Monthly Archives: October 2010

On Traveling Alone

Remember my friend who believes in making plans only to break them?  He and I also debate whether it is better to travel alone or with someone. He likes the romance of solitary travel.

I do not.

He appreciates fluid mobility – even one travel companion will slow you down, make you compromise, change your agenda.

He’s right. I just don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.

I returned from my three weeks in Thailand desperate to tell someone about it – but couldn’t find anyone who wanted to listen. And because I’d been alone, I couldn’t call someone up and say, “I miss this” or “Do you remember that?” and have them know exactly what I was talking about.

A sense of shared experience is important to me. Kinship, community, a meeting of minds – whatever. I dig it.

Don’t get me wrong: I went to Disney World this summer with my entire family and it was work. 10 people, 10 agendas, 10 sets of feelings to consider, 10 appetites/eating schedules/energy peaks/lows/heat thresholds.  There were moments of fun, but they were tucked into the pockets of days. They weren’t the whole day’s outfit.

But…traveling alone? Sure, there’s the self-discovery and total control of what you do and how you do it.  You’re not accountable to anyone. You can come and go like the wind…

You can also spend 24 hours in bed because you’ve succumbed to an epic terror that you know rationally doesn’t make sense and yet that is so overwhelming you’d rather starve than risk an embarrassing interaction with someone who doesn’t speak English.

That was the low point of my trip.

Total control is a lot of pressure.

I can pretend it was jet lag, or claim there just wasn’t anything else I wanted to do in Bangkok. But the truth is, I was scared.

Which is another reason I like travel buddies:  I’m shy and anxious. Other people make me braver.

I begged people to join me on this trip. I was willing to go anywhere as long as someone would go with me. No takers. Clearly this was life’s way of making me be brave on my own.  But as my wasted day locked in a hotel room will attest, that’s easier said than done.

The irony is: I want to meet and connect with people. I’m just terrified of them. Them: you know, other human beings.

Anyway, I finally forced myself out of bed, determined to go to Ayuthaya (eye YOU tea uh, and boy did it take me a long time to get that right) to see centuries old ruins of temples and palaces and what not. It was one of the few things I knew I wanted to do in Thailand and if I didn’t GET UP I’d miss it.

We’ll discuss the disastrous cab ride in a later blog (oh yes, it merits its own blog.) Despite confusion and near hyperventilation – as well as mispronouncing Ayuthaya (despite 50,000 practice runs in my head, when speaking I nervously bungled it: EYE ooo TIE uh), I got on a bus. My plan was to rent a bike to see the ruins.

The bus dropped us off at a corner. No bus station. No street sign. Just a suburban intersection.  I had no idea where the bike rental place was, or where the ruins were, despite staring at my tiny Lonely Planet map. I was immediately accosted by tuk tuk drivers.

I said no thank you, but tuk tuk man would not be denied.  Out of nowhere, a girl who had been on my bus approached and asked if I’d like to join her group in their tuk tuk.  But…I was gonna ride a bike. It seemed like a healthy, environmentally friendly, fun way to see the town, and….

Sure, thanks, I’ll ride in your tuk tuk.

This is one of those times where I managed to wise up and roll with it rather than rigidly adhering to my “plan.”

I joined a group of Germans and one trilingual Chilean. They were grad students, some studying in Bangkok, others visiting. They were very nice, not necessarily kindred spirits – not even Facebook friends – but it was a more pleasant way to spend the day than riding a bike alone (also because it was 7 million degrees and I would have sweat myself into oblivion).

I gave them complete control of what we saw. I didn’t even look at the pictures our tuk tuk driver showed to set an itinerary.  They mostly spoke to each other in German and I had no idea what was going on.

I felt better that day than any previous day in Thailand. It was just nice to be interacting with people. To not be alone and in complete control of making all the decisions.

Decisions are a lot of work.

The question is:  would I have met more or less people if I had been traveling with someone?  If a buddy and I had gone to Ayuthaya, would we have isolated ourselves from the possibility of tuk tuking with another group? Would we have stuck with our own private plan?

Probably not.  In the irony of life, traveling with a person would have led me to meet MORE people. Some of my friends can’t help but attract people. I’m the shy tagalong one. I couldn’t even make myself go sit in a bar alone on Khao San Road, Bangkok’s backpacker district.

Jumping forward: at the end of my meditation retreat, I was planning on going to an island in the Gulf of Thailand called Koh Pha Ngan. I had researched the crap out of the islands, of which there are many  – and I’m bad at decisions, remember? But this seemed like the perfect beachy retreat. I had found a bungalow far from the touristy town, and I was ready to go lay in the sand and tan for four days.

Then I talked to some of my co-meditators (when we were finally allowed to talk) and one of them recommended Koh Phi Phi, on the Andaman Sea side. Another, a Dutch girl named Malika, was headed in that direction. The more we talked, the more it just came about that we would travel south together. Neither of us asked if we wanted to do it. We just tweaked our plans until we were headed in the same direction.

Look at new-flexible Meg! Totally zigged where I was gonna zag again. I had picked THE perfect bungalow on Koh Pha Ngan. Now I was going to have to figure out where to stay on Koh Phi Phi. And how to get there. Without a computer to research. This was total fly by the seat of your pants time.

Traveling with Malika, things were definitely slower than they would have been alone. I compromised on our transport south and a trip that should have taken 15 hours took 22. Picking a hotel was complicated (although that was due to the sheer volume of options). Switching hotels was an ordeal involving a three-hour, sweat-drenched heavy-backpack-laden walk up and down the island. I had 4 days to spend at the beach. 2 hours of it were actually spent laying in the sand.

All the things my loner friend warned could happen when traveling with someone did in fact happen.

And if I did it over, I would do it exactly the same.

Malika is awesome.  It was worth compromising and slowing down my pace to have company, to share my experiences. She’s a lot like me (quiet, thoughtful, with a huge desire to see the world), but different in the right ways: she encouraged me to try snorkeling even though I was positive I would drown.  She challenged me to stretch my concept of me.

And she had no interest in partying. Phi Phi is a party island. Rihanna wafted down the beach to our bungalows well into the night.

I had two alcoholic beverages on the entire trip.

So: none of my social butterfly home friends wanted to travel with me. The one travel buddy I met wasn’t into the bar scene.  This was not a trip about partying: thus declared the universe.

Could I have been more social? Met more people? Tried harder to interact?

Yes. But then I wouldn’t be me. And the trip wouldn’t have been necessary.

This was a trip about growing.

Which I did, in my own stunted, stubby way.

So the universe decreed I needed to travel alone. And maybe I did.

Traveling alone gave me the chance to meet an amazing person whom I never would have traveled with otherwise.

Alone, I stumble onto perfect people.



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Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, Thailand | 1 Comment

Bangkok: A Meditation on Home, and Not Home

I’m sure I’ve mentioned it, but I’m pretty preoccupied with the concept of home.

I lived in the same house until I graduated college. That year my parents sold the only home I’d ever known and moved a few miles away, to a familiar town. But the house, unfamiliar, small, new: it wasn’t home.   In a year of enormous shifts and changes, this synergy of life and metaphor really hit “home”: I had to find my own place in the world. I had to create a new idea of family. And home.

It hasn’t worked out that well.

I moved to Los Angeles with my best friend. MJC owns my heart forever. But the city?

I left seven months later.

I lived and worked around New Jersey.  Right when I was earning more money than I ever had or ever will earn, I went to grad school to get away.  Everyone is from Jersey, no one wants to go back there.

I landed in DC for 2 ½ years.  I met some of the best people in the world, but the city itself didn’t quite fit.

Or maybe it did…but New York has always been the Holy Grail.  A Jersey kid working in theatre: is there any other benchmark of success?

But after three years here…I don’t know anymore.

I love pockets of the city, there are corners that still excite me. Especially when I’m up in a building looking down – the distance reflects New York’s loveliness to me.

When I’m actually on the street, I want to murder someone: tourists stopping in the middle of the sidewalk, homeless people incessantly begging, taxi drivers that speed up as you cross the street in front of them.

And New York smells bad.

Of course, I still – inevitably, inescapably – live in Jersey. New York is so expensive and theatre pays so poorly even in this mecca that I can’t afford to live within city lines.

After three years I still don’t feel like I’m part of a real community here.  I’m unable to dig in, take root, and grow. I feel stunted, isolated, out of rhythm.

I stand by it: people are home.  Location itself is less important than the people who let you into their lives, who really want to be a part of yours.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that connected to a person/group in a fully reciprocal relationship.  Even when I feel it, the behavior of others is always such that I know they don’t.  I need them more than they need me. Always.

I’ve always needed New York more than it needed me. And that is reflected in my relationships here.

Maybe this is why I feel so restless, why I want to travel so much. I’m looking for a place that clicks with my soul. A soul place.

Bangkok is not this place.

Thailand is totally different from anywhere I’ve been. I don’t know if it’s technically third world, but I’ve never been to a place that is so desperate for your tourist dollars that it makes you uncomfortable to walk down the street.

There are a lot of tourists in NYC, but not the overt aggressiveness to take their money. It’s a slicker operation here.  Bangkok is a lot like NYC, but less charming.

It’s a true cliché to call Bangkok a city of contradictions: beautiful golden temples  – I mean ridiculously elaborate spaces for worship – on top of shantytowns.  History and modernity cheek by jowl.  The most unbelievably delicious scents will waft at you from street vendors (wait for my food blog!) and then you’ll stop breathing as you walk through a nostril-assaulting market filled with fish and…unrecognizable animal parts.

It sprawls, it’s smoggy, it’s reverent, it’s tolerant; tuk-tuk is an awesome word but not an awesome way to travel. It’s an interesting city. Just not a city you can love. Not a city you can wrap your soul around.

2 caveats.

I didn’t see much beyond the “tourist” areas of Bangkok.  My BFF Lonely Planet described all the other sections as hotels and restaurants and malls…not much to see. Yes, there are actual Thai people to meet and get to know. Not being fluent in Thai, and being exceptionally shy, that didn’t seem likely. But my experience of Bangkok was limited.

The best time I had there was with two tour guides (working for two separate companies) who clearly love their home, who are passionate about its history and culture. These two took me farther off the beaten track, and I really appreciated this glimpse into Bangkok’s heart, seeing things an average tourist wouldn’t see:  the old men of the amulet market scrutinizing their magical wares, a Buddha Day celebration in a temple, sitting on a plastic stool at a tiny street cart eating an amazing grain and coconut milk cereal concoction that cost maybe twenty-five cents, a father and son feeding bread crumbs to the fish in the river…a lot of lovely moments. These guides were bursting to share the city they love with me.

So it is a city you can love. Just not a city I can love. No soul click.

I didn’t expect one. I’m just ever hopeful that I’ll feel that level of unity with a place.  Because maybe then I’ll feel connected to the people too.

I’ve heard countless stories of people taking a trip somewhere and staying forever. I’m currently taking a class to get certified to teach English as a second language, hopefully abroad. One of my peers traveled to Brazil a year or so ago and had that soul click: he knew he had to go back, had to live there. That’s why he’s taking this course, a means to his end.

It’s why I’m taking it too, but without a specific destination. Thailand was beautiful. It was not home. But it whetted my appetite for deeper, farther, longer journeys.

I continue to seek home.

Categories: Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, Thailand | 2 Comments

Rough Entry: You know how I do everything wrong?

Yeah, I did that again.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m trying this whole new Zen master go-with-the-flow thing where I just assume everything will work itself out and I refuse to worry and I try not to plan everything to within an inch of its life.

And you know, never a better time to test a new life philosophy than when you’re all alone 8,660 miles from home.

Right?

If the goal is balance, I let my pendulum swing a little too far toward the other extreme, past fast and loose and right into loosey goosey.

I arrived in Bangkok after 22 hours of travel.  I did not have any cash, American or Thai (baht!). I’ve been told you get the best exchange rate by ATM-ing as soon as you arrive somewhere. It’s worked in Europe and New Zealand. My lack of American cash had more to do with the fact that I’m borderline broke than with a strategery-inspired refusal to exchange money.

I have a friend who warned me to call my bank before I left to tell them I’d be in Thailand. He’d had his card deactivated by overly zealous identity theft-sniffing bankers.  It took him weeks to get it sorted out.  A simple pre-emptive phone call…

I meant to call the bank, but…

Procrastination-face over here and just general busy-tude meant that phone call never quite happened.

Was I worried? No. I’d done this in other countries, and everything works out, and…

You know where this is going, right?

And of course, bad decisions immediately get compounded by bad luck or general stupidity.

So yes. I got to the Suvarnabhumi (say it 5 times fast) International Airport close to midnight, put my ATM card into the slot, tried to extract my hard earned cash, and was denied.

As the gods had foreseen. Or at least as Bret had foreseen.

But all I had to do was call the bank and say yes, I’m in Thailand, let me have my money.

Except somewhere along the way (30,000 feet over the Pacific) my beautiful new Blackberry had turned itself back on and was now bleeping its death bleeps at me.

It took a while to figure out what number combination I had to dial to call internationally. Battery life slowly leaking… I finally got through, got a customer service rep on the line – but they had to transfer me to another department.  Something got lost in the transfer…namely, me.  More battery juice dribbling away frivolously.

I call back, starting to lose it, explain my situation as quickly as possible, demand an actual transfer.  Phew. Okay, I’m talking to a human being and there are just a few questions I need to answer and then my money will be-

Halfway through the third security question, my phone dies for good.

My Meg-luck is making it really hard to be a Zen master.

I wander aimlessly through baggage claim, panic rising, wishing I were at least in an English-speaking country so I could ask about my options. I stumble across some pay phones and try to use my other credit card, but because I’m dialing a free 800 number I can’t so much pay for it.

Defeated, I end up in a bathroom.

There’s a small fan on the floor…with a cord plugged into an electrical outlet.

Thus I ended up in a Thai bathroom flattened against a wall, holding the very heavy converter apparatus sideways in the socket as it breathed life into my phone, while dozens of tiny Asian woman cycle in and out, staring at the stupid farang (foreign) girl huddled in the corner, luggage strewn about haphazardly, blocking the fan’s breeze.

I finally call and get my card reactivated. I approach the ATM warily, but to my intense relief, it spits pretty baht at me.  I follow my memorized Lonely Planet (the only thing I may be more in love with than my BlackBerry is Lonely Planet, my travel companion and unjudging, wisdom-divining muse) instructions out of the airport to the cab stand where I handed over the pre-printed map to my hotel.

Yes, at least I had booked a hotel ahead of time, my one capitulation to my once and future un-loosey goosey self. And thank whomever I did, because if after 2 hours (yes, all of that took two hours) of angsty airport nomad-ness I had to negotiate my way into an arbitrarily chosen guesthouse, I probably would have totally lost it and just gotten on a plane to come back home.

I think the lesson is clear.

I’m not meant to be a go-with-the-flow person. It’s a gene. I don’t have it.

Or maybe it’s just that you should never go anywhere without some walking around money.

But…

My best friend and I used to admire a mutual friend who spent months bouncing around England, couch surfing, working in pubs, and networking while she made a documentary.  We would laugh because we knew if we tried something so on-the-fly (both of us being slightly high-strung, anal-retentive organizers) we’d end up literally dead.

And then we’d sort of frown. Why do some people seem to live under a lucky star where things work out for them magically, where opportunities arise right when they’re needed, where you meet the right person at the right time to set up a perfect contact for the next thing you want to do.  Why do others have to work for it?

And why do I have to be one of the ones who has to antithetically fight for Zen?

In the end, I made it to my lovely hotel, the cab driver did not try to rip me off as I vigilantly anticipated thanks to Lonely Planet (more on that later), the hotel had my reservation, and I spent my first night in Bangkok in a big clean bed.

So it did all work out.

I just had to take the scenic route to get there.

And learn a valuable life lesson in the process.

I’m a little tired of valuable life lessons.  Especially when they cost me $1.99 a minute for  35 minutes.

Stupid Ben Franklin and his ounce of prevention…

So that’s the start of my trip.  It started with a bang. Indeed.

Categories: 30x30, Fluff and Philosophical Nonsense, Thailand | Leave a comment

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