Train Song

Nearing the one year anniversary of returning home, I am pleased to announce the sale of a book I wrote, Train Song.  This is part one of my round-the-world epic, and focuses on the journey’s first 6 months spent riding trains, hitchhiking, and working around North America.  Its a good book, and would also make a great gift.  Thanks for supporting me, enjoy!

trainsong


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$10 + $4 shipping and handling.   Or find me and I’ll sell you one for $10.  Or equivalent trade.  Its in some book stores, too, but you’ll just have to figure out which ones.

BOXCAR LOVE

Boxcars home over the Cascades Summit crowned the best, worst, longest, hardest, funnest and most terrifying trip of my life.    Every superlative applies.

I’m eager to get on with other things for a change, but a few important words before I go (or stay, rather):

Thanks world.  Thanks for one hell of a trip.

Thanks for flocks of sheep in the Caucus Mountains, Tibetan yaks and a Balkan Fox.   Crow feathers whistling in bike spray.  Here’s to the gardeners speaking forty different languages, forest canopies, and 24 lonely train songs.        Barren deserts, city squats, tropical jungles and arctic sun.                Cold wind.             Ocean Stars.

Hundreds of camp sites and coworkers around the world.

I’ll always remember fourteen good shoes and the two feet that shredded em.  Hats off to one good hat.   One donkey, two good bikes and a canoe.

Here’s to the good people who traveled with me:  You know who you are.    You’re family.   Live hard, ride free:  If you don’t see me tomorrow; know I died as I pleased.

Thanks to well over 300 total, random strangers from every corner of the globe who pulled over to give me a lift.   Everywhere I’ve gone I’ve been showered with meals, stories, drinks, and all the tea in China.  Strangers is strange lands handed me keys to their homes.  One guy bought me a Persian rug.  You opened up your families to me; your Gods and your lives.  We laughed together.   Thank you so much for literally keeping me going.

Warm stoves on cold nights and showering away tropical blaze.  And then you poured me more tea.

Most of all Boxcar Love to the Curve:  25 Moons, and one Rising Sun.

Thank you.      Muchos Gracias.       Merci, Danke schön.     Tusen Takk.    Grazie.  Hvala.      Teşekkür Ederim,  Spas,  Didi Madlobt.    Teşekkülar.  Raxmet,  Spasiba, Kop Rakhmat.             Xièxie.  Thuk-je-che.       Khawp Jai Li Li, Akun Sheran,  Cám ơn.            Terima Kasih Banyak.    Much love.

 

-S.B.              EBD ’12-’14

Life at the Lizard Palace

Squatting is my catnip.  Fun.  Fulfilling.   It is the perfect synthesis of adventure, ideals, camping, stealth, nesting, and the total joy of one’s labor directly meeting personal needs.  I remember my first squat – not just sleeping in an abandon building but really owning it and making it a home – years ago at The Crumble.  I remember how the little fibers of my body and tissues of my heart all sang to me: bringing direct action and tangible change to long-held personal beliefs on property ownership and at the same time the thrill of living outside the law and having a very active relationship with the place I lived.  That was five years ago, and I haven’t paid a dime on rent since.

But never have I ever had a squat like the Lizard Palace…

The story I heard was that it was abandon because of transportation difficulties – being only practically accessed by boat.   I heard that the Thai family who owned it were now just holding onto the property, waiting to re-develop when a road is eventually built to that side of the island.  Whatever the story, I got the hottest tip of my life from a drunk Australian lady one day.  “Oh yeah,” she slurred.  “There’s an abandon resort at the very eastern pinnacle of the island.  It’s really hard to get to, though, it takes like an hour hiking over a really steep footpath – so nobody really goes out there.” And I was sold.

What is this abandon resort?  Let me explain…   The hot sweaty climb through jungley bird sounds and swingy vines to hop roots and ruts on a washed-out footpath drops to a deserted bay with crystal blue waters.  Hugging the hillside are a dozen wooden bungalows, and near the waters edge a large concrete hotel with open-decked beach bars and a breathtaking rooftop patio.  All abandon.  All deserted.  All mine.

A few years of dilapidation leaves its regular marks: colorful graffiti which blends so well with the bright jungle and a confetti of broken glass in the big hotel.  Broken boardwalks and completely lost pathways to the bungalows.  But here in the tropics, a different kind of disintegration is rapidly engulfing the building:  the jungle’s green is eager to devour.  Vines twine and roots wind – claiming very clearly that this is a wild space.

Above it all, overlooking it all from the hill, is the old presidential suite.  The LIZARD PALACE.  My squat.   On the third-story shady balcony I pitched my tent and scavenged furniture – light breeze tinkling chimes of seashell and bamboo.  The second story is my kitchen, and first thing every morning I pick a fresh bouquet of tropical flowers.

The island is Koh Tao – a tropical mecca in Southern Thailand where cheap diving, cheap drinking and good coral have created the busiest dive resorts in the world.  I came here because I was broke and it seemed like a good place to try to hustle some magic tricks, but its really not my cup of tea:  TOURISM is God:  the island is overrun with expats and one hardly sees an Asian face.  Aussie Pub crawlers rule streets and for nearly-Western prices you can get sub-par pizza, Indian, Mexican or pot-roast, but no where serves good Thai food.  The beaches are crowded and dirty and the coral is dying from the high acidity of surface run-off.

But not my beach!

My beach is private.  I swim around naked and scream at the top of my lungs because no one can hear me.  I build bonfires and smoke my snake skin.

A friend gave me a scuba mask and I spend my days eating mushrooms exploring the weird underwater world of bizzaro-land:  neon itty-bitties swirl around doofy big-lipped Parot fish while bright Seargant Majors zip from Trigger Fish, Nemo lurks in the anemones, Mooray Eels hide in the rocks and the occasional Blacktip Reefshark glides through big shoals of flickering silver bellies.      When I work in town I overhear the divers talking to one another:  “No waaay!   You saw a sea turtle??   I dive every day and I never see sea turtles!  They’re so rare!”.   And I laugh and smile to myself… because on my side of the island, I know exactly what time of day the sea turtles cruise by and where they like to hang out. My side of the island.

My side of the island also has rocks.  The pinnacle itself is a rocky outcrop with deep coral below, and perfect for cliff-jumping.   Occasionally tourists book onto specialty charter boats or sign up for the “Rock Climbing Adventure Hike!” where a guide hikes them out to jump off the rocks – but usually I have it all to myself. Big rocks, big jumps:  big enough to make me nervous, then give me butterflies, then give me a moments pause to think, then smack me hard plunging down down down into the world of octopus and alien fish.   That’s my shower..

My toilet is the Bat Shack:  one of the bungalows with the best view where all the Flying Foxes (bats as big as cats) hang upside down:  I ripped out some floorboards and let the stilted architecture take care of the rest while I enjoy the view.

I have a dreamy, slow life.   I wake up with zero dollars in my pocket: climb around on some rocks, swim with sea turtles or explore the jungle.  Cook some lunch, put on my ratty magic clothes and hike a peaceful jungle trail into town, do some magic, make a few dollars, eat some food, get drunk if I feel like it (getting drunk for free is the easiest thing in the world when you’re a magician in a tourist town:  people will happily buy you 15 $2 beers before they tip you a dime…), then eventually make my way back down the spooky jungle trail with bats eating the bugs out of my headlight, and just enough adventure to feel good without being scary.

Then repeat.

Its so damn cool to wake up with nothing, put faith in the fact that the day will work out, have the day work out, then go to sleep happy with nothing.   If I wasn’t in such a damn hurry to try to find a way home, I could live this paradise life for a long time.   So in the end I only stayed at the Lizard Palace for about a month.

But in that time, one day…

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Journal entry from… oh wait, there’s no date on it.   From early September, maybe:

I just saw a cat.  I JUST saw a cat.  A BIG cat.   I was reclined on my mattress sofa drawing the above picture (this is all written underneath so snake doodles).  I turned to grab the snake skin, to try to look at the markings, and a strong wind rippled across the balcony, scattering my papers.   I was noticing at the moment how silent everything was, I was really just thinking that, slipping down the stairs in bare feet.

There, on the landing, a huge thing dove into the brush.  It was big enough that my first thought was “Water Monitor!”.   But the way it moved couldn’t have been more different.  It shot like a phantom through the green tangle and dry leafs hardly making a sound.  I didn’t see it’s head – in the flash of the moment I have no idea how bit it was – but just as it flew past me and disappeared, I saw a long, beautiful tail.  It was golden, thick, with gorgeous, wild markings.   And unmistakably feline.

I’ve never felt so awed before.  I stood breathless, mind racing for a moment before a timeless, numbing wave of gratitude and happiness crashed over me.   I just stared into the silent bush for a long time, everything seemed so surreal like some amazing drug.  It seemed like all sound had been sucked out of the world.

After some time I climbed the stairs to find that the page I was looking for hadn’t flown over the balcony at all.

Wow.

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I scoured the free guidebook listing all the mammals on Koh Tao:  no wild cats.   I nonchalantly asked around:  “no no,” I was told by the adventure tour guides down on Pub Street, “absolutely no wild cats.”     “No no,” the Thai boat guys told me.  “No cats.”

But they’re all wrong.

I don’t know what I saw and I don’t care: all I know is that I’ve never felt so lucky in all my life.   Ever.

And it gave me a profound hope for all wild beauty – the endangered and the ‘extinct’ and the Big Foots, too.   The crumble of the Lizard Palace proved to me that the earth heals and reclaims itself – its just waiting its chance.    And when it does, I’ll be there enjoying the view.

Island Magic

Hello.   I’m a magician here on the island.  You’ve probably seen me:  I’m the guy walking around with a fox tail hanging out of my hat.  You may have even been approached by me if you’ve ever eaten in one of the tourist restaurants where I work.   “Would you like to see some magic?”  I would have asked.  Most likely your answer would have been ‘no’ – or a blank stare – but perhaps you would have obliged.  And in that case, I would have begun my routine:

“My name is Walker, I’m a Cascadian magician and storyteller.”   You pick a card.  “My own story started in 2012, when I left home heading east.”   Your card disappears.   “I had this thought that maybe I could magic my way around the world without flying.”  Your card reappears.    “As with magic, a lot of unexpected things happen when we travel.”  Your card changes.  “I wasn’t expecting to get kidnapped hitchhiking in the Middle East or to nearly freeze to death in the Soviet Caucuses.”  Your card bounces into my pocket.  “Nor was I expecting to conquer mountain peaks with my own two legs, or fall in love in a perfect snowball fight frozen forever in time.”  Your card jumps in your pocket.   “But unexpected things happen, and we deal with them and appreciate them as they come.”  Your card takes flight and zooms around the restaurant.  “Like for me: arriving in Thailand flat broke – I dust off some old magic tricks and try to hustle a few tips.”   Your card bursts into flames.  “So that’s what I’m doing now:  trying to make a few baht and/or sell this little Magic Book I wrote-”  A magic book appears – with your card printed into the back cover.   “So if you’d like to help me out, if you’d like to be part of my magic and my story, I would surely appreciate it.”

At this point you look up to me and say:  “I am zorry, we dooz not zpeak Engliz…”

Or, alternatively, you haven’t seen any of this magic because you’ve been staring up at my hat:   “Is that a snake on your head???”

“Yes, a Reticulated Python, to be exact.  Its the largest snake in the world and being poached out of existence by the skin trade.  I have this matching belt and matching notebook.”   Your card changes colors.  “I didn’t kill this snake – there’s a story behind it.”  Your card appears on the ceiling.

“I was walking home one night – its about an hour hike on a footpath through the jungle to the abandon resort which I’m squatting on the other side of the island – and at the top of the ridge where the one other house on the trail stands on bamboo stilts, a small pack of dogs were going wild.”  Your card appears in your shoe.  “For the past several months, I’ve been dirty and shifty-looking enough to make dogs quite nervous, so I figured the commotion was about me and picked up a few rocks to do battle.”  I rip your card into tiny little piece and eat them.

“But when I got up close, I realized it was actually an enormous snake that they had just attacked, leaving it barely alive bobbing its head around.”  Your card is restored.  “The Thai guy came out of his house with a flashlight, and together we stared open-mouthed at the huge serpent.  It was a full 3 meters long.”

“The next day, walking back to work, I was suprised to see the dead snake kicked to the side of the trail.”  Your card spits water in your eyes.  “‘If that’s still here when I come home,’ I told myself, ‘I’m going to eat it.’  And it was.  So I took it.  I took it back to my private moonlit beach and skinned the whole thing by candlelight.  By the time I finished, the sun was coming up, I was too exhausted to butcher her, not hungry in the least, and ended up wasting enough good meat to feed three families (this is the tropics, unrefridgerated skinned meat will go bad in an hour).  But I kept the beautiful skin, hanging it in the back room of the presidential suite where I live.”   Your card sings ‘happy birthday!’

“I woke up just an hour or two later to some bumping and thrashing sounds.  Groggily – barefoot in my underwear – I went to investigate.  And nearly crapped my pants when I saw a HUGE reptile tail wip-slither around the corner.  ‘ITS ALIVE!’ I screamed.  Then, more rationally, ‘Its attracting more snakes somehow!’   I grabbed a 2×4 and crept around the corner to get a better look.   “#@(%!!!!!!!   KAMONO DRAGON!!!!”   I was staring at – not a snake – but an ENORMOUS, terrified lizard:  easily 2 meters long with a foot-and-a-half tongue.   As it turns out, its wasn’t a Kamono Dragon, but rather a Water Monitor, which is a close cousin, and the second biggest lizard in the world.   But I didn’t know that at the time.  All I knew was that it was trying to get my snake skin, and that I was going to fight it with a 2×4.”   Your card jumps around the table and imitates a 2×4 brawl.

“I battled the dragon out of one room, into another, both of us terrified, and him suprisingly clumbsy in his frantic waddling, until it was trapped in a tiny little room with no escape.  Here we hit a stalemate and stared at each other.  Jesus, his tongue was long…   ‘Well,’ I thought.  ‘I’m going to go zip myself in my tent and hope this situation blows over.’   So I crept backwards – on guard – and slipped away.”

…”And?”  You say.

“Is this your card?”

“Can I have some money now?”

The Things We Carry

“My tent.”

My precious tent.  One pole snapped in an arctic gale, one snapped hiding from hookers in bushes outside Venice, snapped again in a freak storm on the Black Sea, each lovingly splinted with garbage tubing and rubber bands.  Patched from fire-ants eating their way through in a Florida carnival, burns from reading by candlelight, snags from jungle prickles – stains and smells from who-knows-where- homemade camo spray job – and the new zipper I sewed on is busted already.   I’ve called this tent home longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my adult life. I can set it up and tear it down blindfolded in a pitch black rainstorm.  One unforgettable morning in the Gobi desert,  it flew.  But how many more splints and patches can it take?  How long before it – like everything else – must be retired?

It was an interesting question my friend posed to me:  “What do you have now that you left home with?”

What did I have when I bid a painful farewell to the home I built and loved in Cascadia?   My backpack?  Nope.  Passport, sleeping bag, pad, clothes, jacket?  Nope, nope, nope nope nope.  The goat tail I swore to myself I would take all the way around the world?  Nope, lost it.  Nearly everything I own has been worn out, traded in, stolen, broken or simply vanished.   What do I have that’s mine, and that links me to a real home?

Not much…

My hat:      Battered, worn out, embarrassingly shoddy.  But its flown the tail feather of Cascadian owl, one from train-kill pheasant, flight feather of a Balkan Jackdaw, a seagull’s white wing glowing under stars in the middle of the Atlantic, the stripes of a young Middle-Eastern desert hawk, a Golden Eagle feather fished out of the Tibetan headwaters of the Mekong River, a Southeast Asian fighting cock and the wisdom of the traveling Hoopoe.   When people meet me these days, teasing me about the holes in my headgear is among the first topics of conversation.  What they can’t see is how much its been through with me, how little else I have, or how badly I want to see it adorning a scarecrow in certain special garden.

Now, on the eve of ripping my heart open to say goodbye to another home, I take stock in what I have…  Three things:  My beleaguered tent, my tattered hat, and one very small flag…

My journey has been largely about home – losing, finding, returning.  I don’t know how to define “home” – that’s beyond what my brain can do – but I do know its not just a place where you live.  I’ve lived in 9 U.S. states and 7 countries on 3 continents.  Not home.    And I also know that in my life I’ve been incredibly blessed (or cursed) to have my heart root deep in two different places.  Many people go their whole lives without knowing “home” – and while I might not be able to describe what it is, I know for sure that I’ve had two of them.

So when I left back in 2012, and made the decision not to fly, what I was really trying to do was explore the vast physical, emotional and spiritual space between these two homes.   I packed my tent, my hat, a bunch of stuff which is now strewn around the planet, and a small Cambodian flag…

Unlike the tent or the hat, the flag hasn’t got much practical use.  It flew off the back of my homemade bike trailer through the Balkan Mountains – my stubborn announcement to the world where I was heading regardless the feasibility.  But for the most part, its sat quietly next to my heart alongside my memories of this strange and mysterious land.

I was 22 years old when I first moved to Phnom Penh – a complete random accident which I never planned on – six months later I was living in a remote village without electricity or running water.  All together I’ve spent two years of my life living and learning in this little country – a metamorphosis which I would unequivocally point to as the most life-changing experience of my life.   My ego will forever think of my life in terms of “before Cambodia” and “after Cambodia.”   My life, lifestyle and world outlook were all profoundly shaped beyond words.

But its been hard, too, living a double life with a two-chambered heart.  One of my best friends in America once looked at a picture of me on the Mekong and said:  “I can’t believe that’s you.  You look like a totally different person!”   Yes, very observant.  Because, in reality, that’s not the same ‘me.’  You don’t know or understand that Walker any more than my friends and family in Cambodia would understand yours.  I have two lives, two personalities, and two communities which I care very deeply about.       And for years now that truth has caused a lot of pain.

There is no one place I feel complete – no one family where I totally belong.  I think that’s why I’m always restless.  So I left one home bound for another – with a little flag in my pocket to remind me where I was headed.  It took two years – but my feet spanned the distance which my soul has held.

When the time finally came, it was with mixed emotions that I re-entered Cambodia.  Its not always an easy place to be.  It was a positive joy to introduce my childhood friend Ed to some of my lifelong Khmer family: to give these two worlds a slight glimpse of one-another.  And of course it was incredible to be back on my stretch of the Mekong – and by handmade wooden boat, no less!

But the further the river wound into my own memories, the country’s sinuous depth wove its familiar pattern over my chest.  Love, panic and pain bled into one another – this is not a place I can just visit.  This is a places which reaches inside a grabs me – binds me and drowns me.  I’ve cut those cords twice before – moved away – and I know what that cost me and how long it took to recover.

This time I looked around a took stock:  I’m exhausted.  My brain chemicals are whirled and the circuitry smokey from a two-year barrage of cultures, languages, miles and uncertainties.  I’m constantly two steps (little steps) away from nervous breakdown.  Cambodia was supposed to be my home-base: my homecoming, my return.  But it terrified me.  And I can’t summon the strength I need to do it again.

There is a Vedic tradition to wander the world, see its mysteries, and return to meditate upon them.  Afterwards, again they into the world and return to meditate.  And a third time, but this time the meditation is permanent.  I hadn’t come back to Cambodia to visit – because that’s impossible for me.  And I hadn’t come to live there, like I thought for two years I was coming to do – because I don’t have the energy for that.     I had come back to Cambodia to say goodbye.

Its no real way to live: torn between two worlds.  Eventually a person has to plant two feet or fall from both.  There have been times when I really thought I would plant them in NE Cambodia, on the banks of the Mekong.  But I guess that’s not my card.

So how does one say goodbye and ‘thank you’ to a place which has turned your life upside down?  How do you say goodbye to the people you have fiercely loved and been loved by?  How do you fold down half your heart and half your soul like a flag and tuck it in your pocket?

I have no idea.  It would take a much braver person than myself to answer that question.

Instead, I lied to myself and my family that I might someday return – tucked my tail and fled in the middle of the night.

I’m no longer naive enough to think that I can hold onto physical objects very long.  My blue and red flag, like my tent and my hat, will eventually blow away.    But there are other things that don’t fade, and for as long as I live Cambodia will be stamped into who I am.

Haunted Photos Revisited

Cambodia – will you ever stop stirring, pulling and ultimately shredding my heart into bloody strips of rice noodles?
youngMayk

The Phnom Penh city dump in Cambodia:  Toxic green fish ponds lurk under thin ice-sheets of medical waste, industrial poison and rotting carcasses of street dogs.  Large tracts are on fire, choking  hot brown fumes coat your throat, blur your eyes and sting your brain.   It is a place which rats scorn.  It is a place where nightmares run free.  It is a place where more than 400 families live hand to mouth – scavenging daily survival from the dunes of darkness.

 

Christmas, 2008:  I had just moved to Cambodia.  My friend Becky came out to visit.  Together we went to the dump armed with a backpack of disposable cameras.  To a group of gathered children, we demonstrated how to wind and shoot, explaining that we’d be back that evening to pay $5 a piece for spent film cartridges.   Then we probably retired to a shady balcony somewhere to sip coconuts.   

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The images these young people captured are the most disturbingly beautiful I have ever seen.  A casual glance shows barefoot children enjoying a day at the beach – until close inspection renders sand dunes into burning piles of trash and driftwood shacks turn into homes.  To me they radiate both the deepest depths of misery and the soaring triumph of the human spirit.    They have adorned the walls of nearly every place I’ve lived these past six years.

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But in my own selfish youth and carelessness, I committed a serious crime that day.  I walked away with these photos, treasured them as my own, shared them, displayed them, and even loaned them out at one point.   But I never returned to the dump.  These young artists, none of whom I’m sure owned a single picture of themselves, never so much as saw the incredible photos they created.   

This is the great wrong which now, six years later, we were setting out to right.

 

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From the beginning, our mission felt doomed to failure.  The sun was slow-cooking our brains, all we had to go on were a few grainy prints, and we were searching for needles in a garbage heap.  We had no names or ages.   Where do children of the dump go?   There was a dark, unstated fear about the life expectancy…

But we set out anyways.   And somehow, miraculously, early in the day we had a hit:  “Yeah, I know him.  He’s my relative.”    YES!   And we got a point. 
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The point proved hard to follow, and started us out on an odyssey through the deepest pits of urban poverty.   Wandering through countless scavenging stations where the poorest of the poor homeless Cambodians congregate to scrap metal and plastic, we showed everyone our pictures.  It was hot, nauseating and discouraging.   New security measures were in place at the dump itself: ostensibly to curb the rampant human trafficking of children, but more likely to cut down on the country’s bad press, so we couldn’t get out on the dump itself this time.  We were left stalking the scrap sites and shanty towns around the outside.     There were more than a few times I was ready to give up, but every time my old friend, translator and companion Saltia persevered and we would get another lead.

Slowly, a story started to unfold.   And a name.
             Mayk.
                   The smiling child on the dump, whose picture adorned my wall for years, was named Mayk.
                           Mayk.

“He’s married now,” we were told in one scavenger ghetto.
                                                                                 “He has a kid” we were told at another.
                                       And his name was Mayk.

Finally, exhausted and telling ourselves “This is the very last place we look,” we wandered through a shanty town built on the back beaches of the dump.   And we found Mayk’s mother.   “He’s working on the dump,” she explained, “he works there every day.”    She eyed us suspiciously, then wandered off to go grab him.   We sat in the blazing sun and waited.

Twenty minutes later a specter appeared:  a little bit older and a little bit taller, but the same wide, gentle smile.   We had found Mayk.   

He was friendly and warm.  19 years old, we squatted in front of his garbage-shanty and met his two-year old child.  “He’s ill,” he explained of the undersized, sickly-looking babe.  “He throws up.  I don’t have enough money to take him to a doctor.”

He smiled flipping through the prints we gave him.  “Yeah!” he says.  “I remember when you came before!”  And amazingly, he knew the other kids in the pictures.  “This one is my little brother – that one is my friend.  I still see them all – they’re all here on the dump.   I can help get these to them.”

After a relaxed, comfortable chat it was time to go.  “When will you be back next?” Mayk laughed.  And then:  “Goodbye, you made me happy to see you today.  Please always stay happy, I hope you are always happy.”

youngMaykMayk II
Cambodia – will you ever stop rolling hot tears from my eyes?  Will you ever stop smiling at me with that profound beauty of human endurance and spirit?  Day by day, life goes on in the Kingdom of Dragons.