I was twenty years old and had just finished my junior year of college when I left the country for the first time. We were at war, and, in a way, so was I. After the planes crashed into the towers I went to New York City while the concrete and flesh still smoldered in lower Manhattan. I watched the sun rise over the stock exchange, and saw past masked men holding automatic weapons, guarding the city I grew up in. There was a surreal feeling in the air, walking by empty sidewalks plastered with photos of the dead. My uncle was a police officer and scoured the downtown rooftops, picking up fingers and other odd body parts thrown through the sky in the blast. He wanted war. A lot of people did.
I wanted to understand. When I walked through lower Manhattan I wanted answers, not blood. It was the first time that an external event had so completely invaded my sheltered American life. It was the first time I felt a part of the world. Sure, I was outraged and disgusted by such a wanton act of violence but the only thing that made sense to me was to try to stop it from ever happening again. I helped organize teach-ins, student strikes and protests. When half a million people urging peace and understanding flooded the streets of New York City a year and a half after terrorists blew a hole through its heart, I was there. It was beautiful. For a while I was sure we would win, that tragic as it was, we would learn and grow from it.
But we went to war anyway. The mood shifted hard that week. When downtown still reeked of human flesh burning, it was fear. When a movement built to counter the drive to bomb Iraq, it was hope. When the war began it was pride and anger. The week the bombs started falling I wore a T-shirt that read “No War In Iraq” and was knocked to the ground and kicked in the ribs and face by a group of high school kids who called me a traitor. A few days later I blocked the doors to a federal building in protest and spent the night in jail. That’s the night I decided to leave America. If my birth nation could not grow how I wanted it to, could not learn to understand the world outside its borders, it didn’t mean I couldn’t.
That summer I spent three weeks hitchhiking through Peru and Bolivia. My plan and language skills—or lack-there-of—may have seemed arrogant or ignorant to most people but there was something deeper lurking behind that, a motivation that could not be easily articulated. I desperately wanted to see the world, not the one I read about in history books or heard sound bites of on television, but the real world, with all of its agony and all of its gluttony. I wanted to feel it; touch it; hold it in my hands. South America seemed to be one of the least understood and least discussed regions of the world; so I bought a plane ticket and landed right in the center of it.
I sat down in casual conversation with indigenous women, was violently attacked in an urban slum, saw protesters shut down major highways, and traveled across the most serene mountain range I had ever seen. It wasn’t all positive, but it was all genuine. There was a certain truth that emerged that infatuated me. Life was simple but raw, difficult but fun. Whatever the drawbacks, I wanted to live as fully and as honestly as the people I had seen.
When I returned to the U.S. and George Bush, the self-declared ‘war president’ was re-elected, I saw my nation as I never had before. It was afraid of the world, afraid that whatever invisible framework that had given Americans such material comfort could crash at any moment, and the nation was paralyzed either with fear or apathy.
I graduated college a month after the election, sold all of my possessions and bought a one way ticket back to South America.
John Dennehy, http://johndennehy.org, spent five years abroad before returning to New York in 2010. He is almost done writing his first book,*Illegal*, about life, love, revolution and sneaking across South American borders.