Athens, Greece

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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.