One Way Ticket

Manic month of May

 

Before we wake up and the number on the calendar is 1**

I wanted to look at some (rounded) numbers that describe my month. This is the closest I'll get to math without breaking out a spreadsheet:

  • Travel distance, air: 11,150 miles
  • Travel distance, rail and wheels: 720 miles
  • Travel distance, walking: 149 miles 
you should see my shoes at this point

you should see my shoes at this point

  • Countries stayed at least one night in: 8 (Thailand, Egypt, Ethiopia, UAE, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Czechia?)
  • Calories consumed: too many
Gościniec restaurant, Warsaw: nine pierogis was the minimum order

Gościniec restaurant, Warsaw: nine pierogis was the minimum order

  • Stories published: 1 (Voluntouring)
  • Words written: did you see all the miles I walked?
  • Pictures taken: 1500+. Some were better than this:
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And putting aside the numbers, even in a once in a lifetime journey this month has stood out: I've seen The Pyramids at Giza, Lucy, the Acropolis, Auschwitz, and so much old Europe. I left my second home and got closer to my first. I got food shoved in my mouth and found the meaning of life.

What will next month bring? We'll start to see when next we wake up. 


**Hat tip to my b-school buddy Naequan, who references Bone on the facebook every new month. This is also where I post the pic of my autograph from Wish Bone, whom I met on a plane to Brazil in 2015.

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The meaning of life

"So what's the meaning of life?" a friend asked me over chat recently. As if my travels had imparted some sort of rare wisdom unto me.

But maybe they had. 

Grave relief of Demetria and Pamphile, ca 325 B.C. "The sisters gaze remote and isolated, already in another transcendental world, far from the things in this life.... It is one of the last tomb stones before the law passed by Demetrios of Phaleron, prohibiting luxurious tomb monuments." --from the Kerameikos Archaeological Museum

Grave relief of Demetria and Pamphile, ca 325 B.C. "The sisters gaze remote and isolated, already in another transcendental world, far from the things in this life.... It is one of the last tomb stones before the law passed by Demetrios of Phaleron, prohibiting luxurious tomb monuments." --from the Kerameikos Archaeological Museum

I've happened upon a lot of graves in my travels, some of them millennia old, holding the deceased of various backgrounds, faiths, and reasons for being there. Something kept bringing me to them beyond morbid curiosity. And it hit me in Athens, at the Kerameikos site and museum. So many artifacts there were found at gravesites. They buried tools and toys, and made ornate tombstones to celebrate the memory of their deceased (until that was outlawed, anyway). This was three-plus centuries before Christ walked the earth and one of his apostles came to visit

Sanctuary of the Tritopatores--what remains, anyway

Sanctuary of the Tritopatores--what remains, anyway

In Kerameikos stood a low trapezoidal wall and a stone tablet proclaiming it the HIEPON TPITOΠATPEON: Sanctuary of the Tritopatores. It was a church, essentially, established in the fifth century B.C.: here believers offered the Tritopatores food and drink, and sought blessings during wedding rituals, praying specifically for the birth of sons.

But by the third century B.C. the sanctuary was no longer in use, and no one, to the knowledge of me or the Kerameikos Archeological Museum, at least, still worships the Tritopatores. They are forgotten gods.

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Were the Tritopatores real? Who's to say? I mean, the only ones who truly know aren't around to tell us.

And you, too, may believe in a god that one day is forgotten. Does that make your god any less real? I'm sure that's a difficult idea to process, let alone accept, especially if you've believed all your life. But it probably was, too, for those who worshipped in the HIEPON TPITOΠATPEON.

Belief in any god is a bet--a smart one, if you believe Blaise Pascal, but regardless, the full payoff doesn't come until after this life is over. And in that fact, we can find the only promised meaning.

The meaning of life is that it ends. And what you do with it before then is what gives yours meaning.

So, what is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of yours?

Hat tip to Evan Hadfield of Rare Earth, whose voice I heard as I wrote this. Check out his videos--they're some of the best viewing on the YouTubes. I've embedded one of my favorites below:

Ethiopian Boundaries

8 days in Ethiopia and it seemed so much longer. That's less about the country than it is about me--I'm frankly tired. I'm now 14 months into the one-way ticket, and even for the happy writer traveler it's starting to wear. It's tough to motivate sometimes--I mean, eventually a mountain looks like a mountain, a hotel is a hotel, and no matter how you spice it, chicken and rice is chicken and rice.

Which, on that last one at least, is a selling point for Ethiopia--cause this ain't chicken and rice:  

I'm so excited I don't even know where to look! Photo credit Bekele Atakilte

I'm so excited I don't even know where to look! Photo credit Bekele Atakilte

On my second day in Gondar, my excellent guide Bekele Atakilte connected me with a tour of Lake Tana and Gorgora. Riding the green lake waters on a perfect-weather day was lovely and peaceful--except when my lake guide (who will remain unnamed) was talking. He was a chatty fellow. And maybe it's just my cranky nature, but I feel like when you're on a boat you should talk sparingly if at all and just enjoy the view. Like a movie.

Anyway.

Ethiopia is a deeply religious country, and the majority practice Orthodox ChristianityLake Tana is home to numerous tiny Orthodox monasteries, some dating back to the 14th century. As we came to shore at one of them--the Manendeaba Abune Yassay Medhanealem Communal Monastery--my unnamed chatty lake guide bent over, cupped his hands in the water, and took several deep drinks. "It's holy water," he said. "It's like medicine."

Throughout my journey I've been conscious and intentional, avoiding judgment of other cultures and faiths. I was raised Roman Catholic, and honestly I find some of their tenets, umm... flawed. But at the end of the day, none of us know who or what God is, and my beliefs could be wrong.

With that said, I do believe strongly in the existence of waterborne pathogens. So when unnamed chatty lake guide offers me a drink of "medicine", I politely decline.

Next he brings me onto the monastery grounds to see the buildings and artifacts and meet the residents. I get the typical stares but I don't mind--it's a fascinating place. It's like stepping back in time. I see the relics accumulated over centuries. I admire the rough-hewn church, set among only trees and sky. It's simple and calming. I can see how one finds God here.

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Then it's time for lunch, and more simplicity: rough and rustic bread, thin broth, and local beer.

thankfully I had a big breakfast

thankfully I had a big breakfast

Unnamed chatty lake guide is solicitous and pushy. "Good, right?" "Local beer is good, right?"

And no, it wasn't particularly good, but I was down with a few bites and sips to have the experience. A very cool thing to do once.

"Eat more," he says.  

I tell him I'm not that hungry but it doesn't seem to matter. "No worries. Eat more." I'm getting annoyed but whatever--I get annoyed all the time. But then, as we're eating, he takes a handful of liquid-dipped bread and sticks it in my mouth.

In. My. Mouth.

I feel the tips of his fingers pushing against my lips. Fingers I had not seen him wash once.

Oh the revulsion.

I could have said something. I should have said something. But I was so shocked, even though I knew that was part of the old Ethiopian culture.

And maybe because I knew some Ethiopians still did this as a show of community and appreciation and welcoming that I didn't say anything. I knew he didn't mean any ill in doing it. And I certainly didn't want to offend him or the elders.

At the same time, eww eww eww.

enjoying new experiences. Can you tell I'm enjoying?

enjoying new experiences. Can you tell I'm enjoying?

So the anxiety was high as I took another drink of the sour local beer and saw his hand form again around a chunk of rough injera and perch nearby. I held that drink a long time, and still his hand hovered. I knew what was coming next.

Again, I could have said something. Again, I should have said something.

Instead, as I pulled my cup away, his hand found my mouth.

Ugh. I felt miserable--and not just from the spirochetes gleefully charging into my GI tract. Because I believe it's important to get out of one's comfort zone. New experiences expand the mind and enhance life. I've tried to say "yes" whenever possible on the one-way ticket and it's made a difference.

But sometimes you gotta listen to Nancy:

So when? And I guess I'm still learning, but probably when your own discomfort outweighs any offense you might cause others, that's a good time. Or when saying yes means a course of broad-spectrum antibiotics.

Lesson learned.

Time has come today (okay, tomorrow, but...)

 
oh Buddha--you and I were so young back then

oh Buddha--you and I were so young back then

Nearly 13 months ago I left home on a one-way ticket to Bangkok. I was excited and scared as I didn't know what awaited me: but I knew I wanted to write, discover, and learn about the world and myself. I saw ancient temples, awe-inspiring sculptures, surprising natural beauty, and traffic that defied description and camera capture. I found the fun, odd, and quirky stuff that makes Krung Thep unique. I met wonderful, beautiful people (which was absolutely the best part). I found some damn good food (maybe the second-best part). And I wrote a bunch, though never as much as I thought I needed to.

I explored Thailand and her neighbors: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. I took a diversion further north into Korea and JapanThen I left Thailand and went deeper into Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and The Philippines. And it was in the next to last of these countries that I realized I'd learned all that I needed to here. So I began making new plans.

And the time has come to embark on them. 

Tomorrow I will fly out of Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi (pronounced Soowanaboom, because Thai) airport to start the next next episode. There will be time to talk about that later. But for now, I just want to show my love and appreciation for SE Asia and this City of Angels. You gave me exactly what I needed at a challenging time. You weren't always easy, but you were always worth it. And part of my heart will always be here.

I will miss you. I love you. I will see you again someday.

Malaysia: worst, but still okay

In any list, something must come last: it's just the nature of the way things work. As my time in Malaysia winds down, I think of the countries I've spent meaningful time in on this One Way Ticket and conclude that Malaysia is my least favorite.

Yeah, that's not what it's been for me

And since I'm an introspective sort I've sought to sort out why. Is it due to the crappy rooms? No, I've had those everywhere--I'm cheap, you know. Is it due to my getting sick from something I ate? Nope, had that in Vietnam and Thailand. And Malaysia has lovely scenery and architecture--it's not a bad place, really. In fact, of all the Asia I've seen it's the most like home. America.

Fun size?

Fun size?

And that's part of the problem. People here love their cars. They rush around, always in a hurry. They're not likely to smile at a rando--if they do chat it will be polite, but there will be boundaries. Walls.

It's not like that in Thailand or Cambodia, where smiles lead to conversations lead to invitations to dinner.

Malaysia is also (from what I've seen) a fully developed country. Thus, in addition to being the most expensive SE Asian country I've stayed in, it lacks the "quirks" of Cambodia or the undiscovered wild of Laos. Indeed it's the differences from back home--the unexpected and exotic--that make travel exhilarating. It's the different people with unusual ways that totally work that draw me in and create memories.

I just don't connect with Malaysia that way. Maybe I'm too jaded now, I don't know.

So enough of the negativity. Here are four favorite pics from the four cities I've visited and a little about each:  


KUALA LUMPUR

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My first morning in KL I jumped into the train system for the Batu Caves, a highly-rated Hindu Temple (because these are the things that should be judged, of course). But getting there wasn't so straightforward, and I wandered outside a KTM and/or LRT station getting frustrated as I am wont to do.

But after a breakfast that made me less hangry, I walked on and found the Colonial Walk and River of Life. I spent the next couple of hours admiring KL's old government buildings, mosques, and important historical sites and remembered that this is an essential element of my travels--getting lost and seeing what I can see.


MELAKA

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Chinese New Year began halfway through my stay in the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Fireworks every night, tourists everywhere. The second night of CNY I visited Jonker Street, where all those tourists converged to shuffle slow, chest to back.

Fun!

Also there, of course, were vendors--food and tours. But while Bangkok and other cities crowd with motorized tuktuks, Melaka deploys bicycle rickshaws decked out in Hello Kitty, Minions, Doraemon, and other "Oooh Oooh! Mommy Mommy can we?!" characters. They also play ice cream cart-annoying soundtracks. And on this night, the rickshaws looped and snaked and corkscrewed in paths beyond my ability to stay out of (maybe if I'd put my cameraphone down). This image captures that chaos.


IPOH

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While Chinese New Year was ongoing during my three nights in this little highland town the vibe was decidedly more sedate. Everything just seems chill in Ipoh--despite being the birthplace of white coffee,  a perky beverage enjoyed throughout the country.

Ipoh also boasts strong street art. I snapped a shot of this mural when the woman standing in front noticed. Then she turned to see what the fuss was about. I get it, too--locals don't always appreciate what their town offers. 


PENANG

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Malaysia, while a predominantly Muslim country, has been known for pluralism and tolerance--at least until recently (another similarity to the U.S.). In one day in George Town, Penang, I visited a Mosque, a Hindu temple, a Jewish cemetery, an Anglican church, and a Catholic museum--all while a holiday heavily influenced by Buddhism went on around me. Rightly proud of this diversity, they refer to one stretch of worship sites as the Street of Harmony.

And in case you were wondering, the swastikas in the left background are the good kind, not the evil murdering kind.


And so, as I write this with one final day in Penang, my time in Malaysia is almost done: not the best, but largely not bad. As I move on, hopefully it will remain my least favorite country as well.

And where am I off to next? Hmm. Cliffhanger.

In Malaysia, thinking of death

Death. A lot has been said on the topic and I don't know that I have anything new to add but I hope you'll indulge me nonetheless.

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It's something I've thought about since... well, since ever, at least for a long time. I remember as I little kid taking a paper and pencil to graveyards and sketching images of the headstones, fascinating with the history. I also remember fixating on death--I would awfulize, worry that my father would die driving to visit me on the weekends, worry that when my mother was a few minutes late coming home she was in a ditch somewhere. I tried to hasten my own, from clueless suicide attempts early on (maybe you can od on rescue inhaler but I didn't find a way) to a much more effective attempt at 18 that won me a stay in the ICU. 

Death was the main topic of my earliest short stories, written when I should've been paying attention in middle school music class. Maybe that's a common thread for writers--we have to think about a story as beginning middle and end, and what clearer end is there than death?

Because the truth is, we all die. 

That song has been a motivator in the One Way Ticket.

Look alive. See these bones.

What you are now, we were once.

Just like we are, you'll be dust.

And just like we are, permanent.

So what do I want to do before then? What do I want to leave behind besides dust and stone? 

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These were my thoughts as I walked past gravesites here in Malaysia. Ancient ones like the Dutch Graveyard in Melaka where so many were buried younger than I am now, or the newer and comparatively anonymous ones like in Ipoh.

And they are two separate thoughts. My travels, my experiences, are largely selfish. They bring me joy, insight, whatever--all good things, no apologies for that. And I will carry memories of them to my deathbed but not beyond.

Will I make anything that stays after me, though? Most people get a form of immortality through their children**--passing on chromosomes and collected wisdom from forefathers and mothers. And maybe I'll do that some day. I had plans once, but...

But that's one hope for the writing. Something that those who might never know me can read and gain something from. That someone who is feeling pain or facing challenge can, for a few hours, get lost in the stories I've spun and can smile or learn or just know they aren't alone in all this. And maybe even 50 years after I'm gone, someone might pick up one of my titles and appreciate it, that my words could stand the test of time. 

We all die. But the truth is, most of us want to game it a little bit.

 

**Which brings to my mind the horror of last week in Parkland, Florida. There are parents my age who must bury their children for no good fucking reason. The bitter cruelty of that exceeds any words I could possibly write.

Back on the farewell tour: and how do we feel about leaving again?

 
More than one thing can be true.
— Mike Wilbon**

Less than a week left in Krung Thep and my feelings are mixed, but not that straight-forward: more like all of one, then that gets wiped out by the next that comes crashing in, then the next next obliterating that one and filling me to the outer layers of epidermis and thongs.

I feel ready

My time in Bangkok has been positive and very necessary. The stability gave me time to write, saved me money, and let me roam while providing comfort. It's a great city for a farang.

But it also becomes difficult/expensive to maintain visa privileges in Thailand unless you're employed by a Thai company--and that's not the deal for me right now. Plus I've struggled with the language, and it becomes isolating, even for me, to go days without a decent conversation (you should see the excitement in local eyes when you say "Phom puud pasa Thai nik noi" turn to disappointment when they discover just how little Thai you puud).

Much as I love this place, I don't fit. Sometimes literally.   

my apartment stairwell

my apartment stairwell

Plus, I want to explore all I can of these kingdoms and republics before the money runs out. So it's time to ramble on. But then...

I feel sad

I've been lucky in this life so far: parents and siblings still alive, I'm pretty healthy. So my greatest sadnesses (aside from the deaths of extended family and a dearly beloved mentor) come when I leave those I love. Had a lot of that on the 2017 farewell tour, shed a lot of tears. Those feels came back last night when my Thai friends (after a little birdy told them) organized a going-away dinner and tacked on a game night afterward.

Photo credit: Ashley (or in Thai, AshLEEEE)

Photo credit: Ashley (or in Thai, AshLEEEE)

Besides being travel buddies and islands of bilingual relief in a sea of mae ruu, they are sweet, and funny, and giving. They've made me feel at home half a world removed from mine. And as I walk away from them, and a city that has sometimes frustrated but deeply enchanted me, it's hard not to stumble. 

And then...

I feel scared

Because when I left last time, I came to a farang-friendly city where I had at least a friend. And while I'll have the same (a brother, in fact) at my next destination, the time there will be--unless plans change dramatically--much shorter. After that, I'm on to lands where I know not a soul. Lands where English and kindness to farang (or whatever I'm called there) and maybe even cell service aren't guaranteed. I'll be pushing outside of my comfort zone father than ever before.

And that's the point. That's where growth happens. That's the kind of fear I'm here to push through.

It doesn't make me any less afraid. 

 

**I'm sure somebody said it before him, but PTI was a long-time thing for me so I'll give him the dap.

(Sky)train of thought and memory

With my time in Bangkok speeding to a close, yesterday I daytripped with friends to Samut Prakan. 

Afterwards, riding the BTS from the Bearing terminus with a little birdy at my shoulder, I was struck by out of sequence nostalgia.

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At On Nut station, I remember my second week here. I was excited. Amazing though Songkran was, I looked forward to seeing the city without the parties and tourists--the real Krung Thep. I bounced to an airbnb apartment near On Nut and definitely experienced some Thai culture, though not like I imagined. I'll spare the details, but the lessor's laid-back attitude on providing me access to the room, proper working equipment in the room, and my having to sneak in and out of the building itself (since he failed to mention the management doesn't allow subletters) tested my mai bpen rai. Mak. But it taught me that the things I get so easily twisted up over don't matter much in the end--and my anger and frustration only hurts me so best that I just get over it.

Plus I got this, so not a bad week at all.

no pain

no pain

Three stations later we reach Thong Lo, and this is where it all began: where I stayed my first week, when I did Songkran, and Wat Po, and the Golden Mountain. Where I saw the glitter and gleam that is Bangkok. Where I felt the crippling anxiety of being alone and pushed through. Where I clogged my toilet by putting toilet paper in it because, isn't that what you do?

Not here.

But you learn.

Sà taă nee dtòr bpai, Asok. This connects to the MRT, and the hotel I spent three-plus weeks on two separate occasions. Great street food, comfortable for the price--it was the next-best home away from home I found here. It's where I sat on the floor, angry and frustrated and determined following another rejection of my most personal short story, and wrote this blog post. And where I revised and revised that short story that will some day be published, I'm certain of it. It's also where I started my YA novel in earnest, which absolutely will some day be published.

now the nominees for least exciting screen shot of the year...

now the nominees for least exciting screen shot of the year...

This is what writing is made of. Dogged, stupid refusal to quit.

On we roll to Phaya Thai, where the Airport Rail Link connects. I remember riding into here on that first arrival, and a month later after my first border run to the incredible ass-kicking Vietnam. Phaya Thai is also the stop for the language school that added a little Thai to my vocab and extended my visa a few months without needing so many pesky border runs.  

Then to Anu Sao-wa ree Chai sa Mhor ra Phoom.

a.k.a Victory Monument, which has a fascinating history all its own I hope to go into later. Image credit: Bangkok.com

a.k.a Victory Monument, which has a fascinating history all its own I hope to go into later. Image credit: Bangkok.com

This is my stop, because it's a short walk to my apartment and home for the last six months. It's where I've felt truly settled. It's where I finished the first draft of that third novel I'd been working on. And the second draft. And third and fourth and fifth. It's where I started querying agents, then stopped because I realized it was almost ready but not quite. And it's where I made a deposit payment to my developmental editor, because I'm so damn serious about getting it published. So fuck you, Stewie. 

And thank you, Stewie. Thank you for being the motivating voice in my head, encapsulating my fears and driving me to more.

I don't know where I'll be when my editor sends those edits (I have a guess on the country). I don't know where I'll be when I start querying agents again (I have a guess on the month). And I don't know where I'll be when my agent says yes, when my publisher does the same, when I'll hit the shelves or the best-seller list. But I know where it truly took shape. I know the genesis of the story, and how its roots run from Tennessee through North Carolina and across continents to here.

And I know Krung Thep will always hold a special place in my heart, for what I've done, what I've seen, what I've felt, who I've met. They call it the City of Angels. And I... I will spare you any cheesy quips I could come up with off of that. 

But I am truly blessed and fortunate. 

Misquoting Charles Darwin for Selfish Purposes

"It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change."

--Charles Darwin**

My writing has over the years been fueled and clouded by several substances... 

A near constant has been Irish coffees: caffeine for energy, alcohol for lowered inhibition, warmth for comfort when recalling difficult ish and turning it into literature suitable for consumption.

But while lots of things are cheaper in Thailand, Bailey's isn't:

that's $35.15 American

that's $35.15 American

There's a knockoff called Kelly's that runs about 430 baht, but when I went yesterday to the one store I've found that carries it, I found that's now past-tense.

Curses.

So I fired up ye old Google to find a substitute, while also considering is it worth it just to shell since I'm already here and in the grand scheme...  

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Wait, what? You can make Irish cream?

Sho nuff--even without a cooktop. Which is good, since I don't have that. Or an oven. Or a microwave.

And I made it, and I like it better than Bailey's, and it was cheaper, and while all of that is interesting (?) none is especially relevant. This is about adaptability and how we can all adjust to situations we couldn't even imagine previously.

When my marriage was mid-implosion in 2014, X and I spent a lot of time talking.

A lot of time talking (she's a psychologist so what would you expect?). 

Among many memorable things, she asked "What is it you're wanting to change? What don't you like about this life?" She genuinely wanted to accommodate (within monogamous reason). And truth was, I couldn't even articulate what was missing. We had an outwardly lovely aspirational life--two fancy cars, four BR house, six-figure income, sufficient footwear.  

how many pairs of feet do you have?

how many pairs of feet do you have?

Everything I could want. Except happiness.

Post-separation and divorce my life changed to one hedonistic and Nate Dogg-inspired. I also spent more and more time with my first love--writing. I wouldn't survive the corporate life much longer.

A year ago I was making preparations and adaptations. I sold off damn near everything and traded PowerPoint for the One-Way Ticket. Since then I've visited six countries. I got a real taste of Thailand as predicted. Now instead of deciding on blue suede vs. brogues, I choose sneakers or flipflops, and have a week's worth of clothes as long as I re-wear stuff.

Through it all I've carried inspirations from people who've adapted to challenges I couldn't imagine. And I've shed a few tears along the way.

always nice when friends read my blog

always nice when friends read my blog

And I finished a workable, submittable novel. My life is so different, so changed, by all I've been able to do and see. I am blessed and fortunate. It's been everything I wanted and couldn't articulate.

Change is on the horizon and I'll need to adapt again. It will suck sometimes. But that's no different than any of y'all's lives--and I see how very strong the people in my life are. The strong survive because the strong adapt.

Adapt. Change. Nothing is the same.

So we keep moving.

**Okay, not exactly. But that's the gist.

Becoming That Guy

The midpoint of my Thailand beach trip was a travel day, taking me by shuttle then bus then ferry from Ao Nang to Kho Phangan:

coast to coast: Andaman Sea in the morning, fields of palm and rubber trees in the afternoon, Gulf of Thailand in the evening  

coast to coast: Andaman Sea in the morning, fields of palm and rubber trees in the afternoon, Gulf of Thailand in the evening  

That night, on the twisting two lanes of Koh Phangan's legendary treacherous roads, I saw a family of three on a moto. I've encountered this many and more passengers on two wheels a thousand or more times in SE Asia, and the first time I was astounded. Equally so the second and third and for quite a while. Now it's as common to me as cheap street food in Krung Thep.

That's when it hit me: what I've found to be so extraordinary and foreign may be what's normal.*

"What are you lookin' at? Freak."

"What are you lookin' at? Freak."

And I laughed.

A little Birdy asked me why. I told her (in first draft terms) it's the laugh that comes when my heart overflows with joy at the dozen realizations each day that this is my life. That I'm accumulating fortune beyond money and education beyond degrees. That places and experiences I hadn't even known how to dream of back in Ballard damned County Kentucky are now Mine.  

And more are waiting to be claimed.

I remember being back on my model home bedroom floor not so many months ago, high a.f. and as usual, conversing with those guys I was in the past--iterations of Jamie and J.L. and James, each hurting and feeling less than. Over days and weeks they would appear at left in my mind's eye. I listened to them, one by one. I sometimes debated with them, showing them the truth--that they really were good enough. Sometimes tears would fall. Finally I'd put my arm around them and thank them, since we wouldn't be where we were without each and every one of them.

All of us got me here.

On one of those days, I looked from left to right, out the rear bedroom window. In the distance I saw That Guy. I could see he was older, but not by how much. He had more grey in his beard, and a few more wrinkles around his eyes brought on by sunsquinting or smiling, perhaps. He looked like a guy with stories.

"So you're me, eh?" I asked.

He nodded. I figured he wouldn't be able to tell me much. Plus Back to the Future taught me of the dangers in these interactions.     

"So," I said, having some new awareness, "it's not going to be easy getting from me to you, is it?"

And he laughed. I did, too.

"But we're good?"

He nodded and grinned, then turned. Walked away.

"Okay." I said. And I let go a little more.


*Versus a world with families of four living in 3,500 square foot McMansions, where people drink $6 coffees and complain that their four-year-old Lexus doesn't have the whistling bells that Harry down the street has on his and that their four-year-old Alexis doesn't get enough attention at her five-figure pre-school--that's what's abnormal.

Blessed and fortunate: I'm a man!

My first blog post was a short one, and included this: 

my 40th birthday will not be spent in the same way any other (of mine) has been. It won’t even be spent in the same hemisphere.

One way ticket. New priorities.

Boy it looks profound in those big italics, doesn't it? [no]

Back then I was looking at 40. Now I'm seeing it inside parallax just before it hits me in the nose.

my occupational hazard being my occupation's just not around

And I say "back then" because even though I posted that just 10 months ago, my life has gone down a completely new path--yet again. I traded the stability of golden handcuffs to bet on myself, I waved goodbye to a relationship that breathed like oxygen but ultimately sustained like cyanide, and I learned how much I love and miss my family and a handful of dear friends.

I also set out on a truly once in my lifetime experience, to see parts of the world I'd only dreamed of. In the 5 months since I left, I've seen stunning natural beauty in Cambodia and Chiang Mai and Vang Vieng; breathtaking works of manmade art in Bangkok and Chiang Rai and Vientiane. I've also seen man's inhumanity to man in Kanchanaburi and Saigon.

I got soaked with strangers during Songkran, knew joy with old friends and family over coffee and beer, and made new friends and relationships I'll forever treasure.

And I have written, because that's what, above all, I came here to do. 

 

On my 25th birthday I was working in the coolest job ever with the coolest people ever. I thought I'd found my path. But I also wanted love, and I'd reconnected with the woman I was supposed to be with. Three months later I would move to Washington, D.C., and we would forge a new path together.

On my 30th birthday I was in a job I hated, but using it as a stepping stone on the new path for more. The woman and I had been through a lot together (and at times apart), but we had made it through. We were on the same path. And I was starting to taste a bit of the good life she promised--we were even making plans for my first trip outside the U.S.

On my 35th birthday I was a freshly minted MBA, stressed out in a lucrative job with a massive learning curve, but excited for the challenge. I was newly hitched to that woman: we'd been through so much, and now all the hard work and stress and struggling was paying off. We'd had a lovely wedding and honeymoon in the Dominican Republic, sparing no expense. Living the dream that we had built. We'd built me into something more than I ever could've imagined. I even thought I was happy.

On my 39th birthday, that path was gone. The job had become even more lucrative, but it led down a path I wasn't willing to walk much longer. I'd survived a divorce, and was in a beautiful, intense entanglement with a Girl who happened to have a boyfriend. I'd given The Ultimatum, trying to convert myself from ho to housewife (so to speak).

I didn't act right

And it was around that 39th birthday that I realized this new path I'd imagined, walking hand in happy hand with this new Girl while figuring out the next stop in my six-figure professional tour was destined to be like those before--not a dead end, per se, but one from which I would have to turn in order to continue my journey.

I don't regret any of these twists or detours or dead ends, just as I don't regret my childhood plans for being a pro baseball player or POTUS not panning out, nor when at age 14 the first girl I really fell for LYLAB'ed me, or when at age 18 my first real girlfriend cheated on me with my then-best friend and his girlfriend ("Dear Penthouse Forum, you'll never believe how I got cuckolded").

Far from regret, I am thankful for all of them. Because without the love, the loss, the opportunities, the rejections, the false promises, and my own personal failings and "mistakes", I wouldn't be right here, right now--exactly where I am supposed to be. Doing exactly what I am supposed to be: writing and traveling.

Now I know what happy is. Because I Am Happy.

 

Rudyard Kipling wrote a lot about what it takes to be a man. His words, along with a few others, helped sustain me during my divorce. In leaving everything behind on this Next Episode of my journey, I drew on those words and inspiration from sources diverse as fuckable friends and Stewie Griffin and the Rocky movies.

 

And now, as the days between me and four decades on earth reduce to single digits, this path that I have walked has led me, not only to deep gratitude and appreciation for all I have become, but to a sincere understanding of what the great philosopher-king Gundy the First said:

Border run #3: the greenest of them all

I went to Laos the long way--overnight train from Bangkok to Nong Khai, different train from Nong Khai to Thanaleng, beat up old van from Thanaleng to Vientiane--and crossed the border on a rainy Monday morning (yes, two weeks ago because I've been writing.)  I was here for two reasons. 1 was to continue this whole journey of exploration thingie, and 2 was to get this:

Now I can keep the journey going without having to leave every month (this gives me five with one border run in between). I know, sounds counterintuitive, but pulling up stakes on the regular gave diminishing returns--I was spending so much time looking for places to lay my head I rarely felt settled enough to pull thoughts out of it.

So Laos was the destination because, in addition to being a place people in the know told me I had to go, the Thai Consulate there is the easiest and fastest.

I was in and out in 20 minutes for visit one (document drop-off and verification), so all was as advertised (so far). Next it was time to find local currency and SIM card before checking into the hotel. And as I walked down Vientiane's sometimes crumbling, sometimes crowded sidewalks...

where do the motos drive?

where do the motos drive?

in a gentle rainshower, I began to giggle at my good fortune. At this strange and beautiful life I'm now living. Four months ago I was in an office, going through the motions in transitioning to my fourth manager in less than a year--and while two of them had been very good and one was tolerable, this boss would be impossible. Thanks to him I saw the best minds of my division destroyed by his madness, dragging themselves through pointless meetings looking for a deliverable fix so-called strategy concocted by a clueless nimrod Dilbert parody.

I wasn't having it. Granted, I'd long before made my decision (for that and other reasons), but it was a valuable exclamation point to see where the company was moving--far from where I thought it should.

So instead of refreshing yet another slide deck, iterating prior recommendations that weren't heeded into new recommendations that wouldn't be heeded, I was starry of eye and gapped of mouth, drinking in the view of my fourth Southeast Asian country in as many months. I never expected the capital city to be so lush and verdant--guess the rains weighing down my clothes and pack explained some of that.

But who cared about a little water? Look at where I was--and think about where I wasn't!

So my humor was buoyant. Giddy, even. Even when the first ATM didn't take my card. Even when I had to walk on and on and on since Vientiane didn't have five ATMs at every corner like in Bangkok. Even as the rains picked up, steadier and harder, soaking me through. 'Well at least it's not sweat.'

When I saw the second ATM sign I felt relief--with a twinge of cynicism. 'Assuming it works.' I crossed the street, entered the booth...

and it didn't. It sucked being right.

Back into the torrents.

This walk was no longer charming or fun. I wasn't giddy. I was trudging. I wasn't doubting my decision, exactly. I certainly wasn't missing that old life--but I was missing dry). 

Then I saw this:

funny how these SE Asian countries  like to paint walls to remind you of priorities

funny how these SE Asian countries like to paint walls to remind you of priorities

Those white streaks are rain--you should've seen me trying to protect my iPhone possession while capturing a message I knew I needed to retain. A reminder that I am exactly where I need to be.

The walking went on for quite a while, and three more ATM rejections later I gave up, found a tuktuk (thankfully I had just enough in foreign currency to pay him) to my hotel, stripped off my waterlogged clothes and got warm and rested under the covers.

Of course it all worked out--the logistical details of such not worth repeating. But the photos of my next days in one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen surely are. Please enjoy:

Bonus: my next to last day in Laos, while in Luang Prabang, I got wet again:

What are you afraid of?

 

There's a family legend which claims that I, at an age when I stood roughly knee high to a june bug, was dining with said family at a Shoney's [side note: it still exists] and suddenly screamed in terror upon seeing an elderly gentleman walking toward us, "Lil ol man gon' get me! Lil ol man gonna git me!!!!"

I can't imagine doing such a thing, but that is the allegation.

In the intervening years, many things frightened me. Things that went bump in the night. Heights. Fluorescent lightbulbs. Girls. Abandonment. George Plaster (who yelled obscenities at me during every commercial break the one time I ran the board for him at SuperTalk 99.7 WWTN). Money. disappointing others.

Worse than any scars I carry from fears confronted is the sound of my voice, echoing in memory, saying "I was going to ______, but [insert sound logic]." And people respond, "Yeah..." and I hear the unstated "but". Even if it's only me who can finish it.

"screw you, heights!" me, naked of face and with a man on my back in 2010.

"screw you, heights!" me, naked of face and with a man on my back in 2010.

The fear sucks. It's bad for you--unless you're running from cheetahs. I'm convinced it causes weight gain--because once I let go of my anxiety, I dropped 5 or 10 pounds in a few days.

But it's so hard to shake. We're programmed for it. My Grab driver told me she was scared to travel outside the country solo because "Thai women don't do that". The woman sitting next to me on the plane from Chiang Mai to BKK went into a near panic attack on our descent--so much so that she gripped my arm while I patted her hand to reassure her.

Which brings me to the day before, when I endured the most frightening experience of my time on the One Way Ticket so far: my visit to Doi Suthep.  

yup. another wat.

yup. another wat.

Seriously, Jamie--a wat scared you?

No, it wasn't the wat--rather, it was the way. The way I got to the wat [say that all out loud]. For when I asked the hotel desk clerk the best way to get to Doi Suthep, she said with certainty, "rent a motorbike."

The following is a list of things I'd never done before:

  1. Earned a motorcycle license
  2. Driven a motorcycle
  3. Driven in a foreign country
  4. Intentionally driven on the left side of the road

I've still not done the first, though that didn't stop me from handing over 300 baht and doing 2 through 4. This may help explain how Thailand leads the world in motorcycle deaths

As I tooled around close to the hotel, getting a feel for two wheels beneath me, trying to not crash into curbs and hinder cars (and having limited success with both), I eyed the highway I'd have to navigate--though not as pictured on this little app:

the usual traffic, which will get me usually killed

the usual traffic, which will get me usually killed

but a multi-laned, terror-inducing superhighway of death. It's not pictured here because fuck no I wasn't about to take an Instagram-worthy picture of it as I went flying over my handlebars and shaved my beard off with blacktop.

I debated. I vacillated. I pulled over to reconsider and I just might've turned back to the hotel. The voice was loud and insistent. Logical.

"This is how people die on foreign holidays--not getting kidnapped for ransom, but by being stupid."

"Psychologists ask clients if they're a danger to self or others, then if they hear 'yes' they can have the person locked up involuntarily--and you, my friend, on this bike you have no business being, are a danger to all in your path."

"Is it really worth it? Is it worth risking death, injury, or the expense of replacing this bike, just to see another wat?"

Maybe not. But it's worth it to ignore you, logical naysayer in my head.

And I won't lie--the highway run was somewhat miserable. Dirt in my eyes, helmet halfway off my head, drivers on my ass. It rattled my bones and ached my muscles. Then I got to the twisty-turny parts, slowly essing up the mountain. And that, while also harrowing, was equally a joy. I couldn't help but giggle at points, thinking "This is my life!" 

And again, no, I don't have pictures. That phone came out of my pocket only to check my maps and verify I was going right. One can survive only so much stupidity.

But I made it. Then I made my way up 330 steps to the aforementioned wat. Then out back, at the lookout point, I did capture the view for posterity.

the hills are alive, with the sound...

the hills are alive, with the sound...

Of course, I still had to get back down--and here is where I nearly died or did some real damage. My throttle got stuck open and nearly rode me into a deep ditch--and by "throttle stuck open" I mean "I kept the handle twisted because I forgot that's what makes the thing go."

Seriously.

But I threw a death grip on both brakes and pulled it up and stopped it just short of doom and total embarrassment. And the rest of the ride I got lost a couple of times, drove up on a bridge alley I shouldn't have, cut in front of oncoming traffic while turning twice, needed help to restart the thing after I'd parked by the ATM (thankfully Thai folk are friendly), needed help figuring out how to put gas in the thing (see above re: friendly Thai folk), and somehow, some way, brought myself and the bike back in one piece. 

Exhausted, hip abductors screaming, body vibrating from rattle and hum and adrenaline, I had a much-overdue lunch and chilled in the pool.

So, seriously, what are you afraid of? 

Seeing Saigon in the rear view

I left Saigon yesterday, though I don't expect it will leave me anytime soon. I still have much to say about it (including a nominee for The Most Embarrassing Moment of My Life in the Non-sex Category), but here are some final shots. Because, as my mother said when she first looked at my blog, "nice pics!" (never mind that I'm a writer, here to write).

So you gotta give the people what they want.

Yes, Saigon has kicked my ass. Yes, I still like it.

I really see the appeal of this place. It’s manic and disorienting. It’s dirty and difficult. But it’s people are simply beautiful. When I’ve had the courage or stupidity to look up from where I’m going, I see such warmth and kindness.

Last night a young man on a date asks me where I’m from and takes an interest in my tattoos [side note: I have to find a way to explain them that transcends culture because it’s hard enough talking about Plato’s allegory of the cave to native English-speakers. Pro tip: stop being pretentious]. Today two schoolgirls see me, smile wave and say “hi”. These are little things, but they are truly sincere--there was no come-on, no attempt to sell me marijuana or massage, just friendliness. They mean the world to someone living 24/7 outside their comfort zone--and be honest, when was the last time you waved and said hello to a random stranger clearly deriving from “not around here”?

and there's entertainment

and there's entertainment

But what makes Saigon’s kindness so surprising is that, by my American sense, they have every right to hold a grudge. I don’t want to get political here, but It wasn’t that long ago we ravaged this country--many people here saw it firsthand. In fairness, I’m in the south--they had a very different experience than did Hanoi, and maybe there the bitterness is greater.

I asked my tour guide, as we left the palace where the tanks crashed through, about The American War and attitudes toward its named participant. He said “we only wanted to be unified.” And whether true or simply happy talk it shows a perspective, and again, a kindness, I’ve come to associate with this bunch of Commies.

it's easier getting in these days

it's easier getting in these days

Then came the War Remnants Museum. First, it’s important to remember that history is written by the victors. Second, war is hell and bad acts happen on all sides. Third, as a corollary to first and second, something can be the truth without being the whole truth.

With all that said, what I saw I cannot unsee. I will spare you those sights--except for one.

pharmacia=pfizer

pharmacia=pfizer

There were lots of companies that made lots of money from chemicals that wreaked havoc on fighters from both sides, as well as their future children and grandchildren. One of those companies became a company among my clients in corporate world. A company that now claims to heal people once was involved, along with others, in making chemicals that caused cancer and birth defects.

Remember, as one highly decorated WW1 Marine General demonstrated, War is a Racket. And those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

---

And there’s no clever or appropriate segue from that into something far sillier, so I’ll change the subject: the ass-kicking I experienced last night thanks to consuming something that didn’t agree with me. At all.

I’ll share no pictures there, either, except one:

we got to know each other quite well. I think we might be married under Vietnam common law now.

we got to know each other quite well. I think we might be married under Vietnam common law now.

Three things

Weed
Sex
Cereal

I had these pretty regularly--two of them about daily--before I left the US. Since the one way ticket I haven't had a single bowl.

But I sure get offers for one here in Saigon. Easily a dozen times within a half hour, in fact, from every motorbike taxi driver who saw me.

"Marijuana?"

do i give off a vibe or something?

do i give off a vibe or something?

I passed each time, of course. I'm not getting deported over something stupid, and I question the quality. And quality matters to me. I didn't eat Mini Spooners, I smoked only the kindest bud. And as for sex, well, I'm so good I could charge.

Don't get mad. I'm only being real.

And if it ain't great I'll go without.

Though when it comes to cereal, I'm kinda craving it. I could go for a nice full bowl.