WILD: The Journeys of Our Youth

Like many, I had been hotly anticipating Cheryl Strayed’s memoir WILD, about her solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. I had been so hotly anticipating it, and reading so much about the hottness of others’ anticipation, that I got a little worried. How could it live up? And there were points in the first, oh, thirty pages or so when I was almost ready to say, yeah, it can’t, quite, not to that much hype, not to someone like me who’s already gleaned much of the backstory from essays and columns. But those moments flew by and before I knew it I was shushing my husband, burning midnight oil, walking to work under the weight of my lunch- and-laptop-stuffed backpack with the crunch of the trail in my ears. I love this book!

Its merits have been detailed elsewhere, and will deservedly continue to be. One of the things that resonates closest to home for me is just the fact of a woman’s solo journey. It occurs to me—without immediately being able to trot out much support—that it’s becoming an archetype, this vision questy sort of trek undertaken by a woman in her twenties, the punishment and purification of the trail or the road met outside of a vehicle, the necessity of the solitude and the way gender informs, deconstructs, falls away in its face. Maybe it just seems like an archetype because I’m reading this one book now and have read maybe a couple solo-women-traveler anthologies and have lived a version of it,  talked to other women who have. It’s ready to be an archetype. We need it.

I’ve wrestled with the large role the journeys I took in my twenties continue to play in my writing and in my imagination, in my sense of myself. At times I’ve felt sheepish about it. ‘This is the last time I’m going to write about Southeast Asia,’ I told myself about the essay that’s going to appear in The Beautiful Anthology. Shouldn’t I have other grand themes by now? And I do, to some degree. But to another degree, I don’t, actually. The hitchhiking and backpacking remain cornerstones, bedrocks of my identity. Even motherhood—the painful antithesis to solo voyaging, it would seem, and the start of new story lines—I’ve seen differently because of the solo-journey lens.

I’m writing about the hitchhiking trip in the memoir I’m working on right now. I’m writing about stuff even further back, stuff I’ve often told myself to let go of. Why keep fingering it, picking at it? I sometimes fear I’m destroying it by doing so,  creating a false construct in its place. But I’m taking from WILD something that I need, which is permission to continue to examine crucial moments and milestones, to go back to them repeatedly, to allow their importance to remain and illuminate even as my life rolls on. What happens when we’re young—young children, young in our sense of ourselves as adults—is important.

I think at times I’ve been too ready to devalue youth, especially my own female youth, which is something I deride others for doing. I can view the years separating me from youth as a divorce, where one stage can no longer lay claim to what’s found in another. But we exist at once. That’s what I more often feel lately. It’s one of the nice things about getting older, how much we can contain.

Women can do this, take on mythic journeys and be forever changed, and there is a literature of it. There’s coming to be one. WILD. So good.

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Made in Thailand

The excellent music/lit blog Largeheartedboy allowed me to create a Currency play list for their Book Notes feature. I’ve always seen western music as playing an important part of Piv’s identity, and it certainly has been an important part of mine, so this was a fun assignment. For one of the entries, the song “Made in Thailand” by the Thai band Carabao,  I found I had a lot to say. I edited it down for the play list, but I’m reposting the full thing here, because it gets at a lot that’s important to me—the super-vivid memories I still have of my long-ago trip, the differences between the wifi present and the analog past, and the tension between east and west that I tended to see everywhere, whether or not it was unambiguously present.

“Made in Thailand,” Carabao

When I first went to Thailand in the 1994, one thing I found that I hadn’t expected to was a campfire scene. All over the country, it seemed, in the more bucolic locations, Thais and tourists could be found gathered around an evening fire, everyone singing along to a Thai guy playing guitar. If the campfire circle included more than a couple Thai people, there’d often be a segment where they sang Thai songs and the foreigners just listened. It was a relief, in a way—a relief not to have to strive for the universal, not to feel the taint of cultural imperialism in the fact that universal meant John Denver. And I thought I detected relief in the Thai voices as well, surer singing in a native language. The Thai song I heard most often was fierce and proud with a slow, pounding rhythm. It contained an English phrase, “Made in Thailand,” and it listed the names of the old Thai capitals: Sukhothai, Lopburi, Ayutthaya, which gave me a thrill. I could recognize them! I’d been there! I liked the song’s sense of protest, believing it was criticizing tourists, the commodification of the culture. I tried to ask the Thais around the campfire about the lyrics’ meaning, but their answers were vague. Sometimes this seemed due to the limits of their English. Sometimes it seemed they were being polite, not wanting to recount lyrics that were telling my kind to sod off.

The way I heard it sung,  “Made in Thailand” was the antithesis of the warbling synth pop that was commonly heard in shops and restaurants and busses, and it became my mission to find a recording of it, to add a local band to my trip’s soundtrack, which otherwise consisted of the three tapes I carried in my backpack to play on my Walkman on long bus rides: PM Dawn, Freakwater, and Pavement. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to explain what I was looking for to the cassette tape sellers at local markets, I found a guy who could write out for me the name of the artist in both roman and Thai script: Carabao. The next time I was in Bangkok, I went searching. The vendors on Khao San, backpackers’ row, didn’t have it, but they liked that I was looking for it, and they told me where to go. I wove my way there, to a series of little streets filled with young, arty Thais, close but yet far from the tourist ghetto. Just being there made me feel hipper myself, and the tapes and CDs were sold in an air-conditioned shop, not a market stall. With the sales clerk’s help, I found what I was looking for, an album by the same name as the song, released in 1984 but still popular. I treasured this cassette tape for years, until it was destroyed in an apartment fire.

Nowadays, the internet reduces mystery. With the translated lyrics widely available, I can see they’re not an admonishment of tourists; the song could care less about tourists, and my belief that Carabao was singing about me reveals the narcissism that’s a frequent companion to liberal guilt. They lyrics are more an admonishment to Thais who are too willing to see value only in foreign-made things. Piv certainly falls into this category. He wants to master foreign ways, to win over foreign women, that’s where he sees his fortune rising, the arena in which his dreams will come true. The Thais are known for being such nice people. Pleasure-loving, polite, pleasure-giving. I found that to be true. But there’s a knowingness, as well. I liked this song because it captured that.

Haven’t I Seen You Here Before?

(I posted this missive last week on The Nervous Breakdown last week, so if you read it there, skip this. If you haven’t heard of The Nervous Breakdown and you like to read short nonfiction on screen, you should totally check out the site. )

Getting ready for my recent trip to L.A., I told anyone who would listen that I’d never, ever been there. But when I walked out of LAX to catch the FlyAway to Union Station—boom! I caught myself in a lie. The low overhang that made me want to duck as I stepped out of the doors, the slice of blue sky just beyond, the scraggly palm trees against the white parking garage—I’d seen it before, on another June day fifteen years ago. The exact same tableau had been my first glimpse of the U.S. after returning from more than half a year in Southeast Asia.

Last month, I published a novel set mostly in Thailand. It’s about a Thai man and an American woman who get involved with an exotic animal smuggling ring. When people have asked the inevitable questions about how much of Currency is autobiographical—because, of course, everything’s more interesting if it’s autobiographical—I’ve been yakking about how sleeping with Thai guys probably inspired me to write from the first-person point of view of a Thai man. I’m trying to get over my fear that I’m boring people by talking about or reading from my book, but I’m not always successful, and that’s sort of sexy, right? Not the semi-failure, but the hooking up with a few too many foreign men? So I throw it out there to liven things up. And besides, it’s true. Sometimes I precede or follow the comment by making a lame joke about how I never smuggled anything—as far as I know, ha ha.

Until last week, I’d forgotten that I do have an autobiographical connection to Currency’s smuggling plot, a Los Angeles connection. That’s where I landed on my return from Bangkok, and, although I was continuing on to San Francisco, that’s where I went through Immigration and Customs and officially entered America. I’d recently been to Vietnam and Laos, among other destinations, and I was actually looking forward to this border crossing, to officers who spoke an English I knew I’d understand, to the certainty I wouldn’t be squeezed for a bribe, to belonging. When the immigration officer asked me questions about the length of my trip and how I’d managed to stay away for so long, he sounded friendly.

But maybe he tagged me in some way, tapped his loafer to a button on the floor, splattered invisible ink on my back, because while I waited for my stuffed, bedraggled, beloved backpack to roll off the luggage belt, I was approached by other men who asked me the same questions: How did I afford to travel so long without working? Where all had I been? The interest no longer seemed friendly, and I was wearied but not surprised when I was pulled aside at Customs. The search was thorough. Unzipped, my bag emitted the stink of tropical rot. It embarrassed me to watch gloved hands finger my crumbled clothes and dirty underwear, to see my souvenirs splayed out on the table, drained of meaning under the harsh fluorescents—the bunched-up jewelry, the crude carvings, the yak bone I had picked up on a trail in Nepal. But my heart didn’t start seriously pounding until the officer turned over the bone again and again and then walked away with it. He conferred with another uniformed guy. Then maybe another. One of them came over to ask me what the bone was. There was the crackling of a walkie talkie. The bone was taken out of my sight. It reappeared. To tell you the truth, I don’t remember the order in which these things occurred. But I remember being informed that the wildlife expert was on his way. I remember them telling me to repack my bag while we waited for him, the awful feeling of stuffing my messed and cheapened life back inside, under watch. “How did you know so much about smuggling?” people have asked me. “Research,” I’ve answered. And: “I got the animal smuggling idea from an article in a 1997 The New York Times Magazine.” And (in a snotty tone that implies Duh, I’m a fiction writer): “I just made up what it might be like to get caught carrying contraband into another country.” Why did I not recall until revisiting the airport where it happened that I myself was waylaid while carrying a piece of mammal?

It’s not accurate to say the incident slipped my mind. It must have been in there somewhere, hiding in the shadows, because I can recall it vividly now. I can recall the frog enclosures on the blue shirt I was wearing, the heavy string of Kali beads around my neck. (Jesus, how stupid I was to dress like such a clichéd hippy when coming back from what was at that time still a capital of drug production.) My backpacking trip was one of the most influential periods of my life, but I’ve become sort of sheepish about trotting out travel experiences that happened in the previous decade—or, ouch, are the 90s now considered to be two decades ago? And I’ve been laboring over Currency’s manuscript for so many years that my character’s experience had became more legitimate to me than my own, even though I still have the yak bone displayed at the top of a bookshelf in my dining room.

The wildlife inspectors ended up letting me keep it. By the time I was cleared, I needed a smoke, and I headed outside. I noted the contrast of the gloomy overhang and the sky’s robin’s egg blue, the outline of the palms’ ragged edges against the garage’s grimy cement. Southern California, I thought. Check. Then I stubbed my cigarette, went back inside, and got on my flight to San Francisco, where I stayed with my friend Brenna and her girlfriend Paula. I used their apartment as a halfway house, a place to acclimatize before I fully reentered American life.

Brenna has long since moved to L.A., and I stayed with her again on this recent visit. We’ve known each other since we were kids. We’ve hardly talked these last ten years. As she drove me around town to readings and parks and Venice Beach—I leaned on her for that one—her truck’s radio was often tuned to a station that played “Ladies Night” and “Celebration” on heavy rotation, songs we had danced to as preteens. We looked at each other across the wide bench seat and laughed. We grooved. We sang along, and she corrected me on some of my lyrics; apparently I’ve been wrong about them for thirty years. (It’s not “Celebrate your life,” it’s “Celebrate good times,” which I hope I can forget by the next time I hear it because I think my version is bigger-hearted.) One night, we all three went out, the same San Francisco trio, Brenna and Paula—just friends, now, best friends—and me, to a bar in Culver City, and Brenna and I danced in the back to the deejay’s nowest of now mix. We told Paula about how we had met on the dance floor at family night at our small town’s disco, and how we had fallen in love. We are still in love. Never-mind about the last ten years.

The phrase “the accordion of time” pops into my head a lot lately. I picture the long stretch of years—of course some things will be forgotten; there’s so much!—and then the squeeze that brings them together until they all exist at once, until everything seems as if it’s happening now. The sensation is accentuated by publishing a book that I’ve worked on through so many stages of my life and that’s inspired by an earlier stage yet; by a book tour that’s reconnecting me with people I spent formative years with before drifting away from. Lately, it’s common for me to recount a night on a 1980s dance floor as if it were yesterday, but to forget what happened last weekend. I’m an old lady in that way. But, also, I’m still a girl. Some enthusiasms are as fresh now as they were then. I keep having the feeling that I’ve been here before, and that it’s exactly the same, I’m exactly the same. But also, that it was nothing like this. Coming home, I’ve returned to a place I’ve never quite been: tropical flora, brilliant sunshine, dirty but still bright, white walls.

In Which I Consider Thai Prophylactics

So I last wrote about my first day traveling truly alone in Thailand, in which I was tricked into lodging at the wrong guesthouse, hit up for money by an odd teenager, and hounded by tuk-tuk drivers as I attempted to tour the ruins by foot, only to end up by late afternoon drinking with the same tuk-tuk drivers at the undesired guesthouse. If there is anyone reading this who wants the whole story, you’ll have to start here.

Also, if there is anyone reading this who doesn’t already know, I have a novel coming out in May, CURRENCY, that has at its heart a relationship between an American woman backpacker and a handsome Thai guy who hustles tourists. These characters, especially the Thai man, have been part of my life for what seems like forever, but looking back, I think my donnée was found on the day I’m describing (if I may apply that Jamesian term to my semi-pop thriller without the master turning too vigorously in his grave) and that’s probably why now, with publication looming, I keep fingering that day again and again.

But enough with the first-time-novelist psychologizing. On with the story: I sat drinking at the table with the drivers and with Noi, the teenager. The men switched between Thai and a game but halting English, and they were funny and nice. I was smiling and laughing some, letting them help with with my few Thai phrases, but my eyes kept darting, looking for wandering hands or secret signals or for a subtext to their joshing courtesy. I noticed that the veryvery handsome man held a white envelop that he occasionally tapped softly on the table. The other men started teasing him about it, and he ended up handing it over to Noi to read aloud, because, someone explained to me, although the drivers could all speak English, they couldn’t read it. The letter was from a girl. I recently recovered the journal I kept during this time, and here’s what I wrote in it:

Noi is reading aloud a letter the young and cute tuk tuk driver has received from some English girl gone far away who “can see your laughing eyes, your lips, your smile” when she closes her eyes. He made her trip “a special one” and wherever she is now is not as good as Thailand because when people are nice to you “they are nice to you because they want something—money.”

Everyone at the table cooed. Everyone but me, for whom the irony was too rich. Although, come to think of it, I guess the people I had encountered in Ayutthaya were actually being nicer to me now that they weren‘t trying to get my money. Or were they just being more subtle?

Whatever the case, it seemed to mean something to the cutie to have received this letter. He was visibly warmed. He smiled down at his hands, his expression sweet. And a few beats later he smiled at me again, and cast his laughing eyes back in the waters. We sat there for awhile longer. It became evening. I started to relax a little, and/or the beer started to kick in. According to my journal, “young and cute flirted well and outrageously.”

Also according to my journal, in the same paragraph: Doesn’t a Thai guy know he has the specter of AIDs against him? Didn’t the other English-speaking girl know this?

Well, that last was written by a newbie. It would soon become very apparent to me that the specter of AIDs did not seem to handicap the cute Thai boys one bit. And if it scared some English-speaking women away from them, well, otherwise the stampede would have been dangerous. Thai prophylactics were readily available, cheap, and of decent quality. And I would get my chance to use plenty.

But not with that first, adorable tuk-tuk driver, who eventually had to go. Good-bye! Good-bye! I will always remember that letter the English girl wrote to you! Even though I will get to know other Thai men much better, I will always remember your smile!

But my evening was just getting started. I went to take a shower, and Noi showed up in my room to finger my belongings, to ask the price of this and that. She asked again for money, lowering the amount this time, to 100 baht. Her spoken English was so poor, especially on the topic of borrowing, that we had to write notes to each other to make sure we were understood. Finally, exhausted, I gave in.

When we went back to the courtyard, the ranks of the drivers had thinned. Aside from the boss, there was just one guy left, a chain-smoker who wore aviator glasses. Through Noi, and after professions of shyness, the boss said that he would like to drink more beers with me. “I’ll pay for my beers,” he said. “I made a lot of money today.” I was half-drunk already, and confused, and scared again. “I just want to eat!” I cried. “Yes, of course. We’ll eat! We’ll eat!” he said.

Clearly, by any rules of safe conduct, I should not have gone. But my gut instinct was that they were good guys, and that an understanding of the dynamic that I’d witnessed that day, that I’d walked smack bang into and that was making me dizzy, could be gained by going. And so I made sure Noi was part of the invitation, that this strange half-scammer adolescent boy-crazy tom-boy would be there to act as guardian of my modesty. And then I gave her a stern look—you’re my modesty chaperon, get it? Do NOT side with the men. And do NOT ask me for money again. And then we all left to go.

But the deal almost all fell apart again when I learned we wouldn’t be walking, that we’d be riding in the dreaded tuk tuk. Not only had the tuk tuk has become the emblem of the transactional nature of our relationship, the hard give and take, but I knew that if I was driven somewhere, it’d be harder to extricate myself should anything go awry. Seeing my hesitation, everyone—Noi, the boss, the driver— cried out in alarm: “It’s free! It’s free!” Their faces all crumpled with concern that was I was going to turn crazy again. Feeling foolish both for going along and for being so paranoid, I climbed in. And I tried desperately to watch for landmarks as we rode, so I could find my way back if I had to. It’s hard to trust anyone when you know nothing.

They took me to a lovely restaurant on the Lopburi river, and we sat overlooking the water, fairy lights twinkling around the patio as straw-roofed, pointy-tipped boats glided by.  I registered the charming atmosphere, but I was also making constant calculations. I couldn’t read the menu, which was written in Thai, but I could see the prices, and they were far higher than I would pay for my bowl of rice or noodles from the guesthouse or market vendor.  A fool and his money are soon parted. I wrote in my journal. If I had just paid the god damn 250 baht for the goddamn tour like obviously a girl alone was expected to do, I wouldn’t be stuck here with two semi-leering Thai men and an 18-year-old tour guide and pickpocket-to-be, about to pay way too much for an awkward dinner. I worried about blowing my budget on an expensive meal for four, about the implications if the boss were to pick up the tab. I worried about what he would order. Not only was I exquisitely cost-conscious—to make my trip last, I was trying to spend only about $12 a day—but I was a vegetarian. I tried to make this clear, but “vegetarian” was not then a common descriptor in Thailand. I didn’t really succeed.

The boss was the only one of the three who could speak English fluidly, and he and I had a good conversation, the earlier teasing and repartee gone. He was a businessman, he explained. And he explained his feeling about tourists. He wants them be happy. He wants them to spend money. He wants them to come back, but he’ll believe it when he sees it. We talked about American politics, and he was informed, a fan of Clinton. “He’s a smart guy!” I asked him if he would like to go the States. He said he’s practical. He’s realistic. He does pretty well in Thailand, but he can’t take the money he makes here there. It’s way too expensive. He could only go there if he had a job there, and how is that going to happen?

“It’s not fair,” I objected. It was a stereotypical white-girl, knee-jerk response, but I felt it sincerely. And so I picked up the big cardboard box that doesn’t really fit in a backpack, but that has to be carried to beach and village and temple ruin nonetheless, the acknowledgment of the structural inequity that allows some to go traipsing while others won’t eat that day if they can’t persuade a tourist to crack open her moneybelt.

“I think so,” he smiled, enigmatic. Was he saying that he, too, thinks it’s unfair? He was gracious. “For you, Thailand very good, very much cheaper, I think so.”

Everyone cleared his or her plate but me—even allowing myself seafood, there were too many bits in the rice and soup that I was suspicious of.  The boss kindly offered coffee or fruit because he knew Europeans liked that, but I declined.

When the bill came, I reached for my wallet, but the boss would not accept any money. “In Sukhothai, in Chiang Mia, you spend a lot of money. Not tonight.” He is eloquent, and I sort of believe his intention, even while trying to tell myself that nothing is free, especially from a self-described capitalist of the tourist trade who knows Thailand is cheap to us and America is impossible to him. My cynicism was exhausting me.  Or were my attempts at open-mindedness exhausting me? Anyway, I did not push my money on him. Outside, he asked me if I want to go play snooker with him. No, I said, without hesitation. I was grateful that the situation was finally so unambiguous. I thanked him, and he drove off. The driver delivered me and Noi back to the guest house, safe and sound.

The night did not end there. There were more shenanigans from Noi—she really was a crazy girl—and I barely slept, what with her continually knocking and my head exploding from new impressions and my waking nightmares about being raped or about stabbing someone in the belly in order to prevent a rape from happening. I clutched my army knife all night long.

But of such intensity memories are made. I didn’t know it yet, but I had found my themes.

And I am grateful to anyone who has cared to read about it.

Hey, Baby, Let’s Go for a Ride

So, the risks I took, women take, when traveling alone. In my previous post, I described shacking up with two strange men on my first night in Bangkok. A day or so later, I got in touch with my friend Jillana, who was living there, and I crashed at her apartment and let her show me around. That made the transition to the foreign culture enormously easier, but I had to come out from under her wing eventually, and in preparation I read again and again the list of tips for solo women travelers that appeared in the guide books: Choose accommodations where other women are staying; do not stay in brothels; inspect walls for peepholes; make sure make sure doors lock from the inside; avoid being alone with men; stick to well-traveled, well-lighted areas. When I finally set out by myself for Ayutthaya, an old capital of Thailand that was a well-worn stop on the beaten path of every conceivable tourist type, I was suitably terrified. How could I remember everything? Who would have thought to look for peepholes? That first day on the trail alone was one of the longest, most intense days of my life. (The internet has made prepping for solo traveling a little less intimidating. These tips from Journeywoman for women traveling solo seem useful and realistic.)

The minute I got off the train, it became clear that the tips for solo women travelers could not be followed to the letter: Tuk-tuk drivers swarmed me, and they were all men, and I was going to have to be alone with one of them if I were to get to the guest house that Jillana had recommended to me. Part of the recommendation was to be firm with the driver about being taken to the old BJ Guesthouse and not the new BJ Guesthouse, which was known to be of lesser quality, and although I tried, I was pretty sure I had been deposited at the undesirable location. Jillana had told me this might happen, and that if so, I was to march back to the tuk-tuk driver and demand to be taken to the alternative, but this kind of assertiveness was beyond me. It was all I could manage to ask to see the room before I rented it, but with the proprietress standing at the threshold and insisting she could get the best rate for me on a tuk-tuk and guide to the ruins, my inspection was cursory, and it did not include the shared showers— peephole-potential central, according to the guidebooks. And so I started off feeling inadequate to the wiles of the locals and to the dictates of the safe solo-traveler advice, and I valiantly vowed to do better next time without having a clue about how that would be possible.

Photo by Lisa Meehan Williams

I had taken a seat in the near-empty guesthouse courtyard and was studying a map of the Ayutthaya’s famed ruins when a teenaged girl introduced herself. “My name is Noi,” she almost whispered, and her eyes were questioning but intent. She looked Asian but not typically Thai, with hair almost as short as mine and black-rimmed round glasses, and her story, told in halting English, was unclear. Perhaps she was a Thai student being educated in Japan, here on holiday? In any case, she was staying at the guesthouse in some capacity, and she shyly asked me if I wanted to do something with her that afternoon. What could I say? No? And anyway, maybe it would be some comfort to have a companion, even if it was a rather strange one. I told her I was planning to walk to the ruins. The guidebooks had said most of them could be visited by bicycle (when I had inquired about rentals, the proprietress told there were none available that day and once again urged on a tuk-tuk) and so I figured a fair number of them could be reached by foot, as well.

Noi requested that I wait for her while she went to the bank. When she came back, she said the bank was closed because it was a holiday, and she asked me if I would loan her money, naming a sum higher than my daily budget. I furrowed my brow and tried to ask questions in the place of offering money. What did she need it for? What did she owe the guesthouse? I felt a combination of motherly concern and suspicion; clearly she was trying to bilk the farang, and my intended companion, instead of providing some level of safety, was someone of whom to be wary. But she also seemed so young and confused. I didn’t give her cash, but I didn’t refuse her company when she said she still wanted to go with me, and we set off walking down the road under the flat, hot sun.

Within minutes, a tuk-tuk buzzed up from behind us and the driver called out, asking if he could be my guide. I rebuffed him, but another one approached, then another, then another. To extend their solicitation, the drivers slowed their exhaust-belching carts to our pace as we strode along; they offered prices, asked what price would I pay, insisted that I would never be able to see the ruins on my own. They just generally resisted taking no for an answer. But I refused and refused and refused again, my determination to go it alone only increasing the longer and hotter and more annoying the walk got. The guidebook said most of the ruins were available by bike! At least some of them must be available by foot! I would not be tricked again! The men sometimes tossed a few Thai phrases at Noi, who would whisper-answer back and shrug her shoulders, looking helpless and perplexed. Finally, we entered the national park and saw some ruins, and my mind was blown by the Indiana-Jonesish visages before me, the giant Buddha heads and stuppas, sites I had no cultural connection to and very little context for and whose exoticism was sharpened by how hard-won it had been to see them independently. But Noi was unimpressed. While I tried to open my soul to the object of the day’s considerable efforts (this is why I was here, right? right? Face to face with it, I was supposed to feel something profound.) she wanted to talk about boys, about the Japanese boy who had disappointed her, about a cute boy staying at BJ Guesthouse, about another boy who had used the word penetration—what did that word mean? At the end of the afternoon, I was exhausted.

Photo by Lisa Meehan Williams

Imagine my dismay when I returned to the guesthouse and saw every tout who had solicited me sitting in the courtyard having their happy-hour beers. There were at least a dozen guys there. The new BJ Guesthouse was the tuk-tuk driver headquarters! No wonder I’d been funneled there in the first place. No wonder they hadn’t wanted to rent me a bike. And no, I couldn’t slip to my room unnoticed. The men immediately called out to me: “The girl who want to go by walking!” They smiled and laughed, held open their palms and stepped their fingers across them to show my insistence at walking. They spoke to Noi in Thai, and she spoke back, and I looked at her, looked at them, didn’t know if anyone was on my side. There were maybe two other farangs in the courtyard, a couple, let’s say, who sat knee to knee at a small table with postcards spread between them. I wanted to catch their eye, but they took no notice of me or of the tuk-tuk drivers. Nor would I or the tuk-tuk drivers have felt free to approach them. For better and for worse, when you travel as a couple, you’re traveling in a turtle shell; when you travel alone, your whole self is out there in the world.

So there I was. Alone. Out in the world. Maybe 8 feet away from a table full of men drinking beer. Alone anywhere, I would certainly try to avoid a group of drinking men. Especially when the men can speak to each other in a language I don’t understand. Especially when they’ve already colluded against me. But they seemed so genuinely good-natured, both in their volleying between each other and in their comments to me. I cracked a smile. I replied to a question. I sank into a chair and replied to another. One by one, the drivers handed rolls of baht to a more thick-set man in a much whiter shirt who was buying the beer. “I pay my boss!” one guy explained cheerfully. There was a palpable sense that they were off the clock, that their work of trying to sell me services was over, as was my work of resisting, and that now—of course! finally!— we could all sit back and relax together. After hours of keeping my defenses up high as they could go—standing on tiptoe to do it, then hauling in iron scaffolding—they started to slip. And I can’t remember exactly how it happened, how many gently teasing comments the guys tossed my way, how many invitations were issued before I took them up on it, but Noi and I eventually joined the men at their table. I even accepted a glass from them, and l let it be filled with beer from one of the big Singha bottles they were sharing. And I started to differentiate, to pick out the guys who were cute, to pick out the cutest one, to see that he was actually turn-the-knife handsome— burnished skin over high cheekbones, thick lock of hair slipping over one of his bright eyes, brilliant white smile—and that he was smiling especially warmly at me. But, recalling again guidebook warnings, I was still wary enough to make sure that others were sipping the beer poured from the same bottle that mine was. I had willingly joined a group— I maybe flirting with one of its members—consisting of people who I believed might possibly drug my drink.

I see that this post is getting long, and I’ve still not gotten to the meat of it. I’ve tried to write about this day before, but the details are so many, and they all seem so important, even as I doubt they’re interesting for anyone but me.

But for me, they are endlessly interesting. They retain a pull as deep as the memories of childhood. Within a week or so after the events I’m describing, I had gotten my traveler’s schtick down. I’d already learned some tricks and shortcuts and gotten hip to the attitudes copped by fellow-travelers, and I’d gleaned that it’d be considered uncool to admit to being as freaked as I was in a place as well-tromped as Ayutthaya—in a garden-variety destination like Thailand, no less, an “easy” country people stopped over in to recover from more arduous destinations—Cambodia, Pakistan. But, far now from the traveler’s snobbery found in the common areas of word-of-mouth guesthouses, willing to risk accusations of traveling the world only in order to navel-gaze, I can recognize that those first days of traveling alone in Asia cracked open my self in a way that seldom happens in adulthood. They changed me, I think. They formed something in me. Or at least they helped me recognize—slowly, part of a process still unfolding—things about myself that otherwise would have remained unknown. And those things have more to do with tuk-tuk drivers than with sites tuk-tuk drivers can take tourists to. Anyway, I haven’t even gotten to the dinner of that first night, yet. Sometime. Sometime. Time. Maybe soon.

Lucky? And/or smart? Solo Women and Safety

So I’ve been thinking about the “white chicks shouldn’t” theme for awhile, now, and about how, consciously or unconsciously, most women have a strategy for dealing with the threat of sexual violence. I’m at a stage in my life where I rarely traverse the nighttime streets alone, but I do walk home from work on dark winter evenings, and sometimes the adrenaline surge I get from hearing the approach of heavy footsteps or from seeing a hulking silhouette on a lonely corner makes me almost nostalgic. In my 20s, when I roamed often alone through cities and countries, this edgy wariness was a frequent companion. My strategy was that I would not circumscribe my movements too much, that I would not always take the safest course of action, but that I wouldn’t be blindly stupid, either. I would remain vigilant; when necessary, I would trade off attractiveness for protectiveness; and I would sharpen my spidey sense of male character like a blade. Calculated risk. Cautious optimism. Bravery. Bravery that some might call stupid.

In this spirit, when I had the chance to take an indefinite solo backpacking trip in the 1990s, I went. But instead of going to Central America, as I was most inclined, I choose to go to Southeast Asia because I heard it was a much safer place for women to travel, and I wore short hair and baggy men’s clothing in an attempt to, if not pass as a boy, at least distance myself from unwanted male attention. (The bad haircut and ill-fitting clothing might also have distanced me from any chance of looking like a respectable person, but that was an issue of which I was blissfully unaware.)

As soon as I embarked for Thailand, the heightened calculations of risk and reward began. Waiting in Hong Kong for a connecting flight to Bangkok, I was approached by a man who asked me if I was headed to Khao San Road, and did I want to share a cab. He had identified another backpacker on board, too, another man, who was game to split the fare as well. We chatted a few moments before boarding, and then I had the last leg of the journey to decide: Did I split a midnight cab with two strange guys? Or, looked at another way, with two North Americans who looked comfortably hippyish in a mature, REI sort of way? Or did I get in a cab alone and get dropped off alone as well, at 1:00 AM in a strange country with nowhere determined to lay my head? (Yes, I know. I could have and probably should have arranged accommodation for at least that first night, but that’s not what I did. I was determined by budget and inclination to be a ragtag backpacker all the way.)

Not only did I end up splitting the cab with the men, I ended up sharing a room with them after we had trolled the Khao San area and found guest house after guest house filled up. When finally presented with an available quarter that was fitted with one double and one single bed, I turned to them both and said “I will share this room but I am NOT sharing a bed.” The older man congratulated me on my forthrightness and sort of paternalisticly—it was as if he’d been worried about me before—told me that I should always be as clear as that. He and the other guy bunked together in the double bed.

But still, despite their apparent deep decency, I slept that night, or half-slept, in the sweltering room with my sleep sack pulled tight around my neck.

But still, they weren’t the last strange men towards whom I had no sexual intentions with whom I shared a room on my trip.

But that’s not the story I started off meaning to tell. Khao San is sort of a half-way house to traveling, and in sizing up western white guys, I was on familiar territory. The harder calculations were yet to come, the ones I’ve been pondering on since, the ones that have been a major impetus for my writing. I’m going to post about them soon. Soon, soon, soon.

In the meantime, I wonder what the response to my travel-strategy and room-sharing would be if I were posting on a blog that large numbers of people actually read. I was not sexually assaulted in any of my wanderings, despite a bunch of “high-risk” behavior. Was I lucky? Yes, although I bristle at the way the term implies that the avoidance of sexual assault is akin to winning a prize. And how much of my “luck” do I attribute to my vibe—to my androgynous dress and my straightforward attitude—and to my ability to quickly asses character? And if I attribute my luck to those sources, if I claim some power and ability to keep myself safe while out alone in the world, am I suggesting that victims can be blamed? Does one thing necessarily imply the other? Am I being arrogant? I almost hate to type that, because of the way it evokes images of schadenfreude and comeuppance.

In mulling these things, I’ve recalled the brouhaha that occurred in 2008 regarding Lizz Winstead’s interview with Moe Tkacik and Tracie Egan, two women who were at the time editors at Jezebel and identify as feminists. They were drunk, and they said a lot of politically incorrect things, especially about rape. At one point, Tracie said that she hasn’t been raped because she’s smart. She and Moe (who talked about having been raped) were taken to task by the audience and by Lizz Winstead and all over the blogosphere, and for good reason, but the drunken, tone-deaf conversation is also pretty honest, on some level. I suspect Moe and Tracie are saying things many people think, or half think, or have done, before the knowing-better clicks on and shuts them, or us, up about it.

Now, when I sometimes quicken my pace nervously on my way home from work, and when walking home from the train at 9 or 10 PM makes me feel sort of wild and free but also like stalked prey, I’m amazed at how far out on a limb I regularly went on my own. Lucky? Or smart? Probably some combination. I hate to think stupid.

Acknowledging

I just sent the copyedited manuscript of CURRENCY to Gina, my editor. The next time I see the novel, it will be in galleys, manuscript no more.

It’s been twelve years since I workshopped the experiment in voice that became the first chapter of the novel. I was 28 years old then, and I smoked cigarettes blithely in the apartment where Mark and I had just moved in together. Up to that point, I’d written only a handful or two of short stories, each page wrung out of me slowly, and writing a novel seemed an impossible thing. But Piv’s voice was a wind at my back, and the few years it took me to complete the first “finished” version were great ones; they’ll probably go down as some of the best in my life. The story unfolded inexorably in my mind, and I had the time and attention to give to writing. Then came kids, mortgages, money worries and increasingly demanding day-jobs; rejections and not-quite-rejections and agents who sent me back through the pages. I revised in the cracks of time I could find. And received more rejections. And then, after I’d abandoned all hope, eventual acceptance. (Thanks, OV Books!) And now here I am, writing acknowledgments.

Writing acknowledgments is making me nervous. I fear I’m not always gracious in thanking people, being myself sometimes off-put by gratitude that seems too gushingly produced to be sincere but also knowing, first-hand and through observation, how much a heartfelt thanks or the lack of one can mean. I’m feeling twin urges to be brutally honest and very thorough. To make sure I don’t leave out any key players, I’ve tried narrating to myself the story of my writing this novel, and what I’ve found is that the most important people and turning points happened before the characters even materialized for me, long ago as that was. There’s one person in particular I’ve realized I need to thank—Tuk, a Thai man—whose last name I don’t remember. It’s been driving me crazy. I know I had it somewhere! So the other night I unearthed the plastic bin in the basement where I’ve been storing all the books I used to research the novel and the journals I kept when I was backpacking.

journals

I meant to be efficient, because like many people at my stage of life, I always have more things to do than hours to them in, and I was already stealing time. But as soon as I opened the box, the smell of old smoke discombobulated me. The burnt musk has been synonymous with my memories of youth ever since 1995, when a bad apartment fire singed all my possessions it didn’t destroy. Like a genie going back into a bottle—whoosh—I was back in the past, and nevermind the sleep that I really needed to get that night. When I came upstairs hours later, my fingertips were black with soot from paging through the journals. It became almost beside that point that I found names and addresses of people I had completely forgotten, but not Tuk’s.