Reaching New Heights (Part I)

Its funny when you think about it, quite often were late to staff meetings when theyre in the same building, but for this expedition they gave a group of westerners a time and place to meet in Beijing, China, and we were all prompt and accounted for! The first to arrive were the twins, Gabby and Jamee, Asian affairs and Chinese language students from Brisbane, Australia. Then myself and my roommate, Richard, a construction manager from Manchester, England. Also joining us were two couples: Mia and Tobias from Germany/Brussels and Sweden/Germany respectively; and Eric and Katy, a financier and a trauma psych Ph.D. student, from Chicago. We then had three solo travelers: Lauren, a banker (for lack of a better description), from Switzerland; Alix, a soon-to-be neurobiology Ph.D. student from Germany; and LaRee, a gas and oil analyst from Alberta, Canada.

Obviously this is a group of highly functioning individuals in need of some respite before heading back to our respective careers, but were also a fairly young group of mostly 20 and 30 year olds, most with some trekking experience. We put together rather quickly that there was a single line in the tour description that may have molded the group without our realizing it, Day 11: trek to Everest Base Camp, 6 hours, moderate to heavy activity at high altitude. Yeah, I guess that'll do it. That would keep most armchair adventurers from signing up.

We meet our guide Druja, the consummate guides guide, then head upstairs to fill out forms, provide copies of our visas and passports, confirm our travel insurance, and generally sign our lives away before we head off into one of the most inaccessible places on earth. On our first night we set out to find a rooftop lounge where we can relax after our long journeys, get to know each other, and initiate the bonding process we all know is going to be paramount in the coming weeks. The next day would begin our training for Day 11, first up: climbing the Great Wall.

It never looked that challenging in the movies or on TV, and in-and-of-itself it isnt. Its mostly a stone path with stretches of inclines every quarter mile or so, but the approach – the trek to the wall proper – good lord! In total one will walk over 10,000 steps through the Chinese jungle to get from the knick knack booths at the bottom of the mountain, to watchtower 23, and back. I failed the first training session and had to take the cable car up and back. In my defense the 50lb camera bag on my back was an added challenge, but by God this would be the last time I gave up!

The next two days would be spent crossing the breadth of China and northern Tibet on a specialized train that gently acclimates travelers to the altitude of Lhasa. Each car is equipped with pressurized oxygen delivery systems which switch on at around 4,000 meters of elevation. In the spirit of mountaineering, the trains route crosses the highest locomotive pass in the world at over 5,000 meters (which pushes even the most robust travelers into their births to sleep it off), then gently glides back down to Lhasa at 4,200 meters, tricking our bodies into thinking this is now a normal altitude. Of course it will take several days for our bodies to produce enough blood to compensate for the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere, but for the time being the nausea and headaches are kept at bay by the climb high, sleep low technique.

In Lhasa the training disguised as sight seeing continues with picturesque temples and monasteries perched atop inaccessible hilltops or otherwise requiring us to climb hundreds and hundreds of steps. We average 10 miles per day (of course with a full camera bag), and continue to increase our max elevation. The highlight of these training hikes was on our last day in Lhasa, a day marked as elective on the itinerary. On this day Druja had something special in store for us.

An hour outside of Lhasa lies a monastery unvisited by tourists. This place is not in the guide books, and Ive chosen not to give its name to preserve its anonymity (and mystique). The bus winds its way up switchbacks several hundred meters until we are well within the clouds. We unload on a roadside pull off where across a distant valley we can catch glimpses of the monastery as puffs of mist pass each other. The bus pulls away to head directly to our rally point and we are now completely alone with no way out but to get to our driver miles and miles away. Between us lies another 300 meters of elevation and a mountain ridge leading to the buildings we see across the middle distance.

With nothing to do but head for the rendezvous we set off up the mountain. There are no paths in this part of the country, just indescribably beautiful Tibetan countryside speckled with yaks, mountain goats, and the occasional community dog (not truly feral, but certainly not domesticated). For hours we put one foot in front of the other, developing a rhythm to our breathing as we hike: in, in, out, out; in, in, out, out. Tunnel vision sets in as we focus on our foot placement and hypoxemia robs us of peripheral vision. We can see our first objective, a mass of prayer flags coloring the nearest summit, but it rarely seems any closer no matter how hard we ascend. Our group spreads out nearly half a mile as we all trudge along, meanwhile Druja bounds between us checking our moral and making sure were hydrating, all the while chain smoking and chanting his mantras.

Reaching the first summit was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I doff my camera bag and fill my lungs with the sweetest air I have ever breathed (regardless of the yak dung that hung thick in the humidity). Crawling through the prayer flags stretched from peak to peak, we can see 360 degrees of mountains, rivers, terraced rice patties, bright flavescent canola fields, and, of course, the monastery – still very much off in the distance. Druja keeps us moving as we still have a saddleback to cross to the next peak, then the eventual descent to our rally. Half of our group is already crossing, but I just cant get over my feeling of euphoria and stick around until Druja tells me we absolutely must leave.

The second peak was even more beautiful than the first. A local family is hanging prayer flags, stretching them to the third and final peak we will sack. I throw down my camera bag and run to capture the event. Excitement and adrenaline mask my symptoms from the altitude and I forget my oxygen starvation until I begin seeing spots and dizziness forces me to lean against the shear rock face. The family seemed to appreciate my excitement, however, and encouraged me to keep following them as they bound together sections of prayer flags and pulled the chain taught.

The group rests and stares out across the valley at the monastery, knowing the hardest part still lie ahead – the descent. Again our group spreads out until those at the front are obscured to those at the back by the topography of the mountain. At this point the clouds have saturated the mossy ground, leaving a layer of dew on everything. Our toes scrunch into the fronts of our boots and we can feel our nails digging into their soft beds. Every step is a gamble as we never know when we will gain purchase and when our feet will completely betray us. When the treacherous landscape steals our footing it takes meters of scrambling, often on our backsides, to arrest the fall. I cheat and use my tripod as a hiking stick, but each movement must still be carefully calculated. I make sure to keep my teeth together to avoid biting my tongue or cheeks, and try to control the Elvis-leg which is now setting in from prolonged flexing and spent adrenaline stores.

The entire trek down was one long slip and slide until we finally set foot back on the gravel road to the monastery. We made it in time for lunch, but most of the monks had already eaten, so the left overs were room temperature at best and most of us picked at the veggies and rice without actually consuming much. Afterward the monks allowed us to hike around their hilltop residence and experience their daily life. We were lucky enough to find a group in the courtyard practicing the ancient exercise of monastic debate. This is done by breaking into small groups with one standing monk who poses a difficult ethical question based in Buddhist principles, then rearing up and clapping his hands as loudly as he can as he delivers his query. The sitting monk(s) must then answer the question. If satisfied with the argument, the standing monk will then continue his interrogation, if not he will slap the back of his hand into his palm, indicating he has rejected the response.

We return to Lhasa in quiet repose (AKA paralyzing exhaustion), reflecting on the amazing morning wed shared, and spend the afternoon prepping for our departure toward Mt. Qomolongma (Everest).

Druja: Father of Dragons

When the travel bug first hit I took odd jobs all over the world to keep myself in plane tickets. Among these I worked as a guide in the jungles of Costa Rica, ranger in the Alaskan bush, and researcher in the Peruvian Amazon – I even earned a degree in Ecotourism and Adventure Travel along the way. Exploring and guiding have always been passions of mine, and on this Tibetan adventure I have met a man who takes guiding to the next level, making it an art. His name is Druja, the father of dragons. The reason he's so adroit? Well, it's a pretty good story...

A cantankerous young man, Druja and his two friends decided at age 12 that the simple nomadic lifestyle of their parents couldnt contain them. They resolved to run away to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, to try their hands at the city life. The journey from their native Amdo near the Chinese border wasnt a simple hike, it took months of sneaking onto backs of trucks to inch their way ever closer to the city. Feeling very accomplished by arriving in Lhasa, the trio were strutting through the markets when their parents, anticipating the young mens plan, walked up behind them and grabbed them by the ears. After what I can only imagine was the tongue lashing of a lifetime, the parents gave the children a small amount of money to get a meal before they would all return to Amdo. Being the rotten pre-teens they were, however, the boys turned this pocket money into bus fare as far out of Lhasa as they could get – Shigatse. Here they found work with the help of a Tibetan restaurateur who took them in and did the unthinkable, helped them escape Tibet.

Druja, Gabby, and Jamie on a training hike for Everest Base Camp

The man knew of a Tibetan refugee camp across the border in India where the boys would be safe from the continued unrest from the Chinese takeover of Tibet. Knowing these boys only a short while, he paid a group of monks the equivalent of $100 per boy to guide them to safety. The months long journey would span the Himalayas, hiking only at night, across the Nepalese border, then up and across to India. The boys had only samba to eat which is a simple bread made of roasted barley flour, mixed with yak butter and water, then rolled into pellets. The expedition would claim fingers and toes from both of Drujas friends due to the extreme cold of the high mountains.

In India the boys had a decision to make: what were they going to do with their lives? The refugee camp offered several options, they could train as mechanics, carpet weavers, or go into the monastery to be educated as Buddhist monks. Druja chose the latter even though as a nomad he had absolutely no knowledge of Buddhism – the first time he met the Dalai Lama, Druja didnt even know who he was!

For seven years Druja would stay in Darum Sala, India learning about the roots of Buddhism in the Ban religion and training as a monk of the Yellow Sect. He would learn several dialects of Hindi, several more dialects of Tibetan, as well as English, and Nepali. Druja came to understand the cultural revolution of Tibet and what happened to his fellow monks during the takeover of Chairman Mao Tse Tung (over one million peaceful citizens were slaughtered for maintaining their religion). 

At the age of 19, Druja decided it was time to make the trek back to his family and set off for home. Near Friendship Bridge at the Tibetan border he sat in the window of a restaurant where he could look out over a glacial river at his homeland, now displaying the distinct five star flag of China – his heart sank. Home was so near, a hundred meters away, but might as well be on another planet. The border was heavily guarded by Chinese troops who were diligently checking every line of travelers documents. Being so young when he left, Druja had no papers, nor could he get a passport as Tibetans are not allowed to leave their country by decree of the Chinese government. Druja knew it would take extreme measures to get across the border, and when the opportunity arose, he leapt.

A covered truck filled with Danish mountain climbers was approaching the bridge. Druja somehow snuck on board and hid behind as many of the brawny westerners as he could. Im not sure if the men knowingly helped Druja, or if he was able to simply go undetected, but what happened next saved him from certain imprisonment or worse. The truck was stopped by armed patrolmen who were shouting into the truck for identification. Some men showed their papers, but when the guards tried to ply their authority and pull the men off the back of the truck they were rebuffed. The shear size difference between the climbers and their would be captors made the Chinese back down. The Danes literally intimidated their way across the border against men holding automatic weapons. 

Druja had passed his first trial, but was now alone and on foot in the Tibetan Highlands with hundreds of miles to go. Soon enough another control point came between him and his forward progress and again he would have to find a bold way through the guards. This was a foot pass, no vehicles could cross, and travelers were being checked individually. Figuring anyone at the front or back of the line would face extra scrutiny, Druja cut his way into the middle of the pack. The guards stopped him, demanded his papers, and Druja reached into his pockets to see if he could find anything to help him through the situation. He produced from his breast pocket his school ID from the monastery. The card had his photo which helped, but also had in very plain English in the name of his holiness the Dalai Lama a phrase that could land one in prison under the Chinese regime.  

The official analyzed the card. Druja prayed.  


The prayers worked. The guard handed the card back to Druja, waved him through, and went on to check the next traveler. In what could only be described as a minor miracle, this particular guard had never learned English and couldnt tell Drujas monastic ID from a legitimate travel permit! In the next village, Druja found an underground forger who could set him up with papers that would get him through the rest of the checkpoints and back to the Amdo region. 

After months of hardship trekking across the country, then tracking down his nomadic parents, Druja laid eyes on his mother for the first time in over seven years. Without saying a word, he approached her until she looked up at him. She asked if she had seen him before, he looked familiar. Druja told her who he was and she wept inconsolably.  

Within a year Druja was married to a girl of his parents choosing. A year later he was a father. But Druja could never fully assimilate back into his old life and before long took off to continue traveling. His brides parents wouldnt agree to leaving the community and broke off the marriage, once again leaving Druja on his own. In his time back in Tibet he would learn Mandarin, allowing him to travel in Chinese controlled areas including China proper (for which he does not need a passport). In the years to come he joined G Adventures and now lives very well guiding travelers across borders, through control points, and giving them a deeper understanding of this amazing country and its Buddhist culture, religion, and history.

A Guest in the Land of Monks

Evening Prayers, Myanmar, 2016

Travelers like to think were immune to culture shock. We like to think we can handle any speed bump, hurdle, social oddity, extreme climate, condition, or coincidence with aplomb. Stumbling is for the uninitiated, the tourists, the novices. Austerity is supposed to be our milieu, language barriers our amusement, and bargaining our artistic medium. Perhaps I was over confident when I wrote that piece about privilege.

It was true enough in Thailand, a country so developed for tourism it might as well be in the EU. It’s beaches are gorgeous, the hotels clean and cheap, the women beautiful, and the food prepared in (relatively) sanitary kitchens. It was almost too good to be true.

The ticketing agent almost didn’t know what to do when I was checking in for a connecting flight to Yangon, Myanmar. People who had been waiting behind me in line were breezing through ticketing and heading out to their respective gates, while my agent furiously typed away at her keyboard, calling in backup from behind the carousel. They checked, rechecked, scanned, and rescanned my passport and visa to make sure all was in order, then finally printed out my boarding pass and sent me on my way. On my layover in Bangkok a customs agent was waiting for me when I deplaned with my name ornately scrawled on a white board.

“Mr. Stephen?


“Follow me please, sir.

Shit. Now what?

I’ve already been set back a week to get my paperwork in order, whats it going to be this time? Im lead through the airport passed checkpoints, behind construction cordons, through the bowels of this massive complex; it felt like the beginning of Get Smart when Agent 86 is passing through CONTROL. At one point Im surrounded by an entourage of customs and security personnel, none of whom look at or speak to me, and my mind is running wild with possible scenarios – none of which turn out well for the foreigner.

Eventually we end up at a private security check point. I'm the only one there, nobody else could even find this place if they wanted to. I show them my papers, they look me hard up and down, glance at my bags, and wave me through one last glass door. Here my escort waves me off and wishes me good luck. At this point I find my gate – an empty space without a single other soul waiting for their airplane. I ask the agent “am I the only one here?” to which he responds the only foreigner, sir.

School Children Under Tree Canopy, Myanmar, 2016

Myanmar and Thai citizens were gated in a communal area, while I was kept to myself and informed of delays and changes via an airport ensign. This isn’t exactly Tibet, I didn't have to lie or bribe any officials to get my visa, I don't expect to have my belongings searched at the border, and plenty of travelers bring their families here. However, the borders have only officially been open since 2011, and just years before they were ruled by a hated dictator upon whom murder attempts were made several times. Outsiders, Americans in particular, are widely scrutinized and more or less tolerated only because we bring with us the promise of tourism dollars. In the north circulating US dollars is strictly taboo and the currency can even be confiscated if seen by officials.

This has been a stressful and inauspicious start to the journey.

Arriving in Yangon I was taken aback by the filth, stench, noise, and mire of the streets. Spitting is part of the culture here as everyone sucks incessantly on beetle nut, a habit akin to chewing tobacco, but which produces blood red stains on the users’ teeth and anywhere they spit. If theyre not spitting, theyre blowing their nose or urinating in the open streets which run muddy with God knows what. Open air markets attract hoards of flies and rodents, and the stink of rot fills the air. Anything on wheels beeps constantly to tell other vehicles theyre passing, theyre unhappy about being passed, or simply that they exist.

I have seen such beautiful imagery from this country, I tell myself this is a singularity, this is not Myanmar, I must move on and find my adventure.

This is difficult to do as the color of my skin puts a target on my back, attracting vendors and hagglers on every block who all want to sell me their knick knacks, hire me a taxi, or book me a bus trip. Raising my camera to my face is almost futile for the crowd of beggars that surround me. This cannot be Myanmar, this cannot be all there is. I book a trip to Bagan immediately.

Sunset Bagan, Myanmar, 2016

In Bagan I find more of the same, but with some beautiful ruins in the background. Everyone has an angle, everyone is selling something. People are very friendly and offer you tips on where to find the best spots from which to photograph the ruins, then quickly usher you into their hut to hock their wares. Even at the hotel they hike up prices for services, often double, when they see a foreigner. Finding cultural portraits proves impossible as everyone is putting on a show for the tourists, natural behavior in this region has been forever altered.

It was on a “busfrom Bagan to Inle when I met Iain, a digital media instructor from Perth, Western Australia. Here we were on the same miserable 10 hour ride, being broken by the same hard wooden seats and bumpy mountain pass, smelling the same sick child's vomit, listening to the same old man hock lugies into his plastic bag, and eating the same bug infested meal at the roadside stop – but while I was doleful and ready to get the hell out of Myanmar ASAP, Iain was smiling ear to ear.

Iain was the traveler and I the tourist.

While I was thinking, “how dare this man make me listen to him spit into a bag,” Iain was thinking I wonder what that beetle nut is like.” While I was getting frustrated with all of the erroneous stops we were making to drop off supplies at random villages, Iain was excited to see where we would stop next. And when I disgustedly ate around the unknown chunks of meat in my soup, Iain focused on how fresh the vegetables were.

Bringing Goods to Market, Myanmar, 2016

Bringing Goods to Market, Myanmar, 2016

I knew my attitude was getting the best of me, but I didn’t know how to redirect my perceptions until I met Iain, and Im so grateful I did. Soon after this experience I watched the movie Whisky, Tango, Foxtrot and one pair of scenes in particular jumped out at me. A newly embedded journalist in Kabul, Afghanistan sees a boy bent over a crate of broken eggs, crying despondently. The journalist reaches into her pocket, pulls out some cash, and pushes it at the boy anxiously. She later sees the same boy, still crying, and receiving more cash from a new set of travelers. She screams obscenities out her taxi window at the boy who had swindled her and who smirks and curses her back. Later, her friend sees the same boy and also hands him money. She warns the man that the boy is scamming him, which he acknowledges and says its still a child begging in the street.

My first genuine experience in this country was at a temple right outside of my hotel in Inle. I was drawn in by music, chanting, and the chiming of a loud gong. Upon approach I start to notice this isn’t like the dozens of other pagodas Ive seen in this country, this one is teeming with monks. Young monks. Young monks by the dozens. I make a lap outside the temple, shooting through doorways and windows, acutely aware of how voyeuristic Im being. A master notices me and just as I think I am about the be shooed away, he invites me inside. I sit quietly for a time, and when he tells me I can, I begin shooting.

I had inadvertently stumbled upon the annual novice monk examinations for the entire Shan State (the largest province in Myanmar). An 8 day oral examination where young monks from the entire region must come to recite long passages flawlessly to move on in their monkhood. The boys practice from dawn till well after dusk, reciting passages while they rock back and forth in deep concentration. Every ten minutes they get up and cycle outside to take a drink of juice or water, then run back to their stations to begin again. It is at these cycles when the music plays and the gong rings out.

I find an old master who speaks English well and explains the entire process to me. He is exceptionally kind and reminds me of a dear friend back home. He invites me to spend a month with the monks to truly experience what is going on, but without sounding evangelical as Christians often do. It was a sincere invitation to share in this experience.

Now I feel as though I am a traveler.

This is not in any tour package. There are no other foreigners here. No one is trying to sell me anything. This is the cultural experience I have been craving since landing in Myanmar. For the first time I am excited about this land and what is yet to come. On a lark I recall the name of a small town a fellow traveler recommended back in Yangon, Hsipaw (See-poe) and make arrangements for the 13 hour journey through the winding Shan Mountains. You wont find this place on any tourist maps, it's a sleepy river town without English menus, and I couldn't have been happier there.

Again, following a suggestion from fellow sojourners I invest my last travel day in Myanmar on a journey about which I know absolutely nothing. Just that I need to show up at the rail station and get a one way ticket to some town that sounds like Pinot (wound up being Pyin Oo Lwin), then find other travelers with whom to share a taxi to Mandalay. A first class ticket cost a whopping $2.50 US for a 9 hour ride and let me tell you it was the most amazing $2.50 I've ever spent!

The apex came when we passed the valley of the Shan Mountains across a rail trestle several hundred feet high. Below were numerous waterfalls and on the banks were the water buffalo of migrant farmers spending their Sunday afternoon grazing their cattle in the picturesque countryside.

It hasn't been an easy relationship, Myanmar, you made it difficult to love you at times. Sitting here in Mandalay in my comfortable, if rustic, hotel I await my departure to Bangkok with mixed emotions. There are certainly locations I don't need to visit again, but that list pales in comparison to the list of new places I have yet to discover in this amazing country!

Until next time, Cè zù tin ba deh!

They Can't All Be Great Days

Leaving any country, particularly after a great trip with new friends to whom you have to say your good byes far too soon, is always melancholy. Even the staff at the hotel hugged and waved me off when checking out for the last time. The drive to the airport was a long, silent one with my driver, Thalong.

Even though I know another fantastic destination lies ahead in Myanmar, my heart speeds with anxiety as we pull up to the departures terminal. Something just doesn’t feel right. I’m forgetting something. I shouldn’t be leaving.

The ticketing agent agreed.

What a $30/night hotel looks like in Thailand

In all my planning, my persistent nitpicking to prep for this trip, I had gotten so mired in my Chinese visa application that I had completely overlooked my Burmese visa. For some reason I got it in my head that they had visa-on-arrival options and I didn’t need to apply in advance (as Thailand, Tibet, and Nepal all offer them). So here I am, bags in hand, passport on the counter, fully paid for a one-way flight to Yangon via Bangkok, and I can’t check in. I’m hurried upstairs to the airline’s corporate office to fill out the visa application and change my ticket, but it will take at least 3 business days to process. It’s Saturday. The visa won’t be ready until Wednesday. The next available flight leaves Friday. A week. This stupid mistake cost me a week in Burma.


I don’t want to go back to the hotel where I just made all my good-byes so I check in down the road in a hotel that looked great online, but left a lot to be desired when checking in. I was so upset when making the booking that I didn’t think things through and reserved for the entire week. Now, trapped here, listening to the annoying teenagers next door giggle ad nauseum through the paper thin walls I have to tell myself "they can’t all be great days."

Traveling is like that. This isn't vacation, it's sojourning. I can't account for everything and there will be bumps in the road. This didn't cost me a limb and it won't cancel the expedition. It's an annoyance, nothing more. There's a reason this happened, a reason I'm still here. This is precisely where one's faith comes in. Faith in God, the universe, fate - wherever you choose to place it - hand over power and wait to discover why things happened the way they did. 

The unexpected expense of an extra trip to the airport, plus the rush service on the visa, was compounded by a new problem: in my compulsive obsession to cut weight, I had apparently left out the camera charger from my bag. It looked so much like the charger for my backup camera that I left it out when deciding to bring only my primary. I now have only one extra set of batteries to keep me going until I can figure out my next step.

The only possibility in this remote region of Thailand is to head into Phuket Town, the South’s major “city.” There is one camera shop, but expecting them to have such an obscure part is a big gamble. We shall see.

Stuck in Thailand

Stuck in Thailand

It's a privilege to be here

Surin Beach, Phuket, Thailand, 2016

Surin Beach, Phuket, Thailand, 2016

I think most of the people reading this blog will have at least some concept of “white male privilege.” It’s at once omnipresent and powerful, while tacit and unvoiced (largely). For those born under its umbrella trying to notice it takes true presence of mind and introspection. Mine is something to which I’ve been trying to sensitize myself for the last couple of years and it has greatly changed the way I interact with my social environment.

It was on a 9 hour flight from Tokyo to Singapore when I picked up on another connate privilege: being a native English speaker. Being male allows me to travel alone, being white largely afforded me the opportunity to come here, but being a native English speaker allows me to exist here.

The passenger next to me on that flight, a Chinese man in his mid-thirties, was reserved and pensive. Sitting quietly in the near dark he read translation dictionaries and phrase books. For the entire flight he literally poured over definitions and passages, in alphabetical order, to memorize Thai and English (yes, two new languages - simultaneously). Not once did he turn on his inflight entertainment system. No movies, no games, no music. No digital input for 9 hours. Who was this guy? Clearly he was very studious and cerebral, maybe he was just so ingrained in what he was doing it never occurred to him to add any erroneous stimulus.

But what if something else was at play.

In my scrolling I found the offerings to be fantastic, even some first run movies still in theaters were available. Tons of games and a radio system akin to Spotify, you could even stream to your devices if you wanted a bigger screen. Then I realized everything was in English. I was excited to watch movies because I recognized them all, I had wanted to see many of them but never had the time – they were all relevant to me - but my flight buddy had likely never heard of any of them.

Then the stewardess came overhead, telling the cabin the crew would be coming through with complimentary beverages soon. The message was relayed precisely once – in English. There was no Japanese translation (our origin country), there was no Mandarin translation (one of the dominant languages in our destination country), just English – the placeholder for universal communication.

Paradise Bay, Phuket, Thailand, 2016

Many ask how I get around in such vastly different countries without speaking the language. It’s simple, I rely on everyone else to tend to my lingual needs and lay it all out for me. Sure, sign language goes a long way when you’re in a bind, but I rarely find myself so stuck. I know no matter where I go the road signs are going to be translated for me. I’ll be able to order a meal with no problem. Numbers and prices will be written in English numerals. I can turn on a television in any hotel and recognize at least some shows. Nobody faults me for not speaking their language, in fact they find it endearing when I even try. And when in doubt I’m always given its benefit (except in French Polynesia: they never doubted my fault for a second, but that's another story).

Even when they’re not trying to accommodate, the English language still creeps into eastern culture. As always happens when societies blend, the languages have begun to morph into a strange creole in many regions where English words pop into conversation as the new cognate.  

So I say again: it’s a privilege to be here – as in I’m here because of my privilege, which by definition means I have an unearned advantage. If I were Russian or Israeli, being absent a familiarity of the English language would make it nearly impossible to sustain a journey without finding strength in numbers. Feeling guilty about this seems unproductive, but at the very least I owe my gratitude. 

Attention passengers, are there any medical personnel on board?

Adventure didn’t wait long. It was somewhere over northern Canada when a passenger fell sick at 30,000 feet and needed medical assistance. It just so happens I kept my stethoscope and blood pressure cuff in my carryon, lucky I did! I was upstaged by a cardiologist, but he didn’t have a stethoscope so I still got to stand in, haha. For our troubles the flight crew gave us a gift bag from first class, a bunch of miles, and free drinks for the rest of the (13 hour) flight!

Father and son visit the DD Farragut during New York's fleet week, 2016

Father and son visit the DD Farragut during New York's fleet week, 2016

The rest of the flight was spent in quiet reflection of the last few weeks and what lies ahead. After surviving finals to wrap up the first year of med school, the week that proceeded this departure was non-stop loose end tying of a rope which seemed to fray further and further every time I tried to tick something off the list. There was a flurry of last minute visits with friends and family that I haven't seen all year and won't see again for at least the next two months. A failed trip to the Chinese consulate in NYC which will have to be repeated in Bangkok to get my visa for the Tibet expedition. Packing, repacking, shopping, returning, repacking, hygiene, final packing.

Celebrating memorial day with friends, 2016

Celebrating memorial day with friends, 2016

Then, as I stepped out of my best friend's chic Brooklyn apartment carrying all I will be able to call mine for the next five countries, I heard the slow click of the door locking behind me. That was it. There was no time to be feckless, it was time to step on to the elevator and into the unknown. 

I'm grateful to have been able to make the most of my week before leaving. It was a week of meetings, appointments, paperwork, and driving. Mostly driving. But I saw so much in that week and conditioned myself to get back out of my comfort zone. I'm impressed with my younger self - this used to be so much easier. The first trip to Asia was put together in less than 24 hours and lasted four months. I never planned any of it and never felt out of my depth. I now lean on those experiences and trust that it will all come back. 

Next stop Thailand via Singapore!



So why are you going to Asia?

First shipment of equipment arrives

First shipment of equipment arrives

Because I want to!

Generally speaking photographers, and I am no exception, need an impetus to shoot. We need a reason to shell out thousands of dollars on plane tickets, spend months planning the logistics, hours working on visa applications, to leave our friends and families behind, to risk life, limb, parasites, exposure, and austerity to fly to the other side of the world in search of the unknown. We need an assignment. An outlet. A prospect for recovering our investment.

Not this time.

This time I am investing in myself. Selfish? Sure, but with good reason. This trip leaves immediately after I finish my first year of med school and returns just a couple days before my second year begins. I have no publishers waiting for content, no curators waiting for prints. There will be no time to edit, let alone produce a show. This expedition was put together for no other reason than to capitalize on my last extended break before retirement. That's not an exaggeration, it's a harsh reality.

"Lilies with reflection, 2016" - from a warm up shoot

"Lilies with reflection, 2016" - from a warm up shoot

After med school comes residency. After residency a fellowship. Then, and only then, do I get to start out as low-man-on-the-totem-pole practitioner so mired by student debt that I'll be working every extra clinic hour I can just to stay on top of my bills. 

So this is about me finding peace, centering myself, meeting amazing people, and capturing one last photo essay with no one to satisfy but myself. If I get a single image that truly, deeply pleases me I will have accomplished my objective.

So, with that in mind, let's do this! First stop the Chinese consulate in NYC then on to Thailand!


(c) Google 2016

(c) Google 2016