“What a life” was something we’d say when there didn’t seem like anything else to say.
The first time I thought this phrase the way I’d think it for the next few months, I was sitting across from a Thai cowboy. He wasn’t a real cowboy though he wore the hat. Cowboy is the name of his bar.
He sat with his wife, sipping and constantly refilling a glass of whiskey and soda, his wife sometimes going for more ice.
He left home at a young age and found work as a chef for the U.S.army, where he’d learned to speak English and cook western. Decades later, he opened a bar tucked into one of those smaller passageways that fit into the streets of Chang Mai.
It wasn’t the travel or the family or the decades of stories that put a “What a life” under my breath. It was his daily schedule. He woke up, cooked for the kids, opened the bar, closed it when he was tired, got drunk in the in-between. He considered himself a content man.
What a life.
The only other person in there was an old friend of the Cowboy’s—English, old and bald, speaking nonsense. He’d come to the table where we were sitting, try to speak, and be shooed away by Cowboy who was having none of it. He cleaned furniture for a living, and even if the booze hadn’t done him in that night, the decades working with chemicals had mushed his mind. He visited Thailand a few months every year. He didn’t have anyone back home.
What a life. In a different way.
There’s a tendency to be shocked by what you see and also by what you don’t notice anymore. “What a life” was a recurring thought, a response to the incredulous. The kids on the beach who build a bracelet on your wrist on the spot? What a life. The tour guide who points out his house and, without skipping a beat, points out the adjacent killing field where his family died? What a life. The tuk-tuk drivers, men in as many industries as they have fingers—pimps, drug dealers, tour guides, drivers, police informants, whatever else might be paying at the moment; the motobike taxis, who take the tuk-tuk drivers’ ambitions and prop it on a suicidal weave through big city traffic; their counterparts on trishaws, motos, and cyclos. The bar girls, young and thin and glossed with make up, looking for sugar daddies. The old men, fat and pasty and tall, looking for Thai “wives”. The women dressed to find a john. The men dressed as the women. The guys they let screw them and then rob.
What a life.
The old man in the sleepy tourist attraction town in Myanmar whose job it is to unclog my friend’s toilet, whose age suggests he’s lived through not just Cyclone Nargis, the riots and shootings of his country’s recent history, the release and many arrests of Aung Sang Suu Kyi, but also the inception of his country, its partition from India, even World War 2, who walks into my friend’s room, bucket in hand, ready for shit duty, and smiles.
What a life.
The old toothless woman who distills rice moonshine out of a shack and sells it for 50 cents a bottle. The Lebanese painter who describes this jetset “as his life” and then tells me about places I saw as a child and will never go back to. The journalists dancing on the riverside, on a brief vacation laughing, dancing, tripping when a few days ago they were in Egypt when Egypt was ousting its president. Mr. Lao Lao’s son, serving the hard drink on the river, his entire body drawn on with magic marker and dancing around the dock as the water rises, intoxicated foreigners all around him. What a life.
The Mustache Brothers (deserving of a blog post of their own), resigned to house arrest, performing the same show every night, its host smiling on cue, looking tired and weary when the spotlight’s on his brothers, who spent seven years in work camps doing hard labor for telling jokes (“Do you think,” my friend asks later, “that they ever just get the urge to go outside and dig a ditch?”), and the people you see from your bus window as you leave building a new pagoda in a country that uses forced labor and believes that building pagodas can offset bad karma. What a fucking life (apparently to be reincarnated in).
The crap police informants you notice following you, and the better ones you don’t notice. The kids hawking cheap wares and making rational arguments in your language as to why you should buy. The girls learning to balance baskets on their heads by practicing with bricks. The makeshift family that doesn’t sell anything and lives in a shack and plays their music on the beach.
What a life.
There’s the foreigner at a random train station. A volunteer English teacher in small town Thailand, younger than me, who’s almost on his way out, who will next walk the Camino de Santiago and follow that up with Burning Man, who admits that while it’s awesome that he’s based the rest of his year around festivals, what’s seems most important, most exciting is doing things with the people in his life he’s been away from.
And let’s not forget the animals: the monkeys and birds in cages and chains, doing the dance so their owners get money and they get snacks; the stray dogs wandering in packs, begging, roaming the car parks, the sole thing you see against the moon on the streets at night, battling amongst each other for turf, for fun, for a stick; the horses—the poor horses—marching through the heat, carrying at least two fat foreigners and the driver, in some towns the main source of transport and no other way about it but miserable. “What does the horse get out of it?” my friend asks as it steers us towards a semi-famous ruins site. Maybe something at the end. Maybe some sweet, sweet hay.
Then again, as someone suggests after a day spent wandering a village and drinking a tea-whiskey concoction that’s supposed to make us tired and healthy, what about us? What about we who go from place to place without any particular reason, acclimated to the long bus rides, the winding roads, the stenches and bathrooms that will never see porcelain? A little thing I found out was that almost every foreigner I met going through Southeast Asia kept with them sleeping pills for the long bus rides. So much so that in conversation it stopped being a question and became more of an assumption, something you’d compare or share as the novelty of going somewhere else faded into the reality of a bumpy, disorienting ride.
There are people who live in countries of tremendous beauty who have never gone the 50 miles between their home and that incredible beach or mountain because they can’t afford to, and we do it in a single run and we tell them about it and ask questions, and they smile and at least act like they’re happy for us. We who go just because we can, spoiled for travel, eating and drinking whatever and whenever we want, jumping out of planes and onto buses, living lives that are equally strange and infinitely more charmed, doing nothing as people ask, incredulously, as if they don’t understand, if we’re actually just going until we run out of whatever, no phone, no travel insurance, no plan.
What a life.
But, of course, it can’t last, and a little later, I can’t help but ask my friend if, when he returns to the states, he’ll just get the urge to go off and take a 14 hour bus ride. Imagine him seeking out the shittest bathrooms and the worst bus seat and soaking in the smells of being sandwiched between someone throwing up into a bottle on one side and someone spitting betel nut out the window on the other, thinking contently before the sleeping pills kick in that this, indeed, is the life.