Saturday, May 28, 2011

Full Immersion

It's very easy for a traveler to get around if they speak English, especially in Thailand. However, the local people really do appreciate an effort to learn their language. Despite being surrounded by Thai speaking people, most of those who work in shops or restaurants speak enough English to do business. Surely, occasionally I run into someone I cannot communicate with, but for the most part speaking simplified English is sufficient. In addition to that, there are so many travelers here, and it is also quite easy to remain immersed in an English-speaking world. Amongst a group of travelers, English is often the common denominator. For example, last night I was hanging out with two French people, two Japanese people, an Italian girl, and Polish girl and a Canadian. While there were side conversations in French and Japanese, most of the conversation took place in English. I still learn a lot about different cultures, but I know that my appreciation and understanding of Thai and even Asian culture will be significantly enhanced if I pick up the language.

All that being said, I am finding it a bit difficult to remain diligent in my studies. The tonal language sounds so foreign to me, and the whole while I know that my tutors could easily express themselves in English. Still, I have been trying to look at the Thai phrasebook I borrowed from my Auntie A in Chang Mai. In addition, I stopped by the art supply store and picked up a couple of notebooks. One for me, for my Thai lessons, and one for Chit, the Thai guy who is making the most effort to help me learn his language. I bought him a notebook so that he could study the English lesson I give him after our Thai practice. Although he says he speaks "Jungle-Thai," which is a bit different from how they speak in Bangkok, its all good. For the most part, the two dialects are mutually understood, and I have no problems talking like a jungle man rather than a city slicker. I have enough city-slicker experience from Philadelphia and New York. A little bit of an accent adds character.

Speaking of accent, my pronunciation of coffee and water have raised a few eyebrows. I know that South Jersey folks often say "wudder" instead of water, but I didn't realize how much my version of coffee sounded like "cawfee." I know that the longer I stay here amongst an international community the more my accent will become subdued, but I think it is cool to speak with a unique blend of English expressions from around the world. Occasionally it's nice to meet another North American so I can use references to regional culture, but for the most part I much prefer to learn about other places and other cultures. One of the most interesting things is to hear foreign idioms. For example, I recently learned that "love-handles" are called exactly the same thing in France. Speaking of France, I have also been pronouncing that word a bit differently, with a higher "a" sound, more like the British and the French pronounce it.

So, I'm still not training. The foot is still in recovery, and I know if I push it too hard too quickly it will just take longer to heal. In the meantime, I have had no troubles keeping myself busy. I generally make it down to the Riverside everyday to hang out and practice on the drum set there. I have been plowing through books. There is an internet cafe where you can watch full-length American movies, many of which are just out of the theaters. I've also been drawing and writing. With no work to be concerned with, it has been quite enjoyable to spend my days in pursuit of entertainment and creative expression. I recently bought myself a pencil sharpener, and will be adding drawing to my list of activities in the immediate future.

Speaking of the immediate future, my life here is beginning to take shape. I paid the owner of the Mountain Lodge today a few thousand Thai Baht, and he responded by giving me several hugs. I am not sure how much he needs the money, but when I get a reaction like that I sometimes wonder if he is in somewhat dire financial straits. There hasn't been too many students training at the martial arts school, and I know his revenue is limited at this time. However, before we moved the school to the Lodge, he had no revenue coming in. Something has got to be better than nothing. Still, I want to stay there and study longer than I will be able to afford, so I had quite a long conversation with the owner this morning.

After giving him the money, I explained to him my financial situation. I am OK for the time being, but I told him at some point I would need to leave to work. If, however, I was able to save money or even make money here, that I would be delighted to stay with him through the busy season and into next year. I told him that I was willing to help him around his property, especially in dealing with the English speaking travelers who will be pouring in after the rainy season. He was also quite happy to here that I used to be a server and a bartender, and I know they would greatly benefit from a native English speaker to help them with their business. On top of it all, I should have a good grasp of the Thai language by the time the busy season rolls around, and would be able to facilitate guest relations greatly. Only one obstacle remains, the illegality of me working at the present moment.

I told Sam, the owner, that I wanted to get a work permit so that we could be on the up and up. He told me that he would speak to his friends in the government and help me do just that. This way, the school will be legitimized, I will be able to get a year's visa without having to make occasional yet expensive visa runs, and I can stay on training and helping and learning without having to worry about my finances. As I like to say, money is only important if you don't have any. Sam says that he is going to Bangkok on the 15th of next month, and if everything shakes out as he foresees, he will take me with him on this trip and we will get the permit sorted out. In the meantime, I'll continue my independent studies of music, language, and culture. I don't care if I don't get any type of certification of accreditation from my efforts. I enjoy learning and am having a great time doing it. Until next time, I'll be here changing people's perceptions of Americans, letting the world know that we aren't all arrogant, know-it-alls. I don't know the weeks ahead will bring, but one thing is for sure: I will be enjoying them more than I would be if I were still working in America.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Falling and Getting Back Up

First of all, here are some past due photos. Check out the Buddha Park in Laos:
 So many amazing and unique statues...
 Here I sit in the "doorway" into this structure. It is the building in the background of the shot above.
 This is a photo from inside the structure. It was very "Indiana Jones-y." Unfortunately, most of the photos from inside could have used a tripod... oh well.
 This is a view from the top of that same structure, overlooking most of the park.
 I liked this one in particular. The snakes body wrapped around the entire platform holding the other statues.
 Twisted, right?
Also twisted. Still, very very interesting.

Ok, now here is one photo of the most famous and revered temple in all of Lao. Although, honestly, I wasn't particularly impressed. After all, it's only painted gold.

Alright, now for a few photos of my new home in Pai, Thailand, and the surrounding areas...
 This is the house I am living in. The window on the lower left is to my room. Actually, the whole basement is practically mine. The other bed room is used for storage, and there is only a hallway and a bathroom. From my "private patio," which itself is rotting a bit, I have a few of my own personal "waterfall," which is really just a drainage runoff, but I still go to sleep to the sound of running water.
 This picture was taking during a hike around the surrounding area. You can see my red shirt up along the trail. Well, I say trail, but really it is a road that Thai's use everyday.
 This is the view from the main building, where we eat. The practice hall is not yet finished, so we normally practice on this terrace in the early morning or evening, when it is a bit cooler.

So, I'm settled into my new place in Pai, about 6 kilometers out of the town center. We had a few students come and go already, and I can definitely see my teacher's demeanor and style change with short term students vs. long term students with myself. I just found out from my Mom that my tax refund will be significant, so I'm not worried about money for the time being. Instead, I am content to be just where I am.

Unfortunately, as I got to know the route to and from town a little bit better, I started to go a little bit faster on my motorbike. Well, lesson learned. I fell off my bike, spraining and cutting my ankle. I haven't been able to train for two days, but I've kept it clean and disinfected and is healing quite nicely. Instead, I've been reading and practicing my Thai with the staff at the Mountaintop Lodge. After a two days of rest, I can now walk around with only a bit of discomfort, and think I will be back to martial arts the day after tomorrow.
I still want to buy a guitar, but want to wait a few days. The internet, my planned teacher for said instrument, is still not up at the Lodge, so it'd be a bit pointless to buy it before I could start learning. Also, I haven't completed my TEFL certification yet, and think I should also get that out of the way before taking on another project. Most of the day is usually filled up with exercise, meditation, and lessons. On top of that, I want to offer my services as a worker to the owner of the guest house in an attempt to reduce my costs. It doesn't seem like it is going to be free, but certainly cheap. I've definitely been saving money and eating better since moving up top. In a few days, everything will have developed into even more of a routine, and I'll give an update then.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

A Slice in the Pai of my American Dream

My last few days in Laos were excellent. After saying goodbye to all my slowboat friends, I quickly found a few new ones. The Swedish girl, an English guy with a curly mustache, and an Italian living in Bangkok were my companions for my last days in Laos. We saw their huge temple with its towering golden structures, but I have to admit, Thailand's "white wat" was much cooler. I went to get my visa on Monday and had to wait until Wednesday to pick it up, because Tuesday was a Thai holiday. In the meantime, I traveled on a local bus to see the "Buddha Park," which was a really cool sculpture garden. There were many more types of statues besides just Buddhas. The whole experience was someone reminiscent of the Chronicles of Narnia; I was walking through paths with mystical stone creatures on all sides. Pictures from this event will be forthcoming.

My new friends attempted to persuade me to return to Vang Vien, however I had certainly had enough of that town. Laos was very nice and very beautiful, but I was ready to return to Thailand. The friends I made in Pai would still be there, and I wouldn't be saying goodbye to each new friend I made. Well, at least I would be saying goodbye in months vs. days. Still, while I was doing a little practice on my own, I know I needed further instruction to really get a grasp on Tai Chi and Qi Gong. Take a look on the internet to see some of the Tai Chi stuff. It make look phoney, with a small hit delivering incredible force, but trust me, its real.

I spent two nights at the Riverside, where I stayed before. It was good to see the people I had met: the intimidating French guy, the gypsy, the local Thais who hung out there. I bit of a party was nice to return to after the grueling all night travel experience headed from Laos back to Pai. Now, however, I have moved to the mountaintop, where Thomas assures me the training is going to become more intense. While I know that my lifestyle up top may not be as relaxed as it is down here, I know its going to be good for me. We will be exercising quite a bit, as well as eating good, and I know I'll be getting in shape fast. Pictures of my new, semi-long term accommodations are also forthcoming.

So now we are here, back in the present. I don't know what the next few months hold for me, let alone years. However, I like to keep my options open. So, while here I intend on finishing my TEFL certificate to teach English, volunteer to help teach an existing English class here in Thailand, and practice Qi Gong daily. In addition, I am going to try and learn the Thai language (at lease some,) learn the guitar, and open up doors for myself in other countries. I haven't worked since January 3rd, and I'm going to need an income sooner or later. Still, there is no need to commit to one course of action versus another, especially when I can open up the doors for all of them. That being said, my resume, or CV as it is often called, will be updated and sent out. Hopefully, I will be able to have the option to teach in Korea, to pick fruit in Australia, or to be a bartender in Bali. Who knows? Maybe the martial arts academy here will pick up enough steam for me to continue living here and training.

One thing is for sure, I am living my own personal version of the American dream. For me, the dream is actively pursuing happiness, and genuinely receiving it. My American Dream is about freedom, not the pursuit of wealth. Sure, the wealthy are capable of traveling about the world at their leisure, but what many of us don't realize is that it is not only the wealthy that can see the world. In fact, in many ways traveling poor will enhance your experience, separating yourself from the western bubble of fancy resorts and the English language. I guess it's kind of a Buddhist thought, but sometimes you can't find happiness if you have too much. Now, I am happy because I am finally seeing the world, and learning so much along the way. In addition to martial arts, I learn more about language, cooking, art, and culture everyday. I want to thank my old hometown friends Jon and Ben for setting the vagabond lifestyle for me and letting me know it is possible. I also hope that someone reads this and then realizes that international travel is possible for them, as well.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lost in Asia

Two nights ago, I got lost on the streets of Vien Tien, the capital city of Laos. Like elsewhere in this country, a metamorphosis takes place around 11pm. Stores and restaurants close for the night, turning off their lights. Even guesthouses and hotels, in business to cater to foreigners, are hardly recognizable in the darker, nighttime version of the city. However, I did recognize a few landmarks and signs, such as the massive Mekong river that is the border between Laos and Thailand, but I couldn't seem to navigate the unplanned streets and alleys to find my way back to my bed. As I walked down by the river, I was constantly harassed by prostitutes on motorbikes, calling out to me in their limited English. They circled me like vultures, salivating at the chance to descent upon a helpless, rich foreigner. I actually got a chance to find out just how limited their English was; I eventually broke down and asked one of them directions. Unfortunately, they took any eye-contact, let alone words as encouragement, and my questions of "Where is this place?" elicited the response, "You want this? You want me? I take care of you. I love you long time."

I wasn't sure what time it was, I was separated from my friends, and, despite knowing I was in the general area of my room, I couldn't quite find it. As it got later, I considered the possibility of getting robbed. I took all the cash out of my notebook, which I have been using as a wallet, so that I might not lose my drawings, writings, and other travelers e-mail addresses along with my cash. I also took my bank card and slipped it into my back pocket. That way, if I were to be robbed, I could probably get away with giving up only the few hundred thousand bills I had on me, the equivalent to about $20 US. As a matter of fact, a laughed at the possibility of getting robbed and at the situation in general, both as I walked through the streets by myself and later, when I eventually found my room. Even now, thinking about it makes me smirk. A year ago, I couldn't have imagined feeling so comfortable walking through some foreign Asian city in the middle of the night. Now, I've adopted such a different outlook that I probably would have considered the experience loosing my money well worth the money I lost. Little did I know that we'd be paying for an experience the next night. Certainly, in this situation, it helped that I rarely carry more than $20 on me at any given time. If I had been wandering the streets with my backpack, it would have been a different story. Not only does it get heavy and tired to carry, but I would have looked like a target, and in risk of losing all my clothes, my laptop, my camera, and my passport.

All in all, I actually enjoyed getting lost. After so much constant interaction with people since I left Jersey it was nice to be able to lose myself in my thoughts. Sure, I had to keep 50% of my mind of my surroundings, taking stock of suspicious characters, declining hookers and taxi-drivers, neither of which knew where my room was anyway, and looking at signs and landmarks to guide me on my way. Even with all that, walking for over an hour by myself still left me with plenty of time to think. I've forgotten half of the words mentally assembled for this post since my "walk", but running through the narrative in my mind was a pleasant experience. It occurred to me that I enjoyed trying to use English poetically, as opposed to slowly, simply, and with hand gestures, as I often have to do.

I began to write this blog for two reasons. First, for myself, as my own personal journal. Secondly, because I know that there are people back home that want to know where I am and what I'm doing; if they are curious about me then they can go online and get an update. However, four months into writing this blog, I have discovered additional reasons to write. I was surprised to find out how much I enjoyed writing, trying to find interesting ways to describe my experience. I was also delighted to hear from old friends, some of whom I hadn't talked to in years, and to find out that they were also reading, inspired by my decision to leave behind my conventional American lifestyle and career. Finally, because it is a form of creative expression for me, something that I have always had a need to do.

Communicating and connecting with people, in my opinion, is one of life's greatest joys. Traveling, I am fascinated to explore the differences in the English language. I have heard the notion that understanding someone's language will help you understand the way they think, and I agree. It was true when I learned Spanish; understanding the language offered me insight into their thoughts. Also, just beginning to study Thai, it has become easier to understand how they can live so simply yet happily. Occasionally, I will hear a non-native speaker describe something better than a native speaker and I am amazed. Before getting lost, I was hanging out with two Austrian guys with limited English skills. We were discussing the difference between Thai people and Lao people, and I told them that I preferred the smiles of Thailand to the scowls of Laos, even though I know that occasionally the Thais smile like sharks looking for their next dollar, pound, or euro. They said that the Laos people were more shy, and it was an observation I found to be very true, yet unnoticed by me and my fluent English speaking companions during our week in Laos. Having struggled with my comprehension of Spanish, I certainly recognize the need to speak slowly and clearly, using basic vocabulary and occasionally leaving verbs un-conjugated when talking to those with limited fluency. The Austrians appreciated it greatly. They told me that they understood me better than any other English speaking person that they had met since they entered Asia, and we had quite a good conversation about language, culture, and travel. I made them laugh quite a bit when I intentionally reverted to speaking quickly, running my words into one another, just to demonstrate how the English, Aussies, and Americans normally talk, even when trying to communicate to non-native speakers.

After three nights in Vang Vien, the bohemian, debauchery-filled incarnation of Sodom and Gomorrah in the middle of this back-water, traditional country, I was ready to leave. That is not to say that I didn't have a great time there, but three nights was enough. I went out every night, drinking and dancing the night away. Mostly, I hung out with the people I met on the slow boat. I shared a room with the Dutch and the German, and we would regularly meet up with the English when we went out. The music was good, for me at least. However, Toby, my German friend, wanted more rock and roll, and Flores, the Dutch guy, wanted more trance and techno. Apparently, the hip-hop, dub-step, and drum and bass were not their "cup of tea." Fortunately for me, I like almost all types of music, and had a great time. Thankfully, I survived tubing down the river unscathed. However, it was common to see the beleaguered traveler walking down the street with bandages, a limp, or even an eye patch. Clearly, riding down slides and on zip line swings, while completely, hopelessly, and utterly intoxicated, leads to some injury. I did all those things, but maintained a degree of sobriety, and was rewarded with a relatively safe experience.

The trip from Vang Vien to here was also a good experience, even without the English, who decided to stay behind and party on. We decided to kayak down the river to the next city. Unfortunately, we only kayaked about 10k of the 90k journey, but it was still quite fun. Besides, I was quite tired by the time we got off the river, and somewhat happy to be freed from the need to paddle. We had a spot of lunch on the river, cooked by our guide, which was quite good. It was a bit more expensive than the standard bus trip, but my friends and I agreed it was worth it.

Flores left yesterday, the day after I wandered the streets at night, leaving Toby and I to laze around in the capital by ourselves. We had been drinking quite a bit since had met, and we were looking forward to a few relaxing days. After all, I had to wait in this city until Monday for the Thai embassy to open so that I could apply for my visa. Predictably, we didn't have a quiet night. At dinner, Toby ran into a barely intelligible English guy he had met in Australia about a year ago. While his accent wasn't quite as bad as this, imagine Brad Pitt in the movie Snatch, and then you'll get an idea for how this guy talked. Even I had a hard time understanding a lot of what he said, and any non-native speakers we ran into couldn't even recognize his language as English at all. After going out drinking with them, the night was punctuated with a very interesting experience.

The group we were with, which somehow had grown to a few French guys, a Dutch girl, some different Austrians and an older Scottish guy, went out to the water so that a few of them could smoke. Toby and I were just going along with the crowd, and i'll make it a point to say now that neither of us were doing anything illegal nor had anything illegal on us. In contrast, some of the new people in the story did have some illicit substances with them. Well, we are sitting on the steps that overlook the river, and four guys in military uniforms show up on one small motorbike. Toby thinks they weren't real military, just kids in uniforms looking for bribes, but whether they had legal sanction or not doesn't change the story at all. They proceeded to search every one of us, thoroughly, predictably starting with Toby. Despite not doing drugs, his skinny frame, beard and long hair make him look like the obvious suspect for possession. His thorough pat down gave the French guy time to hide his stash his business in his business, if you know what I mean. The older Scottish guy was a little more brazen though, and got caught with a joint. He explained that it was his, and not his friends. He spoke Thai with them and had to bribe them 500,000 kip (50 Euros) to walk. Thing was, he only had 300,000 on him, and he asked us for help. Toby, keen to avoid trouble, produced the remaining funds. Seems we had a chance to pay for a scary experience in Laos after all.

The next day I got lost again, but this time it was on a rented motorbike. I rode around town with a cute Swedish girl on the back of my bike looking for the cities most famous wat. Actually, she is waiting downstairs for us to go to dinner, so that just about wraps up this post. I will post a few pictures of the wat and an account of the day another time. For now, however, I've got a few more pressing matters to attend to than writing.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Fast Friends and Waterfalls

I have to admit, i'm having a hard time writing this post. I'm at a retaurant where they constantly show reruns of Family Guy, and it's quite difficult to concentrate. Especially considering the plethora of inappropriately dressed English girls on their gap-year holiday before heading off to university. a slight hangover, and conversation with my friends, writing this post is going quite slowly. That being said, i'll make this quick.

I spent a full day in Luang Prabang, and it was actually quite fun. The English kids we had met on the slow boat always seemed to be making friends, and 13 of us, pictured above, all went to the waterfall about an hour out of town. I've been to some waterfalls before, in the States and central America, but this one was probably the best. Not only was the company good, but so was the swimming, the beers, and the scenery.
That night, the group grew once again. We went up to the English folks room for some more Ring of Fire, and there were so many people playing that the far end of the circle had to stand up and walk over each time it was their turn. We were also joined by some random girls from Hong Kong who just let themselves upstairs for a few drinks. Very strange, indeed. Still, it was a very good time. From there, we went out to a place recommended to me called Utopia. My friend Toby brought a bottle of whiskey into the bar with us, but even when we got caught, we weren't even told to leave. They said they we were closing in ten minutes, and not to bring in outside drinks next time. Fortunately for us, we were leaving the next day, and I don't think I'll be back for quite some time. Afterwards, we were left with only one option, more bowling. It wasn't quite as fun as the first time around, but I enjoyed talking to a beautiful French-Canadian. Hopefully she'll make it to Vang Vien whilst we're still here. If not, however, no worries.

The next day, we booked for a minibus heading to the next backpackers city south, supposedly five hours south. Over seven hours later, we arrived. Thankfully, Ollie, one of the English friends, let me borrow the book The Beach, and it kept me occupied. I enjoyed the book quite a lot, especially because of my ability to relate to his observations of Thailand. We got dropped off a few kilometers from the town center and had to hire another car to take us into the center of town, a common practice to wring more money out of travelers. This town, like I had heard, has a unique atmosphere.

This place is absolutely targeted towards young kids looking to party. Most of the people staying here are in their late teens or early twenties, and there is definitely a 'frat party' vibe. The main attraction of this town is tubing down the river, where apparently they throw ropes out to you and pull you into bars. I haven't been yet, but I am planning on checking it later today. I'm still sharing a room with a German and a Dutch, and the three of us are going to meet up with the English later on to roll down the river together.

Last night, we went out dancing well past 11:30. It is quite odd to see white people working in the bars, but apparently when these young travelers run out of money they hang out here working. Unfortunately, the type of people working here are not my favorite type of people. There are a lot of bleach blonde, long haired, sideways hat wearing guys walking around without shirts. Not that I blame them for that lifestyle; I'm sure that if I found this place when I was 20-years old I would have followed the same path. I'll hang out here today, and probably head down to the capital tomorrow. While the land is beautiful here in Lao, it is a bit more expensive than Thailand, and I'm more or less ready to get back. Still, today is it's own day, and I'm sure I'm going to enjoy it. Although I'm not so sure I'll remember it!

The White Wat is Chiang Rai, Thailand. This probably should have been included in the last post, but it wasn't, so here we go. By far, my favorite temple in Asia I've seen.

Sunset over the Mekong River. The picture really doesn't do it justice, but hopefully you can imagine the view. It was quite breathtaking.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Slow Boat through Laos

The fourth time I took the minibus between Chiang Mai and Pai, I wasn’t too impressed by the landscape. After all, I had spent over a week in this lush, sparsely developed mountain valley. Sitting in a cramped bus, through windy roads of more of the same, began to seem like a chore. While I love traveling, I like being in these foreign exotic places more than I like traveling between them. However, I’ve got a lot more time on the road in the next few days. I need to make it out of Thailand by tomorrow or I’ll be overstaying my visa.

So, now I am here in Chiang Mai, once again chilling with my aunt and uncle. While I didn’t wind up going to the jungle party because of rain, I still had a great time. I found the local music store and bought drumsticks. Surprisingly, I retained most of my skills, despite a nine-year hiatus. I impressed the community at the Riverside, as well as myself.  Still, it would take a lot more practice to get good enough to play with a band, and because I left the drum set behind, I don’t see much of a chance for that. Still, I haven’t given up on learning guitar during my travels. It’s a much softer, quieter instrument to play, and you can pick one up here for about 50 US… maybe when I return to Pai.

Also, before I left, Thomas, Jared and I drove up to see the land owner, Sam. We came to an agreement, at least I think. There was still quite a language barrier, but I had the wherewithal to speak slowly and draw diagrams until we were fairly sure we understood each other. There is an old restaurant hall on his property, which is currently the residence of his sister. Originally, we had told him we needed a roof constructed so that we could practice in the elements. He seemed hesitant to spend the money, but understood that it takes some money to spend some money. Fortunately, he has capital instead. Now, he is going to move his sister out of the hall and into another house on his property, and we are going to have the hall to practice our kung fu.

I said goodbye to all the people that I met there: the gypsies, the travelers, the foreigners who seemed to live there permanently, and even a few Thais. I told them that I would likely be back in a week or so, which is actually still my plan. A few folks just laughed, apparently people that leave Pai often plan on coming back. I got a bunch of hugs, exchanged a few email addresses or Facebook accounts, and went on my way. I sadly turned in my motorbike, and got on the bus. Like I said, the fourth time on this trip, the scenery had lost a bit of its splendor.

Tomorrow, I get picked up between 930 and 10am for a six hour ride to the border. From there, I will have to stand in line after line as I get processed through immigration. Only then will I be rewarded with… more traveling. At least tonight I get to go out in the city and have some fun. It is Cinco de Mayo, and I’ll be celebrating it properly by dancing salsa, even if the whole country around me allows the day to pass without any special notice.

I’ll probably spend a little over a week in Lao. However, I’m still trying to live in the present, so plans are always subject to change. Sure, I’d like to get back to studying Tai Chi in Pai, but I have learned enough to practice independently for a while. If Lao is as fun as I’ve heard, I may not be itching to go back quite so quickly. Until then, though, your guess is as good as mine.


Now, I am sitting in Luang Prabang, Laos, eating a warm baguette with some eggs and bacon. Sure, I probably won't eat the bacon; they can't seem to cook it properly on this continent, and they habitually serve an undercooked, fatty mess of an excuse for proper bacon. Furthermore, I don't know why hot dogs pass for sausages here, but they do. Still, certain things about Laos, being a former French colony, are markedly better here, in comparison to Thailand, such as the bread and the coffee.

Breakfast aside, theres been a lot going on since my last post, which I can hardly believe was a full week ago. I went to Chiang Mai, went out dancing, and had a great time. I booked a bus ticket to the border, and made it out of Thailand with only a few hours to spare before the immigration office closed for the night. The ride to the border was quite nice because, despite its length, was broken up by several stops at local landmarks. Most impressive was certainly the all white wat. I took a few pictures, but the internet connection I am using now is horrifically slow, so I am going to wait on their posting.

After I paid the ferry and crossed to the other side, it was like I went back in time. No longer did I see ATMs or 7-11s, just dusty streets with local shops. While I knew Lao is a communist country, I did not expect to see the red soviet flag with the yellow sickle and hammer hanging about. I was also a bit disappointed by the local people, after becoming accustomed to the ubiquitous Thai smile, I found the Lao people straight faced and suspicious. I walked around the small town for a while and most of my friendly smiles were returned with apathetic, if not cold, stares. Still, like everywhere, the children always seem to smile, and I was happy to see that at least they seemed quite welcoming.

I bought a ticket for the slow boat, a two day journey down the Mekong river, for 250,000 kip. Money gets a bit confusing here because of the massive numbers, and strangely enough I kept found myself converting kip to Thai baht instead of to dollars. However, I met a Dutch guy with a phone application for currency conversion, and after three days of hanging out with him, I seem to have finally figured it all out. After dropping my bag off in my room, I walked to a restaurant where I sampled a few of the local foods, and of course, the national beer. Beer Lao is definately better than the Thai domestic beer, and it holds its own against a few of the expensive craft beers, especially considering a 640ml bottle is only one Euro.

While eating my dinner, I somehow came to meet this Dutch guy named Flores, and we went to a few bars together, having a refreshingly intelligent conversation. I also met a Russian guy who told a few seemingly tall tails about his visits to China, and a few gap-year English kids, who we would see later on. Just past 11pm, we walked out onto the deserted streets to return to our guest houses. In this country, everything shuts down around 11pm, and I had to knock on my guesthouse door before they let me in. The next morning I got picked up and taken down to the boat by a tuk-tuk, and to my surprise the Dutch guy, Flores, was already in the tuk-tuk. It turns out he had bought a ticket for the same boat I had, along with over 100 other travelers, and before long we were making our way down the Mekong.

Strangely enough, we had assigned seating, and I wound up nestled right in the group of the English from the night before. From what I gather, these kids come from some money, considering their elaborate travel plans and stories about relatives hunting with British royalty. I am still learning more and more about British culture and language, but i'll leave those observations for another time and continue on my experience in Lao. The view from the boat was quite spectacular at times, as the shore line is dotted with small beaches, dense forrest, and jagged rocks. Several times the boat passed within less than a meter of some menacing looking rocks, but I just told myself that the boat driver must have made this journey many times. We saw several slow boats heading in the other direction, all of them nearly empty. As it turns out, it is a popular tourist route to head into Lao, but not so much going the other way. For the most part, the returning boats only had 5 to 10 Lao people in them, while the boat I was on was packed with foreigners. Several times the boat stopped to let of the locals in seemingly uncivilized areas. I'm not quite sure how the locals knew that they had arrived, but I could only guess that they recognized some rock formation and knew that their hut was just over the mountain's ridge. We also stopped so that little kids could try and sell us snacks and beverages, and it is an interesting experience haggling with an eight-year old over the price of a beer.

We stopped over night in a sleepy village, Pak Beng, half-way down the river. The rooms where nice enough, and the people considerably more friendly, although I still got the impression that they were trying to rip us off. I split a two-bed room with my new friend from Amsterdam, and we spent the evening in the restaurant attached to the guesthouse. We were offered drugs many times, and at times it seemed like a high-pressure sales situation. We met an American from Colorado who worked as a ski shuttle driver who looked exactly like Luke Wilson, but felt ill, went in early, and my interaction with him ended there. Flores grabbed his laptop and we watched a few episodes of South Park at the table. Before long, we were joined by a young teenage girl, who didn't speak much English at all, but still seemed to enjoy the cartoon. Whenever she heard a word she knew she would repeat it, and all together she made the viewing experience all the more enjoyable. However, don't get the wrong idea, not only was she too young for us, but it's also against Lao law for a foreigner to spend the night with someone from Lao. Strange, right?

The next day, we were back on the boat for more of the same. I had bought a book, The DaVinci Code, before leaving on the first day, and had finished it by the time we arrived on the second day. The book itself was decent, but the nice thing about traveling by slow boat is the smooth ride allows for hassle free reading. After exhausting my reading material, I shared a few jokes with the English and half a bottle of whiskey with the Dutch. We arrived in Luang Prabang and somehow had picked up a German guy in our party, and the three of us split a room. We met back up with the English, played "Ring of Fire," better known in the States as "Circle of Death," and we all drank quite a bit more. After the card game it was past eleven, and when the group hit the streets, we found them locked up and deserted once again. After some keen negotiating with a taxi driver, the six of us paid roughly fifty cents a piece for a ride to the bowling alley, apparently the only place in town open past eleven.

Which brings me to now, sitting in an open air cafe, drinking good coffee and eating a fresh, warm baguette with eggs. Most of the architecture here is clearly French-influenced, and the main street has a few qualities reminiscent of New Orleans. There are quite a few balconies, bright paint, and french-style wooden panels used to lock up at night where I had become accustomed to pull-down metal cages. A lot of French are still around, and I seem to hear the French language on the streets more than anything else. I'm definitely going to stay here for one more night to give the city a full day's exploration. Tomorrow, I may head south, or a may stay here. It's nice to once again to have fallen into a group, but I'm certainly willing to press on alone if I tire of the city before my new companions.

Strangely enough, I find myself missing Pai. I was really enjoying the martial arts training, the friends I made there, and the lifestyle I was living. Also, I was spending considerably less money there. Furthermore, when I get back, I may not have to pay for room or board, further strengthening my desire to return. All that being said, I am in no rush. It takes continual conscious effort not to get caught up in future plans and to remain in the present, but I'm trying to do just that. In the spirit of that, I'm off to go check out this town. It's a beautiful day, the sign is shining, and I'm going to enjoy it.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Gypsies, Thais and Parties

Well, since my last post, a few more people have come and gone. It's certainly nicer to travel slowly, to stay a while in each place. Life seems more real, less transient. Some people spend their entire lives in one town, or area, or country, while others speed through as many places as possible and never get to experience even one. Now, a few days into it, I am beginning to see how my life will look if I am to remain here for a significant period of time. Luckily, I have met plenty of people, and supposedly having contacts is everything here in Asia.

The community at the Riverside has changed slightly, but is still essentially the same. I have come to meet several people who I can best describe as gypsies. They travel with little to no money from place to place, staying for a few months at a time. They make music and bracelets and such to get by, the whole while living with extremely cheaply. I am still spending more on food than I know I could be, but as time goes on, I am getting to know where to go. Hopefully, I will be able to work out an arrangement that will take care of both my food and lodging expenses, pay for my training, and teach me Thai. Sure, that's a little optimistic, but i'll let you make your own conclusions from the story.

When I first became acquainted with the Tai Chi crowd, there was maybe 8 or 10 people in the class. As I came to find out, about half were one or two day drop-ins. There were also two Austrian guys and an Australian guy who had signed up for a month, and an American guy named Jared who was living in Thailand. After getting better acquainted with the 'core-group' of students, I also became aware of the situation of the school, in general. Thomas has quite the interesting past, all of which I will not share online, but has recently been living in Thailand generating contacts to set up a proper martial arts academy. He certainly has the knowledge of a master, however he does not have enough serious students who can help him teach and run the place. Jared had come for a month or so in the past, and a few months ago moved to Thailand to help Thomas pursue his dream full-time. Thomas had expressed his interest in training teachers to the entire core group, myself included, and after the Austrians left I had a serious discussion on the mater with Peter, the Aussie.

Peter and I got along well, partially, perhaps, because he too had left his career abruptly dissatisfied. Also, when we were training together, he was often able to give me good insight based on his month's experience. He was a clever guy, and we agreed on a great deal when we discussed the situation. He still had a month or so of traveling left, and was yet unwilling to subscribe to Thomas's plans for the future. Certainly, he brought up some good points, and has good business sense. He was going to leave the following morning, but when I saw him for practice that morning, he told me that he had been convinced to stay another day.

As it turns out, Thomas had made a contact with a Thai guy who owns some land up in the mountains, just a few k's away (k's meaning kilometers, picking up the local lingo). Thomas, who is very personable and constantly selling his ideas, immediately got into talking about opening a martial arts school on his property. They learn that the resort is empty for more than half the year, and it only opens up during the peak season. As a result, this Thai guy, Sam, was extremely enthusiastic about the prospects. While I was in my bungalow reading, these guys we up on the mountain with full glasses of beer. See, one of the things about Asian culture is filling other peoples glasses, and it is very hard to monitor you alcohol intake, a fact I would discover the following night.

So, this place would be a legitimate place where we could hold retreats. They have empty bungalows and a closed restaurant, all of which could be opened for Thomas's students. You know me, I am a dreamer, and when I rode up to check it out after practice with Peter, I could see it's potential. We talked briefly with Sam and Peter took several pictures. Later, Thomas, Peter and I went to lunch and we discussed the business possibilities. I told Thomas that Sam was delighted to meet me, and when he found out I had studied business in university, he casually offered me a job managing his land. Thomas's mind was reeling with grandiose ideas, and Peter wanted to talk more concretely, about numbers and percentages.

All in all, I think that the potential is there. There is this intellectual property that people want to learn, so there is a market for it. It became clear at lunch just how far of a road it would be for Thomas's dream, of schools scattered throughout southeast Asia, to become reality. Peter didn't know exactly what he was going back to do, but he knew that he wanted to go back to Australia. Clearly, if I am to teach, I need quite a bit more time training. So, while I may be able to generate income, possibly even make a career from these ideas, it certainly wont materialize for several months. I drove the business meeting from point to point, and know that my business savvy would be a big boost for the project. I wasn't there, I don't think we would have set any concrete goals.

Still, the meeting was really just to prepare ourselves for our trip back to the Mountain Lodge, where we had been invited to dinner and accommodations for another night of becoming acquainted with these potential partners. We had a discussion on proper etiquette in this culture, and came up with several questions for the guy, although we never got a chance to ask any of them. I bought Thomas a bottle of Chivas Regal as a 'red envelope.' He subtly hinted that he needed some help in buying this bottle for our host that night, an apparently important gesture, and that a 'red envelope' is something a core student does to fulfill their teachers need. I could tell when I brought it back that he was extremely pleased, and I now know that I will be able to train with him for as long as I want. Whatever happens, the next few months will definitely be interesting.

So, we all took our bikes up the mountain and to this guy's property, once again. It is a picturesque mountain valley on the way up towards the water fall, with land stretching back all the way to the mountains. It is definitely a place where we could offer room, board, and intensive learning opportunities, such as martial arts, motorbike riding, Thai cooking, and massage. In our lunch talks I found out that Thomas already has contacts who specialize in each of these things, and has extensive knowledge on each as well. Sam's English is limited, and Jared's Thai girlfriend, Cha, came along for the meeting. The westerners, or farangs, myself included, mostly just got drunk and had friendly interactions with our hosts, but I noticed Cha and Sam speaking quite seriously for a good deal of time. I'm still not too sure what they talked about, but I will be heading up to the mountain again, this time during the day without booze, to talk to Sam seriously.

So, I have to leave town in two days for a run out of the country. In the meantime, I will go to the jungle party tonight with the gypsies, continue to build my foundation for martial arts, and to make arrangements for my life when I get back. If half-drunken offers are to be believed, I can live and eat at the mountain, working for Sam. He and his extended family, all of who seem to work for him in one way or another, all could benefit from an English tutor. Also, I know that Sam would like to pick my brain on business related items. Hopefully, I can work out an arrangement where I can learn Thai and receive room and board in return. If that doesn't work out, I suppose I can continue to live with the gypsies while I train at the Riverside. I'm going to take things as they come, and try not get too caught up in the future. For now, I am going to download some guitar lesson videos so that I can start learning on the gypsies guitar at the Riverside. I'll spend an leisurely afternoon, pursuing my own artistic development, train again for the evening session, then drink some Tequila with the guys until we all go out to the party. It doesn't really sound like your typical Monday, does it?