International Writers Magazine:Adventure
Writer on Seven Years in Asia
Antonio Graceffo turns 40
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
have you been up to? asked a Facebook message from an old
friend who I had attended merchant marine school with 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 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 dont 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 writers
income dries up. Then things get really tough.
Things get so shaken up, I feel like I am suffering with a British nanny.
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
If you dont know who Antonio Graceffo is or what he has written,
you can first check my website, speakingadventure.com 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.
of the SARS epidemic I had to flee China, I was actually arrested
and held in a hospital and had to fight the monks
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 couldnt get any further. 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 Ricks American Café,
in Casablanca. 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
Do you want to go get a coffee now? We arent even close to
explaining why I am wearing an army uniform and studying in the
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 regal 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.
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 me. I kept quitting my jobs
to go do adventures around Taiwan, like cycling the entire island
1,500 KM alone and without a plan. 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 didnt
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 wont 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 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 Simpsons, 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. Out of desperation, I took a teaching
job in Korea. In exchange for me signing a one year contract, they flew
me to Asia, and gave me an apartment and a good salary.
I was miserable in Korea. To keep myself busy I studied Korean language
and began working on a masters thesis, tracing the origin of the Korean
language from Lake Baikal in Russia, which is a common origin for Manchurian
language as well as many tribal languages spoken by nomads in central
Asia and the Asiatic parts of Russia.
I published one article on the subject, comparing Korean and Chinese,
and received a lot of recognition for it. But because I am more practical
than theoretical I also received a lot of criticism for what I wrote.
That and a lot of my articles are very insulting and if people dont
like it I threaten to Kung Fu their ass.
I can beat up most of the serious linguists I know.
I was offered a scholarship to do my PHD at Dong-A university in Busan,
Korea. But I didnt fancy spending five more years in Korea. I
also didnt want to be in a classroom teaching Korean kids. And
I didnt want to do all my research from a book. I wanted to be
back in the field. I quit after seven months and returned to Thailand.
I had a lot of unfinished adventures there.
first order of business was to hook up with my old friend, Dave,
who is the other half of our small production company called Two
Guys from Brooklyn Productions. We had met years ago, in an Akha
tribal village. He was doing a film. I was writing. We always said
wed work together again. Our first story was a documentary
on the Long Neck Karin, one of the most exploited hill tribes in
the world. Refugees from Burma, they are locked in tourist villages,
like human zoos, where people pay money to gawk at them. You can
google Antonio Garceffo Long Neck Karen and find the
Next we did a documentary
on a Spanish monk, named Kru Pedro, who taught ancient spiritual Muay
I lived in Bangkok and studied Thai in an experimental program called
ALG Automatic Language Growth. It was something I had read about when
I was at graduate school in Germany. I got heavily involved with the
program and began working on a book on Thai linguistics. To date, I
have published a number of articles on ALG as applied to Thai language.
At one point I went to stay in a temple in Khmer Surin, a part of Thailand
which used to belong to Cambodia. I was there studying with one of my
best friends, a Khmer monk, named Prah Sameth, also I was there to train
with Tony Jaas martial arts teacher, In the Footsteps of
Tony Jaa. While there I also did an article on the difficulties
of constantly switching between Khmer and Thai, two languages, which,
without sharing a common origin, share 30% of their vocabulary. Its
a long funny story, Tongue Tied in Surin. All my linguistics
articles are actually pretty funny.
In Thailand I signed a one year teaching contract but lasted only three
weeks. That was my record.
I quit the job and went to Philippines to study martial arts and write
on an island called Palawan. Somewhere in here I worked on a Discovery
Channel show called Fight Quest. Then I went to Cambodia
to do a show for History Channel. After the show, I returned to Thailand
briefly writing and studying more Muay Thai. I went back to Philippines
to write on an island called Coron. In Philippines I write a lot about
the indigenous people. There are countless tribes here, nearly a hundred,
and an incredible number of languages and dialects. There are also a
lot of martial arts, so Philippines is a good place for me. On my way
back to Thailand I lived with a martial arts master, named Master Frank,
in Manila. We are still friends and I still study Kuntaw with him.
I left Philippines and worked on a show called Human Weapon
in Cambodia. I was employed for about three months writing and doing
field research, although I only appear on screen for about two seconds.
Very cool, one of my jobs was to find and fight every master in Cambodia
and write my opinion of them. It took weeks of following up on rumors
and traveling into remote rice paddies and villages to find these guys.
Most of them were pretty fragile from malnutrition and never having
recovered from the Khmer Rouge years, so I only played around sparring.
The wrestlers were good, though. And try as I might, they made me look
pretty silly, wrestling in the mud in their villages.
I went to Vietnam for a couple of weeks to explore Kampuchea Krom, a
Khmer province which was given to Vietnam fifty years ago. I also documented
Vietnamese martial art and sparred while I was there.
Somewhere in all of this I turned 40. I went back to Cambodia to work
on a History Channel show called Digging for the Truth,
and got about fifteen minutes of screen time. My big break. Also, my
last date with Hollywood. Since then, we have kissed and flirted, but
not yet married. I have come close to getting my own show, but it hasnt
happened. I do, however, have an internet TV show, called Martial
Arts Odyssey, which airs on youtube. So, that is better than
I went back to Thailand to follow up on the most important and life
changing adventure of my life.
We are getting to the most important part of the story here. So, I would
appreciate it if you would take a long break, stretch your legs, drink
some coffee, and be fresh when you read the next part.
Because of the Monk, Prah Kru Bah, who took me in when I lived in the
jungle on the Burmese border, and because of the numerous tribal stories
I had written, I had always been very interested in the war in Burma.
A westerner I knew in Chiang Mai several years before had been heavily
involved with the Shan State Army. There are a lot of Shan people living
in northern Thailand. In fact a lot of my friends at the monastery and
around Chiang Mai were Shan. They are extremely good looking people.
I call them the proto-Thais because they were the original Tai people
who migrated down from China to settle in Burma. The Thai, The Shan,
and The Lao are all part of the Tai ethnic group and share a language
which is 70% similar. The culture and the religion are also very much
Through a series of events which I cant publish yet, I wound up
making it to the Shan State Army rebel stronghold inside of Shan State,
Burma. The Shan share no similarities at all with the Burmese. They
were never a part of Burma until the British drew a line on a map, around
the end of World War Two. In 1962, there was a military coup in Burma,
and General Ne Win took power. He began waging war, akin to genocide,
against Burmas many ethnic people. Since then, several million
have fled across the border to become refugees. No one knows how many
were killed exactly, because journalists and international organizations
are banned from Burma, but we have been able to document countless cases
of whole villages being burned and the villagers executed. The army
uses gang rape as a weapon, and I interviewed a 14 year old girl, who
at age eleven, was gang raped while her parents burned to death inside
of her house. She could hear them screaming.
1962, the Shan formed their own army and have been fighting to form
an independent country, called Shanland. The right to secede from
the Union of Burma was guaranteed them by the British, but so far
neither Briton, nor the world has done anything to enforce this
agreement. I hit it off with Colonel Yawd Serk, the commander of
the Shan State Army. He invited me to wear a uniform and to come
and go as I please in Shanland. When I am inside, I carry
my cameras and document human rights abuses. I film interviews with
the refugees. The Shan State Army base has become a safe zone for
refugees, driven from their villages by the government forces. They
have a school and a temple there and a dormitory for about 650 orphans.
Many of the orphans
actually have one or more living parents but the parents gave the children
to the army so that the could be raised in safety and educated in the
Shan State Army school, which is the best quality school in Shan State,
offering a curriculum in four languages: Shan, Burmese, Thai, and English.
In Shan State, it is illegal to teach Shan reading and writing, so for
most kids, they dont learn to read and write their native language.
If you are a parent, could you imagine things being so bad that you
would give your child to strangers in the hopes that they would survive?
Once a Shan person goes to live on the rebel army base, they can never
re-enter Burma because the Burmese would capture them and torture them
to find out information about the rebels. The parents dont have
phones or mail service. After a long trek, often several months of hiding,
slowly making their way through the jungle, to hand their child over
to the Shan State Army, the parents say good-by to their
children, and they will most likely never see them or hear from them
When I am in the base, I do interviews all day, and often break down
in tears. I interviewed two small boys whose parents were murdered.
When I asked them, they couldnt even remember the name of their
village. They had blocked out the first several years of their lives.
After they left, I told my translator hwo upset I was that two little
boys should be made orphans for absolutely no reason. He said, Its
normal. My answer was, It shouldnt be.
After more than forty years at war, there are very few Shan who remember
a time of peace. Its normal.
When I am inside I teach hand-to-hand combat to the soldiers. Outside,
I publish my videos and articles and try to raise awareness of the Shan
situation. I also coordinate donations through a great NGO who have
the guts to go inside and render medical aid to the children. Most big
NGOs and the UN wont help the Shan because they have rules in
their bylaws which say they cant break the law and that they can
only render aid if the government invites them. In the case of Burma,
the government is doing the killing, so that invitation has been lost
in the mail. Other large NGOs, who solicit millions of dollars from
Americans every Christmas, have a policy of not aiding armed groups.
If the Shan lay down their weapons, we will come help them.
They said. Obviously if the Shan laid down their weapons, the Burmese
would kill them all, and there would be no children to help.
The orphan dormitories are surrounded by trenches in case the base comes
under attack again.
There are two small NGOs who are willing to risk their lives running
aid missions into Burma. I have been in the filed with them both and
I have great respect for them. The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) run training
programs. The leaders of the tribal armies each send a few of their
men to get trained as Rangers. The FBR teach them field medicine, patrolling,
navigation, and photography. The men learn to do human rights abuse
documentation. FBR even gives them cameras. If you have seen the movie
Rambo IV most of the actual footage of atrocities was shot by FBR teams
who risk their lives to get in and film. They also give direct medical
aid when they can and provide physical security when they can. Many
of the refugees only made it to the Shan base because an FBR team found
them in the jungle and rescued them.
I have become very close with some of the young teachers in Shanland.
It breaks my heart to see their students playing football on a field
surrounded by landmines and knowing that if those mines were removed,
they would all be killed. The day after Chidlrens Day, the Burmese
forces surrounded the base, waiting to ambush families who were taking
their children home after the festivities.
I started a project called In Shanland. Basically I publish
one video on youtube for free and one article for free which I send
to about 4,000 people and organizations. I send out one article and
one video per week, and will do so for a year. Hopefully by the end
of the year, the project will have gained momentum and someone important
will have heard about the Shan and come help them.
You can see some of the youtube videos
Now I am in Philippines, attending paramedic school. I am taking as
much training as I can in emergency medicine but also going to be taking
courses with the police and army to get trained in close security and
renew my training with heavy weapons. I plan to go back into Shanland
in October or so. After I finish my training in Philippines, I may take
a paying job somewhere in the world to help me continue my volunteer
work in Shanland. The amazing part of this story is that I dont
work for any aid organization. I am self-funded and a number of nice
people around the world have written in, making donations, helping me
get through school. Among them are several deposed Shan princesses.
The world is so strange. And people are inherently good.
If I wasnt so poor, I never would have reached out, asking for
help. And I never would have proved just how wonderful and caring people
After I return to Shanland, I think I will carve out a niche for myself
as a combat medic, doing aid missions in trouble zones all over the
world. I love the Shan. But their plight made me realize that there
are groups of displaced, stateless people all over the world and because
of uncomfortable politics no one is helping them. Darfur is probably
the example most people will know, but there are many, many others.
And it doesnt matter what color their skin or what language or
religion, people are people, and more importantly, kids are kids, and
they deserve the right to live and grow in safety.
Update May 8th 2008 Disaster and Repression in Burma
100,000 dead or missing and 1 million displaced.
FBR Relief Team Leader
During forty years of totalitarian rule, the SPDC, the junta which
rules Burma, has demonstrated time and again that they view the
civilian population as adversaries. Burma maintains one of the largest
standing armies in the world, although they have no external enemies.
Obviously, the purpose of the army is to maintain the juntas power,
to protect the government from the people. In light of the horrendous
day-to-day situation in Burma, how can the world expect the junta to
react with compassion and save its people after an horrific natural
To get an idea of how the situation is on the ground, I conducted interviews
(mostly by email) with members of various aid organizations and pro-democracy
groups concerned with Burma.
The Free Burma Rangers (FBR) is one of the leading and most well-respected
organizations working on the Thai border. An FBR Relief Team Leader,
had this to say.
We hope that the SPDC allows the international community to come
in and give assistance to those in critical need at this time.
Kind souls from around the world have written me and asked if I could
get them inside of Burma. Sadly, I cannot. I work in the tribal areas,
which we can access through the jungle. But Yangon, where much of the
destruction took place, is only accessible by airplane, and you need
a visa, issued by the Burmese government to enter. Many aid workers
are frustrated. They sit with their medicines and food packages, waiting
for visas to enter. So far, the junta has been slow about granting entry
to aid workers.
It's already slowed it down -- they are obsessed with the referendum.
Making UN personnel wait for visas like tourists because they suspect
journalists coming in to cover the stupid referendum. Said another
relief team member.
The immediate need is for foreign aid to get into the country, to feed,
cloth, house, and care for those who need help. A long term concern,
however, is that aid can be used as a tool, by the junta to strengthen
their own position.
Foreign aid should only go in with proper monitoring and accountability
for its use. Said an aid worker.
All of the workers, from the various organizations, asked me to keep
their identity secret because they are in the process of applying for
visas. The Burmese government often does checks of foreign press and
blacklists people with close ties to the media.
Some Muslim magazines are very concerned that the people of the Arakan,
who largely follow the religion of Islam, will be completely marginalized
and no help will reach them at all.
The Rohingyas in Arakan are in an especially difficult situation
and will need a focused effort to provide the assistance that they need.
Some international aid organizations, who are willing to accept the
Burmese governments tight restrictions, maintain permanent offices
in the capital. The tribal people, however, are largely served by small
aid organizations, often faith based, who are ill-funded, but risk life
and limb to save as many lives as possible. The Muslim people of the
Arakan are in an extremely unfortunate geographical location. They are
only accessible from Bangladesh and India, where there are very few
foreign aid teams.
As an open request for help, I would be willing to serve as Emergency
Medical Technician on any aid mission who wishes to try and help the
people living in Arakan state or those who have fled over the border.
The photos that I have seen of the refuge camps in Bangladesh are heart
breaking with people dying of starvation and disease daily. If any Muslim
organization, or anyone with a heart and a checkbook, is willing to
help support aid to these people, I would be proud to help. Contact
Even the UN is waiting in line to help, but the junta has failed to
answer. The UN has requested access to provide relief but we are
not sure of the status of those relief efforts.
Many people know of my work with the Shan State Army, in Shanland. Unfortunately,
although the cyclone missed the major tribal areas, the ethnics are
still suffering at the hands of the SPDC.
In the mountains where the IDPs are under attack by the Burma
Army, attacks by the Burma Army continue. There the storm is, however,
less severe and there have been no reports from our teams of large scale
damage in eastern Burma. However, the ethnic Karen in particular in
the Delta region were badly affected by this storm as they make up a
large percentage of the population in the area worst hit by the cyclone.
There is an immediate need for drinking water, sanitation, food,
shelter, blankets, cooking implements, and medical care. We are
trying to develop a network to assess the needs, purchase or order
supplies, package them, transport and distribute them in the most caring
and efficient manner and account for and report on the assistance.
Right now the greatest problem is getting access from the SPDC
to go help the people now. We hope that the international community
will help those in need immediately.
Caring folks around the world have asked how and where they can send
They can send it to World Aid (checks payable to World Aid)
2442 NW Market Street, PMB# 434
Seattle, WA 98107
Designate: Cyclone relief
Our tax id is 94-3116991
Contact World Aid directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Now needs to be a moment of action. We, the world community need to
send aid, volunteers, and workers. We need to pressure the junta to
allow life-saving medicines and technologies to enter. Moving forward,
however, let this disaster be the catalyst, the first step toward permanent
and meaningful international intervention in Burma. The Burmese people,
the Burmans, the Shan, the Karen, Karenni, rohingas, Pa-O, Palong, Lahu,
Lisu, Akha, and all the various ethnic groups have the right to live
in freedom and peace. They have the right to self-determination. They
have chosen Aung San Suu Kyi, so let us help her take her rightful place
as the leader of a new Free Burma.
Please say a prayer for the people of Burma.
Contact Antonio: Antonio@speakingadventure.com
Antonio is self-funded and seeking sponsors. If you wish to contribute
to the In Shanland film project, you can donate through
paypal, through the Burma page of my website.
Get Antonios books at amazon.com
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa
© Antonio Graceffo May 2008
*Written before the great Burma tragedy of May 4th when 50,000 people
or even more drowned inthe Cylone that swept through the country.
Fighter to Paramedic
Graceffo in Manila EMS school
Having spent most of my life learning to end life, it is a bit of a
change learning to save it.
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