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.

************

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.

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.

 

 

Friendships and Forks in the Road

Greetings from Bangkok. Turns out this is a real place, not just something that teenaged boys say before hitting each other in the balls.

Took the night train from Chiang Mai. Quite a nice way to travel when compared to the busses of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. I paid about $25 for a sleeper berth, which wasn’t at all what I expected. When I got onto the train originally, the seats were setup in the traditional 2 facing 2 format. I thought to myself, “Shit, you managed to get ripped off.”

In Bangkok, everyone with a voicebox is trying to rip you off.

There wasn’t really anywhere to put my bags either, so I just laid them in the middle of the two seats. I took a short nap sitting up, and then settled in to read for a bit. About 2 hours later, a small Thai stewardess walks up with a big Allen key and motions for me to get out of the way. 3 minutes later, there were two beds, top and bottom, laid out in front of me with small blue curtains almost holding back the light. There were even real pillows.

I was amazed and grateful, so I tucked my things into the top bunk, and laid back down in the bottom. Again, SE Asia has made me realize that height isn’t always an advantage, as even my very average frame was at the absolute maximum to lay flat in the bunk.

I had a little chuckle thinking about my 6’11’’ buddy Kiefer trying to lay in this bed… or hell, do damn near anything in this part of the world. God that’d be miserable.

After settling in, I went to go grab some dinner on the dining car. Dining car was a bit of a scene, with the mandatory moaning Thai music videos playing and the staff smiling and dancing. When I walked in I was the only phaulong (foreigner) in the room. I got a Pad Thai and a Chang beer, and tried futilely to talk to the older Thai gentleman sitting across from me. We got through our names, exhausted our knowledge of our non-native language and finally settled with smiling at each other and tapping our beers for cheers about 5 times.

He left, and two Westerners sat down next to me. I asked, “How ya goin’?” having picked it up from the Aussies, and we started to talk. After getting to where are you from, they replied Americans and I said the same. They actually thought I was Australian, which shocked me.

Turns out they are from…Indiana.

I thought I was going to have a heart attack.

One had gone to school at Arizona State University, and I asked which fraternity he was in. When he replied Sigma Chi, I asked if he ever met an alum named Kyle Uminger, a pseudo cousin of mine who had been the president of that chapter. Turns out, he had apparently given a talk at the house while he was there.

The world is a damned small place, evidenced today on a night train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok.

*********

Leaving Chiang Mai was bittersweet. As I left, I knew that I was leaving several good friends behind. Luke and Wendy (of the Thaket/Kong Lor Cave adventure and motorbike accident) finally caught back up with me. Luke and I went and watched the USA/Germany game, and then said our goodbyes afterward. He’s headed back to Australia in a couple weeks, to have a cornea transplant and hopefully open a food truck in Brisbane. In a little over 3 weeks, we had some great adventures.

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

From getting to Thaket in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay, with reports of Burmese body snatchers floating in and finally having a 10 year old kid take us to the neighbors, where he beat on the door at 2AM and told them to make us dinner. Finally some poor groggy man got out of bed and beckoned us in. We sat and laughed and drank beers while watching some old Champions League game.

The next day was when we crashed our motorbikes during the 4 hour ride to Kong Lor cave.

The night after that, we got into Vientienne in a pouring rain at 1:30AM and were promptly dropped off in an alley full of hookers by the least scrupulous tuk-tuk driver I’ve encountered yet.

The following hour and a half was an unfunny comedy of errors before we finally found a hostel that would take us.

I also left behind Fabio and Marlene, the German couple I’ve been traveling with for the past couple of weeks.

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They’ve been excellent traveling partners and great friends. We’ve ridden elephants, flown around Vang Vieng on go-karts, played endless games of Ralfrunta, and even seen off a near tragedy when our mutual traveling partner Marayna decided to take a header down some stairs (resulting in 40 some odd stitches.)

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We talked about a little bit of everything from politics, culture, language, movies, you name it. I can speak a very small amount of poorly pronounced German now (Marlene still thinks I have potatoes in my mouth,) and they know what phrases like “Hell in a handbasket” mean. I had a blast with them, and saw how a well functioning couple doing this kind of long-term travel operates.

The mere thought of traveling with most American girls like this is enough to give me grey hair, but Marlene was a trooper of the highest order; a veritable mobile pharmacy which could produce anti-diahhera medicine, toilet paper, contact solution, and mosquito repellent out of a bag which didn’t seem large enough by half.
I’ll miss Fabio’s bad jokes, which were always saved by the second punchline, “Ya, dat EEs funny. Right?” And I’ll miss Marlene yelling at Fabio during Ralfrunta, “Fabi-YO, I cahn see yooor cahds!”

They are headed to the Philippines from here, then back to Germany in a month after a full year of traveling from New Zealand through SE Asia. I promised that if I ever got to Germany that I’d stop in, and I’d imagine if Marlene has her way there will be a mini-Kraut padding around their flat if I wait more than a year or so.

As I got off the plane in Krabi, I wondered who I’d meet as I got to my hostel. Turns out, there was a ready made crew waiting in the dorm room when I got there. Dutch girls, with their throaty accents and slightly amazing hair products (just in time for the Netherlands/Mexico game!), a Welsh lad who was brutally offended that I didn’t know about rugby, and a parcel of English girls telling me all about their time in India.

I have the feeling I won’t lack for company here either.

**********

That’s the beauty of friendships on the road. In a mere few weeks, I’ve had more unique experiences with these people than many that I’ve known for years. I know how they react under pressure and how chippy they get when they’re hungry or tired. I know how they deal with a legitimate crisis and how easily they can laugh off a “toilet” which is little more than a hole in the ground. I’ve seen them on mopeds and I’ve seen how well they barter with tuk-tuk drivers. I sat across from them when the transmission fell out of our bus in the mountains, and I saw the fear on their faces when we drove past a bus just like ours that had rolled off the highway on a rainy night to Vientiane.

These friendships taught me things, both about others and about myself. So often we find ourselves squabbling with our friends in our routine lives, taking offense at this or that. None of it really amounts to a hill of beans, but we ball up our fists and get angry instead of just letting it all go.

I’ve seen enough of the world to know that lives intersect for a reason. Hell I wouldn’t be sitting where I am today if a collegiate acquaintance hadn’t been dumb enough to stay in the biggest dump of a hostel in Amsterdam and struck up a conversation with a certain dingo kicking Australian.

They traveled together for 5 months and thus began a lifelong friendship.

That dingo kicking Australian ended up becoming my roommate when he moved to NYC, and since then I’ve been on 4 continents with him and consider him one of my closest friends.

Thanks for picking a dump of a hostel Mr. Misamore, I owe you one.

If it weren’t for an interaction that I was unaware of until years later, the Conquest would probably be sitting in front of 8 computer screens swearing at non-existent gold customers. Instead, I’m sitting on the 10th floor overlooking Bangkok, celebrating the start of my 4th month on the road.

Friendships come in all different kinds. Some last for decades, others for only a few days. Appreciate them all and be careful about discarding them. The universe puts people together for reasons often beyond our comprehension.

There are enough forks in the road that end friendships prematurely. Don’t be like the fork-throwing monkey in Battambang and put one there artificially.

I can damn near promise that the issue you think matters so much isn’t half as significant as you think. Holding onto anger in one hand and a friend in the other, the choice seems pretty clear.

Kids Being Kids

While traveling, we’re drawn to the differences in culture. The way French girls smoke like chimneys and laugh after rapidly firing off the equivalent number of words in War and Peace, all in less than 20 seconds. The way English guys give a hearty laugh about something “lad-tastic” (Lad being English for “Bro”) and then cast their eyes about to make sure no one else heard.

How Germans walk around the bus they are about to travel in 3 times, before announcing in their sharply pronounced English, “Yes dis vill do.” And how a Brazilian girl, laughing throatily at something, will catch your eye just as her face finds the pose of maximum exuberant beauty.

The Brazilian eye thing really is like the shocking thrill of jumping into cold water…every single time she laughs.

You notice how Cambodians are never all working at the same time, and a few are inevitably hanging from a hammock taking a midday snooze. How the Vietnamese girls working at the hotel in Nha Trang can remember the name of every person under their roof within 2 hours of checking and Vietnamese men can whisk in and out of a room without anyone noticing their presence. You meet the legion of Laotian 12 year old girls who inevitably run the business end of so many guest houses.

The little things that you notice while traveling are endless. I could spend days talking about the little odds and ends that people do over here that are different from how we do them back home. Construction is done with scaffolding made of stripped tree limbs. Guesthouses are opened after the first floor is completed, and additional floors will be added ad-hoc as money allows. There isn’t a single place I’ve eaten over here that would come close to passing a US Food and Health inspection (but we all seem to survive.)

The last few days I’ve been spending time with a German couple from Cologne. They are 31 and highly experienced travelers, but are great fun and love to interact. Fabio, a second generation German of Sicilian extraction, and I have had a blast comparing things in Germany and the US. His girlfriend is Maleen, who is German of…German extraction. We’ve really come to understand some things about the other’s country. We’ve talked about national pride, welfare, family size, school size, divorce, travel plans, iPhones, tax codes, history, and of course the Autobahn. The also taught me a fantastic card game called Ralf-runta. (I’m sure that isn’t even close to spelled correctly.)

Fabio is teaching me German, (Maleen offers sporadic advice as well, “you sound as if you haff a mouthful of potatoes, TAKE DEM OUT!) and they are gleaning small bits of English off of me, words like “industrious” and “loophole.” He’s also getting a few “Moormanism’s” like, “many ways to skin a cat,” “hotter’n hellfire,” “neater’n socks on a rooster,” “hell in a handbasket,” and other, Gene Moorman-esque, less family friendly phrases. The kinds of language skills you can’t possibly get from a book, only real conversation.

The more we talk, the more I notice both differences and similarities between our cultures. The one thing that I always find interesting is when we either interact with or see small children. We always find common ground on how kids act.

Kids are kids the world over. I grew up with a school teacher for a mother, and working at the Boys Club with 150 kids a night running amok, so I’ve had a fair few dealings with kids and I find them fantastic to be around. Given the choice between frowning and smiling, they always choose the smile. Small things, sometimes as simple as a big refrigerator box can make them extraordinarily happy and when cranky a sandwich or a nap will nearly always fix the problem. Kids are simple because they only worry about things that actually matter.

Am I safe?
Am I hungry?
Does someone love me enough to help me if I’m in trouble?

You give a kid those 3 things, and you’ll have a well-adjusted kid. No book purchase necessary.

Kids in war zones don’t have it because they can’t feel safe.
Kids in Africa are just hungry.
American kids lose it because they don’t have enough positive daily interactions to actually feel loved.

In SE Asia, the family unit is omnipresent. Most guesthouses/restaurants/businesses of any kind are run by a multi-generational family. Side by side down so many streets the scene is exactly the same. Grandma is sitting with the baby, anyone from 12 to 50 is jumping up to do whatever needs done, and anyone under 12 is running around in a pack of 10-25 neighborhood kids.

Chilling with the local kids

Chilling with the local kids

At meal time, the whole family sits around a big pot of broth with vegetables, noodles and rice of some sort, and usually a skewer or two of meat. Everyone is laughing, interacting, talking about (well God knows what they’re talking about actually) and everyone is smiling. No one fidgets with a cellphone, the TV isn’t on, and no one is at all concerned about a phone ringing. If a customer needs someone, there is a quick circular wave of eyes around the table until someone throws their head back in a feigned pout and jumps up to take care of it.

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Pardon me for thinking that they don’t have it wrong.

Children in SE Asia are remarkably bold. These kids fear absolutely nothing, whether climbing a tree so high that I’m getting nervous, or the 10 year old firebreather in Saigon. I joked above about the 12 year old Laotian girl running the guesthouse, but anyone who stayed at Mr. Mo’s dealt with her.

I think they get this confidence from a couple different factors. The free play of the peer group in every possible situation imaginable and the fact that every adult in sight cares about their well-being.

The soccer crew

The soccer crew

American kids today are over sheltered to the point of comedy. Every activity is run by an adult, school, extra curricular activities, sports, play dates, you name it. Pickup baseball games are a bygone pastime, both because of liability to let unsupervised kids on a field and simply a lack of kids with the freedom to get on a bike and come play ball. Urban and suburban kids don’t have any open nature spaces to interact with, where they could push down dead trees or throw rocks or build dams across creeks or just get muddy.

4 generations eating together nightly

4 generations eating together nightly

Even if more American kids did have access to a natural landscape, how many would shut off the XBox to actually interact with it?

They have activities and homework. Scheduled play dates and clarinet lessons. Volleyball practice and youth group. They play video games for hours, against people they can’t actually see. A roaming group of teenaged kids is just an invitation to get harassed by police in many places, so interactions take place indoors, where activities are typically limited to drugs, sex and video games.

Seeing these people live, and how much they smile, I really wonder who has things closer to right. We’ve got a lot of things, but how many of us live close enough to have dinner with a family member even 1 night a week? Let alone being able to see your grandmother and every niece and nephew at every meal.

Kids are kids the world over. Needs are simple and happiness obtained with only the barest of requirements.

God bless them for that.

Suburban Nightmares

I always told myself that if I wanted a tattoo, I should write it down, put it in a drawer, and pull it out a year later to see if I still wanted it. That saved me a lot of unnecessary laser removal bills when I was younger.

Still tattoo free

Still tattoo free

The same is true in life. When I was younger, I really thought I had THE plan. Get a good job, move to a big city, marry a pretty girl (whose mom still looked good, this is chess not checkers) and raise some cool kids in a nice suburb. I’d seen it work for other people, or at least thought I had, and I wanted that American dream for myself. I was getting the hell out of the podunk town where I grew up and goddamnit I was going to drive a nice Lexus crossover SUV to get there, and I’d park it in a garage with real wood garage doors.

Someone else got that life, and I hope he’s happy with it.

Mostly for her sake.

I got this, and I’m thrilled.

Giving rice noodles a shot

Giving rice noodles a shot

Then life happened. I watched my model for this lifestyle completely blow up. I watched what a lifetime of “doing the right thing” and “playing it safe” had done to a couple who I considered an absolute example in this life.

I saw the suburbs be a defective competition of people who had tried to eliminate all risk from this life, and in doing so had manufactured a game of “keeping up with the Joneses” to stay engaged at all. The delusion that fulfillment can be achieved through the high regard of others is dangerously fragile.

One day they woke up and neither one felt fulfilled. The only way to get out of the trap was to blow it up completely.

The collateral damage of that is staggering. Kids, spouses and extended family all feel the repercussions of a life that just couldn’t bottle up the pressure anymore. It is no one’s fault, just the consequences of taking the safe road one time too many.

We’re meant to throw off the bowlines, test the high seas, and fail occasionally. America’s suburban class has made failure an outcome that must be avoided at all costs, with the victim being greatness. We tell 14 year olds to do 3 hours of homework a night so that they can get into a “good school” and do the same for another 4 years. Then we immediately go to work and work as hard as humanly possible to “get ahead.” Eventually there will be a payoff, some magical Kathmandu which will make it all worth it.

Making woven sleeping mats

Making woven sleeping mats

Then we see the All-American Dad die one Thursday night on the treadmill. We stand around a casket and wonder how life is so unfair that he never got to reach that magical “retirement” so that he could see the world and finally enjoy himself.

That really throws some people for a loop. Now we want fairness, we want to know why, and we want to protect ourselves from a premature end like that.

Life isn’t meant to be lived at the end. It isn’t supposed to be safe and riskless either.

Life’s goal should not be a destination, it is the journey that should be enjoyed.

That isn’t found in a Lexus SUV behind a wooden garage door beside a perfectly manicured lawn. It isn’t an Instagram picture with 112 likes of a $15 cocktail from an urban rooftop. It isn’t having your kid go to an Ivy League school, or having the prettiest wife at your 25 year class reunion.

It is appreciating a laugh with your best friends.

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Laying under the stars and pondering your own insignificance.

Put down the iPhone

Put down the iPhone

It is sitting across from an Argentinian girl and temporarily forgetting the names of every girl you ever thought you loved in this life.

Eating a meal on a 12 inch tall plastic stool in a dark alley where no one speaks English, and not pulling out your phone to check your text messages.

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It is sweating your ass off in 95 degree heat in a concrete shell of a house making rice noodles with a mother and son who don’t speak English, and understanding why they smile so much.

83 and happy, in a house with dirt floors

83 and happy, in a house with dirt floors

It is going to a beach without a single tourist, and watching four generations of a dirt poor family play in the waves and sand while eating dinner, smiling like a staged picture at Disneyland.

4 generations eating together nightly

4 generations eating together nightly

Life is meant to be enjoyed everyday. Not at some point in the mythical “future.” If your life isn’t fulfilling, don’t wait for the next pay raise or girl in the bar to make you happy. Go find a way to do it.

A wise man with an uncanny resemblance to a former American Vice President once told me that he’d promised himself two things when he was younger. That he wouldn’t sell things for a living, and he wouldn’t live in a suburb of Chicago. At the time he told me that, he was doing both.

I always wondered if he ever thought about the road not taken.

We rush and we rush, and we tell ourselves it’s worth it. We consume heaps of nonsense that we don’t really need, in order to save face with our neighbors.

Not beating the Joneses

Not beating the Joneses

We sacrifice our dreams on the altar of safety and get nightmares for our trouble. We work ourselves ragged 50 weeks a year, so that we can go “enjoy” ourselves the other 2.

Boat builders in Com Kim

Boat builders in Com Kim

The finished product

The finished product

As scared as I was to start the Conquest, the factor that pushed me to buy that first plane ticket was the fear of ending up like that All-American Dad in the casket, who had done everything right, but always put the rewards off until tomorrow. He was one of the best men I ever knew, and he deserved better than that.

I hope when they put me in the ground someone doesn’t cry for the things I didn’t get to do, but quietly appreciates the things I did.

I’m trying to live life in a way which makes each day a reward unto itself. Just because it doesn’t work everyday doesn’t mean that it is wrong.

Naperville please don’t be expecting me anytime soon.

“Those who prefer their principles over their happiness, they refuse to be happy outside the conditions they seem to have attached to their happiness. If they are happy by surprise, they find themselves disabled, unhappy to be deprived of their unhappiness.” Albert Camus

Lessons Learned

So when I started on this journey, I threw up the obligatory WordPress site and decided to be a diligent blogger of the trip. So far I’ve had 19 posts in 40 days, and while that isn’t amazing, I’m not totally ashamed at my laziness either.

However, I’d never really been a blogger before this, so it has been interesting to see what works and what doesn’t.

Lesson 1: People go goddamned bananas for any post involving food.

I started to notice this early, when I was posting pictures of the seafood feasts from Hamilton Island. Quite frankly yes, it was one of the more unbelievable meals I’d ever had both in terms of Nick’s cooking ability and the preposterous freshness of the food.

Mudcrab in Shanghai Sauce

The scenery didn’t leave a sour taste in my mouth either.

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People went bonkers over the food. I got more comments and emails about that that just about anything else I’d posted about from Australia. People wanting recipes, more pictures, the whole 9 yards, so I decided to be a little more accommodating here in Hoi An, by taking several cooking classes at local restaurants.

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I was pretty excited to expand my cooking horizon, but Lord, people love reading blog posts about food they aren’t eating. Crazy to me but there’s something about food porn that reminds me of crack fiends. Guess I need to sprinkle a little more around.

Lesson 2: If there is water in a picture, everyone likes it better.

The whole time we were in Australia, I think that we were a maximum of 5km from a beach of some sort. Good country Australia, but they don’t get off the coasts much.

The Lookout

The Lookout

People seem to love the pictures of water, wherever it is. Murky river in a rice paddy outside of Hanoi? Yep, I’ll like that. I don’t get it, but give the people what they want. The Conquest hasn’t been properly dry since I landed here in Vietnam anyway.

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Lesson 3: If it ain’t on the front page, people aren’t fooling with it.

The blog posts on a daily basis are half me getting things down so that I remember them, and half so that other people can take 10 minutes at their computer to zone out and imagine being somewhere else. I’m glad that it is a symbiotic relationship from that perspective.

However, the whole point of the life transition was to work into more serious writing. The short stories on the site are really what I’m trying to develop more of (my current effort on one about the Alligator Man is coming…someday…I think.) People don’t tend to wander around on the ancillary pages though.

I guess that is my shameless plug to get people to read some of the short stories. There’s the link. Click it. I dare you.

Hopefully more will be coming soon.

Until then, food porn and water shots. The bread and circuses of the blogosphere.

On the Beach in Byron

Sorry for the delay between posts. 5 days in Byron and some additional travel have kept me away from solid internet and my computer, so heaps have happened in the interim.

Byron Bay

Got up to Byron on Thursday afternoon. Took a bus from Ben’s grandmother’s down to Byron, which took a little over an hour and a half. The drive down was beautiful but strange. The landscape reminded me very much of home, but with more variation in elevation. Most of the land was agricultural, probably 90% pasture and 10% cultivated. Cattle were everywhere on the green rolling hills, and the cultivated land was mostly sugarcane.

Bit of a difference however, between the “beach” at the Williams Dam, and the outstanding coastline that abutted the farmland in New South Wales. The agricultural land went all the way to the ocean, only being bisected by the highway. This concept seemed absolutely mental to me as there is no where in the States that has good weather and 70 consecutive miles of beautiful coastline that hasn’t been developed. Not sure whether it was the sea air or the cowshit, but the Conquest smells an opportunity. Might need to recruit a Spreen for this one though. I’m still rating “Unsatisfactory” with my gentleman farming skills, so I’ll defer to the experts.

The Lookout

The Lookout

Upon arriving in Byron, we checked into our hostel and went to have a look around. Again, the beaches were beautiful, but Byron was the busiest beach we’ve seen by far since I’ve gotten to OZ. Between 35-40k people a day attended the Blues and Roots Festival, and Byron Bay is a town of 9,000 people. It was absolutely packed to the gills as it was also the Easter Holiday weekend, and families from around the area converged as well.

Byron Bay

The hostel was well appointed. We basically had a 2 BR apartment with kitchen, sitting room, and a deck. Our bedroom was 2 sets of bunkbeds which we shared with a rotating cast throughout the weekend. The other bedroom was a single full bed, which was occupied by 3 different couples. We were about two blocks from the center of town, with bikes and surfboards available for free through the hostel.

Hostel LIving

Hostel LIving

One morning I jumped on one of the beat up beach cruiser and headed up to the beachside market. Every handmade good imaginable was on offer, from hand pressed natural antibiotic from tea trees, to painted concrete mushrooms, all the way to some of the most beautiful sunset surfing pictures I’ve ever seen. The whole atmosphere is one of community first, sales second. There are booths stretched for over a half mile, and people are elbow to elbow moseying through, arms full of artisanal this and that, cash being put into the hand that made the product.

Not a bad little economic system they’ve worked out there on the beach.

Byron is the most easterly point of continental Australia, and on Monday morning, our Kiwi roommate Ryan and I headed out to go take a peek from the point. A friend of mine from home, Jade Wagner, had also suggested this, so I figured it was worth the time. The view was phenomenal, about 200 feet above sea level looking down over Byron and then Tallow Beach to the south.

Most Eastern Point of Continental Australia

Most Eastern Point of Continental Australia

Beyond the point, there is a group of about 800 dolphins that congregate in the area. Unfortunately without a telephoto lens, I couldn’t get the pictures to turn out very well, but I saw heaps of dolphins swimming just northeast of the point. To see 10-15 fins going around was outstanding. We were too early (or is it late since winter is beginning here) in the season to see the whale shark migration, but if anyone ever has the desire to see it, Byron Bay would be an absolutely outstanding place to do it from.

Now onto the colorful cast of characters. From the hostel, we had a super friendly New Zealander and a standard polite but mirthless German. Also had two girls from Brisbane in the second room, who brought along with them a fantastic complement of local professional hippies/buskers (street performers.)

From these guys, I got to hear about Nimbin, the local hippy run town, complete with police force, post office, etc. It is just a wild place where anything goes, drugs are available anywhere you ask, and people just generally hang out and make handmade goods for sale at local markets. I also got to hear about the busking end, one of the guys, Yamos, has been a “professional busker” for over 30 years. He’s a Greek from Devonport, New Zealand originally, and he is absolutely terrified of cities.

“Man, Melbourne. Place just about brought me to tears with all the people bustling around. Scary scary place man.”

“Nimbin, ha. They’ll sort you out man. Just get sorted…then go out to the waterfall.”

Heaps of surfers

Heaps of surfers

Yamos was really interesting though. Coming in sporting a thin blue headband over his neck length white hair, Yamos gave me the flavor of Byron. First he started talking about the population growth in Byron (a town of 9,000 that is aggressively trying to thwart a western “suburb” which would increase the population to about 12,000 total. He also talked about teaching music in Devonport, and his friendship with “Ellie” a woman who would become Lorde. She was a child prodigy discovered at age 9, and would give free concerts in town often until she signed with Universal at the age of 13. Yamos said she is absolutely brilliant scholastically as well and that she’d be the biggest star in the world someday. Considering her fame at the age of 17, I’d say he’s got a decent chance of being right.

Yamos and John also talked about cops and busking. Byron recently passed a shire wide ordinance requiring buskers to be registered. This…displeased the local busking population. After the festival one night, I saw 3 cops busting two buskers on Jonson Street about 2:30, and hiding around the corner in an alley was…John. Just refused on principle to register, so he was playing cat and mouse with the police all night. Yamos told me that he typically makes 250-350 most nights he performs, so John’s ideological purity was costing him mightily.

These interactions are really the best part of travel.

You might have worn the same 2 shirts for the last week and smell a bit like that kid in 3rd grade everyone avoided, because you don’t have access to a washing machine. The limited sleep you catch, on a sweaty twin sized mattress, in a camp style bunkbed, is punctuated by a couple of new strangers every night. Checking in at the airport, tells you you’re going to Sydney, not Melbourne, then routes you back through Adelaide and double charges your card, pushing you off on an exasperated check-in girl at the end of her shift. Two hippies roll up to your unlocked hostel room in the middle of the afternoon and seem to know no one.

Waking up to see this

Waking up to see this

Then you talk to the two hippies who have made a life of singing on street corners, and have every line on their face and a roach burned thumb to prove it. The sweaty stranger above you becomes a buddy, and you find out about how life is for a gourmet dog food sales rep in New Zealand and Australia. A couple of British birds come in in the middle of the night, and give you an arms length list of things to do in Vietnam. That horsed up flight gets fixed by that exasperated girl, and you end up getting a direct flight that lands 3 hours earlier.

It is all worth it.

The stink, the shitty beds, and the 6AM bus rides, every bit is worth it because you’ve experienced something. You look back in a month and say, “I remember exactly what I did that Thursday, I hiked in the morning, swam in the ocean in the afternoon, and saw an 80 year old named Buddy Guy do things to a guitar that seem impossible. Then I walked over 200 yards and watched a coked out of his mind John Mayer entertain 20k people for 2 hours. Yeah, I remember last Thursday.”

Sure as hell beats your average Thursday.

Byron Bay

All Blues in Byron

Byron Blues and Roots was a fantastic 5 day festival. The lineup was absolutely incredible, and it was a total bonus on this trip. Ben got a Facebook message offering him VIP tickets when we were in Perth, looks over at me and said,

“Hey, what do you think about doing Byron Blues and Roots? Only cost is accom.”

Keeping in the spirit of the trip, I just said yes.

Getting the chance to see Buddy Guy, Gary Clark Jr. and the Doobie Brothers at the same venue as John Mayer, Jack Johnson, Dave Matthews Band and John Butler Trio wasn’t something I was planning on passing up. The only problem with this festival was that there were too many artists we wanted to see in 5 days.

The weather was perfect (for the first time in 5 years from what we were told) and the music was amazing. The festival is intended to hold 35,000-40,000 people or so a day, and being the 25th anniversary it was sold out for at least 3 of the days.

Bluesfest

The festival itself was on a specifically designed site. A local businessman bought a tea farm about 7 miles outside of Byron Bay and excavated everything perfectly for a huge festival venue. From the culverts to the stage location, everything about this location was designed with this purpose in mind. About 60% of people camp at this festival, so you’re looking at another 20,000+ campsites plotted out as well.

The music was spectacular. From John Mayer being ripped out of his mind, singing jumbled up “dream songs” in between his hits, to John Butler Trio having 30k people sing “Betterman” we couldn’t have asked for a more outstanding musical performance.

Before arriving, we jotted down ten moments in the festival that we were particularly excited to see. At least one of us made one of them.

1. Jack Johnson- Flake

Flake

Flake

2. John Butler Trio- Better Man
3. Matt Corby- Souls A’fire
4. Buddy Guy – Sweet Home Chicago (my personal highlight of the week)

Sweet Home Chicago

Sweet Home Chicago

5. John Mayer- Who Says

John Mayer, telling 20k people about his "dream songs"

John Mayer, telling 20k people about his “dream songs”

6. Dave Matthews Band- Space Between

The Space Between

The Space Between

7. Erykah Badu- I Want You
8. India.Arie- Video

India.Arie

9. Gary Clark Jr.- Bright Lights
10. Chali 2na- Comin’ Thru

If anyone is a guitar fan and has a chance to see Gary Clark Jr., for the love of all that is holy go do it. He is an absolute legend with a guitar in his hands, and it is a truly incredible thing to see him go nuts.

Bright Lights

Bright Lights

Past that, we were pretty pleased with everyone’s performance. It was my first DMB concert, and I was impressed, if not obsessed with them. Great act, just not sure what the absurd cult-like following is about.

All and all, couldn’t be happier with the 5 days in Byron. More on the actual town to follow.

Leaving Paradise

I suppose if I set up permanent camp this quickly into the trip, the Moorman Conquest would have to rechristen itself the Moorman Siege. It almost happened with Hamilton Island and the Whitsundays. Rarely if ever have I been to a place more beautiful and untouched by human hands, and that beauty truly spoke to my soul.

After riding out the hurricane on Sunday, we piled into the boat and commandeered a mile of totally untouched beach on Monday. Seeing no one for miles on a perfectly white beach with sand so fine that you could buff the face of your watch was a nearly surreal experience.

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We set up camp with a huge spread of food, drink and sporting equipment. Between biscuit (tube) rides behind the jet ski, snorkeling on the reef, a heated game of beach Foursquare, and a bunch of Aussies teaching me to how to properly kick a footy, we entertained ourselves for hours on this pristine coastline. I couldn’t believe that we had such beauty all to ourselves.

Snorkeling

Snorkeling

Snorkeling

After that, we headed up to a lookout point over Whitehaven Beach. The tide was nearly completely out when we got there and there were hundreds of thousands of Soldier Crabs scurrying about looking for a meal before the waters came rushing back in. Seeing these palm sized crabs in such staggering numbers was a sight in itself, but then we got to the lookout point and got a better perspective on the enormity of the Whitsunday Island chain.

Uninhabited islands abounded in the area, from small hard spits of land no bigger than a semi-trailer, to massive miles long islands jealously keeping wildlife and waterfalls underneath a lush green canopy of deciduous and coniferous trees, there is a biological diversity that few areas can match.

Tuesday night, we celebrated my 27th birthday with a phenomenal Greek dinner of zucchini fries, mudcrab and lamb chops. Nick once again outdid himself, making a feast that most professional chefs would be proud to call their handiwork. God also jumped in on the birthday celebrations, leaving a beautiful lunar eclipse to be viewed over the vibrant blues of the ocean. It was just one more reminder of the amazing beauty that abounds in our world.

Look up from that iPhone screen, you might see something breathtaking.

Put down the iPhone

Put down the iPhone

Wednesday afternoon, we left for the Gold Coast en route to Byron Bay for the Blues and Roots Festival. While I hope I someday see the Whitsundays again, as Frost so eloquently stated in his immortal poem, “The Road Not Taken”,

“Yet knowing how way leads onto way, I doubted if I should ever come back.”

I suppose I should be thankful that I took the road less taken to begin with. The twinge of regret on the road not taken would be nothing compared to having never seen the fork.

Upon arriving to the Goldie, as it is affectionately known, we were taken to yet another beach lookout, where the full moon illuminated a massive swath of dark water into a lighted southeasterly arrow. I took some time to glance at a few of the constellations that I’ve been trying to learn (I’ve got you now Gemini and Cancer) and took in the pounding of the massive waves. Our friend Brittney asked if I was sick of ocean scenes yet, and I laughed that after spending 22 years living in the midst of cornfields, it would take a whole lot more than 3 weeks in OZ to lessen my appreciation for a lungful of salt air and the rhythmic onslaught of waves on rocks.

We stayed with Ben’s grandmother in the Gold Coast, a wonderful woman of 78 who made me realize that whether in the US or OZ, grandmothers know no borders.

I can’t act as if I wasn’t jealous, seeing a grandmother interact with her eldest grandson as I had so many times with my own, but it made me again appreciate the 26 years that I got to spend with the sainted women that called me their grandson. As with my trip to paradise, all things end.

What we so often fail to realize in our own lives, whether a relationship, a job, or a friendship is that an end does not diminish the good that was. I think it is an important lesson to reflect upon.

After the Storm

Growing up in the midst of cornfields, my experience with hurricanes has been limited to watching Jim Cantore get blown all over Florida, and a dud of a hurricane named Irene while I was in NYC. Tropical Cyclone Ita was a bit of a dud as well. It wasted a full day blowing around palm trees and lashing everything with a deluge of water, but there was never a period where we felt the awe inspiring power that hurricanes can sometimes bring.

Tropical Cyclone Ita

Storm rolling in

Tropical Cyclone Ita

Waking up Monday morning, the sky was an unmarked crystalline blue. Aside from a few rangy clouds on the western horizon, there was no mark of yesterday’s storm. As I read my book on the balcony this morning, the sun poked out from behind the mountain on Hamilton Island and bathed the marina in a gentle light. Gorgeous is not an adequate word to describe the illuminated palate of blues and greens.

Marina the Day After

Birds were everywhere, singing and making up for lost time by eating anything and everything. A cockatoo played chicken with me this morning on the balcony. Lithe as a gymnast on a balance beam, the cream colored bird trapezed along the aluminum rail as if I was the intruder. He would sidle up next to me as I read, only to scurry further away if I paid him any mind. His talons on aluminum made a very distinct noise, keeping time as I flipped from page to page. Occasionally I would look up to see him pacing back and forth, throwing up his neon mohawk whenever I took a few steps towards him.

Good Morning!

Part of the group is leaving today to head back to Melbourne, and the rest will be departing tomorrow. Even with the rain, we’ve had a good time drinking and feasting around the island. Nick seems to want to get out to the reef this week, so hopefully we’ll have time to get out about 50 nautical miles to see the heart of the Great Barrier Reef before Ben and I head down to Byron Bay for the Blues and Roots Festival.