Posted on March 9, 2012
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.
Posted on July 7, 2011
This spring, we went back to Isla Mujeres for our second time as a family and my third time overall. I left a copy of Currency at PocNa, the hostel where I stayed when I visited the island as a backpacker round about 1995. In the book, I pasted the same note that I have in the other copies I’ve sent out into the world:
As the author of this novel, it’s one of my great hopes for Currency that people will discover it while on the road. To that end, I’ve given some copies to traveler-types and asked them to leave the books, when they’re through, where other travelers can find them. If you’ve left or found Currency, I would love it if you’d leave a comment at https://zoezolbrod.com/the-traveling-book/. Happy travels!
I think there are about ten or twelve books that are floating around the globe right now, with most of them, fittingly, in Southeast Asia. I’ve received only one note from a stranger who has picked up a copy completely by chance, but the story that woman told, in the comments here, was worth way more than a box full of books; it put me on a bus from Cambodia to Bangkok and then on route to Nepal. O World! I miss you! And Piv and Robin, I miss you too. When the two of them come alive for other people, it helps ease the sting—or maybe it just makes it more exquisite, which is perhaps the better goal. If anyone reading this is about to go on a trip and wants a copy of Currency to read and leave behind for someone else, let me know, and I’ll send you a copy
I felt sort of like a spy in PocNa, wandering around looking for the lending library I knew they’d have, wondering at the way things change and they don’t, checking out the tanned faces bent over glowing netbooks in the shade of the main courtyard. (So many netbooks.) I inferred that a lot of hostelers were using the cushion of Isla and PocNa to recover from more strenuous travels, maybe staying on longer than they’d planned at a place with good wi-fi and a little night life. In 1995, still pretty fresh from the pristine beaches of Ko Chang, each of which could only be reached by boat, none of which featured accommodation other than thatched huts, Isla Mujeres felt urban to me, and almost unbearably commercial. I had never seen yachts and pleasure craft docked near a pier, and I had never had to pass by so many hulking hotels to get to a guesthouse.
But there were recognizable sorts at the hostel, and I quickly made the recognizable alliances, and with them I ended up smoking pot and traversing the more local side of the island for late-night conch and cheap snorkeling. Having found the bookshelf for freebies and slipped Currency among the offered titles—with the endless stream of wi-fi and the portable screens, how many fewer books do travelers read?—I headed back to the street, and I took great pleasure in standing in the entryway remembering the humiliation of having to be rescued from a communication problem at check-out by a know-it-all who’d annoyed me on these jaunts and who spoke Spanish. Mmmmmm nostalgia. I’m hooked on it. The then-and-now simultaneity is sometimes so physical it gives me vertigo, and I put my hand on the cement wall to steady myself. Meanwhile, Mark was waiting in the golf cart outside, dealing with the squabbling kids so I could have my moment. It was on the same island two years ago that he helped me come up for the name of this blog, The Next Youth Hostel. Get it? The journey, the journey. Still on it, in our way.
I haven’t been updating this blog much because my world keeps turning. Currency‘s been out over a year, so I’m not promoting it. I never intended the blog as a place to give personal updates, but to the extent that I did, now I use Facebook more than ever. And when I feel the call to write an essay, I write for The Nervous Breakdown because I love the community there, not to mention the eyeballs. I’ve posted essays about the my mom being on Facebook, the gang rape of the eleven-year-old girl, my reaction to the proposed opening of a breastaurant in my bucolic town, and my challenges with time.
I am quite time-challenged. I’m working on a new project—a memoirish type exploration that I’m vexed by and drawn toward—and every day I feel its hungry rumble for hours I don’t have. A fair number of those I need just to sit chin in hand and stare off into the past. What can I say? Pondering formative experiences is so attractive to me. This time the setting is closer to home. There’s a lot about sex and childhood and gender issues, those perennial favorites.
Posted on October 3, 2010
This past Thursday, at the invitation of SheWrites co-creator Deborah Siegel, I appeared at Women and Children First bookstore along with Teri Coyne, Audrey Niffenegger, Amina Gautier, and Emily Gray Tedrowe as part of a panel exploring modern-day heroines. I could diagram that sentence to show about twenty different sources of personal gratification: Women and Children First, where I spent many longing hours in the first years of my life in Chicago; SheWrites, a powerhouse site with an international membership; “at the invitation of,” which means I’m acknowledged as a real author by real authors, etcetera. (It seems a little uncool to be geeking out about my excitement, but one of the good things about publishing a novel in my forties after years of aspiring to it is that, although I have a lingering need to acknowledge my awareness of the uncoolness, I’m pretty genuinely OK with it.) To top it all off, the question the panel posed was Why Can’t Our Heroes Be Heroines?, a query that’s resonated with me for seemingly ever.
I swear on my advanced reader’s copy of Currency that ever since I was a kid, I have had a fierce wanderlust. And ever since I was a kid, I was a voracious reader. And ever since I was a kid, I’ve been looking for books about women and girls who were adventurous, who were traveling the world. Those books have been hard to find.
Thinking about what I wanted to say about heroines, I stumbled upon a dusty but distinct memory of standing in front of the biography section at my school’s library searching the spines and covers for a book with a female subject. It was the mid-1970s in Meadville, Pennsylvania, and I was in the third grade. We’d had a couple introductory visits to the library, but this was the first time that we could check out a book, and I was breathless and almost panicky with excitement. The librarian had probably lectured us on the import of this event for many minutes previous, exhorting us that the books we checked out were our responsibility, that’d we lose our privilege if we weren’t mature enough to care for them well. I’m sure I would have been sitting up ramrod straight through the whole speech, quivering with readiness to defend with my life any book I might choose. I was a good girl, at that point. I was passionate about following directions. If I recall, I had headed to the biographies at my mom’s suggestion, made on the eve of the big day.
But there I still was in the stacks, undecided and confused at feeling slightly let-down, when the librarian started urging us to make our choices because it was time to check-out. Not having found what I was looking for, my state of almost-panic crystallized into the pure form. When she urged us again, sternly–if we wanted to check out a book, we had to get in line NOW—I grabbed the only tome that looked like it had potential, a red cloth-bound hardback with a silk-screened silhouette on the cover in lieu of a title. The figure squinting off toward a distant shore had an undeniably masculine profile, yes, but the fancy hat and poufy costume allowed me to convince myself the person’s gender was indeterminate. Maybe I was holding a book about a strong-jawed, sea-faring lady.
The self-deception could only be maintained for a few minutes. Standing in line to get my book thumped, I turned to the title page and saw I had chosen a volume about William Penn. (In that author’s telling, not such an interesting character.) The next week, not giving up on biographies, I again followed my mom’s suggestion and told the librarian what I was looking for: something about a girl. She showed me the three biographies of women in the library’s collection: Betsy Ross, Florence Nightingale, and Molly Pitcher. That was it. In a few weeks, I read them all. Molly Pitcher was my favorite. She had fought like a man! But only in the stead of her husband.
I’m not saying that those of us who grew up in the 70s were devoid of female heroines. Women’s lib was affecting pop culture even if it wasn’t yet hitting my ill-funded elementary library. Girls like me had Sabrina in Charlie’s Angels. We had Princess Leia, who really kicked ass in that first Star Wars movie. And, obviously, like the legions before us and since, we had Jo, in Little Women. I must have read that book a dozen times, and every time I felt sick—throw up, take to my bed SICK—when Amy got to go to Europe instead of Jo. It was probably Little Women that put Travel to Europe up high on my list of life goals—I would avenge my heroine!—even as it introduced me to the non-fairy tale ending.
Of course, Jo wasn’t the sole plucky heroine in the children’s fiction section (at least at the public library; the elementary library really had a thin collection). There were other spunky girls in kids literature, too. Lucy, in the Narnia Chronicles, was the first one to walk through the wardrobe. Meg, in AWrinkle In Time, was the one to go rescue her brother. Laura Ingalls was anything but delicate or prissy. But when I was considering what books I might want to mention on the panel, I couldn’t recall finding many independent, self-defining, adventuresses as I moved into adult reading material around junior high. Maybe it’s because I spent a lot of time reading pulp: I was quite familiar with Jacqueline Susan’s oeuvre, for example. I was fascinated by a book called The Mating Dance that featured heaving bodices and S&M-tinged sex. On the other side of the spectrum, it was in high school that I began my life-long love affair with Edith Wharton, but, even if their clothes aren’t falling off at every turn, her characters are all caught in the prison of their gender. Wharton’s books helped me define my nascent feminism, but there was no one I wanted to emulate in those pages. Who I wanted to emulate were the characters in On the Road. That book blew my mind, and I spent hours feverishly underlining the same passages multitudes of other teenagers had feverishly underlined: “The only people for me are the mad ones!” When my father told his editor, Beth Hadas, that I was obsessed with Jack Kerouac, she sent him a book to give to me, Minor Characters, by Joyce Johnson. It was a memoir about the years Johnson spent as Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend during the height of the Beat period, and I was fascinated with it. It was another book that helped me articulate some things I’d only up to then sensed about gender, and probably the first book I read in a genre I’m fond of to this day, what I call “I’m with the band” books, including one by that title. But taken as I was with it, I didn’t want to be Joyce, on the margins, waiting at home. I wanted to be, well, on the road. I wrote in “hitch-hike across the country” under “travel around Europe” to my list of travel dreams.
Within just a few years after high school, I had accomplished both those things, but I had felt like I needed a guy to accompany me. It wasn’t until I escaped from that guy in Barcelona and met two different independent women on the way back to England that I began to think I didn’t need male protection, that I could travel by myself. Coincidentally, my friend Sari, was at almost that exact same moment traveling in Egypt alone, and I hung on her words about it when we were roommates that fall. So it was the real women who showed me that I could go to Asia all by myself. And I know that my experience inspired other women I’ve met to not wait around for a companion if they have an itch to move.
There are times now, as a middle-aged person who’s been supporting myself and my family for years and who checks in on a dozen blogs written by women who are independently traveling and working around the world, when concerns about female agency seem dated, at least when it comes to middle-class white Americans, but the SheWrites panel got me back in touch with a wider-lensed view. It also got me thinking again about Robin, the protagonist in Currency. She’s a flawed character who makes some really bad decisions. She does not ultimately triumph. But I admire her willingness to take herself far, to get herself out of Florida, to get herself out of a job that she hated, and all without using her sexuality. I deeply admire her willingness to be for Piv, when she can, the provider, to be the pilot that takes them both to the great beyond. She doesn’t take her place by the red-hot cannon only after her husband gets shot down. She’s out there fighting for herself, on her own behalf. Especially when I was sixteen, or twenty, or twenty-five, it would have meant a lot for me to find a book like the one I wrote.
Anyway, it was a pleasure, in preparing for the panel, to think back on my reading history, and it was a lovely synchronicity, after several days of wandering the dusty stacks in my mind, to hear Audrey Niffenegger read the short story upon which her new graphic novel, The Night Bookmobile, is based. It’s a lovely book that will resonate with anyone for whom reading has been important and for anyone who likes to wander dark streets by themselves.
Posted on September 19, 2010
As I wrote earlier, I’ve been loving me my yoga these days. A recent class with the theme of traveling particularly blissed me out. But— just in the nick of time—the following week’s theme pulled me from the brink of total submission and back toward the almost-angry-at-anything-smacking-of-new-age camp. It touched a nerve about American entitlement that relates to women’s safety issues as well as global inequities.
The theme that killed my buzz was coming into power. My teacher, Steve, was talking about filling the kidneys and relaxing the adrenal glands. Something about when the kidneys are full, the feet root, the thighs move back, the pelvis moves down, the stomach tucks, the fight or flight response is calmed and—ha!—personal power! Just try to knock down someone with full kidneys.
At first, I was totally going with this, working on floating my kidneys in plank pose. When Steve talked about how evil people can read a stance, and how they use this skill to prey on the weak and avoid the strong, the notion was crystal clear to me. I recognized it; I believe it, on some level. As a solo woman traveler, the confidence in this kind of attitudinal protection was part of my arsenal, as I discussed in this post. But I also know it doesn’t always work.
As I was sweating through long-held warrior poses, I recalled my relationship with the owner of the bar/restaurant where I was working as a waitress. He was a Persian man, an artist, who lived in a loft above the restaurant with his wife and two little kids. He liked hiring young women and leering at us, and his wit and thick accent made the leering more bearable than it might have been. He assigned me an identity, “the strong one.” His leering was more respectful. “You’re strong like a mountain,” he used to tell me. “Look at her profile. See the way she stands,” he would say to people at his table. “She is strong like a mountain. Don’t mess with her! heh heh heh.” I rolled my eyes, but if I had to be spoken of in the third person, this was what I wanted to hear. I had a mix of friendliness and haughtiness I wore at my service jobs designed to get tips and keep passes at bay, and I was getting ready for my trip to Asia. I wasn’t doing yoga at that time, but I was working out a lot, I was high on my growing independence. You betcha I was strong like a mountain! But in the end, that didn’t stop my boss from one night, drunk, reaching over the table where we sat with a small crowd and grabbing my tit, making a comment about wanting to see how juicy I was. I swatted his hand away. He laughed. Later, a male friend who’d been sitting there said he guessed I handled it well, but his voice suggested I could have done better.
I don’t recount this story because it was a major event or the notable violation of my person. Just, it came up for me in yoga class as Steve waxed more and more enthusiastically about the imperviousness to ill chance affected by coming into one’s power. So did other disconnects—personal experiences, things I’d heard of or seen. I wonder something: When a woman who has come into her power is violated, does her original sense of herself help her recover more quickly? How does our view of our own power affect the way we interpret what happens to us? That question implicitly runs through many of the discussions about solo women traveling and safety issues, like this one on Nomadic Chick about couch surfing.
Because drunken creeps don’t always go for the easy mark. And truly evil people? This is where the almost-anger comes in. Were the tens of thousands of women mass raped in Bosnia not filling their kidneys properly? Were the tens of thousands of Tutsis murdered in Rwanda—women and men and children and babies—perceived to have weak postures? Half the children in the world live in poverty, without access to education, medical care, or adequate nutrition. Many of the people in my yoga studio wear stretchy pants and strappy tops that that cost more money than a sizable percentage of the population earns in a month. That contrast has nothing to do with how effectively any of us are engaging our mula banda, and it’s far more likely to affect how susceptible we are to being preyed upon. I try not to always walk around under the weight of world poverty statistics—I’m sort of haunted by literary characters for whom this became almost dangerous, like the daughter in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral who ends up wearing a veil over her mouth so she doesn’t accidentally inhale any bugs and the woman in Hummingbird House who insists on living on a dollar a day as the world’s poorest do—but I’ve felt them as I continue thinking about the theme of that class. In a world view that believes posture and inner strength are the ultimate source of protection, the ultimate invitation of the divine, luck can be seen as earned and the lack of it a sort of a judgment, even when we pretend otherwise. Or am I missing something? Can anyone who’s really into yoga help me out here?
On a side note: Did you know that some Christians don’t believe yoga and Christianity are compatible? I guess it makes sense, from a fundamentalist perspective. Yoga is a spiritual practice. I actually thought some of the arguments on this point were pretty well-researched and edifying. But what worries me are arguments like this one, which rallies people to arms because an anti-Christian practice is being taught to children and used in schools.
Anyway: I’ve not pranayammed myself away from being a critical thinker yet, but I still love my yoga and think it can do many people a world of good. How dismaying if it becomes another grenade in the culture ways. Oi!
Posted on June 26, 2010
(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.
Posted on February 8, 2010
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.
Posted on January 18, 2010
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.
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.
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.