I often talk about how travel changes the mind. Travel is one of the best tools we have for radical self-development. That makes it a crucial spiritual practice, and excellent training for the Heroic Life.
But part of the reason for my own travels is to put my beliefs about the Heroic Life to the test. And the thing about testing is: sometimes it proves your hypothesis wrong.
So, now that I’m out there doing it, is travel changing my mind?
First of all, let me set the stage. I’ve left my home country and I’m living alone in Thailand. I am out of my comfort zone, as I’ve prescribed many times. I am here for one month, I don’t speak the language, and when I arrived I knew no one.
Home is 30 hours of plane rides and airports away.
When I arrived here, I spent 2 days looking at maybe 30 -50 rooms and apartments in Chiang Mai. I walked everywhere, thus learning the layout of (parts of) the city.
When I settled into my room above Phil’s Restaurant, I still drank bottled water. When I asked where to get water, my host asked if I drink the local water or not. After some research I found out that the water in Chiang Mai is safe to drink, so I nervously filled my water bottle at the tap and slugged it down. (Well… not that nervously. My bottle has a built-in charcoal filter.) No problem.
From there, the number of adjustments I’ve had to make has grown like a pubescent hippo. A few highlights:
- Thai toilets. Thai showers. I’ll let you do the googling on that.
- Getting around a city where the traffic never stops and there are no effective crosswalks.
- Rats. I’ve seen a few. I’ve heard a lot more. Garbage gets heaped up any old place in Chiang Mai, and at night the rats are on a mission.
- Cockroaches, my favorite of the various bugs that have been added to my life.
- The food. The food can be amazing, or scary. I’ve learned the right places to go.
- I thought I had dengue fever, but it probably wasn’t, maybe.
- There is next to zero greenery. This is city, Manhattan style, but less parks. (Grand total of parks: 1).
I could go on. There are so, so many differences from what I’m used to. Some are great, some are really bad, but when you aren’t used to them you tend to lump them into the “bad” category.
I actively fight that tendency. I didn’t want to get used to Thai showers. I looked everywhere for a place with a Western style bathroom. But I chose a compromise (Western toilet in a Thai style bathroom) and now I really love it. I’m happy to take my two showers a day in that weird little closet. It’s quick and so underwrought. People don’t get underwrought about enough things in America. Here, everything in underwrought.
I only wish it was a full traditional bathroom, so I could get used to a squat toilet, too.
I made a point of eating at a street market. I was careful what I chose, because bravery doesn’t defeat bacteria or parasites. But I sat down at this little counter in a warehouse full of vendors and had my noodle soup. It’s not meant for Pharang (foreigners); it’s not a cafe. The lady couldn’t speak enough English to take my order or tell me what anything was. There was no menu. We communicated with pointing and facial expressions. She stuck a spoon in my mouth to show me how spicy it was before she filled my bowl. She laughed at me sweating so I dumped more spice into the bowl and kept going. We were able to laugh and joke even though we couldn’t even say hello to each other.
I had horrible indigestion later, but it passed. Now I eat the street food quite often. I know which places are gross and which are good. I can pay 40 baht ($1.25) for a meal instead of 200 baht.
I cherish these experiences. They don’t always end well—getting lost and walking for three hours is not fun. But I still cherish it. It’s part of the challenge of being here.
So is meeting new people. British Phil, who owns the place where I stay, has the steady gaze of Professor Snape. Instead of “how are you” he asks “you okay?” which made me think I must look sick. Thai Phil, who works there, wants to know all about the gods of Europe and in exchange he tells me about the gods of Thailand. Dave Dean (the “drifting Kiwi”) met up for coffee with me. We’re going to the night bazaar later to make a video of how insane it is. And sometimes I just buy a drink for a random expat to hear a language I can understand.
Do these experiences change me? I have to say they do.
My squeamishness has been knocked down. Something has to be an honest to goodness danger to my health to make me squeamish now. A cockroach running across my foot or a giant spider dangling above the toilet are just scenery. My fortitude is building.
My awareness is up. I feel that tingle that straightens my spine and I intuitively side-step hazards. I stop before I walk into somewhere with rats in it. I see whether someone is going to accost me and I stop them before they do. At first I thought this added awareness was imaginary, but then I started my meditation retreat. Practices that used to be massive obstacles of distractions now fly by peacefully. My mind is primed.
My manners are better. I really value manners. I have a raunchy sense of humor but I believe in respecting people. Here, I am fucking courtly. I don’t want to be the blundering foreigner. Every morning I remind myself I am a priest of Lugh and then I go out and act like it. I step to the side to let older people have the sidewalk (and I go to the left, not the right. Figure it out America!). I know how to wai and when I should wai higher. I smile at people. I help people who need help. Not just white people. I just walk around trying to remember this is not my house and I don’t live here, and try to act accordingly. It seems to make a difference.
It’s hard living here. I love it. Every day I’m grateful that I took control of my life and made this possible. I could still be in a mortgage and a cubicle and drinking every night. Instead I’m here learning how to be a human being. I’m glad about that.