Managua to Granada: An Account of Departing & Arriving Without Plans

I arrived in Granada on a Saturday night. I made plans to hang out with three strangers I met online through Couchsurfing. The hospitality exchange network is used to connect travelers with potential hosts in cities and towns all over the world. My host, Alan, was a twenty something from Managua. He had invited me to join him and two friends for a night of partying in Granada. He seemed like a pretty cool guy. You know, based on his online profile and a few messages we had exchanged. That statement has probably prefaced some bad stories, but I thought “Sure, why not?”

I missed my ride with Alan, so I decided to catch a bus at the last minute. At the depot, ayudantes shouted instructions to passengers arriving in taxis and by foot. These were the right hand men of the bus drivers. They wrangled passengers at the depot and led them to the awaiting buses. The passengers were mostly locals. Weary eyed men and women, often dragging children along in tow, returning home from the city. There was the occasional extranjero, like me. The men knew where we wanted to go and obliged to assist.

“Granada, amigo! Vamos!” A young man with a black Boston Red Sox hat, and arms full of tattoos, led me to a shuttle bus.

I gazed at the line of old school buses, painted in vibrant blues, greens, reds, and yellows, that were jammed full of passengers. Ken Kesey and his gang could not have painted them more brilliantly. But, no, it would not be the chicken bus, tonight. Though, I had romanticized it in my mind. I had heard others talk with pride about taking the chicken bus, or how many times they had taken the chicken bus, or that they only took the chicken buses. It was a traveler’s trophy. 

One guy in particular had told me at the hostel: “Yeah, I have been traveling for four months. I started in Mex City and have gotten this whole way only by taking the local buses, you know the chicken buses. It’s the only way you’ll know the locals…is to travel like one.”

The kind of guy whose speech pulls your eyes from one side of your head to the other. The kind of guy I find myself being from time to time. When I do realize I am being that guy, I fall away into a frantic self-conscious retreat. Every social decision becomes heavily calculated. I become overly sentimental and acommodating. I am a thirteen year old boy who just wants to be liked by everyone. I didn’t respond to the guy when he said this…about the chicken buses. I remained quiet and thought about 1999.

My bus, however, was something you would see on a university campus, or parking lot of a major US sports stadium or amusement park. A path down the middle of seats side by side, a small luggage rack overhead. I spotted several open seats at the back, because of course. My pack bumped into people as I tried to navigate the cramped aisle.

“Lo siento. Permiso. Con su permiso. Lo siento. Sí, yo sé…mi bolso grande. He-he-ha. Lo siento.”

I sat down in a heap. I put my small pack in between my legs, and my larger pack on my lap, and held it like child. I apologized to the young man next to me. He looked sideways, but did not remove his headphones. I felt like a typical backpacker. I was a typical backpacker. I took a deep breath and exhaled as I glanced around at my fellow passengers. I was the only extranjero on board.

Without announcement, the bus left the station (and station is being used loosely). The bus started up and departed from beneath the tin roofed lean-to under which it was parked, and rumbled through the mud puddle sewn dirt lot littered with plastic bottles and other garbage. We pulled out into the thick evening traffic without yielding. Our emergence onto the highway was met with a hail of horns. The taillights stretched ahead infinitely, and glowed a forlorn red in the purple, deep blue, and black that descended on the sky. At each intersection, headlights lit up the faces of the passengers, and bursted into the flow in front and behind us at any and all opportunities. The passengers looked straight ahead without talking, except for the teenage couple in front of me.

The girl leaned her head on his shoulder. He turned to whisper in her ear. She responded each time with a swift peck on the cheek. The occasional blue glow rose to a face for a few moments, and returned to a lap, or pocket, a new species of firefly born of this age. The man in the Red Sox cap remained standing near the open middle door, and leaned out at intervals to shout.

“Granada! Granada! Masaya! Masaya!”

The bus veered off to the side of the road. When it did so, passengers would climb aboard or step off. The passengers had barely boarded or departed when the bus accelerated and merged back into flow of traffic. There was Ska-like rhythm to this. When a passenger got on or off, I expected the bus to wait a moment, at least a quarter rest. But, that wasn’t the case. But that did not make it any less harmonious or beautiful.

The dome lights were turned off and we traveled in silence, save for the Nicaraguan radio and the helper’s shouts. Soon, the bus was packed. The sound of trumpets, trombones, and mariachi ballads filled the swollen air. The open road breeze blew in through the windows, God himself soothing these dirt-enveloped workers to sleep.

Thirty minutes into the trip, a woman and her two toddlers made their way to the only open seats, one beside me and one behind me. The smallest child promptly sat on his mother’s lap and softly whined. She lowered her t-shirt and offered. The child suckled and closed his eyes. The mother cradled her child in her right arm. Her left hand held up a small flip cell phone. She wrote a text message with her only free hand on the dial pad. She closed it, adjusted the child’s head, and turned back to her other son. She spoke to him. He sat down. She smiled and gazed ahead again.

A traveler can be a ghost passing through the lives of locals so long as you don’t insist on your ego taking up their space. Smile often, learn the language, mind your please’s and thank you’s, and you will be rewarded with little gifts of unassailable humanity so damn real it will bring tears to your eyes.

Streetlights, along with houses, stores, and restaurants lining the road meant we had approached the outskirts of town. We entered a narrow one way street. At a stop, half of the bus emptied. I waited.

“Probably should have researched the route, or the basic geography of the city, ya jackass.” I thought.

The next stop provided me with an answer. We approached a square. Esperé!” I yelled to the man in the Sox cap. I gathered my bags and hopped off the bus. It sped away. I slung my large pack over my shoulders, and gripped the small pack by the top loop, and walked across the park.

Silhouettes of broad, leafy trees lined the perimeter with tall, impressive palm trees dotting the well lit center. Couples sat arm in arm, or necking, on the park benches. One old man slept straight up, his neck bent at a forty five degree angle, a position only accomplished by the elderly or the inebriated. I also spotted vendors selling food, clothing, and gifts underneath the trees along the cobblestone road.

I wandered in search of the hostel. Alan had only given me the name Hostal Amigos de la Casa Roja. I also needed Wifi to determine how we would meet up. Person after person on the street had not heard of the hostel. My pack stuck to my back.

“Probably should have looked up the location of the hostel before you left, huh.” I thought.

I overheard English being spoken as I passed a bar. I stopped, looked up and down the street. I relented and walked in. “Good evening.” A tall man spoke in a baritone voice that sounded North American*. “What can we do for you?”

(*Never assume this is the voice of an American. Canadians do not appreciate it when you are wrong.)

“I’m actually looking for Hostal Amigos de la Casa Roja. But no one on the streets seemed to know it. It should be nearby.” I responded. “I’ll also have a drink, while I’m at it.”

I peered at the menu, one that could have been found at any posh bar in the U.S., a gastropub right in the middle of Nicaragua. I ordered a margarita.

“I’m not familiar with it, but I’ll look it up.” He grabbed his Smartphone from the bar. “Okay, here it is. He thumbed upward. “Actually, it’s not too far from here.” He showed the screen.

“Oh, great. That’s good news. Thanks. I’m Jameson, by the way.”

“Jameson, like the whiskey?” He asked, with a chuckle.

“Yes, exactly like the whiskey.”

“Nice name. I’m Kevin. We’ve got some of your namesake, if you’re in the mood.”

He pointed to the Jameson, which sat next to Macallan, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Laphroig, and Balvenie. “We also have live music every night. We’re just setting up now and probably will start in ten or fifteen minutes.” He continued.

Why not? I thought. I spotted an impressive Tequila selection. I noted the prices, but thought again, Why not? It was Saturday and I had managed my first travel day. I ordered a shot of Mezcal. The young man giggled at the sight of the worm at the bottom of the bottle.

“Sí, sí! Que bueno!” I said and smiled.

The woman stood in front of me to pour me the shot. She grimaced as the amber liquid filled the glass. The worm floated up, and spun, suspended in its alcoholic grave. A noble resting place, I think. I can only hope my own demise will serve as a reminder for others to take the good with the bad, and always take it all with Mezcal, or some spirit, for chrissakes, and a smile. We’ll end up with the worms, one way or another, sooner or later. No greater dignity awaits us. But death will indeed provide you dignity if you have learned to live. So live while you are alive.

I sipped the shot, savored the smoky flavor, and the warming of my insides. I watched two men set up Fender speakers and microphones. Kevin joined them and unpacked a guitar from its case. He stared intently at the strings, plucked, tuned, plucked, tuned. The music lifted into the air, then dropped. The margarita lifted into the air, then dropped.

Life takes form and perpetuates through habit. With no plan and no goals, indecision can quickly became the de facto decision by way of the path of least resistance. True for any context of life, but especially on the road. I thought about the routine I had developed in Managua.

  • Wake
  • Coffee
  • Sit/Meditate/Do Nothing
  • Breakfast
  • Shower
  • Emails/Social Media/Internet Browsing/Various Distractions/Occasionally Write
  • Lunch
  • Nap
  • Chat w/ Other Travelers
  • Find Excuse to Leave Hostel (i.e. Dinner, Join Fellow Traveler on Errand)
  • Beer/Drinks
  • Dinner
  • Go Out (Some Nights)
  • Sleep

The normal social obligations and roles that provide the structure to daily life are stripped away when you travel. Within this formlessness, you are faced with the questions each day. Where to go, when to go, and with whom to share the journey. Each path contains its own fate. Time is limited, and everything is constantly in flux. So you choose. Over and over again. Each single moment, every single day. The liberation from the usual always carries with it a sense of accomplishment.

I downed my shot.

Soon, Kevin introduced himself and the bass guitarist, who sat on a stool to his right. They welcomed the seven or so patrons and then went right into Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels”. Two middle aged white guys from the States strumming and mumbling away a song about isolation in the middle of Central America was enough to make me laugh while I sang along and sipped my margarita. By the time the two had finished Clapton’s “Layla”, my glass was empty. I paid my tab, thanked Kevin, and continued my search.

I walked through the streets that were barely lit by the street lamps. Everything took on a tarnished metallic glow. I passed by a cathedral. The exterior was well worn with dirt in the crevices of the mortar, lending a pronounced texture to the facade. Young couples sat on the steps. They hugged, kissed, and watched me pass. A man said hello to me. I returned the hello and continued on. I stopped into another hostel to seek more insight for my search. The young man at the front desk spoke French-accented Spanish. His name was Axel. I promised to return for breakfast to say thank you for his help.

I retraced my steps and turned left at the church. I walked half a block, and took a right down a narrow alley. There, I saw it. A section of barn door red breaking the monotonous gray. I smiled as I approached the small sign overhead that bore the name. I stood outside the gate and spoke with the young night watchman.

“Mi amigo….como se dice…booked…un reservación aquí.”

“Tienes un reservación?” He responded.

“No, no. Mi amigo…Un hombre se llama Alan.”

“No te entiendo.” He explained he did not understand.

“Hablas inglés?” I asked.

He shook his head. I asked if I could step inside to use the Wifi. I planned to access my translation app on my iPhone to navigate the language barrier. He unlocked the gate to let me inside. After I entered, I attempted to connect to the internet. I was unsuccessful.

“No sé. No funciona.” I said and dropped my bags.

We stood looking at one another.

Every little decision…the creators of fate.

Earlier that day, I had chosen to go to lunch with Rolando despite knowing that I was supposed to be picked up by Alan within 45 minutes of Rolando’s invitation. My acceptance of said invitation was followed by a twenty minute taxi ride that should have been five if the driver had not forgotten how to get to the restaurant. 

Similar to the taxi ride to the police station, I caught glimpses into the every day lives of Nicaraguans in a poor neighborhood I would not have dared to venture into on my own. There was a clear material deficit in the neighborhoods. Basic wooden shacks, dirt floors, and fires for kitchens. Yet, all the signs of humanity had been there. Women washing clothes by hand and hanging it to dry on a wire between the shacks. Old men sitting in plastic chairs, watching the world pass by. Middle aged men and women walking to and from the commercial part of the neighborhood. At one point, we had to stop to wait for a group of boys. They were playing baseball in the middle of the street. No gloves, no shoes, and a stick for a bat. And the biggest smiles I had seen. One laughed and waved when he saw me gazing out from the backseat of the taxi.

After our meal, I accompanied Rolando on a hunt for a pair of flip-flops through an open air market. A maze of shops and stalls, we walked the narrow aisles, and passed by goods and services of all types. Clothing, shoes, pets, cell phones, watch repair. A salon, a bar filled with patrons, a blacksmith and metal shop, and yet no flip-flops. Three circles later and we called it quits and took a taxi back to the hostel.

So I missed my ride with Alan. That led me to the bus, which led me to my arrival in the center of Granada, and to my search. It led me to where I was, at a standstill, not sure of what would happen next, or what I would do.

So I waited. I thought. I tried to connect to the internet. Again, unsuccessful. The young man looked my way, shaking his head in question. I nodded to confirm. He explained there were other places to stay nearby and again apologized that there were no available rooms. I again explained that I needed to find my friend who was staying here.

“Esperé. Tu amigo se queda aquí?” His eyes narrowed as he asked.

“Sí! Te dije…” I explained I had told him that. It must have gotten lost in translation.

“James? Tu eres James?” He lit up.

“Sí. Sí! Soy Jameson!”

He laughed and broke off a string of sentences in Spanish too rapid for me to understand. I only caught the end.

“Vamos!” He waved his arm as he led me back to a room. He explained Alan had told him about my late arrival and instructed him to show me to the room. He apologized as he opened the door to a room with nothing but a bunkbed and two fans. A small backpack sat on the lower bunk. He pointed to the top.

“Lo siento. Yo no sabía que eras tú.”

“Ah, está bien. No estoy preocupado! Gracias!” I responded.

We laughed and shook hands. He returned to the front desk. I showered, dressed, and prepared to go out. I finally accessed the wifi. Alan and the girls were out in a part of town called La Calzada. The young night watchmen enthusiastically gave me directions. He explained it was a street with many restaurants and bars near the park.

I easily found the Calzada. Restaurants, bars, and shops lined each side of the wide cobblestone avenue. Not coincidentally, it was concentrated with backpackers and tourists.  Patios were filled with people who sat around simple wooden tables, drinking plenty of Toña and Victoria. I found the bar where I was to meet Alan and the girls. It was fairly full with the majority of the patrons being locals speaking Spanish. I had only seen a picture of him. So I grabbed a beer and sat at a table on the outskirts of the patio. Fifteen minutes later I had finished my beer, but had not spotted Alan. I took off to find wifi again. This time, I stopped inside Reilly’s, an Irish bar I learned of from a fellow traveler in Managua.

I sat on a stool at the dark wooden bar. The bartender approached and asked what I would like. He was English. I ordered a Victoria and asked for the Wifi password. He quickly provided both and chatted me up.

“What’s your name?” He inquired after a few minutes of idle conversation.

“Jameson. Yours?”

“Jameson? Are you kidding me? That is the most brilliant name I have heard in awhile. I’m Austen. And no, not like Austin Powers, like every cheeky person wants to say. But, I’m sure you understand with a name like yours.”

I explained my situation to Austen. He laughed. He carried on with his work, which was nothing more than serving the occasional beer to the three ex-pats sitting at the bar. A UFC fight was on the television. Austen explained his newfound interest in the bloodsport to the men.

“All right, let’s make this more interesting, shall we? Let’s place bets on the fight.” He chided each man into wagering 40 cordobas, not quite $1.50, on a fighter. They continued to stare at the screen, and lifted their drinks.I declined the invitation on account of my rendezvous. Alan and I exchanged messages. He explained he was still at the same bar. I asked for a description.

“O’sheas. We r right here at the corner. Come back. There’s five of us. Somewhat loud. Drunk. My friend is wearing bright yellow.” He responded.

I thanked Austen and left to continue my search. Upon my return to O’Sheas, I focused on the “bright yellow” part of the message. Without fail, I found the loud, drunk group of five. I soon found a liter of beer and a shot of tequila in front of me. 

“Yeah, man. I’m so happy you were able to come and you found us.” Alan said as he delivered the drinks.

“Of course, man. Thanks again for the invite. I am glad to be here. And yeah, it was a bit of a journey with some twists, turns, and obstacles…but, it always works out one way or another.”

“Salud!” Alan lifted up his own shot.

“Saluuuuuuuud!”

We toasted to new friends and soon became a loud, drunk group of six.

Inside a Managua Police Station: Theft, Perspective, & Helping One Another

A tickle. My eyes remained closed. A familiar tiny sting, followed by a tingling sensation. I looked out between lashes, groggily coming to consciousness. Rain pattered on the tin roof and blooped on the pool. I rolled my head to the side towards conversation in accented English. German. Unmistakable. I turned back and closed my eyes again. I scratched at my ankle, then my bicep, my knee. I became increasingly aware of the multiple sources of tingling with each moment that passed.

Finally, I gave in and opened my eyes. I sat up in the hammock to survey the damage. I counted seven and acknowledged this battle lost. I made a mental note to resort to chemical warfare before future siestas and looked up to the gray sky. Nicaragua. I am in Nicaragua, I thought to myself. A smirk emerged with the thought.

“Buenos días”, the German voice announced.

“Buenos días, indeed.”

“I am sorry if we disturbed you.”

“Oh, no. It’s all good. No worries. I mean, está bien.”

The German voice belonged to a young woman, who sat in a red plastic chair against the wall. On the wooden picnic table sat the Australian man I passed upon my entrance. His shoulders drooped a bit, but he spoke eagerly with the woman.

“So, yeah, it’s official. I can leave Nicaragua! That’s why I tell people it makes a difference to work through a travel agency, and to get to know them. I am going to have send my girl some flowers or something!”

“Congratulations!” The woman responded with a smile.

I pulled myself out of the hammock and walked to the table. I plopped down and straddled the bench.

“I take it you have had quite an experience here?” I asked.

“You could say that, mate. I was supposed to leave Nicaragua about two weeks ago. I finally get to leave tomorrow.”

I laughed.

“Okay, this sounds like a good story. What happened?”

He sighed, then went on to tell the tale. It was a prime example of a traveling nightmare: Chicken bus. Stolen bag. Everything gone.

“Oh shit! Damn, man. That sucks. So why did you have to stay?” I inquired further.

“Well, I was supposed to travel through the States. But the new temporary passport I was issued via the Australian embassy in Mexico did not have the US Through Visa. I need that to pass through the States. Your country, no offense, is not the easiest to deal with when it comes to traveling. I asked if I could still enter to catch my connection and they wouldn’t talk to me about it. They said come back and see us in two weeks. They didn’t care that my flight was in a couple of days. They basically said, ‘It’s not our problem’. So I missed my original flight home. Since then, I’ve been back and forth with my travel agent to book me a new flight that doesn’t go through the U.S. I just found out they booked it for me. It has something like four layovers, and I don’t even want to think about how much it cost.”

He took a deep breath and chuckled.

“Well, you seem to be in fairly good spirits,” I noted.

“Yeah, mate. I really don’t care at this point. I’m just glad to be going home. When it happened, I wasn’t shocked or upset or angry. I was just a little annoyed at myself for allowing it to happen to me. But, I understand why it happened.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, I was on the Tica bus, you know the locals bus. I had my bag in the rack above my head. I was holding onto it. But then I started talking with the person next to me and dropped my arm. Two minutes later I put my hand back up and my bag was gone. Bam! Just like that…” He snapped his fingers.

“Wow. Damn.” I replied open-mouthed.

“But, I mean, it was merely opportunistic. In a country with this much poverty, I should have known better. And I’m not condoning stealing, but I also understand it.” He concluded.

He continued, “I think the worst part is going to be explaining to the guys back at work how I lost my badge.”

“Wait, you’re a police officer?!”

Laughter all around.

“Yes, yes I am a Federal Police Officer in Australia.” He admitted and hung his head with a smile. “I am sure I won’t hear the end of this for awhile.”

“So it goes…a humbling experience, no doubt.” I added.

“Now, I just have one big task left. In order for my insurance to accept my claim for my stolen items, I need to have an official police report. And I need to have it before I leave tomorrow. And I don’t speak any Spanish.” He said, and drew out the ‘and’ each time.

“Damn, well good luck with that!”

I laughed at the notion. I imagined this guy walking into a Managua police station without being able to speak the language. On top of that, he needed to have something done quickly. He laughed along with me.

“Yeah, I don’t have my hopes up too high. But, the guys at the front desk here said there should be at least one person at the station who speaks English. And it’s supposedly just a few blocks from here. So I am about to head out for that. Wish me luck.”

“Well, I speak a bit of Spanish. How about I join you? Maybe I can help with the translation. And I am curious to see how this saga comes to an end.” I offered.

“Yeah, mate. That would be great. You ready to head out now?”

“Yep, just lemme go change out of my board shorts and put my stuff away.”

As we walked out of the hostel, he extended his hand.

“Oh, yeah. By the way, my name is Anthony, or Ant.”

“Jameson, mucho gusto.”

This was my first adventure more than one block away from the hostel. I took in my surroundings.The sky still threatened to rain. We hung a right onto a smaller side street. Two men clambered to the top of a tree, machetes and handsaws in tow. They hacked and sawed furiously. The limbs and branches fell down into the street without warning. I walked through some of the debris, avoided a passing car by inches, and falling branches by a few feet. I laughed nervously and watched Ant walk below the men. We took another left at the next street. The sidewalk was under construction. An excavator moved mounds of dirt. Three men with pick axes dug away at the remaining concrete. I swung out into the street, around another pile of tree limb debris, stopped short and turned sideways to avoid a passing produce truck.

We rejoined where the sidewalk remained intact. We struck up the usual traveler conversation about current and past travels. Ant explained the current trip was a two week vacation, a “quick getaway or vacation as you Americans call it”.

He explained he had been traveling for 15 years. He had done a number of round-the-world trips lasting months on end. He had lost count of the number of countries he had visited.  He told me about adventures of swimming with sharks and rays in Belize, playing with unchained tigers in Thailand, climbing the base camp of the Matterhorn in Switzerland, kiteboarding in Bali, volcano trekking in Nicaragua, and on and on. He also was deployed with the U.N. to conflict torn areas near Australia like East Timor. I asked if he had ever encountered anything like his current problem. He had not. This would be the first time he needed to use his traveler’s insurance. As we chatted, we approached a busy intersection. I noticed a squat building with faded light blue paint on the opposite side.

“I think that might be it.” I announced.

We stopped and watched traffic careen through the intersection. Staccato beeps of motos and deep bellows of truck horns filled the thick mid afternoon air. The cross traffic stopped. We began to cross. We stopped abruptly. Perpendicular traffic plunged into the intersection and veered off to the left. At each open interval of the turning traffic, the cross traffic advanced. We stood firm, rocks diverting the flow of water. I looked behind me, and then to the right, and made a run for it. I turned around to see all traffic stopped as the two women nudged their way across the street. Ant walked along with them, a huge grin on his face.

“I see you. Do as the locals do, eh?” I remarked.

We walked up to the smudge-streaked glass door covered in noticias and walked into a crowded waiting room. I felt the familiar, uncomfortable feeling of being the object on display. We approached the only desk in the room. A man in a plain short sleeve blue button down shirt sat at the desk. He spoke rapidly with a woman. Once the woman reluctantly took one of the few remaining available seats, it was our turn.

“Hola. I need to file a report,” Ant declared to the man.

His brow furrowed, well worn wrinkles spread across his forehead.

“Hola. Buenas tardes. Necesitamos una persona se habla inglés, por favor.” I interjected.

“No hablo inglés.” He shook his head slowly.

“Nadie aquí?” I persisted, despite the intuitive sense that he would not be eager to oblige us even if there were someone around who did speak English.

“Nadie.”

“Mañana?”

“No. Nadie. Todas días.” He shook his head with each response.

“Okay. Vamos a volver con una persona que habla mejor español.” I relented.

“What did he say?” Ant asked.

“He said he doesn’t speak English and that no one here speaks English. Not tomorrow, not ever. And I said we would come back with someone who speaks better Spanish.”

“Do you think you could try to speak to him in Spanish and try to get the report?” Ant hopefully inquired.

“No, man. My Spanish is rusty to begin with, and I don’t have the vocabulary for this specific context. And given how many people are here, I don’t think they are going to go to great lengths for some extranjeros who had their shit stolen, and cannot even speak their language fluently. I suggest we go back to the hostel and find someone who speaks fluently, maybe one of the guys working there, and have them come back with us to help with translation.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right. Okay. Let’s go.”

We picked up our conversation as we returned to the hostel. We talked about our families, life on the road, and the mutual passion for exploring unknown worlds and people. Upon our return, we considered who we could enlist to help us. After a few polite rejections, Ant’s face lit up.

“Oh, Rolando! The guy from Peru.”

“I have not met him. Who is he?” I replied.

“He is a great guy from what I know of him. But he does not speak much English, so that has made it kind of difficult for us to talk at length. Maybe we could talk to him and between your Spanish, and his English, explain the situation?”

“Sure. Sounds good.”

We found Rolando sitting in the first outdoor courtyard. He typed away at his laptop. He looked up when Ant said Hello. Ant explained his predicament in English.

“Entiendes?” I asked once Ant finished.

“Si, si, si. I will help. It is no problem,” Rolando responded.

“Really, mate? Are you sure? It’s okay if you don’t have time.” Ant replied.

“Claro. It is good that I help. Si te ayudo, vendrá de nuevo a mí. How do people say in inglés? Karma? Si? I finish my work. Then we go. Está bien?”

“When? How long?” Ant inquired.

“Porque la estación de policía cierra a las cuatro.” I added.

“Ah, si, si. En una hora y media? Está bien?” Rolando offered.

Ant looked at his watch.

“It is 2:00 right now. Could we maybe leave in an hour to make sure we have enough time? Is that okay?”

“Si, si. Está bien.” Rolando replied without hesitation.

We bid him goodbye and walked to the second outdoor courtyard. Ant found an open hammock and announced his intention to take a siesta. I thought of his plight. Despite all he had been through, he had remained upbeat. I recalled the first time I noticed him. I sought to distance myself from him. Why was that again? The phone call! He had been clearly frustrated. I had sensed that. Yet, since that point I had heard nothing but optimism, passion, and humility. His actions spoke loudly when you considered what he had been through these past few weeks. That positivity was palpable. I spent the next hour reading as the rain softly fell around me.

“Si, si, si. En cuantos minutos? Si, está bien.”

I looked to see Rolando on the phone as he entered the courtyard. He nodded at my wave. Ant slowly opened his eyes and looked up at Rolando, who now stood over him. Soon, he was off the phone.

“So, I talk…um…with a person I know. We will go meet him. He will help us.” Rolando explained.

“Okay, great. Right now? And where do we meet him?” Ant sat up.

“We go now to a different police station. I think, maybe a short cab ride. Está bien?”

“Yeah, of course. Está bien.”

We hailed a cab down the road from the hostel. Rolando spoke in rapid Spanish to the driver. The driver nodded his head. We hopped in. As we traveled cobble-stone and concrete streets in varying degrees of disrepair, we passed more barrios. Men stood outside on street corners. Their conversations paused to gaze at us as we passed. I peered through an iron bar fence that ran along the street. Children ran barefoot along dirt alleyways, with huge smiles attached to their faces. Our driver beeped intermittently at other traffic, pedestrians, and the occasional dog or pig that blocked our way. The steady beat of Reggaeton played quietly from the radio. We turned onto a wider street that teemed with pedestrians of all kinds. Each side of the road was lined with street vendors and stalls. I saw goods and foods of all types. The car slowed in order to snake its way through the river of humans, dogs, chickens, and pigs. Eyes peered in through the open windows at us. The car stopped. Directly ahead the road veered right away from a narrow walkway. A large sign hung over the walkway which I could not translate but interpreted as an entrance. Past the sign was nothing but tiny stalls, outside of some were different frutas y verduras.

“Mercado Orientale”, Rolando pointed ahead. “We are here.” He also announced.

Ant paid the driver the 60 cordobas and we got out. Rolando pointed to the left, towards an enclosed compound, replete with armed police. Beyond the barbed wire adorned gate and fence were several one story, drab buildings. Parked outside were a number of motorbikes, trucks, and police cars. Uniformed officers milled about the courtyard. As we walked towards the compound, a man waved to us. Rolando and the man embraced. They spoke with smiles on their faces.

“Anthony, Jameson, this is Mendoza.” Rolando led the introductions. After the formal greetings, Mendoza led us to the gate where an armed guard awaited us.

“Hola. Buenos días.” The guard extended a hand, shook firmly, and then closed the gate behind us. Heavy metal clanked together.

The police officers who stood inside the courtyard talked and laughed with one another. Their faces turned serious. They nodded their heads as we walked by. Once we entered the compound their conversation and laughter resumed. Mendoza approached an open office, knocked, and saluted the man at the desk. Following a brief conversation, he returned and spoke with Rolando. Rolando nodded, and said “Si, si.”

Then, Mendoza walked down the hall to another office. Again, he saluted. Officers strolled in and out of the offices. They greeted one another warmly each time. One officer entered, curtsied, and effeminately said “Hola jefe”, to a course of laughter from the others. I laughed quietly to myself.

Five minutes passed before Mendoza returned with another man. He introduced the man as the lieutenant that would take the report. We followed the man down the hall. The hall was dimly lit by the sunlight streaming in from the narrow windows that lined the top of each office. I peaked into each office as we passed. 

The walls of the offices stopped two feet short of the ceiling. This gave a sense of openness. It also meant you could clearly hear each conversation. The second office to the left contained a man who pecked away at a typewriter with his index fingers at his desk. The next office housed a man in a white tank top undershirt, with jean shorts that drooped below his waistline. He flailed his arms as he spoke. The large female officer looked at him with raised eyebrows. She cut him off and told him to sit down. In yet another office, two female officers sat behind desks that were perpendicular to one another. One lazily watched a television in the corner of the room. The other folded items into a plastic bag as she listened to a third female, a civilian, wail on and on about her hijo.

We turned into the last office on the right side of the hall. Inside were two desks, one where the lieutenant took a seat facing a turn of the millennium IBM desktop computer, complete with a tower next to it. Sitting on the other desk was an antique typewriter turned up on its end in an apparent state of perpetual disrepair. Rolando stood next to the lieutenant, with Ant by his side. Mendoza and I stood next took one another near the door, all forming a half circle around the lieutenant.

Office in the Managua Police Station

Office in the Managua Police Station

“Pasaporte.” The lieutenant declared.

Rolando turned to Ant and asked for his passport. Ant handed his newly issued temporary passport over to Rolando, who handed it to the lieutenant. He opened it up, and pecked away the information on the keyboards with only his index fingers.

“Edad?” The lieutenant asked sharply.

“He wants to know your age.” Rolando explained to Ant.

“Thirty seven”, Ant responded.

“Treinta siete”, Rolando interpreted.

This process continued on for an hour. The lieutenant barked out questions, Rolando translated them in English, Ant answered, and Rolando interpreted them into Spanish. At times when Rolando struggled to translate the Spanish into English, I assisted. The room turned very somber when the questions turned to the items stolen.

“He needs to know each item that was stolen and how much it was worth.” Rolando explained to Ant.

“Okay. Olympus camera. Three hundred dollars.” He started.

Mendoza raised his eyebrows.

“Canon 7D with three lenses. Probably around $8,000.”

“Ochocientos?” The lieutenant asked for confirmation that we had said eight hundred dollars.”

“No, ocho-cero-cero-cero.”  Rolando and I responded in unison.

“Qué tipo de cámara?!” Mendoza exclaimed.

“Cámara professional.” I explained. I grabbed my imaginary lens far out in front of me to mimic the size of the lens.

“Ohhhh. Cámara professional.” Mendoza gritted his teeth and sucked in air. He turned to the lieutenant and explained.

Ant continued to list the items. Wallet with $200 U.S. dollars. Passport. Driver’s license. Samsung Galaxy 4s. Police badge.

“Policia también?” Mendoza asked and pointed excitedly at Ant.

“Yes. Yes, policia.” Ant responded again with his head down, a smirk spread across his face.

Mendoza turned and chatted excitedly with the lieutenant. Both burst into another fit of laughter. Rolando and I both laughed at the entire scene.

“Mañana los titulares en el periódico: Oficial de la policía de Australia robaron en Nicaragua”, Mendoza exclaimed while he held his imaginary newspaper.

The lieutenant, Mendoza, Rolando, and I all laughed loudly. I clapped my hands and heaved forward in another round of laughter.

“What did he say?” Ant asked.

“He said tomorrow the newspaper headlines are going to read ‘Australian police officer robbed in Nicaragua’”, I explained to him.

Ant laughed.

“Yeah, I knew that I would never hear the end of this. I am glad everyone is having a good time with this. I am just doing my best to bring a little more joy to the world.” Ant replied with a smile.

The lieutenant asked Ant to look at the screen to confirm the details. Then the lieutenant spoke to Rolando and Mendoza.

“We are finished. It is printing in another office. Let’s go.” Rolando motioned towards the door.

We followed the lieutenant across the hallway into the office with the two female officers. One of the officers stood up to allow the lieutenant to sit at a desk with a printer. The printer hummed loudly and beeped as it printed, and then whizzed as it returned to the next line. The paper had perforated edges and was connected in one sheet, with perforations also separating the pages.

I remembered seeing these printers when I visited my father’s business as a kid. A bit of nostalgia washed over me. When the noise settled, the lieutenant ripped at the last perforation, and handed a copy to Ant. We shook hands with him and thanked him. Mendoza led us back outside into the courtyard and to the gate. The officers all solemnly nodded once again. The guard at the gate shook our hands once more. Mendoza told us to wait as he walked further down the street to get a cab for us.

“No es seguro aquí.” Rolando explained.

“Yo se. Yo se. I figured that.” I responded.

Mendoza walked up with a cab rolling along next to him. As we approached the cab, the driver said something to Mendoza, and then left. He shrugged his shoulders. He turned and whistled for the next cab he saw. It pulled up, he spoke with the driver.

“Okay.” Mendoza declared.

We shook hands with him and thanked him. We hopped in the cab, shut the doors, and weaved through the river of people and animals back to our hostel.

“So how do you feel?!” I asked Ant.

“Mate, I feel so good. So relieved. I never thought I’d actually be able to get this thing.” He said as he held up his report. “And I would have never been able to do it without the help from you guys and Mendoza. I owe you all big time. So thanks again.” He continued.

“No worries, man. Glad to help.” I responded.

“Of course. It is what makes the world go around, to help one another.” Rolando explained.

“Well, beers on me when we get back to the hostel.” Ant offered.

We all laughed.

“Sounds good to me. What do you think, Rolando?” I asked.

“Está bien. Todo está bien.”

Love Lost, Los Angeles, and a Return to the Road

THE last time I was on the road was two years ago. I left the U.S. with few formal plans in September 2012 to travel throughout Southeast Asia. By the time I returned in December, I had visited Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines (and China, briefly). I also had scrapped plans to return to school for a Ph. D in philosophy in favor of a free-floating existence. In May of last year, I was once again scrapping plans. This time it was a trip to Costa Rica and Central America. I was in the midst of planning my next trip when I accepted a truth that terrified me. I had fallen in love and was ready to settle down.

So, I packed up and moved out west to Los Angeles. I had been visiting friends for years and surprisingly liked the city a lot. I felt at home. I also had a goal to live in a cultural epicenter of the U.S. while in my twenties (I identify four: LA, New York City, San Francisco, New Orleans). It was on one of these trips that I met her. It was before I left for SE Asia. I knew I fell hard, but was fully committed to my wanderlust and in no way ready to change my plans for someone else. We kept in contact over time and distance. I finally pushed aside my long held fear of commitment and took the leap of faith to follow my heart, albeit in a drastically different way. Similar to my travels, I had no idea what would come of the move. I simply jumped.

Though I moved to the home of Hollywood, real life isn’t like the movies. The love did not work out as I hoped. I experienced heartbreak for the first time. I was ready for love, a deep commitment. She was not. I knew that position well. It was humbling to be on the other side. True love is relinquishing the hold your ego has in order to create the mental and emotional space for the unconditional consideration and care for another into your life. Simply put, it is giving yourself to another without expecting anything in return. I am grateful for the experience, the challenges, and the love that was shared. I learned much from it all, most importantly, that I I am capable of loving wholly and truly, and that I am deserving of being loved the same in return. I learned to let go of myself, and then I had to learn to let go of her. Life is very much about letting go.

Faced with an apparent dead end, I contemplated where to go next. I considered planting my roots deeper and remaining in Los Angeles. I began a job search for a career change, with an idea to get out of education to try something new. Going back to a career appealed with the material comforts and social security that could give my life stability, inherited meaning. Los Angeles was a great place to live. However, I could not shake the feeling that I was trying to convince myself of this path.

No decision so important should hinge upon self-persuasion. The freedom of choice liberates us only by our courage to choose, instead of having chosen for us. That path still felt like a cop-out, a compromise of my life. I awoke one Saturday morning with a brilliant clarity. I threw away the job applications. I did not have to make up my mind, but instead had to trust my heart, my gut, my soul, my…whatever that ineffable spirit that resides within us that gives unspoken guidance on what matters most. I put faith in myself, the universe, and went my own way.

I once again purchased a one way ticket to travel to a place completely unknown. I am often asked the dreaded question:  Why?  It’s a question I don’t mind answering, but I find myself cringing when asked because my answer never seems to suffice for the inquirer. For wanderers like myself, I don’t think there is an easy answer. It’s a question I have never had to ask myself.  I do it because it’s what I like to do and it’s what feels right.  I don’t think it can be answered any better than that.

The road leads to Nicaragua. Tomorrow morning I board a plane in Fort Lauderdale. I will arrive in Managua with nothing but a backpack, a camera, and a faith that wherever I end up, it’s where I am supposed to be. It doesn’t always turn out as I hope, but it will turn out all right, no matter. It always does.

Us-passport

Bangkok: Part 3

This is the third part of the story about my first night in Bangkok. You can read part 1 and part 2, if you haven’t already done so. Or just dive right on in here.

—   —

I found John waiting for me downstairs, which was a spacious hang out area I ended up calling the living room. The living room had wooden lounges with individual body length cushions and pillows thrown around, all well-worn, and wonderfully comfortable.  They lined one side of the room in two parallel rows with low coffee tables in between; the other side was an informal dining room with square tables fit for four people, occupied mostly when all of the couch space was full, or for the occasional dining patrons.  The area was open, as most Thai buildings tended to be, allowing in natural light and breeze.  Adorned with antique chandeliers and images of Buddha, the space was unique, appealing.  I would also see throughout the week that it was always home to travelers.  Lounging, napping, drinking, chatting, or all of the above.  It was the place…where everyone inevitably got together.  So John and I reunited in the living room and walked back out onto Soi Rambuttri, wrapped around the curve to the right, and back towards the Khao San area.

Street vendors called out to us as we walked.

“Sir, t-shirt, sir?”

“Hungry sir?  Pad thai sir?”

“Hello sir, maaaaahhhsaaaaahhhhge sir?”

By the time we reached the intersection with the main road, and the cavalcade of tuk tuk drivers, I was fluent in another Thai phrase.  It was one that John had mercifully taught me, which I always said with a smile and a slight wave of my hand.

“Mai ow kap.”

“Mai ow kap.”

“Mai ow kap.”

“I don’t want.”

Traffic zoomed by us.  I was still a bit paranoid about crossing the road with traffic coming from the left.  I had also learned about the moto drivers.  They knew no lanes, rules, or regulations whatsoever.  They were much more liquid than solid, morphing to fit into the spaces left behind by traffic or pedestrians. So I looked left.  I looked right.  I looked left again.  I waited, as tuk tuks, with their unmistakable engines sounding like revved up chain saws, crossed the barely visible double lines into oncoming traffic and dipped back into their “lanes” just in the nick of time.  All the while motos zipped past me on the “shoulder”.  As I waited for a clearing, John barged his way right into the thick of it.  I watched as he crossed, the traffic spilling around him, like a rock diverting the flow of a river.  Once I saw my chance, I sprinted across the road and caught up with a stationary John, who only looked at me with a slight hint of amusement.

“Are you hungry?” He asked.

“Actually, yeah, I could eat.”

“That’s good.  Man, there is so much food I want to show you and for you to try.  This is one of the best parts about Khao San; the street food is as good, if not better, than anything you’ll find in the restaurants, and it is dirt cheap.  You can get a good, basic noodle bowl for like 20 baht, or Pad Thai for 30, or kabob for 40 or 50.  As you can see, I love to eat.  I remember when I came here I was, well skinnier, not like you, but anyways, the food here. It’s just so good!” John gleamed as he patted his stomach, a healthy Buddha belly.

“I’m gonna go over to one of my favorite ladies for this amazing dumpling soup.  Feel free to join or go off on your own.  Trust me, you can’t go wrong with any of it.” John declared as he turned towards his right and motioned to a woman standing behind a cart that held an enormous orb shaped pot with steam rising steadily out of it, framed by glass containers that displayed various sized dumplings.  A tiny lit marquee with Thai script advertised meals for 30-60 baht.

“Actually, I wanna walk around a bit, if that’s cool.  I will grab some food and meet you back here.” I responded.

“Alright, sounds good.  I will be sitting right over there.”  He pointed to a small aluminum table with two red plastic stools that was behind a stall selling t-shirts emblazoned with images of different Western pop culture icons.  I made note of the table, as well as the surrounding area, as people walked past me in every direction.  Then I turned back and continued further down Rambuttri, past more tuk tuk drivers, hosts and hostesses of restaurants and suit shop owners.  They all eagerly offered me goods and services.

I walked past the green glow restaurant, where the Chang girl and a zealous host beckoned me in with the same pitch they hollered earlier.

“Buy one Chang, get a free one, sir!”

“Yo, I was just here. Don’t you remember?  I already had drinks here.  Food now.” I responded with a smile.

“Oh, oh, oh, sorry sir. We have food, too. Here, here menu.” The host thrust the menu in my direction with zero recognition in his eyes.

“Mai ow kap.”  My new refrain.

I continued on down the street and around a bend to the left. I passed a copper and rust colored antique car loaded with papers, a typewriter, a sewing machine, boxes, and other “junk”.  I laughed.  Interesting storage unit.  To my right was a restaurant with iron furniture on the patio, blaring techno, a curious choice given it was still not yet ten o’clock.  To my left were several street vendors, one selling fried cockroaches, scorpions, spiders, and other novel delicacies.  A small horde of people gathered around, some paying the 10 baht for pictures, others paying the 30 baht to sample the treats.  I stood for a few moments watching the lively reactions before moving on.

A woman behind a small cart, handling two spatulas, deftly mixing, flipping, and sorting portions of noodles, vegetables, spices, and proteins caught my attention. Two people stood in front of her and she interacted with them as she continued her work.  I walked up and stood in line.  A rectangular piece of cardboard box was posted on the right of her cart. There were four options.  I decided on Pad Thai with shrimp and fried egg. I placed my order and watched the woman work.  Less than five minutes later, she handed me my steaming, plentiful dinner on a paper plate with a plastic fork.  I handed her two twenty baht bills and a five baht coin.  I smiled and thanked her. She thanked me back without looking up from the next order she was already busily preparing.

I sat down on the curb next to the woman’s cart, across the street from a restaurant that had two musicians playing Thai folk songs, as well as western favorites.  My food was spicy and savory, the noodles and shrimp tender, the vegetables crisp.  I smiled.  $1.50 US got me a meal straight from the source, made fresh in front of me. I handed my money to the person who did the work.  I scarfed it down while singing along to “No Woman, No Cry”.  As I walked past the woman, I flashed a smile and patted my stomach.  Her mouth turned up as she nodded her head and thanked me in Thai.  It was the only time I saw her interrupt her work.  I walked back down the street with the lingering smile.  The same vendors, the same solicitations, and my same refrain as I walked.   I found John finishing up his meal.

“Ready to drink some beers?” I greeted him.

“We can do that.  Where do you want to go?”

“I’m a fan of walking with no destination in mind.  Figure it out as we go. Whatever piques our interest or feels right.”

“Well, I’ve been here enough times so I will just follow you.  But we should stop by 7/11 and grab some big beers for the road.”  John suggested.

“I’m down with that.”  I responded, slightly aware of the ubiquity of 7/11 stores and their popularity for having almost anything a backpacker needed, especially cheap beer.  There was no open container law, or at least if there was they certainly were not enforcing it on tourists.  I never missed out on the opportunity to walk down street with a drink in hand, whether in Key West, New Orleans, or Bangkok.

We walked into the nearest 7/11, which was half a block away.   With over 3,000 of them in the city, it can feel like you are always a half a block away from one.  This comforted and troubled me.  Another western encroachment, a prime example of the consequences of importing an exotic species into an area with little to no competition or predators.  Without natural controls, the exotic species ends up multiplying and choking out its native competitors.  7/11 certainly cannot be good for the independent business diversity, especially local Thai businesses.  But that did not stop me from going inside to purchase a liter of beer for 45 baht.  I was part of the problem, feeding the damn creature, a painful self-awareness I could only drown in the big bottle of Chang.

We walked down Khao San road, the Bangkok backpacker hub, the 24/7 party, the place where western money floods into the hands of the ever-present, ever-hawking locals selling anything and everything, the Bourbon Street of Bangkok, the source of tonight’s hedonism and tomorrow’s hangovers.  That little voice, I think someone named him “Conscience”, was being drowned out by what Freud named “Id” and drowned in what I call “Booze”, all the while being encouraged by a creature named “Bangkok”.  Three against one are not fair odds.  One last cry echoed through the neural circuitry, processed as “There will be consequences to your actions, you fool! Make smart decisions!” and faded away.  I took swigs of my Chang in between steps and dug all of the helter skelter action.

John did his part in playing host.  He was on his fourth tour of Southeast Asia, a legitimate backpacking veteran.  I noticed his repeated fiscal analysis of potential establishments.

“Well, we could go in there, but it says that a large Leo is 80 baht, which is about 20 more than I really want to pay for, as well as almost twice as much as what we just paid for inside 7/11.  But it’s cool if you want to, I know it’s your first time here. Buckets over there are only 150 baht, and everywhere else is selling them for 200…I wonder if they are real buckets, or just barely filled up.”

“That street vendor wanted 300 baht for that crappy back massager I bought that probably won’t work for very long.  I got her to sell it to me for 100, but it’s just ridiculous how they think they can rip you off.”

I interjected.

“Yeah, but man, you are complaining, or at least it sounds like a complaint, about what amounts to a couple dollars or even less.  And things are still way cheaper than back home.  I know you have been here longer and I know how shit can add up over time, especially when you’re on a budget…but at the same time, this is exactly the same kind of shit that people back home get hung up on.  Dollars, cents, money, money, money.  Then I think about how much it is to them; all of this money is what they survive on and they certainly aren’t getting rich off of us.  We’re spending money for our leisure, pleasure, and entertainment and they’re making the money for basic needs.”

“Yeah, I know, I know.  It is just hard to not get upset after being here for the past four years. I know exactly how much things should cost and when they think they can rip me off just because I’m a farang, it gets to me. But you’re right; I shouldn’t let it bother me this much.” He shrugged his shoulders and tilted his beer.

“Well, enough about this shit.  Let’s focus on the positive.  Here we are drinking beers in Bangkok with no worries. No job, no wife or kids, or anything else we are supposed to have by this age.  No obligations to anyone but ourselves.  Life is pretty fucking good.”  I replied and raised my beer.

We toasted, the bottles clinking together, producing a somewhat hollow sound, signaling our need to refill.  John relented on paying a bit more than he was accustomed and we agreed on finding a bar to continue our conversation and consumption.  As we walked through the throngs repeating our Mai Ow Kap refrain, John scooted up the sidewalk to a bar on wheels outside of a nightclub that was spewing the unmistakable futuristic musical vomit of bass, sound effects, mixed with top 40 hits.  Dubstep.  He chatted with the bartender and soon was motioning me over.  Several different employees immediately sprang into action, nearly falling over one another, and set up a table for us in the midst of the aluminum tables already crammed with patrons.

“I got us a bucket and made sure it’s a good one. Plus I talked him down to 200.  I promised him we would have more than one.  I hope that’s okay with you?  We don’t actually have to have two if you don’t want to, but it was a good selling point.” John looked at me with a smirk on his face as he informed me.

“Right on.  When in Bangkok…” I shrugged my shoulders, just along for the ride.

The blue plastic bucket, much like the ones I filled with sand as a child, was now filled with an array of booze, juice, and Red Bull.  There were six straws jutting out of the bucket. I suppose they wanted to give the appearance that more people were involved, or maybe it was a sort of unspoken guideline. Whatever the case, I leaned in, grabbed three straws, put them to my mouth, and sipped.  John did the same.  I watched the liquid shrink as I tasted the potent, yet sweet concoction.  I had heard stories about buckets.  I knew the general consensus.  Bucket stories were always told with a laugh and/or groan.  I knew what I was getting myself into.

The first bucket went quickly.   We ordered a second.  As we waited for its arrival, a couple wandered into the crowded seating area, attempting to find a table.  There were none.  They walked up to us.  The guy, with a shadow beard and English accent, asked about our drink.  John explained the concept of a bucket

“It’s basically this wonderful mix of Sangsom, vodka, gin, Red Bell, Coke, lime juice, or whatever they feel like putting in it, and it’s somehow delicious, and it will fuck you up.”

“Sounds lovely.” English dude responded.

“It is quite lovely.” John responded, mimicking the English accent with a smile.  “You should probably order one or three and have a seat here with us.”

They both laughed.

“Well, awright.  If you insist.” The guy walked to the bar while the employees all got a hop to finding two extra chairs for our new friends.  Two chairs were delivered and the girl began introductions as she sat down.

“Allo, I’m Jules.  That’s Nate. What are your names?”

Nate rejoined almost immediately with two buckets in hand. We went around with the introductions.  We ran through standard travel procedure. Abbreviated personal history, travel history, and travel itinerary.  It was odd to repeat a refrain I stated often back home while preparing for the trip. Now it was true.

“Yeah, I graduated university about four years ago, taught third grade for three years.  I wasn’t happy, so I quit my job. I planned to go back for a Ph. D in philosophy but beforehand I traveled the U.S. in my car with a backpack and a tent. I balanced hiking and camping in national parks with crashing on couches or in hostels in towns and cities.  Midway through the trip, I realized I had everything I wanted:  the freedom and time to think, read, write, and travel.  I figured I’d be crazy to go back to a life with unnecessary obligations.  So I threw away the applications and said ‘fuck it’.  After I finished my U.S. trip I landed back in my college town, picked up a job at a restaurant, moved in with family, and started saving and planning for Asia.” I explained my personal summary.

“So here you are.” Nate spoke with a smile and that distinctive English accent.  He had a glimmer in his eye.  He either found my story to be exciting or he was already drunk.  Maybe both.

“Yeah, so here I am, man. So what about you? What’s your story?”  I responded with a smile.

“Well…I had a job and I was married.  I hated my job and the marriage fell apart.  The job was a basic nine to five, it was just something to do to make some money, and have a nice life.  When everything went to shit, I asked myself what the hell was I doing with my life and who was I living it for. Who told me I needed all of this shit? An expensive flat in the city with nice things in it and living out a little domesticated existence. It was okay. It was comfortable. But fuck, I wasn’t happy. Obviously neither was my ex-wife. Then I met Jules and we had a good time together, got along well. When she told me she was traveling in Asia and then moving to China. I said ‘Fuck it, I’m going with you’.”  Nate burst into laughter and leaned forward to take a long pull from the bucket.

“And what did you say Jules?” John asked with a wry smile on his face.

“Well, as you can see,” she motioned to Nate, “I said BANG! Alright then.” They kissed amid cracking up.

Nate straightened up in his seat, peered off down the street for a few seconds, then turned back and confessed in a level tone.

“Obviously my friends thought I was crazy, thought I had gone absolutely bonkers. You know, maybe they’re right?  Maybe it was crazy to quit, sell everything, and move across the world with someone I’ve just met.  But I figured what’s the worst that could happen? Really, what is the worst thing that could happen? That I go on an epic adventure with someone I really get along with and care for, do something that scares the shit out of me, but actually makes me feel alive? And if we break up or it doesn’t work out? Well, so what?  Been there, done that.  At least I am doing this now.  I’m taking the risk to see the world, figure out how to live it my way, and doing it with someone who feels the same.  And who knows, maybe we fall hopelessly in love and are together for the rest of our lives?  I don’t feel that I’ve lost my life by giving up what I had in England. Really, I feel like I have regained it.”

“Well, cheers to that!” John exclaimed as he raised our bucket. Nate and Jules did the same with theirs.

As we all dove into the buckets, I thought about Nate’s story.  I felt a deep camaraderie with him, but I also thought it sounded crazy.  What made him do all of this?  Was he running away from his previous marriage?  Running away from himself, his job, what?  Would he regret his decisions once the excitement from the novelty and spontaneity wore off?  What if things didn’t work out with Jules and it ended terribly?  How would his story turn out?

As I wondered these things, it dawned on me that I was asking the same skeptical questions people had asked me.  Family, friends, strangers all wondered. What are you doing? Why did you quit your good job?  How can you leave behind the nice life you had?  What’s wrong?  What brought on all of this?  What are you running from? What’s in Asia?  How are you going to afford it?  How are you going to get around? What are you going to do when you’re done?  Why are you doing all of this?

A new appreciation for Nate burst forth.  I did not know the answers to my questions about him.  They weren’t questions for me to answer.  They were his questions.  Maybe he had already answered them. Maybe he was asking entirely different questions.  And maybe the journey was the attempt to answer them.

I recalled a line of lyrics that often played in my head when I was confronted by the questions.  And while I did my best to answer the inquiries, I often felt that my words failed at illuminating the answers to the whats, hows, and whys.  I never did seem to feel I had completely connected with others when explaining all of this.  I wasn’t giving the wrong answers, but was being asked the wrong questions.  At times while planning and working for the journey, I became discouraged and would become skeptical of myself, my plans, my life.  But I had my own questions. I was asking them.  I was trying to answer them.  There just happened to be a whole world I wanted to explore, needed to explore while doing it. So here I was in Bangkok, Thailand.  Asking my questions, searching for my answers.  That line resounded in my head.

So when you run, make sure you run/to something, and not away from

Jet Lag and An American Tragedy

The clock just inched past three A.M. I lay awake not out of desire, but due to jet lag.  For the past three months, my body interpreted this time as about 7 in the evening, whether I was in Kuala Lumpur, Manila, or Ho Chi Minh City.  Because of that repetition, day after day, this exact moment in the cycle of the earth rotating about its axis, I interpreted the moment, consciously and unconsciously as the evening.  The past several nights I have attempted to change, to readjust to this time zone by forcing myself to go to sleep at the appropriate times.  The past several nights I have found myself wide awake in the middle of the night here in Los Angeles.  It is remarkable how habits form without notice over time.  It is vexing how difficult they are to shake.  For my sleep cycle, it took a dramatic event, flying across the world and seventeen time zones to shock my senses, to make me aware of the changes that had subtly taken place. America lays wide awake with me, wondering how it came to this.  I know why I am awake, and I know why America can’t sleep.

Habits are repetitious thoughts. Habits are repetitious actions.  Habits are formed out of intentions, which find their birth in desires.  Some habits are considered instinctual, so engrained in the human (and animal) species that they are known at birth.  Breathing, eating, avoiding pain.  Many more habits are learned, socially co-created and perpetuated by ourselves and others in our environment.  Language, customs, the totality of the details of our lives we call culture.  Each day the majority of us wake without having to think about taking a breath to breathe, without having to think much about finding food, and without having to do much to avoid pain.  These habits have been performed by our ancestors for the eons, evolving through natural selection to enable survival.  These habits are formed out of the instinctual intention of self-preservation, from the desire to survive.  They are so intertwined within us that they are us, part of our actual genetic fabric, near impossible to change.  Those other habits, the amalgam of complexities we call culture, those are a different breed of habits.  They are no less intertwined in our daily lives than breathing, eating, surviving; however, they are directly within our control, we choose them consciously or unconsciously.  So what do our cultural habits tell us about our intentions?  What do they tell us about what we value?

I think it is important to start with a distinguishing factor between cultures observed from a macro level, immediately noticed if the lens is zoomed all the way out.  As Americans, we intend to be unique, we value the individual.  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  It is symbolized in the language, encoded in the laws, and manifested in the day to day activities of the people of this country.  We are not a nation collaborating to work towards common goals, but a nation of individuals working independently towards personal goals.  We revere individuality and the freedom presupposed to be given to the individual.  We view ourselves as distinctive, separate from the next person, as well as unhinged from our environment.  This is all clearly valued.   When habitual thought and action manifests out of an intention to be different, a desire to be different, what kind of culture is formed?  What do the habits of a culture that values this look like?  What do the habits sound like?  What are the consequences of this?

It is no secret that America prides itself on being the wealthiest of nations.  We value the acquisition, retention, and display of money and what it can buy us.  Our habits reflect this.  Our day to day is filled with the acquisition of material wealth and consumption of goods/services that said wealth can get for us.  No doubt a human trait to acquire more wealth for self-preservation, but nowhere else in the world is there such a dramatic disconnect from that which we spend entire lifetimes attempting to acquire from why we desire it in the first place.  Why do we desire material wealth?  What do the habits of a culture that values this look like?  What do the habits sound like?  What are the consequences of this?

How often do you meet someone whom is content?  Try to recall the last time you did.  List all of the people you know that you would consider content.  Do the same with ambitious.  Or dissatisfied.  I reckon the latter two are much easier lists to form and much longer.  In America, we value exceptionalism.  Average, okay, satisfactory, content.  These are all pejorative terms in American culture.  It all stems from a desire for more.  Lost in a perpetual pursuit for more, for the exceptional is acceptance.  What do the habits of a culture that values this look like?  What do the habits sound like?  What are the consequences of this?

– –

I imagine a culture driven by individualism in the pursuit of material wealth with a reverence for the exceptional to look a lot like America today.  We are a nation of people who exhaust our only true precious resource, the time on this earth, to chase one we created to distinguish symbolic, not real, value.  And it is in that chase for something unreal that we have decided to determine something not acquired, but created: our own worth.  It is a nation of people who search for something, an elusive thing called “happiness”, they can only find by stopping the search and seeing it is right in front of them, granted through the relinquishing of desire and the grace of acceptance.  It is a nation of people who are so disconnected from one another that in an attempt to understand its own problems, they see it as the problem of one individual.  It is a nation of people that requires a dramatic event to awaken it to the habits we have been quietly forming thought by thought, action by action.

My thoughts, compassion, love, my humanity goes out to those who suffered and will continue to suffer:  the children (especially the children), the adults, Ryan, the families. To you. To me.  How do I change?  How do we change?