Week #1 of Travel: 10 Things I’ve Learned

I’m traveling solo through South East Asia for six months. Here are ten things I’ve learned in my first week in Thailand.

  1. The world is big, and begins where the US ends. Back home in Ireland, Hollywood spoon-feeds us the American Dream through our adoring, slack-jawed mouths in the same way that it does its own citizens. I don’t know what it is about the Irish (well, I suppose the US has never invaded or harmed us personally, yet… who knows, though, maybe when the oil runs out they’ll turn to peat bogs), but we secretly LOVE America. Or “The Shtates”, as we (and only we) like to call it. So, when I mention to people that I have a green card, they look at me like I’ve got the golden fucking ticket, even if they don’t necessarily admit it. And I sort of swell with slack-jawed gratitude and self-congratulation. During the last few months of shifting life-stuff, I’ve been holding on to the idea that I’d be absolutely mad to forfeit my access to the “greatest country on earth”. But I arrived in Bangkok a week ago, in a pleasant sleep-deprived daze, and spent the entire first day wandering around in complete and utter presence, and there was a moment when I was riding on a boat down the river (think floating public bus rather than exotic yacht), watching the fisherman tying their ropes, the women in the markets on the shore arranging flower garlands or peeling strange fruits, and a flock of seagulls dance on the hot wind, whipping in ribbons around the golden roof of a riverside temple. I was struck in that moment that life is teeming, pulsing, is happening, is thriving, here in this moment and elsewhere in a million other places. When you’re in the USA, for some reason it feels like the only place in the world where anything is happening, the only place that you should be. Then you leave and realize that not only is that bullshit, but also, no one else is worried that they’re missing out.
  2. Thai people are just… great. I’m sure not all of them are, but in general, they’re warm and easy-going; the kind of people I would aspire to surround myself with or be. I chatted with a monk a couple of days ago about this, and he confirmed that it was the influence of Buddhism on Thai society – Buddhism as a practice, a way of life, as opposed to a religion. The number of times I have been asked where I am from, how long I’m in Thailand, etc., by people in all kinds of professions or settings, is remarkable. Plus, the smiles are endless, and seem genuine. I got to thinking, am I missing something? Are they asking because they secretly hate farangs? And are they really that happy? But I’ve spent most of my life in two relatively cynical, suspicious countries. It’s more likely that they’re just compassionate and care about beings other than themselves. When they get cut off in traffic, they smile. When you try to haggle out of their price range, they smile. When they don’t understand a tourist who’s obnoxiously demanding the wifi password or directions, they bloody-well smile. Maybe they’ve learned to “fake it ’til they make it”? Perhaps it’s not that shit doesn’t irk them, it’s just that maybe they’ve figured out that smiling is the best antidote to life’s annoyances… seems too simple, but then maybe the US has made me cynical.
  3. Letting go is a practice.  I thought that by relinquishing my job, my apartment, my relationship, the bulk of my belongings, and by packing a small backpack for six months, all of my ‘letting go’ would have been done by the time I got here. Alas, I know well enough at this ripe age that little worth doing is done in one go. I walk around and talk like I know this. But still I forget it – it’s like having amnesia. And then I’m shocked and appalled when the ego flares up and latches onto things again. It’s been funny to watch. After Bangkok, when the time came to moving on to the next place, I had the urge to stick with the people who I met in my first hostel, and had unexpected separation anxiety when divergent plans started to formulate. Then, a few days later in Chiang Mai, with my arms around the back of an old lover, riding on his motorbike, I didn’t want to let go, because at the end of the day there’s a little part of me that is lonely and scared out here. And then I recall my last romantic connection in the USA (a few days before I left for this trip), I was already planning our wedding, knowing in my heart that a) I don’t want to get married and b) Something wasn’t quite right. Nonetheless, my brain goes to these places because I feel my impending untethered-ness. And this is the goal, I suppose, to untether myself further and further, to completely surrender myself to float on out into the void or the unknown (or whatever you want to call it). But my ego wants my feet planted in the ground and my head buried in the sand. 
  4. If the reviews say bedbugs, expect bedbugs. I know I said I was cynical, but I’m really not – I’m a hopeless, stubbornly independent optimist  – and often the only way I’ll learn anything is by experiencing it myself because that is the only thing that is true for me. But it can be counter-productive, because historically I’ve been good at buying my own bullshit, as well. So when I read the multitude of reviews that warned “BED BUGS – STAY AWAY”, I thought, “BUT…. FREE BREAKFAST.” I don’t want this trip to be dictated by Trip Advisor or amateur critics, but there’s a wealth of information at my fingertips, and just like I “white-knuckled” it trying to get sober solo, so too will I struggle unnecessarily (and end up with legs more bite than flesh) if I don’t accept the help that’s available to me.
  5. I live in fear. I spent three days and two nights in Bangkok before getting an old train to Ayutthaya with some friends I’d made at my hostel. The following day, we rented bikes on to see the historical ruins of the city before catching the sleeper train to Chiang Mai. While stopped at the reclining Buddha statue, some Thai “Tourist Police” came over to us, and started making conversation. Completely inane and innocent conversation. They asked if they could take a picture with us, we said sure thing. Later that evening, waiting to catch our train out of the city, the same police officers were on the platform, inspecting tickets or something. They made more conversation with us, and asked to take a few more pictures. What’s so wrong with all this? Well, for my friends (French & Australian), this was such a bit of fun, so sweet and distinctly Thai. For me, though, the entire experience was a harrowing interrogation. It might be because I have a history of being up-to-no-good, but I think what’s more likely is that I’ve become one of the people that I mocked when I first moved here. The U. S. of goddamn A has made me paranoid.
  6. Nothing is permanent, least of all my shitty moods. I think this is just something that you realize when you go traveling – you’re going to have days that suck, where you spend ages planning or arsing around on the internet, where you take a wrong turn or get lost or get on the bus going in the wrong direction, or lose your bank card or leave your favorite outfit at the hostel you were staying at, or turn up somewhere you wanted to go to realize it was closed for a national holiday, or your phone dies when you’re out and you’ve no charger and you’re supposed to be meeting someone but you’ve no way of contacting them all these trifles plus countless existential woes can put you in a real funk. But there’s very little that a few hours won’t fix – especially if those few hours involve sleep, or thinking about someone other than yourself. Same rules apply in real life – shock horror.
  7. Traveling is tiring. Speaking of sleep, that I am doing more than I do at home, which is perfectly okay. Turtling from place to place with your home on your back, finding accommodation, finding food that’s vegetarian and won’t give you food poisoning, walking up hundreds of steps and taking your shoes off every time you enter a building, making friends and presenting your life story every time you do, seeing sights and planning the next move – altogether, it’s exhausting, in the most satisfying way possible. So, yeah, sleep is the sweetest nectar, more essential than water, even. Another good reason to take heed of #4. And, which leads me to #8.
  8. Taking care of yourself has to be a priority. It’s easy to get distracted or bowled over when you go traveling. I’ve already picked up a few of my former bad habits because they’re the only comforts I’ve got right now. But after about five or six days, I realized (over a steaming noodle broth on some sidewalk eatery) that I can do whatever I want. I don’t have to follow the backpacking crowd to the next backpacker haven. This intuitive realization only came to me because I knew to say no to certain nights out, or knew when the night out was done and it was time to go home alone. It’s, of course, tempting to stay distracted by people and by new experiences, but if I’m not taking care of myself – which, for me, means checking in with my body, mind, and spirit – then I run the risk of… well, dying, at worst, or having a shite time at best.
  9. I’m naturally in a state of distraction. I suppose we all are, without even realizing it. On my second or third day in Thailand, my phone’s touch screen stopped working intermittently, forcing me to power it off and power it back on again a dozen times every time I wanted to use it. The other day it stopped working completely on the ride back from a day trip to some local waterfalls with some girls I’d met. The cab driver was supposed to make multiple stops, but he got lost and I got frustrated, so I just jumped out early to walk back to my hostel. I’ve never been so turned about in my life, I nearly gave up. I was out on this road, peering at all of the shop fronts like my Nana would with her bad eyesight, thinking “how on earth did I get here, where on earth am I?” After asking for directions a few times I finally realized that I was about a minute walk from my hostel, and had absolutely seen all of these stores before (or at least I should have). Shocking. I’d been completely lost in a virtual reality on my screen, so I vowed to look up more while trying to get from A to B, and feck it, run the risk of getting lost. The day after, I went to chat with a monk, who had a lot to say about mobile phones and the ills they cause the mind, how they are as intoxicating as a drug and remove us from our presence. I nodded enthusiastically and waited until I was outside the gates of the temple to Google-map my bike ride home. 
  10. Presence conquers all. The day before I left, I was thinking about how I should be stressed out about what I was leaving behind, or by enormity of the trip I was about to take. But I was perfectly serene. I went for a coffee in the morning, biked to see a friend, made myself a hearty lunch, and packed my backpack. My trip had already begun, I told myself, in the sense that life was already happening in this moment, and that was all that I had to think about. So I took a bus in the wrong direction to the airport, re-routed myself, almost wasn’t allowed on my flight because I had no return flight booked, but knew that everything would be okay, so I breezed through security, onto a plane more luxurious and foreign than anything I’d been on before, to Qatar where I had a layover, then onto another plane, more alien still, through Thai immigration, into a tuk tuk that zipped and chugged through sweaty, smoggy Bangkok, and to my hostel, where there was breakfast and a cup of tea waiting for me, twenty-nine hours after I’d gotten on the wrong bus in Chicago. In the days leading up to my departure, I read good books, meditated, and spent my time with people who nourish my soul. I also left it too late to exchange my dollars, ending up biking to at least five different currency exchanges who didn’t carry Thai baht, and got absolutely soaked twice in sudden storms. But I maintained presence, no matter what shit came hurtling in my direction, knowing that there were truly only two things that would give me anxiety – thoughts of a past that is conceptual, or projections of a future that doesn’t exist.

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