07: Peregrinations, Part 1
HIGHS AND LOWS AND OUT-OF-FOCUS PHOTOS
During my trip I found a new word: Peregrination.
It means: a journey, particularly a long or meandering journey. The word struck me as relevant because I have been in the midst of my own meandering journey, but also pleasing because it reminds me of my favorite bird, the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). The Peregrine is named as such due to its expansive migratory journeys, which are akin to peregrinations. But the Peregrine is best known for the remarkable speed of its hunting dives, called stoops, in which the falcon plunges from mountain cliffs or skyscrapers in pursuit of avian prey at speeds nearing 200 mph. The Peregrine is a master of perspective, somehow maintaining form and function while traversing dramatic peaks and valleys, twists and turns, successful stoops and plenty of strikeouts, too. It returns to its perch seemingly unfazed by the highs and lows experienced on its wanderings. No pouting, no euphoria, no expectations. Eyes and ears forever observing, in the present. Take it from me - that’s hard to do, to maintain equilibrium (whether physical, mental, or emotional) across journeys. Finding this new word, Peregrination, while on a peregrination of my own, I realized I could probably learn a thing or two from the Peregrine. Best practices for peregrinations, perhaps.
And now that I am back in the United States, after my two months of travel in Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, a range of reflections from my trip are coming to the fore. I reflect upon what the trip was versus what I expected it to be. I look back at my reasons for going and wonder which were fulfilled, which remain unresolved, and which were never reasons at all. These reflections mingle with incoming questions from friends and family and strangers. Old friends ask how the trip was. Loved ones hope the trip was what I needed. And since I’ve moved to Richmond (more on that later), new friends and strangers, too, ask for stories subconsciously seeking to fit my trip into their own understanding (or construction) of who I am. I find myself wishing I could ask a Peregrine for advice on how to respond. (It turns out Peregrines have been nesting atop downtown Richmond skyscrapers since 2006.) If I see one, I may just shout it a couple questions. Dear Peregrine, how do you respond when someone asks “how was your trip?” Do you tell them about the good, bad, and the ugly, or do you hold your latest pigeon victim in your talons and simply say it was great? Dear Peregrine, Do you think your most recent peregrination was what you needed, or do you think you’ll need to go again soon? Dear Peregrine, if only I could fly ...
In these moments of grappling with a response, I am reminded of those times when someone at the office asks How’s It Going, and it’s unclear if they really want to know, or if they just expect a Doing Well, How Are You in response. Not that my trip was bad, nor that your answer at the office is going to be bad, but just as any single day can be too nuanced and complex to convey in a quick passing conversation, my trip, too, all/only 62 days, was too varied to succinctly summarize. This surprises no one and unsettles all.
When folks come asking, I end up sharing highlights and weird experiences, but I’d prefer to also share the many dull days, undercover lonely nights, out-of-focus photos, mishaps and misadventures that make any trip a trip. After all, that’s one of the spoken goals of Happier & Sadder - to celebrate the forces of joy but also the forces of sorrow that propel us all forward. I started digging into those themes in conversations upon my return, but people, including myself, are so unaccustomed to talking about them that the conversations felt strained. I end up saying Hold On, Let Me Write It Down. So to the friends and strangers who were cut short in our conversation, here are those thoughts in written form, thoughts for which I until now hadn’t selected words.
I’ll need to start by moving on from Myanmar. My time there felt like an entirely different trip, for a couple of reasons. First, the country sort of incidentally made its way onto my itinerary because of flight prices, so every bit of it felt like a surprise. Second, its culture and politics cultivated a sense of detachment from the wider world. And third, my informal investigation into the political situation surrounding the Rohingya crisis provided me with such a sense of purpose, and tragedy, that it felt more like an assignment than a vacation. As I left Myanmar for Thailand, I had a feeling the rest of my trip would be drastically different. If Myanmar was a blindfolded blessing of an experience, the rest looked like a formidable juggling act of known versus unknown quantities, a tension between control and uncertainty, enmeshed in a time period which was apparently all up to my design. I was meeting up with friends - Audrey in Krabi, and later my boys Paul, TJ, and Will in Sri Lanka. But in between I’d go back to being alone. Surfing and diving were my only explicit objectives. But who could know a new ocean? There were so many people, and yet I would yearn for a small group of my own. Alas, ten days into my two-month trip, I was finally embarking on the journey I had been waiting for. And the tumult of expectations infused in such a promise would end up mediating the entire experience.
Thailand borders Myanmar but could not have provided a sharper contrast. It was like crossing from the Mormon-conservatism of Utah’s countryside into the debaucherous nucleus of Las Vegas, multiplied by differences in language, cuisine, and politics. Like virgin to vice, insular to international, traditional to tawdry. I saw more Westerners during my two hours in the Bangkok airport than I did during all of my time in Myanmar, and the disparity grew and grew as I went further south in the Thai islands. These islands that are hailed as gems of a tropical paradise, with limestone cliffs falling sharply into crystal-clear coral seas, are hurrying into expansive development to reap as much of the beautiful reward as possible. Commercial is an understatement. I felt like I had stepped into Disney World, especially compared to Myanmar, and my distaste for the Disney Worlds (and Las Vegases) of the earth regrets the comparison.
My plane landed at night and I rendezvoused with Audrey at a hostel in Krabi, slightly reeling from the culture shock, the fluent English spoken by my taxi driver, the bars with hamburgers on the menu. She was in somewhat of a similar state herself, having severely sprained her ankle running a race along Cambodia’s swiss-cheese-pavement streets. So it was good to be together and get on the same page. We rounded up some local beers and sat outside with friends she had made so far. There were two Brazilian girls on break from university. There was a much older Brazilian guy creeping them and all of us out. There was Lewis, a music-industry funny man from the UK, and Duncan, a Canadian artist fresh from trekking in India, ready to fully embrace the vagabond aesthetic. Among other things traveling is ultimate proof that we are all snowflakes.
Fast forward to the next morning and Audrey and I ready to leave Krabi. We are sitting in a coffee shop, evicted from our hostel, sweating with poor wifi. I want to go somewhere with good diving. Audrey wants to go somewhere she can rest her ankle for five days. We have different budgets. We haven’t eaten enough. And neither of us are decisive. So when Lewis stops by to say goodbye, we end up just following him. Lewis and Duncan, subscribers to similar limited-planning travel philosophies, had booked a boat to a nearby beach called Railay. Given its pristine beauty and overhanging cliffs that attract rock climbers, Railay was the number one thing to do in the area, and therefore I was torn between believing in the mystique and traveling further south to more remote reefs near Malaysia. On that morning, though, a sticky hangover and the levity of Lewis became the deciding factor.
The looming cliffs of Railay and Tonsai are popular with rock climbers
We arrived in Railay to realize we were all too poor for the place. We walked around restaurants and luxe accommodations with full packs and Audrey’s ace bandage limp. People staying there were wet with saltwater and condensation from their plastic cups. You’d think we were in Russia because of all the Russians and their trophy wives. But no. We learned from someone about a nearby beach just around the headland by boat, beloved by budget travelers, called Tonsai Beach. So we got a boat there.
Tonsai seemed like an asylum built by budget travelers who were ashamed of their relative poverty. Landing on the beach, you wouldn’t really know there’s anywhere to stay. Everything is hidden behind a 7 minute patchy palm forest walk, and then a ten foot concrete wall. Beyond the wall is a tapestry of hostels ranging in quality from shanty to average, but knowingly inferior, and all embracing a garish, reggae, outdoor adventure aesthetic. You can hear the pulse of the vibes as you climb up the bamboo ladder that traverses the wall, unless you sneak through a private resort towards a side entrance. The wall is graffitied with revolutionary slogans, several concerning Palestine, and at least one rebellious countenance of Che Guevara. A rocky street runs between the wall and the accommodations sitting blotchily against the green mountainside. They have names like Paradise, Freedom Bar, Why Not Bar, and Chill Out Bungalows. Each seems to sell the same slice of hippie oasis, with shrooms if you’d like.
Duncan and Lewis were truly the best possible travel mates with which to explore this place. Meet them as I did. Duncan is a delightfully brash Canadian with long, almost pleated blonde hair and a beard that together fit his grunge-woods writer and artist aura. When I told him I had just left consulting in DC, he called it a Real Job, Like A Job Job, and he took a sip of beer to help process. We discussed writing some and reading some more. I asked him how to go about freelancing or becoming an artist. He said Don’t Be A Dick In Art School. Take Jobs Like Tree Planting In British Columbia And Protecting Engineers From Polar Bears In The Arctic. He came off like some well-reasoned, rueful skeptic akin to David Foster Wallace, so it was just shy of serendipitous that he was actually in the midst of reading Wallace’s account of the tacky horrors of cruise ships, A Supposedly Fun Thing I Will Never Do Again, which ought to be assigned reading for anyone entering the tacky horror of Tonsai Beach and the southern Thai islands.
This is Duncan
Lewis was Duncan’s perfect foil, a more sympathetic and innocent Loki of boys. He was undercover the hippest guy you could meet. He always seemed to walk like there was music playing in his ear, and a song of good taste at that, given his life back in London as a music producer and general curator of South London street culture. (Lewis, did I get that right?) I told him about Skinny Dipper and he was downright encouraging, with questions that felt like compliments.
This is Lewis
Duncan, Audrey, and I were always vulnerable to uncontrollable laughter spurred by Lewis’s quirks. He would often disappear on us without saying anything. Most of the time he would come back having put on his boat shoes or covered himself in sunscreen. One time he came back with a plastic cup of shrooms, saying he’d already had one cup and the rest was for us. (Tonsai is a Thai sin city, where you can buy weed and (very weak) shrooms at fruit stands. Such sale is really only found in areas of concentrated Western tourism.) Lewis taught us his own slang subset of the English language, and it was so enjoyable that I’m compelled to share it with you in case we can all start a movement, with permission with the SoLo crew.
(adj) undesirable or unwanted
(originating from the adverse circumstance of peak train hours in London)
(adj) fashionably welcome or desirable; cool
(especially used as a greeting or exclamation, i.e. “Alright brother, safe! See you soon!”)
(n) a moniker assumed by an individual to be used exclusively at restaurants, either as a means to feel cool by being covert, or as an avenue of entertainment by selecting a goofy name
(Lewis’s restaurant name was “River”)
So, Audrey, Duncan, River, and I sauntered around Railay and Tonsai as the safest kids around, all trying to ignore that this place was pretty peak, each complimenting the character of the other so that we could stay buoyant, Duncan with his sharpening wit, Lewis with his lucky charm, Audrey limping because she never stops, and me trying to get everyone to go swimming. Much of our time was spent walking up and down the main drag dirt road that glowed at night and wove straight through a maze of restaurants and bars. Bartenders and menu hawkers would cat call us with offers of “Beer, We Have Beer!” to which Duncan would parrot “Beer? Yeah, Beer? Beer, Beer, Beer,” subsequently causing the cat callers’ engrained modus operandi to crumble in their psyche, inviting them to reevaluate their lives. We would eventually choose a restaurant and sit cross-legged because that’s what these hippie places preach, tendonitis and cramps, before ordering some delicious rotation of red curry, morning glory, and vegetable fried noodles, plus a joint for sale at the bar. Inevitably Duncan would covet someone else’s dish, some culinary cognitive dissonance, analogizing his remorse to sleeping with a woman while thinking of another. We passed around food, or everyone passed me their leftovers, and we listened to the sounds of acoustic Bob Marley covers singing sweetly up the dirt street, to the hoots of slackliners at the gaudy Why Not Bar doing flips and one-legged dips to get their fitness fix after a day of rock climbing, and to the sounds of a shuffling beach that looked like a Hollywood set cast for a sexy 70’s spy thriller in the tropics. We were all the audience, the actors, the critics.
By day, the place was an undeniably beautiful beach. I was in the water everyday. One morning we rented kayaks and paddled for an hour or two straight across the bay, to a distant and tempting island. There we found an even brighter blue, offers of leftover lunch from a tour group, and a swimsuit model performing a titillating strut for her camera crew. I brought my mask, indeed I brought it just about everywhere, and dove along the nearby limestone walls.
My time underwater, plus the swims I had been doing at Railay, continued to dismay me and my appraisal of the health of the region’s reef ecosystem. Coral bleaching and fracturing were rampant. Larger predators and pelagic species were entirely absent. Biomass was low and water turbidity was high. Most astounding was the amount of plastic debris and litter floating in the water column, soon to be entrapped by coral structures, which increases the likelihood of disease for those corals. I ground many of my observations in comparative experience diving in the Caribbean plus entry-level courses in marine biology, but I was no expert ready to pinpoint this reef’s ailment. I felt quick to disparage tourism and attribute the reef’s decline to pollution and overuse, as I watched 6 tour boats of 25 passengers visit this one reef in a matter of 4 hours, but reefs are some of the most complex ecosystems in the world, and there was really no way I could quickly exact the factors involved in this particular setting.
Indeed, the ways in which scientists are judging the determinants of coral reef health are beginning to change. The long standing paradigm espoused by ecologists holds that the healthiest reefs are those that are isolated or otherwise protected from tourism, fishing, and land-based pollution. This paradigm is problematic in several ways. First, it de-emphasizes the global, all-inclusive nature of threats like ocean acidification and water temperature rise, which cannot be escaped by garrisoning reefs and creating marine protected areas (MPEs). Second, to protect a reef by establishing MPEs and restricting human use ultimately restricts the local human population from their own environment, while the advocates for such restriction are predominantly foreign and elite. These shortcomings of the original reef conservation paradigm are well documented elsewhere in conservation ecology, and are captured by the conservation and control thesis from Paul Robbins’ Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction.
Control of resources and landscapes has been wrested from producers or producer groups (associated by class, gender, or ethnicity) through the implementation of efforts to preserve “sustainability,” “community,” or “nature.” In the process, local systems of livelihood, production, and socio-political organization have been disabled by officials and global interests seeking to preserve the “environment.” Related work in this area has further demonstrated that where local production practices have historically been productive and relatively benign, they have been characterized as unsustainable by state authorities or other players in the struggle to control resources (Robbins 2012).
This thesis, when applied in landscapes beyond coral reefs, reveals storylines like African pastoralists being removed from savannahs in the name of megafauna and grassland conservation, despite the fact that over thousands of years those African pastoralists have helped shape that savannah into the form conservationists want to fetishize and restore. Conservation ecology is hopefully starting to realize that to the extent its big-game boner supplants local communities and their historical patterns of use, their policies risk causing as much harm as good.
In fact, new studies of coral ecosystems demonstrate that some of the most protected reefs, like Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, are suffering rapid damage, while some of the healthiest reefs are swimming with human use in every form. The human communities found at the heavily-used but healthy ecosystems were found to be “dependent on the reefs, ... engaged in managing them, ... via taboos and institutions (Yong 2016).” Shocker, local communities are key to the sustainment of the environments in which they live. This confirms that the environmental crisis isn’t getting any easier to solve. It’s not just about protection and putting up well-intentioned ropes around resplendent reefs. It’s not just about hyper-local approaches to understanding and promoting self-sufficient community management. And it’s not just about recognizing the global undergirding of a warming, dirtying, and acidifying ocean as a result of carbon emissions. Unfortunately, it’s all fucking three.
Despite my environmental grievances, I swam and snorkeled everyday. It makes me happier than anything in the world, to be in the water. Each time I was struck with a poignant lesson whose truth I winced to admit: I love this water world because I was fortunate enough to be raised in it. It’s not like swimming in an aquarium. It’s an orgy. But not everyone has seen a flourishing reef. I witnessed their potential as a kid, and now a young adult I am witnessing their rapid degradation. This is the first specific environmental decline in which I can clearly, by sheer memory, point to a before and after. I can study the former health of the Chesapeake Bay, and I can read about how John Smith said it was clear as crystal and budding with oysters in the 1600s, but that was never my reality. Virgin east coast forests were never my reality. These environmental issues are easily assumed as important by young people, but they’re also contextualized by subtle blame placed on past generations. However, the case of coral is different. In the case of coral, my generation is increasingly at fault, the longer we live, and the less we act. Reef ecosystems were much, much healthier in the 90’s and early 2000’s. We are alive now, I am alive now, and thus far the most I’ve done is go swimming.
After two or three days on Tonsai, all four of us were getting weary. Duncan had somehow become the foe of the hostel and restaurant owners, who lobbed churlish replies to any question he asked. I was frustrated, too, by their inattention to wifi, a thing of privilege no doubt, but a thing of necessity one night at 2:00am when my ex-girlfriend was undergoing surgery on the other side of the world. (It required a half hour rock scramble, a head of worries, half naked in the dark with my computer, to reach wifi on the other island and get really happy that all went well.) Audrey was scared of the cockroaches on our floor and was confounded as ever about how to solve the problem of her throbbing ankle. And Lewis was really sunburnt. On day three we left Tonsai and all felt like we’d escaped an occupied territory. Over the next week we would go to Phuket, be threatened with police for sneaking too many people into a hostel, ride motorbikes to beautiful beach coves, succumb to diarrhea, admire Russian blondes, splurge on grand meals and one grand place to stay, leave the hospital in the rain, write blog posts, watch war movies, and take a big collective breath. I told Audrey to go home and get better. Duncan’s time was almost up - Canada was calling. And Lewis was already getting emails from his boss in London. For me, it was onward to Indonesia. I would miss these folks.
This is the gang. Left to right, Audrey, Duncan, and Lewis
+ & - John