Sunday, March 20, 2016

Notes From The Road: The In Between Places

'Franz Kafka, the story goes, encountered a little girl in the park where he went walking daily. She was crying. She had lost her doll and was desolate.

Kafka offered to help her look for the doll and arranged to meet her the next day at the same spot. Unable to find the doll he composed a letter from the doll and read it to her when they met.

"Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world. I will write you of my adventures." This was the beginning of many letters. When he and the little girl met he read her from these carefully composed letters the imagined adventures of the beloved doll. The little girl was comforted.

When the meetings came to an end Kafka presented her with a doll. She obviously looked different from the original doll. An attached letter explained: "my travels have changed me... "

Many years later, the now grown girl found a letter stuffed into an unnoticed crevice in the cherished replacement doll. In summary it said: "every thing that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form."' -a sweet story from a HuffPo blog

Halo from Bali, babes. This week I had the pleasure of driving to the Bali north shore through the lush jungle
mountains, past emerald rice terraces and hoards of monkeys. I will never get over what a joy it is to see wild creatures in the wild. Cages and leashes are the worst.

Once again I was reminded how much I enjoy the journey between destinations. Sometimes it's long, stressful and uncomfortable, but often the scenery is gorgeous and it's exciting to see the space that connects one place to another. I love flying but I will always prefer to be on the ground watching the world go by slower and in detail.

As my travels are beginning to wrap, I find myself in another in between, the place of ending and new beginning. We're always cycling through this moment. It's often challenging and frightening because of the element of the Unknown. My fear of the Unknown crops up massively with the arrival of each new beginning and over the years I've learned that what I'm most afraid of is how the new will change me. Only the most stubborn, hardened people can avoid being reshaped by the events of life. For most of us, and for better or worse, we can't help but change as we dance/stumble/crawl through our existence. I'm always afraid that I will become so different that I will be a stranger among those I love.

Will you still love me when all this is over?

As feared and as always, my travels have changed me. The incredible outcome this time, though, is that I am no longer afraid of the Unknown. I stared into the Unknown over and over through my time here and every time the outcome was amazing. I had anxiety about going to Cambodia, exhausted before arrival by the mere idea of having to be on guard against scams and persistent tuk tuk drivers. While there were absolutely scam attempts and a thousand offers for rides, I also met the most incredible people and became flexible in the face of changing plans. I had been warned not to over plan, that I would fall in love with places and people and want to linger, that my minibus would be late or breakdown, that so many unforeseen things would arise and there would be nothing I could do about it.

Cambodia broke my control mechanism. There is order in the apparent chaos that I couldn't understand or control but I didn't have to because I was always taken care of. Our reality is that we're constantly swimming in the Unknown. Variations from regular routine are an oft upsetting reminder that we're actually not in control of anything besides how we react to the stimuli of life and how we treat others.

The Unknown is always shifting and never graspable. We can only ever master the Unknown moment by moment. How do we master a moment? By recognizing that each one offers us the ability to choose our response, and that our response can bring more peace and calm. So when the subway stops underground for awhile and you're tired or late, you can choose to recognize that this variation is a natural part of living in the Unknown and greet it with grace and equanimity. The Unknown isn't a dark room filled with monsters. The Unknown is *for* us. It is a friend who comes bearing gifts supporting our growth and elevation.

Change can feel like death or ruination- sometimes it is- but its true nature is Transformation. One thing is turning into another. It is the butterfly pushing its way from the cocoon. It is the river meeting the ocean and becoming something so much grander and more free than imagined possible. We have to be willing to merge. Surrender. Let Go.

After some struggle against the tide, I was finally able to let go into the world. The extraordinary became ordinary and the new became electrifying. I expected my wanderlust to be satiated by so much time away but it's just so much worse now. When you travel for a long time in a place like Southeast Asia, you meet a lot of well traveled people and they tell you stories about magical places and things and your imagination explodes and your heart skips a beat and Holy God, someone please pay me to travel. I am now wrecked for regular life. There is so much to see and too much to miss. I don't want to stop until I've been to every country and photographed every stray cat and cooed over every baby and eaten every unidentifiable street food. I love this planet and its people so fiercely.

In this moment of endings and new beginnings, on the eve of my departure from my north Bali jungle retreat, I sit staring once again into the Unknown. My trust in it is new and I am a bit tentative. What will my life be when I return? I have no permanent home in New York and no regular job. I feel ready for a change of activity, a rebirth of my life's work. I am coming back to a blank slate.

In a sense, though, isn't every moment unformed and ready for molding? Is anything ever as rigid as we think?

Only our unwillingness to evolve or let go stands firm.

The nature of existence is change. I am simply living in a moment which highlights that in a very clear way, but my reality now is my reality all the time. Every day is a blank slate whether we recognize it or not. We encounter distinct endings to chapters but they can come at any moment. Don't be fooled by the look of things. Life is terribly, extraordinarily ephemeral. We are never far away from a reminder that the Unknown is our home and that we are not in control.

How will you choose to receive the Unknown? Will you imagine the Transformation it offers as death? Or will you see that in ending certain things, that it is healing you? That it is setting you free? Will you meet the Unknown halfway by taking a bold, brave step into the darkness?

The Unknown is God. And God loves you with the same ferocity that I do...but even better. Their heart is for you and your freedom and upliftment. God is Love and God is the Unknown, so the Unknown is Love.

Don't be afraid. We are all walking into unfamiliar territory together in every moment. You are never alone. You are loved. And you are changing.

But no matter how much your travels change you, yes. You will still be loved when all this is over.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Whore. Slut. Hoe.

The Internet comments section should almost always be avoided. With few exceptions, these forums are filled with virulent nastiness, and horrendous grammar and spelling. Despite knowing this, I allowed myself to be engaged in conversation (if you can even call it that) on a recent post by Texts From Last Night. For those unfamiliar, TFLN receives submissions of text messages and posts them on social media. The texts almost always cheekily detail drunken misadventures and sexual exploits.

In the text in question, the author writes about coordinating their various dates- one for a spanking and one for sex. Despite the text being wholly gender neutral, the comments section exploded with a long stream of slurs accusing this *obviously* woman of being a slut, among other things. It could just as easily have been a man, but aside from a few reasonable people, everyone immediately decided that this 1) was a woman and that 2) her sexual choices should be judged with incredible harshness.

There were some concern trolls, people without actual medical or epidemiological training, who felt the need to assert that this person was obviously a petri dish of disease, although in the text they mention that they've directed their sexual partner to pick up condoms. Sure, condoms don't protect you 100% but using them makes you considerably safer than not. As one commenter also pointed out, people who are in to kink as a lifestyle are also usually very aware of their sexual health. They are far more likely to be tested regularly and to know their status at all times.

The rest of the group chose to glom on to judging this "woman's" value and morality based on her desire to have multiple sexual partners. Vilifying women for enjoying sex is a nauseatingly tired double standard that I'm done with. I don't have a single bit of patience left for that bullshit. The world is ready for women to finally have full agency over their whole beings, including their sex. It's time and it's happening, and some individuals, both men and (sadly) women, are mad as hell about it. And I don't understand why.

Men who have sex with women, don't you like having sex with women? Isn't that something you want to do? Isn't it something you think about regularly and are usually hustling to obtain? Then WHY IN THE FUCK WOULD YOU SHAME WOMEN AROUND SEX? Don't you see how counterproductive that is? Some of you go out to bars or clubs on the weekend hoping to get laid, and if you do manage to have sex with a woman, do you automatically refuse to respect her because she slept with you? I've seen so many men in these threads comment that they could never respect a woman who slept with them right away, or respect a woman who gave them a blow job. Blow jobs are "demeaning." Women who sleep with men right away are "easy" or "desperate." But you *want* to have sex with them, you *like* getting blow jobs, and if they give you what you want then you will not respect them. Because they've done something demeaning and desperate. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU? Mixed messages much?

Then of course if you turn a guy down for sex, or aren't a blow job kind of girl, you are also in the wrong. We know we're being judged for our sexual choices. How could women miss that when even other women will call you a slut? So there is an understandable hesitancy to appear easy. No one wants to be judged. It feels bad. And then so called Nice Guys complain bitterly to women about how we're grouping them in with the rest. #NOTALLMEN they cry! "Some of us are Nice Guys!! Don't lump us in with the others! What a bigoted slut you are!!"

This is not an exaggeration. Nice Guys say shit like this everyday on the accounts of many of the feminist bloggers I follow. They are worse offenders than men who just straight up honestly hate women.

On one hand, I can't blame them. I know that the patriarchy teaches men that a huge portion of their value and identity as a man lies in their ability to get and please women. A woman with full agency over her person can say Yes but she can just as easily say No, and that's a huge risk for masculine identity. The story goes that if you, as a hetero man, can't obtain sex from women it makes you less of a man. Rejection of all kinds hurts, but this cuts deep into gender identity and that's a particularly vulnerable, sensitive area to have challenged. Of course men might be inclined to react poorly to women not affirming their masculinity by having sex with them. There's a lot at stake when your sex is saddled with that much emotional baggage.

On the other hand, I'm tired of women's bodies being battlegrounds upon which the war of masculinity is fought. We don't exist to affirm your identity! We're not here to please you! As adults, it's on each of us to spend time exploring who we are beyond the identities imposed upon us by gender, family, culture, ethnicity, nationality, etc. Being a man means so much more than fucking bitches and getting money...right? Doesn't it? Wouldn't that be so depressing if that's all there was?

And of course there is more. If nothing else, homosexuality informs us that masculinity is not defined by men having sex with women. Homosexual men don't generally have sex with women and they're still men. Being a man is so much more than what you do with your penis, fellas. It's up to you to discover what that is without leaning on others to define you.

Experience has taught that of course it's #notallmen. I'm not a rigid, extremist idiot, and I have so many lovely men in my life who do well by women. What sets these men apart is that they don't operate in the world with a sense of entitlement to women's time and attention. They have made the effort to get to know themselves, and their identities don't depend on how others respond to them. They have work they enjoy, friends, faith, passions and hobbies. Basically, they're well rounded individuals. Men and women alike are tasked with doing this work to know ourselves well, growing the beauty and working out what isn't working.

This inner examination and awareness can be difficult, though. It requires quite a bit of vulnerability to face yourself honestly and learn who you really are beyond constructs and expectations. So angry men and women, mired in their own patriarchal oppression, opt to say awful things about strangers on the Internet to make themselves feel better...I suppose. Is that the purpose? I wonder if that works for any length of time. Has tearing someone else down ever built anyone up? Does anyone benefit from this?


So stop. Stop being awful to each other, in general, but please stop raging against the free expression of female sexuality. What are you hoping to accomplish by putting women down for enjoying sex? You do realize that this hurts you, too, men who want to have sex with women? People don't like doing things they feel shame around. If you shame female sexuality, women aren't going to feel good about having sex with you and you will be having less sex. This is a terrible game plan. You're doing it wrong.

Your task, should you choose to accept it, is to think deeply about how you view sex in general, female sexuality specifically, and how all this plays in to your masculine identity. For women, you have homework, too! I challenge you to think deeply about how you view sex in general, female sexuality specifically, and how all this plays into your feminine identity.

How you view others and how you choose to treat them as a result says everything about you and nothing about them. Calling someone a whore doesn't do a damn bit of good for this world. Knock it off. Do better.

Men, if you want to help, please start calling out other men for their disrespectful behavior towards women. We need your voices and support. The bigoted men whom we women try to dialogue with are stubbornly hateful. They will not listen to us. But, perhaps, they'll listen to you.

If you happen to be a really good man who was raised or has learned how to nurture, please find a way to teach other men. If you're a man who wants to learn this, find a mentor- a well respected man who loves well.

We can build a better world for us all, but it'll only be done with love. It starts today, with you.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Hellooo Laydee!: Navigating the Cambodian Wild

Between Laos and Cambodia I had a day to reset in Bangkok: reup on antibiotics, swap out currency and research my next border crossing. The internet is full of insight into traveling the Kingdom of Wonder and I read a lot of lists of the top ___ things I should know about Cambodia. The first and most important thing is that while riel is still used in the country, Cambodians deal in US dollars with riel only being given for small change in transactions. Some ATMs in Cambodia give you the option to take out riel, but almost all give you dollars and while merchants will take riel, things are usually listed in dollars. Riel is actually a closed currency and unavailable outside the country for exchange.

What does this mean? If you live in a country with a poor exchange rate to the USD, sorry! Cambodia is going to be expensive for you. Cambodia is actually kind of expensive for everyone. It's possible to spend less money there, but it's also very easy to spend a normal-ish amount of money. Cambodia actually bled my travel budget a bit dry, but that's not entirely Cambodia's fault. I have a fondness for fancy food and places like Siem Reap are foodie heaven. But I digress...

As a resident of New York City, you think you understand a good hustle. I've worked a whole lot of jobs in order to pay for a windowless shoebox and a metro pass. My skills as a hustler don't even begin to compare to entrepreneurial Cambodians, though. The hustle begins before you even cross the border. I had read about tricky border crossing agents charging illegal extra Visa on Arrival fees, so I opted to get the e-visa ahead of time. This only works for the airports and a handful of land crossings, so if you are, say, entering from the south of Laos or are not sure where or when you will come to Cambodia, getting your Visa on Arrival is a better option.

Due to my love of train travel and cheapness, I opted to take the very reasonably priced 48 baht train from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet to cross overland into the Cambodian border town of Poipet and on to Siem Reap. It was a particularly hot, dusty day so the six hour, third class journey was a bit miserable but it's safer than taking a recklessly driven minibus, so take your pick. When you arrive at the train station, you still must catch a ride to the border. I linked up with a group of Germans and gave the tuk tuk driver explicit instructions to take us directly to the border, not to a fake visa office nearby where fake visa officials will charge you $30 to complete your visa paperwork for you. The tuk tuk driver ignored me and I had the displeasure of scolding both he and the fake visa officials for trying to con people out of their money. Don't fall for this scam! You are still in Thailand. These people are not Cambodian visa officials. You will find them once you've crossed through Thai customs and into Cambodia, but not a moment before.

After breezing through Thai customs, then came the strangest border crossing walk I've taken yet. Between Thai and Cambodian customs is a 700 meter or so limbo zone lined with casinos and no signage. If you still need to get your Visa on Arrival, you stop at a brown building on the right where there will hopefully be an official to wave you in. If you got the e-visa, you can proceed straight to passport control, which is a small building a very long block down on the right. Fill out the entry card, hand it over with one copy of your e-visa and voila! You're in Cambodia.

If you haven't booked a through bus to Siem Reap or wherever you're going, a man will offer you a free shuttle ride to the bus station in a big old green bus. This is totally legit. If you want to split a taxi, those are available at the border, otherwise get on the shuttle and pick up a bus at the station. I paid $10 for a minibus ride to Siem Reap. As in other places in Southeast Asia, minibuses depart when the bus is full, which can leave you waiting around for a while. Take this time to cultivate a deep well of patience. You'll need it later.

When you arrive in any city in Cambodia, the moto and remorque (tuk tuk) drivers will be waiting for you. They will swarm your bus, knocking on the windows attempting to make eye contact with you, opening the door before the bus has fully stopped to help unload luggage and swoop you up as a passenger. They have no chill. Get used to it. There are more drivers than tourists to drive, and people have mouths to feed. This is a good opportunity to get comfortable with boundaries. Practice saying, "No thank you!" as politely as possible. It's good for you.

If you do accept a ride, your driver will take that opportunity to negotiate a deal to drive you around Angkor Wat the next day...or whatever tourist site there is in whatever city you landed in. Unless you're on an especially tight budget and/or really want to bicycle around the temples, take it. You're employing a local person, it won't cost you a lot, and you'll be grateful for the ride when it gets to be a billion degrees by the afternoon (seriously, Siem Reap is insanely hot. Stay somewhere with a pool.) I split an air conditioned taxi with a girl I met in my hostel and it cost us $15 each for a 10 hour day with a good driver who took us to every major site and some of the smaller ones. After one day I felt very temple complete and spent the rest of my time in Siem Reap by the hostel pool and exploring all the incredible food choices- bye money!

Because Cambodia is not known for bus safety, I opted to travel between Siem Reap/Phnom Penh and Phnom Penh/Sihanoukville with Giant Ibis. Their record is good, their buses are nice (wifi! outlets!), they give you water and on longer hauls, a delicious pastry snack. It's also nice to be able to book tickets online. I passed through Phnom Penh briefly just to see the Killing Fields and S21 (awful but valuable and important!), moving along quickly to the coast and on to the island of Koh Rong. The fast boat was rough for a sea leg-less lady such as myself, but the ride was over in less than an hour. I had the pleasure of kicking my shoes off for a few days at the ultra welcoming Monkey Island and wish I could've stayed longer. I was told and I tell you: Don't over plan! You'll fall in love with places and people and want to linger with them. Leave flexibility to do that.

All the same, leaving earlier gave me time to spend in Battambang, confusingly Cambodia's second largest city despite feeling like a small town. Because my Monkey Island friends and the internet told me not to, I opted not to take the night bus. I stayed overnight in Sihanoukville and left in the morning, riding back to Phnom Penh and onto Battambang from there with Golden Bayon Express. It was about an 11 hour travel day, but seeing the condition of the unsealed portions of National Highway 5 leaving Phnom Penh, I was glad to be doing the drive during the day.

Battambang is a worthwhile stop for the slower pace, easy access to the countryside and fun activities. I also had the good fortune of meeting a big, fun, friendly group of travelers who had linked up and adopted me. We took a leisurely ride through a village and into the rice patties on bicycles and finished the day at an incredible performance of Phare Ponleu Selpak, the youth circus school. The next day we visited the sobering Killing Caves and gorgeous mountainside temples. Battambang is the home of so much history that the entire area is slated to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was mostly thrilled to have made a dozen new friends in the process.

Once again, crossing the border proved to be the most exciting part of the journey- or rather, this time it was getting to the border. It is actually fairly common to have your minibus break down on the side of the Cambodian National Highway, and that day it was my turn. Taking the bus to the border, crossing then taking the train was looking to be at least a 12 hour day, so I opted to treat myself the extra $4 to take a bus all the way back into Bangkok. I booked the $15 journey through my hostel. Between the bus breakdown, a fairly slow border day (Sunday midday) and traffic getting back into Bangkok, I only ended up saving myself an hour and the minibus on the Thailand side drove as they usually do- using the shoulder both to pass other cars recklessly and as a lane. But we all arrived alive and the minibus at least had A/C so...okay.

The biggest challenge of Cambodia were the scams and corruption. For instance, there are women in Siem Reap, in particular, who borrow each other's babies and beg you to buy them milk. They direct you to the most expensive kind, you buy it then they return it to the store and split the profit. Sometimes little kids will ask you to buy them milk for their sibling- same scam. Tuk tuk drivers are also known to deal tourists drugs then turn them over to the police who arrest them and extort thousands of dollars of "fines" out of them to avoid jail time- in the two weeks I was in Cambodia, I heard four different stories of this recently happening. Phnom Penh has a pretty serious problem with purse and phone theft. I've read and heard several reports of people's bags being broken into or stolen altogether in the underside of big buses. Knowing the history of the country and how extreme the poverty can be, I couldn't be angry at any of this, but it did make it hard to relax knowing that I was always a target for theft and scams.

In stark contrast to this were the most strong, warm, friendly people I've ever met. There is this fierce, defiant determination to heal and rise up despite their history. People want opportunity and given it they will work very hard. I was so moved and humbled by how welcomed I felt in the presence of so many people- making a point to make eye contact and smile, to stop and talk. Everyone is so keen to practice their English that I barely learned any Khmer.

Cambodia is high risk high reward. It is not the west. The safety standards are different. One of my friends had a monkey rip the water bottle from her hands, sit down, unscrew the cap and chug it. Monkeys are cute, but they're also aggressive, smart and have big teeth. They run free in lots of places with no keeper. They will fuck you up. Your bus might also crash or breakdown. In their desperation, people may try to shake you down for money in creative ways. You may bear witness to the virulent sex slave trade that is barely underground all over the country. You will hear the offer "Tuk tuk?" a thousand times. You will hopefully opt to tour Khmer Rouge sites because it's essential to understanding this place and it will break your heart and make you sick.

Cambodia is as laden with baggage as it is raucously beautiful. It's a complicated sort of beauty that requires a lot of patience. It is worth it. You will meet the most incredible hearts, local and foreign. You will have the last bit of resistance to going with the flow wrung from you. You're on Cambodia time now. Frustration will get you nowhere. You're entitled to nothing. Take a breath. Humble yourself before the wildness. It'll show you who you are then make you better.