Thursday, October 30, 2014

An Awakening

I wrote this entry many, many days ago (I've lost track of time, so it could easily be weeks and weeks ago). But I didn't post it because it felt too early and it was way too preachy and happy and....well, to be honest, it was very much done completely in a bar after several delicious, cheap drinks, and I needed to think about it for a while. I do this with all my entries. I'm very meticulous. I'll even go back and correct errors and add in things to entries that are months or years old. I can't help it. I'm weird. So this entry...this entry I had to really roll around with...but after looking through and correcting the stumbles (beware though, I left in the drunken rambling and A.D.D. nature of the writing), I know I feel exactly this way and I don't care if it sounds like a motivational speech. If there is one theme to this blog, one crying-out point, this is it. This is a %100 honesty:


I can't go back.
Well, I can and I will.
But I can't go back and live a normal life again (actually, have I ever actually lived a normal life?).
I am not me anymore. Simple as that.
I'm sure of it. It's confirmed.
Or maybe I am just becoming more. The real me, maybe? Yeah, that sounds about right - the me that I've hid from a lifetime of self-inflicted doubt, society-pushed expectations, and false TV-created perceptions of success and failure.
Fair warning: I'm going to make a lot of self-riotous, considerably un-modest statements about myself, and I'm really sorry for that. The thing is, I have to type them out. In this guesthouse bar I'm at right now, I have to see these words on a screen. To make it more real. Concrete. Achievable.

More specifically, I can't go back after this journey to a 9-5 job. Oh God, it pains me to praise myself like this, but I am better than that. I am bigger and smarter and greater than that. 9-5's are good and needed and respectable. But it's not for me anymore. 
I have stars in my eyes and they won't leave until they're done burning me up completely.

Tonight, I feel like some kind of LOST-like destiny hit me (Mark, I haven't thrown in a LOST reference for a while and couldn't resist). While walking back to my dorm (side note: it's a hostel called Glur and it's one of the nicest, hippest, places I've ever stayed at - if you're going to Bangkok, want a killer location right next to the BTS transit station, and don't mind a fancy dorm setting, book this place immediately!) in the middle of the bustling Bangkok financial district, I was stopped by the first American I've met in Thailand so far, who happened to be from the U District in Seattle and had his own architecture company there for 35 years. He owned a local hostel with his wife a few street down (edit - this is Mac and Noi who took me to see the monk from this post). He talked to me about how they had over 60 beers imported from around the world. Believe me, I was sold the minute he said the number 60 (I've been dying to have anything close to an IPA in Southeast Asia instead of watered-down, but admirably cheap, beer).

30 minutes later, I'm drinking with the owner in his alleyway bar. 

Of course, right?

So this owner told me toxic, dangerous stories. Stories that wormed into my mind - and it's a gross metaphor and I apologize - and laid a billion eggs ready to hatch at the slightest spark of inspiration. He told me stories of previous adventurers staying at this random hostel who MADE A LIVING TRAVELING. He gave me countless suggestions on how to fund these adventures, including reaching out to UW alumni, donors, travel companies, and so on and so forth.

And a light bulb didn't just click on in my head. 
It shattered. 
It exploded. 
It fucking erupted into a million pieces of panic and glory and excitement.

THIS,
RIGHT NOW 
A TRAVELING SOCIAL WORKER WRITER -
IS YOUR LIFE.

My good friend Shane had a bumper sticker on this car a few years back and it has (I know how this sounds) honestly been extremely crucial to the way I live my day-to-day life (edit - I now have this tattooed on me). I've never had a sentence, especially be it on a bumper sticker!, radiate with my soul so powerfully and completely. It read: 

Remember who you wanted to be.

Take a reading pause. Re-read that sentence. Think about it for a moment. On first glance, what does that sentence mean to you?

Here's what it means to me: We get so caught up in life that we forget that we always knew who we wanted to become in life, back when we were kids. Before the "that's too hard" or the "you'll never be able to be that" or the "that won't make enough money" or, or, OR forever and repeating.

So what happened? How many of us got tied down to a life we never wanted and doesn't truly make us feel alive? It's because the world does it's best to destroy that idea. Don't let it. You can be anything and do anything. When you were a kid, you wanted to be a writer? An astronaut? A crime-fighter (masked superheroes are a real thing! For example, Seattle has/had one!)? A model? It's all possible.

It's all about remembering who YOU wanted to be. Not what people tell you to be or should be or is the most practical.

I remember who I wanted to be.

I wanted to be this. At this exact moment in time, 

I wanted and want to be this.

The only problem arises is: now what? What do I do? Do I contact UW alumni or random donors? And if so, what do I say? Something insane like: "Oh hey, I want to travel, save the world, start a couple NGOs, help the poor, and write about it in a witty-like fashion so that I can be an international writer? Oh, and could you pay me for it?" 

Uh....right.

But, okay, alright. Remembering who you wanted to be is tough. You have to not let the doubts consume you. I mean, what happens when your dreams flash before your eyes? What happens when you experience that serene moment when everything and anything makes complete and utter sense?

Do you question it?
Do you ask why?
Do you...? Do you...? Do...?

No, no, NO!

You don't.

You do it. It's your dream. You follow it.
I want a family, I want a wife, I want kids, I want the white picket fence and the adorable German Sheppard keeping guard. But, for now, I want this. And, who knows, maybe I can find a way to do both at the same time (edit - yes, please).

Either way, I want this more than anything.

I want to change the world. And I want to make a living from it.

I don't know how, but that's part of the journey, right?

Note: to anyone reading this. 
This is meant for more than an Oprah speech to simply make me feel good. This is meant for YOU, too. To tell you that YOU can do what you dream about and not feel ashamed to chase it because you're afraid of being laughed at or failing. I dreamed of travel and writing and now I'm doing it. 

Do you remember who you wanted to be?

Again, one more time, think about it for a moment before you keep reading on. I mean, really, really think about it. Don't worry, I'll wait. When you were a kid, let's say 5-10 years old, before the doubts and the shame and expectations smothered you, what excited you?

Have it? Good. Hold onto it.

Start tasting it in your everyday life. Breathe it in every single time you inhale. 
Wake up tomorrow and find what you love. And chase it with every piece of your heart.
Because one day you will die and this part of life will be over.
Done. Finished. Finale. 
You will never be the person you are at this exact moment you're reading this.
You have a finite time on this Earth.
Take advantage.

Remember who you wanted to be.

I have. 

And you can, too.

Promise.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Things I have learned in Thailand (and Southeast Asia)

Building on things I have already learned, here are more lessons.

1. Buses are always, always an adventure
City life in Chiang Mai
So, take this last bus I took the other day for example. I grabbed it from the station at 5am, and for about 75% of the 13-hour trip (from Khon Kaen to Chiang Mai) I was the only non-Thai speaking person. The trip should have only been roughly 10 hours, but we stopped and picked up people at every single bus stop in Northern Thailand (or, man, close enough to it). And that's cool, I like how they grab people on the side of the road who need a ride, it shows a level of collectivism that is lacking in the States. That's not the adventurous part though.

Picture this. An old man sits next to me and our conversation consists of smiles and nods because everything else is very much lost in translation. On the second stop, my stomach is eating itself alive, so I dash out of the bus and grab some random meat "stuff" from a vendor (I love stall food with a passion, despite not knowing what I'm getting most of the time). Each time we stop at another station to pick up more people, I'm worried I might be left behind because no one can tell me how long each stop is for, and it never seems consistent.

Anyway, I eat about half the meat "stuff" before the sway and lull of the bus makes me extremely sleepy. I take a little nap and nod in and out of sleep for a good thirty minutes or so. 
I fully wake up when I feel something crawling up my thighs. 
Uh.
The bus is packed and the old man is still beside me. I look toward my feet and notice an army of ants descending on what's rest of my meal.
And then I realize what woke me up.

I literally have ants in my pants.

Yes. Many ants in my pants.

So, what's a guy to do? Do I:

a) Thrash around like a mad man when half the seats are full of military who I certainly don't want to make jumpy?
b) Start stripping off my clothes in a panic?
c) Proceed with a super awkward rubbing so it doesn't look like I have ants in my pants?

I'm sure you know what I chose.

So suddenly not only am I giving myself a very strange and very weird double-thigh massage (yes, the very old man was staring at me from the corner of his eye in what I could only imagine was an equal look of disgust and confusion at this forang [the word for foreigners]), yelling "ants in my pants!", but I'm also absolutely paranoid that more ants are going to crawl up my leg so I'm looking around at the floor/ceiling/drapes every few seconds, wide-eyed and terrified, like I had just taken a hit of acid and was awaiting the coming return of the all mighty Ant Kingdom.

Thank God the old man got off at the next stop. Hopefully it was actually his stop and not an attempt to escape as soon as humanly possible.

Like I mentioned, buses are an insane affair.
I just go with it.

2. Maslow was wrong
Edit - You may not agree with this section, and that's okay :)
I love Maslow. I mean, who doesn't? His Hierarchy of Needs was/is a cornerstone of modern psychology (and even social work). If you aren't familiar, here's a tiny snippet of the theory:



Humans have five basic levels of "need" to survive (click the picture for an explanation of each level). The extremely basic: once you satisfy the needs of one level, you can properly go up. But, for example, if you are meeting the love and belonging level, but are no longer meeting safety needs, you drop down and have to meet that level all over again. Simple, right?

Now, it has always made sense that people that have no food or shelter or air (the first level) need that first and foremost before self-actualization and thinking of purpose (the highest level). I mean, you can die without food, but you can't die without a sense of purpose or motivation.

Right?

No...it's wrong. It's all wrong.
This country has flipped everything I thought to be true upside down.

I have met and talked with some of the poorest (economically so) people I've ever seen or heard of. These are people who have little more than a straw hut, half destroyed by the rainy season, and the other half sliding in the river that is so polluted and brown and oily that it's a color you never knew existed on the color spectrum. These people eek by, barely making enough to survive day to day (the income disparity is very much a big thing here, whether people want to admit it or not [usually not]). These people perfectly showcase Maslow's theory. They need food and shelter or they will die. Everyday, every hour. It's that serious. I mean, come on, self esteem? Who needs that when you don't know when your next meal is!

But, here's the thing, and I've seen it time and time again. These people fight for food and survival every single day, yet every single day they put out food 
and drink in front of Buddha as a blessing. Quite simply, they first give instead of take.

Maslow thought you needed food first and meaning later on, but maybe that's horribly wrong. Maybe what people need is a meaning to life first (or at the same time as the first level). Maybe even a meaning to everything before taking another breath.

Think about it (seriously, think about why you do these things). Why get the food? Why build the shelter? Why suck in the air? What's the point? Really, what is it? Okay, so you die if you don't, so what? If all of this - life - has no purpose, then it's all meaningless - everything becomes a means to no end. So, maybe the meaning of life should be first or at least equal to the basic life needs, because without that, everything else on the pyramid is useless and pointless. 

These people have nothing, yet they still give. They make meaning of their breathing, their suffering, their searching, and their life. Purpose drives it all.

And so I'm beginning to believe that Maslow was wrong. This culture know is more than most.

Edit - This isn't to say that I romanticize any of this. Not one bit. These people deserve better, as almost all of them will never escape this poverty for countless reasons (including the government thinking that "meaning is enough", which it certainly is not). It's tough to see. You fight to live and to hope and Camus would say this may be meaning enough - the food and shelter and social services these people DESERVE is another matter that needs to be discussed as well. But really, the meaning is up to you, friends.

3. There's a big difference between a tourist and a traveler
I'm not a tourist. Yes, I sometimes go to (a lot of) temples and the crowded tourist traps and buy cheap trinkets that make me feel complete disappointment after purchasing, but I am not a tourist. A tourist is someone who drops in, sees the sights that Lonely Planet tells them to see, and then moves on. I've met many people like this, and even a lot of backpackers seem be this way. They come to these large, massively complex and diverse cities and spend 2-3 days (if that) here and then they're done. Gone.
A traveler is different. They see the sights too, yes, but the key difference is they find time to let it all simmer. They shop at the local stores, they get to know the people who live and work there, they do their best to learn the language, and they search our the unique and different.. Simply put, they drink up the experience. Slowly. 2-3 days for a tourist? That equals about a week for the traveler. They go where they want, not what the tour book says. They walk the city, they explore the city, and they breathe the city in.
Another downtown picture of Chiang Mai
Of course I'm horribly bias, but which was in the better one? Which one hits you more deeply? I feel it follows this metaphor perfectly: tourists are the one-night stand of the travel world, and the adventurers are the relationships. They want more. They seek more. But in the return they demand much, much more attention and willingness to change. To be an adventurer is to accept change in yourself. Not just accept a vacation.
Next time you go vacationing somewhere, try to be an adventurer, not a tourist. I absolutely promise you'll have an experience no guidebook could ever write and could never hand to you. 

Take your time in a foreign city. Give plenty of time to soak it in. Don't rush it. Because if you take your time, you won't just visit a country, you'll leave a piece of your heart with it.

4. You plan your days around laundry
You do. It's as simple as that. When you have 3 sets of clothing, you worry about where to do your laundry at all the times. Especially if you're budget traveling. Which I most certainly am. 
Sample questions:
-Is the sink big enough? 
-Is their a stopper or are you going to have to create one out of toilet paper? 
-Are there places to hang it up? 
-Will it dry before I leave in the morning or am I going to have to stuff it in my bag as-is and have it smell HORRIBLE? 
Hot, humid countries are the worst. Pretty much, your shirts and shorts will last one to two days before needing to be washed. Not only do you sweat in them, but the dirt and pollution literally soak into them at all times. Fast drying clothing is essential for travel. And this brings me to...

5. Travel underwear/boxers is the best thing ever created. Ever.
Seriously, here's an example of them online here (they have women's brands, too). They're super expensive, I know. But they are amazing! In any climate. They dry within minutes, are comfy, and....oh man, I could talk about them for days. Regular underwear and boxes are dumb. Read the reviews and trust in the democratic review process.

6. 7-11s are the best
I've mentioned this before, but Thailand 7-11s are the equivalent to Seattle's Starbucks. I've even seen three on one street block! It's pretty amazing. Unlike the States though, everything is very cheap. I don't know what else to say. They are the best. I'm buying stock. So should you.

7. You'll love cold showers
You'll get confused. The poor and the rich combine in a strange mix. Sometimes you'll be so caught up with how many tourists and money is flowing around you, that you'll forget that this is still a poor country. Hot water (and quality septic tanks) is still a rich person's game. It's sad but true. Cold showers will become your early morning wake-up friend and your early evening cool-down friend. In fact, sometimes it's so hot outside, that the water is warm simply because it's so hot. After a month and a half, I'm beginning to love the cold showers. A lot. And if you travel hostels and the sort, you'll come to adore them too. Like a cold Popsicle on a scolding, lit day.

But like everything, these people deserve more. More on this later.

8. You're never alone, you're always alone
I'm going to build on my blog entry about hellos and goodbyes because it's something that is a daily heartbreak. It's sad and rough and it sucks at the same time that it's strengthening. It reminds me of Bush's Glycerine song, with the lyrics being "I'm never alone, I'm alone all the time". Traveling is exactly like this. Solo travel is an absolute fucking blast! There is no doubt about that. You will meet a cast of characters that will quickly become your best friends. You'll go on adventures, you'll travel together, share rooms, and drinks and stories and drunken stumbles home. But, at the end of the day/week/month/journey, you will go your own way. This isn't Eat, Pray, Love. They will have relationships and lives and jobs and routines back home to go back to. You leave back to your life and they leave back to theirs. It may feel like a collective journey, but it's not. 

You are most certainly alone. 

My favorite picture I've taken.
But, you should be alone. You need to be alone.

It is your journey and it is you who learns what they want out of it. In the end, it's truly and utterly your journey and no one else's (though many contribute, you are the interpreter).

But this is more than just traveling. We all have our own journey to make. And so the only thing I ask of the people reading this (and myself included!) is this: make it amazing, alright?

And I know, it's a strange dual feeling of happiness and sadness you'll never fully understand or get used to. I sure haven't. 

You're alone all the time, but you're not.

This is not white and black.

This is gray all the way, baby!

And this is the heart of solo travel.

9. Simply put, you will not be the same person you thought you were

Thursday, October 16, 2014

New day, new city.

It's a new day and I'm in a new city. Warning: if viewed on a phone, it'll look strange.

Yesterday, I navigated Bangkok early in the morning (during rush-hour no less. I would have taken a picture of the BTS Skytrain when I was in it for 25 minutes, but it was so packed that I couldn't even blink my eye. Also, I may or may not have been sitting on someone(s). While standing. Yeah, I know, how does that even work? Well, go to Bangkok during rush hour. You'll understand how and the image will never leave you) to escape in order to take a bus to Chiayaphum.

But before I move on, I have to digress like I do on every single post, and have a nice little one-way chat about buses and stations with you. Alright, shall we then? If you've been reading this blog, you'll know I've had hit or misses on the the quality of buses in Cambodia - as the first one terrified me and the second was full of drunken, beach-bound Americans. I was ready, and scared, to see how Thailand stacked up in this mode of transportation. Long story short, it did alright. Thailand has pretty fancy buses - very legit in terms of driving and comfort and danger level (no game of Chicken was played). Before the trip though, everyone and their mother (really, at the bus station, I had a guy's actual mother tell me this after he did) inform me to watch out for the A/C.

Are these people crazy? I thought. That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard! Never in a million years would I curse A/C after being in "two-season" Southeast Asia (I'm dead convinced the only two seasons here are hot and hotter). By the end of the five hour bus ride, I had four levels of clothing on. It was that cold. I tried to sleep, but the self-contained ice-cooler destroyed that idea, and I shook like one of those annoying small, purse dogs the whole way. Before that, I stumbled through the Bangkok bus station even though I was the only non-Thai person there and the only English I heard was "Coke, yes?" when I bought a pop/soda (this isn't true, but it was close to it). I got lost on the way there, too, per usual. By the way, if you ever go to Bangkok, ALWAYS ask for a metered taxi and if you must use a tuk-tuk, make sure you 100% agree upon the destination or believe me, you'll somehow end up at a tux shop (uh, I got hustled into buying a tie this way. It is a nice tie though so I wasn't too mad). The bus station wasn't too bad, but sometimes traveling solo is rough, because you have no one to bounce your insane ideas off of (which I have a lot of) or double-check if you're doing something smart (I'm usually not).

For example, this sentence popped into my head while navigating the train station (and yes, I did follow the logic at the time):
"Oh hey, let's go down that dark staircase because I think that's totally the right way! I don't why, I just know."
If that was a real sentence said out loud to my partner-in-crime traveler, I could graciously get a sobering response such as:
"Nick. Stop talking. That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
Unfortunately, without anyone to keep in check my complete lack of direction and logic, I go down said dark staircase.
It was a long morning.

Back to Chiayphum (you'll see me mention the name a lot, because I love the way it rolls off the tongue. Try it now: Chi-ya-poom. I'll wait. Okay, did you say it out loud? See what I mean? Like butter). So you're probably thinking, where in the world is Carmen Sandiego and why is she in Chaiyaphum? Because, let's face it, no one knows where that is. Chaiyapuhm (say it out load again, I promise it just gets better!) is not for tourists. And I'm not really in a new city because this certainly is a town, with only 37,000ish people living here (at least that's what Wikipedia says). It's very much "out there" and I couldn't be happier to be away from the glitz and pollution and heat and commercialism that had wrapped Bangkok like a smothering blanket. This, I felt, is what the real Thailand was all about (though that's silly to say, as the major cities are just as much a part of what this country is about, too).

I've come to the house of my parent's friend's cousin. His name is Dan and he's been here for about 7/8 years. Dan's from the United States, where tragically his wife died years ago. He met a woman online here from Thailand, Amporn, who also lost her significant other. To say they are a perfect match would be an understatement. You know when you can hear a couple talk to each other, see the glances they give back and forth, and just their tiny (almost unnoticeable interactions), and you know they're madly in love? That's them. They are my hosts for my couple days here before I head to Chiang Mai. And I couldn't be happier. Both are kind and generous and, yeah, the best.

The next day we drive through the countryside, through villages, and through the part of Thailand I really wanted and need to to see after the sensory overload of the city. It's also cooler here, thankfully. Well, not really, but without the pollution and exhaust and hot concrete, it feels like heaven. Here are some of the places we go:

A wat I can't pronounce in a nearby providence
This is where Anon meditates at.
In my last entry, I shared a little about the experience with the monk from Wat Worachanyawas. It was so strangely earth shattering, that I couldn't even finish that entry. I was a mess. A few days later, here I am again, in front of a holy man - this time in the middle of practically nowhere, sitting on my legs beneath him, and putting my hands together in greeting. This associate abbot, named Anon, knows little English and we use Amporn to translate. I won't go off into a continuation of how majestic it feels to be in front of a man who dedicates himself to others always more than himself, so I'll just say this about Anon: he's just as holy, generous, and kind as the last monk I met. We bring him food, because a monk here can't eat anything after 11am (though it could be 12 though, my memory is a bit spotty). 
Beautiful tourist-less temple
He gives each of us a present (though I get one additional gift - a Thai phrasebook, because, well, let's face it, I suck at learning new languages and I stumble through the language and butcher it like nobody's business. I basically say a word and mumble to the end so it sounds like my mouth is full of cotton). My gift is a red plastic key chain with some ancient language written around the inside. Anon doesn't know what it says (he believes it's in Khmer, but it's hard to really pinpoint), but it is supposed to bring good luck and belonged to the monk who built this temple were at over thirty years ago. Again, I still can't describe the feeling yet. How does one describe the feeling of getting an ancient good luck relic, from a holy man, in a jungle in the middle of Thailand? Answer: I can't. At least not yet. Gotta let it simmer for a bit more time.

After meeting Anon, we drive around this very large "campus" of temples and houses. This area is sacred and exempt from the government building on it. So, that basically means it's gorgeous. Anon wants it to be a future refuge for animals as well.

Bones.
We visit the main temple here. The monk who built this temple (of which I now have his good luck relic - and it really is a relic being that it is "a part of a deceased holy person's body or belongings kept as an object of reverence") must have been very important, as this is the only temple I've visited that has a collection of bones of famous and important monks and holy men throughout history. It even has a bone of Buddha in it. Again, I'm glad to be out of the city and be here, away from tourists, in the heart of where Buddhism thrives (this place is very close to the center of Thailand), uninterrupted by the flash of cameras.

And I'll say this now and not bring it up again (edit - that's a complete lie, Nick. Why would you say that, because we both know you ramble). You don't have to be Buddhist to admire the dedication, the love, the passion, and commitment of the people who follow Buddhist principles. I'm not Buddhist, but I love, appreciate, value, and admire their beliefs. A lot of religions could most certainly take notes.
By the power of Zeus!

Police Checks
Now, this certainly isn't a "sight", but it something interesting nonetheless. In random spots, at random times, there will be police checks. You roll down your windows and they either wave you through or they motion you to pull to the side. It reminds me of Arizona law where they can pull over anyone that looks suspicious.
No additional comment on this. 

Yet.

Stonehenge of Thailand
We continue our drive through the countryside and visit Amporn's school (she's been a school teacher for decades. Although she can retire whenever she wants, she loves the kids too much to leave). We then visit the Stonehenge of Thailand. I have no idea how they got this name, because it looks nothing like it.A It's basically a natural rock formation that looks really cool. I'm no scientist though, so I have no witty and intelligent explanation as to why these rocks are here or how they got this way. Actually, I do have an explanation, and I'll leave it as this:



Afterwards we go to a coffee shop run by a fantastic set of ladies (I haven't mentioned this yet, but there have been quite a few beautiful women in Cambodia and Thailand. Like insanely so. Just saying), eat sticky rice and chicken at a stand on the side of the street, and visit the site for what will become the largest Buddha in the world (we barely get in, because I'm wearing a dark shirt, in hard contrast to the white or light colored shirts required by workers and visitors).

And other things happened, like when I went to a street market and ate silk worms. 

This is Chaiyaphum (best town name ever).

Monday, October 13, 2014

And then I broke down in tears.

Tomorrow I leave Bangkok. It's a little bittersweet to say the least. The city is insane, I've met some of the most life-changing people here, and I've gotten into a nice, little cushy routine. And it feels good to get a routine, you know? Of course, all routines get boring after awhile if they aren't remixed, but they are very much welcomed to help cure some heavy culture shock. I get to know the locals - they say hello (Sat-wat-dee kraup) as I pass them street, I run into fellow backpackers and end up going to rad jazz shows in the middle of nowhere. I stand to reason that the minute the workers at the coffee shops (yes, plural, I have a problem) know my drink without asking, I'm no longer a tourist. I'm part of the verse of the city.

But, as soon as this feeling gets comfortable and safe, I'm off and away to somewhere new and different and alien. And that's okay, because, traveling is never really about the sights and sounds and smells and experiences. When it comes down to it - like most things in life - it's about the people. It's about the real, human connections you make with others. Connections, friendships, and relationships, are what life is all about.

I met two really good travelers from Amsterdam the other night in my dorm, Hykle and Floor. If there's one thing that connects backpackers, no matter where they're from or how old they are, it's travel. It's the common love of adventure. We talked about the human connection of traveling (the hellos and goodbyes I've mentioned here before) but also how traveling friendships are much different than your normal friendships. Travel friendships come fast and hard (that sentence reminds of something...)

You unravel pieces of you that would take months and years back home to reveal, but when traveling, everything is just out in the open. You meet people only so briefly that filters are never an issue. You see people in their best and worst light - and there are no walls, no pretty makeup, no nice clothes, just them. It's wonderfully refreshing.

There are two human connections I've made in the last two days that have forever altered my life.

I ran into a fellow Washingtonian, Mac (who looks exactly like HRG from Heroes), who owned a hostel and bar with his wife, Noi, down the current street I was living at. They are without a doubt some of the most charming people I have met thus far. I ended up at his bar that night and got very drunk with a bunch of Thais. The stories soared out - I told these random people I had just met pretty much all my secrets - my greatest fears and hopes and lost and secret loves - because, why not? I needed it more than I thought. I felt a bond between these people and myself that completely and utterly reinforced - made concrete - the fact that this journey is one that is first and foremost about people.

And yesterday, Mac took me to see a school at Wat Worachanyawas in Bangkok, where I talked with the head assistant monk and his students. The man was a genius - a BA in Social Work, an MA in English, and was currently getting a Master in Computer Science!
I'll be dead honest, this is going to be hard to write, because I'm crying a little bit writing this sentence (I feel sorry for the random people in the coffee shop that have to deal with me). Simply put, I have never felt so honored and privileged to meet someone before. This tiny man, with his bright orange garb, and gorgeous smile and completely visible heart, was someone electrifying. My blood pulsed and I was even trembling. This man's soul radiated light and love and life just as bright as his cloth. There are no words and no pictures that can do this meeting justice. There really is not. I can hardly describe what we even really talked about. We laughed our way through stories about Thailand, my travels and his, Cambodian and Thailand government and history, and many other subjects. All the while, his students, who were on a break from their Thai history class, were racing around the room taking a million pictures of us and asking us questions in breaks in the conversation. Side-note: this isn't the rich Bangkok, this is most certainly the poor end of Bangkok, and these kids come from very poor towns, coming to learn at this school from 4-8pm, even on the weekends. These kids were amazing.

Mac met this monk years ago and has been good friends with him since, even learning Thai from him for absolutely free (as everything is. Nothing is ever, ever asked in return). During a break in conversation with the monk, Mac turned to me and said," Thank you for this."
"What?" I said. "No, no, no, I should be thanking you for this! This is the most amazing thing I've ever done."

He shook his head and indicated the three of us. His words were much stronger than before, emphasized and raw. "No, thank you for this."

You see, this monk was was the definition of humble.

In being so, he rarely talks about himself. Surprisingly, with me, he delved quite a bit into himself, mentioning the years he had been teaching and helping run the school, future travels to Burma, and other things. Mac was so thankful because our meeting gave him the chance to know just a tiny bit more about his gentle friend.

I've met a lot of "holy" men in my life, from priests to pastors, but this monk was different. He had the kindest eyes I've ever seen and it matched a strange, infectious laugh that escaped every couple minutes. You couldn't help but to laugh along.

I mean, I'm still wiping away tears right now, just thinking about this short, chance encounter with this man. This was something life changing and I have no idea how to describe what it was like to meet a man who really was and is holy. It was a moment in time that is sweeping and epic. A moment of true beauty.

We talked about social work a lot. About how rough it is to give a piece of your heart to the world. As I left, we both bowed to each other (typical greeting/goodbye). He shook my hand (not typical), and then put his hand over his heart. He praised me for my profession and my heart. Again, humbleness beyond anything I'd ever seen.

And then he said something that that hit me right in the soul. I unfortunately was too shattered by everything to remember it a 100%, but it went something like this:

"You and I. One in the same."

Oh man. I can't do this.
I'm sorry, I can't.
I'm stopping. I'll come back and write when I can process this more. I'm an absolute mess in this coffee shop right now.
It's too much.

All of this.

It's wonderfully and beautifully all too much.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

An Average Day in Bangkok

8am-9am
I wake up to the crying of children. And to the an entire city stirring. Because I have paper thin walls (I've slowly decreased the quality of places I stay now to save money), I can hear every movement from the rooms flanking me. It's super awkward. But I have my own room at least (and when I say room, I mean box. And when I say box, I actually mean humid coffin). I take a shower in the shared restrooms down the hall. The water is freezing cold, but it's absolutely refreshing because it's already pushing 90 degrees outside and my entire body is peeling like a lizard from scorching it in the sun a couple days ago in Sihanoukville.

I grab my backpack and head to a coffee shop nearby that sells some of the best Caramel Macchiatos I've ever had. It sells for 40 baht, which is a little over a dollar for the largest size (Fun fact: Venti sized drinks in Starbucks here are the SAME size as talls in the States. Interesting to think why Americans need that much coffee, since it's pretty much the equivalent of doing a line of cocaine - click that link and read that article. It might change how you drink your coffee. Or make you desperately want more. Hard to tell). As I gorge myself on this gift-from-God-coffee and read my book (the excellent The Beach, a good primer on the insane world of Thailand and insane world of letting go - haven't seen the movie and shame on you Farcry 3 for stealing the gist of the plot), the stray dogs have taken sides on the street and an all out war erupts. It's basically the dog version of Street Fighter. All the vendors simply watch, not even a muscle twitching. No one dares interfere, myself included. Last thing I'm sure anyone needs is rabies (Thailand is the third highest in the world for bites!)

So. Much. Rain.
I walk down the street to find a place for breakfast but get caught up in another monsoon. They're no joke. I duck and cover under a nearby tarp. The city drowns around me. I wait a good thirty minutes before it's relatively safe to walk the street again. Reminds me of how chickens sometimes drown by looking up in the sky and not having enough smarts to close their mouth (edit - thanks Alyssa for pointing out this is totally a myth that I believed as fact. And thank you t.v. for filling my head with LIES). I find a good place to settle down (and I love how they're strangely playing Metallica this early in the morning and at a crazy volume) and eat some of the best curry of my life. Words won't do it justice. So I won't waste time describing it. Just know this trip has changed me simply because of this fine meal.

I walk to the park and admire the city. If you can imagine the look and feel of any major city (particularly Seattle and New York) in the US, you can imagine Bangkok. So, yes there are nice streets, tall skyscrapers, 7-11s on all corners, and horrible, ugly traffic and honking horns. But now imagine any third world country you've been to. People push carts blaring unintelligible Thai trying to sell ice cream, scorpions, or random knick-knacks. Tuk-tuks still yell for your business across the streets. The apartments lining the street are dilapidated.

It's clear that Thailand has a lot more money than Cambodia, but...I can't shake the feeling that something is...very...off.

The greatly poor and the greatly rich mix in a way that is extremely jarring (at least in Cambodia it was mostly just the banks that looked grossly out of place). Everything, after a while, felt very much like an illusion. That's the best word I can use to describe it. For example, yes, there are pedestrian walking lights, but they don't work (I do my best to blend in with Thais so I don't die when running across congested streets like a madman). Yes, there are police, but they mix with the military who hold AK47s casually (the military had a coup here in the early summer, read more about it here: 
http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/23/world/asia/thailand-military-coup.html). Yes, there are tuk-tuk drivers, but almost every single one I've met are recycling the same scam (which I half-fell for my first day here. Not all though, because I hate generalizing. I've had some AMAZING ones). There's no denying that there is tension in the air that I didn't feel in Cambodia. It's almost as alive as the city itself. But no political talk until I'm in India...lots of reasons for this...

11am
I grab a boat ride down the river to get to another part of town for 15 Baht (about 31 Baht = 1 dollar) and it's gorgeous. Also, re-read that. The city is so large I have to take a BOAT to get to another part of the sprawling metropolis. And even after that, I have to take a sky-train to get to the heart of the city. It's that massive. Bangkok is what I would imagine Gotham City would be in real life.

Marge vs. the Escalator
I visit a mall. It happens to be 7 stories tall. It has more escalators jutting off in the most random directions and lengths (seriously, it's like a M.C. Escher painting) than Guinness World Records can count. It swallows me up in consumerism. I end up at the movie theater and watch a horrible movie (this is a trend for me, isn't it?) called Annabelle. (edit - here's comes a rant). This horror movie is so full of horrible stereotypes (see what I did there?) that I could hardly handle it. Really, why can't, for once, these kind of movies portray women on the screen as strong as they are in real life? Why can't it be the man who sees all the crazy ghost stuff, goes to the psychiatrist, and it's the wife who talks sense into the man? It's a gross stereotype to promote ideas of a weaker sex and I hate it. Okay, I'll stop. Hollywood: Just...stop. Alright? (Sidenote: a good, violent horror film with a strong lead female protagonist was You're Next. It was great to see an empowered female character for once in a genre that never seems to get it right).
But Southeast Asia saves me yet again from an uncomfortably bad movie. Going to the movies here is an experience. The last movie I was at (The Maze Runner, surprisingly great) had everyone yelling "oh shit!", and their Khmer equivalents, during each and every action scene. This time, every jump scare on the film had everyone screaming bloody murder. I loved it! Add "Go to a horror movie in a Southeast Asian movie theater" to your bucket list right this very second.

It takes me 30 minutes to find the exit of the mall.

Outside, across from me, there is a line of apartments, french colonial style, broken down and peeling faded paints of light yellows and peaches. Signs litter the wall space. On the ground level, each building has a stall of some sort selling everything from calculators to beer. On the other side, a big mattress sale rockets along at an unbelievable pace. Traffic is at a standstill. Motorbikes zoom by between cars until sooner or later, they too get caught up in the traffic halt. The cable lines above me hang loosely, a good dozen cables or more swaying in the wind. The sidestreets I pass are tight, even tighter still are the alleyways with their benches and hanging clothes and laughing children playing games I don't understand. So many bodies and carts on the sidewalk and I blur together with them. I cross by one storefront with 40 men screaming at a boxing match on a television that still has antennas and tinfoil on the ends. Men hold fists of money in the air in a very cartoonish fashion.

It rains again. Everyone rushes for cover. Ever seen a dozen people under one tiny street vendor umbrella? It's a trip. 

I stop at 7-11, because of course I do. Just as "bad" food here as back home, too. I still cave and eat there. I now can feel ashamed of liking 7-11 food on two different continents (but not really - what do the kids say nowadays? #sorrynotsorry?). Some things will never change.

Sweet.

3pm
Hipster Buddha
Birds of a feather.
I visit a ton of Buddhist temples (called wats). In one, I buy some birds from on old, kind woman in order to let them go in the temple for good luck. There's no signs in English pointing to the "right" temple, so I release them in the "wrong" temple. I may or may not be completely bad luck from here on out.

6pm
It gets late and I have no idea where I am. I take the train back (which is very easy to use, by the way. I mean, it's so incredibly simple that I don't know why all mass transportation everywhere isn't like this). Only bad thing is that it's rush hour and a million and a half people are on this train. I'm being serious. I think all of Southeast Asia is on this train. Say goodbye to a comfort bubble. And I'm pretty sure the whole thing is going to derail.

I get back on the boat, but, uh, take the wrong one (thanks a lot, birds!) and get dropped off randomly with another person who did the same. Luckily, the boats come every 10 minutes so it's okay (even fun) to get lost.

I get back to my guesthouse and hang out with the employees. We drink and talk culture and others join in. Soon, we have a mash of people from all around the world and even the most simple of topics have a fascinating spin on them. I met a 76-year-old man here, named Percy from the UK, that could quite possibly have been the most interesting man I've ever met. In a future entry I feel the need to write about how amazing he was. For now, I'm lazy.

9pm
People from everywhere are here on this Road. I have yet to find another American though.
One of the girls working at my guesthouse takes me out to Khao San Road, a major touristy backpacker spot. It's basically a long street with a whole bunch of bars, insane tourists, and weird things to try and see and eat. Every hundred feet or so, I see another canister and someone holding up a sign saying "Laughing gas - 100 Baht". I decline. Instead we buy grasshoppers and I am in love with them. They taste like the best snack food I've ever had. It takes several drinks but I'm able to get a Brazilian couple next to me to try it. They love it, too. They then buy a scorpion, but no one eats it. It becomes out mascot for the rest of the evening.
As addictive as popcorn.
We move off the streets (where we were sitting) and head inside (really, just underneath a roof) when it hits 1am. I'm not entirely sure why. As mentioned, Thailand is under military control and there's a strict 1am curfew. But everyone just shifts chairs and everything seems completely fine. I try to ask why this matters, but I back off the topic entirely, afraid to get into political talk in this country.

2amish
It's late and I'm exhausted. I stumble back to my room after seeing some other sites, away from the lights and sounds and booming American music. Bangkok is a nightmare collision of life. It's, plainly put, very awesome and unlike anything I've ever experienced.
I put on my headphones as I walk up the stairs of my hotel and blast my favorite music. It's the best feeling in the world. Being so far from everything I know, I feel more alive than ever.

3amish
Michael Scott soothes the soul. I watch episodes of The Office on my laptop in my room. It strangely helps with the homesickness I'm experiencing. 

And I am homesick. It's a weight that's always there. I miss my family. I miss friends. I miss missed opportunities where I was too scared to try (but will go for the first chance I get, because I'm learning a simple question to ask myself - what's stopping you? And the answer? Nothing except you).

I feel myself changing with every warm night that passes.
And this is Bangkok.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

How to get high.

Catch a plane to an unknown world.
Believe me, there is no greater high.
In fact, there's nothing like it in the world.
It hits you. All at once. And brutally hard. A sucker-punch to the face with a little, breath-stealing, hug afterward.
You're suddenly on a budget plane that you pray doesn't crash because it was so, so, so damn cheap.
You're surrounded by a sea of people who don't speak your language. In fact, there's a billion languages around you.
You're flying to a city, to a country, to an experience you've never been and had. A city you've only seen in the movies. A city so big and busy it has it's own heartbeat.
Thump, thump, thump. Goes the heart. Of the city and you.
You forgot that you had to have your water bottle empty before the flight.
You chug 24 ounces of water while in line. 30 seconds flat.
You feel like you have to puke.
Instead, you go to the bathroom on the plane so many times people start laughing.
And then you laugh too.
Because it's crazy. It's insane. It's every emotion you've ever had colliding like the Amazon river and the Atlantic.
Your heart feels like a mini-heart attack, thump, ThUMp, THUMP, skipping beats along with the shaky rhythm of the plane. It skips more beats with every bounce and spin of turbulence.
You get off the plane and all your feelings double. Triple. Hell, maybe even more than that.
You just don't know anymore.
It's absolute pure excitement mixed with absolute pure terror.
You thought you prepared. Read all the right books. Talked to all the right people. But your mind races and goes blank.
About 30 Thai Baht to the Dollar? Right? Easy when something is 30 or 60 or 90 Baht. But it gets difficult when it gets to 720 or 872 or some other odd, high number. You're a social worker, not a mathematician.
Little to nothing is in English nor in the Khmer you started to learn.
Time to start over again in the language department.
The city is massive. Skyscrapers all around you kiss and melt into the clear sky. Unlike Cambodia where it was somewhat flat. The lights and sounds are intoxicating and pulsing.
You booked a hostel online that looked good, looked smooth, but no matter how much you researched it, you're going to be dropped in the middle of nowhere.
You're alone after making a ton of good friends and bar companions and fellow adventurers that took you around the previous city and town.
Now it's just you. Because, of course, this is your adventure. And your smart phone is dying and is anything but smart without a signal.
Shit, you think, why didn't I write down the street names? Why didn't I bring a physical map?
But it's okay.
It's totally and utterly alright.
Because then the high kicks in again. Even stronger. All your senses turn on like you've never felt before.
Every neuron is excited.
Because every smell burns and soothes, every sight becomes bright and overpowering. The sounds are chaotic and beautiful and noisy and...
"It's just too much," you say.
You have to lay down. But not before you pet the dog outside your door dressed up in a Superman costume.
No!
Not yet!
Then you get right back up because the high is still ever so strong.
You have to see and explore and use this mish-mash of feelings.
It's nighttime. They warned you to go out alone.
You do it anyway.
This is a unique high. One you can't get at the corner or in an alley.
This is a high that is quite honestly the best high you'll ever get.
You end up at a bar (well, you think it's a bar at least), watching Thai MTV in the middle of Bangkok, writing on your laptop because somewhere, ANYWHERE, you have to write out the explosions in your head. Try to make sense of it all.
And you realize that being alive, through the worst and best, is the finest thing there is.
And tomorrow, you explore and meet new people and truly live, just to make sure this high - this clean and natural and gorgeous high - lasts as long
as it
possibly
can.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

"So, why are you here?" Part II

Note: this is a late post, but hopefully it's still worthwhile reading. Also, students from the Royal University: if you read this on a laptop instead of your phone, you can change the language to Khmer on the sidebar! It's Google Translate, so it'll be just a bit broken, but it should help.

I've become friends with a charming employee at the guesthouse I've been staying at for the last two weeks. She's the one who took me to the market earlier in the week to try balut and a stinky fermented fish sauce, called Prahok (pictured, and yes, it smells horrible, but like balut, is delicious!).
We had an interesting conversation today, and one that rattled me a little bit.
This girl, like many of the people living here that I have met, work hard. She basically works here from early in the morning to five or so at night, then motorbikes across town to work at her sister's shop to help her out (for no pay) until late into the evening. She does this pretty much every day.
I stupidly asked her what she did for fun.
She laughed. Fun? Really? Where is there time for that?

This got to me thinking, again (uh oh). Again feeling ashamed that I was traveling the world, not on my dime, and going to Dr. Who marathons in air-conditioned theaters, petting strange, friendly cats (speaking of which, they all have no tails here...) with one hand and drinking a double rum and coke with the other.

How crazy lucky is that? At the same time though, how unfair it is when great people like this have to work literally all day just to get by? So, I have this little blog and I write and I travel for free. Uh, cool. So...so, what? Again, I questioned why this fellowship stipend was given to me to just spend instead of just donating it to a good, efficient NGO or something.

Speaking at a university today helped answer this.

Got a tuk-tuk to drive me to The Royal University today to see how their social work program worked. Long story shortened: a great professor/mentor of mine from UWT, Dr. Tom Diehm, was able to connect me up with this school here because it is in a partnership with the UW. Of course, it seems like everything turns into an adventure of sorts with me and I got lost on the way, went to the wrong school, and was completely late (apparently, so I've been told, "social work" in Khmer is only one letter away from "sociology", so everyone gave me directions to all the absolute wrong places). I finally found the 2nd college campus that held the social work department. Of course, it was way, way, way out of the way from the main campus, because, well, why wouldn't it be? Social work always seems to be the underdog, no matter what country you go to. I was welcomed and given a small tour. The 2nd campus is nothing to look at, in fact, it was very basic and very bare-bones. That said, I loved it. And it has little to do with the shape and condition of the school and has everything to do with the heart and soul of its teachers and students.

I sat in a circle with about 10 of the students and was left there to ask about Cambodia and the role of social workers and they asked me about the field in the States. At first, these BA students were very, very nervous. And why wouldn't they be? Here's this tall, awkward, guy from America who wants to talk about school and get into everyone's business. Awesome, right? So, yeah, they were hesitant at first. But after a good fifteen minutes, the floodgates opened and I learned quite a lot today.

Now, I won't say too much about what we talked about because of social work confidentially and, well, I do have to be careful what I say on this blog when it comes to activism and the government...

But, I will say this. These students are smart. They ware highly intelligent. And funny. And determined. And it makes me so happy to see a new generation so ready to change the future. They asked me why I wanted to be a social worker and, like I did in my application to UWT, I said simply: I want to help people.

They jumped on this, heads shaking up and down, all around. I can't express how impressive it was to see these students light up. They wanted to create a better world out there, too! To really make Cambodia even better than it was. They had fierce pride (reminded me of Tacoma pride) mixed with gracious hearts. The school, as broken down as I originally viewed it, took on a whole new spin. I suddenly admired it greatly. It had definitely seen better days, but it also had a history that many of us couldn't even imagine. The 74-79 genocide took not only lives (I've heard that only a few hundreds college teachers survived) here but also years of progress. The Royal University was essentially demolished by the KR, who wanted their new, pure society uneducated. Only recently have they been able to rise from the ashes of this horrible destruction.

I'm proud to have come here today. I'm proud of the people and I'm proud of the school. Immensely so. To have the chance to talk and listen and share with these fellow students. Not only have I learned much from them, but I think, they learned a lot from me (hopefully!).

It was wild to be talking to students all the way across the world, tripping over language barriers, in a surreal school that was demolished during a genocide. Yet, as different as worlds as we come from, we fight the same thing. We fight poverty from different angles with different environmental and cultural factors and lenses but it's essentially the same fight - we fight injustice, we fight to give voice to those who don't have it, and do our best to fight against whatever corruption we find. And it certainly is a fight, let no one tell you different. No matter what you believe, fighting for the poor in a world ruled by the rich is and always will be a violent, unnerving, and relentless Robin Hood-like fight.

These kids and I are one in the same. Different worlds, but we all want to change the world. For the better.
If that's not the most beautiful thing ever - a shared heart for humanity - I don't know what is.
I needed today.
So back to that question of why I got this fellowship. Why did I get selected for this? I think, in part, to meet people like this - inspirational, wonderful people - who will push me to be as dedicated and driven to change the world as they are.
It's an experience of a lifetime for me.
Even if only to meet the game changers of the next generation and have the honor to change the world by their side.

Edit - Just met social work alumni today to talk with them about Cambodia and social work. Just as amazing. And just as much heart.