Friday, March 2, 2018

Fantasy Friday: Imaro by Charles Saunders

A couple weeks ago, my wife and I took a short vacation to Silver City, NM to get away from it all. We saw the Gila Cliff Dwellings and drove through the Black Mountains but we weren't able to do a ton of hiking as both of us were still getting over a sickness that had been dogging us for some time. Lucky for us, the theater just down the street from out AirBnB, was playing a movie that we were both excited for, Black Panther. I am a Marvel nut, I have seen all the movies and have loved all of them in their own right so naturally I was down to watch this one. My wife, not being the same kind of nerd that I am, was interested in it because of all the social justice praise that was surrounding it (also because she has seen all the movies too). While this is important to me as well, I was going to be seeing it anyway for fanboy reasons. Like so many others, I loved the movie. It was fun (see my post "Writing Novels, Raiding Tombs" for my thoughts on fun) and still managed to have some important themes and messages without feeling preachy. Most all, I really appreciated that it was different  from so much of what we see in entertainment. The setting was unique and interesting, the characters were well crafted, you felt for the bad guy, you felt for the good guys, it had a lot going for it. I'm just going to come out and say it, it was refreshing to see Africans get the spotlight, as they should more often. 

"Imaro follows in the footsteps of Conan."
As an aspiring genre writer, I can admit that the sci-fi and fantasy field does not always represent the diversity of the real world. This was the plight that inspired Charles Saunders to create his character Imaro. I am a huge fan of Robert E. Howard and his creation of Conan. Man do I love that stuff. The adventure and the heroics and thrills! I can't get enough. So in my search to do just that, I was led to the Kindle e-book, Imaro: Volume 1. Imaro is a character chiseled from the same stone as Conan, there are many differences between the two, but the core concept of a bad ass warrior walking a prehistoric fantasy world, remains the same. As the story was told to me, Charles Saunders loved the same kind of fiction that I do, but he struggled by the lack of representation and often racist undertones of authors like Howard. This drove him to craft his Afrocentric world of Nyumbani. 

The world of Nyumbani
Nyumbani is much like Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age. While centered on an Africa that never was, there is still a ton of diversity present. Saunders takes aspects from all sorts of African cultures (and a few others) and it creates a colorful and interesting world to visit. There are occasional visits by people from what I presume is India and there is a really cool Chinese monk in a story as well. Saunders takes the classic Sword and Sorcery trope of Atlantis and uses them as a sort of representation of the colonization of Africa with some chilling results. Imaro and his friends are thrust into a world of violence and sorcery that is often dark but has it's lighter touches as well. Any reader of Conan will find something here to love. 

Before going on, I want to stress that I really do appreciate those deep, world view altering pieces of fiction that details the struggles of life through a fictional lens. In my daily l face the realities of a low income school, so when I unwind I was to escape into something less taxing on mental state. In that respect, Imaro is much like Black Panther. There are messages of social value, things to make you think, but there is just as much, if not more, all out action and adventure. You can tell that Saunders has both a passion for the genre and a passion for African history and culture through how he writes and treats his characters. This is doubled by his continual dedication to create African inspired fantasy fiction. 

The biggest downside to Saunder's Imaro series, is that they are out of print! Gah! His novels, the first and second anyway, have gone through some revisions from their paperback state and the revisions are also out of print. has the first and second books available for moderate prices, but the third and fourth are not affordable on a teacher's salary. Luckily the revised first book is on Kindle and the revised first and second are available on Audible. The third and fourth books are available on as print on demand for $20. Not a bad price compared to the hundreds the paperbacks go for. With the revisions, there are two stories that are effected most. A story call "Slaves of the Giant Kings", which was changed to another story as it mirrored events of the Rwandan Genocide, and "City of Madness". CoM was once the end of book one but was moved to the beginning of book two (a better place for it). Unfortunately, the Kindle version of book one doesn't have it and the affordable print version book two doesn't either. This makes the transition between book one and two jarring and weird, or hard to get. Mr. Saunders, if you are out there, PLEASE PUT IMARO 2 ON KINDLE!!
Wakanda Forever!
Just as Black Panther brought African superheros to the big screen, Imaro brought the Sword and Sorcery tale/hero to Africa. For fans of action, horror, fantasy, and adventure, this is a must read. If anyone knows how to get a hold of the director of Black Panther, he needs to get a hold of these books and make these movies! 

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Writing Novels, Raiding Tombs

As some of my friends and family know, I have fairly recently finished writing a draft of my first novel. It is currently going through the "Beta Testing" process before I make any final revisions that I need to make and hopefully I will be self-publishing in time for some summer reading! The novel that I wrote is by no means a deep read. It is something of an homage to all the things that I miss in fiction, including video games and movies, that being fun. Now I know that everyone's idea of "fun" is different. What I am referring to is the seemingly pervasive need to be "dark and gritty", to have some kind of profound message, or to check a certain number of focused grouped boxes. I miss the days of Ray Harryhausen, of Monster Vision and Indiana Jones. I miss the feeling of adventure for the sake of adventure. Pure, unadulterated escapism, that is what what I look for. Even my most favorite video game series, Uncharted, took a turn in this direction with it's final installment. Yes there were still frantic shootouts, historical mysteries and adventure to be had, but there was A LOT more focus on the less exciting bits of the story this time around. That's not to say that I didn't love it, but I did have to replay 1, 2, 3, and Lost Legacy to scratch that pulpy itch.

When I sat down to write my novel, I really just wanted to write something that I would want to read. It was an absolute blast to do. As part of my writing process, I went about devouring (metaphorically and literally) all things "adventure". I delved through genre specific reads on Kindle to see what others were writing, I went through all four (Yes, even Crystal Skull) Indiana Jones movies, I picked up novels by James Rollins and Clive Cussler as well as some classics like Doc Savage and El Borak and I when I had time to game I was back at Uncharted. As I have gone through and sated my fill of Nathan Drake and his plucky group of thieves, I turned toward another icon of adventure gaming, Lara Croft. 

"I have no funny quips to say. Ever." 
The eponymous Tomb Raider was definitely an inspiration for the main characters of my novel. She is strong, spirited and finds herself constantly in trouble. Most gamers these days know that the Tomb Raider franchise was rebooted in 2013, telling us an origin story of how Lara Croft became the legend. While the story wasn't really anything that anybody asked for and definitely deviated from the old series, it did give us a more relate able main character (also far less objectified) and some sweet set pieces. Still, the reboot suffered from that whole "dark and gritty" trend that plagues so many mediums today. Years later, we got a sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and while I think it improved upon nearly every aspect, it seemed to throw one out the window. Joy. 

Don't get me wrong, it is fun to play. It borrows heavily from the Uncharted formula of running, jumping, climbing and shooting with a little more open exploring. At the same time, most likely to deviate from being "too Uncharted", it has no joy, no humor, Lara is not having any fun at all and she is quite vocal about it. Now in real life, I totally understand that being shot at and shooting people isn't shouldn't be fun. I know for a fact that falling from great heights and being lost in the wilderness isn't fun. But its not real life, its supposed t
o be fun! Would Indiana Jones be as good an memorable without the one lines and occasionally silly situations? Can you imagine a grim-faced, mirthless Harrison Ford as the titular lead? Me neither. Old Lara was more Jones while new Lara is more.....Christian Bale Batman? I think? 

"Adventuring is the worst."- Lara Croft
It sounds weird, but Lara's whole attitude breaks my immersion. I am not immersed in the adventure because I don't believe I'm playing in one. Years of exposure to adventure genre staples had told me what to expect from an adventure. Danger, intrigue, daring do, confident heroes and imposing obstacles. Rise of the Tomb Raider has all of that, except the hero. In Lara's world, there is absolutely fun to be had with anything. It's so out of the genre norm that it is jarring, and frankly I hope that it is not something that catches on. I blame Game of Thrones. What does all this have to do with my novel? Ultimately, the adventure that I have tried to craft is built upon a foundation of that "fun" that I so desperately seek in my adventure. Is it a little cheesy? For sure. At times, outlandish? Of course. But all I hope is that ultimately my readers will find some thrills, some humor, some horror and ultimately so good ole' fashioned escapist fun! 

In the end, I know that what I am looking for in both what I read and what I write is fairly specific. I know that there is a place for those dark and gritty things, from the novels that seek to change your world view, for the thousand page conversations interspersed with three pages of action (GAME OF THRONES!). I know that people want those things and I am glad they exist. I only lament what seems to be an over saturation of this stuff while people that just want to escape for a bit are left high and dry. 

On that note: I am always taking reading suggestions!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

In Defense of Wilderness, or "#OurWild"

I am currently strapped into a cushy chair having blood drained from my arm. Because I'm a hero. At least that's what the poster next to me says. Anyway, I want to talk about something that is really important to me. I tend to write mostly about adventure, the outdoors and nature. I would be a very different person without these things in my life. In order to have adventure, to experience nature and the outdoors, we need places to go. There is so much privately owned land already in the United States. In my home state, Nebraska, the nearest "wilderness" area was hours from my home. Here in the Southwest, it's minutes and I love it. Unfortunately, that is in danger. For sometime now, special interest groups have been lobbying for the removal of some 600 million acres of public land (national parks, memorials, BLM and Wilderness) from public ownership in order to sell them off to mining, oil and logging companies. This is especially prevalent in the West, including lovely New Mexico. The removal of these lands would have serious impact on a number of levels. Taking NM as an example, the loss of Public lands could cause severe damage to the state economy by hurting tourism. The same goes for any number of Western states. The companies that are bidding for these lands claim that their business will bring jobs, but that old song and dance has never really rang true. Oil lines in North Dakota caused a short term boom but when the work runs out, so does the money. This is also something the many Native American Reservations have been dealing with. Access to public land has a direct link to quality of life and if this goes away, say goodbye to camping, fishing, hiking and all those other adventures you and I love so much. But what really gets me is the blatant disregard for the natural world. Not just the animals, the plants, but mountains, deserts and forests. Not only do they want to remove public access to these wonderful wild places, but they want to dig them up, crack them open and cut them all down. The devastation is two fold. Not only does this cause further endangerment to many species, some already fragile, but perpetuates our reliance on fossil fuel and non renewable energy. For more information check out, tell your representatives, send letters, tell your friends, write a blog post. Show you care. Because if you don't, you won't know what you missed until it's already gone.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The More Things Change The More They Stay The Same..., or "Today's Lesson"

Good afternoon class. If we haven't met before, my name is Mr. Whitney. That's right, like the girl's name. Get your laughs out now. Before we begin, I want to know something, have any of you ever read any James Michener? No. Well I don't blame you. Today we are going to do a "reverse Michener". Instead of starting way back in time and building up to now, we are going to tear down the present and end up back at the end of the Ice Age. Sounds cool, right? Hey! Quit your groaning in the back, Kristina! Make sure you're paying attention, this will be on the test.....

   Okay, so now that the formalities are out of the way let's start with a little town called Fairbank, aptly named as it sits on a nice little spot along the banks of the San Pedro river in Southern Arizona. No one lives there anymore. It's a ghost town. Once it was a nice little mining town near Tombstone, famous for Wyatt Earp and the Clanton feud. Ike Clanton himself had a ranch nearby little Fairbank but that's another story. So here we are in 2016 and all that is left of Fairbank are some little wooden buildings, a cemetery, a rebuilt school house and the ruins of a large Silver Stamping mill. The school house was restored in 2007 and also houses a modest library and gift shop for visitors. It is maintained as a historic site by the Bureau of Land Management as part of the San Pedro Riparian Area. If you happen to visit, I highly suggest you see if Ron Stewart is the volunteer for the day. He is super nice and very knowledgeable. What's left of this little town is tucked away along a lonely stretch of highway between Whetstone and Tombstone, the buildings are huddled together beneath the shade of Cottonwoods and the humidity of the river.
The Fairbank Silver Mill
     Just under a mile away is a small cemetery, run down and decrepit. The perfect place to either bury a treasure or be haunted by an old cowboy's ghost. Your choice. The hill has been eroding for nearly a century since the last person was buried there, the wooden crosses have dry rotted and the stones that keep the dead in their tombs have began to migrate to greener pastures. Even further down the trail are the megalithic remains of an old Silver Mill. Here, the gravity of falling water generated enough steam and energy to forcefully move metal rods up and down, up an down, again and again, essentially grinding raw silver ore into dust. Now, all that's left are giant walls of mortared stone, a lasting testament to both man's ingenuity and greed.
     The real question is why do you think this town sprung up here? Anybody? *chirp chirp*. You, the blonde in the back with Doctor Who shirt. Yes you. What do you think? Very good! It's the river. The river is why they chose to build. As mentioned before, this town relied heavily on its Silver Mill, which of course used the coursing water of the San Pedro to do its job. The Mill brings workers, workers bring their families and then a town pops up. The Railroad comes to ship the goods and soon enough you have a hotel, a mercantile and schoolhouse. But eventually the rails decide to move elsewhere, the people run out of things to do and they all move on. It's the story of more little towns than one can probably count. At one point, the U.S. census states that there were a whopping 72 people living in Fairbank. A little strange because the Business Directory lists at least 242 in 40 households. During this time, the Census was not something to be trusted. Many people considered it government over reach and some just plain didn't want to be found. Fairbank was never very big by any means, Tombstone being only a 15 minute drive away, but it had its place in the web of the mining economy in Southern Arizona.
    Speaking of Tombstone, let me deviate for a second for a pretty cool story. Don't roll your eyes at me Mr. French. Wyatt Earp. Famous and/or notorious gunfighter of the Old West. Made popular by his shootout with the Clanton gang at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, was once tried for murder. Many thought that he wrongfully killed those men cold in the street, many had a less than positive perception of the man. They charged him with murder. Fearing that he would not get a fair trial in Tombstone, the judge had his trial moved to Fairbank. After news spread of Wyatt's charges, old acquaintances and friendly citizens of Dodge City, Kansas sent letters speaking highly of Earp's honor. Wyatt was eventually acquitted and the charges dropped. Prime example of how important it is to have a good reputation.
    Anyway, Fairbank was founded alongside the San Pedro because of the abundance of water. It lasted from 1881 to 1973. But what happened before? Any guesses? Susie, go ahead. There were Native Americans there? Well, you are not wrong, but there was something else in between. Ah, the Spanish. Awesome. So the Spanish had come to this area for the same reason. The land was rich and fertile because of the river valley. Fairbank was built within the boundaries of the San Juan Boquillas y Nogales Land Grant that was once owned and operated by the Elias family out of Sonora. They came into the land in 1823 and the Spanish intended to settle it as part of New Spain, or Mexico, by today's terms. They had a hard time of it because they weren't the only ones there. The Chiricahua Apache fought them every step of the way which led to the abandonment of the area, leaving nothing but thousands of wild cattle roaming the San Pedro River Valley. In 1854 this area became part of the United States after the Gadsden Purchase but wouldn't be settled until the founding of Tombstone, Charleston and Fairbank.
    So why were Spanish trying to ranch there? What made it good for such a thing? Andy? Very good, its the water. I think you are catching on to the pattern here.  The San Pedro River creates an area that is far more fertile than the surrounding Sonoran Desert. Water is a hot commodity in the desert and everything relies on it. Even today, the land around the river is filled with Cottonwood trees, Mesquite, marsh grasses and all kinds of wildlife that rely on the water found there. In 1695 Father Eusebio Kino visited a string of Apache villages just north of the ruins of Fairbank. 156 years earlier, in 1530, Fray Marcos de Niza explored the area for the King of Spain describing the area as "an irrigated, evergreen garden" (Friends of the San Pedro River). Again, its the water.
Prehistoric Pottery and Points
     Alright, one last thing, I promise. The time machine is going to start moving faster now. Before the miners, the Spanish and the Apache, there were others. The Hohokam, the Mogollon and the Salado cultures all had settlements alongside the San Pedro River. Before them was the Cochise Culture lasting from around 5000-200 BC. Before the Cochise still, we have the Clovis. Who can tell
me who the Clovis are? Red hair and glasses, in the front, what do you think? Perfect, the Clovis were one of the first major migrations into the Americas. This happened between 12-9,000 BC, give or take a few and low and behold, there they are right along the San Pedro River. Now the climate back then would have been much different from the desert that it is today, but regardless the water was very important. The San Pedro started flowing at the end the last Ice Age and would have attracted all kinds of animals including Megafauna. Near Fairbank is Murray Springs that has evidence of Mammoth and Bison Antiqus kills. Also along the River are the Naco and Lehrner Mammoth Kill sites, just a stone's throw away.
    Ah, a question Mr. Petro? What's the point of all this? Excellent, I was just getting to that. What have I told you again and again is the point of studying History? Not the names. Not the dates. History shows us the overarching themes of human interaction and existence. Now I know it seems obvious that people need water. Everything needs water. But today we have talked about some concrete examples of how people relied upon the San Pedro river for their lives and livelihoods. The river gave them game to hunt, grass to feed cattle, and power to run their mills. It brought food, settlers, miners, merchants, and families. This is a pattern that will ring true nearly everywhere in the world with only a few exceptions. Where there is water, you will find people. Even today, the San Pedro is a conservation area that attracts visitors and outdoor enthusiasts from all over. Ranches still dot the valley and other towns have sprung up. If you ever hope to understand people, history is where you need to begin. Thanks for paying attention today class...for the most part....except you Scott. I saw you sleeping over there. I'll see you after class. 


Wildlife on the Border

This is not the post I've been working on for the last couple of days, but I am currently sitting and waiting for law enforcement so our Survey Crew can get on with the day. I am currently less than a mile from the Mexican Border and can clearly see the fence from where I stand. I realize this is a blog mostly Bout exploring but I also touch upon Nature and Environmental stuff too, I'll try and stick to that without being very political, but honestly, I think you'll deal with it. Going to start this out by straight up saying, I hate the Fence. I'll hate it even more if it becomes a big stupid wall. It's a waste of money, time, effort and barely works. What it is good at is screwing up the environment. It started out as open  space and slowly became barbed wire and wooden posts. Today it is a long series of closely placed metal bars. This kind of barricade is meant to restrict illegal goods and people (don't get me started on the term illegal). This also has an impact on large wildlife like deer, bears and coyotes. As the reduction of these animals continue, it negative impacts the smaller wildlife and plants. This in turn effects insects and soil and the thing gets messed up. I can't figure out how to upload pictures from this app, but if I could I could show you what essentially looks like a prairie. I will remind you I am standing in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. Makes sense right? No. The grasses are almost entirely invasive and non native. Really, the only area where I don't see stuff that is in the proper order is the nicely tended garden of native species. I don't particularly have a huge point here, except just one more instance of our impact on the world with basically no return. Happy 4th of July everyone. Pick up your trash and do your best not to scare the pets/wildlife. We are heading to the Border Patrol HQ to see if we can get this underway...

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Sing it from the Mountain Top, or "Too Far From the Beaten Path".


Top of the Mountain
   Since last time I wrote a post I have a lot of stuff go on in my life, all of it positive I might add, but still requiring a lot of thought processing. When I feel overwhelmed or stressed out, the best place for me is outdoors. I realize that there is a lot of talk about how the outdoors can help with things like depression and anxiety, and that might be true in some cases, but that is not true for everyone. But
Looking East from the Sandias
that's not necessarily what I am talking about. Being outside is like my meditation. Being surrounded by the Natural World refreshes sense of wonder and gives me some perspective. Its like meditation for me. Except I don't really know what that feels like because my mind wanders too much. But I can imagine there is a similarity. Maybe it's standing next to towering Ponderosa pines, hearing the wind blow through the the grass in a high mountain meadow, or making eye contact with a pair of deer as they nonchalantly pick their way through the brush; whatever it is, it brings me peace. As I mentioned before, big week for me. Lots to think about. Something in me decided to climb a mountain. So I did.
     I had been reading about interesting things in the area and read about an outcrop of limestone at the top the Sandias that supposedly had fossils. Nothing really special, mostly coral and small bivalves, but regardless, I wanted to see it. I could have driven to the top, parked, had a short, relaxing hike and been done. Did I do that? No. No I didn't. On a whim I parked just short of halfway up that bad boy and hiked. One of my favorite parts of hiking up a mountain is being able to go through all the different ecosystems that melt together as the elevation increases. The trail I chose began next to a small stream at the very top of Madera Canyon, it was a fairly modest trail, lacking in upkeep and only tenuously marked, making it all the more exciting. Looming above me, somewhere above the massive pines, was the peak that I sought to reach. The tail meandered up around the side the mountain, taking me through some truly beautiful stretches of forest. Unfortunately that was not the case the whole time.
     I spent a lot of time in my life working for a Nature Center in Nebraska where were basically in constant battle with Invasive Species. Sounds dramatic? Good. Because it was. Lost a lot of good
Prescribed burn back in NE
people out there. Stretches of the forest that I walked through were in really bad shape. Inches of duff (basically dead plant matter) covered the forest floor with barely any under story growth. In other places Scrub Oak blanketed the area in a near mono-culture. The mountain is in desperate need of a good burning. Fire was one of the most important aspects of managing our Prairie back home, and is also super important for keeping a healthy forest. I admit, I am not an expert in forest management and I realize there is a ton of planning an budgeting that goes into it. Problem is, unless you stay on top of it, the next time there is a fire it can be severe. Just a week or so ago, a large fire sprung up in the Manzano mountains southeast of Albuquerque. The Sandias are closer to an urban area and could potentially cause a greater loss of property and life if not contained in time. Thousands of years ago, lightening and mindful Native Americans made sure that fire did its part, whether it was intended or not. There are even a number of plants that will remain as seeds until fire coaxes them out. Fire is important, and it hurts my heart to see the forest in such bad shape.
Easiest way to read "Owls Hoot in the Daytime"
     Anyway, enough of the preaching. So I am about halfway to my destination and I stop to down some Powerade. What do I hear? An owl hoot in the daytime. First off, I freaking LOVE owls. Back at the nature center we had these two little screech owls and they were so cute and perched on my hand and then there was this blind Barn Owl and watching him eat was disgustingly fascinating. Second: "Owls Hoot in the Daytime" by Manly Wade Wellman is one of my favorite short stories ever! If you haven't had the chance to read it, find me and I will make sure you do. In the story, the owl calling out during the day signifies that the main character has traveled too far from the beaten
path. It is derived from old Appalachian folklore; I promptly ignored its warning and continued on.

     It was a long trek, not going to lie. I had to take a more than a few breathers because walking up hills is hard work. My eyes widened as I walked
Looking down from the top
into a wide open meadow very near the top. The top of the Sandias is a really popular hiking/trail running/dog walking area and I rapidly came to realize that I was not really in the wild anymore. My dreams of bear taming crushed for the day, I couldn't help but pick up some of the trash I came across in the trail to at least be placed in a trash can next time I saw it. I can forgive ill maintenance of the parkland, I get it, its hard, it costs money, and it can be really dangerous. You know what isn't any of those things? THROWING AWAY YOUR DAMN TRASH. Seriously. Put it where it belongs. Awesome, two preachy moments in one post.

      Anyway, eventually I made my way the highest point on the mountain and looked down and out across the world around me. Gods is it a beautiful sight. In moments like that, I am overwhelmed with a sense of place. That meditation thing I was talking about at the beginning. I knew where I was and for a moment my doubts and fears rushed away with wind. But I still had a goal. I had to find me some fossils. The age of the earth is profound to me. The fact that at the top of the mountain I am standing on what used to be the bottom of an ancient sea. Untold centuries of violent processes radically changed the shape of the surface into what I was seeing then. Talk about perspective. Looking out into the horizon, feeling the weight of time and pressing my hands against the remnants of some of the earliest lifeforms on the planet. People find solace in many things. Religion. Fantasy. Art. I find it most often in the feeling of insignificance. It is peaceful there. Maybe a bit lonely. But it's clarity. For me at least. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I look up at the sky. Down at the world. Peace. The hike back down in way easier. I feel a little high. Maybe its the meditation, maybe its dehydration. Who knows. Aside from being stabbed in the side by a Yucca thorn, it was a good day.
Bottom of the Ocean

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Woman of the World (and explantions for my hiatus)

Holy CRAP! I hate Grad School. Today was my last full class, I have my "Exit Interview" tomorrow and then I am freaking done. Like waaaay more done than I am with this beer next to me. Anyway....rough couple of semesters....blah blah blah....that means I now I have time to write more! I am going to start this off by cheating. By cheating, I mean posting something I didn't write. But I did ask the author to write it for my blog (because she posts less often than I do). So there, take that.

Let me introduce the author of this post, her name is Sara. I call her Honeybee. Not because its a cute pet name or anything. Because we met as counselors at a Nature Camp and we had to have Nature names. Don't ask me why. There was Bison, and Hedgehog and Blue Jay and Sprout and Honeybee....which one was me I hear you asking? None of them. I was Cockroach. Anyways, I have known Sara since she was like 16 and have seen her grow up to be a strong willed and adventurous young woman. She has spent the last while in Asia, traveling and teaching and generally being herself. I have no doubt that some of that time was spent trying to tame her hair, but to no avail. Sorry Sara, I couldn't help it. My most popular blog post ever was one I wrote about Women in Adventuring/Exploration and I wanted to follow that up with one that I know personally. Thanks Sara, for your input and for being someone that not only young girls/boys can aspire to be, but also because you inspire me. Because you're awesome. And I'm super jealous.

Love and Disaster in East Asia: 10 Lessons I Learned the Hard Way

Hi! My name is Sara and this is me.  I’m a directionless 23-year-old college grad who stumbled upon an opportunity to work and travel in Asia.  I have had great times and I have had terrible times, but most of the time, I am just trying to keep moving forward.  Thanks to Logan, I get to share some of my greatest successes (and a few epic fails) with you.  These are the 10 most important lessons, some of which I had to learn the hard way.

  1. IMG_20160222_145521[1].jpg
    If you are a native English speaker, count your blessings. No matter where I was, I was able to find at least 1 person with rudimentary English. I could buy what I needed and find my way when I got lost. In a farming village in east Nepal, I was even able to learn a handful of words and phrases in Nepali.  As an English teacher in China, I understand the popularity of the English language, but it wasn’t until Nepal that I really experienced how hungry people were for it.  A business that has the most rudimentary grasp of English has a huge advantage over one that doesn’t.
  2. Always do something that scares you. You might end up loving it. I went paragliding in Pokhara, Nepal. Me. Terrified of heights and, more specifically, falling from great heights. With nothing but a harness and glorified piece of fabric keeping me in the air (and also a pilot named Sabine to whom I entrusted my life). Despite the fog and smog, my view of the AnnaPurna range from 2000 m up was...surreal. There are only a few times in your life when you feel like you are finally big enough to stand out and face the universe in all of its vastness. In that moment, you realize just how small your footsteps are. You feel the thin threads of silky time tying you precariously to your present. You come face to face with your relative insignificance and it is the most liberating moment. You finally feel free enough to take the big risks that our collectively massive existence requires for growth.
  1. Pick up some local customs. In Nepal, the head movement for “yes” is bobbing your head from side-to-side instead of the western up-and-down.  The one-nod “hello” is universal, but you can also touch your hand to your heart or to your forehead (the third eye) instead of putting your hands in the prayer position when you say “Namaste” to someone. It’s these little things that make people treat you with a little more respect and less like a tourist.
  2. Don’t Panic. Ok, I’m borrowing this one from Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but it’s true. There is a story I like to remember and it helped me through getting pickpocketed of all my money and important documents, on several small and cramped buses, and in long and confusing customs procedures.
A king once commanded his advisors to create something that would help him get through everything in his life. The highest of highs, the lowest of lows, this thing needed to be there to keep him grounded. After several months of debating, the advisors finally came to king. They presented him with a small gold ring with an inscription on the inside that read “This too shall pass.” Nepal has a similar motto: “We can manage.”  Both of these sayings serve as a reminder that our time is remarkably short and that happiness and success is something we create rather than happen upon. Freaking out in the middle of a crisis will not help anyone, especially you.  After the crisis is over, feel free to panic and cry. Personally, I recommended bad wine, good food, and great friends.
  1. I mentioned this briefly in the last lesson, but it needs it’s own section. Happiness and Success are things that we create, not find. On my travels, I met with a professional chef, several students, a virology lab tech, a few engineers, dozens and dozens of volunteers with varying backstories, international hospitality staff on seminars, managers and consultants of everything under the sun, and so many others who I didn’t have time to really know.  Many of these people were not Americans (which was an eye-opener for me in and of itself) and they were influenced differently to believe in more flexible measures of success. So often in Western culture (and particularly in the US), the daily grind lives up to its name because it only offers us 1 scale for success: the almighty dollar.  The backpackers and vacationers and workers I met did not share the same view. One night, in my hostel room, we held a yoga class led by a Chinese woman who had been practicing for only a year.  Between the laughs, falls, and broken English, we came to value this woman’s dedication, rewarding her with our thanks and respect.  For her, it was enough to simply share and communicate with us something that she considered important.
While travelling, your fellow bunkmates value you as much as you value yourself. If you think that your experiences are worthwhile and you gather the courage to share them, they will listen and discuss and inquire.  You have to create your own definition of success, see yourself as happy, and others will do the same.
  1. Research the things that are considered to be “Western luxuries” before you “go”. I mean this both figuratively and literally. Figuratively: In many places, even tourist towns like Bangkok and Siem Reap, free WiFi, hot water, electricity, and blankets may be hard to find. Literally: You want to know what else is hard to find? Tampons and toilet paper. See what I did there?
  2. It’s OK to relax.  You might be thinking, “But I’m on vacation, how much more relaxed can I get?”. Imagine you only have 2 weeks in an area that is famous for its temples and palaces and beaches and sights.  Of course you want to go see everything, so your day might look like this:

Great Wall at Mutianyu
Summer Palace
Tiananmen Square
Beijing Duck Dinner
Acrobatics Show and Fireworks

This. Is. Exhausting. And the next day isn’t any better because there are 4 more temples and 2 ancient markets to get to.  And pretty soon, “vacation” becomes “dragging your sore and sorry ass from one sight to the next”.  It all looks the same.  Nothing is exciting any more.  The only thing you can really hope for is that your fake smiles and clever hashtags get you a few more followers on Instagram to make up for your current fatigue.  Take a break.  Watch movies. Fight jetlag. Go to a coffee shop and sit there for 3 hours ordering cloyingly sweet lattes, the true flavor of victory in an Eastern tea-centric culture.  I promise, the temples will be there tomorrow.
On a completely unrelated note: Whoops! My bad! Sorry, Mom and Dad! #hangry
  1. This is less of traveler’s lesson and more of a life lesson: Never try to out-drink an Australian. You will lose. Badly. I had the lake-soaked dress clothes and rolled ankle prove it.
  2. Take carry-on baggage only. Most of the time, airport security won’t lose your stuff.  Most of the time, if the small, low-cost airline won’t transfer your bags for you, you will have enough time to get your bags and re-check in.  But it is a huge relief that, when things do go wrong (I’m looking at you, Calcutta airport), you don’t have to hold up the plane even longer because you have to go and get a checked bag.  You can wash your clothes in any country you are in, either by hand or paid service.  You can buy any liquid toiletries anywhere including, to my delight and surprise, contact solution. You can leave your L’Oreal at home because travelers all look the same: worn and weary.  It’s a very noble look, even if the smell is a little funny.
OK, brief story about Calcutta: so basically you need an Indian visa to fly through this airport which, if you think about it, is really stupid.  Why would I need a visa to a country I don’t even want to enter?  I just wanted to pass through.  So after 30 minutes of being directed to 4 different visa lines, some older boss lady comes up and starts yelling “Where were you?”, “You are late!”, and “I was waiting for you!”.  I’m just standing there thinking, please, just take my passport and give me my plane ticket. I just want to leave. So she takes my passport and credit card info and e-ticket and walks away for another 40 minutes.  Then a different guy shows up with all of my documents and we walk in a short circle like he’s confused on where to go.  They call a guard who escorts us to a closed section of the airport where I get my own VIP security procedure.  They rush me to the gate and I finally manage to get on the plane just as it’s supposed to leave.  It would have been funny if I wasn’t so worried about missing my plane.
  1. Keep a journal. I would not have been able to write this if I hadn’t kept mine.  There are so many little things you forget when you are completely overwhelmed by the new sounds and smells.  The leaf-gold temples standing high above the city burn brightly in your memory and almost make you forget sipping your first Thai iced tea while watching the sun set over the river.The colossal majesty of Angkor Wat eclipses the innocent humor of a little girl riding to school on a bicycle that is much too big for her. The name of our resident elephant in Chitwan National Park (Pumaya), the Irish Red Cross volunteer leaping up to join the Tharu cultural dance program, making milk tea in a little farming co-op with Muna and her boys, Mohit and Marbin. My journal honors my time in these sacred places by providing me with the space to store those memories.  It honors the people I lived with, traveled with, or just talked with for teaching me something new about the world.  It lets me continue learning from these people long after they’ve gone by reading through the pen-captured conversations I can only barely recall. And best, it provides a teaching guide so that I can share the lessons I’ve learned with my family, my friends, and other adventurers seeking to start a journey of their own.