Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Top 6 Things I Did Not Do In Thailand (Without Pictures)

I've had a great seven weeks in Thailand, but it was noticeably marked by all the traditional tourist things I did not do. And no, I haven't been living off the grid in some far away-super-amazing outpost that the backpackers won't start blogging about for another decade. As mentioned in prior posts, I've mostly been working on my website and experiencing more of an internal journey. But everyone loves a good listicle, right?

Top 6 Things I Did Not Do In Thailand (In My First Seven Weeks Here, At Least)


Grand Palace, Bangkok

In Bangkok there's this massive Grand Palace estate in the heart of the city. It's been there since Bangkok was just a little river town (I assume) and is filled with palaces, castles, gilded temples, fancy furnishings, dragon staircase bannisters, and Buddhas -- one carved of emerald and one gigantic, gold and reclining. At least I think they're both in there. Maybe the reclining one is next door. I'm pretty sure it's considered part of the same complex, though. But I don't know for sure because I haven't been there.

Elephants

Who doesn't love elephants? I mean, except for the Chinese who kill them to ground up their tusks to make man more potent! People used to come to Thailand and ride on an elephant, get their picture taken riding an elephant, etc. But then we learned that those elephants are not well taken care of. So now you can go visit elephant sanctuaries, where they help rescued elephants. I'm not sure if these elephants ever make it back to the wild, or if they just live in a white-collar prison. I don't know because I didn't go see any elephants in Thailand. The sanctuary visit sounds like a fun day, though, having playful mud fights with elephants.

Long-Necked Women 

You've seen these women of the Karen Hill Tribe on a National Geographic special before. They're the ones who, at a young age, begin putting those gold hoops around their neck. The hoops are stacked and they use them to elongate their necks. Every now and again they add another hoop and it forces their neck to keep growing longer. I'm not sure why they do this. Does it look sexy to the Karen heterosexual men and homosexual women? Or just to the heterosexual men? Or do they not even have such words for sexual sub-groups? I don't know. I didn't go see them even though I was 100 meters away during a rural walk the other day. The signs were pointing me there. It was clear that someone wanted me to visit. But it didn't feel right to me. They must want my money, but I'm not interested in a financial transaction that involves me paying money to gawk quite so gaudily at another culture's norms. I guess I prefer to do my gawking in a more subtle way.

Temples

Thailand has many Buddhists. Buddhists make many temples. They are all covered with gold and dragons and gold dragons. Inside there's a big Buddha with incense. There are hundreds of them, but I saw enough temples in Japan to take care of me for awhile.

Beaches

You know the movie "The Beach" starring one or two of those really famous actors? The good looking ones? Yup. It was filmed in Thailand. Thailand is a long, skinny country with lots of oceanfront property. Plus, there's a shitload of islands. The young party people love the Thai beaches. The eco-yoga retreat people love the Thai beaches. I always enjoy hanging out on a beach for a few hours if there's a steady supply of cold beer and not too many people. And not too hot. You know, like low-mid 80s Fahrenheit is alright. But much hotter than that is just too hot for my cold soul. I haven't been to a Thai beach, though. Haven't seen the movie, either.

Full Moon Party

At one of the famous Thai islands is a famous monthly Full Moon Party. Every full moon they host a rager with lots of dance music and backpackers and hippies and drugs and booze. There are beautiful people partying in bathing suits. Probably some casual sex going on. I'm not sure, exactly. I haven't been.

Might be fun, though.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Is This a Spiritual Awakening?

When I transitioned out of corporate America and later found myself selling everything that I owned and setting out to travel the world, I guess you could say that I was looking for something. I knew that I wanted more out of life than I was getting, but didn't really know what else was available. So I set out to explore the world to see if there were other cool places to live, other cool cultures to learn from, other cool experiences to have.

Two years later it feels like I was on some sort of a spiritual quest all along, though I never knew it or identified it as such. Whether I knew it or not, I believe a spiritual journey is the best way to describe some of the experiences I've had in the past year.

It started with the 10-day silent meditation retreat that I went to because (1) I had the time, (2) it seemed like I could learn something, and (3) it was recommended by a friend.

That experience opened the door a crack and the door has been opening further ever since.


-----------------------------

There's an outdoor bar in Pai, Thailand that sells magic mushroom shakes. I saw these advertised in Indonesia when I visited there in 2011, but didn't try because I wasn't sure what to expect and was a little nervous. 

Yesterday I was ready for the experience, even though I still didn't really know what to expect. 

What intrigues me about magic mushrooms is that they are completely natural and organic. They simply grow wild in our world, unlike other "drugs" like meth or heroin. Monkeys and neanderthals and homo sapiens have likely been ingesting them forever. They grow all over the world and many cultures have ancient rituals that involve eating psychedelic mushrooms. I'm ready for this.

People around here said they're good to do more during the daytime and when the sun is setting. The place to get them is a bar is called Sunset Bar. I heard it opens at 1pm. 

Around 2:00 I swung by a local hostel to check in with some new friends. I asked if any of them wanted to join me on the 'shroom experience, but they weren't interested. It had just been raining quite heavily and the ground was wet and muddy and I was told that it's better to do it on a dry day because you end up exploring the jungle nearby and probably don't want to get all wet. 

I went anyway.

There were no other patrons when I got there, so I ordered a shake (more of a juice, actually, and quite tasty) and sat down to drink it. It cost about $15 US.

Within 20 minutes I had a nice buzz, but wasn't having visions or anything. It felt good but I wanted more. I walked down past the end of the road to a jungley area with a couple cows and found a dry place to sit down on a pile of rocks. I thought that maybe walking around would stir up my system to make it more potent.

After sitting on the rocks for a bit, I decided I was ready for a second shake. It had been about 1 hour since I drank the first one.

When I went back to the bar, there were 4 young Brits there who I had met on my way here earlier. I was glad they were here as I began drinking the second shake. I felt more comfortable knowing that I had friends around, just in case.

None of us had done magic mushrooms before and didn't know entirely what to expect, but the young Brits kept talking about wanting to see visions. I think they were expecting to watch the world warp around them and see colors and spirits and stuff. I thought that maybe that would happen, but I really didn't know.

The Pai river runs through the jungle not far from the bar property. I remembered hearing the other day about someone who had taken the 'shrooms and "gone and sat by the river for 4 or 5 hours". So I went over near the closest part of the river and just sat down, closing my eyes a bit and starting to get a pretty nice feeling now. With my eyes closed I laid back on a ground covering of gigantic leaves. I could see shapes and patterns morphing in my head and it was beginning to remind me of my ayahuasca experience last year in Peru -- a very earthy, natural feeling. A connectedness was felt, though not particularly strongly. I began yawning, like I had in ayahuasca where I was told it was part of a purging process to release energy from the body. But then some ants started to crawl all over me and I didn't want to lay down on a pile of big leaves anymore.

So I went back to the bar and found a quiet place to lie down on an elevated platform with a pillow beneath my head. Things began to intensify.

I lay down on my back, closed my eyes, and just listened to the sounds of the environment. I could feel the humming energy of all the insects and birds and motorbikes and everything. It felt great.

After a little while of that, two of the young Brits came over and called my name. They asked how I was doing and lamented that they weren't feeling anything. I suggested they just lay down and close their eyes instead of talking and smoking cigarettes and checking their phones. But they didn't appear to be interested in that. They wanted an eyes-open, walking around, distorted hallucinogenic view of the world. I think for that they'd need to drink a couple more shakes.

More people were starting to show up now, and they were coming and hanging out where I was lying down. I was getting bit by mosquitoes so I went over to the bar to lather up with the bug juice. The other Brits were over there and so I sat with them for a minute. Again the young woman lamented that she wasn't getting anything and, again, I suggested that she just close her eyes and breathe and listen. She checked her phone instead.

There was another gentleman now lounging in one of the hammocks, a Brazilian guy. He heard me ask the British woman if she ever meditated, as a way to help her find the psychedelic experience she was looking for, and he invited me over to share his joint. He told me that next week he's going to a Buddhist monastery to live for 6 months. He had done this before, so I was curious to hear his story, even though I also just wanted to stare into the garden and watch the gorgeous colors being illuminated by the setting sun. He kept talking and talking, mentioning how he had done the 'shrooms the other day and, at that time, just wanted to be alone with the river. He had gone to the river and spent hours there. He told me that there's something special about the river.

He just kept talking and talking and I wanted to be a good listener to whatever he was processing. I hung out for a few more minutes, but mostly I wanted to go back to the jungle. Back to the river. So I wished him well and walked back down past the end of the road into the jungle.

This time I could see the river better. Last time I was out here I thought the depression in the land over yonder was just a meadow for the cows. Someone had said that there were caves so I though that maybe it was one of those super cool caves that you just descend into the earth to explore. As I walked closer I could see this other stretch of the river but it was being guarded by thickets and brambles and a solitary cow.

My American mind said: you can't go out there. That's someone's cow pasture. Someone owns that land and you can't just trespass on it. I stopped, unsure of what to do. I turned back toward the bar and distinctly saw two local gentlemen waving me toward the river. They were making that gesture with their hands, motioning "get outta here. go over there, to the river". 

The cow felt like a guardian. It was standing directly in my path and was roped up to a stake. But I was feeling the call now and knew that I needed to go to the river, even if that meant overcoming guardians. 

As I neared the cow I broke out of the shadow of the trees into this amazing golden late-afternoon light. It was that kind of warm light that you normally only see in movies or professional photography. POW! BLAM! Like a slap upside the head I was woken to this vibrant reality of the living jungle. The glow. The warmth. The peace. Butterflies were flitting about, dancing between the grasses. The cow now looked like a cow on one of those ice cream or milk logos, where it is super cute and has a little blue bow on it's head. She was glowing in the light so I approached her with the back of my hand outstretched. 

She came up close to my hand, but didn't lick it or anything. As I looked at her face closely, I saw common traits to a seal or similar marine life. Then I remembered that we use the word "cow" to also describe manatees, or sea cows. They have similar chins and whiskers.

Then the cow snorted at me, so I decided it was time to move on. It was only 10 more meters to the river so I walked past the cow and over to the bank up above the flow of the chocolatey river that I hoped was downstream from Willy Wonka's Thai retreat.

"Starry Night" - Van Gogh
It was so beautiful. There were wildflowers and green grasses, butterflies, more cows across the river with clanging bells, and the sounds of the jungle were buzzing everywhere. It felt like the heartbeat of the earth was right here, right now. It was golden hour as the sun was lowering itself across the river.

I laid down in a patch of long, soft, flower-filled grasses. I laid down on my back like they have you do at the end of a yoga session: palms up, legs comfortable with relaxed feet gently tilted outward. I could feel the earth and wanted to melt into it. The more I cleared my thoughts the more powerful it became. As I emptied my mind I fell deeper and deeper into connection with the earth, my body melting into the heather.

Ayahuasca had taught me: Don't think. Just be.

I melted completely until there was no Kirk anymore. There was just energy. I could feel all the energetic vibrations of the jungle and the critters and the sun and the universe. There was no distinction between all the energy and me. I was a part of the energy, boundless.

I laughed. 
I cried. 
I burst forth with exclamations of wonder.

As I lay there completely at one with the universe, I had a bit of a tightness in my throat (whoa! whaaat?). It wasn't enough to cough or spit or puke, but there was a tightness. So I held my breath which seemed to relieve the clutch. As I held my breath, I realized that the act of breathing is nothing more than a pump to keep this terrestrial body alive. I was not my body. I was universal consciousness and, if I wanted, I could just keep holding my breath until my body died, and that I would still exist as a conscious being. It made complete sense. I exist in the cosmos, just floating or whatever, formless, and I could leave my body anytime by just stopping the pump. Death is really no big deal.

In this dimension, the body pumps in oxygen and pumps out carbon dioxide. But at the universal level, the energy of the universe is love and the human breathes in love and breathes out love. Love is a river that flows through our body. It flows through everything. Everything is a river of the divine energy, love, constantly flowing.

----------------------
Phew.

Ok.

Breathe.

As I am wont to do, I started analyzing it. Thinking it. What was going on? How was this happening? In my head I played back how I got here. First there was the spiritual Brazilian who told me to go to the river. And then, when I hesitated, there were the two local gentlemen who motioned me to continue. They run the bar. They must know what I was experiencing. They see it every day. Are they angels?

I was coming to the realization of the one universal consciousness/energy/divine with the understanding that my realization would not have happened without these guides. At least it wouldn't have happened here and now. I was meant to be right here right now. That led me to this difficult-to-describe circular understanding: It was like everything in my life had led me to this moment of realization. As I looked back it just could not have been any other way. And it also felt like every moment in our lives is like that: the inevitable outcome of everything, at this moment, in a singular point of being.

I quickly realized that leaving my lifeless body next to a river in northern Thailand probably wouldn't play too well with friends and family. And then I kept thinking that the people who guided me here must have had this experience, too. They also felt the oneness of everything and they also chose to go back to the three-dimensional world. But why did they choose that? There must be a reason for this existence. But what's the reason?

It felt like I had a choice: to either inhabit this 3D world, or to become one with universal energy. The 3D world simply has a set of rules that the human being needs to play by. I struggled a bit to learn more: what's my purpose? how can I go back with this knowledge? am I supposed to teach? to love?

The only message that I feel like I received was threefold:
  1. We each exist as part of a greater universal consciousness
  2. That universal consciousness is a river of love
  3. I am not my self. By which I mean that the Kirk that exists in this body in this dimension is only part of a greater Kirk. They're separate, but it's easy to get sucked into the 3D world so deeply that we lose our connection to the infiniteness of our being.
I think I also felt that there is no purpose, exactly. At least not from that higher dimension. Everything just is. So be a part of this world and engage in it with this new understanding. 

Epilogue

For me and my curious brain this raises all sorts of other questions. If spiritual awakening is a real thing, then there must be a reason why all these monks sit and meditate for years, right? Do they know something I don't know? Many people have had this sort of a spiritual experience before me. And with that understanding they are choosing to interact in this world. 

The Buddha said that desire is the root of all human suffering. This makes complete sense to me. So we can agree that human suffering is still a bad thing, and maybe the goal is to relieve suffering?

Am I supposed to help people go to their metaphorical river, like my guides did for me? 

I did get a sense that if every human had this experience then the world as we know it would essentially just fold in upon itself, and that that would be the end/beginning of a greater universal cycle of expansion and contraction, of breathing.

Spiritual philosopher Alan Watts famously said
When you get the message, hang up the phone.
I feel like I got a message loud and clear. I guess I'll just go about my business, leading with love, and be ready in case the phone rings again. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

New Business Developments: Logo!

I'm in Chiang Mai, Thailand for 3 more weeks and am hard at work on my new business: Prepared Passing. Last year I mentioned it here when it was in its early stages. Now I've hired professionals to help me take it to the next level as a paid, educational service.

Prepared Passing helps people reduce stress and gain more peace of mind when they have a parent who is dying.

Still working on that tagline.

We finalized the logo last week and I think it turned out really well.
The website is being developed now and my original educational content being re-written by a professional. When the content is done then I will develop the accompanying videos. All that is the easy part, after which the hard work begins: marketing.

What's Next

In 3 weeks I'll be traveling back to China to meet up with buddies Money & Big D for a couple weeks visiting Beijing and then the famous Shangri-La region near Tibet. Then I'll make my way into Tibet and Nepal which have been #1 on my To See list for the past 25 years. Himalaya ho!

I'm not sure what will happen after that or when I'll be able to get back to business work, so it will likely be at least a few more months before I get the videos done and the new website launched.

It feels great to be making progress, though. Choo choo.




Monday, April 17, 2017

Finding A Routine In Chiang Mai, Thailand

Dec. 31 New Years in Chiang Mai
In Thailand the Songkran water festival just ended over the weekend. It is an annual event to celebrate the Thai new year. For five days everyone out on the streets is having water fights and walking out your door means playing. It was delightful to see so many adults with big water canons and bigger grins aimed at every scooter and pedestrian in their path. A very fun atmosphere, but one that I was ready to be done with on about the second day.

I was ready to be done with it because I had just gotten into the groove for my new webucation (seriously, I just came up with that brilliant nugget. my genius knows no bounds!) site, Prepared Passing.

Let me go back a week.

Last Week

Songkran was beginning and many businesses shut down, including all the yoga studios. Daily yoga at $5/class is one of the benefits of living in Chiang Mai. Since I'd be taking a week off from yoga, I decided to do another 4- or 5-day fast (as I first chronicled here 6 months ago). For the first 3 days I was doing great. But by the afternoon of Day 4 I was feeling depressed, and this is not a normal feeling for me. I was tired of traveling. Homesick. Just wanted to move back to the States and settle down somewhere. Red flat alert! I was frustrated with this business idea and couldn't find any motivation for it. And I couldn't make heads or tails of this spiritual awakening that appears to be happening to me.

So I ate food. Crazy, I know. I made it 4 full days of fasting, noticed a successfully lowered blood pressure (because of feeling faint when I stood up, not because I actually had access to a cuff). I had dinner and a beer and a Snickers bar and went to bed.

The Next Morning

By morning I felt great. I found a place to hire a web developer for Prepared Passing and was shocked to get more than 80 job proposals. The thoughtful ideas coming in from seasoned programmers were just what I needed to light my fire around the website. Sparks were flying and it began to feel like it really might be a legitimate business model.

Finding a Routine

So now that the festival is over and I'm inspired to work, I've found myself a nice routine.
  • 7am Wakeup. Listen to the latest podcast of On Being or Tangentially Speaking or Buddha at the Gas Pump
  • 9am yoga ($5)
  • Healthy breakfast (omelette, salad, green smoothie, coffee for $8) and working for 90 minutes. That's where I am as I write this.
  • Noon meditation group (two 20-minute sittings for $1.50 donation)
  • Thai massage (60-minutes for $8)
  • Work a little more
  • Dinner. Chill out
  • Bedtime

Sorry, No Photos

I haven't really been taking any photos recently. After traveling for 17 months the picture taking gets a little old. Plus, my exploration has turned more internal in the past month. The warmth and energetic vibrations that I mentioned here are still with me. My latest theory is that maybe it's me being awakened to the sense of my chi (aka prana, spirit, life force). I don't really know yet, so I'm spending time every day exploring it further and continuing to learn and grow. 

Buried Lede

Perhaps I've buried the lede here, because this topic of energy and spirit is not one that many people are comfortable with. It's difficult for me to discuss, but I'm working on it. Western culture barely acknowledges its existence, even though Eastern cultures have had an understanding of it for 2500 years. If one of my friends had told me about their energy experience 5 years ago I would have been quite skeptical. In fact, I can think of a couple friends who may have tried to share something similar with me, only to be met by my predictable skepticism and ignorance. Heads up: I'm still not ready to hear about your crystals or magnets.

Example: Brilliant, smart, highly educated, American neuroscientists can now scan the brains of meditating monks with billion-dollar science machines! They discover that meditating monks show more in the awareness and happiness and peacefulness zones of the brain than normal Americans do. Shocker! 

Buddhist monks have known this for 2500 years. Just because we can't prove it, doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

I don't think this has happened to me because I was looking for it (though I've certainly been growing more open to possibility in the past 5 years since I started listening to a shitload of podcasts). I think it happened because I simply shed all the bullshit in my life, walked away from it and began living the life I always wanted to live. My mind is able to be free. And when I challenged it by feeding it the words and experiences of many wise people, it was finally able to blossom.

That's my current theory, anyways. I'm still a Western skeptic and still looking for better explanations. And I do still understand that I am a very fortunate person in so many ways. I don't know if that's because of karma from past lives or not. Haven't started believing in that yet. But why else should I be fortunate enough to explore any path that interests me while billions of people are stuck fighting for food and water? Pure luck? I dunno.

Time for meditation. Smell ya later.


Friday, April 7, 2017

Shanghai, Hong Kong & Bangkok Photo Dump

Recently I spent a month in Shanghai and five days in each of Hong Kong and Bangkok.

Shanghai

In Shanghai I had the pleasure of staying with my buddy Mike who I don't think I had seen in two years. He's been living in Shanghai for work (Ecolab) for the past two years and will likely be there for two more. Catching up with him was definitely the highlight of my time there.

Shanghai is a huge mega-city of 25-30 million people. It is also very international because it is the main business hub of Communist Red China.

Mike has a lovely 2-bedroom apartment in this centrally located building:
Mike's Apartment in Shanghai

The iconic skyline of Shanghai was all erected in the past 20 years or so. They tell me that the land across the river in this picture was just farmland in the 1980s.
Kirk. Shanghai. The Bund.
Funny story about this picture. I later learned that the woman who offered to take it for me was likely trying to scam me. I met two nice, talkative women in their twenties who were walking along this promenade (on the Bund). It is a very touristy area because of this view. So local scam artists will befriend you, first by offering to take your picture. Then they chat you up in broken English and eventually invite you to get a drink at a place nearby. If you take them up on their offer, you end up in one of those scams where you sit down for a drink and it costs $100. This happened to me in Rome some years ago so I'm now wary of it, but wasn't certain that was happening at the time until Mike confirmed it. So much for Communism.

My new favorite breakfast is being made by this lady as Mike looks on, drooling.

Here's what it looks like when done. Flaky, crispy, crepe-like outer that contains a minimal amount of spicy paste, small hot dog of some sort, greens and some other paste. There's not much to it, but it's really tasty. Costs about $1.


Other amazing Chinese food is xiao long bao, seen here. They're delectable little dumplings, with a little meat and hot (temperature-wise) watery sauce inside. I ate this sampler platter and then ordered another full platter of the spicy maroon one.
Xiao long bao
Next up: Getting high in Shanghai. At least I haven't tried to squeeze in "getting Shanghaied" anywhere. Shanghai has 3 really tall skyscrapers, each of which has observation decks. But only one has an observation catwalk outside the building on the 88th floor. This is me, 1000' above the ground clipped in and actually outside the building. I waited for a rare clear day to go up there. I think it cost about $40.
Getting high in Shanghai
A guide took a group of 6 of us outside single file and clipped in to a rail. We walked around part of the building, staying outside for about 10 minutes. There were 2 places for photo ops and this photo cost me another $10. It was a lovely day with amazing views and just a hint of a breeze.

Tea time. One Saturday in Shanghai I took a tour about an hour outside of town to tea country. That's actually fog, not smog, and I think it's one reason the tea grows so well here. This is longjing green tea, a local specialty that was in season. Met a nice Colombian guy who was also going to Hong Kong and we connected there for the hiking trip you'll see below.
Tea time

Hong Kong

And then I got high in Hong Kong, another city with a broad and towering skyline. A cool thing about Hong Kong is that is includes a collection of islands. This photo is taken from the top of Mt. Victoria overlooking the main business district. Gorgeous view. There's a nice hike that circumnavigates the peak and allows for this perspective.
Getting high in Hong Kong
Most people are familiar with urban Hong Kong, but you don't need to travel far from the business center to get out into the country. Mike and I went to a small fishing town and saw the catch of the day from the pier. 
Catch of the day in Hong Kong 
And then I met up with some other international travelers for a day hike out to this dry waterfall and the nearby sea shore. I'm on the left and the photo is just before we all jumped. Good times.
Cliff jumping with new friends in Hong Kong

Bangkok

I didn't take many pictures in Bangkok, but here are some highlights.

Bicycles and butterflies. What could be better than that? 

On a biking/boat tour we went through a market. Here are some of the famous chilis that make Thai food so delicious.

Boat from the boat part of the bike/boat tour. The water is shallow so they use a engine (not sure why it's so gigantic) with a propeller on the end of that long stick, maybe 20' back of the boat.

Buddy Shanghai Nick pointing to the spiciest food either of us had ever eaten. It's a bean salad at about 4am after a good night of drinking in Bangkok. After eating it I was running around looking for a surgeon to amputate my tongue. We did not finish it.

Bangkok was a lot of fun. Shanghai Nick is a co-worker of Mike's from Ecolab and I met him in, you guessed it, Shanghai. Late nights, too much booze, and very little actual sightseeing. But I'd go back to Bangkok in a heartbeat to explore it more and see the sights. It has a river and canals and some crazy architecture and many great little drinking neighborhoods. All for a very reasonable price.

And now, your moment of zen..

What's Next?

I write this from charming Chiang Mai, a kickass city in northern Thailand. I'll be staying here for the next 6 weeks, working on updating my business website and enjoying the greatest food on earth. I'll also be enjoying the fantastic value of living in Thailand: mouth-watering meals for $5, hour-long thai massage for $7, daily yoga for $5, room at an apartment building with pool and gym for $10/day. Smell ya later.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The De-Cluttered Mind

Two years ago I began the journey of quitting my job, selling everything and traveling the world because I knew there was a better way for me to live. And by "better", I mean a way that energized me more day after day. If we only have one life to live, then I wanted to live it large.

I also began this journey out of curiosity about the world. I had itches to scratch. What's it like to ride a bicycle for weeks through Patagonia? Can I become fluent in a second language? Is the skiing in northern Japan really as good as everyone says it is?


16 months into it, I've realized a few things: biking in Patagonia is awesome, but next time I'll avoid horse-fly season. Learning a second language can be very difficult. Japow is for real.

But I also realized something far more important. By removing all the stresses from my life (no job, no bills, no dependents) I unwittingly de-cluttered my mind, therefore allowing it to see more clearly. Through no intention of my own, I became able to see through the mask of the life that we deal with every day. I see the love and energy of the world and I see the gigantic pile of bullshit that humans unknowingly bury it under. I think this clarity only happened because I first de-cluttered my mind, though I'm told that for other people it can happen via any number of ways.


Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia. Dawn.

This is the sixth time I've sat down and tried to write something about this, so I'll keep it brief. It's not easy to share this kind of woo-woo stuff without sounding a little crazy or a lot full-of-myself. But the purpose of the internet is for people to throw shit out there and for others to judge the value on their own, right? Perhaps it won't sound crazy to some of you.

A warmth has emerged inside of me that I was never aware of. I've felt it for a week now and I write this partially as a record of its existence in case I lose it. In retrospect I can see it was slowly building, brick by brick, experience by experience, over the course of the past year.

Through meditation and ayahuasca, I learned that there are energies in the universe that we rarely see or feel. Through global travel I learned that yesterday's cultural norms often become today's bad habits, passed on lovingly by long-dead ancestors. I'm not blaming anyone, but most people have seen this in their own family.

I've learned that one's emotions are their own. If someone else is doing something that makes me angry or frustrated, that anger is my problem and not theirs. They may have plenty of their own issues, but the way I react to them is my issue for me to control. 

I've learned that happiness really does come from inside of us, not from outside of us. I believe that love is a flame that burns in our heart, not something that is given to us by another person (though I believe that another person can act as kerosene to brighten our flame).

I've also learned that I need to keep on learning because there is so much to this wonderful existence that is still beyond our current understanding. Dogs are able to hear and smell things that humans do not. Cats can see waves of light that humans cannot see. This world we humans see, in all its glory, is just one scuffed facet of a truly glimmering gem.



Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Tangentially Speaking

I enjoy and find great benefit in listening to podcasts and reading blogs and books. Since quitting my job I've been blessed with time and I'm realizing how valuable time is for personal growth. I understand that virtually nobody reading this has the kind of time that I do for listening to wise people, but I encourage you to give it a shot.

There's an ancient Buddhist saying:
You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day. Unless you're too busy. Then you should sit for one hour.
photo via 

My New Favorite Podcast

Tangentially Speaking
The host of this podcast, Chris Ryan, is a very wise and well-traveled, philosophical gentleman. Every episode has at least one gem that I take away, often they are Ryan's beautiful (if not entirely accurate) attempts to remember a quote from somebody else. Here are a few of my favorites:
When asked for life advice from a young person he quoted the more broad interpretation (i.e. without the word "God") on a famous St. Augustine quote saying: Love, and do as you please.
He took a Eugene McCarthy quote about politicians and football coaches and applied it to Wall Street investors and corporate America business leaders, saying that the most "successful" of them are good at the money games they play because: they are smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it's important.

I can't remember who to attribute this one to, but it is so true: Anger is what fear and pain look like when they show themselves in public.
There are over 200 Tangentially Speaking episodes and you can browse through the list of guests and start with someone who sounds interesting to you. If you want a place to start, try episode 195 ROMA 7 where he responds to a guy who is "mystified at how so many people fail to see through the inanities of modern civilization".

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Japan Wrap-up Photo Dump


I'm not exactly sure how to talk about the rest of my month in Japan so I'll just do another photo dump, sharing the stories behind some of the photos I took.

I spent the past two weeks in the historical and Buddhist heart of Japan: Kyoto, Nara and Koyasan. Kyoto is famous for all the historical temples still standing in the city. Nara is home to a 50' tall bronze Buddha, built in 751, who sits inside what was, until recently, the world's largest wooden building. Koyasan is a small town in the mountains centered around more than 100 temples, some of which allow tourists to stay in them.

Here's the Nara Buddha that was cast in bronze in the year 751. According to Atlas Obscura, the initial construction nearly bankrupted Japan.
Today it is very much a tourist attraction, primarily for groups of school children. Nobody was hanging out and being particularly spiritual when I was there. I was mostly surrounded by 14-year olds taking selfies.

My favorite Buddha was this next one in Kamakura, just about an hour by train south of Tokyo. There was a scenic, wooded 45-minute hike to get to the Buddha. Of course, you all know that getting there is half the fun. It was a gorgeous day and I sat down and meditated for 30 minutes here amongst the visitors. This Buddha is also about 50' tall and bronze.

This next photo is of a women praying before entering a temple in the snowy mountains outside of Kyoto. The morning mountains here were beautifully coated in an overnight snowfall and there were few visitors when I was there. 

Here's another shot from that same temple.


I visited many temples with gorgeous gardens. You've probably seen photos of Japanese zen gardens with the 5 rocks sitting on a big bed of gravel. They didn't get very old to me and I enjoyed visiting many different ones. Here's a nice place for dinner next time the local Lama invites you up to his summer temple.



One of the most famous and popular sites around Kyoto is the Fushimi-Inari Shrine because of the amazing tunnel of these orange gates. I'm not sure there are really 10,000 of them, but there's certainly more than 1,000. Super cool and quite photogenic.
Which way to the Zen Buddhist temple?

Matcha green tea is a special kind of ceremonial green tea that is crafted with love and ritual. Here's a photo from a tea ceremony I attended where, over the course of 10 minutes, this lady prepared one cup of matcha. She said it takes 10-15 years to be a Master of Tea Ceremony, learning all the proper techniques for making different types of matcha for different purposes in different seasons of the year.

The tea is very smooth, thicker than a normal cup of tea. It is often served in exquisite tea rooms, such as this one looking out over a bamboo garden.

In Koyasan I spent 3 nights staying in a Buddhist temple. They had 8 or 10 rooms that they rent out to tourists and we could witness some of their daily monk rituals. My room had a nice view into a wooded area surrounding the meditation hall. It was a wonderful 3 days of peace and quiet, listening and deep thinking for me.

The food was amazing and vegan. Miso soup, rice, tofu served multiple different ways and far more tasty than I'd ever had, assorted tempura and vegetables served in ways I'd never experienced before. If I could eat like this every day I could almost become vegan. Almost.

There is an ancient cemetery in Koyasan and it was fun to walk through. It houses the mausoleum of the Buddhist monk who is called the Father of Japanese Culture because he created the Japanese written language (adapted from Chinese) and started the whole calligraphy craze.

The generous woman at the aforementioned tea ceremony who kindly translated my name, Kirk, into Japanese calligraphy obviously didn't know that I'm unemployed and homeless.
Splendid Success = Unemployed & homeless

Just a couple more things I need to mention. First, Japan has a weird sexual and pseudo-sexual undercurrent. On the surface, all Japanese are very proper, bowing all the time and being super polite. In the workplace they are encouraged to conform and it is seen as bad to stand out. One of the effects of this is these places called Maid Cafes. I had to try one.

You go to this cafe where a bunch of 16-20 year old girls are dressed up as maids. There is an extreme level of cuteness applied to everything. It's like Hello Kitty having tea time with a basket full of puppies.

The food is all cute and colorful, though it doesn't taste particularly good. Shocker. I ordered the salad and the nuclear green sugary beverage. It's hard to see in the picture, but the cheese on the salad is formed to look like little critters. 
Cute pose with love heart

Here's the nice picture card they gave me when I was leaving. The embedded photo is me and the girl/maid/whatever who was my server.
Cute pose #2: fists beneath chin.

The first 30 minutes was quite entertaining. Most of the 20 people in the cafe were eating alone, like me. And it turns out it was on Valentine's Day (I swear I didn't plan it that way, but I realized when I took my place at the end of a 20-minute line to get in). There were definitely some very lonely people who go to this kind of cafe for (completely innocent) companionship. More than one customer was playing a little children's game kind of like Hungry Hungry Hippos with their server/maid.

But after being there for 30 minutes I was ready to roll. It was one of those crazy cultural experiences that was super fun, but only for a short amount of time. I was the only non-Asian customer and it felt a little weird to be glancing into the lives of some very sad souls.

Lastly, I will share with you one more weird Japanese cultural experience. I spent 4 nights in Kyoto staying at one of those pod hotels. You know what I mean, right? It's this Japanese budget hotel option where you're room for the night is not much bigger than the trunk of your car. The place I stayed was brand new, though, and the pods were quite sufficient and cozy. This stock photo of the place I stayed shows the double-decker pods on each side of the hall. Each one is probably 6'6" deep by 4' high and 3' wide or so. There was a tv inside, and a fan, and lights with dimmers.

That's it.
I'm writing this from Shanghai, China where I'm pleased to be crashing with my buddy Mikko for awhile. I may use Shanghai as a home base for much of 2017. My first priority is to turn my business website into version 2.0, likely called Prepared Passing. It'll be an educational site for people who have a parent who is dying.

So I'm gonna crank on that for the next couple months. But I'm also excited to be able to easily visit places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, greater China, Mongolia, India, Nepal, Bhutan and on and on and on.

Asia is big with lots to see and at this point I have no schedule. Gonna stay until I'm ready to move on and do it up right.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Fascinating Japan

It's been 26 years since I was last in Japan. During junior year of college I spent the month of January studying economics with a group of 15 students from St. Olaf.

My memories of that time aren't that sharp. I remember living with a lovely host family in Tokyo for 3 weeks. I remember drinking alcohol for the first time (!) at age 20 when my host father offered me sake and beer. I remember the vast cultural differences that weren't due to financial reasons. I remember feeling like a prairie dog because Tokyo is a big city undercut by a vast network of subways. When traveling around the city I'd ride the subway. Then I'd explore above ground in a small area around the subway stop. Next I'd go back underground and then pop up somewhere else, never really understanding how the areas were connected. I remember visiting Hiroshima.

Our student group also visited Osaka where we toured an automobile factory and learned about some of the legendary Japanese quality control processes, like Kaizen, that later made their way around the world.

Since that experience I've been curious about the rest of Japan -- historic Kyoto, the Japanese countryside, the mountains and the skiing, the distant northern island of Hokkaido.

Fortunately, my buddy Mike scoped out the skiing last year and raved about the daily powder dumps up at Niseko on Hokkaido. So we arranged to meet.

Skiing in Niseko, Japan

Skiing in northern Japan lived up to all the hype for me. They average almost 600" of snow per year, twice that of the popular areas in Colorado, and more even than my beloved Alta. For a powder junkie like me that's just what I was looking for. Alas, in the winter of '16-17 the American West has been getting hammered but it's been a relatively low snow year in Japan. 

But Ullr was shining on me. In the previous weeks they'd actually had rain at Niseko, but Mike and I received back-to-back days of 6-8" and then followed with a third bluebird day.
Ullr, the Norse God of Skiing

Bluebird JaPow with Volcano
The in-bounds area doesn't have a whole lot of expert terrain, but the vast powder more than makes up for it. Tree skiing JaPow is the strength here and I would gladly return. There's a nice, and booming, town at the base of the Grand Hirafu ski area (one of 4 ski areas that neighbor each other ringing halfway around the big mountain). Lots of Australians ski here.

Food

The other supreme pleasure of Japan so far has been the food. After spending 14 months eating the mostly simple cuisine of Latin America, my tongue and taste buds are thrilled for a change of pace. Tortillas and chicken have given way to noodles and sashimi and yakitori.

In Sapporo we visited the Sapporo brewery. Here's Mike enjoying the local delicacy Jingisukan (named after Genghis Khan). This food wasn't that great, actually, but the photo is pretty good. It was grill-your-own meat and vegetables. But grill-your-own? At a restaurant? I thought that's what I pay the professional chefs for.
Ullr eats Genghis Kahn
Yakatori is a Japanese delight similar to the Spanish tradition of tapas -- small plates that you order a bunch of and share with friends. The two sticks on the left of this platter are kimchi meatballs on a stick and were phenomenal. Yakatori tends to be fried meat (beef, chicken, gizzards, livers, etc) but can also include such delights as asparagus wrapped in bacon and spicy mushrooms.
Yaktori, kind of like tapas
 Behind the counter at a couple yakatori places...
 

The tab for the evening appears to be unhappy. Not sure why that is. Perhaps it didn't like the way I manhandled my chopsticks.
Check, please
The pork in this ramen dish in the town of Otaru, Japan was the best thing I'd eaten in months. As the Japanese would say, oishii!
Ramen with pork that will blow your mind
Visiting the fish market is always fun.

Fresh Fish
And it was at the fish market in Hakodate, Japan on the southern coast of Hokkaido that I finally understand why television food traveler Anthony Bourdain raves about uni, or sea urchin. I'd had it twice before in the USA as sushi and didn't really care for it. I tried it as sushi a couple days prior to this here experience and it was better than in America. But this fourth and most simply prepared experience was the one that will keep me singing its praises forevermore. Those yellow pieces of meat are attached to the shell by a little nubbin, kind of like how an oyster is attached. When in Hokkaido, you must try the uni.
Uni, or sea urchin

Drinking in Japan

Drinking is a big part of the Japanese culture. Many employees work long hours and after work go out drinking with their coworkers. They drink to get drunk. Because Japan has such a formal and polite outer shell of a culture, it is after work when people are allowed to let their hair down and say what they think. 

So in the spirit of multi-culturism, Mike and I decided we should try out a few of these drinking establishments.

The options are plenty, whether they be in a hopping main drag in Tokyo...

Or in a warren of small joints that only have room for 6-8 customers...
Mike looking for a drink

 Or a joint on the snowy streets of Sapporo.

And if you know me at all, you know I couldn't pass up a chance to drink at a place called Bar Boozer in Hakodate.
Mike patiently awaiting the opening of Bar Boozer

We returned later that night...

and were slightly surprised when it turned out to be a nice whiskey bar. So we helped ourselves to some from the Nikka distillery that we toured when up on Hokkaido.


We also had a few great encounters with bars that spin vinyl records. This was the first one, I think, in Otaru or Sapporo. The sign outside said Jazz Bar so we went in thinking there would be live jazz music. An interesting thing about Japanese restaurants and bars is that they make it almost impossible to see inside from the outside. The Japanese are very shy and private about their vices -- booze and sex. There were plenty of times when I opened a door to a place that seemed interesting, only to be turned away because they didn't serve foreigners (true: if you don't speak Japanese some restaurant owners just don't want to deal with you) or because it just wasn't our style. There was no live music here, but a great soundsystem and a hep cat owner spinning jazz vinyl.


Our most fun night (and most hungover morning) came at this place: Soul Bar Jody. It was in the basement of a building and surrounded by some of the weirder sex-type clubs they have in Japan.
This is in the city of Morioka, Japan. We walk in and instantly see a Prince record proudly displayed on the counter. Good sign. There's just the proprietor sitting behing the bar having a smoke and nobody else in the small room that could maybe hold 20 people tightly.

The gentleman owner spoke pretty decent English so we asked if he could play some Prince for us, seeing as we were from Prince's home town and all. He did and we ordered whiskey and beer. He had lots of photos on the walls of the bar and some of them were former professional wrestlers. I remembered that AWA wrestling, the professional outfit out of Minneapolis in the 1980s, had a connection with Japan. We started talking pro wrestling and soul music and then he put a VHS tape into his VCR and up on the screen popped the AWA's champion Nick Bockwinkel wrestling in Japan around 1984 or so. Awesome!

Do you remember Mad Dog Vachon? Because the Japanese sure do:
Mad Dog Vachon
More beer and whiskey flowed. Cigarettes were bummed and still no one else entered the bar. We had been there for a few hours listening to great records and watching old wrestling videos with this fifty-something Japanese gentleman.

So much fun.