Friday, January 29, 2010

About 12,000 Miles Traveled (en route to the jungle)

Jan 27, 2010
Chumphon, Thailand
80-85°F, Humid, slightly overcast
When I wrote my expectations for the trip before leaving, I tried to not form assumptions about what this trip would be like. I wrote about being open-minded, not having any expectations, and taking things as they come. I lied. I had two expectations that I didn’t talk about because I thought that they were too cliché, or too emotional to write about when talking about scientific expectations.
The first of these expectations really came to fruition today. We’re at the train station waiting for a few hours, and we split into two groups. The first watched the bags while the others went to eat, then we would switch. I was in the first group, and Denny found a restaurant with free wifi and some good food. The restaurant also happened to offer free showers, and Denny walked down the street to find some soap. He came back, triumphantly, with “Botanical Fresh Parrot” Soap – one can only imagine what the makers intended when they created that scent. I was hesitant. With no conditioner, no towel, and nothing more than the promise of a nozzle in the middle of a dirty room, I wasn’t so excited. But after both Denny and Liz reported that the shower felt great after a long day of traveling (we’re doing the same trip described previously, except in reverse), I decided I might as well do it.
The bathroom was everything you would expect it to be. There was a small, squatting, no flush toilet. There was a bucket of water with a cup. There was a sprayer intended to replace toilet paper. And there was a crusty nozzle for the shower. I turned the water on and waited for it to get warm. Not it surprisingly, it stayed frigid. So I jumped in, lathered myself with the soap, rinsed off, and finally knew what parrot smells like: it smells like liberation.
And that is really what I’ve wanted on this trip. I wanted to feel the freedom that comes with traveling with as little as possible, staying in the most pragmatic hotels, and moving around weekly. And somehow, even though my bags weigh me down and the lack of luxury gets me down, I just felt that transition to freedom when I laid down my hang-ups to take a cold shower with weird soap in an unsightly bathroom. I got my first thrilling taste of it when I sent twenty-seven pounds of excess luggage home in Hawaii, and now I think I’m hooked. I want to feel that feeling over and over again.
Since starting college, I’ve become accustomed to constant relocation. I’ve lived a different place each summer, I moved across the country and back again, and now I’m traveling the world. In those times where I’m moody on this trip, I remind myself of how stifled I felt at the end of last semester; all I wanted to do is leave because I felt I had spent too much time in one place. And my wheeling duffel bag is not a burden in comparison to the burden of routine and the mundane.
The second expectation I had was to craft a system of self-evaluation that was more reflective of true personal growth. Matt and I talked about the grading systems of our respective schools, and in describing the way I am evaluated I became even more aware of how insensible it is. So I’m working on that. I think it has something to do with happiness, but I’ll let you know when I figure it out a little more.
The train station that we are sitting at is the same one we were at a few days ago. Last time I was here, I walked away from the group and sat trying to calm myself down from the anger and frustration I felt at the really unpleasant train trip. As soon as I got back to this station, I felt the same discomfort creep back. There is something very unsettling about this place, and I don’t know what it is. I’d like to trust my instinct, but aside from being aware, there’s nothing that I can do. There are many more Thai people here than in any other transportation we’ve taken yet. Chumphon seems to be a very poor town. When we arrived at the pier after the boat ride from Koh Tao, we were surrounded by slums. We waited for the bus, and sat on picnic tables and ate some snacks. We got on the bus, and were driving out when about fifteen kids ran out and started waving and yelling goodbye. As we sat in our boudoir-like bus (it had very tacky decorations), something seemed so wrong about the situation.
Thailand is so much about strange oppositions – in between the slums there are bars where vacationing westerners looking to find themselves got drunk at night. I was at several of those last nights. I am the unfairly privileged American looking to find herself while being served by others. Today at dinner, two children, perhaps five and seven handed us our menus and brought out orders to the kitchen. They seemed to be proud of the responsibility, they were extremely efficient and purposeful. I don’t know what to think of this. I know that the sun burnt backpackers with newly twisted dreads and hokey talisman necklaces frustrate me. I know they’re going to go home and tell stories about connecting with the country and the people while reaching new levels of consciousness. But really the resorts they stayed in and the “ecotourism” trips they went on are specifically designed as a vehicle to drive through an area, not to be an experience of encounter or association with a place.
I stayed in those resorts and went on those trips and I do not want to walk through the slums and talk to starving children or see houses made out of scrap metal with piles of human waste and refuse in the “backyard.” I was horrified at the amount of garbage that had accumulated, but I’m sure it was a small fraction of what I throw away and have taken away each week. I can turn my nose up at their low-MPG diesel vehicles while disregarding the amount of diesel exhaust I put into the air by flying here so I could look out the window and judge the world. For those of you who watch South Park, smog is pretty terrible for the environment, but smug is much worse.

Sorry this was such a long and inconclusive and depressing entry. I wanted to write down some observations, so I’ll make sure to include those now. 1) Hawaii and Thailand share quite a few common plant species, including the plumeria and the coconut palm. 2) The waves that meekly arrived at the shores of Koh Tao are dwarfed by the ferocious waves that crash onto Maui’s shores. I think it perhaps is because of the direction of the weather on the globe – from east to west. 3) The shores I have seen Thailand are all completely covered in garbage. 4) I saw a Thai jazzercise class from the bus. There were perhaps two-hundred women jumping up and down, following the leader on the stage. It was just like my zumba class.
Our train will be here in a few hours, and I’m pretty excited to go the jungle and see monkeys and tropical birds and cool insects. When we got off the train at four in the morning, we will take a taxi to a river, get in a boat, be ferried around a mountain in the boat with our luggage, jump out in knee-deep water and drag our luggage to tents on the shore. It’s going to be a travel experience, but I guess that’s what I’m here for.

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