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.
29 May 2014 § Leave a comment
On the Coastal Starlight Amtrak, yesterday morning, observation deck.
Is this seat taken? a man asked. Shane stood at the edge of my base camp, a corner of the lounge car littered with books, pens, shoes, socks, a laptop on the floor, next to a jacket-pillow.
Nope, I said, and removed from the next seat a kitchen of hummus, cheese, and a dive knife sitting on a plate/cutting board/storage bag of the best homemade tortillas in the world.
You look like you’ve been enlightened by travel, he said.
Yes, I replied, enlightened to a world of things I don’t know anything about.
Train culture fascinates me. Indeed, all culture fascinates me, but trains in particular – the blurring of socio-economic lines in public areas; the potential for someone to sit next to you with whom you may have everything, or nothing, in common; that everyone, no matter how rich or poor, who chooses to dine on the train, eats the same microwaved, overpriced garbage. Even a recluse can make friends on a train.
Shane and I stumbled through the first minutes of shallow travel talk as the guide on the PA announced a contest: whomever counts the correct number of tunnels we pass through in the Oregon Cascades gets a prize.
In the uncountable dark tunnels, lit by tiny track lights in the ceiling, we traded stories of big hard lessons from the road, and what it means to have multiple homes. He spent months in a Russian prison circa the fall of the curtain, accused of spying. I told him about hitching in European blizzards, and in the Alaskan winterdark. How we got out of our predicaments: other people. Connections, loved ones.
You remind me of that guy in that movie, he said, you know, he went to Alaska, and he died?
Into the Wild was required reading for me in high school, I said, but I think I’m done hitching. I’m tired of sleeping at truck stops, under bridges, with the mice and mice of men.
I’ve been compared to Alexander Supertramp more times than I care to admit. At first, I felt complimented. I admired his idealism, his thirst for adventure. I wanted to push as many walls over as I could, whilst listening to the real Alaskan bushmen, hunters and fishermen and roughnecks, the fathers and uncles of my teenage years. They said he was an idiot, a moron, unprepared. The wilderness gives two shits about you, they said. Alaska will spit you out. He deserved what he got.
When I moved back to Alaska in my mid-twenties, I connected with the outdoors far more than with people. I packrafted glacier-fed class 3+ rapids in rain slicks, a brand-new hobby, and one I learned by trial and error alone; I bagged peaks in the Chugach and Alaska ranges without any real training or background in mountaineering; I hitched across the state, and took multiday backcountry adventures, sometimes in late fall or early spring. Conditions which, if anything went wrong, could have killed me.
To top it off, I never told anyone where I was going. I lived with my mum, who worked often. I never left notes, rarely took pictures. Often I didn’t know where I’d end up until I got to an out-of-the-way trailhead. My car was registed to a fake address half the state away, and I didn’t carry identification on my person – the useless card would weigh me down, I reasoned.
Maybe I wanted to be like John Muir, to toss some bread and tea into a sack, jump the proverbial fence, and walk into the wild unknown. But Alaska doesn’t really have fences. For two years, my mum’s place as base camp, I trusted my balance, resourcefulness, and growing experience to carry me through my adventures. In retrospect, I’m fairly certain that I didn’t really care much if I died out there.
Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours hit theaters in 2011. Adventure movie by the director of Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later? Inspiration? Please! Sure, I’d thumbed through Aron Ralston’s Between a Rock and a Hard Place amongst mountaineering literature in bookshops, but never read it. The message reached me anyway.
In 127 Hours, the main character – played by James Franco – falls into a slot canyon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, and his hand gets wedged between the wall of the canyon and a rock roughly the size of a refrigerator. He goes through his gear: climbing rope, flashlight, camcorder, a bit of water; and imagines what it would take to get out of his predicament: eight strong men – who in the film appear as shadows in the relentless desert sun – pulling in sync on a line which might free the stuck young man below.
I pictured myself at the bottom of a whirlpool rapid on Alaska’s Sixmile River, or Sheep Creek (rivers I had no business running alone), or breaking an ankle near the summit of Bold Peak. I imagined facing off with a brown bear in the empty tundra of the Talkeetna mountains, and losing. Realistic situations, given my ambition. Then I envisioned the shadows of eight strong men, willing and able to help, playing cards back in Anchorage, because no one knew to look for me.
The point is that since the dangerous, unlikeable age of 23, I’ve learned some boundaries. My risk assessment is different now: why would I jump from the top of a fifteen-foot boulder, if I could walk nimbly down the other side?
If travel and adventure have enlightened me to anything, as Shane suggested, it is to the fragility of life. We humans are at once resilient and adaptive creatures, capable of creation, destruction, and healing. Yet it takes a relatively insignificant decision to alter the dynamic of life: half a second on a motorcycle, a moment’s hesitation on a mountain, saying a terribly inconsiderate – even if true – thing at the worst possible moment. Perhaps one reason we are so incredibly adaptive is that we are extremely sensitive to set and setting, and those who listen are the ones who learn, and thus, survive.
We’ve got work to do.
22 May 2014 § 2 Comments
Sometimes we tell stories over and over again to find out their significance to us. Just as it is common to see something new in a film one has watched multiple times, a connection which binds the characters closer may reveal itself in the hundredth telling of a story that didn’t seem to exist before.
The audience plays a large part in the development of story: pertinent questions, feedback, and criticism reflect holes, irrelevant information; it can help connect important, but perhaps misplaced, fragments. Pieces gathered during immersion.
Any story can be told from an experience. A picnic can be a sweetbitter serenade, or it can be a vicious slaughter of the ant-thieves. An arduous mountain ascent can be a reconciliation, or a cold lesson in compassion. To misquote the Beatles, perspective is all you need.
For months, I’ve been telling the same story over again, as if it was the only one. Every telling has had the same ending: I don’t know.
Which isn’t much of an ending at all. It’s a clue, however, that I’m still in it, still discovering characters, their roles, and the story’s plot points.
In this particular narrative, character becomes audience, and becomes character again. Insists that his input is important to the story, “so put it in the story!” The character wants to know why the narrator is there. Narrator as character: first person.
I imagine Ed Gish saying, does the architect reveal his plans? No, he builds the fucking building, and lets everyone marvel. No one cares what nails were used, how long the concrete took to dry, or which trusses support the heaviest loads. They care about having a place to live or work, and if it looks good, that’s great. If the building is energy efficient, made of recycled materials, or wins design awards, those are bonuses. The building is the point.
The story is the point.
This is a terrible time to write! The concrete is still being poured.
8 February 2014 § 2 Comments
Days pass in Udaipur, like beggars indifferent to rejection. The desert winter sun shimmers on Lake Pichola. This morning there is a record three clouds in the sky. Across the street, a blind man stands upon a speed bump, white cane in hand. Dark skin and cataracts. A sign hangs from his neck, half-Hindi, half-Hinglish, painted blue on white, an old traffic sign:
My Eyes Opration.
Please Help Me.
He holds a receipt book in his left hand, a record of those who do not ignore him. It is open to the second page. He’s got a five o’ clock shadow from last Saturday, and wears leather trainers, dirt-ridden and worn like the hands of the motorcycle mechanic who works next to Daiji footbridge.
Does this man know the yellow glow of the gold chain fitted to his neck? Does he remember the eyes of the young artist who walks by silently, a Western woman on his arm, who as a child brought the blind man food from his mother?
Can the man with the sign around his neck hear my steady eyes upon his, or the traces of my guilt for staring into a face of India which cannot, for once, stare back? In my ears, these are raucous, electric hums; my heartbeat amplified like the temple bells ringing in a nearby alley. We both turn our heads toward the clangor.
A group of boys line up at the metal railing outside Café Edelwiess; one, then three, then seven, holding metal bowls like topless kettles. Inside the bowls, sculpted men sit upon beasts, like Shiva Linga, covered in black oil and petals of marigold.
Kana, pani, one ragged boy says, over and over again. Food, water. He can’t be nine years old. He points to his mouth, then to the chocolate on my plate.
“Chapatis, sir, chapatis,” says an older boy, 12 or so, in clothes as dirty, and barefoot. They stand one meter away from our table, behind a chain hung like a velvet rope in a cinema queue line. There are no chapatis on screen; only Westerners and chocolate. My table is on the front line: other Westerners talk and eat behind me, deeper in the cave of the wall-less cafe.
I cannot use the Hindi phrase for sending away touts – nahi chaiye, I do not want. These children offer me nothing, want only my food. “Hello, sir, chapatis.” A hoarse, intimate whisper from the old beggar within the barefoot pre-teen: “Please.”
I’ve seen him squatting near a street fire of burning plastic at night to keep warm. Huddled in circles: community, empathy, and friendship. Things I cannot, and do not, offer him. So I ignore him, all of them and their pleas for kana; hello, please, sir, chapatis. Sir, please. Hello?
My book-wise glare renders me into another deaf Westerner, and they leave. I cannot, will not, eat in front of them, nor can justify teasing them with two sandwiches on my table, heaping with eggs and bacon. I pretend the sandwiches are not there. I write instead, holding the tears back because maybe they’ll think I’ll break, and then they’ll have full stomachs for the day, and return tomorrow – with hope.
I am an awful, selfish voyeur. Another white invader whose economic contributions profit hotels that shun locals as a cultural norm. A hotelier in Bikaner said, any unmarried Indian couple cannot, by Indian law, stay the night in a tourist hotel.
If, by chance, a foreigner befriends a local, the latter is typically not allowed in the foreigner’s hotel. The receptionists and owners of Dream Heaven in Udaipur, in the case of a British woman who invited a local restauranteur to have dinner with her, said the local was “a good Indian man, and is welcome here!” For others, they fear rape, or robbery, or some other sin for which we do not have a word.
After twenty minutes, the boy beggars give up on me, and walk away, determined as when they arrived. Hope is dangerous.
Or is it?
Who am I, exactly, that I would deny a child food, at the word of a rich man who said it would do them no good? How can one who has not known true hunger say such a thing? My friend, American activist Kokayi Nosakhere would be appalled, ashamed, dash our friendship to the dogs. His mission is to end child hunger, and in the past, I have said, with words and action, that I support him.
Do I support him now?
Who am I, again, to deny a request for a photo from a group of Indian men in a park, or from a family on holiday, or a few rupees to a woman in the park? Is it because I wish for a connection based less on currency, or prefer the barter economy of buskers or street artists, a penny for a song? And if these children have not even had the opportunity to learn an instrument, or how to use their voice but to beg to survive the day, or a mother’s callused hand?
What fucking right have I to project expectation or want upon a culture that asks so little of me? How audacious it seems to think, I want this experience to have such and such an impact on me; I need to see this or that; to feel the frustration, which leads me to write this. I harbor hatred for the roles we’re born into, the caste system to whom everyone here – not just locals – is subject to, inserted into a predetermined slot of economic import. I want to wriggle out, run away, and I want these children to know… what? That the grass is greener? That the law of attraction applies here, now?
What can I offer them? Freedom? Opportunity? The strength to climb an impossible ladder?
Oh, that I could offer them anything!
Already I deny the boys that which means virtually nothing to me, and could afford easily to buy each one of them a sandwich of protein and fresh-baked bread. I could likely pay for the eye opration [sic] of the blind man out-of-pocket. Not long ago, I wondered what gulf exists that would keep the “open-hearted” traveler in me from connecting with, interacting with, or relating to the people of my host country?
That gulf is wider than the Pacific Ocean. At the moment, for me, it is an uncrossable, unbearable feat. Airplanes and cargo ships could not bring me closer to the little boy three feet away, who has returned to the far side of the railing, outside this foreigner-owned café. He saw something in me, and came back for it. I fear for us both.
In the western, time-zoned, modernized first world, we live a day behind India’s each passing hour, where the beggars of the future ask help from travelers visiting from the past. How do we reply?
20 December 2013 § Leave a comment
I have done everything possible since arriving to Kathmandu to avoid writing. I have done everything possible to avoid writing. It hurts to travel. Hurts to feel new and ignorant. Like a familiar brick lodged in the throat. We’re friends.
Friends. Let’s not start with friends. Let’s start with projectors instead – kind of like those in cinemas, but with facebook profiles and fingers. I’m being watched. We’re being watched, and projected upon by those dozens of loved ones who came to the wedding and may have thought, this is the kind of love that I want.
No, no, it’s likely not. Unless you’re comfortable in interrogation rooms nightly. Confessionals by day. We do our best to find cabins nestled amongst the great mountains, so neither of us has to feel like too much when we ask the other for what we need or want. Music and lights distract the ears from our voices, which in good time we’ve learned to love. Full-length mirrors hang loose behind the doors, so we can detect our flaws to vanquish them, and inspect smiles for sincerity.
We do not rest well, except after fishing. But then there’s so much to complicate that I do not sleep for long. Morningly she’s up before me, often to take care of me in some way I don’t know.
I don’t know how to say ‘we’ except in attempt to connect.
Oh my god I’m tired of writing about myself.
Nepal. The tire man in Podunk Oregon asked me where it was. Dig a hole to China, and look toward Antarctica. I don’t know anything. Forgot to print the tickets that morning. The unkind passport control woman in Vancouver did not like us, or herself. Bulletproof vest, empty corridor.
We crash-landed into Shangri-la. The walls were lime green and pink, watercolor paintings of Everest, Annapurna, porters and prayer flags, tilted. Since two days after landing, I’ve wanted to go home. My minority status determines the form most relationships with locals take. To hell with the begging. With the anger at my refusal to hand over a few rupees which will not serve well.
I’ve gotten too used to getting what I want.
I know that readers depend on detail. Try this: A couple of years ago I told a girl in Alaska an analogy about a river. How the headwaters, rapids, and deltas were that river simultaneously. Which basically disproves linear time. That if she stepped into the water, came out, and went in again, it would not be the same river. Kind of like life. Keep your memories, I said, but the water flowing when they formed is long since the sea.
She called that ‘deep,’ which said she didn’t get it.
Today, I read ‘Siddhartha’ for the first time, and found that he, Siddhartha, at least according to Hesse, had a similar revelation.
It’s easy to know these things; all you have to do is sit by a river and listen. Application is a different story.
The book distracted enveloped me on the bus from Nagarkot that I forgot my fire staves tucked in the overhead bin. Hours later, in a taxi in a different city, remembrance came with tears. They were gone, and with them, sanity.
I don’t remember the last time Heather and I were happy and thriving for more than a few consecutive days. Since wedding, we’ve embarked on four distinct chapters of honeymoon, a couple of days sweet.
“This doesn’t feel like a honeymoon,” she said. “This feels like…traveling.”
We’re buddies right now. I’m ignoring the world, wishing for a simpler trip, where visas weren’t a hassle, and what the fuck is my problem, my grandmother died yesterday. Or today. The time difference isn’t all that keeps my family apart. I’ve joined that unfortunate club of travelers who were accidentally international in times of family tragedy. This is not something I’m happy about, and it felt inevitable.
Heather called the hotel in Nagarkot, talked to Newa. He biked down to the bus, and found the staves. Sent them down the mountain to Kathmandu, straight to the hotel.
There’s reason to hope.
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.