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International Bickering

I had something of an odd experience on my way up north to Chiang Rai this afternoon. The trip itself was actually quite pleasant, because by sheer coincidence it turned out that the 2nd-class bus was leaving 45 minutes earlier than the uber-cheap 3rd-class bus. For those of you who’ve seen the travel photos I’ve posted on my Flickr site, you’ve already seen one of Thailand’s 3rd-class buses; it’s the fine looking number with the rotating fans attached to its inside roof. I think the photo’s title is something along the lines of “World’s Best Bus”, which it most definitely was not.

The first time or two you take an “ordinary bus”, as they’re known here, you tend to get a big kick out of them. There’s no air con, of course, so the windows are left wide-open and all the Thais throw their garbage onto the side of the road. It’s disturbing, actually. The operators on ordinary buses are notorious for cranking really bad pop music throughout the ride, but the thing I find so odd about these buses is the way they always leave the back door wide open for the duration of the trip. I like to sit in the back row on Thai buses myself; technically they’re reserved for monks, but I have long legs and I start to go a little out-of-my-mind with clausterphobia when I’m cramped into a normal seat. But thing about sitting in the back row of the ordinary bus is that you have to be very careful not to fall asleep, lest you literally fall out the back door. I know what you’re thinking: Are these people serious in that God-forsaken Buddhist sweat lodge of a so-called country? And I’m here to tell you: Yes they are. Don’t ask me to explain exactly why. I haven’t been here long enough. But they’re serious, impossibly hard as it may be to believe.    

In fact, I’ve actually been on ordinary buses when things actually did fall out the back door — empty water bottles, random scraps of paper … whatever. On the long and winding road to Pai, in fact, I watched with a sort of sick satisfaction as a big wooden block flew out the door — this was the block the driver placed behind the back bus tire when it was parked, so as to keep it from moving about when passengers were boarding. Anyway, the thing was hand-carved, and obviously took someone at least a little while to make. And yet they let it drift up and down the aisle of the bus as we took some of the sharpest hairpin bends I’ve ever seen in my life at speeds that occasionally gave my heart the sensation of having jumped right out of my mouth and landing on my lap. And eventually, of course, the thing fell out. But whatever, right? Mai pen rai. It’s quite possible I’m too white, or WASP-ish, or just plain suburban to ever “get” laid-back cultures like the one I’m wandering through now. It hurts just a little bit to admit it, but I actually feel more at home in Islamic societies, where there’s always a slightly creey undercurrent of energetic anger and discipline.

I’ll never forget how I felt, three or four years ago, when I first wandered into the guest house ghetto in Kuala Lumpur after having spent three days straight in the shopping malls of Singapore: I felt like I had discovered another world. There was a light mist that day, and for some reason, the way the sunlight bounced off the buildings made me feel like I was inside a scene from Blade Runner. I realize that makes no sense, but that’s how I felt. It was in a day market in K.L., now that I think of it, where I first saw someone wearing an Osama bin Laden T-shirt. The kid was maybe 13 or 14, and he seemed to be working at his parents’ booth; I haven’t the slightest rememberance of what they sold. I do remember my inital thought, however: I thought that the kid absolutely had to be wearing the shirt as some sort of an ironic statement. At the very same time, of course, I knew that he wasn’t; I was in a Muslim nation, after all. I’ve talked to a lot of travellers who’ve been to Malaysia before starting a trip in Thailand (which is exactly what I’d been doing at the time), and they almost all agree that the energy and the vibrations in that country are somehow stranger — somehow operating on a much different, much more serious wave length — than the ones up north. And yes, I still kick myself from time to time for not getting a photo of the kid and his Osama shirt.

Anyway, I digress. So here I was on the lovely 2nd-class bus this afternoon, happy and relaxed with air con and windows that were actually sealed shut (fire code violation, anyone?), and because the Songkran holiday starts next week, our bus was attacked probably two- or three-dozen times by pre-teens bearing big buckets of water. Were they splashing the poor people on the cheap buses as well? The ones with the wide-open windows?

I met a nice Kiwi couple almost as soon as I sat down in my seat — right next to a Burmese guy, by the way, who was spitting something into a plastic bag that was definitely not betel nut juice. Scary! Anway, as it turned out, the Kiwi couple were very literate, and we ended up talking books for a good half-hour. The female half of the couple was actually reading a Penguin compendium titled “The Entire History of the World”, or something along those lines. They asked me how long I’d be travelling (two months), and then I asked them how long they’d be travelling, even though I knew it was probably somewhere in the two-year range, being that they were Kiwis and all. And I was right. I couldn’t believe it: Travelling for two years straight with your significant other. It reminded me of the time I was travelling through Mexico for the summer with a college girlfriend who I had always admired for her independent spirit; she mysteriously became clingy after a week or two on the road, and we broke up at a friend’s apartment somewhere in Cuernavaca. I saw her off to the airport a couple days later. Oddly enough, we ended up living together as roommates many years later, but that’s another story. Stories, actually. Haw!

When the bus pulled into the station in Chiang Rai, Mister Kiwi was nice enough to tap me on the shoulder and wake me up, because I had fallen asleep. (No open doors, remember?) I ended up following the couple to a guest house that a German expat on the bus had recommened, and as it happened, they couldn’t quite find the way. That was when the bickering started. It was quiet and polite enough, and executed entirely in hushed tones, but it was probably the first time throughout this entire trip that I was glad to be travelling alone. Can you imagine two full years of bickering? Christ. Personally, I can only imagine one such year, because that’s the longest I’ve ever co-habited with a girlfriend. No offense to all you married lovers out there. Here’s lookin’ attacha, C! I am so totally buying you a toaster.

Oh! Speaking of married types and Anglo-Saxon angst, I’ve just discovered my favorite new author of all time — a guy by the name of Douglas Kennedy. I won’t even get into why the guy’s books are so good, but if you’re into the whole existential business, pick up a copy of “The State of the Union.” Like I just told my good pal EJ via email, I think it’s probably the best book in the entire world, with the obvious exception of “Portnoy’s Complaint”. (Congratulations Phil Roth!)

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