Four Days in Bangkok: It’s Not What You Think

It’s just a ten minute walk from the drunken granola of Khao San Road to the genuine (if changing) soi one.  Shaking off the granola but not necessarily the drink, I stumble/stroll the challenging Bangkok curbs and walks as if they’re mine—not arrogantly, but confidently.

I am confident because I’m freed (physically, philosophically) from Khao San, but also because I’ve walked these streets in ten different cities.  I’ve seen in them New York.  Graffiti-clad corrugated storefronts closed for the night, if not forever.  I witnessed a rare Hong Kong slice of isolation, replete with hard-to-cross spans of concrete and surprisingly open air.  I’ve taken in bits of London, Hanoi, even St. Louis.  I’ve seen every homeless soul, every filthy river, and I saw music.  Jarring, disjointed at times, but other times finding sweet groove.

Perhaps most surprising, I saw a desolate main street of Moorhead, Marshall, or Bemidji Minnesota.  The weather, of course, was starkly different, and for the better or worse, depending on your attitudes toward extreme cold and oppressive humidity.  But there was this one particular feeling, the one of being alone on a desolate street yet not wholly by yourself, where you know a few scraggly others are scraggily straggling home, emptying cheap beers, pausing to take in a view they “see” everyday but have never legitimately “seen,” saying good night to friend, or just now finally laying down for a rest. These kind (or less than) folk are all unseen as I pass through the Philadelphia block of Thewet, hardly strangers as I am not at all alone.

Playa Bonita

I travel whenever I am afforded the opportunity.  Good for the mind, good for the soul, travel can teach a great deal about life.  It makes plain the common elements of man.  It can reveal the colorful fancy of culture.  Sometimes, as was the case with my year 2000 trip to Cozumel, it can expose the intricate and delicate fabric of the heart.  All of its fear, all of its hope, all of its simple dreaming.

Looking back, the trip evokes so many differing images, snapshots filled alternately by peaceful remembrance of that tranquil island, and by the haunting revisiting of a near-death experience there.  These memories are complex for me now, and I focus more on sorting and categorizing them, searching them for meaning, than I do simply recalling them.

My friend Justin was the mastermind behind the trip that was to become, we were quite sure, the “time of our lives.”  Eight of us would depart for the Caribbean, our itentions being simple…to take over the island.  With the proper respect and reverence due, of course, no matter where the road may take you.  But there could be no mistake.  With this eclectic and so very hungry for fun crew, we would get what we had coming.  Deliverance.  Release from the mundane, colorless, dreary repetition of daily life.  We would take a stand, stake our claim, and for at least a brief moment, consume all of life’s offerings.

So on the second day of the new millienium, Justin, Jenny, Scratch, Tony, Jessica, Corey, Travis and I arrived in “The Land of the Swallows.”  Instantly transported into a world that held no boundaries for us and required nothing of our time. Continue reading

New York: Part 3

Part three in a three-part series of writings done during my two-year stint in the world’s greatest city…

A man who works for the City decides he is leaving

He tells his closest friends and swears to himself that liberation has a smell

It smells like a subway platform headed out of Manhattan

The man shuffles his iPod & it plays a song undeniably reminiscent of his former and soon again to be current life.  A song associated (by name no less) with a friend in whom he has just confided he is on his way home.  What are the odds?

The train lurches slowly, “Tony’s Theme” ends, and the iPod shuffles.

He reads his book and one sentence moves him:

“We’d read enough books and seen enough highways to know what a lovely moment was.”

He suspected that he too had seen those highways, and had seen some lovely moments. 

Looking back but too looking homeward, there was surely more there that could have been won, but certainly nothing had been lost. 

The iPod shuffles coincidence as if it were nothing.

All I Wanted Was a Damn Sandwich

There are many times and different ways that living abroad challenges you.  Quite often, these have to do with food.

Today, all I wanted was a damn sandwich.

Sounds simple, right?  Right! So off the local Fresh Price grocery store I went, to stock up on the old essentials.  This was gonna be good…

Right! So immediately upon entry, I found myself in the bread “section.”  I insert the quotes only because Singaporeans don’t like bread that much.  But still, off to a great start!  My eyes quickly perused the smallish but tempting selection—nope, don’t want that one, it’s got green coloring, and that one red.  That bread’s sweet, and that one has a funny swirl.  The Mediterranean Panini flatbread, despite its seemingly confused ethnic/national lineage is tempting, but really all I wanted was a long, crusty French bread.  Voila!  Okay, this loaf may not be crunchy, but this long loaf does indeed carry the nom de plume of the Françoise.  One in a row, I’m on a roll!  Well, it was more of a baguette, but the “roll” pun was still intended.

Just past the bread was the cheese “section.”  I insert the quotes only because Singaporeans, while liking cheese to a fair degree, eat shitty cheese.  A few grated ones, a few block ones, but why oh why do even the Colby’s appear to be an off-white or yellow color?!?  Where the HELL are the orange colored cheeses?!?  Argh!!!!!  This is getting frustrating.  Patience, glasshoppa.  All right, cream-colored Aussie sliced cheese it is.  Note to self: please do not let this be the “kangaroo cheese” you read about on the internet.     Continue reading

New York: Part 2

Part two in a three-part series of writings done during my two-year stint in the world’s greatest city…

A Letter to My Friends and Family, September 10, 2006

As you, my family and friends, and most American and world citizens are aware, tomorrow is the 5thAnniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks.  I am writing this letter largely for selfish reasons—primarily that it may help me make sense of my feelings.  After finding myself improbably living in New York, employed by the City and in the service of New Yorkers, and traveling each day to my office mere blocks away from Ground Zero, I feel it important to pause and reflect on that day, what it meant to me and mine, but more importantly to think about what it has meant to those directly affected and what it has meant to the people of the world collectively.  It is cause to reflect on life, and its joys, pains, and sorrows.

Like the Kennedy assassination or the Challenger explosion, everyone has a story for where they were and how they heard about the planes and towers. I was on a city bus headed to the University of Minnesota when I first heard murmurs that something strange was occurring in New York.  In my first course of the morning, events became clear, and an announcement was made that classes were cancelled, we were welcome to return home, but that if we felt the need for fellowship and shared contemplation a forum had been arranged to discuss what occurred.  When I moved to New York and took a job with the City, I heard the tales of people who were in lower Manhattan that day.  In fact, my office building was used to temporarily house the injured until hospital space became available.  When I heard these firsthand stories, I felt guilty in discussing the event, as if my own sorrows were somehow illegitimate in comparison to the more difficult and complex experiences of my colleagues.  In some ways this may have been right, but mostly I think no; feelings are our own, and it is up to each of us to deal with them, ignore them, discard them, or explore and embrace them as we see fit.  The world can be as close to the heart or as far away as we want it to be.

On a bike ride around New York Harbor today I stumbled across a memorial service in Bay Ridge’s John Paul Jones Park.  Local City Councilman Vincent Gentile was there, as was Borough President Marty Markowitz. Reading the names of each and every Brooklynite who died that day, and referencing of course all of the firefighters, police officers, and innocent civilians whose lives ended inspired a string of thoughts in me that I couldn’t quite organize or arrange.  Overall, and counter intuitively perhaps, I felt thankful, particularly for the safety of my friends and family, and for the gifts that they have individually and collectively bestowed upon me.  I also felt philosophical, convinced that our lives are wholly insignificant and at the same time imbued with deep meaning.  This may be among the most significant and illogical beauties of our lives—in an infinite universe, on a tiny rock, with all those that came before and will come after us—we still believe in the importance of our individual lives and our collective times.  It’s a sham, really, but it is also wonderful, frightening, and meaningful to us as we work our way through it.

We can choose to be as pained by this anniversary or as immune to it as we like, and I say that not as a patriotic virtue of American life, but as a patriotic virtue of human life.  In New York, the most diverse city in the world, we often coexist as much as we get along, but today all New Yorkers look like my brothers and sisters.  And this, it’s true, can be praised as a great benefit of life in our particular country.  Yet I can’t help but think beyond my apartment, my neighborhood, my city, and my nation.  It is the people who died in those buildings, and our still real opportunity to be concerned and peaceful beings that we should celebrate, and our inability to conceive of our world beyond borders of races, ethnicities, states, religions, or other abstractions that we should mourn.

There are two sides to every coin (it’s true, pull one out and you’ll see).  While any reasonable American citizen or human being for that matter would find an attack such as 9/11 disgusting, unjustifiable, and reprehensible, there are those that believe it reflects uneven and distasteful aspects of American policy and action across the globe, and those that perceive it as a wholly unprovoked attack on unassailable American ideals.  Obviously this was a central moment in our modern times, sure to reverberate for a very long time.   But as much as it can be seen as a rallying point for war, or to call out the wars waged by ourselves, it can be seen as a rallying point for considering honestly and openly our place among others.  As citizens of a country, yes, but perhaps even more, and more simply, as people.

Recently, I was walking toward the R train on an everyday workday morning.   A young Muslim girl in traditional garb strolled along ahead of me, and paused while passing a bill posted on a storefront wall.  In profile, I could see her eyes light up, her mouth drop open, and a surprised smile emerge.  She moved on, and I curiously stopped to see what had caused her to pause.  The bill promoted a pro-Hezbollah, pro-Palestinian, and anti-U.S. and Israel rally set to be held at some future point.  My honest, gut reaction was rage.  How dare they come here, enjoy our fruits, and condemn us at the same time?  It took me half a block to scold myself and realize that this was exactly the point of American freedom—the liberty to discuss ideas in an open forum, and, importantly, to be freely critical of American policy.  Do not in any way read this as an endorsement of the ideals promoted by the groups involved with this rally, but do take seriously the concepts of freedom involved.  You believe in them or you don’t.  And you believe that there is good and bad in all stripes of people or you don’t.  And there is both good and bad in all countries, as only fickle, fallible humankind comprises them.

These are just my thoughts, and if they seem distasteful, oblivious, or otherwise that’s okay because I own them.  I am personally very sad heading into tomorrow, not for myself—though that would be fair—or even for my country—which would again be fair and reasonable.   Nor is it because American or other ideals or symbols have been questioned or violated, but purely because people that didn’t have to die did.

New York: Part 1

Part 1 in a 3 part series of short poems written during my two years in the rotten apple…

New York—

When my baby left you
So did your glow go
You lost your shine
I could long again to see you through the stoned, surprised eyes of a fresh-out-of-Palookaville tourist
But never again through those of a jaded wannabe or ain’t-never-been-never-gonna-be Brooklynite
I can be in New York, but not a New Yorker
I love your mythology, but not your reality
You can be a part of me, but never all of me
All because my baby left you.

Many Words on the Singapore Experience

I am having a quiet night here in College Green (also known as Dunearn Road Hostels), once the humble residence of S R Nathan, President of Singapore, and home of most of my Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) classmates. I thought I’d take the opportunity and send a note on what’s been happening since I arrived here three plus weeks ago. 

In short, things have been great.  Not without a speed bump or two, but generally I couldn’t have asked for more.  It’s wonderful spending time with Yin and her family, I’ve met a lot of interesting and diverse people, and I’m very excited for the academic course into which I have matriculated. I’ll have to break this down by topic so as to give it some shape… Continue reading