Wednesday, January 28, 2015

All the cool kids read.

Updated: July 2016

I love books.
Like, in a creepy, obsessive sort of way.
Like, I'd kill a man in order to raise Ray Bradbury from the dead to write another book.
Like, I'd sell a kidney for the 3rd Passage book to be out already (edit - it came out and it was just as fantastic as I thought it would be).
Like, yeah, you get it.
It's a serious problem.

Here are some of the books I've had in bag throughout my travels. If you're looking for something worthwhile, give one of them a shot.

My heart goes out to Cambodia. You know how when you listen to a band and that first album you listen of theirs is always your favorite and forms the bar that you grade everything that comes after it? So, Cambodia is like that for me, being my first country I solo visited. It changed me. The people changed me. And the history changed me - history that is chilling. I remember when this book came out and the title always felt like it punched my heart and soul every time I saw it on the shelf. It was simple and powerful and unlike any title I'd ever seen. The book is just as good as the title. It deserves to be read. It's rough though, I won't lie. Told through a child's eyes, the genocide that happened here is told in a way that is unlike anything I've ever read. But not enough people know about this genocide (I wrote about this before) and the more people that know about what happened here the better. I did my thesis on resilience, and this author shows that as bad as life gets - as horrible and as shitty as human beings can be - the human spirit is stronger. It can survive through the absolute worst situations, even though the scars never really fade away.

The Beach
Alex Garland

First off, don't watch the movie. Besides Leo's performance, the entire film is garbage (that love scene in the water with the glowing plankton? Ughhhhhhhhhhh). And the book does an excellent job portraying a descent into madness and the eternal search for "something new" and exciting. After India and Burma and Sri Lanka though, this book has taken on a new meaning for me. Thailand, and many, many other countries embrace tourism to an extent that forever changes their culture. I've mentioned before that tourism can feel like that Walmart that smashes into a small town. The busyness of lights and sounds and people is great, but it can get to be too much. We naturally seem to want peace and a place of our own. What I love is that the book isn't just about the search - the character does find paradise - but the dangers and downsides of dreams coming true. Dreams have consequences. This is Lord of the Flies on drugs and I love it. The ending is very different than the movie and it's shocking and worth the price of admission alone. It has more cannibalism than the movie, too, so that's always a plus.

In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India
Edward Luce

India, as mentioned, is madness. Its economy has been climbing and there are a ton of reasons for this. And although this is fantastic news, there are problems that are either growing or staying stagnant, such as literacy rate and poverty. This book tries to tackle the massive problems and successes of an entire subcontinent. India is huge, and each state is like a new country, so it's a huge undertaking. It's a fascinating read.

Fair warning, it's heavy stuff, so you might love it or it might end up being a better alternative to those Vicodins to fall asleep at night with. India is complicated and so is this book. Try to find the newly edited one.

The Plague
Albert Camus

Love me some existentialism (although, Camus hated this term) and needed to re-read this after finding it a random hostel. This classic book is about a small town that gets a case of the Bubonic plague, is quarantined, and its citizens must accept the fact that they most likely will all die in the worst, most painful way. Think about that for a moment. What would you do in that situation? Would you give up? Would you fight against the inevitable? Would you change your beliefs when witnessing and experiencing the worst of the worst? Or would you thrive on the struggle? Each character, vastly different, from the atheist to the pastor, fight death in their own way. It's not a book for everyone, but it is a book about everyone.

The Passage
Justin Cronin

Dear God, I love this book. I've read it twice now and it's getting better with each word. Brian, if you're reading this, thanks for getting me and everyone else at Borders hooked on this. It's magical writing and that rare book where I get so wrapped up in the characters that it destroys me, in real life, when something bad happens to them. Yes, it's about vampires, but it's not what you're thinking. Pinky promise. I've heard the term "popcorn fiction" but that's stupid and untrue. Not only does it pull at the heart strings, but it's as intelligent as most of the philosophy books I read. I think the book best portrays the concept of love and what it really means to love someone like a father, like a brother, and like a lover. And what it means to fight for that love, even in the most hopeless of situations.

Finding George Orwell in Burma
Emma Larkin

Burma has the nicest people in the world. There, I said it. And I stick by that like it's a scientific fact.

But behind the smiles is a lot of pain from a government that is ripped straight out of 1984. In fact, George Orwell used Burma as inspiration for that novel (which, for years, was banned) and Animal Farm. This is a beautiful book and really well written. Although I had read Orwell's books in school, I had no idea about his military past and the stories behind the ideas. I was always taught that his books were about Stalin, but that's not true at all (though, I see where the parallels are). It's a good dive into Burma history while exploring the tragic ramifications of a sneaky government built on power and control.

Doug Dorst/J.J. Abrams

I cannot believe I haven't mentioned this book. I got this book the first time I came to Thailand, and it's a massive, tome of a book that has interactive parts that require a whole table to use while reading it (maps and pictures and napkins and the list goes on). This book floored me. When I first nabbed it from a Thai bookstore, instead of experiencing the new world around me, I stayed at my hostel reading for hours and hours (much to the confusion of the staff). It took me a few months to get through it and took up a 1/4 of my bag. Room in a backpacker's bag is sacred, so I hope that tells you something. This is such a hard book to describe. It's a book written like an old, classic novel like Treasure Island mixed with juicy pulp mystery. But, there is another story written in the margins of the book about two college students who write back and forth to each other and slowly unravel a mystery and, uh, may or may not fall in love. In fact, this book is a romance at the heart, and it truly is one of the most special books I have ever had the privilege to read. It's a long, intensive read though so expect to have to dedicate time to it.

Currently Reading:

Shadows of the Wind
Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I'm a 1/3 of the way through the book and have already underlined over a
hundred different sentences that have knocked the wind from me. It's like one giant love-letter to the beauty and power of words (and to Barcelona). It reminds of when I first reading Les Miserables, and I - still to this day - don't know how Hugo was able to put words in such an order that made sentences and paragraphs works of art. Zafon crafts sentences that melt into you. I've also never cried and laughed so much in a book in recent memory. One of my old bosses at Borders, Marie, said it was the only book she ever re-read. I can't believe it has taken me this long to dive in. Unbelievable writing here. I don't even have to finish it to suggest with head-over-heels admiration. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

A simple story in Burma.

Reading back on some of these entries I've made, I can't help but feel like Doogie Howser M.D., where at the end of every single episode, he typed out the tried-and-true lessons he learned during the day. Typing this blog sometimes gets a bit preachy and, oh man, I hate preachy.

So, instead of writing some entry about how life-changing this journey is and has been, or about the importance of chasing human relationships (recently, while Skyping with my sister, she asked: "So, you meet any girls yet?" which I responded with, "Uhm...well..." and she concluded with "I knew it. Probably like 3 or 4."), or the issue of poverty (yes, I still need to gather the words to write about that - read Finding George Orwell in Burma, it's a great report on the sadness behind the smiles here and the punishing government that works behind the tourism veil), I think I'll just write about a plain event and post some pictures. Everyone likes pictures! I'll let you be the judge of the significance. If there even is one. (Read: there always is). Pictured above is how excited kids at a local school got when I took their pictures and showed them back to them.

So, some backstory. I met two new friends, Julie and Frank, and we traveled together for a while. We met in Yagon, bused it to Bagan, and then traveled to Mandalay via sleeping on the floor of a local transport boat for two days. We saw a lot of the country side and, aside for a somewhat quiet french couple, we were the only other foreigners on board. We taught the locals how to play Uno. One woman, cackled every time I lost against her, and nicknamed me "Click, Click" (pronounced like cleek, cleek). I think it had to do with taking pictures of the game, but the language barrier is rough here, so I have no idea. It was a blast and they were surprisingly awesome at it (fellow travelers, always carry Uno with you!). And yes, we slept on the floor, and yes, there were a million and a half moths, and yes, it was uncomfortable and unforgettable.

We toured Mandalay, met more amazing people, saw some sunsets and temples, played cards, and had some good beer. We also saw pagodas, no surprise. By the end, I was so templed out, it's hard to describe in words.

Frank went south and Julie and I went to Kalaw via bus (yes, the buses here are an adventure as well, the strange music videos go on sometimes until 12 in the morning), a bitter cold town with a population of about 10,000. It had a market and, well, that's about it. We booked a three-day hike to Inlay Lake and set out for the trek the next day. We were joined by two Spaniards, Carol and Alberto (hope to see you two in Spain!). Like everyone I've met, they're legit, and it's been a pleasure to be able to travel with them.

We set out hiking with our local guide, Nanbo, and took a ridiculous amount of cheesy pictures.

We ate lunch at a couple's house, in a tiny village, who were the nicest people I've ever met. The old man had dance moves like you wouldn't believe.

That night, we slept at Nanbo's parent's house. It was a simple house with simple means. The woman next door, fed us tea, was shocked I was single, and said I'd be married when I was 30. She then offered to have my family move to her village.

I gladly accepted. Though the more I thought about it, I'm pretty sure she may or may not have been hitting on me, Burmese style. I've never been very good at detecting those kind of things. But, you know, what? I was cool with it. I learned in India to just go with these things.

I tired beattlenut, the chewing tobacco that stained everyone's teeth red. It was delicious.

We slept on the floor and it was cold (these villages don't have electricity, save for whatever they can pull from their car battery in the their living rooms). But I was surrounded by good people and everything was perfect.

We set out for day two. Great views and good people found on the sidelines.

The second village was much more touristy and we went to a festival there. But it was just two bands playing in the dark and a lot of people drinking whiskey (which is a about 1 USD a bottle here...danger, Will Robinson!). We were all tired and had to wake up early, so no party for us.

Third day. We hiked some more, got to Inlay Lake. And took a one-hour boat ride.

My feet were destroyed from hiking with 10,000 Kyat (about $10 USD) shoes I found in a store after Frank and I's shoes got stolen a week prior.

Overall, a beautiful experience.

Then I went to a beach, had late-night conversations with one of the most fascinating people I've ever met (looking at you Nayara!), and took a banana boat along a Burmese coast. But those are all stories for another time.

So there you have it. A single entry without any philosophy or deep thoughts in the way.

Enjoy it while it lasts because my next post will get back to the usual.

See you when I see you.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Barbers and Stars.

Mingalar Bar (hello)!

I had been in Myanmar for a few days (also called Burma, but for a lot of complex political reasons that I’ll dive into at a later point, I'm sure, I’ll just refer to its current name for now). I was in Yangon (also called something different. Yeah, it can get complicated) and needed a haircut and my beard trimmed. I woke up late due to partying with some random, Myanmar family on a lake for New Years. That's a story in itself. But, I digress.

So I went out to the street to look for the nearest barber.

Yangon, the fomer capital of Myanmar, is wild, just like most other Southeast Asia countries. The honks are still there, the loud, sometimes obnoxious streets full of madness are still there, and the street vendors with cheap ware and a bargaining mindset are certainly still there. What is extremely different, and this is a little hard to explain, is the feel of the country. It really is like taking a Dolorian and time traveling to the past. It really does feel like Thailand, but catipulted 50 years back. Every couple steps I get greeted with a warm hello, sometimes hidden behind a light peach colored sunscreen that comes from tree bark. A couple steps more and I get bombared by a million temples (and no, that number is a realistic figure. In Bagan, it's mindblowing how many there are. This post is pictureless though, because Wifi is little to nonexistant and only really works, somewhat, at certain 5-10 minute windows throughout the day). The next couple steps brings me to a carnival where I ride rides, like a Ferris wheel, powered simply by monkey-like teenagers, not an engine to be found.

But if you didn’t guess it already, this is a story about people, not the temples or the sights. Like usual. Temples and visuals are dandy, but you can Google the pictures and wikipedia the rest if you want. You can't Google the people. Well, except for Kevin Bacon. He knows everyone. Do you know your Bacon number?

I wandered around for about an hour and found absolutely nothing. My sense of direction borders and skirts the line between the horrible and the adventurous, let alone in a new city that has zero tuk-tuk drivers. So I went to a nearby park to do some reading in some shade (and in case you’re wondering, I’m re-reading The Passage. And my God, it’s just as good the second time around. I know I say this about everything, but honestly it's one of the best books you'll ever read. Last night, I got through the tragic halfway point [fellow fans, you know that part I mean] and got pretty worked up and thanked God my two new friends I shared the room with, Julie from Belgium and Frank from Holland, with were dead asleep). I only got a few pages in before a nice fellow invited me over to his shaded concrete spot under a large bush. It was a blazing hot day, hitting 34 degrees (93.2 F), with the next few days forcased around 38 (100.4 F).

I learned about how this tiny man, teeth stained in red from a street tobacco, was an interior decorater and just started to take English classes a few months prior. He was fasinated by me and I was intrigued by him. The perfect mix for a good cigar and coffee conversation.

Now, I'm not going to come out and simply say these are the nicest people I have ever encountered, because they say that's a cheap way to write. I'll show it instead. Like a legit writer does.

He offered me a cigar wrapped in some kind of leaf, and, of course, coffee. He even went out and got some coffee from a nearby vendor and came back. We had a fine Myanmar cigar and bitter coffee and it was wonderful. I asked him where a barber shop was in walking distance. He smiled and told me to follow him.

I did.

Ten minutes later we're in a back alley barber shop, all locals. If this were any other country, my irrational fear of getting my throat slit from a beard trim would have surfaced (I watched way too many Godfather films as a kid. I know what's up and the easiest way to take out a Don). My new friend, whose name I won't even try to spell here, grabbed a newspaper and waited and smiled.

Always with the smiles.

Sidenote. I love barbers. I love going to one in each new place I visit. Back home, growing up, I used to go to one of those chain, we-dont-give-a-shit-about-your-hair, establishments for years. Then, I got my haircut by a man I befriended from one of these chains and he did a great job for years. We became good friends, I even helped him move to Spokane. That was four years ago. The last time I talked to him, he called me up late one night, drunk, crying, and telling me that he wished his son had been me. I haven't seen or heard from him since. As they say in the Neverending Story book, that's another story for another time.

I started going to this very Repulican barber in Tacoma. We have a great repotorie, me the bleeding heart social worker, him the Fox News diehard who still peppers his sentences with semi-racial remarks. It makes for great conversation and I love it, even if we completely disagree on everything in life.
After every trim, he does this electronic back massage thing and puts this cool lotion on your neck that makes the world feel alright and good and gorgeous for a few blissful seconds.

It's the little touches that make barbers wonderful. In India, they gave weird head massages, one popping my ears so hard I yelled "shit!" as I convulsed in my seat.  Barbers care about their job. It's their trade and they work on it as hard as they can.

This man trimmed by head and face like it meant the entire world. For readers who have or have ever had a beard, you know those little tiny stray hairs that poke out and settle on your lips, or worse, get in your mouth? I hate those. With an extreme passion. This man trimmed each hair with heart. So much precision, so much care. Clip, pause, inspect, clip, pause, inspect.

And then it was done. My friend who had brought me, put down his paper, smiled a gigantic smile and gave me a big universal thumbs up of approval.

We hit up a small outside food vendor and I ate parts of a chicken I didn't think ever, ever existed (since when did chickens have tubes?!?).

And then, we parted ways. Simple as that. No trying to sell me anything. No trying to get me to go to a tailor shop for a gas comission (here's looking at you Thailand tuk-tuk drivers!). He just smiled, shook my hand, and said, "Thank you for coming to my country. I hope you like it."

It was small. Subtle.

And then he was gone, lost amongst a crowd that was dangerously crossing a street. Just as quickly as he appeared, he had left.  In a life of both big and small human interactions, sometimes its the small that really hit you. That really knock on the heart to see if anyone is still home.

Like all of these countries I've lived (yes, I use that word because I feel they are all a home to me now) in, these are people who lived and are living through unstable governments and great poverty. Their kindness is unreal. I know I say that about most cultures I meet, but this country takes the cake. It's like nothing I've ever felt before.

But tourism is coming here. This country still feels mostly untouched by Western culture, but the cloud is forming. You can see it just barely in the distance.
I'm glad I'm here now. 2015 B.T. (Before Tourism).

Tourism brings in money, sure, but it comes with a price. Everything comes with a price. Tourism is sometimes like that big Wal-Mart that comes to that small town and destroys the community. It's great when you need toilet paper at 3am in the morning, but is it really worth the rest? Its rough to drive by the fancy hotels popping up. They look wrong and ugly amongst this ancient city of a million temples.

A piece of my home and heart are now in this country as well. This country is like the old grandfather, gentle with wisdom, but scared by a conflicting past. I have yet to really talk about the problems of these countries, mainly poverty and corrupt institutions of power, because I don't know where to begin. Its easy to write about the good things, the great and funny things, the beautiful things. But there's a lot of ugliness, in fact some of my travels have intersected with some of the worse things I've known to be in the world. Its rough and I haven't had time to process it. So, for now, I focus on the people and their human spirit - which is a majestic, shining thing of the utmost importance - and the good things, because the bad needs time to simmer.

I wish you, the reader, were here right now. Because, if you stay away from the 5-star hotels and dive into the heart of the people and the cities and the slums, you wont be the same person. You cant be.

The world is so small yet so massive and complex.

And wherever you're reading this from, whatever country, whatever night sky you stand under, our stars are all just as big and bright.