"All the time I'm not writing I feel like a criminal." -Fran Lebowitz

Thursday, February 26, 2015

TRAVEL DISPATCH - WEEK THIRTY-FOUR - "Advice From an Old Thai Woman"

The train kept stopping and starting, sometimes every goddamn two minutes. I was getting frustrated. Each time the train stopped, not at a station but in the middle of the countryside, seemingly waiting for nothing, I alternated glances from my iPhone, to out the window, to the rest of the car. Outside, the sky was a brilliant blue and held stark, white clouds, and the fields and rice patties of the eastern Thai countryside were a shimmering green, a painting come alive. Inside, however, the train car was hot and humid despite all the windows being wide open, was loud from the chatter of families, the laughter of children, and the sales calls of vendors walking the aides with buckets of sauced rice, skewered chicken, and vegetables, and was smelly from sauced rice, skewered chicken and vegetables, and the sweat of the crowds of people sitting three to every two seats and packed in the aisle, a nightmare come alive.

My glances at my phone were hopeful; I wanted the time on the display to somehow promise that despite the slow pace, the train WAS going to arrive on time, to reassure me that this leg of the commute was almost over, that soon enough I’d be on my way to the next step.

The phone neither promised nor reassured. It apologized. It read 1:16pm. The train was supposed to have arrived at 1:16pm. The train was not going to arrive at 1:16pm.

The train from Bangkok wasn’t even going all the way to Siem Reap. It would stop at the Thailand border, at the small town called Aranyaprathet, and from there I would pass through immigration, then cross over the border into Cambodia, where I would, er, pass through immigration, then pick up a bus in another small town called Poipet, which would take me to a bus station somewhere down the road, where I would catch, er, ANOTHER bus that would take me the rest of the way to Siem Reap.

I had been told that the buses in Poipet left with regularity each day, until they no longer did. Nobody I asked seemed to know at what point in the day they no longer did. It wouldn’t be surprising to me if that point was 1:17pm.

So I was concerned that I would miss the last bus to the last bus to Siem Reap, which would make me miss my reservation to my Siem Reap hotel, which would make me miss seeing Angkor Wat the next day, which would, which would, DOMINOS FALLING…and after each glance at my phone, my glance around the rest of the train car became more and more frantic. I could feel the car closing in on me. Why wouldn’t it start moving again? WHEN would it start moving again? Every moment seemed to bring more and more people into the car. What if I had to walk down the aisle? It was jammed, it would be impossible. WHEN would this train start moving?

I looked at my phone again - 1:17 - then up at the car. Across the aisle, in the seat facing me was an old Thai woman. Wrinkled, worn, her white hair pulled back into a bun, she seemed perfectly comfortable despite the heat and chaos. She stared at me. I looked back at my phone to avoid her gaze: still 1:17.

I looked back up.

She was still staring at me, but now she was smiling, and her smile held my gaze.

She nodded her forehead toward the phone in my hand, shook her head and said to me in accented English, “Forget the time.”


Time on this trip has proven to be a paradox. From the beginning, when I had almost ten blank months in a planner to fill with experiences, it seemed endless. “I have all the time in the world,” I thought back in July. Planning my loose agenda around the globe, I worried that I couldn’t possibly have enough places and events to cover all of the days. As I would itemize places with those days ("three days in Singapore, five in Kuala Lampur..."), however, I would suddenly be gripped with the realization that the days would burn quickly. I wanted to be able to devote enough time to every single place I visited but that clearly proved impossible. “If I go to Nepal for two weeks and have to be in London on January 3rd, that really tightens up India and I’ll barely have time for Africa…” and so on.

“Time flies.”

If this trip ends when I imagined it would, it will have lasted 288 days, almost ten months. Back in July, when I thought about how many days were left, it seemed impossible that they would all come and pass. On some level, it still feels that way. Today, it’s almost eight months into the journey and there are still fifty days remaining. Fifty! Even after almost 240, fifty days seems like a pile, somehow. I know, however, that those days are going to pass like a (snap) of my fingers. Well, perhaps not like a (snap), the days neither fly nor drag by (see below), but they WILL pass. They are going to come and go.

“Time is running out.”

This trip is ending soon. How I can feel both that the trip has a long ways to go yet is almost over confuses me. But I am determined to not let it affect how I feel about it. I’m determined to “forget the time” and recognize how all times must end.

“It’s about time.”

I find myself at once looking forward to my trip’s conclusion but also dreading it, for the conclusion not only means that I’m no longer ON this adventure - “time’s up” - but that the next part of the adventure will be here and I’ll be forced to address it. I want to get a lot of work done when the next part of this adventure begins in April, and for that to happen I better learn to manage my time. Right now, I don’t know exactly how I’ll address it. “Only time will tell.” Also, how will this trip have changed me? I don’t know. “Only time will tell.”

I have to remind myself that this trip is its own animal, just like whatever happens after the trip is over is its own animal, and that there is no “right” amount of days for anywhere I’m going, no matter where I end up…

…Just as there’s no “right” amount of ways to spend each day now. One of the things I’ve most enjoyed about this whole trip is I’ve allowed myself to spend my time the way I want, to even WASTE some time along the way. There have been days I’ve seen eight tourist attractions, days where I've seen billions of dollars'  worth of art, and days where I’ve done nothing but watch “Parks & Recreation” on my laptop. I do what I want with my time, and I decide what I want to do with my time, often right at the time. That’s a paradox for me, too. For so much of life, most of us have somewhere to be at a certain time. Work at a certain time, until a certain time. You have to be here then, and here then. Aside from catching a bus, train, or plane, that has not been an issue for me in the past eight months. It takes some getting used to. So I’ve been able to work on what that Thai woman told me, to work on “forgetting the time,” because for these 288 days, time hasn’t really mattered.

"My time is my own…"

…even the time that’s passed. Again, the days themselves don't move slowly. The past on this trip, however, has become a distant yet flexible accordion of memories. Perhaps it’s because the trip has been so long, or perhaps it’s because I’ve spent a great amount of it alone, unable to immediately bounce the experiences off another for perspective, but every day that passes seems to instantly zoom into the distant past, as if it hyperspaces away from me, a spaceship of a day's worth of images and feelings. The day I drove my rental car out of the Chateau Marmont parking lot seems a million miles away. Australia seems forever ago. The day I arrived in Rio seems the same forever ago, but it was less than a month that I was trying to memorize fake exit itineraries at the Lisbon airport to ensure Brazil would grant me entrance. Last year I couldn't remember an actor's name - JOHN C. REILLY, ARE YOU KIDDING ME? - while watching him in a movie. So I’m convinced that soon I’m going to try to look back on this whole journey but my mind will have discarded everything. But it hasn’t yet. I don’t forget anything about this trip. When I choose to think about a day gone by, it comes right back to me as if I’m pulling on it with a bungee cord. It snaps into focus and I find new details every single time I dwell on it. But once a day is over during this trip, it’s almost as if it becomes a cherished memory right away. It’s given weight. That’s a strange feeling. Is it because it’s part of something “special” to me? Is it because it’s MINE, and mine alone? In normal life, I struggle to remember the previous Tuesday. But so far, I’ve been able to flip through my mental catalogue of every single day since July 3rd, 2014 and see each day as vividly as if it were today. I may have to snap it back to me, but every day is an important time…

…even when the day involves something I’ve gone through time and time again. So many bus rides, through the hearts of Asia and South America, where I look out the window at the countryside while I listen to my iPhone to pass the time. So many train rides, across Europe and Australia, over nights, where I listen to my iPhone and struggle to sleep for a suitable time. So many immigration checkpoints, where I wait on line, worry that I’ll have the right visas and fees and stamps, while I listen to my iPhone and bide my time. So many rituals - “Find an ATM, find a currency exchange, find the subway, find the place where you’re staying, Billy, THEN you can grab breakfast/lunch/dinner/a beer, THEN you can decide where your coffee shop is, THEN you can start to explore…” So many hotel rooms. So many AirBnB apartments, where so many times I feel like an intruder for only a brief while before my host makes me feel as if I’ve never been more welcome than where I am at that moment.

Not so many hostels, heh.

So many mornings getting up too early to pack my backpack, to try another way to make the packed bag more compact, to realize I could’ve slept another half-hour, to check out, to say goodbye to my host, to get back to the bus station on time, the train station ahead of time, the airport with plenty of time, to leave - most of the time leave only for A time, ‘cause I WILL be back ANOTHER time - to go to the next place...

...where, more often than not, I’ll have a great time.

The repetition can be numbing, the logistics and the movement providing nothing tangible really except for discomfort and occasionally panic. But that repetition is as part of the journey as everything else, and as much as I can hate it at the time, it can also be those logistics, that discomfort, that introduces you to another traveler who’s just as uncomfortable, and suddenly a friendship is born. All it takes is taking a breath and asking, “Where are you traveling from?” and the follow-up, “Do you speak English?” Sometimes those logistics, and the physical act of movement, from the room, to the station, to the border, over the border, onto the next destination, can be a comforting sense of deja vu…

(…and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes I AM actually crossing over the Brazil/Argentina border at the EXACT same spot for the SECOND time in four days not because of some sense of deja vu, but because the first time I tried to cross I had neglected to pay the Argentine Reciprocity Fee and no, as a matter of fact one CAN’T pay that AT the border even though it’s 2015 and it’s as simple as having a credit card machine there, so yeah, I’m not getting into Argentina and no, the next bus from Foz do Iguacu to Buenos Aires isn’t until Sunday, so yeah, I’m going to have to walk BACK to Brazil and hope that I can change my ticket and argue with the ticket agent via his computer’s Google Tranlate and then realize I didn’t get my passport stamped for me coming BACK into Brazil so I’m going to have to walk BACK to the border from whence I just came and get that stamp and lemme tell ya,by the end of it I’m gonna say, “Fuck it, I don’t care how much the hotel costs,” because that’s just going to be all-the-way-around a shitty time…)

…But one day I’ll be able to ask myself, “Remember the time you got rejected trying to cross the border into Argentina?” and the memory and anecdote will be worth it. And in between the logistics are the day-to-day, once in a lifetime experiences I'll be able to ask myself, "Remember the time?" Just like I’ll be able to ask myself, “Remember the time you thought a guy was pointing a gun at you at that Hungry Jack's at three in the morning in Adelaide, Australia?” and “Remember the time you were so close to a swimming dolphin in Bali you could’ve stuck your finger in its blowhole?” and “Remember the time you sang karaoke in Beijing with two different sets of people within four hours of each other?” and “Remember the time that woman in Vientiane offered you a full-time job as a bar manager on the spot?” and “Remember the time you walked around London for the first time?” and “Remember the time you first caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower?” and “Remember the time you made a friend in Perth/Singapore/Nepal/Barcelona/Rio/on/on/on?”  

And on and on and on. So maybe, with all due respect to that old Thai woman, I will, but I won’t, “forget the time.”

But I’ll remember the time someone told me to forget the time, and how important that time was to me.