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.

Life as a Buddhist Monk

Greetings from Luang Prabang, Laos!

Sorry for the lack of posts recently. Internet has gotten to be a much more precious commodity the farther that I’ve gotten into Laos. I’ve got several posts that are handwritten in my journal that I need to get busy transcribing onto the computer, so expect a more vibrant blog the next few days.

I got into Luang Prabang 5 days ago, after a very tense bus ride that included the transmission literally falling apart in the mountains between Vang Vieng and here. It was a 6 hour bus ride that ended up being 12.

No problem. We'll wait.

No problem. We’ll wait.

Luckily we got picked up by another bus that was coming through the mountains, which then led to an even more tense 4 hour bus ride on a double decker that was double loaded. The fact that there were no guardrails on the road only added to the adventure, but I was quite happy that I had a Valium in my bag to try to calm down while I saw my life flash before my eyes. Transportation here is always an adventure, but the views were absolutely unbelievable.

View from a broken down bus

View from a broken down bus

Once we got to Luang Prabang, we headed down to the vibrant night market to get something to eat. There were stalls down an alley, which had a buffet of fried rice, 10 different kinds of noodles, fried banana, tofu and every vegetable you can imagine. $1.25 a plate and if you wanted to get really luxurious, you could add a grilled skewer of chicken breast for another $1.25. I washed it all down with a delicious 16oz $1.25 Beer Laos, and ended up having an absolute feast for all of $3.75. Tough to complain about that.

While in the food stall, I spotted a flyer asking for volunteers to teach English at the library. Every day at 1:00, a group of novice monks meets at the library to learn English. I ambled in, and met the delightful girls who worked for the charity running the program, an American girl named Yuwen and a Frenchwoman named Clem.

The monks were all a smiling chattering bunch, outfitted in their flowing saffron robes with their shaved heads. They ranged in age from 13 to 19, and were all incredibly grateful to have another person to help with their studies. The fact that I was a man was also a benefit, as we’ll see when we get to the rules.

I immediately fell in love with the kids. They reminded me of the old days at the Boys Club, and I couldn’t have been happier with the experience.

The novices after class. The guy in the back must've been unimpressed

The novices after class. The guy in the back must’ve been unimpressed

After teaching the difference between “how much” and “how many” we played a few word snake games using country names (they are better at geography than the majority of kids back home.)

After class was finished, I spent another hour sitting around talking to them about their lives as monks. The novices are mostly poor children from the area who have come to the temple to continue their education. As evidenced by their English skills, it seems to be a fine system. Most of the novices will someday “disrobe” and re-enter regular society after they complete high school. A few will go on to become full fledged monks, but that appears to be less than 5%.

One novice, nicknamed Nam, really took a shine to me and asked if I’d be back. I told him that I’d be gone for the next two days to go to an elephant camp on the banks of the Mekong, but when I got back on Friday, I’d come back and help again. He graciously asked if I’d like to come to his temple with him, and I immediately took him up on the offer.

I was reminded of my friendship with Man, back in Hoi An, and how graciously he offered to show me around his homeland. The people here really are a different breed. Kind, caring and generous to a fault. Their simple way of live and the happiness with which they live is a true testament to the human spirit. It also makes me take a critical look at the life I live back home.

I always said I either want to be the richest guy in the bar or the most interesting. Seeing how happy the Laotians are really makes me doubt the worthiness of the first goal. Also makes me think that there is an awful lot to see in the world, and very little of it resides in bars.

I spent about 5 hours with the monks at the temple on Friday afternoon. They showed me where they slept, ate, prayed and studied, and then I got to take part in their prayer/chanting ceremony at sundown. It was a surreal experience.

Nam told me that before he got to the temple, he’d never had electricity before. His mother died 4 years ago, and she had never had power to her home before she died. I thought back about my own family, and realized that even my great-great grandparents had power to their homes before their deaths. The massive gap in standard of living was truly striking.

Nam also showed me a large picture book of famous Laotian monks. It was interesting to hear about the hierarchy of Buddhism, which seems to vary wildly from country to country. Seeking to find some common ground, I told him that the Dalai Lama’s brother lives in Bloomington, 30 miles from my home in Bedford. He looked at me blankly, and asked who the Dalai Lama was. I finally found enough internet down the road to load up a picture on my phone, and he still didn’t know who he was, but Nam immediately recognized the fact that he was a Tibetan monk by the colors of his robes.

In return for their room, board and education, the novices work around the temple doing various tasks. They rise every morning at 4AM for prayer, then collect alms and food from the villagers at 6AM and then make breakfast for themselves and the monks. After breakfast, they work on their studies, some going to classes like I helped with, and other going to night classes at various schools in the area. At sundown they pray again for around 45 minutes, then complete their studies before turning in around 10.

Nam also told me the 10 rules of being a novice monk.

1. No killing of any living thing
2. No stealing
3. No touching women (they can’t even hug their mother)
4. No lying
5. No drinking or gambling and no drugs
6. No eating after noon
7. No exercise
8. No perfume substances on the body and no jewelry
9. No sitting or sleeping higher than the monk
10. No taking anything from the hands of a woman

As you can see, they were quite excited to have a man helping with the class, because I could actually physically interact with them instead of the somewhat tetchy interactions that they have to have with the women due to the no touching/no taking anything from the hands of a woman rule. I could pat them on the back, pull their notebooks over to me to check their progress and shake their hands when we left.

It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had on the trip so far.

I gave Nam my email address, and he promised that he would email me as soon as he gets onto a computer. He’ll probably be disrobing sometime in the near future, and I would like to help him financially to get on his feet as he continues his studies. I’d imagine that even $100 would make an absolute world of difference as he re-enters the secular world, away from the quiet, aesthetic life that he has known for the last 4 years in the monastery. Charity is great, but being able to make a significant impact on the life of someone you’ve actually interacted with is even better.