The making of a traveler.
Pakistan originally appeared on my horizon while thumbing through magazines somewhere in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). My trip seem pre-ordained.
At some point I found myself, 24, sitting at a Bangkok cafe on Khao San Road. I had finished nearly six weeks of walking from HCMC. I was young and impressionable. In HCMC I had been teaching English for a year and the desire to be footloose and free from the burden of anything resembling work was overwhelming.
My housemate at the time was a big brawny talkative New Yorker. He had a gift for languages (was fluent or semi-fluent in 6 or 7). It was good as it gave him the ability to talk to more people. If you listened to him talk long enough he would eventually answer his own questions, I used to joke. Over beers he used to openly wonder about being able to purchase a Somali passport or would dare me to race motorbikes through a pool hall to see who would get hit with a pool cue first. He neither got a Somali passport nor was hit by a pool cue. I can safely say the same for myself.
Patrick and me met over noodles. We shared the same goal, escape from the States, teach English, and see what happens. We met on our first day in Vietnam. We decided to pitch in together for the long haul of our time in this new (to us) country.
It’s hard to put on to paper the day to day antics of Patrick. You never knew what to expect of the guy. I might walk home to find him churning butter in our kitchen or dressed like a Vietnamese construction worker.
“I wonder how people will react when they see a white man dressed like this around town?” he mused. Even now the black and white of this screen doesn’t flatter his colorful character.
One day he came home with a short middle aged Malaysian woman.
“I met her at the Bangladeshi Consulate in Calcutta,” he explained. “I saw her and she appeared like Buddha. She was just simply waiting. So we struck up a conversation, didn’t get visas and went to karaoke.”
“He knew all the Hindi songs!,” the Malaysian buddha mused.
Her name was Shirin and she intended to stay for a week. Despite having successfully freed myself from the pressures of graduate school, car purchasing, settling down or any other material pressure in Kentucky, in my mind I hadn’t accomplished anything. The adventures always seemed to be somewhere on the horizon. One solitary weekend during a dark night on the southern tip of Vietnam, the visions of adventures-somewhere-else seemed to be under my skin. As I ate noodles next to the dark South China Sea, it wasn’t enough. The adventures, the dashing and daring were like the waves just beyond my eyesight. Able to be smelled and heard but not visible to my eye or able to be touched. I still felt I was sitting on the edge of Asia. It would take years and a helluva lot more kilometers before I could see that sometimes the adventure was sitting right next you all along.
Shirin was a godsend, the mentor I needed. One night in a psychedelic haze in Nashville during my misspent university holidays, it seemed to me that I was shown a person behind the shadows that I had to follow. That growth was possible but only if someone could show me where to plant the tree. (this might be too hippie-airey fairey)
This Malaysian Buddha was my godsend. She didn’t come in black, however, she came with a sleeping mat and bucketful of adventures.
She knew yoga and spent her mornings and afternoons painting. One of our first trips together was to a university in Saigon where there were hopes of cheap paint and supplies. We were promptly invited for tea and spent the afternoon watching students paint as the monsoon rain filled the streets. Sitting cross-legged we watched the rain platter on the deep green trees outside while the bird-like syllables of Vietnamese instructed students of their next brush stroke. The square window hovering above the thousands of motorbikes, above the millions of people, provided me with more entertainment and more emotional depth than any square that I watched for thousands of hours growing up.
The world of simply drawn characters and canned laughter seemed archaic and boring. It was the first realizations that life could be lived differently and independently. The world was coming closer and yet more complex at the same time.
It’s hard for people who haven’t taught English in some parts of Asia to understand how stupendously priviledged one could be. You could simply leave your house with a key for you doors and a few dollars in your pocket and who knew where you would end up. Any emotional experience or any sensory explosion was quite simply the click of a door handle away all for the low low price…… of moving your feet.
My Malaysian Buddha seemed to encapture this majestic manic simplicity. She simply walked everywhere, her eyes alert to whatever adventure may trip over her footpath.
Shirin could read my wanderlust and loved having a captive audience for the retelling of her overland adventures from Malaysia to Germany and back. Summer holidaying in Turkey, squatting in Berlin, sleeping in caves in India, but she seemed to lay special emphasis on the North of Pakistan. I asked questions and asked questions. Were the people in Pakistan dangerous, would you be kidnapped in Pakistan, isn’t it dangerous, can I get a visa? In my head Pakistan was simply a terrorist ridden desert wasteland, an image cultivated by a steady diet of news back in States. I honestly didn’t know anyone could go there.
“Of course there are people,” she snapped. “My first trip I went with 2 Germans and we met people from all over Europe and even two people had children and were hitchhiking.”
“But how did they get food? I mean, were there shops?”
“Go and see for yourself,” she exclaimed. “Bask in the rebellious nature of it,” she told me. “Your parents wouldn’t go there. When the old people start going, then the adventure is over.”
Shirin handled by ignorant stupidity with aplomb. Years later over dinner at her uncles house in Kuala Lumpur, she told me I had that rare gift.
“You were willing to do anything!,” she laughed as the words came out, even now I can here that laugh as clearly as I can hear the airplane flying overhead as I type this.
I was fascinated with her, she was the living incarnate of everything I wanted to be. Her passport was better than any Lonely Planet phrasebook I ever saw. My housemate agreed and we invited her to stay as long as she liked.
Somewhere along the way I found the Time magazine. It was their Asia edition and like most mainstream news that extrapolates the mundane and obvious I couldn’t tell you one single story of that issue, what I can remember vividly is a picture of a jewelry salesman in a Pakistani city. The picture was taken at night with a bright image of the salesman talking to a large policeman with a large mustache. (The Freddie Mercury force I would later call them). This photo seemed to encapsulate something for me, even now I can’t put my finger on it. The foreboding blackness in the distance, the danger implied by the police officer, and the lure of gold — and perhaps the cup of tea which was daintily sitting next to the salesman.
Slowly the questions I asked Shirin about her European travelers started to turn in my head. It changed from how did they get food to how would I get food until there was no more questions at all, just I will get food in Pakistan. But this is getting ahead in the story.
HCMC is divided into districts. With the lower numbers being closer to the centre of town. I forget now how many districts. Most in-and-out beeline travelers hovered in district 1, while some would find cheap accommodation in district 3. English teachers scattered themselves around town. Most of us rented motorbikes, so distances weren’t so bad. The rents were shockingly low and my housemates had no qualms about how to spend his money.
“I lived for too long in a shitbox in Manhattan,” Patrick explained. “I want a lounge where we can have a hospital cocktail party.”
“I don’t know, man. It’s pretty gaudy,” I said with lack of conviction. “What is a hospital party?”
“You know, where people dress like doctors and nurses and the drinks come in syringes,” the enlightened New Yorker spoke to lowly Southern hick.
We settled in district 10, in what best could be described as a big fucking mansion. I am still amazed at the sheer amount of space that we could afford (and waste). It was in a wealthy part of town in a small community with similar houses, built up, but not with width. It wouldn’t be amiss to think of a series of legos a giant child would be able to put together.
Our house sat a stone’s throw away from the airport, where old bombers sat parked and where one entrepreneurial Vietnamese man even opened a cafe in the seating area of an abandoned plane. I was used to seeing Vietnamese hang laundry from old planes, but this was the first cafe.
My old Americanisms still clung to me like a bad smell. I was torn between a desire for immersion, Patrick was my only expat friend, and the pull of the familiar. The idea that I was cool enough to host a hospital party put a spring in my step. When I saw the old planes I couldn’t help but sing Purple Haze or imagine myself, Charlie Sheen, walking into ‘the shit.’ Deep down I wanted more, to be the Paul Theroux character who understood the history, the language, and had intimate moments worth re-telling. In reality, I was saving money teaching English (on a wildly inflated wage) and living in a mansion. I was basically the living embodiment of a hamburger stand with a communist flag flying above it.
“You’ll find no-one cares about America the way you do out there,” Shirin said walking past me as I lay in my room listening to Modest Mouse.
The relationship was taking on a different approach, the one of teacher and student or something else. In retrospect it seems my personality at the time ceded a lot of power or ego over to my mentor. I didn’t care at the time and I still don’t. I wanted my brain cleansed and I felt I had a powerful source of knowledge right in front of me. Hollywood endings and emotional changes of heart were fake and obsolete. I was realizing as this little mental journey went on how much I had been raised on neat conclusions and half hour plot summaries, the promise of a sunny weekend and new car.
Shirin wanted me to change and see the world from a wider perspective. Our friendship (tutorial) became more earnest. We started doing yoga in the mornings and gargling salt water. My diet started to improve. I left the mansion more and more, sleep became an irritant. I would spend quality time with my co-workers, mangling the language but enjoying our nightly dinners where we just lived and laughed. I was blessed to work in a school that had me as the only foreigner. I am still grateful to this day for that opportunity. After our long days of work and dinner (often with 2 or 10 drinks), I would take my motorbike and simply drive.
I would go for long drives deep into the night, into an empty and shuttered up Ho Chi Minh city. Sometimes I would drive well into the morning, finding some out of the way noodle shop buried in the labyrinthine alleyways. Sunrises were a special treat, over a bridge, watching the barges plow through and masses stomp their ryhthmic tai chi. The purring of my xe om (motorbike) and the wind in my hair through a city of millions that was virtually empty and dark seemed to be the ultimate sign of freedom.
I would arrive in time for yoga. When I would arrive home I would find here sleeping on our roof under a small mosquito tent we bought somewhere in district 4. The yoga became a rite of passage from the night, meandering into the world of daylight.
“To travel you need to be slim and able to move,” Shirin told me. “Diet is not enough, travelers move a lot.” She told me this one morning while gargling salt water. “Take of your teeth.” Snippets of advice blurted out hoping to filter through.
The life of a traveler was more complicated and never as simple. By jumping ship to Vietnam I had found the seed and could see the ground where it needed to be planted, but I didn’t know how to get it there. How to live a real life and see real people seemed so far away.
The yoga progressed, my night drives increased, my teaching load remained steady. The hospital party had yet to materialize.
“Fuck it, let’s go somewhere,” I said one morning.
“Great, where do you want to go,” Shirin replied.
“Mekong Delta and the slow boat to Phu Quoc Island,” I read out of a dusty LP given to me as a Christmas present back on a snowy KY morning. There was a town on the border called Ha Tien that had the makings of something. Borders, beaches, and the vague warning of Cambodian criminals..
“Well, we will need a hammock,” my tutor replied. “Essential for sleeping for free.”
Part 2 coming soon: Our apartment floods while Ho Chi Minh watches
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