Thursday, July 12, 2012

Bumpy Landing

My return was all set up to be a lovely festive re-entry into American life. We had tickets booked for a concert in upstate NY and a hotel for afterwards. Friends were meeting us at the show and it looked like it was shaping up to be the best coming home party yet.

My plane, with its half dead air reeking of babies and farts and cheap perfume, arrived a hour late. Our bags sauntered in at their leisure, making us twiddle our thumbs and gripe in baggage claim. By the time I walked through customs it was not the 4 o’clock I had been figuring on but closer to 6 pm. It’s all right we thought, we still have time.

So we hit the road and were delighting in each other’s company so much so that we somehow ended up not on 87 N but on 90W when we started seeing signs for Syracuse I began to wonder. We pulled over and looked at the map, yup we were going to have to back track. No worries, we’ll catch the second set.

We finally got to the hotel, threw my bags in the room and acquired directions from the front desk. Driving through dark winding NY country roads were everything looks the same we though, well, we still have an hour of the show, we’ll see some of it.

We arrived at the gate, panting holding out our tickets in triumph. Those eager to beat the traffic were already moving to their cars but the band was still going strong. We wouldn’t have much time, but it would still be worth it.

“ Your tickets have already been used.” The woman told us and we stared back at her.
 “That’s not possible, we just got here we drove all the way form New York.” I explained.
“ I’ll try them again. No, already been used. We can’t help you, can’t let you in.”
“ But I just flew here all the way from Bangkok!” I cried.
“ That’s a nice yarn.” The other ticket taker told me with a smile that said “get lost”
“ It’s true.” I wasn’t happy, not only were they not letting us in, they were calling a very jet lagged me a liar. Where was my passport when I needed it?

“ I have my ID and the credit card I bought the tickets with, here look, its even got my name on the receipt.” Fiz told them desperate to get us into the show. We did buy the tickets, a last indulgent luxury before I realize just how broke we were.

“ Sorry we could lose our jobs if we let you in.” Right, sure.

Welcome back to America,  one of my fears at least has been a reality. Australians have ruined me for friendliness, with their open smiles and laid-back attitudes. I now have a distorted impression of American hospitality.

My first impressions of home have been mixed. It has good to see my husband and family, but it all feels very surreal, like home is just another destination, one I have already seen. I haven’t had the chance to find my grove yet and we have a very nomadic summer planned. I don’t expect I’ll truly start to feel at home until fall, but that seems like a long time to be uncomfortable. 11 months is a long time to be away.

I’m getting ready now for another short trip. We are headed out to Ohio  this coming weekend. Honestly it will be a relief to be on the road for a bit. If only to put distance between me and this feeling of displacement.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Layover

I’m sitting in Jordan’s Queen Alia Airport which is half under reconstruction, in some strange place that is between being super slick and powerful and being a dodgy airport where they leave the door to the smoking room open and the janitors sit around and sing.

It’s like a metaphor for the Middle East, or at least my understanding of it. I’ve only ever transited through the ME which, considering my degree focused heavily on the politics and history of this region, is a bit ironic.

I’m waiting to board the final flight for home and it’s a mixed emotion I’m wrestling with now. There is of course the extreme excitement of returning and seeing my husband and family and friends again. There is the anticipation of really really good food, because lets face it, few countries do food like America.

But there is also a touch of wistfulness, I have no future international travel plans. This ritual of layovers and sleeping in awkward positions that has become second nature to me this year is coming to a close. Of all the aspects of travel, I like the travel itself the most, the being neither here no there the going somewhere part, the motion, the movement. I love airports. I’ve always thought that they are proof that humanity can exist peacefully together if they wanted to.

There is a touch of worry too. It hit me, only a few days ago that I’ll be going not just back home, but back to America. I don’t know if you noticed, but America has got some issues. Issues that I have, for the last 11 months been pretty happy to avoid. Especially the economic ones. Coming from Australia where right now things are rocking and rolling it will be an abrupt transition.

Then of course, there are Americans. I haven’t seen all that many of them in the last year, we don’t get out much as a collective culture. Compared to have many people from European countries travel, or Australians, Americans either can’t travel or don’t have much interest or both. So soon I will find myself surround fully by a culture which I have been apart from for some time. I hear reverse culture shock is a thing and I wonder if it will happen to me. I suppose I should expect it.

Then there is the great question of what next? Travel and especially this trip have taken a huge amount of energy to pull off and suddenly there will be a vacuum where once travel preparation/planning/doing have been. I spent a good deal of time in Melbourne coming up with a ‘landing plan’ and I’m hoping that will help ease the transition.

Its exciting too, to see what can come next, what I can pour all this energy into.

Spending the last few days talking with ex-pats in Bangkok has been interesting. For one, we all are pretty tired and we all have changed since the last we met. The trouble with travel is that it looks good from the outside. It looks if nothing else, somewhat impressive. The reality is more of a mixed bag, especially if you are busy living which after a year you have to do. I’ve tried to be honest in this blog about the up and downs that travel brings and not paint a picture to rosy when things have been grey but the fact of the matter is, unless somebody has been there, they just don’t know what it’s like.

All these thoughts, these hopes and dreams and worries and doubts float around in my mind. I can only hope that the transition is smooth.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Anticipation

Well that was harrowing. I got to BKK airport ( don’t ask me to spell it) in ample time. The trip, which with Bangkok’s infamous traffic can usually take anywhere from and hour to an hour and half took, no joke, 30 min. My taxi has a NOZ tank, no lie, little dials and gauges on the dashboard and a loaded tank the size of my bag in the trunk and everything. Only in Thailand.

Check in however was nerve racking. It always makes me nervous to fly back into the States, there are way more security restrictions and somehow, even though I’ve been a good girl, I always feel like I’ve done something wrong.

So I get up to the counter and they weigh my bags, all good, under the limit ( miraculously), then the concerned face. Then the phone calls, then whispered Thai, some smiles, some “ give me just a minute”. I start to sweat, I’m tapping my feet. Three more phone calls, a manager comes over. Half an hour later the guy tells me. “ I can give you your boarding pass to Amman, but not to New York.” I think my heart stopped for a minute. Don’t cry, I told myself, keep it together, it’s going to be ok.
“ Why not? Is everything ok?”.
“ It’s because you’re flying back into the U.S, they have this very complicated form I have to fill out and the computer isn’t accepting the information.”
“ Um..”
“ I’ve tried everything. You’ll have to fly to Amman and get your boarding pass at the transit desk there. You’re bags are fine though, they’ll go right through to New York, you don’t have to worry about them.”
Great.

Sleep is my oldest defense mechanism, probably a bad one if a bear is trying to eat me, but when my brain is trying to eat me it works like a charm. I slept all the way here, all 8hrs and tried not to worry that I would be denied boarding and stuck in Jordan.

I get to the transit desk in Amman and the man in line behind me tells me it happens, that it’s an exercise in trust. I trusted. I got my boarding pass, now just a 5 hour layover and a 11 hour flight to go.

Even through my panicked haze, which has done nothing to help my Bangkok belly, I noticed how beautiful the sand dunes were at dawn, such a lovely moonscape palate.

With my boarding pass in hand, now I can focus on more important things.

When I was 16 I went and spent 4 weeks in Scotland doing a writing program at the University of St. Andrew’s. On my way back I ended up sitting next to a man, who looking  back at it must have been around my age now. It could have been awkward if I told him my age but I lied and said I was 22 so we spent 6 hours in deep discussion about life and it’s meaning.

He had been in Ireland for the last 6 months he told me. He had been sent there for work just weeks after his wedding and his wife was, for work related reasons, unable to join him. So the first half a year of his marriage he was in another country.

I know her name was Heather because at some point I was describing how much I loved the Scottish heath and moors and he got starry eyed. “ Sorry,” he told me, “ You just said Heather and that’s my wife’s name.”

When the plane got close to Boston he started getting jittery. I asked him if he was excited, if he would be the first guy off the plane. “ No”, he replied thoughtfully, “ I’m savoring the anticipation. I want to be the last person off the plane.”

 To the best of my knowledge he was, he remained firmly in his seat until after I had left and I never saw him again. But that conversation has always stuck with me. Like hell do I intend to be the last person off the plane if I can help it, but the moral of the story is a good one.

Savor the anticipation.



Friday, July 6, 2012

Bangkok Redux


I am in Bangkok again, if only for the moment. It’s a strange sort of layover, I’m here to pick up some things that one can only find cheaply in Asia, like crystals and tee-shirts. For this the best venue is the Weekend Market however, as the name implies, it only happens on the weekends, so for the last three days I have been killing time, going back to old haunts and eating Pad Thai. This is the last leg of the journey and it is here that I have wondered more keenly than any other place if I will indeed loose my mind before I get home.

Fiz teaching ESL in Thailand for a hot second last summer.
I am staying with J, a girl who we met and studied with around this time last year as we prepared for our TEFOL course. It’s a strange sort of full circle come around. I was curious to come back to Bangkok, the impetuous for all of this travel… or should I say the excuse, and see what had happened since we parted ways with the idea of teaching English.

Any doubt that I may have had about not staying in Bangkok and not teaching has been safely and soundly put to bed. We made the right decision. I think, looking around that we would have been beyond miserable here. J’s apartment is nice, clean and white, and sleek and new, in one of those Bangkok high-rise complexes that sees to be sprouting up around the city like weeds, but it feels lifeless, like the dorms in college.

“ I think it’s haunted” J told me the other night, “ I have nightmares here.” Right on cue I had my own nightmare that night and woke up in a sweaty panic only to find that without internet in the apartment and with the panicked need to call home that comes from night terrors I had to run across the street and steal wi-fi from a closed café in the middle of the night. I think she may be right.

If nothing else it’s haunted by loneliness. It seems that, at least according to my friend’s accounts, the only ex-pats in Thailand can fall into three broad categories. Other English teachers, who are transient by nature, always coming and going to other countries or home, leaving those here in a constant state of social flux; well to do business men in their 30’s and 40’s who are sent here by their multi-nationals; and fat old American men who come here to score themselves a pretty young Thai wife, hardly the making of life-long friendships.
This wasn't fun.

Certainly traveling all over creation without any sort of plan has had it’s drawbacks and perhaps, in hindsight turning back sooner would have been the better choice. However I would not trade our myriad adventures across Asia for sterile months in Bangkok teaching ungrateful children.

It’s a good thing to know though and had I not come back through this city I may have always wondered what our life would have been like in Bangkok.

It’s full circle in another way too. Bangkok was the beginning of the trip. By this I don’t mean it was our first stop but rather something a bit more metaphorical. For those long term readers who kept up with us a few years ago on our last trip you will remember that Bangkok was our first stop. For those new readers let me fill you in a bit.

When I graduated college Fiz and I spent three months traveling Thailand and India. I had always wanted to see South East Asia and so to Thailand it was. That first trip here was magic, unencumbered by the accumulated cynicism that comes with too much time on the road we were delighted at almost every turn. The food was bad, the weather was hot, but there were days of joy spent tooling around on a motorbike and seeing ancient ruins. Thailand was a blast and we, like most people who come here for the first time as new back-packers, loved it.

When we decided to teach English abroad we first thought of Istanbul, but after a rainy honeymoon there it was difficult to imagine spending a whole year in that beautiful gloomy city. We remembered the warm weather and the coconut shakes and the little Dr.Fish and thought, hell, why not Bangkok? So it was with the suppose intent of coming and living here that we first embarked upon this trip.

Now I don’t think either of us really expected to teach English for a year, I mean… have you seen our pictures? Not exactly English teacher material, but it gave us somewhere to start and something to tell our concerned family. We had a plan, we assured them, though in reality we both suspected that we would ditch it once we were on the ground.

Ditch it we did, and glad we did now, at least mostly. Bangkok and the ESL experience was not for us.

So it’s kind of suiting to be back here now at the end of this trip, this Round the World adventure. It gives a sense of closure, a bookmark to a period of life which I feel ready to close.

J and I sat on the street eating Tom Ka Gai and talking about our last year. “People get stuck” she said, “ they get stuck in Bangkok.”  I agreed, “ People get stuck traveling” I told her. I have seen many people who just never went home. “ I don’t want to get stuck.” I said.

In the last four years I have traveled far more than many people ever get the chance to and I feel blessed to have had those experiences. I have quit some jobs and turned down others, not signed leases and shied away from community commitments in order to free myself up to be on the road. It has been, for the most part, worth it.

But I am ready now for a change. I recently turned 25 and as I look at where there last 5 years have brought me and think about where I would like to be in the next five I can see that I need to commit to something more than travel, something more permanent than transience.

When you are a student you have to learn in order to do when you start living in the world you have to do in order to learn. I have crossed that line. In order to build the life I want I need to settle myself so that I can do. Do more than just backpack, do more than just always be on the move.

It’s a scary thing for a person like me, to put down roots, and it’s been a hard road to realize that it’s what I want. Travel has always been a love of mine, and I do not intend to forgo it completely, I’m sure I will travel again, but this sort of travel, this open-ended drifting has lost it’s appeal.

 I know now that the dreams I have will not build themselves, I need to start getting my hands dirty. I need to take the risk of staying in the same place, of failing, of picking myself up, I need to risk working on my life.

I guess as long as I was moving, traveling, I felt like I was ‘doing something’. I wonder now if it was nothing more than a glorified procrastination, a childish running away. I have learned however something invaluable. I have learned where I want to be. I want to be home.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Singapore Delights

Again, back tracking a bit, this is a double post, if you missed the one about Litchfield National Park go check it out!

I’m in Bangkok now, where the internet is passable and the weather is a billion degrees compared to Melbourne. I rather love hot humid weather, the way it lays on you like a blanket at night, the way it feels like you’re moving though a  sauna during the day.

Yesterday was delightful. After arriving tired and somewhat grumpy and realizing that the sun wasn’t up for another two hours I almost considered scraping my crazed itinerary in favor of staying in the ridiculously well set up Changi Airport ( they have movies and video games and a pool and everything). But as dawn broke I decided that I was going to make the best of it.

I check my bags into the luggage room, grabbed the train into the city and headed for the botanic gardens. I had no map and no real idea where I was going but because it was Singapore everyone was very polite and spoke English so I managed to catch the right trains and busses and arrived, well before the crowds at the beautiful Botanical Gardens. The smells were delightful, the air was warm but no unbearable and the plants were amazing.

The Botanical Garden houses a very special section, the Orchid House, and there’s where I headed, pausing to check out the Ginger Flower section for a minute. The Orchid House was lovely, hundreds, maybe even thousands of different orchids were all happily growing dressing the garden in a lush colors.

So many different kinds of flowers. Big ones, small ones, ones that didn’t even look like orchids, green ones, white ones, orange ones, purple ones. I was in orchid heaven. I spent an hour or so just looking at these beautiful little masterpieces. Just as I was leaving the tour buses were arriving and hordes of tourist came flocking in ruining the serene and somewhat magical atmosphere of the park. Good timing on my part.

I then grabbed another bus and another train and headed to Chinatown, it was just past 11am by this point. I had 2 hours left before I needed to make it back to the airport. My hope was to pick up some food and then head to Little India to track down an ultra cool store. I didn’t account for the weather.

No sooner had I stepped out of the subway did it start to rain. Not a little bit of rain either, torrential South East Asian rain. I had to buy and umbrella to protect my camera and then I wandered, slowly through the flooded streets of Chinatown looking for food. To no avail. I did stumble upon two magnificent temples though, one was as South East Indian style temple, which made me cry a bit as I watched the morning puja and lit a candle for myself. The next was the Buddha Tooth Temple which was spectacularly photogenic and filled with lovely smelling incense.

I got directions to an indoor market where I could grab some food even in the rain. So up wet stairs and into a concrete market I headed. There were delicious smells coming form nearly every stall and way too many options.

“ You should get those ones,” A kindly older Singapore woman said and pointed to some steamed dumplings.  I nodded and ordered myself a tray. The woman offered me a chair and I sat and talked with her and her husband about the foods of Singapore. They bought me a sugar cane drink (which was actually safe because it’s Singapore) and I pretended like I had never had one before.

They were retired and looking for some company over lunch, I was happy for the conversation. They even helped me cut in line so I could get some slow cooked broth roasted (don’t know) chicken and spicy noodles. I was so full I could barely have another bit but I love real Chinese food and this was its Mecca.

By the time I finished lunch I realized it was time to head back so I grabbed the train and rode it back to the airport, walked right up to my terminal and sat and enjoyed the two hours left to me on the free wi-fi. All in all the second best layover I’ve had, it didn’t beat Amsterdam but It was still one of the better days I’ve had in the last couple of months.

Now I’m in Bangkok, writing in Ethos Café. This is our favorite Bangkok haunt, their chocolate and coconut and masala coconut shakes are divine, even if their prices are a little steep (for Thailand that is, still a steal compared to wherever you are).

I have three more days here before my flight and I’m doing my best to pass the time well.

When I was a little girl my grandfather used to take me swimming at a lake in the summer. There he would teach me how to swim, he was a very good swimmer, I am regrettably, not. I would practice holding my breath and swimming underwater. In order to expand my lung capacity he told me “ Katie when you’re under water and you feel like you’re out of air and you can’t go any more, just go a little more, just one more stroke.”

I feel like I’ve long since run out of air, this is my one more stroke.

Litchfield National Park


This is backdating a bit as I wait for my plane to Bangkok, Singapore Airport has free, fast wi-fi. I must be in the Northern Hemisphere.

On my last day in Australia I was given a car to “self-drive” out to Litchfield National Park. Litchfield is one of the big national parks in the NT and I was glad to not have to spend another day seeing crocodiles ( no offense crocodiles). The drive out was pleasant, I put on y headphone and listened to about a third of my Grateful Dead compilation as I drove down dusty half barren roads. Got to see myself one of those nifty “road trains” as they call them in Oz. Basically a Mac truck with not one or two but as many as four or five trailers behind it. Rumor has it they get even bigger on the empty highways that bypass the nation, but I can’t say for sure. I only say four. Lucky I didn’t have to pass one, I don’t think my little rental Hundai could have made it.

It took over an hour from Darwin to even make it to Litchfield and another twenty or so minutes in the park to reach my first destination, the magnetic termite mounds. In short the park is enormous and it is by no means the biggest one in Australia. The Whole of the NT is over a million square kilometers, yeah that’s right Wiki it if you don’t believe me, it’s massive. Did I mention that Darwin, it’s capital is only just above 100,000 people? That should give you an idea of how empty the land is, empty of humanity that is.

Now the magnetic termite mounds, for those of you who have not obsessively watched David Attenborough’s The Secret World of Insects are a made by a type of grass eating termites that build their rather large communal homes to face along north to south lines. This means that they can save on heating costs, during the morning as the sun is rising and heating up on side of the mound they all move to the west, in the evening they move back again. There are specially designed channels that move hot and cold air throughout the mound and there are even chimneys. Termites are smart as (there’s an Aussie phrase for you, not a typo).

So I went and saw them. They looked like big looming tombstones all lined up facing the same way, grey in color all on a field of grass, it was a little strange. There is another type of termite in the area, Cathedral termites which build really enormous mounds. Here’s a picture just so you can see how big. Juts think that’s made of bug spit and dirt, makes our skyscrapers seem much less original.

I got back in the car and drove another 20 minutes into the park to Florence Falls. There was a pleasant if warm hike to where the plunge pool was. People and their families were gathered in the crystal clear water, green algae and red and orange rocks making a beautiful juxtaposition of color. I stuck my legs in and enjoyed the cool water moving against me for a while before I myself ran out of water. Running out of water isn’t something you want to do in the NT, it can kill you. It was getting late anyhow so I mossied back to my car and drove the almost two hours back to Darwin.

My last meal in Australia was pie, just like it was for Fiz. It was hard to track down as the sun was setting and everything in Darwin except the bars seems to shut at 5pm. Find one I did though and I thought of my first meal in Australia, at a Pie Face on Swanston St in Melbourne that I passed every day on my way to work.  I remember how relived we both were to be back in the 1st world after Fiz’s near-death food poisoning.

I was amazed this morning, at 2am when my flight took off how relived I was to be leaving. Australia has a strange and powerful energy, one that I don’t think novices should tangle with, one that I probably tangled with too long. There is a wildness to it, it’s not quite malicious but neither is it friendly. Its tricky to describe because it’s a tricky kind of vibe, it slips through the fingers of your mind when you try to pin it down. There is something about it that I always felt distinctly ill-at ease with. It was fairly easy to ignore in the city but out in the open outback, it was in it’s element and I have to admit, it scared me a bit.

As I flew off the continent I couldn’t help but breath a sigh of relief. Asia and I get on well. I love Asia and it, well it tolerates me fairly well. My plane is boarding. Got to run!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Neither Here nor There

I am in Dawrin, perhaps the furthest point north in Australia, the opposite side of the continent from Melbourne. It’s like night and day. The city is warm, for one and entirely laid back. If Melbourne is New York then Darwin is…not sure there even is a comparison, part New Mexico, part Florida part Louisiana, yet nothing like nay of them. It’s a strange place. They call it a city but it’s population hovers just above 100,000, which means it’s about the size of Northampton, MA.

When I fist got here I was not impressed, the CBD is mostly filled with open air bars, tourists and destitute Aboriginals. However  in the last few days I have come to see why this place is so special. Whereas the culture in Sydney and Melbourne can be found all around the world Darwin is uniquely Australia, for the good and the bad.

I’ve been seeing a lot of crocodiles. They keep showing up in my press trips. I don’t particularly care about them but I know more about them now than almost any other animal. Perhaps I can learn form them.

Though they seem lazy they are in fact masters of their own energy. They don’t put out more than is necessary, they take it easy and their strategy  is to pick their battles. They’ve survived as a species for way longer than humans have been around and can live a whole year off one meal. Contrary to popular belief they can be outrun by humans and make loving mothers. They can also eat you whole.

The Northern Territory is another world. Flying here I looked out my window to see the sprawling Red Heart of Australia below me. Its colors were vibrant red and orange and you could see bush fires burning form a thousand miles up. Together the smoke and the clouds and the colors produced and amazing effect, like flying over the surface of a white opal. I had wanted to see the red center but after flying over it I’m glad we didn’t drive through it, it goes on forever and the road is nothing but a straight dirt line through the abyss of clay and sand. Truly it looked like I was flying over Mars.

This is the land of Crocodile Dundee, of  towns named things like Humpty Doo and of people driving utes with buffalo horns and gas tanks strapped on the front. All the cars are white to try and reflect some of the burning sunshine. Its like Melbourne was a cold rainy dream, and this is a fever hallucination.

Having left behind friends in the city and having not yet made it home I feel even more displaced than before. I have nothing but my thoughts to entertain me and they aren’t always so very encouraging. Still I’m working through them. Always look on the bright side of life.

I’m headed to Litchfield National Park tomorrow where I will be able to fulfill a nerdy dream of seeing giant magnetically aligned termite mounds! (Too much David Attenborough). I figure it’s a good way to spend my last day in Australia.

Then I will be catching an obscenely early red eye, 2 am, flight to Singapore where I intend to act as though I am in the Amazing Race and see as much as possible in the 7 hours I have before flying to Bangkok. (7 hours in the city, I’ve already deducted check-in time and transport). Luckily Singapore is an Asian city-state and so it’s not like I have to go anywhere to be there, the airport is in the city. I will be reporting my results to you all.