Welcome to the Real ‘Real World’

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Welcome to the Real 'Real World'

I’ve been traveling for awhile now and have learned that, as Twain said, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”. I walked away from a job where I sat at a desk in a fancy chair and a life that involved a lot of tv watching, drinking expensive beers and hanging out with friends at restaurants and bars.

To me, that was the ‘Real World’.

When I began this journey, I was –in my mind– heading into something that was exotic and enticing but somehow less than my world at home. It was a foolish conceit.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Johnny Vagabond -- travel, humor, photography

These are things that happen in the Real World:

real-world-1I’m sitting at a cafe in a beach town, Moaboal, in the Philippines and I’m talking to a mototaxi driver at an outdoor table. He’s young and eager and has ferried me to the ATM and supermarket a couple of times now on the back of his motorcycle.

When I ask him how many children he has, he says “Five. Three girls and two boys.” The conversation wanders for a bit and then he stops me in the middle of what I’m sure was a fascinating and clever story.

He stares at the ground. “I’m sorry, Johnny. I lied to you. I only have one son. They were twins but one of them died.”

“Oh my God, man. I’m sorry. I can’t even begin to know what that must feel like.”

“It was Dengue. He was strong and fought it but… It’s part of life, I guess.”

I have no filter between my brain and my mouth and this phrase just pops into my head and shoots right out. “I guess that we come into this world kicking and screaming and we go out the same way.”

I’m horrified for a moment, afraid I’ve offended him and wishing I could reel it back in. But you can’t unring a bell. He looks me in the eye for the first time in minutes and says “Yes. I certainly will.”

Johnny Vagabond -- travel, humor, photography

real-world-2He was from California, a personal trainer whose muscles seemed to have their own muscles. He rented the room across from me and had a habit of grabbing furniture –tables, chairs and such– and using them as weights, often while having a conversation.

He’d do curls with them or lift them over his head and then drop and do push-ups, all while he’s chatting away. I found this funny until I realized that this was one of the reasons he was chiseled and I was a slob. Noted.

So we’re hanging out on the terrace one night talking and he’s doing things with a bamboo chair that I’m not willing to discuss in polite company and he opens up, unbidden.

“I’m a little scared, man,” he confesses. “I used to be a heroin addict and I can’t find my medicine here. I can’t even find methadone and if I don’t in the next day, I’m going to get really sick.”

People don’t share these things where I’m from. But for some reason we do out here. We all do. No one talks about the weather or sports or TV. We get real.
We go deep.

After chatting longer (as well as drinking a couple of beers and splitting a salted, grilled fish from the stand down the street) it hits me: I remember seeing a sign for a ‘pain clinic’ not far away.

We look it up on ‘The Google’, find a photo of the sign and call. They’re open late and if he brings his old prescription bottles in, they’ll set him up. He leaves the next morning for Laos, pills in hand.

Johnny Vagabond -- travel, humor, photography

real-world-3I’m standing by the road at Chiang Mai Gate in
–wait for it– Chiang Mai, Thailand.
It’s my favorite food market, with fifty stalls or more and as a result, the car traffic is pretty heavy.

An older Thai man and I are waiting to cross the street, caught at a pinch point on a sidewalk that’s filled with stalls selling pork and chicken and who knows what. There’s a break in the flow of cars and I gesture for him to go first. He does the same and we get into that whole “no, you go first” thing.

The gap is closing quickly and without saying a word, he grabs my hand and raises it in the air. We cross the road hand-in-hand, both of us laughing the entire way.

This is the Real ‘Real World’. I stand corrected.

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Benita January 6, 2014 at 10:46 pm

Those are wonderful stories about what can happen when you travel.
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Michael January 7, 2014 at 2:18 am

simply awesome, thank you for the words

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Jeff | Planet Bell January 7, 2014 at 4:31 am

I love the story about the man in Thailand. It is those simple, small interactions that are so special in travel.
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Sarah Somewhere January 7, 2014 at 5:17 am

Yes, yes it is. Love this post, love these stories. Hey, imagine a book called ‘The Real World’ filled with all your quirky tales. No need to thank me, I’ll just take 5 % ;)
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wes January 11, 2014 at 10:12 am

Sorry — I beat you to it ;)

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Lunaguava January 7, 2014 at 6:22 am

Was missing your stories, Wes. The real world is everywhere we look, but sometimes one has to stare it in the face in order to realize it. The little unvarnished glimpses into distant lives, and their connection with ours, are what living and breathing is all about. Good to have you back! Hope you have a tremendous 2014!
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Kate January 7, 2014 at 8:03 am

I’ll be traveling soon myself, and I’m nervous, excited, and thrilled. It’s stories like those that you shared which are why I travel, why I can’t wait and why I am certain that it’s the right decision. I can’t wait to have similar stories to share!
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Rachel January 7, 2014 at 9:07 am

As always, I love reading your stories. More please? :)

Anyway, congrats!

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Jason January 7, 2014 at 3:08 pm

And posts like this are why I love your blog. Thanks for sharing.

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Sheena January 7, 2014 at 9:15 pm

Wes, I keep checking my inbox for your new posts. Gotta admit I am hooked to your stories. This one is darn good. The real world sucks!

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Michelle - Very Hungry Explorer January 7, 2014 at 10:34 pm

What a beautiful post. I used to think the same, my former life was all about drama. Since I’ve been travelling, it is the more subtle things and the stories from regular people that become important.
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Agnosticpilgrim January 8, 2014 at 1:37 am

Trying to readjust to “the real world” after the portguese camino de Santiago. Finding the only way is by trying to cherish the small moments, sunrises, a laugh with friends, a ski on a very cold winter day. Missing the real conversations though. Excellent blog, keep going back to “Love Letter from the Phillipines”. Keep writing you’re good at it.

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John January 8, 2014 at 11:46 am

Do you plan to stay in the real “real world” for the rest of your life, always moving from place to place? How many hours per day do you work and what on earth do you do when you are not working, if you are in different places and therefore don’t have a partner or a network of friends (you can make friends but then you leave and when you come back they aren’t there anymore ect?

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wes January 8, 2014 at 11:56 am

Yeah, I do — I can’t see myself moving back to the States if I can avoid it (knock on wood). It’s just easier out here and more fulfilling. My hours vary — when I first started I was putting in 50-60 hour weeks. Now it’s slowed to maybe 30/week. But I’m also writing a book so that eats up a lot of time. When not working, I wander, shoot photos and hang out where I can people watch. Making friends is easy here and with technology I can vid-chat with my family and friends. People come and go, as you say, but that’s the nature of the beast. All in all, I’m much happier here and now than I was working the corporate gigs.

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Susanne January 8, 2014 at 7:56 pm

I’ve always appreciated those real “real world” moments. I have mostly experienced them while traveling abroad, and from working in hospitals. Thanks for sharing your real moments with us, and best wishes for the new year.

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Vassilis January 9, 2014 at 7:30 am

Finally you are back! I keep on checking every few days for a new story and once again you delivered a wonderful one. You trully are an inspiration. Maybe one day I’ll become like you but until then I’ll be in Thailand in February for the first time in my life. Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai, Kanchanaburi, Krabi and Bangkok . Thanks Wes :)

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Vassilis p January 9, 2014 at 7:34 am

Finally you are back! I keep on checking every few days for a new story and once again you delivered a wonderful one. You trully are an inspiration. Maybe one day I’ll become like you but until then I’ll be in Thailand in February for the first time in my life. Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pai, Kanchanaburi, Krabi and Bangkok . Thanks Wes :)

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Contented Traveller January 9, 2014 at 10:02 am

This is a great example of the real world and the little things that make it so special. Your man who held your hand crossing the street is like my man in Amsterdam who sold me a stamp and then kissed me 3 times .. just because he felt like it.
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Turf to Surf January 16, 2014 at 7:08 am

I LOVE this one! Favorite story in a LONG time. You have such a keen understanding of people and a knack for drawing their stories out of them, I love it! It’s what sets your blog apart from most other travel blogs – the focus on the people you meet. Keep it up, Wes…I’m a fan!
Xx
-Tasha

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wes January 23, 2014 at 10:19 am

Thank you, Tasha.

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Ryan January 18, 2014 at 3:49 pm

Great read sir, exactly the way I feel when I am traveling. I’ve shared deep, dark, and personal things with people on the road that I’ve never told my best of friends. I’ve had conversations with locals and the way of life around the world — it’s not getting angry that your Starbucks is taking to long, or the endless hours at a job you hate to pay the bills for shiny things you don’t need, it’s this kind of stuff. This is the real world, and it lies out there.
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wes January 23, 2014 at 10:20 am

Very well said, Ryan.

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Peter Korchnak @ Where Is Your Toothbrush? January 24, 2014 at 5:51 pm

Good stuff. We all, as travelers, have these microstories, though few can relate them this way. Thanks for sharing.

I disagree with the notion that the only real-real world is out there, to be experienced only on the road. It doesn’t have to be that way. It’s all in the outlook, though perhaps travel helps us acquire it and bring it back home.
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Tana B January 25, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Such a great post! Gave me chills reading these and remembering some of my “real life moments”
When I was in Thailand I talking to one of the “bar girls.” She told me she was from a very, very poor farming village. Her family would often go all day on just one small bowl of rice. Her brother was sick and they couldn’t afford medication so her and her sister moved into the city. She said that in two years of working in the bars and “befriending” foreign men she could make enough money to support their whole family for the rest of their lives. I remember the look in her eye when she said “another year and I won’t have to do this.” That was a real life, real problems moment
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eli January 28, 2014 at 2:19 am

great post
your ability to capture those small moments and connect them is unique
cant wait for the book :)

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wes January 30, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Thank you :)

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David January 28, 2014 at 7:37 pm

The only way to truly know the world is to experience it first-hand …. the more we see, the more we re-write our internal monologue on how the world is in different places.
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wes January 30, 2014 at 3:06 pm

Well said :)

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Leslie January 30, 2014 at 12:28 am

Wes I’ve come to read your blog recently and I really enjoy it. You write about connecting with people at a fundamental level which is what I’ve moved toward in my own life and I couldn’t be more grateful and happy about that. Thank you and please keep sharing!

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wes January 30, 2014 at 3:04 pm

Thanks so much. I kind of feel sometimes that I’m working in a vacuum, so those words mean a lot.

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Catherine January 30, 2014 at 10:08 pm

These are some great stories, I can’t wait to get out there and experience the ‘real world’ for myself! That last story has put a massive grin on my face :)
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Ryan February 4, 2014 at 12:02 am

Great stuff! The first story hit home since I have a sibling who lost a son. The moto driver wasn’t really lying when he said he had 2 sons. Death doesn’t stop someone from being your child.
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wes February 4, 2014 at 5:22 pm

Very good point, Ryan. And I’m sorry for your sibling’s loss.

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Jonathan Look, Jr. February 11, 2014 at 2:54 pm

Yes! Those are them moments. It it home again while I was recently in Burma during the Super Bowl. We were seeing this only recently open to the world beautiful place and my friends were in America getting all jazzed up about the annual ritual of giving huge ratings to millionaire beefy guys bashing into each other. I had to smile.
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Rashad Pharaon February 26, 2014 at 5:11 pm

The triumphant street cross! What a magical moment – it doesn’t get much more REAL than that.
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Mo February 26, 2014 at 5:33 pm

If I only could write like you buddy!! If only! :)
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Greg Simonds March 3, 2014 at 6:01 am

I love your writing style!
I’ll be linking to you from my Expat books on Kindle because the world needs more erudition and less commercial homogenization.
Keep up the great work!

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TOHOTA March 7, 2014 at 7:14 pm

It is very Amazing experience…..

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