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 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 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-

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,