New York, 1998 : Headhunter

There was a pretty dark period in my life, thousands of miles away from my mother as she was dying.

I worked as a headhunter in Manhattan. Mostly I was an account coordinator, which meant I supported the other headhunters and occasionally placed an Executive Assistant. The office was plain, but in such a great location; right across from the library (which I never entered) and Bryant Park.

My bosses were fantastic; powerhouse women who’d started a recruiting firm together. I was the only Shiksa in the office, and they took good care of me. They knew I was broke, and “leftover” food would make its way to my desk. During that Summer, when my mother’s cancer returned and I was flying back home once a month, I spent a lot of time on the phone with Karyn. We hadn’t yet met, thought we’d been introduced, and all of the other women in the office were in their forties (THEIR FORTIES. ANCIENT!) and didn’t need jobs; their husbands worked. So, they talked on the phone a lot, gossiped with each other, kvetched. I was definitely the odd woman out. Linda Maier, in particular, was a devastation of a human being. A woman in her fifties held together with bad facelifts and a nightmare attitude, it took me until my forties to realize how very much she resented me the simple fact of my youth. I just thought she was hateful. I mean, I was right, but I didn’t know at the time, couldn’t know, why. She insisted the hotel at which I surprised my boyfriend (on a work trip) wasn’t award-winning (just Conde Nast, bitch, your husband ever take you there?). She told me I couldn’t take my lunch from 2-3, after the crowds died down, as this was “unusual” and “frowned upon”. The owners specifically pulled me aside to tell me otherwise, and remind me that Linda wasn’t my boss. Once, during a slow period, she turned to one of our other co-workers and said “It’s a good thing our husbands have jobs, isn’t it?” and looked at me and laughed. Because she knew I had to work my ass off, that I was hungry every day, that I walked several miles instead of taking the subway, to save money. I mean, I was fresh out of school; everyone does this. Again, youth.

The phone system was … old. There was shared storage for all of the voicemail messages, so we were supposed to delete them.

Except those from my dying mother. We, as a family, were sort of in denial about the dying; “metastasis” isn’t a work that’s often associated with happy endings, but we were optimistic until the end. So, I saved my mother’s messages, and they took up space, but not too much space. I kept meaning to record them, but we got the news so suddenly, there was no time.

I was in the office; I think it was August 1st. And I got the call that my mother’s cancer was terminal; she had two to six months. It had taken two days for my family on the West Coast to realize that no one had told me. I was 22. I shook. I ran to my colleague Marian’s office. Marian had been kind to me, had honestly split commissions with me 50/50 when she was only obligated to give me 5%. Had told me about her marriage, her daughter, Dev, who had come back from England with a British accent. (Dev would, a bit more than 3 years later, become the first stranger I ever picked up in my Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man. During that drive, she would tell me that she was from New York, and that she had developed the accent during her time in England. I would ask her if her mother’s name was Marian. Just a few short weeks after that, on Tuesday, September 11, I would be the person who would connect them, tell them that the other was ok, because they couldn’t make calls within New York, but long distance calls out were easier.) Marian was interviewing a candidate. She looked at me, said “Can this wait?” I didn’t respond, and she said “I’m sorry, this interview is over,” and ushered the candidate out. In hysterics, I made a plan to leave the office. I didn’t have anything that wouldn’t fit in my bag. The owners said they would call me a car, and I foolishly turned it down, insisting it would be too expensive as I lived in Jersey. I told them I should quit, as I wasn’t sure when I would be back, and I took the bus back to Jersey.

I flew home on August 3rd. I reenrolled in school, thinking I might as well finish my master’s degree if I was going to be there 2-6 months anyway; I only needed one semester to do it,  and it was a short semester.

My uncle and older cousin had visited the United States for their first, and only, time, to visit. I had been the one to tell them to come. I said, “Wenn du dein Schwester nochmal am leben sehen willst, dann musst du fliegen.” I took them driving, to my old haunts, to the wall, overlooking the Bay. The day they left was the last time my mother left the house. She died August 13th.

(I wrapped myself in the unimaginable love of those around me. It has been 19 years and I have not forgotten any act of kindness shown in that devastating time.)

I unenrolled. I went back to New York. I spent thousands and thousands of dollars on whatever I wanted, racking up a massive credit card debt. I went to Renaissance Fairs. I had my first girlfriend. I flew home for my birthday, for a couple of concerts, and on the flight back I huddled in the back of the plane in hysterics as the back of every seat showed Meryl Streep, who looked not unlike my mother, in “One True Thing”.

In early October, I went back to the placement firm. I said hello. It was my touchpoint. Plus, I had my pick of any job for which they were placing. But first, I went to check my voice mails, to collect my mother’s voice.

They were gone. They were gone, and the only person who knew the password was Linda. She’d requested it right before I left. I was in haste, and I gave it to her.

She’d deleted them. She hadn’t needed the space. She had done it because she could. That woman had taken my mother’s voice, my mother’s messages, from me, irretrievably.

Linda’s either dead by now, or she’s still old(er than I am, if she’s alive). But despite her small, shitty pettiness, and my dead mom, my life is still a million times better than hers. Because I have never once held anyone’s youth and spirit against them, and because I have decided to use her as reminder to not resent anyone the time I certainly never wasted.

Oh, and, fuck you, Linda Maier. You’re a bad person.

Fading

She tells me her stories
(I record them)

She works all day in her office while I work all day at the dining room table
(she prints out the Living Eulogy I wrote and asks me to update it)

I show her photos of Thailand while she asks all kinds of questions
(she gets mad at a photo of the perfect sand because she will never see it)

We share stories of our ribald pasts
(she tells me she wants to see Luke again…soon)

She delights in food
(she is not as hungry as she used to be)

I take her on a trip through her amazing garden
(through Skype – she cannot walk to the creek on her own)

I connect her via Skype with her friend in Italy, whom I met this Summer, and they talk for hours
(they will never see each other in person again)

I rub her feet after I take off her shoes at night
(they are cold and puffy, congestive heart failure)

We sleep until 9
(me because I went to bed at 1, her because she is in so much pain)

I cherish her as a mother, a friend of the heart
(and I get this mother into old age, unlike the other one)

I cherish every moment
(I always have…now her caretakers are telling me to cherish every moment)

Life is precious, and I love it
(no matter when it happens, it will be too soon, and I will rail against the unfairness of death)

Grand Adventure IV : vii – the boat to Kradan

A private longtail boat for hire between islands is 1200 baht.

It’s the most direct way to get where you’re going for the least amount of hassle.

You can take a speedboat or a ferry, but these things get a bit more complicated. The islands, which don’t even have streets or roads or motor vehicles, let alone a robust aquatic transportation system, rely heavily on weather; a storm can render the islands inaccessible – and un-leavable – for up to a week. In a land where 3-foot swells can seriously impact transport, you’re always at nature’s mercy.

You’re always at nature’s mercy anyway, but here there are fewer trappings to help you forget it.

I booked the speedboat. I’d seen them pull right up onto the sand in Koh Ngai (Koh Hai, or Nngg-Hai, if you get really good at it), and opted for that method of leaving for Koh Krahdan. Koh Ngai is the bigger of the two islands – fully two kilometers of lovely beach and water, resorts, longtails, relaxation, beach bars, and the friendliest people you’ll meet.

I thought I’d want to sleep in. This was also a mistake. The seas pick up the further in the day you go, and thirty minutes can make a huge difference.

Also, I was staying at a cheaper hotel, and this hotel didn’t have its own longtail; it had a tiny yellow-and-white power boat. The power boat would take me to the meeting point for the other boats. There, a longtail would take us to Koh Ma, a snorkeling island, because the surf was too high for the speedboat to come to Koh Ngai. I didn’t know this when I boarded the tiny yellow boat to go the 1.5 kilometers to the spot on the beach where the other long tails would meet. I know the swells were already significant enough that between me, the captain, and my suitcase, I wasn’t allowed to sit in the first two tiny rows closest to the prow because he was having difficulty navigating. Still, I got to the beach meeting point and thought nothing of it.

 

I hauled my suitcase and bag to the beach and waited with the other passengers. Still, when one of the employees frantically counted us, over, and over, and over again, I thought nothing of it. I had my ticket. I knew I had a spot reserved on the speedboat. And so I didn’t think much of it when someone grabbed my suitcase and put it in the prow of a longtail. I even didn’t think too much of it when I help my backpack high over my head, went into shoulder-high water, handed it to another passenger, and climbed the ladder to the boat in the bucking surf.

I did, however, think twice when I saw how low the boat was sitting in the water. And again when the guy who’d counted the people and hauled my suitcase told us, while still anchored, to put on our life vests. And I couldn’t help but notice that, every time anyone moved, or shifted, water flooded into the back of the boat. In fact, the back of the boat was by this point flush with the swelling sea. While I was not the only person at the back of the boat, I was the only person who seemed to notice this.

“Guys! Guys!” yelled the captain.
I’ve learned, since having been charged by elephants, that any time a Thai person shepherding tourists says “GUYS!” that shit is about to get real, since these are the only two times I’ve heard it.

“Guys, everyone put on your lifejackets!”
In a daze, I dutifully took a lifejacket from the side of the longtail and pulled it on. I paused. Every time the captain shifted his weight, more water flooded into the back of the boat, beginning to push above the secondary layer of slats covering the floor of the longtail. We crammed, sweaty and covered in saltwater, our luggage piled into the prow, in rows onto the thin wooden boards. Children were screaming, men gripped the board seats and tried to look calm. Women looked at men to determine whether they should worry. I made a decision.

Removing my lifejacket, I stood, more water pouring in, I turned to the mate and said “I’m getting off.” The ladder had already been removed, so I jumped over the side of the boat into the roiling surf and held on, tiptoes grazing the ocean floor, cheap waterproof lanyard case ripping at the connector and dropping my phone and passport back into the boat. I grabbed the case, and a kind Italian man handed me my backpack and flippers. I ran these items back to shore, part swimming, part kicking, until the water was shallow enough for me to get my legs under me. I dropped them on the beach and walked/swam back to the boat.

People on the boat had begun to eye me with interest. I yelled to the captain for my suitcase.

“You cancel?”

“What?”

“Are you canceling your trip?”

“Yes! Yes. I want my suitcase. Yes. I’m canceling.”

A few moments, some shuffling, some yelling in Thai, the captain got out of the boat and went to another boat.

“My suitcase?”

“One moment, one moment.”

More shuffling. Then he turns to the people on the boat.

“Ok, guys, we’re taking a different boat. You [pointing] – come.”

It’s very rude to point at someone in Thailand. It’s rare that a Thai person will do it. Apparently our captain, upon seeing my willingness to jump out of the boat and lose a whopping 350 baht, decided to commission a second longtail and split us up.

Still standing in the water at the first boat, I noticed a family; a mother, father, and two children, about two and three years old, the children in hysterics, the parents navigating how to get their children off the boat. European of a language I don’t speak, I looked at the mother, made eye contact, nodded, and help up my arms for her young son. She handed him to me and I lifted him high above my head, so his feet wouldn’t touch the water, bouncing him to shore. He cried, and screamed, and I turned him so he could see my face, smiling and saying “it’s a fun game! It’s a fun game.” Once we were in ankle-deep water, his father took the boy from me, too shaky to say anything.

I brought my backpack and flippers to the second boat, tossed them over the side and climbed in after them. Without prompting, I took a lifejacket from the side of the longtail and snapped it on, firmly. I was joined by an Italian family, four adults, and the family whose boy I had brought to shore. Our luggage was still on the first boat.

Once we were safely underway, the mother held her son, her body racked with sobs. She reached for my hand and gripped it, said “thank you”, holding her son, crying, holding onto my hand. Her son looked at me, panicked. I smiled and repeated that he was fine. I didn’t want him to see his mother upset.

Both boats met at Koh Ma, a snorkeling site, to rendezvous with the speedboat we had booked; the speedboat can’t approach the shore of Koh Ngai in high swells, which is what led us to the longtail debacle in the first place. When both boats made it to the rendezvous with the speed boat, the boat we’d left was sitting 2 feet lower in the water than the one to which we had transferred.

When it was time to transfer off the longtails to our respective boats, the Italians and I agreed that the family would go first.

“I bambini primi.”
“Vero.”

Without ceremony, we were split up; my things were transferred to the speedboat and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to the Italians or the family.

The speedboat brought us safely and swiftly to Koh Kradan, where I didn’t care that my cheap flippers didn’t make it, and I stepped to dry land with gratitude.

I may not have saved us from drowning… but I certainly believe I saved us from sinking. All because that boat captain didn’t want to spend 1200 baht on a second boat.

I didn’t notice until I was on dry land that I’d lost my Thunderdome hoodie.

Four days later, I had returned to Koh Ngai (insisting on a large ferry), and returned from my hike through the jungle across the top of the island. I passed a row of longtail ‎boats, looking briefly into each, not even walking up to them, hoping against hope. A man saw me and made a gesture like he was pulling on a shirt, said “you?” and I said “yes!” He pointed me to the office, where they handed me my 2012 Thunderdome hoodie. It smelled like 5 days of seawater but felt like home. Though he was there, I did not make eye contact with the boat captain from The Incident.

 

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Grand Adventure IV : vi – Kanchanaburi

A few more travel tips:
-carry a small ziplock filled with silica beads (the ones that come with new shoes or suitcases). When your phone gets wet, it works better than rice, and you’ll be so, so happy you have it.
-“no mosquito net” = “we’d like you to think it’s mosquitos, not bedbugs”.
The hotel can only be described as “The Shining, in Summer”. Huge and mostly abandoned. Beautiful, colonial, vast porches, hundreds of rooms, a giant swimming pool and hardly any guests. We walked minutes upon minutes to get to the room, and didn’t pass another person. The lobby – vast. The restaurants – expansive. Everything – abandoned.
So, when I finally made it to my room, I didn’t feel relaxed; I felt creeped out. I was also exhausted, so I immediately fell asleep. I awoke, puttered, and headed to the Rice Barge. The Rice Barge is the nicest thing about the hotel; a delicious floating restaurant in the River Kwai.
My first full day I decided to do the thing you’re supposed to do in Kanchanaburi – Erawan falls. The name, obviously evocative of Tolkien (if you’re me, or enough like me that this [hominem] would be impossible to hear without visions of wild, foreign trees, a hidden wonderland, elves and magic.
Wild foreign trees and hidden wonderland, yes. Russian tourists, yes. Thai tourists, yes! Finally, a place the locals visit, and on a weekend, no less. I overpaid for a driver to get here. The wiser move would have been to stay in town and take a bus up. Did I mention the resort is near nothing? I’ll get to that.
Go to Erawan falls. If possible, go and just drop in and don’t do anything else, because it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere, but some people day trip it from Bangkok. Do that. And hike all the way up. Get some provisions and prepare yourself for an absolutely stunning “walk”. I don’t like calling it a “hike”, because this can technically be done in flip-flops (though not comfortably). Go to all seven, because the top one is the best.
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Jump in and try to not shriek when the fish nibble at your feet. Try to not fall on your ass on a slipper rock and land in the water and scrape your bum. It’s humiliating, or so I’ve heard.
Erawan was a truly stunning spectacle, and I’m glad I saw it…but I missed Luke…
(and if I ever find that picture I’m sure I took of the stacked rocks, it’ll go here…)
I did not die during the terrifying, constantly-on-the-phone cab ride back. I did not tip the driver, after I twice said “we can pull over if you need to talk on the phone” as she veered to the right like an American tourist on a scooter.
The rest of the stay passed in a bit of a fugue state. I ate dinner that evening in the main restaurant of the hotel as the only guest. The music, on repeat, was terrible. I slept early. I awoke and went to a (reduced) breakfast buffet with the three other guests in the hotel.
I decided I was going to walk to the River Kwai. At the height of the day. Down a country road. Hidden tip – if you’re the only pedestrian, you’re in the wrong place. This sign:
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That’s ok, because eventually, as you’re walking down a country road and hear a rustling in the bushes and you think it might be a snake and, 10 feet later, you see a snake carcass and you can’t walk further away from the snakes in the bushes because that means getting run over… a local woman on a scooter will take a look at your sorry, heat-exhausted ass, pull over, and give you a ride to town. Because you look THAT bedraggled. Yes, it was bad. No, she wouldn’t take my money. I got on the back of the scooter of a woman with a dog riding on the tank and didn’t think twice about it. What a kind person, and how fortunate I was to encounter her.
I bought an iced tea and stumbled into a massage parlor, thinking that all I wanted was pampering and air conditioning. It was my first real Thai massage (not coconut oil or foot massages, both of which are wonderful but not the nearly spiritual experience of a Thai massage). Angelique (that’s not the name she gave me, but it’s her Facebook name!) has magic hands and an amazing spirit. We talked, she soothed me, we talked more. I left the parlor refreshed, bought a ridiculous hat
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and walked across the Bridge over the River Kwai, just to say I had.
I taxied back to the hotel and had another night of weird isolation, the weirdest so far, as this was a Monday night.
I was thrilled to escape early Tuesday morning, taking the train back to Bangkok. It’s not that the hotel was so bad. It’s just that it was isolated and I thought I’d get axed to death in a hedge maze. These are typical concerns, right?
I was actually a bit relieved to be back in Bangkok, where I understood things, where there were other people. I bought my train ticket to Trang (pronounced “trung”). I went and checked into our ridiculous hotel. I went to immigration (I can now absolutely deftly navigate the Bangkok train system… not that it’s complicated, but still) and had a surprisingly smooth time extending my visa. Headed back to the hotel and was joined by Josh and Annetta! I’d used my many hotel points to get us a (nearly) free two-bedroom suite. It was obviously intended to be a condo, because it was huge, had a kitchen, a balcony, a couch. I headed down to the pool to meet up with Nathan. We were joined by Josh and Annetta, and the four of us sat by the pool, had snacks, drinks,
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then headed up to the roof, had drinks, shared stories, reveled in friendships new and old, and, finally, went back to the room to fall asleep.
There is a deep comfort in good friends in strange places. On the other side of the world, gathering, sharing stories, opening our lives to each other, we become closer. I couldn’t have shared an evening with four better people; I only wish we’d had time to build a pillow fort.
I said goodbye to Josh and Annetta in the evening, and to Nathan in the morning. I intended to go back to sleep, but the electricity in the air from the previous evening’s storm tickled the fibers of my being. It had rattled the building, slammed our doors, and I couldn’t go back to sleep. I wandered. To MBK market for a bag (like JJ market, but air conditioned and less touristy), to the hotel to load that bag, to Bangkok self-storage where I really hope my bag still is (#76).
To simply wander with the knowledge that I wouldn’t see another person I know for three weeks.
I made it to the BKK-Trang train with plenty of time. I tucked in and chatted for hours with Victoria, the Lithuanian woman with the honest eyes and piercing questions. She’s a tour guide but will be do so much more. I missed her because she got off the train in Surat Thani so, Victoria, if you’re reading this; good journeys! Trang to the pier. And now here. Here is elsewhere. We’ll get to that.

Grand Aventure IV : v – Road to Kanchanaburi

The best part about Kanchanaburi was getting there.

All I knew was I wanted to spend as little time as possible in Bangkok. I’m over it. I’m over the big city, the smells, the sights, the sounds, the tourist traps. I prefer my tourist traps smaller. Sandier.

But seriously – Bangkok is a great, huge city. Everyone should see it once. Now I’ve seen it five times and it’s a blast with friends but wandering that city alone, completing various tasks – I want other adventures. Bangkok feels like…work.

So, as quickly as possible, I made my way from Hua Lamphong to Thonburi, from Thonburi to Kanchanaburi, and caught a cab to my hotel.

But the stuff of life is in the moments between – music is in the rests, and travel is about the people you meet on the way there, by whatever definition of “there” you’re currently using.

In this case, that’s Majeed and Mai. I can’t remember the first sentence of our conversation. I remember a man with a rich, booming voice and an accent I couldn’t place and a sweet Thai woman, communicating in English. The second sentence was “where are you from?” to which Majeed responded, “I’m from the country that America destroyed.” Ah. As usual in cases like this, self-deprecation is the only way to go. “You’re going to have to be more specific.” Thank goodness he laughed. Thank goodness.

I don’t want to tell you the details of the conversation that took place over the next three hours; 1 hour waiting for the train to depart and two hours in our third-class seats, yelling over blissfully open windows. I’ll tell you these few things:
-we know so little about the rest of the world when we only know what the news tells us
-travel is for meeting people so much more than it is about seeing things, but if you’re lucky, you can meet people while seeing things, and that’s pretty neat.
-people are the same, everywhere, and every childbirth is a lottery
-I can’t write this without crying

Mai is a psychologist who specializes in working with Cambodian children. Majeed is a refugee from Iraq. With four children; three doctors and an engineer. He can’t go back to his country. He is a writer with no audience, now, who sees his family in snippets, when he can, in places he knows are safe. His mother died in his arms ten years ago as the Americans came. American soldiers were seen putting bombs in mosques. And churches.

Do I recognize that he could have been lying to me?
Yes. Anyone can lie to me. Anyone can lie to anyone at any time.
Does my government stand to gain more by lying to me, and to its employees, than this man gains by lying to me?
Yes, a million, million times.

So I know whom I believe.

I cried. I felt my heart open in a way I didn’t know it had been closed. When I bought tea and water for us (I just had 100 baht closer to the seller), Majeed said “I’m an Arab man – this is not acceptable!” I said “It’s too late for you – you’ve already been talking to an American woman!” He laughed, a full, open laugh. We laughed. We shared music; one of his poems has been turned into a song – if he sends me the link I’ll update with it here.

[Update : Majeed sent the link! It is here. Thank you, Majeed!]

Mai smiled and joined in the conversation; sometimes she looked at him sharply, obviously concerned he had overstepped a boundary. Anyone who knows me knows that this is a near impossibility.

Please, see the world.
Please, meet people who are not like you (some of them live next door to you).
Please, don’t just hear them, but listen; listen like your life depends on it, because it does, it does, it does.

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Grand Adventure IV : iv – Goodbye, Chiang Mai

Goodbye, Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai was the first of the unplanned stops on my trip, but it certainly wasn’t unexpected. Anyone who’s spent more than a few weeks in Thailand, and even some of those who’ve spent fewer than that, sing the praises of Chiang Mai and, upon learning I had unscheduled time in Thailand, insisted I make it a priority. 

 

Ok then.

 

New traveler rule

-the minute you land anywhere, go eat some local yoghurt. This will help your stomach to process everything else you eat while there.

 

Once I knew Luke was safely on the ground in San Francisco, I slept a few hours, woke, and headed to Hua Lamphong. Monday morning commuting being what it is, I made the train with moments to spare, without having eaten a thing. This is the way sometimes, that we’ll trust that food will appear; in this case, in the form of mackerel. Mackerel soup, mackerel in a sealed container… a whole train full of people eating mackerel. It smells exactly as you might expect… as does the bathroom.

 

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While I was on the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, the news came out that David Bowie died. I will always remember where I was; surrounded with people who didn’t know who that was, with the exception of the British guy behind me, both of us incredulous, his Chinese companion oblivious to the significance.

 

R.I.P., Thin White Duke. I can’t believe it.

 

After hours of stunning Northern Thailand scenery

 

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I did finally arrive in Chiang Mai, the train just a half hour or so late, and took a red cab.

 

Red cabs are fascinating; part bus, part tuktuk, all Thai; pay 50 baht, and an enterprising driver goes around the train station collecting people who are going near that location. Your luggage goes up top, the final people hang onto the back, and you jostle through a new town, hoping your luggage doesn’t fall off the top. Mine didn’t, and I ended up at my delightful, quiet little hotel tucked just inside the old city. It was a beautiful sanctuary, one within which I spent very little time. I didn’t use the facilities other than to get the free breakfast, nor did I use the free 15 minute massage. I dumped my things, likely unpacked some of them, and soon, my new friend Nathan came to meet me. 

 

We strolled the old city, the city within the walls. What a charming, delightful place. We ate street food and talked. We accidentally ordered steak tartare and it was delicious. We had planned to drink the ginger wine I’d inadvertently left and which Nathan had carried back from Cambodia, but it slipped out of my hands and crashed on the front porch of the hotel where we planned to drink it, so instead we toasted Bowie with gin martinis in some bar. I am listening to this as I write.

 

My first goal on my first full day in Chiang Mai was obviously to extend my time there. I had initially planned on only three nights, which was immediately apparent as a clear mistake. A trip to the train station secured my (LAST ONE!) private overnight sleeper back to Bangkok, and a quick call extended my stay at the hotel.

 

It was time to wander into the world. Here, this meant meeting Nathan for a quick snack (finding something not fried that is not papaya salad can prove somewhat challenging, actually), then continuing the wander. I was determined to find the people to whom I’d been directed by various friends. A friend of Baeleay (my mother-in-law), some folks at a tattoo shop, a motorcycle shop owner.

 

I failed miserably at all three this first afternoon, but at least had contact information for Baeleay’s friend. I wandered through a Wat (Chiang Mai has over 300 of them – this one was Chedi Luang), exploring

 

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noting some important cultural similarities

 

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and, before I left, chatted with a monk (they do this to practice their English, and so that foreigners can learn about Buddhism), and went to hear some chanting. Savorn was very sweet and we became Facebook friends – I need to edit a photo for him but the wifi has been horrible until now; sorry about that, Savorn! If anyone with better Photoshop skills than me is willing to edit his photo, please let me know.

 

Patient Shea, Baeleay’s friend, was at a cafe connected to my hotel when I returned. What followed was the getting to know of another new friend; serendipity abounds. He worked in tech, but had another career as well. Through the windings of fate, he has ended up partially in Chiang Mai, partially in Ireland. Through the simple living of his life, he has some insights about living a dual life that I quite badly needed to hear. There are no coincidences.

 

He recommended Cooking Love (the second one, on the right as you walk north, not the first one, on the left) and, while he couldn’t join for it, Nathan & I enjoyed our dinner there immensely. Have the garlic shrimp; it’s amazing. Per Shea, the woman who opened it had a street cart a few years ago, and expanded. Now Cooking Love I (on the left) is partnered with a hotel, but the one on the right has her original chefs.

 

I’m getting accustomed to this no-planning travel thing… so I awoke the following day, put a swimsuit on under my shorts and tank top, and was prepared for elephant visiting or a waterfall hike (but not Doi Suthep – you can’t visit a temple in shorts and a tank top). The elephants were not an option for that day, so I booked for the following day, ate breakfast, wrote a bit, and got a driver for the falls.

 

A beautiful hike

 

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followed by a trip to the insect museum

 

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(yes, pedants, I know that’s not an insect)

 

where things tickled my hands

 

 

and I eventually headed back down the hill to the old city.

 

That evening, I finally had the opportunity to introduce Nathan and Shea.

When you have three people who are usually the connectors, the, as Shea calls it, multi-potentialite, together for dinner at a really fantastic place called Dash (go here, it’s amazing.), the conversation flies, from Eastern Healing, to workouts, to software, and back again. The only thing missing was opera, but I get quite a bit of that at home. The conversation wound, around and around, as I enjoyed these two new friends and our delicious corner garden spot.

 

The morning yielded elephants.

For goodness’ sake, don’t ride them. Don’t be that guy. We went to a place that rescued elephants from places like that. During our tour, I asked how the “rescues” take place; a bit  difficult to abscond with an entire pachyderm… they are, indeed, rescued with money.

 

Mostly gentle, injuries only occur when the elephants don’t notice you and you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s also important to note that elephants will follow the baby. This becomes relevant momentarily. The baby wanders off, and eight adults follow. So, after spending some time with this sweet girl

 

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we wandered close to a parade (yes, look it up) of elephants and were told not to get too close, as they’re aggressive. So we didn’t. And we took photos.

 

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Soon after this photo was taken, the baby wandered off, followed by three of this parade.

 

Moments after that, our guide was yelling “run! run! this way, guys!” as the remainder of the parade thundered to join the rest. Yes, we had to run out of the way of a charging parade of elephants. We ran through some wet stuff. We didn’t care.

 

That occurred fairly early in the day, and we naturally retained a healthy respect for the elephants; feeding them

 

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bathing them

 

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and, finally, piling back into the van and heading back to Chiang Mai.

That evening we headed to the Clay Garden

 

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a place Nathan had discovered during his stay a few years ago. Following that was was another night market dinner (this becomes relevant later), then wine at Ginger, another Shea recommendation. This evening, my last in town, Nathan, at my request, gave his assessment about the panic and other issues that have been plaguing me for years. In short – I have a lot of work to do. The assessment made a lot of sense, and, of course, is in keeping with a lot of the things I already knew on some level… or I likely wouldn’t have agreed with them, because I’m obstinate like that. I am incredibly thankful to him for his perspective and thoughts on this, and can thank him further (and help myself) by applying what he has said.

 

A few burning folks met us at Ginger – Ky, who was a connection made through Tania, another multi-potentialite, and two friends, Alex and Alex, all from Camp Disorient. They were interesting, fascinating; a film critic, a designer, a brand specialist…but I felt myself slipping. Was this a panic attack? Something else? The next trip to the restroom answer the question and my delightful fried shrimp street food dinner was consigned to, at least, one of the cleanest public restrooms I’d experienced in Thailand. I regretted more than ever the inability to rinse my mouth with tapwater, but eventually made it back to the table, feeling immediately more energized. Sadly, everyone was saying goodbyes for the evening (including Shea, who arrived for a hello and a goodbye as we were leaving) and I needed to do the same, as I had an early checkout, so we traded information, said our many goodbyes, and I packed.

 

Morning found me on a very small tour of three up the hill to the Mong village high in the hills over Chiang  Mai. Our tour guide, the abundantly honest Toy, let us know that most villages, particularly the Long Neck villages, for example, are faux. This one had enough commerce that it was clearly self-sustaining… as we watched children go to school

 

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and drank tea

 

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and eventually wandered back down through the town, shopping.

 

then to Soi Duthep, a stunning place where we didn’t get to spend nearly enough time

 

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I have heard from everyone that this is a fantastic place for meditation, and look forward to coming back (because, oh, yes, am I coming back), and experiencing this for myself.

 

Down the hill, we were dropped off at the Warorot Market, an overwhelmingly huge place where I did final Chiang Mai shopping and met with Nathan again for our last snack. Stomach still upset, I downed some noodles and he reveled in the vast herb selection. He gave me some herbs for my stomach for the road and walked me to my hotel, where we said goodbyes.

 

I made my way to the overnight train, where I slept nearly the entire time. Without caffeine, my body rebels, unable to retain consciousness, let alone wit. Maybe I needed to unconsciously reflect on this city; a haven for so many people of so many types; drawing multi-potentialites from all over the world, and no shortage of digital nomads. It feels accessible, but is huge. It is old and new, with tourists, yes, but retaining its character in a way that absorbs, unlike Koh Tao, which risks being overrun, or Bangkok, which is too huge to be impacted in any way other than trying to make money off of them. And so I write this entry from Kanchanaburi, refreshed, overlooking the River Kwai, and planning my day. I look forward to telling you about my trip from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, one about which I will be thinking for a long time.

 

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Grand Adventure IV : iii – Return to Koh Tao

A few rules for the first-time traveler to Thailand (and possibly more of Southeast Asia, but the driving stuff doesn’t apply to Cambodia).

-drive left, but walk right
-don’t take an elevator if you have to use the bathroom (power outages)
-if the bottled water is free, don’t drink the tap water
-if you feel something crawling on you, there is something crawling on you
-if you hear something in your hotel room, there is something in your hotel room
-get a massage
–get another one. You pay more for a cocktail when you go out in San Francisco.
-don’t be the ugly American
–don’t worry – you’re still not as obnoxious as the British

Rules for Koh Tao specifically
-if you see a stream of water, especially going across the sand from inland to the beach, it’s not a stream of water; don’t walk through it with bare feet or open wounds.
-don’t do any guided tours
-rent a scooter
—rent that scooter from Oli’s
-ride on the left, dumbass
-if you’re a motorcyclist, the first time, you will aggressively grab the rear brake. That’s not the clutch. You know that now.
-avoid Sairee
–unless you like inane conversation, mediocre alcohol in buckets, and STIs, in which case, go crazy.
–actually, Fizz is kind of mellow and has good cocktails and chill music, if you have to.
-if you swim in Sairee, you’re swimming in pee. That’s cool. That’s cool.
-if you go to Freedom Beach, bring a hammock.
-if you go to Hin Wong, bring a trash bag and help out the community a little.
-eat at Yin Yang
–eat there again
-Snorkel at Tanote
–avoid this fish

IMG_4196 Ignorance is bliss, in snorkeling as in life.

-befriend a gecko
-befriend a cat
-go out early. Everyone’s hungover.
-don’t stay somewhere close to the beach in Sairee. The pools are icky.
-don’t kick the coral. Don’t touch the coral. This isn’t your world. Observe it respectfully.
-say hi to Koh NangYuan for me
–snorkel at the Japanese gardens
-hike to the top of Koh NangYuan
–if the line for the view photo is too long, cut out to the right and get an *also* lovely photo from there
–don’t die trying
-go to the Taco Shack. Tip big and say hi to Khai
–if you’re a hostel-er, stay there
-go to the Queen’s Cabaret
–try to appreciate all that this show represents. Read up about what it means to be a lady-boy in this culture, not male, not female, not trans, the “third sex”. We saw a young woman transform herself into himself while Shirley Bassey sang “It’s my life”. She became he, violent rubbing away makeup and taking off her wig and corset. Afterward, I gave him 500 baht and told him he’d made me cry. I hope that means the same thing in his culture as it does in mine.

In life we must find pockets.
When we don’t travel, these pockets are easy – we create areas of comfort for ourselves; at home, at work, in our own minds.

Travel challenges these; we are thrown into discomfort as people of many different comfort styles are thrown together, trying desperately to recreate their own spaces of comfort in an unfamiliar world.

It’s a good reason to not trust people who don’t travel.
Maybe that’s incorrectly put. You can trust them. You can trust them to always be consistent, the same, unflagging in opinions and mindsets. So, sure, I guess. You can trust them. But they’re not open-minded and they don’t want their minds changed, and they’ll make their worlds as small as possible to ensure that doesn’t happen. They won’t even try weird food. It starts at home; it always does.

Drinkers win.
Drinkers always win.
Heavy drinkers, drinkers with a low barrier for entry in all ways, who are comfortable drinking out of buckets of booze and wandering around barefoot getting their feet wet in water that’s not really water, which they’d realize if their olfactory were remotely hooked up to their receptors.

Drinkers get to win because they can graze in any pasture and make it taste good, at least for one night. Even light drinkers; the social lubricant is undeniable. A scotch in a bar has eased the awkwardness of conversation between strangers since there was single malt. Beer is for friends. Strangers require something a bit more.

And so we get to the parts of Bangkok and, subsequently, Koh Tao that are worth avoiding.

After Cambodia, we spent a few hours gathered in Bangkok near the Lomproyah ferry station, inconveniently located in an insanely touristy alley full of overpriced beer, surprisingly good music, and street food. Rambuttri alley. Don’t go here. Don’t go here unless you absolutely must because the overnight bus to the ferry will leave from here, and even then only go at the last moment, right before you leave.

We made the mistake of arriving early. Because, when traveling, that’s what we tend to do. And so we were among the Tourists. The real ones. Not the travelers. The tourists who go to Fisherman’s Wharf and Pier 39 in San Francisco. The ones who try desperately to find American food when they travel, who speak more loudly when confronted with someone who doesn’t speak English, despite the fact that they’re in a country where English is not the primary language. If you want to go here you should just stay in Texas.

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We ate street food and ordered drinks. Finally, we boarded the overnight bus. The bus loads at an odd little traffic island near the alley, and is a bit of a cluster, but it all worked out. The organized chaos that is Thailand is undeniable; somehow, despite crowds, stickers, and no one keeping track of the luggage, it all works out. Perhaps this is why it’s considered poor manners to lose one’s temper in this country. We ended up at the back of the bus, two seats each to ourselves, strapped in and trying to stay warm as the air conditioning blasted full all night. The bus hurled itself along Road 4 in the dark and wee hours, people sleeping softly; people with more experience than I have with sleeping in strange positions and on vehicles. Younger people. I did fairly well, the cold being the biggest issue as I was in the very back closest to the air, sleeping in 90-minute fits until we finally arrived at Chumphorn. Chumporn. Chumphon. It’s spelled many different ways, none quite right.

A few hours at the very familiar ferry terminal yielded some wifi, coffee, and a small selection of breakfast foods, none of which appealed. I ate a few durian chips (prepackaged, puffed, and bagged) acquired in Cambodia and drank some coffee. This becomes relevant later.

We boarded the Chumphorn-Koh Tao ferry, all excitement to return to one of our favorite places.

It started all right, but the seas became rougher and rougher, until everyone around us was sick. I was doing well until the guy across from me lost it and, being empathetic, I could do nothing but consign my durian-chip-and-coffee breakfast to one of the little red plastic bags carried around by the boat attendants. That may be their only job – handing out baggies to people not graced with an iron stomach, like Luke. Throwing up of course felt better almost immediately, and I was able to enjoy the last few moments of the ferry ride, stopping first at one of my favorite places, Koh NangYuan, then proceeding across the small channel to Koh Tao.

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[the author and her husband atop Koh NangYuan]

Oh, Koh Tao. Two years ago, we said we’d be back. I remember looking plaintively out the back of the boat, taking pictures as we left you. And here we were again, jostling our way out of the ferry, heat emanating through the soft wooden boards, slats spaced just enough to reveal glimpses of the shimmering water beneath. Nausea forgotten, I floated down the pier, distractedly looking for our ride to the hotel. Luke found them, from The Place, the brilliantly named series of villas in the hills above Sairee, one of which we’d call home for the next 6 nights. Our room was not yet ready, so they took our things and left us to our own devices in the Sairee district for a few hours. We stocked up – on motion sickness pills, decongestant and coconut oil. You know, the usual. We wandered the streets in a delirium, dimly remembering our stay 2 years prior, exhausted from a night of unsatisfying sleep and, for my part, dehydration and hunger. Eventually, the folks from the hotel picked us back up and brought us to our Villa, #3, straight up the steep hill. We ascended our private stairs, and were given the extensive walkthrough. Each villa is dark-stained teak, with a private infinity plunge pool. Our bathroom was built into the natural rocks of the hill, shower cascading over stones. Two sets of doors; one to make the whole villa grounds private, with our names layered onto a wooden sign on the door. The other to close up the villa; our little room with private kitchen.

We unpacked.

Ok, I unpacked. If I’m staying anywhere for more than one night, I like to unpack, see everything I brought, access it, organize it, assess it. Feel a bit at home. I do this every few days at Burning Man, as well. It’s exhausting, time-consuming, and calming. I napped, a firm-mattressed nap and, finally, we were ready to head back out for dinner. We were overwhelmed with options and ended up at the Indian restaurant, Shalimar, but not before strolling the busy streets of Sairee. A delicious meal, a steep hike back up the hill, and we fell into bed early and exhausted.

The next day we rented scooters.

This began the pattern I recommend for Koh Tao… and possibly other places in Thailand and Southeast Asia but, again, I can’t really say.

Get scooter. Descend precarious treacherous terrifying dirt road. Descend further by foot once the roads become impassable. Snorkel for an hour or two. Become just tired enough to not want to hike back up the hill. Hike back up the hill to the scooters, scooter somewhere to eat delicious food, head back to The Place, hose off and enjoy the infinity pool, watch the sunset, watch an episode of Top Gear or Game of Thrones, watch Netflix and chill, shower, and ready for dinner. Walk to town, eat a delicious meal, walk up the insanely steep hill, sleep. Repeat.

Tanote Bay is full of Germans.
Hin Wong is full of trash.
Japanese Gardens (and NangYuan generally) doesn’t allow flippers.
It’s almost impossible to find an honest scooter rental place, so go to Oli’s.

We didn’t stay long enough to get bored, or used to it, in case you’re wondering. Not at all. We could have spent another week there, avoiding bar crawls and eating the shrimp chips and Massaman curry at Yin Yang, even going to Fizz and drinking caipirinhas on the beach. Fizz wasn’t so bad.

In the end, we snorkeled all of the places we’d wanted to but one (Aow Leuk). We ate almost all of the places we wanted (Pud). We had enough time to not feel rushed, which was a luxury, an incredible luxury that I rarely afford myself while traveling, and one for which I have Luke to thank. Our last evening we found the expat bar, where I felt totally uncomfortable and like everyone hated that we had discovered it… and that was awesome. So awesome, in fact, that we ordered bar food and hung out all night.

We eventually, sadly, headed back to Bangkok after 6 glorious nights on Koh Tao. The ferry ride was much, much calmer.

And then it was done. We had one night together at a lovely very corporate riverside hotel in Bangkok, sharing a meals of delicious Chinese food on the 36th floor. We spent the day prior to Luke’s flight shopping at Chatuchak, proud of the fact that we’d made it there and back on public transportation with no help, buying an extra suitcase for all of our spoils – scarves, t-shirts, coconut oil, penis-shaped soap.

I freaked out when Luke left. I went with him to the airport and waited for hours for his plane to take off.
It’s not the me traveling alone. It’s the him flying alone. I eventually went back to the hotel and slept fitfully until Sunday, when I forced myself to walk to Hua Lamphong to get my train ticket to Chiang Mai.
There is some famous AA quote about the things you can’t change. I won’t say it here. But I’m working on it, apparently by walking face-first into the least comfortable parts of it. I don’t want to spend another flight that my love is on frantically checking the flighttracker, unable to sleep.

I’m already glad the overnight sleeper wasn’t available. We just passed a small strip of grass between the railroad tracks at the Bang Sue junction, perfectly manicured, with ponds and flower boxes, where a monk sat, resting; where a businessman sat, shoes off, cross-legged, reading the paper.

I’m not in love with Bangkok. Bangkok is like any other big city; large, functional, gritty. But, as a jumping-off point to some of my favorite places in the world, it has few equals.

Next stop – Chiang Mai.