I am happy to report, that after 13 years since leaving for my first vagabonding trip abroad, still alive!
Today marks the 13th trip around the sun for my odd, travel-centered, low-paying, high-reward lifestyle of choice. I left the despair of my IBM cubicle in December 2005 then hit the road on January 23, 2006.
Doesn’t seem so long ago. But a whole helluva lot has transpired since that very first blog post back then.
(scroll to the bottom for an image of a much younger Greg with a few less scars)
I was scared when I touched down in the madness of Bangkok at midnight. But as we humans are good at doing, I learned and adapted. I survived, again and again, to share a few stories from the road. There were and still are many challenges, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Thank you for the many years of love and camaraderie. Hopefully, after exposure to this blog for over a decade, your eyeball injuries are few.
The vagabonding life is good.
Now…on to a story from my first trip to Bangkok.
There’s no real reason to explain why I lost my mind one sunny afternoon in Bangkok.
Maybe it was a vitamin deficiency, a fear of getting soft, or perhaps just a deep longing for something — anything — to happen. Sometimes us humans just feel a need to stir the pot, rattle the fence, cause trouble for trouble’s sake. I have no excuses, only shudders at the thought of what could have been.
One of Bangkok’s orange-vested motorbike taxi drivers was lounging against his bike, smoking a cigarette. He was a young man, but like many young drivers in Thailand, early wrinkles betrayed far too many hours of dodging death’s polluted tentacles in the madness that is Bangkok traffic.
I first spotted him while walking up a dirty street. A street, like any other in Bangkok, strewn with the urban filth of oil and crushed dreams. I was on a failing mission to walk aimlessly until the day became interesting. Why I chose this friendly young man in the faltering afternoon light, I still don’t know. Chaos often comes swiftly and unexpectedly in Bangkok, sometimes without clear reason. He looked surprised to actually have a customer.
“How fast can you get me to the train station?”
The driver pondered my question for a moment, glanced at the clogged intersection where a masked traffic cop was futilely trying to cull chaos into movement, then answered:
“30 minutes. Many traffic. 100 baht.”
I had clearly picked a man of action rather than words. Perfect. His price was the equivalent of around $2.50 back in 2006 — this was before people began using the dollar as toilet paper during the recession.
He braced for the typical show of disgust at the first price offered; a negotiation was expected to ensue. On the contrary, I actually thought the price was more than fair for the amount of stress I was about to drop on the two of us.
“I’ll pay you double if you can get me there in 10 minutes. Hell, make it five minutes.”
Now, technically, I didn’t lie to the young fellow. He could only assume that because I was in such a rush, there happened to be a train, diesel engine already rumbling with heartless horsepower, and one empty seat waiting to carry me somewhere important. But that wasn’t the case. Never mind the fact that I didn’t own one scrap of luggage, let alone a ticket.
The only ticket I held was for a completely unjustified, potentially wild ride into the toothy maw of a machine that spits out more traffic-related body bags than any other city in the world. An optional twirl with the prospect of bodily harm while attempting to squeeze through some of Bangkok’s most clogged arteries at high speed.
The driver’s half-finished cigarette bounced in a shower of orange sparks on the pavement. There was no need to verbally answer my dire offer. An expert kick from a flip-flopped foot sputtered our scooter to life — an indication the mission had been accepted. The one helmet present slid on to protect the driver’s brain; what little gray matter I owned was fair game to be soaked up by oily capital city concrete.
I was barely seated before a throttle twist sent us careening into a vortex of rush-hour traffic. Inertia tugged me backwards in a lurch and threatened to unseat me. Horns honked and worried faces flashed by in near-disaster swerves. We knocked knees with other motorbike drivers in a choked roundabout, narrowly missed a tuk-tuk, then without hesitation, the driver pointed our front tire at the sidewalk. Streets, particularly ones that are gridlocked, are for sissies.
With a bounce, we popped onto the sidewalk, which much like the streets, was filled to capacity. Loose tiles hiding the horrors of Bangkok’s sewers clanked and rattled beneath our weight. Our horn was never silent. A woman screeched out of the way, barely yanking her leashed yelper clear of our spinning dog-crushers. Business men fumbled mobile phones to dive for cover. The metallic fingers of a signpost brushed my protruding knee and arm at high speed; clearance had been perfectly calculated down to a split centimeter.
We turned a corner, passing several wide-eyed, plaid-skirted schoolgirls, and entered a rubbish-strewn alley. Even a three-legged dog scurried with tail tucked. All sentient beings made way for whatever crazed mission this misguided farang and his fearless driver were pursuing. Whatever the quest, it had to be important. For all they knew, we were on our way to save the world. But no one shouted or complained. No indecipherable Asian curses or obscene gestures followed in our wake. In true Thai fashion, people even began helping us by urging pedestrians and carts out of the way upon our approach.
My heart swelled with love for this unpredictable country.
To the driver’s credit, at no time did I feel more scared than exhilarated. And I would wager he felt the same — particularly when I caught a sly grin rather than a stressed grimace in one of our mirrors. In fact, the bastard was actually enjoying this. It was no longer about the money. Or even the mission, whatever that may be. In a blurred, fast-moving microcosm, we were experiencing the journey and shared a common dread of the destination. Arriving meant that this taste of sweet, fleeting, high-speed life would come to an end. The moment was what mattered most.
Getting to anywhere specific had become irrelevant and completely forgotten after our first three near-death encounters with head-on traffic. Instead, two human beings, complete strangers, were locked in an intentional struggle for survival. A dance with the dire forces of chance and physics. We shared a moment of sheer stupidity, a situation that could have been avoided by either party.
And we both loved every second.
With a screech of sticky rubber, we slammed to a stop at the front entrance of the train station. Unable to give away the thrill just yet, the driver revved the overheated engine with one bonus twist of his gloved right hand. At that moment, he was no longer just another faceless entity among Bangkok’s horde of drivers. No, this 20-something was a legend who had proven his mettle, his skill, and that he could indeed dance with the City of Angels and live to tell.
Like myself, he was very happy to have arrived with skeletal structure still intact.
My legs barely held me as I dismounted. With trembling hands, I paid the young man and gave a nice tip. Neither one of us pointed out that, technically, despite best intentions, he had taken exactly 15 minutes to get me to the station — which meant the agreed mission was failed. It didn’t matter. In fact, no words were spoken.
Before leaving, the driver — a stranger with whom I now felt a combat bond — gave only a helmeted nod and a crazed, burning look from two brown eyes that I’ll never forget.
It was the look of a man who is alive.