Sunday, April 29, 2012

Lost in Translucence

Significant time has passed since I last sat down to write due to an increase in projects as well as decision to pursue formal education in the field of real estate development. So, to my readers, I thank you for your patience and hope you will enjoy the set of posts I have been working on over the last few days in preparation of posting. So as to keep your interest, the posts continue in chronological order starting with a 2004 trip to Thailand, the details of which I skipped in my last post relating a time of distraught. I believe it of interest to return to Thailand and hope that my writing can convey the sense of excitement, intrigue, and passion for life as well as disgust and disappointment discovered in our travels.

Thailand commonly spurs a flurry of images in the minds of most, think for a moment on the name yourself, what do you picture? Can you envision the emerald green water that providing the backdrop of Leonardo Di Caprio's movie "The Beach", are you walking through a open air market surrounding by exotic fruits and vegetables, does the water slip through your fingers as you explore untouched reefs abundant with marine life, and can you feel the mixture of dust, heat, and saline on your fingers as you sit in the back of a tuk-tuk on your way to the "Reclining Buddha' with perhaps a few unscheduled stops to be fitted for suits? All of these images are realities in this country that once held the armies and fortunes of Siam.

Thailand was magnificent, everything we expected, and yet so different from what we had hoped to experience. Unprepared for the trip that laid before us, we knew little beyond an intent to fly into Bangkok, visit Chiang Mai and hopefully see an island or two. Still to this day, I must admit, this is very characteristic of my nomadic method of international exploration. Where some men challenge themselves in sporting activities or in competitive shows of male prowess by physically forcing others into submission, I relish in the trials, tribulations, excitement, and knowledge which accompany unplanned discoveries. Their is a unique freedom in the complete disregard for time and its allotment for exploration and adventure. As my lovely wife has often noted, "time and you are acquaintances, you know one another, but you don't really hang out".

Only a few days before our flight we made our way to Powell's Bookstore on W. Burnside Street in Portland, Oregon and perused the travel section for some insight on a nation we knew little of; the books proved to be partially helpful besides for Lonely Planet. I am fairly certain that the authors of this Lonely Planet edition never made it into even one-tenth of the monuments, hotels, and restaurants, but were either lost in translucence induced by psychedelics on Khao San Road or fervently exploring their sexuality in Phuket.

Excitement filled the air as we stepped off the plane, into a taxi and checked into our hotel; our room was beautifully designed, still today an element from that hotel room exists in our life. In our bathroom you will find an antique wooden ladder with alternating white and olive green towels folded in thirds draping off of the worn wooden rungs. Sadly our booking was for one night only and we had to relocate to a sleazy, run down hotel further down the road. The room was akin to any Motel 6 as you cross the border into California from Nevada, extremely seedy and a testament to why what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Similarly, the road it was located reminds me of Vegas; Khao San Road is known for the notorious actions of the traveling youth of Australia, USA and Europe (but mostly Australia) in seek of drugs, sex, and house music. 

Phra Pathom Chedi
We hated Bangkok; it was hot, well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit; every tuk tuk driver seemed intent on securing a new suit for the gentleman or an exquisite evening gown for the lady; and every time we tried to go see the Golden Palace, a seemingly friendly and helpful local would politely inform us that it was closed for a National Holiday or because of road construction, or because the King would be there and foreigners are not allowed on such days; all statements which turned out to be completely false. As such, we did not visit the Grand Palace until our only days before our return. Instead our days in Bangkok were filled with morning coffees at the first international Starbucks I had seen but had fantastic air conditioning and then days in tuk-tuks and taxis to see the lesser known, but equally important sites such as Nakhon Pathom which is one of the earliest Buddhist landmarks in the country.

My recollections of this site is limited at this point to what I can gather from our stockpile of photos. Not being a Buddhist, I clearly did not absorb the importance of the sites and monuments which founded the nation's primary religion. Perhaps it was the heat; half the time I couldn't wait to get indoors and out of the sun. But what I do specifically recall is carvings depicting mythical beasts and figures with such precision and beauty that even the low megapixel photos still inspire awe.

Stone Dog Statue in Nakhon Pathom
In an attempt to seek refuge from the bustling streets of Bangkok riddled with tuk-tuks and people as well as the young white people passed out or overdosed on Khao San Road, we bought airline tickets for an unscheduled stop in Sukhothai which boasts of relics and monuments from past civilizations. Ruins have always brought me a sense of calm and peace. I once read a book called Ruins by a young English scholar who ventured to question what is man's obsession with the remnants of our constructive past and determined that it is a spiritual connection to what we once were, a reminder of what we can create and destroy, and a foretelling of what may yet come with greed, desire and power.

Wat Arun
With my own insatiable need to understand past cultures, the ruins of Sukhothai were like a horse tranquilizer after the chaos of Bangkok. The sheer volume of structures, both standing and fallen seemed startling considering the apparent lack of vegetation to have supported such vast empires; history told its own story of changing times evident in the weathering effects on stone, the existence of foundations without temples, and the location of multiple temple styles situated adjacent to one another as well as occasionally built on the destruction of another. We sifted through the ruins looking for elements that would speak of forlorn times, of military and economic powers seemingly more sophisticated than current nations, and for that single temple which would capture our attention longer than any other. In the heat and sporting significant amounts of sunscreen, we came upon a temple of such beauty that it was hard to step away. To this date, I can distinctly recall the cascading ribbons of stone creating cornices, steps, and a spire; this was a temple predating the Siamese and belonging to the Khmer civilization of Cambodia and is one of the last remaining testaments to that empire's Western reach. Sadly, I have been completely unable to find any photos from our stockpile of this day's adventures, so I highly recommend making a visit yourselves or at the least, doing a google search for Sukhothai images.

At the end of the day, we managed to catch the last mode of public transit back to modern day Sukhothai, a makeshift bus of sorts created by connecting a truck bed to the back of a tractor. Already waiting on the bus was an elderly German man who informed us of how quickly and efficiently he was able to see all of the temples, document their major characteristics of interest such as general size and depiction, and take photographs. It seems that the academic knowledge of the temples outweighed any emotional of spiritual connection that could possibly exist with sauntering through the only remaining structures of a time period and people prior to the technological advances of today's world.

Our evening was spent enjoying a warm beer on a terrace while sampling local cuisine and contemplating the characteristics of fallen empires and pondering the coming day's embarkation to Chiang Mai where we would spend the next full week exploring the city, shopping for antiques, taking cooking courses, and touring temples.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

a harsh interlude

A brief interjection in this blog's chronological order to introduce my readers to the realities of life and love.

Location: Somewhere above Texas

Accompanied by humility, patience has never been my greatest attribute. As far back as I can remember, I have been anxiously waiting glory and fame, perhaps this is what really has encouraged me to start writing and publicizing my voice through the massive network of online distribution. On the other hand, for all of my impatience, I still have little beyond an array of international travel experiences to show for years spent drifting in and out of formal employment.

So here I sit, somewhere flying over the State of Texas, wondering where my feet will truthfully land next. The past six months have felt like a nomadic excursion having taken me to Maui, Hyderabad, Jodhpur, Colombo, Shanghai, Guatemala, and now to Los Angeles before I can rest my head at my home in Portland again. Of this year, I have spent a whopping three weeks or so at home; I blame my impatience for this as well. I do not have the patience to sit in Portland and wait for a new project, to wait for economic recovery, nor to twiddle my thumbs in attempts to scrounge up business while spending money at local coffee shops. I am thankful to have an outlet, to have a family business that can use my youth, my spirit, my creativity, and my mind. I am also thankful for the extraordinarily supportive wife that I have been blessed with.
Photo courtesy of Rodolfo Walsh
Take a step back five years past and a different man would have been writing this blog, a different man would have been racing to find his path; the foundation that supports my efforts today was still in process of being laid. The moon passed outside shedding glimpses of lights along the walls and I lay awake with thoughts racing not certain that life would ever be the same for me. Earlier that day I was en route to Boise, Idaho; my mother had just been admitted to the hospital by McCall’s Doctor Harris, the father of an old high school acquaintance. Her mental condition had led to degradation in her health through a mixture of self-hatred eating disorders caused by the shattering divorce from her shithead of a second husband; worried, I flew as soon as I could get out from work. I landed in Salt Lake City and moments later my world was shattered.

We had three wonderful weeks spent in passion and curiosity traipsing through the villages and islands of Thailand. My father was eager to expand our business beyond the antiques from India that we had been purchasing for years; through a connection from my good friend Christopher Yarrow, I thought Thailand would yield an assortment of wonderful antiques for our business. I was wrong, but at least Kate and I enjoyed one of the loveliest trips of our lives thus far. Lush jungles, elaborate temples, scooter rentals, mountain hikes, and painful Thai massages were only a glimpse into our adventures that were soon followed by Kate’s walking along a platform to receive her medical school diploma and a short trip to visit family in Bolivia with stopovers in Peru and Ecuador on our way back.

Yes, we were really living it up and the whole world seemed open to our reach.

I have for a long time held this odd, but strange belief in the balance of life in the world. It is as though the world wants to see benefits or increases in happiness through small steps and large steps throw everything out of balance requiring it to retract and pull from you what it has already bestowed. What life had in store for us was groundbreaking.

Her voice trembled as she spoke, in between tears understanding slowly crept into place. At the counter for Delta, my tears couldn’t stop as I handed my credit card over to pay for a return trip straight back to Portland. On the phone with my mother, I could not hold back the worry in my mind. Sitting in a hospital bed, my mother was strong for me and told me to forget my coming to Boise; she would be fine and I should get home to my love because Kate needs me and I need her.

I arrived late, shared a cab with a gentleman on my plane and I fretted over the fates and what those despondent sisters were brewing. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest as I slid my key into the door lock and slowly turned the knob. I had hoped she would be resting, perhaps dreaming of a better, brighter future than what the news foretold.

She awoke with the door, I dropped my bags on the floor quickly and slid my shoes off my feet to get into bed and held her head close to my heart while we both sobbed. She recounted to me the fears of her childhood always worried that her mother would pass away since the time she was born, how she used to fall asleep near her mother’s bed just to be close by to enjoy every moment she had of her mother’s love and to return as much as any child can know to do at that age. We knew the following weeks would unfold both positive and negative possibilities, but when you face the threat of losing all to an ailment such as cancer, nothing but negatives seem to surface.

Photo courtesy of Rodolfo Walsh
The ensuing weeks consisted of doctor’s appointments, the immediate start of high dose chemotherapy, and a lot of mind wrenching, both of us wishing that we had given more attention to the signs we had found earlier and yet tried to justify as anything but the worst possibility. That was when I thought the world, that Allah or God or whatever higher being there may be, had only my best interests in mind. We had first found the lump only a few weeks before flying to Bangkok. We had considered cancelling our trip, but neither of us really wanted to, and we let ourselves believe that it was nothing more than an inflammation of fibrous ductwork. I could only wish this would have been the first and last time that we would allow ourselves to believe that the world was ours.

Photo courtesy of Rodolfo Walsh
And now here I sit again looking back at the mistakes and decisions I have made in this life after looking through the photos from our lovely wedding. How much more does the world have in store for us I sometimes wonder? Have we overcome the worst, have we shown ourselves to be resilient, have our tests ended or is this just the beginning of what is to come? An Indian fortune teller once told Kate that we would live a long and happy life together, that I would be successful, and that yes she would pass into the next existence before I would. I hope he is wrong and that we pass together, but at the least I hope he is right and that we can be blessed with a long and prosperous life full of the love we have suffered to build and enjoy. Either way, I will step off this plane in Los Angeles and be waiting for her to step off her flight from Portland; to hold her in my arms and kiss her full lips and remind her how much I adore her.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Kashmiri Entourage

I have found it continually difficult to sit down and actually write this blog post. In fact, I am currently traveling again for business and haven’t found a chance to sit and write in my standard leather bound journal.  As such, all of the questions that lay before me, the thoughts which surround me, and the actions which ensue have gone undocumented besides keeping me from continuing this recreation of travel experiences. Time continues forward, even if we sometimes wish it did not. 

These past four weeks have been a whirlwind of events that I can scantly grasp on to. Yet, to start, I am lying in bed having just closed down the restaurant my father and I have worked hard to create. To his credit, the majority of the brunt work was born by his blood and sweat as well as a previous attempt to enter the cuisine industry in Cochabamba, Bolivia; a venture he was accompanied by my younger brother in for a short time. That experience led my father to the concept and creation of an Indian restaurant in La Antigua, Guatemala.

On the night I started to write this post, a young couple from Bangalore came to eat at the restaurant. It was discussion with them that has begot an interest in continuing my story from where I left it…

Photo 1: The simplicity of water and wooden boats.
A cool summer breeze awaited me on the tarmac; the plane had stopped well short of the terminal as a ladder was rolled out to the opening cabin doors. It was a record temperature for Delhi on the day I decided to fly to Kashmir, somewhere around 115 degrees Fahrenheit; I could not recall have ever felt so uncomfortable and was anxiously awaiting the cool mountain air that Jahangir assured me kept Kashmir so pristine and welcoming during the summer months. Jahangir and I had been discussing this trip between days of business and tourist activities while sipping chai either back at the warehouse or along one of the many chai houses that decorated the highways of Rajasthan; and finally we had arrived.

Not even moments outside the airport gates, I watched military jeeps filled with young Indian men bolstering machine guns as they patrolled the nearby streets. The timing of my trip was fortuitous as there had not been any recent negative military developments in the region for quite some time and the height limitation for hiking on the mountainsides raised high enough to expose and allow entry into a series of temples and monuments that no one but military had stepped into in approximately 30 years.

Unlike what I saw in Delhi and Jaipur, Srinagar's architecture consisted primarily of multi-level wood framed buildings, and actually resembled what I imagined much of Sweden or Austria to look like only in significant disrepair such as the internet cafĂ© I wandered into. A sign outside misled me into believing I would find a long sought after cappuccino;  instead I found a rickety staircase that carried me up three levels past boarded up windows and falling railings to look into a sweaty room packed with what could only be the Indian equivalent of Commodore 64s. Okay, so maybe these computers were not as dated as my initial viewing suggests, but the technological capacity definitely boarded on the side of “what’s the point”.  I used this opportunity to write a short e-mail to my girlfriend (now wife) back home about my current whereabouts; an hour later the email was actually sent.
Photo 2: Sunset at Dal Lake in Srinagar

I wandered the streets of Srinagar until dark and then met up with Jahangir near a mosque built lakeside and watched the sun slowly drift into the water. Young girls on the grounds in front of the mosque kept running up to me to tell me that there older sisters found me cute; the number of marriage interests seemed to climb each day according to Jahangir’s father. I snapped photos of the failing light along the water while the cool night air brought thoughts of both the need for a sweater and the invitation of a warm comfy bed back at my hotel. With a fairwell to Jahangir and his father, I pondered what the following day would bring as I drifted into the subconscious.

Photo 3: Wooden boat on way to floating market.

Having woken to no electricity, I thought it best to make my way out into the rising light and catch a glimpse of the rising sun; I had also read that Saturday mornings boasted a floating vegetable market which I was keen to see. Stepping out into the wonderful 80 degrees weather, I made my way down to the lake hoping to catch a boat ride to the market. At 6am, the sun barely up, I was able to watch the water glisten from touches of the sun and watched the soundless ripples created by an elderly man paddling his goods towards the water market. The photo I took does no justice to the true sense of calm, peace, and quiet that surrounded me.

Sadly I never actually made it to the floating vegetable market; my stomach was still quite upset from the days of near death intestinal failure. I was a good half an hour’s walk from the hotel and there were no restaurants or other public facilities anywhere in sight. Making my way around a corner I stumbled upon the most grotesque public toilet I have ever step foot into. I will bypass the details of this event which turned into a spectacle involving my slipping on the floor and an urgent need to find a shower.
Photo 4: Temple of Fresh Water outside Srinagar

Later that afternoon after a very very cold shower (no electricity still) I was allotted the opportunity of witnessing the ritual first hair cutting of Jahangir’s nephew at the first Mosque built in Kashmir. The mosque was completely wood construction, very unlike any of the mosques or temples I had seen to date in person and in photographs. According to Jahangir’s father, this was the location of the first step in introducing Islam to the territory of Kashmir.

The entire family including myself spent the remaining day at a temple and Mohgul garden with lush green mountains backset. We drank refreshing cold water from within the temple’s walls that came directly out from the mountain and poured into the series of man-made water features. In similarity to the Japanese gardens, the Moghuls paid special attention to the movement of water throughout their gardens seeking a harmonious movement that seemed to only trickle through and create a soothing sound. As dusk fell, fruit bats began their feast on the insects in the air, skimming just above my head. The last reflections of light were showcased by the colorful saris worn by the garden’s female patrons.

Photo 5: The encroaching clouds.
Jahangir took me on two distinct excursions with our time in Kashmir: Golmarg and Sonmarg. The road trip to the mountain Golmarg gave me my first real glimpse of the forested and mountainous surroundings which comprise most of Kashmir. Golmarg is a typical stop for most Indian tourists to Kashmir where a gondola swiftly moves people up to a flat area on the mountain where chai and fried foods can be sampled while perusing the surrounding environment.

The sheer magnitude of people in this area was overwhelming and I luckily convinced Jahangir and his friend to walk further up the mountainside with me to retreat from the crowds. I was sorely disappointing in our return trip which showcased an incredible lack of 
Photo 6: The view surrounding Golmarg.
caring for the environment by the Indian tourists, evident by the extent of garbage and debris as well as the lack of grass where grass once stood. On the contrary to that though, it was fascinating to watch the speed at which the clouds roll in and to feel the temperature changes that occur throughout the day in the mountain ranges of Kashmir. We were some of the last people to come down the mountain that day and on the way back down I noticed that it is possible to completely miss the camouflaged army encampments which are built into the mountainside so that invading military would be unable to see the traps awaiting them.

Photo 7: Long melted glaciers have left vast dry valleys.
On day three of my Kashmiri voyage, my friend and business partner took me to an area known as Sonmarg where we hiked along whitewater rivers towards the mountains with the last remnants of winter's ice slowly melting away resulting in hundreds of tiny waterfalls. Being young men, we made competitions of everything including how long we could hold our bare feet in the freezing river water, my stubbornness did not prevail in this endeavor and we finally had to agree to both pull our feet out at the same time. Meanwhile, his father would patiently waited for the ambitiousness of youth to make its way back down the mountainsides towards the 4x4 vehicle where he proceeded to tell us stories of his childhood in the mountains and the glaciers that used to be present while we drank chai at a roadside chai house.

Photo 8: Birth of a waterfall.
The road to Sonmarg was long, a journey lasting almost two hours with spectacular views of mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, raging white water rivers, long-haired goats, and evergreen forests. The serenity of the natural environment surrounding the Kashmiri people is truly superb and I could almost begin to see why Indian and Pakistanis alike claim affiliation of this mountain state. With such pristine and untouched nature, the availability of resources is likely abundant.

Photo 9: My father, okay not really.
Coming around a bend in the roadway, I caught glimpse of an oil truck in the roadside river, clearly the truck had been there for some time without any hope of rescue. It was a shocking dichotomy of nature versus man-made contraptions and almost seemed to be environmental-political statement by mother nature. As the driver continued to speed us up the mountain highway, I thought about the day before at Golmarg and the destruction caused by man's unwillingness to simply care for the surrounding environment. Golmarg had instilled a false belief in the sentiments of the Indian population towards the outside world; a complete disregard for that which does not further their personal goals and paths towards wealth. Sadly, over the past eight years of traveling to India, I have not seem many signs to contradict this belief, but have been witness to further and further social selfishness with each trip. 

Photo 10: Mountain sheep with no fear of man.
On my last morning in Srinagar and only two days before I was supposed to board a return flight in New Delhi destined for Fort Lauderdale, Florida; I found myself in a confused state. My time in India had been extraordinarily challenging for me and my emotional stability, but the nature I had witnessed over the last week seemed to have repaired much of my scarring. In the dawning light of Kashmir and again walking along the lake, I found myself not wanting to leave this truthfully most peaceful environment. Shortly thereafter I was reminded of the realities of Kashmir as I heard the echo of a canon in the distance. 

Photo 11: Last Dawn Standing, Canons blasting in the background.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

west becomes east

In light of my current employment status, self-employed that is, and with a significant lack in projects, I bought tickets for Florida and Guatemala about four days ago; I leave on April 11th. To those who know me well, this spur of the moment decision may not seem odd, but for those who do not let me enlighten you on my typical travel planning schematics. Where the common man gives his boss at least three month's notice of his intent to take a week of vacation to work on his 1950s Ford pickup that has been sitting in the garage the past five years, I buy a ticket for Guatemala intending to leave next weekend and return a month later. Granted, when I was employed by companies, I tended to give them at least a month's advance notice, but this rule no longer seems applicable. I think it would appear quite odd if I walked into my office (Caffee Umbria down the street) and proceeded to turn in a request for vacation to myself and inevitably have to deny the vacation request on grounds of short notice.

In all seriousness though, I only returned home about two weeks ago from a month long trip through India, Sri Lanka, and China and now I am about to embark on another month long foreign assignment; it just appears that I am really bad at sitting still. With that in mind and sitting here watching the Cricket World Cup final while sketching my soon to start kitchen remodel and finalizing tax accounting, I can't help but think back on where my adventurous travel life started.

Earlier today while thumbing through my travel journals and emails to remind me of my experiences, I found a letter from my wife in which she stated "I want you to travel, I love that you do!  It makes me proud, your sense of adventure and curiousity in life is one of the things I love about you." Reading this email recalled emotions of the loneliness and excitement I have experienced in my travels and how one can go through all of the efforts and exercises of travel searching for knowledge, opportunity, enlightenment, and belonging only to come back home empty handed. To preface the sentiments which will be expressed, an understanding of my childhood will provide context.

For the majority of my life, the racial and cultural differences between people have been a significant element of my daily interactions. Born to a family of mixed culture, adaptability to situations came second nature to my brother and I. My first exposure to racial sentiments occurred in Guatemala where the school children often expressed their inherited distaste for 'gringos' or foreigners, especially those from the United States of America. Even though I was clearly of an ethnic background, I was a US citizen, a gringo, according to the school children. As a mild mannered child and desiring friends, I learned to adapt to my situation and absorbed as much Latin culture and attitude as I could seeking to hide my so-called 'American attributes'.

In 1992, my mother, brother and I returned to the US and found a culture shock that only added to the family difficulties taking place at the time. I turned to religion as an escape at that time looking for acceptance and approval, but even there I found a lack of understanding in people. Having suffered the mistreatment and judgement of Guatemalans for being a US citizen, it was a shock to be treated as the opposite upon my return to the country, my technical homeland. I found my only solace in sports and in my Pakistani friend, Moinuddin who found himself in a somewhat similar situation as myself.

But even more dramatic was the next of life's steps, a seven year long temporary relocation to the Gem State, Idaho. I awoke one morning shortly after my 14th birthday in a small residential loop in a town of only 2500 people with the smell of evergreens in the air. In this town of predominately white people, my brother and I faced multiple years of indirect racism and treatment as second class citizens. We were surprised and shocked to learn that we were not truthfully 'Americans' solely because of our skin color. This is not to say that the racism was direct or forceful, but rather, it was clear that people looked at me as an inferior to themselves. A perfect example of this would be the suggestion by a number of high school girls at one point that I should go on a date with the foreign exchange student from Japan, simply because I was also, in their minds at least, from a different culture. It should be noted, I never had a single date throughout my high school time period. Again, I eventually figured out how to adapt and to hide all differences possible except for the color of my skin.

This tactic served me well through my university days in northern Idaho up until the attack on the twin towers in 2001. That year was the first time in my life that I faced direct, violent racial actions against those who were not white. But this is not the time nor the place to dwell on those interactions or the ensuing no-fly lists, four hour interrogations at border controls, nor police and public harassment. The purpose of this is to understand that essentially at no time or place in my life to this point had I felt that I belonged to a city, a state, a country, a people. I used the term citizen of the world as early as the age of 14 to explain to people my origins because I had no home base to call my own. I felt more at home as a nomad then as a stationary fixture in any specific society and found that I was more accepted or perhaps tolerated by societies as a transient figure rather than permanent. With that, back to our story at hand, a first trip to spur the next 7 years of travel.

Photo 1: Group of men surround a street performer in Jaipur.
It was May of 2004 and I had been traveling back and forth between Guatemala and Florida for about a two month's time period trying to keep myself busy until I decided what to do with my life. I had only recently taken a leave of absence from my engineering job in Richland, Washington and was not keen on returning to that lifestyle any time soon. Instead, I bought my first ticket to India, what any college educated young man would deem an intelligent decision considering he had no job, no money, and no employment in the foreseeable future.

But how could I pass on the chance to visit a distant land that gave birth to my forefathers, a country that holds more national and historical monuments than most continents, a name that conjures images of painted elephants and camels maneuvering through streets already crowded with people, cows and rickshaws, and a people I had never really known but whom pulled at the core of my being like a twin separated at birth? I just couldn't pass this opportunity was the answer and lucky for me my wonderful girlfriend fully supported my decision to venture into the unknown. Although, I sometimes think she had premonitions of the man I would become through these travels and the man I could have become had I never left our front door, the typical ABCD (American Born Confused Desi). 

Lacking any substantial knowledge of the culture, the people, the history, the weather patterns, etc.; and with encouragement from my father and girlfriend, I purchased a flight through British Airways during the hottest time of the year destined for the desert landscapes of Rajasthan in search of antiquated works of art and furniture. I still marvel today at the leap of faith my father took in sending his 24 year old, arrogant and inexperienced son off to a distant land to purchase goods for a business he had built himself from the ground up with nothing more than a suitcase of carpets in the early 80s. The nomadic blood appears to pass from generation to generation without fail.

I arrived near midnight, excitement pulsing through my veins and as wide awake as a newborn baby at 3am; quite the feat for having just traveled for 42 hours straight. A young man named Jahangir was waiting for me when I arrived at the Indira Ghandi International Airport in New Delhi, not that I knew which of the 200 Indian men outside the arrivals gate was him. I walked past him twice apparently finally locating a pay phone from which to dial his cell phone number that I had just received by e-mail during my layover in Amsterdam Schiphol. I rang three times before he finally picked up his phone and we attempted to coordinate a meeting point.

I knew little of Jahangir except that he was a Muslim man and supposedly of an age similar to my own; whom I met was a man about 5'-8" wearing a traditional grey kurta and sporting a long coarse beard and a taqiyah (traditional headpiece for Muslim men in India that resembles a doily). I learned much about Jahangir during our six hour journey at speeds ranging from 140 km/hr to 180 km/hr on a single lane road from Delhi to Jaipur in the middle of the night weaving in and out of the brightly painted trucks and jeeps without headlights. We made quick friends, practically brothers until business would damage our personal friendship many years later. Our late night/early morning arrival at his family's home in Jaipur was quickly followed by an exhaustion induced 14 hour coma.
Photo 2: A brightly colored locust foretells the impending monsoon season.
My first true day in India brought with it a sense of calm and peace amid the ruckus. We decided to not commence business for a few days so that I could get myself settled and acquainted with Jaipur. So with Jahangir as my travel guide, we visited a number of sites of interest throughout Jaipur, but I quickly found my attention being drawn more to the people and the streets then the buildings and history. This was my first experience of truly blending into my surroundings. Here, in majestic India, it appeared I had finally found a place where I was exactly like the others, where people did not take sidelong glances at me to judge me on my skin color or appearance, a place where I could seemingly just disappear into the masses. It was a beautiful and relaxing feeling to finally have a glimpse at what most would call 'home'.

Photo 3: My first non-zooified camel.
Photo 4: Women drying cashews at Jaipur's main bazaar.
Photo 5: Jahangir procuring sugar cane juice.

Sadly, by the end of my first week, the novelty of belonging had worn away along with my tolerance for the extreme heat only to be replaced with disgruntlement and a severe case of homesickness. The connection I had felt with this society in my first days was apparently only skin deep. The true intricacies of cultural immersion would not fall into their relevant state until much later in my life such as right this moment as I sit among a group of Indian friends including two of my closest friends whom I consider brothers and my wife.

 As I tried to remain open-minded of cultural differences with the western world I had been raised in, I could not help but find myself at odds with a number of events. In no country I had visited to date would a man walk past a woman and her baby so thoroughly malnourished that it appeared they might die on the street that day without even sneaking a glance at the misery, but that day in Jaipur, I watched the entire throng of commuters do so. I was ashamed to claim a connection with these people and again felt the pang of cultural disconnect. In my mind, I could not seem to balance my desire to connect with my family's blood and country and the severance of what I morally considered humanity.This discourse would become a prevailing element of my three weeks in India leaving me almost unresponsive to the questions by family and friends back home.

As the days continued, I found myself at an impasse with my emotions. One day I would love being in India, seeing all of the beauty involved in family life where grandparents and grandchildren all live under the same roof and eat every meal of the day together. I spent my time outside of the business trying to interlace my life with the society by attending prayers at the mosque with the captivating and meditative state brought from the methodical bowing and raising of oneself repeating " allahu akhbar" over and over, visiting the historical sites of the old city in Delhi and the Taj Mahal in Agra, and spawning conversations with young adults having coffee at the first coffee bar opened in Jaipur. Then the following day, my emotions would fall into a dark despair as I again became entrenched in the misery of watching how caste controls the nourishment of people or watch a worker be chastised and demeaned for his inability to finish his carpentry on time for a deadline that doesn't even exist, more so just to remind the worker who is boss.

As I laid in bed sick to the stomach over four days, I had a lot of time to reflect and think on the experiences of my first two weeks in India. The results of all these thoughts combined with my violent stomach sickness left me with an extremely pessimistic view of Indian live and society which slowly eradicated my feeling of connectivity to this culture.

In my short three and half weeks in India, I was able to experience more than I would have imagined. I had effectively purchased a container's fill of antiques and learned how to distinguish between the different varieties of woods used in furniture at different time periods for the regions of India. I visited the world's most profound testament of true love, the Taj Mahal surrounded by the decaying walls of the city of Agra; I ate in some of the grimiest and dirtiest dhabas one can find in central Delhi; and I had a stomach illness so bad that i didn't leave the house for four days, not to mention my introduction to the 'Indian toilet', a truly unique form of handling one's bodily waste that brought months of grimaces from my friends back home upon description. But of all these experiences, I most fondly think of my time spent in the mountain region of Kashmir, which I will talk about in my next post. Until then, please enjoy the photos below of my first trip to Majestic India.

Photo 6: Village boys showcasing captured black bears.
Photo 7: Need a ride, just jump on the back, side, or front of a jeep.
Photo 12: Sitting at a true dhaba, not the currently hyped and popular eateries patroned by Delhi's youth.
Photo 13: The cleaning station at the dhaba.

Monday, March 28, 2011

quitting never felt so good

With the swipe of a badge, doors unlocked and entrance was granted. Through my head flew the same thought I had asked myself over the past 15 months almost every Monday through Friday of each week, "Why would anyone feel the need to break into this makeshift office building that we need security badges? How much secret information could really be found in mathematical formulas that simply prove that concrete is a strong foundation material?" Nonetheless, at least the building is heated allowing some escape from the cold outside.

I slowly made my way past the first two corridors of cubicles and embarked down the third until I came to the blank beige wall that signified the location of my own cubicle. I often found myself wondering if during university initiation week, had they handed me a catalog of cubicles to choose from for where I would spend the majority of my adult life, would I have changed my career choice at that moment? My morning ritual changed little in my year and half working as structural engineering intern: login to the client server, check a few emails, contemplate responding to emails, eventually decide to let my responses linger a little longer, stack some paperwork, peer up at the clock and about ten minutes after seven it was time to make my rounds.

A few months back, acknowledging my inability to arrive at work on time, my boss cleverly gave me the responsibility to lead our engineering staff in the company wide policy of morning stretches at 7am. I should probably add that the conspicuous corner of the building that my cubicle was located in had no other employees surrounding me. I never had to worry about my cubi-neighbor walking in on me fooling around on the internet checking out snow conditions at Mission Ridge ski area or perusing the last minute weekend getaway deals on American and Alaska Airlines' websites.

But let me tell you about the stretches, part of our annual reviews consisted of our ability to contribute to workplace safety. Since the company was primarily a construction company, this was mostly to encourage the field workers to not cut of their fingers whilst tying off rebar and to pay careful attention to their surroundingss as they jackhammered through the concrete pour that was mistakenly performed a week prior without the appropriate reinforcing spacing. So the necessity of workplace safety on annual reviews for us lucky few who found ourselves in the office setting pacing the corridors, just did not really make a whole lot of sense to me.

Nonetheless, my manager Mark, had the ingenious idea that a daily routine of hamstring stretches and calisthenics would meet the same safety goal standards as our soil toting colleagues. If nothing else, at least he could be certain that I showed up to work on time every day, I should note that Mark attended three morning sessions total.

Yet on this day, I was glad to lead the morning militia in daily drills needing to ease the tension in my own shoulders. I was about to inform my manager of my intentions to quit my first professional level employment desiring to relocate myself to Florida. I had grown weary of flying back and forth between Richland, Washington and Fort Lauderdale, Florida every three weeks. I had also grown increasingly bored with my seemingly mundane engineering existence. I watched my potential future in the lives of the 40 and 50 year olds who surrounded me daily. Their families lived back in Houston or Detroit or D.C. or a number of other cities while they worked 12 hour days with seemingly no life outside of their cubicles just waiting for their two year terms to end so they could rotate to the next city far from their families. This was a clear slap in the face to any young college grad who dreamt of cars, homes, cities, vacations, etc. I knew I needed to break this trend before it had a chance to settle in.

I was nervous about approaching my manager, he had been so supportive of my need to make frequent excursions away from the Tri-Cities, which were numerous; I believe I took off a total of three months during my first 12 months of employment to travel. I would take extended weekend trips to Whistler, B.C. or back to Idaho to go skiing, weeks to travel to Latin America and Europe with my brother, and multiple four day weekends to Florida. The man had practically taken me under his wing and even planned out my next major career steps for me. So I was utterly surprised by his reaction when I finally was able to work up the courage to step into his office after my daily ritual of strolling down to the Starbucks a few doors down with my good friend Claude after lunch.

"Well, I expected this to happen eventually. Are you going to marry her? I mean, she is clearly quite the catch, so you should probably put a lock down on that before its too late." A lock down, I was surprised by his use of terminology before it struck that he was aware of my decision even before I had the courage to tell him about it. He had met Kate a few months back when she visited me in September for her birthday and had apparently been counting the days until I would announce my desire to move on in life. He knew long before I did that I was head over heels for a woman that lived across the country from me.

He suggested I consider just taking a long leave of absence rather than actually handing in my resignation as this would leave me eligible to return to work easily if I decided to move back to the Tri-Cities. He also thought I should visit Croatia as he pulled out pictures of green landscapes and beautiful cityscapes. I never did either.

I would spend the next three months slowly completing projects I had started, handing off new work to my fellow colleagues, and planning out the movement of all my worldly possessions back to my mother's house in McCall, Idaho. I had no real plans of what I would do once I was without work, but truthfully at that point, I also did not really worry. I was confident that I would find some way to continually contribute to society, but most importantly I knew I no longer wanted to sit in a cubicle behind a computer monitor watching time slowly move forward, especially with the world outside to be explored and a love recently discovered.

Fade to black and key curtain fall. 

Monday, March 14, 2011

and thus it begins

After much deliberation, I have finally succumbed to the idea of writing a blog. Over the past eight years I have kept an extensive collection of travel journal writing to chronicle my far flung adventures with the idea that one day, a distant grandchild whom I never knew would find a series of leather bound journals detailing the emotions, thoughts, stories, adventures, and theories of a relative his parents only barely remember from their own childhood.

I have dedicated the contents of each and every journal to the only woman I have ever loved, whom I had the blessed luck to meet just over 8 years ago. To be precise, I met her exactly 8 years and 13 days prior to posting this. Meeting her just happened to coincide with the first stirring of the ancient nomadic blood flowing through my veins.

There I was, rolling up carpets in my father's store in Antigua, Guatemala having just arrived after a 24 hour rush period of losing (or stolen by my then roommate) passport, a 3-hour dash to Seattle for a replacement, followed by another 3-hour dash to catch my already purchased flight from Portland to Guatemala. I hadn't seen my father in about a year at this point and was looking forward to some quality time with him to discuss my future and career aspirations. I had been working for a large multinational conglomerate known as Bechtel at the time having recently graduated from the University of Idaho with a BS in Civil and Environmental Engineering; and I was not excited about my job and looking for excuses to get out the heck out of dodge.

I had figured out too late in my college education that I didn't really want to spend my life sitting behind a desk in a cubicle; the turning point being the day my manager (Mark) speaking to one of my colleague's repeated a line from the movie Office Space verbatim: "Derrick, hmmm, I'm going to need you to come in on Saturday." A slight turn and mid step; "Oh and probably Sunday too." Imagine Derrick's and my surprise when rolling into his office laughing to ask what he thought of the movie, we received only a blank stare asking "What movie?"

By Sunday, neither Derrick nor I were laughing.

On my flight to Guatemala, I reminisced about my childhood spent traveling through villages of Guatemala with my younger brother walking next to me as our parents perused the beautiful (at that age I thought boring) textiles created by the villagers surrounding lake Atitlan or the coffee center of Coban. Due to irreconcilable differences between my parents, I found myself whisked away from a life of Latin American adventure to McCall, Idaho, a small town of population 2500. My travels stopped there and I didn't see Guatemala again until I was 16 years old right before graduation from high school dragging my younger brother with me against the will of my mother. Thankfully, she forgave me for this and came to understand me better as life continued. I am glad to say that I have good relationships with both parents whom showed me a world that I could venture into without fear and with an open heart.

Although neither would likely admit it, my parents both were impassioned by a love for one another and it influenced my own emotional development. I have always viewed intelligence and emotions as separate fields of consciousness and would be the first to tell you that emotions overrun my intelligence in almost every decision. As such, I ask you to bare with me as I describe to you the most important day of my life.

It was a fortuitous day in Antigua, the sun shining as it always does, the dust of antique Persian carpets filtering through my nostrils, my father seated at a desk talking on the phone with potential clients, and in walked a stunning blonde. From first look I couldn't be certain of her origins nor her age, but was fairly sure she was out of my league. Two hours she spent in the store chatting up a storm with my father, who has always been a charming man, and I could see that she was enthralled and enlivened by the conversation that spanned topics from antiquities to modern Persian culture. Actually, I wasn't even certain if she had noticed me at all as I stared at this extraordinarily beautiful and intelligent woman before me.

My father set me up on a date. As any young 20-something man would tell you, this was embarrassing beyond belief, but even more shocking was her acceptance of the proposition. "I will be back around 7 to grab you for dinner if that works?" I managed to mutter an agreement of some sorts, the details are lost to me at this point as my mind was still stuck in a dizzying state of anger, embarrassment, and excitement all at once.

The moment she stepped out the door I turned on my father asking him what kind of man would set his own son up on a date which cascaded into a lengthy dissertation on the faux pas related to his actions. At the end of the discussion, he simply smiled at me and said "Well fine, just don't go if you don't want to. I just thought it would be good for you to meet and talk with an interesting and intelligent young woman." You can't argue with that logic now can you? That was the question I kept repeating to myself as I strolled across the Plaza Central to make my way down el calle del arco where I literally ran into the blonde. It took me a moment to realize there was a man with her.

Of course she would have a boyfriend, no man in his right mind would let a woman this beautiful and intelligent travel to foreign countries by herself. As it turns out, I was somewhat right in that assessment, except that this man was one of her closest friends who didn't feel comfortable with the idea of her picking up some random guy in Guatemala to bring to dinner with her and her fellow medical student friends.

The night was a whirlwind affair consisting of drinks and dinner at an Arabic restaurant that no longer exists across from the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo. I immediately befriended most of her friends and was glad to have the chance to learn more about her. Together we strolled the corridors of the hotel, which is a 1600s Catholic Convent that suffered much destruction due to earthquakes and has been converted into a hotel/resort. Our conversations seemed to traverse a network of not-so-apparently interconnected topics ending with a kiss, a touch of hand, and a promise to keep in touch.

In a daze I wandered back towards the apartment my father had rented for my visit. The next morning I was on a plane to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. Actually, ruins is probably not the appropriate term to use when describing Tikal, for unlike most civilizations of the Americas, the Mayan were not decimated by war and the majority of this magnificent structures created in Tikal still stand intact today. Only a fraction of the entire city has been uncovered and is the showcase feature in a country that has been dominated by civil unrest and militarized gangs. A few years back I read an interesting book, the title I cannot remember now. Nonetheless, this book has had a dramatic influence on my perception of human impacts on the environment and the durability of the planet as well as the ill-conceived concepts of ancient civilizations and their ability to work/control the natural elements.

In this book, the author purports a theory that the older American civilizations were actually irrigation and farming specialists; in particular he suggests that the Amazonian tribes once controlled the growth of all vegetation along the length of the river. The theory continues to state that the reason know evidence exists of this ability by the civilizations is that the natural world in the Americas is expedient at replenishing itself and if not controlled, will grow wildly. Having been to Tikal and seen the horizon of mountains, all which are actually temples covered in trees, soil and brush lends me to believe this theory. More locally, anyone who has watched the Ivy in Portland knows that it would continue to grow and overtake all the underbrush and deprive the trees of much needed water if it was not controlled religiously.

I spent most of the day running through the temple grounds, playing with tarantulas (with the help of a local guide of course), and climbing the backsides of the temples. This was my second exposure to ruins as an adult, but not my first as a solo traveler. My previous excursion was a family trip to Macchu Picchu consisting of my father, stepmother, younger half-brother and half-sister and my younger brother Omar. Like the Spanish before us, the mist in the mountains of Peru resulted in us walking through the cities remains without knowing not once, but twice before my stepmother watched the mist part and unveil the city below us back where we entered the site.

I eventually returned back to the Pacific Northwest and had to appear for work, but the thoughts of experiences and adventures in Guatemala still lingered in my bones and, of course, my mind was occupied with the beautiful blonde medical student I had become enthralled by. It took me three weeks to contact her, I was nervous, what would I say. It didn't matter as it seems, as e-mails flowed back and forth between us throughout the days until we decided I should meet her in Portland for a weekend in April where she was researching the medical Residency programs.

A year later I had quit my job and moved to Fort Lauderdale where she was attending medical school. Within months we had located an apartment in Portland, Oregon, I had made my first antiques purchasing trip to India, and I had confirmed a new job with KPFF Consulting Engineers and we had both fallen deeply and madly in love with one another. I am purposely holding back the details because you will all have to wait for the movie, that is if some big time producer decides to pick up on a love story that will span the ages and has already spanned distance, medical school, medical residency, multiple cancers, gut-wrenching plane drops, unemployment, business ventures both failed and potentially successful, bipolar family members of different cultures, and fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams.

I would never have imagined the next steps in life and have long since absolved to throw out any long-term or near-term life plans that so many of us are trained to work towards. What I have learned in the past 8 years, is that planning in life is clearly not in my skill set; I am a nomad, a wanderer, an explorer, a godfather, a brother, a husband, and as one elderly woman stated on a plane, a modern day Indiana Jones whose found his holy grail, true love.