Finding Nemo

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Krakow, Poland! Where I tried to find culture but got swept up into yet another Aussie stag party

Krakow churches, palaces, and gratuitous white men on a horse
The very lovely and colorful Church of St Mary in Krakow
Krakow! A beautiful Eastern European city, complete with a lovely river and greenbelt, gothy churches, palaces, and ... 
Ah. Who am I kidding. Let's get real here. Krakow (pronounced "cra-kov" if you want sound local), is very sunny and nice. It's pleasant. I really wouldn't mind spending a few days sitting on the green grass banks of its main river, and roosting up at the local cafes to people watch. It has great nightlife. People are friendly. But, to be perfectly honest, when you’ve seen a bunch of pretty European cities, they do tend to blend into one another.
Wait .... Oh my god. Had I become that asshole jaded traveler? Where nothing was good enough or weird enough, unless I was drinking blood from a live wriggling snake or fending off attacks from lady boys?
No, that wasn't it. The truth was this ... once again I decided to stay in a popular hostel aptly called the "Bubble." And once again I found myself swept up in a tornado of Aussies on a stag party. I wasn't meeting local people, practicing the language, learning about the culture. Instead it was just a bunch of "Oi! You gonna drink that or not you Yankee wanker!" I was getting burned out, too much partying, like a long lonely Vegas weekend. I didn't feel like I was traveling anymore.
Dinner served daily at the Bubble Hostel in Krakow
Not scared of the beard
That's about right
Classic Eastern Europe feels
I won't lie.
Eastern Europe was a pleasant respite from roughing it through Nepal, Tibet, China, Mongolia, and Siberia. But after just a few weeks, I was already tired of it. I was tired of 'civilization.' After all, what's the point in being halfway across the globe if all you are going to do is speak English and hang out with other English-speaking travelers?

So, still nursing a hangover on day 3, I left the Bubble Hostel and the merry lads from Melbourne, and struck out on my own for a bit of culture. For some real Polish experiences.
I won't lie, being in civilization and getting espresso again was quite spiritual
As I wandered the town, the first thing that strikes a traveler is the Pope John Paul II billboards, signs, and merchandise everywhere. Wow. This was one popular Pope in Krakow. It is worth noting that JPII is regarded by many younger Catholics and everyday observers like myself as the best thing that has happened to the Catholic Church in our lifetimes. For most people living today, he was THE pope (1978-2005). He was a relentless world traveler (128 countries), and a reformer (ordaining women). He was fit and active, unlike most of his predecessors. But perhaps most important, he was relatable and likable. I liked JPII. And I think most people, religious or not, liked him too. So it was nice to stroll through his hometown and see how much he was loved.
JPII merch, get it hot and buttered!
JPII, looking fit and trim, ready to bless the crap out of this town
Night fell and I was hungry. Hungry for sausage of course! This was Poland! I had heard about this old communist-era blue van that sold the best sausage in the city. So I wandered over to Hala Targowa, off the main square, and yes, there it was. An old beat up blue van, and next to it a waft of smoke rising up from a grill. Piled in heaps upon this grill were sausages of all kinds. Red sausages, white sausages, thin sausages, thick sausages. Wurst, kielbasa, and only God knows what else. It smelled like heaven's own juices. One could just imagine during the Soviet era sneaking out here after a few beers to this blue van to get illicit tasty meats.
And so, on the 14th day of the 8th month of the year abroad, I communed with the holy Polish sausages.
And, oh my god, it was good. Juicy. Flavorful. Sausages.
You complete me, beautiful sausage

You can't have a lustous travel beard without good juicy meats
Nearby right in the old square was a wonderful little restaurant called Pod Sloncem. When you walk inside, the stone walls, arches, and carvings give you that classic Eastern Europe cave vibe. Of course, after my sausages I had to come here and order some Polish goulash to make my life complete.

Proper Polish cave dining
Now, when you order goulash in Poland, you better be hungry. It doesn't come on a plate, or in a bowl. It comes in a massive pot made from bread, steam still pouring out from the top. Polish goulash is different than its Russian cousin. In Poland it is less soup and more beef stew. Thick, meaty, brothy, and very very filling. It was true I was still nursing a hangover from the Melbourne crew, but between the sausages and the goulash bread kettle, I found myself not only completely cured, but in need of a wheelchair. My vision nearly turned red from the meat levels rising well past recommended safe levels.
The proper way to serve thick meaty belly-filling goulash 
To prevent instant cardiac arrest, I waddled off down the street for some exercise and to experience the local bars by myself. In my back pocket was my trusty Polish-English dictionary, and I was fired up to get cultured as hell. I ordered a Perla, surveyed the scene, and spotted some cute local girls chatting away. They were straight out of a Bond novel with their black dresses, heels, and classic straight bangs. I readied some pick-up lines in Polish.
This was it. I was going to meet local people finally, and practice the local language. I would become a real traveler again. And just at the very moment I started to take the first step, I heard, "Hey Nemo, ya wanker! Why'd ya go wandering off alone for, ya little bum-snatcher?" I turned around, and there they were. A literal tornado of Aussies, in full smash and party mode. I exhaled slowly, looked wistfully at the cute Polish girls I would never meet, and steadied myself. And then the tornado came, and I was swept away in the storm.

Why Travel, Part 4: What "Finding Yourself" While Traveling Really Means

(and how to be, like, totally spiritual)

This is part 4 of my series on "Why Travel?" This series has easily been the most popular topic I have ever blogged about, and I encourage you to read parts 1, 2, and 3 to help set up this post. In part 1 I introduce the definition of long-term travel, with some attempts at poking fun at the backpacker sub-species, and in part 2 I discuss how travel can disrupt harmful tribal instincts, and change hearts and minds for the better. In part 3 I talk about real live spiritual beings that I have met in my travels, and a definition of spirituality without any of the "woo-woo" stuff.

Here in part 4 I will discuss the giant elephant in the hostel: that overused tacky cliche you find in every travel blog post ever: "I traveled the world looking for ... something. But in the end, I realized what I found was myself."

Bleck! Puke! Lifeguard, help me! I'm drowning in cheeeeeese ..... mmm, cheese is tasty ... what was I talking about?

"I found myself! All we had to was separate our dreads and bam there I was!"
Look. We all know the drill. And I will be honest with you: the first time I took off to travel the world, I didn't know what I was looking for either. I just knew I was looking for ... something. I was a godless heathen fumbling in the dark. One dumb travel bum, looking for clues.

Think about it for a moment, though. What are our modern lives really like?

For most people, especially those in a city, there is something I call the noise. The noise is everything that distracts you from thinking about what's really important. Work, appointments, traffic, screaming children, blaring TVs, mobile phones, Facebook, the daily grind of existence. There is no time for being present. And when brief windows of time do open up, say, on the toilet (admit it buddy), now we can hide from any introspection by clicking an app and getting instant gratification watching stupid people hurt themselves in the most hilarious manner possible.

It is harder than ever to access the stillness. Yet, it is in this stillness that the most important thoughts, desires, and goals you will ever have arise.

When was the last time you reminded yourself that yesterday is history, that today is a gift?

Is your body and mind still mostly working? Is today a day you can take a small, but productive step towards your dreams?

Do you even remember what your true dreams are?

In a way, it is almost as if the noise is a blessing. Such thoughts can be difficult. Maybe you aren't happy. Maybe you haven't taken a step towards your dreams in years. It is much easier to scroll through an Instagram feed or swipe left on Tinder than to let your mind be quiet and check in.

So what does long-term travel have to do with any of this? I claim everything. Long-term travel is not just a gateway to spirituality and mindfulness. It is a funnel. A worm-hole that grabs your hand and whisks you away on a journey inside whether you were ready for it or not.

Whisked away, meeting new friends on the road
When you travel for an extended period, you will be forced to endure long periods alone. Horrible bus rides. Airports. Trains. Delays. It can be so difficult to communicate that it's easier to say nothing. And of course, there will be volcanos to climb, beaches to laze upon, forests to wander through. There will be torrential rains which force you under a hut, and spectacular sunsets which hush a large crowd.

You will have your soul ripped apart by mutilated orphans in the streets treated like rats. And then it will be glued back together by the most sublime views of the heavens and earth you have ever seen.

You will be born anew.

One dumb bum atop the holy mountain Emei Shan, sunrise in "The Sea of Clouds"
This is the nature of long-term travel. You will be forced to be alone, with your thoughts, unplugged from the net. Your phone will only be good for taking pictures and telling time.

(By the way, I want to acknowledge that travel is certainly NOT the only way to access the inner self. I am just saying that it worked for me, and it is a peculiarly good way of doing it.)

It is disquieting at first, to be away from the noise. One week is only enough time to feel anxious and wait to be plugged back in. After a month, the anxiety vanishes and you relax. 3 months, you start to get traveler's zen. A year, and you are fully immersed and connected with the universe. Two years and you are calling up OutsideTV to get your own travel deal.

Really Travel Channel?! Really? Also, please call me back. Pretty please ... <sob>
Yes, yes, the rationalist within you says, but these emotions and feelings and connections are all just chemicals in my brain. Is there really value in any of this spiritual garbage?

If you only think in those terms, then yes, you might be technically correct, but your quality of life will be poor and without meaning. So I choose to see more. To see connections between all living things, and the universe. To be aware of the present moment. To enjoy the hairs on the back of my neck go up when I witness something amazing and beautiful.

Enlightenment is a scary word. It is supposed to mean something about a mystical state of union with all things, a living nirvana, and in some cases only achievable after death. But I like this term to describe those rare beings I've met in real life who exude something special. It fits. It's something attainable. So I choose to define "practical enlightment" in this way: achieving a heightened state of awareness of the present moment. (The Power of Now is a good book on this topic.)

In this state, you always stay attuned to the energy of others, so you can respond deftly and easily in the best way possible to everyone you encounter. But more importantly, it is a state where you are mostly immune to all the noise in the world, and in close contact with your true inner self. Your deepest dreams, hopes, desires, and goals. You speak with this inner self on a daily basis, reaffirming that you are on the correct, and best path. This is my definition of a true spiritual being. Every morning that I wake up, I remind myself I am still alive and feel thankful. Because it's another day that I can work towards my ideal, my own enlightenment.

The human potential in all of us is almost beyond comprehension. Yet it lies dormant. I think this is in large part because we fear that awesome power, and it is easier to let it sleep.

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. We are all meant to shine, as children do. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others." -- Marianne Williamson

This quote is fascinating because if you are lucky enough to meet someone who is enlightened, in the practical sense that I describe above, you realize that you can have it too. It is something real. That is exactly the feeling that I was left with after my encounter with that monk on a hill (see part 3 of this series). I felt that I had an opportunity to seek my best self.

I have never met Elon Musk. But from the outside, he seems like a man who is supremely connected to his inner self, and almost immune to the noise. He is marching confidently forward, realizing his vast human potential.

Imagine a world where everyone was freed from working a job they didn't like. Where everyone, all 7.4 billion of us, had the means and support to freely choose what could fully express their talents. What would this world look like? It would be incredible. Beyond imagination perhaps. The vision of humanity laid out by Star Trek seems to come close to this utopia, where money doesn't seem to exist and everyone does what they are best suited to do.

What would a nice utopia look like? This one is definitely missing bacon-wrapped hot dogs ...
It's true that we don't live in that world. But does that mean we should let go of those desires? Let them sleep until one day we wake up on our deathbed, where they burst out, screaming regrets?

This is where long-term travel can help. The noise goes away. You can get deep within yourself. Every person is new to you, you are new to everyone, their baggage and your baggage doesn't matter. You can both reinvent yourself. It is a natural lab to practice enlightenment, to see connectedness, to experience the power of now, to look to the future, to see things as they are and not as your bias distorts them.

This is what people mean when they say they "found themselves" while traveling. They finally had time to think about who they really are, without anyone else telling them who they ought to be.

Now, let's not get carried away. Obviously this is not something that happens magically overnight on day 45 or something. It is a gradual process. In fact, I wasn't quite aware things had shifted things for me until I'd had a couple years to reflect upon the experience. It's like watching the tides change. You can't quite see it happening.

Let me talk a little more about what I have termed "practical enlightenment." Getting a glimpse of enlightenment is easy, and almost everyone has a story where they experienced a brief moment of what the Japanese call "satori." But holding on to it is the most difficult, yet most important, task in our lives. And this is very, very hard. It is even harder today, with the noise machines in every pocket. It is a daily battle. This is why it so very important to have a daily practice. This practice can be 10-15 minutes in the morning when you first wake up. Stretching, being kind to your body, breathing, checking in. And then doing some kind of meditation.

I think a lot of people are turned-off or intimidated by the word meditation. But it can be very simple and easy. First, put on your saffron robes and light 26 candles and sing the 12 chants to the 14 gods and goddesses. Then bow 23 times towards the magnetic north pole. Finally, chant Om Mani Padme Hum 11 times while holding your toes. I guarantee this will make you feel extremely embarrassed and you will never do it again.

Don't get your meditate on without some lit saffron robes
The truth is that meditation is just another word for stopping the rush of the morning, and pushing away the noise. That's it. It can really be that simple. Now, meditation can certainly be more involved and useful once you get into it. But to start out, the simple act of quieting the mind for 5-10 minutes, and getting yourself aligned for the day is a great start.

In Conclusion, radical friend

I firmly believe in science, or rather I believe that science is true and doesn't care whether you believe in it or not. But knowing that when I stare at something truly beautiful that it's just a chemical in my brain, doesn't accomplish anything meaningful. We humans do like to understand. But what we truly yearn for is contentment, satisfaction, connectedness, love, and joy.

The final day in a year away
I will close with a final story. On my first full year away, towards the end of the trip I was sitting on a dock in Belize by myself, watching the sun go down on an emerald sea. Tomorrow I would fly back to America. I had been robbed twice, and nearly died two more times. I had witnessed the most horrible human conditions and abuses, and in the same country the most beautiful. It is such an unexplainable feeling, having such incredible highs and lows all piled so close together in such a relatively short time. I felt different, but wasn't quite sure how.

Two days later I was home in Los Angeles at a Welcome Back Nemo party with all my old friends. I remember being jolted at how loud everyone was. At the traffic. At the massive urban sprawl. My own home felt completely unfamiliar.

I had so much to tell everyone. Yet, person after person came up and said something to the effect, "hey that was cool man. So, let me tell you about my life. I work in the same job and do the same thing. Hey want to get drunk at Sharkeez tomorrow?" It was jarring. I had something that was difficult to explain, something important that no one wanted to hear. Or rather, no one would be able to even understand it. Not in their current state, drowned in noise, thinking only about the mundane and trivial, the next party.

A few people came up to me and asked to hear a good story. I realized I didn't have one ready to go, and by the time I remembered the crazy adventure where I nearly died on a glacier in Nepal, they had already gotten bored and left to talk to girls.

The whole experience was like getting punched in the gut. I realized there was simply no way to explain what had happened on my trip. No way to explain what had changed for me personally. No way to explain the noise they all lived in, and the noise I was returning to myself.

A couple months later I was back at my old job, doing the same old things with the same people. And I could feel it. The traveler's zen was slipping away. The doors into my inner self. The moments of spirituality. They were fading into the noise.

And I realized, travel is good to start the process. But if you don't maintain it every day in the real world back home, it was all for nothing.

So, that's what I do. I wake up each morning, I stretch, I breathe, and then I read a short daily meditation/prayer:

I welcome this new day.

Behold the sublime beauty of the Earth! Its raw energy! The incomprehensible scale of existence!!

Gaia has bestowed upon me another opportunity to live, to achieve my dreams.

Thank you for this day, this gift.

Behold the people! Most asleep with such untapped potential, the few awakened souls bringing light to the world.

BE THE LIGHT today. Absorb, and radiate out pure sunlight. As all things on earth do. Each living being is connected by this energy from the sun. Imagine it flowing though everything: invisible, silent, powerful, warm. Humans generate their own energy and it mixes into this stream, connecting all things. 

Imagine these intermingling waves of energy, like pebbles thrown into a still lake. Imagine my own waves as they radiate out to the world, and how it subtly affects the ones around me.

Simply be, positively radiating outward, in silence. Read the energy of others closely, and respond as needed.

When I speak loudly or harshly, or interrupt others, I create conflict and disruption in this energy. Listen first. Listen with the intent to understand, not respond. Speak only when needed, calmly and with purpose.
Think of close friends. Family. Be the light to them. Smile. Hug. LISTEN. Silently share my love and joy.

See the best in everyone. Send positive energy to everyone. They need it, they have wounds I will never know. And it costs me nothing. It takes a village to raise ME up. I need to build my village one person at a time.

BREATHE! And relish simply being.......
Breathe in the warmth and light ...
Breath out the fear and anxiety ... 
Until my whole body tingles ...

Enjoy this amazing, wonderful body. It is a truly incredible thing. It is temporary and fragile. Cherish it and keep it in the best possible condition.

This daily joy of existence will one day, maybe soon, be taken from me. It is wondrous waking up this day and being alive!

This is it! All we have is now.

Today I will not do dumb shit to my body, such as drinking coffee in the afternoon or drinking alcohol to excess. I'm too old and am too tired of feeling like shit and repeating those same mistakes over and over and over and over!! Be good to my body. Less poisons. More healthy food.

Be grateful for 3 things today.

Feel my spark. Let it fill my body with tingling joy. Do not let it morph into fear and anxiety; instead channel it into calm purpose, profound happiness.

Kindle the fire of my purpose, my vision for being! The satisfaction of being a writer, the pure joy of being a true musician, the self-worth that comes with being a productive worker, the power of being a man that walks the walk, the sacred bliss that I have become an enlightened being!!

Let this raging fire pull me into ACTION today, breaking through barriers as an unstoppable force!!

Create, update, and stay on the Path. Without a plan, days slide by without meaning or consequence. I must discover my Path, plan it, and stay on track.

I need to want these things as bad as a drowning man wants air. Only then will I break through all barriers, rise above, and transform.

Thought and desire will not bring peace, happiness, satisfaction, inner joy. Only action. ACT.

Who is this body? This mind? This unique collection of molecules and energy? This being?

Who am I? What am I? This ... thing ... self-aware ... a god? Am I all that really exists?

Who is Nemo?

There is no answer out there. I can travel and search the world forever. And find only this:

Nemo is what I do, create, share, give, and love, today.

Today shall not be wasted

Now clearly, this is a custom prayer/meditation I have developed for myself, over the years. But I share it to perhaps give the reader some ideas on how to create their own daily practice. Whatever they want to become, they need to first create in their mind.

I don't do this just to have a good day. That is not enough for me. I am unafraid of my potential. I want to become that monk on the hill. An enlightened human, radiating unconditional love to all beings.

Perhaps one day, if I work hard day after day on my own personal practice, I will come close enough to inspire others. As that monk inspired me.

That, my radical friend, will be enough.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Why Travel, Part 3: Meeting a Spiritual Being in Real Life

This is part 3 of my series on "Why Travel?" This series has easily been the most popular topic I have ever blogged about, and I encourage you to read parts 1 and 2 to help set up this post. In part 1 I introduce the definition of long-term travel, with some attempts at poking fun at the backpacker sub-species, and in part 2 I discuss how travel can disrupt harmful human instincts, and change hearts and minds for the better.

Here in part 3 I want to introduce the idea that spiritual beings really do exist in this world. In fact, I've met a few of these people. And man, when you meet someone like this, it is quite something. You never forget it. Then I will try to explain what I mean by the word spirituality, a practical definition without any of the "woo-woo" stuff.

Let me start with a story. Once upon a time, on a beach far far away, I was sitting alone. The sun was coming up. Beaded, painted, passed-out bodies littered the beach. Trash bobbed up and down in the water, tarnishing an otherwise beautiful pink sunrise.

My bones sagged from tiredness. Yet sleep eluded me. My blood still boiled and rushed from the buckets of Red Bull vodkas last night. Thai Red Bull is very different than the American version. It comes in a small glass bottle, and it is a thick syrup of pure mysterious adrenalin.

I stared at a shell on the beach. My own body was that shell. Empty and lifeless.

Last night, I had attended my first "Full Moon Party" on the infamous beach of Haad Rin on Koh Phangnan.

I wasn't sure what I expected. But late in the evening, my brain swirling on buckets of dubious beverages, I realized that this was not what I had hoped for. Bar after bar blared out the worst kind of European cheese pop beats. On the various dance floors, men jockeyed and pushed for position amongst the few remaining drunken women and Thai prostitutes.

Good morning Haad Rin
I guess I had hoped for some kind of backpacker nirvana, where travelers from around the world convened under the full moon to share good vibes and wisdom gleaned from the far corners of the Earth.

Instead, this party had become so well known that European ravers would fly in just for the weekend, take copious drugs and too much Red Bull, become a bit too aggressive, trash the beach, and fly home a day or two later.

So, I watched the pink sunrise amongst the bodies and trash and coarsing blood in my ears. And I thought: what the hell am I doing?

Why am I traveling? What is the damn point of this trip? Maybe it just a selfish indulgence, maybe there was nothing to be found "out there."

It was the next day, or perhaps the day after, but at some point I started to feel like I should continue living. I hopped on my rented scooter, which by the way, is one of the great pleasures of travel abroad. Renting a motorbike or scooter to explore a new place is an absolute joy.

Scooters are the absolute best way to travel
I didn't know where I was going. I only knew that I wanted to ride and feel the wind. To recapture something. I wandered aimlessly for a bit on the island, and then I passed by a dirt road leading up a hill. To this day I cannot explain it. But something grabbed onto me and told me that I needed to go up that side road. I turned back around and cruised up.

At the top I found a very small temple. I parked and as I walked towards it, an old man in saffron robes came out and said in English, "welcome." As if he was expecting me. He sat me down, and then asked where I was from, what I was doing, etc. I said I was traveling for a year. He tilted his head and looked at me. I thought for a bit. And finally I said I was trying to find out why, exactly, I was traveling for a year. At this he smiled.

"I see you need a blessing." He showed me how to sit and hold my hands and how to properly receive this blessing. Then he lighted incense and chanted and bestowed upon me his prayers for good travels.

Getting my prayers on

One of the best humans I've ever met, Mr. Monk on the Hill
It's really stupid when you think about it. Some monk in a random temple giving you some "blessing" which I generally don't believe in. But at that moment, feeling empty and purposeless, questioning why I was traveling, why I was even here on this Earth ... to find this friendly old man take me in, read me so easily, see that I needed a bit of support, was shocking and overwhelming. I have no other way to say it. Unconditional love radiated from this being. It was sincere and powerful. That was his true blessing.

He then showed me a scrapbook filled with many other visitors, from all over the world. There was something special about this old man in his little temple. Here he was, giving out love and blessings to all those who crossed his path. And then all these people he met would go back into the world, perhaps feeling a little better about themselves, literally carrying his postive energy in all directions. In his own way, he was a small pebble tossed into an ocean. Little waves rippled outwards across the world.

I couldn't get that monk out of my mind. What was it about him? He had this presence. Quiet confidence and peacefulness oozed out from within. I have never met the Dalai Lama, but many people report a similar experience when meeting His Holiness. I knew I wanted that something. No, ... that wasn't quite right. I didn't want it. I wanted to become it.

From that point, my year away changed dramatically for the better. I was in tune with "traveler's zen," which I have talked about in great length in this blog. It is a weird state of contentment that you start in exist in, although you might be in a tuk-tuk careening to certain death in Bangkok. Even Delhi cab drivers trying to trick me into driving to their buddies crystal shop didn't phase me in the slightest. I simply saw them as trying to survive and make a buck and didn't hold a grudge. Everything opened up for me. Good, bad, and terrible things happened, but when the truly wonderful things happened I was ready to receive them. The pink of the morning light reflecting off the last glaciers of Kilimanjaro, the mystical landscapes of karsts and bamboo in Guilin, a simple night in Costa Rican hammocks with new surf friends. Each made me feel alive with wonder, each opened a brief door into something deeper and greater than myself.

But these windows stayed open only for a moment. Too soon, reality clanged and clanked and snapped me out of it, and then it was gone. I started to call it the "noise." The noise is all those constant interruptions and distractions that take you away from any meaningful understanding of what is really going on in the present moment, in your life, and in the lives of those around you. Noise focuses you on the mundane and trivial, and prevents you from thinking about the truth. Facebook beeping new alerts on your mobile device is the ultimate example of the noise. Instead of spending an hour contemplating life, one will spend an hour contemplating why a cat loves to squeeze into a glass fishbowl that is way too small for it.

Alone with his thoughts, this cat is ultra-spiritual
I tell this story to introduce the concept of what it means to be spiritual, at least my concept of it. I realize there are many out there who also believe we emit auras, or that crystals can change our moods, or that we have centers of energy along our core called chakras.

Perhaps one day science will find that there is some truth to this. But my concept of spirituality is much more basic and doesn't rely on anything a man of science can't appreciate and understand. To me it is that monk in that temple, and that kind of spirituality has real power. Power to change our lives for the better, and the lives of those around us.

Does spirituality matter in the age of science? What does it mean in today's world?

I could try to define spirituality with dry terms, but this is doomed to failure. Spirituality is a lived experience, and difficult to communicate through definitions. Instead I will continue to attempt to convey its meaning through stories and experiences that are relatable to all of us.

When was the last time you were alone, watching a truly spectacular sunset? Perhaps you were out for a jog or bike ride or walk in the evening. And then, the sky came alive with colors. A unique, temporary masterpiece, as if it was created just for you. Perhaps you were able to quiet your thoughts, exist purely in that moment, feeling absolutely alive. If you were really lucky, you may have felt a brief thrill in your spine and your hairs stand up. A moment of magic, fully awake and present, feeling connected to something much bigger than yourself.

This, to me, is spirituality.

When was the last time you took the time to find a clear, dark patch of sky, lay on your back, and simply stare at the universe? Truly stare at it. Embracing its incomprehensible, mind-bending infinity?

"We are a part of this universe, we are in this universe; but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us." -- Neil DeGrasse Tyson

He was referring, of course, to the fact that all life is composed of elements fused inside the hearts of stars. We are literally stardust, as the saying goes.

Pushing away the noise, letting your mind go quiet, embracing this connectedness between things, being fully present. Aware of your breath. Feeling truly alive. Grateful.

It is a kind of magic isn't it?

Perhaps to many this sounds silly and useless. Maybe it is easier to think that. That way we don't have to ever be quiet, to be mindful. That is what the noise tells us at least, and to be honest, that is what it wants. Yes, the noise has a motive. What is advertising, after all, if not a quest to keep you distracted from what you really need? Which is very little of course.

Every action I do affects others in ways I don't notice or understand. A smile to my barista that brightens her mood. Or an angry "give me my damn coffee!" stare that ruins her day. Using the word "karma" is tricky as that word is loaded with too much meaning. However, our actions clearly affect everyone around us in both little and big ways, that are hard to see if you don't pay attention.

Like that monk in Thailand, we move through time, space, and life like a pebble thrown into an ocean. Small waves move outward. At the same time, the many others around us also put out their small waves. They interact, interfering, constructively and negatively. If you zoom out just a bit, it is hard to see those individual interactions. Instead, you see hundreds, thousands, millions of lives going about their daily business, their countless waves mingling into a hum of white noise. Only the very few, who train their mind through daily practice, are able to quiet their minds and become aware of the effect they constantly have on the world around them.

This is spirituality. It is those moments when a door opens to a deeper understanding of the present moment, yourself, life, and your place in it.

(Click here for Part 4: What It Means to "Find Yourself" While Traveling)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Occupation Museums of Eastern Europe

"I have a story to tell you." In front of me was a very old man, perhaps in his late 80's, bent over with scraps of white hair protruding from a green military-style cap propped a bit sideways on his head. It was decorated with what could only be home-made badges. His story would turn out to be the most courageous tales I have ever heard on my travels.

Earlier that day I found myself walking up to a very ordinary looking building on the outskirts of Tallin. It was supposed to an "Occupation Museum." I was not sure what I would find there, but the previous night I had met a cute girl who said she would meet up for drinks, but only if I had "a clue" about Estonia. Yeouch. So now, here I was.

The Estonian Occupation Museum
The inside of the building was stuffy and dusty. Displayed in a heap under glass was a collection of Soviet era passports, ID cards, and black and white pictures of men in various uniforms.

Soviet propaganda
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were annexed into the Soviet Union
Next to me was an old man, looking back at me. His eyes were bright and curious. I said hello, he responded with the typical good English of the Baltics, we chatted the usual introductions. Then he leaned towards me and said, "I was a Forest Brother. Do you know what that means?" And thereupon he told me the most incredible true-life tale I think I have ever heard.

The Holocaust.

For someone like me, who has been to Auschwitz and seen the fingernail scratches inside the gas chambers, who has been to Berkenau, where the top layer of soil once consisted of nothing but human ash, it is impossible to describe with words. Simple words against that mind-bending hellscape. To be truly understood, one must travel there and feel it. It surrounds you like a dark cloud. Heavy. Impossible, yet real. It twists and burns your mind. And then you cry. A moment later, you notice everyone in your group is quietly weeping with you.

The good thing, I suppose, is that the Holocaust will never be forgotten. Yet, today I'm here to talk about another tragedy. One that went on for much much longer, affected even more people, yet has been mostly forgotten by the West. Ironically, and perhaps more cruelly, perpetrated by the very liberators of Germany themselves.

I am referring to the Occupation of Eastern Europe.

The end of the second Great War was the start of a new American era of prosperity and peace: America's golden age. During this same period, the experience in Eastern Europe was so different that it is almost impossible for an American to fully grasp. The Americans and British didn’t like that Russian armies occupied the East, but these same armies had helped bring down Hitler. So, three men signed a piece of paper that essentially recognized the current occupations of the two armies. The Americans and British would rebuild the West including West Berlin, and the Russians would rebuild the East.

We know broadly what happened next. American forces were happy to retreat back to America, providing primarily financial assistance to Western Europe. Reconstruction money flowed even into Western Germany, with recognition that sucking an enemy dry after defeat led, in no small part, to Hitler in the first place. But in the East, something entirely different was unfolding.

The Soviet armies occupied the Baltics, Poland, Eastern Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania. In country after country, a communist puppet regime was installed. To their credit, the people of these countries did not take Soviet occupation lying down. Notable among the resistance was the Hungarian rebellion of 1956. This was quickly crushed by a massive force of 17 Russian divisions. Tanks, artillery, and aerial bombardment fired indiscriminately throughout the highly populated urban center of Budapest. Thousands of civilians were killed.

Soviet annexation and puppet states
However, the people of the Baltics (Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania) and Poland probably suffered the most in the early decades of occupation. Despite resistance by the "Forest Brothers" and other armed groups, these countries were annexed into the Soviet Union. Farmers were forced off their land to collectives which caused economic collapse. Citizens were drafted or arrested, especially those of higher education who could lead political resistance. However, by far the biggest atrocity during the long decades of occupation was the forced deportation of hundreds of thousands to Soviet Gulags.
GULAG camp system
The sprawling GULAG (ГУЛАГ) system of forced labor camps was not new. In the beginning, Stalin used the camps within his own country to exile political dissidents and intelligentsia. Over the years, the system grew until camps were strategically used to mine resources or manufacture goods: this "golden sweat" became vital to the Soviet economy. Stalin's Great Purge in the late 1930's filled these camps to capacity.

Thus, it was really no suprise that after the war that the Soviets looked to their new terrorities for labor. Virtually all of Poland's military officers were murdered (the Katyn Massacre) or exiled to gulags after the war. The Baltics were not spared either. The gulag system grew to approximately 2.5 million prisoners by the early 1950's. Many freed Soviet POWs found themselves branded "traitors." It is estimated that up to another 1.5 million Russian POWs were also sent to the gulags.

At the time I met this Estonian real life freedom fighter, I didn't know much about any of this. I guess it had never occurred to me that anything could have been worse than the Germans. He explained the Soviet Occupation was much much worse, because it lasted three generations. He shuffled over to another counter and pointed to one particular picture of three scruffy young men holding hunting rifles in an open field. I looked closely. And then back at my new friend. There was no doubt. One of those men was him. Standing alongside his Forest Brothers.

He explained to me that the young kids in the town, born in the 80’s, didn't really understand.

"It is hard to explain what happened. They didn't see their friends disappear. They don't get it. And, I guess ... I don’t want them to share this burden. I want them to be happy and enjoy their freedom.”

It was very powerful. Hearing these words, from this man. I tried to imagine what it must have been like. Standing with a few friends in the woods against the combined might of the Soviet empire. Would I have been able to do this? I wasn't sure I wanted to know the answer.

Many things suddenly became clear at that moment. Why the old men and women in town seemed so beaten and downtrodden. And why the young generation seemed the polar opposite. So carefree and fun and liberated.

I think today about Russia’s occupation of Crimea, and the looming threat Russia poses, once again, to these happy little Baltic countries. Would NATO turn their back? It’s not clear at all, in today’s fractured America, divided EU, and resurgent Russia. For these countries, living in the red shadow, perhaps it makes their freedom that much sweeter. Because they realize it can be taken away so easily.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Riga: My New Favorite Place in the World

Picture perfect cobbletone Riga

So crazy. So fun. Riga, I don't really know you, but I love you. You got it going on.
Your little ancient downtown is cuter than even Tallin, more cobblestoney goodness even than Prague. Those narrow winding streets, a mix of sunlight and shadow and corners and hidden doors, that just invite a travel bum to get lost on purpose.

Your gothic church is so darn, well, gothey. After the climb up the spire, what a view! That fresh salty breeze from the Baltic ocean. The town square was bursting with open air tables and mugs of cold beer and street entertainers and joyful busker music. Perhaps the best part of Riga is the circle of green parks that surround the old town, with a river running through it all. Endless fountains and flowers and nooks and glens are to be found as one wanders aimlessly, lost in the green.

Shooting real Russian weapons under a school stadium is SOP in Eastern Europe

Another night at the hostel begins ...

Some warm-ups at the hostel, ... yeah, ...

I happened to arrive during a summer beer festival, which produced a grin on my face. "This is great!" I exclaimed to one of the locals. He looked at me funny. "We have beer festival every weekend in summer." A beer festival every weekend? I stared stupidly, eyes wide in puppy love. After oversampling the many many varieties of locally crafted beer, I stumbled back to my room to recuperate for the evening nightlife.

This truck serves hot food in the front and cold fresh beer in the boot. Of course!

Local craftmanship. Or something. I don't really remember this part. *Burrrp* scuse me


It seemed there were two types of women in Riga: 1) those with the Russian fashion sense (read: high heels, tight short skirts, bright colors and leopard print), and 2) those with a more funky Euro hipster look. And so, perhaps it is no surprise that something curious happens each summer throughout Eastern Europe. All the frothy lads in England and Australia have long heard the myth of the beauties of the East: how they (supposedly) love Westerners with their money and prospects. With the EU, no passport is required anymore to the Baltics, and these salivating packs of testosterone believe they can just show up in places like Riga, Krakow, Budapest, and the like, and they will be mobbed by gorgeous women.

Now, of course you run into Aussies and Kiwis and Brits and Canadians no matter where you travel in the world, and usually it's a true pleasure. Here you've been squinting at your word dictionary, trying not to choke on the Chinese word for snake soup, and a Westerner appears and says, "Good day chap! This place looks dodgier than a set of chuffed nuts!" And you look up, eyes wide, a tear forming in the corner of your eye, mouth forming a round "o" of joy. You realize you can have a real conversation in English for the first time in days. "Thank God bro! Hey man, is this the word for Snake Soup or Your Wife is Hot?" 

And so it was with not too much surprise when I arrived at my hostel to find a mob of Aussies playing various "get smashed boys, tonight we pillage!" games. Most of them involved a deck of cards, which after each play directed someone to immediately inhale a beer. Or something even more lethal. There are a few of these popular party-hostels in Riga. I joined up in the pre-gaming, and soon realized that the entire group of Aussies were from the single town of Brisbane. They had come together with one purpose: to smash exotic Baltic babes. In Riga, these hostels organize pub crawls every night of the week. Let me repeat: if you stay at this hostel, you do a lethal pub crawl day after day after day until your liver turns black, dissolves, and evaporates from your pores. Over the course of this first night, from one pub and club to the next, I ran into 3 other stag parties, all from England or Australia.

When you have long hair and beard all the boys want to size up your manscaping

Add caption

Reggae time, any country all da time mon

The night was a can of mixed nuts to say the least. Some young girls were definitely fans of the tanned, healthy, deafening lads, and I have to say it IS a lot of fun to surf a wave of merry drunk Aussies. A round of drinks were shouted out, and drank, and I couldn't help but notice a small group of girls head off as fast as they could to the other corner.


If you've ever been with an Aussie Stag Party in full hurricane mode, you already know full well that this didn't slow them down in the slightest. They spread out, like a pack of hunting lions. Or, maybe, judging by their wobbles, a pack of drunken hunting penguins.

And, just at the moment where the penguins were about to pounce and all hell break loose, Riga did something amazing. The DJ began to play "Macarena." Yes, that Macarena. The one we all did a line dance to back in ... when was it? 1996? Apparently that song was still cool in Riga 15 years later. All of a sudden, everyone in the club formed into lines and began the Macarena dance.

I couldn't believe my eyes. And, ooooohh yes, the girls knew all the steps. Well, that's all the encouragement any of us needed. Like any good Rigans, we jumped onto the dance floor and joined in.

You may forget how infectious this song actually is. Something bizarre happened. I noticed that my body was putting my hands in the air and my mouth started shouting "Heeeeeeey, Macarena!" With that, I fell in love with quirky fun Riga just a little bit more.
People here were a marked contrast. The older generation seemed worn down and worn out. Yet, this young generation, recently freed from Russian occupation, were the opposite, They had a vibrant, bursting energy in themselves. The wore outlandish fun clothing, partied and danced and didn't mind being goofy and fun. As if they didn't have a care in the world. People seemed to really live in the moment more than almost any other place I'd ever been.

This contrast between the older and younger generation was jarring. And it struck me that perhaps I would find some answers in the Occupation Museum in town. What I found there, I will discuss in my next post.

I ended up the night having a deep talk with this guru