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And.. Scene!


Hello Loyal Loose-rs,

I just climbed out of an opium den in Cambodia and boy are my arms tired. Just kidding. For those of you that don’t know by now.. Surprise! I’m home. As in the United States of America home.

When I last signed off, I had just finished up a wonderful month in Laos. What I left out was that I actually wrote that entry in.. Pittsburgh, PA shortly after coming home (right around the time I was hangin’ out with my nephew at my dad’s in the picture above). Sorry to deceive you all but it was damn fun. During my last few weeks in Laos, I spent a whole heckuva lot of time on buses criss-crossing the remote green North of the country. Without an iPod (broken earlier in India) or the ability to read anything (windy mountain roads assured me I’d be joining the legions of Laotians vomiting out the windows if I tried), most of that time was spent staring out the window and thinking, mainly about how monumentally I missed my family and friends. With invitations to the Summer weddings of three close friends lingering and daydreams of good times and great weather in the Summer back in the US, I was overcome. It was then that I realized that I wasn’t at all sick of traveling, just sick of traveling solo.

When I started this trip, all I wanted was to be out on my own, away from everyone and everything that had occupied my time and demanded my attention. I wanted to have the freedom to do whatever I wanted whenever I felt like it – to simplify, to explore, to let myself be led in new directions, to be whatever or whoever I wanted – and the mental space to sort through some things that were somewhere deep in my subconscious. After spending the first month of the trip feeling strangely uncomfortable at times, I realized how hard it was for me to shake the sense of responsibility, the anxiety and the ‘aren’t i supposed to be doing something?’ feelings that had become second nature in my previously over-scheduled, way over-stressed life (mostly self-induced, as I’d discover). Then, magically, all of the that mental baggage that I’d accumulated in the last year or two of work and life-related stress started to slough off. And then, the ‘experience’ started. Somewhere in the foothills of the Annapurna mountains in Nepal, as the scenery became stark, beautiful and unfamiliar, where I had only my footsteps and the scenery to accompany me, I started thinkin’ a whole lot. And it was good..
the lake in front of the village of gokyo

Eight months later, on those windy roads in Laos, I realized that I’d come to a point where I’d processed a lot of that ‘stuff’ that had been in the back of my head for so long, and I’d been changed in some wonderful ways by this trip. And, most importantly, that I was done for now. I guess it was my Forrest-Gump-with-the-long-beard-running-down-the-road moment (minus the loyal followers). And it was time to go home. So, when I got an email from my friend Craig, one of the grooms-to-be back home, reminding me of his offer to fly me back to the US at a discount with his employer United (and the possibility of that offer and his job going away soon ’cause of rising fuel price-related instability) the deal was sealed. “Get me on a flight!,” I says to him. And he done did it. God bless him. (And he didn’t lose his job – yahoo!)

The idea of just showing up back home and surprising family and friends gave me something fun to think about those last coupla weeks. With so much time by myself to daydream about encounters with everyone I love and missed so much, the idea seemed grow larger than life. I let the grooms-to-be know but that was about it. I made my way back to Bangkok a final time, to have a suit made for me by my new Thai friend, Pong,
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to be amused by offers of ‘you want boom-boom?’ in the tourist hell of Khao San Road, and to get a stomach bug one more time – just for good measure. I then flew stand-by on three flights from Bangkok to Tokyo to San Francisco to New York for 35 nail-biting hours. But the stress over whether I’d actually get on any of those flights was for nada. I got on all of ’em including the 9-hour leg from Tokyo to San Francisco in Business Class (capitalizing it makes it feel even cooler), where I shared an exit row and more food than I could stuff in my gullet with an Army guy who’d just spent time on one of those unwanted aircraft carriers offering support outside the Delta of Burma (we had lots to talk about). From hostels with oatmeal to Business Class with plates of cheese and grapes in just a few hours. Yahtzee.

I finally made it to New York exhausted and dirty but damn happy. (Later, as almost everybody would ask about my feelings of safety in all of these crazy countries, I’d tell ’em that getting on the subway from JFK at 2:30 AM that night was the first time I’d felt at all unsafe in as long as I could remember. God Bless America). After a coupla days regaining composure and some much-needed weight with my cousin Ed and his wife Landis in Brooklyn, I took a Greyhound bus back home to Pittsburgh, where I sat next to a young Jack Kerouac of a guy who’d recently finished a year and a half solo bicycle ride from the North of Alaska to the southern tip of South America. He spent $5,000 on the trip in total, living on the cheap by poaching camping spots and dumpster diving at Trader Joe’s for food (apparently they throw out a lot of good stuff). $5,000 for a year and a half adventure of a lifetime. Who says you need a ton of money to travel?!!

The two months since have been some of the best of this year+ on the road, as I’ve continued the journey, just inside the US, with each stop bringing another reunion. I’ve surprised my family and countless friends from Pittsburgh to Philly, New York to Boston to North Carolina (all via another amazing series of road trips on the motorcycle) and San Francisco, celebrated the 4th of July with a new appreciation, went to a Pirates game with my dad, worked on an organic farm with my friend Jen, watched three great friends get married, finally shaved off the horrendous mustachio, listened to the Dalai Lama speak at my alma mater (turns out it was easier to see him back here than track him down in India as I’d tried..), reunited with my pals at Clif Bar, and capped it all off with an amazing end-of-summer celebration with the ‘Superfriends’ at the 9th Annual Slip ‘n Slide party in Vermont. (I did some math last night and figured that I have slept in at least 23 different places in the ~two months since I got back.)
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After so much time away from everyone and all that was familiar and comfortable and so much time to think about how much they all mean to me, the anticipation and joy that comes from reuniting with those I love is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. There are probably a few different variations of the sentiment that for many of us, ‘it takes traveling far and wide to realize that what we seek is right back there where we left it’. Friends and family, as I’ve learned, are what’s left when everything else goes away. I love you all more than ever and thank you for the incredible support and encouragement you’ve all shown me since I started talking about this crazy idea.

While my sense of wanderlust will never diminish, it’s been satisfied for now. My original plan was to come home for the Summer to get my fix with everyone and then hit the road again in September, traveling back to Africa and Asia through next Spring before coming home to do another big motorcycle trip – this one across the southern US and up to Alaska and back (look out Ewan McGregor). Oh, I had all sorts of crazy ideas. But when I got home, and realized how good it felt to just ‘be’ here, things changed. Home felt good, the US felt good, friends and family felt good, the Summer sun, green trees and dahlias in bloom in San Francisco felt good, comfy beds and hot showers felt good, a healthy diet including protein options for this new vegetarian felt good, and the sense of being where I belonged felt good. And I was a little tired.. And so my plan softened a bit.

As I slowly began to reconnect with what was happening in the US and around the world, that plan to help try to solve this whole climate change thing made it’s way to the front of my mind again. And I started thinking about that idea of going back to school to learn something that would allow me to contribute to the discussion in a more significant way. And when I started looking around at ways to do that, I got hooked. I’ve decided to go to graduate school next Fall to study climate/energy policy.

When I got back to my mom’s in Pittsburgh three days ago after nearly 14 months of running around the world – 14 months after pulling out of my friends’ driveway in SF – I realized that, for the first time in probably years, I have absolutely no ‘events’ on the calendar – no flights booked, nowhere to be and nothing I really have to do. It’s all done. Aside from applying to school, I have a completely blank slate. I don’t know where I’m going to live (San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Vermont?) or what I’ll do for work in the meantime. It’s both liberating and a little freaky. Today I go to work on figuring it all out. And should end up in one of those cities I mentioned in the next few weeks.

With that, I bring this incredible chapter of my life to a close. And start another. I’m not sure how interesting this next chapter will be for y’all in the next few months, so I might let’er go dormant for a bit. This here blog that is. Any objections?

Finally, I got the name of this blog from a line in the 5th stanza of Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”. If you haven’t already, you should read it here. There are a few other quotes that have been bouncing around my head for the last year and I can’t help but want to share them. Thank you for allowing me to indulge myself..

Henry David Thoreau (quoted quite a bit these days, but which now holds a new significance for me):
“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler.”

Dalai Lama (I’m paraphrasing):
“If, with each decision in your life, you’re not choosing the path that will ultimately make you truly happier, then what the heck are you doing?”

Mother Theresa:
“Peace begins with a smile.”

Thanks for reading. And thanks, most of all, to my friend Jennifer for giving me the push I needed to do it. You were right.

Over and out.

G

P.S. For those of you that like photos, I’ve put together two slideshows. The first is of the cross-country trip last Summer. The second is of the international stuff. Just hit the ‘slideshow’ button at the upper right of the screen in each set. The international one in particular is suuuuper long. Get some popcorn for that one.
P.P.S. Thank you to all of you that have left such thoughtful comments over the last year. While I didn’t respond to them, I read them all – often multiple times. It meant a lot to hear from each of you when I was so far from home. Thank you!
P.P.P.S. Okay, so I can’t completely let go of the idea of travel quite yet (single, no mortgage, no commitments – hello!!?). After applications go in between December and January, I might try to squeeze in one more trip before school actually starts – assuming I get in, that is.. That’d give me about 5-6 months between February and August. Just enough time to see some combination of East Africa, North India, Tibet, Mongolia and maybe the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia. Maybe. Any takers? I’m serious.

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Testing 1.. 2… Sibilance. Sibilance.. Hello, North America.. Come in, North America.. Can you read me??

Been a long time, huh? When I last wrote, I was still choking on the exasperation from my experience in Burma. Yes, I’ve gotten a hold of myself. And, no, I haven’t fallen into a vat of coconut curry or been abducted by a Thai heirum in the meantime as I’d hoped. I’ve just been enjoying detachment in the technology-light laidback-ness of Laos for the last month. And it’s been absolutely wonderful. This entry’s another mega-ultra-hyper-huge whopper, so grab some Whoppers and settle in.

Before I go on, I should clear up a coupla things. First, the location. Like a lot of people, I wasn’t exactly sure where Laos was before I pulled out the map. It’s a sort of keyhole-shaped landlocked country in the middle of mainland Southeast Asia that shares borders with Thailand, Burma, China, Vietnam and Cambodia. Second, Laos is actually pronounced ‘Lao’. Like ‘how’, ‘now’, ‘brow(n)’ or ‘cow’. But not like ‘mouse’, ‘house’, or.. ‘louse’. I always used to giggle when I heard travelers come back and refer to it as ‘Lao’, with their new-fangled international edumacations and smug pronunciations butting up against my American ignorance but.. turns out they’re right. And now I’m one of ’em. The people of Laos refer to themselves as ‘Lao’ or ‘Laotians’ and their country as ‘Lao’ and have for a while. Many still spell it that way today. When the French came in the late 18th century and took over the area of Southeast Asia that includes present day Laos and Vietnam (aka French Indochina), they decided to add an ‘s’ to ‘Lao’. Isn’t that nice? But even that ‘s’ was supposed to be silent – on account-a bein’ French ‘n all. So, there you have it. Now you can sound smart – or uppity – at your next cocktail party. Tres chic!

Speaking of occupations, the US has played a very important role in the history of Laos as well. Did you know that Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history? And that the US did all that bombing?? That’s right. In an attempt to prevent the ‘domino effect’ of communism that was feared to start in Vietnam (encouraged by Russia, Cuba and others), the American military (who had already been financially and militarily supporting the anti-communist movement in the country for years) undertook the most aggressive bombing campaign ever, dropping more than 2,000,000 TONS of bombs on Eastern Laos (including the Ho Chi Minh supply trail and the suspected headquarters of the Pathet Lao/Communist movement, which I’ll talk more about later) from 1971-1973 as part of America’s ‘Secret War’ that took place in tandem with efforts in Vietnam. 2,000,000 tons. That’s 1,000 pounds of bombs PER PERSON in Laos at the time. And more in total than was dropped worldwide during all of WWII. Can you believe that shit? The best part is, it didn’t work. As soon as a peace agreement was signed, the communists came out of hiding and took over control of the country. It’s technically a communist country today. And much of the country is still riddled with UXOs (unexploded ordnances) preventing much of the land from being explored, farmed or settled. And people still die every year when they accidentally stumble across them. Awesome.
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Despite all that that, no one ever gave me a hard time about being American, not even a second glance. And Laos is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places I’ve ever visited. Had I not read about all of the above, I would have a hard time believing it as the experience I had was so far from anything resembling conflict. As I sit here trying to figure out how to describe Laos, a stream of wonderful words comes to mind: green, green, and more green (‘seekeeow’ in Laos), undeveloped, simple, pastoral, laidback, unmolested, fertile, hilly, unhurried, rice paddy, earthy, lush, jungle bucolic, banana, verdant, buffalo, papaya, tribal, quiet, relaxed… Ahh… I’m 75% more chilled out just thinking about it..
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Laos is an oasis of rugged green, populated by some of the most laidback people on earth. Somehow, surrounded by the maniacal pace of culture-wiping concrete-ization and tourism development in Thailand, China and Vietnam, Laos has managed to sneak by without much of.. anything.. changing. The people there seem more interested in maintaining their old way of life than catering to the opportunities in business and tourism that their neighbors are clamoring for. And it’s wonderful. It’s like a chilled out protected ethnic nature park smack dab in the middle of the emerging modernization of Southeast Asia.

After humming along at a healthy clip for nearly a year from the US trip, to Portugal, Spain and Morocco, to Nepal and India, and the fascinating but tiring experience in Burma, I was feeling a bit frayed around the edges by the time I left Burma. The daydreams I’d been having about ending this whole trip with a month in the woods by myself (Alaska??) to unwind and truly, finally, relax were growing and, regardless of location, I knew I needed some down time. “But you’re on vacation!”, you’re probably shouting at your computer at work. Well, as I’ve come to learn, traveling in developing countries, with all of the challenges that come along with it (and amazing adventures, as it goes without saying), is not quite like sipping tuna coladas on the beach in Cancun. Believe it or not, it’s damn tiring at times. I know I won’t win that argument with any of you, so I’ll shut up about a little fatigue creeping in as I traipse around the world.. Anyway, after all I’d done and seen, I now can’t imagine a better place to end up than Laos. It’s as if a doctor had written a prescription for my world-traveling weariness, for 200 milligrams of Laos per day for a month. Sorry, I know how cheesy that was. But once it entered my mind, I had to. Someone’s gotta entertain me out here.

As I jumped into a colorful long boat at the Thai border town of Chiang Khong and floated across the Mekong River away from the 7-11s and shiny new air-conditioned cars of Thailand and into the slow pace of life in Laos, it felt like stepping back in time and being washed over by a huge wave of relaxation.

While it seemed that most people that crossed the border immediately jumped on a boat heading south to Luang Prabang, I decided to go in the opposite direction. I’d heard lots of good things about the remote beauty of the north and wanted to check it out. After sucking down my first bowl of phoe (pronounced ‘fu’), the wonderful rice noodle and vegetable soup I’d soon learned is the staple meal in Laos, I jumped on a bus heading north. As I was baking in the sun on the ride, I overheard a guy in the back mention a place called Vieng Phouka, a quiet little village in the Northwest with some great trekking that most people overlook. After cringing at the tourist crush in Chiang Mai, I was motivated to get far away from backpacker trail in Laos, so when he got out, I did too. I’m glad I did. Aki Honkasalo, the 28-year old perma-grinning/giggling muscle-bound competitive judo-practicing commercial airline pilot from Helsinki (a sure thing for MTV’s Real World had he ever tried..) with whom I expected to have absolutely nothing in common, turned out to be one of the nicest people I’ve met in all of my time on the road, constantly smiling and laughing about.. everything. We hit it off and ended up traveling together for most of the next two weeks. (It’s amazing how first impressions can be so completely off the mark. Lesson learned: don’t judge a book by its aviator sunglasses..)

The morning after we arrived, we set off with two local guides, Sikham and Chansing, on a trek through the mountains near the Nam Tha National Protected Area in the Northwest of the country.
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For three days, we trekked through lush green woods, bamboo forests, and wet jungle (over a 1.5 day period, I counted 35 different leeches on my feet – thankfully dispatched quickly by Chansing’s homemade brew of tobacco and betel nut juice he’d swab on the little bastards – but not before inflicting some fun damage).
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We followed singletrack trails for miles, stopping every few hours along the side of the trail for a meal of sticky rice and sauteed bamboo or other mixed vegetables unpacked from banana leaves that Sikham and Chansing had cooked earlier. Simple, delicious, and addictive. (I’ve now got a nice little sticky rice belly forming from eating basically the same thing 2-3 times a day for the last month).
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We walked from village to village occupied by different hill tribes who seem to be nearly unchanged by modern life, something I was surprised at and completely fascinated by. In all of my travels, the closest I’ve come to traditional tribal living is the various ethnic Nepali groups in the Himalaya, who, by comparison, are completely modernized because of tourism. By total contrast, most of the Lahu, Kamu, Hmong, and Akha villages (a few of the many different ethnic tribes living in Laos) we visited look and function just about the same way as they always have.
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Accessible only by winding trails through the countryside, each village consisted of a cluster of fifty to sixty little huts built on stilts that house its 100-200 members, all connected by dirt paths and all constructed by hand from the materials on hand – mostly bamboo.
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They have no electricity except what some get from the occasional diesel generator. The village acts like a true community, where only the walls of their huts separate them, and only, it seems, when they’re sleeping. Everything else seems to be a community endeavor. The inhabitants depend on farming rice and some vegetables and raising animals.
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Many of the women wear colorful traditional clothing and headdresses that denote their marital status (usually incorporating beautiful solid silver French piaster coins left over from the French colonial period as accents or buttons on jackets),
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young children run around with only t-shirts on their little bodies (the cleanest way to raise a kid in an area where diapers don’t exist – most of the developing world for that matter), babies are strapped to the backs of the young girls on baby-sitting duty,
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dogs, chickens, goats, buffalo, cows and black pigs wander everywhere, and all able-bodied members spend the entire day (usually 5AM ’til after dusk) working quietly side-by-side out in the rice paddies and vegetable gardens that dot the hillsides, while the elderly tend to the animals back home.
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At the Lahu and Hmong villages we stopped at on the first day, we were welcomed into the hut of the village chief, where we sat on the ground and smiled or tried what few Laos words we knew (less English is spoken in Laos than any other country I’ve visited) as he either smoked tobacco from a PVC pipe (opium, although technically illegal is still grown in much of the north despite the huge UN efforts, advertised everywhere, to stop it),
lahu tribesmen smokin' tobacco from a pvc pipe
or just sat in the darkness tending a fire in the middle of the dirt floor. For some strange reason, most of the huts don’t have windows (not that they’d have the glass anyway..), so they were usually dark and smoky all day. At the end of our first day of hiking, we stopped in an Akha village to spend the night. While we had our own hut (built specifically for tourists by the sustainable tourism efforts in Laos which direct a big chunk of trekking dollars toward the villages themselves for improvements to sanitation, water, irrigation etc – a novel concept in developing country tourism), we were able to sit out on our little porch and watch the evening activity of the village. After slowly making their way back from the fields as the sun set, with hand tools slung over shoulders and huge rattan baskets of rice suspended on backs supported by straps strung around the forehead (similar to Nepal actually),
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the villagers would gather at the water pipe in the middle of the village, and begin the nightly ritual of bathing and gossiping. From there, they’d head back to their huts to eat and then might gather at another’s hut to sip low-low (alcohol made from rice) and tell stories before heading to bed to prepare for another long day in the fields. There are no days off in rice farming where a work day typically goes for 14 hours. Yikes. Oh, before I leave the Akha people, there’s one disturbing thing I have to relate. If you like babies, skip to the next paragraph. If you don’t, keep reading. You sick bastards! The Akha people, like most Laos tribes, are animists. They believe in spirits – good and bad. They’re also superstitious. Twins – be they babies or mutant bananas – are considered bad luck. Very very very bad luck. Until five years ago, if a woman gave birth to twins, the babies were killed. They were covered in hot coals from a fire and burned to death. And the parents were banished to the forest for 3-4 months until they were rid of the evil spirits.

For those of you that didn’t read the last few sentences, I assure you it was about ice cream and flowers. You didn’t miss anything.

Shite, I’m already at 2,100 words and I’m only three days into my month there. Long story short, the villages of northern Laos are fascinating, colorful places where time seems to have stood still, and where people live the same very simple, quiet, self-sufficient, community-oriented, and labor-intensive way they have for a long time. It was incredibly refreshing to see. Like stepping through a time warp for a few days. As I made my way through the north, I learned that, while a bit more modernized, most of the rest of northern Laos wasn’t all that different. Remote, simple, rugged and beautiful.

When it was clear that the relaxing pace and stunning green beauty of northern Laos was just what I needed, I decided to explore more of the area. After making it back to Vieng Phouka, Aki and I hitched a ride in a pickup truck up to a town called Luang Nam Tha. Along the way, after our driver continued to nod off, swerve, and generally scare the shit out of us even after two energy drinks (consumed like soda in Laos and most of Southeast Asia), I subtly/forcefully offered to drive and found myself at the wheel of a pickup truck with the driver in the middle and Aki laughing in the passenger seat, all of us bouncing down a ribbon of black winding its way through the beautiful green countryside of Laos. Another in a long line of ‘if my friends could see me now’ moments..

In Luang Nam Tha, I had a slightly less warm and fuzzy experience. As I was taking a walk through some back alleys, a little puppy trotted down the street toward me with bright eyes and tongue wagging. Just as I was leaning over to pet him, I noticed the mange covering his back and decided against it. He carried on, not seeming to take offense. About 10 seconds later, as I was turning the corner into another road, I heard a horrible thud and squeal from behind me. I turned around and saw that same little dog lying on its back after being hit by a speeding scooter. As I ran over and crouched down next to him, it was clear he was in trouble. Over a 3-4 minute period, his convulsing and squealing slowed and finally stopped as his tongue turned from pink to grey. Just then, I realized there was a group of locals standing behind me, trying to figure out why this farang (the Laos word for foreigner – easy to tell they’re talking about you when every 10th word is ‘falang’) was so interested in this stupid dog. It was clearly not a big deal to them as animals – domestic or other – don’t hold quite the same status they do in the West. After he died and I finally walked away, I turned back to see them still looking at me and snickering. Eventually one of them poked at the dog roughly and rolled it around. Convinced it was dead, she picked it up by its legs and brusquely carried it back toward their home like it was a sack of potatoes. As I turned around to keep walking, it hit me. I know what they’re having for dinner tonight. They eat dogs in Laos.

After a night in Luang Nam Tha, Aki headed north and I rented a scooter and headed west to a little farming community called Muang Sing, just a few miles from the Chinese border. After discovering a beautiful and deserted lodge (I was the only guest for the first 3 days) perched high on a ridge on the edge of town, I spent most of the next four days sitting on the porch of the little wooden bungalow I rented (~$5 a night) overlooking a massive valley completely covered in rice paddy and ringed with green mountains in the distance.
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It was a magical place. I don’t think I’ve ever had a more serene and peaceful four days in my life. For most of the day, I just sat, read and stared. The view was amazing and soothing. The book I was reading, Awakening the Buddha Within, wasn’t bad either. I don’t know how the timing worked out so well, but starting that book there with that view and the commitment to do nothing but relax was an incredible experience. They all came together with an amazing synergy. If you’re lookin’ for some soul soothin’ and have any interest in Buddhism, check out that book.
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Each morning, before the sun came up (I found myself getting up super early to meditate and take in the symphony of sounds and colors surrounding me), I’d watch as villagers would start the long walk down the road from their homes toward their little plots of land, heads covered in traditional conical reed hats, leading their buffaloes across the flooded paddy to start another long day, working side by side with their families to get the new crop planted before the monsoons rolled through to take care of the rest.
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In the afternoon, I went on long walks along the paddy edges and up into the hillsides to watch them all at work. In the hills, where rice couldn’t grow, they used every square meter of the rich red soil to plant beautiful patchworks of crops with everything from bananas to lettuces, sugarcane, papayas and chilies.
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Sadly, the slash and burn agriculture I saw in Burma is an even greater problem here. While in contrast to the ubiquitous green foliage the patches of red and brown were actually very aesthetically pleasing, it was clear that with a growing population, those old school methods of farming were probably not very sustainable. When I eventually took notice of a few burned out tree stumps, I started seeing them everywhere, with farmers burning wide swaths of land to make room for more crops and more money. To get rid of the stumps that survived the initial burn, they’d set little fires on top of each one to burn them out and level the land, leaving grey ash heaps here and there on the otherwise colorful land.
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The markets in Laos are amazing as well, especially in the small farming communities away from the tourist hubs. In Muang Sing, the local market got going early. When I arrived at 5:30 in the morning, it was already buzzing with locals selling produce, fish and meats they’d gathered that morning, and textiles and traditional clothing on display from some of the local tribes hoping to supplement their income. I supplemented some of them quite a few bucks as I couldn’t get enough of all of the rich colors and designs.
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As I move from country to country on this trip, the markets are one constant source of curiosity and amazement. Despite the regional differences in the things actually on display, the energy and sense of wholesome freshness is always the same. The incredible colors, smells and sounds are like tractor beams that seem to pull me in wherever I am. It never gets old.

From Muang Sing, I headed back to Luang Nam Tha to begin the long journey up to Phongsali, the hill station in the North, to rendezvous with Aki. Riding in the back of a sawngthaew (a pickup truck with bench seating in the bed that seems to take you – and 17 other people crammed in with sacks of rice, chickens and pigs – everywhere in Laos) on the ride to the bus station, I met a photographer from Spain. He was fresh off a trip to Patagonia, where one of his pictures had just been purchased by National Geographic for a two page spread in the upcoming August issue. If you have the issue, check it out. Supposed to be an amazing photo of the mountainscape in the Patagonia area. Another interesting dude in a sea of characters I’ve met on the road. Paying for his travel by taking amazing photos along the way.

After a night in a nothing town called Oudomxai, I got on another long bus ride through the winding hills of Laos where we usually averaged about 20 mph, complete with the now requisite 4-5 locals with heads out the windows vomiting their sorry guts out, unaccustomed to life in a moving vehicle. At moments like that, it was damn good to be American, with an iron stomach developed over a lifetime of leisure travel in cars.. At Phongsali, I met up with Aki who was, by then unimpressed by the town and ready to move on. Anxious to see a different kind of transportation, and the famed waterways of Laos, we jumped in a longboat for the two day trip down the Nam Ou (literally ‘Water Ou’ or Ou River) back to the next major roadway.
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We stopped along the way, first in a town called Muang Khua where we met a bunch of travelers fresh from Vietnam and Cambodia, where the usual exchange of info and suggested itineraries took place over another dinner of sticky rice and veggies on a wooden porch perched over the gurgling river. As we talked and took in ‘Laos TV’ (massive bugs dive-bombed the buzzing fluorescent lights above), I learned that if you hang a plastic bag from that very light, all of the bugs will eventually fly into it and die. Fun to watch and cheaper than a bug zapper. These are the things that become interesting at the pace of life in the middle of nowhere..

From Muang Khua, packed like sardines in another longboat (where I once again took the helm, this time as the owner/driver jumped out of the captain’s chair to work on the engine 25′ behind him as we floated down the river – no need to dock, I’ll take care of it..),
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we floated past fishermen casting nets from thin canoes, young boys running around the shores naked as free as birds, and stunning white and black limestone rock formations and karsts, down to Muang Ngoi Neua. Another riverside town, this one had no roads, and therefore no cars or motorized vehicles, anywhere around. Accessible only by boat, it was a quiet oasis on the river. We spent two days, swinging in hammocks in our little bungalows perched above the river, hiking through the nearby mountain hemmed rice paddy, and shaking our heads at the seemingly endless amount of American bomb casings used in interesting ways around the town.
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Over a long breakfast on a rainy morning, we met a dude named ‘J.C.’, an old white-bearded guy from Hawaii who now lives in Cambodia, who told us, at full volume, many tales of his cocaine-smuggling days in the 70’s and his interest in finding a good opium den nearby. I love traveling.

As Aki’s vacation time was running out, we parted ways – him to Cambodia and me to eastern Laos. It would take me two more days on the nausea express to get to Sam Neua in the East, along a road many people had told me to avoid. Up for a bit of adventure, I decided to go for it. During a 12 hour stop in a middle-of-nowhere town where I waited for another bus, I experienced the occasionally not so fun part of being the only white guy around. Every once in a while, I’ll walk through a neighborhood or area (in any country really) where everybody seems to think you’re a spectacle. Not in the, “hey, new guy!” way, but in the, “hey, let’s stare coldly at the white guy and not respond when he tries to greet each and every one of us with his weak Laos language skills”. By the time the bus rolled through town at 12AM (I was thankfully awakened by a bang on my room door by the driver of the once-a-day bus which had just stopped outside crammed with sacks of rice, sugar and people – the guesthouse owner had put a sign in the road telling ’em to wake up the falang sleeping inside ’cause he wanted to get on!), I was damn ready to get out. Do you like parenthetical thoughts as much as I do? Just checking.

Exhausted but proud of my ability to weather the most brutal bus trips this country could throw at me, I rolled into Sam Neua that afternoon. As I was walking up to the bus stop the next morning, I was picked up by a young guy eager to practice his English and given a free lift to the town of Vieng Xai, my real destination in the East and probably the most beautiful town in all of Laos. In contrast to the monochrome green blanket that covers most of the north, Vieng Xai is dotted with big brilliant flowers and gardens, making their colors stand out in stark contrast after so much time with one color dominating the scenery.
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Belied by the fact that Vieng Xai is the spot where the communist forces of Laos held out for 9 years, living in caves while fighting the opposition in their country and weathering the storm of American bombs. Nine years where they couldn’t really go outside during the day and lived almost entirely inside damp caves as they plotted their strategy to win the war and bring communism to their people, creating the Lao PDR – the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, which stands as the official name of Laos today. Them’s some hearty folks.
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Next stop was Vientiane, the country’s capital and most populous city at a whopping 200,000 people. After the remote rural feeling of all of northern Laos, Vientiane felt like Disneyland, with its endless row of tourist haven seafood restaurants twinkling with colorful lights and Beerlao signs perched on the bank of the mighty Mekong River. Anxious to experience more of the green tranquility of Laos, I linked together a string of Laos’ finest public transportation options (tuk-tuk, bus, sawngthaew) to get way off the beaten path to a little town called Kong Lo northeast of the city of Thakhek. There lies one of the natural wonders of Laos, the Hinboun river that flows for over 4 miles through a limestone cave called Tham Lot Kong Lo. It was interesting but more dark and spooky than anything else.

More amazing than the cave was the village of Kong Lo itself. Like Muang Sing, it was a rice farming village, with a massive flat valley of emerald green paddy surrounded by towering jagged limestone mountains. Even better, it was at the end of a very long road that no one but the villagers themselves had any reason to venture down. As a result, the town of about 100 people was dead quiet and pristine, with only the activity of the villagers farming every day to break the spell of quiet over the place. For most of the two days I was there, I sat out on the porch of my tiny bungalow built right on the rice paddy, with new green shoots for a front yard, and stared out at the scene.
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Women, men and children donning reed hats, bent over at the waist as they plunged rice seedlings, one clump at a time, into the acres and acres of soft waterlogged mud. For weeks they did this all day long, planting the crop that they’d harvest in the fall and sell in the market. As I was stealthily snapping photos one day, I was busted by a family, who made it clear that if I wanted to take pictures of them, I’d have to get in there and lend a hand. They were joking, but I decided I should give it a shot. It was odd to be standing there, pants rolled up and ankle deep in mud, side by side with these people, helping them sow their seeds (three seedlings at a time plunged in the mud into a little hole you make with your fingers on the way in), after spending most of the last 8 months exploring countries where rice is the staple food and rice farming the way of life for most people, to finally actually see what it was like out there – and where all of that food comes from. I think that strange feeling was outweighed only by their amazement that a falang had jumped into get dirty. Before long, they stopped watching and smiling and I was just one of them. But my rows sucked.
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Sad to leave this sea of tranquility behind, but eager to more of the south of the country, I rode on the back of a motorcycle in the rain to a nearby river, crossed it in a canoe, then climbed into a sawngthaew, followed by another sawngthaew, followed by a bus, followed by another bus, all to get back to civilization just a couple hundred miles to the south. All of this public transport has forcibly instilled one very important virtue in me. Patience. But it’s been fun. Public transportation in these places is always a feast for the senses. Giggling school girls checking out the funny looking white dude, bags moving, clucking and squeaking under your feet from their alien animal contents, sharing seats with sacks of rice or boxes of tomatoes, being accosted by villagers at every major intersection who thrust all sorts of funky foods in your face as they speed through, eager for a sale:
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chicken on a stick, crickets on a stick, bbq’d bananas on a stick, sticky rice, bamboo stuffed with sweet sticky rice, and other foods that involve sticks or sticky things. All part of the adventure and always fascinating. And usually damn tasty.

After my first roof-top ride since Nepal (a joyous reunion on some cherry dirty roads with incredible scenery),
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I spent the next two days wandering through the Bolaven Plateau, a fertile area in the South with a cool climate known for it’s incredible coffee and lush produce farms. With a Swiss girl, Danish girl, and Japanese dude who told me his name was “Massage”, I hitchhiked out to a coffee plantation rumored to produce some of the best coffee in the world. In addition to alcohol and meat, I’ve abstained from coffee for the last 5 months as part of an experimental self-improvement/cleansing practice that seems to have taken on a life of its own. As a result, I wasn’t able to taste the nectar of those plateau gods.. But I hear it was heavenly.

I finished my time in Laos in the far south, in the area known as Si Phan Don, literally ‘4,000 islands’. I’m not sure if there are actually 4,000, but there are a lot. Most of them are little sandbars that form in the delta of the Mekong River as it leaves Laos and flows into Cambodia. I picked the biggest and, apparently, most laid back island (Don Khong) of one of the most chilled out places on earth. Felt like the right way to finish off the most relaxing month of the trip and possibly of my life. Naturally, I ran into someone I know. No, not my 2nd grade teacher, Ms. Pagano. I never liked her anyway. It was actually Masashi (aka Massage) that I’d met a few days earlier.
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Another super cool guy who, after plenty of time spent chatting in a place with nothing else to do, I learned I had a lot in common with. We spent a couple days exploring the nearly catatonic island before floating down the Mekong to a slightly busier (barely) island down stream called Don Khon.
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After spending a day riding around the perimeter of another of these bungalow-dotted terminally-chilled out islands, where only occasionally would the locals get out of their hammocks long enough to scrap the sleep from their eyes and ask if you wanted to go check out the rare Mekong dolphins, I started to wonder about the quality of life in places like this vs. the West. I bet the Laos word for stress, whatever it is, doesn’t get used much here. I’d like to bottle some of this attitude and sell it back home, please..

For most of this trip, I’ve been excited as I make my way to each new border, anxious to again feel the culture shock that comes with each new destination. With Laos, it felt different. I was actually sad as I made my out, knowing I’d left a truly special place that did something for me at just the right time in my life, and worrying that the same magic I found will soon be replaced with the modernization that seems to be gulping down the rest of the world. With Laos, I hope the future holds something different than the rest of the world. I hope it stays just the same.
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With that, I’ll end this odyssey of words. If you’re still reading, send me an email with “I like fuzzy kitties” in the title and I’ll send you 20 Laos Kip as a reward for your bravery.

Over and out.

The Perfect Storm

Hey everybody. I left Burma last night. I’m writing from Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, a short one hour flight but what feels like galaxies away from the decay, sadness and frustration of Burma. While I’ve been dealing with a serious case of culture shock twinged with guilt after leaving (something I heard from many foreigners on their way out), there does seem to be a bit of light coming through the cracks in the situation there.

Yesterday, Than Shwe, the head of the military’s ruling junta government and leader of the 56 million people of Burma, visited the devastated Delta region. The UN’s head of disaster relief was admitted to the country to talk to try and persuade the government to do more. And the Burmese government agreed to let some Asian aid workers into the country. All aid will have to be coordinated by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which might still prove to be difficult, but at least there will soon be professionals in some number coming in to help. All of this comes seventeen days after the cyclone hit, killing an estimated 130,000 people and affecting 2.5 million in total, many of whom are still in serious trouble. Seventeen days.

I entered Burma three and a half weeks ago as a relatively clueless tourist interested in seeing a less traveled part of the world. I left shocked, with my perspective on social justice blown open. I picked the countries I’ve visited – primarily Morocco, Nepal, India and Burma – for a reason. Because I wanted to get away from the Western developed world for a bit. As I said before I left, I wanted to see how the ‘other half’ lived. I had an idea that the way we live in the West is different, a bit privileged perhaps.. I’ve learned a lot in each of these places, slowly getting an idea of what life is like for what turns out to be a hell of a lot more than half of the world – and how very different and hard it is for many of them. But the experience I had in Burma was unlike anything else I’ve encountered on this trip (or anywhere else) – more impactful even than the time in Kolkata in India. I happened to visit Burma during what is probably one of the most important times in Southeast Asian history in the last 10 or 20 years. And saw for the first time what people living under repressive regimes, not just difficult economic and political conditions, go through. All of it, because it seems so counter to the experience we have in the West and at times surreal and Draconian, actually made me laugh in frustration and has started to open my eyes to what social justice really means. For a while, I’ve been very interested in the environmental side of sustainability, not paying much attention to the social end of the spectrum. This experience has woken me up a bit and is bringing the social side of that equation more into focus. And it’s sort of a big side too..

Jesus, enough with the heavy shit already, Grady! What happened to the dude that used to do keg stands and dress up like a jackass for fun? Okay, okay. I’ll stop. For a minute or two.

In case you think I’ve I didn’t actually enjoy my time there, I should probably back up a bit and tell you about the experiences that led to all of this drama. I will tell you in advance, though, that I’ve never had such a hard time trying to put down into words the experiences I’ve had out here. Sorry if it lacks some tidiness but it just seems to be comin’ out stream o’ consciousness style. And if I wrote it all down here, you could bind it into a book.
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I spent the first two weeks traveling through central part of the country, visiting villages and Buddhist pagodas, taking in the natural beauty of the place, and getting to know the people and learning how absolutely wonderful they are. And hearing from them in private conversations what has been happening in this country for the last 60 years and how difficult life has become for them because of the policies of the military junta government. What makes all of what I heard so hard to swallow is that the people are so incredible, so inviting, honest, generous and warm. And unfortunately, now often coupled with attitudes of resignation and defeat in the face of a government that is clearly more interested in the propagation of its control than the well being of its people.
red chili, green parrot

I’ll give you an example of the sort of kindness I regularly encountered in the country. As I was wandering down a dirt road in a little village outside Amarapura near Mandalay, a young guy approached me, timid but smiling. After shyly making his way through the usual list of foreigner questions (Where are you from?, How old are you?, Are you married? How long have you been in Myanmar?), he asked if I’d like to come back to his home to meet his family. Um, yeah. I wasn’t three steps into the dirt courtyard area of their very modest bamboo and wood home before his mother was pulling out the one very comfortable plastic chair they owned for me. No sooner had I sat down, than she placed a small table next to me and then added a pot of tea and two little ceramic cups for us. A minute later, as her son and I were talking about his English classes at the nearby university and his family’s work as peanut farmers in the nearby fields, she came over with a plate of pickled tea leaf and fried nut salad (traditional and tasty) and insisted that I eat. As I was sitting there smiling at all of them and marveling at their hospitality, I started to feel a cool breeze on the back of my neck (I arrived in April, the hottest month of the year in Burma when it’s over 100 degrees nearly every day). I turned around to see his father sitting on the bench behind me with a massive smile on his face as he waved a reed fan in my direction. He was fanning me. As I sat and ate food and drank the tea that his wife had served me. And he continued to do it for a while as he sat there and sweat. I started to feel a bit silly and wanted to take the fan from him to return the favor but he seemed to be enjoying it way too much. It was probably the closest I’ll ever get to knowing what royalty feel like. As I got up to leave, thanking them profusely in the only Burmese word I knew (cheyzutinbade – thank you!), the father handed me the fan and a bottle of water and made it clear that I had to take them with me. It was hot after all and I was their guest. All this from a family that probably had barely enough to get by on their own. The son then insisted on walking me 15 minutes back to the main road to make sure I didn’t get lost. I sensed a little bit of pride as we passed his friends. Yep, the white dude came back to my house!

In Bagan, rival to Angkor Wat in Cambodia for its 1000s of ancient awe-inspiring Buddhist temples stretching over miles of picturesque green and red landscape, I met a man near the village market one afternoon. He invited me to his tiny tailor shop (a space barely big enough for a few sewing machines), sat me down and introduced me to his wife and sister-in-law and again insisted that I accept tea and food . We talked about his sister-in-law’s desire to get out of Burma, how he’d met an older man in Canada who’d offered to be her sponsor (read: husband) to get her out. And, like a lot of the Burmese men I met, once he sensed I was interested in what was happening politically and socially in Burma, he opened up the floodgates with information and opinion, all of it in opposition to the the Burmese government. That ended, though, when a very drunk member of the military rode by on a scooter and, after seeing me, doubled back to stop and talk. He was interested in the idea that someone from the USA was in his town and seemed to take pride in being able to speak some English with me. It felt very strange to sit there and force conversation with him as he stunk of booze, all the while the people I’d been sitting with seemed to change their tune, quickly ending our previous conversation and now seemingly forcing laughter and smiles at all of the stupid comments the guy made, appeasing him in a way. That was my first experience with the military and it became clear then that everyone in Burma seemed to live in fear or suspicion of them, forcing them to act in ways that would minimize trouble they’d receive.

Once the drunk military officer left on his scooter (why shouldn’t he be driving drunk and in uniform??), the tailor then invited me back, along with two Swiss friends I’d been traveling with, to his home to meet the rest of his clan (10 people living in one bamboo house area). We sat in on the English class he held for locals every evening (young students and monks mostly), helping some of them with their first experiences in conversational English. They were all incredibly shy but did well.
'oozo's' english class in bagan
After the class ended, the family gathered around, little girls smiling and giggling at us and, again insisted we have tea and food (they would together eat later but wanted to be sure we left full!) and tour their home, meeting every member of the three generations that all lived together there.
oozo's family, esther and priska
They were all big fans of the West in general and loved throwing out what they knew of our homes – “Golden Gate Bridge!, Arnold Schwarzenegger!”. My friends and I left amazed and warmed again by the incredible generosity of these people. I had many more experiences like this throughout my time there, with old men, monks of all ages, young students, taxi drivers, tour guides, cooks and waiters, you name it. All thrilled that I’d come to Burma and proud of their country and people.

In Mandalay, I spent a lot of time riding around the city with a trishaw (a bicycle with an attached sidecar that holds two customers) driver named Myint Kyaw.
lunch with thant zin at shwe in bin kyaung
We met on the sidewalk one afternoon and again, after sensing I was aware of and interested in Burma’s political situation, he opened up to me, but always speaking in hushed tones and often reminding me to “keep it in your heart, keep it in your mind” after telling me what was going on. He, like every person in Burma, had to be cautious. He had to be cautious because it’s illegal to speak negatively of the government (which he called ‘the G’ for fear of being overheard). It’s also illegal to talk to foreigners about the government. Both offenses can land you in prison. Communication within and with the outside world is also forcibly discouraged. Personal email services are illegal and banned (Gmail, Hotmail etc) as are many many news websites and other sources of online info. (Thankfully, the savvy young progressive people of Burma have figured out how to get around all of the blocks and filters in place, keeping the lines of communication with the outside world in both directions and foiling the governments efforts to keep its people in the dark about their situation.) While cell phones are cheap, the SIM cards you need to make the cell phones operational have been purposely priced out of the reach of 99% of the Burmese people by the government (somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $2,000 for a card that costs $5 in Thailand) to limit communication both inside and with the outside world. As a result, the very few cell phones I saw in the country were owned by government employees or the wealthy Chinese people. As a side note, the Chinese, as citizens of Burma’s largest trading partner, are granted special privileges allowing them to come in and out of the country freely, making gobs of money trading in Burmese goods and, reportedly, the massive opium/heroin trade that persists in the North of the country, all of which has fueled major animosity by the Burmese who must sit by and watch as their government allows the Chinese to get richer, buying businesses and building huge homes all over Burma while the Burmese stay poor.

I wondered why some people didn’t just leave. They told me that while they can get their hands on a passport, and even a visa to a place like Thailand, the government makes it nearly impossible for them to use them. A Burmese citizen must show a round trip ticket and $500 (a year’s earnings for many people) in cash before they will be allowed to actually use the visa. No one I met could do that. That’s why many end up in the back of refrigerated trucks like the one that killed 54 people on its way to Thailand last month. As more than one Burmese person pointed out to me, “it’s sorta like the Mexico/USA thing”.

Another crazy fact: the Burmese government still occasionally uses ‘coirvee’, the term used to describe the practice of gathering involuntary labor crews to build public structures. They pick people off the street and force them to do manual labor instead of paying construction teams. Human Rights Watch reports that the military also still ‘coerces’ young people (some as young as 12 years old) into joining the military by forcible means.

As if living under the thumb of the military government weren’t enough, the Burmese aren’t doing to well on the financial front either. As I mentioned in my email to everyone the other day, the average Burmese person makes $3 per day. Most people I befriended in the country told me they work every single day of the year. No holidays or weekends. Unless there’s no work to be found. Myint Kyaw and his wife both work every day yet they can only afford to rent a single room in the city. A room with no windows and no fan. No fan because it requires electricity which would be too expensive. He told me this as I contemplated upgrading to a room with A/C to get some relief from the 100+ degree days.

These are just a few of the many examples of the hardships the Burmese people face in their daily lives. But what most Burmese wanted to talk to me about was the upcoming referendum. For fourteen years, the government has been telling the people they are working on a constitution that will eventually bring democracy to the country. They are now finished and have broadcast to the international community that they are allowing their citizens the opportunity to vote, finally, on a referendum to approve a draft constitution, showing the world how ‘progressive’ they are. The problem is that the constitution is not at all what the people wanted. Every single Burmese person that I met called the constitution a joke. Most quietly laughed when they talked about it. The government has successfully written a constitution, but one that will ensure that they stay in power FOREVER and be immune to prosecution for anything illegal they may have done. But most of the poor and uneducated Burmese will never understand that because in order to read the constitution, you must buy it! It costs $1. Again, out of the reach of most of the people struggling to get by in the country. Imagine being told you must pay $30 to read about the changes in government that will directly affect you. (In a surprising moment on a train, these two military men actually asked me if I’d take a picture of them. Was amusing when the one on the right puffed up before each shot.)
the MEN

What’s worse is that the government is not at all shy about it’s campaign to coerce the people into approving the constitution for them. We’ll give you the right to vote, but you must vote in the affirmative.
vote YES! or else..
There are signs posted all over town telling people it is their ‘duty’ to vote yes, approving the constitution (along side permanent signs with directives like the one here printed in the government-run newspaper.
the people's desire..
Since you are not allowed to speak out against the government, there is absolutely no dissenting propaganda allowed. Trucks cruised the streets in Hsipaw, a small town in the East, on the days leading up to the referendum there, blaring the call to people to vote yes through huge speakers. While I was trekking in the nearby area, my guide pointed out a government official who’d just left one of the small villages where she’d gone door to door telling people how they should vote – yes. Why not just vote no, if it’s what you want? First of all, all adults are required by law to vote. Every person who told me they wanted to vote no, told me they were afraid to. Because of what the government would do to them if they did. Afraid to vote the way they wanted to, afraid of what would happen to their families if they got carted off to jail, or denied their registration cards that would allow them to travel freely inside Burma. Afraid in general. After the May 10 vote in Mandalay, one of the men I met who’d planned on either voting no, adding a “?” between the yes and no boxes or just boycotting in general, told me, in a defeated tone, that he’d voted yes. Because, in the end, he was too afraid for what might happen to him or his family if he voted the way he wanted to.

I met a man in Rangoon the other day who told me that the government is also engaging in ‘pre-voting’. He told me that on May 2, military police showed up at his home (he wasn’t there) and told his mother that the government had ‘commanded’ that her family vote early. And that she should vote on behalf of everyone. Scared and uneducated about what it all meant, she voted yes for all 5 of her family members. The man returned home later and was distraught, his vote having been effectively stolen from him. He said he had been determined to vote no. Before I left, I heard from others that this was a common practice.

Because of their tactics of intimidation, the government claimed success with the referendum vote the other day after the North had voted on 5/10, a week before the cyclone-affected areas were set to vote on 5/24, the postponed date set for them by the government. The government said they’d already gotten more than the 50% they needed to pass the constitution and that Rangoon and the other cyclone-affected areas votes no longer mattered.
u jabana (mr. quick in burmese) leading us through monastery/nunnery lanes in sagaing
The 59 year old man I paid to be my trekking guide in the villages near Hsipaw in the East of the country, told me that when he was a boy, he was told not to step on the shadow of a monk. That’s how revered the Buddhist monks were in the country. In September, monks took to the streets in Rangoon to protest increasing food prices on behalf of all Burmese poor, turning their alms bowls (the collection bowls they take out every morning to ask for food and donations) upside down in a symbolic message to the government of their disapproval. Many of those monks were killed and many disappeared. Times have changed in the last 60 years. Now seen as dissidents, monks have been stripped of their right to vote by the government. I met one young monk who’d left Rangoon recently saying it was too ‘inconvenient’ and dangerous to stay there, as he and other monks were regularly followed by members of the government. When things become unsafe for the religious leaders of a country (Buddhists especially), you know things are going wrong.

In another famous protest in 1988, 4,000 people were killed by the military. Four thousand people. That’s a lot. A few years later, after the first successful democratic election in the country, the government refused to give up power when they lost to the National League for Democracy’s leader, Aung Sun Suu Kyi, instead placing her under house arrest where she has remained for majority of the time since then (she’s there now). While all of the Burmese I spoke with see her as the one to lead them out of the darkness, the government will never allow that to happen. Here’s a not so good shot of the roadblock out in front of her house (shot from the hip from a passing taxi..)
shitty shot of the roadblock in front of aung san suu kyi's home
Exasperated by all of this and wondering what could be done to change things, I asked a few people why they didn’t take to the streets to protest. They told me that history has shown how that will end and that, after so many years of suffering, no one wants to die anymore. They’ve given up. They’d rather live like this than risk losing each other. Many told me that the only thing that will change the situation is God. Those in the cyclone-affected areas around Rangoon, where many expected protests before, are now more concerned with survival than making their voices heard. The weather seems to have taken care of the problem the government thought they might have.

I titled this entry ‘The Perfect Storm’ because the referendum vote, the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis and the subsequent lack of action by the government seem to have come together now for a reason. I can only hope that the attention being focused on Burma by the international community, the stories being spread, the word getting into the Burmese about how much people care about their plight, and the outrage over the government’s showing that they are more interested in passing their fate-sealing and constitution than the fate of their own people (Than Shwe, who makes very few public appearances, made one to the ballot box a week after the cyclone came through and a full ten days before he would visit the cyclone-affected areas for the first time), will encourage some sort of change in the country. How, I don’t know. But it seems to me that the people of Burma have suffered enough. There is a path to peace and prosperity in the country but it does not include the people in power now. It’s clear now that the deluded government is the only one that thinks that the propaganda they’ve put out into the world is actually being accepted as fact. The people of Burma are not fooled and now, nor is the rest of the world.

My final thought. Much has been made about whether one should visit Burma. If you are considering it, go. Travel smart – in a way that will put most of your money into the pockets of the locals and not the government. Talk to the people. Help them get their message out. They want and deserve change.
kids near bagan
P.S. This post doesn’t do justice to the beauty of Burma. If you want to see more, check out my other photos.

P.P.S. And for some great but sad pics of the aftermath of the cyclone, check out those from an Italian documentary film-making duo I met in Rangoon right before I left.

On the off chance that any of you didn’t get the email I sent two days ago, I’ve decided to post it here. Take a look. ————————————————————————————-

Hello everyone,

I hope you’re all doing well. For those of you who haven’t heard, I am in Burma (aka Myanmar) and have been for the last three weeks. Thankfully, I was in the north when the cyclone came through on May 2 and am fine. I’m in Rangoon (aka Yangon) now and am writing on behalf of the Burmese people affected by the cyclone to ask for your help. Please take 10 minutes to read this. Believe me, it is worth your time.

In the little time I have been in Burma, I have been both appalled and inspired. Appalled by what I’ve learned of the military and junta government’s oppression of the Burmese people. And amazed and inspired by how warm and welcoming the people are despite this treatment and how they’ve risen to the challenge of helping their fellow citizens while their government effectively will not. I could write pages about what I’ve learned from the people here (often spoken in hushed tones after they look over both shoulders) about the country’s troubled history and tragic current situation. But I know you are all busy so I’ll try to keep this short. Suffice it to say that the government’s treatment of the people here is horrible, confusing and incredibly frustrating. I wouldn’t believe half of it if I were not here.

As you know by now, over 60,000 people are presumed dead from the cyclone. And approximately 1.5 million affected, from a country with massive numbers already living in poverty (average income of all Burmese is under $3/day). For various reasons confounding the international community, the Burmese government has forbidden entry of international aid workers. Some say this is because they fear that it will appear that the government is incapable of caring for its own people (clearly the case), others say it is because of the fear they have of the message international workers will bring to the Burmese people, further eroding an already minimal support base (as if the Burmese people don’t already know what’s happening around the world or how bad they have it). Others say it is because the government doesn’t want its upcoming referendum (essentially a forced vote to approve a constitution that will keep the military in power literally forever) disrupted. Others because the government wants to be the only face on the relief effort – one that’s not working very well. It’s probably a mix of these and many more. Some say it’s because they just don’t care; in the words of a man I spoke to this morning and echoed around the country, “They’ve never cared for us in the past. Why would they now?”

Regardless of the reason, it’s so strange and awful that it’s hard for most people to wrap their brains around it. On a personal note, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so angry about something and so 100% justified in that anger (despite trying like heck to learn from the Buddhist principles I keep getting exposed to..). There’s nothing good about what the government is doing here.

While the aid workers are not getting in, aid shipments are. Unfortunately, much of that aid is not making it to the affected areas. There are reports that the government is keeping some for themselves, selling some for profit (some back to people who are trying to deliver it to the people that need it), swapping some of the high quality international goods for low grade stuff (keeping or selling the high quality stuff) and shipping that out to victims etc. The list of reports goes on and on.

What does this all mean? That the huge international aid efforts that most people hear about back home, while obviously well intentioned, are not having the effect that everyone, donors included, want. Unicef, Oxfam, Red Cross etc – all are having many of their efforts stymied by the government.

Disgusted by all of this, the local people around Rangoon have stopped waiting for aid to come from the government or outside. And they are taking matters into their own hands. It’s incredible. Groups of volunteers are forming around the city, raising money, buying supplies and driving them out to affected areas themselves. And are proving to be the most effective means for aid in the country. Yet these groups are not immune from the problems with the government. They, too, are encountering resistance in their efforts. Police at checkpoints routinely confiscate aid before it can make it to affected areas. Some demand bribes, others demand that the aid groups give the materials to the government so that they can distribute. A claim no one believes. There is absolutely no faith in the government. I met a group yesterday that told me they had to break rice down into small packages as the normal 50 lb. bags are too obvious in cars. When they shop for goods, they have to split up, buying small amounts of aid here and there (tarps, rice, rehydration salts, medicines) to avoid arousing suspicion from police and the military who often confiscate the materials. Most meet in secret to do the same. Can you believe it??? All sad and all true.

Despite these problems, the local groups are making amazing progress. They are learning how to operate, becoming more efficient, and are doing an incredible job. Those that began in the immediate area around Rangoon are now extending operations into the Delta area. When I got to Yangon and started asking around about where I could help, I was told that Western faces out on shopping or supply runs would only draw attention to their efforts. We were told, therefore, that we were most valuable as fundraisers. These people have the plan and the ability to help those affected by the cyclone. But they don’t have the money.

That’s where we come in – you, me and everyone you know. I don’t like hitting people up for money, but in my time on the road over the last 8 months, there’s one thing I’ve learned. That those of us in the Western world are incredibly fortunate to live where we do, to have the opportunities that we have, to afford the lifestyles we lead, and to have the freedoms we all take for granted. I had no idea what life was like for most people in the world until I left the US. As my friend Jen told me a long time ago, despite the problems or lack we think we may have, “we have more than 99.9% of the world”. I now understand what she means. So, please, take a minute, and a few bucks and donate. I recommend the Foundation for the People of Burma (www.foundationburma.org). The FPB is an American non-profit acting as a conduit for funding the ad hoc groups I mentioned before – those with no overhead, no red tape, and the ability to act within hours of receiving the much needed money. FPB is supporting groups like Gitameit Music School (www.gitameit.org), a school for gifted college-aged classical music students, who are doing work on the ground now. When the cyclone hit, they closed down classes, turned their practice room into a disaster relief operations center, and started delivering aid and coordinating doctors to affected areas. When I visited them yesterday, there were huge sacks of rice and boxes of medical supplies leaning up against a grand piano that will gather dust for a bit.. Thanks for your time, y’all. I love you all and look forward to seeing you again soon. And don’t worry about me. I’m safe and happy. And will probably be out of the country by Sunday.

grady

P.S. Please send this to anyone and everyone you know who might want to help.

For those that would like to read more, please check out some of the links below. Recent International News Coverage:

http://www.iht.com/articles/reuters/2008/05/14/asia/OUKWD-UK-MYANMAR-CYCLONE.php http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-myanmar14-2008may14,0,7404577.story http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/14/world/asia/14myanmar.html?ref=asia http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/0DD2BC77-E0C5-4DD1-AD10-2D8D8C343782.htm http://www.kansascity.com/105/story/618930.html

Hey all. Sorry for the scare. I’m still in Myanmar but was nowhere near the areas hit by the cyclone. I didn’t even know anything major had happened until 3 days ago – thanks to the lack of information flow from the government. I’ll write tons more when I leave in a week or two. Thanks for your concern and amazing emails. I’ve been overwhelmed by all of it. Love you all.

Grady

Yo yo yo. I made it to Thailand. And there’s not a single person wearing a thai. I call bullshit. If you’re scratching your head at the title of this post, go rent Caddyshack. You’ll thank me.

After three days in Nueva York eating cheese with my cousin Ed and fiance Landis in Brooklyn and cheese-covered pizza pie with some of my dearest peoples in Manhattan, I flew out of JFK on Tuesday morning in full lactose shock bound for the Far East. On the sixteen hour flight to Hong Kong, I watched movies (Juno, No Country For Old Men, We Own the Night – all amazing) ’til my eyes started bleeding (not far from reality as the screen sits about 15″ from your gourd) determined to squeeze all of the creature comforts out of the West before I abandoned them again. I was surprised at how beautiful HK was from above – lots of water, green and undulating waves of skyscrapers dotting the island areas.
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And a damned fine and blingy airport as well. That’s one place I’d like to check out down the line. Just learned they have a contract with China for some sort of semi-autonomous relationship that lasts ’til 2034. Where the hell have I been? And what happens in 2034?

Anyway, what little I’ve seen of Thailand is beautiful. They call it the land of smiles. The dude working the immigration booth at the Bangkok airport was wearing what looked like a Hawaiian shirt and was actually smiling. Slightly more welcoming than many of the same I’ve met in other countries. Check plus Thailand.

Actually, I wasn’t psyched at all about coming here, having heard from many people that this place has changed more than any other country in the area under the crush of tourism. I’d planned on coming just long enough to pick up a visa for Myanmar and was content just hunkering down to weather the jet lag and then split as soon as I could. While they’re right about the effects of tourism on the area, I’ve definitely enjoyed myself over the last 6 days.

Here are a few things I’ve picked up in that short time (yes, I’m an expert now):

They’re in love with their king. Like stalker love. I’ve never seen anything like it – at least not in a country that allows people to think for themselves. You can’t go 10′ in this country without seeing a picture of the guy, from stacks and stacks of postcard sized photos for sale from sidewalk vendors to massive billboard sized pictures of him set in ornate golden settings.
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Most of the homes and businesses I’ve been in have at least one photo of him up on the wall (usually more). For his 80th birthday (last year), a team of Thai climbers tackled Mt. Everest in his name. Many people here in Bangkok wear shirts with the royal emblem embroidered on them and slogans about his Majesty. Monday is the king’s day, apparently, and is when even more don their yellow versions of those shirts to honor him. Sort of like Fridays back in high school when we all wore our jerseys before the big game. Or something. The guy definitely seems to have done something right. In one part of town, there is a series of massive King shrines along one of the main roads, each with a huge photo of him in the middle doing something interesting – taking photos, playing the piano, painting, trekking? A renaissance man for sure.

They’re in love with drinks. As any maddog that lives in 100+ degree heat should be, these people are big on hydration. But instead of walking around with water bottles, they usually carry small plastic bags full of iced beverages around with them with funky colored straws sticking out the top. Apparently, someone came up with the idea of offering a drink in a bag for $0.15 less than a bottle or cup and it took off. It seems to make sense (I think?) and probably produces less trash. Iced coffee – also huge here. As are many versions of Red Bull type energy drinks. But instead of the little cans we get it in at home, they sell smaller brown medicine bottle looking containers of the super juice with things like skulls on the front and names like ‘M-150’. These people are crazy for caffeine. Crazy.

They love convenience stores. Where else are you going to buy all that Red Bull? I’m not exaggerating when I say there are more 7-11s here than there are Starbuck’s back home. I thought it was an apparition at first. But I was wrong. Cast your gaze far enough on just about any street and you’ll most likely see a few – often right across the street from one another just like SB back home. I quickly found out that a 7-11 is one of the few places in Bangkok that believes in/can afford air conditioning so I’ve found myself faux-shopping to beat the heat lately. I haven’t spent so much time in a 7-11 since I was a young skate punk sucking down Slurpees and Spree. Slurpees are big here, by the way.

They’re in love with meat. Chicken, pork, beef, fish, squid, snake, frog.. You name it, you can find it clucking or writhing in a bucket at one of the markets here. That and a host of fruits and veggies you’ve probably never heard of. Dragonfruit? Sign me up. The climate here provides a regular smorgasboard on special here throughout the year. A regular bounty.
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They like Buddha. Almost as prolific as the 7-11s are Buddhist temples or ‘Wats’ as they’re known in the area. Above the skyline of ramshackle homes and buildings crammed together, you can usually see one popping its beautiful head. They’re absolutely magnificent, exquisitely decorated in brilliant reds, yellows, blues and a ton of goldleaf and shining tile.
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I’ve never been big on visiting churches in my travels cause they often feel/look so damn serious (did I just say damn?). But the Southeast Asianers aren’t havin’ it. They like they’re places of worship big and bold. And they’re amazing. I’ve visited about 8 or 9 in the last two days and am psyched to see how they change from country to country.

Traveling solo opens you up to amazing opportunities. I’d forgotten why until the other day. While gawking at yet another huge Buddha statue in the nearby village of Kanchanaburi (where the River Kwai is – anyone know their WWII history?), a Swedish guy, seeing how pathetic, lonely (just kidding), and harmless I was, introduced himself and his Thai wife and daughter (Johan, Nam and Mai Tai), probably the cutest 3 year old I’ve ever seen (the daughter, not the wife). I spent most of the next two days with them, exploring Wats off the tourist trail, having dinner Thai style (on the floor sitting on reed mats) with them at their home (he rocked the Scorpions greatest hits CD the whole time), and visiting her parents at they’re bamboo hut home in a rural village nearby. It was amazing. You don’t know what people are really like in a new country until you get to hang out with them in their ‘natural habitat’.

At her parents hut, we spent part of the day sitting on mats on the ground in the shade of a big tree sipping tea and getting to know each other through broken English, while Nam’s mom, ‘Mama’, swung in a hammock, rolled cigarettes and laughed. I was enough of a novelty to attract some of the older women in the village, one of whom was none too shy about asking me if I had a girlfriend and, upon hearing a ‘no’, asked if I’d like to meet her daughter. And marry her. She started laughing when she saw the white boy turn red and let me off the hook. Maybe next time. Come to think of it, that’s two marriage proposals by proxy since I started this trip (trekking in Nepal being the other).

We eventually moved to the hut where Nam’s father, clad only in a sari looking thing around his waist, pulled open a little door in the bamboo wall and slid out a.. TV so we could watch the Muay Thai (Thai boxing) match. So much for the rural thing. Apparently, his son does well and bought them a TV, satellite dish and a solar panel to power the whole thing. Needless to say, theirs is the most popular hut in town..
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That’s all I know about Thailand so far. I hope you like it. It’ll have to do for now because I’m leaving tomorrow. Assuming my visa comes through tonight, I’ll be on the first plane to Yangon, Myanmar (aka Rangoon for all of you meat helmet- and luge lesson-loving Austin Powers fans). In case you weren’t watching the news last September when all of those monks led protests (many of whom were killed or disappeared), Myanmar is a bit of a mess. It is ruled by a military who’s f-ed everything up so much (including keeping the most recently democratically-elected leader, Aung Saung Suu Kyi, under house arrest since 1989) that the country and the people have been cut off from most of the rest of the world, resulting in all sorts of ills. Which I’ll be learning about starting tomorrow. Not sure what the internet situation will be like there so I might not update this ’til I leave the country – probably in late May.

Keep it real, y’all. And Happy Earth Day.

Sitting somewhere near the top of the Ten Places I Didn’t Expect To Be Writing This Today list is.. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. ‘Tis true. I came home to be with my family a couple weeks ago after learning that my grandmother had passed away. Sorry I didn’t let more of you know I was back but I decided this was time best spent with my family and resting. And rest well I have. Lest ye fret about the mission of your wander-happy friend, I ain’t done with the traipsing quite yet. Before I get into that, though, let me tell you what I’ve been up to since I left off.

From the lung-clogging exhaust and sensory overload of Kolkata, I took an overnight train from the state of West Bengal west through Jharkand and into the state of Bihar in the northeast of the country. In case you have any interest in where that is, here ya go. I should do this a lot more often.. The red line marks the approximate route I took from Kolkata to southern Bihar (click on the pic and then on ‘all sizes’ in the next window to see a detailed version).
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Bihar is probably the poorest state in all of India – which says a lot about the conditions there. However, Bodhgaya, a small town near the bottom of the state, is a beacon in the area. Bodhgaya is also known as ‘Buddhagaya’ and marks the spot where the Buddha (aka Siddhartha Gautama) gained enlightenment while meditating under a banyan fig tree 2,500 years ago. Today, the city attracts Buddhists from all over the world and is one of the four main pilgrimage sights for devotees including Lumbini in Southern Nepal (remember this post?) where he was born, Bodhgaya where he gained enlightenment, Sarnath where he gave his first lectures, and Kushinagar where he died. The last three are all in India.

Like Lumbini, Bodhgaya is dotted with beautiful monasteries built by devotees from all over the Buddhist world including Bhutan, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and Tibet.
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It also has one of the largest Buddha statues in the world which, at about 80′, is pretty impressive when you’re standing at its base. Someone told me this one (close-up at the top of this post), which was built by the Japanese, has something like 20,000 smaller statues inside. That’s a whole lot of concentrated warm and fuzzy goodness.
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But most of the visitors to this little town come to see the spot where the dude did his thing. The Mahabodi Temple is a magnificent temple and garden area in the middle of town that abuts the exact spot where he was sitting when the golden lightbulb turned on.
bodhi and mahabodi
He had spent weeks in the area moving from tree to tree contemplating the ideas that would eventually make up what we now know as Buddhism.

The story goes that the original bodhi tree was destroyed 2,200 years ago by the then king of the region during a push to eliminate Buddhism from the area. Thankfully, someone had the sense to take a sapling earlier from that original tree to another safer spot in Sri Lanka. When the original was destroyed, they brought a sapling from that one back to the original spot in Bodhgaya and re-planted it. It’s now a massive sprawling beast with what look like green metal crutches holding up its ancient and now sagging limbs that seem to take in devotees like wings of a giant ancient wooden angel.
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It’s a powerful site to take in for anyone with any interest in Buddhism. Groups of monks in different colored robes from around the world sit here and there, some chanting, some prostrating in prayer for hours, some wrapping fabrics, flags and messages from their home country around the structure at the base of the tree, others meditating silently.
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monks prostrating before mahabodi
monks covering the bodhi in fabric
People scurry to catch dying leaves falling from the tree before they hit the ground, all eager to take home an authentic souvenir, a reminder from this, the most sacred place in the world for Buddhists. It’s sorta like the equivalent of Mecca for Muslims. Devout Buddhists aspire to visit this spot at least once in their lifetimes.

I got a chance to experience a little of the magic of the area one afternoon, meditating under that big ‘ol tree for a while myself. I don’t think I’ve hit enlightenment paydirt quite yet, but it did feel pretty damn good sitting there thinking (after I was done, you know, not thinking) about all of the positive forces that have been focused on that place by the millions of visitors over the last 2,500 years. Definitely a highlight of my time in India.

Unfortunately, as I left, I was reminded of how things have changed in that time. Unlike the religious sites in many other countries, nothing is completely sacred here in India. Men stand outside the entrance to the temple hawking fresh green bodhi leaves sealed in plastic, next to internet shops, convenience stalls, travel agencies and stands full of little plastic Buddhas sold by Hindus. All catering to the masses that come to think about getting away from that very sort of thing for a while.

When I wasn’t contemplating my navel, I had a chance to meet some amazing people. Taj and Michel, two Muslim kids from one of the nearby neighborhoods, introduced themselves one day as I was walking back to the Tibetan ‘Karma’ temple monastery where I was staying (how often do you get to stay at a monastery??).
karma temple/tibetan monastery
After we all got to know each other, they told me about the uphill battle they face for a good education in Bihar, like young motivated people all over India for that matter. They took me to one school that had been formed in a small delapidated multi-story brick building down a dirty alley in a residential part of town. Instead of windows in some rooms, there were broken holes in the brick walls to let in light. The bottom floor had a single hand water pump in the middle of the dirt floor for the 700 students that attended school there. Students crammed into small classrooms with broken chalkboards, some of them sitting on the ground. Some students, who’s families lived far away, actually lived in the building, sleeping in cramped rooms with one big flat wooden bed together in the middle – with no mattresses in sight. They had two computers in one dusty room but it didn’t look like they worked. The sure as hell didn’t have MySpace.

This may sound extreme, but as I left, I kept thinking that it looked like something I’d expect to find in a war-torn area that had just been bombed. I was astonished when Taj and Mitchel told me that this was a private school, the best option they had in the area, one they had to pay for to attend. It turns out that the only schools that are free are those run by the government, which are horrible. They’re run by teachers who are paid next to nothing and care even less. If kids want any hope of doing anything in their lives, they have to figure out how to make enough money to pay for the private ones, which are still the bottom of the barrel by Western standards. It was damn inspiring to see how excited and appreciative all of the kids were, walking around proudly in coordinated green and white school uniforms and talking about their upcoming tests. For all of this, they were incredibly thankful. I was astounded to learn that by becoming Taj’s ‘sponsor’, I could register him at this private school, pay for his books, uniform and first month’s tuition all for less than $50. When I did, I felt guilty in a way because it was so easy, that we have it so freaking easy in the West, and that he was so appreciative of all of it.

Mitchel found a sponsor (a tourist from Seattle) two years ago and has been attending the private school since then. He had to leave his best friend Taj behind at a government school. It was clear how that opportunity had benefited Mitchel in that time. His English was now nearly fluent and his confidence soaring (he actually learned a lot from singing along to English songs on the radio including some Rolling Stones and Queen songs which he proudly belted out for me – awesome). We celebrated Taj’s enrollment and upcoming adventures at the school with a fat lunch at their favorite place. I hoped it would be easy for him to catch up.
(Here they are hammin’ it up before we parted ways):
mitchel and taj

(I’m kicking myself for not taking a picture of their school but I did get this one of some kids in front of a gov’t school in the middle of some rice fields outside of town – in equally bad shape, but just as happy to be there)
kids in a village school

Unfortunately, I got some news that afternoon that would change the course of this whole journey. I got an email from my dad telling me that my grandmother had passed away. I was completely stunned. Fueled solely on emotion, I decided immediately that I had to go home. I bought a one-way ticket online and decided I’d figure out the future of my travels later. Despite the sadness at the news, I was so happy to be able to see my family. So happy to finally indulge the homesickness I’d been thinking about so much lately. Walking out of the internet shop, as I was thinking about her and what it all meant, I was hit with the idea that I was actually doing just that. Going home. Suddenly, the same street I’d walked down 10 times in the last two days looked completely different. I was looking through it all with the eyes of someone who’s adventure was suddenly now about to end, instead of one who had what seemed like unlimited time and an unending yellow brick road ahead of him as I had before. It was a strange feeling to be mourning the loss of my grandmother and mourning the end of the travel experience at the same time. All without any of the mental preparation about transition and building excitement that I figured I have about a homecoming. I realized how much I’d started to identify myself as this bold wanderer, traipsing around exotic sites and exploring without a care in the world. And now, in a matter of a couple days, I was going to be home in the cold grey winter of the Northeast. A strange feeling.

With all of the travel coordination savvy I could muster, I figured I could get myself from the middle of nowhere in India to Toledo, Ohio in 48 hours…. if everything went exactly as planned. In India. Awesome. That night, I headed to the train station and, after dealing with the standard corruption (negotiating with the ‘Tourist Officer’ about a seat on a superfast train that I’d have to pay ‘extra’ for – read: bribe – and then being led from counter to counter to counter in search of a regular ticket on the slow train just to spite the bastard), I sat for 6 hours amid sleeping bodies and a few ogling locals as I waited for my train and did the math on what it would have to take for me to get home in time to see everyone.

After an eighteen-hour nail biter of a train ride (where I met Haresh and his buddy Sandeep, a customer service agent for Jackson-Hewitt who fields calls from angry tax-confused Americans with, “Hello, this is ‘Shane’ with Jackson-Hewitt, how can I help you?), a one hour ride in rickshaw that nearly broke down in the middle of the highway, an OJ Simpson run through the airport and customs, and twenty-two hours of airport terminals, plane and car rides later, I walked into the post-funeral reception in Toledo, Ohio exhausted, filthy and elated to see everyone. Made it..

Despite the massively mindbending of experience of going from a monastery in Bodhgaya to a Kroger’s in Detroit in two days.. I’ve adjusted well. The time at home has been amazing. I’ve spent a whole lot of time over the last 3.5 weeks doing a whole lot of nothin’. Hanging out with my family (here doing their best Resevoir Dogs impression),
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taking hot showers, sleeping late in a comfy bed, having staring contests with my mom’s cat Willie, the coolest animal in the world, eating well (including gorging on as many fresh salads, chips, salsa, fruits, burritos, spoonfuls of peanut butter, and pizza as I can fit in my face), going for long walks with no destination, and watching Spring actually ‘spring’ in the Northeast (the yellows, greens, purples and reds of budding trees, flowers and plants is one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a long time) has all been incredibly therapeutic.

At about day fifteen, I realize it had been the longest I’d spent anywhere in the last 9 months and the longest time I’d spent at home in at least 10 years. I finally realized that was the reason I couldn’t get myself to commit to the next step in the trip. I had no idea what to do next, where to go or when. And that was fine.

That didn’t last long though.. One thing was clear when I left India – I was definitely not done traveling. On Saturday, I’m taking a train to NYC to spend some time with my cousin Ed and his fiance Landis before jumping on another plane on Tuesday. This one’s bound for Bangkok, Thailand. I’ll be just long enough to pick up a visa for neighboring Myanmar (aka Burma) where I should be for the next month. After that? Probably Laos and other points unknown in Southeast Asia.

Want to meet me somewhere?