An Adam Abroad

From Boston to Budapest and everything in between…

Archive for the category “Uncategorized”

… on my Momma

Location:  Seekonk, Massachusetts

Music:  Kanye West – Hey Mama

Ain't she beautiful?

Ain’t she beautiful?

I have a pretty strong track record of being single.  Most of the women in my life have a shorter shelf life than a carton of milk.  Whether it’s something that I did (which I’m usually told it is) or just irreconcilable differences, the majority of my romantic relationships never make it past the six-month mark.  When I stop and think about my (un)success in the dating market, I wonder if I am holding potential mates to too high a standard, the standard set by my momma.

The youngest of four daughters born to the late, great Rita St. Hilaire, my mom has been a strong and independent woman since birth.  Whether it was taking care of her sister’s horse or crashing her brand-new Pontiac GTO, she never failed to lead an interesting life.  I remember snooping around her high school yearbook and reading all the messages left by old friends that spoke about her kindness and intelligence.  A woman came into the pharmacy that I worked at through high school and college, and, 40 years after the fact, told me she remembered my mother and her kindness.   Among my friends, she’s often referred to as “an angel.”  At first glance, she would seem to be just a woman gliding through life on her heart of gold and good looks, but on the Forbe’s list of “100 Most Powerful Women,” she was a ringer if they increased the list to include humble real estate agents/stenographers.

With 40 years in the business, she is the reason I got into stenography as a profession.  Hell, she’s the only reason I got into stenography, and if it wasn’t for her pushes forward, this blog and my traveling would likely have never happened.  Whenever I have a question about someone’s terrible verbiage or my own clueless grammar, she is the first and only person I need to call.  She may be making up her answers on the spot, but I trust her, and so do her many faithful clients.

She started her own court reporting firm in Boston, owned her own house at an age before I even moved out of hers, and has successfully managed her time between two jobs and a family — and, yet, you will never see her in a bad mood.  She gets stressed as we all do, but she doesn’t show it, and that’s a side of her that still baffles me.  It could be her daily dose of a gin & tonic or two, but, still, her success story is quickly apparent to anyone who is lucky enough to meet her.

I have never been offended by the moniker “Momma’s Boy.”  To me, it is a compliment.  Any emulation of my mom is indeed something to be cherished, just like she is.  For all the crap I have put her through and the times she has selflessly proofread my work or just listened to me bitch and moan, there is no way to repay her.  All I can do is write this and hope that she knows I love her, and that she is the most amazing woman I have and will ever meet.

Happy (late) Mother’s Day, Mom.

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… on turning 29

Location:   Boston, Massachusetts (home)

Music:  Ray Lamontagne – Old Before Your Time

 

Tomorrow I will be 29 — it still hurts to write that — and am approaching a dangerous intersection.  Behind me lies the peaks and valleys of my early twenties, the rolling hills of my budding career and life in Boston, and the highest mountains of my trip abroad.  In front of me are two familiar, yet newly paved, streets.  Important decisions need to be made, and I’ve never been a decisive guy.  My trips to Blockbuster video growing up always took way too long, even after my mom’s reassurance that I could rent the other game next weekend.  I was young then, inexperienced and unconfident, or at least that’s what I tell myself.  Now I only have a year left until I pass that next road marker — the big 3-0.  Here’s what I’ve learned:

See you at the crossroads, crossroads, crossroads...

See you at the crossroads, crossroads, crossroads…

Your early twenties, if anything like mine, will be dominated by a carefree, live-in-the-moment attitude.  This is good; embrace it.  Make mistakes early and learn from them.  Your early twenties is a period of tremendous growth and change and, with any luck, some amazing times with an ever-evolving core of friends.  These years will contain a series of firsts, some better than others, and at 29 you will be thinking of both the good and the bad fondly; however, listen to your conscience.  Don’t ever assimilate to a crowd, stand out rather than blend in, and do what makes you happy.  This is also the time when impending adulthood begins to seep through the cracks and fills your brain with doubt.  Trust yourself; work hard and be nice to people.  It may take some time, but karma will catch you on the upswing.   Looking back, it would be wise to find someone to settle down with early on.  The road gets bumpier ahead, and life’s journey is always better with someone in the passenger seat.  Even if you can’t make it work forever, experience true love before pessimism and jaded people are all that’s left to keep you company.

Building walls never helped anybody.

Building walls never helped anybody.

Your mid-twenties will be a definitive evolution of your sense of self.  It’s when most people begin to shed the habits of our teens and begin to enter the period where we’re known as “Young adults.”  Don’t believe the false labeling; there’s still nothing adult about it.  If you worked hard and were nice to people, it will be a time of many successes and probably even a few devastating failures.  Take it in stride.  Know that you are fully capable of changing your life and your circumstances if need be.  Again, trust in yourself.  Read the Power of Now and learn basic mediation.  Let go of the baggage you probably accumulated in your early twenties and start fresh.  Start to eat better and take care of yourself physically; reap the benefits of extra energy and focus.  And of course remember, this is only a ride.

At this point my twenties are almost concluded.  I’m a changed man.  I have adult responsibilities like rent, health insurance, and making sure my fridge is always stocked with (good) beer.  I can appreciate a well-tailored suit, and I actually enjoy wearing one.  I take my job seriously, and I strive to produce work that makes me proud to attach my name to it.  I am living in a city that I love, and I enjoy spending time with my nephew, watching his personality develop in his first year of life.  I am leaps and bounds over my early twenties self, but, oh, yeah, that rapidly approaching intersection…

To take a left is a well-worn road traveled by many before me; buy a house, find a good woman, settle down, have kids, have family game night and hopefully remain a kid like Phil in Modern Family.  There’s a big, future-oriented piece of my brain that loves this idea. I can picture my eventual lake house in the mountains of NH, sipping a cold beer and watching my kids play in the yard; but I am also old enough to know that reality is never that perfect.  Responsibilities and debt accumulate until my lakeside peace is broken by my wife hounding me about the bills and how the anxiety-ridden future is ruining our present.  Love fades, people grow apart, children, unfortunately, get damaged in the process; these are the realities of half the marriages of our generation.  It’s hard not to be cautious with those numbers.  But the big decision is figuring out if its worth it, is the risk worth the reward.  I think it is, with the right person.

To take a right is to turn back, turn away from the real world and all the stress it brings.  It’s the life I realized was possible as soon as I came back from my first four months abroad in Europe; the life of a traveler, a constant drifter working remotely and living life on my own terms, filled with adventure and new experiences.  Glorified through books like On the Road by Kerouac and Into the Wild, it’s entirely possible to find work that allows you to, in essence, be working-class homeless.  Stress-free and far fewer responsibilities than family-man Adam, there are still many potential risks on this road:  running out of money, bed bugs, getting too drunk and losing your Passport, to name a few.  But the biggest negatives are homesickness, missing out on my nephew’s childhood, never having kids of my own or trying my hand at marriage.  Could I live with that?

Imagine having to eat this every day?  The horror...

Imagine having to eat this every day? The horror…

Realizing that you have the ability to shape your own life is one of the defining moments of your twenties; taking the necessary action is the next.  A year from now I will be further down that road, and on the eve of turning 30, even closer to having to make a pivotal decision, with my mortality and regret weighing in on each shoulder.  With many possibilities of directions splayed out before me, the options can feel overwhelming.  But I am constantly reminded the beauty is in having the choice at all.

June 6, 1944 - June 6, 2014.  Never forget the sacrifice of the great men and women that came before us.

June 6, 1944 – June 6, 2014. Never forget the sacrifice of the great men and women that came before us.

… on Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina

Location:  Sarajevo, Bosnia

Music:  The Alternate Routes – Nothing More

Sarajevo, Bosnia

Sarajevo, Bosnia

I didn’t know much about the longest siege in modern warfare, the Siege of Sarajevo, as the dilapidated train slowly made its way toward the Bosnian capital.  I couldn’t tell you anything about the war, or the miles of woods that still held active landmines.  I really had no idea what to expect, except that I had heard Sarajevo was beautiful, off the beaten path, and worth traveling along the 10-plus hours of bone-jarring track that once united the former Yugoslavia.  They say that ignorance is bliss, but in this case, it was the learning experience I had in Bosnia and what I found out about the battle-scarred country that has put it at the top of my list of my favorite countries in the world.

Empty streets of Sarajevo, finally peaceful.

Empty streets of Sarajevo, finally peaceful.

My snapshot into Bosnian history began on the long train ride there.  I could not leave Belgrade, Serbia fast enough, and that wasn’t helped by the ticket seller who neglected to tell me the clocks changed the night before my train departed.  I prefer to show up early for trains and flights anyways — a trait inherited from my always-punctual father — and I initially thought the empty train was a lingering sign of Serbian-Bosnian hostility;  the much simpler answer was I was over an hour early for its departure.  So I waited, and had a compartment all to myself, and I tried to catch up on the sleep I lost by arriving so early.  The rigid seats and stuffy compartments of the pre-war trains didn’t help, and I quickly gave up on any attempts to nap.  After the train started rolling towards the border, I was joined by a Belgian college student who was making his way south to party in Sarajevo.  He had just finished reading a book on the city’s tumultuous history, and he regaled me with war stories and historic facts.  My curiosity was piqued as the train filled up with Bosnians heading back to the capital for the weekend.

Belgrade 013

Stepping off the train and finding an ATM for some local currency was easy; finding a taxi driver who knew where my hostel was seemed to be more difficult.  Besides the obvious language barriers, he didn’t know exactly where the road my hostel was on was located, and after driving around for a half hour in circles, I told him the “Old Quarter” was close enough.  The Old Quarter in Sarajevo is a collection of businesses, restaurants, and hotels situated along a few stone walking streets.  I thought finding my hostel in the ancient maze would be easy, disregarding the pouring rain and rapidly approaching nightfall.  The taxi driver pointed me in the right direction and was visibly upset that I didn’t yet have any small bills since I had just gone to the ATM minutes before.  I patiently waited in the passenger seat while he ran into a bar with my large bill, took out a tip for himself, and gave me back an incorrect amount of change.  After spending some time in Serbia and Bulgaria, I have to admit his callousness barely phased me.

Where nobody knows your name and their food will ruin your week

Where nobody knows your name and their food will ruin your week

When I eventually stumbled upon my chosen hostel, Residence Rooms, I was delighted at the rooms, the location, and the owners.  The husband and wife team that ran the hostel had lived there through the Siege of Sarajevo, and the husband ran a war tour that was my primary purpose in staying there.  After getting me settled into my room and signing me up for the following day’s tour, I set out to fix the rumbling in my stomach.  Cheers, a Boston landmark somehow transferred to Sarajevo, was directly across the street and had beer and pizza.  Being in a perpetual beer-and-pizza mood, I obliged.  I would later dreadfully regret that decision, but at the time, it more than sufficed.  It was still early when I was finished eating, so I went in search of a good bar to grab a drink or two or three or four.  The aptly-named “Guinness Bar” located in the Old Quarter sounded like the perfect spot for a night cap, until I was told they were out of Guinness.  Still the bartender recommended another stout, and I was happy.

While there a crowd formed at a nearby table with three Middle Eastern friends.  The bartender was hanging out with them, and they all invited me to join them for a beer.  Traveling solo, I’m always up to meet new people, and I introduced myself to the group.  I was surprised to learn they were from Kuwait, they all spoke perfect English, and one was part of a Kuwaiti royal family. They all appeared to be relishing the time away from the strict laws of their society.  If there is one country that likes America, it’s Kuwait, and they instantly treated me as a friend and neighbor.  We drank beers until closing, and then they invited me to check out their stellar pad on the outskirts of the Old Quarter.  With the promise of an amazing view, top-shelf vodka, and a stop at the corner kebab stand, I couldn’t resist.

View from the Kuwaiti's balcony.  Camera doesn't do it justice.

View from the Kuwaiti’s balcony. Camera doesn’t do it justice.

I was greeted with a quick tour and proudly shown their collection of liquor, a commodity that is regulated and overpriced in their home of Kuwait.  The four of us then shared a drink in the living room, where I mostly prodded them about life in Kuwait and the differences in our cultures.  I have always been fascinated by different cultures and religions, and as conversations usually do when alcohol is introduced, the focus began to shift towards sensitive subjects, such as their Islamic faith.  It might have been the liquor I consumed or whatever they loaded into their hookah, but what they were telling me about the Quran and Islam started making sense.  I could understand why they believed what they did, and how their intensely religious cultures can be beneficial, in the right context; however, I still have a problem with their suppression of women and the whole jihad thing, and I think they could sense that.  My welcome was wearing thin, so I excused myself and awkwardly gave them all a peck on the cheek, how men greet and say goodbye to each other in their culture (or at least I was told…).   Two months into my travels, my directional instincts were honed, and I made it back to the comfort of my room after a beautiful and quiet walk through the heart of the city.

Old Quarter

Old Quarter at four in the morning

I was awoken early by the rumbling in my stomach that returned with a vengeance.  It was not hunger pains, however, and I spent a majority of the early morning in the shared hostel bathroom.  Finally, Pepto Bismol and Immodium fighting for digestive dominance, I was able to fall back asleep — before I was woken up early by the elderly owner pounding on my door.  “Mr. Adam, you sign up for war tour.  We leave soon.”  A million possible excuses ran through my head, but I knew he only gave the tour when he had enough people sign up.  I might not get another chance, so I dragged my aching body out of bed and into the front seat of his small car.  We were joined by two Australian girls in the back, and off we went as snow started to lightly fall around us.

Remains of the Olympic bobsled track

Remains of the Olympic bobsled track

Our first order of business was to gingerly climb the mountains surrounding the city to reach the once glorious Olympic park.  A little known fact, especially to my friends who were born post-1985, was that Sarajevo hosted the wildly successful 1984 Winter Olympics.  The tour would later pass by the remains of the stadium built for the occasion, but for now, the old bobsled run was an important stop.  He invited us to step out, climb on the track, and take pictures, weather-permitting.  I carefully climbed up to the track while the girls walked around below.  Then he started into the story.

Fresh wounds.

Fresh wounds.

When the siege first began in 1992, the Serbs blockaded the city and took up key positions in the mountains surrounding Sarajevo.  The bobsled track just happened to be located in a perfect overwatch position, and our guide related how the Serbs would hide in the foliage and rocks and rain accurate sniper fire down upon the citizens of Sarajevo.  He told us how one day they awoke to what appeared to be a giant flaming snake on the mountainside, a form of psychological warfare for the besieged Bosnians.  The Serbs, who had been using the surrounding area as a fighting position, covered a large section of the track in gasoline and spark it, lighting up the night sky and burning for days.  What remains is a skeleton track, strewn with graffiti, a memorial to Sarajevo’s pre-siege cultural aspirations.

Important reminder.

Important reminder.

The next stop was the tunnel museum.  Along the way, our guide told us stories of how he was personally responsible for loading up buses with carefully picked political powerhouses or other VIPs who got to escape the siege.  He was heavily invested in trying to help his fellow Bosnians, and when given the choice to flee in one of his convoys, he voluntarily stayed behind to continue performing his duties.  The tunnel he showed us ran under the airfield, and it played a pivotal role in moving supplies in and the wounded out.  UN Peacekeepers controlled the airfield, but they couldn’t offer much more in the way of assistance to the battered population.  This cramped tunnel was the Bosnian’s major lifeline, and a small piece of it is still open to the public.

Where there's a will, there's a way.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

The siege officially ended in 1996 with the help of US intervention, and so did my tour with nature’s intervention.  The snow was still coming down when I got back to the room in time to watch the New England Patriots play in London.  It was an amazingly depressing day, but I also learned so much about a country history forgot.  It is strangely sobering to see the bullet and rocket holes of a recent conflict, knowing that I was sleeping peacefully in my bed halfway around the world, ignorant to the entire situation.  All of my childhood problems were reframed in the knowledge of what children, many the same age as myself, were going through on the streets of Sarajevo.  Snipers knowingly targeted children, and mortar rounds happened to land on non-military swing sets and playgrounds far too often.  I was only in Sarajevo for three nights, but in that brief time, so many different people had opened up to me and let me step out of my life and into theirs.  It was a humbling, rejuvenating experience, and one I will not soon forget.

… on Coming Home

Location:  Home

Music:  Phillip Phillips – Home

Appropriate name for a coffee shop in Amsterdam

Appropriate name for a coffee shop in Amsterdam

Growing up, I was often told I could be anything I wanted.  This conjured fantasies of flying aboard the space shuttle or wading through rivers, face covered in camouflage paint, preparing to ambush evil men alongside my Navy SEAL brethren.  The truth, much more painful, is that life has a rude way of closing doors and extinguishing the many dreams we have harbored since childhood.  This seems to become more evident the older we get, as our lives get molded to fit into structured boxes, and our futures are penned in permanent ink on degrees we got on a whim or because of advice from a parent or guidance counselor.  Houses are bought, relationships become unions, and debt accrues.  Suddenly, no matter how hard a dream pulls at our heart, it becomes clouded in a sea of responsibility until it’s eventually lost to time.

That felt really depressing to write, but reality is not always that bad.  I understand there are a lot of people that prefer safety, security, and comfort; and I am not trying to demean their decisions.  It could be someone’s dream, who has lived a life full of change and turbulence, to go to a 9 to 5 and own that suburban house with a white picket fence.  That is their prerogative and the true essence and beauty of life:  We are masters of our own fate.  Barring extreme circumstances, it is possible to build the lives of our dreams and to, in fact, be anything we wanted, to live the line we were fed as children but never understood.  It took me a quarter of my life to believe it, and a few more years before I acted upon it.

For me the dream was travel.  In my eyes, there is no better feeling than to wake up in a strange place where no one knows my name or history and with the complete freedom to shape my day as I see fit.  When I travel, I am constantly being thrusted into new and uncomfortable situations where the outcome is uncertain and my character is constantly tested.  When I travel, I shed all the stress and fears of life at home and open myself up to the road and whatever uncertainties lie ahead.  There is no written guide for quitting the career you worked hard to build to travel, or moving your life on the road, or spending seven months mostly alone and in unfamiliar locales — but for me, that’s the draw.  It’s waking up to a thousand open doors every morning and being able to make a choice.  It’s the new sights and sounds that pull me from autopilot mode and make me feel like a child again, rediscovering the world and myself.   It is the escape from monotony and the well-worn path of life, one last ditch effort to prove that it is still possible to live your dreams and forge your own path in this world.

I could spend forever and a day here.

I could spend forever and a day here.

And then you land.  The dream is over, and your cell phone is back on.  Friends are calling, wanting to catch up, and you have to manage time and schedules again.  You have to wake up early today because you have X, Y, and Z to do before lunch — and don’t even think about taking time for your self later because so-and-so needs you.  You become a commodity again, reintroduced into the economy of life, of working day in and day out to pay for a lot of things you never truly need.  While it is great to see family and friends again, the transition is also extremely jarring.  Your recently enormous world is continually stripped bare until you are placed back in your cage, obligations and responsibilities denoting your every move.  Your only coping strategy is to withdraw, to sink back into the gilded memories of your travels.

Not a care in the world.

Not a care in the world.

Coming home, I finally understood why my friends who studied abroad or had traveled when they were younger never stopped talking about it.  Your soul begs for an outlet, a way of making sense of a reality that doesn’t seem real in hindsight.  Constantly telling stories or mentioning your experiences becomes unrestrained arrogance, and it is far too easy to border on pretentiousness.  The self-aware will keep their memories to themselves or between the friends they made while abroad.  They will try to go back to work, boldly stepping back into the structured box.  But how can it ever be the same?  How has someone that has had a taste of filet mignon willingly be fed Hamburger Helper for the next thirty years?

The closest I have come to an answer occurred one cold afternoon in October.  I walked into Women and Infants Hospital with my parents to see my sister and meet her new baby boy, Benjamin.  He is my first nephew and holding him for the first time, I didn’t know what to expect.  Looking into his half open eyes and realizing he has only begun his life’s journey hours before, all I could think was “You can be anything you want.”  I saw the endless possibilities and open doors of his future, and I couldn’t help but smile.

Days end, time moves on, but impossible to forget the memories

Days end, time moves on, but impossible to forget the memories

“No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.”

Lin Yutang

… on Hue and motorbiking the Hai Van Pass

Location:  Somewhere between Da Nang and Hue, Vietnam

Music:  Ratatat – Loud Pipes

View from the Hai Van Pass

View from the Hai Van Pass

It all unfolded in a split second.  The beaming smile was instantly wiped from my face as the rear wheel of my 175cc motorbike locked up on me.  My brain recognized what was happening and self-preservation kicked in.  I was going down and my leg, self-confidence, and bravado were being crushed underneath.  I can still picture the Vietnamese woman who cut me off, and I can see her face as I lay on the ground, looking up at my tormentor, her surgical mask — so she doesn’t inhale smog — concealing most of her facial features.  “Stupid tourists,” she must have been thinking as she accelerated away from the accident scene and me, a stupid tourist.  Another Vietnamese gentleman pulled the broken bike off me and walked me to the side of the road.  I stood there stunned, too many thoughts rushing through my brain to pick one out and act upon it.

“I’m going to pay for this.  I’m fucked.”

“What was I thinking?  Why did I rent this?”

“It’s not too late to just stay here in Da Nang.”

“Where the hell is Vu?”

Vu, also known as Ron, is my Vietnamese friend who was preparing to travel to America for an education and wanted to practice his English.  I wanted to travel the famous and historically beautiful Hai Van Pass on a motorbike.  A symbiotic relationship, or so it would seem, and he was down with being my tour guide for this leg of my journey.  He’s a bright kid and a trustworthy one, so I did not doubt for a bit that he had left me — well, okay, maybe for a few seconds.   Our relationship had began only nights before when we challenged him to pool at a sketchy tourist bar, and I still was not sure what I had gotten myself into.  To be fair, I wouldn’t want to be affiliated with me at that moment, either; but I had no idea where he was, and for the first time in recent memory, I was on the verge of tears.

Me moments before my accident

Me moments before my accident, still happy and unbruised arm, shoulder, knee, and ego

You see, minutes before, I had said goodbye to my best good friend Asa, whom I had traveled with for almost a month and would not see again for the remainder of my time in Southeast Asia.  After traveling with a friend for so long, it was difficult to be willingly lonely again and venture outside of my comfort zone — again — to seize an opportunity I felt I had to take.  Ever since I had seen the Top Gear Vietnam special, a dream seed had been planted in my tiny brain that I need to experience that for myself.  There were many failed attempts in procuring a suitable bike to travel the whole distance from Hanoi to Saigon, so I settled on just the best section:  The Hai Van Pass.  Besides, my introduction to two-wheeled transport was only a month earlier in Thailand, and as this clip and the rest of this episode displays, there’s nothing like Vietnamese motorbike traffic in the world.

“I know where Asa is staying.  I should just quit and go find him, spend a few more days in lovely Da Nang,” was my last thought before Vu came speeding up.  He bombarded me with questions, and I told him I’m okay but my bike’s not.  Shortly after I was walking with my bike, trying to follow him up the road to a proper mechanic, constant thoughts of self-doubt and quitting attacking what little confidence remained.  My overall mood had not improved as I got berated while the mechanic inspected my bike.  A few Vietnamese gentlemen across the road must have seen the characteristic elements of an ignorant tourist taunting danger on a motorbike, and they were well armed with remarks.  When I asked Vu to translate, he just shook his head.  I persisted and he relented:  “They said you should take a taxi,” among other things, I’m sure.  My confused smiles towards them turned to a vicious stare-down that was only interrupted by my rent-a-bike starting.  “It works,” said Vu.

Mean streets of Da Nang, Vietnam

Mean streets of Da Nang, Vietnam

With a few more pointers from Vu and me nervously easing into traffic, we were off again.  Twenty minutes previous, before my accident, the traffic was a challenge, but I had felt like video games had prepared me well for that moment.  I was weaving in and out, hitting passing lanes and leaning into every turn.  Now my mood was somber, and my driving reflected it.  I hugged the curb and was afraid to pass.  My open wounds burned in the oppressive sunlight.  My freshly-ripped pants could no longer deflect the wind, and they inflated like a parachute.  My depressed mood was reflected in my expression, and if it weren’t for my obligations to my new friend Vu and the promise of the stunning beauty of the Hai Van Pass, I would have gladly checked into a nice hotel and slept off my misadventure.  Boy, was I glad I didn’t…

Worth it.

Worth it.

As soon as the cold mountain air graced my face and soothed my abrasions, I knew I had made the right decision to continue.  The views were jaw-dropping, and I had not even ascended to the top yet.  With the introduction of a tunnel that cut through and shaved hours off the journey to Hue, the Hai Van Pass had become almost solely a tourist destination.  Its emptiness inspired thoughts that this breathtaking stretch of road was all for me, and my confidence returned in the form of surges of dopamine.  My beaming smile was back and there to stay.  The burning sensation on my knees, arm, and shoulder was replaced with pure, unadulterated happiness and full acceptance of the present moment.   As Jeremy Clarkson so eloquently put it in the Top Gear clip, “I had an epiphany.”  I knew freedom in its deepest meaning, and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.

After making it to the end of the pass, we scooped Vu’s friend at the train station and they took me to a restaurant they knew of on the way to Hue.  It overlooked the road we had just traveled and was situated perfectly in the calmest part of a protected cove.  They introduced me to family-style dining, or they just lied to eat my food, but the three of us shared a great meal of clams, chicken, rice, and of course, beer.

Restaurant Over the River Hue

Restaurant Over the River Hue

We were still about two hours from Hue, and they both insisted we visit a secluded river they knew of that’s perfect for a mid-afternoon swim.  One of the greatest joys of travel is to be escorted by locals to a local-only spot or event, so I could not say no.  After paying our meager bill, we were on our way through dirt roads and beaten paths to a true locals-only retreat.  My pasty white skin beamed as I took my shirt off to swim, and I could feel the stares of the few Vietnamese who were still hanging out late in the day.  The open wounds gracing my left side gave me pause, but I decided it was worth the risk and dove in.  It was chilly but incredibly refreshing.  Night was falling and I was getting nervous about finding my hotel in the dark, so we went back to the “valet” lot where our bikes were stored.  A small family of three was sitting and playing on mine, but I chalked it up to the family-style nature of Vietnam as I double-checked that all my personal belongings remained.  Everything was there, and we were off on the final stretch of road to Hue as the Sun slowly set behind us.

Swim spot

Swim spot on the way to Hue, hay hay

Arriving in Hue, my anxiety levels began to rise as I realized I was once again entering the insane traffic that resulted in my earlier spill in Da Nang.  My senses were on high alert as I tried to follow Vu and his friend without being killed in the process.  There are very few traffic lights in Vietnam, and most traffic runs as the-person-with-the-largest-vehicle-or-proclivity-for-vehicular-homicide  proceeds uninhibited.  In most intersections you simply wait your turn — but it’s not that easy.  With traffic being held up by very few lights, it is extremely difficult to find a long enough interruption in the near constant motorbike stream.  Instead, you just go.  You tuck your nuts and hit that accelerator and hope people have the decency to swerve around you.  At least that’s what I did.

When I travel I book most of my accommodations blind, and Hue was no exception.  Hue would be the first time I was on my own again after a month of traveling within a group, and I splurged for the higher end of the spectrum, roughly $30 a night.  I luckily ended up at the Moonlight Hotel Hue, a diamond in the rough of run-down hostels and overpriced shanties.  They realized I was far past my estimated arrival time, and I recounted my tragic spill and heroic journey there to everyone in the lobby.  After seeing my torn shirt and pants, one of the bellboys prepared some hydrogen peroxide to clean my wounds, and then the manager showed me to my room.  I was ecstatic when I opened the door to one of the nicest hotel rooms I have ever stayed in, period.

My room in the Moonlight Hotel Hue

My room in the Moonlight Hotel Hue

What followed was a full assault on the minibar and a soak in the pristine jacuzzi with a window that overlooked the picturesque Hue skyline.  I had survived the treacherous journey one way, and my bike was sitting safely in the garage underneath the hotel.  In the warm, soothing water of the bathtub, it was easy to ignore the fact that a few days later, with cuts as fresh as the memories, I would have to ride that beast back to its owner in Da Nang.

Hue, Vietnam

Hue, Vietnam

The next day me and my two new Vietnamese friends set out to tour the Old Citadel in Hue.  Thinking I was about to embark upon a serious Vietnam War (or “American War” in Vietnam) history tour, I was excited to learn more about a subject I am admittedly ignorant about.  Before actually landing in Hanoi, the capital of North Vietnam, my knowledge of the war consisted of a couple popular movies and a high school class that I only took because I wanted to hear the stories of my teacher who was a veteran of the war; however, as I write this, I still do not know if the Citadel we visited was where the battle occurred and was rebuilt, or the actual battle occurred outside the city.  As it stands now, the “Old Citadel” was largely devoid of information, and I could never get an answer to my history questions.  Besides, it’s a sure sign you wasted your money when one of the main attractions is a “Royal Garden and Koi Pond.”

Ancient royal stuff.

Ancient royal stuff.

Determined to learn more about the war while I was “in-country,” I booked a local tour that visited three historic sites: a section of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a tunnel complex used by the Vietnamese, and Khe Sanh Combat Base.  The tour lasted all day, but on a crowded bus full of sweaty tourists, it was not the most pleasant experience.  The Ho Chi Minh Trail is now the Ho Chi Minh Highway, and its famous history has been paved over since the highway’s construction after the war ended.   The tunnels were interesting, but I felt claustrophobia-induced panic creeping up as I followed a long line of tourists through the pitch black tunnels.  The heat was palpable in the confinement and, even after only fifteen minutes in the tunnels, fresh air never felt so sweet.  Many children were born there underground, yet I could not imagine enduring more than a day in the stuffy confines so many called home.  Finally, we arrived at Khe Sanh Combat Base, the most interesting aspect of the tour for me.

IMG_3337

Khe Sanh Combat Base

C-130 still on the tarmac

C-130 still on the tarmac

It’s hard to describe the thoughts and emotions of visiting the site of a battle like Khe Sanh.  I had experienced it before while standing on the beaches of Normandy, but for some reason, whether it was the peddler selling Marine dog tags or the rusting tank carcasses and artillery shells, Khe Sanh was far more visceral.  I could almost feel the anguish of the soldiers that perished there, and as an American, I felt it was hallowed ground.  This feeling was accentuated when I was continuously hounded by a Vietnamese man trying to get me to buy dead Marines’ dog tags that he had found and attached a significant price to.  At first I was outraged, but I could not express that to him because my Vietnamese was pretty limited.  Then I thought of possibly purchasing them and returning them to their living relatives, but the more I thought about it, it seemed like a ridiculous proposition.  Finally I just shook my head and walked away, only to be hounded another three times by the same individual.  I walked back to the bus in silence, my mood depressed, and oddly bothered by the laughter emanating from a group of younger Aussies.  Taking my seat back on the bus, I wondered if I was overreacting, or if proper respect was lacking for a place where so many young lives were needlessly lost.

Somber reminder.  Khe Sanh Combat Base

Somber reminder. Khe Sanh Combat Base

Growing up in America, the Vietnam War seems to be carelessly glossed over by a generation more interested in iPhones and Instagram.  Many veterans fell through the gaps in society as they came back to a country carrying the mental wounds of war and without the proper nourishment for their damaged souls.  Schools still fail to adequately teach students about the war, unless its a course centered solely on the subject, and an entire generation’s only exposure is through movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now.  As Edmund Burke famously stated, “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”  I can’t help but wonder if there’s any better proof of this statement than our 13 years in Afghanistan.

… 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.

… 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

… on Traveling Solo vs. in a Group

Location:  Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Music:  The Police – So Lonely

I vividly remember my first ‘solo’ traveling experience.  It occurred on a family trip to Las Vegas in the summer after I graduated high school.  I was still 17, so too young to gamble and really venture off on my own, and our family-centered itinerary didn’t really allow for it, either; however, on one rare night I got the opportunity to sneak away alone.  I didn’t get far — I just marveled at the volcano show at our hotel, the Mirage — but the experience changed me.  I loved being able to stand there and gaze at it for however long I wanted.  I enjoyed the freedom and the anonymity afforded among a crowd of strangers.    For once I relaxed, soaked in the present moment, and sliced off a little piece of our family vacation to keep all for myself.

Fast forward to ten years later, and I would once again be faced with a similar opportunity.  With the desire to travel the world but nobody with the means or the free time, it would force me to tackle the journey solo, and that meant the whole journey.  From planning an itinerary, packing, money management, sickness, and a myriad of other travel obstacles, at the moment I stood alone in the airport terminal, it would all have to be faced head-on by me.  I stood confident at the prospect.  Now, with six months of backpacking, both solo and in a group, under my belt, I can adequately reflect on the pros and cons of both.

One of the few pictures of me solo around Europe

One of the few pictures of me solo around Europe

Traveling solo is a daunting prospect for most.  I often get asked how I can do it, and responses of, “I could never do that,” are quite common.  Trust me, you can.  Stepping off the plane in Copenhagen on the first day of my trip, I have to admit, I was petrified.  Suddenly the liberation from everything familiar was overwhelming, and just the short, easy train trip into the city center was raked by anxiety and near panic attacks.  What am I doing with my life was a theme that popped up frequently on that first day, and even into the second as I experienced a crippling hangover trying to silence that voice in my head.  The worst part was that I had nobody to voice my concerns to.

So, yes, the worst part about traveling alone is the long periods of silence and creeping loneliness that wax and wane like the tides.   The loneliness is easily assuaged by staying in hostels, one of the best things to happen to traveling since Google translate.  Hostels are similar to college dorms except that it’s more common to have to share your room with three through nine other smelly, snoring travelers versus just one.  They range from famous, clean, near-hotel status to cockroach, dirty, bloody-sheet dumps.  Fantastic websites like HostelWorld make weeding out the good ones a much easier process than the trial and error of past.  Traveler reviews also help you make educated decisions so you don’t end up in a party hostel (yes, they exist) when all you wanted was some peace and quiet.

Fellow vagabonds = instant friends

Fellow vagabonds = instant friends

However, for an introvert like myself, the freedom of solo travel is intoxicating.  If there is somewhere I want to go or something I want to see, all I have to do is make the decision and it is final.  There are no arguments, compromises, or miserable acceptance.  I am free to explore, or, if I am tired and need to recharge, free to stick around the hostel all day napping and getting my fill of  Family Guy reruns.  Dinners alone turn into the perfect time for introspection, and amazing scenery can be enjoyed without interruption.  But bad can’t exist without good, and I’ve suffered through the amazing because, again, I lacked anyone to share it with.

One of the best views of my life, drowned in booze  with no one to share it with

One of the best hotel balconies of my life, drowned in booze with no one to share it with

The isolation of a solo traveler will always spawn a desire for company at some point, and I’ve done an equal amount of time traveling with a group.  Usually composed of a few different cultures and ages, group travel can be a great way to learn more about the world and its beautiful diversity.  Especially when the beers start flowing and the group dynamic loosens up, a range of topics is usually discussed once the basics are covered.  The five basic questions that permit admittance to any group are:

1)  Where are you from?

2)  What do you do at home?

3) Where have you been?

4) Where are you going?

5)  How long have you been traveling?

After these are answered, getting to know a fellow vagabond is one of my favorite aspects of travel.  Everyone has something to offer, and I’ve met some people with incredible stories.  Meeting the right traveler or local always seems to put things in perspective and offer invaluable insight into one’s own life.  Sharing a good meal, interesting conversation, and unique experiences with a group of like-minded travelers helps to increase the fun and cement memories.  All the sharing can also breed contempt, however, as different personalities clash, new bonds form and others are neglected, and only some interests are pursued when creating the group’s schedule.  Also, I have found that the bigger the group while traveling, the more shut off they become from having authentic interactions with the locals, which is the most fulfilling part of travel for me.

Sharing a meal and stories with new friends, one of my favorite parts of travel

Sharing a meal and stories with new friends, one of my favorite parts of travel

In summation, there’s really no right or wrong way to travel.  Extroverts may be more comfortable traveling in a group, while introverts will need some time alone to recharge so they don’t implode.  Whatever you choose, before setting off it is wise to have a test run with your potential traveling partner.  All too often I meet two or more miserable people who can’t stand the person or people they’re stuck with — that is, until the beers start flowing again.

“No man is brave that has never walked a hundred miles. If you want to know the truth of who you are, walk until not a person knows your name. Travel is the great leveler, the great teacher, bitter as medicine, crueler than mirror-glass. A long stretch of road will teach you more about yourself than a hundred years of quiet introspection.”

— Patrick Rothfuss, The Wise Man’s Fears

… on Koh Phangan and the Full Moon Party

Location:  Koh Phangan, Thailand

Music: RJD2 – Ghostwriter

The Jungle Club, Koh Samui

The Jungle Club, Koh Samui

As soon as we touched down in the beautiful southern islands of the Gulf of Thailand, the stress created from the past five days in Bangkok immediately lifted.  One of my favorite spots in the world has always been the Caribbean for its white-sand beaches and crystal clear, warm water.  I knew that was exactly what I came here looking for, and I wouldn’t stop until I found my paradise.

My first stop was the large, touristy island of Koh Samui.  I didn’t have any other choice, as it’s the only island in the chain that can support an airport.  They say it’s the ‘Phuket’ of the east — and for good reason; the “best” beach on the island was packed with resorts and Aussies dressed in banana hammocks dancing wildly to blaring techno music.  Luckily for me, I had booked the perfect resort for Koh Samui, The Jungle Club.  Nestled in the mountains overlooking Samui, the only way to access the resort is by calling ahead and having one of their 4×4 vehicles pick you up at the bottom of the hill.  From there it’s a short, exciting ride to the top, and beautiful views, above-average food, and good people await.  I had arranged a ride from the airport, but apparently someone else swiped it; so I was greeted by the news that I would be upgraded to the deluxe sweet, a $40/night room for the price of $10.  I was ecstatic as I was nervous about the rustic quality of the bamboo huts that outlined the resort’s grounds.  Needless to say, most of my time was spent perched high above the chaos, enjoying the views and swimming in the infiniti pool.

View from The Jungle Club

View from The Jungle Club

A quick, 20-minute jaunt on the Lompriyah high-speed ferry and I had arrived on the smaller, less hectic island of Koh Phangan.  Koh Phangan is the next island in line in a chain that ends with Koh Tao in the north (which I hear is excellent for diving).  Phangan also plays host to the famous monthly Full Moon Party that apparently started with a group of Thai friends on what used to be a secluded beach.  Now, although nobody directly owns the rights to the party, it is a large commercial undertaking and a huge source of revenue for the islanders.  I arrived a week early to claim my spot on what would soon become a popular destination.

Using agoda.com, which is great for booking accommodations in Asia, I found a small place nestled on the western side of the island, far away from the parties in Haad Rin.  Suitably named Nice Sea Resort, I was welcomed into a family-run affair that consisted of two rows of bungalows, of different quality, facing each other.  Nice Sea Resort also sports a private beach, a welcome luxury after coming from the bro-infested Koh Samui.  Paradise found.

Where I happily wasted countless hours

Where I happily wasted countless hours

I would love to say that I got a lot accomplished now that I had the life I was looking for, but most of  my days consisted of lounging on the beach, reading in my hammock, or swimming in the beautiful tropical waters.  Mr. Nice, a younger, English-speaking Thai, took on most of the managerial duties, while his mother and grandmother manned the kitchen.  Grandma Nice made the most amazing strawberry smoothies for me every morning and also a mean Pad Thai.  In the two-and-a-half weeks (yeah, it was hard to leave) that I stayed there, I watched a lot of people come and go, developed some good friendships, ate some amazing food, and did a ton of reading.  Towards the end of my stay, it was time for the reason I was there — to experience the Full Moon Party.

Literal buckets of alcohol

Literal buckets of alcohol

As more partiers trickled onto the island, the stage was set for the monthly full night of ectasy on the southern-most tip of Phangan, Haad Rin.  I went with six others from Nice Sea, and it was a long, 40-minute ride in the back of an open-air taxi down to the beach.  It began with the ritual of covering ourselves with pyschadelic Day-Glo paint.  Two French girls I had met decided to paint a face on the back of my head, who they affectionately named Francais.  Everyone bought literal buckets of hard liquor, while I opted for a beer.  I had heard stories of what to expect — namely, a load of drunken gap-year teenagers free from supervision, urinating in the water, passed out on the beach, while others danced to crappy techno beats — so I was prepared for the worst.  It turned out to be a pretty accurate depiction.

The party

The party

Don’t get me wrong; I truly enjoyed partying with my new friends, and the atmosphere was incredible.  But after six hours of pounding bass, drunk Aussies tripping into you, everyone just relieving themselves in the water, and other debauchery, I felt out of place at my age.  I travel to experience new and unique cultures and to see beautiful locales, but I felt like all that was being violated for the sake of some foreign coinage.  It’s like going to the strip club with your friends, only to be disappointed at the beauty that’s being desecrated for the highest bidder.  So, as one of the French girls pulled my arm to stay, I insisted that, at four in the morning, I had seen enough; and there was no way I would make it to sunrise with  my sanity intact.

The Life, Koh Phagnan

The Life, Koh Phagnan

So, I retreated back to the safety of Nice Sea Resort, to the quiet and untouched beauty of my own little slice of paradise.  After all, once you’ve found everything you ever wanted, what’s the point in continuing the search?

Sunset at Nice Sea

Sunset at Nice Sea

… on Bangkok

Location:  Bangkok, Thailand

Music:  The Getaway People – Soi Cowboy

Welcome to Bangkok...

Welcome to Bangkok…

The smell.  It’s the first and most oppressive thing you will notice about Bangkok.  From the minute you leave your hotel, it is your ubiquitous compass everywhere you go in this congested, incredibly busy metropolis.   The best way to describe it is a combination of raw sewage; a potent, very sweet ginger; and some other unidentifiable Thai smell (rotting street food, perhaps?).  Needless to say, my first few jet-lagged days were quite an overwhelming introduction to southeast Asian travel.

Seeing the sights, Bangkok, Thailand

Seeing the sights, Bangkok, Thailand

After checking into my moderately-priced four star, my initial night was spent in the confines of the comfort zone that was my room.   I ordered some spaghetti carbonara from room service and laid down in my plush bed.  Exploring the depths of Bangkok could wait until the next day, which my internal clock decided would begin promptly at four in the morning.  Dream Bankgok turned out to be an excellent choice, however, with their breakfast buffet that included one of the freshest, most delicious omelettes I’ve ever had.  The coffee suffered for it, but overall, I would stay there again.  The friendly Thai manager helped me with learning some key phrases and also pointed me to the closest mall to purchase a few things that I neglected to pack.  After my omelette and two cups of stale insta-coffee, I set forth into the cesspool that is Bangkok.

My hotel room at Dream Bangkok

My hotel room at Dream Bangkok

There’s something to be said for your first day in a new country; it’s an exhilarating, eye-opening experience.  Weaving through the maze of street stalls selling everything from Valium to Viagra (plus a wide selection of vibrators); past the strong stench of random beef on a stick complete with assorted flies; to a lone Thai vendor selling socks for $1 a pair (picked up three pairs); I finally made it to Central World.  Central World is a very westernized shopping mall, but I use the term ‘mall’ loosely.  I think ‘world’ definitely more accurately summarized the seven floors of shopping that greeted me.  Waking up at 4, I was disappointed to look down at my watch and realize it was only 10 in the morning, roughly the time I start my day in the western hemisphere; but my fatigue was assuaged when I discovered the top floor of Central World contained “Happy Time” movie theater and that Jurassic Park 3D was playing.  I had heard that the Thais take their movie-viewing experience seriously, so I quickly bought a ticket and anxiously awaited to be allowed into the theater.  I was not disappointed.

Bangkok 2495

Happy Time movie theater

I had the whole theater to myself until two other westerners showed up right before we were called to rise for the King’s anthem.  I previously read about a man who was arrested when he failed to stand for the anthem, so I made sure I rose poignantly to my feet and motioned for my fellow farang (foreigners) to do the same.  The viewing experience definitely lived up to expectations, and my brain quickly adjusted to the Thai subtitles before adequately filtering them out.

Tuk Tuk adventures, Bangkok

Tuk Tuk adventures, Bangkok

Day three started a little later, roughly about 6:00 a.m.  I killed time until breakfast by perusing the internet and planning my day.  It was finally time to venture out of my familiar hotel and experience all the city had to offer — at least to tourists.  Luckily, on my way out of the hotel, I met a fellow American and solo traveler named John (named changed to protect the innocent).  After striking up conversation, he had arrived on the same day as me but was just switching hotels.  I told him I was going to check out the Grand Palace and asked if he wanted to tag along.   He agreed, and we quickly bonded over talks about life, spirituality, and why everything was always closed for a Buddhist holiday in Bangkok (insider hint: it’s not.  Never listen to Bangkok tuk-tuk drivers).

Wat Arun, Bangkok

Wat Arun, Bangkok

That night John suggested we visit a street only known as the Soi Cowboy, the street where scenes from The Hangover 2 were filmed.  Questioning the contents of this street, I found out it’s where all the Thai prostitutes hang out awaiting their usually overweight and upper-aged customers.  Always up for exploring the seedier side of society, I tagged along and was not disappointed. From the moment you turn the corner onto the Soi Cowboy, you are met by throngs of all types of women vying for your attention.  Many of them wore the uniform of their associated bar; others were just walking the street, grabbing your arm (among other things) as you passed by.  John decided to indulge his curiosity with a lady of the night, and after escorting he and his date off the street, I stopped at the last and seemingly least shadiest bar on the street to have a night cap.  Drinking with Thai prostitutes was an interesting experience, but they were surprisingly good company.  They spoke good English and make a mean drink, and if you tell them you have a girlfriend at home, they won’t be too pushy when you get up to leave.

Truly a different place...

Truly a different place…

After only four nights surrounded by Bangkok’s smell and pollution, I needed a respite.  The overnight train down to the islands in the south was full, so I booked a cheap flight on Bangkok Air direct to Koh Samui.  Later that day, 45 minutes into my taxi ride to go a few miles, stopped dead in Bangkok traffic, hungover from the night before, my thoughts drifted to something my father said before he dropped me off at the bus station in Providence: “If you find that traveling in Asia is too uncomfortable, you can always come home.” If only I had listened, I would have never left the airport…

Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

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