Oh the Places You’ll Go

Sorry for slowing the pace of the blog but I’ve been working on some fiction projects the last few days. In a futile attempt to outwit the all pervasive soreness I’ve had since starting training, I’ve also been rubbing on a number of ointments that would make Eddie Harris from Major League blush.

I called my parents last night, and they had some of their oldest friends down to “The Babin,” as their future home in retirement is known. After talking to Mom for a minute, I made her put Holder on the phone, as I have loved giving him grief (mostly for his wildly inappropriate shoe selections) since I was a kid.

We spoke for a few minutes about this and that from the trip, some of the things I’ve seen and some of the travelers I’ve met. Then he asked how I was received by the locals. I laughed as I thought back, from “Mama” on the Castaway cruise in Halong Bay, to Man in Hoi An, to Snow and the rest of the absolute sweethearts running the hostel in Nha Trang. I told him about Nam, the novice monk in Luang Prabang and about my powerful jealousy of the 4 generation daily dinner picnics on An Bang beach in Vietnam.

He-yen for instance, our cooking teaching in Hoi An, only 3 weeks older than me, but mature and wise in a way that words can’t really describe.

It hasn’t all been roses. Just yesterday I was party to an incident where a minivan tried to run me over on my moped, then strong arm me into paying him for “damage” to his van. I know just enough Thai to know that when he was calling “the police” he was just saying foreigner and money over and over again. Everything was fine until he reached into his glove box and pulled out either a knife or something that he wanted me to believe was a knife and shoved it into his waistband.

Its low season in Thailand. People are hungry, and you’ll get that kind of thing occasionally, but I stood my ground, and cocked those “HELL-bows” that Zac has been training me to throw.

Then I told Dave about BBQ-ing with Koh, Zac and the rest of the trainers here at Lanta Gym.

I’ve drank a lot of beers in a lot of places. My mother would probably say too many. From $10 Budweisers on a rooftop full of the dregs of B&T society in Manhattan, to my first illicit Bud Lights with Al Spreen and co in a cabin in Williams. Sitting out in that handmade shack laughing with a bunch of people, total strangers mere days ago, who have lived lives so incredibly different than my own was really a powerful experience.

Koh is a madman with a…colorful past but a heart of gold. After a few shots of Sangsam, he gets to waxing “eloquent” about how we are all from different places, but all friends. Sitting there that night I saw the truth in what he said. Along with the 6 Thai trainers, there sat Glen, a 4 year sober recovering addict from England, Maiyo, a Finnish girl who could probably hammer toss me clear to Malaysia on a good day, and Oliver, a Belgian of Congolese extraction who speaks 4 languages fluently and is working on Mandarin now.

Here we were, sitting together swapping stories, laughing hysterically at the antics of the trainers, and discussing everything from politics to ill-fated moped rides.

I was reminded of that greatest call to adventure, “Oh the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss.

The town I grew up in was 99% White in the 2010 census. Those who could speak a foreign language were pretty much relegated to the women who comprised the foreign language department at the high school, and from my experiences with the French teacher, even that is a stretch.

I haven’t seen another American in 2 weeks. When Dave asked if I thought that the things I’ve seen would have an effect on me. He answered his own question before it was all the way out of his mouth.

For travel like this to NOT have an effect is impossible.

One of my favorite documentaries, 180 Degrees South, has a great quote by Yvon Chouinard, founder of the clothing company Patagonia.

Speaking about those who climb Everest in the most luxurious fashions possible:

“Climbing Everest is the ultimate and the opposite of that. Because you get these high powered plastic surgeons and CEO’s, they pay $80,000 and have sherpas put the ladders in place and 8000 feet of fixed ropes and you get to the camp and you don’t even have to lay out your sleeping bag. It’s already laid out with a chocolate mint on the top. The whole purpose of planning something like Everest is to effect some sort of spiritual and physical gain and if you compromise the process, you’re an asshole when you start out and you’re an asshole when you get back.”

You see the truth of these words when traveling like this. There are any number of ways to travel in this part of the world. You can have every luxury known to man: 5 star resorts, drivers with SUVs, and daily spa treatments. You could be sheltered from the heartbreaking poverty that afflicts many locals here in some of the most beautiful places on earth.

Sip Mai Tais on the beach, eat Australian beef hamburgers for dinner, and snap selfies as the sun sinks majestically into the water.

But you were an asshole when you started out and you’ll be an asshole when you get back. You were merely the exploitative tourist. The one who came and effectively said to the locals, “Oh your homeland looks nice. Now take this money and leave me alone.”

You didn’t interact, you didn’t experience any culture other than talking to the posh English girl on the beach chair next to you. You just sat on a beach with a cellphone, thinking about the best way to post something pithy copy with your Instagram picture to create maximum jealousy among your peers back home.

A part of me feels bad for these kinds of people, but another part wants me to give them an “HELL-bow” to the head to see if I can knock some introspective sense into them.

There is a massive gulf between “travel” and “going places.” I didn’t really realize it before, but now I can see it retrospectively  in some of the travel I’ve done in the US.

One of my best friends managed a “lodge/long-term hostel/guesthouse/den of iniquity” known as the Park Meadow Lodge, in Vail, Colorado for a ski season. Just about everyone living there was working somewhere on Vail Mountain for almost no money, merely the opportunity to ski as much as possible.

Scotty B, the de facto mayor of the Vail ski bum community, had been at Park Meadow Lodge for nearly 10 years. His disdain for “gapers” as jackass tourists are known in mountain lingo, was unrivaled. He managed a ski rental shop on the mountain, and would constantly come back with a story about some rich idiot who just didn’t get it, who thought that money would fix any problem, and who treated Scotty and every other worker like some sort of second class servant.

I stayed out with Craig for a powder filled couple weeks before moving to NYC in 2010, and I got to “live like a local.” I took part in the non-monetary “favor” based economy that the locals have. Someone runs a ski shop, and they get your friends free rentals when they come visit, someone else works at the pizza shop, and they throw a messed up pie your way now and again. Others work at the spa, and will look the other way when you want to go have a little Presidential workout in the hot tub and steam room after a hard day’s skiing.

In reality, the locals are living even better than the rich tourists spending countless dollars. What they lack in loot, they make up for in the social skills that so many people try to compensate for with greenbacks.

The rich look down on them as minimum wage monkeys, who in turn look back with scorn on the rich as cake eating jackalopes for substituting cash for substance.

Whether Vail, Colorado, Hoi An, Vietnam, or Koh Lanta, Thailand, travel is about more than a place. It is about interacting with people and letting the stories of the people you meet move or change you.

Don’t tell me where you’ve been. Tell me who you’ve met, and how their story affected you.

I’ve sat with Glen for countless hours now, talking about abstenince based recovery, his life as an addict and some of the things he’s seen on the other side. He’s graciously opened up in a way which few of even my friends back home ever would. He’s got a story that has something to teach anyone willing to listen to it, so long as they can do so with an open mind.

That’s what life is about. Just a bunch of souls bouncing about at random, creating unexpected reactions when the universe flings them into one another.

If we’d all just take time to put down the selfie stick, we might actually learn something. Hell, I bet that fella over there would be willing to take a picture for you if you’d just smile as you walk up and ask.

It is the people, infinitely more than the places that make travel an enriching experience. We’d all do well to remember that.

 

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