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Review of “The Dawn of Everything” by David Graeber and David Wengrow

In recent decades, the genre of “Big History” has gained considerable attention, both commercially and academically. Social scientists such as Steven Pinker, Francis Fukuyama, Jared Diamond, and Yuval Noah Harari have all published treatises with big ideas about the long arch of history, each to much commercial success. The late David Gaeber, an anthropologist, and David Wengrow, an archeologist, believe recent works of ‘Big History’ get it wrong. In particularly, the authors take issue with the idea of a teleology toward the social, social, political, and economic development toward what we call modernity. In The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition (November 9, 2021)), Graeber and Wengrow survey recent archaeological evidence and caution against a teleological approach to human progress, arguing instead that early human history was varied and filled with possibilities we have often struggled to imagine.

The authors survey a number of societies from around the world in different time periods. In the process, they elucidate many human achievements lost to history. Recent major archaeological discoveries, including those of Cahokia in present-day Illinois, Shang Dynasty China, Minoan Crete, and Central Mexico all receive considerable attention. Graeber and Wengrow focus primarily on socio-political organisation, but also survey factors such as language and agronomy. In the process, the authors look into the evolution of ideas and survey the ideas of thinkers whose ideas have often fallen out of favour.

The authors focus their efforts on a few big questions. First, how did societies become unequal? They spend a good deal of time throughout the book looking at how stratification develops within societies, looking at the rise of agriculture and related administrative needs, as well as the concentration of power. Second, they ask the related question of how human freedom became constrained. This involves a detailed look at state formation and its effects on three different types of human freedoms: (1) the freedom to move away/relocate; (2) the freedom to ignore/disobey commands; and (3) the freedom to shape possibilities. The authors argue that, using these criteria, we are now much less free than many indigenous, or non-state societies.

The lengthiest chapter focuses on state formation, or in the authors’ reading, a lack thereof (See Ch. 10, “Why the State Has No Origin”). Graeber and Wengrow focus on three phenomena which are tied to what we now call the state: sovereignty, bureaucracy, and a competitive political field. The authors note that the concept of sovereignty is closely tied to the existence of a monarch, a role which was originally priestly or divine in nature. Societies could have sovereignty without necessarily having bureaucrats or political competition and, hence, the development of a state was no sure thing.

While the authors are quite thorough, a few critiques could be levelled at the book:

  1. The Dawn of Everything seems to overplay the significance of the indigenous critique. The authors focus heavily on Wendat-Huron chief, Kandiaronk, whose views on European civilisation were published by French aristocrat Baron de la Hontan and paralleled those set out in Rousseau’s Discourse on Social Inequality. While Kandiaronk’s critiques of French society had validity, there is not much evidence that these critiques were based on a detailed understanding of France, nor that these critiques inspired Rousseau or other French writers. Without concrete evidence, Graeber and Wengrow assert that French intellectuals would have been generally aware of Kandiaronk’s ideas. The authors do a great job of highlighting a forgotten intellectual force in Kandiaronk, but present insufficient evidence for the influence they ascribe to his ideas.
  2. The authors focus excessively on North America. There may be valid, practical reasons for doing so: the Americas’ relative isolation, newly-discovered archaeological evidence, and the relative lack of state development. Nonetheless, this focus seemed a bit puzzling, given that (a) North America accounted for a small percentage of the world’s population; (b) its archaeological evidence is far more recent; and (c) North America lacked the competitive dynamics which ostensibly gave rise to the teleology authors seek to refute.
  3. Graeber and Wengrow seem to jump around chronologically, making odd comparisons in the process. For example, Shang China (c. 1600-1046 BCE) is compared to the North American city of Cahokia (c. 1050–1350 CE). Allowing for the unevenness of development across the planet, these comparisons seem misplaced, particularly in a book that in its title claims to chronicle the dawn of things. The time-jumps seem forced and go against a central tenet of the oeuvre: that societies choose how to organise based on their own values, rather than a teleology based on factor conditions.
  4. The authors seem to repeatedly take liberty in interpreting their sources. For example, the authors look at the settlements of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa in present-day Pakistan. In finding no evidence of kingly burials, the authors assert – based on absence of evidence, not evidence of absence – that these cities were examples of egalitarian urbanism. They do the same with Teotihuacan. One is left with the sense that the authors are either cherry-picking the data or filling in the gaps, both in service of a particular viewpoint.
  5. The implicit goal of the book appears to be a critique of the values of ‘Western’ society and valorisation of ‘indigenous’ societies. While there is merit to each of these goals, the authors’ editorialising often gets in the way of data interpretation. For example, in the conclusion, the authors’ unfavourably compare French torture of criminals to the Wendat torture of enemy combatants. They don’t stop to question whether torture, by its nature, is a bad thing. The authors also seem to both orientalise indigenous societies and imbue them with the author’s own values, assuming that they are not materialistic and paragons of freedom. This critique assumes that these societies (a) differ fundamentally in character from Western societies; and (b) share the authors’ politics. This is of course entirely possible, but – with a lack of written records – involves a large amount of speculation.

Notwithstanding the above critiques, this book is very much worth reading. It chronicles the achievements of societies which have been tragically lost to history. It also opens our eyes to the possibilities of human organisation and helps readers question the world around them. For those not well-versed on the latest archaeological discoveries, the book provides a great overview of some of important recent findings. Finally, The Dawn of Everything allows us to stop and question flaws in our current society, including our lack of imagination and the persistence of in inequality. Anyone wanting to expand his or her horizons would be well advised to pick up a copy.


Yangon in a Time Capsule

Myanmar is a country of contradictions. The country once drove on the left, only to abruptly switch to the right under its military junta, even as right-hand drive vehicles continued to predominate. Once Southeast Asia’s most isolated country, Myanmar quickly emerged as a regional ‘it’ destination. More depressingly, Aung San Suu Kyi, once a symbol of hope and peace, has fallen into disrepute upon being seen as complicit in sectarian violence which has resulted in up to 1 million Rohingya Muslims fleeing the country.

I recently visited the country for the second time, with my only previous visit coming in 2012. With a few notable exceptions, I hardly recognized the city.  Yangon has ostensibly changed little since 2012. The dilapidated colonial buildings, longjis, and thanaka-painted cheeks all remain. remain. Other phenomena, however, such as telephone ladies, black market money changers, and rickety public transit vans are long gone. Despite the recent opprobrium being heaped on Myanmar by the Western world, its other-worldly nature is now largely a thing of the past.

I witnessed this upon boarding the circular train. Yangon Central Station, rebuilt in Burmese-style in 1954, had clearly seen its better days, as had the trains themselves,  old Japanese hand-me-downs with the doors removed. Tickets were dirt cheap and vendors and riders from all walks of life made for a colorful ride. However, about half of the circular train’s riders were foreign tourists, many no-so-subtly snapping photos of locals with their DSLRs. Perhaps because of poverty, Myanmar has clearly held allure to foreign visitors. Perhaps it was sense that, like the telephone ladies, much of Yangon’s current life could soon be gone.


There are clean signs of optimism. KFCs, up-scale shopping malls, and a Shangri-La Hotel now dominate the downtown. Yangon is now filled with tourists, and not just the intrepid backpacker variety I encountered on my first trip in 2012. Mobile phones, practically non-existent in Myanmar in 2012, are now ubiquitous, as are advertisements for mobile brands such as OPPO and Vivo. We caught a glimpse of the fruits of development when wandering through a rather basic shopping mall, the type catering to Myanmar’s still-nascent middle class.

One thing that has been a Yangon constant is the Shwedagon Pagoda. Originally build in 1372, the golden spire stands a full 105 meters (344 ft) and still dominates Yangon’s skyline. The impressive compound continues to attract ogling tourists and devout locals alike. We visited around sunset on our first day and Yangon. Despite the main stupa being under repair, Shwedagon did not disappoint. Its staff graciously allowed us to stow our shoes near the entrance as we made our rounds. We took in the scenes as day turned to night and basked in the meditative serenity.

Another highlight of the trip was visiting the Myanmar National Museum. Having visited a dozen national museums, I was not quite sure what to expect. The museums of  some countries, such as China and Vietnam, bombard you with very specific national narratives. Others, such as Cambodia’s, merely collect artifacts and let you attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Myanmar takes a different approach, offering five floors, each covering a specific aspects of the country’s history and culture. The written script royal implements, paleontology, jewelry, and clothing were all covered thoroughly, offering a comprehensive, yet rather apolitical, look at the country. One could come away impressed with Myanmar’s long-running civilization, regardless of the country’s current political economy.

One item I was unable to check off the list was a visit to the U Thant House. U Thant, who served as United Nations Secretary General from 1961-1971, lived in the house during the 1950’s and it now serves as a museum to the diplomat’s achievements, including helping to diffuse the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. On the day we visited, a large security presence surrounded the premises. Apparently, the museum was closed for a private party with visiting dignitaries. After trying in vain to communicate with the rifle-wielding security guards, we opted to head to the waterfront of the mighty Irrawaddy.

We arrived just before sunset, rush hour for the longboats ferrying passengers across the river. We watched the sun set across the river as fluttered overhead and passengers crammed onto water taxis. As a large tanker lumbered up the river, longboats adjusted course, moving swiftly yet circuitously to the other bank. We inquired about taking the trip ourselves, only to be sternly rebuffed. No foreigners allowed. No one wants to bear the liability if something goes wrong.

Instead, we decided to wander along the harbor-front. After being barked at by stray dogs and almost joining a pickup soccer game, we wanted toward the famed Strand Hotel. Outside, we came across a great flea market, featuring all types of old electronics, glasses, pens, dishes and memorabilia of various vintages. We didn’t buy anything, but were impressed to see that, perhaps outside of necessity, Yangon’s denizens had taken a keen interest in preserving whatever physical items they had come to possess.

Prices in Myanmar are still quite low by regional standards. The circular railroad ticket was a mere 100 kyat (below 7 US cents). A three-course meal for two with drinks at an up-scale downtown restaurant set us back a mere 24,028.96 Kyat (~US $16). With the influx in tourists, however, opportunism abounds. We found this out first hand when trying to buy a river ferry ticket. Crossing the river for locals is a mere 100 Kyat (under 7 US cents), virtually the same price I paid to cross in 2012. Now, however, foreigners must pay a full 2,000 Kyat ($1.32), still quite cheap, but 20 times the price locals pay.


Objecting in principle to tourist gouging, we conceded that we were best off wandering back into the city centre. We passed China Town, then in full swing for the pre-Chinese New Year celebrations. The same dilapidated colonial-era buildings were largely all still present downtown, as were the numbered streets along the grid. We caught a Grab taxi to a more expat-heavy part of the city, before eventually conceding that our time had run out and taking another Grab to the airport.

Overall, the brief trip to Yangon was well worth the time and money. We were able to catch a glimpse of a country in transition, seeing many things which will undoubtedly be gone in the years to come. Although many rightly have qualms about supporting Myanmar’s current government, the interaction with locals, many engaged in the informal economy, just escaping poverty and interacting with the outside world for the first time, surely does more good than harm.



A Worthwhile Weekend in Bangkok

Bangkok is a city with something for everyone. Whatever your interest(s) – culture, art, religion, gastronomy, massage, shopping, all-night partying – the city undoubtedly has something to pull you in. I have been fortunate to visit Thailand’s capital and largest city five times. Each time, my to-do list quickly runs up against the laws of physics, as there is only so much which can be compressed into a narrow timeframe. This constraint is exacerbated by the city’s severe traffic jams.


My most recent trip was no exception. Xiangyun and I found a perfectly-timed 11 PM Friday night flight, which arrived at Don Mueang Airport around 1 AM local time. Unfortunately, thousands of other travelers had the same idea, resulting in a long wait for Xiangyun in the visa line. Walking in the wee hours from the airport to our guesthouse was surprisingly serene, with the night sky guiding us for the short ten-minute walk. We arrived at around 3 AM and quickly crashed, only to awake a few hours later to the crow of roosters.

When we did finally get up, we wandered over the nearby morning market. The market featured a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as both dried and fresh fish, prepared breakfast items, and clothing. Although we were impressed, we didn’t buy anything, settling instead for some fruit at our guesthouse (likely purchased from the market). Wanting a more substantive meal, we wandered a bit and sat down at a small, nearby restaurant. Xiangyun pointed at the meal on a fellow restaurant patron’s table and, through part-English/part-sign language, we ordered up what turned out to be quite an impressive meal,, which we payed for with our entire bag of Thai Baht coins (total cost: 109฿, roughly US$3.50).


After collecting our things and braving ASEAN-weekend Bangkok traffic, we eventually made our way to a ‘cat-fe’. According to BBC, the world’s first cat café opened in Taipei, Taiwan in 1998, and many more quickly popped up in Japan. The ‘cat-fé’ concept has continued to spread, particularly around Asia, although not without controversy. The cafés do celebrate our feline friends, but often at the expense of their peace and quiet. Cat-fé cats can often appear to be commercial props, with a paparazzi of visitors photographing them throughout the day. Many cafés, including the one we visited, have note, providing their feline residents with quiet space away from patrons.


Due in part to its gnarly traffic, Bangkok offers an array of ways to get around. Tuk-tuks, motorbikes, taxis, Grab, buses, BRT light rail, and subways are only a few of the ways to get around. Unless you can afford a helicopter, the most efficient way to travel is generally via water. We discovered this when trying to visit the famed Airplane Graveyard. After afternoon tea that went too long, we surveyed our options for getting to there before closing time. Buses and light rail had us arriving after closing. Taxis were unpredictable in ASEAN traffic. Canal-going ‘water buses’, however, hit the spot.


We quickly hustled our way down to the canal in the muggy tropical heat, taking the stairs down the flyover bridge to awaiting the await the ferry. After about 45 minutes of the crowded ferry meandering through the sewage canal, passing mosques, temples and schools along the way, we arrived Wot Sriboonreung, a grand canal-front monastery. We wandered through the Wot’s grounds and eventually made our way to the other side, where the Airplane Graveyard rather unceremoniously stands. After negotiating a discount on the entrance fee with the lady tending the premises, we made our way inside.


The graveyard compound features pieces of three separate jetliner fuselages, with the planes’ wings and tails casually strewn about. Graffiti covers much of the planes’ liveries, with the interiors largely hollowed out. There appeared no method to the madness; one can climb on the planes at will and mentally try putting the airplane puzzle pieces back together. The provenance of the planes is subject to some debate, making for any eery experience, particularly upon climbing inside. As daylight turned to dusk, we were largely left alone to explore the planes, with only resident family’s dog and chickens accompanying us.


After climbing to the 747’s upper deck and taking plenty of photos, we thanked the family and wandered back to central Bangkok, thankfully via light rail. We stumbled upon a night market with excellent pad thai and iced Chang beer, a great way to cool down in the sweltering Bangkok heat. After our open-air meal, we were ready to crash, but the motorcades for heads of state leaving the ASEAN summit on Wireless Road impeded our forward progress. Along with any other pedestrians, we watched the procession of vehicles motor into the empty streets, with Thai military personnel standing guard.


The next morning, we made our way to the Mo Chit New Van Terminal, where we quickly nabbed tickets to Ayutthaya for 70฿ (~US $2.25) a piece. After an hour of silence in the van, we made it to Ayutthaya, Thailand’s ancient capital. Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, as it is formally known, was founded in 1351 by King Ramathibodi I as the second Siamese capital. Although later destroyed by the Burmese Army in the late 18th Century, many of the old’s city’s sites have been preserved; the Ayutthaya Historical Park is now recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


Ayutthaya is now a sleepy city on just under 60,000. Surprisingly, most tourists appear to be domestic, perhaps due to a lack of international tourist infrastructure. Nonetheless, Siam’s old capital does not disappoint. The Historical Park consists of no fewer than twelve different temple compounds, including the famed Temple of the Reclining Buddha (Wat Lokayasutharam) pictured above. While Ayutthaya is deceptively close Bangkok, its numerous scattered sites mean one can only take in so much on a single day trip.

With that in mind, we settled on visiting a mere four temples and asked our tuk-tuk driver to drop us by the van stop. A 45-minute ride later and we were standing in front of Don Mueang Airport. With a bit of time to kill, we wandering around the nearby neighborhood and grab street food and Thai massages, both excellent values for the money. Before we knew it, our trip was over and we were pushing our way through immigration and security to board the flight back. A worthwhile weekend indeed.

From Heisei to Reiwa: A Short Visit to Hiroshima and Surrounding Areas

Travel. What is it all about? Is it about subjective experience, a departure from the sturm und drang of our ordinary existences, or something more interactive? What is it that lingers with us long after our trips? Is it the images and sensory details, the relationships, or the feelings that we carry with us when we travel from place to place. For whatever reason it is that we travel (or combination of reasons), it is something inherently intriguing, something that inspires us to get uncomfortable, to part with our hard-earned cash, and to set out for circumstances unknown.img_5362

I, for one, have been willing to make this tradeoff many a time. Xiangyun and I have been places together. This year thus far, we have been in Taiwan, Myanmar, Philippines, Malaysia, Shanghai, and now Hiroshima. Our travels have never been perfectly smooth sailing. We often debate where to go, when to leave, and what is – and is not – reasonable. These conflicts, however, are always fleeting. Soon after each trip, we are searching for booking flights for the next. Left only are memories of bunny rabbits and sunsets, along with a greater appreciation for the place we have visited.


This past trip was no exception. Hiroshima certainly tore at my heartstrings in a way that few other locations have. Seeing the Atomic Dome and Peace Memorial will make anyone tear up, especially a sensitive guy like me. The steady bombardment of imagery of lives destroyed is overwhelming. One is taken on a tour-de-force of burnt children’s school uniforms, discarded mementos, and even concrete etched with a human shadow, along with images of victims of all ages, including those who were lost, those with physical deformities, and those with mental disabilities. One can’t help but leaving the place in tears, wondering how one of the greatest crimes against humanity of the 20th century is not subject to greater scrutiny.


Walking outside in the Peace Park, it is easy to lose sight of the destruction wrought on the city. Hiroshima, like any other Japanese city, is tidy, modern, and spotlessly clean. The area around the Peace Park is no exception. The tree-lined park is well-manicured and filled with monuments, including the eternal flame, an artificial lake, a monument to children, and a monument to youth volunteers. There are also paper cranes both large and small, along with drawings by children and paper cups carefully arranged for display along the lawn. On the day we visited, the skies were bright and clear; thousands of people young and old were making the most of the public space for their holiday.


The beautiful park and festive atmosphere could easily lead one to believe that things turned out alright in spite of the bombing. After all, Hiroshima clearly seems like a nice, modern city. People are assiduously polite as they go about their daily lives in Japan’s 9th largest city. But such a smooth surface belies a deeper reality. Some 200,000 innocent lives were lost in the bombing. Many more were forever altered, through injury (including radiation exposure), loss of loved ones, and destruction of the city they had called home. For those who must live on in the shadows of such tragedy, there is surely some degree of resentment toward the Americans, even if they are too polite to express it. For the bombing of Hiroshima was more than an act of war: it was a failure to acknowledge the basic human dignity of a people, a failure which continues in the absence of any formal apology.


A quick tour of the area around Hiroshima, however, allows one to see a flourishing of human decency. Miyajima (宮島) Island, home to temples and a large population of deer, is a world heritage site, and for very good reason. Okunoshima is a special place, and not just for the cute bunny rabbits. The great Hiroshima Art Museum features some excellent paintings, including Rembrandts, Picassos, and Monets. There are many other attractions in Hiroshima which could be considered special, including the beloved local Hiroshima Carp, with a cute Cincinatti Reds’ “C” inspired logo and cute mascot, a reconstructed Hiroshima castle, and Mazda Museum.


For all of its happy modernity, the war experience still looms large for Hiroshima, and perhaps for Japan more broadly. Visitors, both domestic and foreign, do flock to pay their respects at the Peace Park. However, aside from the Atomic Dome and a few recreations such as the Hiroshima Castle, there is almost no evidence of the old city: people very consciously want to move on. In true post-War Japanese fashion, greatness is to be achieved in the perfection of crafts, a tendency reinforced by structural factors such as low migration and a stagnant labour market. 

Perfection in Hiroshima can be found in any number of domains. Taxi drivers have the navigation and customer service down to a science. Local bakeries will put any French pâtisserie to shame. Local restaurants generally focus on a single item and do it extremely well, something we discovered when okonomiyaki joint on our last night in Hiroshima. The locals were extremely welcoming and displayed not the slightly bit ill will when I told them I was an American.

While silent resentment may linger silently in the background, one can hardly see it in interacting with locals. Our most gracious AirBNB host, Yoshihiro-san, welcomed us into his home and made us feel as if we were family members. As we had arrived in Japan on April 30th, the last day of the Heisei reign, we watched the festivities on television with Yoshihiro, his wife, and two daughters. We then proceeded with the family in their Toyota minivan to the grocery store, where we bought the ingredients to make homemade onomiyaki, a savory noodle and cabbage-stuffed pancake. We cooked together and had an extremely filling meal, which involved a fair amount of sign language and assiduous efforts on both our parts to avoid being impolite. Yoshihiro and his family continued to offer us more food and drink; we continued to try demonstrating that the food was both excellent and entirely filling, a balance we struggled to achieve.


After spending the evening at Yoshihiro and his family’s immaculately-maintained house, we went out for an excellent meal of ramen, sitting on the floor and seasoning our ramen it’s generous helpings of spring onions. We tried out out elementary Japanese, resorting mainly to repeats of the word “oishi-desu” (it is tasty) and “arigato gozaimasu” (thank you). From our brunch, which Yoshihiro’s wife quite accurately described as ‘Japanese soul food’, we made our way to the train station, Yoshihiro and his family most graciously saw us off, the full family politely standing still and waiving until we were out of sight. They left us feeling at home in what would otherwise be a strange land, sad to see that the world was once (and could once again be) so tragically divided.

With this food for thought, which was reinforced by many more excellent experiences during our short time in Japan, Xiangyun and I made our way to the airport. Although we didn’t get as much shopping as Xiangyun would have liked to (much to my relief), we did learn quite a bit about a fascinating country, including the devastating effects of war and nuclear weapons, the more prosaic effects of recent economic stagnation, and the decency and politeness of the Japanese people.


Notes from Surigao Island

I am currently sitting up in be waiting to go to sleep. It be been the better part of three days in various forms of Philippine transit and my lower back is aching. The provenance of the pain is unknown, but is giving me a bit of mental paralysis, yet has thankfully not impeded forward progress. From tricycle cabs to buses to buses to multi-cabs to more buses and boats, we have now arrived at the dry scenic Siargao Island.

Siargao is a 169 mi² island located northeast of Surigao, which is at the northeastern tip of Mindanao. With a population of 90,000 and coverage of occur trees, it is just exotic enough to be interesting, but doesn’t quite qualify as being remote. This is especially true now that it has be christened as the surfing capital of the Philippines and attracted tattooed surfer dudes and gals from around the globe. If you come with the right attitude, however, it has everything to make for a nice, authentic getaway.


This makes for a nice bookend to three days of intense road warrioring. We belatedly flew from Manila to Butuan (after trying to save a kitten and taking a trip to the human emergency room, another interesting story). From Butuan, we took a four hour bus to Butuan where we were rather out of place as the only foreign visitors (we think) in town. After making an impressive dinner in from t of our hosts (no pressure!), we were off to Hinatuan Enchanted River.


Hinatuan Enchanted River. The name and imagery rightly stir your soul. Named Rio Encantado by Modesto Farolan, it has not previously attracted any major international tourist following. This is evidenced by the lack of touristy infrastructure and the 40 peso ($0.80) entrance fee. It is visually stunning nonetheless. The crystal clear, unadulterated water, visible depth, and geology give the pool a bright blue, crystalline sheen unknown elsewhere in the world. Fish of various breeds are easily visible below the surface and are fed daily at noon, quite a stunning scene. Thankfully, since 2017, visitors are no longer allowed to swim in the main pool, minimizing pollution and cordoned off the pool for research. Nonetheless, from the roped-off observatory deck, one can clearly observe the river’s glow. When the sombrero-wearing rangers paddle out on bamboo rafts for the noon feeding, various breeds of fish follow closely, swarming to the food and later emitting waste from the food just consumed.

Although tempted to hang around and bask in the river’s glow, we quickly made our way back to the small, but charming Hinatuan Town, which appeared orderly and well-managed. Smoking was banned in public places and litter appeared to be minimal, We had a quick lunch in the main market, sitting on simple wooden benches under a tarpaulin covering, and selecting a few dishes from crock pots which were connected to extension chords dangling along the tent’s walls. Our meal was unfortunately cut short, as the bus to San Francisco arrived.


The next eight hours revolved around buses, either taking them or waiting around for them. First we went to San Francisco, then to Butuan, and wandered around Butuan trying to find the right bus to Surigao. We first got dropped off at a busy intersection on the side of a highway. After having a quick meal of Chinese-Filipino food and deflecting pitches for unofficial minibuses to Surigao from sketchy-looking young men, we hopped in a multi-cab to the bus station near Robinson mall. Xiangyun and I argued about whether this was the right place and both became irritable upon discovering that it was in fact not. We finally took a bus to the main station, luckily finding the “right” bus and we were Surigao-bound. The trip was bumpy and we saw nothing but pitch-black, but we made it and arrived in the dead of night, our breaths visible in the cool and humid coastal air. As the multi-cabs were out of service, we took a sidecar taxi to our hotel and called it a night.

After almost ten hours on buses, our backs were shot. As such, we were slow to get moving the next morning. Surigao was hot, humid, and abuzz with the sound of motorbikes. We finally made it out the door for the 11 AM ferry (the only morning ferry) around 10:40, rushing to get to the terminal in sufficient time. We bought an air-sealed bag of pineapple from a patient street vendor across the street from the terminal, only to watch our pineapple burst on the ground as Xiangyun fumbled for her ID to show the ticket-taker. Although frustrated, we tried to take it all in stride. After all, we were off on holiday to the Philippines’ palm-covered surfing capital.

Siargao provided a good look at the Philippines’ current state of development. The island had much to offer to tourists: relaxing beaches, high levels of English fluency, and top-notch surfing waves. Infrastructure, however, was still not fully built-up. Cell phone service was non-existent; most hotels on the island lacked tourist luxuries such as hot water and WiFi. Although remoteness and lack of population (total: ~100,000) had may be contributing factors, it may be evident of the country’s overall infrastructure shortcomings. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Siargao Island provided an excellent escape from the sturm und drang of corporate life. We buzzed around the island on motorbikes, having excellent meals, watching the waves, and putting our toes in the water.

People were remarkably friendly, smiling frequently and conveying satisfaction with life. Children played outdoors, often singing 1980’s power ballads and waiving at foreign passers-by. Housing often consisted of wooden huts with thatched roofs, with chickens, dogs, and cats wandering around outside. Relative wealth could be measured by the number of motorbikes present or size of the local chapel. While it would be presumptuous to say that these people were content with their lives and wouldn’t want something more materially, they seemed to at least know what matters: meaningful human relationships, a focus on spiritual well-being, and a sense of meaning. We saw this over and over during our two days buzzing around Siargao on motorbike: each small village seemed happy, despite being materially poor and vulnerable to natural disaster.


We saw this again at our next stop, the island of Olongo off the coast of Cebu. Unlike Siargao, Olongo is not a Mecca for gringo surfers. In fact, we saw only one Western couple and a few Japanese and Korean families at the resort which we stumbled upon through AirBNB. After lounging around the resort and watching the rain come down our first night there, we rented bicycles the next day, both of which had clearly seen their better days. We happened upon many poor areas, stopping occasionally to dip our toes in the water. Locals were exceedingly polite, as one quickly comes to realize in the Philippines. A young man who studied in Cebu allowed us into his house to wait out the rain and use the restroom. Some young boys helped us fix our bikes, refusing our money for the service. Numerous other people gave us directions. We did manage to see a goat giving birth and happen upon a beach party, all before hurrying back to catch our boat and subsequent flight to Manila.


The rest of the trip was rather uneventful. We made our way to the ferry terminal, then took a packed multi-cab to Cebu airport, and then waited around for our delayed flight to Manila, followed by the Resort World Bus to our apartment. We arrived in Manila after midnight and had to catch a 6 AM flight, leaving us mentally and physically exhausted. It put a taint on the end of a great trip, but in no way took away from a very special experience. The Philippines is a fascinating country and, despite the lack of material abundance, always manages to give a visitor far more than it takes. The people are generous in spirit, perhaps far more than is deserving for many a visitor.

Remembering Anthony Bourdain


It is hard to remember exactly when and I was when Anthony Bourdain first came to my consciousness. Perhaps it was coming across “Kitchen Confidential” on Amazon’s “50 Books to Read in a Lifetime” list, or coming across a clip from one of his shows in some far-flung hotel room. After delving into his work, however, I was thoroughly absorbed. Few people – if any – have articulated the appeal of food, the desire to explore, or the need for candour quite like him.

Anthony has changed so much for me. I will never walk into a restaurant again without pondering the crazy – and very real – lives of the people preparing my food behind the kitchen doors (or, for that matter,  the dubious freshness of the produce). Every time I get to that proverbial fork in the road, asking myself, ‘Should I try this food? Should I go on this adventure?’, I call to mind the scene from ‘Kitchen Confidential’ where a young Anthony Bourdain summering in France has a revelation on a fishing boat and swallows a slimy oyster. Although I am a vegetarian, the metaphor has stuck with me.

This Anthony Bourdain-inspired openness to experience has taken me far afield. I’ve visited Bun Cha Huong Lien. I booked tickets to Amritsar after seeing a clip of Bourdain discussing Punjabi cuisine with Anderson Cooper. More importantly than any single experience, however, is the way that he changed my worldview. I have come to further appreciate that everyone has a story and each person’s story is worth being told. I have come to appreciate that food is a medium through which we can become intimate with all types of people, many of whom with which we ostensibly share little in common.

I am naturally hesitant to add to the litany of platitudes being offered about what a true loss this is. As Anderson Cooper rightly pointed out, this is the last thing Anthony Bourdain – a true rebel averse to flowery drivel – would have wanted. Nonetheless, this world has lost one of its great storytellers. We will all need to do our part to fill the void. There are many places left to explore, many good foods to try, and many more stories needing to be told. Life is far too short, and the serious mental health crisis we are facing is making it all the more precarious. If Anthony Bourdain has taught me one thing, it is to make our finite time on this planet count.


I don’t remember you by your quotes. I remember you by your character. You were never afraid to make the first step on a thousand-mile journey. You went to places both known and unknown yet you always managed to present them in a completely different and new light. You made quaint places look adventurous, and dangerous places look approachable.

There was something about the way you told the story of people in each of the places you visited that stuck with me. You never judged, and yet, you never were just an observer either. In the places you went, people accepted you as one of their own, or was that part of, as you would say, being a “good guest?” Either way, for a brief part, you made all of us jealous for seamlessly integrating into different cultures and picking up their nuances.

It is interesting, wouldn’t you agree, that we have advanced so much, we have all this technology at our fingertips that enables us to read about all the places on this planet, yet, what drew us to you, could not be delivered by any technology. It was connection with local people and cultures, being immersed, albeit just for a week at a time. Through local food and inquisitiveness, you have taught me important travel and life principles: how to bond and become part of the culture. You taught me people have stories and they yearn for their stories to be heard. They want to share their culture with you. More importantly, you taught me that experience of travel is making you a better person.

So, Anthony. Tony. This article is not to tell you how great you were. I don’t think you would want that either way. It is to tell you, you made influence on my life and you changed the way I perceive travel. Because of you, I do one thing in each of the travels that scares me. Because of you, my friend Tom and I have a thing where we go for breakfasts in other countries just for the sake of it. Because of you, I book flights on a whim because staying in one place for too long makes me anxious. But there is still one thing missing from my travels, and that is to help people who need help. I remember your No Reservation Liberia episode when you helped son who was living in Liberia, bring bottle with encased photo of his parents, to his parents in US. You may be called “bad boy” but you always saw good in people and you always offered a helping hand.

I don’t remember you by your quotes, but there is one quote of yours that stuck with me: “As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life – and travel – leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks – on your body, or on your heart – are beautiful.” I guess the purpose of life and travel is just that, Tony. To leave marks on someone’s life and to get marks in return.

Safe travels, Tony.