Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Stranger Than Fiction

We've met a lot of interesting people on the road -- I have notes about them scribbled on random bits of paper and I've been meaning to tell you about them. Some are short, some are sweet, some are incomplete. Maybe their stories will inspire you, make you laugh, or make you cry:

We met Jim in the jungle at Angkor Wat. He was standing in the sun wearing nothing but his underwear. Before you get the wrong idea, I should add that he was drying off after taking a shower under a waterfall (and his underwear were black). He's tall, fit, and wears his dark hair in a pony tail -- something about him reminded me of Steven Segal. He's easy going and the kind of guy who uses the phrase, "that fucking shit," in every conversation.

Jim met people in the Florida Keys who live on boats and come into town to play music in a bar; they're the house band. He was inspired by their lives of finely tuned autonomy -- they do what the want, when they want, how they want. "Hey, maybe we'll pick up anchor and head to the Bahamas," they might say. Or, "You know what, I don't feel like doing fucking shit today," and they don't have to because they don't really work except when they need to. It's cheap living on a boat. But what makes them really cool is that they call themselves pirates.

Jim returned to LA, sold most of his stuff, and moved into a motor home he keeps parked in the lot of his workplace. He's living in a motor home to save money otherwise paid on rent. He doesn't drive anywhere so he doesn't pay for gas. Since he lives 'on site', he works harder and longer and earns a ton of overtime. I think he even swipes electricity from his workplace and uses their shower, telephone, and no doubt office supplies. His friends all thought he was crazy until he explained he's not doing all of this because he's a freak -- he wants to be one of those guys who lives on boats and sails from city to city... a pirate who works when he needs to in order to get to the next place. He is fulfilling a dream. His only concern is finding the right woman to join him on the voyage.

We met Michael in India. He was the first of our countrymen we'd met but he hadn't been home in a while. He was living in Japan for several years and earned a living as a 3D automobile modeler. Michael was burnt out from years of hard work and reeling from a recent divorce. He was lost. We would see him at our guesthouse in the morning and ask, "What are you doing today?" And he would always shrug his shoulders and reply that he'd probably just hang around, relaxing in his room. We would ask, "How long are you traveling?" Answer: "I don't know." We would ask, "Where else are you planning to go?" Answer: "No idea." I think, had we asked any questions about the future of his life in general, the answers would have been the same.

He wasn't morose or depressing -- he was quite engaging and friendly. It seemed that he'd somehow ended up in the desert of India with no clue of how he got there or why. He didn't get there by accident, but Benjamin and I often wondered how he'd made it that far considering his lack of any other plans. When we left, we asked Michael if he'd figured anything out yet and he said he hadn't, "but maybe I'll learn yoga," he added.

We've come to learn that Michael has since moved on -- we were afraid he might still be in India, wondering what he's doing and where he's going. He ended up in Siberia, as it turns out, so perhaps he's still wondering... (and now he's in France).

We met Mariel at the same guesthouse where we met Michael. She was thin and ghostly white and looked unwell. She was just recovering from a 15-day illness during which she was bedridden the entire time and lost something like 20 pounds. She'd previously been staying at a guesthouse run by a Jain woman who took care of her, threatening several times to send Mariel home to France if her health didn't improve.

But Mariel didn't want to go home -- she'd just started her journey -- a year-long trip around the world, and like Michael, to destinations unknown. She was on a mission, traveling on funds from her recently departed grandfather's will, looking for a connection to him through her travels. Their relationship was very close and her grandfather's death was devastating. Mariel's trip is her way of sharing one last thing with him -- in a way, she is keeping him alive. Hers is the single most moving reason for traveling that I've encountered.

It sounds crazy, but we ran into Mariel again in Laos, a full 7 months after saying goodbye in India (and hence, got the update on Michael -- they email each other). She was sitting by the bank of the Mekong to watch the sunset. With her bike. She bought it in Vietnam for 30 bucks and rode it across Cambodia to Thailand. This is not the ordinary bike one sees Western cyclists riding in SE Asia -- I'm talking about a run down, simple bike that you might find in the garage, under cobwebs, from the year 1960. It didn't have gears, but it did have a basket. I couldn't believe she rode the thing across Cambodia. With her bike, she's made a lot of friends and has experienced travel in a different way than us, often staying with local families, who don't even share a common language, for upwards of a month. Her bike has been retired and is now the property of her adopted Thai family.

He looked like a Vietnam vet and, in fact, he was. Outgrown flat top, ruddy face, faded t-shirt, cammo pants. After the war he began to explore SE Asia and never left. He was born in Germany but grew up in Tennessee and we met him in Battambang, Cambodia at a cafe while we were having breakfast. "Do you like gems?" he asked while pulling a small package out of his wallet, "this is the place to buy them." He produced a packet of rubies and regarded them as if they were a long lost love. Gems are mined in the countryside surrounding Battambang, the last outpost for former leaders of the Khmer Rouge. They likely make their living in the gem trade these days and Bill is likely a gem smuggler.

We met Hans in India: a plump man with round, rosy cheeks and penchant for smoking pipes. He told us a story about how he escaped East Germany back when it was divided and how he ended up in prison for 8 years upon his capture. His trip to India was his first foray into the traveling lifestyle. His dream, though, is to buy a sailboat and travel around the world. After losing years of his life in prison, sailing represents the ultimate form of freedom to Hans.

Steve has the pleasant drawl of a South Carolinan, always sported a safari style hat, and was traveling with his daughter through SE Asia before she starts her PhD program at MIT. He's retired, but runs an outreach program for juvenile delinquents: they make hand crafted wood furniture and through the experience, they begin the process of turning the course of their life to a better path.

Steve was staying at our guesthouse in Siem Reap, Cambodia. He was a pleasant man, friendly in his strange way of noticing us when he wanted to and not noticing us when he was thinking about something else. He's a Vietnam vet -- used to fly helicopters in the war. His good friend died while piloting a helicopter. It crashed in Central Vietnam for unknown reasons. Before his friend died, he sent Steve the co-ordinates of his fateful flight. Several years ago Steve went to Vietnam with the co-ordinates in hand, got off the bus at Hue, and to the consternation of others, walked into the jungle looking for the crash site. He walked and walked and finally found a strange building in the middle of nowhere that turned out to be an engineering company of some sort. The people there sympathized with his effort, put him in a car, and took him to the crash site. It goes without saying -- it was a moving experience.

If I had to write Amanda's 'ad' for a dating site, I would say: 22-year-old Canadian thrill seeker, cute, outgoing, and daring. We met her on the rooftop restaurant of our guesthouse in Bikaner, India. After several rounds of beer and a load of cigarettes, she'd finished telling us a story about the birth and death of a relationship on the road. She'd discovered that her road-boyfriend was a huge womanizer and even kept lists of his conquests and his 'charm the pants off of them' techniques. She'd just left him a couple days before we met her; it was a dramatic scene involving her storming to the bus station and him following her, begging like a dog that she stay.

After more conversation, we learned that we'd crossed paths several times in India and what's more, I shared a few joking comments with a lone female traveler whom she had befriended in the south. It might sound unlikely to establish that sort of link, but as we were discussing her own experiences of traveling alone, I mentioned this girl in the internet cafe who'd been staring at the words, "I'm not as strong as I thought I was," on her screen for a long time. The physical description fit and as we were all in the same city at the same time, it was a definite match. Small world.

After Bikaner, Amanda was on her way to Delhi where she planned to petition her embassy for a letter required to obtain a visa for Pakistan. She'd been to Bangladesh and India and was looking to push the boundaries of her strength further (it's a man's world in these countries). Once in Pakistan, Amanda decided to push on into Afghanistan. While there, she was held up by gunpoint in a crowded market and was ushered to a new village in the middle of the night, under the cover of darkness, when the village where she was staying was bombed. The villagers believed the bombs were set off because of her presence there. She was also an unbelievable sight for sore soldiers' eyes. They marveled, "What the hell are you doing here alone?" before getting their photos snapped with her.

I've wondered: when does courage become foolishness? Never mind that, though, I wish I had just an ounce of her intrepid spirit.

CHINESE DUDE (actual name unknown)
I had a short, but interesting, conversation with a man staying at our guesthouse in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He was Chinese but lives in Australia. He wanted to know how long I'd been in Phnom Penh. "One week," I told him and out of politeness, enquired about his stay. "Seven weeks," he replied. "I came here looking for a wife."

I asked him how things were going. He was more than happy to tell me his story about how he'd made arrangements to marry a Cambodian woman when he was in Australia (I'm assuming mail order). When he arrived in Cambodia, everything was fine -- he stayed at his bride-to-be's family home and, "was treated like a king." But somehow, he'd fallen out of his future bride's grace and was asked to leave. He went from king to outcast in a matter of days and was perplexed by the events. His last words on the subject struck me as a little sad, in more ways than one. He said, in a dispirited voice, "Now I have to find a wife all over again..." I hurled my thoughts at him through psychic transmission, just in case he had any ideas, "Well, don't look at me! I'm taken."


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