Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Giving Up The Boat, Giving Up The River


Luang Prabang, Laos- Maybe you’ve heard me talk about my ‘To Do’ list of about a dozen items I carry around in my wallet, encouraging you to do the same, by actually taking the time to sit down, think, and write down the things you hope to accomplish in the next year, or three, or five, including your wildest dreams.

Ten years ago when out of desperation I made my first list, there were some reasonably obtainable immediate short-term objectives, some long-term goals, and some wild-ass dreams, including a winter home in Thailand, a trip to Laos, a motorcycle, and a boat.

From Pine Ridge Indian reservation, ha, it looked like pure fantasy.

Two years after making that list, I had forgotten about it, and removed it from my wallet one day for examination. I was stunned. With the exception of the boat, I had achieved every one of my goals, insignificant as they may be to someone else, but for me…the passport…the VA dental work…taking son to Africa…going to see Laos, the ‘other side of the mountain’ from Vietnam…establishing a winter home on the reservation. Even the motorcycle!

This isn’t a boast. Like everything in life, I had the help of others, but I was amazed that I had done them all, and their attainment required construction of a new universe, the creation of a new list, with ‘continue sun dancing’ at the top.

Words have power, like you already know, especially if you’ve ever had to eat them, and like it says in the Good Book, Genesis, I think…‘In the beginning, there was the Word,’and God spoke the heavens and the earth into existence, if I was paying half-attention in that frightening church that everybody said could fall down on us, but I might have been sleeping.

And like they often say in Indian Country and elsewhere, ‘You have to watch what you pray for – you just might get it.’

But please allow me to encourage you to pull your goals from the ether, the abstract, and your mind, and begin the process of actualizing them by bringing them to earth, first in written form in your purse or wallet, and then by carrying them out, right here in the real 3DWorld.

The very process of writing helps to formulate and construct your goals, or perhaps to discover that you have none. Can we go through life without any?

It’s magical! It works! See for yourself. I’m working on my fourth list, with a little carry-over, like ‘UXO story’, and scratching off a couple items that were no longer applicable, or desired, like the boat, something I had dreamed about for years.

I always thought it would be nice to own a boat, a big boat, but not too big, something I could manage by myself if I had to, big enough to live on, big enough to house three or four couples, and big enough to handle the ocean, but not too big. I see…two sails…one big one…one little one.

Not so big you’d need a crew, and not so big I couldn’t afford it. Something like fifty or sixty feet, maybe a hurricane-damaged fixer-upper insurance company write-off, something short of Noah’s Ark.

That’s what I saw as a possibility in my mind…going in and out of ports around the world, taking a evening stroll on streets in Italy, south of France, Port Au Prince, the islands, dining at fine restaurants.

And then you could sit around with a whole new group of people at dinner, with the right look about yourself, a small fish when-it-comes-to-sailing crowd, and talk yourself up, do one-upmanship, about the ports you’d entered, and the oceans you’d sailed, and the scenes and seas you’d seen, your ego swelled with pride in a self-delusional satisfaction, as good as the wine. Burying your inferiority, you’d become a member of the club.

After taking a short Andaman Sea cruise with a group of tsunami volunteers and the four-man crew who operated the sailboat and had been on the Indian Ocean for five years, I relinquished my desire to become a sailor.

First of all, it costs a fortune to purchase, and another fortune to operate. “Just like a house,” said the captain of the vessel. “Constant maintenance.”

Well, there is a reason we have legs and lungs, and not fins and gills. And can you imagine being at sea with someone you couldn’t tolerate? If not your mate, then, another member of the party.

“I’m going forward.”

“Then I’ll go aft.”

You go above, I’ll stay below. Christ. Why put yourself through something like that?

‘Well, when they left the harbor, they were…’ fill in the blank…best friends, best mates, in love, married, laughing, engaged, enraged, on their honeymoon, latent homocidal.

In an intense situation like that, a person could get to know themselves pretty quickly, if self growth is what you were after, but such is often not the case. Nooo. To the contrary. They were expecting a fun-filled two-week getaway in the Canaries.

When I asked if they occasionally put into port and take a room in a hotel, the owner simply said, “No. The boat is our home.”

That brief trip on the sea taught me one thing; maybe I didn’t need a boat, after all, and two; when you go to sea, do so with an experienced crew, and three, know your traveling companions well.

‘That Captain Ahab is getting’ on my LAST nerve.’

There’s going to be at least one asshole on board, you can bet. Maybe two. Maybe the whole fucking crew. Ever see a pirate movie?

Rong Po Thuot can protect you from a fatal accident, but he cannot protect you from your own negligence or stupidity.

And besides that, why?

Well, why not? Look at what people spend on a house! And a car. Why not a boat?

I think it was somebody on the reservation in South Dakota who asked, “Where you going to sail it, bro?”

After a long pause, I finally blurted, “In the WATER!”


Well, maybe you wouldn’t have to sail it ANYWHERE. Maybe you could park it. Say it isn’t a sailboat, going to ports all over the world. Say it’s a houseboat, parked somewhere. You could be a boat people, a boat person. You’d be boat people.

Not like refugees, but you know, like, people who live on a boat, a houseboat.


The other item on my long-term list, being transferred over from one list to the next, was a trip down the Mekong River. I envisioned getting on board somewhere on the Tibetan plateau and drifting with the flow downriver through six countries to the delta in Vietnam.

Wouldn’t that be cool? I thought so, too, but after going upriver for just a couple of hours, and after hearing people talk of their two-day trip out of Thailand to here, has caused me to re-think the whole plan. After about twenty minutes, the trip becomes terribly monotonous, even going with the flow.

The guy who made the trip and wrote a book about it, I can’t remember his name…the book was tedious, and in small print, besides, and he said the trip was, too.

Even the half-hour visa run trip across the water to Myanmar is a drag after you’ve made it twice. People say, “I’ve got a visa run tomorrow,” like it was a trip to the dentist for a wisdom tooth extraction.

Down below this riverfront restaurant, boatmen are at work with saws and planers, refurbishing a houseboat, piles of lumber at the water’s edge. Sawdust all over the place, a narrow wooden plank from the mud to the ‘gunwhale’? shit, I don’t know…to the side of the boat. Can you see it, or not?

The noise they’re making with that planer are just like the guys with the power saws across the street, and more, on up the street at three different locations, and all over town, like someone is getting ready for something. Next year, and thereafter. Whatsthis? Year of the ox.

Just downriver, on the sea wall, awaiting the sunset, following a private session and tuning of my newly purchased ‘Oh-ee’ by the old man, who told me he’d be playing at the Indo-china restaurant tonight. 12 US dollars at the antique musical instruments shop.

Well, sure, they’re probably not antiques…but they are authentic hill tribes instruments, nonetheless. I had been reluctant to purchase one on two previous trips, wondering how I was going to get it home without having it destroyed in transit.

Three fishermen in a fifteen-foot flat bottom boat drifted by and vanished for a few seconds, cutting into the laser glare reflection of a late afternoon sun hovering just above the mountains, glistening brilliantly in a diagonal streak across the water. A couple seconds later, they emerged on the other side, enveloped in a glowing corona, trailing a golden wake, my pupils white hot and constricted.

The sun drops behind the mountain.