If Heaven Ain’t Like Buenos Aires, then I Don’t Want to Go.

Scrawled onto the folded backs of two large white placemats from Cafe Thibon was the sum of my afternoon writing yesterday.Starting slowly yesterday, I walked along Ave de Santa Fe towards the Recoleta neighborhood to meet Vicky for lunch. We met, (she was late, but the whole country is late so…there’s that) and I quickly ignored her recommendation to stay away from the mondongo, and piled right in.

Mondongo is something in Argentina that could be passably described as “cow stomach curry.” It is a mix of vegetables, lentils, blood sausages and chorizo, stewed together in a base yellow sauce, with two inch chunks of stomach thrown in for the main meat.

When in Rome right?

It was actually very good so long as I didn’t look directly at the piece of stomach as I lifted the spoon to my mouth. The ridges and seemingly jelly-fish like frills of stomach lining were a bit less than appetizing, but after the first bite, it wasn’t going to kill me.

While I tried my best blue eyed poor me act to get Vicky to get a carafe of wine and skip the rest of the dwindling afternoon of work, I failed, and so was left to my own devices.

I was going to go to the cathedral, but I was sidetracked along the way by a set of faces that made me quickly question where I was. I stopped into Cafe Thibon, to recollect my thoughts and get a cup of coffee to put me over the mid-afternoon drop nods.

Cafe Thibon is part liquor store, part cafe. The green granite bar prominently displays two vintage sets of Malbec, while a taciturn and portly old man dropped clean silverware into a worn wooden box between the espresso makers. My seat had me looking out into the street, but the wooden boxes of wine were stacked so high that I could only see a sliver through the open door. The occasional biker would flit by, only staying in my sight for a second, while the seemingly endless supply of grand old men with their ringed fingers and sweater covered walrusy midsections wandered by the displays of wines and liquors.

Behind me to my right was one of these old men, looking like he could’ve been the Argentinian brother of Bloomberg’s Tom Keene. He had a regal mane of white on the sides but very little on top, so to compensate, he combed his hair back, those wiry white strands, so that they connected, much like an electrical circuit that would fail if connections were breached. His forearms pressed flat on the table next to his newspaper, his left hand would go up like clockwork every 4-5th breath, pressing those hairs back towards their more numerous counterparts.

As I started to doodle on a placemat, I looked over the names of the wines in the glass cases beside me. Alamos, Angelica Zapata, Los Arboles, and Catena were a few of the more prominent names. The crackling of AM Spanish language radio could be heard faintly, with the tunes of jingles rolling together with the music to my untrained ear.

Cafe Thibon roasted their own coffee which they kept in massive glass cylinders on the back counter. Their gold domed tops seemed to be lacking only a crescent moon from the mosque tops I’d seen throughout the Middle East. An old fashioned balance, worn black with the grease of hands and the decades of coffee, is used to determine the amount of coffee sold. The curmudgeonly old man would gently place the cylindrical weight on one side and a bag on the other before tapping out a few beans into the bag, frowning, and repeating the process again and again until symmetry was achieved.

As he finished one bag, he reached his sausage fingers into a large dish of stuffed olives, selecting three, then rolling them around in his palm with a move from his thick thumb. Examination done, he clutched down on two and ejected one into his open mouth, before putting those two with some others that he’d soon serve me.

I asked the waitress for a glass of Malbec. Sure it was 3:00 in the afternoon, but I was on holiday for Chrissake. As I sipped the delightful house offering, I started to visualize the rhythm of Buenos Aires in a way that I had not before. Just as some people can pick up the beat of a song from just a handful of notes, so too can one feel the cadence of a city. The way that old men shuffle  down sidewalks and the rapidity that cabs take off from red lights, these are but a few small sample pulses from the beating heart of a city. The overheard intonation of a conversation and the movements of waitress, these too show la tiempo de vivre. In a place like Argentina, the home of one of the world’s most famous dances, the Tango, this rhythm takes on even more meaning. Plain as the smell of a place or the mountains and rivers that comprise its landscape, the rhythm is as real as the nose on your face once you have trained yourself to look.

*********

Ever since I was a little boy, I loved to go wandering through the hustle and bustle of a city anonymously. My father used to drop me off in the Loop of Chicago with my cousin Brad, who usually still had a few hours of work left before going home. Brad would rip a sheet of stationary so that I had his address, and then tell me to go wander around until 5, and to ask for help if I got lost.

Nothing like free range cousin-ing right?

I always longed for the feeling of aimless anonymity walking past thousands of people where no one knows your name. This effect is only amplified when one does not understand the language as throngs of people are living lives truly parallel to my own, a graceful mystery save for a the few non-verbal cues that I can ascertain.

I find myself with odd sense of deja vu here in Buenos Aires. I’ve certainly never gone on a prolific enough bender to have gotten here and back in a timely fashion, so all of my experiences should be new ones. These senses are not that of interaction wtih place, but instead the briefest inclination that I have seen the face of one of my deceased loved ones.

Yesterday I was walking down a side street in Palermo, as an old man shuffled closer with his head down. As I got within arm’s length of him, he picked his cabbie hatted head up a little bit, and to my shock and surprise, the face of Uncle Bill Kay was smiling back at me. The crinkled skin around his very round eyes and the way his face was always reminiscent of a round faced white owl who had been turned into an eternally boyish old man, this was the face that peeked out from under that cap. For that briefest of seconds, I saw those blue eyes twinkle at me once more, just like they did for so many Christmases of my youth.

Just as quickly he was gone, like a warm blooded ghost who had disappeared into the wall. As I walked onward, this feeling of seeing someone I loved out of the corner of my eye only increased. As soon as I turned to look, they were always gone.

I started thinking about Buenos Aires as my heaven replacement. Maybe all of my loved ones are here, living lives that no longer diverge with my own, but still loving, living and breathing as they did when our lives intersected. Perhaps Uncle Bill gets up every morning about 9AM, dresses impeccably in his blazer, sweater vest and scarf, and heads over to Cafe Thibon for his morning coffee, where he banters with the waitress, and playfully argues with the similarly dressed man sitting next to him about tomorrow’s weather. Then he shuffles in his leather shoes over to the park, where he plays chess with the other old men and talks about the romantic conquests of his youth, before going home to the butcher and picking up a slice of meat to grill and eat with his evening wine.

I’ve read enough of the Bible to know, that the actual cardinal directions to “Heaven” were quite general. Who is to say that our loved ones don’t merely move on to this Paris of the Southern Hemisphere and continue living lives with hopes, fears, joys and pains? It seems equally comforting to me, that if I continue to travel the ends of the earth, that I might for the most instantaneous of seconds, get to see that loved one of mine in a moment that requires neither acknowledgement or discussion, only the feeling of a full heart and a sense of contentment that all is as it should be.

Even if it is just Uncle Bill’s doppelganger, I wouldn’t trade the brief blissful feeling of Resurrection for all the facts on Earth.

Some mysteries are better left in the ether.

Zen and the Art of Being Lost in Buenos Aires

There is a half read book on my nightstand at home called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. In it, Robert Pirsig takes a trip across the American West on his motorcycle with his slightly autistic son and a couple of friends. Most people look at that title and wonder what kind of drugs someone had to be on to come up with something so inane. Having read a good half of it, before other books jumped up the ladder, I find that some of the most instructive tomes about life seem to be the most random.

I had my own moment of Zen on a pushbike yesterday. Fearing that the weather might turn rainy later in the week, we tried to get out and see as much as we could yesterday. A trip to the Recoleta Cemetery, a place that puts the greatest of New Orleans mausoleums to shame, and a lunch of empanadas and tortas had shown us two different neighborhoods, but we resolved to get some bikes and make our own tour.

No one moves very quickly in Argentina, and the nonchalance with respect to time has already infected us, so by time we actually got to the bike shop, it was nearly 4PM. Being winter in the Southern Hemisphere, we only had about two hours of daylight left to burn. We grabbed a couple of maps and headed off through a city seen as one of the most bikeable in the world.

Then things started to go a bit haywire. Ben and I lost the girls after about 10 minutes of riding, which was probably to be expected. We meandered along some bike trails, edging closer to the water, but only getting into the port district. Seemingly anywhere in the world, you’d never prefer to be by the docks as the sunsets, but there we were.

Also, as opposed to nearly EVERY map I’ve ever seen in this life, the map given to us by the bike shop was oriented not on a North/South axis, but instead on the city grid of Buenos Aires, which was laid with a datum relative to the river instead of cardinal directions. This meant that saying I want to go “up” on the map than I am now was a very trying experiment in map turning.

About 7 miles from home, my chain came off and became wedged between the sprocket and chain guard. Having no tools and not enough Spanish to figure out “wrench” we battled with the bike for about ten minutes before deciding that I should just throw it into a cab and head back before it got dark. Ben grabbed my map and headed back on his bike, because neither of us fancied a nocturnal bike ride around a city we’d known for only 24 hours.

I thought getting a cab would be easy, but no one wanted to let me put my greasy bike (and even greasier hands) in their tiny Peugeot cab. So I stood there slackjawed, wondering how in the world I was going to make it home without a map, Spanish skills and a bike a chain off the rails and no way to fix it. Finally a security guard finally took pity on me and brought me out a pair of pliers, and I quickly got the bike back in working order. Then a couple of Venezuelans came and took pity on me, giving me some very general directions toward the Palermo neighborhood where I’d started. At this point, I was nearly 6 miles away with a very quickly setting sun.

I took their advice to the best of my ability, taking a bike path to the end of the line (praying that I’d come out at the CORRECT end.) A quote from Pirsig started to hum in my ears as my mindset moved from annoyed to determined.

“You look at where you’re going and where you are and it never makes sense, but then you look back at where you’ve been and a pattern seems to emerge.”

Trying to isolate the pattern, both in my own life and in this particular bicycle marooning, was a trying exercise. I had left the docks, where I at least knew my general relative position to home, moving in a direction that the Venezuelans promised would take me home. Having no  geographic context  to draw from, I had to stay 100% true to their directions or I’d end up god knows where.

Looking back on my own life, I recognize the same pattern. So many people put their heads down and start charging off in a direction given to them by others, only to find that the slightest deviation in direction will leave them stranded with no idea how to get either back from whence they came or forward to an original destination.

That is why the need for context is sacrosanct. Knowing only a handful of street names, my context in this odyssey was very limited, so I was dependent on external forces to give me a direction. The more streets that one recognizes, the more able to self-help he becomes. He recognizes small mistakes before they lead so far off track that it loses all feasibility.

The same is true in life. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be rich and live in NYC. I grew up on a diet of Friends, Seinfeld and the Wall Street Journal, and I knew that at the Southern tip of an island at the center of the world, my dreams would all come true. (There is currently a gingery Semite, a sleeping Indian, an illiterate Italian, and a bald…well whatever Gar is, reading this and laughing hysterically that I thought that all my dreams would come true in our dingy corner of the financial world.)

I got to my destination, and for a while, I loved it. The stress, the money, the comical number of amazing women to be found in Manhattan…this is what I came for.

Then complacency snuck in. My whole life had been about getting to this place, covering the distance, both physical and cultural, that lay between the sleepy cornfield I’d grown up in and the screaming trading pits that I so desperately wanted to be a part of. Once I’d stopped “pedaling” as I arrived at my destination, I got nervous that the bike would fall over on top of me.

Back in Buenos Aires, the sun had set and the buildings weren’t getting any nicer. I followed Cordoba street until it Y’d off. Inevitably, I took the wrong side of the Y. Pedaling faster was motion, but it was not to be confused with progress by any means. I was merely going faster in the wrong direction for 20 blocks.

Finally I began asking anyone standing still how to get to Palermo. My original directions were now defunct, and the only way I’d get home was to find a new set. An older woman (hell this is South America, she could’ve been 35 or 55 and I wouldn’t know the difference) told me that I was at least 40 blocks from Palermo, but if I went up 3 streets and turned right, that I would get onto Serrano and as long as I kept pedaling, I’d get to somewhere I’d recognize.

Now I had a direction that would turn my motion into progress. This was the “eureka” moment that gave purpose to what was otherwise aimless wandering.

Sure enough, after hoofing it 14 miles around Buenos Aires, I came up to the Plaza de Armes and knew that the bike shop was just around the corner.

Eureka moments happen in all facets of life, not just with hopelessly lost Americans on pushbikes. Mine happened on that brutally cold February morning in Chicago, that moment when I knew that I was headed in the wrong direction. So I asked if I could follow someone else’s for a while, and much to my benefit, he said yes. Eventually Ben’s direction and mine diverged, but that was alright, because I had enough context to self-correct. My direction is rarely perfect, but knowing that a path is the wrong one is always worth something.

If I’ve got one lesson to teach anyone, let it be the danger of sheepishly following along. One has to find their own direction, otherwise we’re just eating and shitting until we die.

Also though, I’d still advise a map in Buenos Aires, but boy can you learn a few things without one.

“The truth knocks on the door and you say, “Go away, I’m looking for the truth,” and so it goes away. Puzzling.” Robert Pirsig

The End of the Beginning

There are some things in life that can’t be forced. Reflective writing and bowel movements find themselves at the top of that list for me, but that very well might be more a manifestation of my last week than anything.

I am home. The Conquest has returned to the States.

I’ve been trying to talk myself into writing some sort of a concluductory post since Monday. I had 27 hours in flight to think about it, but I avoided my computer the whole time. I had a bus ride, a few quiet hours here and there, and finally a 4 hour staring match with a blank sheet of paper.

I just never could figure out how to force it.

Then, as most great ideas do, it came to me in the midst of a hot shower (shower temperature and creative output have a correlation nearing 100% for me.)

This post wasn’t meant to be a conclusion or a hasty recap of the last 6 months, it was yet another jumping off point.

The Conquest hasn’t ended, it has merely entered a new phase. Every idea has a life cycle, whether a business, a diet, a relationship or evening plans. There is the exciting “eureka moment,” there is the planning stage, there is the long (sometimes arduous) process of execution, and then there is always the inevitable evolution.

That’s what the Conquest is going through now.

I struggled all week about “doing the end justice” and pressuring myself to make this the best piece that I’ve written the whole time. It has driven my digestive system into a dither, but absolutely nothing had appeared on a page.

I wanted there to be some great takeaway, something gained from the last 6 months that I could point to and convince myself (and others) that “see, I knew I’d find my million dollar idea out there somewhere.”

Truth is, I didn’t even find myself. If anything, I now have a more ambiguous sense of self than I ever have.

And then I realized it.

No greater treasure will man ever find.

**********

Surrounded by a sensory overload of smells, noise, colors and people, I found a life without distractions.

The difference between social interaction and social media regained a clarity lost in the digital din. Shared meals showed why nearly every society makes hospitality and “the breaking of bread” a cornerstone virtue. I got to experience the shared attributes of humanity, those which transcend language, culture, politics or any of the other “higher forms” of civilization, to reveal the most basic of human necessities.

I found in the midst of abject poverty, the existential truth in Mark Twain’s words, “Comparison IS the death of joy.”

I saw all the complications of life slip away, if even only briefly. We are born, we love and we die. The only difference is our reaction to these intractable truths.

That slavery will exist always in some iteration is an inviolable truth of the human condition. The absence of physical chains hasn’t ended slavery any more than a cloudy night ends the moon. Slavery to opinion, to possessions, and to expectations are chains more powerful than iron.

The cruelest forms of slavery will always be self-inflicted.

I found that there is much more that unites people than divides. I saw, that outside of our protected zones of comfort, people will seek to connect rather than exclude. However, when the status quo becomes its own self-evident good, divisions both natural and manmade will seek to separate each from their neighbor.

I found sustainable living in a place where my bank account dropped daily.

The world showed me to be a fool time and time again, but acknowledgement of my ignorance was a comfort in itself. I found that those who think they know the most are always the least likely to learn, and I impolitely recused myself from membership in that self-satisfied group.

I found that a fight between two friends willing to listen to one another is one of the greatest tools for growth that man will ever find. I also found that some friendships are less permanent than we would hope, but that an end does not define the whole.

I saw the human condition at its most vulnerable, and witnessed the strength that it takes to be weak. Death comes for us all, regardless of color, income or location.

Fear only diminishes each breath that remains.

Like Cassandra foreseeing the destruction of Troy, I stood in the midst of the jungles of Laos with tears in my eyes that this too would someday fall victim to the unstoppable force of consumerism, a natural treasure sold piecemeal as presswood Ikea TV stands and glossy paper advertisements.

The dangers of confusing technical expertise with wisdom became clearer and clearer. Just as a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail, so too does technical expertise lack the vision to see the unintended consequences of a “solution.”

As the West encroaches further and further into societies which grew up Darwinistically different values to our own, we will find ourselves trying to repair and improve mechanisms that we truly do not understand. Just as we have moved further from the values of our forefathers, cocksure in our belief that newer, bigger, and faster are self-evident goods, so to will we unintentionally destroy that which has bound vibrant communities together for centuries.

The list of observations I made could go on for days, but they all lead to the same inexorable conclusion. For all the knowledge that my travels afforded me, they merely showed how woefully insufficient the framework I use to cobble it together truly is. Only by acknowledging our own stunning ignorance can any of us hope to truly learn, and only by questioning those “truths” we’ve held as absolute can we ever be sure of anything at all.

Even as the world becomes interconnected at an ever increasing pace, it appears to me that individuals are retreating further and further into our own rigid beliefs. This would seem, to a mildly logical man, to be two opposing forces eventually destined for direct conflict. Will people simply pop their heads out of the foxhole after the battle occurs and acknowledge the “truth” as told by the victors?

History doesn’t seem to think so, although through most of human history, we didn’t encourage our best thinkers to become “excellent sheep.”

I hope to have avoided that comfortable affliction.

**********

The Conquest gave me what all great conquests will, the confidence to chase a new horizon.

I didn’t come back with a multi-million dollar idea and I didn’t come back with a groundbreaking novel in the can. I didn’t bring home the woman of my dreams (even if I now know a few locations where she might be hiding.)

I made some of the best friends I could ask for. I saw a side of myself that I didn’t think existed. I freed myself from the endless barrage of manipulated messages, both commercial and from a fear-inducing media, and the world I found turned out to be a safer and more wonderful place than I could’ve possibly imagined.

I saw that there are really a million ways to die, and that to live in fear of any of them is a fool’s errand. I made peace with a few deaths that I hadn’t properly processed, and I realized through bitter tears on an empty Thai beach, that you can say a proper goodbye to a loved one without a body or a suit.

I found friendships can be deeper after 3 days than some can after 10 years, and I saw the power of the human spirit in overcoming adversity.

I saw the good in man that I thought that I’d forgotten, and I saw some of the forgotten faceless in places that won’t ever get talked about on the news.

The man in the mirror looks back at me differently today.

He smiles a lot more. He reminded me that he’s the only one in this life that will take every step with me, and that if I don’t make peace with him, what the hell chance to I have with the rest of it. He showed me that I can be as happy in a bunk bed as I can in a multi-million dollar house, and that sometimes the best look we’ve got has a few tears running down our face.

I missed many things while I was gone. I missed a parcel of babies being born, and the weddings of some of my dearest and oldest friends.

Nothing is without cost, yet another universal truth that I uncovered.

The former commodity trader found that there are only two commodities that really matter.

Love and time.

As I returned home and picked up the 2 month old daughter of two of my best friends, I realized that instantly. Even if that were the only thing the Conquest had taught me, it would’ve been enough.

Thankfully it taught me so much more.

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Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to follow my blog. The support that I’ve gotten from friends, family and total strangers who happened accidentally wandered on has been stunning and humbling.

I hope you enjoyed reading about it a tenth as much as I enjoyed living it. As I re-integrate back into “reality”, there will be more posts of reflection about some of the things I’ve seen and done. There will also be some thoughts on life back in the Western world as I re-acclimate myself to a reality that was once the only one I’d ever known.

If I can offer any advice on travel, the first piece is “Do it.” Anything more specific, please reach out to chrismoorman13@gmail.com and I’d be more than happy to offer tips or advice on any of the places I’ve been, or backpacking in general. We were all blessed with a wide and wonderful world on which to live, and it is a true shame to relegate ourselves to only the small corners where we were born.

Life as a hastily planned adventure works. Just poke around my ramblings and musings on this page if you need proof.

Wayward Sheep

Much has been made recently of a book by William Deresiewicz entitled Excellent Sheep. By most accounts, it is a scathing review of the highest echelons of  the American university system.  His main point is simple, we’ve created a system where entry to the top levels of society is predicated upon high achieving hyper-conformity.

Mountains of eerily similar student profiles litter the desks of admissions agents. Perfect grades, high SAT scores, and a carefully cultivated list of extracurricular activities are stacked in homogenous piles, waiting for a harried admissions agent to pick out the proverbial “needle in the haystack.”

How do so many high achievers end up looking exactly the same on paper? In an age where “individualism” is disingenuously held up as a self-evident virtue (the 40 other people at the train stop staring at their (I)phones are unique little snowflakes, doing exactly the same thing), how are we producing so many uniformly similar students?

I’ve spoken in earlier posts about the danger of narrow thinking. To pull some of society’s highest achievers into a conformity trap at a young age is condemning them to a life with a golden ceiling.

It prevents many of our best and brightest from ever trying their top gears, and we wonder why we have such high levels of depression in our high achievers. Life is great for a natural test taker so long as there is a test put on the desk. When the scantron becomes a blue book though, well that changes things.

Deresiewicz’s moniker of sheep seems harsh, but his point is that our high achievers have become excellent at doing what they’re told.

What are the long term ramifications for a society that promises security and wealth to those who show the most unwavering adherence to the script? Is our current political structure symptomatic of this thinking, so far as we’ve made no haven for truly dynamic leaders, only those who stick rigidly to the party line?

What happens to a society when our leaders are merely managers instead of visionaries? Like the multitude of blinkered horses dragging carts here in Thies, so many people are blinded to the wider world by the next task at hand. It is impossible to build an integrated sense of self if you are constantly waiting for an external force to reveal your next task.

It isn’t those tasks that reveal character, it is the introspection that occurs during and after. 2500 years ago, Socrates revealed that existential truth that “an unexamined life is not worth living” and it rings no less true today.

Unfortunately, the linear obstacle course only requires eyes on the horizon. The hyperlogical approach would say that there is nothing to be gained by looking around.

As I near the end of my trip, I find myself thinking more and more about my “place” in the world upon returning. I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, my development as a person has accelerated beyond my wildest dreams. I can feel it instinctively, and I can see it, plain as day through my writing.

Taking the blinkers off will do that.

Yet, there is an element of fear creeping in as my return gets closer and closer. That nagging doubt that says, “All this was fine as long as you kept running, but the downside is coming.”

It takes a certain amount of confidence to take off and start an adventure, but that can be faked if you start at a bit of a run. Ending an adventure requires a confidence that can’t be faked.

In every cell of my body, I know that this was the right decision. But now, I’ve got to return to the “real world” where the sum of a person is distilled to a resume and a cover letter. Excellent sheep make for excellent resumes.

I guess I’ll just have to see what wayward sheep make.

Hopefully not dog food.

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.)

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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.

 

Blood, Organ Snatchers and Caves

Sometimes while traveling, real life seems to sneak away. Outstanding one of a kind circumstances keep popping up, and every day is a new adventure waiting to be conquered. Everything might not be easy, but nothing goes far enough astray that it can’t be easily fixed.

Mopeds and mountains

Mopeds and mountains

Then you have weeks like this.

After leaving Siem Riep and Angkor Wat, (which I promise to go back and write about) I headed up on another shady 12 hour bus ride to Don Det, Laos.

Don Det is in the 4000 Island archipelego in the middle of the Mekong River straddling the Laos/Cambodia border. This was a border that I literally forded across through the river.
This puts it approximately in the middle of nowhere.

Chalk talk session on the bus/boat/river crossing to Don Det

Chalk talk session on the bus/boat/river crossing to Don Det

Fording the Mekong into Laos

Fording the Mekong into Laos

Chilling with the local kids

Chilling with the local kids

I booked a room in Don Det prior to getting there, only to realize that the hotel was a 3 mile walk from the point that the boat dropped us off on the island. I quickly decided that opposed to walking that far with a loaded pack after a 12 hour journey, that it was time to duck into one of the many guest houses that lined the rutted dirt path through town.

The real power behind Mr. Mo's

The real power behind Mr. Mo’s

I settled on Mr. Mo’s Guesthouse, which was nestled against the river with a Spartan but clean restaurant that looked out over the water. On the 12 hour journey there, I met a German couple traveling with their two kids, Vido and Caroline. The kids were 3 and 6 and I was absolutely in awe of the bravery that it takes to do this kind of travel with little kids for 7 months. The father had a hernia pop out while in Manila, so the family was all helping him pick up the slack to transport their luggage through SE Asia.

I laughed to myself about the impossibility of meeting an American family traveling in the same manner. These kids will be better for their parents’ bravery without a doubt.

In Don Det, I ran into some semi familiar faces including my German friend Marius, and a pair of Canadian cousins I had met on the river in Kampot. A few days later, I made the acquaintance of Luke and Wendy, a British guy and Australian girl who had been traveling for several months as well.
While in Don Det, I took in the sights, including fishing on the Mekong, using a spark plug as a sinker, and a 9 hour kayak trip to see some of the last remaining freshwater dolphins in the world, and the SE Asian Niagara.

Fishing with Marius.

Fishing with Marius.

Throughout my travels, I keep running back into the Mekong, which is basically the Mississippi or Nile of this part of the world, acting as the watershed for countless acres throughout Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It is a massive river which allows the people here to live lives largely unchanged for generations.

Leaving Don Det, I picked up some bus tickets with Luke and Wendy to go see the Kong Lor Cave. A 12 hour bus ride to a place called Thaket, which can barely be called a town, allowed us to get mopeds for the 4 hour drive up to the caves. Finally had my first moped accident over here, going through some of the most treacherous roads I’ve ever seen. A graphically busted knee, bumped helmet and some road rash on my shoulder and hands were all that I came out with. Very lucky all things considered, as all 3 of us laid our mopeds down on the mountain right after a permanent sign that only said “Accident Ahead” in English. Guess we should’ve taken more heed.

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We stayed at a guesthouse in the valley for $3 a night and we were one of about 10 foreigners in the whole valley, which only got electricity 3 years ago. Surreal experience.

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One more little note about Thaket and the valley. We heard that there was a band of Burmese organ snatchers on the loose in the area. The police and military were setting up random checkpoints to find them. At first I thought this sounded like a backpacker rumor gone wild, but it turns out that there really was a band trying to procure organs to sell to Chinese customers. Absolutely terrifying horror movie stuff, but in the spirit of traveling, we just laughed and said, “well I hope they take the left kidney, I’m rather partial to the right.”

Our moped rental owner actually knew the girl who was attacked a few nights before. Never a dull moment on the road in SE Asia.

I can’t be happier that we did it though. It was truly one of the more beautiful places I’ve been on this trip. It was basically the karst islands of Halong Bay formed into mountains. The cave itself was a 5 mile long cavern which was voluminous enough to stack the church I grew up in several times. Just absolutely breathtaking, Lord of the Rings stuff.

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

After we left Kong Lor, we headed to Vientienne, to stock up on bandages/Mac chargers/Western Food for about 12 hours before heading onto Vang Vieng. We arrived on the bus in a pouring rain about 1 AM, and jumped in a tuk-tuk to get to the city center and find somewhere to sleep. Our tuk-tuk driver dropped us off on a road with nothing but prostitutes, and we wandered the city for another 2 hours before finally finding a hostel to lay our weary heads for the night. Always have to be adaptive when traveling, because things don’t always work to plan.

After our resupply in the “big city” we headed up to Vang Vieng, another small town on the Mekong known for tubing, bowling, a rave in the jungle and every restauarant constantly playing “Friends” repeats. Another dreamscape of a place surrounded by karst mountains, but so different from the Kong Lor valley.

I met back up with the Canadian cousins, and had a great time with them and a German couple who thinks that teaching me German is a hilarious activity. My accent is so bad that I wholeheartedly agree. I’d heard from someone that German is the hardest language for native English speakers to fully subsume. After a few days of impromtu German lessons, I can see why.

Boy it is a fantastic language to shout in though.

After all these idyllic landscapes, reality snuck back in. I woke up yesterday morning to go have breakfast on the river and as I was walking back, I came across Marayna, the female half of the Canadian cousins, covered in blood with a huge line of stitches in a shaved line on the front of her head. She was dazed, bloody, and confused. It was really a terrifying moment.

She’d fallen down a flight of unlit concrete steps at the guesthouse and in reality she was lucky that it wasn’t worse than it was. I got her calmed down and cleaned up, and she and her cousin quickly found a bus to get them closer to Bangkok, where the best Western style hospitals in SE Asia are located. Unfortunately it was still going to take them over 24 hours to get to a real hospital, but that’s part of traveling in remote places.

Last I heard from them, they were trying to get on a 7:30 AM flight to Bangkok today. I assume they’ve made it, but should know more soon. It is amazing the clinical detachment that everyone took on this situation. From the standard clinical nature of the Germans, to my scientific searching for best routes to Bangkok, to the simple fact that this situation wasn’t going to get any better without a little work, everyone pitched in and made sure that people who were strangers mere days before ended up getting to where they needed to go.
Most backpackers have a sense of, all for one, and being a solo backpacker myself, I thank God for that fact.

More will come now that I’m in one place, but I reckon that’s enough for now. Next up, World Cup watching!

Leaving Vietnam

3 days on a boat in the Mekong Delta and a whirlwind 2 days in Saigon have conspired to keep me from updating, but fear not, we’re back in business here in Cambodia.

Since my last post,
I’ve spent another full day on a motorcycle

Look Ma! No hands!

Look Ma! No hands!

Had a successful encounter with a waterfall

Making friends...with sign language

Making friends…with sign language

Survived a hostel flooding
Narrowly avoided a panic attack in the Cu Chi tunnels

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Spent 3 days in the MEKONG Delta

Walked across the Cambodian border

Finally landed back in a real bed in Phnom Penh

After a successful day biking around Da Lat, I decided that I’d rather spend 8 hours on a motorcycle than 12 on a “sleeper” bus, so I hired Hero Hung again to take me down to Saigon. It was a bit more business than the last trip, with us needing to make some serious time, but I did spend some time in the gorgeous Elephant Falls.

No near drownings to report this time thankfully.

After getting to Saigon, it was obvious that the end of Vietnam was going to be very different than the beginning. Saigon had all the hustle and bustle of Hanoi, but there was a distinctly Western feel to it. There were wide treelined boulevards, and while Notre Dame Cathedral wasn’t rivaling much in Europe, it was beating the pants off of the seats of several American archdiocese.

KFC, Subway, McDonalds and Starbucks were present and plentiful, as were billboards for Heineken and more.

There is a ton of history to be seen in Saigon though, and I got right to it with the War Remembrance Museum.

To call the place gut wrenching really didn’t do it justice. While I haven’t really felt like I’ve been looked at funny as an American in Vietnam, there was definitely a different tone to the War Museum. Downed American aircraft stood next to disabled American tanks, all leading into an open plan museum, the first floor of which was dedicated to the international outcry against the war. Obviously being prior to my lifetime, I’m not sure what tone the protests against the war took either within the US or abroad, but prominently displayed were the letters from Ho to Harry Truman, and that did cause me to hang my head.

The next 3 floors were dedicated to the atrocity that is war. There were large exhibits to the My Lai massacre and others, but the worst was the Agent Orange exhibit. The amount of toxic defoliant that Americans dumped was absolutely astounding. The consequences of that are still being felt today, but for 2 decades after the war, the destruction of fertile land forced Vietnam to import rice until the mid 1990s.

It is now the world’s number two exporter of both rice and coffee.

Even worse was the horrible effects it had on the population, both in terms of immediate and delayed death. Then there were the myriad birth defects that were caused over the next 2 generations of Vietnamese people.

I wondered when we were in the big cities why there seemed to be such a higher prevalence of spina bifida. That is one of the known birth defects caused by exposure to Agent Orange.

Doesn’t matter what side of the political fence a person is on, chemical warfare is as horrific a tactic as humans have ever used on one another. The unintended consequences are far more costly than any strategic gains are worth. In light of chemical weapons being used once again in Syria, I really hope that people take a little time to think about the results of such weapons, and again re-affirm our opposition to chemical warfare of any kind.

Agent Orange also played a role in my history lesson the next day, when I tore off through the jungle to the Cu Chi tunnels.

In response to the aggressive deforestation campaign waged to flush out the Viet Cong, the citizens/fighters of the Cu Chi area dug an impressive network of tunnels in the area connecting with the nearby Mekong River. The Cu Chi tunnel system ran an impressive 150 miles underground, with tunnels reaching as deep as 60 feet.

Seeing these tunnels really put in perspective the lengths that people were willing to go in this war. I cannot imagine spending days underground in tunnels so narrow that I could barely square my shoulders. I’m not normally very claustrophobic, but between the tunnels and the oppressive heat, I was on the verge of a real freak out about 30 meters into the 60 meter stretch that I went through. Took several deep breaths to get me back calm enough to work my way back out.

The traps used by the “rebels” in the Cu Chi area were rudimentary and absolutely vicious. Most were bamboo spike based booby traps and all were unbelievably painful to whomever fell into them. The butchery of war seems endless with the myriad ways that man has come up with to kill his fellow man.

Any country with a history long enough will have dark marks that won’t come off. The stains on the soul of America started with Vietnam. The past can’t be changed, but it can be learned from, and I sincerely hope that those who go into public service in the US take the time to review the failures of past generations. These are mistakes that we can’t afford to replicate generation after generation.

As I write, there are the embers of war being fanned all over SE Asia and indeed the world. From the Sino-Vietnamese conflict brewing, to the military coup in Thailand, and Russia’s annexation of Ukraine, the seeds of outright conflict are finding fertile soil. This is to say nothing of the brutal civil war which has been waged in Syria for nearly 3 years. Any of these conflicts can spiral out of control in a matter of days.

The US has found itself either unable or unwilling to put together a cohesive foreign policy, and this has allowed conflict to spring up in places which have long known peace under the US hegemony.

I hope that my country realizes its responsibility to peace, and finds a way to once again deter the aggression of neighbors before the bombs start falling.

I’ve finally seen a war zone up close and it is all the hell that the bards ever claimed.

Up next, Cambodia!

An Unexpected Beginning

“Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” -Kurt Vonnegut

Waking up at 5:15 on a -15 degree Chicago morning, I realized that the grey hairs on my head had decided to take up permanent residence. They weren’t going anywhere and neither was I. Locked into my job as a commodity trader, I had reached a point in my life where the only objective was putting more money in the bank. Sitting in front of 8 computer screens for 10 hours a day wasn’t doing much for my soul, and the prospects for adventure were limited to checking out a new bar or a 3 day ski trip to Colorado. The Chicago winter had kept me from seeing sunshine on a weekday for the past 4 months.

Something had to change.

That something was me.

Life has a way of reaching a stasis, putting us into a rut that seems impossible to escape. After a contentious bonus negotiation, I realized that more money wasn’t going to do anything to change my life. I would still be waking up every morning, trying to make money by clicking a mouse and swearing at computer screen.

I’d seen the old guys in my industry, miserable millionaires addicted to the next purchase or bonus check. I’d always known that I didn’t want to become one of those, but here I was, coming closer to that undesirable end day after day.

I knew that buying a condo or a shiny new Lexus wouldn’t do anything to make me happier. They’d just put more bills in my mailbox and keep me further locked into a job which I no longer enjoyed.

So I walked out.

The subject line to my former world travelling Australian roommate read simply:

“Quit my job. Need an adventure. Call when you can.”

Less than 24 hours later, I received a call from my favorite dingo kicker. In his coarse Aussie accent, Benny cut straight to the chase. “I’ve got two mates driving the perimeter of Australia. Fly into Perth and we’ll drive 1800 miles to Broome. We’ll fish, surf, camp and dive up the coast, then you and I will go backpack through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and wherever else tickles our fancy.”

Suddenly I had an adventure waiting on me on the other side of the world. It certainly wasn’t how I’d imagined my week going when I woke up on that cold Chicago Monday morning.

A week later I had a plane ticket in hand, vaccines stuck into my arms and a 90 liter backpack which would be the extent of my worldly possessions for the next half of a year.

This is the story of that adventure.