Erawan National Park is a Tarzan-like jungle famous for waterfalls, challenging trails and spectacular swimming holes. Despite the longish bus ride and going it alone I decided to buy a ticket. But when I entered the hostel the affable front desk clerk announced, “Your friend from China here”.
Similar to the night before when she told me, “Your friend from Holland here,” I was confused. I don’t know anyone in China or Holland. It took me a while to realize that anyone who checked into the men’s dorm she referred to as my friend. Technically and grammatically she was a bit off, but her attitude was admirable. Eventually the Dutchman and I met in the community room. He was sitting with his red, sausage-like foot propped up on a pillow. An annoying flip-flop injury, a blister, had become a serious infection but thanks to antibiotics things were finally improving. Prior to his ER visit he toured the Death Railway Museum and was surprised to learn Dutch soldiers had become POWs in Kanchanaburi.
“They talked about Hitler and Germany in school,” he said. “But talked little about the war in the Pacific and said nothing about Dutch soldiers dying in Thailand.”
The conversation danced along. People tend to speak more freely to the strangers they meet at hostels. Especially if they’re traveling solo or are attempting to pull themselves out of an emotional sand trap. A broken heart or loss of a job has set many people a wandering and travel, like the rubbing of a sore elbow, dulls the pain and gives you space to heal.
Other times a road trip is a quest to answer, “Who am I and what should I do with my life?”
Of course there are many reasons to hit the road but over the years these themes keep reappearing, especially in the 20 to 40 age group.
My Dutch friend was in his mid-twenties. We talked about finding your life purpose and women. He recently ended a serious relationship because “it didn’t feel right” and found his banking career unfulfilling. A few days earlier he ditched his wingtips for life threatening flip-flops and landed in Bangkok without a return ticket. He wondered out loud if he’d ever find the right woman.
Usually I prefer listening to talking, but that night I became an old sage on romance. I have no expertise in romance, but nonetheless I rattled on like a precocious teen at a sleepover. I offered no advice, just mentioned how I found the right girl at the wrong time. My focus when we met was my studies, I made a vow to myself that a sweetheart would come after graduation. Ironically she appeared the day before classes started. I told the Dutchman how my future wife’s petit figure was oddly paired with a John Wayne-like saunter. I liked that she looked people in the eyes when she spoke and spoke only when she had something worthwhile to say. And she expected you to listen. I said how smitten I was with her dimples and that even before we were formally introduced my defenses were crumbling.
Of course I thought she was cute, I said. But what really caught my eye was how self assured she was. She was 32, had never been married and was working as a police officer in Virginia when she decided medicine would be more interesting and headed west. We met in Chicago and from that first date, a bicycle ride, she seemed to enjoy our time together. But she was fine being alone too. With other girlfriends I always felt a little smothered. Seven years after that bike ride we were married and after 34 years together she has yet to smother me, physically or emotionally. I’m lucky. How many guys have a wife that would let them travel to Asia with a oneway ticket and a vague agenda? I don’t know how I got that lucky, but I think it had something to do with patience and maturity… When I was twenty a Navy chief told me, ‘Don’t get married before you’re thirty’. That was good advice. I was 34.
Sometime after the bar across the street turned off its lights and locked its door we parked our tongues and headed to our bunks. I don’t know what effect my story had on the young Dutchman but it left me a little homesick.
Two days after the late night chat with my Dutch friend the Chinaman and I took the bus to the National Park. We hiked the Seven Waterfalls Trail, swam in turquoise pools where young fish nibbled on our bare feet and watched the water magically change to an herbal tea green as it cascaded down the mountain. That night my new friend showed me around the Kanchanaburi Night Market and introduced me to foods I would not have tried without his encouragement. In hindsight the Thai desk clerk was right. I did have friends in Holland and China, we just hadn’t met yet.