Self Doubt & Teaching

Someone in my life once noticed that I tend to sabotage myself. Sometimes the problem is simple: I don’t have enough time to dedicate to something so I simply opt out of doing it at all, which is what happened when I dropped out of a high-level internship at a law office in Los Angeles after juggling school, work, university sports, and the internship. I felt like I was stretched too think to produce good work and rather than doing my best, which I felt wasn’t enough, I quit. Other times, I simply lack confidence. I’ve missed important interviews because I didn’t think I was qualified enough even though I was. The examples of this are countless and the reasons various. However, the common thread among them is obvious: fear. I was afraid of this, or afraid of that. I was afraid of doing my best and still coming up short; I was afraid others would laugh at me after I had left the room.

During my time at UCLA I completed two graduate courses. In those classes, the intellect was high and, as an undergraduate student, I lacked confidence when sitting in a room full of seasoned graduate students. My first course was a Portuguese literature and translation course taught by author and translator Benjamin Moser. Moser translated most of Clarice Lispector’s writings and ultimately wrote her biography, Why This World.  We talked about the theories of translation work, the processes involved, and were tasked to translate some of Clarice’s work from the original writings in Portuguese, which we later compared with one another while discussing our decisions. Clarice’s prose embodies the post-modern and is challenging to translate. Her syntax, word choice, and overall structure– or lack thereof– is everything but normal. The final for the course was an individual assignment, which went well. A semester later, I enrolled in another graduate-level course, this time in contemporary Russian literature. The intellect was even higher and this time I was the only one who didn’t speak the language. Everybody else was reading the texts in Russian and knew the underpinning historical and cultural contexts involved; I did not. I always felt like I was three steps behind. For our final assignment, we were all asked to consider the readings done throughout the course and teach the class for an hour. I was terrified. Even though I had done well in school and in the previous graduate-level course, I could not convince myself that what I would teach these graduate students would be of any importance to them or interest them in the least. I was afraid, even, that they would disagree with me entirely, or outwit me in my own arguments and thoughts, or think that I was unintelligent simply because they were more intelligent.

Over the course of two weeks, I labored for hours and hours, doing research, designing a lesson plan, selecting readings, practicing. It wasn’t enough to convince myself that I what I was about to do was good enough. When the day of my presentation came, I had the presentation in my hand, on my hard-drive; it was 100% complete, ready to go. What did I do? I lied. I told my professor that I had accidentally left my flash-drive at home and somebody else volunteered to go in my place. Since the class met once a week for three hours, this bought me another week. So, for another week I labored, tweaked, and practiced the new presentation. However, I had already shot myself down. I couldn’t shake the nerves of presenting to these proven academics. So, during the moment in which I was to prove myself, I failed. I approached the professor before class the day I was to present. I told him the truth: I was terrified and had undermined myself to the point of no return. I felt like shit for doing that and it seriously shook my confidence during my last two quarters at UCLA. I admitted defeat… but, again, the enemy was myself. I don’t know if he understood. However, he allowed me to make it up by writing a 15-page paper. Even though I had already spent more time on the presentation than it would take me to write a paper of that length, I was was both relieved and ashamed. I wrote the paper and got an A in the class, but the feeling of defeat stayed with me.

It wasn’t until I decided to travel that I began to confront fear again. During the months before my trip I honestly believed that I would die abroad. It was strange feeling that I couldn’t explain. My mind simply latched onto that idea, that fear. Perhaps I shouldn’t have watched Into the Wild. I went anyways, telling myself I was just being paranoid. Despite this, I didn’t really gain confidence until I came to Hanoi and began teaching. I really didn’t want to teach because I had never really taught before, I didn’t feel like I had the proper skills and experience to get paid for it. I had tutored before but for me tutoring and teaching were worlds apart. I let my fear get in the way of my first demo class, which was a room full of Vietnamese kindergartners and teachers who were watching me as if they were just waiting for me to slip up. I was to teach two demo classes that day and after an uncomfortable first class, I realized something. These are kindergartners. That time, the fear that I had to confront came in the form of children. Go figure! I left the building thinking that I never want to do that again, telling myself that I wasn’t made for teaching, blah blah blah. I was getting into my head again.

Out of necessity, I was forced to attend more demo lesson, interviews, etc– I had traveled to Thailand and Laos, and ran out of money in Vietnam. I thought about crowd-funding my way out of Vietnam, to Australia or New Zealand where I could work as a laborer or work in a bar and not have to go through the discomfort, fear, and self-doubt. I got a little depressed, looking for ways out. Ultimately though, I couldn’t throw in the towel. I owed it to myself. Fear of what? I decided I would keep doing this until somebody finally told me I was a shitty teacher and didn’t belong in a classroom. That never happened. The school I did my first demo class with invited me back, the new schools I taught viewed me as a valuable resource and wanted me there as much as possible, and soon I found myself literally overbooked and turning down jobs simply because I could not be everywhere at once. The kids loved me.

I was relieved, motivated, and felt renewed. Now, almost two months later, I have groups of kids whom I have taught for almost 8 weeks who genuinely miss me on the days I am not there. I have kindergarten students, adults, teenagers, and everything in between. One month ago, I never would have thought this but I am really enjoying teaching. Overcoming this challenge has been good for me. Now, I embrace this particular type of fear; I invite it. I know I can do it, I just have to want it and accept being vulnerable in the moment.

So, if your reading this and unsure if you should go out in the world and travel alone, I invite you to test yourself. Embrace fear. Do something that scares you. Go to a different country where you know nobody and take a chance. You will overcome it and be a better person for it. You will succeed– but first, you must be willing to fail. 

(Failure to) Quicken the Pace

I must have been there at least an hour drinking tea and trying thuoc lao as we laughed. They had a fire going to ward off the cold and ash rained on us the whole time as if it were snowing. Were it not for the Vietnamese faces around me, I could’ve sworn I was in Kieslowski film, in Poland or Russia. Meanwhile, the two shackled dogs barked and fought each other amidst the ash, smoke, and smog.

via Daily Prompt: Quicken

Today was supposed to be the day that I made magic happen: apply for (more) jobs, run some errands for the house to pick up things like a blanket so I don’t freeze again tonight, write, and begin learning the Vietnamese alphabet. However, my efforts to quicken the pace were halted. The motorbike I rented and have been riding around town had other plans for the day, which consisted entirely in fucking with me. It was like bad joke. Apparently, she thinks this is a game. This ain’t a game…

At first I thought it was just my inexperience with carburetors– “should the choke be up or should it be down? I don’t know but it’s freezing. Let’s try both.” Neither my Yamaha R6 nor the Honda CRF 250 had carbs. After fiddling with the choke in different settings, I at least got the bike to turn on, stay on, and not die when in idle. “Eureka!” Or so I thought. “Nope!” I leave the cafe in Tây Hồ and head towards my apartment in Ba Đình. Out of nowhere the bike simply turns off despite being in fourth-gear, cruising. Confused, I try giving it gas to no avail. Still coasting, I try to start the thing while in motion using the electric starter. I pull over, thinking I simply ran out of gas. The bike felt as if it wasn’t getting enough of something. Eight hours later I still don’t know what that something was because it wasn’t gas; I digress. I pulled over to the side, checked the gas levels since I have no fuel gauge. “It’s got gas,” I thought to myself as I jiggled the bike and had gasoline splash around the floor, lightly, leaving a urine-colored blotch on the pavement. For the next twenty minutes I fiddled around with the choke again just to try and get the damn thing to start. However, the things I did before did nothing.

After trying unsuccessfully a little longer I felt silly. I was stopped right in front of  a car-wash and the people kept looking over, exchanging glances with one another, and speaking in Vietnamese, laughing. I don’t speak Vietnamese. I bet they were commenting on how I had probably never ridden a motorbike before; “silly tourist”. I played with the petcock again, looking busy and telling myself their bikes probably break down as well. One of the workers comes over and I presume he asked if I needed help. However: language barrier. Also: masculinity. So, I politely decline and hop on the bike. I hobbled over to a friend’s house about 2-km away from where I pulled over, arriving sweaty and gross, simultaneously freezing and over-heating from the exertion. He isn’t home but his roommate lets me in. Waiting, I fall asleep on another friend’s bed. When I wake up an hour and half later he still does’t seem to be home. Nobody is. Feeling like I should give it another go, I fiddle again with the stupid nobs: what I believe was the fuel ratio knob, the choke, and engine idle RPM speed. At that point, I don’t even know what I did but it worked. I left the house, eager to get home and begin my day.

The plot thickens. I pass the round-about, wait at the same light, and take the same turn to the main road to my house as the bike stutters again, stalling and slowing.  I finish coasting and realize I am in front of the same place– again! At this point I could do nothing but laugh as I make eye contact with the same individuals from a few hours earlier. This time I don’t even pretend to know what I was doing. They invite me into their little outside waiting area; it was made of bamboo and covered with tarps, featuring a bong for thuoc lao, a table and a tea-set. They invite me to sit, where they give me seemingly endless cups of tea. One guy in particular seemed to understand English quite well although he either couldn’t or wouldn’t speak English. However, he understood that I needed to call my rental guy.  I show him my phone, which is at 2% as it always seems to be when I need to make calls. He lets me use his. After I hang up with the rental people he texts them the address. We wait.

I must have been there at least an hour drinking tea and trying thuoc lao as we laughed. They had a fire going to ward off the cold and ash rained on us the whole time as if it were snowing. Were it not for the Vietnamese faces around me, I could’ve sworn I was in Kieslowski film, in Poland or Russia. Meanwhile, the two shackled dogs barked and fought each other amidst the ash, smoke, and smog. The guy sent over by the rental company finally arrives, smiling. He fiddles with the same damn knobs I fiddled with it. However, maybe he actually knew what he was doing. It’s possible. Although the bike still didn’t feel 100% as it had a few days before, it got me home. I hadn’t eaten so I parked my bike at home and left the maze of alleys to treat myself a little; today was a little stressful.

So far, this is the only productive thing I have done all day. Today I failed to quicken the pace but perhaps tomorrow I will have more luck.

An Exercise in Patience & Calm Pt. I

My legs were cramped. I really needed to stretch! Thanks to the rice bags, my own bag, the women’s bags, and bus driver who was sleeping on the floor along the walkway, stretching was literally impossible. So, I ended up falling asleep with my legs on the top of the headrests of my own seat, upside down. To anybody who saw, specifically the lady to my left, I looked insane…

I have just arrived in Vietnam. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I would make it through or expire on the way. It didn’t start well. Upon asking to purchase a ticket from Pakse in Laos to Hue in Vietnam (after a 3 hour van ride from Don Det), the guy laughed at me and asked if I was sure. “Yea, I am quite sure,” I replied, trying to glean the humor from his sarcasm. I knew the reason for his response: the trip from Pakse to Hue was notorious for being absolute shit in every way possible. Not only were the buses supposed to be crap, old and barely functioning, but the roads were worse. Compound that with drivers, who often drive the whole 13-hours with little rest and you’ve got a recipe for an awful time. After handing him the 220,000LAK, he gave his disclaimer: “This is going to be the worst ride of your life,” which he followed by stating that he would rather not even sell tickets to this route–“but if I don’t, the others will.” I took the ticket and informed him, in my own sarcastic tone, that he really sold it. I did confess that I had already read about the route’s problems and knew what I was in for: an experience.

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From Pakse to Border

The bus didn’t leave until five and it was two-thirty. He offered a shower, which I accepted. The past week of Mekong-water showers had made my skin feel funny despite the liberal use of soap. Hungry, I went across the street to Jasmine, an Indian/Malay place that I frequented in Pakse and which had a sister restaurant on Don Det. I showered, ate, played with the little girl they were taking care of then then hopped on the free tuk-tuk to the bus station.

Looking back, the bus wasn’t as bad as I had imagined. Actually, I think it was pretty bad, I just have a tolerance for that kind of shit, often necessitated by my being polite to others. After all, the driver is barely to blame for the shitty route and shitty bus– a job is a job. In Thai we use the phrase mai pen rai to signify that a transgression (whether real or perceived) doesn’t matter; it’s okay! During my month in Laos I learned the corresponding phrase to be bor pen yang. It certainly helped that I was traveling alone. As I arrived to the station I asked which bus was leaving to Hue. The guy pointed to what I kindly describe as piece of crap with decals that read “VIP” on the front and sides. The driver was washing it diligently though, which gave me some hope; if he takes that much effort to wash and clean his bus, despite the fact the he is about to drive it through the dustiest of roads for 12 hours, I felt a little reassurance with he whole endeavor.

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I hopped on and was surprised to see only twelve seats and none of them filled. He motioned to me, implying that I should eat and told me that we didn’t leave until eight– it was five. The lady who sold me the ticket from downtown Pakse said the bus left at 5:30. Knowledgeable of a scam in which you pay for a VIP bus and get put on a lesser bus, I walked around, asking the ticket booths and other bus drivers which bus was going to Hue. They all pointed to the scrap heap. “OK,” I thought to myself. I walked back, drank a beer, had some soup, then had the genius idea of stringing up my hammock in the back of the bus, where there were no seats, just empty space. Hello, travel-hack! I perked up, thanking myself for dragging the hammock around with me everywhere I went. The driver laughed when he boarded the bus and saw me hanging and swinging from a bright-orange hammock strung along the inside of his bus; I doubt he had ever seen such a sight.

Just before eight, the rest of the passengers arrived, all four of them. All were women, one of which always held a large stack of bills for some reason and would pull it out, count it, and return it to her bag. She must have done this a hundred times. After the first few times, I lost curiosity in the matter. While the hammock was great, swinging back and forth with the sway of the bus, it was short-lived. Photo Feb 21, 6 32 26 PM.jpgOur first stop was just forty minutes from the bus stop, whereupon the driver and few guys filled up the entire back of the bus with goods. There were hand-woven baskets, red bags, blue bags, and green bags– oh, and bags of charcoal. Even now, in Vietnam, I still have flour residue from the the bus. Reluctantly, I took the hammock down and sat in a seat that reclined–for the time being. Within the next six hours we made five more stops, each to pick up more goods. I had no idea a bus could be packed so tightly. The bags contained flour, sugar, and rice. Mind you that each time they stopped to load the bus, everybody had to leave and wait outside, meaning that the last two stops I was awakened to the driver yelling “You! You!” That was the signal for me to get up and out of the bus so they could load. Mai Pen Rai, I told myself. By the end of that last stop, there were bags in between every seat, and in every nook of the bus, including the top and bottom compartments. My seat no longer reclined, since I was in the far back. However, the lady in front me only had me behind her, not a hundred bags of rice, so she reclined all the damn way, forcing me to move a seat over, which was so stacked with rice at my feet that I was practically in a squatting position.

At some point, I managed to fall asleep, awoken only by the driver throwing a blanket over me, which was a nice gesture. The only time I woke up after that was somewhere in the early hours, after we had already stopped a few kilometers outside the border to sleep, waiting for it to open. My legs were cramped. I really needed to stretch! Thanks to the rice bags, my own bag, the women’s bags, and bus driver who was sleeping on the floor along the walkway, stretching was literally impossible. So, I ended up falling asleep with my legs on the top of the headrests of my own seat, upside down. To anybody who saw, specifically the lady to my left, I looked insane…

To read the rest of my trip to Hue and then to Hanoi, stay tuned– it will be up tomorrow. After all, I have to give you freeloaders something to look towards to, no? I can’t give you everything all at once! 

Greetings from Circle-K in Hanoi’s Old Quarter!

P.S. Here is the little girl I was playing with in Pakse just before leaving– she really wanted to play with the phone! Reminded me of my own sister, Isabella.

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Been There Don Det

As I write, Ziggy sings, “Everybody’s worried about time / But I just keep that shit off my mind / People living on twenty four hour clocks / But we’re on a ride that never stops.” How fitting!

Although I have been trying to catch up on my recent travels in Thailand, I have to acknowledge the fact that I am no longer in Thailand and haven’t been for a month. I arrived in Laos on the 29th of January, crossing over by slow-boat. I started in the North of Laos, first stopping in Pak Chong, after having left from Chiang Khong (Thailand), from which I could see through to the other side of the Mekong and glimpse at Laos; at that time, the light hitting the opposite side of the Mekong in the morning was spectacular. Personally, I knew nothing about Laos and for some reason was adamant about not researching things. I just wanted to go, be surprised, and make spur of the moment (and hopefully fruitful) decisions based on walking around, word of mouth, and what I felt like doing at any specific time. Looking back on a month of travel, these desires were met and whatever goals I had for Laos were successful.

Before I delve into writing about my experiences in Laos, I’ll flash-forward to where I am currently: Don Det, 4,000 Islands, in the southernmost part of Laos, where borders between Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos meet. I could cross over into Cambodia right now, either by kayak or by boat, pay a few dollars to anybody guarding the soft border, and be on my way. Of course, were I to get caught in Cambodia without a visa sometime after, this would be a different post altogether.GOPR2093.JPG This just shows how relaxed this island (Don Det) is– even the borders are “soft.” I have thoroughly enjoyed my days here, relaxing and spending the majority of them doing nothing. Here, as opposed to many other places, doing nothing is acceptable. In fact, it is encouraged. I feel like I am living in a stereotyped version of Jamaica, or elsewhere on the Caribbean, where life is slow.

Initially, I hung around with friends from Pakse for three days, kayaking to the world’s widest waterfall, walking around and watching the Laotian children that inhabit every part of the island, and eating good food. It is with this group that I had previously done the 320-km Bolaven Plateau loop, which left from Pakse (link soon). Oh, I also sat a lot on the hammock, riverside.

Khonphapheng Waterfall

After they left, I was supposed to leave the day after, or soon after. Instead, I opted to stay for a few extra days. Don Det has a tendency to do that to people, especially to those with no real time-schedules. The only semblance of a schedule I have is visa-related; my Laos visa expires six days from now and my Vietnam visa has been active since yesterday. Aside from that, money is the only limiting factor. If I were to stay here any longer, I could easily get a job and get free meals and accommodation, something which I almost did. However, most of the job are at bars, which wasn’t quite the environment I wanted to be in all day and night.

These last four days I have spent doing some self-care, both physical as well as mental. In the mornings, I swim over to a sandbar directly across from the Happy Bar and just a minute walk from my bungalow. Every time I swim that distance, I am reminded of how difficult swimming is! Holy hell. I think I would rather run five kilometers than swim one– and I mean that. Here I could insert some cheesy quote about how we should strive to do the difficult things in life, bla bla bla. I do it because it is refreshing. It just also happens to benefit my body. After that, I go take a shower, which is ironic because the shower water is also Mekong water. However, there is a differential here: soap. I suppose that makes all the difference. I then go for breakfast at Mama Thanon’s, which always seems to be playing Ziggy Marley’s Dragonfly. As I write,  Ziggy sings, “Everybody’s worried about time / But I just keep that shit off my mind / People living on twenty four hour clocks / But we’re on a ride that never stops.” How fitting!

At Mama’s, I relax and battle with the wifi for a few hours, sometimes reading an ebook to pass the time, or edit pictures that I know I can’t upload until I get to Vietnam, which will have better wifi. You may wonder why I have posted so few pictures. Wonder now longer: it takes me an hour or more to upload three pictures. You do the math. Often, the download will be almost complete then the wifi shuts down for a minute as it tends to do intermittently and the entire upload is lost. Sometimes I’ll order another tea and try again or just give up, close my laptop, pay, and go to my bungalow.

When the sun goes down I go for a run, which the locals seem to find funny. I return, sweaty as can be and pull out my laptop in which I have a four-part, forty-five minute long video of a specific type of stretching-meditation intended for Muay Thai boxers. It is an older, regional style, called Chaiyuth Style. The first forty-five minutes are a series of
breathing-oriented stretches that are meditative in nature.

Chaiyuth Style

Doing that on the porch, overlooking the Mekong sunset as I do it has been great. I workout, doing push-ups, pull-ups, crunches, etc, do some static stretches, and hit the shower again. If there’s still light out, I’ll read until there is none left then go back to Mama Thanon’s and hit a bar on the way there or the way back. A friend of mine, Ian, has been working at the 1 More Bar for the last few days, so I stop by and say hi when I feel up for a beer.

However, last night was my last on Don Det. My bus for Pakse leaves in two hours, from which I will buy a bus ticket to Hue, Vietnam. From Don Det to Pakse shouldn’t be more than three hours. To Hue should be another 16. Then, from Hue, I am booking a train to Hanoi, which should be another fourteen hours. I decided on the train for safety reasons as well as the added bonus of comfort; also, I can pay using a credit card, which will save me from doing another ATM run for a while.

I plan on writing on the train, if I can find a comfortable way to do so. I know for certain that such a task would be impossible on the bus. I’ve learned by now.

In any case, stay tuned as I backtrack you through my memories.

If you are bored, or–dare I say– curious, catch up on my Thailand travels. If words are boring, take a peek of my arduously uploaded photos here. Enjoy!

Bangkok to Khao Yai National Park

I would never have guessed that I’d be convincing myself about rock
ergonomics, embracing my newly-acquired backpacker lifestyle while knowing that–whatever the challenge– I could do it. Three hours later I wake up as damp as the grass around me, freezing.

It’s finally time I start writing about my adventure traveling throughout Asia

My travels began in Bangkok, which treated me poorly; see previous post. Upon waking up on my third day I encountered two people whom I had met the previous night. They were Chilean and had just arrived in Bangkok. I had met the brother in the morning. He was staying in the same dorm as myself. I, being an early riser, was walking about as he continually got up to go to the bathroom, which at some point resulted in a brief exchange of words. I’m confident he was wasted the night before. His sister I met the night before at around three in the morning. It was by no means a formal meeting; she waltzed in barefoot, her brother nowhere in sight, still dancing to whatever tune was in her head from the bar she had just left. We went upstairs at the same time and I, directly behind her, thought to myself that she was walking really funny. noticed she was walking funny. Assuming she was just drunk, I chuckled to myself and continued towards the men’s dorm as she continue hobbling up to the female floor. I later learned that she had pedal edema
(swelling of the foot) due to her recent work in a New Zealand fish factory, in which the typical shifts were twelve hours. For her job, she had to stand for those twelve hours. In any case, breakfast was free at the hostel. Naturally, sober, hungover, or still drunk, everybody convened. There, we formally introduced one another while eating scrambled eggs and toast.

The fact that I spoke decent Spanish allowed us all to connect pretty quick, which was nice. Being sick the entire day before, alone, I not only enjoyed the company but also the brother-sister relationship dynamic they shared; it reminded me of my own siblings. We warmed up to each other. My knowledge of (Mexican) Spanish was very arduously tested through their Chilean Spanish, which was filled with slang and words that meant something else than what I previously thought they meant. As we began to wrap up breakfast, the brother invited me to join them going up North. Not only was the South flooded at the time but I also, for whatever reason just didn’t feel like going to the South yet (and still don’t– I left Thailand without heading that way). Heading North felt right.

After breakfast, we walked outside and hailed a cab. We wanted to go to the bus/train station, telling him we were on our way to Khao Yao National Park before stopping in Lop Buri. Khao Yai was as beautiful as any national park: wildlife, although we only saw monkeys and the occasional bird. While writing this I actually learned that several parts of Danny Boyle’s film, The Beach, featuring a young Dicaprio, were shot here. Lop Buri, on the other hand, was small and known only their insanely brazen and numerous monkeys. They were known to walk all over you and known to pull passports, wallets, and whatever other things lived in traveler’s pockets. Admitting it was a slow day for him, he volunteered to drive us all the way to Khao Yai National Park, which was quite a distance. However, after calculating the cost and time of getting there by bus, we accepted. We were also limited by the sister’s feet, which were quite swollen and would remain so for at least a week. The price was about the same.

About two hours later, we arrived in Khao Yai. Almost as soon as we arrived, just after we had spent a few kilometers swerving through monkeys while altogether stopping the car and letting them cross at their leisurely pace in some points, it began raining. It was mostly a light rain but our poor cab driver’s car started having issues going up the long winding asphalt roads. We were either too heavy or his car too weak– or both. In any case, the brother and I continually hopped out to push the car up, allowing it to gain enough traction and speed to make it up hills. On the third or fourth time however, his car started smoking and he pulled over, clearly distraught. I don’t know shit about cars and the language barrier prevented me from understanding what was actually wrong with it; it’s likely he also didn’t know. However, he was very insistent on taking us to our destination and also clearly apologetic. We didn’t blame him and did the best we could to console him and let him know it was OK. Despite his still insisting on being able to take us, he conceded and helped us flag down a car, explaining to them the situation. They smiled at us and motioned for us to hop on the back.

The Duo

Stuffing ourselves and our large packs among camping equipment and boxes, we sat our butts on the rainy floor of the pickup and began our two-day hitch-hiking excursion in and out of Khao Yai National Park.

The family who was transporting us were also clearly looking to camp. Together, we were turned down by two camps due to them having reached capacity. The campground that didn’t deny us entry was completely packed– tents setup in every direction. “Fuck,” one of us murmured. It was the weekend. We had no tents and relied on rentals, of which we quickly learned were already all taken. Of course, the rental people spoke absolutely no English and were clearly unsympathetic to the fact that we spoke no Thai; barely any eye contact was made on their behalf, which I took in stride and smiled regardless. A kind Thai man in front of us, who spoke English quite well, told us that if we waited there would likely be items returned which we could rent. We waited. Not long after, people returned some equipment and we managed to get a tent. ONE tent. I don’t know why we were trying to skimp on money at that point, it was our first week of traveling. However, we did, even though we could have gotten a bigger tent, or a second, small tent. Our single tent was only made to fit two, which was clearly stated everywhere. Big mistake.

As you can imagine, the night was rough– more for me than the siblings, who had each other to lean on. The brother and sister slept like rocks, quickly and easily. I was amazed. After sitting there, crammed against the side with a rock poking into my lumbar, bags at my feet and head, I gave up and decided I’d rather sleep outside; mosquitoes were not a huge issue from what I saw. Besides, I this cocoon-sheet-mummy thing, which would keep me protected from bugs. Upon walking outside to a suitable place, I find that the grassy floor was damp and out of the question. I had few options, of which the more
suitable was the top of a stone garden hedge whose surface was somewhat flat; at least it was consistent– no sharp protrusions. My other option was a cement bench but I found the rocks somewhat ergonomically geared to the contours of my body whereas the bench was just flat and hard. I would never have guessed that I’d be convincing myself about rock
ergonomics, embracing my  newly-acquired backpacker lifestyle while knowing that–whatever the challenge– I could do it. Three hours later I wake up as damp as the grass around me, freezing. With no choice, I squeeze back into the tent where I nudge myself in the corner, closest to the zipper-entry, with my DSLR at my feet and using a shirt as my pillow. I suppose exhaustion overcame me. I managed to get some semblance of sleep, waking three hours later to sunlight and heat.

During the day, the brother and I trekked for some hours, moving through the jungle-like terrain that ran parallel to a river. Despite crocodile warning signs advising against swimming, we saw none. We also saw no elephants, which we had hoped to see. Still, the trekking was nice.DSC_0572.jpg By that time, my ability to understand and respond in Chilean Spanish was compromised and my travel partner noticed. We laughed about it and admitted how exhausting different languages can be when we are not wholly proficient in them– his English was worse than my Spanish. We spent the rest of the day hitch-hiking from different trekking and view points while his sister rested her foot at the camp. By three, we packed up camp, returned everything, and flagged a car to get us out of Khao Yai towards Pak Chong, where we planned on taking the train. DSC_0561.jpgA group of older ladies, who turned out to be teachers in the far North of Thailand, picked us up. We stopped, ate lunch together, and continued on our way. It was raining again, which made the ride in the pickup more of an experience and, somehow, more enjoyable. We arrived in Pak Chong and waited a few hours until the train left, drinking beers and using wifi to tell people back home we were not dead after all.

We purchased tickets for the commuter train, which was a local train. We had no idea what to expect. The train journey, however, will be left for a future post.

Spoiler: I had no seat for five hours…

That Land of Half-Truths

A stranger that I have only known for two days noticed the sadness that I carried with me tonight and approached me as I straddled the ledge of the hostel’s fifth floor, overlooking the center of Patze, Laos. With a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and an inexplicable sadness in my eyes, I automatically responded with a fake smile: “I just get like this sometimes. But don’t worry, I wont jump. I am not depressed or anything.” We both kind of laughed and she made an enlightening comment about how the fall wouldn’t do much anyways, I would just bounce off the aluminum roof below or get caught in the wires. We laughed and she left. I finished my beer and felt like crying.

Despite having so much time to myself in an environment that facilitates positive emotions– I mean, come on, backpacking for an undefined length of time is a dream for many, and it has been exactly that for me, for years– I still experience many of the same negative emotions that I did back home. That melancholic weight that just seems to yank me towards the ground persists; like gravity, but so much stronger. And so much more invasive. Tonight was just one of those nights. Those closest to me have seen me in these “bouts,” if I can call them that. My response has been typically to drink, preferably alone, and reflect while listening to a bunch of sad fucking music. I can’t say that it helps the feeling, or that I feel even remotely better, but there is a release that occurs in those moments. In the morning, I wake up and everything is (usually) back to normal.

In secret, I have seen a therapist. That was a load of shit; the first two meetings were purely introductory, the “tell me about yourself” shit, which leads me down a diatribe of self-pity and mopiness. Nobody wants to hear it and I sure as hell don’t want to repeat it. Naturally, I stopped going. My remedy since has not changed much. Maybe, at most, I surround myself with others. That just results in people telling me that I look or feel sad, down, depressed, or just plain weird; thanks, for the reminder. Fuck off.

But now things are different: I don’t have a job, I don’t own much (neither here nor back in America), nothing and nobody is tying me down to anything. Yet, here I stand, in Pakze, Laos, half-way across the world sometimes feeling the same as I did back home. Honestly, I don’t believe myself to be depressed. Searching around me, here in Asia, I find no cause for it. The cause is not external, it is interior. I finally realize (and actually believe) something that someone close to me told me years ago: I lead a life of small, half-truths because I am not honest with myself.

These half-truths affect others, but they are not malicious and I don’t even intend for them to exist. I guess that is usually the case with others, though.

These half-truths, or lies, are lies to myself; unfortunately, they just sort of leak onto others oozing like the clear puss from a scab. You only notice it when you touch it, often by mistake in the midst of haphazard movements.  The irony is that I have always considered myself so aware; about other people, their feelings, and their problems. Somewhere along the way I lost touch with myself, with my feelings, and my problems. This must have happened long ago. So now, here sits an the overly aware but miserably unaware person. Perhaps, as a collective, we are all so incredibly aware and knowledgeable about this or that, yet hopelessly unaware of the very essence of ourselves and of each other. Or, perhaps it really is just me.

Don’t get me wrong, though. This isn’t mopiness, like the introductory-therapy-session type of sappy talk I engaged in with my two-time therapist years ago. This is progress. I feel some weight being lifted. In a way it’s more like “promissory weight,” as in a future weight being lifted. But that weight is so heavy, that despite being in the future, I already feel ripples as they travel backwards in time. It’s a reverse-drip, the water-droplet coming up and into the faucet; the neurotransmitters flowing up-stream, which they almost never do.

I will transform this land of half-truths into a land of authenticity, both with myself and with others. Reading Clarice Lispecter’s novels, wherein she deals with the dilemma of how to say things that shouldn’t be said (for a variety of reasons), I internalized that dilemma. Yet, unlike her characters, I never let those scenarios play out as they should have; I stopped short. I am not as strong or determined like her characters. I know what I have to do. I can’t have my cake and eat it too.

I think these next couple of months will be challenging in many ways but not in the way I thought they would. I (hope) they will uplift me and take away the weight that I feel when I lay in bed awake at night, thinking, thinking, thinking, not sleeping. I hope, too, that they will lessen the weight on those affected by my land of half-truths.

As I walked past my friend, after writing this, words were exchanged: “You don’t look so sad anymore.” I responded by insinuating that it must be the beer(s). As I looked away, again caught in a moment of vulnerability and surprise, there was a pause and a response: “No, I see it in your eyes.”

I Could Not Bear a Life with Everything Perfect

Before leaving, I had already made up my mind to travel by land as much as possible. Why? Well, first it’s cheaper. More grueling, sure, but cheaper. It also provides me a better view of the landscape– from within, as opposed to above. So far I have only taken one flight, which was the one from LAX to Bangkok. This flight alone totaled 20 hours. Thankfully, there was a layover in Taipei. There, I was able to stretch my legs, albeit standing in lines for two hours to transfer over. A stretch nonetheless, I suppose. I was worried as hell about the time, though. My flight left in 30 minutes and by my judgement I wasn’t leaving the second line anytime before the next hour. Shortly after, a slender, GQ-looking Asian airport staff-member pulled aside all of us scheduled to be on the flight to Bangkok,giving us a “fast-pass,” which was nothing more than him just waving us past everyone including security. Our bags weren’t even inspected.

A few hours later I arrived in Bangkok; but my bag did not. “Was I at the wrong baggage claim?” That didn’t seem to be the case considering I recognized people on my flight all around me. “Maybe there was a secondary baggage claim for larger bags?” Nope. I tried to smile as I walked around, confused and a little worried. Then, amidst a bunch of Thai words, I read my name on a sign at bag-check stand. “That’s strange,” I thought. That’s without a doubt my name.” As it turns out, out they did not have enough room for my bag. Just my bag. My bag was literally the only bag that did not make it onto the flight. I can honestly say I was relieved that; it wasn’t stolen, or “lost in transit.” Still, I was able to smile. They promised me that it would arrive on the next flight and that they would deliver it the next day at the latest. Having no choice, I smiled, signed, and turned towards the exit, still not sure which way that even was. Of course, I went the wrong way and had to double back, towards the actual exit.

I felt surprisingly optimistic and happy despite having basically lost everything I came with.

I can still recall with absolute clarity the moment I walked out of Sukhumvit Airport with nothing but a wallet, passport, the clothes on my back and big fucking smile.

As of now, my running list of transportation times and types is as follows:

20 hours worth of flight-time;
32 hours of bus or van;
10 hours by scooter/motorcycle;
15 hours by boat;
5 1/2 hours by commuter train;

Today I leave Van Vieng to Pakze by bus. This will add another 16 hours of travel-time to my growing list. In a way, it has become a sort of game. “Can I do this whole trip without flying, even once, aside from my flight into Asia?” I think I can. When I think of how uncomfortable it will be though, I just remind myself that I am not here for comfort. At least, not this kind of comfort. In fact, in more ways than one, I am here to enjoy a certain degree of discomfort. A discomfort, however, that will be a catalyst to other things, perhaps a new way of thinking, a higher degree of patience, or the ability and desire to just be okay with everything that happens around me. This gets me thiking about one of my favorite authors. In college, I identified wholeheartedly with Jimmy Santiago Baca, a poet of Apache/Chicano descent. In one of my favorites, he writes: “I could not bear a life with everything perfect.” This quote has kept repeating itself along my travels. I see people get so frustrated because their food hasn’t arrived in a timely manner at a restaurant, or the street vendor, taking her time, takes up 15 minutes to make you a sandwich; sit with it, enjoy it, cherish it. Everything is fine and there is, in fact, nothing wrong. At least not until you make it.