Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Recent History

As a map, my past month looks like this. As an Itinerary:
September 17th: fly from Phuket to Chiang Mai.
September 21st: bus to Chiang Rai.
September 24th: fly to Bangkok.
September 25th: train to the Cambodia border, taxi to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat.
September 29th: bus to Phnom Penh.
October 4th: Bus to Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon.
October 7th: fly to Hanoi.
October 10th: fly to Vientiane.
October 15th: bus to Udon Thani/fly to Phuket/bus home next day.

Now HERE is where I want to post the beautiful pictures I took. Que mala suerte then that my memory card failed in Cambodia and I only have photos from HCM onwards. If any are good I'll post them later. So words will have to work. All I know is what the words know, yeah?

Part 1: Thailand

I had come back from Singapore - the whole city so carefully colored in the lines- on 9/14, and I spent the next few days getting my life together so I could depart in peace. Stayed up all night and took a 6:00 bus to Phuket on the 17th, that afternoon I was in Chiang Mai. I walked with a PiA fellow there who is working with a rock climbing group and the rest I covered previously.

Chiang Rai. I found Mike -my first ITBF, In-Transit-Best Friend- who showed me around town, and we ate with the PiA crew/their friends. Chiang Rai struck me with how much it resembled the rest of Thailand. I worry for this country. Sometimes it seems like the whole thing will fall to endless sprawl, which apparently exacerbated recent floods. Nonetheless it was nice to get a flavor of different PiA life. The boys up there have a good dynamic and Mike in particular is making great progress with Thai. Turns out, Thai universities aren't so different from Thai high schools, at least, the kids are similar, carefree until they fail and then worried about their futures.

While there I visited the White Temple, which, in a country that is remarkably architecturally conservative, stands out. It really is as bizare as these pictures from the internet imply. The artist, Kositpipat, has a vision and he certainly carries it out, so the outside is covered in dragons and mermaids and intimidating white statues and the dude from Predator, while the inside is a mural of pop culture images, keanu reeves and superman and Doreamon flying around the burning twin towers. I found it somewhat upsetting. The whole thing seemed very profane to me. That day I finished Blood Meridian , which also left me feeling a bit sick and confused. It was an astounding book though. I have been thinking about the War is God passage a lot in the past few weeks. "As well ask men what they think of stone." I next went to the Golden Triangle, from which you can see Burma and Laos simultaneously over the Mekong, drank with the fellows and headed to Cambodia.

I had one night in Bangkok before a 6:00 a.m. train. I wrote:
"2:45 a.m. 9/25: Now this is definitely the most interesting thing I've seen so far. Hualamphong Plaza, hard floors and lights on, 75-100 people sleeping, some dirty, some on mats, smoking, monks, some sitting awake in silence, travelers, saying hello to me, asking if I am ok. I am wearing a pink Chang V-neck, Nike Shorts and the adventure shoes, leaning on my backpack propped against a column. A group of men plays and observes a checkers game with bottlecap pieces, a toddler in braids an ornate dress crawling among. The man nearest me, 30s, tattooed skeletal, twitches over cigarettes. Little one cries, why is she awake? It is 3 hours until my train, an alarm set for when sleep comes, but I'm traveling alone, so I can plan 12 hours in a city, 4 in dumb movies, and none in a hotel room, brush my teeth in a mall bathroom. Lives in bags, towels as blankets, bare feet on an older woman with a bandana in her hair, tired and careword are indistinguishable. Trash and dust along the edges, Singapore this is not. Thai guy in a skullcap with an older European, a vivid story, two inscrutable women track their steps. I can smell the ink and hear the checkers man drink."

I took a train to Cambodia, beautiful rice paddies endless on the way, and thus ends the Thailand chapter.

Part 2: Cambodia

At the border, everyone was trying to extract money from the foreigners, but an American expat nurse who had done the crossing before gave some guidance, and soon thereafter, she, I a Dutch fellow and a Spaniard were sharing a taxi. The Europeans could speak in French, I could speak Spanish with one and English with the other, and by the time we got to Siem Reap, we were moving together, sharing a hotel room in a hostel recommended to Carlos, de Espana.Rafael, of Holland, was sick, Carlos was on his own ,so I went to Angkor wat that first day on a tuk-tuk , that thing I'm so glad Phang Nga does not have, and took pictures. It was fine. People describe seeing the giant temples as life-changing but they were just nice. I thought a lot about impermanence and grandiosity that day.
Tuesday rained, I sat in the hostel and ate and read War and Peace. Wednesday, biked Angkor Wat with Carlos, drank with Norwegians there to study ecotourism but really just abroad for the same reasons we all went, I miss the Onion being free, but they believe what they wrote.

Onwards to Phnom Penh. I met Micah, who became my second ITBF, and Kristen, and walked in on their lives, sleeping in their living room, pursuing what they pursued. Phnom Penh is a tough city, dirty and loud and a clear-overabundance of Tuk-Tuks and mototaxis, meaningful work not forthcoming. Kristen and I went to the torture museum , appropriately emotionally exploitative and disturbing. Cambodia is 50% 22 or younger, and people older than my parents were essentially impossible to find in the capital, but other than that, the genocide is a somewhat silent presence. The PiA+friends crew is about ten in number and tight, just the kind of friend group I've cherished(coveted) since, what, 2006? that's not so long. I got to choose the initial movie for their Film Club, so we watched Bad Education. I bought a set of 18 of Almodovar's movies for $3, I'm going to watch them all this year.

Life of reading and running, group dinners and frisbee, you were mine once, summer 2009, you are Micah's now, and I went on to Ho Chi Minh.

Part 3: Vietnam
Traveling, everyone wants to be friends- Carlos Rafael and I moved together- so on that bus to Vietnam, I spoke to an American girl from Seattle and two guys from England, all 2011 graduates, and soon the four of us were a traveling pack, sharing two rooms in a hostel, drinking and touristing. HCM wasn't my cup of tea. We went to the War Remnants Musuem and learned why war/America is bad, the presidential palace, a cathedral, some markets, and the tunnels the VC used to stay underneath American bombs, and nothing grabbed me. I was tired. It was the nights that counted, meeting up with an Israeli girl and Portugese dude with whom we had seen the tunnels , introducing myself to some guy who I recognized from the War Remnants Museum (6' goth dudes stand out in Vietnam), hopping with him and his Minnesotan traveling friend who had nannied in Germany, it blurred, and I flew to Hanoi, said goodbye to the three, exchanged emails.

Didn't like Hanoi so much. Another wild, somewhat irrational city, But the Museum of Fine Arts was beautiful and a refuge after weeks of moving too fast. Did I? I thought I wanted to see everything and I did want that! but it took a toll; I needed to schedule in a day of rest. Like Valelly said, you only understand the opportunity costs in retrospect, how could I have known? I lived the local PiA drama for an evening and talked to Europeans who work in banks. I walked around the crowded alleys of the old quarter and over West to the museums and open streets, breathed and realized it was time to move on again, so booked a flight to Vientiane.

Part 4: Vientiane . The first place that was calm, where people just want to be nice since Thailand. Mike, my third ITBF- Mike Mike and Micah, thank you thank you, you made my trip- picked me up and we spoke: he went to his evening classes and I went to read along the Mekong, for which Mike's picture is perfect. Dinner with the fellows, and I spent my days reading in cafes, finished War and Peace, over-descriptive and wonderful thing that it was, and wrote all day. The dust got in my throat and I was ill, like Mike has been, and it didn't matter, all we had to do was sit and look out at the water. Charlotte incorporated me into a lesson about maps- how Bangkok and Phang Nga look the same but are different, maps show some things but hide others. How wonderful it would be to teach in such a supportive teaching environment as theirs! Former professors at Swarthmore seem to like it as well. Perhaps someday.

Vientiane was my favorite place to visit, the one I could most picture relocating to. I could lead a full exterior life there. Reading is my focus here. I realized that while traveling. I'm not precisely sure when. It was perhaps when Charlotte said "maybe learning Thai just isn't that important to you." It is, and it isn't, I want to be functional, but my heart is in books right now.

It was quite a trip. I need to digest more of it to have any analysis. Now I want to talk about Art.

After W+P I opted for something light, twenty thousand leagues under the sea; I got back and Michelle gave me the Chronology of Water, which was pretty great, maybe the best memoir I've ever read. I'm thinking of Oates's A Widow's Story and perhaps Nothing to Be Frightened of. I've been listening to beautiful music again -i'm still predominantly listening to aggressive rap but hey, I needed music to put to the experience of traveling- enjoying Shostakovich's tenth, My Brightest Diamond, Jens Lekman, this song in particular by the Tallest Man on Earth (the second MBD and 1st Lekman song I"ve linked to are seamless on a playlist). I have an idea for how "ASEAN blur" on piano would but I need to wait to realize it, and the kernel might die by the time I can sit down and hash it out. I can't just dream and write the whole thing, I need to be playing.

I'm going to Malaysia tomorrow because I need to finally get my Non-Immigrant B Visa which has been a hassle of uninspiring details. I have a few days there and will take them leisurely. When I was moving, a month ago, it was always, next stop, utopia, and now, I am watching myself move, I will have calm time someday. It will Follow the Rain.