Decadent Anticipation

I realize as I sit here typing this is going to sound trivial and carping, like trite complaining. In all reality it probably is. But here goes.

Bahia Navidad

I travel a lot.

I traveled a lot before I got married and traveled some while I was married but travel was always a huge matter of conflict and it was just easier to not travel and not fight about it than it was to travel and fight about it afterwards. Maybe someday I will figure out why I married a woman who wanted to marry a nomad but wouldn’t let me travel? How did I let that happen? What’s that say about me?

But I digress.

Then I got divorced and moved back to San Antonio and promptly went to Central America for two weeks with my Father. Then I went to Joshua Tree for a week with a friend. I just returned from three and a half magnificent weeks in Central Asia with my Father. We’re talking about Antarctica over the holidays to see penguins. Yes, I am trying to catch up for a handful of missed years.

So, like I said, that’s a lot of travel.

But here’s the catch: I haven’t traveled alone since July 2009 when I went to the Mexican state of Jalisco, wherein I stayed at a little beach village called San Patricio/Melaque on the Bahia Navidad to be precise. And nearby, between drunken nights and memories of blowing conch shell horns on the beach and ceviche to die for I took up surfing in the Boca de Iguanas in the mornings. It was a divine three weeks, as I recall. Only late in the trip a friend showed up and the entire tenor of the trip changed. I only traveled with him a few days and then went home.

This leads to my complaint, if you want to call it that, I see it more as a recommendation or an endorsement: nothing beats traveling alone.

Absolutely nothing.Pelicans

It is rare and decadent. There is no one to please. No one to worry about. No one to keep me from doing what I want to do when I want to do it. No one to compromise with about this food or that, this place or that, nothing or anything. My only job is to live in the moment and like a dandelion seed go where the wind blows me. (I stole the dandelion line from someone by the way.)

And for the first time in five years I am going to travel alone.

I’m actually more excited that in three weeks I am going to get on a bus at the San Antonio bus station and ride to Mexico City and see a friend than I was about going to Central Asia.

After Mexico City I will make my way to Belize where I will participate in an archeological dig at Buena Vista and Xunantunich for twenty five days: no air conditioning, cold showers every morning and washing clothes by hand in the Mopan River old school-like. Up at five asleep at eight. Devouring every last drop of knowledge I possible can from my professors on the Maya and the practice of archeology.

After that I will meander–slowly–back to San Antonio by bus, but not before spending at least three days on the Pacific Coast surfing.
Colonias Returning Home From Work

No computer.

No smart phone.

No jealous woman back home demanding I Skype or wondering what the hell I am doing and why she hasn’t gotten a call, or a text or why so and so said something to me on Facebook. (No, really, I’m not bitter.)

Hell, I’ll probably leave the camera in the hotel room most of the time as well.

Nothing will come between me and the waves, except tequila at night and my pen and notepad, because I’ve learned writing by hand is where I find that train bound for glory.

It has been too long.

And I cannot wait much longer.

Airlines In America Are Now As Terrible As Airlines In Russia

Boarding A Flight in AshgabatLet me make this prefatory remark up front: I take absolutely no joy in writing this or in making these criticisms, but someone has to tell you how it really is. If you disagree, fine, but back your disagreement up with something more than a mindless assertion that “‘Murica is the best.” Why? Well, for starters, chances are I’ve forgotten about more of my travel experiences than you’ve ever had travel experiences. Second, I have observation and experience on my side. Third, well, do you really want to have a pissing match you’ll lose? Just trust me, I know what I am talking about.

I say this each time I am at IAH (Houston Intercontinental) airport: it’s a filthy pit. And I’ve seen some in my time. While I was waiting for my last flight to San Antonio (having flown from Istanbul to Munich to Houston) a man said in Spanish to his wife, “this airport is filthy.” I was embarrassed. But then I looked around even more closely. The paint on the walls was peeling, the blue carpet was filthy, the chairs were leaning at angles and the fabric was torn or stained. I expect this in an Uzbek airport or one in some other post-imperial shit hole. But in America, the so-called greatest, richest, most awesomest country in the entire galaxy?

We should be ashamed of shitty air travel infrastructure.

Second, American airlines are fast approaching the quality of Russian airlines. United, Delta and American are and should be a national disgrace. Turkish National Airlines is better than all three and there are many airlines in the world better than Turkish. The point is that our domestic airlines are pathetic and now equal post-Soviet Russian planes in decrepitude, discomfort and cost. The food is not much better, either. I now do everything I can to avoid flying American airlines internationally. They are that bad. Domestically? Hell, I will sit on a bus for ten hours to avoid a three hour flight and the subsequent TSA bullshit involved.

Oh, you don’t believe me when I say the quality is as terrible as Russian airlines? Well, have you ever flown on a Yak-40 from Bukhara to Tashkent? Or a Tupolev 154 from Amsterdam to Moscow? Or an Ilyushin-96 from Tashkent to Moscow? Well, I have and they aren’t much different than the crap planes Boeing is now making. Airbus Industries in Europe simply makes a better quality and comfort plane.

Added to original post and edited at 5:07 pm, June 9: As reader Rodd noted, accurately and fairly, on Facebook, “[I] take umbrage with you asserting that Boeing makes crappy, low quality airplanes. It’s the carriers that set up the insides and is responsible for seating, food and refreshments and service, Sean Paul, not Boeing.”

My reply: That’s a fair criticism on your part to make of me but allow me to elaborate in a better manner. Why? Well, most Americans wouldn’t understand. They are trained by propaganda to believe that Russian planes just fall out of the sky, whereas in reality Russian planes are excellent. (So were there space stations, and apparently their rockets as good enough to shoot our satellites into the sky). The Tupolev 154, especially. It’s like a Volkswagen Bug of the sky. It never quits. However, the service and seating and food is terrible. So, Americans have this idea that Russian planes are terrible, when in reality, they are exactly as you describe, “It’s the carriers that set up the insides and is responsible for seating, food and refreshments and service.” So, point taken. I should have communicated that better.

This should be a national disgrace and scandal.

Furthermore, I’ve crossed at least sixty international borders, passport control and customs posts. Only three nations are more difficult, time consuming, aggressively bureaucratic and rude (read: hostile) than the USA: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia. That’s quite a stand up list. Seriously, it was easier and less intrusive as an American getting into Iran than it is being an American citizen getting back into America. The ICE/TSA are a bad joke. Moreover, after comparing multiple international airports with the “best” American airports, which are really decrepit dumps, our US airports flat out resemble more and more the post-Soviet Russian airports and infrastructure I saw traveling in Russia in the late 90s and early 2000s. As my friend Alexi replied to my tweet on the subject, “Weird to look back and see the future, ain’t it?” No doubt.

But there’s more: it is always sad to come home to America and realize how far behind the rest of the world we are falling. I love my country and want to see it succeed. But what I see saddens me. Our decline is now accelerating. As I already said, our TSA/ICE security theatre is a grotesque farce compared to real security procedures in places like Europe. US security procedures resemble the bureaucratic heavy-handedness in places like Russia, Uzbekistan and Nepal before the revolution. And can someone explain to me what exactly the purpose of APC is? It seemed a redundant disaster that only aggravated citizens returning from abroad than any time saving measure. What’s worse is that if you are flying business class you get to go through the speedy line. Except, there are now so many elite award card holders it really makes no difference. The only difference is you don’t have to take your shoes or belt off. Lastly, you can apply for TSA pre-check to avoid all this. But it’s pricey.

Of course, less than 1/3 Americans have a passport so I don’t expect this to change. America will soon be a second class country. But in the scheme of time, comparing Asia to the US during my first trip to Korea in ’95, is there a difference? Back then South Korea, Japan and just a little Chinese infrastructure was better than US infrastructure. Port facilities, airports, roads, etc. but y’all know this. Here’s what you don’t know: today Singapore, Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and about 1/4 of Chinese infrastructure is superior to that in the United States of America.

Superior.

That means better than ours, by the way.

What’s worse is that the differential is now accelerating and we’re rapidly falling behind.

But hey, I’m just a pointy-headed academic. What the hell do I know about the real ‘Murica?

Movement

Panama SunsetMoving around feels good, I confess. Not staying in one place for long, feels good, I confess.

Being out here in the crazy, uncontrollable world where only one thing can ruin my day, my expectations, is the best.

It’s just been too long.

It’s just been too long cooped up, unable to pick up and leave a place simply because I feel like it.

It’s been too long.

Don’t you ever feel that way? Doesn’t everyone? Aren’t we all nomads at heart?

On The Road Again

For far too long this blog has been without any kind of real adventure. The last one ended abruptly with a shattered collar-bone in the jungles of Sumatra and a grueling six day return trip to America and surgery.

There were a few excursions here and there: out to West Texas a few times, a magnificent road trip from Tahoe to Yosemite and then Yosemite to San Francisco. But those places have been tame, calm, where one can sip fine wines and sleep on posh beds. It has been a long time since I strung a back pack on, landed in an airport and wondered, “where the hell am I going now and what language are they speaking?”
Descent on Yavin IV
That day has almost arrived.

No one is holding me back any more.

On Tuesday December 10th I will fly into Panama City, Panama and over the next two weeks make my way up the Isthmus to Guatemala City to fly home on the 23rd of December. This is all mostly terra incognita to me. I won’t spend any time in Costa Rica, but I do plan to revisit a day in a canoe in the Lago de Nicaragua and maybe catch a baseball game in Granada. After that: who knows? Maybe an eco-resort in El Salvador, maybe a trip up to Honduras to see family friends. But one thing you can be assured of, I am going to watch the Millennium Falcon land at Tikal during the Winter Solstice, December 21st!

Now, on to a bit of logistics: I’ll be doing some writing for Centro y Sur, a magazine dedicated to Latin American travel. So be sure and subscribe online, as it’s free.

But that hardly pays the bills. Therefore, I will not hesitate to ask (now that I am no longer in sales, but still a former salesman) for you to pitch into the tip jar only if you liked the blog post, or the story as it develops. Grad school is expensive and this travel, while I stay in $5 a night rat and roach infested places and the flight is covered by old accumulated air-miles, still isn’t cheap.

You will also get a daily dose of large amounts of photographs at Flickr. 

And as always, if YOU have suggestions, tell them to me and I will see if I can accommodate you, as you are the reader and an equal partner in this endeavor of ours.

So, y’all, how does it feel to be back on the road with me? It’s been far, far too long, hasn’t it?




On Poets and Madness

White GoddessWhen I was a younger man, perhaps from the time of my sophomore or junior year at university I wanted to be a poet. (Go ahead and snicker, really, it’s okay.) During this obvious and earnest phase of my life I came across and read Robert Graves’ dense and obscure “White Goddess.” Labeled ‘a grammar of poetry,’ it was nothing of the sort. It’s full of Graves’ ramblings about a pan-European Goddess of poetry and the secret language used by the ancients, medievals and early-moderns to summon her. Don’t get me wrong, some of the historical anecdotes are fascinating, but as a whole? It’s bizarre.

The book, which I still own, sits on that bookshelf we all have filled as it is with other random books that make up a category all their own. Defiant in their solitude. “The White Goddess” is still as canary yellow as the day I purchased it, too.

During one of Graves’ discussions of the ogham script and its relation to pan-Celtic, Druidic poetry (yes, there are a few in the book), he mentions the Welsh mountain Cadair Idris. The Chair of Idris is a wild, glacial-scraped mountain of the Snowdon range that towers over and protects Lyn Mwyngil and Abergynolwyn on one side and dominates the town of Dolgellau on the other. It’s a stupendous rock with an absolutely stupendous (and cold) lake right in the middle of it.
Cadair Idris 5
I’ve climbed it several times and it seems each time I’ve learned a new myth or legend about it. Some myths were gleaned while meeting other climbers on the mountain: it’s an odd rock too, one that makes climbers loquacious. Other legends I have heard while having tea in local Welsh B&Bs or ale in the pubs and one loutish legend a crazy transplanted-Kiwi told me and my best friend one summer as we hitch-hiked through Northern Wales.

But only one legend concerns us here, that which Graves recounts about the mountain in his book.

“For it is said,” and I paraphrase, because even though I have the energy to go out and take a photo of the book I have not the strength to open it up and wrestle with the demons from my youth that will inevitably claw their way out of the pages as memories, the spawn of demons, are wont to do, “that he who spends the night atop Cadair Idris will either become a poet, a madman or die that night in his sleep.”

Youth being exquisite in its stupidity and foolhardiness I was just dumb enough and foolish enough once to attempt this feat. And I succeeded.

I didn’t die up there that night, although it was cold enough even in the middle of summer on that barren summit that I shiver now. And I do not write poetry any more, for as Bukowski said (or maybe it was Catullus) “I see there are many poets in the world but not so very much good poetry.” (Even though once upon a time I was good enough to get published.)

So, that leaves only the one option.

Makes complete sense.

Eight and Ten

Ephesus: InscriptionOne personal goal this year has been to read more of what scholars and academics would call, “primary sources;” what laymen call “books that make up books.” Some can be fascinating for their own sake, like Herodotus (my all time favorite) or Thucydides (my bête noire). Portions of Lucian are worth reading today for sheer irony and humor and then there is the whole sprawling magnificence of the ancient Greek playwrights. Later writers sound fascinating but prove a touch on the disappointing side, like Giovanni Boccaccio’s “Genealogy of the Pagan Gods.” I’m still reading this and have hopes for it. The book is full of hard to find but thought provoking stories; I mean, where and when did the Greco-Roman gods really emerge? It’s a question not likely to stimulate many, unless they’ve read their Hesiod. Other primary sources this year have included “The Chronicle of Pseudo-Joshua the Stylite,” which is a brief (mercifully so) history of the war between Byzantium and Persia from the perspective of an Edessene at the beginning of the 6th century. And most recently I’ve been quite taken by “Cyriac of Ancona, Later Travels.”

The volume in question is part of the i Tatti Renaissance Library published by Harvard University and covers his letters and diaries from 1443-49. As a 15th century Italian Cyriac was no doubt engaged in commerce. And he spent most of his life sailing around the tatterdemalion scraps of the Byzantine empire, setting up trade posts for the Genoese in the Black, Marmara and Aegean seas. It was with a certain relish and anticipation that I picked up his book. Some of it was good—like when he met the future Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in Adrianople during an audience with his father Sultan Murad II. If only Cyriac had taken a moment to look more closely at little Çelebi, as Mehmet was then called, one wonders what he looked like at ten? Was he brooding and intense like he seems in the later histories, or gentle and serene as depicted in the miniature by Nakkaş Sinan Bey?Harbor Road: Ephesus

There are other missed opportunities, like when Cyriac goes hunting with Constantine Dragases—the last Constantine, he who died on the Theodosian Walls like a proper Roman and last Emperor. What was he like, there in the wilds of the Peloponnese? Did he foresee his doom even then? The end of his empire and the end of his line? If only Cyriac’s letters told us more about these men than his trade arrangements. Alas, the recording of history is nothing if not grief over missed opportunities like these.

Cyriac is mostly remembered today, if he is remembered at all, because he urged the preservation of the antique remains that littered and illumined his world. Rare is he who sees the treasure that has always stared him in the face. At one point Cyriac sounds like a cantankerous citizen at a city hall meeting fulminating against the lack of preservation and decay all around him. “One needs a more expansive genre in which to cry out against, despise, condemn and thoroughly curse such great negligence, slothfulness and lack of human culture on the part of our contemporaries,” he writes near the beginning of his letters. We owe a lot, as a culture, to Cyriac’s imprecations. That we value the past as we do, and have preserved much of it, we learned during the Renaissance, and it remains Cyriac’s forgotten legacy.Priene

In July of 1444 Cyriac made his way from Constantinople to Perinthus (the modern Marmara Ereğlisi). Two thirds of the way there he stopped in Selymbria, now Silivri, to document the many inscriptions lying around. What must this have looked like? Cracked marble plinths, perhaps an architrave and columns lying higgledy-piggledy, used as a quarry for the more industrious of subjects and ignored by all the rest. The blue luciferase waters of the Marmara behind them. Here Cyriac found treasure.

Some inscriptions date back to the reign of Trajan—or at least this is my semi-educated guess, my Latin being rusty and my Greek practically oxidized out of existence. What struck me was the span of human existence  there—as I had seen when I visited the region in 2008-2009—and how much their desire to leave something behind is still so very alive. It’s one of those qualities that binds us as humans, even if we don’t realize it.

PrieneAnd yet, sometimes when I am back here in the suburban post-modernity of the New World, thinking about or reading history I feel I live in a facsimile of reality and it’s only when I am back over there, when I can touch a two thousand year old marble inscription that I know the past is real, not green lights tumbling down a black screen.

Such was my state of mind a few weeks ago when I sat down in my favorite chair and began reading the inscriptions Cyriac noted in his diary between the 25th of July and 12th of August 1444. Some were interesting and in Latin: 

Good fortune. Emperor Caesar Trajan Hadrian Augustus,son of the divine Trajan, victor over the Parthians, grandson of the divine Nerva, consul for the third time. 

Others anodyne (and in Greek) in their attempt to honor a citizen ad aeternam:

Good fortune. The Council and the People honored Poplios Ailios Harpokration, also called Proklos who built the shrine of Tyche; the Alexandrians who do business in Perinthos set up a statue in his honor. 

But then I read this:

As I was leaving my eighteenth year and just beginning the study of rhetoric, a grievous illness overcame me in well-wooded Lesbos, and I had not yet reached the pleasant land of Ephesus. My brother, by a great deal of work, gave this sadness to be borne to my parents on a swift ship. I dwell in the holy houses of heroes, not in Acheron—for such is the end of life for the wise.

Seven lines carved on a marble plinth gut punched me. They shouted and smiled down at me while I lay on the floor collecting the questions after a knock-out blow.

When was it written? Where was it found? Where is it now?
Inscription On The Old Theodosian Walls, Istanbul
Who composed the lines? What did he die of? Did it take him quickly? Or was it a wasting disease? And just how did a dying eighteen year-old find the composure to write with such simple and powerful elegance?

Slaver the Greek word that begins the inscription around on your tongue for a moment and listen to its alien beauty: ohkto-kai-deka-toy.

Eight and ten. Eighteen.
Ornament, Ephesus
If the rest of Cyriac is dull, uninteresting and lifeless like the two former inscriptions, so be it, I thought in that moment, this inscription makes the entire book worth reading. It’s why I love the study of history and why I have disciplined myself to read primary sources this year instead of wasting time on Facebook or Twitter. The sources are like mines of gold or silver, but the veins of metal are rare and hard to find. And to mix metaphors a little, sometimes the poetry of the past, as in these seven lines of Greek, cuts me down to size.

I’m forty two years-old now. What’s forty two minus eighteen? It’s twenty four. I’ve had twenty four more years of living than this eloquent young man who, but for a loving brother, would have vanished, would have been wiped clean by the forgetful waters of River Lethe, and instead found himself in Elysium.

What have I done with my extra twenty four years? I’m human and wasted much of the time whining and groaning about lost opportunities (I really don’t have any to be honest, because I took most of them, wisely or unwisely) and pissing and moaning about stupid mistakes (we all have those, me included, but most aren’t that stupid, although there have been a lot).
Ornament On The Old Theodosian Walls, Istanbul
Let us add more to the scales. He was eighteen years-old and died. And here am I with a (thus far) well-lead life: fifty five countries visited, one great love and two ex-wives, a career in finance (long), a career in software sales (short), a career as a writer (even shorter), and a stint as a stay-at-home step-father (the shortest). I’ve had more huge chunks of plain old-fashioned obscene good luck than 99.9 percent of humanity and I have the gall to complain?

And then I read what this young man—no, this boy—composed while dying and I know any story I tell will never have the impact of his seven lines of poetry.

A Taxonomy Of Travelers

I’m working on what I call a taxonomy of travelers. Obviously I am painting with a very broad brush. Here is a list of the ten most common types I’ve encountered:

1. The Rookie
2. The Braggart
3. The Loner
4. The Old Dude
5. The Tourist
6. The Misfit
7. The Man Whore
8. The Drunk
9. The Social Butterfly
10. The Happy Couple.

I’ll define two of them:

The Social Butterfly: The social butterfly is that person who provides the glue for a group that has temporarily banded together to travel from point A to point B. This person is frequently very metro, but not necessarily gay.

The Happy Couple: All backpackers have met at least one “happy couple.” Who they are and how they act is largely self explanatory. Everyone secretly hates the happy couple. At least until they are one.

So, what type have I missed?

Did Polo Really Go To China?

WallsAn article published in the Telegraph yesterday questions whether Marco Polo really went to China. This is one of those questions that can never be definitively answered. I certainly have my opinion on the matter, having read a great deal of the literature, including three versions of Marco Polo’s work.

In the past the major crux of the argument falls on Polo’s failure to mention the Great Wall, foot-binding, tea drinking and chop-sticks.

Let’s take these one by one: the Great Wall in Polo’s time quite possibly might have not been so great. You have to remember the Ming Dynasty, which came into power in 1368–long after Polo passed from the scene–built the wall that we see in movies and photos and legend today. Up until that point the great wall was better described as a series of long walls across the northern and western frontiers. But they were sorely neglected during the Yuan Dynasty. After all, why would Mongols, nomads par excellence, build walls?

As for foot binding. Let me be blunt and very politically incorrect: why would a European man of the 13th century notice a woman’s feet?

Tea drinking and chop-sticks? All I can say is that in my travel writing I have missed some very, very obvious things. Sometimes I missed them because I didn’t find them interesting to me. At others I missed them because I had been ‘in country’ so long that they no longer seemed important, or had become so commonplace to the experience as to be beyond notice. Kind of like having tea in the UK.

All that being said, I think there is some very real substance to the latest critique:

”When he describes Kublai Khan’s fleet he talks about the pitch that was used to make ships’ hulls watertight. He used the word chunam, which in Chinese and Mongol means nothing. In fact it is the Persian word for pitch. It’s also odd that instead of using, as he does in most instances, local names to describe places, he used Persian terms for Mongol and Chinese place names.”

If textual analysis bears out that many of the words Polo used were indeed Persian in origin, when there were very real Chinese or Mongol words for identical things, well, that’s problematic. Although, having a bit of experience with Mongolian (sounds like a cat trying to spit out a furball and eat peanut butter at the same time) and Chinese, which is tonal and quite difficult to transliterate, I sympathise if Polo found it easier to to transliterate an Indo-European tongue into Italian. (But this again raises the question of what role Rusticello played in the process. Remember, Polo didn’t write his memoirs, he dictated them to a French romance writer while in a Genoese prison.)

It’s a big if. I haven’t read the Italian archeologist’s full story of the account so I can’t say. But let’s suppose this is true and Polo ends up being known as a fraud like Mandeville. Who, you ask? Mandeville was for about 300 years, just as popular as Polo in the European imagination and in some cases, moreso. He humanized the other in a way no European had yet to do. Of course, Mandeville, it was later discovered, had cobbled together medieval accounts in a monastery in northern England. He never traveled at all. Regardless, Mandeville’s manuscript was included in Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic and influenced many other early-modern European explorers.

So, does it really matter in the end if Polo never made it past the Black Sea? If he ends up being a semi-fraud? No, I don’t think it matters. Polo expanded the European imagination at a critical point in European history. There is a direct line of influence from Marco Polo to Henry the Navigator, the great Portuguese prince who subsidized the expeditions around Africa and into Asia via the Indian Ocean. That influence is incontrovertible and really cannot ever be taken away from Polo. Polo didn’t begin the great age of European exploration, but he influenced in vast ways that reverberate to this day.

For The Birds

Blue Footed Boobie!Yes, it has been a while, I know. But here is my latest story for Texas Monthly, in defense of birds and birdwatching. Funny thing about blogging is that it originated as a riposte to this essay in Slate and turned into something much more.

As a side note, if you are visiting form Texas Monthly for the first time, here are links to photos of the birds mentioned in the story:

Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis)

Little Bee-eater (Merops pusillus)

Hoopoe (upupa epops)

Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) Obviously the Painted Bunting photo is a terrible one. That was the whole beauty of the encounter–proving how elusive the little guys can be.

Enjoy!

On Characters With Character

Books of the Chinese Silk RoadThe last few weeks have been tough. I’ve been battling a recurrent infection, one that seems to crop up once a year. It’s pretty dreadful. By the time it is in full swing I am lethargic, full of malaise and generally feeling sorry for myself. I told myself, last time it occurred, that I would go to the doctor immediately once the symptoms appeared. Due to America’s horrible health-care system I had to wait two weeks to see a specialist, which was more than enough time for the symptoms to worsen. I walked into the doctor’s office with a significant gait in my left leg. He looked at me and shook his head. “Why didn’t you come earlier,” he asked.

“Had to wait for approval from my HMO. Took a week. You were booked the next week,” I said.

The doctor looked at me kindly and said, “next time call me and I’ll prescribe you something before you come in, okay?”

He’s certainly one of the best doctors I’ve ever interacted with. He has an exceptional bedside manner, listens to everything I tell him, queries me fully, often time spending upwards of thirty minutes with me. For a doctor that’s priceless.

The prescription is for a heavy anti-biotic. The kind where you spend 10 minutes in the sun and it leaves you feeling like you’ve crossed the Taklamakan without water.

As a side note, I’ve read on several occasions that ‘Taklamakan’ means ‘goes in, doesn’t come out,’ in an ancient Chinese, or possible Tokharian dialect. Having flown over the Taklamakan several times and circumambulated its edges, I have to say that I agree.

One May when my father and I were in Dun Huang, the last great oasis before the Taklamakan, I got to thinking about Xuanzang, a 7th century Buddhist monk who sneaked his way past the T’ang guards at the Jade Gate, into the Taklamakan. He then proceeded to cross it, disproving its meaning as a toponym, but no matter. He then crossed the Tien Shan, chilled at a Buddhist monastery in Samarkand–just a few years before the Arabs irrupted into Central Asia, and then did a backwards dogleg into Afghanistan and India where he spent a decade plus collecting Buddhist manuscripts to take back to China.
Dun Huang Dune
Buddhism was not new to China, but it’s safe to say its roots were nothing compared to those which dug deep after Xuanzang’s return to Chang’an, the capital of the T’ang empire. What course might Chinese Buddhism taken were it not for Xuanzang’s efforts at travel, discovery and exploration? And what course might my life have taken had I not been exposed to Chan Buddhism in China in 1999?

This diminutive monk spent his remaining days translating the Buddhist corpus is a spartan monastery cell, eschewing all glory and worldly goods and his good works echo down the centuries to my own time and my own debt of gratitude to him.

Now that’s a character with character. Central Asia is littered with them, from the monstrous Timur–aka Tamerlane, who left a trail of human skulls from Damascus to India–to the poignant Omar Khayyam.

I tend to think about people like Xuanzang and Polo and ibn Battutah when I am feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes it works: I feel better, realizing my pedestrian concerns, minor ailments and the general discontent I feel with my post-modern life do get the better of me.

But sometimes it fails: I want to be Polo, or Rabban Sauma, Wilfred Thesiger, people who lived a full life so far away from home. People who made the world their home, citizens of this great and tragic blue ball spinning off into eternity.

And then I get a text message and the world comes roaring right back at me.