Tag Archives: “endless road trip”

Once in a Lifetime

I glossed over it in my last post, but our time in Sayfohn's English class was a truly amazing experience. Like sitting with Shimi in Iporanga, watching the face of the Great Magician manifest in the night sky; like camping outside Natural Bridges with Pati, Andrew and Tim, it will be a memory that I will cherish forever.

Monks are everywhere in Thailand and Laos. At first, you tend to gawk, drawn to by the bright orange robes, the shaved heads, and the implication of a greater peace and serenity. Time passes. You see older monks, praying at the shrine of the Emerald buddha or riding the Chao Praya express. You see young novices roaming the streets of Chiang Mai, arms around each others' shoulders. You see monks riding jeepneys, drinking coconut water, sitting in front of a laptop. After a while, they no longer seem quite as strange or (dare I say it) exotic. Nonetheless, they still seem to exist in a slightly different plane of existence; one step removed from the the mundane life of the every day. In Thailand, even with all of the opportunities that presented themselves, I never once approached or started a conversation with a monk. Several times I smiled and nodded my head at a passing monk, but these acknowledgements were met with silent, expressionless faces. I resisted the urge to make a fetish of buddhism; I was content to let them be.

When we first entered Syfohn's English class, I will admit to a little nervousness. A room, lit by flourescent bulbs, filled with handmade wooden benches and desks. At the head of the room, a well-used whiteboard covered in ghostly handwriting from lessons past. At the back, a small map of the globe. On the walls, a few scrawled bits of graffiti. Seated, with thin notebooks and loose papers scattered on the desks in front of them, about 25 novices, aged 11-18, each dressed in an orange robe. With their heads and eyebrows shaved, they seemed remarkably young. They stared as we entered, some of them giggling into cupped hands.

Syfohn asked us to sit, and then returned to the whiteboard, where a series of novices were writing sentences in English. When they finished, he encouraged us to stand and introduced us to his students: “This is Mr. Fil and Mr. Tim, and they have come to help with tonight's English classes. Won't you all welcome them?”

A chorus of voices. “Good evening Mr. Fil! Good evening Mr. Tim!” Their English was tentative and carefully enunciated. The word evening contained three syllables.

Syfohn then continued with the lesson. The students has been given a paragraph of English to read and translate. It told the story of a young novice, much like themselves, whose name was Bun Pheng. Most of the novices, we learned from Syfohn, had come from very poor families. They had travelled great distances to take their vows. While Buddhism may have been an important part of their previous lives, Syfohn told us that most of them entered the monastery because it provided them with a place to live, clothes to wear, food to eat, and a chance at an education; opportunities that were rare in their home provinces. These kids were here, in the historic heart of Luang Prabang, surrounded by tourists and far from home, in search of a better life. Here, with their fellow novices, they studied a variety of subjects including Mathematics, History, Buddhist Thought, and English.

Syfohn walked the students through a series of spoken exercises centered on the story of Novice Bun Pheng. It must have been quite familiar to the novices, perhaps even an exact description of their own lives. It described life in the monastery, from 4 am wake up calls to pray to the Buddha, to afternoons spent cleaning the temple ground, to evenings spent fasting.

Afterwards, Syfohn asked us to join the students in small groups of about 6-7, and to practice English with them. I sat on a small bench and the young novices backed away from me. “Good evening,” I said, “how are you?” They stared at me, some giggling, and then they conferred with each other in quiet whispers. One of them then spoke tentatively. “Good evening. I am fine.”

“What is your name” I asked, pronouncing the words clearly and loudly. Again, they whispered with each other. A different novice responded, “My name is Novice Keo. What is your name?” We continued on, at first simply repeating the questions that they had been asked about their fictional brother, Novice Bun Pheng. How old are you? Where are you from? But soon enough, we had all gained enough comfort and confidence to move into an actual conversation. I asked them about what they learned in school; they asked me what I liked to in my free time. I asked if they had any siblings; they asked how long I had been in Luang Prabang. Eventually, we were all smiling and laughing, winding our way through the minor obstacles of confusion, incomprehension, and mispronunciation. “Kho jai hien pasaa Lao,” I informed them (I would like to learn the Lao language). They laughed and repeated the sentence correctly so that I could imitate them.

It was a lovely time. As the class ended, we all thanked each other profusely. We had shared a couple of hours in a classroom in Luang Prabang and now we were all dispersing into our own individual lives, caught up in the conflicting, chaotic flow of existence. Where will life take these young men? Some will continue within the monastic tradition, spending their entire lives as monks. Others will leave their orange robes behind and return to the secular life, perhaps marry and one day send their own sons to take vows at some faraway monastery. What will happen to our wonderful friend, Syfohn? Will we ever see his smile again?

It is impossible to know, of course. We never know what waits for us, even around the nearest corner. The important thing is to be present right here, right now, to seek awareness of what makes every experience unique and instructive. I cannot remember the names of all the novices I met that night, but I can still see their smiles, their bright eyes, their openness and curiosity. I wish them all the happiness in the world, and i hope that wherever they might find themselves, they remain just as open and just as curious.

I gave Syfohn the t-shirt I was wearing on the night that we met. Emblazoned across the chest are three words SELF. DISCO. VERY. Self Discovery. May you never stop seeking and discovering, Syfohn. And may the self you discover be full of joy, peace and love. Khop jai lai lai.



February 22, 2013 ~ 42 Trips Around the Sun

At 8:01 am on February 22, 1971 I was born in Salisbury, Rhodesia. After 1975 this place disappeared from most maps, replaced by Harare, the capitol of the newly independent nation of Zimbabwe. Since then, I have traveled around the sun 42 times. This last birthday found me outside of Mae Hong Son, in the northwestern corner of Thailand, a long way away from almost everyone who knows and loves me. But even with all of those kilometers separating us, the universe found a way to let the birthday love pour down on me.

If you have been following our travels, you might be thinking to yourself, wait a minute, weren't they already in Mae Hong Son? Didn't they leave Mae Hong Son and go to that Cave Lodge place where Fil got all oogy-boogy-touchy-feely about his time in Brasil? If you are thinking that, well first off, thank you for paying such close attention to the chronology of our trip! And secondly, you are absolutely right. We did leave MHS, but we came back because we had to catch our return flight to back Chiang Mai. The alternative to this pair of one-hour flights would have been 20+ hours worth of bus rides through on a road that is renown for its extreme curviness.

We had one last set breakfast at Cave Lodge, said our goodbyes to our kind and generous hosts, and headed towards Pang Mapha on the backs of a pair of motorbike taxis.

The woman driving my motorbike taxi dropped me off, asked me where I was going, and then disappeared into the swarm of vehicles that pass through Pang Mapha like a river of plastic and shiny metal. I found a bit of shade and waited for Tim to show up. Five minutes passed. Seven. Keep in mind that we left The Cave Lodge at exactly the same time. After ten minutes, visions of Tim splayed out on the pavement, helmet-less and unconscious began to play through my mind.

I don't know if you're big into Astrology or know much about cosmic alignments, but one of the things that Tim likes to keep track of is something called Mercury in Retrograde. There's a long complicated explanation that involves the Mercury's apparent movement through the sky which, from time to time, seems to go into reverse. Astrologically, these times are interpreted to mean a disruption of the areas that this tiny, red-hot planet governs: communications, technology, and travel, for example. As I waited there for Tim, with no real way to communicate with him, wondering if the technology behind the motorbike taxi had somehow failed, thereby thwarting our carefully laid travel plans, I couldn't help but remember Tim's recent announcement that Mercury was about to go retrograde.

The first time Tim and I were in Mae Hong Son, we decided to rent a couple of bicycles and go for a ride. The tourist map that we had been given, the one that cheerfully announced that it was not to scale, showed a waterfall south of town and next to that, displayed the universal symbol for swimming. We loaded Tim's backpack with water, hopped on our bikes, and at approximately 2 in the afternoon — the hottest and sweatiest time of the day — started pedaling. The map showed one landmark that would direct us to this waterfall and swimming hole: The Fern Resort. Make a left there and then hike the nearby trail to refreshment!

I'm not sure what Mercury was up to that day, but our travel plans did not go smoothly. One of our rented bikes was a little too small and riding it was a cramped, butt cheek bruising affair. The simple line on our map translated to a 7km uphill slog that left us dripping with sweat and squinting in the afternoon glare. The Fern Resort did not sit neatly on the corner of our turnoff, it was set back an additional 2 uphill kilometers. We pedaled and pumped, sweated and strained; two giant farang in search of a waterfall. Motorbikes and scooters whizzed past us. Children and dogs who lived in the brick and bamboo houses lining the road stared confusedly at us as we inched our way uphill. And of course, once we reached the Fern Resort, there was no sign of a trail, just forest and farm plots, banana trees and dust.

We wandered into the Fern Resort, exhausted travelers entering a pristine oasis. It was green and quiet and in the chaos of rain forest, seemed deliberate and orderly. A friendly young man in a crisp uniform greeted us at the entrance gate. He looked at us and then at our bicycles and just for a second his eyes widened and he gaped.

As the minutes ticked past, waiting for Tim in Pang Mapha, I thought of that day. Even our arrival at The Fern Resort did not end our troubles. Confused by the directions we had been given by the kind employees, Tim and I ended up in our first yelling match of our trip. “I feel like you're not trusting people!” “This isn't about trusting people, this is about having each other's back!” Et cetera. We were overheated, angry, defensive, and resentful. Good times, good times.

Eventually, we found the trail — Tim was right, for those of you keeping track of such trivia — and hiked into the rainforest. The sun slid into the lower quadrant of the sky, taking on the color of a goldfish. Our way was covered in fallen leaves, the result of the dry season, and our crunching footsteps obscured the sounds of birdsong and insect buzz. We hardly spoke to each other, except to note a particularly large tree trunk or a tilting grove of bamboo.

We found the waterfall, of course. The water was cool and clear and it doused our fires, both interna and external. Whatever anger we were clinging to washed away. We exhilarated. We had set out to do something and we had done it, no matter how imperfectly or awkwardly. And although my state of mind had momentarily distracted me from noticing it, we were surrounded by beauty. Again. As we always are.

Tim, of course, eventually showed up. His driver had stopped to put air in her tires and to answer a phone call. That was it. In fact, not only did he show up, he did so just in time for us to catch the minivan heading to Mae Hong Son. The timing was perfect, which was more than we could say for our travel friends, Anna and Zdenka, who were catching the bus to Chiang Mai — the opposite direction. They were delayed at least 4 hours.

And not only did we have exactly zero wait time and zero delays, we also got into Mae Hong Son at the perfect time to catch one of two regularly scheduled shuttles to The Fern Resort. Yup, that's right! We were so charmed by its beauty, friendliness, and location that we decided to splurge a bit in honor of my 42nd birthday! Just a few short hours after leaving Pang Mapha, we found ourselves lounging by a delicious swimming pool and housed in a lovely bungalow set into the edge of terraced rice paddies.

And not only did we find ourselves in this beautiful place — which, incidentally, had also been visited by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie a few years ago — we ended up meeting the owner of the place. And not only that, but in the course of a very sweet and heartfelt conversation with him and another traveler named Ed, we mentioned that we were staying at his ecologically friendly resort to celebrate my birthday. Which he must have mentioned to his staff sometime that evening because the next morning, not only did I enjoy the usual breakfast buffet, complete with fresh fruit, Thai sweet treats, eggs made to order and the best effing fried rice in Thailand, I also got a special birthday surprise. A gigantic banana pancake with a giant birthday candle in it! And not only that, but the birthday song and a birthday hug as well!



If you're wondering why I look so sad in that last picture, its because I was crying like a big sad baby. It's hard to feel worthy of such loving kindness; especially from strangers, especially so far from any place I've ever called home. During these 42 trips around the sun, I've been mean and judgemental and petty; I've held grudges and told lies. I've succumbed to anger and disdain and I've yelled at the person who loves me most. And yet however far afield I have roamed, I have been shown so much love. Whatever I might have done in my life, consciously or unconsciously, it seems unlikely that I deserve such largesse, such a heartfelt embrace.

Perhaps that is why I sometimes feel like something bad is about to happen, why a short 15 minute delay can send my mind into reverse. Mercury, held to the sun's loving bosom, waiting to ignite.

I am infinitely grateful to Khun Tawatchai, to Khun Tsatsa, to Khun Koi, to Khun Oraa, and Khun Oriaa, and everyone else at The Fern Resort for the kindness and love they showed me on my 42nd birthday. May it be returned to you all a thousand-fold. May it appear unexpectedly in the most unlikely of places, and may you wonder at its workings.


Wintry Afternoon With Friends


Homecoming 2013





Benton Harbor, MI to Toledo, OH


Putting it in Drive ~ Santa Fe, NM to Boise City, OK

After two years of sitting still in Santa Fe, The Endless Roadtrip is once again in full time travel mode. The reality of this situation has not hit home quite yet. It has only been a few hours since we said our last goodbyes, gave our last hugs, and headed northeast, towards the panhandle of Oklahoma.

On our way, we crossed paths with Amtrak's Southwest Chief in Las Vegas, NM. Despite the frigid winds, Tim hopped out of the truck to take some pictures. I, of course, stayed warm and toasty in the truck, communing with my phone.
We drove on through a landscape painted in gold and lavender. Clouds clung to the mountains. Road signs flashed in the setting sun, shivering in the wind. New Mexico holding nothing back; a crisp winter day tilting into one last majestic sunset. We stared in awe, occasionally pointing out a herd of antelope, a lonely tree high on a curved ridge, a distant mountain.
Eventually we caught up with the a Southwest Chief as it it barreled its way towards Chicago. Set against the vast expanse of the high plains, it looked insignificant. Tons of steel singing against railroad tracks reduced to a child's toy.
Everything seems magical when you're on the road. The shifting landscape tells you its secrets. The world is thick with meaning. What is life if not possibility and freedom?


Valles Caldera ~ Jemez Mountains, NM


Valles Caldera (or Jemez Caldera) is a 12 mile wide volcanic caldera in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico. It is one of only six known land-based supervolcanoes. — Wikipedia.org

{wildflowers along the base of cerro la jara}

{new mexico sky}

{view to the northwest across the pond}

{view north across the pond}

{view north across the pond}

{view across the caldera}


{miniature forest}

{western slope of cerro la jara}

{view south along cerro la jara}

{sun on caldera floor}


aspen grove ~ santa fe, nm ~ june 8, 2011

for the past week or so, the skies above new mexico have been downright apocalyptic. the smoke from the arizona wildfires (fucking arizona) has obscured the sun, painted the moon red, and caused people to start wearing surgical masks. so last week we drive into the mountains and took a hike, searching for blue skies and clear air. after the smokey, orange haze that has been blanketing the city, this aspen grove was like something out of a dream.