Worth A Story

Sometimes you tell a story that sucks.

It’s an inevitable scenario stimulated by the warm glow of a loose conversation that knows no boundaries: Everyone is sharing a time when the rain ruined their day. Some are funny, some are tragic, yours doesn’t quite connect.

It’s your turn to tell, but the anecdote that you’re thinking about doesn’t really fit the format of the other stories at all. The rain has never ruined your day. In truth, it’s embellished many of them; you love the smell that announces its arrival, you love the electricity that’s in the air, you love the way it feels on your skin and the way it makes the whole world stand still like Christmas lights strung around an intimate dark room.

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But you can’t quite capture the words to describe all those feelings in that moment – you become discouraged halfway through as it becomes apparent that no one in the room is on the same wavelength as you.

“Yeah, I was walking through my grandpa’s yard when it started pouring, so I ran under the old magnolia tree that we used to climb when we were kids. It was such a cool feeling, like the safest I’ve ever felt, ya know? It was awesome.”

Swing and a miss. There’s a break of silence. Everybody is thinking you’re kinda weird now.

Dispute that.

You’re goddamn right it was awesome.

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I want to tell you why that story doesn’t suck.

That story was a figurative manifestation of your identity, your fingerprint in a story. No other person has ever felt that way, and though there are people that may do a better job at explaining the swells and currents that occur in those minute moments of distinction, you told it the best because it was only yours to tell.

It was a you-had-to-be-there moment. And not just there physically because you still wouldn’t have felt it, either. You had to be there physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, struggling desperately on a feeling to be desperately in that moment with a medley of jubilation rebounding through your vibrating heartstrings. And you know, there was only one person that meets all that criteria for those few minutes of heartbeats quickening into infinity.

You. You know what you know.

You understand what happened from every angle that can be understood – and I understand what I feel in the times that mean much to me more than anyone who’s ever existed or ever will exist. There’s no bridge between two people that could ever hold the freight of these event’s significance because this is seed of the joy in life, deep beneath the surface where eyes can see, far too complex in design, meaning, and purpose to be explained by the blind, muffled voices far above.

So I apologize in advance if I seem kind of shallow when you ask me about my past year. From August 20, 2015 to June 15, 2016 was my moment for which you had to be there, and I would never risk spoiling a single second of it for the sake of being the cool partygoer with the cool stories, because frankly I care more about preserving the memory of those golden days in the East African Savannah, under the Indian stars, cruising through the Vietnamese jungle, much more than I care about impressing any person on earth.

I suppose that I’ve found a virtue in selfishness that way.

I know for a fact that I was the happiest man alive this past year, and attempting to prove that fact to somebody seems to be the most direct route to tarnishing my pure regard for pure days past. There’s great merit in being content with your own story without having to pass it around, adding a bit here and a bit there to make it more appealing to the ears of your listeners while cheapening the experience in the eyes of your heart. Suddenly you forget how the Tanzanian sunset light poured out of the sky like honey, how the chance encounters with hearts and minds very similar to your own made a certain day explode with spectrums of ideas and laughter.

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When you reach the end of your days you will stumble upon a bookshelf, and on that bookshelf there will be but a single storybook. This book will contain the absolute truth as you know it. The most truthful book ever written. More truthful even than the history books, National Geographic magazines, and the religious texts altogether because this one was written in summer sweat, blood from a scraped knee, saliva from the mouth of a lover, tears wiped away on an old sweater sleeve: the ink of living. It was written by the reader.

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You’ve got nothing else to do on your deathbed, so you’ll heft it from the shelf, blow off the collected dust of the decades, open the cover and begin on page one.

As you read the story of your life, the secret story that can’t be shared, will your eyes sparkle over the words with admiration like insurgent diamonds cut from the young cosmic novas? Will your hands reach with blistering anticipation to the next page like a young boy’s to the next branch of the backyard magnolia tree?

Or will you cringe with regret at all the missed opportunities, at the person you could’ve been?

It depends… Is it a good story? How was the character development? Was the protagonist likeable? Was the antagonist injustice?

Did you work to change your setting for the better? Did you work to make the other character’s stories better?

Was the plot exciting?

Most importantly – was the theme love or fear?

I’m working on the greatest story ever written; I hope you’d pick up your pen and join me. This is the story that I will die in peace with, it’s the book I’ll cling to as I rage, rage against the dying of the light. Your heaven’s acclaim will reckon on the light you shared throughout the pages of days.

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Life is a secret giggled a little too loudly into the ear of a loved one, a best friend, the one person that could possibly get it. Maybe it wouldn’t do well as a story, but I’d say to whomever wanted to know that it’s not worth telling anyway – you had to be there.

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Endia

I left India in an intense rage, and I couldn’t have imagined it any differently.

After a 13 hour bus-ride down from the Himalayan town Dharamshala starting at 7 am I made it to Delhi to await my 6am flight in the airport.

Though sleep was desperately being asked for that night, it was not received on the hard floor of the crowded, blaringly hot New Delhi airport. Eventually 6 am rolled around and I groggily hefted my pack onto the ported plane. My flight left just as the sun was rising on the hazy Indian skyline.

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To Chennai!

Definitely not my favorite city in India – the last time I was there I was chased around the bus station at midnight by a group of teenagers trying to force me to take innumerable selfies with them. And it’s gotta be the hottest place in the world. I can’t properly say it’s the worst, however, because I didn’t catch Kolkata – where faulty infrastructure regularly results in metro overheads becoming metro onto-yer-heads.

But despite even my best efforts not to I had a very awesome, sleep deprived, caffeine loaded day exploring the Capital of Dosa (big gravy and potato filled pancakes)

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Chennai buddy Mano in his tailoring shop

Disclaimer: Dosas were harmed in the making of this day

My last day in India was filled with sentimental goodbyes to the small things that had charmed me along the way. With melancholy I said farewell to the Shiva temples on every block corner and the consequential Ganesha temples across the street.

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I purged every part of myself on the senses given by the birthplace of spirituality. Her crooked sidewalk under my feet, her blistering air on my skin, her kaleidoscope colors like desirous dreams in my eyes, her smells of incense and human depravity, her tastes of nature, spice, and soul. India was as fresh in my mind as it had been every day for the past 6 months.

6 WHOLE MONTHS! Half a year! 1/38th of my entire lifespan had taken place here. And this was the end.

India had held some incredible adventures for me – climbing Delhi temple ruins like a monkey, scouring the crowd-packed markets, sharing the train berth with 12 strangers, biking recklessly through the Ghats, sneaking stealthy past wild elephants, leading an enterprise to investment, becoming an expert traveler/friend maker, becoming strong within and feeling my strength without.

India held some incredible lessons for me as well – I learned many hard truths about life on earth. I saw many things I won’t forget if my eyes see another thousand years. Things that make the circumstances of my own birth seem nearly sarcastic in contrast to others – my privilege would stare me in the face with a grimace every single day, sourly spitting the contempt, “Why are you so special?” over and over. Things that told the true trivial nature of the things all humans make important in our lives – revealing to me that we can only find meaning through celebrating the people that care for us for the stupid, gross, fantastic, goofy people they are.

I thought about the last incredible week I’d had in the birthplace of the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, the Hindu yogis of legend – the Himalayan mountain range. It could be called the greatest of God’s creation – and I would agree wholeheartedly, and wholestomachedly – because Tibetan food is the cat’s pajamas.

Oh – so are the masterpieces of the universe. Here’s a pic of me enjoying both!

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(Speaking of Tibet I’d like call your attention to the terrible injustices that the Tibetan people face under the tyrannical rule of the Chinese government. Take a moment to check out this link: www.freetibet.org. China keeps their terrible doings under wraps by limiting the speech of the people – the more people that know about it the better!

Now back to the story!)

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On a bizarre collision course of fate I met up with a fellow Gap Fellow (the best people in the world) there in the Himalayas (the best place in the world.) Leah and I hiked, camped, marveled, depolluted, and motored ourselves through the white giants, belligerent on the will of becoming and constantly in awe of what we could mold from reality.

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We were, in every sense, on top of the world.

Suddenly I lurched from my flashback to find myself drooling into a cup of hot chai on the hottest day in the hottest city, sweating furiously. I was dreaming about the cold I had just left up in Himachal Pradesh, delirious from a lack of sleep.

I looked up from my warm predicament to see my best friend, Koushik, come to see my off to my next gap year leg.

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At the same instant my heart swelled with affection and terrible remorse. How could I leave my bud after everything he’d done for me? How could I leave SustainEarth after we’d accomplished so much?

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I was leaving at the very beginning! Being forced to sell my shares.

I was being Zuckerburged by destiny.

Koushik took me to the airport as I tried to decide if I wanted to sleep or weep.

Good byes do not get easier, friend.

“Bye, buddy,” Koushik said as we stood in front of the airport gate as ritual demands.

“Shut up,” I said – not wanting what was happening to be happening. There was a pause.

“Hey, cheer up, man – you’re going on another great adventure. You’re the luckiest guy I know and deservedly so, enjoy this! I’ll see you again in a year or two, I know it!” said Koushik.

“Yeah, I’m just sad that I won’t be a part of SustainEarth when it becomes a billion dollar success. Put aside a million for me, yeah?” I shot with a little grin.

Koushik tugged my shoulders in a fraternal embrace, “You’ll always be a part of SustainEarth, dude – India welcomes you anytime.”

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“See ya soon,” I murmured as I turned away and walked into the airport as quickly as I could flee the scene with my huge pack in the state I was in.

With an hour left before my international flight I was greeted at the check in counter with a smooth, “You need proof of onward travel to enter Thailand,” which I definitely did not have at the moment. So I bent over, bit my finger, and prepared to be screwed one last time before I left India.

It was only appropriate.

I ended up having to buy a very expensive plane ticket from an obscure Lebanese travel agency located in a makeshift – blue tarp hut just outside of the airport grounds, that I had no use for whatsoever and was unable to cancel or refund.

Hence my fit of rage.

For all of a moment all of my emotions were numbing my spongy, depleted mind and I was experiencing a tangible depression that I could almost look in the face.

I felt like spit getting on the plane.

But if India taught me a single thing, it’s that adversity is not the equal of failure. It’s not a very good reason to be upset ,either, actually nothing that comes to mind quite is.

So before I let myself fall into a corpse-like state of rest high above the Bengali Bay, I celebrated my time in India – the solitude, the alienation, the praise, the grand, and the glory of loving those who were around to love – and paid homage to what I’d learned by practicing my stride that could take anything.

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As you do.

Ba dum.

And then I died as much as the most alive person can do so – to wake up in a new life, in a new world with a new set of rules and new terrors to dispute.

Cued up: Thailand.

God Nose (The Face of God)

I stood facing a mountain that looked like a face.

“The face of God,” Koushik told me.

“God is a lot uglier than I pictured,” I said.

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As I looked upon the deity’s rocky busted mug I reflected on all the dismally warm afternoons I had spent cycling the village roads in the foothills- jamming Tchaikovsky and screaming Kendrick Lamar lyrics at innocent, gawking bystanders- and wondering  what all the hype about this god was about.

Thousands of pilgrims come here every day to scale this god’s poor, almighty cheek. For the past three months I had witnessed swarms of hairy people go up and similar swarms of bald people come down.

Apparently this god eats your hair.

That’s pretty weird, dude, I thought.

Maybe all those neck tattoos out there got it wrong… Only can judge God, 

Yeah, that train of thought got out of hand.

Tirupati is the second largest pilgrimage site in the most religious country on Earth. Tens of thousands of Hindus are drawn to the city every single day appeal to the man upstairs.

And today I was going to climbs those stairs myself.

I had put it off for too long, but I was waiting for the right moment. Until I knew exactly what I was getting myself in for.

I was very appropriately avoiding cultural appropriation for the sake of those who hold the tradition dear by filling myself in on the details of the subject beforehand and truly appreciating their meaning in the culture. (I would ask you to do the same for any long held tradition that you suddenly think is gram-worthy unless you have a genuine desire to tread on beauty- in which case I don’t wanna be your friend.)

So in the weeks preceding the climb I researched elaborately and found the story behind the god.

At the beginning of the age of man – the Lord Vishnu (the Hindu creator) turned to stone on top of the seven hills of Tirumala, the earthly façade of God, after prophesizing the marriage of his next incarnation and the goddess of wealth.

A temple was built around the God-turned-to-stone and it is said that any wish made purely in his presence will come true for the price of humility – symbolically displayed by removing the hair from your scalp.

That’s why fathers of the sick and mothers of the ill-fated – people at the beginning of their life’s endeavor and others at the end of a tragedy come to this place and scrapes their heads slick.

To correct the wrong and materialize the right of the crooked, bumbling universe with the fulfillment of a true desire.

So I decided to complete the pilgrimage myself.

I began the climb early one morning, just as the sun was creeping over god’s forehead. Koushik dropped me at the foot of the steps painted crimson and gold with holy colors.

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9 km up… shoes not allowed.

For 3 hours I climbed barefoot alongside hundreds of people.

People from all over the nation.

People quadruple my age, people a quarter my age. People much more wise, people much more dumb – people much more deserving of a wish granted, (it wouldn’t have surprised me if there were people there wishing specifically for my setup,) but accepting of my company nonetheless.

We all climbed up the god’s face like annoying flies perturbing his sleep. By midday my shirts and pants were drenched in perspiration by over 100 F heat, but I made it to the temple of Venkateshwara (the stone incarnation of Vishnu) panting and glowing red.

That wasn’t so difficult, I thought just before my definition of difficult changed dramatically.

This was the point when the real fight began.

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Like an overflowing liquid we were all funneled into a caged hallway to await our brief council with God. The pilgrims began to chant the name, “Gowinga” as we squeezed along through the barred narrow corridor like cattle moving blindly towards the slaughter.

But we were.

After another couple of hours of having about as much say in the direction my body was moving as a pint of water in the Pacific, I was shoved into the courtyard of the temple and ushered in front of the black, unmoving figure – the champion attraction of this spiritual amusement park.

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For all of 15 seconds I saw it. The smooth, black stone gleamed underneath the floral adornments piled higharound the idol’s neck. He peeked out from behind mountains of red, white, orange, and gold petals. The holy golden chamber was illuminated by low, dancing candlelight, making the air sickly warm and fragrant. The fever dream settled over my milky mind. Shadows danced around the figures solemn face as my gaze settled.

I was in sight of God.

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And God is exactly what I saw.

I wasn’t looking at the idol, though.

I was looking at the mother carrying a coughing child in front of me. Then at the middle age man about the send his only son off the university in the States behind me.

I watched their solemn lips slide silently apart, willing to never reunite for the sake of their destination, like smooth granite stones in a fierce stream.

I watched as they laid themselves as primitively bare as possible, laying down on their faces, as humble as the dust from which they came at the foot of a thing that would be dust had a chisel been put to it. Because their instinct had, after millions of years of ‘not enough’ manifested a human soul that had drove them to the madness of hope.

This was the true face of God.

My mind’s eye flashed back and forward at the same time, to a time that it couldn’t possibly wish to conceive – yet was built of nothing else except that purpose – to the start of the universe. The stars that came to being that would eventually come to form every aspect of this moment, the great carpenters. They are our dreams coming to being in us for the single sake of being spoken aloud at least once. Here. Now. This is our hopes and desires being ritually given back to the universe with the most impenetrable faith that they’d be fulfilled unconditionally.

And in the hopelessly wide gap between our expectation and reality is where I saw God.

Because sometimes there is a bridge. Like a whisper spanning a canyon, bafflingly complex in design and ambiguous in purpose – yet there. Sturdy, unreliable, encouraging.

Suddenly I felt the humility I deserved. My privilege, my arrogance, my intelligence, my beauty, my flesh, my bones were all stripped away in a second and I stood there naked, more raw and naked than on my entrance of the world.

I felt the presence of Everything, and I saw my insignificance to it all. My life, the big things that I think are important to the progression of the way things are or will be, are as dead leaves on the forest floor.

But I also saw the beauty of having the privilege to exist in the way that I do in the first place. I can run, I can jump, I can eat, I can dream, I CAN LOVE, and as insignificant as that may be to the universe – that’s the greatest bit of meaning that any of us could possibly pull out of this weird thing we’re all doing.

And with this epiphany fresh in my brain I left the temple as another current of visitors rolled in – and with spontaneous conviction I made a stop at the tonsure cue.

With a fresh razor and a ticket in my hand I stooped down in front of a beaming barber. Without a moment of reverence before my characteristic golden shock he poured scolding water over my head and whispered a mantra before peeling my scalp like an apple.

The entire time it was happening I could only think about how bald I was going to be.

The baldest man on earth, really. For a few seconds anyway.

It was certainly less hot on the way down the mountain.

With the most respect for the culture, the religion, and the universe, I accepted this tonsure as a gesture of awe.

 

Trainxiety

I wake up in agony on the train.

I’m anxious.

I try to remember where I am before I open my eyes – a game I play a lot. I hear the rumbling wheels and imagine a pale gray-blue interior was digesting me in the dim early morning light. I open my eyes to the wrong color. Crimson – like guts.
As I lean up from my bed there is a sound like velcro being ripped apart. The perspiring skin of my back clings to the fake leather of the top bunk in the compartment. The metal fan humming inches above my head does little against the steamy South Indian air gushing in through the open windows.
I always feel like an annoyance to the other passengers when I insist on sleeping in the top bunk, but my feet hang way off the bed and if I sleep on the bottom or the middle the people trying to pass in the aisle would be tripped or clotheslined. I think it comes off as, “I want this so I get this,” which is the last thing that I want.
I hang my head over the edge of the bunk and look around the compartment. Empty. I couldn’t remember how many people were here last night. People are always boarding and leaving.
I hop down a little too quickly. My bare feet hit the linoleum with a sharp smack and the bones in my feet ache for a few seconds while I slide on my shoes. The bathrooms in these things always have a thin layer of piss and grime on the floor and I’d rather not mop that with my socks. I carefully tuck in my laces before I enter the bathroom.
In the grimy, metal mirror between coaches I watch myself slowly brush my teeth and splash the crust from my eyes with the water from the sink that smells like pennies. I don’t look so good.
I spit out a big glob of white foam and turn towards the door on my left. The red paint is peeling from the handle – the exposed metal black and brown with hand grease and use. My hand reaches out to it, but I stop. I consider the consequences for a moment, what if someone sees what I’m trying to do? What if they kick me off the train?

It worries me, I can feel the bottom falling from my chest like a free falling human form, but I still find myself gripping the handle and sharply twisting it. The door swings inward, and I step back to avoid being caught between the door and the wall.
I step into the threshold to feel the breeze and the warmth of the sunshine. I look out at the flat countryside while the wind flies through my hair. The train is going so fast.
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Neat squares of banana trees stand uniformly in the midst of acres and acres of cornrows. With a million arms the earth offers up all that it’s accomplished, millennia of evolution from dust back to dust, to the orange sunlight, like a child cutting himself on his father’s pride. Palm trees stud the sides of the fields like watch towers with clumsy coconut guards that fall to their deaths every once in a while. Powerlines fall and rise like infatuation across the sea of green and gold. Just beyond the field stands a mountain, I can see from here that it’s covered by a thinning pine forest. I squint at the rocky facade glowing in the rising sun. The profile of the mountain is a string of lightning running parallel with the ground, dividing the pale sky from the dark body and striking directly into my rib cage – electrocuting my blood.
Automatically I turn and walk back towards my compartment.
The corridor is still empty as I sit down on the hard, flimsy bed. I take off my shoes and socks, then lean back. As I close my eyes, visions snap naturally into my head like a child’s eyes to a candy jar. The river, the pines, the friends, the moments. A brisk wall of fresh morning wind hits me broad front side, buffeting my cheekbones into sculptures of a joyful presence. The driver’s side window on my civic won’t go up, and I can barely hear the melodramatic overdrive guitar shuttering from the broken back speakers as we fly over the slick black water into the next county, towards Utah. A familiar face looks over from my right where I see a distinct lack of apprehension laid plain on features that I know too well.
“Huh?” I ask.

“I said I can’t imagine what it will be like here without you,” Mattie says, louder this time.

“It’s not so bad,” I yell back over the droning wind, “I need to get out, man. There’s nothing here. You need to get out, too.”
“You know that I can’t.”
I don’t say anything. Everything I’ve ever had I’ve cut in half to share with Mattie – but you can’t do that with opportunities. It’s all or nothing. This time it’s all.

“Just promise that it’ll all be the same when you get back. That it’ll always be like this, John.” He looked out at the glass-like water of the river. A fishing boat emerges from under the bridge, cutting the river in half with its wake, disrupting the serene flat surface. Waves lapped at the pines on the banks.

I open my eyes like the doors to a courthouse. The wind turns back into the sound of steel wheels on steel tracks.
That mountain outside the door hatch looked like that day. That’s the only reason. It’s tiring to swim such immense channels of nostalgia. I’ve been away long enough for my memory to become a false portrayal of home. As I lean back I begin to think again. I think and I think.

Have I seen so much that I’m driven to frustration? I’ve pushed too hard in trying to expand my mind – the elasticity is no more. My viewpoints no longer slide back to their normal, blissful position. They remain until I change them, they remain dry and brittle. I refused to have moderation in my quest for clarity, now I’m seeing the world too clearly, too young. I am one of the men freed from his chains in the cave of Plato’s allegory – learning of what casts the shadows of people’s actions. That deep, dark part of the human heart that no one has the courage to explore.
I feel better.
I swing my feet over to the side and stand up. The coach sways left as I walk the length of it, making me stumble into the next empty compartment. I continue to the next joint, barely noticing that the rest of the coach is empty as well.
I catch myself opening the next door hatch. I stand and look out. The scene had changed. Plains of red earth extend for miles in each direction interrupted only by course gray brushes and mountainous piles of boulders. The bright, white sun is merciless – bludgeoning the blue sky and the cracked, thirsty earth with spite. My gaze falls absently on a patch of bright yellow garments leading a goat at the dirt road crossing.
In a moment as short as a punch to the jaw, I glimpse beneath the headdress. Smooth ebony skin make the whites of her round eyes gleam like the moon. Her slender neck leads upwards to a pretty, round face – where her heart shaped lips curl into a smile as she spots my red hair whipping around into my face. If beauty is kind to the eyes, then she is a caregiver.
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Her beauty is not what strikes me, though. I reel back at the sight, but before I have a chance to look again she is just a faint yellow blot, growing fainter. A liquid sickness crawls through my chest, like blood spilled on marble. I have seen that angelic face before. Somewhere, sometime – in a past life it seems to me now. Where? When?
A whisper falls into my mind like a stone sinking in the sea. Will she remember me?
I’m anxious as I recede back into the train.
My bare feet take me to the next coach. The aisle is clear – silence except for the pounding of the wheels and the squeal of the brakes. The train is slowing down.
A station is coming up – I think. I walk briskly through the empty coach – in the direction the train is moving.
I am deeply affected by the realization that there are no other passengers aboard this train – trouble is I don’t notice that I realized it. It is just a deep ache that seems like it’s always been there by the time you realize it, like depression or arthritis. My mind keeps going back to that lady’s face – like a tongue worrying at a piece of apple skin caught in the back teeth. Her features haunt me.
The more quickly I walk the slower the train becomes. Sections of track intersect poorly on the gravel below causing the coach to lurch sideways. I stumble and stub my toe on the sill of a compartment.

While I blink down at the pain, I observe that there is blood, the toenail is detached, definitely broken – but I lose interest immediately. The station is approaching.
From the next door hatch I watch the cement platform slide up beside the train – the sound scatters the few stray dogs rummaging through a burning trash heap.

Behind the platform there is nothing. Beaten earth stretching beyond the horizon. I turn and glance at the other side of the tracks.

There I see a small town propped against a never-ending pine forest that sends a shudder through my back. The pastel rectangles jutting up from one another make a sherbet iceberg at the colliding seas of red and green. Sunlight falls straight down from the heavens, creating weird tricks of shadow on the frontline of houses. Facets and reflections make the jewel-like city shine like a crown on the head of a queen and I look right at her face.
She is not flawless, but her blemish is.
A brick house with a slanting tin roof and 12-pane windows with green shudders. The bricks are darkening – it is an old house. Vines climb the bricks all the way to the roof in some places, the bushes out front have become scraggly and misshapen. The house still seems to have the warmness of inhabitants, however – the freshly cut lawn a uniform rebellion of life against a red, barren oppression. It looks like a trampled corpse under a sheet.
On either side of the lawn stands white-washed concrete boxes with lines of dripping clothes on the roofs and naked children playing in the dirt outside, unsupervised. Suds from the bucket stick to a young girl’s bony brown arms as she stands up from her work to peek at her child. Cracks web out from her tiny home’s foundation over her head of wavy, jet-black hair as she looks over at her neighbor’s brick manse and for a second I could see what she was thinking.
I’m anxious.
I hear the air dampen with voices on my left.
I tear myself looking away. Walking into the next coach I take a seat on one of the beds beside the door. I look out the window at the people on the platform. It is crowded. More even than the platform under Connaught Place in Delhi. Figures move through the crowd of figures in streams. Their features are blurred and distorted by the noon sun and the tint of the window. All I can see are active black splotches on a field of white glare, like a Rorschach.
The movement of the station seems to slow as the train does. Everyone’s eyes in the station darts towards my train – searching for the number – where is it going? Was it their train?
Where is this train going? I think. I can’t think of the name of the place right now.
I find it strange that no one approaches it – they all simply stare at the navy blue exterior of the coaches beyond the yellow line. Not their train, I guess.
The ambiguity of the window makes my head swim. I walk again towards the next coach. I hang my shoulders out of the slowing door hatch and look ahead. My eyes worked through the crowd trying to focus on a face, but they’re hindered by the bright sun. When they finally adjust they find a family of four standing right at the edge, toeing the safety line of the platform. The only people in the station stepping forward to the locomotive.
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The train stops just as my door hatch reaches the lady in the middle. We are face to face – inches apart. My eyes fall into a pair of tired Atlantic oceans that churn with unconditional love while my blood turns to ice. The rest of the face materializes out of the white noise that my vision has become. The shape of the eyes I am looking into were from my own face. So are the lips and the nose. Cheekbones borrowed from my very own skull. But she doesn’t have her father’s freckles – not like I do, anyway.
Mom?!

The realization skips through my mind like the first stone cast.
She is looking at the train, not at me. Something shows on her face besides the sun – a gleaming admiration, pride almost.
I try to speak, but no word comes out. My voice is absent.
The man to her right is my father. To her left my brother. Tall, intelligent, purposeful – both men looking at the train with upmost appreciation for the mechanical makeup of the machine. I can see them analyzing it – their eyes scanning the thing with respect. My little sister gazes up at the big glossy coach I was just in, her eyes bulging with excitement.
I stand there looking at them, looking at my train. Something grabs a hold of my foot – wraps around my calf and buckles my knee. The sickness spreads around my chest again like a crowd running from a gunshot. I look around at the platform unbelieving. I know every single face in audience.
My best friends, my schoolmates, my family, my mentors – people from Colorado, people from Kenya, people from India. Mattie stands just behind my family, laughing so hard that tears are rolling down his cheeks.

They all have one thing in common – my love. Everyone stares at the train silently with joy and admiration, this is the train they are waiting for. Not to be passengers of, but to be spectators of.   I long for them – their conversations and embraces and smiles, but as I begin to step out of the door the long whistle sounds.
It shoots through the crowded train station like a bullet, making the air thick with resonance. The people on the platform become rigid like the sound, suddenly.
A shadow crawls across the platform – a dark cloud comes down to blot out the hard blows of the sun.
I look back at my mom – her prideful expression has turned to grief and worry, I could see the dark circles beneath her eyes. My brother’s eyes become absent and grim. My father goes from analyzing the locomotive to scrutinizing every aspect of it. I can see the contempt heavy on his brow. My sister cowers behind my mother’s pant legs, wailing. Mattie’s laughter has become weeping and the tears thicken.

Are they okay?

 

I am anxious.
As the train begins to crawl forward I see the faces of my friends scowl with envy and malice – looking at the moving carts as if they wish the train will derail – sending the carts toppling upon each other in a blazing wreckage. The train picks up speed and the line of familiar people blurs into a single familiar line upon my vision. The platform disappears and I am left with nothing but a view of the children playing by the trampled corpse again.
I wish I could help them.

I walk into the next coach and sit in the aisle. With my knees to my chest I close my eyes and try to clear my mind. My head feels like a beehive.

My mother. My father. My siblings. My friends. That was my life back there. How could I just leave them?

I am alone on this train. I know this now, I’ve known this for a while now.

So why is it just me on board? I know this too.

The objective of a simple being that is capable of only movement is simple, really – to deliver itself, to move to a given point in time and space, to exercise its ability and to maintain its ability by accomplishing in the most ancient way – any addition that is not contributing to that goal is its detriment. I know what I am, I know what I do – but I don’t want to let go. Self-preservation, I guess.

The immovable object boarded the unstoppable force with the intention of sight-seeing.

This train was built with me inside. I am the piece that does not function.  I am within a vessel that is destined for something that I feel apathy towards, so it is me that will be the undoing. A train laying its own tracks and feeding its own engine would have no need of a component that finds meaning beyond the usefulness of an object. This is a system of intelligence functioning entirely independently of the concept of second thought. No object that didn’t truly exist cannot matter – the ghosts that humans have made: Opinions, potential, remorse, fear, meaning – nothing not being would ever be known.

My mind’s eye is distracted by the fields I saw when I woke up – a presentation of agriculture, the mark of civilization. Biological evolution from amoeba to organism to plant and animal, to human and agriculture, to destruction and war. Impulse, instinct – action to action, dust to dust.

I am anxious.

My panic fits snuggly within a moment.

I shatter over the mentality like a glass house whose owner doesn’t take advice. My eyes snap open, I trip over the maroon carpet as I try to run before I stand. I look back down the length of the train – I mistake the thumping of my heart against my ribcage for the footsteps of someone chasing me.

Breathlessly, I slam into the coach’s door and into the next threshold.  The door hatch to the furious outside wind is wide open – I am only able to glimpse the dark sky as I pass, the vague form of an old creator looking down. The train is traveling so fast, I see him grimace while I slam into the next coach door. I sprint the length as the cabin whips around like a fire in a storm.

The only remaining length is the engine.

My muscles fail in the joint of the two carts. I fall to my knees, skidding on the stainless steel floor. Blood trickles between the diamond-shaped imprints as I recklessly bash into the wall. I choke on my breath, struggling to my feet.

Hesitantly, I lift my head to see myself in the reflection of a glass pane. 1 of 9 in a wooden door painted dark green with a brass knob. Beyond I could see the dining room table, exactly as I remember. My hand innately finds the knob and jiggles a certain way. It gives. I close my eyes and breathe deeply.

When I open them again I’m looking into my own eyes in the reflection of a thick stainless steel door, smooth and cold like a practiced regret. Both of my hands are wrapped vice-like around the large red latch in the center.

I step into the conductor’s compartment.  A wave of cool air blasts me from a vent near the door. I step a bit further in to see all the engine controls. A field of switches and levers and gauges functioning gracefully in alignment with one another. My mind balks for a moment trying to appreciate the craftsmanship behind such an obviously genius machine.

A high-back chair is set in the middle of the cabin like a throne overlooking the many controls. Whoever sat the throne was king of the most powerful country ever established – the country five feet in front of the barreling engine disappearing rapidly underneath the tracks; the manifestation of raw purpose and dynamism.

Whoever sat here would have to know where the train was going.

For a moment it seems the gates of my mind will not allow the truth passage, yet those gates are shattered when I crane my neck over the back and into the seat. Empty. Nothing. My heart cracks like a rotten egg in my chest and the rancid sickness spread through once more. The bareness of the reality that the train is driving itself is inescapable. It doesn’t ask, who will drive me?, nor does it lay dormant at a station to rust – it bounds furiously.

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I sit down in the engineer’s seat and look down at the controls. This is a living organism, functioning properly and entirely independently.

I look out at the windshield as the engine devours the track. Mountains strike upwards from the horizon at the meeting of heaven and earth, leaving bruises in the sky who shamefully covers up, denying the evidence of an imperfect relationship.
Then they vanish. I watch in awe as the mountains dissipate from summit to foot, they blow away in the wind like dust. No warning of what can barely be called destruction.

What is the meaning of it all?

The world I know is changing before me.  I’m in awe of the fluid universe, at the blatant pointlessness of every endeavor we have. Death is certain, nothing exists on purpose, and nobody asked to be here.  Why? It echoes through my mind, the single valid question to the immaculate. My eyes struggle to look past the glass of windshield, but instead are caught by a smudge. I look closer but can’t see, the lighting is weird.

I stand up and change my angle. Seeing it from the side I can see that they’re characters, backwards letters. It doesn’t take me long to make out a name that I’ve written a million times.

JOHN
I read my own name proudly written outwards on the windshield of the train – readable from the outside like a nametag – meager, but the best that could be done, the statement of a mission that only a single mind cares to hold – a destination – a crude statement of purpose too specific and too general to be thought not an enigma.

I’m pulled from my daze of confusion by a spark that flies from the cool cabin behind me. A siren rings through the small compartment. The controls in front of me begin to flash red one-by-one. The gauges showing pressures and contents are all maxed out or dead. The interlocking mechanisms lose the grace they operated with before I entered the cabin, now they jumble against one another, accomplishing nothing.

I sit down at the controls and smile.

Yes, yes, yes. This is what I want.

Content, I look out of the windshield again. The skyline breaks prematurely at the cliff of a trench in the earth. The tracks direct toward a weak looking bridge. Even from far away I can see that the makeshift structure is frail – splintering rough lumber staked together with black iron. It doesn’t look like this bridge has ever even been used before. I am sure that the train cannot make it over.

The ravine below swallows the small light from the gray sky, the bottom having an unthinkable lust for detriment. The train sprints towards it, maybe without knowing, maybe without caring.  This is my moment of action. The only thing I can do must be done. I reach down and snatch back the brake handle beside the chair – the bridge is a mere 200 meters away.

The wheels squeal on the tracks.
I grab the arms of the chair to keep my body from propelling into the windshield. The train slows – but the bridge is still quickly approaching. I brace myself with my heart in my neck. The blurring country beyond the side window paces down for my eyes to catch. Slower and slower. The train is crawling imperceptibly just at the edge of the ravine.

The grate of the leading cart comes to a halt just short of the pitfall. My grip relaxes, leaving bony imprints and puddles of sweat on the arms of the fake leather chair. A long shudder of ecstasy runs through my body, from limb to limb. I sit in dead silence for just a moment’s relief. It’s over.

I did the only thing I could possibly do. In a way I share this with the train. This is what I wanted.  I close my eyes to think once more. I settle into a state of closure, this will make an end to the journey.

Silence… Finally…

Then like courage the train jolts forward onto the swaying rickety bridge.

No, no, no. I reach down for the brake handle again, but it does nothing.

Again it jolts forward – the wheels are turning again. The engine uncertainly makes its way onto the bridge. The structure trembles under the weight of the single cart while the sickness flows painfully through my entire body.

I’m so anxious.

Like an apparition a wind sweeps up from the ravine. The cabin door bursts open and a gust blows through like a tornado caught in a shoebox. Whispers sound through the wind, I recognize the voices: “You can do this,” “You’re a great man,” “Nobody’s better,” “I’m so proud of you.” They pick me up and I hit the ceiling hard. I’m thrown around recklessly – bashing into walls and windows. My head hits the control panel and blood runs into my eyes. I try to soften the impact onto the steel floor, but my wrist shatters. I scream out in pain.

The gale then sweeps me completely out of the cabin and into the frame of the door hatch hanging over the black abyss. My broken hand clings weakly to the bar. I look out one last time at the world and God focusses on me for a moment.

I resist the will of the menacing ravine, hanging to the train with every ounce of strength within me. In the end it’s inevitable, though. They want me out.
My fingers are pried from the bars while my body hangs limp in the nothingness and I’m cast into the depths.
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I fall. And keep falling.

As I fall I look up to see the train continuing its journey – picking up speed effortlessly, like a falling body.

Faster and faster it goes, light as a feather without my weight. The bridge holds it as if it were made of paper.  It doesn’t need me. It will arrive better without my passage. The best, in fact.
I am anxious as I fall.
I am nothing.
In the darkness, I still hear the wheels beating the track and I don’t worry for him any longer. He knows where he’s going.

 

Professional Frankenstein

“Hi, my name is Quincy Godwin from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the – uh – United States. I’m a Global Gap Year Fellow doing an internship at a social startup called SustainEarth based in Tih-doo-potty. When I return to the States I’ll begin my undergrad studies. I’m 18 years old – and believe me, at this moment I am feeling very 18 years old.”

This was the introduction that fell out of my mouth and into the live microphone when they handed one to me and told me to start my 60 second elevator pitch at the MIT Global Startup Workshop.

I looked down over near 400 faces, most of which were wrapped around skulls that contained brains that had completed IV league engineering degrees. Brains half of which were somewhere else, back in a lab – developing tomorrow’s technology.

Speaking from center stage, their eyes watched me curiously, wondering what it was that I could produce, if it would be worth their attention.

Who am I to them? I thought. What could I possibly say in a simple 60 seconds that would not only lift them from their deep pit of apathy but actually compel them?

These thoughts rested like a brick in my mind as I continued.

I had practiced this pitch a million times it seemed, in the mirror, in the hostel room, in the nearby commode stall. But this was the 1,000,001st time, the only one that mattered.

Okay, the introduction was flawless – proud of myself for reciting the obvious information that was essential to my mental construction of reality: my name, my place, my reason for existing here and now, a jest to ease the pain of not knowing – then my thoughts hit that brick I spoke of and I choked like a kid trying a cigarette.

“166 million households in India alone… uh… um… still burn solid fuels like – um – wood to c-cook their meals. 25 million of these homes own cattle that produce –“

Shit.

Silence.

I swallow the foam under my tongue and blink up at the lights a few times hoping that the stimuli would start my heart again. It feels like my blood has turned to slushi in my veins.

C’mon Quince, save it, save it.

”They produce poop.”

Great job.

The past 3 days flash before me in a great blur of handshakes, business cards, coffee, buzzwords, and having no idea what I’m talking about.

I am a professional Frankenstein:

Previously I had been backpacking through India with long, oily hair and 3 ratty outfits, rarely washed and dried on a rooftop.

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The shirt I’m wearing was borrowed from a hostel-mate.

The khakis are second-hand with an inkstain in the front left pocket.

My toes hurt because the shoes I’m wearing are 2 sizes too small, but they were the biggest the store had the night before the workshop.

Even the rubberband restraining the blaze of my unprofessional do was stolen from the front desk.

The ideas in my head aren’t even my own – this is me pitching someone else’s passion project with a fraction of the passion.

Dr. Frankenstein stitched all this together, zapped it with synergy, and called it in for an interview for the position of “ALIVE!!!”

“We take that poop and make a valuable commodity from it. We’re building a brand new brand of biogas with new materials, new technology, and innovative ideas. We are saving communities and helping to stop climate change with our product.”

I look around at all the distinguished people in their silk suits – the hotel I’m in is the nicest building I’ve ever entered. The room the conference is being held in is 3 times bigger than my highschool’s gymnasium.

I’m a polished turd in a jewelry box.

I think about the gymnasium – the last time I spoke publicly. 9 months earlier I delivered a 10 minute graduation speech to 2,000 of my closest friend’s relatives and teachers.

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I tried to relate this experience to that one – this should be nothing! A tenth of the time, a quarter of the people… but, in my head, a billion times the stakes.

I was lost in a 12ft dream wearing concrete galoshes. Way, way over my head. My 60 seconds were dwindling in the single digits. As quickly as I could:

“SustainEarth is the future of clean cooking in rural India. We’re looking for the financial support of investors as well as product refinement and partnershi–“

“STOP!” yelled the announcer.

I breathed for the first time in a minute. I could feel my face again – it was burning hot.

Then the least believable thing of my gap year happened.

Before I even reached the bottom of the staircase, a short balding man in a very nice suit took my hand in a firm shake and pressed a business card into my palm.

“Hi Quincy, my name is Vinay Rai – MIT Alumni and member of a firm of angel investors based in Bombay. We’re very interested in your project – I’d like for you to send me some more information about your model and needs. Be in touch.”

This was a fever dream. The space between my ears combusted – I could only laugh. “Are you serious?” is what I didn’t mean to say.

His eyes shimmered in a smile at my childish demeanor.

“Absolutely,” he said, “we’re looking for ideas, not actors… but that pitch was decent.”

I stumbled through the rest of the day with stars in my eyes. Everything was gold and so was I.

I reflected on the workshop, through and through. It was incredible. I made deep connections with people I aspired to be like, people on similar paths as me just 10-15 years ahead – providing survival tactics and protips on making it the right way.

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I met hearts of gold pursuing foolish ideas that will never work – but I didn’t tell them that, or even worry for their future. They’ll solve their problem with a new idea, that’s the entrepreneurial spirit. (I learned that, too)

On Monday morning I emailed Vinay. I gave him the information he wanted and put him in touch with the entrepreneur of the startup, Koushik.

Late Tuesday night Koushik was at my door with a big, fat grin on him face.

“Thanks, dude,” he blurted before I even pulled open the door all the way.

I stepped out.

“For what?” I said, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. I stood on my porch in a dirty tank top and boxer briefs, slapping at a mosquito biting my neck.

“We got an investment,” he said coolly.

“NO!!! NO WAY!!!” I screamed before I could catch myself – waking up the neighbors in each of the six adjacent houses to mine. The dogs began barking and standing against the driveway gates, like my heart on my ribcage.

This was 2 days ago and I’m still not sure it all really happened – or what to take away from it.

Maybe if you can’t polish a turd then you didn’t try hard enough.

Or Fake it till you make a poop joke.

Or those in glass houses get sunburnt.

Or maybe I’m just really bad at reinterpreting idioms.

Anyway, the real lesson is to never stop putting yourself out there and never underestimate the impact you can make. Rip it up, guys.

How to Win Friends and Travel the World

By Not Dale Carnegie

Well pretty much the exact opposite of Dale Carnegie.

By an 18 year old kid travelling the world about as gracefully as a fish climbs a mountain – bravely (stupidly) venturing where no fish, or any species this low in the course of evolution for that matter, has gone before. I’m probably learning some things a fish shouldn’t, like how to tie a bowline knot with my dorsal fin and flop up a boulder. I’m also probably missing some things going on back in the ocean.

So why did I decide to climb this mountain, you ask? Well, for the halibut.

*EDITOR’S NOTE: Quincy – I swear to God…*

Discontinuing the fish-mountain metaphor from here on out (you’re welcome) my point is that I’m doing a strange thing at a very vulnerable time in my life – and I’m not exactly in my element.

But I’m killing it.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not bragging. Like I said, I’m graceless: I’m a clumsy goofball and I’m always screwing up travel logistic and very common sense things like failing to bring sun-screen on a desert trek. But I am doing really well at traversing these strange lands with all these strange people and that’s because I’ve learned this one important thing – these people aren’t really that strange.

I’ve been from the Outer Banks up to New York through the mountains of Virginia and the farmlands of Carolina – I’ve been to Mt. Kilimanjaro, Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar of East Africa – I’ve been to Delhi and Rajasthan and Mumbai and Kerala – all in the past 9 months.DSCN0223.JPG I’ve seen a lot of things in the past little while, but you know what I haven’t seen?

An alien.

I haven’t seen someone that doesn’t get sad sometimes. I haven’t seen someone that was completely not understandable.

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So what does this mean?

I had a revelation by way of public transport.

*EDITOR’S NOTE: C’MON*

One late night of travelling I chose to grab a discount sleeper bus going from Tirupati to Bangaluru. I hopped up the steps of the 11:00 bus at 10:58 grinning at something or another while every other passenger of the bus grimaced.

As I walked down the aisle my head grazed the ceiling of the darkened bus interior and an observable dread seized everyone with an open seat near them. I chose a seat near the middle of the bus beside a decently pleasant man just as the bus bounded out of the station.

It was about 11:20 p.m. when the lights turned out, consequentially plucking the passengers from consciousness, one by one. Then the man directly in front of me attempted to recline his seat and thus the revelation began.

I knew it was going to happen. It couldn’t not happen. Inevitable, really.

His chair his my legs with a bang. BANG. He tried again. And again, and once more. BANG BANG BANG.

Each time more forcibly than the last, his frustration obviously building. At this point I was just sort of announcing the word ‘Ouch,’ each time the seat down and nervously laughing in hopes that this man would realize the futility of his attempts and stop.

He persevered.

By propping his feet up on the chair in front of him and squat thrusting my poor knees into a twisting, gruesome submission, he managed to recline comfortably. I let out a small yelp of anguish before tapping him on the shoulder and saying, “Hey,”

“do you mind moving your seat up a bit? I’m pretty tall.”

Like a snake ready to strike he turned around and spat, “So, what!?”

For a moment we looked at each other in the darkness.

All I could think of at first was how much I wanted to put my fist through his head. So, what?! I thought. So I can feel my bones cracking right now.

But then the bus passed a string of street lamps on the highway. The dull yellow light blasted in through the window like strobes for just a couple fleeting seconds – but in those seconds is when it happened.

I saw his face. Really saw it.

He wasn’t handsome; his curved nose protruded from a short curtain of salt and pepper hair like a grandiose actor that loved the spotlight a little too much. His features were grim, angular. Sharp lines and stubble interrupted his brown skin which hung especially loose beneath his dark eyes. He was tired.

For all of a second I understood completely. I glanced at his shabby briefcase, at his stained dress shirt. I saw his thin frame, just a few hours before, working in an unfamiliar office with unfamiliar people, walking down unfamiliar streets – not having had a conversation all day long. I remembered back to my loneliest moments between Delhi and Mumbai, how raw I felt all the time. I think I’d be pretty rattled, too, if something had gotten between me and the precious sleep I was counting on on the sleeper bus back home.

He seemed to say with his eyes, one soul to another, “It’s been a very long day. I need to sleep”

I smiled.

“Okay,” was what I said before I turned to the shorter man next to me in the aisle seat and asked him politely if he’d change seats with me.

Having noticed my splintering femurs he said, “Sure.”

I slept happily that night with my feet out in the aisle. Just before I fell off into dreamy oblivion I looked over at the guy, he was sleeping like a rock.

When I woke up for the fifth time that morning, (the four previous times a result of roller suitcases of early stop passengers flattening my feet in the aisle) I watched Tired Guy, now Rested Guy, get up, grab his case, and hop off the bust to embrace his waiting wife and children under a street light in the outskirts of Bangaluru.

It didn’t really register, what I saw, until I got off the bus myself about an hour later. He had picked up his child with as much love as when my grandfather used to pick me up after I got off the bus from school. Just a couple hours before that I wanted to punch that guy. Why, again?

This guy is just an example. It could be your mom telling you what to do; a professor failing your essay; a child asking questions; a friend lying to you. Ask yourself a question – why do these people do the things they do?

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Now the hard part, what would you do in their situation?

Not just the immediate situation – think deeper. The entire situation. With all of their context, and all their background. If you were born like them, brought up like them, and treated like them, wouldn’t you be pretty much the same as them? Wouldn’t you be doing and thinking pretty much the same that they’re doing and thinking?

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The reason I referenced Dale Carnegie in the title of this post is because I get this idea from an Abraham Lincoln quote and another piece called Father Forgets that I found in his very famous book.

Father Forgets is a story about a father who – get this – forgets that his child is a child. He treats him like an adult that should know better than to do these childish actions. When he realizes he’s wrong he states, “I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.”

The yardstick that we measure people by is always our own, even when dimensions differ. Even if a person is obviously a glass of water, we will try to measure them with our yardstick. I don’t think myself a genius but I know that this does not work. If you’re a hundred meters, could someone measure you with a thermometer?

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I think of it this way: humans are all the same machine. Sort of like Model-T’s, if you will. We all have different jobs, however, different handlers, different loads. If a Model-T carrying bricks through the mountains has a lower gas mileage or worse performance than you – leisurely putting through the countryside – are you going to judge it harshly?

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If a person born in the slums, working 3 jobs, struggles to feed their children – are you going to judge them or blame them for asking for help? That’s a radical example, but the point is made.

Here’s the Abraham Lincoln quote – my favorite quote of all time, and the theme of my gap year:

“Don’t criticize them: they are just what we would be under similar circumstances.”

People.

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We’re all the same thing. We’re all just flesh and bones and minds that work very similar to each other. We’re all thinking the same things. We all have fears and anxieties that play on repeat in our heads – we get caught up in them, we get lost and forget this one truth – we’re all of a kind.

I’ve learned to see things from people’s point-of-views, in their contexts. Doing that dissolves any judgement I may have on their intentions, on their motivations, on why they do the things they do.

We’re all fighting battles. Let’s be allies.

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4 Ways to Laugh Around the World

They say what goes up must come down – my jokes disagree.

They never land.

*Confusion*

But even when the sun was blotted from the sky by the cloud of my unlanded jokes – soaring high over the heads of everyone who didn’t watch season 6 of It’s Always Sunny or doesn’t know who Joe Pesci is – my laughter still carried and my confidence in my delivery was never damaged.

Because every once in a while I got a couple of chuckles from the homies.

That was in America, though, where knowledge of trivia and references became necessities to salvage our minds from the boring lack of real problems to talk about. Then I left the States and the very few people that actually knew what the heck I was going on about were no longer there to guffaw for the Flawless Guffaw-less. (my nickname.)

At first I didn’t care. This didn’t stop me at all from assuming that everyone everywhere would understand everything I said in perfect context and that I’d be Emperor of Funnytown and also the rest of the world.

Besides some stiff competition from Donald Trump, I knew I was the perfect candidate, but unfortunately for the citizens of Funnytown that didn’t happen. In Tanzania and India no one laughed at my American jokes because:

A: They were very American

B: The tone of speech got lost somewhere in the lingual no-man’s-land, so people didn’t know if                             I was being funny or having an aneurism.

C: I’m not actually funny (unless you consider my physical attributes, in which case I’m about as funny as a sad clown.)

I also didn’t understand any of the jokes told to me. I’d be in a conversation with a friend and their jokes always seemed like a prom that nobody came to because there was never a punch line.

This time it was their joke that didn’t land, cluttering the sky even more.

So I went on telling jokes in a foreign country to blank faces and crickets. But as that inevitably lost its appeal, I also lost my voice. Nobody got me. Once again I was misunderstood – the voice that I too recently found in high school was gone again. I saw that laughing with people was something I need – a form of communication that no words spoken can take the place of. It’s a subconscious exchange of information like ‘I like you,’ and ‘you’re cool to hang out with,’ and it’s a necessary practice for fulfilling relationships and even individual contentment.

Without laughter the world is blank, a forgotten coloring book left to the moths. We must color it in. Unfortunately I had only the colors of red, white, and blue to fill it out – colors that look great to some, but lacking and out of place to most. So through hard work I completed my palette by understanding universal humor, and here I’ll let you peek at my paint stash.

This is how to laugh round the world.

  1. Be dumb.

Good laughter is actually pretty difficult to come by in America. Unless you’re dumb, that is.

Sure, people chuckle politely at colloquial garnishes and exhale sharply through their noses at the irony of the latest Facebook meme their mom just shared or at lucidly self-aware blog wit. (nudge)

But they don’t laugh.

There’s just too many rules and people taking themselves too seriously to dance around for real laughter in the real world. The only way you can achieve the real CRUqsVlWIAAxm3nbone-shaking, cheek-burning, gut-clenching, silent convulsions is on an apartment living room floor at 11:00 p.m. by biting a raw onion like an apple or in the backseat of a beat-down Sedan flying down the highway over a well-timed fart. Dumb laughter.

And I may not know a lot of things, but I know how to dumb.

I had made it too complicated. It’s not about making jokes at all – laughter isn’t that narcissistic. Laughter is recess from the classroom, a chance to bond with those around you by just going with what you feel. It cuts through all the ropes in your head that you dangle from, that bind you – and lets you fall free into an oblivion of simple understanding.

In Tanzania it’s so easy to be dumb, especially for an American. There’s no margin for action that isn’t practical – and, boy, are we impractical.

Wasting precious energy by going for a run? That’s dumb.

Being on time for things? Dumb.

I can be dumb there without even trying!

Once, in boredom, I began skipping rocks in a nearby lake. Out of nowhere a very angry man approached me, chewing me out in Swahili. My Tanzanian friend was quick to jump up and apologize for me. The man grimaced and stalked away before an avalanche of apologies gushed from my mouth like projectile vomit.

“What were you thinking!” my friend laughed. Tears were collecting in his eyes like dramatic irony in the situation.

“What… I – huh?” I was trying to organize myself when a boulder emerged near the shore of the dark green water, which only confused me more because according to my previous experience with The Entire Physical World, rocks don’t float.

My friend grabbed my arm and hustled me away swiftly – shaking with laughter the entire way. Eventually he suppressed his fits long enough to point out a sign that literally said, ‘No Throwing Stones’

“That’s a nationally protected Hippopotomas lake, you idiot!” he managed through seizures of laughter. My head drooped a bit under the weight of the pieces falling into place, “Oh… oh… ohhhh…”

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As he laughed I just sort of stood there, not knowing what to make of the situation. Then slowly I felt it bubble up under my skin, into my throat. Another wave hit me and I couldn’t help but be swept away by it. We both stood on the hill laughing till our bodies ached. I am an idiot, I thought.

Which transitions me smoothly to my next point.

  1. Laugh at yourself.

So you think you’re dumb, huh? I wanna hear you say it, “I’M DUMB!” Scream it to the world – “I’m dumb and it’s clutch!”

Now that I proclaim that I’m an idiot at least half a dozen times a day my quality of life has improved significantly. Honestly, I can’t see myself ever not being an idiot, either. It’s just too fun.

If you’re not laughing at yourself you’re missing one of the greatest comedies ever written.

In my experience these are the three funniest things in the universe:

-Roasting the boss behind his back

-Children saying the darndest things

-My own misfortunes

Oh, and that thing where you connect your sleeves, put one hand under your shirt, and pump. Forgot about that one.

It’s important to accept our own faults and to find humor in unfortunate coincidences that find us. Why would you let it beat you up if you could obtain knowledge and laughter, the two greatest currencies ever bought or spent, from it? It’s your payment for living life.

  1. Let them laugh.

In Delhi I made the observation that city-life is tough. So many people living amongst one another makes them hard like the sidewalk they walk down. We go through the metro station, past each other again and again with all our defenses up. What’s the point?

You get the bad parts of people over and over, the fearful parts, the apprehensive parts – completely bypassing all the things that make them great. Their smiles, their humor, their tone of voice when they speak of their passions – all hiding like words in a pen.

So I asked: What would happen if I let those out? If I put down my defenses and let myself be free, what would happen? Would my flight inspire their own?

I experimented with this thought and I found something incredible. From the seed of a smile blooms a smile. From the ripple of a laugh, several more crash on the shore.

All I did was risk showing the light within myself to people, and found that they would do the same if I just gave them a reason to.  Suddenly I had a superpower – I could make people present their best selves to me just by going first.

Here’s a secret: People want to laugh, LET THEM!

Number 2 and 3 were put to the test in Cochin by the antics of a black bird.

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My audience was ripe:

If you’re as ghostly and giant as I in India, you can bet that everyone and their grandmother will be watching your every move, (especially the grandmothers.) So in Fort Kochi when a crow dropped a slimy fishtail smack on my forehead with a sickly splat and then immediately peed on me while I was walking through the park, everyone in the area caught a broomstick in their spokes and turned to see the grand show of my reaction.

I could practically smell the popcorn as the spectators took their seats – or was that crow pee?

In that moment I realized the important difference between humility and humiliation. I also realized that everyone was going to laugh whether I was with them or in front of them. So I decided I’d be with them.

Quickly, I peeled the soggy fishtail off of my dome like a misplaced strip of paper mache and pretended to take a bite out of it.

“Thanks for lunch!” I shouted up into the tree before I threw my head back and laughed until I nearly became even more saturated with urine.

Yeah, it sounds really dumb, but that’s the goal. (See point 1)

People met my eyes with looks of sympathy, I met theirs with nonchalant shrugs of laughter. One of the aforementioned grandmothers who saw this folly approached me in a ‘you-poor-thing’ sort of way, with laughter in her eyes and a clean wash cloth in her hand.

Everybody in the park laughed along with me and I think I had about 50 new friends by the end of the day, each of which I hung out with later, creating indefinite branches of experience that I never would’ve had had a bird not treated me as a garbage disposal and a toilet in the same instant. Those people remembered how I made them laugh, how I made them feel.

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I don’t know why it’s such a secret that the effect we have on people is the most valuable thing we own. A feeling you give someone is something that’s never ever, ever forgotten, so give good ones.

  1. Not to be funny, but…

Don’t be. Just let it happen. To give you the truth of it, most of the time that I laugh and see laughter is the result of laughter, not the result of something funny – life just brings up laughter like bubbles in a glass of pepsi.

I’ve laughed the hardest I’ve ever laughed when life just seems too good to me. When I was standing under a waterfall on Mt. Kilimanjaro; when I was flying down a curvy jungle road in the mountains on a bike; when I was cheering on a lion as it pounced on a gazelle in the Ngorongoro crater; when I was standing on the highest peak in the Ghats and seeing the world sprawled out below me. I swear I almost cracked a rib when I watched the kids use a slip-n-slide and ride a camel for the first time – the joy in their eyes made all the beams and bolts that assemble me lose friction and slide apart.

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It’s the precious moments that’ll never happen again that shake us up the most. It’s spontaneous as an avalanche – a sudden gasp of direction, a glance at color in the everyday gray. It’s locking eyes with the nearest person in a blurry moment of high passion and experiencing a fleeting connection strong as the Golden Gate Bridge.

When we laugh with someone, I don’t know how it happens, but it’s as if we’re plugging ourselves straight into their brain, undiluted. That’s why it’s so important. We’re getting the direct output of who they really are deep inside. The brick walls of our brows smear into singularity while the empty spaces between are filled with the limitlessness of converging souls, leaning on one another, leaving no space for acoustics to amplify the echoes of anxieties and misunderstandings.

For just a moment you’ll feel yourself bursting from the back – your skin will be trampled underfoot by dancing blood, rioting at the end of a millennia of uselessness. Veins will hit the air like baseball bats. Eyes will shimmer like a river against blacked out pines in the setting sun and life will know meaning…

then it will end as quickly as it happened.

You don’t know who you’re asking but you are begging – do it again, like a dizzy child on a swing.

 

***BONUS ROUND***

These are just a few of the things I’ve found funny on my gap year, thought I’d share.

Kaka means ‘brother’ in Swahili

We made the connection that if you were getting in the way of 2 guys becoming friends then you were effectively ‘kakablocking’

***

I drilled a particular Lynyrd Skynyrd song into the orphanage conscience by having it be the grand finale of my nightly concerts for the kids. If you’ve read my other blog posts you probably already know which.

When it was time to go to bed, the children would chant for one more song, and I would do my best Van Zant voice, “What song is it you wanna hear?!”

Collected from the broken homes in the villages of rural Tanzania, sitting on a muddy orphanage floor – in this moment these kids were instantly squished up against a stage barricade on some farm in Indiana in the early 80’s extending their arms and voices out desperately for their favorite band. Every child in the building, without fail, would scream at the top of their lungs, “FREEBIRD! FREEEEE BIRD!!!”

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I did it every night for months, never got old.

***

The Danish language

***

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Guy on the left: Which country?

Me: U.S.A.!

Guy: Ohmygodohmygod. Oh. My. God. I LOVE EMINEM! Here’s some sunglasses – Dude, quick, take a picture of us!

*Gives me the sunglasses off his face while pulling out another pair of sunglasses*

*Just before picture snaps*

Me: Oh… Dude, are you sure?

Guy: *while putting on sunglasses* Don’t worry, Chicken Curry.

***

Dala dala’s are the main form of transport in Arusha. They are small buses with 2 operators – a driver and a ticket collector that yells things.

The entire time I was in Tanzania I was looking for a ticket collector named Bill that yelled ‘y’all’ a lot, for… reasons.

Near the end of my time there I was afraid that I’d never find him. I mean, what are the odds, right? Kinda silly for me to even be looking for him. I had become hopeless, then one morning in Dar es Salaam, I heard a distant, “Y’all!” flying down the highway…

“No… it can’t be…”

I flagged it down and as I was going whoknowswhere I asked the guy for his name.

“William, rafiki.”

I couldn’t believe it… There he was…

Dala dala Bill, y’all

***

When two guys from America came to Tanzania to volunteer in Arusha and live in the same house as Iddi and I – we found it compulsory to teach Iddi the ways of “That’s what she said.”

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He couldn’t quite get it at first,

“What she says?”

“She said that!”

He slowly got a grip on the concept and over the next few days he made many feeble attempts to set himself up for the one-liner that ruled our middle school careers.

“Hey look at that building, it’s pretty big, right?”

“Wow that hole is pretty deep, right?”

“What’s your favorite part of an Oreo?”

And so on.

Seeing through these, we neglected the setup – to teach our prodigy to do better. Eventually it was forgotten. Months passed, the Americans left. It was time for to leave as well.

Iddi came to the airport to see me off – it was a heartfelt moment. Iddi had been my best friend, my kaka and kakablocker for the past 3 months. I didn’t want to leave him.

“Bye dude. Thanks for all the good times you’ve shared with me. I really love you, man – you’re my kaka. I hope one day I can return here and see you again.” I was holding back tears.

“You’re going to do big things.”

A moment passed where he stared at me, his own emotions were surfacing. He took a shuddering breath, looked me dead in the eye and said,

“That, she said.”

I laughed all the way to India.

Journals from India: Delhi to Agra

The following are my unedited personal memoirs written during the time of my traveling from Delhi to Agra. Though written in instances of mental and emotional strain, perhaps vulgar and short-sighted at times, I feel that they are a measurement of personal growth of which there was plenty. This is part 2 of 6.

November 21, 2015

I’m here in Agra now, staying like 0.2 km away from the Taj Mahal. The train ride was good.

The countryside between Delhi and here wasn’t all that interesting, but I sat beside a Hindu girl from Ukraine that was saying some real profound and beautiful shit that it was way too early for. Her name was Anukzishna, and she moved to a village in Uttar Pradesh to become a publisher of Sanskrit texts for her beloved faith. I watched through glazed, and crusted eyes while she told me about different Hindu beliefs.

“There are 3 layers of Chakra: Animal chakra in the gut that all living things have. Creative and action chakra in the chest. And mental or spiritual chakra everywhere above the heart,” she said.

“There are about 140 interpretations to the Hindu faith,” she explained, “each one like a spice. They work together to embellish the food of life.”

She told me a few different Hindu tales, one in particular struck a chord with me. Shravankumar who carried his parents around the world in a yoke because they asked him to. What have I done for my parents? Hinduism makes a lot of sense. It’s what a religion should be. It doesn’t work out of fear, it works out of true self-betterment. It’s all about beauty and humans and this weird questioning we have.

She left me on the train when she jumped off at a small station in the middle of nowhere, not using the platform but hopping down directly onto the tracks and into the small patch of woods beside, careful not to snag her silks on the branches.

I napped for the rest of the way, then took a rickshaw to this hotel by the Taj gate. I think I’ll have a cup of coffee and explore a bit.

***

I just got back from seeing Agra today. I was alone for the most part. I think this will prove to be the hardest part of my gap year. Part of me just wants to get to Kochi to make friends and settle down, it’s just becoming difficult to convince myself that India was worth it, I think I just left the best thing I’ve ever known in Tanzania.

There’s some serious character development going on in the story book of my life right now, though. I decided that I was tired of being mopy and having a headache, so I made myself make friends.

I walked a long way to the ticket booth to get my entry ticket for the Taj Mahal. When I finally got back I walked in the gate and there it was.

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The Taj Mahal.

I really don’t know what to say about it. Beautiful, magnificent, divine – all the things that have been said before, but when I saw all the people with their friends and families enjoying an experience worth a lifetime at one of the wonders of the world, all that marble turned to dust. To be honest, I was kind of miserable.

I had to get out of this maze of bad thoughts, or I knew that I would kick myself every day for not really seeing the Taj Mahal when I was here, so I went to the side-museum walked up to the first dude I saw and said, “Hello.”

Immediately a million times better.

We started a conversation. Then his friend walked over. I made a joke and we all laughed. Then I walked outside and took pictures with a family of strangers.

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Inside the Mausoleum I began speaking with a German girl about her travels. She was on her way to a wedding in Mumbai.

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Then when I walked back out I really saw it. The floral pattern of eternal paradise, the sun striking the snow white marble while the green river behind churned slowly with veins of yellow light.

All of the people around me were as amazed and speechless as I was – what sort of love had inspired such a creation?

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Happiness found me after all, and as I walked back to the ticket counter cloakroom to retrieve my stuff I ran into Ben and Kyle, the guys from America that I met in Delhi, just walking down the street. Put yourself out there and see what happens.

They were psyched to see me, as psyched as I was to see them. We had lunch, and then walked around the Agra Fort and down a road through the forest by the riverbank till we got to a huge Bazaar. As we walked we passed bands rehearsing in fields for the next festival, as well as monkeys and dogs scavenging for food in the streets.

The Bazaar was an intricate web of streets stretching for kilometers in every direction, every block lined with shops from corner to courtyard selling plastic recreations of gold necklaces and toys and packaged sweetbread. Every road was a flowing canal of people enveloping entire temples. Monkeys ran along the powerlines while children screamed ‘HELLO’ at the top of their lungs. It looked how I imagine the Mall of America on Black Friday would look, minus the sanitation and also the white people.

After a few hours of exploring we covered about an eighth of the entire thing, but the sun was going down so we took a rickshaw back to the hotels and I said goodbye to my friends. I got some dinner at a café across the 8 ft wide dirt street for less than $2, then fell into my bed exhausted.

You know, I’m here to find myself, but what happens if I don’t like what I find? Not saying that that’s what’s happening, but if it did, is one capable of fixing themselves? Could I disassemble myself at the elementary level and iron out the despicable things?

Or is that what I’m doing now?

November 22, 2015

Today when I woke up, I was pretty sure it was going to be garbage. Nothing planned, no one around. I was afraid of the thought that there’s no one, no friend, no embrace at the end of my travels. I’ll be just as alone at ‘home’ as I am here. Not much to do.

But contrary to the shit heap of outlook I was sitting in, I had one of the best days of the trip so far.

I got up, texted my mom, and worked out on the hotel room floor. I always feel better after I exercise, I just have to muster the initial motivation it takes to get started, which can be difficult. I felt really good afterwards, though.

I keep thinking of myself from a third-party perspective. Traveling alone, sleeping alone, eating alone, and from that different perspective I say, “Wow, he must be sad.”

“How does he do it?”

Yeah, it’s fucking hard. It’s that view that provides my greatest fear right now: that I will fall mentally to the level that a weaker person would be at.

But I’m not weak. I don’t fall.

I do it, and I live, and I smile big, and I laugh hard. I eat whatever I want, I meet whomever I want, I sleep however long I want. I sing. I see the most beautiful things in the world, and whatever sadness or adversity threatens to diminish my kickass existence, I conquer it and continue.

I forged the date on my ticket for Agra Fort and dropped my luggage at the hotel. I started to walk, but my hips and knees felt like peanut brittle because I’ve walked all day of every day since I came to India, so I took a rickshaw instead.

I ate bananas and cookies in the lawn beside the fort for breakfast, where many of the Agrans were sprawled across the shady grass expanses enjoying their morning chai or grabbing a few Z’s before their afternoon shift.

I explored the explory parts with the rest of the tourists for a few minutes and discovered that it was essentially the Red Fort reskinned, so I found some shade by a pillar in the huge courtyard and read The White Tiger for a little while.

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While I was reading a few groups of Indian guys approached me, asking for a photo. Some weren’t so courteous, and just began pointing their phones at my like I was a fight in the cafeteria. I’ve taken so many photos with so many people in so many places. I wonder how many phone backgrounds and fireplace mantles I’ll make…

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There must be a significance to meeting a foreigner here, because they treat the photos they take like a pretty big deal.

My stomach wasn’t feeling the best, so I just had plain naan at a restaurant down the street then came back to the hotel. In just a few minutes I’ll leave to catch my train.

***

I made the train, but barely. I went to the wrong station first a little late as it was, my heart jumped into my throat when I showed a station staff my ticket and he started laughing. I was really convinced that I was going to miss it.

The rickshaw puller that I found was the homie, though. He got me all the way across Agra in 10 minutes, through India traffic. He was killing it.

When I got to the right station I found my platform and jumped on the train just as the whistle was blowing. Thank God, for that auto rickshaw driver. He was so cool.

As I talked to him I realized that the rickshaw drivers are just people with jobs. I’m ashamed to say that I was annoyed by their persistence.  I’m focusing my thoughts on the grievances experienced as a tourist rather than the experience and problems faced by a person living in the place I’m visiting, so actually I’m learning nothing and will learn nothing until I change that.

These are just train journey thoughts.

In the obscurity of darkness outside and the glare from the whitelights on the inside of the train, one could look outside at the passing flat countryside and the closely packed stores all lit with a single yellow burning bulb, and think he was in Tanzania if he had a motivation to do so.

I talk to the people I meet about Tanzania a lot.