Dispatch From a Shrinking Planet

Dispatch From a Shrinking Planet

“I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.” – Carl Sagan

Develop Economies, the alter ego for my life on the road, is almost a year and a half old.  I’ve been to three continents, eleven countries, and spent too many hours in buses, planes, ferries, and motorbikes.  And the people I have met along the way have been memorable.

A cliff in Malapascua

In the Philippines, I spent most of my time with Filipinos, a handful of laid-back Australians in their 20’s and 30’s, a crew of Germans fresh out of high school living on farms and teaching Aikido to street kids, sampling their first taste of freedom and being of legal drinking age in a country where liquor are cheap, and a few American Peace Corps volunteers who, for the most part, are still there and are having an increasingly difficult time finding a reason to leave.  I spent a lot of time in the bush, with loan officers from my MFI, at the bar with my co-workers, or at Siberia with the Germans, the only serious night club in town (I’m not much of a clubber, but I tend to do what the Romans do, and Germans go clubbing).  In fact, I was never a huge fan of Germans for obvious historical reasons until I met some awesome ones running around the Philippines.  Now, I’m sold.

Halfway through, a few friends who were teaching in South Korea came to visit.  I flew back from a conference in Manila, met them at the Bacolod port, boarded the last ferry to Iloilo at 5 PM, and killed time playing cards at the bar until 3 AM, when the first van left for the island paradise and party hotspot of Boracay.   When we finished the would-be six-hour drive three hours later thanks to the huevos of steel borne by the driver, the room wasn’t ready so I called it a night and went to sleep at 7 AM on the beach.

Sunset in Boracay. I'm the second from the left.

On the boat, Malapascua Island, Cebu, Philippines

At the end of my time there, I took a whirlwind scuba-diving trip around the country, exploring sunken WWII Japanese warships in a town called Coron off the coast of Palawan, where the novel, “The Beach” supposedly drew its inspiration.  I came face-to-face with a four-meter manta ray who’d come to get so fresh and so clean at a shoal in Malapascua off the coast of Cebu.  The day before, I was surrounded by a school of sardines – millions of them – in Moalboal, a beach town eight hours south on the western coast of Cebu.  I mostly traveled alone, and met some cool people along the way.  I dove with a woman representing Slovenia at the World Expo in Shanghai, a professor of comparative religion in Germany, an Italian banker, and some Filipino rastas who happened to be Rotarians.  Diving is a great way to meet people, since you’re out on a boat in the middle of the ocean for eight hours a day, three days in a row, with nothing to do but eat, drink, share stories and play cards.  In fact, some of my best memories are from either from the deck of a boat in the Pacific Ocean, or the bungalows and beachfront bars where I spent most of my nights.

Brothers Weinstein, Koh Phenang, Thailand.

When I was in Thailand with my brother, we travelled with an American-Jamaican girl from Stanford who decided to spend her Spring break flying solo through Asia.  After my brother and I both crashed our motorbikes (with the unfortunate co-ed riding side-saddle on the back), I spent the next week nursing my wounds so that I wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences of an infected leg in a country with notoriously janky healthcare (Burma).   After spending three days at the beach, a few muay thai fights in Chiang Mai, including some full-contact bouts between 12 year-olds, and exploring a lot of Buddhist temples, my bro and I flew back to the capital city and spent the last night revisiting some of the places he’d been when he came here to live eight years ago.  After he left, I spent five days alone in Bangkok, which is four days too many (or too few, depending on your tastes), before boarding a flight for Yangon.

The first day I arrived in Burma I stumbled across a Hindu rite of passage celebration where people fell into violent trances.  The whole thing culminated with a fire-walking ceremony as a test of devotion.  We weren’t sure what was happening at first, but decided to stick around to see if the scene – which started out small – would develop into something larger.  An hour later, we were offered front row seats to watch the most painful test of faith I’ve seen with my own eyes.  I was traveling with another Kiva Fellow, and we linked up with some British kids, one of whom was doing a gap year trip before heading to school in the fall.

The start of the fire-walking ceremony

Thingyan Festival, Rangoon, Burma

I celebrated the Thingyan Festival (the Buddhist New Year, which I can honestly say was the sweetest party I’ve been to in my life) with motley crew of ex-pats and their Burmese friends.  It is like Songkran in Bangkok, only with way more water and in a country that, for the other 360 days of the year, has no real outlet to cut loose.  There was a French guy working for the only legal political think tank in the country.  There was an American PhD student who’d spent a few years in Chiang Mai starring in a Thai soap opera and was now writing a thesis on transportation and infrastructure in Burma during the 1950’s.  An American girl was teaching literature at a high school.  I met a French journalist on the same flight back to Bangkok who couldn’t tell me what she was doing until we were safely in Thailand and away from the eyes of the repressive military junta.  Three days later, someone bombed an area of the festival where I’d spent a good chunk of my day and might have been had I decided to change my flight (the party was that good).  The military blamed it on the rebels, but the general consensus was that the military staged the bombing to turn the people against the insurgency.  What kind of government so callously murders its own people?

The Kiva gang in Kep, Cambodia

In Cambodia, I took a solo trip to Angkor Wat, and came back down to Phnom Penh to link up with my friends before going down to Sianoukhville beach to celebrate the New Year with 2,000 Cambodians and a stockpile of fireworks.  I spent a few days chilling out on some uninhabited islands in the South China Sea off the coast of Cambodia, letting my worries dissipate through the holes of the hammock between the palm trees where I spent most of my time.  When you’ve got a hut on the beach for $5 a night and have to arrange for the boat to pick you up and bring you back to civilization, you know you’ve successfully left the grid.

In Hong Kong, I took a helicopter to Macau and lost $100 playing blackjack with my friend.  That was unfortunate.

With Andrew, the rice guy on ADVANCE, and Mark, the Canadian from Engineers Without Borders

In Ghana, I spent time all over the country.  Togo, only four hours from Accra by tro-tro, offered the best steak frites I’ve had since eating at the Gaslight in the South End in Boston back in October of 2010, even though I couldn’t speak a lick of French.  At the end of my time I went to live with a rice farmer for a week in the Eastern Region.  After a few days out in the bush, I took a motorbike back to town 45 minutes away, hopped in a tro-tro to link up with a car that was going back to Accra, went back to the swank apartment of the two Swedish kids who so graciously let me call their extra room home for the last three months (they had a custom-made ping-pong table, with a portrait of the greatest Swedish ping-pong player in the world, whose name escapes me), grabbed some cash and a change of clothes, met up with my buddy’s girlfriend (they are Canadian), and the two of us ripped down to his place two hours away in Winneba.

Rangoon, Burma

The biggest festival of the year was happening in Winneba, where the men go out to the bush to catch a live deer and bring it back to be offered up to the gods.  After waking up at 6 AM, we went out to the bush and sat for four hours in the searing heat waiting for these assholes to bring back a damn deer.  Finally, we called it quits and retreated to the sanctuary of the bar at the nicest hotel in town (everything is relative of course).  There we met a Brazilian PhD on a Fulbright studying charismatic religions in West Africa and another PhD student researching corporate sponsorship of cultural festivals in Ghana (not my jam, for sure, but to each his/her own).  We spent the next few days chilling out at the beach, playing cards and enjoying life.  If I didn’t feel an obligation to be a productive member of society, I could spend every day playing cards at the beach.

The Stumble Inn crew right before we left

A few days later I hopped on a tro-tro and went off on my own to Elmina and Cape Coast to see the slave castles and have some alone time to contemplate my upcoming move across the continent.  I checked into a room at the Stumble Inn for $8 a night and fell asleep on the beach, content in the fact that I was the only guest.  The guesthouse is run by a super cool Dutch couple, who fell in love with West Africa after doing a land-rover trip from Amsterdam.  When I awoke, a half-Ghanaian British girl was reading a book on the other couch overlooking the ocean, so I struck up a conversation.  She was volunteering at a school and I didn’t know anything about education, so I asked if I could come along.  I shadowed a math teacher for a day, got roped into taking shots of gin with the teachers during lunch, and watched them cane the hell out of some young kids who had the misfortune of arriving late to school.

My Canadian buddy and his girlfriend were planning on staying with a citrus farmer for a few days, but the whole thing fell through.  So they stumbled into the guesthouse, and the four of us spent the next three nights playing cards.  The Canadians and I had to catch a bus five hours north up to Kumasi to attend the wedding of one of our coworkers.  Two days later I was on a bus back to Accra to pack up my things and say my goodbyes.  Two days after that, I was flying over Southern Sudan, en route to Kenya via Ethiopia.

Pescador Island, Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines.

And now, here I am.  Kenya is one of the most exciting places I’ve ever been.  The atmosphere is amazing, there are incredibly smart people doing wildly creative work.  It is poised to be the tech hub of Africa, with innovation piggy-backing off the success of M-Pesa and the robust mobile networks that exist in the region.  On my second night, I met some filmmakers who were screening their latest documentary on camel milk.  I’ve met artists, musicians, filmmakers, software developers, development workers, and, most recently, the director of procurement for Equatorial Africa for one of the largest agriculture commodity buyers in the world.  I told him my thoughts on agriculture.  I’m a pessimist, but, after our conversation, I’m beginning to see the agriculture glass as a third full and rising.

I bought a map of the city and have been studying the public transport routes to explore the city.  This weekend I’m going to a reggae festival at Carnivore Park, and a jazz concert at the Nairobi Museum.  Maybe even go for a hike in one of the spectacular mountains just outside of the city.  The sky’s the limit.

Yesterday I was walking downtown and picked up the latest issue of Newsweek.  It is a special double issue about travel.  Paul Theroux, apparently one of the most well-respected travel writers in the world, posits in an article titled “Dispatch From a Shrinking Planet” that, even though the world may be more connected than ever before, travel is more important now than it ever has been.  It is not good enough to be complacent, and nothing is a substitute for experiencing the world in person.  Here he discusses the new excitement of travel in an increasingly connected world:

I think the world has been made more restless, more volatile, more impatient through the Internet, and it has robbed people of contemplative solitude and introduced a new solitude, a sort of loneliness induced by a buzz of information. But these very alterations in culture, far from diminishing curiosity, have made much of the world less predictable, more dramatic and accessible, full of paradoxes that have to be seen to be believed.

The view from the bar at my guesthouse in Coron.

So here I am, 18 months and eleven countries later.  Africa is great, but I don’t know if anything can ever compare to Southeast Asia, otherwise known as the most laid back place in the world.  I’ve met thousands of people from just about every country in the world doing interesting and exciting things.  When you travel, you meet people on the road.  The relationships are short, but what the lack in breadth they make up for depth.  You become closer to them in the three days you spend together than you do to the people renting the apartment below you for a year.  You stay in touch and email from time to time.  When something happens in their country, you reach out to see if everything is all right.  When you move to another country, you blast an email to your friends and tell them to put you in touch with everyone they know in that city.  I moved to Nairobi on a hope and a prayer, and, because of the people I’ve met along the way, managed to land an apartment and a handful of job interviews before I touched down.  Seeing the world is nice, but meeting people and making friends is truly the best part.

For now, I’m wrapped up in the excitement of East Africa and see myself here for the foreseeable future.  Eventually, I’d like to brush up on my Spanish and Central America has some of the best scuba diving in the world.  And it’s cheap.  But, for now, I’m taking things one step at a time and enjoying the experience.

The first time I ever went out to the field.

4 thoughts on “Dispatch From a Shrinking Planet

  1. Josh…

    Thanks for the memories…fascinating journal of your adventures. Love the pix as well.

    How the hell are you going to ever come back to ‘civilization’ after you’ve seen Paree?

    Be well…. Alan

  2. Awesome post, makes me want to travel. If you can, pick up a copy of Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux… You’ll enjoy it and it will be relevant to where you’re at…

  3. Hey Josh,

    Nice post!!! I can’t believe all of the things you have done.

    Your quote reminds me of another quote from a book called The Life of PI, which I am reading

    “…that a stint in India will beat the restlessness out of any living creature.”

    I can attest to this.

    By the way, I write this from your hometown, Boston. I’m here interviewing for a job.

    Anyway, good Luck in Kenya and keep the posts a comin’.

  4. Thanks Adam – glad to hear you are rockin it out in boston. What kind of stuff are you looking at? I do love to travel, and life is definitely good. What are you up to these days?

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