Southport, North Carolina

Jan 2013 009

Coffee and Worms. The actual name of the place is Coffee and Worms.

I’m in front of this little gas station-drugstore-cafe (note: to be determined), and I’m in the American South. I’ve been to the South before. Well, I’ve been to Texas before. This is North Carolina.

The name of the town is Southport. Her perpetual boredom is balanced with this calmness, this content of breathing the air off the Cape Fear River early in the morning and late at night. There is a man sitting in a white rocking chair listening to Dixieland music on vinyl. The music caught the air as it flowed from the open windows making its way down the quiet, empty streets. I watch the sunset over the sailboats and fishing boats and shrimp boats, then walk along under the giant southern oak trees to the
main pier that protrudes just far enough out onto the river. I love these piers. They scream “Southern coastal livin'” with their pictures plastered on every tourist destination article. There they really stand, waiting to be photographed, but truly desiring to be fished off of. This would be home for a little bit.

A German friend from college unexpectedly came and went. I was happy to see him again. When we talk, our eyes barely look away. I vividly remember when I first caught his eye at a jazz show in Illinois. A slow month proceeded with piercing, passing glances almost daily at the music building on campus. He looked at me, and I looked at him. I felt like we knew one another before ever speaking. Then one day we spoke.

I was with him the night before I got hit by a car. My bike light had been stolen. Many months later, he sent me a new light to my place in North Carolina with a note scribbled out on sheet music.

Anton told me: “It’s places like these that help the imagination grow.”

Places like these? Like Southport?

I’m thinking all this over as the sun disappears completely and the pier lights flick on. I figure my only option is to head to the pub.There is one pub in Southport. A little Irish place that manages to fit all the characters in this town into one poorly lit room, but it does have beer. There are worse ways to spend a night on the Cape.

I arrive in time to see all the characters already mingling outside with cigarettes. “Well, hey.” A recognizable face waves in my direction. “Come and sit with us!” recognizable face says. “Gotta get a beer first,” I say as a walk past and reach the front door. It isn’t really a face I care to see at this moment. I push through the door and the same, never changing, poor lit room appears in front of me. There’s also a girl.

She is walking along the bar toward me and I’ve never seen her before. Odd, in this small of a town. Her light hair falls from a blue baseball cap. She eyes me as we pass with half a smile and raised eyebrows. I nod at her and she immediately drops her eyes. I watch as she pushes through the door back toward the mingling and the cigarettes. I’m still looking her way as the door closes.

“Who are these fresh faces?” I ask Jenna as she pours me a beer. She laughs. “Power plant workers. They come around for whatever projects.” I had heard of this. All these people flooding Southport from random places in the Midwest. I guess energy is a big employment field. My eyes lingering back toward the front door, and settle for a minute. “Well, I guess I’ll take this one outside,” I say to Jenna.

I kind of like the warm and salty North Carolina air anyway.

Uppsala, Sweden

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The beloved summer sun showered over the girl as she walked her usual path through the horse gate. Her curly hair is wrapped loosely with a tie low on her head, pressed against her neck and lower back. Stereotypically enough, her consistently apathetic hair showed even brighter blond in the summer months. She always felt more comfortable in solid shoes, jeans, and a t-shirt. That’s always how it was seventy kilometers out of Stockholm. In recent years, however, she had gradually recognized herself falling into habits that preoccupied the local student population. H&M, kaffee, obscure music. Maybe she too imagined seeing the world. Imagined, yes, but she loved her horses, and the lakes, and the meadows, and the forests. This for her was Sweden.

I have seen this girl many times riding my bike around Uppsala. When I first got to Sweden everyone told me I needed a bike. A few days later, I walked downtown and bought this bright orange, wobbly thing. By week one, I had a flat tire; by week two something started incessantly squeaking. I thought about dumping it into the river.

I pass the girl as she guides a horse across the yard. I’m supposed to be meeting my friends at one of the “nations” of the local university. It’s basically a student pub named after a Swedish region. My grandparents came from a town in central Sweden, and I thought about joining that region, only to actually join the one with the most international students.

“Hej hej!” Nikolina calls out to me as the nation comes into sight. She fiddles with her bag and tosses her curly dark hair. She watches me with those piercing blue eyes as I drop my bike next to the front stairs she’s leaning against. Nikolina is from Bulgaria, and she made sure to point it out to me on a map when we first met just in case I couldn’t put Eastern Europe in place. “Your farfar- how was it?”

My “farfar”, my father’s father, met me in Stockholm over the weekend. At eighteen, he knelt down in a covered forest, one of those lush, mossy green ones, and prayed. Then he hopped an actually boat, and moved to the United States. Over the weekend he eyed everything in Stockholm- all those little streets leading to the water, all the different kinds of people living there- and told me when he was growing up he only knew one kid with brown eyes.

I came to Sweden because of him. I thought I’d go back to this place and feel a surge of identity. My first week, a couple of girls rang my door bell and stared questioningly when I professed to them that “Jag talar lite svenska.” Oh my name- yes quite Swedish. But I’m not Swedish. I really have no idea what I came to this country looking for.

 Nikolina and I walk through the front doors together and I feel my body relax as music strums from an acoustic guitar. The place is packed with students, all of whom I’ve come to recognize other these bright and dark months. The room is filled with people from all over the world that I was fortunate enough to meet. I’m exactly where I should be in this moment in time. Two of my closest friends- a Czech and an Austrian- attempt to dance; all wrapped up in a melody that flows from plucked strings. What a wondrous thing, to be human. The room is decorated with the flags of the world. In a room filled with so much diversity, they are the salient feature of each person. They hang unperturbed and motionless in the commotion. The American flag was ripped sometime ago.

That was the moment I left with. I thought of it entirely as the train rolled to the airport. A women came to help me check in for my flight to Chicago. She asked for my passport in Swedish, and I hand it to her. She eyed the blue cover and paused. “Do you prefer me to speak in Swedish or English?” she asked.

Monteverde, Costa Rica

Kansas City 2016 053

“Closer.” My foot barely moves an inch. “Closer…Closer.” I inch again.

I’m beginning to think this guy wants me to trip off the edge. I’m surrounded by green. Vivid green. I’m 145 meters from the ground on a swinging tram attached to some suspiciously thin wires. “Closer!” One more inch and my toes are off the edge. “Okay! On three. One. Two…” I jump.

Monteverde is a beautiful name for a little town in the mountains of northern Costa Rica. I barely made it here. I waited for a local bus out of San Jose, thinking, for some unknown reason, that I could just buy a ticket on the bus. Five minutes from departure, I actually decided to ask someone about tickets. “Monteverde?” I shrug. The woman looked startled. “Oh, go now! It leaves!” I rushed outside only to see the bus pulling away. A man dashed past me pointing to the opposite side of the station and ran right into the street waving his hands. The bus came to a halt in the middle of the road. “Jesus, gracias, gracias,” I said in my butchering of a beautiful language. “This is where we pick up princesses,” he said in flowing English. I boarded the completely full, hailed down bus. Like an idiot.

Four hours and many unpaved miles later, I find myself in Monteverde at a quaint hostel surrounded by fellow travelers. “To Costa Rica,” I say and we click our mid-afternoon beers. Robbie sits next to me. A tall Alabama grown boy. He left a job at a certain government agency and headed for Costa Rica, his very first time out of the States. He has the bright eyed excitement of a new traveler. After dozens of countries, and even more hostels, I forget how amazing it can seem to be included in a community of people from all over the world. “How did you decide on Costa Rica?” he asks as I finish off the last of my beer. “Never been,” I say impassively. I had actually never been south of the United States. Well traversed through Europe and Asia, and even North America, but Central America hadn’t been anyway on my radar.

I decided to come here on a whim. I was sitting on my bed a few weeks earlier watching the ticket prices rise and fall. I got a late night text that read: “Just wanted to apologize. I’m seeing someone and I think its gotten pretty serious…” I clicked buy.

My second beer clinks empty against the table. I turn back to Robbie and tell him there is one thing that brought me to Monteverde. “Bungee jump?” he says with a mixture of curiosity and disbelief. “Where?” I tell him I read that the highest jump in Central America is somewhere in Monteverde. More chatter, and a third beer goes empty. “Wanna find it with me tomorrow?” I say.

There really is a moment you feel completely free, before your mind reacts and you remember you are falling. All that fear surfacing in the anticipation as the tram strolls on out to the jump spot. It completely dissipates in the air, as if in the actual moment you can’t feel fear. When you think it’s over, the cord snaps back, and you fall again. You realize the world is upside down and you are just dangling. It’s a slow ride being pulled back up to the platform you just left. All that endless green of the Costa Rican rain forest. These moments, quiet on all fronts, feel like an eternity.

The tram rolls back to solid ground. “Hey!” Robbie shouts. “Everything you dreamed of?” He is standing next to another guy. Blonde with a thin mustache wearing a, for whatever reason, Hawaii beach themed button up. My legs wobble as I get off the tram and I look back toward the stretched wires and the expansive green. “This is Greg. Also from the States,” Robbie says as I come closer. Greg nods. “And where abouts Greg?” Insert Midwestern mid-sized city. I blink a few times, then smile. “Well…me too,” I say.

Some time later, I was back in that Midwestern mid-sized city after a long journey through Asia,  and trying unsuccessfully to blend back into a “normal job” and resettle into this place I originally left. I spot a familiar face in a group on an outdoor patio. I walk past, then decide to turn back for a second look. I walk right up to the railing on the patio. “Greg? We met in Costa Rica?” His friends look at each other and laugh. “We were actually just talking about Costa Rica!” he says. The conversation lasts no more than a few minutes, but it occurs to me that this is the first time I’ve seen him since. As I turn to leave him behind, I remember lying in bed with my cellphone to my face frantically scrolling through the ticket prices. All I wanted was to escape.

Luang Prabang, Laos

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“You should write her a letter telling her what she meant to you.”

Samit sits across from me in a cafe in Luang Prabang. It took us three days in a kayak to get here. We had come from a small town up north in the mountains where we sat quietly under the clear stars reveling the edge of the Milky Way. Samit is a man I admire. We had been traveling together for at least a week, but our paths had crossed much earlier in Southern Laos. If one thing’s certain, it’s that travelers tend to find each other again in another place.

 On a particularly warm summer night in a midwestern town in the United States some months before, a girl told me how she fucked up. Samit’s suggestion: that I should feel grateful that I even knew her for a moment. She’s haunted my entire time in Southeast Asia.

 In Luang Prabang I have visited no less than ten wats within a miles stretch. They say there are more than thirty in the small town center alone. At the first stop early in the morning, I stumble upon a little shivering puppy wrapped in orange monk robes on a table. I actually keep walking down the stairs leaving the grounds, before I reconsider leaving the little guy unattended. I swing back around, find the puppy, and hold his little body in my arms against my chest. He is shaking violently- all wet from a bath I imagine. I look up to see a beaming smile from a young monk. Eager to practice his English, he tells me he found the pup in the countryside and brought him back to his wat. The puppy began to relax and look so comfy in those bright robes. I just had to smile. before turning to leave, I bow and tell the monk how beautiful his wat is, and he beams again.

 At this point it had been months since I first arrived in Southeast Asia. I had met and chatted with many Buddhist monks. Long conversations about the state of being. I even spent time reading the stories of the Buddha in English to my first “teacher” a head monk of a little wat in Cambodia. Yet I felt exactly as I had that summer night when I was briefly given a moment with a girl I was fixated on. Attached, I think is what the Buddhist would say about it. I remember sitting down with a older monk with a hearty laugh who taught at a University in Phnom Penh. “Maybe,” he says “we suffer because we love too much.” Hearty laugh. “I guess that’s against some current world beliefs. Maybe we just love in the wrong ways.”

 I leave the puppy and head for a view of the Mekong River. Powerful and rich, it’s the life-force of the entire region. Luang Prabang sits at the junction of the Mekong and a smaller river called the Nam Khan. A Laotian told me a story about it, something about the younger brother trying to murder is older brother, chopping off some body part, and now the two rivers magically collide around the city. It seemed rather legitimate of a story to me after a few Lao beers. This place feels pretty magical after all.

 I watch the river at the waterfront for a bit as night begins to fall. Foreigners and residents blend around me. I remember my plans with Samit, and feel a sliver of happiness that I have someone to meet. As I walk along the river to the little place we agreed on, I think of what I would be seeing if I was back in that midwestern town. I remember that girl walking into the Asian wing of the local art museum. I looked up as she approached me, and everything just sort of fell together. She approached without saying a word, becoming the entire room and everything in it.

 Samit says, “You should write her a letter telling her what she meant to you.” For a moment I consider what he is saying, and even think of what I’d write. I look behind him onto the street below. The walkers are appearing from the night market, and all the bright colors of Luang Prabang in the dark are blending together. I look back at Samit and the cafe patrons around us, and for a moment, that was everything.

Athens, Greece

couchsurfing 03

Athens has a great nightlife.

The narrow streets are filled with tiny bars and cafes. They spoke in side conversations in Spanish throughout the night. Ricardo was very reserved; Abel was much more wild. I met them in the elevator of this eclectic little hostel with a rooftop view of the Acropolis. As the elevator headed down to the ground floor, Abel asked if I’d like to come out with them.

We spilled out onto the streets of Athens. The first bar we tried Greek beers- Fix Hellas. The second, a bottle of Greek wine- Thema. There are so many bars in Athens, by the time we walked into the last one of the night, we had probably had enough. We finally strike up an English conversation with two Greek girls at the bar. Students. The music was loud so I took the opportunity to stand close and lean into one of the girls. I felt warmth as I got a smell of her hair. Honey and white wine. At least that’s what I imagined. She kissed me on each cheek on our way out. That was night number one.
Abel was from Mexico City and a physical therapist of sorts. Over the alcohol he says: “If you never read different things or travel, you never have new thoughts.” He proclaimed he was not afraid to die because he had already faced death four times (he was keeping count). As a teenager he trained as a bullfighter. An actual bullfighter. He was gregarious and talkative, and as we sat there in this music filled bar and his stories kept pouring out, I too felt unafraid. “Hypocrites!” he said. Mexicans complain about the way Americans treat them, but turn around and do worse to the migrant workers and immigrants from El Salvador and Bolivia who come to Mexico.
As we headed back to the hostel, I stopped and looked up at the glowing Acropolis on the hill. There it stands, two thousand years later. As we arrived, two American boys were checking in. Jason and Paul from the great state of Minnesota. There come flickering moments throughout my travels where I do not wish to see my fellow countrymen. One of the boy’s nodded at me, and I barely acknowledged the gesture. Little did I know that Jason would make a tremendous impact on me and this trip.
Two nights later, I’m with Jason at a little place down the street. Abel and Ricardo had left Greece. The dorm room was dark, and I was lying there when I noticed Jason awake. “I’m not tired at all,” I say, and we end up at this little place. It’s the Greek Carnival and the people on the streets pass us with masks and bloated plastic clubs. A masquerader turns his devil mask on us as he strolls passed.
Jason believes very much in that single, all mighty God. I think there came a point where he wanted so desperately to believe in something. He tells me his prayers are his release. I think of the Gods we create to soothe the plague in our minds. I never worry too much about God, only the process of dying. The trick, I tell him, might be to find God in the world as it is, absent of all this doctrine written for people by people at the time they lived and tried to understand the world. Up the road at Delphi, the poor and sad and sick would climb to see the oracle and try to find comfort in their “fate”. In a strange way, it’s kind of beautiful that humanity has tried so hard to understand.
The next night the three of us- Jason, Paul, and I- sit on the roof of the hostel and stare up at the Acropolis on the hill. It’s a sight one would never tire of. Jason asked us if we had any moments lodged into our memories that changed us. He told of a dream he had the night before his mother finally disclosed of her cancer. She was sick. Dying. He turns to me and asks: “What moments changed your life?”

Santa Fe, New Mexico

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“We really don’t drink that here.”
“Jose Curevo? It’s not that bad.”
“It is in a tequila drinking town.”

James was standing over me as we spoke. We had met a few hours earlier at a bar that stood overlooking a narrow adobe painted street leading to the Cathedral of St. Francis. I had a warm feeling for him. His eyes bore intensely as he listened, filled with thoughts I knew were above my own. I rarely meet people more thoughtful than I am. I almost forgot that Sam was sitting next to me.

I had convinced Sam to come along on my spontaneous road trip to the Grand Canyon. I have this yearly bucket list I create in case I die that year I suppose. Underneath “see lightening bugs in the French Quarter of New Orleans” was “see the sunset over the Grand Canyon”. Sam sat partially listening to James and I talk books. He was slouched over his beer, too wide for his chair.

“I’m only going to graduate school because it is a good excuse to take two years and just read books,” James spoke without leaving my eyes once. “People need an excuse to do things like that.” That was the moment my warmth for James began. Sam cleared his throat next to me and we broke eye contact. I glanced over at him slouching in that chair. Sam and I, against all odds, became friends of sorts in college. He was an engineering student, and I was three years unsure of what my major actually was. He now worked as an engineer for a train company and constantly talked about his job. He had loved me in college, and sitting in my tiny two door car traveling across the plains into the dry terrain of New Mexico, I feel he still loves me now. It actually makes me mad. How could he love me when we have nothing in common? It’s funny to be mad at someone for something like that, but this wasn’t the first time I have been clueless, then irritated at my suitors.

Before we go any further, I’d like to say that this encounter is brought to you by the Couchsurfing mobile app (and/or: http://www.couchsurfing.com). When Sam and I set out from Kansas City, Missouri to the Grand Canyon, we had three couchsurfing hosts along the way and back. If you have never heard of this traveling community before, I can sum it up rather briefly: a traveler ask a host in a city if he or she can stay at their place. That’s it. Now, to answer the usual follow-up questions. A). Yes, it is free. Many hosts and travelers see the community as an exchange, e.g. “Here’s a couch for free. Tell me about your life and experiences and where you are from.” B). The vast majority of time, yes, it is absolutely safe. It is based on a reference system. One bad reference could ruin you and push you out of the community. Now that all that’s out of the way, just imagine the unconventional couches in the world waiting for you to sleep on my friend. Just imagine all those strangers out there that could teach you a little something about life. Or drinking tequila in Santa Fe.

“I hear the lightening bugs haven’t been seen in New Orleans in a while,” I say, the three of us now sitting around a tiny circular bar table with unnecessarily high chairs. I liked James, and his deep brown eyes. He was calm and had this charm about him. As we headed back to his little apartment that epitomized my imagination of a desert dwelling in the Southwest of the United States, I took a moment to actually look around. All that adobe. Santa Fe has a lot of calm and charm.

In my memories places tend to take on the familiar feel of the people that occupy their space. I think Santa Fe might just be my favorite city in the Southwest.

At six o’clock the next morning, Sam and I left for the Grand Canyon. Leaving James and Santa Fe behind after a single day and night with a silent promise to eventually come back just for this town and a few suggestions of some Spanish authored books to read.

Oudong, Cambodia

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It isn’t exactly a couch.

It’s a thin twin-sized mattress under a pink mosquito net on the second floor of a little house in central Cambodia. The bottom floor is an open aired common room on dirt surrounded by a few pillars holding up the second floor I sleep on. I turn on the overhead fan and pray to the Nordic Gods that I might have the cold while stripping down to my underwear and crawling under the pink net that I never bothered to put up. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and I was going to take an afternoon nap with everybody else in this town.

Mr. Sokhon drove unnecessarily fast to get here. He about took out a little boy on the narrow dirt path off the main road that winds around to the front of the school. He’s angry with me. I strolled in this morning rather than last night from Phnom Penh because of how late we arrived into the city from Ream Beach and our isolated bungalow. I stand by that fact that I’m fully responsible for my inability to connect with my host family, this town, this country, and this experience fully. A spoiled American. No, more like a self-centered American. I’m two weeks and six days out, and I think every day how easy it would be to walk away. I’d cram into a six passenger van holding twelve adults and three children with my backpackers’ backpack strapped to the roof with the burlap rice sacks.

Today, “grandpa” of the household spent some time with me. When I finally strolled in this morning, he made some gestures and muttered a “telephone”. I headed upstairs and when I decended again, he had pulled put an English study book. Here I am in this man’s country, but he pulls out this book to study. I fetl embarrassed for all my flaws of character. He came out of his hammock to show me the book. It was actually, I discovered, a Peace Corps Cambodia language guide. We go over words together both in English and Khmer. “Dialogue A). What is your nationality? My nationality is Cambodian. My nationality is American.” He covers his ears. Loud. Writes “1967” on the page. He remembers US bombs exploding over Cambodia. One of his daughters married that Peace Corps volunteer in a Catholic wedding ceremony in Louisiana. He wasn’t there. Got some pictures as a keep sake. The parents pull them out a lot to show me, as if this is some genuine cultural connection we can make. Dad gets them out and gestures that he is sad and stares at the open picture for several seconds. Later that afternoon I come down the stairs and see him studying the book again on the sitting table in the corner. He walks away from it as he spots me coming down.

Now, back to that nap. Slowly but surely drifting off into the unknown I’d think:

What’s the point?

This is about the experience of a person staying with strangers, being a part of how they live, and considering that impact. In Cambodia, unlike anywhere else I’ve been in the world, I began to really question what the point of it really was. You know, sleeping in unconventional places. This was, after all, the experience I was having for myself, so I could feel like I was doing something meaningful with my life, and blah blah blah. Then there comes that moment I completely miss, when a man tries to communicate with me about his life experiences.

“Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up!”

I’ll leave the film buffs to argue exactly what the infamous Norma meant when she spoke this famous line in Sunset Boulevard. In popular culture, it has come to symbolize narcissism. That the entire world (and, yes, even the worlds’ most famous film director) is happening for you. I’d spend five months in three countries in Southeast Asia, and it would take at least half of that time to realize that this whole journey was not about me.

Any journey you go on cannot solely be about you, or else, let’s face it, it wouldn’t be much of a journey. I showed up in that town- that country- completely self-centered and I have a feeling that is not the point when you have the opportunity to share a space with complete strangers.

That’s right- opportunity.

And here begins a blog about all those opportunities. Maybe in the process we can discover some important insights into the art of living as some sort of life design seekers.