It’s all too apparent when Richard pulls up a chair. Good dude, I should be happy to break from the screen and chat for a bit. But my mind is elsewhere. I should never have taken this on. How fast I forgot my resolution. Now I’m stressed, distracted, and a little resentful. And feeling guilty for all that, because these are good people I’m helping. Oh well, gotta suck it up and do the work. Lesson hopefully relearned.
I have boundary issues. It’s becoming undeniable. The German dude I met at the Chinese Consulate this morning. Helping him stressed me out. I had my own shit to do, should have drawn a line. And then with herself this eve. I was angry but held back on the expression. I’ve always denied it, but perhaps a large part of the travel appeal is the running away, letting national boundaries do the work of the personal.
I was never much of a dirty talker before this girl. But now… she has a hard time shutting me up. I talk before, telling her what I’m about to do, and then all the way through. Talking dirty has shown me how much of our arousal is psychological. She peaks when my words reach a crescendo. It’s more about what I say than what I do. And yeah, you feel stupid at first, and some girls won’t like it. But wow, when you find one who does…
It’s a chilly night in Chiang Mai. On a whim I take her down a dirt road to Sudsanan. As per usual there’s a live band and a bar boy with a mane from Wayne’s World. We drink hot cocoa and reminisce about those first dates and the trips we took to Kanchan, Sichang, Khao Yai. We’ve packed a lot into the few months we’ve known each other, no shortage of fond memories. Tonight will be another.
Five years ago Ben traveled around Southeast Asia snapping pics of locals. He made friends with a bunch of teens in Northern Vietnam and later heard that one of them, May, was kidnapped and trafficked across the Chinese border. Now he’s retracing his steps, finding all the people he photographed and gifting them a portrait. He’s also on the hunt for May and doing his best to raise awareness about human trafficking.
Goodbye again, but this time less sting, more sweet. I ride away from the midnight bus with Bob Dylan whispering answers in the wind, thinking how Dane was right: you learn a lot about yourself in relationships. They will mess you up, and they will heal you. I’ve learned a lot from this one, and I’ll always be thankful for the time we had together. And unlike four months ago, I leave knowing she feels the same.
I awake dazed and feverish after four hours sleep, my last day in Thailand. I’ll soon be on a minibus speeding east, in Laos before nightfall, Korea by the new year, Peru by March. Now is the start of a new chapter, and truth be told, I’m glad to leave Asia. The gap between what people think and what they say is wider here than I’m comfortable with, truth harder to find. But for all that, this chunk of the rock has been good to me.
I chat with Kevin on the seven-hour slow boat to Luang Prabang, a big tattooed chap radiating warmth and sincerity. He was a social worker back in the UK and tells stories of his experiences counseling rapists, pedophiles and arsonists. I ask if he believes some people are genuinely evil. “Not from what I’ve seen,” he tells me. “The scariest people are usually the most scared.”
Pretty sure I came the wrong way. Dogs bark at me moving through the darkness and I have to slink a fence to keep going uphill. Any minute I expect a monk with a bo-staff to pounce on me from behind one of the golden buddhas along the path, more so after I pass by the shuttered ticket booth. But the only monk I encounter pays me no notice as I pass him sweeping steps. Forward five minutes and I’m atop Mount Phousi with a red dawn as my reward.
Key habit for today: piss somebody off. I feel I need to live at the other extreme for a while, actively seeking to upset people rather than please them. But doing it with sincerity, speaking my mind even when I suspect the words will make waves. No, especially then. And that I did this eve. The other person seemed suitably peeved, and I walked away quite happy with myself.
Here’s the unglamorous truth about working while you travel: sometimes you arrive in a cool town like Luang Prabang and have to spend most of your first three days in front of your laptop, catching up on work and emails and chasing your business dreams. That behind me, tonight I cut loose, catching a bit of a movie, wandering the streets talking to strangers, and ending up at a bowling alley on the outskirts of town at 1am.
On a friend’s recommendation I drop by Big Brother Mouse and SMILE project to help local kids practice their English. Some novice monks are in attendance. One flips me the bird and asks for an explanation of the gesture, a scene I find delightful. Another, upon hearing that I’m a web designer, responds with a me-too and drops tech jargon like it’s no big deal. Later I explain the acronym LGBT to a trio of teens.
It’s illegal for foreign men to sleep with Laotian women. I know this, but curiosity gets the best of me when the girl at the bar persists in throwing smiles my way. I go over. Her name is Ping. I have no idea what she’s saying but I feel like all eyes are upon us. I need to be careful. And I am, until she suddenly lurches off the bar stool and starts rubbing my belly.
The 24h bus to Kunming is a nightmare. The road out of Laos is a winding mountain trail littered with potholes. The bus itself is a sleeper with all the fragrance of a wet dog. For a short stretch I have the back row of bunks to myself but my luck doesn’t hold. I spend the night squashed in a corner, waking frequently to the sound of a baby wailing and the dull throb of my lower back.
Kunming is cold, damp and devoid of color. No connecting bus so I taxi twenty minutes to the train station, walking the final stretch with a dripping backpack through a tunnel of broken dreams. Mercifully there’s a slab available on the next sleeper to Chongqing. I book it, scoff my only meal of the day (a shitty shrimp burger and fries), then park my ass in the frigid wait area and try to suppress the shivers.
In the comments below, let me know which of the above Momentos is your favorite. Which can you relate to?
P.S. If you’re Canadian, check out Canadian Free Flyers by my friend Matt Bailey. Unlimited miles, free stopovers, half price hotels, and lots more good stuff for Canadian travel ninjas.
P.P.S. No worries if you’re not Canadian. I’ve got something for you, too, assuming you’re interested in dropping that boring job you have now and taking off to teach English in China. My buddies Derrick and Travis run New Life ESL and can get you sorted with just such a gig in the Orient. Yes, the Internet is slow here and people seem to have an aversion to hats, but on the plus side you’ll feel tall and they have really good Chinese food. Or just “food” as the locals call it.