Until someone asked me I had no idea that it had been seven years since I had quit my job on Wall Street and come to Asia to be a full time adventure writer.
“What have you been up to?” asked a message from an old friend with whom I had attended Merchant Marine School in 1991. After shipping out on the high seas, I went on to university in Germany, and Ryan went on to the Merchant Marine Academy. We met again in 1997, when the question, “What have you been up to?” was easier to answer. I had been at school in Germany, Spain, and Costa Rica. I had graduated with degrees in linguistics and business. I had been divorced, and I was back in New York, looking for a job in finance.
Now, keeping up with our once in a decade schedule, Ryan found me on Facebook and asked “What have you been up to?” He followed this with, “Why are you wearing a uniform in your profile photo? Are you back in the army?” And, “Why does it say you are in the Philippines?”
The life of an adventure writer is not easy. For one thing, I am the main character in my writing. Just like a TV show that has to change its format from time to time so audiences don’t get burned out, I need to shake things up to keep it interesting. I never have enough money, in fact, each month, I live hand to mouth until my small writer’s income dries up. Then things get really tough. Things get so shaken up, I feel like I am suffering with a British nanny.
Right now, I am living on the bottom bunk of a dormitory in Manila. The room is charming, with cinderblock walls and no windows. I share the bathroom with eight people, and like them, I am a full time student, at paramedic school.
The following is the incredibly strange and twisted storey of how Antonio Graceffo became the Monk from Brooklyn, the infamous travel writer and reality TV guy, and why he is attending paramedic school in the Philippines. There is also a side note, or perhaps a sub-plot, which explains why the police are looking for him (me) in China and Burma.
If you don’t know who Antonio Graceffo is or what he has written, you can first check my website . There is a story on there called “Four Years of Living Dangerously,” which tells about my first four years in Asia. Also, I have four books on amazon.com and a new one coming out later this year. Next, you could google my name, there are like 50,000 (no lie) pages about me. Finally, put my name on YouTube and you will find a lot of videos I shot around Asia and inside of Burma, as well as a lot of stuff that I did for History Channel and for movies.
When First Engineer Ryan and I met in 1997, I had just come back to New York, looking for a job in finance. It was a struggle. I eventually got into a financial planner training program at a well known company (who might sue me if I print their name.. They have forbidden me to even speak it. But suffice to say, it rhymes with purle.) I completed a three-year education in seven months. Working a hundred hours a week, I got all my certifications, while living on the floor in my office with no money. Once I got fully qualified, I made three job changes in about 18 months and each time increased my income by about $40,000 USD. Eventually, I became assistant head of private wealth management for the third largest private bank in the USA.
After 911, I decided to drop out of life. I had so many dreams and things I wanted to do, most of all, to live a Jack London/Hemingway life and write books. I left a lot of unpaid student loans, taxes and other federal debts behind at that time, which puts the US on the list of countries I probably should never visit.
I took a job teaching school in Taiwan so I could start learning Chinese and practice Kung Fu. I was the first foreigner to live and train with the team there. I had practiced martial arts and boxing my whole life, but after leaving the service I stopped fighting in competitions. Taiwan set a precedent and martial art became a full time part of my life from then on. I left Taiwan and studied at the Shaolin Temple in mainland China. By then, I spoke Chinese well and was completely fit again, recovering from years of university and banking.
Because of the SARS epidemic I had to flee China, I was actually arrested and held in a hospital and had to fight the monks…grabbed an old sword off the wall, and threatened and cajoled my way out of the medieval doors. The full story became my first book, “The Monk from Brooklyn,” available on amazon.com
Because of the SARS quarantine I only made it as far as Hong Kong and couldn’t get any farther. The money I had left from working in New York basically got eaten up at a rate of over $100 USD per day for six months of living as a deposed refugee in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was like “Rick’s American Café,” in Casa Blanca. It was full of people like me, waiting for our exit visa. I shared my plight with Brits, Thais, and Rhodesians, who insisted that the countries name “has not and will never change.”
Do you want to go get a coffee now? We aren’t even close to explaining why I am wearing an army uniform and studying in the Philippines.
One adventure I always wanted to do was to cross a big desert ala Laurence of Arabia. Stuck in Hong Kong, I had nothing to do all day but, train in Filipino martial arts ( I am leaving out some steps here) and read up on the Taklamakan Desert. Eventually I took the train back into China, where I was wanted for assault, after physically flattening a guy who was ripping off my former employer in Hong Kong. (Once again, I have left out a whole chapter of my sorted relationship with China and my industrial espionage there.)
I did a solo crossing of the Taklamakan Desert on a tricycle rickshaw. I made it to Kashgar, near the Pakistan border, where the hotel manager asked me to put the bike on display in the lobby and to hang around and regale visitors with stories of my adventure, in Chinese. I left the bike there, chained to the spiral staircase, when I snuck out at five in the morning, returning to Hong Kong.
I arrived back in Hong Kong with about ten dollars in my pocket. I checked into a guesthouse owned by a mainland Chinese family who treated me like a Shaolin Priest, and collapsed on the bed. I went through several days of fever and pain. One day, the son of the family burst into my room, excitedly, to tell me that Taiwan had finally opened up. I flew back and took another teaching job.
The Taklamakan Desert became my next book, “The Desert of Death on Three Wheels.” Also on amazon.
Accelerating the story a bit. I was not able to hold a job in Taiwan because every time I turned on the Discovery Channel someone was doing something more interesting than I was. I kept quitting my jobs to go do adventures around Taiwan, like cycling the entire island 1,500 KM alone and without a plan. My assorted Taiwan stories became a book, “Adventures in Formosa.”
I had heard about a monk, Prah kru Ba, in Thailand who did drug interdiction work on the Burma border. He took orphaned hill tribe boys to live in his jungle monastery, where he taught them Muay Thai (Thai boxing). Together, they patrolled the border, beating up drug dealers and telling the hill tribe people not to get sucked in by yaba (meth amphetamine) and opium, the two crops that were being used to fund the longest civil war on the planet. At this point, the war has been going on for more than 60 years.
I lived with Kru Bah, the monk, for three months. He taught me Thai language, Muay Thai, and Theravada Buddhism. I had learned Mahayana Buddhism in Taiwan and China. After I came out of his monastery, I did a series of adventures in Thailand, which became a book, “Boats, Bikes, and Boxing Gloves.”
I went to Cambodia searching for ancient Cambodian martial art, called Bokator. It took me eighteen months to find the master. Along the way, I learned the Khmer language and working as a freelance journalist, I published about 200 articles about Cambodia.
Since leaving Taiwan, my existence had been hand to mouth at best. I lived in $2 a night hotels. Slept in villages and temples. I didn’t always have money for food. I once sold my books so I could eat, then went back and asked the bookstore guy to loan them back to me so I could finish reading them. “I won’t get them dirty.” I promised.
Each time I moved, from a mountain village to a hotel, from an island nation to a mainland….I left most of my possessions behind, taking only what I cold carry, and traveling by the cheapest means, bus, bicycle…. Until a few weeks ago, everything I owned fit in two backpacks. I lost one of the backpacks in an accident in the war zone. Now, everything I own fits in one.
In Cambodia I used my diplomas to get myself a very well-paid teaching job at an Australian school in Phnom Penh. I took an apartment. Settled down. Began buying boxed sets of The Office, the Sopranos, Futurama, Sympsons, and Family Guy.
I trained hard in boxing and Khmer boxing (Bradal Serey) and I fought some pro-fights. I was physically at a peak I had never hit before, and I was in my late thirties. But at night….the voices…the images from Discovery Channel (that channel should be banned)….A tour company offered to sponsor me on an adventure tour through Cambodia. I quit my job and it became my next book, “Discovering the Khmers” which is due out in 2008.
At the end of those adventures I was out of money again. I had to give up the apartment, the Sympsons, everything. I flew to Hong Kong to find a job, but ran out of money while I was waiting, so I flew home and went on a speaking tour to promote my books. I spoke seventy times in the States. I competed in the World Championships of Public Speaking, and made it to the semi-finals. I got really fat and never found a niche for myself back in North America.