All Eyes On Me

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You’d think I was a supermodel, but they only want me for my money.

In Bali everyone honks at me. I can’t go 20 feet down the street without being yelled at.  A taxi driver sees me from a mile away, slows down, and starts banging on his horn to get my attention. On a good day I ignore every single one of them. On a bad day, the attention drives me fucking crazy.

My gut reaction is anger and protest. Usually I just pretend I don’t notice. Otherswise I’d spend 8 hours a day smiling and bowing and saying “no thank you.”

One of my favorite feelings in the whole wide universe is walking into a coffee shop, sitting in the back corner by the window, listening to music and watching the movie of the world go by. It’s the happy place I travel to when everyone’s staring at me.

I try to slow the anger when I feel they’re using me. Why? Mostly because I can’t change anything by lashing out.

But also because these experiences give me sympathy. They give me sympathy for women who are all too used to getting stared at, followed, propositioned. They give me sympathy for people who’ve NEVER been able, physically, to blend into the crowd. They even give me sympathy for rich (by american standards) people, because I’m sure your friends and family know you’ve got money.

When I was at the market last week I few things, among them was a bag of chips. The cashier stopped in the middle of ringing me up and said, “These are 50,000 – is it OK?” 50,000 idk is about $3.50 usd. The cashier was essentially asking me, “are you really going to spend so much money on a bag of chips? That same money could buy dinner for four.”

That sir, is a good point.

Beginner’s Luck

When you’re new at something, you’re standing at the base of a mountain and there’s only one place to go – up.

If I picked up a saxophone today, my improvement from Day 1 to Day 30 would be astronomical. My improvement from Day 30 – 60 would be great, but not quite as drastic. By the time I’m performing in the saxophone olympics, I’m only improving in very small increments from year to year. Why? Because now I’m the straight-laced superman of symphony.

When you’re new it’s easy to improve. So easy that it looks like magic and we have to make up a name for it, we call it “beginner’s luck.”

Newborn babies know all about beginner’s luck. Newborn babies couldn’t be dumber. They have ALL the knowledge of the universe in front of them, none behind.

Yesterday the little guy couldn’t talk, but today he’s yelling “cookies!” From words to sentences, from crawling to running, he’s smashing past those life milestones at 100 miles per. Little kids don’t bother with rear view mirrors. They just think, “What’s next man?” First bicycle? First kiss? First job? Bring it yo!

Then we get older and the mountaintop levels off. Now we’re walking a level ridge. Looking into the void on either side causes our knees to start knocking, so instead we look ahead, eyes on the prize. As adults, a few or our skills have now been sharpened into money-making skills; so… just keep doing what got you to the dance.

But…

But man it’s fun to be a kid. In any small way you can swing it. It’s fun to suck at something and get better fast. You impress with your progress. And if you screw up? Who cares, you’re only a newbie! It’s fun to stretch your legs again. Your legs miss the feeling of storming that mountain at a 45 degree angle. It’s good because it’s fun, that’s all.

And who among us dares to pretend, “I’ve got more than enough fun in my life, thank you.” I love you but I don’t believe you.

Dawn and Dusk

Few things are impossible, but describing a sunset is one of them. It’s like trying to take a selfie with a skyscraper or recreate a Beatles song using only a rock and a stick. You might as well teach a tiger to play checkers. You might as well give up before you start.

What would you say to somebody who had never seen the sun set over the ocean? “Well there were lots of yellows, and then the yellows turned to oranges, and then…”

Some people don’t know this, but our Earth is connected to a parallel universe of magic. We are only connected to this magical universe twice a day – ever day at Dusk and Dawn – during these two times we swing just close enough to this magical universe that a tiny bit of it bleeds through.

The change that takes place during sunset (or sunrise) is blatantly subtle. You know some wacky magic is happening right in front of your eyes, but it’s faster than a hummingbird and gone before you even grab. You can’t freeze it. To take a picture of a sunset is like drawing a rainbow with only one crayon. This is because a sunset dances, not walks, across the red carpet of time. A sunset moves as slowly and surely as your fingernails grow. It moves at the speed of a blooming rose, a climbing vine, a ripening fruit. It moves at the rate that a child grows. You know it’s happening, but you can’t pinpoint exactly where.

Another big problem is, in order to describe an ocean sunset you’d have to somehow re-create wind through the viewers hair. A chilly wind but slightly warm. A wind that isn’t cold but is somehow getting colder. A sunset is not all about color, it’s not all about light, it’s also the air density, the twist of the wind, the blue blanket of night being draped across the bedtime sky.

Sunsets just wouldn’t be romantic if they made sense from all angles. The day belongs to science, and the night belongs to rest, these things are well understood. But the dusk and the dawn, those are something else entirely. Something that reminds us of the truths we knew before we got born.

Travel for Dummies

7 years ago when I was traveling through Europe, I remember showing up to a random town in Italy, stepping off the train and thinking, “Well, time to go knock on some doors and see if I can find a place to sleep.”

These days, I book my airbnb as soon as I’m done buying a plane ticket to a new country. When I arrived in Bali, my airbnb host arranged a taxi pickup at the Denpasar airport. Now that I’m here, I call an Uber whenever I need a ride. I use the “go-jek” app on my iPhone to order delivery from any restaurant in town. I have three different mobile banking apps that allow me to constantly check on my funds, set travel notices, and transfer money between accounts. I know the currency rate before I go, and thanks to Facebook groups, I already know exactly how and where to exchange cash. The world has never been smaller or better connected.

World Travelers used to have to be super savvy. World Travelers used to wear fanny packs and Crocodile Dundee hats, and they had to keep all of their cash squirreled away in secret money belts.

A smart phone is all you need now. Somebody has already written a blog, posted a video, and documented the exact kind of trip that you want to take.

The way I see it, the internet has taken the initial shock out of travel. Showing up, finding a place to stay, getting local currency – these are the principal pains-in-the-ass that the internet has improved for all of us.

But the magical gems are still out there, buried in the desert. Because once you plop down in a new part of the world, then you start to meet people. And those people plug you into the culture – which is what you still can’t get online – the local markets, the smells, the sun, the smiles. Now the gate opens and the journey jumps off.

Desert Eskimo

Tourists can be a coffee stain on an otherwise flawless piece of art. We leave trash in beautiful places. We talk down to the locals. We buy a lot of plastic shit and cram it into our suitcases like nervous squirrels prepping for winter.

But also I appreciate tourists. A tourist has chosen to spend his/her money on an experience. They’ve put themselves at a little bit of a disadvantage (long flights, strange food, a pause on all the comforts of home). I appreciate the Japanese families and the Singaporeans and the Australians. They all just wanna see the sunset man.

After you know how vulnerable it feels to be a tourist, lost in a strange land, staring dumbly at your map, fumbling to open the door while a whole room of locals watches… real fast you gain empathy for people who are out of their element.

Tourists aren’t dumb even though they sure seem dumb. They’re just a cow in a tree, an eskimo in the desert, or a French King in a Mac store – taking pictures because they can’t believe the movie taking place in front of their eyes.

Kecak Fire Dance

Sometimes I witness something crazy and I think to myself, “that’s going in the novel for sure.”

This weekend I got to see the Kecak Fire Dance. The “Kecak” is a popular performance across Bali. “Kecak” is the sound that the men yell and chant with hip-hop enthusiasm.

While the men provide the A Cappella soundtrack, a costumed cast of heroes and villains re-enacts the basic storyline of the Ramayana, a sacred Hindu text.

It was a trip for me to watch this performance. Because I really did fall in love with the Ramayana when I read it back in college. When I signed up for the fire dance I just thought I’d see some guys tossing flaming sticks around. I didn’t know what I was getting into. Then as I watched the performance I started to recognize some of the scenes and characters: Prince Rama shooting the golden deer, the Princess Sita being lured out of safety by a demon disguised as an old beggar, and later placing a flower in the hair of the monkey god Hanuman.

I did more research as soon as I got home, and I learned that the performance itself was created by a German artist in the 30’s. Apparently Walter Spies traveled to Bali and he said, “Holy Scheiße”  this story’s got money-making potential. What he saw was the original Kecak trance ritual performed in the Hindu tradition by the local Balinese. He took the chant and the themes and adapted them into a dance performance.

Today the Kecak is performed all around bali. If you visit an old temple you can usually pay $5 or $10 for the one hour show. This is a fascinating example of what is referred to as the “modern art-culture system” – when Western Culture adopts non-western cultural elements and transforms them into art.

Also known as the “when white guys monetize non-western shit instead of inventing their own stories” system.

I went full Nerd on this performance because these days I’m in story writing mode. It was strange, mystical experience for me to watch a Hindu myth re-enacted in a language that I couldn’t understand, and realizing that I could still identify with the universal themes and tropes: the hero, the mentor, the princess that symbolizes innocence, the demon in disguise (wolf in sheep’s skin), the “all-is-lost” moment, the climactic battle, the “hero-at-the-mercy-of-the-villan moment.” Just to name a few. It’s time to re-read the Ramayana.

One Step Ahead

summer in january

It’s Friday man and I’m still half young. Two things worth celebrating in 2017.

This is how I look after two hours of Muay Thai training. Now matter how whiny I wake up feeling, how stuck, how full of self-loathing… I’ll always be smiling and skipping by the end of a good workout.

There’s something about movement that directly combats the feeling of stagnation. Depression is a kind of stagnation (nothing is changing, nothing is getting better, nothing seems to help). Physical movement takes that snow globe world where nothing ever changes, flips it on it’s head and sends an army of serotonin snowflakes to sparkle your city towers.

We all experience depression, minor or major, daily or weekly. But I’ve never once felt depressed during a backpacking trip.

I don’t know what the doctors say and anyway, I don’t trust them as much as I trust myself. I can distinguish some very clear patterns if I look back on my life with an objective eye.

When I was trail-running in Alaska this past summer, I quickly learned that I had to stay in a constant state of motion, otherwise I’d get blanketed by bitch-crowd of mosquitos in no time.

Depression is a buzzing black cloud of mosquitos. No amount of sitting and swatting will make them fly away. The universe is yelling over the megaphone that I need to move. I need a change and I need it fast.

Giant Kangaroos

Did you know that 15,000 years ago the American West looked like the plains of Africa?! Lions and cheetahs chased herds of horse and elephant. Camels and giant ground sloths moped around the flat lands. Imagine the American West looking like the Serengeti.

Of course that all changed when Homo Erectus arrived on the scene. We have a pretty predictable habit of elbowing all the other mammals up into the mountains.

Right now I’m on the island of Bali in Indonesia, and around here there’s no room for large mammals like Buffalo or Elephants. However, they do have Komodo dragons, which I haven’t seen yet but plan to. I can’t miss out on my only chance to see real live dinosaurs.

And this part of the world has a remarkable history of exploration and colonization.

Long before humans made it into Alaska and down into North America (around 12,000 years ago), they had already island hopped their way from Asia to Australia (around 40,000 years ago).

THOSE guys were badass. They were some of the first to develop watercraft and explore the uncharted oceans. Essentially they island hopped – from West to East – all the way across to Australia. It was a golden age of successive human population explosions. And what’s crazy is that Australia would not have been visible from where the explorers set out, which means they were just going, casting off into the sea with no idea if they’d find another island, no idea if they’d row off the last cliff of the universe.

And when they reached Australia, they found giant kangaroos, giant pythons, land-dwelling crocodiles, 400 pound ostrich-like birds. Can you imagine? All of these creatures just walking around. And the craziest part is that the animals probably weren’t scared of humans, simply because they had never seen us before. We just showed up. How could they have known?

It’s easy to mourn the loss of a world we’ll never go back to (I’d be a fool to want to live back then). But I’m grateful that I have leaned against a 2,000 year old sequoia giant. I’m grateful that I have seen the bear and moose and mountain goats, the wild oceans and the Himalayas and man’s marvelous skylines from the vantage point of an airplane window.

The Vita-mix universe tosses the earth around on it’s geological spin cycle. I’m living in a polaroid snapshot of a curious events. I’ve got history books that help me see the past, Sci-Fi books written by insanely smart minds that help me see the future, and a 15 minute yoga practice that helps me slow down and discover where on earth I’m actually standing.

Jungle Rain

bali rainforest

Deer by a river in an evergreen forest. That’s my spirit environment.

I’m dangerously far away from my element here in the jungle. I had to stare at those leafy green trees for a good five minutes before I realized they were sprouting bananas. Mangos, Coconuts, lizards on the walls, chickens in the streets. The weather is warm year round with only two season: rainy and less-rainy.

People have dark skin here. They don’t stop for the rain. True to island culture these people seem to exist in the present. No harsh winter lurks around the corner. The horizon is green. The rivers are heavy. When the wind whistles it sings the song of abundance.

I heard the author Hugh Howey say one time, “The characters in a Sci Fi world should never be surprised at their surroundings.”

Balinese people don’t stop to marvel at the miracle rain storms that happen once a day here. But I’ve lived in the land of forest fires and I’ve walked through the dry American West. My brain still can’t register the fact that the ocean I’m seeing is the Indian Ocean. And if I’m walking through the woods and an Orangutan reaches down and gives me a noogie, I don’t know, maybe that kind of thing happens all the time.