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.

Cambodian Rain

The humid air rises in opposition to the constant tumbling sheets of rain. The smell of afternoon fish, darien fruit, and the omnipresent scent of the third world rises with it.

The relentless barrage of rain drops generate a uniform hum as they fall fast against the multitude of corrugated steel roofs. The standard cacophony of tuk-tuks, horns, squealing tires and generators is overwhelmed by the sounds of the storm. The warm grey background of the enclosing clouds provides a physical face to the unabated deluge of water.

Rain runs right off the roofs into cisterns and barrels, undoubtedly to be used for flushing toilets and washing dishes. Palm trees do yoga, tops bending at near impossible angles while the downward facing bottom fronds sit alertly at at attention.

A synchronized dance of 100 tuk tuk drivers occurs as they simultaneously pull over to slap on the glorified shopping bags known as plastic parkas.

The choreography is the same for each driver:

Tuk-tuk to the side of the road
Helmet off
Key under the seat
Seat up
Parka out
Seat down
Parka on
Helmet on
Key in ignition
Resume race

Standing in my room with my head out the window, the routine is played out over and over again, some keeping perfect time, while others create a waterfall effect of continuous repeated motion.

Soaked push bikers cling to their metal steeds in packs, fighting through the wind, rain, and standing water, seemingly oblivious to the deluge around them.

Lightning rents the sky, not in the now familiar forms of heat lightning that illuminate the darkness each evening but in jagged cracks of light as if the ever deepening gray morass is concealing a blindingly back light. Thunder crackles continuously with a growing crescendo to punch through the hum of falling rain.

A shirtless man opportunistically washes his motorbike, soaked by the rain but working regardless. As he finishes cleaning his metal and plastic steed, he jumps under the 4 inch PVC pipe sticking out of the bank building next to his hovel and showers in the deluge of rainwater.

Vacant fields which were bone dry moments ago are now covered in an endlessly connecting series of puddles.

A 12 story pagoda rises stoically in the distance, one last landmark making its stand against the encroaching grey. As the storm rolls further in, it is totally concealed by the grey.

20 minutes later the rain starts to lessen, by minutes, not degrees. Even a momentary respite against the onslaught will allow this dry land to accept the gods’ fluid offerings.

Finally the rain ends, bringing with it the dark of night and a chill hitherto unfelt in Cambodia. For all the storms I’ve seen in this life, this was the most vividly different.