07 April 2016

Lulling

April 17th my parents arrive. May 8th I fly into Mexico City. These are the dates I’m drifting toward. Because my focus is on the future I’ve been letting stories come and go. To me this is a time between adventures, an inevitable lull in a long travel tale. But that is unfair because there have been plenty of stories worth remembering. 

Cebu, Philippines: It was night. It was hot. And I was wrecked. I had spent the previous ten hours lying on the floor of the Manila airport barely fueled by donuts, coffee and dim sum. A taxi would have been cheap and easy, but with the big Latin America adventure coming up I wanted to hone my budget travel skills, so I aimed for the Jeepney stand. Jeepneys are ubiquitous in the Philippines and you can take them anywhere for the change in your pocket. The line whittled down and I squeezed into a tin box decorated like a four-wheel acid trip—most of them are. Like a rube I said, “City Center?” The woman across from me laughed and asked me where I needed to go. I showed her the address of my hostel. “First you must take a ferry, come with us, we’ll show you!”

For ten minutes I caught glimpses of a dark city passing in the narrow space between passengers. At my stop (apparently) I put 8 pesos in an outstretched palm and watched it pass from hand to hand until it reached the driver. My guide was in her late forties or early fifties and jolly in every way. She took great pleasure in teasing me. “When we see my husband tell him that I was only helping you. He is very jealous!” The ferry cost an additional 13 pesos. As we crossed I was given a breakdown of the city; where each pier was located, the nice hotels, markets, restaurants. On the other side we met up with her husband and I thanked her for her help. “Wait wait,” she said. “I will take you.” She left her bags with hubby and pulled me down an alley where we got on another Jeepney. And then another. She took me straight to the front door of the hostel and would have walked me inside if I had let her. With her help I reached my destination a whooping $2 richer. Over the course of a long trip two dollars here and two dollars there starts to add up but that is secondary. The budget way is almost always the local way. It’s how you immerse in a place rather than hop from edifice to edifice. I got in a Jeepney and a local guided me through the real Cebu. She was kind and asked for nothing. She simply wanted a stranger to like her city. A taxi driver wouldn’t have given two shits.  

Koh Tao, Thailand: I was there to close out my life; sell stuff, file taxes, chill and save. I was expecting to be bored. Instead it turned into a succession of slow days and wild nights. When I was working I was working all the time. I had forgotten how fun Koh Tao can be when you have nothing to do. And I was surprised by how much separation the Philippines had given me. The island didn’t feel claustrophobic the way I thought it would. It felt like any other place I used to live. The last thing I packed was my red hammock. With a ticket for the night boat in my pocket I let the hammock sway. I was listening to a Spanish audio lesson, prepping for the big adventure.

Radio Voice: How do you say, “Do you want to drink something?”
Me: Quienes beber?
Radio Voice: Quienes beber algo?
Me: Shit. Algo. Something. Algo algo algo.

Push and sway.
 
Cebu, Philippines: My hostel was a filthy little horror show in a neighborhood with no food. I dragged my feet block by block sure that the next would be bustling with street stalls—a deep-fried oasis. Nope. The only thing I could find was a live music venue slinging burgers. The second I walked in fifteen pretty girls in blue mini-dresses suctioned onto me, rubbing my earlobes, caressing my sternum—blow jobs were clearly on the dessert menu. Normally I find these brothel-in-disguise places amusing, but I was tired and hungry so I just wanted the pretty mosquitoes to go away. I ordered a burger and a San Mig Light. The temperature of the room rose—testosterone puffing out steam. All around pink-faced sexpats were staring at me. Old wrinkly pervs, suddenly womanless, wondering who this young punk thought he was, stealing all the action. I ate my burger and didn’t flirt back. One-by-one the mosquitoes buzzed off in pursuit of easy money. The King of the Sexpats was sitting at a nearby table talking to a new pink face.

“Name’s Radar,” he said. “What’s your mood? Eenee Meenie Miney Moe.”

Ao Nang, Thailand: I was sipping bad Thai whiskey with my good buddy Blake. We were roommates in the Surat days and he was back for a one week visit. He is a “real” teacher now; 3rd grade on East Coast, America. The breeze was warm and the limestone cliffs were a window to a million years ago. These were the first drinks in what would become a five day bender. Blake was telling me about his job, which he likes a lot, but he is also concerned about the Monday to Friday grind, and more specifically the way yesterday, today and tomorrow tend to look the same. I felt a twinge of guilt because the 5:2 loop isn’t tangible anymore. It used to be within reach, an electric fence ready to zap me if I lost focus. But, I’ve gotten so accustomed to living out of a backpack that American Settled is no longer an electrified motivator. It’s just the way people live back home. Blake gave a speculative look at his half-empty glass of whiskey and said, “I didn’t think I’d be up for it, but this is kicking in. I feel good!” And so the madness began.

La Union, Philippines: My mouth was mucky with the residue of sleep. I was preparing breakfast; instant oatmeal with chunks of banana that I ripped off with my hands, instant coffee and a big ass bottle of water to wash away the muck. Behind me was a dilapidated room with a single naked bulb and fan that swept in noisy death spasms. I was steps from the sand with a clear view of the sea and the morning sky. The accommodation was basic but the setting was pure luxury.

I watched the gentle commotion of La Union; bronzed kids dragging over-sized surf boards, a stage being set for a concert later that night, vendors setting up tables at a local coffee shop to sell empanadas, natural honey, acai bowls and locally grown produce. This was a surf community on the rise—a place where local entrepreneurs were invested in each other’s success. I exhaled and a heaviness I didn’t know I’d been carrying went with it.

This trip to Central and South America is about more than travel; it is a scouting mission. I want to start a new business and I’m looking for my perfect beach town.
·         Known but feels undiscovered
·         Invested (or could be) in surfing
·         Affordable
·         A community that wants to grow without losing authenticity

And I am willing to be patient. My beach town is out there. I just need to find it.

Koh Lanta, Thailand: Day two of the bender. I felt better than I looked, so when Blake handed me a beer I didn’t object. It was 11am and we were sitting on a cement bench waiting for the ferry. “Just one,” he said, “To take the edge off.” I snorted. We crushed the first and then picked up speed. We ran through beers like we were on a Wipe Out course and we were. I don’t remember getting off the ferry.

BLACK. We are at a resort. How did we get here? There is no way I’m this drunk already. We took that purple ferry—to Koh Lanta—but where on Koh Lanta? Whatever, these are tomorrow problems. Where is the bar? We are lounging on pillows drinking big Leos on the rocks—Thai style. The bar has a funky reggae thing going. We agree that a nap would have ruined us. We are laughing at our own predictability. Is it sunset already? I should eat something. I should slow down.

BLACKER. We are at a different bar. How the f… Oh, wait. Yeah, yeah, I remember coming here. I’m holding a pool cue. There is a blonde girl in a white and black striped shirt looking at me expectantly. German? She’s German! I’ve been hitting on her…her…whatever her name is. Where is Blake? There he is, talking to that creepy dude that keeps hovering. I need to get him out of there. It’s my shot. Focus. Focus. And hit the big snowball.

BLACKEST. It’s morning and I’m curled up in the sand. There is a pebble in my mouth that is cutting into my cheek. I’m still drunk—drunker than I should have been at any point last night. A scorching self-loathing makes my skin burn hot and red. I force myself to sit up. I pat my pockets. My wallet is still there, at least there is that. Blake is waking up a few feet to my left. And there is that creepy dude! Not twenty yards away! What in the actual fuck! Blake and I walk back to the resort. He explains that he couldn’t find me in the bar or back at the room so he went out looking. He walked the beach in the dark until he literally tripped over me. Already face down in the sand he decided to sleep there. I’m mad at myself. Blake on the other hand is clearly amused. I know he is right. We’ll laugh about this forever.

Port Barton, Philippines: I love the vaguely undiscovered places and Port Barton sounded like my kind of town. I showed up at sundown with $10 in my pocket and no place to stay, which ended up being risky because Port Barton was a lot more rugged than I expected; a few criss-crossed dirt roads, electricity that only works in the evening, no ATM and more chickens than people. I had just enough money for a room and a meal. If I couldn’t figure out how to get money it would be a hungry hitch-hike to Puerto Princessa in the morning. I walked the dusty roads looking for something cheap and dirty. An older woman came running out of a nearby house. “Do you need accommodation? I have accommodation here!” Her name was Nelly and she turned out to be an absolute gem.

Nelly and her husband moved to Port Barton in 1983, when it “wasn’t so crowded.” They raised their children in the house they built not far from the beach. They retired with reluctance. Her husband would like to relax more but admits that it’s healthier to keep busy. Nelly wants nothing to do with lying about. Running her homestay, ridding the town of cock-fighting, tending to her farm, she’s got energy for it all and no time to slow down. She was quite the scholar in her youth, but started a family before she finished University. She is in her late sixties now and is itching to go back to school. Like I said, she is a keeper.  

I stayed in a little room in Nelly’s house for nearly a week. The money thing worked out. I was able to do a wire transfer to a local pawn shop and pick the cash up there. Port Barton was exactly what I had hoped it would be; long stretches of empty beach, hammocks strung from windblown palms, cheap eats and quiet nights. The travel circuit can be a blur of buses, beaches, parties and people mostly like you. It helps to step away; find a quiet spot to read books, nap away the time, and connect with locals rather than travelers. My room at Nelly’s was $8 per night and my favorite local eatery had a lunch special “Local Food + Rice” for about 70 cents. There were hammocks everywhere. I napped around. 

Nelly kept going on and on about taking a field trip to her farm. I was loving the beach chill and not exactly excited about it, but it was Nelly, I couldn’t say no. On my last day Nelly and her husband gathered their guests; me, a French woman who was living in Port Barton and writing a Philosophy book and a Polish dude who left home to disappear into the jungle and live off the land. He later told me with a straight face that making electricity from earth’s magnetic field is, “so easy.”


Wearing a floppy hat and carrying a walking stick Nelly led the way. At the end of the main beach we rounded the point and passed a litter of puppies prancing in the sand. A few minutes later I noticed that Nelly had one of the puppies in her arms.

“Did you take that?” I asked

“No! I talk to the man. He told me I can have a baby dog. This one will live on my farm!”

We crossed two more beaches, beautiful with nothing more than huts for harvesting coconuts. We turned onto a small footpath leading into the jungle and followed it to the top of a rounded hill and a clearing where Nelly and her husband kept their farm. It was a lovely little spot with fruit trees and fields of pineapple. Nelly served us sugary coffee and bread with peanut butter and I thought that was sustenance enough, but she was just getting started. Using all locally grown vegetables and coconut pulled straight from the tree she made an amazing soup served with rice. I gorged until my belly was round and still plucked a guava for dessert.

We spent the rest of the afternoon lounging. Nelly’s son had joined us. He lived on the farm and building it up was his great pride. This was tough for Nelly. He was a smart kid and an excellent student. She wanted him to become a priest. “He is happy out here,” she said. “I want my children to be happy.”

Nelly didn’t charge us a single peso for our field trip to the farm. She was fiercely insistent about that. “This is for my guests. Many times other people want to come to my farm but I always tell them no. This is not for them. It is special for my guests.”

“I’m glad you saw me walking by Nelly.”

And she smiled.

Karen Hill Tribe Village, Chiang Rai, Thailand: I spent five days alone in deep but comfortable isolation. The resort I stayed at was a pretty little place on the edge of the Mae Kok River. I was the only guest. The resort was in the Karen Hill Tribe village and all modern amenities were 30 km away in Chiang Rai. One day I decided to walk to the closest restaurant, a roadside joint near the entrance to a national park, it was a four hour excursion. The isolation was perfect, exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to hike, read, write and study. I wanted to detox from my recent wildness. And I did. The only person I spoke to during my stay was Nan the proprietor. He likes the quiet life and doesn't want too many tourists making too much noise. He is also something of an environmentalist. He does his best to educate the local tribes about the consequences of their destructive practices. He convinced the village to ban dynamiting for fish, but he hasn't been able to convince the rice farmers to stop control burning during the dry season. Throughout my stay skinny towers of white smoke rose from the hills making the air sting and taste of grim. "They only think about the money," Nan said. "They're poor, they need money now, sure. But, they don't think about our home. They don't care about the nature. This is no good." 

Nearing the End: I was looking forward to this like homework. I was excited to introduce mom and dad to Asia, but all that time between. I was worried that I would fill it with boredom, frustration and bitterness about the cause. Stupid really. I'm never bored abroad. And the last couple of months have proven why. This is a ride that never comes back around. It twists and turns, drops and climbs, but it never stretches out in a straight predictable line. I had all that time to kill and now it's gone. I tried to make it dull. I tried live simply and save my travel energy for Latin America. But the ride had different ideas. I went to the world's most beautiful beaches and ran wild at night. I reconnected with old friends and caught up on me time too. I veered off the tourist trail and met wonderful people like Jeepney Lady, Nelly and Nan.

I thought about being more practical, (well, I thought about thinking about it) but my happiness has never been on the long straight line. I like riding in the first car with my hands in the air shouting, "Fuck a 5:2 loop!" That works for me. That's why I live abroad with the weirdos and the wanderers and the harnessers of magnetic fields. 

But, a time of waiting can happen to anyone. So what would you do with empty months and nothing to do? Would you fix it? Would you stuff it full? Or would you just lull?