I am awake at 4am, utterly shocked. I just found out an awesome person I briefly knew, a good friend of my brother’s, a reader of this blog, died at the weekend in Cambodia.
Last year I was introduced to this super handsome bearded guy called James in Santiago de Compostela, who had walked the Comino in northern Spain with my brother Mark. A six week pilgrimage that takes you from France to the northern most tip of Spain, where when the world was flat, they used to think was ‘worlds end’.
Throughout the Camino you see these signs that tell you how far you have left to walk…
Most people end up in the Cathedral city of Santiago, the resting place of James the Great – which is where I went to surprise my brother as he hobbled to the finish line. James and Mark had met on the Comino. They were like American and British versions of each other – and completely different at the same time.
I remember Mark saying on Facebook he had this awesome group of new friends. They’d all been inspired by The Way (2010) a film about a man (Martin Sheen) who goes from the US to Spain bring back the body of his son (Emilio Estevez), who died on the Comino. And he end’s up doing the walk himself, as a way to understand his Son and as it turns out, to find himself.
I instantly liked James – you just did. But before I’d even met him actually Mark had talked to me about him and I remember feeling so pleased for Mark he’d met this amazing person to taste local ales and put the world to rights with. Plus there was a picture of him on facebook where he looked a bit like Russel Crowe, which got my interest!
Turns out he doesn’t look like Crowe, that was just James’ Comino disguise and hiding under the beard was Mark Warlberg… an in-joke that would follow him round the world.
James, from Philly USA, worked in a similar field to me – media production – so we naturally got on. He was a gentle soul with a deep belly laugh whom you could imagine anyone would feel an instant connection with. It was beautiful seeing the special bond the group had after their six week adventure on the Comino and whilst I was coming in from the outside they all made me feel a part of the experience.
Mark in front, James at the back
Described on Mark’s facebook page as ‘The Best Moment 2013’
I knew there was a chance we might meet again given how close James was with my brother – but never imagined we were going to be in Thailand at the same time, and so later in the year when that transpired, my brother hooked us up on facebook.
As these things go, you arrange to meet loads of people you know (or don’t really know) when you travel and some of the time it happens and some of the time it doesn’t. Plans change right? And you surrender yourself to ‘if its meant to be, it will be’.
In this case my trip in the north of Thailand was starting to wane, and I felt a bit cold and out of place in the hippy place that was Pai. I woke up on my first Pai morning shivering cold and said ‘get me outta here and into some sun!’. I traveled as quick as I could to the island of Ko Chang and whilst a shame, I accepted I probably wouldn’t cross paths with James in the north.
But the universe wanted us to meet. My escape to Ko Chang involved an overnight in Bangkok – and when I woke up the next morning in Sukhamvit a facebook post come through on my phone that said James had just landed in Bangkok. I remember thinking ‘mad!’ and ‘awesome!’ as I had a few hours to kill before my flight. But wifi being what it is, we had no way of contacting each other, so it was going to be about luck as to whether I would find him!
I hopped in a cab, and raced across the city, weaving in and out of the city’s protesters to meet them. I’m so glad I did. It meant I had the privilege of spending a laughter-filled couple of beers with James & his best buddy Derek at the start of their trip. They’d just got off the plane, a little jetlagged but fresh with excitement for their 3 month tour round SE Asia. I loved their energy and got excited again about the next part of my own journey, despite a previous few bumps in the road. They were such a joy to be around, those two hours stayed with me and I have remembered those beers fondly since.
Genuine connections – and laughs – with good people are what travelling is what it is all about, and they tend to happen when you least expect it!
We quickly took this pic before I ran into a cab to the airport… the guys had barely slept and were “drinking through it”.
After I left them, I think they both ordered in a round of scorpions to accompany their beers (says it all!) then stayed in Bangkok for a bit then traveled north, all the way through to Laos on the slow boat and then south through Vietnam on motorbikes. They’d been in Cambodia for a week or two by the looks of it – beautiful photographs on facebook showed pristine white sand beaches without electricity and internet which James described on Facebook as ‘paradise’.
Tragically James collapsed on Saturday, and died suddenly in hospital. They tried to revive him to no avail. They don’t know yet what it was, and maybe they won’t I’m unsure. But whatever happened, Derek behaved absolutely incredibly, and my heart breaks for him as I can only imagine his pain. James was an amazing guy who loved adventures, existential beer chats and living 100% present and in the moment.
He had a unique voice that he shared across social media that inspired others to jack in their jobs and live out their dreams. You can read his travel blog HERE.
I’m honoured to have shared those few moments laughing about Thailand’s idiosyncracies and the many highs and lows of travelling. It felt as if I was with old friends, as if for a brief moment, my brother was there with me… a familiarity I’d longed for.
I’d been following their trip on facebook and James’ blog since, imagining all the amazing adventures they must have gotten up to, looking forward to the next time the universe might allow us to cross paths. I think James can be best understood through this post he wrote last year on facebook… it really makes you sit up and think ‘am I really living my life or just thinking about living it?’, which was the theme for the majority of our discussion that day in Bangkok.
18 June 2013 at 09:08Did you know, you can quit your job, you can leave it all? You aren’t legally required to stay, it’s a social pressure and expectation, not the law, and no one is holding a gun to your head. You can sell your house, you can give up your apartment, you can even sell your vehicle, and your things that are mostly unnecessary. You can see the world on a minimum wage salary, despite the persisting myth, you do not need a high paying job. You can leave your friends (if they’re true friends they’ll forgive you, and you’ll still be friends) and make new ones on the road. You can leave your family. You love them, they love you, it’ll be okay. You can depart from your hometown, your country, your culture, and everything you know. You can sacrifice. You can give up your $5.00 a cup morning coffee, you can give up air conditioning, frequent consumption of new products. You can give up eating out at restaurants and prepare affordable meals at home, and eat the leftovers too, instead of throwing them away. You can give up cable TV, Internet even. This list is endless. You can sacrifice climbing up in the hierarchy of careers. You can buck tradition and others’ expectations of you. You can triumph over your fears, by conquering your mind. You can take risks. And most of all, you can travel. You just don’t want it enough. You want a new degree or a well-paying job or to stay in your comfort zone more. This is fine, if it’s what your heart desires most, but please don’t envy me and tell me you can’t travel. You’re not in a famine, in a desert, in a third world country, with five malnourished children to feed. You probably live in a first world country. You have a roof over your head, and food on your plate. You probably own luxuries like a cellphone and a computer. You can afford the $3.00 a night guest houses of India, the $0.10 fresh baked breakfasts of Morocco, because if you can afford to live in a first world country, you can certainly afford to travel in third world countries, you can probably even afford to travel in a first world country. So please say to me, “I want to travel, but other things are more important to me and I’m putting them first”, not, “I’m dying to travel, but I can’t”, because I have yet to have someone say they can’t, who truly can’t. You can, however, only live once, and for me, the enrichment of the soul that comes from seeing the world is worth more than a degree that could bring me in a bigger paycheck, or material wealth, or pleasing society. Of course, you must choose for yourself, follow your heart’s truest desires, but know that you can travel, you’re only making excuses for why you can’t. And if it makes any difference, I have never met anyone who has quit their job, left school, given up their life at home, to see the world, and regretted it. None. Only people who have grown old and regretted never traveling, who have regretted focusing too much on money and superficial success, who have realized too late that there is so much more to living than this.