Seven Year Olds Make Trenchant Observations

FrancescaThe seven year-old niece sits on the couch with wet hair, a puppy dog smirk swaddled in a blanket. Mother and I talk about my plans, the future.

“So, you got a job. How long will you be there?” she asks.

“Six months, maybe ten, depends on how much I can save.”

“And where are you going next?”

“I don’t know, Mom, it’s really a terrible dilemma,” I tell her.

“Sure, terrible indeed,” she smiles. Mom and I have grown into a mutually supporting friendship over the last two years. And it certainly has been timely. We spent several years not speaking to each other, both too stubborn to admit that we were remotely more similar in our temperaments than either cared to admit. Mom stood on principle and I stood on petulance. But even as a thirty-something I learned a great deal from her example. Never the touchy-feeley type, her actions proved love and support. Mom always taught by example. Would that I had seen this sooner. But now, she’s more supportive of my endeavors than I ever imagined.

“It’s your life,” she always says, “live it and enjoy it.” Her actions back up her words.

“I keep thinking I need to go see penguins. Head down through Central America, then South America and finally Antarctica. But you know what Mom? My heart just isn’t in it. Sure, I need to hit below the equator. But Latin America isn’t for me.”

“But you had fun in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, right? And as I recall, surfing in Mexico was a blast,” she says.

“No doubt. But my internal compass just points East, hard East, too. Not necessarily the Far East,” I said, waving off her next comment, “but just East. Somewhere between Istanbul and Beijing, or Java in the South to Mongolia in the North. Something keeps dragging my heart that way, my thoughts, my ideas,” I say.

“You and the East,” she nods her head up and down. “That complicates things doesn’t it?”

“You’ve always been good with the understatement, Mom, haven’t you?”

“You remember how much I cried the day you flew off to South Korea?” she asks.

“Yeah, I remember. I was really surprised.”

“I felt like I was watching Paul leave for Vietnam. He had something in him about Asia as well. And so did your grandfather. He fought in the Korean War. I was scared. Nibbi men tend to get shot up or killed in Asia like your Uncle Paul,” she tells me.

“I can’t explain it, Mom, there is just something there for me. I feel more alive there than anywhere else. I’m engaged. I’m always fascinated. And I wake up in the morning never knowing what is going to happen that day,” I told her.

“Ghosts,” she whispers as the shadow of an old grief walks across her face. I fumble, uncomfortably, in my cigarette box for a smoke. The seven year old scowls at me.

“What are you looking at, little one?” I asked.

“I want to know when you are going to buy a house. Get a wife. Be normal!” she says.

“Gigi!” she says to my Mom, all a-smirk, “Grandpa says he’s irresponsible.”

I shake my head. And poke her.

“Chessa!” my mom says, “you’re uncle is a traveler. What’s normal for him is not normal for others.”

Elise, the nine-year old walks into the room, rubbing her eyes.

“Nothing about Uncle Sean Paul is normal,” she blurts as she slams the door to the bathroom.

Who could disagree with that assessment?

Anecdotes From Cubicle Hell

“So, can you tell me your two best qualities?” the interviewer asked.

“First, I’m persistent. I never give up. I’m like a pit bull with a bone. No one is going to take it away from me,” I said.

“Second, I excel at creative problem solving,” I said. “Throw up brick wall, force me to deal with a gatekeeper, and I am going to find away around both, or blow ‘em up. And walk right through,” I said. (I was interviewing for a sales position.)

The interviewer nods. Scribbles some shit in his notepad, purses his lips in a half smile and nods at me again.

I think to myself, “Hell, I got this one locked up. I rock!”

“So, what are two weak points you have?” He asks.

“First, my filter is broken. I tend to say what I think, as I am thinking it. The whole ‘think first, speak second’ thing doesn’t work for me anymore.”

The interviewer’s eyes widened in shock. “And, second?”

“Second, I expect more original questions out of interviewers, especially at high profile and creative software companies,” I said.

Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.

More Google Searches

Here’s one from today I liked: jobs that have to do with mountains. As long as you’r enot blowing them up, and you find one, please let me know. I love me some mountains. Preferably with a beach in front of them, but hey, as I am stuck in cubicle-land, I’m not picky these days.

Alas, sometimes the searches are very strange: compare and contrast Singapore and Somalia? Really? Really? Why? One’s in Africa, the other in Asia at the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula. One is highly organized and prosperous, the other is desperately poor and chaotic. Not to mention a failed state. And you needed google to tell you this?

Lines Written While on a Bus, Camel, Train Or Boat

The DraftIn late 2003 when I returned from my journey across the Silk Road, I made my first attempt to write a book. It was ultimately unsuccessful, for a number of reasons. First, I had no confidence in my writing skills. Second, my writing left a lot to be desired. Sure, sometime between 1995 and 2001 I found my voice, so to speak, but it hadn’t matured. I hadn’t grown into my own skin as a writer. To this day I still wrestle with what to reveal versus what not to. But the most difficult task was organization. I had no idea where to start. The longest attempt at writing was a 30 page grad-school paper on contemporary Russian foreign policy. Writing Russian foreign policy doesn’t lend itself to novelistic pacing, and autobiographical revelations, plus throw in historical oddities and my love of architecture? Putting something together with a hoped for 200 plus pages? Or around 75,000 words? Wow, I was intimidated.

After several fits and starts (I did manage to write a pretty good chapter on my time in Georgia and I put together a decent chapter on classical China and a fun ride over the Tien Shan in Kyrgyzstan but that’s as far as I ever got) I decided that to write about the Silk Road properly was going to require another trip and a whole lot of notes. It might even require two volumes. So I shelved the project. I will pick it up at some point in the near future—it is a project that is a labor of love and enduring fascination on my part. But that was then.

Today I’m officially three fourths complete on book attempt number two. I’ve covered most of what I hoped to in South East Asia. I gutted much of the story of my conversion to Buddhism as too self-indulgent, but surprisingly added parts of my divorce that seemed to gel with the narrative–of course this may change when the first draft is complete and an editor has her way with it. Some of the history is is really interesting, even to me still–and I wrote it. The India chapter is complete. That was a revelation. It’s equal parts autobiography and romp through the architectural traditions of the sub-Continent and the story of spices in India–mostly Kerala. And my amazing adventure in Turkey is pretty much done. No spoilers there. It’s too much fun to contemplate. The Turkey section of the book was the easiest to write for one reason: by the time I arrived in Turkey I had gotten very, very good at keeping copious notes and was journaling at least 750 words a day. Throw in several dozen long emails to friends and the source material almost got overwhelming at one point. I had to make some serious executive decisions on just what I wanted to include in the manuscript, as opposed to struggling every day with adding stuff to it, as I did with the Singapore and Malaysia portions.

When it comes to travel writing I think one key—probably the major key—is keeping copious notes and keeping them up to date. Jotting down observations is good–it’s also a potent way of creating vivid and living metaphors. Some of my best lines came from esoteric and barely legible scribbles, often times meandering across the whole page, lines written while on a bus, a camel or a train, the rocking back and forth evident in the ferocity of punctuation. But ending the day by writing up my perceptions and observations, which is something I was doing religiously by the time I arrived in Istanbul—but failed to to after I arrived in Denmark—was critical. The travel narrative, after the autobiography, is the most self centered of all writing forms. And when I lacked proper notes, the narrative suffered.

The last quarter of the book is going to be a tough task. First because I’m rejoining corporate America next week (for a short time only). And because my notes from Budapest to Amsterdam are sketchy, to say the least, the narrative has to be reconstructed via memory, which is a frail and often complicated thing. And considering the debauchery of Amsterdam? Ha! Anyway, the last quarter of the book is more about ‘the return’ than it is about travel; it’s the most ruminative and reflective portion of the book. It’s hard to maintain narrative pacing while ruminating all the time.

I may scratch it, in the end. But I’m loath to do so. As my friend Lex says, “the hardest part, after all, is the return.” He’s correct, which is why I think I can get it right. I’m confident that a chapter or two on ‘the return’ will help put all the changes that I underwent on the journey into their proper perspective. But more importantly, I think writing about ‘the return’ is critical for another reason: it answers, to a great degree why I travel.

To not include it might be like telling a story without the climax. That’s no fun. Then again, in real life, there often is no climax. Just a random series of ever befuddling events.

Such is the ennui of modernity, is it not?

The Waves Still Crash And The Birds Still Chirp

Evening At Cape ComorinIt was a gorgeous day today. After three days of drizzle and heavy rain and 35* cold the morning dawned with promise. The clouds were thin and wispy, scuttling across the sky. Just beginning to break up with hints of blue here and there, with enough silver and gray in the clouds to remind one that it was still winter. But by noon all had dissipated. Nothing but blue skies and sunshine.

I’m sipping a warm, smokey scotch, re-working portions of the manuscript tonight, trying feverishly to complete the India portion before I head back to cubicle-land Tuesday.

Last night I had a long conversation with a writer friend about India and it helped put into perspective much of what transpired there. I’ve certainly been hard on India in many of my latest posts. But I think it’s important to note that I’m not so much hard on India as trying to correct the huge mis-perception corporate and political folks in America have about the place. A few days ago I alluded to some of the good things that happened to me in India and felt like sharing.

There is no place on the planet where culture is so raw, in your face and real. India, if it is anything at all, is its culture. And that’s what makes the place so rich in paradox and so attractive. I did, after all, visit the place three times. And after writing fifty pages on the country I have a strange desire to return–but only to Kerala. If I never see the Gangetic Plain ever again, I am okay with that. And yet . . .

There is an unspeakable attraction to India. No where in the world are the colors as vibrant, the fruits and vegetables as colorful (and poisonous), and the characters as diverse as they are in India. India, in many ways, encompasses the world. The Chinese have often spoken of their country as the Middle Kingdom, with the implication that all that is the world is in China. But that’s not the case. There is a lot of diversity in China, but not like there is in India. The last forty years of economic growth in China have homogenized vast swathes of the country. China isn’t as diverse today as it was the first time I visited in 1995. White tile and blue glass windowed high rises litter the country. A certain uniformity is a work. But not in India.

In India anything goes. In the West, (and in the Far East) we tend to hide, lock up or punish societal deviancy. And I use a small ‘d’ here. I am not talking about sexual deviancy, although that is a part of it. I’m talking about non-conforming deviancy; people who deviate from the societal norm.

For example: cross-dressers in India have a cultural role to play. They show up at weddings and children’s birthdays as entertainment. They are paid–more like bribed to leave. And yet, I talked with several Indians who said, “it’s horrible luck if they don’t show up.” But here’s the thing: once you are a cross dresser, once that choice is made, you can never go back to any other kind of life. India institutionalizes its deviancy. It doesn’t physically lock its deviants away, but it does lock them into a societal role, where they have a larger purpose in the chaos that is daily life in India. They are accepted. And tolerated. (Of course there are always exceptions.)

Another example is potheads. Marijuana and hash are illegal in India. Unless you buy it from a government sponsored shop. For foreigners its okay. And the only Indian allowed to purchase it legally are the multiplicity of sadhus wandering around the country. Again, for everyday Indians: no go. But if you are a Holy Man? It’s understood. So, if you are a pothead, in essence, you are a holy man. And your deviance from the norm of society is institutionalized. Order is restored.

These are but two small examples of the larger cultural and societal role of the caste system. There are serious problems with the caste system. Is India addressing it? Yes. But India is probably the most cultural static place on the planet. Culture changes very, very slowly in India. There is no judgement in this. It is what it is. It’s also what makes India an amazing and infuriating place. The modern world is colliding with India and the Indians are just as bewildered as the foreigners are who visit there.

Of course, I didn’t go to India for spiritourism. I discussed this with a friend a while back. I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop a few weeks ago when Reyes showed up.

“Whatcha writing, white-boy?” Reyes asks me.

“I’m writing a story about how filthy and poor India is and why you don’t want to visit,” I said.

“You are always complaining about India. Didn’t you derive at least some spiritual benefit from the place? I mean, you’re Buddhist, right?” he said, wiggling his pug nose in disgust. His brown eyes were bloodshot after a long night of tequila, Tecate and football.

“Indians are Hindhu, you ugly Mexican. And No,” I said. “I didn’t go to India to find myself spiritually or to hang out in an ashram or learn the meaning of life or any of that nonsense.”

“Why did you go, then?” He asked.

“Cuz it was there.”

And that is why I went. It was on the way. It was either cross the Bay of Bengal on the Tiger Breeze and up through Central Asia, or go through China and Russia. Of course it worked out differently, but I did go to India because it was on the way.

But, something strange, even kind of spiritual happened to me while I was there. It was a subtle development, if anything can be subtle in India. I learned new things about myself.

As I said to my friend last night when asked, “what did you take away from India?”

“I learned that I have a deep, deep, deep well of patience. I have more patience than I ever thought I had. All kinds of craziness can be going on around me, all kinds of annoyances, all kinds of expectations can be dashed, and at least 95% of the time I was completely calm,” I said.

“Oh, listen, I am not mother Theresa, nor do I have the patience of a Buddha, okay? I did have a few India moments. That happens to everyone. But I learned very quickly that there was nothing I could do to change any of what was happening. No matter how much I pouted, moaned, yelled, snapped at people, nothing changed. I had to accept life for what it was. For that very moment.”

I smiled. Took another sip of my drink, and continued, “And there was another gift: I gave up on the world. I came to the conclusion that the fabric of the cosmos was going to be just fine without me. Without my worries, without my complaints. No matter what I thought, the world would continue to spin on its axis, the sun would rise and the moon would set. The waves would crash and the birds would chirp. The monkeys would howl and jabber all night. Dogs would bark. Drivers would pull in front of me. Politicians would lie. Life would go on. My job in life now was simply to observe.”

To observe. Or, as my Zen master would say, “Attention!”

The music is fading and it’s growing late. The melted ice spoils the taste of good scotch. The ashtray overflows.

But good things happened to me in India. And for that, I am grateful.

Answers To Questions

Another interesting search came in today: “what do marco polo’s chronicles tell you about the impact these asian cultures had on europe.”

Polo’s chronicles don’t tell you much. But if you find a good annotated version, say, like Yule and Cordier, the amount of subsidiary information is amazing. Alas, there is no one book out there that really touches on this subject in toto. Most of the ones that try to, do so in a very polemical way. Which is sad, because the influence of Asia–from the Near East to the Far–on Europe is tremendous.

Google Searches

This search came up today: “Sean Paul, human.”

Yes, I am. Thank you for noticing.

What Is Compassion?

Ajanta BuddhaYesterday some readers asked, “why not talk about compassion more?”

It’s a good question. In light of its being asked, I’d like to add my two cents worth.

Compassion? What is compassion? Is compassion forgiveness? Is it charity? Is it tolerance? Is it kindness? Is it simplicity of living in the face of overwhelming complexity? Clarity of thought? Altruism? Piety? Right-action? Justice?

In a sense it is all these things bundled into a selfless act. But one thing that compassion is not: it’s not easy. Not remotely.

Take modern America for example. Many people confuse charity with compassion. Of course, there is an element of compassion in charity. But all too often, charity—at least in its American check writing to charities form—seems to be an easy way out of actually showing compassion for others. It’s not just in the giving, nor is it in the intent to do something nice for others. There is much more to it than that.

“Compassion,” my Zen master says, “is multifaceted gem, shining in many directions at once, so long as the heart of the vessel it is viewed through is bright. Is your heart bright?”

Putting aside the mixed metaphor, there is a great deal of truth in Master Ma’s statement. And for me, the easiest way to show compassion is simple: showing an interest in another human being. I found, or relearned, during my trip from Singapore to Denmark last summer, that the easiest way to show compassion was to smile and ask questions. People, as we all know, love to talk about themselves. The simple act of acknowledging another human being is the essence of compassion. And taking an interest in their daily life, their trials and tribulations, brought more rewards to me than I ever anticipated. Valuing and validating their opinions, even if they are not my own takes compassion, in my opinion, to another level. That is why I always made it a point to smile and to ask as many questions of people as possible. To be open to the moment, but act within it to make a better world.

There are other forms of compassion, of course. End of life, or hospice care, is probably the most difficult but quite possibly the most rewarding. It’s something I have never done, but something I have and continue to ponder doing. Will I? I don’t know. While I was on my journey I acted with compassion many, many times. India seems to have brought out the most compassion in me, which came as a surprise. India was a rewarding and life enriching experience, even though I don’t often talk about that side of it. I’m reluctant to do so, perhaps it’s humility, or faux humility. I don’t know.

But my reluctance underlies a problem with compassion—well, not a problem with compassion itself, just a problem with discussing it. Sometimes I find it simply better to not talk about it.

Why, you might ask?

Often times when I hear people talking about all the wonderful things they have done for others—in the name of compassion, or charity, or whatever—it feels like they are bragging, as if they are asking for some kind of cosmic credit. I believe in karma, to a degree, but I prefer serendipity. I also believe, as a Buddhist, that it is both right and good to strive for merit. I’ve done things in my life that I take pride in, acts of kindness that were not asked for, and actions for which I want no credit. It was simply in the doing. I don’t like to talk about them because I did them for my own sanity, my own soul. Not for the consumption of others.

Ultimately, any act of kindness has this paradox embedded in it.

If You Don’t Have The Basics, You Don’t Have Squat

Delhi Offal and RubbishNo sanitation, no economic growth. This may seem simplistic, but it is an elemental fact: if you cannot provide the basics of sanitation to your people you will not, under any circumstances, achieve any kind of long term economic growth.

As many of you know, I kind of carry on a jihad of sorts against people who tout India as the next big economic powerhouse. And, as Hanna’s post suggests, they aren’t even close to catching up to China: when you don’t have the basics of sanitation down–and the Chinese, do–you will not ever get the basics of high-tech manufacturing and innovation down. And no, to the angry Indian readers who will most certainly show up in the comments: this isn’t some Western, post-colonial, arrogant hygenic conceit. It’s a basic fact of human health.

And please, don’t get me started on the shabby lot of women in India. It’s not as bad as say, Saudi Arabia, but it ain’t good, not remotely. This is a health issue that strikes at women, most notably. Would you want your wife to go without proper sanitation? Seriously, it’s easy for me, a guy, to you know. Most people don’t like to hear about this shit, but the basics are, well, basic.

Until issues like these are addressed directly by the Indian government India will remain a second class shitty economy.

The Great Albuquerque

No, not the city in New Mexico, but the Portuguese conqueror of Goa and Malacca: Affonse da Alboquerque, to be precise.

Needless to say, I’ve been a bit pre-occupied the last several days, head buried in a bunch of 19th century accounts of travelers running amok–now there is a word with one hell of an etymology, but you’ll have to wait for the book for that story–up and down the Malay Peninsula. And then, there is this guy Alboquerque, or Albuquerque for you spelling Nazis out there.

He was a real piece of work.

In a nutshell, Alboquerque was ordered by the King of Portugal to capture Aden, at the mouth of the Red Sea. The strategic rationale was pretty solid: cut off Moorish/Egyptian shipping of spices in the Red Sea and thus cut Venice–who shipped all the pepper and cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg from Alexandria, into the Mediterranean–out of the spice trade altogether. Trade was equally as cutthroat then as it is now.

Affonso was on his way to do his duty by the king when a report came in that the Sultan of Malacca had razed the Portuguese warehouse in Malacca and taken 20 Portuguese hostage, including Ruy de Araujo, it’s commander, or perhaps in modern parlance: the consul general.

It was late in the year and Alboquerque missed the monsoons blowing back towards Africa and Aden and thus decided to avenge Portuguese honor instead by attacking and capturing Malacca.

By an accident of weather, sometime in 1511, the great spice entrepot of Malacca was siezed by Alboquerque, 1,400 of his men and a bunch of German artillery.

The Portugeuse now maintained a chokehold on the single most strategic geographical locale of spice trade–the Straits of Malacca, that 250 mile long sliver of water between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

The history of the Far East would never be the same.