Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy Hedonistic Holidays (My Spring Break Christmas)

I'm sitting on a king size bed right now. The TV, a nice flat panel widescreen, is playing in the background, and I'm sipping a good cup of coffee. Today however is the last time I will be enjoying this luxury. We check out in a few hours, and head to the airport tomorrow for our next destination where, borrowing the term from some bad spy movies, I will be "going dark". No internet, no room service, no pool, no endless supply of booze, and no topless women.

That's right the hedonistic holiday is coming to an end. It's been a hell of a week! First I must thank Dave and Carol for treating Nat and I to such a great vacation, which is exactly what this was, a vacation. After a couple of weeks of sleeping on lumpy mattresses, purifying our drinking water every day, and having to forage for food it was nice to suddenly put all that behind us and enjoy a life filled with creature comforts.

It was also a little weird. I mean suddenly we were surrounded by whities. They were everywhere, on the beach, the street, in the restaurants and bars. Whities, whities everywhere. There was also the fact that a significant portion of the whities were topless (and given the small thong bottoms most of the women were wearing almost bottomless as well). Fueled by free booze and encouraged by the resort staff to partake in games like amateur pornstar contest, race to blow the balloon up with a bicycle pump (the catch being you aren't using your foot you are using your best humping technique), sex and excess were in the air. As were fake boobs. Not only were they in the air, they were in the pool, the restaurants, the bars, the beach, the rooms. How many people in this world have fake titties? And do they all come to Cancun for vacation?

A fun week to be sure, but a little unsettling at others. Every time I would catch part of a conversation in which a burned to a crisp whitie would say to another burned to a crisp whitie "Mexico is such a poor country, these poor waiters make only 4 or 5 dollars a day, and are really lucky to have these jobs." I wanted to scream. There were other ridiculous comments as well. Such as "This is my fourth time in Cancun, and this place is paradise. The problem is most guys come down here and get totally wrapped up in trying to *insert expletive used to describe sex here* a *insert explative used to describe a woman here*, but they miss out on just enjoying paradise. There are beautiful women everywhere, it's gorgeous, and you can drink as much as you want. All you need to do is relax, enjoy paradise, and before you know it you will be *insert explative used to describe sex here* a *insert expletive used to describe a woman here*.

Moments like these and many others left me on edge a lot. I wanted to scream at some of these people. I wanted to tell them how fake their lives were. How ignorant they were of the outside world, of the challenges that face a nation like Mexico. I wanted to strangle the stupid motherfucker next to me every time he said the words *insert expletive used to describe sex here* a *insert expletive used to describe a woman here*. Then I remembered "Hey! I'm on vacation, I need to relax.", and would swim over the poolside bar, order a drink, and enjoy the view. I had to agree the guy. The view was pretty great.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

My Mexican Mishaps

I'm in Cancun right now, I have been here for four days now, and have slipped into a strange world that I do not fully understand. I will be describing my hedonistic holidays in a separate post, but first here is a quick update on three adventures that befell Nat and I over the last few days.

Departing San Cristobal for Cancun we knew we were in for a long ride. "Great", I had said as we queued up waiting to buy our tickets, "I can't wait for another 14 hour bus ride." If only that had been the case. When we got to the front of the line and purchased our tickets we discovered that we had underestimated the return trip, and would be spending 18 hours on the bus instead.

Our bus was not leaving until the following afternoon so we began searching for a cheap hostel to spend the night. The last hostel we had stayed at in San Cristobal was full, and after wandering by several other places that were either full, or too expensive we settled on Ek Balam more out of desperation than anything else. While we both have probably spent nights in worse accommodation in our lives we probably haven't spent many nights in sketchier places. The problems were too numerous to name them all. The lock on the door was busted. The guy working spent about 15 minutes trying to find a key for it, and finally gave up and showed us that if you just jammed a key in the lock really hard and shook the door for a few seconds it should pop open. This seemed to work pretty well, so stepping over the piles of hair and cigarette butts we made our way to the bed.

The following morning, after breakfast, I decided to show Natalie the torture apparatus that our posh room had been equipped with. Running from the only electrical outlet in the room was a long electric cord with the end stripped back to reveal several inches of copper wire inside. "Watch this!" I said, picking up the cable and touching the ends together. A brief blue flash and a shower of sparks shot out from the cable, and then darkness enveloped us. I had just blown out the circuit for the majority of the hostel. We used our headlamps to back our bags and left promptly.

Once at the bus station we began to wait, and wait, and wait finally an hour after we were supposed to depart for Cancun our bus showed up, and 20 minutes later we were underway. The going was slow and it was quickly apparent that we were not going to get to Cancun in 18 hours. We passed the time watching movies, the first of which was American Gangster, which had not been dubbed meaning that we got to enjoy it in English. Next came The Godfather (El Padrino in Spanish), which was exciting for about 30 seconds until it became apparent that this was not THE Godfather. Instead it was some insanely low budget flick (I'm talking a D movie here) starring, and directed by, Damian Chapa, who will now haunt my dreams forever. Forced to endure Damian Chapa's acting we suffered on until it finally ended around midnight. At which point they started it over again.

Finally, 24 hours later we arrived in Cancun. We made our way to the resort, had dinner, and promptly went to sleep. The next day we spent hours trying to figure out what to do when the airline holding our tickets to our next destination decided to cancel our reservation. Then, after spending the morning at the airport desperately searching for a way out of that mess, we made our way to the beach to finally relax.

We spread out on a bed (yes there are beds on the beach!!) and began reading our books. I had finished about 2 pages when I heard the first scream. A high pitched, bone rattling, scream of someone experiencing sheer agony. I looked up in time to see three guys dragging a woman out of the water by her life jacket.
The men carried her over to a bed and I ran over to see what was going on. The first things I noticed were the cuts on her leg. Certainly not life threatening, but none to pleasant either. More concerning was the odd angle of her hip, and the bumps protruding from it. I quickly ascertained that there had been a Ski Do accident and asked the men if there were paramedics on-sight. They said yes and that they were going to get them now. Thinking I would only have to deal with the situation for a minute or two I began my scan of her body, and another woman rushed over to help. After a minute no paramedics had arrived and we were then told there was no one on staff. While Natalie set about making sure that an ambulance had been called we bundled the woman in towels and tried to keep her calm though she continued to scream about her broken pelvis. It was a tense situation made worse when her friends came rushing over and started screaming and crying next to her. I monitored her pulse and kept her talking. From time to time she would black out and I would need to lean close to her chest to make sure she was still breathing. The throng of spectators had grown thick, and plenty of people tried to give advice. “She's passing out, give her sugar”, one guy sagely advised me. “OMG get fuck out of here.” I wanted to scream at him. Finally after about 30 minutes (though others have put it at more like 45) the paramedics arrived. With their help we cut her life jacket away and carefully rolled her onto a backboard. She was taken to the hospital and that is the end of my involvement in the story...almost.

The next day I was standing at the bar ordering drinks when I overheard a man relating the incident to some other guests. It went something like this:

“I saw these guys drag this woman out of the water screaming. She was bleeding REALLY badly from these HUGE, DEEP gashes in her leg (again, they were nasty cuts but not the biggest issue by far). Luckily she was a doctor and was able to keep herself conscious to direct people how to stop the bleeding because she knew that if she blacked out and they did not stop the bleeding she was going to bleed to death. Her blood was soaking through these towels and she kept taking to the people, who didn't know what they were doing, and finally got them to stop the bleeding. Then after an hour an ambulance FINALLY showed up and took her to the hospital. She was lucky she was a doctor or she would have been dead.”

I smiled to myself, shook my head, grabbed my Tequila Sunrise, and headed back to the beach. I was finally beginning to relax a bit.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Amigos y Extranjeros

It's crazy how often it happens. Everyone I know who has traveled has experienced it, and people write entire books about it. It doesn't matter where you go, whether you have the same skin color, the same religion, or even whether you speak the same language, it will happen to you. I am talking about the kindness of strangers (which, as I have mentioned before, happens to be the title of a pretty great book). Every time I experience it I am filled with more emotions than I can possibly describe. The obvious ones are gratitude and joy that there are so many kind people in the world, who for no reason other than kindness will invite you into their homes, share their food, and go out of their way to make you feel incredibly welcome. Then there are the other feelings it invokes. The ones that aren't as pleasant. There is a bit self-loathing, why don't I ever do the same thing for others? Never once have I invited a stranger who I have nothing in common with, but would like to do something nice for, into my house. And then there is that little voice in the back of my head saying "careful here, don't be too nice they might be trying to rip you off." Never once has that voice been correct, but it is always there, always causing me to be on guard, to make excuses to leave early, or otherwise excuse myself from the situation.

It started Friday night with a mildly intoxicated Mexican shouting out to me "Hello, where are you from." I was walking away from him at the time, headed in search of my favorite warm weather treat, ice cream, and did not stop to talk with him. After sating my craving for ice cream Natalie and I were walking back down the street in the opposite direction, and there in the same place was the same man sitting on a chair with two other guys drinking beer and listening to music. Clearly I was not going to be able to avoid them unless I acted like a total dick and just ignored them. This really isn't my style so I decided to go right up to them and say hello. Before I knew it we had been introduced to all of them, the man who had called out to me was named Julio Cesar, and he was with his father Julio, a now retired boxer who had apparently made a bit of a name for himself as a boxer and was nicknamed Chocomilk. Within a couple of minutes chairs had been brought out for us and we were sipping beers with Chocomilk and Julio Cesar. Jokes were told, and as a true test of my Spanish I actually was understanding them. We laughed and drank beer, asked each other questions and drank beer, and simply sat in the street and drank beer. When all was said and done Nat and I were both feeling a bit drunk and excused ourselves for the night, but promised to visit their restaurant the following day for lunch.

True to our word we showed up at their restaurant planning to be polite, buy a small lunch and then say goodbye. As a quick aside, Paradise, which is how I will refer to my place of residence for the past week (though that is not it's name), had only two drawbacks, the mosquitoes and the prices of food at the restaurants. Therefore we were a bit weary of going to a beach side restaurant where the owner had promised to cook us a feast, as this could quite possibly cost at least an entire day's budget. Julio was not there when we arrived, and so we sat on the beach sipping a soda and waiting for him. After finishing our sodas he had still not arrived and so we ordered a beer. When Julio showed up he was quite busy as he had just returned from the nearest town with everything he would need to operate hit taqueria that night. After about ten minutes he called us over to the kitchen and introduced us to his entire family. His four children and his wife politely greeted us, and then he showed us to a nearby table (I should mention that despite the fact that Julio has four children, the oldest of whom is 18, Julio is only 33). Soon the music was blasting, and a very fresh shrimp salad had been placed on the table in front of us along with two more beers.

There was only one problem. I'm allergic to shellfish. I had mentioned this to him the night before, but in our inebriated state it must have slipped his mind. Therefore I did my best to pick around the shrimp without anyone noticing, all the while encouraging Natalie to stuff her face with shrimp. "You are eating for two." I told her, and when her fork would lie resting on the plate I would shoot her a pleading look, and beg her to cram a few more bites into her mouth.

After the shellfish came a freshly cooked plate of beef that would be chopped into the filling for the tacos he would sell on the street that night. I'm not much of a beef fan, but this was truly fantastic, and of course was accompanied by more beers.

After a couple of hours Julio had to get his taqueria set up. We promised to come eat tacos that night, and as I got up I asked what we owed him for lunch. "Nada." was the reply. "Really?" I asked, "Are you sure?" He explained to me that we were guests in his house and that he was very happy to have met us and to become friends. He called me his hermano (brother), and hugged both of us as we left. He also invited us to Christmas dinner with his entire extended family.

We returned to his taco stand that night with our two German friends, with whom we had spent the week, and set about trying to eat as many tacos as we could in order to at least help him reach his goal of selling 20 kilos of tacos that night. We brought beers, and every time he had a few minutes he would come sit with us and drink a beer. When his friends would come by he would call me over and introduce me as his friend, and excitedly tell his friends about how we had met the night before.

When we were finally ready to live I paid for our tacos and was getting ready to leave a sizable tip. His 18 year old daughter, who was helping him run the taco stand came back and handed me 100 pesos which was far more change than I should have gotten back. She explained that she didn't have the proper change for me so I should just take the 100 instead. I tried to insist that they keep the 100 pesos since I was planning on giving them nearly the full 200 I had originally handed her anyway as a tip, but Julio wouldn't hear of it and insisted I keep my money.

We said goodbye promising to visit soon. I hope that I will. I hope that was not the last time I see Julio and his family. I hope that by the end of the night he had sold his 20 kilos of tacos. I hope that more people visit his restaurant, which like all restaurants there was perpetually empty. I hope that one day Julio will experience the same overwhelming emotions I did when a complete stranger decided to go out of his way to be kind, and to help me learn more about his language and his country. Most of all I hope that I will begin to act in the same way as Julio, that I will reach out to those in need, that I will be kind to strangers for no other reason than because it is how we should all try to treat one another.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The post that no one wants to read

If I were you I would not be interested in reading this post. I mean there are no horror stories about bus rides, no self-deprecating tales about my own ignorance and stupidity, no insightful observations about the social ills afflicting Chiapas (one of the poorest places in Mexico), only a few poorly worded sentences about what paradise is like.

Paradise is a deserted beach on the Pacific Ocean with warm clear waters. I start my days in paradise by either going for a 7:30 a.m. Swim (made possible by the incredibly warm waters), or by ordering a fantastic cup of organic coffee (the only real luxury available here), and reading the BBC in Spanish using the now available (and pirated from the only place within 20 km to have wifi) internet connection I have at my disposal. Following that I will wile away the rest of the day on the beach, in the water, or reading a book in a hammock. (Everyone should experience what it is like to have nothing better to do than fall asleep in a comfortable hammock whenever the mood strikes.) Evenings are spent sipping beers and playing cards, though bedtime comes early here, and I am usually asleep by 10:30. I am sleeping like a baby here, usually for about 9 or 10 hours per night.

My plans for Mexico really did grind to a halt when I arrived here. Originally I thought two or three days would be the max. I am now on day seven. Sadly, this laid back lifestyle won't last much longer and tomorrow I will say goodbye to this incredible place. It will be back to Cancun, for what will be a much different beach experience,before heading off into a much more difficult traveling/studying situation.

This experience, which has been so reminiscent of the 10 days I spent on Don Det, Laos is something that everyone really must make a priority to experience at least once in their lives. The relative isolation, the peaceful atmosphere, and the gorgeous location do not exist for a vacation destination. They exist for those who travel, for those who back their bags and go looking for them, and even then you have to get pretty lucky to find them.

Cheers from Paradise.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The redlight district of San Cristobal

I love tamales. Always have, always will. Thus, I came to Mexico in search of one thing, and one thing only: the best damn tamales I have ever eaten. That dream was realized a few nights ago in San Cristobal, and strangely enough it was with the help of the ol' LP.

A small text box in the San Cristobal section read something like this. "On Saturdays and Wednesdays follow Calle Leon past the corn fields, and look for a makeshift red light on the left hand side of the road, just before the bridge. There will be a woman selling tamales there. They are the best tamales in the world."

Skeptical, but intrigued, Natalie and I set off in search of this mythical tamale lady. We wandered out of town, past the corn fields, and suddenly there it was! The red light hanging above a door. We walked up to the house and I peered inside. "Hola" I called out, "¿uh...tienes tamales?" "Si" replied the woman, lifting the lid off of two large pots filled with tamales. Phew, I'm not just going to be some crazy gringo sticking his head into some woman's house asking for tamales.

We chose four to start with, two chicken and two pork. Sitting on the side of the road in an empty part of town we watched the full moon rise over the corn fields while we munched on what truly were the greatest tamales I have ever eaten. Thanks LP.


I've been a bit quiet on here lately. This owes mainly to the fact that I am in paradise. That's right paradise. For the time being I'm going to keep quiet about where this paradise is, and am only going to say the following:
  • It's in Mexico.

  • It has the cleanest beach I have ever seen, and the water is about the temperature of a bathtub.
  • And finally, and this is the kicker, it is completely deserted. Aside from a very small handful (probably ten or less) international travelers, there is no one on the beach, which spans for miles and miles, other than a couple of fishermen.

But let's back up a bit, there are interesting stories to be told. It all starts in San Cristobal, which just so happened to be hosting the Festival of Guadalupe, or Dia de Guadalupe as it is known in Mexico (though dia implies that it only lasts one day and that was certainly not the case). So there is some saint here in Mexico named Guadalupe, apparently the Virgin Mother (Mary) appeared to her in a vision one time told her to do something, and now she is a saint. I'm overstating my ignorance a bit, but not much.

Anyway...the story really has nothing to do with why there is this festival, but rather with the festival itself. Every year one city in southern Mexico is chosen to host the festival, and this year that city was San Cristobal. Then churches put together what I can only describe as teams of runners, who then travel from wherever their church is to San Cristobal running along the side of the highway carrying a torch. If running down the crazy-ass highways of Mexico doesn't sound terrible enough the trucks that carry the runners who are resting slowly drives behind the runner blasting a car alarm at around 100 decibels to announce its presence. Try to picture it. There you are risking your life running in 90 degree heat on these fucked up roads with vans and trucks whipping by six inches away from you, and behind you is a truck blasting BEEP BEEP BEEP, RYAA RYAA, ANH ANH ANH. Oh, and just to top it off, for some reason I can't even begin to comprehend, you have to wear a sheep hide vest over your clothes.

So I was feeling a lot of sympathy for these dedicated kids busting their asses because of their faith, and was really enjoying the festive atmosphere that enveloped the city. But that was only on the first night.

By the second night my sympathy was gone. Replaced with growing resentment, that began boiling over into outright anger. The thing was the party just never ended. Which meant the fireworks NEVER ENDED. Which meant the Mariachi bands NEVER STOPPED PLAYING. And above all else it meant that the runners NEVER STOPPED COMING, and thus the CAR ALARMS NEVER STOPPED BLAIRING. EVER.

By four a.m. on the second night I couldn't take it anymore. It was absolutely impossible to sleep. Even with ear plugs the constant music being played by a drunken mariachi band, the innumerable explosions of bottle rockets, and the incessant whine of car alarms was too much to bear. I began practicing my Spanish in my head. It was everything that I wanted to say to the all night revelers (and bear in mind this was not a one night party. I had arrived on what was either night 7 or 8 of an 8 or 9 night party). It went a little something like this (though I have translated it back into English for your benefit).

“This noise, this non-stop over-the-top fucking noise is what is causing all the problems in your society. This is why Chiapas is rife with poverty while other areas of the country prosper. This is why alcoholism is rampant, and why domestic violence has become such a huge problem. This is why children here are far behind the rest of the country in terms of education. The list of socio-economic issues goes on and on, and it is all because of this fucking noise! No one can sleep, how can the children learn anything in school? No one can sleep, how can the men go to work in the morning. No one can sleep, the men are all getting drunk. No one can sleep.

I was getting pretty poetic in my four a.m. Rant, which at the time seemed to make perfect sense, it was similar to Rudy Giuliani's No Broken Windows plan for cleaning up crime in N.Y. City in the 90s. As you probably well know by now if you have ever read Freakonomics this wasn't what cleaned up N.Y. City and it probably wouldn't alleviate any of the social issues plaguing Chiapas either, but man did it feel good to rant in my head, in Spanish, at four in the morning.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

San Cristobal and the worst two hours of my life.

As I write this I am sitting in a gorgeous cafe in the heart of San Cristobal, Chiapas. I lack the words to describe the beauty of this town at the moment. It is truly breathtaking.

I do not lack the words to describe the bus ride here, however. Simply put it was probably two of the worst hours of my life. It all started after writing my last post about how wonderful all the food here is. So I'm sure you know where this is going. After spending a night and morning in my hotel room (and mainly in the bathroom) in utter agony it was time to make a decision; a.) I could stay in Ocosingo for another night and hopefully recover, or b.) I could brave two hour bus ride to San Cristobal which I was sure would be a nicer town, and was a place I had really been looking forward to getting to and stopping for several days. I chose option b.

With my stomach churning, my bowels rumbling, and my body aching I popped a Cipro and an Imodium and hopped on a colectivo bound for San Cristobal. The problem was not with me, it was really with the road. First, I must explain that Mexico has a serious love affair with speed bumps (topes in Spanish). They are everywhere. I do not think it is an exageration to say that in the 98 km between Ocosingo and San Cristobal we went over at least a hundred of them. Everytime this would happen my stomach would do a backflip and I would clench my fists and pray that I wouldn't "blow chuncks" all over the woman in front of me.

The second problem was the snake-like nature of the road. It twisted and turned in every direction possible, and, provided there was not a tope to slow us down, we whipped around the corners at speeds that would make a Formula One racer nervous. Green in the face, and in more pain that seemed normal for food poisoning I gripped the edge of the seat tightly and prayed it would end without incidence. Fortunately it did, and upon arriving In San Cristobal I checked into a wonderful posada and slept myself back to health.

So that's the story, I'm healthy again (though Nat keeps disappearing into the bathroom while I write this), and ready for more of San Cristobal's colonial charm.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Reasons I love traveling

It's strange that today is only day 4 of what could be a very long trip. Already I feel like I have been on the road for ages, and it seems like my last trip never really ended. And you know what? I'm totally OK with that.

I'm sure there will be many hard times ahead, and that I will not always feel as I do now, but until then all I can say is that I love being homeless in Latin America. Being back here is like stepping into a familiar pair of jeans, or lying in your own bed after being away from home for a while (Wait a minute! Is that a contradiction...). The point is I feel very at home without a home.

I am truly loving Mexico. Beyond a doubt the largest source of joy has been the food. How can anyone live without eating a delicious stack of warm tortillas with every meal. No matter what I eat tortillas are a part of the meal. I love stuffing a few pieces of chicken, pork, or beef along with some frijoles and picante into the delicious corn wrappers and scarffing them down. It never ceases to put a smile on my face. Also, if you can't tell from that last sentence my vegitarianism has ground to a halt. I have had meat with at least two meals everyday since I got here and can't imagine eating anything else. This morning's breakfast (which cost two dollars for both Nat and I) consisted of a quarter of a grilled chicken doused in lime and picante, frijoles, a large stack of tortillas, and an orange juice. YUM!!!!!!!!!!

OK all this talk of food is making me hungry, I'm headed to find some pork tacos. Hasta pronto.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Fucking Bus Company (ADO)

The title pretty much sums this post up. So there we were, in Cancun and ready to hit the road. We had just gorged ourselves on some delicious roadside tacos, and were in the bus station waiting to head to Palenque. The bus was set to leave at 7:30, and we made sure we were there around half an hour early.

Around 7:15 we still had not seen a bus pull in to Bay 1 which was where we had been told to wait. Natalie went to the door that everyone has to pass through in order to board and asked the woman collecting tickets if the bus had arrived. "Un momento" was the answer. At 7:25 with no bus still in sight I went up to the woman, showed her our tickets, and asked about the status of the bus. Again I was told it had not arrived. "En seguro" "Are you sure" I said. "Si" was the reply. Our conversation went on for a couple of more minutes with her again examing our tickets and telling me the bus had not arrived. At 7:34 Natalie jumped from her seat. "The bus is pulling away" she shouted, as she ran for the door. It was to late. The bus, which had been parked in a different bay, did not stop.

I began explaining the situation to another woman who had come over. Speaking in rapid Spainsh that was difficult to understand she basically told me that I should have got on the bus at 7:30 at turned her back on me. As she stood talking to someone else I again tried to question her, though she simply turned and told me to go to customer service.

I made my way to the customer service booth in a rage. Amazingly my Spanish didn't falter, in fact it seemed to improve, as I rapidly explained the entire situation to the man working at the booth. He looked up the next bus, which was only an hour later and told us that there were two seats left, but that we would have to pay again. In a lot of countries this would not be such a big deal, but the buses in Mexico are exprensive and this was a first class bus, which cost nearly $100 for both our tickets. Furious, I responded that we were getting on the next bus at 8:30, and that we were not paying for our tickets. The banter went back and forth for a minute or two until he got his supervisor, who also informed me that we had to pay. After several minutes of arguing he said they would pay %50. It was better than nothing, and we REALLY wanted to get the hell out of Cancun, so an hour later and fifty dollars lighter we boarded the bus for what was to be the most expensive ride I have ever taken.

Fifteen hours later I was lying on the bed of my private cabaƱa, happy to finally be away from Cancun and on the road.

After a day of lazing about we made our way to the fabulous ruins of Palenque this morning. Truly an amazing site (though not as great as Tikal), and to top it all off it's about 85 out right now.

I hear Seattle's expecting snow this weekend...

Well, if you will excuse me I have to make a call to the head of ADO in Cancun and try to get my money back. Wish me luck!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

And so it begins...again.

It's strange, the similarities between the start of this grand adventure and my last. Both times I packed my belongings away in storage. Both times I said goodbye to my friends and family. Both times I boarded a flight to Cancun, unsure of what lay ahead.

But that's where the similarities end, and the differences begin. Already I amazed at how different this trip is. The nervous feeling in my stomach is gone. I'm speaking Spanish well (OK not too well, but good enough for now). And perhaps the biggest difference is that I am not alone. Embarking on such a grand adventure with a partner (and a wonderful one at that) is truly a blessing. While I would not trade last year's expereince for anything in the world, I am glad to be sharing this adventure with Natalie.

I spent a good portion of my flight yesterday mulling over these thoughts as we cruised through the skies at 35,000 feet. Finally we arrived. After easily clearing immigration (something that felt like an incredible challenge last year), I stepped outside into the humid evening air with a feeling of deja vu. Wasn't I just here???

The bus ride into town was short, and it was when I stepped out of the bus station that I realized how much my last trip changed me. As we walked towards our hotel I remembered walking down the same street last year hopelessly lost, and unable to ask directions. My hotel was only four blocks from the bus station and I stumbled around for what seemed like ages before I finally arrived. This time I navigated my way towards the hotel with confidence doging traffic and potholes like a pro. As we walked through the back streets of Cancun I remembered that a year ago I thought I was in an incredibly impovershed area. Walking the same streets last night it was hard not to laugh at myself for being so naive. These were not poor barrios, whose residents struggled to make ends meet, these were middle class homes with nice vehicles parked out front. What a difference a year makes.

I'm happy, healthy, and ready for anything. Unfortunately, right now that anything is an all night bus ride to Palenque. ARGH!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Green Technocrat

So I'm sitting in Seattle right now. It's raining. I've been back for five months now, and am getting pretty anxious to start traveling again and writing more on this blog. I'll be heading out for another extended adventure starting in December, but until that time if you are craving some of August's (not so) excellent writing check out The Green Technocrat, a new blog I am developing about Alternative Energy Technology, Politics, Events, and any other "Green" related topics I decide to talk about. Enjoy!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Cyclone Nargis

Obviously I have not been writing on my blog as this is the first post since returning to Seattle. The last month has been spent reacquainting myself with food, friends, western toilets, and, of course, a job. Everyday I find myself thinking back on my trip, whether it be a particular moment or an all encompassing lesson that I learned over the 8 months I was gone.

For the past week only one place/experience has been on my mind. Burma. For a week I have watched helplessly as the death toll has continued to rise. I remember when the BBC was reporting 2000-3000 dead, only to find that several hours later it was reporting 10,000 deaths. As of now the official death toll stands at just under 23,000 though from many of the reports I have read it is estimated to be as high as 100,000. How did this happen? Why has so much devastation been wrought on a country that has already had so much taken away from it?

As the week passed and reports came out about the slow response of the Burmese government, their refusal to allow foreign aid workers into the country, and their overall inept handling of one of the largest natural disasters in recent history I began feeling the same mixture of anger, disgust, and sorrow that I felt while I was there. I remember the conversations with those who were not afraid to express their fear of and hatred towards their government. I remember the state of the countries transportation (or lack thereof) which in the event of a disaster like this would make it almost impossible to get supplies those who need them. I remember something else as well. I remember arriving in Cambodia and thinking that I had just stepped into the modern world. Cambodia. Modern. That is the state that Myanmar is currently in. If you compare Cambodia to it Cambodia seems modern and developed. This is why the people of Myanmar need our help. The isolationist policies of their government have prevented the country from growing. Now with the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis the people of this country face far worse conditions than they were when I was there.

Desperate for news from inside the country I emailed the only Burmese person who’s email address I still had. Our communication has always been via email, and despite the fact that we never met face to face I felt as though we became friends through our frequent Gmail chats. Below is his reply to my email from earlier in the week.


Thank you for your help and encouragement though we never meet before. I was really shocked on that day and I'd never forget it. It is the most terrible experience for my life. Because the flat I live is on the 7th floor , on the top of the building and the roofs were being destroyed. The Cyclone started on friday night (2.5.08) and more strong in Saturday morning and destroyed the building and killed the people and animals. Now I face with the problem of no water , no electricity and high living expenses in YGN. I couldn't support my parent who live in the small village near yangon. Their house's roofs were also being destroyed. But fortunately they are in good health.

My heart goes out to the people of Burma. In all the countries I visited I never met kinder more welcoming people. This tragedy should not be shouldered by them alone. I encourage anyone who can do so to donate money to the Red Cross Myanmar Cyclone Nargis fund.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Mama I'm Coming Home

My flight leaves in 24 hours. I can not possibly begin to explain the mixture of emotions coursing through my veins at this moment...

What a journey this has been!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Traveling Cambodia and Going Home

Cambodia is great. Actually Cambodia is better than great, it's amazing. I'm reaching the end of my trip, and I could not think of a better country to have spent my last three and a half weeks in.

After leaving paradise (Koh Tonsay) I headed back to Phenom Penh with some of my friends to take in the city a little more leisurely. One thing that helps do just that is having friends who speak Cambodian. Often times I can tell when people are talking about me (though obviously I haven't a clue what they are saying), though I don't think I was aware of just how often I/We Westerners are talked about. Walking around the central market with my friend Sam (Who has spent over a year here and speaks nearly fluent Cambodian) he would provide a running commentary on what people were saying about us. The best were the girls. They would whisper about how cute we were and occasionally Sam would stop, turn around, and say "Yes, we are. And we understand you." This would leave them shrieking with laughter and covering their faces in embarrassment.

Another great thing about traveling with someone who knows a country is that they know people. Sam has LOTS of Cambodian friends and simply being associated with him made me their friend as well. It was shocking how little I was harassed by tuk-tuk drivers and touts the second time I was in Phenom Penh. Once they knew I was with a friend of theirs they were only smiles and handshakes.

And then there was the woman. Oh, what a woman! I don't know her name but she was an absolute sweetheart. She was maybe 50 to 55 and owned the guest house I stayed at in Phenom Penh. She did not know Sam (i.e. she had no reason to be so friendly), but treated me as though I was her long lost son. I am actually beginning to wonder if she thought I was someone else. Aside from sowing some pants for me, getting me anything I needed, and inviting me for food she also gave me the biggest hug and kiss you could possibly imagine when I finally said goodbye. I have no idea why...

I'm in Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) now after saying a difficult goodbye to some of the best friends I have made on this trip. Siem Reap is pretty hard to take in. Being the number one tourist destination in the country it has really developed and prospered. Along the main street and on the way to Angkor Wat there are tons of resorts charging $200-300 a night, there are fancy restaurants that I cannot afford, clubs with cover fees, and more Mercedes than I thought existed in this country. Clearly Siem Reap is doing well for itself. Or is it? I think the answer may be no. Out of all this development I wonder how much is locally owned? How much of the tens of thousands of dollars that large Japanese and Korean tour groups are spending everyday here go back into the community? My guess is not a lot.

Being the cheap bastard I am I took up residence outside of town at a small guest house. When I arrived they were full, but happily put me up in the "barn" with a Thai monk for one dollar. Walking the dusty road into town last night I felt like I was in Cambodia, or Myanmar, or Laos, or any other very poor country that I have visited in the last few months. The tell-tale signs of were all around me. The garbage, the fetid water, the begging children. Yet, 400 meters down the road life was different. Neon signs shown brightly, police blocked traffic from entering streets, and whities, like myself, strolled freely from one fancy hangout to another. 400 meters away a woman begged for some milk for her starving child, thank God the cops block those roads off, otherwise her child's screams might just disturb someone's vacation.

Despite the feelings I have towards Siem Reap my visit to Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples was fantastic. Well, actually that might be a bit generous. Two things prevented me from really loving Angkor Wat. 1.) The heat. I am so ready for cold Seattle air. 2.) The massive groups of Japanese and Korean tour groups. While I am not a fan of their methods of travel I harbor no resentment towards them. What I do resent however is constantly having to move out of the way, or sit and wait while 30-40 people all crowd around something to have their pictures taken. And they take A LOT of pictures. Nonetheless, Angkor Wat was simply amazing. I was enchanted by the detailed stone carvings, and the sheer size of the stones used to construct the temples blew my mind! I was able to find many areas where I was alone, and could walk the temples in silence, marveling at the their grandiosity.

And so that's it. I just visited the largest religious site in the world, and am ready to head home. Three days from now I will be heading to Bangkok and in five days I will be back in Seattle. I have visited 13 countries on this leg of the trip and am anxious to arrive back in Seattle. While I have been dreading this arrival at times, I am now accepting of it. The next great journey is about to begin. Oh, and it helps that I will be leaving for a week's vacations in Mexico two days after getting back!

My Wandering and Wondering is going to continue even after arriving back in Seattle as I am sure I will have lots to say about this trip once I have put some time and distance between it and me, and have (hopefully) figured out what lessons I learned on the road. Also, I will be embarking on Part 2. of this epic journey in the fall when I plan to visit South America for several months and will of course be keeping the blog going at that time as well.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Beach

I don't have a huge list of "Things to do before I die." With that said, I do still have a few items that I would not mind ticking off, and this last week I finally got to tick off a big one. That is to say; I stayed on a gorgeous, sparsely inhabited, island in a basic bamboo shack right on the beach with a great group of friends.

Tearing myself away from Kampot was not easy. I spent a week there before I was finally able to break it's spell over me and escape. Of course, escaping is quite a lot easier when you are leaving with a diverse group of friends (some of whom spoke Spanish) with very different backgrounds, personalities, and interests. So it was, that I found myself crammed into a tuk tuk with five other people headed for Koh Tonsay near the Vietnam border.

After a few minor difficulties we arrived on Koh Tonsay, or as I refer to it, paradise. The total number of inhabitants could not have been more than 30-40 and there were only a few small bamboo shelters to sleep in. There were however HAMMOCKS. Lots, and lots of hammocks. And a beach. A nice beach.

I spent two full days swimming, lounging in my hammock/reading, hiking around the island, and enjoying the company of a great group of guys. What I enjoyed the most was definitely getting to know these guys better. For example, there is the Swiss guy who lives in Italy and seems a half a bubble off, until you learn that he is fluent in French, German, Swiss-German, Italian, Spanish, English, and Cambodian. Or there was the break dancing Swedish guy who looks like Orlando Bloom, and whose sense of humor mirrors my own so perfectly that we left each other rolling on the ground in laughter while everyone else wonders what the hell we are carrying on about. The rest of the group was as equally interesting and the island was gorgeous. What more could you ask for?

For me the answer was cheese cake. If the island had a drawback it was the food. I can't complain too much, because we were staying on a pretty basic island (i.e. no power), but Jesus! was that food ever terrible. The first night it was not so bad, but by day two none of us could even look at rice or eggs again. That was all there was. Rice, Ramen, eggs. That was it. I would have murdered for a piece of cheese cake in paradise...

Friday, March 21, 2008

Kick'n it in Kampot

I'll skip a few things for now, and just say this. I am in Kampot, Cambodia and my life on the road has slowed to a crawl. To think that over the past two and a half weeks I had never stayed more than three nights and two days in any one place is crazy. I certainly did no relaxing in Myanmar (don't get me wrong I still loved the experience), and my first two destinations in Cambodia (Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville) were infested with fat whities, making it hard to relax. I fled Sihanoukville after one very uncomfortable night that included; getting into a bed filled with rat shit; cleaning out said bed only to have rats eat a hole in my bag; getting about 50 bed bug bites; having to listen to the music being pumped full blast until 5:00 a.m; at this point in time my drunk-ass teenage neighbors came stumbling into their room and I listened to the four of them seemingly have a conversation, but since every second word was "fuck" I'm not too sure they were able to actually communicate with each other.

The next day found August chilling-out in the small river town of Kampot. The town is surrounded by gorgeous mountains on two sides and the coast is only a fifteen minute ride away on my recently rented motorbike. This is just one of those places where you have no desire to leave. I am on day three here, and can easily imagine another week spent doing exactly what I have done the past three days...not much. There are a few travelers around, but not too many. Just the right number for having a few conversations over a couple of beers.

I did do a six hour motorcycle ride and spent about two of those hours taking my bike up a hiking path (which was clearly not a good idea). The single track was overgrown with vegetation and I found myself white-knuckled at a few points (such as hitting a large downed tree, or flying up a steep hill). I even rented a bicycle for a few hours to ensure a bit of exercise, but really that is all I have done, and since I have been here for three days that means I have had two whole days filled with:

Drinking coffee and reading books in a hammock.

Meditating in a beautiful garden.

Eating Amok (a super delicious fish curry, which is fast becoming my favorite food EVER!).

Chatting with all the Cambodina kids who seem to be everywhere.

Finding myself back in the hammock.

Drinking my favorite beer in the world. Cambodia is one of the only countries which imports.
Beerlao. That's right, Faye, Lisa, eat your hearts out. I am drinking BEERLAO!!!

Some how ending up back in that damn hammock, again.

Walking along a beautiful river (sometimes with a Beerlao in hand).

Going to the bookstore only to find that they have a copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns. I have been searching for two months for that book!

In other words I am relaxing to the fullest right now. Many things have been on my mind lately and I will probably post a more "reflective blog" in the next day or two, but for now I am going to leave it at that and meander on back to my gorgeous garden with that very inviting hammock, a good book, and a Beerlao.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Blowing in the Wind

If you had dropped me off in Phnom Penh at the beginning of this trip I probably would have been like "Holy Shit! This is a crazy third world city." Now, I'm not saying that it would have been completely different (I would have been awkward and unsure of myself anywhere), but it would have been different than the way I eased myself in to this trip.

As it was, after two weeks in Myanmar, arriving in Phnom Penh seemed like walking into a civilization again. I wrote at great length about the differences between Myanmar and the rest of the places I have traveled to, so I will skip that this time. Basically, walking back into a city that is attached to the rest of the world was just as shocking as walking into Myanmar. Imagine my amazement when I rediscovered broadband internet. It was fascinating! It was just, just...on. You didn't have to dial a phone number. There were no beeping noises and static. And the speed, well, did you know these days that you could receive one email in less than half an hour? OK, I admit to using a primitive broadband connection in Mandalay, but it still can't count as "high speed". Anyway I digress.

Reentering a connected country was pretty crazy. The stark contrast between Myanmar and The-Rest-of-the-World is about as much convincing as anyone would need to see that Myanmar is neck deep in shit. That's all I'm going to say about that any more.

So for anyone who doesn't know this trip is coming to an end for me. I will be home in three weeks. A bit over eight months will have passed and I will step out of travel and back into, well, what? That's just it, I don't have a clue. I have made some plans for when I get back; things that I will do in the first few days; people I will call; places I will eat; the vague notion of some dream job. "Doing what?" you ask. Uh, well...uh...maybe this, like...um...job???

How do I go back to having a home? Seeing people that I have known for months or years, not hours or days? Do I even remember how to cook? Can I drive anything that possesses a steering wheel? Am I going to forget that I can't barter for things, and try to talk down a cashier at Trader Joe's over a couple of Clif Bars?

And what about the bigger issues? I didn't randomly get handed $20,000 dollars just to wander around aimlessly. Oh, wait a second that is what happened... Surely though it must have had a purpose. WHAT WAS IT?!?!? What will be the things that stay with me the most? There are so many. How are they going to shape my life? I know that a year ago I wrote to the Bonderman committee about how I wanted to study diet and lifestyle and their effects on health. For several years I was obsessed with science and medicine. I spent hours memorizing metabolic pathways and studying cancer at a molecular level. Eigth months later my dreams of starting medical school have disolved. Replaced with new dreams and ambitions. Is this a good thing? I don't have a clue. What does this mean about August? Am I someone who just throws away plans and years of work? Or am I someone who follows his heart? All these questions to answer.

Some questions will probably never be answered. The answers to others maybe obvious the day I get back. Basically, I don't know what to expect. The same giddy feelings I had before I left on this trip are the same ones I have now. Before starting this trip I described my feelings as progressing sinusoidally. The same pattern of emotions has followed me throughout this trip, and now, as I prepare to return home, I realize that at least in that regard nothing has changed. I am still riding that sine wave.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Confused. Horrified. Frustrated.

I felt sick looking at the pictures. I could feel the bile rising in my throat, and the tears forming in my eyes. There were so many. Most of the photos were of average people, the ones you would pass on the street everyday, but some were different. There were the ones with obvious mental retardation, ones with physical abnormalities, and then there were the children. Thousands of photos of children. Some stared blankly into the camera, but most had a look of desperation in their eyes. Odds are they had just been separated from their mothers, and, as children made too much of a fuss, it was likely they were going to be executed very soon. Everyone died in the end. Out of the 20,000 prisoners only eight survived. The children though, well, they were always the first to die. Bullets were in high demand in those days so they usually weren't used on prisoners. Besides, children's skulls are fragile, and it is easy to bludgeon a child. It only takes one or two good whacks...

I stood in S-21 (also known as Tuol Sleng), situated the heart of Phnom Penh, my eyes filled with tears. Tuol Sleng had been an elementary school at one point in time, but with education no longer a priority for Pol Pot and his brutal regime it was quickly converted into a torture center and prison. The photos were gruesome. Blood drenched carcasses lay chained to the floor. Others showed naked women and children lying on wire beds while they had their genitals removed, or their fingers sliced off one at a time. The blood that was produced was the only constant that tied the torture techniques together. Passing the rotting piles of clothes which are still present in areas of the prison I came to the skulls. There were a lot of skulls. Not all 19,992, but a lot. They stared back, much as the people in the photos stared back, and I felt as though even the skulls were begging for help. Begging to see their children or their wives. Begging to live.

To say that these last few weeks have been intense would be a gross understatement. I arrived in Cambodia yesterday after spending two weeks in Myanmar. Those two weeks consisted of enduring the five worst bus rides of my life (I rode five buses in Myanmar), ungodly temperatures (it was 38-40C in many parts of the country), and the ever present reminders of how a brutal dictatorship repressed it's people. Like the atrocities committed by Pol Pot the actions of the ruling military junta have decimated a nation.

If I have taken anything away from Myanmar it was the stories the people told. The frustration with a government who controlled everything. A government unwilling to build roads (I would have appreciated that), unwilling to provide schools, unwilling to listen to the demands of the people.

The tension was in the air everywhere I went. "Where are you from?" some one would ask. "U.S.A." I would reply for the 50th time that day. "Ah, America. Very good country. Who you vote for? Clinton? Obama? McCain?" "I like Obama." "Oh yes, me too. He is good man. If only we had a chance to elect a man like Obama." That might sound like one conversation, but it wasn't. It was the same conversation I had with the monk, the construction engineer, the student, the tri-shaw driver, and the guesthouse owner. The yearning to be free. To vote. To matter.

Of course the government recognizes what it is the people want, and, to help spread the word of the people, they post these demands in the newspaper everday of the week under the heading The People's Desire.

- Oppose those relying on external elements acting as stooges, holding negative views
- Oppose those trying to jeopardize stability of the State and progress of the nation
- Oppose foreign nations interfering in internal affairs of the State
- Crush all internal and eternal destructive elements as the common enemy

Confused. I have been feeling that a lot lately. Confused as to why I am traveling to these places. Confused as to what I am supposed to do to help these people.

Frustrated. I have been feeling that a lot lately as well. Frustrated by what I am seeing. Frustrated by not knowing what it is that I am supposed to do.

I have certainly never been accused of being the most articulate person in the world. I wish that I had more to say on these matters. I really don't. How can I relay the feeling of looking out a bus window, watching children, who are probably not even teenagers yet, carry buckets of boiling tar, their exposed legs covered with burns, their feet sticky with the tar they have already poured. These are the road crews who are fixing the dilapidated roads I complained so much about. Often times there are women too. They are usually old women who spend their days hunched over a pile of gravel, sifting through the rocks, or heating the tar for the boys to carry. These are the things I will remember long after the trip is over. These are the things I will never be able to explain to anyone no matter how hard I may try.

And so, with all these feelings of sorrow, confusion, and frustration racing around my head, I stood in the middle of S-21 with tears in my eyes. Not just for the victims of a brutal regime, but for the victims of all brutal regimes. For the children with tar on their legs, for the amputees whose lives had been forever changed with one false step, for the women who were too old to walk upright, but were still forced to build a road, for everyone who wanted to be free but found themselves short changed.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

More Myanmar

I will probably be out of touch for a bit here, but I wanted to post a few more things before I leave for the country side.

Myanmar continues to be an experience unlike any other. It is so different from anywhere else that I have traveled. Each day seems to be an emotional rollercoaster. As I've mentioned a million times now the people are fantastic. They are the warmest people I have ever met. They are also the poorest. This contrast and the many things I have mentioned and am about to mention make this the best country of the trip. Hands down. Here are some more things about Myanmar.

If you are caught owning a copy of Rambo 4 you receive twelve years in jail. While I personally agree that anyone who enjoys watching Sylvester Stallone act probably should be in jail that still seems a bit harsh. For those of you who don't know apparently Rambo kicks Myanmar Junta ass in the latest installment.

There are almost no cell phones. You have to have a permit to own one and it is insanely expensive. Depending on who you talk to the price ranges from $500-$4000. If you are caught with one guess what? Jail.

The French dude was deported last night. At least he's not in jail.

The monks here (I heard there are about 700,000 in the country) are in pretty rough shape. Instead of collecting alms like they do in other countries they are literally begging in the streets. It is really fucking awful to see hundreds of monks begging for pennies.

I am revising the earlier statement about the average (I believe I said median age before. oops!) age of cars. New estimate 40-50 years old on average.

In Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) there is a ban on motorcycles. The story goes that two years ago some guys on motor bikes pissed off one of the ruling generals when he was driving down the road. Next day, no motorbikes allowed. If you are riding one in the city guess what? Jail.

They drive on the right side of the road but 90% of the cars have steering wheels on the right hand side as well. Apparently one day in the 70's the government decided to stop driving on the left side like those damn Brits and start doing it the proper American way. Since all the cars are from the 50's and 60's they are still set up for the British system. The change supposedly happened in one night. One day you were driving on the left the next day on the right. Can you imagine the chaos of those first few mornings?!?! I wonder how many people freaked out cause they didn't get the memo about that one...

Finally I need to print a retraction. Yesterday I stated that there is no evidence of a middle class in this country. That is not true. I am incredibly frustrated by what I am seeing here, and I may have overstated things a bit. There is a middle class. It may be small and fledgling, but it does exist.

Well that's all for now. I should mention that all the things I am mentioning here are unconfirmed. They are just what the locals are telling me or what I am witnessing for myself. Given the Burmese tendency to exaggerate it is difficult to gauge what is true and what is not.

I'm headed to the hills. More in a few days.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Myanmar II

This is my second posting today.

I mentioned a lot of things earlier, but I was in this crazed state trying to resolve the (still unresolved) money situation. Here are a few more quick and dirty things about Myanmar.

The food. It is freaking fantastic and I can generally eat three meals and have tea for around a dollar. Sometimes I splurge and spend one dollar on one meal. If I do that I leave holding my stomach, feeling fat and happy!

The conversations. As I mentioned before everyone is super friendly. While it is quite common for me to get invited to join locals for a meal I certainly have not been invited to everyday. That is until I arrived here. I have met so many great people and have had some really good conversations. I am reluctant to discuss what people have been sharing with me while I am still in the country so that will have to wait. I will say that everyone is pretty candid and honest about their feelings. The events of last year have come up in numerous conversations over the past three days. I am struggling to try to understand everything. What is my role here? I will certainly not be getting involved in the local politics (A French man was detained at my hotel this morning when I arrived. It is not clear exactly what happened, but there were several officers there and the hotel staff was certainly shaken up. He was taken away and no one is exactly certain what happened to him.) though I feel frustrated that there is nothing more I can do other than listen to people who want to talk.

The men all wear sarongs. It is pretty cool. I want one.

OK, that's all for now. This country is shaping up to be the granddaddy of all adventures. Now hopefully I can figure out how to make my money last. I did spend about an hour with a bottle of super glue and a needle gluing together all the little cracks on my bills. I will try to pull off using this money tomorrow. Cross your finger for me!

Monday, March 3, 2008


I arrived in Myanmar on Sunday morning without a clue what to expect. I must have had some vague notion in my head though because Myanmar is certainly not what I expected. The first things to say are that. 1.) The people are incredibly friendly, and many of them speak very good English. 2.) I am way out of the boundaries of normal travel right now. For one thing, aside from a few hotels, there is no tourism industry in the country. Now, this is fine as I don't usually buy many souvenirs or book tours or buses through these agencies, but it is a little freaky not seeing any of these available. I guess that goes hand in hand with the fact that there are not too many whities here. My plane had about twenty other travelers on it, but since reaching Myanmar I think I have met four or five in three days. Weird. Before this trip this is what I thought traveling was going to be like everywhere! I quickly learned that that was not the case, but now I feel like I have stepped back in time.

Another surprising thing is the poverty. Now I know that you are going to say "August! What the hell did you expect?" Well....not this. It isn't that the impoverished are any poorer here than the those of other developing nations like Laos or Vietnam, it's just that there are a whole lot more. Basically everyone. There does not seem to be any sort of thriving middle class at all. You are either sitting in the dirt with flies crawling all over you or you are rich. I say that because I assume there must be an incredibly small but wealthy upper class. I have yet to meet any of them. I have also yet to see a car newer than maybe 1990 on the road, and I would say the median age for vehicles is somewhere around 30-35 years.

The roads are in utter disrepair. I took a 16 hour night bus last night from Yangon to Mandalay following the countries only highway. If that was a highway I have no idea what to expect from the rest of the country's roads. The "highway" was not quite two lanes wide and was the roughest road I have ever been on. In many places it was no longer paved and the going was incredibly rough and slow. I think there may have been tears in my eyes as I finally exited that death trap at around 9:00 a.m.

Then there was the issue of the police checkpoint at 3:00 a.m. We suddenly stopped and everyone was ordered to disembark form the bus. The driver told me to stay put while the others went through a security screening, but my curiosity got the best of me and I hopped off to take a look at what was going on. This was fine until I got a bit closer to the screening post when a very surly police officer with an AK-47 hung across his chest ordered me to get back on the bus and wait there. OK. Not about to fuck around with that guy. I turned around, jumped on that bus, and waited patiently for everyone to return.

So. Some good things. The beer (Myanmar Beer) is delicious. The street food is very Indianesque. The people are great (Other than a monk who tried to rip me off and then ended up swearing at me when I refused to give him twenty dollars. Now that's something that doesn't happen everyday. Have you ever had a monk say "Fuck you." to you?).

Now the problem. I am so happy to be here and I think I might be leaving in 3 or 4 days. A far cry short of the 3-4 weeks that I had planned. The problem is money. I brought $900.00 with me which is more than enough for a month (there are not ATM's or banks in the country), but I did not know that bills would not be accepted if they were not in perfect condition. Apparently this is something I should have known because all the other travelers (the four or five) I have met seemed to have known this. Now there does not seem to be anything particularly wrong with my money, but it is not brand new and that is a problem. Out of $900.00 I think I have about $250.00 that I can spend. I am scrambling to find other options right now, but I am really freaking out. I do not want to be leaving after only one week. ARGH! I am so pissed off about this situation. If anyone has any advice I could sure use it right now.

Friday, February 29, 2008

On The Road Again

My sharply trimmed beard has started to look a bit more scruffy, my clothes a bit dirtier, and my stomach a bit bigger. It is time to hit the road again.

The first thing I did when I got up this morning was pack my bag. Ten minutes later I was staring at an empty room and a full bag, and for about the hundredth time this trip I was marveling over the fact that everything I have fits into a 35L pack.

My emotions are pretty mixed right now. I guess the positive ones are a good place to start. I am excited to be traveling again. I have spent the last nine days doing very little aside from eating, working out, eating, watching movies, and eating. Therefore, due to this lethargic lifestyle I have developed, I am ready to continue my journey.

I am feeling quite a few negative emotions as well. For one, I am traveling again. Spending the majority of the last two weeks living in a house, driving a car (well being driven in a car), and hanging out with a friend who was not just a travel buddy, but an actual friend from home was really wonderful. It reminded me of all the things that I had been missing about life in Seattle. Second, I am headed to Myanmar (Burma) in a few hours, and while I am excited to be going there, I am a bit nervous about what I will find when I arrive. I have met tons of people traveling through Southeast Asia, but out of everyone I have met I have only met one person who was tentatively thinking about traveling to Burma. So while it is easy to travel in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, I am not sure if Burma is going to prove to be the same. I find the prospect of traveling around Burma for a few weeks without meeting any other travelers to be quite frightening. I guess when it comes down to it I am clueless as to what I will find when I get there. I do know that once I leave Yangon finding email service is going to be difficult in most places, and that the government often blocks access to email services like Yahoo, Hotmail, and Gmail. As such, I doubt I will be doing any blogging from inside Burma. If that is the case, this will probably be the last post for about three weeks.

So that's it right now, a pretty mixed bag. Excitement and fear pulsing through my veins as I prepare for traveling through Burma.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Life in Cebu

Not much to report these days. Felt like I ought to type something up though. Hmmm....What's happened lately that I could report? Well, I have been back in Cebu since last Friday, and due to weather (Ugh. Don't get me started.) might be spending the rest of my excursion to the Philippines stuck here.

I have been living a very different life here in Cebu. Those of you who read some of my earlier blogs will know the comfy lifestyle that I have been exposed to here. However, I have also been having a very interesting (and quite intense) cultural experience as well. While I am living with a wealthy family and have all the amenities I could ask for, I am also living with an Asian family. As such, the family is incredibly close. For me, it is a little too close. Every single action or plan seems to take into account the entire family, and it would be absolutely crazy to suggest doing anything on your own. Why would anyone ever want to do that when the same activity could be done with the entire family?

Now if it sounds like I am complaining I am not. JB and his family have treated me like one of the family, and their hospitality and generosity have been wonderful. I owe them much thanks.

Thanks Sergio, Susan, Bea, and JB!

I will however say that it has been very difficult for me to adjust to this sort of closeness. As someone who has been entirely independent for the last 7 months not being able to do anything on my own has been a bit difficult for me. Today, I was in such need of some alone time that I had to decline going on a hike with JB's dad, and quickly sneak out of the house to go to the bank, lest his mom offer to either drive me herself, or have one of the maids drive me. I hopped in a jeepney and was finally off on my own.

As a quick aside, I love jeepneys. I was able to take one once before when JB and I went to the mall, and I absolutely loved the concept. They are similar to Sawngthaews in Thailand, but even better. They are a crazy cross between the decked out, painted up, chicken buses of Guatemala and a pick up truck with benches in the back. Each Jeepney holds around twelve people and you can go anywhere in town for about 10 cents. The people are friendly and they run everywhere at all hours of the day. Much like the chicken buses you would NEVER wait for one, and you would be able to get anywhere without any effort. I love public transport!

So I was off to the bank, a quick fifteen minute ride and I was standing outside the bank looking at a huge closed sign. Damn... I forgot that it was a holiday today (though don't ask me what the holiday was). Luckily there was a Starbucks next door so I walked in, ordered a three dollar coffee, and then climbed back on a jeepney for the ride home. The people in the back with me thought that it was hysterical that I was drinking Starbucks and riding in a jeepney. Apparently you just don't do that sort of thing here! 40 minutes after leaving I was back at the house happy as could be and ready to spend some time with my new family again.

We climbed into the car and headed for a Su Tu Kil for lunch. Basically a Su Tu Kil is a fish market where you pick out your freshly caught-and by caught I mean dynamite harvested-fish and have them prepare it for you however you would like it. After selecting a dizzying array of multicolored fish we sat down for a fantastic feast before heading to the mall to do some shopping at the ultra-hip boutique clothing stores. In one store I decided to try on a pair of jeans that caught my eye, and, DAMN, my ass looked great in those jeans! HAHAHA, joking! Looking at the price tag I quickly realized that even after getting them tailored they were still only going to cost about 17 dollars so I treated myself to another pair of jeans. 10 days ago I had not worn jeans in six and a half months. Now I have two pairs to send home, and I am anxiously awaiting getting home just to wear them again.

I didn't miss any of my clothes on this trip, I was just wearing traveling attire, and, since no one really gives a damn what you look like when you are traveling, I never thought about the fact that, due to a lack of wardrobe, at times I ended up wearing some pretty goofy combinations of clothing on this trip! It's funny how the simple act of just putting on a pair of jeans, something I do everyday at home, can remind me of just how far removed I am from my everyday life!

Sorry the post was pretty lame, just not a whole lot to talk about right now. I head to Myanmar (Burma) on Saturday. From opulence to one of the worlds most isolated countries. It will be an interesting change of pace to say the least! Perhaps then I will have some more interesting things to say.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Estoy Borracho

OK. I am drunk. I will freely admit to being quite intoxicated at the moment. BUT, that does mean that what I am about to write has no merit, and that you can just ignore my ranting and raving. Pay attention God dammit! Some of this is important.

Before we get to the important stuff let me just address a couple of other issues. First, yes I am hammered. This is the first time that I can remember where I have sat alone drinking on this entire trip. And second (this is to you mom and dad), before you go worrying about August's drinking, this is the first time that I can remember having more than three beers in one night in at least two months (I am currently working on number four, and just might add a fifth one into the mix later on.). To address why I am drinking alone I guess I should explain the last couple of days. I decided that the relative comfort of Cebu (and the incredible generousity of JB and his family) was actually not what I wanted at the moment. Perhaps I have been on the road for too long, but I really wanted to be traveling again. So I decided to pack a bag and head for the south of the island. I arrived in Moalboal yesterday only to discover that, while there are an infinite number of dive shops, the place is a shithole, and there are more old fat Europeans and young Filipino prostitutes than I could ever have imagined. Basically, the place sucks. I was in a pretty foul mood last night, but, as I had signed up to do a few dives today, I tried to hold my head high and just ride it out. Unfortunately, I could not go anywhere last night without being a.) The youngest westerner in the the place by at least ten years, and b.) the only person not trying to sleep with a teenage Filipino. This resulted in me spending the entire night in my room reading Barack Obama's book The Audacity of Hope. More on this in a minute.

Today I went diving for the first time in a couple of months. Unlike previous diving experiences this one proved quite different. It turns out that all these old nasty whities who are sleeping with young Filipino girls at night are also all very experienced divers. As a result of this there was not any real leadership on the dives. All these guys just hopped off the boat at the dive spot and did there own thing, surfacing at the end point on their own time. As I was the only person without a dive master's certification a dive master from the shop accompanied me on my dives. However, I must say that he was one hell of a terrible dive master. He never checked my gear, and once we were in the water he rarely checked to see how I was doing. He just sort of did his own thing forcing me to follow him. This meant that I had to dive to a depth of 25 meters on my first dive, and while this was fun I am only certified to dive to 18 meters. He was fully aware of this. Despite the fact that I was a bit worried about my safety, and the lack of protocols that were followed (For example, when I ran out of air on the first dive my dive master did not surface with me, leaving me to swim to the boat on my own while he continued his dive.) I enjoyed the dives quite a bit. At least as much as someone who only enjoys diving occasionally (Most divers I meet tend to be quite obsessed with the sport.) could enjoy the dives. I was fortunate enough to have two incredible experiences with sea turtles during the dives.I saw one on each dive, and swam with each of them for a couple of minutes. The turtles were beautiful, and I was overwhelmed with joy each time I gently place my hand on their shell, or casually kicked behind them for 50 meters. It is funny how three or four minutes of your day can translate into an experience that you will never forget no matter how long you live. Absolutely FANTASTIC!!

The dives over, I was back in the shithole of Moalboal. But this time I was prepared. I was going to drink. Quick pause in the story. Beer number four is...finished. OK, so like I said, I was going to drink. It just so happened that there was a beautiful sunset, so I sat on a dock with a couple of cold San Miguels next to me and read a bit more of Barack Obama's book. After a while I put the book down and put my iPod on. Listening to Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here while enjoying the splendid reds, oranges, yellows, and purples of the setting sun is an experience that I will not soon forget.

Now for some serious stuff. Four and a half months ago I sat in Nicaragua telling a friend (Who I still owe a massive debt to for helping me out of one hell of a tight spot. Thanks a ton Lyle. You are one hell of a good friend.) that I supported Hillary Clinton because I just didn't think that Barack Obama had what it took to be president. He asked me if I had ever read The Audacity of Hope, and whether I knew much about Barack's positions on various issues. Sheepishly, I had to admit that, no I did not know a whole hell of a lot about Barack Obama. Over the past few months I have tried to learn more about Barack as well as the other candidates involved in the race. As recently as a month ago I can remember telling some Norwegian friends, anxious to here my views on the upcoming election, that I was pretty unimpressed with any of the candidates, and that the only person I thought could help our country out of the complete fuckhole that George Bush has dug for us was Al Gore. While I still belief that Al Gore would be one hell of a good president I have started to realize what a great man Barack Obama is.

About a month ago a close friend of mine forwarded an email to me about Barack Obama. I was very shocked when I received it. The email stated that Barack Obama was a radical Muslim (he is a Christian) who was trying to destroy America from the inside out. Utterly shocked that anyone could belief this I replied to my friend that I was shocked that he could possibly begin to believe such utter garbage. This was at a time when I still did not know a whole hell of a lot about Barack Obama. Nonetheless, I knew that what was being said was garbage, complete slander bordering on racism. This was one of the catalysts that led me to start learning more about Barack Obama. I occasionally would watch clips of debates online and read interviews with him, increasingly becoming more and more fascinated with this man. When I arrived in the Philippines there was a copy of The Audacity of Hope (courtesy of JB) and a copy of Notes From My Father (courtesy of Natalie) waiting for me. I immediately started reading The Audacity of Hope, and while I have not yet finished the book, here is what I think of Barack Obama thus far. If there was ever a chance to right the wrongs of the last seven years; to change the direction of a country that is faltering not only abroad, but also at home; to provide our children with a chance for a better future; to improve a flawed healthcare system; to improve an educational sytem, that despite its name, is leaving millions of children behind; to keep us from losing our footing as the worlds only superpower; and to keep us safe, then it is Barack Obama. I am thousands of miles away from home, and unfortunately, due to poor planning on my part, I will admit to not voting absentee in my state's primary. However, I will use my only form of public communication, this blog, to implore you all to examine the beliefs on Barack Obama. As far as I can tell there are only two possibilities. Barack Obama is either the worlds greatest liar and does not actually give two shits about our country and will say anything to get elected. OR, he is a great man. A man who has dedicated his life to public service. A man who has sacrificed much in order to improve the lives of countless Americans. A man we can trust. A man that all of us, both Republican and Democrat alike, can find reasons to believe in. A man who can lead us. A man who can help us. A man who is willing to sacrifice everything in order to better a country he believes in. It was not so long ago that men like Barack Obama gathered in Philadelphia and collectively changed the world forever. Their names were Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison. We owe it to Barack Obama, to our children, and to ourselves, to examine his political beliefs. So, in parting, I beg you all to spend some time learning about this man, and if you find the same thing that I find, then PLEASE do whatever you can to help his campaign. We need this man. The fate of our country might very well depend on whether or not he is elected.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Night of Decadence

I have arrived in the Philippines for a two week break from travel. One of my college roommates, JB, decided to return to the Philippines for three weeks to visit his family and I have come to join him. I had been counting down the days until I got here, anxiously awaiting seeing a familiar face. Arriving at his house it finally hit me that I was not on the road anymore. I have a bedroom. A REAL BEDROOM. There is a kitchen and a bathroom and a living room. I am in a house! Absolutely fantastic. What's more, JB's family live a very comfortable lifestyle (I still have not gotten used to having the live-in maids do everything for me.), and have graciously welcomed me into their house. Additionally, they have generously treated me to a bit of their lifestyle.

I have lived a comfortable life on the road. I am happy with my two dollar hotel rooms, my 50 cent street food meals, and my cold showers. I have nothing to complain about, and I certainly have not done anything that has made me feel that I deserve any sort of special treats. Nonetheless, that is exactly what I have received here.

JB's father procured memberships for us at a swanky gym/spa on the top two floors of the tallest (and nicest) building in Cebu. So after my workout yesterday morning (Those of you who know August know how much he loves the gym, and how much he has missed it over these last six and a half months.) and a tasty lunch I zipped down to the mall to buy a pair of nice jeans for dinner. Dinner was at the Marriott, so after purchasing jeans I needed a haircut and (gasp) to trim my beard. Wearing a nice t-shirt, some nice jeans, and with my beard and hair sharply trimmed I must say I looked quite dashing. Certainly not like the grubby backpacker who has been zipping around the world living out of a 35-L pack.

Arriving at the Marriott (still WAY under dressed) I was blown away by the opulent nature of the dining area. The meal was this crazy hybrid buffet where the appetizers (which were phenomenal) were laid out buffet style along with the salads and desserts. The entrees were all at little stations where a chef was standing by ready to whip up whatever you wanted from his station. Everything was incredibly fresh and the wine was, well...WOW!

Here is what I ate for dinner last night: 1 large fresh salad. 1 plate of cheeses, grapes, walnuts, and crackers. 1 plate of various appetizers. 2 plates of fresh seafood fettuccine. 1 plate seafood jumbolia(is that how you spell jumbolia?). 1 large plate of sushi. 2 grilled pieces of tuna. 1 grilled chicken breast. 1 plate of calamari. 6, yes SIX, pieces of cheesecake (2 blueberry, 2 mango, 2 strawberry). 3 glasses red wine.

It was crazy nice, which led to some confusion for me. I am not the most sophisticated of people, and, while I knew what to do with two of my forks, I had no idea what the hell the third one was for!?!?!? Anyone??

After being rolled out of the dining area it was time for a sauna and then a massage. Both were fantastic and my masseuse found more knots in my back than I knew could even exist. After six months of sleeping on hard, lumpy mattresses my back was finally being sorted out. The massage was 100% legitimate, but I could not have asked for a happier ending.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

I can't think of anymore blog titles

I haven't written in a while. I guess after the experience at the train station in Lao Cai there just wasn't much I could follow that up with. The rest of my time in Vietnam passed, but I suppose that is all I could say. Just that it passed. I saw a few things and celebrated Tet, but nothing was that exciting. This is probably due to the horrible bout I had with what I am diagnosing as dysentery. I am basing this diagnosis on two pieces of evidence. 1.) I took Tinidazole (as a last resort) and within two days was feeling much better. 2.) I shit like I had dysentery! There is a great book that I would recommend to anyone as an essential travel book. In the book Are You Experienced by William Sutcliffe our hero, Dave, is traveling in India when he comes down with terrible travelers diarrhea. Here is how he describes it. "Imagine pouring cow pat into a cricket bowling machine (essentially a pitching machine) and turning it to the highest speed setting. That was my new experience with shitting." Like Dave I had never experienced anything as truely horrific as what I went through my last four days in Hanoi. I was unable to eat for three days and left my hotel only one time over a two day period of time. I spent most of my time in the bathroom or huddled under a couple of blankets on my bed.

With yet another illness behind me I arrived in Bangkok absolutely famished. Luckily there are more than enough street stands to accommodate a starving traveler so for the past two days I have been doing very little other than stuffing food in my face. God bless Thailand and all it's glorious (and cheap) food.

Lying in bed with dysentery gives you a lot of time to think about what you are doing and why you are traveling. This trip....what to say about this trip. I have been wandering the globe for over six months now and well...shit...I am amazed at how much I have changed. Everyday something reminds me that I am not the same person I was six months ago. I left Seattle without a single friend from another continent and now I consider myself fortunate enough to have friends all over the world. But it is not external factors like meeting people or seeing new places that have really changed me. Rather I have changed myself. On some deep level this trip has stripped away everything that I thought about myself. It took months for this to happen but at some point in time (Actually I think it was during round one in Thailand) I hit rock bottom. I was so confused as to why I was here and what I was doing. Completely lost and utterly depressed it was not until I arrived in Don Det, Laos and became friends with a young Laotian boy named Bong that I began to understand why I was traveling. Not to see the world, but to find yourself in the world.

I look at the world with a different set of eyes these days. Everywhere I travel there are constant reminders of the human condition. Mass graves, refugee camps, and war memorials can be found everywhere I have traveled. Additionally, compassion, courage, and love are found in equal measure in every country that I have set foot in. How do I, as an individual, fit into this picture? That one persistent question is a reminder that I still have a lot more wandering and a lot more wondering to do before this trip is over. In some ways I realize now that, because I have so much to question and so much to learn about myself and the world I live in, this trip will never truly end. David Bonderman did far more than simply provide me with the means to travel for 8 months he placed me on a path that has changed my life. This trip, my wandering and wondering, will never end. I will carry on in spirit, if not in name, as a Bonderman fellow for as long as I shall live, and can only encourage those of you who have yet to step out into the world to do so. If you do, do so with love in your heart. The human condition is a vastly complex equation and the more love we carry, the more compassion we show our fellow man, the closer we come to finding a harmonious balance in which we may all have peace.