If you spent your life only traveling with family or close friends, like I used to, the thought of striking out on your own can be daunting. Fear of the unknown or of being in a strange place without your usual security blanket of people you are familiar with is a normal feeling at first.
Perhaps, then, you may consider going on an excursion with other like-minded people, even if you don’t know them. Yes, we were raised being cautioned about “stranger danger”, and while it is definitely a good idea to be circumspect, don’t allow an overabundance of apprehension to keep you from an adventure of a lifetime with friends you haven’t met yet.
This is my story of one time I overcame that uneasiness, and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
I met three very cool people to travel with when two of them, Marija and Felicia, posted on Couchsurfing website looking for people wishing to drive the Lake Michigan Circle tour. I had always wanted to do this, so I signed up.
We were joined by Rahul, a recent transplant to Chicago. I met the two young women the evening before, and Rahul at our meet-up point at a pancake house the day we left.
All three were in their early- to mid-twenties. I was in my mid- to late-forties. I silently wondered about how the millennials would mix with my Gen-X self over the course of four days in close quarters. We left in my car (I was the only one with a vehicle OR a driver’s license!) on the Friday going into Memorial Day weekend.
Attractions, Amusements, and Accommodations
Our first stop was in Gary, Indiana. Not the usual place anyone wants to be, but the women wanted to see Michael Jackson’s boyhood home. Turned out to be a fun stop, but mostly because we were starting to be comfortable around each other.
I had brought my extensive music collection burned onto compact discs- mainly stuff from the 1970s and 80s. To my surprise and great pleasure, the rest of the group really enjoyed the music and complimented me on my taste. Our sing-a-longs in the car became part of our bonding experience.
Driving up the coast of Michigan, we stopped at places that I was familiar with, having lived there myself for several years. We enjoyed hand-scooped ice-cream at Oink’s in New Buffalo, and again at House of Flavors in Ludington.
Our first night’s stay was camping in the back yard of a family in Grand Haven. They had seen our posts planning the trip on the Couchsurfing website, and invited us to stay with them. It was an incredible experience!
They had five young daughters who helped to cook us a lovely pancake breakfast in the morning. They then asked us to go kayaking with them on the river just behind their house. It was amazing.
The second night was spent in Ludington, a town where I had lived for 8 years in the past. I was able to show them some of my favorite places, but especially the beach, where we played shuffleboard and ate crazy things like deep-fried Oreos. We climbed the tall lighthouse at the state park. And sheltered in the large tent we shared as it rained that night.
My earlier trepidation of a generation gap was quickly fading. I found that I had way more in common with these younger people than I had differences. We all liked adventure. We all wanted to see the beautiful outdoors. And we all had enough respect for each other to allow for differences of opinion while expressing our own.
We shared our thoughts, dreams, and experiences along the way. I remember Rahul talking about the most powerful word or sound in the world- “om” or “aum”- the sacred sound in Indian culture and Hindu religion.
Marija (who we called “momma” for a reason I never understood), was working as a nanny, but had dreams of being a successful artist. Felicia was artistic as well, though she had performance art in mind.
We stopped at Great Bear Dunes south of Traverse CIty. Climbed all the way up to the top, then joined hands and ran all the way down, trying not to fall on the steep sand slopes while laughing like children the entire time.
Right before the Mackinac Bridge, separating the Upper and Lower Peninsulas of Michigan, we ate burgers and fries at a lakefront pub, watching the ferries coming back from Mackinac Island.
As I drove across the huge suspension bridge, the other three took turns standing up and hanging their torsos and arms through the open moonroof of my car. I wanted to join them, but somebody had to operate the vehicle. I satisfied myself by singing along with a Whitesnake track and vicariously enjoyed their happiness and excitement. This was truly as much fun as anything I had ever done in my teenage years.
More Hospitality From Strangers
We were behind schedule for our trip. Our stay in Ludington had taken longer than planned. The weather report was not looking positive, either. Heavy rains were forecast for the late evening and night.
We did manage to stop at the Mystery Spot! which had been advertised up and down the highway since we crossed the bridge. Deciding to skip the paid optical illusion, we instead ran through the goofy maze hunting each other. Again, having adult-size kid’s fun.
Before leaving the Mystery Spot!, we debated on renting a cabin or roadside motel room for the night, instead of trying to camp. Felicia had another option for us. She had posted in the Green Bay, Wisconsin Couchsurfing group looking for last-minute accommodation for four people. I had serious doubts about anyone accepting that request.
However, she got a positive reply from some guy named Joe, who said his roommate was out of town, and that we could crash there for the night. We climbed back in the car and I drove four hours in the darkening gloom and rain to get there just before midnight.
Joe had some other guys over for company, and we were invited to join them for Jenga and beer. I think they also ordered a pizza. After a couple of hours and a few beers, I was done. I found my way to the roommate’s bedroom and crashed on the floor between the bed and the door.
When the other three made it upstairs, the women took the bed, while Rahul grabbed whatever floor-space was left. I didn’t have a mattress to lay on, but I slept just fine, thankful for a warm, dry place.
The next morning, Rahul accompanied me across the street to the parking space. I had to jack the car up and take off the right front wheel to inspect the rotor and brake caliper. The car had been making grinding noises when I applied pressure to the brake pedal, and sure enough, the caliper had seized.
There was a parade now forming up on the street between Joe’s place and the car, reminding us that there was probably not going to be anyplace open for a repair that day. Armed with the knowledge that the car would most likely stop using the other three wheels, I decided that I’d live with the fact that the right front would be completely destroyed by the time we got back home.
I had the feeling that Rahul didn’t have a lot of experience with automotive repair, but I really appreciated him coming out to help me with it.
After treating our gracious host, Joe, to a big breakfast at a crowded home-style restaurant, we headed down to Milwaukee, and spent a few hours on the waterfront and ate in the historic Third Ward.
It’s about 90 minutes from Milwaukee to Chicago. During that time, the other three fell asleep in the dark. I silently sang along to my tunes, glancing in the rear-view mirror. Felicia’s head was resting on Rahul’s shoulder. It was such a sweet sight, as the two of them had previously been engaged in some debate- not heated, but vigorous, nonetheless. There wasn’t anything romantic about it. Felicia’s boyfriend was waiting back at the apartment for her. But it was a gesture of friendship and trust.
Marija’s hand was resting on the console between us, and I took it in mine, gave it a gentle squeeze, and received one in return. Again, not an amorous gesture, but something borne out of a sibling-type affection.
I don’t remember another occasion where the four of us got back together. But I do have fond memories of spending time with Felicia and her boyfriend at house parties. I remember also attending a great party that Rahul had at his place. And I hold sentimental images in my mind of Marija using her skills as a make-up artist to transform me into a zombie for C2E2- Chicago’s version of Comic-Con.
I’m on the other side of the world now, in Vietnam. Felicia and Marija are still in Chicago. Rahul has moved to Texas for work. I’ve not seen them since I left Chicago at the end of 2016. Marija was kind enough to let me crash at her place for my last night there.
We don’t always keep in touch, only on occasion through social media. But I’ll always consider them as my good friends, these three strangers with whom I shared an unforgettable adventure.
(This is the second post in my series about my Laos trip which happened back in May of 2017)
After my nice experience with Pan and the generous offer of a ride back to the bus station, I was feeling pretty good about my trip so far. But then, it kind of turned sour. I had booked a sleeping bus, as it was to take ten hours from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. I don’t recall the amount that I spent for the sleeping berth, but it wasn’t a big expense.
On the bus, I discovered the reason for the modest price. After checking my large backpack, I boarded the bus holding a small bag of personal items. We entered the bus in the middle, and then squeezed our way either to the front or the back of the bus, depending on our berth number. Mine was to the front, and on the left. There was possibly 18″ of space between the bunks on either side of the vehicle, so it was a tight walk with my bag held in front of me.
When I arrived at my numbered bed, this one up top, I discovered that it was already occupied by another man. I quickly checked my ticket against the berth number, and to my horror, I saw that there were TWO numbers assigned to the mattress. Since the other people were waiting behind me to get to their own beds, I shrugged it off and climbed up the small ladder, trying not to bump my head on the ceiling above. I greeted my new “friend” with a smile and said “sabaiddee” (standard Lao greeting). He politely returned the smile and the greeting, then promptly turned his head and body to the window.
I Wish I Was a Little Bit Smaller (I Wish I Was a Baller..)
I then laid myself down on my side of the narrow mattress with my bag between my ankles. Now, I’m not exactly short, but neither am I considered tall by western standards. I stand five feet, ten inches, or 178 centimeters. But I found my feet were flat up against the divider between our bed and the one in front, while the top of my head was firmly pressed against the wall behind me. Lying flat on my back was my only realistic option, however, because attempting to lie on my side with my knees bent would have forced me to spoon with the dude on my left. Turning the other way would push my face into the metal safety rail and my ass into the aforementioned stranger. This was going to be a long, long, ride.
The first part of the drive seemed okay, if not completely comfortable. I did my best to try to sleep, as there were no reading lights, and I didn’t have data to play with my phone. Within an arm’s reach across the aisle, were two French women travelers who were talking to each other. I could make out some of the words, so it was a bit of a distraction from my rigid (non)sleeping position. But after the first hour, we found ourselves being thrown from side to side as the bus began its ascent into the mountains on the twisty roads. More than once, I found myself gripping the metal rail to keep from rolling over it and falling to the floor. I was also bracing trying not to slide to the left into my sleeping partner.
I tried to imagine worse conditions, and the only thing I could come up with was the pictures of the layout of the slave ships bringing unwilling human cargo from Africa to North America 400 years ago. I comforted myself with the following facts: 1) I chose to be here, 2) it was only going to be ten hours, 3) there were no rats, and 4) death by impact of the bus blowing through a guardrail and plunging to the chasms below seemed preferable to death by drowning or sharks if the boat suddenly found itself with a hole in the side.
Break, Brakes, and Breakdowns
About 5 hours into the ride, we stopped in some small, roadside village for a toilet break and some food. Even at 1:00am, the wood and tin shacks were open and lit up to cater to the weary travelers. But what was available was a large selection of dried fish, squid, and other formerly happy sea creatures, now spread out on tables under the light. The smell was overpowering. Fortunately, this was not the only option. The ticket price included a meal at sit-down picnic tables. Here, the choice was green curry over noodles: chicken or pork. It was actually pretty tasty, but I felt bad for one of the French ladies, as she was vegetarian. I think she bought a bag of potato chips for her meal.
We stayed at the rest stop for perhaps 30 minutes, in which time I was able to use the toilet, fill my belly, and stretch my legs. There was a cute little dog wandering around the tables begging for scraps. The two girls and I played with him a bit until it was time to get back on the rolling sardine can.
I’d like to say that the rest of the journey was uneventful, but fate had other ideas. Less than an hour outside of the rest stop, the bus suddenly pulled to the side of the road and halted. The driver and other attendants climbed out to examine some problem in the dark. Other passengers, men and women both, exited to take the opportunity to stretch their legs or relieve themselves along the roadside. Southeast Asian culture seems a bit different than Western culture when it comes to bodily functions in public. Being a bit more conservative, I walked in the inky darkness up the road a piece and around the curve before taking care of my own business.
This turned out to be only the first of perhaps five stops along the mountain road in the dark because of mechanical difficulties. There was a strange grinding noise coming from the rear whenever we slowed down for yet another curve, and the staff continued to investigate the cause, each time deciding to continue. (I don’t believe there was much of an alternative.) The ten-hour trip turned into thirteen before we finally limped into the bus station at Luang Prabang. I hadn’t slept at all the entire trip, though my bunkmate seemed fresh as a daisy when we disembarked from the bus. So, I learned a couple of lessons: 1) think carefully before deciding to book another sleeping bus, and 2) if I do, make sure to buy the whole damn berth.
(I’m taking time now to post stories about my experiences from my first year in Thailand. They won’t necessarily be in chronological order, but rather what I’m motivated to write about on any given day. This is my first post concerning my 11-day trip to Laos last year.)
On the first day of May last year, I used Uber to move my meager belongings from the place where I was house-sitting to my new apartment outside of Chiang Mai. I had accepted a position to teach at the local primary school in the town, and found a decent-sized studio apartment in a building not far from where I would be working. Not only was it conveniently located, but because of the way my unit was situated in the three-story concrete building, I did not have to deal with direct sunlight heating up my home.
The furnished apartment came with air conditioning, a refrigerator, and a more western style bathroom, with a separated shower (as in not having to stand next to the toilet and get water all over the floor). The property also included a nice swimming pool, beautiful landscaping, and laundry facilities.
Instead of unpacking my belongings and setting up my new place to my liking, I simply threw everything on the bed and the couch, grabbed my backpack and filled it with some clothes, documents, and a book. After taking a quick shower, I mounted my rented motorcycle and headed back into the city. I had booked an early morning flight to Udon Thani, near the border of Laos, and I planned to stay overnight with a friend who lived much nearer the airport than I now did.
It was raining gently the next morning as we walked out on the tarmac to the waiting propeller-driven airplane. Nok Airlines nicely provided the passengers bright, yellow umbrellas to help keep us dry as we waited to walk up the staircase into the fuselage. The flight itself lasted a little less than an hour, and bright, sunny skies were over Udon Thani. I walked into the terminal, looking for the ground transportation that would shuttle me to the border, about an hour north of UT. I found the kiosk for the minivan shuttle, only to discover that I didn’t have enough cash (or at least Thai money) on me, and the currency exchanges weren’t open yet.
A quick moment of panic later, I found an ATM and used my U.S. debit card to take out a couple thousand Thai baht, transaction fees be damned. Then I walked back and purchased the only remaining seat in the minivan.
Fun with Bureaucracy
At the Laos border, I stood in line to exit Thai Immigration, stood in line to submit my application to Laos immigration, where they gladly accepted U.S. dollars for the fee, then stood in line to retrieve my passport with the Laos entry stamp. While in one of those lines, I happened to meet up with two other American guys. One of them had done this several times. “This” being a visa run. My entire reason for coming to Laos was because my Thai tourist visa was expiring, and I had to leave the country to apply for another at the consulate in Vientiane. Since this guy had experience, the other man and I politely asked if we could tag along with him, splitting a fare to the consulate. He agreed, and we were able to bargain with a van driver to take the three of us there for only 100 baht each.
During the ensuing ride, I discovered that neither of these men were the type with whom I would choose to hang out. Both were slightly racist and completely misogynist in their conversation. I decided not to engage them, rather just stared out the window as we drove into the city.
Upon reaching the consulate, we each grabbed visa application forms and started filling them out while shuffling back and forth through the seating that doubled as dividers for the snaking line of people. On the form, I discovered that the consulate required two passport photos with white backgrounds. I had brought my passport photos from the Chiang Mai immigration office with me, because I was prepared.
However, Chiang Mai immigration office requires BLUE backgrounds, so all of my preparation was pointless. I got to the front of the line, ready to plead my case, but was told that I had to get new photos. Fortunately for me, there was a kiosk to take my picture inside the building adjacent the covered, outdoor visa application area. Of course, I had to pay for the new photos, but it wasn’t really much money. Way less than the more expensive scammers set up outside of the gate. I returned to the line and put my application in just a few minutes before the deadline. I was handed a receipt with the number 600 prominently displayed. This was my queue number for the next afternoon when I would return to pick up my passport with my new visa.
No Particular Place to Go
With no plans, no reservations, no clue for the next 30 hours until I picked up my papers, I began walking away from the consulate, looking for two things: lodging and food. I decided to not purchase a SIM card for my phone while in Laos, instead depending on finding free WiFi to aid in my communication. It was hot, of course, and I really didn’t know anything about Vientiane. I checked out a couple of hotels near the consulate, but they were relatively expensive for the quality of the accommodation. Meaning that although they were pretty cheap, they were also pretty unclean and gross.
Instead, I entered a coffee shop with air-conditioning, free WiFi, and an outlet to charge my phone as I looked online and found several hostels were available near the river. I booked one that had decent reviews, finished drinking my iced coffee and charging my phone, and headed out, using my maps program offline. It was a 45-minute walk in the heat, but I was able to get a glimpse of city life in Laos while I was trudging along with my backpack.
After checking into my hostel, I tossed my bag on my lower-berth bed in the sixteen-bunk dormitory. Took a nice, cool shower, washing the sweat out of my t-shirt and underwear while doing so. (Backpackers must learn how to survive cheaply!) After hanging them outside on the deck to dry, I put on some fresh clothes and walked to find myself something to eat and explore. I found a nice night market set up alongside the river, and discovered to my delight that I was in clear line of sight to the cellular towers on the Thailand side, and thus was able to use the data plan on my phone.
After grabbing some noodles, I found a local bar that was on the third floor of a building facing the river. The large room was open on one side to the outdoors, with large fans moving air around. I was able to eventually grab a seat at a small cocktail table next to the balcony. The market below, with its colorful umbrellas and stalls for food an merchandise made for nice scenery, along with the inky black Mekong river reflecting the lights from Thailand. Perfect for enjoying a cold Beer Lao Dark, which I discovered was pretty damned good.
I noticed quite a few other foreigners were in the bar. Probably most of them were in Vientiane for the same reason as I was. I also saw a lot of locals enjoying themselves. One of them in particular caught my eye. She was a pretty woman sitting alone at the bar nursing a bottle of beer, and after several minutes of debating with myself, I asked the waitress to “serve that girl at the bar another of what she’s been sipping on for the last half-hour.” Instead of asking for another beer, she ordered some type of cocktail instead. And then raised her glass in my direction. I tipped my bottle back at her, and wondered if I had just committed an error. But in a few minutes, she walked over and joined me at my table. We talked for a few more drinks, with me coaching her English a bit. She told me that she was trying to teach herself the language while working full-time in a clothing shop and raising two kids. I was impressed that she spoke as well as she did without formal lessons.
When it was time for the bar to close, she asked me where I was staying. I told her it was close, and that I had walked to the bar pretty easily. But she offered me a ride on the back of her motorcycle, so I accepted. I don’t think she understood what I meant when I said I was staying in a hostel, and she looked a little surprised when I had her stop in front of the guesthouse. As I was leaving the next day for Luang Prabang in the north of Laos, there wasn’t going to be time to see her again, but I had her contact information and told her that I would message her when I returned the next week.
I went inside and sat down in the lobby so I could charge my phone again and use the Wifi there, because the signal was better. While I was there, another woman walked in from her night out, and we ended up having a really nice conversation about teaching in southeast Asia. Lydia was from Uganda, and spoke perfect English. She was on holiday from her job teaching in central Vietnam. After about an hour, we both walked up to the dormitory and went to sleep in our respective beds.
Lowering My Expectations
The next morning, I slept in a bit, as the consulate wasn’t going to begin handing out our passports until after 1pm. I noticed with a bit of horror that the cleaning lady was simply changing the pillowcase and refolding the blanket on the next bed over, which had been vacated earlier. Instead of replacing the sheet, she simply brushed it off and went to the next bunk. I decided to not give the place a good review on Hostelworld.com. (Keep this in mind for when you read my later post: “Hydrophobia”. )After collecting my laundry from outside, I showered and packed my bag. I decided to walk back to the consulate, taking a different route from the day before.
Upon encountering a fairly large shopping “mall”, I went inside to enjoy the cool air-conditioning. One of the ladies at a kiosk offered to sell me a belt, which I actually needed. I haggled with her over the price a bit, turning to walk away until she agreed to the reasonable price (about $15 US) that I was holding out for. She punched a couple of new holes in it, so it would still work for me after I lost weight from sweating my ass off in the heat. I then sat down and enjoyed a lovely coffee before heading back out into the sweltering noontime sun.
It turned out that I didn’t need to show up at 1:30 to collect my passport. Being that I was number 600, I ended up waiting for two hours before I was called to go to the window. I found a seat inside the building where the photo booth was, because there was air-conditioning inside. I was able to pass the time by engaging in conversations with other westerners who also had a high queue number. One of these was an Israeli man who lived in the Chonburi province, south of Bangkok. He offered to split his private cab with me back to his hotel, which was in the direction of the bus station I needed to get to, and he told the driver to give me a good price to take me there. I don’t know if it was a good price or not, but it was helpful that I didn’t have to haggle and try to give directions.
Friends in New Places
After purchasing my ticket for the overnight bus, I found that I still had about four hours to kill. The bus station was way outside of town, and there wasn’t anything of interest in sight. The food stalls didn’t really look appetizing, and they didn’t serve beer, so I decided to walk up the road a bit, thinking perhaps I’d find something. After walking about 3 kilometers (I’m stubborn), I came upon a dusty intersection with a few commercial buildings. I spied a bar/cafe across the street. Inside, I was able to get WiFi connection, plug in my phone, and enjoy a cold beer along with some hot food. A small group of locals came in and sat down at a nearby table.
When it was time for me to head back to the bus station, I decided that I better hit the toilet before leaving. While washing my hands at the sink, one of the local guys from the other table came in. He began to ask me the normal questions to which I’ve become accustomed: “Where are you from?” “Where do you go?” “How long you stay?” I answered politely, and mentioned that I needed to get going because it was a long walk back to the bus.
Just then, a very loud noise interrupted our conversation. It was the sound of heavy raindrops reverberating on the metal roof. Not just a few, but a downpour. Shit. I had not planned for this to happen. Now I was looking at a miserable walk in the rain, which was going to soak not only me, but my belongings as well. I walked around the corner of the outdoor restroom to see a monsoon, with sheets of water being pushed by the wind. The voice in my head was whining and cursing. And then the voice behind me said, “You come sit and drink beer with me and my family. This rain stop soon, then I take you to bus.”
For all of the stories you may hear of scam artists and rip-offs in southeast Asian countries, I guarantee you that there are a dozen more of the kindness that these people show to strangers. Pan, his wife, and his brother-and-sister-in-law moved their chairs around to accommodate me and made me feel welcome. Three of them didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t stop them from offering me food and sharing their beer with me. Pan acted as interpreter while I answered questions about America and myself, and asked my own questions about Laos. It was a humbling experience. Pan asked me if I was on Facebook, and if he could add me as a friend. Yes, and yes. I may never cross paths with Pan again in person, but I’m able to share his joy over a newborn baby and other moments in life. I’ll always be grateful to him for that simple act of humanity by inviting me to wait out the rain with him and then taking me to the bus station on the back of his motorcycle.
The bus adventure and Luang Prabang will wait for another post.
One of the fascinating parts about living here is discovering the different variety of fauna that surrounds me, as opposed to what I was used to seeing back in the States. I was introduced almost immediately to some of the indigenous wildlife after arriving last year on New Year’s Day in Bangkok.
Into the Wild
My friend arranged to take me to a temple complex outside the city where we dined with the crowd and then walked around. There was a large pond formed by a stream that had been dammed up, and I was gazing down into it, watching the large carp who were feeding on pellets being tossed at them. Just to my left I spotted a good-sized snapping turtle floating lazily with his beak just breaking the water’s surface.
None of this was really new to me. I’d seen snapping turtles while growing up in Florida. I’d seen big fish in ponds, though never this amount at once. It looked as if you could walk across the water by stepping on the backs of the carp, they were so thick.
What I didn’t expect to see was a seven-foot monitor lizard to clamber out of the water and up the bank to the walkway.
This was cool. They walk quite the same as the alligators that I had seen as a boy. It seems a little cumbersome for them, and I do believe that they are much more graceful in the water. The monitor lizard pushed himself up off the ground, keeping his legs bent at an odd angle to do so. For some reason I was reminded of the plastic legs that we used to attach to the segmented bodies of Cootie toys.
I watched as he lumbered towards one of the temple buildings, only to freeze in place, then slowly retreat back to the water as a group of three worshippers appeared around the corner of the structure. Evidently most monitors are a bit shy.
Same Same, But Different
Later, when I had settled into my digs at my training course up in Chiang Mai, I began to see (and hear) other unfamiliar creatures. Birds that I didn’t recognize. Birds that I DID recognize, but were different than the ones I’d seen before. Like chickens.
Usually, when we see chickens in the States, they tend to be more squat and plump, probably based on the breeding and the diet. Here, the chickens stand a bit taller, and are scrawny. You can tell the difference when you order some fried (or roasted) chicken at the food stalls. The pieces (drumstick, wing, etc.) are pretty small in comparison to the ones you’ll find at Popeye’s or Church’s. But the taste of the chicken here is so much better.
Not Quite Godzilla
But before I digress into a story about food…let’s get back to lizards. This place is overrun with small gecko-like lizards.
Some nights, the outside walls seem to be moving because of the amount of these little buggers running around. And they’re fast. Their movement is almost worm or snake-like.They wriggle when they run. I sometimes find them in my room, which is cool with me, because they are voracious eaters of bugs. I just wish they’d do a better job of getting rid of the pesky ants.
Some species of these creepy-crawlies grow larger. There’s a type of lizard called a “To-Kay” by the Thai people, based on the sound that they make.
It’s a very distinctive call. Starts out with a loud “tik! tik! tik! tik!”, then a pregnant pause, followed by a much louder “Toh-Kay! Toh-Kay! “Toh-Kay!” The interpretation of the sound is subjective, of course. The first time I heard it, at about 3am, I thought for sure that it was some kind of bird yelling “Fuck-You! Fuck-You! Fuck-You!” I couldn’t figure out why a bird would be awake to curse loudly at 3am, but every night, that damn thing would be waking me up. It was a few weeks before I asked someone about the bird, and was informed that it was, in fact, NOT a bird, but a lizard. The 3am began to make a bit more sense.
To-Kays can reach lengths of 8″ or more, and from what I’m told, are quite valuable if you find one big enough. I’ve also been informed that they will bite if provoked. I had one invite himself into the vent window in my shower last year. Startled me a bit.
I’ve also been startled (at first) by large, muddy water buffalo standing across the street from me as I got ready to leave for work. Now they seem commonplace.
A local farmer will lead them into the neighborhood to graze on empty lots. Sometimes he’ll tie them up alongside the street, and I’ve almost run into them on my motorcycle at night, because those suckers are nearly impossible to see in the dark. Almost always visible, though, are the large piles of bovine shit they leave behind in the middle of the road.
During rainy season, I’ll regularly see large bullfrogs peeking out of the watery rice fields, and smaller frogs leaping great heights and distances trying to make it across the road. It’s always a pity when they jump right in front of a passing vehicle. Last year, I actually saw a fish “swimming” on the street surface trying desperately to make it to the ditch where there was water.
My students know the words “rabbit” and “squirrel”, even though I have yet to see a (wild) rabbit or a proper squirrel here. (But then, my kids also know the word “snowman”.) Mainly the rodents I see here are rats. Rats are everywhere. In the cities, I’ve witnessed black, plastic garbage bags moving as if possessed by demons. But it’s always a rat or three scurrying around inside. Cockroaches are ubiquitous as well. If you’re a squeamish person, it’s probably best not to walk around at night.
Some of the spiders here are frightening as hell. One species, the huntsman spider, can grow to the size of your hand. I’ve been told that they are harmless to humans, but I believe that is bullshit. I’ve had to kill a few of them in my room, and even though they were much smaller than the advertised “large” size, they still nearly gave me a heart attack.
Planet of the Apes
During my school break back in October, I visited southern Thailand for a couple of weeks. One of the places I visited was Hua Hin, about two hours south of Bangkok, on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. While there, I decided to hike up to a popular viewpoint overlooking the city and the water. As soon as I got out of the main commercial/residential area of the town, I was startled to see troops (also called missions, tribes, or cartloads?) of monkeys sitting along a long concrete wall.
This was my first experience ever seeing monkeys in the wild. Most of them were about the size of a small dog or a large house cat, though a few of the males were noticeably larger.
Not knowing their nature, I was a bit wary, having heard stories of monkeys throwing their shit at people. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. They are, however, perverts. I witnessed some behavior that would be better suited to a hard-core porn website.
Later, after I had finished taking pictures from the various viewpoints, I saw a large male sitting on the steps that I needed to take to get back to the entrance. I didn’t know what he wanted, and I had no desire to tangle with him. So I simply waited, and made sure that my phone was securely in my hand, since monkeys are notorious thieves.
And sure enough, larceny was on his mind. After about thirty seconds of me watching him, he turned his back to me and loped up towards a small group of Chinese tourists who were on their way to the photo op spots.
One of the ladies was clutching an iced-coffee she had just purchased at the stand near the entrance. Two seconds later, she was clutching only the plastic holder, as the klepto-monkey had jumped up and snatched away the cup of icy espresso. Guess everyone needs their caffeine fix.
Pachyderms on Parade
I was privileged to enjoy an experience with the larger, more majestic wildlife, namely elephants. My friend from Chicago visited me, and we booked a visit to a cruelty-free elephant sanctuary where we were allowed to feed, bathe, and play with the beautiful creatures.
Many people come to Thailand or other Asian countries and pay for the experience of riding the elephants or watching them perform tricks like painting and such. What these people (hopefully) don’t realize is that behind the curtain of fun activity for humans is the horrible treatment of the animals, as they are beaten, chained, and gouged with bullhooks in order to train them to perform.
Fortunately, the information is becoming more widespread, and a few elephant camps are changing to cruelty-free, no-riding sanctuaries as the demand for these grows and tourists are voting with their wallets.
I had intended to use this post to talk about the dogs and cats here, but my word count is already past 1,600, and I’ll have lots more to say about that in a separate post.
I have never been a violent person. At least not as a rule. Sure, when I was a kid, I used to get into angry fights with my brothers, and some punches and kicks were thrown, but mainly I was in defensive mode, waiting for them to foolishly try a karate-style kick to my face. That’s when I’d grab the swinging foot and dump the kicker unceremoniously on his ass. I didn’t follow up by punching them when they were down. There was the time when I was four (and I really don’t have a recollection of this story) that I evidently got so pissed at my babysitter that I threw a “D”-cell battery at her and knocked out a tooth.
Otherwise, I was afraid to get into fights. My parents strongly encouraged us to “turn the other cheek” and walk away when threatened or bullied by others. My fear was not so much of getting beat up as it was of getting in trouble at school and then subsequently at home. The two times that I recall fighting back ended with the other party complaining about a busted jaw or broken nose. Either way, blood was spilled with my single punch to the face. I was horrified by it. In my dreams, when I get into a physical altercation, my instinct is to fight to the death. In my dream-state, I am filled with so much rage and fear that I continue to pummel the other person until they are pretty much raw meat. I wake up in a sweat, with my heart pounding. Fighting is not something that I enjoy.
Violence in movies does not necessarily turn me off. I am not in love with it, but I’d prefer to see realistic portrayals of what happens when someone is shot, punched, hit by a train, etc., as long as it fits the storyline and is not gratuitous. But I have never enjoyed watching boxing matches, or the currently popular UFC-style fighting. The ancient Romans were entertained by such blood sport, and I had mistakenly thought that we had evolved past that. The sight of two men (or women) beating the shit out of each other for others’ amusement is not my choice of entertainment.
So, you would think that the sight of the Muay Thai ring commanding the center of the Reggae Bar in Koh Phi Phi, Thailand would hold zero interest for me. But the opposite was true. I was drawn to it. There was a large sign inside the bar stating that anyone volunteering to fight another patron for three, one-minute bouts would receive a free bucket of whiskey and mixer after the fight. The whiskey didn’t tempt me. But the thought of testing my fighting ability against another man somehow did. I can’t explain it. I wanted to get in that ring. I watched other contestants sparring, and it looked to me that they weren’t really taking it too seriously, just having a bit of fun clowning around. Even the Thais who got in to fight without the protective gloves and pads were hamming it up for the crowd of drinkers. I decided that I was going to sign up for this before I left the island.
The next day, I got up early and went on a planned scuba diving adventure. It was a lovely day and the dives went beautifully. Unfortunately, I got seasick (for the first time in my life) both times I returned to the boat, and ended up feeding the fish for a while. I rested for the better part of the late afternoon, even taking a nap that evening until about 9:30. Then I got up and headed over to the Reggae Bar to fulfill my promise to myself. I told one of the staff that I was interested in getting in the ring. So they had me crawl between the ropes and stand there while they asked who wanted to challenge me. A guy from Argentina, Luciano, about half my age and in good shape, stood up and volunteered. Great.
They gave us both a pair of boxing shorts (smelly, sweaty from other use), his red, mine blue. We stood around waiting for a bit for the other bouts to finish. As I drank the single beer that I had ordered, I chatted with him and we both reassured each other that we were only into it for the fun, that we weren’t REALLY going to be fighting hard. At least that was my impression. I had time to ask another patron to take pictures with my phone, and then it was time.
The referee explained the rules to us. No elbows, no knees. We could hit with our thick, boxing gloves and kick with our padded shins and feet. No hitting from behind, no kicks to the groin. That settled, we touched gloves, and the bell rang. The agreement that I had come to with Luciano didn’t seem to be understood exactly the same by both sides. He came at me and landed a heavy right cross to the left side of my face. My head snapped back a bit to the right, and my thought was, “what the hell??” He got one more good punch in before I realized that HIS idea of fun was different than mine.
I got my gloves up and blocked his next few attempts. I saw that he was leaving his face exposed, and I took advantage of the opportunity to poke him right in the nose with a left jab. I was still pulling my punches however, because I somehow still believed that we were supposed to be fooling around. And that’s when he started kicking. His right leg shot out and around and connected with the side of my left thigh. It hurt like hell. This dude obviously had gone through a bit of training for this. Unfortunately for me, I kept letting him do it. Had I used my head a bit, I would have pivoted the other way, not exposing that side to his devastating kicks. But my (stupid) reaction was to drop my gloves and ask him, “didn’t we agree…?”… and immediately put them back up to block an oncoming blow.
Mercifully, the bell rang, and we both retired to our corners. I took a small sip of water supplied by one of the attendants, and tried to stand straight with my left leg on fire. I looked around the crowd, and everyone seemed to be having a great time. I told myself that I could make it through another minute, then rest again. The bell rang again, and we were back at it. I ducked quite a few punches, and got in a couple of good ones myself. At one point, Luciano reeled backward and stumbled, but didn’t fall. I should have pressed my attack, but didn’t. He got in two more crushing kicks, then came at me. I ducked under a roundhouse right, popped him once. He then connected while I was heading away, and the punch took me off balance. I was headed to the mat. I got up right away, and looked for my opponent, but the ref was quickly in my face and removing my headgear. I asked him what was going on, and he said, “Stop fight. Over.”
“What? Why”, I bellowed. I was ok. My leg hurt like hell, but I wasn’t dazed. There wasn’t a count while I was down, it was less than a second.
“Safety”, came the reply. I was about to argue the point, and then I realized that my leg was done for. I couldn’t keep taking that punishment.
“Fine,” I acquiesced. I let them remove my gloves and footpads, then went over to the Argentinian and gave him a sweaty, congratulatory hug. The ref took us both by the hand, and raised Luciano’s high in the air. The crowd cheered, we both got medals and buckets of liquor. I limped over and removed the fighting shorts and put back on my own clothing. There were high fives and hugs and mentions of “great fight”, “that was awesome”, and “you’re brave” for both the winner and the loser.
Yeah, so I didn’t win. But I didn’t feel like a loser, either. It was a cool experience, and probably something I would try again. But next time….fuck Mr. Nice Guy.
Rain hurts. Butterflies hurt. Pretty much any normally harmless small object hurts when it hits your face at 50kph. The motorcycle helmet that I have been using does not have a face visor. Most times, that is preferable to me, as I enjoy feeling the wind cooling my face (and the rest of me) as I ride along on the far left side of the roadway. Sometimes, if I’m not going on the big highway, and there are unlikely to be police checkpoints out, I don’t even wear a helmet. Foolish? Yes, of course. My mother would tell you that even sitting on a motorcycle itself is foolish. But that’s how most people in southeast Asia get from place to place. And sometimes it’s the entire family on one motorbike. Smallest child in front, standing on the footpads, father or mother operating the bike, and the next child and/or spouse sitting behind. And most of the time, none is wearing a helmet. It’s a way of life here.
Of course, I don’t have to follow suit. Just because the Thai people choose not to wear a brain-saving device on their noggins doesn’t mean that I must join the crowd. But I have discovered how much I absolutely love the feeling of the wind rushing through my hair as I ride the rural roads, passing fields of rice, cows, the ubiquitous roadside food or coffee stands. It is definitely a risk, but it’s one of those risks in life that I believe is worth it sometimes. Don’t tell my mom.
But back to the rain. It is now that season in Thailand, when the rain pours out of the sky on a regular basis. When I first moved here, I experienced about four months of almost complete dry weather. I believe that it might have rained one time in January, and then not again until Songkran, the Thai New Year celebration that happens in April. I’ve been told that it ALWAYS rains during Songkran, due to the fact that it is a three-day nationwide water fight, and that all of that water being thrown around evaporates, condenses, and then falls back to earth. I guess it make sense. Mid-May is when the “monsoon” season seems to begin. It has been raining most days since I returned from Laos. Last Friday, I arrived at the school to begin teaching English to the first and second grade classes that have been assigned to me, only to find out that school was cancelled for the day because of the flooding caused by the torrential downpours the previous night. Ironically, from that point on, through the rest of my unexpected three-day weekend, it didn’t rain a drop. It seemed to be saving up for Tuesday. Because on Tuesday after school, I had to ride about 15km from the little village where I am living outside of Chiang Mai all the way to the opposite side of the city. It was time to renew the rental agreement on the motorcycle, and payment over the internet or phone isn’t something that they are set up for.
The rain was constant. Drenching. I had put on a flimsy, disposable plastic rain cover that someone nicely gave me, but it only did so much for only so long. As I mentioned at the outset, I was being pelted by raindrops on my face. After colliding with my forehead, these little bits of wet were pulled by gravity down into my eyes, threatening to blind me. As I was unable to dodge every puddle, my feet were soaked, my legs were soaked, and if it had not been for the plastic pouch that I had saved from my Songkran adventures, my passport, wallet, and phone would have been soaked as well. I arrived at the rental shop looking pretty much like an otter that had been playing in the river all day. I asked the owner for a different helmet, one with a visor, so that my face would be spared some pain at least. On the long return trip, I discovered that I really didn’t like the visor that much, either, because it felt too enclosed, and the rain dripping down on it was a distraction. But it did provide some protection. I stopped at a small cafe and ordered food, which was accompanied by a lovely bowl of hot, steaming broth, serving as a much-welcomed warm-up.
It rained again last night, and my friend and I got a little bit wet as we walked to the music venue that was playing some pretty good jazz next to the north gate of the old city. This morning, the clouds are out, but the sun is currently shining, and I’m taking advantage of it to sit by the pool with my laptop and do some writing that has been seriously neglected as of late. The French girl who also stays here just walked out to her motor scooter and is heading away, possibly to her Muay Thai fighting lesson. And I am beginning to hear raindrops hitting the umbrella I’ve been using for shade…gotta run!
(Some of this post was already written to my Facebook page. I had to cut some parts for length, and for information that I didn’t want to post to the general public. I’ve thought long and hard about whether to post this type of content about myself. I hope it’s the right decision. I’ll try to write more about my Laos trip later. And finish my social media story)
Finally on my way back home. And by “home”, I mean Chiang Mai, Thailand. It’s funny how I now think of it that way. It’s not the new apartment into where I moved my belongings on May 1, right before I started this 11-day trip to Laos. I haven’t even slept there yet. But I can’t wait to get back and throw myself across the bed and just bask in the beauty of contentment of not living out of a backpack.
Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy living out of my backpack when I’m traveling. It’s a good backpack. A great one. The best backpack. Right now, it’s a wet backpack. I left my hostel this morning in the middle of a thunderstorm. Very heavy rain coming down from the sky that was just turning to a lighter shade of grey due to the sunrise. The type of rain that we in the southeastern US used to call a “gullywasher”. I really regret accidentally leaving my rain jacket in Luang Prabang. I was lucky enough to catch a tuktuk to the airport while standing under an awning near the hostel. I was unlucky enough to get hit by a rogue wave created by a pickup truck passing through a monster puddle in the other direction. The tuktuk driver was drenched, and I believe that his cigarette was extinguished by the splash. I felt bad for him, and I paid him extra when we reached the airport. He gave me a grateful smile as I turned to walk into the terminal. I hope that when I land in Chiang Mai, it’s dry. Otherwise that is going to be a long motorcycle ride.
My last day in Laos was a mixture of relaxation and anticipation. Part of the reason I extended my trip was to meet up with a dear friend and former couchsurfing guest from Indonesia. Marsella and I have kept in touch since meeting two years ago in Chicago. So it was really nice to see her again and catch up, even though it was only briefly. She and two friends were catching the sleeping bus to Luang Prabang that evening. Later, I enjoyed a nice dinner with a couple of locals and a French guy. Something called lam bo, which contained beef, onions, and peppers, and was definitely up there on the spicy level.
Back in Udon Thani last evening, I was greeted by a stray cat. I was enjoying a 10baht ice cream cone from McDonald’s and I shared the last bit with her. She seemed to be really hungry, so I went back inside and ordered her a Happy Meal ™ with chicken nuggets. She devoured the meat after I pulled off the breading and broke it up so it would cool more quickly. I ate the apple slices. I ordered the meal with milk, but kitty wasn’t interested. She didn’t seem to be impressed with the Super Mario toy either.
On the walk back to the hostel, I stopped at a bar called “Rock House”, which promised live music every night. I stepped inside and saw no band and zero customers. Disappointed, I was about to walk away, but the small outdoor bar in front seemed inviting and there was good music playing from the stereo. The beer special was for three large bottles of Chang, and on a hot, muggy evening, cold beer was just too tempting. I wasn’t really about to walk away. I had arrangements to meet someone here at the bar, and I was waiting for her.
When she arrived, I was two beers in, and I shared the last one with her. She was very pretty, and her English was good. We talked and laughed and flirted, as two people might do at a bar. We ended up ordering two more beers before we decided to leave. I was staying just around the corner at a hostel. Now, normally, a hostel is not a good place to bring a romantic interest, because of the whole dormitory setting. But I was certain that I was the only person checked in to the room where I was staying, so I decided to risk it. The night custodian unlocked the gate for us, and didn’t even blink an eye at the fact that I was no longer just one person. We walked up the narrow stairway to the third floor, and I opened the door that bore a picture of Paul McCartney. To the left was a drawing of John Lennon. I’m not sure where George and Ringo were.
Her reaction to seeing three sets of bunkbeds was the expected one. I had explained to her that I travel using hostels and don’t normally stay in a hotel, but she was still a bit shocked. However, it only took a few seconds to see that there were no other beds occupied at 12am, and that we were the only ones there. What happened next was both surprising and disappointing, though really, it should have been neither. She made it clear to me that she wanted to be paid.
When you find out that someone really is not interested in you as a person, maybe not even attracted to you, and that the reason that they have been pretending that they are in order to get something from you, it really kind of hits you. I felt stupid. I felt embarrassed. And I felt a little bit angry. Angry at myself for getting caught in this situation. And angry at her for not being upfront about it when we first talked. Of course I wasn’t about to pay her. She complained about having paid cab fare to come see me, and that she would have to pay for it to go back. I gladly would have paid her cab fare, as I had for the drinks, had the context been different. But now things were changed. I told her no. And she got up and walked downstairs and out the gate. I just shook my head and went to bed, because I had to be up in less than five hours to go to the airport.
I don’t hold any moral judgements about women (or men) who provide for themselves and their families by selling their affections. Sometimes that is really the only real opportunity that they might have. I have had good, meaningful conversations with “bar girls”, and I could even maintain a friendship with them. But I don’t really want to support the institution. For much the same reason, I will not go to an elephant camp where they offer rides, because the very cruel way that the elephants are broken to be trained. I refuse to have my picture taken with or to pet a tiger at the places that offer the chance, because the tigers are heavily drugged in order for them to be safe enough to be around tourists. I may not share the same morality about sexual relations that you have for yourself, but I certainly don’t want mine to be monetarily transactional. In retrospect, I had a better time with the cat at McDonald’s.
There may be some who will point out that maybe I am being transactional about it, because I pay for the drinks, or dinner, or movie, or whatever other expenditures that a date entails. If you feel that way, then you do not know me like you think you do. I pay for those things (when I can) because I still believe in chivalry. I never once have expected anything in return as far as bedroom favors. If both parties are desiring that, then okay, that’s great. But that is the exception to the rule. Usually, the evening ends when both of us say we had a nice time, maybe a kiss goodbye and then we part ways. I don’t believe that my dates owe me anything except for kindness and conversation.
The single life that I have chosen for now is not always easy. I have many female friends, and I find myself attracted to several of them. However, I must be careful of romantic entanglements with them, because I have decided that I will be better off not being in a relationship for the time being, and I do not want to risk a good friendship for the pleasure (and possible ensuing drama) that a sexual encounter may bring. Sometimes I find myself lonely. I question my choice from time to time. But knowing that I’m not in a position or willing to give the type of effort and attention that a successful relationship requires, I think that it’s the right choice. It’s difficult navigating these waters, and I’ve made mistakes that I regret. Hurting someone else because of my selfishness is something that I dwell on for a long time.
I had a nice flight home to Chiang Mai, where the sun was shining. The motorcycle ride back home was refreshing. I took a nice shower to wash away the sweat from my traveling and then I enjoyed just chilling out in front of the new fan that I purchased. I dozed off listening to my Spotify account and some kids splashing happily in the pool outside my window.
Let me just get this out of the way: I need a damned camera. The one on the phone is just useless unless the subject is less than five feet away. And then I need to learn how to use it. Otherwise, it’s just as useless.
Okay, that little item of business dispensed with, let’s get on with it. The airport in Bangkok was a breeze compared with my Shanghai experience. After the plane landed, I was able to quickly navigate my way to immigration, and the Thai officials were very efficient in getting us through the booths. I was at the baggage carousel before it began dispensing our luggage. I enjoyed a nice conversation with an American girl from New York, who was planning to stay in northern Thailand for about six months. Aven, (“it’s like ‘Raven’, but without the ‘R'”, she explained to me) had been here before, and had some helpful tips about the country. I’m still a rookie at traveling, so I’m happy whenever someone is willing to share their experience with me.
For the first time in memory, I actually had to show my claim tickets to collect my bags. Two hard-working Thais offloaded the items as they came around on the belt, saving us the trouble of having to wade through a crowd to snatch them off ourselves. I checked the time and saw that I still had several minutes before my friend was to pick me up outside exit number 4, our pre-arranged meeting spot. I quickly rolled the luggage cart over to the currency exchange, and received 3,382 Thai baht for the $100 US that I handed the woman along with my passport. The challenge is to try to remember how much you are spending in American money when everything is in a different currency.
Titima, my friend who hosted me for one night during my last trip here in May, met me with her car outside the entrance. Sitting in the left-hand seat without a steering wheel or pedals always throws me a bit. Thais drive on the left side of the road, which is a bit unnerving when you see oncoming traffic in the lane where you think you are supposed to be. I’m sure I’ll get used to it eventually, as long as I remember to look to the right before crossing the street. It took about 30 minutes to reach her home, driving through an incomprehensible maze of highways and side streets and alleys. I truly have no idea where in town I am, or how to navigate. I didn’t have time to grab a new SIM card for my phone, so Google maps is just a pretty little icon on my homescreen for now.
After hauling my bags up the stairs to the third-story bedroom in Titima’s lovely home, I washed up and then we left to go pick up her younger son, Ben, and his girlfriend who was introduced to me as “B”. They had a family gathering at the university hospital to visit an ailing relative, so I was introduced to several of her family members. I was to wait inside a small coffee shop on campus while they gathered together visiting grandmother, and I availed myself of the opportunity to eat something and try not to fall asleep at the table. Jet-lag is always a problem for me, and I was determined to stay up as long as possible, even though I had only slept for two hours the previous night. When they returned, they ordered dinner for themselves, and we had a nice chat. I’ve met both of Titima’s sons now. Paul, the older one who stays with her, I met on my previous visit. He is a broadcast news editor and works early hours. Ben works as an on-air personality at the same government-owned radio station. Both of them are very fluent in American-style English, having spent much of their earlier lives in Texas. They are extremely polite and pleasant company to be around. So conversation around the table was not difficult, and it helped to keep me awake. I did fall asleep in the car on the ride back home. I just hope that I didn’t snore loudly.
Since New Year’s Eve and Day fell on Saturday and Sunday this year, yesterday and today (Monday and Tuesday) are observed holidays. We decided to head to one of the temples near Nakhon Pathom, a town to the east of Bangkok. When we arrived, there were several hundred people sitting in the courtyard at tables while the orange-robed monks delivered a prayer service. I’m not certain how long the service had been going on, but about two minutes after we walked up to the spot, the monks went silent and everyone got up and queued up at long buffet tables where sat huge pots of rice and countless platters of various home-cooked food. Titima, and her sister who joined us, led me into the line and told me to fill a plate for myself. I really didn’t know what it was all about, but when offered home-cooked dishes that I’m not familiar with, I almost always say yes. I took a little of this, a little of that, until my plate was filled with small tastes of meats, seafood, rice, noodles, and curry sauces. I asked what the occasion was, and they informed me that this is a regular practice, weekly at least, if not more often. The monks are forbidden to dine after noon-time, and the faithful worshippers bring food for them to eat. Anything left over (which is a tremendous amount) is distributed to the tables for everyone to eat pot-luck style. I felt a little guilty, because number one, I’m not Buddhist. Number two, I didn’t bring anything. I also noticed that out of the hundreds of people in attendance, I was the only non-Thai person there. Yet nobody looked at me funny, or pointed and whispered. They handed me a plate and treated me like anyone else. I was made to feel at home. Definitely a privilege that I appreciate being able to be part of.
After the meal, everyone took their plates to a communal wash station. Plates and silverware (Thais prefer the western utensils over chopsticks in most cases) were washed in soapy water, then rinsed off in a series of three sinks to make sure that they were free of soap residue. It was really something to see and be a part of. Nobody expected someone else to take care of it for them.
We then adjourned to another building, an open-sided library, that sat along a body of brown water. We respectfully left our shoes at the entrance, a custom whenever entering any temple structure. While my friends looked over some books for purchase, I wandered over to the railing overlooking the water. As I allowed my eyes to gaze out over the pond at the beautiful building on the other side, I caught some movement in my peripheral vision. Gliding through the water was a monitor lizard. He eventually climbed out of the murky basin, through the lush green flora, and onto the grass. I estimate his length from nose to tail was about 7 feet. It was interesting watching him walk, using his left-front and right-rear legs simultaneously to propel himself forward, then repeating the opposite sides. He didn’t stay out long. Monitor lizards are shy, and he left as a small group of people came his way from around the building. I also saw some very big carp swimming below the surface, colors ranging from whitish pink to orange to brown. A large snapping turtle lazily floated in the shallows. I tried to take good pictures, but as I said before…
The variety of trees surrounding me was stunning. I found myself staring up towards the sky to view them, then realized that I probably looked just like the Nebraskan folks that I poke fun at when they visit the concrete forests of Chicago. The Thai people possibly thought of me as a naive tourist, but are way too polite a society to say anything rude.
We briefly visited the next building, which held an altar. I followed Titima up the steps and into the main hall. She explained to me the proper manner in which to sit and supplicate the Buddha- different styles for men and for women. I did not perform the ritual myself, since I’m no longer religious, and somewhat a non-jihadi atheist. But I did kneel, showing respect for those worshippers around me as they went through their prayers.
Despite the fact that this was only half of what I did on this amazing day, I’m going to end my post here. I don’t want to run on and on, because I fear that my small audience will shrink instead of grow if the stories take longer to read than the amount of time allotted to a reasonable trip to the restroom. (Because that’s where you are reading this, aren’t you?)
As I’m sitting at a picnic table under an umbrella in the courtyard of the India House Hostel in the Mid-City section of New Orleans, I am reflecting on the past four (five?) days and nights that I’ve spent in the Big Easy. It’s a good day for reflection. The sky is overcast, the ground is wet and the trees are still dripping a bit of the remainder of the latest shower. The temperature is noticeably cooler today, which is nice. I have just bid goodbye to a nice German girl who was hoisting her backpacks onto her shoulders, front and back. By her own admission, she has too much stuff. In one of her hands is a plastic bag full of items that would not fit into her luggage. I’m left to assume that she purchased some t-shirts or other memorabilia from New Orleans, perhaps as gifts for people back home, where she told me she is headed. She strikes me as someone who is not a novice at traveling, and has stayed in many hostels in many cities. I don’t recall her name, just where she is from, and the brief conversation that we shared with a guy from Colombia the other night.
Hostel living is a relatively new experience for me. It’s completely different from staying in a hotel, where you have your own large room, television, bathroom. In a hostel, you are usually sleeping, dressing, and storing your bags in the same large room as perhaps 12 other guests. It can feel a little close. Most of the time, the actual occupancy is much lower than the availability of beds. Which means that most travelers select the bottom bunk (nobody but a kid likes to have to climb up and throw themselves on the mattress while trying not to bump their head on the ceiling) and then use the top bed frame as a hanger for their clothing. If you want some semblance of privacy, you use your blanket as a curtain, stuffing one edge of it under the upper mattress and draping the remainder down, covering your own bed, a trick that comes in handy if the hostel has provided a small light on the wall next to the bunk, because then you can read a book without disturbing your fellow guests. I do not have a light this time. My current “room” is a converted shotgun-style house that holds 8 bunk beds, and sleeps 16. There are two toilets and three showers. It’s not as clean as some of the hostels in which I’ve stayed in Asia, but neither is it a roach-infested, smelly pig-sty which is how some other hostels have been described. I am told that the original owner was enthralled by Indian culture, hence the name and much of the colorful decoration found on the property.
The courtyard where I am sitting is equal parts beautiful tropics and rustic shanty-town. There are lush plants- ferns, banana trees, etc.- scattered throughout. Ringing the courtyard are several clapboard-clad houses that are covered in colorful murals of smiling lobsters, a brass jazz band, a Mardi Gras parade, and several other eclectic works. Directly in front of me is the outdoor kitchen, a collection of rusting white refrigerators of various sizes, a large, stainless steel utility sink, and a restaurant-grade gas grill. This kitchen is also laid out in an “L” shape, but unlike most others, the “L” is inverted, meaning that the cook must walk around a 90-degree corner to get from the stove to the sink, with the refrigerators in between. Incongruently, there’s a 50″ flat screen television mounted on the wall above the sink, facing the large portico that houses church-pew seating that surrounds a large table. There is an old, dusty piano against one wall. I have no idea if it works, but I’m guessing that it isn’t tuned, even if it does. The only other building that is visible from where I sit is a large, brick, mission-style church with terra-cotta tiled roof, rounded stained-glass windows, and a six-story bell tower. The entire effect is of being transported to an unnamed developing country.
The morning cook is frying up some bacon that is tempting me sorely. I remember that I’ve not eaten since yesterday at noon. (Strike that, I had a small portion of multi-grain tortilla chips with hummus a short while ago. What’s wrong with my memory, anyway?) The hostel provides breakfast cooked-to-order every day from 9am – 1pm for a reasonable price. Dinner is $6, and the offerings vary. On Christmas Day, the staff put on a killer feast- including baked ham, deep-fried turkey, homemade stuffing, potatoes, green bean casserole, macaroni and cheese, and much more. The cranberry dressing was delicious. For dessert, there were two massive pans filled with an outstanding bread pudding. We were served family-buffet style, and after at least 40 of us had filled our plates, we hadn’t even taken half of what was prepared. Seconds, anyone? And in the spirit of Christmas, dinner was free.
I’m on my second cup of coffee as I wait for my new exploring companions to rise and greet the day. On Saturday night, I met up with Jonny, an Aussie couchsurfer who was having banking issues due to the holiday. I bought him a beer in the Famous Door bar on Bourbon Street as we listened to a pretty good band play rock music. When the first set ended, he and I walked a few blocks down through the perpetual party to a piano bar where we found Alejandra and MayLing, two Panamanian girls who were part of the couchsurfing messaging group that had been set up for a Christmas party here in New Orleans. It turned out that the girls were also staying at India House. So, because of convenience, and because we enjoy each others’ company, we have been discovering the sights, sounds, and tastes of NOLA together. Sometimes we are joined by Daniele, an Italian guy who stayed here for a couple of nights before being hosted through Couchsurfing. Alejandra, who promised that she was getting up at 7am, has just messaged me (at 9:30) to say that they are up, and will be ready in an hour. I’m guessing it’ll be more like 90 minutes.
The bacon trick seems to be working. A crowd of at least a dozen are ordering, sitting, eating, while yet others wander in and out of the main house. Most of the crowd is much younger than me, although one of my bunk-mates is roughly my age, if I had to guess. He seems quite at home here, and for all I know, he may live here semi-permanently. He got up, showered, and dressed himself business-casual. He’s using the portico as a makeshift office with his laptop and phone. I guess I’m doing the same.
For the past half-hour or so, I’ve been talking to a delightful girl from New Zealand. Pat is visiting New Orleans for the third time, and we’ve been swapping travel stories. I think that’s what really makes hostels so appealing to me. In a hotel, you’re protected from having to deal with other people by your four walls. But, why do we want to be protected from being in contact with other people? Aren’t other people and the interaction we get with them the very things that make travel and life interesting? Hotels can be very comfortable in a physical sense, especially the luxury ones. But I find them to be very uncomfortable in a spiritual sense, as they tend to disconnect us from life. The beauty of being human is in embracing our humanity, being interested and engaged with other humans. We are supposed to be a social species. Yet this whole “stranger danger!” outlook has been allowed to separate us from each other. Many of my fellow countrymen dream of a vacation in Paris or London, or if they are bold an exotic locale like Hong Kong. They save their thousands of dollars, buy the round-trip ticket, stay in the best hotel they can afford, then they go see the sights. They eat at the same “quaint” little cafes where their friends ate the year before, and go take a picture in front of Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower, take a ride in a cycle-powered rickshaw to the noodle place that the concierge recommends to every western tourist. They purchase their trinkets, get back on their plane, and come home with the same fucking boring stories, pictures, and experiences that their neighbor has. They didn’t experience what it’s like to live in France. They tell the cutesy stories about the conversation they had with the cabbie with the Bri’ ish accent, but other than speaking with people in the service industry, they really didn’t connect with the locals at all. And so their experience was sanitized.
I’m not trying to say that hostels or couchsurfing are for everyone. But if you don’t take the effort to have a real and meaningful interaction with other people who don’t look, talk, eat, or dress like you, then you have missed out on some of the best life has to offer.
I’ve just now come back from spending the day with Alejandra and MayLing, riding the trolley, walking down Chartres Street while drinking beers at 11am, eating gator sausage dog and crawfish ettouffee fries before seeing the outdoor art museum at City Park. They have gone off to see a Dr. John concert. It’s taco night at India House, and I’m about to head over for a plate, and then join a group of other travelers, including an Aussie who seems to have lots of cools stories about kangaroos and snakes.
Writer’s block is a common phenomenon when someone is put to a deadline, even a self-imposed one. Most people assume that it is because the wordsmith cannot think of anything to write about. But I posit that it is because the writer has toomuch to write about, and all of the ideas keep colliding into one another until none of them are recognizable enough to pull out intact to express clearly. When I’m not sitting down with my laptop, I can think of many stories that I want to tell. I can even imagine the titles of the stories, the pseudonyms for my characters (because I intend to describe realities), and the phrasing that I wish to use. So the real conflict for me, the wannabe keyboard warrior, is to extract one story from the tangle in my mind.
So maybe I can use this post to answer the question that you, my readers (all three of you?), may be wondering: Why am I moving to Thailand?
There are many reasons, actually, for my decision to leave America for a far-flung place. I’m bored. I want to live more cheaply. Our next leader, President (reader’s choice). But the real reason is because I really want something different for the next half of my life. Earlier, I described how I lived my life in the past to appease other people in my world. And I was unhappy with where I was ending up. Looking at some of my co-workers who are approaching retirement, I began to get depressed, thinking that in twenty-five or thirty years that hunched over old guy sitting on a stool in a grubby machine shop waiting for 4:30pm would be me. Hell, if that was all I had to look forward to, I might as well put a gun to my head and end it now. Sure, they get vacation time to go back to visit the old country, to go fishing or hunting, or take the wife to some unnamed resort. But that isn’t enough for me now.
When I separated from my wife of 24 years and moved into the city of Chicago, I made a few discoveries. First of all, I found that I loved living in an urban setting. There are so many things to do and it’s easy to get to them if you don’t have to trek in from the suburbs. I also find great independent cafes and restaurants to choose from. Fast food is mostly a distant memory. And just the sense of excitement is so different from the slow death feeling of the collar towns.
The most significant element of my change came about quite by chance. The apartment that I was to lease was not going to be ready until a few weeks after my intended departure. So, needing to find someplace short-term, I turned to Google to search for room rentals and interim places to stay. Many options were listed, including one called, “Couchsurfing”. (If I ever get much of an audience, many of you will be nodding your heads at this point, because you know…) (And yes, you best learn that I love my parenthetical asides.) Very briefly for those uninitiated, couchsurfing is intended to provide a free place for a traveler to crash for a couple of days or so when visiting another city. In exchange, the guest (or “surfer”) tacitly agrees to provide something of a cultural exchange with the host, perhaps cooking an authentic dish from their country or region, while the host may provide information about the city or perhaps a tour of less iconic gems that the brochures don’t mention.
I realized that this was not what I needed at the time, as I was going to be staying for up to a month, with what belongings I could fit into my car. But I found the concept intriguing, so I bookmarked it. After I moved into my new place, furnished it with some items on which to sit and sleep, stocked my kitchen, and adopted Charlie (cat/roommate/spider exterminator), I revisited the Couchsurfing website. I liked the idea of hosting people and sharing information, experiences, and food. So I created a profile and actively began to search for travelers who may wish to stay with me. If I began here to tell the stories of the individuals who have lodged at my apartment, we would be here forever, because there are so many that I would have to include. So I’ll simply give an overview this time.
I have hosted well over 150 individuals from six continents in the past three years. Each and every one of them has brought me a new perspective of their homeland. I found myself wanting to go see for myself the places they described to me. Two summers ago, I had decided to take my two weeks of vacation all at once and go see my new friends in Europe. That was until other people began to tell me that it’s impossible to see Europe in two weeks. At best, exploring three cities would be achievable. And I found this intimidating. So, turning tail and running, I decided to travel domestically, choosing destinations within America’s borders to which I had never been. I bought tickets to San Francisco and Boston. And subsequently to Toronto, because I had met a girl from there who said I should visit. (More on that another time) I had an amazing time traveling alone for the first time in my life. Toronto was gorgeous. San Francisco was a fantastic experience. I never made it to Boston, changing my ticket instead to Orange County in southern California. (Again, because I had met a girl…)
So my problem was that I could not travel like I wished to with limited vacation time from work, nor could I afford to quit my job to be gone for a couple of months at a time. For me to really get to explore geographical locations and cultures, I would simply have to move to those areas and find a way to support myself. Enter Emmy. Emmy requested to stay with me for a few days in Chicago while looking for a place to live when she would start working for a school that trained and certified prospective instructors for the purpose of teaching English as a second language. She had just returned to the States from her own stint as a teacher in Vietnam. I was intrigued. Would it be possible for me to use my lifelong knowledge of my mother tongue coupled with my love for helping other people to actually make a living abroad? Emmy had done it, and said she would be happy to point me in the right direction so that I, too, could do what she had done. Since meeting Emmy, I have inexplicably found myself in the company of several other people who have used this route to travel the world. It’s almost as if the Universe is gently, but forcibly pushing me in this direction. This is what I am meant to do. This past month has convinced me of that. In serendipitous fashion, I found a young woman from Boston looking for a place to stay when she moved to Chicago. She was coming the week after I would finally visit Boston. She was coming the weekend that my old roommate was moving out to go to Portugal. And she had just returned from teaching English in Japan. Go figure. If I hadn’t yet gotten the message, I must be ultra-thickheaded.
Meanwhile, I had taken my first overseas trip as an adult in May, heading to Singapore, where I have friends. Then to Thailand, where I knew no one. And to Vietnam, where my friend lives in Ho Chi Minh City, and where my girlfriend grew up. And even though I knew not a soul in Thailand, I fell in love with the country and its people during the week that I was there. So I made a decision to move there when my lease ends this December. My plan is to get to Chaing Mai in the northern part of the country, take my teaching certification course there, because the tuition is half what it costs in Chicago for the same program. And then I will find an open position somewhere in Thailand. I intend to immerse myself in the culture instead of simply hanging out with the expat community. When school is not in session, I expect to travel to other places in southeast Asia, backpacking and couchsurfing or staying in hostels as much as possible. Perhaps I’ll learn other skills while I’m there. And when I’ve seen as much of the region as I feel necessary, I may move on to India, or the Middle East. Africa. Europe. South and Central America. I want to see it all, experience it all, taste it all. Why? Because I can. Because of the inspiration that I have received from people like Lin, Renata, Agape, Ramona, Thao, Marsella, Nick, Emmy, Julia, Wendi and so many more. I thank you all. I now have a future that I want to embrace.