and robbing the sea of her colour. The trick with shisha is not to take short, rapid breaths, but rather, intermediate, long puffs – giving each moment its time and colour. This moment is violet. Shame the sky wouldn’t stay like this for awhile longer, its surrender to the night is but a reminder of the fleeting nature of life.
I am watching a man in the distance wrestle with a fishing rod five times his height. I’ve moved my feet over to an angle so that I may rest them upon the ropes, (and the sea breeze, otherwise serene as always, is being tarnished by the smell of a day’s walking). The scene is a deeper purple now.
Apart from a bit of light chatter and the occasional laugh, I can hear the water playing with the rocks, passing on tales and memories from Barcelona and Tel Aviv. One is never alone when one writes because as soon as thoughts are committed to paper, one finds an ocean of memories inside: of people, sweet moments and sad, all those smiles and tears, all those memories of all the world, living in us all the time; carrying so much, travelling with so little, one short life of memories, as brief and colourful as the setting sun.
And so the sky has gone black. But now, I can see the stars. They are the end of us, just as they were the beginning.
After I got that fluff out of the way, I could forget about the physical act of writing and just let my hand record what was on my mind. I began to jot down a list of all the places where I’d lost something from a drinking-related incident. The losses varied, from a bit of pride to a chunk of flesh. The list grew. By the time it was done, it was ten countries long, some with multiple entries. Some good stories were in there for sure, also some bad, both live on in the following chapters. Sometimes I feel like travellers furnish their lives with stories the way smart people do with actual furniture.
Australia held the honourable distinction of being the only unrepresented continent on my little list (not counting Antarctica). It was also the only continent that I had not visited at the time (Australia’s notebook is marked 49). At this point I swelled with a great desire to keep it off the list. In fact, I concluded right then and there, that the list was complete, excessive even, and that there could be no eleventh entry. I just didn’t want to loose anything else.
Owing in equal measure to romance and stigma, many people think that anyone who stops drinking must have at one point been a woe-some alcoholic, guzzling themselves to death under a bridge some place. This isn’t true for a lot of people, nor was it for me. I never reached for the bottle to drown sorrow or solitude. It was the opposite that got me into trouble: taking on the world with energetic travellers out to make memories one way or another, caught up in that glorious feeling which Stephen King so perfectly described in On Writing as a “roaring sense of goodwill, a sense that most of our conscience is outside of our bodies.” The problem was that the pursuit of that feeling was fleeting, whereas the unintended consequences of that pursuit were not and little by little the scales shifted, until that one evening in Lebanon where I weighed it all up, and the consequences side won. And so I went about concocting a farewell plan by the seaside.
My next immediate step was to have a drink. Not just then, but in the coming days: on a special day. As a species we have a knack for imbuing everything with meaning, even abstract things like dates that have no such intrinsic qualities. I felt that my most recent drinking experience was an unsuitable farewell to a relationship that had given me at least as many moments of blissful abandon as those of sorrow. For this plan to work I would need to take advantage of our natural desire to makes things meaningful. My birthday was coming up: my Champagne Birthday no less. Perfect. That one comes round only once in a life-time. It made for a good seal, because it couldn’t be done again if broken.
On the anointed day, I woke up in Oman to Muscat and the Al Hajar Mountains, which was something of a surprise as they’d hid during the night drive from the airport to the marina. The sight of the rising stone excited me for Jebel Sham, the Sun Mountain. So I blasted out of the city in a toy rental car with an Argentine bottle of Merlot rocking in the passenger seat. It was one of those perfect driving days: no dust-storms, no traffic, just windows down, and that familiar stream of global pop music. The signal faltered as I grew further from Muscat and so I switched over to so some flavour of Omani sufi music, which was better.I arrived in Jebel Sham deep into the afternoon, leaving myself little time to make the trek into the canyon. I booked into one of those bedouin-stye tents you can rent up top the mountain (altitude: 1,900m) and there I prepared myself. I took out the merlot, stuck a plastic cup on top of the bottle, and wrapped the whole thing into a bag using the tent’s floral-patterned pillowcase.
My cartoon homeless-guy image complete, I drove to the edge of the Balcony Trail, a 3.5 km ancient donkey path etched into the west side of the Wadi An Nakhur. Wadi is a word you encounter all over the Arab world, which can describe anything from a shallow ditch to a great gorge; and so far as I can tell, An Nakhur means something like deep hole.
The Balcony Trail takes you about 3.5 km into An Nakhur and back again. Given the terrain and stops I reckoned it would take about two and a half hours round-trip. The sun was getting low, so I got moving. This was after all my one and only Champagne Birthday. There was no waiting for la mañana.
From the start, the canyon was completely still and quiet save for my own foot-steps. I could have heard a fly rubbing it’s legs together. I had gone only a few hundred meters when I came upon a suitable bench to have a drink and write a few notes. The utter stillness of the surrounds magnified every sound: the unscrewing of the cap, the dark wine falling toward the Earth, the capturing of the wine by the cup, and finally, together with the sun and the Mountain of the Sun, I enjoyed the sound of my own swallow for awhile.
The sky grew dim as perhaps I’d stretched the moment a bit too far. Wrapping up the bottle and cup once more, I pushed deeper into the wadi. The occasional painted marker on a rock, no larger than a hand, kept me on the trail. The alcohol elevated my steps as well as my mood: glowing with energy, happy to be alive in the wadi with the sky on a day as tranquil as there ever was.
There is a special feeling reserved in our mental chemistry for those times when there is no other soul between our eyes and the edge of the Earth. I imagine it has something to do with the fact that our brains developed principally to understand one another and are thus oriented towards others. We owe our intelligence and every bit our consciences to social cooperation. Only once our ancestors wondered about others, did they wonder of themselves, and become self-aware.
Alone, without others to understand, my mind wandered as it pleased, free from the Organizing Power that draws us together into cafes, clubs, protests, social media, and revolutions. Is it any wonder that mystics and sadhus retreat into isolation for their meditations on the great questions, like: Is there a God? It doesn’t matter, because there is certainly a feeling we call God. And that is enough. The real question is: what is the relationship between human organization and the feeling we call God? It took me many years and most of the world to find an answer to that question. Indeed, it is the quest that binds these drinking-stories together. Well, at least some of them.
My solitudeness in the wadi incurred a brief interruption when I ran into a middle-aged couple near an abandoned stone village. It was getting dark and they had the good sense to be heading out. The fact that they were German only partially explains this. I think they could have made a go up Everest equipped just as they were, clad head-to-toe in hiking survival gear. I suspected they might have an oxygen tank some place. They were faultlessly polite, but our brains being wired to understand each other, I could tell they were a bit mystified by my sleeveless top, floral pillowcase bag, and half-filled plastic cup of wine, which I sipped as we spoke. They took me for an American, which I corrected in an effort to distance myself from the gun violence, unnecessary invasions, and relentless optimism that country is best known for.
I asked the Germans, “Will I make it in time?”
“You’re almost there,” the man replied, “but as you near the end, look very carefully, and you will find a way to climb up. It’s unmarked and hard to find. You have to climb maybe, 100m going up, just keep climbing, and you will find a very nice grotto at the top.”
I took a photo for the couple, and they were kind enough to give me their map. It made absolutely no sense to me, but that didn’t matter much, I wouldn’t be able to see it soon enough. Our exchange complete, they set out for the sky while I bore deeper.
After a good half an hour march, I reached the trail’s end and frantically searched the fallen boulders for a way to climb. The sun was abandoning me and her mountain. I recalled that the German’s said the trail was unmarked, and began to climb. I needed both hands at times to pull myself from boulder to boulder. I climbed and climbed, hearing the German’s advice echo in my head: “just keep climbing.” I was moving too fast to really think about where I was going, concentrating solely on moving up as fast as I could while the daylight receded up the wadi wall. I climbed until I reached the top of the boulders and hit a sheer vertical cliff. I looked down, where far below I could see the water cave. In my frenzy to reach higher ground I had climbed my way right passed the grotto. I was so high now that it appeared to rest near the bottom of the wadi.
My heart was pounding, my breath rapid from the climb. I saw the darkness creeping up the wadi and grew nervous about the return hike. We all have a relationship with the sun, it follows us everywhere. Only at the end of its daily journey when it approaches the horizon and slides behind more temporal objects, do we realize how quickly it was moving all the while, and I imagine life is the same. I couldn’t see where the sun was for the canyon walls. It was a steep climb down, and another three and a half clicks after that. I didn’t have a flashlight, or even a phone. I unravelled the only thing that I had brought: a bottle of red wine. I poured out a cupful and drank in the scene. I figured the German couple had made it out by now. The maghrib azan, the evening prayer, bellowing from a mosque some place above the valley, shattered the pervasive silence. I’m screwed, I thought. The evening prayer is sung only once the disk of the sun has fallen behind the horizon.
There was still about half a litre of red in the bottle, and another half in my veins. I had about twenty minutes of daylight left, with another ten to fifteen of twilight after that in which I would have to descend about two or three hundred metres vertically and run some three and a half kilometres.
I rush-wrapped the bottle into the pillow case. It didn’t hold. For the life of me I couldn’t remember how to make a shoulder bag out of the pillow case. There just wan’t enough time, I had no choice but to carry the bottle by hand. Cradling the bottle, and using my free arm, I lowered myself down the first boulder. I felt the strain in my arm, and nearly slipped. I needed both arms to climb down, especially now that I had only minutes to reach the bottom. I considered chugging the wine. That was about the worse thing I could do. I needed perfect concentration to descend the rocks in the vanishing light. I resolved that the bottle couldn’t come with me. I slid it on top of the boulder and quickly descended another boulder with both hands.
What am I doing? I thought. That might be the last bottle of wine I drink in my life. The last bottle of anything. If this is going to be my last drinking day, I might as well enjoy it. Later tonight, back in the little tent on the top of the mountain, I’m going to wish I’d saved the merlot. I raced back up the boulders, grunting with each movement, and retrieved the bottle. All the while the canyon walls disappeared into the blackness.
Holding the bottle, I eased one leg down the canyon for a hold, while securing myself with the free hand. I looked down into the heart of the wadi, the great hole that is An Nakhur. I couldn’t do it. I needed both hands. I was breathing heavily, sweating all over. My energy fled and I collapsed over onto the little patch of ground at the pinnacle, stuck, in a paralysis of my own making. This isn’t what I’d planned for in Lebanon. I looked into the heart of the creeping darkness, and thought back to the night when all this travelling madness began.
Six years before, I was working up in Canada’s sub-arctic, in a town called Fort McMurray, right in the heart of the Athabasca Oil-sands. It’s a cold place, but the people who come there from all over Canada and the world keep it warm. Fort Mac is usually smeared as a frontier town, a new wild west, and media reports inevitably fixate on the same seedy corners as if they represent the whole. But the truth is, it’s a town where your average joe can work and get ahead, and that makes for one hell of a diverse, ambitious, and interesting community.
So long story short: while I was up there, I entered into a hokey contest whereby young Canadians spoke of their ideas for the future, and those best received, had the opportunity to discuss said ideas with Canada’s former Prime Ministers on TV. I felt at the time, as perhaps only a young person can, that this was my sole opportunity to speak about the ideas that I’d harboured so long and dearly. You can still find my video floating around in the Youtube ether, but I’m not going to link to it, as it brings back cold memories for me. Even writing about it now is like passing a stone.
A producer from the show left a message on my phone: “we’d like to see you go on to the next stage.” To celebrate this exciting turn of events, I dashed off to a friends house and we proceeded to drink ourselves through a bottle of whiskey, and later I attempted to drive home. I didn’t get very far. I was pulled over at the first stop light and arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol. I was held in a cell for most of the night. At about four in the morning, I was let out. I remember asking the officer how I would get home. This was in November, when the arctic reclaims northern Canada.
Another officer spoke up from behind the front desk: “Is that the guy who blew over?”
“Yes,” the officer replied.
“Let him walk,” he said, without looking up.
I was let out the back door and into the arctic night. A light snow fell. My jacket and gloves were still in the car, which had been towed away some place. The temperature outside was somewhere between negative 40 and 50 degrees celsius, not that it really mattered, anything below negative 25 feels the same. I blinked to keep the liquid on my eyes from freezing and kept to shallow breaths since too much of that kind of air pierces the lungs like needles. Then I took a first step into a long and well-deserved punishment.
The snow crunched under my feet as I shivered through the town, alone with the falling flakes. At that time, there was no easy way for a pedestrian to cross the wide Athabasca river. I was forced to walk along the edge of the highway-bridge that carried a steady stream of men and materials to and from the world’s second largest oil reserves. It was this little-known piece of Canadian infrastructure that sustained the national economy. I stopped halfway, in the middle of the twelve provincial and territorial flags that ran the course of the bridge. From this vantage point, at the centre of the federation, I looked over into the void of the river. Smoke bellowed into the night from the massive Suncor and Syncrude refineries up the river. The stench of oil penetrated my noise, or as some locals call it, the smell of money. It was so dark, like a wadi at dusk.
Worse than the criminal record, the license suspension, the courtroom drama, the fines, the beating up of oneself; worse than all that, was withdrawing from that little contest, because I felt like I’d let down an idea, a dream, and when a dream dies, it takes the whole world with it. People are but vessels of dreams. They are the source of our nourishment and our purpose. You can let the embers of a dead dream burn inside you for ever, torturing your body and soul from within, provoking you to be careless with others feelings; or you can blow out the simmering coals and ashes, so that a new dream may dwell there. On that long and cold night, starring out over the Athabasca in the faint falling snow, I saw something. I saw a way to be good again, a way to be true to a dream.
It is not my dream, of course, it’s our dream, our oldest dream. The dream of a world free of war and poverty. I’ve come to realize that these enduring problems are the symptoms of our organization. For the eternal question facing the human race is this: how do we best organize ourselves? We are still reorganizing ourselves every day. States are breaking apart, states are joining together, groups of states are federating as pieces of them call for independence. What forces are at work behind this seemingly chaotic process of human organization? Is there a final design, that once reached, will last, and hold us together in eternal peace and prosperity? I believe there is. In fact, I believe we are on the verge of reaching it.
For there is a great Organizing Power: an overwhelming social force which once bound human beings into blood-tribes, a power that assembled those tribes into towns and later cities, a power that linked those cities into nations, and a power that is in our time, forging those nations into continental-wide federations, and a power that will one day unite all of humanity into a single, grand design. For life’s little trick is to create complex things out of the union of simpler units, and in this way, build one level of organization above another. This principle is the beginning and end of us, our egg and our arrow: our master spirit. In much the same way that letters make words, words make sentences, sentences make paragraphs, paragraphs make chapters, and chapters make this book; a hierarchy extends from the simplest bacterium to the United Nations. Picture it.
In that long-ago instance, starring into the clear darkness of the arctic night, I looked up with a sense that I was having a bad day and in between the fabric of clouds, I saw points of far away light, and thought of Oscar Wilde’s ode to optimism: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” It was as if the stars moved into place for me, and I saw a path around the world through: Brussels, Jakarta, Kathmandu, Cairo, Addis Ababa, and Quito. These are not just any cities, they are the capitals of emerging regional organizations, waypoints in the Era of Federations:I vowed to myself then and there that I would travel the world and write a book about the coming world of federations. But as with any good journey, the winds of chance blew me toward unexpected places, and I strayed far from the original plan (mostly via motorcycles). By the end of it all, a simplified route map would look something like this:
I could see this map above me in the stars, from my perch, deep within the An Nakhur wadi. And the whole journey passed before my eyes, and it felt a little something like this:
And then, as I looked into the sky from the wadi, everything became clear. This was it. This was the whole struggle. I can’t finish the bottle because I need my mind, I can’t take the bottle because I need my body. All I had to do was let the merlot go, and I was free. I wrapped the pillowcase around the wine once more, gave it a kiss, and buried it behind a rock at the pinnacle—no doubt, to be later scooped up later by a marauding Bedouin.
I dashed down the rocks, jumping, sliding, skimming, anything to get down faster. At the bottom the darkness was nearly complete. I ran as fast as I could over the gravel. Panting hard, clawing through the air with my hands, I raced the shadows. Some time passed before I realized that I’d lost track of the trail. I didn’t know if it was above or below me. The canyon wall was too steep and dark to make anything out. I edged upwards as I ran because I didn’t like the idea of going down. I looked frantically for anything that would indicate the trail. There was a moment when I contemplated how I would survive the night in the canyon but shook it off and kept running.
As I neared desperation, I found the path, or the path found me, just as it had so many times in so many places. I turned on the jets and when I burst out of the wadi and into the fresh freedom of the night, I felt like a long journey had come to an end. A journey towards unity in the Era of Federations. When I was young, I had a sense that everything in life was building to one great moment, a climax, but now I know things never end, they just become something else.
To my friends, family, fellow travellers, and the countless strangers who in a thousand acts of kindness helped a weary traveller get a little further along the path, I owe you a signed copy of a book. I hope the following pages fulfill my promise.
P.S. Did I ever tell you why I was covered in blood in Bangkok?