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.
These are things that happen in the Real World:
I’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.”
He 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.
I’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.