Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Travel Bug: You Owe it to You

 Lg Life on Nile

Not long ago I took a horse ride into the desert outside of Cairo. Not an hour had passed before a violent sandstorm showed, causing me to seek shelter in a nearby pyramid. There I was, standing in a structure which had survived the test of time, its limestone walls older than cities, countries. When I looked down at the smooth floor, I imagined sandaled feet striding down the narrow passageways; spectral figures passing by as they chatted and laughed on a warm day of old.

Intentionally or not, the words "Egypt" or "Middle Eastern" nowadays are often coined the same way as one would talk about a problem, or a headache. This probably goes to explain the lessened interest in Egyptology, Arabian romanticism, or Sufi mysticism. Gone are the storied tales of Aladdin, Pharaohs, and a Thousand and One Arabian Nights, replaced instead by the grind of news networks pumping out stories about terrorism and uprisings in a manner befitting George Orwell's 1984. Mixed messages and poorly researched news abound, considering the claim to Cleopatra's Egyptian roots are false. Cleopatra was Hellenic, and despite her lineage's refusal to speak anything but Greek, she was one of the few who took up Egyptian.

Unlike many Middle Eastern countries which have only recently modernized into tourism hubs, Egypt's history is dotted by Western influence dating back from the Roman Empire to the British Protectorate of the early 1900s. It is this mixed influence of East and West which tourists will appreciate, and which will help them more easily assimilate the experience. Cairo harbors both the old and the new. Narrow streets leading to classical markets known as soukhs are as prevalent as wide, modern highways which give to modern buildings. But it's true face lies not only in its diversity, but in the jewel of its past--monuments which we've all come to recognize in pictures and movies--for wherever you stay in Cairo, remnants of the great Pharaohs are never too far, nor is the work of mathematicians and astronomers accomplished well beyond their years.

It was during the moment when I sought shelter in the pyramid that it hit me--the realization of how deeply history has become marred by technology--how diluted culture has become as the internet draws us to a more lazy way of life. There comes a time when we owe it to ourselves to trek back into ancient pasts beginning with the places least familiar to us. We owe it to the explorer's heart which beats in our chest, which advanced mankind, and to lose ourselves in the era of bejeweled scarabs, hieroglyphs, and incredible achievements.

And if you ever think the notion is too trivial, I'll ask only that you look at the back of a dollar bill.

Egypt and its mysteries are much closer to you than you imagine.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Damascus: East of Somewhere, West of Nowhere

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Disclaimer: the following post touches on politics of the region. We try to restrict as much as possible posts with political views as this is not the intent of this travel blog. The views are not in any way supported by myself or the interviewer. The interview answers are preserved here for the sake of giving you, the reader, the ability to witness a local merchant's take on the situation.

Lightning crackled and flashed as the torrential fury poured down onto the streets of Damascus. Here in this pall of solitude my hosts and I sat, lights dim, watching the furious rains rage outside. We gazed as the wretchedness let up momentarily which, shortly thereafter, abruptly followed with another outpour that hurled at the top of its lungs. Incessant rain. Brutal rain. What once stood desiccated now lay drenched and bloated as the downpour severely flooded the narrow, dusty roads that wound like mazes into the city’s dark unknowns.

    The rain steadily let up and my host, a kind woman wearing a white headscarf raised her cup of chai tea and nodded at me. I obliged with a smile and lifted my cup; we took a sip. 

    ‘These sanctions,’ she said a moment later, looking out coldly at the hazy landscape outside her veranda doors. ‘They are killing us, we are the ones suffering. These others at the UN are putting sanctions on the people of Syria; the price of bread has gone up, the price of tomatoes has gone up, everything costs five times more.’
    ‘Did they ask for UN permission before invading Iraq?’ said Abu Bakr, her husband, sitting next to her, ‘It’s a media circus, they went into Iraq without UN approval, and why?’ He rubbed his index and thumb together. ‘Because of oil. We have no oil. Maybe just a little, but not like Iraq or Libya.’
    ‘Our young can go out and have fun,’  said Sharifa. ‘We have many modern cafes, lounges, even bars and clubs. What do you think will happen if things change? What do you think? Fundamentalists will come. Look at Iraq and Afghanistan, fundamentalists everywhere. If they come here, they will close down all these places for our young. And if they can’t close them down, what will they do? Bomb them?’
    ‘Our freedom and lifestyle will not be the same,’ said Abu Bakr. ‘We are fighting for our lifestyles too.’
    ‘And look at the poor innocents getting caught in the cross-fire,’ said Sharifa. ‘Even the French knew how complicated Syria was back in my parent’s days. Have they so quickly forgotten?’

    Sharifa was referring to the Sykes-Picot period of the early nineteen hundreds which handed rule of Syria over to France under the French Mandate, and would have seen the country carved into five different States based on its numerous religious and ethnic groups.

    After a few more exchanges I looked at my watch, I had a meeting to catch downtown, so I thanked the husband and wife and bid them goodbye, then stepped out into the musky street. The sweet scent of flowers from a nearby park pervaded the air and soon the clouds scattered, allowing the baking sun to return and exhale upon the city a heat which would quickly dry any last vestige of humidity. I looked around. The hillock upon which my host’s apartment building stood gave me an unfettered view of an aged scenery.

    The city of Damascus was of a yellowish-gray which drew its color from the rocky landscape.  The plain, rectangular houses and buildings – mostly affairs of necessity rather than luxury – intertwined to form the city’s network of streets and alleys which sprawled out in confused clusters. Car horns mounted on decrepit cars constantly blared in the distance, breaking the dole and injecting it with the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life; but don’t get me wrong, Damascus was a dichotomy of wealth and poverty, possessing both in clear abundance, and you would readily see expensive German makes as you would the local bang-ups which dangerously careened through the narrow byways, ignoring traffic rules meant for anyone but them.  The roads within the city looked rundown in some parts, but relatively well-kept in the upper class areas and near the various tourist sites, such as the Al Hamidiyya market. Unlike other cities of Arabia I visited, where transportation consisted of rag-tag microbuses that had seen better days, Damascus’s public transit was a welcome relief: the old microbuses were there, but not without their modern, air-conditioned counterparts too.

     Let me remind you, such is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world, a true pandemonium to the senses; beautiful, yet weathered;  elderly, yet youthful; seven cities, one built on top of another – six civilizations beneath us come and gone.  I needn’t tell you how many prophets of all religions trekked its streets; and looking at the buildings, you’d think many had endured the test of time only for the privilege to personally tell you their story. The roofs in the poorer areas looked rather peculiar, messy if you will, with numerous satellites dishes and antennas which look dated jutting up like a field of round, rusted flowers.

     I took a deep breath, gone was the smell of the park as I inhaled the city’s perfume of petrol and dust. I walked down the street towards the park, in the middle of which towered a water reservoir; a big, white ball of metal with stains running down its stalk which, if anything, resembled a large mushroom with a growth of moss that threatened to swallow the entire base. I walked into the small corner store facing the park. Six customers congregated next to the register in no specific order. I called out for a pack of cigarettes. The cashier nodded at me, handed me the pack, and cashed me out first. That’s the way it is. This isn’t a first-come first-served culture, you need to impose yourself or you will forever be waiting at the back of lines.

    Outside, I pulled out a cigarette as a military truck rumbled by. I watched it disappear down the road’s bend.
    ‘Light?’ said a voice behind me.
    I turned around. A young soldier in full fatigues carrying a semi-automatic approached me. He looked plump and smiled widely as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver zippo, then flicked it open.
    I leaned closer to the flame, lit up, and thanked him.
    You see, that’s the problem with this place.
    We hear all these things on the news, but the truth often hangs on a coat-hanger, in the hidden closet, of a remote house, with no registered owner. The people of Damascus do hear about the horrors going on out there, but from this vantage point it all seems to be news seeping in from a foreign country, one very different than their own. Perhaps it’s the work of the media, or perhaps it’s confusion densely layered in from the top down.
Worse yet, like twins conjoined at birth, the surgery to separate sides can hurt both. And it’s a shame, having come this far in history, that a glorious people cannot peacefully share this archaeological Eden.
    I looked the guard over, he was waving at another army truck passing by.
    I shook my head as I took a drag.
    Syria isn’t easy. Proof lay in the six cities beneath me. She’s given the world too much to be suffering like this.

    I do hope she finds her peace, I really do.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Travel Bug: Boom-Boom


That's the sound of napalm dropping on our past.

We think long and hard about it when we're staring up at a revolving ceiling fan in this room in the middle of a desert, just you and I, laying down, arms open and hands behind our heads. Wondering how the heck our past effervesced so quickly, you'd have thought years would have taken longer to dissolve. As if.

But you remember her, don't you? Yeah, you do. That elusive little thing we met. I think she liked you more, but I don't care. For a brief moment, she was in our lives. Just the three of us. She was our smile and our joy. Shit. She was our life.

Then, boom!

She disappeared. You know why? We had to go back to that shit-hole called home. We wanted to stay out there, in the middle of God knows where, with these strange faces and their stranger tongues. It wasn't so much the beaches or the scenery that surrounded us. Pfff, you can watch that crap on TV.

Nah, it was the girl, it was the attitude. What d'you say? Yeah. Me neither. I don't remember what she looked like, her face was kind of hazy. But it wasn't her looks that did us in, was it? Honestly, I just loved having her around. She wasn't the jealous kind, either. She loved it when we talked to other backpackers like us. As long as she was around.

So, you and I, we went back home. As soon as we got there, we couldn't take it, we left. Curiously enough, don't ask me how, we ended up in this half-way house of a desert between the East and the West, staring at this fan above us. Laughing at our adventures. Laughing at all that we left behind. The lunacy of it all. No, you talked me into it.

But, seriously, don't you wonder if our friends talk about us anymore, if they miss us? Do you think they'll ever understand our obsession with that faceless girl? Do you think they know we're sitting in a desert under a baking sun while we wait for her call?

Do you?

Wait. I said, shut up. I think I hear her calling. Come on, get your lazy ass up.

The bombs are about to drop.

Soon we'll be gone.

For good, this time.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Last Breath of Christ

It’s been nearly a decade since I was on the plane, flying for endless hours between the cusp of space and the depth of the Pacific.  I said goodbye to my family on the phone from the terminal at San Francisco International and stepped directly onto the plane, destined for what I largely felt was the unknown.  I was headed to Shanghai, China’s largest city, a country which at that time was just on the verge of becoming known as it is today.  At that time in many Western minds it still carried poignant residues of a shrouded past, thought of as foreign, unpredictable, and a place that once entered, left you to the whims of communists.   Even the airline assistants had to get their managers before issuing me my ticket at the counter.  They told me they had never seen a one way ticket to China, and needed to make sure I would not be detained when I landed there.  Of course that delightfully soothed my already frayed nerves as to what I was about to do.  I had spent a year researching and planning, because once I left San Francisco I was on my own in a land I did not understand.  Never could say why I did it, but I had every inclination that a massive part of the world’s future lied in bed with an even greater part of its ancient past.  Whether I was right or wrong about that didn't matter, I was going simply because I had to go.

And off I went, with a suit case, back pack, international calling card, a picture of a Chinese man that would meet me at the airport, and the phone number of a young Australian named Cristo.  Cristo was a pen pal I made online while researching about Fudan University, where I would be a student for one year.  Little did I know at the time that I would actually learn from that experience for a life time.  From the first email I sent Cristo it was instant chemistry and friendship.  He had been living in Shanghai for about three months doing some modeling and acting there.   When he gave me his cell number I was not aware of how crucial this would be for us both after I arrived.

I landed in Pudong airport and shortly after began my search for the man in the picture I held in my hands.  This quest lasted at the very least an hour, considering when I looked around I thought, “Chinese all look the same”! Of course that changed for me over time.  The Chinese man, with the English name Jason, eventually found me.  I believe seeing the same white guy with an incredibly lost look on his face, searching endlessly, gave me away.  He spoke very little English, which was more than the Chinese I spoke. I remember him later telling me when we could both communicate better, “I had a hard time finding you and wasn’t sure, because white people all look the same”! He also was just going by a picture and of course hearing him say that was incredibly amusing to me.  We drove for about an hour through one of the most massive cities I had ever seen.  Skyscrapers went on for miles, and then more miles, and the streets were swarmed with people everywhere, and I mean everywhere.  They were standing by food stalls, riding on bicycles in and out of the different lanes, crouched by sidewalks on their heels in typical Chinese resting fashion, moving in and out of traffic, in and out of stores. It was bustling, chaotic, and alive at every turn.  And on the roads you could see everything and anything that someone could put a wheel on.  Meanwhile, we were in a black sedan that took me all the way to the international dormitory, located in a district well outside of the city center.

I had arrived early because I had the profoundly bright idea of getting there prior to classes, so I could get situated.  So when I woke up fourteen hours later starving, in a practically empty 24 story building, I thought now what?  Driven by the most basic of human needs I trekked down to the lobby to ask someone where I could eat, because no doubt they spoke English at the international dormitory.  I would say this was the beginning of a really long drawn out, oh shit, moment.  I began speaking to the staff downstairs that I was hungry and needed to know where I could find something to eat.  However, I was greeted with extremely strange looks, followed by a tonal noise and a new look, as if I certainly understood what they were saying.  I could have made as much sense from the static of a disrupted television station.   But necessity truly is the mother of invention, and by God I needed something to eat and drink, and the water out of the tap was not an option.  I could say at that moment I became a master of Charades, and used every part of my body and any object at my disposal until I was understood. I was given very distinct directions by a single finger point.  I translated it as, the foods out there somewhere, good luck!  When I walked outside, at least at the time in my particular location, every restaurant I encountered would have caused a health inspector’s pen to bleed of ink.  Everyone spoke only Chinese and every menu was written in Chinese characters, naturally.  Pin the tail on the donkey would have been as good a method as any for choosing a meal. 

Speaking of donkeys, at that moment I realized I was probably the only thing nearby that resembled anything like a jackass. So I headed back to my room to call home and give an update, then reach out to Jason, or my pen pal Cristo.  Only problem was my phone didn’t work.  All back up plans built upon the accessibility of modern infrastructure laid useless before me, as I stared blankly at the Chinese instructions on the red phone in my hand.  I remember thinking, man I wish this red phone could reach the president, because I’m feeling a potential state of emergency coming on.  Every combination dialed and tried was answered with a female cryptic message, all in Chinese.  Whispering sweet nothings to me in Klingon could have had the same effect.  Later I would learn that in order to use the phone you had to buy a calling card on the street, in order to buy a calling card on the street you had to speak Chinese, then by default, to be able to follow the instructions on the calling card you had to read Chinese.  So to mine and my family’s dismay, it would be well over a week before they would know that I was in China, and still with a pulse.

I took a minute and thought about my next step.  I could just go into one of those restaurants and eat something, anything, but what if I got sick?  Then what if I was rushed to the nearest local hospital and given who knows what, or stuck with a dirty needle, etc.  My imagination ran rampant.  Then I grabbed Cristo’s number, a handful of change, and headed out in search of a pay phone.  Each time I left the dormitory I could only go so far as to make sure I could retrace my steps.  If I got lost it wasn’t like I could just ask someone, hey where’s the international dormitory?  I couldn’t even hop into a cab and tell the driver to rush me to the airport.  So I carefully ventured out among a sea of Chinese, foreign streets, strange smells, and awkward stares, the kind of stares you would expect if a thousand pound gorilla was trotting down the middle of the intersection.  I dodged bicycles, mopeds, and herds of others until I finally found a pay phone.  My relief at the pay phone quickly faded when I saw there was no hole to insert your change, and only a slot for a calling card. It was such a modern styled pay phone compared to what may have been found lining a street, or gas station in America.  However, China was always like that, full of extremes and opposites fortified and coexisting in the same place, at times it would infatuate me and other times infuriate me. Just walking you might pass an elaborate modern high rise full of luxury apartments and next to it a half crumbling communist era building, both with residents. Maybe even pass a construction site with one man wearing a sports coat and hard hat crushing rocks with a sledge hammer, and right next to him another guy in pajamas gathering the stones.  I can’t even count the times I thought, now that is such a clever idea, and in the same moment think, but that simply doesn’t make sense.  Unfortunately for me this pay phone made perfect sense, it just didn’t take cents.  So off I went always with the same result.  I would feel occasional surges of panic, followed by pointlessly pointed questions of, why did you do this?  After several hours had passed and cumulative miles walked, I sat down on a wall across from my dormitory.  I looked around and it became ever more real to me that I was in a foreign land, couldn’t communicate, had no idea where I was, and couldn’t call anyone. 

During this meditative review of how desperate my situation was, two Chinese women with three children approached.  They were staring as they walked toward me, talking and laughing.  Two of the children hid behind the women’s legs, while the third came right at me with absolute curiosity and fascination.  The two women sat beside me for awhile and began talking to me in Chinese, and I returned the fruitless favor in English.  At times they laughed hysterically at me, and it was in that moment that I saw my situation in a completely different light.  It actually was kind of funny! So I just sat there and started laughing with them.  We communicated however we could and they began removing exotic fruit from their bags to give me.  I asked if I should peel them or not, and they started peeling the fruit and gave me a bottle of water.  This would be one of my first and most memorable meals in China. There I was, sitting on a strange wall on the other side of the world, laughing, eating, and drinking with the kindness and curiosity of two strangers and their children.

It was after this that I decided to check out the park behind me, which ended up being another university’s campus, and went for a leisurely stroll. During that walk I finally stumbled across a pay phone that would gladly accept my Chinese change.  That is when I had one of those small but forever changing epiphanies, the kind that cause you to never quite see the world in the same way again.  I reached into my pocket, pulled out the change, and my first thought was, which one is a quarter?  Then it dawned on me, perhaps they don’t even have the concept of a quarter, and realized I was only thinking through the lens of the American system I was raised.  They may structure it totally different, even their concept of money may be different, perhaps the way they view the world itself is entirely different.  But after such grandeur philosophical thought, I came right back to the problem at hand, what the hell do I put in this phone to make it work?  Just as the question passed my mind a Chinese family walked by, and I proceeded to step in front of them.  There was clear shock on their faces at a white man suddenly in front of them speaking English.  I just held out my hand full of change, Cristo’s number, and pointed to the pay phone.  A middle age man just said, “Ahhh!”, then grabbed the change, the phone number, and made a call that for me could have rang the heavens.  On the other end a young man answered with an Aussie accent, “Hello this is Cristo”! From that point on I would hear that voice often.  Cristo would become my first and one of my best friends in China.

Unquestionably Cristo was one of the most critical people in my life there and at times the closest.  We talked ideas, dreams, nonsense, went to clubs, threw parties, chilled at the French restaurant, attended the same classes, you name it.  But one conversation in particular that we had, at the French restaurant we attended so regularly, was about my dream of going to Tibet.  I told him about when I was a kid and saw something on television about Tibet.  It fascinated me in an instant, from the ceremonial dress to the very noises of their instruments. In my eyes back then I was witnessing life on another planet.  It felt so far removed from where I was, like a place I would never have the possibility to see.  But Tibet always hung in my mind and I always hoped for the chance.  Cristo looked at me after that story and said, “You’ll make it Bryan!”, and I did! For those who might not know, getting from Shanghai to Lhasa is not exactly like catching a train to Beijing.  So even though I was in China, it didn’t mean Tibet was going to be possible for me. However, eventually I left Shanghai to head through Western China to Tibet, without the slightest consideration that it would be the last time I would ever see my friend Cristo.  I would receive a call one afternoon sitting at a restaurant on a hillside in Dali.  In that call a mutual friend then explained to me that Cristo, while sleeping next to his girlfriend, had shuttered and took one last deep breath.  The last text I would send Cristo was in the middle of the place I had seen on television as a child, “Cristo, I made it to Tibet. I’ll miss you and I wish you the best”.  And I was right, because nearly a decade has passed and I still miss my friend.

I can’t say I know exactly what it was about China, but it provided an alternate reality.  Time seemed to warp and relationships were compressed and ran deeper quicker.  I think it may have had something to do with the intensity of the environment and its effect on foreigners in our situation.  You need something familiar to hold onto, and someone to rely on at times to emotionally survive, and maybe even physically survive.   So the different stages you go through with love, friendships, or other relationships back home are expedited, and you grow deeply connected or apart relatively quickly.   I believe time is experienced slower because of the daily intensity that becomes the norm. It would take years in your own environment to encounter the absolute abundance of new and novel stimulation you can get, in just one year in China.  There are so many new ideas, smells, relationships, etc., on and on, all the time.  People are different, your environment is different, and sometimes in some ways you’re different. When I returned from China it felt like I had been gone for years.  I also felt like the same person, but I wasn’t and it took several years to see that emerge.  How I thought, felt, reacted, and in what I pursued and connected with in my life had all been altered.  It still changes and impacts the course of my life today and probably always will.

Cristo was a significant part of that experience for me and therefore was a significant part of me.  He signified the beginning of my life in China and he defined its end.   His death was deeply emotional for me.  It was the end of an experience that would never leave my life the same.  For some reason when he died, my life in China began its close.  I had to mourn not just the wonderful person he was, but also the memorable experience that he was such a huge part of, and begin saying goodbye to so much.  Recently I came across an old photo of my class in China.  There was Cristo with his bandana on, throwing the hang loose signal, which is the same sign for the number six in Chinese.  Every time we would say liu (six) we’d have to say it like a stoned surfer and throw up our thumb and pinky.  I miss him so often and it stuns me how much I still feel like I should be able to pick up the phone and call him. 

It’s funny that Cristo’s name should mean Christ.  Because in China, in many ways, he was my savior and before my time there ended, in my mind he had died on the cross. I miss you so much Cristo and I am forever grateful.

Cristo, I made it to Tibet. I’ll miss you and I wish you the best. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Switzerland: Even Paradise Breaks a Child

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The piano.
That is what I remember most about my childhood. I was only ten. About to be sent to boarding school in Gstaad, Switzerland. A lady in the lobby of the Palace Hotel in Gstaad played a beautiful song on the piano.

And in the solitude of a broken hour that night, I found myself humming this sweet sonata, this music of the hotel which accompanied me to sleep before I enrolled for school the next day. I imagined mother playing these notes with her musical fingers. Like the lady in the hotel, I dreamed of her swaying from side to side, and singing with that same light, honey voice.

The spectral notes would drift through our imaginary house, carried by a grand piano which I pictured standing in father’s smoking room, just like in the movies. The harmony was savagely beautiful, heightened by the hour of midnight, the hour of passion. And then father would walk in and give her a kiss. She would stop playing, and stand up. Tenderly, mother reached for his hand, and they would go to the bedroom like people who loved one another did.

But then a bomb exploded in my chest. An emotion so hurtful its pain came in degrees of color; blues, reds, and yellows. And I cried myself to sleep. I wished it all away, wishing to remember nothing the next day. Such is the life of children whose dreams are broken by parents' divorce.

It was Gstaad which mothered me. And it's people who fathered me. Gstaad is a splendid painting drawn by the hand of God, beset by large titans: glacial mountains that eclipsed all in a show of majestic might, where beauty’s onslaught conquered man’s technology. In the midst of this resplendent grandeur lay this small village, which had the charm of a gingerbread town with its crystal-glazed streets and snow-caked rooftops. A place which many a visitor would call Paradise.

The air was smooth, cold and crisp–not harsh, as many would imagine, but rather subdued, every lungful an aroma of peace, a refreshing taste of heaven. The streets were seldom crowded, and tourists travelled from all four corners of the world to share in its delightful charm and fabulous skiing. They could be found strolling along the streets, passing under the dim, ornamental streetlamps—father hugging daughter, husband and wife, all arm in arm, occasionally gasping excitedly as they rushed to one of the boutique windows upon finding an object of marvel.

Sitting on a park bench, eating a piece of candy, I would look down the street at the happy families and the small boutiques. The shops of Gstaad were old as centuries, their bucolic rooms harboring items of rarity or works of flair seldom found anywhere else. And I would watch. A schoolboy far from his parents. All along, the music of the piano played against the backdrop of this paradise.

But every once in a while, when the moon rose and the wolves of sleep circled, the music would stop. It would come to a standstill. It was followed by a sharp, cutting sadness as I remembered the families earlier that day. Memories of happy children and their parents which this paradise flung in my face.

And the quiet played its counter-melody, slowly encroaching upon me. Shunning me. Opening its great, big mouth and swallowing everything in my world.

I remember one thing from my youth, one thing which altered the course of my growth. One thing which I vividly remember to this day.

That even paradise breaks a child.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Mad Matt and the Frisco Charm

San Francisco, over the years, has become a favorite city of mine. However, I can’t say this was the case on my first impression. The first time I strolled into San Francisco was on a road trip and I clearly remember my first thought.  This place is just a rock with concrete on it. I really wasn’t much of a fan.  Actually my genuine appreciation for the Bay area didn’t really come until I lived there. Frisco for me was like the girl you meet, that at first really isn’t much to look at, but over time you notice all the things she truly has to offer.  It’s her personality, or the way her eyes sparkle when the light’s just right, it’s the mellow attitude and calm she exudes, or the long draping hair that outlines and falls over her rolling shoulders, so many unique attributes that for some reason you didn’t notice the first few times you met.  San Francisco was that girl to me.

It’s not just what the city has to offer and it certainly offers quite a lot. Whether it’s North Beach and its Italian dining, or my favorite China Town with the occasional roof that must have been stolen from the Forbidden City, it offers everything any major American metropolis would.  However, it does it with its own personality and stunning views.  After some time, I realized San Francisco is like New York on Prozac, and I still stand by that claim.  But what San Francisco really offers, that many others do not, is the diversity of its surrounding environment.  There are multitudes of microclimates and varying ecosystems all within arm’s reach.  Even on the edge of the city in Presidio where I lived, you were surrounded by woods and cliff side trails that meandered around to the Golden Gate Bridge, or down to Baker Beach, that faced the Pacific reaching its way deep into the continent. As a note of caution for beach goers however, my first day at the beach was a little more than expected.  With towels in hand and a vigorous excitement for a day in the sun, I eventually noticed something quite unique about Baker Beach.  It is primarily a nude gay beach.  The first naked guy I saw jog past me was like being at Central Park and seeing a giraffe stroll by.  I rubbed my eyes to confirm what I saw and then looked around to see if anybody else just witnessed the unexpected anomaly I had.  Looking around I saw two naked men sunning in the warm afternoon sun.  Then another get up and run into the ocean.

Now first of all, I have no problem with nudity, but as I learned that day, nude beaches really aren’t my thing.  I also have no problem with homosexuality, the gay community has my unbridled support and appreciation for the diversity it brings to our societies, but I care not to ever again see so many things swinging around like “Baywatch” in some alternate universe.  I didn’t care for it in the locker room, or anywhere else for that matter.  Also, a quick point to many of the bathers there, jumping into near 60 degree water nude, as a man, is probably not the most prudent idea. I hope to only see that many wieners again around a camp fire, with Oscar Meyer being the only package lying around.  But for those that enjoy it, when you hit the beach go right, for the rest go left.

From Baker Beach you can leave San Francisco and in 45 minutes be deep in a valley, dwarfed by redwoods and soothed by running streams.  Then it’s only a short journey to the Pelican Inn, where you can enjoy a pint at the quaint bar that will convincingly have you believe you’re sitting in the Cotswolds.  Afterward, it’s merely a couple of cartwheels to Mount Tamalpais to rise above the clouds and sit under a solemn tree, surrounded by mountains of gold, and stunning vistas of the vast and deep pacific. When you get bored, pack up and head to the Napa and Sonoma appellations to stroll through the vineyards and taste some of the world’s finest wines.  This is what makes San Francisco so special, its variety and diversity in just about every measure.  There is something for everyone, from a major city, to rural countryside, and endless small villages all with their own unique style and flare. It was in one of these small villages that I first met Mad Matt, and gained so much from such a small piece of his story.

Mad Matt:  It’s funny how little I drink coffee, yet often times I find myself in Starbucks in Lafayette, just outside San Francisco.  I see a man here sometimes named Matt.  Matt is legally blind and has seizures.  Matt also talks to himself and the average passerby thinks Matt’s crazy.  He can be seen walking down the street with his searching cane, rapidly engaged in a conversation with Casper, or some other friendly ghost from his childhood.  Matt has also been hit twice by a car on a couple of these random walks.  One broke his hip and the other was a hit and run. He explained to me that as they drove off he yelled, “Just be that way then”.  And they were that way then.  I’ve talked to Matt on several occasions, and after I write this I will once again fill in for the ghost of Matt’s conversations.  When I talked to Matt I learned he wasn’t crazy, I also learned he had a seizure once when he heard George Bush give a speech.  In light of the current state of foreign affairs I might be inclined to lie down and gyrate with him.  Certainly my fist would shake back and forth a little.  So what do I think Matt feels between conversations and seizures?  I think Matt feels trapped inside himself and feels brutally alone.  Strolling through public venues and talking to himself helps assuage the feelings of isolation, and pass the leopard sentence life has awarded him.

With a glance of thought, I also have an idea why people avoid him.  Not because they think he is dangerous.  It’s similar to reasons as to why many people are able turn their backs on tragedies like Darfur and Rawanda.  I think self-conversationalists like Matt and regions like Darfur ultimately scare the shit out of people.  It reminds us how such a grand dominant animal as ourselves, are so entirely vulnerable.  How we can be so removed from control and how humanity and life can be so blindly cruel.  I’m part of the masses, the sheep that such a wolf when creeping around makes my hair stand on end.  That’s why I need Matt, so I can listen to him rattle off to my timid soul and afterwards contemplate the words of FDR, “Only thing we have to fear, is fear itself”.

I have learned over the years that fear is undoubtedly humanity’s cancer.  A chronic illness that debilitates the individual and humanity, and one we often only occupy ourselves with treating the symptoms. At least Matt and I both feel a bit freer after our conversations.  All the deep sadness I have for him begins to melt, and I thank God for that.  I thank him for that moment of valor that others would perceive as a relentless squander. Carrying on with his life, being as normal as normal will afford him, and making the best of the tools he’s been left with. His attitude is something I admire and have worked to emulate ever since. It really is just a simple moment between Matt and me. As Kurt Vonnegut may have said, “So it goes”!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

France: Locked Up in Paris


Walking around Paris with a heartache was like breathing the nostalgic fumes of a city brimming with melancholy. An endless number of cars, trucks and motorbikes passed me. Even at this hour of twilight, they careened like a herd of iron beasts looking for a way home. I strolled over Pont de l'Archevêché, also known as Lover’s Bridge, stopping at its sloping peak where I could stand and watch the River Seine. The river cut right through the city like a large gray python, snaking its way across the commotion in search of the distant sunset, while its small fleet of bateaux mouches—“mosquito boats”—churned back and forth between quays.

The scenery was mesmerizing; it pulled my attention into a swarming buzz and, my soul into the folds of its momentous history. One day, somewhere out there, I thought, I would find a girl to love, one I would share all things good with. She was looking out from one of those rustic windows, gazing at the sky in wonder much as I was, musing whether someone out there was thinking the same thing. Much as I missed the one that left, this one here would never leave. That was the promise of Paris.

A sudden loneliness catapulted me back to my childhood, when the things we craved most were so simple, when the mind painted everything so pure and harmless. How did life become progressively more complicated and overwhelming? How did our smallest woes grow and multiply into such fearsome, greedy monsters that gave birth to an abundance of more qualms?

The air had grown cool as night drew a darkness above me. Stars sparkled like bright diamonds cast across a black ocean while the promise of a good night’s sleep descended on Paris. Throughout the city, the electricity blinked occasionally in a last-ditch effort at enticing everyone back to consciousness. A cannonade of bright displays fighting to hold our attention for one last minute; flashing neon beckoning from a myriad corner bistros and bars lining the major avenues.

I walked and walked, trying to repel the encroaching emotion which pulled at my heartstrings, and now I approached the gallant neo-modern architecture of the Centre Pompidou. In the daytime, this was a hangout for the city’s amorous youth. Young Parisians snuggled together, sitting along the gray granite stairs and floor.

An occasional outburst of laughter broke the buzz of conversations as lovers here and there exchanged stories, waving away the endless onslaught of hungry pigeons that found the courage to approach them. One day, I thought, I would find someone to bring here, and sit next to these lovers, and laugh. A photograph taken from anywhere, from any angle, would have captured the resplendent beauty and magic of this place. And in the evening, when dusk brought a silence upon the square, now with barely a remnant of its population left, the full impact of the Pompidou’s quixotic grandeur filled my thoughts with a yearn to see it again the next day.

And as I retraced my steps and reached Lover’s Bridge once again, I approached the thousand padlocks lining its railing. Each padlock with initials carved on it, a heart in the middle, a promise made between two lovers, eternally bound. I turned to look at the River Seine one last time. It was romantically lit like a storybook dream, and I wondered if that had been the problem all along. That I hadn’t engraved our names on a padlock and affixed it to this place, so that our spirits locked, as such, would forever stare at the face of this rustic romance.

And our love would eternally flourish here, every night, under the moon of Paris.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Shanghai Suicide

I imagine I had already been in China for nearly two to three months when, once again, I was awoken by blaring horns that screamed and yelled incessantly, as if I was above the floor of some colossal stock exchange.  It was routine really, and like German clockwork it would start with one single and solemn, “HOONNNK”!  Always just before six in the morning.  It was like the clarion call for a massive charge, or the first note to an ensemble played out by the Shanghai Phil(non)harmonic.  Every morning I would lie there in dread after that first horn and would think, “Wait for it…wait for iiit…and”, HOOONNK, HOOONNK, HOOONNK, THUDUMP, THUDUMP, BAMMMMMM, BOOOOOM, TADAT, TADAT, TADDDDDDDDDAT, BAAAANG, HOONNKKKKK!!! You see 1417, my concrete tree house on the north side of the international dormitory, unfortunately faced the street side, and countless upon countless constructions sites stretched out as far as the strained eye could see.  It was as if the municipal government had inadvertently over fertilized the once-great colonial city of Shanghai.

I would lie there and always at some point wonder, "What the (&#@!) am I doing here?"  It was later one of my greatest discoveries as to how inner peace can be attained by either years of mindful meditation, or a quick trip to the drug store to pick up some ear plugs.  This particular morning, having not stumbled on such deafening technology, I rustled from my bed and took a nice warm shower.  Followed then by a nourishing breakfast which consisted of Cup-O-Noodles, a quick trip down the hall for some hot water to cook them, and some wooden chopsticks.  My morning routines did vary quite often, but this specific one seemed nothing out of the ordinary.

I made a call back to The States to give and receive a report of the happenings of the last week or so.  Increasingly as my time passed in China, foreign became the familiar and I began to largely feel disconnected to what I had once known.  Often when I thought of America, the people I knew, the bar my friends and I would meet at every Saturday night, etc., it felt more like remembering a dream when you first awake.  I used to tell people that I felt like my world had exploded, and only a few refugees made it out alive.  When we discovered another inhabitable planet, we set up camp with the local population.  That is how I remembered the life that was behind me.  

Life alone, in a drastically foreign place, changes your interaction with the world in more ways than I can simply mention in one article.  Just not having your usual support system, if barely having one at all, changes the nature of turnkey events.  I cannot begin to express to you some of the moments of emptiness and loneliness that can crawl over you like thick mud, or a darkness with such physical presence it’s both blinding and suffocating.  In my experience they don’t last long, but are so piercing it feels as if infinity was tangled in a web of a few minutes.  I mention this because on this average, ordinary morning, an event would take place with a particularly striking effect.

While on the phone, immersed in updates, looking through the glass door to my little balcony, I saw in a half second a large object whisk past me.  It took nearly twice as long to hear the thud that ricocheted so profoundly, I swear I felt it.  This clearly was going to be no ordinary morning.  With a curiosity known to felines, I hung up the phone and approached my balcony fully unprepared for what I was about to witness. 

At first I couldn’t quite understand what I was seeing, and I believe now it was because my mind understood instantly what it was.  Like the first time you see the Grand Canyon, it just takes a moment to focus. A girl lay on her stomach 13 floors below me on the roof of the lobby.  Yet something else was wrong that I couldn’t quite understand, so off that balcony I stared until I knew.  I soon realized that what peeved my eye was the texture of her body.  It was completely crushed, and appeared much like a water balloon does when it lies on the ground.  You can’t say how you will react before witnessing such an account, but unfortunately I can.  I made myself bear witness to the tragedy that lay in front of me.  As horrific and uncomfortable as it was, I had to see this, I was meant to see this.  I forced myself to watch, as China’s red pooled around her body until she was half immersed in a small blood pond.  At the point I could take no more and nausea overwhelmed me, I turned, walked inside, and sat on my bed with my head buried deep in my hands.  I felt like I opened a door and an emotional tsunami raged upon me, flooding my mind, sinking my heart, tossing and turning me violently.  I didn’t have time to think about what was washing over me, I was already drowning in it.  I sat there in silence, without any other refugees, without anyone or anything to ground me to my past, and nothing outside of me to draw strength.  I was alone, in a foreign land, and being punched in the soul.

A week later I went to the 24th floor, flung open the hall window, and leaned half my body out to watch the world shrink below me.  Fear struck through every part, yet I held myself half outside the window and imagined if I were standing on this ledge, the very ledge that young girl had jumped from.  It was hard to imagine the fear, pain, and desperation she must have felt in order to overcome what I was experiencing with no intention of jumping.

Later I heard that she was not a student.  However, she was pregnant by one.  A Japanese student that left for Japan, and most likely would never return.  For those who may know, depending on the conservative nature of the girl and the community that she lives in, this is potentially a lethal social stigma.  Over time it has caused me to think deeply about societies and elements within our cultures that espouse fear, hatred, and judgment.  How hypocritical they are and how potentially deadly they can become.  To me this was never a suicide; it was a homicide that often many of us are unwittingly complicit.  It was no random act for her to jump from the top of the international dormitory.  She chose that spot for a reason.  She chose the time for a reason.  She had something to say and the reason I watched was because I needed to listen.  I am simply repeating her voice here and her message.  To all travelers that wander aimlessly or with a certain purpose, in pursuit of fun, adventure, or just to live a care free lifestyle, wherever you go and whatever you do, you impact those around you.  The culture you bring is your own and before you interact with another's, make sure to understand the potential consequences of your choices.  They can provide some of the most rewarding experiences of your life, or be irreversibly detrimental to yourself and others.

Dedicated in memory of the girl from the 24th floor.  I heard you.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Africa: The Savage and the Beautiful

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There is much to be said about safaris and such little space to draw the picture of a wild countryside where long, oval masks painted in tribal colors hang on the walls of lodges and stores; where wooden elephant heads stare at you from restaurant nooks; where the sense of unbridled wilderness pervades the air with its pollen of adventure. Kenya is a place whose people enthusiastically greet one another with a smile and say "Jambo." A place where you can temporarily rid yourself of dull jobs that await you beyond its vast borders, allowing the wild fire of Kenya to rekindle your childhood curiosity.

Traversing the deserted stretch of reddish plains by air, our Cessna ferried its way to Treetops, a lodge built on a hundred marvels: tree trunks. This is where Princess Elizabeth, before becoming Queen of England, once visited, and where many people of note enjoyed the exquisite charm of its lakeside repose. At night, the local wildlife can be observed from the lodge's high terraces, allowing you to snap pictures of hyenas, lions, and giraffes as they curiously wander towards the leftover dinner piled outside.

The next morning, after a safari-style breakfast which consisted of a long, wooden table with a myriad dishes and oak benches, we invited several of the bubbly patrons for an escapade into the heartland by plane.

Ten minutes later we nosed up into the sky and swung around a great lake whose satin sheen looked like a grey sheet of ice. Frightened by the engine's roar, hundreds of flamingos below took to the air, flocking away like pink scarves scattered in the wind. And silhouetted as they were, against the endless plains whose horizon touched the Serengeti, they injected in us a silence of awe as we admired a graceful sliver of Kenyan wildlife.

The plane soon tipped and landed on a strip beside a small village ensconced by brush and a running river which snaked off into the distance. Dozens of bare natives bathing in its murky waters stopped and eyed us in wonder as they emerged from the waters, pointing. And dozens of giggling children ran behind the plane's wings as it turned in one big arch and came to a stop. When the door swung open, the buzz of flies and children's yelps filled the cabin, touching hair, touching skin, beckoning us to its kin. Outside, merchants with earrings so large their lobes drooped like melted wax waved goods in our faces, and accepted cash or cigarettes in trade.

This was the beginning of a long adventure, but alas, as with all soulful exploits, it eventually kissed me away and left a wistful memory, one which reminds me that simplicity is often the most memorable thing. A simplicity like Kenya's raw beauty.

And as for I, you can rest assured that, one day, I will say this word again, "Jambo," and it will be greeted in like.

In the land of its kin.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Saudi Arabia: Beneath A Splendid Sun

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The moment I arrived in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, I was greeted by an orange sky which soon shed tears of sand and blood. Slowly, the distance was bathed in the eerie glow of a wounded world. The simmering heat cooled. The winds gathered. A blanket of clouds pulled over the city, running from horizon to horizon, shunning all sun in its wake save for its round, crimson outline bruised against the burning sky. A red sandstorm was upon us.

Darkness fell. A devouring blackness which lay siege to daylight for a good hour before its whipping winds and red haze yielded back to blue, leaving as quickly as it came.
In all my travels, I've never experienced such extreme power of nature over land. Such marvelous display of colors brushed on the canvas of our heavens. But just as foreign to me was Jeddah's void of tourism. Most countries I've traveled to gave off a worldly vibe, a sensation of commuters coming and going, voyagers, explorers, and backpackers on a journey. But Jeddah seemed reserved, shunning the masses. As if a city born from A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. A city which looked historical, very foreign, where the hail to prayer from loudspeakers atop mosque minarets romantically called across its dusty streets. A peaceful flower.

Now there is a popular misconception that Saudi Arabia's people, especially its women, are repressed. But walking through Jeddah's bustling Corniche gave me anything but that impression. It looked more like a place brimming with fun and activities, and old shops (called soukhs) which shared space beside shopping malls that looked far more modern than many I've seen in Europea and the U.S.

One thing you will notice when roaming about, though, is the predominance of men. Due to their shy nature, women seem to walk or dine in large groups at the malls and restaurants but are rarely found elsewhere. And yes, they do wear veils, but many without the niqab which covers the face. Instead, a good number choose the more casual abaya, a veil which conceals only the shoulders and body, and which come in a variety of very fashionable designs.

Somewhere in the background of its dreamy lull leaks news of the outside world; a war in nearby Syria, a president exiled in Egypt or re-elected in Iran. But whether by design of its censored media, or the care-free nature of its citizen, I found myself shielded from all that was negative and disparaging. Jeddah isolates you fully, shies away from extreme capitalism and provides you with an Arabian experience unlike those of heavily-visited Egypt and Jordan. If you compared these countries to coffee, the others would be flavored coffee beverages while Saudi Arabia stayed true to a strong, home-brewed cup of gahwa.

Not a place for everyone, it's a far cry from Western appearance and ideals, yet Jeddah still holds a seductive allure with a welcoming and very attractive people. A desert pearl where great beaches tempt you to sit and revel under a splendid sun, losing yourself in a moment of imagination.

A moment of storybook fascination.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Time Traveler


I have been invited by The Traveling Bedouin, my best friend for nearly two decades now, to share in my thoughts and travels.  I pondered about my own blog and then decided that, much like traveling, it would be far more rewarding to experience this trip with a companion.
In sitting down to write and share whatever thoughts my fingers laid to print, I began to wander through all my travels.  It was like rummaging through the dusty travel section of an old forgotten bookstore.  I fingered through the pages of Asia, Europe, the Americas, etc. and found myself moving through the emotional spectrum of all the experiences that have been the architects of who I am today.
As I sat there like a spiritual medium that could tap into the many karmic lives they lived, I thought about what it really meant to write about traveling.  It was nothing to do with that one great place to eat, or that one site you want to photograph from a hundred different angles, or the next mountain crest that’s known for its sunrise.  If I were to write this, I might as well write another travel book that really would be at home in the travel section.  Instead, traveling for me has ultimately become more about the experience itself.  Therefore, that will largely always be my approach.
For me traveling is more about the challenges you encounter, and as many know or will know, traveling is certainly showered with no shortage of these.  It is about the people you meet, the gains you earn, the losses you feel, the fears that are real and imagined, the reality of dreams both realized and broken, it is about nothing and everything.  Ultimately traveling is about, and rests solely within, the human experience, about learning and growing, discovering, creating, and in the end as I sit and write, I realize it’s simply about you.
So as I trek through the history of my life like a tight rope walker dancing on a timeline, I see it the way God must see time.  Still, fixed, and accessible at any point.  No matter where you go or don’t go in life, we are always traveling through time.  We are all without question “time travelers” and in this time we become our own Descartes, and at many points in it we are defined and redefined.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Travel Bug: The Recklessness of the Free-Spirited

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This is a topic that presses a hot button of mine. I mean it reeeally does. I've forever been badgered by many who found that being settled with children, and not being a free-spirited traveler, is the way to go. They feel that a man past thirty should hunker down and turn marriage-hued headlights on in search for a (victim) spouse.

Honestly, that's the way I view it. Victims of norms. Now, I'm not downing anyone happily married with children. I know plenty of those and my blessings go out to you. But alas, I know far more that fall on the other end of the spectrum. Those that wish they could just up and go--free-spirit their way out of their marital shackles into a foreign country and leave their woes behind (and I'm sad to say, many do up-and-leave abroad). What with the divorce rate skyrocketing globally, what once was considered taboo is now an accepted norm. Some even joke about it and call a first marriage a starter marriage.

I'm sorry to say. But travel calls. This whole relationship drama can take a backseat in the car which I've parked in the garage of a house I've locked and long left.

You really wouldn't grasp it without standing, for example, on Pub Street in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Forget the merchants. Forget the sleazy, cramped backpacker rooms besieging the neighborhood. No. I am talking about the travelers from all over the world roaming around you. Some looking like people of class, some looking like trash, but all with that singular essence burning in their chests: the free spirit.

Some take trains, some take planes, they travel here and there, many without destination, only a dream and determination. You can't pretend to be like them. Even if you try to break the societal mold and travel far away, many will do it for the sake of Facebooking it to show their friends and work colleagues. Nothing more. You will see them trying to snap pictures without enjoying the beauty of the scenery. Viewing it only months later through the pictures now posted on Pinterest. No, you've only cemented the idea further, that you indeed traveled for the wrong reason, that you remain shackled and lack this spirit which grant many such joy with so little in their pockets.

You. You are the one whom we're talking to. The one who can't understand the foreign language we speak. We don't shame or pity you, we respect your decisions.

But respect ours. Don't point fingers unless you're willing to look at your hand and notice the three pointing right back at you.

Recklessness lays not within the free spirit, but within troubled hearts. And these exist on both sides of the fence.

Do you not agree?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Novel: Writing is Rewriting

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How many times have we heard writers complain about the quality of their first drafts (i.e. doodoo)? Many would see them buried, and many have indeed buried them and moved on to other endeavors. Most people who get started on writing don't realize how much goes into revising once a first draft is completed. I certainly was one of them. No matter how much you pre-plan, you will still find that the completed first draft of a book is either too thin or, most often, too long and laden with excessive descriptions. It was Stephen King who said in his book, On Writing, that the second draft is the first draft minus ten percent. Learning to rewrite with economy of words is the first step, but my question is, how long should the process of revision take?

What I found out is this: there are no steadfast rules. There are no time frames. There are only opinions, and a lot of them. What everyone unanimously seems to agree on is that once a first draft is completed, a "cool down" period ought to follow before revisions begin. Some go as far as suggesting a couple of months repose. A couple of months?? I think I'd feel so disconnected from my writing by that point that I'd lose any of the original creative momentum it took to write the initial draft. In his blog, literary agent Scott Eagon suggests something far more reasonable, but one thing we can rest assured of is this: there exist no rules.

My two cents? It takes as long to revise a book as it does to write it. If it takes, say, four months to write a novel, then it would take roughly that long to revise it. If it took one year to write it, then it would take a year to revise it. Pretty simple, right? Rewriting is an art in by itself, a much finer one at that, one were sentences are entirely re-arranged for effect. Where the music and cadence of words and lines are honed and tuned. In his book, Revision and Self-Editing, James Scott Bell says you write hot and revise cold. And if there is a lot of garbage and improper grammar usage during these hot moments, don't worry, because you'll be spending plenty of time in that editing freezer.

I just completed my first draft and am in the process of revising it right now, so I've yet to see if my time theory on revising holds, but if it does, I'll be sure to update this blog!

I'd love to hear any opinions on the subject and see just how far off I might be… how long does revising a novel take? And how long should one allow for a cool-down period after completing the first draft?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thailand: The Price of Paradise


John and Tiff wanted something different, they just didn't know what, or how. They felt beat down living paycheck to paycheck. Tiff worked at a call center and John worked as a server for a small, but popular restaurant. On top of that, Tiff had to pay a babysitter to come babysit four times a week. On weekends, they would find themselves before the U.S. travel section at Barnes & Nobles. Perusing and musing.

Now, guidebooks like Lonely Planet make for a good read when you're a tourist. But when it comes to moving anywhere, you need some serious one on one time. And not with a book. You need a field grunt. Someone who's been there. Someone who can explain the writing in between the lines of those travel guides. Knowing that I was impassioned with travel, John invited me to meet him at Starbucks and posed the question--if I were in his shoes, where would I move to? Without hesitation, I answered: Thailand.

Why did I chose Thailand? Call it personal preference; arguably, there are tons of equally great places to live. But I knew John and Tiff. They were dreamers. Our previous conversations always centered around fabulous locales and beaches. They were the kind of folk who hadn't been to many places, but that always talked about them. What better than Thailand, that pearl of a place, with its gorgeous beaches and tropical landscapes.

Thailand is also a Mecca of exotic culture and curiosities. Its capital, Bangkok, has some very intriguing temples and sights to see, the friendliest people I've met, both local and expat, and a slew of solid work opportunities. It also bears enough Western influence so as not to completely estrange newcomers. Add to that an electric nightlife that could put any city to shame, massive mega-malls, a vibrant expat community, and you have a pretty convincing argument for moving. What better for John's family?

But before thinking about moving, there were five hurdles.

The Five Hurdles of an International Move:

1. Motive.
Attitude is altitude. Before getting into the mechanics of moving, one really needs to introspect and assess their attitude and, especially, motives. If it has anything to do with sex (and, in this case, Bangkok's sex industry is prevalent), then they may be in for a dish of long term disappointment with a side order of heartbreak and a broken wallet dessert special. Thailand will even be glad to spoon-feed you seconds. But if the right motives are there--to work, discover, and explore--then you're on the right track. Understand that your presence in Thailand is far-reaching. What I mean by this, is that the entire Asian continent from India to Japan is yours to discover both cheaply, and conveniently. How about a thirty dollar flight to Vietnam for a weekend? Try Or maybe a scenic overnight train through Thailand and its neighboring countries might be your fancy? Check out Seat61. As for John and Tiff, one thing was for certain. They were tired of the "how was work?" daily exchange before dozing off on the couch in front of repetitive sitcoms. They struggle and long work hours burned them out. And what more? The boredom! They wanted change. Was that possible? Well, if anything, they had the main ingredient to make it possible. The motive.

2. Ties.
Two days later, I met John again at one of my branch offices. Oops, I mean Starbucks. This time he looked completely worn out and in the dumps. "There's no end in sight." He shook his head. Yes, he had tried business ideas here and there. But everything circled back to his dead-end job and sucky boss. "Have you given Thailand any more thought?" I asked. He looked at me as if I had grown another head. I explained he had no ties that bound him to the States. He and his wife could leave and find work and a good life in Thailand. What more, his family and friends could come visit! "How?" he said. "It's too hard" . I mean, finding a job in Palo Alto, California, when you're in Florida isn't exactly a cakewalk. But Thailand? That was beside the point: they could leave if they wanted to. They had no ill grandmother to tend to or pressing obligations. They had no binding ties.

3. Debt.
Isn't debt somewhat synonymous with a modern lifestyle? The U.S. marketing machine has to be one of the strongest world-wide, the way it entangles our drive to travel (only 30% of Americans have passports, see Those Ties That Bind). "I'd love be in Thailand. Tell me more about it, for the sake of argument," he said. In the case of John and Tiff, they had a new car lease. They used to have an old beater of a car, but soon replaced it with a new one and a new anchor: debt. Now let me just say this, if someone is buried under a massive heap of debt, there isn't much they can do save for pay it down, borrow money from a rich great aunt, rob a bank, or ditch it altogether. The last option isn't an honest one, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it. Considering all, John and Tiff would need to settle their debt. Different car leases call for different terms, but in this case, they would be charged a two thousand dollar penalty for returning the car. Others with more restrictive leases can look at lease transfer companies such as Swapalease.

4. Job.
What kind of work do most expats find in Thailand? Well, that entirely depends on your credentials and I won't cover the swath of industries either, save to tell you that teaching is one of the most prominent and easiest jobs to obtain for native speakers of English. Can you make good money at it? Absolutely. As with any other job, it all depends on your drive, credentials, and what you're willing to negotiate. Having a newborn son, they couldn't take any risks in that department.  Not until they had something secure. "How do I even find a job there?" asked John. We flipped open my laptop, and I navigated to Ajarn, the professional English teaching website. A beautiful layout, a simple interface, and a steady stream of job updates showed at our fingertips. First, they would need a teaching certificate. This was easily found at IH Bangkok, which provides the foremost certificates of teaching English, accredited by the University of Cambridge, called the CELTA. It would cost $1,600 each for a one month intensive course, held in Bangkok. Next, they needed a job. Who thought it could be so easy to find a job doing what you already know?Namely, teaching simple English which is in great demand (especially now, considering the Asean initiative).

5. Housing.
Last, but not least, they needed a place to stay. I advised him to seek housing when he was in Bangkok, not before. They wouldn't know the precise location of their school or university until they were in Bangkok. And although transportation is very convenient, with both an underground metro and an overhead SkyTrain, the last thing they'd want is to get a house one hour away from their jobs. This is the part were pre-planners might feel a little nervous. But what was the cost of housing for the first month while they looked? Four hundred dollars. He could then find a nice, convenient three-bedroom townhouse close to work for about two hundred and fifty dollars a month. Pile on electric, internet, and utilities, and you're looking at another hundred dollars. Three hundred and fifty dollars a month for a beautiful, large townhouse, close to work.

There was a four month period of silence.

I thought John and Tiff were lost in their busy lives and that our conversation was just a means for him to vent. What with the way he described his hectic days, I expected nothing more. But what pleasant news I received by way of email one morning.

They'd done it!

Tiff explained their plans to her parents, that they would most likely be gone for only a year (we'll see about that). Her father then offered to cough up the two thousand dollar penalty for their leased car. In the meantime, John researched kindergarten schools for his son. If they remained longer than a year, they would need one. He found a decent school which charged a reasonable $1,500 per semester.
Over the past four months, they had lived on lean means and saved up $1,600 a piece for the CELTA course AND Tiff had landed a job offer through Ajarn, teaching flight attendants English for a local Thai airline. As for John, he was entertaining two separate offers. In total they would be making $3,500 a month. All they needed was to was present their CELTA certificates, college degrees, and clean FBI background records.

Low salary, you say? The balance lies in the cost of living. With that kind of income, John and Tiff's quality of life in Thailand would be far greater than that in the U.S. They could also save roughly $1,000 per month, live in paradise with their son, and end up saving $12,000 by year's end with a complimentary round-trip ticket back home. This would actually put them in a better situation than they were at back at home.

John followed up his email with a call. He said they had saved some money in case of emergency. His voice had a strong undertone of anxiety. A nervousness I recognized well; the same I had when I first traveled into that great unknown on my own. That fear that lurks in the deep abyss of our reasoning minds. But undoubtedly, their willpower prevailed.

As a banker by trade I can tell you money may be a short-term obstacle, but it is also the greatest excuse. John and Tiff paid a price with the proper currency, not money, but willpower.

And that--that is the true price of paradise.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Travel Bug: Those Ties that Bind


At least the real, silk ones, those which men wear at work, is what Bernard Montaigne was referring to. Over a generous serving of steak and fries à la Française, the manager of Restaurant L'Entrecôte voiced his opinion to me: "There is no more joie de vivre in your country," he said (interpose heavy french accent). "It is all about work, work, work. Wear your tie, go to work." Not that I entirely disagreed with him, but curiosity begot me as to why I meet significantly more foreign travelers than my own folk abroad, so I did a little research on the theory of monsieur Bernard:

Get this. A recent survey by the World Travel Organization shows that individuals born after 1965 in the U.S. travel 3.5 times per year for leisure, instead of the national average of 4.5 times per year. That's nearly twenty five percent less, generation over generation, and why, do you ask? Well, we rank nearly dead last in vacation days (average of 13 days a year, for the record) when compared to similar, industrialized countries which grant up to 43 vacations days a year. Hello? Compound a struggling economy with those statistics and you'll find a slew of employers willing to grant less rather than more, and families needing to work more, rather than less. Did someone say Italy is hiring?

Being somewhat of a math geek, I broke down the percentages for those that traveled locally versus internationally. First, we have to consider that only about 30% of Americans hold passports (which is way better than the teens it was a just few years ago), and that 50% of those that did travel abroad went to either Canada or Mexico. Now compare that to the U.K which boasts a 75% ownership of passports, or Canada, just a border away, with a 60% ownership. When put in perspective, the above numbers mean that roughly 2 in 10 Americans actually travel internationally--beyond Canada and Mexico--compared to 7 in 10 in the UK. Blimey, those Brits are a nomadic bunch.

"Not taking a leap is comforting, because this is the American life," says Matthew Kneppes in his NomadicMatt blog displayed last year on CNN. "Breaking outside anything that is your norm is scary."

I refuse to believe this concept, I've yet to meet someone who didn't want to travel abroad, so I pose these questions: does the abundance of beaches and mountains and prairies keep us grounded to our own continent and culture? Or are those obligations which salesmen know well to overcome--time, money, or family--the true culprits?
Why do we not travel to far-off and wondrous destinations when we have the highest income per capita in the world?

What ties. Those ties that bind.