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.

 

Coups, Kicks and Settling Down

Settling down. A phrase most commonly preceded by “find a nice girl and…”

Not that there haven’t been more than a few nice girls to be found on this trip, but I still don’t reckon I’m there yet.

Well the Conquest has “settled down” for a least the foreseeable future. I’ve taken a gorgeous apartment at Lanta Gym to “settle down,” do some serious writing, get in shape while learning some Muay Thai, and do a little detoxing after the thousand or so cheap beers I’ve consumed since entering SE Asia.

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I was ready for a place to call my own for a while, to completely unpack my bag, leave all of my things laying around without the concern that someone might make off with one.

Deflating my Ziplock clothes bags

Deflating my Ziplock clothes bags

I was ready to be in 1 bed for more than 3 consecutive nights, to slow the pace which has put me in 53 beds in the past 100 nights.

So far, I’ve:

Flown 88% of the way around the world (21,829 miles over 45 hours)

Bussed 3300 miles (roughly 146 hours)

Trained 400 miles (12 hours)

Spent 3 days on the Mekong River on a boat from Saigon to Phnom Penh

I’ll risk a little moss growth. This stone is tired of rolling at the moment.

**************

But boy oh boy, what a detox it will be.

I got dropped off after a 3 hour van ride from Krabi, which included 2 ferry rides to finally get to Koh Lanta, a largely undeveloped island in the Andaman Sea. I accidentally left my flip-flops in Bangkok, so I’d been barefooting it exclusively for 3 days.

I’m sure there are a fair few people who would’ve paid good money to see Chris Moorman, former buttoned up, Young Republican Wall Streeter, standing on the side of a Thai island road barefoot wearing a Buddha ring, singlet/tanktop, “hippy pants,” and ankle bracelet. All of my worldly possessions strapped to my back like some “goddamned dope smoking hippy.”

Life is a strange thing. Some days tuxedos, some shoeless weeks.

I stepped into a roadside stand, where I grabbed a sandwich and some free WiFi to get my bearings. I walked down the gravel road to Lanta Gym, where I met the crew and signed up.

They showed me the gym, the luxurious accommodations and the pool. I looked at them and said, “Sign me up.”

View from my front door

For 3 weeks of private Muay Thai training, an all marble 1 BR apartment (cable, AC, dual shower heads, all cleaned daily) 3 steps from an Olympic swimming pool, daily made to order breakfast, motorbike rental, and access to their full Western style gym with steam room and unlimited yoga classes I was charged the grand total of…

 

 

$800 USD.

By comparison, for a flex 1 BR (one bedroom split in half by a fake wall) in Manhattan, I was paying $1575 a month. That didn’t even include utilities, which ran another $150 a month.

Good to be in Thailand for low season.

I got my bearings, found the nearest 7/11 (of which there are approximately 1 for every 4 human being in Thailand) and put on my preposterous looking Muay Thai shorts. I walked the 30 yards down to the open air gym, with a few stray dogs and cats following behind me like I was the Pied Piper.

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Then the sweating started.

My instructor, Anglicized name Zac, was great. He put me in the ring with Ko, one of the other instructors for an “IQ test.”

I probably have 35 lbs and 3 inches of arm reach on Ko, but I’ll be damned if I landed more than 3 punches in the 3 minutes that he danced around and laughed at me. He caught me with a couple sharp jabs to the jaw, laughing merrily as he did.

“Han UP! Han UP!”

Smack!

“Han UP me say!”

Smack!

He yells something in Thai as everyone laughs, then puts both gloves over his ears.

“Falang no HEE me!”

At this point, I thought I saw my opening to finally get him with one in the guts.

I “almost” got him.

SMACK!

“HA HA. Falang IQ no GOO.”

Zac finally ended the mild humiliation, putting his arm around my shoulders and saying “One WEE, we’ll make you good. And you hab twee WEE.”

He then proceeded to work me like a borrowed mule for the next 75 minutes. He patted the finely marbled American flesh that I hold around my midsection and laughed.

“You hab vewy nice one pack. Vewy nice. No wowwy. We make 6 pack in no time.”

I will chalk that up to good news.

I got through it and walked across the road to catch one of the fabled Thai island sunsets. I was far from disappointed.

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I jumped on the motorbike to find a roadside stand for some food. Found one where I got a huge pile of sticky rice, a couple chicken breasts, and a few skewers of some very chewy “beef” for $1.50.

I’m going to keep telling myself it is really beef. Not exactly the ribeye a la Johnny Zarse that I’ve become accustomed to, but yeah, “beef.”

I came home and checked out Thai cable, where I found a station with a very mournful music video going on. There were English subtitles, so as I chewed through my “beef” I continued to watch. The whole thing was basically a promotional video from the National Committee for Peace and Order (NCPO), which is the proper name of the military coup which is ongoing in Thailand.

The videography was completely professional, mostly scenes of positive interactions between uniformed soldiers and civilians and the subtitles in English read things like “Trust in us, we will restore your country. For the people. Order and peace will come. It will take some time, but the Army is on your side.”

I’ve been trying to read as much as I can in the English language press here, mostly picking up newspapers like the Bangkok Post and The Nation. I can’t really tell the level of censorship going on, but the people I’ve spoken to are generally in favor of the coup from what I can tell.

Military coups are largely a way of life here in Thailand. Since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, there has been a military man in power for 54 of the subsequent 82 years.

This is the 12th coup the 62 year reign of King Bhumibol Aduljadej.

It is a concept that an American could no more wrap his head around than the possibility of a talking dog.

Other than the military presence in the big cities that I’ve encountered, I can’t really tell that anything is going on. Even that “military presence” seems to be nothing compared to some days when I’ve walked down North End Avenue or into Penn or Grand Central Station in NYC and seen 50 police cars or 35 National Guardsmen with M-16s patrolling the area. (My negative thoughts on the militarization of the American police force could fill volumes.)

It is pretty funny to see music video propaganda though, and I’m very glad that they were kind enough to put English subtitles up for me. Really made me feel like part of the team.

Well I’d love to write more, but I’ve got to find some bananas to recharge before my 4PM session.