Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Return Home, Entry #1

Now that we've been back for a few weeks, and our apartment is 90% back in place, I have a few minutes to start recording my thoughts on returning home. I better start now before I forget -- for new things enter my head with a frequency that threatens to push other things out before I've written them down...

Flying into LAX, just as the sun was setting, I looked out the window of the plane and perceived a strange landscape of asphalt and giant box-like buildiings with even larger parking lots surrounding them. Bits of green –– a yard here, a tree there -- seemed like afterthoughts to the paved landscape. The ground below looked like a train model, an imitation of reality. Clean, orderly, efficient and methodical.

This sense of un-reality continued as we drove along on the streets. There were no street vendors or open markets and food stalls lining every street. Everyone, single individuals, stuck in their own worlds, their own cars as they pulled up obediantly to stop lights. Houses were spaced widely apart. There was no-one on the sidewalks. I was struck by a feeling of boredom with my surroundings and a sensation of isolation. My very first impression of landing back in the U.S.: people are disconnected from each other, cloistered in their own private spaces, out of contact with the rest of humanity: their neighbors, communities... they live in orderly grids and wide boulevards, and quiet streets. There is no room for the chaos and commotion that define street scenes in Asia. This pained me -- life seemed dull.

But people seem happy in their isolation I've noticed. There are no smiles and 'hello's to strangers on the street (and there are only a few strangers on the street in comparison to foot traffic in Asia). People just don't seem interested in each other. Or maybe they're too busy. The pace of life in the U.S. is frenetic. People seem panicked. Rushing, impatient, frenzied. That's the irony: in Asia, the streets may be crazy and hectic and bustling with life, but the people are relaxed, mellow; they do things in their time. Here the streets are dull and lifeless yet the people are hectic and manic: in their goings and comings, in conversation... they move at the speed of light. And they are impatient, waving their fists in the air if they have to wait too long at a stop sign. I was seriously stressed out placing an order for a sandwich during the lunch rush hour the other day -- the counter clerk was in such a frenzy I felt like I'd been plowed down by a giant speeding truck after placing my order. There is no time to think, to pause, to consider one's options in the sandwich line.

Of course there are the usual things that are 'different' in the U.S.: the cool weather, the high prices, the large people (even cats look like giants compared to their counterparts in Asia), the high-profile signage of chain stores, chain restaurants, and chain superstores from the freeway. I was surprised by the number of SUVs on the streets, especially in light of the gas crisis... in Asia, motorbikes are the standard method of transport. I'd forgotten about the miles and miles of smooth and efficient multiple-lane highways. I'd forgotten about stop lights and stop signs and driving rules (what's a speed limit?).

People look different: their dress, their hair styles... they look foreign to me yet they are "my people". I don't know what it is... it's one of those indescribable yet evident things -- they look different than everyone I've seen in the past 13 months: Asians and European travelers alike. I know, now, how easy it is to spot an American... I just can't tell you how it's done. And walking down the street or browsing in a superstore or standing in line at a sandwich shop, people sound different. I mean no offense, but a lot of them sound dumb -- they remind me of yellow lab puppies: eager and a little dopey, but well meaning.

I'm amazed by the wealth I see. People dropping hundreds of dollars on groceries and housewares. People in Asia think in the U.S., money grows on trees. Perhaps it does. The other day at Costco (one of the very first superstores I visited in the 'big move in' process), the cashier told the woman in front of me that her total was four hundred and some odd dollars. I was shocked but she didn't blink an eye. Entire families live on similar sums for months on end, if not an entire year in Asia. I understand there is context to this money thing. As I traveled, I was constantly reminded by locals how rich and lucky I was (am). To them I'm a millionaire, but at home I get by. Obviously I get by well enough to take off and travel so far away for so long, but in the grand context of things, I am just a regular person in the U.S. Not rich, but not poor either. Our standards of wealth are on a different scale (on many different scales), that's for sure.

In Myanmar, for example, I had a conversation in my hotel room with a woman employed by the hotel as a cleaning lady. She told me I am lucky to be American: it's such a wealthy country. We have it easy. Somehow the conversation turned to food. She thought our food must be very, very cheap. But when I told her 4 chicken breasts cost about nine dollars, she was amazed. This sum was more than half of her monthly income ($16.00). She, on the other hand, probably has chickens in her yard. And fresh produce is a fraction of the cost than in the U.S. My talk with her reminded me that everything is relative. We may make more money in the U.S., but we spend more, too. And we've made our lives complicated with our fast pace and to-do lists and stress (there is no road rage in Myanmar). Perhaps she is the wealthy one -- forgetting about money. She knows her family members well (they all live together, three generations in (possibly) one room). She lives a less complicated life. But one thing is for sure: we all face the same challenges in life, whether we're from the first or third world. We're all just trying to survive.

One of the hardest things for me, reintegrating, is the expense in moving back into our place. We've bought things, we've painted, we're making our space a comfortable place to be. But after months of living on twenty bucks a day, spending hundreds seems insane. I've gotten used to living on a small budget, and thinking about that budget every day: with every meal, every purchase, every rupee or kip or dong or baht spent. When I was traveling, thinking about the budget almost bordered on obsession (but this is not because of frugality or stinginess... this is the traveler's modus operandi). It's been hard to refurbish our apartment or do the grocery shopping with this engrained mindest.

I'm also not used to having a phone. It was nice not having one for so long -- I just got a cell phone and it seems like a strange and alien object. I have a reticense to learn the multitude of features and functions. I find myself lax in memorizing my number.

I can't get used to the concept of weekdays and weekends. I nearly scald myself in the shower with the abundance and intensity of hot water coursing through good plumbing. I feel strange accepting or giving things from/to others with my left hand (a big no no in Asia) and seeing people with shoes on indoors. I'm not used to leaving my passport at home -- after carrying it around with me every day for so long, it's become a part of me in a strange way. I am bowled over by the size of a large coffee (and I used to drink several of them in the morning). I get excited by the convenience of simple machinery: washing machines and dryers, microwaves. And after 8 countries and 8 currencies, I feel no familiarity to U.S. money; I cannot get used to the new design (coins in particular). This was, oddly, a big letdown. Like it or not, people identify with money and my home currency no longer feels like 'home'.

I have indulged myself in all things I missed: red wine, cheese, mexican food, lazy days on the couch (OK, only one). There is much more to do in this arena... though I find the things I missed on the road are not as good in reality as they were in my mind at the time. Perhaps this is the biggest lesson in my return -- maybe this realization will help me "let go" of thoughts about my freedom and the adventure of life on the road. I am here now and I need to be here... I know I won't be happy if my thoughts revolve around 'there' and 'then'. For now, my happiness is found in thinking about 'next time'.

Monday, April 03, 2006


We've just returned from Kanchanaburi, only 2 hours from Bangkok but worlds apart. Kanchanaburi is slow and scenic: a countryside edged by lumpy mountians with valleys full of sugar cane, rivers full of reeds and flowering lilly pads, caves and waterfalls and jungle. Kanchanaburi is the site of the 'Bridge over the River Kwai', with much history on display at museums throughout town. The place is like a time capsule from 1942/3, when the Japanese forced POWs to build the 'Death Railway' to aid their movement and the passage of supplies through Burma, towards India.

In Kanchanaburi, the river is lazy and the peaceful twitter of birds is only disturbed by the occasional THUMP THUMP THUMP of a bassline in the passing of a floating disco -- the people of Kanchanaburi don't waste real esate -- our bungalow was actually on a floating raft, anchored to the shore, bobbing with the waves on the River Kwai.

Maybe I like Kanchanaburi because it's sort of kitschy: floating discos and bungalows on rafts are just the start. The town is famous for the nearby Tiger Temple, where tourists can get up close and personal with rescued tigers. I heard once a lady's arm was bitten off, but no-one really talks about her or the potential danger. People assume the monks have tamed them, but they're monks, not animal trainers (on second thought...). There are rumors that the tigers are drugged -- sedated -- so when Gustav puts his face next to the tiger's head for his photo, the tiger seems not to care. Personally, I didn't want to be the next tourist-who-gets-bitten-but-nobody-talks-about-it AND the skies were black with rain the day we stopped to visit, so we skipped the tiger temple and road home to safety from teeth and rain.

There's also a monkey training school. We saw pig tailed macaques ride a tricycle, play basketball, swim, count to 10 (pointing at signs), and sell us 'white monkey holding peach balm' (similar to tiger balm -- they probably sell that at the tiger temple). The most alluring attraction and biggest letdown, though, was the floating nun. She was said to do yoga positions while 'hovering' on the surface of the water. It was a miraculous scene, according to some sources. For 100 Baht ($2.50), we got to see an obese woman float in a tub of water. Yes, she did some mudras with her hand... but she floated because she was fat and anyway, floating is not hovering. But what did I expect? No-one can really walk (or do yoga) on water...

There's also a mini lightshow reenactment of the allied troops blowing up the bridge (over the River Kwai) during WWII. We skipped this, having visited numerous 'Death Railway' museums in the previous days and frankly, we didn't need to see a model blown up to get the jist of the story. While I am a fan of this type of entertainement, at 300 Baht ($7.50), I couldn't do it.

While Kanchanaburi is a bit kitsch, and the expats who live there are no different, it is also a sobering place. Especially felt when visiting the war cemetery in town, where the corpses of British and Australian POWs were moved when the war was over (they were moved there from cemeteries in the jungle near their work camps). Rows of small headstones, all alike, are inscribed with messages from loved ones so sad I felt like crying. Most of the men were in their 20s and most of them died in the year 1943. What a bad year for so many -- looking at the graves I was overwhelmed by the number of men who died in that one year and realizing I was only seeing a fraction of the men who died that year, or in the war as a whole, I again felt like crying. Not necesearily for the men who died, but for the people they left behind.

Despite my bad feelings about war, I am fascinated by war stories... and a visit to Kanchanaburi was a great history lesson.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Destination TBD: The Final Count Down

The count down has begun: as I write this, we have three nights left before we return home. Nerves are frazzled, temperaments are testy, the calendar (all of a sudden) has taken the center stage. The Big Trip, as I liked to call it, is over (this one at least). Those who like to "debate" about such things might say, "Now, don't say that, think of it as a detour on the winding road of life." I'm not one of those people, not unless I've had a little wine and find myself in one of those moods where everyone is your best friend and quoting spiritually inclined bumper stickers passes for wisdom. No,no... this chapter has ended. Hell, the book is nearly finished. But what does the appendix hold?

We will return home like brand new cars: without scratches and dents, rust or dings... we will return home like flowers before they have been cut and picked and shoved into an arrangement pleasing to another's eye. Somehow in the last year, without phones and schedules and appointments and bills and anything -- any word -- that ends with 'ility'... somehow we have become like new again. Babies with attitude, if you will (I say attitude because we can wear funky shoes and hold a conversation with multi-syllable cuss words).

We are like babies: with open minds and open hearts, carefree & unconcerned, curious, and wise. Yes, wise... wise in a way that can only be found when there is nothing to worry about, because gossip and stress and disappointment no longer exist. Perhaps traveling through Buddhist lands has had some effect on our outlook: when you rise above all of that shit, happiness can be found (note: this is not a direct quotation). Perhaps we have been affected by the freedom from all the things that distract us back home. It's a great feeling, I can tell you that: a clean mind.

We have already felt the effects of what life will be like upon our return: little things here and there. We've talked about the lack of closet space in our apartment (and felt annoyed); I've pondered which cell phone company I should sign up with (and felt like cutting out my tongue so I can't use a cell phone); we've discussed the increased price of public transportation in the city (and seethed in anger so long forgotten); we've argued about what color the new bedspread should be (actually I made that one up, but you get the point). It's so stupid and silly to get affected by these things, but it happens. I am remembering it all now as if it was only yesterday... and this is what Benjamin and I fear the most: losing our clean minds.

At least we know what to do, though, when we come home pissed off because someone with road rage called us names. We'll know what to do when the cable goes out for a day and we're still billed for static. We'll know what to do when the neighbors leave banana peels on the sidewalk in front of the house. We'll know what to do when the mail man just can't remember to put our mail in our box. We'll know what to do when the bus driver pulls away from the curb after we've run 4 blocks to catch up. We'll know what to do with all the stuff that's annoying and ultimately distracting: we'll remind ourselves how it feels to have a 'clean mind'. Or maybe we'll just hop on a plane to detox: we're already saving for dTBD II.