Odds and Endgames

One of the hallmark words for describing Peace Corps is ‘experience’.  Part of the reason we do it is for the ‘experience’, but that word is rather nebulous.  What exactly is meant by it?  In an over-arching, yet still implicit, sense, it is that we learn and are learned from, share and are shared with, love and are loved by.  In an explicit way, though, we have stories.  As with anything that can be so searingly formative as Peace Corps service, we collect stories of various kinds.  Often very small and insignificant alone, they are merely parts of the puzzle.  Eventually they form a gestalt, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, for this service is indeed greater (for the Volunteer) than the collection of a few stories, but those tales provide the backdrop to what we all achieve.  This ‘experience’ can entertain, it can inspire, it can educate, it can disgust, and it can surprise.  That is because behind all of those emotions are the discreet stories we have of students discussing morality all the way to leeches crawling around the bathroom.

I’ve shared several of those stories here, but there are many that fell through the cracks.  They may have been just passing moments or they may not have fit into a greater theme that I was trying to convey.  I’d like to take a moment here to share a few of the things that I haven’t mentioned for one reason or another.


‘Patience is merely frustration with an unfortunate lack of appropriate weaponry.’

There are a few things that, traditionally, a Javanese man needs to be considered an adult.  Things like a house, a horse (see: motorcycle), and a kris (wavy dagger for really gettin’ ceremonial).  And a bird.  It’s rather common to see a bird hanging outside an Indonesian household.  It can be a sign of status.  The brighter your bird is and the more it consistently pisses off your neighbors, the more expensive your bird must be.  My host brother and host father decided to take this to the next level.  It started last year with two birds living in a small cage outside my room.  Keep in mind that my room is upstairs and I am the only one who resides there.  Over the next few months, our bird total increased to four, then six, then eight.  We currently have eleven birds residing in our house, the vast majority of which live right outside my room.  While I was away for almost a week, a small aviary was constructed in the upstairs part of the house.


I’m up to my neck in birds! Sadly, with this monstrosity, that’s true.

I was not asked about or informed of this project.  It just happened.  So now my new friends can not only screech to their hearts’ content right outside my bedroom door, they can also flutter about and slam into plastic mesh whenever the urge strikes them.


From left to right: Wingnut, Feather Flocklier, Stephen Squawking, Chirpes, Captain Peckard, and Kevin. Not pictured: Cat Food, Gunther McFeathersburg III Esquire, and Scrattlepuss.

It is a constant struggle not to cut open that mesh and free both the birds and my god damn sanity.

Closing Time


I’ve heard from old soldiers that they can fall asleep anywhere at any time, a result of their war experience and general grizzledness.  I think the same might go for Peace Corps Volunteers.  Even amidst the buzz and commotion of a pub on Christmas, Sam still finds time for a bit of shut-eye.

Follow Your Nose!

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A gift from one of my social studies classes.  A fruit bird complete with star fruit wings and pineapple tail feathers.

Vacation Semeru-ined

Recently, my friend Jay and I had planned to climb the tallest mountain on Java, Semeru, during National Exams.  We traveled for several hours out to the base camp, only to learn that it was still closed.  Each year, they shut the trail down because rainy season weather makes it too dangerous and it gives the mountain ecosystem a chance to recover from dry season traffic.  They pushed their opening date back a month, which left Jay and I in the lurch as far as ‘things to do’ is concerned.  We decided to walk from the base of Semeru to Bromo Mountain, another active volcano further along in the same range.  After a few hours of hoofing it, including an impromptu dance session in a small shelter to keep warm in the night rain, we reached a homestay to rest our heads.

That morning, we decided our plan of action would be, instead of walking in the valley to our destination, to climb the system of ridges that goes to same place, but looked more interesting.  We knew there was no trail and there was some vegetation, so we’d be doing some bushwhacking…but our expectations were put to shame.

Can you find Jay?

Can you find Jay?

It took us a solid 3 hours to go a few kilometers, but it was incredibly satisfying to reach the top of the ridge where we could enjoy our feast.


Those instant noodles were consumed raw. Becoming a bit of a tradition, I think.  The foot, however, was not eaten.

We approached Bromo on foot from the back side, something rarely done, and appeared out of the mist to walk a knife’s edge along the gaping maw of the mountain.

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True Purposes


Burn calories while you sleep! Hold dirty laundry! Entertain the foreigner! All for 75.99! Call now!

About a year ago, my family had a treadmill installed in the middle of the house.  I’m not exactly sure why, as no one uses it for its designed purpose.  Fortunately, Gita has found the real Spirit of the Treadmill.

True Skill


That’ll show ’em for…flying near my backpack?

Living in a place like Indonesia, one learns different methods for killing mosquitoes.  The particular technique depends upon the situation.  This was a superb example of the Cloudburst technique, catching 3 of the fuckers in one clap.

And finally,

What a Picture is Worth


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A student took a silly picture from Facebook and turned it into an incredible pencil drawing.


(The sarung is the thing around my neck.)

Alright, so perhaps this wasn’t a collection of stories but rather a collection of pictures I wanted to share.  The principle is the same, though.   These bits and pieces drift together into a flotsam of unexpected sentimentality.  Sometimes, when I’m feeling down about the macro effect of my service here, and the inescapable truth that I haven’t changed much of anything, I take it down to the micro.  Look at the bits, and the whole because so much more clear.

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Eat, Play, Dive

I have a dream where I walk into a room filled with armed men.  Knives, machetes, guns, socks filled with quarters, sword-chucks, you name it.  I take stock of the situation, recognize the very real danger, and then proceed to berate these men incessantly.  I insult their mothers, their sisters, tell them that they take terrible pictures of their cats, and generally bark at them until the room is effervescent with indignation.  A stare-down follows, an epic contest of will and nerve and cajones to see who will break first.  Then we all take a deep breath, put our weapons away, go grab a beer, and reminisce about that time that I called Pistol-Whip Steve’s feline photography mewdiocre and borderline felinious.

Right, so terrible excuses for puns aside, I’ve never actually had that dream, but it is an accurate reflection of what I spent the weekend doing.

DSC00371It started painfully enough.  I left my house at 4:30 PM and walked about an hour and a half to Ngoro, hoping to catch a ride to Surabaya where I could look for a night bus to my destination: Bali.  Four transits and twenty hours later, I arrived in the small village of Amed.  Having already visited Bali once before, I was prepared for an onslaught of tourists and tourism-related bullshit, but Amed is not Kuta or Sanur.  The restaurants and cafes are tasteful and you don’t have to walk far to see stunning mountain scenery, actual village activities, and the locals enjoying themselves.


Last one to the finish is a rotten egg! And also doesn’t get creamed by motorcycles coming around the bend! Go!












As much as I wanted to just keep walking into those hills, I did not come to hike.  I came to dive.


You see that thing? It will eat you.

It is an interesting activity to learn.  You enter into a world that is trying its damnedest to make you leave or, barring that, kill you.  There are things that bite, things that sting, things that shock, things that lie on their taxes; a generally unwholesome sort that one would not usually want to associate with.  Even the medium in which you are moving is dangerous, what with its lack of useable oxygen.  It is armed to the teeth with all manner of weapons to make a hat out of your ass, and yet…it is strangely alluring.  We waltz in anyway.  The first time underwater is strange and downright scary.  It’s hard to enjoy the exotic scenery around you when your brain is busy with “We’re sinking, fill your jacket a bit.  Is there too much water in the mask?  Shit, don’t kick the coral.  BREATHE!  Is that thing poisonous? Ears hurt, equalize.  BREATHE.”  And so on.  It was, for me at least, a strong exertion of willpower not to just bolt right there.  But then, like I said, everyone takes a deep breath (literally, y’all) and calms down a bit.  By the third day, the ocean and I are laughing together about that first dive where I could not get my ass off the bottom because I sink like a rock.  Everything does not appear as imminently dangerous, and it is much easier to actually look around at the wondrous surroundings without considering my own fragile mortality.

Pistol-Whip Steve is now not so antagonistic, and I am grudgingly accepted into this foreign world of fish and Dick Tracy villains.


The USAT Liberty wreck. It’s like playing Operation. Don’t touch the sides, or you’ll get stuck and feel like an idiot!

In my effort to live up to this year’s theme, and to gain a potentially useful skill for post Peace Corps travel and future job prospects, I decided to undertake this silly adventure.  Unfortunately, no one was interested in joining me, so I had to go at it alone.  Because I was traveling by myself, I was given some goals to accomplish; 4 to be exact:

  1. Make at least 3 new friends.
  2. Have dinner/a drink with at least 1 of them.
  3. Do something I’ve never done before.
  4. Eat a Caramello bar.

Number three was quite simple, as I was there specifically to do something completely new.  The list immediately grew smaller.

Making friends, on the other hand, would be a different story.  I am a hermit in general, but I’ve found that travelers in Southeast Asia are very welcoming and are often the sort that want to know what you’re all about and maybe make you a hemp necklace.  I was fortunate in that diving introduced me to three new and interesting people at the shop.  The other student taking the same course, Frank, was a French IT specialist.  He was getting certified before meeting his girlfriend from Singapore on another part of the island.  My instructor, Jerome, was another Frenchman.  A bit surly and highly averse to taking shit, Jerome was a chef and restaurant owner in Washington D.C. for many years before moving out to Thailand, Vietnam, New Caledonia, and then Bali to teach diving.  He was a good instructor and was very familiar with his trade, but I could definitely see a longing for times gone past.  He would wax nostalgic about times where he tripped balls on mushrooms and how alcohol was so cheap in Vietnam that he was wasted five days a week.  As a middle-aged man, it seemed out of place, as I associate those things with the younger crowd, and a little sad, but his devil-may-care attitude and breadth of experience were admirable.  Lastly, was the owner of the dive shop, John.  A very soft-spoken Canadian who had been living in Bali for 15 years, and abroad in general for about 25, John was curious about the Peace Corps and its mission here in Indonesia.  Whereas time abroad (or maybe just time) had hardened Jerome’s personality, bringing an obviously jaded outlook, John had not been touched by that.  His gentle manner, however, belied a shrewd business sense, I think, as Eco Dive is one of the longest operating dive shops on the island.

My making friends challenge was complete, but the list continued to grow beyond that first day.  I met 4 young English teachers who were living in China; two American fellas, an Australian woman, and a woman from Kenya.  They were all exceedingly pleasant and added to the fun of the trip.  The Americans were, true to form, type A personalities, a bit loud, enjoyed talking about drinking and imbibing substances, and were fans of partying and carousing in any form.  They also offered me a job working in China after hearing about the conditions in which I live and work, figuring that I’d prefer the comfort that a paid program could bring.  It was tempting, given the things that are included (like a salary), but I’m not sure I’d like to live in China.

It turned out that dinner with new friends happened almost every night.  I ate with Frank the first night, having the best glass of iced tea that I’ve yet tasted in this country, like real southern tea and not ass-in-a-glass that you generally get.  Second night I ate with the whole crew: Jerome, Frank, and the 4 English teachers, at a place called Sails.  I ordered a giant piece of cow, grilled medium-rare thank you very much, and it was certainly the best chunk of meat I’ve consumed here, especially for 10 dollars.  The third night was much the same, but with more alcohol.  My American buddies had acquired some arak, or palm wine, which they used to make mixers.

Since I was unable to locate a Caramello bar in the village, I was given a pass because the friend who had posed these challenges consumed one on my behalf.  I am in her debt.

I’d say it was a successful trip, despite the travel time (20 hours going, 24 hours coming back) and the fact that my ears still feel funny.  Now I am equipped with a fancy card that says I probably won’t panic and die underwater, and a little red logbook that provides further evidence to that.  These will be useful tools in Raja Ampat and even back home, and hopefully far into the future.

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Staring Down the Barrel of the Future

As we draw to the close of service here, all of us shift our thoughts to what comes next.  For a few, that means staying here.  Devoted Volunteers who extend can remain for up to an extra year, doing whatever it is the organization might need.  Most of us, though, will exit service and need to find something to do.  This is an exciting, yet daunting, time.

It’s very much like college graduation.  We’re all moseying into a new portion of life, and the possibilities are so numerous as to be overwhelming.  Several of my friends are going to graduate school, and I expect them to do well.  If they don’t, I will come to their house and give them a stern talking-to for not living up to their potential.  Some are going into the work force, a few abroad while others will get jobs in the States.  Still others, such as myself, are undecided.  Every option offers advantages and disadvantages, which must be weighed in this cost-benefit analysis.  These are the things that I’d prefer (at this point):

1.       I’d like to keep doing something.

Graduate school is a very attractive option.  I like larnin’ thangs, and the academic atmosphere of a university has always appealed to me.  It would also provide another thing I can put on the thing that might get me a job.  The problem, as I see it, is the same that I am facing right now.  After I finish graduate school, I’d be in a similar situation of finding something to occupy myself.  My concern is that by the end of my time at school, I still would not know what I really wanted to do.  I thought that after a couple years in Peace Corps, I’d have a firmer grasp on what I’d like to do with my life, but that hasn’t really happened.  I’ve also spent these years doing stuff.  Not a whole lot of stuff, mind you, but stuff nonetheless.  I’m afraid that going to graduate school right off the bat would rob me of any momentum to continue doing stuff.  So, ideally, I’d like to find a way to continue doing something, and consider graduate school as a concurrent action once I’ve established myself.

2.       I want to do something substantially different from what I’m doing now.

I think this is relatively self-explanatory.  I’d to do something different, get some knowledge of things other than woo-woo hand-holding work (don’t get me wrong, I like this woo-woo hand-holding work).  Perhaps something with a drill or where rollerblades are a standard part of work dress.  I’d like a breadth of experience, is what I’m getting at here.


3.       Offices can suck it.

I realize that this is unrealistic, but, seriously, don’t wanna work in an office all day.


That doesn’t leave very many options, does it?  In order to break into something new, I’d need the training first.  That would probably require going to school of some sort, which could potentially rob me of my stuff momentum.  It’s a quandary.  In thinking about this, I stumbled upon an…interesting idea, one that surprised me (even more so when it became something I’m very seriously considering).

The military.

Those of you that know me might be all like ‘Wait, aren’t you kind of a pacifist?  Don’t you not like guns?”  The answer to both of those questions is ‘yes’, but there are reasons that I think are valid for joining.  This is apparently turning into a post of lists.  Hooray.

1.       I could continue doing stuff

There are some bumps here, mainly in the wait period between joining and shipping out for basic or OTS, which is considerable.  That could drain my stuff momentum as much as anything else, but at least I would have a tangible goal to look forward to, similar to being invited to Peace Corps.  I waited for what seemed an eternity, but there was actually something there at the end of that wait that I could throw myself into.  It could also turn into a blessing in disguise, allowing me to get into proper shape, thus increasing my chances of succeeding at what I’d like to do.


2.       It would certainly be different from what I’m doing now.

About as different as you can get, really, and not be a damn space astronaut.  It would allow for a breadth of experience that I can really appreciate.  Up to this point, I’ve very much focused myself in the intellectual area because that’s where I’ve always been strongest.  Perhaps I should try pushing myself physically for a bit and see what happens?  (This is not to say that military jobs are mindless, just that it would be the only job I’ve had where physical fitness is a distinct requirement.)


3.       It would offer current and future skill training.

Joining the military invariably requires learning to do something, filling a niche.  Afterward, if I wanted to go to graduate skewl, I could get assistance in paying for it.


4.       Yes, the ridiculousness of it is attractive.

Going from being a Peace Corps Volunteer to serving active military duty is…probably a bit strange, and I figure I’d catch ten kinds of hell for it from other fellas, but I also figure that they probably haven’t learned a foreign language or lived in a Muslim community.  I can’t deny, though, that the silliness of such a dichotomous switch is alluring.


So maybe you’re asking yourself ‘Okay, what branch?  What do you want to do?’  Or maybe you’ve stopped reading, in that case: rhinoceros accountants calculate how much passion fruit is in your dresser.  See, those who stopped reading this silly post just missed that delightful phrase.  To answer your very pertinent question, probably the Air Force.  Because of my reluctance to do something that is only shooting people in the face, but still wanting to actually do frontline military stuff if I join, the Air Force offers the best option.  That would be Pararescue.

Pararescue soldiers (or Parajumpers or PJs) are highly-trained extraction specialists.  If there are people who are wounded behind enemy lines, such as when a plane or helicopter crashes, PJs are sent in to find them, treat their wounds, and get them to a place where they can be safely lifted out.  They’re called Pararescue because one of their methods of getting to their target is jumping out of airplanes.

I could do this with few moral reservations.  PJs are combat units, but their main purpose is support.  Their motto is ‘That others may live’, and I could get behind that.  There are, however, a few problems.  First and foremost is that Pararescue is Air Force Special Operations.  That means the requirements to join that detachment are, for the most part, absolutely ridiculous.  The washout rate for the program is around 80-90%.  That does not bode well for actually becoming part of the group.  I’d have to find something else suitable to do should plan A not work out.  Another problem is that PJs are combat units.  That would mean participating in violence and combat action that I almost certainly don’t agree with, but I would hope that being there specifically to help other people would alleviate that.

You might ask ‘What if you don’t become a PJ? 80-90% is a lot.  What then?’  I would respond by asking ‘What’s with the questions all of a sudden?’  At any rate, if I can’t be a snake-eater (as Jamie would say), I’d probably choose Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD).  I figure I’d ratchet down the danger to my person and learn to disarm bombs.  Again, a choice that would put me in stressful situations, but would not necessarily specifically require pew-pewing and could potentially save other soldiers.

Whatever happens, I figure I’ll probably end up doing something mildly silly.  I would like to share something that my eldest brother said to me, which helped quite a bit in my anxiety over this problem.  He told me that in his life (he’s 36), he has learned 5 different occupations, which is a lot of stuff.  But what struck me during our discussion was:

“The chief benefit, as far as I’m concerned, of being smart is *not* that it lets you be better at one thing, it’s that it makes it easier to pick up new things.”

This seems like it should be completely obvious, but it honestly wasn’t at the time.  It put my mind at (relative) ease because even if this plan doesn’t work out, or even if it does and I just want to do something different, it is entirely possible to find something new and shiny to do given appropriate time and resourcesThere is an attraction to picking some sort of occupation and grinding away at it for 30-odd years because it is definitely impressive to have been doing something for most of your life, and it is also useful in securing a future for a family with a good pension and the pride of saying “I’ve poked badgers with spoons since I was 23 years old”, but I don’t want to settle into that situation without being absolutely sure that this is what I’d like to do for such a long time.  That means that when I become an old wizened man I might be living in a purple Dodge Voyager on the outskirts of Butte, Montana, but I’ll deal with that when the time comes.


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Sitting in a Wooden Chair, Covered in Jam

There’s been a long absence here, and I apologize for that.  That absence is related to the topic of today’s post.  As I’ve said before, it’s easy and often desirable here to fall into a routine.  With a routine things are much easier to manage and there’s less of a strain on everyone involved, especially the Volunteer.  My host family knows when I wake up, they know the food I generally like to eat and about the times I eat it.  They know that I run and bike (often with no destination) frequently.  They know I drink almost exclusively water and can consume roughly four times my body weight in tropical fruit.  The teachers at my school know that I am quiet, that I don’t like to be constantly bothered about eating, and that I do things a bit differently than they are used to.  This daily knowledge is great because it is a sign of comfort and of assimilation, but it also just makes it easier on the Volunteer’s psyche to not have to deal with the same intense unfamiliarity every minute of every day.

However.  That same comfort has become something of a trap.  And I’d like to discuss how I’ve become entangled in its soft and fluffy web and how I might escape it.

While celebrating the New Year, I spent some time in Surabaya with a few good friends just hanging out at a fancy-type hotel.  One of these friends likes to put a theme or a catch-phrase to her year to bring her efforts into focus.  It most often has something to do with a goal that she’d like to accomplish or a part of her personality that she’d like to bring to the fore.  I think this is an admirable idea because it’s more fun and more nebulous (and thus more forgiving) than a hard New Years Resolution (does anyone actually make these in earnest anymore?).  She asked each of us to devise our own idea of how we’d like to shape the new year and translate that into a phrase or a sound bite or maybe a liturgical dance.  This is more difficult than it sounds because once you choose, you feel obligated to stick to it and if in the middle of July you think something much more rad you’re shit outta luck.  It’s like if you choose to play a ranger, but by level 3 you’re wishing you had made a rogue, your prospects don’t seem so bright with the decision you’ve already made.  It’s a lot of pressure.

I had originally thought of the phrase ‘relentless forward progress.’  I picked it up from a book that I read by Bryon Powell.  The phrase appealed to me because it represented so accurately what I think one should be doing all the time, whether we are successful or not.  But there’s something…disinterested about it.  It focuses so much on that progress; that putting one foot in front of the other and hoping you don’t trip, that I think it loses the reflection.  Progress can only be defined by a comparison of where we’ve been and can only be measured during the times when we have relative peace from the turbulence and tumult of stumbling forward.  The phrase ‘relentless forward progress’ to me, although it rings of achieving great things, can represent sheer chaos, the kind that builds upon itself until you find that you’ve bought a gluten-free muffin shop in the Pyrenees and have an extensive collection of traditional nose-flutes.

Is that progress?

I’ve been thinking over the past couple of days that my phrase should be something similar, but without the underlying threat of personal rampage.  Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

For the past…long time, I’ve been settled into a comfort zone here in Indonesia that I think has become dangerous.  I teach, I enjoy my students, I do things with the teachers when the opportunity arises, and I hang out with my host family when I feel like doing so.  That, however, is quite passive.  I’m terrible at organization and planning, always afraid to take that first step that will set things into place because I fear that it will only be another misstep.  It ruffles my feathers to think about leading a project, despite the fact that that’s what I came here to do.  With this new focus of my year (and yes, I realize it’s rather sad that I need a fucking verbal component to cast this spell called Living), I get the same general attitude as the previous phrase, but it also incorporates provisions for two crucial things: mistakes and reflection.

The idea of discomfort is a ubiquitous one.  Everyone has things that he or she doesn’t like doing, for whatever reason, and there are some things that I think should certainly evoke that feeling.  Kicking puppies or poking someone repeatedly in the eye should not cause feelings of comfort and familiarity.  That’s where sociopaths come from, boys and girls.  But I should not become discomfited when simply calling someone I don’t know or when considering traveling by myself.

Comfort is a measure of recollection.  The extent of our discomfort in past situations can directly affect the extent of comfort in the present, in an inverse relationship.  This applies to both physical and mental strain.  After running a marathon, doing a half-marathon doesn’t seem so daunting.  Riding crowded buses with no air conditioning, sweating like a burly Italian man, has made heat less of a threat.  Even Hawaii was pleasant and comfortable.  And after living in a foreign environment for 2 years, visiting someplace new for a week doesn’t seem quite the hassle.

In the desert of experience, we trod along becoming calloused and inured to the hardships that our particular lifestyle can offer.  That is the discomfort.  Occasionally, we reach an oasis.  A place where we can breathe easy and relax for a moment in the cool shade of familiarity.  It is a small relief, but compared to the vast, howling expanse of situations we have yet to encounter it is a glorious blessing.  The problem is that in order to reach our eventual destination (wherever that might be), we must move on.  We have to step back out into the unknown, get sand in our craw, and survive the stinging winds of “I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON” until we can once again rest our minds and bodies, if only for a moment.

Our true show of triumph is when that discomfort ceases to be a complete antagonist.  When he becomes a companion; a fellow traveler across the sands.  Of course, he would be the kind of companion that always complains about the food, yells at service personnel, and insists on listening to Bill O’Reilly, but he is stalwart, steadfast, and utterly reliable.  The kind of companion to whom it is not hard to say goodbye, but when he returns you smile and ask how he’s been.

So that is my goal.  The physical part is simple enough.  I’ve done a marathon (and am planning on doing two more this year plus a 200-mile relay race, insyaallah), which has helped.  I’ve signed up to become a certified open water diver, as I am not very comfortable in the water and don’t care for being wet at all.  Wet means cold.  I have the body fat of a 12 year-old Chinese gymnast.  I don’t deal well with cold.  There are other considerations for the physical side as well.

The mental bit is more difficult.  I’ve started a small project to paint a 5 meter by 3 meter map of the world at my school.  We’ve acquired supplies, and will be starting the hard part shortly.  I am also trying to put together a fairly lengthy trip after the end of my service.  Part of it will most likely be by myself, which has always left me weak in the knees.  I don’t relish the idea of getting lost in a strange land, especially when I plan on going places that few people ever go to, but again our measure of comfort is defined by that which we have experienced as uncomfortable.  It should make traveling other places easier, right?

So get comfortable being uncomfortable.  Handle it.

What are your themes for this year?

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The Sky Is Open

Assalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh!

(Most images courtesy of DP or EChang.  Thanks guys!)

Ramadan has ended and brought in its wake the whirl of activity that is Idul Fitri, a Kansas storm of family visits, snacks, hand-shaking, and general merriment.  The intent, I think, is to fit into a week all of the activity that was missed in the month of fasting before people have to go back to work, school, and real life.  Last year’s Lebaran, the two-week holiday break around Idul Fitri, was a definite formative experience because it was my first within this country and it was the extended family’s first opportunity to see the awkward white guy living in Kutogirang.  I was also not allowed to travel at all due to Peace Corps regulations, so even if I had wanted to go anywhere, that wasn’t an option.  This year I didn’t feel quite the compulsion to stay and visit with the approximately eleventy-thousand people who come to the house because I had other things I wanted to do.  In my defense, I visited with many many people and went with my family to tell the neighbors I was sorry, just not the whole shebanga-bang.

Erin: the cutest badminton equipment this side of the International Date Line.

First on the list was Surabaya.  I went there for several reasons.  Most importantly was to welcome back Erin from her couple of weeks in the US.  Second was to see, very briefly it turned out, a few of the new Volunteers who were making their first sojourn to the big city.  Third was to get my Batman fix.  It was a great time and Erin brought many goodies back with her, including a giant inflatable die for me to use in the classroom.  My students won’t know what hit ‘em.  Rather, they won’t if they choose to ignore the huge green d6 flying through the air at them.

Second was Jombang, a city about an hour from my site.  One of the traditions that we began last year was the cluster meet-up.  Volunteers are situated in such a manner that there are generally a few within reasonable travel distance.  This is a cluster.  It is awesome.  We had our first meeting since the ID4s left and the newbs arrived.  We were a mite culturally insensitive, what with having a picnic in the town square during Ramadan (across from a mosque, even!), but this was my opportunity to get to know some new people in my area over guacamole and Nutella.  Separately.  Together would be gross.  It was interesting to hear what they had to say and realize how familiar it sounded.  We said all the same things last year, but it’s always encouraging to find kindred spirits in other Volunteers.

Pyroclastic flows are are excellent exfoliants. Really good for the pores.

Lastly was the trip that had been planned for a while.  It had been my intent to climb Mt. Semeru, the tallest mountain on Java, during Lebaran, but it is under an activity alert and the peak is closed.  Apparently going near an active volcano peak is dangerous or some such nonsense.  Instead, a bunch of us compromised on climbing Mt. Lawu, an easier hike but with a reduced threat of face-melting.

A group of 7 of us rode up to the trail head, driven by a slightly crazy and more than slightly awesome person, to begin at around 10 at night.  We made our leisurely way up through the posts along the trail, stopping at post 3 (of 5) to eat and sleep a bit.  We sat in the frigid night air consuming trail mix, cookies, and peanuts.  Unfortunately, the stop also lowered our body temperatures to the point that it felt my muscles were doing some sort of sadistic foxtrot under my skin.  We, again, relied on the Cuddle Puddle™ to save us.  We raked ourselves together into a leaf pile of people and attempted to get some fitful rest before going on toward the top.

After about an hour and a half we decided that moving would be preferable to sitting still any longer, so I led the charge up the trail toward post 4.  On the way up, I walked with my excellent friend Jay.  We moved slightly faster than the rest of the group so we were usually by ourselves, picking our way along in the light of our headlamps, distinctly unaware of what later turned out to be precipitous drops to the left of us.  We spoke of many things: old pets, plans for after Peace Corps, why we like running, tigers.  The usual.  It turns out that both of us have an interest in seeing more of Indonesia when we’re free of service (and of certain Peace Corps rules).  I also learned that he wants to get a doctorate, but that doesn’t really surprise me at all given how intensely intelligent he is.

A few hours later, Paige and I crested the top together and were treated to a view of a ruby and sapphire sky hemming in a roiling sea of clouds.  It was an immense view and a feeling I always relish: being in the sky.  The feeling of flight without ever leaving terra firma.  Looking down on sights and places that people normally talk about as being far away, as though I could grasp them and place them in a small jar to carry home; a souvenir of towering mountains and lights of distant cities to display on my mantle.

After a couple hours of photo-taking:


‘Let this pop-tart be my body, the strawberry filling my blood.’

A toast! Of toaster pastries! Cleverness abounds!

And resting:

‘Okay, the truth is I fell asleep in a sunbeam.’

Really, does this even need a caption?

We began our way down.  My time on the puncak had given me a burst of energy, and I moved ahead of the rest of the group by myself.  It was exhilarating.  I plugged my running mix into my ears and bounded down the trail.  It was not the smartest of plans, as I was in fact alone and had very little water left (I learned the meaning of the phrase “my vision swam”), but it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.  I paraded down the path, climbing over rock faces, swinging on low-hanging branches, and singing songs out-loud for my own personal gratification.  It was a clear day and our reward for climbing through the night was the crisp views on the easy way down.  I stopped several times to take it in before dashing off again, jumping from rock to rock like some sort of slightly dehydrated goat.  Getting to the top took about 7 hours of climbing and resting.  I hit the trail head in less than 3.

I think I have decided that once I am done here, I would like to hit a few peaks that are currently not possible as part of traveling around Indonesia post-service.  Kerinci and Rinjani, I’m lookin’ at you.

School has started again, so we’re back to the grind.  I haven’t really thought about work in about 2 weeks, so it’s a bit of an adjustment back to the mindset of actually having to do something here.  I hope everything is well Stateside, and I will see everyone in a short 10 months!

In closing, I’ll leave you with this:

How can one ignore such magnificent posture? Or that facial expression?


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The Rocky Trail High-Step

Assalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh!

As I have indicated in several other posts, I enjoy being alone.  There is something about being left to fence with my own thoughts and fears and expectations that is attractive to one so introverted as I.  My favorite places in Indonesia have been those where I could stand and embrace the paradoxical freedom that isolation brings.  Places where I was free from worry, free from modern considerations, and free from jackasses asking if I want to go to Bali.  I think that may be one reason why I took up a hobby like running in the first place.   It’s been a while since I’ve done a post on the fru-fru mystical nature of running, and it’s also been a while since I’ve posted about Ramadan, so here’s a mash-up Jay-Zeezer style.

First you must earn their trust, then they won’t squish you.

Ramadan began a little over 2 weeks ago and I have, once again, decided to join in with fasting as a method of building solidarity with my community and because, if I didn’t, I’d become some sort of Nutella-based life form.  That also means I’ve started running again at night, much to my host mother’s chagrin.  Most nights, around 8 in the evening, I strap on my shoes and headlamp and become Kevin Costner in Dances With Motorcycles.  I choose to run in the evening because doing so at any other time while fasting would leave me a shell of a person whose singular purpose is to tell you how much he’d like a god damn sandwich right now.  Sahur, the meal in the early morning hours (‘round 3AM), leaves me with enough energy to get through the day if I take it easy until we break the fast around 5:30PM, which precludes physical activity until the night time hours.

Mau vampir….er….mampir, Mister?

As much as my host mother might hate it, I have quickly come to enjoy running in the dark.  Despite the fact that I’m running the same routes that I have been for nearly a year and a half, there’s an element of the unknown; of something lurking in the dark biding its time until it jumps from the obscured rice fields to ask where I’m going and if I’d like to visit its lair for tea and cake.

But when I am out in the dark, running through an empty stretch of rock-studded road, I relish the isolation.  It’s so hard to find times and places where this is possible.  In most situations, there is always someone watching what I’m doing, and not necessarily because I am a funny-lookin’ ferner.  There are just so many people here that it’s Big Brother by default.  So when I have the opportunity to prance down a trail like a show pony in bright orange shoes and mouth the words to a Passion Pit song, I will take full advantage.  They are few and far between.

About two years ago, I was not able to run a mile without huffing and puffing and blowing my ego down.  I started running, actually, in response to situational stress.  At the time, I was despondent and needed somewhere to focus undirected energy, so I started ambling down my street.  But it wasn’t an escape.  The solitary activity provided a needed ground on which my mind could reconcile its warring parts.  I figured rebuilding myself physically was the first step towards doing the same mentally.  It felt good to feel like shit.  Side stitch and sore feet were far better than listlessness and self-pity, so I kept with it.  Now, with those feelings gone, I keep finding reasons to get out, and they’re usually not fitness related.  For the past couple of months, I had lost much of my motivation to run.  I wasn’t training for a race, I had stalled in my progression, and generally didn’t want to get up at 4:30AM.  The coming of Ramadan has made it much easier to walk out the door.  I like the night time.  My host mother, though, is afraid that I will be attacked by criminals, but, honestly, I think the criminals would be afraid of me.

“If this dude is unbalanced enough to run at night during the fasting month with a little light strapped to his waist, he’s probably crazy enough to curb stomp me or something.”

You’ll be shuffled right off this mortal coil.


Now, I would never curb stomp anyone; maybe curb soft-shoe or curb step-ball-change, but nothing more violent than that.  Besides, the most hardened criminal activity I’ve seen around here has been driving under the influence of giggles and aggravated littering.  My biggest danger would actually be falling in a hole or doing my best impression of a grease spot on the road.

I digress.

I could use this opportunity to make some half-assed metaphor about running in the dark and how the blindness is both frightening and exhilarating, but I won’t stoop to using actual literary techniques.  I will say this, though: I’ve found that I seek out places to be alone.  Perhaps ‘alone’ is the wrong way to put it, as it can still happen if I’m with good friends; more like ‘at peace’ (although using that phrase is a crime as heinous as life-parallel metaphors).  Being surrounded by people that I don’t know, even those just having a good time, sets me on a mental edge from which I am so eager to leap.  It’s not fun.  So whether it’s the top of a mountain, an empty beach, a room where I can read, or a dark corridor of sugar cane begging for my foot traffic, those places where I can indulge my inner-hermit are those that I yearn for most.


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I Take 20 On My Skill Roll

Assalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh!

As we sat in the dining room of the Santika Hotel and enjoyed food that had been absent from our respective diets for ages and eons, a friend of mine posed an interesting question.  He asked everyone at the table what they considered to be their best skill.  Out of everything we’re capable of doing, what is something that we’re especially good at when compared to most people?  The others at the table gave various answers: facilitating clear communication, adapting to any social situation, remaining quiet and observant, and baking.  I didn’t offer up an answer of my own because I honestly had no idea, but it provided a useful prompt for introspection.


If we can’t save the trees, we can at least turn them into wolves and eagles and shit.

This past week has been our Mid-Service Conference (MSC for the acronymically-inclined (or AI)), a milestone training event in Surabaya that marks more than one year at our respective sites.  Whereas In-Service Training (IST) was a Peace Corps staff-driven event because we, the Volunteers, were still collectively freaking out over just about every aspect of our service, MSC was more Volunteer-led.  Most of our sessions, from Promoting Volunteerism to Youth Development to Alternative Whittling, were led by PCV’s with expertise or interest in that particular subject area.

I was asked to lead a session called Technology for Development.  Now, I would say that I have an interest in technology, its uses, and its effects, but I don’t have much expertise.  We actually have people in our group with programming experience who are far more versed in the use of typey-type machines and the Interline than I am.  Despite these misgivings, I prepared a presentation for about half of our Volunteers detailing different projects that people have used and had them brainstorm ideas for incorporating technology into their primary assignment.

Dinosaurs were involved.


Learn to use mail merge, or we’ll obliterate your species!

It may have mostly been a vehicle for silliness, but I enjoyed myself and those that attended the session were the best of sports for participating.

One of the highlights of our training events has been the note system.  Each PCV designs an envelope in whatever way they wish, tapes it to a wall in the conference room in the hotel, and collects notes from other Volunteers over the course of the week.  It’s like Valentine’s Day in elementary school where you could drop your Digimon valentine cards at all the pretty girls’ desks. You could choose to deliver your affection via awful children’s programming anonymously or not.  At the end of the event, we take ‘em down and see what people think of us.  This system gives us a chance to say nice things to these people that we care so much about without the awkward situation of actually talking to them in person.  Who wants to do that shit, right?

Among other things, I was told that:

I have sexy calves (a first)
I look like Kevin Bacon (oddly, not a first)


How many degrees of separation is that?

My version of the Macarena was entertaining.
I’m a funny person.
I’m a talented writer.

Self-deprecation has always been a tactic of mine because I have the confidence of a bag of meek hammers, and I tend to fish for compliments like a bear in salmon season.


Om nom nom, justification for my existence!


Now with 5 blades for the closest, most comfortable logical conclusion you’ve ever had!

I am conscious of the fact that it’s not attractive at all and a habit I should break, but it’s hard for me to help.  These notes, however, were unsolicited and freely given.  Does that make them more valid?  Should I think that I’m actually a funny person and a good writer, or simply assume that my fellow Volunteers have a stunted sense of humor and are…illiterate, maybe?  Occam’s Razor would say that the former is far more likely, if only because the Peace Corps wouldn’t hire people who can’t tell a quality fuckin’ joke.

But this is about introspection, right?  That means looking inward at myself and saying “Ohhh, so that’s what a gallbladder actually looks like.”  Do I think I’m a good writer?  I enjoy writing pieces like this and I’d like to think that my grasp of the language is better than the average otter, so, sure, we’ll put that in the I’m good at that category for the moment.


Don’t get cocky, kid. I crack stuff open on my tummy.

As for the funny business, one only need look at the collection of pictures in this very post to know that I am hi-effin’-larious.

So what is my best skill?  What would I consider my greatest asset if I contemplated from an objective point of view and dispensed with all the humble, indecisive bullshit?

Obviously it would be weaving ordinary events into short essays on bigger issues.  Sprinkle in some funny pictures and BAM, you have my contribution.

Despite how flippant that sounds, I really enjoy it.  It is a chance to explore a few deeper subjects, which goes a way toward satisfying the intellectual in me, and at the same time it is a chance to be silly and make people laugh which satisfies the clown inside me.  I’ve never been one to write fully in one mode or the other.  My teachers in high school and college would often chastise me for being too colloquial with my formal research papers, and I would often accuse them of being too uptight in what they consider truly informative.  In any event, I think I have developed a writing style that suits me and appropriately expresses the way I feel about a variety of subjects without being hellaciously boring.

Just moderately boring.  HA!


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The Revisionist

Assalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh!

A few days ago, the teachers, and their families, took a trip to a place called Sarangan for our principal’s retirement party.  It’s a vacation area with a nice lake and purty mountains all sullied by your usual tourism bullhonkey.  It was a fun time with the teachers, but that’s not really the point of this relatively pointless story.  On the bus ride home, I was taking some me-time to listen to music.  Sometimes I feel bad if I plug in with people around, but I wanted some tunes.  I scrolled through the music I had and found The Lawrence Arms, specifically The Greatest Story Ever Told.  This album was released in 2003 and I have been listening to it since my buddy Andrew stumbled across it in high school.  I thought to myself “I still listen to this album periodically and I still enjoy it immensely.  That means it’s probably pretty good right?”

It is a good album, but that sent me thinking down the path of change.  There are stacks and stacks of stories, anecdotes, books, monologues, short films, interpretive dances, drum solos, etc. about how the Peace Corps is a formative experience and can influence the direction of not only one’s life, but one’s personality.  And this is interesting because change is interesting.  The shift from bumbling Westerner to the slightly more savvy village idiot is at the very least entertaining and can be inspiring from those who tell the story with the right words.

But, as I sat there on the bus listening to this be-tattooed man singing about dragons laced with dynamite, I wondered how else I had remained the same.  There is definite merit in looking through the lens of transformation, but I think there could be equal merit in looking at the facets of ourselves that do not change.  There are parts of our personalities that, while maybe not completely immutable, are resistant to the incredible force and pressure exerted on them by “the Peace Corps experience.”  Those static pillars, positive and negative, give us insight into who we are at a fundamental level and as the Peace Corps is often touted as an opportunity to find oneself (if you’ve been misplaced), identifying those pillars could go a long way to that end.

So, a few things that are still the same about me:

1.       I’m still really bad at talking to people (now in TWO languages!).

This has never been a strong suit of mine.  I’ve always been the awkward, silent type.  I had hopes that coming here might push me in the direction of extroversion, but that hasn’t really happened.  I still prefer to sit and watch and listen.  It seems to be magnified here, however, because so many people want to talk to me for no reason other than I look different.  Once they find out that I’m pretty boring, that desire evaporates.  I still really like making people laugh, but that is difficult to do on a genuine level (people here laugh if I sneeze) in a language that I don’t grasp fluently.

I’m delicious because I CHOOSE to be. Fuck the system.

2.      I still like punk rock.

I have since high school.  I’m a sucker for catchy tunes.  My music tastes have evolved somewhat and include a much higher dose of folk and weird crap, but I still have a soft spot for punk rock.  It has come back somewhat since I arrived here because of running.  I like to listen to some dude who can’t sing nor play his instrument while I’m running.  Go figure.  It’s also funny to see the punk culture in Indonesia.  There’s very much lip service that it’s about rebellion and the like, but the average punk here is about as revolutionary as a chocolate pudding (perhaps with sprinkles, but let’s not get crazy).

I’d be the first to admit that I was not a rebel at all in high school.  I got nervous if I thought I was placing my lunch tray in the wrong spot.  But in a culture that exudes sameness, it makes me smile to see this avenue used as their way to be different (but be different in the same manner as the guy next to you.  Safer that way.).

3.      I’m still a nerd.

This could be a subcategory in and of itself.  I have many nerdy traits.  I like computers.  I think they are neat.  I am hopelessly addicted to the internet and its boundless resources.  I enjoy gaming, although that is a habit I have not indulged since I got here, really.  Sometimes, though, I’ll check to see what’s coming out soon or look at the patch notes for World of Warcraft.  I wonder if those are things I will really get back into when I return to ‘Merica.  I still really like table-topping, too.  I haven’t been able to roleplay since, like, my sophomore year of college, but I love it.  One of the Volunteers here offered to run a Dungeons and Dragons game during a multi-night training event for poops and giggles, and I immediately started researching what kind of character I wanted to play, which race would pair well with what class, brushing up on the system, and so on.  This was three months before said training event.  So, yeah, I still got it bad.

And I still think Firefly is the best show.  It does regular battle with Sports Night for the top spot.  Don’t look at me like that, they’re awesome.

But since Mal and crew have guns and a spaceship in addition to witty zingers, Firefly usually wins that battle.

4.      I still really like snacks.

Cookies, mostly.   God *damn* I love cookies.  And brownies.  But this applies to most food that one could classify as a “snack”.  Avoiding snacks is actually one of the main ways that Volunteers here lose weight.  Of course, I say that just days after my mother dropped off a fucking crate of Oreos and a few barrels of peanut butter and Nutella.  I’m certainly grateful, but it’s hard to say “I mostly avoid snacks here” with a straight face when I’m typing this post on a computer made from sandwich cookies.

If websites put these cookies on my computer, I’d delete them in mah tummy.

5.      I still don’t mind being by myself.

This kind of goes along with the socially awkward bit, and it’s something I try to work on actively.  I often tell myself “You need to go spend some time with your family because you’ve been sitting upstairs reading Terry Pratchett and eating Tangoes all damn day.”  So I do.  I’ll watch football with my dad or suffer through soap operas with my mom and sister.  Or I just sit around in the living room, if only to give the impression that I am eager to jump into whatever cultural shenanigans happen to be going on.  I do that because I consciously remind myself to do it.  Being alone for long stretches of time doesn’t bother me, it never really has.   It gives me a chance to talk to myself in peace, that way I can hear the answers.  Just kidding.  Mostly.

6.      I still don’t really like being touched.

I have a relatively large bubble.  Personal space is important to me.  It also comes at a premium here.  People are packed in tight.  Teachers at my school like to stand super close to me, so we play this game where I move a step away and they move a step toward me, ad infinitum.  In addition to that, it’s not unusual for someone to grab my arm or put their hand on my leg, neither of which I’m a fan of.  I remember stepping off the bus in town one time and an ojek driver (motorcycle taxi) grabbed my arm in an attempt to take me wherever I needed to go.  Nearly flipped my shit.  He received some very unkind words in English, which he laughed at because they were probably unintelligible to him.  Obviously this is not an aversion that applies to everyone all the time, as I tend to chill out around close friends, but it gives me major willies from most folks.

7.      I still dress like a 14 year-old.

I’m probably giving 14-year-olds a bad name.

Oh man.  My fashion sense was removed by a rocket surgeon as a child or something.  I’m not sure I will ever dress like an adult, because my decision process mostly boils down to IT FITS, PAY ALL THE MONEY FOR IT.  I also hate shopping for clothing, so once I find a clothing scheme it doesn’t change rapidly.  I still own, and wear, a shirt from a production of Godspell that I helped put on in 1999 or something.  I sometimes tell myself, in my more manly moments, that I dress the way I do because I don’t give a hootenanny what I look like, but it’s more that I’m not really sure what the hell works well together.  All I know is that if I’m wearing a brown belt, my shoes should not be made of people.

I wonder, though, if those things are truly unchanging.  Will I, in 40 years, still be listening to The Bouncing Souls and enjoying it?  Or will entropy take over until it’s Barry Manilow and Peter Frampton and The Eagles all the way down?  Will I still think that the syker/martial artist background combo is kind of silly?  Or will I realize that no one knows what the hell that means and drop it?  Obviously no one can answer those questions, and it’s better that way.  Age is the best filtering device for determining what is important and what is not; what is personally lasting and what is merely ephemeral in your own mind’s eye.

But seriously, that syker/MA stuff was some bullshit.

Templars 4 lyfe.


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Excited? Why, yes Siam.

Assalamualaikum waramatullahi wabarakatuh!

In the final part of our series that was recently voted most popular travel blog among mailboxes in southwestern Illinois, we’ll hop, skip, jump, and then apologize for moving so much in:


Our time in Thailand was a bit strange because we used it as our base of operations in Southeast Asia. Our family has a friend who has lived in Bangkok for a while and she offered to house us, fo’ free, in her posh hotel residence. It’s hard to turn down an offer like that. But, because it was our base, we never really spent more than 2 days there at a time. After we visited Vietnam, we headed back there for a couple days, and the same thing happened after Cambodia. Despite this odd time arrangement, we managed to see some pretty neat things, some of which I will share with you now AND YOU WILL ENJOY THEM.

Or this guy will straight up eat you.

The first stop we made, and in my opinion by far the most impressive, was the Grand Palace. It was a sprawling complex of ornate buildings designed and constructed during the reigns of various kings. There were some places that pictures were not allowed, one of those being the Emerald Buddha shrine, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I say that everything in this place was neat to look at.

It’s good to be the king.

The complex was split into two parts. The first part was mostly devoted to buildings with religious significance and the second to buildings with royal significance. The first bit was much more engaging and interesting because of the stories of where the artifacts came from and the symbolism behind their entire existence. The most intriguing thing, however, was the appearance of the buildings and statues themselves. You know those 60 year-old dance instructors who have an odd obsession with sequins? Imagine one of them designed entire buildings and then a rainbow threw up on those buildings. That might give you an idea of what the shrines here looked like. They managed the commendable feat of going straight through gaudy and out the other side into some sacred meadow of beauty. Must be a Buddhist thing.

Everyone’s wearing sunglasses, but not for the usual reason.

Something something Liberace.

This is Mickey and Louis. They break the knees of evil spirits.

And the palace grounds itself also held some interesting things.

So inspiring. *rim shot*

Afternoon report, sir! Lotsa white people and the man behind me appears to be wearing a graphic novel as pants, sir!

After that, we took a jaunt down to a place called The Mandarin Oriental Hotel for lunch at the recommendation of our friend from Bangkok. Turns out, this was a 5-star hotel. As I told my parents, I’m about as refined as a block of wood (I enjoy the occasional fart joke), so I felt a bit out of place. My dad pointed out, though, that being able to move in a society where people use 5 utensils too many to eat one meal is just as important as doing the same in a place where I poop in a hole and hoard Oreos like a troll. That’s my pops, dispensing advice like a boss.

In continuing our Hark! A Temple! Tour, we visited Wat Pho, or the Reclining Buddha. When I lived in Batu, there was a vihara near my village with a reclining Buddha statue. It was normal statue size and impressive in its own right. This thing was gargantuan. Thoughts on this in a bit. First, pictures with snarky captions!

Enlightenment is hard work. Sometimes you just wanna chillax with thousands of your closest complete strangers.

Those are actually gold Vibram FiveFingers, size 6592. Buddha’s really into barefoot running. It’s more natural, man.

The last activity we squeezed into our time in Bangkok was a ride around the canals. This was an opportunity to see parts of the city that were not necessarily covered in sparklies. It seems horrifically arrogant to say that I like seeing how the actual people live, as though their lifestyle and homes are there for my amusement (puff puff puff), but it does provide some insight into this dual nature of any society with such a rich history.

You cannot escape. We will find you.

Hey you damn kids! Get off my front pool!

These students were doing a science experiment to see how many tourists would laugh and wave at them per hour.

The ride through the canals really cemented this dichotomy that intrigues me, especially in a primarily Buddhist nation. The religion teaches that material connections are a main cause of suffering and that severing those connections can lead to enlightenment, Nirvana, and stop the cycle of reincarnation. These regular people certainly have fewer material connections simply through their financial situation, and yet they are surrounded by temples dedicated to Buddha that are laced with gold and religious bling. These places that venerate the teachings of a man who preached asceticism are so carefully and dutifully maintained as the centers of Buddhist culture and beauty in Thailand. This is a benefit to me because I can see such wonderful creations and expressions of human devotion to an ideal, but it makes me wonder how in-line those creations are with the ideals they represent. I realize that you could have these thoughts pretty much anywhere with cardinals who are fantastically wealthy or towering, spotless mosques surrounded by houses in shambles, but to me it’s more poignant from a philosophy that is at least partially based on reducing your material ties to this world.

My trip has come to an end, but it was a fantastic way to spend a few weeks. The things I was able to see and the time I was able to spend with my parents (whom I hadn’t seen in 15 months) and friends made it a truly memorable time. Here’s to there being many more like it.

Next stop: your regularly scheduled boring posts!


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Travelogue 2: Cambodian Boogaloo

Assalamualaikum waramatullahi wabarakatuh!

In the second part of our immensely popular series read by at least 9 people, we’ll take a look at…


After jetting out from Hanoi, my parents and I landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia. If you’re not aware, which I wasn’t until this trip, Siem Reap is the city directly next to the ancient temple complex of Angkor. Apparently, 10 years ago this was a very small town with two and a half hotels and no roads to speak of. Now it is quite bustling with several hundred hotels, a good road system, markets full of souvenirs and bric-a-brac, and even a place called Pub Street (temples and gettin’ crunk go hand-in-hand).

We were relatively fortunate to arrive in the low season, which meant that there were only 8 hojillion tourists around rather than the high seasonal average of A Shit Ton. That meant that the tours that my mother booked were essentially private. No one else tagged along. We spent about 4 days there doing touristy things, which began with Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and the Bayon.

This is the back door to the temple. It’s where they received deliveries and the stone masons took their smoke breaks. The elephant garage is off to the left

The city of Angkor was, by all appearances, ginormous. Wat is a word that means temple or monastery. Hence, Angkor Wat was the main temple of the mammoth ancient city. Our tour guide for this particular leg was pretty amazing. His English was excellent and was quite intent on weaving together the histories of the ancient times with the revolutionary times of Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge and Polpot era. Evidently, the temples in Siem Reap were used as bases for soldiers because their enemies were afraid of damaging the artifacts by attacking them. Our tour guide, Akien, told us about the various programs that the Khmer Rouge instituted, which included systematic genocide. In Angkor Wat, there is an entire wall with carvings dedicated to punishments for certain transgressions like gluttony, gossip, infidelity, and such. Those punishments included having your tongue pulled out, being boiled alive, having a long stake driven through the top of your head, having your teeth broken out with a stone chisel, and being made to sit through Jersey Shore marathons. The Khmer Rouge, in their efforts to bring Cambodia back to the dawn of man, put these punishments to use.

It was a fascinating mixture of history; of a time almost forgotten and a time that is so fresh in the collective Cambodian memory that you can still smell the violent groupthink.

There should be an episode of Cribs on this place. It’s ballin’. (Is Cribs still a thing?)

Our tour guide, Akien. I think someone stole his ice cream.

Angkor also represents a clash of religions. It was originally built as a Hindu temple, then converted to Buddhism with a new king, then back to Hindu, and back to Buddhism. Our guide, a Buddhist himself so this might be a little biased, told us that when the Buddhists converted the temple images, they were careful to leave things intact and were respectful of the many Hindu carvings. However when the Hindus took it over from the Buddhists, they proceeded to smash and behead almost every image of Buddha in the temple because “they don’t believe in hell.”

What the archaeologists didn’t know was that there was actually candy inside. Hindus love candy.

Vishnu gives Angkor Wat 8 thumbs up!

We also had the chance to meander through the Bayon, which is another famous temple in this giant complex. It is known for its faces. When the temple was built, the towers were decorated with 4 carvings of Lokesvara’s face (a bodhisattva) with, supposedly, different expressions showing compassion. I couldn’t see a difference, but then I’m not terribly enlightened.

He’s smiling because he just farted in the temple and his three buddies can’t go anywhere.

Does this carving make my face look fat?

Lokesvara brings compassion. I bring…suspicion?

Over the following couple of days, we explored several more temples in excruciating detail. Like Pra Thom, which the trees have colonized as their own.

This doorway was in the Tomb Raider film. Way to sell out, doorway.

This tree melted all over my temple. Gross.

There are still faces poking through the deciduous carnage.

And butts, too.

But the best was the Pink Temple, or the Lady Temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Considering the fact that it is a couple hundred years older than Angkor Wat, the carvings are still remarkably intact and just jump off the stone.

Ladies Night at the Pink Temple: $2.00 Incense Offerings and 50% off Domestic Phallic Symbols.

This carving tells the story of how Shiva bitchslapped a guy who dented his elephant chariot in the grocery store parking lot.

Hellloooooo bas relief nurse!…..why are you standing on water fowl?

And the floating villages. Each year the lake in the middle of Cambodia, Tonle Sap, rises and falls dramatically with the wet and dry seasons (on the order of a 2500km2 to 10,000km2 shift). So people who live near the lake and make their living from fishing it build floating houses and buildings and live a semi-nomadic lifestyle on the water.

Gives new meaning to ‘house boat’.

Baptisms are real easy ’round these parts.

Cambodia was an extraordinary place to visit for me because you could see and hear the effects of such recent oppression. In Indonesia, I frequently hear about the Dutch ruling the country as a colony and the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the 40s, but those stories are somewhat removed. It’s like hearing about the American Civil War. We know it was a turrible time for the United States, but that feeling is blunted somewhat by the fact that it is a secondhand account. Here we were able to hear stories from people, still relatively young, who had lived through horrendous times and come out not only alive but were willing to educate us dummies on that era. In addition to that, the evidence of havoc was very apparent on Ankgor Wat (we could see bullet holes from target practice) and on the people themselves since the country is still peppered with active landmines.

I will leave you with this:

The most adorable 13th century artifacts ever.

Next stop – Thailand!


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