Sisyphus

Our host is constructing a pond in his organic garden. I have no experience in pond construction, but when your host asks for help, you oblige him or her. All Billy and I had to do was help the other workers move stones into the ditch. I’ve moved stones before, how much harder could this be?

I have never moved stones under the relentless Indian sun, however. It has been cloudy for the last few days, but of course the clouds part for the day that we have to do physical labor. All the workers watched us as we approached. These were not Workawayers but actual local workers. They all seemed genuinely amused at our presence. I could not share their amusement after laying eyes upon the imposing pile of rocks. Calling them rocks is kind—these were boulders. 

None of the workers spoke English. The only phrase they seemed to know was “little rocks,” which they kept repeating anytime Billy and I attempted to move a stone larger than a fist. Apparently our host had told the workers to only let us move small rocks, which was humiliating at first, carrying stones barely larger than my head while the other workers hoisted boulders the size torsos over their shoulders. After about half an hour, though, the humiliation turned into gratitude. Walking back and forth into and out of a ditch carrying stones under the vicious mid-day sun in ninety degree weather takes its toll quickly, and had we been moving some of those boulders I think we would have passed out. 

This is why people tell you to stay in school, I realized. You see people working crappy jobs and that advice comes to mind, but to actually experience that crappy job, just for a day, is enough to make you appreciate the truth of that sentiment. A high school or college education is no guarantee against moving boulders for a living, but an education makes such an occupation a far less likely outcome in life.

Once I got over the heat, I didn’t mind the work. Repetitive physical work allows my mind to wander, and no one is trying to talk to you while you’re working, so you’re free to be lost in your own thoughts. But if this were my life, day in and day out with no end in sight, things would be different. 

The man who I assume is the foreman points and speaks to the workers in rapid Hindi. He has the largest belly of the assembly, and hasn’t touched a single stone, I assume because he doesn’t want to get dirt and dust on his white pants and shirt. He chatters orders and we move back and forth, picking up rocks and dropping them along the inside edges of the ditch. 

Our host eventually emerges. I have no idea how long it has been. He tells us to take a break, that there will be chai served for everyone in a minute. I hoped I had misheard him, but sure enough within moments I had a paper cup of hot tea in my hand. This was the height of absurdity: drinking a hot beverage after working in ninety degree weather. 

Billy and I retreated to a shaded spot to drink our tea. 

Billy. Now I really feel like I’m in India. 

Elliott. How’s that? 

Billy. I’m covered in dirt and I’m drinking hot tea after doing physical work under the blistering sun. Plus there are cows everywhere. 

Elliott. What we really need is water. 

Billy. Yeah. I won’t feel embarrassed asking for it at this point. Plus I’ll need to shower. 

He looks down at his clothes, which are covered in dust and grime.

Billy. Well, I guess these are my work clothes now. 

Elliott. Isn’t today Diwali? 

Billy. Oh yeah. 

We look out at the barren stretch of dirt where the rocks are piled. Dust mingles with rapid Hindi in the oven-like air. 

Billy. Happy Diwali dude.

Last Smoothie of the Night: Goodbye Thailand

Billy. Remember landing here in Thailand? Remember being driven to the Airbnb through what looked like dilapidated streets where stray dogs roamed free? 

Elliott. I remember. I remember thinking that we were really in for it.

Billy. Look at us now though: walking down the street at night sipping smoothies, feeling completely at ease. This is such a far cry from my memory of that first night. 

Elliott. Things looked so much worse that first day. But in actuality we spent most of our time wandering the city, or milling about in cafés. 

Billy. Thailand has been nothing like the news portrays it as, that’s for sure. What would our parents have said if we told them we were going to visit Las Vegas. Probably something like, “Don’t blow all your money at the black jack table! And remember, an STD won’t stay in Vegas!” Compare that to what they said when we told them we would be going to Thailand. “Make sure you be safe there. Stay away from big crowds and always walk together late at night. You never know who is out there.” That fear is so far removed from the truth. 

Elliott. It reinforces the notion that you can’t take anybody’s word about a place as gospel. You have to visit the place in question to see for yourself. 

Billy. We have to have a boys trip back here. 

Elliott. Absolutely. What a week that would be. Though, as much as I’ve liked it here, three weeks has really been my limit. I couldn’t live here any longer than that.

Billy. No? 

Elliott. It’s too hot all the time for starters. I need somewhere that gets real weather, somewhere where the seasons actually change. That, and I don’t think I’m spiritual enough to live here.

Billy. What kind of reason is that? What do you mean?

Elliott. I mean there is such an air of spirituality here—what with all the temples and that. You walk down the street and there on the horizon is an unavoidably large statue of the Buddha, next to an elaborate Wat that is difficult to ignore. I don’t need to see the Buddha, temples, or Christian churches for that matter day in and day out. I’m always suspicious of outward displays of spirituality. I feel as though true spirituality is inward, and evaporates as soon as it is exposed to outside air. In other words, you don’t need a temple to practice Buddhism and you don’t need a church to practice Christianity. In my experience  people who attend church punctually forget this notion, and are usually looking to prove something.

Billy. That’s some convenient reasoning. Is that why you can’t remember the last time you went to church back home? Too busy practicing Christianity in your bedroom?

Elliott. You know what I mean.

Billy. I do, and I think you’re right to a certain extent. Yes, believing that going to temple makes you a Buddhist isn’t necessarily correct, but there is still something to be said about the feeling of community temple offers. This community is even more important to Christians I think, right?

Elliott. Well. Shit. Yeah that’s true. The whole “Where two or three gather in my name, there I am with them” thing. 

Billy. Is that a Bible verse? 

Elliott. It’s Matthew something or other yeah. 

Billy. I’m impressed. Are you practicing Christianity at home on Sundays?

Elliott. Definitely not. The Bible, however, has no shortage of trenchant lines of beautiful poetry. I enjoy those types of lines insofar as I enjoy poetry. In fact one of the first things I ever memorized was the Lord’s Prayer. You know, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”

Billy. I don’t know actually.

Elliott. Oh well. It’s in the book of Matthew as well, like the quote I mentioned earlier about God being wherever the community gathers. But the Lord’s Prayer also appears in shorter form in the book of Luke. 

Billy. Uh huh. 

Elliott. How did we get talking about this?

Billy. You were mentioning how aren’t spiritual.

Elliott. Right. All I’m trying to say is that it’s too in your face here, too much for my comfort, anyway.

Billy. I could see myself living here. Not for the rest of my life, but for a few years, sure. Life is well-paced here. It’s not a huge city with over-crowded streets and a sprawling metropolis. Most things are close enough to walk to, and there isn’t an overwhelming variety of things to do, but the things that are here are genuine in that you can do them multiple times and still get something out of the experience. Like Doi Suthep, the temple in the mountains we visited yesterday. I would love to go back there when it isn’t so crowded and just soak up as much detail as possible. I think I could do that many times and not get bored, or at least not for a long time. Plus, these smoothies man, are freakin delicious.

Elliott. The thing is that when I try and make them at home they will be nowhere near as good as they are here. 

Billy. Exactly. That’s why we’ve got to enjoy them while we can.

Foreigner Anxiety 

Conversation overheard at a bar. I didn’t catch the names, so I’ve just made them up.

Harold. Is this your first time in Chiang Mai? 

Caroline. No. This would be my fourth time visiting here. May as well move here right? 

Harold. I guess so. This is my first time in Chiang Mai.

Caroline. How do you like it?

Harold. It’s okay. Everything is so cheap. 

Caroline. Yeah and the people are so nice. 

Harold. Who? The locals or the foreigners?

Caroline. Both I guess. 

Harold. I’ve mostly hung out with other foreigners. Haven’t met that many Thai people yet.

Caroline. I know a few. 

Harold. Really? What do they think of foreigners?

Caroline. I don’t know. I’ve never asked. I guess they like us, right? 

Harold. I hope so. Can I get you another beer? 

Foreigner anxiety: wanting to fit in with the local culture but still retaining an awareness that one will never be of that culture. Is it insulting for me to try to bow? Or should I just not bother? I want to respect the culture and the people while still acknowledging that I’m merely an observer of this place and all its customs, but how? 

If I have any truth to say on the matter it would be this: people, particularly in Asian countries, know that you’re a foreigner. Don’t attempt to disguise it, but don’t let it be an excuse either. You don’t have to be anybody but yourself when you travel. 

People like it when foreigners can speak the language, yes, but most understand that it is an unrealistic expectation of foreigners that they should speak the native tongue. All I recommend is learning “hello,” “thank you,” and “goodbye,” but if you have the time and means try to learn a little more. 

Ultimately what is important is being yourself. Locals know their own culture, and while I’m sure it’s nice to see foreigners learning and respecting that culture, I imagine they might want to learn about your culture, and what makes you unique. Sharing is so important, and is perhaps inseparable from traveling in general. Above all, don’t just come to absorb and give nothing back. 

Clothes

I do laundry here about once a week. I only have a few articles of clothing, so once a week is enough. Mostly we rely on the old smell test to know when we should do a load of laundry. Other than that, clothes haven’t been an issue for either of us, a fact which I voiced on our way to dinner.

Elliott. When we were leaving I had the suspicion that I hadn’t brought enough clothes, but I realize now that not once have I felt like I needed more clothes. 

Billy. Yeah that hasn’t bothered me either.

Elliott. Living out of one backpack makes one realize how little is necessary to get along.

Billy. Well, it also has to do with our current station in life. Sure we only have like three outfits, but people expect that of backpackers. Whereas when we get home it won’t be so accepted for us to just wear the same three outfits all the time, as much as we might want to. 

Elliott. I’m going to be shocked by all the clothes I own when I get home. I won’t know what to do with it all. 

Billy. We’ll get used to all that stuff again I’m sure. 

Elliott. I don’t doubt it, but I think there will definitely be an impulse to cut down, at least for me. Not that I own a lot of stuff anyway, but any amount of stuff is substantial compared to what I’m carrying around in my backpack. 

Billy. Mhm. I’m trying not to think too much about getting home. We’ll be back before we know it. 

Elliott. Yeah we’re leaving for India in four days. How’d that happen? 

Billy. See what I mean?

Coin Toss

Never in my life have I been to so many restaurants in such a short span of time. We’ve eaten out every night here, usually trying a new place or sticking with a favorite (Kanjana’s). Most of the time we’re able to narrow our choice down to just two options, so we do a coin toss to decide which place to eat.

Yesterday, however, we were faced with three equally delicious sounding options. We couldn’t narrow down from the cheap Thai place, the Irish pub, and the burger place. Now, I know some people would immediately go with the Thai place—we are in Thailand after all, right? Well we’ve been eating so much Thai food since we’ve gotten here, and consider that we’ve been traveling in Asia now for about two months. Sometimes, you need a taste of home. 

I came up with a brilliant scheme to make our decision from the three options: I put three coins on the ground and turned my back to them. Then, I flung another coin over my shoulder, and whichever coin that thrown coin landed closest to would be the place to go. 

Being supposedly indifferent to any option, Billy agreed to this scheme. I was about to toss the coin when he stopped me.

Billy. Wait. Wouldn’t it make more sense if the three coins are next to each other? Look, I’ll put one coin on each point where the tiles meet, that way there’s an equal chance for all of them.

Elliott. Okay sure. So there’s nowhere in particular you want to go to? You would be happy with any of these three options? 

Billy. Yeah. 

Elliott. Okay, I’m going to toss the coin. 

I turn my back to the coins on the ground and toss a coin over my shoulder. It clatters about and lands nearest to the Thai food coin. 

Elliott. Okay! Thai food it is. Are you ready to go?

Billy. Yeah, well, the coin only landed near the Thai coin because you threw it in that corner. 

Elliott. What are you saying? Do you not want Thai food? 

Billy then grabs the three coins.

Billy. We’ll do heads or tails for each coin. Heads we’ll go, tails we won’t.

Elliott. I think you aren’t as indifferent as you said you were. 

Billy. First coin, Irish pub.

The coin lands on tails. 

Billy. Okay, now the burger place.

The coin again lands on tails.

Billy. Thai food place.

The coin lands on heads. 

Billy. I guess we have to go there now. Thai food it is.

Elliott. The first method of the coin toss didn’t convince you?

Billy. I was just making sure we were making the right call. 

Crossing the Street

The pedestrian crossing lines on the streets of Chiang Mai are mostly decorative. The steady stream of red trucks, tuk-tuks, and motor bikes yield to no man or woman; they will swerve to avoid you rather than come to a complete stop. 

Keeping this in mind, the walking time to a restaurant is always a little more than the number Google gives you. One might think we’ve become better road-walkers, and we may have slightly improved since our arrival, but for the most part when crossing the street we still look like a couple of weary herons standing on the bank of river that’s chock full of crocodiles. 

The system we have in place now is to look in the opposite direction of each other and call out when the way is clear. We’re often at this for several minutes, so naturally brief conversations arise. 

Elliott. We got a whole line of motorbikes this way. 

Billy. Same here. 

Elliott. It seems like everybody’s driving on this road today. 

Billy. I booked myself a massage for Saturday afternoon at three. 

Elliott. Yeah? You’re really going for it man. 

Billy. Yep. It’s an hour Thai massage plus a thirty minute reflexology session.

Elliott. Isn’t that the kind of massage Roberta said was the most painful she’d ever had in her life?

Billy. Yeah, but she also said that it was the most eye-opening one she’s ever gotten. It was the one that showed her how connected everything is in the body. Because she had pain this part of her foot she had pain in her shoulders, or something like that. 

Elliott. Clear this way. 

Billy. Not here. 

One of the many taxi red trucks slows down and beeps at us, which is their way of asking if we need a ride. We shake our heads and he drives on. 

Elliott. More power to you for taking on the excruciating massage. 

Billy. I’m trying to make the most of my time here. This will probably be our shortest stay in a country, and it figures that it’s one of the cheapest and most culturally rich places. Stupid visa laws. 

A tuk-tuk beeps at us. Beeping, considered so rude in America, is just how taxis get your attention here. We may not be pros at crossing the street, but we’ve become pros at the quick head shake “no.”

Billy. Clear here. 

Elliott. Not here. I feel like I get the most out of this city when I walk around it, looking at all the faces and buildings, and when I’m plopped down on some plastic lawn chair that’s pulled into a crooked old table. Then I know I’m about to get a good meal at an unreal price. 

Billy. It’s all about how you make the most of a place. Clear. 

Elliott. Here too. Let’s go.

Expat Intellectuals 

Navigating the streets of Chiang Mai reminds me of hiking in the way that I always have to watch the ground to make sure I have proper footing. The streets here are narrow and uneven, and slope up and down at random intervals. The amount of cheap taxis makes sense once you have walked around for twenty minutes in the scorching mid-day sun. 

Billy and I don’t mind the walking, however. Walking gives us more time to appreciate our surroundings and perhaps find a good place to eat, which, in Chiang Mai, isn’t so hard to do. Strolling around, one sees many foreigners and expats; passing through the street food stalls, the conversation about NPR from a young hip looking couple rings as clear as a bell. Seeing all these westerners made us wonder whether Chiang Mai is the modern equivalent of Paris of 1920’s. 

Billy. If this city was ever like Paris in the 1920’s it was probably a couple of years ago. When I see it now it seems like we’re witnessing the tail-end of what was once a brief haven for intellectual expats. Maybe we’re not even seeing the tail-end. It could be over for all I know. 

Elliott. How long did the whole Paris in the 1920’s thing last though? Probably a couple of years, right? I agree that if any intellectual expat movement occurred here it’s long gone, but it was probably so brief that no one got to experience it properly. A flash in the pan. 

At this point a shipping truck backs out in front of us with one of its back doors wide open, swinging with every turn and bump the truck makes. We decide against notifying the driver, the language barrier being what it is.

Elliott. Plus, what intellectuals and writers can we point to now as leading the way? If this city were to be like Paris in the 1920’s, it would need recognizable names to move and work here. I don’t know who that would be these days. 

Billy. Who would even be able to tell you the name of a serious contemporary writer or artist? Someone who doesn’t create sellable schlock but actually makes original and poignant work that speaks about our current situation in the world. 

Elliott. I can’t think of anybody.

Billy. The Internet has made the phenomenon of Paris in the 1920’s kind of obsolete. We don’t need to congregate in a city anymore to stay current on culture. The conversations can happen online. It’s not the same as face-to-face of course, but that hasn’t mattered so far. 

Elliott. Armchair intellectuals, however, remain a problem for any serious discussion on the Internet. 

Billy. But like anything the wheat gets separated from the chaff. Intelligent conversations are had on the Internet all the time. This doesn’t mean shit posting isn’t still prevalent, but to say that’s all there is on the Internet isn’t fair. 

Elliott. I imagine everything is like a Fibonacci spiral. At first, the distance between events seems so long. Remember how long a day felt when you were in kindergarten? But then as you get older things start speeding up. Suddenly a day feels as long as a blink, and years pass at the cruel speed of a bullet. The distance between events becomes unrelenting; everything just becomes faster and faster until it ends. As with our little lives, so with the life of history. The events of Paris in the 1920’s took longer to go from conception to decay than they did here in Chiang Mai because history has moved further along the spiral since then. Advancements come so quickly, almost exponentially, that now we don’t need a city to be a cultural capital because we’ve made the culture capital a concept that anyone can access. The only thing I wonder is, given the speed of events, where are we on the spiral of history? 

Billy. What? 

Billy is then hit in the back by the swinging backdoor of the truck we had seen earlier. He said it didn’t hurt, and the truck driver immediately pulled over to slam the door, without apologizing or noticing.