Monday, December 12, 2011

Global Language and the Collapse of Civilization

 Have you ever thought about what Will Smith sounds like in Germany, where all of their movies are dubbed in German? Think about it. Apparently, the same voice actors always portray the same celebrities in foreign countries. It makes sense, after all it is much more natural and pleasing to our minds to always hear the same voice coming out of the same person. However, this leads to some interesting problems. A an old favorite American movie may not be enjoyable for a German who, hearing the English version for the first time because the actual voice of the movie star is so different from the one they are used to. Also, what would happen if the voice actor died before the actual celebrity?

This gets even trickier if the actor is in the process of making an epic movie series that is being filmed and released over several years, like Lord of the Rings? This is not confirmed, but I have heard that the German voice of Legolas died after the first film was released but before he was finished dubbing the entire series. Imagine it, the search for a similar sounding German voice would be intense, given the budget of the movie and it’s potential to make money in the German market. All right, maybe not massively intense in financial terms, but still, think about what it would be like if you were somehow in charge of finding the replacement.

Thinking about this makes me consider the prospect of making a living out of using your voice. What if you were a poor, homeless beggar, but you had the perfect voice to be an announcer for boxing or some other sports? From rags to riches, just because you were in the right place at the right time, begging with the right voice. I’m sure the people in charge of German voice actor replacements have a better method than going out looking for bums, but you get my point.

Having conversations with people from all different backgrounds can bring out all sorts of things, such as how different humour is different across cultures. Occasionally this difference leads to the hearing of a really funny new joke, but for the most part it leads to some polite fake laughter or a chuckle. Actually, that is being generous; often, it leads to blank expressions and “I-don’t-get-its.” Especially across languages, because subtlety cannot be translated.  A many great jokes lose much of their flare in translation.

Even in English, the punch of the joke can be pulled by the differing mannerisms between American, British, and Australian English. Actually, more specifically, because of the different slang in different regions, these divisions are much more acute than at the national level. A Scottish joke might not be so funny to a Welshman, just like a Southern joke might not be so funny to a Yankees fan.  But linguistic asymmetries aren’t the only things that make humour different across cultures. Trust me, the British sense of humour greater differs from the rest of the world.

One of the reasons I like traveling is because I like learning about these sorts of things, and thinking about them. Language, and the English language in particular, fascinates me. In the today’s quickly globalizing world we are moving closer and closer to a common language. I don’t know what the statistics are, but do I know English the common language on the international backpackers circuit, and I imagine it is the most widely recognized on the planet. Albeit, it is often spoken as a second or third language, and in many cases with an extremely limited vocabulary, but it is the most useful language to know in most places around the world. Consider how long it might take before most people on the planet could effectively communicate with almost any other person in the world, if ever.

It’s interesting to notice the changes in the way the way that I speak the longer I stay away from home. It may surprise you to learn that many people are often surprised to hear that I am American, even after hearing me speak. Clearly, if they listen to me for long enough it becomes pretty evident. That being said, both consciously and subconsciously I pick up phrases I hear and incorporate them into my vocabulary. I don’t do it with the purpose of fooling people, but I must admit that the idea of having a unique way of speaking all to myself allures me. After all, don’t reporters work on their ‘non-regional dialect’ so that they can move up in the broadcasting world? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not devoting too much attention to intentionally change the way I talk or write; the change is organic. Just now I noticed that I spelled humour the British way when spell check told me it was wrong, a complaint I have often heard from British users of American word processing software.

I’m making money with my labour at the moment, (notice the unintentional British spelling, again,) and it’s not a bad way to live. I am also still waiting to hear about the nightclub job, which I am still hoping to get. I still don’t know how long I’ll stay in the city, or what I’ll be doing in a month, which is also not a bad way to live. Life is what you make it, and I am happy with the experiences I am making at the moment. Life is too short to spend it toiling away at something you don’t like to do, and if you have the means, wherewithal and courage to do what you really want instead, I highly recommend it.

On that note, I just want to share how thankful I am that I am in a position to be where I am right now. I think about the millions of people who don’t have the same opportunities that I do. Many times, their choices include working in an unsafe, dirty factory or starvation. Or worse yet, the choice between following a certain political group or gang and being raped, tortured, and murdered. Politically speaking, I don’t want to claim that I have some superior knowledge on how to best run the world. However, I do know that it would be possible to feed every person in the world. I do know that it would be possible to offer internet access to the entire population, given enough time, effort, and sacrifices. I only hope that I can take my life of freedom and opportunity to somehow help make that happen.

We live in an exciting time in human history. The future is less predictable now than it has been in all of recorded history. What technology awaits us in the coming years? How will the geopolitical environment change in the next fifty years? How will the climate change in that time? Americans from my parents generation all know where they were when they heard the news that President John F. Kennedy died, and I know that all Americans from my generation know their exact circumstances when they heard about the planes crashing into the twin towers on the 11th of September. Will the next generation have a similar moment of remembered shock? Hopefully they will, for I believe that the alternative is a life so full of shock that such moments will have lost their punctuality.  Still, I am an optimist. Civilization isn’t going to collapse anytime soon, not at least if I have any say in the matter.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Kangaroo Roadkill

I watched the sunset through the window on the train ride home. Yellow faded into orange and then purple: it was beautiful. The train was crowded but I didn’t mind. I was listening to music in my headphones and enjoying the setting sun. Life is good.

 I was coming from an interview for a job bartending in a nightclub. The interview seemed to go well, but they didn’t give me to job on the spot. However, I left confident that I had made a good impression and done all that I could do to get the job. They said that they would call me by Monday either way, and if I don’t get the job, well, then it simply wasn’t meant to be.

That isn’t to say that I believe in predetermination, or a set-in-stone fate. However, the universe does tend to conspire to push us in one direction or another. This may seem paradoxical, but I am often able to find peace by answering ‘yes’ to a ‘this-or-that’ question. Just because our logical process can’t simultaneously grasp the truth of two seemingly dichotomous viewpoints doesn’t mean that there is not truth on both sides. I’ve been sitting here for fifteen minutes searching for a simpler, more succinct way to explain this, but so far have not been able to think of one. I will continue to search for means to express the ineffable, but in the meantime, please allow me to digress.

I saw my first Kangaroo in person. Unfortunately, it was dead, on the side of the road, and being eaten by a scavenger bird. Still, it was an experience that I won’t soon forget. I was in a moving truck driving to a job about an hour north of the city of Melbourne. It was amazing at how quickly the scenery changed from an urban landscape to seemingly endless tracts of yellow grass and farmland. Even though I was working, I still tried to absorb the landscape like an adventurer on holiday in a foreign land. While the landscape wasn’t exceptionally beautiful (as a matter of fact in reminded me of west Texas,) this mindset helped me to turn a mundane drive into a life-long memory.

I am greatly enjoying working for the moving company. It is physically demanding, but not overly so. I like the people who I am working with, and we are able to have a good laugh while we are working. Or, to use a bit of the non-American English I’ve picked up, we have a good crack whilst we work. My co-workers consist of an international community of locals, expats, and travelers, and the conversation usually sheds some interesting light on some foreign culture.

 In addition to the myriads of differing words between the various manifestations of the English language, I also learn quirky little tidbits about cultural differences. For example, a great deal is imported to Australia, from knick-knacks to cultural items such as movies and TV shows. However, the culture that does spring from the land down under takes on it’s own form. The hip-hop produced by Aussies is overwhelmingly political, the slang that they use is completely unique, and, in my opinion, they television shows they produce are atrocious. I must admit, I must admit my American upbringing makes me incredibly biased. Clearly, the TV production here is of lower production value, but also the Australian sense of humor differs from my own sense of humor in such a way that I don’t even appreciate the good bits in their shows.

So, again I am falling into the routine of a semi-normal life. I have been exercising through my current job, as well as becoming more regular in my Qi Gong and meditation practices.  Furthermore, I am looking out a few yoga and dance classes to supplement my not-so-mundane routine. I might be headed off into the outback to do some regional work (to qualify for a second year visa in the country) in the near future, and I want to get the most from my time in the city. Sometimes I have to remind myself what I really want out of life: happiness. Only you can walk your own journey through life, and only you know which roads will make you happy. For me, it’s a struggle to remain mindful and conscious of my priorities. Trust me, taking the time to think about these things is well worth it: it pays dividends. I'm always happier when I take the time to align my life with what my ideals.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reflections on the Rocks

I felt the Antarctic wind blew up from the south as I looked out over the sea. I experienced the smell of salt water and spray from the waves crashing on the rocks hit my face. Even though it’s December, the summer sun was more than enough to keep me warm. It was a beautiful day. I had come looking to see a few wild penguins, but unfortunately they decided not to show. Still, I made most of my time and used the opportunity to meditate, as well as go through my Tai Chi and Qi Gong routine that I had learned in Thailand.

A lot has been going through my mind in the past few days; it all started on Saturday night. After working at the restaurant, my boss sat me down for a discussion. He told me that because I didn’t have enough experience that he was going to cut my hours to Saturdays only. It seemed a bit odd because I had been there for three weeks already and already knew the drill around the restaurant. To be honest, I think it was because I didn’t get stressed out when the restaurant was busy, and I think he wanted me to. However, I was quite happy he gave me the opportunity to leave the job. Despite not liking the atmosphere there, I was staying because I gave him my word to work through Christmas. Even though he didn’t treat his employees with any respect, my integrity is important to me. Therefore, when he gave me the chance to terminate my employment, I took it with a smile on my face. I think that my smile pissed him off even more. Oh well.

Although I was laughing on my way home with a former coworker as we poked fun at the antics of the restaurant owner, I was soon confronted with a more somber reality: I was now in a foreign country with limited funds and no income. This is certainly a serious situation and I think that most people would begin to worry. Worrying, however, is not in my nature. Besides, there is plenty of work in Australia, especially during the summer. After all, I had found that job less than 48 hours after my arrival in this country. I would go on to vent about my former employer, but really should thank him. Not only had he given me my first experience getting laid off of a job, he had also released me to embark onto the next step of my journey.

I originally left my career in the United States determined to go on an epic adventure, with the ultimate goal of figuring out what I’d like to do for the rest of my life. I had certainly already figured out that it wasn’t working in the package delivery business. Now, unencumbered by a work schedule and with enough financial security to survive for at least a few weeks, I again had the task of finding work. This time I didn’t want to get involved with something I hated. I explored opportunities in the mining industry, working in the outback for the seasonal harvest and, of course, more hospitality jobs.

Clearly at a fork in the road on this journey called life, I took my time looking down each path. It seemed to me that I would have to spend money on every one of these paths. The only inroad I was able to find in mining was a employment agency that charged over two hundred dollars. It seemed that the best way to work on the farms would be with a commercial driving license driving a truck instead of toiling in the fields, which also costs over 200 dollars. Finally, most hospitality jobs either required barista skills or a certification to sell alcohol, which can also be bought for the predictable price of $200.

I deliberated for a day, just letting the enormity of the possibilities soak in. I spent the following day applying to jobs, that I would like, online. Unlike before, when I first arrived here and I applied for every job I felt qualified for, this time I only applied for bar jobs in nightclubs and bars. Also, just to be safe, I applied to a few call centers. I figured if I couldn’t find a job I liked it would at least hold me over for a few weeks. Additionally, I got contact information for a moving company that my flatmate worked for. He was leaving the job, and he reckoned that there was a good chance that they would be looking for additional help to fill his spot.

Well, it is now a day later and there no longer seems to be any reason to be stressed. It is a good thing I never stressed out in the first place! It turns out that the moving company could use another set of hands, and I start tomorrow at 7:30am. Additionally, I received a call from a nightclub to come in for an interview on Thursday. Once again, it only took me two days to find a job. While I’m not saying which path I’ve decided to take, at least I wont be starving on the streets anytime in the near future. Life will never stop presenting me choices. At least I’m taking time to think about them. I’m not just blindly following the path of least resistance, or just doing what is expected of me. Let me tell you, life is a lot better this way.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Jaywalking with Pride

One of my favorite things to do whilst away from home is to jaywalk. For whatever reason, unbeknownst to me, many people around the world seemingly need to wait for a lighted sign telling them it is safe to cross the street. I first noticed this phenomenon in San Francisco 8 months ago, and with the exception of Thailand, where it seems like there are no traffic laws, it’s been getting worse the farther I’ve gotten from home.

It’s hard for me to describe the pleasure that I derive from walking past a group of standing people who are waiting to cross an empty street. Of course I take the time to look both ways before crossing, and while sometimes I have to wait, more often than not there is no traffic in sight. I find it funny that after I safely and confidently cross the street, without the aid of a cross walk or a flashing light, others are inspired to do the same. I see this unique look of confused possibility cross their faces, see them look both ways, and try jaywalking themselves. It’s hard for me to understand why people would wait at a street corner when there are clearly no hazards in the road, but I guess it’s a cultural thing. The northeast tells me never to wait unnecessarily while the rest of the world is told to respect the law… or something like that. I haven’t quite figured it all out, but I’m filled with pride in my civil disobedient street crossing.


I do have to admit, I was almost in a traffic incident once. However, this was only because I am used to traffic running the opposite direction, even though I just spent months in Thailand where they also drive on the left hand side of the road. There, I wasn’t living in a city, with city traffic and traffic patterns. Quite the opposite in fact, I spent most of my time in a remote town where you could ride your vehicle in the middle of the road most of the time.  A friend of mine from LA, who has been in Australia for ten years, says that he had the same problem when he first arrived. Now, he tells me that he has his fair share of near misses when he goes back to California because he looks the wrong way before crossing the street.

Now for something completely different: Traveling internationally, I have been exposed to a multitude of sports. Honestly, I try my best learn and appreciate the different sports around the world.  International football, the name I’ve given to what Americans call soccer, is so greatly loved by such enthusiastic fans I’ve started to see some of its appeal. However, I wouldn’t dare call it soccer to an Englishman ,just because I wouldn’t want to hear them rant about how its proper name is football and how Americans have no right to take that word. I suppose they have a point, but just for the record, Australians call it soccer as well. All that being said, it’s just not worth argument, so I’ve adopted the term ‘international football,’ and that seems to get the point across.

Now that I’ve discussed the most popular sport in the world, allow me to discuss a few other observations I’ve made about sports while traveling. Firstly, and surprisingly to me, basketball seems to be the most popular American sport abroad. Secondly, while I don’t fully understand the subtle intricacies of the rules regarding rugby or Australian Rules Football, or footy, as they call it, they are both games that I can respect and enjoy watching. Furthermore, the Irish guys I’m living with have put me on to Gaelic football and Hurling, which seem incredibly intense. Now I want to visit Ireland and catch a few games.

Finally, I want to discuss cricket. I am really, really doing my best to appreciate this sport. It is a sport played in England, Australia, South Africa and India; and, given the last country, has the second most fans in the world. I understand that playing the game is probably fun, as is attending the game (read: drinking all day.) Still, I’ve been watching the test match between New Zealand and Australia today and it just seems silly. I’ve been asking my housemates questions about the game and they haven’t really been able to answer them to my satisfaction. Because they aren’t cricket enthusiasts, I’ve been forced to go online to do more research. Even understanding the rules, the game still seems dumb to me. I’ve met people who love the game but I just don’t get it. After a bit of study and effort I’ve come to enjoy many foreign and unknown sports, but this is one that I just can’t get wrap my head around. Sometimes matches last for days, it seems as if the fielders are just standing around with fun hats and their collars popped, a batter can tip the ball behind him and still score runs, and the bowlers (pitchers) run about 20 steps before throwing the ball. I guess it’s just my culture, but I’ll take baseball over cricket any day.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving in Oz

Life in Australia is strikingly similar to life in America. Sure, people here speak with a different accent and the money looks a bit like Monopoly money, but the cultures are remarkably similar. The slight differences between the two cultures pale in comparison to the cultural differences I experienced whilst in Asia. That being said, I’m looking forward to exploring the Outback, as I’m sure that will be quite different.

I’ve already settled into a semblance of a normal life here. I found accommodation in a house, sharing a room with two blokes from Northern Ireland.  Bills and Internet are included in the rent, and the kitchen isn’t perpetually crowded like the kitchen at the hostel where I was staying before. I found a job bartending, and while I’m not making quite enough cash to save enough money to fund the next chapter of my travels, it’s paying the bills and affording me a comfortable lifestyle.

It’s definitely a novel experience experiencing summer in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s nice and sunny outside, and yet there are Christmas decorations being put up in preparation for the season. There are some advertisements that seem really strange to me, because I am used to Christmas in the winter, such as Santa Claus on a surfboard. I also found a few wintery themed decorations, which also seemed weird, given the context of my location. All in all, spending Christmas abroad without the comforts and traditions of my family promises to be an unfamiliar experience.

Speaking of being away from home for the holidays, Thanksgiving has made me a bit homesick. Sure, I knew intellectually that it was an American holiday that was not celebrated outside of the US. However, now that I’m in a culturally similar country I’m acutely aware of its absence.  Sure, I’m still thankful for my life, my health, and my adventures exploring the world, but I was unable to secure myself a turkey dinner. Through Couchsurfing, a website which puts travelers in contacts with each other, I found a Thanksgiving potluck, but unfortunately I had to work.

Speaking of work, my bartending job is in an upper class suburb of Melbourne called Albert Park. I usually walk to work in the afternoon, enjoying the 45-minute literal walk in the park, and take the tram (aka light rail) home. It’s not nearly as fun as my last job bartending, which was in a nightclub. While I still want to find employment that I both enjoy and find fulfilling, it is clear that I have not found it yet. I plan on staying here through Christmas, and making another move in the New Year.

I’ve been contemplating many possible options. I’m quite tempted to do three months of work in regional Australia, making me eligible for another year of legal work and holiday in the country. If I work on a farm, or in a mine, or anywhere in some remote, sparsely populated region of this country, the government will reward my efforts by granting me a second year, usable any time before I am 30. More details on my next working move to come as they develop, but at the moment I’ll just say that I’m considering a few tough jobs simply for the experience of it.

Finally, I think I’ll be returning to the United States this summer. Two of my close friends are getting married (in two separate weddings) and I’m very keen to be in attendance at these events. Not only do they promise to be meaningful days for people I care about, but they also promise to be a good time. I reckon I could pop home to see the family, work a seasonal job through the summer, and then head back out to the wide world which I’m trying to see some more of. I know that it would take many lifetimes to see everything, but at least I'll know that for a while I did my best to see everything I could.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

First Days in Melbourne, Australia

The Australian chapter has begun. While nothing is significantly different than I expected, there are a multitude of small things that have surprised me. First of all, the plane was staffed with Thai stewardesses and I was sitting next to an overweight-Thai girl. Now, if you’re reading this from America, that may not seem too odd to you. However, if you’ve spent some time in Thailand you know that “overweight Thai girl” is almost an oxymoron.  I didn’t really think too much of it; I figured we were on a flight from Thailand to Australia. I thought that she was most likely an Australian of Thai decent, and, after hearing her accent, my suspicions were confirmed.

One thing that really surprised me was just how expensive it is in the city of Melbourne. First of all, the currency exchange rate is ridiculous. There was the equivalent of a 20-cent spread between buying and selling Baht in exchange for Australian dollars- meaning that I lost money within moments of getting through immigration. Shortly thereafter, I bought myself a bottle of water to quench my thirst. It cost my $3.50! For those of you thinking that it can’t be that bad, that given exchange rates it might work out to be something reasonable, but NO! Given the exchange rate, it works out to $3.68 US dollars for a small bottle of water. Unbelievable. The shuttle bus into the city cost me $16, and one bed in a dorm of ten cost me $28 dollars a night.

I had looked at a few hostels online, and I wasn’t too shocked by the prices. I figured $28 for a bed, Internet, and breakfast doesn’t sound too bad.  Little did I know that Internet was $4 and hour, and that the breakfast consisted of uncooked rice and access to their kitchen.  I bought myself a cup of noodles at the grocery store, prudently thinking that, given the outrageous cost of living, I would get the cheapest foodstuff that I know. Even these were relatively expensive! I would have spent about 25 cents in the States for one pack, but here it cost me over a dollar! At the moment I write this, I’m in Starbucks, partially because I wanted a coffee and partially because I figured I’d cheat the system and sit there for over an hour, effectively getting internet for cheaper than the going rate and getting a free coffee while I’m at it.  There is not even free WiFi at Starbucks! However, that is lucky for you, reader, because now I’m sitting here writing all this down instead of using the web to search for a job.

My final vent has to do with my cell phone. One of my top priorities upon arriving in the land down under was getting an Australian phone number, subsequently adding that number to my resume, and printing off ‘heaps’ of them in preparation for my job search.  The first guy I talked to said that I needed an Australian made phone to have an Australian number, which I was 90% sure was pure bullshit.  So, I went to an Indian run convenience store a few meters down the road and the attendant there let me use her simcard to test it in my phone. It worked well enough, so I bought a prepaid simcard from her and was off with my new number. I activated it and called an Australian mate of mine that I had met in Thailand. I was on my way, or so I thought. I discovered the problem during the final step of signing up for this job finding website. It requires that you input your Australian number so that they can send you a confirmation pin number. I think, “No problem, I’ve got my phone right here.” I wait and I wait, but nothing happens. Eventually I go to the payphone down the street and call my number, and I get a message telling me that there is incoming call restrictions on this number. So, now I can’t sign up for this website and I can’t be contacted by prospective employers. Great.  I called customer service and they said that they would report the problem and that I was to call back tomorrow. Even if this isn’t cleared up tomorrow, I’m going to have to hit the streets looking for a job regardless.

All my troubles aside, I’ll finally get to something interesting: my impression of the city of Melbourne, pronounced something like ‘Melbun’ by the locals.  First of all, while the majority of people are white, it is definitely a slim majority. There are plenty of Asians and Indians around, and even a few black folks, albeit not many. I thought I would be hearing English on the streets, but I have heard a variety of languages. The most interesting was hearing two Chinese-looking Asian girls speaking some unintelligible language, interspersed with Australian accented English. It was like the “Spanglish” I’m used to hearing at home, but sounded much different with an Asian language. Speaking of Spanish speakers, my first impression here is that the immigrant working class is Asian and Indian, which is not surprising. I figure that in the US the closest developing countries are all Spanish-speaking countries. Here, India and Asia are just a short plane ride away, and it makes sense that they would come here to fill the gaps in the unskilled labor market. That is not to say I haven’t seen any affluent, well-dressed Asians too!

Aside from the ethnic makeup of the population and comments on the socio-economic structure of this part of the world, there are definitely a variety of types of people. Not races, mind you, but types of people. For example, I’ve seen businessmen, punks, gothic people, overly tattooed and pierced people, moderately tattooed and pierced people, ‘normal’ looking people, grunge people, etc. It’s most definitely a diverse city, and I’m looking forward to getting to know it a bit better.

The city itself is beautiful. There is a lot of off-the-wall, modern architecture. Everything seems new and clean, even the graffiti seems to be in organized places and should probably be referred to as ‘street art.’ There is a nice walkway by that runs all along the river, and I sat and watched a few people row on by in a boat. It reminded me of my brother and when he used to row for his university’s team.  Being thwarted in my job search plans, I spent most of my first day just walking around and absorbing the city. I’m not sure whether I’m happy or sad to be back in a Western city. For better or for worse, I’m here, and I’ll be damned if I don’t make the most of it. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Leaving Thailand

My last few days in Thailand were bittersweet. I was certainly ready to leave when I bought the tickets, but as the days ticked away I came to realize how much I would miss it. My girlfriend had left for South Africa a few weeks before, so I was spending a lot of my time alone: reading, researching Australia, meditating. I spent a few nights in Chiang Mai, but I didn’t really go out and party. When planning on staying in Thailand long term, I didn’t really care to spend too much time chatting with people that would soon be goon. Now, a short-timer myself, I still didn’t want to hard to get to know someone because I would soon be gone.

However, one of my friends was in Chiang Mai whilst I was, so we got a chance to sit down and catch up. Knowing that I was on my way to Australia, which is supposed to be quite expensive, he even picked up the tab for my farewell meal. We didn’t really have any late or raucous nights out drinking, and before I knew it I was on the night bus for the capitol. Although now that I’m actually here in Oz, I really don’t think the cost of a meal or a night out in Thailand is going to make even the slightest difference.

Bangkok was considerably less overwhelming the second time around. First of all, the bus on the way down there wasn’t full, so I had plenty of room to stretch out. I remember being sat next to a fat, smelly Israeli who spilled over his seat the last time I took that bus. Secondly, having been in Thailand for months already, there wasn’t as much to take in. I was already used to vendors calling me on the streets, people drinking at all times of day, and a crowded amalgamation of drunken people from every corner of the globe; it wasn’t that much of a shock. Sure, the big city is bigger and dirtier than Chiang Mai, the ‘big city’ in the north, but it certainly wasn’t the culture shock I experienced when I first arrived back in April. Again, I wanted to save money for my time in Australia, but seeing just how expensive it really is here, I almost wish I splurged a bit in Thailand, the land of smiles and cheap everything. I did, however, go to see a bit of a risqué show unique to Thailand, which I wouldn’t dare describe in such a public forum. For those of you who know a few things about Bangkok, you’ll know what I mean. While the show was more horrifying than anything else, I’m glad that I can now saw that I did it.

The airport was definitely a lot easier the second time around. I didn’t get ripped off my way there, like the first time. In fact, I probably only paid a tenth of what I had paid all those months ago.  It was a breeze.  Although I don’t claim to speak Thai, just knowing a few simple words like ‘excuse me’ and ‘thank you very much’ made everyone I interacted with happy to help me along my way. Before I knew it I was sitting on a plane, closing one chapter of my life and starting a new one.

I spent months in Asia, and I don’t regret a moment of it, despite the mistakes I made. I learned a lot about their culture, as well as my own. I met some really interesting, genuine people. I also met some really shallow, non-interesting folks. All in all, it’s an experience that I wouldn’t give up. I think all people from Western countries should try to step out of their own culture, and not just for a visit but to live for at least a few months. The opportunity to live in a place so foreign and different from your home is an experience like none other, and I recommend it to everybody.  

Saturday, August 27, 2011

My Next Thing

This morning I walked through the pouring rain to the Barista Café, the best place to get a cup of coffee in the town of Pai. While town is usually quite around 7am, it was especially desolate during this morning’s downpour. Aside from the occasional poncho-covered motorbikers headed to work, I was the only one the streets. Heavy rain may be annoying and get us a bit wet, but it is the reason this area is so green and beautiful

I arrived at the coffee shop and was met by the owner, a Thai guy by the name of Ken. This guy is definitely a character, and I enjoy witnessing the transformation he undergoes each and everyday. In the morning, he is a polite man, dressed casually, yet neatly, with his long black hair in a ponytail. At night, he has an extravagant black studded cowboy hat, hair streaming behind it, wild and wavy, and dressed all hip with a bass guitar strewn across his back. As I drank my coffee and read my book, he asked me to look after the shop for a few minutes while he ran to get some milk. I was more than happy to continue sitting there for him, although I have to admit no one came to the café in his absence.

By the time I had finished, the sun was already shining. By the time I had walked back to my nearby bungalow, the streets were mostly dry. It is amazing how quickly the weather can change here.  Speaking of weather, I have seen online that the American northeast is being by a hurricane. Even here, the locals tell me that the weather patterns have been changing over the past few years. It makes me wonder, how drastic are the changes going to become, and what will the world look like in 50 years?

Work will begin on my next project  soon.  It’s been almost 8 months since I’ve last worked, and the urge to be productive has been steadily growing within me. Creative expression through music and art satisfy some of that urge, and so does studying martial arts. Still, in a way it’s too selfish. I am developing myself but I am not contributing anything to society. For me, there is more satisfaction in doing a job than simply in monetary compensation. Good thing, too, because my Thai visa does not permit me to seek gainful employment.

Instead, I am going to work the land, for free. Thomas is the friend of a Thai businessman who is letting us use one of his many undeveloped properties, a beautiful stretch of land with two streams running through it.  We are going to build some simple structures where we can eat, sleep, and practice. Once completed, I will strive to make my lifestyle somewhat monastic, in the tradition of the Shaolin monks. It looks like several other students of martial arts will be joining Thomas and I in training.

I plan on documenting the entire process, for any one interested. I will post pictures of the area before, during and after the construction of our training areas.  I’ll show you the fallow fields open up and produce life and talk about the work it took. I’ll give you a bit of insight into the ancient methods used to teach kung fu, and of course discuss my experiences with them.

I haven’t posted on my blog in the past two months because it was a travel blog and I wasn’t traveling, anymore. I was simply living here in Pai.  Now I realize that I am still on a journey far from home, and there is still a story to be told. If you want to hear the story, it will be here:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Midnight Meditation

Tonight is the full moon, but I am not down in the jungle listening to loud rave music. Instead, I am sitting in my loft with a few of my friends and we have been practicing martial arts for the past few hours.  Currently, the only sound to be heard is my keys intermittently tapping away at the keyboard. Before, Giuseppe played some beautiful guitar for us.  The whole night Thomas has been spouting martial knowledge, trying to offer some insight into the practice to a new student.

Dave has arrived from his travels to study for a few weeks. An interesting character, he is a white guy from Africa with a British passport. Regardless of where he is from, because background is no judge of character, I like the guy. He has been involved in sustainable living and eco-friendly construction, and we have had many conversations about the possibilities here. Hopefully, we can convince the owner of the establishment the value of the investment. I think we will; each conversation I have with Sam I am more convinced he is committed to renovating his place. Either way, that’s the future, and I am still trying to live in the present.

It’s past midnight and I’m quite tired. Currently, I’m sitting on the floor, as straight as I possibly can, with my laptop in front of me. I had been practicing seated meditation for a long time and then decided to write. However, when I took my normal position, crouched over the computer, my body didn’t feel right. Now, cross-legged and upright, I feel much better sitting and typing.

I am reminded of my first night training session with Thomas. I had been quite tired and he urged me to stay awake and do a few more hours of seated meditation. I had breakthroughs in my practice as of result of pushing myself far beyond my comfort level. Tonight, I’ve been trying to impart my experience practicing, as much as possible, to our new student, Dave. For the first time, I led the group through the exercise set. It was amazing to hear myself explaining the exercises I had only learned a couple months ago. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d learned.

That night, seemingly so long ago, I was so tired that I couldn’t sit up straight for more than five or ten minutes at a time. Now, I am almost just as tired and, despite having been sitting up straight for at least a half hour, I feel like I could continue on indefinitely. Even thinking about it makes me tired, and I just had to take a second to relax and re-center on my practice.

Now the new student has gone to bed and Giuseppe is passing out on the couch. Only Thomas and I are sitting awake. I hope to get another bit of advice before I go to sleep, while I have my computer ready and handy.

Now, it is about two weeks after I had written the preceding entry. I didn’t post it sooner because it got lost in the shuffle. Life here is simultaneously busy and relaxed. Sure, I fill my days up with activities, but the entire time it is at my own pace. If I feel the need to lie in a hammock and kill an afternoon with a book, that is my prerogative, and I will do so. At the same time, there are so many things to learn and so many interesting people to talk to. Traveling alone, I was devouring books. Time spent in transit and throughout the quite hours of the day was usually passed with a paperback. These days, I find myself reading much less. Of course, I am still in the midst of a novel, but it’s taking a few weeks to read instead of a few days.

Like I’ve said in my recent posts, life is very good for me. I like to say money isn’t important unless you don’t have any. I’ve got enough to be comfortable right now so I have no worries, as well as no complaints. Realistically, I know that the holiday can only last for so long. So, I have been non-hurriedly and patiently been setting myself up to generate an income while I remain here to pursue my goals of getting in shape, learning kung fu and how to play the guitar. Along the way, I’m getting a bit of a broader perspective on the world and the experience of a lifetime. Truth be told, I’m getting more out of this experience than I would have ever dreamed.

Friday, June 24, 2011

No Complaints Here

I am sitting in an internet cafe, busily reading articles and checking my email, when the radio station I am listening to cuts out. Unfortunately, even the best and the fastest internet connections aren't always consistent. To me, it's no big deal. Now, instead of some tunes, I'm listening to the Russian guy next to me talk loudly into his computer. He, like so many others in the internet cafes, is talking to someone on Skype. The connectivity that we have with others across the globe is amazing. Think about what it was like traveling around the corners of the globe just twenty years ago: many places wouldn't even have a phone. Now, cell phone service is becoming ubiquitous and an cafe with Wifi is never far away. However, in America I had a smart phone with the internet in my pocket at all times. It's good to be a little bit disconnected.

Aside my musings on the impact of telecommunications on my life, there is a lot to talk about. Ideas are beginning to take shape and crystallize into action. Since I have moved up the mountain to the Lodge, I have been having conversations regarding improving and expanding their business. I still plan on going to see immigration with Sam, the owner of the business, for a work permit and a year's visa. If all goes as planned, I will be staying in Thailand from a year from July 1st. Shortly thereafter, the 4th of July I will probably make me miss home. I wonder if I will feel any pangs of regret due to my decision. I seriously doubt it.

Here I am living the kind of life that I could only dream about in the US. Sure, I haven't worked for six months, but that is not what I mean. The "mai pen lai" attitude of the Thais, very similar to the "Don't Worry, Be Happy" attitude of the Caribbean, suits me perfectly. I do admit to getting a little itchy to be productive, but so far I've been able to channel these energies into cleaning up around the old Lodge, playing guitar, and of course, learning some martial arts. In addition to that, I've recently picked up a DVD player and have been enjoying one of my oldest time-wasting vices; watching movies. The guys around the school usually want to rent kung fu movies, and I've found myself watching the martial arts techniques more closely than I had before.

All thing considered, I am beginning to settle into my life here. Knowing that I plan on staying for a year, I have been able to set things in motion. There will be plenty of work for me to do once I'm legal, so I'll save those details for later. Besides the employment, I've found a tattoo studio I like, made a few friends in town, and even been offered to play drums at a bar a few times a week. About a month ago I heard stories about foreigners getting arrested for playing music without a work permit, but after July 1st, I shouldn't have to worry about that.

Now, I'm going to head across the street for a glass of Jameson on the rocks. I'll chat with the people who work over there for a bit, and then head upstairs to the tattoo parlor. After that, its back up the hill for some dinner and a movie. Life is good. No complaints here.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Swaying in the Wind

The sound of the thin rain pattering on the tin roof accompanied the cool breeze as it came down the mountain slope. We quickly retrieved our things from the edge of the pagoda, where they were exposed, and placed them securely on the other side. Thomas had taken the group of students for a hike in the surrounding country, and luckily the rain had come while we were resting at the shelter.

Actually, resting isn’t quite the right word. As we stop, we regain our power through seated meditation and the ancient chi gathering exercises of Qi Gong. Thomas is there guiding us through our practice with constructive criticisms, often in the form of old Chinese proverbs. As I continue my practice, I continually gain new insights from a few of the same simple words. Often, I will only understand advice at a deeper level much later, when I am practicing alone.

The rain quickly picks up to a deluge, but we are safe in the small pagoda. The simple bamboo, tin and thatch structure is more than enough to keep us from the elements. We had brought several bottles of water and were quite content to practice until the storm passes. While it is not quite yet the rainy season, many layers of clouds are often scene in the sky, moving along with the current of the coming monsoon season. It is not long before the rain subsides to a drizzle, and then stops completely. Feeling loose and energized, we hike back down to the restaurant for our dinner.

Having been in Asia since early April, I now find myself using more spice in my meals. Occasionally the food is a little foreign to me, and not so delicious, but the large majority is in fact palatable and quite satisfying. Our hosts here are very open to suggestion, and we are more than happy with the diet that they provide. Many meals leave me sweating and blowing my nose. While I have to admit to the occasional western meal when I’m down in town, there is something to be said for the family style sharing of our meals at the lodge.

I spoke with Giuseppe, another student here who is quite skilled at guitar, about bringing a pair of the instruments up to the isolated pagoda for some practice. I haven’t been practicing as much as I would have liked to, but the hand positions on the guitar are becoming more natural each time I play. I have a good deal of experience playing the drums, and the rhythmic strumming had been coming quite easily. The precision in plucking out a melody is still proving quite the challenge.

Fortunately for me, I have time. I think back to my life in the western world and laugh. I was constantly trading my time for some money. The more time I traded, the more money I made. Now that I am planning on staying here for a year, I know that soon I must again trade some of my time for money. This time, however, I will do it on my own terms, and I will never sacrifice this wonderful standard of living that I have become accustomed to. I have been making inroads in the community, and while there may be no posting for an English teacher at the high school, I suspect that an opportunity will soon materialize.

I recommend to anyone coming to Thailand that they obtain as long of a visa as possible. People are often loath to leave and scheming out ways to extend their stay. Spending time traveling is better done without definite plans and timelines, and you never know when you might find a place where you would like to stay for a while.  You also never know when you will meet some people that you would like to spend some time with. Personally, I couldn’t ask for a better lifestyle in this quiet, yet popular, corner of the world.  The town is only a few kilometers away and filled with young people, and the peaceful community and atmosphere on the mountain is ideal for so many things.

That night, we had another training session on the terrace. The moon was almost full and it created a rainbow in the swiftly moving thin clouds as they passed by. The moon illuminated the ground well enough that we could see without any artificial lights, and our silhouettes made beautiful shadows in the twilight. There is an undeniable graceful quality to the internal martial arts. Don’t be fooled, however, there is a deadly and powerful martial art hidden in the slow, fluid movements of it’s practitioners.

A new student has recently arrived and the school is abuzz with talks of possibilities for the future. We are considering setting up an organic farm, raising the vegetables for our meals from the ground ourselves.  The water I hear falling now offers the potential for irrigation, as well hydroelectric power. It seems as if this retreat is going to gravitate towards more sustainable lifestyle, and we are all happy at the prospect. Not only will it help attract more eco-conscious students to our school, but it will set a rare example in this quickly developing country.

After the rest of the school went to sleep, I was left standing on my terrace alone. Totally relaxed, I let my body sway with the wind. I felt its energy as it jarred my body loose of any remaining tension. By the time the gust of wind had passed, I was standing straighter than I ever had in my life. It felt good. It felt really good.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Roar of the Crowd

I felt my pulse quicken as the crowd cheered louder. As I sat up straight, I looked from my ringside seat at the ongoing fight. As the fighter’s knee connected with his opponent’s midsection, the crowd let out a collective cheer. Each time the two fighters gripped arms exchanged knees and kicks the roar of the crowd intensified. The bell rings and the music stops; the two sixteen year-old boys return to their corners.

The young fighters are doused with water by their corner and rubbed down. Both look tired and yet intensely focused. I definitely get the impression that Muay Thai competition is most intense during the late teenage years. Earlier, I witnessed two bouts with fourteen year-olds fighters, both of which ended quickly. The first match was ended with a knockout roundhouse and the second ended with a spinning elbow to the face, the losing combatants hadn't even thrown a single punch.

As I glanced about the arena, I repeatedly noticed the eyes of a pretty girl making contact with mine. I sat back and smiled smugly, enjoying both the attention and the fight. Behind me, Thai men continued to cheer and shout and shake handfuls of bet money at their friends. I sipped my cocktail as I quickly reflected on the last few days of my life.

I had come into Chiang Mai, the big city in northern Thailand, three hours away from my home in Pai. I arrived just in time to see the opening of my aunt’s art exhibition, two days before. I surprised her by showing up unannounced. She always needs more guys in her salsa lesson, so of course I stuck around for a little bit of dancing after the show. I spent the entire night flirting with a tall, blonde Dutch girl. She had grown up in Thailand, and now that she had finished her studies in the west, she was back in Asia for the next year. We got along quite well, but for whatever reason I let her leave without getting any of her information. I wound up spending the rest of the night kicking myself for not following through, chatting with some interesting older expats, hearing recounts of their travels and their general outlook on life. While their insights didn’t offer anything I hadn’t heard before, I enjoyed conversing with some like-minded people.

The next day I met up with this kid from Dubai, who spoke English like an American, whom I had met on the bus from Pai. He was playing pool with a male nurse from Oakland who had caught the travel bug a few years back. It is always interesting to meet people like myself: people who had tried their hand in the western working world only to reject it for a less conventional lifestyle of global travel. Most opt to work in their home countries for a few months at a time, saving money for their excursions. I have met very few people my age who have decided to generate an income whilst on the road, as I have done.

I do, however, meet a lot of younger people who are traveling on their parents’ dime. A large portion of the backpackers’ circuit is English and Europeans taking time to travel either just before or after attending university. Mohammed fell into this group, but being from the Middle East I found him infinitely more interesting than the average kid on their gap year. They are definitely major contributors to the party scene, and when it comes to the females of the bunch, the scenery as well. Like any other man, I think seeing girls in their late teens and early twenties all over the place is a good thing.

The three of us went out to a popular square in Chiang Mai, the location of a reggae bar, a hip-hip and dance club, and a large lounge and restaurant, as well as many small bars, food stands, and little souvenir shops. At the reggae bar, a Thai band plays popular reggae hits and it is always packed with a mix of Thais and westerners. The music is loud, but good, and the dance floor is always full. After a bit of enjoying the atmosphere, we stepped outside for some fresh air and audible conversation. Soon enough, we were listening to some high quality old school hip-hop across the square and loving it. Unfortunately, the vibe soon changed to that of a more European dance club, with lots of house influenced remixes of top 40 hits. We bar hoped and bounced around for a while, and eventually wound up at the after hours bar, which was another experience all together.

After a late night, a good sleep, then a lazy afternoon, the three of us ate dinner together. Mohammed wasn’t interested in the Muay Thai fight, but Nick, the American, and I decided to get VIP seats for 600 Baht, about 20 dollars American. It was money well spent. Before I finished my drink the waitress was politely asking if I was interested in having another. The bell sounded and the two fighters returned to the center of the ring. The fifth and final round convincingly won the match for the fighter in the blue corner. They had been trading rounds of advantage, and I’m not sure if the difference was training, determination, or skill, but in the end the winner was clear.

There was also a good fight between a Polish guy and a Thai guy, but it seemed to me like the Thai guy was holding back a bit. Sure, the Polish guy should he had an advantage. He was much taller and seemingly in better shape, but I was never quite convinced that the Thai fighter gave it his complete efforts. As I’m finding in my own practice, martial arts skills take a long time to develop, but once you have them, parts of them stay with you forever. After the match ended, the Polish guy was declared victorious. The more time I stay in Thailand, the more aware I am of the reality that most everything has its price, such as the simple glory of winning a "professional" fight. The foreign winner was bathed in attention as his friends and other westerners gathered around him to take pictures.

The crowd began to break up, and I decided to approach the girl across the ring who had been giving me the eyes. I showed the good places to go out in town, and convinced her to check out Pai with me the next day. The bus ride is always better with some company. Now that I am back home, I feel a bit exhausted by the journey. Night after night of late night partying has made the 6am martial arts practice easy to skip. Still, I’m glad to be back in this beautiful environment of healthy eating, daily learning and steady progression, as opposed to the high throttle, non stop action of the city.

I try and take photos of the view from my terrace but I can’t seem to do the landscape justice. The camera refuses to capture the layers of mountain peaks amidst the moving clouds. I beautiful greenery in the foreground comes through fine, but the majesty of the scene is lost without the low lying clouds and the mist of the mountain. The other day I saw the most brilliant rainbow of my life, shining like spotlights into the clouds, and yet the camera once again failed to do it justice. I hope that simply by reading these words you can try and imagine the true beauty of this country. Trust me, you can look at some amazing pictures, but it will never the be the same as being here. Not a day goes by that I don't appreciate the beautiful landscape that surrounds me.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Dragon Emerges from the Water

It was hard for me to get out of bed today. When I woke up, my alarm hadn't yet sounded. However, I saw the pale light stream through the window and heard the birds' songs and I knew that I couldn't sleep for much longer. Instead of teasing myself with a ten minute nap, I decided to get up. As I came out of the bathroom, my alarm clock was softly buzzing. I guess I had woken up at the perfect time. After a few more late nights of training, 6am seems to be getting earlier and earlier. Despite my tiredness, my internal clock was telling me that it is time for training.

Before practice begins, we usually sit around the table and exchange pleasantries. Peter, a British student, and I drink coffee while most of the rest of the group prefers tea. Peter likes to say that he is still a "farang," a westerner, in the morning. After his coffee, he will go right along with all the customs of the East. Until then, however, don't expect him to show you the "cool heart" displayed by the Thai culture. I, too, feel the need for coffee. Giuseppe, another student just arrived from Italy, and I stayed up even later than our martial arts practice playing the guitar. Well, he was playing while I was "practicing." Maybe after a few weeks of practice I will be able to call what I do with the guitar "playing," but the awkward beginning phase is a necessary step to proficiency.

Shortly after our practice has begun and I am already feeling fully awake and alert. The exercise set that we do is designed to open up the joints and get the blood moving freely throughout the entire body, and it works. By the end of our practice, the sun has pierced the clouds and the temperature is going up. We all come out of the sun together and find our breakfast waiting for us. Today, like most days, we are having rice porridge, or jok. I put some eggs and vegetables in my bowl and mixed them in. I am definitely developing a taste for the spiciness of Thai foods, as evidenced by my ever increasing use of a few spoonfuls of the ubiquitous chili-sauce. However, unlike Peter, I consciously limit the amount of actual chilies makes it from the sauce to my food. He makes sure he gets plenty of chilies.

After breakfast, it was time to meditate. Meditation, however, is not always what you expect it to be. Sure, we have seen movies where people sit under a waterfall, lost in meditation. In real life, meditation is usually a seemingly boring activity in some mundane place. Fortunately, there actually is a waterfall just up the road from us. Heading up there early in the morning, when it is still devoid of tourists and therefore peaceful, is well worth the trouble. There is also another waterfall nearby in the valley, but it is a little father away and requires quite the hike. Anyone who takes the time and makes the effort will be pleased with their decision; the caves behind the flowing sheets of water offer surreal sanctuaries to anyone looking to bring peace to their hectic minds.Often, despite the natural beauty surrounding me, I struggle focusing on sitting motionless for hours at a time. Thankfully, there are more ways to meditate than simply "seated meditation."

Thomas tells us that a solid, proper frame is essential to achieve true kung-fu power. The only way to get such a frame is by hundreds of hours of sitting and standing properly. After your muscles become exhausted, you are left with no choice but to support yourself with your skeletal structure. Once your weight is held up by your bones, it allows your muscles and your insides to go soft, and softness is essential when practicing internal martial arts. As a result of this, I have been spending a lot of time standing and sitting recently. There is no doubt, my weight is now distributed differently and I am rooted to the ground much better. As a reward for my efforts, I am taught another, more difficult way, to develop my strength further.

This morning, the entire class held clay pots in our hands, using only our thumbs and our forefingers to support the weight. We took these pots and held them out in front of us for what seemed like hours. In reality, only a few minutes had passed. After exhausting the muscles in my shoulder, I was forced to relax them. As soon as I did so, I felt the weight of the clay transfer from my sore arms down through my body, through my feet, and into the ground. Suddenly, the exercise was easy, and my body was balanced. I was unable to maintain that perfect distribution of weight for very long, and soon I was tired once again. It seemed as if the entire class was echoing my soreness, and we gratefully were told to place the pots back on the ground.

After the pot holding experience, I now find it much easier to stand for long period with my arms extended in front of me. Surely, what I consider long periods would be nothing to a martial arts master, but in comparison to the version of myself from three months ago, the length of time is exponentially greater. Additionally, the exercise has helped me with the awareness of my thumb and forefinger, which also became quite exhausted whilst holding the earthy pottery. The lessons learned, the new found awareness, will stay with me in my practice. I continue to unlock different levels of the same exercises every single day.

While you may have thought you understood the title of this post, the "Dragon Emerging from the Water" has nothing to do with waterfalls. Instead, we were told that by standing holding pots out in front of us for long period of time we could achieve the attributes of mighty dragon slipping out from beneath the depths. When we can still the waters of our minds, a powerful force then emerges. When we find the structure of our bones and the fluidity of of joints, we are able to move gracefully. Grace does not indicate a lack of power, but on the contrary, it often indicates the abundance of strength. When we enter the still waters of our own depths, we can then emerge as dragons.

Friday, June 3, 2011

In the Midst of Darkness, Lighting Strikes

I had expected it to rain, but it didn't. After dinner we did our exercises in the open air, exposed to the elements. In the distance, I could see the dark clouds, and the rain falling from them. Simultaneous, the dark sheets beneath the clouds created by the rain was moving, and yet remained the same. I pointed this out to another student and he just smiled, citing the yin and the yang. In additional to the martial applications of our training, we also learn about Taoism. Understanding that two seemingly contradictory things are simultaneously possible is a truly stress relieving revelation. I smiled back at my friend. Even though we consider the yin yang and our energy, or our chi, serious things, they are often referred to in a joking manner.

It's not that we don't take such things seriously. Learning to control the energy in your body takes a lot of focus and dedication. Yet, practice is not always a serious affair. I've heard that when you really are adept at Kung Fu, it is with you in everything that you do. Masters are always sitting straight and are mindful of their situation, no matter the circumstance. Along the same token, practicing Kung Fu is still a part of your life. Sometimes practice is a arduous, grueling affair, but more often it is an easy routine peppered with jokes and stories amongst friends. Amidst the conversation, gems of wisdom are offered and simplistic statements are understood with new meaning. The juxtaposition between ancient proverbs and sordid jokes is a seeming dichotomy of which I am glad to embrace both sides.

After dinner a few of the students were talking about going into town for the evening, but I wasn't all together interested. Truthfully, I would rather not spend my time meeting travelers who would be in and out of Pai within a few days. I didn't want to spend my energy towards a fling with a farang, a foreigner; not to mention that drinking in bars is always more expensive than drinking at home. The sound of my friends' bikes leaving quickly faded, and I was left at the table with Thomas, my teacher, and Chit, the Thai guy who works at the Lodge and teaches me his language. Soon thereafter, despite feigning interest in heading to town before, I found out that Thomas had no intentions of heading down the mountain. After all, the fridge here was stocked with beer.

At first we sat around the table, hanging out, watching the lighting strike behind the mountains ahead. After several seconds, the thunder would roll through the valley, warning all of us of impending rain. However, despite the nearby flashes of foreboding light, the storm's rains did not fall on us that night. I went back to the room to grab the charger for my laptop, bringing along an umbrella for good measure. On my way back to the lighted terrace, where we had been hanging out before, I was met in the darkness by a lesson in martial arts. I was about to see a different kind of lighting strike.

As I have said before, sometimes a breakthrough in understanding can come in moments that you least expect. A few weeks back, before my trip to Laos, a late night training session of drinking and practice had improved my posture greatly. While I can't attribute such an empirical measure of progress with this training, I assure you it was equally rewarding. Moving through the darkness, avoiding strikes and sweeps based on feeling and intuition showed me a side to martial arts that I had not yet experienced. However, among the students we say that training into the night with is simultaneously the most valuable and the most dangerous type of training.

Surprised by the quickness of my own motions, at first I was able to thwart all of my teachers attacks. However, I know that he always holds back, leaving openings in his defense to see if we catch them. If there was ever truly a fight, not merely a training exercise, with my teacher, I am sure that it would end quickly and painfully. I am fully aware that the light and mildly painful taps on my throat are notifications of his ability to deliver confrontation ending force, held back. Despite enjoying several scenarios in which I was the victor, I was soon reminded of the weakness of my Kung Fu in comparison to his.

Repeatedly, I've heard that if one wants to learn martial arts, one must be prepared to take a couple hits. Anyone who becomes angered, or even complains, should not be training. If they become angry, it is a sign that they will eventually use their knowledge to hurt or extort others. If they complain, it is perceived as a lack of gratitude and understanding for the lessons taught. After my foot, still in recovery from the motorbike incident, was stomped on in the twilight, all I could do was laugh. Even though it hurt in ways only accurately described with excessive profanity, I simply laughed.

After apologizing for the inadvertent forceful "salt" on my wound, Thomas encouraged me to make the most of it. He pointed out, correctly, that my heart rate had increased and that color had returned to my weary face. After a  long night of drinks and exercise had left me quite depleted, suddenly my mind was actively racing. I then turned my newly found focus to my practice and experienced a simple exercise on a much deeper level. The essence of internal martial arts seems to be in deriving all your power and movement from the ground, through your entire body and into your every strike, dodge, or parry. The shock of getting my foot stomped in the midst of the late night training just served to further nourish the plant which is my practice. That, at least, is what I told myself to suppress primal instinct to react to pain with anger. However, I still believe that today.

Later tonight, one of Thomas's previous student of three years arrives at our school. In my experience, the longer you have been training, and the better you understand martial arts, the harder the teacher will push you. I've heard stories of our new arrival repeatedly getting thrown against a concrete floor during his training, and I know that my teacher is anxious to record a few demonstrations on a dummy strong enough to take the abuse. Currently, I am glad that I am not at that level: but, with the amount of strength that I've gained since beginning my training, I wouldn't be surprised if, after a few years, I could also happily bounce back from being slammed into a similar, hard and unyielding surface. Once again, it would be nice if I could learn such a skill in a five minute montage, but, like the guitar, it takes many hours of practice. Time spent on such endeavors is to be cherished, not glossed over. It's the endless hours of slaving for a wage that I wouldn't mind forgetting. I am, as ever, ever grateful for my current situation in life, and wish everyone the same sentiment.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

RIding into the Sunset

I dog-eared the page in my book and closed it, then I looked out the window as dozens beautiful white butterflies chased each other around in circles. The moving contrast they made against the lush green background of trees and grass made me stop and stare in appreciation. There might have been five people in the smoky kitchen, but there was very little conversation. When people did speak, it was just as likely to be in a language I didn’t understand. Still, when I do talk to this diverse company I am usually interested on some tidbit of knowledge they convey, such as some their national history or the peculiarities of language.

I left the kitchen and walked barefoot to my motorbike. After putting on my helmet and sunglasses, I turned around and fired it up. As I pulled out, another one of my friends was arriving on his bicycle. I waved, but he didn’t recognize me beneath all my gear. I eased down the small road and over the seemingly permanent puddle. After I crossed what passes for a busy road around this town, I kept my speed quite low. Weaving around pedestrians, cars, and other bikes is quite a common task in the center of town, and its much better to do so driving slow. On my way through I passed many internet cafes, bars and restaurants, travel companies, and convenience stores.

I know I might be in a remote mountain valley in the north of Thailand, but this town is definitely a magnet for travelers. Its laid back atmosphere and friendly people has been steadily attracting people, and has led to a great deal of growth in the past few years. Now, the main streets have completely transformed to cater to foreigners spending money. Like everywhere else in Thailand, there are businesses surrounding temples; the old is surrounded by the new. You see the same thing amongst the people; people drive motorbikes in traditional hill tribe attire and workers use primitive tools while listening to iPods. While I definitely enjoy the environment in town, I am glad that the martial arts school has moved up the mountain.

I passed through one of the only lights in town and picked up speed as I passed the hospital. Just outside of town the streets are much less crowded. As the buildings faded from concrete to bamboo with tin, the landscape began to open up as well. As the sun fell behind the mountains it filled the sky with a golden light. It would certainly rain later that night, but scattering of moving clouds made the sky all the more impressive. Not only were some illuminated by the fading sun, other clouds seemingly hung o top of a few mountain passes. I imagined the my home at the Lodge  in one of these clouds, seemingly surrounded by a small patch of thick fog.

I passed the Chinese village on my left and carefully went over the two speed bumps that caused my motorbike accident last week. The swelling is down and I’m once again walking without a limp, but not all of the cuts have healed and my training is still somewhat restrained. Never the less, everyone who rides a bike falls down sooner or later, and I’m glad my spill was relatively painless. At this point the road gets quite choppy. Steep inclines, sharp turns and potholes are common throughout the last third my journey home. Every day I ride the bike I get more control and feel more comfortable, I just need to make sure that I don’t let this familiarity lead to a crash... like it did last time.

By the time I arrived at the lodge there was still light in the sky, although the golden light had diffused back into blue. Still, watching the sunrise tomorrow, over the opposite side of the valley, will be just as spectacular, if not more. In the mornings there are generally more clouds, and as the sun pierces through them it makes for quite a scene. Although it comes up quite early in the morning, we are always up to meet it with our martial arts practice. My instructor tells us that the Chinese say that it is best to meet the sun with training, while the dew is still on the ground.  I’ve heard a lot of Chinese quotes since I’ve begun my training, and it seems to me like they have a witty way of saying its good to train at all times of the day. After all, when I arrived it was time for evening practice.

By the time we had finished, dinner was waiting for us. The Thai woman that usually cooks for us does an excellent job. Although usually vegetarian, I don’t find myself missing the meat in my diet, and the meals are always quite good. Not that I could tell you what dish I am eating, but rice, vegetables and tofu have got to be better than the fried food and greasy beef I’d become accustomed to in my American diet. Whether it’s the consistent exercise routine or the healthy food, I’m definitely getting healthier and I can feel it.

After dinner, we usually sit around and hang out. Several laptops sit out on the table as we look at our email, catch up with friends, or look into this subject or that. Occasionally a few of us will get up for some additional Tai Chi, and the lessons learned over a few beers are still lessons learned. In fact, sometimes you can understand concepts about your body better when you’re not concentrating as hard, as these informal sessions have helped me immensely. There isn’t a great deal of people at the school right now, but that’s fine with me. Although the school is definitely growing, when most of the students have a good base we get into some of the deeper stuff, which I immensely enjoy.

Anyway, now would be a perfect time for a montage. Months would pass by in minutes as the audience witnesses imagines of me training, getting stronger, more flexible and more fluid in every clip. However, real life doesn’t quite work like that, and I have to live through the hours and hours necessary to become proficient at such a thing.  While there are plenty of distractions 15 minutes down the hill in town, I know that spending a lot of time down there detracts from my practice. As a remedy, I bought a guitar to give myself another activity while I hang out at the lodge. Sure, I can only play one chord, and not too well, but its fun and have wanted to learn for a long time. Give me a few days, maybe i'll even learn a song.

Basically, when I was living in America, I had hardly any time to learn any new skills. I practically abandoned music and art after high school, focusing instead on a “plausible career.” While I still occasionally wrote in college, after I began working full time I stopped creatively expressing myself almost entirely. Most of my downtime was spent on mindless entertainment, such as drinking or playing video games. At that time, learning guitar or martial arts seemed like a cool idea that I just wouldn't have the time for.

Thankfully, the sun has certainly set on that part of my life. Now, I take time to appreciate the beauty of nature all around me, I take time to pursue creative expression, be it through music or words, and I am healthier than I have been in years. Although I enjoyed riding into this particular sunset, this time in my life is more like a sunrise. Eventually, I will continue my westward journey around the world. For the time being, however, I’m going to enjoy watching sun come up.