Thursday, March 31, 2005

Fire in The Belly... 

Do you remember my great buddy Peter Stanley? He's the guy I lived across the street from in San Diego, met in Iringa, Tanzania, and partied with in Bangkok, Thailand. As it turns out, Peter's brother Jeff is a full time musician in Australia, and fortunately for me, Jeff was performing live last night for 30 minutes during an open mic night in downtown Sydney. Perfect!

I got a chance to hang out with Jeff and his wife Denise for while before the show, and I could tell right away that Jeff has a fire in his belly when it comes to music. His eyes completely light up when he talks about it, listens to it, or plays it. As I settled into my lounge chair at the Goldfish Bowl Bar, I was quickly reminded why I LOVED watching open mic nights in San Diego. When you take the time to listen to an aspiring singer/songwriter perform, you are watching someone chasing their dreams. Their lyrics are their poetry, and for that short moment, they give a glimpse into their hearts.

I suppose you could say that about any singer/songwriter, but there is something raw and powerful about watching people who are still struggling to break in. They still have what Apollo Creed would call "The Eye of the Tiger". Success hasn't made them complacent, and you can see the fire in their eyes.

Jeff was incredible. Peter taught me a couple chords on his guitar while I was in Bangkok, so I have a whole new respect for guitar players, but even without that experience, Jeff would have impressed the hell out of me. His eyes rolled back in his head, his fingers flew, and the place rocked. I felt like the dude in the Maxell ads...blown away. Just to add some spice to the evening, Jeff played behind his head, behind his back, between his legs and with his teeth. I can't even play the first three chords of Stairway to Heaven.

All the performers stuck around to support each other, and for one fleeting moment, I got a glimpse into the community of artists pursuing their heart's desire in Australia's biggest city. What is it that is so powerful about the arts? Why does music give you goose bumps? How does literature make you cry? Why are we mesmerized by certain paintings and photos?

When I ask people what job they would do for free, why do most of the responses center around something creative? What is creativity? Last night, as I sat staring out the windows of the Goldfish Bowl at the hundreds of "professionals" hurrying home at 8PM, I wondered if they felt that same fire that Jeff feels. Sometimes it feels as though the arts have been written off as not "worthwhile" or "important". Years of budget cuts have handicapped or destroyed visual and performing arts across America, so whole generations are growing up without an understanding of the artistic parts of their own mind.

Is it more important to have math or art? My engineering mind would push for math, but my good friend Mike Humphrey would say we don't have to make that choice. We have to find a way to have both. If you study our ancestors in Europe, the arts were seen as the pinnacle of society. Now kids blow off art as "alternative" and race to sign up for computer science classes. Then, at age 28, they start wondering what to do with rest of their lives. Are all artists happy? No, but I would argue their are more happy artists chasing their hearts than there are happy employees chasing their paychecks.

Am I an idealist? Absolutely. Do I ever want to lose my idealism? Never...

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Sydney Operas and Australian Family Reunions... 

One of the things I realized in the Immigration Museum was that Australia was full of white people that spoke English. That seems like a simple observation, but I didn't realize how accustomed I had become to speaking to non-native English speakers. Asia had taught me to speak slowly and clearly, and 48 hours after entering Australia I was back to mumbling, running my words together, and speaking in almost 100% slang. So much for that public speaking career. On a different note, did you ever realize that, albino's aside, there are no native Indians or Asians with brown, red, or blonde hair? Crazy huh? I'm not unique any more. Everyone looks like me!

Sixteen hours after leaving Melbourne, I received a HUGE bear hug from Jenni Prisk in downtown Sydney. Jenni was one of the biggest motivators behind my decision to leave on this trip, so it meant a ton to get a chance to meet up with her and her husband Kim so close to their native land of New Zealand.

Jenni and Kim were just finished up a four week tour through Australia, so the timing was perfect. They introduced me to Craig and Mary-Alice Bannister, and their children, Stephanie and James, who proceeded to immediately welcome me into their family as one of their own. I loved every minute of it. Jenni and Kim have been friends with the Bannister’s for over thirty years, so the entire place felt like a family reunion. Easter has never been that big of a holiday for me, but I will remember Mary-Alice's pork roast and plum caramel pudding cake for the rest of my life.

More importantly, I will always remember the unconditional love that washed over me for the three days I stayed with the Bannisters and the Prisks. Meeting people on the road is great, but there will always be something special about long term, deep rooted friendships. I hope to enjoy many moments like this with my closest friends 30 years from now. Heck, why wait 30 years, I'll see you in June!

After saying goodbye to my Australian family, I headed over to the Sydney surf mecca of Bondi Beach. The surf was blown out the air was freezing the whole time I was at Bondi, but I managed to find happiness in the best used bookstore I've seen in months. The twenty-book, 40 kilogram library I'm dragging around in my backpack should keep me out of bookstores, but I'm a glutton for punishment. My brain has a serious reading problem.

I started my first real Sydney site-seeing day on the roof of my hostel, overlooking Bondi beach, with a bowl of museli, yogurt, and bananas and a toasted peanut butter & honey sandwich. Australia is EXPENSIVE, so I'll be cooking my own grub for the next couple months. Thai curry goes for $12 here instead of the $2 going rate I was used to.

Sydney is a gorgeous city, but I'm not all that in to shopping, so I hovered within a two mile radius of the Opera House all day. Gazing on the shell-like domes of that architectural wonder made me want to go back into construction. The Sydney Opera House is truly phenomenal, in every possible way. I was so impressed in fact, that I bought a ticket to the Opera and stuck around for a show. My stinky backpack and running shoes didn't exactly fit in with all the suit-wearing socialites, but the doormen stopped asking for my ticket after the fourth time, and so it was all good. I've only been to a couple other operas, and while "Fledermaus" was good, I couldn't stop gazing at the rafters and grinning from ear to ear. I was watching an opera in the SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE! I'm such a dork. I love it!

Friday, March 25, 2005

Immigration Policy & Indigenous Survival... 

When I stepped off the plane in Melbourne, I was back to my normal planning mode. I had no maps, no reservations, no guide books, and no idea where I was going to sleep that night. All four hostels I tried to book with the night before were full, so I was prepared to sleep in a random bus station somewhere. Fortunately, the world was conspiring for me and trusty "Tilda from St. Kilda" was waiting for another backpacker at the airport and hooked me up with crash pad.

This may sound lame, but the highlight of my first night in Melbourne came when I found a Nando's restaurant around the corner from my hostel. NANDO'S!!!! Shannon and I first fell in love with this grilled chicken paradise in South Africa, and after they turned down my request to lead their franchising effort in the States (seriously), I was afraid I might have enjoyed my last spicy chicken wrap. Not so! I think the girl behind the counter thought I was on crack when she noticed me dancing around behind the counter. Mmmmm...I love that place!

The next morning I grabbed a bike and set off to explore one of Australia's finest cities. My first stop was at a Jamba-Juice-like slurpee stand where I savored my first twenty-four ounce drink in over ten months (I was lucky to get ten ounces in Asia). Everything you hear about super-sized western portions is right, and Australia serves up just as much grub as we do in the States. It might make you fat, but it never leaves you hungry. I have a feeling my suit won't fit any more by the time I get home.

Next I hit the Immigration Museum, where I got a three hour history lesson on the growth of Australia. What struck me right away were the similarities between South Africa, Australia, and the United States. All three countries were former British colonies that were founded in countries formerly occupied by large native populations. In Australia and the United States, the native populations have been almost completely wiped out or marginalized, while in South Africa the native population forms the overwhelming majority of the population and has regained political control of the country. What was different about the native South Africans? Immunity to western diseases? A history of tribal warfare? Just one more question for my ever-growing list.

The immigration museum also appears to present a fairly even handed account of Australia's treatment of Aborigines and immigrants. The fact that Immigration Department's mission was "Keep Australia White" until the 60's seems to sum up early Australian thinking pretty well. Australia has significantly liberalized lately, but many argue that their English language and business qualification requirements discriminate against non-English speaking immigrants. One of the things that struck me is that the government actively encourages native Australians to have more kids in order to battle the effects of the dropping birth rate. Quite a change from China, huh?

I finished up my bike trek in the Royal Botanical Gardens and the perfect views gave me goose bumps as quickly as a heart moving song. Public parks rock, and Melbourne was full of them. Parks make me want to pay taxes, and that's saying a lot. When was the last time you took a walk in a beautiful park, leaned up against a tree and read a book for an hour? I know, I know, it's easy when you're homeless and unemployed, but I sure hope I find ways to stay outside once I get home.

I only lost four hours on the flight from Singapore to Melbourne, but my body's biological clock was doing back flips by the end of my first day. I got a little cocky on the jetlag front... didn't stay hydrated, didn't eat my bananas, stayed up too late, exercised all day...and as a result I was laid up in front of a pile of crappy pirated DVD's for two days. Sweet.

After re-setting my circadian rhythms, I could have enjoyed the Melbourne beaches and music scene for weeks, but my great friend and mentor, Jenni Prisk, had just arrived in Sydney, so it was time to hit the night bus circuit. I was so excited to see Jenni, it was easy to ignore the fact that the Australian buses were better designed for tiny Thai people than the Thai buses were. Ouch!

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Primary Sin of Human Nature... 

My original plan was to spend a month or two in Indonesia, but the big picture tends to change when your direction and itinerary changes by the hour. It's all good though, because I managed to explore Singapore for a couple days on my way south, and skipping Indo left me a lot to look forward to for my next trip.

The free internet kiosks in Singapore Airport made a positive impression right away, and my smile only got bigger from there. Singapore is basically just a tiny island that grew into a nation based on its history as a British trading center and its central location on hundreds of shipping routes. There's not much to it, but what there is, is pristine and perfectly organized. It's against the law to spit on the sidewalk, so I wasn't too surprised to realize the roads in Singapore were cleaner than most restaurants in Bangkok.

On my only real exploring day, I took the train out to Silosa Island and ended up playing volleyball with some local kids for a couple hours before walking down the beach to check out the live bands, soccer competitions, and mountain bike races. Silosa Island reminded me of a perfectly manicured combination of Disneyland and Pacific Beach.

After bidding farewell to fantasyland, I went for a jog through "Little India" and got hit with a serious urge to buy a ticket back to Delhi. The curries, the Bollywood movies, and the multi-colored sari’s flooded my senses and reminded me of everything I loved about Southern Asia. What's crazy is that while all the shops in Little India look and smell exactly like the shops in the Mumbai or Calcutta, there is not one street in the “real” India anywhere close to as clean as the Singapore version.

When I came upon the central park area I had to slow to a walk to make it through the thousands of men that had gathered there to socialize after work. I'm not kidding, there were THOUSANDS of them...and not one woman. I know it's Indian tradition for the men to socialize in public and the women to socialize in the home, but it still reminded me how different the Indian culture is from my own. I would love to sit down with an Indian woman to see if she likes things the way they are. It's easy for me to assume every woman wants the life of a western woman, but I know that's culturally self-centered. Maybe the Indian women like being protected by their families in exchange for a variety of social restrictions? I'll let you know what I find out.

As I checked back into my 100+ bed hostel that night, I felt my first tinges of reverse culture shock setting in. Everything ran like clockwork in Singapore. The trains were on time. There were no homeless people or beggars (that I saw). You could drink the water. You could buy the latest western trends. You could have all these things, but I couldn't find the soul of Singapore. Singapore was "Anywhere, Europe" or "Anywhere, USA." Is that where the world is headed? Are we racing to make all our cities identical? Singapore had fixed everything that had ever bugged me in any Asian city, yet I found myself struggling to see or do something memorable. Maybe it's the cold showers, armies of insects, stained sheets, and screaming vendors that make long term traveling worth the effort? When it's easy, it's easy to sleep through it. I felt myself falling asleep in Singapore, and I'm still looking for a little cultural Red Bull to light my curiosity fire again.

Jim Collins' theory that "comparison is the primary sin of human nature" seems to ring true here as well. I need to learn to appreciate each person and place for their individual beauty and wonder, rather than comparing them to something or someone "more memorable". Like the Dalai Lama said, everything is perfect, it needs only to be appreciated. I look forward to the day I can truly believe these words instead of just regurgitating them.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Mangen Lives! 

Over the past two weeks my Mom and I hung out in the tattooed tourist mecca of Koh Sarn road, enjoyed massages in three cities, trekked with hill tribes, and enjoyed six different types of seafood on the beaches of Koh Samet. Even though the activities helped us create excellent memories, I have a feeling we could have had just as much fun sitting on the sidewalk talking for two weeks.

I'll dig into some of these events in more detail in the coming weeks, but I figured you might want to read some current stories instead of just wading through tales from December and January. After saying goodbye to my fabulous Mom, I raced around Bangkok tying up some loose ends before heading to my buddy Paul Mangen's hospital room to say goodbye and hang or a while.

Many of you have already heard by now, but my great friend, co-worker, and travel partner in England, India, and China, almost died in a horrific motorcycle accident in early March. Like the true bad ass that he is, Paul had purchased a twenty-year-old Russian Minsk motorcycle, taught himself to ride it in downtown Hanoi, and then taken off on the adventure of a lifetime en route to Singapore and possibly beyond.

Two weeks, countless villages, and thirty driving hours later, Paul hit a concrete road marker with his right shin while going over 50 kilometers an hour. The impact exploded his leg bones below his knee, piercing his skin in several places and covering the dusty rural road in blood. Fortunately for all of us, it was not Paul's time to die. He maintained his senses enough to apply his own tourniquet, and thanks to the big hearts and able hands of some remote Vietnamese villagers, he made it to a dirt-floored "hospital" in time to coordinate a helicopter and ambulance-plane evacuation to Bangkok. The full story is posted at www.paulmangen.blogspot.com, so you should definitely check it out.

After reading Paul's story, be sure to drop him a quick, free, hospital card by clicking here, or send him a quick e-mail at cvkansas@yahoo.com. He's going to be rehabbing in Bangkok alone for the next 6+ weeks, so believe me, your words will mean a TON to him, even if he's never met you.

After saying goodbye to Mr. Mangen, Peter and I met up with the rest of my favorite friends from Bangkok and talked, ate, and drank until 4AM, giving me plenty of time to rest and inhale some falafel before boarding my 1:30PM flight to Singapore. I thought I would be sick of Southeast Asia after four months, but I think I could stay there for years without ever wanting to leave. So much culture, so much food, so much fun, SO CHEAP!

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Mom's Here! 

Less than 72 hours ago I picked up Susan King (AKA: My Mom) at the Bangkok International Airport. Since that magical moment, my Mom and I have been packing 36 hours of life into every 24 hour day, and considering she's been sleeping since 12PM (It's now 7PM) I think the jetlag may have caught up with her. She slipped right into veteran travel mode during her first two days in Bangkok though, so I have feeling she'll be right back on the traveling horse by tomorrow morning. Wonderful people, humbling experiences, and amazing sights have rocked my senses over the past few months, and I can't wait to tell you about them. Some stories that are on the way include tales about:

Thank you for continuing to check in to see what's up. I'm going to be home in mid-June, so I can't wait to catch up with the American crew in person! Nice!

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