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.