The Inflection Point of Travel

It often takes months, sometimes years, to attain the retrospective height from which one can gaze out to fully understand a chapter of their life. Many never summit such reflective peaks, and opt instead to plow stalwartly ahead along the course of their lives.

Either way, in the midst of these chapters, we’re too caught up to extract meaning in the grander scheme of things. We simply lack the wisdom and detachment that time affords us. We’re usually too busy enjoying them, or enduring them, clinging onto or navigating through them.

We lose our bearings while hacking through the thick bramble of stress, or when we find ourselves lost in the cold, confusing expanse of depression. We don’t contemplate greater mysteries while lounging idly below the sun soaked skies of prosperity, or bounding fearlessly along rolling green hills of success. Only after emerging from these periods can we truly see what lead us into our morasses, and what expelled us from our paradises.

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So the Fool abdicated his throne of dung. He banished himself to exile, served a sentence of love, sex, and devotion. Then he fell into a cozy black pit of vice for a probationary period.

When he finally reclaimed his wits, it was on a sultry night in Ho Chi Minh City. The Fool sat alone on a fourth story rooftop alongside discarded mattresses and hanging laundry. With a bitter joint pinched between his fingers he watched a bustling intersection below. And he wrestled a nagging malcontent.

Dazzling lights flashed below, music thrummed, the smell of exotic foods rose four stories high. The atmosphere was electrified, and beckoned like a Siren’s call. But the sweet potential of a young night failed to arouse the Fool. Something indefinable had changed in him.

A slight shift in consciousness had dampened a treasured, reliable spark. Thrills no longer held any flavor. Laughter and amusement and joy and pleasure no longer satisfied. The energy of the world, which had fueled his inexorable drive, his thirsty passion, was blocked by a kink in the Fool’s psyche. So he turned inward to reflect.

Four border crossings ago the Fool was trudging through the muck of contempt, chasing his own false expectations. The South of Thailand attracts more hedonists and sloths than gurus and shamans. The beaches are filled with myopic youths as shallow and tasteless as apple-skin.

Comfort was cringe-worthy because the Fool expected to confront a wild, untamed Asian civilization. Instead he met with ease. He sought esoteric insight, and found a beaten path drained of virtue. Fortunately he quickly escaped his ennui in Chiang Mai, shifted gears, and gathered with swine. He got down in the mud, and guzzled the decadent sludge with the best of them.

The party spilled over into Laos. All warmed up to the fun frivolity, the Fool spent three weeks smoking and drinking with various crowds. Ambling through caves on mild doses of shrooms. Laughing and charming, fucking and eating. Dancing on podiums casting spells like Mickey Mouse. And easing out of hangovers under marathons of Friends reruns.

He dove into the throng, slurped it all up. But ultimately he felt like a teenager in a bounce castle. It was good fun at first but the magic wore off pretty quickly. In the end he was just an idiot flopping around a bunch of kids.

So the Fool evacuated the expat bubble.  He escaped into the local side of Thai life. Rare is the privilege to experience a foreign country from a local’s perspective. The Fool found a Woman, and they rented a little love nest for the month far outside the backpacker bubble.

Their happiness struck a deeper chord than had the prior debauchery. It was more robust, full flavored, less fleeting. It wasn’t sustained by cigarettes or alcohol. It didn’t leave a grimy aftertaste.  It didn’t inflict mental or physical damage.

They indulged in each other. They feasted on bliss, drank deeply of love. They made each other happy for a time.  Then the great ticking clock of travel, the ever-present authority of departure, Visa expiration, swept the Fool along.

Is it possible to be sated on happiness? The Fool had consumed so much of it, and of so many different kinds, and from such a breadth of its spectrum. When a man is filled to bursting with fun, and then with love, where can his next path lead?

The Fool over-nighted to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a trash heap of a capital. The single most disgusting city he had ever visited. The brutal architecture of Soviet Union design glared down on fetid streets. The ground was coated black with the filth of a trillion motorbike farts spattered upon it daily. Trash was piled everywhere, rummaged through by destitute foragers. He stayed there for three weeks living a lifestyle as polluted as the city itself. It was perfect.

He was a nocturnal hermit who fraternized with cancerous, gollum-esque drifters. He ate Indian curry for breakfast and convenient store baked goods for dinner. He spent his waking hours in a casino playing cards with drunk Vietnamese men. He smoked a joint each sunrise before falling asleep to Cartoon Network reruns in a dingy, 5th floor, $7 hotel room. His birthday passed by silently, without notice, in this sleazy, isolated lifestyle. It was the ideal solitary balm to soothe and re-calibrate his keyed-up sensibilities.

Then finally the Fool crossed the border into Vietnam. He was able to rest his qualms. He forgave himself his swing into introversion. He allayed his fears of missing out on something. He held the conviction that he’d experienced all there was to find in that sweaty, murky craw of a South Vietnamese night. He sat on that rooftop content as Cortez, passively observing with amused detachment.

Then, the next morning, the Fool strapped all his belongings onto a big pile of junk on two wheels, straddled the mess himself, and drove out of Ho Chi Minh City. He drove into the purest freedom he’d ever experienced. All alone, with no plan, and total access behind one headlight.

The bike was the worst pile of parts imaginable. The Fool christened her Loosey because everything on her was at constant risk of falling off. The dim, dirty headlight was held on with rubber bands, turn signals dangled on duct tape. No dash; fuel gauge, speedometer, neutral indicator? Nope. Tires smooth as glass. Weak brakes. Weld scars on the gas tank. Loose chain. A crack on the engine block. No fourth gear, and a jerky first. It lost power in the rain, and topped out at 50 kilometers an hour. Nothing like redlining with an ass so sore it hurts while moving too slow to pass trucks reeking of pig piss. What a lemon. He rode it 2,000 glorious kilometers. It was a sublime experience. The Fool loved every agonizing, frustrating, supremely free, exhilarating minute of the journey.

Sometimes a place seems so great mostly as a consequence of the trajectory that our life happens to be on while we’re there.

Vietnam is of course a wonderful country in its own right. The food is delicious. Pho is a perfect dish; filling, healthy, quick, ubiquitous, local, and cheap. The people are great; everywhere as diverse as anywhere. Sometimes helpful and friendly and fun. Other times selfish and dishonest and dangerous. The scenery is beautiful; Nature does not play favorites.  Her beauty covers all countries.  Everywhere shares the virtues of food, people, culture, and Nature.

So what really set Vietnam apart for a man was the frame of mind that he was in.

The Fool had burned out on extroversion. He didn’t want to socialize. He didn’t want to be entertained. He didn’t want external stimulation. He didn’t want fun.

Vietnam became a stage across which he journeyed on motorbike. His life boiled down into a mere force of will confronting various obstacles. It wasn’t a great time burning to a crisp under the sweltering Southern sun. Or breaking down in a dark, deserted jungle. Or being battered by gusts of wind that lifted his tires and threatened to hurl him off the road. Or getting drenched under a downpour that flooded the engine every two kilometers.

It wasn’t amazing to suffer the piercing wales of passing buses. Or to ride through the pig piss wake of distant trucks. Or to navigate through sand storms that stung his eyes and removed his traction.

But the Fool had dined on such easy, sweet fare for so long that these hard, bitter roots were a welcome treat. They were experiences that added to the tragicomedy of his life. If his adventures in Thailand and Laos bore the fun flowers and pleasant fruit trees of the mind, then Vietnam counterbalanced those with vigorous conifers and affirming beeches.  These adversities have immense value, and are recollected with a wry smile.

Vietnam wouldn’t have been so memorable if it was more fun.

Thank you for reading.

-C

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