Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Day That Changed My Police Presentations

Six years ago I did a police ride along. The post below was my story of that day and before that ride along I had no idea what an officer deals with and after that experience I was much better at relating my information so law enforcement understands it because I understand what they may experience. Of everything I've done on the job the day's account within this post, originally ran April 1, 2010, was and is the most important event in shaping how I deliver my information...

A Tale of the Force
April 1, 2010

My life took an odd turn this year when I began to do an hour block at the police academy for the P.O.S.T. in-service training. Why was this odd? To be 100% truthfully honest I must say I was scared of police officers. The fear was an unknown fear much like a phobia of something that isn't rational. I've never had anything personally happen, but maybe it was due to the fact that may dad liked to drive fast on the interstate and seeing a police officer was always a stressful experience. Whatever the case I started doing these presentations in January and am currently halfway through as there are a total of 35 sessions between then and May 4th.

From those presentations I also give a presentation to officers in CIT (Crisis Intervention Team) training. While I may know much more than others on autism, I didn't have any idea what it is, exactly, that officers do. My only experience has been the "uh oh" my dad would exclaim when he saw an officer shooting radar his way. The solution to this was to do a police ride along and yesterday I experienced a day with the police force.

My morning started early and if you saw the time on yesterday's post I got that up nice and really early (4:55AM I believe). I got to the police office at 6 and walked in having no idea what to expect. The officer behind the counter was a bit confused and asked if I had my paperwork filled out. Paperwork? I simply got an e-mail that said be there on this day and at that time. I was lost as to what to do so I wondered back to the bench with absolutely no idea what to do. I was indeed lost, but just as I was in the pinnacle of my panic the officer I would be riding along with walked in.

The paperwork was filled out in a matter of seconds and it was simply the same type of form I sign at the racetrack informing me the potential risks that could happen. Just as I do at the track I signed the papers without really thinking about the risks. What could possibly happen?

I wanted to see what the roll call was like and made sure I was there early. The officers in this district all assembled upstairs and the officer (I don 't know what rank he was, he was higher but how high I am unsure) went over what calls the midnight shift had. Traffic had been bad over the weekend and then the somber news that the officer that was killed, David Haynes, on the 24th would have his funeral and burial that day and the procession would be coming through on Interstate 55.

The only thing I've seen about cops have been on television shows. I don't know how serious they are, how nice they are, or if they have a sense of humor. I do know they care about what they do and each other because the officer that was leading the roll call meeting ended with, "Take care of the people out they, but also take care of yourself today. Be careful out there" Chilling.

We left the station and went driving around. I started out rather quiet, but quickly started to ask questions. He made his way through some areas that sometimes have car break ins throughout the night, but none were found on this morning.

With the sun in view over the horizon we returned to the station and the officer went inside to get what every motorist fears (cue creepy music), a radar gun! We went to his favorite place to catch unsuspecting speeders and we sat. We sat, and we sat, and we sat. This morning the drivers were behaving themselves and I theorized that people are in no hurry to get to work when the weather was so nice. Just as I finished that a car was going plenty over the speed limit, up a hill, so the officer started his way to catch up.

Much like a vulture that swoops down to catch its prey, we essentially showed up out of nowhere and was on this driver's bumper. The plates were ran before the stop and they were clean so the stop was made. The officer sat for a moment and then got out. As he proceeded past the trunk the officer reached with his entire hand and touched the trunk. I thought nothing of this and watched as the driver waived his hands about in obvious disgust that he was stopped. The officer came back, wrote the ticket, and returned to the irate driver. Again, before the ticket was handed, the officer reached for the trunk.

I was going to ask the officer why he did this, but forgot as he mentioned just how angry the driver was. We turned around and went back to the trap to catch another driver.

It didn't take long as this van was going WAY over the limit. Since the driver was going fast that meant we had to go faster. I drive down this road all the time and didn't realize how slow the limit is as we flew down the hill to catch up. I instantly wanted to take the squad car out on a race track!

The officer got out and again touched the vehicle's rear with the utmost care. Much like a person pets a small pet with care, the officer gently touches the vehicle.

This driver was an older person late to teach kindergarten. The officer came back and began the routine of checking license, plates, and ownership. Just as the officer was finished the van pulled away and did a 180 and was facing us. The officer went from a calm conversational mood to ready for anything that could happen. The tension was obvious and I began to realize just how dangerous of a job an officer has. He had no idea what the intentions of this driver were. Would they plow into us? Were they armed? I wasn't at the time because I was simply puzzled as to why anyone in their right mind would pull away.

The van lurched towards us and then slowed down and the old lady pulled alongside. He rolled down her window and said, "I'm really late, could you hurry up?" The officer handed the lady her ticket and then informed me if that was anyone but an older lady the end result would not have been pretty. There is nothing worse that pulling away from a stop, let alone asking an officer to "hurry up".

As we pulled away the officer informed me the question I was thinking as he asked, "Do you know why I touch the car?" I stated I had no idea and he said, "For one I am making sure the trunk is closed, but more importantly I am getting my prints on the car so should the driver shoot me as I approach there will be evidence that I was there". The realization hit me then and there that being an officer is dangerous. I knew it was, but never actually thought it through. Every stop, every person met could be the last action they perform. I've raced for years and if I thought it through each time what hitting a wall head on would feel like I don't know if I'd be able to drive. For officers though they know, they prepare, and must be ready each time for anything. Today it was simply an older lady having a lapse of good judgment. But what about next time? Or the time after that?

Blogger's note: I wasn't originally going to put on about the hands to the trunk as I didn't know if it is an inside secret, but after doing a search the info is readily out there so I don't feel as if I am letting a cat out of the bag. Also, because I don't know the protocol, I have intentionally left out where we were or who I was with.

Time went by and over the radio the dispatchers gave updates as to when the funeral procession would be leaving. At this time there was another speeder that needed attention so we caught up to the speeder and while he was running the plates the dispatcher informed him that there was a person with a health issue that needed attention. Lucky for the speeder because we broke off and headed to just one block from where the trap was.

Because this wasn't a violent situation he asked if I wanted to come into the house. I did and what I saw was something I've never witnessed before as this person was coming off of a drug high and was in need of medical attention. I never witnessed what drugs do to a person, but was utterly shocked with what I saw.

For an officer this is probably a common occurrence. I never saw anything like it and thought that stuff of that sort was simply made for television. To witness a person who was unable to know where he was, who he was, or why he felt weird is something that can't be explained in words. I'm good at describing emotions, but this was something else; perhaps it was a realization of what really happens in the world. I don't know how a person could handle events like this daily.

Some more time went by and it was time for the procession to start. We were a good bit aways from the start, but we headed to the vicinity around I-55. We spotted another officer and drove by to talk with him. Even though a very somber moment was about to happen the officers still had a sense of humor. As a police helicopter flew by one of the officers stated that the pilots must be anti-social types because they never pull up next to another officer to talk like they were. The other then stated that, with the rocks and dirt that would be blown around by a helicopter landing, they wouldn't have much of a paint job left on the vehicle.

Interstate 55 was closed in the Southbound direction and I wondered why this was. I thought of a small funeral procession that is commonly seen. Slowly the first set of lights flashing became visible. A small crowd assembled on the overpass in silence as the procession neared. Cars going North pulled over and even though there were people about it was eerily quiet. The lead cars went and then the motorcycle division roared by, but even through the sound of the motors and tires on the road there was silence. This silence was weird to experience, it was very much a mutual understanding of all those around what had happened and what could happen.

We were on the off ramp and as the hearse came into view the two officers stood at attention and saluted. This image will always stay in my mind. The brotherhood between officers is one that may only be rivaled by firefighters. The perfection in their salute as the hearse drove by almost put me in tears. These officers didn't know David Haynes, but yet he was one of them.

The words of, "Be careful out there" rung through my mind as on any day this could be them. The dangers of the road, or by criminal, can be seen or unseen. The tenacity to do their job is something I can't grasp.

Five minutes after the hearse drove by squad car after squad car was still passing us. The procession was as far as we could see, but I had to get back to the station to drive to the academy to give my presentation on autism.

My presentation yesterday may have been the best I've ever given. I now understand the dangers of their job. I think we all do to a degree, but understanding and seeing it first hand are two different things. I gave the presentations my all before, but now I've found a new found vigor because the more information the officers have going into a situation the more they can do. If they don't understand a situation, or the elements in play, the end result could be bad. My hour may just be an hour and just a snippet, a very small snippet, in their overall training, so I have to do anything ad everything to get my message across.

After my presentation I came to the office for a while and was invited to a meeting. I drove to the meeting and afterwards I drove home. As chance would have it I drove by the intersection where Officer Haynes was killed. There was a make shift memorial on the corner and I pulled over and looked at it and soaked the day in.

Haynes was my age and had been on the force for just a year. I'm sure all officers know the risk and I share that element of danger in what they do when I race. The difference is though that racing only serves the purpose of entertaining the one doing it. Police officers put themselves on the line to serve and protect society. I don't know how they do it and don't understand how they cope with the stresses of their job. I have a hard enough time making eye contact, but eye contact won't get me injured.

If you can't tell by the repeated lines of appreciation, I am at a lost for just what they do. As I pulled away from the memorial I understood why that line was said with such a solemn tone, "be careful out there".

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Weekend That Changed it All

In the midst of this thick tempest I've been enduring I almost forgot that I had a blog post I wanted to run on this day. Actually, I've had this day on my mind going all the way back to the changing of the year almost four months ago because this weekend was one of a major milestone as the person I am today and the ability to present began a decade ago this weekend at a small track outside Quincy, Illinois.

2006 wasn't exactly a year where I was flying around doing things. Actually, I hadn't had a job in over three years outside of the 10 local kart events I worked and sure, I was in the midst of writing Finding Kansas but that was just potential energy that would turn into kinetic, but for the most part I was idle. Then, after the race director of the Saint Louis Karting Association stepped down I was put on the ballot to become race director. Sure, I had 11 seasons under my belt as flagging but in terms of making the final calls on anything I had no say and yet here I was, 23 years of age, being thrust into the possibility of that position. Before the election, though, a new regional series was formed and I was asked if I wanted to be the race director and flagman. I said yes having no idea if I had the skill or even the ability to fake being a race director because I'd have to give the driver's meeting and I hadn't spoken in front of a crowd since... since... a 7th grade book report!

It was early on March 25th, 2006, that I drove to the series promoter's house, Greg whom I've written about several times, where he and Gary, to who I dedicated a post to last year when he passed away from cancer, were waiting to make the two hour drive north to the track. Getting to the house I was nervous and unsure of myself because I knew Gary from the track and I knew nothing about Greg. New situations are difficult for me and they're amplified when I'm going to be in charge when I've had no experience in such things. I was fearing the worst the entire drive up and I think Greg and Gary sensed this as they tried to put my qualms at ease.

My tradition at the time was to always have a Red Bull on any day that I was flagging so as we neared Hannibal I came up with a reason why we needed to stop at a gas station. Thankfully, Greg needed gas as the gas light would come on at the same time. The Red Bull may have added fuel to my anxiety by giving me a sugar overload but there was familiarity as for the past five years that drink was only saved for race day and I may now be in charge but nonetheless it was race day.

Trial by fire is an interesting thing to go through and that first day was trying. To begin I had to give the driver's meeting where I had to convey confidence and make in no uncertain terms that I was in charge, I knew what I was doing, and that the driver's best not misbehave on the racetrack. Did I deliver in the delivery? Well, um, to put it simply no no NO! Had I broken out in random song midsentence during this meeting it would've gone better as there were more "uhs" and "ums" then there were words. There's been times in my life I've been nervous but this was something I was just not prepared for. I had rehearsed in my head what I would say, I even made notes, but the delivery was stumbled upon. It was awful but what I had going for me was I was the race director, after all, and no one wants to be on the bad side of the RD so nary a word was spoken and practice began. My confidence was shaken but once practice started I made up for the lack of public speaking skills by showing off my flagging skills.

As lunch approached I had a new problem. I had to announce that there would be a 30 minute lunch break but how would I do this? The track had a microphone and a PA system but I dared not use that as I'd hear the sound of my own voice! This was downright dreadful and there was no way I'd allow everyone to hear my voice. Yes, things certainly do change but on that crisp day just the other side of river from Quincy I was petrified of using such a device to amplify my voice so I always came up with an excuse to have someone else make the announcements.

After lunch it was time to qualify and the trial by fire was about to go to Mach 5. There's been two instances in my life at a track where I have said, "yeah, qualifying" the first time I said practice, "is rather boring and nothing ever happens." If you're a rookie working at a track never utter those words because something will always happen and the two times I've done so it turned into a major incident and on this Saturday as I just finished that a kid kart, which is a kart for the youngest of racers 5-7 using a small 50cc engine, biked over. What I mean by biking over is this; the kart was going around the sweeping infield right hander and it quite literally flipped over all by itself by having the right side tires lift off the ground and the momentum carried it all the way over. The driver stayed within a kart and unlike the karts you may envision at an indoor track or at a mini golf course there are no seat belts or roll cages so flipping over isn't good.

The session was brought to an immediate halt and I made my way to the scene of the track where the crash had happened which was my first time going to a scene. Being the flagman as I had been I never got close to an incident scene, but now I had to assess the situation. We had an EMT that day and the kid was complaining of neck pain so the EMT ordered up a call of 911 and an ambulance fearing severe neck injuries. I'd seen this dozens of times but it just so happened on this day that the county I was in and the ambulance services of Quincy, Illinois weren't playing nice in the sandbox. Typically, Quincy would respond to the kart track in Missouri to transport to the hospital in Illinois just across the river but on this day Quincy was already responding to something and told the county of Missouri to deal with it whilst the county in Missouri were busy with a call themselves and didn't convey that Quincy so at the track we waited, and waited, and waited.

After an hour, yes I said an hour, I was being asked all sorts of questions about, "why wasn't there an ambulance on site?" to which I didn't have an answer. One was scheduled for race day but even if you rent an ambulance they often aren't allowed to actually transport so we'd have been in the same position regardless. The poor kid that crashed was about the most annoyed of everyone as he was being told not to move and the pain wasn't as bad as it was after he flipped but at a race track if you so mention "neck" and "pain" it's a one-way ticket to the hospital.

As I waited I was sure I would be one and done as race director. This wasn't my fault but I was the face of the officiating side of the series and I was supposed to be this authoritative figure that feared nothing but how could this be when I couldn't even look the drivers in the eye?

The ambulance, 90 minutes after the crash, mercifully showed up and the kid was transported and all was fine, and I believe he raced the next day, but my confidence was shaken and I made it a point to speed the rest of the program as fast as I could so I could get off the property as fast as I could because I was sure I was done.

Greg, Gary, and their buddies went out to eat but I remained at the hotel and I ordered a pizza. I wasn't in the mood to socialize which at that point in my life I wouldn't have been even if the day had gone perfect, and I awaited the disaster that I was sure to come the following day.

As turbulent as Saturday had been Sunday was the opposite. My driver's meeting wasn't a cataclysmic disaster. Was it good? Not at all, but a small bit of confidence was starting to bloom, albeit just a little, and the race day went off without a single red flag or any situation that required me to impose a penalty. It was exactly what a rookie needed to boost their confidence and when the final checkered flag flew I actually felt as if I knew what I was doing which of course I did, I just didn't know that I was capable of being in such a positon.

On the drive back to Saint Louis Greg asked me if I'd write the race report for ekartingnews as he knew I was in the midst of writing a book and I agreed to do so and found that writing a recap came naturally and in a way that writing style was the style I still use to this day when I blog about a sequence of events and the racers gave the report a rave review so the fears I had the previous day were put somewhat to rest.

What made that weekend so important? I can assure you I WOULD NOT BE presenting today to the audiences I do if not for the experience I had race directing. The season of 2006 turned into 2007 turned into 2008 and my confidence kept increasing. My fear of using a microphone would vanish as proven by this picture from 2008 in Delmar, Iowa. I traveled all over the Midwest and with each race I felt more at ease not just with myself but I was also having more conversations with Greg and the competitors and with the race reports my confidence in writing increased.

Now what would've happened had I not been prepared for that first race? My story would've been much different. Remember that I had been flagging for 11 years so I knew the rules and I knew what was expected. Was I great to begin with? No and I'll gladly admit that, but by 2009 I could handle any on track situation because I had established the alias of race director and when I was at the track I ran it like a captain runs a ship. To the racers that I told that I had Asperger's they often wouldn't believe me unless they saw me after the event when I would shut off the world. Of course, that observation and all the observations on my blog posts for the past six years and the 730 presentations I have given never would've taken place had the series not taken a chance on a 23 year old rookie. I assure you the entire sequence of my life would be different for the worse if not for the events that took place decade ago.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Now is Forever

It has taken a few more days than I would've liked to get this blog post out but my emotions have created a bottleneck the likes which I haven't experienced and expressing much of anything hasn't been easy.

This does build on the previous post about understanding the invisible part that post was about society understanding and not about myself understanding. What does that mean? Take the title of this post. So often movies and songs have the title of, "Now and Forever" but that title doesn't quite fit the way I view time. Here's the thing; change is something that is impossible for me to comprehend which means now truly is forever. Whatever I am doing, or feeling, will be which means if I'm down or something is stressing me I'll remain in that state, perhaps self-imposed, because the ability to understand that tomorrow is a new day with infinite possibilities isn't there.

A smart person once told me that, "we allow ourselves to be where we are" and I understand this but at the same time I can't see that change can happen. I can't see that my worries will ebb and that I will eventually have new worries and the worries of today will eventually be simply a memory.

This is, perhaps, black and white thinking at its finest (or worst) as emotions such as worry are all or nothing and when the concept, or lack thereof, of time it creates all the ingredients for a perfect storm that starts feeding upon itself and with each cycle the storm intensifies.

In my 2nd book called I Think Therefore You Should Know (hopefully being released Q4 of this year) I have a chapter entitled, "Past, Present, and Oblivion" which looks at this concept of time in depth. Depending on the week and the current struggle I am having I'll say something is the, "most frustrating part of Asperger's" but I may hold firm in the future that this struggle with time and that whatever is now is forever is the biggest struggle. Why? A decade ago I was rather idle in life and outside of bowling in two leagues I didn't do much of anything and I was convinced that the state of being I was in was the state of being I'd have forever. Did those fears come true? No and you'd think with each revolution I've experienced in life you'd think I'd learn that things do change, things do become easier, and things happen that I never could've dreamt of, but this isn't the case. Wherever I am is where I will be and however depressed, lonely, frustrated, or whatever emotion or state of being I'm in is what I'm going to have to endure for all the rest of my years.

Some of the ongoing issues I could handle and take care of if not for the fear of change. See the contradictory nature of this? Socially I could take actions to come to some resolutions but then that would evoke a change and since change is bad and whatever is now is forever I am stuck in the middle with both options being wrong. Is that frustrating to read? Or perhaps it didn't make sense? If that's the case imagine living with this day after day!

I have no idea what the future holds and half of my brain is trying to tell me things get better and things will happen that I never could've imagined but the other side is convinced that where I am is where I will be forever and my hands are tied on being able to make any changes. I mean, I have a lot of exciting projects on the table but how can I be excited about them when, since they aren't in the now, they will never be? That's the thing, closing this post by coming full circle, if it isn't in the now then how can it ever be because now is forever because the only guarantee is what is now and since my brain can't conceive of what is to come that means the emotions of today will be forever because things either are or aren't and things to come can't be counted on. It's black or white, all or nothing, exists or will never be and as I said with the Tuesday's post you may want to bookmark this because there may be a time where this post may give you understanding as to what's going on deep beyond the surface.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Struggle: Understanding the Invisible

The funk I was in that I described last week has continued and today it intensified. At the same time I have to mention that the annual "Autism Awareness Month" commences in just a few weeks and I can make a point in what is lacking in that title by the way I feel now.

When I talk to teachers I give many examples of Aspergish-like behavior and by the end of my presentation I'm accustomed to seeing tears as teachers put together the pieces and now understand a current or former student. There is one major thing working against a person like myself with Asperger's and this is there is no visible sign. Look at my pictures, look at my videos, and look at the videos of myself at a racetrack and does anything jump out and say, "autism spectrum"? Unless you were finely trained or knew I was beforehand I'd say most certainly not and therein lies the struggle.

What does autism awareness actually mean? There can be billboards, 30 PSA ads, and radio ads mentioning that autism exists. In my six years as an Autism Ambassador for Easter Seals Midwest I can clearly avow that over 95% of people are aware that autism does, in fact, exist. Okay, that's fine, but to simply know it exists gives no depth to the meaning, the struggles, and what one can do to ease the feelings of a person that's on the spectrum in the midst of a major struggle. This is the dilemma we face; we can shout "awareness awareness awareness" but if we don't achieve understanding it will be all for naught.

You see, and I go back to how I look in pictures and the like, the problem here is the invisible struggle a person may go through. Take a sensory issue. A person that has no sensory issues, if told that a person may have sensory issues, will be about as lost as being in a foreign country with no GPS and no understanding of the language. The road signs are there but there mean nothing and if they mean nothing how can one have compassion, empathy, and be willing to help? Same thing goes with a person that may have issues with crowds. If a normal (remember, I don't really believe there is a normal) person has no issues in crowds how can they understand that the person with them, that looks normal, is going to have an issue?

I don't believe there is one path to achieving understanding but it is imperative that we shift... no... it is imperative that we blitz the point home. I've spent many nights recently alone at home and it feels very much like the life I led in the 2000's. My ability to write and express myself was born within the way I feel now, but one of my reasons for writing was so that, "maybe the world won't hate me as much." Are those extreme words? Yes they are but that's the way I saw it. I tried and tried in life and things always went askew and I didn't know why. Well, not only did I not know why but those around me didn't either because of the cloak of invisibility Asperger's can hide behind.

I won't lie; the past month has been the hardest I've had in a decade but experiencing this has brought about a focus on the goal line and the purpose to it all. I think of all the police presentations and presentations to teachers and I can't think of an audience more important than those two because they will be dealing with the invisible and unless the canvas is described in a way that is understandable the beautiful artwork that is a person on the autism spectrum is going to appear to be just random lines and incoherent shapes. Of course, this isn't the case but without understanding awareness doesn't allow the canvas to be seen or understood and when this happens the struggle continues onward and no amount of simple awareness will progress us anywhere.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Where I Am

It's been eight days since my previous blog post and not much has changed. Actually, things just haven't felt right for me and with each passing day things seem to get more difficult.

I'm torn by so many conflicting feelings and that is, I think, the heart of the issue. I know without a doubt that I have grown on my trips but what does this mean when I get back to home? I get the exact same feeling now as I do after each year's SKUSA Supernats which is, when one experiences pure bliss, how can it possibly be followed up? On top of that, going back to the conflicting feelings, when I went to the end of the earth I willingly put myself into a state of isolation and that sensation eventually became liberating and yet the isolation I experience at home is all but paralyzing.

On top of all this I have this sense of guilt. Yes, guilt in that I have done some rather incredible things the past year, heck, the past six years to be honest and you may think I have this big ego about myself, or expect special things because I am who I am, but this isn't the case at all. I'm actually still the same shy, unassuming and always fearing the worst person I was six years ago when my blog began. Yes, my skills have grown and yes I'm capable of much more than I ever realized but at the same time the events I've done and places I've been hasn't changed the inner person of who I am which might just be the root of this pit I'm in. Which with all this so, is this the defining aspect of Asperger's in myself?

What do I mean by defining aspect? I don't mean it in the terms of defining who I am but rather defining the area it impacts me the most. Sure, my ability to read social cues isn't the best and I'm uneasy in most open ended social realms but so often the way it impacts a person internally is overlooked and in my case it creates this constant sensation that, "I'm not good enough nor will I ever be." Those may seem like tragic words and when I shared this at a presentation several years ago a parent told me, "I... this... I'm sad for you" but at the same time this is where the fuel to forge onward comes from. Odd, right, the exact thing that holds me back makes me excel? It's true, though. Every concept I've created has come from a time I've been in this dark pit of despair. Every idea I've had be it my hit series Asperger Insights or The Aspie Traveler came from this area and I've got two more ideas which could be bigger than those if things work out right and it all came from this dark place in my mind which tells me, "I'm never going to make it."

It's taken me eight days to work through these emotions to be able to express them and I hope you can see the almost duel state of being I experience; on one hand I know I'm excellent at what I do and know that I'm horrible at what I can't do but what I can do I don't do well enough and what I'm horrible at I should do better. Read and re-read that sentence because if you know a person with Asperger's they very well might go through the same thing and the ability to express such things isn't easy. Now, remember, not every person on the autism spectrum is the same and I won't say I speak for anyone but myself, but living with this constant battle of conflicting feelings isn't easy to do nor is it easy to express in a way that is understandable. Maybe this will be it, maybe tomorrow's blog will pry deeper into this. I'm not sure, but there is considerable depth to this post and is one, if you know of a person going through any sort of struggle like this, you may want to bookmark to reference back someday.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

One month later

One month later 

It's been a little under a month since I returned from Réunion. I'm writing this on a plane headed home from working my first race of the year and being back in an airplane has brought back a rush of emotions of my trip last month. I'm also writing this to the music I wrote most of my words during my trip and I must admit I'm fighting back tears. 

I worked a SKUSA regional event over the weekend and those that follow me on Facebook had many questions about my trip, why I went, and even why I chose such a remote place like Réunion. These conversations always led to talking about the book I'm writing and the overt excitement to those I talked to about my journey, my observations, and just the vast amount of adventures I've had within the four trips that comprise The Aspie Traveler series thus far has me excited that my hopes for this book will come true. 

I'm closing in on the one year anniversary of the first trip of the four and I had two weeks where no presentations were scheduled and I needed a challenge and something new to prevent myself from falling into a seemingly bottomless pit of despair and had no idea the series of self discoveries and adventures that would lay ahead. However, when I did the second trip, I started thinking this had book material and in the conversations I had my hopes that this concept would conjure up the imagination and get people excited about places heard and unheard of. I've written a book solely on Asperger's and that really has limited the audience, but this travel book is going to do exactly what I hoped it would and that is to expand the potential audience by expanding the material and I wish you could've seen the conversations I had and the excitement and all the while amidst all the adventure I was making points about the autism spectrum thus raising understanding within the confines of the stories. 

I'm excited, I'm actually beyond excited but at the same time, since I've gotten back, I haven't adjusted well to being back at home. It's been a rough go to be honest as the trip to Réunion was so over the top and such a challenge which led to the most prolific writing experience I've ever had in my life. It was beyond the experience I had when I first sat down and wrote the first chapters of Finding Kansas and was simply seamless to write. It's hard to explain unless you yourself are either an artist or a writer, but to have such a canvas to write on and to have words come in the thousands without effort is something that isn't comparable to any other experience I've had and being home, in a way, has taken away that canvas. 

This isn't to say that being home is bad, but I have so much passion in what I do and ever though I'm an author it is, at times, difficult to grind out blog posts without becoming repetitive. On top of that I have come such a long way from when I stated my blog six years ago. Back then I still lived with my dad and simple trips to Taco Bell or the grocery store made for edge of your seat blog posts but I've grown and those formerly chaotic and difficult experiences are now more tolerable and don't offer the same writing material. To live on the edge, though, in a foreign land provides me the material I used to have and from my experiences comes new thoughts, ideas, and concepts to better explain to others the nuances of the autism spectrum and better ways to describe why I do the things I do. 

I had travel envy at LAX before we took off as I saw signs on the departure gates for Sydney, Tokyo, and Bangkok and I yearned to have a ticket to one of those places. It's odd that a decade ago it took a major effort to leave home but now I feel restless at home. Why is this? For someone that likes structure and loathes change why is the constant of being home such a downer now?  The answer lies within change itself. You see, I've been beyond blessed and a bit spoiled in the jobs I have because just look at where I am now, well you can't actually look but I just flew over Las Vegas and I'm on the go and have been coast to coast several times with SKUSA and USAC flying the flags over race tracks. That's pretty awesome and I also have such an extremely awesome blessing of being the Autism Ambassador for Easter Seals Midwest which has me on the road rather frequently. Why does this all mean? It means that, in my life, the structure I used to have in being home most days of the year has shifted in that travel and changes of scenery is now the new normal because, if there's more change that constant, then there really isn't change because constant change within itself is consistency and when I'm home I don't have the structure I have when I'm on the go. 

I never thought I'd say that, this concept that change is good, but I've adapted and being home without a goal has very much turned me, in a way, Sherlock Holmes without a puzzle to solve. I feel aimless and self doubt comes in like a 100 foot tsunami. I've had several people tell me that, after hearing my story of the past year, that I have, "lived many person's lifetime of experiences in just a single year." This may be true and I don't doubt that few will ever do what I've done. I don't mean this in a boasting manner but simply as a matter of fact but yet at the same time I, in these moments of self doubt and self loathing, yearn for what other people have and that is the phantom known as normal. 

This all goes to the duality of having Asperger's. Some of us can have exceptional gifts in a certain area and I was given the gift if self awareness and the ability to express it, but with that comes the knowledge of what I don't have. Maybe someday I'll get close to being able to experience it, but when I'm at home I feel like more of a foreigner at home than I do afar because what all of my experiences have shown is that I'm more comfortable knowing that I can't understand the language and social situations than being at home where those I encounter at a store, or a restaurant, expect that I can pick up on the social cues. 

So these are my rather scattered thoughts from the sky today. Despite the self doubt I've encountered the past month since I've returned I am just giddy about the audience that The Aspie Traveler book will reach. Those that have bought Finding Kansas bought it because in one way or another they had some affiliation with the autism spectrum already but this travel book and just the onslaught of oddities and misadventures will broaden the market and get those that don't have a concept of what Asperger's is at least a foundation to build upon and it is that which has me more excited about this than any other thing I've done. However, should the unfortunate fate of it never getting published happen I still have some amazing stories to tell and just like at the race track yesterday I'll be spreading autism understanding to those that typically wouldn't inquire about such a thing and in the end it's made the countless hours and investment in this project worth it beyond any measurable method. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Day 11: A Journey’s… No… An Adventure’s End

It was 26 hours ago that I awoke, for the last time, at Le Nautile Beach hotel on Reunion. I’m now in Paris where the sun is just now breaking through the clouds on the horizon and I return home today but my thoughts are purely on yesterday which is still sort of my today.

            When I awoke the all too familiar instant adrenaline rush began. This is common when I’m home and I realize I am awake and the fears and anxiety of every aspect of life rush over me; my heartrate increases and it takes all that I have to simply get out of bed. Some days are better than others as some days this constant anxiety is with me all day. The previous 10 days I have not experienced this, and this too is true with the other trips, but today… Today the adventure was coming to a close and this meant, I guess, real life was about to begin again.

            The routine of breakfast was the same as the prior week except this time I was fending off tears the entire time. It was actually awful trying to stay composed and it became even worse as a light mist began to fall and a slight rainbow was overhead.

            I had done a great deal of my packing the night before because I knew I’d be in a sour mood and I was right. The things I didn’t pack I teared up over as I put them in my bag and the flyers to various things that were given to me along the way, be it a rafting guide or a helicopter tour I savored and put in my suitcase. I found this odd; most people buy souvenirs as a memento but for myself it’s the little things and the pictures in my head (and phone to be honest) that I treasure the most and from the hotel entrance survey that I didn’t fill out to the menu of a pizza place I didn’t try became what most people would call a souvenir.

            Still in my room were the fins and snorkel so my first step in departure was to walk those to the front desk. The lady asked if I’d want to pay up for the food I purchased and I did so and as real as it was before it was even worse now.

            After paying I went back to my room and got the first suitcase and walked it to my car then I snapped photos of the sign, of the buildings, of the interior, and one last selfie on the beach which a dog photo bombed. Once the photo was out of the way I turned around and stared off into the vast horizon of blue of the Indian Ocean and it was then that I lost it.

            Beyond a doubt this was the greatest challenge I have ever willingly put myself through and I didn’t know it was going to be as difficult as it turned out to be. The first few days I felt overwhelmed and was sure I was going to be so afraid that I’d do nothing but stay in my room. Somehow someway this didn’t happen and I feel I truly attacked this trip the best I could. To not speak any French at all on an island that English is as common as finding a 200 karat diamond in your garden and to navigate without GPS and to have had the rocky, and coral, start that I had made the fact that I made it all the days and still was willing to try something new left me in awe and that’s why leaving was so difficult.

            It was now 10:30 and mandatory checkout was at 11:00. My flight was at 9:40 and the rental was due at 12:20 so I decided to simply go to the airport. Before that I had to walk out of my room, room 131, for the last time, lock it for the last time, walk down the stairs, through the courtyard where the pool was, and through to the front desk. I took a breath as I took out the key and handed it to the lady and she said, “Leaving so soon?” and I wanted to state everything this place meant from my dream a decade ago to someday be able to visit there on my own to all that I had done and seen and how it wasn’t simply “soon” but rather that I had experienced a lifetime of growth within seven days but instead I simply said, “Yes, I’m going to the airport.”

            She responded by saying, “Was everything to your liking?” and I don’t remember what I said because I was fighting back tears and the dam was about to burst so I muttered something, turned and walked out the door, got into my car, and the tears flowed.

            The drive to the airport seemed longer than it actually took because I was taking in everything. The ravines which had been dry when I arrived were now raging rivers under the bridges I passed over and pouring into these ravines were fantastic waterfalls. Even after a week on the island the beauty of that place still astonished me.

            I arrived back in St. Denis and went right away to Roland Garros airport and returned the car and then it was five hours of waiting until I could check my bad then another four hours of waiting until the flight left. I spent those hours deep in thought and most people would probably cringe at nine hours in a single place, such as an airport that didn’t have wifi, but not I. This time was put to thinking about all that I had done and seen not only on this trip but the previous three. With each trip I got a little bit more confident and the progression of the locations I went were perfect. No two places were the same, no two cultures remotely resembling each other, and had I done these trips in a different order I think the overall success rate would have diminished. However, the majority of thought was on what I had done in Reunion and my terminal thinking kicked in on whether or not I’ll ever have an experience like that again? I hate the “all or nothing” thinking my brain does which is something that seems to go along with Asperger’s, but it really robs the moment. Instead of celebrating the achievement, as the sun now started to set to the west over the Indian Ocean, I began to fret that this was it; this was the last adventure.

            With all of these thoughts all day I was exhausted and I was really hoping for another upgrade to the premium cabin but I got one better. No, I didn’t get upgraded to first class but the row I was in in the main cabin was empty so I could lay out flat and sleep. And sleep I did! When I awoke we were just passing the end of the Mediterranean Sea and had just two hours left. I slept nine hours on the plane which is rare for me to sleep at all in a moving object but this showed me just how much I pushed myself on this trip; not only with the events I did but with writing. In my writing career I’ve never had a more prolific ten days as I’ve written over 31,000 words and these words, the words you’ve read about this trip, have been the easiest words I’ve ever written. I haven’t had a writing experience like this in nine years which was another reason I so badly loathed leaving because writing this deep, this profound, and with a slight flair of humor isn’t the easiest of things to achieve.

            My flight actually landed at the Orly airport as I did do a schedule change to shorten this day of travel by 8 hours, and to avoid passing through Antananarivo, but I had to take the Air France bus to get from Orly to De Gauelle and on that ride I weighed how this trip fared with the others. The biggest change was independence with a car. Was this a good thing? For one this did minimize contact with others but on the other hand this trip would’ve been impossible without a car. Buses are scarce, taxis are far and few between as well as outrageously expensive and to get around and see what I saw the only way this would’ve been possible is with a car. I don’t think this made this better or worse but rather a needed difference. One thing this did do was it did cut down on my note taking. I took a dozen pages of notes when I went to Norway but no so on this trip. I had the first three days but then my notes I had were actually done by memory by the roads I had traveled. The other thing is language; in Tokyo some people spoke English but those that didn’t were equipped to handle the situation unlike some I encountered in Reunion. So does this make it better or worse? I think by far this was a plus because, in the other trips, Asperger’s really wasn’t part of the overall equation, but being on a place that no one (or rather a select few) spoke the language and weren’t prepared for the encounter was a stark resemblance of my everyday life. Part of that anxiety I spoke of at the beginning of this chapter is the social anxiety of not knowing, exactly, where I belong or the proverbial score of the friendships I have. I don’t know where I stand and if you travel abroad and go to a place where no one speaks English then you will have a slight glimmer of insight of what everyday life is like for a person with Asperger’s that tries to socialize and yet has no idea of what the meaning of some actions, or words means. Just like me in a social situation you’ll hear words but can’t makes sense of it.

            So here I am now, in Paris in the Air France lounge (one perk of flying a lot), awaiting my flight to Atlanta then onward to Saint Louis. As it stands now this book will have one more trip, but this won’t occur until August. However, I won’t be planning this trip but instead a consortium of people will and I won’t be made aware of where I’m headed until I get to the airport. I guess that will be an adventure, but can it be the same as what I experienced? One thing that I feared when after Tokyo was that, if I got too good at this, then there would be no hardships or anything worth writing about. This trip to Reunion certainly showed me that where I had been had been a mere cakewalk compared to what it is like truly going out of the comfort zone and into the unknown.

            That’s the thing, I don’t know what’s next nor do I know where. When it comes to the social life I’m still at a loss as to what to do. I hoped this trip would bring some clarity, which it didn’t, but one thing I learned is that I’m stronger than to allow one person dictate happiness. Now whether or not I live by this is another thing, but I know I’m capable of so much and just like the experience up on Le Maido I have no idea what clouds will lift and what will be shown which had be hidden away. The next trip is six months away and maybe I’ll be in the same place as I am now which will give me something to write about and then again maybe the landscape will be much different beyond anything I could’ve imagined. Regardless, my flight home is in an hour and six months from now it will be time to truly put what I’ve learned from the first four trips as my destiny will be decided by the consortium.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Day 10: The Final Night

If I didn’t have an idea for the final trip (it takes extreme to the limit) and if I didn’t have to travel home the end of this book would’ve been the previous chapter. However, there are still some unresolved issues in this book and I do have to get home and I very much want the fifth trip. More on that down the road.

            After writing the previous chapter I swam in the ocean once more, perhaps for the last time on this trip (there may be time in the morning and I do have to get past the coral to the edge of the reef!) and afterwards I went into the courtyard area where the pool is and I sat and observed and reflected on all that had been.

            Dark clouds descended upon the beach that’s been my home for the past week which in thinking about it I did get lucky with the weather at the beach. Each day had an 80% chance of storms all day but this never came true. Now only if the volcano had been dry…

            The thinking continued and I had to dig back and remember all that I had done on this trip. This was the most active I’ve been on any of the trips and I all but forgot that I had gone to Mauritius. Mauritius! How could I have forgotten that? Perhaps it was this; when I landed in Reunion I was nothing short of scared. Yes, I was frightened because the lack of GPS was something I had not predicted and navigating with signs that aren’t in English nor knowing any town names or even how to ask for directions was daunting. I actually thought this would paralyze the trip and lead to one of the most boring writing experiences ever. It was so bad, the first night, I cried before I went to sleep because I was sure the trip was doomed and I told my dad, “I should’ve just stayed in Mauritius because I would’ve been happier!”

            As those thoughts rolled on about where I was when I began and now my ability to drive up mountains with just a slight bit of navigating help (I learned SPS, sign position system, it’s actually effective when going to Le Maido because when the arrow points right at a roundabout I went right. Signs, helping people navigate for hundreds of years so who needs that newfangled GPS?) without fear. With that so I wondered if this would’ve happened had I stayed on the true island paradise of Mauritius where the hotel was a resort, they had windsurfing, and the latest technology with everything (when the TV was turned on it said, “Welcome, Aaron Likens!”) and it was just so… so… it was so vacation-like. At the end of the day, or rather week, is that I wanted?

            The purpose of these trips is, one, to give something remarkable to write about, but the writing is because of the turmoil and growth the situations are putting me to. Mauritius would’ve been great, I’m not denying it, had a vacation been what I wanted but as I opined many times in this trip that essentially, “I don’t vacation well.”

            Realizing that I don’t vacation well I wondered, when people checking into the hotel walked by me, if the new people are here to simply vacation or to truly experience life because that’s what I did on this trip. This isn’t my quote, but the comparison between these two islands is this; if you want a vacation you go to Mauritius and if you want an adventure you go to Reunion. This trip was an adventure on many levels and one need not try to ascent a volcano in the pouring rain to have an adventure because the language barrier alone is one to make a person a but uneasy, but besides that, there is every possible adventure out here on this island. I don’t mean to sound like an employee of the Reunion Tourism Board but you could spend a month on this island and not touch every trail, or road, or beach.

            Person after person walked by as they checked in and they all had the same expression I had less than a week ago; a look of bewilderment at the pool, the bar, the rooms on the beach, and the look of, “what is to come”. I witnessed that look many times as people have come and gone and the people that were here when I checked in are gone and there’s been a flux and tomorrow I’ll be one of those persons that is no longer here. I wonder though, I wonder if those that left and those that got here today will have anything like the story I had? I wonder if they’ll grow as a person, to push their boundaries, or if they’ll be happy to just sit on the beach and watch the rest of the world go by?

            It was then that I realized just how sad I’m going to be to leave here. I mean, just as I was starting to learn the roads, and just as I grew to accept that people won’t be able to understand me, and now in 24 hours I’ll be on a midnight flight to Paris. If you would’ve asked me 72 hours ago if I wanted to go home I’d have said, “YES!” but I’m glad I didn’t have the option. I’m glad I didn’t give up and that I began to feel as if, even as a language outsider, I belonged here.

            This is going to be a long night and it will be a long wait tomorrow until my 9:40PM flight. I know I’m going to think back to all that I could’ve done and all the photos I didn’t take. I wish it wouldn’t have rained so hard whilst in the crater at the volcano (not the crater of the active volcano, but the crater from… Okay, I know nothing of volcanology) to remember what it was like with the fog, the sheets of rain, the skin piercing winds in the midst of all but nothingness. I also wish I had pictures of more of the towns I drove through but having a car really changed the complexion of the format of my trips. This isn’t to say it was for better or worse, but it did change things up.

            So it’s upon me, it’s time to go to sleep. With each trip leaving becomes harder and harder because with each trip I uncover a little bit more about myself and I understand just a bit more about Asperger’s and it’s even more difficult for this trip because I didn’t just come here to vacation, this wasn’t one in the slightest, I came here to have an adventure. Sure, most people come to experience the parasailing, the deep sea fishing, or the tens of thousands of hiking trails but my adventure is within the unknown and self-discovery. Could I have had a grand time elsewhere? Perhaps, but after all I don’t vacation well and I wanted to push myself and I think, by those terms, this trip was a success.  

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Day 10: A Drive into the Clouds

It was morning and the Super Bowl, which I seemed to be on one of the few plots on land on Earth that didn’t allow me to watch, and the skies to the West were dark. I didn’t care if it was raging a storm of the century up at Le Maido because I was going to make the journey. This trip has had one snag after one rain storm after one deluge after another but I was going to try simply to say I made the attempt. There was that, and the fact that the Le Maido Trail, which I think was D7, looked to be an awesome drive.

            The VW Up!, which I at first loathed has grown on me. Sure, it has the power of a gentle breeze trying to move a 10 ton boulder, but whatever you want in terms of steering it will deliver. The seats also are surprisingly comfortable and the transmission offers such satisfaction when gears are shifted perfectly. It was certainly an easier drive than my first car, which was a manual, which was a 1983 Mazda 626.

            This drive had all the thrills of the “road of 420 bends” without the constant fear of death that road offered. The road was wide enough for two cars and still offered the 180 degree hairpins, quick kinks, and rises and dips. It was great fun until I got halfway up the mountain when the rain began. I was hoping, when I looked up from the hotel, that this was just fog, but the rain did begin and it came down in visible sheets.

            As the elevation rose so too did the winds. Passing over the small ravines (if you ever come here you’ll know the difference between what I call a small ravine and the ginormous ravines on the N1 that come with wind socks) the wind would catch the car out if I hadn’t been prepared for it. Regardless the conditions I continued upward hoping for some change in my luck.

            I arrived at what I thought to be Le Maido so I parked at the edge of the lot and something just didn’t seem right. There was one other car in the parking lot with a man standing under an awning of what appeared to be a snack shack. This couldn’t be it, so I looked at the map and I was only 3/4ths there. While I confirmed this the winds picked up to a scary level; strong enough that my car was moved forward as well as the giant SUV beside me. The woman in the car screamed and the man, whom I think was waiting for the rain to subside before making an attempt to get into the car, made a mad dash for it and quickly drove away. While I watched this it finally occurred to me that, should my car have enough momentum, the foot high log wall in front of me probably wouldn’t stop me from a several hundred foot plunge so I jammed the car in reverse and, instead of retreating, continued upward.

            This trip up the mountain now meant more for me. After all I’ve been through, from the arrival in Antananarivo, to the moments I have felt the most alone in my life, to the aborted attempt at climbing the volcano, this drive up to La Maido was more than a drive; this drive was about finishing something and truly enjoying a place I’ve wanted to visit for a decade.

            Slowly the roads narrowed, and for a brief moment the ground looked like it did back at the volcano, but the summit had been reached. I had made it to La Maido, but the winds and rain still were fierce. There was a lower level parking lot that had no cars in it as it was probably 100 feet below the summit so I drove up and there was a narrow gate with a sign which I presumed to be the “do not enter” sign but there was a handicap sticker with a parking sign. One tour type van was parked up there but I didn’t want to break the rules so I drove back down but on this short descent I figured, “dang it, no one else is here, I’m going to break a rule which I don’t even know if I’m breaking because I don’t remember what the do not enter sign looks like and no one else is here so I’m doing it!”

            I went through the narrow gate and positioned my car that wouldn’t impeded the masses, should they come, and as I parked another car parked by me and an older man and woman got out and put on their rain proof jackets. “Only if I had… Dang it!” as I once again left my rain proof jacket provided to me by USAC in the hotel. The couple went up the stairs to the railing and still the clouds were dense and the rain was spitting at a rapid fire rate but this was it; today is my last full day in Reunion and I didn’t care if I got wet and if the only thing I saw up there was clouds I was going to go. So I took out my wallet so it wouldn’t get wet (I learned my lesson from the ill-fated expedition of the volcano; blow drying money in the bath tub isn’t fun, especially when you’ve got 160,000 in Ariary which is the Madagascar currency and it isn’t that much but it sure makes for a lot of drying!) and I also took off my glasses as they’d be useless in the driving rain and I got out and started up the steps.

            This became a scene out of a movie and the timing was impeccable. As I got to the top step I felt the rays of the sun on my forehead and the clouds partially broke. I had no idea what was beyond the railing as the clouds were thick but I figured there was a drop off because I was being pelted with rain coming up at me. That’s an odd sensation, but quickly there was this gust of wind and the cloud in front of me gushed upward and behind me and left where it was became the most awesome backdrop I’ve ever seen as off to the right were multiple waterfalls and down in the valley below were some homes and across the way was the mountains which house Piton des Neiges, an extinct volcano, as well as the town of Cilaos. I don’t say this lightly, but my emotions got the best of me as this clearing happened because it was so perfect, so beautiful, and was the perfect metaphor for my life. To get to Reunion I had to fight. What you’re reading now didn’t happen overnight. I talked about progression, and I think I might have covered it in each leg of my trip, but there were times I wanted to give up. What was the point in life if failure, isolation, and loneliness seemed to be the only guarantee? There was broken dream after broken hope after broken promises and all, to me, seemed loss but buried under it all was this gift of writing I never knew I had much like this rushing of this cloud that had masked the glorious backdrop that I was now witness to.

            I snapped a bunch of pictures and then the rains came again and the clearing quickly gave way and I got back in my car and went back down the mountain. I didn’t know what I was going to find on Reunion, and part of the reason why I’ve been doing these trips is to find myself, but what if finding one’s self is much like the drive in the clouds? What if our entire life is one cloud after another and there is no true finding one’s self in its entirety because just when you think you’ve found yourself, as I had when I wanted to give up on life, a cloud vanishes and shows you something you couldn’t imagine, something more beautiful than any sunset, sunrise, mountain, or valley. Perhaps this is what life really is, persevering until that next bit of growth is realized. It’s there, just like that valley, cliffs, and waterfalls were there, but until the clouds were removed the true beauty was unrealized. It’s odd that I had this sense of being drawn to this place a decade ago and I can tell you the whole cost, time, and headaches of this trip were worth it because that moment is going to stay with me forever. Call it clarity, call it fate, call it whatever you want to call it, but that moment has fueled me and I don’t know if I’ll ever truly find myself, but I anxiously await the next cloud that vanishes, and the one after that, and the dozens thereafter to show the inner beauty and the human potential that remains in me. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Day 9: A Day of Indecision, Relaxation, and Pizza

For the first time on this trip I woke up after 6:30AM, actually it was 8:30 as I concluded that the swim the day prior took a lot out of me. That, and the massive sun burn on my back to prove I was out for a long time. Breakfast was had and it was time to decide what to do.

            The volcano was calling but the weather forecast was horrendous with 50kph winds and 197mm of rain. I have no idea what that would be in numbers that I would understand, but it to, “expect flooding” so that was a no go. On top of that I had been emailing a guide that, if we agreed upon the terms, would lead a trek up the volcano tomorrow but the conditions were just too dangerous he said which meant that someday I’m going to have to come back here to finish what I started and hike up Piton de la Fournaise.

            So with the volcano now out of the question it was time to narrow down my options as to where to go and what to see. My previous chapters may have sounded as if I’m not enjoying this trip and it isn’t that I’m having a bad time it’s just that I’m not having the same type of time I had on the previous three trips. This isn’t to say it’s better or worse but I hope to cover this on the end chapter of this trip. Anyway, I was scrolling around Google maps and I came across Cascade de Grand Galet. I took from the name this was the famous waterfalls and the pictures proved I was right. I was elated to find this because in the tourism video I watched with my mom and sister a little over a month ago to show them where I was headed this area was featured heavily.

            I looked at the map to try and memorize the route and I got into my car and started it up but then I looked to the south and then it hit me; the waterfalls are just a few miles south of the volcano and if that’s getting pelted with rain so too are the waterfalls. I rolled out of the hotel parking lot and when I could see to the south in full it was one of the nastiest looking storms I’ve seen on island which isn’t that many but I wanted to part of it so I parked and went back to my room in defeat.

            Now what to do? I had such a great idea and motivation only to be thwarted in my efforts. I looked out my window and now the ocean was calling my name. I still hadn’t made it out to the end of the barrier reef so I decided to give it a go.

            This was now my third time snorkeling and with each time I saw new aquatic life and fish I had not seen the previous time. Unlike the first two times I saw some rather large fish this time and I decided to follow them to just see what fish do. They had much better mobility through the coral than I did and they eventually went within one reef which for me was a coral dead end and as I surfaced I realized something; I was… Relaxing!

            It was unforeseen but swimming amongst the fish and the coral was now relaxing me. I was astonished and I thought back to the first day when I injured my foot and realized I may have let my guard down then because I was relaxing and didn’t know it.

            As I mentioned earlier I had a sunburn on my back and I didn’t want to risk a blister so when I was constantly impeded by the coral I threw in the towel, well, I actually swam back to shore to grab my towel but it was 50 minutes well spent but now I was once again in a dilemma as to what to do to fill my day.

            My mom had suggested earlier in the morning to read a book which I did bring an assortment of books to read but my logic to her as to why I hadn’t was that, “I can read a book at home.” This is true, but it was just a lame reason to say I didn’t want to read so once again I went to Google Maps to see what else was out there.

            Scrolling around the map I came across a picture icon of Le Maido. The reviews were high and the looking at the map it is situated across the cliffs that I saw in Cilaos. The views from Le Maido appeared to be breathtaking so off to my car once more and I went up D100 to RN one to head north for the first time and as I took the on ramp I looked up and what did I see? Well, the fact that I couldn’t see the top of the land meant the ceiling was low and that a trip up there would only be interesting if I were into cloud physics, which I might have been 20 years ago, but I wanted to see the cliffs, trees, and mountains so the next exit I got off and headed back to the hotel once again in defeat.

            Nothing was going how I had hoped today, not that I had a plan when I got up but each thing I chose had a block become in place. So once again I got out the fins and went back into the water and decided I’d swim until I became too tired to and once again I simply was in a state of doing while doing. I don’t think I could ever enjoy simply reclining in a beach chair watching the waves and the sky. No, that would never be me. I have to be doing something and discovering what lay behind each reef and seeing a fish I hadn’t seen before became highly enjoyable and relaxing.

            In all my indecisiveness I had forgot to make a reservation with the hotel restaurant so I went to do that but found out they had no seats available which meant I could do an early dinner so I went to my go to pizza place which is by the grocery store which was closed. Much like what I saw in Norway most places are closed today with today being Sunday. This eatery though was open so I got out and then were a group of seven men by the outdoor bar and one woman and I was a bit nervous because their energy was exuberant. Nonetheless I approached and the manager recognized me from several days ago and shook my hand with an enthusiastic firmness. “Aaron!” he said, “Welcome back!” I was amazed he remembered my name because had a hard time pronouncing it the first day I went but once the greeting was out of the way I ordered and sat down under the canopy and observed the group of men.

            This group had been drinking, and were still drinking, and there mannerisms and gusto while speaking were almost over the top. It was all very French I believe. Each guy would go talk to the woman whom seemed to be disinterested in them but did nothing to stop them from talking. There were lots of handshakes, fist pumps, and sometimes even chest bumps from the men for reasons I could only imagine because I didn’t know what was being said, but I did see that this comradery was something I had never witnessed in America and they were having the most jovial of times and were completely free of any social barriers. Maybe the beer and wine had a bit to play, but it was something to watch knowing I’d never seen this type of time that people in the world experience.

            When you go to a local eatery the locals can quickly decipher who is new and one of the men came over and I instantly feared a Hammerfest episode; this was amplified by the fact that there was connecting factor and that was pizza. The man asked me, I think, if I spoke French. The problem I have with other languages is that I can’t even distinguish words as it’s all just sounds that I can’t decipher. Anyway, he quickly realized I didn’t understand a word of French and he asked, “English?” which then he said he spoke, “a little less than a little English” but he was able to ask me where I’m from and why I’m here. I don’t know if he understood my answers but he shook my hand and said, “thank you” and that was that.

            There was one man in particular that stood out from the group. He had his shirt off which is nothing out of the ordinary here, but he was bouncing from person to person and talking nonstop. I thought about the energy it must take to be that social, that free, and to be that commanding of those around you. It was something I looked at in awe.

            My pizza was done, I paid, and as I exited the little alcove where one pays the man without a shirt backed up into me. I whispered, “Sorry” and kept walking and then the man shouted which froze me and he started saying something and made a frowny face and he looked to be irate. The man who asked me where I’m from told him, “English” and this made the man even angrier. He then asked me where I’m from and I said, “America” and his audible anger turned into a gigantic smile and he said, “America! I love that place, I was in Las Vegas last week!” and he showed me a key chain casino chip with the Vegas skyline on it. I said, “I visit there once a year” and he said, “Awesome, except when the dealer gets 21!” He then shook my hand, and the manager, whom knows that I’m leaving in just over a day, told me, “bon voyage and bon appetite!” and then each man then shook my hand. This was unexpected and as I got into my car I felt, for the first time since I’ve been here, that maybe I sort of belong after all.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Day 8: Lost in Paradise

The sun came up on another day and the usual routine began with a call to my dad then mom and then it was the routine breakfast. After breakfast it was time to get back into the water as two days had passed and I now had proper fins and a snorkel provided by the hotel so try as it might that coral was no match for me this time! However, it was rather stellar at blocking my path so I was unable to reach the outer barrier and after an hour of a rat in a maze simulator I decided enough was enough and made the long swim back to shore.

Now I was in a quandary as I had my swim out of the way and now there was… there was… what was there? I had done the road of 420 bends, I attempted the volcano, and as I looked to the south there was heavy rain in the higher elevations. I tried to relax as the person under the umbrella to my right had been doing. She was there before I made my swim, she was there after the swim, and she was still there after I had gotten out of the swim gear. I looked at her in envy as she appeared to be perfectly content simply being and yet here I was feeling discontent in the midst of a true paradise.

These thoughts escalated and for the first time on any of my trips I wanted to be home. This isn’t to say there is anything wrong with Reunion, quite the contrary, but overall I just had the sensation as if I don’t belong here. As mentioned earlier, what makes this unique, is that I often feel like an outside in my home country so what observations are made when an outsider goes even further outside? Each country I’ve been to have been radically unique and no two experiences have been remotely close to each, but this has been the first place where English isn’t spoken and the people here aren’t used to hearing English. In Tokyo they are, they are equipped to hand a picture menu. Now perhaps if I had gone to a remote mountain village the end result may have been different, but that’s all hypothetical and right then I was sitting on a beach hearing the waves of the Indian Ocean under a sunny sky wondering what belonging is like.         

Swimming will make a person hungry and I opted for an early lunch but being a bit homesick I decided to go to an American mainstay and that is McDonald’s. The thing, though, was that it’s all the way down in Saint Pierre which I had driven through yesterday and is about 45 minutes away from my hotel. The time didn’t matter as I had to do something familiar; something that felt like home.

On my drive I finally had to stop and get gas for the first time so I stopped at the place I did yesterday and my mom asked me why that gas station from yesterday was so important. It was hard to explain to her because I would assume, for most people, an everyday occurrence such as a gas station would be a trivial matter, but when I first saw people driving in Europe on the news I always wondered what it would be like. Part of this journey of The Aspie Traveler has been a dream I had ever since my 2nd grade teacher opened my eyes up to the entire world because I wanted to know what it would be like to be there, wherever there may be and to be immersed the best I could be. I had these thoughts in 3rd, 4th, 5th, and every grade and year sense and maybe it’s the part racing fan in me, and maybe it’s because I always looked forward to gas station stops as a kid because it usually meant I’d receive some sort of candy, but that stop meant a lot and stopping again today, this time actually for gas, was just as special.

The McDonald’s was just a few miles down the road and I saw the familiar golden arches and took the exit, navigated a rather busy roundabout which mimicked a game of chicken at times, and pulled into the parking lot and said, “What in the world is going on?!” Think of your local McDonald’s and envision it the busiest you’ve ever seen it. Yeah, that has nothing on what was going on as the parking lot was overfilled and the line to order was out the door and the drive-thru line went out onto the street which was part of the reason why the roundabout was such a tricky thing. I have never seen a fast food joint ever be this busy, actually, I had never seen any eatery like this. This was mayhem, out of control chaos, and the typically overly friendly and respectful drivers (it’s almost, at times, silly how polite drivers can be) were now raged behemoths all vying for the right to take the next parking spot.

After making three laps of the parking lot in 15 minutes I realized this excursion was as futile as yesterday’s volcano trek so I got back on the interstate like road and headed back towards the town my hotel is in. I had seen another fast food place in Piton Saint-Leu which I had never heard of so I figured I’d give that a try and once again parking was difficult and the line to this place was out the door. I had my heart set on it and I wasn’t turning back, but in this time in line I felt something I hadn’t felt much of on this trip and that was the anxiety I often feel at home.

The anxiety on these trips is different as it’s more situational and sparse but the social anxiety I feel at home is a constant. I don’t know if I have ever described it in detail enough to describe the everyday struggle to not let it drown me and standing in line the chess game of socializing began. Chess game? What does chess have to do with standing in line for a hamburger? I see social situations as a chess match and in the prior trips I never developed an opening move and I never felt like a true outsider even being one. Here, though, the language barrier was difficult to overcome and I didn’t know how to open when ordering. I knew the order-taker would say, “Bonjour!” and how am I supposed to respond. Travel hints on the internet will tell you that saying bonjour back will show the locals you’ve taken an interest in their language and are respectful. This may be true, I don’t know, but what it does is delay the inevitable when that person isn’t going to be able to understand a thing I say and I’m not going to understand a word they say so by starting off by saying, “hello” I’ve eliminated one whole awkward move of the chess game.

You see, conversations are like a chess match. There’s an opening action, a reaction, a reaction to the reaction, and the dance of conversing begins. Having Asperger’s I often have a hard time processing on the fly so I have to come up with situations such as, “if A happens I’ll react with B and if C happens I’ll react with D.” This is my defense mechanism and it hadn’t been triggered in any of the other locations but here, standing in line, I felt compressed, worried, and scared because I didn’t know how I should proceed with my opening.

I was getting closer to the counter when a mom and her three daughters came and stood beside me in supposed other line. The order of play had been a single line that would then delineate to the registers when you got to the end, but this person felt each register was its own line and the person behind me spoke with an angry tone. I didn’t know what she was saying, but the person that had made this cut kept responding with an ever greater anger and this made me even all the more anxious because I am barometer for tension (another defense mechanism) and I thought the person behind me was going to take a swing at this lady. Thankfully, no swings took place outside the elaborate play area for kids, but in terms of physical altercations none took place.

It was my turn and I nervously walked to the counter and ordered a, “giant” and she rang in the order. “Success!” I thought and then she asked me a question and I said, “Combo?” hoping that would be the right answer and as scared as I looked she looked even worse. She tried saying something else and I gave her a blank stare and she returned one and she quickly departed. This was strange, but moments later she came back with a manager type person and that lady said, “Deutsch?” and I said, “No.” and she said, “English, I see.” and she completed my order. If there’s any way more to feel like an outsider it’s speaking English to a person who, perhaps, had never heard a person in person speak it as she didn’t even recognize the language. That’s one of the perks of being an American and that is, most major cities you go around the world there will be at least a partial understanding, but here being so far removed from the rest of the world there simply isn’t.

I enjoyed the burger despite having this unknown white sauce on it. Perhaps it was mayo,
perhaps it was a secret sauce, but I sat at a high top table by the window and I thought about this trip and how I am on an island of extreme beauty and the sights I’ve seen I will probably never see again. The roads alone are worth the journey here, but add on top of that roads that overlook the ocean, hairpin turns carved out of a volcanic crater, and lush greens as dense as the densest forest you can conjure up in your mind; this truly is a paradise but here I was feeling lost having that hint of desire to be home.

Now for you, the reader, at this point in time it’s probably difficult for me to request any sympathy points because of the beauty I have described, but another aspect of having Asperger’s is that some things mean more and other things which may mean more to most people may mean a negligible amount to us. What means most to me is the opportunity to feel as if I belong; to feel “normal” despite the fact I don’t believe a true normal exists. While the external beauty here is immense it does nothing for my internal being and I thought back to that woman on the beach that was perfectly content just being. I can’t do that. I can’t simply enjoy the space I’m in because my brain is always going so I don’t even know how to relax in the traditional sense. I need a challenge, a puzzle, and a purpose or my thoughts will race to a point that it hurts and that’s where I was heading.

It caught up with me; remember my intentions for wanting to come here? It was to feel alone and be as far away as possible on my birthday and now I was getting my wish and as the sun has now set on my eight day of this trip I know the feeling of being alone in a foreign place and it feels just like I did when I was in my early 20’s right after my diagnosis. However, this sensation of feeling alone has little to do with Asperger’s and simply is the difference in the fact people think I speak French when I don’t. Communication quite simply is limited to impossible and that, 10,000 miles away from home, is the definition of being lost in paradise.