At Cargo Literary Magazine, we aim to bring you compelling stories of human development through the lens of travel. Each month we will be publishing your stories of change, of revelation: your creative nonfiction, your poems, your photo essays and digital art.
Maybe I have been sold a bill of goods, as they say, or need a lesson in what the journey is really about.
It can take two motorcycle rides to get to B52 Lake from Hoan Kiem Lake, still, in 2017, the heart of the Vietnamese capital Hanoi. The original name, Luc Thuy or Green Water, was changed in the 15th Century to commemorate the Emperor’s success at fighting off the Chinese and now means The Lake of the Returned Sword. I am not unmindful that my departing point and destination site are related chapters in one country’s war narrative, a five-century separation between sword and plane.
I show one motorcycle-for-hire after another the address for the B52 Lake or Ho Huu Tiep, the correct name, yet no one seems to recognize it. One driver questions various bystanders, appears to get an answer, and gestures for me to hop on, which I do leaving skepticism standing by the sword lake.
We zigzag swiftly, not to say magically, through the crowded streets somehow avoiding contact with fellow humans until we reach several small bodies of green water marked off by white stone bridges, and we stop. After I pay, he disappears before I can look around and there is no B52 in sight. But there is in sight another driver in a smart leather jacket casually smoking and leaning against his motorcycle and watching me. No one seems to need a ride here, and it’s not a place to recruit passengers; maybe I have been sold a bill of goods, as they say, or need a lesson in what the journey is really about. I show him the address, and minutes later, we arrive at similar green water and white bridges, and there it is—a plane in the water. Two rides for the cost of four, no doubt, but worth every Vietnamese Dong, and I, for one, want to pay the price.
Image: Fred Sharples
Image: Jane Babson
Frozen in time since 1972, the American fighter jet has found its resting place in a quiet North Vietnamese neighborhood. It attracts few visitors now; the Viet Nam Vets and Boomer war buffs are thinner on the ground this year. One day a lost American tourist will not know the moral or the story. The B52 is ignored by the bustling street scene that surrounds it. It must be relieved that some of it is underwater, hiding from no one’s gaze even as it forever faces the Vietnamese flag hanging boldly from a building nearby.
The local sights are ever-changing. People buy, they sell, they talk. They sit on little square benches eating pho, disregarding the stilted tableau that is either not worth their attention or has become invisible to them. For 45 years the plane watches, half-submerged in the green water, looking for all time a bit shameful and out-of-place, yet prepared to remind the next visitors, if they will listen, what the history lesson was all about.
One day a lost American tourist will not know the moral or the story. The B52 is ignored by the bustling street scene that surrounds it.
The gatekeeping at every stage of the process surprised even me.”
If you count the eight visits to three different department of motor vehicles in two different states over about a three-year period just to get the driver’s license, it took my transgender son, Donald, about four years to get the paperwork in order so he could apply for a passport as a man. Of course, if you go back even further to when he was a young teenage girl coming out as a trans man, then the journey to that key ticket to overseas travel really took about eight years.
And even then, after all of that, when he stepped to the window to hand in his passport materials, he needed a recent doctor’s letter indicating that he had indeed had surgeries and hormone treatment and should be recognized on his passport as a man. The gatekeeping at every stage of the process surprised even me, the questioning parent who felt uncomfortable with the medical options available to my teen and, later, college-age son.
At one point, when a clerk at a department of motor vehicles asked what proof he had that he was really a man, he replied, “Just my entire life.” She sent him away anyway because he did not have some particular piece of paper.
So imagine the joy and sense of incredible freedom when he finally received that passport and arranged to study in South Korea for a month. I arranged my own trip to Denmark, part business, part pleasure, so we’d both be on the road at the same time. Of course, I am a white middle-aged woman moving without fear to what I assumed would be one of the most progressive countries in the world. He was traveling through security zones with a bag of hormones and syringes that could expose him as a transgender man at every airport. As for the Korean culture, all I knew was that in the larger scope of Asia, being transgender is often illegal or, if legal, only if the individual undergoes forced sterilization. I had read that only two people had gone public about their gender reassignment surgery in South Korea, and one of them was a public entertainer.
Donald arrived safely to the university where he planned to study Korean for a month and began to text me pictures of food he loved both in the cafeteria and in the general town. With each passing day, my anxiety about his safety dropped; it was clear no one knew he was transgender and, even though he had a male roommate, in general there was no reason for anyone to know. Of course, in similar situations in the U.S. he had tended to be out front about it with the people he roomed with or socialized with, but, understandably, he chose discretion while overseas. He considers the fact he can make that choice a privilege that many transgender individuals do not have.
About a week after his departure, I flew out of Boston to Copenhagen and began interviewing parents of trans children in Denmark. Gorgeous people in very gender-neutral dress sailed passed me on their bicycles as I made my way around the city on my own two wheels. Even most of the bicycles were gender neutral with a low bar to make it easier to get on and off constantly as riders did chores, went to work or navigated complex intersections.
Ah, progressive Danes.
He considers the fact he can make that choice a privilege that many transgender individuals do not have.
Mary Collins in Denmark
When his son came out as Eva, he admitted that he had to “rebuild my understanding of gender.
But then I met with Helge Nyland, father of a trans daughter, who told me about all of the gatekeeping in the medical system for trans individuals, who can only go to one hospital for surgeries and hormone treatments. Mental health for the trans population in Denmark falls under the same category as rapists and pedophiles.
We both sat silently at a café near Tivoli, an historic amusement park, after he told me this. I looked at his clean lined face, his crisp clothes, admired his amazing command of English, and, struggled to register what he’d just told me. Here, in Denmark, the land that performed the first gender reassignment surgery in 1930 and legalized same-sex marriage in 1989?
When his son came out as Eva, he admitted that he had to “rebuild my understanding of gender; everything I knew seemed to be wrong.”
Everything I thought about this country starts to collapse in on itself as I continued to listen to the struggles he and his wife faced, right down to their trans daughter’s government identification number, which is gendered. Women are even numbers, men odd. For life. So Eva will always have a male designator on her government IDs.
Trans at Train Station
He could move under cover through the landscape, the way he may very well have to move most of his life.
I thought about Donald’s passport and suddenly felt a bit less judgmental of the American system.
All through my week, I interviewed people about life for transgender children and their families in Denmark, even as I continued to receive photographs of an elated Donald moving about Korea. First, in a market, then at a Pride parade in Seoul where people dressed all in white banged drums loudly to drown out the protesters along the parade route. More than 200,000 people had signed a petition to cancel the queer festival. Later, back at his dorm, Donald said the summer program students from all over the world had animated conversations about GBLTQ rights.
Understanding that acceptance of GBLTQ people is embraced by less than half of the Korean population, Donald was surprised when his fellow Americans made the most disparaging remarks about gays and transgender people. Not Koreans or Australians or Malaysians. He kept his own comments emotionally detached but pointed and told them he’d studied the issues a lot and did not feel comfortable around their phobic exchanges.
He and I had a tense phone call as I tried to assess his safety level half a world away. Before he left, we both agreed he had to wear a medical bracelet that at least indicated the medications he took; once there, he told one student, who had talked about her transgender sibling, so in the case of a medical emergency someone on location knew.
As we both navigated foreign lands, I realized that my transgender son was only as safe as the people in his immediate surroundings chose to keep him safe. In Denmark, parents of trans children made it clear that like in the U.S. there’s a surging far right movement and a rural/city divide when it comes to issues like transgender rights; right now the pendulum is swinging in little Eva’s favor but Helge knows that could change.
After a week in Copenhagen, I decided to hop a train across the countryside to visit a friend in Vejle. While munching on a roast beef, horseradish, and cucumber smorrebrod in the train station, I saw a large crowd of crossdressers in pilot and stewardess uniforms parading past on the way to Track 25. People neither cheered nor jeered, as though this was nothing out of the norm. But after my week with parents and professionals, I knew that this embrace was no more the norm for Denmark than San Francisco reflects GBLTQ acceptance in the U.S.
As for Donald, he felt safe enough in South Korea to take a train on his own two hours south to a small town to see a former college friend. I know he did not parade his transgender identity in the Seoul train station and his passport gave nothing away. He could move under cover through the landscape, the way he may very well have to move most of his life not just overseas but here in America. Even in Denmark, considered one of the most progressive countries in the world on GBLTQ issues, I’d recommend he keep his transgender identity to himself among strangers.
Which makes me question precisely what sort of passport he really has to anywhere.
Postcards from My Future Self:
Winter Storm, Oradell, New Jersey (February 2002)
the wisdom of an Earth that understands seasons, that understands that Springtime needs Winter’s melt.
On the Sunday before the storm hit, the packed parking lot of the Shoprite supermarket was a clue you didn’t understand. Inside, the store was filled with shoppers in a hurry, in a scurry, moving quickly from produce to dairy, up and down aisles of cereal and pasta, parents with less patience than normal, telling children to just put the (expletive) cookies in the basket so they could finish. The only other time you had seen a store like this was the afternoon of 9/11, the day after the movers delivered your things as part of a cross-country job transfer, when bomber jets protected the air space and those who could stocked up on water and canned goods and peanut butter, in case it was war. But months later on the day before the sky dropped feet of snow, you didn’t understand the hysteria. What’s wrong with these people? you wondered. Since you still had your California license plates, neighbors may have assumed you had a rookie’s indifference but you’d grown up in Montana, trudged to elementary school in the moon boots your mom made you wear. It’s just snow, people, you thought as you reached for a cranberry bread baking mix. But it wasn’t just snow. The wintery mix shellacked New York City and its boroughs and bergs and suburbs, a wrench made of ice thrown into the cogs of life, bringing everything to a halt until plows had time to clear streets. That was a tough time in your life—trapped by your choices—alone, lonely, always anxious about your job, always depressed by unmet expectations. Maybe that’s when the unraveling began, when you started writing again, asking yourself who you were and what you really wanted. When you called your mom to talk about the weather, she said she always liked those days when it made more sense to stay home, a forced pause, reason to slow. Then, thirteen years later, after many moves and job changes, when you were returning home to California after attending a two-week writing residency as part of your MFA program, you snapped aerial shots of frozen farmland somewhere over the Midwestern United States, struck by the look of frozen crop circles and patterns that emerged. In Mr. Lane’s 9th grade geometry class, you learned formulas for figuring area and circumference of geometric shapes. But when viewed from ten thousand feet, the frozen ground didn’t ask to be figured. Instead, it seemed to convey the same message you heard during the storm in New Jersey, the comfort of a mother recommending calm, the wisdom of an Earth that understands seasons, that understands that Springtime needs Winter’s melt. As you took one photo, then another, you could almost hear the cold soil as it whispered into the wind, “Be still. You must wait now.”
His family was Bedouin, still living in the desert. One of thirteen children.
We lost Farouk at the bottom of the climb to Ad Deir. There were 900 steps he said, and it was too hot. We’d have to pay him extra. But we’d already heard all the stories, starting as we walked through the Siq. His family was Bedouin, still living in the desert. One of thirteen children. Childhood adventures. Falling from a tree. Hospital. A chance meeting with King Hussein. The only one to go to university, live in a city. The eucalyptus trees he’d planted in his front garden so everyone would know where his house was. When it came to a choice between going on alone or spending more time with Farouk, we chose the former.
The day was certainly hot. We paused by make-shift stalls, enjoyed cheerful Salaam alaykum and where-do-you-come-from greetings. Picked up small hand-stitched fabric dolls, glass bottles filled with layers of coloured sand, old silver coins and small pots. A woman in a black jalabiya with beaded embroidery fingered prayer beads. Held a pashmina. On the ground beside her, a man slept. At the top we sat opposite the monumental tomb of Ad Deir drank Arabic coffee and caught our breath. Cascading bougainvillea. Red petalled dust.
We went down more slowly, looked across hills dotted with tombs. Our turn now to encourage those struggling upwards. ‘It’s not far. Just round the next corner. Worth it when you get there.’ Beside a sign saying Lion Triclinium, a small girl appeared, pointed at the arrow, motioned to follow. We walked until I saw it in the distance up on the hill. A place for feasts, remembering the dead. I focused, took a photo. ‘See,’ she said, tapping the viewfinder of my camera with an impatient finger, ‘Lions.’ There were two guarding the entrance, one either side. I took another photo of my small guide. She told me her name was Yasmine and took out a handful of coins. ‘Dug up here,’ she said, and pointed to the ground beneath her feet.
We continued along the colonnaded road. Roman Theatre on one side, Nympheaum on the other. Refused offers of rides. ‘No, we don’t want donkeys, camels, horses or covered carts. We like walking.’ The disbelief was palpable. Small shops had tarpaulins thrown over wooden poles to create some shade. In rough lettering, best coffee in the Middle East recommended from Australia and in smaller letters nice atmosphere. Outside Why Not Shop, a stand with fridge magnets and postcards. All of them yellowed by sun, corners curling.
Turning off the road, we climbed to the Royal Tombs. Four of them. Palace Tomb, Corinthian Tomb. Silk Tomb, Urn Tomb. Interiors were cool and dark, the only carving, burial cavities around the walls. Outside, more souvenir sellers. I stopped by a gray-thobed man who held up a trowel, motioning in the air to tell me he’d dug all this up himself. I spotted a small oil lamp decorated with an almond-eyed Nabatean face. Bought it to remember this moment, this place.
‘No, we don’t want donkeys, camels, horses or covered carts. We like walking.’ The disbelief was palpable.
We have three million sheeps. And goats. And camels. But no lions.
The next day Farouk met us after breakfast. Travelling north towards Madaba, we discovered his predilection for driving in the middle of the road, then veering suddenly to one side. Our discomfort was not helped by the way he took both hands off the wheel and gesticulated wildly in the air as he talked. ‘We have no oil in Jordan you know. Our economy is not good. We are a poor country. We have very high taxes.’ The monologue continued. Waving his arms in the direction of passing fields, ‘We have three million sheeps. And goats. And camels. But no lions.’ We passed Kerak Castle, a Crusader fortress on top of a distant hill. On a blind corner, he took hands off the wheel, adjusted his hair. Smiled for a selfie. Later my husband told me that this had been a constant feature of the drive. I’d not noticed. He’d not alerted me.
At Madaba we parked outside the Greek Orthodox Church of St George. In 1884, a Byzantine mosaic map of the world was discovered. The east-west orientation had me staring down at the floor, following the Jordan River with head cocked to one side. A lion pursued a gazelle, fish swam in Jordan waters, palm trees and small houses lined banks, in a boat fishermen cast nets, and central to everything, the walled city of Jerusalem.
Mount Nebo was where God had shown Moses the Promised Land. We walked to the look-out, passed gnarled trunks of ancient olive trees, pink oleanders and a row of cypress. It was disappointing. We could make out Israel in the immediate distance, but there was too much haze to see anything else. A better time to come, Farouk told us, would have been early morning or late evening, when the sky was clear.
Our last stop before the border with Israel was Jerash. One of the ancient Decapolis cities founded in 300 BC by Alexander the Great, conquered by Pompey in 63 BC and an amazingly intact example of a provincial Roman city. We climbed to the hilltop temple of Artemis, overlooked the 160 Ionic columns in the forum and stepped inside the hippodrome. The heat was intense and seared my back and arms, but the sound of bagpipes drew us into the theatre. It was a moment. Scotland the Brave, a Roman theatre, an Arabic bagpiper. All in the heart of the Middle East.
Back in December, Cargo Literary had a last minute Christmas cover contest for Issue 14, which came out in early January. We wanted to take the time now to introduce our cover winner properly, Alana Sprague.
Although I specialize in nature and landscape photography in Canada’s smallest province of Prince Edward Island, I also find passion in capturing the love of families. I am inspired by the beauty just outside my front door and the world beyond. One adjective often used to describe my art is colourful. I am always thankful to be able to work doing something I love so much.
We have a little Christmas cover contest happening from now until Boxing Day at 12:00 pm. Please submit us your photos (must be in PORTRAIT, not landscape) of your favourite travel moments, winter scenes, snow days, January’s snoozes, March’s sunsets, and everything in between.
The Winter Cover Contest Winner will have a feature of their work in a January blog post and their selected cover will land on the cover of Issue 14.
Calling all travellers with fallish words to share! Cargo Issue no. 14 is looking for dynamic stories of personal transformation through travel, and insight into your cultural experiences. As always, we are looking for strong narratives, and art & poems reflective of locality.
We are looking for nonfiction, poetry, photography and visual art streams – no fiction please. We love COVER ART! Send us your best images and the stories to go along with them. Submit by *SEPT 30* for consideration in Issue no. 14.
When the windows are open at night, we drift off to the sounds of flight.
It takes us a couple of days to realize that our new house sits along the flight path of our local airport. It’s mostly smaller, private planes that use this runway, but still, we regularly hear jets rev their engines or slow as they take off and approach from the East. At times there is an almost imperceptible down-draft—leaves move slightly, the air shudders—that one was close.
We can’t hear any car traffic from our neighborhood, but in the summer, when the windows are open at night, we drift off to the sounds of flight. When I can’t sleep, I imagine the people on the planes, heading home after a weekend at the beach, or to New York City for business, or to Philadelphia to catch a connecting flight to some exotic destination. I think about the people at the airports—either waiting in anticipation, checking the arrival board, longing for that first sight, first hug, first kiss. And I think about the people at the departure point—the ones who just said good bye. The ones who ache. The ones who move forward on the ground, tethered by gravity.
It’s the middle of the night when I land in Amsterdam. Well, it’s the middle of the night for my body and my brain.
But here—here everyone is awake. There are shiny stores and people who put on perfume and make-up this morning and packed bags and have flights to catch. There are planes getting ready to take off to Cyprus and Stockholm and Beijing. Others, like my plane, are slowly pulling up to gates after their long, overnight slog across the Atlantic.
There are fragrant cafes and the click-clack of heels on marble and the low-hum of rolling suitcases and children squealing for their mothers and for rest and men in business suits speaking French on fancy phones and women in saris and women in business suits or tight jeans and women with long, flowing hair.
It’s comforting to know that while I was trying to sleep in a flying metal tube, while I was in limbo across continents, over a large, dark body of water, all of this activity was going on somewhere in the world. People were awake and living and moving.
…Women in saris and women in business suits or tight jeans and women with long, flowing hair.
But here, in the in-between, there are yummy drinks in little bottles, and movies, and headphones, and a low engine hum to keep you numb.
We used to have this saying, this inside joke in my family. Instead of “no place like home” we’d say “no place like in-between.” It implied that we found comfort in the limbo, in being in transition between home and the “other” place.
Home is never the same after you left it, even if you’ve only been gone for a short while. And the place you’ve visited is not quite like home – it never will be.
But here, in the in-between, there are yummy drinks in little bottles, and movies, and headphones, and a low engine hum to keep you numb. There’s time to read the paper, or a book. Time to talk to strangers who are in the same in-between as you.
Your heart might ache for leaving home behind. Or your heart is full of excitement at the prospect of arriving someplace new, or someplace known and missed. There is possibility in the in-between, without the finality of arrival.
They say that people who live in foreign cities always have a hard time remembering street names; that they navigate mostly by landmarks—the big white church on the corner, the intersection where the bookstore is, the fork in the road where we made the wrong turn one time. I don’t know if it’s generally true, but it’s true for me. I still can’t remember the cross street running next to my office in Portland where I have worked for the past decade, or give directions without relying on landmarks.
Back home, in Budapest, I can easily do both: remember street names going back generations and political changes (this avenue used to be named after Lenin), as well as the landmarks: the building where my best friend from elementary school lived, the steps along the river where I got my first kiss, the bar where I had my first sip of wine.
…the building where my best friend from elementary school lived, the steps along the river where I got my first kiss, the bar where I had my first sip of wine.
Once you are on the plane, there’s nowhere to go.
When I was 11 and my brother was 8, we flew to China with our mom. Our dad was already waiting there for us. About halfway into our 14-plus-hour flight, my brother stood up and headed for the door. “I am getting off,” he said, determined. My mother and I leapt after him. It took us a couple of minutes to convince him to stay.
Once you are on the plane, there’s nowhere to go.
I am still in the haze of jetlag when I decide to go for a walk. Right outside my hotel I pick up a chestnut. There are dozens of them buried under fallen leaves and mud. I swipe my thumb across it to clean it and slide it into my pocket. I feel its smooth, hard skin, roll it in my hands as I walk on. It’s gray and cold, but I feel like I could walk all day.
I am not sure where I am going. I don’t know this city. I am just following the river and trying to stay out of the way of bikers and joggers. At a red light a woman with a stroller stops next to me—the scent of fresh laundry rolls off the baby blanket covering the stroller. I long for my own baby and then the chestnut in my palm reminds me of the cemetery where my grandmother’s ashes were scattered, and I long for her. And I long for familiar streets, or for these streets to become familiar.
I long for not longing.
My husband calls it “drive-and-dump”—the way my family handles airport drop-offs. We drive each other to the airport, but we will not park, not say a long good bye, not watch each other check in or head through security. We will not wait for the plane to take off. We pull up to the curb, the person traveling gets out, gets a quick hug—DONE.
I am not sure how this custom came to be—I assume it was because we all travel quite a bit and the emotional weight of so many good byes just became too much at one point. There’s no need to drag out the inevitable—the pain of those staying behind on the ground and the nerves of the one taking flight.
When you get on a plane, you are alone. You are heading for adventure. You are leaving behind just as much as you are hoping to find. Soon your in-between time will be lost, but for now the hours are yours.
You are leaving behind just as much as you are hoping to find.