Monday, August 11, 2008

Soujourn in Northern Thailand

In my recollection, there had been only one time in my life that I took a vacation by myself, a "sojourn" as it were. On that occasion I was the ex director of marketing for a company that failed. I had a last meeting with the primary investor who quietly told me he was "pulling the plug". As quietly and sensitively as he delivered the news it still took the wind out of me. There must have been a large sucking sound in that office, as if someone had been gut punched. He asked me to oversee the take down and then move on to another technology company he had staked. It was a major let down for me. We had done, with all humility, a good job of positioning our product and had demonstrated some capability at making it to our customers. We had put hard orders into backlog that far exceeded our plan, and had executed a steep ramp into volumes. The earliest indications were solid, and we had embarked on a new product line. It was a highly technical precision technology product aimed at volume "OEM" users, who would integrate our product into their products aimed at the fast expanding PC industry. Forecasts were up and too the right. In the midst of all this F.L.B.A. (FLuBbA = Future Looks Bright Ahead) we were overcome by a growing horror that our product had a fatal flaw, one that only showed up after extensive use or, occasionally, in an unperfected test designed to emulate long term use. We were shipping to 100% of the OEM companies that used a product like ours, and slowly, one by one, we began to be disqualified as a vendor. A flurry of lab work, testing, searches for new materials, consultants crawling all over the place, an increased cash burn and a rapidly depleting free cash flow, was puncuated by the almost daily angst-driven phone calls and visits with impatient customers,. Six months later we determined that only a major overhaul of our process, which would require another major tranch of financing, would save us (or so we thought). We laid it all out, as candidly and as objectively as we could. Our owner listened carefully, asked questions, and then took a pass. By that time we had burned several million dollars over the original business plan, and he had lost confidence. Another two months of frantically looking for a buyer, and we reached the end of the line. With a bank account depleted and my peers already bailing out for other jobs, I flew to San Francisco to receive my last set of orders from the investor (by this time our CEO had left and I was the highest ranking employee left - the thought of which gave me utter terrors - but I couldn't let go). I flew back with a directive, and just enough money, to take it all down, piece by piece, with another job offer at another tech startup under the investor's wings, held out as an incentive. Those two or three months were hell for me. Instead of promoting my company's products, creating sparky overhead slides, negotiating prices, watching the competition, I was performing a caretaker's job. I laid off remaining employees, something I had never done on that scale before. I retained a handful of former maintenance and ops guys to decommision large process systems and prepare them for shipping. I arranged for an auctioneer to sell that equipment, and focused on an inventory catalogue. I refereed the occasional fight that broke out between the remaining crew, who like me were bummed out and stressed. In the end, a beer and pizza party was all we could muster to mark the end of an effort that had endured a three year run of demanding days strung together in a blur. It was a muted party.
After literally locking up the facility and sending the keys to the landlord I decided I needed a getaway. A quick call to the management of my next employer to arrange a new report date and I was free to do what I wanted for a week. My family was supportive, and off I went to Loreto, Mexico to spend a few days on the Sea of Cortez, hunting dolphin fish with light tackle. I was right. Those few days alone, with the surrounding beauty and tranquility of the rugged landscape was all I needed to reseat my head in it's proper fitting. I went home with a small cooler of fish filets and a whole new attitude.
Early in July this year, I could feel the need rising in me again, some twenty years later.
That earlier experience taught me that there is such a thing as lonliness and being alone and that they are different. I travel a lot so I have felt lonliness, content to endure it because I always knew it was short term and that I had someplace to go to. More importantly, someone to go to. But being alone offers incredible opportunities for reassessment, and recharging. Without any interference for your attention, you can focus on something you are interested in, examine new ways to view things that bother you, or indulge yourself in your favorite music or food without concern. A sojourn is a very selfish thing.
In early July I felt similar urgings. For me, the first half of this year was all about about responding to outside (and often unwanted)forces. All I could do was try to keep my head above water it seemed. I had been burning long hours. A worrisome health setback with the person I love most in this world had added an element of worry that weighed heavily on me. I ate irregularly. I slept less than I usually do. I fell into all the traps one is supposed to avoid when wrestling with a sudden proliferation of challenges. As these forces began to ease up, I began to experience an increasing number of the deep and utterly painful cluster headaches I've been frquently cursed with since my late twenties. It was time for a break. My first thoughts imagined a getaway with Veronica. However, she was wary of travel and didn't really want to go anywhere. Her escapade with a brain hemorrhage in January had been a source of concern for all of us. However, her prognosis was deep into very favorable territory and she had little in the way of side affects. Still, she is never one who thinks of travel as a pastime, and she was more wary then usual with the hospitalization and all the testing and worry still fresh in her mind. With her loving and reassurance that I should go, I decided to fly from Bangkok to Chiang Rai for five days over the 4th of July holiday. I had an incredible time. I roamed all around, by boat, by car, and by foot, in one of the most beautiful mountainous regions in the world, with a history that is still evident for even the most casual observer. I felt the tinge of excitement of being in the Golden Triangle, made famous by nefarious opium and heroin warlords, who themselves were stragglers of various people who had wandered into the region from hundreds of years of conflict in China, Tibet, and other troubled regions. It is a diaspora of legendary stories and incredible hardships. Further, it all fueled my imagination from my devoted reading in my younger years of Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Melville, and Conrad. I visited villages of people who were third generation Kuomintang, who didn't go to Taiwan, but instead took what is arguably a rougher avenue of escape into Burmese jungles to avoid the growing hordes of Mao's vengeful army. I met and spoke with Karen people, of Tibetan origins, whose villages dot the mountainous region and who, in Burma (Myanmar), are still engaged in a revolutionary war that is almost as old as I am. I took a long boat down and up the river Kok which bissects Chiang Rai and is a major tributary to the infamous Meh Kong (Mekong) River. I made my way by car to the Mekong itself, and saw ancient temples next to new river ports bustling with commerce. And each day, weary from the heat of the season and exerting my bulk in ways not practiced in a long time, I would return to my boutique hotel and spa where practiced hands rubbed exotic oils into tired old muscles, imparting a new vitality to expend the next day. I sat outside in a tropical garden as lovely as you could imagine, and drank rum, while making notes on the day's events and reviewing the digital photos I inexpertly caught on my small tourist camera. A few yards away was the table I normally sat at each night to dine on fresh seasonal Thai food, expertly prepared, while watching the cafe' latte colored river moving in lazy meter nearby, masking its underlying power. As I packed to return to Bangkok and the duties of work, I had that moment of regret to be leaving such a wonderful experience. But I was also eager to get back, and more eager to get back to Kuala Lumpur and my family. I was anxious to share what I saw and had felt on this unusual sojourn of mine. I was even more anxious to fall into that cushion-like surrounding we call our homes and our family. There is no sweeter succor then that, and a sojourn, regardless of how wonderful it lingers in the mind, will never blunt the sweetness of coming home. In the end, that is the greatest prize of all.

I've posted several photos from my sojourn at the left. I've used lengthy subtitles to provide a narrative of sorts.

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