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.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

I played with monkeys and rode on elephants.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I wrecked motorbikes and taught monks English.

Where's Switzerland again?

Where’s Switzerland again?

 

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

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

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

Belgians, Finns, Limeys and Thais

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dreams Worth Having

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

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

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

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

Not the main road

Not the main road

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No billboards on this "highway"

No billboards on this “highway”

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

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

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

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

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

People always tell kids to “chase their dreams.”

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

Seemed like a dream at the time

Seemed like a dream at the time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where's Switzerland again?

Where’s Switzerland again?

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

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

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

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

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

I bet that person is pretty sweet.

Say hi for me.

 

 

12 Steps to Freedom

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

-Kurt Vonnegut

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. We humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh the Places You’ll Go

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.)

IMG_4772

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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!

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.

The High Cost of “Getting There”

As we walked past the cracked windshield and torn up grill and onto the ripped vinyl stairs of the bus, I just started laughing hysterically.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The unicorn themed sticker display surrounding the driver’s seat and TV, combined with the hideously fabric used for the window and stowage coverings were just too much. I sat down in my seat, where the air was completely still and the outdoors were approaching 100 degrees. My ass immediately started sticking as if a whole bushel of chewed Bazooka was cleverly disguised as the ripped red leather seat that I would call home for the next 150 miles.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The bus driver said 3 hours, which is Cambodian for 5. The seats did have the luxurious option to lay down to a wonderful 140 degree angle, fantastic for pinning your shoulders between the window and the seat next to you in a manner that would cause Houdini to feel claustrophobic.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Fear not though gentle traveler, the person in front of you is a ¾ replica of the average Western man, so he can lay his seat right down into your lap with no issues at all.

I looked gratefully at my last minute decision to grab another 1.5 L bottle of water, and tucked in my headphones for what I knew was going to be a long bumpy ride down another wonderfully unpaved stretch of the Cambodian countryside.

You’ve got to laugh, otherwise you might cry. Otherwise I might have started thinking about the fact that I’ve spent the last 73 nights of my life in no fewer than 35 beds.

Maybe I’d remember that I haven’t been properly dry since landing in Hanoi 34 days ago. I’d probably think how great it’d be great to just have a nice simple hot dog on the grill, complete with MUSTARD and a soft bun. Or how I’d love to be bullshitting with my buddies at a fraternity brother’s wedding this weekend. I might remember the fact that there won’t be cars on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for another 345 days.

Here's your toilet

Here’s your toilet

Hell I’d give just about anything to have my own deodorant back, as opposed to the underarm Russian Roulette I’ve been playing to find a replacement in a series of pharmacies smaller than the standard supermarket aisle. Brushing my teeth with tap water is yet another luxury I’ve not had in months. Hell, having a shower curtain in Siem Riep was a cause for real joy of the non facetious variety.

I’ve had mornings where I woke up and said, “Hell I can get another job and go home. 71 days is more than enough. What’s a 1 way cost out of (fill in the blank) airport?

Then I get in a tuk tuk and drive straight up a mountain where I came to a view that afforded me the opportunity to see the horizon drop in the distance. I walked into massive caves and could still hear the spectral sounds of babies crying before they were dashed on the rocks and thrown into the pit.
I got the picture of a lifetime, a man praying for his family killed in this very cave 36 years ago in front of an altar full of skulls beside a full Buddhist temple in the middle of the caves where so many lives were lost.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I wouldn’t have had a conversation for 2 hours the day before about the rise of autism in Canada or talked Roman history with a German named Marius while drinking beers and playing ping pong in a bamboo hut.

Wouldn’t have sat overlooking the river as the sun rose, working on writing when the familiar fingernails of a beautiful, honey skinned British girl started raking down my scalp and neck.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Probably wouldn’t have discussed the EU Parliament elections and upcoming World Cup in a rooftop bar in Phnom Penh where the beers were $.75. And I certainly wouldn’t have had monkeys steal the cutlery off the dirty dishes next to me and drop them down the mountain.

I wouldn’t have drank weasel shit coffee or swam in isolated waterfalls without another person for a half mile. Certainly wouldn’t have gotten my Dorothy on while walking through acre after acre of pristine flower farms.

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

All these flowers and not a single girl to give them to

I also wouldn’t have ridden on a bamboo platform at a breakneck 40 MPH over the most warped and winding rails the French ever laid.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I wouldn’t have done all those things because the pile of reasons “I can’t” became bigger than the “Christ that’d be amazing.” I’d go back to everyday life and talk about what I’m going to do in that elusive “next year,” putting off for tomorrow what I was too (busy, lazy, broke, scared, etc) to do today.

The problem is, next year becomes today. Then it is 5 years down the line, and the responsibilities are too great to ever get this done. Then instead of “next year” it is “when I retire.”

It never gets done. Those dreams you said you had once, never got closer than the mountain of reasons ”why not” to reality.

Then you never drink your coffee and watch straw hatted Vietnamese pole down the river to cast their fishing nets or get escorted to a scuba dive site by gunboats because you’re mere miles away from an international conflict.

You have your coffee at Starbucks and head into work. Your last 72 days looked a lot like the 72 before those.

Mine were full of miserable bus rides, ineffective deodorant and toilets flushed with a bucket of water.

But Lord Almighty was there something to see once you arrived.

Vietnamese agriculture

Vietnamese agriculture