It’s pretty spectacular to be able to travel to the same place in your 20’s, your 30’s and your 40’s.
The first time I was in Thailand, I was in my mid-twenties. It was March and I had just finished working a trip for three months on the North Island of New Zealand, where I learned to teach 9 different novels simultaneously and also learned to run a river shuttle with a right-hand drive and a trailer stacked ten-deep with kayaks. Instead of flying round-trip back to the USA, my boyfriend-at-the-time and I requested one-way tickets from Auckland to Kathmandu, Nepal. Our next contract to work didn’t start until September, and so we figured we had a solid six months to wander around Asia and eventually figure out how to get back to the US.
After two months of trekking through the high Himalayas, we found ourselves back in Kathmandu in time for the early monsoon. The streets filled thigh-deep with muddy water and we watched as every rodent and insect in the city scrambled to higher ground. I remember slogging through the swirling, muddy water with pieces of trash and debris wrapping around my legs in the water. My pants felt like I had bags of sand in my pockets with the water tugging on the hems. We walked past a Thai Airways office and both looked at each other and shrugged. $100 and one-day later, we were in Bangkok.
We didn’t mean to spend four months in Thailand. We went rock climbing in Railay and got our Open Water scuba certificates in Ko Pha Ngan and partied on Ko San Road. With lodging and meals less than $15 a day, we couldn’t see any reason to move on. And, after my partner fell ill with Hepatitis A after eating an unfortunately prepared meal in Chiang Mai, the doctors told us that we needed to stay put for six weeks so he could recover. We checked into a place with air conditioning, and since neither of us had a place on the planet to call “home,” we stayed in Chiang Mai. I spent each day exploring the markets and temples, taking tours with travelers from around the globe, and writing emails home. When the months bled by and he returned to health, we finally bought one-way tickets to Seattle for $250 and left the Land of Smiles.
I returned to Thailand just shy of my thirtieth birthday with a group of about twenty of us – a handful of us were teachers and the rest of the group were students between 14 and 18 years old. I have since heard the imaginative stories of the trouble they got in to, but what I remember was the magic of Thailand on an unruly group of teenagers. The way we would scuba dive together – an even though everyone was stopped from talking because of the air valve in their mouths – they seemed to be laughing and screaming underwater, bouncing around like a pile of puppies through the turquoise sea. I remember climbing every day in Railay – waking up before dark to set the routes before the students awoke. I had a goal to lead a 5.10d before I left Railay called We Said. Our final day, there were groups of French climbers lined four-deep before the climb and it looked like I had lost my window. The next morning, one of my 17-year-old students woke me up at dawn and offered to belay for me before we left on our ferry. With ropes in our packs, we walked together and sat on the beach in the dark until the gray light before sunrise made it light enough to climb. I led the climb, and was forever touched by the unexpected generosity of one of many students who have become my friends. I remember so much about the five months I spent in Thailand, and I especially remember my mind-set. The decisions I made then were the decisions that effected my entire 30’s, but I didn’t know it until now. I could have turned in so many different directions. And, when I left Thailand then – I had no idea when, or if, I’d come back.
So, as I travel again in Thailand now, in my early 40’s with my two sons in tow, I am seeing the country through all of the lenses of my life. The carefree lens of my twenties, the earnest lens of my thirties, and the – dare I say – comparatively content lens of my forties. I can watch the backpackers vibe each other for the coolest place to grab a cold Singha and the eye of a pretty girl. I can witness the teachers armed with TEFL certificates and overwhelming Thai course loads who are looking for the right job and the right time. I can sympathize with the families with young children who are struggling to find a balance with their old identities and their new roles.
As a single mom, I’m pretty much my own category on the travel scene. But, it’s okay. I might feel differently about my current status if I hadn’t already had so many different versions of myself in this country. And, traveling with my boys is exactly where I’m supposed to be right now. Comparatively content.
And here, Thais call it like it is. There isn’t any subtlety or grace in the nicknames they give each other. The Thai woman that I’ve spoken with many times over dinner said it perfectly as she yelled across the open air restaurant last night, “Hey single mom! Thumbs up!”