Friday, December 31, 2004

Do You Want to Go Look for Bodies? 

You would laugh if you watched me trying to fold my preying mantis body into the sardine seats of a typical Thai tourist bus. Every shift of position yielded five to ten seconds of comfort before my contorted joints and twisted muscles began to spasm. I did manage to drift in and out of consciousness, so by the time my night bus from Chang Mai shuttered into Bangkok at 5:15AM, my mind was stuck in a semi-lucid dream state.

I was three blocks away from the bus stop when I realized I left all my luggage on the bus. Genius. After prying my stinky, sticky, sweat-soaked bag from the eager fingers of my toothless bus driver, I stumbled into an all night brothel/restaurant/hotel/internet café and passed out face down on one of their five-foot long concrete-cushioned couches. Welcome to Bangkok.

Since my night bus to Phuket didn’t leave until 6PM that night, I had about ten hours to finish my grad school applications. Four months of work came together pretty damn quickly in one of the sweltering internet saunas off of Koh Sarn road. At 5:55PM I finished posting my last application, dished the follow up work to my trusty MBA consultant Mom in Sacramento, and sprinted to the bus stop. It really wasn’t much of a sprint considering I was lugging around over 100 pounds of gear (75% books), but I clomped my way into line just in time.

Being on time doesn’t really do much for you in Thailand considering your schedule varies based on the eating, pissing, sleeping, and whoring schedule of your bus driver, so I reclined on to my portable library and struck up a conversation with Andy, the only other passenger without drug-clouded pupils. As luck would have it, Andy was one of only four of the fifty passengers headed all the way to Phuket. We had a lot in common. Andy and I both came from construction backgrounds, didn’t know anyone in Phuket, wanted to help out in any way we could, and had no idea what to expect or where we would sleep the next night. The other two passengers were traveling to the disaster area to see if their homes were still standing and if their family members were still alive. I’m sure you can imagine the level of anxiety soaking the air of our tiny minibus during our final transfer to Phuket.

The entire 250-kilometer trip from Bangkok to Phuket ran me $9, so when our mini-bus driver dropped us off in the outskirts and demanded $5 for the last four k’s into town I laughed so hard I almost puked. I was there to help tsunami victims, not tourist-raping opportunists. Hitchhiking wasn’t much of a problem, and when one of the locals dropped Andy and I off a the Relief Center at Phuket City Hall he wouldn’t take any money from us. As I tried to convince him to take a pile of Baht he looked at me with glassed over eyes and told me that us being there was payment enough. Wow…

Andy and I didn’t know what to expect as we waded into the chaos of Phuket City Hall, but I’m sure two 6-1/2 foot tall, smelly, dirty Americans bouncing through a sea of frantic brown bodies raised a couple eyebrows. Only four days had passed since the wave wiped out the coast, so no one was ready to manage volunteers, much less volunteers with less than five words of Thai between them. When we finally connected with a wild-eyed bilingual Thai firefighter and told him we wanted to help, he gave us an exasperated look and said, “Do you want to go look for bodies?”. Thus began the most emotionally intense weeks of my life…

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Questioning My Motivations... 

A couple minutes after posting my "Safe in the Mountains" blog entry, a thought forced its way into my mind. What was I doing "safe in the mountains" when thousands of people were toiling away to save the tsunami victims less a thousand kilometers from me? Several of my friends and family who had e-mailed to make sure I wasn't on the west coast talked about how much they wished they could hop a flight to come help. These people were thinking of dropping everything, buying a $1,000 ticket, and diving into the carnage of the Thai relief effort, and here I was, two night buses and $20 away from the front lines, and I was planning to take yoga lessons and go hiking for the next two weeks? Mmmmmm...

This is where my mind flew into a tailspin. I swear, sometimes I'm convinced there are really two people in my mind because I can argue passionately and convincingly for both sides of almost any issue. Maybe I should be a lawyer. The main issue driving my mental whirlwind was my effort to understand why I was drawn to Phuket. Before I bought my ticket south, I wanted to make sure I was doing it for the right reasons. Reading Ayn Rand's "For the New Intellectual" shook many of my beliefs regarding philanthropy, and I've been confused regarding the true motivations behind volunteering ever since I walked into Mother Teresa's orphanage in Calcutta.

No one from the Red Cross, the UN, or the Thai Police were answering their phones in Phuket and the Red Cross worker who helped me donate blood told me not to go because things were too crazy down there. So why was I still thinking about it? Did I feel guilty because my friends were considering flying out when I was considering whether to get a foot or back massage? Did my ego want to be able to tell everyone how cool I was for volunteering? Did I want other people to think I was a good person so I could think I was a good person? Or, did I really just want to help my fellow human beings in their time of need?

This babble went on for a couple hours before I finally asked some simple, effective questions. Would the victims and other volunteers be better or worse off if I showed up? This was a tough one to answer since I had no real contacts in Phuket, but I figured I could probably find a way to bring a smile to hospitalized kid or at least move a couple piles of debris out of a flooded household. Would I be happier staying safe in Chang Mai or hopping a bus to Phuket? My gut was crystal clear on this one, so I booked my ticket, skipped my yoga class and boarded my first of two overnight buses an hour later.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Safe in the Mountains... 

It's been a pretty crazy, scary, tragic, week hasn't it? Thank you to everyone who's e-mailed me to make sure I wasn't on the west coast of Thailand, thank you to Shannon Ledford for telling my family I was in the mountains, and thank you to my little sister Shaun for slapping me around for not telling everyone I was OK. I'm fine, but that in itself is an interesting story.

I was in Koh Samui on December 18th, a large island on the coast of the Thailand that the tsunami didn't hit, trying to decide what I was going to do for Christmas. Some friends were getting together on the island of Koh Phanyang, close to Koh Samui, but I was also dying to climb the cliffs of Krabi and lounge on the beaches of Phi Phi since EVERY traveler I'd met had raved about those places. My buddy Mike Winstead and I had been working out our plans for the three weeks he's going to be here in January, and since it seemed like we weren't going to get to Krabi or Phi Phi during his stay, I was leaning heavily towards hitting those islands. Krabi and Phi Phi were flattened less than a week later.

Luckily for me, my great friend and African travel partner, Shannon Ledford, was flying back to Ukiah from Bangkok on December 20th, and we had agreed to meet up there for dinner to catch up on each other's travels. During the day I spent hanging with Shannon, she dazzled me with tales of hill tribes, jungle treks, yoga classes, cooking courses, and massage workshops in the mountain town of Chang Mai. After Shannon left I considered heading to Koh Phanyang, Krabi, or Phi Phi, but I realized all of those places would probably be packed, and Shannon had already given me two pages of cool stuff I could do up north. So...I headed north. My gut just said it was the right thing to do, so I booked a ticket. Traveling alone tends to put you in close contact with your intuition, and luckily mine was speaking loud and clear when I boarded the bus north on the 22nd.

Early on the morning of the 26th (Still the 25th in the States) I was kicking it with my poached eggs, plain toast, museli, yogurt, and fruit a cool little Chang Mai cafe when I felt like someone was rocking back in forth in my booth. I was the only one in the resturant that early, so I looked around suspiciously before I realized the lamps were swinging slightly and the water in my glass was rocking with the lamps. Mmmmm.... My mind was moving a bit slow that morning, so it took me about a minute to realize I was experiencing my first earthquake. Imagine that, I spend 28 years in California and then feel my first earthquake in Thailand. It was only a scale 5.4 trembler, but it made a lot more sense and the news from Indonesia unfolded over the next 48 hours.

As the stories and pictures poured in through the BBC, I was surprised how little people were effected here. I guess I don't really know what I expect people to do, but until today, almost no one was talking about the disaster except in internet cafes. Maybe that's just one more sign that I'm not very integrated into the Thai culture. Anyway, as the death toll climbs close to 2,000 in Thailand and over 50,000 around the world, Chang Mai seems to have woken up. I stood in line with about 100 expatriates this morning to give blood because the western blood of the tourists in Phuket's hospitals isn't very common in Thailand. The Thai military has been sent in and many resorts will be open again in a few days. Things are still ugly down there though, so I continue to thank my lucky stars here in the northern mountains.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Appreciating Freedom & Destroying Tendons 

On the night bus to the northern mountain town of Chang Mai I finished a book called "Forget You Had a Daughter" by an English girl who did seven years in Thai and English prisons for trying to smuggle a tiny amount of heroine out of the country. I hate everything associated with the poison of the drug industry, but it does seem a bit extreme that dealing any type of drugs in Thailand results in the death penalty. The whole concept of legally killing your own citizens raises plenty of issues, but moral foundations of Thailand's drug laws seem a bit odd next to their rampant sex industry. During the two weeks in Koh Samui I never saw one police officer. It's as if the administration has decided that giving tourists a complete free-for-all (Cheap sex, 24 hour booze, etc.) in Thailand is perfectly OK as long as the cash cows keep spending money and don't try to import or export a joint. I wasn't getting offered drugs on every street corner though (Kathmandu scenario), so maybe the death penalty works after all?

Anyway, the most important thing the book gave me was a new appreciation for freedom. If you want to feel grateful for your life, just go visit a prisoner. Ugh. You can do anything you want, right now, they can't. You can go for run. You can call your Mom. You can buy a quart of ice cream and eat the whole thing! You can stay up all night and spend the whole day alone tomorrow if you want to. Heck, you could even book a ticket to Asia and hang out with your buddy Sam. Freedom...it is such a gift, yet I rarely truly appreciate it. I think I'll pick up a couple more prison books to keep those grateful juices flowing.

I arrived in Chang Mai on Christmas Eve and the quiet mountain town was everything Shannon had promised and more. I have to admit, I wasn't too stoked to spend my second Christmas alone in a foreign country, so I found myself hanging in plenty of public places to keep my mind distracted. I've become an expert at keeping myself busy, but many of the books I've been reading on Buddhist philosophy argue that sometimes it is more effective to examine and understand your emotions instead of distracting yourself from them. Journaling helps a ton with that, but I'm not quite a Yogi at understanding and accepting my feelings yet.

If you're feeling lonely and you know that going for a run or writing a letter will change your mood, is it better to wallow in the loneliness, or go for a run? I guess it all comes down to understanding yourself. If you take the time to truly understand the thoughts and beliefs that are driving your emotions, then it feels safe to move past your negative thoughts using any means necessary. I'm sure it's different for everyone, but after "being" with my loneliness for a couple hours I was definitely ready for a mood change. To make along story short, I will DEFINITELY be home next Christmas.

My family connection on the 25th consisted of some phone calls and a great Yahoo Messenger session, so I filled in the rest of the day by stuffing my face with tofu curry and getting humbled at local Yoga studio. I've probably taken over 50 Yoga classes, but every new instructor seems to think it's my first time. Nice. I love the physical and mental clarity I get after finishing a session, but flexibility has never been my strong point. I think my legs are too long.

What I didn't realize during my two hour tendon destruction class, was that I was going to have much bigger things to consider than Yoga postures in the next 24 hours.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Reflections on Pirated Chick Flicks... 

Before leaving Bangkok for Chang Mai, I saw "How to Lose a Man in Ten Days" in one of the hundreds of restaurants showing pirated DVD's. I know, I know, the title just SCREAMS chick-flick, but the banana shakes were flowing so I just went with it.

The movie was a crack up, but one message stuck out for me. The leading man and woman in the story both have incredible jobs. They had all the money they need, plenty of toys, and everything western society has conditioned us to believe means success, but they were both willing to give it all up, in an instant, for love.

Now I know my buddies reading this are about to puke, so I'll get to the point. Many psychologists argue that men derive most of their self worth from their achievements/career, while women derive most of their self worth from the quality of their relationships. Of course there are exceptions, but overall this seems to fit. Hollywood loves to play off the romantic "Anything for love" theme, but for some reason the message hit me a different way this time.

We've all heard financially successful people talking about money means nothing when you don't have anyone to share it with, yet I can think of plenty of people (myself included) who have risked losing those they love in pursuit of achievement, success, and financial freedom. Let's see...I'm going to neglect my health, my family, my passions, and my friends so that someday I will be wealthy and have plenty of time to spend on my health, my family, my passions, and my friends. Mmmmmm...interesting logic.

We all seem to know this is insane, yet many of us continue to follow that path towards pain and loneliness. Is it possible to survive in our world's increasingly competitive environment and still build wonderful sustainable relationships? Absolutely. The key is just to find a way to constantly remind ourselves what matters most, without waiting for a death, divorce, separation, or alienation to do the reminding for us. Maybe there's a use for sappy romance stories after all?

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

How to Change the World... 

After two weeks of soaking up the island lifestyle and pounding away on my grad school applications, I bid farewell to Samui and headed back to Bangkok to meet up with my African travel partner and amazing friend, Shannon Ledford. Shannon had been studying massage, spirituality, and international business for six months in Southeast Asia, and our conversations during the 24 hours we spent together were some of the most insightful I'd had all year.

Shannon was by my side 24-7 for at least 7 of the 9+ months I spent in Africa, so there are moments when I feel like we share the same brain. She can read every expression, sense every tone, and call me on even the slightest hint of BS. It isn't always fun to have someone hold up a mirror so clearly, but I wouldn't give up Shannon's brutal honesty for the world.

In addition to saying goodbye to Shannon (She flew back to Norcal to pursue her passion for photography), I managed to set up an appointment with a nonprofit that goes by the name "Ashoka". I came across Ashoka (www.ashoka.org) while reading about David Bornstein's new book "How to Change the World". The book is extremely inspirational, as you might expect, and many of the "social entrepreneurs" described by Bornstein are actually Ashoka "Fellows".

Ashoka describes itself as a "social venture capital firm" and spends its time and money scouring the globe for entrepreneurs who can change the world. When Ashoka finds a budding entrepreneur with an idea that (1) Can make a country-wide impact, (2) Can be transferred and replicated in similar situations around the globe, and (3) Makes the world a better place, Ashoka will elect the entrepreneur as a "Fellow" and provide a grant for three years worth of living expenses. In addition to the cash, Ashoka provides professional assistance in the form of legal advice, business plan consulting, language training, and most importantly, access to a network of similar entrepreneurs around the world.

The list of success stories is staggering. Rural solar power programs in Brazil that tripled rice output, 24 hour child helplines that have handled over four million calls in India, and college entrance workshops for disadvantaged American youth that have gotten thousands of at risk kids into school are just three of the thousands of examples of listed on Ashoka's website and within Bornstein's book. The key message is that you don't have to found an NGO or join the Peace Corps to make a difference. You can radically improve the world around you for millions of people just by mixing a lot of passion with some business sense.

The stats change monthly, but at least 96% of Ashoka's funded entrepreneurs are self sustaining once their three year stipend expires and 93% of the ideas generated by these world changers have been replicated in similar situations around the globe. In an era of NGO corruption allegations, wasted money, and self-serving aid programs, Ashoka is a breath of fresh air. Meeting with the Ashoka Country Representative and her staff in Bangkok gave me hope for the future and drastically impacted my thinking about my ideal career.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Mail Order Brides and Fragile Male Egos... 

Koh Samui lived up to every tropical island fantasy I ever dreamed up. I woke up each morning to watch the sun rise over the ocean, siloetting the fisherman pulling in their catch on the horizon. I went for runs at sunset, dodging palm trees and tiny sand crabs all the way down the beach. I enjoyed my $3 shark, prawn, and fresh fish dinners while reclining against triangular Asian cushions perched next to one foot high tables, as the ocean water gently lapped against the legs of my beachside dinner platform. Simply perfect.

As I soaked up the sun in this beach paradise, I noticed another unique Southeast Asian phenomenon (In addition to the armies of transvestites). About 40% of the couples in touristy Chaweng Beach consisted of a Southeast Asian (Thai, Cambodian, Lao, Burmese, etc.) girl and a western (European, Australian, American) guy. After reading most of the book "Sex Slaves" I learned that when western men hire prostitutes, they like to take them out to dinner, dance with them, drink with them, and generally convince themselves that the prostitute actually has a choice regarding sex. The book argues that Asian men, while forming the majority of Southeast Asian brothel customers, never flaunt their purchases in public.

This explains several of the couples I encountered, but not all of them. Many western men, including some of my friends back home, have a strong preference for Asian women, which explains why several of the couples I shared restaurants with in Samui were married.

There is common perception that most of the Western men who come to Thailand to enjoy sexual tourism or find a wife are men who couldn't get western women to like them. People think these guys are outcasts, dorks, and generally unappealing in their home cultures, so they come here to buy their way into favor with the opposite sex. While there are some guys who definitely fit this profile, the overall stereotype is way off. The majority of the western men I met with either hired or married Southeast Asian women, were good-looking, educated, and financially successful.

So, if a successful western guy could have any girl he wanted, why would he choose a woman who barely speaks his language? Overall, the cards seem to be stacked against this kind of relationship. Families ties are strong in Southeast Asia, meaning that any western man who marries a Southeast Asian woman will typically be responsible for sending checks to his new wife's family, if not taking the entire family in. Southeast Asian financial hardship has driven many women to search out these type of cash-cow relationships, so these men must also deal with the doubts associated with wondering if his relationship is real or financially based. You could argue that family support and financial motivations are issues in any society, but they appear slightly more blatant in Thailand. After you throw in the racial discrimination of ignorant relatives and the stares from tourists who assume your wife is a prostitute, it seems like the restaurants of Samui shouldn't have been so packed with these couples.

I have to admit, I felt pretty shallow even contemplating these issues. At the same time I couldn't get over my curiosity. It seemed like these guys were just like me, so why couldn't I see myself marrying someone I could barely talk to? Several of these couples just sat at dinner with absolutely no conversation ("Where you come from?" and "What's your name?" only sustains conversation for so long), but others seemed genuinely happy to be with each other, even if their verbal communication options were limited.

Southeast Asian women are definitely beautiful, petite, and extremely exotic, so there is obviously something to be said for physical attraction. But I think there is more to this phenomenon than just surface beauty. What are men really looking for in relationships? This question raised some pretty un-politically correct theories. Southeast Asian women have many things to offer besides their beauty, and one of their most attractive qualities appears to be their attitude towards relationships and marriage. According to some of my new Thai friends, western men who marry Southeast Asian women get to feel like a provider. Their relative economic strength allows them to feel needed, strong, and secure. In addition, many Southeast Asian women are raised in male-dominated households where they are taught their role is to serve their husbands and raise children.

These qualities appear to be very attractive to men who are unable to provide for their families on a single income in the western world, and are constantly challenged by the women in their lives. Marrying a Southeast Asian woman and moving to her home country almost seems like a ticket back to a time when men were the unquestioned dominant patriarch of the family. I have had several conversations with married women in India and Southeast Asia and the majority of them do have very different expectations when it comes to marriage. They expect the union to be a partnership forged on hard work and sacrifice rather than barbie dreams full of sex in the city. Even if these women are truly running the household, they play the game and let their men feel strong and dominant. They assume the typical (old school) female role and don't seem to have any qualms about it at all. This attitude, as much as anything else, seems to be drawing western men to Asia in droves. You could argue the same type of attraction keeps Eastern Europe's mail order bride service booming.

So what is the key to a successful relationship? Do men need to feel like a strong provider to be happy in a relationship? The proliferation of "house husbands" would say no, but I would argue these men are the exception rather than the rule. Do men truly want a strong, independent, intelligent woman, who challenges them on everything as an equal, or is that just what they say when they're in college?

After reflecting on some of the most successful marriages I know of, I think the answer is somewhere in the middle. I think most men (western men) want a strong, independent, intelligent woman who lets them feel like a strong, needed, family provider. Even though these women may make more money than their husbands and could easily change their own oil, take out their own trash, or mow their own lawns, they ask for help and make their men feel strong and needed. They let their men be chivarlous and open doors for them. Basically, they play the girl and as a result, they prop up their man's self image and self confidence.

None of this was very fun to realize. Some of you are probably thinking "Duh...no kidding", but many of my female friends are probably ready to slap me by now. Please understand that this is all just a theory. It's a theory based on plenty of first hand field research, but it's still just a theory. I'm not all that excited to realize how fragile most males really are. I'm not too proud to think that many men would prefer a woman who makes them feel strong and manly to a woman who challenges him intellectually. Am I right? Who knows. Sweeping generalizations can always be challenged using a plethora of exceptions, but deep down I think I may have touched on one of the core reasons why many of my peers are shopping for wives while I'm shopping for curry...

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Finding Truth in Solitude... 

During my two weeks in Koh Samui, I thrived on being alone. Traveling with friends is wonderful, but there is something strange, scary, and amazing about spending time on your own. Being alone gives you a full license to be completely self centered in a good way. You're not worrying about whether someone else is having a good time. When you want to talk, you talk. When you want to be silent, you're silent. You are completely anonymous. No one knows you. No one knows where you are. All you have is your thoughts, your feelings, and your intuition. The freedom is addicting.

Every day I moved, wandered, and discovered my environment based on chance encounters and gut feelings. Who are you when you're not trying to be what other people like? What is most important to you when you are removed from the constant barrage of media manipulation? Can you hear the voice of your intuition? Can you hear yourself thinking without thinking? (Read "Blink" for some great ideas on this concept).

For those of you who haven't had the chance to travel alone, try it. If your life makes it impossible, make time to be alone, even if it's for fifteen minutes. Climb up on your roof. Sit under a tree in that park you pass on the way to work. Just sit there...and watch your mind spin. You may not think you have time considering how full your life is, but the concept of "go slow to go fast" played out in my life during my last year in San Diego. The days that I climbed up on the roof of the Pink House to gather my thoughts in front of the So Cal sunrise were at least five times as productive as the days that I rushed straight to the office 10 minutes after rolling out of bed. They say the process of learning to control your thoughts is like learning any sport or skill. It takes time. Be patient with yourself, but try it. Try it today.

Is finding time to focus on understanding your own mind the same as traveling alone for an extended period of time? No, but it's close. I've come to the bittersweet realization that I haven't learned much on the road that I couldn't have learned in my own backyard. It's just way harder to learn these lessons when you're surrounded by your comfort zone. When was the last time you were afraid? When was the last time an event or conversation drastically re-shaped the way you saw the world? When was the last time you completely changed your opinion about something?

The propaganda against mental "flip-flopping" in late 2004 was pretty scary. We've somehow glamourized the idea of never changing our minds about anything. THE WORLD IS FLAT! THAT'S MY STORY AND I'M STICKING TO IT. Ridiculous, right?

I think I've mentioned this before, but Eastern philosophy argues that as you become closer and closer to becoming an expert, you learn less and less. The more sure you are that you're right, the less open you are to new ideas and the chance that you could be wrong. This is why Confucius advocates keeping the mind of beginner. Question everything. Learn. Adapt. It's not about who's right, it's about what's right.

I've realized over the last few months that the main driver behind my passion for traveling centers on unique thoughts created by the constantly changing set of stimulants travel provides. Every unique person I have a five minute conversation with opens my eyes to a new way of thinking. Every panoramic view stirs my soul and floods my mind with possibility. While the tourist attractions, temples, and parks do inspire unique thoughts, nothing can top the paradigm shifting generated by the people I meet. Everyone has fears. Everyone has dreams. Everyone is interesting...it's just a matter of listening to them.

This realization has given me hope regarding my return to California in June. If my main passion is for unique thought, and the main inspiration for unique thought comes from people, then the learning process I began in 2003 doesn't ever have to end. Nice...

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Topless Transvestite Volleyball... 

It took my eyes, ears, and lungs a couple days to adjust to Bangkok's assault on the senses, but after almost a week of inhaling pad thai, multi-colored curries, falafel, and sticky rice with mango I was afraid I might not ever leave. Just as I was settling into my new gluttonous life, I received an e-mail from my trekking brother Krishna Nepali (aka Bradley).

After Heidi and I left Krishna in Pokhara, Nepal, he decided to find a way to connect with the "real" Nepali people. The Annapurna circuit was spectacular, but we always had the feeling that we were in some sort of Himalayan amusement park. A beautiful park, but still a park.

Krishna only had a couple weeks, so he grabbed a canoe, paddled across Lake Pokhara and started hiking through the jungle looking for new friends. Brad had no idea where he was going, but he had a good feeling so he went with it. By the time I got his e-mail, he had been living in a Nepali hillside village for three weeks, sleeping on dirt floors, working in the fields, practicing Nepali (His tenth language) and playing soccer with the children.

As I finished reading Brad's e-mail in my air conditioned internet cafe located next to the rooftop pool of my downtown hotel, I realized it was time to leave Bangkok. Just when I start getting complacent and thinking I'm some kind of "cool guy" traveler, someone like Krishna comes along to humble me and remind me that I'm traveling for the thoughts created by unique, meaningful experiences, not the tourist attractions and the all night trance clubs.

The next night I boarded a bus to Koh Samui, one of the biggest, best, and most popular islands in Thailand. It wasn't exactly a Nepali hillside village, but it was a whole lot more memorable than Koh Sarn road. Eighteen hours of bus bouncing and four hours of boat rocking later, I checked into my $4 per night beachfront hut and fell face first into the crystal clear 78 degree water of the Gulf of Thailand. Nice!

After a ridiculous night of Red Bull buckets and non-stop hip-hop with three English nurses I met on the boat to Samui, I woke up barefoot and bloody on the roof of a random five story beachfront hotel. Since "remembering" is central to the whole concept of creating "memorable" experiences, I decided to keep my evenings much more mellow for the remainder of my stay in Koh Samui.

It took me almost two hours to find my hotel (hut) that morning, but after a refreshing ocean swim I headed down the white powdery beach towards my favorite outdoor attraction, a volleyball court.

As I approached the court I could tell there were a total of six men and two women playing. It wasn't until I was about twenty feet away that I realized both the women were proudly displaying their surgically enhanced breasts by playing the game in bottoms only. Reeeeeediculous.

One of the guys left when I showed up, so I slipped into the game and did my best to stay focused on the ball instead of the four distractions bouncing around on the other side of the net. It took me about five minutes to realize I had stumbled into a truly unique situation. Four of the five men playing were radically gay and both of the "women" used to be men. The only other straight guy was a great dude from the UK who was as blown away by our teammates as I was.

The two he-she's had pulled out all the stops in their efforts to become women. With the exception of their adam's apples, slightly deeper voices, and broader shoulders, there was no way to discern their original sex. From the G-strings to the ripped six-packs, their bodies were the epitome of what Maxim would define as "perfect".

At this point I had to sit back and laugh. Here I am, some kid from the tiny town of Ukiah, California, playing beach volleyball with four extreme homosexuals and two topless transvestites, surrounded by swaying palm trees, slushy drinks, and pure white sand. Crazy.

Beyond their sexual preferences and gender histories, my new teammates were wonderful, fun, and basically normal people. Sports is a universal team-builder, so after a couple hours of pounding volleyballs at each other we all became fast friends. They also love to play off how unusual westerners find them, so every time I jogged past their court during the next two weeks I was accosted with a barrage of ooo's, aaah's, and winks from my former teammates.

Yeah, my face would turn a little redder, but deep down I knew it was all a game they played with tourists, so it was all good.

My first real encounter with "the third sex" raised some questions that I haven't been able to answer yet. Why are there so many transvestites in Thailand? Because that's what the sex tourists want? Because some Asian men have smaller builds and can thus convert to women more easily? Because they truly want to become women? Because they can make more money as women? Because transvestites are more socially acceptable in Thailand's sex soaked economy? Let me know if you have any theories. I'm clueless...

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