Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Things I have learned in Thailand (and Southeast Asia)

Building on things I have already learned, here are more lessons.

1. Buses are always, always an adventure
City life in Chiang Mai
So, take this last bus I took the other day for example. I grabbed it from the station at 5am, and for about 75% of the 13-hour trip (from Khon Kaen to Chiang Mai) I was the only non-Thai speaking person. The trip should have only been roughly 10 hours, but we stopped and picked up people at every single bus stop in Northern Thailand (or, man, close enough to it). And that's cool, I like how they grab people on the side of the road who need a ride, it shows a level of collectivism that is lacking in the States. That's not the adventurous part though.

Picture this. An old man sits next to me and our conversation consists of smiles and nods because everything else is very much lost in translation. On the second stop, my stomach is eating itself alive, so I dash out of the bus and grab some random meat "stuff" from a vendor (I love stall food with a passion, despite not knowing what I'm getting most of the time). Each time we stop at another station to pick up more people, I'm worried I might be left behind because no one can tell me how long each stop is for, and it never seems consistent.

Anyway, I eat about half the meat "stuff" before the sway and lull of the bus makes me extremely sleepy. I take a little nap and nod in and out of sleep for a good thirty minutes or so. 
I fully wake up when I feel something crawling up my thighs. 
The bus is packed and the old man is still beside me. I look toward my feet and notice an army of ants descending on what's rest of my meal.
And then I realize what woke me up.

I literally have ants in my pants.

Yes. Many ants in my pants.

So, what's a guy to do? Do I:

a) Thrash around like a mad man when half the seats are full of military who I certainly don't want to make jumpy?
b) Start stripping off my clothes in a panic?
c) Proceed with a super awkward rubbing so it doesn't look like I have ants in my pants?

I'm sure you know what I chose.

So suddenly not only am I giving myself a very strange and very weird double-thigh massage (yes, the very old man was staring at me from the corner of his eye in what I could only imagine was an equal look of disgust and confusion at this forang [the word for foreigners]), yelling "ants in my pants!", but I'm also absolutely paranoid that more ants are going to crawl up my leg so I'm looking around at the floor/ceiling/drapes every few seconds, wide-eyed and terrified, like I had just taken a hit of acid and was awaiting the coming return of the all mighty Ant Kingdom.

Thank God the old man got off at the next stop. Hopefully it was actually his stop and not an attempt to escape as soon as humanly possible.

Like I mentioned, buses are an insane affair.
I just go with it.

2. Maslow was wrong
Edit - You may not agree with this section, and that's okay :)
I love Maslow. I mean, who doesn't? His Hierarchy of Needs was/is a cornerstone of modern psychology (and even social work). If you aren't familiar, here's a tiny snippet of the theory:

Humans have five basic levels of "need" to survive (click the picture for an explanation of each level). The extremely basic: once you satisfy the needs of one level, you can properly go up. But, for example, if you are meeting the love and belonging level, but are no longer meeting safety needs, you drop down and have to meet that level all over again. Simple, right?

Now, it has always made sense that people that have no food or shelter or air (the first level) need that first and foremost before self-actualization and thinking of purpose (the highest level). I mean, you can die without food, but you can't die without a sense of purpose or motivation.


No...it's wrong. It's all wrong.
This country has flipped everything I thought to be true upside down.

I have met and talked with some of the poorest (economically so) people I've ever seen or heard of. These are people who have little more than a straw hut, half destroyed by the rainy season, and the other half sliding in the river that is so polluted and brown and oily that it's a color you never knew existed on the color spectrum. These people eek by, barely making enough to survive day to day (the income disparity is very much a big thing here, whether people want to admit it or not [usually not]). These people perfectly showcase Maslow's theory. They need food and shelter or they will die. Everyday, every hour. It's that serious. I mean, come on, self esteem? Who needs that when you don't know when your next meal is!

But, here's the thing, and I've seen it time and time again. These people fight for food and survival every single day, yet every single day they put out food 
and drink in front of Buddha as a blessing. Quite simply, they first give instead of take.

Maslow thought you needed food first and meaning later on, but maybe that's horribly wrong. Maybe what people need is a meaning to life first (or at the same time as the first level). Maybe even a meaning to everything before taking another breath.

Think about it (seriously, think about why you do these things). Why get the food? Why build the shelter? Why suck in the air? What's the point? Really, what is it? Okay, so you die if you don't, so what? If all of this - life - has no purpose, then it's all meaningless - everything becomes a means to no end. So, maybe the meaning of life should be first or at least equal to the basic life needs, because without that, everything else on the pyramid is useless and pointless. 

These people have nothing, yet they still give. They make meaning of their breathing, their suffering, their searching, and their life. Purpose drives it all.

And so I'm beginning to believe that Maslow was wrong. This culture know is more than most.

Edit - This isn't to say that I romanticize any of this. Not one bit. These people deserve better, as almost all of them will never escape this poverty for countless reasons (including the government thinking that "meaning is enough", which it certainly is not). It's tough to see. You fight to live and to hope and Camus would say this may be meaning enough - the food and shelter and social services these people DESERVE is another matter that needs to be discussed as well. But really, the meaning is up to you, friends.

3. There's a big difference between a tourist and a traveler
I'm not a tourist. Yes, I sometimes go to (a lot of) temples and the crowded tourist traps and buy cheap trinkets that make me feel complete disappointment after purchasing, but I am not a tourist. A tourist is someone who drops in, sees the sights that Lonely Planet tells them to see, and then moves on. I've met many people like this, and even a lot of backpackers seem be this way. They come to these large, massively complex and diverse cities and spend 2-3 days (if that) here and then they're done. Gone.
A traveler is different. They see the sights too, yes, but the key difference is they find time to let it all simmer. They shop at the local stores, they get to know the people who live and work there, they do their best to learn the language, and they search our the unique and different.. Simply put, they drink up the experience. Slowly. 2-3 days for a tourist? That equals about a week for the traveler. They go where they want, not what the tour book says. They walk the city, they explore the city, and they breathe the city in.
Another downtown picture of Chiang Mai
Of course I'm horribly bias, but which was in the better one? Which one hits you more deeply? I feel it follows this metaphor perfectly: tourists are the one-night stand of the travel world, and the adventurers are the relationships. They want more. They seek more. But in the return they demand much, much more attention and willingness to change. To be an adventurer is to accept change in yourself. Not just accept a vacation.
Next time you go vacationing somewhere, try to be an adventurer, not a tourist. I absolutely promise you'll have an experience no guidebook could ever write and could never hand to you. 

Take your time in a foreign city. Give plenty of time to soak it in. Don't rush it. Because if you take your time, you won't just visit a country, you'll leave a piece of your heart with it.

4. You plan your days around laundry
You do. It's as simple as that. When you have 3 sets of clothing, you worry about where to do your laundry at all the times. Especially if you're budget traveling. Which I most certainly am. 
Sample questions:
-Is the sink big enough? 
-Is their a stopper or are you going to have to create one out of toilet paper? 
-Are there places to hang it up? 
-Will it dry before I leave in the morning or am I going to have to stuff it in my bag as-is and have it smell HORRIBLE? 
Hot, humid countries are the worst. Pretty much, your shirts and shorts will last one to two days before needing to be washed. Not only do you sweat in them, but the dirt and pollution literally soak into them at all times. Fast drying clothing is essential for travel. And this brings me to...

5. Travel underwear/boxers is the best thing ever created. Ever.
Seriously, here's an example of them online here (they have women's brands, too). They're super expensive, I know. But they are amazing! In any climate. They dry within minutes, are comfy, and....oh man, I could talk about them for days. Regular underwear and boxes are dumb. Read the reviews and trust in the democratic review process.

6. 7-11s are the best
I've mentioned this before, but Thailand 7-11s are the equivalent to Seattle's Starbucks. I've even seen three on one street block! It's pretty amazing. Unlike the States though, everything is very cheap. I don't know what else to say. They are the best. I'm buying stock. So should you.

7. You'll love cold showers
You'll get confused. The poor and the rich combine in a strange mix. Sometimes you'll be so caught up with how many tourists and money is flowing around you, that you'll forget that this is still a poor country. Hot water (and quality septic tanks) is still a rich person's game. It's sad but true. Cold showers will become your early morning wake-up friend and your early evening cool-down friend. In fact, sometimes it's so hot outside, that the water is warm simply because it's so hot. After a month and a half, I'm beginning to love the cold showers. A lot. And if you travel hostels and the sort, you'll come to adore them too. Like a cold Popsicle on a scolding, lit day.

But like everything, these people deserve more. More on this later.

8. You're never alone, you're always alone
I'm going to build on my blog entry about hellos and goodbyes because it's something that is a daily heartbreak. It's sad and rough and it sucks at the same time that it's strengthening. It reminds me of Bush's Glycerine song, with the lyrics being "I'm never alone, I'm alone all the time". Traveling is exactly like this. Solo travel is an absolute fucking blast! There is no doubt about that. You will meet a cast of characters that will quickly become your best friends. You'll go on adventures, you'll travel together, share rooms, and drinks and stories and drunken stumbles home. But, at the end of the day/week/month/journey, you will go your own way. This isn't Eat, Pray, Love. They will have relationships and lives and jobs and routines back home to go back to. You leave back to your life and they leave back to theirs. It may feel like a collective journey, but it's not. 

You are most certainly alone. 

My favorite picture I've taken.
But, you should be alone. You need to be alone.

It is your journey and it is you who learns what they want out of it. In the end, it's truly and utterly your journey and no one else's (though many contribute, you are the interpreter).

But this is more than just traveling. We all have our own journey to make. And so the only thing I ask of the people reading this (and myself included!) is this: make it amazing, alright?

And I know, it's a strange dual feeling of happiness and sadness you'll never fully understand or get used to. I sure haven't. 

You're alone all the time, but you're not.

This is not white and black.

This is gray all the way, baby!

And this is the heart of solo travel.

9. Simply put, you will not be the same person you thought you were

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