Monday, January 31, 2005

True Believer

by Skald

"Mornin, Coffee's hot". That was Watson Jr.s standard greeting in the morning. It was usually followed by a slap on the back and a soulful look in the eyes. "Let's get to it", he'd say.

Watson Jr. was an IBM true believer. During my time at that temple of mediocrity, most people I met were drones and burnouts. They knew their jobs were meaningless and monotonous but couldn't imagine doing anything else. "There's no escaping the rat race", they claimed.

But Watson was different. He believed the IBM propaganda. Every day he arrived early and left late. He wore spotless suits and power ties. He volunteered for extra work. He clutched palms, winked, nodded, smirked, and joked his way to the top of the department. He seemed to love it.

This produced a philosophical crisis for me. I understood the pathetic burnouts-- I felt just like them at the time. I felt like a wolf in a trap ready to gnaw off its leg to escape. The sad bastards around me made it worse. Their passion for life had been crushed long long ago. They were doing time till retirement.

But everyday Watson bounded in and worked the room. He even smoozed me... a lowly intern with a bad attitude. Somehow, he seemed to love working 10-12 hour days. He seemed to love the tan and grey decor. He seemed to love directing training videos about thrilling topics such as "computer maintenence" or "copier repair". He didn't seem to notice the burnouts around him... they never got him down.

"How could this be?", I asked myself. I had no frame of reference to understand the guy.... so I searched for pathological explanations. "Maybe he has low self-esteem and thrives on the attention".... "Maybe he's lonely and has nothing better to do". These were my working theories. But another thought crept in. What if he was sincere? I shuddered.

But it may be the case. Maybe guys like Watson Jr. are what keep the sorry system from collapsing under its own sagging weight. Maybe there are a few mutants... perhaps 1% of the population, who really believe in that shit and thrive on it. These pace setters drive the bored and belittled masses onwards-- keep em hustling and working for the man. Its possible.

Sometimes I wonder what happened to him... its been 15 years. Did he keep climbing that ladder? Is he now a vice-president? Or was he downsized when his salary got too big... Did he spiral into self-destruction? Is he still a middling white collar wage slave?

Or maybe the futility of it all finally sunk in. Maybe he's squatting in Amsterdam-- eating mushrooms every day.

I'd like to think so. I like to think that people can awaken to new possibilities. I like to believe that they can overcome conditioning. I like to think that deep inside, every human being recognizes that love and life are more important than money.

But I may be wrong.

Thoughts on Becoming a Walking Hobopoet

by Sunwalker

No matter how liberating and exciting the hobo lifestyle is for you, I imagine it might be necessary to take work breaks now and then, not only to chill out for a while, but to make a nice wad of $$$. I might do the same myself, although I want to avoid it. I hate the whole concept of money, can't wait to scavenge my way through the cracks and fissures of this bizarre global zoo of humanity without having to play by its rules. Knowing some of the insane things the feds do with tax money, not to mention the fact I lean towards anarchy, I'm hating the idea of ever having to give those porbarreling bureaucrats a red cent again. So a goal of mine is to limit participation in the bloody system as much as possible. Who wants to have so much of their human interaction across a damned counter anyways? How degrading. But again, a bit of work and money might be necessary evils until it all collapses (I don't foresee this giant house of cards lasting too much longer, maybe it could drag on another 50 years, but I think the sooner it does, the less destruction it will have wreaked and the fewer species it will have taken with it )

[Skald: One of my favorite quotes related to travel is, "Never take a trip
you can afford". Its good advice.]

Love that quote! Reminds me of a quote in the movie 'Fight Club' when Tyler says "the things you own end up owning you". How true. That's why I'm starting to sell off and give away most of the stuffola I've accumulated, and when the time comes I'd fill a light pack with the essentials and hit the trail! Damn I relish that day, all that semi-life of being the living dead behind me, and a real vivacious life of experience ahead with a billion paths to pick from, no schedules, no oppressive clocks, no taking orders, no following anyone or anything (except the geese winging northwards and southwards). I know it's gonna feel pretty damned strange at first, probably like being cast out to sea, but I'll just remind myself that the entire continent (the whole planet) is my 'new' home. It would be tough to leave the relatives behind, but though they're nice, they're firmly planted in the conformist world of wage slavery, mortgages, ersatz entertainment and all that scat.

Yep I've read "Into the Wild" just about all in one sitting, as I was on the edge of my seat wondering what this wildman was going to do next. You're right, that Chris McCandless guy deserved more credit despite his background growing up in a soft rich bigcity/whitebread/uppercrust family. He realized how much of a tragic sham the system is, followed his dream and had the guts to take life by the horns and just go. But what an anticlimax that was at the end - killed by an oversight and a couple of handfuls of f*cking wild potato seeds! The fella could have used more common sense and a helluva lot more respect for the land though...

You know what, a decade ago I used to get such immature fantasies about taking off alone into the forest and living off fish, game and berries year round. I'd spend hours poring in all these damn books & maps looking for a remote spot in the hills with just the right climate - but something was missing and I just couldn't put my paw on it. It wasn't long before I realized, among other things, that a) I'm a social animal and b) I'm a nomadic animal dammit! Being stuck in the same lean-to in the woods without anyone else around would drive anyone stark raving loony, providing they manage to stay alive, of course.

Even living in 4 walls and a roof in the same place drives me nuts after a few months. I'm sick and tired of comfort and routine. Why the hell do so many people always want to get so cozy and luxuriantly comfortable all the time for anyhow? Down pillows and comforters and 3 foot thick mattresses and goretex sport suits and bottomless sofas and precision climate control and luxury dining....hell some of these sheeple even put plush padding in their coffins for crying out loud! They all might as well just crawl right into them, haul in a TV with an extension cord, and be done with it!

"Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming 'Wow - what a Ride!' " -Peter Sage

So this idea of mine of nomadically scavenging the edges and frontiers of the 'matrix' is much more up my alley. Of course I'd love to pack some grub and duck out into the hills for few days now and then when the trucks and trains start to get tiresome, but the "average" day would be following the tracks town to town - where most of the grub and fellow homo sapiens happen to be.

[Skald: Regarding whether to go on foot or wheels.... You can always upgrade to a bike or car or van until you reach that magical "enough" point that seems to fit.]

To tell you the truth I despise vehicles. If every vehicle on the face of the earth sputtered and died for all time, why I'd jump for joy and dance on the windshields, thankful all the noise, stench, frenzy destructiveness and ugliness of this car culture is over. (Even if they changed them all to hydrogen or whatever, the stench and noise part might vanish but the rest would remain) I can't say I like planes much either, they aren't exactly harmless when the 'environment' is concerned, and they're just another part of the whole unsustainable system that should go. But since it is the current reality, I won't sit here and vow to never use 'em. Thailand does sound awfully enticing, the way you describe it... but South America is much more convenient for now though, seeing as I could walk virtually the whole way. Some feel the almost religious need to penetrate all the way down to Tierra del Fuego, but that trek makes crossing N. America look like a little walk around the block. The logistics of going through all the f*cking borders and problems with food and malaria, the mayhem in Columbia and all that shit gives me the willies too, to be honest! But sure as shit from a horse's ass it would beat punching in my hours on the clock to line the pockets of some capitalist!

The Rio Grande or maybe Lake Chapala is about as far south as my radar wants to peer for now. Hell, a person could spend a million years exploring all the nooks and crannies just in the western usa alone! The thing I'm really going to be mindful about is staying aware of what climatic zones I'm heading into, especially the desert. It may be starkly stunning, but I can imagine the desert doesn't suffer foolishness. I know it surely doesn't suffer it from quite a few unprepared migrating Mexicans - they do the suffering, if they stay alive, that is! So there's no bloody excuse to drag my arse around places like southern Arizona and Texas (or Florida for that matter) in the summer when I should be far to the north. If I do end up stuck somehow in say Phoenix in July or Quebec in December, I sure would set aside my hatred of tombs-on- wheels and do some hitching or busriding! Not if I can help it, of course.

Good luck in Hiroshima!!! I always think of Japan as full of these vast crowded megacities and rice paddies but I do recall reading that in between them there's a sea of forest-covered mountains with dozens of tree species, maybe if you check out the woods you could let us know what its like up there if you decide to head up the slopes between classes. (Unless you already did and I missed it)

P.S. Have you heard of Nanao Sakaki? I just found out about him and I mentioned him in my edited copy of that first email below. He's this Japanese tramping poet who actually did just what I dream of - doing his own 'sacred drift' walking all across N. America even up into Alaska. The klincher is he managed to do it without money! Now that's what I'm aiming for. Maybe you could get ahold of him cause excerpts from his writings would fit very 'tramptastically' on your site.


"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds."
Edward Abbey, naturalist and author 1927-1989

Outlaw Hobopoet on Foot

by Sunwalker

Thanks so much for this site AJ/Skald!! I'm glued to all these addictive blog entries from you and Alan Watts and Hakim and all the others, a person could stuff a book with it all, there's so much good expression and info here. Been searching for a decent hobotramp oriented site and it's been slim pickings, but yours hits the spot! It's a bit of a downer to hear you're caving in to the lure of a fulltime job, maybe there's still a chance for you to pass on it and keep your freedom, or at least keep it to less than a few months.

I'm an unemployed (FREE, dammit!) young man up here in frozen Alberta, almost 30 years young, having mercifully quit my mind-crushing 3 year slaveterm last year as a 'debt collector'. (Even worse than the previous serfterms) I'm mystified as to how I survived even six months of that collections shit, working with all these stuffed shirts and crazy wenches who've become less than human. Some of them are closer to sanity than others - they're the ones who complain the most and the loudest, as opposed to the hordes of zombified ass-kissers. But some of the old goats have hung around for more than 10 bloody years and not only are they not human anymore, they've become cackling old machine-like things. Ugh...I looked at these wretched entities and saw my arid soul-sucking future looming like a desiccated, abandoned airport runway to nowhere.

Damn, I'm glad I had the guts to get the f*ck out of there! The thing is, I can't bring myself to demean my dignity and self-respect by taking orders from a boss or endure more monotonous tedious drudgery ever again. The thought of work makes my innards sag like the carcass of a beached whale and makes my mind erect a big warning sign: "Forbid hope all ye who enter here" and then of course thoughts switch to wild plans of taking to the trail up into the hills and leaving this maniacal work-consume deathrace behind pronto.

Hell, for years I've wanted to take off on a bike and just become a tramp on wheels, but only now do I have the guts and will to actually get off my a$$ and go for it. My days of running on the hamstermill with all the other drones chasing those pieces of meat on a stick called 'retirement' and 'wealth' are over. And my days of participating in this ever-growing machine that is so busy converting the living to the dead (in the words of Derrick Jensen) are history. If enough of us toiling minions lay down our pens, shovels, hammers, and keyboards and simply quit slaving for the profit of rich masters, the machine could grind to a merciful halt thereby ending the insanity!

Now I'm becoming lured by the idea of even going so far as ditching the damn bike and being an outlaw wandering hobopoet on foot; living out of my pack, sleeping under tarps, in hospital waiting rooms, airports, under bridges, beneath the stars... Permanently meandering around the Americas north and maybe even south over hill, dale, road and rail, north in the summer and far south in the winter - the ultimate in freedom. The ultimate in slowing down and being able to exist more in rhythm with living beings and cycles and truly experience them instead of putzing around past everything on some metal contraption. Sure I'd sacrifice a few miles per hour but I couldn't give a flying hoot. Tough to stop and sniff the flowers when you have to get off a damn machine every time... All the bikes I own usually end up being stolen soon enough anyhow!

The catch, (other than the obvious myriad risks like sunburn, storms, cold, blisters, fire ants, ticks, muggers etc) being that we're stuck in this damned 'civilization', is of course $$$. I'd end up starting out this spring with only a few thousand, but I know I could stretch it. I can rig my own shelter each night (so f*ck motel rooms except maybe once a month), plus there's free water to be had in faucets and mountain streams everywhere, bathing in lakes, rivers, free showers etc, and for food there's a little foraging for pine nuts, berries etc, the good old dumpster dive, foodbanks/FNB, plus the odd dollop of discreet on-the-house grocery bulkfood sampling (as long as I don't mind hopscotching over and around the lines of the "law" and keep out of sight of it's glassy lidless porcine eyes.)

But I haven't come across too many ultralongdistance walking hobopoets/tramps on this site or any other. There was that 'Alexander Supertramp' who made a decent go of it for quite a while except he mostly hitched around, but he f*cked up by striking off into the Alaska muskeg without enough respect for the land. I just found out about this Japanese poet named Nanao Sakaki who fared much better; he actually walked across N. America back and forth - without any $$$! Thank You

P.S. I love the books of Derrick Jensen - especially The Culture of Make Believe and A Language Older Than Words. He's kind of an "anarchoprimitivist/anti-civilization" author (although I hate to put him in a pigeon hole) You might want to take a look, as his ideas would seem to fit well with these hobopoet thoughts! There's also John Zerzan's works - lots more no- holds-barred critiques of this loonybin civilization and Daniel Qiunn's Ishmael, which is for somewhat less 'radical' folks.


Sunday, January 30, 2005

On the Edge of a Journey

Its an exhilerating feeling- to be on the verge of a new journey. A flood of emotions: nostalgia and sadness for all you will leave behind, a sense of emptiness as the apartment is cleaned out.

I just said goodbye to my oldest Thai friend, who I met on a trip here two years ago. And of course it will be extremely tough saying goodbye to my girlfriend Tip. Thailand has been very good to me.

Mixed with the nostagia is a giddy sense of anticipation. Its all starting to feel real... an ending and a new beginning. The plane ticket sits on my dresser... stares back at me every day and whispers of onsens, shinkansen, shinto temples, cedar trees, karaoke, and zen. Conjured images of Hiroshima drift behind my eyes.

I think of the airport, one of my favorite places in the world. I imagine the rush and hum of people crowding off to destinations worldwide. One of my favorite exercises is to sit in front of the departures board and scan the city names. I imagine, if I had a wad of money, picking one randomly and off I go.

I like this idea of sacred drift.... I love the ambiguity and the unknown. I love the idea that I may be surprised... that all of my expectations and predictions will most likely be wrong and in truth I have no idea what's in store for me. Its a bit scary and thrilling too. There is magic in it-- not knowing what is going to happen when you get up in the morning... not knowing what's in store. It facilitates a sense of mystery and awe for life.

Which is just what the crushing routines of "normal" life snuff out. Most folks know EXACTLY what is going to happen most days. They know they will wake up at a predetermined time, will go to work and do exactly the same thing they did every other day, will eat the same food, will talk to the same people, will come home and watch the same asinine TV shows... and will repeat this sorry excuse for a life every damn day. These people feel no mystery. They feel no awe for life. They rarely wonder. No ecstacy, no trembling fear.

Well, each to his own. But I say "No thanks" to that. I prefer this quivering fear and enthusiasm; standing on the edge of the unknown and preparing to cross the line. If we were really honest, we'd recognize that all of life is like that- That we know far less than we think... that these routines are delusions to hide the mystery, awe, terror, and ecstacy of living. Nothing is certain. Ambiguity pushes in from the edges.

And sooner or later, no matter how much you think you've got it under control, it will penetrate your life and change everything. Impermanence and change are universal truths.

The wise course is to embrace them and learn to love the mystery.

In my own small way, Im trying to do just that.

Friday, January 28, 2005

The American Dream

My strongest memory of life in America is not the convenience, nor the wealth, nor the conformity (per se). When I think of American life, I think of monotony. Most Americans live incredibly monotonous lives. They get up early, they shuffle off to boring jobs, they spend 8,9,10 or more hours doing meaningless routine tasks, they shuffle home, they turn on the tube, they zone out in TV virtual reality, they go to bed.

On weekends they mow the lawn or watch yet more TV or go to the movies... the few thrills they get in their lives are vicarious fictions. How do they do it? How does one sell insurance every damn day, year after year after year? How does a human being tolerate such an amazingly dull life? How do people survive at Wal-Mart or Barnes & Noble or a chicken plant for years... even decades?

We become what we habitually do. More than advertising, more than media influence, more than political power.. it is the mind-numbing monotony of work that has turned America into a nation of dull drones. How can you expect someone to spend 8+ hours a day punching a calculator and then suddenly transform into a sharp, critically thinking adult after work? The same can be said for people who spend most of their waking hours scanning groceries, programming computers, answering telephones, filing, typing, filling in forms, working on assembly lines, selling useless shit.

"Work is the single most oppressive reality we face"... that's my favorite Hakim Bey quote. It gets right to the heart of the matter... right at the big taboo that absolutely no one in public life will discuss. Forget Iraq and the Patriot Act... work is enslaving most Americans right now. Right now, most people are squandering their lives doing other people's work, sacrificing to make obscene profits for other people, grinding out long days for other people's agendas. Never do they question this. Never do they ask themselves what their lives mean or what freedom actually is or how they should align their vocation with their deepest principles. Like good drones they shuffle off to work and pat themselves on the back for being "responsible".

But I, like Thoreau, have a different definition of "responsible". It begins with the responsibility to live one's own life... not the life that's prescribed by one's authority figures and parents. It begins with the responsibility of identifying one's principles. It includes the responsibility of examining the nature of life and existence itself. It includes the responsibility of feeding, clothing, and housing oneself in a manner consistent with one's highest values. It means having the courage to risk for one's dreams rather than living from fear and conformity.

Unfortunately, I've seen the fate that awaits this vast majority of people who refuse to contemplate or reflect. I saw it too many times... in the ER, in the Cancer Ward, in Nursing Homes. These are the people who become bitter and broken in old age. These are the ones who will obsess over regrets. These are the ones who will discover, much too late, that money & status & conformity brought them nothing but an empty life. These are the ones who will sit with a young malcontent, like myself, and urge him... plead with him-- to "follow your dreams".

I've sat with so many. But harder still is it to sit with those who still have time but refuse to make use of it. "Maybe later, maybe later" they say; as they dig themselves ever deeper into monotony, debt, boredom and a wasted life.

One day, they tell me, they will retire. One day they will finally do what they really wanted to do. One day they will enjoy their life and follow their bliss. They call this fantasy "The American Dream". A dream, a delusion: that's all it will be for most.

New Journey Ahead

Staring down the barrel of a gun..... called employment. In a month I will start my first full time job in three years. I can't say I am excited. Is this the right decision? Should I be doing this? Is this "part-time Hobopoet" strategy a wise one?

Or would I be better served by working a lazy part-time job here in Thailand.... teach Saturday and Sunday and have five days off to write, loaf, suck coffee, and make videos? Hmmmm. Its a tough choice really. I decided to go to Japan for strategic reasons-- to save enough money for an extended trip to South America. I'd like to head to Ecuador/Peru/Bolivia with a wad of cash... be able to live without working... study Spanish... take salsa lessons. Im hoping to buy a year or two of blissful unemployment by working full time in Japan.

The job in Japan at least looks tolerable. I'll be teaching 22 hours a week.... a tad much but the good news is that there are no office hours. When Im not teaching I am free. As I am a huge proponent of effortless language teaching (for the students and the teacher) I won't require much preparation time. So... as full time jobs in Japan go... this one looks to be more livable than most. But I've learned the hard way that there's no knowing for sure until you get there.

So off I go on February 25th... off to Hiroshima to teach English, study Japanese, and make friends. Im looking forward to cleaner air and less noise and in general a bit more tranquility than Bangkok offers. But I'll miss this city too. I'll miss Tip and friends and lazy days in Banglumpoo.

But there's no point looking back. The proper mindset for a new journey is one of expectant excitement mixed with fear.... what will it be like? What suprises await me? What new friends will I meet? Standing on the verge of a new journey is perhaps the most exciting stage.. when everything is pregnant with possibilities and uncertainties. At such a time, the only thing to do is have faith and leap. So leap I will.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Death and Denial

(originally published in Flagpole Magazine and The Link Magazine)

by AJ/Skald

Her left eye looked bruised and was swollen shut. Her mouth hung open - her head tilted to the right. The face seemed distorted, perhaps bloated. "I don't know, I just don't know," I muttered to myself. "It does look kind of like her, but I don't know."

The photo was black and white. I just couldn't be sure and so I returned the papers. The title page closed. It read, "Unidentified Bodies. Do Not Show To Children. Graphic Images." I glanced left at the makeshift message board erected by police at the corner of Khao San and Samsen Roads - a long line of photographs placed by frantic loved ones.

Next to the photos, pages of names - the confirmed dead. Susanna's name wasn't on the list. But the photo: my stomach churned. I raced to an Internet cafe and opened a Thailand missing persons site, filled out a form with Susanna's physical characteristics: black hair, white skin, female, adult. Location: Krabi. After a long sigh I clicked "enter." The same photo popped up - a picture taken in the morgue of a hospital. Doubt. Should I give her name to the police and the website? Was it she? What if I identified the body wrong? How terrible for Susanna's family and friends and those of the dead person. I decided to wait while my girlfriend, Tip, called friends to gather more information. "If there's no word by tomorrow," I thought aloud, "I will submit her name as possible identification."

I remembered Susanna's Christmas party. About 12 of us gathered in her apartment in mid-December: a mix of Thais, Americans, Filipinos, Swedes and other Europeans. Most were students or teachers at the AUA Language School whom I'd met while studying Thai. Susanna cruised the room buoyantly, laughing and chatting as she went. She is a Swede with chilled-out charm, a mischievous grin, and an elfin laugh. We feasted on Glog (Swedish spiced wine) and imported cheese - a rare feast for Thailand.

I remember talking to Chris and Nudaeng. Chris is half Danish, half Thai, a talkative and amiable guy. He speaks fluent Danish, English and Thai. Nudaeng is a former Thai teacher at AUA, who had just enrolled in Chinese medical school. She's bouncy, a natural ham and class clown. The two had recently gotten engaged. They discussed their wedding plans and also the upcoming New Year vacation. "We're thinking of going to Koh Chang," Chris said. Susanna overheard. "You should come down and join me in Krabi. I'm going to be in a beachside bungalow." "Lucky you," I said, "I'll probably be stuck in Bangkok on Christmas."

Since December 26, there has been no word from Susanna, Chris or Nudaeng. Calls to Susanna's cell phone initially yielded a "This voicemail box is full" message. But yesterday Tip called and this time received the following message: "This phone number is no longer in service." Tip called other friends, but no one has heard from Susanna. A teacher at AUA, P'Lek, thinks she saw Susanna's body on TV - perhaps the same photo I saw. But no one is sure. We do know that Krabi was hit by a massive, full-strength tsunami, and she was planning to stay on the edge of the beach. Calls to Chris and Nudaeng over the last week have produced nothing but "no signal" messages.

They were last seen at a wedding on Christmas Day, so there is hope. "Surely they are fine," I tell myself. "They were in Bangkok the day before the tsunami." But then my mind starts working. Might they have accepted Susanna's invitation? Did they decide to take a night bus to Krabi after the wedding party - to arrive early in the morning on the 26th, just before the tsunami hit? No one knows. We keep calling.

For several days following the disaster I managed to live in a cloud of denial. Initial news reports were sketchy and gave no hint of the magnitude of the devastation. Friends and I had decided to spend New Year's on an isolated island in the Andaman Sea called "Little Koh Chang." Concerned about the tsunami, we called a friend with connections there. "It's Okay. There's not much damageÖ no one was hurt there," he said. This seemed to confirm that things weren't too horrible. And after all, the earthquake occurred far away in Indonesia.

Tip and I boarded a bus on the 27th and headed south. We arrived at Ranong, a city on the coast, and spent the next day at the Siam Spa. We relaxed in a hot tub, sweated in the sauna, and got a traditional Thai massage. I saw no newspapers that day. When we returned to the guesthouse we asked about damage in Ranong. It wasn't too bad, we were told.

We caught a boat to Little Koh Chang island, which has no electricity, no TVs, and no media. Kristin and Wat, two friends still in Bangkok, called on the 29th. The damage in Phuket, Krabi, and the south was terrible they said. Thousands were dead. But on our island everything seemed peaceful and fine. As it turns out, Ranong and the island were partially sheltered from the wave.

Further south, the death toll was rapidly climbing. I began to worry but pushed it out of my mind: Denial. "Everything is fine," I thought,. "Mai pen rai" (Thai for "no worries"), I muttered to myself.

For the next five days we were cut off from the media frenzy. Kristin and Wat relayed some of the news, but it didn't really sink in. We talked to Thai residents on the island: "Mai pen rai," they said... don't worry. But Tip was already worrying. She tried to call Susanna every day. "Maybe her phone was lost or damaged," I said to calm her, "I'm sure she's fine."

At midnight on New Year's Eve, we gathered on the beach and stared at the flat black pane of the sea. We stood with candles, bowed our heads, and then planted the lights on the beach - yet still none of this seemed real. Only when we returned to Bangkok did I begin to grasp the full force of the calamity: when I read the paper, scanned the Internet, and noticed the missing persons signs. My email account was full of frantic messages from friends and relatives, checking on my safety.

"How odd that they've heard about this," was my initial thought, still unaware of the scope of the destruction. Tip continued to call but there was no word from Susanna. I suggested that we call Chris and Nudaeng to see if they'd heard from her, but there was no answer from them either. I thought of how happy they seemed, talking about their engagement. Later that day, I scanned the names of the dead and looked at the pictures of bodies.

Last night the wall of denial broke. I couldn't sleep. The bloated face, was it Susanna? Yes or no? I could not get the image out of my head. I paced in my apartment. The suddenness, the unexpectedness, the complete unpredictability of these deaths. I thought of how carefree and sure we all seemed at the Christmas party - confidently discussing our plans for the future. I picked up the phone and called Chris again and heard "Welcome to callback service." No signal.

I remembered other sudden deaths - friends or relatives killed in car crashes. I remembered the initial phone calls. My life transformed in an instant. Their lives ended in an instant. And there lies the big denial: the denial of death, the denial of the precariousness of life.

I thought of the goals and problems that had plagued me recently: a masters degree to complete, the usual money problems, a host of grandiose schemes. I asked myself, "In the face of this, what really matters"? Can I be sure that it won't all end tomorrow? No one will remember any of it once I'm gone. And if somehow I had an early warning, what would I do? What would be important in those final hours?

All I could think of was an overwhelming desire to say good-bye and set things right with the people I love - something the tsunami victims never had a chance to do.

On The Streets Of Athens

Getting By With A Dog, A Car And The River
(originally published in Flagpole Magazine)

by Skald

For six months I lived homeless in Athens. Actually, "homeless" is not an accurate term, as I did have a home - a 1986 Nissan Sentra, which I shared with my dog Athena. Inside, I built a bunk bed - a two-foot wide plywood platform that stretched from the rear dash to the front dash. This makeshift bunk allowed me to stretch out fully when I slept, though it was far from comfortable. It gave me only three inches of room between my nose and the roof of the car. I slept directly on the plywood. Athena slept on the back seat, below the bunk on a thick dog bed.

Still, I was reasonably comfortable and certainly better off than most who are thrust into homelessness involuntarily. I chose to be homeless, and could thus prepare for the experience. The Nissan sheltered me from rain, gave me a small degree of privacy and provided a secure place to keep my possessions.

I had only a simple and extremely practical wardrobe, chosen for its utility more than its fashion. I had an umbrella and a windbreaker. I had a sheet, a pillow and a fleece blanket for cold spring nights. For cooking I used a propane stove, a set of backpackers' pots, one fork and one spoon. I had a few books and pencils and pens for sketching. I also had a small bag with basic toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, razor, toilet paper and biodegradable liquid soap. I had one towel. In a pinch, most of my possessions could be stuffed into a large book bag, and yet I had far more than most who live on the street.

The two most common questions I was asked, when someone learned of my living situation, were: "How do you bathe?" and "How do you use the bathroom?" Bathing was simple: in the spring, when the weather was cold, I made do with sponge baths. Typically I'd find a lockable public bathroom and bring my towel and toiletries in a book bag. Once inside, I unpacked and washed one body part at a time, using a small sponge and the bathroom sink. I moved quickly and could clean my entire body in less than five minutes. Once clean, I toweled off, then cleaned the bathroom to leave no evidence of what I'd been doing. I needed those bathrooms and did not want to arouse suspicion or resentment from the owners. I tried to practice a "low impact" form of homelessness.

When the weather warmed in summer, my options became more pleasant: I bathed in the Oconee River in a secluded cove at sunset. This was a sublime experience: river flowing quietly, sun painting the sky pink and purple, trees swaying to a gentle breeze, and in the distance a heron gliding from one rock to the next. The river water was brisk and invigorating and seemed to provide a deeper cleaning than the chlorinated showers most of us use. Birds sang to me, the river whispered, and the trees danced. I left the river each night not only cleaner, but calmer and happier as well. Bathing outdoors under the open sky was my favorite experience of being homeless.

The bathroom situation was not nearly so sublime. Mostly I managed with public bathrooms: restaurants, stores and libraries took care of my needs. When necessary, I ducked behind a tree or into an alley. Again, I was more fortunate than many of Athens' homeless population. Generally, I had a clean-cut appearance and never had trouble using public bathrooms. Many homeless people, especially those who have been living in hard conditions for a long time, have become ragged in appearance and suffer a great deal more discrimination than I did. They are refused access to bathrooms in restaurants or businesses and must often resort to the outdoors. Using the outdoors carries risk, as it is illegal. So a homeless person faces police harassment and a ticket for satisfying a basic bodily function.

Most homeless people will tell you that sleep, more than food or clothing or elimination, is their most difficult challenge. They are chronically sleep-deprived, subject to terrible conditions at night: biting insects, harassment from drunks, police checks, rain, noise and extremely uncomfortable "beds." I fared better than most, but rarely got a good night's sleep. My bunk was narrow and the plywood was hard (though certainly an improvement over the cement sidewalks that some use).

At night I covered the windows of the Nissan with burlap curtains for privacy. Mosquitoes plagued me relentlessly. I'd lie awake in the windless heat and listen to them buzzing in my ears. I rolled and turned and swatted at my arms and legs, unsure if I was feeling bites or imagining them. At times I sealed myself under a blanket to avoid the bugs, but this cut off air circulation and I was soon sweating and panting and miserable and still could not sleep. Every night this was my choice, between unbearable heat or biting bugs.

When I finally drifted off to sleep I was often wakened by drunks - usually around 2 a.m. when the bars emptied. They never noticed or bothered me directly, but their shouts and fights and broken bottles jarred me from sleep, and I had great difficulty drifting off again. For the first few months, my own paranoia made it worse. I was terrified of being "discovered," of being harassed or assaulted by violent drunken hordes. Such were my fears, but they never materialized. My threats were more domestic: sleep deprivation was by far my worst enemy. In six months, I did not have a single good night's sleep.

Often I'd curse my car, the heat, the bugs and the drunks, yet I was grateful, too. My cramped home was far better than what many homeless people have. Many lack any sort of roof and must try to survive on benches or sidewalks. The sidewalk is a killer. The cement sucks the heat from your body even on the hottest of nights. You find yourself simultaneously chilled (from below) and heated (from the air above). You awake from the sidewalk aching and sore, as if you'd suffered a light beating.

In the car I had privacy. I was never directly harassed or disturbed. But on sidewalks and benches there is none. Passing drunks yell at you or throw things at you. Police wake you and tell you to move on. Store owners insult you. Rarely can you get more than a couple hours of rest - fitful and wary. More than they are hungry or sad or cold, most homeless people are bone-tired.

Despite deep fatigue, every day I woke up soon after sunrise; the sun turned my car into a solar oven. Groggy and sore, I rolled out of the bunk, took down the curtains, and drove to a park. Athena and I would walk for an hour or so, to stretch our bodies and work out the aches... and then I'd find a soft spot under a tree and take a nap. These naps helped a great deal. They were far more restful than my bug-infested nights.

Somewhat rested, I'd feed Athena and cook my breakfast in the parking lot (a package of instant oats). I'd then make my way to the library to check email and work on my blog ( There is, in fact, a large community of homeless bloggers who use free access to library computers to record their experiences on the streets of America. The most famous of these is "The Homeless Guy," a man who has been chronically homeless for 20 years. The Homeless Guy suffers from severe clinical depression. He has, at times, had jobs and housing, but loses them when the worst of the depression kicks in. Most of the time he lives in shelters or on the street. He uses his blog to tell his story, and to advocate for dignified treatment of all homeless people ( The diversity, and the quality, of these "homeless blogs" is astounding and certainly challenges the stereotype of lazy and inarticulate beggars.

After a few hours at the library I would return downtown. For the price of coffee I rented a seat outside Blue Sky, where I'd sit for long hours. I watched the businessmen hustle and the students scurry off to class. There I'd sit, reading, scribbling, sketching. And it was there that I gained a bigger window into Athens' homeless life, for I was often joined by others who'd scrounge a cup of coffee and join me. This is how I met Mike.


Mike has two artificial arms which end in steel hooks that he can open and close by shifting his shoulders and stumps. He was a downtown regular. Technically homeless, he tended to "couch surf," crashing here and there with friends or strangers for as long as he could. But these arrangements never lasted long, and he often found himself on the street, hustling for money. He approached my table one day. "Mind if I sit down?" he said. He sat and leaned towards me with hound-dog eyes. I tensed, ready for the plea for money.

"So, you an artist?" he asked, looking at my sketchbook.

"I'm trying,", I said, and relaxed a bit.

"So am I. I'll draw you something, and if you like it maybe you can give me a little something, just to get some coffee or something?"

"Why not," I said and passed him a pencil and the sketchbook. He took the pencil in his mouth, and maneuvered the sketchbook with the hook of his left arm. He clenched the pencil tight with his teeth, bent over the paper and began a few tentative strokes. Rapidly he built up speed and was soon moving his head purposely and confidently, pausing at times to pull back and check his work, then hunching over the paper to continue. It took him five minutes or so, and when he finished he nudged the book back to me with the hook of his left arm. There was a perfect drawing of a Georgia bulldog. I laughed and he flashed me a big grin.

"So, do you like it?"

I nodded and gave him two dollars. He never stopped grinning, teeth flashing.

We bumped into each other several times after that. Sometimes he remembered me and sometimes not, which both puzzled and annoyed me. But he was always friendly and each time he'd leave me with a drawing and that huge toothy grin. I'd give him two bucks and we'd chat. Slowly, I learned more about him. "I'm an alcoholic and an addict: that's why I'm homeless," he told me one day. "I could be a real artist but I always relapse. I've been in and out of rehab so many times - I'm a regular at Athens Regional; they should name a room for me." He smiled as he told me this; he was always smiling. Some days he was depressed and complained about his treatment from "regular folks."

"Most people they don't see me: they just see a crippled homeless man. They're afraid. I don't care if they give me money, but they should show some respect."

Several times I watched as Mike approached people on College Square. Mostly they seemed scared or annoyed. It made me angry. It bothered Mike too, but he kept grinning regardless. Most folks saw Mike as a bum who could draw with his mouth. He saw himself first as an artist - an artist with an addiction.

This attitude - this stereotyping of "the homeless" - was the norm. Again and again I saw the same scene: a beggar would approach a well-scrubbed couple with a sad story and an outstretched palm. And the reaction was always the same: fearful expressions, a quickening of their pace, recoiling in disgust, fear, annoyance, judgment. Sitting downtown, I occasionally overheard complaints from people sitting at nearby tables: "Fucking beggars." "Why don't they get a job?" "They're all drug addicts." "I refuse to give them anything; they just use it for alcohol." - Always variations on these themesÖ


Red moved very slowly, as if carrying a heavy weight. He was shuffling by on College Square one day when he noticed Freya tied to my chair. He turned and shuffled over.

"Your dog bite?" he asked.

"Not usually" I said, which was enough for Red. He bent down (with knees popping) and extended a tentative hand towards Athena, who gave him a glance then went back to napping. Red rubbed the back of her neck and seemed pleased, "Most black folks are scared of dogs," he said, "but not me. This is a fine dog you got: looks like a little Shepherd."

"She's part shepherd and part Chow," I said, while he continued to rub her neck and head. He squatted there for several minutes, then thanked me and shuffled off.

I saw him often after that, and he always stopped to see Athena. She quickly warmed to him and would roll over on her back as he approached. Always Red moved with the same slow deliberation. He was extremely gentle with Athena and stayed longer and longer to be with her. As he petted her, he'd talk to me about his life. He'd had a hard one. "I got AIDS," he told me one day. "My family don't want nothin to do with me, but I can't blame ëem. I was a crack addict for a long time. I stole from them, lied, treated them bad. I don't blame ëem for not wanting me around."

Red was homeless. He slept in a small camp near the Oconee. In winter he sometimes went to the shelter, but generally preferred to avoid it: "Those people are always tryin' to tell you what to do, how to live your life. They preach to you about God and jobs and drugs and never leave you alone." So Red preferred to sleep outdoors. He got his food from kitchens, churches, and through begging. "Some people are real nice to me; some of the restaurant people they give me leftovers at the end of the day."

As the summer moved on, I noticed that Red's health was deteriorating. He moved more slowly and his skin took on a yellowish tint. "You should see a doctor," I told him, but he shook his head. "Ain't nothin they can do. I've got AIDS and hep C; my liver's givin out." He paused and rubbed Athena: "I'm gonna die soon, and I don't want to die in a hospital.

"Maybe they could keep you alive longer," I said, but he shook his head, and I said nothing more.

I saw him a few more times after that, and each time he looked worse: his skin more yellow, his movements slower. And then he stopped coming downtown. I got news from Aaron, another downtown regular, that Red had died. He'd fallen into a ditch one night and was rushed to the ER. Jaundiced, extremely weak and suffering from full-blown AIDS, he was released that same night. He died in his sleep.

(To be concluded.)

On the Streets, part 2

by Skald


Aaron was bitter, ìThose damn doctors donít care about poor people. You think they would have let him go if he was rich? Hell no, theyíd have shot him up with drugs and tubes and food and heíd still be in there, doing fine. Itís all about the money. I hate doctors.î Aaron had plenty of experience with doctors. Like Red, he was HIV-positive, though his health was otherwise fine. Aaron received social security disability checks, though not for HIV. He got them for depression. ìThose doctors are so stupid man. I go in there with a cane and act all depressed and down and they buy it every time. Every year they make me go for an exam, and I always do the same act.î

Aaron was a self-described hustler. He hustled the doctors, hustled his lawyer, hustled men, hustled for housing, and hustled his boss. He had a job at a fast food restaurant. Legally ìtoo disabled to workî, he liked the extra money and the social contacts of the job. Late in the evenings, he hustled men in the back room of the restaurant- for extra cash. ìIím doing well, I get a different guy every night and I get paid for itî he told me and smiled wide. Like Mike, he was always smiling... but Aaronís could be unsettling... a smile that made me nervous... the smile of a con man.

He was a good talker... full of insight and righteous indignation. Heíd come to Athens from South Carolina, where heíd been kicked out of a shelter for a failed drug test, ìThose racist social workers had it in for me. You canít trust those tests. They didnít like me because I spoke out and stood up to them. If you donít bow and scrape and yessir them, they say youíre in denial or some other bullshit. So they gave me a fake positive and kicked me out. Iíve got friends in Athens, so I came down here to stay with them.î

In a later conversation, Aaron let me know that he ìoccasionally used crackî, but was ìnot addictedî. When he told me that he ìcould quit at anytimeî I knew that he was, of course, an addict. But he was a resourceful one. Besides the shelter incident, his crack addiction never seemed to interfere with his disability scams, job, or part-time hustling work. He ate well and looked healthy.

Aaron occasionally resorted to shelters, but usually managed to con or hustle a couch or a room somewhere. He told me that heíd never slept on the street and never would. Most people liked Aaron. I didnít trust him, but I liked him too. He was also one of the most interesting and enterprising people I met. He was sharp-witted, gregarious, and persuasive. He did a marvellous job of faking interest in me and my life... and occasionally surprised me. He once, inexplicably, brought me a copy of ìThe Tao of Poohî. ìSeemed like your kind of bookî, he said. In other circumstances, in a different world, I could imagine him hustling stocks or bonds or real estate. He had the mindset. He had the greed and the love of the hustle. He had the confidence.

The Fiddler.

ìWould you like me to play you a tuneî, was The Fiddlerís stock invitation to passers-by. The Fiddler (I never learned his name) was a skinny guy with a sparse beard who stood on downtown street corners. One day, I gave in. ìSure, play me somethingî I said, and tossed a dollar into his case. He straightened, readied himself, and then squawked out the most horrid cat screech Iíd ever heard. On and on it went. He played with proud intensity while I stood stunned and bemused, eyes wide in amazement. ìThanksî, I said when he finished... and I was indeed thankful that he was finished. He gave a little bow.

By this time Iíd grown bolder and immediately set to questioning him about his life. ìSo, is this how you support yourself?î, I asked. ìOh yes, I live very well. I live in the back of my truck, in a camper that I built myself. Youíve probably seen it, I park downtown every nightî. I had seen it, it was an impressive looking camper, built from plywood... with a large propane tank strapped to the side. ìIím very comfortable. I have a soft bed and a stove and shelves inside. Itís quite a good little homeî.

ìAlso, you asked me if I support myself... I do much better than that. I am a world traveller. Every year I go to Sweden and live for half the year.î I was a bit surprised. The Fiddler explained that by living in his truck he could save most of the money he made from busking. He cooked his own food on a propane stove, and had almost no living expenses. Once heíd saved enough, he sould buy a ticket to Sweden, where he also busked for a living. I was impressed.... and curious about how he was treated by Athenians. ìMost people are very nice, they appreciate that Iím a musician, not a beggar.î The Fiddler did not consider himself a ìhomeless personî at all. He defined himself as a world travelling musician, a member of a long and ancient tradition. His musical skills were unexceptional, but his world view was not. He seemed better travelled, freer, happier, and more knowledgeable, than most of the Athenians who tossed him coins.

The Young Homeless Professional.

Matt, or the young homeless professional (as he called himself), was perhaps the most intriguing ìhomeless personî I met in my six month experiment. Matt was a computer programmer at UGA who chose to live in his Bronco. He dressed business casual, with emphasis on the casual. Technically he was homeless, but his homelessness showed no signs of deprivation. Matt was living the good life, and wanted me to know it. I met him at the Globe one night, sipping a Pilsner at the bar. I let slip that I was living in my car, and expected a sneer or worse. Instead, I got a sermon.

ìMan, thatís great. Iím living in my car too... actually, in a Bronco. One day I decided that I was sick of paying rent. I didnít want a mortgage either. So I moved into the truck. Iíve got it set up great... everything is organized in sealed, airtight bins. Iíve got a cell phone and a laptop. Iíve got an extra battery in the truck to power them... and fans that keep me cool at night. Iíve got screens in the windows to keep out bugs. Iíve got a comfortable bed. In the Winter I use a thick sleeping bag and am perfectly warm. In fact, Iím as comfortable as all those suckers in their $100,000 dollar McMansions. Theyíre wasting thousands of dollars a month on those ridiculous things- keeping up with the Joneses. What a huge waste.î He kept on going for some time. Matt let me know that while most ìprofessionalsî were saddled with debt, he was debt free. He was taking the money he saved by car living and putting it into investments. ìIíll be able to retire before Iím fortyî, he claimed, ìwhile those poor bastards will be slaving away for another twenty or thirty years.î

Matt was not just an advocate for a simpler life- he was an evangelist-- a true believer. He saw car-living as a radical tool for freedom and self-reliance. He said that he felt pity for people who slaved their lives away just to acquire and maintain ìuseless gadgetsî. Matt was opinionated, and held an obvious contempt for consumer culture. He expressed his points intelligently and forcefully, sometimes too forcefully. But it was hard to resist his energy and passion. I was taken in and embolden by his ideas. Yet for all he had accomplished, Matt wasnít satisfied. He had plans to start his own consulting business, running it from his Bronco with a laptop, cellphone, and PO Box. He was, of course, atypical-- but he helped to completely redefine my ideas of ìhomelessî and ìprofessionalî.

Many Others.
I met many other ìhomeless peopleî during that six month stint, and none of them were the same. None fit neatly into a stereotype. None met my expectations. I met runaway teens, abused women, anarchists, rednecks, academics, and downsized office workers. I met people who could not read,... and one with a Phd. Some seemed to adapt to homelessness fairly well. Some even seemed to thrive. Others suffered tremendously. Their lives, their will, and their hope were shattered. Many were hungry and ragged and desperate. Yet no matter how down and out, I never met a single person who did not retain a core of human dignity. These were not stereotypes, or statistics, or anonymous victims. They were human beings- diverse, resourceful, and worthy of respect. Most had suffered a debilitating injury or illness or tragedy. Car accidents, AIDS, domestic violence, schizophrenia, clinical depression, and bipolar disorders were the most common afflictions. Before these incidents, most had held jobs and lived ordinary lives. Afterwards, they found themselves unable to work and their lives quickly disintegrated. Some adapted and survived. Some got help and returned to their old lives. Many never did- and never will.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Update From Malaysia

by Matt Salleh

Some folks have asked me to update them from Malaysia and to give my perspective on the earthquake/tsuanmi that occurred in Sumatra on December 26th at approximately 8 a.m.

Geetha and I are now back in Kuala Lumpur after a 6 month stint in Indonesia. Weíve now got a nice apartment about 5 minutes from the school where I start work on Monday. Weíve spent the weekend unpacking and shopping for housewares etc.

Weíre EXTREMELY excited to be back home in Malaysia and hope to be here for a while to come!

Geetha and I were in Lombok (the next island over from Bali) on December 26th and read about the tsunami in the paper. In fact, four hours after the quake we were on a ferry back to Bali! Thank goodness it didnít travel East! At the time it was just reported that there had been a quake. We didnít know the extent of the damage until the next day. Quakes are reported in the region almost daily.

Anyway, as far as we know.. all family, colleagues, students and friends are safe and sound, even our family (which Iíve never met) in Sri Lanka. There were a few close calls though. A very good friend of mine was in Krabi (mainland Thailand not far from Phuket where the most damage was done in Thailand) with a group of students leading an outdoor adventure trip. He said they had just left for the airport heading inland 20 minutes prior to the tsunami hitting! He also said the resort they were staying at is now gone and they were lucky to make it out in time! You can imagine there are some pretty happy parents for that one! Other friends of ours were in Phuket just 48 hours before and met us in Bali. Again, they are relieved
they decided to meet us in Bali and not spend more time in Phuket.

I have been on the very beaches that were destroyed in Phuket, Thailand. The disaster hit close to home for me as I recognized the resorts, beaches and locales in the news reports. I wonder about some of the Thai people I have met that live there. I never knew them well, merely a roadside aquaintance selling me a drink or a plate of noodles, but still, they are real to me and I think of them and if they are alive. Some of the sweetest and most kind people youíll ever meet are Thaiís, which makes it all the more difficult for me to imagine the hardship they face.

As for Aceh in Indonesia. It was the only place in Indonesia I was afraid to go and I never visited. We were given many warnings about visiting Aceh since it was essentially under military rule/martial law. When we were living in Bogor, Indonesia there would be daily reports in the Jakarta Post about unrest in Aceh, kidnappings and renegade military hijacking this and that. But, I CAN imagine the lack of infrastructure since a lot of Indonesia teeters on the brink of development. Because of corruption and many other factors those places never quite seem to get connected to the rest of the modern world or Asia in the sense of being developed. Many , many people live in plywood and tin roof huts with no running water or
toilets. So I imagine the tsunami just made it much more difficult to cope
with hygiene, clean water and supplying food to the region. I canít imagine
a place in the states as inaccessible to even relate it to.

Iím not sure what stories you guys are getting, but here in Malaysia the papers are FULL of stories.. people floating on debris in the ocean for 8 days and being rescued by fishing vesselsÖÖold folks trapped in their hotels with the water rising and just at the moment they were about to die, the walls collapsed and released the flood. And some of the saddest are about children walking the beaches looking for their family, and even babies that were swept out to sea. Itís all very sad.

The response here has been amazing. Some of our friends work and volunteer for MERCY Malaysia. They said the donations are outstanding, they can barely keep up. However, along the lines of corruption some of the shipments have ëdisappearedí, so now they are sending representatives along with the donations to ensure delivery. Again, the lack of infrastructure (roads, runways, boat docks, man power etc.) has made it difficult to distribute the donated supplies. The reason I say this is because to me the term ëlack of infrastructureí was just a vague notion or idea until I moved abroad and experienced it and saw it for myself. Now I can relate to what they mean when they say they simply canít get the supplies into the region.
Again, I canít think of an example to relate it to in the states or I would.

On another note, since it is easy for me to dislike Bush as an American living abroad, I did notice the slow reposnse by the US. But it seems like they have stepped it up a bit now.

If youíd like another perspective I recommend the two articles linked below. They were sent to me by my friends Callan and Noah. One of them is by Simon Winchester who wrote the book on the Krakatoa explosion in the 1880ísÖ itís a very interresting perspective and as soon as I heard about the tsunami I thought of his bookÖ.,7369,1382850,00.html

One question I do have though, which I havenít had time to research:

Why did the tsunami travel North to Thailand, South to Aceh and West to India and Sri Lanka but not East towards Singapore, peninsular Malaysia and Java? There must be a reasonÖ or I simply am misinterpreting what happened. I imagine it to be like a ripple effect that would be like tossing a stone into a clear pond producing concentric circles. If thatís the case then the waves should have also travelled east? I dunnoÖ. Any ideas? Excuse my ignorance on that one!

I hope to hear from yaíll soon and I hope you are all fine.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Kokkram, Koh Chang Island, Tsunami Aftermath

by AJ/Skald

Thankfully, I narrowly missed the Tsunami that engulfed southern Thailand.... I traveled to the south a few days after it hit. Three of the Athens Hobopoets (me, Kristin, and Todd H.) along with Tip, Wat, and Da met on Andaman Koh Chang (not to be confused with the more famous Koh Chang on the East coast).

We met at the Kokkram "resort" for the new year... a collection of simple bungalows that our friend Wat helped to build. He invited us to join him there for the New Year and assured us that the island had not been badly damaged by the tsunami. And so we booked a bus from Bangkok to the town of Ranong on the west coast. It was the typically gruelling Asian bus ride that I've grown to loathe over the years and yet keep making time and again. Ten hours later we arrived.

We stayed in the Wood House Guest House, run by Wat's friend Bow. They have simple concrete rooms... clean but very spartan (much like my apartment... but cleaner). No boats were running the day we arrived as the Thai government was still wary of aftershocks. We therefore spent the day at Ranong's famous Siam Spa.... a hotspring spa that includes a large hottub, a sauna, a steam room, and Thai massage facilities. If was a wonderful way to relax and unwind after a long bus ride. After several hours in scalding water (and a great massage) we hiked up a nearby hill and feasted on spicy tofu curry and rice.

Bow booked us a boat ticket and the next day we caught a wooden fishing boat to a rendevous point in the sea.. where a long tail boat met us. We transferred to the small boat which took us into Kokkram's isolated bay. We plodded onto the beach and caught sight of the tall tower on the left side of the bay-- Kokkram resort. This "resort", this beach, and this island are not hotspots. There are no shops at Kokkram... and the resort itself is merely a collection of simple wooden huts and dome tents. The huts have no fan or air conditioning and the entire resort has electricity only from 6pm to 10pm-- when they run the generator. Otherwise, the experience is much like camping... though most huts do have a spectacular view of the beach and each night Tip and I fell asleep to the sound of waves.

Curled in a bamboo nest,
The voice of the sea
sings me to sleep.

This is a place for the depleted-- for those craving rest, peace, and quiet. It is a place to recharge. It is NOT a place for those wanting to party or socialize. For that, the eastern islands of Koh Phangan and Koh Tao are much better. Activities at Kokkram are subdued. Tip and I hiked a trail one day and came across a ramshackle, deliverance-esque shack next to a long marsh flat. The inhabitants, Chang (Kokkram's tattoo artist) & his girlfriend, whacked a coconut off a tree and offered us its fresh juice. It was gigantic and took the two of us over 10 minutes to finish. Once done, Chang split it in two and dropped it on the ground.

A feeding frenzy of ensued... for the grounds housed a collection of ducks, chickens, dogs, puppies, cats, and kittens... who all eagerly went for the coconut. The chickens pecked the kittens on the head, the puppies chewed the ducks' tails, the ducks waddled and pecked at the puppies... and everyone dug into the coconut half-shells. Tip jumped and giggled amid the frenzy.

Another morning I sat on our bungalow porch and watched the resident pony, struck by a wild urge, charge up and down the beach. At one point he turned and charged into Kokkram's beachside bar.... skidding, kicking, and sliding on the tile.

Kristin and Wat arrived a couple of days later. We booked a small longtail boat for a trip to nearby Koh Phayam island.... rising and dropping on choppy seas under a cloudy sky. We reached the beach, and a Reggae Bar, in about an hour. At the Reggae Bar we met another of Wat's friends, Pon. We also met Pon's British girlfriend and a German girl who was staying there. The German girl had recently arrived from Surin Island and was on the beach when the Tsunami struck.

In fact, she had pictures of the wave. A group of Thai snorkellers were walking on the beach at the time. They couldn't swim (as many Thais can't) and so they had on life jackets. They were still wearing them on the beach, which amused the German girl. So she took out her camera and started to snap pictures--- just as the first wave hit. The succession of pictures show a wave sweeping onto the beach, knocking people over, and then sweeping them out to sea. As it turns out, the Thai snorkellers were saved by their life vests.

After listening to us talk about the tsunami, the Thais at the bar seemed agitated and encouraged us all "not to worry". This is the "mai pen rai" attitude so ingrained in Thais.... a go with the flow, "no worries" approach to life. They rolled a massive joint and passed it around. I barely inhaled and coughed out one hit and felt nothing... doing it more to convince them that I was not worrying than for any other purpose.

Tip and I then strolled the beach as Kristin continued to talk to the others... Todd drank and smoked and Da scowled. We all then took the boat back to Koh Chang/Kokkram... a magical ride on bumpy seas at sunset... squid and fishing boats glimmering in the distance... a chill breeze blowing... sea spray in my face.

We returned to Ranong the following day and spent another afternoon at Siam Spa.... then ate great Som Tom (spicy papaya salad) sitting next to the stream.

And then another grueling bus ride. I'm now back in Bangkok amid a crowd of tourists, traffic, and barking dogs. But I am, indeed, rested and rejuvenated.... ready to tackle the city, the final phases of the Masters degree, and the upcoming move to Hiroshima, Japan.

"Another year is gone -
A travel hat on my head,
Straw sandals on my feet"


by AJ/Skald

"But neither a priest nor an ordinary man of this world was I, for I wavered ceaselessly like a bat that passes for a bird at one time and for a mouse at another."

I like Basho's description of himself- as moving between two roles: that of the spiritual man (priest/monk/shaman) and that of the worldy man (poet/lover/teacher). This fits with my notion of what it means to be a "Skald" or "Hobopoet"... a travelling poet/shaman... moving in both the passionate and chaotic world of human beings and the meditative and natural world of the spirit. It is a notion of a particular kind of "middle way"... neither retreating from society nor being completely caught in it.