CUTTING CLASS My parents always encouraged my brothers and I to go where we needed to go to learn what we wanted to learn. This turned out to be the prime motivator for my life of exploration; following my curiosity wherever it led me.
I was born in New York. When I was 10, my grandmother yanked me out of school for a few weeks and brought me out to the Middle East. We stopped in Jerusalem, where a friend of hers was leading a dig in the old city. They were uncovering an even older part of the Roman road, and that blew my mind. I was already excited to be missing school, but climbing down below the street level of the old city down to a different time 10 feet below? The hair on my neck still stands up when I think about it.
ON THE RIGHT COURSE As a freshman in high school, I wanted to learn Cantonese, so I got a job in a Chinese restaurant as a busboy, a dishwasher, then finally a cook. I didn't learn Cantonese because I'd picked the one restaurant where everyone spoke Mandarin (Putonghua), but learnt a lot about Chinese culture, and, of course, how to cook. I'm a philosophy major. In grad school I started my first business as an education consultant with some friends. This gave me access to some amazing countries, and to high-level leadership. In 2008, I had the opportunity to go to Bhutan to meet the king, and lead the development of their country's first law school. Since then, I've been back over 50 times.
WHO WAS I? In 2013, I was at a mountaintop festival, and the queen mother said to me, "Michael, I know you have a baby coming in January. If you promise to give him a Bhutanese name we'll get one for you right now." In Bhutan, names are given by monks and, without consulting with my wife, I said yes on the spot. She brings me up to His Eminence, Gyalse Rinpoche, who is generally believed to become the next Je Khenpo, or spiritual leader of Bhutan. He's one of the only undisputed reincarnates in all of Buddhism. I bow to get my blessing from him and, when he touches my head, I have a waking dream; a vision that I'd had every night of my life, preverbal, up until five or six years old. I mention it to a friend, who takes me to a well-known monk, a " tulku". He's a reincarnate whose speciality is recognising other reincarnates. He doesn't know anything about me, or why I'm there, but he tells me I'm a reincarnate, a monk from about 300 years ago, from Bhutan. It gets weirder! He knows scars on my body, and tells me I broke the law, and died when I was 40. A lot more crazy stuff happens but, long story short, when I next see the queen mother, I tell her everything that's happened and she just looks at me and says, "I already knew all of this."
For what it's worth, it puts into context why I have been going back to Bhutan over and over again, trying to improve the place. I'd be lying if I said it didn't impact me.
JOINING THE CLUB There were only four Explorers Club members living in Hong Kong when I arrived here in 2013. The Hong Kong chapter is new; it was only made official in January. The club dates back to 1905, and has a very small membership - some 3,000 members and fellows worldwide. They look for people that have firsts in exploration, science, discoveries that have been published, so it's a closely knit group of the world's leading explorers and field scientists. Members were responsible for a series of firsts, including the first to the North Pole, South Pole, the summit of Mount Everest, the first to the deepest point of the ocean and the first on the surface of the moon.
RIPE FOR ADVENTURE Hong Kong is the most amazing spot for creating a platform for exploration of the wider region. There is a great concentration of expertise, funding and enthusiasm; all ingredients required to stage new expeditions. Our chapter runs the gamut from celebrity-level conservationists who already have their own global platform to adventurers and hard-core field scientists working on discovering new species in far-flung places. Originally the Explorers Club was probably more how you'd imagine where Indiana Jones would go for a drink when he's passing through town, in between adventures. Former president of the Explorers Club Alan Nichols articulated a feeling a lot of us had as members that, historically, exploration has been Western-centric. We want to promote more world-centric exploration, which is what makes our Hong Kong outpost so important.
GREEN LIGHT My current company, TKCID (tkcid.com) is a development fund, focusing on tourism, agriculture, education, conservation projects in Bhutan. It's a young country - its median age is around 24 - and its environmental safeguards are written into its constitution. They're currently at about 77 per cent tree cover, and it's the only country on the planet that is a carbon sink. We invest in profitable, sustainable initiatives, building social enterprises there. For example, we're now working on creating the world's largest canopy walkway. It's an elevated trail system, 40 feet up, for scientific research. We also have a small eco camp, with 15 luxury tents, which is the economic engine that pays for the scientific infrastructure.
EXPLORER WITH A CAUSE We're at the doorstep of the golden age of exploration. The rate at which discoveries are being made today compared to half a century ago is exponential. Space travel, for example, is just beginning, so all those initial firsts that helped push the envelope were really just baby steps. Until recently, exploration has always been about being the first to conquest. Now it's about how we can contribute to the betterment of humanity. It's this more purpose-driven exploration that attracted me to the Explorers Club.