7 December 2014 § 2 Comments
do your self a favor: be aware that your actions and every shred of your energy are yours alone: manage them well. be careful and dignified within. seek counsel from the wise, and be slow to accept advice. your energy is sacred; giving it away frivolously will only harm you. some will try to help themselves to it: you must decrease the interval between the present moment and your highest response. use all of your senses during interactions, and know that what is being communicated is seldom with words at all, but with the subtleties of body language and intention. how you carry yourself will determine how you are treated.
that which you found yesterday has been you all along. welcome to yourself. welcome to how you show up in the world, and relate to others. intellectualize it, avoid it, and you will never be satisfied. fear is a series of obstacles between you, and the outcome of your desires.
you are the sole proprietor of your fear. own it, take responsibility for it; no one else can, or will. as with your creativity, forgive and thank those whom inspire it.
what is within begs to be without. so let it out, and let it be. you cannot unring the bell.
congratulations. you have arrived at the beginning, and everyone is watching. no – they are aware. they react to your energy, as you react to theirs. these ripples ebb and flow only with your awareness. only in authentic action can we truly serve another.
14 April 2014 § 5 Comments
Huffington Post recently posted a blog written by Stephanie Dandan addressed to the general public, written vicariously by the mysterious clan known as ‘travelers’ – though, apparently, we’d rather be called nomads, wanderers, modern gypsies. As if we gather under the flag willingly.
The piece romanticized dingy hotel rooms and the novelty of sleeper buses and the long, cold nights “we” sleep under a bridge (personally, those nights are usually quite lonely), as if the stay-on-the-road-at-any-cost maxim is our only compass reading, the only path to the education and evolution she talks about, the thing we as a ‘sect’ do and think about constantly.
As if nothing else could bring us the joy of an overnight train in India, chicken buses in Guatemala, exercising compassion for a bus ticket agent when a tourist gives him a hard time.
In Holy Cow, Sarah Macdonald’s acclaimed travel narrative about two pivotal years in India, she notices, while on a trip to Derradun, two Westerners who look “determined to believe they are the only westerners to have discovered the delights” of the town. To the observant wanderer, this is common fare in the far reaches of the world. Westerners tend to bring our ingrained individualism elsewhere, and project it outward; we insist on our own spatial boundaries and chronemics, often oblivious to local custom.
I’m annoyed not so much as what this woman said as what she presumed in order to say it. A traveler is not a traveler is not a traveler. There are tourists, and there are travelers. There are nomads, and there are gypsies. Different words for different lifestyles. I identify as one or more, less for poeticism than accuracy.
Perhaps I’m sensitive because I’m three days back from a trip, still jet lagged and wake up in the middle of the afternoon because my body thinks it’s tomorrow morning. My bank account is freshly low, a few payments are behind, and I’m grateful to the subletter that we’ve got a place to land post-travel. Feels like a first.
I want to touch on a couple things in response to Stephanie’s enthusiastic writing. Many travelers like to let “normal” people know that letting go of everything to tramp off into the wild blue will change their lives forever. But it isn’t always the best thing. It doesn’t work for, or serve, every potential traveler. Some aren’t ready for it. Some will never be. It’s not always a matter of excuses (i.e., travel is too expensive, dangerous, lonely, etc.) – some people thrive more in the bubbles they’ve created. We’re on on our own paths.
Stephanie is dead-on in that we sacrifice luxury and comfort for experience, that many travelers are able and willing to toss most things aside for the contents of a backpack. Traveling, in my experience, is a spartan lifestyle primarily because trinkets, gifts, souvenirs, and bullshit don’t fit in a backpack. They weigh too much. They’re not useful.
Money’s often tight, and there can be a perpetual, annoying desire to squeeze as little money into as much time as possible, and some travelers index parts of the world by how much one can live on per month: Europe costs $1,000 minimum, India half that; Central America, depends on how one does it. In order to stay longer – if that’s the priority – one might sleep on the beach, eat only the cheapest local food, or stop drinking (alcohol can account for extraordinary amounts of one’s budget). If those are sacrifices, “we” also sacrifice things like community, relationships, a sense of accountability (but to ourselves), and very often, purpose.
One thing that many travelers don’t mention, consider, or share is the part of the journey which begins at the end: re-entry. Integration. Finding home where we left it. Reconciling acceptance and criticism of our mother culture. Taking the lessons from a 6-month sojourn through East Africa, and applying them to West Coast US America. Or wherever. How do lessons from other parts of the world fit at home?
When one arrives in a new country, skin color and economical differences can become points of separation. We spend the beginning, perhaps the entire trip, adapting. Like children, we learn how to communicate verbally, non-verbally; we learn effective reactions to confrontations, beggars, offers, situations we’d not likely experience at home. Perhaps we learn to accept that we do not, and will not ever, fit in amongst the locals.
The process of re-entry often depends on how well we’ve adapted to another culture. How do I, for example, take a developed skill of bargaining with South Asian street merchants to a world of fixed-price capitalism? Is there any crossover? Does the me that learned those lessons deteriorate as I re-learn how to conduct myself in the States? Motorcycling the narrow chaotic streets of India, for example, seem to have seeped into my hatchback-driving habits on the orderly, polite roads of Oregon: they don’t mix well, so one must adapt further. In this we find that the traveler does not stop traveling once he reaches home: he continues the process, re-calibrates to a different currency exchange, ways of buying goods, driving.
Some travelers, the hardcore nomads who actually claim the term ‘world traveler’ from a place of often traumatized clarity, intend to never return home. These adventurers become mythic to those of us who feel like three or six months is a long trip – these nomads are wisps of Himalayan air, leatherbacks at Goan markets, low-profile Westerners who no longer qualify for the so-called White Tax. They’re the ones who go to Antarctica for US$50, burn their passports to avoid the consequences of an overstayed visa, know the classical connotation of the word ‘gypsy’ and want nothing to do with it. These guys and girls are admirable to the point of exhaustion; incomplete, in a forever-spiral, wanting, searching, running forever.
And that is what the road is for. To be away. For some, to facilitate change. Because we do. Not just “we”, but anyone who claims the road as home for any length of time. While we’re journeying, we see how people of other cultures pursue happiness; in the mountains, with no money at all; in city streets, offering copycat goods for exorbitant prices. We gain a sense, perhaps, for what they value, and how or if they accomplish it. Then to ask oneself, is that true for me? In this way, we can distinguish adaptation from appropriation, integration from theft.
There is no right or wrong sort of travel (though one could distinguish responsible from irresponsible), in fact, there are as many ways as there are travelers: our paths, I believe, are determined more by what we’re open to accepting, rather than a specific itinerary or place. But an odyssey is not an odyssey if one never makes it home.
3 January 2014 § 1 Comment
In Holy Cow, Sarah MacDonald’s acclaimed travel narrative about two pivotal years living in India, she notices, while on a trip to Derradun, two white people who seem “determined to believe they are the only westerners to have discovered the delights” of the town.
Sarah arrived in India in 1999, just before the turn of the century, and the last BIG Kumbh Mela (which occurs once every 144 years). MacDonald was the quintessential “spiritual tourist”; many chapters of ‘Holy Cow’ narrate her trips to visit gurus Amma in Kerala, and Sai Baba near Bangalore (modern buddhas, both with millions of followers); a venture to the Pakistan border to get the low-down on the Sikh faith, and to wash away her bad karma at Kumbh Mela on the Ganges River. On a trip to Dharamsala, MacDonald was audience to hear the Dalai Lama speak, and left the town a couple of days later having adopted both Buddhism and Jewish faith. Perhaps the most enlightening side-trip was a ten-day Vipassana meditation retreat, which served as the gateway to a softer narrative tone in the book, and noted her increased compassion for even sleazy Indian men who stare at her relentlessly wherever she goes.
That was all nigh 14 years ago – years before I started traveling, and a few years after Leo DiCaprio in The Beach (a film adaptation of Alex Garland’s bestseller) was accused of revealing certain traveler secrets to the masses. Inspired American kids newly introduced to the concept of ‘gap year’ headed off for Koh Phangnan, Costa Rica, and an armful of other destinations the 90’s “ruined” by ever-cheaper plane tickets, an influx of international travel magazines hitting the market, and other privileged white kids needing to go find themselves (disclosure: the author is also of a Caucasian, male, middle-class, US-American-with-identity-issues heritage).
It could be said that narratives like MacDonald’s ‘Holy Cow’ and Garland’s ‘The Beach’ paved a path riddled with backpackers and dreadlocks from Western Civilization to the exotic world. By the time I was born in the mid-80’s, Thailand and Bali and South America were already popular backpacker routes. I cannot speak to what Costa Rica was like before I lived there in 2011; it was probably cheaper, a little more “third-world” (a label many ticos cling to, despite the saturation of universities in the capital, abundance of IT jobs, and a bursting tourism industry), and certainly less gringo.
I write this from Pokhara, Nepal, on my first journey to the Eastern Hemisphere, though not my first time in a darker-skinned country where most light-skinned people donning The North Face and Arc’Terex (when a t-shirt would do fine), seem oblivious to, or deliberately avoid, other white people. Travelers. Tourists. People whom, at home, they might connect with because Travel, for us, is an essential ingredient to Life. The very act of exploring other cultures can open the heart and mind in ways life without a passport cannot.
So, we (my wife, who definitely has a passport) are in Pokhara, a primary tourist town of Nepal, at the base of famed Mount Annapurna, and base camp to some of the best trekking routes in the world (at least, the old guys said it used to be that way). There are other travelers here. Germans, Indians, Israelis, Americans, Canadians, Argentinians, French, English, Chinese. The list goes on. That doesn’t need to be said, but evidence suggests otherwise. We tend to not acknowledge each other while walking about the town. I am as guilty as any. I narrow my focus in search of “authentic cultural experiences,” in search of a long-lost place to which I am the first explorer. Maybe colonialism is genetic, and I carry the virus.
We have things in common, we white people. Not as much as the average Nepali might assume, but Pokhara is not where one goes to avoid other tourists. So be kind. Say hello. Maybe pick up some garbage from the lakeshore. If you’re really intent on straying from the backpacker/trekker route, it’s not difficult. Pick a random town on a map of rural Nepal, and take the local bus. Eat dal bhat, stop complaining about the daily power cuts, and learn useful phrases in the dialects. You’ll still stand out (some of us are “too tall for Nepal,” as our friend Josh says), and locals will probably still charge Westerner prices, but maybe they’ll cut a deal for a friend.
My wife decided to call on Ghandi’s wise cliché of being the change she wished to see. We walked along the shore trail, and she said hello to every westerner we passed. Virtually all of them replied with a smile and hello. Some with ‘Namaste.’ It doesn’t take much, I think, to change the world, no matter who you are, what color, or where you stand. Maybe that’s naïve.
10 December 2013 § 4 Comments
In 33 hours, we depart for Nepal.
Strewn across our candlelit basement: backpacks, toothbrushes, wool thermals, sandals (’cause we’re going to India, too, right?), cash, fire staves, lighters, cameras, knives, tea cups, and you-paid-what-for-that? tags tossed unceremoniously into the recycling bin.
I’m embarrassed by how many Apple products, Bluetooth and USB devices are laying around. More by how many have a place in my bag. Am I really going to bring the computer, I wonder. “Well, if I’m going to write a book…”
Two days ago, on a ninja drivehike to Hood River, the man who pulled up my zipper at my wedding asked, “if you added the cost of everything in your backpack, what would it be?” Jordan’s a 100% friend and climbing partner. A voice of reason, and challenge. Like, “Are you going to rappel this, or not?” and, “No, those aren’t the mushrooms you think they are.”
I’m counting the months until I’ll climb with him again. The number’s two hands high. When he asked about my backpack, I reconsidered the reasons I wanted to go to Nepal, Varanasi, Bangladesh, Burma. What a privilege to think, I can visit the Himalaya and the Ganges Delta, and the countless stories in between. To think, I have the freedom and money to visit some of the poorest regions on Earth, and what am I bringing to them?
The influence and love of my friends is a new type of fuel for me. So is a GoPro camera and a desire to connect. I still have my feet and feelings and eyes, but I’m having trouble justifying my existence. Should I stay in Portland and live my white western privilege out in the land of the less-free-by-the-day, should I dream, discover, and explore because Twain’s suggestion sat well with me?
How exactly do you travel, again?
I’m trying to remember; picturing my backpack full of used books and granola bars, Boris the eyeless spider hanging from a zipper handle, and how many times I slammed his stuffed cherry red spiderbody into the back seat of an old van in Alaska, a Cadillac in Ireland, the Mercedes of a professional bodyguard who took me from an icy highway exit to a train station in Luxembourg. How many people said they picked me up just for the fedora, or gave me a place to sleep for the night because… why? Because I was there, and they were there, and could we connect at our respective velocities, even for a few moments?
These memorial travel narratives make sense only to those who were part of the stories – that’s why they’re not popular with travel magazines. Those guys are looking for texture – the flickering candlelight on the wet wall next to the bed, or the sandy crunch of a sweet found on a pier in Zadar. How the bob-haired girl in the next bus seat took so many pictures along the Croatian coast, I thought the camera’s beep would break my brain. I imagined how the slideshow back in Saskatchewan would sound: “And then, we turned left!
Here’s some texture: tears that refuse to be absorbed by arm hair, ones that fall like fists from the edge of a broken man’s lower eyelid when he hasn’t been hugged in two years. When he’s not been told recently that he’s definitely a good man. When two of his attempts at Positive Role Model have wound up on the coroner’s table without reason.
For years, You, reader, have borne witness to my ramblings, off-beat rhythms and ill-placed anger, seen the development of a skill to intertwine suicide with just about any other topic, and may or may not have understood opaque descriptions of how broken I’ve thought my heart was. I’m not sorry. I’ve got a lot to off-load, and I tend to do that here – into a root system I named on the backside of a notebook eleven years ago.
I was looking for the surface tension of a magnifying glass, and accidentally burned a hole through the sun. Been trying to see clearly since, and in blurry waves, only feeling comes.
The backpack’s on the floor. It cost more than a rural Nepali earns in a year. Loading up my luxuries and trekking across the world – because it is my shellfish portal to enlightenment, to stories I’ll collect and share with the diminishing Western World.
That’s my intention: collect stories. To find the poetry in Nepal. As if Peter Matthiessen, Milarepa, or a thousand generations besides have somehow failed.
No, it’s not that I’ve forgotten how to travel – quite the opposite. I’ve learned to focus aimless wandering into purposeful movement. Despite the evidence. There will be time for child’s play, I assure myself, and the story-collecting continues regardless of where my feet tramp. Right now, I’m taking inventory, and finding the contents of a backpack matter less than the reasons I fill it.
24 August 2013 § 6 Comments
Burning Man is not about being cool. You should make a note of that on the list of cultural insights you’ve learned from travelling. Burning Man is an adult playground for people who remember what it’s like to be a kid. It is not just a party in the desert with lots of sex and drugs; though if you wanted it to be that, the Orgy Dome and Thunderdome are easy to find. The Burn is not just anything; it is experience itself, in whatever form you can imagine, and many that you have not. People of action and people of experience converge on the blank canvas of Black Rock City under banners of radical inclusion, self-reliance, expression, participation, decommodification, community. Radical everything. But what do these tenets mean, and how do they show up on the playa, and – far more important – in the world?
One of the most beautiful things about the Burning Man – literally, the giant man in the center of the playa who burns on Saturday night – is that he is a blank face, without meaning, but for what is projected upon him. They (or we), “the Burners,” attribute significance to the man, or not. For the copious energy expended for the week of the burn, it’s reasonable to assume that the meaning is great.
What is the quantitative value of energy expended, I wonder. Personally, I’ve been haemorrhaging money for a week now, a hundred bucks here, another two there, on things that I neither want nor will use more than one week of the year. The stress of organizing our Joy.Co camper to suit the playa – packing it with lights, extra batteries, coconut water, bungee cords, costumes, rebar, and more lights has taken its toll on my attitude as well as my relationship: Debates rile up over return policies, whether a plate was placed in the right drawer, and do you remember what happened last year?
A kiwi friend named John showed up the other day, fresh off a plane from Australia. For the second year in a row, he appeared as if from air just before the Burn, and within two days had a van and most of his gear together. A resourceful and kind man whose dreadlocks reach his knees, he would never admit to being one of the best musicians from New Zealand’s South Island. I’m honored to know and host him.
We’re to depart in ten hours, and little questions like how are we going to tie the bikes down, and are the rideshare people going to get along pop in my head as I pack every available cubic inch with STUFF that might improve the experience.
Not once, I noticed today, somewhere between another trip to REI and another trip to Fred Meyer, do I question if this is all worthwhile. Of course it is. And then, western guilt. Loads of it. Burning Man is a capitalist playground: tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars are spent in the name of a gift economy. For a social experiment in an uninhabitable desert. A city where no one takes shortcuts to extravagance: you might find skate parks and elaborate public spaces, phone booths where you can converse with God, shipwrecks and temples, climbable art installations, and every form of entertainment, from improv acting, to a modern day Roman Coliseum.
One justification for such dusty opulence might suggest that the Burn is the only one of its kind in the world. A chance to do culture differently. With respect for the individual, and insistence that each one of us show up on the playa – and, indeed, the world – as our truest self. No holds barred. In fact, take the bars, and create art with them.
A great amount of what I’ve heard from the playa this year has been an astounding, invasive law enforcement presence. Government agencies enforcing fear- and money-based laws. Apparently it’s gotten out of hand. DPW is spreading word of a general strike as of Friday night until the Law departs the playa. Which means, with the exception of looking out for critical safety measures, DPW won’t be around for the major burns. Will the Man burn this year? The temple? Will police lay psychological ruin to Burning Man?
Perhaps that is their objective.
Nevertheless. We are prepared – to say nothing of readiness – for a road trip to Black Rock City, and for what chaosbliss might ensue. It’s time, finally, to sleep, for the last time.
Good night, default world. Dream lovely.
5 April 2013 § 1 Comment
Rick worked part-time at Villa Santa Maria; he stopped by on weekends and played baseball with us boys. He impressed me one day with his ability to fix any bike, however broken, rusted, or in general disrepair. We hung out in the Shop, our affectionate name for the tool shed where each boy stored the bike he brought from home. I asked him to fix the brakes on mine one afternoon. Joe Ibarra was there. So was Tyler the Runaway. They rummaged through boxes of parts and joked about putting a pink seat on my bike.
Instead of reaching his long, soft fingers along the brake cable to show me what might be wrong, Rick pointed at the lever, invited me to do the same. Said, look at what you have. The lever, the cables, the brakes themselves. What do they do?
I pulled the lever on the handlebar; it retracted the cable, and the brake pads pushed against the wheel’s rim. I explained what I saw to him like an 8-year-old trying to impress an adult. Big words where they didn’t belong. He chuckled kindly. Everything he did was kind. In a residential treatment center for boys ages eight to fourteen, Rick showed up after the homework was finished and before the evening’s activities tired us into conflict. He was my pal; a confidant and friend, he didn’t hold me accountable like my assigned counselor, Nikki, though I would have preferred it.
Rick asked me if I understood the bicycle’s brake system. I looked at his funny white tennis cap, then down. I wanted to leave, to joke with Tyler and Joe about nothing. I wanted to be anywhere but there. My eyes welled with tears. Nearly melting into a puddle, I said, no. I don’t get it. I’ll never get it. This is stupid.
Blurry eyed, I felt his hand squeezing my shoulder. It’s okay, he said, look. And he pointed once again to the plastic lever, and to the brake pads. When you do something over here, he said simply, it affects this other thing. Like life, but easier. I smiled, my cheeks red. The trick is, he said, when you do something, to get the results you want. Got it?
I nodded. But can’t you fix it?
It’s not my bike, he said. You’re the only one who can fix it. But you have to understand the problem first. What’s wrong with it?
I walked the bike outside and pulled the brake lever. The cable pulled with it, the pads squeezed the rim, the wheel stopped. Nothing, I said.
Rick smiled and said, then go ride.
I dream about Rick sometimes. His kindness, a trait I seldom witnessed back then, modelled for me something I didn’t know how to embody. He didn’t stick around that long. Or I didn’t. He told me once that he was in college, for what I don’t remember. I remember his dark hair and widow’s peak and greying beard. He must have been in his thirties, at least.
That was 1995, eighteen years ago.
For me he was a monumental blip, a one-page angel in a sad flipbook. I barely recall the sound of his voice, yet seem to know the devastating consequences that might have occurred had he never spoken to me, or not been assigned to my group of troublemakers during those few weekends in spring. Or was it summer? I admired him like few men I knew knew how to accept, wanted the best for him.
I felt at eight the sensation of the traveller in me at 26 when I experience the energy of someone I’d like to spend time with, to learn from, and the visceral emptiness of thinking, we’re not in this for long. I’m going to get whisked away from this place by wonderful and caring foster parents (or a midnight train headed for the Mediterranean coast), and you’re going to graduate college and be a social worker or something. I’ll be one kid in your rolodex of hundreds you’ll affect. And, good for them. They need you.
At the time, I didn’t know how to articulate gratitude. Now I do.
Thank you, Rick.