Liminal space

It’s my last of three days in Bangkok.  My only reason for being here is that it’s here.  It’s what I do, go to places.  Thailand is country #48.  I ran in Lumphini park this morning with all of the other tropical shuffle-joggers, and counted that this is my 15th country I’ve run in.  I fully realize how privileged this makes me — time, money, independence, physical ability, a childhood that fostered wanderlust.

I ran two loops this morning around a civilized green park.  So easeful, communal with all the Thai exercisers, calm  despite having to navigate a puzzling four stage, terrifying intersection to get in.  The first day it took me 10 minutes and I finally defied traffic and sprinted across.  This morning it took me 2.  I adapt, learn routines, quickly.

That’s why I do this traveling, thing, really.  There’s something that gets released in me in the practice of learning a new place, feeling it through a soft opaque filter, liking that I don’t understand things, that there is a planet full of stories and meanings completely beyond me. Why did everyone in the park suddenly stop running or walking and stand at attention for a minute?  I piece together — 8 am on the dot, music playing, it must be a national anthem thing.  Who are the hordes of people at the Royal Palace in shiny black looking excited, clutching large calendars with photos of the just-deceased King?  It clearly has something to do with paying homage to him, but there’s an air of festivity, sponsored stands full of people handing out water, dumplings, little boxes of lunch.  Why did the boat take off without me when I was standing right there waiting for the other people to get off?

I like finding out the explanations later (or, immediately in the case of the boat –you have to push the people out of the way and hop on, it only stops for 30 seconds).  The mourners ARE on a pilgrimage, and the ones I saw were joyful because their hours of standing in line had been rewarded, they’d seen the body of their beloved King, their made-for-the-occasion mourning clothing worth it.  The traffic around the palace is temporarily diverted for the showing for a full year, when the King will be cremated in a stupa they are building in the park.  Explanations.

A wall mounted herb garden outside an autoparts shop. Potted plants green the streets all over Bangkok

But the meaning doesn’t matter.  What I am doing when I travel like this is letting go of the mindless, jammed routine of my life and forcing myself to live in a more mindful way, think about what I am doing, be here.  I wrote a post last year about why I like to travel alone and this is part of it.  My life is overfull, endless colours and tangles and stories and people and projects and needs.  Again, privileged.  But it carries too much juggling, too much time online, too many little squares in my i-cal, too much distraction.  I regroup by pulling myself far out, by lifting myself alone into a new place.

I’ve done all the things in Bangkok, the glorious Wat Pho and the reclining Buddha, a massage at the temple where thai massage originated, got lost in Chinatown, ate a superb 9 course meal that cost $140, ate a glorious lunch that cost $1, figured out the metro, the ferry, the sky train. Did a night time bike tour through tiny alleys and silent lit up temples and the luscious flower market. Realized quickly that in traffic the motorbike taxis are the fastest and clamped on my bike helmet as a boy who tells me his name is Boy zips me across the freeway. Those moments — on the back of a motorbike in a tropical city — are my free-est, lightest self.

But the lifting myself out is harder this time.  Long flights used to be a blend of impatience, anticipation and anxious excitement for me.  A time out of time where everything was possible. Shrodinger’s time. Eight years ago, the first time I went to Uganda, my seat-mate and I literally clutched each other’s hands as we landed.  He was an African American political science prof who had dreamed of going to Africa since he was tiny.  So had i, for different reasons. Landing and feeling the heavy air and scent of charcoal that IS east Africa was like finding a new planet.  The same way I felt when thousands of fish swarmed around me as I clung with a fingertip to a coral in my first “real” dive.  Endless, kaleidescopic, worlds within worlds.

Somehow, now, as the countries have added up and I have accumulated probably 500,000 Aeroplan miles since that first trip to Uganda, flying 16 hours in a straight shot is just a task I am an expert at.  My seat mate this time was a young woman on holiday with her family, we bonded against the idiot across the aisle who was miserable, vomiting and whining because he washed too much xanax down with wine.  (I woke to think he was just motion sick and drugged him further with dramamine; the flight attendant gave me the side eye when she realized but everyone was happy when it made him pass out for 6 hours.  We monitored him to make sure he wasn’t dead.  I also had to drug his neighbour who got a huge headache from being kicked in the back of the seat for 4 hours; he politely asked for advil).

I fully realize my privilege in acknowledging that a trip to asia is now a familiar jaunt for me.  And I’m not complaining… I’m noting.  I’m noting that in the 8 years since the professor from Syracuse and I grabbed each other as we identified the Sahara from the tiny window, the world has become wired.  My first trip to Uganda, to get online, I had to go to a rickety machine running Windows 95 that had dialup. I could blog words, and exchange simple emails. My sister told me the news headlines.Now I have a Ugandan sim card I seamlessly slip into my phone, have “roam like home” for $10 a day, even in Asia.  China had pesky connectivity, but there was wifi everywhere in Vietnam.  The children in our project in Uganda have phones, and on my bike tour of the tiny winding lanes in Bangkok, I had to avoid little kids who were staring at their phones in the road.  (Wifi is often crappy; it’s 3G that is ubiquitous).

Staying connected is a thread to community that’s important as a solo traveler — but when connection is as easy as it is at home, the same surge of distractions swells up.  I used to read hard, important books with a headlamp under a mosquito net when I was jet lagged.  Now I can surf the same websites that obsess me at home when I can’t sleep.  I can text my sister and business partner and friends while I brush my teeth.   I have to literally pull the plug.

And that’s the second part of the dis-ease I’m feeling. The world is fragile and terrible right now.  Being in places that were removed from everything familiar to me made me weigh my own life and recognize it for its unbelievable safety, privilege, luck of DNA and geography.  But as the world has wired and flattened itself out, Aleppo is grabbing me by the arm, I can’t tear myself away from the fear that Trump is inciting, and I’m noticing that everyone staring at a phone, everywhere in the world — EVERYWHERE — is connecting and disconnecting.  Things are real and are simultaneously a simulacrum and truth folds in on itself.

I had a lovely time in Bangkok. People were marvellous.  I am feeling physically good and strong. And I’m grateful I’m leaving tonight for Sri Lanka, for the bike trip that should put me in the space of seeing people at eye level, the essential movement of rolling forward on a bike.  Learning a new world through smell and sound and the bumpy ground underneath me.  Realizing that it’s times like this that mindfulness exists for.


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