I used to work on a cruise ship. We sometimes played a game called Bigger and Better with the teens. Basically everyone started with something simple like a key chain and tried to trade for progressively bigger and better items. The winner was decided by consensus at the end of the game. Of course, the real winners were the parents who were off at the bar, donating at the casinos, or otherwise enjoying themselves sans children, as advertised in the colour brochure.
After finishing our contracts at sea, Kip and I wanted to travel the world, and just to make things interesting, decided to play Bigger and Better ourselves. The winner would be declared upon our return to Canada and would claim a beer from the loser. Sadly, neither of us won as our paths diverged somewhere around Paris.
I've learned a lot of things while playing Bigger and Better around the world. For instance, despite the name of the game, bigger is not always better. A pitchfork is a heavy thing to lug around an airport and definitely raises the eyebrows of airport security. A cell phone on the other hand, is much smaller but once you get something really cool, it becomes infinitely more difficult to find something better.
"What's something really big?" I asked. "A blue whale?"
I've learned that "better" is a very subjective concept. I had a photograph that had been taken on the day the atomic bomb blew up Hiroshima, autographed by one of the survivors. I had a poison blow dart from an aboriginal tribe in Malaysia. I had a roll of toilet paper from one of London's finest hotel washrooms. Which thing is "better" really depends on timing and context.
Fifty trades later and a return flight home to Canada, I find myself sitting at a coffee shop in Waterloo, Ontario, with the editors of Verge Magazine.
For the next 9 months I will be travelling through the Middle East and Asia volunteering for the same humanitarian non-government organization (NGO) that recently sent me to Africa. We decide that it's possible that other people (Verge readers for instance) might be interested in following the next round of Bigger and Better. But we need a new goal.
"What's something really big?" I asked.
"A blue whale?"
By the time I leave Waterloo, the editors and I have a little challenge going on. In exchange for me acquiring a blue whale, I win a weekend of whitewater kayaking when I return to Canada.
I don't know what the editors are going to do with a blue whale, but it's really the absurdity of the challenge that counts. The search for the blue whale began on October 21st, 2003 when I took off from Pearson International Airport, Toronto.
Trade #1: October 27, 2003 - Jerusalem
Three explosions rocked Baghdad this morning. A vehicle exploded outside of the International Red Cross, two more in front of police stations. CNN covers the event with typical sensational flair. The Brigadier General interviewed on TV congratulates the Iraqi police for their response to the attack and for preventing the bombs from reaching their targets. He comments that life goes on—traffic jams continue. CNN focuses on the instability in the region and the widespread "fear throughout Iraq."
I've recently met Maria, from Falun, Sweden. She is an emergency nurse and member of a Swedish rescue team based in Jerusalem. The team helps provide logistical support to various UN organizations by assisting convoys carrying food as they move through security checkpoints and other military barriers. Maria has been here for three months. Her tour of duty is over. The next team has arrived and Maria and her colleagues will be flying home tomorrow.
As Maria and I trade stories I decide to let her in on Bigger and Better and my quest for the great blue cetacean. She's interested, even intrigued. She'll find something to trade.
The next day, we meet and Maria offers me a blackened shard of metal in exchange for the now slightly rumpled and autographed copy of Verge Magazine that is my first trading item.
There's no guarantee that this blackened shard of metal was part of the actual truck used in the attack; however, it certainly looks the part.A few months ago, a bomb exploded outside of the United Nations building in Baghdad. Maria tells me the Swedish rescue team based in Iraq responded admirably. They were involved with logistical support and setting up a tent "hotel" for the UN staff.
Understandably, after the crisis, the Swedish team in Iraq burnt out and ended their contracts a few weeks early. Maria and her team leader from Jerusalem flew over to Baghdad to protect the organization's interests and equipment.
That's where she picked up the ragged scrap of metal that she now hands me. I have just traded my magazine for a piece of the truck that blew up the UN.
Of course, there's no guarantee that this blackened shard of metal was part of the actual truck used in the attack, however it certainly looks the part.
Sadly, there were no blue whales in Baghdad or Jerusalem today.
Trade #2: November 13, 2003 - Dead Sea
The Dead Sea is almost ten times saltier than regular seawater, but despite its name, the Dead Sea is not completely dead. Aside from the locals and tourists floating belly-up in the waters, there are a few species of bacteria and algae that call this slimy, oily, salty environment home.
The unusually buoyant water makes it incredibly difficult for anything to stay submersed very long. The Middle Eastern cliche is to float on the Dead Sea reading a newspaper and enjoying a coffee. Unfortunately there were no Blue Whales floating on the Dead Sea—drinking coffee or otherwise.
While staying in Jerusalem, I meet Johanne, who is from the Netherlands. After taking Middle Eastern studies at university she has finally made it here and has been enjoying Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank for the past few months. Through the course of her work, Johanne had always seen the Dead Sea from a distance but is kind enough to take me up close so that I too might become a cliché and float in the briny waters.
Standing on the shores of the lowest point on earth, 400 meters below sea level, we look for a blue whale to trade in this Bigger and Better game but unfortunately can't find any. We do however, find a lot of mud.
Johanne has been eyeing up my metal shard for some time and I can tell that she is working up to a big trade. After some discussion, she manages to convince me that Dead Sea mud, which has the consistency of slippery clay, is reputed to be very good for the skin. So, in the interests of obtaining something bigger and better, I exchange a piece of the truck that blew up the UN in Baghdad, for a lovely glass of therapeutic Dead Sea muck.
I'm told the darker it is the better. But it's still not a blue whale. The search continues.
Trade #3: November 14, 2003 - Jerusalem
David is a young Israeli boy living in a small town just outside of Tel Aviv . One day, he made a simple observation. "Some Arabs are good and some are not so good."
Mohammed is a young Palestinian boy living in a small town just outside of Jerusalem. A few days after I met David, Mohammed told me the same thing about Israelis. "Some are good and some are not so good."
Mark is a young Israeli man living in the northern part of his country. After meeting him and explaining the intricacies of Bigger and Better, and my quest for a blue whale, Mark agrees to make a trade for the glass of therapeutic Dead Sea muck. After some searching around, Mark produces a very fine headset with attached microphone to exchange. It's not a blue whale, but I feel like I'm getting closer.
After graduating from high school, all Israelis must serve in the army. Mark tells me that when he graduated from high school he wasn't allowed to serve because of his background. Born and raised in Israel, Mark is an Israeli citizen and holds an Israeli passport. But Mark is also an Arab Israeli.
I told Mark that avoiding conscription into the army didn't seem all that bad to me.
He explained however, that not being able to serve in the army is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Jobs posted in newspapers require completion of Israeli military service. As Mark can't serve in the Israeli army, it seems a subtle way of saying, "Arabs need not apply."
On my last night in town, Mark and I ran into a group of ten Israeli police officers while we walked around a park overlooking Jerusalem. It was dark and we were killing time before meeting friends for dinner.
I imagine that when they stopped us, the police were simply doing their job. As a tourist and an outsider to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was certainly exciting to get searched first hand. They checked my passport and examined everything from my money belt to my socks before patting me down.
One of the officers who was searching the area returned with a half-filled water bottle. The police questioned us. I smiled benignly in my best uncomprehending tourist stupor. I don't speak Hebrew. Mark, however, does and he was not too impressed that the police were accusing us of doing drugs. Eventually we were released. I was exhilarated from the experience. Mark was not. I guess some things lose their novelty when you live there.
In a land where the threat of violence is real, how do you keep yourself from being discriminatory toward others? Some people are good and some are not so good.
I wonder how David and Mohammed will turn out.