Tuesday, August 11, 2009

SE Asia Adventures #8 - Stateside Return & Pictures

Kings, Queens, and Jesters,

Greetings from Chicago, USA. Whoah... I've never written one of these from the states, so even typing those three letters seems strange. I know this concluding update is long overdue, but certain things happened in the final weeks of my trip that led to this being delayed. Most notably, I focused the pen to my leather-bound journal rather than keyboard strokes and enveloped myself in the tree-soaked hills of Thailand and Laos rather than her far-less scenic internet cafes. My only ask from each of you is that if you've read some/most of these, please let me know. I've found that my friends know they'll hear the stories in person so they don't read the emails as often (and they're long as hell haha), but many of you I don't know well apparently read the travel tales so please reach out and I'll make sure you're more directly included in future sendouts. And of course if you've followed things thus far, please visit www.PencilsOfPromise.org to find out more or make a donation or get involved in the movement we're creating...

The final 3-4 weeks of the trip consisted of time spent in Northern Thailand's Chiang Mai and Pai. Activities included playing with baby and massive tigers at the Tiger Kingdom, many waterfall swims, hot springs, foot massages, delicious pad thai, meditation, late nights at The Rooftop and Rockers bars, and many miles logged on a solo motorbike riding through the mountainous region. To say I fell in love with Pai is a large understatement, it's just a tremendously special little town with a powerfully positive energy that I highly recommend each of you check out.

In Laos the agenda was dictated by Pencils of Promise matters, which included many, many muddy village visits across remote regions of Luang Prabang province, several great meetings with Education Ministry and other government folks, and lots of intriguing conversation with my buddy Kevin Slemp who met up for several weeks. My third visit to the country only reiterated how strongly I feel about the land of a thousand smiles and no dollars... Oh, and we have a finished school in Pha Teung that looks awesome and our first Lao coordinator as a resource on the ground for any of you that want to visit and check things out! We also spent three days at The Gibbon Experience, which is a series of 21 zip lines and 5 shadily-built but large treehouses several hundred feet above the Bokeo province national park canopy. For several magical days and nights we literally lived in the treetops, gliding hundreds of meters across valley ravines all day and sleeping in a treehouse 250ft above the ground with 6 others, completely unsupervised and only accessible through a 300m zipline. Mindblowingly cool stuff.

I'm flying through the final weeks' itinerary because as usual with these trips, one of the most profound experiences is always the time spent at home afterwords. There's no doubt that the greatest culture shock of each trip isn't found in some third-world town, but in the return to America where nothing and everything seems to have changed all at once. I've now been stateside for long enough to have made the visits to water my roots- Connecticut, NYC and Brown University. In each place I've been recentered through the love of family and friends, which can now really be meshed into simply "family". Many thanks to each of you for being as amazingly awesome as you are. I now find myself in Chicago doing work to build out the PoP network and enjoy a weekend of Lollapalooza music, with the time and energy and clarity to write this final email containing a few trailing thoughts:

- NYC is an absolute animal. She pulls and twists and slaps you in the face with everything you could ever want... but if you don't have the ability to occasionally say no, she's going to eat you alive. I unfortunately haven't found the ability to say no yet.

- We have everything in the United States. This is by far the greatest country in the world, and completely deserves the reference as "the land of freedom and opportunity"... the only thing we often lack, myself included, is the awareness of such gifts in our everyday life.

Lastly, when I began my trip in March it was the hottest time of year in Laos, and while riding my motorbike I'd often pass tiny fires along the countryside. Small plumes of smoke drifted aimlessly from the soil into serene air on every hillside. This wasn't slash and burn agriculture, it was simply arid conditions leading to brittle wood and leaves catching fire. When I returned to Laos in July the monsoon rains had already been cascading across the countryside for weeks, and the once barren fields were now exploding with greenery and goodness. Everywhere I looked I saw the emergence of new life and growth in familiar locations, facilitated by the consistent thunder and rainfall.

Now that I'm home it's struck me how important both the fires and the rains were to achieving what can only be described as organic harmony. Both enabled a natural process of cleansing, which simultaneously empowered future growth in each area they touched. The fires burned out the clutter of the lands, which perfectly captures what the first half of the trip did for me mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Once those unhealthy elements had been removed, the rains of new life showered both the countryside and the journey... stimulating new thoughts, new friendships, and new beliefs. Now that I'm back stateside the fires and rain have been quelled for a bit, but fortunately they've seeped through the soil and with each new day I can only hope that they sink deeper and deeper into the roots.

Still walkin' down the many roads,

Pictures from the Trip- PoP On the Ground 1, Laos & South Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, Borneo & Indonesia, Nepal, Cambodia, North Thailand, The Gibbon Experience

Key Trip Statistics
Days- 124
Song of Note- "One Time" by Justin Bieber. Signed by my genius brother off Youtube and soon to be the biggest star in the world, jump on the wagon for the ride. You don't have to be a teenage girl to acknowledge how talented he is... but if you are one prepare to subscribe to Tigerbeat Magazine. Go Scooter Go.
Album of Note- "In Rainbows" by Radiohead. For a long time I've acknowledged Radiohead's epic status among true music heads, but didn't get it. This sucker opened up that door for me, and there's no turning back. The most textured music I've ever heard and felt by probably the best band on the planet. If there's one thing I can leave you with, it's to buy this album and make it the soundtrack to your days.


Saturday, June 20, 2009

SE Asia Adventures- #7: Kathmandu and Cambodia

Smalls, mediums and larges,

Greetings from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I hope this email finds each of you in health, happiness and awareness. You’re probably thinking, “You said you weren’t going to Cambodia on this trip.” This is true, but I couldn’t deny the value of visiting my mentor/inspiration Scott Neeson at the Cambodian Children’s Fund to pick his brain, see some of the adorable kids I’ve sponsored and emailed for years, and discuss partnership opportunities between the CCF, A New Day Cambodia Girl’s Orphanage and PoP… So here I am. I last wrote from Kathmandu where I was still in fever recovery mode from the Annapurna trek. Fortunately, I was able to settle into a really unforgettable week in Nepal’s capital through the help of several great friends.

Following my dad’s departure I was immediately whisked to the Yellow Guesthouse, a true oasis of comfort, delicious food and even better people just outside the bustling Thamel area. My good friends Anna and Steve are basically family with the Swiss-French owner and his Nepali wife, so I was given a huge room and a warm welcome from the entire staff. Right away I shared a beer-filled lunch with some of the guesthouse’s semi-permanent inhabitants- Jacquie is a Frenchman in his late 60’s who lives with a pack of 39 tigers as a forester in the Nepali and Indian national reserve lands, Rick is a gentle Texan who runs an art shop between Kathmandu/Paris and was actually in the Andaman Islands when the Tsunami struck (his entire beachfront bungalow filled with water but he luckily survived), Nadia is a 30-something Canadian who teaches rehabilitation and self-help courses to battered woman, children and jailed offenders in Kathmandu, and the list goes on. Everything at the Yellow House is communal- you eat your meals, share drinks, play ping pong and bocce, or discuss the day’s events always with others. It’s a true slice of effervescent disco lemonade and highly recommended by this guy.

Kathmandu happens to be an outwardly dirty and noisy city. At first glance it lacks all charm, and seems to be overrun by people, cows and NGO’s… but once you peel back the surface and see it through a local’s eye, the city is actually filled with hidden gems. Candlelit bars, traditional restaurants, kind nods of “Namaste” and palms pressed against one another in devotion and respect await those who give Kathmandu a chance to win them over through its toothless grin. Anna, Steve and I said our prayers at the ancient monkey-filled (real monkeys, not statues) temple of Swoyambhu (arguably the world’s oldest active temple) and spent time at the tiny home and feet of one of Kathmandu’s most powerful female spiritual healers. After they left I went to see the massive stuppa at Bodona, visited the 12th century city of Bahktapur with its towering pagodas, and witnessed riverfront cremation ceremonies at Pashupati, Nepal’s version of Varanassi.

On Anna and Steve’s final night there was a massive farewell dinner at the Yellow House with family-style pasta, gin, beer and bocce. My good buddy Rory from Bain had just moved to Kathmandu, so he joined us for a huge night highlighted by our savage beating of “the French team” by “the American team” (apparently it’s like their national sport, whereas it was Rory and my first game ever) to the cheers of an all-French crowd that loved heckling their experienced but drunken countrymen. Over the next few days I toured more of the city, dined with Rory and friends at night, and on my last day met up with a Nepali friend of a friend named Pranab. It was an extremely bittersweet day, because as Pranab and I discussed Nepali vs. American culture and education in his newly built bookstore, the sold out Pencils of Promise White Party was erupting in New York City.

Oh how it killed me to not be there… but in starting to plan out the event back in February, it was always understood that I wouldn’t be there to attend. It would be an opportunity for all those who expressed an interest in getting involved with PoP to actually take full ownership over the event and the org, effectively expanding it far beyond any personal network and into the youthful NYC masses, and through the incredible hard work of the PoP leadership, volunteers and summer internship teams they put on a beautifully epic night (for pics checkout http://www.flickr.com/photos/pencilsofpromise/sets/72157619752494639/show/). You guys are seriously amazing. I also had this indescribable feeling, one of those where you don’t really “feel” but rather “know”, that important things would happen on the ground in SE Asia around the time of the event. Fortunately the fates dealt an ace of spades that day.

Without my knowledge Pranab had invited a woman of enormous intellect and presence, Sadhana Shrestha, who for the past 8 years had been Nepal’s head of Ashoka (a massive organization that has given stipends to innovative social entrepreneurs for many years), to meet with me at the bookstore. We immediately hit it off, and within 5 minutes of our conversation’s start she began telling me about an Ashoka Fellow who founded and had now been running a countrywide organization for 30 years that provides early childhood education programs and learning centers/schools to women and children in poor, rural areas of Nepal. She mentioned that her office was just a 10 minute walk away but she didn’t have her cell phone, so without thinking I immediately asked, “Can you draw me a map? I’ll walk there now and try to find her. I’ve got to meet this woman."

The map was drawn, and suddenly I found myself walking alone through random side streets of a Nepali neighborhood in search of an unmarked building, on a street they thought it might be on, to convince a woman who chances were wouldn’t even be there at 4pm on what happened to be a national holiday, that she should meet and talk with a random 25-year old stranger for several hours about her work… But as I said, the PoP event was going on in NYC at that same moment, so I had the ace of spades on my side. After 45 minutes of walking through the exhausting heat, knocking on many random doors, shadily entering several empty homes, and a motorbike ride by a nameless man who took me to her office’s doorstep, I arrived to shake hands with Agatha Thapa.

In her late 50's, Agatha wore a bright green traditional sari that paled beside her luminescent spirit, vigor and ambition. She’s a fighter. It’s clear from the moment you meet her that she’s lived her entire life overcoming the hardships of adversity and naysayers, bolstered by the prioritization of education and female empowerment in a country where egalitarianism is as common as political stability (this is sarcasm… they have neither). What started as a conversation about each of our backgrounds quickened in pace and excitement as we realized the many partnership opportunities to better each others’ organization and educational outreach… Two hours later we left her office only because their electricity shuts off at 5pm and we were now talking in the dark… Kindred spirits for sure. As I left her, I offhandedly said, “Well I’m so glad I decided not to return to New York for this party and got to meet you instead.” She immediately stopped, looked with penetrating intent into my eyes, and stated, “You did not make any decision. G-d has made this decision. Do you believe me, because I know this.” She still didn’t move, letting the question hang in the air. “Yes, I believe you” I said, and then I left with her words, her conviction, her radiance and her infectious resilience written onto the corners of that ace of spades.

Later that night I shared a lengthy conversation and dinner with Sadhana, Pranab and his friend Suvani, and the following morning I flew out of Kathmandu heading for Phnom Penh, but there was a slight issue. The entire city was shut down by a full day of huge political protests. Any taxi or motorbike was beaten with sticks, and I had to somehow get about 20km to the airport. I’ll share the detailed stories in person because my worry-filled grandmothers get these emails, but I fortunately made it unscathed on a bicycle-driven tuktuk through two pretty scary incidents where I was much closer to a mob beating than I ever want to be. Luckily many humble statements of hand-clasped “Namaste” and a look of sincere empathy with their cause got me out of two very sticky situations.

Two days later and I found myself in the place where it all began, the Cambodian Children’s Fund. Four years ago while backpacking through Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia with two friends we were linked up with the CCF’s founder, Scott Neeson, who had just left his job as one of Hollywood’s top executives to move alone to Phnom Penh to build an orphanage/school for 40 kids out of the Steung Muenchey dumpster where they worked all day collecting hard plastics for 25 cents per potato sack filled. His work was the most heroic, trustworthy and tangible that I’d ever seen, so in efforts to become a part of what at the time was just him in a three-story building with three staff members and two computers, he allowed me to have a “CCF Fundraising Coordinator” title and business card. Until starting PoP in October, that was my pseudo-side job/passion for three years and I’m so grateful that he let me be a part of what he was creating... Scott has absolutely been a mentor and inspiration from Day 1.

To say he’s made significant progress in four years would be the understatement of the century. He now has 500 kids, seven fully operational centers, a staff of 140, an amazing curriculum that includes everything from drama, music, karate and dance to phonetic English and excel tutorials, 100 or so computers for the staff and kids, around $2M in annual funding, and the love of every child in his program. When we’d arrive at each facility they’d mob Scott and I with hugs and handholding. Shockingly many remembered the 2005 visit (one in particular immediately asked “How is Dennis?!”, my Owen Wilson-like friend she developed a huge crush on within 2 minutes of meeting him… a four year crush, that’s serious). Over several days I was able to visit each CCF facility, visit the dump and its surrounding shanty-hut villages again to walk amongst the garbage-pickers in what can only be described as living hell (Scott couldn’t attend because he has pneumonia for the third time in 9 months from all the time he’s spent there and his doctor insisted he stay away until he’s regained full health!), discuss partnership opportunities, spend plenty of time with my angelic sponsored child Sokha (a former garbage-picker herself for as long as she can remember), and visit another tremendous orphanage NGO called A New Day Cambodia to see their amazing kids and meet with their wonderful Executive Director Annette Jenson. The children worship her, and rightfully so because she just gets it in every way, so we discussed the progress of their NGO, shared learnings, and laid a bit of groundwork for a potential volunteer-placement partnership.

The past 10 days have been intense and enriching and wonderful. At Pashupati a national minister was being cremated at the main waterfront platform, flanked by thousands of onlookers. Rather than standing among the masses, I somehow came across and watched for 30 minutes as a small gathering of men poured rice, flowers and kerosene on the body of a parent wrapped in a brilliant orange cloth at the smallest and most distant platform designated for the untouchable Dalit caste, the lowest in Indian/Nepali culture. The wailing cries of the three shirtless brothers tore through every person nearby, and I was paralyzed by the ferocity and purity of their grief. As tradition dictates, the oldest brother has to light the initial fire in the mouth of the deceased parent, which he did while being held up by another man to keep from collapsing. Tears poured from the eyes of every one of us watching, as the body was instantly engulfed in towering flames… And yet only days later I found myself inside the CCF and ANDC facilities holding the hands of children literally brought back from the dead by the work of Scott Neeson and Annette Jenson.

That cycle of death and rebirth goes on all around us every day, but we rarely get a chance to see it on such a personal, humanized level. To spend the morning in a garbage dump of human agony and an afternoon with its five-year-old survivors as they practice English, Excel and traditional Khmer dance provides a renewed sense of faith for anyone fortunate enough witness such acts of heroism. These experiences are rare, but they inspire us not to worry about trivial concerns and live whatever we are going through richly and deeply. To say I love you more often. To inhale life’s recipe of uppercuts and stardust fully, and exhale with the lionheart conviction of an Agatha Thapa and Sadhana Shrestha. Nepal and Cambodia have been the welcomed salt and pepper to these spicy travels, but for now it’s back to Laos for me, where the death of each night’s moon marks the birth of a new day, and another chance to leave a few footsteps in the land of no dollars and a thousand smiles.

Walkin' down the many roads,

Key Trip Statistics
Days- 97
Song of Note- "Love is Only a Feeling" by The Darkness. Such a jam. Huge chords, ripping solos, this song will have you raising your goblet to the rock deities by the end of minute 1.
Album of Note- Sister Rosetta Tharp's "Live in Paris." A gospel singing female rock-n-roll blues guitarist who played when TV was still in black and white. She's only about 5,000 years ahead of her time. Look her up on Youtube and you'll want to thank Al Gore for inventing the internet.

Friday, June 12, 2009

SE Asia Adventures- #6: Bali and the Himalayas of Nepal

Breakfasts, lunches and dinners,

Greetings from Kathmandu, Nepal. Damn it’s crazy just to type that, life really is a trip... Before I dive into the update, I’d like to shamelessly plug the Pencils of Promise White Party event this Saturday June 13th at the Union Square Ballroom. If you or any friends in the NYC area are interested, please checkout the link to buy tickets at http://www.paperlesspost.com/events/6706-d75f5680/card. I’m heading back to Laos in the next few days for another month of PoP work on the ground, so unfortunately I won’t be there, but it will be a great night for sure.

When I wrote last we’d arrived at the home of my good family friend Alan Solow, who is something of a cross between Billy Crystal, The Dude and Wilt Chamberlain- He’s hysterical, the absolute man and a walking, breathing incarnation of the kama sutra. After several weeks of magical but draining travel through Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, his huge smile and hosting panache were an incredibly welcomed respite from the road. We anticipated spending 2 nights with Alan before leaving the supposed tourist traps of Bali to head to the Gili Islands… but we never made it that far.

Instead, we were immediately introduced to the local scene of ex-pats living in Bali, effectively bypassing the tourist experience, and fell in love with the people, places, friends and culture we discovered. Our “two days in Bali” melted like a Snickers in the Central Park sun and soon became 2 weeks, with more highlights than I can possibly mention in one email- Soul shine sunsets on the black sand beaches, epic all-night “galaxy” parties underneath a sky of cascading stars, having wild monkeys climb on our heads in the Ubud sanctuary forest, redefining the color green while getting lost for hours on a motorbike amongst the stunning rice terraces of Tampak Siring and Tagal Lalang, guitar and surf sessions on Pedang Pedang beach and an empty for miles Nyang Nyang beach, visiting ancient temples built into a natural setting that I can’t possibly describe at Gunung Kawi, and spending time with an amazing NGO called the East Bali Poverty Project that’s done work so revolutionary that I’ve laid up many nights contemplating how to possibly replicate the accomplishments of their founder, civil engineer, teacher and cigarette-smoker extraordinaire David Booth.

For two weeks we lived in paradise, and then the storm struck. Without warning or cause, it attacked with a furious vengeance- The morning of my flight out of Bali to Bangkok I awoke at 6am with horrific fever symptoms. Cold sweats, teeth-rattling shakes, a blistering headache, muscle pains everywhere and the fire of a thousand splendid suns burning in my eyeballs. I knew right away that I needed to get to the hospital, but there was no time before my flight. I needed to get to BKK to fly to Kathmandu the next day where I was meeting my dad for a week of trekking in the Himalayan mountains of the Annapurna Sanctuary… major problem right? In a state of complete delirium I made it to Bangkok, but as I walked through immigration, the Swine Flu thermodetector went off… no joke. They had a thermodetector.

I was immediately whisked to a medical station, given a Michael Jackson mouth covering, and my temperature was taken. 39.2 degrees Celsius. What the hell did that mean? It meant I was at 102.6 degrees Fahrenheit, and quickly raising suspicion in the eyes of my suddenly-not-so-friendly Asian hosts. I was then moved to a quarantine area, where for the next 2 hours they performed a myriad of tests and group discussions about how to solve their latest medical conundrum. Finally a resolution was agreed upon… they wanted to take me to the hospital for more influenza testing. As much as I could feel the burning lava pulsing through my veins, I also knew that I had a flight in 12 hours to meet my dad in Nepal and considering he was flying out from the states, I had to get there undisturbed… so I insisted I felt fine, and with a bit of luck was released into the Bangkok streets… where the fever got worse.

The next morning I arrived in Kathmandu with my symptoms absolutely owning my body… we immediately flew to Pokhora, the jumpoff point to enter the Annapurna trek, and checked into our hotel. I wish I could say I was insanely heroic and brave and trekked the world’s greatest peaks with a Game 6 Jordan-esque fever… but this would be a lie.

I ended up making it up through Nayapoor to Birathani and rested for a few days in the mountains at Tikidhunga as my dad put on a heroic performance in nursing me back to health while also making sure he trekked up to the heights of Ghorapani and Poonhill. The mountain villages we hiked by were filled with warm smiles and children shouting “Namaste” through the fresh mountain air. Elderly women tended to baby goats and young boys flirted with girls on rocky steps smoothed by the footsteps of travelers and locals alike… We then went up to Sarang Kot, where we spent a night looking down on the luminescent lights of Pokhora… sadly our sunrise wakeup was ruined by a thunderous storm with one lightening bolt that couldn’t have struck more than 100m from us, and a cloudy morning obstructing the mountain views… so around 10am we trekked down the mountainous steps, and in a moment of weakness the clouds gave way to allow a slight view at the peak of Annapurna II. We all gasped at the towering beauty, as it was so high above the horizon that I truly hadn’t realized to even look that high above the clouds for a mountain.

We decided to sit down for tea at a lone table on a grass clearing just in case the clouds parted… and were treated to a show. Over the next few hours the clouds slowly gave way, shedding their white morning veils to reveal a mountain range unlike any other I’ve ever seen… several peaks over 21,000ft stood with menacing grace, like a pack of regal brothers you can’t help but admire and fear at the same time. That morning validated every moment of the Nepal experience, and contains many mental images that I hope to never lose to the thievery of time’s razors and sawdust.

The following morning we took a 5-hour mountain biking tour through the bustling dust city of Kathmandu, riding through ancient city streets and quiet park vistas until my legs and lungs begged for mercy. Throughout the ride we heard the persistent horn honks mesh with distant calls to Hindu prayer stuppas; a true representation of this puzzling city where I currently find myself writing to you all… My dad left later that afternoon, and I have since been in the company of one of my favorite couples on Earth. Steve is a close Native American friend from the Lakota tribe with an enormous heart and smile, and his wife Anna is a beautiful mystic Buddhist, originally from Sweden but she’s lived all over the world speaking 11 languages and most recently spending 5 years on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India after living here in Kathmandu for 4 years. She’s done humanitarian social work in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bosnia, India, Nepal, Serbia, and the list goes on and on… yes, I love everything about them, and yes we’re spending our days and nights in deep conversation, healthy laughs and shared experience.

These past few weeks have been a real lesson in hospitality and what we do for those we love, as friends and as family. When Crosby and I needed a place to rest and recover, Alan lovingly opened his home to two traveling strangers simply because he is the brother of one of my dad’s best friends. He treated us like his own blood, because as he said, “You’re family, this is love.” When I became horrifically ill with the fever from Satan’s bulls on parade, my dad babied me like I was an 8 year-old again. He labored over me with a caring intensity unlike anything I’ve ever seen. He may not have realized it but this past week he taught me so much about what it means to be a real man, to express love through the power of your deeds and the merit of your actions. One day I hope I can repay both Alan and my dad for the gifts of their care and kindness when it was needed most… but until then, all I can do is pay it forward. So here’s my offer- 5 hours of open bar and all the wonderful, fun and great people you could ever want to meet in a single night, how’s that sound? Boom, now you’ve got your Saturday plans- http://www.paperlesspost.com/events/6706-d75f5680/card

Walkin' down the many roads,

Key Trip Statistics
Days- 87
Song of Note- "Off He Goes" by Pearl Jam. Everything that a male vocal ballad should be... strong, meaningful and serenely beautiful. This song has been in heavy, heavy rotation lately.
Album of Note- Warren Haynes "Live at Bonnaroo" Wow. This acoustic set by one of the best guitarists and vocalists in the game is phenomenal. Warren plays lead for The Allman Brothers, The Dead, and his own band Government Mule. Everything he touches is brilliant, and this solo set is no different.

SE Asia Adventures- #5: Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and PoP

Chocolates, vanillas and strawberries,

Much love and many hugs from Semanyak, Indonesia. This email is long overdue, but I'm going to skip through many of the travel stories and just provide the who/what/when/where so I can get straight to the final insight that concludes most of these updates. The reason for this is because I assume most of you don't have the time to read all the way through these, and I'm hoping you'll take the time to make it to the end of this one, especially if you have any interest in the evolution of Pencils of Promise.

I last wrote from Kuala Basu, Malaysia, the jumpoff point for the Perhentian Islands. It took 14 hours of exhausting overland travel and a shady late-night border crossing from Thailand to get there, but we made it around 2am as rains crushed us from above. The next morning we took a boat across the most beautiful water I've seen in my entire life, water that's so saturated with color that it makes the sky jealous, and arrived in Long Beach on the big island. No accomodations were available except tents by the beach, so we spent our first night in a tent. Traveling the backpackers way... The next day we took an amazing snorkling trip, swimming with sea turtles, sharks, and fish of all shapes and colors.

After a few days of snorkeling we took an overnight bus to Kuala Lampur, arriving at 4am and walking the city streets until we could find a decent hostel to get some rest. Two days of touring the sprawling malls of the great Malaysian city (including a hysterical haircut experience at a styling academy in one mall), and then we hopped a flight to Brunei. Why the tiny nation of Brunei? Simple... because I don't know a single person that's ever been there, and recalled the middle school fact that the Sultan of Brunei used to be the richest man in the world. Brunei turned out to be one of the most fascinating places I've ever seen. They've become insanely oil rich in the last 50 years, as there's no income tax and everything is subsidized and completely peaceful. But there's a deep commimtment to simultaneously maintaning many of the elements of traditional life. They have the world's largest sea village, with 30,000 residents living in basic wooden huts on stilts that you might find in any impoverished region of SE Asia, but the entire place now has wireless internet and apparently on the mainland most families have 4-6 cars! Fire trucks, police cars and school buses for the sea village are all just fast boats of various colors. Just 10 minutes down the Brunei river is the Sultan's Palace that's over 2 million square feet, has ~1800 rooms, 18 elevators and more than 165 Bentleys. 10 minutes past that and we felt like we were in the Amazon, finding rare birds and packs of long-nosed Probiscus monkeys jumping from tree to tree. It's an amazing dichotomy of contrasts, and was well worth the two day diversion.

Next we took an all day bus into Malaysian Borneo, passing many passport checkpoints on the lengthy ride before arriving in the coastal city of Kota Kinabalu. Several days of snorkling, amazing sunsets on the waterfront esplande, riding ATV's along the beach, a bit of hitchhiking around, city exploring, witnessing a Malaysian Idol-type singing contest outside our guesthouse on Mother's day, one wild night at an all-Asian danceclub with a sick live band, and then we hopped a flight to Jakarta, Indonesia.

Jakarta is a bustling city of 8 million people, but all I cared about was that the Burger King there had the first barbecue sauce I've found in 2 months. It was delicious, and we actually found the city to be pretty cool in our 24 hours there. Next it was off the cultural city of Yogyakarta followed by a 9-hour sunrise tour of the spectacular ruins at Borabadur and then Prambanan. Absolutely amazing. We then hopped on an 8-hour overnight bus with no AC to Probilinggo, immediately grabbed a 4am minishuttle up to Mount Bromo, witnessed the sunrise from the exact lookout point where Baraka captures the mystic beauty of this place (google it... trust me), walked along the rim to look into the fuming volcano, and then immediately returned to the bus station where we traveled 11 hours by bus/ferry/bus/taxi to get to a family friend's house where we're now staying in Semanyak, Bali. The past few weeks have been a furious itinerary of travel, sightseeing, and stimuli for all senses. It's been exhausting and overwhelming and great.

Key Trip Info
Days- 65
Song of Note- "Skyline" by Dan Teicher. A ballad of beautiful lyricism and soaring classical strings written by the most dangerous artist on the NYC music scene.
Album of Note- ESL Remixed by Thievery Corporation. So good it hurts. Throw it on during a sunny day andjust try not to smile while bobbing your head to the euphoric rhythms.

Now onto the insight-

We spent a lot of time underwater snorkling in the past few weeks, and it's so fascinating to realize just how much activity is going on below the surface of a calm sea. I was blown away by the diversity of wildlife, as there seemed to be a limitless supply of differing species swimming amongst myself and the others. While there's certainly an appeal to the brightest, the biggest, and the fastest, I kept on finding myself observing the large groups of similar fish that swam together... How did they know to all turn left simultaneously? Why didn't they ever bump into each other? How did they maintain perfect space between one another at all times? Even more interestingly, what impact were they having on the sea of activity and the bigger fish around them?

Since Pencils of Promise was founded in October, I've been on thousands of emails regarding the organization and probably spoken with hundreds of different people about it. Listening to the advice of those with significant nonprofit and leadership experience has been invaluable, even if most of them consistently told me that PoP couldn't be successful without attracting large individual donors, which is something we have not done. Nevertheless, the organization is on the verge of its first major tipping point, as we're about to complete construction on our 1st school in Laos, launch an amazing website, begin a summer internship program, host an event with over 1,000 NYC youths, and surpass the $100,000 mark in donations received all within the next month. While snorkling one day I began recalling the many conversations about PoP with people of all ages over the past 8 months, and in paying closer attention to the fish underwater, I realized just how much they represented what we were accomplishing and why it's happened.

A consistent weakness of youth is a lack of wisdom that says "Don't try that because it can't be done". We don't know yet that certain things are impossible, and in that idealism lies our ability to prove that they are not. They're possible when we join together. When many little fish move in a unified direction with shared purpose and intent, they create ripples of powerful change that even the big fish in the sea must heed and acknowledge. This is the essence of Pencils of Promise. Not one of us is independently capable of creating the impact we hope to enact in the developing world, but when we collectively combine the vast resources, knowledge, experience and passion amongst us as a whole, as individuals bonded by our commitment to basic education, the impossible becomes possible. And what do we call these many fish swimming as one? They're not called a pack, a herd or a flock... they're called a school.

Walkin down the many roads,

Monday, May 04, 2009

SE Asia Adventures- #4: Two weeks in Thailand

Windows, Aisles and Middles,

Hot and sticky greetings from Kuala Basu, Malaysia. Since sending out my last email I met up with my buddy Crosby in Phuket, Thailand to begin 6 weeks of travel together. Our itinerary was very loose, and since we rarely book anything more than 24 hours in advance, we’ve changed our expected schedule daily. Each morning carries with it an unknown adventure, as we know something's happening but we don't know what it is.

So how does one possibly describe two incredible weeks in the islands of southwestern Thailand? The answer is you don’t. You touch on a few highlights, but keep most of the memories in your backpocket to be shared around a campfire one day with close friends. Phuket is a highly developed resort city, studded with sprawling beaches, five-star resorts, friendly shops, and a pretty wild nightlife scene that I didn’t anticipate whatsoever. Before even arriving in Phuket I planned to head out as soon as possible, but we headed over to Patong our first morning, cruised for a few hours to a remote beach on rented motorbikes, and enjoyed one great night of clubbing. All I’ll say about that night is that I saw an “Eel Show.” I won’t provide any details, but I did sprint out the front door within 5 seconds of the show’s start. I’m not kidding, 5 seconds was all it took before I was literally running. For those who are wondering, I also turned off 2 Girls 1 Cup about 2 seconds into its main act… It’s a toss-up as to which is more gross. It’s like asking whether the heads or tails side is more valuable on a quarter. Except no one wins… least of all the cup and the eel.

From there we headed to Koh Phi Phi, a place famed as one of the most beautiful islands in the entire world… due to this notoriety, a burgeoning backpacker town has developed with cobblestone walkways and a plethora of eateries and late-night options. During our days we played volleyball, snorkeled, visited Maya Beach where Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Beach” was filmed, met other travelers and generally relaxed. At night, it was a different story. Each evening local fire twirlers did their thing as a throbbing beach rave swelled in the sands… Hundreds of young travelers from across the world drank buckets and danced with snake-eyed intent until 5am. Two of them were named Crosby and Adam. After three ridiculously fun nights of this, we crawled away from Koh Phi Phi for two tranquil nights on Koh Lanta and then at Krabi’s Ton Sai Beach.

Our trip is currently taking place in the SE Asia “low season” for travel, so many places are hit or miss. Ton Sai Beach is a super-chilled out backpacker spot nestled between the towering limestone faces of a stunning horseshoe beach that seemed like an off-the-beaten path dream to me, but Crosby was looking for a bit more excitement so we headed through the darkness of a small mountain path with our full packs at 6pm on our second night to relocate to Railay Beach next door. This turned out to be a great move, because we absolutely fell in love with Railay.

We originally anticipated 2-3 nights there… we ended up staying for seven. This was partially due to the fact that we found a cozy resort to stay at (queen sized beds, AC, pool, manicured landscaping, maid service, etc) for $12 each per night. Railay’s east side in the low season was also the perfect storm of nicely developed bars/restaurants with few enough people to create an extremely laid back and congenial vibe. Highlights from our seven days included a magnificent hike to an emerald green lagoon enveloped by 200ft limestone cliffs that left an eye-shaped sky above, monkey viewing, guitar lessons from a lovely Swede and sunset watching on Prenang Beach (one of Thailand’s Top 3 beaches), shady Muay Thai boxing matches at Bamboo Bar, befriending nearly everyone on the island, and going on a true adventure with a local friend.

For seven straight nights we ended up at a bar called Chok D’s, where everyone lay on comfortable cushions listening to a brilliant Phillipino guitarist play covers of any classic song you could think of... the local crew of young Thai guys that ran the joint quickly became our boys, and after a few nights a real bond of kinship was formed. We became particularly close with one 20 year-old kid named Mon (as in, “What’s up Mon”), and on our fourth night I asked him if he could take us to visit his home in the remote village where he lived… He was pretty surprised at the request, but it’s these local experiences that are the core of why I travel. They’re always filled with surprises, newfound appreciation of other cultures, deep humility, and astounding beauty. They don’t come often, as I can probably count my exposure to such events on two hands in over two years of total travel abroad, but they’re the best of the best… and I just had a good feeling about this one. He agreed, saying “My home? I only go back every two months… but in three days, I go. You come? Yea!”

Three days later we found ourselves on a slowboat heading towards Krabi Town with Mon grinning madly. We rented three motorbikes and jetted off for the island of “little Lanta”. Mon hadn’t been on a motorbike in 3 years, so he led the way at speeds reaching 110km along the narrow motorbike lane of the highway. It was pretty nuts, but a blast nonetheless. After 1.5 hours we arrived at his basic concrete home, where his mother and sister had prepared a full meal for us of omelettes, fish, boiled eggs, vegetables and rice that we ate sitting cross-legged on the ground. Surprisingly, it was delicious. From there we headed down to a small local jetty, where Mon’s father picked us up in his mini-slowboat and lazily rode off for “the cave.”

As we pulled the wooden boat up to a small mangrove patch I knew we were in for something special, and I now truly believe that we’re some of the only Westerners to ever see this local gem. The crew scaled a bamboo ladder and with flashlights in hand entered a shockingly massive and deep cave, filled with stalagmite formations, baby cones, ancient engravings, a few bats and our hushed “oohs” and “ahhs.” After 45 minutes of exploration we returned to the boat, thanking Mon’s father profusely, and he took us on an hour-long island viewing boat tour before we jetted back to Krabi town. From there we hired a boat to return us to Railay as the sunset melted wax candles onto the sky over our shoulders, sea winds whipped our faces, Michael Franti’s baritone blasted into my ears, and as each wave bounced beneath us like nature’s heartbeat the creases of our smiles grew ever so slightly. We both agreed, it was our best day in Thailand for sure.

Railay and Ton Sai also happen to be two of the Top 5 rockclimbing locations in Thailand, so they’re among the world’s best. I’d never rockclimbed before, but we had to go for it… and it was indescribably great. We spent an afternoon under the baking sun scaling several different routes of a 400ft rock face, challenging every strain of physical and mental juice that we had in our bodies. It was exhausting. It was insanely hard. More than anything, it was fucking awesome. There’s just something about ascending a wall formed thousands of years ago with nothing to help you but a harness, a rope, determination, blood and guts. It reminds you of your own mortality, vigor and pulsing lifeforce. There were many times when I was sure I couldn’t move my arms whatsoever, but I just had do yell at myself a bit to keep the spirits high. After several deep breaths the adrenaline would propel me upwards… And upon reaching the peak and turning around to see the tropical paradise below with aqua green waters shimmering for miles, the endorphin-release was unparalleled. I’m pretty sure I’ll be forcing my unborn kids onto professional-grade climbs before they reach the age of 10… just to toughen em up and whatnot. They can take it, they’re not even born yet.

Departing Railay was extremely tough, but a necessary move to continue the trip. It took a ridiculous 16 hour trip by boat and several minishuttles to get us to Malaysia, but we’ve had a great few days here so far and are looking forward to the next stop… which we booked last night on a whim although it certainly wasn’t part of the original itinerary. But you’ll have to wait for the next update to see where the adventures have taken us…

Our time in the cave really got me thinking about what we saw in there and how we responded to it. The formations we witnessed were at once beautiful, scary and awe-inspiring, much like many of the elements each person possesses deep within the recesses of their mental, emotional and spiritual beings. We now live in a world of hyperconnectivity, where we not only immediately share and post the images of our lives for thousands of others to see, but we’re moving towards a society where people are increasingly sharing their every thought, action and feeling via the internet multiple times a day to friends and strangers alike. When you take a picture it’s now usually with Facebook or Shutterfly in mind, as the lights of universal exposure become brighter and brighter with each passing moment.

But what about the caves? As the power and scope of these lights expand, the internal caves seem to be diminishing day by day. The fact remains though, that certain things can only develop in the still silence of darkness. Our time in the cave was a stark reminder of this. Not everything needs to be put on immediate display for others to recognize and commend. Some items should be kept in the caves, enabling isolation to harvest their evolving beauty… and in the future, when each of us allows a few trusted and intrepid explorers into those caves, they too will shine their flashlights of illumination with deep appreciation and respect. The previously hidden elements will remain steadfast from the lengthy period of unfettered development, and each person who enters this cave will leave knowing they have experienced something special. It’s okay to keep a few pieces of yourself in the caves. These are the things that one day, if you keep them away from the eyes of the world long enough, just might turn into someone else's treasure.

Walkin’ the many roads,

Key Trip Info
Album of Choice- “Live at Bats” by Fly My Pretties. A New Zealand super-group comes together for a wicked live set that grooves in all four directions at once. If you can’t get this live set, find anything by Fly My Pretties or their band members’ own groups. You’ll sleep happily once you do.
Song of Choice- “Your Protector” by Fleet Foxes. They’re the modern lovechild of Simon & Garfunkel and The Band. Mountain men who only care about two things- Making sweet, sweet harmonies and growing burly beards. Definitely check them out, explore their catalogue, and find your own favorites… this bellowing ballad sounds oh so right when you’re surrounded by sparkling turquoise waters headed on a speed boat towards the Perhentian Islands. Give it a listen.

Friday, April 17, 2009

SE Asia Adventures- #3: You Know the World's Gone Mad...

…when Laotians wear plaid, and I’ve already broken my Canon. Yes, sadly my camera somehow died within 2 weeks, and yes that opening line was a clear and direct reference to the album you should all go out and buy when it comes out in 3 days, Asher Roth’s “Asleep in the Bread Aisle.”

April is without a doubt my second favorite month of the year. It’s a time of creation and transition. Obviously a lot of people get busy on July 4th, which you can directly attribute to the masses of April birthdays including my sister, brother, niece, dad and a handful of other close friends. The New England weather I love so much slips its gargoyle skin into flower blossoms and breezy iguana necks this month. There’s music in the cafes at night and revolution in the air.

April is a month of life, and it should feel like a damn good time to be alive.

After writing last from Pakse I caught a bus heading due south for what are affectionately known as “The 4,000 Islands.” It’s a remote but pristine archipelago just north of the Cambodian border on the Lao Mekong River. Several of the islands have become traveler hotspots you hear about in the ever increasing whispers about their dramatic beauty and traditional simplicity. After a bus ride and a brief slowboat, I arrived in Don Det, where a German backpacker I met months ago had traveled 28 hours by bus to visit… and told me it was worth every second.

Besides the decent amount of family-owned power generators, Don Det only has electricity for 3 hours per day. From the miniscule beachfront at the point, long rows of simple wooden bungalows line what are known as the “Sunrise” and “Sunset” sides… Nearly every bungalow is the same, with an awful bed inside, no bathroom, no light or fan, and a small deck with 1-2 hammocks looking out onto the water. There were far more bungalows than I expected, but very few were even close to capacity and it made for a very, very small town feel.

I met my ragtag band of international neighbors right away, and we rented tubes for 50 cents to take a nice long float down the river. While in Muang Ngoi I’d befriended a Canadian guy who raved about this English girl he fell for there and really wanted to see again. As we floated down the river, sharing our traveling tales, it turned out that the girl I was talking with was this guy’s love! To connect the dots even further, our other neighbor was the one who persuaded the Canadian guy to spend time in Muang Ngoi in the first place and had traveled with him as well. We were all pretty overwhelmed with the tangential crossing of paths, and the girl was even more lovestruck with our Canadian buddy… Sometimes fate deals you a royal flush on the river, both figuratively and literally.

The high spirits led into a tasty BeerLao watching the cotton candy sunset and a great chill session at what’s called “The Reggae Bar.” Absolutely nothing about this place is reggae, no rastas or Jamaican flags or otherwise, but they play damn good reggae music, and I dug it. They’re well known for staying open later than the other places, which means they keep the lights on until 10:45pm. The power went out just as the monsoon rains started, so all 30 people stayed sitting on their ground cushions, sharing libations while the rains thundered down around us in the dark and moondrenched laughs were exchanged across the tables.

It was also during that hour that we found out one of our neighbors, a 40-something Californian nonstop talker, ran a softcore porn website of herself. The 20-something Mike Myers look alive who met her at the Vietnam border and told us about it said straight-faced, “I honestly wanted to check it out, but my Paypal is broken so I couldn’t register.” I loved this guy.

Two days later I found myself invited by my new neighbor (a Frenchman named Joma who lives in the Ranier Islands, spends significant amounts of time in Madagascar, and has one of the wildest haircuts I’ve ever seen) to visit an extremely remote village. An incredibly sweet Lao woman who sold baskets at the Don Det waterfalls had befriended him and extended an invitation to visit her husband’s home village, where she claimed most had never seen a Westerner. We arose early and excited that morning, met up with a new American hippie friend, and rented bicycles to ride 30 minutes through dirt paths, wooden bridges and scattered rice fields to meet with our Lao host (“Mama Dam”). It turns out that she hadn’t visited the village in 40 years, since she was 15 years old, so the adventure began. After 4 hours of treacherous bike rides, two broken chains, river swimming, long hikes, and a seemingly endless walk through scorching rice fields, we arrived several islands over in their village. True to their word, most had never seen a Westerner. The time spent the in Ban Sai Hong and the trek itself were both incredibly, incredibly special… days like that one revitalize the desire to backpack. They reinvigorate the joy of connecting with others. And they remind you not to wear a jersey without suntan lotion unless you want some really stupid tanlines.

The next seven days melted into one blissful afternoon of silent introspection. I’d love to say I partied nonstop or hiked a new mountain everyday, but I spent most of my time by myself primarily listening to and working through the flow of internal thoughts. I visited as many local schools as I could to gain information on the area’s basic education status, read 800 pages to complete the incredible book Shantaram, swam to an island and back nearly every day, wrote voraciously in my journal, and stayed away from external connectivity as much as possible. Removing all of the usual minutiae, stresses and external interactions from daily life really forces you to think big picture thoughts. I made a home out of my hammock, and my eyes fixed on the shifting horizon as it cycled through technicolor birth and death.

When I did come out of my shell of private introspection occasionally at night, I was fortunate to meet some incredible people who equally fed off the energies of the island. One night’s dinner and late night chill session included a 30-something Valencia jungle warrior who’d lived amongst the refugees of Burma and Peru for months at a time, a 68-year old widowed mystical poet who spoke 10 languages and blessed us all with her scholarly wisdom (and gave me a lovely poem), a Barcelonan couple who I truly loved and hope to meet up with again, two Englishman both named Andy (one was self-referred to as “Candy” or “Gandy” because he was the gay Andy hahah) who lived in Don Det for several years, and two Russians who sang hysterical songs of the motherland proclaiming the strength of the Russian man… Oh, and my total room rent on the island was $23... altogether... for eight nights...

April 14-18th is Lao New Year, which means the whole country stops to have a water fight. No joke. Everyone just drills each other with buckets, hoses, waterguns, and more. Absolutely no one is safe, and they take special delight in drilling falong (Westerners). It’s a blast, and my last night in Don Det I came across an all Lao birthday/New Year party. After idling outside for a bit, I was invited in and seated at a full table of Lao men ages 18-40. No one spoke any English… But they spoke the language of celebration. We shared self-made ricepaper spring rolls, drinks, Karaoke songs, weird hip-shaking dances and a serious amount of hysterics. The children went to bed early and the heat really turned up, as my favorite cultural tradition I’ve ever seen started-

For some reason, it’s a Lao New Year tradition to rub baby powder on your face and the face of others late night… especially older wasted people that are passed out. I can’t even begin to describe how funny it was, but people were covered in baby powder, defenseless and clueless as to how ridiculous they looked. Everybody loved it.

I thanked the gracious hosts and finally left the party around midnight to walk the few steps to the beach front where a 15-traveler bonfire was simmering, and was reunited with my Barcelonan friends. We shared a great late night jam session as a storm settled in the distance and the man in the sky flicked the bright lights on in off in the waterfront horizon. Silent lightening enveloped us from all directions every few seconds for several hours. It was the kind of natural display that lets you know there is Godliness even in science’s playground…

Tomorrow my Laos visa expires and I’ll fly to Thailand to travel south for 6 weeks with my buddy Crosby. I’m pretty confident that most of my NYC fatigue has been washed out in the blue and green rivers of this country. The last month has been good, great, grand, wonderful. That is the word that captures it best. Full of wonder. Both in the internalized monologue asking constantly difficult questions that require scary but truthful answers, and in that feeling of amazement and intrigue that this culture offers to an outsider in each passing day, especially through the work of Pencils of Promise...

There is a tremendous peace to these people and this land. The sun and mists rise slowly each morning and the soft clouds bow their heads in deferent acknowledgment of each day’s closing. Children dominate the landscape holding hands under soft pink faded umbrellas. Elderly women walk in packs, their woven purses complementing traditional skirts that speak of maternal kindness. These women always walk silently, never making a fuss or even addressing their peers. They simply walk together towards their shared destination, screaming dignity through the heavy bags under their eyes and the patience of their step. The family underlies everything here. They look after each other not because they are told, but because it is simply how they live. And permeating each collective act is the beautiful silence and confidence of necessary solitude. It’s witnessed in the men carrying wood logs on their backs from the fields and the women preparing banana stands at dawn.

I’m incredibly thankful to have spent this month amongst the Laotian people. Sometimes it’s in the absence of the usual sound and speech that the deeper subconscious of a people or an individual can be heard. Having come from a world of constant sound and stimulation, being here has been a healthy reminder that each man and woman’s most powerful statement is not expressed through their way with words, but in their way of life.

Be safe and stay classy,

Key Trip Info
Days- 30

Album of Choice
- “Mastercuts – World Beats”. Global rhythms just sound good in beautiful places.
Song of Choice- Bob Dylan’s “Gates of Eden”. Get it acoustic, preferably 1965 BBC Concert… In my humble opinion it’s one of his five best lyrical masterpieces. The words all have jagged edges, and land with a thud at the base of your cerebellum. Like many of Dylan’s best yarns (Tangled Up in Blue, Desolation Row, Stuck Inside of Mobile, etc) it’s a children’s bedtime story for adults that have lost their key to clarity’s front door. You know something is happening but you don't know what it is... Listen to it twice in a row and just try not to have a few lines stuck in your head… I dare you… I double dare you... or you could take the Physical Challenge.

Monday, April 13, 2009

SE Asia Adventures- #2: Hitting the Road

Cowboys, Indians and Native Americans,

Before I launch into the update, I want to first send a massive hug-shaped congrats to my brother Sam and his wonderful wife Bridget on the birth of their beautiful baby girl Lua. Simply amazing... Since last writing there’s been a lot, nearly all of it related to Pencils of Promise though so I’ll do my best to provide you with a comfy passenger seat on the ride that's now led me to Pakse in Southern Laos.

In the days following the first update, each morning I rode my motorcycle black Madonna two-wheeled gypsy queen about an hour to Pha Teung heading for the Gates of Eden. The workers seemed to almost get a kick out of the assistance of a “falong” (the regular term for foreigner), but getting to know the kids personally was what drove me out there each day. By Week 2, when I’d arrive in the village most of the parents and kids would greet me with a large “Saibadee AB!” (they struggle with pronouncing “Adam” and nearly everyone has an easy nickname, so they like calling me by my initials, “AB”). I also discovered a hidden bamboo hut about 30m from a small riverfront beach on a secret dirt path 2km past the village, so some days I’d stop there to relax, eat, read, meditate, go for a swim, and generally enjoy the amazing sense of peace found when completely alone in a remote but beautiful, natural environment.

There are many tales from Pha Teung that can be shared, but the one that had the most personal significance happened on my last day there. When I first visited in December and found several children doing work on a Sunday in a classroom by themselves, one girl absolutely froze my senses. She wasn’t the youngest, the cutest or the prettiest, but I later realized that it was simply how normal she seemed that made her stand out. Her clothes were plain but not dirty or ripped like the others, and she reminded me of any girl I might have sat next to in primary school growing up… only she was living in a starkly different setting. There was just something about her. She radiated the unspoken latent potential of her fingertips. Her paralyzing stare carried no sharp objects. This one girl’s expression alone made me want to build in Pha Teung… But since being out here she won’t engage me whatsoever. Other children laugh, shake hands, exchange names, play games, etc. I’ve tried over and over to speak with her, just to get a name, but she always shyly walks away without a word or even eye contact.

On my last full day in Pha Teung I finished up by going for yet another long swim in the river with the kids. When I came out they walked with me back up to the village to rinse the mud off our feet. For some reason, that one girl curiously watched and stuck around. I asked the names of all the younger kids around her, and finally when I got to her, with creased corners of expressive delight she shouted “Thanh”. Yes. Finally. We talked a bit more in my broken Lao, and before leaving I reached into my bag to grab my favorite writing pen, and gave it to her. Her face was a blank slate as I handed it to her, simply staring into my eyes and accepting the gift devoid of emotion. As I walked out of the village though, I looked back to see a large crowd of kids surrounding her and examining the writing utensil. Moments later she skipped away, singing while admiring the pen she now held high in the air… It’s hard to put into any words, but that simple image validated and encompassed everything that I’d ever hoped Pencils of Promise would become… It felt like a circle had been completed, and that all of the time spent in the village was well worth every second.

Sadly my motorbike finally died that day, so I was forced to hitchhike to get back to Luang Prabang after the high of that final experience. In many ways it almost seemed fitting, as I drained that bike of everything it had to give... The next morning was occupied by a two-hour ride south with TC and three Education Ministry officials through lush mountainous plateaus to visit a small village called KiewTaloum II that’s in need of a preschool, and will possibly be the location of the second PoP school. The morning after that, the real backpacking began.

It started by meeting with a Lao engineer named Somlat who beamed a devilish smile and said, “Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name”. He does all of the building for an organization called Community Learning International that wants to partner together, so the two of us hired a tuk-tuk and hit the road heading north…

Along the 6-hour journey we stopped to visit the CLI library in Pak Ou, the PoP site at Pha Teung, the CLI dormitory at the district’s lone high school in Nam Bak, and an incredibly remote village called Pha Yong that’s in desperate need of a primary and preschool. The hour-long road to Pha Yong is made of dirt and rocks carving a snake-like ascent through a countryside of astounding beauty. Sprawling rice fields seem to sway in green unison to wind songs that only farmers hear. At times we had to get out to help push the tuk-tuk up steep hills, but the ride was definitely my favorite from all of my time in SE Asia thus far. The village itself was extremely poor, and most kids walked two-hour each way to get to the nearest primary school. Somlat and I used sticks to carve out a basic three-room school diagram in the dirt, which just may become a reality before year's end. It was inspiring and beautiful and badass... once again, everything that I hope PoP will become one day.

We then arrived exhausted in the sleepy village of Nong Kiaw, and arose early the next morning to take a speed boat up the Nam Ou to a tiny village called Hoay Hoay. A monsoon-like rain exploded from the sky upon our arrival, and as we trekked through the mud to visit the Hoay Hoay primary school, the village children laughed hysterically beneath their bamboo huts, holding handfuls of rain tempting us to defy them… But I didn’t have to think twice, it was all right.

A second night was also spent solo in Nong Kiaw, relishing a lightning storm of epic proportions, and the next morning I hopped on a slow boat headed upriver towards the idyllic village of Muang Ngoi… Ahhh Muang Ngoi. I love this place. I really, really love it. It’s a hidden paradise with a patchwork of $5 per night waterfront bamboo bungalows and the ghosts of ‘lectricity howl through the village bones for only three hours each day. Two afternoons were spent in a hammock there, watching the sun arch towards its resting place and absorbing as usual the words of the greatest writer to ever live, Robert Zimmerman of Duluth, Minnesota. It was also the first time I’ve had any consistent interaction with Westerners since arriving in Laos, so it was really nice to hear the tales of fellow backpackers. One guy was headed to the Tibetan plateaus after four months of learning to now speak semi-fluent Thai, two Canadian’s had just returned from three weeks of trekking in Nepal, and the couple next door was an Israeli guy and Guatemalan girl that met while spending eight months traveling India… this patchwork of jelly-faced personalities and a few others made for some great conversations and late-evening jam sessions.

After an assortment of boat and tuk-tuk rides I returned for a night to Luang Prabang and will now be traveling Southern Laos for 11 days where internet is even more rare than heated showers. The final story I’d like to share occurred one afternoon in Pha Teung while playing with the kids during their lunch recess-

They suddenly started shouting a word I didn’t recognize and pointing to the sky. I didn’t see it, but I heard a sound that I immediately recognized. As it got progressively louder, a child tugged on my shirt and guided my eyes towards the black object approaching from above. My entire body tightened. A large helicopter rapidly approached as my heart elevated in beats and decibels. The children jumped and waved all around, shouting laughter towards the sky. Many looked at me with approval-seeking giggles, ostensibly asking “Isn’t that amazing to you too!?” Of course they had never watched footage of the Vietnam War, seen the infamous picture of the Vietnamese girl after a napalm raid, played modern aerial videogames, or viewed the many Youtube clips taken from assault vehicles during battle. But that's what I pictured, those were my only "helicopter flying over Indochina" images...

I looked back up, and when I looked down again one child was sternly shaking his head. After a second I realized he was impersonating the expression I must have been inadvertently making while watching the helicopter pass several hundred meters above. The entire event was a shocking and completely unexpected experience. I had to sit down after to absorb it all- that feeling of absolute vulnerability and helplessness, compounded in its effect when juxtaposed with the excited kids jumping all around… To them this was a marvel of magic and futuristic technology, but to me it potentially spelled the end and there was nothing any of us on the ground could do about it.

One of the main reasons I travel is for these rare moments when something completely irregular and simultaneously unforgettable occurs that alters or solidifies your view on something. For the first time in my life, I felt the panic and indefensible fear that civilians in warzones must feel during an aerial attack. Fortunately, the one person I know in the armed forces is naturally equipped with the deepest morale character and courage out of anyone I’ve ever met, so I’m hopeful that our weapons of war are in the hands of other individuals with similar merits. But that afternoon made me wonder… How differently would we feel about acts of war and civilian destruction if they were rarely seen from the above or from miles away as we see usually them now? How much more reluctant would we be to engage in these acts if they were consistently shown from the civilian perspective on the ground? My beliefs were certainly pro-pacifism before, I just now wish I could have put the war hawks next to me that afternoon, standing in a schoolyard with waving and jumping children all around... begging for a helicopter’s attention…

I hate to end on a somber note, I just felt the need to share that last story since it was such a powerful experience. To lift the mood before ending this sucker, my last night in Muang Ngoi everyone was sharing traveling tales from their trips. This one Austrian lifelong traveler then went on and on about these incredible mangrove monkeys. He talked for 10 minutes about their ability to make dives into muddy waters in search of fish and keep their eyes open the whole time... It was a hysterical story, and he talked with tremendous fervor about how great these monkeys are. He finally finished his diatribe, and another person jumped in. Before they got too far, I asked him "Oh by the way, where exactly did you see these monkeys? Maybe I can check it out on my trip..." His response was, "Oh... me? I saw them on television. Discovery Channel man!"

Two minutes in heaven is much better than one minute in heaven,

Key Trip Info
Days – 21
Album of Choice – “Consoler of the Lonely” by The Raconteurs. One of the best pure rock albums in years. Book-ended by its two finest tracks (“Consoler of the Lonely” and “Carolina Drama”), also give “Top Yourself” a listen if you ever have post-breakup angst. This one enters the Dylan pantheon (“Positively 4th Street”, “Don’t Think Twice it’s Alright”, “Dirge, “Just Like a Woman”, etc.) of songs that absolutely destroys a former love. Wicked stuff but real raw.
Song of Choice – “Mr. Soul” by Neil Young. It’s a kaleidoscope of lyrical delight, best heard acoustic and without distractions.

Friday, March 27, 2009

SE Asia Adventures- #1: Breaking ground (Part II of II)

…I was immediately hit with what every outsider, particularly a New Yorker who never sees this, realizes when spending time in Laos. It's one of the many reasons I fell in love with this place from the start- There are children absolutely EVERYWHERE. On bicycles, in mothers’ arms, playing in dirt schoolyards, scooping cups of muddy water onto tiny crabholes shrieking contagious giggles towards no one and everyone at the same time… And best of all, they all smile and wave. Without hesitation or fear, they flash chicklet teeth whether you choose to unveil yours or not. Without a doubt, I’d come to the right place.

Upon arriving in the center of Luang Prabang, I decided to return to the Rattana Guesthouse where I’d stayed during my week-long visit here in November. The results of that visit were finding and selecting Pha Teung as the village for the first Pencils of Promise school, which was a huge deal in itself. I greatly overpaid by backpacker standards for my room ($13 per night… What? I’m serious, most can get a shared room here for $4-6 per night), but it was well worth it for the private space, an AC unit, hot showers most days, and most importantly the room came with the blackmagic karma that emanates from its creaky wooden floors… It actually reminds me a lot of Apt 23H at 1 Union Square South, mainly because my room is the exact dimensions of my roommate Alex’s closet (in my own defense, he has an awesomely huge closet).

The next morning I was met by Thongchanh aka TC, the Lao coordinator for Give Children a Choice (the organization we’re partnering with in the construction of our first school). TC and I get along great from my last visit, and after catching up for a bit we hopped on his motorbike to head to the Luang Prabang Education Ministry. Sporting a healthy beard and wearing my backpacker best (a pair of old jeans, a purple woven belt from some random market in Guatemala, the one button-down in my bag and Nike sneakers), we entered the building where not a single person spoke more than a few words of English.

The first meeting was with Mrs. Suchya (the Head of the LPB Preschool Education Program) and a girl who will be my point of email contact within the ministry. I’m attempting to create and have them implement a new but simple performance testing program to clearly demonstrate that Pencils of Promise not only builds schools but that kids are learning in them as well, so this girl’s ability to send test results is incredibly significant. The meeting went well in defining PoP’s role and solidifying our collaborative efforts with GCAC and the Education Ministry going forward. Next we shuffled into a large room and were joined by six other Lao officials, none of which spoke any English.

Tea was served and a man stood up to read the full Memorandum of Understanding (the legal agreement of who’s responsible for what) regarding the Pha Teung Preschool. The MOU was then signed, after which Mrs. Suchya made a long speech of thanks about fourteen inches from my face (all in Lao, so TC translated every few sentences). I then made a reciprocal but very brief speech thanking them and letting them know that this was much more than a one person effort, that the school had been funded by more than 1500 donations from NYC-based youth, and they asked that I thank all of you as well. So THANK YOU. As I left the building I asked the one girl to email me immediately so we could stay in contact regarding test results. She informed me that they didn’t have any internet, so she’d have to go to an internet cafĂ©. Keep in mind we were already at the Provincial Ministry of Education building… Welcome to Laos.

I knew that MOU was supposed to be signed on Friday March 20th for months, but until seeing it happen you just never know, so I was pretty ecstatic about the day’s events… The rest of the afternoon was spent practicing guitar in the chill outdoor rest area of the guesthouse, something I’m trying to learn on this trip but struggling heavily with so far. After playing for at least 2 hours straight my fingers were killing, and to my relief a small but kind 20-year old Lao kid named Ki walked up asked to play for a bit. “I thought you’d never say hello” I said, “you seem like the silent type.” Turns out he’s not silent, and he’s sick on guitar. Not Dan Teicher sick, or actually even close, but he plays the Lao and Thai styles really well.

On Sunday afternoon I returned home from doing some email work to find him waiting at my guesthouse. Interesting. He asked me to get on his motorbike so he could take me to “a beautiful location for sunset.” All of my valuables (passport, money, camera, journal) are in one bag that I take with me everywhere. “Should I get on this local but complete stranger’s motorbike with that bag and let him take me wherever?” I thought. The answer was clear. Hell yes, I’m at least twice his size and he can’t even grow a mustache. And what a shady but wise decision it turned out to be… he took me to meet his two sisters who were also miniature-sized people, and they led the way through a winding dirt walkway to a sprawling, beautiful beach along the Mekong River dotted with about 100 Lao locals. I wondered how many Westerners had ever even seen this place… While people playing soccer, volleyball and generally acted as though life was perfect, we hired a canoe-style fishing boat for $4 to take us on the river for about an hour as Ki sang guitar songs and the sun lowered its blazing tangerine self beneath the distant mountains. After this we shared a noodle dinner in his sisters’ one room home, which was also strangely the size of Alex’s closet, and Ki gave me a lift back home. It was a magical experience, to see the true Lao culture with no pretense or tourist slant… a night I won’t soon forget.

As usual I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited for the next morning’s ground-breaking, so at 5:30am I went outside to attend the famous alms-giving ceremony of Luang Prabang where saffron-robed monks silently walk the streets at dawn accepting gifts from patrons. After this I was met by TC and two Education Ministry officials (one who I’ve met several times and wears an “NYC –New York City” hat that when I gave him the thumbs up about, he said “Yes very good quality company”. I honestly think it’s possible that he believes NYC is a clothing company, not an actual city) and we drove the hour plus to Pha Teung. It’s a small village of ~650 people where most are farmers and the average family income is $400 per year. I fell in love with it back in November when visiting on a no-school Sunday and seeing several children practicing their writing on a chalkboard in a thatched bamboo makeshift classroom. We arrived to see the site for the preschool had already been completely cleared by locals, and about 100 children were attending classes in the primary school. They soon came running out to stare at the men at work, and we performed the leveling for the site and hammered some wooden boards in place to define the school’s outline. It was awesome beyond words to see a once far-fetched idea finally becoming a reality.

Following this I played with the kids for a while before being invited to share some Lao Lao (local rice whiskey they love here) and Lao beer (there’s only one beer in the entire country, fortunately for all it’s absolutely delicious) with the village leaders, ministry officials and the schoolteachers. We had a ceremonious lunch where they made their best effort to get me wasted… and were relatively successful. The excitement around the school’s construction was palpable throughout the village, and it was incredibly gratifying to see that while the entire PoP crew had been working so hard over the past few months in NYC, these people were putting in plenty of physical work to prepare the site over here too.

Due to the difficulty of remembering Lao names, I decided early on nickname each of the village teachers/leaders that I frequently interact with after an American celebrity who would play them in a Lifetime made-for-TV movie. Most days I now have lunch with Kurt Cobain (he only wears plaid flannel-like shirts), Steve Buscemi (he’s super creepy but awesome), Christopher Walken (he’s real old but oh so smooth), Mr. Ed (his teeth are just ridiculous), Sam Cassel (his alien head is crazy) and Mr. Miyagi (he’s the wise old principal who commands respect… sometimes I call him Billygoat though, cause he has less than 10 facial hairs and one is at least five inches long). They usually try to get me drunk so we can better understand each other, but I’m pretty sure I’ve already won their respect through my beard and leg hair since none of them have the ability to grow either.

TC has now loaned me his old motorbike and I ride for a little more than an hour solo through the winding countryside out to the village early each morning. My day alternates between hours of playing games while being amazed by how adorable the kids are in the schoolyard, digging trenches with the local workers, swimming in the river with a ragtag crew of 5-9 year olds, being taught to fish by village leaders, and brief conversational exchanges with Walken, Miyagi and sometimes Mr. Ed. I can’t describe it as anything other than purely awesome. The souls of my feet are painfully cut up from playing duck-duck-goose barefoot, but the internalized soul feels rejuvenated and healthy.

That is the full update. I know it’s been long, but as Willie said to Toots, “It’s hard to explain how I feel, it won’t go in words but I know that it’s real.” The one final story I’d like to share happened on Monday morning before the ground-breaking. In attending the alms-giving ceremony, I hoped to witness and participate in a sacred tradition. While it was certainly very special, there were a handful of people aggressively snapping pictures right next to the monks that were not only disrespectful, but seemed to reduce the ritual itself into somewhat of a tourist spectacle. After I’d finished handing out rice to the monks and all had passed, I sat on some nearby steps to write in my journal for a bit. Most people dispersed, returning to their guesthouses. After about ten minutes I looked to my right to see an extremely old Lao woman still sitting on a low plastic chair, looking ahead in silence. She simply didn’t move. I kept writing. Several minutes later, the monks walked passed us in the opposite direction, returning to the temple where they reside. The old woman gave each of them, young and old, a handful of rice from her box with persistent diligence. Each was rewarded.

After they passed, she closed her rice box and continued to look straight ahead in expressionless silence for several moments. She then pressed her palms together so hard that her hands began to tremble. She bowed her head, placed her hands gently against her forehead, and paused for several seconds of devout prayer. She seemed not to be thanking an individual person or deity, but more the ceremony itself. This was devotion. This was fulfillment. By the looks of it I’m guessing she’d done this every morning at sunrise throughout her entire life, each day repeating the sacred ritual. The beauty of the act gave me chills, and made me realize the significance of simply having something in one’s life to care about with that much passion. For those that aren’t aware it was during my first visit to the NY Philharmonic in September, while watching a piano virtuoso furiously crushing the keys to a Rachmaninov piece, that I kept thinking “I just want something in my life to feel as passionately about as that man does towards the piano” when the idea for PoP was created… Watching that woman put her trembling hands to her forehead allowed me to see that the size of the task is secondary to the primary significance of simply having something that makes one feel alive with a sense of purpose and meaning. It was a powerful reminder to always keep the eyes open, because sometimes you find the inspiration in the great concert halls of the world, and other times you can simply pass it on the street.

Much love and many hugs,


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

SE Asia Adventures- #1: Breaking ground (Part I of II)

Thieves, bandits and innocents,

I’m writing to you now from Luang Prabang in Northern Laos, a charming town of 26,000 that will serve as my home base while in Laos. This is the first travel email I’ve written in almost 2 years, so I’ll do my best to Shake off the Dust and Arise. Be aware that these will be laced with obscure musical references (e.g. capitalized phrase above), overly detailed stories, and are essentially the anti-Twitter. They represent how I see the experiences on the road in full, which means that in a world of morsel-sized information, I’ll be serving up 5-course meals. They’re not written with Blackberry-screens in mind, so I’d suggest you print them up for a read on your morning commute… But enough qualifications, let’s dig into the guts and bones of this Freewheelin’ yarn.

As many of you may have seen, I’ve never worked harder in my entire life than the past six months in order to get everything in a position so that I could comfortably leave the normal life behind. This trip is about advancing Pencils of Promise on the ground in Laos and additionally getting back to my soul by backpacking SE Asia for an extended period of time. Fortunately the hard work paid off and everything was in line, but I found myself still awake at 4:30am on Tuesday morning handling final responsibilities without having a packed bag for my 8am flight. So in that sleep-deprived state of delirium when the world seems to have fallen through its own back pocket and you understand how Dr. Frankenstein created his monster, I packed four months of gear into the trusty backpack that’s now rested on my shoulders through 40+ countries over the past few years.

At the Cathay Pacific check-in counter at JFK, I was told I didn’t have a seat on my flight. Too tired to be annoyed, I just stood and waited. It turns out that my booking was listed under Braun Adam, not Adam Braun. Thanks Vayama.com. As described in my previous email, the flight itself was apparently an insulated baby convention with monk-chanting fathers. The flight was also 95% Asian, which made it even funnier when the massive Soviet guy (yes it still exists… as long as Rocky IV can be purchased the Soviet Union is alive and a serious threat to the American way of life) who was sitting directly behind me in his Muscle Beach tank top at one point said aloud “You cannot be facking seereeuus!”

After a brief layover in Hong Kong I arrived in the Grand Central Station of SE Asia, Bangkok Airport. As most travelers will attest, Bangkok is the hub to access the gems of the region but it can offer a few ephemeral delights itself… most of which can be found in the backpacker equivalent of Times Square, Koh San Road. If you want a tailored suit, the world’s best knockoffs, cheap accommodations, Thai cover bands in Irish pubs, ping pong shows or a ZJ (if you don’t know what that is you’re not ready for it), that’s the place to go. Having been through Bangkok probably 5-10 times in the travels thus far, I quickly made my way to Koh San on a local bus (it’s the only part of Bangkok I’m familiar with) but was way too tired to do anything but find a decent bed, take a warm shower and eat some delicious pad thai. Sorry but no Bangkok adventures to tell of, my focus was on getting to Laos and that’s where it stayed.

The next morning I hopped the bus back to the airport and flew into Luang Prabang Airport in a small airplane painted with ridiculous boats and clown fish. Upon touching down at the airport I gave the new U2 album its first listen. The opening lick to the cover track “No Line on the Horizon” seemed to perfectly fit the mood of the country I was entering. That fine separation between the tangible and the unknown is shaded in grey here; some days it seems as though the sun isn't sure whether it's supposed to rise or set. The next tune, “Magnificent”, forced a “hell yes” smile across my face as I stepped onto the terrestrial goodness of the land I’d been craving to return to since my first visit in November. As I applied for my entry visa and they reviewed my passport, the third track, ironically titled “Moment of Surrender” began… touchĂ© Bono. Then I exchanged money and hit the jackpot. I changed $200, and immediately became a millionaire. Literally. In my pocket was $1.7M Lao kip, I was fucking loaded. I hopped a tuk-tuk towards town and “Breathe” exploded into my eardrums as wind whipped my face and blood and electricity and a hard rain surged through my veins. It was go time.