Miles from Home

China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

Archive for March 2007

The Only Words I Can Muster…

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It has been a month since my return from Cambodia. I remember that initial week of reassimilation, that profound appreciation for the stability of Taiwan’s minimal lunacy. I felt my ship had returned to harbor. I was a bubbly, bumbling mess of observations and experiences, ideas and unanswered riddles. Physically and emotionally weakened, the toll of travel had never been so high. And now, I suppose, months later, I am still speechless.

I find that, even now, I am uncomfortable paraphrasing and measuring my words to describe the experience that is Cambodia. Someone once told me while I was travelling through Laos, that “Laos is not a place; it is a state of mind.” Cambodia is not that. There is no mind in Cambodia, no logic, no order.

There is one common thread that resurfaced in which I feel my thoughts hold some merit. Months and months ago, a friend posed the question to me: “How do you reconcile being a cog in the machine of globalization that you seem to vehemently oppose?” I am, after all, an English teacher. I thrive off of the fact that I was born speaking the lingua franca. I am here embuing the youth with this notion that to be able to speak (American) English is a very positive asset in one’s future.

The US still represents the shining city on the hill, the beacon of hope in the future here; even while many of our youth grow less and less enamoured with a system of meaningless representation and a status-quo where the politicians become increasingly secretive and we citizens surrender more and more privacy. (I recommend watching the presidential debate scene in Robin William’s “Man of the Year” movie).

I suppose I reconcile this by trying to venture beyond the point of reason, to the depths of my own unexplored personal experience. I am searching for that which I never knew existed, whether it be a feeling, a place, a person, etc. Here, in this imagined destination, there is purity and hope and reason; it resuscitates my communal interest in survival. I too share a passion for constantly rediscovering meaning in my life, as my good friend Bianj mentioned in his previous post.

Often, I lose sight. I lose sight of myself. I was born with bad vision, and it extrapolates; it blurs even the boundaries of my physical form until I feel suffocated by events and emotions that I feel are foreign to my self-perception. Thus, I reach for sanctuary in someplace where I must clearly define myself in contrast to what I can perceive around me. Thus, Cambodia. Or at least parts.

When my friend and I touched down in Phnom Penh, we decided to cut corners and take one of the daily charter flights to Siem Reap, the town/city whose borders are home to the phenomenal ancient temples of Angkor. At this point, I have been on foreign soil for 14 months. I am technically an expatriate. Oddly enough, I have not felt as close to the US/West as I felt in Siem Reap. The streets were awash with white faces. Those distrubingly cliche khaki shorts and matching shirts on old Sean Connery wannabes. Lonely Planets in the hands of mohawked, tattoed, drugged-out beachbums fresh off the bus from the Thai border. Tourists, backpackers, Westerners, everywhere. And here we were, juxtaposed, feeling like neither a Western tourist or a hardcore backpacker, like we knew something everyone else did not. After all, it was Chinese New Year.

Over the next two weeks my interpretation and disgust of economies built on tourism reached new heights. The symptoms of this disease are all the same: 1) increased role and reliance on alcohol, 2) rampant pollution, 3) an exacerbation of the rich-poor gap, 4) chaotic urbanization leading to suburban slums, 5) filthy rich foreign developers and contractors who manipulate and coerce the wealth of entire nations, 6) prostitution, 7) HIV and AIDS, 8 ) corrupt and ineffective government, and 9) poor education and little hope.

There was too much trash. Too many little kids selling necklaces who should be in school. Too many young girls out too late at the bars. Too many Lexuses and Land Rovers pulling out of non-profit NGO offices. Too many five-star hotels built opposite walls of shanty slums. It just wears on me.

And what should I say to my friend? Do I intend to stop travelling? Of course not. Do I hate all tourists? Certainly not, I am almost always happy to see people have some interest in the world beyond the end of the street. But what can be done to reverse the trickle-down economies of these nations so dependent on maintaining an image of the happy (rural) local? How can countries nationalize their assests, returning the rights to their own property and not be blacklisted as some radical (socialist) nation threatening American interests (whatup Hugo Chavez?)? How do these countries devote money to education when the political infrastructure is so pervertedly twisted toward the interests of the tourism industry? A new school in a small town or a new paved road to the five-star hotel?

Where is the guilt? Where is the moral compass and world community? How much bullshit can people really feed themselves? How is it that my country is perceived as the dream to be realized???

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Written by Miles

March 28, 2007 at 4:10 pm

Finding Meaning

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I share a common journey with all of those in the world with enough means to not have to worry about life’s basic needs, namely the search for meaning.  Along my journey, I have found meaning to be elusive and dynamic.  Interesting the difficulty in finding it is exaserbated by the fact the fact that the places to find it are constantly changing, not to mention that what you are looking for is constantly changing form.  However, I have had a few experiences in my life where, for just an instant, I recognized my momentary purpose in this world.  I had one of those experiences a couple weeks ago while skiing with a close friend in Utah and thought it special enough to share with the audience of this blog. 

The alarm rang with a staticky rendition of that song that talks about moving out of the blue and into the black.  I blinked my tired eyes and glanced at the clock.  The red leds spelled out 5:16.  “What the fuck am I doing” was the first conscious thought registered by my mind.  It was Saturday morning, I was just coming off a 70 hour week of work, my bed was warm, my dug was cuddled around my feet, my girlfriend was naked, and I was getting up to get to Utah by first tram.  “Oh well,” I thought; the tickets are booked, no backing out now.  I pulled myself out of bed, kissed my sleeping lover and my sleeping dog and grabbed my ski stuff.  When I opened the door to the outside world, the blast of air was cold enough to make my teeth hurt.  I groaned, “what am I doing again?” I asked myself.  The drive to DIA was uneventful, but the airport itself was as it always is these days, like a clothing market in downtown Cairo.  I entered the airport thinking it was early enough to not stand in-line.  After all, it was only six am.  Stupid!  The Frontier maze was overflowing.  I thought about my warm bed and naked girlfriend as I took my spot at the back of the line.   But, things were looking up after I checked in.  My 178cm, wood core, heavy as shit skis were off my shoulders, and my boots were no longer weighing on my upper back.  I walked down the escalator and remembered that a full maze at the check-in counter translates to an even fuller maze at the security check.  After another 1/2 hour of slogging through the line like a cow toward slaughter, I was finally there.  “Excuse me sir,”  said the woman who barely spoke English holding my ticket and drivers license, “I’m going to need you to go to that line on the end.”  “Oh Shit,” I thought, not the extra secure security line.  Oh well, I should have known that terrorits have been wearing down filled, rip resistant patagonia coats lately.  I stood next to my bin.  I took off my jacket, my watch, emptied my pockets, tooks off my shoes, and my belt, and proceeded to walk the gauntlet.  Usually I am a beakon of personal privacy rights, but this airport stuff has gotten so out of control that I’m ready to give up.  Next time just tell me to get naked and put my stuff in a bin.  The TSA lady can even slap me on the ass as I walk by.  I have resigned myself to the fact that I must act like a prisoner as I move through the airport, lest I actually be put in prison.  Anyway, I come out the other side of the assembly line of machines, I redress, and I’m on my way.  I hit the A320 seat, my head falls against the window, and my world goes black.  The next thing I know wheels are screeching against tarmac in Salt Lake.  I pick myself up and deplane.  My friend’s waiting for me at baggage claim with a grin on his face.  We’re real friends.  I know because when we hug each other it doesn’t start with a handshake, and it doesn’t have the normal homophobic feel that occurs when you touch someone’s back with your forearm but make sure not to have anything below your shoulders make contact.  “Shit man, you always time it perfect, the snow’s been falling all week.”  I respond with a casual, “I know, that’s how I roll.”  We grab my stuff, get in the car and head straight up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Alta.  I’m feeling better about my decision to come.  I’ve replaced the memory of my bed and my girl with the thought of 50 degree slopes and fresh snow.  We get to the parking lot, the wind’s blowing 20-30, gusts are much higher.  As we sit on the first lift, the gusts are strong enough to make you worried that your skis will be forced down to the point that you fall off the lift.  I start thinking about home again.  We unload at the top of the lift, and do the equivalent of running on skis, then we pop them off and hike for 10 minutes with breaks every couple hundred yards so the gusts don’t blow us off the precarious apex that we are ascending.  At the top, we put our skis on and race across an exposed traverse.  At several points, I hear the petex being scraped off the bottom of my skis by the rocks underfoot.  Although, it had snowed a couple feet in the days leading up to my trip, the wind had been blowing hard enough to keep the exposed upper faces of the mountain uncovered.  Finally the frenzy of movement stopped.  I buckled my boots and glanced down a 100 vertical foot chute.  The top was barely wide enough to squeeze my shoulders between, the middle opened up to ~5 feet, there was a couple foot drop near the bottom, and the slope was >50 degrees.  At the bottom it opened up into 3 wonderful turns of untouched knew deep snow before flattening out.   I turned to my buddy.  “We don’t have steeps like this in Colorado.”  He laughed and said, “welp, after you.”  I pointed my skis off the edge, so the tips dangled in the air while, my tails pressed firmly on the snow.  My mind cleared.  My bed, girlfriend, dog, cold air, full mazes, security lines, airplanes, baggage claims, ski buddy, even the howling wind, all vanished from my mind.  All I thought about was the gnarly picture in front of me.  I could feel my heart beat quicken.  Under my breath I said, “one, two, three,” and threw myself downward.  That’s when it happened.  For a couple moments I felt what it is to be alive.  My mind was empty and my heart was full.  The fear of the moment leading up to the drop was replaced with bliss.  The best way to explain it is that I felt like I glimpsed the face of God.  I was going 40-50mph, yet I didn’t hear anything.  As the shoot opened up, I made 3 beautiful turns as the snow splashed into my face and over my head.  At the bottom I looked up as an irrepressable grin spread across my face,  “Whoooooooooooooo!”  I was overwhelmed by the feeling of purpose and connection that I had just been gifted.  I spent those seconds actively participating in life instead of doing what I do most of the time, trudge through my day.  I am motivated to trudge, motivated to get up early, motivated to do what I do not want to do by moments like those because during moments like that I remember my purpose.  I remember to embrace all the opportunities I can to live, before I die.

Written by bianj

March 9, 2007 at 10:19 pm