I recently read a Frenchman’s observation of current human interactions, wherein he basically states that today, when people meet, after a brief handshake and hidden glance, they immediately exchange Facebook IDs, sites and blogs and that a session in front of a computer screen has replaced conversation. While I agree that there is a tendency for more and more of this behaviour, I am happy to be able to look back at all the wonderful people I’ve met since I left Mexico in April 2015, as well as all those I have met since 2011, when I decided to share my flat with strangers from all over the world. As a tribute to all these amazing people, I have chosen to write this post in English.
One Friday afternoon many years ago, before shutting my computer off and starting the weekend celebrations, I was trying to schedule the pick up of a gas shipment from Algeria. I could not get through to anyone in that country. After a while, I learned that they don’t work on Fridays, but do work on Sundays. This shocked me, as Sunday, for no rational reason, seemed to me like the most appropriate day to chill out. Now it puzzles me to see so many countries agreeing to have Sundays off.
In 2008, Barack Obama became president of the US and then went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I cared little about the former, but was shocked by the later. He had promised denuclearization and closing Guantanamo, among other promises to reduce the US’ aggressive stance towards the world. I didn’t buy into this international populism, just as I don’t worry much about Donald Trump’s national populism of getting Mexico to build and pay for a wall (that’s already there, by the way), or his withdrawing from the Paris Climate Deal or from the many international trade agreements the US is a party to. I am nevertheless shocked at his election, simply because of his lack of diplomacy, his terrible cantinfleo, his prejudices and his crazy hairdo. But then I think of the Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto. He was a proven ignorant, human rights violator, corrupt as can be, and all he had going for him was a slick hairdo. He was elected president by an uneducated, uninformed, highly gullible and/or corruptible Mexican population. He pledged to reduce the cost of electricity and gas and bought votes in exchange for portable stoves, TV’s and grocery coupons! Aside from losing a bit of weight and gaining some grey hairs, he has not changed a bit since coming to office. He continuously flaunts his ignorance and impunity and kills, disappears and displaces hundreds of thousands of Mexicans while the international community supposedly worries about what Kim Jong-un might be up to. I am puzzled by the fact that Obama is still glorified, that leaders from all over are politely congratulating Trump and that Peña Nieto is able to do whatever horrors without suffering international condemnation.
In the fall of 2013, my brother Rafael was diagnosed with cancer. Like the denuclearization promises of Obama, I thought this wasn’t really serious. He then weighed about 110 kilos and was 1.98 meters tall. He hated when people asked him if he played basketball. Eight months later, he weighed around 60kg and was about 1.80m, but we were both hopeful he would recover. Nobody asked him if he played basketball anymore; in fact, people -me included- didn’t really know what to ask him. He held on to his optimism and made plans for the future. He wished to spend the summer of 2016 on a ranch in Denmark he had found through Airbnb. He would be there with his family, while friends would be able to come and go as they pleased. Julian would learn Danish, pick strawberries and play with farm animals, as Rafael and I had done when we were cute and careless. Back then, I was not the (relatively) healthy sailor I am today. I was a chubby maritime lawyer working for an oil exploration company, following a strict diet of tacos and garnachas, doing no exercise whatsoever and getting wasted regularly to forget how uneventful my day had been; a routine shared by and with most of my friends.
Towards the end of the summer of 2014, my brother was eating a passion fruit and its seeds started coming out through a fist-sized hole on his neck. When I saw this, two fatal thoughts dawned on me: 1. my brother would not recover, and 2. anyone, including me, could get sick and die at any moment. This shocked me. I had never been told this, or at least not in a way that invited me to really think about it. I had gone to school for about fifteen years, studied law for another seven, practiced for about eight and was looking at another thirty behind a desk. Despite this great investment, the corporate ladder and a comfortable retirement were no longer a given and had forever lost their appeal. A shocking, but somewhat liberating realization. Now it puzzles me to see people, including many of my friends and my brother’s friends, who having the opportunity to opt out and knowing what I had just learned, continue on a path they are unhappy with.
Following the passion fruit incident, my friend Sacha Mandinga and I started brewing a plan to ditch our mundane existences and travel the world until we found something gratifying to do with our lives. Two weeks after Rafael’s cremation, Sacha came home boasting how rather than quitting, he had been fired, his boss being too proud to let him quit, and how this had suddenly given him an ample travel budget. I was thus pushed to sit and write my own resignation, to a boss I admired and considered a friend, to a company that had been very supportive during my brother’s illness, to the possibility of flying a helicopter to witness the offshore operations of the oil industry, to having my ego inflated by a title or position and to a salary that allowed me to purchase whatever I craved. It was not easy, for in addition to these apparent obstacles, a promising career in Rio de Janeiro was offered in a last effort to corrupt my resolve. Fortunately for my weak, well-programmed capitalist self, the oil crisis did not allow my employer to back the proposal with an interesting raise.
And so, Sacha and I set off for Indonesia, bought a pair of motorbikes and drove and drove, with watery eyes and beaming like two Cheshire cats, overwhelmed by the beauty of an ever changing scenery always decorated by joyous, welcoming smiles, some reddened by the betel nut, others of a glowing white.
Among the many things we learned during our journey, we found that in the greatest archipelago, like in Thailand, people eat with a spoon. They sometimes use a fork to shove food onto the spoon, but it is quite hard to find a knife. After a couple of perplexing days, Sacha and I realized how superior the spoon was to the fork, and how, again, through some irrational programming, we had been made to view eating with a spoon as something ill-mannered. In Phuket, the furnished flat I am renting only came with one massive knife which I use for chopping up vegetables and fruit. At first, I thought of buying some normal knives, at least to spread Nutella on bread, but I could not find any. No problem finding spoons and forks though. Now, it puzzles me to see people eating with a fork rather than a spoon.
Reinforcing the truth that anyone can die at any moment, just four months into our trip, Sacha died of cancer. From diagnosis to death, only 6 days transpired. At first, I was of course sad, but I was not shocked nor engulfed in misery. Life had been truly beautiful since we left Mexico, and so he passed with a grin across his bearded face, and I, with a similar grin but not as bearded face, scattered his ashes. Again, it puzzles me to continue seeing friends who have the means to change, yet stick to their unhappy routines. As Yann Martel so rightly put it in the words of the extraordinary Piscine Molitor Patel, “a tie is a noose, and inverted though it is, it will hang a man nonetheless if he’s not careful.”
Alone, thoughts of the future came back to haunt me. What was I to do? Go back to Mexico? Ride across Java and Sumatra on my own? Take a plane to Ulan Bator, buy a horse and ride up to Lake Baikal? Shocking, how well-programmed we are to forever think about the future. Hoping to quell these thoughts, I went on a ten day Vipassana meditation retreat. The retreat did much more than quell. I was shocked to realize how much bullshit is constantly hovering in my mind, making it very difficult, but not impossible, to regain my clarity. I was shocked to discover how much physical pain results from one’s own mental anguish and lack of equanimity; shocked to learn that a deep meditative state is a truly psychedelic experience; shocked to acknowledge how prejudiced I can be, fearing a guy simply because he wore camouflage clothing everyday, had some scars across his neck and face, spoke in his sleep and was much taller than me; loathing another because he had brought his own squeaky “Happy Buddha” pillow to sit on and because he applied some strong smelling oils to his long hair every evening; disapproving of many for eating with a fork or using elephant-patterned pants -the trademark of the South-East Asian backpacker; and getting slightly angry at some for distracting my meditation with their farts, burps, coughs or phlegm.
On the other hand, I was surprised and glad to see that with strong determination, anyone, including me, severely overweight individuals, heavy smokers, eighty year-olds or hyper-actives, can make it through more than a week of waking up at 4am, sitting cross-legged eleven hours a day, eating only vegetarian food, keeping their mouths shut and not killing a single mosquito, ant or fly. This said, it is by no means an easy task, but it puzzles me when I hear some say “I would never be able to do it, I don’t have the physical condition, I cannot decelerate my mind, I cannot go without smoking…”
Aside from the lot of chatter that invaded my mind throughout the 110 hours of meditation, the recurrent sexual flashbacks or fantasies and the occasional, deep, relevant thought, I concluded that I was in no hurry and that I should mourn on my own terms, without returning to Mexico nor continuing my trip. I settled in the beautiful Balinese village of Lalang Linggah, at the Balian Surf Camp, where I spent weeks relaxing, meditating, reading, writing and, occasionally, surfing. I decided there that I would move to Thailand and become a sailor.
A few weeks after moving to Thailand, I had to pay my first utility bills, even though somewhere on them I could read that they weren’t really due until the year 2559. I suspected this to be a system glitch (akin to Y2K), or maybe a number that had nothing to do with dates. The fact left me confused and curios, so I started observing anything I could find a date on. I saw that the computers at work all referred to 2559, that the taxes and insurance on my motorbike were valid until 2560, that the cans of tomato sauce I was about to buy would be good until 2562… I was in shock. I was either in the future, or the Thais were not giving the death of Jesus Christ the importance given elsewhere. Now it puzzles me to see so many countries agreeing to count their years on the same basis.
I have now been living in Phuket for nine months and in a couple more will reach the end of my training and the end of my rental agreement. Though I have much more control over it now, I cannot help but start to think about the future. And so, hoping again to find some answers through meditation, I traveled to Myanmar for another ten-day retreat. This time, I was accompanied by Phuyin Ti Sungsung. I was immediately shocked to see every single man in Yangon wearing a long skirt, called longyi. How had they managed to avoid the international male fashion of pants or shorts? To not be bullied for doing so? I found it amazing, and could only imagine how comfortable they all were. It brought back memories of how happy Homer Simpson was when wearing a dress or how happy I was with the extra extra large t-shirts I sometimes inherited from my parents or brother. I did not, however, dare to get one for myself, as I never thought I’d have the courage to wear it. A couple of days later, I entered the meditation centre and started seeing foreigners wearing them. At first, I thought they looked quite ridiculous. Then I saw other foreigners wearing elephant-patterned pants, frowned upon them, and decided that those who had opted to wear the longyi might actually be alright. At dinner, I saw all of them eating with a fork, and pitied their ignorance. After a couple of days, I envied all the Burmese and the courageous foreigners for meditating so comfortably in their skirts, while I sweated in my jogging pants and boxer shorts. When I got out, I bought one and can no longer think of a more comfortable, elegant outfit. The length of the longyi is easily adjustable to fit the weather and need for ventilation. In short, it is to the bottom half of the body what the guayabera is to the top half.
Of my many puzzles, that the longyi has not spread around the globe is most puzzling.