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Leaving America. Harsh, cold gusts of frosted wind come surging down the Rocky Mountain pass as I wait at the round-about in the mountain country for a ride. My bones feel like they have been transformed into ice, my breath into visible frost vapors. I’ve been waiting for almost a half-hour as people zip on by me, expressions of bewilderment on some faces, others on cell phones, others staring straight ahead pretending not to see me.
You can hear the gusts of bone-chilling wind coming down the mountain side as thick clumps of snow get stuck in the pass and spew it onto the hitchhiker below as skiers and snowboarders pass by comfortably in their warm automobiles. Snow covers nearly everything but the portions of the pavement where the snowplows had come through and met the challenges Mother Nature provides. The mountains launch into the blue and cloudy skies; majestic, ancient, and indifferent to my plight.
Tall and majestic, endearing and infinite; people, on the other hand, small and temporary– thoroughly finite.
I take to doing stretches and jogging in place when there were no cars and sticking out my thumb when they come around the round-about. They have a split-second to see me and make a decision whether or not they pull over. I am on a four-day timeline to make it to Los Angeles for my flight into Bangkok, Thailand. My arguably aimless plan is to bicycle and hitchhike around the countries as much as possible, but if I don’t make it to LA for my flight I probably will be going nowhere.
In Idaho Springs and in the Rocky Mountain territory of Colorado in the middle of winter, many of the traffic consists of skiers and snowboarders out for their weekend thrills. My current mission is to hitchhike from my base city of Denver to the west coast of America in Los Angeles. I will head out on an epic adventure through countries I’d never been before: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia. The trip will last for approximately five months, with miniscule planning and open road.
The mountain laughs and hacks another icicle-indicted loogie onto my clothing. I wrap my hands around my red and frosted face. Am I going to make it to LA? More importantly, where am I going to sleep tonight in this cold? Sure, there will be times for fun and creative exploring on this trip, but for now survival instincts are kicking in and my brain is saying “get out of the cold, now, now!”
Harsh cold gusts of wind come spurting down the mountain side. I wrap my scarf around my face as a shield. This isn’t all so bad though. At the same time, I feel alive and alert as I fight the freezing cold. I can think of worse things to be spending my time with: maybe working a desk job in a crowded cubicle space in the middle of an industrial city, maybe a life sentence of boredom watching the clock tick.
Gusts of wind shoot down the western slopes. Harsh. Cold.
Eventually, a Nissan 4-wheel drive comes coasting and pulls over to the small portion of shoulder the road offers. The trouble is over, and a new adventure has begun.
In the preparation of the months before I left, I wasn’t completely decided on what to bring for a trip as long as this. I’d done various trips around the States and through Western Europe, with mostly bicycling and a mix of riding trains and a small amount of hitchhiking. Through hitchhiking from Denver to Colorado Springs every weekend for about a year, I discovered that hitchhiking was a great way tap into the locals. A boring, familiar road was transformed into something exciting, fresh, and spontaneous, and after these experiences I decided that hitchhiking would be my main mode of transportation for this epic adventure. Not to mention, the trip suddenly became affordable.
So as I stared at the stuff that was sprawled out in front of me, which was to be my only belongings for my life on the road for five months, I once again took another possession and threw it to the side. You take what you think you need, divide that in half. Once you have done that, you cut that in half even again. The ultimate goal is to travel as light as possible, with as little baggage as necessary. Your possessions are a burden. Your freedom and yourself is the most you want to carry, along with survival basics, maybe a dash of sanity.
In my backpack, you could find the following things:
- Big Agnes sleeping bag rated for -10 degree Fahrenheit temperatures
- Bevy sack to keep dry when it rains
- Undergarments for when it’s frigid cold in the mountains
- One pair, regular socks
- One pair, wool socks
- 2 boxers
- 2 t shirts
- 1 pants
- 2 shorts (one gym style, one casual khaki)
- A notebook (for journal writing)
- An IPod (for pictures, Wi Fi, music)
- One Martin Backpacker guitar (for enjoyment, sharing, meeting people, busking)
- Passport, IDs, etc.
- Boots (overall unnecessary weight, only used a few times, and wouldn’t carry next trip)
- 1 book (keeps sanity on lonely roads, always easy to trade with someone when finished reading)
By the time everything is crunched and compressed into my backpack and I am ready to leave Denver, it is already late in the afternoon. Riding the local light rail transit to the outskirts of the city, I start talking to a nice couple who are asking where I am heading with all the gear. It is a beautiful Colorado day to start, the sun’s presence felt directly on my backside and enough cumulus cloud coverage to make it comfortable. Bill and his wife have done a considerable amount of hiking in the hills of Colorado, and once while hiking they had ran into a bear. Bill is also an avid Colorado bicyclist, something I can instantly connect with him on. He tells me that he once had an encounter with a Colorado brown bear.
“They tell you to wave around and ‘look big’, but when it came to it, I just ran!” It worked for him, obviously; here he was, offering me a ride to the outskirts of Golden, Colorado to begin my adventure.
They drop me off at the highway merge along Interstate 70, which has the safety of an ample shoulder to stand off to the side, drop my stuff and stick out my thumb. There I wait for about 20 minutes or so with no ride offers, smiling at the oncoming cars and trying to remain positive. Our modern culture has become one that thrives off fear, impatience, and a general distrust of other human beings. Through hitchhiking, one learns this quickly through actual experience. The majority of people that have the generosity to offer rides overall are of the Baby Boomer generation, who have travelled with positive experiences hitchhiking when it was more accepted into the culture. Most people are looking for an easy excuse to pretend they don’t see you, to pretend that they are so wrapped into their cell phones and other gadgets that they don’t have time. We wonder why so many of us our depressed and in a constant state of stagnation; we don’t recognize that a few moments talking with a stranger can be more meaningful often times than chatting with a familiar person or friend.
The cop that pulls over to give me a hard time doesn’t seem to care. Rules are rules, and he has nothing better to do but enforce the status quo that the elitist propaganda prophesizes. He tells me in a passive-aggressive sort of way that I can’t hitchhike there, that it’s dangerous, and that I’ll have to move on. Pointless. I point out that there is a safe shoulder, traffic is slow-moving here, and that it’s really no problem for me. What harm is there? Why is it, all of a sudden, other people are expected to be responsible for our own safety? Who should decide what is ‘safe’ for oneself? Furthermore, is complete totalitarian safety what people want? If it is, I don’t want a part of it. Being intelligent and thinking for yourself, using common sense—that is one thing, but a society where others think for them and enforce the rules with fines and penalties only creates one of stupor and lacking creativity, lacking trust and genuine companionship.
On the other hand, I maintain my composure and opt to have no problems, so I choose to walk away. I walk on, along a winding mountain back road that leads to the next merge ramp where hopefully he won’t bother me again.
My back is soon covered in sweat from my pack and the sun’s rays are beating down on my face. I cut across a farm to find the fastest route back to the main road. The ambition is to make it as far as possible before dark.
Three miles of trekking later and no ride offers, I make it to another merge ramp. I’m standing next to a cattle ranch alongside the road. Tourists and locals stop to snap a few pictures and move along, many of them driving straight passed me in the same direction. An hour or so later, relief comes with a lift from a man in an old classic- style car, who tells me that he lives in Golden and is an avid hot rod enthusiast. “The first Saturday of each month, they have a hot rod event in Golden during the summer,” he says. “A lot of people don’t know about it, it’s not really publicized or anything, but it’s fantastic. People drive in from all over the country, there is nothing like it.”
We don’t get to chat much before we’ve already made it to the best spot he can drop me off, which is off the exit and merge ramp in Idaho Springs. I eventually get a lift from three snowboarders who are doing a warm-up pot smoking ritual before hitting the slopes. The warmth of the smoke in the car and the heater blasting are much appreciated after pacing back and forth in the winter temperatures! “Are you heading to the Breckenridge bro?,” they ask me, assuming that I’m just heading out to do some skiing or snowboarding. They are surprised when I tell them that my destination is LA to fly into Bangkok, Thailand.
And that’s where I find myself at the roundabout in Breckenridge, and the Nissan 4-wheel drive is pulling over to grab me out of the snow. I brush the white flakes off my face, make a pathetic attempt to dry the wetness off of my face and quickly hop in. The warm blast of the automotive heater is inviting.
The man’s name is Dillon, who is originally from Wales and has lived in the United States for 27 years. He says that he used to hitchhike from college to his place instead of using money his mother gave him for a train and spent the money she gave him on beer instead. He has travelled extensively through Europe and employment opportunities had brought him to the United States where he made roots and started a foundation for his family.
He gives me a lift the 38 miles or so to Vail and drops me off at the four-way intersection. It’s gotten dark by now and the weather is getting colder, more snow is on the way. I usually do refrain from hitchhiking at night time, but I know that I want to cover the distance and get far out of the Rocky Mountain Range where it is at least a bit warmer and make some distance tonight, since I got a late start. I stand under the well-lit street light at the Vail roundabout with a flashlight so that cars can see me clearly. Traffic at the roundabout is slower, which is a good thing, but the traffic is becoming scarce later into the night.
A police officer comes by, and this one is a lot nicer than the one I encountered near Denver. He asks me if and where I plan to sleep for the night and if I get stuck in Vail he can probably find me a warm place to stay. With that, he drives off and leaves me to my own decisions and fate; he is the definition of mountain town hospitality.
An hour or so of waiting, and a truck with a trailer pulls up along the merge ramp. Excited to get out of my cornered and chilly spot, I jog up to the vehicle that has pulled over. In the trailer, there are tool boxes, welding equipment, cuts of wood and other items you might find on a construction job site. I later learn that he works as a welder in Williston, North Dakota. As I approach the truck, I am cautious, being that it is late at night. I’m willing to put my hands into the trust of fate just to get out of the cold for a while.
His name is Rob, and he is travelling with his girlfriend from Poland. She is mostly quiet and laughs often. Her name is Marcelina. Rob seems confused as I approach him, and he says that they had actually stopped to check on the trailer for a moment. I acknowledge this and tell him that it’s no problem; I’ll just wait for the next ride that comes. Then he reconsiders, talks it over with his girlfriend for a moment and tells me that I can come along if I like.
I jump in the back seat and cram in next to their overweight husky dog, which almost instantly warms up to me and lays on my lap.
Rob has just returned from Williston, North Dakota for a few weeks of hard work in a dirty, filthy, stinking oil field. Williston used to be a quiet, sleepy town in North Dakota until it was discovered that it was sitting on an enormous oil field. Once oil is discovered, it seems like it is only a matter of time this day and age until big oil corporations and governments come around, sniffing their noses around and looking out for their own monetary interests. Once they did, big business took over, and it was possible to extract the oil and natural gases through the controversial idea of fracking, the quiet little sleepy town was transformed almost overnight into an exponentially-growing boom market. It’s a familiar story; history on repeat.
People from all over came running to the oil fields, seeking work and new opportunities. Opportunities came with heavy prices, short-term prices in monetary terms, long-term prices in environmental damages. “There is such a demand for workers and employees in Williston, such a shortage that they are offering some of the best wages in the country,” Rob says. “I know a guy that drives a semi-truck carrying natural gases and he makes over 100,000 dollars a year. Even McDonald’s hourly pay is usually 17 or 18 dollars an hour start. The catch is, the builders and industry can’t keep up with the new demand for building and housing development. So you have a waiting list for housing, and the rates are jacked up because of all the people looking for a place. Average price of a single-bedroom apartment is 1,200 dollars.”
“So you can move out to Williston, almost guaranteed decent paying work, the drawbacks being that there is next to nothing to do in Williston, so most of the workers take to drinking on their spare time, if they have any at all. North Dakota also gets cold in the winter time. A cold that bites through your bones and it’s not easy working conditions.”
Rob has worked in the oil industry for years, and says that there is always work in the field. He later hands me a business card, in case that I want to find work when I return from my trip. They stop in Glenwood Springs, where Rob and Marcelina head off to enjoy the hot springs. They make a deal with me that if they see me still standing where I am at my hitch-point when they return; they will offer me a lift the rest of the way to Grand Junction. In Grand Junction, I have arranged to stay with my friend Bryan, which will be much more comfortable than sleeping out in the bitter cold this night.
At this hour, it’s almost a sure thing that nobody will stop for a hitchhiker on the side of the road, so I go into the filling station for a cup of warm coffee, then head out after fifteen minutes, wait a bit less than an hour, and no ride comes until the same truck and trailer pull up alongside the highway. Rob and Marcelina turn out to be as good as their word. I hop in, and we make small talk and exchange laughs all the way to Grand Junction. Rob seems tired from his long working hours in North Dakota and all the driving he has been doing on the road.
Some of the wait times are over an hour and I have the challenges of hitchhiking through the night during the middle of Colorado winter through the Rocky Mountains, but overall I am happy to meet these people and make it to Grand Junction to stay for the night.
Despite the days’ uncomfortable conditions, it’s the discomforts that are at the same time alluring and draw my soul to a trip like this. All waits in life turn out to be worth it, in the end, although when you’re waiting alone in between the mountains and the mountains act like a snow globe and paint you with frost it sure doesn’t seem like it’s worth it. You stand there and shiver, you shake the snow off your coat, brush the wet off your neck, you pace back and forth uncomfortably. Then somebody picks you up, gives you a lift to somewhere else. Then another person picks you up, gives you a lift to somewhere else.
So you’ve made it to somewhere altogether different; a piece of unfamiliar land, streets of unknown people, a piece of unfurnished life. How does that feel?
Grand Junction, the largest city in Western Colorado, welcomes me with its’ massive western slope and mountain air.
Day one of this trip ends with a good friend and a warm couch to sleep on—I thank my lucky stars that I’m not doing half-bad.
Bryan and I have climbed Mount Elbert in the past, which is the highest peak in Colorado. The peak sits at 14,400 feet (4,400 meters) and is a truly rewarding climb which offers no tourist cafes or stores at the top, but rather a view an all-natural setting, endlessly stretched mountain ranges, fresh mountain air, and stunning views of the peaks and clouds. Bryan and I had not chatted or seen each other since we did the climb months ago, so it was good to catch up and chat. He told me about the creative writing degree he is pursuing, and various creative he ideas for fiction he is brainstorming.
He shows me his pride and joy, which is a large and healthy green plant in his backroom, the result of Bryan’s care and attention and the Colorado’s newly-opened liberal marijuana laws. The plant is green and orange, stretching towards the ceiling and still growing.
I shuffle through my pack and realize that I had lost a few items when I tossed it onto the back of the trailer the night before. Casualties include the loss of a jar of Peanut butter, a quality water bottle, and my re-usable, dry-erase, laminated fluorescent orange hitchhiking sign. This morning, I count my losses and head back onto the road. The positive way of looking at it was that I had less stuff to worry about losing now, while on the other hand, peanut butter was an essential traveling food source.
Bryan drops me off at a merge ramp that is filled with construction; orange cones and a cluster of chaos and enough driver confusion to not entice anyone want to pull over. I wait there for over an hour until I decide that the spot was not conducive to hitchhiking and I needed to start somewhere else. So I phone Bryan, and he drives back, also carrying a piece of pizza box cardboard and a marker to make a hitchhiking sign. With a fat black permanent marker, I simply write “WEST.” No driver could argue with or throw their hands up to that!
In a matter of five minutes at my new spot (minus construction!), a red car pulls over along the merge ramp, and we’re off. Scott has long hair and is physically fit, and it becomes apparent that he has a true passion for life spent in the outdoors. He tells me that he has hitchhiked a lot himself, and he spends most of his time kayaking in Moab. “I’m heading to Moab now,” he says. “Borrowed my friend’s car to get back. This thing runs great!”
Scott often gets around the Colorado River by hitchhiking to one spot, and then kayaking back to his vehicle. So he understands how hitchhiking can go sometimes, and never passes up someone in need of a lift. “The way I see it, I’m going the same way anyways,” he says. “What’s it to me?”
Scott has a friend who got busted for having possession of some pot in Utah, a state where it is still illegal and looks like it will remain this way for some time given the conservative ideals. “My friend was a Coloradan, got busted and the judge in Utah told him ‘tell all your Colorado friends that it’s not legal here’ and stuck him with a $2,500 fine.”
The scenery in Moab is incredible and indescribable in words. The Colorado River runs through much of the rocky land, and rock formations and landscapes beacons anyone’s imagination that moves through it. Much of it was considered sacred land by the Native Americans, and as your eyes take in the scenery, you can easily understand why at a basic level. Moab has been a popular tourist destination for mountain bikers, hikers, kayakers, and outdoor enthusiast’s altogether.
Scott takes the scenic route along the Colorado River, as it winds and snakes along the dusty, rocky mountain terrain. He explains that the river has been at ultimate lows the past few years, but he’s hoping this season’s thaw will bring some of the best kayaking that they have experienced in years. He extends his hospitality beyond just a ride and after seeing my guitar and hearing me play, invites me in for a drum circle with friends later that evening. I consider this, and really wishing that I could, decline the invitation as I have to keep moving. My timeframe doesn’t allow for it, unfortunately.
I walk along the center of Moab, which is more like a small village, with authentic and refreshing non-commercial style cafes and bars. It all has a homely, semi-hippy, mountain-town, laid back feel to it. I pop into a place called Wake N’ Bake, which doesn’t offer what you might think it does, but you can settle for a few delicious breakfast burritos. The road makes one hungry, with the soul’s appetite for movement, the stomach’s appetite for food.
I walk out of town with some friendly waves from the locals. This town likes to acknowledge that people are alive and it’s small enough to retain a genuine friendliness. The next ride comes from Max, a traveling guy from Montana who is heading to Salt Lake City. He wears a blue bandana and lives relentlessly free. He tells me that he tripped on acid and went hiking the night before. I can tell that he’s plenty good to be driving at the moment just looking at his eyes.
The conversation feels like the desert we are driving through, wide-open and limitless. He sets me off near a Subway center and tells me a few words of wisdom before departing that he has learned while hitchhiking. His sense of humor is sly, inspired. “If you’re ever in a tough position getting a lift,” he says,” tell them you have been hitching forever and feel like ‘a man that fell off a haystack wagon, into a porcupine quill set, ran over by a heavy-duty truck, you’re starving like an Ethiopian, feet been walkin’ on fire, feel like hell on two legs, and going great’, THANKS!”
Without a doubt, the boring people never pick you up when hitchhiking—the characters and free-spirited ones do.
We’re in ultra-conservative, religious Mormon country now. “I think I’ll refrain from committing the ultimate sin,” Max says, gesturing towards a McShitald’s. He walks into a Subway and we depart separate ways.
The sand mountains in Utah appear like the faces of humans departed, ancient and forever, our lifelines only a hiccup in the story of the planet; irrelevant despite what some of us forcefully try to believe otherwise. Some of us live today the best we can with how we know how to.
Despite this, I walk across the street to the McShitald’s and solemnly break the eleventh commandment on my small budget at the price of two cheeseburgers. Thou shall not eat crap food from Corporate food chains.
I hang out for a while, then walk into a grassy area, throw out my sleeping bag and call it a night. Sleeping under big black mountain sky makes me feel strangely at home.
In the morning, I sit inside the Mcshit’s and drink dollar coffee, my feet thawing out as there was some frost on my sleeping bag in the morning. I hitch south on Interstate 15 after a few hours spent warming in the building. I spend enough time at the Mcshit’s to know the entire soundtrack by heart—music by The Smiths plays over and over again, on a worn, tired CD player, and by the sixth time I hear it on rotation I know it’s time to leave.
The previous ride has put me a bit further North than I intended to, but the company alone has been worth it. I wait on the merge ramp and get bored, start doing pushups and mountain climber exercises to stay warm and motivated as I wait. I get a lift from a guy who tells me he is a Mormon and on his way to complete a roofing job. He drops me off just a few miles down the highway, but sometimes small rides are appreciated just to break the monotony in scenery. Mormon hospitality and it’s genuine finest.
I’m picked up by a rancher just outside of Salt Lake City, who tells me there are 140 bundles of hay in the back of his trailer. We get to talking and he senses I might be a good worker, so he makes the offer to pay me by the hour to help unload his trailers of hay on the few stops on our way west, and I agree to this. We make one stop at a family’s ranch and unload over 50 bundles of hay for their horses. The family has three horses: one for the husband who turns out to be a journalist, one for the German wife, and a small pony for their little girl. This side of the country also has its’ fair share of wild horses still roaming around. They are the definition of an American country family. I imagine what life must be like living out here in the solitude; the scorching hot summers and the comfortable winters, living off the land.
After our first stop, we’re driving along and suddenly we hear a deafening POP sound, followed by a thumping of what distinctly could be nothing other than loose rubber flapping around the truck trailer’s rotors. We pull over, and sure enough, that is exactly the case. The rancher is pissed. “ Ahhh, hell!,” he says. “Well, I’ve got a jack in the back of the truck we can fix it with… I just bought this trailer, lucky I have the spare!”
I offer to help him change the tire, and he drives the trailer onto a portable jack and we spend an hour pulling the rubber out of the rotor, which has managed to become stuck and wrapped around the axle too! Just an hour later, we’re back on the road, passing through a small town where country folk are gathered around tables outside a filling station, drinking coffee and chatting. “Just some farmers sitting around having a bullshit festival,” the rancher says.
I walk to the restroom, passed laundry machines where a few copies of the Book of Mormon rest. No good citizen in this country can do their laundry without reading the Book of Mormon. Everywhere you go there are reminders of where you are.
Before long, we have crossed into the state of Nevada and it’s immediate at the border that casinos begin to pop up more often than trees. People sit around like monkeys, addicted to pulling levers and sliding in bills, hoping for their chance at a way out of the Rat Race. There are some that have lively expressions on their faces, but these are the few; often there are older faces with vacant expressions and tired eyes, worn faces and stubborn hopes, leftover coins. Gamblers pull slots with hopes of winning big, the realities of losing paychecks and retirement plans. The place buzzes with an energy you can’t define at every highway exit—everything here is a miniature Las Vegas, mimics the tourist Mecca and the development seems to have a sharp disregard for the actual mountainous landscape, as if to say we will tame this land by not acknowledging it.
I’m staring out the window, trying to take it all in as we pass through.
“The desert’s trippy at night, aint’ it?,” the rancher says, noticing my quiet. The mountains become alive and there is a faint glow, almost an eerie presence to the desolate landscape. Or is it desolate? Sometimes cities feel more desolate than this, this just feels like it’s away from everything else, it stands alone. Maybe this was why fate had us cross paths? So that he could avert his truck from rocketing off the cliff?
Miles through the desert, the rancher is becoming tired and nearly drives the truck off a sharp ledge, which I alert him of and he pulls it to the other side. We wind up in some small town I can’t remember the name of, not that it would matter what the name of it was anyways. I get the impression that the locals don’t even know the name of this town, and they don’t care for that matter anyways; all that matters is that this is their town, and it welcomes outsiders slowly, like syrup slowly runs out of a maple tree.
We march up to a small bar and have a seat. Some locals are playing pool, a few bar flies just hang around, a few old men shoot the breeze and talk about things like farming. Horses, cattle, machinery, and milk are in the vocabulary. Laughter fills in the gaps.
Everybody knows everybody here and nobody’s afraid to look you square in the eye, in fact it’s an expected politeness in conversation. An older woman pours us a couple stout beers, and we put them down like ales. My eyes are itchy from bailing hay. People smoke inside this bar, nobody cares. Dollar bills are nailed to the walls with goofy messages and signatures. A sign welcomes patrons: If you got a problem, then find the door. Pictures of Elvis, Nascar drivers decorate the walls.
We speak to the bar tender, and old woman who makes small talk about locals and people I don’t know, yet she talks to us like we know them. I feel like I’ve known this lady before, somewhere, some place. One of the ladies the bartender talks about apparently lives in a trailer just outside the bar, where she lives a pharmaceutical-induced life and occasionally does non-commercial drugs, has an alcohol problem and is schizophrenic. She stumbles into the bar at one point, says something that nobody finds audibly understandable, walks out of the bar. The bartender looks at us, shakes her head, is speechless for a moment, and then says, “That’s what I mean.”
We leave the bar, make our way to Las Vegas, grab a ten dollar meal, find a cheap motel with a hot tub that feels amazing after working and sweating all day long, crash out in an air-conditioned hotel. We sit in a hot tub and a guy introduces himself as a biker type and the conversation finds its’ way somehow to the state of modern day America and the direction it might be going.
“I think, if we just keep working hard, we’ll be alright,” the man says. “Things aint’ what they used to be, but we just gotta keep working hard.”
Like the road, you just keep rolling on; hard pavement, cement and stone, winding on.
The next day I help the rancher bail the rest of the hay on a ranch in Nevada. He has a refined system of organizing the hay when he is through, and it takes a while to get used to his methods of madness. On one ranch, there is an old man who is 85 but appears healthier than most 40 year olds and has a youthful edge and spirit. He’s all smiles and laughs; years of working on the ranch have retained his youth. He wears a straw cowboy hat and boots. We are surrounded by cattle and desert, more cattle, a lot of desert. An old lady walks up, and the old man says, “excuse me gents, I’ve got to go. I like hanging out with old ladies.” He gives me a wink, like he got off with a great deal in life and it’s his big secret; I can tell by their attitudes that they probably go out dancing together at least two times a week. Maybe three. They walk through their ranch holding hands.
A young guy working as a ranch hand seems shocked that I would even consider going to Asia by myself. “What ya gonna do over there?,” he says, chewing on a toothpick. “ Where you gonna sleep?”
I plan on figuring that out on arrival, I tell him. This seems to satisfy him enough. He spits sunflower seeds onto the ground.
Traffic picks up the pace near Vegas and turns into a wide highway. A billboard sign proclaims “Are You Going to Heaven or Hell?”, showing a picture of fire beside clouds. Alongside it is a 1-800-number. Maybe somebody somewhere calls this number and asks somebody if they know the answers to these questions and believes the response. Only in Vegas can you find extremes like this. Come to Vegas, and we’ll get you connected to the God hotline right away. Fast solutions, temporary answers. People concerned with where they’re going after this life, but content on spending this life pulling levers and staring idly into computer screens full of cartoon characters and blinking dollar signs.
We make it into downtown Vegas and the rancher drops me off near the bus station. He tries to get by without paying me a cent, but I have to put my foot down and remind him to keep his word. Somewhat reluctantly at first, but also willingly, he hands over a crumpled twenty dollar bill. Good enough, it will cover a bus ticket out of Vegas to LA.
I walk through Vegas to get some quick bite to eat, by a man painted as a silver statue, an attractive woman in high heels doing a photo shoot, homeless asking for change, tourists gawking at buildings, entertainment and barrels of humanity on display; it’s a playground of quick bursts of hope for visitors and then back to nine to five office spaces and the extended time till the next vacation. This circus is widely appealing and accepted, as long as it brings in large amounts of cash for the Vegas Empire. Ladies dressed in peacock dresses, men in spandex, it’s shocking to the eye on every corner, and so commercial your brain feels dulled, or is it overwhelmed?
Somewhere amidst all the chaos, there’s a ticket office man selling a way out to LA for fifteen dollars. I’ll take that, I say, thank you much. As night approaches, the lights of Vegas are just as blinding as they are attractive, a bit like a magnet with a solar-powered eclipse; this place is a fading, sometimes faded dream.
After hitching from Denver to Vegas, riding on the bus feels like cheating in a way, but the idea of hitching out of the gigantic Sin City sounds akin to walking barefoot in Hell’s hell. Opting to take a bus, we cruise to LA with steady motion until we come to a near stand-still in rush hour traffic. I once ran the LA Marathon a few years back and this was my first impression of LA outside the images of Hollywood, movies, and rock star lifestyles that the media has pumped into everyone’s psyche. My expectations had been high I had been highly disappointed. Not many people seemed happy, everyone was in a hurry; I couldn’t help but see a beautiful ocean-landscape transformed to ugliness by human beings.
At the same time, good people are everywhere, and I was able to meet one of them in LA using the Couchsurfing website. Couchsurfing is a website where travelers can meet locals and stay with them, find out a way of life and also host other travelers. I’ve been a member on the website for over eight years now, and it’s grown a lot since I first joined—both good and bad elements to that growth.
I take the train from the airport to North Hollywood and met Leonard in the parking lot. He is an interesting guy that had similar interests in marathons, a creative outlook, and a positive, helpful demeanor about him along with a bright sense of humor. His vocation involves building sets for Hollywood and was working on one for a Superman movie at the time. One of Leonards’ recent guests has been a German guy that bought a 100 dollar bicycle and cycled from Miami to California—no easy feat!
My time with Leonard is short—like most of the time spent people on the road. You try to make the most of the time you have. As I take the train to LAX Airport, I am amazed at the amount of planes that are outbound from the city. Every hour, it seems like another metal bird has launched off the pad, just a steady stream of jet engine roaring at decibels above the collage of city noise. The city noise is too loud and drowns out any sounds nature might still make. I can’t help imagine a post-apocalypse scenario in this city where all the humans are gone and how quickly the trees and Earth would just grow over and regain reign of this environment, where the insanity of endless development ends and the ocean can breathe again. This version of LA has its’ appeal, but not yet—America has to become Rome first.
Still, this is home for some, for now.
While on the train, I meet an eccentric Indian man who lives in Paris and is visiting his son in LA. I offer him a seat beside me, and funny enough he is also heading to the airport to return to France. He is a slender man of 59 years. He talks about his passion for making documentaries, and hands me his business card. At one point, he pauses, deep in thought, gazes out the window into the Hollywood hills. “I used to have an office in LA but then the dream died,” he says. “So since the dream died, I died. I died, so now I am celebrating my death while alive.”
He speaks in poetic form. I take these words with me as I went through baggage check to my plane. We scurry passed security scanners, red and green buttons, and surface-friendly but stern security, passed an assembly line of humans awaiting clearance. Machines treating people like machines.
You’re free to pursue happiness as long as you don’t appear suspiciously happy. Thank you for flying on these airlines, and rest assured that you might be a terrorist. We’ll check you at random, but certain people get checked randomly more often than others.
Eventually, the plane is boarded and I’m on a Philippine Airlines flight to Bangkok, Thailand.
The Rush song “A Passage to Bangkok” plays in my head:
We’re on the train to Bangkok
Aboard the Thailand Express
We’ll hit the stops along the way
We only stop for the best
The plane takes off.
There is an expression that all roads lead to Rome.
In this case, the sky road leads to Thailand.
We’re on the airlines being given the typical safety speech about where the oxygen masks are located, how to do things that require a high IQ such as buckling your seatbelt and finding the exit doors when my arm rest falls off my chair. Literally just falls off. I hope the mechanical aspects of this plane are designed better than the upholstery!
“You are on board a 747. There are ten emergency exits, five doors on the left and five doors on right…,” the computer recording says. In the event of an emergency, is somebody really going to go through the diagram in their head before finding an exit door? No way! They’re going to panic and crawl over as many people as they need to in order to get out of there!
On the plane I sit next to a woman who lived in LA but was from the Philippines. Her sister has just recently died in the Philippines and she is heading back for the funeral. Her flight home is bittersweet; visiting family while mourning a loss. The airlines offer three square meals while on board and complimentary wine if you know how to ask—good service also.
We have so many privileges these days, flying being one of them. The ability to fly over vast oceans and land on the other side of the planet in ten hours is incredible. It’s easy to forget that not everyone has access to this sort of thing, and people that live in first world countries are the privileged few. Before traveling overseas, I spent some time sleeping in my van and living frugally while I worked to save up for travel. If there is a strong enough desire to do something, a person will find a way to accomplish it.
At my layover flight in Manila, Philippines, there is an attendant offering me a towel to dry my hands off when I am done. Being catered to makes me feel strange and slightly uncomfortable, but this is how things are on this patch of land.
I grab my pack from the belt; check to make sure everything is there. All is well, except a glass jar of Nutella chocolate spread (whose wise idea was it to put it in glass rather than plastic anyways!?), so I head off into the city. I walk to the ATM and pull out the Thai currency, referred to as Baht and jump on the train, having no idea where I am going. Confusion ensues. I have the loose idea of finding the center of the city in Bangkok, but I learn that there really is no center in a city as massive as Bangkok. It’s endless sprawl and every inch is developed or in-development, there is nothing else.
Riding the MRT, it feels like something out of a science-fiction movie to me. The train rides high up with the buildings of the city and looking out into the endless concrete that feels like it is a backdrop for a movie, surreal. People speak Thai at rapid-fire speed and all by brain can translate is white noise and body language—my own ignorance at not knowing the language. I am excited and shaken at the same time—some real electric culture shock. I make a commitment to attempt to learn as much Thai as I can.
I take the airport train to the end like my Couchsurfing host had suggested and got off. People move about quickly, yapping on phones as tuk tuks, pedicabs, scooters, motorcycles, bicycles, and every means of transportation you could possibly imagine blur by me. Crossing the road involves first speaking to the traffic light Gods, and then crossing streets quick enough that the Gods don’t have time to change their minds about your immediate mortality!
In Thailand, a tuk tuk is basically a three-wheeled automotive rickshaw that is common transportation in many parts of the world. As soon as I got off the train and into the bustling tourist area, I am approached by all sorts of people trying to sell things and pull funds off me. You can understand that this is what everyone here does for a living; for better or worse, tourism has become a huge part of Bangkok’s industry. I was going to try to walk to my friends’ place, but it is not easy finding my way around the city, and I finally give in to a persistent tuk tuk driver as he holds on dearly to my sloppy directions and tries to understand my English.
The directions read that I am to go to Level Four of the main interstate, but trying to express this when I don’t really understand where it is anyways is not an easy task. We go racing through the city streets, a combination of exotic foods and gasoline fumes mixed together. I am amazed and impressed at how all the chaos of Bangkok seems to meld together and it is unbelievable that it actually works.
The driver turns around and asks me, “You English? Where you come from?”
America, I tell him. “Oh very good, ‘Merica. You have good time in Thailand. I show you.” He throws back his head and laughs, weaving in between small slivers of gaps in traffic that make Jeff Gordon look like a handicapped amateur driver.
He turns around and faces me again, offers me some cards with pictures of naked women. “You want girls? I show you good time.” No thanks, I say. No girls, I just want to find my friend.
“Your friend live on level four?,” he asks. I think so, I said. I’m lost!
I stop by a local bar and a woman comes by and asked me if I would like a beer.. She comes back a minute later with a bottle of Tiger beer, which is one of the staples in Thailand, an Asian brew crafted in Malaysia. It’s not a bad beer, but it’s not great either. I’d give it only a slightly better rating than American crap beer like Budweiser just for being slightly exotic. Nothing to write home about, although I’m writing it here.
The music of Mariah Carey and other female divas from the 1990s blast over a small set of speakers in the bar. Karaoke is immensely popular in Thailand, as well as sappy love songs that spill into the streets at night with drunken compatriots singing along. I have been dropped off in the wrong area of town (not that I knew where the right area was), so I get in touch with my host and we agree to meet at a nearby rail stop over Wi-Fi as the bartenders’ little boy runs around and I let him strum on my guitar. When he becomes bored with that, he thankfully takes to destroying the bubble wrap I had wrapped the guitar in rather than demolishing my guitar.
Thailand is in the middle of a kind of revolution, protest and uprising against their current Prime Minister. As an outsider, politics of another country are difficult to understand if you haven’t lived inside the country. A military coup and uprising amongst citizens is going on at the central districts of Thailand. They are protesting against their current Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, whom many people no longer support and want out of office. She is being accused of stealing from the country and not serving the people.
In the center of the protest area, contrary to the fear and suffering that the media tends to be broadcasting all over America, I find the most interesting people and I find Thai people open to share time and talk with me and even in some instances offer free authentic Thai food. My only rule while traveling is to eat as wide a variety of food as possible. Protesters carry the Thai flag and high and there are live musicians performing on a stage in front of the protest area. Apparently just a few days ago, a few people died at this spot during an uprising, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by the atmosphere here. It is uniform, vibrant, and has mostly friendly vibes all around.
I share my guitar with the locals sitting in the open area on the streets and one man told me that he was “doing this for his family” and that’s what brought him here. Even though I cannot really understand it, I can respect it.
I have a mild case of jet lag and eventually stumble my way by fumbling for directions from the locals. I meet Annan at the rail stop and we walk together back to his apartment, which is beyond a bridge in between local markets all along the streets. Annan has traveled a lot of Europe and made his way around through busking with his guitar. Our music interests connect us right away. “What were you doing in the protest areas, Soy Cowboy?,” he says. “Man, it’s dangerous there! I don’t know why all the tourists go there.”
I just shrug it off and we start playing some guitar. I fill up the water from the water containers in the parking garage of Annan’s apartment. Much of the water from natural reservoirs in Thailand is not safe to drink, so purified water in plastic bottles is the way most people do it, purchased at any supermarket or 7/11. Seven Eleven gas stations are everywhere too, and it’s quite nice to walk into an air-conditioned building after cycling or walking through the humidity and heat!
Annan made some basic Thai food and we chat about his travels through Europe. The next day I walk into the local area by myself, over a bridge where people are fishing out of a polluted river, people working in construction are building something near the bridge. I’ve never seen machinery that looks quite like what they were using. A man scoots by in a motorized cart filled to the brim with home-crafted broomsticks. People eat some alongside the sidewalk, street vendors rule the roads.
I’m completely lost in the infinite industrial maze of Bangkok. Letting go, lost is a good feeling.
March 1-March 2
Annan and I spend the next day with some of his friends rock climbing in a jungle area in the outskirts of Bangkok. The bus rolls on, kilometer after kilometer, factory after factory, street vendors lining the streets. There is no clear end in sight. Annan turns to me, smiles. “We’re still in Bangkok!,” he says. It’s incredible and unbelievable how long it goes on for. The bus stops everywhere to pick up more passengers, sometimes the driver waits for up to 15 minutes. Every extra passenger they can squeeze on is more money for them—some passengers get irritated because of this. Inside the bus, there is a wooden floor and a 3-foot long gear shifter that the bus driver cranks hard to lock into the gearing. We’re cruising down busy roads, cars, tuk tuks, scooters, and motorcycles zigzagging through traffic. Although Bangkok is like nothing else in the world, I feel a certain kind of relief to get away from big tourism in the massive city sprawl.
My climbing skills are sub-par to the experienced climbers that join us. We take a tuk tuk out onto a dirt country road and carry mattresses that are used to set at the bottom of cliffs to break falls if we lose our grips. There is an increasing deafening sound of cicadas chirping that is louder than any insect chorus I’ve ever heard. It pierces the ear and it never occurred to me that humans could potentially lose some of their hearing through the sounds of insects until now!
I start at the bottom and try to climb up the smallest ledge and eventually succeed. The larger one we later move on to I find much more challenging, unable to reach the top no matter how many attempts I make. Annan is an experienced rock climber and Spidermans to the top with finesse and ease.
After the climb, our groups depart and I find myself traveling with a guy from Quebec, Canada who is doing a meditation retreat in Nakhon Ratchisima. It is going to be one week of intense meditation, away from civilization in the jungle with the opportunity to speak with a monk afterwards. Steve and I ride the bus together to Nakhon Ratchisima for 35 baht (about 1 dollar). There is a small TV at the front of the bus and music from Thai pop culture plays through the speakers. It does have the effect of coming across cheesy at first, but I observe that the pop icons come across in their videos as more sincere and less selfish and individualistic than the icons in Western culture. The messages represented in the videos are ones of unity and togetherness.
In one music video, it shows the singer eating with her friends; another video shows a woman running after her boyfriend to find him cheating on her. I can’t help but notice that the smiles of the pop stars somehow come across more genuine. It’s something in the eyes, something in the facial lines.
Steve and I get off the bus in Nakhon Ratchisima and nightfall had already come. Tuk tuk drivers approach us asking,” you need teksi, teksi?” We stop at the local markets and buy some fresh fruit and semi-spicy noodles—delicious! Everywhere you go in Thailand, there is always fresh fruit available. Everywhere you go in Thailand; it always seems that people are smiling so it is also called The Land of Smiles. We walk for miles until we found a hotel to stay at for the night. A giant spider awaits us in the hallway that leads to our room. At first it just hangs there, creepily, almost like an ornament until it scurries up the wall.
I wash my clothes in the sink, hang them out on the balcony to dry. Gazing out into the distance, there is a vacant parking lot overgrown with weeds and old motels. I am filthy from the road and climbing that day and a shower never felt better.
In the morning we walk and explore the village until we get hungry and walk into a local café. We find locals that are interested to meet travelers and the food is amazing. Thai food has a wide variety of flavors and also has lots of greens and vegetables mixed into it, often with a fair amount of spice thrown in for good measure.
We eat our food hungrily, and I find myself having to use the bathroom. When I walk in, I find out that there is no toilet paper and nearby the toilet there is a tub full of water with a bucket resting inside it. I can use enough logic to conclude that I’m pretty sure what you’re supposed to do with this when finished, but not positive so I go and ask Steve if he’s used them yet and he just laughs, writes the tutorial on a napkin.
It’s things like this that make traveling to a foreign country worth it!
One is to wash one’s orifice with a small water hose, then finish the clean-up with a small amount of tissue paper. When complete, a person is to dip water out of a bucket and then pull the small plunger to flush. This whole procedure, foreign to me, conserves water.
The noise of traffic and coughs of exhaust smoke. It’ hot and we find ourselves buying drinks at every corner, every drink served with a straw. Steve leaves that night and heads out the rest of the way towards where his meditation retreat will be. I walk through the streets trying to find a motel and run into a Turkish man who has been “stuck in Thailand” and is waiting till his return flight home. He says there is nothing to do here, and he misses his family. I don’t ask much else about how he got here.
Inside the motel, there is a wobbly and dust-caked ceiling fan, a small bed, a shower with cold water. On the balcony you can view apartments in various stages of decay. This will be home for tonight.
I wake up and venture into the streets, where there is a commotion and vendors selling everything from spicy noodles to pig heads. I’m not in the market for a pig’s head, so I just stop and observe. I find the locals are always willing to help out a traveler. One particular woman from a Honda dealership offers to drive me to a bicycle shop when I walk in and ask her if there is one nearby. I’m in the market for a cheap bicycle to adventure around Thailand with.
She stops at an outdoor bicycle shop, where the shopkeepers bang on bicycle with hammers, turn on bolts with crescent wrenches. The shop is simple and has many newer bikes from China. “We sell you bicycle for chip chip,” they say. The word for bicycle in Thai is pronounced jak-ay-yan, I learn, and begin refer to my bicycle as this. The word sounds good when you say it.
I buy the first cheap bicycle I can find, settling for a single speed imported from China. It’s a red, yellow, and black bike called a Shadow. It will follow me everywhere I go in Thailand. Quickly, they fasten on pedals and rip off the bubble wrap from the bike in this tiny little shop. There is the clutter of grease and tools everywhere.
I say goodbye to the Good Samaritan lady from the Honda dealership and pedal off into the city. While riding, I hear a snapping sound and the seat falls off of the post. Jak-ay-yan (the Thai word for bicycle) is already falling apart! I ask for directions and somehow find my way back to the shop using the address from the receipt. The shop keeper doesn’t say anything and they get to work immediately, banging and twisting a new seat onto my bike. This is the norm with cheap imported products; things break, you replace them.
That day I cycle about 100 kilometers towards Khon Kaen, and end up on the outskirts just before dark. Riding out of town, it becomes apparent that the bicycle crank was not tightened properly and is loose. Still, I’m happy to have the freedom of a bicycle and the open road.
I ride by electric workers working on power lines while standing on nothing but a wooden ladder. One street vendor sells flame-broiled crabs.
I visit a temple and hitchhike a bit, am surprised at how fast a ride is offered in this country of helpful people. The temple is amazing, with paintings of the history of the Thailand Kings and empire.
My intentions are to sleep underneath one of the many gazebos that are along the roads but it doesn’t end up that way. I find myself without a place to sleep and it’s hard to find shelter off the road since every inch is populated around here. It’s dark and not safe to ride anymore, so I approach a family that lives off the road and kindly ask them if I can sleep on the grass by their house. We exchange smiles, even though we don’t speak much of each other’s languages—there is a commonality in our body language, we both mean each other no harm. At first, I sleep on the ground and the mosquitoes immediately start buzzing around my head. I’m in for a long night, I think to myself.
Then the girls come over, one of them holding her newborn baby in her hands. “You can come, to stay with us,” one of them says. I am shown a kindness that I can’t describe, invited into their humble home, which is essentially an overhang made of straw and bamboo, a small TV in the corner where their young kids watch cartoons and the News occasionally plays. I take out my guitar and try to connect with them that way since I can’t speak Thai. They offer me a Coke with a straw, which I accept, some food, which I decline. Roosters and dogs roam their area freely. The women are young, maybe 14 or 15. They both have kids. I offer some cashews I have left-over from a Trader Joe’s in America. I fall asleep on the table inside their hut, suddenly a part of a Thai family for tonight—getting lost in a foreign country isn’t so bad.
The family sits around a small table and a fire as they eat dinner amongst the glow of the small TV which plays the news and soccer. They finish eating and crush up the remaining food and feed it to the awaiting, anxious dogs. There is a stranger in the home and that is me. In the morning, we will wake to the sound of roosters.
In the morning I set off as the family sets up their shop. They sell fruit along the side of the road every day. This is their life. I cycle for a long ways until my plastic pedal snaps off and I set the bike down and hitch into Khon Khaen. Somebody picks me up in less than two minutes—I’m not sure if it’s because I distinctly look like a foreign traveler or if people in Thailand naturally look out for one another. It’s maybe a bit of both. Every time it never fails and I am often given more than a ride and showered with hospitality.
In Khon Khaen, I cycle around the city observing. A Mormon kid rides around on a bicycle trying to sell his version of God to the Thais. I think to myself that these people don’t need his God; they have the mountains surrounding them and our in God’s country already. Modern day Elephants walk up and down the city, some stop at bars to eat peanuts out of people’s hands. I circle the same block a few times, passing by interesting shops, outdoor bars. In the darker alleys there are places called Go-Go bars where attractive women stand out in skimpy clothing and I’m told that there is a price to take them home. So I’m told.
A guy introduces himself at one of the bars and spots me a beer, a very kind gesture. There is a local cover band playing songs acoustically on the center stage and the atmosphere is light-hearted and genuine. I like this bar. I have my guitar on stand by and show it to my new friends just in case my high hopes are right and the musicians are open to a jam.
A few minutes later my new friend is speaking to the band in Thai and they welcome me to the stage with open arms and we have a go. The woman has a beautiful voice and she nails the song “What’s Up” by Four Non Blondes. I improve on rhythm parts until it’s time for a tasty guitar solo. I’m in pure bliss and the audience is reciprocating the energy.
That night I leave the bar and it’s already near 230 in the morning and beers and laughs. I feel very welcomed and even at home sometimes until everyone starts speaking Thai and it becomes apparent that I’m not a local. Then I say “hey, hey, hey—WHAT’S GOING ON?”
It’s too late to find a hotel. Stray dogs follow me around on my bike as I try to find a shelter to sleep in. Dogs bark and chase after me and an old woman comes out of nowhere tapping her cane and yelling at the dogs in Thai to stop. She’s bent over her stick for support like her life depends on it. “Mai, mai!,” she says. Where did this lady come from? I swear she just appeared out of thin air!
Kids stand outside a candy store and I ask them if there is a park nearby. I need a place to sleep. I follow them on their bikes and find a couple decent trees for shelter to call it a night. I cycle up to the 7/11 and get some food and buy them some candy for their help. That night I’m tormented by mosquitoes and my own sweaty condition for about an hour and then I fall asleep till then sun comes up.
In the morning, I roll out of my slumber on the ground and go for a bike ride around a local park. A few locals are using the outdoor exercise equipment that seems to be everywhere in this country. There are very few fat Thai people, not like in America. I meet some locals who appear to be living on the streets or down and out in some way who offer me Thai whisky. We drink together and pass around the guitar and share some laughs next to a local lake. After that, I’m ready to get out of town and move on. The city comes alive with people walking, bustling traffic, and the sound of some kind of contest on a loud speaker across the lake; I have no idea what they are saying, but it sounds exciting.
I cycle for ten miles or so out of town and the bicycle falls apart some more. The crank case is loose and shifting back and forth—it’s only a matter of time till it snaps. It doesn’t worry me, this only offers an opportunity to do what I call hitch biking, which is just what it sounds like—hitching but cycling instead of walking! It’s a lot of fun, and it works well in Thailand, maybe because it’s not so common to see a tourist of European decent on a bicycle.
The guy that picks me up is Charoen and he spots me a coffee despite my mild protest against it. I try to counter the offer by buying him a coffee but this doesn’t work either. I hitch from this point and get a lift from a family piled into a van who set me off for the police station, thinking that I am lost and want to catch the bus. The thing is, most people picking me up don’t understand the concept of hitchhiking, they just see someone on the side of the road that needs a lift. It’s hard for me to communicate to the people what I am trying to do, which is really a good question anyways.
So I buy a bus ticket, which takes us blasting through the mountains and as we carve around the curves through the dense jungle terrain I am glad that I didn’t hitch here—there is hardly any shoulder at all. There is Thai music blasting over the speakers and we rip through the mountains, the bus driver slams the shifter into gear. There are always two employees on every bus in Thailand—one that drives and one that checks the tickets. There is a cushion in the back of the bus that someone has put up as a foot rest. Ingenuity is seen on every corner in this country!
I hop out of the bus and hitchhike the rest of the way and a family picks me up. I’m riding in the back of the pickup truck and the pollution is bad enough that I wrap my black bandana around my face. The mountain ranges are incredible, green and jungle-like. A dense haze of smoke lingers near the ground from heavy traffic. Construction is everywhere and you can see whole families piled onto one scooter. The father of the family hands me a water bottle through the window of the truck cab. The whole family smiling and happy to help me out—I feel honored.
I make it to Phitsanulok that night and pop into a local café called The PL Café. A couple musicians who say they are from Norway play soft covers of Willie Nelson, the Animals and other Western classics. This place has a classy feel to it. I order a glass of wine.
Browsing through a magazine, an article talks about the importance of raising children to be bilingual, trilingual, or better. An article reads:
Most importantly, the ability to communicate using skills are also important factors too. Most importantly, the ability to communicate using a second or third language is essential in widening a child’s opportunities into the modern world.
The magazine focuses on shaping a child’s future through education.
That night, I meet with my Couchsurfing hosts for the evening, Matt and Chompoo and their baby girl. Matt is originally from England and met his wife Chompoo while traveling, who is from Thailand. Together they teach English privately at their home. Chompoo focuses on the Thai part of it and Matt focuses on the English part. Their home is in the middle of the city, right next to shops and cafes. Matt tells me about his times traveling in Australia and working illegally for eight months until he got caught and kicked out of the country.
The area they live in attracts a lot of mosquitoes and every moment you open the sliding door the buggers sneak in. The upstairs bedroom of the house has an opening so they fly in freely. We get revenge with mosquito zappers shaped like tennis rackets and electrocute the masses of flying varmint.
We take a walk along the river in Phitsanulok where one lady sells bags of eels, turtles, and fish for releasing back into the river. These water creatures represent different things—eels bringing good luck, turtles bringing long life, and fish bringing an easy life. We unfold a blanket and have lunch beside the river and it’s a beautiful day. Young students walk up to me and ask if they can practice their English with me and I am impressed at their skill level at learning a second language at such a young age. For better or worse, English is becoming the universal language. It makes basic communication through one language worldwide possible, while also having the negative factor of tending to polarize the world and westernize everything. McDonald’s, 7/11s, and Starbucks’ now decorate and obstruct the Earth’s geography.
Matt takes me on a tour of the market area and we walk through ancient and modern Buddhist temples; this is where the young and old collide. The ceiling stretches on to the sky and the fixtures look like they are paved in gold. Walk inside any given temple and you will always find a giant Buddha gazing down at you. In Thailand, nearly 95 percent of the population practices Buddhism. People rest on their knees, bow down to Kaaba, and the Buddhist shrine. Before you pray, you must lift a small elephant with your pinky. Inside these temple walls you can feel the presence of a religion rooted deeply in traditions. There is the clicking of some cameras and Iphones, non-traditional intrusions of technology.
Along the murky riverside, families gather for lunch and bought food at the roadside food carts. Birds chirp above the commotion below. Kids in school uniforms dart about on bicycles. Scooters zip on by. The road is narrower than the extra-large American roads I am used to.
We try a host of different fruit and foods, one of them being Khunam Gluay, which is sticky rice, shredded coconut, bananas, and sugar (of course) wrapped into a green leaf. It’s full of sweetness and just as good as it sounds. In Thailand, you have the choice of having regular or sticky rice with your meals. Often times the sticky rice is served more commonly with desserts. Cane sugar plantations pop up like common grass in Thailand, so many of the desserts taste better since they use natural sugars.
Later, Matt and I venture off on our bicycle to his “favorite temple”, which turns out to be one of the oldest in the area. We follow a bike path along the river, piece of the sidewalk cracked, but winding and fun. Locals fish along the murky river bank.
At the temple, monks do push-ups, pull-ups, crunches and other exercises as we wait for the herbal sauna to begin. There is a sugarless grape drink that has been set out that has an expected bitter aftertaste. The drink is also supposed to be a part of the cleansing process before sweating every ounce of stress out of your every pore. Before entering the sauna, you take a small bucketful of water from a larger bucket and drench yourself to clear yourself of grime before entering. I follow Matt into the small quarters, pulling back an orange curtain where it is immediately completely dark. I hear men speaking in Thai, but only see dark. The sweat shatters down my face almost immediately. The effect is immediate—the monks inside breathe controlled and deeply. The idea is to stay inside as long as you can tolerate, which for me ends up being a mere two minutes at first. The feeling of fresh, cool air on your face and body after being in the sauna is renewing, like rolling in the snow and dipping into a hot tub afterwards.
There is a communal feeling to the whole place. Monks are highly respected in Thai society and I find them to be tolerable and respectful people. A common question tends to be “where you from” and a smile and nod-gesture can go a long ways if you don’t speak the local language. Kids approach me as we walk along the river. “Excuse me,” one kid says slowly. “ May I practice my English with you?” Of course, I say. How can you say no to that?
Then the questions ensue. “Where are you from? What is your name? What are your hobbies?” I’m not sure if I should feel flattered or offended; it’s all in good fun anyways.
That night, I slept and Matt and Chompoo’s place on the floor in one of the rooms of their English school, turning the fan on high to blow away the mosquitoes that had snuck through the crack between the door and wall and were now buzzing around the room.
The next morning, I’m pawned off to another Couchsurfing host in Phitsanulok. Matt offers to take me there on the back of his scooter, which unfolds to me clutching to the back of the seat for dear life with a wide smile on my face. Scooters and cars honk at one another to alert them of their presence. The fresh smells of roadside food vendors and auto-pollution meet together to form an olfactory experience of overstimulation.
We meet Jordan in a café area near the local Naresuan University campus, not far from the local library. Somehow I manage to get there by asking the locals “ sah-moot-yoo-nye-khrap”, which as far as I know is supposed to mean “where is the library?” but I get mostly puzzled looks and a few understand. I can’t help but feel like I’m asking them “where do I go to take a crap?” although khrap is actually a form of politeness and respect in the Thai language. At the end of every sentence, you say “khap” if you are female and “khrap” if you are male.
Jordan offers us ice-cream at one of the local ice-cream-coffee shops. He tells us that he’s been teaching English at the university for nearly five years, but has taken a break from teaching for now. He met his wife while teaching at the university a few years back. “She helped me to understand Thai students,” he says between bites of ice cream. “In my experience, Thai students are relaxed about everything and do not get interested if things are not fun. My wife helped me overcome that by making the lessons fun and engaging.”
Matt and I depart and Jordan gives me a short tour of the campus. Dogs in Thailand seem to have a unique place in society, much unlike that of the Western world. They roam freely and wildly, without collars and nobody has a problem with this. Stray dogs roam the campus and approach us, tongues draping out of their mouths and bouncing from side to side. Jordan has dog food in his backpack and I get the feeling that it is one of his daily rituals as he sets piles of food down for them to eat. He divides the puppy chow into separate piles so that they will not fight over it.
Jordan tells me that the campus we are walking through used to be entirely rice paddies. We pass small bodies of water, which he tells me are the remainders of the land that once was. “There are still remnants of the land that appear as if they were once rice paddies so you can tell,” he says. The water that used to be scattered has now been settled into holes around the campus. We pass an old tree that appears to be an extended hand with a middle finger raised to the sky. “That’s what we call the F-You tree,” he jokes.
Jordan maintains his Canadian citizenship while working in Thailand by traveling back to Canada once a year. He is a well-traveled person, especially on the Asian continent. He had also spent time teaching English in China. “You have to be on the native soil every so often to keep your Canadian passport,” he says. There is a field that we walk through, filled with a few rotting logs, tennis courts. “Some students spotted a nest of baby cobras living on campus under those logs a few weeks back,” Jordan says. “They called the specialists to come take care of them. The dogs got to a few of them and killed them, sensing that they were dangerous.”
Since Jordan’s wife is not in-tune or approving of the Couchsurfing concept, he says, he has arranged for guests to stay at a local motel. I find this somewhat strange, but this is part of the whole experience—you never know what you are in for. Jordan and I agree to meet for a free breakfast downstairs in the morning. It sounds better to me than sleeping outside with the mosquitoes and black cobras.
The next day we walk through some of the local markets, which seems to be the common thread of life in Thailand. It is the pulse of Thailand’s heart, where everyone meets for gossip, business, and time with families and friends. I feel accepted among this community but there is always that constant feeling that I am the outsider—there is no escaping that in Thailand, I am referred to by the locals as a Farat, the outsider with European ancestry. Not that they say this to me upfront, but it is common knowledge; every society has their words for outsiders, some of them soft, some of them harsh. All in all, I find Thai people to be respectful and polite people. There is a reason they call this place the Land of Smiles. I can’t help but smile as I walk through the market.
The outsider, the Westerner, the Farat. I’m just another one of those on holiday in Thailand. It wasn’t till later that night when walking around the college area by myself that I ran into a striking gal named Nus that I found myself wishing I spoke Thai more than ever. She ran a dessert stand along a side street near the campus. I suppose I was by myself, maybe even a bit bored, maybe even a bit lonely. It’s a big feeling to be in a country where nobody speaks your language, there are no tourists, and to be walking the streets alone. Just her smile was enough to captivate me, it lit up the streets more than the dim streetlamps and the flashing of passing headlights on scooters. So I did what should be done and bought an ice and fruit dessert.
Nus and I exchange messages via a translator application she has on her phone (there’s an app for everything, isn’t there?) and we make small talk, share a few laughs. The area is busy, with lots of college kids zipping around on scooters, couples riding together, vendors selling everything from sushi to squid. I help Nus close down her shop. She hops on her scooter. “I go home now,” she whispers.
Then I head off to find a place to sleep, which doesn’t result in anything in my price range on campus, so I opt for the local park, which then results in swarms of mosquitoes flying around me. Mosquito Hell has come to help me stay awake for a near sleepless night. After fruitless attempts of swatting them away, I hop on my bike and ride to a place where there is more wind and less water, meaning fewer mosquitoes, and fall asleep.
March 9- March 11
In the morning, I catch a bus to the other side of town and meet back up with Matt and Chompoo. We walk into town where Chompoo’s family works at one of the roadside cafes eat an almalgamation of delicious Thai food. Alfeo, an Italian traveler joins us at one of the restaurants and we decide to be brave and ask for the mildly spice papaya salad. Seconds after eating, our faces are bright red and our mouths exhale flames. Alfeo and I go exploring the city together on our bikes and later Matt joins us for the local herbal sauna again.
We play a game with the kids studying English at their home school so they can practice their English. At the same time we are practicing our Thai. The kids seem to enjoy getting a kick out of our lacking Thai skills and they put us to shame with their English. “How do you say seven?,” one of the girls asks when it’s her turn. Alfeo and I are counting out loud. “Soon, neung, song, sam, see, hah… hok… jed!” There is a lot of giggling by the kids and good practice for them. Matt makes it into a Jenga game to make it interesting for the kids.
Matt and Chompoo set me off with tofu and banana donuts in the morning and I’ve only traveled about twenty kilometers or so out of town when I hear a loud snapping sound and look down to see that my chain has broken in half. At this point, I’m not much surprised since this bike was obviously created at the Chinese factory with the design purpose of immediately falling apart. So I did what seemed suitable for the situation: I stick out my thumb and waited for a ride, which turned out to be only five minutes.
The first ride is with a family: a wife, husband, and three kids who are watching Fast and the Furious in the backseat with Thai subscripts. The Dad occasionally drives like he is Vin Diesel himself; weaving in and out of traffic while his wife white-knuckles her seat and occasionally utters gasping sounds. They insist on treating me to lunch and the language barrier is very real but nothing is mis-communicated with the exchange of a few smiles.
I find myself lost on the side of the road but with a general sense that I have to head North towards Chang Mai. A few short lifts and one bus ride through the mountains later, I find myself arriving in the city. Not before passing through dense jungle mountains and twisty turns on a bus that barrels through the narrow roads like it is on a mission to fly off the cliff and not make it there alive. From the looks on the passengers’ faces these conditions are normal and we do make it alive and as far as I know, I am not still breathing.
In Chang Mai I find a bicycle shop and watch in marvel as a husband and wife who own the shop bang away with just a wrench and hammer and fix my bike with a new chain and new ball bearings. The level of intensity that they put the machine back together with is impressive, their efforts becoming machine-like and straight-ahead until the job is finished.
While riding around, I meet a guy on a street corner with a guitar and after we make introductions, he naturally ends up inviting me a few blocks over to the gig he is about to play in an hour. How much better could this luck get? I joined the duo (himself and his friend) in what becames an acoustic trio in a lounge-style bar, playing the standard Western covers (ironically) such as Hotel California, Wonderful Tonight, Champagne Supernova.
I cycle through the streets for over an hour until I finally meet with Amber, my Couchsurfing host for the night, who happens to be from Germany. Before meeting her, I find myself lost and without a cell phone to call her, struggling to find the right amount of currency to make the pay phone work. An old woman closing up her shop next to me was my saving grace and just sort of smiles, walks over and puts the correct change into the machine. I must look quite pathetic to her, since she also gives me some food, which is undeniably incredible.
Amber meets me at the pay phone on her scooter and together we sweep through the city streets. Even she is a bit lost herself but it’s a better feeling to be lost with someone else.
It is a miracle that my bicycle doesn’t fall apart on the way to her apartment. The mechanic shop owners had done a solid job fixing the bike.
Amber has a job working for her company based in Germany, which has outsourced to Thailand. She has made friends with some of the locals and knows a few cafes to eat at down the street. After she takes off for work, I take off on my bike to the hilly side of town and into the mountains. The fast pace of the markets change as I make my way pushing my bike up the windy road towards the top, birds begin chirping, the crowds altogether disappear; it is a pleasant contrast. I have asked a local what is at the top of the mountain and one guy has told me there is an ancient temple.
A group of kids give me a puzzled look to see me pushing my bike up the steep incline as they make their way down. I hike up a dirt trail to the top where there is a stream of water flowing, statues of lion-like creatures, majestic Buddha shrines, statues of women with animal paws, and stuff that I can’t wrap my head around, stuff that just makes you go wow. The temple sits at the peak of the mountain, overlooking the city sprawl below.
A girl prays and makes a small offering to her ancestors at the Spirit House across on the opposite side of the stream. A Spirit House is a shelter for spirits that have left Earth and it is believed to keep them content with a place to stay. Many traditional homes in Thailand have Spirit Houses in the backyard.
As I sit next to the stream and breath in the fresh mountain air, I watch a few monks move a massive concrete bath into one of the ponds of water with only two bamboo sticks. Bamboo is incredibly strong and could carry an elephant if you had enough bamboo to support the structure and people to carry it. One of the bamboo sticks snaps in half and the guys nearly lose the concrete bath they are carrying. I offer to help them carry it across (just for the novelty really, not sure how much I actually help) and they later tell me that it was going to be used for the setting of the movie The Man With the Iron Fists. I’ll be watching for that one when it comes out.
What kind of wildlife is in Thailand? I meet up with a green vine snake as I came down the dirt trail; luckily it was slithering away into the forest instead of approaching me for a greeting. It is to my relief that when I later looked the snake up on Wikipedia I found the description to be Deadly Poisonous. Ah, what reassurance, it could only kill me, that’s all. Most snakes leave you alone unless bothered anyway, but the primal thinking is always there—fight or flight. With snakes, it tends to be flight.
That temple in the mountains has to be one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Down below, tourists are sticking their feet into giant fish aquariums and letting the fish eat off the bacteria. There are other attractions in Thailand.