Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Travel often works as a reset button for our hectic, daily, monotonous routine. We all fall into patterns in life to keep things simpler, to “help” us with the supposed tasks of daily living. The mantra is well known – get up, go to work, eat, exercise, brush teeth, pay bills, repeat. We replay this mantra so often that we begin to believe that it represents life itself, and this is when we are in most need of a system reboot. This is not life. Life is each of ours to explore and define – to create each new day. We cannot do this if we think we are living when we really are just surviving. Our last trip was a visit to the Gili islands off the northwest corner of Lombok. These islands have changed much in the last 20 years, as has much of the world as it tries to accommodate 8 billion of us. But none the less, these islands remain ethereal, magical, floating between dimensions – the perfect place to go for a reset.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
We travel to lose ourselves, and to find ourselves. Travel affords us the opportunity to disappear from reality, forget about life for a while, and to lose ourselves in the moment. A new identity, a new reality, far from home, far from friends, far from family, its easy to disappear into the crowd. This temporary freedom lets us explore new and innovative identities as we glide through this existence. Is there no better feeling than that of being free on the open road, no ties, no responsibility, no identity. Yet, as we get drunk on this sense of freedom, we forget who we really are, and herein sits the dual nature of the travel. It is easy to get lost, but much more difficult to find ourselves. The open road is addictive, like a sweet drug, we are seduced into a sense comfort. Travel helps us see our reflection, but our reflection is not who we really are.
Life is all about balance, and we need to strive to maintain that. Distraction is everywhere, luring us from our true purpose, and travel provides us great opportunity to explore without ourselves. Yet, if we never get to question who we are, we probably never even wonder, just drone along, “living” a life that we do not understand. Travel lets us escape ourselves enough to get a glimpse of ourselves from the outside, a view that reveals so much. As we lose “our self” we begin to see what we really are. We all carry stories about who we are, who our families are, but do we ever question what we are really doing? Much is said about leaving the nest, looking for a new way, a new identity, but what are we really searching for? As we get further and further from home, we begin to loosen the shackles of our fixed worldview, and we begin to see what is truly out there. If we never leave the nest, we never even know there is a nest to leave, but as we get further and further away from our nest, we realize that the nest is really where we belong. We have to leave the nest to see, but as we do, we realize that everything we need was in the nest in the first place. We need to leave in order to see that we already have everything. That is the nature of our predicament.
Travel is a great tool in this effort. As we travel further and further from what we are comfortable with, we suddenly find ourselves looking in from the outside, wondering why we are so far from home. Lose yourself in the moment, but do not lose yourself. That is the balance, the neutrality, and the essence of this place. Every time you lose yourself, feel free, feel lost, feel empty, try to find yourself in there, the same self you came with, and the same self you will leave with. Then, you will glimpse the nature of this place; the illusion that time and place change us and speed us on our way. We alone choose these paths, yet we alone are the only ones walking them.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Did you ever wonder how time moves forward when it runs in a circle? If so, you will have asked why is a clock round? Why does time go from 12 to 12 and then start over again? Why is the 24-hour day based on a circular rotation of the Earth? Why is a year based on a circular orbit of the earth around the Sun? And why do those days and years keep repeating, just starting over and over again, even though we count them as progressing in a line? Why do seconds, minutes, hours, days, years, all count up and then reset and count over again? And what really changes in those quantities of time – Are we different from second to second, hour to hour, day to day or even year to year? We are still standing here watching the sun come up, in the same place it did last year, we are still orbiting that star we call the sun, round and round and round again. Do we really get older as we add up the years, or is this just an illusion? A straight line drawn on top of a circle.
Of course things change, things develop, things progress – at least they seem to. Maybe it’s just the same old scenery, but since we have looked at it so many times, it just seems to change. That store wasn’t there before, nor was that freeway, there are more people here now, more traffic, I have less time than ever before, yet that clock still moves in a circle, and we are still spinning at 1000 miles per hour.
When we travel, we go from point a to point b. Maybe we add in some detours, some back roads, even end up where we started, but we feel like we have experienced a whole lot, met new people, seen new buildings, eaten new foods, spoken new languages – yet, after we get back on the plane, and plug in our ipod, turn on the TV and watch a few old movies, we are right back, right back at home, and soon enough we are at home, in our own kitchen, drinking out of our own favorite coffee mug, watching the sun come up from our favorite chair – and what has changed? We have a memory, a really indefinable experience, we feel like something happened, we can still taste that hot chili tom yum, we can still smell that lemongrass, we can still imagine that wat, but its not here with us, its over there somewhere, on another part of the circle. Now it begins to get really strange when we go back to those parts of the circle to which we have already been. Step off the plane in Bangkok, that thick air greets you, those same food vendors make your soup, and you drink that same lemongrass tea, and yet your calendar, your watch, and your vacation schedule, tell you that it is different – it has to be different. It’s next year - or next decade.
So we count time, we add time up, we get older, we travel, we “see” more, we “know” more, we are wiser, we can do better at crossword puzzles, we can order Thai soup in America and discuss how it differs from that in Chang Mai – yet despite all of our best efforts, time still flows in a circle, beginning each day where it ended the day before, our watch moves from 12 to 12, round and round, same to same, and we are still spinning and orbiting in the same place. Even our whole solar system is going round and round, on galactic time, just spinning away we travel billions and trillions of miles, and yet there we are, holding that favorite mug, drinking that coffee. Are we really older? Wiser? Changing? Or are we just spinning in circles?
Monday, December 28, 2009
Wanderlust – the intense desire to travel or move about. Wanderers, nomads - are we true adventurers? Are we running away? Are we living life to the full? Are we shirking responsibility? These are the questions a wander or true nomad encounters. The establishment challenges the nomadic way of life as disruptive, unproductive and carefree, and yet in the end is rather jealous of the freedom such a lifestyle affords. At times the nomad feels lost, detached, and untethered from this world, and their friends and family. It is common to second-guess what we trade for the freedom to move about at will, and see the world. Unencumbered by permanent house, mortgage, flat screen TV payments, a 9-5 job, the nomad is able to exercise and enjoy his wanderlust at will. Feel a burning desire to stand on the observatory tower at Palenque, jump a bus. Feel the need for swimming in 80-degree crystal clear water, head south. Want to see the Dogon villages in Mali, head out the door.
Wanderlust affects us all to different degrees, but it is an emotion that all humans share on some level. It is associated with ultimate freedom. It gives you the ability to decide who you are and where you are going, regardless of the external situation. As we go further, we learn to roll with the punches of the wander, seeing them not as failures, but as detours on our way. Wanderlust is valuable in making us stretch our horizons and comfort zones, providing endless fresh learning opportunities. This overwhelming sense of freedom, akin to our childhood memories of the last day of school, can be addicting.
At times we begin to wander just for the sake of wandering, or running away from our lives and ourselves. On these trips, the nomad soon realizes that he has pushed off without a reason, and yes, there always is a reason in this life. That kind of trip begins to feel empty, and we begin to try to fill it with distractions. The stuff of life like food, drink, adventure, cannot satisfy this void. We begin to wonder what we are doing out here, what is our purpose. We reach a sort of plateau, and our customary trips are no longer sufficient, so we dream up newer and bolder adventures. We find these types of trip offered by all types of high-end agents, with such offerings as a tour of the Wahkan corridor of Afghanistan for 10000 dollars. Or we witness this in the increasing need for people to “conquer” Mt. Everest at a staggering cost in money and spirit. And in the end, when we have come back from these extremes, what have we learned? Our addiction is still intact, we still are not satisfied, and the search continues. We have not left our plateau, because from plateaus, we need to evolve. As our life is an evolution, so is our wandering. Each experience must build of the prior, guiding us on our path.
Plateaus are resting points, places to regroup and gather our forces for the next push into the unknown – so we keep moving ahead – wandering. We start to see that our whole life is a wander – we cannot know anything here with certainty, so we set out each day with a fresh perspective. At the plateau we try to shed some opinion and judgment, and move ahead when our load is lighter, and we feel refreshed. The True Nomad does not wander to wander, aimless, and directionless.
We wander because this is life, living each new experience and creating a path as we go. This is the alternative to creating a “life” with a house, car, job, pension, and stuff, and then searching for direction in that random space, with its restrictions on movement and exploration. After all, you can only run away for so long. Eventually you will find your self, it has been along for the ride from the beginning. Once you know it, you can stop looking and start moving toward YOUR dreams, goals, and destiny. And when you do, you will be glad if you can wander, and follow that inner call of your heart. As humans, we have a beautiful capacity for that feeling, like the last day of school over and over again. When you are free and able to follow it you are on your path, and the feeling never gets old, and you never feel without purpose.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Imagine a house made of stone, nestled high against sheer sandstone walls, beautiful stonework framing T-shaped openings with smooth lintels, and all hand plastered in red/brown adobe. There are fingerprints pressed into the adobe around the opening, small and slender, and wooden vigas protrude from the wall. The ground is strewn with bits of corn, little brushes, copal, charcoal, and pottery, white pieces with black paint, black with red. The air is slightly pungent, not quite musty, and it is quiet. I am standing deep in a canyon that drains the eastern side of Cedar Mesa, miles from anyone or anyplace, and I am literally surrounded for hundreds of miles in either direction by houses like this. The surrounding landscape is riddled with canyons, and each canyon splits into countless side canyons like the branching of a tree or of some giant circulatory system. It makes you wonder how many sites like this are hidden away, in other canyons and tributaries that barely have a name. Who built this? Who lived here?
Much has been written and debated about the people called the “Anasazi”, the “Ancestral Puebloans”, the “Ancient Ones”, the ancestors of the Hopi, Zuni, and how many of the southwestern peoples. We have asked: Who were they? Where did they go? How did they live? People have devoted their lives to studying their pottery, their archeology, their pictographs, their astronomy, and still we ask – what do we know? They haunt us with these enigmatic ruins, perched on cliff walls, corn, fire pits and pots, still resting in their places inside silent walls of adobe, as if they simply walked on one day. Anyone who stands inside an old dwelling knows this feeling, the feeling that you expect these people to come back in the evening from their work day, to cook dinner, and light a fire under the stars.
These trails enmesh the four corners region of the southwestern US. Once you experience the mystery of a canyon or a mesa that was inhabited 800 years ago, yet still only yesterday, you want to return again and again. There are known ruins like Mesa Verde, and Chaco, and there are lesser known places, and still undiscovered places. The more time you spend in this land, you come to see that the ancestors were everywhere, hidden up canyons with hidden springs, places that no one knows exist, miles from nowhere, and yet there is a pot shard, an arrowhead, a masonry wall. And just when you thought you were alone, you can feel their presence.
There are many questions in life, and answers are hard to come by, and it seems with the great mysteries of life, most of the answers come when you stop asking the questions, and just start being in the presence. These thoughts came back to me again during a recent trip to Cedar Mesa, a magical space that was thoroughly inhabited by those who came before us. Each night in camp, as the stars began to appear in the jet-black sky, I would peer down into the countless canyons, imagining the campfires twinkling, and the sounds of dogs barking, and children playing. Sometimes it’s a heavy feeling, of another presence here, and sometimes its comforting knowing that others shared these remote spaces. As I stir the campfire, and stare into the glowing embers, I am transported to their landscape, their mindscape. And yes, the questions arise, it is our human nature to ask them, so we put them out into the blackness and see what comes back, like an echo off the canyon walls.
So we learn some things about the past – they ate corn, built stone houses, with T-shaped windows, painted and chipped art into rocks, we can see these things, we can see their pottery, their tools, their midden. But science leaves us feeling empty as to who they were, what they were doing, what they were thinking. Their direct descendants in the Hopi and Pueblo cultures of today, know more as they share similar rituals, beliefs and ideas, but these are well kept secrets, passed over generations. So what can we “know” as we sit under the same stars that these ancestors did thousands of years ago? We can know that they were fellow humans, in this vast, sometimes beautiful, sometimes lonely landscape – trying to survive as we do, looking for water, food, and shelter. And also that they saw these amazing stars, and marveled at how the earth was connected to the heavens, that they were a small part of a much larger picture, a picture composed of overlapping worlds and universes. They made beautiful bowls, and left their symbology on the rock walls, and even built their houses and cities to reflect the motions and interactions of the sun, moon, stars and planets.
Today, we share their questioning of the great mystery that surrounds us all, searching for some common ground that could provide some tether for us in this vastness. When we sit out there, and realize that people like us have gone before, and that they lived like us -we can sit in their kitchens and their homes and feel a bond as humans. This helps give us perspective in this place that is infinite and overwhelming, and give us some reassurance, if not answers, that we all share this space with those who came before, and those who will come. It gives us hope that we can evolve to understand a bigger picture of humanity’s place in the universe. Our common experience inspires compassion among fellow humans, who share our journey, that even though we are different, we are the same.
Sunday, October 4, 2009
I was standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon – grand is a good modifier here, but if you haven’t stood at the edge, it may not carry the requisite effect. This is a canyon of red and yellow rock, over one mile deep, with a blue green river at the bottom, carving s- turns far below. Condors soar on warm thermals as silence envelops you and you begin to experience vertigo, or an out of body experience as the canyon walls fall away beneath you. That is what its like to stand on the edge of this place.
Then you regain your senses and realize that you are on the rim. Most of the trails stretch 6 miles down to the Colorado River. The rim is dry, windy and distant. The river valley below is a different world altogether. There is life there - water, lots of water, the tinkling of the river and the roaring of the rapids make a big impression on desert ears. It’s a lost world down there, ripe with cottonwoods and datura, and averaging 20-30 degrees warmer than at the top.
Standing at the rim you don’t grok all this – its only when you descend to the river that this lost world reveals itself, and it seems like it’s far, far away. 6 miles may not seem very far, but in this desert, with minimal water and over mile of elevation change, it can be an eternity.
People say we only use 10 percent of our human brain, and that we have access to, but choose to ignore or deny the other 90%. Many maintain that this holds true for the physical body as well. Standing on the rim, it would seem that hiking down to the river would be an endeavor, and that hiking back up would be triple that. It was indeed hard for me to imagine hiking down the South Kaibab trail, and then up the North Kaibab trail, over 21 miles of canyon trail, in one day, and idea fostered by story of rim to rim runs and hikes, and even rim to rim to rim ones. After living in the Southwest for years, I had inevitably stumbled across the reports of crazy people running from rim to rim in 3 hours (the current record time for such a feat). And here is where my analogy takes off. If a human male, aged 35ish, can run from rim to rim of the Grand Canyon in 3 hours, then we are surely only using 10% of our physical abilities. Then, its no large jump to agree with the pundits who claim we are using no more than 10% of our brains (evidence: the current world/humanity condition). I mean: this man can run from rim to rim, covering 21+ miles, with a descent of 5000 feet, and a gain of 6000 feet elevation over this course, in three hours, shattering all ideas of what is possible in the human condition. Followed by: we all have a human brain and heart – we can feel, love, trust, and understand. We all share this planet and our human condition, yet we live in a world where greed and competition create poverty, hunger, pain and suffering for a majority of us. We must have more brain or heart to use, and it followed that the same holds true for our bodies.
To test this hypothesis, I decided to run rim to rim in the Grand Canyon. The date was late September, and my wife dropped me off at the South Kaibab trailhead about 7:30 am after a beautiful equinoxical sunrise. I assured her I would meet her in 6-7 hours on the North Kaibab trailhead, a mere 21 miles and 10000 feet elevation change away. I mean, this was the Grand Canyon after all. I mean, I had run a marathon some tears back, and still run out in the woods on occasion, and I had hiked down to Phantom Ranch a long time ago, but I had no real idea of what the rim-to-rim run entailed. I had a 100oz camelbak, filled full of course, a few power bar type bars, and some salted peanuts, and a mini almond joy.
I confidently set out in the brisk morning air, clad in my polypro t-shirt, shorts and running shoes, without socks. I felt light and strong, running down the 6+-mile trail, anticipating my arrival at the alluring river below. I passed a few parties getting an early start to the hiking day, and even a mule train further down by the Tonto trail junction. I crossed the bridge over the Colorado River, and took the river trail cut-off to the boat beach where warm sand and sun awaited. As I stripped off my shoes for a dip in the river, I assessed my progress so far. It was about 8:45am, according to river guide who had just pulled in, I had no time keeping device, so needed updates from fellow travelers. I took a brief dip in the breathtakingly cold Colorado, sat down to dry off with a power bar and a handful of peanuts. As I was refilling my camelbak, I overheard the river guide mention to one of her clients that the water we were using came from roaring springs – 9 miles above where we currently stood. Somewhere in the back of my mind these words registered, but, I didn’t pause to understand them, I couldn’t, as this was the first time I was attempting a rim to rim, and thus was in the territory of the unknown.
My break at the river bordered on surreal. I had just descended 5000 or so vertical feet on the scenic South Kaibab trail. Vistas stretched in every direction, with vertical exposure of such degree that you definitely double-checked your footing. Sometimes on the descent I would have to reset my visual, as the peripheral scenery changed so drastically. And then suddenly, I was at the river, the calm, peaceful, abundant river. In a land of extremes, this amount of water seems like an excess, and fills you with heaviness, fullness. As I sat by the water and absorbed this immensity, I scarcely thought of what lay ahead, it was more interesting to look at the lush datura blooms, still unfurled in the morning coolness. But, my brain kicked in a said, hey; you still have 14 miles and 6000 feet elevation to go. So I packed up my bag, and trotted out into the Box, the lower canyon of Bright Angel creek. I don’t know what combination of bonking, vertigo, or other factors on such an endeavor combined, however, for the next few miles I ran in a cloud, just focusing on the trail, as the epic scenery flowed past.
Gradually, my body began to register the toll of this undertaking - little blisters on my big toe, sore quads as I pushed up the North Kaibab Trail, and a mind beginning to chant its mantra: just stop and rest for a while, just slow down, it will feel so good. I knew as I passed Cottonwood Camp, with about 7 miles to go, that to start breaking would lead to the end. I was tired, hungry, and sore, but I had to keep faith that my body could finish. It was my mind now that began to be the adversary. I mean stunning canyon walls of red sandstone, beautiful yellow aspens dotting the hills, surrounded me, and of course that blue sky – there were many worse places I could have found myself that afternoon, and yet my mind doubted. As the distance ticked by, my brain increased its voice – to push on or rest, that was the struggle. This was my first time, I had no expectations, I did not have a real time limit, and I had no certainty I could even finish. Then, lost somewhere in the final 2 miles above the Supai tunnel, as I encountered happy day hikers, mule trains of tourists, and the altitude ticked over 7000 feet, I had to face down doubt and fear. It was here that this exercise took the turn from a nice jaunt in the Grand Canyon, to an epic struggle. I became as a pawn in a struggle between body and mind, river and rim, wet and dry, above and below, yes and no, right and wrong, stop and go. I would make a few switchbacks, then pause for some water, looking up for the North Rim hidden in the pines. Salt dried in white crystals on my face – my vision narrowed. Was I dehydrated? Was I delierious?Could I finish? My focus only held one idea - the rim, as the nice rest by the river became a memory from another universe. And yet, other world's existed here as well, outside of my immediate awareness was superimposed other layers of reality. I was less than a mile below the rim, on a popular day hike route, the hikers were multiplying, a couple sat enjoying the view, two teenage boys walked with their father and grandfather, a group of boy scouts were heading down with full packs. I was locked in an epic struggle, and yet here I was on beautiful fall afternoon here in the world….
Finally, I made the North Rim. 21 miles away lay the South Rim, where I had begun early this morning. The south rim, and the Colorado River below, seemed like they belonged to a dream, hard to imagine that I had been occupying those spaces mere hours before. When I set out, I had no security that my body was up for the task other than that others had done this before. I didn’t know if my mind was up for the task either, the mind being much harder to train, and much more fickle when faced with the doubts and darkness of the unknown. Most of us are more familiar with testing limits in the physical, that is how we like to spend our time. But testing limits in the spiritual, that is a new game, not as comfortable, but vastly rewarding. For some reason on this day, I pushed my body and my spirit to new limits, taking both out of their comfort zone. I came away with a renewed respect for the untapped capacity that we as humans hold inside, waiting to be re-discovered and grown into. As each of us challenges ourselves, we learn more about our capacity for improving our space, and our interactions with those around us. When we challenge our own fear and doubt by testing the unknown, we cultivate a deep compassion for this world, ourselves, and everything around us. I did not complete that crossing of the canyon without infinite aid from water, food, air, beauty, pain, pleasure, and faith. Every detail contributed, and I cannot tell you that each one, each moment was not independent from the next. A water source here, an inspiring vista there, an inner strength, and and outer. In the end it was not a blind hope that I could finish that carried me through, it was a participation and cooperation with all that surrounded me which gave me on some level, a know-ledge, that everything is possible.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
It seems that the more you experience, the more you begin to have the experience while you are doing the experiencing, "hey - I am feeling pleasure, I am enjoying this food, I am enjoying this swim, I am enjoying this show, or wow I am suffering under this hot sun, I am freezing in this snow, I am hurting after that accident"...and so on. But the more it happens, the more the "I", the experiencer, becomes separate from the experience, the symptoms, the feelings. The "I" doesn't change. I feel hot, I feel cold, I feel pain, I feel pleasure, but "I" am the same person after the experience as the one who started it. There is some part of me - that much bigger part of me, that stays constant. I survive the ordeal in the desert, I survive the war, I survive the 5 star hotel - I survive the Dom perignon. But at the end of the day, I am still here, unchanged for all that drama, unchanged for all that experience. And I don't quite get it each time, but after a hundred or a thousand times, I start to realize that whatever is happening happens outside of me, and for better or worse, I come through unscathed. So what happens? Eventually, the experience and the experiencer begin to separate, and a witnessing begins to happen. You can sort of detach from the pleasure or pain, recognize that it is happening, but that its not happening to YOU, its sort of happening around you.
This leaves us with a sense of I am I and you are you, we are we - whatever you want to believe that means. But this perspective gives us a wonderful sense of freedom from the cycles of pleasure and pain that we were raised on and trained in. It gives us the freedom to be who we are, and takes the pressure away to pretend to be something we are not. If you realize that the external stimuli are external, that they are happening, but not to you, then you can unattach from them, and they slowly lose their significance like air leaking from a balloon. If you then are not busy trying to experience everything, then you are free to be who you are, and really make a difference in this world. It also allows you to accept where you are in life, no matter what country you are from, how much money you have, what your job is - those become simple variables that modify your experiences, and why do we care how we modify something that is as fickle as the summer breeze, and that blows through us, leaving us unchanged?
How does this relate to travel? Well, travel is pretty much all about the experience. The desire for new sights, new foods, new pleasures, new thrills, new discoveries. We get bored with the day to day and want to take a vacation. Just let loose for a while, drink a cold beverage on the beach. Or maybe you want to see a new culture, learn a language and volunteer in a new community and help your fellow human. When we travel we gain new experience, and we think that experience forms us, makes us who we are and gives us our character. Yet, we already are formed, and that part of us, that part that is really us, lies above the experience - when we can bring that US to the world and the experience, we then start to make a real difference. The paradox is that in order to become aware of this other "me" I have to go through all these hundreds of experiences in order to re-cognize that we exist outside of all this, even though we are exquisitely entwined with all this - and that is sort of tricky. I want to taste the ripest mango on Java, want to find the butteriest dal-fry in Himachal Pradesh, want to volunteer in a medical clinic in the Nubra Valley, want to meditate in Hemis Gompa, want to soak in remote onsens surrounded by snow monkeys, want to trek through virgin Borneo forest, do kora around the navel of Tibet, watch the monsoon arrive in a sleepy village in the Keralan hills....And as I do these things, and all the other things in my life, I slowly realize that there is no end this way, there are always other Himalayan peaks, snow leopards, new foods, new remotest villages, and even if I can travel to the ends of the Earth and experience it all, I will still be me, right here. At that moment, we are truly free to decide what we really want to do, no strings attached, because, as we find out, there are no strings in the first place.
Experience and having it all are not the goal, but we have to have the experience to get free. Travel compresses this process, providing maximum new and challenging experience in small amounts of time-space. Thus it becomes a useful tool for becoming "you". When you can take a trip and be the real you, and stay in character, that is the rub. Then you are not running away, but being YOU.