It was something to see, the way the woman could get the horse to tiptoe like that. I had seen her before riding that horse bareback with just a halter. Heads held high on those two. I was walking towards three women who were standing in the middle of the road gabbing away, the horse and women sneaking closer to the back of one of the ladies. That cold wet nose her that warm bare back. She was a shirker that one. A scream of shock and surprise. Everyone on the street falling apart in laughter. That young woman sat proud and gay on that horse. Holding my gut in laughter, I made my way past and into the launderia. I was told the machine on the left was the working one. It took my five quarters, ran for a moment then stopped. The launderia was a concrete shelter of three walls open to the street. I pushed buttons, getting frustrated and ready to pull a Fonz on that baby when out of nowhere in breezes a women holding a kitchen knife. She sticks it between the buttons and gives it a good jiggle—the machine starts running again. She smiles and walks out. I lift the lid, it keeps running with it open but the water is just a trickle, “Man, I will be here all week at this rate.” At this point a man pops in and grabs this six-foot piece of two-inch PVC pipe that is laying under the sink. He sticks that into the open machine, takes the two hoses that are attached to the two faucets, sticks those in the end of the PVC pipe and turns on all the water. He laughs, pats me on the back and walks out. Now we are talking water. Man, I can relate to this kind of technology.
Other women arrive with overflowing laundry baskets. They place them on the floor to determine their place in line for the one working machine. A girl of two is put on top of one of the baskets. She looks some pleased for that cozy place to sit. The ladies are talking away and one would occasionally walk over and check the progress of my load. The fellow who had administered the PVC pipe is now out front in the middle of the road. He is wearing only spandex shorts and he is shadowboxing. The sweat rolls off his back throwing punches into the air. When he threw a hard right a lady on the porch across the street would snap her head like he had connected, humoring the old boy. My laundry finishes and when I am walking out of the launderia, one of the ladies is putting that PVC pipe back in the machine. Got to love it. Love Dave
You could see just by the way they were standing on the side of the road that they had been through it all. Well past the struggle of the divide between man and woman and into the balance of supporting each other with unconditional love. Their shrinking bodies so tiny compared to all the others on that crowded bus. In the tradition of Latin America, Clara and I gave up our seats to the old couple and stood in the aisle holding the bars hanging from the roof. Standing behind them, I took in the sight of their sound love. Two heads leaning in wearing the traditional hats of the indigenous, finely woven with wonderful patterns and so durable to withstand the blistering sun.
The bus rolled on down that dusty road. Music blasting the reedy sound of accordions and high-pitched male voices. The music competed with baby chicks chirping away from boxes in the laps of many of the women on board. The bus stopped along the way to drop off passengers and take on more. A mother of three little ones got on and made her way to the back, random people picking up the kids and putting them in their laps. An elderly woman grabbed with both hands the meaty flesh above the hips of the women standing before me and said in Spanish she was all women, then smacked her a few times on the bottom. She just smiled, bringing a giggle from the old gal.
We rode past the dry countryside of open fields skirted with big and broad trees with dried out leaves, occasionally filled with cattle and men on horseback accompanied by their dogs to help herd the cattle. Such a harsh environment to raise anything in. Only getting rain during the rainy season.
I was happy for the breeze from the open windows as the sweat ran down my back. Across from me a grandfather sat with his granddaughter, trying to get her to drink some juice, holding it to her tiny lips with tender love. Those dark shiny eyes of hers never left him. Going past homes of bamboo and grass, others of concrete block and metal roofs. A voice called out for the bus to stop and the old couple made their way off the bus, holding each other dearly as they walked out onto the road.
It seems like a blur when I first think back on it. People seemed to come and go so fast, but when I dig some and pin it down to more specifics so I can start to wrap my brain around the couch surfing season. Way back in late May I had my very first guests from Buenos Aires—a young couple traveling the States in a used van they bought in Boston. This is huge because it is extremely hard for South Americans to get visas into this country let alone be able to take six months to travel.
When they first walked into my home they said it was like a dream come true. Coming from the hustle of a city of fourteen million where the locals no longer feel safe, they could not believe I did not lock my doors. Security and personal safety does not occupy my brain, but it dominates theirs. But beyond that they wish to one day live off the grid as well. So there they sat at my table having come all that way from the tip of South America to the end of North America. They are classic Argentinians, bringing their mate with them and hugging to their culture as they explored mine—he with that strong mix of Italian and her with a little more French and German in her blood, looking very exotic here where she would just be normal back in Argentina.
I took them down to Popham Beach and that blew their socks off. All that beach and rolling surf and a wispy blue sky ground those weary city bones of theirs. So for three days I got to drink mate and wander with their thoughts on differences in culture and lifestyle. Their van was having problems so I took them down to Jimmas. They had the problem looked at back in Rhode Island, and the mechanic there wanted 240 dollars to replace the fan the belt. Jimma did it for fifty. Ah, how that local connection can help the traveler. They left here heading for Florida and after that, California.
Then another first happened. I had guests from the continent of Asia, Shadi from Iran traveling with her friend, Herve, from Brittany, France. She was here studying archeology at NYU. They had met while he was couch surfing in Iran. They both told me Iran has many, many hosts for couch surfers. They love and respect travelers because Iran has historically been a big trade route for Asia. Traders not only brought novelty stuff but also had wonderful stories to tell about the world outside of their own. Herve was going on about how incredible it was to travel there. So more conversations on culture and lifestyle—many differences on that one. The food, what and how it is prepared, is it processed or natural. The manner of dress, do you imbibe alcohol, coffee or tea? How families spend their Sundays and holidays. The dominance of religion in government and home. Enriching conversations. Rarely do we talk about who we are and what our culture is here. Let me ask you this right now—what is your culture? Got you. I dropped them off on the ramp to Route One in Bath so they could hitchhike to Boston. Shadi was planning on hitching to Alaska in September. Saying she hitchhikes all the time in Iran. Rarely do they drive there.
Then there was the quick lightning strike of three Canadians from Alberta. They came in fast and furious from having spent five days playing tourist in New York city while couch surfing in Hoboken. They would start out the day in the same cafe on the Jersey side trying to get as many people as possible to say “coffee”. They were a hoot. Animated in a Canadian way like Saturday Night Live used to animate Russians. Just too much. Kaylee, the ring leader of the group, asked more questions than a five-year-old. Very inquisitive and aware, she wanted to know everything. After the first hour of non-stop questions, she asked me, “What was the scariest thing you ever did?” I replied, “When I lost my virginity.” Well, that slowed her down for about a moment. I took them down to Percy’s for breakfast and Kaylee got a hold of one of the local lobstermen and questioned the shit out of him. Gave me a break. They left for Canada from there and I went home and enjoyed the silence.
There were more, some from England others from here in the states. Oceana from Australia showed up in a rented car with Casandra from NYC who had visited me two years ago. The first repeat surfer. They had met on the site bulletin board. Oceana had made plans to visit me months in advance. When she discussed her plans with Casandra to visit me in Maine, Casandra said, “Oh, I know that guy.” I have to say they moved through my house with grace and style, cooking vegan meals and cleaning up and showering without a hitch. Oceana had grown up in the outback of Australia with just candlelight in her bedroom, a composting toilet, bathing in rain water. No problema here. They got along famously. I have to say I enjoyed just sitting back and hearing their conversations. Oceana openly expressing her fears that when she turns fifty her husband may run off with a young twenty-year-old dish. Casandra replied, “Just go to Cuba. The men will love you. Age does not matter there.” She travels all over the world going to salsa gatherings and Cuba was one of them. The men loved her. I laughed so hard on that one, so much for being the silent observer.
The season ended with an Italian couple from Rome—Marfisa and her husband. They walked right in, put down their one shared suitcase and pulled out a very nice bottle of red wine from Italy that they had bought to share with me. Talk about bringing their culture. They loved sitting by the fire and being surrounded by a house made of wood and no concrete. Each separately asking, “But you do have another home?” A very enriching visit. So much passion in conversation. Marfisa raised her voice and brought her fingers together and waved them up and down when she was feeling strongly about something. Italy right here on Billygoat ridge.
This was the point at which I was going to go on about ethnic persona. You know, put it in a box kind of talk. But something happened to me the other day that changed my thinking. I was over at the Phippsburg Library having one of those days when I was struggling for a foothold. I was out at the front desk and down the stairs from the children’s room came a whole tribe of kids. A girl of about four was holding her brother’s hand. When she got a hold of my eye she gave me a smile from the depths of her soul that gave me a much needed footing and is still lingering strongly in my mind’s eye. She gave me that smile with everything she had for a long time. I took in as much of it as I could and walked out of that library in a much better place. So what I have to say is not about cultural persona but about giving the world your smile from the very bottom of your soul be you American, Italian, Iranian, Australian. Be a tourist in your own back yard. Explore every day like there are still many more mysteries to be uncovered. Love Dave.
She was staring with no shame right into my eyes. When I looked away she would squawk demanding my attention, insist that I stare back. Unblinking, she took in all she could, always winning the contest. Funny how social norms take away the wonder of looking into a stranger’s eyes trying for a peek into the soul. But there she was resting in her father’s arms looking over his shoulder, too young to know or care about such things as social norms. For a moment she let me forget all that, and I took in all I could of her soul, her spirit, which seemed so pure and honest. Beyond her and her father was the Mediterranean Sea with its blue green color and soft scent of salt, so different from the Atlantic. There is a narrow beach cut short by a bulkhead that supports a concrete pavilion that runs the length of the sea. On the weekdays it is light with pedestrians, but on the weekends it’s a river of flesh, some walking, others on bikes, roller blades, skateboards and scooters. Plenty to see and find something to laugh over. Almost like a circus, really.
When the child and father left, I took my leave as well. I went down to the beach and took off my boots and socks and walked along the breaking surf. Mmm, that water and wet sand felt so good. The sound of the crashing surf and distant laughter up on the pavilion. I still had the taste of olives in my mouth, fitting for the walk. When I got to the street for my hostel I walked up onto the pavilion and sat for a bit taking in what I could of the circus. The sound of Spanish and Catalan taking over the noise of the sea. At first I enjoyed watching the dogs running here and there trying not to miss a thing, sight or smell. The male dogs smelled where another had peed, growling then pissing back. Take that. Then the kids, most using wheels of some kind. The small ones sat and pushed with their legs.
Where I sat there was a winding concrete turn that went down to the beach. A boy of about four saw his opportunity for adventure and aimed his scooter down the hill. His father caught him just before he got up any speed for a taste of true freedom. He was not happy at all about it and wailed away. He kept trying to turn back and make the fun run, but his old man would have none of it. There was a girl of about ten on roller blades giving a go at the hill. She held onto the wall that went around the curve, learning with care. At times she would stop and stare over the wall at a girl of her age who was a true wonder on her roller blades. The girl peered over that wall with envy at those smooth moves. All the families happy to be together. It’s always interesting for me to see the cultural norm of touch. How much more touching than there is in the States. Brother and sister, sister and sister with arms round each other. So many couples holding hands then stopping and openly kissing. When you are greeted here it is with the cheek to cheek and smacking of the lips. Ahh, the differences, they make life.
I made my way back to the hostel. When I walked in I could hear the sound of sizzling from the kitchen, so in I went. The girls were in there speaking Irish. When I entered they talked to me in clear English, but when they talked with each other there was no understanding it.
“You cooking for the group?”
“No, just the two of us.”
“You’re kidding me. That is a lot of food.”
“Hey, we need the protein. We’ve been dancing all day.”
There was a group of students staying there that were mostly from the UK but some were from Spain and Germany. They were students of dance and theater attending the UNI. They had been there since September, and it was always interesting for me to hear what they were up to. For some it was their first time away from home. Since September they had gone from that distant group of people from different places and cultures to a close-knit family. So supportive of each other. I made salsa and shared that with the group as more came into the kitchen. Such random conversations, love it.
Some mornings I liked to sit outside this one café enjoying some coffee and Spanish tortilla. There were these ladies who sat at the tables close to the street holding court. Everyone seemed to greet them when they walked by. One man walking by said, “Hola Bonitas,” then blew them kisses. Other men came, one at a time, and sat with them for a bit, exchanging some laughs before heading on their way. What a hoot. There was a park across the street and some old boys were resting their life weary bones in the sun. I wondered what they were thinking about. Looking back on their lives? Or looking forward to the time they have left? For me my time in Spain had come to an end. Be home soon.
I saw her winding up with a bucket that was half her size. There was no way she would reach me. How wrong I was. The water hit me square in the face with such force it knocked my hat off. She had this tornado move where she spun around a few times before letting the water go. I could only laugh as I looked back from my perch in the moving Tuk Tuk and saw her waving in victory at having blessed a farang, foreigner, for SongKran, the Thai New Year. This special event is about paying respect to the elders and having water wars to wash off a year’s worth of stink and bring good luck for the New Year ahead. I was just coming into the small city of Nan, which was off the Penguin trial. I had yet to see any foreigners on my way to The Amazing Guest House. I was happy for this. The city was at war.
Everywhere you looked people where throwing water and wetting each other. Some stood in front of their homes or businesses, others huddled in the back of trucks loaded with fifty gallon drums full of water. They resupplied their buckets and made battle with other trucks or the folks on the street. The little tornado girl was my first blessing, but there were many more by the time I reached the guest house. I was happily soaked, feeling cool and quite blessed. I walked into The Amazing, which was a lovely homemade building of tropical hardwood, and was warmly greeted by Noong, the owner. She made me feel right at home and was graciousness for the whole four days I was there.
I was extremely tired from my travels by bus from Laos. Three bus rides over three days, the first being a 13-hour ride through the night for which I had to hold on the entire time to keep from being thrown out of my seat. The roads are rough in northern Laos. I slept hard, finding a new day and a nice garden to enjoy breakfast in. There was only one other couple there—Rita from London and Aaron from Australia. Both were living in Laos for the last year, he in forestry and she in public health. We talked for three hours through that long breakfast. I enjoyed their company for my entire visit in Nan. Rita had lived in Tanzania for four years, one of those on the island of Zanzabar, both places I had been to years ago. We had so much to talk and laugh about. Some really great conversations. We spent the afternoon down by the river where many locals were celebrating SongKran by eating and tubing. It was like we were celebrities, being the only Farangs there. Some of the teenagers wanted their pictures taken with us. We sat by the river and ate local food and drank some beers. So refreshing.
When we went back to the guest house, Noong was waiting to take us to Temple. There we were so welcomed by everybody. It was such a pleasure to be there. The service was brief with the monks doing some chanting. We then went to another building where chairs were put into a big circle for all the elders over seventy-five to sit. We went around the circle pouring water over each of the elders and giving them blessings for the new year. One particular woman was completely soaked. She had such a wonderful smile. I figured her to be one of the favorites. Such a beautiful ceremony.
After dark the three of us walked into town, it did not take long to find some fun. Ahead of us we could see many homes throwing water. “Ready to walk down the gauntlet,” Aaron said with laughter. Yes, please. Every house soaked us with water, then gave us a shot of Thai whiskey. Feeling very blessed, we moved on. We stayed at one house for over two hours, throwing water at the passing trucks, drinking and dancing in the streets. I was wearing sneakers and one of the Thai men had some fun by pointing at everyone else’s feet that had flip-flops and saying, “Thailand, Thailand,” then at my sneakers, “No Thailand.” We laughed and drank more whiskey on that one, dancing into the night.
From there I traveled to Bangkok, feeling good and lucky for the New Year ahead and just a day away from flying to Seattle. It has been many things, this first journey of mine to South East Asia. What I have to say in closing is the best thing we can give another person is a smile from the heart.