Friday, March 27, 2009

Motorcycles, an Elephant, and "Joe."

Goodbye Australia, hello Thailand.

March 24 was my last day in the Land Down Under; I spent it traveling to the airport, unexpectedly booking a flight to Manila for next month, playing songs in the terminal, and reminiscing about my two months in the country. Flipping through my journal revealed more experiences, people, and places than I'd really realized had accrued: Getting stuck in the middle of the Wolgan River in a Suzuki with a burnt-out clutch, poisonous spiders, Surf n' Sun Backpackers and that famous punch, the Kiama highlands, biking through excruciating heat, the lighthouse at Fingal Head and the stolen groceries in Melbourne. Meeting Sarah, Alexandra, Kevin, Thomas, Ben, Martin, Chris, another Chris, Kurt, Alec, Alexander, Greg, Kita, Louise, Jamie, Kirsty, and that guy who looked like a cross between Slash and Hurley from LOST, re-meeting Bec and Nathan. Getting my groceries stolen in Melbourne, cooking noodles in the sink in Nowra, the pub crawl in Brisbane on St. Patty's Day, nearly falling to my death on a cliff, and wishing the U.S. had cities with cool names like Wollongong... truly unforgettable.

When I got off the plane in Bangkok, all of that disappeared completely from my mind. I couldn't have been more shellshocked if I'd landed on Mars. Bangkok was a parallel universe, different in every possible way.

It was already dark; the only place I knew of was Khao San Road, from reading Garland's The Beach during my stay in Katoomba. So I grabbed a bus there for 150 Baht (about six U.S. dollars) and sat for a very long ride through a city far more massive than I'd imagined. I got off smack in the middle of Khao San's famous street markets; blocks and blocks of merchants lined the sidewalks and roads, a veritable maze of food stalls, fresh fruit, musicians, and various drivers impatiently squeezing through the mass of humanity. Helloooooo, culture shock.

Too tired to shop around for cheap prices, I got the first hotel room I could find, for 1000 Baht a night... rather posh by Bangkok standards (by comparison, a halfway decent dorm in a backpacker's hostel runs around 250 Baht, a quarter of the price.) I crashed for ten hours straight, my first real sleep since Sunday night.

For the past two days, I've been walking, walking, and walking some more. I'm just now getting used to the atmosphere of the place. The streets are ever crowded, no matter where you go; I moved from Khao San to Silom Street, several miles south; the difference was hardly visible. Tuk-tuk drivers constantly pull up in their three-wheeled passenger carts, offering rides (then offering about three more times if you refuse.) Woefully underpaid Thai police do little to stem the rampant illegal driving moves; masses of motorcycles whiz between the lanes of cars, jostling to be at the front of the pack. Out of space on the road? Not a problem; the drivers have no qualms about roaring up onto the sidewalks to get through the traffic. No less than four times I've looked up to see some crazed Thai blasting straight at me. Thus far I have managed to avoid them.

Last night I wandered into Patpong, which, it turns out, is Bangkok's infamous red-light district, known for its pimps soliciting trafficked sex slaves. The streets were lined with dozens and dozens of brothels masquerading as "massage parlors." Out of nowhere a Thai pimp materialized next to me. "Hey where you from?" he asked, his tone friendly."

"America," I replied, looking straight ahead, sounding disinterested. I'd found that walking quickly and ignoring patronizing salesmen - whether they were peddling "massages" or ripoffs of Armani and Diesel products - usually gave them the hint.

This guy was clearly an exception. "My name Joe," he said, grabbing my hand and pumping it up and down. Resisting the urge to inform him that his name was obviously not Joe, I continued on. "I know goo' bar down the roa' you can go to," he said, somewhat conspiratorially. "You get nice massage there, very cheap."

"I'm just out for a walk, thanks," I answered, getting annoyed. Why wasn't this guy getting the hint?

"Massage very goo' for you, very cheap."

"No thanks."

"Very cheap!"

What was this guy's problem? I did a U-turn and headed back the other way, hoping he'd take the hint. Instead he hurried up beside me and, looking more conspiratorial than ever, made one last attempt. "Boomboom, you get lot boomboom, very cheap," he implored, apparently assuming naivete on my behalf. "I take you get boomboom, ok?"

I assured him I was not looking for boomboom and was simply out to take a walk, and turned away, continuing the rapid place. A few seconds later I dared a look behind me; "Joe" was gone, pursuing a new prospective client with the same zeal.

I wandered back to my hostel, browsing the stalls, and looked up just in time to see a gray mass right in front of me. It looked like an elephant's butt. I did a double-take; it was an elephant's butt. Not knowing if elephants kicked, I gave it a wide berth, observing it from the front instead. It was a baby Indian elephant, probably heavily drugged. At least it didn't try to run me over, or solicit me for boomboom, which was more than I could say for its Thai counterparts.

Thus ended Day One in Southeast Asia. Twenty-eight more to go... it's gonna be interesting.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


My new favorite pasttime is coming up with ways to make the word "zephyr" an adjective. Besides being the the subject of an awesome Chili Peppers song, it's managed to become the perfect description of the spirit of this trip... it's poetic, unique in usage, and I am, very ironically and oxymoronically, a slave to my own whims.

And once again, zephyrology has reared its ideological head. Last night I was in the Brisbane International Airport, waiting a good twelve hours for a flight to Kuala Lumpur, in transit to Thailand, that'd been delayed. I passed the time with my guitar, which got me plenty of weird looks... and jealous ones. Suddenly everyone wished they had thought of bringing a guitar into the terminal with them... now they were stuck with Entertainment Weekly and a screaming kid. Have fun with that. I smugly enjoyed my tunes.

FINALLY the check-in opened for my flight, where I was promptly dealt a nasty surprise... the lady at the counter told me that in order to enter Thailand, you must have a ticket out of Thailand before arriving. I had no ticket out of Thailand, and intentions didn't count. I had five hours to figure out what I was gonna do, or I'd miss my flight. Talk about a kick in the face.

Cursing my luck, I managed to find an internet kiosk. I had made NO plans for this, and now I was forced to actually select a date and place when I'd done no research whatsoever. I had a couple of destination options that would've worked well; zephyresque tendancies prevailed, and I shrugged and typed in Manila. Hanoi, Vietnam to Manila, Philippine Islands. To purchase ticket, click here.


And just like that, on 23 April 2009 I'll fly to Manila. On a zephyr, of course.

Monday, March 16, 2009

New Destination(s)

As has been the trend for this entire undertaking, plans are changing... this time, quite vastly.

The original post-Australia plan was to depart from northern Queensland to Port Moresby, New Guinea, and then fly from there to Honiara, Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands. My long-standing interest in the history of the region made it pretty high up on the to-do list; thus I was pumped to be able to explore it.

Then I found ticket prices.

It turns out that because it's such a small place, and because relatively few people travel there, flights in are extremely expensive; they hop from place to place picking up as many passengers as possible before landing. Obviously, this ups the prices; the cheapest thing I could find was a roundabout voyage jumping from city to city in Australia, over to New Zealand, all the way up to Fiji, and finally to Honiara. The price: $1200 USD.

For obvious reasons, this nixed my plans for the region; New Guinea was a little cheaper, but add in a flight out of the place and the cost was still much more than I was willing to pay. (Traveling around the world on less than seven thousand dollars doesn't lend itself to much flexibility, I've found out.) I'd been weighing several other options, so I looked for alternatives. I found them.

It's official: I'm going to Thailand. Yesterday I bought a ticket from Brisbane to Bangkok (with a bonus stop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.) I'll leave on March 24, a week from today's date.

There's several awesome things about it that led to my decision:

1) Southeast Asia is extremely inexpensive. I've talked to a number of people that've traveled there and it's legendary for being cheap... the exchange rate is huge, and I've heard of rooms being rented for less than a dollar a night. With my funds starting to drain rather rapidly, this is appealing. Very appealing.

2) There's a bunch of different countries in close proximity to one another. Besides Thailand, there's Burma to the west, and then Laos and Cambodia to the northeast and southeast respectively, and Vietnam on the other side of them. To say nothing of the compelling recent histories of the regions, that's gonna be a crapload of cool stamps in my passport.

3) A good buddy of mine is gonna be in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He's on a missions trip during the month of April, and it'll be a chance to spend some time, swap stories, and discuss our bet. (Before our respective departues, we threw down a gauntlet: whichever of us slays the greatest beast in our travels gets treated to a steak dinner with beer and celebratory cigars by the loser. His boot-crushed tarantula is winning; so far I've mashed an ant. Southeast Asia is a good place to work on that.

So the end result is that the last week of March and all of April will be spent in somewhere I never planned on going. What else is new?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Infinity at Dusk

Pure white sand, blue-green ocean, utter solitude, and a guitar. It’s hard to find an experience more aesthetically pleasing. Relaxed in the evening sun, I faced the sea and picked through some Creed, and a little bit of Boston, noting how sore my fingers were from lack of practice. I’d bought the acoustic for about a hundred dollars in Byron Bay. Anyone who knows me knows I can’t walk by a guitar in someone’s house without picking it up and playing it… a full month without one had been absolute torture. So it was a good buy. And traveling by myself could get a bit lonesome; it’d be nice to have the company of a few self-produced tunes.

I dropped the low E-string down to a D and starting rolling through some Switchfoot; melodious acoustic rifts, mellow and soothing. “Stars lookin’ at our planet, watching entropy and pain…” I sang in unison with the rhythm of my pick. “And maybe start to wonder how the chaos of our lives could pass as sane.”

I love Switchfoot. I love how their songs ebb and flow, how John Foreman’s almost lackadaisical voice floats through sublime guitar pieces; sleepy, wandering musings. “I’ve been thinking ‘bout the meaning of resistance, of a hope beyond my own…” How they wax philosophical, explore the deeper, often existential, questions of life and death and other mysteries. I felt I could connect with these sorts of questions, particularly given the scope of my undertaking. While I occasionally met people in various places and had a bit of company, the vast majority of my journey has been – and likely will continue to be – in solitude.

It’s astonishing how embedded noise is in our lives. There’s always noise. We talk, the television blares, the phone rings, and the iPod fills the spaces inbetween. We’re accustomed to this audible blend, so much so that silence is as deafening as it is sudden. Faced with it, we can barely stand it. It’s maddening. Faced with days and days of it myself, I began to really articulate why. And after much deliberation, I realized that distractions, such as we surround ourselves with day to day, are mechanisms which we construct to keep from having to think.

Perhaps we are afraid to think. It is clearly evident in our lives how precariously our happiness is balanced; a fickle thing, it can be easily toppled by a trifling, and increased by the same. To reflect on ourselves and to consider our condition – our miniscule place in the midst of a vast sea of infinities – is nothing short of horrifying. Blaise Pascal said it perfectly in Pensées: “…let man consider what he is in comparison with all existence.; let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature; and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, [the] universe, let him estimate at their true value the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself. What is a man in the Infinite?”

Who wants to ponder this? No one… American Idol is on, and there’s too much to do after that. And solitude is just so damn boring. After all, ignoring gravity means it doesn’t exist, right? That’s why we can spread our arms and fly, right?

But we can’t fly.

We crash and burn.

Maybe it’s time we started reflecting on this. I strummed a few more bars, finishing the song: “Suddenly the infinite and penitent begin to look like home…” A harmonious closure followed and I noted the strong hue of dusk. The sea was a strange sort of topaz, ever darkening. As I trudged up the shore through the sand I noticed the first few stars glimmering in the oncoming night. Two tiny stars, visible in front of many more, many more than I could ever count. I gazed at infinite; there’s a lot of it.