Sometimes I think I’m a solo traveler and other times I’m convinced I’m a roaming confessional. When people see me slurping noodles by myself, they are attracted to me like a guilty soul to a curtained booth. They spill their guts then board their next train with a clean conscious.
Take for instance, Travis the Fake ID courier. (It’s a fake name, too).
I met Travis on my the way to Chiang Mai. He’s a Hong Kong traveling with his arm candy, Athena. You know the type. She looks like an Avatar created for a music video with purple hair and a paper-doll figure, he just stepped out of a beer commercial.
Travis has the gig of a life time. He is paid to play with his cell phone. Honestly. A bona-fide professional Insta-grammer. He travels the world posting pictures of a trendy product in cool places. How did it happen? Travis travels a lot, takes photos a lot and bam! His personal Insta-gram account blew up with followers.
Travis lights cigarette after cigarette as we talk about what expats talk about, expat chat. Visas. Politics. Ticket prices. Consulate services. Embassy locations. Exchange rates. Where to stay in Bangkok. Where not to stay.
Slowly, the conversation moves to things expats don’t talk about. Things you can get in Bangkok but shouldn’t.
And I don’t mean STDs.
Travis whips out of his wallet.
“See this? It’s fake. You can get in one in a day in Bangkok or wait several weeks the legal way.” Travis tries to justify his purchase and flicks more ashes onto the ground. I take a look. The ID is professionally fake, not like the one I made in college, scratching out my birthdate with a bobby-pin. “I have one fake ID so good, even the barcode worked.”
Athena lights a cigarette and agrees.
I feel naive as Travis exposes to me a world I do not know. First, that you can get paid to play with your phone and then, there are expats who actually want to drive on this side of the world. I want to put my fingers in my ears but I keep on listening.
“I’m picking up more IDs for my friends. Spent most of our souvenir money.” He looks at Athena. “Sorry, babe.”
She rolls her eyes.
Why did Travis tell me this? So I can carry his guilt for him?
Next, I meet, Hulk, the Fugitive (his words, not mine).
The next day I get up monk early. Monks clad in orange robes carrying silver pots are gathering alms from local shops. Me? I’m hunting for an open 7/11 to get some OJ. No one else is carousing the aisles except a young, blurry-eyed westerner. Hulk like built, bursting out of a T-shirt. As I get my juice, the door jingles and he leaves.
As I walk back to my hotel, I see Hulk’s cap in this hole-in-a-wall noodle shop. Well, I almost see him. The place is a health department nightmare. Egg cartons stacked to the ceiling, silver kettles toppling over, wilted bunches of chives on the table, the owner chopping a chicken, his wife scrambling eggs in a monster wok, while a cat brushes up to her legs.
As I decide if I want to test my intestinal tracks, Hulk sees me then waves me in. “Come join me.”
“Is it safe?”
“Eat here all the time.”
He holds out his hand, “Hulk.”
I order Pad Thai, scoot over a plastic stool, causing the cat to scramble.
“So why are you up so early?” I ask.
As Hulk chases pork bones around in his broth, he spills his heart.
“I just left my wife. I found her in bed with a German. In a bed that I bought, in a house that I built.” His eyes are glossy. No sleep, too many tears, too many beers.
A pit forms in my stomach, knowing all too well the pain and isolation of being in a marriage that’s imploding. “Sorry about that.”
Hulk takes off his hat. “When I found out, I beat him up pretty bad. I’m a kickboxer and gave him a few good blows in the face. My foot still hurts. Now the cops are looking for me. I’m a fugitive.”
I start slurping my noodles faster.
Hulk shares how he wants to work it out with his wife, feeling worse about the beating than the cheating. “It’s only sex and to be quite honest, I haven’t been faithful either. I mean, if I see a sexy girl,” devious dimples form on his cheeks. “What am I supposed to do?”
You’re definitely not supposed to get busy with her. I didn’t tell Hulk that. He’ll figure it out on his own. But then I ask myself, why did he tell me this?
Hulk screws his baseball cap back on his head and stands up. He tries to smile. “Thanks me for listening.”
Me: The Penitent
Remember the show with John Boy, Grandpa and Jim-Bob? Well, the Aussie-Waltons had gathered from different corners of the world for a holiday in Thailand. All redheads. All slathered with sunblock. All with reserve bunks on a night train. But for some reason, I got the bunk where Mary-Ellen should be.
The clan included a set of fraternal twins, one with a steel-wool beard, the other as clean-cut as Ward Clever. And a daughter. A son-in-law. His new wife. Their new baby which was passed around to bounce on all of their knees.
The parents, with deep-set laugh lines and leathery skin, were nestled up in the bunks across from me, just beamed. They had won the lottery. All of the hours they poured into their family had paid off. I wondered how they met. What Mr. Walton did for a living. Did they fight? If so, what about? Was he faithful or did he have another wife in Perth? Did they ever go to counseling? Did they ever need to? They looked like they had nothing to confess to me. Not at all. Not a darn thing.
This time, I had to confess. I coveted their marriage-or at least the marriage I imagined. I forgot how the curve balls in my life have turned into one amazing adventure.
Now, I’m Chiang Rai the city in Northern Thailand. It the name sounds familiar, it’s because it’s near where “the cave boys” were trapped this summer and saved by British divers. Don’t worry, I’m not going cave exploring. But if I meet their soccer coach, I’d like to hear what he has to say.
It’s the faces, not the places that make memories when traveling. Put down your selfie stick. Get a real picture of what’s around you instead.
Who have you met on your travels?