Light. Too much fucking light. It’s invading, storming the gates of my inadequate eyelids, forcing consciousness–or something similar. I awaken to a strange, swirling synesthesia; I see nausea as I taste the sour notes of a headache on the end of my shriveled tongue. There’s a buzzing–high, insistent, annoying–but I don’t know which sensory organ is perceiving it. I might be so hungover that I’ve developed a sixth sense. I’ve broken my brain and in a weird twist of fate I find myself able to engage with a larger slice of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Did you know that as humans, we are only able to see less than 1% of the actual light (EM radiation) that flows through the atmosphere? Or that it’s the unique configuration of our ocular cones that allows us to see rainbows, meaning that we are actually complicit in the creation of said leprechaun hangouts? (Source = internet meme)
I don’t usually vomit on hungover mornings. I’m too stubborn for that. I hold that shit in and soldier through the day depressed, apathetic, and $50 poorer. Happy Friday. If I have work, I will cry blood. If I don’t, I will sleep until I have work. And then, when I finally feel human again, I’ll probably go to the bar. My voice has been in library mode too long. I must shout, sloppy and narrow, I must laugh and watch sports and objectify. Otherwise, it is all for naught; the hours spent working are wasted on the abstraction of theoretical, electronic numbers. I cannot swallow those numbers and laugh easier, I cannot take a wee shot of 80 proof savings account and achieve elation. I can’t have a chug off with my checkbook. This game is all about alchemy; convert the numbers to reality in the form of an IPA. Everyone has friends at the bar when the going is drunk and the tab is yet to be paid. Those moments keep us coming back, night after night, forgotten conversations compiling exponentially, chasing the dragon of momentary perfection. And then, morning.
I’ve passed too many mornings–entire days, sometimes weeks–in the lingering haze of organismic confusion, my body and mind out of sync, stumbling over each other like strangers in a tight dark hallway. It’s been ten years (this month!) of binge drinking. The past decade and arguably the most formative years of my life have been spent in the pursuit of social highs. And I found them, the highs, and god damn if I don’t want to hold on to them. But something else opened up somewhere along the way, something I can only call the “lows.” Spoiler alert: We only know high because we know its opposite, low. Actually, this is true of everything. We are only capable of knowing things relatively, that is, in comparison to other things. We can only seek the high for so long before its dark, anesthetizing twin shows up in equal measure and intensity. Call it a law of the Universe.
I know them both, these inseparable twins, and I don’t want to chase either of them anymore. I can’t. The cycle is too jarring. It may sound strange, but I find myself seeking balance, a natural harmony with the way the emotional siblings present themselves from moment to moment. This means stopping the hunt for highs. Or at least curbing the frantic pace with which I once sought happiness.
Hence, the embarking upon a year of sobriety from alcohol. I had my last beer on the Spring Solstice of this year, and I will be eagerly awaiting my next one on the same day, next year. I’m not proud of this commitment or even particularly happy about it. It’s already been a tough go and it’s only been 37 days. Right now I’m traveling, spending time by myself absorbed in books and yoga and the NBA playoffs. Not drinking is easy when you don’t have anyone to drink with. But when the time comes to return, to settle, to establish a routine, that will be the true test. How deeply is alcohol engrained in my life, my persona? How will my perception of the world shift as I watch the people I know and love drop into the forgetful jubilance of Jack Daniels?
If you’ve never been sober at a bar, I don’t recommend it. I think I did that once, and I fled like a gazelle on the African plains. It doesn’t work, and that scares me. Yet, I know what I have to do. Quitting the drink is just the first step of many in diving into the realms that I really want to explore. It’s a big step, yes. But I’m ready to take it. So, I lift my glass of lemon tea in a toast to anyone else out there who is ready for the same. Or, for anyone who has a delicious, frothy beer and is stoked about it. That’s cool too.
At the table directly in front of me, a scene common to Southeast Asia is unfolding. A man, overweight and sweaty, perhaps forty, yells into his cell phone, face scrunched up in wrinkles. When the waiter comes to take his order, the man barks at him, and follows up every sentence with “do you understand?” The waiter, a bastion of courtesy, replies evenly “yes sir”.
“So that’s eggs, over medium. Meeeeedeeeeummmmm. Do you understand?”
“And the coffee. The coffee? Sweet milk. I want sweet milk. Do you understand?”
Across from him, a beautiful Cambodian woman sits in silence, staring out the door toward the drifting pollution of the Mekong river with her chin resting on her hands. The milk chocolate skin of her hunched shoulders reflects the morning light. Her gaze is distant and unmoving, even when the man hangs up the phone. Their food arrives. The woman picks at the plate, peering at her eggs with the same vacuous eyes while the man assaults his bacon and diddles on his smart phone. A brief conversation ensues amidst inhalations of white toast.
I know this man. Not personally, but still, I know him. He is an archetype of men I DO know, men I have met on the circuitous trail of budget tourism. I want to hit him. I want to pick up the oak chair I’m sitting on and break it over his head. I want to speak Khmer so I can look this woman in the eyes and tell her she is worth more, that she deserves better regardless of how much he is paying her. I put on some music. A happy tune. Sex tourism is a thing. I should be used to it by now. But I’m not. There’s just something unsettling about watching the economic subjugation of human beings flaunted openly.
Of course the rationale is the same as for all other forms of economic activity–we trade our life energy for dollars. Prostitution is just another iteration of that timeless theme. Some will even argue that it’s the “oldest profession on Earth,” as if that’s good enough, case closed. In theory, I actually agree. Given that we live in a system where the dollar has all but usurped humanity, why shouldn’t a person be free to sell their body in a sexual way? Laborers sell their bodies as they toil about in solar radiation, moving inevitably toward the breakdown of joints, skin cells, skeletal structure. White collar folk spend their creativity, mental energy, and most physically vibrant years frozen in office chairs in the pursuit of pleasuring shareholders. Everyone is for sale, and to say that sex, the almighty taboo of our time, is exempted from monetization is to align ourselves with glaring hypocrisy.
I think my problem is just how commodified the woman sitting in front of me (and the countless others like her) is. The man, when he actually looks at her, holds an expression of contempt, eyes pushed forward in an expectant frown. As if he deserves her; as if she is lucky to have him, her employer, buying her breakfast. I watch from a place of safety-crouched over some eggs and my computer-my mind judging the scene relentlessly. She stands for all of us, economically languaged into obscurity. The only difference is that what she is doing conflicts with some archaic system of morals which has us all terrified of our own genitals. It stands out.
It’s so tempting to criticize this situation, to throw my whole plate of projections upon it, to quietly hate. I assume that the woman is unhappy, because I would be unhappy in her position, and indeed, am unhappy for her. I reason that the gluttonous creature across from her is a cowardly brute, running from a life of decay. But these are my thoughts, isolated fragments emitting from an isolated universe, and they hold no basis in actual reality. What if these two are on their honeymoon? What if they have children together? What if they just got into a fight, and that’s why they aren’t talking? There’s infinite possibilities, and I just blocked them out of my life because they represent what I condemn in myself.
Judgement is the low road, the baseline, business as usual. It’s the default setting. I have no idea what transpired in either of these people’s lives that has led them to this moment, this narrative that I deem so unwholesome. I don’t know of their heartbreaks or their victories or their interests or even the nature of their relationship. I just see a thing, a well known establishment, an easy target.
Is there such thing as right and wrong? That’s a subject for sixty more blog posts. However, I think I’m beginning to see that I have no business even approaching that question. As far as I can tell, I am here to experience. Nothing in the internal operating manual, when I really inspect it, says it’s my job to judge the manifestations of reality. So I’m going to sign off, and I’m going to assume that the couple that just left the table in front of me is going back to their hotel to love each other and enjoy their vacation. Or not.
Travel is often remembered as a series of moments; isolated incidents amidst the featureless blur of free time. There’s the “sights” and the “parties” and the “beaches.” Throw in some ruins, temples, pagodas, villagers, and “oh the food!” The people were great, and I have the email addresses of lifelong friends! After these critical elements have been acknowledged, it’s on to the mundane: Flights, buses, tuk tuks, hospitals (nothing serious, just a potentially lethal infection), guesthouses–too many to count; cities and towns, layovers and delays. That about wraps it up. That’s the plotline.
It’s simply reality that “travel” has become a cliche. In the privileged world of credit and inflation and financial sorcery, we (the lucky few) have more possibilities than we know what to do with. In the malaise that descends (replacing a necessity based life)–in an effort to find some sort of meaning within the ease of postmodern existence–booking an E-ticket across the world seems like a proper response. It will be like what Mark Twain was all about, only better because he never had wifi at his guesthouses. People (some, maybe even most, but not all) travel because the game of Western society is boring and predictable. Nobody, in their deepest self, actually wants a secure path to a 401K. At the moment they (am I going polytheistic?) yank the plug on our brief Earthbound stay, we all want to feel like we took some risks, made some leaps, did something unique. Plane tickets are a great way to distract ourselves from the fact that originality actually takes work and presence, and often even struggle.
Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
As it now stands, “travel” is undergoing a process of sterilization under the guise of globalization. There is no longer any need or requirement of leaving one’s comfort zone, even in the remotest of locations. Many times on this trip, I have witnessed (and participated in) the unconscious clutching after smart phone or computer or tablet or e-reader or music device as a distraction from the slightest bit of discomfort. Any lag in the conversation is a perfect opportunity to refresh the email, any ideological disagreement is justification to retreat into the the air conditioned mausoleum of an internet cafe. For us, the travelers, life goes on mostly uninterrupted, untroubled by the afterthought of inhabiting a new continent. Facebook and the slew of other media anesthetics keep us “in the loop” with everyone “back home.” Aka, our minds take refuge in the solidity of a familiar, socially reinforced reality, protecting us from the very real threat of change that travel can engender. Thanks to the growing availability of a continuous and potent wifi drip, we can literally traverse the world from the comfort of our own mental living room.
So I guess that brings me back to the plotline, in a weird sort of way. I was going to write about my own plotline, the actual events that have transpired on this trip, but the wave of cynicism that just flooded through my fingers kind of renders that intention hypocritical and empty. Yeah, let’s see…I have taken exactly five flights and been hospitalized once. The food in Asia is delicious and cheap, I have ridden scooters through the pulsing, radiating green of jungle landscapes on multiple occasions, and I currently have a sunburn because the shade, at least on equatorial beaches, still carries potent skin sizzling rays. Oh, and I’ve met some awesome people and a few assholes and I have seen my share of temples. It’s been cool, and at times even wonderful.
But that’s not why I came. I honestly don’t think it’s why anybody comes, yet we all get stuck on these “traveler circuits” talking about how we’re going to “do” Myanmar or “hit” Tonsai, as if our “adventures” all converge upon the same wilting, faded bucket list.
I’m interested in travel because it is, very rarely, an unprecedented opportunity to relinquish control. Yes, this often makes for some great plotline, but more importantly it proves, if only to our own self, how malleable and adaptable we really are. In the sparse moments of relative clarity, travel allows us to see that there is no other time to start living, that no bubble lasts forever, and that no habits are so entrenched as to disconnect us from the ever-present invitation of novelty.
Sometimes it’s a mere detail-the unashamed smile of a beggar gladly accepting dinner money or the gentle sway of a dock beneath a full moon–that brings it all together. In those moments live perfection and abandon. It’s only in retrospect that the mind understands and tries to recreate, not grasping the fact that it can never create the sublime but is relegated to mere analysis.
When I go home, people are going to inevitably ask me, in that monotone sort of way, “How was the trip?(!)” I’ll find refuge in the plotline, bullet points even, the linear list of this happened and then, which led to, and finally. They will nod and stare, and we’ll move forward. I know better than to ask what has transpired in the months I’ve been away. Most people don’t even know themselves. Deep within I will ache to relay the layers upon layers of paradigmatic transformation I have undergone, the successive internal revolutions, the mini death-rebirth cycles which allowed me to navigate my journey without going insane or giving up. But I won’t. I’ll smile and nod with the same body that I’ve always had and they’ve always known while inhabiting a Universe never before seen. If I stay too long, I’ll fall back into the roles and I’ll forget about completion. For a while.
If I reunite with the plotline, it’s ok. It’s only temporary. Soon enough I will move, shake, rustle my way somewhere fresh and the process can begin anew. The moments are good, or bad, or neutral, but in the perpetual act of moving, the subtle contentedness of simplicity slides into place, illuminating even the darkest night.
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
My biggest handicap in life is my difficulty letting go. My mind craves the familiar with flailing urgency and it throws a temper tantrum when another part of myself–a wiser part, perhaps–propels my body into yet another unknown situation with strange people and novel sights. I’m nearly six months into a trip around the world and still, after all the buses and bedbugs and coffee, I have a day where I fight the urge to break down, to buy a plane ticket home, to give up on the force that has propelled me so far from everything I have ever known.
If you saw where I’m sitting right now, you would slap me in the face and tell me to open my eyes and look around. Allow me to describe: I’m sitting on the edge of the porch outside a traditional Cambodian reed bungalow, letting my legs swing over a thin, sluggish river. In front of me is a dense mangrove patch, and if I turn my head slightly to the left, the looming and forested mountains of Bokor National Park consume my vision. The day is fresh and the heat hasn’t quite arrived, meaning it’s the perfect temperature. Puffy, flowing swabs of cumulus clouds hover above me, occasionally dotting out the sun. On the other side of the bungalow is the main lodge complete with pool table, dart board and delicious home cooked food for under five dollars. I just ate a tomato scramble while sipping French press coffee and reading a book. A gentle breeze wicks the sweat from my forehead. If I really listen I can hear the perpetual buzz of crickets and birds doing their thing.
But I don’t listen. The only thing holding my attention right now is the swarm of locusts in my head that relentlessly tell me how worthless and entitled I am, how phony my goals are, how utterly intolerable my personality is. The moment…what moment? All I see is the familiar old story lines, the bullshit I thought I could escape with a plane ticket and some ambition. Am I destined to be lonely and miserable? Will I ever recover my ability to connect with humans on a deep, meaningful level? Can I allow myself to drop the walls that have become my self-imposed refuge of exile?
If I can thank “travel”–the personified, mythical creature–for anything, it is for allowing me to face these questions. Without the discomfort and uncertainty of the new, the issues of my life would remain perpetually below the surface, hidden and manipulative. Travel is a whetstone for the soul, and if that soul hasn’t been sharpened for some time, the process is going to be drawn out. And apparently, painful. I have to see with intimate honesty just how distrustful I have become of humans, and I have to relive the moments that have brought me to such a closed attitude. Only this time, as I march into the towering, rushing anxiety of my shadow I have to keep my eyes level and my head held high. I must prepare to be annihilated and swallowed by an energy that is both bigger than me and a part of me simultaneously. I have to be ok with discomfort in its most horrific costume.
I come back to the breath. The mangroves swell and rattle in the breeze. Somewhere a frog croaks. These creatures don’t know of the problems that exist only in the human mind, and in this moment, I envy them. The word “simplify” ripples through my brain often. Somebody smart said it a long time ago, probably contemplating the same questions, staring into the tranquil waters of an East coast pond. Is it a common trick of life that all the answers we seek and sometimes find are written down in a book somewhere? Can it all really be contained in a single word uttered in perfect inspiration?
I want to curse culture! I want to destroy the establishment that would have us all live in boxes, leading thick and regimented lives. I feel violence bubble deep within. I want to explode. But I don’t. I swallow that feeling. I rationalize. This is the way things must be. This is the way things work. We all have a part to play–a contract to fulfill. Can you imagine what would happen if an ant–one of the ants I’m watching right now, traversing this porch in an organized line–went rogue and decided that it didn’t want to play the game anymore? He would be eaten and sacrificed as a sad example of misplaced enthusiasm.
I’m still on this porch god dammit. And somehow I’ve gotten stuck on the metaphysical intentions of insects. The thoughts! I have to walk away. I have to learn to let go.