Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bloody Knees and Immigration Fiascos in Thailand

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”  
-Randy Pausch

Barbed wire fences and scooters. Overstayed visas. Immigration penalties. Throwaway plane tickets. Stress. Doubt. Reevaluation of life direction. This is the untold story of the Thailand leg of our journey.

I guess it was bound to happen. Sooner or later, it was going to happen. Part of me doesn't want to admit it, and another part of me reminds myself that I live my life transparently; that's what makes this journey authentic and honest. Ten months, four countries later, I am finally travel worn. I find myself dreaming of a home, of a kitchen filled with healthy food, of a place I can call mine again, preferably with a fluffy animal running around and snuggling in my lap.

This feeling started on the train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I was looking out of the window, watching the deep shades of green blend together in a jungle smoothie. I was filled to the brim with gratitude and fulfillment. "This. Is what I can't not do. This is the most satisfying thing I've ever done in my life," I told Matt. He smiled at me and squeezed my hand. Thailand was the jewel of my eye; ancient golden temples nestled in mountainsides and great white Buddhas perched atop, looking down over the valleys and hills, protecting the life residing under a glorious afternoon sun.
But as dusk approached, a small quiet voice was whispering sweet nothings of cryptic unease and the familiar feeling that something was missing. Eighteen hours of traveling was surely the source of this discomfort so I merely shrugged it off as jet lag and exhaustion. I was smitten with Thailand, one of my biggest dreams was coming true, was true, in this very instant and it deserved all my immediate attention.

We arrived in Chiang Mai at 8pm and stepped off the train into a humid, warm summer night. I hadn't done any research about places to stay and had no idea where we were in relation to any guest houses but Matt wasn't worried. As we walked towards the station we fell into line with a group of backpackers and asked them if they knew of a guest house. Yes, in fact they did and we were welcome to share a cab with them.
We hopped into the covered bed of a fire engine red pick up truck, by far the coolest taxi I'd seen yet. He dropped us off at Chiang Mai Backpackers guest house, across from an impeccably manicured riverfront with big drooping trees and purple lotus flowers floating in the water. The streets were clean and orderly with a noticeable absence of stray dogs and garbage. It almost felt like we were in a western city again. We checked into the hostel and set out to find food. The hostel owner, a smiling, big bellied Thai man gave us directions to a street market full of Thai delicacies along with warnings of what not to eat (don't eat anything they didn't make right in front of you, stick to cooked food) and must-tries (mango sticky rice). His jovial personality gave me the feeling of being in someone's home: at ease and well taken care of.
Down the street to our left was the market, full of street vendors with multi colored umbrellas. With wide eyes and empty stomachs, we scoured the warehouse-sized market for the best of the best and loaded up on fried chicken, vegetable stir fry, coconut water, and mango juice. Feeling like a million bucks with our bank full from our Nepali paycheck, I felt like I was on vacation for the first time in months.

The next morning, we roamed around the day market which was now full of groceries and clothing while sipping 7/11 French vanilla coffees and bought organic soaps from a cute boutique shop. We had booked an 11 o'clock van ride north to the little town of Pai, where we planned to stay on an organic farm recommended by our friends from Sadhana Forest in India.
The three hour ride was full of twists and hairpin turns on a winding road up through the mountains. Between moments of nausea and jubilation, the ride was breathtaking and painful.
The driver dropped us off in front of the farm and we headed back into wilderness. I hadn't heard a peep from that pesky voice in days and had completely forgotten about it.
Our first ten days at the farm, we soaked in the serenity of natural living and meeting new people from all over the globe, bonding over cooking in the bare bones kitchen on the farm and learning how to make fire (much harder than it looks, trust me). We tilled rice fields and watered the garden, foraging in the evenings for dinner ingredients. We went into town with our new friends and had pad Thai and practiced tight rope walking at the circus school and performed in a circus show. We rented a scooter (don't ask me what happened, my knee is finally healed with a lovely scar) and rode elephants and tubed down the river in the rain with beers in our hands wearing ridiculous plastic ponchos over our bathing suits in the water. (Yes, I said plastic ponchos over bathing suits.)
Life on the farm was wonderful and peaceful and healing. The ghost of a desire long left behind began to haunt me in the quiet moments I found in solitude on the farm. I was fulfilled and engaged in living and grateful but something was...nagging at me, pulling on my conscience, quietly willing me to listen. I couldn't discern what it was saying and I grew restless, searching for meaning in the clouds and looking for signs.
It didn't dawn on me until after my American friend living in Bangkok left the farm. The five days she was there, we chattered nonstop until our throats were raw and our cheeks were sore from laughing. We'd both been desperately starved for a close female friend and the moment we met, it was love at first sight. We spent our evenings on the porch overlooking the rice paddies exchanging stories of our wild early twenties and things we wanted in the future. She told me of her kindergarten class, full of sweet Thai children who wore crazy colored socks and mimicked her Cali accent and told me her adventures in navigating the Bangkok public transit system and vacationing on her holidays. I fell in love with her life, wishing I could have a place that I called home but still having the freedom to explore other countries close to me.
In the wake of her absence from the farm, I finally heard the message loud and clear. I was tired of traveling. I didn't want to go home but I didn't want to keep moving. I wanted a home base, somewhere that I could work legally and settle my debts and clean up the mess I'd left at home and still travel.
To my utter relief, Matt was feeling the same way. He had mentioned going to Guam earlier that month and now he suggested we revisit that idea. He looked into schools and found a program he wanted to enroll in and started filing his VA paperwork. I started looking for furnished housing and jobs. This was it.
I began daydreaming of matching coffee mugs and color coordinated bath towels and linens and suddenly Guam became a white light of kitchen supplies and real adulthood, a place to call my own.
I have always been a believer in signs from the universe and wondered slightly if we were making the right decision. I still wasn't sure how we were going to manage to get there and wasn't even sure if we could afford it.
Right on time, a sign- or more like an obese lethargic cow squatted right in the middle of our roadway to Guam The Safe Haven and threw a gorilla-sized monkey wrench directly at our foreheads, ricocheting into the road and causing a four car pileup on top of our mangled corpses. *ahem* I digress... Back to the story.

I found out, much to my dismay, that we couldn't renew our visas like we had planned and had to leave the country. In six days. We had very little money, flights were stupid expensive, and I was PMSing. Holy hell. A storm of hot emotions, short tempers, and suppressed doubts erupted out of my giraffe-like body as quick as a flash flood in the desert.
After the dark clouds passed, I swallowed my pride and admitted we needed help and found the resources to get us halfway to Guam with a one way ticket to the Philippines and plans of buying our tickets to Guam after pay day on the first. We had a friend whose family had just moved back to Manila and said we could stay with them for two weeks. I was filled with relief and excited to be squeezing in one extra country before settling down in Guam.

We said goodbye to the farm and took an overnight bus to the airport. I watched the sun rise up over Bangkok from the bus window on the expressway, watching the twinkling lights of the city shimmer against the pink backdrop of a new day. We arrived early for our flight and were the second people to check in. The guy ahead of us was a backpacker and the attendant seemed to be giving him a hard time about something. I got a strange feeling and my palms started to sweat unexplainably.
We stepped up to the counter and another cow carcass of a road block fell through the airport skylight and rained down blood drops of confusion and panic. We needed an onward ticket out of the Philippines or we couldn't board the flight. We couldn't buy it online, we had to buy directly from an agent upstairs. The agent upstairs didn't open for another half hour and our flight was leaving in two. If we didn't board our flight, we faced overstaying our visas and paying hefty fines when we did eventually leave.
While we waited for the office to open, Matt got down to business and began problem solving. I cried. Hard. Like the floodgates to the Hoover dam opened up in my tear ducts and I bawled with no reservations about the gawking onlookers. I felt defeated for the first time on the trip. I just wanted to go HOME wherever that was, lay on my couch for a month and hide from all this awesome adventuring. On top of feeling defeated, I felt ashamed for feeling defeated when I'd made it so far and also felt ashamed for feeling disappointed in myself. The triple threat of sadness: shame, disappoint and defeat. This was the lowest of low for me, much lower than I felt after I got ran over in Nepal and spent all our money on x-rays.
I asked Matt,"Are we making the right decision? I feel like the universe is trying to tell us we are going the wrong way with all these obstacles."
To which he said, "Sometimes, all the universe is saying is 'try harder'."

After I was done feeling like the skid mark of the universe, we bought the cheapest tickets to ANYWHERE outside the Philippines for ANY date and hustled our booties downstairs to check in. We had one hour till take off and still had immigration to go through.
We ran from the check in counter through security to immigration and waited for twenty minutes in line to get our exit stamps. Our terminal was the furthest from immigration and we ran like wild banshees through the airport, my duffle bag whacking me in the butt at every step. It felt like a high-intensity movie scene and I was waiting for James Bond to appear behind us, running at top-speed.
We made it to the gate with a few minutes to spare and boarded the plane sucking in air, positive I had just ran my first mile in ages.
While I still maintain the stand that traveling is not a means for escaping your problems, watching Thailand disappear beneath a layer of fluffy white clouds felt like the closing of one chapter and the beginning of a new one. I was weepy and still sad during the flight but mostly preoccupied with my meal and movie and when we touched down in Manila, hope started to leak through the darkness.
We breezed through security (they didn't even ask to see the onward tickets we'd been forced into buying!!) and walked into one of the friendliest countries I've ever had the pleasure of visiting.

Looking back at our year in transit, I see my emotional journey as an archway: the beginning and ending of the voyage were rocky, full of worries and stress with the middle being the strongest and sturdiest, with little to no fear or doubt. Our time in Nepal I conquered many foes, emotional and physical alike, and felt the heartiest and bravest. But upon leaving, the actual act of moving began to wear on me and broke down some of the thickened skin that I'd just grown.
While I was in Thailand, I realized that what I set out to find in November had been found somewhere between the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Thailand, somewhere in the white capped Himalayan peaks and the depths of the Pai Valley. I'd accomplished and attained that inexplicable, elusive element that forced me out of a happy job in Carlsbad and out into the unknown. This thing, this entity, this bodiless creature that I felt obligated to explore, investigate and identify one year ago was finally decoded and realized in my tenth month of travel. I was ready to move forward, to change directions and start yet another new venture. I no longer felt I needed to prove to myself that I could make it abroad one year, no longer felt pushed forward by an evasive, unidentified force of nature. This realization set me free and allowed the room to accept that changing life direction is a necessary part of our own personal evolution and the pathway to growth and prosperity.
Being okay with changing direction and stating exactly what you want and then going after it is the only way to get what you honestly want out of life. Staying happy and fulfilled sometimes means letting go when goals and objectives have been achieved and creating a stimulating and challenging environment, pushing yourself past self-imposed limitations and blockages. Even when cow-carcass road blocks and immigration fiascos take you to your weakest moment, always remember that it's darkest before dawn and something truly magnificent could be waiting around the corner for you. Never give up.


  1. That was a great experience. Whew
    Glad we're out of.there.

  2. Finally got to catch up on your blog babe! Made me all teary and warm and fuzzy inside, and not just our torrid love affair :) Your writing is so raw and emotional, i love it. Also, it totally still amazes me how much we think alike!

    Our lifestyle is probably the most challenging kind out there and only super strong people can maintain it I think. Wouldn't it just be lovely if we could wander freely with money as no object, that would be the life! I love Matt's wisdom about the universe making you work harder for it. That really is the only way to think about it otherwise I wouldn't even make it through the day! You guys are amazing and you my dear, are such an inspiration!

    Can't believe you had to deal with all that BS to get there, but I hope it is worth it..... I am very jealous about your kitty! Seriously, will have to look into tickets to Guam. We are awesome women on our way to figuring shit out (or not, haha!)