Monday, June 28, 2004

Young Men Dying & Old Men Talking... 

As Kiki, Paul, and I rode through the manic streets of Varanasi en route to the train station, I felt like I was waking up from a dream. There were days in Varanasi when I felt like I had fallen into the movie "12 Monkeys" and there were moments when I felt as though I was on the brink of sanity. We arrived at the station about two hours early, and in the silence my mind began to clear.

I never want to lose the enthusiasm of a new traveler. I never want to get caught up in my own stories and become one of the ego-focused, "too-cool" travelers we've bumped into now and again. I may have seen fifty waterfalls in the last thirteen months, but I never want to lose the wonder I feel when I sit at the bottom of one of those explosions of dropping water. I've spoken of adapting, yet I'm not sure I ever want to adapt too much to this experience. I love shaking myself up like I shook myself up in Varanasi. I think that's when you really start to learn. Chaos of the mind is like coffee brewing...if you just relax and let it percolate, you'll enjoy the product. Mental confusion seems to be the seed of revelation. When you shock your system you create new thoughts and new mental paths. This is the world university I enrolled in, and if I let myself drift towards comfort I'll be skipping class.

Anyway, just when we thought we were train veterans, the ride to Calcutta redefined our concept of "Packed like sardines". As the gun-toting security team worked their way through the wall to wall humanity, the crowd began to thin. Apparently people squeeze themselves in, banking on being able to hide from security for an hour or two. When they're finally kicked off, they've basically gotten a 100 to 200 kilometer ride for free. The only problem with this system is that I didn't really have a place to sit for the first couple hours of our ride.

Everything ended up working fine though, and fifteen hours later we were tracking down a tuk-tuk in Calcutta. Before this trip, the only thing I ever associated with Calcutta was Mother Teresa’s home for the Dying and Destitute. I'd also watched "City of Joy" a couple days before leaving the States, so I had Hollywood's version of the city implanted in my subconscious. As we drove through the clouds of diesel exhaust, past children and old women picking through garbage heaps, I started to think Hollywood might not have been far off.

When our tuk-tuk rolled to a stop in the backpacker's neighborhood, the tout's descended like acid rain. They were pulling and pushing me like I was in a mosh pit, and I found myself extremely resistant to any help at all. Whenever a tout leads you to a hotel, you typically end up paying a little more to cover the tout's commission. After striking out on my own with three hotels in a row, one of the most persistent touts told me he could find me a hotel in our price range, "No problem". By this time I was so burnt out on running up and down stairways, I gave in and agreed. Thanks to my new buddy we ended up in a brand new hotel that is only half completed. There are only four rooms in the whole place and the view from our window is fairly impressive. As I thanked the tout and dropped my bags I realized that fighting the system to try to save 25 cents might not be the best use of my time. I've been so consumed with getting a good deal and not being scammed, that I think I've been making our lives more complicated. There's a system here, and life sure is a lot easier when you use it.

Once we finished checking in and grabbed some grub, Paul, Kiki, and I put on our tourist hats and hit the road. Our first stop was the Calcutta Planetarium, which is supposedly one of the three biggest planetariums in the world. Unfortunately, once we sat back in the big soft chairs and felt the musty air-conditioning blowing on our slimy skin, we were asleep in an instant. The first ten seconds and the last ten seconds were pretty impressive though. On our way back to the hotel we noticed that the huge park in the center of town was full of grazing horses, goats, and cattle. If it wasn't for the steaming landmines, I'd say that all parks should be mowed that way.

That night we were in the mood for a dose of western living, so we decided to go see the movie “Troy”, which was just released here on June 24th. The theatre reeked like a moldy basement, making me feel like I was in "12 Monkeys" for the second time in 48 hours. While I'm not the biggest fan of the movie (My sisters will kill me for saying that), I did manage to pick up a couple cool quotes. The line "War has always been about young men dying and old men talking" hit me pretty hard. We've all spent too much time talking about the Pandora's box in Iraq, but that debacle really has lived up to this quote. Hearing it in a movie about the ancient Greeks reminded me of a line my friend and mentor Jenni Prisk shared with me, "The one thing we've learned from history is that never learn anything from history".

I also loved the idea that "Everything is more beautiful because we're doomed...we will never be here again...” The day we watched "Troy", June 28th, 2004, was the only June 28th, 2004 any of us will ever live. Did you treasure it? Do you remember what you did? Where you conscious or drifting through the day in a comfortable trance? Do you realize that if you're 28 like me, the odds are you'll be dead in less than 62 years? Are you ready? Are you making each conversation, thought, and moment count? Do the people you love know exactly how you feel about them? "Men rise and fall like the winter wheat...” How true. We all feel as though our life is so special and unique...and it is, to us. But when you look at the big picture...when you stand in a nation full of over a billion people, you start to wonder how special we really are. Are we just like the locusts in Agra, reproducing until our food supply gives out? Is that why some of us are so focused on "Making our mark" and having others "Remember our name"? Because we know deep down that we're just another living organism, just like the locusts, cows, and trees...destined for the compost pile? In “Dharma Bums”, Jack Kerouac argues that everything is an illusion, and if you don't believe him, check back in a billion years and see what's left. Mmmmm...

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Bodhi Trees & Sewer Swimming... 

Once the afternoon's experiences settled in, Paul and I wandered down the main Dasaswamedh ghat to see where all the music was coming from. What we came across was the perfect finish to a spiritually potent day. The “Pujo” ceremony takes place every evening in Varanasi as the final step in the burial process. Five "Brahmin" (Holy men) conduct a mystical ceremony consisting of a mix of chanting, singing, and speaking in front of all the people who had family members cremated that day. Even though we couldn't understand what they were saying and we had no clue what the movements meant, the ceremony was extremely impressive. At one point, all five Brahmin were moving together with huge flaming gold lamps in their hands. The flames jumped over a foot in the air with every movement, lighting the face of the ceremony leaders with a mystical glow. Once again I felt like we were infringing on something sacred, but the other bystanders assured us that all was OK. Reading about the major religions can be enlightening, but nothing beats being there in person. I can feel my mind growing by the second.

The next day we managed to find Kiki and Ricardo, so the hours flew by quickly. We took them down to the Dasaswamedh ghat for the next night's ceremony and they were as impressed as we were. We sat down right in the middle of all the local Indians in an effort to assimilate rather than segregate, but the "Tourist Police" kept trying to get us to move to a protected balcony. They were just trying to shield us from the swarms of beggars and salesman circling in the darkness, but we felt more comfortable sitting on the stone with everyone else. At that point I looked around and realized we were basically a group of ten white people in a sea of locals. We were trying to "Assimilate", yet we were clinging to people that looked and sounded like ourselves. Shannon and I faced the same challenge in Africa. We wanted to meet more local Africans, but it was always hard to tell who really wanted to become friends, and who was just trying to work you for a buck or two. I think this is mostly a product of staying too close to the typical tourist track. All the locals we're meeting are used to hundreds of faces like ours coming and going every month...no big deal. It's all new and novel to us, but it's another day at work for them. I feel as though I want to participate in the life of the typical Indian family, but I'm starting to realize that's almost impossible during a drive-by, four day visit to a tourist city. Living and working in a community makes it much easier to connect, so I may have to consider that in order to break past the jaded shell of the tourist culture.

The next day Paul and I teamed up with a couple kids from Kiki & Ricardo's hotel and headed out to Sarnath, the small village where the Buddha gave his first sermon after receiving enlightenment. The Sarnath campus was slightly run down, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the visit. It was nothing like the "City of Ten Thousand Buddha's" in my hometown, probably because it was constructed hundreds of years earlier. After the Buddha became enlightened under a Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya he preached and lived in Sarnath for over three years. There's even a huge Bodhi tree grown from that original Bodhi tree on the campus. I've truly enjoyed reading about Buddhist philosophy and there was something peaceful and quiet about the entire compound. It almost made you want to stop and meditate just to be there.

On our last morning in Varanasi, Kiki, Paul, and I got up at 4:30AM to hire a boat and enjoy the sunrise on the Ganges. I don't think we said more that five words to each other for the whole hour, but everything felt perfect. Hundreds of Indians were already down bathing in the water, and we were lucky enough to get a clear morning and a breathtaking sunrise. Watching the children and adults enjoying the water made it seem so appealing, yet our research told a different story. As of 2003, the water of the Ganges was contaminated with 1.5 million faecal coliform (FC) bacteria per 100 milliliters of water. Considering bath water should have less than 500 FC bacteria per 100 ML, the Ganges has some serious issues. The waste from over thirty sewage mains dumps directly into the river, combined with the ashes from up to 500 cremations, a couple dead bodies, and whatever washes off all the cows, buffalo, and people that bathe in the water. Yummy.

Right before we ended our ride, our guide took us by the Burning Ghat once again. Thankfully we were unable to see anything sticking out of the fires, but the low tide had exposed some of the body parts that hadn't completely burned from the day before, and the dogs were ripping them to shreds. Ugh... As we pulled up to the ghat outside our hotel, we noticed an older man sprawled out strangely on the stone in the hot early morning sun. One of our guide's friends walked by and told us the man was dead. Person after person walked by, glancing back, and then moving on. I had no idea what to do. Kids were playing in the water ten feet from this corpse and no one thought it was a big deal. Death, it appears, is treated a lot more like a natural part of life over here. The book I just finished argues that one of the most unique and powerful features of the human race is our ability to adapt to anything. This can be great when millions of Indians learn to adapt and survive with almost nothing, and it can be horrible when thousands of Rwandans adapt and accept a mob mentality of massacre. I can feel myself adapting to living in chaos and squalor, but it will definitely take me a while to adapt to what I experienced in Varanasi.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

The Burning Ghat... 

During the train ride to Varanasi, Paul and I learned that we can sleep ANYWHERE! The combination of three-foot-high sleeping spaces, bodies packed in like sardines, screaming kids, beggars at every stop, and circulation fans with airplane engines didn't faze us a bit. We were out in seconds. Around five AM some dude in an army uniform carrying a huge WWII gun woke me up to fill out a "Customer satisfaction survey". I couldn't believe this was worth waking me up, but when I thought about it, there was nothing I would really change about the train ride. This was India, and we were LOVING it.

If Agra and Delhi had us smiling, Varanasi was about to take this trip to another level. Varanasi is one of the spiritual capitals of the Hindu religion, and marks the final destination of millions of pilgrims each year. It also happens to be one of the oldest living cities in the world, dating back to 1400 BC. “Benares (Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”. – Mark Twain.

We learned in Agra that the "Government Prepaid Taxi Booth" is just an official way to get tourists to pay twice what they need to, so Paul and I eluded the crowd of frustrated cab drivers and grabbed the first tuk-tuk we saw. We were hoping to meet up with Ricardo and Kiki, but we hadn't heard from them since Agra so we followed the recommendation of the Germans and ended up at the Alka Hotel, right on the bank of the Ganges river.

The Ganges is the focal point of Varanasi, mostly since bathing in the Ganges is a sacred Hindu ritual. There are over 100 large stairways (Ghats) lining over two miles of riverside, and they are perpetually packed with humanity. Just traveling through India can be a spiritual experience, but walking along the Ganges, treading on thousand-year-old stone ghats, while watching local Indians praying, bathing, laughing, sleeping, and crying was complete sensory overload.

One of the first things we saw along the Ganges was the main Manikarnika "Burning Ghat", the most sacred place in India for Hindus to be cremated. Between 200 and 500 bodies are cremated on the Burning Ghat every day, so there were at least six fires going as we approached. A young boy guided us up to an observation building, three stories above the cremations. The main room was full of old women, who we were told were waiting to die. One of the locals helping the women explained the whole Burning Ghat process in detail.

When someone dies, their family has up to three days to get their body to the ghat. Once they arrive, they register for a death certificate, and then buy a burning permit from the "Boss" of the Burning Ghat. Next they need to buy the wood from the Boss, which can typically cost over $3,000. Once all of this is arranged, the family dips the elegantly wrapped body into the Ganges and places it on the funeral pyre. The cremation flame is lit from the "Eternal fire" which is fabled to have been burning for over 3,000 years. The bodies typically take around 3 hours to burn, but male sternums and female hip bones don't always completely disintegrate. Once the three hours is up, the oldest son picks up whatever is left from the ashes and throws it into the river. He then breaks a pot full over river water on the ashes, symbolizing the break between the living and the dead.

According to the locals in the observation building, anyone from any faith can be cremated on the Burning Ghat except for children under 14 yeas old, pregnant women, holy people, lepers, and animals. When we asked for an explanation, we learned that young children, holy men, and pregnant women are already pure and innocent so there is no need for cremation. Lepers aren't burned because of the superstition that the disease could be spread by the smoke, and burning animal bones would take too long. In all five of these scenarios, the bodies are weighed down and dumped into the middle of the Ganges, where the water can be up to 40 meters deep.

I have to qualify all I've written here by letting you know most of our information came from bystanders, not legitimate research. If any of my Hindu friends have more accurate information please fill me in.

As Paul and I leaned against the railing, about twenty meters above six cremations in different stages of completion, I didn't know what to think. The heat and humidity was leaching sweat from every surface of my body, and the smoke from the fires was swirling around my head. There wasn't really any smell to the smoke, which our guides claimed reinforced the holiness of the Burning Ghat. There were no pictures allowed anywhere near the ghat, but I don't think I would have taken any even if they were allowed. At the time, I wasn't even sure I could write about it. Here we were, in one of the most sacred cities in the world, watching six bodies burn into ash. I could see two legs sticking out of one of the fires, and every muscle in my body locked up as one of the fire tenders put his stick under the dried, curled toes and bent the legs back into the hottest part of the fire. "Intense" isn't a strong enough word. Paul and I were speechless. Our minds were slow in processing the experience, so we both agreed we needed some time alone to reflect on what we'd seen and how we'd reacted.

On our way out of the observation area, our guides hit us up for donations. They claimed that the elderly women didn't have enough money to pay for the wood for their cremations, so they needed our help. We gladly handed over more rupees than we'd given to anyone, and then we were a little surprised when we were told our "Donation" wasn't good enough. Mmmmmm... We were later told that the whole thing was a scam, but I sure hope it wasn't.

One of the things I reflected on was the idea of making money off someone else's death. I know funeral homes and headstone makers aren't non-profit organizations, but it seemed like there was something disrespectful about us watching a family burn a loved one, and someone else charging us to do it. It also seemed strange that the Burning Ghat Boss's family makes so much money off each cremation. They're even allowed to have the fire tenders sift through the ash for jewelry and dental metal to sell in the market. I know that my perception of death was shaped by growing up in a predominately Christian nation, so I'm sure I felt more uncomfortable than any of the participating families. I'm still gathering my thoughts on this one, and you can probably tell I'm still a bit lost when it comes to finding meaning in what we saw. It's helped me to share what happened though, so thanks for listening.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Bicycle Rickshaws & The Chain of Justice... 

After sleeping with about ten little six-legged friends in each of our beds, Paul and I were up early and anxious to say goodbye to Agra. We greeted the morning by knocking out our pushups and inhaling a couple boiled eggs and some toast. Staying healthy and in shape was a challenge in Africa, but I think Paul and I may have found the perfect solution. A couple nights ago that we realized we kind of miss the competition that came from the workplace, so we both did as many pushups as we could at one time. I was at 33 and Paul was at 50. Then we made a bet. The first person to increase their maximum number of pushups by 50, wins dinner at the nicest restaurant in town. Our competitive natures probably would have been motivated by a "Gentleman's bet", but either way, this small amount of motivation has had us on a regular workout schedule ever since.

Our only real plan that day was to check out the Agra Fort and then catch our all night train to Varanasi. We've quickly gotten stingy with our rupees, so we negotiated an 11 cent ride to the fort on a bicycle rickshaw. Unfortunately those rickshaw seats aren't built for our booties, so we looked like two pigs crammed in a pickle jar for the whole trip. It also wasn't very cool to watch this tiny little dude killing himself to peddle our bloated bodies through town. I think we'll stick to motorized tuk-tuk's from now on, even if they cost us another 20 cents.

When we got to the fort, we decided to go with the self-guided tour, much to the chagrin of the 52 touts offering their services outside the gate. It wasn't as beautiful as the Taj, but I still couldn't fathom how it was constructed using 400-year-old technology. One of my favorite features was the "Chain of Justice". Apparently the Emperor hung a huge chain full of bells from his dwelling (At the top of the fort), all the way down to the base of the wall where the commoners could access it. The Emperor encouraged all his subjects to ring the "Chain of Justice" anytime one of his government/civil servants was behaving in an unethical manner. He would be notified directly and resolve the situation himself. This focus on accountability kept the kingdom in order and gave the Emperor the reputation as one of the most just leaders India has ever known. What if we had a "Chain of Justice" in America? You'd have to have someone with integrity at the other end, but it would be nice to expose the truth every once in a while. I guess that's what an unbiased media could be, if we could ever create one of those.

Speaking of justice, during the tour we noticed quite a few references to the "East India Company (EIC)", a British organization that did a ton of the development and colonization of India back in the day. Apparently the main spire of the Taj was stolen twice and all the marble of the Taj mausoleum was once offered up for auction under the watch of the EIC. The informational signs at the fort spoke of the "Historic lies of the East India Company" and my mind fell back to my old conflict about whether colonization and 3rd world development is good or bad for the local population. I know I've barely scratched the surface of the British-Indian relationship, however, if the Indian citizens could have all their natural resources, relics, religious artifacts, and soldier’s lives back, would they give up their trains, roads, jobs, nuclear weapons, and semi-first world prosperity? Would they be better or worse off if England had never colonized them? You could ask the same question in South Africa. Nothing is black and white.

That night Paul and I strolled into the train station expecting the same top notch, on time, train service we enjoyed on our way to Agra. We knew we wouldn't have air conditioning since we'd opted to save cash in the 3rd class sleeper cars, but we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. At 11:30PM, two hours after we were supposed to leave, we heard we only had a half hour left before our train showed up. Ouch. Luckily we had a couple English medical students and a German couple to keep us entertained, but Agra train station was a challenge in itself. We were almost used to the roaches scurrying under our feet and the naked children tugging on our pockets, but what we weren't ready for was the pit around the train tracks. Do you know where your waste goes when you flush the toilet in an old train? Yup, that's right...onto the tracks. I guess the trains must spend a lot of time sitting at the station, because there were piles and piles of human excrement evenly spaced along the tracks, right where the toilet outlets had been dumping it for years. This, combined with hundreds of 8 to 12 inch rats wading through the sludge almost took away my appetite...almost. I just can't get enough curry! :-)

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Locust Armies & Life In Agra... 

On our way back from the Taj, Paul and I stopped by some random rooftop cafe to take one last try at non-vegetarian fare. It took our jaws about ten minutes per bite to gnaw through the grizzled mutton, not to mention the whole place smelled of rotting flesh. As our last mouthful gurgled down to contaminate our bowels, Paul and I agreed it was time to hop on the vegetarian bandwagon for the rest of India.

As the sun set that night on our tiny hovel of a hotel, we truly felt blessed. There we were, kicking back with some black market Indian beer, surrounded by new Dutch, Indian, Mexican, and French friends, listening to Persian background music, while watching the last gleams of sunlight reflect off the massive dome of one of man's greatest creations. Life is good.

I've written several times about the marvelous people I've met on the road, and tonight was no different. Ricardo was the first Mexican traveler I'd ever met and he made me wish I'd met more. He had just finished studying audio engineering in Australia and he was touring the world on his way back to Mexico City. Ricardo's sense of humor had the entire rooftop party rolling, and his open-hearted honesty reminded me of my other great friend from Mexico City, Carlos Crabtree. The other connection Paul and I made was with Kiki, a policewoman from Holland. Kiki is extremely intelligent and fun, but she really blew my socks off when she started talking about what she's experienced in her short 35 year tenure on the planet. After graduating from school Kiki spent time as a nurse before enlisting in the Dutch military as a scuba diving nurse. After completing her tour of duty, she moved on advertising, modeling, go-go dancing, blackjack dealing, and finally police duty outside of Amsterdam. As if that wasn't enough, now she's seven months into a 12 to 18 month trip around the world. I'm not sure how Kiki put up with a couple loud, clueless Americans like Paul and I, but I guess everyone can use a little comic relief now and then.

We thought our surprises were over as we headed down to bed, but our new roommates had something else in mind. As we opened the door to our room, the floor seemed to spring to life. We'd left the light on, and now we had about fifty locusts hopping around on our sheets. Locusts don't bite, but they have a nasty habit of jumping about five feet in the air whenever you come close to them. They're also pretty heavy, so you can't avoid noticing them when they land on your forehead. We considered trying to catch and release all of them, but we were ready to pass out, so I just went on a killing spree. After I was done, I started to realize that might not have been the best idea, considering there were now dead locust bodies covering our floor, sheets, and bags. Ugh. Just when we were ready to hit the sack, I notices armies of six-legged reinforcements streaming under the door and around the window frame. I could see where previous travelers had tried to patch the window screen with bandaids and athletic tape, but I was quickly realizing this was a losing battle. Since our sheets looked like someone had died on them, and the power had just gone out killing our lights and the power to our fan, I decided the locusts were the least of our problems and simply rolled over and fell asleep.

The next morning I was up early enough to watch the sunrise reflect off the Taj while enjoying the sights and sounds of an awakening city. The monkeys scampered and screeched from house to house, waking up the +/- 50 men, women, and children I could see sleeping on the concrete rooftops surrounding our hotel. I could hear the first tuk-tuk horns of the morning, and everyone seemed to be wearing the same peaceful smile, whether they were sweeping their slab, watering their plants, or bathing from a bucket. Agra may be known as a city full of tourist-swindlers, but it is also full of life, and I think that's the part I'll remember the most.

Monday, June 21, 2004

The World's Greatest Monument to Love... 

The next morning we were up at 4:30AM packing up for our 6AM train. As I opened the hotel door, I realized how good we really had it. Three of the hotel staff were laid on the marble floors, sleeping on towels. One of them had to move his head so we could open our door all the way. Just when we started to think we had it bad...

Since most of our friends with Indian travel experience had recommended against spending too much time in Delhi, we opted to catch the first train to Agra, the home of the Taj Majal. Other than the fact that there isn't a train under 50 years old in India, our trip to Agra was way better than expected. It was on time, air conditioned, and they even served tasty food. Some of our co-travelers told us not to get used to it.

I ended up sitting next to a couple from Germany who enjoyed telling me about a train to Bombay that had crashed a killed 20 people a couple days earlier. Nice. I've learned that people that are constantly afraid of bad things happening to them....have bad things happen to them all the time. I'm convinced that whatever you focus on, you will manifest in your life. Therefore, I decided to change the subject and then focus on how thankful I was that we were going to make it to Agra safely. During our much more positive conversation, I learned about the strength of Germany's employee rights council. Apparently almost all Germans have six weeks of vacation and German employers get in serious trouble if their people don't use all their vacation. No wonder I've seen so many Germans on the road! Do you think that could ever work in America? You'd think productivity would go down, but what if people got more done because they led more balanced lives? Would the divorce rate go up or down? Would it hurt the economy by impacting corporations or help the economy by stimulating tourism? Would people even want that system or are we too proud of our workaholic culture? Mmmmmm...

The trip from the Agra train station to our hostel near the Taj gave us a peek into the Indian poverty we'd read about. As we stepped into our cab we were greeted by a skeleton of a mother begging for Rupees (Indian currency), with a sickly infant strapped to her hip. We couldn't understand what she was saying, but we knew what she wanted. My eyes got a little wider as her baby started coughing and spitting into our taxi. I knew this was a situation we would be seeing every day for the next couple months, and I still haven't figured out what to do. Several people and books tell you to keep your money in your pockets to keep from a creating a culture of beggars. Yeah, OK, very academic and logical, but that doesn't help me face a sick, starving mother and child. This is a theme I've touched on over and over again since Africa and all I've been able to settle on is trusting my gut. When someone helps us or does something to deserve some cash, I help them back. It seems like giving someone something for nothing robs them of their dignity and self respect, however, I doubt starving people are worrying too much about those upper levels of Maslow's triangle. Giving cash is my least favorite way to help, but buying food for someone doesn't feel as bad. It seems like a never-ending problem, but rationalized indifference doesn't seem to help much. We'll see how my attitude changes over the next year.

The Indian government regulates traffic close to the Taj in order to help reduce the effects of acid rain on the marble, so we had to switch to a tuk-tuk for the last couple miles. As we dodged camels, cows, and donkeys through the claustrophobic alleys, Paul noticed a couple kids washing dishes in the sewer-soaked gutter water. "No street food"...got it. The Hotel Kamal wasn't anything special, but the rooftop view of the Taj Majal was flawless. It felt like I had just stepped into a postcard. Outstanding.

Our tuk-tuk driver tried to sell us pretty hard on an "All day special sight seeing tour", but thanks to our 14-year-old scammer, we saw him coming and decided to be our own guides. I thought the Taj Majal looked great from the roof of a $1.75-a-night hotel, but I hadn't seen anything yet. There's a reason why this structure is one of the greatest wonders of the man-made world.

Described as the most extravagant monument ever built for love, Emperor Shah Jahan kept 20,000 workers busy for 22 years building this mausoleum for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal. It may have been the 1600's but I doubt the Taj could be built any better today. Thousands of flowers decorate almost every surface, each one consisting of up to 64 separate inlaid pieces of semi-precious stone. There are no gaps, no caulk, nothing. It's perfect. What makes the construction even more marvelous is that the black onyx came from Belgium, the red coral from China, and the green malachite from South Africa. Can you imagine working out those logistics using the technology of the 17th century? Each of the four minarets leans away from the main mausoleum at exactly 2 degrees so that in the event of the earthquake they fall away from the memorial. The symmetry also defies reason. How did they do it? My friend Rishard must have felt the same way while he was gazing up at the Pyramids of Egypt. Every angle came together just right, and buildings spread over 500 yards apart line up precisely. Rumor has it that the Emperor cut off the hands of all 20,000 workers to make sure nothing of comparable beauty was ever created. When we asked some locals about this story, they said the Emperor actually paid for all of them to retire, symbolically "Cutting off their hands". I'm not sure who's right, but I've never seen a building this beautiful, so maybe the Emperor got his wish.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Fooled by a Fourteen Year Old... 

As Paul and I hopped on the Tube to Heathrow International Airport, we kept shaking our heads and telling each other "We're going to India". It just sounded cool to say it. The flight was PACKED, yet all the Indians we met were extremely friendly. The consistent message was "No pork, no beef, and NO STREET FOOD". While doing some last minute research on the plane, I came across this quote in Lonely Planet that gave me a good idea of what we were about to step into...

"With one foot grounded in time-honored traditions and the other fervently striding into the entrepreneurial e-age, India embraces diversity as passionately as few other countries on earth could. Boasting a population of one billion people - and growing - India is as vast as it is crowded and as sublime as it is squalid. The plains are as flat and featureless as the Himalayas are towering and spectacular, the religious texts as perplexing as their underlying message is simple, and the people as easygoing as they are tenacious."

Even though my friend Sanjeev prepared an excellent day by day itinerary for us, Paul and I were committed to keeping our plans as flexible as possible. In fact, one conversation with my seatmate on the plane convinced us to completely re-route our plan due to the excessive heat in the Northwest region of Rajasthan. As we touched down in New Delhi, our guards were up, but entering India turned out to be much easier than expected. However, as soon as we pulled away from the airport curb I realized how glad I was that we didn't own our own vehicle (yet). Navigating through the teeming river of cars, motorized rickshaws (Tuk Tuk's), semi-trucks, bicycle rickshaws, buses, human rickshaws, construction vehicles, cows, goats, buffalo, dogs, cats, camels, vendors, beggars, lepers, and street children was tough enough without the fact that there were no street signs or address numbers in the neighborhood we were staying in. "Chaos" isn't a strong enough word.

Since we knew we might be sorting through a little culture shock and jetlag after the all-night flight, Paul and I decided to splurge on a room that would cost us around $9 each. After that first night we managed to wean ourselves off the air conditioning and we haven't paid over $3 each since. Considering the first class, three-course curry meal we enjoyed that night cost us less than $5 each, I have a feeling we won't have a problem staying under budget in India.

Speaking of curry, I'm addicted. I'm very thankful to Shannon for opening my sheltered eyes to curry in South Africa, because I can't get enough! Since the power shuts down about five times a day and we're not sure how cold restaurants are able to keep their meat, Paul and I have both opted to become vegetarians for the next six weeks if not longer. I'm not sure that will impact my weight that much though considering I've been putting away TRUCKLOADS of grub. Mmmmm...I think I'll order some more now. If you get a chance to try some this week, try some mixed vegetable masala with plenty of rice and garlic nan and you'll know what I'm talking about. Get it spicy!

On our way to dinner that night Paul and I bumped into a nice street kid who started teaching us all kinds of phrases in Hindi. He was a cool little dude and he didn't seem to be looking to swindle us, so we walked with him for a while. We didn't really have a clue where to go for food, and our new buddy claimed to know of the best place in Delhi. He went on and on about how great his place was, how many shops there were, how much we would love it, etc., etc... Paul and I are pretty happy-go-lucky guys so we just went with it. THREE MILES LATER we were still walking and there seemed to be less and less people around. We kept stopping and asking our restraint guru where we were on the map, but he would just tell us not to worry because we were almost there. By this point we were getting suspicious, but we kept walking and walking and walking like typical America suckers. After a good hour, our dirty little snake of a guide arrived a run down apartment with a crappy souvenir shop in the basement and told us to enjoy the "Amazing bazaar". Ugh! Less than 4 hours in the country and we were already swindled. We'd read about touts (Sidewalk salesman who get commissions for getting tourists to sign up for tours, go to shops, etc.), but we thought we would be too smart for them. Yeah right. We were duped by a 14 year old. Luckily we were able escape with our wallets in tact and a good lesson under our belts.

The long walk back to civilization was a humbling one, but the curry meal made up for everything. After dinner Paul and I got a preview of the monsoon weather that is just around the corner. Three steps outside the restaurant, the sky opened up and golf-ball sized raindrops started hammering down. The little tuk-tuk drivers were laughing all the way to the bank since their prices rise with the water level. Paul and I didn't fit all that well in the back of the mini-golf cart, but it beat getting our heads dented with raindrops for two miles.

Friday, June 18, 2004

First Class Disease... 

On my last night in London, Rebecca Fawcett, (The sister of Amalia Fawcett, who Shannon & I met in Iringa, Tanzania) took me out for a 1st-world farewell dinner. I met up with Rebecca on my way home from Africa last March, and I was definitely looking forward to finishing our conversation. Rebecca packed full of the passion & energy of a New Zealander, so I had to make sure I ate me Wheaties that morning. I've been studying all kinds of careers over the past year, and I think Rebecca has one of the best. She works as an "Employee Engagement Consultant" for a huge consulting firm and basically spends her days trying to help companies lead and inspire their people. Rebecca gets to dig into the guts of an organization and then teach it's leaders how to get the hearts of employees behind the work they're doing. Last time I was in London she was working with the United Nations! Besides just being a savvy businesswomen, Rebecca manages to pack every spare moment with the unique excitement of the young London nightlife.

It was during our conversations regarding the London nightlife that Rebecca taught me about "First Class Disease (FCD)". We were discussing why some relationships work and others fail, and she said her Mom blames many divorces on FCD. Let's say two professionals meet and fall in love. Things are great for the first couple years and then the babies come. This is all good, yet in several situations the woman will decide to stay at home for the first couple years (If possible). This is just a generalization for case study purposes, so hold onto your nastygrams for a second. So the man continues to work, and the wife postpones/gives up her career to focus on raising great children.

The problem with this situation is that the man is catered to all day at his high-profile job. His secretary rushes to meet every demand, his co-workers respect his every move, his boss praises him regularly, the doorman treats him like a God...then he comes home and his wife wants him to run and get some eggs before changing Junior's diaper. His wife has "Been there and done that" and her day has run her ragged. She's not bowing down to anybody, and this can be quite a shock to a man who has begun to believe his own hype. This is what re-package Mom calls "First Class Disease".

The man starts to think he is so special and successful that he believes he should be getting the same special treatment at home. When he doesn't, he gets disenchantment, thinks he's fallen out love, she's changed, or it's time to find a mistress that will treat him like the "First Class" chap that he is.

Of course this doesn't apply to everyone, but I can think of a few men and women who have gotten caught up the hype of early success and are showing signs of FCD. If they don't find a cure, some will divorce, some will find partners that will bow down to them, and some will never get married. The single ones think they're so special that every person they meet is just not good enough for them. Then, after their wrinkles and age start to drag them from the ranks of the "Beautiful People", they have their first mid-life crisis, or they finally learn humility and perspective. Ugh...sometimes these hypothetical situations hit too close to home.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Mangen & the Museums... 

As my train pulled into Waterloo station, my stomach was full of nervous excitement. Even though Paul and I had spoken several times via e-mail, I hadn't seen the guy since he came down to the beach volleyball bash in San Diego. What if I couldn't find him or the hostel? What if we didn't get along on the road? What if STA Travel didn't have our tickets? All irrational fears, but they still had my butterflies fluttering. Of course, within five minutes of bumping into each other at the Hyde Park Hotel, everything was all good. You can't help but smile around Mr. Mangen, and you can find him in any crowd just by listening for his BOOMING laugh. It's awesome. One Tube stop later we had our plane tickets strapped into our belly wallets and a whole day to kill.

The first stop was the British Natural History Museum. After reading “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “A Short History of Just About Everything”, I was definitely looking forward to viewing one of largest and oldest collections of natural history in the world. We kicked off our morning in the Darwin Center, where we enjoyed a tour through the working research facility and specimen storage area. Of course being former engineers, Paul and I were also admiring the construction of the new building (We're nerds and we're pretty much OK with that). It was hard to grasp at the moment, but we were looking at specimen jars labeled by Charles Darwin himself. We peered in on specimens collected in the 1700's and toured the lab where British scientists are analyzing the contamination of Persian Gulf sand for the United Nations. Crazy.

After leaving the Darwin Center my feet were already throbbing, but that didn't stop me from laughing when I learned that scientists discovered one of the largest meteorites in world being used as an anvil somewhere in Arizona. Nice. One of my favorite displays emphasized how dependent our race is on plant life. Of course we need it for food, but did you know that birth control pills are derived from yams? We used to rely on papyrus for paper and trees for rubber, and we still use algae for cosmetics, mulberry trees to grow silkworms, and oak for our homes. Finally we have the "Solidified-sunlight-power" of coal and the medicinal and addictive qualities of the poppy to round out this quick sample of our dependence on what grows from the earth. We also couldn't resist a trip through the dinosaur exhibit, where I was reminded again that those mega-lizards ruled the world for 165 million years. We've barely been recognizably human for 14,000! Humbling isn't it?

After pounding down a tiny toasted sandwich (One of my London favorites), we plotted a course for the British Museum. Plants and animals are cool, but there's something eerie about walking through room after room of thousand-year-old artifacts created by human hands. Our first stop was the Rosetta Stone, which gave researchers the translation tool they needed to finally understand hieroglyphics. The Rosetta Stone is arguably one of the most important finds in history, and someone found it after it was ripped off a temple used as a building block. It kind of reminds you of the meteorite anvil huh?

Almost every major civilization was represented in the museum, and we managed to spend a little extra time reading about the countries we'll be heading to in the next year. What struck both Paul and I was the fact that all these immensely important cultural and religious relics are in ENGLAND, not in the countries they were created in. You could argue that if imperialist England hadn't taken all these precious artifacts back to the museum they would have been lost forever. However, I just kept imagining some foreign force storming across America ripping Jesus off the walls of Christian churches to hang in some overseas museum. Actually, I guess that pretty much did happen as Europe was conquered and re-conquered over the centuries. England may just be one of the last in a long line of plunderers, but I wonder how tough it is for Egyptians to walk through the British museum and see the stolen artwork of their ancestors on display in someone else's home?

Another topic that came up was regarding what will end up in a museum from OUR generation? Will our descendents be touring through museums checking out miniature cell phones and half-naked Brittany Spears dolls in plate glass cases? Will there be a little plaque describing your life posted next to your full-sized bust carved out of marble? Did those pharaoh's think their bones would be on display thousands of years after their death? Whew...I'm giving myself a headache...

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Baby steps... 

Now that I had a clear bill of health, I was chomping at the bit to get the real “Adventure” started. Paul and I would be boarding flight to India is less than 48 hours and it still hadn't sunk in. My first night back in London I managed to hook up with Fiona, a great girl that Shannon and I met while hiking in the Drakensburg Mountains of South Africa. Fiona has a giggly, positive, pioneering spirit, and I was lucky to catch her during a rare unbooked evening. Once we finished enjoying some traditional English cod & chips at a 300+ year old pub, we headed down to a riverside hangout to solve the world's problems over a pint or two.

Fiona became the head of her department at a private high school in London after leaving a fast track job as a CPA for a large accounting firm, and she opened my eyes to an interesting insight. We were talking about what it means to lead a “Meaningful life”, and how some people feel a deep down urge to “Make a difference” in the world. Fiona argued that you don't have be a professional “Difference maker” to make an impact in the world. In fact, sometimes when your main income comes from trying to change/improve people's lives, resistance, stigma, and client paradigms can actually make it harder to make an impact. She was basically saying that you don't have to be Tony Robbins or Arnold Schwarzenegger to help others. Sometimes you can be much more effective just through leading by example and being there for those in your circle of influence.

I have a great friend in San Diego who made the same argument. He runs a large, financially focused, industrial organization, but he says he's really in the business of making a difference in people's lives. To many of you this may seem like common sense, however, I've found that sometimes I can think TOO big. I tend to build ideas up into these massive plans, then I get overwhelmed, and procrastinate taking action. You don't have to quit your job and join a band to learn guitar. You don't have to give up everything and work for Mother Teresa to help the poor and destitute. You don't have to book a year round ticket to experience 3rd world travel. Baby steps inside your circle of influence...no excuses...immediate, relevant results. I like it.

A Case of the Red Knee... 

As I checked back into my favorite dungeon hostel in Dublin, my attention shifted to my knee. A couple days before I left the States I had developed a strange mystery pain in my left knee. I thought it might have been due to sleeping with my legs hanging too far off the end of my Mom's spare bed, but it had gotten steadily worse over the past five days and I was starting to get worried. My skin was hot to the touch, my leg was slightly swollen, and redness was beginning to spread outwards from the joint. Sweet. I didn't have much luck with “Internet self diagnosis” in Africa, but I figured I'd give it another shot before I paid tons of Euros to have a doctor tell me I was paranoid.

After a couple hours on-line I was 75% convinced I had “Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT)”, which is basically a blood clot caused by poor circulation. I figured I must have bumped my knee back in the States causing the blood to thicken at the damaged tissue. Then I must have gotten dehydrated during the long flight to London, clogged my system by not standing up for over eight hours, kinked my veins by tying my boots too tight, and therefore inflicted DVT on my poor leg. The fact that my symptoms matched the medical description of DVT almost exactly, combined with the history of blood clotting I had from Tanzania, convinced my “Medically experienced” mind that I had a serious situation on my hands. DVT can be treated or may go away on it's own, but in some cases the blood clot can dislodge from the leg, travel to the lungs, and KILL YOU AT ANY TIME.

Even though everything added up to DVT, I was a little skeptical of my research results since last time I deduced that my illness might be terminal, the Tanzanian doctor laughed in my face. Even so, when faced with the choice between touring the Guinness factory or finding a doctor, I opted for the medical route. Call me a pansy, but it would have sucked to end the trip before it ever began. After waiting with a room full of screaming, sniffling, coughing kids in the outskirts of Dublin (Which was probably much riskier than my red knee), I finally got my turn with the Doc. Right away he told me I was DVT free and I should probably quit freaking myself out with internet research. There was, however, some mysterious infection under my skin which he managed to kill with six days worth of penicillin. Thanks Doc!

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Death, Politics, and Memory Loss... 

On my way back to Dublin, I got a little more of a chance to process my time in Letterkenny. D.H. Lawrence wrote that "Every year you pass an anniversary unaware: the anniversary of your own death". I've pondered death several times over the past two years, no so much in a morbid way, but more in a curious way. I know it's coming, it's just a matter of when. I wonder what it will be like? I wonder how I will die? I wonder how I will be remembered? And my newest question: I wonder if my great grandson will trek across the world to see the tiny house I grew up in outside of Ukiah, California? Interesting...

As I pulled myself out of my typical traveling mind-fog, I started asking my Irish co-travelers questions about all the young faces I saw on the political billboards. (We had plenty of time chat considering there are no freeways in Ireland and the buses barrel down roads barely big enough for a horse and carraige). Anyway, several of my new friends informed me that it isn't really that big of a deal to see men and women running for political positions in their mid-twenties and early thirties. The positions they're running for range from city councils to the equivalent of congressional seats. I'm sure this happens sometimes in the States, but for some reason it seemed like a bigger deal here. Maybe because there's only five million people on the whole island!

Just when I started thinking that Ireland might be a model democracy, I learned that many locals care much more about the current Euro 2004 soccer championships than they do about the fact that the EU agreed on a constitution this week. Priorities? I think it was Noam Chomsky who wrote that sports have become the "Opiate of the masses". He argues that citizens of modern democracies feel so detached, skeptical, and helpless, that they occupy their minds and pacify their frustrations by burning thousands of hours watching, tracking, and talking about events that do nothing to substantially improve their lives and the lives of others (Other than by providing distraction of course). Chomsky can be quite the skeptic and sometimes he goes to far for my taste, but I'll bet at least 75% of the people reading this blog know the name of their local football team's quarterback, but couldn't name their local congressman, assemblyman, or any member of their city council. I know I couldn't. Do we think it's irrelevant? Which names impact our lives more? Why is it so much "Cooler" to discuss, research, and participate in politics in Europe? Maybe it's just the American middle and lower classes that feel so detached. I have a feeling that most CEO's are very clued in to their local, state, and national political issues. I read somewhere that our founding fathers originally intended for America to be ruled by the aristocracy. I think they figured that as long as the rich, educated, land owners were making the key decisions for the nation, they would make the most informed decisions, and no fringe players could whip the "Bewildered herd" into a frenzy and use the general ignorance of the populace to advance alterior motives. Can "Joe Public" ever be educated enough to make good decisions for the nation? We can't even get people to read the ballot summaries before voting! That means that it all comes down to a propaganda war where the biggest budget wins. Blah, blah, blah...is anyone still reading? For my political science guru's this is all old news. For me, touring through Ireland gave me a taste for what it could be like. Ireland is far from perfect, but all the locals I spoke with (When they weren't watching Euro 2004) were informed, passionate, and involved the governance of their nation. Can you imagine what that would be like?

Whew...pardon me while I step off my soapbox. I've noticed my mind straying from tangent to tangent lately but I'm sure that this too, is exactly as it should be. 25 years from now, it should be fun look back and laugh on how smart we all thought we were in 2004. Speaking of feeling smart, I somehow lost my bus ticket back to Dublin in the fifty feet between the ticket counter and the bus doorway. As I'm frantically searching and re-searching my pockets, crawling around on the ground peeking under bus tires, my bus began to pull away and my mind started spinning..."I'm going to miss my plane, I'm going to have to pay double to get back to Dublin, I'm such an IDIOT"...you know, all the helpful thoughts that assist you in working through a situation effectively. Finally, at the last possible moment, I found my missing train ticket stuck my camera. Hallelujah! As I ran down the bus in the parking lot with my 30 kilograms worth of luggage, I couldn't stop beating myself up. "How are you going to survive India if you're losing bus tickets in Ireland?!" As I settled down into my seat, Laurence Gonzales, the author of "Deep Survival - Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why" (Thanks Christine!) helped me understand a little more about my behavior. Laurence argues that "Stress releases cortisol into the blood. It invades the hippocampus...which means that the entire memory system, both input and output, are affected". Boy, if the stress of Ireland is already flooding my blood with cortisol, it's a good thing I tie my wallet, keys, and camera to my pants when I go out. Otherwise I'd be pennyless by July!

Family Roots Run Deep... 

As we pulled up to the curb at SFO something felt a little different. I had been here before, yet this time I was filled with a different kind of excitement. I think the trip to Africa gave me goosebumps partly because it was so phenomonally new and foreign. This time I was less excited about just "Taking off" from my life and more excited about the specific destinations. As I was sitting in the departure terminal surrounded by giddy high schoolers babbling about their upcoming summer trips to Europe, it hit me that thousands of people in every major city in America are flying all over the world every day. I know I'm only stating the obvious, but there's something strange about how centered we become in our own personal experience. It was a HUGE deal to me that I was about to board a flight to London, but any one of us can book a flight to any of thousands of international destinations and be on a flight TOMORROW. Of course you'll pay more, but it's possible that you could jump over to Travelocity right now, buy a ticket and be stepping off a plane in Australia less 48 HOURS from right now. It blows me away how much freedom we all enjoy and how many reasons we can come up with not to enjoy it.

With my head still spinning in wonder I shuffled towards the boarding gate and bumped right into my old soccer coach David Raitt. David is an incredible individual who seems to be perpetually overflowing with passion and great ideas. With his sister Bonnie Raitt singing around the world, his son Bay Raitt leading the artistic design of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and his Yurt construction company building environmentally friendly homes all over the nation (Go to www.yurtpeople.com) he has plenty of reasons to be excited. After all the books I read in Africa about coincidences, I had some fun contemplating why I would have bumped into David at this specific time in my life. Am I supposed to come back from this trip to build Yurts? Am I supposed to meet up with Bay in New Zealand? Was it just chance? Of course none of us can PROVE that anything that happens to us means anything at all, but it sure is fun to ponder.

After switching planes in London, I finally arrived in Dublin, the first stop on my family heritage quest through Ireland. Almost 100 years ago my Great Grandfather Francis (Doc) Reid set sail for America amidst one of the greatest famines in European history. Over one million people starved to death in Ireland and in the process over 1.5 million Irish immigrants made their way to shores of the United States. As the fifth of nine children, I'm sure Francis was used to scrapping for everything he got in life, so after several years of hard work in America he managed to become a veterinarian and raise eight children of his own. You gotta love those Irish Catholic families! Luckily for me, my Grandfather John (Jack) Reid was one of those first generation immigrants...the rest is history.

This short story, combined with a couple names I got from my Grandpa Jack's brother-in-law Ralph Evans on the way to San Francisco airport, was everything I knew about my distant Irish roots. On my way to downtown Dublin I started wondering why I was so interested in learning more about my family's history. Was I planning to move back there? Did I think I was a long lost prince? Probably not. Family sure is an intriguing thing. Bill Bryson wrote a couple thought-provoking paragraphs on this in his latest book "A Short History of Just About Everything". He says we are all a wonder of nature, mostly because hundreds and hundreds of our ancestors had to fend off starvation, plague, war, droughts, and much more to survive long enough to reproduce and make our lives possible. Maybe our general facination with lineage stems from fuedal times, or maybe it's somehow rooted in the fact that history is such a grey, mysterious thing in general. If you track your family tree back to the beginning, where do you end up? Cave men? Adam and Eve? Aliens? Ameoba? Many groups have theories on where we all came from, but I haven't come across that any detailed proofs yet. Where did it all begin? What was there before the beginning? What about before that? I've spent a couple years trying to understand the theories people subscribe to all around the world, and they all seem to boil down to faith, or basically believing in something you'll never be able to prove. Some of the old philosophers think that the origen of the universe is a completely pointless discussion since no one was there, so there is no way of knowing. This is a 20 hour discussion that I'd love to have with you someday, but regardless, maybe this is why we're so interested in our family histories. Lineage is real and concrete to a point, where as the origen of everything else is more mysterious.

After checking in to a dungeon of a hostel in downtown Dublin, I headed to the first phone booth I could find. Ralph had hooked me up with some phone numbers from his last visit to Ireland, but for some reason I was feeling a little anxious. What would these people think when some random American they've never even heard of calls to see if he can come by and hang out. Pretty random. Fortunately I didn't have to cross that bridge too soon since none of the phone numbers worked. At this point I could have walked away and written the Irish trip off as a "Good try", but I think the blood I inherited from old Doc Reid wouldn't let me give up that soon. I jumped on the internet and started calling every Reid I could find in County Donegal. After several confusing conversations with thickly accented Irishmen, I found Andy Reid who said he thought he had some American relatives. Before I threw any names his way he asked me if I was Catholic or Protestant. I knew my Grandfather's family was Catholic, and after sharing this information, Andy promptly told me we couldn't be related and hung up. For those of you unfamiliar with the religious struggles in Ireland, there has been quite a rift between the Catholics and Protestants since some predominantly Protestant English took control of Northern Ireland.

Finally, after 22 phone calls, I hit the jackpot with Frank Reid, who just happened to be my Grandpa Jack's cousin. Frank then hooked me up with current information on JJ Reid, Mary Reid, and Bernie Bagley, three more of my Grandfather's cousins living near Letterkenny, a small town about five kilometers from my Great Grandfather's farm. One day and a four hour bus ride later, I found myself face to face with JJ Reid, who had just been elected to his eigth straight term as Donegal County Councilor the day before I arrived. JJ owns a large car dealership in Letterkenny, so I just walked in and introduced myself. JJ didn't know his Uncle Francis too well, but he was more than willing to help me with my family heritage research project, so he drove me straight over to his sister Bernie's house for the full family tree rundown. Bernie was overflowing with family history, so I just sat back and tried to get my hand to write fast enough. About half way through our conversation, I realized how cool it was to be in some random Irish town talking to a distant relative I didn't know existed three days earlier. Crazy.

That night at the hostel, as my mind was busy trying to grasp the day's experiences, a local Irish guy from the hostel invited me down to the pub to enjoy a couple Guiness's with some other locals. Perfect. When I described what I'd been up to all day, Chris laughed out loud. He said almost all the Americans he sees come through Letterkenny are there trying to find their roots. He said he thinks we have "Cultural Schitzophrenia" since we're a nation of immigrants that's only been around for a little over 200 years. He then reminded me that Irishmen were drinking in the pub we were sitting in for 300 years before America was even a dream. Chris was full of opinons and he wasn't shy about sharing them. I loved it! He told me that I should NEVER drink a Guiness that's poured in less than two minutes. He also mentioned that when he studied religious extremeism in school, the class focused on Islamic fundamentalists and the American "Bible Belt". That one was pretty surprising, but it was also intriguing to hear how concerned Chris was about Ireland's drinking problem. He said he doesn't know of a family without an alcoholic in it, yet the some Irish still generally take pride in their drinking culture. It reminded me of workaholism in the States. Everyone knows it's a problem, but below the surface people are kind of proud of their over-achieving culture.

Conversations like this one with Chris are one of my favorite things about traveling. During an average month in the States how many new people do you meet and have long conversations with? For me the list was pretty short, because I was surrounded with great people already. I did a crappy job of keeping up with the wonderful friends and family I already had in my life, much less digging deep into the minds of strangers. While on the road these kinds of talks happen one after another, wrenching your mind open with every comment and unique perspective. It can be addictive.

The next morning I picked up a car JJ was nice enough to loan me and headed out to meet Mary Reid, JJ's sister-in-law, who still lived on my Great, Great Grandfather's farm. I had a little trouble navigating through unmarked farm roads on the other side of the road, but I finally made my way through the deep green fields to the family homestead. Mary was as full of family fire as Bernie was and I had a blast enjoying tea and biscuts in her beautiful farmhouse kitchen. Mary and her husband had built a new house on the farm several years earlier, but they had preserved the original stone family home for storage. As I ducked through the six foot doorways and peered into the cramped bedrooms, it was hard to fathom how a family of eleven managed to live in such tight quarters. The family cows and other farm animals lived in the stalls connected to the tiny home, so I'm sure there was rarely a quiet moment in that ancient Reid household.

After touring the cemetary gazing upon my Great, Great Grandfather's grave, Mary took me into the adjacent Catholic school to meet Frank's daughter Grainne. Grainne introduced me to her whole fourth grade class as her long lost American cousin before I said my goodbyes and I hit the road for Dublin...mission accomplished.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Three Months in Three Pages... 

Three months is a ridiculously time between blog entries, so I'm going to go extremely short on detail for now and hopefully fill in the gaps as time permits.

After leaving Johannesburg I stopped off in London and had an incredible time with my two queens of the UK, Fiona (From the ankle-inflicted hike through the South African Drakensburg mountains) and Rebecca (The little sister of our friend Amalia - the international school teacher from Iringa). The three day English adventure massacred my budget, but all the castles, museums, pubs, trains, plays, and wine bars made it worth every quid! I was a little anxious as I boarded the flight home since I had no clue whether this was the end of my travels or just a quick stopover in the States. Luckily, one of the lessons I've learned from uncertainty is that as soon as you quit trying to force things everything seems to fall into place. Call it fate, call it God, call it the Universe, call it whatever you want...as long as you trust it. It's a tough lesson that my engineering mind can't quite accept, but the world seems to keep giving me great chances to let go and roll with the punches, so hopefully the "Universe" will be patient as my faith in providence grows.

Anyway, less than 48 hours after I hit the ground in the good old USA my path had become clear. A great conversation with my two sisters, Shaun (17) and Carrie (14), along with my 23 year old brother Brent, reminded me that all my siblings may only be in the same town for another year before Shaun heads off to college. This, combined with the fact that it had been over eleven years since we were anything more than "Phone Family" convinced me that I had to find a way to spend as much time as possible in my hometown of Ukiah. The next day all the pieces of the puzzle came together as my old friends at Rainbow Construction (My college summer job employer) offered me a great temporary Project Management position working on three of their school projects. Time with the family, money in the bank, and a town full of friends? I'm in!

The next three months were full of two mind-blowing trips to San Diego, tons of beach volleyball, a snazzy welcome-home party hosted by the SD social queens Megan Taylor & Katie Jeremiah, college planning with Shaun, hoops with Carrie and the Ukiah crew, a paraphernalia tech session from my brother, a beautiful sunset ferry wedding for my friends Shane & Tammy Hanlon, meditation in the tallest Redwood grove in the world, a live reggae show, a white trash Toga party, a 48 hour wine tasting marathon, a couple trips to Chico to visit my favorite wine tasting partner Kathleen, the eight-hour action-packed wedding between my friends Christen & Pablo, watching my friend June sing live in LA while standing next to my voice-over-legend buddy Matt Johnson, tons of scuba-gear-deep conversations with my Mom and my mentor Jenni Prisk, hugs and catch-ups with my second family at DPR Construction, an epic bachelor party in the ice-slush of Mammoth Mountain, and last, but definitely not least, taking part in the wedding of two of my best friends in the world, Jamie and Mairead Brown.

Coming home from Africa to take part in Jamie & Mairead's wedding was a tough decision at the time, but now it's hard to believe I could have considered missing it. I've learned it can be easy to rationalize stupid decisions when you're too busy stuffing your life with chaos to realize what's most important. Luckily the silence and space I found in Africa helped me learn to align my actions with what's most important and the relationships with the loved ones in my life are at the top of my list. How do we ever forget this? The rat race? The incessant pull of the media's marketing machine? Whatever it was, I'm glad I've found some clarity...for now.

One more thing that became clear while I was home was that I wasn't done traveling. My original vision back in November of 2002 included images of the Great Barrier Reef, exotic Asian villages, and much more. Africa was perfect, but deep down I knew I wasn't ready to plant my roots again. A couple days after I decided I was hitting the road again, I bumped into my great friend Paul Mangen who I used to work with at DPR. Paul and I always had the ability to dive into crazy topics, and after trading a couple mega multi-page e-mails while I was in Africa, I knew we were both massively attracted to the challenges and rewards of long term travel. Over a couple beers at a “Mother Hips” concert at the Belly Up Tavern I asked Paul when he was ready to buy his ticket around the world. Paul's eyes lit up and I knew right away I'd found my next travel partner. A lot of my good friends can talk a big game, but when Paul told me he was in, I knew he was serious. Nice! There are advantages and disadvantages to traveling with someone else, but my gut told me, and continues to tell me, that Paul and I will be perfect co-travelers. Paul's passion for life and unbeatable sense of humor will help keep us pushing ahead, and his philosopher's mind and flawless logic will help us learn a ton from each other and every person that crosses our path. Once we were both in-like-Flynn, the world began to conspire for us. We bought our multi-stop, around the world tickets, filled our veins with hundreds of dollars worth of vaccines, secured our Chinese, Vietnamese, and Indian visas, and packed our bags for 365 days of fun. Oh yeah, speaking of the itinerary, here goes:

Depart 6/12, four days in Ireland finding my great-grandfather's family, meet Paul in London, fly to India on 6/18 for six weeks, fly to Beijing on 8/1, overland through China to Vietnam for ten weeks, overland into Vietnam on 10/10 for three weeks, fly to Nepal on 10/31 to trek for five weeks, fly to Thailand on 12/5 for one week, overland into Cambodia on 12/12 for two weeks, overland into Laos on 12/26 for two weeks, overland back into Thailand on 1/9 for two weeks, fly to Singapore on 1/28 for a week, fly to Bali on 2/4 for three weeks, fly to Australia on 2/25 for eight weeks, fly to New Zealand on 4/21 for five weeks, fly to Fiji on 5/26 for three weeks before racing home in mid-June for my little sister Shaun's high school graduation. Whew! That was a mouthful.

If you kept up on my blog entries from Africa, you’ve probably noticed that this entry was long on facts and short on reflection, however, now that I’m semi-caught up I’ll be able to dig a little deeper…especially after I finish retracing my Great Grandfather’s steps through Ireland!

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