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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

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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.

***

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.

My First time in Hanoi Was a Revelation

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I touched down in Hanoi sometime around 11, and it took half an hour to clear customs. After being waved through the gate I found a taxi waiting for me, and I took the half hour ride to downtown Hanoi. I was surprised to arrive at the hostel because the area seemed so quiet. The hostel description said I would be staying downtown in the heat of it all, but the roads were empty.

Grabbing my three day old backpack, I headed inside. The cramped common room was stuffed with scooters and boxes, and I felt like I had made a mistake in coming. I did my best to reserve judgments, handing over my passport in exchange for a room key. Unlike the paltry common area, my room turned out to be large, and decorated with an inviting purple color scheme. I had a king sized bed, air conditioning, a bathroom, and a flat screen TV that mostly showed fuzzy Vietnamese soap operas.

The whole process, from airport to hostel, turned out to be less eventful than I had expected. Dubai, with it’s 90 degree heat, had prepared me for the weather. Coming off the flight and finding a taxi waiting for me had made the journey to a brand new city easier, and the deserted streets had lowered my expectations.

The City Explodes to Life

Riding a Scooter Like a BossThe next morning I woke up to the sounds of horns. I didn’t know what to make of it, last I knew I was in the suburbs where city noises didn’t exist. Nothing could have been farther from the truth, as I discovered when I pulled open the frosted glass pane covering my only window. Outside I saw a stream of scooters flowing past, going around the distant roundabout, the way water goes around a bend in the river.

I quickly dressed, stuffed my wallet into the back pocket of my shorts, and came down the steep narrow staircase. Giving a brief nod to the woman sitting behind the counter, I went onto the street and stood transfixed. I had never seen anything in my life that could prepare me for this. Dozens of rainbow colored scooters driving past every minute. Loud ones, quiet ones, new ones, ancient ones. Some scooters drove past with a single driver, some had four people on them.

It took me a minute to overcome the initial culture shock, and it took me longer than a minute to walk to the end of the block and wait for the crosswalk indicator to turn green. On my first day in Hanoi I still had a lot to learn about crossing the road in Asia. Walking down a street vertical to the one I had just crossed, I soon found out the real meaning of traffic. Where on the other street there had been dozens of scooters zipping past every minute, here there were hundreds. Nor were there any breaks in traffic. I saw the popular Hanoi lake across this seemingly insurmountable street, and I knew that I needed to get across.

How though?

Scooter Traffic on the Streets of HanoiThere were no crosswalks, nor any breaks in the traffic. The scooters came in merciless onslaughts, leaving no room for pedestrians to run across even if they wanted to. I leaned against a tree, equal parts frustrated and amazed, before I began to sense the solution. I started seeing local people wade fearlessly into the river of scooters without batting an eye. When they did this, instead of getting gored by plastic fenders and brake levers, the scooters moved around them the way water in a fast river moves around a large rock.

I needed to see a few people try this before I worked up the courage to do it myself. I’ve been conditioned my whole life to wait for a break in traffic before I ran across the street, and it was terribly difficult to overcome a lifetime of training.

After making a series of half-assed attempts, I decided to take Tyler Durden’s advice, gave up on everything, and pushed my way out into the fray. The scooters parted ways, and with an exhilarating feeling I made it across the street. The experience was burned into my memory, and it’s something that I think I’ll tell my kids about one day. Later on I recorded a video of me crossing that same street at night, and you can watch it here.

Although I now had the skills I needed to cross the street, I was still alone in a foreign country, and I didn’t know anyone on the entire continent. At first this was exciting, and I reveled in the new experience of being completely alone. After a few days I had had enough of the slow days and boring nights, and I knew it was time to make a change.

What’s the Right Decision?

I had been walking around in the crowded nightlife of Hanoi for nearly and hour, and there was only one place left in the city that I still wanted to visit. It was a modern looking club with loud house music leaking onto the street, and I had just walked thirty feet past it.581869_10151545596094131_2135034605_n The rest of the night had held little excitement. After the initial wonder of the crowded streets and jammed bars wore off, I’d decided that tonight wasn’t meant to be and I’d started walking home. The problem I now faced was an intense inner battle between the side of me that loves adventure and new things, and my lethargic brain that wants to sit in an air conditioned room and watch Netflix.

Standing thirty feet past the club I felt lost in turmoil. I knew that if I went back to my room I would regret it almost instantly, but in the moment my feet felt rooted to the ground and I wasn’t prepared to turn around and dive back into the lights and crescendoing music. I took out my phone and looked at it lamely, then put it back into my pocket when it didn’t provide any relief. If something is scary, is that a reason not to do it? I pondered this a moment, thought about the words of Tyler, and then decided that I had little choice. Back to the music, back to the lights, walk back towards the laughter and the singing. If you feel self conscious, that’s nothing a beer can’t take care of.

Going to the Club

The first thing I did was order a beer. A Tiger, the national beer of Vietnam for all I’m concerned. I drank a third of it down before I looked around. The club was conspicuously trendy. It had recently been renovated, and there was a live DJ who looked like he was young enough to still grounded. The lights were flashing the types of colors you tend to see on acid. Walking the length of the bar, selling liquor, were the two most beautiful Vietnamese girls I’ve ever seen. Dragging my eyes off of them, I turned to my left and introduced myself to the only other non-Vietnamese person in the bar. That’s how I met Joe.

He was several inches shorter than my six feet, and had the first traces of wrinkles on his forehead, and around his mouth. On top was a forest of dirty blonde hair that went well with his Aussie accent. Joe gave me a firm handshake and I liked him immediately.

“So what are you doing in Vietnam?” I asked.

“I work in a bank in Saigon and I’m in Hanoi for a week to chill out. Sort of a vacation.”

“That’s cool. How do you know about this club, is it your first time here?”

Joe took a pull of his Marlboro Light before answering with a smile. “Nah it’s not my first time here, I know about this place because I own it.”

“No shit.” I said with a grin. “Cheers!”

Thanks to Joe’s easy generosity, my first drink was the last night drink that I paid for. The night progressed, the rum and cokes went down easy, and my tongue got looser. An hour later if you had stumbled into this bar you would have seen me and Joe, smoking hookah at a table with the two gorgeous girls, surrounded by a sea of young Vietnamese party goers. At the height of relaxation and enjoyment I could do little but thank myself for making the right decision, turning around, and going back into the trenches.

It wasn’t an easy decision in the moment, but it turned out to be the one that set the tune for the entire five month trip to come. When in doubt, don’t let the fear take over. Go back and do what’s right. I thought about this as I schmoozed out of the club, lazily walking the two blocks back to my hostel.

Paying for My Sins

The next two days I spent in bed, my health shattered like a wine glass on tile. The night before was the first time I had drank in two and a half months. My body quickly rebelled, and I had plenty of time to think about Joe’s bar as I lay in my air conditioned room. I certainly didn’t regret the evening, but I did learn that if I’m going to go sober for a while, I should ease back into the hedonism.

A Beautiful Shot of the Ho Chi Minh Temple in VietnamAfter three days I was better, and I felt good enough to get out of the hostel and explore Hanoi. I saw Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the oldest Buddhist temple in Vietnam, and the Vietnam War museum, decorated with all sorts of relics left behind by my countryman.

Hanoi turned out to be a beautiful city and I enjoyed my two weeks there. Later on it would be my tendency to embrace the unknown, and fight against my natural inclination to stay in that would give me some of my best memories from my months in Asia.