Four Years of Living Dangerously:
Behind the travel books

by Antonio Graceffo

In this complex and multi-layered report, travel adventure author Antonio Graceffo takes us on his own personal odyssey; a journey that happens in a physical, emotional, and spiritual realm.

“Muay Thai is the ancient art that has kept the Thai people free,” explained Pra Kru Ba, a stocky, bald-headed monk who had once been a famous boxer. When he spoke these words, he was lying on a bamboo platform in his jungle hut while giving me my daily lesson in life. After months of living in the monastery, my Thai language skills had finally progressed to a point where I could make some sense of what he was saying.

“Muay Thai is a spiritual pursuit,” he said. “The body is pure. The heart is pure. Only the head can create evil. And if evil invades your heart, then you cannot win in a boxing match.” As he reached for another handful of food, the religious tattoos on his body rippled. “You live too much in your head. Evil can come into you faster than it can the others, because of your education,” he told me flatly. “You are a good man. But your anger will destroy you. Even when you are meditating you look sad,” he said with pity. “I hope you will stay with us long enough to overcome these difficulties.”

At the monastery we shared everything. The problem was we didn’t have much; only the food that the hill-tribe people gave to the monks in exchange for merit. A long day of farm work and Muay Thai training had left me famished. I loved hearing Kru Ba’s words and I cherished our quiet time together. But what I wanted now was some food. Finally, when I judged that the rate of his consumption had slowed enough that I could ask, a sentence came out of my mouth that I thought I would never utter.

“If you’re finished with those fried cockroaches, could I have them?” Once again, it dawned on me, just how far I was from Wall Street.

My life in high finance

Before the 911 terrorist attacks, I had been a successful investment banker in New York City, living and “dying” by the stock market. When the market was up, people bought stock and I made money. When the market was down, people sold stock and I made money. Every year my salary increased. Every year my life style got more complex. I had grown up poor and had spent much of my youth as a boxer, soldier, and later as a student in Europe. Wall Street was supposed to have been my settling-down time, the crowning achievement of my life. To borrow Frank Sinatra’s words, I had made it in the city that never sleeps. And the money was proof.

But I was still restless.

In financial terms, there didn’t seem to be any freedom in making a lot of money. You just struggled on a higher level. My average monthly restaurant bill was close to $1000. My credit cards were maxed, and my spending always increased to match my salary.
On some level, I knew that I was a wage slave. I felt strangled, and escape seemed impossible.

Spiritually, I felt bankrupt. We had been taught to plan for a 24-hour work day, seven days a week. And sobefore investing time in any activity I would calculate the financial return it would bring me. The culture of the investment banker means you cut ties with anyone less successful than yourself; so that they don’t pull you down. I stopped seeing old friends. The only reason I ever went out was if I thought I could meet someone who was important to my financial future and success. My secretary screened my calls; months at a time went by without my seeing my sisters.

A subconscious plan

In August of 2001, serious doubts about the life I was leading began invading my programmed mindset. I had always wanted to work in finance, and I was doing well. And I certainly enjoyed the money. But I knew intuitively that there was so much more I wanted to do; so much of the world I wanted to see. I wanted to write great books and be remembered. I wanted to learn every language, experience every culture, and live every life. But I had to go through a transition period in my life first.

Mentally, I had already quit the financial world. And then a month later my employer stepped out of investment banking business, closed down the department and returned to conservative private banking. The last deal I was working on had been so large and innovative that I was enjoying a bit of fame in the investment world. Within hours of my leaving the bank, calls began to pour in offering me a new job and larger sums of money were offered to entice me to move to one of my competitor’s companies. There was a lot of money at stake, the very thing I had dreamed of.

But I decided to follow my heart, and told the other companies they would have to give me 30 days to make a decision. I had been given a large buyout package, and actually didn’t need to return to work for a long time. But I wasn’t brave enough to ask for more than a month. During that time I began training in earnest; I had decided to make a boxing comeback. I invested much of my time and energy into learning yoga in the hopes of repairing the tears in my soul. And so I pulled some dusty manuscripts out of my closet and began writing again.

The catalyst

On Tuesday morning, September the first — 911 — I was in a yoga class a few doors away from my former office. When we were told that the first of the twin towers had been hit by a plane, we barely paused. When, just minutes later, we were told of the second plane we knew that the world had changed. Mayor Giuliani ordered all of the buildings in Manhattan to be evacuated. I soon found myself wandering with millions of other New Yorkers through a surreal fog of fear. We were packed shoulder to shoulder silently marching nowhere. The tunnels, bridges, and subways were closed down; there was no place for us to go. The air was full of a thick white powder that clogged our nostrils and stung our eyes. If this is anthrax, I thought to myself, we have all been given a death sentence. I would later learn that the white dust was, at least in part, from the charred remains of the more than 3000 victims who died that morning.

It would be 24 hours before I was able to get back to my apartment in Brooklyn. Cell phones began working again. But the landlines and internet would be down for days. Mail service was suspended, and New Yorkers felt a great sense of isolation. When I finally managed to get a call through to my eldest sister, she cried on the phone relieved to know that I was OK. Apparently, when the towers came down, many of the surrounding buildings had been destroyed, including an office that I had worked out of a few months earlier. One by one, I contacted any of my friends who might have been in the Towers that morning. They were all unharmed. Next, I wanted to call my financial counterparts in other firms with whom I had worked. But many of them would never answer a phone again.

Later, when the transcription of recorded phone lines was found, there were recordings of young stockbroker trainees, trying to close a sale, despite the sound of fire alarms in the background. While their office filled with smoke, their discipline kept them at their desks. They died because they loved money too much.

In the end, Giuliani informed us that 3000 people had perished. None of the things those people had put off till tomorrow was ever going to happen. Someday would never come.

A world away

I took my buyout, and went to Taiwan. My real goal was China and the Shaolin Temple, perhaps the Buddhist monastery best known in the West for its long association with martial arts. But I saw Taiwan as “China light,” a chance to learn the culture and language and to ease my transition into the mainland. I took a job teaching second grade; the innocence and unconditional love of those eager young children taught me patience. Like a tightly wound spring, I began to slowly unwind. Wandering around a park in the Kaohsiung, the island’s second largest city, I stumbled on a Kung Fu teacher training his team in an old temple. It could have been right out of a movie. He invited me to join them.

For the next 15 months, I lived and trained with my new team, learning the Chinese language, Kung Fu, and Buddhism. My teammates were quite religious and taught me the rudiments of prayers and ceremonies. Money was very secondary to them; they lived only to train. The Sifu never asked me for a dime, not even for my food. Slowly I let go of my old life and my old desires. My only ambition was to go to Mainland China and continue my training at the Shaolin Temple.

The book about my experiences in Taiwan and the freeing up of my long-delayed ambitions is called Taiwan Days. Still unpublished, I am currently looking for representation for this book.

My personal great leap forward

Eventually I made my way to Mainland China and took up residence at the Shaolin Temple where I started to re-educate myself. But what I learned was not necessarily what I had gone there to learn.

From a recently arrived Westerner’s point of view, I discovered that China smelleds really bad. However, I also eventually discovered that I was so full of my own opinions, perception and ideas that there was no room to add anything new.

I began new kinds of relationships. One of the closest friendships I have ever had began at this moment in my life — with my training brother Miao Hai. He always had a way of explaining Shaolin culture to me, in a way that I could understand it. He defused potentially bad situations and made my life with the monks livable. Understanding that I had once had a job related to money, Miao Hai proudly showed me his portfolio, an account at the informal Shaolin bank. It contained 10 RMB, about a dollar and half American. Miao Hai smiled, and I knew that I was on the right path.

During the SARS epidemic, widespread paranoia swept China, resulting in the distrust of foreigners. The central government went so far as to tell the people that foreigners had introduced the disease to the country. Many were being pulled off of trains and buses. Some, including myself, were detained in hospitals. I escaped from the hospital and returned to the Temple. But it was no longer the sanctuary it had been for me. The Temple administration tried to confiscate my film, possibly to erase any record that they had had a foreigner living among them, or to prevent the outside world from seeing the filthy squalor in which they lived. I woke one morning to find myself embroiled in a showdown that almost turned violent. In the end, I made a somewhat daring escape from Shaolin, ending up landing in Hong Kong. Once again I had no plans, and very little money.

Because of SARS Taiwan wasn’t issuing visas to anyone who had recently visited China. Therefore I was adrift in one of the most expensive cities in the world, living off my savings. When my money ran out, I took a job working for the local Trinity College affiliate. As it turned out, the College needed a Chinese-speaking Trinity graduate to return to China to conduct an investigation of their local partner. And so off I went back to the Mainland. When I had verified that the partner was indeed stealing from the company, I was asked to remain in China and recoup the losses.

The partner was the most unpleasant human being I had ever met in my life. Being Singaporean, he considered himself superior to the Mainlanders. He belittled and bullied everyone. He also tried to intimidate me. We eventually came to blows; I knocked him flat and then hopped a high-speed boat back to Hong Kong a few steps ahead of the police.

Back in Hong Kong, I spent a lot of my time prowling through book shops and hours in Starbucks reading. As soon as I received my salary for the work I had done in China, back I went to the Mainland.

This time, however, I did it by crossing the Taklamakan Desert in the northwest province of Xinjiang. Unable to afford a camel which was the principal mode of transportation, I instead bought a tricycle rickshaw and peddled the 540 kilometers from Aksu to Kashgar. Along the way, I got to know the Uyghur people, a Turkic ethnic group that follows Islam. Until just after the Second World War, it had been the independent nation of East Turkistan. Shortly after China invaded Tibet, they also annexed East Turkistan. The plight of East Turkistan is less publicized in the West than is the Tibetan situation, most likely because Richard Geer has never been there.

The desert was desolate, harsh, and beautiful. I traveled through it on my rather odd-looking tricycle thinking no further than my next simple meal. At night, I slept beneath a giant sky brimming with stars. I discovered the unique freedom of the desert.

But my odyssey would continue and eventually I found myself back in Taiwan, I was teaching English again, and also feeling what was becoming a perennial restlessness. So I bought a bicycle and circled the 1500 kilometers of the island, sleeping in temples, churches, and an aboriginal village. Until that trip, I had only experienced the over-developed, ultra-modern, and very narrow strip of land on the west coast of the island that runs from Taipei to Kaohsiung. This is where most of the Taiwanese people live. Traveling by bicycle allowed me to get a close-up view of the beauty of the east coast of Formosa (the main island of Taiwan) where a quiet traditional life could still be found, and where tribal languages and Taiwanese were spoken more often than Mandarin.

I now began to write in earnest. My stories about the Shaolin Temple and the Taklamakan Desert were purchased by various magazines, as was my Taiwan cycling story. I therefore quit my teaching job and became a full time adventure writer.



My first book

The Monk from Brooklyn, the diary I kept during my studies at the Shaolin Temple, was accepted for publication by GOM publishing. The cover photo shows me standing next to my two brothers, Miao Hai and Miao Ping. The photo has since appeared in magazines and websites around the world. However there is no way now that I can reach either of them to tell them about it. I occasionally receive reader mail asking how Miao Hai is doing. I miss my friend who will never know that he has become a minor star in the West appearing on posters and postcards. That photo always serves to remind me of the fateful day when I was forced to flee Mainland China. I took little with me but I was sure not to leave my photographic negatives behind.

When I had first come to Taiwan, I read a story in one of the Taipei papers, about the last fighting monk in Thailand, Pra Kru Bah. He had built a monastery in the jungle on the Myanmar border where he taught Muay Thai boxing, horsemanship, and Buddhism to hill tribe boys, many of whose parents had been murdered in the War on Drugs.

His story published in a magazine article intrigued me and I saved it. I knew that I had to go study with this interesting man. Therefore I wrapped up my Taiwan adventures and wrote a book about them titled Adventures in Formosa, which is due to be released in March of 2006.

Still seeking my true path, I then flew to Thailand and found Pra Kru Bah. As soon as I arrived in his forest monastery, he put me in a boxing ring, and I went four rounds against two opponents. Kru Bah didn’t speak more than 20 words of English, and in the beginning, I had no Thai language skills at all. But as time went on we grew to understand each other in our own way.

Of all the Kung Fu teachers and monks I have studied with, he was by far the greatest. Pra Kru Bah was one of the few people I had ever met, who was leading a true Buddhist life of service to others. Once a famous professional boxer and soldier, he had given up everything to save the northern tribes who were caught up in the drug wars on the Myanmar border. The federal government of Myanmar was seeking to eradicate the tribes, and was denying fundamental human rights to the various minority ethnic groups in the area. Most of the latter had formed armies and were resisting the government’s attempt to wipe them out.

Kru Ba, accompanied by his army of little monks, their orange robes blowing in the wind, would ride into hill tribe villages along the border and ask if there were any children without parents. Gratefully, orphans and displaced adults came to share the disciplined life of a forest monk, living in a fighting monastery.

Just before I left the monastery, we fought one professional fight, and my winnings (300 Baht, about six dollars) were given to poor hill tribe families. My training brother Payong in this monastery had told me he was an orphan. I was shocked therefore on fight day when his parents showed up to collect his winnings. They told him he was a good boy and encouraged him to keep fighting. Then they drove off, leaving him in the jungle with the monks. Toni Farang, my book about my experience in the monastery is completed, but I am still looking for a publisher.

The hill tribe issue became more of a reality for me later when I would do several stories about the time I spent staying in villages with the Akha, Pahlong, Lihsu and Lahu tribes. At the time, the Thai government was doing all they could to repress these people, and ultimately killing them. And I was to witness the slow methodical genocide of a simple people who had no written language, who didn’t understand the pressures of the modern world, and who wanted nothing more than to be left alone. All they wanted was to live in harmony with nature as they had done for centuries.

However the war in Myanmar was financed by drugs and the tribal people often became victims when they were used as drug couriers or dealers. But the worst atrocities were the ones I would later learn about from the Shan State soldiers recuperating in hospitals in Chiang Mai. The Burmese army was using tribal people as human mine detectors, forcing them to walk in front of the soldiers. They were also used as slaves in forced labor camps where they would often die of exhaustion and starvation. My Thailand adventure book was published as Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves.

My next destination was Cambodia where I had heard that there was an ancient martial art called Bokator, which had never been written about. The art was nearly dead. As part of their program to eradicate the old culture and break with the past, the Khmer Rouge had killed nearly all of the traditional dancers, artists, singers, musicians, authors, and martial arts practitioners. In 2004, when the first conference on the ancient form of Cambodian martial arts, Khmer Bokator, was held in Phnom Penh, it was discovered that only eight masters had survived.

In Cambodia, I hit the ground running, as if I had been immediately cast as the evil foreigner in a really bad Kung Fu movie. From Phnom Penh, I wrote for magazines in Thailand, Taiwan, UK, Canada, and the USA. Locally I got a lot of interesting work, translating old French documents, editing, writing, teaching, and working for the Australian government, as well as the Cambodian police. During this time, my book about Xinjiang, The Desert of Death on Three Wheels, was published.

My first Cambodian book Letters from the Penh, is a mix of journalism, diaries, and short stories, which gives an accurate picture of the life of modern Phnom Penh. It deals with everything from cock fighting, the Khmer Rouge trials, government corruption, boxing, poverty, ethnic minorities, glue addicts, the coronation of the new king, banking scams, a military coup, education, language, religion, and culture. The book is full of the quirky and memorable characters who drift in and out of Phnom Penh: journalists (both real and fake), do-gooders of all kinds, missionaries, drug addicts, backpackers, sex tourists, police, and spies. One of the most heart-wrenching stories I covered in Cambodia was about an entire village living in a garbage dump with only fetid ground water to drink. They earned abut one dollar per day recycling trash. I consider Letters from the Penh my most important book and am still looking for a publisher.

Cambodia is a country in constant flux and political turmoil. And there is always something new to discover; in Cambodia you could write forever. But Letters from the Penh had been exhausting to write. I speak and read Khmer fairly well now, sometimes conducting my interviews without a translator. I don’t speak Khmer as well as I can speak Mandarin, but Cambodia is a different country in many regards. Once you really come to know Cambodia, you can’t let it go.

Just as I was making plans to return to China, I was offered sponsorship to write an adventure travel book about Cambodia, as I had done in Taiwan and Thailand. And so my new career as an adventure travel writer, now so far away from my previous “existence” in New York City, took off again.

My tour began at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap Province, and included hiking, bicycling, riding elephants, fighting, and scuba diving. My book Discovering the Khmers ends in Ratanakiri province, on the Vietnam border where I visited hill tribes, interviewed the Cham Muslim minority, met the headman of the Chinese community of only 125 people who controlled all the wealth of the province, and climbed down into the depths of a gem mine where miners were dying at a rate of one per week. I am now looking for representation for the book.

Although conditions were often dirty, dangerous or just annoying, I have loved the places I traveled and the people I met. I often dream of going back, but there is much of the world I have yet to experience. The pull towards the new, the exotic, and the unfamiliar is often too strong to resist.

“And so I saved the first [path] for another day. And yet, knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever be coming back.” — Robert Frost

Currently, I am in the United States on a book tour. Talking about my past, I feel like an imposter and an old man. My days are booked up by my publisher, but the nights still belong to me. I often lie awake in bed dreaming of my next adventure. I want to study wrestling and horsemanship in Inner Mongolia, work in Cambodia on one of the mine removal programs, and study in a Madrasa in Pakistan.

My restlessness is always there and my life is now one in which adventure leads to more adventure.

Antonio Graceffo BA, Dip Lic, AAMS, CMFC, CTC, RFC
Tel: USA 703-455-8549