Moving Toward Dreamtime

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? A while, indeed; many things have changed since our tips last touched, and that’s for certain, but where to begin? The beginning, I suspect. School came to a crashing ending, and by crashing I mean that it concluded like the career of The Four Tops: slowly, without dignity, through painfully tedious flogging of the career’s material, ultimately dying long after people expected it dead previous. The last four weeks of my semester consisted of the administration of a sequence of frightfully boring oral exams to some twelve hundred students that failed to study. Some of you know this already, as I found myself chatting with you via iChat whilst I asked the same dim questions on autopilot all the while. Goodbyes were a mixed bag: some students were sincerely sad to see me leave, and one has gone so far as to email me since, some students came on strong, if you know what I mean, at the last goodbye:

“Teacher, you want a ride?” The seventeen year-old smirks as she revs her motorbike.

“Sure,” I respond with a smile, “you’re going to the bus station?” “No. I’m not,” and she frowns.

“Well, I am.” And before another word is yarned, the tires skid away, never to be seen again. And that was the end to Sena.

Ayutthaya ended with me remembering at midnight that the bag I had packed and left across town had within it all of my shirts, and had to ride my broken bike past the junkies and drunks and dump three hours before my eight hour bus ride. On the way, my back tire blew out; riding on, the metal wheel grinding on the ground, I kept pushing until the tube poked out, rubbing against the frame; ultimately the spokes were bent and I hit a bump on every revolution. I got my shirts, though, and set off for Chiang Mai in the coming morning. I think I told you all about that experience, the meditation situation, and to tie the end of that tether, I’ve meditated once since: on the flight out of Laos. I arrived in Laos for my birthday, right, feeling around in the dark for a place to stay in the most schizophrenic town in which I’ve stayed: Vang Vieng. Kelly and Christine were set me meet me there, but there were not to be found, staying at, apparently, the other hotel in the same town with the same exact name. Guesthouses all over Southeast Asia see a place with a good reputation, then steal its name, hoping to confuse travelers into their own place (see: Vietnam). Vang Vieng was like this, and I’m sorry in advance: waking up at 10 AM, shuffling to the river with nothing, only a plastic bag of money and a pair of shorts, excluding even sandals or sunglasses, to reach a place that can only described as an eternal Spring Break in Cancun, but without law. Bars are set up on stilts, perilously over the river, and, greeted first with a nip of cheap Laos whiskey, you buy a bucket of the same, down it with your friends, then digest the courage necessary to climb the creaky Seussical ladder wavering over the water. To the left, a patch of rocks; to the right, a patch of like-minded backpackers, leaving in the middle a welcoming blue landing strip – or are there two? – just wide enough to keep you alive. At first, it is exciting, but as you float down the river, getting lassoed to the shore by bikinied women wielding free shots of gasoline, it only becomes a launching pad for your friends’ dares. Some opt to ride a rope swing of three, one guy holding on upside down, while others do their best attempt at a double back flip, with of course invariably ends with a brutal belly flop or head crack. Many, on the journey, opt for inner tubes on which to float, but Frugal Eric tries to go it alone, au naturale, floating down the river on his back or on the backs of other, more sea-worthy friends via proxy. Each barefoot day, of course, ends at least slightly bloody. I can only tell you that my birthday was all of this, with my clichéd New Englander friends mixed in, amplified a few times, and I will say nothing more.

When not toed into that toxic river, Vang Vieng proved to offer some of the most remarkable nature you and I have ever seen. One day, in fact, Kelly graciously gifted me a motorbike rental for my birthday gift, in spite of her slight reservations and my overblown bravado. All we (I) did was drive into middle of nowhere, bust the damner on a makeshift and ill-advised bridge, and have to fish for a ride back into town on the back of a family’s truck. It amazes me, in retrospect, how much one can accomplish without a common word between them; I think I got more done there than I do when surrounded by my native tongue, but that’s for later. Anyway, this was one of the better stories from my trip, but I’ll save it for conversation (unless I’ve already written is somewhere) because I’m trying to write a summary, for crepe’s sake!

Vientiane, the Laos capital, was a poorly-conceived town trying to be French in the face of a wonderful aesthetic of their own, as they tried to tape filigree onto a palm tree; the whole place was a mess of construction and confusion, though that is not to say I disliked it. At the airport, where the postcards and trinkets should be sold, was a self-glorifying booth advertising a Laos “phD in Architecture”, “inventor, composer, arranger, performer” of music,” and all-around national treasure hawking his CDs, displaying his expert renderings of famous Laos landmarks. If you’ve been to this airport, I hope you’ve seen it, as it made the country that much better, and if you haven’t, I can show you the pictures: they’re like broken-ego porn. I landed in Hanoi and quickly met two Asian Melbournians, and they helped me find my way past the harassing con artists and through the searing madness that the city produced, ultimately depositing me at my hostel, which was as loud and Western as the city was loud and not. Hanoi is a beautiful capitalistic city full of money-grubbers and simply anything you might ever want to buy; the only thing that seemed Communistic, I recall, were the stone-like and cruel guards at Ho Chih Minh’s tomb. You hop in line, two-by-two, moving like a constant stream of scared and curious tourists and reverent Vietnamese, and immediately a guard accosts you: “you will remove the sunglasses from your head,”; “You will not clasp your hands behind your back,”; “you will not smile!” Ho Chih Minh is encased in a Star Trek glass casket, looks freshly dead, and if it weren’t for all the reports of his body leaking juice and needing to be sent back to Russia for maintenance, you’d just as soon assume him to be a wax figurine for Communists to pray to. I had a week there, so I mostly did the tourist route, and went to Ha Long Bay with some newly acquired friends on our own trip to Ha Long Bay (this was me being stubborn, as all the guide books said you have to do this on a guided tour, and I wanted to prove them wrong). A sparkling and acquitting memory of this marvelous, mysterious, frenetic and beautiful city, was wandering around the zigzag alleyways, finding a tiny alcove with a tiny old woman inviting me in to buy one of her steamed sweet pork buns (sounds wrong), and with the five words I gleamed from my language book, I delighted this old lady enough to invite her family out to meet me, offering me tea, refusing to allow me to leave until I had some four cupfuls. This is the true side of Vietnam, I’m sure, without the influence of money. Meanwhile, Ha Long is insanely beautiful, and SaPa is remarkable as well, that small Disneyland of Vietnamese village tribes and rice paddies. Everyone wants something from you in Vietnam, and won’t shut up until you give it to them; you pay the tourist-inflated fee for a three-hour bus ride, then are stopped halfway through on the face of a mountain and physically threatened to pay however much more they want, and the only thing that kept me smiling was the idea that they might then gall it to say that Communism works. Of course I don’t side with the stigmatic assignment we burden that word with, making it taboo in any context, but call me short-winded if the state of that country is anything but hypocritical. You can spot all the tourists in SaPa by the colorful cloud of tribal hawkers that surround them, grabbing and screaming, “you buy from me?” After three or four days, I was so ready to punch anyone that said that to me, though a truly sweet and intelligent little tyke that followed us around like a Dickens character (call me out on what a “Dickens character” might be and I’ll look like an idiot) did get me to buy this remarkable hand-knit Technicolor long-sleeved shirt that took her mother two weeks to weave ($9), so perhaps I’m guilty of feeding the machine, perhaps I’m guilty of having a heart, and perhaps it was bloody cold up there and it happened to be hella colorful and unlike much else you seen elsewhere.

On our last day there, we tried hiking through the mountain’s gardens to a tribal village, meeting all sorts of wonderful children and such, with me ultimately falling into a rice paddy full of encephalitic water, which was amazing, cold, and thankfully without major consequence. The best part, at the end of the day, was the purchases I made: the entire Fellini, Jarmusch, Woody Allen, and Godard anthologies for a collective price of thirty dollars. Thirty dollars! Beat that, Thailand.

From Vietnam I said my hasty goodbyes to the good friends I made there, the Irish, the British, the Candienne, and hopped on a flight to Bangkok, thinking and breathing so deeply of Australia. I met Jon at the airport, so happy to meet a familiar face and a good friend, and we drove out to our hostel. With only two or three days in Bangkok, I, never having touristed the mongoloid of a city more than a little bit, opted to just take him over to the Royal Palace, and the fraternal slophouse of Khao San Road, a place I swear never to return to on every visit, one that keeps drawing me in with its cheap accommodation and absolutely nothing else. It’s a place that people go when they’re running away from dorm rules, or the crushing and restrictive eye of mom and dad, trying to cram as much booze or weed or whore into their mouths as possible. It’s a boring place, a synthetic manufacture for foreigners, masquerading as exciting and culturally daring. No, after that, we both decided that Jon needed a real cultural experience (apologies for sounding snobbish for those that loved Khao San…but then you’re sort of stupid, too), so we went back to Ayutthaya, where I needed to pick my bags up regardless. Of course, because I am a fool, after five months living there, I wasn’t paying attention to the train and we missed our stop, ending up in the next town one hour past, one whose name I had never heard of and still can’t remember; of course the next train wasn’t coming until around one in the morning, around four hours later, and I flagellated myself like a madman when this revealed itself to us. I was pissed. After a moment’s thought, however, I figured we could make an evening out of it, considering Thailand to be the best place on the planet for such mistakes. We offered a few baht to some guy hanging around at the train station and we crammed onto his motorbike, onto which we sped to the only restaurant open at such an hour: a curbside cart with a fat toothless woman and her wok. Immediately upon arrival, the patrons greeted us excitedly, as we were perhaps some of the first white people they had seen at such an hour and such a place. Jon and I walked to 7-11, which is open always and literally everywhere, no matter the size of the city, and bought a big bottle of Thai whiskey, and by then they were applauding us. A man with one good eye and a hell of a smell came immediately to greet us both, introducing everyone with his limited English, claming one of them to be “Yao Ming”, and we go to drinking and eating, each place spicier than the last. My crappy grasp of Thai made them delighted to no end, and the eyeless fellow kept grabbing and winking, unless he was just grabbing and blinking, which is a joke I feel bad for. Eventually we were pretty drunk, though far less than he, yet he absolutely demanded that we allow him to drive us back the walking distance to the train station: this was Jon’s first true Thai experience. Both of us were resistant of course, but eventually threw arms up, crammed in tightly, and bit our lips and crossed our fingers as the man zagged at unnecessary speeds through the night and to the station, proud and without incident. Of course, the night was a presumed abortion, but I’m sure that it was the best night of our trip to date. And hey, I got an admirer, albeit one that smelled of rotten diaper.

We decided to get out of Thailand so I wouldn’t or couldn’t act like a tour guide, and went straight into Malaysia, whose food and people are far less colorful, whose natural beauty on offer is at least comparable, at times better, and whose sights are far less touristed. We hit Kuala Lumpur a few times, bore the frigidity and stunning tea beauty of the Cameron Highlands, hopped over to the languid and dirtily monochrome town of Georgetown, and soaked in the uninhabited beauty of Pangkor Island, where we spent a few hours with some Malaysian tourists, pretending to be Italians with only broken English. It was working well, of course, until I mentioned that I was an English teacher in Thailand. Oh well.

Finally we hit the 10 hour flight to Australia, and I was nearly tearful with anticipation: this was, and has been, my dream for quite some time, the carrot every time I was caught in a Thai with only a stick with which to dream. Australia was the brass ring before I went to Italy, the land my mind would fill in late at night, as I would blast Architecture in Helsinki, imagining a land of attractive accents, great music, and…what else? I suppose I never had a clear idea of what I was reaching for, but then who ever said dreams needed to be specific and complete?

Firstly, Big Brother Brian come out and met us on the first of April, and we had a fucking amazing time doing a roadtrip together through the Great Ocean Road and up to Sydney with nary a plan nor destination, and this was an amazing side of Australia.  We miss Brian immeasurably out here.

Well, all told I’ve spent quite nearly one month in my dreamland, and having settled in Melbourne, I have simply no conclusions regarding the light as intended to shine down this perilous and slightly tongue-in-speech aspiration, apart from the fact that – mate – this street is bloody crowded. Melbourne is a city of colour set to a mask of mediocrity, a Christmas tree in a sepia living room. The truth deadens the vibrant sheen and overall brilliance on offer: if a million things, perfectly pertinent to me, are floating around in this gray and rainy sky, they are all out of reach for someone of my stature and situation. As a backpacker with a sincere interest in assimilation, I am a blind, penniless Dante in Purgatory, doing my best to crawl through the thousands of similarly lifeless and unidentifiable bodies collected here in a strange blend of ambition and resignation. If I was a beacon of light; a jewel in a crown; a war hero on home return while in Thailand, here I’m the soldier’s bum-like and bitter brother who’s threatened into inertia by the pop and flash of his sibling. I came here to escape the gray, I thought, to pursue a real-life dream, but each day pulls my integrity further from my spirit, like iron magnetized from blood. It shall not last like this much longer if I intend to lead an extraordinary life. This is why I left. Yet I wake up every “morning” at noon unsure of what I can do today, flailing pathetically at acquiring a job to stop the hemorrhaging from my savings, today less committed to finding work, wondering if it might be no different to just go home, save up some money and go teach English somewhere more interesting, more challenging, more desirous of my services, whatever they may be. It is a necessary reminder that I am, indeed, nearing or arrived at my mid-20s, without much of any practical career-oriented experience, and while I am simply unwilling to do anything close to writing off any of what I have done to date, knowing how valuable and extraordinary my travels have been and how much they have contributed to my overall person and personality, the fact is that I’m still awkward and uncomfortable at job interviews and resistant to nightclubs (I’m actually not upset by that one, as nightclubs are stylish palaces built to eliminate the need for conversation or thought, and if the world were one big series of nightclubs then we’d all resemble those post-apocalyptical nightmares of shaved-headed men and women dressed in V-shaped foil uniforms speaking in monotone, unable to think for themselves or stray from the crowd). The truth is that no matter how far you’ve traveled, and I think that Australia is my thirtieth country without backpacking for more than these two successive months, so I’ve done my best to date, you obviously cannot escape from yourself, and what I have now is mostly shabby living in a great city with my family or friends. It’d be one thing if I could set some roots, but with only a year and career work unavailable, that’s not going to happen; I might be stuck living in a hostel of sorts for the duration, and at that rate, I might just return home at some point. Perhaps this is an emotional and shortsighted conclusion, but it’s also fairly logical, I feel; were this a film, my life, we’d cue the sweet and beautiful Australian girl walking into my life.

Anyway, for now I did get to meet up with the University of Melbourne’s baseball team, and that went pretty well. I’m sore to a point where I’m stuck in bed in one position, but I hit some peas, my arm was strong, and the group of guys was welcoming and enthusiastic. Jon and I also opted to just settle in a house for a month where we’ll share a room and keep looking for work. It’s quite near the beach, in St Kilda, and featured a rather stunning and friendly French girl across the hall, so nothing is entirely grim at this point. I’m Australia, after all! Nothing is ever perfect, and can’t be expected in such wrapping, but with patience, daring, determination, and perspective, life always because tolerable, and often great. I’m Eric, and this has been my story, the longest to date, but for sure and hopefully for better, but not for good.

My new phone number is +61 0405 25 7711. Plenty of love to you.

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~ by nearhelsinki on April 30, 2009.

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