Dreams Worth Having

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

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

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

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

Not the main road

Not the main road

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No billboards on this "highway"

No billboards on this “highway”

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

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

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

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

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

People always tell kids to “chase their dreams.”

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

Seemed like a dream at the time

Seemed like a dream at the time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where's Switzerland again?

Where’s Switzerland again?

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

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

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

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

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

I bet that person is pretty sweet.

Say hi for me.

 

 

Friendships and Forks in the Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turns out they are from…Indiana.

I thought I was going to have a heart attack.

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

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

*********

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

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kids Being Kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chilling with the local kids

Chilling with the local kids

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

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

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

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

The soccer crew

The soccer crew

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

4 generations eating together nightly

4 generations eating together nightly

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

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

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

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

God bless them for that.

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.

Blood, Organ Snatchers and Caves

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

Mopeds and mountains

Mopeds and mountains

Then you have weeks like this.

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

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

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

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

Fording the Mekong into Laos

Fording the Mekong into Laos

Chilling with the local kids

Chilling with the local kids

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

The real power behind Mr. Mo's

The real power behind Mr. Mo’s

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

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

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

Fishing with Marius.

Fishing with Marius.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

Luke, Wendy and I in front of Kong Lor Cave

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

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

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

Boy it is a fantastic language to shout in though.

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

Weasel Shit Coffee and Waterfalls

The best thing about traveling alone is waking up. After a day fraught with a little altitude sickness, (Dalat is placed in the mountains roughly a mile above sea level which conspired with scuba to give me a godawful headache) I slept fitfully, waking up at 5AM. Realizing that I had absolutely nothing on the docket for the day, I figured I had to find something to do. I did a little research on the internet, then consulted my secondhand copy of Lonely Planet Vietnam, which strongly suggested taking a Dalat Easyrider trip to see the sites of the surrounding area.

Point to you Lonely Planet.

I went downstairs and He at the front desk called to schedule a driver within 5 minutes. I headed off to go have some breakfast around the corner (2 baguettes, 2 Vietnamese coffees and 3 pork meatballs in a broth. Grand total $1.65.)

Between eating and playing peek-a-boo with the owner’s toddler, I was inspired to sketch out some more of my next fiction project, jotting down my notes in my trusty pocket sized Moleskine (this gets important later.) After about a half hour, I wandered back to my hostel, where my trusty guide Hero Hung (I couldn’t make this up if I tried) was waiting at the front door for me.

We sat down for about 5 minutes, pouring over some maps and pictures, as well as his binder of handwritten recommendations in every language from Mandarin to Spanish. After agreeing upon a course of action and a price ($35 for the day.) We went and grabbed me another moped, this one being a manual…we’ll be generous and say 100CC Honda.

On a moped...again

On a moped…again

I was a little worried about getting up and down the surrounding mountains on this glorified gas powered rollerblade, but Hero assured me that it would move my “big American ass” just fine.

Thanks Hero, you’re a real gent!

Our first stop was a Buddhist temple on the way out of Dalat. Hero explained to me how poor people from all around the area will go without even basic necessities, while giving as much as humanly possible to the temple. His wife and mother were in this demographic, and I could hear the frustration in his voice as he spoke. He told me that Vietnam is about 70% Buddhist, 20% Catholic, and 10% atheist. Hero struck me as an atheist if anything, but he made it very obvious that atheism is quite frowned upon in Vietnam so he was a begrudging Buddhist in his own mind.

Incredibly ornate Buddhist Temple

Incredibly ornate Buddhist Temple

I thought about the massive cathedrals of both the US and Europe, mostly built from the tithes of the poor, especially St. Patrick’s in NYC. An awful lot of immigrants went without in order to build that house of worship as well.

Apparently that part of religion is quite universal, but as usual, the people with the least are the most likely to share.

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

Leaving the temple, we headed out of town and into the mountains. As usual traffic was a barely navigable, schizophrenic mess, but soon we found ourselves going down a muddy dirt road around the side of a mountain. The road was once paved, but it was being widened…largely by hand. There were teams of Vietnamese workers with pickaxes working next to Soviet era excavators on a mountain that would’ve easily been a black diamond in Colorado given some snow.

Well there USED to be a road here

Well there USED to be a road here

Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “I’d rather dig ditches.”

We made it through the sloppy mess that was and found ourselves at a flower farm.

Rarely have I seen anything more surreal than these acres and acres of roses and lillies. There were just stacks of long stemmed red roses everywhere, and lilies separated by color for as far as the eye could see. It was truly something to behold, and I’m far from a flower guy.

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

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

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

Jumping back on the bikes, we headed up and down a few mountains before finally being deposited at a beautiful coffee plantation overlooking the surrounding valley. Hero quickly explained to me that this was no ordinary coffee plantation, this one had weasel coffee.

I had no idea what he was talking about.

From this

From this

After he showed me the different coffee plants; Arabica, Robusta and Moka. Hero took me to see the weasels.

Into this

Into this

They were penned into large enclosures, usually 3-4 in a shed sized cage.

Their only job was to eat coffee beans.

And shit them back out.

Resulting in this

Resulting in this

Best job in the animal kingdom.

Apparently these weasels can only partially digest coffee beans, which gives them a remarkably different flavor and consistency than standard roasted beans. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kopi_Luwak

After defecation, the beans are triple washed and then roasted normally. Since “Weasel Shit Coffee” was available by the cup, I figured I owed it to the little buggers to try their handiwork, which the plantation was charging 4x compared to a normal cup (though still less than $3.)

And now I drink weasel shit coffee

And now I drink weasel shit coffee

I must say, it definitely has a different taste than standard coffee, with a sweet rotting fruit aroma to it. There was a strong aftertaste, and while I’d never normally put sugar in my coffee, I was forced to with this.

I’m glad I drank a glass for the novelty, but I certainly wouldn’t pay the $30 a glass that some places in the US and Japan charge.

It was solidly worth the $3, nothing more.

While I was enjoying my coffee, Hero and I talked about his family. A native of the Dalat area, he initially drove cabs before realizing 7 years ago that there was much better money in Easyrider guiding. Being from the South, he had no problems of any kinds with Americans, in fact his father had fought and was killed along American GIs in the Vietnam War. Hero never knew his father, but he believed the cause that he died for, because from 1975 to 1989, when the country was reopened to the world, most Vietnamese people were incredibly poor.

As I looked out over the plantations of coffee, flowers and vegetables that the Dalat area had to offer, I was shocked to hear that Vietnam was a net importer of rice from the end of the war until the mid 1990s. Now Vietnam is either #1 or #2 in net coffee exports and has run an agricultural surplus for nearly a generation.

Vietnamese agriculture

Vietnamese agriculture

Hero talked about the rapid explosion of wealth happening in his country, with mixed emotions. While he was glad that people were no longer living on the meager poverty rations that the Communist government provided before opening the country, he was concerned that capitalism would create an inverted pyramid of wealth, with the poor, huddled masses going hungry once again.

Today, things are better than they’ve ever been and there is work available for nearly anyone in Vietnam. It might be digging ditches by hand, but there is the option of paying work for anyone willing to take it.

I wished that I could’ve been a proper cheerleader for capitalism, but the American system has eliminated much of the lowest skilled work, leaving people without the dignity that an earned paycheck brings. There’s no reason to be hungry in America, but that doesn’t by any means sanctify our breed of capitalism as a perfect system.

Getting back on the bike, all jacked up on Weasel Shit Coffee, we headed over to Elephant Falls for a few pictures. At this point, Hero left me to my own devices to climb down while he chainsmoked Marlboro Reds.

I decided to get real cheeky, climbing over the wet, muddy rocks to get better a better short of the falls. Getting to the shot I wanted was fine…

Elephant Falls

Elephant Falls

It was getting back that was the problem.

Getting a little cocky

Getting a little cocky

With one foot on a muddy rock and the other gently probing to see how deep an eddy was, I fell in, all the way over my head.

Waterfall 1-Conquest 0

Waterfall 1-Conquest 0

Clothes, keys, notebook, cash and camera. Thankfully I’m a pretty strong swimmer, and managed to get myself back out of the water before I got into any real trouble, but there was a serious ding to my pride, and 6 weeks of jotted notes that I was quite concerned about. (Thank god Moleskine is made with good paper, an hour of drying in the sun, and it was more or less fine.)

Waterfalls 1, Conquest 0.

After I tried out, we grabbed some spring rolls, com ga (chicken and rice) and pho before getting back out on the road, next checking out a silk farm, which was fascinating to see. Still an awful lot of manual labor that goes into the manufacturing of silk goods as these ladies can attest.

Silk production

Silk production

Amazing how little the process has changed since Marco Polo reported on it some thousand years ago.

Our last stop of the day was, Chicken Village. Inhabited by a minority tribe that makes approximately no sense, Chicken Village was a place with strange customs and one giant stone cock.

Not a crude joke...well sorta

Not a crude joke…well sorta

Men are “bought” with a gift from the girl’s family of a cow and a water buffalo. The women then engage in backbreaking labor while the men do largely nothing. Children begin working with their mothers around the age of 7, until the boys turn 16 and get put on the auction block.

Like the weasels, great work if you can get it.

We headed back around the lake in Dalat and Hero dropped me off at home, all the while trying to convince me to let him guide me all the way to Saigon over the next 3 days. I’ve got to say, motorbiking around here is a ton of fun, and unequivocally the best way to see Vietnam, but I wanted to give my “big American ass” a shower and a few hours before I committed to anything.

As much fun as I had today though, 20 hours over 3 days on a moped is a long time.

I am seriously considering it. It would keep me off of another “sleeper bus.”

Sleeper bus of DOOM!

Sleeper bus of DOOM!