What happens when one lives and travels by the literal throwing of dice?
- 13 Aug 2017 at 04:00
- WRITER: ISAAC SIMONELLI
rolling the dice: With his faithful Honda CB500X motorcycle, Isaac Simonelli let his dice tell him where to go and what to do for 365 days. PHOTOS: Isaac Stone Simonelli
There's total silence in the taxi to Hanoi International Airport. It's the kind of silence that reminds you that there's normally something humming or creaking or chirping or playing in the background. The young taxi driver, with a band-aid on his forearm, is clean cut. He doesn't have his phone out to chat. He doesn't make an attempt at conversation with me. He doesn't turn the radio on.
The silence is loud enough.
I'm leaving Asia.
In the last five years, I've left Asia once. That was for two weeks to be the best man at a wedding. That was more than three years ago. Now I'm leaving with no intentions of returning.
Is there anything I left at my friend's place that might prevent me from leaving? Slowly, my mind goes through the possibility, hopeful but aware that there isn't anything. I have my passport. I have my drone. I have my dice. I have everything.
back on track: A Vietnamese woman in Sapa Valley prepares to take tourists on a hike through stepping rice paddies. Author Isaac Simonelli ended up in Vietnam by pure chance.
I try to stop checking my phone. I try to stop distracting myself from the uncomfortable feeling of leaving. I've never considered Asia home, but I'm not so sure now.
A month before pure chance dispatched me to Vietnam, I threw a single die across the green felt of a dirty pool table in Chiang Mai.
If it was an even number, I'd pick up a motorcycle and face the frozen Gobi Desert of Mongolia in the dead of winter. If it was an odd number, I'd pack my bags and head for the red, scorched Great Rift Valley in East Africa.
How did I come to this point? How did I get to a point in my entire life that the friends I make, the women I fall in love with and the adventures I struggle through are being jostled by kinetic energy, gravity, torque and friction as they manipulate a single tumbling die?
Mongolia versus Kenya wasn't the first roll of Dice Travels. In fact, by that time I'd been on the road with my dice and a Honda CB500X motorcycle for nearly five months.
The die came to a stop. It was a one: East Africa.
Unlike most trips, where we start with a budget and a time frame, Dice Travels started with a premise, a simple premise: allow dice roles to determine the majority of decisions faced while motorbiking throughout the world with a limited budget for an entire year. It would be 365 days of testing fate, enticing serendipity and letting go of free will -- if such things exist at all.
The project could be written off as an early bloomer's mid-life crises: I quit my job as the managing editor of a respectable newspaper in Phuket, sold everything I owned, broke up with my beautiful Russian girlfriend and started rolling dice. However, this wasn't a sudden, rash decision. The catalyst was five years ago.
It was August 2011 -- my fiance and I had just moved to Phuket -- when the entire foundation for my life, the guiding force of my future, my lodestone, my North Star didn't simply shift, but ceased to exist.
Cosmic shift, as with all shifts of such magnitude, came from inside. It was simple: we broke up.
Though we'd moved to Thailand together, the reality of the situation was that I was game for whatever, as long as we were together. So, I followed a woman, an extraordinary one, to Thailand.
With no money, no friends (locally) and no focal point to my life, I was a train wreck, battling suicidal thoughts with noontime beach runs in the tropical heat.
But before I start basking in undeserved sympathy, I should be clear: it was my fault -- completely my fault. Without a doubt I was a bastard; an honest bastard but a bastard nonetheless.
Jackie was, and to my knowledge still is, an extraordinary human. She was smart, fit, adventurous, kind and had eyes that glittered with a forever smile. We had been engaged once before and I had cheated on her (I told you I was a bastard). We broke up but eventually got back together.
This time around, the details were different, but the story wasn't.
With Jackie no longer a guiding force for my life, any energy expended in making a decision was energy wasted.
None of it mattered. Equal happiness would be gained from working my way into serving as a war journalist in Kabukba as by becoming a PADI dive master on Koh Phi Phi.
Five years after the break-up, Dice Travels was born out of a theory of decision fatigue, because what decision really matters in the long run? All of them? None of them? Maybe just some of them.
Every day we draw on limited decision-making resources. The result is that we tend to make better decisions earlier in the day and shy away from difficult choices (or make poorer decisions) late at night. There are a number of popular decision-fatigue antidotes: witness the limited wardrobes of Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs and even Barack Obama.
So, what's the difference between Mongolia and Kenya when it comes to the experience? The details, of course, are vastly different, but the reality of it is that travel always comes back to who we meet along the way. If a person goes to Turkey and meets terrible people, they slag off the entire country. If they go to Poland and meet amazing people, they promote the entire country. That's all there is to it. At this fundamental level, Mongolia and Kenya have equal value -- who knows who I'll meet?
Boxed in by the financial barriers of travelling by motorcycle through China or India, there was only one option left: sell the kitted-up CB500X and buy a used bike wherever I landed, which turned out to be Kenya.
With a hundred-dollar bill still clutched in my hand after finding out that nobody is working the exchange booth at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, I'm instructed by a customs officer to unzip my drone backpack.
"How much did it cost?" the official asks.
"About $1,200," I say, perhaps proudly, as it is the most valuable possession I own at this point in Dice Travels.
"It's $500 to bring it into Kenya as a bounty fee," he says.
"What? Why? I don't have 500 dollars."
"You must have permission to bring it in."
"Can you please show the legislation?"
The broad-shouldered, overweight man leads me into the customs office, where a small sign is taped to the wall.
It states that anyone wishing to fly an unmanned aerial vehicle within Kenya must seek approval from the Ministry of Defence and obtain authorisation from the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority.
Fifteen minutes later, we come to a private arrangement: there goes the $100 I'd hoped would keep me afloat in Kenya for the first couple of days.
Tonight, I'm staying with Sister Sarah at an orphanage in the suburbs of Nairobi. Fearful that it might end up being a trap where they would expect me to give them money, despite finding the bed through Couchsurfing, I put the dice into action. It was a 66/33 weighted split in favour of the orphanage, and the die confirmed I should stay at Sister Sarah's place.
Sometimes the dice make unwise decisions. Or perhaps they like to see me squirm. In Myanmar, after demanding that I ditch my motorcycle at the border because I didn't have the right paperwork to import it, the dice signed me up for a 10-day Vipassana meditation retreat at the Pa-Auk Forest Monastery outside of Mawlamyine. The only problem with the plan was that I didn't meditate and had never meditated.
So, I knew I'd survive the orphanage, even if it was a trap -- which it was.
After speaking with Sister Sarah, my taxi driver stops at the corner of two dirt roads plagued by half-buried rocks. There are five or six motorcycle-taxi drivers standing next to their machines. Unfinished cement buildings stand next to dirt paths. Where the dirt paths start and the roads end is hard to tell. Only around drainage ditches or particularly close to walls do strips of green grass appear, the rest trodden down by millions of footfalls. Businesses with shut doors have their front walls hand-painted, describing what services are available. There are saloons, fish shops, butchers and motorbike-parts shops. Traffic is kept at a near standstill due to the road conditions.
"No rich people would live here. I was born in Nairobi, but I've never been here. Never knew there was a place like this; the roads are very bad," my driver says. "Very big area for poor people."
We stop at a place that looks nearly like everywhere we've been so far: dusty cement buildings; a fruit stand on the corner; and people wearing a mix of suits, jackets and T-shirts walking with purpose down the street or standing idyll in the sun.
Enthusiastically, Sister Sarah appears. She takes my hand, hugging me as she soon as she climbs into the taxi.
After I nap, she wants to take me shopping for new flip-flops, which turns into a shopping spree for her and a couple of the older boys she's taking care of. We buy a football and creams and the list would go on if I didn't slam my wallet shut at the idea of buying her a new phone.
I'm on a budget -- that's what Couchsurfing is about. I'm not going to be bullied into emptying my ATM on day one in Kenya -- I did survive five years in Thailand.
The next morning, I escape.
A month later -- it takes a while to find and buy a motorcycle for the remainder of the trip -- the dice and I are back on the road.
Down into the Great Rift Valley, zebras appear. First one herd, then another and another. Some are too far away to clearly make out, while others are as close to the road as most of the goats. We're headed toward Mount Elgon, as dictated by the dice. I nearly slide out of my saddle as I pass a pair of long-faced baboons standing next to the road -- hitchhikers I wouldn't pick up for a $1,000.
Beyond the valley, I gain altitude; there are fewer and fewer candelabra succulents, with their thick heads of cactus arms stretching up into the forever blue sky like an afro wig on a tree trunk. Instead, there are the sparsely distributed, yet ever-present, acacia trees giving the landscape the worn-out look of a dish scrubber long past its prime. The ridge peaks and then falls back down into a valley, hills standing like an ominous wall on the far side of the rest of the valley.
A day later, I arrive in Mount Elgon, rising up between Kenya and Uganda. After basking in genuine local hospitality in the shadow of the ancient volcano, I start the four-day trek to the top of Mount Kenya -- the second-tallest mountain in Africa.
Feet battered from the hike, I'm reunited with Rafiki, my Yamaha DT175 motorcycle. The dice send us to Tanzania. Rafiki breaks down. And then runs out of gas.
With a bank account rapidly approaching zero, we cross into Tanzania and then hole up at the House of Giggles -- a hippie permaculture project that feeds and houses volunteers on Zanzibar. Spending less than two dollars a day, finances are stretched to the point that we can get back on the road again. There's less than a month left for the project.
On the way back to Kenya, Rafiki breaks down. And then runs out of petrol: she rocks and bucks and rocks and rolls and then after a kilometre of this nonsense becomes silent.
There isn't a vehicle on the long stretch of road in front of me or behind me.
A few passenger vans appear, honk their horns and then disappear. We're in the middle of Maasai land. There is nothing but arid red desert and thorny acacia scrubs. Approaching this section of the drive, I'd mused how it was exactly the type of place where someone wouldn't want to run out of gas.
I was right. I push Rafiki. It's flat ground, easy pushing.
Up ahead two young Maasai boys swaddled in chequered cloth watch me slowly approaching them. A trucker hurls a mostly empty bottle of water out of his window at the boys. They rush to it. The faster of the two gulps down the warm water.
No matter what their age, the nomadic Maasai people in Kenya and Tanzania can be found with their hands out as you drive through their desert homeland.
I'd assumed they were hitchhiking. I'd assumed wrong.
They were begging for water.
The young boys wave to me to give them water as I trudge past. I hesitate for a moment. There are only a few big gulps of water left. Given how far I'm going to push the bike, I probably need it.
Then again … I toss the bottle of water to them.
No petrol. No water. And no money -- I'd spent my last Tanzania shillings at a petrol station, hoping to put in enough fuel to get me into Kenya. It wasn't.
To compound issues, the sun's glow is taking on more and more vibrant hues of orange as it loses intensity and sinks into the horizon.
A small sedan pulls up next to me. The driver, Solomon, is headed to the border.
"Do you want to put it in the back of the car?" he offers. "I drove past you a few minutes ago. Then I turned around. I couldn't leave you out here."
With everything in the car, Rafiki's front wheel poking out of the back, I climb into the passenger seat.
"You don't want to get left out here. This is Maasai land. It's all nature reserve," Solomon explains.
"I agree. It was a less than ideal situation, but I'd also run completely out of money. What kind of work do you do?"
"I'm a government official," Solomon explains. "You do have all your paperwork, right?"
Solomon expedites the processing at immigration. I'm back in Kenya.
A month later, with Rafiki sold, I find myself on the porch of a luxury tent resort in the famed Maasai Mara reserve. There's a hyena whooping in the distance, and then maybe a lion -- I'm not sure.
Dice Travels is over.
People ask if I'm ready to go back home, ready to go to the US. The answer is no. Then they ask if I love Kenya, if I want to stay here longer. The answer is no. Then they ask if I will move back to Thailand. The answer is no.
I don't really want anything. I think that's part of the sadness.
There is part of me that is afraid that when I go back to the US I will be crushed. In a few days, I'll be getting on a plane to New York City. I will land with $45 in my pocket, no savings and no credit cards. I'll be 31 years old, going on 32. I'll be living in an extra room in my parents' house.
Staring through the electric fence between me and the wild sprawled out on either side of the river inside the Maasai Mara Conservatory, I'm struck with a trepidatious sensation that I am about to cross into the real world. As if the closure of Dice Travels is pushing me out of a fictional world I've carefully woven over the last 31 years. As if, in fact, Dice Travels was not a story in itself, but the last chapter of a long and illustrious childhood.
pulse racing: A restaurant at the Snake Village outside Hanoi serves snake blood vodka with a side of beating heart.
the looking glass: The famous White Temple of Chiang Rai captured in a glass globe.
travel bug: Beetle fighting was once a favoured form of entertainment in northern Thailand. It enjoyed a resurgence in the '90s.
all smiles: Isaac tries on a sheepskin hat with a friend on the edge of the Great Rift Valley.
street eats: Nyama choma, grilled meat, is chopped up and served to a crowd standing outside a butcher shop. The author travels to Kenya to explore the Great Rift Valley.
gone wild: Waterbucks and zebra graze at the entrance to Mount Elgon National Park, Kenya.
warming up: Campers by a fire beneath an acacia tree in the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro.
new heights: The dice pushed Isaac up the second-tallest mountain in Africa, Mount Kenya.
future in hand: For an entire year, dice dictated what Isaac did and where he went.
22 Aug 2017 at 17:34
22 Aug 2017 at 04:00
22 Aug 2017 at 04:00
22 Aug 2017 at 04:00
22 Aug 2017 at 04:00
22 Aug 2017 at 04:00