Thursday, December 20, 2012

Midnight Madness

"Perfection can only ever be achieved by those who neglect self improvement" - That's me.

Port Morseby Waterfront

           The connecting terminal hall descends and turns as I march towards the plane with a sense of relief, ‘whathat’s done is done’ I tell myself. I use figurative bridges like this in life to control stress and move forward without dwelling in the past. I’ve just spent a fort night’s hard earned Canadian carpenter wages on a plane ticket I may never use, missed out on 4.5k of instant superannuation, and got a 1.6% exchange rate instead of 2.1% on $300. But that skywalk to any flight is purgatory in the life of a traveler. Once you step through the open fuselage door that’s it, there’s no turning back physically or mentally, we make our choices and we bare the burden of their consciences, what’s done is done. That's the point when the journey really begins, there’s only one way but forward from here.

      My new alleviation brings on a cheery mood and my hang over mixed with a delirious lack of sleep breaks down any discomforts attached to public scrutiny. The normal code of shy politeness doesn’t apply to me as I wear my charismatic and confident attitude on my sleeve.  The dark skinned flight attended smiles at me because it’s her job to do so, she could also just be a genuinely happy person. I don’t waste the opportunity to find out. She kindly looks at my ticket and instructs me to head straight down and then right; I give her a grin of acknowledgment, walk 5 feet to a first class seat on my right and sit down with our eyes never separating. ‘This one right?” Turns out she is genuinely happy. Her smile was real and true as a fake smile always contorts the face in its transition to a defenseless smile for cheap humor. I don’t allow her time to correct me and I’m already up moving towards my designated seat. When I turn around to look back my imposed smile still lingers between her ears. My own grin reveals my cheeky innocence without the need of any words. I’ve just been foolish in the audience of a plane loaded with strangers but the humiliation is overwhelmed by the comfort of knowing I just made somebody’s day that much better. It’s as new goal inherited to positively impact somebody life every day for the rest of my life. To smile at a stranger is a cordial antibiotic that fights the blood borne disease of hatred.                     
                                    I walked down the aisle towards seat 32 A meeting the eyes off all the seated passengers and I could feel my presence disarming their defenses that’s naturally held in the company of a new stranger. That’s when I met him. I didn’t know it then but the man examining my body language, searching deep into my eyes for answers of which strangers don’t share was the man who later came to be one of my best friends and one of the wisest people I have ever met. He gently greeted me as his job entitles him to do and waved an elegant upturned hand to my seat at the back of the plane vacant of any passengers within a five row radius. “You’re sending me to the back? It’s because of my long hair isn’t it?” Yelling it out in the mocking tone of the pretentious passenger we all know and hate.  A few chuckles rang out from the surrounding passengers as they understood my jab at the downside to customer service. “I assure you sir, that these are the best seats on the plane” he said meeting my challenge with a quick and clever wit. “I know, that’s why I chose them”. And that was it, my eyes were too far open to hide my secrets and he pulled the truth of every moral gained in the past 23 years out of me with a single glance. As a people watcher I’m not used to people watching me, it’s the sign of superior wisdom. He saw in the darkness of my pupils a person with a parallel view of life and someone worth both investing in and withdrawing knowledge from.

Hotel warnings

     It wasn’t long before I looked up and saw him back next to my row of seats ready to challenge my banter.  And so it went on, I explained my enthusiasm of blowing my budget even before stepping foot into the country and he explained that the best marijuana in the world comes from New Guinea, so strong that not even the locals smoke it. “My apologies sir, my name is Sam” Offering me an outstretched hand. I accepted Sam’s hand and added “I do my best to avoid using names, it spares me the embarrassment of forgetting them. I’m Joe”. And with that handshake an invaluable friendship was born, the same birth that makes it impossible for me to stop travelling the world. The heart and soul of a memory is the people in it. The scenery, aromas, and tastes are the bi-products that link our memories to the people.  We spent the rest of the flight sitting and talking about life, morals and the quest to personal improvement. Sam returned just before final arrangements were made for landing, hands grasped together “I have decided that you will come and stay with me and my family, it is very lucky for you as well because I have a very exciting weekend planed” unfortunately the airline made last minute changes and sent him back to Brisbane so I would be fending for myself in Port Moresby for a night until he could collect me the following day.

                                     It’s always such a great feeling of adventure stepping out of a foreign airport armed with ignorance itself. Trying to get your bearings, searching information from a tourism industry that doesn’t exist, unable to understand a single word the locals are speaking, being dressed in clothes designed for an environment three times colder. This, this is real adventure and travel. No guide books, no contacts, no local language. Just a white skinned, long haired wannabe hippy, with an oversized back pack sticking out in the crowd like a pubic hair in a bowl of rice.  It’s not until you’re in situations like this that human kindness reveals itself once given the opportunity. I couldn’t imagine how boring it would be to have a chartered limousines waiting to take you to a hotel where the itinerary would be neatly printed out at the base of a crisply made bed so familiar to the one left back home. Not me, I just wander around aimlessly and clearly puzzled until some bystander is fed up with my lack of progress.  A very generous man dressed in camouflage (everyone here seems to wear some article of camouflage) spends 40 minutes rehearsing the metro bus system to me when I make it clear that 30 kina ($14) is too much for a 6 kilometer taxi ride. I think he was genuinely more interested in conversation with the apparently very scarce white man than actually sending me on my way. Content that I’ve got enough information to navigate my way to town via the local bus service I set off with my 20kg backpack and 8kg day pack strapped to my chest. That quest lasts about 20 meters before summoning a taxi in the 35 degree heat and humidity.

    My taxi driver Tony reveals that he’s a Christian and it’s why he accepted my 15 Kina haggle that all the other taxi’s refused. He said it’s the Christmas spirit time of year and god would want him to help a man in need.  We spent the better part of two hours driving around to find the cheapest guesthouse possible and finally settled on a $150 kina ($75 Australian)  / night room in a ‘Hotel’ Tony walked me around the guesthouse translating what the security guard explained in the local pigeon language. Tony appointed himself as my personal concierge showing me to my shoe box room and pausing to get full effect before turning the ceiling fan on full speed “You see?  It turns and make things cool for you” Incredible! I thought. For $75/ night I got a room with a bed, lawn chair, and ceiling fan, a communal bathroom hosting a single mold encrusted cold water shower, a sink with no faucet, and a security guard that insisted I leave my room key with him while I went out despite the 20 Kina key deposit he held.  Such is life when flying by the seat of your pants. I spent three days researching credits cards to save a percentage on exchange rates, I’ve starved myself for entire days in Africa to get the discounted bread from bakery’s at closing time, I’ve spent 24 hours in Singapore airport sleeping on the floors to save myself a small amount of money for the convenience of an earlier flight, I’ve even haggled a Chinese market in Budapest to get a shaver for $3 instead of $5 for a haircut I desperately needed.  I sacrificed so much and yet that exuberant one night of accommodation brought me back to square one.

Inner city rivers full of tiny fish

  I spent the last few hours of dusk walking the cluttered roads and exploring the local area being sure not to stray too far from the main roads. It’s apparent that white people very rarely visit the country and it’s even more apparent that white people never walk aimlessly in the streets of Port Morseby. I can confidently say that I’m the first white person they saw walking alone in that part of town, if not the first white person some of them have ever actually seen in flesh and blood. A thousand eyes followed me down the street. The already manic drivers became even more sporadic as they watched me instead of the road; however I knew I would never be hit by a car in this country because every driver noticed me from a mile away. Blending in and being inconspicuous was quickly realized as impossible. Every young woman would give me a shy smile, the braver ones would greet me with “good afternoon” The men usually threw out the peace sign or yelled “Hello Mate” mistaking me for an Australian. Some men even leaned dangerously out of passing metro busses yelling and pointing “whitey, whitey!” or “Masta, Masta” the pigeon word for a colonial foreigner. In the midst of the quickly darkening sky and the attention drawn to myself I never felt frightened or intimidated. The people were curious but they weren’t dangerous. I’ve learned how to read people who mean you harm in my home town back in Canada. It only takes the slightest moment of inattentiveness to find yourself being king punched in the ear or up against a dark wall with hands reaching through your pockets.  I usually carry myself in a stern hard manner when I sense the presence of opportunists searching for vulnerability. Cold hard glances casted downward and the rigidity of a compressed snake ready to strike express themselves in my movements while facial expressions never risk  a smile, smiling is a sign of weakness and vulnerability. I never thought I would be thankful for the muggings I endured in my youth but luckily those encounters have prepared me for conflicts that could harness much greater consequence. 

My $70 /night room

   I made it back to my room before the shadows and their accomplices transformed the streets into the wild crazed energy and sounds that penetrate the 10 foot high corrugated iron fence crowned with a heavy tangle of spiraled razor wire. I wasn’t scared but I was weary. The slum’s surrounded the small compound of the hotel, forcing in the sounds of the night that came in from every direction. I sat back against the wall in my room to write and listened to the progressive noise of night come alive. I could relate it most closely to lying in a tent alone at night and hearing the transition from birds calling their bed time songs to the increasing croak of frogs and eventual deafening roar of crickets followed up by the piercing howl of a chayote. The streets at night made the sounds of day sound like an echoless sleep. The wild dogs ran in packs and barked ferociously at whatever creature’s death was being witnessed. The cats prowled on high vantage points waiting to pounce on territorial wars. The people came out of their hiding places to scream. The screams were deafening, I’m not sure what kind of drugs and alcohol provoke screams like that but even my finger nails wanted to fall away from my crawling skin.  Spark plug bombs cracked the silence between yells and unrestrained group laughter. Eventually the fatigue of travel and airtime got the best of me and I surrendered to the droopy eyelids.

The relatively comfortable sleep was torn from my unconscious like a road rash scab. My instincts shocked me to life as my heart pounded ferociously through the thin fabric of my shirt. The crashing and banging that erupted below my bedroom window was the unmistakable sound of desperation like the thuds of flesh and scuffs of shoes in a drunken street fight. I was up on my knees looking through the window in time to see a creature running within an inch of his life and leaping over the fortress like fence and soaring like a bat over the barbed wire. Three men were chasing the perpetrator within a strides length and lucky be it to the impressive bat like acrobatics, the machetes wielded by his pursuers never had a chance to prove their effectiveness.  The men yelled over the fence and dragged their machetes along bars of steal to threaten the thief as he scurried away and warned against any other contemplating minds nearby. I piled my 20kg backpack against the door and held my hunting knife in my right hand and the sheath body in my left. Whoever it was wouldn’t be coming back, at least not tonight, there were no comforting thoughts that would help me get back to sleep. I laid there in my bed and contemplated every sound as alarming; the guards bellow didn’t seem any more at ease and stayed up late into the night talking in their pigeon tongue. I couldn’t understand their language but I did pick up the words ‘guest’ and ‘masta’. I couldn’t help but to think my little excursion down the street earlier that night had drawn the wrong kind of attention and my blind braveness might cost me more than what I budgeted for.  Adventure, this is what I live for.


Buying drugs on the street - Beetle Nut

     I checked out of the hotel early the next morning leaving my backpack under a table for pickup later on. When quizzed on the night’s events the owner assured me it had nothing to do with me and the rascals come into try and steal stuff all the time, she even showed me the hole cut through the corrugated iron fence where he had broken in. I had no reason not to believe her but despite the new confidence she inspired; I was still assigned a two man company to the bus stop a couple of hundred meters down the road. One of them ended up staying with me and giving me a walking tour of the city and showed me how to navigate the bus system around town. I got the feeling early on he wasn’t overly concerned about my lack of safety but was a genuinely nice and caring person. He was a year younger than myself and had been studying medicine before his family ran out of money to send him to school. He moved back to Port Moresby where his family was and lived in a makeshift hut underneath the hotel, he was one of the guys who chased away the rascal the night before.  He couldn’t get a job in the city because all he had was an incomplete doctor’s degree so his days consisted of sitting underneath the hotel and taking shifts with his father to open the gate when visitors arrived or left. I couldn’t help but to be reminded of growing up in the public school systems in Canada where the lame slogans promoted equal opportunity in multicolored banners strung across the gymnasium. I felt like a fool in this humble genius’s presence for all my own missed opportunity and carried the weight of everyone else I knew who chose a life of misfortune when billions more just like my new friend were dealt one.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Airport Anxiety

"I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me." - Chris Guillebeau

                        The light enters and my pupil’s contract to raisins, arms are shaking my body to life as I try to sort out in the brief moments of confusion what the hell is going on. My mouth is dryer than a sand shovel and my head pounds louder than a live orchestra. Fully clothed and sprawled out above the covers on a bed much larger than needed for a single person. A massive beard extends from the chin of a head to which arms extend nearest me. Clarity comes rushing back. I’m in my friend’s apartment in Brisbane where may 10 hour flight layer-over happened to be. That explains where I am but then I remember last night was my last night in Australia after an eventful two years. Of course such a sendoff needs to be toasted with a beer.. or many, that explains the sandy mouth and pain waves resonating around my skull. I’m fortunate he woke me because my sleep was sounder than a lifeless corpse. I’m hung over and behind schedule to catch my 9:00am to Papua New Guinea.
                                     Missing flights is the catalyst for anxiety. The one and only worry I ever have about travelling. I don’t care if I get beaten and stabbed for the five dollars in my pocket but I can’t deal with the pain of missing a flight and missing out on a nonrefundable adventure. Every flight missed is a step back in life both financially and mentally with the disappointment of missing out. The benefit of being beaten and stabbed (granted you survive) is the wisdom gained from misinterpretation of body language, misuse of eye contact, and overzealous attitude. The only worry I have and yet without fail I manage to nearly miss every single flight I have ever had. The list of reasons stretches around the block and I’m almost inviting nowadays to see the new complications that arise.
                                     I’m an hour and forty five minutes on time, half the stress is lifted from my shoulders as I read red and green L.E.D information screen scrolling my flight details informing me that check in will commence in 45 minutes. Perfect, I’ve got some time up my sleeve to soak up the alcohol in my stomach and replenish the fluids lacking from my blood.  Subway wins my approvals and provokes the hefty appetite brewing inside. Delicious herb bread and cold cut meat washed down with an ice cold coke treats my head and stomach with graceful satisfaction. I lean back in my chair rolling my eyes up as one does when savoring a precious piece of nutrition to an inch of its existence.  With my head rolled back chewing slowly I can see the information sign better now that lingers just above my head. My eyes examine departure to departure until resting on the one I thought was my own. This relaxed concentration reveals that I’ve misread the information and my actual flight is calling all passengers to the gate. Here we go again. My stomach flips over and the recently savored feast wants to come back out all over the table.  I’m still alright, I’ve got about an hour to check in, drop my bag, run through the gauntlet of security, find my gate, and board my flight.
                                     The directions to the check in counter send me speed walking back and forth across the length of the kiosk terminal in their unsynchronized method of confusing passengers. I’m not surprised. The counter is finally found and I drop my luggage on the scale (the only benefit of being late is the absence of waiting in line to the airline kiosk). I’m as pleasant as possible to avoid any unnecessary problems or even drive guilt into their stomachs if my bag happens to be a little bit over the weight limit that varies between every airline. It doesn’t work. “Where’s your exit ticket?” I haven’t even gotten to the country yet and they want me to leave.  I expected this happen at some point in my journey that a country would want to see an exit flight to ensure that you have a way out, some countries even want bank statements to prove that you can support yourself. “I don’t have one, I don’t even know how long I can stay in the country” My passport is handed back and she asks me to remove my bag from the scale “There’s a Flight Center office over there” I don’t bother asking for specific instructions to help with my dwindling time limit because I already know to look in the furthest away corner possible to where I am and that’s where it will be, it’s just my luck.
                                     Thank god she’s cute, the last aussie Il need surrender my money to. Lily from the flight center office provides me with the cheapest option out of Papua New Guinea to Manila in the Philippians for $900 nonrefundable. I know I could build a plane and fly it to the Philippians myself for cheaper than that. My Australian visa is expired, and my nonrefundable $300 flight to PNG departs in 50 minutes. We both know I’m backed into a corner and her worriless expression tells me she gets idiots like me all the time. She has to pull my credit card so hard from my grip that the plastic filings curl up beneath my nails.
                                     One exuberantly priced piece of democracy later I’m shuffling along through the security queue like a reenactment of a Penguin Migration. I know I’m not the only one suffering from airport anxiety because I can taste the distinct pungent smell of sweat. Security queues in every country around the world smell like this. I can sweat 8 liters of water a day at work and not smell anything more than a wet shirt, but it’s true when criminals say they can smell fear. The salty acidic moisture excreted when nervous smells as bad as it feels. People try to indiscriminately turn their heads and look for a nonexistent pen in their right pocket, pushing their nose into the valley of the shoulder checking to see if that smell is theirs. It is.  We all stink. I’ve got nothing to hide but I’m still nervous even after all these years. I would be a lousy client for a homicide defense attorney. TSA the American company responsible for airline security hire an equal amount of interrogators as they do custodians to clean the pools of sweat off the floors in these queues. I thought the lady at immigration was going to surprise rip my shirt open looking for a bomb in my transit though Los Angeles once she saw my stamp from United Arab Emirates visa. God help anyone who wears a turban in that airport.
                                     I know the routine, my belt, phone, and wallet go in the tray with the day pack carry on, my laptop lies uncovered in a tray of its own, passport stays in my pocket. I time my belt threading to coincide with someone else randomly getting swabbed for gun powder and drug residue. Such over necessary test’s would cost me an extra 75 seconds I don’t have. I’m charged an extra $15 to buy enough Kina to pay for my PNG visa on arrival at the travel EX counter. I have no room or time to negotiate a better rate or check for partner discounts with my current cards.. more money dribbling between my fingers.  I hear my name being called on the intercom for final boarding and try to speed walk off like it’s not my name. They see me coming as expecting and I see the Australian Tax Office kiosk next to my gate. My head swivels between the Air Nuigini staff and the Tax office window contemplating begging for a few extra minutes to submit my superannuation claim. The man holding the red fussy blockade in his hand shakes his head in hindsight of what I wanted. My pace turns into a defeated slouch and I hand my boarding pass to him and he hands it back a little bit smaller this time. I look back at the tax office knowing that I just walked past $4,397 of superannuation in my account that will now need to be submitted online and mailed to my address in Canada as a cheque. I wouldn’t be seeing that money for a very long time.. between the fingers it goes, out of reach, out of use, out of budget.

Here we go.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Source To Sea

A means to a beginning.

One million and more paddle strokes purchased, two thousand four hundred thirty nine kilometers traversed, ten consecutive weeks, one dream dreamt. For ten weeks I ate, slept, and bathed in the waters that brought me to the ocean of the southern ocean of Australia. The daily erection of a tent, the boiling of a pot of water, the cooking of dehydrated meals, and of course the eight hours a day of gliding atop the sparkling surface of the Murray River.  That became my world, a completely comfortable way of which each day is lived out. Breath, eat, sleep. A roof over my head, a soapy shower, cars, and concrete have become so foreign to me that I feel at a loss and realize it’s going to take some time to adjust back into normal civilization. Withdrawal symptoms are surfacing but self-pitying can be spared, my saving grace is the next adventure already beating down the front door to tear a piece from me. 
It’s an incredibly powerful feeling to have paddled the third longest navigable river in the world, another reminder that we are only ever limited by ourselves. It’s a testament that anything can be accomplished if the mind is set and the heart is pure. Determination is the mind pushing the body past its physical limits despite the inner protest. Perseverance is the stubborn knowledge of waking up and doing it all again. But this journey to me wasn’t about proving anything to myself or others. Like any other expedition I’ve set out on in my life, the thing I’ve cherished most are the relationships weaved, the laughs shared, and the forever surprising kindness and hospitality shown by strangers.

 One thing even more rewarding than bearing the Source to Sea title is the look in someone’s eyes when you’ve just filled them with inspiration. I couldn’t even pretend to brag about what I’ve just accomplished considering my paddling companions are two to two and half times my age and complained half as much. When we surfaced into small blips of civilization throughout the ten weeks most people were appalled at our filth and lack of bodily etiquette but the few people who dared to risk contact all barred the same amazement to the scale of our endeavour.  What most people assume is in order to tackle an adventure like this you need to be a professional athlete, sponsored by major financial bodies, or lying on the non-conventional death bed. I can assure you that I am none of those. We are just normal people, carpenters, school teachers, pharmacist, mothers, fathers, humans. The only thing we have in common is none of us have ever stopped pursuing our dreams and goals. We never gave criticism a chance to interfere with believing in ourselves.  Those riverbank spectators watched us paddle away those days with future possibilities in their eyes and hope in their chests.
The Murray has done a good job of testing my limits, feeling my weaknesses, and working its way into my faults. A worthy challenge it has been, however the Mighty Murray is the Rook in the game of thrones. Pawn to D3, I find my path blocked by the world’s King and Queen.  South America to F7, Africa to E2, The Amazon and Nile are on my board game of maps and landscapes. What doesn’t kill you prepares you to do something that will.

Check Mate, Bring it on.

Friday, December 7, 2012

To Be Humbled

 The burden of happiness can only be relieved by the balm of suffering – Shantaram

It is the soul that will forever burn within the body even if its embers glow dark orange and smoulder in the mourning of a lost spirit. A flame, an energy that will never be extinguished as long as the heart pumps in its rhythmic chorus within the chest. Like the sorrow followed by triumph of the phoenix, the spirit may burn and turn to ash but its seed has already been planted. The soul sits in the depth of the deepest emotional sea, its skin does not corrode as the sunken steal ships lost in pointless battles, but it grows in size as the numerous layers of coral grow on its energy and the ashy sediment from burned spirits settle on its surface to solidify into a hard impregnable fortress of hope. The sole stokes its fire and burns bright to nurture the spirit to life like the  sun’s radiant heat that blossoms wild flowers in a greater number and density as before. You may kill my spirit but you will never touch my sole. You can cut my heart from my chest and grip it until the flesh pulps between your fingers, but still, you will never touch my soul.
Brittle and fractured like the hanging willow branches that lay limp from the cold frost of the snowy mountain ranges in the north east. Shredded like the life vest found without the young girls body from the discrete force of the raging waters. Incinerated like the cowering shadows at mid-day by the ferocious glare of the sun. Blown away into oblivion like the ashes from a sailors upturned urn at sea. This is my spirit, laid out upon this river in segments as every element took its bite on my way down its spine. Shattered into a million shards of glass that lay at rest upon the muddy opaque bottom. Defeated and destroyed, my spirit had no fight left with three days to finish when the unruly winds blew its serrated edge gale into my face for twelve consecutive excruciating hours of restless, crawling progress. It was if the river was blowing me back into its bowels for digestion. I turned into camp three hours after sunset with dried acidic tears that streaked my cheeks and a will to fall asleep that night and never awake from the miserable throbbing pain that consumed my aching body.
Full of confidence and premature pride, I thought this river was mine. I was certain that I would lasso its current and ride the beast until it submitted under my perseverance with only three days to go, but I was wrong. Life’s most powerful lesson in gaining experience is to be humbled. And once again I have become. This river is not ‘conquerable’ by man, no human should ever claim to possess the power of taming and controlling this mighty giant. We are only granted passage if it so desires you to be worthy of its title. I respected it but I also taunted its potential for destruction. I deserved this elemental lashing and I study the welts left upon my ego and pride to prevent a future recurrence. I’m fortunate for these lessons learned as the reminder of lost loved ones litter the banks with crosses and memorial stones while I glide on past. I’m lucky to have lived and learned, I’m fortunate to have lucked out and been granted the chance to try again.

Two more days to go... Two more days to tempt fate and cross the largest and most dangerous part of the journey, Lake Alexandrina. A good predicted forecast confirms an understanding between  Murray and man, Its telling us we are being allowed to cross.

Time to finish this.