Beta Testing Along the SF Peninsula

Photo: Elena Zhukova

Photo: Elena Zhukova

There's a lovey-dovey photo for you.

That's the closest I'm going to get to acknowledging this wacky tradition of expressing our individualistic love by way of cliched, obligatory corporatism and collective bad taste. [In other words, Happy Valentine's Day.]

Hey guys! So I finally went on my first overnight trip, as a way of dipping my toes a bit further into what the "real" trip is actually going to be like.

Day 1
San Jose, CA

As usual, Chaos/Serendipity/The Universe/The Force/what-have-you did a better job planning out my adventures than I ever could have.

Originally I was going to do a big loop up starting in the South Bay, up through the city, over to Sacramento, down through the East Bay. Largely the appeal of this particular route was to visit some good friends. 

Then there was weather, which displaced my trip by two days...which was enough to foster schedule conflicts with all of the friends I intended to visit such that they'd be unable to hang out or in many cases even offer crash space. Mwop, mwop.

But I needed to get at least one practice trip in this month.

So, without much of a plan, Alex and I rode up to Pacifica to stay with Elena Zhukova, a conceptual advertising photographer who's been photographing me since I was a modeling greenhorn and she was an art student in San Francisco [i.e., for a while], and her husband Aleksey.

Barely six miles into the ride, Alex's old tire was shredded, and so I ferociously guarded our bikes while he ran off to get a new tire and tube—a delay that bit an hour or two into our day. There was one stretch so unrelentingly steep that I wound up walking my bike for about a tenth of a mile [cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater]

When we got to the Pacifica, we decompressed for a while, poking at bugs [we found a cluster of maggots outside] and battle droids before being treated to an awesome home-cooked dinner of fish and vegetables, and liberally supplied with beer, wine, and bourbon.

Conversation that evening was punctuated by the hum of the ocean and the crackling of the outdoor heater. I leaned on a pillow stuffed with $15,000 in shredded dollar bills. Eddy the dog leaned on me. It seemed like a first taste of what my trip might turn out to be like on its best days: long mornings of cycling through beautiful country, rewarded in the evenings good food and company and a delicious feeling of satisfaction that was a paradoxical hybrid of "having discovered somewhere new" and "having made it back home"

Day 2
Pacifica, CA

Originally we'd planned to move along the next morning, but it turns out that Aleksey is an avid cyclist, so he offered to take us on a ride the following day around Pacifica and Half Moon Bay!

In one stunning loop, I rode behind Alex and Alex [there are so many Alexes] as we climbed through steep eucalyptus forests, down along Devil's Slide [stopping to explore old military bunkers en route], past surfers on the beach, past helicopters taking off and landing on an airstrip in fields of wildflowers, past the smells of fish and chips and waffles and seaweed, past upscale marinas, through a surreal mountain tunnel, and I had a harrowing first off-road excursion along the edges of sea cliffs. At first I was going kind of picture-crazy, but eventually had to give up on taking photos in favor of just enjoying the view and the present moment [the best moments in life are typically ones when no one has the time or inclination to take photos, anyway].

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 5.32.27 PM.png

That night, we modeled for Elena, resulting in the topmost and bottommost photos in this blog entry. 

...and enjoyed a warm February night and a couple bottles of cold IPA out in the yard.

Day 3
Pacifica, CA

The trek back down to the South Bay, to tend to my neglected inbox and finish planning my much larger trip that's looming ever closer [eep!], was quite educational. 

We'd decided to do a winding, hilly detour along trails in the mountains, which lent themselves both to giving me more practice off paved roads and to stunning panoramic views that I largely didn't bother photographing [was too busy looking]. 

It was in the mountains that I wound up on the phone with an old friend from high school who, it turned out, had scored $10 tickets to the opera Carmen in a small house in San Francisco, and would be heading there from Redwood City [which was more-or-less where we were headed that day]. 

So we bombed down bumpy switchbacks, past equestrians, stopped to grab some fish and chips, coasted along the 92, no problem...and then rush hour hit.

And we were on a steep two-lane highway, with no shoulder, with sheer drop-offs, with blind turns, and we'd gone too far to easily turn back. Hills are one thing, rattlesnakes are one thing, weather is one thing...but cars. Drivers. Those freak me the fuck out. Because, no matter how defensively I ride, no matter how many bright yellow or blinky or reflective things I stick onto myself or my bike, I have no ultimate say in whether the drivers coming up on me are paying attention, or of sound mind, or sober, or whatever. Aggressive, reactive, impatient drivers are all too common. So are absent-minded, text-messaging, daydreaming drivers. And drunk drivers, or sleepy drivers. And drivers zipping around tight corners at 90 MPH. You get the picture. Besides avoiding situations where I'm likely to be hit in the first place, there's really only so much I can do once I'm on the road.

Existentially jarred after almost getting booty-bumped by two semi-trucks in a row, Alex and I pulled off and sat in a patch of grass next to a kitschy old sign that said Santa's Tree Farm, the only distinguishable landmark in sight, debating whether we ought to chug on through and hope for the best, or wait for traffic to die down or, I don't know, hitchhike. After our heart rates settled down we decided to mosey on through, walking our bikes through a few particularly bad stretches.

Lesson learned: be more attentive to traffic patterns and look at my entire route before proceeding, particularly if it's going to be on a highway [before setting off, we'd scanned Google Earth very briefly, seen that a chunk of the 92 had a nice shoulder and four lanes, and called it good]. Hurp dap.

By the time we got to Redwood City, we were a bit exhausted for the opera [even at $10 a pop, it's not all that worthwhile going to a show if you sleep through the whole thing]. Fortunately our buddy Carlos was in town, and facilitated our recalibration to life with Mexican food, card games, and a gift of rum he'd infused with vanilla beans, before we headed off to visit my parents in order to spend the weekend going on bike rides with my dad [whom I'm just now beginning to keep up with].

Final tally for this trip?

104 miles ridden
6,167 feet climbed

Not too shabby for someone who got her ass kicked by a few-hundred-feet climb on a twelve-mile loop just over a month ago!

My improvements have been noticeable on a day-to-day basis, and as time goes on it becomes easier [more exciting, less daunting] for me to motivate myself to push that little bit harder. Thankfully, the beginning of my trip won't involve so much climbing [since my whole route through Florida and Georgia will be pretty much flat].

Two weeks left until my flight, and I've still got so much to figure out!

Tomorrow? Morning yoga, going on a ride [of course] with my dad [he's promised to subject me to some more hills], catching up on emails [I know, I know, I'm really behind—forgive me], studying maintenance/repair/my pack list/my route yet again while not panicking.

Fortunately, I've also got a voucher for one of those wildly underrated $10 cheap foot massage places [and, as a trained massage therapist myself, while I think there's no substitute for deep, specialized, specific body work done by a qualified and intuitive therapist...these cheap line-the-clients-up-in-rows-like-we're-in-an-airplane places can be a whole different kind of awesome to non-snobs, and really are underrated].

Photo: Elena Zhukova

Photo: Elena Zhukova

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Do what scares you.

With Cam Attree at Broken Head, QLD, Australia. Thankfully there was no literal breaking of heads during my cartwheelling frolic.

With Cam Attree at Broken Head, QLD, Australia. Thankfully there was no literal breaking of heads during my cartwheelling frolic.

Reno, NV

The idea for this bike trip first made its entrance in the loft of an industrial artists' warehouse in Melbourne. Like the rogue raindrops sogging the floor, it had probably leaked into the room through one of the broken windows. Meanwhile, Alex and I were asphyxiating ourselves in the vortex of scummy blankets we'd built as a stronghold against the cold.

Our discussion turned to things we'd never done before and wanted to do, and Alex mentioned long-distance biking, particularly from the States through South America. 

I cringed. My mind glued together a collage of disasters: being hit by a car, stranded in the middle of nowhere, assaulted, etc. I admitted that I'd be terrified about doing anything of the kind.

He laughed. "Don't you say that's usually when you should do something?"

"Yeah, but I don't know anything about bikes. I went on little bike rides with my dad when I was a kid, but it's not like I know about anything, not even specs and sizing and all that."

"Well, yeah....Exactly. You could even do it alone. I couldn't afford it."

"And I could?"

"Well, there's modeling. Bike somewhere you've always wanted to visit, with cities you've always wanted to shoot in."

"That's completely insane. A logistical nightmare, just for starters."

Mockingly: "Yeah, you're right....You won't."

Of course, once the idea infected my head, I knew I had to try. And, of course, once I had the conviction to try, Alex began battling his own fears of what might happen to me on the trip [which, after all, were similar to mine—that I might get hit by a car, or assaulted, or stranded, et al]. But he also knows what I need in order to be happy; he knows that I need a bit of self-validating chaos in order to maintain emotional stasis and well-being. That I have to show myself what I can do, in the face of my doubts.

I'm not a stranger to chasing the unfamiliar. Two days ago, we'd found our way to that chilly loft like aimless drivers in the night, headed faithfully along unfamiliar roads in spite of never seeing farther than a few feet ahead.

In fact, one reason I live the way I do is precisely because it's a release valve to the anxiety and fear I'd otherwise harbor. An inclination to skip winter for a year brought us to Southeast Asia, because we didn't have the overhead to visit our friends in New Zealand, and because the idea made me anxious in a visceral way.

Months later, we'd just begun to feel like Baan Mae Haad, a village on the tropical island of Koh Tao, was as much like home as any town we'd lived in, when a sudden whiff of dirt-cheap tickets to Australia compelled us to leave our idyllic beach-wandering existence and hop on a ferry, then on a wagon, then on a train, then spend a night fraternizing with stray cats in the station before our next train arrived after a six hour delay, haggling for a cab, sleeping at the airport, and finally boarding our flight, three days after initially leaving Koh Tao. 

On the plane we met a man who offered us a ride from the airport and dropped us off, after our repeated assurances that he'd taken us to the right place [and, even then, only after we'd agreed to take his business card just in case we wound up in a jam], in front of a dilapidated warehouse, dressed modestly in barbed wire and a broken chain-link fence, at 2:00am local time.

The upstairs loft belonged to a guy Alex had befriended in the States years ago who was off working the mines. He'd left us a "Welcome to 'Straya!" type of note that indicated a gift under the desk, which turned out to be weed and rolling papers; even though neither of us smoke, the gesture had me giddy over its adorableness. In our seven weeks home-basing in Melbourne, during which I'd take short solo trips around the east coast, I never met our host.

The morning after our arrival, we walked through a maze of industrial buildings feeling a dazed mixture of culture-shock and reverse-culture-shock after our months in Asia. It was pure warehouseland, without a residence or business within twenty blocks, and consequently it was a dead silent neighborhood [if you can call it a neighborhood] except around 3am, when teenagers would show up to loudly drift and sometimes wreck their fancy new cars without fear of interruption. Eventually we emerged onto a main road, spotted a tram stop and waddled up to it. In our pockets were Thai baht, Lao kip, Malaysian ringgit, and a few US dollars. The operator shrugged and beckoned us aboard, anyway. Without local currency, electronic devices, local contacts in town, or any idea where we were going or how we'd find our way back, we hopped on without hesitation.

We were home again.

Tamer Pursuits

Melbourne, Victoria

I've been having really good luck with airplane seating arrangements.

From Kuala Lumpur to Melbourne, Alex and I were seated next to Stephen, an energetic man of about fifty who owned a decorating company in Victoria. I'd had the audacity to ask Stephen a lot of frivolous, covetous questions about how he managed to get a brownie from the flight attendant even though they weren't on the menu; this had proven to be a good move on my part, as he was awesome, and we spent the rest of our flight rambling at each other about the cultural and political absurdities of our respective countries.

He offered us a ride--which was fantastically lucky for us, since we'd arrived at around 2:00 a.m. and were thinking our only option would be to hire a cab--then, after a rather amusing series of trivial setbacks, handed us a card saying to let him know if we wanted to get a coffee or wound up needing an alternative place to stay, and warily left us in front of a dark and unassuming warehouse facade in Coburg as per our request [and repeated assurances that, yes, we were at the right place, and yes, we knew the people who lived there].

Since then, I've gone on one other flight, from Adelaide to Melbourne [having previously taken the train from Melbourne to Adelaide--aboard which I was probably the only passenger under sixty, and wound up making a throng of very sweet and inquisitive octogenarian friends who were completely intrigued by this girl dressed in fluorescent clothes she found in Thailand, and was subsequently offered well-wishes and blown kisses and vague grandma-esque insistences that I ought to visit their town by about fifteen of them upon disembarkation], during which a flight attendant handed me a flirtatious the-seat-next-to-me-is-empty-if-you-want-to-come-take-it note from a spiffy admirer about whom I knew nothing except that he was tall, dark, and from Texas, but regrettably didn't wind up rewarding this admittedly charming gesture [sorry, bro] because by that point I was already enmeshed in a fantastic conversation with a one of the most interesting guys I've met in a while. We talked about Burning Man [a given when you both realize you've both been], travelling adventures [including his experience playing music and doing a peyote ceremony up in the foothills near a remote Mexican village, and being working with locals to open up a restaurant in Indonesia], a new wave of surreal, transcendently immersive "performance art", and so on. The one-hour flight suffered a two-hour delay; the two of us drank airplane wine and carried on, not minding a bit, and once again I was spared the necessity of transit fares and offered a ride home.

Anyway, back to that dark warehouse in Coburg.

Getting in required stepping gingerly through a hole in one fence, ducking under a hole in another, and heading up some stairs sprinkled liberally in broken glass, which had recently occupied the now-broken pane in the door of the loft we'd get to stay in. I was delighted--something about having to sneak in in the dead of night just pumped my nads.

Inside was a large bed [which, after the cheap-as-shit-but-consequently-shittily-uncomfortable three-day journey from Ko Tao, rendered me almost psychotically excited even in my exhaustion] with a cheery note from Alex's friend Tim, pointing out where we could find a clean towel and sheets hanging to dry, and that there was a particular surprise for us hidden in the room [which we found--and which I'm keeping a secret]. The room was strewn with boxing gear and an assortment of books that demonstrated [in my opinion] very good taste on part of their owner. On one wall hung a large, aquatic-patterned sheet to encourage privacy and insulation. It was perfect.

Funnily enough, that was two weeks ago, and I still haven't met this guy whose bed we're staying in.

As for the place, Reclamation Artists Warehouse is still in its infancy--mostly an empty space, though intended to become something of an industrial arts workshop/party venue [not unlike the Generator near Reno, which I also got to see--and help fix up--during its bare-bones infancy and which is now one of the coolest places in America, if you ask me].

Ever since reading Down Under I've been on a mission to overload myself with information and see how much I can manage to remember. Combine this with how expensive Melbourne is [particularly compared to Thailand], and with its saving grace of free museums, and you can easily guess where I've been spending a sizeable chunk of my free time. I visited the NGV International alone on three different days before deciding I'd had enough of looking at really old things.

Otherwise, there's nothing too crazy for me to report just yet, as I've spent much of my time here focused on freelancing and haven't been able to cut loose and go on a real adventure [outside the bounds of conventional wandering, academic tourism, gastronomical overindulgence].

There've been some good nights with new friends.

On one of our first nights we were invited out by Adrian, the first photographer I've shot with in Australia, and treated to drinks on a rooftop bar rife with some really personable, easygoing people exhibiting varying degrees of artsy-fartsiness [I went home with an illustrator's drawing of a fish that had been inspired by a face I'd made], Alex and I left with a couple of art models, for a free Cat Empire show at Federation Square, and eventually we wound up drinking wine under a bridge by the river amidst several hippie types, all seeking refuge from the sudden rain [and all being barked at by rather unimposing cops as soon as the rain cleared].

Adrian Carmody: Melbourne, VIC, Australia, 2014

Adrian Carmody: Melbourne, VIC, Australia, 2014

Similarly, last night we successfully located what is undoubtedly the best ice cream place in Melbourne, followed by a contender for best cocktail bars I've been to in my life [which we only sought out because its name is also my Chinese name--we didn't even know it was a bar], followed by the swank apartment balcony of a lovely and hilarious Kiwi couple whom Alex had met a couple years prior in New Zealand, and who kept giving us wine and shots and making us laugh. The next day we nursed our consequent hangovers by seeking out the best pies in Melbourne.

In case you haven't gathered by now, Melbourne's full of good things to put in one's mouth.

And so on. Presently I'm not inspired to play storytime-dress-up and give some of my nights here the fully quixotic narratives they truly warrant...but I'm okay with that.

Taken by Theresa Manchester at the NGV Australia

Taken by Theresa Manchester at the NGV Australia

With Theresa Manchester on some rooftop bar

With Theresa Manchester on some rooftop bar

Post-Euphoria Uncomfortable Truths

Vang Vieng, Lao PDR

It's now been a month since Alex and I first set off from San Francisco for Bangkok though, predictably enough, it feels like it's been ages. This morning I woke up from a vivid dream of being back in my hometown, driving my own tuk-tuk through a blizzard [though in reality my hometown rarely gets colder than 70° F] to enroll in an intensive curriculum at a Hogwarts-esque school with the most incredible bookstore I'd ever seen, where I met an awesome girl who was an equestrian stuntwoman, hitchhiker, and organic chemist and we quickly fell into an enthused conversation about traveling, self-sufficiency versus [or in conjunction with?] love...Life, the Universe, and Everything.

I woke up, completely disoriented. Why am I in a small, dark wooden box?

...Oh yeah. I'm in a bungalow. Somewhere in Asia...Lao. That's right. What the fuck.

 It's unsusprising that I'd be in such a funk. I've just gotten over about twenty-four hours of what I suppose must have been my first bout of really vicious food poisoning [though Alex and I have been sharing all our food, and he was unaffected, so who knows where I got it from]. For about eighteen hours Alex said I was barely human, just kind of a feverish, cramping zombie; in moments of coherence I suspected somewhat dramatically that I might be dying.

Anyway, in all honesty, Vang Vieng sort of creeps me out, but over the last couple days being here has led us unexpectedly to our first major revelations on this trip. Of course, our brains have been working this whole time, trying to make sense of where we are and why, and what impacts we're contributing to by being here. Being in this city has crystalized a lot of those incubating thoughts and questions.

In stark contrast with the shiny and etheral Utopia of Luang Prabang--full of happy, healthy, and educated locals, philanthropist-conservationist-entrepreneurial ex-pats, volunteer opportunities that required very little time or money from well-meaning passers-through, and so much natural and manmade beauty it almost hurt to look at [not to mention the fucking food, which I already gushed over in my last post]--Vang Vieng appears to have become a sort of wasteland since the time when most articles we've read about it were published.

Coming here, it's easy to see that this place was once an innocuous little village, set right by the river against a beautiful backdrop of sheer green cliffs, huge natural caves, but otherwise not too different from any of the other small towns in this country.

Then with the onset of tubing it sprung up a facade of debauchery and the sort of tourism that would appeal mainly to that particular class of sheltered, spoiled spring-break-gap-year kids who feel "invincible" and ever-deserving of whatever they want--a rather ugly facade considering how poor of a town it still obviously is.

Then, when enough tourists started dying of drinking-drug-or-recreational-thrill-seeking-related mishaps, a whole shitton of the bars and rides were shut down by the powers that be, leaving a sparse sprinkling of bars that had us thinking, after a handful of crazy nights in Thailand and Luang Prabang, "So...where's the supposed nightlife in town?" Going tubing and seeing about five operating bars the whole way [and tens of shut-down establishments that obviously used to be bars, slides, and rides that were shut down for being unsafe] was similarly disillusioning. And now the locals who made their living off tourism are now still having to deal with its ill effects [arguably even more ill effects than other, similar places, considering the crowd Vang Vieng seems to attract] but are hard-pressed to find nearly as much business. While a few ex-pat bars thrive each night, the adjacent locally-staffed bars are pathetically vacant, even the ones offering free drinks for ladies before 10pm and other such no-strings specials.

It feels like a dwindling amusement park I visited as a kid, with floundering business due to a few freak accidents [and the resulting bad press, shut-downs, and lawsuits], now devoid of families or young things and primarily full of sheisty thirty-year-old trashbags who'd wander aimlessly and hit on eleven year old girls [such as myself, at the time]. Or, as Alex put it, "it feels like Burning Man on Monday, after the temple's burned down...all the theme camps are still up, or partially up, but almost everyone's left."

Before I pontificate any more, I might as well back-track to the route we took to our present dis-ease.

Disneyworld Veneer

The bus ride into town was a charming but strange look at the countryside which brought back the feelings I had on our last, much longer, much more uncomfortable ride into Luang Prabang. Natural beauty, lots of domesticated animals and savagely happy kids running around and waving, but weird icons of darkness: on a food stand at one of our stops was a water jug full of clear liquid and several dismembered bear paws, with a tap at the bottom [what could that possibly be for?], and every so often we'd see older people broken to the point of deformation or paralysis due to working every day of their lives, walking around on their arms, their atrophied legs shriveled up into their bodies, or hunchbacked to the point of being folded entirely over, looking jaded [possibly doped up on opium, which islegal for older citizens, broken by a lifetime of work, to smoke in order to ease their pain]. Even the knowledge that the gorgeous, perfectly-preserved mountainous countryside all around us was probably in such pristine condition largely due to the fact that the undeveloped parts of the country are literal minefields made its beauty feel a bit sinister.

Upon arriving, our first few couple days consisted mainly of vignettes of "paradise" that effectively distracted us from our deep-down feelings that there was something wrong with this place [and made us reluctant to admit these feelings to ourselves and one another].

We arrived, and almost instantly found a lovely bungalow, much nicer and more accommodating than any room we'd stayed in so far, for half the price we'd been paying anywhere else.

On our first night, we ran into about eight different people we'd seen before previously on our travels, and an unintelligibly drunk Londoner insisted upon buying us tequila shots before we slithered on our way. Several bars hand out free drink vouchers and have free Ladies Night specials every night where I can just walk in, order a mixer, and walk back out, and several bars will proffer free shots oflao lao if you ask. However, what little nightlife there was along the main drag seemed pretty fucking trashy and sad and full of overdrunk douchetools, so we'd mainly just go hang out back at our guest house, which was complete with a garden hammock hang-out spot where we had several nights of long conversations with other passers-through from New Zealand, Germany, England, and an unlikely eighteen-year-old Sacramento stoner who worked for two years in order to leave the country for the first time and travel solo around the world for a year and a half [or longer, depending on the work he could find abroad].

The next day, we walked right through a massive herd of cows and a couple miles out of town into rice paddies and virtually empty countryside, scrambled up Pha Poak [small but rather steep, with no clear route except for some jenky-ass wooden ladders--we only saw one other tourist headed up on our way down, and he looked like he was halfway dead from exhaustion] for an incredible view of the town, the fields, small villages on the other side, and the towering cliffs nearby.

A mile or so more of walking through lush jungley forest past water buffalo took us to Lusi Cave, the largest and prettiest natural cave I've been in so far, which has a lagoon you can swim in in the pitch-dark about an hour's walk in from the entrance [though it's currently dried up, so we didn't wander in that far].

Several dogs roam about freely [as they seem to all around Thailand and Lao], but here they seem especially friendly despite having no obvious owners. A group of four puppies followed a few Germans back to our guesthouse and wound up frolicking around the garden all night. On one evening we encountered a random, unsupervised cage with two monkeys on the street; the smaller of the two made grabs at my fingers and skirt [eventually he nabbed a bit of my hair, examined it, and put it in his mouth before getting bored of it and tossing it aside] and we couldn't quite figure out why they were in there, nor how we felt about it--amused but sympathetic and a bit disgusted.

Of all days to bring our camera with us, our first couple here easily would've yielded better photos than any we've taken so far...but we decided not to bother, and figured we'd rather just remain present, as we've done throughout most of our stay in Lao. Something about lugging around and pulling out a camera here feels kind of cheap.

Then we decided to go tubing, since that's sort of the obligatory "thing to do in Vang Vieng", which is where we really started noticing how much of a wasteland this place seems to have become. We made a point to head out early enough so that it wouldn't be too crowded...on the contrary, almost no one else was around. About five bars were in operation [with fit Lao boys throwing ropes out to fish for tubers, which we'd then grab in order to be pulled into shore--a procedure I found hilarious], several abandoned buildings nearby indicated where other bars once were, and several ladders and ropes indicated rides or jumps that had been shut down as safety hazards. The river was so slow that we spent most of the time paddling ourselves in order to move at all, and despite getting started before noon, we struggled to make it back by the 6p.m. deadline in order to avoid a fee from the tube rental shop. Additionally, it suddenly became freezing fucking cold [granted, the river being cold, slow, and deserted may have had more to do with the time of year--despite this being high season].

The one more-than-redeeming highlight of the day [the highlight of being in Vang Vieng, in general] was when we stopped over at one deserted bar and wandered further back when we saw a steep set of stairs and ladders leading up a cliff to a platform about a hundred or so feet up. We walked past a see-saw [which we were terrible at, since I'm half Alex's size], a bunch of tame baby bunnies that didn't seem to mind being pet, and several domesticated birds [geese, ducks, turkeys, chickens, huge tanks of hatchlings...and one of the weirdest, ugliest birds I've ever seen in my life, which I could only describe as a Durkey], clambered up the ladders and stairs to the platform, which yielded an incredible view, and then noticed a small cave entrance that would've been all too easy to miss. We clambered in and it was gorgeous, with natural bridges we could clamber across and a lower pit we could get to down a ladder, sunlight filtering through in such a way, illuminating shimmering mineral deposits and lush green mosses, that it looked like a fucking Dwarf Palace.

Looking Backstage

After a few hours of paddling our arms frantically through frigid stillwater and increasing winds so as to make it back by 6 p.m. we realized aloud: there's nothing to do here except the standard "adventure tour" drag [mainly treks, or trips up to caves, most of which charge an entrance fee and some of which, that we'd previously read could be explored alone, require going with a guide--probably after enough tourists fucked up and died, as the trend here seems to be] or get wasted, and neither of those things aren't all that worth the trip compared to other places where they're better. The town at least isn't so much a real place where one can justbe, relax, learn about, and appreciate; it's a broken-down Adventuretime facade. The natural geography here is really magnificent [which is probably how all the tourism cropped up here in the first place] but it's being exploited for cheap thrills.

We walked back home where we were intending to just get changed out of our wet clothes before heading out into the night, but both inadvertently passed out, exhausted. A few hours later I woke up at the onset of a fever, severe cramps, and delirium. Yay, food poisoning [or whatever].

A little over twenty-four hours later, as I was lying still and becoming a human again, Alex began a monologue that I've transcribed below. A bit later, when I felt well enough to speak fluently, turned into an extended conversation we've been ironing out ever since.

You know, when we first got here I just thought, 'Wow, this place is so much more wild and 'authentic' and rugged, I'm really enjoying this, blah, blah, blah.' But after a while, after the egocentric thoughts kind of dwindled, I'm realizing what I really think of this place.

We got here, hating on Thailand's full moon parties and easy access and shit, but now I feel like...that's kind of where we belong. On some developed island, drinking cocktails rather than trying to fool ourselves into thinking we're doing something more "dignified" and "earnest".

At least in Vang Vieng, the locals look at us with this ugly mixture of hope, bitterness. Especially some of the older ladies here who've obviously worked hard their entire lives, too old now to figure out a way to adapt to our presence here. We walk by, I'll smile and offer a 'sa-bai-dee,' and they'll just stare with this...indifference. But not just a fly-by not-noticing, but more a profound, conscious dismissal.

Even those who benefit, the tuk-tuk drivers and the vendors who smile and call out next to all the competing stands next to them that look exactly the same, beseeching us, "Please give us your money, you have so much of it and we need it," are basically bottom-feeders--here they're too desperate to brush off the tourists who decide to be assholes, or who insist on haggling harder than is fair, when it's inappropriate. They're not prospering off tourism. Here they still kiss all our asses no matter what bullshit we put them through or how dehumanizing we are...they may be benefiting more, but they still seem like slaves, just 'house niggas'.

Other tourists have been making me mad, and embarrassed, even for small transgressions. Ignorant jokes. Making cracks about hooking up with the prettier local women, like that's all they exist for. Getting angry when an impoverished Laotian--who might be illiterate in their native language--doesn't speak English, French, or whatever. Cultural insensitivity--even with signs in English asking them politely to wear shirts while they're in town. Throwing their cigarette butts and trash in beautiful places just because they're above keeping the place nice. Getting indignant when the cheap-ass comercial tour they paid for--that might cost the equivalent of a Lao person's wages in two months of working seven-day weeks--isn't "authentic" enough, or when everyone seems to be "trying to sell them things". Feeling entitled to 'local prices' and then not even realizing when they're already being offered those 'local prices'.

It's all pandered to them, too. Like the narco-tourism. It wasn't shut down because it was harming the locals...it was shut down when enough tourists died that it was making people hesitant to visit.

This facade's been created. Other tourists here are so detached. We were detached, too, when we first got here. No one comes to Vang Vieng to learn about the history or culture of this place. What history or culture? All you can see here are the detrimental effects of a failing tourist industry on a small third-world town that had the misfortune of being located in a beautiful place. And we were originally going to look into volunteering here...but volunteering around this town is SO much more expensive than being a tourist, even a somewhat extravagant one. 

And here we are, falling asleep in this cozy tourist bungalow designed to look like the real thing while actually being much more comfortable, in a country built on fields of opium poppies, land mines, skeletons of war, and a nebulous government that everyone's too scared to even talk about.

We're invincible, coming here with our money, even if we're middle-class back home. Even across the world, if we get sick or get hurt, we'll be taken care of. For a pittance we can get private rooms, clean water, showers, and stuff ourselves with food. 

People come here and pay to ride abused elephants or dehumanize and gawk at the hilltribes, who are some of the last strongholds of cultural isolation in a globalizing world. Then they complain that it's not "authentic". You don't need to hire a guide and go take photos of them to realize what's happening or to sympathize with them for being exploited and rendered as impoverished by outside forces. Even though we're not participating in those things, to a lesser degree, we're not exempt from that either. Even with less money than most people bring here, even by making an effort to learn and do no harm, we're still living it up, we've still got nice backpacks, and are still monetary miles above the standard here. I think it's important to understand this.

If you want an "authentic" experience, fucking go home and buy a sandwich at Subway. For the people here, it's just life, and it's harder than just about anyone comes with would ever want to subject themselves to--or would know how to handle. Some of the volunteering costs so much money because even the well-intentioned people who come to volunteer don't have the grit to do it without some of their first-world creature comforts, and don't have the skills to actually be all that useful. They come with philanthropic ideals molded more around their egos than around a true ability or willingness to be helpful. 

Now I remember why I do this: to try and make a bit more sense of what's happening in the world. It'd be delusional to think I could get some simple, clean, final answer--that'd be impossible without knowing the history, goings-on, secrets, and interactions within and between everywhere in the world, which in itself is impossible knowledge.

But we just come into the world--poof!--as another consciousness. Here we are. Why? Why do I have what I have? What does someone over there have? What's going on? Over here, over there? Are we all puppets, is there Free Will, is it beneficial to think there is even if there isn't, blah, blah, blah...?

And I don't know what to do, what I can or should do--if I should do anything. But I can travel, and learn. I don't know what else to spend a lifetime doing. Or at least this part of my lifetime, while I might have so much time and still know so damn little. 

He voiced my own solidifying thoughts and feelings at least as well as I could have, so there they are.

And, duh. Luang Prabang and the major hubs of Thailand we've visited so far are, of course, also touristy as fuck--but there seems to be more of a symbiosis there between the locals and tourists. It doesn't seem so toxic.

In most places we've been there's some semblance of mutual respect and appreciation, and even a lot of social crossover--we spent a good portion of a night in Luang Prabang playing music on the street with some Laotians, one of whom unwittingly led me to my gnarliest hangover ever when he kept offering me shots oflao lao and ignoring my laughing pleas of, "No more!" Similarly, the nightlife and partying and narco-tourism is rampant there, but it doesn't feel dark or thoughtless, rife with stories of overdose or exploitation--it feels more like what partying should be.

And Thailand, while overrun with a different sort of ex-pat [i.e., perverted old men with young Thai girls, or people who just wanted to retire somewhere cheap, irrespective of where it was] and some other unpleasant variables, seems less tainted in that it decidedly isn't a third-world country the way Lao is, the people there aren't so desperate and taken for granted by entitled tourists flaunting their wealth here in a third-world country by wearing impractically decadent designer clothes, trying to haggle for set-price wet market items for the sake of saving an extra twenty-five cents because they're fucking idiots and don't know better and mistakenly think that no items are above haggling or that everything is dishonestly priced, knowing that sooner or later one of the reluctant food merchants will relent because, after all, beggars can't be choosers. In Thailand, when someone tries to do that, the vendors just laugh them off, and rightly so.

I didn't feel dirty for being in most of the places we've been so far [though coming to terms with "being a tourist", not deluding myself into thinking I could be something more dignified by trying to "avoid the tourist stuff" or "rough it" more, and embracing my role as an inescapable fact took me a second], whereas coming here has wrought us with an uncomfortable sort of guilt...a feeling that we really don'tbelong here, that our presence is doing a lot more harm than good.

Anyway. Time will tell what we might actually do with our evolving thoughts and attitudes, but for now we're still learning, trying to stay humble, to "see with eyes unclouded" and not delude ourselves into thinking we're "above" all the bullshit...while also not being too hard on ourselves.

For now, I'm excited to get the fuck out of here tomorrow: the general plan is Vientiene, hop over the border to Nong Khai, then on to Southern Thailand via Bangkok in order to visit a few people and get scuba certs.

Of course, as usual we've been playing by ear a lot and our "plans" have been changing every two days or so, so fuck if I know whether that's actually what we'll end up doing [or, if so, how long it'll end up taking us--two weeks or six].

One side effect of all the Bangkok protests we've just found out about that's proved very serendipitous for us is that Americans entering Thailand by land can now stay visa-free for thirty days. A week or two ago, it was fourteen days--we would've had to fly in in order to stay the full thirty for free, so we'd resigned ourselves to hunting for as cheap a flight as possible from Vientiene into Bangkok and skipping Nong Khai, which would've been a shame since it's right there from Vientiene and was recommended by a "credible stranger" who didn't really tell us anything about it except that we should go there. I tend to prefer following random and vague suggestions than well-defended ones, which is probably why we didn't bother going to Pai when we were in the neighborhood-ish--too much hype from too many backpackers either yammering about how amazing it was, or about how overrated and overrun it was.

Groundhog Day

Chiang Mai, Thailand

I'm nostalgic, sometimes to a fault. Every now and again I catch myself maneuvering through the slippery slope of attempting to document [and, thus, remember] fucking EVERYTHING.

This is unsustainable, distracting, and defeats the point of living--embracing and appreciating each moment partly for being ephemeral.

"This too shall pass." The incantation that can render a sad man happy, and a happy man sad.

So, these posts are going to have to be shorter for my own sake [and, I'm sure, for the sake of anyone reading them].

We're leaving soon. Chiang Mai is starting to feel like a very pleasant, easygoing Groundhog Day.

The loft coffeehouse I've sat in learning how to read and speak Thai; a local barista's been helping me.

The loft coffeehouse I've sat in learning how to read and speak Thai; a local barista's been helping me.

The merchandise in the night marketsday markets, and stores seem to all come from the same two or three suppliers—I've seen the exact same clothes and artifacts at a hundred different booths each day, and while I'm not here to buy shit, the perpetual feeling of déjà vu creeps me out. The heady music played at the backpacker bars consists of the same few songs every single night. On cue, I'll hear "Summertime Sadness" followed by "Give Me Everything" followed by Katy fucking Perry. 

The people are mostly repeats, too. We keep running into other westerners at cafes or food carts; initially we'll be happy to share a table and conversation with someone who is also traveling and speaks our language. Inevitably, we'll realize [sometimes not until after we've exchanged information and committed to spending a day together] that we have nothing in common and find each other's worldviews completely alienating.

It's so easygoing that not becoming a bit listless requires an active effort. I feel like Alex and I are Baloo and Mowgli, lumbering around the jungle eating ants and fruits at our leisure. Consequently, I'm beginning to bore myself.

Where to next? Deciding between Chiang Rai and Nong Khai [leaning heavily towards the former].

Tourist Binge

We decided to spend twenty-four hours doing standard "touristy" things, which we'd been avoiding. In general, I think tours are a way to preclude living: to be a spectator rather than a participant, and to possibly learn about other things in a very packaged way while making sure you don't learn anything about yourself. Tours are a way to focus more on taking canned photos that say "look how much fun I'm having" than on actually having fun.

However...when else am I going to get to hug a tiger?

After reading about several unethical animal tourist attractions in Thailand where animals are abused or drugged into sedation, we were wary of Tiger Kingdom and initially set on avoiding it. However, after scrounging around a bit online for information, and talking to a few people who'd gone, we decided to give it a shot. At least as far as we could see, the tigers didn't show signs of being drugged and seemed pretty healthy, and seemed to have pretty trust-based bonds with their caretakers. Additionally, which tigers were open to be pet by tourists seemed to rotate around, so that individual tigers would get breaks and days off; they seemed better off than many zoo animals, at least. For whatever that's worth.

Well, no regrets, we did it. Still not sure how I feel about it.

As Alex put it, "Well...they're definitely being patronized, which is kind of embarrassing to look at, but they seem pretty content and healthy."

I mean, we're guilty of patronizing them, too, as the photos above indicate [with the tiger trainers instructing us on how to pose, "Do mustache tail!"]...granted, the tigers didn't seem to give much of a shit, except for one adult female who either wanted to play with, or eat, Alex.

It was awesome but we left with a bit of awkward ambivalence.

The Siam Insect Zoo, on the other hand, was far less ideologically complicated [and also cheaper]. 

Then we went on a tour of handicraft factories. This basically consisted of being picked up by a quirky guy who'd drive us somewhere, then hang out while we poked around and asked questions [and, of course, were coaxed into gift shops]. The factory workers would go about their business, seemingly indifferent to our presence.

The cost for a group is 300 baht. So, $10 for the two of us to have a private driver for the morning take us to eight factories and an awesome and decently-priced lunch spot.

First stop: paper umbrella factory. A couple guys near the entrance asked to paint waterproof designs on our t-shirts for 50 baht, so we let them. I got a butterfly doohickey that went with the shirt I was wearing, and Alex got a couple of elephants humping, as per the artist's suggestion.

The factory itself was really impressive--every little part of the umbrellas is completely cut using hand tools. Little knives and so on. Nothing is mechanized. The umbrellas ranged in size from a few inches to over six feet in diameter.

Next we visited a jewelry factory, which was far more intimidating--a huge building flanked by really uptight-looking and smartly-uniformed employees, following us watchfully. We weren't allowed to take photos, which is a shame, as the factory and showroom were pretty impressive.

Third was a lacquerware factory, with all sorts of charming wooden doodads, all intricately hand-painted.

Fourth was a silk factory, and possibly my favorite. The silkworms are raised until they form cocoons, which are then boiled and spun to extract the silk--it takes 50 cocoons to make one thread, and each cocoon yields about 500-800 meters of silk. They're then washed and tinted with natural dyes before they get strung up on the looms. One of the women there showed us how to spot real silk from imitation silk [which is all over the night markets].

Fifth, a jade factory. In the display cases along with the jade pieces were glasses of water, meant to help regulate humidity. There was an enormous pirate ship complete with jade chains that I wasn't allowed to take a photo of.

Next was a silver factory, where we were shown how to test for silver purity in objects...

...followed by a couple "factories" that were mostly just shops. The first of these was full of Kashmir goods, including a really impressive teak elephant--all one piece, with a hollowed out interior containing sixteen baby elephants that had been carved through small holes in the big elephant's body--and hand-stitched tapestries made of silk and cashmere. A smooth-talking Indian salesman handed me a carved wooden box and told me he'd give us 1000 baht if I could open it [since it was a puzzle with a secret lock, which he didn't tell us] and I figured it out in about ten seconds, which left him pretty embarrassed [but not enough to stop trying to sell us expensive scarves].

The final stop sold leather goods, though the "factory" itself seemed to only focus on stitching the already-processed leather into items. I would've liked to see them actually making leather, but we were burnt out by then anyhow.

So, our mission complete, we put the camera away and resumed being regular humans.

Re: The Anti-Monk

I have become somewhat obsessed. This guy is everywhere.

We've spotted him again several times, a couple of them right by our guest house, which is on a rather nondescript little soi and not much of a destination unless you're staying there.

We spotted him at one of the vendor booths run by a couple of little ladies selling typical tourist trinkets [noise-making wooden frogs, wristbands bearing such tasteful phrases as up butt no baby and i heart rape], counting out cash. I was somewhat inebriated and, excitedly ran across the street and tried to get a photo, but was so nervous and ambivalent the whole time ["Man, it is really creepy and maybe a bit dehumanizing for me to be doing this right now...mm, they're all blurry...oh-shit-I-think-he-saw-me..."] that I dilly-dallied and not only failed to take a decent photo before running away guiltily [the grainy, unfocused piece of shit below is the best one I got] but seeing him there under the light, which gave his face a rather eerie glow [he's got an eerily calm look about him, anyway--like a Guy Fawkes mask, sort of serene and smiling and sociopathic--which is largely why I wanted a photo of him] made him look like some sort of mobster-of-the-underworld, and I started making up all manner of possible scenarios about what he could be doing with the ladies at the booth. 

The next morning, I was glad no recognizable photos came out—both in respect for the guy's privacy [really was kind of a dick move on my part but, hey, I got excited...and was possibly quite a bit drunk] and because my memory will embellish the image and make it seem more dramatic and exciting over time, whereas a photo would keep my memory in check and prevent me from over-romanticizing.

Sometimes it's best to toss out the empiricism in the name of deluded aesthetics.
  
Also, I've realized that I probably don't want to solve the mystery. He's probably just a scammer/street performer in a robe...but not having this confirmed as a fact allows my imagination to get the better of me, which is much more fun. Sometimes knowledge isn't everything. 

Disillusionment

Before heading on this trip, we'd read several warnings [on sites like Wikitravel that are supposed to serve as guides] about Thai people--to look out for scams, or possible threats.

Since we've been here, the only unpleasantness we've seen is from other tourists [and holy shit can they be nasty, especially to the Thai natives...probably because they've read all the same Doomsday propaganda about how Thais are all trying to fuck them over].

The other day, we went out on a scooter to find that flower restaurant again. We wound up in a strange back alley by a corner store that was closing up, so I went in and asked the old couple in charge if they knew where the place was. They didn't speak English, but the tiny little Thai man gave a huge smile and gestured for us to follow him--then ran out, hopped on his scooter, and led us there. It was a good mile or so out of the way, too.

When we got there, it was closed, even though we'd shown up at their business hours. The man gestured for us to follow him again, and took us through a shortcut to get back on the road for the Old City, waving at us from his motorbike when he figured he'd taken us far enough and turning around to go home and we continued on, grinning.

"You know...even though the place was closed, I've got this sense of closure. I think it just made my day how nice that man was."

"...Meh, the place was a bit pricey, anyway. Almost three bucks a dish!"

"Man, we're spoiled."

As another example, the lady who runs our guest house. She works seven days a week managing three guesthouses and a restaurant, and renting out scooters. Her English is good and we've also heard her speak to guests in French and Mandarin. When our scooter got a flat the other day and stranded us outside of town [a misadventure I'll get to in a second], she told us not to worry about getting it fixed or paying for it even though it was technically our bad, she's not a stickler if we pay after check-out time, and she's changed our sheets even though we told her not to worry about it.

Every day, we see several douche bags—usually young and trendy Americans, Australians, or Europeans—come up with an absolutely disgusting level of entitlement.

"I'm sorry, all the rooms are full today except our luxury suite on the top floor--it's 700 baht. You can look around and come back if you can't find another room--I'll be here for a few more hours. If you need a place to stay just for the night, you can always find a cheaper place tomorrow, since it's getting late."

"...And I have to go up fucking stairs to waste my money? Uh, yeah, no thanks, you've wasted enough of my time." And off huffed yet another pretty and wealthy-looking brat with a backpack. Incidentally, 700 baht is still just over $20.

Sure, a lot of locals will quote you higher prices, but worst case scenario just means you get duped into paying more than you might've gotten away with had you known better; the only reason they succeed is because even the "rip-off" marked-up price sounds cheap to westerners. If you don't know better, you might wind up paying $7 for a cab ride that should've been $3, big fucking deal.

It's understandable, too--even if you're a poor American, if you're in their country to begin with, you're probably rich by Thai standards. Their minimum wage amounts to the equivalent of $10 total for a full workday. If we had aliens coming to our country who were comparatively as loaded, we'd be trying to snag their money, too.

And even when they're trying to "rip you off", it's sort of a game--they do it good-naturedly, not with any true ill will. Alex and I have gotten considerably better at haggling, which is kind of a sport. You smile, you shit-talk, you act shocked and affronted, but always while smiling. A woman will pretend to be angry, turn to Alex, and point at me, saying, "She want for one hundred baht! She make joke for me--beautiful, but no very smart." A man will plead desperately that our asking price is lower than what he himself paid for an item...but eventually he'll budge, because, after all, he was lying, and knew that we knew it.

Another reason I want to get out of Chiang Mai is because I'm starting to become unfairly cynical towards the other tourists here--at least the ones I perceive as belonging to the same category of tourist as the rich kids pouring into our guesthouse lobby each day.

So many people here seem to want an experience that is "authentic", but also easy. We've met people who will complain of all the tourists, or how the hill tribe treks aren't "authentic" and are "commercialized" and designed to get you to buy stuff [...no shit, you're paying money to go point and stare at a bunch of people in their "natural habitat" like they're zoo animals]...and will then complain, "Yeah, I went to Myanmar, but over there there's like, no Internet and it's hard to find ATMs. And no one there spoke English.

Dude, fuck you.

Last night, after hanging out for a while eating chicken hearts and livers with Nathan [whom we'd met earlier] and a couple who'd recognized Alex's shirt from Burning Man, Alex and I got legitimately drunk for our first time in Thailand, which served as a good release valve for me to let off some of my frustration. I went around, sneaking up to trashed Euro bros pissing on fences, spitting beer into their pee streams from the other side, yelling "Bpen ngai bang?" and running away as they squealed in surprise, and otherwise fucking with people and being a twerp, albeit a harmless one. I predict something similar happening tonight.

All in good fun?

One conversation we had left me feeling a lot better about everything. Over kao soi we overheard a white guy [who may have been a Kiwi, but we couldn't tell for sure] reading one of the menus in Thai, and struck up a conversation [since I'm at the point now where I can slooooowly read pretty much anything in Thai, as long as the font isn't too weird]. He was an odd character: he seemed like he would've been in place in Silicon Valley, a mildly outdoorsy nerdy engineer type, but had spent much of the last couple decades wandering into random small Thai towns and hitchhiking.

He was very friendly, but avoided talking about himself. When we asked him why he was here, whether he was working or living or traveling, he'd said, "Oh, you know, it's easy to live here," and changed the subject.

But he took an approach to Thailand more simple and organic than any other travelers we'd met. "I haven't been on one fucking trek, I haven't ridden an elephant. I just talk to people, eat, and wander around, see what there is to do. I trained in Thai massage for a while and practiced at a couple temples. It's just living--like living anywhere else. This isn't some 'other' place--some fake world, or theme park, as many like to treat it."

After a long chat by the cart, he introduced himself as Matt, got up and went along on his merry way, matter-of-factly. It felt a lot more genuine than some of the awkward partings we've had with others, sprinkled with, "Oh, I need your contact info," or "Yeah, I'd love to hang out again," that aren't so much sincere as they are ways to make the goodbyes a bit smoother. Having one great conversation with someone can, but certainly doesn't always, mean you'll have anything to talk about given a "next time". Figuring out how to tell the difference between what should be a one-time encounter and what could be a life-long friend is a bit of a challenge, but I've been getting better at it.

Spirit House in Your House's lobby

Spirit House in Your House's lobby

One of my favorite experiences so far has actually been of a completely failed plan to visit the quarry, a sort of obscure local secret-ish, supposedly a great spot for cliff jumping and swimming.

We rented a scooter, got about twenty minutes or so out of town, and got a flat. The next several hours consisted of us pushing the thing along the side of the highway, looking for gas stations, filling up with air, and driving another 3 k or so until the tire flattened out again, then continuing to push it.

 An ex-pat on a bike came by and helpfully went off to investigate where the nearest gas stations were [and check to see if any of the repair shops were closed--they all were], and we found a few cool knickknacks lying in the sidewalk, and had our antics laughed at good-naturedly by passing locals crammed in the back of pick-up trucks.

Eventually, we managed to spot, and hail, a songtaew that could take us back into town--though, knowing we were desperate, she wouldn't budge from 200 baht. We really had no leverage, though, so we shrugged and laughed this off.

It's the conversations and revelations we had, and the dumb shit we laughed about, during those few hours that I think I've gotten the most out of.

...Uh, so much for shorter blog posts.

Confronting my Naïveté [First Day in Bangkok]

Bangkok, Thailand

Life is full--yesterday morning felt like five days ago. I've learned a lot so far. Mainly, that I'm far less worldly than I thought, but also far more resourceful. 

Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport

So, I know the airport in Taipei probably doesn't seem like the first thing I should start extolling the virtues of, but I'm going to anyway [revealing straightaway my conspicuous lack of worldliness].

We had a layover there and I almost sad to leave. That airport is a veritable fucking theme park; I was laughing my entire time there. When we showed up to our gate, it was decorated with Chinese brush painting on the walls, overhanging lamps masquerading as paper lanterns, am expensive-looking fake frog pond made of glass. The gate had a name, even. Underneath the facade of a traditional wooden roof a sign read, "Taiwan Image." I thought this was cute.

Then I wandered down the corridor. Next door was the gate "Postal Waiting Room", guarded by a fat penguin-looking postal worker that reeked Sanrio, a flock of airmail-envelope-paper-planes taking flight over wavy upholstered blue benches. Another was book themed, stocked with several shelves of free books. Another was Hello Kitty themed, complete with a playplace and rainbow amphitheater. Another looked like a room in a museum, full of Taiwanese ceremonial artifacts sitting pretty behind glass and plaques.

Amidst the shops were eerie fake living room displays: a mantle, lamp, mid-game pool table, upholstered furniture, and picture-framed screen looping the same commercial over and over promoted Glenlivet in a display of charming overkill. Random aesthetic sanctuaries dotted the corridor: a room full of flower arrangements in which one could unwind from any in-transit anxiety. Amidst the icons for "Restroom" and "Smoking lounge" was a kneeling figure, which directed one to the prayer room. All the airport staff looked like dolls that had just come out of their shrink wrap--many were in silly costumes [especially those working near the Hello Kitty gate], standing as still as members of the Queen's Guard, and their hair and makeup was done up to a degree of perfection I rarely see in the states [on the men, as well as the women].

The "Green Relaxing Room" cracked me up the most--in it were several life-sized dioramas of the jungle or beach, complete with backdrops, fake rocks and trees, and sand. I forced Alex to indulge me in taking fake tourist photos in front of these, much to the amusement of other foreigners passing by.

9.jpg

Relativity

Upon our 3:00a.m. arrival, everything we'd been told to expect was acted out for us in real-time, which made me feel like we were navigating through a video game after reading how to beat it. I'd been given instructions on exactly what to do, which was lucky because I was far too tired to think for myself. 

Customs was so quick and easy that we didn't realize we'd already passed through it.

Immediately, "discount" taxi drivers tried to chivvy us into their cars--I'd been told this would happen, and that I should ignore them. We headed down to the lower level and got a cab. The driver asked to see my taxi receipt, which in addition to the location information is also the only way I can keep track of the driver and send in a complaint if he tries to rip us off, and tried to pocket it--as I'd been told he might. As soon as we were in the car, he tried to haggle a fixed fare with me--I'd been told not to oblige, no matter how good the offer sounded [he started at 500 baht for a 37 km ride--about $15 for 23 miles].

"No. Meter, please." After a bit of insisting that a flat fare would actually be cheaper for me, he reluctantly turned on the meter. Once we arrived, the cab fare--after the airport tax and two tolls--was about $9.

Andrew, a photographer I'd worked with back in Reno had comped us a hotel for our first two nights in Bangkok, since we were planning to shoot in Pattaya. When we stumbled into the lobby, it took me several minutes to realize that he was standing right there next to the concierge, and had been waiting.

"About time you got here!"

"Yeah...what is it, 4 a.m.? My brain's pretty fried. So when are you heading to Pattaya?"

"Well. I'm leaving town today."

"Today? Change of plans? I thought you'd be here until at least the 22nd."

"Today is the 22nd."

I laughed deliriously at this, but his face didn't change.

"...Wait, what?"

"I booked your room from the 20th-22nd, since you said your flight got in early morning of the 21st. That was yesterday."

"...Wait." My jet lag-addled brain exploded. "...Fuck...ah. Fuck...? Shit. Wait..."

Lesson one: Don't blindly trust the flight itinerary at the expense of common sense. [Or, more generally, double-check things.] Apparently...just because the arrival'stime has been adjusted, doesn't mean the date has.

Citichic 

Luckily for us, Andrew was extremely generous [despite his obvious and completely justified annoyance] and had already bought us an extra night. He showed us to our room--it was exceedingly trendy. All the fixtures and furniture seemed to scream, "Look how excessively fucking modern we are!" There were two different showerheads, and a sliding pervert-door in case someone in the bedroom wanted to look into the bathroom. We had robes and our own backyard patio, canopied in tropical trees I'd never seen before, with fruits that looked like strings of anal beads.

My guilt was overshadowed only by my exhaustion. Andrew told us to get an hour or two of sleep and to meet him for breakfast at the Radisson at 6:30--and that I shouldn't be too overwrought with guilt, because the room [which would easily be several hundred dollars a night in America] was about $40/night.

We did, and when I mentioned making it up to him and heading to Pattaya, he seemed undecided and gave no clear answers. However, he was quite cheerful, and told us all about the most recent local scams and political unrest, and what tourist traps to avoid. As we left, he told us to have a good time and vaguely inferred that I should keep abreast-ish of my emails.

Incidentally, I'm writing all of this from one of the computers at CitiChic; it's a gorgeous morning and we're about to check out and head to a Couchsurfing host's place and I don't know when I'll next have a keyboard at my disposal. Alex is running around, making sure we have potable water and looking into taking a water taxi.

First-Day Acclimation

In the morning we opted to run around, rather than crash out and exacerbate our jet lag. Arbitrarily we chose Lomphini Park as a more-or-less destination, since it'd give us a direction to go in, which can be a tough thing to settle on when there's really nowhere at all one needs to be.

No American city I've been to is as densely overstimulating as Bangkok--so full of color and noise and fast-moving activity. On the streets were countless vendors constantly either selling food or getting ready for the next rush; motorcycle taxis zipped around with well-to-do clients sitting sidesaddle behind them. Several times, I nearly stepped on someone or crossed a busy street without realizing. New York might as well be a desolate expanse. Las Vegas, Oakland, San Francisco, New Orleans--all quiet and sparse. 

The instant we set out the door, the cacophonous bustle grabbed us in a chokehold: stampedes of motorcyclists cutting corners as if they were already shitfaced at 9a.m.; cars driving all over the wrong lanes and crooked sidewalks; a stray dog sleeping in a bed of tied-off trash bags; a horde of about twelve rats clearly having a momentous shindig behind a vacant food stall; massive clumps of telephone wires sagging overhead, tied together spaghetti-esque with no seeming rhyme or reason. From these clumps of wires I heard a loud buzzing: the sound of something arcing.

"That's not really a sound we're supposed to hear," Alex said mildly. Nonetheless, the buzzing exerted its recurring presence in our day, which we found amusing. Granted, we were in a bit of a stupor and found everything amusing; for several minutes we stood and anthropomorphized a group of pigeons, dubbing over their pigeon-talk. We walked by several construction workers in bandana-balaclavas who were using metal grinders and saws right in the middle of the sidewalk, which inspired us to make a string of OSHA jokes that wouldn't have been funny to anyone else.

Lesson two: In Bangkok, the first phrase one should learn isn't "Hello," "Thank you," "You're welcome," 
"Discount?" or "No problem," all of which I'd gone ahead and committed to memory. 

In fact, it's "No, thank you," the one no-brainer phrase that hadn't occurred to me to learn.

Within five minutes, we'd been approached by every type of would-be scanner that we'd been warned about: congenial and well-dressed men pretending to recognize us from somewhere, women with clipboards trying to get us in on a contest, taxi and tuk-tuk drivers trying to coax us into their vehicles, calling after us in ceaseless succession that we looked lost and that they could help us.

Again, it felt like a video game: they all fit their character roles so perfectly, and my responses were such to-the-letter reenactments of advice I'd been given. Sensory overload notwithstanding, it was pretty fun, and while my perma-smile was borne of insomniac delirium and cultural pressure [in Thailand one's expected to smile, even--and especially--during less comfortable interactions], it was sincere.

Third lesson: learning the Thai alphabet [or printing it out and carrying it around] would've been a lot more helpful than learning basic phrases and numbers, since Thai people all know how to say those things in English, anyway. But several street and station signs aren't spelled out in English--it's tough to know how to ask for directions when you don't even know where it is you're trying to get to [and Google maps gave us all street names in the Thai alphabet].

Still, after not too long, I'd figured out how to read some of the Thai signs by context, and we made it to Skytrain, which was extremely navigable and thankfully devoid of tourist-predating scammers and taxi drivers.

Street Food

Once off BTS, we wandered down a main road and were pulled into several detours by our noses over the next couple hours. Down extremely narrow alleys would be large markets full of street vendors that were completely hidden from the main roads.

The marketplaces were bustling, sometimes with seemingly hundreds of people, yet we were the only non-locals at any of them. We took this as a good sign. Several of the stalls had pre-established local prices and we'd watch what they charged the locals; no one tried to overcharge or up-sell us. In fact, for the first time since we'd been outdoors in Bangkok, the locals treated us with courteous indifference; no one batted an eye or tried to coax us into buying anything. 

I grew up on traditional Asian food a la my mother and grandma, and been to several Thai restaurants in America--but the majority of food being sold on the street was completely new to us. We couldn't even discern most of the ingredients.

Case in point: the first thing we ate. I can best describe it as "deep-fried seaweed-and-or-shallot jello cubes" that we supposed might have been derived from beans. Or dough. Or something else.

Throughout the day, we also ate some sweet taro-blob-fried-corn things; a rice dish with egg yolks, peanuts, mushrooms, taro paste, and some yellow legume-like things; sweet-and-savory corn-taro-and-maybe-some-type-of-squash blobs; lotus root juice [YES]; spicy fish balls; some amazing "milk pudding" with kidney beans, pudding jelly, and some firm jelloid cubes with one of the most interesting textures of anything I've eaten; an ice cream slushie thing with coconut milk, peanuts, rice, and some gooey white things that I thought at first might have been some kind of fruit, but weren't; squid kebabs; real pad thai [which I didn't even recognize as pad thai at first]...

Summarily, we ate a lot. With everything costing between 10-40 baht [$0.30-1.20], another street stall every two feet, and an incentive to support smaller businesses off the main tourist drag, the only limiting factor was the capacities of our stomachs.

Also, fun fact: Red Bull originally came from Thailand [with a similar logo]. However, the Thai version is sort of syrupy [less fruity], uncarbonated, and evenmore caffeinated.

Of course, we got one of those [for about $0.20]. 

Lumphini Park

Eventually we reached Lumphini. It wasn't what I expected--full of streams and bridges and grass and a smattering of pretty old traditional buildings and monuments, but with roads still cutting through it every now and again as a constant reminder that, yes, we're still in the city. I sort of liked this frenetic aspect, personally--it felt more juxtaposed to be hanging out by a pretty pond while, right over yonder, chaos was still ensuing without me. Several people in casual business attire were taking naps under trees and in the grass.

Throughout the day, we opted not to take photos ["What would we photograph? I could take a picture of just about anything we've seen today; I'd rather just live it than attempt to capture it all."] but I caved when I saw a huge monitor lizard eating some large crow-or-other-corvid like it was a large insect [unfortunately, none of these turned out--I couldn't get close enough].

Alex, having seen several monitor lizards himself in Australia, laughed at me. "Those things are everywhere--they're like squirrels." Squirrels, except the size of dogs and with necrosis-inducing venom. Over the next hour, we probably saw over ten of them--and minus one small boy who was throwing a stick at one, the locals seemed indifferent to their presence.

Still, even he was impressed when we saw one about six feet long that appeared to be morbidly obese. We guessed it probably weighed about ninety pounds at the very least.

Along with the lizards, we saw several bird species and plants we'd never seen before. Several beautiful stray dogs ran around ["Well, when they're surviving on their own, the useless traits get weeded out pretty quick--you're not going to see stray pugs, or purebreds at all, really."] and the ponds were full of nearly human-sized catfish that were mostly hidden under the murky surface. I coined several dumb new portmanteaus [dalmigeon, bushlephants, hearchways...].

We also came across several protester campgrounds--tent villages blasting heated speeches in Thai. I resisted the urge to go ask them questions.

At one point, I thought I saw a long blue-gray tongue flicker out of one of the holes in a manhole cover. Alex laughed at me and said I was being ridiculous.

Five minutes later, we saw a giant monitor lizard--maybe a five-footer--squeeze clumsily out of a crack in the street that looked like it was about two inches wide.[So there!]

Ack, it's almost check-out time, so I'll skip a few things and wrap this up. 

Platinum Fashion Mall

When giving us recommendations, Andrew had insisted that we visit the Platinum Fashion Mall. Neither of us are much for shopping--or clothes, period--but he insisted.

That mall was easily one of the most surreal [and claustraphobia-inducing] places I'd been in my life--an endless labyrinth with aisles four feet wide, with walls made up of tiny shopfronts. We took an escalator from the street to get inside its fifth floor, and then got lost several times, I finally reached a directory and discovered that there were four floors of just women's clothing. It seemed impossible. The place was so big and dizzying--and had so much of every conceivable garment in the Universe--that I figured it'd be completely impossible to ever actually find any particular item you might go looking for. A good percentage of the patrons were dolled-up ladyboys, another sizeable portion were foreigners. Also, shit was cheap--having packed virtually no clothes for my trip [just the T-shirt and pants I'd worn on the plane], I bought a couple things, all priced between $1-6 after haggling [and $6 was for items arguably crossing into "high-end" territory].

It felt like a really weird dream, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who doesn't become exceedingly anxious in small crowded spaces.

Southern Style Thai Massage

So, I'm trained in Thai massage myself, having completed programs in both Northern Style and Nerve Touch Style in the States.

I'd asked my instructor about Southern Style, and she'd said, "It's similar to Northern Style, but a lot faster and harder and more aggressive--but not necessarily beneficial or therapeutic, like Nerve Touch. Pretty much any time you hear someone had a scary experience getting Thai massage, or an injury, it was a Southern Style massage."

"So...you're saying Southern Style is basically a shitty version of the same thing, rather than a style on its own?"

"Well, I suppose so."

I thought she was just biased. So we got massages in Bangkok.

I enjoyed it--it's tough for me to not enjoy a massage--but it was still easily the worst Thai massage I'd ever gotten. The therapist's sense of safe alignment was egregious, and a few times I was scared she was legitimately going to mis-align my back or tweak my knees.

Still...an hour-long massage for $5?...I really can't complain. However, I'll probably wait until we head up closer to Chiang Mai before trying another one. 

Checking out

Phew. I woke up this morning [first legitimate night of sleep in days]. Wanted to clear my head this morning by writing all this shit down while I've got a free computer at my disposal. Also, I'm nostalgic, but forget everything if I don't eke out enough discipline to transcribe it.

There was a lot of other cool stuff that I don't have time to go into--on our walk back to the hotel, in addition to the night markets, we passed by several old VW hippie vans along the street that had been converted to portable bars, with built-in counters and sidewalk bar stools, pimped out with squillions of lasers and blinky Christmas lights and blasting electronic music. They looked like something out of Burning Man.

But it's time to get off my ass and go--we're going to stay with an American ex-pat we found via Couchsurfing.

Next after that...Alex wants to head south to the islands and then Malaysia, and I want to go north and on to Indochina. So we're going to flip a coin.

Channeling My Inner Chickenshit

For weeks now I've repeated, like a broken record, the same phrase to whomever's asked me how I'm doing: "About to fly to Bangkok with a one-way ticket." Each time, the words emerged automatically; meanwhile, I was catatonic, not registering the words that were fast becoming my own personal fucking catchphrase.

Really, that's not an answer to the question How are you doing? but everyone I've said it to has accepted it as such.

This is the last time I'm stating it, but this time I'm at least half-conscious of my words: I'm flying to Bangkok in a little over twelve hours...and that's basically the extent of my itinerary thus far.

As my departure's been arriving, a lot of people I've caught up with or run into--mainly acquaintances or bygone friends from a past life I no longer relate to--keep saying things to me like, "I wish I could just get up and go like you, by the seat of your pants, caution to the wind, [insert cliche after cliche here]--you're so fearless/free-spirited/bohemian." Or whatever.

They couldn't be farther from the truth.

I'd like to officially come out: By default, I'm actually pretty fucking neurotic. I overthink, overanalyze, overspeculate on worst-case scenarios. My natural tendency is to swing between being a control freak, and being opportunistically lazy. I am aeons away from being inherently free from fear and anxiety.

A very select few close friends of mine know this all too well; on the other hand, my acquaintances tend to invent a persona for me that I generally haven't bothered to disillusion them from because--I'll admit--the persona is pretty flattering. However, it's a fucking facade, and after a long-ass while of being adulated [and even iconized] on false pretenses got me feeling pretty worn-down. It's that whole it's worse to be loved for what you're not than hated for what you are platitude-majigg, incarnate. This incongruence was a large factor behind my compulsively deactivating my Facebook a while ago [which I've just now reactivated, after the persuasive barrages of a couple friends--given that I'm traveling without a phone, and with a camera].

Now, presenting the reason I'm writing all of this:

By birth, I'm chickenshit. That's not meant to be self-deprecating; rather, the thing I've just realized is that that's kind of the whole fucking point.

Listen. On my first solo road trip, I scraped together $900 and left my credit/debit cards behind. I packed my car with a sleeping bag, climbing shoes, and a couple cans of soup left over from my winter supply. That was to last me through three months of driving a vague loop from Tahoe down to San Diego, up to Vancouver, then back down to Tahoe.

It should be obvious to anyone with the faintest grasp of American gas prices, cost of living, and geography that $900 was not even remotely in the vicinity of being almost enough for such a trip. I had no jobs lined up, and no firm plans of where I'd stay along the way.

Call it poor planning, but I did that on purpose. It forced me to have a better time than I ever could have had if I'd taken the precautions of responsible planning and budgeting, if I'd been able to buffer myself in creature comforts, if I'd been able to maintain all the same habits.

Why? Because doing so was the only way to finally quell the unfounded fear, anxiety, and paranoia that had been plaguing me all winter.

To use an excerpt from an email I wrote an old friend the other night, featuring the exact moment this realization of my own behavior and motivations suddenly hit me:

My winter's similarly been a succession of catalyzing shaker-uppers. Lots of out-of-nowhere encounters [with people, but also other things--books, experiences, coincidences] that have propelled me to be introspective in a productive way, rather than "introspective" in that punishing, paralyzing, depressed way...which I don't think is true introspection to begin with. I think true introspection might lead you down dark passageways, but eventually comes full circle back out into the light--a brighter, cleaner light than whatever you'd been basking in before.

Blah, blah, figurative language. Metaphors and shit.

Anyway, you're welcome? Not really, though--I mean, not that you're not welcome, but it was a symbiotic exchange. I've been learning about myself from all my interactions this winter, too--in gauging how I react to different questions or situations, in gauging what feelings emerge or linger when I'm alone again after the interaction is over. It's interesting. I've dug up a lot of old ghosts from the past [ranging from casual acquaintances...to closet-skeletons].

This winter's been existential boot camp for me. Asking myself a lot of unhealthy questions, dealing with unwarranted anxiety and depression. [Granted, who's to say when those things are and are not warranted? Are they ever warranted? Are they ever not? What does anything mean? AHHHH!] 

Then I climbed out. The boy went away, so that I'd be left alone to make sure I was standing on two feet and empowering myself [rather than turning to the comforts of a partner to use as a crutch and distract me from myself--knowing him makes me wiser]. I pulled out my fucking IUD, which had never even occurred to me as a culprit. I started tackling one important task at a time, instead of overwhelming myself with several and being reduced to arresting procrastination. I went outside. I woke up earlier. Then I started meeting up with people I hadn't seen in a long, long time--and seeing myself reflected in ways that I denied at first, resentful ["they're just projecting some idealized archetype onto me, rather than simply seeing me"], and then later accepted as facets of truth. Just because a perspective is dissimilar--and incomplete--doesn't mean it's ALL wrong. I mean, it's limited, embellished, but so is everything--we limit things so they'll be simple, and embellish them so they'll be memorable. And even if the projection seems too lofty, the answer isn't resentment--or big-headedness--it's comparative self-evaluation to the other person's projection of me...and then converting it into a challenge, or an inspiration.

Anyway, that's what my own internal process for this winter looks like. Letting go of arbitrary fear.

In all honesty: as much practice I've had in chasing uncertainty [and I've had a lot of fucking practice in the last few years], it still scares the steaming shit out of me every time I walk up to the precipice.

However, I know from experience that--once I jump--the fear becomes obsolete, and all that's left is adrenaline and a sense of infinity. 

[This is literal, too: One of my best ways of getting myself out of a depressive funk is to go jump into a cold body of water--ideally an ocean, lake, or river, at night, in winter. And when I get out of the water, I feel so alive and not at all cold. The initial apprehension is there every single time, and never even really diminishes--but as I keep logging mileage this same pointless thing countless times, I become more and more assured of how I'm going to feel, once I get it over with, by a deeper knowledge that beats off my instincts to back down. It's my own version of practicing/cultivating something like faith.]

So, a month ago I worried about mosquito prevention, worst-case scenarios, theft, issues at the border, being targeted by the police, running out of money...I even thought about all the things I could put my money towards, or all the work I could get, or things I could do, if only I chose to cancel the trip and stay in the States.

The closer it gets--the more of an inevitability it becomes--the more relaxed I feel. I get this sort of zen-like resignation. I'm packing next to nothing, and I know once I get through airport security, I'm going to feel like I've finally returned home. That warm narcotic-orgasmic-bracing relief of tension I didn't even know I'd been carrying.

It never, ever feels like that's going to happen before the fact, but I know from experience to have faith because that's always what happens.

Incidentally, this is why I only buy non-refundable plane tickets: because I know myself well enough to know that, if I allow myself an easy way out, I'll end up taking it. I have to trick myself, all the time--not only with traveling, but with more mundane things [like studying, exercising, working, errands, hygiene--anything requiring discipline, which is something I decidedly do not have a natural-occuring supply of.

Tricks...I have to leave myself no easy way out, or make things into a game, or make it so that I'd have someone to answer to should I back out--where I'd lose face or let someone down by doing so. 

Some people seem to be easily self-motivated, or truly fearless. Lately people keep making the mistake of thinking I'm one of those people. Not even close. In truth, I am as lazy and cowardly as the next person. I just don't let my laziness and cowardice get the best of me--I corner myself until I have no choice but to act constructively.

Tonight, I sat on the roof of my old house with Alex. We were silent for a while.

"I'm nervous."

"I'm nervous."

"That's why we're going, though."

"Exactly."

It's not just about questing for adventure because it's fun [though that's obviously a big part of it]. If I was actually fearless, and living exactly the way that I do, it'd be gratuitous. I'd just be wanking my ego, over and over, resulting in weak thrills, at best. There'd be no rush, no challenge, and most importantly, no growth. 

I have no use for a stagnant life--even if that life appears on the outside to be rife with extreme sports and strange encounters. Nothing disturbs me more than meeting someone with a life that appears full and rich and surreal, only to find that they've become desensitized and adopt a too-cool-for-school attitude towards everything in the entire world--that is, towards their own existence. It disgusts me, even. They do all this cool shit, meet all these people, but have nothing to live for: philosophical zombies in glamorous packaging.

A couple days ago a girl asked me, "Why Thailand?"

"Well, not just Thailand. Not sure where else I might be going from there."

"Yeah, but why Thailand, in particular? As your first stop."

"Because it was cheaper than New Zealand, and more of a departure from what I know."

"That doesn't answer my question, though."

"...Doesn't it?"

Thailand's got nothing to do with this trip, really.

The ultimate reason I'm going is unknown to me, of course: if I already knew my reason for going on this trip, then I wouldn't need to bother going.

More generally, the reason I do what I do is because I'm not a philosophical zombie yet, and this trip is just one of succession self-vaccinations against becoming one.