Water for Elephants

“We’ve got too many elephants in Kruger.”

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Good morning. I’m fresh from a 4 day safari in the South African bush in Kruger National Game Preserve. I’ve spent a fair amount of time outdoors in this life, but nothing could have prepared me for the unbelievable wildlife diversity that I have witnessed over the past 4 days.

I was picked up from my hostel in Johannesburg, slightly confused as I had planned to leave a day later. Instead, I ambled onto the bus after a half of a cup of coffee, trying to email Noah and Romola so that they didn’t think I’d been mugged and left for dead after I left them on Friday night.

The email didn’t send, and sure enough, I had an email in my inbox questioning my continued membership among the ranks of the living. I was fine though, and we’d arrived at the base camp on the western edge of Kruger in one piece.

On the drive out, I was treated to a decent sampling of South Africa’s agricultural industry. Mile after mile of irrigated corn, citrus and grape fields flew by my window. Some had massive nuclear reactors in the distance, which made for a startling contrast of wide open space to the 5 open coned reactor chimneys in the background.

As we drove, we started to see various species of wildlife near the road. Ostriches, buffalo and various antelope species were seen browsing through the fallow winter cornfields. I have seen many things in cornfields during my Indiana youth, but until yesterday, I have never seen a pack of 150-180 pound baboons having their run of the place. It was quite a surreal sight.

Upon arriving at base camp, we threw our stuff into our Spartan but clean rooms, making sure to lock our doors, not from the threat of theft, but to ensure that the monkeys didn’t help us unpack as we went on our sunset drive.

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Adam, our 24 year old guide from Fairfax, Virginia, was an excellent host as he piled us into the open air 4×4 to start the drive. Within 500 meters, we saw a small group of bachelor Cape Buffalo browsing near the road.

I laughed as I thought of PJ O’Rourke’s line in Parlaiment of Whores about Tipper Gore. Something to the extent of her uncanny resemblance to a Cape Buffalo and the need to shoot for the kill, as there is nothing more dangerous than a wounded Cape Buffalo.

We also saw several giraffes, antelope and impala species on our drive, before coming upon two “tusker” elephants, the size of which made my Asian elephant ride look like I was on the kiddie carousel outside of K-Mart.

These beasts were absolutely massive, and were pushing down trees as big around as my waist like they were bowling pins. I could’ve sat there and watched these big boys browse around in the fading sunlight for hours, but there was more to see.

Further down the path, we came upon some wildebeest, and the voice of Sir David Attenborough started to play in my mind as he narrated the “Great Migration” wherein several million wildebeest migrate thousands of miles across the plain. Adam got to take part in the “Great Migration” a few years ago, and said that it was an absolutely breathtaking experience to see that many animals, each almost as big as a Clydsedale moving with instinctual abandon.

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We finally made camp out in the bush, having a prepared dinner in a ring of pointy rocks (these supposedly dissuade charging elephants, thankfully I didn’t have to find out if it actually works.) As we sat and ate, we heard a larger herd of female and young elephants in the distance. To hear them cracking trees and stumbling across the plain as the mighty white carnivore gnaws on his chicken bone, well that was an ambiance that would be tough to replicate in a Manhattan restaurant.

The next day, we woke early and were taken out by Adam and Mombobo, a local guide for a 4 hour bush walk. While we weren’t coming face to face with many animals, (some hippos and an incredibly rare river otter notwithstanding) we were able to take some time to learn about actual life in the bush. From reading tracks, to discerning both species and freshness of dung piles, to learning which trees to burn and which to leave alone in a pinch, my savannah education is much further along than it was a week ago. The amount of information left in every square meter of the bush is astounding if you know how to process it.IMG_0338

 

The next day we travelled within the bounds of Kruger for nearly 10 hours. During this time we had not one, but two great leopard sightings. Words can’t describe seeing a cat like that in its natural habitat. It is both exhiliarting and terrifying, knowing that a predator of that size, speed and grace is within 30 meters of you. We watched this male for probably an hour, as he lazily stretched over a tree branch before finally becoming bored and stalking off across the plain. I was nearly shaking from the excitement of the whole thing. A leopard in a zoo will never compare.

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By the end of my journey, we’d identified nearly 50 different species of mammal and lizard, and countless birds. The guides all know to play to a Western audience by putting things in terms of Lion King characters whenever possible. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see a lion during our time at Kruger, only the day before a group we’d met had seen a pride of female lions take down and devour a giraffe, which must’ve been incredible.

Talking more with the guides about the state of affairs in the park, I was saddened by the news. Nearly 3 black rhinos are being poached every day. With the Eastern market (re:Chinese) paying nearly $150,000 US per kilogram of black rhino horn as an aphrodisiac (the average adult horn being between 4-6 kg) the incentives are massive. Kruger is a park the size of Wales, and patrolling that much is an impossible task. This year alone, nearly 600 rhinos have been killed for their horns, out of a population estimated to be 2500. In China, Dao elders have now made excommunication the ban for using such endangered species. Buddhists have always been against the senseless killing of animals, but the consumption at all costs culture of the Chinese elite continues to pay top dollar for these incredibly rare and beautiful creatures.

With respect to the quote at the beginning, the Kruger park has a carrying capacity of 10,000 elephants, and is currently running near 18,000. Most people would say more elephants are great, but the 400-600 kg a day that an adult African elephant eats, puts the ecosystem at risk if there are more elephants than the land can support. An adult will push over as mnay as 3 trees a day during the dry season to get ahold of the mosture and nutrients found at the root ball. The land simply can’t support that much destruction, even if it occurs naturally.

Therefore, hunting has to be allowed in Kruger. Many animal rights activists decry this, but it is for the good of the whole ecosystem. Adam thought that one could get an elephant permit for around $100,000, the money going directly back to conservation and anti-poaching efforts. I know my former boss will not eat at Jimmy John’s because of some pictures of Jimmy shooting large game in Africa, but in the case of the elephant, it is a necessary culling of a herd without natural predators. And if more land is bought to abut the preserve, that shooting will save more elephants than the one that was shot.

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Habitat destruction is a major issue. Adam kept bringing up the fact that there are 7 billion people on this earth and less that 2500 black rhinos. He has spent time going out to tag black rhinos, of the 20 he tagged in January, 3 have already been poached.

The effect this has on his psyche is marked, but he knows that there is really no way to combat the forces of a faceless market offering nearly one million dollars to people who scrape out a subsistence living.

Also, the farms that I saw on the way to Kruger have destroyed millions of acres of natural habitat. While it is funny to see a pack of baboons in a corn field, the fact remains that that cornfield is the one that is out of place.

Any farmer reading this, please don’t take a drink for a few minutes. We are destroying the natural habitat of lions, leopards, elephants, and rhinos for land that yields approximately 45 bushels per acre when planted in corn.

I put that statistic together last night and checked it 3 times because I was sure that I had made a mistake.

45 measly bushels per acre.

Even the worst farmland in Indiana will yield nearly 4 times that much in an average year, and we didn’t tear down any natural habitat for elephants to get it.

I sat and laughed at the absurdity of a world that allows this to happen. We’ve had more than enough food to feed the global population since the green revolution of the 1970s. Yet we are still scraping the most marginal of land, tearing down savannah, rainforest and jungle to do so.

Every action has an effect on this world. Even loading up that 3rd plate at Golden Corral.

 

An Enduring Legacy

A few days ago, I put a picture up with reference to our trip to the Diodi Primary School in Soweto. The focus of my post was headed elsewhere, and I really didn’t feel that I did justice to a picture and a place that were incredibly powerful.

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The Soweto area of Johannesburg is one of the poorest in the city. As we drove to the schools, the Western-style shopping malls and retail centers rapidly gave way to handpainted signs and low slung brick housing which in turn gave way to shantytowns of steel shacks on the dust covered plain.

39% of the students at the Diodi School are HIV positive.

39%.

When Caryl Stern, the chairwoman of the UNICEF US Fund, offered that stat on the bus ride over, I assumed she’d misread the fact sheet.

That can’t be right…can it?

I should’ve known better, people as driven and successful as Caryl do not make mistakes with statistics like that. The stats were spot on, and my view on the world quickly began crashing down around my ears.

Suddenly Africa became real. It was no longer a place simply transmitting tragic but ignorable news. Suddenly it was a real humanitarian crisis complete with faces and names.

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As we entered the school, it was an amazing scene. I would guess that there were roughly 300-350 kids waiting for us in the center of the grounds, screaming and shouting to beat the band. Our group included the GM of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri, players Greg Monroe, Andre Kirilenko, and various executives from the NBA and NBA Cares Foundation.

Greg Monroe leading the parade.

Greg Monroe leading the parade.

And me. I was there too.

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After a brief introduction, we broke up with about 75 of the kids in 3 classrooms, leading a small group discussion on “dreams.”

I’ve talked about dreams worth having on this blog. Living to the age of 30 is likely to be an unfulfilled dream for many of these kids.

And you thought that Lexus was important.

I was picked to be a group leader. The kids should’ve been rightfully disappointed that they got me instead of an international sports star, but I was still treated like some sort of combination of Elvis/The Beatles/Shaq.

We got down to business, talking about these kids aspirations for the future and the importance of education in achieving those dreams. Several wanted to be basketball players, an obvious choice given the group, but one little girl wanted to be a fashion designer.

We drew out our dreams (nothing like being embarrassed artistically by a group of South African 9 year olds) and then went around the table to discuss them. At that point, I had to choose one child from our table to present on our behalf, and Judith, with her unique dream of fashion designer was the ticket.

She and I walked up to the front of the class, as the NBA players presented with their kids. I felt 3 feet tall and invisible as I presented my dream of being an author, and talked about the role of education in my dream. Judith got up, shy as anything, and looked down at the ground as she whispered to the large group.

About 10 seconds into this, I stopped her, stooped down to look her in the eye and said, “Judith, you have a dream to be proud of. Look up and tell these people about it.”

Suddenly it was like a different little girl emerged from the one standing before me. Her voice became magically magnified, and she looked directly at the audience. When she walked back over to take her place in front of me, I whispered good job, and she beamed like she’d just been drafted by the Pacers.

We walked outside and the kids showed us some of the games that they play. Basketball wasn’t among them as the court was a rusted mass of 4 broken down hoops, but they taught us their form of dodgeball/cricket/Jenga and some chalk games that can be played with whatever rocks are around.

As Noah and I were playing, I felt a tug on the back of my shirt. Judith had been searching for me since we’d left the classroom. She very shyly said, “I want you to have this.”

It was the picture she’d drawn of her dream as a fashion designer.

I’ll attribute it on the dust kicked up by the game, but my eyes got awfully watery.

Judith walked away as I tucked the picture into my pocket. I scanned the grounds and came upon this little boy, very literally on the outside looking in. I walked over to him, unsure of what exactly I was going to say, but just wanting to reach through that tangled mass of barbed wire to let him know that someone saw him.

The resulting picture is as haunting as I’ve ever taken.

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In the West, much is made of racism. In America, it is truly the one thing that a public figure can never come back from. Ray Lewis was implicated in a murder, and retired a secular saint. Michael Jackson was a pedophile in all but criminal record, and at the time of his death was mourned publicly as if he were Mandela. Ted Kennedy left a girl to drown due to his own drunken recklessness, and died a respected senator.

However, if the charge of racism is leveled at you, look out. Paula Deen went from beloved TV personality to absolute pariah in roughly 20 minutes. The mere mention of racism is enough to make most politicians detach a hand from the constant wringing while they wet themselves. Donald Sterling, the NBA’s longest tenured owner, saw his team taken away for racial slurs stated in a “private” phone call with his decades younger mistress.

I think that much of this has lost the point of what racism is. Racism isn’t about a derogatory term, a slur or a joke. Racism is about the dehumanization of a group. Seeing people not as brothers and sisters in humanity, but instead as a lesser creature, the same as you’d look at a squirrel or monkey.

It is that dehumanization that allows conflicts like the one in Gaza to go on decade after decade. It is the legacy of that dehumanization that still haunts the African continent today.

That is racism, the true corrosive kind that adversely affects human lives.

Donald Sterling shouldn’t have had his team taken away for stupid remarks to his 20 something mistress. He should’ve had his team taken away for the systemically racist policies that he was found guilty of using as a Los Angeles landlord.

One instance was words spoken in private, betraying an absurd ignorance of life and technology but not actually impacting anyone’s life. The other kept actual people from receiving housing based on the color of their skin.

The difference is, one can be made into a soundbyte and played in 15 seconds. The other… requires a more nuanced analysis than Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless baying at each other like a pair of hungry hounds.

As I look at the legacy of European dehumanization on this continent, I am shocked at the level of racism that still exists in this world. Everywhere in Johannesburg has a wall topped with barbed or electrically charged wire. Sometimes both.

Riding home from dinner last night, I was talking to my driver about this. He was 10 years old when apartheid fell, and he told me that there was hardly any walls and barbed wire before that. This was largely because if you were black walking into a neighborhood of whites, you’d better have a work permit or you could be sent to jail or even shot.

As the institutionalized political walls of apartheid fell, real physical walls appeared.

Just like an alcoholic who puts the cork in the bottle without dealing with his addiction, the underlying problem remains. The legacy of dehumanization merely took on a brick and mortar face, as opposed to the hateful ones of politicians.

Unfortunately, that makes the next step in the struggle for equality that much harder. It is easy to rally international political support against a regime which systematically disenfranchises large portions of a population. It is much harder to whip up the same intensity in the face of endless, unnamed walls.

As I saw that little boy on the wrong side of the fence, the problem hasn’t been solved, it has merely evolved.

I’ve seen a lot of the world in this trip, but the most important part of my personal evolution has been the elements of the human condition that I’ve been exposed to. To stand in the middle of abject poverty, next to millionaire basketball players is a surreal experience.

The differences could not be more stark, nor the need for action greater.

For all the gutwrenching emotions that such a scene can bring, I couldn’t be more happy that I’m here, in the land of Gandhi and Mandela, seeing this with my own two eyes.

The world is not set into neat teams, us vs. them. We are all brothers in this shared condition we call humanity. Occasionally we need to remind ourselves of that. These kids depend on it.

The Virtues of Hostels

After a long day at the Basketball Without Borders showcase and a gutwrenching afternoon visit with UNICEF to the Diodi primary school in the Soweto district of Johannesburg, I stumbled back through the double gate in the high wall of the Ghandi Backpacker Hostel at about 10:30.

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As I walked through the bar to the back of the property, I ran into Heinz, the Swiss-German proprietor and Bob, a 60 year old American gemologist from right down the road in Louisville as they tried to solve the world’s problems over glasses of bourbon and rum.

I introduced myself to Bob, and asked Heinz about booking a safari to the Kruger National Game Preserve. As I sat debating options for lodge, treehouse or tent for the safari, a conversation ranging from history to diamonds to high school basketball broke out.

They also informed me that this hostel is so named because Gandhi actually lived here for nearly 2 years during his formative time in South Africa. Right here in these very walls, a man synonymous with the non-violent movement against imperialism and racism formed the thoughts that would someday change the course of the world’s second most populous nation.

I’m pretty decent with words, but I’m not sure we’ve invented one in English to describe the feeling of accidentally harmonizing with a hitherto unknown history.

I bet the Germans have a word for that. And I bet it is 45 letters long and impossibly to say without sounding incredibly angry. (Fabio/Marlene, please advise.)

Soon it was 1:30AM and I was totally knackered, my mind spinning from the wide-ranging conversation of the evening.

I did have one cohesive thought as I drifted off to the Land of Nod.

Of all the inventions of man to create a more perfect harmony between the people of different nations, my vote for the greatest is the hostel.

It is a melting pot renewed daily. The hostel system does more to break down the walls of preconception and mistrust than everything the United Nations has done in the past 60+ years.

It’ll throw a girl from Holland in with a pair of German cousins with the three Scottish girls with the solo traveler from Argentina and a couple Canadians to boot. There is usually a Gallic womanizer darting in and out between rendezvous as well, but only one person will actually see the man that the others think is a ghost.

Over the course of the next 2-3 days, they’ll each be swapped out for new faces but not before heading to this beach or that historical site. They’ll share sunscreen and contact solution, epiphanies and viewpoints, and maybe if they are lucky, some morsel from their faraway homelands if travels are still in the early stages.

There will be stories swapped about the university system in 5 different countries. Travel tips will be offered, swapped and accepted. You’ll share meals, and in the occasional hostel with a full kitchen, there will be the hastily thrown together potluck dinner with 5 different cuisines represented. Politics will be debated, almost always lightheartedly, unless an inebriated English girl decides that she wants to try her hand at “American-style political shouting.”

There will be a little language diffusion as well, usually in the form of profanity and toasting words.

For a few days, they’ll be a pretty highly functioning family, complete with a black sheep who has been given some funny nickname like “Klaus the Angry Kraut.” A few will realize that they are headed down the same direction and a traveling partnership will be formed.

Unfortunately for others, there will be that bittersweet morning of hungover packing, as someone is heading down the road in a different direction than the others. Facebook info will be swapped and pictures from the road will be liked. We may or may not ever see each other again, but occasionally you’ll be walking through a night market in Kuala Lumpur and there will be a long lost Argentinean girl standing there just like a storybook day dream.

Then we all go home, (well, almost all of us, some seem to travel indefinitely, lucky bastards.)

We’ll read the news on the way to work, and we’ll see that something has happened in some faraway corner of the world. A debt default in Argentina, an avalanche in German Switzerland, an earthquake in Ecuador or a new round of bellicose threats from North Korea to its much taller and better looking southern brother.

We’ll jump on the Facebook machine and check-in with our friends from that remote hostel in Laos or Cambodia or Spain. We’ll ask how they are, and get a real on the ground perspective as opposed to the processed, sound byte ready narrative we find in our media.

We’ll know how violent the protests actually got in Athens or what the Dutch actually think happened to that downed airliner. All the sudden, the world gets a little smaller, and the interests and narratives of a for-profit media get short-circuited by the brief rekindling of a 3 day friendship.

Hostels become laboratories for great ideas and deep conversations. There is no pretension, no need for political correctness, just people talking truthfully about the widest range of subjects you could possibly imagine.

The only even remotely comparable thing I can compare it to in standard American living, is the freshman year dorm floor in college. This is a substandard comparison though, because most of those kids will be from within 200 miles of a place and nearly all will be American. To any parent whose child has come back for Thanksgiving after that first big stint away, the changes in personality and temperament are usually incredible.

Imagine that process replayed with a more diverse cast of characters and situations…every 3 days for as long as someone is traveling.

The opportunities for growth are endless. So too is the constant bombardment on those engrained beliefs that we had held as sacrosanct “truths.”

I hope that my generation sees fit to elect foreign policy representatives who are alumni of this non-exclusive club. Don’t tell me how many years you studied Mandarin and Spanish in some Ivy League ivory tower. Tell me about your 15 year correspondence with the Chinese lawyer you met in Malaysia, or the Christmas cards you get annually from the Argentinean girls you met in your 20s.

Just like the politicians who have totally forgotten what “home” looks like, as they stare across the Potomac from their tony Georgetown condos, these highly educated frauds only know about a politically correct status quo. People interacting with people give rise to real breakthroughs in foreign policy, not blank faced bureaucrats sticking rigidly to a status quo.

It is an awful lot harder to look “objectively” at a number on a page in the “Expected Collateral Damage” column when the face of the Iranian on the top bunk floats to the front of your mind.

All this can be had for a night on a lumpy dorm bed and $5 to $25 a night. I guess you do have to have a smile on your face and a few requisite social skills as well.

Seems a pittance all things considered.

Forget the 5 star hotel. There’s proper traveling to be done.

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Good Morning Johannesburg!

New continent new thoughts. I arrived in Johannesburg about 1:30 yesterday afternoon, after a hellacious 31 hour/2 layover journey from Singapore. The incredibly unhelpful women at the Ethiopian airlines counter in Singapore had me all nervous that I was going to get tossed back to the winds of international travel at immigration due to my lack of an onward plane ticket, but this ended up being a load of bollocks. The immigration agent I dealt with, an African named Jeremiah, was as polite and helpful as anyone I’ve dealt with on this trip, and I even ended up spending a few extra minutes shooting the breeze with him after my stamps had been graciously applied.

So I was off to a good start all things considered, and I was supposed to be getting picked up by a driver from the NBA at the Jo-burg airport, so this was going to continue to be a walk in the park.

Just like the commentators curse on a perfect game, as soon as the thought left my mind, things went catawampus.

My driver was no where to be seen, and the internet wouldn’t let me make phone calls, only shoot emails, so after a half hour I decided to take my chances and jump on the train.

I say take my chances not because I was overly concerned about getting lost, (although I only had a neighborhood and hotel name to go on) but because crime in Johannesburg isn’t so much an unexpected incident as the cost of doing business. I figured in broad day light, surely I’d be alright, although with 50 lbs of gear draped both over my back and front, I surely wasn’t going to be in much of a position to try to defend myself if I wasn’t.

So onto the train I went. It was pretty straightforward (other than the pricing, which I’m pretty sure I got hosed on, even though it was all computerized.) Soon I was jumping off at the Roseland stop, climbing into the early spring sun and looking around for the Hyatt.

I couldn’t find one, so I started looking for a restaurant or something with WiFi. I found a McDonald’s down the road, which of course, didn’t have WiFi, but I took a load off my feet to regroup and figured I’d ask around and maybe get lucky.

As soon as I sat down, a boy who I thought looked awfully Chinese/Malaysian sat down next to me. He was a school kid, as school must’ve just let out because there were all kinds of white kids in private school uniforms. He started to make conversation (something about a massive backpack just screams “talk to me”) and I asked him if he knew where I was going. He laughed and said he didn’t, but he asked if I knew where he was going.

Next year, he is headed to the University of Oklahoma to study biomedical engineering. He’s yet to find Oklahoma on a map, so he was ecstatic to find an American who would vouch for the place. I told him I’d never been there personally, but I did briefly date a girl whose dad was a dean out there and she’d spoken highly of the place. He seemed relieved by my milquetoast review.

Finally I found an old man who knew where the Hyatt was. I trudged down the road until I came to the place. Now at this point I was an oily, stanking mess. I’d been on a plane for nearly a day and a half, and hadn’t seen a real bed or shower in 48 hours. I waltzed right into the Hyatt like I owned the place however, and within 5 minutes, I’d talked one of the front desk girls into letting me up to use the spa while I waited for my friends.

God bless her. I felt like a new man after 30 minutes in the steam room, plunge pool and the spa.

I headed back down to the lobby to wait on Noah and Romola and was promptly joined by about 30 flight attendants from Luftansa, an airline that still knows how to hire lovely flight attendants. After chatting with a few from Colonge and Dresden, I saw Dikembe Mutumbo walk into the lobby, big as all outdoors.

For those of you who don’t know who Dikembe Mutumbo is, I’m sorry. He was one of the first true African players in the NBA, and also one of the funniest. I’m currently typing this without the help of internet, but I’d imagine that he is every bit of 7 feet tall, and I know that he has size 22 shoes because I put my own meager size 12 foot next to one and almost fainted that a man can be that big. I didn’t have the cajones to ask him to give his famous line after a big block (a finger wag complete with, “No, No, NO!”) but he was as nice a person as you could hope to meet.

Behind him came the smaller, but still incredibly large Noah. It was a watershed moment as this was the first time I’d seen somebody I’d known before the trip since Benny left on June 5. 2 months of making friends on the go has been a blast, but occasionally it is a nice warm feeling to see someone you’ve known for a while.

I gave him a hug, the best that a 5’10’’ guy can give a 6’8’’ guy a hug and he laughed and pointed at Romola 15 feet away in a corner of the restaurant, who had been there all day.

Myopic vision runs in the family.

We caught up and talked about what’s going on, both in the US, the world and at this Basketball Without Borders showcase. He started pointing out the various NBA personalities around the room, from players to scouts to the coach of the Raptors who was kind enough to later sketch out a few base offensive plays for Noah and me.

The whole thing was just a little surreal, especially for someone who has been backpacking through the jungle for most of the last 4 months.

I hung around for a few hours, attending a talk about apartheid by the first South African Olympic chair after Mandela’s election. Finally I headed off to my hostel, as my budget wasn’t going to allow me to stay in the $150 a night Holiday Inn next door to the Hyatt where Noah and Romola were staying.

I initially thought about taking the train and then walking. That idea was blasted out of the sky like a Minnesotan duck on opening day. Everyone kept trying to impress upon me, “it isn’t IF you’ll get robbed out there by yourself tonight, it is a when.” I saw the wisdom of their words and jumped into a car arranged by the hotel.

It was quite a cab ride. I spoke with the driver on the way, and we drove past beautiful home after beautiful home, all surrounded by 8-10 foot walls and razor wire. I’m not talking a few; I’m talking every single one. The streets were beautiful, clean and tree lined, but there is obviously a vein of crime running unseen that is not to be messed with.

Whatever progress has been made since the fall of apartheid, there is infinitely more work to be done.

When I finally arrived at my guesthouse, it too was surrounded by a razorwire wall and had not one but two gates that had to be opened before I could enter. It is unlike any hostel I’ve stayed at yet though.

Once a single-family mansion, it was converted at some point into a hostel with one 20 bed dorm and several 4 bunk bedrooms. The place is beautifully designed, and for some reason reminded me strongly of my great-grandmother. Heinz, the proprietor was working when I rolled up. He let me in, started a tab in case I wanted to have a few drinks, and showed me the grounds. I could tell that the grounds were fantastic because no one was allowed out after dark. Even as I sit here writing this post at 7AM, a girl is trying to go run, but can’t get out of the compound to do so.

Danger really does abound in this beautiful land.

Today it is back to the BwB showcase, with some scrimmages and maybe another round of village visits this afternoon. I’m excited to see more of the area, as I’ll only be in Jo-Burg for about another 2 days before heading over to the Kruger National Park on the Mozambique border. I can’t wait to see some of the most naturally beautiful land on earth, as well as take part in a few game drives with rhinos, lions, cheetahs and the like in their natural habitat.

The world is always offering a new adventure, just make sure you don’t get mugged along the way.

An American Lazarus

Good morning from Singapore.

Waking up curled over two chairs in the Singapore airport, contorted into a fetal position far too compact for my size, I’m thankful again of my “superpower.”

I can fall asleep anywhere, anytime. And it doesn’t matter if a freight train or a hurricane is coming, you’ll have to send someone to roust me.

Spiderman can keep his webs, and I never really wanted X-ray vision anyway, Superman. I’ll keep my weaponized narcolepsy. It has served me incredibly well, especially in the always fluid sleeping conditions of Southeast Asia. Whether a dorm full of incredibly drunk 19 year old shouting Brits or the coffin berth of a 12 hour sleeper bus, I slap on a history podcast and I’m out faster than a fat kid in dodgeball.

The older I get the more I realize how fantastic this ability is.

I’m leaving Southeast Asia tonight, headed onto South Africa. I’ve spent the last 3.5 months on the adventure of a lifetime. I experienced the horrors of war, as well as came to a better understanding of America’s legacy in Vietnam. I got an up close view the charismatic, maniacal and efficient evil of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

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I saw some of the most beautiful natural places on earth, from 5 mile long caves to pristine waterfalls, untouched and underdeveloped.

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I got to walk in the ruins of one of the ancient wonders of the world, Angkor Wat.

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I played with monkeys and rode on elephants.

 

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I wrecked motorbikes and taught monks English.

Where's Switzerland again?

Where’s Switzerland again?

 

I got to see a military coup first hand, and debate political issues with people from a half dozen countries almost nightly. In three weeks I developed a bond with a man who taught me a lot about addiction and even more about the human condition. I saw a girl who was incredibly lucky to “only” have 40 stitches in her head, and I saw a surfer who was not so lucky as his lifeless body was pulled from the Bali barrels.

I agreed to travel hundreds of miles with people I’d met mere minutes before and “evaded” organ snatchers in remote Laotian towns. I learned to communicate with only hand gestures and a smile to bridge a language gap. I learned the art of Thai boxing at the hands of gentle madmen, and learned to cook the cuisines of a half dozen nations.

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

In short, I lived life. Frankly, a helluva lot of it. I grew more than I would have in the next 5 years of my “normal” life. I was in more uncomfortable situations in 100 days than I can count, but I managed to make it out of all of them with barely a scratch.

They say the best journeys are the ones where you find something you didn’t know you were missing. I found something better.

I found a man that I thought died years ago. A guy who laughed first and frowned rarely. The one who looked at the world with the endless optimism of the boy taken to a barn full of horseshit, started smiling before saying, “There must be a pony around here somewhere.”

He looked a lot like a guy who had become a nasty cynic. One who had been paid well to delude himself into thinking that he was smarter than everyone else in the room. One who thought that a growing number on a bank account was going to magically fix an unfulfilling life. One who had put a reckless love of risk before an awful lot of things that actually mattered in this life. One who’d forgotten that the happiest moments really are free, or damn near to it.

It isn’t very often that someone crawls out of an unmarked grave, but I’m glad I came across it.

That’s what meaningful travel does. It reacquaints you with the best versions of yourself. It shows you overcoming obstacles to reveal a character and mental fortitude you didn’t realize that you’d had.

And thank God it does. Otherwise I wouldn’t have found that man I thought had died. And he’s a helluva lot better than the one who got on a plane in Chicago in March.

Farewell Southeast Asia. You’ve done more for me than you’ll ever know.

Dreams Worth Having

When I left on the Conquest, there was a nagging voice in the back of my head.

“Be serious. Act your age. You’re just running away from your responsibilities. Everyone else is getting married and having babies, and you’re going to burn through your savings to chase what?”

Expectations and societal pressures have a way of doing that, creeping into one’s psyche so deeply that we can’t differentiate the desires of our own heart from our (insert years here) of intense training.

It doesn’t matter if you’re 5 or 15 or 50. Society has a set of expectations for you, and acting outside of that framework is considered risky behavior. Why not stick on the main road? It is safe there.

Not the main road

Not the main road

 

“It worked for Larry and Suzy and Paige. Hell it even worked for Bob, and we all know that he’s not playing with a full deck of cards.”

Societal norms end up being codified “best practices.” People wonder why pork isn’t eaten by in Kosher (Jewish) or Halal (Islam) traditions. Have a nice case of trichinosis and get back to me. The origins of both of those religions were in the desert nomad way of life. Pork goes bad…fast. It doesn’t take too many people keeling over from food poisoning or trichinosis before someone says, “hold on, maybe God doesn’t like this.”

After a few thousand years, that social more becomes ingrained well past it’s “consume by” date. Modern refrigeration makes the consumption of pork no more dangerous than any other meat, but the taboo continues.

Modern society is no different. “Get a job, find a nice girl, buy a house and pay down your mortgage. And STAY MARRIED.” This path was a road to success for generations. People lifted themselves from squalor and into situations that their parents only dreamed about.

Then in America we started bumping up against a dazzling diamond ceiling. The dream ceased to be “become a homeowner” and began to be about owning a BIGGER house or a MORE EXPENSIVE car. We substituted aspirations for a better life for a desire for the meaningless and ephemeral “MORE.”

That house is a bit less than 4000 sq ft, but everyone there seems happy.

That house is a bit less than 4000 sq ft, but everyone there seems happy.

As far as standard of living goes, there is no reason that a family of four in a 4000 sq ft house is better off than a family of four in a 2000 sq ft house. Unless playing hide and go seek from our family members is considered a material good (which in some families it might be) we’re accomplishing nothing besides paying to heat and cool unused space.

Driving a 10 year old Chevy Impala and driving a brand new Mercedes SLK has absolutely 0 difference on one’s quality of life. If both cars function properly, both cars will get you from here to there without walking.

I'd take a bamboo platform, 2 railroad axles and a gas engine over an SLK any day...

I’d take a bamboo platform, 2 railroad axles and a gas engine over an SLK any day…

That iPhone 5 in your pocket? There is only the barest of marginal difference between that and an iPhone from 4 years ago. If someone says, “but it is faster” I want them to ask themselves what they actually accomplished with that half second saved. Did you get a half second closer to learning Spanish? Or maybe you used those cumulative half seconds to cook a healthy dinner. If so, fantastic, the new iPhone has made your life better.

If you played Candy Crush for 45 minutes today, your life didn’t get better because your phone was faster.

Technology has gone from making our lives markedly better, to making us notably more distracted. We call ourselves busy, yet no one in America (or the rest of the First World for that matter) has ever been forced to carry their drinking water from a well, chop wood to heat a home, or butcher an animal to have dinner.

We’ve started to concentrate on the margins. Utility is ubiquitous, so instead we concern ourselves with unnecessary luxury. There will be people lined up around the block to pay $500 for the next iPhone. Between the time they spent waiting and the money they paid to replace the perfectly good phone in their pocket, what could be accomplished?

Get on kayak.com and check out the Explorer function then get back to me. $500 can almost assuredly get anyone in America a round trip plane ticket out of the country.

Our society doesn’t look at this as a sickness, but it really is. We’ve been so conditioned to believe that “new” must be “better” that we no longer look at whether there were any material benefits.

According to 2007 New York Times article, Americans see more than 5000 commercial advertisements today. That is just shy of 1 every 10 waking seconds. Can we really act like this has no effect on our internal thought processes?

No billboards on this "highway"

No billboards on this “highway”

If society can delude itself into mass hysteria about something as simple as a smartphone, why don’t we examine those other mores that society tells us? Do we look with an objective eye at the “why” of those “best practices”?

We blindly push more and more kids into college without any serious consideration of alternatives. Nothing screams “blind tradition” like sending a kid to learn about the internal rate of return in business school but never asking him to run that calculation on his own college debt and future earnings potential.

In the same vein, nothing screams crazy like America training our future “world leaders” while never sending them outside of the country.

For all my initial fears that I was “running away” or “keeping my Peter Pan tights on a little too long,” I finally came to the realization that the safe, conventional road wasn’t right for me.

I also realized that some of those moderating voices in my conscience aren’t actually “me.” They are an echo of everyone else.

People always tell kids to “chase their dreams.”

Almost no one says, “first, make sure your dreams are worth having.”

Seemed like a dream at the time

Seemed like a dream at the time

Is having a big house and an expensive car a dream worth having?

Well…maybe for someone? I think most people just do it because they listen to the voice in the back of their head saying, “Let’s be “better” than our parents. Let’s be “better” than our friends.”

That’s all well and good, but we’ve got to remember to look at what actually makes something “better.” To the kid from the wrong side of the tracks in Speedway, Indiana, the Chicago suburbs seem like heaven on earth. Everyone has a college degree, drives a nice car, vacations in expensive places, and there are more culinary choices than Gene’s Root Beer and Applebees.

You can wear argyle socks and sweater vests without being laughed at, and leather shoes are encouraged instead of scorned.

At the end of the day, he can look in a mirror and say “I’m better off than everyone back home.”

But did he ever look in that mirror and ask, “Is this really the life of my dreams? Or was I so concentrated on being better than someone else, that I forgot to figure out what I actually wanted?”

I thought that I wanted that life, I really did. Then I got a real taste of it and said, “Christ this is too sweet, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t leave a bitter aftertaste. And to top it all off I’m still hungry.”

So I shoved off. I said to the man in the mirror, “This didn’t work, not sure if the next thing will either but if we keep swinging we’ll find something that makes us whole.”

By ignoring that voice in the back of my head, I realized that there are an awful lot of ways to live a life.

You can be the Swede who leaves his home and trains to be a Muay Thai boxer. He has his jaw broken in his 4th fight and has to sip all his meals through a straw for 2 months, then gets right back in the ring to fight the BIGGEST Thai guy they could find.

You can be the vagabond oil rig worker from Ohio, who saved his money and leases/runs a guesthouse in Laos, complete with a pet monkey.

You can be the Swiss woman who comes to Laos on vacation, falls in love with the place and starts a school, with no intention to ever leave.

Where's Switzerland again?

Where’s Switzerland again?

You can be the engineer from America’s frozen northland, Minnesota (I just shivered typing that) who gets sent to Vietnam for work, realizes that there is a satellite package for the NHL, decides to rent a boat, fill it with booze and attempt to start a business. 7 years later he owns 5 bars and 2 apartment buildings with his beloved Vietnamese wife.

Or you can do what everyone else does, trudge off down that old familiar road and hope that it works better for you than it did for the countless unhappy people who did it before you.

I’m not sure I’ve found the one that is right for me yet, but at least I’m looking for what I ACTUALLY want, not just what I’ve been conditioned by society and the media to desire.

Take a little time for introspection today. You might be amazed at what you find.

You’re in there, somewhere. There’s an awful lot of vestigial nonsense and carefully calculated advertising muddying up the water, but with enough effort, you’ll find some pure, unadulterated YOU.

I bet that person is pretty sweet.

Say hi for me.

 

 

A Month without Americans

“It is a big and beautiful world we live in. Most of us live and die in the same corner where we were born and never get to see any of it. I don’t want to be most of us.” Prince Oberyn Game of Thrones

Last night I broke a streak of over a month in the form of the lovely Ariana Garcia.

No, not a streak like that, get your minds out of the gutter, my mother reads this blog.

I hadn’t seen another American in 31 days, since I’d left Ariana after the USA/Germany game on June 26th in Chiang Mai. Since then, I’d been hanging out with Englishmen, Swedes, Belgians, Congolese, Finns and of course a bunch of drunken Muay Thai trainers.

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

A few Germans and Australians slipped into the mix in Northern Malaysia, as well as two of the most ruthlessly mirthless girls I’ve ever met from the German part of Switzerland. (Why anyone would live in a place filled with such people is beyond even my wildest comprehension, but I suppose inertia is a powerful force.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Parasailing in Langkawi

There were debates on health care with French Canadians (I like debating with Canadians, they don’t get nasty, they just get this bemused and incredulous look on their face that anyone would believe something different than themselves), knives pulled by scam artist Thais, and the occasional need for chivalry when a man exposed himself with a bawdy proposition to a girl I was traveling with.

 

Pull your pants up around Princess Jasmine damnit!

Pull your pants up around Princess Jasmine damnit!

There weren’t however, any Americans.

Homesickness comes in many forms. One of the worst is knowing that your crack about the Cubs is going to fall on deaf ears.

But then lo and behold, the Facebook machine told me that there was an American in Kuala Lumpur.

More importantly, there was an airport to get me the hell out of Malaysia.

It was great to have someone from back home to spend some time with. While we didn’t know each other before a hastily slurped pad thai street stall in Chiang Mai, it turns out that she was one of my bartenders for the company Christmas party this year. She decided, much like I did, that she didn’t want to live and die in the same small corner of the world where she grew up, so she bought a one way plane ticket and got out of there. Now she’s cooking up plans to spend a year in Australia, and maybe get a stopover in Europe in the meantime.

9000 miles away from home, we sat next to a street stall and talked about all we’d seen. Elephants in Laos, Bun Cha in Vietnam, fake Ray-Bans in Thailand, and obnoxiously drunken/drugged young British travelers. Then we walked through stalls looking for a Blackhawks jersey, made jokes about White Sox fans being white trash, and talked about just how badly we could use a homemade tamale. (I’m looking at you Mrs. Wojocinski)

It was great to have that, even for a few days. Just having a seamless connection with “real life” and the travel life. To know that no, in this whole world traveling bit, I’m not the only crazy one.

I was giving Ariana a hard time about how her dad must’ve done something really terrible to deserve having 3 beautiful daughters. (Somehow she thinks that 3 beautiful daughters is the most desirable outcome a man could have. I nearly choked on my Bok Choy as I thought of another poor soul who got 3 before returning to the well and getting 2 more for his trouble.)

In talking about why I wanted sons, I said, “well my dad is going to sleep like a baby tonight, yours has to worry about his little girl in a faraway land with some seriously aggressive locals.”

She looked back and laughed. “Honey, my parents are immigrants. They don’t have any idea where I am. Malaysia might as well be Mars. They just know that I’m not home.”

For as out of left field as long term travel is for me, it really put it in perspective when she said it like that. I was blessed with a Swedish great grandmother who has traveled here, there, and everywhere. Egypt in the 70s, Russia while it was still Communist. Europe more times than I can count, China, Scandanavia, you name it.

Even if I hadn’t really seen a lot of people travel extensively, I knew it could be done.

Ariana’s parents went on one very big trip. She had to blaze her own trail.

Cheers for having that courage. So many people with an easier path never do.

 

12 Steps to Freedom

“What has been America’s most nurturing contribution to the culture of this planet so far? Many would say Jazz. I, who love jazz, will say this instead: Alcoholics Anonymous.”

-Kurt Vonnegut

As I’ve touched on in previous posts, a huge part of travel is the people you interact with in the most random of circumstances. Those interactions can be as fleeting as a shared tuk-tuk ride where you get some advice on the next place you’re headed, but they can also reveal something about the human condition in a conversation just as limited.

One interaction which has taught me as much as any I’ve ever had has been the last two weeks with my Muay Thai training partner Glenn.

Glenn is an addict in recovery. He’ll be four years sober in a few weeks, he is still adamant that he is IN RECOVERY. He makes no illusions that his sobriety is permanent, any more than someone between bouts of Crone’s disease would say that he is cured.

Even the language that he uses to speak about his addiction is an important part of his sobriety. We’ve talked extensively about the 12 steps of abstinence based recovery.

1. We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. We made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10.   We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11.   We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12.   Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

I met Glenn as I was breaking my training regimen, having a few beer Leos with the trainers at an impromptu BBQ in the “break room”, a hand built shack a few meters from the gym. We were all laughing and joking, the English getting a little more broken as the Sangsum was poured and the jokes becoming a little more bawdy and physical with every drink.

Glenn walked up to ask about training at Lanta Gym, and since the best English speaker in the bunch wasn’t present, they sent him to the newly minted VP of Marketing, yours truly.

I quickly offered him a beer, as that is the polite thing that I’ve always been conditioned to do. He politely declined, saying he doesn’t drink. In their inebriated state, the trainers didn’t exactly understand this, and thought that he just felt bad about drinking our beer. He firmly declined again, explaining to me that he was in recovery and nearly 4 years sober. I called off the dogs, and convinced him that I really enjoyed training at the facility, so he signed up for a week.

It was nice to have another native English speaker in the bunch, as the only other one in the gym previously was Christian, a gigantic Swede who had been in serious Muay Thai training for nearly two years. While he is a spectacularly nice guy, he is Swedish, and from personal experience, I can attest that they are a funny bunch with outsiders.

Glenn and I became fast friends, taking most of our meals together as we were training at the same times. During our meals and through our conversations, he enlightened me about the nature of addiction in general and his specifically. He spoke with remarkable candor and confidence about his life both before and after sobriety. Those conversations quickly became among the most meaningful I’ve ever had.

I remembered reading the quote above in one of my many readings of Vonnegut, but the 12 steps had never really had an impact in my life. Aside from one family friend who broke the bonds of addiction through abstinence based recovery, my experience with them was incredibly limited.

One of the first things we talked about was the spiritual nature of the 12 steps. Growing up where I did, Christianity was the only game in town besides the handful of Hindu families that called Bedford home. I’ve often joked that I thought that Jews were like unicorns until I was 18; something you read about in books but never actually saw.

10 minutes after I arrived in NYC, I realized how comical that notion was.

The spiritual portion of the 12 steps is an integral part of the process. There has to be a submission to something beyond yourself, whether Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity or New Age Spirituality. The steps don’t discriminate, they merely require an acknowledgement of a higher power.

This is important, because the nature of addiction causes there to be an all-consuming focus on the individual at the cost of any relationship, job or connection to the outside world. The balance between ego and self-esteem becomes a inverted pyramid, perilously hanging like the sword of Damocles over loved ones all around.

Glenn spoke candidly about his life leading up to sobriety. From putting friends and relatives at risk by stashing drugs in their homes, to the absolute tunnel vision that addiction can bring about. At the time he decided to get clean, he was consuming a gram or more of cocaine every day, in addition to crack, heroin and downers to come back down from an amount of blow that could probably kill a quarter-horse.

I know that many of my readers have no concept of how much that is, (obviously anyone reading from the COMEX floor knows exactly how much that is, and are probably making bets on the over/under of the amount currently on certain individuals on the floor. REDZ put me in on the over, I’m good for $20.)

Glenn’s addiction led him into countless hospital beds, whether the result of overdosing, injuries from brawls, or the total destruction of his stomach lining from the amount of corrosive substances he was consuming. He said at one point, he was lying in a hospital bed. As he came to, his mother was at the side of his bed bawling. She told him, that every mother’s worst fear is receiving that knock at the door from a uniformed policeman asking if they are the mother of so and so.

Through her tears, she told him that he had made that fear a reality time and time again, and it was physically and emotionally destroying her. Yet, his addiction was so all-consuming that even this couldn’t assuage his need for the next fix.

Eventually he saw the light, and saw that the road he was on was leading either to death or prison. Forced to sell drugs in order to fund his own addiction, the numbers, amount and risk leapt exponentially higher and higher. He knew that at any moment he could receive a knock on the door that would be the police or worse, an armed intruder coming to steal his cash and drugs.

He was lucky, and as he said, addiction is a down elevator but you don’t have to go all the way to the basement in order to get off. He attended a meeting and never looked back.

Even at this stage, nearly four years after he smoked, drank or consumed any pill with a narcotic effect, he is still working through the steps daily. Several times, I’ve knocked on his door to see if he is ready to go to dinner and he is standing there with his 12 steps workbook in hand, still working daily to beat an addiction which at any point could overcome his will to control it.

He spoke about the different individuals who have helped him. There have been sponsors who have held him from the abyss in moments of weakness as well as those who have bravely shared stories at meetings that continually affirmed the fact that he was stronger than his disease.

He’s spoken about the meetings he’s attended while on travel, from Thailand to Cambodia, with men and women who have been IN RECOVERY for up to 25 years, but still attend the meetings religiously as they believe that it is both necessary and to re-commit themselves to helping others looking to take control of their condition.

My hometown has a drug problem to rival any in the nation. One of my best friend’s father has been our county sheriff for years, and he has been on the front lines of a battle that has morphed from alcohol, to CAT to that most insidious of proletariat drugs, meth.

Sisyphus himself pities that endless struggle, but God bless that man for suiting up every day and trying to push the rock up that hill.

I can’t open the website of my local newspaper without seeing the skeletal faces of those addicts who have not made the decision to confront the disease. Former Boys Club kids of mine, who I remember as 3rd and 4th graders playing dodgeball and pranking me behind the counter, looking older than me by a decade as the drugs have destroyed their youth. One of my best childhood friends is currently behind bars for heroin, a good man whose personal life spiraled out of control while he found temporary solace in a drug that sought only to destroy him.

I can’t even count the number of dead that attended high school with me, both from prescription drugs and street.

Glenn has also talked at length about the additional reading he’s done outside the meetings, trying to understand the true nature of addiction. He’s found some interesting things, both about addicts and the human condition in general.

One thing that I’ve found interesting is the various ways that addiction manifests itself. Addiction is more than a drug or alcohol problem. It can show up in gambling, shopping, eating, or even seemingly positive things such as working out.

Glenn spoke about the fact that after he got sober, that his addiction manifested itself in a manic devotion to the gym. While most people would be ecstatic to have the drive to be at the gym for three hours a day, Glenn eventually realized that it was just a substitution effect. His relationships were still suffering because his addiction was stealing away the time that he needed to nurture them.  This was still the disease driving his behavior, whether the outlet was “healthy” or not.

Many Americans have found themselves with hall passes for addiction. Somehow a scribbled note on a piece of paper reading Rx allows people to believe that they don’t have a problem.

As the friend of several men cut down long before their time due to prescription drugs, please let me disabuse you of that notion.

That nightly ritual of a half bottle of white wine and a Zanax is no less an addiction than the man injecting heroin on a street corner. The fact that a “respected doctor” sanctions it does nothing to change that fact.

Addiction is without question a disease, but it is one that most people are terrified to talk about.

My family has had more than our fair share of struggles with alcohol. My father has spoken often about the familial carnage that an alcoholic leaves in their wake. He found respite in Al-Anon as a young man and he credits that with helping break a cycle which sees so many children of addicts struggle with the same issues that ruined their own childhoods. There is a cycle of co-dependence and childhood trauma which can run destroy generations of otherwise loving families.

I thank God that my father had the bravery to confront the painful issues of his childhood before they came to affect my brother and me. I’ve seen others in my family who never did deal with those issues, and even when the cork was in the bottle or the fork was in the drawer the effects of addiction were never fixed.

Glenn’s own father put the cork in the bottle some 20 years ago. He did it the hard way, through sheer piss and vinegar, steps and God be damned. While he’s been stone sober for the past 20 years, his addiction is no less a problem today than it was when he was drinking. He merely let his addiction manifest itself in work instead of the bottle. The problems, while fewer, were never truly gone.

There was never the submission to a higher power, never the rebalancing of ego and self-esteem, and never the painful but necessary amends made to those who fell victim to the addiction.

That’s what the 12 steps are about, a full and continuous recovery from a disease that can strike anyone, regardless of circumstance or social standing.

There should be no more shame in addiction than cancer. Addiction is not a moral failing, it is a disease that affects those from all walks of life. An addict is neither good nor bad, merely one who suffers from a disease.

The only shameful thing is to not acknowledge it for what it is; a disease to be battled, every single day.

Oh the Places You’ll Go

Sorry for slowing the pace of the blog but I’ve been working on some fiction projects the last few days. In a futile attempt to outwit the all pervasive soreness I’ve had since starting training, I’ve also been rubbing on a number of ointments that would make Eddie Harris from Major League blush.

I called my parents last night, and they had some of their oldest friends down to “The Babin,” as their future home in retirement is known. After talking to Mom for a minute, I made her put Holder on the phone, as I have loved giving him grief (mostly for his wildly inappropriate shoe selections) since I was a kid.

We spoke for a few minutes about this and that from the trip, some of the things I’ve seen and some of the travelers I’ve met. Then he asked how I was received by the locals. I laughed as I thought back, from “Mama” on the Castaway cruise in Halong Bay, to Man in Hoi An, to Snow and the rest of the absolute sweethearts running the hostel in Nha Trang. I told him about Nam, the novice monk in Luang Prabang and about my powerful jealousy of the 4 generation daily dinner picnics on An Bang beach in Vietnam.

He-yen for instance, our cooking teaching in Hoi An, only 3 weeks older than me, but mature and wise in a way that words can’t really describe.

It hasn’t all been roses. Just yesterday I was party to an incident where a minivan tried to run me over on my moped, then strong arm me into paying him for “damage” to his van. I know just enough Thai to know that when he was calling “the police” he was just saying foreigner and money over and over again. Everything was fine until he reached into his glove box and pulled out either a knife or something that he wanted me to believe was a knife and shoved it into his waistband.

Its low season in Thailand. People are hungry, and you’ll get that kind of thing occasionally, but I stood my ground, and cocked those “HELL-bows” that Zac has been training me to throw.

Then I told Dave about BBQ-ing with Koh, Zac and the rest of the trainers here at Lanta Gym.

I’ve drank a lot of beers in a lot of places. My mother would probably say too many. From $10 Budweisers on a rooftop full of the dregs of B&T society in Manhattan, to my first illicit Bud Lights with Al Spreen and co in a cabin in Williams. Sitting out in that handmade shack laughing with a bunch of people, total strangers mere days ago, who have lived lives so incredibly different than my own was really a powerful experience.

Koh is a madman with a…colorful past but a heart of gold. After a few shots of Sangsam, he gets to waxing “eloquent” about how we are all from different places, but all friends. Sitting there that night I saw the truth in what he said. Along with the 6 Thai trainers, there sat Glen, a 4 year sober recovering addict from England, Maiyo, a Finnish girl who could probably hammer toss me clear to Malaysia on a good day, and Oliver, a Belgian of Congolese extraction who speaks 4 languages fluently and is working on Mandarin now.

Here we were, sitting together swapping stories, laughing hysterically at the antics of the trainers, and discussing everything from politics to ill-fated moped rides.

I was reminded of that greatest call to adventure, “Oh the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss.

The town I grew up in was 99% White in the 2010 census. Those who could speak a foreign language were pretty much relegated to the women who comprised the foreign language department at the high school, and from my experiences with the French teacher, even that is a stretch.

I haven’t seen another American in 2 weeks. When Dave asked if I thought that the things I’ve seen would have an effect on me. He answered his own question before it was all the way out of his mouth.

For travel like this to NOT have an effect is impossible.

One of my favorite documentaries, 180 Degrees South, has a great quote by Yvon Chouinard, founder of the clothing company Patagonia.

Speaking about those who climb Everest in the most luxurious fashions possible:

“Climbing Everest is the ultimate and the opposite of that. Because you get these high powered plastic surgeons and CEO’s, they pay $80,000 and have sherpas put the ladders in place and 8000 feet of fixed ropes and you get to the camp and you don’t even have to lay out your sleeping bag. It’s already laid out with a chocolate mint on the top. The whole purpose of planning something like Everest is to effect some sort of spiritual and physical gain and if you compromise the process, you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back.”

You see the truth of these words when traveling like this. There are any number of ways to travel in this part of the world. You can have every luxury known to man: 5 star resorts, drivers with SUVs, and daily spa treatments. You could be sheltered from the heartbreaking poverty that afflicts many locals here in some of the most beautiful places on earth.

Sip Mai Tais on the beach, eat Australian beef hamburgers for dinner, and snap selfies as the sun sinks majestically into the water.

But you were an asshole when you started out and you’ll be an asshole when you get back. You were merely the exploitative tourist. The one who came and effectively said to the locals, “Oh your homeland looks nice. Now take this money and leave me alone.”

You didn’t interact, you didn’t experience any culture other than talking to the posh English girl on the beach chair next to you. You just sat on a beach with a cellphone, thinking about the best way to post something pithy copy with your Instagram picture to create maximum jealousy among your peers back home.

A part of me feels bad for these kinds of people, but another part wants me to give them an “HELL-bow” to the head to see if I can knock some introspective sense into them.

There is a massive gulf between “travel” and “going places.” I didn’t really realize it before, but now I can see it retrospectively  in some of the travel I’ve done in the US.

One of my best friends managed a “lodge/long-term hostel/guesthouse/den of iniquity” known as the Park Meadow Lodge, in Vail, Colorado for a ski season. Just about everyone living there was working somewhere on Vail Mountain for almost no money, merely the opportunity to ski as much as possible.

Scotty B, the de facto mayor of the Vail ski bum community, had been at Park Meadow Lodge for nearly 10 years. His disdain for “gapers” as jackass tourists are known in mountain lingo, was unrivaled. He managed a ski rental shop on the mountain, and would constantly come back with a story about some rich idiot who just didn’t get it, who thought that money would fix any problem, and who treated Scotty and every other worker like some sort of second class servant.

I stayed out with Craig for a powder filled couple weeks before moving to NYC in 2010, and I got to “live like a local.” I took part in the non-monetary “favor” based economy that the locals have. Someone runs a ski shop, and they get your friends free rentals when they come visit, someone else works at the pizza shop, and they throw a messed up pie your way now and again. Others work at the spa, and will look the other way when you want to go have a little Presidential workout in the hot tub and steam room after a hard day’s skiing.

In reality, the locals are living even better than the rich tourists spending countless dollars. What they lack in loot, they make up for in the social skills that so many people try to compensate for with greenbacks.

The rich look down on them as minimum wage monkeys, who in turn look back with scorn on the rich as cake eating jackalopes for substituting cash for substance.

Whether Vail, Colorado, Hoi An, Vietnam, or Koh Lanta, Thailand, travel is about more than a place. It is about interacting with people and letting the stories of the people you meet move or change you.

Don’t tell me where you’ve been. Tell me who you’ve met, and how their story affected you.

I’ve sat with Glen for countless hours now, talking about abstenince based recovery, his life as an addict and some of the things he’s seen on the other side. He’s graciously opened up in a way which few of even my friends back home ever would. He’s got a story that has something to teach anyone willing to listen to it, so long as they can do so with an open mind.

That’s what life is about. Just a bunch of souls bouncing about at random, creating unexpected reactions when the universe flings them into one another.

If we’d all just take time to put down the selfie stick, we might actually learn something. Hell, I bet that fella over there would be willing to take a picture for you if you’d just smile as you walk up and ask.

It is the people, infinitely more than the places that make travel an enriching experience. We’d all do well to remember that.

 

A Two Holed Time Machine

As I strapped on the pink “farang” gloves this morning in the gym, I took a quick glance around the scene.

Si-Nook, the resident gym mutt was lounging ringside while two cats that weren’t quite stray but weren’t exactly owned lay near the fans.

Zack was standing in his preposterous rubber sweat suit, occasionally opening the elastic arm cuff to let loose a deluge of sweat. I’m “glistening” standing bare chested in shorts short enough to make the most even the most risque teen girl think twice.

In reality, I’m sweating harder than the ne’er-do-well boy hiding under said risque teen’s bed after her parents came home early.

Zack’s covered from ankle to neck in a rubber suit.

I’m about to faint from heat stroke just thinking about it.

Koh is running around like the magnanimous maniac he is, shouting this and that in Thai, occasionally peppering it with a little “well chewed” English, throwing a few shadow punches and kicks as I wrap my hands.

Khan, the 17 year old (easily mistaken for a 12 year old) Thai “pride of the gym” is laughing at me while laying in the middle of the ring with one of the stray cats, making crude hand gestures back and forth with Zack. Finally he jumps up, and starts miming a hide and go seek around one of the punching bags. I have no idea what is so funny, but he and Zack are splitting their sides laughing.

The only other “farang” in the gym, an Englishman named Glenn, is warming up by jumping up and down on old truck tires, the old “Thai trampoline.” He quickly moves on from this to grab a “jump rope”, a pinky width length of hard, clear tubing with two hand carved wooden grips on the end, held together by a bolt and washer.

As I finish wrapping my hands, I move over to one of the punching bags. This one consists of 2 SUV tires bolted together, swinging from a heavy chain. What it lacks in sleek looks, it makes up for in utility. I’d rather be punching this than either of the “professional” punching bags swinging to its right and left. The give from the tires keeps it from swinging as violently, while still giving enough weight to really feel it in the shoulders.

The smell of “gym” is omnipresent. Every time I slip my sandals off and take that first deep breath, I am immediately transported 9200 miles and 10 years in the past, to a long ago August in a hot, old, poorly painted locker room on the south end of the BNL Fieldhouse.

If I close my eyes, I can hear Zac Gary’s voice, always an octave higher than normal when he was excited, shouting what he planned to do to someone poor soul as soon as “stations” were done and “Oklahoma” started.

Every time he really gets going though, the even higher voice of DJ Horton drowns him out, “Gary you chucklehead why don’t you shut your mouth and show me something on Friday instead of telling Flick what you’re going to do to him after practice.”

I swear if I look left, I’ll see the big head of Paul Spreen bouncing slowly as he emits his famous “hut hut hup” laugh.

Amazing how a smell can bring a decade old memory back with clarity that makes HD seem like an RCA box TV with bunny ears.

For all the gifts God gave us, that protruding two holed time machine is among the greatest.

After I’ve been appropriately slathered down with Tiger Balm and boxing liniment, the real training begins. 4 minutes of shadow boxing, 1 minute rest. 4 minutes combo work with a trainer shouting commands and holding the pads, 1 minute rest.

After the 4th round of combo work, I’m trying to drown myself in water which 20 minutes ago was straight from the fridge. Now it is room temperature and climbing, sitting in a pool of sweat which rivals my own.

The shirt I’m using to wipe my face is completely drenched, my hips feel like I just gave birth to a hippopotamus from the continuous strain of high kicks on my brutally inflexible hip flexors.

As I look in the mirror, I look like a 2 legged contestant in a greased pig contest.

As I told my parents in an email after day 1, “You know the flames that jump up from the grill as the fat from a nice ribeye slowly drips down? Thank God I’m not training on a grill, or my doughy American ass would be CHAR-BROILT!”

Oh by the way, it is only 8:25AM. Not even halfway through session 1 of 2 for the day.

For all the memories of high school football that flood my mind, none of them seem to be able to remind my sorry 27 year old carcass of what it once was.

Real shame, because that 17 year old body would really be handy right about now.

I guess the aches and pains of my current form are a small price to pay for a ride in that two holed time machine. A quick trip back to a place where our problems were laughably small and our guts were even smaller.

We were all still invincible back, because Life had graciously saved those lessons in mortality for a later day.

To spend even a moment back in that long gone time and place. That’s worth every ounce of sweat. Every ache and bruise.

In fond remembrance of Zac Gary.