Friday, April 29, 2011
Open your heart
My last two serious relationships have left me simply...damaged. I followed my heart, moved to Australia and got dumped; left in a strange country alone and heartbroken (ok, it wasn't like that at all, Jess's family graciously let me stay with them after the break-up, I just chose to venture off alone, cause I couldn't figure a better way to deal with my emotional instability). Then a year and a half later, I found the situation reversed and I had to knowingly break the heart of another person I did not love, but cared about about immensely, a friend of eight years, which was oddly enough, even more painful. So, suffice to say, I avoided all forms of intimacy with other women for a long time; I just couldn't take any more potentiality of pain, which I'd begun to associate with romance. It wasn't just romantic love, but love in general. I was afraid of feeling.
Over the last few months, my desires for romance had started creeping back. When travelling, it's easy to ignore and simultaneously indulge on romantic urges, people pass in and out with little chance of real connection. I'd met a few women that had struck my fancy along the way, but the situation was not right or I was just too afraid to make a move with somebody I knew I'd probably never see again. Within my first week on Koh Phangan, I was all but propositioned by three different women, but I've never been one for random sex myself (though I do love a good snog now and then!). I prefer real connections.
Well, with nearly all of my needs being met on the island, I opened myself to the idea of romance once again. The second I chose to do this, I found myself falling for an older Dutch woman who herself was recovering from some past romantic smut. Our intense one-week romance was passionate and lovely.
Wading in the crystal clear water, flat, still like glass. The saturated sand under my feet is so soft with every step. She's floating on her back, supported by my right hand, eyes closed, shining under the sun. I lean down and place a salty kiss on her cheek. Soft skin, green eyes, the warmth of another person. This was the root of all my fears? Love?
I take a large spoonful of the tan paste, a ground mix of oil, onions, garlic, tomatoes, ginger and masala, and wait for it to sizzle, releasing the smell that will always transport me one place, North India. This was not a pure Indian curry though; once the paste melted to a thick bubbling liquid, I pour the thick coconut mix and mix them together into a yellow soup. Next comes the fish sauce. One mistake many make when cooking Thai food is fearing the fish sauce...never fear the fish sauce. I add equal amounts of light soy sauce, being careful not to put too much of each: both are so salty, an excess would overpower the delicate flavor of the crab meat, which I add five minutes later after slow, thickening boil. I crack and egg and the yoke sinks into the curry, I use the side of my spoon to break it open and mix the orange into the rest, letting it all heat to boil three times, stirring in between. Then I remove the heat and let it rest for a few minutes, trying my best not to stare in anticipation. The egg thickens the curry and makes the taste just a bit more rich, but not overbearing. Finally, I take the lime, chop into quarter wedges and squeeze three right in. The fourth, I squeeze more carefully, stopping just when it feels right. I take the spoon and sip the curry, but put one more dab of fish sauce then dip for another taste. Perfect flavor balance is rare, but this dish has it. I always know I've hit that point when my legs shake a little upon hitting my tongue. I jump up and down, exclaim, "woo!" My Burmese coworkers always laugh when I reach this point...they know it's finished. I quickly bring it to the table so I don't find myself grabbing another spoonful and another. I'd forgot how important cooking was to me in the months on the road...Love
A perfect chunk of ripe mango should melt in the mouth. They often all look the same, a light orange color, but you never know if its a good mango until you place in the mouth and press it against the roof and feel it give under the slightest of pressure, not stringy, not powdery, not crunchy, but creamy. By the time the feeling of the mango hits my tongue, the anticipated taste always follows...Love
I walk through the grove of coconut trees and feel the wind blow gently across my face, wet with sweat, an air conditioner that uses no resources. The plethora of birds sing their own individual songs, but they never clash, they build upon each other, not fighting, not together, but not entirely separate. Mixed with the cicadas, crickets, and the hiss of the sea, this is the symphony of the jungle island. This is only one thing...Love
Cara rolls another joint, slowly, the night is still young. We've been laughing for hours, our chests hurt in pleasure. Zach says another statement, both naive and insightful at the same time as Michelle wipes the tears from her eyes just enough to see the notebook as she preserves another memory in the short tome of quotes she'd been collecting for the last month. It's now three AM, but nobody seems to care as we try to have clear vision through the haze. The frogs are laughing with us...Love
It wasn't just being in love with a woman as much as I was in love with life. Every day filled with moments when I felt like I would explode. This is why nobody leaves the bay; we're all in love. For me, it just took a woman to make me not afraid to feel it. And I continue to feel love for every day, now even two months after she boarded the ferry. Thank you.
Thursday, April 28, 2011
Thailand is easily one of the top tourist destinations in the world and with good reason. It's gorgeous, charming, the people are friendly, it's diverse, has the greatest cuisine in the world, and the tourism industry is streamlined into a science. Now, I love Thailand; if I didn't, I wouldn't have stayed here so long, but it is way too easy. That said, just because it's easy, does not mean it's simple or makes much sense. This is shown in no better way than the way tourists are herded around.
When a tourist buys a ticket through a private company at booking agent, it is typically a combination of various modes of transport, taxis, buses, some walking, and if it involves an island, but exclusively, a boat is thrown into the mix. These are lumped together into a single package, with promise of arriving at a destination. Once the process starts though, many begin worrying, as it seems a little strange. As an example, I will breakdown my trip home to Haad Thien from Penang.
It starts with a sticker. Sometimes it's handwritten with a magic marker, listing the place, sometimes it's color coded. My sticker said Koh P, for Koh Phangan. A van picked me up from my hostel in Georgetown, then drove around, picking up one other white tourist and a mob of loud, yet friendly Indonesian grandmothers. After crossing the border, I was dropped off at a booking office in Hat Yai, main city in Southern Thailand. Given enough time to order a coffee, but not drink it, a pickup truck pulled up and I was herded into the back. The pickup drove in a big circle, I swear I passed the booking office again two more times and I was finally dropped off at a train ticket office, even though my trip did not involve a train. A bus pulled up, the driver yelled out, “Surathani!” which was my ferry's port. I stood to board, but a man motioned for me to sit back down and the bus left. I was then picked up again by a taxi and taken back to the original booking office. Eventually, a van full of happy Thais, either returning from shopping with all their bags or leaving work arrived and I was told to hop on. The van seated nine, three in front, including the driver, and three in each of the two rows in back. In reality though, we crammed about thirty.
This is the part of the trip I like to call the joyride. The van drove all over Hat Yai, the cast of charcters for the van changing frequently, but the number of passengers staying static; our first stop, the train ticket office I'd just come from. After an hour of circling the town, hitting markets and various other businesses, the van basically a taxi, it finally headed up north toward Suratthani.
After playing the taxi game again in Surrathani, I was dropped off at another booking office, which I recognized from the way to Malaysia. It always played Jackass the Movie and served disgusting, yet expensive food. It was a random little place in the middle of a bunch of warehouses, selling bulk amounts of toys and other useless trinkets recently shipped from China. Even though I was in a room full of people with stickers for Koh Phangan, I was singled out, ushered into a taxi and driven a block away, where they dropped me off alone. I stood there for about five minutes with my backpack, feeling stupid. Locals strolled by like there was nothing odd going on. Another Thai man showed up, telling me to follow him; I really had no choice. He walked me through an alleyway and suddenly I was filled with the fear that I'd offended the Thai mafia at some point on the island and they just wanted to wait until I had new visa before offing me; it'll take longer for the US gov't to notice I was gone. Then we popped out onto a busy street where I was instructed to wait.
So I stood again on a random sidewalk for about ten minutes, trying to fight the fear that I'd been forgotten. A taxi arrived, beckoned me and I entered without questioning it. We drove around a bit more, passing other random tourists, standing on the side of the road with their backpacks, looking scared, but not picking them up. Finally, I was dropped off at the port and was told to wait again. I was glad to finally had made it to my boat.
But then, a bus arrived! The driver came out, saw my sticker, looked at his clipboard and told me to get on. The bus then took me away from my port. I looked around the bus, noticing it was filled with the very people I'd been separated from at the booking office. They looked as confused as me.
The bus hit the same highway I'd taken from Hat Yai and I was worrying if at some point they'd gotten confused; maybe the handwriting on the sticker looked like Kuala Lumpur or something, but then we took a left and I deduced we were heading to Don Sak, another port town. I was correct in my assessment. Finally, twelve hours after leaving, I was on my ferry. Penang is only an eight hour drive from the port.
The rest of the way was straightforward. I only had to take a taxi back to Haad Rin, then another longtail boat back to my bay. I thought maybe my experience was an anomaly, but upon talking to others, my trip was business as usual for Thailand, even in other parts of the country. I'm sure there is a reasoning for the madness, most likely competing companies that are utilizing the same vehicles or something, but really, I think that it's a joke, a little reminder that even though the tourist trail is so worn in Thailand, we are still in fact, in Asia.
For the countless number of people who love Thailand so much they get stuck for long periods of time, like myself, there comes the inevitable, undesirable chore: the visa run. Just the combination of those two words induces sympathetic eyes from all the foreign residents. Basically, Thailand offers free visas for most people upon entering the country, thirty days when flying in, fifteen when coming overland. At various places, you can go to a consulate and get a free sixty day visa, with options of extending for thirty more in many major cities throughout Thailand. So, eventually, everyone who stays long enough has to leave the country for a couple days. When living on a secluded island paradise, nobody wants to leave the bubble for any amount of time; even the three mile trip to the atm at Haad Rin is worse than a paper cut.
On Koh Phangan island, the most convenient place for a visa run is Penang island, also known as Betel Nut Island, in Malaysia, just south of the border. Thankfully, it's a popular tourist destination in its own right; I just didn't want to bother leaving. With a different mindset, I would have really enjoyed my time there, but I was so islandized, I had trouble liking it. Now, I understand that Pulao Penang is an island, but it is the home of one of the larger cities in Malaysia and I was resenting motor vehicles and everything really. When I arrived at my hotel, I left to tour the city, barefooted, clad in my sarong, and quickly realized after all the stares that I had become one of those weird hippie guys. I put on some pants and shoes then tried again with more success.
Malaysia is a food heaven; amazing Chinese, Indian, Thai, traditional Malay can be found all in the same food stall. Within Malaysia, Penang is called Food Heaven (and yes they capitalize the F and H when they say it). So it's a Food Heaven, within a food heaven. This is no exaggeration. Georgetown, Malaysia, mark it on a map with an icon of chopsticks, because this is the epicenter of food in Asia. Most tourist information centers have building to see; in Penang, they have brochures of all the specialty dishes and where to find the best stalls. In the one whole day I spent there, I ate six meals. Now, I didn't like all of it; it was fish centered, and at that point, I was still merely accepting of fish, but after being in the food business for so long, I know if something tastes amazing, even if I don't like it. Highlights: Assam Laksa, a fish soup that is to die for; Ice Kachang (aka ABC), which is a snow cone with beans and corn, topped with ice cream; and hokkien mee another soup which was amazing. I met a local at a hokkien mee cart, who informed me that I had stumbled upon the single best bowl of soup in the country; in Asia, masses of locals never lie: they always show you where to eat.
The rest of the town is quite lovely, with a lot of British colonial architecture that was quite nice. Malaysia was so modern, I felt it lacked the type of charm for which I was searching in Asia. Still a nice town. I met a two assholes at the hostel that inspired the closest thing to hate I'd felt for other people in long long time. I thought that was an emotion that I couldn't feel anymore. On a side note, my belle Michelle had arrived there a few days later and became good friends with one of them, though she admitted that she was the only person there that seemed to get along with him.
I wasn't really ready for civilization when I went to Penang, but it was a nice enough place. I think a person could spend weeks there just eating if they wished. The food makes it an essential stop for anyone in Southern Thailand or Malaysia. Malaysian visas are free and it's only three hours from the border.
Being alive itself is intoxicating
Life is actually a drug in itself. Many people are constantly drinking alcohol or using drugs to induce euphoric states in themselves, not realizing that drugs just trigger our body to use neurotransmitters that are already in our body. The euphoria comes from yourself and a person can trigger those feelings by just recognizing how amazing the pure act of living can be. Now, don't get me wrong, I don't keep myself in a constant state of sobriety, but I do know that drugs are just a little bonus. In general, I feel quite good all the time. To see this in effect, just take one moment every day, drop everything and feel. Just smell the air; the world is full of wonderful smells everywhere. Just let the wind blow against your skin or savor the feeling of your morning shower. Just taste, truly taste your food, even simple fried eggs with salt and pepper can be blissful. Just look at the color of a simple tree leaf. All it takes is a bit of awareness and not taking life for granted. If you do this, you can actually live your life being high. It's simple.
Once I eliminated the stress of trying to leave the island, I became incredibly happy. Not like the normal, slightly better than content I normally feel, but truly happy. Admittedly, it is quite easy to feel super happy in chilled-out island paradise full of yoga-crazy hippies, but I knew it was more than the place, something inside of me was changing.
In general, Haad Thien is one of those rare places in the world that amplifies emotions, be it happiness or sadness. This might because it sits atop a bed of quartz. I'm not a big believer in crystals, but there was something weird going on there. Much like in the Byron Bay area of Australia, it's the type of place that stirs up emotions and teaches people lessons. These places always seem to draw hippies as well. I was never able to figure out if it was the people that occupy these places or the place itself, but there was something interesting going on there.
The first weeks of properly living on the island were all great; writing everyday, doing yoga, socializing with friends, swimming, walking through the jungle, dancing twice a week at Guy's Bar ad Eden. Just the fruit museli yogurt I ate every morning threw me into a state of bliss, and that was the first moment of everyday.
The happiness was cut short suddenly when I had to leave for a visa run to Malaysia, but it didn't take me long to get back into the groove. I got into the swing of my job at Spice, which is the highest end restaurant in the area, serving mostly seafood. My first few days saw few customers, maybe about three tables a night. Suddenly, after a rocking party, Spice took off. It was the place. Every night was packed and I found my job description getting a bit...eclectic. My manager went crazy and the owner Gae took over, leaving me as the main employee. Suddenly I found myself helping with managing duties, bartending, waiting, cooking and DJ'ing the spontaneous parties that were happening most nights. I had taken the recipes of the restaurant, tweaked them a bit and suddenly, eveMy social status rose in the bay. Every day was getting better than the one before.
Overall, my life was perfect, except for one thing.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
My bag sat packed at the edge of my bed on my eighth day on Koh Phangan. I came downstairs for breakfast and Kate was there, just returning from her yoga class.
“Yep, but I'll probably leave today.”
“Oh sad. Are you really leaving today?”
“I don't know.”
“You won't leave.”
I didn't leave that day, instead, I spent the day talking to my friend Adam about philosophy. In fact, I was finding myself discussing philosophy with someday nearly everyday here. This was a topic I seldom visited since my teenage years, sitting on the swings in the park until 5 in morning with Becky, April, or Danelle. I never really gained much from it; my beliefs have always just come to me, independent of outside influence. Stealing other's beliefs seemed like cheating. At Haad Thien, I found myself really being influenced and influencing others. It began to be apparent that I was wrong when I assumed I had no big life lessons to learn on this trip. I couldn't figure out exactly what I needed to learn, but I felt that something was keeping me here because I had something to learn; I just didn't know what it was. True, I was burned out from traveling. This was evident. If not for the group I met in India, I doubt I would have enjoyed myself much in the last month. Every temple was becoming just a temple. Every mountain a mountain. Every beach just a beach. This is a bad mindset for traveling. I didn't need philosophy to figure this out. But there was something more and the fact I found myself for four straight days strapping on the backpack but not leaving showed that I didn't want to leave. I just couldn't shake the guilt of staying static at such high monetary costs of seclusion.
The next day with not moving, my friends sensed the disease many seem to have at Haad Thien. Kate gave me a dice and encouraged me to write six choices of options, roll the die and see what happens. This seemed like a good idea; I choose the options, so whatever comes up is my choice anyway. The dice told me to stay until my visa ends, two weeks later. I was not sad about the outcome.
Later that day, I felt the urge to write a short story, so I walked to Haad Yuan, the nearby bay for lunch and quiet. The man at the next table was smoking a pipe and offered me a hit, which I graciously indulged. With one puff, I had the most complete flash of creative inspiration of my entire life. Suddenly a whole novel flashed before my eyes. The characters, the themes, the lessons, the story, everything. Time truncated. There were so many words floating around me, I couldn't even grasp them. I furiously wrote, trying to get everything I could on paper before I lost it. Next thing I knew, three hours and six pages of notes were sitting in front of me.
I walked back to Beam and found Kate hanging out. She wasn't shocked to see me still around. Sadly, I was not in a social mood and dove back into my notebook, writing the last chapter of the first act in one sitting.
Shanti, a fellow writer, strode in and saw me immersed. “You look like a man in the middle of inspiration.”
“Yep. Whole novel, just came right in front of me. I've never had this happen before.”
“What is it about?”
I explained the concept. It was a horror novel set on the island. The bay is filled with hippies and crazies, reigning free in a non-judgemental place. In the nine days I had spent there, I've had my share of odd conversations. I realized that if I looked at some of the things people said with the filter of horror story, it is quite creepy. The novel was semi-autobiographical; basically exploring my fears of embracing new philosophies, since my current ones were leaving me at a dead end.
Later that afternoon, Rob, the manager of Spice, a local restaurant entered. On a random impulse, which I indulged, I asked him if he needed any help.
“In fact, I do need an extra person. Can you stop by tonight?”
I began telling him of all my experience in the business, but he stopped me mid-sentence.
“I've got a really good vibe coming off of you, this just seems right. Don't worry about a resume, just come in.”
And like that, I laid the foundations to stay longer. I had a job, I had a novel to write, and I just laid down a two and a half month commitment. My backpack sat at the edge of my bed; there was no more pretense, no more fighting. I was staying.
The novel writing petered out after a month (though I do intend to finish it). Once I stayed, I realized that I had been telling myself I needed to stay for days. If I really wanted to leave, I would have left. I ignored myself though, still trying to force myself to move on. So, next thing I know, my brain threw me novel and reason to stay at me. Once I listened to myself, the stress disappeared; I was happy.
We are constantly communicating to ourselves, through actions, through choices, through intuition, through emotions. If we only listen to our thinking, we'll miss a very large percent of our wants and needs. If you are hungry you want to eat. If you eat and stay hungry, you've missed a nutrient you body needs. Similarily, if you can't leave someplace, you've missed an experience you need. Now, there are limits to this, sometimes a person is fed the wrong feelings as well. That's when you use the brain as a filter. Every time I've trusted my instincts, it has resulted in positive changes and events in my life. They may have hurt me in the short term, but over time, these choices have become the defining moments of my life. I will strive to listen to myself for the rest of my life.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
Live your life according to what you do, not what you don't do
My plans had enough time for me to visit Koh Phangan for about three days before heading to Krabi to see the magnificent limestone karsts and cliffs of the Andaman Coast of Thailand.
I arrived to Koh Phangan during a rainstorm. Koh Tao was rainy for the three days I visited. As I boarded the ferry, the skies cleared, revealing one the most beautiful days I've ever seen. I was sad to leave, but I'd already booked the ticket and I was invited by Brian, Cathy, and Jose to party that night. The rain seemed to be following me.
I had some hassles with the boat drivers who seemed immune to any form of bargaining. They were charging 300baht since the waves were too high. I caved, agreeing to pay the money; there was no way to get to Haad Thien save a two hour hike up a mountain. The waves were insane and the ride was frightening. We stopped at Haad Yuan first, the bay before my destination, but the waves were so strong, we had trouble getting off the beach. They took me back to Haad Rin, refusing to move on. On the way, crashing waves soaked all of my things, including my camera and mp3 player (which did turn out to ok.). About an hour later, they agreed to take me back to Haad Yuan, but not all the way to Haad Thien. This was fine since it was only a ten minute walk.
They suggested I stay at Beam, the backpacker hub for the area. It was a lovely dorm, open air, large, clean, with a great balcony for yoga overlooking the sea. I was in love instantly. The bay was quiet, no roads, hippies and yogis everywhere. Within minutes, I'd met a group of fun Fins who occupied me for much of the afternoon.
The party was great and I was happy to spend time with friends. I was warned when I arrive that people typically don't leave, most staying for at least a month, despite any plans. I didn't think this would happen to me, but I ended up staying a couple days later to experience the weekly social event of bay, Guy's Bar on Friday. I was too tired to leave Saturday, so I planned to leave Sunday, with Brian, Cathy and Jose.
My bags were packed, I was ready to go, but then I met a lovely woman, Kate, on Sunday afternoon while I was waiting for my laundry. We started talking and next thing I knew it was dark. Suddenly, I realized that Krabi was not a practical stop; why go someplace for only a day. I decided to stay until Tuesday, then head to Malaysia. It was hard to abandon a plan to see something great on the other end of the world, but I was enjoying myself too much. Why search for other paradises when I'd already found one? It was the perfect balance of sociality and rusticness.
Everyone told me to go to Koh Tao, Daan, Tara, and many others. "It's amazing." "Best island I've ever seen." So many great reviews, I had to see it. Was this going to be the island paradise I needed after months of intense travelling?
Apparently not. The island was beautiful! Incredible. Really, it was a great place, but I didn't like it. It is most famous for being the place to dive. I'm into to diving, so I found myself on the outside.
I was expecting an undeveloped, quaint little island, which it most was. The main drag was an eyesore, hugging the beach so closely, during high tide, there was no sand on which to stand. My first night was free, I was staying with a woman I met in transit who was taking a dive course, with a free bungallow. I moved on the next day since I didn't want to freeload on a complete stranger. To escape the development, I walked to the other side of the island. I love quiet, but I also love socializing, and the other side was deserted! Completely. Nobody at all. So I went to town again, to find everywhere either booked or too expensive. Finally, I found a dorm above a noisy bar that was bumping until late in the day.
I left after two days. I got a good snorkel, some nice hiking, but I couldn't connect to the place. On the boat there, I met three really cool people who were heading to a secluded bay on Koh Pha-ngan; seeing my hippie nature, they suggested I come and see it; a whole bay, filled with hippies, yogis, ravers. Liberalism and love. Sounded like my thing. So off I went to Haad Thien. I didn't realize this choice would change me forever and trap me for three months.
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Bangkok surprised me in its modernity. It just seemed like another city; and I'd yet to see a modern style city for months. Everything seemed so clean, litter was not to be found; the buildings were neat and spread out along the river.
Julien and I found a room at My New House Guesthouse, just a block from the tourist ghetto of Kho San Road. The whole place was an overload of senses. Western music pumped from every place, tourists were everywhere, drunk. Hawkers sold everything from trendy t-shirts to wooden frogs that when a stick is rubbed across the back it sounds like a frog. People were getting massages every few feet. Women were wearing next to nothing; there was so much skin, my head felt like it would explode. I could understand why Indian men seem to lose their cool at the sight of western women. India was so oppressive compared to this. The biggest change was the 7-11's all over the city, selling everything a tourist could need from toiletries, to cigarettes, to beer, snacks or an iced coffee. And they were everywhere. In India, I could search for an hour to just to find a bar of soap. I couldn't help but love the convenience, the pure catered quality of it all.
Daan arrived the next morning and we all spent the days lounging around, eating wonderful, cheap Thai food and drinking Chang Beer and iced coffees over games of billiards. It was the type of town where 5AM came easily. I did not go to bed even a single time early.
I spend one day sightseeing. Kho San is so close to the old city that a good day is all one needs to walk through the main stuff. I skipped the Royal Palace because of the cost, but visited the fantastic Wat Pho, home of the world's largest reclining Buddha. The whole grounds were incredible; it may have been the most fantastic temple I've ever seen. I walked around Chinatown to try to find some good food, but I managed to get trapped in the Indian district, a place I needed not spend any time. Eventually I found some fried tofu dish that I didn't care for much. I stopped by a few more temples, including the hilltop Temple on the Mount, where I could see Bangkok stretching forever in all directions; all looking the same except for scattered wat.
I hung out with Nat one night, making plans to meet in Malaysia in a couple weeks. It was great to see Nat as a man in his home city.
Daan encouraged me to hit up Koh Tao next, so I followed his advice and booked a bus and boat combo from my guesthouse. It took mere minutes to have everything planned. No cues, no language hassles, and an empty seat. Thailand is so easy.