UNEXPECTED COMMERCIAL OPPORTUNITIES

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The smuggler asked if I wanted a job. Said all I’d have to do is live in Europe and ferry passports to Istanbul once a month and he’d give me four-thousand euros every time. Said it would be easy. Said I wouldn’t get caught because he’d paid people off at the airport. Said that if I did, he’d give me a bulletproof cover story and my very own false identity. “We have a lot of passports there that we want here in Turkey, but no one is free to transport them,” he told me.

We sat at a rickety table under the LED glow of a café in Istanbul, drinking tea with five Syrian refugees who’d fled the war and hoped to soon be bound for Europe—anywhere in Europe, really, but most had their hopes on Germany and Sweden, where life is a little easier for those seeking amnesty than other EU countries. The smuggler was their get-away plan, their escape from a country they once called home but has become a nightmare since the revolution began in 2011. They sat around sipping tea and smoking cigarettes and looking tense. They were each about to shell out 10,000 euros. They’d drained their savings accounts, borrowed money from whoever was still alive and had any left back in Syria. They’d sold all of their belongings, whatever wasn’t already bombed and broken, anyways. They’d traversed ISIS territory and were beaten by the jondurma (Turkish border patrol) to get here. For what? To cross more borders, either by land, air, or sea. To hopefully not die in the process—though there was no such guarantee. They gave everything they had for a new passport, a new name, and maybe, and this was the goal, a new life. It didn’t have to be a good one, just better than the one they now lived. One of the refugees said, “Anything is better than the hell that is Syria.”

The smuggler brought it back. Said, “Look. Maybe you can help these guys. Meet them in Europe. Bring passports back.” He said, “You’ll earn good money, and you will not be arrested.”

NOT ACCIDENTAL VICTIMS OF WAR

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I visited my friend Firas today in his office at Sout Raya, a radio station in Istanbul that covers Syria for Syrians. The last time I saw him he had a single printout hung on the wall with pictures of three children whose families had died while crossing the Mediterranean. They were on their way to new lives in Europe, fleeing the war, and perished in a storm at sea instead. “It’s a reminder that Syrian people are dying in many ways,” Firas said of the pictures.

Today we watched YouTube videos of men with tear-stricken faces clawing through rubble. In one, where buildings once stood, all that’s left is wreckage—the result of barrel bombs from the Assad regime. Men dig with their hands until they bleed, removing slabs of concrete, dust, and twisted metal. They dig for a minute, and then another, clearing away the broken pieces block by block, until a face emerges from the ruins. A child’s face. Covered in soot. She wears no facial expression at all. But there’s no blood. And now a miracle: her arm moves and she rubs the dirt out from her eyes. The child, encased in all of this for minutes, is alive. The men shout. Their faces are wet with tears but they’re smiling. Given the circumstances, you could say it’s a happy, triumphant video.

The next video is more or less the same. There’s a basement and the roof is caved in. There’s a young girl trapped and crying. Men are picking through the pieces and hauling them out of view, and they’re doing it all with an extraordinary calm. There’s good news in this video already: the girl is crying. She’s alive. You can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. The next video starts. More bloody hands, sooty faces, tears of joy.

Then Firas shows me the other half. These videos seem to last longer. It feels like they’re digging forever, and with every swipe of dirt, you hope to see the beginning of another life being saved. But instead there’s just more material to remove, and not enough movement from the person beneath. You start to wonder: How long can a person stay alive while buried? What are the odds of being enveloped by jagged concrete blocks without being broken? The answers come from the rest of the videos that end in horrifying ways, and the recent UNICEF report that states some 10,000 children have died in Syria since the conflict began, and they’re often “not accidental victims of war.”

Firas just looked at me and said, “This is what is happening. Not every day. Every hour.”

BORN TO BE MILD

CRW_4927We were a ragtag group of seven in an alien environment. Three Americans, two Canadians, one Frenchman, one dog – a German Shepherd bitch that seemed to appear out of nowhere and never tired. We gave it a nickname that’s since been forgotten. All of us: disheveled, vagrant, ill prepared, possibly with hangover—I don’t recall. Our alien environment: Cappadocia, a lunarscape in Central Anatolia, Turkey, made up of sandy canyons and ravines, skeletal trees, dead grape vines, ancient cave-ruins that had been carved into the sides of cliffs and nestled deep into the earth itself thousands of years ago by fearful locals seeking escape from pillaging armies. It’s home to giant sandstone towers. Some, which travel writers often melodiously refer to as “fairy chimneys,” have been shaped by the wind for so many millennia that they are now both the shape and hue of towering phalluses. It seems more psychedelic daydream than a place that actually exists. Yet it is real, an environment that would be fitting as the backdrop in a Wes Anderson film. Ultimately, it’s an ideal setting for getting hurt or lost or killed in the grand but often frowned-upon pursuit of adventure. Alas, we survived.

Our bikes: of the “mountain” variety, you could say, providing you ignored the “for commuter use only” stickers. Rear brake levers on the left rather than the right side of the handlebars, causing the uninitiated to nearly flip into scraggly, horned plants waiting at the base of singletrack descents. Plastic pedals and ripped seats. Shocks that had long since lost their spring. Gears that at times functioned and at times did not. We were on the shittiest bikes available in all of Cappadocia, mostly because my editor at Switchback Magazine requested that we “rent the shittiest bikes available” in all of Cappadocia. A reasonable request, really, given that adventure is best when experienced with either a complete lack of preparation or during a stretch of deprived decision-making.

Like, say, wandering off into the Amazon on a non-established trail leading away from your lodge to “check things out” only to discover that you are in fact surrounded by pythons and crocodiles. Or camping next to a river in near-freezing temperatures without a tent, a sleeping bag, or a shelter of any kind for that matter, on purpose, to see how things turn out once hypothermia begins to settle in. Maybe perhaps taking a bunch of mushrooms and then tripping balls while sitting, with legs dangling over the side, at the top of a 300-foot canyon wall at night.

The greatest stories—the greatest life experiences—are often born out of foolishness and misery. So when my kind editor—who certainly knows all of this to be true, as he’s the type of masochist who willingly participates in 24-hour races and that sort of nonsense—said to rent the shittiest bikes available, I knew he was in fact looking out for me.

In the honey-colored village of Göreme, population 2138, the happening center of Cappadocia, our group gathered, sought, discovered and rented the two-wheeled jalopies and thought, Sure. These will do. Some of our group, continuing with the theme, donned WWII-style helmets made of a variety of plastic that looked not at all equipped for impacts of any kind, let alone impacts occurring at high speeds, high heights, and hard surfaces, such as we were sure to face.

We rode south from Göreme. Or, wait. Was it north? Hard to say. Orienting oneself in Cappadocia is a challenge. It’s a sea of unending geographic oddities. Eventually, after a paved road, a dirt road, and then a trail, we arrived at Görkündere, AKA “Love Valley,” valley of the penis boulders. Just after the start, the trail widened to a flat-topped plateau where we passed an old guy in a skullcap peddling tea and coffee from a trailer. We privately questioned his business acumen, wondering who exactly he was planning on selling tea to in this relatively desolate stretch of trail, which narrowed once again and wended throughout the valley. I remember the ride only in bits and pieces, most of it scattered in what can’t possibly be chronological order. At one point, our drifter dog appeared, started trotting alongside us, and someone asked, to no one in particular, “Where’d this dog come from?”

One of our crew, Arthur, the Frenchman, burned down cigarettes as he rode up sandstone knolls and down singletrack of crumbling soil. Unlike the dog, Arthur indeed tired. One of the Canadians, Mark, who with a thick beard, the WWII helmet, a grungy striped shirt and aviators, looked like a modern-day bike-piloting pirate. My good friend Dan (burdened like so many Dans with the nickname “Dan The Man”), donning bright red knock-off Ray Bans, shorts, and what appeared to be combat boots, made note about Love Valley’s dick scenery and joked about gnawing on sausage.

Was there anything serious about this ride? It appeared not, even though there was plenty about it that should have been. The terrain owes its existence to two surrounding volcanoes, which some 30 million years ago spewed, cloaking the valley in ash and lava that eventually compressed into a powdery tuff and tough basalt. It’s the sort of place you read about in history books, one of the world’s longest continually inhabited regions, however sparsely at times. The Hittites, the Persians (before Alexander the Great arrived and laid waste to them, anyways) and then the Romans, all conquered the area. It was part of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Each consecutive kingdom arrived, decided they’d like to own this sliver of the world, and then stormed around in massive armies causing havoc and mayhem. Yet here we were with our Huffys, a stray dog, and no deeper thoughts beyond, “Man, these rocks look like giant dicks.” But such is the nature of some adventures, especially the finer ones, when you’re not concerned with etiquette, up-class decorum or any of that nonsense and instead let yourself become just another mangy animal.

Like, say, not knowing a thing about rock climbing, then attempting to free solo what looks like an easy pitch of granite that turns out to be not easy at all and nearly sends you to your death for what seems like hours until you literally (but not literally, thank the Christ) shit yourself. Or driving through the most remote part of Patagonia on a gravel road in a snow storm in a two-wheel-drive Volkswagen Golf with no cell phone and no food and no water and having the Golf break down, and then experience a kind of freak-out that lingers at the threshold of complete mental breakdown. Or going to a place called Cappadocia, renting bikes on the verge of collapse and venturing out into remote canyons armed with a “map” comprised of nothing but cartoonish renderings of penis mountains with squiggly lines darting throughout, not to scale or scope or to any other measure of accuracy, winding up on a series of trails that eventually lead, without you knowing it at all, to a slot canyon the width of a starving cow, with oh-shit-serious cliff-side drops, and instead of saying, Yeah, this is probably the place to turn around, you shoulder the Huffy, carry it down the precipice and become filthy with dust and mud and stench and… Oh. Wait. Sorry. Walking down a precipice isn’t exactly earth shaking, is it? There’s no certain-death element in getting kind of muddy, is there? Sometimes looking for adventure means intentionally being ill prepared. But here’s the takeaway. Try as you might, you can’t plan adventure. It just has to happen. Riding bikes in Cappadocia—while awesome and exciting, for sure—is nothing to truly egregious outings like getting lost in Patagonia or tripping out with your legs dangling off a cliff or being swarmed by man-eating reptiles in the Amazon.

Here’s what it’s like to ride in Cappadocia: If it’s at any one of five specific times of the day, you might be cranking towards a bluff that offers a view of a thousands-year-old church carved 100 feet high into a cliff, and hear the simultaneously enchanting and haunting calls to prayer sent out by nearby mosques. The wailing prayers will echo throughout the valleys and against the cliffs. If it’s near sunset, and the call to prayer is singing, and the sun is low, and the air is crisp because it’s winter, you might get the sudden sensation of being on an entirely different planet. You’ll realize that this is some of the best riding you’ve experienced in a long time, so good that it comes as no surprise that the 2007 European XC World Cup took place here. If you ride until the weather turns, you might be pelted by hail balls the size of small marbles. If you ride until night and need to sleep, you’ll find a cave that once upon a time was used as both a home and hideaway from an army, and you won’t worry about the weather at all because you’ll be perfectly protected, tucked away deep within a mountain where nothing can get at you but the continued sensation of being somewhere truly unique. While in the cave, especially at night when there is absolutely no presence of light whatsoever, you might marvel at how the people from so many centuries ago could live in such conditions, sometimes hiding from the armies for literally months on end until it was safe to emerge. You might think back on the ride and wonder why mountain biking isn’t more popular in a country that seems to have been crafted from the earth for exactly that purpose. Or you might just drink some beers, revel in your filth, and make jokes about rocks that look like dicks.

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THE CRIMINALLY INSANE

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Colorado DOC director Rick Raemisch and I were discussing violence – death threats and murder attempts unleashed on Raemisch as he’s served in various high-risk jobs – when Kellie Wasko bounded into his office. Wasko’s been with the DOC for 14 years and is now the new deputy executive director. She entered the room like thunder, wearing a red jacket and her hair in a bun. She has a bristly, unapologetic sort of charm, and her nemesis issue that day was figuring out what to do about the mentally ill in the Colorado prison system.

Raemisch, who has taken command of the DOC in the wake of his predecessor’s assassination, has been in brawls, has had people call him in the middle of the night whispering “I’m going to kill you” over the phone line; coke dealers have aimed guns at him and one tried to fillet him with a fishing knife outside a dodgy bar. Certain elements of the threat that resulted in the death of the former DOC director last year also persist for Raemisch. But, you could argue that there are people in prison who are doing infinitely more frightening things to themselves than any of Raemisch’s “fans” have tried to do to him.

Like the guy with a severe schizoaffective disorder who ate the lips off his own face.

Housing mentally ill inmates in ad-seg has been an ongoing stain on the Colorado DOC, with rates that have been twice as high as the national average. The ACLU cites it as cruel and unusual punishment, a blatantly unconstitutional practice that researches now well know only amplifies violent behavior and augments lunacy.

You start to grasp the state of mind of ad seg dwellers when you learn of their self-mutilating behavior. Like the one who chewed into the skin inside his cheek and pushed air into the opening until his face looked like a giant skin balloon. This is common enough to have a term: “Third Spacing,” Wasko told me. Some repeatedly smash their face against the walls. Some swallow razors. Throwing “shit bombs” at guards and the walls is par for the course.

“That’s nothing,” said Raemisch. Wasko agreed, said in a hush: “One inserted 13 chicken bones into his penis – all the way to his kidneys.”

“Are you kidding me?” I asked.

“No.”

“That’s even possible?”

Somber nods. Possible indeed.