The Feast of Life by Surfing in Peru

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This story is part of a collection from my first self-published book, Three Years Abroad. It’s available on Amazon for $8.99 and if you have Prime then the shipping is free. I’d be thrilled if you wanted to pick up a copy. You’ll get this story and others like it, printed up and delivered to your door. Until then, please enjoy the story.

***

Lobitos is a place that you’d never hear about if it wasn’t for surfing. At the northern edge of town is a point break that at least one pundit has called the best surfing in Peru. Under ideal conditions the waves can reach seven feet although commonly they average towards five. The sea is murky, a greenish-brown inshore which lightens to a pleasant blue as the water gets deeper. Occasionally whales surface offshore by the oil derricks which dot the horizon. The town is very remote and I ended up there by accident.

Two months in advance I had reserved a small cabin in Máncora, a chic fishing village on the Peruvian coast. However, four days before my flight my accommodation was canceled. As I’d already bought a plane ticket to this far-flung slice of the globe I had to find somewhere else to stay. The best option was an upstairs room, in Lobitos, with a small balcony and a view to the ocean. Rent was three-hundred a month and the reviews were excellent. I booked it and four days later I was there.

I’d bought beer in town and on my first night I sat on the balcony drinking and eating tuna fish and watching the sun set over the water while surfers rode the last waves and mosquitoes feasted on my legs. The next morning Diego, my host, cornered me.

“What do you do?” He asked. A tall wiry man who smoked Pall Malls and had thick arms and shoulders which I would later come to associate with people who surfed constantly.

“I used to work for a startup in New York but I just quit. Other than that I don’t have a job at the moment.” I was fired with just cause for a gross lack of competence and an overall loose interpretation of what qualified as a working hour. But I didn’t tell people that.

“So what are you doing here?”

“I like the ocean and I wanted to be somewhere close to the beach. I’m also going to write a few things and this seemed like a good place to do it,” I said truthfully.

We were standing outside the small outdoor kitchen which everyone shared. The refrigerators weren’t much colder than a cool day in September and the freezer didn’t freeze as the entire place ran on solar power. The water came from a twenty-five hundred liter tank and was filled up once a month by a large truck. The whole compound could have been sucked into a hurricane and a not a single wire or pipe would have been pulled up from the ground, save for the one that took away the sewage.

Diego nodded. “A writer. We’ve had two writers here. One was a German boy who wrote about surfing. I think he sold many books in Germany.”

“Germans love to travel,” I replied, “they’re crazy. Wherever you go in the world you’ll find a German there.”

Diego chuckled. “Yes, they like to travel. Do you surf?”

“I’ve never tried it.”

“You should man,” Diego said with enthusiasm. “I have a board here you can use, the big yellow one. You should take it out and try to get some waves.”

In my younger and more vulnerable years I’d thought that I might one day learn to surf but that dream had been dormant for half a decade. I replied noncommittally, “I don’t know, maybe.”

“You should try it,” Diego repeated, “it’s a lot of fun. Surfing is the only reason that I built my house here and it’s the only reason anybody comes to Lobitos.”

“Is everyone here to surf?” I asked, gesturing at the other cabins.

“Yeah man, everyone.”

“Shit. Alright, well maybe I’ll try it tomorrow. Thanks Diego.”

“Hey, no problem man.”

After lunch the next day I put on sunscreen and took the board, which was nine feet long and as nimble as a hearse, down to the ocean. My training was sparse, I had none. My thinking was, as in so many endeavors in life, it is best to get involved with the activity immediately. After you’ve grabbed the bull by the horns and gotten the piss kicked out of you, then you can try to figure out how to do it right.

From noon till two I never came close to standing up on the board, let alone riding a wave. I got tossed and rolled and pushed so far off course that three times I had to get out of the water and walk back up the beach to try again. By the end of two hours my throat hurt from the saltwater I’d swallowed, my papery German skin was torched red and my arms felt like they’d been run over by a fat man on a Harley. I sat on the beach and stared at the surfers and dumbly speculated on what allowed them to catch the waves so elegantly while I floundered around like a whale with brain worms.

“Fucking bastards,” I said loud enough for them not to hear. Then I took the board back to the cabin and asked Diego how much it would cost to rent it for a month.

“For every day?” he asked.

“For every day,” I replied.

***

Save for bear wrestling and bull riding, surfing is the only sport where the medium is trying to kill you. For millions of years the ocean has been the spawning ground of hurricanes and the progenitor of tsunamis. The surfer seeks to tame this wily bastard. The closest approximate to riding a board down a wave is the feeling of stepping quickly down a moving walkway where each step is amplified and an external force drives you forward. Some people say that riding a motorcycle is like being on a roller coaster that you can control. That’s fine, but surfing is like standing on a roller coaster that you can control. It’s twice as satisfying and when you crash you don’t break your bones.

The better the surfer, the smaller the board. Large boards are easier to paddle and stand up on however they are ungainly and ugly compared to the small ones. With a small board a surfer can turn fast, jump waves and indelibly prove how cool he, or she, is. Small boards can also be easily carried on motorcycles, in the back of sedans, or on airplanes.

To learn to surf is to learn to read the water, not all waves are created equal. The white froth of a broken wave can be ridden but is inferior and beneath the dignity of anyone save a beginner. Every surfer who wasn’t born yesterday seeks to ride the curl, the unbroken section just on the edge of where the wave crashes into foam. This is the fasted way to travel and on the largest waves in the world surfers can reach speeds in excess of forty miles an hour.

Unlike skiing, surfing’s primary demand is on the arms, shoulders and back. To catch a wave you have to be in the right position in the water and to get there you have to paddle. Sometimes thirty feet, sometimes hundreds of yards. This is a strain on the triceps in particular and they are the first muscles to go. The back also grows weary as paddling requires the surfer to keep his chest elevated off the board. The muscles strengthen in time but nobody can surf forever.

These are the facts that one picks up along the way. Following my first session I surfed twenty-nine days in a row and went from an unbalanced beginner to a man who was widely recognized as a wave rider. In my third week I accomplished my goal of surfing a wave from one side of the beach to the other and by the end of my fourth week I was doing it consistently. I attribute this to the enthusiasm with which I practiced, and how could it be otherwise? Catching waves is an addiction as real as the bottle. Lobitos is the town where I dominated my first wave and Diego is the man who got me started. When circumstances seat you at the table of life the best thing is to call for whiskey and eat heartily, chance opportunities are the banquets that define a man’s story.

***

Like this story? Want to read more like it? My first self-published book, Three Years Abroad, is now available on Amazon. It’s 10 short stories, including this one, about my time abroad, the people I met and the interesting situations I found myself in. It’s only $8.99 and if you have Prime then shipping is free. I’d love it if you want to pick up a copy. All proceeds will fund future adventures in off the map countries.

India by Motorcycle

,

This story is part of a collection from my first self-published book, Three Years Abroad. It’s available on Amazon for $8.99 and if you have Prime then the shipping is free. I’d be thrilled if you wanted to pick up a copy. You’ll get this story and others like it, printed up and delivered to your door. Until then, please enjoy the story.

***

If you don’t know where you are going any road can take you there,” said The Cheshire Cat. I didn’t know where I was going so I went to Kochi. I stayed a month, it rained every day, then I went to New Delhi because it was cheaper than flying to Mumbai. My motivation in visiting India was two-fold. In the first case I had romantic ideals of the country, mostly from reading Shantaram. I thought that if I went I might meet my own offbeat Indian guide who would show me the real India. I would fall in love with a beautiful woman and when she refused my advances I’d lose myself in a string of opium dens only to be rescued by a charismatic zealot who would give me a horse, a rifle and a reason to live. I would look up to this man as a father, ride with him to Afghanistan and there we would fight a holy war whose origins dated back a thousand years. Or something like that.

Should this fail to materialize I had a secondary motivation. By eighteen I had in mind five things that I’d like to do with my life. By twenty-six I’d done four of the five, the last on that list was a motorcycle trip in India. To finish the list I had to find a bike. It took me two days. A rental shop the size of a bathroom on the second floor of an industrial complex in downtown New Delhi. The man who rented me the bike had a limp handshake and acted as though we’d known each other for years. The papers I signed said that if anything happened I was responsible and the $200 deposit I left supposedly guaranteed that I’d bring it back. Once the paperwork was in order I was given the keys and set loose on the streets of New Delhi. The ability to operate the bike was taken for granted.

By this time I was aware that everything I knew about driving was wrong. In India things are done differently. Most intersections don’t have a stop sign. Each driver approaches the crossroads and attempts to get through it without stopping. The losing driver, stewing in his cowardice, is the one who stops in order to avoid the accident.

Turn signals are optional. Some drivers will use them when they’re attempting a dramatic maneuver, like crossing four lanes of traffic in six seconds, while others never bother with them. You get the feeling that most car owners, were the turn signal stick to fall off, would not have it replaced. In lieu of signals and courtesy the Indian driver applies the horn. This warns other motorists of your presence and the effect is similar to a bat and his echolocation. A driver who fails to signal his presence with a blast of the horn is liable to be driven into.

Naturally the horn system is infallible and accidents happen. Not as many fatal accidents as one would suspect, looking at the exquisite insanity of the Indian road system, but small ones are common. Automobiles graze each other at walking speeds and the drivers don’t even get out to check the damage. It’s common to see cars with hundreds of scratches and gouges at bumper height. Indian drivers seem to be resigned to this, even the most conscientious driver will be the victim of scrape-and-runs if he does anything other than leave his car in the garage. The thought of driving a Rolls Royce through downtown New Delhi inspires the same feeling as hanging the Mona Lisa in a college dorm.

While teenage Sam hadn’t realized that driving in India was the real life equivalent of Grand Theft Auto, twenty-something Sam didn’t think this justified bailing on ambition. However, concessions were made. Instead of going to the Himalayan mountains, I would instead go to Agra, home city of the Taj Mahal and a mere one-hundred and twenty miles from downtown New Delhi. My bike was a Baja Avenger 220, the cruise edition, and my baggage was my backpack with a few days of clothes, two liters of waters, my laptop, crackers, two charged batteries for my phone and an appreciation of the absurd. I was wearing a lambskin jacked I’d bought special for the trip and in the pocket there was my phone, loaded up with Google Maps and Post Malone.

This setup worked well and on the morning of my departure it took me only an hour to reach the outskirts of New Delhi, a barren place overrun with uninhabited fifty-story apartment buildings, power plants and empty stadiums. It was ninety-five degrees and sunny, a beautiful day for riding. I covered thirty miles and as the buildings gave way to fields my confidence grew. The highway was three lanes wide, only a light spattering of traffic and I hit the throttle till I was doing forty. The countryside was a blur, for forty is quite fast in India where a 600cc bike is considered massive, when I drove over a screw.

The rear tire popped and the back of the bike started to flop like a landed fish. This terrifying sensation was so unexpected it took me several seconds to take proper action. Ease on the front brake, hold the handlebars straight, put down my legs to keep the bike balanced. Fifty feet later I was at a dead stop. My heart was working overtime and my body electrified with adrenaline. My hands were shaking, my breathing shallow and I felt lucky to have not left my skin on the road. I shut down the bike, took off my helmet and looked around. What I saw hit me twice as hard as the almost-accident I’d just survived.

The highway was built on an embankment and afforded a view over the surrounding flatland. Down the slope and parallel to the highway ran a dirt road. A dust cloud followed a man sitting on a wooden cart whipping a donkey. In the distance a half dozen farmers worked a pale green field which, to my untrained eye, looked inhospitable to vegetation. Further down the road three kids rode bicycles and shouted in Hindi. Of everything I saw, nothing suggested that the industrial revolution had reached where I was now stranded. Cold fear gripped me and I felt sick to my stomach. That moment, as the gravity of my situation sunk in, was the most alone I’d ever felt in my life.

I called the rental shop and was told to call a different number. I called that number and was given a different number. I called that number and the man said he didn’t know anyone that far out of New Delhi who could help. He kindly reminded me that per our agreement it was my responsibility to deal with burst tires and suggested I try talking to people. I hung up. If I waited by the side of the road I would wait until I died. I wrapped up my headphones, left my backpack by the bike and squeezed under the barbed wire fence. There was a road fifty feet away and I walked towards it. The upside to my situation, I reminded myself, was that most people in India speak English. Occasionally their accents are so fantastic that it’s impossible to understand what they’re saying but at least they can understand you. Down the road I only walked a hundred feet before a man on a motorcycle made eye contact with me and, as I was possibly the first foreigner to ever set foot on that desolate road since the time of Buddha, he stopped his bike to stare at me. I waved him over.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello. How are you?” He asked.

Overwhelmed and frightened, angry that my bike had failed after only an hour of driving, I replied dishonestly, “I’m fine. How are you?”

“Oh things are going well, very well. Why are you here?”

I pointed at my bike, just visible on the highway above us. “Punctured tire. Do you know where I can get it fixed?”

The man on the motorcycle said something in Hindi to the guy sitting behind him who nodded. He turned back to me. “Yes, OK. Get on.”

“Where, here?” I asked, gesturing at the gas tank.

“No, there,” he replied, pointing at the back. His passenger scooted forward, I got on the last three inches of the bike and the three of us drove down the dirt road, through a dusty field to a small town where the most imposing building was two stories and made of concrete. We stopped to admire a hand-driven water pump.

“The best water in India,” my driver claimed, before we continued.

We passed naked children and dozens of buildings made from straw and mud. The mechanic had a garage at the end of town and didn’t seem surprised to see us. He was working on another motorcycle and shouted at my driver in Hindi who translated for me.

“He will be done soon. We can wait.”

“OK, that’s fine.” I looked around at the village which was really just a row of houses along the main drag. “Do you live here?” I asked.

“I grew up here but I live in New Delhi now. I visiting my parents this weekend.”

“Cool. What do you do in Delhi?”

“I play professional cricket,” he replied.

“Are you good?”

He smiled, “I very good. You come see me to play sometime.”

“Sure, why not,” I said. The situation was so surreal that I would have nodded and agreed if he’d asked me to be the honorary ambassador to Ecuador.

The mechanic finished his work and we drove back to my bike where in twenty minutes he took the back wheel off, pulled the screw out of the tire with pliers, patched the hole in the tube and put the whole thing back together. It cost $8 and although I was sure that I’d been had I gave him $10. I thanked my driver, we took a selfie and then I put on my leather jacket helmet and music and accelerated through the gears feeling very cocky. I’d been put into an unenviable situation, kicked the shit out of it and now I was off again, hardly an hour after I’d come to an unplanned stop. I made it ten miles.

The second time my back tire blew out was so unexpected it hit me like a teenager texting and driving. While I managed to wrestle the bike to the side of the road unharmed I did not escape unscathed, emotionally a toll was collected. For an unknown reason the second blowout sent a wave of terror through my brain where it became lodged. In one second an unbreakable association was formed between motorcycles and death and no amount of further introspection has ever successfully fixed it. And why should it? The connection is logical. It was as though my last five years of riding I had been blissfully ignorant and then after the second blowout I finally woke up to the truth, a motorcycle can kill you. I felt shell shocked and incapable of action. I sat down and looked out at the brown empty fields.

That I was so mentally impaired was not so good. I was still on the side of a highway in rural India, halfway between New Delhi and Agra, and I had nobody to call. I wish I’d never done this, I thought. I would give anything to just be a normal person who wouldn’t even consider doing this type of stupid shit. Why am I fucking like this? When this speculation failed to lead to a solution I decided the only thing to do was get on with it.

My immediate concern was the disturbing déjà vu of finding myself, again, on the side of the highway next to a dirt road without a town in sight. This time, however, there was no man with a donkey or friendly local on a motorcycle. Just empty fields and far off in the distance a row of mud huts. I put my helmet and bag on the bike, slid under the barbed wire fence and walked to the road just as a man was driving past. I waved at him but he shook his head and kept driving. I walked further and came to an underpass where two kids on bikes were talking to a pair of homeless men sitting on a tarp. They were unshaven and passing back and forth a jug.

“Hello,” I said to all four of them as I approached. They stopped talking and stared, they looked at me like I was the Prime Minister of India. What the hell, they must have been wondering, was a white foreigner doing under their bridge? I addressed the two homeless men first as I thought they might speak better English. “I had a tire puncture, is there a mechanic here?”

I might have had better luck speaking Mandarin. I tried a different approach. “Motorcycle, tire puncture.” I spoke slowly and tapped the back tire of one of the boy’s bikes. Both of the boys faces lit up.

“Tire puncture!” They said together, repeating it several times. “Mechanic, yes?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “Where. Is. Town?”

They ignored me and talked quickly in Hindi. The homeless men, who had been silent, joined in the conversation. This lasted thirty seconds then the taller of the two boys spoke. “I go town.”

“Awesome, thanks,” I replied. Selfishly I’d hoped one of them might make that offer, it wasn’t one I was planning to turn down. “I will wait here.”

“What?”

“OK!” I said with a smile and gave a thumbs up sign. He took off towards town. The homeless men cleared a place on their mat and I sat down. The conversation was limited as I didn’t know Hindi and their English was no better but when I took out my phone they were fascinated. They looked at it, pointed and said things I didn’t understand. I held it out but they wouldn’t touch it. The kid sat on his bicycle and gave me candy and used every word of English he knew which was very few.

The boy who’d gone to town came back after twenty minutes sweaty and satisfied and five minutes later the mechanic arrived on a beat up Enfield. In fifteen minutes he replaced the tube instead of patching it and I felt much better about my chances of making it to Agra. I thanked him the way I thought he might like best, with money, then I started the bike and everyone waved as I drove away.

The second blowout hadn’t rattled my nerves it had broken them. I was now jumpy and unhappy. Every few minutes I thought the tire was going to explode so that in the next couple of hours, twenty or thirty times I brought the bike to a stop on the side of the road. Before I could start again I had to slap my helmet like a quarterback psyching himself up for a third and tenth, then scream like a Celtic warrior going into battle. Only then did I get back on the road and rarely for more than a few miles. It took me four hours to drive forty miles.

By the time I reached Agra the sun was low in the sky and a routine three hour trip had taken me nine. I had made it though by God! My phone took me to within a block of my house where I could take a shower, eat dinner then take as much sleep as my body would allow. After one-hundred and twenty miles the last stretch should have been easy, just find the narrow alley marked with the blue sign, drive a hundred feet and shut off the bike because I’d arrived. Instead, I drove into a slum. Pigs rooting in silver-colored sewage that ran in six inch channels in front of the patchwork homes and piles of garbage burning gray sulfur smoke. It had taken only three wrong turns and I was engulfed in a poverty which would make any American trailer park look like a gated Malibu community. How had I angered Krishna enough to deserve this?

I drove in shapes for twenty minutes. When I passed the same noxious pig barn for a third time I was forced to admit I was lost. I shut off the bike and considered giving up on life. Whatever the world was planning to force upon me, it could be no worse than what I’d already done to myself. Laying down to die had its merits but I thought I had at least one more chance. I put the bike on its stand, walked up to a gaggle of kids and asked them how to get out. They laughed at me being there and told me in surprisingly good English to take this left and that right and when I followed their advice I found the main road in three minutes flat. An hour later I was having dinner at a rooftop restaurant watching the sun set over the Taj Mahal.

***

The highway I’d taken to Agra was different than what you’d find in America. Every mile or two was a pile of broken automobile glass, usually on the shoulder, sometimes well into the lane. That cleaning up these piles of glass might be an inexpensive way to improve the safety of their highways has apparently not occurred to anyone in India.

About half of the tolls, for reasons unclear to me, were only for cars. The bikes drove onto the dirt shoulder in order to avoid paying. There was no speed limit and if there were police they never showed any concern about the behavior of motorists. Barbed wire ran the length of the highway, from Agra to Delhi, and its purpose was to keep animals off the highway as well as stop people from using the road without paying. A fallible system, near the end of my drive I’d stopped to help two men pick up a motorcycle and shove it over the fence.

My reason for going to Agra had been to visit the Taj Mahal. On the morning after my trip from hell I walked to the entrance gate and read the sign. A ticket for Indians was 40 Rupees and a ticket for foreigners was 1,000. The thought of submitting to this injustice was inconceivable. On the principle that I had come to dislike India and refused to give them my money, I chose not to pay. Instead I had lunch on top of a tall hotel and enjoyed the Taj remotely.

After lunch I returned to my room and passed the day in a state of anxiety, nervous at having to once again drive the bike. I speculated about the feasibility of paying someone with a truck to drive me and the bike back to New Delhi but I had no way to set this up and I thought it would cost more than I could afford. Abandoning the bike in Agra, taking a bus back to New Delhi and leaving India on the next flight out also appeared as an option, but an unwise one at that. I was going to have to drive back.

The morning of my departure I ate toast with strawberry jam, a banana and black coffee. A fast shower then I sat cross legged on my bed and made a deal with the universe. If you just let me get back to Delhi safe, I promise I will never again rent a motorcycle in a third world country.

When I tried to start the bike the battery was dead. Two men pushed me till the engine turned over and exhaust shot out the back. I thanked them, drove to the gas station and then got onto the highway. I drove for an hour and then violently slammed my feet into the ground to keep from falling over. For those of you counting, it was the third time the rear tire had blown out. My hands were steady my pulse at resting rate. I had expected to be betrayed. At this point cursing the bike would have been like getting angry at a crying baby. My only wish, as I pushed that wretched son of a bitch onto the shoulder, was that soon it would be dismantled by indolent teenagers, melted down and made into a septic tank.

While I had grown accustomed to getting tires fixed in odd places, this time when I looked at the countryside I didn’t see anybody on the dirt roads or in the fields that stretched for acres by the dozen. There was no overpass with men sleeping under it. My best choice was a rest stop two miles away. I put the bike into first gear and it ran perfectly at walking speed while I walked next to it, my right arm stretched across the gas tank to reach the throttle and the flat tire going thwack thwack thwack on the pavement. It was a cloudless ninety-nine degrees and the sweat poured off so it looked like I’d been rained on. When I had just a quarter mile to go I had to stop and rest in the shade, so strong was the feeling that heat stroke was imminent. I rested for ten minutes, almost but for some reason didn’t puke, drank the last of my water then stood up and finished the walk at a brisk pace. Pushing the bike two miles had taken fifty minutes and in that time no person had stopped to see if I needed help.

At the tire repair shop I poured water over myself and lay sprawled on a filthy couch while three incompetent adolescents removed the rear tire and replaced the tube. Without confidence they reassembled the bike by trying parts in one position and then another. When the head mechanic finished he took the bike off its stand and asked me for more money.

“I want 800,” he said.

“We said 600! You agreed to that before,” I replied angrily.

“Yes but there are three of us, we need more money!”

I looked at the three guys. One had done all the work, another had watched and the third had gone to the pharmacy and gotten prescription pills which I doubted he had a prescription for. We were quibbling over $3, more money than the average Indian worker will earn in a day, but it was the principle God dammit! We stared at each other. He won. I handed over the money, walked over to the convenience store and drank a liter of water then got back on the bike which was hotter than a vinyl car seat in August. I felt good about the prospect of making it back. I saw it as highly unlikely that the tire would go flat again. Four tire blowouts in two-hundred and forty miles seemed improbable, even on the glass strewn highway. You chose this shit, nobody forced it on you, I reminded myself as if it made anything better. Then I started the bike and drove fifteen miles an hour until I got to my apartment in New Delhi seven hours later.

I was so dehydrated that I had a freshman’s hangover the next day but it didn’t matter, I had completed a motorcycle trip in India and with mixed feelings I realized that at twenty-six I had now done everything teenage Sam had ever hoped to achieve. A motorcycle trip in India, the final strike on the list that ended my adolescent dreaming.

***

The home I returned to in New Delhi was a single large room that had a balcony and air conditioning. My landlord described the neighborhood as posh although down the road was the burnt shell of a car and past that a public toilet you could smell from thirty feet. Next to the toilet a man sat on the sidewalk with his scissors barber’s chair and a torn robe. He would cut your hair for fifty cents or give you a shave for thirty. Other men had restaurants on the sidewalk and after you finished eating they’d slosh your dishes in tepid water and then somebody else would use them. I ate at such establishments often.

When I took a taxi and we stopped at intersections it was not unusual for beggars to tap on the windows, holding their hands out for money. Some beggars were women or transsexual men, it was difficult to tell which, done up in garish makeup. Others were waifish girls of eight or ten carrying infants on their shoulders. Their faces smeared with dirt, they made scooping motions with their hands that terminated at their mouths. If you gave money they yelled out and other children would come so that two or three sets of hands were reaching through the window and you felt overwhelmed and sad and wanted the light to change so that you could drive away and not have to think about it anymore.

People dumped their rubbish wherever was convenient. A man on the street in front of me was surprised when a bag of garbage landed on his head, a woman from a second story apartment had carelessly dropped it on him. The dropped garbage ended up in piles and the piles ended up in the water. The water in India was, in every case I saw, polluted black as Hitler’s soul. There was trash on the banks, stuck against concrete bulwarks and floating around in eddies. Sometimes I couldn’t smell the water and other times it reeked like capitalism’s hangover. Oily sewage the color of mercury ran in crevices between buildings and drained into rivers and canals.

It wasn’t the first time that I’d visited a poor country, Cambodia especially was polluted dirty and impoverished. However, India threw everything in my face with a previously unknown intensity. On a five minute walk in downtown New Delhi you could pass an outdoor toilet, begging children, piles of trash, a group of men who would unabashedly stare at you, every minute a horn blast so loud you wished you had ear plugs, water so foul it couldn’t technically be called water and then as you were about to walk in your front door some crazed maniac would come within inches of running you over. Also, it was one-hundred and two degrees so that any walk, even down the block to the bakery, meant sweating through your shirt. On this point, however, I reasoned it was still better than dealing with snow.

The highlight was the food which was, almost without exception, delicious. When I arrived in India I had no clue what any of the dishes were. As the menus rarely offered a description I would ask for something not spicy, the waiter would point at a name I didn’t know and I’d order it. If it was good I’d remember what he pointed at. Chicken mughlai, mutton shahi korma and butter chicken were my favorite dishes and I ate them with parotta and raita.

I have a friend, the smartest man I know, who enjoyed his time in India and I asked him why. He said he, “liked that everyone is sharing in the experience with each other.” I thought this a fine way of putting it. India is a tough country that’s ludicrously hot, overcrowded and extremely poor. People struggle daily to eat and the safety net is death. Yet the struggle is shared and anyone can turn his head and see millions of others living no better or worse than himself. It’s the bleeding edge, water splashed over crusty eyes, the illusion shattering truth of what life is like on the precipice.

Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice.

***

Like this story? Want to read more like it? My first self-published book, Three Years Abroad, is now available on Amazon. It’s 10 short stories, including this one, about my time abroad, the people I met and the interesting situations I found myself in. It’s only $8.99 and if you have Prime then shipping is free. I’d love it if you want to pick up a copy. All proceeds will fund future adventures in off the map countries.

Red Square is the Most Impressive Thing Ever

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Red Square is a grenade, pushing away Moscow and leaving a crater. There’s a casual disregard for prime real estate. The square is large and inviting, and it’s easy to forget that you’re downtown in a city of twelve million, a pistol shot away from six-lane highways and the most fascinating metro system ever built. The people, the rough stones, the buildings.

The State Historical Museum

The best way to experience it is to walk past the statue of Georgy Zhukov and through the stone arches. Welcome to Red Square! Several football fields in front of you is St. Basil’s. At your back is the bristling, blood-colored State Historical Museum. To the left is the small Kazan Cathedral. Then there’s that building.. You know, the one you’re always hearing about?

Glance to your right, anywhere on your right, and you’ll be looking at the architecturally unknown, but orally famous, Kremlin. You won’t be able to see inside though, a high wall obstructs inspection. But you’ll know it’s back there. You’ll know that several hundred feet away men are drafting plans that will affect your children, and have made decisions that affected your life, and your parents as well. You’ll never know everything that’s gone on behind the burnt-red exterior, the truth is stranger than fiction.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

Returning to your walk you’ll hear cameras and foreign languages, but with so much space you won’t feel boxed in. Walk for thirty seconds, look left and you’ll be staring at the GUM Shopping Mall. A conspicuous sign of capitalism, it’s blind windows stare at the Kremlin’s ballrooms where Stalin and Lenin grew communism. On the right you can still see the embalmed corpse of Lenin, if you don’t mind waiting in line.

Walking the length of Red Square takes several minutes. However, you’ll probably stop multiple times along the way. It’s not uncommon to spend fifteen minutes in the square before you reach the exit: a graded slope five tanks wide. Descend, with St. Basil’s on your left, and you’ll be back in Moscow. Chaos compliments of battered buses and wealthy men driving modern Mercedes. Back at it, пробка и людей. But Red Square, as always, remains.

Sailing in Thailand, What Happens when the Wind Runs Out?

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Sanctuary was one of the most picturesque hostels that we stayed at in our trip across Asia. It was a series of bungalows, wrapped with trees, with the ocean for a front yard. If you walked off of our limited front porch, the only thing between you and the water was a large outdoor cafeteria. On the right was an upscale hotel, to the left was one of the dozens of beach bars that make Koh Lanta a great place to exist.

I loved being able to walk out off the front porch, across the scorching sand, and step into the ocean. And even though I enjoyed swimming, I hadn’t ever considered sailing, until we met Xaviar.

We had seen him walking around and both me and Joanna mistook him for a local. The implication being that were we to talk to him, we would be limited to the most primitive conversations. That turned out to not be the case. After we had been at Sanctuary for a few days he came up to me and didn’t beat around the bush.

“Would you guys like to go sailing?”

Surprised at his English, I replied “You have a boat?”

“That one down there” Xaviar said, pointing to a twelve foot sailboat resting on the edge of the beach.

“That sounds like fun. What do you think?” I said, turning to Joanna.

“Do you know how to sail?” She asked him skeptically.

“Sure, I’ve been out a lot. It’s not actually my boat, it’s my Uncles, but he taught me how to sail it.”

“Ok”. Said Joanna.

“I don’t know when we can, maybe in a few days. I’ll let you know.” I said.

Xaviar smiled, “Cool.”

Going to School

The day came, and I had to talk Joanna out of bringing her phone.

“We’re going on a boat, crazy shit happens. I would definitely say don’t bring the phone.”

She agreed, and we left our electronics in the bungalow. We met Xaviar on the beach as he was preparing the miniature sailboat. Without flipflops, walking on the sand felt like walking on top of a pizza oven. We jumped around like lizards that only ever put two of their feet on the ground, and the moment when we pushed the boat into the water brought quick relief.

We shoved a few Nordic tourists out of the way, and pushed the boat out to chest level before jumping aboard. Xaviar got the sales up, air collided with cloth, and we left land behind. Similar to chess, learning how to sail took only minutes, but mastery comes after a lifetime. In a sentence, we tacked in one direction, running far off course, then we ducked under the boom, scooted to the other side, and started tacking back. The most exciting experience was catching the wind just right. The boat would lift out of the water on one side and we would make incredible time. How exciting! When I retire I’ll leave the golf to everyone else, I think sailing is the true sport of champions.

Tacking west along the beach, it took us twenty minutes to reach a formerly hidden beach.

“Two years ago the only way to get here was by sail boat. Now there’s some kind of trail that you can take.” Xaviar informed us.

We pulled the boat directly onto the beach, just twenty feet to the right of a forty-something white man throwing a ball with a twenty-something Thai girl. Regularly seeing such “relationships” was one of the most depressing aspects of being in Thailand. I felt bad for the girls, and let down that a man would let himself get to the point where he has to come to a foreign country and spend money to feel loved. A personal failing of sorts, in my view.

Joanna swam far out into the ocean, and I stayed close to the sand. Laziness. Unrepentant relaxation. Xaviar with his shoulder length hair, crushed sand flat with his back. I bobbed up and down in the salt water, actively working to savor the moment. While waves were tumbling over me, my entire family was back in New York, being molested by blizzards and that awful puke-colored slush that accumulates as the snow melts.

The Physics of Sailing

Leaving the man and his Thai mistress to their intrigues, we sailed out half a mile offshore. I watched out for sharks, of which I am terrified, and Joanna failed miserably to light a cigarette. We sailed the better length of the most popular beaches along Koh Lanta, then decided to turn around.

An elementary lesson in sailing may be in order. If there’s one thing that you should be aware of, it’s that sail boats aren’t actually good for anything unless there’s wind. That’s a fun lesson to learn the hard way. Just as we had our hopes up of a swift return and a cool beer, the leaves in the trees stopped moving. Our sails hung limp, like curtains in a widow’s mansion.

After several minutes of drifting with the current, Xaviar suggested “Let’s swim the boat to shore and get a beer.”

So we did it. And we had the beer. And there was no wind. And we were a mile from our hostel, with a sail boat that feels feathery on the water and obese on land. A speculative mood developed.

“I think I saw a few leaves move” I said. We all looked at the trees. A single leaf moved a quarter of an inch and everyone shifted in their seats. It was the most attention I’ve ever given to foliage in my life. But a single leaf didn’t turn into a cascade, as we were hoping for. The sun was setting and it was time to take action.

The Last Resort

If hearing Xaviar speak English was surprising, hearing his ten year old sister speak even better English was the real surprise. A precocious kid, she had the personality of a firecracker. The sun was keeping other parts of the world light and the four of us were eating pizza at a restaurant across the street from our hostel.

“Is that a standard sailing experience?” I asked Xaviar, in between bites.

Laughing, with a tinge of guilt, he said “No that’s not usually what happens. Most times I don’t make my guests push the boat back home.”

“I’m not complaining, I’m just wondering if you do everything different in Thailand.” I said absentmindedly.

We were tired because we had pushed the boat back, and it had taken us an hour. Xaviar on the right side in the deepest water. Joanna behind the boat, pushing way harder than you would ever give a 110lb girl credit for, and me on the left side, closest to the beach. It had been a hell of a site, and at least a dozen tourists took pictures. An American guy, a Dutch girl, and a half Thai, half English dude pushing a sail boat through the shallow water, going as fast as a man on crutches.

When we reached the hostel it was a beautiful moment, we felt like marathon runners who had just crossed the 26. 2 mile mark. The sail boat was back safe, the light was almost gone, and our calf muscles were wrecked. There was the heroic struggle of pulling the boat up onto the beach, and then the day ended with beer and pizza. A lesson to all would-be sailors. If you’re going out, it’s essential to realize the limitations of your boat. If it’s too small to have an engine, it should be small enough that you can push it. Being stranded by the doldrums is a good story, but when you’re pushing your boat down the beach it doesn’t feel that heroic at all.

Making Borsch on a Commune in Ukraine

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I took the train to Bakhmach and got off at the wrong stop. On the wrong side of the tracks, I walked around the back of the train and what I saw has been burned into my memory since then. To the right was a grey stone building. Two stories tall, it looked like an abandoned house for railway workers. Cutting in front of the house, parallel to the train tracks, was a dirt road. There were several people riding ancient bikes, and further down a handful of instantly recognizable, one story “Продукты”. This translate exactly as “Products” and if that draws comparison to the type of stores we had in the 1800’s, that’s a more apt analogy than a convenience store. They carry everything you’d expect, like Pepsi and beer, but they also sell meat, fresh bread, and whole frozen chickens.

The train gained speed and pulled away from me, while I stood motionless. It was the most vivid manifestation of time travel that I had ever experienced. Scanning the road I saw a young man riding a bike, with a beautiful girl in a fluorescent green dress sitting on the handle bars. It reminded me of a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidwhen Paul Newman shares the future with Butch’s girlfriend.

Recovering, I walked to the Продукты, my back sweating in protest of the overweight backpack. Facing the woman working there, I used my limited Russian to ask for two things. Cold water and the number of a taxi. I took the slip of paper from her hand, paid for the water, then staggered out of the store like a gawky teenager.

After a phone call and a fifteen minute wait, I’m sitting in the front seat of a taxi. Leaving the village behind, we drove down a road that cut massive green fields in half. Fields far larger than any I’ve ever seen in the eastern United States. My driver, Alexei, abused the throttle and we hurtled past horse drawn carts. Discordantly, this took place while Drake was rapping about bitches and success on the blown out speakers. The world outside the windows of the Russian made taxi suggested that the industrial revolution was just over the horizon. The music inside reminded me that places like T-O-R-O-N-T-O exist and that women are abundant there.

What’s Smaller Than a Village?

In English, short of saying “outpost” or “colony”, we don’t have a good word to describe anything smaller than a village. In Ukrainian and Russian they do. It’s called a “Хутор” (Hooter) and they look something like this. My hooter was a collection of about a dozen houses, arranged along a quarter mile of well paved road. The houses were all one story, built the same way that they’ve been built for hundreds of years. We passed by massive gardens, horse stables, free range children, pig pens, and pulled up in front of the place that I was going to stay.

The first thing I noticed was a fence running in front of the buildings. It abolished the view so that I could only see the top half of a barn and a home. As I was pulling my ignorantly packed bag from the trunk, a head popped over the fence. On top of head is cap, which didn’t seem to do much as the face had picked up a healthy tan from working outside.

“Hey” said the face, with a smile and Russian accent that you could stick a fork into.

“Привет” I replied . I had learned that if I wanted to practice my Russian, I needed to speak it even when people addressed me in English. I traded my taxi driver 200 Grivna for the twenty minute ride, then off he went. Back in the direction of relative civilization. A bustling city by comparison to my new home.

Meeting the Ukrainians

Two days later and I had met almost everyone living at the farm. Besides me there was one other volunteer, named Olga. She was several years older than me, Ukrainian, and spoke English to put my Russian to shame. Leonard, the head of the household, was a filmmaker and at a festival in Poland. He left behind his very pregnant wife and their two daughters. Finally, there was Mama Luda. Leonard’s mother and the senior member of the mismatched crew. Mama Luda was a lovely person and I spent a great deal of time helping her around the kitchen. For example, the water situation was interesting. While there was running water, it wasn’t a fully developed system yet. Water came out of a plastic spicket and my job was to fill up the five gallon pail of water for the kitchen. I also had the privilege of filling up the hand washing sink, and the large plastic containers that we used to wash dishes.

Another job was lighting the large wood burning stove in the morning, and keeping a fresh supply of firewood in the kitchen. Life at Obirek was traditional and fun. I’ve always enjoyed work that feels meaningful. Working as a cashier in a supermarket and bussing tables in a creperie never offered me any satisfaction, and I often felt like shit after my shift. On the other hand, when Mama Luda is cooking dinner and had to have water, that was satisfying job to see to. Especially when I knew the results would be delicious.

A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that I really enjoyed Russian food. Most assume that all Russian food is pickled, scaled, or somehow associated with Vodka. While there certainly is that subset, there’s more to it. Mama Luda consistently cooked delicious dishes that would convert any skeptic. Green borsch, red borsch, dumplings, potatoes, kasha, and shuba. I ate well every day, and enjoyed the experience of eating traditional food, prepared by a seasoned cook, made in the most antiqued kitchen that I’d ever lit a fire in.

Second Language Cooking Lessons

Despite my appreciation of the meaningful work, after ten days I was ready to leave Obirek. My feelings about gardening were mixing with a craving to start working online, and I knew it was time to get back to Kiev. However, before I left there was something that I really wanted to do. Using my limited abilities with the Russian language, I explained to Mama Luda that I would jump at the chance to cook Ukrainian borsch. Would she be generous enough to teach a young American how to prepare the best soup in the world?

I knew this would be an interesting experience because of the language barrier. My conversational Russian was decent, but I was lost like a tourist in New York when it came to verbs like cut, grate, slice, peel, boil, fry, and almost every other food related action. Determined to make the best of it, we gave it a try.

Every new word Mama Luda taught me pushed out an old one that I had learned five minutes ago. The whole thing would have been a mess if I hadn’t had a notebook with me. Writing half in Russian, half in English, I began to record the experience of cooking borsch. I wrote an entire post with the recipe and cooking instructions, so I won’t get into details. There I was, a twenty-three year old American, learning how to cook a famous Russian / Ukrainian dish, from a grandmother who grew up under the Soviet Union. Thankfully countries change and barriers are broken. Grudges are forgotten and swept under the rug of time. I spent thirteen months in Russia and Ukraine, and in that time I was never greeted by anything but warmth and good emotions. I learned how to cross country ski, curse in Russian, drink vodka with pickles, and cook borsch. And most of all, I learned that there’s a world out there and it’s quite a bit different than how the news makes it out to be.

A Trip to Cambodia’s International Buddhist Center

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The trip starts as many trips start in Asia, I need to find an excuse to rent a dirt bike. Rather than ask the people working at our hostel about the tourist destinations, I open Google Maps and look at the area surrounding Phnom Penh. After five minutes I find the International Buddhist Center. After seven minutes I’m positive that it’s worth checking out.

Joanna says it sounds cool, and we decide to make it a picnic. I go to the lobby and have the guy behind the desk summon me a dirt bike. Then we start looking for a place to get picnic food. Finding a sandwich shop in Asia is like trying to peel an onion with a chopstick, and we go through all of the brochures to find one place that looks decent. We change, then meet the dirt bike man in the lobby. He confiscates my passport in exchange for the keys, and I pay him with a crisp $20 bill.

Google Maps has given me the suggestion that the Buddhist Center isn’t that far away from our hostel. If you measure it strictly in terms of miles or kilometers, this is true. However, there was something else that was going to make this the most harrowing experience on a motorcycle that I would ever have. Something fluid like a river, loud like a hornet’s nest, and with an unpleasant aftertaste of insanity.

Don’t Mind the Sidewalk

The first twenty minutes is intense but I adjust quickly. We’re still in the city, the road resembles a road, and the traffic law atrocities being committed aren’t enough to summon the UN Peacekeepers. Our dirt bike is an older make but it’s built like a tank. It has a deep guttural exhaust sound that lets everyone know we have a full size 250cc engine. Since me and Joanna weigh no more than a single fat American, we make good time.

Driving towards the outskirts the city falls down around us. The buildings become more squat and their outsides more tarnished. Even these crusty looking apartments look nice compared to what comes next; the one room thatch houses built of materials assorted and unknown. These buildings give a good idea of how most people live in Cambodia, and I stare at them whenever I feel like I can spare a second. I think that every American who likes to complain about minor trivialities should be forced to live here for a week.

Potholes begin to appear. They give our road, ostensibly named Highway 1, the appearance of the pockmarked face of an acne afflicted teenager. In addition, the boundaries separating the road, from everything that is not the road, become a matter of interpretation. As soon as traffic begins to bunch, schools of scooters drive off onto the area where a sidewalk should be. They leave tiny rooster tails behind them as they plow through dust and gravel. Like a sardine I follow the crowd. Even with the dirt bike it’s difficult driving, and it’s a testament to the skill of the Cambodians that they’re able to handle this jarring terrain on tiny scooters with basketball sized tires.

Getting further outside of Phnom Penh, in the area that would be the suburbs in an American city, the traffic grows more gnarly. We’re forced to ride within several inches of semis and dump trucks who I assume are all piloted by sociopaths. I don’t imagine that any of these drivers would lose sleep over grinding a couple of people into the road. We’re so close that I can brush my shoulder against massive tires.

However, of more pressing concern is the engine. The only thing keeping it from boiling alive is cool air rushing past. At the moment it’s 90 degrees outside, we’re driving 10 mph in a low gear, and I can feel the heat from the gasoline explosions spreading through our seat and into my jeans. Setting aside my initial thought that these old bikes are built like Scottish fortresses, I begin to wonder how reliable they really are.

Follow the Leader

Fifteen minutes of hell and then we’re through the worst of it. The traffic has thinned from brain aneurysm to the relatively comfortable level of extremely stressful. We’re just starting to regularly reach speeds of 20mph when I feel that something isn’t right. The steering feels mushy and the engine is working overtime to maintain our speed. I look down and see that the front tire is half flat. Well past the city, we’re on a dirt highway that looks like it belongs in Africa. We have about $25, our cellphones can’t make calls, and I’m not prepared to handle this. A quarter mile down the road and the tire is done.

We get off and I’m emotionally wrecked. Driving through torrents of terrorist traffic for the last hour has left me functioning at the level of a five year old who hasn’t had his nap. I feel like throwing the dirt bike in the a ditch and drinking six beers in short succession.

Joanna takes over.

In places like Cambodia and Vietnam you’ll notice that on the side of the road, every half mile or so, there’s a small garage. We find one almost immediately and through vigorous sign language we learn that they don’t do tire repairs. However, they do let us use their cellphone. I call the English speaking guy at the rental shop, who asks where we are.

“I’m not really sure. Somewhere on Highway 1, outside Phnom Penh. We’ve been driving for an hour.”

This draws a moment of amused silence before he answers; “Tire repair your problem. You pay. Go to shop on road, You find shop, many shop there. You pay.”

“Ok” I reply, feeling uncharacteristically defeated. Joanna continues to lead. The mechanic who can’t fix a flat tire gestures for us to go across the road. Joanna bounces across first, and I stand with the dirt bike, waiting for a break in traffic. It feels like playing Frogger, but with higher stakes and less lives.

Tire Repair in Cambodia

By this point I would have followed Joanna if she walked off a cliff. I still feel emotionally whipped and I want the problem to be solved without having to think. I push the dirt bike into the shop on the other side of the road, and immediately there’s some confusion about whether they can fix the tire. They try to whisk us back onto the street, insisting they don’t do this kind of repair. We refuse to move, and insist right back that yes, whether they know it or not, they do. Coming to their senses, a young Cambodian boy puts the bike up on a stand. We get a pair of the plastic chairs that grow on trees in Asia, and sit down to watch as they begin the repair.

Having pulled the tire off and taken out the tube, the three young guys working on it locate the hole. They put a patch on the tube and then it’s time to secure it. What happens next would be to environmentalists what watching a chicken get it’s head cut off is to PETA supporters. The boys, none of whom could conceivably be a day over 18, take out a device that looks like a metal shot glass with a handle on it. One of them shakes a can, and then squirts a long stream of pitch black goo into the metal cup. Without delay another boy valiantly tries to set the rubbery black goo on fire. It refuses to light. He pours lighter fluid on it and tries again.

Success!

They use the heat generated from this ozone hazard to melt our patch on, while me and Joanna comment on tire repair in Cambodia. We’re not sure, but it seems like the type of thing that would cause an American mechanic to have a stroke.

Eating Lunch with the Kids

Environment be damned, we get the tire fixed! After half an hour the dirt bike is reassembled, and our young mechanics have crossed a month off of their lifespans by nonchalantly inhaling great deals of the black goo smoke.

“How much?” We ask, as I pull out my wallet.

One of the should-be-in-school mechanics holds up three fingers. It’s three dollars. He could have asked for five times as much and I wouldn’t have batted an eye. I give him $6. Joanna, who is several magnitudes better at languages than me, thanks them. The tire is solid and the motor has had a chance to cool. After donning our silly helmets Joanna gives me the thumbs up, and we clamber over the trench, back into no man’s land.

The next forty-five minutes go smoothly. With only minimal backtracking we find the correct artery to take us to the Buddhist Center. The road is dusty orange, the color of sunset and nuclear war. While I don’t have the ego to believe that we’re anywhere near the first Westerners to drive down this rural dirt path, I don’t believe that it’s a daily occurrence either.

Messing with Google Maps we have some difficulty finding the Buddhist Center. So when we turn a bend and find a temple, we decide to stop and have lunch. On the right side of the road is an elementary school with dozens of cheerful kids running around and screaming. We go to the other side, and walk through a set of gates that admit us onto the grounds. Beneath several large trees are some picnic tables and we sit down to eat our Fatboy subs.

In the shade, the wilting December heat feels less intense. Further into the walled off grounds are a group of young students, dressed in the traditional orange garb of monks. They look at us eating in their cafeteria and don’t seem to think much of it. I’m struck by what it must be like to grow up here. Even though we’re only about twenty or thirty miles from downtown Phnom Penh, it might as well be a thousand. I’m sure that some, if not most, of these kids have never been more than ten miles from where they’re standing right now. While the area is beautiful it’s also very antiqued. I see little that reminds me of home, and a lot that suggests that I’m in a rural part of a country that’s on the opposite side of planet from New York.

All the Buddhas

A beautiful Buddhist school in CambodiaBefore we leave the monk school we decide to see if we can get inside the temple. It’s one of the most ornate, beautifully carved structures I’ve ever seen, and as Joanna is walking up to it I snap a picture. Unfortunately it’s locked, and we can only guess what it must look like on the inside.

Back at the dirt bike we strap helmets onto our brains. I disengage the kill switch, push the starter and the engine explodes to life. With the phone in GPS mode we conclude that it’s only a short drive to the Buddhist Center. I’m already impressed by what we’ve seen, and I wonder how our final destination could possibly top this. In retrospect, I can see that that’s like visiting a zoo, and then wondering how Africa could be any more grand.

Following the phone, we take a left onto a one lane road and the Center begins to show on the horizon. It’s big. It’s really big. It’s what the Kremlin is to the White House: freaking gigantic! Coming to stop directly in front of it we can see that it’s actually a series of distinct buildings. Each one is about the size of a soccer field, perhaps a bit smaller. They’re several stories tall and done up in brilliant colors. While each structure has the same general outline, they’re all different on the inside. Many BuddhasOne has a large Buddha sitting beneath a roof, another has a sleeping Buddha surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of small Buddhas carved of stone.

The first place we visit is my favorite. In the center of the enclosed court is a golden Buddha. Twenty feet tall and glowing with meaning. Sitting in front are several other statues, presumably the disciples of Buddha. The court yard is restricted by a large, intricately detailed wall. Like every Buddhist structure that I’ve seen, this wall is topped with sharp spikes shaped like horns. I still don’t know the significance of these sharp thorn projections, but I do know that they’re ubiquitous in Asia.

The Road Less Traveled

A large golden Buddha at the international buddhist center in Cambodia At the international Buddhist Center there are five elements instead of the usual four. Earth, wind, fire, water, and heat. As we walk further down the line of temples and shrines, I’m struck by how oppressive the heat is. It feels like a physical force that could be cut, packaged, and sold in Siberia for a profit. I feel admiration for the men and women who spent years building these incredible buildings in a pizza-oven environment.

Coming to a building at the end of the line, we find a female monk with her young son. Joanna bows, I nod, and she bows back to Joanna. Then, before we have a chance to walk around, she signals that she’d like us to follow her. We go inside a modern looking hall, climb a few steps up onto the platform, and go through a narrow door behind the stage. We ascend one staircase, and another. Then the monk opens a set of great doors and leaves us standing in a large dome above the hall. The inside is decorated like a forest, the ceiling curves away from us, and we’re alone with our thoughts.

Out of the city, away from the usual tourist traps, we’ve manged to find something totally unique. Persistence and a sense of adventure have given us an experience that few people visiting Cambodia will ever know about. While nerve racking trips like ours are best enjoyed on an irregular basis, if you travel and only go to the most trampled spots you’ll end up missing out on a lot. Throw out the Lonely Planet guides, go to Google Maps, and create your own unique adventure! That’s what the International Buddhist Center was to us, and it was responsible for a daytime full of lasting memories that will continue for a lifetime.

Nightlife with my Sister in Berlin

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The windows opened wide out over the streets of Berlin, and it would have been the perfect place to jump to our deaths. Another unique feature of our hostel was the lack of doors on the men’s room showers. This was interesting because it didn’t look like the showers were built without doors. Rather, it looked like someone had deliberately taken them off. Presumably this was to stop people from having sex, but the only thing it did for me was bring about a vague feeling of uneasiness. Public nudity is not something that Americans are designed to handle.

Downstairs on the ground floor there was a large lounge area with overpriced beer and a strict ban on outside alcohol. This hurt the wallet but the vibe was good. I found that Berlin attracts heaps of Russian tourists, and I got to speak Russian nearly every time I went downstairs.

Even though the hostel bar was cool, there was no way we were going to let that be the extent of our fun; Berlin is famous for having some of the best clubs in the worlds. Clubs with the longest and most intense parties that me and my sister were determined to check out. Friday night we got dressed up, took the elevator down, and started walking towards the club district on a beautiful night in August.

The Worst Cartographer

One of my reoccurring failures as a person is my inability to accurately estimate distances on Google Maps. What looks like 15 minutes on the phone screen often turns out to be 45 on the pavement. On that night I checked out the map and guessed the distance to be an easy jaunt. So we started walking towards Kreuzberg with the impression that we would be there in no more than half an hour.

It didn’t quite work out like that. After half an hour, when Irene asked me where we were, I refused to tell her. Once I zoomed out on the map it hardly looked like we had made any progress. When she asked me again at 45 minutes, all I could say for sure was that we were definitely, absolutely, without a doubt almost halfway there.

This might have not been so bad if it wasn’t for the area that we were walking in. Most of it was along a fairly dark street, and we were frequently the only people on the sidewalk for minutes at a time. We walked past cheap apartments and dive bars that looked like caves. They had great, gaping entrances that attracted like mosquitoes men who enjoyed leather and cigarettes. The city that had seemed so warm and inviting during the daytime seemed more oppressive under the moon.

After more than an hour of walking the atmosphere began to lighten, more people appeared on the streets, and in the distance we could see the bridge that we needed to cross to get into Kreuzberg. Such joy, such relief to have the end in sight!

Drinking Beer on the Bridge

While living in a hostel in Kiev, a guy named Chris had told me that we had to visit Watergate. Me and Irene checked it out online and it seemed like we would be able to get in (as compared to other Berlin clubs, which are notorious for their door policies). Unfortunately, when we got to the door we found out that Watergate wouldn’t open till midnight. Disappointing, if not totally unexpected. Berlin’s club are known for staying open well past sunrise. We had plans for the next day though and staying out till four just wasn’t going to happen.

So we walked down the street through the heart of Kreuzberg. The sidewalks, cafes, and bars were packed with people. Most of them young, speaking German, and glued together in large groups. A few blocks away from Watergate we found a liquor store and bought a couple of beers. I think it’s amazing that you can drink in public in Germany. While you can do the same in Russia, it’s technically illegal and if a cop is bored he can give you hell for it. In Germany though you don’t have to watch out for cops and you can enjoy your beer just about any place you like.

Failing to find any other interesting club or bar, we gently drank our beers and walked back in the direction we came. To get into Kreuzberg you have to cross a fairly long bridge and this is where we ended up. The bridge is intriguing and mysterious in that it looks like something straight out of Hogwarts. It’s decorated with arches and a large covered sidewalk runs the length of it. Walking towards the middle we passed a DJ with a portable speaker and turntable, a man playing guitar, and dozens of kids sitting on the concrete, drinking beer and smoking dope.

Directly in the center of the bridge we stopped and leaned against the railing. The water flowed quietly below us. Even though we hadn’t been able to get into Watergate, the experience still felt special. All the people around us were young and in high spirits. The freedom to drink in public resulted in an electric outdoor atmosphere where everyone was happy, and nobody was worried about being hassled by the police. We watched some people dancing off to our right, and I thought about how I wished I could have come here when I was in high school.

Spontaneous Greetings

Ten minutes later the highlight of my time in Berlin came floating down the river. It was a midnight sightseeing ferry and the upper deck was battened down with people. As the ferry approached the bridge, more of the young crowd took notice and began to line up at the edges of the bridge. As soon as the river passengers were within a baseball’s throw, everyone began to whistle, smile and wave, as if the people below were leaving on a great ocean voyage to another continent.

We didn’t know them, they didn’t know us, and yet we all waved. Everyone was happy. We were all out in Berlin, enjoying a beautiful night and a good life. This exchange with the ferry people below had such a deep impact on me because it felt like a shot of happiness and optimism straight into my veins. I had only gotten free of the Russian culture a week ago, and I was quiet aware that this is the type of thing that would never happen in Eastern Europe. Spontaneous outbursts of joy are frowned upon and discouraged. I was happy to be free of that and in a place where we were free to celebrate life as we saw fit.

Hardly had the other boat disappeared down the river before another one came in its wake. This continued for ten minutes, and we cheered and waved to each new group of people passing underneath us. What an incredible sight! Before that night I had liked Germany. After that I loved it.

This vivid experience of Berlin has stuck with me, and it’s been a contributing force in my wish to return to that beautiful city. As I study German and speak with my German friends, I’m continually preparing for that day when I’ll go back, and find a whole new side of Berlin to fall in love with.

Mr. Peace is a Crazy Son of a Bitch

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After two and a half weeks in Nha Trang I was ready for something new. Even though my hostel offered free beer at happy hour, and I had some cool friends, it was time for a change of scenery. At this point I had only been to three or four cities in South East Asia and I was looking forward to seeing more.

Street FoodOn my last day I hung out with my friends and we went out for some delicious street food. One of the things that make Vietnam unique is the proliferation of street food restaurants. They appear on sidewalks at frequent intervals, the way there’s a Starbucks on every corner in Manhattan. At these restaurants you can sit on dainty chairs and eat from a table that’s hardly more than a foot off the ground. As we were leaving our restaurant I saw a group of British girls approaching, being led by a guide from their hostel. I felt happy, and a little bit smug, that I was able to experience this with my Vietnamese friends and not have to rely on a guide. After dinner I said goodbye to my friends and went back to the hostel to pack up my bag. The next day, coming back to the hostel after lunch, I nearly missed my bus. In Asia I’ve found that buses are on time as often as there isn’t a murder in NYC for 2 weeks. Never. Most times they’re either twenty minutes late or ten minutes early.

At the last second I got a seat on the bus, distributed crumbs all over from the crumbly bread of my sandwich, and wished that I had chosen to sit on the other side of the bus that wasn’t sun scorched.

A Ride Through the Mountains

The bus ride was a wonderful experience. We drove through dense swaths of jungle, and I imagined what my countryman must have felt like navigating through this terrain half a century ago. Unfortunately, the ride got less enjoyable as the the roads began to unravel into a series of sharp turns and switchbacks.

This didn’t sit well with me.

For some unknown reason I feel right at home in eight foot chop in a fishing boat only a few feet longer than a BMW 7 Series. Going around turns in a cramped bus with sets designed for an Asian grandma, that gets me every time. And it seems to be a fairly unique problem. I talked to a quartet of Swedish girls, and a Vietnamese NGO worker, who said the ride didn’t upset them anymore than losing a dollar would to Kanye West.

By the time we reached Dalat I had two strong feelings. First, I felt thrilled that I had arrived and I wouldn’t have to deal with any more nauseating roads. My second thought  was that this was the most downtrodden, tough looking town that I’d seen in a long, long time. I thanked the world at large that I wasn’t born there, strapped my bag to my back, and took off. With the ignorant optimism of youth I decided to try to find my hostel without using the map on my phone. Lost within three minutes, and I managed to turn a ten minute walk into a forty-five minutes. Then I found what I was looking for. The hostel was named Mr. Peace, and the owner went by the same name.

Meeting the Legend

Mr PeaceOne has to imagine that the hostel was named ironically, because Mr. Peace (the guy in the striped shirt) was the least peaceful person that I ever met in an Asian country. Tall and skinny, he dressed like a gay Manhattan hairdresser who spends $40,000 a year on clothes. He greeted me with a hug, which I wasn’t prepared for, and then delivered me to reception before floating off to another part of the building.

In the coming days I would find out several interesting facts about Mr. Peace. The first is that his favorite word is “motherfucking bitch”, and that’s supplemented by a fairly impressive knowledge of equally unprintable English words. He would frequently run through dregs of he English language, to the delight of his twenty-something, hungover guests.

Another one of his personality quirks was his unusual belief that groping people is an acceptable form of entertainment. While an assault on decency, it was softened by his uncanny habit of grabbing both guys and girls, and his eccentric personality which seemed to justify his actions. I’ve probably made him sound like a monster, and I’m sure that plenty of people came to hate him over the years. But where there  is hate there is also love, and many of the guests adored him. I can’t say that I enjoyed being grabbed when I least suspected it, but if I ever go back to Dalat, I wouldn’t consider staying anywhere else.

Mr. Peace wasn’t who I was most in concerned with in Dalat though. Even though he was one of the last truly eccentric and unforgiving people left on this planet, there was someone else who I was more interested in. She came in twenty minutes after I moved into my room, and I knew right away that I wanted to talk to her.

What’s That Strange Noise?

I was writing an article for a client when Joanna came in. First impression: Damn! That’s a cute girl! Tall, blonde and skinny. She was carrying a bag that looked like it weighed more than she did. I knew that I had to talk to her but with a bunch of other British girls in the room, I wanted to wait to make sure that they wouldn’t join in the conversation as well.

I continued to work and Joanna called somebody back at home. I listened to a conversation that I didn’t understand, punctuated by throaty, gravelly H sounds. Culturally ignorant, I was convinced that she was speaking Afrikaans. I’ve met some people from South Africa, and while they all speak English, I’ve always assumed that some speak a second language.

Her conversation wound down, the British girls left, and when I told Joanna that I thought she was speaking Afrikaans and she rightfully made fun of me. American’s ignorance of other cultures is legendary amongst the infinitely more international Europeans. It turned out to be Dutch, and I got to learn about the distant lingual cousin of German.

Me and JoannaThat night we went to 100 Roof’s Cafe, which turned out to be the most interesting cafe I’ve ever been to in my life. Even though we went there as a group of nearly a dozen, I spent most the night alone with Joanna. By the end of it I knew that not only was Joanna attractive, she was a blast to hang out with too. I felt elated about all of the choices that I had made leading up to this point. If I had left Nha Trang when I had originally planned to I never would have met Joanna, and my entire experience in Asia would have been less enjoyable as a result.

I think about that often. The odd chance that we happened to come together during those few short days in Dalat. It would have been so easy to have missed her in my spontaneous travels from city to city.

We only had a day or two at Mr. Peace’s before I packed up my bag and took the bus to Mui Ne. After the worst bus trip of my life, I rode on the back of a scooter taxi to my new hostel. In my new dorm I met up with a few people that I new from another city in Vietnam, and I got drunk under the table by two Dutch guys who were both named Tim. I had a hangover the next day when Joanna showed up, but I still had the good sense to jump off my bed for a huge. We spent nearly five months travelling through Asia after that, and it was a defining experience in my life. It’s funny to look back and see that it was all made possible by a chance visit to Mr Peace, the most wildly eccentric hostel owner in all of Vietnam.

I Didn’t Buy Anything at the Dubai Mall

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There was only one reason that I wanted to visit Dubai: the Burj Khalifa. I didn’t know much about Dubai except that it was very modern and very wealthy. This idea was reaffirmed when I arrived at the airport and my taxi was a brand new Lexus. It was only slightly shorter than an aircraft carrier, and so padded, quiet, and comfortable that it felt sterile and detached from the world. Like being inside a hospital operating room. I was reminded of the words of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who has said that luxury cars separate the driver from the experience of driving. Indeed, I felt like I was floating along the road, instead of driving on it.

As we got closer, my driver kept asking me which hotel I was going to. I valiantly tried to explain that I was going to a hostel, not a hotel. My efforts were in vain. He didn’t seem to know the word hostel, and all of my attempts to explain it to him crashed and burned.

“It’s a place with lots of young people in a room. Lot’s of foreigners living in the same apartment. Do you know what dorms are? Like that.”

“This place has both men and women living together?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“This is not a good place to go.”

The last five minutes of the ride passed in silence, as I wondered what kind of place I had come to.

Arriving at the address, I was disconcerted to find that we were in a back alley behind some residential apartments. It was 2:30am, everything was dark, and there were no signs for my hostel. I didn’t have a telephone to make a call, nor could I get online to find out which building it was. I wondered aimlessly up to the first door I saw and tried opening it. It was locked. Even if it was open I wouldn’t have gone inside, I knew that it wasn’t going to take me to the hostel. I felt scared, and discouraged. I felt like I shouldn’t have come.

I went back to my driver and I put myself at his mercy.

“I don’t know where it is” I said. “Can you maybe call them?”

“This is bad, you should not be here” he said sternly, before making the call. He spoke into the telephone gruffly, with heavily accented English, and then hung up after twenty seconds.

“Come on” he said, grabbing my bag from the trunk. We walked around a building, through an open entrance, and he pressed the button for the elevator. “Give me 30 Dirham” he said, as we watched the number counter on the elevator move from three, to two, to one. I gave him 50 and he didn’t make a pretense of looking for change.

We took the elevator to the third floor and walked down the hall to the right. Standing in the doorway, holding open the beige colored door, was a sleepy looking girl who didn’t look like she could be a year over twenty. My taxi driver, assuming the role of a legal guardian for an underage teenager, asked if I was in the right place. She nodded and said yes, as if this had all happened before and it was nothing out of the ordinary. My driver gave me my bag and walked back to the elevator. I called out a thank you to his retreating back and received no acknowledgement. I felt a wave of relief to have arrived at the hostel without any serious trouble. I had a comfortable bed to sleep in, the girl was from Belarus so I had a chance to speak Russian, and most important, I had a ticket to take a ride to the top of the Burj Khalifa.

The Flat and the Tall

The city planners of Dubai seemed to be acutely aware of what the focal points of the city are, and the metro had a designated stop for the Burj Khalifa. Being inexperienced at riding the metro in a Muslim country, I nearly stepped onto the female section of the train by accident. I was quickly shooed away, and I slipped into the guy’s section just as the door was closing.

Riding the metro in Dubai will give you a good idea about who lives in the city. In 2013, about 84% of the population was made up of expats. In Dubai, these expats include a wide range of people. Lots of East Asian construction and dock workers, along with a smaller percentage of white collar, Western expats. The result is that even though I was obviously a foreigner, I didn’t feel as though I stuck out in any meaningful way. Another blogger summarized it best when he said: “Everywhere I go in Asia, people ask me where I’m from. In Dubai, they ask me how long I’ve lived there.

Half a dozen stops away from the hostel I got off the metro. Then I began the quarter mile walk from the train station to the entrance of the Dubai mall. The entire walk was through an air conditioned tunnel that you could drive a SUV through. As I approached the entrance to the mall the first shops began to appear. They were selling tourist gear, scarves, tea, and expensive coffee.

A picture of multiple floors at the Dubai mallMoments later, I suddenly found myself standing in one of the main halls of the Dubai Mall, looking out over a vast expanse of space that covered multiple floors. It was larger than I had imagined and it seemed to stretch forward into eternity. I leaned against the railing, peered down at the people walking below me, and marveled at its size. To give you some idea of how large the mall is, I think it would be interesting to mention a few statistics. Measured by total area, it’s the largest mall in the world. Laid flat, it would cover fifty (European) football fields. It’s home to more than 1,200 shops, and in 2011 it was the most visited building on the entire planet. In 2012, with more than 57 million visitors, it was a larger tourist destination than New York City.

Of course I didn’t know any of this when I walked into it. I only knew that it was a big mall, that somewhere it held the entrance to the Burj Khalifa, and I had no idea where it was. Three floors and two wrong turns later I got it. I retrieved my ticket, went through security, and took the ludicrously fast elevator straight to the top. Why then is this the story of the Dubai Mall, and not the story of the Burj Khalifa? I was surprised at the answer myself.

At the end of the day, when I looked back at the two buildings, it was the mall that made a larger impression on me. Even though the Burj Khalifa is the tallest building in the world, it didn’t feel all that much more impressive than being at the top of other tall skyscrapers, like the CN Tower. On the other hand, the Dubai Mall was exponentially larger than any other building that I’ve ever been in, and I was struck by its fantastic proportions. So it was that after only twenty minutes at the top of the Burj Khalifa I was already looking forward to taking the elevator back down, and continuing my exploration of the Dubai Mall.

Of Sharks and Men

A picture of the fashion hall in the Dubai MallI set no goal for myself and wandered at random. Directly after leaving the Burj Khalifa, the first area I found was fashion square. A massive circular hall with enough room in the middle for a tennis court. Running around the ring, in two stories, were all of the luxury clothing shops that you’d expect a stock broker’s wife to be familiar with. Running out of fashion hall was fashion avenue. An area with plush, padded sofas and decorations so decadent that they made me feel small and insignificant. The Arabic area, styled on traditional Arabic design and desert lifestyle, was tasteful and imbued with a subtle look of jubilant wealth.

Several minutes later I tried to take a selfie in front of the shark tank but I failed. My camera did a terrible job of capturing the sharks and stingrays gliding through the water several feet behind me. I watched the tank for a minute, then walked off to find somewhere to relax. I bought a coffee and a cookie, then sat down and listened to the noise coming from the full sized hockey rink fifty feet away. A surreal experience, made more vivid by a brilliant cup of coffee. With gusto I left my seat and walked down to the third story, to see a movie in the theater.

Fifty Shades of Change

Even though I didn’t buy anything but a cookie, a coffee, and a cheap ticket to the movie theater, I look back fondly on the Dubai Mall. The whole building was remarkably well done and wonderfully impressive. What struck me the most was the way the mall seemed to mimic a chameleon, constantly changing colors. I walked from decadent fashion avenue, done in a vaguely Italian style, to a modern Pop flavored area with stores for people under thirty. Then through shiny tech zone and into the traditional Arabic, multi-floor area.

The mall was so large that it felt like it could support its own climate. An astonishing place that stands ready to impress even the most jaded. Even though I loved the experience, if I go back to Dubai I don’t know if I’ll return to the mall. I think that a great part of my enjoyment was the novelty of the experience. It’s like moving into a new house. When you take those first steps inside you’re living in a world of pure possibility. You explore the rooms and discover new surprises. Then, just a day later, everything is known and it becomes a regular part of your existence.

The strongest memories come from those first steps, just as you’re walking in and you have no idea what to expect. As you step over the threshold you stop for a second and smile, as you realize how amazing it’s going to be.

How to Not Ride an ATV in Vietnam

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The great thing about this story is that it exists not only the page, but as a video as well. You can watch that video at the bottom of this post, but I suggest you read the story first. It starts like this. Me and Joanna had been together in Mui Ne for a few days and we were just starting to get to know each other. Looking for things to do, we’d heard that you could rent a quad and take it out onto the dunes.

If you’ve been to Mui Ne then you’ll know that massive dunes surround the entire beach side town. I took a bus from Dalat to Mui Ne, and it was a hell of an experience to come down from the mountains, towards the ocean, and watch the lush vegetation turn into sprawling dunes. A few days later at our hostel, three of my friends showed us pictures of them riding quads on the sunset red sand, and me and Joanna obviously wanted to do the same.

The next day we rented scooters at $4 a piece, filled them up with petrol, and started driving out towards the dunes. The roads in Mui Ne are surprisingly well paved for Asia and we made quick time. Scooters weigh less than the average McDonald’s patron and they zip around with surprising speed. It was a half hour ride to the dune, and I did it without a shirt on. A model of responsibility I am not.

Choosing Our Ride

Bronzed by half an hour in the sun, we arrive and park our scooters in the shade. Walking up to a line of quads parked under a line of palm trees, we find out there’s two choices. Nearer to us are the older, beat up quads. They have a smaller engine, and the real problem is that they have bald tires. I’ve read at least a dozen reviews online from people who’ve said that they got stuck in the sand and it ruined their experience.

Raptor QuadParked in front of the old-folks quads, are a line of beautiful new Raptors. Gnarly, knobby tires. Fresh blue paint and aggressive styling, they look like the type of toys that I used to dream about driving when I was a kid. The choice is easy. We pay $50 for half an hour, choose the nicest looking one of the bunch, and start the drive out onto the dunes. After riding a tiny scooter the quad feels ludicrously heavy and hard to control. They’re reputed to have a top speed of 90mph, which would be terrifying and suicidal to test out on the dunes.

The only other time that I’ve gotten to ride a quad for more than a few minutes was with my friend Jessee in high school. We’d push the 400cc engine to its redline, and do circle burnouts on the gravel until the engine overheated and we had to shut it down. Teenagers throwing no caution to the wind, relying on their underdeveloped brain to make decisions. I’d like to say I’ve learned something since then. Have I though?

The Flying Circus

I started driving the Raptor with some degree of restraint. That disappeared within two minutes. Feeling like the king of the dunes, I gun the throttle, make quick turns, and leave a long trail of crisscrossing tracks on the sand. There’s a jeep weighed down with tourists driving nearby. I do my best to make them jealous, even though the quad is only ours for half an hour and I have no clue what I’m doing. The masculine attitude: if it has an engine I can drive it.

Cresting up on top of a small dune I see a large gully in front of us. Past the dip is a large, bland hill that looks easily conquerable. Going into the dip I accelerate, letting the ponies run free. Unfortunately, the hill that looked bland and unimpressive from a distance turns out to be significantly steeper in person. As we climb up it the we can feel the weight shift to the back of the quad. Less and less pressure on the front tires. Every foot we climb we feel like there’s a 2% greater chance we’re going to flip over. The front wheels feel light as a feather and my heart is pounding in my chest. An inexperienced driver, I’m still positive that you don’t want to flip one over on a steep hill.

On the back Joanna is screaming at me to turn around. I listen to her, and use the last bit of traction to turn us back down the hill. We start down, and before I can consciously register a blink we’re flying off the quad, tumbling over the sand dunes, the quad shooting off to the right on its own momentum. I inadvertently steered us straight into a field of undulating waves in the sand, each six inches high, and we hit them with such violence that we were instantly chucked off of the quad and straight into the sand.

As I gain my footing, the first thing Joanna does isn’t to yell at me for being a dim witted, heavy footed fleshy wad of retarded testosterone. Instead, she asks if I’m alright. Immediately I like her even  more than before. A month later when I crash a dirt bike she’ll do the same thing, and I think it’s one of her great endearing qualities. I like to take risks, but the catch is that the risks are often times where the fun lies. Sometimes you get stung, and it was awesome to be with a girl who understood that as well, and took my stuntman approach to life in stride.

The Asian Approach to Safety

For me, the scariest part of our half hour with the Raptor wasn’t getting chucked like rag dolls. The experience that really made me think happened several minutes later. Sobered by the crash, I was driving carefully up the side of another, gentler dune. Coming up on the crest we couldn’t see what was on the other side so I took it slow. Reaching the top, we saw that the opposite side of the dune was impossibly steep, and it went directly into a lake. If I had taken the crest too fast I would have been unable to stop, or change directions, and we would have driven straight into the lake.

This is a good parable for the Asian approach to safety. It’s a fairly lawless place where you have to look after yourself. In America there would have been signs, or a fence, to stop reckless drivers from taking their quad swimming. In Asia, I didn’t even know how close I was to ruining our day until I was six inches away from the edge.

Asia is a wonderful place to let loose and not worry about the law interfering. The flip side is that you have to look out for yourself. You’re not in America anymore. Everything is not idiot proof, the country has not been wrapped in bubble rap and you don’t have to wear a helmet. Some thought is required. Such is Asia, such is fun.

Skip to 1:45 in the video to watch the fireworks.

The Hidden Beaches of Bali

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I left Singapore just after six and I didn’t arrive in Bali until it was dark. From the airplane window the island looked large, and far more inhabited than I had anticipated. Lights lined highways that stretched like tree limbs, all the way up north towards Mt. Batur. The outline of several other volcanoes were just evident in the last purple haze of the failing daylight. After clearing customs, me and two other girls were mobbed by a group of taxi drivers. They circled around us like a pack of hyenas snarling over a fresh kill. We spoke shotgun English to one another, too fast for them to understand, and lamented their predatory tactics.

Extracting myself from the circle, I found the cheapest taxi driver and followed him to his car. I got exactly what I paid for. My driver texted the entire half hour ride, and nearly made paraplegics of several scooter riders who got to close. He was disappointed when we reached the hostel and I didn’t give him a tip. I was thrilled when we reached the hostel without having to call an ambulance to pull someone’s arm out his grill.

Having only a few days in Bali I wanted to make the most of it. Just as my driver was turning the wrong direction down a one way street, I had seen a motorcycle rental shop. I already knew the company from their website, and I knew they had dirt bikes. That night I found it difficult to fall asleep in my pod at New Seminyak, preoccupied with the excitement of getting to ride the next day.

The Foreigner Fee

The next morning I skipped breakfast and walked directly to the rental agency. I was their first customer, and they were still moving the bikes out of the claustrophobic showroom, into the parking lot outside. Walking inside, I immediately saw the bike that I wanted. A Kawasaki KLX 150. I’m familiar with the brand. My motorcycle in New York is a Kawasaki, and the godlike Ninja 650 that I rode on Koh Samui was also made by Kawasaki.

The woman running the agency spoke refreshingly good English, and she helped me to fill out the rental forms. One of the “options” was a rental motorcycle license. For just $20 you could become fully qualified to drive something that could maim you with a single mistake. Thinking about the hilarity of laws in Asia, I thought back to a sign that I saw posted in the common room of my hostel.

Reasons you’ll get pulled over:

1. Not putting on your turn signals
2. Driving over the speed limit
3. Being a foreigner

I decided to risk it. The same sign also said that the maximum bribe I’d be expected to pay is $10. I could get pulled over twice and it would still cost the same as “renting” a license. I payed then headed downstairs to pick out a cool helmet. The bike was outside, filled with petrol and ready to ride. Starting it up, the aftermarket exhaust ripped through the peace every time I twisted the throttle. I drove the two-hundred feet back to my hostel in second gear. Parked out front, I left the helmet on the mirror and walked up to my room to change into my swim trunks.

Forty-Two Flights of Stairs to the Bottom

Even though I put jeans over my swim trunks and had a decent helmet, the conditions I drove under would still be appalling to any serious motorcyclist. Moving down from the helmet I had a t-shirt on. I rode without gloves, and shoes instead of boots. When riding in America, I weigh five pounds more just from the protective gear. Unfortunately, unless you want to carry around a leather jacket in countries where it regularly hits 95 degrees, riding in Asia necessarily entails taking certain risks.

The traffic was intense, but riding in Cambodia had prepared me for the worst. The day I encounter a worse driving situation than what I found in Phnom Penh, is the day I renounce my faith, and start believing in god.

Back in Bali, I drove too fast and did things that would be unfathomably illegal in America, and I was still one of the tamer drivers on the road. On the highway I maneuvered between cars and took off from stoplights with as much gusto as my dirt bike could muster. My destination was on the very southern tip of the island, a beach that I had read about that was supposed to be gorgeous and deserted. Two adjectives that I wish I could apply to all swimming holes.

As I get closer to the southern end of Bali the traffic died away and I found myself on well paved roads without another car in sight. The dirt bike sounded like a chainsaw ripping through the dense jungle foliage on either side of the road. After just thirty minutes I already loathed the custom exhaust system, and I quickly rethought all of my ideas about bike customization in the future.

Arriving at the road that would bring me to the beach, I was immediately rewarded with my choice to rent a dirt bike. Most of the road was mud, and the rest was patches of rough rock. I labored through it in first gear, loving every second. The ultimate feeling of machine conquering unruly territory. Horribly wrong as a principle, but immensely satisfying in the moment, especially when done with a purpose. Ten minutes later I reached the edge of the cliff.

I parked my bike next to half a dozen scooters, marveled that those pipsqueak machines made it through the muck, and walked over to the edge. Stretched out in front of me, several hundred feet below, was Nyang Nyang beach. I stood awed, and then took several pictures to commemorate the moment. Not one to appreciate beauty from afar, I slipped down onto the rocky staircase that was carved into the rocks. Consciously I pushed out thoughts of the sweat drenching experience that would be walking back up those five hundred steps.

Nyang Nyang beach overview

Drifting Off

The difficulty in reaching it is one of the main reasons that Nyang Nyang beach is devoid of human life. First, the ride far outside of town, to the tip of the island. Then the dirt trail, followed by a walk down 500 stairs. Finally, you walk across a large pasture, past a couple of cows, hop a fence, and your feet land in sand. Still wearing jeans and sneakers, I stood in the sand for a moment and listened to the waves tumble to shore. A few surfers stood off to my right, and they seemed as eager to ignore me as I was to ignore them. The water at Nyang Nyang beach

The water had a deep blue luster that I’ve only ever seen in Florida, miles offshore, at the point where land vanishes and only ocean remains. The sand gently slipped into the ocean, becoming paper smooth where the waves washed over it. Several hundred yards out a few more surfers paddled. Throwing themselves into the waves with a level of skill that I envied.

Taking off everything but my swim trunks, I threw my things carelessly onto the sand and waded into the crescendoing surf. The strong current immediately took hold and pulled me offshore. Within minutes I was several hundred feet out, lying on my back and floating along. The whole time aware of the difficult swim that would be required to reach shore. Just a little longer, just a little longer, I kept telling myself. Land continued drawing away from me, as if the earth was moving under me and I was frozen in place. Everything green and binding towards shore. In the opposite direction: blue, welcoming, and free.

The Life of a Billionaire

That afternoon, exhausted, sunburnt and happy, I went to another beach called Green Bowl. Beautiful in its own right, it was terribly disappointing by comparison. Too many people, not enough sand, nothing to blow the hair back. An Indonesian lady walked around offering massages, and a man with a cap sat texting on the stairs.Texting Chap I felt like I was in a different world than the one that exists on the sandy shore of Nyang Nyang beach.

The sprint back to shore hadn’t been easy. I had fought the current, unruly waves, and it took me ten times longer to get in than it took to get out. Tired, I walked down the beach, following a slight bend in the shoreline. Just like that I had the beach to myself. Half a mile of pale sand and tumbling water. A billion dollars couldn’t have bought me a more unique experience, and it’s moments like these that encourage you to reflect on what matters. In such a perfect setting, you’ll either be happy or you won’t. Money has nothing to do with it anymore, you’ve arrived..

I sat cross legged under a lean too made out of bamboo fronds and meditated. The heat, the waves, the saltwater tang in the air, I was present in my conception of paradise and it felt fantastic. I made the vow that I would come back to Bali one day in order to learn how to surf. I would return to Nyang Nyang beach and conquer the current not by fighting against it, but by effortlessly paddling over it. That promise still stands. Money is the means to the end, a way to get there, but the beach, that’s the real reward.

The Time I Ran out of Money in Bangkok

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Pattaya was the worst city we ever visited. The town consisted of two things. A crummy beach that was bordered by the main road, and lots of old white men with young Thai girls. Me and Joanna had a room in a building that often felt more like a brothel than a motel. This was our next stop after Koh Rong, and we stayed for two weeks because I had to work. SnookerWe drank Chang, made fun of the fat white guys in their fifties, watched snooker on TV, and Joanna played her Ukulele at Joe’s, the local coffee shop.

Two weeks was fourteen days too many in Pattaya, and on a typically sunny Thai day we got into the back of a taxi and left to catch a bus. In Asia, minibuses are a way of life and we paid $5 each for our ticket. With half an hour to spare, we sat on the beach and looked at the water. Tourists were zooming around on rented jetskis, and a portly woman was parasailing. The driver of the boat was a tease. He let her come down till her toes were dragging in the water, then he would take off, her round figure jumping back into the sky.

An hour later and we made it onto the highway. In Thailand cars drive on the left hand side of the road. It felt disconcerting to go 100kmh down the left side of the highway, with all opposing traffic driving past on the right side. Though these thoughts were quickly washed away, as I thought about what was to come. Even though we had only been on the highway for five minutes, there were already signs telling us our final destination. Bold white letters half a foot high, framed against an army green backdrop, boldly proclaimed our final stop: Bangkok.

Advice from Pavel Tsatouline

Use kettlebells, they’re amazing. In order to build strength perform fewer reps, don’t go to exhaustion. Getting exhausted at the gym doesn’t mean that you’ve had the best workout. Such is the advice of Pavel Tsatouline, an ex-Belarusian strength coach who has worked with movies stars and the Navy SEALS. His words, through the medium of a podcast with Tim Ferriss, were the backdrop for the drive out of Pattaya. I was packed in next to Joanna on the cramped minibus, and her music was being pumped into her ears at such a volume that I could hear it through my headphones.

Pavel’s two hour interview came to a close and I put on one of my favorite Russian pop music mixes. Taking stock of the situation, the first hints of anxiety began to creep into my consciousness. For the first time in more than a month me and Joanna were splitting up. She was going to an upscale hostel to meet her Danish friend Asger. I was going to a different hostel, bordering Chinatown, to fend for myself.

There were several things that made me anxious. Having to split up with Joanna played a role. As did the thought of going to Bangkok alone. It was the first massive metropolis that I was visiting in a long time. There aren’t that many cities that I’ve been to that can claim an urban population in excess of fifteen million. Moscow is one, and Bangkok is the other. Strictly by contrast, New York City looks small with a mere eight million. I love big cities, but they can also feel like bewildering, you’re on your own type places. I felt this acutely because on that day, there was one thing that kept causing my anxiousness to grow as we got nearer to the city: I had virtually no money.

In cash, I thought that there was a 50% chance that I had enough to pay for a taxi and my hostel. On my debit card I didn’t have enough to even cover the $5 foreign withdrawal fee. I had no credit cards. I had no ideas about how I would buy food. More importantly, in a polluted city where you can’t drink from the taps, I didn’t know how I’d be able to buy bottled water. All of this contributed to my anxiety, which grew noticeably worse every mile we drove.

Welcome to Bangkok

Bangkok starts off gradually. It’s like wading into warm water, you start with your toes, and before you know it you’re up to your belly and you don’t even realize how you got that deep. As we approached the limits of the city, the houses began to get closer together. Then they got taller. The sky assumed it’s perpetual polluted, always overcast appearance. When we got out of the bus for a refueling the air was ripe with the smell of tailpipes.

Back on the highway, off to the right I saw the first skyscrapers since Saigon. Glancing left, I was impressed by a Lamborghini dealership. In Dubai I saw several luxury car sellers. In Moscow there is a well known Ferrari dealership, but this was the first time I’d seen Lamborghini represented. I felt like a boy on his first day of school. 10% excited and 90% too scared to even take a deep breathe.

The traffic grew denser, the pollution more evident, and my anxiety worse. Twenty minutes after the dealership and the bus pulled over. In typically Asian fashion we hadn’t arrived at a bus stop, but instead a bazaar. A meter from the door of the bus a group of Thai men we’re eating noodle soup for lunch. People we’re selling cheap t-shirts and magnets. Controlled chaos reigned all around us.

By now my thoughts were moving so fast that it was impossible to stop them. It would be like trying to dam the Niagara river with a piece of plywood. You’re fucked. This sucks, how did this happen? What if you don’t have enough money for the hostel? You shouldn’t have bought that smoothie this morning, you’re going to need that extra dollar. Joanna wouldn’t even want to be with you if she saw what a wreck you are right now. So this is what people in poverty feel like.

Bubbly and excited, Joana walked six steps ahead of me. I followed her, and we reached the taxis seconds later. Joanna gave me a quick kiss, said goodbye, and her taxi was pulling out into traffic before I even had time to understand it. Standing there alone in that massive city, it was the most lost I’d ever felt in my life. After several minutes I hailed a taxi. Functioning at the level of a boiled lobster, I conveyed the directions to the driver. Forty-five minutes later we arrived at the hostel, and I paid him our agreed upon amount. After that ride, and paying for two nights at the hostel, I was left with less than $1. My expectations were so low at this point that even if I couldn’t afford dinner, I was happy to just have a place to stay. Numbly I stowed my bags, then dragged my laptop downstairs to start writing a paper.

Fasting in the 21st Century

In the next thirty-six hours I had one beer, two coffees, and a bottle of water. I was so anxious that I lost my appetite, which was the only good thing to come of my addled mental state. I knew that Joanna would have lent me money for food, but even though my anxiety was so acute, I wanted this experience. Poor financial decisions had left me in this place, and I wanted to vividly experience the consequences. The more emotional a lesson, the more it’s a catalyst for change. I went into this self-imposed fast with the idea of using it for motivation to never end up in a similar situation again.

I succeeded. Six months later, on the other side of the world, I can clearly recall my time spent being broke in Bangkok. It was stressful and very difficult, but it lasted for less than two days. On the evening of the second day I got $90 into my account and I went out to eat. Thai noodle soup, mystery meat, mystery pastry, a cup of ice cream. I ate until my belly was ready to burst. By the time I met up with Asger and Joanna two days later, all was forgotten. We spent a night at their hostel, and then took a thirteen hour train ride to Pai.

Learning my lesson the hard way stamped it into my memory for life. Take finances seriously and think ahead. Never go to Bangkok without any money in your pocket. That’s one lesson that I’ll never have to learn again.