Chapter 1 – Advice from beyond
I can’t believe you even left Cambodia,” Bill lifted his hands in the air, like a preacher at a sermon. “I thought you were going to live there forever, just a year ago you were raving about it.” He dropped his hands in exasperation. “You’re too unpredictable, man”.
“It was the couchsurfers, they got me, they changed me, they infected me with the travel virus.” I looked away, my mind shifting through the stories the couchsurfers had told me. I saw them. One marched along in a single file procession of Hindi pilgrims making her way up a rocky crag. I saw another, touring around narrow jungle roads on a small motorcycle, he arrived in a dusty village lined with coconut trees. I saw another. He chopped firewood, his muscles pulsing after each blow. The loving family, who did not share a common language, shared their home, their food, and their love with him. These stories, these adventures, they were beautiful, and they could be mine.
“Yea, yea, I guess couchsurfers can do that, how many did you end up hosting anyway?”
“What!” Bill’s bearded jaw dropped. “You let 250 strangers come live with you!”
For eight months I opened my house to couchsurfers and like an imploding vacuum it sucked in travelers from all over. They crowded my kitchen, relaxed on my balcony and flooded my seven-bedroom house. They came from the ranks of short-term travelers, long haul expatriates, and exotic world adventurers. They came to Cambodia, the land of eternal summer where the sun rises before you wake and sets with your eyes, a land ripe with coconuts, thieving monkeys, smiling people, and signs that scream “danger landmines”. 250 couchsurfers came to my home, stayed free, shared their stories, and became my friends. They taught me how to hitchhike, how to village hop, how to live on just a few dollars a day, and then they invited me to visit their homes in counties far scattered around the world.
“So now you’re just going to pack up and go? I know you say you want to travel, but you’re already traveling. You lived in Cambodia, for two years, for God’s sake.”
“Cambodia isn’t traveling, I speak the language, I have friends there, I know what to expect every day. Nothing is ever new to me.”
“You don’t need anything new”. Bill said as he wrinkled his nose and brow.
I continued. “I want to see the world. I want to be able to get lost and find my way back, to eat new foods, smell new smells, and see people, places and cultures that I’ve never seen before.”
Bill shook his head, his shaggy, deep red hair flailing the air. “Man you are crazy, so crazy.”
“Takes one to know one.”
He shook his head, not getting my point. “Bob must love this. I know he thinks you’re crazy too.” He looked to the grainy picture black and white picture of Bob’s face that leaned over the salt and pepper shakers. Bill had taken Bob’s three decade old college football photo, blown the size up 10 times, and colored it. Bob’s unnaturally peach colored face looked out from the photo, his crew cut unchanged for decades.
Bob was dead, really dead. A brutal car accident had made sure of that. He had been this way for at least a decade and had been communicating with Bill for about half of that time. Bob and Bill don’t talk, Bill asks Bob questions and Bob answers by relocating things. Either Bill has a psychic connection with the dead, or he is crazy. Perhaps both.
Bill’s deep pitted eyes searched the room for a sign. He didn’t notice anything. His eyes came back to me. “Why are you doing this? Why travel the world, why not just explore a little then get back to work, you need to build your career.”
“I want to travel home, back to my family. It’s been three years since I visited”.
Bill let out sigh “Young kids today, you are all crazy.” He shook his head, his plump cheeks wobbled. “Eric, you could just get a flight. From Bangkok to Las Vegas and back, I only paid $1500.”
“$1500 is expensive! That can pay for most of my trip. Plus this way I get to see the world. Didn’t you see a lot of the world?”
Bill listed off the countries he had lived in, his face glowing with the emotions of old memories. He finished then added “$1500 will get you nowhere. You will spend that on busses alone.”
“No busses, I’m going to hitchhike.”
He threw his head back in laughter “What and I bet you’re going to couchsurf across the world too.”
“Sure, why not.”
“Man you are so crazy, have you even hitchhiked before?” He said, his laugh picking up pace.
“Umm, well, no, but I’ll figure it out, I can figure out most things.”
Bill’s laugh wound down out. His tone became serious. “You had better be careful out there, I don’t think anyone wants you to join Bob too soon.” He shook his head and looked over to Bob’s photo. “Isn’t that right Bob?”
His eyes roamed over the table to his pipe. “Are you going to hit this?”
“No, no, I’m good”. I looked over to the HDTV. Like always, the screen flickered, but the speakers remained silent. Actors sung and danced in a colorless world of black and white. I turned back to Bill. Pipe embers hissed and glowed as his chest expanded. He exhaled, quick moving shadows danced as the sweet marijuana smoke rolled into the room. Bill relaxed in satisfied gluttony.
His eyes narrow, his movements slow. “Want a hit of this?” Bill said, his voice raspy like crunching paper.
I pushed away the advancing pipe. “I’m good, thanks.”
“It’s good stuff, I got it from Charrang.”
“The guy in the elevator.”
“Bill, you need to stop buying drugs from strange guys in elevators.”
“Nooo, he’s not strange” He paused, his lips pursed, ready to say more. His face relaxed his eyes darted around. “Man, just stay here, I am getting a new condo soon, we will be on the 23rd floor. Every time you visit you will see all of Bangkok from my balcony.”
“No, I‘m tired of Asia, it’s getting boring, and I’m tired of going to urinals and having men lean over to check me out.”
He let out a low laugh “You should be flattered.”
“Why should I be, it’s annoying”.
“Do they complement you?”
“If you were queer you would have lots of options.” He added with a laugh.
“It’s not just gay men, its every man in every damn public bathroom. This happens every day.”
“Oh, that’s just in Cambodia, Thailand is civilized, it never happens here.”
“Bullshit, it happened today at the mall.”
“At the mall, really? Anyway, I thought you were an aspiring nudist?”
“Being naked on a warm beach and being checked out in a bathroom isn’t the same thing.”
Bill nodded with a long “hmmm”. “Want something to eat? I’m going to get something.” He stood and walked into the tiny kitchen. I followed. I stood in the doorway, the kitchen wasn’t big enough for us both. A belt hung from the wall. Bob had put it there months ago. Bill never moved it. A set of measuring cups hung on the wall, they ran from largest to smallest. Or at least they once did, now the largest two were switched, another sign from Bob that Bill kept around to show his guests.
Bill looked into the fridge. “Do you want some soup?”
“Does it have meat in it?” I asked, knowing it did. Bill’s soups always had meat.
“No.” Bill paused, maybe he remembered that we had this conversation a dozen times over the past few years. Every time I visited him, he always offered me his homemade vegetable soup, and the conversation always went the same way. He continued, “It just has chicken bouillon in it, but that’s not really meat.”
“Chicken bouillon has chicken fat in it.”
He circled his lips and let out a long “Noooo,” grabbed the chicken bouillon, turned it around and read the ingredients. He put it back. “Man you’re too extreme. Too extreme! You can’t expect to travel the world and not eat any meat.
“I’ve been a vegetarian eight years, and I’ve spent five years traveling to different countries. Nothing has stopped me yet, and remember, I lived in the Ukraine during one of the harshest winters on record, and yet I still managed to find food.”
“Ahh, but remember what you said, living isn’t traveling. Living some place is easy, but when you travel it’s going to be a lot different. How do you think you will find vegetarian food while hitchhiking?”
“Fruit, vegetables, street food, bread, cheeses, I am sure it will be easy.”
“Good luck.” He laughed and rummaged through the refrigerator. “You know, I am practically a vegetarian myself,” he said as he took a bite out of an old ham sandwich. He cringed: his shoulders lifted, his lips peaked and opened, air hissing through his teeth. He swallowed and shuttered “uhaha” he tossed the rest of the sandwich into the trash.
He gathered an armload of snacks and left the kitchen. I went to the fridge. Beside me, out through the window, in the hot tropical street nine stories below, a vendor sold sugarcane juice. I inhaled the cool, stale air and smiled, finally free from the endless street flavors of Bangkok.
With a slight “pop” the fridge opened. Cold air rushed out and crashed against my shorts and ran down my bare legs. I made myself a plate of raison crackers and whip cream, both luxuries I could never find in Cambodia.
Bill sat on the couch, and watched the silent TV. “So what’s your plan?” He asked.
I sat beside him. The smell of marijuana clung to him. “I don’t have a plan,” I answered truthfully. My body tensed with expectation of adventure, I knew it was just ahead of me, but where it lay, and how to get to it, I wasn’t sure.
“If you don’t know, then just stay. I mean man, you have it made, man. You spent all those years studying and working your butt off, now you can just relax and have a good job, don’t leave that behind!”
Working for International Aid Organizations had been rough, I had worked for three years, sometimes for as little as 1$ a day in land mine infested areas, in order to use my skills to help those less fortunate. A future where I could afford eat whenever I wanted, where I could have a pool, new clothes, and anything else, stood in front of me, all I had to do was seize of it. Not now I thought. Not just yet.
“First, I need to see my family. After I see them and the rest of the world, I’ll come back and get a nice cozy job.”
“So before you relax and get on with your life you’re going to hitchhike to the USA. Ok then, I guess I can’t change your mind. So what’s your first step?”
“Well, I know I want to go the long way around, through Asia and Europe to the USA, but I’m not really sure where I should start. Any ideas?”
“I don’t know, I’m not a traveler.”
“Ask Bob, maybe he has some advice.”
“I can’t ask Bob just any question.”
“Yes you can, remember the Ladyboys?”
A week before Bill and I were talking about Ladyboys, Thai transsexual men seeking to become women. Both of us agree that what someone does with their own life, their own bodies is none of our business. Nevertheless, we had a disagreement.
“If they want to be women, we should call them ‘she’.” I explained.
“No, men are men, he is he. Ladyboys are women’s souls trapped in men’s bodies but as long as they are alive, they are a ‘he’.”
“If she dresses, acts and believes she is a she, then she is a she.”
“If he’s got something dangling down there, then he is a he.
Bill did not and could not understand. He had stayed isolated from the thousands of ladyboys in the city below. He had no Ladyboy friends. No matter what I said, he would not understand how these women behaved and looked like any other woman. “Well, you might not understand, but I’m sure Bob does, and he agrees with me.
Bill let out a tiny laugh “No way man.”
“Bob doesn’t just understand, Bob likes ladyboys.” I teased.
“Ahhk” he growled like he had a bad taste in his mouth “No way, man” his voice burnt in protest. He threw his head from side to side, shaking it fiercely. “No, Bob is a real man!”
“Bob do you like ladyboys?” I asked in a clear voice. Before or after this, I have never asked Bob anything.
“Beep beep” The air conditioner roared on, dumping frigid air on Bill.
I burst out laughing. Bills mouth fell open. “No way! No way man! He sat there as the air conditioner froze him.
“Noooo, it couldn’t be. Where is the aircon remote?” His head shifted around, his eyes darting to tabletop and shelves.
The lonely remote sat across the room.
“No way.” Bill put his hands over his face. His perception of the world was melting. “No, no, no.” he sat in confused misery his eyes studying the floor.
My smile fell. I had caused a massive calamity in his world. He was not ready for this. “Maybe Bob loves everyone. After all you told me that the afterlife is pure love, right?”
Yea that’s it! He perked right up, his smile returning to him. On the other side, everyone is pure love. No hate, no sexes, nothing like here. There are just souls and everyone loves everyone. Bob, do you like ladyboys because you love everyone?”
Bill sat in silence as the air conditioner hummed, he focused on it, willing it with his eyes to turn off. He sighed. His head fell back into his hands.
“Beep beep” the air conditioner turned off. Bill relaxed, taking a deep breath. I chuckled at the either otherworldly experience or fantastic coincidences.
Bill shook his head, “Yea I remember the ladyboys, that’s not something I will ever forget!” He turned to the air conditioner. “Bob, where should Eric go to travel?”
The air conditioner remained silent and for days we looked for signs. Nothing came, no belts being misplaced, cups overturned or maps anything that would give me a good idea of where to start.
And then something happened, I got a facebook message from an old friend. “Hey Eric! When did you come back to Thailand!!!!! It is so awesome that you’re here!! Now you can visit me!!! Yee!!! I just finished university!!!! Come visit me before I have to start working!!!”
Sign or no sign, I had my first step. I said yes and headed north on a bus, oblivious to the adventures fate had in store for me.
Please leave me comments, advice, ideas, and such
You can read chapter 2 HERE