I always expect to end up sitting next to a fat guy on the plane. And I don't mean portly. I mean some massive brute with man-tits the size of my head who's sweating profusely – for no apparent reason – and wheezing in my ear.
So, it's difficult to describe the sense of elation I felt as I glanced at the attractive girl sitting in 43B, the seat directly next to mine. I smiled politely as I stowed my backpack in the overhead compartment and she nodded towards me amicably.
"Thank God you're not a fat guy," I said as I took my place in the seat next to her.
She laughed. "I could say the same about you."
We sat silently through takeoff. She perused the sky mall magazine while I read about Lawrence Osborne's days in Bangkok – a semi-escapist account that made me jealous of both his experiences and writing proficiency.
The girl dozed for a few minutes before the flight attendant came around with drinks and the first meal.
"I'm sorry, no more chicken," the pretty Asian attendant said in broken yet comprehensible English. "Just fish."
The girl and I exchanged equally concerned glances. There’s something I just don’t trust about airline fish. Apparently the girl felt the same way.
"Please, no fish," I said to the flight attendant. The girl nodded her agreement. "No thank you."
The attendant looked at me with mild confusion. "Plenty of fish,” she said. “No chicken.”
an hour into my journey and I was already experiencing language
"I'm sure there's plenty of fish," I replied. "But we’re good. No thank you."
"Fish... over rice?" the attendant offered meekly. We were moving in circles.
"No, thank you. Vegetarians," I said after a moment, gesturing to both myself and the girl.
The flight attendant nodded in understanding and offered us each a tray with a single roll, a small lump of potato salad with ginger and a tiny square of strawberry cheesecake. "Beer? Wine? Soda? Juice?" she asked after setting down our meals.
"Wine," the girl and I replied in near-perfect unison.
The flight attendant smiled and asked us which color. Soon after, the girl and I sat with our unsubstantial dinners and plastic cups of white wine.
"Cheers," I offered to the girl, picking up my cup and dangling it expectantly in front of her. "To thin airline passengers."
"Cheers," she replied smiling and touched her cup gently to mine. "I'm not actually a vegetarian, by the way. But I'm hesitant when it comes to airplane fish."
"Agreed," I said while smearing butter on my warm roll. "I definitely have trust issues when it comes to mile-high seafood."
We ate and drank and talked pleasantly. Her name was Jennifer. She was twenty-eight and originally from Anchorage. She had moved to New York for work, but had lost her job only weeks earlier. After a fruitless job search, she had decided to head back home to her mother and brother. "New York's pretty tough for someone with no job and no family," she said.
"It can be tough for people that have both."
I told her about my travel plans, feeling almost guilty as I explained to her that I left my job for no other reason than a fit of restlessness and an inexplicable case of the Carpe Diems.
She laughed. "You're insane! What are you going to do for work when you get home?"
I shrugged. "I'll figure it out when I have to.”
She laughed again. "Crazy," she said. "But I approve."
"I was hoping you would."
We accepted more wine from the flight attendant and continued to talk. As the conversation progressed, so did our comfort with each other. She was pretty and engaging. Her blond hair glowed in the light of the overhead reading lamp and her blue eyes flickered with inebriation as she asked the flight attendant for another glass of wine. The hours passed and we both came to realize that this was a pretty fortunate situation – no morbidly obese gastropod spilling over into our seat; no contagious health threat coughing germs into the recirculating cabin air; no rank slob emanating stink and snoring deeply.
After another hour or so, she fell asleep. She’d accepted the extra xanax I offered and slipped into slumber as her head slid to meet my shoulder. She breathed softly into my ear as the in-flight movie played silently on the screen at the front of the cabin. I fell asleep shortly after. And we woke in Anchorage, wondering what the missing miles were like, contemplating what the lights beyond the amazingly still runway were illuminating at this dark hour.
We exited the plane and stood for a few moments in Anchorage's strangely disquieting airport. And then she left me. After all, she wasn't continuing on to Taipei. Anchorage was her final destination.
She thanked me for the company and the drugs. She kissed me softly on the cheek and walked down the retro-rustic airport corridor like a potent hallucination.
For a moment, I wanted her to stay. I wanted her to come to Taipei with me. I wanted to force my newfound nomadic lifestyle on her. I wanted her to forget the notion of a day job and simply move… and keep moving. I wanted her to be my familiarity, my little piece of permanence.
But I reminded myself that this is long-term traveling – interactions and relationships are temporary. And that's just fine. Now, no one is anything more than a shifting specter. Everyone is replaced by someone else and everyone vanishes after their respective portion on the timeline. This is part of journeying. No one really stays.
And I remind myself that this is what I wanted.
Understanding is Toilet Paper
It seems appropriate to name a Taiwanese all-you-can-eat buffet after a Western city that epitomizes gluttony.
After all, Las Vegas promotes and thrives on the concept of sinful excess. And sinful excess can come in many forms, both decadent and pedestrian. Shamelessly gorging on food until your stomach feels like a bursting bag of dry cement is probably one of the more accessible methods, but a method nonetheless.
Sure, some may consider an Armani-draped playboy tossing dice on a craps table a more lavish vision of Vegas excess. Or maybe a penthouse casino suite filled with gorgeous prostitutes and mounds of cocaine. But these aren't the most attainable or common realities.
Casino buffets, on the other hand, exemplify the every-man's ability to affordably and legally overindulge. Apparently, this notion wasn't lost on the proprietors of the Taiwanese restaurant called Las Vegas.
Incredible heaps of food crowd the modest interior of the restaurant. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese -- it's all there. And it's all exceptionally underpriced. One would feel ashamed not taking full advantage of this deal by throwing mounds of assorted cuisine down their overflowing gullets, disobeying reason and logic as those two intangibles plead for an end to the onslaught of unfamiliar yet delicious food. "Just one more mussel," you might say. "Just one more mouthful of beef. Just one more taste of tempura. Just one more piece of sushi."
And after being in a foreign country for only a few days, having little to no experience with the public restrooms, the idea of getting your money's worth would almost certainly take precedence over the condition of your stomach. The unbelievably inexpensive price of food is still a novelty, so why wouldn't you push the boundaries of your stomach and intestines? Why wouldn't you embrace this apparent all-you-can-eat deal of a lifetime?
As you finally put the chopsticks down and throw the crumpled, soiled napkin on your plate, you feel full, but not quite disgusting. Not yet. So when a visit to the local night market is proposed, the idea seems like a good one. It'll be good to do some walking after such an immense meal.
As you and your companions peruse the market, absorbing the busy sights, sounds and smells, you expect your stomach to settle. You expect time and motion to work in concert and slowly reduce the gorged feeling that has admittedly gotten worse instead of better.
And after a few more minutes of walking, you come to the conclusion that there's only one way this escalating discomfort can be eased: evacuation.
You begin to sweat as your eyes scour the small shops and vendors. A few strides ahead you notice an arcade on the right side. As you grow nearer, you can see a bathroom sign at the back of the arcade.
You excuse yourself from the group, doing your best to conceal the deadly serious nature of this restroom visit. You practically run past the loud, illuminated games lining both sides of the arcade and push through the bathroom door.
You bypass the urinals and step urgently into one of the stalls, expecting to see the fully functioning toilet you saw in the airport bathroom.
Instead, you look down to see what your American and Canadian companions would later refer to as "a squatter."
Truthfully, it's little more than a hole in the floor lined with what looks like porcelain.
"You can do this," you tell yourself. "You have to."
Positioning is crucial. You know this before you even drop your pants. You think back to the amount of consumed food. You think about stomach acids and digestion. Then you think about the size of the hole and you wonder if this is even possible. You wonder if the physics of volume will allow this missing section of tile to fully do its job and capture what needs to be captured. Then another consideration enters your mind: the physics of gravity.
But there's little time left. Your stomach is cramping. The sweat slides down your face in modest waterfalls. So, you romanticize the situation.
"This will be a cultural breakthrough!"
You slide down your pants and do the best to position the crumpled denim away from the splash zone. You align your body with the hole that seems to grow increasingly smaller and...
Your legs begin to ache from assuming a squatting position they're unaccustomed to, but the deed has been done. And done with amazing success!
You breathe deeply and use your sleeve to wipe the sweat from your face. In some odd sense, you're so proud. You want to high-five yourself! You want to immediately email friends from home and tell them you followed an all-you-can-eat Asian buffet with a squatter in some night market arcade bathroom... and you survived! You're a hero! A rockstar! You moved seamlessly between cultures! There may have been some apprehension, some anxiety, but you did it!
You -- 1. Culture shock -- 0.
You look towards the sides of the stall for toilet paper, but realization strikes you with the weight of a sledgehammer. You think back to what your host mentioned shortly after you arrived -- almost in passing and without any real pressing nature -- and you begin to sweat again: "Taiwan doesn't really have any place to put their garbage so there's a huge conservation effort. Most bathrooms don't supply paper towels or toilet paper. It's expected that you bring your own. It's good to keep some on you."
"Oh. My. God."
You flush the squatter quickly because it's a reminder of your shame. It's an indication of your failure to successfully adapt.
Culture shock -- 1. You -- screwed.
You try to remain calm and think. Simply pulling your pants up is not an option. You glance down at your socks and consider going sockless for the remainder of the evening (after all, this would certainly be a two-sock clean-up). You pull a menial 7-11 receipt from your pocket in a weak attempt to produce enough paper to get the job done.
It's like America laughing at you.
You consider the option of using the Taiwanese dollars in your wallet. Surely a few hundred NT combined with the socks would provide an adequate substitute for a few sheets of toilet paper. You even think of the somewhat empowering claim of wiping your butt with hundred dollars bills (keep in mind, 100 Taiwanese dollars is a little more than 3 American dollars), but you push that thought from your mind, rightfully considering it inappropriate. You're here to interact with other cultures, to embrace them. Something about literally defecating on the local currency seems inherently wrong.
After less than three days in the country, you don't have a cell phone. There's no way to contact your friends outside.
You sheepishly peek your head over the stall door. The bathroom is empty, except for a small Taiwanese boy washing his hands. He couldn't be older than seven.
"Hey," you call to him in a voice slightly above a whisper.
He turns from the sink to look at you, his hands still dripping wet. You can see there's no sign of sweet paper salvation near the sink.
And never before has a language barrier seemed so overwhelming.
"Toilet paper," you say, your chin resting on top of the stall door. "I need toilet paper. You understand?"
Suddenly, this seems like a bad idea. If a less-than-understanding adult were to walk in on you -- pants around your ankles, chin perched on top of a men's room stall -- they could easily get the wrong idea, especially if the language barrier were to remain insurmountable. Still, you're out of options.
"No toilet paper," you say to the boy. "American. Idiot. This is new to me," you plead. "We give Taiwan support over China. China bad, America good. Toilet paper good. You give me support."
The child looks at you with no sense of comprehension. The blank stare on his face may as well signal the death of your socks. He turns and leaves the bathroom.
You figure how many Taiwanese hundred dollar bills you'll need to use in addition to your cotton footwear and you reserve yourself to the grim understanding that this will almost certainly (dear God, you hope!) be the most expensive shit you ever take.
Cultural assimilation: epic fail.
After about a minute with your head above the stall, hoping for a more English-savvy local tending to the call of nature, you reach down to untie your laces and take off your shoes.
Suddenly, you hear a timid knock on the stall door. A hand appears over the top. Clenched in said hand is a wad of toilet tissue.
You peek your head over once again and see the same small Taiwanese boy. He's standing next to a man you assume is his father. This man is offering you an understanding smile and a substantial amount of toilet paper.
This man and his child are the two most beautiful people you've ever seen in your life.
"Oh, thank you! Thank you so much!" you say as you accept the wad from the man. "Xie xie!" You offer him the only Chinese you've learned so far. "Thank you! Xie xie!"
The man smiles and nods warmly. "It's okay. No problem," he says and then disappears from the bathroom with his son.
And it dawns on you that cultural assimilation is a team sport. It's a collaborative effort between you and the people of the culture in question. Mutual understanding and acceptance are key. Kindness, patience and empathy are required from both sides. We're all humans and we all have the same basic urges. We all fear embarrassment and failure, but we can take some solace in the knowledge that these fears are utterly human and totally consistent with our nature.
So, as you exit the stall and wash your hands, feeling blessed with a sense of clarity and enlightenment, you fully appreciate the warmth and comfort of the soft, clean cotton still hugging your feet.
This is a proud moment for humanity. And you're strangely glad to have participated.
The unremarkable brochure could have been easily overlooked amidst the countless fliers and pamphlets that littered the overstuffed racks at the tourist information booth, making it seem that much more serendipitous as my eyes fell across the glossy green bold letters.
I had considered this activity months ago, but as time passed and my schedule grew more hectic, the idea seemed to fade and eventually disappear. Other obligations had pushed themselves to the forefront of my brain and I suppose the idea of a silly, potentially dangerous adrenaline rush had simply been overshadowed.
But we had plenty of time to kill before our flight back to Bangkok and the option of a two-hour Thai cooking class, although appealing to my friends, was not how I wanted to end my time in Phuket.
So, as I lugged my heavy backpack through the streets of Patong, avoiding the roadside merchants attempting to sell me everything I didn't want or need, I made up my mind.
I would spend the 1650 baht and I would go bungee jumping in Thailand.
My friends and I parted ways as I made arrangements at the tour booth and paid for my bungee ticket. The closest jump site was less than ten minutes away and they would send a car to pick me up. The cost of the jump even included a free t-shirt!
If my mind hadn't already been made up, that certainly would have sealed the deal. I'm a sucker for free t-shirts, particularly those that advertise my willingness to do stupid and dangerous things.
I waited at the booth for the car to arrive. After just a few minutes, a man in a mid-nineties Camry pulled up to the curb directly in front of me. This, I was told, was my driver. The car was dark green with tinted windows and looked to be in poor condition, even for a vehicle nearly fifteen years of age. There was nothing about the car that indicated it was either a taxi or a transport vehicle for World Bungee. Everything about the car and the slender, unkempt driver lacked legitimacy, which is something one tends to look for when planning to throw oneself from a height of nearly 200 feet with just a cord wrapped around one's ankles. I looked back at the young man behind the counter of the tour booth -- the same man that had already been quite helpful to me and my friends -- and gave him a questioning glare.
The young man just smiled back at me, the powerful sun reflecting off the small, metal braces that lined his teeth. Nothing about that smile reassured me.
I took a deep breath and pulled at my white t-shirt, which had become plastered to my skin with sweat. I started to do a quick mental count of my valuable belongings, but decided it wasn't worth it. I was going to get in the car with this stranger and he was either going to rob me or take me someplace where I'd do something far more dangerous under my own free will. And I'd find out which in just a few minutes.
I slid into the backseat of the Camry and noticed almost immediately how clean it was. After only a matter of seconds, the driver slipped the car seamlessly into the flow of traffic and we were on our way. We sat in silence. He didn't offer any kind of weak attempt at small talk and I was grateful. My mind was cluttered with potential scenarios, some of which were quite unspeakable. I started weighing my options and planning escape strategies. I contemplated what I would do if he pulled a weapon on me and demanded my wallet and valuables. Would I resist or simply comply? I decided, over the course of a few minutes, that I would resist. If he wanted an illegal payday, I would make it difficult for him.
But after only a few minutes, the vehicle pulled into a parking lot. The driver stopped in front of a small entryway covered by a low roof. "Here," he said.
I looked around. "Here?" I confirmed incredulously.
I exited the vehicle with my bag and it was only then that I noticed the large, yellow crane situated over an unimpressive, man-made body of water. It was slightly larger than a swimming pool and the water was some unnatural shade of green, as if the caretakers had attempted, without much success, to clean the dirty, bacteria-filled liquid with strong chemicals. It only took a moment for me to realize that if something went awry, they'd be fishing my body out of that filthy, stagnant water.
What a way to go.
I walked under the overhang and followed the cracked cement path to a lounge area. There were a few wooden tables, a linoleum bar and a pool table that seemed well-worn. Two locals sat across from each other at one of the tables while two others lazily played a game of pool. It was difficult to tell if any of these young men were employees. None of them wore shirts or outfits indicating as such. In fact, two of the four weren't wearing shirts at all. They regarded me vaguely as I walked through and approached the bar.
The scene didn't inspire much confidence. I had pictured an establishment teeming with people, mostly Europeans and Australians, rowdily carrying on and shouting up to their companions who were about to take the plunge. I had certainly expected to see at least one or two people jump before my moment in the spotlight, but I slowly understood this wouldn't be the case. There wasn't any other tourist in the vicinity.
This was pretty disconcerting. If something went wrong, there wouldn't be a single objective witness to tell the story of my demise. The employees could just toss my corpse in the dumpster and wait for garbage day.
As I stood waiting at the bar, a young man entered from a back room. He greeted me with a smile. "Ready?" he asked simply. From his pronunciation of that single word, it was clear his English was poor.
I nodded timidly.
He maintained the smile and pulled out a few sheets of paper from below the bar. "Paperwork," he said as he pushed the forms, along with a pen, over to me. "You sign, then bungee time."
Dear God. I was starting to get uncomfortable. The brochure had clearly stated that this particular jump was suited to "Australian safety standards" which led me to believe the expert in charge would likely be Australian, or at least capable of speaking proficient English. This guy could barely form full sentences. His weak yet seemingly purposeful rhyme also made me nervous. Somehow, the idea of freeing this company from any responsibility in the case of my injury or death didn't seem to warrant a cute little couplet. Perhaps the ironic pairing of severity and lightheartedness was lost on him. Or perhaps he was just trying to make me feel at ease. Maybe he was just a playful poet. It was impossible to tell.
I filled out the first form, which only asked for basic information: name, nationality, hotel or residence and whether or not I'd bungee jumped before. After completing it, I pushed it back towards the man behind the bar and surveyed the next sheet. Clearly, this was the liability waiver. It seemed straightforward enough, but as I started to read it, taking less than ten seconds, the young man covered most of the form with his hand and pointed to the area where I was supposed to sign. Maybe he thought I was having a difficult time locating the rather apparent area where my signature belonged. Nevertheless, his gesture said something else to me: You do not need to read it. You do not need to know that your signature legally frees us from any responsibility should you plunge to your death. Just sign it, American asshole.
So, I signed it.
He took the paper and placed it atop the first form. He then reached below the bar and pulled out a sealed plastic bag with a black t-shirt inside, handing it over to me.
My level of comfort grew exponentially. Surely no kind of illegitimate operation would offer the t-shirt before the customer inquired about it. They would keep their fingers crossed and hope the customer forgot, only delivering the shirt upon request. This was good. This was very good.
"Leave bag and empty pockets," he said.
Scoundrel! Leave my belongings unattended? With these characters? Was he insane?
I surveyed the lounge area and looked at the small group occupying it. None of them were paying me any mind. I half-expected to see them salivating at the mere prospect of my bag being left unguarded, but it seemed like they couldn't care less... or had no idea what was going on. Whatever the case, I didn't have much of a choice.
I emptied my pockets, stuffed the contents in my bag and left it on top of the bar. "Okay," I said.
"Okay," said the man behind the bar. "Bungee time."
He led me over towards the large, yellow crane and the caged lift that sat at its base. A small scale was placed in the middle of two chairs just in front of the lift. I stepped on the scale and he noted my weight, writing it on my hand in thick, black magic marker: 82 kilos. He then sat in one of the chairs and motioned for me to sit across from him.
He wrapped my ankles tightly in two separate sheets of thick, nondescript fabric that almost fit like boots, but without any portion covering my feet. Then he bound them together with the cord that would, ideally, save my life. As he threaded the rope, I couldn't help but notice every tiny, tattered strand that didn't quite seem to be in the meticulous condition I would have hoped for. Was this normal? Were these Australian safety standards? Shouldn't this cord be absolutely pristine? One would expect their savior to be an immaculate masterpiece of modern cable engineering, not this worn, frayed glorified piece of string.
The young man gave both ankles a hard slap to indicate he was finished. "Tight enough?" he asked.
Um... you tell me, man! You're the expert, right? Yeah, it feels pretty tight, but what do I know? I've never jumped from a platform sixty meters above a massive cesspool. My job is to jump. Your job is to ensure I don't smack that disgusting puddle face first at a deadly speed.
I had pictured this whole ordeal with a much greater degree of precision -- almost surgical or scientific. Instead, this guy just seemed to be winging it. It could have been his first day on the job for all I knew. What was I thinking?
"They're tight," I said.
"Okay," he replied, standing up. He pointed towards the lift. "Hop," he said.
As I stood up, I thought he was kidding. So, I tried to penguin-walk over to the lift and nearly fell flat on my face. My ankles were bound too tightly to even allow that minimal amount of movement. He noticed my stumble and laughed. "Hop," he repeated. Then he demonstrated, hopping like a rabbit over to the caged metal box. I followed his lead and hopped, instantly feeling like a complete moron.
I made my way safely into the cage and was surprised to see a girl sitting on the lift's small bench. Why hadn't I noticed her earlier? She couldn't have been older than eighteen or nineteen. She was small and plump with this kind of serene glow. She had an understanding smile playing across her lips and she patted the spot on the bench next to her. It's okay, she seemed to say. I see countless people do this every day of the week. Nothing goes wrong. Don't you think you would have heard about it if something went wrong?
And all of a sudden, my mind lit up like the night sky on the Fourth of July. I did hear something about an organized bungee jump going wrong. In fact, I had watched the video on YouTube! Some British-Indian guy in his twenties decided to bungee jump in -- dear God -- wasn't it Phuket? I think it was! He jumped off and either the rope snapped or it slipped off his feet and he went straight into whatever body of water was below. He survived, but incurred serious injuries. It was a miracle he lived.
Bungee jumping in Thailand -- bad idea.
Despite my realization, the young man who had wrapped my ankles had entered the cage and we were already climbing upwards. Maybe he noticed the concern on my face because he looked at me and said, "Don't worry, man. We take care of you. We have many tourists jump today. Early. Big bus."
I nodded. "Did any of them get up here and decide they were too scared to jump?"
"No," he replied almost immediately. "Everybody jump," and then with a chuckle, "everybody live!"
The cage continued to climb, significantly higher than I had expected. From my vantage point on the ground, the elevation had seemed almost unimpressive. But from that height, it was flat-out terrifying.
The cage came to an abrupt and uneven stop. "Okay," the young man said. "You listen. Hop over to edge. You look straight at mountain," he pointed to the mountain in the distance, "you look at beach," he pointed to Patong Beach, "you don't look down."
I hopped over to the edge of the cage, the heavy cord trailing behind me.
"I count to three," he said. "On three, you raise arms like a bird," he demonstrated, raising both his arms like some winged creature, "and you jump far from platform. Okay?"
This 'far from platform' business presented its own problem. With my ankles bound, it would be difficult to accomplish anything much beyond a falling motion. But I nodded anyway.
"Okay," he said grinning. "1..."
My palms were slick with perspiration. My heart could have burst from my chest.
I tried to focus my eyes straight ahead on the distant mountain, but for some reason they slipped to the pool below. My mind registered the height immediately and I swear, I almost fainted.
"3! Thai bungee!"
Before leaping off the platform, my last thought circled the strange nature of this guy's second rhyme. Did World Bungee make their employees take a class? Was it a prerequisite to learn these few silly rhymes?
Whatever the backstory, the irony was both distracting and amusing. The lighthearted jubilance that danced through the simple rhyme put a smile on my face as I closed my eyes and dove, head first, into the air.
Oh these aspiring World Bungee laureates.
After what felt like an eternal free fall, I opened my eyes, expecting to feel the cord yank my ankles and see the water only a few feet from my face. Clearly my perception of speed and time wasn't at its most acute, because as I opened my eyes it seemed as though I'd only fallen thirty or forty feet. The pool still appeared to be well over a hundred feet below and I was hurtling towards it at (literally) breakneck speed.
The small body of water grew larger and larger, until I finally closed my eyes in anticipation of impact and felt the cord tug almost gently at my ankles.
I was lifted softly back up. And it was at that point I lost all sense of direction. I shut my eyes and opened them again, thinking I'd be falling towards the water, but found myself ascending back towards the cage atop the tall crane. Any time I closed my eyes, the question of ascent or descent was a complete gamble. It was shocking how smooth the motion of it all was. I had been anticipating violent whiplash or at least an uncomfortable jerk, but the cord retracted my body elegantly, almost organically.
It was airborne, adrenaline-fueled poetry in motion.
Eventually (it could have been fifteen seconds or four minutes), physics allowed my body to come to a state of rest, dangling upside-down at the end of the cord over the pool of water. I was laughing like a lunatic as I looked down to find two more World Bungee employees standing on a small dock situated next to the pool. They were raising a long pole towards me.
Another unseen employee lowered the cord from which I dangled and I descended slowly towards the pole until it was within arm's reach. I grabbed it and they pulled me in like some kind of inverted fishing expedition. Like I was some kind of sky shark
Too grandiose? Okay... some kind of sky salmon.
The employee manning the pole and the one operating the height of my cord worked in concert until I was placed softly on my back on a long cushion that sat on the dock.
"Good?" one of the employees asked as he undid the cord and fabric boots that enveloped my ankles.
I was out of breath. I tried to mutter "good" but simply offered him the double thumbs up instead.
As I marched proudly back towards the bar, I found it impossible to remove the smile from my face. I was elated -- high on the body's natural chemicals. Life glowed like a string of Christmas lights all around me.
I grabbed my bag off the bar, which had not moved from the position where I'd left it. I opened it quickly and found everything of worth in its proper place. I looked at the people scattered around the lounge and felt the harsh sting of guilt. These were beautiful people! These were good, well-intentioned individuals and I was a Grade-A douche bag for thinking otherwise.
My driver stood behind the bar with an expectant grin on his face. "We go?" he asked.
The two of us headed back to Patong's main strip of beach, but before we reached the tourist booth, I noticed a Haagen Dazs restaurant and asked the driver to drop me there.
I would consume over 500 baht (nearly twenty U.S. dollars) of ice cream in a matter of minutes. It was more expensive than any meal I'd eaten during my entire time in Southeast Asia.
I believe nothing in the world will ever taste better.
decided it would be too expensive to take the boat back to Phnom
We'd each spent thirty-five American dollars on the one-way ticket and that was exorbitant by Cambodian standards. We were grateful for the experience, but just thirty dollars was enough to cover half a week’s worth of accommodations. It would have been obscene to pay so much for a boat trip, twice, in a country where overland travel is cheap and abundant.
The decision was made – we'd take a seven-dollar bus from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.
"Air conditioning?" we asked the eager teenage salesgirl at the bus company’s street-side booth.
"Oh yes," she replied.
"Oh yes – air conditioned toilet! Very luxury. You VIP!"
We sure are, I thought. In some strange way, it seemed like we earned that air-conditioned toilet.
We chose the seven-dollar bus over the four-dollar bus because of these lavish amenities. We had also laughed at the prospect of a twelve-dollar bus.
"Twelve-dollar bus?" we scoffed. "Who would pay that much? We have everything we could possibly need on our seven-dollar bus?"
"We are definitely V-I-P."
But as we stepped onto the vehicle that awaited us at the small bus station, we realized that the nature of “very important” can be interpretive.
And even before we boarded the bus, we ran into some difficulty.
As our tuk-tuk driver pulled into the station, I realized that the comfort level I'd grown so used to in Siem Reap had decreased notably with every mile we'd traveled outside that familiar city, reaching its low point at the bus station.
The station was little more than an unpaved parking lot. Tornadoes of choking earth whipped up beneath the undercarriages of arriving and departing buses. A small, dusty market offered fruits, vegetables and random snacks arranged on worn-looking blankets. The market was teeming with locals – nary a tourist in sight – and everything seemed to be operating on some kind of confused rhythm, a rhythm I couldn’t quite understand. It was like watching an inside joke – and we were on the outside.
Siem Reap had been swarmed with tourists and backpackers, which may have displaced some authenticity, but it also provided a safely anonymous feeling. This was only my second city in Southeast Asia and I didn’t really mind blending in with other travelers. At this point, the unity among outsiders still felt safe to me, so I had no gripes with seeming unremarkable to the locals. And nothing about us was remarkable in Siem Reap.
The bus station was the first place I felt like a sore thumb.
The apparent confusion was as intimidating as the apparent lack of tourists, but we showed our bus tickets to the tuk-tuk driver and he pulled us up to a large, haggard-looking hunk of metal that appeared to be boarding.
The bus company name on the tickets did not match the name on the bus. Even I could see that much.
We grabbed our bags and the driver walked us over to a woman standing outside the bus who looked to be checking tickets. After a brief conversation in Khmer with our driver, the woman took our tickets and gave us new, different tickets, ones with seat numbers.
Something about that whole exclusionary interaction between the woman and our driver seemed conspiratorial. Consequently, we made our way onto the bus warily, holding tight to our bags when the employees offered to take them... at least until we saw the size of our seats. Then we handed them over begrudgingly, thanking the helpful workers, but eyeing them suspiciously as they placed our bags at the front of the bus.
The only other passengers on the bus were a few Cambodians. We shuffled past them through the impossibly narrow aisle and found our seats, which were ominously stained and painfully small.
"This is going to be a long six hours," I said.
As the ticket woman made sure we were seated, she turned on the small, circular air-conditioning vents above our heads. They showered us with stale almost-oxygen that smelt faintly of sweat and farts.
Squeezing my legs into the tiny space between my seat and the seat in front of me, I looked out the window towards the Mekong Express -- the twelve-dollar bus. I peered through its tinted windows and saw the acceptable leg room, the wide aisles, the TVs.
This is how those Irish passengers on the Titanic must have felt, I thought miserably. Welcome to steerage.
After a few minutes of maintaining our distinction as the only non-Cambodians on the bus, my frustration grew. Could we really be the only Western dolts naive enough to fall for this VIP trick? Surely, there must be other budget-minded travelers who mocked the notion of a twelve-dollar bus when the seven-dollar bus so clearly advertised all the necessary amenities.
"I don't even know if there's a bathroom," I said. "That little girl lied to us. How could she?"
"There's a bathroom," Tyler responded. "I saw it before. It's down those stairs by the luggage compartment, but good luck getting in there. The door is tiny… like really tiny. Someone your size would probably have to crawl in on their hands and knees. It looks more like a doggy door."
The thought of my exposed flesh touching the floor of the bus bathroom made me shiver.
“I don’t even have any Purell!”
a few moments later, the bus began to fill up quickly. And we
noticed, with a certain sense of relief, that we were not the only
tourists taking the trip from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh on this
Misery does love company.
We complained to the young Canadian couple across the aisle from us about our unmet VIP expectations. The couple agreed that their hopes had been higher, but they were in good spirits nonetheless, smiling and eating the fresh pineapples and bananas they'd just bought at the station's market. They told us that they’d been backpacking around Australia and Asia for close to a year and this was not their most trying travel experience. Not by a long shot.
Finally, it seemed like the bus had reached capacity. The doors closed, but only momentarily; they quickly swung back open with a labored gasp and a girl ascended the small staircase sheepishly. She absorbed the scene and said politely to someone behind her, "All the seats are full."
A second girl entered the bus's cabin and sighed, her shoulders shrugging with a sense of frustrated comprehension. "She's right, there are no seats."
A third girl stood on the stairs behind her two companions. She poked her head in between their shoulders and confirmed their claims. "Lovely."
The girls were clearly white, but their skin was a golden brown, undoubtedly colored from days or weeks of steady sun. They were sweating and somewhat disheveled. They shifted uncomfortably as their large, heavy packs sunk into their shoulders. They were probably in their early twenties and their accent sounded Australian.
Behind the three girls, I could see the Cambodian woman that had taken our tickets. She scoped out the cabin and looked perplexed, but altogether uninterested. I watched as the girls showed her their tickets again, asserting this was the correct bus.
"We bought our tickets four days ago," the first girl said calmly. Actually, I was amazed at her patient tone. I thought about what I would have done in their situation.
"Are you kidding me?" I would have screamed. "We paid money for seats! Good American money! And there are no seats! Give me my money back so we can find another bus, one with seats! So help me, I will post the most heinous review on Trip Adviser!"
Instead, the girls stepped off the bus briefly and spoke to the woman in noticeably polite yet barely audible voices. Moments later, they were climbing the stairs back onto the bus, the first girl offering an amicable smile as she settled down next to me in the aisle. The second girl took a spot right in front of her.
"Excuse me," the Canadian man said laughing. "Are you going to ride the whole way in the aisle?"
"Guess so," the first girl said, putting her backpack behind her head like a pillow.
"You know it's like a six-hour ride?"
"Yeah," the girl replied. "I don't think it'll be too bad. This is more comfortable than it looks."
"You've got more leg room than I do," I chimed in.
She laughed. "Yeah, you do look tightly packed over there. Jealous?"
"You can take my seat if you like," the Canadian guy said to her. "I'll take the aisle if you'd prefer."
What a gentleman! I thought with a degree of amazement. The idea had occurred to me to extend the same offer, but I had thought better of it. I truly did not want to lie in the aisle for a six-hour trip – much of it over bumpy and unpaved roads – on an aging bus with shocks that had certainly seen better days. Chivalry be damned.
"It's okay," the girl said to the Canadian. "That’s nice of you, but it's a pretty great story, don't you think? Riding from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh on the floor of a bus." She tapped the shoulder of the friend in front of her. "Take a picture, won't you?"
Her friend turned around, camera in hand, and told her to pose. The first girl stretched out with her knees up and her head on her backpack, doing her best to look both relaxed and comfortable. Her friend snapped a few shots and handed her the camera, asking her to reciprocate.
"Wait, where's your other friend?" I asked them. "Weren't there three of you?"
"Yeah," the first one replied, taking a sip from her water bottle. "She's down below, with the luggage."
"She's riding in the luggage compartment?" I asked incredulously.
"Yes, well, it didn't seem all that bad… though I’m not sure if she'll be able to feel the air-conditioning down there.” The girl shrugged. “She really didn't seem to mind."
Without warning, the bus lurched forward from the station parking lot. The girls bounced almost jubilantly in the aisle as the vehicle forced its way into the muddled flow of traffic.
We spoke with the two girls and found that they were, in fact, from Sydney. They'd been traveling around Southeast Asia for close to six months and Cambodia was their final stop before returning home. And their day of traveling wouldn't come to an end in Phnom Penh either. From there, they would endure an additional four-hour busride (ideally one with seats) south to Sihanoukville, where they would enjoy Chinese New Year on the beaches before their trip home.
dedication was impressive.
A little more than two hours into the trip, we found ourselves driving through some small town, the name of which no one seemed to know. The bus pulled into the parking lot of a dingy restaurant and the driver alerted us that we would stop here for a few minutes. We could grab lunch or use the bathroom, if we so desired.
I looked at the low, grimy building and I didn't see anything that would indicate the presence of electricity. A trip to the bathroom would also prove that running water wasn't readily available – at least not to patrons.
"I'm pretty hungry," I told Tyler after returning from the bathroom. "But we can't eat here, can we? This place doesn’t look very… sanitary."
"Total recipe for diarrhea," he replied without hesitation. Before we had left Taipei, we spoke with eight of Tyler’s friends who had all spent a week in Cambodia. Every single one of them had contracted food poisoning at some point during their trip. "There's no way I'm eating here if I have to sit on that bus for another four hours with just the one bathroom. Honestly, I'm doing everyone else a favor by not eating here."
"Agreed," I said. "We need to be sensible about this. Look," I pointed to a small stand outside the restaurant selling bottles of water and various packaged snacks. "They've got Pringles and some kind of pastry."
"Lunch is served."
We bought our Pringles and small pastries and sat down inside the restaurant at a table with the three Australian girls.
"You guys aren't eating anything?" I inquired. "It’s still a long way to Phnom Penh."
"Oh, we ordered lunch," one of them said.
Tyler and I looked at them with concerned astonishment. "So by 'ordered lunch' you mean..."
They all laughed. "From the kitchen," one clarified.
"Wow," I said. "You're braver than we are. Don’t get me wrong, we ate our share of Cambodian cuisine, but we did it at restaurants that had running water and electricity, for those minor yet important needs – like sanitation and refrigeration."
Again, they laughed.
"We'll eat pretty much anywhere," one said. "And we haven't gotten sick the entire time we've been in Asia... knock on wood." And she gave the table two obligatory knocks.
I was in awe of these girls. They were true travelers -- the real deal. I tried to picture them six months ago, in Sydney, before they set off to gallivant around Southeast Asia. Were they as rugged, fearless and unconcerned as they were now? Or had almost half a year of trekking through some of the lesser developed areas of this continent changed them? Would it do the same for me?
Their steaming plates of food were placed on the table in front of them. Honestly, the bed of noodles looked safe enough, but the meat was indiscernible. "Chicken?" I asked.
"Actually, I think it's supposed to be beef," one responded, handling the chopsticks expertly and inserting a hefty portion of noodles and mystery meat into her mouth. "Maybe chicken – I can’t really tell. Would you like to try some?"
I declined politely and munched on my Pringles.
It's been less than a month, I told myself. You've still got a long way to go.
The Best Pizza in Asia
As it turns out, I’m famous on Phu Quoc Island.
Okay... so not really.
Regardless, my arguable notoriety on Vietnam’s largest island came as a result of pizza.
Being born and raised in New York, I identify myself, rather proudly, as a pizza snob. In fact, my willingness to try pizza anywhere outside of New York or Italy is generally a result of morbid curiosity. Oh man, how bad is this pizza going to be? I'll think with a sense of ecstatic anticipation. The idea of eating terrible pizza is actually thrilling to me, largely because I believe it will legitimize my self-proclaimed and (in my opinion) well-deserved title of pizza connoisseur.
So, as I ordered a pizza at the Blue Sky Restaurant on Phu Quoc Island, my sense of eager entitlement bordered on orgasmic. God, this will be just awful!
The pizza took over twenty minutes to prepare and my hunger grew exponentially. I had just spent over two hours on the back of a scooter traveling through the northern parts of the island. The majority of the roads were unpaved, so, as a result, I was almost entirely coated in a thin layer of dust. It was a relief to simply be sitting at a table reading a book – as opposed to sitting on a small scooter traversing mercilessly bumpy terrain, clinging to the back of a little Vietnamese man who spoke almost no English – but I hadn't eaten a thing in close to seven hours and my thoughts grew venomous as my hunger turned ravenous.
Christ, did they just start picking the tomatoes?
When the pizza was finally placed in front of me, I must admit, I was surprised.
It didn't look so bad.
As I ate the first slice, not only did I find the pizza non-reprehensible, I actually enjoyed it. Had I tried comparable pizza in any New York restaurant, I'd call it uninspired, but in Vietnam, I was rather impressed.
After finishing the pie, I told the somewhat fetching Vietnamese woman who had prepared the pizza that it was, “The best pizza I've tried in Southeast Asia.” It was clear she was thrilled by the compliment. She asked me where I was from and what I did for a living.
“Well, I don't really do anything right now,” I replied. “I’m traveling and I'm sort of a writer... at least I try to be. And I'm from America. New York.”
Her smile widened and she thanked me profusely.
Honestly, I didn’t give much thought to the weight of the compliment. Including this occasion, I'd only tried pizza in Southeast Asia four times. Two of the times were in Cambodia – once the pizza was cooked with marijuana and the other was nearly inedible – and the third time was in Thailand when I was recovering from food poisoning.
You can imagine my surprise as I walked past the restaurant the following day and the Vietnamese woman called out to me. Her English was poor, but intelligible.
She directed my attention to the menu situated outside the restaurant for public viewing. On the second laminated page, in bold letters, was the proclamation:
“Best pizza in Asia!”
-New York Writer
I can hardly begin to describe the questionable accuracy of this quote. For starters, even my original statement – “Best pizza I've tried in Southeast Asia.” – wasn't all that flattering. It's probably comparable to saying, “Nicest hotel in Compton!” or “Best martini in Kuwait!” And the complete omission of “…I've tried in Southeast…” pretty much falsified the quote entirely. I’d tried pizza in Taipei that was certainly better.
Not to mention, the compliment was taken out of context. I was tired and famished when I first dug into the pizza and I think, at that point, a piece of dough slathered in bile and coated with mozzarella could have tasted acceptable.
Of course, this is also ignoring the fact that, in the eyes of the world, I'm hardly a writer – at least not a famous one. I’m a Nobody. And no one really cares what a Nobody has to say… even if he is from New York.
Still, it’s tough to ignore the temptation of vanity. Like most sins, it can be pleasing to indulge.
Why wouldn’t I leave my mark on this island? Even if the dubious statement vanished from the menu days later, the amount of people to see the misquote could sadly trump the amount of readers visiting my website. So, I smiled and thanked the woman for the recognition, telling her that she should also include my web address.
A Dangerous Attachment
(My Pii Mai Ghost)
At first, I couldn't believe my eyes. I recognized him almost immediately, but not her. She was supposed to be gone. She should have flown to Hanoi the day before.
It was like seeing a ghost.
She said something about being too sick to travel and missing her flight. Part of me thought it was bullshit; part of me thought she was trying to hide. But you can't really hide from anyone in Luang Prabang. You'll see everyone you want to see and everyone you don't.
And I really didn't want to see her – at least not like that. It was so awkward, part of me just wanted to walk away mid-sentence. Instead, I felt obligated to fill the space with a stupid dinner invitation.
“Do you guys want to get dinner later?” I asked the question with such confused apathy, I couldn't imagine them taking the offer seriously. Truthfully, I just wanted them to know where I was going so they could avoid it.
I said they could find me at Utopia if they wanted. Then I left, silently hoping I could last two more days in the city without seeing either of them.
Somehow, it was one of the harder goodbyes I've said in Southeast Asia. And it wasn't even really a goodbye.
“I'll see you never,” I said as I hugged her on intersecting corners of the road under the weak glow of a streetlight.
“What? I'll see you before I leave tomorrow. My flight's in the afternoon.”
I wanted her to come back to my room so I could offer an appropriate send-off, but I saw the way she was getting along with him and I felt uncomfortable extending the invitation. Their connection had started earlier in the day and seemed to intensify as the evening drew on. It was hard to believe she wouldn't be sleeping next to me on her last night in this fated city.
But in a weird way, it almost seemed appropriate.
That night, I thought about leaving my door unlocked, so she could sneak in whenever she wanted. I pictured her creeping in the next morning before her flight. Her backpack would be heavy on her shoulders and she'd be sweating. She'd look awkward and tired and beautiful when she left...
This was my revised version of our finale, and it turned out to be as far from reality as the original.
She'd say it was meant to happen this way.
I like to think she's right.
She looked at me with affection I hadn't seen in ages. It was flattering, heart-wrenching and intimidating. She finally told me about her baggage – the reason she was distant that evening – and I felt like I could close my eyes and hear someone else speaking the same words, an impossibly familiar voice articulating the same defensive message. It made me want to run. It made me want to pry myself from her eyes, her lips and her arms. It made me want to push myself off her hard mattress and disappear without another word.
Then she said something to me – sounding just like the past – and I looked into her eyes, pushed her hair behind her ear and lied to her. I think that was the only time I was dishonest.
I wanted to go back to my room and self-medicate, inducing oblivion. I wanted to jump on the soonest bus or plane, or throw myself from Luang Prabang's highest point. But I asked her if she wanted me to stay and without a second's hesitation she said, “Yes.”
I settled in, telling myself this was our time together.
This was our new year.
I silently cursed attachment. I pleaded with deities and spirits. Then I fell asleep for an hour or two, vividly dreaming of sex and faceless apparitions that were instantly recognizable despite their lack of features. When I woke up, I was disoriented – I had no idea where I was or who I was sleeping next to. But I saw her thumb twitch – the way it tends to when she sleeps – and reality came rushing back, pushing away the dreams I wanted to keep.
In Luang Prabang during Pii Mai, the spirits are roaming and the ghosts are everywhere, even in the eyes and words of the people that were strangers just days before. In a few days, anything can happen.
She said, “Just live in the moment – that's what travelers do.” Earlier in the evening, she even scribbled it down amidst other fleeting observations as we sipped our drinks at the bar. A soulful acoustic guitar added a volatile ambiance, offering distempered beauty or crushing sadness, depending on the song.
With just a few nights left, I thought that particular interaction could mean more than others. I thought I might be able to use it to compose a journal entry more suitable to her expectations.
Later, we walked through the dimly lit streets, holding hands and embracing the antiquated feeling the city breathed on us. Impermanence was distant as we talked about home, with all its ugly and beautiful connotations. We were backdrop silhouettes on an immense stage, calling more attention to ourselves than we deserved. We were wanderers in a world that was so big and so small, it felt more like a concept than an actual place.
We could here the geckos and the slow rush of the Mekong. The night was hot and humid, forcing implications on us like bits of moisture, like tiny beads of sweat. We could have drank the air just to taste all the indescribable things that made this place so beautifully surreal. We were lost specters drifting through the living world, curiously enamored with everything around us and unable to understand why we didn't belong there. We were in a place we didn't want to leave, but it wasn't our home and it never would be.
Days ago, I was scared of losing the friends I had grown so close to. Now, I was scared of growing too close to one I'd never be able to keep.
I know I've made good and bad decisions. I think the ones involving her rank highly in both categories.
And in my mind, I know pieces of Luang Prabang will always belong to her.
We met at Utopia for the second night in a row. And I was glad to see her. My Swedish friends had left for Thailand, so I was looking for new people to keep me company during my remaining days in Laos.
I couldn't remember her name from the night before, but the German guy could. He told me and it seemed fitting.
“That's so American,” I said to him.
The German and I drank with the girl and her Australian companion until the bar closed and then we started back to our respective guest houses, discovering after a few minutes of walking that the girls and I were staying at the same place. We said goodbye to the German on Sisavangvong and continued to our hotel.
“I don't know if you guys are interested,” I said to them as we entered the courtyard of our guest house. “But I'm going to smoke a joint. You're more than welcome to join me.”
Her Aussie friend declined, but she agreed.
“I'd love to smoke a joint,” she said.
We went back to my room, got stoned, listened to music and talked about everything – even the things you don't talk about with people you've just met. The ceiling fan spun feverishly overhead and the television sat black and silent across the room. Despite the air-conditioning, the heat was our quiet companion, only dissipating as the morning hours faded slowly into the past.
Our positions on the bed grew closer as time slipped away. After a few hours, her head was on the pillow next to mine, the overhead fan lightly whipping her loose strands of hair into my forehead. She sat up and looked at me with enormous eyes, moving slowly but knowingly in for a kiss. I gladly accepted and returned it.
“You tramp,” I said to her, smiling, as our lips parted for a moment.
She pretended to be offended, then kissed me again.
Earlier in the evening, she and her friend had agreed to see the procession of Monks receiving their rice at 5:30am. “There's no point in sleeping,” she said.
She asked me to turn off the obnoxious fluorescent light that hung over the door, so the room was bathed in a tranquil darkness with just a sliver of light seeping out from the bathroom. “I can't see your eyes. Are they closed?” She asked this question with an accusing tone that almost hid the exhaustion in her voice.
“My eyes are open,” I told her. The statement came with an unintended depth that made her giggle. “But I don't think you'll make it to 5:30. You should set your alarm.”
She put up a brief, feeble argument, then set the alarm on her watch. We lay in silence, our fingers lazily dancing across each other's body just to offer a sign we were still awake. Eventually, her fingers slowed and finally stopped. She breathed slowly and evenly, the air from her mouth wafting predictably into my neck. After a sudden convulsion, she woke, sleepily apologized, then fell immediately back to sleep. Speckled pre-dawn light crept in below the curtain and settled on her face. Her eyelids looked pale and heavy. Her lips were pursed in a thin smile.
Minutes later, her alarm sounded. She gave an exasperated grunt and turned it off.
“It's monk o'clock,” I said.
She grumbled. “Fuck the monks.”
“I'm pretty sure they're not allowed to do that.”
She smiled and looked at me. “I should go wake my friend. She doesn't have an alarm.”
“That's probably a good idea.”
She sat up, yawned and stretched. “So we'll have dinner... if I don't see you before then?”
“Yes," I replied. "You may even be able to decide if you like me when you're sober.”
She laughed, leaning in for a goodbye kiss. “I don't think it'll be a problem.”
I watched as she stood and collected
her things. She gave a timid sort of wave as she left the room,
closing the heavy wooden door behind her.