Fear and the Vagabond

The following is an excerpt from my journal, taken over one year ago after I had just arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

For me, fear is a necessary, even desirable part of traveling. I love to wake up with adrenaline tying my stomach in knots--it reminds me that I'm alive, that I'm learning. Without this fear my life becomes stagnant.

November 18, 2009

First night in Cambodia, in Phnom Penh, and I feel like crying. But by now I'm used to this feeling--it always happens on the first night of a big journey, but only when I've flown to a new place--something to do with the combination of a faraway place with jetlag with being alone. And besides, I only feel a little bit like crying and that is something of a victory and probably related to Elma, my Couchsurfing host. She picked me up from the airport in a black Lexus SUV, took me to what was essentially my own private apartment, then introduced me to her eight dogs and five cats, and to the city of Phnom Penh.

November 19, 2009

I spent the day on a borrowed bicycle, mixing it up with the swarm of motos on the right-hand side of the road, trying to avoid the big SUVs except when I used them as shields while I crossed a busy intersection. I didn't want to end up like the guy near the apartment who quite literally rode his bike into the siding of an SUV, leaving his front wheel smashed and misshapen and the car undamaged.

When I got back to the apartment, it was already dark. There I met Lulu, a fellow Couchsurfer from southern China. We introduced ourselves and we talked, or rather, she mainly talked. I realized that every time I meet a traveler and we share information about ourselves, it feels a bit (or so I imagine) like two insecure guys bragging about and comparing penis size. Like it's some kind of competition to see who is the more extreme traveler.

'Oh you've been on the road for ten months? I left home eleven months ago.' 'You hitchhike? Oh yes, I hitchhiked around Turkey and then around eastern Europe--alone!'

Why do I feel the need to convince people I am a 'real' traveler? What the hell does that even mean? In reality, I don't feel like an extreme traveler, or even an extreme person. I feel that the things I have done do not really match who I am, but I think they do match who I would like to be. I've learned that the people who do these seemingly extreme things (like hitchhike from Copenhagen to Syria or cycle around the world) do not need to be unlike me--they do not need to be brave every day or be completely unattached from all people. In fact they can often be scared and unsure and just take their travels one day at a time.

One day at a time; I can do that, truly I can. I just have to decide whether I want to or not.


Where did I sleep last night?

My traveling, my life, has a soundtrack and often particular songs are inextricably linked with certain places or memories. In line with this phenomenon, I'm starting a feature called (cheesily) melodies and memories.

When I started cycling through sparsely populated northeastern Cambodia without a tent or any camping equipment, I soon realized that I would need to think creatively about where to sleep each night. So every evening around 5:00 p.m. as the sky started to darken, I kept watch for the next house and would pantomime to the owner my desire for a place to sleep. I often slept on the floor (naturally):

but the strangest place I slept was on a family's dining table as they didn't have enough floor space.

Because I never knew where I would sleep each night, and because I had ten or eleven monotonous hours on the bicycle, I began singing, as if on continuous repeat, Nirvana's Where Did You Sleep Last Night, especially as dusk began to fall.


Vietnamese Noodle Soups

One of the delights of traveling anywhere in the world is sampling the cuisine. As a vegan, this delight occasionally turns into a challenge, albeit a delicious and surmountable one. Vietnam, with its tradition of vegetarian cuisine, was one of my favorite countries to eat in, and nothing got me geared up (snicker!) for a day of cycling like a bowl of noodle soup for breakfast.

Pho in Quy Nhon. Pho is the classic Vietnamese noodle soup. It's made from thick flat rice noodles, beef (or mock beef in my case), and is served with a heaping side plate of herbs, including basil, mint, lettuce, fish mint, and lime wedges.

Mien is made from clear cassava vermicelli noodles.

Bun from Quang Ngai. Bun is a rice vermicelli soup in an acidic, light broth. As you can see, it, like Pho, is served with a side plate of herbs which are then added to the hot soup. Some people only add a few leaves, but I preferred to scoop the whole plateful into my soup.

An exceptionally citrusy and refreshing bowl of Bun Hue from Hoi An. I first sampled noodle soups outside the tourist center of Hoi An in a small Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant which had more in common with a garage than a Western restaurant. For 10,000 VND, or about $0.50 USD, noodle soups made the perfect energizing brekkie for a long day of cycling.

The Hoi An specialty, Cao Lau. Features rustic, square wheat noodles and water from a specific well in Hoi An. The noodles are pleasingly toothsome and the soup is topped with crispy fried noodles as well as the usual (though always vendor-selected) range of fresh herbs.

My first bowl of Pho Bo! A perfectly balanced revelation. The broth is made hours ahead of time then kept on low heat the whole day, while the noodles are cooked to order. This makes the assembly truly fast, as flash-cooked noodles are carefully topped with a ladleful of broth, bits of meat (or faux meat), bean sprouts, and fresh herbs. Condiments like sugar, hot peppers in vinegar, crushed peppers, and sometimes MSG are placed on each table so every customer can customize and create his perfect bowl.

Father Christmas is Drunk Again!

In Bulgaria, the traditional Christmas Eve Feast is vegetarian and features only an odd number of dishes: seven, nine, eleven. When giving flowers, it is also crucial to only give an odd number of stems. Even numbers are reserved for the dead.

The women in Bulgaria are beautiful, if overly made up. They seem obsessed with shoes and you can often find them teetering through cobbled streets and even dancing in the mud in their stilettos. When walking down muddy streets, you can follow their tint indented tracks, which look like the impression made by a small walking stick.

Chocolates play an important social role, often in the breaking of bad news. In Bulgaria, if you take down a box of chocolates and offer one to a friend, that friend will likely ask you, with a pained, worried expression, what has happened. "Is everything all right?"

Last Christmas, in the nearest town, our Workaway hosts Lily and Yan observed the Christmas morning festivities in the town square. All the young children of the town gathered around in anticipation when the announcer appeared and told the children that Father Christmas was on his way, but "as usual, he is drunk on Rakia". Father Christmas then stumbled onto the stage just as a stray dog did the same. With his staff, FC chased after the dog, trying to beat it off the stage. he then addressed the children, telling them he had their gifts in his bag but that they shouldn't expect too much, what with the global crisis going on. He then handed out said gifts in bags plastered with mildly pornographic images of naked women. Merry Christmas! Vesela Koleda!


Inspiration, and a reintroduction.

I hate introductions almost as much as I hate goodbyes. For a traveler, the latter is filled with uncertainty (will I see this person again?) and the former is filled with tedium ("So where are you going next?"). So let's just skip the introductions and get right into the thick of things, shall we?

I once met a fellow traveler at a party and we played this game: we both had veto power over every question asked of us; we could pass on any question deemed too boring, too cliche, too repetitive. As I recall, we ended up discussing flip flops. But what a relief to not be asked, "Where are you from? What are your plans?"!

Thanks to Daniel and Tracy for inspiring me to pick this old blog up again, for giving me the confidence to introduce myself not just as a hobo, but as a hobo who writes. For as Daniel said to me the first night we met while volunteering on an organic farm in southern Turkey, a mechanic who stops working for a few months is still a mechanic; he would still fix his car should it break down. Just so, a writer who lays downs the figurative pen is still a writer. She stills sees the world, with its silliness and idiosyncrasies, through a writer's eyes.

This blog is for anyone who wishes he could look through my eyes, for anyone who is curious what the life of a vagabond is like. But mainly it's for me. A place for me to share thoughts, observations, recipes, experiences, philosophies, people, memories.


The adventure begins

Oh Lordy, could I be any cheesier?

Here's the story, told some six weeks later. I've polished it up a bit after multiple tellings and retellings. After the aforementioned punch in the gut, I wandered the streets of Phnom Penh. Should I go to Vietnam or Laos? The question pestered me. If limes can be trusted, the answer was Laos. But limes might be fickle and Justin has good aim. Let me back up even further. "Laos or Vietnam?" I asked my friend, the imperturbable Justin. "Let's solve this in the only suitable manner," he replied (or, possibly, I'm fabricating this entire speech). "See those two pots hanging on the wall?" I did. "The left one is Vietnam; the right one is Laos. Whichever pot this lime hits," he picked up a lime from the lime basket on the table, "is the country you'll go to."

"Well, this sounds entirely reasonable," I responded.

"Thump," went the lime as it hit Laos.

Laos it was.

But days later, the question still nipped at me. And so I wandered the streets, unable to make even the most mundane decisions. I needed to flip a coin to decide where to eat lunch. Then, in one moment, everything changed. I walked past The Vicious Cycle, a bicycle shop near the riverside, and I thought (God, it's fucking tempting to add, completely unnecessarily and against all rules of style, "to myself" after those two words), Why not? I don't want to take the bus, but hitchhiking hasn't been working out. Why not cycle?

Once I made the choice, everything fell into place. It seemed the universe was smiling on my decision. For as I walked to the Russian Market the next day, dodging street sellers, refuse, and the near-constant chorus of "Moto madam?" and "Tuk tuk miss?", I passed a hole-in-the-wall bike repair shop with four used mountain bikes for sale. The owner, a former resident of Atlanta, Georgia, quoted me a reasonable price for the shiny white beauty with big front and rear shocks I was eying and he agreed to show me some basic repairs.

The next few days passed quickly, as I ducked around the city in a haphazard manner, collecting the gear I would need for my trip.

I decided I would cycle through northeastern Cambodia before crossing into Vietnam, but beyond that outline, my route was hazy, and I preferred it this way. No sense in making plans that would be changed anyways.

So, four days after purchasing my bicycle, I crossed the Mekong River and rolled out of Phnom Penh.


And now for something completely different...

Well, I've finally caved and joined the rest of the world. You see, I like to think of myself as a Luddite-by-choice. I don't use twitter and I know only the most basic applications of my electronic appliances. However, I've been traveling and veganing together for over a year now, and I for one, think the two are fascinating, especially when taken together.

And as it happens, I started this thing just in time for a major change in my traveling plans. I have yet to decide how explicit to be in this blog, but as no one yet knows of it perhaps I can let my imaginary readers in on my personal life. You see, there was this boy... A one-night stand in Istanbul turned into a few weeks of hitchhiking around Turkey together, parting with the possibility of traveling together again. Which we did, four months later across the world in SE Asia. I traveled to Thailand to see his blond head lying on a stretcher/bed in a crowded hospital and we spent a few brief weeks together before he decided he did not in fact want to travel with me. Fair enough. But still, ouch.

I felt I had been punched in the stomach. Suddenly, I went from knowing, roughly, my plans for the next month or more to being unsure of where to go and what to do the next day.

So I asked myself, what next? Surely the easiest thing would be to visit a fellow world traveler just one country over and hook up with him. But I couldn't shake the notion that this parting of ways was Nature's way of telling me to push myself. I had been too comfortable with the boy; traveling together was simply too easy. Maybe this was my chance to really push myself again, to feel adrenaline pumping through my veins yet again.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.

And so, faced with an easy option and one which made me feel as if a hand had reached inside me and was gripping my lower intestines, I chose fear over comfort.