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Shut up and Dance!

“This time last year I never thought I would have backpacked S.E. Asia, nor be writing a blog. But that is the beauty of life. We can not project too far into the future, for there are infinite variables we have no control over. So sit back, be present for everything that occurs both good and bad, an embark on the most unique and exciting trip you’ll ever have the privilege of taking, your life.”

    This was written almost 1 year ago, and holy shit has so much changed!! When I wrote my last blog entry it was almost 2 months since I had came back to the states, and I was working at IBM at the time. Today is now May 23rd, 2017; and it blows my mind to see just how different life is. Instead of trying to fit the past year “journey” into 1 entry, I figured I would get back to doing what I love and to start posting blogs again. With that being there really is no other way to kick things off than the random day I had with a new friend and a conversation I had with Sayeed the cab driver last April.

    Saturday April 2nd of 2016 seemed like it was going to be just another normal day in a life I had so many questions about. I was still in my full leg brace from the injury i sustained in Cambodia, I had just moved in with my 2 cousins, and I had just locked down a job at IBM as a Strategic Financial Analyst which I was about to start 2 weeks from then. Little did I know I know an invitation to Cielo from my cousins friend Eric would have changed so much for me

    Eric was a kid I didn’t know all too well yet; however like I always tell everyone “when there is music playing in the room, you learn all you need to know about someone without even having to say a word.” The night before we had all went out to a dive bar in Brewster New York. I was posted up at the bar because my leg was still killing me, but I looked over and there is Eric, dancing his ass off with this 50 year old black chick.  He was having the time of his life, and I think home girl definitely thought she was getting lucky that night. The second I saw the smile on his face while listening to the music I knew that him and I were very similar.

    That next morning on barely any sleep we got into a conversation about house and techno music. I was laying on the couch icing my knee, talking about so many amazing nights out, and playing some of my favorite tracks for him to listen to. Out of nowhere a huge smile started to form on his face, and he said; “Let’s go to the city tonight!” I tried explaining to him that there was absolutely no way I would be able to make it a whole night in the city with my leg in a cast and my knee in so much pain. Truth be told I had been dying to go out, so after a tiny bit of convincing I said fuck it lets ride

    April 2nd was an awesome night of music in NY because it was the birthday celebrations of 2 of my favorite DJ’s, Hector Romero was at Cielo, and Victor Calderone was at Space Ibiza NY. Eric and I decided to take the train in early and meet up with some friends, then head on over to Cielo. Getting on to the train with my horrible limp and a bag full of Corona’s I knew it was going to be a special night. Eric and I still had not known “specifics” about each other yet, so we spent the entire train ride just drinking and talking. I had expressed to him that I still really didn’t know what the fuck I wanted to do with my life, and decided to take the offer at IBM in the meantime until things figured itself out. The second I said that, Eric’s face lit up yet again with that big smile on his face, and that is when he played for me a 6 minute speech by Steve Harvey titled “Jump” I remember listening to it thinking to myself “Wow that is one of the best words of advice I have ever heard, however I still don’t really know what my gift is.” Instead of the video motivating me it actually got me feeling a little bummed out, yet I did tell myself that if and when I ever do figure it out, I am not going to jump I’m going to swan dive! Eric and I got some drinks at a bar he used to go to a lot, and then called a cab to go meet up with some friends; and that is when we experienced Sayeed.

    Sayeed was our cab driver, but the second we got in I knew this dude was special. It took me a while to maneuver into the back of the cab with my bum knee, and the whole time he was cracking jokes and talking to himself. Eric and I are very alike, so it only took seconds for us to be in full conversation with Sayeed. Sayeed was schooling us on everything from politics, to religion, to music and friendship. Usually I hate the conversation about politics and religion, however he expressed himself in such a way that I could not help but ask him questions. In my never-ending search to find the “meaning of life” and what my “calling” is, I asked Sayeed a question that I have many wise people throughout my life “What is the meaning of life?”  That question is typically met with a long pause, followed by a redundant statement I have heard a thousand times, but not Sayeed.

    Sayeed adjusted his rear view mirror and stared at me for a few seconds (I truly believe he knew just how important this question meant to me by the hunger in my eyes).  Sayeed slowly brought the car to a complete stop, adjusted himself so that he was now facing me, and with a smile on his face said “The meaning of life?  There is no meaning, just SHUT UP AND DANCE!!!”  He turned and began to start driving, and with a gigantic smile on his face started blasting the radio.  Eric turned around and looked at me, and I had truly never been more shocked or speechless.  I started laughing hysterically and we spent the rest of the car ride laughing and dancing.  At the time I did not know what to make of his response, however I knew that by the way it made me feel it was exactly the response I was looking for. 

    Thank you Sayeed!

    The rest of the night was one of the best of my life.  With a cast on my leg I trotted around Cielo, talking to countless people and sharing the love of music.  After Hector Romero finished his set at Cielo I told Eric it was time to head to Space.  Eric had yet to be to an after hour techno party, so now this time around I had the smile on my face when I said “It’s time I introduce you to the darkness my friend.we made our way over to Space for Calderone.  

    When I walked in I saw a friend from high school Michelle that I had not seen in over 10 years, and we instantly connected. The 3 of us went on to the dance floor and spent the rest of the morning together. I will never forget around 8:15 a.m. Eric looked at me and said it was time to go. I explained to him it was my first time out in NYC in almost 4 months and to give me at least another 30 minutes. At that very moment the blinds at Space were lifted, and Calderone started to play one of my favorite tracks of all time “Robbie Rivera – Feel This.”  I turned around and looked at Eric, and even though I was in extreme pain we (along with the friends we met through out the night) all got our second (or fourth) wind.  The connections I made that night are some of the most important factors into where I am today, and I am so thankful that this precise moment was caught on tape. I remember getting goosebumps watching it the next day.  It was just one of those special moments, the moments we all hope to feel when we go out and listen to music like that.  Watch here, I am the one blue plaid shirt and backwards hat, and Eric has the grey snow cap on with the ball attached to it… Lmao!   The drive home I was completely shot; however I kept thinking back to the 4 words Sayeed said to me, and how certain I was that one day those words would make all the difference.

    Shut up and Dance

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    An unexpected ending to Southeast Asia

    Taking a sleeper bus may seem like a daunting way of traveling.  Who knows the credentials of bus drivers in third world countries, and who knows what substances these drivers are on to be able to drive for 12 hours straight.  Nevertheless, the longer you spend backpacking, the less you begin to care about things, and the comfortable you feel just hopping on the wagon and go.  It also helps that the pharmacies are more than accommodating to provide sleeping medicine for the long uncomfortable trip.

    I had made it a fact that I was going to end my travels in Koh Ta Kiev.  I had done research about the island prior to going, and the backpackers I had met along the way confirmed the fact that Koh Ta Kiev was the place to be.  It was a remote island, barely any electricity, no running water, no phone service or Wifi, just the bare essentials.  Prior to my 1 week of easy living the 4 travelers I had been traveling with (Pete, Benny, Dustin, and Sophia) decided to do a few nights in Koh Rong.  Koh Rong is an island near Koh Ta Kiev, however more of a party island.  After a long night on the sleeper bus we hopped on the water taxi over to Koh Rong.

    The crew taking a nap

    I had been warned by maybe 2 dozen people to be careful of Koh Rong, as it is infamous for people coming down with food poisoning.  I figured “Well I already had a stomach virus, I wont eat meat or drink the water, so what can go wrong?”  Once we arrived at Koh Rong we all got a quick bite to eat and checked into our room.  After a little nap we decided to take a water taxi to the other side of the island to watch the sun set.

    Never a bad time to dance

    The ride to the other side of the island was absolutely perfect.  We plugged into the aux (I know one of my best friends Robbie is laughing reading this part) and played some nice beats, taking in all of the beauty.  There was nothing in sight except the sun that was slowly starting to set into the jungle.  When we arrived at the secluded beach I gave Dustin credit for the amazing recommendation.  The sand was so clean, and we were all by ourselves.  We would spend the next hour and a half just relaxing on the beach, playing in the water, and listening to music.

    Incredible view


    After returning we got ready to go out and see what the party scene was all about.  As the night went on I began to get more and more tired, to the point that I felt as if I was going to pass out.  I wrote it off to me maybe  having 1 too many Angkor beer’s, so my friend Sophia and I grabbed a slice of pizza and we head back to the room.  The next morning we all decided we were not feeling the island, so we made the decision to leave early and head to Koh Ta Kiev.  As they started to pack I was hit with extreme stomach pain, and ran to the bathroom (I would stay in there for the next hour).  Hoping it would pass I encouraged them to go get breakfast, however Sophia stayed behind to get ready to go. By the time they got back they found me laying on the bed, sweating profusely.   Food poisoning was flowing through me like corn through a goose.  Within minutes I lost all power and was literally stuck on the bed.  They offered to stay behind but I encouraged them to go. I knew what was coming.  2 years prior in Macedonia I had the same type of food poisoning, and it is a few days of absolute hell.  My friends wished me well and I assured them I would see them in a few days before some set off to go back home, and some to Vietnam.

    I called the guy who ran our hostel to ask if he could help me get into a cheaper room, since the one I was slowly dying in was made for 5.  He was kind enough to carry my backpack and assist me (more or less carry me) over to the other room.  The next 2 days were not fun to say the least.  I believe I averaged 80 trips to the bathroom per day, and the thought of any type of food made me violently sick.  The room was extremely hot, and my bed was caked in dirt and sweat.  I thought about showering once but I knew there was a strong chance I would pass out midway through it if I stood too long.  Instead I just laid in my own filth, not even enough energy to fasten the mosquito net around my bed .  Those 2 days seemed to last forever; however by day 3 I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  I finally was able to shower, 15 pounds skinnier and covered with mosquito bites.  I checked out of the hostel, ever so carefully ate a nutella and banana crepe and got the hell off of the island.

    Once I arrived in Sihanoukville I decided to spend 1 night there to make sure I was 100% before taking an hour and a half water taxi (with no toilets) over to the next island.  Luckily I woke up feeling great (and really lean), and began my voyage to paradise, Koh Ta Kiev.  My Canadian brother from another mother Mr. Kelly (everyone on Koh Ta Kiev is referred to as Mr. Or Miss) had told me he would be staying at Last Point, so that is where I decided to spend my final week.

    “Water taxi to paradise” my actual caption on instagram that day

    The ride there was amazing, and I was beyond excited to get there.  I felt that there was so much more reflection I needed to do, and some more lingering thoughts I needed to face.  I was convinced that the island is where it would all happen, especially as it pertained to me grieving over my father.  When I arrived at the island I knew exactly why Mr. Kelly had picked Last Point, it truly was paradise.  There were cows wandering around, hammocks set up with people just relaxing, and the chillest vibe I had ever experienced.  After checking in I could not help but smile the whole way to my bungalow.


    I was unsure if my friends that I traveled down with had left the island or not as there is no wifi or service on Koh Ta Kiev.  Luckily the bartender Mr. Mike had called around and found out they were staying across the island.  He explained I should leave now because I would have to walk through the jungle, and when it gets dark out it can get rather dangerous and is quite easy to get lost.  As I was walking I saw my friend Mr. Kelly and a group of girls he was charming down by the water.  After a huge bro hug and a little bit of catching up I told him I was off to see my friends.  As I was walking away I stopped and turned around “Hey Kelly, it is going to be one hell of a week” I said, with confidence on my face and my hand making a fist ( I am literally laughing out loud writing this part).

    Mr. Sam worked at Last Point and was heading across the island, so him and I made the walk together.  It gets dark pretty fast in those woods, and by the time we finally exited the jungle it was pitch black.  Mr. Sam went to go see his friends at a different place and I walked down the beach to where my friends were staying.  The second I saw them they all started laughing in their thick German voices.  “Where is Sophia?”  was the first thing I heard.  I was  extremely confused and asked them what they were talking about.  They went on to tell me she had left a half an hour earlier to meet me halfway through my trek through the jungle, however we went separate ways, and she had no flashlight with her (what a savage!).  Since I had just been in the jungle I knew how dangerous it could get, and the thought of her walking without a flashlight made it all the more frightening.  Dustin who had been to Koh Ta Kiev before was familiar with the path, and agreed to come with me to go find her.

    We decided to take the way that she took so it entailed us walking on the beach for a bit.  10 minutes into our walk the flashlight we had began to die.  The part of the beach we were on had turned into a gigantic flat rock, however I underestimated how slippery it was.  What happened next would definitely put a small dent into my final week in paradise.  I took one step and next thing that was heard was a loud  POP as I fell to the ground.  “Oh no are you ok!?  Fuck you are definitely not ok” were the first words out of Dustin’s mouth as he saw me laying on the ground.  Before looking down at my knee I already knew something severely bad had happened, and my only hope was that nothing had punctured my skin.  After finally mustering the courage to look down I knew I was in big shit.  My right knee cap had shifted around 5 inches to the right, making my bent knee look more like a flat table top.  I knew there was no way I would be able to stand from that, so I asked Dustin to go get help; as well as some music and whiskey.

    As Dustin hurried back to go find help I finally got the time for reflection I had been searching for.  The first thought into my mind was “Why me!?”  I literally just recovered from food poisoning and now my knee cap is about to rip out of my skin.  I figured I had 2 choices, the first would be to complain about all the pain I was in and how my week was screwed, or make the best out of it.  My thoughts immediately went to the Stoic philosopher Epictetus.  Epictetus was a slave, and one day as a punishment his master began to twist his leg.  With a calm grin on his face Epictetus sat there, and after his leg finally broke he looked at his master and said “There, did I not tell you that it would break?”  Stoic philosophers believed that “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” I made it a fact while sitting on that rock that I would refuse to show pain, and make the best out of the situation.

    Epictetus rocking his crutch, writing the Enchiridion

    Finally around a half an hour later Dustin came back with 5 people.  Many were in shock and some even got a little nauseous when they saw my leg, however I assured them all would be well.  Everybody kept saying how horrible they felt for me, and asked me repeatedly how the hell I was smiling, laughing, and singing with my leg all mangled.  I explained to them that just like the stoics, all I can control is how I handle this shitty situation.  “There’s an ocean right in front of me, stars above me, and amazing people surrounding me at this very moment.  My knee is busted, but life could be so much worse.  There have been soldiers who have endured much more just to ended up dying all alone, and countless others throughout the world who are suffering in ways unfathomable to any of us.  I slipped and screwed up my knee, and most likely tore some things, however I guarantee you there are 100’s of millions of people out there that would give both knee caps to trade the types of problems they are dealing with the ones that I have; and to be surrounded by such beauty and such beautiful people.”

    My main concern was whether or not we would be able to pop my knee back in.  Thankfully a nurse was there and had told me she thinks if we straighten my knee and push the patella back into place it should do the trick.  My friend Sophia came back just in time to see me laying on the rock, awaiting the relocation of my knee cap.  We looked at each other and couldn’t help but to start dying laughing at the situation that I was in.  After pounding back the whiskey I began to play some music, and before I knew it my knee cap was back in place.  It looked so normal that for a second I thought I could walk it off, however the second I tried to stand I realized just how bad the damage was.

    My search and rescue team helping me off of the rock

    Thankfully they were able to help me off of the God forsaken rock and back over to Coral Beach.  Unfortunately for me all of the tree house/bungalows could only be accessed via ladder, so the only choice was to sleep right on the beach.  As I laid on the beach the true love and compassion for the type of people that you get to meet while backpacking revealed itself in its most raw and pure form.  The manager of Coral Beach (Sandro) ran through the jungle in the pitch black for an hour to go and fetch me a pair of old crutches.  Random strangers bought me food and booze, and my good friends stayed by my side the whole night to make sure I was not in pain.  Finally around 5 a.m. I begged everyone to go to bed, and I spent the rest of the night laying on the beach, a mosquito net over myself, starring at the stars.  “What a ride this has been.”

    My rescue water taxi “There he is!”

    On my way to the hospital, might as well smile

    The next morning when the sun came up I took a nice look at my knee, now at least 5 times the size of my left knee.  Yup, it was time to go seek some medical attention.  I thanked everybody for their help and hopped onto the water taxi.  My 4 friends were heading off that day as well, and agreed to spend the day with me in the hospital.

    Squad goals

    Foot model

    Sophia trying to cheer me up

    The first place we went to was the creepiest of the creepy.  The doctor was wearing a dirty shirt with sandals, and a name tag that didn’t match the name he gave us.  Unfortunately my backpack with all of my belongings that was on the other side of the island (at the original place I was staying at) missed its  morning water taxi to the mainland.  Thankfully the owner of Last Point, as well as Ten103 Treehouse is the coolest, most helpful Texan I have ever met, Mr. Joel.  He assured me that all my belongings will be personally sent to me.  It was definitely a bit scary, as my passport and wallet were in my backpack and I am in a third world country in seek of immediate medical attention!  Thankfully a few hours hours later there it was, all my money and my passport still in the bag, and I was ready to go.

    Mr. Joel had let me know that the best treatment I could receive was back in Phnom Penh, a tasty 6 hours away.  I had no other option at the time, and the pain was starting to divert me away from my stoic mentality; so I asked Mr. Joel to set up the taxi for me.  Saying goodbye to my friends was really tough this time.  I had become accustomed to goodbyes, however we had gone through so much together.  After a long goodbye and laughing at some inside jokes they went on their way.  – To my German brothers and English princess “before we do what we are going to do, we must make sure that we do what we need to do, so that when we go to what we want to do, we are able to do things to do what we want to do.”  Haha!

    The 6 hour car ride was not the most comfortable I must admit.  however when I arrived at the hospital in Phnom Penh I knew I was in good hands.  It was big, clean, and had western doctors.  The ortho explained to that he needed to drain a substantial amount of blood from my leg, and that I had to put my leg in a cast.  He was pretty confident that though ligaments were torn they would heal on their own, and to take it easy until I get back to America and see a doctor.  Now with my phone finally charged and with access to wifi, I had to make a call to my cousin Sherif.

    A bit swollen?

    “Yes?” was the first thing out of my cousins mouth when he answered the phone.

    “Kikireekan, it’s me, please help.” I tried to hold back laughter because we literally joked about me having to make this exact call several times.

    In his usual fashion he joked around and made fun of me a bit, followed by him looking for the first flight to Cambodia as well as a hotel for me to stay in for the night.  I could hear the panic in his voice while talking to me, and I know if I said please come he would have been there within hours. I let him know that he does not need to come to me, however a hotel would be nice.

    Sherif hooked me up with one of the nicest hotels in all of Cambodia, Frangipani Royal Palace, #27 Street Phnom Pehn.  As I slowly entered the hotel using my crutches I was so relieved.  The place was beautiful and a few older couples were sipping on some complimentary glasses of juice while checking in.  It was around 11 p.m. when I entered.  I was with 2 days no sleep, a cast/brace covering my whole leg, I was in severe pain from my knee, my clothes were completely filthy and I am sure I had a gnarly odor.  When I finally made it to the front desk I showed them the booking that my cousin had screen shot over to me.  “Ohhhh I am sorry sir, the booking has not reached our system yet.”  After pleading with them for 30 minutes I gave up trying to argue, they explained that even though I had physical proof of my booking they could not do anything for me.  After begging them to give me a room the fatigue finally got to me so I needed to sit down.  I was not offered anything to make myself even the slightest bit more comfortable, and that complimentary juice every patron received never made its way over to me.  With whatever energy I had left I called hotels.com and begged them to please take care of the situation as I had no more power left to fight my case.  3 hours later the asshole behind the front desk finally woke me up, “Sir, we can show you to your room now.”

    “Just look forward to your stay…” on a chair

    The room just so happened to be on the very top floor, and was literally the furthest room away from the elevator.  After my 10 minute trip to my bed room I opened it to see that the room that specifically said 1 King Bed was 2 twins.  “ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?”  I had had enough, I am usually very calm and understanding, and with me backpacking the last 2 months nice accommodations were obviously not a big deal, however I was in severe pain and they were blatantly treating me like shit.  He assured me that the next day they will move me to a room with a King Size bed.  I let the heartless p.o.s. know that I had not slept in 2 days and that I understand I am to receive free breakfast.  Since it was a buffet that ends at 10 a.m. I had asked if he could just have somebody bring me an omelette to my room as I will most likely be sleeping, and it would be too hard for me to make the hike all the way up to the restaurant.  “Yes sir, of course sir, goodnight sir.”

    My nice twin bed room

    I woke up the next day at 2 p.m. in extreme pain, obviously never receiving the breakfast.  I called the front desk and asked if they had a different room for me, which of course they did not.  Instead of arguing I asked if I can order some chicken curry as I was beyond hungry.  I explained I was in bed and was handicapped, and for them to bring the food into the room.  “Yes sir, of course sir 15 minutes later the door begins to knock.  “Come in!” 1 minute went by and the door began to knock “Come in, I can’t move,” I said. there was a long silence again and the door yet again, began to knock.  I called the front desk pleading with them to tell the guy to bring the food inside “Yes sir, of course sir.”  10 minutes later I slowly swung my leg around, grabbed my crutches, and went to the door.  There was my food laying there, no cover on it to keep it warm.

    I knew if I were to have called my cousin and explained what had happened that day he would have most definitely given them a very “interesting” phone call (as he has a gift for words), and I probably would have received the worlds best treatment for my remaining 6 days in Cambodia.  However as I sat there I thought to myself, “I need to rest my knee, no matter what I am not doing much this week, and there is a beautiful island a mere 6 hour drive and 90 minute water taxi away from me.”  I called Mr. Joel and explained to him I want to come back.  He laughed at first thinking I was messing with him, but after a while of talking he paused for a second “Holy shit you’re not joking…. I’ll take care of it.”  A few hours later he texted me letting me know a taxi will be outside the hotel at 10 a.m. the following morning.  That night I called my mom, and was bitching and moaning.  My poor mother sat on the phone for almost an hour while I did nothing but complain.  I was mad, sad, and full of self pity.  She did not say much other than “I love you,” and “Everything will be ok.”  However when I got off of the phone and I looked at myself in the mirror as I was washing my shirt in the sink and a revelation happened, one of those huge “Aha” moments.

    I thought back to the night before on that rock, laughing and singing with complete strangers, spreading words of wisdom; keeping a smile on my face the entire time.  I asked myself why I could show such happiness to them, however vent so fiercely to my sweet mom.  I then thought about my dad.  If my dad was in public he was always smiling, dancing, and singing.  I even have a video on my phone 2 months before he passed of him smoking weed inside the chemo suite at the hospital while blasting Macedonian music and dancing.  He never showed that he was in pain, however sometimes at the house things were different.  My sister and I would be there and we would see and hear the consequences of our fathers illness, and he would sometimes get very upset.  He would complain, sometimes get sad, and sometimes very angry.  I would be filled with so much anger towards him for complaining that I would have to hold myself back from lashing out.  Part of my anger was derived from the fact that it was so much easier for me to be angry than to feel the actual emotions I had inside (utter pain and sadness).  However the other part of my anger came from a confusion of how the strongest person that I knew, the man who was always happy in public, would be complaining so much about his pain.  What I realized that night after complaining to my mother was that even if we are the strongest of people, it is healthy to express our feelings, both emotionally and physically, especially with the ones we trust and love the most.

    Daddy Dave blazing the finest medicinal

    I woke up the next morning and made my way up to the breakfast buffet.  I made it a point to eat an obscene amount of food; I was getting what I deserved!  As I got up to leave I stuffed 6 muffins in my pockets, grabbed my backpack, dusted the crumbs off of my dirty shirt and dragged my scabbed up bare feet across the floor with my crutches.  The employees were looking at me with utter disgust, so I grabbed a carafe of orange juice and chugged the whole thing while starring them down. I wiped my mouth of the delicious juice, immediately follow by a nice and loud “Ahhhhhhhh.”  I had the worlds biggest smile heading towards the elevator.  As I checked out the same manager who would not check me in was standing there charming an older couple.

    “How was your stay sir?” the manager asked.

    “Go walk into oncoming traffic.” I said as I threw my room key on the floor.

    Maybe I could have composed myself a bit better, but I had hit my boiling point.  I have never in my life been treated so horribly.

    Allow me to regress.

    Once I got into the cab I felt like a million bucks, the cab driver had pictures of his family everywhere, and seemed so happy to be able to make such a long drive as he was surely going to be making more today than a typical day.  I lit up a cigarette (sorry mom), gave him a $10 tip before we even started driving, and told him to “take me back to paradise.”  You would have thought I gave him a million dollars as he starred at the crisp 10 dollar bill in awe, “Thank you thank you thank you!”  Minutes later we stopped and he sprinted to a roadside shop to get me a delicious iced coffee (served in a plastic bag), and a pillow for my head.  The coffee was not only amazing, but it made a great bootleg ice bag for my pulsating knee.  I put my headphones in, zoned out, and next thing you know I was at the coast of Cambodia yet again.  Mr.  Joel had arranged for his personal water taxi to come and pick me up to bring me back to the island.  “I did it, I am going back,” was the thought that I had going through my mind as I was fastening the garbage bag around my leg so that my cast wouldn’t get wet.

    Best coffee / ice bag combo ever!

    The return

    90 minutes later we began to arrive back at last point.  I had goosebumps and my heart was rapidly beating as I could only imagine the reaction on peoples faces when they saw me return the island.  Dragging my crutches through the sand I began to walk up to the bar at Last Point.  My friend Kelly’s back was to me, so when I got close enough I screamed “There he is!” Kelly turned around and looked at me with disbelief on his face “Brother, no fucking way!!!!”

    best sandwich!

    The next few hours I spent repeating the story maybe 30 times, and eating some amazing food.  Mr.  Joel is a chef by trade, so he holds his the Khmer who run his kitchen to the highest standards.  The curry and sandwiches on that little island are the some of the best I have had.  That night was Miss Tia’s birthday, and they were all going to trek through the woods to Joel’s other place on the island, Ten103.  They did not expect me to come back to the island, so they had no clue how to get me there.  After going back and forth for a while somebody came up with the idea “Let’s just take the water taxi!”  Many thought it was a dumb idea since I was in a lot of pain, and it is HIGHLY dangerous to navigate the waters at night.  However in typical fashion I looked up at Mr. Kelly and said “Screw it lets roll.”  As I climbed onto the boat with no assistance I remember hearing some of the people who were standing behind me just in case I fell say “What a beast!”

    Master yogi providing some beats

    When we arrived to the other side of the island we realized we would still have to trek through the pitch black woods for 15 minutes.  Mr.Kelly looked at me and said “brother maybe this was a bad idea.”  I agreed, but here we were so screw it.  I continued to cautiously crutch myself through the jungle.  Everyone partied at the bar as I laid on some cushions on the beach and just relaxed.  I was never by myself though as people kept coming down to check in on me and relax.  Many other backpackers approached me saying “I heard you’re the savage who snapped his knee and came back 2 days later.”
    “Why yes, yes I am,” I would reply with a smile on my face.
    The way back to the boat that night was sketchy to say the least,as my helpers were now highly intoxicated.  As we got onto the boat everyone sat on the benches, yet I had to lay by myself at the front of the boat on top of the ropes of the anchor as it was the safest place for me to be.  As we set off to head back to Last Point my friends were talking among themselves, laughing and listening to music.  I am certain they had a great ride back, however for me, I finally had the experience I was so desperately in need of.

    As I said I was at the very front of the boat.  My leg lie rested on some life jackets to keep it elevated, and I laid on my back starring at the stars.  I saw more stars that night than I have ever seen in my life.  If that wasn’t beautiful enough, as the front of the boat crashed through the waves of Cambodia the water that splashed on both sides of me was glowing the most beautiful color blue from the bioluminescent plankton that occupied the ocean.  My mind started to get flooded with thoughts.

    The first thought that entered my mind was confirmation that  everything happens for many, sometimes countless reasons.  Yes my leg was messed up, yes I may need surger.  however without my leg being injured I would not have been laying at the front of the boat, and I would have missed out on the most beautiful sight of my entire life.  I then thought about the cab driver.  Without my leg being injured he would not have had the chance to take the cab back to the south of Cambodia, and that kind cab driver would have never earned the money that he made that day.  My next statement is merely speculation, however think about it for a second.  Say the money that he made that day goes towards buying one of his children a new book.  Say that book sparks a fire inside of that child that had laid dormant for all of these years.  Say that fire leads to a future career path.  Say that career path leads this child who had been handed a book years ago to go on to do great things and help many people.  This is the beauty of life, and this is something I learned on the front of the boat in Cambodia.  We can not be so self centered to think that when something negative happens in our lives that we will be able to see all of the positive that will come out of it.  Every person reading this has had horrible things happen in their lives, and many want to be able to justify it, to be able fully understand why it has happened, including myself.  However I realized through this trip life does not work like that.  We wont be able to see the whole picture, life is a tangled web of billions of little decisions and events that shape everything around us.  Just have faith that somewhere out there, all the pain, all of the tragedy, all of the loss will create an even amount of good,  though we will never see it all with our own eyes.

    The second thought that came through my mind was “Holy shit, I am on a water taxi hovering around a remote island in Cambodia looking up at the stars, I have $300 to my name, I have a dislocated knee, and I have not known anybody on this boat for more than a week, how the hell did I get here!?”  Looking up at the stars surrounded by people I did not know, reconciling all of the things I have done and people I have met was so sad, yet so beautiful.  Sad because I realized just how small I was in the grand scheme of things.  I am 1 mere spec of energy in a vast universe, I truly am not that important.  Beautiful because to understand this may be most freeing feeling in the world.  I deviated from the societal norm and up and traveled the world.  I barely did any planning and had no clue whatsoever what I was to do with my life once I got back home, but it’s fine.  It’s my life, my small fraction of a second that I get on this planet to enjoy and experience as much as possible.

    The third thought was the most pivotal thought that I have had throughout the whole grieving process with my father.  As I write this it is exactly 6 hours before I witnessed my dad take his last breath, and though this week has been extremely hard I have the same conviction for what I am about to write as the night that I was on the front of that boat in Cambodia.  For anyone who has read all of my blogs, you can probably guess a part of this trip was to cope with the loss of my father, among other things.  As I laid on the front of that boat, with all of these revelations whirling through my brain and all of this beauty around me, I told myself it was time, time to “let go.”  To let go of the pain, to let go of the emptiness, to let go of the good memories that made me miss him, and to let go of the traumatic memories that made me want to crawl into a ball and cry.  I closed my eyes, took a big breath through my nose, and slowly exhaled through my mouth.  Our favorite song came to mind “From this valley they say you are going, we will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile, for you take with you all of the sunshine, that has brightened our pathway a while.  Then come sit by my side if you love me, do not hasten to bid me adieu, just remember the red river valley, and the one that’s love you so true.”   I kept my eyes closed for a few minutes, and I was at a place that I feel most people who meditate try to achieve, the feeling of an empty mind.  When I opened my eyes I looked up at the stars, wondering if my attempt to solve the puzzle of grief had worked.

    Moments later I turned my head to look at the Avatar-like glowing water, and there he was.  I pictured my dad chopping through the waves as I had seen him do so many times before.  Tears started to come down my face, however while wiping the tears off of my face I began to smile.  If I couldn’t let go of my feelings at that very moment I never would, and why would I want to let go of him? I realized that who I am now is merely the new me.  Not a worse version of me, not a better version of me, just a new me.  I realized to stop running from the emotions, to stop running from the horrible images that sometimes hijack my brain, and to just accept them as they come.  The sadness I feel has made me more empathetic towards others.  The anger I sometimes feel allows me to stand up for myself where I was too scared to do so in the past.  The emptiness I sometimes feel reminds me to keep my loved ones close, and to enjoy as much of them as possible while they are still here.  Lastly the good memories, the memories I used to cry about because they are gone, have turned into appreciation.  I appreciate that at my darkest times 1o years ago he stopped me in the stairwell of his house as I tried to leave to go get high (as I felt like I was going to die from sickness) and he said “If you you die, I will die with you, but I am not letting you go.”  I appreciate the fact that even at the age of 27 my dad and I would sometimes sleep in the same bed and he would rub my head while singing songs until I went to sleep.  I appreciate the stories he would share with me, stories where by the end he would say “What other father talks to their son about things like this?”  I appreciate the songs we used to sing together, and the poems we used to recite to each other.  I appreciate, no I am honored, to have had such a close bond with my father.


    The next 5 days were nothing short of amazing.  Painful at times, yet amazing.  My good friend Mr. Kelly decided to sleep on the front porch of my bungalow so that if I ever needed anything at night he was there.  Showering was impossible for me so I would take my cast off and crawl into the water, and he would go as far as to scrub in between my toes since I was incapable of bending my knee.  My dear friend Miss Ronja who is a young nurse would spend hours a day cleaning out the infected wounds on my feet; I am certain she will do amazing things with her life. And all of the others who are too many to name were more than willing to make my final week as pain free as possible.  We spent the days laying out by the water, eating and drinking at the bar, telling stories, and listening to music.  We even played an epic game of “chicken shit bingo” where you bet which square the chicken will crap on, and I won 20 bucks, COME ON #11!

    Chicken shit bingo

    The worlds best nurse

    On my second to last day Mr. Joel the owner came to the island to set up for a small music festival he was having.  I was immediately captivated by him.  This small dude from Texas with a shaved head and awesome goatee was walking around setting up for the party.  He spoke fluent Khmer, and had such an alpha presence to him.  I asked some of the people who worked at Last Point what his deal was, but not many knew.  As I was laying on some cushions with Mr. Kelly he walked by and I called him over.  There was no way in hell I was not going to learn this dudes whole story.  “How the hell did you go from living in Texas to running this place?”

    (Forgive me Mr. Joel if some of the finer details are not 100% accurate, however I will try my best to do you justice).  He went on to explain an absolutely incredible story.  8 years ago Mr. Joel was a chef who was backpacking Asia with a friend.  They had come to Cambodia and decided to take to take a small boat (or maybe a sail boat) out for the day.  During their trip they stumbled upon Koh Ta Kiev.  At the time there were absolutely no people who occupied the island, and it was merely some sand surrounding a gigantic jungle.  Mr. Joel, being an outdoors type of guy decided to set up a hammock and spend the night with his buddy.  The next day the Cambodian Army showed up to speak to them.  At first he thought he was screwed, however the soldiers went on to say that for $75 they could spend the whole month on the island.  Mr. Joel had around 3 or 4 thousand dollars to his name at the time so he decided to spend a month on the island and live off the land.  eating everything from crabs to wild cat.  The following month the army showed up and to their surprise Mr Joel and his friend were still there.  The soldiers obviously knew these guys were bad ass if they were able to withstand a month in the jungle, and let them know if they had any desire to start building on the island (treehouses or bungalows), that they could do so.

    Mr. Joel and his friend decided to give it a shot.  So with barely any money, no outside assistance, and in a third world country this badass dude from Texas started building a tree house resort on a remote island in Cambodia.  Sometime during that first year Mr. Joel’s friend decided he had enough and went back home, however Mr. Joel stayed.  He would go back to mainland from time to time, and that is where he met Mr. Saul.  Mr. Saul was Khmer and barely spoke any English, and Mr. Joel barely spoke any Khmer.  However together they went back to the island and began to build.  Mr. Joel told me how they had completely run out of money, and had to borrow a bag of rice from the army to survive.  He and Mr. Saul were in the woods and he finally gave in, “Fuck this, I am going home, what the hell am I doing in the middle of Cambodia!?”  I don’t remember the exact words that Mr. Saul said to calm him down, but it was something along the lines of “Don’t worry, we can do it (in very broken English).”  3 years later that night of him sleeping on a hammock turned into his first place, Ten103 Treehouse.  He now has 2 places on the island and is about to open up an artillery range on the mainland.  Mr. Joel now speaks fluent Khmer, and is a huge advocate for helping the people of Cambodia get back on their feet after the genocide that ripped through the country less than 40 years ago.  He prides himself on only hiring Khmer who speak no English (except for the people who run front of house) and have families that they need to feed.  The interaction between them and Mr. Joel is absolutely beautiful.


    The second to last night was the night of the music festival, and everybody chipped in.  Since I was physically good for nothing my dear friend Miss Ines created a “Free Hugs” sign for when people arrived to the island.  I thought it would be a nice touch to add “1 kiss, $1” on the other side to help raise some funds for my injured leg ;).  The party was a success, and I gave (and received) many hugs that night.

    Creepiest photo ever

    Free hugs

    More hugs

    My “please help” face


    On my final day Mr. Kelly grabbed my stuff and we head over to the bar for a final breakfast.  Though this next part does not flow with the rest of the blog we both find it hilarious so I will add it anyway.  Mr. Andrew, a dude from Germany who has a type of accent that even German’s cannot understand had a major problem with one of the bulls on the island.  While Mr. Kelly and I were walking towards the bar we saw the bull turn around and try to hit Mr. Andrew with his horns.  We both started crying laughing as we knew how much Mr. Andrew hated that damn bull.  I screamed out to him and said “Mr. Andrew, are you ok!?”.  Mr. Andrew turned around with absolute conviction in his eyes and said “ON THIS FUCKING DAY, THE BULL MUST DIE.  BE ROCK, SLING SHOT, KNIFE, GUN, AK 47 OR RPG, I WILL KILL THIS FUCKING BULL!!!!!”.  Thankfully the bull is still alive and well but it may have been hands down the funniest part of my trip, especially since this dude went from rock to RPG.

    Saying goodbye to the people on the island was like saying goodbye to my family.  They went above and beyond the call of duty to take care of me, and I will love them all for life.  Mr. Kelly has even graced me with his manly ginger beard presence in New York since I have been back home, and we talk almost daily.  Mr. Joel made sure a taxi was to be waiting for me to take me to Phnom Penh as I had a flight the next morning, and he continued to say I was an absolute legend and I was welcome any time.  For anyone who ever goes to Cambodia, please go to the beautiful almost untouched island of Koh Ta Kiev, and please stay at Ten103 or Last Point.  I have no words for the generosity, love, (and also amazing food) that this man and the rest of the employees provided.

    showing gratitude in my hometown for all he did

    Taking the boat back to the mainland, cast on my leg and dirt under my fingernails,  I looked back to see a few of my friends standing in the water, their arms around each other waving goodbye to us.  I felt like the luckiest person in the world.  I had experienced so much in the past 2 months.  I have met some of the kindest people that I would have never gotten the chance to meet if I had not traveled, people like Mr. Te (may he rest in peace), who lost his whole family during the war, yet sat and had tea with me and taught me the meaning of happiness and forgiveness.  I felt lucky that though I could not walk by the end of my trip, I was physically able to trek to the boarder of China, to climb the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, and to dance while the sun was rising in Koh Phangan with an awesome soul from Canada.  I felt lucky to had the pleasure of having 6 hour conversation about life and music with a beautiful psychiatrist from Spain. I felt lucky to have almost complete strangers take such good care of me when I got injured.  I felt lucky to have met soooo many amazing people; people who even months later I talk to almost daily, and who will be a huge part of my life.  I felt lucky that I have such an amazing cousin whom I am proud to consider a brother, as well as the worlds greatest mother, for without them this trip would have been impossible.  I felt lucky to have a sister who is always there to listen to me and who first gave me the idea about traveling, as well as a cousin (actually niece, Leeza) who was the one who encouraged me to extend my stay in Hong Kong.  I felt sadness for the bad things that had occurred that brought me to take this trip, yet a sense of assurance that so much beauty has already come from the negativity.


    I am not sure if I “found myself” while traveling.  I am sure however that I have discarded pieces of me that were not meant to be there, and awakened parts of me that I thought were dead.  As I write this I am in shock as to how much has happened during my few months traveling. Yet I can say from the bottom of my heart no matter how many shitty things happened to me during my trip, it was an experience of a lifetime.  This time last year I never thought I would have backpacked S.E. Asia, nor be writing a blog.  But that is the beauty of life.  We can not project too far into the future, for there are in infinite amount of variables we have no control over.  So sit back, be present for everything that occurs both good and bad, and embark on the most unique and exciting trip you’ll ever have the privilege of taking, your life.


    “Traveling.  It leaves your speechless, then turns you into a storyteller”  – Ibn Battuta

     

     

     

     

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    Siem Reap Part 2

    I woke up after what was a roller coaster of emotions and decided that i would just relax all day.  I had already booked my tour of Angkor Wat for the following morning, and decided to make the best out of the awesome rooftop pool terrace my hostel had to offer.  I put on my bathing suit, grabbed a drink and laid out by the pool.  I must say for a hostel that costs 7 dollars a night, this rooftop terrace was incredible!


    I saw many people who would late become very close friends, however I spent that day to myself listening to some music and truly relaxing.  The next morning it was time to wake up and head over to the temples of Angkor Wat.  At 5 a.m. sharp me and 3 strangers hopped aboard a Tuk Tuk and made our way to the temples.  There are 2 main options for the tour of the temples, you can either rent a bike for the day and ride around, or have a Tuk Tuk driver bring you to all of the different temples for around $6.  I chose the latter as it was supposed to be extremely hot that day.

    When we hit the road it was still pitch black, and I remember thinking how lucky I was to be experiencing another amazing place, yet again.  When we arrived at Angkor Wat the crowds of tourists were already starting to pile up.  Over 1,000 people huddled behind the pond to prepare to take the iconic “reflection shot” of the sun rising behind Angkor Wat with the reflection shining on the pond.


    I too began to follow the masses, however when the sky began to slightly change from black to dark purple I decided to move my location.  People started shuffling around trying to position themselves for the perfect photo, a photo that you can see on almost any post card.  I decided to stay as far away from the rest of the tourists, and positioned myself on the grass.  I knew I would not get the perfect shot, however I wasn’t there for that.  I was there to take in the beauty of these historic temples, and to feel that sense of calmness that people feel when they are TRULY experiencing beauty.


    The sunrise was absolutely beautiful, with the sky changing numerous colors before the sun finally revealed itself above the temples.  While walking back to my Tuk Tuk I was 100% contempt with not taking 1 photo of the actual sunrise, however luck would have it I ended up taking a photo that meant so much more to me than the reflection shot ever would.

    While walking away I noticed a couple who were also staying as far away as possible.  They were just sitting there, obviously in love, and enjoying every second of the sunrise.  I stopped to take a photo of them, and it became hands down my favorite shots of the entire trip.


    The rest of the day was spent checking out the amazing temples around Angkor Wat, with my favorite being Ta Prohm (the Tomb Raider Temple).  While walking around the vicinity of Ta Prohm there seemed to be a certain energy that was completely enveloping and soothing.  As I was walking outside I closed my eyes and felt like I was back in time, the sun flashing on my eye lids as it was peeking in and out of the trees I was walking by.  I left the temples that day feeling so fortunate to have been able to experience such beauty.


    As I have said, the greatest thing I could have done on this trip was to not stick to an actual itinerary (as I originally had planned on doing) and just let the experiences happen organically.  This way of traveling was never of higher value as it was for Siem Reap.

    The next day at the pool I met a group of a few friends, we went out that night to dinner, followed by a reggae bar.  The group continued to grow for the following few days.  I still had some cash left over so I decided to extend my trip by a week, and I would end up spending 8 days in Siem Reap prior to finishing off my final journey on the islands of Cambodia.  Those 8 days were filled with meeting so many different people from all over the world, and forming bonds that will last me the rest of my life.

    On my final day in Siem Reap me and 4 friends (3 from Germany and 1 from England) hopped on a sleeper bus to go down to the Islands of Cambodia.  It was to be the final week of my traveling, and I was looking forward to just laying out on a beach all week and doing absolutely nothing.  However as fate would have it, there was much more than just laying on a beach that was awaiting me.

     

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    Siem Reap Part 1., A Dedication to an Incredible Woman 

    After a long day of sitting at the airport I had finally arrived in Siem Reap.  Luckily for me I had a friend who had one night left in Cambodia, and had recommended me to stay at Onederz Hostel.  The hostel was very big, extremely clean, and had an amazing rooftop pool terrace.  When I arrived it was 10 p.m., so after a little bit of chatting we decided to go and check out Pub Street and the Night Market.

    Heading to Pub Street at night is interesting to say the least, especially if you’re a guy with a good amount of visible tattoos. I felt like target practice for the tuk tuk drivers, who were relentless with their generous offers of MDMA, cocaine, ice, marijuana, little girls/boys, and of course tuk tuk rides.  Though it is pretty offputting to have driver after driver offering their numerous services, a simple “no” and they seemed to always go on their way.

    Pub Street consists of a few bars, with the main two being Angkor What! and Temple.  The music is mickeymouse, kids were piss drunk, and the place lacked any soul.  I finished my 50 cent beer and got the hell out, but thankfully upon departure I was handed a flyer for Soul Train; a tiny little reggae bar.   I followed the directions, and after walking down a long sketchy side alley (encountering a few offers for drugs and prostitution along the way of course) there it was, this tiny place with long cushioned benches along that wrapped along wall. It didn’t have much, but it had undeniable energy.  I loved it so much that by day 2 I had 4 fellow backpackers tag along, day 3 I had 7, and day 4 over a dozen of us walk in.  I’m not to sure if it’s how I explain things, however if I suggest something I’m truly passionate about, people tend to listen.  Out of all the partying I did in SE Asia, that tiny little spot takes first place (with the afterhours in Thailand after the Full Moon Party a close second 😜).

    “Anything yet?”, was the question I got asked many times that night as I was waiting for my response from the Peace Corps.  I knew the response had to come by the end of the day, so the impatience began setting in.  I tried not looking too much into it, but it’s only normal to have excitement for something that you really want.  Hours of talking came and went and we decided to call it a night.  We wished each other good luck and went our separate ways (something that has become much easier throughout my travels as goodbyes became a daily thing).

    The next morning I woke up and immediately opened my phone. There was a knot in my stomach as I knew the decision had to have come in by now. When I saw the email from the Peace Corps I opened it without hesitation as my eyes feverishly scanned my phone.

    “Regret” was all I had to read, I put the phone down and starred at the bunk bed hovering over me. Numerous thoughts began rushing through my head, especially “what now”.  I am not going to deny it, the news definitely hurt.  I kept envisioning all the good I could have done with the kids of Macedonia, as well as the aid it would have provided me through the grief process I had been dealing with. The very moment that last thought I just shared had gone through my mind something changed inside of me.  I realized that the fact that I had hoped the Peace Corps would help with my grief meant I wasn’t 100% in it for the right reasons. I reminded myself of something I have preached countless times in my life. It is impossible to know what the future holds. To know what has lead us to this very moment in our existence would mean untangling a web of millions upon millions of decisions, an impossible task.

    When I walked through Siem Reap that day I was overwhelmed with a feeling of content, excited to experience more of the city.  Walking near my hostel I heard the sound of kids playing outside at a school.  As I approached I realized there was a sign asking for English speaking volunteers.


    Though it was only an hour I felt compelled to volunteer, for more than one reason.  Firstly, I reminded myself I do not need to be in Macedonia with the Peace Corps to help make a difference.  Secondly, and more importantly, I felt it’s the least I could do for a woman who has deeply impacted my life, and the lives of hundreds, Pat Hopkins.  Walking through the schoolyard to speak to Kanha I became extremely emotional.

    Pat Hopkins was my moms best friend, and without a doubt the strongest woman that I have ever met. Every time I saw Pat, no matter what she was going through, she was always smiling; even with a million justifiable reasons to complain. 8 years ago she was diagnosed with cancer, and with all of the odds stacked against her, she was able to stretch what should have been a few months to live into 8 years, all the while maintaining an angelic like peace and calm about her at all times.  Her will to survive was driven by her needing to raise her kids, and to see them do amazing things with their lives.  I can’t articulate into words the type of person she was, all I can say is my life is better because I knew her, and I feel bad for those who never got the chance to be touched by her beautiful soul.  The strength I witnessed this woman portray is something I have used to derive my own strength from on countless occasions. 

      Though Pat’s story about survival and love is enough to fill 10 books (let alone blog entries), There is surprisingly even more to her incredible story. The reason that walking through this school zone was so emotional for me, and the reason that Pat came to mind, was because of the extraordinary, selfless actions that Pat had made in this very country years ago.  When Pat told me this story over dinner at an Indian restaurant I was left utterly speechless.  

      Pat’s daughter Joannie wrote:

      “Meeting mom for the first time. Mark (aka Thavin) is the one on the left and I’m the one on the right in her lap. Interestingly enough, Mark is a lefty and I’m a righty. The children on the left side of the orphanage did not survive due to severe malnourishment. The children on the right were brought back to the U.S by my mother to be adopted by other American families unwilling to go over to Southeast Asia in 1988. She physically went over, risked her life for mine and these other ten orphans. Mark and I were also severely malnourished. At 2 years old, the age we were in this picture, we weighed 8 and 1/2 lbs, the size of a healthy American newborn, and couldn’t walk because we were so weak….I forget this sometimes, and when I’m down, I look at this photo and remember how truly grateful I am for every single thing in my life bc of this woman, my mother, aka Mumsie, Patty, Mamma Dukes, Madre, Ma Mere…all the names she hated me calling her aside from Ma…Love you, always and forever! ☺️😘❤️

      Before there was ever an adoption program with Cambodia, Pat, while working for Congress’s went there and risked her life for the lives of these children.  Literally having to duck from stray bullets whizzing by her bedroom and having all of her belongings stolen. The streets of Cambodia can still be a scary place, and I can only imagine what it was like in 1988, 9 short years after a genocide that left 3 million Cambodians dead.

      Seeing all the kids in the classroom that day, laughing as they were trying their hardest to properly pronounce words, I couldn’t help but get emotional thinking of my dear friend Pat.  The lesson I learned that day is there are so many ways to make an impact, to feel fulfilled in life.  Pat risked her life to save the lives of 10 kids who lived across the world, however this selfless story affected more than just 10 children.  It taught countless people (including her children) the true meaning of living a life that expands beyond the close sighted self indulgent needs and wants, and the more stories like that of Pat’s get circulated, the more the world becomes a better place.  

      Pat’s son Mike is now an EMT, her youngest son Thomas is in school and getting straight A’s, her son Michael just returned from Iraq and goes to Ranger school in September, her daughter Joannie is a pharmacy tech, and her son mark is an Aid.  These kids will do great things with their lives, and through Pat, will touch countless lives.  I have never liked the phrase “everything happens for a reason”, rather “everything happens for many reasons”. When something horrible happens we may not be able to see the whole meaning/reason, but always have faith that everything eventually balances out. 

       It may not be as laid out as a structured Peace Corps program, and it may not have a close correlation to an area that means a lot to go to (like Macedonia with myself). However, if you want to TRULY make a change, no matter how big or small it may be, you can.  Pat is a testimant to that, and my goal in life is to try my hardest to be a 10th of the person she was.

      “We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.”

      Winston Churchill


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      The Full Moon Party and an Interview in a Garage 

      When I arrived in Koh Phangan for the Full Moon Party I instantly felt the party vibe, even days before the actual event.  It was beautiful and sunny out, and thousands of people were arriving daily leading up to the big night.  For those of you who don’t know, the Full Moon Party is a party on Haad Rin beach in Koh Phangan that is held (shockingly) every full moon.  

      Prior to arriving in Koh Phangan I contemplated switching my plans last second as I had thoughts of heading to Northern Thailand (Chiang Mai and Pai) instead. I originally wanted to check out the Full Moon Party, however after all of the cultural experiences I had in Vietnam there was a hunger for more authenticity then was to be expected from Koh Phangan.  However after some thinking and speaking with family I decided to stick to the original plan and give this crazy party a shot (while I’m still young enough to justify going).

      The owner of my hostel (Marysun Hostel) Marysol and her partner Mikewere extremely nice and laid back.  The hostel was empty the night I arrived so we had a chance to hang out and enjoy some amazing Thai food.  Marysol’s sister was in town and we all had a great time getting to know each other and telling stories.  The beach was only feet away from the front door of my hostel, which was convenient for access to the party as well as just chilling on the beach.  Even days leading up to the party there is a pretty cool scene on the beach, so I walked all 15 steps from my hostel and went to check it out.

        
        
      I got a chance to meet a few people, and do a little bit of dancing. As the night went on you can see the younger kids who were partying getting more and more wasted, as a sand bucket full of liquor only cost a few dollars on the beach.  To my disbelief I ran into 2 friends whom I had met in Vietnam, and we spent a lot of time talking and catching up. When we parted ways it was around 4 am and the scene was starting to fizzle out. 

      The next day I woke up and walked around the beach a bit. I was informed that my hostel was to be filled with a group of 10+ friends from Chile that day, so after a while of tanning I headed back to the room to introduce myself.  The second I walked in and met this awesome group I instantly knew that these people were special. They all had the biggest smiles on their faces, and were beyond nice to me. We instantly hit it off. 

      They knew I was a solo traveler, and went above and beyond to make me feel like part of their group. We hung out on the beach, grabbed dinner, and really got to know each other.  With it being the night before the Full Moon Party there was an even larger party scene on the beach, however I had to spend a lot of that night away from my new found friends from Chile.  Instead I had to sit for an interview I had been preparing the last month for…

        

        

      This was the email, the email that I re-read over 100 times leading up to this night.  I had made the decision months prior to apply for a position in the Peace Corps.  When I had applied I knew it was a long shot as it is extremely competitive, however when I received this email stating “Macedonia” as the country under consideration, I truly thought it was fate.  I was enthralled at the chance to help the youth of Macedonia grow as individuals and as a community, as well as the chance to spend time volunteering in the country in which my father was born and raised.  When I received that email I thought it was the next step, the reason behind the numerous things that had occurred in the past leading to that very moment, the “call to adventure” in a heroes journey.

      Since I only received my interview time slot 2 days prior, I had to improvise a bit. It was a Skype interview and my wardrobe was nowhere near suitable.  I was also situated right by a beach with thousands of drunk kids partying, yet I couldn’t venture too far because I needed reliable wifi.  I ended up using an abandoned garage right next to the hostel that was still in range of the hostels wifi.  I borrowed a button up shirt from Mike, sat with the cleanest of the 4 walls behind me, and proceeded to have a 2 hour long interview with the Peace Corps. The interview went absolutely amazing and I left that garage certain that come this September I’d be heading overseas to Macedonia.  It was 2 a.m. when the interview concluded (2 p.m. Washington D.C time), and my friends from Chile were on the beach having a blast. We celebrated the fact that the interview went so well and partied all night.  I met tons of great people that night and was able to witness one of the most beautiful sunrises of my life. 

         

      Due to the fact that I was awake until noon there isn’t much to share about the day leading up to the Full Moon Party. I spent most of the day sleeping, dreaming about all the lives I will be impacting, and how my own personal life will change once I join the Peace Corps.  When I finally got out of bed my newfound Chilean family and I began preparing for the big night. We got some food in our bellies and covered ourselves with body paint as if we were warriors preparing ourselves for battle.  

      The Full Moon Party was above and beyond what I expected; 30+ thousand people occupying one beach with the occasional kid being burned thinking they can jump rope while the rope is on fire.  Thankfully the owner of my hostel (also from Chile), threw a Latin Party in front of the hostel that night, so most of us spent the night just partying it up there.  A much smaller, more chill vibe than the insanity on the beach.  Throughout the night I had met an awesome friend from Canada who told me about an after hours spot up in the woods overlooking the ocean, so I concluded my Full Moon Party adventure there. 

        
       
      The next day was a day of recovery and rest for us all, yet we did manage to go out that night for dinner to celebrate a birthday. We blasted Spanish music, sang songs, played pool, and told stories. I remember sitting back in awe when the clock struck 12 for Vito’s birthday.  The raw, unabated love between everyone had for each other was like nothing I had ever witnessed before. 

        

       The beauty about backpacking is there are always opportunities to learn about other cultures.  Yes I did miss out on the culture of Northern Thailand, however I learned so much about the kindness and love of the Chilean people.  It blows my mind to this day as to how this huge group treated me so much like family, and even now almost a month after parting ways we all talk frequently. I am counting down the days until I see my Chilean family again!

      Video 2 of my friends made about their trip

      Luckily for me upon leaving the island I was able to get some much needed recovery in Phuket for the weekend, and spend some time with my family that I was staying with in Hong Kong. 

        
         
         
        

      Sherif (The Trailblazer) got me my own private villa with its own infinite pool; a HUGE step up from the 16 room dorms I  had been staying in.  We hung around most of the weekend and relaxed, and with me being all partied out I was more than willing to babysit at night so they could go and do their own thing. 

      The weekend came and went and it was time for us to part ways; they were heading back to Hong Kong, and I was off to experience the Kingdom of Cambodia.  Unfortunately for me the self induced insomnia I had endured during the Full Moon Party had lingering lethargic effects, and led me to oversleep and miss my 6:40 a.m. flight.  Instead I got to spend the better half of a day inside the airport waiting for my new (and far more expensive) flight.  In that time I wrote a blog, went over tons of pictures and videos.  I reminisced about all the people I had met in Koh Phangan, and most definitely sent some gratitude to my cousin for taking such good care of me. 

      When I finally took off for Cambodia it was Monday around 8 p.m. (8 a.m. Washington D.C time), and I found myself  updating my email feed repeatedly awaiting news from the Peace Corps.  When we took off and the “no service” sign finally appeared on my phone I placed the phone in my pocket, closed my eyes, and tried my hardest toenvision  how the rest of my travels would play out…  Oh how wrong I was!

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      5 Things To Expect Your First Week Backpacking

      You’ve decided to spread your wings and venture out into the wild world of backpacking.  You’ve read tons of travel blogs, read countless reviews on hostels and destinations, bought far more than needed in terms of travel supplies, and have a huge itinerary of places you want to go and things you want to experience throughout your journey.  Even with all the due diligence complete, nothing can quite prepare you for when you finally touch down and embark on your priceless journey.  With that being said I present to you the 5 Things To Expect Your First Week Backpacking.

      Your fears will quickly begin to dissipate  – Traveling across the world, where you know virtually nothing about the area nor the people or culture is surely exciting; albeit undeniably scary to some degree. Arriving in your first country, even the most subtle differences such as the flow of traffic or humidity in the air will make you feel just how far from home you are. Add on the VAST differences such as possible communist propaganda posters, strange offers from Tuk Tuk drivers that are simply wrong on so many moral levels, and just completely different culture and way of life and you have yourself in a very strange position.  You may think to yourself “what the hell did I get myself into”, and that’s fine, I think the initial fear leads to an even more enhanced excitement once you realize all will be.

      Some people’s fear or reservations may dissipate naturally by just walking around the city for a while and getting accustomed to a new culture, but for many (including myself) your first hostel is where the change occurs.  Entering your first hostel may feel like the first day at a new school at first, but within a very short time you will acclimate to the “backpackers” way of life.  You realize you are merely one of MANY going on the same (yet different) journey you are on.  You will be able to share your relatable first experiences with others, and they will gladly share theirs with you.  You will realize that you are not alone in feeling the way you do, and others will take you under their wing.  I’m not sure if it’s the feeling of nostalgia that coincides with taking someone brand new to backpacking under their wing, but on my first day people I had so many people offering to take me out and show me the city.
       

      You will toss away your itinerary if you made one – Prior to backpacking S.E. Asia I spent literal days researching and planning where I would be every day of my travels, what I would be doing, and how I would be getting there.  Part of it was because I knew there were certain things I wanted to see, but the major part was a fear of not having everything planned out.  When I arrived at my first hostel the people I met laughed when they saw my itinerary, saying “you wont be using that much longer”, and they were absolutely right.

      The people you meet, the stories you hear, and the vibe you get in each place will guide throughout your journey.  You may absolutely hate or love a certain city you are in, and with no itinerary there is nothing stopping you from leaving that very night or extending a few days.  Remember, traveling is a business, so anywhere you may go, there will be plenty of services to help you get to a cool destination in the area, or services to help you travel to another city or country.

      You will also hear about places you never even knew existed, and are going to want to visit them all!.  In my first few days backpacking I heard about 3 places around Hanoi that were not even on my radar, and 2 of them ended up being some of the highlights of my trip.  Talk to people, hear their stories, and let the journey flow as natural and unplanned as possible.

      You will be shocked by how fast you form close relationships- Back home most people you meet are consumed by societal norms, expectations from family and friends, and begin to wear the mask of what they feel is expected of them.  Forming close relationships with people whether it be work associates or friends of friends sometimes takes months, even years.  I like to think that building a relationship with someone is the process of 2 people taking off their masks ever so cautiously to reveal their true selves.

      While backpacking you will come to realize that mask has already been taken off.  People will express themselves to you in their truest and purest form, partly because you will already have so much in common being a fellow backpacker, and partly because they’re all the way across the world so who gives a shit what anyone thinks.  As long as you are willing to say “hi”, you will begin to form bonds at a rapid rate.  The conversations you have will be rich with thoughts and experiences.  Throughout my travels I can say with absolute conviction that I have made dozens of true friends that I will keep in touch with long after my travels have concluded, and will never forget.

      You will learn real fast how often you have to say goodbye –  I remember my first 2 days in Hanoi, I had linked up with a group of friends and we did everything together.  Out of 8 of us I was by far the newest to backpacking, so when one of the kids got his bags together for the 30 hour sleeper bus to Laos I was shocked at the dynamic.  There were hugs and the occasional “make sure to add me on Facebook”, but then he was gone, just like that.  He hopped on a bike that would take him to the sleeper bus, and everyone else went back to what they were doing.

      It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially when you’re saying goodbye to people you’ve grown extremely close to; however learning to say goodbye will make you that much stronger and wiser throughout your travels.  You begin to learn the beautiful yet tragic truth about just how large this world really is, and how small we as individuals actually are .  The French Novelist Gustave Flaubert once said “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world”.  Just as water constantly flows down a river, so to will the people you meet.

      You’ll realize you have made a life changing decision – I believe this moment of awareness is so personal to each and every person I would be doing an injustice saying when this moment will be.  There are so many reasons people decide to go backpacking, whether it be to come to terms with something serious that has happened in life, to gain a better understanding of the world, or to just experience something completely new.  There will however be a defining moment very early in your travels, and when that moment comes you will be enveloped with an indescribable feeling that the journey you are on will forever change you.

      With all that being said, none of this is possible if you don’t step outside your comfort zone.  Sadly I witnessed people stay in their dorm bed all day and watch movies on Netflix, something that surely can be done within the confines of their own home.  Speak to travelers, but also make sure to speak to locals.  Eat what they eat, dance how they dance, try to speak with them in their language even if it is just a word (believe me they will love you for it).  Enjoy all the scary, exciting, awkward, sad, indescribable experiences that backpacking has to offer.  Go out and experience the world, and don’t be scared to make an absolute fool of yourself.  And remember, you are far from being alone.

      “Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.” – Wendell Berry

       

       

       

       

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      Living in the present, Uncategorized

      Smelling The Flowers – A lesson learned on the streets of Bangkok

      Up until this point I have posted blogs mainly about the cool things I have done while backpacking Asia (it is my hope you have enjoyed them).  The thing is, the trip has not been merely a journey from place to place; it has also been a journey of the soul, and I would like to share in a few of my upcoming blogs some of the thoughts and personal experiences I have had during my travels.

      I arrived in Bangkok and had a list of places I wanted to see.  I was only there for 2 days so I was adamant about seeing as much as possible.  I couldn’t wait to check all of these places off of my list; however, as luck would have it, I came down with a severe stomach virus.  I was bed ridden and had no energy.  My day and night slipped away and I looked at my list with despair knowing I would not see all I originally set out to see.

      Thankfully the next day I felt a bit better, and decided to try to see some of the sights.  I met 2 friends who had been in Bangkok before, so we grouped up to do some sight-seeing.  We took an extremely sketchy water taxi, and ended up at the Golden Mount (Wat Saket).  After climbing up what seemed like an endless amount of stairs we finally made it to the top.  There was a breeze that cut through the humidity, and a calm in the air.  Though I was still sick, the feeling of being in my first temple in Thailand was great.  I spent some time praying and reflecting (maybe a solid 30 seconds) before the urge to get to my next destination set in.  I already missed a day, so it was time to catch up!  I completely escaped the present, and jumped straight into the future.

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      Water Taxi

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      Next was the Giant Swing.  We walked a solid 30 minutes in extreme humidity, I was sweating profusely, and felt like I was going to faint at any minute.  When we finally arrived I gazed at the large structure for around 5 seconds before I was ready to go see the Grand Palace.

       

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      Giant Swing?

      After the swing my friends and I went separate ways as they had already seen the Grand Palace.  While walking to the Palace I told myself “Ok, after the palace at least you have seen a decent amount of sights in Bangkok”.  I was not concerned with the culture around me, was not concerned with the food the streets had to offer, nor the history surrounding me. I was solely concerned with checking off the next item on my list.  As I arrived to the palace I was confronted by someone saying it had already closed, and to come back tomorrow.  I let him know it was my final day, and he was nice enough to show me some other sights to see.  Little did I know it was part of a common scam in Bangkok, bringing tourists to pointless sights, and eventually a clothing factory where you get all but forced to buy suits.  After sitting in the Tuk Tuk a while and having more than 1 conversation about this amazing “factory” my spidey senses kicked in and I googled Bangkok factory scam.  Article upon article popped up,, so I kindly asked the driver to pull the hell over and let me out.  By the time I got out of the Tuk Tuk it was rather late, and I knew my day of sight seeing was done.

      I went back to the hostel, feeling as if I’ve waisted my day, and my entire time in Bangkok.  Thankfully my cousin hooked me up with an Italian friend who lives in Bangkok, and he invited me over for dinner.  I began walking to his apartment reflecting on the shitty day I had, and all of a sudden it then it happened…

      I thought back to my trip to Macedonia with my father, and how similar my feelings at that moment  were to the feelings I had one day walking around Lake Ohrid.  In Ohrid there are dozens of beautiful old monasteries, and gorgeous landscapes to see. We decided to set aside a couple of days to experience the history and beauty of Ohrid.  My father was sick, and I knew this would be the only time visiting these sights (with him).  For that reason I was consumed with the notion that we had to see all that could be seen, because this is it, there is no “next time”.

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      Church of Saint John at Kaneo

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      Helping my dad up the steep stairs to an old Monastery

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      Walking to our next stop (My uncle to the left)

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      My cousin Durim to the left

       

      The first day of sight-seeing my cousin, uncle, father and I saw so much breathtaking beauty.  It was incredible that my uncle who is almost 80, and my father who was 71, were keeping walking at a faster pace than me.  They told me so many stories, stories about the places we were seeing, as well as hilarious stories from childhood.

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      My father – the storyteller

       

      I was even able to climb into an old monastery from the 15th century.  Unfortunately my father and uncle were unable to make the climb, so my cousin and I went up.  It was absolutely breathtaking inside, and I was in awe at the paintings and artifacts that surrounded the rooms.  To think that priests lived in those very rooms hundreds of years ago was almost unfathomable.

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      After this we decided to call it a day, and headed back to our village.  I remember the feeling I had going home that day, so complete, so fulfilled.

      Our next day of exploration was during Ramadan.  We started the day visiting family, and paying our respects to loved ones lost.

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      Graveyard in Kalishta

      After all our visits were done, we set off to see more sights.  I had a list in mind of places I really wanted to see, just as I had a list of places to see in Bangkok.  However, barely any sights would be seen that day, rather an invaluable lesson…

      As we started walking around the boarder of Lake Ohrid I caught my father on several occasions gazing at the water.  Mid walk he suddenly stopped and began to stare at the lake.  He expressed how badly he wanted to chop through the waves of Lake Ohrid one last time, as he did so many times in his life.  Unfortunately he was not able to swim due to neuropathy caused by the chemotherapy.  He then turned to me, smiled, and said “I am going for a swim”.  I began to get extremely worried, and that worry was followed by a combination of happiness and deep sadness when I saw what he did next.

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      My father prior to a race in 1965

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      Final swim in Lake Ohrid

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      My father staring at the lake – his lake.  In an article (Swimming legend Xhevit Hoxha passed away) written the day after his passing by Lebit Murtishi, translated by Premtime Zylali, he said  “But the memories of Xhevit, especially for the older generations of Struga, will remain unforgettable even for the most unique events for Albanians since: He is the first Albanian swimmer who spent about 40 km swimming through the waves of the Ohrid Lake in 1965, and unfortunately will be remembered as the last one as well… No one after him had the courage to take part in the marathon of swimming competitions that used to be help in that period once a year in Lake Ohrid.. May the swimming legend rest in peace!”

      He stared at that lake for what seemed to be hours.  I never asked what he was thinking that day, and even if I did I am certain he could not articulate into words the emotions and thoughts that must have been coursing through him.  Or, maybe his mind went quiet, just the sound of the waves, wind on his back, and peace in his mind…

      After a while of standing at the edge of the lake he turned to me with a smile and said “Ok, we can go now”.  As we began walking to our next sight everyone was eerily quiet, and not much was said.  I was worried that the water may have too much for him; that is until we walked by the fields of flowers… He and my uncle began picking flowers, smelling and examining each one, often debating over what they were looking at.

      I stood there for a good while, yet as time went on I began to get impatient.  I wanted my father to enjoy his day, however I had this damn list of places I needed all of us to go see!   I began to escape the moment that I was in, and run towards what the next thing was that we were supposed to see.  The feeling was very similar to the feeling I had at the Golden Mount, just on a larger scale.

      My dad walked over with a handful of flowers, and a smile on his face.  He told me to close my eyes, and when I did he put the flowers to my nose and said his famous “ohh ho hooooo”.   After enjoying the fresh smell of the flowers I turned to him and reminded him that there were still places left to see.  It was at that moment he put his hand on my shoulder and said “right now baby, we are smelling the flowers”.  The rest of the day we walked around, stopping every few minutes to smell flowers or examine fruits on trees.  Though it was something so basic, and could be found anywhere, he made it seem like the most precious moment in time.

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      2 brothers arguing over what fruit was on the tree, though it looks like they are dancing

      Walking home that day my dad looked at me and said, “that was a great day baby”.  He was right, it was.  We didn’t do much in terms of sight seeing, we simply just walked, talked, and smelt the flowers; and it was absolutely perfect.

      If someone were to ask me about the trip that was now close to 2 years ago, there is no way I could explain the monasteries in detail without pulling out pictures on my phone.  However, I can still smell every one of those flowers as if they were in front of my nose at this very minute.  I can tell you the placement of every wrinkle on my fathers face when he smiled holding the bouquet, and I can tell you every thought in detail that crossed through my mind.

       I remember shortly before my dad passed helping him into the house for the last time.  While walking he looked over at his beautiful garden of flowers.  I stopped and asked if he’d like some time alone, and he nodded yes.  He was out there for close to an hour, and for a long time I wondered what must have been going through his mind.  But now, from the deepest part of my soul, I am certain that at some point when he was sitting looking at his flowers, he remembered that day simple yet perfect day smelling the flowers around Lake Ohrid.

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      While walking over a random bridge in Bangkok is when that memory hit me.  I closed my eyes and could hear my dad saying “smell the flowers baby”.  I took a deep breath through my nose, and was overwhelmed with a feeling of happiness and contentment.  It wasn’t a temple, it wasn’t a piece of history, it was just a bridge and some traffic, but I enjoyed every second of it.  I enjoyed the fact that I had made it so far around the world, I enjoyed the fact that physically and mentally I could appreciate that exact moment with all 5 of my senses, and I was thankful that I felt my father by my side.

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      On that bridge I learned, or was maybe reminded, that it does not always have to be about the next thing on the list.  I was reminded that the streets of a city can be just as beautiful as the inside of a palace. I was reminded to be thankful for the ability to fully experience the present.  I was reminded to stop and smell the flowers.

       

      “In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.”                -Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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      Yen Duc Village – and the secret to happiness through the eyes of a Vietnamese elder

      I figured since I’m in a hotel room recovering from food poisoning, as well as a torn MPFL which resulted from a knee dislocation on a remote island so bad it made someone get ill (You’ll have to wait for future blogs to read more on this), that it’s time to play catch up. 

      Vietnam will have been my favorite of the 4 countries I have experienced, and my 2 days in Yen Duc Village are probably the main reason for this.  Yen Duc village is in Dong Trieu town and 60km West of Halong city, so after a night on Halong Bay I decided to do a homestay here. What attracted me was that during the war this village was all but demolished, and I thought it would be interesting as an American to spend a night here and try to speak with some locals. 

      Known as the “stone wall” during the war, the village is rich with history, and you can still feel the honor that the villagers have for the many locals who lost their lives trying to protect it. Riding around Yen Duc Village you would never think that it was all but demolished during the war, as it is endless streets of beautiful homes, rice paddy fields, and lush green Palm trees.  

        

         
       

      When I arrived at Yen Duc Village I was greeted by Gi, who would be my tour guide for the homestay.  She was extremely kind, and so proud of her village. She said that most people her age (24) can’t wait to move to a big city like Hanoi, yet Gi assured me she will never leave Yen Duc. I was the only tourist there that day which was perfect for me. Gi introduced me to the owner of the house I’d stay at for the night, Mr. San. Mr. San speaks no English, but makes the most hilarious hand movements/sound effects I’ve ever witnessed. 

         

       

      After dropping off my stuff Gi and I grabbed our bikes and went for a ride.  

        

      The ride was absolutely beautiful, the weather perfect, and every single person was smiling and waving. As time went on I started to understand why Gi would never want to leave. 

      First thing we did was learn how to make brown rice. They explained that white rice is prepared via machine now, however brown rice is still done the traditional way.  There is much more to it than I had thought, and even broke a little sweat during the process 

         
         

       
       After making the brown rice we head stopped by to visit some sweet old ladies where I would learn to make a broom. They have been doing it for decades and do it with ease, little did I know it’s a very long, very tedious process. Gi shared that the average salary for a broom maker is just around $60 a month.  

         
        
       

      They kept repeating a certain word in Vietnamese, so I finally asked Gi and she said “handsome”. It seemed as if I made a good impression on the broom makers, though I didn’t know the extent of my impression until I said goodbye. Saying goodbye was up there as most awkward/flattering thing that’s ever happened. 

       

      The sweet looking 85 year old is no saint, believe me. Moments before taking this photo she grabbed my ass as hard as she could, and with her being a broom maker you better believe she had a very strong grip. After a heartfelt goodbye it was time to do some fishing. 

       

      Fishing to them is walking through mud that goes to your knee, and slamming a basket down into the muddy water with the hopes of feeling something trying to escape.  I guess I’m a natural because I was able to catch 4 with ease. 

      When fishing was done it was time to go back home to prepare dinner, but not before getting destroyed in badminton.  While riding home I heard all this screaming and laughing and asked Gi if we could stop.  What I saw was some village locals playing an intense game of badminton.  I hadn’t played in a decade but it looked like so much fun that I had to ask to play. 

        

      It was a humbling experience to say the very least, as I got absolutely destroyed!  What you can’t see in this photo is one of the people I was playing against was a 70+ year old woman. Badminton is serious business in Asia, and it is said that playing badminton will allow you to live until 100. After a solid hour long slaughter it was time to admit defeat and go have dinner. 

        

      Dinner was a HUGE step up from Sapa, with clean kitchenware, and absolutely amazing food. We had pumpkin soup, fried noodles, crisp spring rolls, and the fish caught by yours truly. We sang some songs and Mr. San showed me photo albums of his children.  I even got to assist in making an authentic Vietnamese dessert. 

        

      Going to bed that night I remember how happy I was that I decided to come here. Little did I know the best was yet to come. 

      The next morning we woke up and had some breakfast, then hit the road. We stopped at a nearby Pagoda that was absolutely amazing. Gardens and statues surrounded the whole area, as well as a very old bell that is rung twice a day when the monks go to pray. The temple had 3 sections, one for happiness, one for wealth, and one for longevity. I decided to spend my time at the happiness section, and meditated for about 30 minutes. 

         
       
        

      We then went to a market to walk around and talk to some of the villagers. There was fresh fish being prepared, brooms being sold, you name it they had it. I was so blown away at how nice everybody was towards me. Even when they found out I was from the US they were nothing but smiles.  Walking through the market I met a lady by the name of Mrs. Huong, and she begged me to go sing karaoke with her (as well as find her a rich 95 year old American man).  I agreed, thinking it would be a karaoke bar or something like that, little did I know it was her living room. 

         
       

      It started off pretty awkward, no really awkward. However when the song “I just want to dance with somebody” came on, things got wild. Mrs. Huong speaks no English, except for the numbers 1-2-3, so while I was singing she kept repeating 1-2-3       1-2-3, and we even danced a bit. 

      My final experience at Yen Duc Village was undoubtedly the most important to me, meeting Mr. Te…
      Mr. Te’s home is the oldest home in the village, built just over 180 years ago.  During the war the whole village was more or less destroyed, and Mr. Te’s house was the only house left standing. When I first saw Mr. Te he was sitting in his beautiful garden,  with a huge smile on his face. I knew nothing about his life at that point, just that his presence embodied happiness. He offered me some tea and we sat for a while. Mr. Te spoke no English, yet when talking to me he was always looking at me rather than Gi, which made it that much more personal. He asked where I was from and when I said America, he smiled and shook my hand. He then invited me inside his home because there was some things he would like to show me. 

       

      Mr. Te looking with pride at his family tree

       
       

      70%. of Mr. Te’s family tree (could not fit whole thing in one photo), notice Ho Chi Minh at the top

       
       

      Mr. Te began going over his family tree, explaining that the reason it is so large is because his Grandfather had 3 wives!  The admiration and pride he has for his family was something I’ve never witnessed before.

         

      The shrine is for all of his ancestors, and     Pictures of them were all over the wall. Every day he keeps up with the offerings, and makes sure it is perfect.  While looking at the wall of pictures I noticed that many of them had served in the war. I was so intrigued by Mr. Te that I couldn’t help but ask if he lost a lot of family during the war, “a lot” he responded in Vietnamese. 

      He then walked me over to a very special photo, and the only one of its kind. 

      Ho Chi Minh’s personal security team

      The person at the top left was Mr. Te’s oldest brother, personal security to Ho Chi Minh. I couldn’t believe my eyes, the way the young men stood around Ho Chi Minh, the look in their eyes, the look in Mr. Te’s eyes looking at the picture… The love they had and still have for Ho Chi Minh in Northern Vietnam is indescribable.  Gi asked me if I wanted to leave, but while Mr. Te stood there with a smile on his face not knowing what Gi was saying, I felt like there was more I wanted to talk about, so I asked him if we could sit.  

      After expressing my gratitude for teaching me about his family, I wanted to know if I could ask him something personal.  “As you know I am from America, what were your feelings towards me when you were showing me all the family you lost during the war?” I asked. While Gi began to translate a smile went across his face, “What’s in the past is in the past. I can’t blame somebody who was not even born during the war, nor do I blame the ones that fought in it. The soldiers had a job to do, and they did their job to the best of their ability. If we look in the past too much we can not prepare our children for the future, nor enjoy the present”. 

      Before leaving I had to ask him one more question, as some of you know there are certain questions I wanted to ask wise elders on this trip, and it seemed like Mr. Te was a perfect candidate. I asked Mr. Te what the secret to happiness is, and again a smile went across his face. 

      “That is easy, for there is only one key… To help other people.  If you help them they will smile with you, and if they don’t smile, your heart will still smile. That is the golden key to happiness”.  

      It seemed so simple, but he said it with such conviction.  Obviously his answer isn’t a breakthrough of some sort, but looking at him you can see that he not only knows what to do to be happy, but puts it into action. 

       

      Mr. Te

       
      Mr. Te thanked me for the conversation, as did I. When I hopped on my bike I turned around, and there he was, sitting in the same chair, with the same smile, looking at his flowers. 

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      Sapa – A beyond authentic experience

      When I caught the night bus to Sapa, I had no clue where I would be staying the next day, however fellow backpackers from the hostel I was staying at assured me I would find a homestay easily.  The 6 hour ride to Sa Pa was my first taste of a “sleeper bus”, and was tremendously awkward to say the least.  When I jumped on the bus, they handed me a blanket, told me to put my shoes in a bag, and pointed to the very back of the bus where there were seats to accommodate taller people.  The bus was full of solo mini beds, except for where they put me of course.  I had to snuggle up next to a nice couple from Germany since the back of the bus was a combo of 3 mini beds side by side.  I shoved myself as close as I could to the corner and got some Z’s. 

      woman from one of the 5 villages trying to offer homestay’s to tourists

      Just as my fellow backpackers assured me, the second I got off of the bus woman dressed in pretty authentic clothes started rushing up to me “homestay?, homestay?, homestay?”  I declined all offers for a few minutes to try to scout out which lady seemed like she would be the best fit. After scouting for a bit I finally came across a woman with whom I accepted her offer. She started by saying that for trekking, lunch, dinner, “happy water”, a place to stay, breakfast the next day, more trekking, and then a bike ride back to town would run me $30. After a bit of negotiating I was able to get the number down to $20 (not bad considering all included), and off we went. 

      Our first stop was to grab some coffee and water before the 8 mile trek to her house. There I met 2 girls from the Netherlands who were staying at the same house that night. We had our coffee and a small breakfast and off we went. 

       

      Fem, with her son strapped to her back, taking in the view


       
      The 8 mile trek back to Fem’s village was more challenging than I had anticipated. There were very steep areas, sketchy cliffs, and rocks that I thought were going to break off and take me with them at any moment. Thankfully, along the way we took several breaks, not only to catch our breath, but to also take in the amazing scenery. 

        

        

         
          
       

      The mountains surrounding Sapa are endless rolling fields of rice terraces farther than the eye can see.  Being up there all you can here is whatever noise the wind may make, as well as the occasional woman or young child hauling something back to town. Sitting up on those mountains I sat there, closed my eyes, and thought about how similar it was to when my father and I trekked the mountains in Macedonia just a year and a half ago. 

      My father and I in the mountains surrounding the village of Ladorisht, Macedonia. (This was after his first 5 month round of chemotherapy)


      When we finally made it to Fem’s house I was shocked, there was no running water, no electricity, absolutely nothing.  Kids were playing outside, the men were drinking and singing songs to celebrate Tet (Vietnamese New Year), and the view… absolutely breathtaking. 

      After making my rounds and introducing myself to everybody, they invited me to sit down and eat. After trekking 8 miles informed quite a big appetite, so the fact that the food looked like it wouldn’t come close to passing health standards didn’t phase me. 

        

      Once lunch was done the woman got to work preparing for dinner. I walked around and just took in the amazing landscape for a few hours, and just took it all in.  It was so quite, so calm, so away from it all.  However the longer I was there the more I started to catch the gaze of the children from the village as I think they were starting to warm up to me. 

      Smiling and laughing is the universal word for happiness, so after a few laughs and smiles we became best friends. We kicked around a makeshift soccer ball for a while, and played with different filters on my phone that changed their faces. It’s amazing how much joy they get from the smallest things. 

        

      After observing and being enveloped in their culture for the day something dawned on me.  I kept asking myself how these people could be so happy without having much, and I came up with a conclusion that I hadn’t thought of before. My first thought was that they know nothing else, but they do. A walk down to the center of Sapa and they can see a completely different life. I believe what provides them with such contentedness is the mere fact that tasks like cooking, cleaning, and other necessities literally take all day.  Back home if I want to cook, clean my clothes, and shower I can have it done in 30 minutes, and then a sort of void sets in.  I have to look for the next task to do, or something to make the day seem as if it were productive. 

      Fem uses a helmet flashlight so to help her cook

       

      This sticky rice is the staple dessert of Tet (Vietnamese New Year)

       
      Dinner was served later in the evening, and the “happy water” was flowing. I was lucky enough to be there during Tet, so the guys were really partying. They sang songs for hours on end, and even though I had no clue what they were saying I would mimick their verses and sing along. The whole family thought it was hysterical, and personally I thought my singing was spot on. 

      Singing and eating, with POSSIBLY some liquor involved

      After all was said and done I went to bed, which was in a shed style room next to a machine to help make rice.  The wind was howling at night, and dirt (plus God only knows how many insects, kept blowing in my face). Thankfully I survived the night and the next morning it was time to say goodbye. I tried my best at expressing my deepest gratitude and we made our way back to town. I saw some amazing waterfalls and scenery, but it was extremely hot so when an offer to take a bike the rest of the way presented itself I was all over it!

        

      Arriving back in Hanoi was an interesting feeling.  There’s such freedom in knowing that I literally caught a bus last second and had  this amazing 2 day experience, and now I am back where I started with no clue what tomorrow will bring. My dorm that night was filled with new faces who had just arrived in Hanoi.  They asked me about my day and were enthralled by the experience I had just had.  They pulled out their phones and took notes so they too could experience Sapa for themselves.  I thought to myself “I am now the one giving advice on things to do in Southeast Asia”, and when I went to bed that night I really felt like a true backpacker. 

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      Hanoi – My first few days backpacking

      It is my first day in Bangkok and have been in bed all day as I believe I havefood poisoning, so I figured I’d post a few blogs about my experiences so far on what has been nothing short of an epic journey.  

      I will be posting a blog “5 Things to Expect Your First Week Backpacking”, however I wanted to also break apart my experiences as it has been rich and full of excitement. This blog I will talk about my experiences in Hanoi, as well as the overall experience of beginning my travels. I will also be posting a blog on my awesome trips to Sa pa, Halong Bay, and Yen Dux Village. 

      Day One

       

      Backpackers hanging out at Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – Downtown

       

       I literally had no idea what to expect when the cab driver dropped me off in front of Vietnam Backpackers Hostel – Downtown. The first thing that went through my mind was “holy shit, I’m actually backpacking Asia, I’m actually arriving at a hostel, this is for real!”  

      Walking into the hostel I felt like a kid on his first day at a new school. The place was packed with backpackers, all conversating and having a good time. I’d like to think I did my best to look like I was a seasoned veteran, however I am certain my “new to backpacking” look was written on my face. 

      After checking in, the receptionist brought me to my dorm, a room with 6 bunk beds (that’s 12 beds total for those not mathematically inclined). There were 3 people in the room getting ready to go downstairs for happy hour, and they all looked over and greeted me with a smile and hello. To our surprise we were all from America (not very common I have come to realize), and we quickly began talking. Backpackers are some of the friendliest people you can ever meet, it is like a brotherhood of likeminded people who accept everyone. 

       

      A girl strumming her guitar in the dorm

       
      After talking for bit and hearing the incredible places they had been to, we all went downstairs to the bar to enjoy happy hour. The special was buy one get one free beers, and after doing a quick conversion in my head I realized each beer was going to run me $.50! (HELL YES).  I explained my itinerary to them, and they began to laugh saying I will change my plans so many times before my trip is over, and to just go with the flow. 

      I was absolutely amazed by all of the places these people had been, and the incredible experiences they have had. . After spending a whopping $2 on some beers, we headed out to dinner.  Unfortunately they had been craving Dominos for weeks, so my first authentic Vietnamese meal would have to wait. 

      The streets of Hanoi can only be explained with one phrase “fucking insane!”  My cousin Sherif and his wife Jen tried prepping me for how to cross the road, saying “just walk slowly, and don’t stop”. Imagine 50 bikes and a few cars coming straight at you, no stop lights, and no right of ways. Every time you cross the road is literally a leap of faith. They couldn’t have been more accurate.  I just walked slowly, and everyone veered around me. The best way to explain crossing the road in Hanoi is like mini shots of adrenaline at every street crossing, there is the fear of getting hit, followed by the reward of making it across in one piece. 

       After our not-so-authentic Vietnamese cuisine we headed back to the hostel, where the place was bumping. Music was playing, people were dancing, and there were several free shots being passed around.  It was beyond easy to start meeting people, and by nights end I had met a ton of new people. 
      Laying down in bed that night I was overwhelmed with a feeling of peace and comfort “wow, it’s really happening, and it’s awesome”.

      Day 2

      As I had literally no plans that day, I just laid in bed a while and soaked it all in.  The streets were buzzing with noise, and a few people I had met the night prior were heading ou to their next destination.  As with life, there is a beginning and an end to things. While backpacking, that is raised to the 10th power. It’s amazing to meet so many people in such a short amount of time, however it seems as if every few hours I am saying goodbye to a new friend. 

      After a lazy day in bed it was time for my first authentic Vietnamese meal, or so I thought….    I walked a bit through the Old Quarter until I found a place serving up some street food BBQ. I was sat next to a group of backpackers and we began to chat for a bit. As we were all waiting for our food to come out one of the most insane experiences of my entire life unfolded in front of my very eyes…

       

      Rumble in Hanoi – notice several locals weilding weapons


      While trying to learn more about my new friends, we were distracted by screaming coming from the middle of the road.  Seconds later the owner of the place we were eating at ran full speed into the middle of the street and cracked another guy in the face. From our observation it looked like it was the owner of another restaurant right across the street. To my surprise a man came out of nowhere and entered the fight.  Hailing from Vietnam, coming in at 5 feet 2 inches and 120 pounds soaking wet, carrying a…. bamboo bong?!  This tiny little dude cracked the man who threw the first punch right across the back of his head, and pieces of bamboo and bong water went flying. 

      Me and my new buddies thought it was pretty funny given the size of the guy and his weapon of choice, however things got much more interesting, and dangerous. The man who had just got hit ran into the kitchen, and ran back into the ring full speed with a gigantic meat cleaver in his hand!  I have seen fights in my life where weapons were involved, however it is usually just used as a scare tactic. But this man had only one thing on his mind, “decapitate”. He chased the other man full speed, with the meat cleaver cocked back ready to deliver the death shot. 
      Things started to happen fast, but the next thing I know there were 5 other guys standing in the street with sticks that had blades attached to the end of them. 

       

      These were the same types of weapons used at the fight


      Thankfully dozens of people jumped in, and from what I saw everybody walked away in one piece.  My new friends and I decided that maybe we should dine elsewhere, as there was enough tension lingering on the street that it could be cut with a meat cleaver. 

      Day 3 

      The rooftop terrace at the hostel I was staying at was probably the best part of the hostel for me. At any time of the day there are several people soaking up some sun rays, listening to music, and occasionally puffing on the devils lettuce. I spent a good amount of my day just lounging on the rooftop, listening to music, and really just staying to myself. I am very good at listening to others, however I am trying to make an effort on this trip to spend time listening to myself. 

      A few girls on the rooftop relaxing in the sun

        
      After a few solid hours on the rooftop I decided to go do some touristy things. I hit up a few museums, and ended my tour with “The Hanoi Hilton”. The Hanoi Hilton, or the Hỏa Lò Prison, was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by North Vietnam for U.S. Prisoners of War during the Vietnam War.  

      Vietnamese political prisoners displayed at the Hanoi Hilton

      The tour is really split into 2 parts. The first is a depiction of the horrible torture inflicted by the French colonist on the Vietnamese political prisoners.  The second part, was about the U.S. POWs during the Vietnam war. Being from the U.S. I found this fascinating.  There are several old propaganda videos showing the prisoners eating the finest foods, playing volleyball, smoking cigarettes, and playing cards. The old videos continuously reassure the viewer that the prisoners were treated on par with Geneva standards. Obviously us from the states grew up hearing a different story, so it was great to see how the other side views things. 

      When I got back to the hostel that night I met a few dudes who had just returned from a place called Sa Pa. They couldn’t say enough about it, and encouraged me to hop on a night bus, take the 6 hour drive to Sa Pa, and find one of the local villagers to allow me to spend the night (homestay), so that’s exactly what I did. The beauty about traveling solo is you can do however much, or however little you would like to. Within a half hour of our conversation I checked out of the hostel, grabbed my backpack, and headed to the nearest bus station. 
       

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