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Thai Adventures (Pt. 1)

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One of the best parts about being in South-East Asia is its proximity of varying countries nearby.

After spending about three months in Viet Nam, nearly to the full extent of my first 90-day tourist visa, it came close to the time where I would have to renew it.

Some of you may recall my adventures alongside the Chatty Swede, during my first few days in Sài Gòn. She and I had kept in sporadic touch since then, as her plan took her out of Sài Gòn and north, then back west through Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. There in Thailand, the Chatty Swede remained for upwards of two months, volunteering at an elephant camp and a tiger kingdom. The names of both places are most apropos.

This would more or less be my last opportunity to see my Swedish sister before she embarked to continue her backpacking. Not only would I probably never again get such a chance to see the tigers she worked with, but after being away I would arrange to have a fresh, new, 90-day visa when I returned to Sài Gòn.  Thus, we devised a plan for me to visit her there, leaving my home for about five days.

Arranging everything turned out to be mostly painless. Had I booked my flights earlier, I might have saved about twenty or thirty dollars, but as it turns out a two-way flight between Sài Gòn and Bangkok ran me only a little over a hundred. So, leaving my motorbike in the safety of my home behind locked gates, I took two buses out of my home area of District 9 to the airport, after which I managed to catch my flight without incident.

I remember glancing at my phone, having flown out of reach of 3G range, and flipped on the GPS to see where we were. I happily had a window seat, and looking outside, I saw rolling forested mountains that in truth did not look all that different from not-s0-far from Sài Gòn. Once my phone triangulated my position – oh yes, they always say on those flights that use of phones is forbidden, but come on, whether the things are turned on or not, they would be interfering with the flight signals regardless – I saw that my plane was about half-way between Sài Gòn and Bangkok, making the immense lake (Tonle Sap Lake, for those of you who care) I saw and the forests below to be smack-dab in the middle of Cambodia.

So unaccustomed to short flights was I that the hour it took to reach Bangkok felt about as easy as the jaunt between my old home and family I had in New Jersey. By car.

At the Bangkok airport, my first order of business was acquiring a SIM card for my phone, which proved to be easier than ever expected. There I saw booths offering 7-Day Traveler’s SIMs, with unlimited internet access and 3G ability, for less than ten dollars. Not bad, I figured, though throughout my travels in Thailand the majority of my connectivity was pretty bad. I know not whether it was the 3G available, or perhaps my phone, but only WiFi at cafes seemed to be reliable enough to send and recieve any messages. I would not hear from the Chatty Swede until later.

Thai folks really know how to make their cities look like a bag of candy.

Getting to the Hualamphong Train Station turned out to be easy. I hopped into one of the bright yellow-and-green taxi cabs (though vivid fuschia ones seemed just as inviting), and for 500 baht I was taken across the city. In retrospect, of course I know I could have gotten there for cheaper, but I knew not the train schedules and every bit of advice I had ever read or received about Thailand urged to book as early as possible. I felt I had not time to fumble with public transit.

And so I justify over-spending on a taxi-fair in a foreign city. Not for the first time. 500 baht comes to about $15.00 USD so I’ll live, but I would later find out how cheap and easy it is to simply use the subway.

At least I got to meet the taxi driver, a gentleman whose named sounded like “Soap Sock.”

We got to the train station in good time. Arranging my two-way from Bangkok to Chiang Mai turned out to be just as easy, and any anxieties I might have had about getting a ticket (as one cannot book them online in advance) disappeared. In fact I had about an hour before my train departed, so I took a moment to peruse the Hualamphong food court.

Vegetarian food is delightfully easy to find in Thailand.

And, much in the manner I encountered in South Korea, most street signs (or otherwise important ones) are accompanied by English translations. Bangkok is a noticeably more developed city in a noticeably more developed country than Việt Nam- evidenced by their public train systems, number of cars (as opposed to motorbikes), and of course international population. It really shows in its ease of accessibility to foreigners, and many Thai people (especially in Bangkok) speak English; all of whom I’d met wore big smiles and were happy to help. I know I looked the part of the typical tourist, walking around, taking pictures, pausing at every sign and checking my notes or phone to ascertain where I was.

But aside from the sudden lack of motorbikes, among the first things I noticed in Bangkok, both on the way to the train station and even on the train itself, was the architecture. While much of Bangkok itself is indeed “modernized” office buildings and the like, and the view from the highway in particular passes over large swathes of shanty-towns as I’m familiar with seeing in Sài Gòn, there are temples everywhere. I also happen to find the Thai script simply beautiful to look upon, as unintelligible as it is to me.

Having boarded the train, the first ‘sleep train’ I had ever attempted, I found my assigned seat to be near a trio of delightful old Thai ladies. Only one of them spoke English, and interactions were fairly limited as I found myself mostly interested in the what zoomed passed the train out the window, but I learned they were in their sixties, that they were headed to Chiang Rai (further north of Chiang Mai, the city to which I was to debark) and that they – or at least the one who spoke the most – was also vegetarian. They were all quick to laugh, and quite chatty; while the entirety of the car had pulled its curtains shut and settled to attempt to sleep through the night, the three old Thai women went on in their incomprehensible language. I happened to not mind, and sleeping on the train took some getting used to.

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A peek out of my bunk.
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Besides, the Thai Trio fed me this, too. I have no idea what it is, but it tasted like a mooncake.

The next day, I awoke two hours before the train would stop in Chiang Mai, and passed the time talking to a friendly Thai gentleman who spent nine months of the year in Florida. Our arrival in Chiang Mai put me in the city at around nine in the morning, and I would have about five hours of free time to explore the city until I would at last meet my chatty Swedish sister. Looking at the maps (as well as the one on my phone), the way to the Old City from the Chiang Mai train station was, graciously, a perfectly straight line.

Getting there was more a matter of avoiding the insistent tuk-tuk drivers, whose behavior I found virtually identical to the Vietnamese xe ôm drivers.

I actually didn’t take any pictures of tuk-tuks, so here’s an awesome rendering by artist frattozero over at DeviantArt.

In those five hours of wandering about Chiang Mai, keeping myself within the confines of the Old City – which was more than big enough to occupy one such as myself – I found dozens of temples.Wats, they call them.

SAM_0994Every wat, and most other remotely traditional-looking buildings that I saw, seemed to always have symmetrically placed statues of naga, which at first I confused to be dragons, but a local corrected me when I asked.

How about another shot of one these beauties?

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Naga have been popularized in fantasy as snake people, but in Buddhist folklore they seem to often play the part of a guardian, but they’re not always benevolent.

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I found myself often looking around to make sure whether or not I was trespassing, as I did, in fact, accidentally let myself into a monk’s private study while exploring. Just once. Everything after that, like this place, was completely open to the public.

I visited temples, dropped a few baht coins in a donation box at one of them, and eventually needed something to eat. Remembering that I had jokingly insisted the real reason I had chosen to come to South East Asia was to in fact try eating authentic pad thai, I set out to find some of the real stuff.

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Vegetarian pad thai. Tasted about the same as restaurants I knew back in New York; sweet with only a hint of spice. I suspect it is because I had it in a touristy area.

The next time I find myself in Thailand, probably to see the White Temples of Chiang Rai, I will make it my mission to seek out real, authentic pad thai.

I spent the remainder of my time waiting visiting various touristy things; with more than enough temples already perused, I found two museums (where I learned a wealth of information about the ancient Kingdom of Lanna, of which Chiang Mai was the capital in ancient days) and a cultural center, primarily centered a stone’s throw away from the Three King’s Square.

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Eventually, enough time passed that I decided I ought to head to where I would meet my Chatty Swedish Sister.

I got there without incident, riding in the back of a “bus taxi,” one of many such vehicles, that appeared to be little more than a pickup truck outfitted to hold a pile of people in the back.

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Nothing could have prepared me for the experience at the place where I’d meet my friend, the place she had spent the last few months working.

The Chiang Mai Tiger Kingdom.

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Concept: Those People

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You know what people I mean. Those people.

I’ve always found it interesting human behavior to highlight differences between us.

And, being human, I’ve been there, done that. C’mon, I went to high school.

But just as interesting to me is finding commonalities, similarities, between folks. Particularly from different cultures. I’ll never forget a line I picked up from Raymond E. Feist’s Magician series, some dialog (which I will now butcher) spoken between two people from different worlds, and after being subject to the haggling of a peddler:

“It does not matter what world you’re from; merchants’ children always seem to be starving.”

My time in Việt Nam, short as it really has been thus far, has been nothing short of a tremendous contingency of experiences. But today, I’m not even going to talk about the local culture, no – I’m going to talk about a very specific breed of human the likes of whom I have encountered here quite often.

I’m talking about the traveler, of which there seem to be two species that frequent Việt Nam: the backpacker and the expatriate. Lets start off with but some basic definitions.

A Backpacker, usually someone of college/university age (either before or during attending, or even after graduating), is someone who lives out of their backpack. It’s a common thing in Europe and increasingly common in SouthEast Asia, and you can easily identify a backpacker by – you guessed it – the massive backpack they’re hauling around.

An Expatriate (or Expat, for short) is someone who has simply moved from their home country to work in another. Backpackers might become expats, and expats might do a little backpacking. The difference is that, usually, expats are semi/permanent, whereas backpackers are usually just passing through; an expat may or may not have a long-term plan to return to their home country, whereas a backpacker usually does.

You’ll just as likely see an expat in a business suit and tie as you’ll see a backpacker with dreadlocks and an unkempt beard.

But for all things that might set them visually apart, they have a strong trait in common.

I’ve come to learn that it takes a very special breed of human

to just up and leave your home behind.

Some folks might leave on these adventures simply seeking adventure; many folk I’ve met go about their days without much of a plan in mind, and as most of these travelers are level-headed people with social skills and open minds (usually), things work out. You’d be surprised how universal a smile and a kind gesture is, and how many things in common you have with someone who was raised on a farm in a country that only recently opened up to the outside world.

Others might leave their homes behind permanently; whether because they have no home to abandon or, perhaps, as is the narrative of many adventure stories, because “home” is a less-than-preferable place.  Harry Potter and Princess Mononoke come to mind for some reason.

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But there has been a recurring conversation that I have with a lot of these people. The above quote at the head of this post was given to me by a French former-roommate whom I’ve come to hold in high respect. This was a guy younger than me, but with essentially the same education (a two-year degree in a major that did not open doors), who came from a small town, and came to Sài Gòn in search of something new and different.

The conversation entailed thinking back on our home towns. Thinking back on the people behind us, our friends and family. I remember at the time I was vocalizing and orchestrating my thoughts, and he helped me organize them in a manner that became coherent. Here is, essentially, the common understanding that I’ve not only come to adopt, but come to realize many other travelers – especially expats – have.

Travel broadens the mind. Seeing other cultures, interacting with people different from you, tasting foods you never knew existed, and living in conditions that would otherwise be called “sub-standard” build character. And I’m not saying that as a writer pun, no, I mean these are things that are really good for the mind and body. We can throw spirit in there too, if you care about that sort of thing. I am not a religious person, but it can be said thatk there is something spiritual about being itinerant.

Traveling changes you. Or, more accurately, it helps reveal your inner self.

We think back on the people we’ve left behind, and we wonder what it would be like if we had never left. In the case of the French former-room mate, he actually had visited home and come back to Việt Nam a few times, and his story sounded exactly as I might have predicted. The people back home were the same. The home town had not changed. His old friends still worked the same jobs, had the same monotonous days, and despite the praise and encouragement offered, showed no interest in breaking free of their simple, closed lives.

There is no dishonor in this, not really… but it is most certainly not the life for me, or him, or many other a traveler. Having kept in touch with a handful of friends from back home (none of whom read this blog, I’m sure), it came as a two-sided coin of shock to me when I learned my own loved ones have pretty much zero interest in what I do – at least not in that actionable sort of way. Friends and family will always be “interested” when you talk to them, and I am surprised, actually, at how many people outside my circle of close-friends-from-back-home have emerged from the wood-work to remark on how encouraged, interested, and in some cases inspired, by reading about my adventures.

This was something of a surprise.

I tend to share the interesting parts of my life in snippets on Facebook, so in the off-chance you’re reading this before having met me there, friend or follow me should you be so inclined.

At any rate, we came to the conclusion that we do not pity or look down on folks who decide not to travel. It’s all a matter of comfort, of standards, whatever you want to call it. But then, Firebeard once told me, when I expressed mixed encouragement from my family about coming to Sài Gòn, that one really ought to watch out when someone actually voices the opinion: “Don’t travel.”

People who say this are the kind whose opinion that backpackers and expats simply, by definition, cannot abide.

Those people.

I know that when or if I return to my old home, I will not be the same. And locals will look upon me, probably with a sneer as I struggle to contain myself from sharing and comparing cultural moments and experiences, and assume I think myself better.

Nah. Not better.

Just different.

Experience: Mũi Né and Red Sands

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Those of you following me already already know that I’m not only based in Viet Nam, but have a tendency to get up on the proverbial soapbox, roll up a paper cone, and squawk about the benefits of travel and experience every chance I get.

This won’t be all that different.

After nearing the three-month mark of time spent here in this country, most of that being within the confines of Sài Gòn , I’ve had a variety of adventures. Such things primarily involved experiencing culture and meeting new people. On one occasion, we left the outer-rim of Sài Gòn  to visit a most excellent temple atop a mountain. The place was crowded beyond belief, and since no one was hurt at the end of the day, it’s easy to say I had a great time.

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Buddhist temple known as Chùa Châu Thới. I’m still not %100 certain how to pronounce that.

What made that day awesome was not only the location, but the company. In fact, the fun I have where I go is multiplied by the quality of people with whom I go; this ought to come as no surprise to even the most socially inept of us, but is worth mentioning anyway.

I once took a day-trip to the Mekong Delta, though not for tourist reasons and certainly not to any of the famous sights to be seen; rather, I went for the express purpose of keeping a friend company as she sought out the expertise of a famous practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine. Having taken a 3-hour bus ride east and out of Sài Gòn, and being nowhere near popular tourist destinations (closer to the coast), I found myself – not for the first and certainly not for the last time – stared at by locals as though I were from another planet.

That has been an oft-repeated phrase in my mind. From another planet, and it was not I who first suggested this, but how apt the phrase has become. Because of the choices I make and the life I have chosen to lead, more often than not I find myself in the company of people who not only cannot speak English, but have never even met a foreigner/westerner. To many Vietnamese outside Sài Gòn, or any of the tourist hotspots as found in the Mekong Delta, or the port city of Vũng Tàu, or the beach resort of Mũi Né, I may as well have been a settler disembarking from an explorer’s ship weighing anchor off the coast four hundred years ago.

The simple experience of setting foot into the Chinese Medicine place – I’m not sure what else to call it – was, alone, quite the experience. I watched my friend have her pulse checked, describe their symptoms, then be prescribed a giant bag of (assuredly plant-based) white powder to be consumed over the course of a month. My companion was also advised to avoid “hot foods,” (in other words, foods with too much Yang energy), such as chicken and seafood.

To this day I don’t know what lay within the dozens of shelves that lined the wall there, but I saw dried vegetables, fruits, and (presumably) animal parts that may or may not be illegal. I recognized a sack of goji berries, though, and the ‘doctor’ (I don’t know what else to call the lady), allowed us each to eat a handful of the things.

Random, safe, and usually fun experiences like this happen in my life from time to time, but recently I got back from a planned trip.

Aboard the “sleep bus,” I went with a friend to the aforementioned resort town of Mũi Né about five-hours east of Sài Gòn and along the coast.

On the Sleep Bus.
On the Sleep Bus.

We arrived after dark, and being the Low Season in terms of tourists, we found ourselves to mostly be the only people there.

[[Linguistic note:

I can best describe how to pronounce Mũi Né like this: “Moo-ooie [nay?].” 

There’s a glottal stop at the hyphen [like what happens when you say "Uh-oh!")

and the "nay" is pronounced with a rising inflection, like a question.]]

It was awesome having noone else around.

But, interestingly, the relative quietude and silence of the town rang of a familiar tune; I grew up in small, rural, depressingly poor community, and the small towns nearby (though they were technically hamlets, as they were too small to be considered towns) often relied on tourism – or simply had no economy at all. There was a strange sense of familiarity as I was reminded of hot summers in the sparsely populated towns of my childhood, or working with my father tending to the summer homes of rich people who visited the Catskills once or twice a year. That peculiar sense of hot, desolate, dry air, where people really had no business being around except to cater to visitors.

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Outside my hotel window.

Arriving at night, Mũi Né main street had dozens of hotels, hostels, guesthouses and restaurants, and dozens more shops (most of which were closed), it was easy to see that the town was mostly not happening, but there were a few other folks walking about. The following day was spent mostly atop a rented motorbike, which allowed us to get to see some of the local sights.

Mũi Né, at the risk of repeating myself too often, is a beach city. Catering to tourists, the place is of course a bit ritzy by Vietnamese standards, with prices akin to Bui Vien street in inner Sài Gòn , and as we traveled closer toward the sights, things appeared more busy a few kilometers away from the hotel. The beaches of Mũi Né are long, white and gorgeous, though it is difficult to find a wide patch of sand bereft of plastic bottles or Styrofoam cups.

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Me looking heroic for absolutely no reason.

As a former local of upstate New York, my notion of a “beach” is that along the likes of North Lake (that is to say, about an arrow’s flight across). My notions of “warm water” are that of what is felt only in a bathtub or a cup of hot cocoa. I’d been to beaches along the ocean in the past, but often at an age too young to really appreciate what I was seeing, and even then the water was freaking cold.

There is something existential about watching the waves continually crash on the sand. When war erupted following the death of Franz Ferdinand, the waves were rolling. When Matthew Perry blew open the gates of Japan, the waves were rolling. When the Roman Empire fell, the waves were rolling. When people penned the first draft of the Torah, the waves rolled. When our ancestors fell out of the trees and learned to eat mushrooms in the wake of wildebeest herds, the waves still rolled. When thunder lizards breathed the same (though different) air of our planet, the waves had been rolling for quite a while already.

I started to realize why some people are in fact drawn to the sea.

Or crawling out of it.
Or driven to crawl the hell out of it.

And yet, the most profound experience I felt in Mũi Né was when we discovered the famed Red Sand Dunes. Oh yes.

Dunes.

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Among the last things I expected to discover in this tropical country were environs that I could, in my head full of fantasy, best describe as something to emerge from the brain of Frank Herbert. It was a veritable desert, and felt as though I had in fact set foot into my favorite novel.

Burning off my feet, one layer of skin at a time.
Burning off my feet, one layer of skin at a time.

Walking along the red sand (okay fine, it’s orange, whatever), I felt the need for a stillsuit. My feet sizzled beneath me, and climbing a hill we made our way to the cover of a lone pine tree. I ventured on upward alone, discovering the dunes to stretch further than I previously expected.

My surroundings here in Viet Nam, on a daily basis, feel surreal as it is, but up there atop a dune of red sand, I felt as a man walking on Mars. Or Arrakis. I wanted to walk to the other side of the expanse, but having left my companion behind in the safety of the pine tree, and having not possessed a bottle of water on my person, I was pretty convinced, in that moment, that I would’ve died in the attempt.

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A handful of melange…

Frank Herbert’s descriptions of the deserts of Dune were, I believe, very good descriptions (the man was an ecologist before he was an author of one of the greatest Science Fiction stories of all time). I can remember being made extremely thirsty while first reading it. But standing out there in the hot sand, with a hot sun beating down on my back, and hot air bereft of moisture or wind, well, I feel as though I can truly begin to appreciate what not only Herbert was trying to replicate in his writing, but what real people in the real world deal with when crossing, living in, or otherwise understand. Stuff I had no experience with was laid bare to me, and I caught a glimpse of life — on another planet or otherwise  — that is vastly superior to books or television in terms of sensory input.

I’ve always been interested in deserts, and this experience was the closest thing besides the wide abandoned shale pits and bluestone quarries of upstate New York that I had known. The ocean has always been something of an enigma to me as well, for both of these types of environments remain a stark contrast to the evergreen mountaintops and sprawling deciduous forests of my homeland.

I will be feeding off these memories for years, and have no doubt the things I see, hear and even smell will translate to enriching my writing.

That is why travel is good for the writer.

Concept: Schisms and Conflict

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Conflict is the mother of story. Without conflict, a story is either pointless – and therefore boring – or simply has not yet reached the point where conflict has been introduced.

But sometimes conflict comes from a source that is, shall we say, less than comfortable. Without getting into too much detail about my real life in meatspace, what I’m talking about today are schisms; when two or more people are very close, but something happens and they part.

And before you start making your premature deductions, dear reader, no, I’m not talking about breakups between lovers. I’m actually heading more in the direction of schisms within a family.

It is a continuing fascination of mine to think back on the American Revolution. Historical events might lead one to believe that such a conflict was unavoidable – and if it was, well, that’s up to the historians to debate. Actually I find American history to be one of the most boring topics encountered in my so-called education (followed closely by math. Those courses were like horse tranquilizers to me at 7:00 in the morning).  No, it’s not the history itself that I’m interested in, rather, a small detail that may or may not be overlooked: how families were divided during this period.

I recall a story – I remember not whether it was a novel, a short, or just some excerpt read out to us kids – in which a family of colonial days got wind of the coming conflict, which had already rumbled along the coastal cities by the time the story began. The father of the family was fiercely loyal to the English royalty, while his son(s) held sympathies for the revolutionaries. While most families will produce children that challenge the views of their parents (especially in the modern era), this story served to illustrate a time period during which such divisions were more intense than anything many of us ever really know.

I think the story ended with the boy(s), who were of age to join the fight, took up arms to help battle for independence while the father joined the British forces. Both sides believed themselves to be fighting for the right thing – the younger believed the king to be a tyrant who had no right to control colonies an ocean away, while the elder felt a strong sense of gratitude for the crown (probably for having allowed the colonies and their way of life to grow in the first place). This is a common trait in wars, when both sides think themselves on the side of righteousness. Nothing new there, and no doubt families were divided over more conflicts than just the American Revolution.

I think that story ended with the father being killed and of course with the revolutionaries being victorious. Whether or not one of his sons pulled the trigger I can’t recall. Most of those years are a blur to me.

Anyway, when I see stories like these, with intense personal schisms mixed in with political turmoil, I can’t help but see the potential. Well-written stories will portray the view of both sides of a conflict, at least when the idea is to instill a strong sense of nobody being right (or everybody being wrong) in their opinion or reason for fighting. The Game of Thrones series, which I cite far more often than I would like to admit, is a perfect example of this. The Lord of the Rings, and to a lesser extent The Chronicles of Narnia, in fact do the direct opposite – but that is, of course, because these are very different authors with very different agendas and audiences. That’s all well and good.

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So how can we use this?

Personally, I have two story elements in the works that I’d like to share with you, dear readers. For one, it does serve as therapeutic to share some of these thoughts. For another, few things motivate me more to keep writing than talking about my writing – vain as that might sound. And I’m usually intensely self-conscious of sounding vain.

Intense appears to be the word of the day.

Anyway, here are two story elements that take place in my mainline novel project that directly relate to the theme we just discussed.

Story Element 1 – A Historical Event

Without too much backstory, I hate the conventional use of contemporary elves, refusing to utilize the word in my own writing because I simply do not favor the imagery and flavor it conveys in mainstream fantasy. What this means is that if I’m going to use an elf-like creature – and I certainly do – it has to be unique, or at least unique enough to be distinguishable from all the blond-haired knife-ears that fill out the pages and screens of media that I … don’t consume.

Dark elves are a theme visited time and time again, and not to say my own take on the “dark elf” is wholly original, the race I call czaths can most easily be described as “a hardened people with draconic blood in their veins.” They come from a volcanic land and their temperament, lifestyle, and appearance reflects this.

At any rate, the czaths have an event in their history that I simply call The Bastard War, a time when, much like the aforementioned story about the American Revolution, there is a powerful division among loyalists to the sovereign leader (who happens to be a dragon), and the younger, upstart rebels who seek to disrupt the tyrannical status quo. During last year’s NaNoWriMo event, I managed to churn out about 70% of a stand-alone novel that mostly details the events that precede the Bastard War. One can safely assume there are a few family schisms in said story.

This idea (as vague as it might appear in this blog post) just sort of emerged from my psyche, no doubt as a result of various elements (fictional or otherwise) I’ve come to experience over my life. Like a lot of my writing, I did not sit down and think “Okay. This story is going to be an allegory of the American Revolution but in a fantasy setting and the characters being a mix of drow and flamekin.”

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Story Element 2 – A Brotherly Conflict

For those who do not know, I made quite the leap and changed my surroundings not very long ago. For those of you who do not know even more, my family includes myself and two brothers, a family that has, long before my big move, become quite divided (more physically than idealistically).

But even that’s changing. The longer I stay abroad, the less in common I am finding I have with most of my family. This is a peculiar realization, as it tastes of both bitter distress and sweet liberation.

Regardless, long before any of this happened, I came across a strange thought, a latent fear of mine, also connected to the aforementioned theme. What if I were ever to be at odds with my family? Or more specifically, the man I call my older brother? At seven years my senior, I undoubtedly fall into what I call the “Little Brother Complex,” (just as much as I have the “Middle Child Complex.” If you are either, you know what I mean.) I possess a subconscious desire for the approval of my sibling like anyone would seek the approval of a parent. Approval is a powerful gift, one the likes of which I have, if I may dip into the personal arena, received only from a few select individuals. One or two of those, luckily, were family, from time to time.

Regardless, moving where I did and for the reasons I did has caused unforeseen conflict. And as I said, long before any of stuff-I-purposefully-keep-vague began happening, but it is surprisingly akin to a powerful theme I am writing about between two important characters of my mainline novel. In it, we witness a relationship between two brotherly characters who become divided – a schism having been formed along the fault lines of ideals, intent, and eventually actions. In other words, we have two people who once loved each other who are now at war.

So. As a writer. How can I use this?

Granted, the lens of fantasy (and writing in general) allows for the freedom to embellish certain aspects of such a conflict. Perhaps I’m going through something of a difficult time with my family in meatspace, and while my writing may reflect some of the feelings, the events written do not necessarily mean there is a lack of love, or an existence of violence, which may or may not appear in my fiction.

No, it is – as are all things in this carnival we call life – quite complicated. One wonders whether a favorite book of mine – The Brother’s War, by Jeff Grubb – was written by a man who had experienced great conflict with sibling(s)?

Conflicts like this make for the most engaging and powerfully felt of stories. If you can, write your stories – fiction or otherwise – based on real people and real relationships. The difference is most palpable to the reader, in my experience.

~~~

How about something quite different from not only the subject matter of this post, but also from the type of music I usually share? This little piece comes from the soundtrack of L.A. Noire, a game I wholly believe to be quite underrated, and its music is some pretty high quality stuff. Judging from the titular use of noire, a body might be able to guess the type of music to be found in such a setting, and as such I would sooner suspect that it’s a very specific type of taste. You know, the appreciation of really old music kind of taste, heh.

Enjoy!

Review: The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty

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The first half of this review will talk briefly about the concept behind the short story, and the second half will focus more on the 2013 film.

I first came across the Secret Life of Walter Mitty in its original, short story form. Back in my last (and I do mean last) corporate job, Where They Thought I Worked (emphasis past tense), I consumed podcasts and audiobooks regularly.

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Pardon the repetition. Those of you who’ve been with me for awhile likely know this already.

At any rate, among those stories consumed was the titular character’s secret life, and the story itself is delightful, albeit capped off with a less-than-happy ending. Written by James Thurber, a renowned short story writer who – much to the chagrin of everyone, I’m sure – I knew nothing about until having come across this short, which is considered to be his most famous story. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was first published in the New Yorker in 1939, and has since been adapted into two films – one in 1947, starring Danny Kaye and the other in 2013 with Ben Stiller in the titular role.

Both movies are very different from the original story, but that comes as no surprise. They don’t call it an adaptation for nothing, and besides, while the general premise is retained, I rather like the 2013 film more than the short story. Perhaps this is in part to the Hollywood-ized insertions of familiar tropes – such as a love interest, the loyal sidekick, a cast of completely new, original characters, and of course modern dialog and environment. It’s been reshaped to fit modern storytelling a bit more.

Is it just me, or is Ben Stiller pulling a classic Sean Connery and getting better with age?
Is it just me, or is Ben Stiller pulling a classic Sean Connery and getting better with age?

And in spite of these differences, I still thoroughly enjoyed the short story – having heard it as a Selected Short on the American National Public Radio (NPR) while sitting in my depressing cubicle a year ago. After hearing the story, a few months later I learned about the movie coming out, but did not get to see it until fairly recently.

In fact it was aboard my plane from Newark, NJ to Hong Kong, China in July of 2014 that I saw this movie, and by the gods, it felt so apropos to my own life that the other movies I watched during that nineteen-hour flight simply paled in comparison.

At least as far as emotional impact is concerned.

I recently watched it a second time, having long since gotten hold of the movie’s soundtrack and (rest assured) listened to it thoroughly. Much like A Tale Of Two Sisters and a variety of other movies I’ve seen only a few times but listened to dozens of times, the soundtrack serves to emphasize certain plot elements – sometimes even paint a new picture of the story’s events as I hear parts of music that I did not pick up while watching.

There must be a term for this. The concept of isolating music (or other sounds) from its media source, resulting in discovering new sections of tracks that were either drowned out by character dialog or sound effects, or simply cut out of the movie altogether.

Ninjas chosen for this because of ninjas.
Ninjas chosen for this because of ninjas.

Anyway.

I loved the movie, even more than I loved the short story. This is not only a result of its modernization through the rather well-executed direction and acting of Ben Stiller, but the underlying message. The premise of “a man who daydreams because his life involves nothing particularly mentionable nor noteworthy,” and taking it to another level, left a strong impression with me.

Let me tell you why.

[I suppose this is the part where I mention

moderate Spoiler Alert. I’ll be talking as though

you’ve seen it already.]

First, let’s go over some of the undertones. A strong aspect of this plot is that Walter Mitty’s company – Life Magazine – is being downsized and converted to an online operation, something that is a very real concern for anyone paying attention to the economy (you know, in real life). Our Villain in this story is a comically bearded individual representing the modern changes happening to the American economy. Young, business-minded individuals in suits who arrive on the scene to change things; out with the old, in with the new. “Beard-Guy” is a humorous stereotype of the new age of Millennials.

To make an omelet, one must first crack an egg. And of course in this case (as with many real-world cases), the egg-shell is usually former employees as more and more companies are converted to online operations, which means they’re increasingly automated and in need of a smaller staff.

Few people think of what happens to the discarded ‘shells’ after frying their eggs.

Meanwhile, we have Walter Mitty (who is single in this film, which is noticeable difference from the source material, where he was married to a nagging woman), meets the Love Interest, a fellow employee at Life named Cheryl Melhoff. Bits and pieces of each character are revealed throughout the movie, and the more we learn, the more the characters interact, the more they seem to be a good match for each other in the eyes of the audience.

This movie is not a Rom-Com, but it has some threads in common. I’m not sure exactly how to classify this story; one would sooner be inclined to label it Adventure. At any rate, in an effort to complete his last task for Life – developing the Slide No. 25, the chosen cover-photo by Sean Connelly, Life Magazine’s most experienced (only?) freelance photographer. However, the slide is apparently missing, so Walter sets out to recover it by tracking down Sean himself – this takes him on an adventure from New York to Iceland, then Greenland, back to New York, and eventually to bloody ungoverned Afghanistan and the Himalayas.

Throughout the film, we learn that Walter is a hard worker; a good man who had set aside any real personal aspirations for simply working his ass off to keep his family (sister and mother) out of poverty.

It is difficult to dislike such a character, and at first I remember thinking that it was some sort of messiah-ism, or an expertly crafted “How can we make this character easily likable by everyone?” ploy, but in fact it’s integral to the plot. A few spoken sessions of exposition reveal this, but we as an audience also piece it together ourselves in small ways.

A deceptively powerful scene depicts Walter balancing his checkbook – this is extremely revealing of his character, and it made me realize that almost never have I actually seen characters do this in movies. More often they just go places and do things, and the film never takes into account the financial costs of their adventure.

Not to mention Walter, in his younger years, aspired to backpacking throughout Europe, among other things, and this opportunity – some thirty or forty years later – for traveling the world is nothing short of an adventure of a lifetime.

That is the major theme that struck me. The emphasis on travel.

Few stories out there will actually maintain a message of

“Travel is bad. You shouldn’t actually go anywhere.”

But few stories play on that theme as powerfully, or execute it as well, as this movie. Much like in Gravity with Sandra Bullock’s character Ryan, it isn’t necessarily about the events (or bad science…) that happen around the character, but how the events affect and change the character. During the Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, we witness Mitty’s growth.

That is what really makes a story.

Now, I obviously linger on this point for personal reasons. Choosing to travel – let alone the place itself I ended up deciding to hang my proverbial hat – remains one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life. Watching this movie while aboard a plane toward my destination felt like a complete affirmation of my choices.

And, like Walter Mitty, I am quite the daydreamer. I zone out a lot. This is Another Head Full Of Fantasy, after all. I still do from time to time, but, by the muses, it is not for want of adventure, that’s for sure. Also like Walter Mitty, I’ve changed, and grown.

Frequent readers of this blog would recognize my usual soapbox-styled rant on the emphasis of experience, so I won’t get into that so much. Suffice to say, simply (and not for the last time), that travel is good. It’s healthy. Not nearly enough Americans do (almost none of my friends back in my hometown did), and I thoroughly believe America’s isolation will leave a lasting impact in a less-than-positive way.

soap

So we have ourselves a movie that not-so-subtly brings some awareness to our changing, increasingly digital world; that not-so-subtly underlines the benefits of traveling to other countries; and not-so-subtly brings us a well-written story that – while it includes some strong “only in the movies” coincidences – it all ties together quite nicely and satisfactorily.

I give this movie 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Go bloody see it.

~~~

Today’s track is from the movie, taking place right after the opening scenes. Composed by Theodore Shapiro, a composer the likes of whom did not know before, but am pleased to credit where credit’s due. The soundtrack is fitting – as most soundtracks tend to be – and it brings me joy to not only listen this piece, but share it with you folks.

Happy writing!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inspiration: The Grudge

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This is not so much a review of the movie The Grudge as it’s about a topic sparked by its theme.

So The Grudge is a movie from 2004, based on a Japanese horror film of the same name (called “Ju-On” from 2002). I forget exactly when I first saw it, probably a year or two after, as I did not watch it in a theater, and I’m thoroughly glad I didn’t.

Granted, this image is from the Grudge 2, but you get the idea.
Granted, this image is from the Grudge 2, but you get the idea. Most of the images online are a bit too gruesome than I’d prefer to have posted here.

Once, I swore I would never watch that movie again. As of this writing, I only just saw it a second time, with someone new, who insisted we watch ‘the scariest movie I knew.’

God dammit.

The Grudge follows a number of tropes in common with the ever-popular title “The Ring” also from 2002 (“Ringu,” 1998, in Japan). In this humble writer’s opinion, the American versions are significantly scarier, as they retain the psychological horror aspect as found in the original Japanese versions, but with the added American flavor of jump-scare emphasis.

If you haven’t heard of any of these pieces, or are largely unfamiliar with the J-Horror genre of psychological horror movies, I don’t know how to prepare you better than to say: Beware. For many people around the world, this kind of stuff is really bloody frightening.

The common theme among nearly all of these sorts of movies – not only J-Horror, but K-Horror (Korean) as well, and throughout a much of East and South-East Asian cinema, is a paranormal manifestation the likes of which probably everyone in the world would recognize on sight.

I’m talking about what the Japanese call a yūrei, what the Koreans call a gwisin, what the Vietnamese call a ma. You know, ghosts. And, just like the word “ghost” in English can mean a number of things, these are all generic categories. What I’m talking about, though, is a specific type.

The vengeful, Long-Haired Ghost.

20131121-023627-pm
And yet, oddly beautiful. Or am I just a freak?

They’re quite iconic, and almost never pleasant. They’re most commonly spirits of dead folks who have been wronged, and are generally hateful of anyone or anything that interacts with them, or the places/objects they haunt. This, at least, is the common thread linking the majority of these films, and some of us can’t get enough of it.

I went through a phase once, a couple years back, where I watched I watched a Korean ghost movie almost every night – at least once every couple of days – over the course of a few months. This resulted in my seeing shadows in the corners of my eyes during the day for many months after the fact.

Oh yes, those were good times, working in a health food store only to whip your head around to make sure there wasn’t some pale, bloody phantasm creepily herky-jerky-ing its way down the vitamin aisle.

Most of the time it’s been nothing.

But there were some horrendous nightmares that come every now and then. Heck, I still get them sometimes – things I’d actually prefer not to describe at present – so yeah, on that note, let’s talk about why this stuff is awesome.

For one thing, I’ve actually grown braver about a multitude of things. Or perhaps a little desensitized – is there a difference? Certainly, the line between bravery and stupidity is notoriously thin, but then again so is the line between confidence and actual ability. At any rate, the point is that I’ve been able to explore topics and media that in the past I might have otherwise been averse to exploring. Fear is something that interests me, and not only with the Long-Haired Ghosts, but other creepy things, but with other things creepy and terrifying.

As I’ve said once or twice before, things that are creepy are scary.  Just ask H.R. Giger. Man, do I love linking that VSauce video.

five
Five Night’s At Freddy’s, one of the most horrifying games I’ve ever seen. As of this post it’s pretty new, too, check it out.

This has, in fact, benefited my writing as well as my outlook on life.

The Long-Haired Ghost is something I’ve found to be repulsive and inspiring. While not directly appearing in my fiction, it has, like I said, allowed me to discover other things – and write about other things – that one might normally find difficult to entertain, or write. On the other hand, situations, creatures, or scenes that might be considered horrific by many are fairly normal to me.

Re: desensitization/bravery. I feel that as a writer, this valuable.

Besides, seeing The Grudge for the second time did raise the hairs on my arms and back of my neck, but it wasn’t quite as scary.

My guest freaked out readily enough, though, so mission accomplished.

~~~

Today’s track is brought to you by A Tale of Two Sisters, a K-Horror that stands as one of my favorites. I’ve seen the movie twice – once, alone, during that phase earlier mentioned, and once with another person and it was significantly less scary…

The soundtrack is actually, in this humble writer’s opinion, much more delightful than the movie itself, though I’ll never forget the initial emotions evoked by my first viewing. Truth is, my mind paints a slightly different picture whenever I hear this music, and the picture in my head is better than the picture on film. Be that as it may, check out the soundtrack, if not the movie, and see what ideas appear upon the paper before you.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nh-MfjOAbJI

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Month In

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I’ve come to learn a dozen things about myself in this last month since landing in Viet Nam. Some things personal, some thing superficial, others intellectual and emotional, and even a few things practical.

 

Like turning coconuts into planters.
Like turning coconuts into planters. What you see here is dying aloe I found in my house, rescued and given another chance at life.

Writing-wise, I now publicly confess that for the majority of the time since landing (and even a week or two before, as the excitement for the flight grew) was not spent putting down prose. Quite a bit has been dedicated to travelogue’ing, sure, and as important as that is, my fiction has lacked.

I haven’t had a short story idea in months. And we’re approaching the Writers of the Future 4th Quarter of 2014!

My novel project has slowed as well, and I tell myself (and my writing peers) that it’s mostly on account of life simply being too damned interesting to fantasize. That is a falsehood, though. It’s been laziness as well.

But I found a solution.

As a creature of habit and routine – most humans are, in fact, whether they know it or not – a daily or weekly plan often helps with keeping organized. This is no secret, but still I’ve come to understand that my ideal working environment may, in fact, not be at home.

Viet Nam has, among other things, cafes in abundance. With sweet, potent iced coffee readily available for $1 a cup, one finds it difficult to refrain from drinking too much. Two is usually enough before I have to run to the bathroom squealing. But the cafes themselves make for excellent work environments.

One of my new offices.
One of my new offices.

For one thing, there’s the (iced) coffee, which is refreshing in the heat, tasty in the sweet, and caffiene is good for every writing feat.

But there is something uniquely special about going to a place away from home with the specific goal of working. It works just as well as dedicated writing time, except for me (and many other people, I’ve read), a change of environment is generally conducive to creativity anyway. I’ve known artists in New York City who rent out studios, no doubt because working at home is out of the question due to space issues, but I wager there’s something in common here. There’s a psychological script at play when coming to a dedicate workspace:

“I came here to work, so I better make use of the time.”

This, of course, is the mental dialog of the occasionally lazy yet anxious mind of yours truly.

Turning off the WiFi connection helps, and is recommended – I don’t have a VPN setup (yet), and it’s generally considered a less-than-safe-thing to connect your laptop to any public network anyway. Phones and tablets are usually more secure on account of them being built for said purpose, but one cannot used Scrivener on a phone or tablet. The willful lacking of an internet connection naturally eliminates – or at least reduces – distraction; at least the self-induced variety.

Having strangers approach me, the only Westerner to ever set foot in that cafe (probably ever), and engage me in conversation tends to happen from time to time.  It is a fun distraction, since through this method I’ve met a banker, a chemist, and a technical engineer. Combined, their English skills make for only the most basic of conversations feasible, and I recall one instance (with the engineer), where it took about an hour to express why he disliked the French and why he liked Americans. The short answer is because he reads history. But, after defacing my notebook with dozens of notes and sentence fragments from each of us to illustrate our points, I found myself being told of a history lesson regarding things I already knew.

Still, I admire folks whose practical ability of English is severely limited, yet they work up the courage to approach me anyway. Most simply don’t, or can’t.

Yet in spite of distractions such as this, one finds focus more thoroughly attained in a cafe than at home. Worse case scenario, I don my over-ear headphones and turn up the volume – headphones, I believe, are a universal cue for “Do not disturb.” Multiple soundtracks later I will have found thousands of words (of prose!) written.

Raw creative prose is among the most difficult things to write for me. Writing this blog post, for instance, is something quite different – it’s more a stream of consciousness, thoughts-put-on-paper kind of process. Weaving worlds and character interactions is something quite different, and I am overjoyed to find a small niche.

The outstanding coffee (caphe) is just delightful icing on the proverbial cake.

And, with cafes found every couple of shops apart – no really, they’re everywhere, my home is within walking distance of six or seven on one street alone – I have taken to taking my work with me to a variety of different places. It is as much an adventure exploring the stores and cafes as it is hopping on a motorbike and taking off in a random direction for an hour or two.

I’ve even found inspiration in the most unlikely of ways; in one cafe they had very low tables, and even lower chairs with simple cushions. I promptly fell in love with the furniture, and knowing the extent of my own skills, I paid thorough attention to their make, and decided I could make the chairs and tables myself. Perhaps there will be a post about that as well, as I have plans to construct (among other things) a garden, a bed frame, numerous shelves, and now, chairs and tables. With such ready access to cafés, and the reasons listed and unlisted for why I seem to be more productive in them than at home, one comes to question their prior aspirations of even bothering with home office furnishings.

Funny how this writing blog has (de?)evolved into ramblings about furniture.

Happy writing, dear readers.

~~~

Today’s track is a calm, nifty beat from an old favorite soundtrack of mine: K-Pax, by Edward Shearmur. It doesn’t take much for me to sit down and pay attention when the name Kevin Spacey is mentioned, but the movie itself I found to be strange and eccentric enough to keep in my memory well into a decade after first seeing it. The music, listened to countless times, has a very dreamy quality to it.

There very well could be my own personal attachment to it – i.e., enjoying the movie therefore hearing the tracks remind me of fun moments and good feelings – but on its own the soundtrack truly is unique. One could easily fall asleep to this and drift to another world.