Shopping

Healing the Sniffles in Bangkok: Day 194

A cold front came through my immune system, and I felt an incredible amount of "build-up" form in my throat and nose. Delicious. Throughout the bus ride from Phnom Penh to Bangkok, I attempted to sleep off the imminent sickness, knowing I wouldn't get to shut my eyes until at least 6 or 7am the following morning. Transit days…there's nothing like 'em.

It took a solid day, and a border crossing on foot, to make the overland jaunt to the Southeast Asian hub of economy, excitement, shopping, etcetera. I planned on finding a place to throw my bag for a couple hours and enjoying the backpacker alley known as Khao San Road to the best of my sickly ability.

The street was a pedestrian strip akin to a lively Spring Break destination or a modest Hong Kong/Las Vegas stretch. Overstimulation, indeed.

Thanks to some quick guide book perusal the night before, I knew where to eat if I wanted something authentic, albeit established. Sitting on the floor of Mama Something-or-Other's, I blew my nasal brains out while waiting for a hot bowl of broth and a cold lassi. The comfortable ambiance of sitting on floor cushions made me feel welcome enough to camp out here all night, updating blogs on the once-again functioning Blackberry and developing Christmas lists for family and friends, the items on which to be purchased on the streets below. I resisted the temptation to hang for a little adventure.

I had four or five hours to wander and roam, and so I committed massive chunks of time pushing through racks of locally made punk t-shirts, finding the perfect patch vendor and picking his brain for advice on taxi-to-airport scams, and indulging in a Thai massage.

For roughly $12, I received a wow-inducing foot rub and Thai body massage that nearly knocked me into a state of sub-consciousness. My head rolled to the side and jerked back up into reality while my feet received powerful knuckles of pressure release. Upon going upstairs to a communal quiet room for body cracking and loosening, my nose became a gushing falls during wet season. It was all I could do to avoid making a mess on the cushions or create a nasty nasal symphony in this place of meditation. I got by with a monster handful of napkins from my dinner joint.

I continued to wander well into the wee hours and kept my wits about me, often looking back to make sure no one was following me or going to peek out from a nook in the alley. However, I felt incredibly safe in this atmosphere, regardless of the lingering teens around hotels and bars, the constant police sweeps, and certain extra attention given to me by a healer on the street.

A man with a flashy belt buckle, a Robin Hood hat, a cut off slim t-shirt, and the tightest denim shorts I'd ever seen sat gawking at the passersby from his perch on a self-brought folding chair in the road. He was roughly 60, and his comments often involved the "F" word, some mentioning of an individual's energy or chi, and a loud cry guessing what embarrassing thing that person was off to do. I'd quote him now to give you an idea, but I think I was in shock of this crazy man.

He called to me as I passed by, telling me I should smile more and to come sit down by him for a while. He wants to talk to me, help me out…F this F that I don't want to take your money. Who do you think I am?

He seemed fun. I sat down.

As he continued to watch the people going about their nightly business, he discussed with me why he thought I was upset and full of acid (not acid the drug, mind you). Two liters of acid I had in me; that's what he said. He was a tantric healer, and since he had already made his day's pay, he would give me a cleansing for free. Only 45 minute.

Naturally, I was skeptical and shook my head "no" every time he offered.

Another woman walked by, a Croatian, who remembered this man from nights previous, heard his calls to her and came over. He began telling her all the things he remembered of her since she had come to Khao San Road. He'd seen her walking with friends, boys and girls, and asked about all things personal and shameful. After concluding that she had even more liters of acid than I had, the much more courageous woman allowed him to heal her there on the street. It was 2:45am.

I won't give you a play-by-play of his techniques, but the one that made me want to cry, scream, and vomit simultaneously needs to be mentioned. The tantric healer sealed his mouth over her nostrils and blew as hard as he could into her sinuses. Her face turned a purple beyond red. Her mouth open, she immediately began coughing up a storm and spitting beside her chair. I believe she even let him do it one more time.

For one brief moment, I sniffed up the build-up still in my nose and considered getting a quick purge from Mr. Chi here, but before that idea became a thought bubble he could possibly detect, I shivered at the thought and held tight to my "no" head shake.

His explanations of what was wrong with me went on, and I guess I like to think there's some mystical Eastern power that presides in the gifted few that make this their profession because I found myself almost believing him. I was not about to let him make out with my runny nose, though, or perform any number of the tricks that happen off the main thoroughfare in his "studio"; I left him to his work and went for noodles.

Bangkok was a quick excursion and one that instilled in me an intense longing to return to Thailand for at least months. There were beaches and mountains and jungles and alleyways to soak in. This country would be a quick escape I would plot in the back of my mind while working in a gray cubicle on the 10th floor of an art deco building in Somewhereville, USA.

That is…if I could survive the ride to the airport.

I used my recently obtained knowledge to get the right price on a cab to the airport, a newly-built facility that measures almost a kilometer in length. The driver asked if I wanted to take the city streets or the highway. I said, honestly, "Whatever's cheaper. I only have this much." I had the perfect amount that would account for a fair fare and a decent tip. He proceeded to book it on not just the highway but the roads leading to the on-ramp.

I kid you not, we were approaching stop lights going 80 mph.

Our top speed was around 100 mph on the highway. The speed limit was around 60, to accommodate the scattered waves in the pavement that sent my stomach into my bowels.

He traversed the straight, multi-lane highway like it was a winding road, making sure he wouldn't get behind a car crawling at speeds of 50 and 60 mph. This would have been the moment where you and your travel buddy exchange looks that say, "We may die tonight." Instead, I sat alone in the back middle seat, grasping my seat belt with white knuckles, and staring into the rear view mirror with saucer-like eyes.

This was the last night of my solo journey before boarding the flight that eventually took me to all sorts of home. Home with a layover to see familiar faces, home with a layover to reconnect with my bloodline, and home to my actual geographic region of birth. I was jones-ing for morsels of the familiar, but with such a homecoming comes the complete termination of my fantasy world no one from home knows about: my travels.

I accepted this sad reality, reluctantly, with heavy eyelids and a massive sigh into slumber, stretched across four seats on my flight to Tokyo.

Three Cups of Chai: Day 164

Mudi, a righteous dude

It was out of obligation that I boarded the planes and trains south again after Kashmir. Having already experienced the world of sticky, smelly, trash-ridden India last year in Chennai, I intended this trip to the Subcontinent to be dedicated to the mountains. And having already satiated that new dream to see monster peaks and smell thin, pure air, I left Srinagar to return to Delhi, which had miraculously become a habitable environment since my last visit. If you recall, upon my first day or two in the country, I jumped from restaurant to rooftop eatery for AC and air flow needs, avoiding the unbearable temperatures in conjunction with sky high humidity. This time, not just dusk brought peaceful climates, though the city still remained a feces-heaped jungle gym. After running from my taxi driver to avoid his supposed scams, I went immediately to revisit my Kashmir boys, all of whom by this time of evening had already abandoned their daily work duties to pursue the enjoyment that keeps them gleeful in a city that would rape even Barney of his pleasant demeanor. They all began to congregate at the travel agency of Ashika, ready to spend their daily earnings on drinks at the swanky bar across the street. When I rolled up, the boys and I spent a quick moment talking about my recent adventure and what my plans were from that moment on. They offered to help me find a better hostel than I was aiming towards, with my mind clenched on pinching pennies and staying in a $2 roach infestation, and eventually this help led to yet another invitation to stay at their abode for a few nights. I was grateful and prepared for more untainted Indian fun. I dropped my bags at the agency, and we took off on the main backpacker drag to get some chai and see Mudi, my friend-by-chance from the bread stand. Delhi and the Pahar Ganj area suddenly seemed unthreatening and downright welcoming. It felt like a home base where I had friends to come back to, all whom understood my humor and wanted me to feel comfortable. Sitting over chais, Mudi demanded that I visit his shop and purchase something special from his selection of top quality Kashmiri crafts. I had no intention of spending money post-wallet gouging trek through the mountains, but I humored him as, I guess, a thank you for all his help with my previous two weeks of travel.

Ashika sat in the corner texting until boredom sent him a-wandering, I leaned back on a pile of wall hangings, and Mudi employed himself and a friend to display the many works of woven art that stacked his walls with color. As if chai not only wakes you up and creates a friendly, social atmosphere, I suppose they believe it also lubricates the wheels of commerce, since he called in for two more rounds of the milky tea as I scratched my chin saying, "I don't need rugs, and I have NO ROOM in my darned backpack." A young boy arrived both times at the door with cone shaped cups filled with the muddy stimulant suspended in a wire contraption for doorstep delivery. Mudi refused to let this potential sale slip past him and was determined to send me away with something gorgeous and score himself a few rupees as well. As the floor quickly layered with piece after piece of handmade tapestries, I imagined all the numerous carpets and rugs that adorned the floors of my Indianapolis home, all bound for the Clark children when our parents downsized. Since I've come to enjoy bringing home bigger items than small, I said "nay" to the small trinkets and focused on the prize of an area rug for my future domicile. Realizing there were a few I liked, even one that "called to me," I began the timeless art of flexing my hidden haggling muscles.

After numerous markets in Europe, relentless salesmen in Africa, and the insistent beggars, poachers, hustlers, businessmen, and little children in India, I was, at this point, a champion negotiator. One of the many cultural differences between most of the world and America is this sport of haggling, where vendors take advantage of the language barrier or their sometimes cheaply-made yet memorable souvenirs to gouge tourists in an evasive attack of the stamina. Upon first coming to a foreign land, one can only assume they are completely ignorant to the mindset, customs, yadda yadda yadda…of that country; therefore, they don't engage in the verbal struggle for goods and money in efforts to not upset or be insensitive to whatever of that which they are unaware. Once said traveler becomes aware of the local scams, the daily rituals of the inhabitants, and the ways of commerce in those parts, it becomes a test of the travel skills, a "Do you have what it takes" challenge to prove your competence and adaptability as a global nomad.

By this time in my trip, I had said "no" to possibly hundreds of salespeople on most continents, and knowing how people respond to your rejection gives you the knowledge of how to get what you want for the bottom price. Yes, these people make their living on marginal profits every day, and the occasional traveler's first price cave-in can mean the world to a struggling vendor…but if I made the act of acquiescing to every dishonest sales attempt my charitable deed for the entire trip…I wouldn't have made it out of Europe with a positive debit balance. And yes, these people do this every day, especially those that line the tourist districts, and their expertise on price-gouging is often unmatched; but there's a level of respect that can be gained by these vendors toward tourists who have the resolve to be a part of the game.

"Mudi, I don't need rugs! I only want maybe one…that silk one is really nice." "Do you like the geometric designs better than the floral ones?," he said as he and his partner held up different motifs, making a pile of the rugs I didn't hate for a possible purchase. "But, guys, I don't need that huge size…I just- - -I like the darker florals, I guess." "What about this one…I know you like this…Ok, I'll put it to the side. How about this 6 x 9 foot one. This is the best price you can get anywhere in the world. My Dad made these rugs…no middle man here…you can even sell this when you get home…make a big profit! Maybe you should be an importer!" "Ha, I don’t know if that's my niche. How much for all these together?" "Three rugs and the wall hanging?," he taps on his chin and then the calculator. "No, not the wall hanging…I already have one." "You want this one, I know you do. It's too beautiful. You have to take it."

A round of "yes's" and "no's" resonate around the room. I prevail.

"Alright, this is the final price…for all three rugs, and if you get all three, including the big one, I'll take care of the shipping myself." "What if I don't want the big one?" "Then it will be much more expensive per item and shipping won't be included."

Some chatty minutes passed. Some silent minutes loomed. We struck a deal, and I crawled on my hands and knees on top of my new rugs, all piled on top of the tens of rugs I rejected. Mudi took care of the payment with my withered MasterCard at his friend's machine, as I enjoyed top quality fibers under my dirty body. Sitting there with a chai in stocking feet, I envisioned the room this rug would next occupy. I was making plans for a bedroom I had yet to find and a life that swirled in the abyss of time after this voyage's completion. Plans of the future were yet to be determined, and it was thrilling to know all my options hung on those that would or could encounter me abroad. Wherever those plans took me, though, I knew at the end of the night, I would end my evenings walking across the rug underneath me on the way to my future bed.

When the sale was wrapped, we reconvened with the boys at the bar, where Mudi revealed that he had lost some serious money in the deal he struck with me, unaware that shipping the personal parcel would cost a load. Part of me felt a little guilty, but I responded with an evil smile that he found amusing. After some beers and Indian appetizers, we piled our bodies and my backpacks onto a cycle rickshaw and traversed the main chowk (busy street) to reach their apartment. Time lapsed between our arrival and dinner time with the viewing of Indian game shows and what seemed like bad reality TV. It's everywhere; you can't escape it. The entire world is mesmerized by watching their fellow man embarrass themselves on TV. Ah, the global common denominator audience…it doesn’t take much to entertain us these days. Mudi presented us with a freshly prepared meal of rice, spiced chicken curry, and the additional green concoction that often appears on an Indian meal platter…ingredients or origin of the mixture unknown. Even though I chose to top my mound of rice with meatless curry sauce, the boys selected the choicest pieces of flesh and bone to throw on my plate. Hospitality was an innate sense for them that required no thought . My lips tingled from the chili and fingers were stained yellow from the rest of the florescent spices. I had a gorgeous night of sleep, finally out of tundra cold and harm's way, and after their insisted remarks, I vowed to stay one more day in Delhi before leaving on a train towards the big Taj and a, once again, lonely India.