An Adam Abroad

From Boston to Budapest and everything in between…

Archive for the month “August, 2013”

… on Marty

Music:  RHCP – Brendan’s Death Song

I tried to get settled on the 10-hour night train from Sophia, Bulgaria to Belgrade, Serbia.  It was no easy feat as I was met with a single, stiff board for a bed in a cramped train car with little ventilation — so the temperature inside was easily in the nineties.  My room was also conveniently placed next to the conductor’s cabin where all the cheery workers met after-hours to drink and play board games.  Either way, with my ticket and Passport handed over to the conductor; I lay down, inserted some ear plugs, and stared at the ceiling, thoughts passing through my brain with the rhythmic rocking of the train along the old, beaten tracks.  For some reason, my thoughts began to drift to an old friend of my dad and me known simply as ‘Marty’.

Martin A. McConnell

Martin A. McConnell

Martin A. McConnell, also known as ‘Marty’ to those who had the good fortune to meet him, had known my father since childhood.  They had grown up together in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and shared many of the common experiences of childhood: playing basketball, fishing, drinking beer, and of course, getting into trouble.   As they aged, they would remain close friends, and that’s how I came to know the ginger-haired, always smiling, gentle guy everyone loved.  He would be at our house every Sunday for Patriots football or whatever popular sporting event might be on TV.  I always looked forward to Sunday afternoon for his company and also the opportunity to splurge on some Chinese food or buffalo wings for dinner.  When he and my father were in the same room, they created a comedic duo unrivaled by few; my two friends Bradford and Plouf are the only challengers in the same arena.  Every Sunday my father would say the same thing, “Have you called Marty yet?”  At the time, I knew the number by heart, and I also knew his mother’s response to my inquiry, “Is Marty home?”

“Juuuuust a minute,” followed by his mother yelling for him like she had done probably since he was a child.   But on October 5, 2010, his phone fell silent and Sundays will never be the same.  Marty passed away at the young age of 59.

Back on the train to Serbia, I found it impossible to fall asleep.  I started to ponder the existence of an afterlife, wondering if Marty was looking over me and what he would think of my travels.  I know he would love to hear the stories; he always had an interesting quip or story to share.  He loved to read non-fiction, particularly world history, and I’m sure he would have lived vicariously through me.  My thoughts were rudely interrupted by a loud banging on the door.  I opened it with caution, and I was met with the sight of three large Yugoslavian men bearing down on me.  I smiled and said, “Passport?” thinking they wanted to see it again.  The only response was a guttural, “No, problem.”

The Balkans aren’t known for their friendliness or ease of travel, and they neglected to tell me, when I bought the ticket, that it would only take me as far as the Bulgarian/Serbian border.  Suddenly this man demanded 13 Euros, and I had the paltry sum of zero.  I had been traveling in Turkey and Bulgaria before, so there was really no reason for me to have Euros on me.  He either didn’t understand or didn’t care.  I frantically searched my bags for Euros, but all I could come up with was Bulgarian money.  I had only 26 Bulgarian Leva left, which equaled almost exactly 13 Euro.  I gave him all my money and attempted to explain my situation.   He just gave me a stern, “One minute,” and left me alone with my thoughts.

Panic slowly crept up on me.  What would I do if I got dumped in the middle of Serbia at two in the morning?  Where would I sleep?  How would I get money?  I had been traveling a few months, so I know I needed a back-up plan.  This could get interesting really quickly.  I sat down on my bed and examined all the possible scenarios.  I was aware this could end very badly.

Minutes that seemed like hours passed, but then he returned to my door.  He had a piece of paper with him — a ticket!  “Is okay,” and a nod was all that was needed for me to relax.   He handed me the ticket and closed the door without another word.   I realized how lucky I was to have exactly 13 Euros in a different currency, and I just started to laugh.  I looked up to the sky and shook my head, catastrophe avoided; I knew Marty was out there somewhere, watching over me, and having a laugh right along with me.  I lay back down on my sweat-stained pillow and easily drifted off to sleep.

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… on Chiang Mai

Location:  Chiang Mai, Thailand

Music: Arcade Fire – Wake Up

Nirvana

Nirvana

Arriving in the northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai was a solemn occasion for me.  I was leaving behind the beauty and the friends I had made in the southern Thai islands for what could best be described as the chaotic and hectic atmosphere of a big city.   I was definitely unsure of what to expect as I hesitantly left the airport and boarded a taxi to my hotel. Things did not start off as planned as the taxi driver was of the popular Thai “less-than-motivated” division, and he didn’t want to help me find my hotel.  I argued with him a bit, telling him I paid for a ride to my hotel and he wasn’t going to drop me off in the center of town.   This seemed to give him the extra push he needed, and he was quickly asking other tuk tuk drivers for directions.   My hotel, Tadkham Village, was nicely situated right near the popular Sunday Night Market that I had heard many good things about.  I dropped off my bags and immediately headed for the section of bright lights and pungent aromas.

Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sunday Night Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand

When I turned the corner and entered the night market, I was instantly cleansed of every negative thought that had been bothering me.  The atmosphere seeped through my pores to once again remind me why I love to travel, and the sights and sounds were intoxicating.  It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t enjoy traveling or being outside their comfort zone, but it was like going back in time.  Suddenly, I was a kid again, experiencing everything for the first time.  My smile was a permanent fixture of my face, and it was happily returned from many of the street vendors.  I paid less than a dollar for a fresh coconut, hacked to pieces by an elderly woman and given to me fresh so I could savor its sweet, delicious nectar.  I was in my element again.  Any doubts I had of why I had come to Asia vanished as I wandered the mile-or-so of shops that lined this weekly affair.   Making a loop at the end and heading back towards my hotel, I joined the group gathered around the mini-motorbike-driving dog that held everyone’s attention.  I couldn’t help but laugh.

Real life

Waking up the next morning and venturing out into Chiang Mai, you get the feeling that it’s not that big of a city at all — of course, it is, but it somehow doesn’t feel that way.  I found a quiet coffee shop not far from my hotel, and after ordering the classic Americano, an English-speaking gentleman asked me where I’m from and recommended a blend that he thought I would enjoy.  It was the most delicious coffee I’ve had yet in southeast Asia, so much so that I went back there every morning I stayed in Chiang Mai.

Hungry yet?

Hungry yet?

Chiang Mai is an ancient city, but apart from its decrepit walls and moat, there isn’t too much to see.  My first day was spent just wandering until I found a one-of-a-kind silver-made temple that is quite unusual for Asia.  I found myself alone in exploring it, and I spent some time there just trying to clear my thoughts.  It could have been that I was on vacation and had very few worries, but I found the serenity the wat provided very alluring — so much so that I went back later that night to speak with a monk and partake in a three-hour mediation lesson.

Silver Temple, Chiang Mai

Silver Temple, Chiang Mai

Finally my stomach couldn’t take it anymore, and it was time to search out some good eats.  Chiang Mai has a large street-food culture, and I loved trying different street stalls for $1 or $2 a dish.  I had planned to watch some Muy Thai boxing that night, so I walked in the direction of the stadium so I knew I wouldn’t be late.  On my way I passed what — during the day — was a motorbike repair shop.  When the sun dropped below the horizon and food-lovers emerged in droves, they compensated by creating a restaurant in the driveway.  This place was packed, so much so that I was actually intimidated to sit down among what had to be an elite group of foodies.  I initially walked passed, and then, thinking about what I could be missing, turned around and found one of only a few empty small, plastic seats centered around those metal tables you use for fundraisers in a town softball league.  The menu was small, yet efficient, and I pointed to something that looked delicious.  The ‘waitress,’ or mechanic turned bus-girl, actually spoke fairly good English, and she helped me pick out what I wanted and how spicy I wanted it.  Ten minutes later and I was in taste-bud heaven.

Chiang Mai mechanic's restaurant

Chiang Mai mechanic’s restaurant

The kitchen

The kitchen

Finally it was time for the main event.  For the paltry sum of $8, I was granted admittance to five scheduled Muy Thai fights.  I was seated next to some American girls who were volunteering with elephants, and they were good company throughout the night.  They shielded their eyes as I enjoyed the violence.  They winced at the knockouts as I cheered, and they shook their head in disgust at my favorite part of the night, the four-man blindfolded fight.

Four amateurs, four blindfolds, and a whole lot of laughs

Four amateurs, four blindfolds, and a whole lot of laughs

I left completely satisfied with my meal, my Thai boxing experience, and my decision to once again take the risk of leaving home to explore the amazing beauty of southeast Asia.

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson

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