Night and Day: a two-part travel post.

Night is the Twilight Zone

When you are on a plane, in transit between cities or between countries, a funny thing happens. You also find your mind between places. It is not exactly occupied with the regular things you think about while heading to work, nor busy in contemplation of where you are going and the days or weeks to come. For me, the strangest thoughts drift through my mind – conversations from years ago, childhood memories almost forgotten… just as I am in-between places, so are my thoughts.

Flights, especially ones during the middle of the night, lend themselves to different experiences. You have never truly appreciated solitude until a stewardess has hawked luxury perfume to you at 2 am when all you want to do is close your eyes to oblivion, but sleep will not come. The alertness reminds you of other late nights, where there is no noble objective to be achieved, like a paper to be finished or someone to be taken care of, but simply to plod on and on until daylight. To simply endure.

Flights are boring. You are strapped to a snug seat, and asked to revert to your best behavior as a ten year-old (smile, follow directions, and do not ask questions). We are cattle, we are burden simply to be transported. The babies and small children have not yet learned that it does no good to cry about it, and if it did offer some small comfort from the cold and the boredom of this horrible stupor, we adults, too, would be howling.

My first acquaintance with air travel was in July of 1995. My parents and I were most momentously immigrating to the United States, and I was celebrating the occasion in the grand fashion of a six year-old by getting spectacularly airsick. I pleaded with my mother to go back, to make it stop, but we bore on, inexorably and interminably, to Japan, Detroit, and finally, Boston. Growing up, I considered all other flights merely transitory, having been hardened in the crucible of the transpacific flight. Watching the minute hand make a full rotation is, after all, only one-twelfth as daunting as waiting for the hour hand to make the same journey.

Not soon enough, I hope, we will land in Kuala Lumpur silently and in the dead of night, like bandits, and be ejected from the plane, a mass of travelers, blinking and sluggish like the vehicle we left. I can imagine breathing the cold and sterile air that is the hallmark of airports the world over, surrounded by bright fluorescence, steel, and concrete. If we are lucky (and we have not been lucky), there will be a twenty-four hour convenience store inside the airport that sells sweets or water, or perhaps even Internet access with which to restore a semblance of normalcy. Before long, the morning will arrive and sweep us onto another plane. To do it all over again.

Written en route from Taipei, Taiwan, to Chiang Mai, Thailand, by way of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. January 27. 

Daytime Erases Memories

This afternoon, we rolled through the sunny streets of Chiang Mai on a tuk-tuk, a small three-wheeled motorcycle conveyance with a leather bench in the back, surrounded by waving palm trees and banana trees.

In the sunshine, the nightmarish memories of last night looked incredibly far away, though I could still feel the bone-deep exhaustion. When we were actually shepherded out of the plane in Kuala Lumpur, we had yet the hope of snatching a few hours of sleep in the airport. However, that died a quick death when we stepped inside the International Transfers room and were confronted with a massive looming line of about a hundred and fifty people and one measly metal detector. It took us nearly an hour. When we got out, we found food that did not cost an arm and a leg as well as Internet, miracles of miracles. The airport was far too lively for 6 am, and we busily ate our bagel and fruit while researching the average fare from the Chiang Mai airport into town.

We slept like the dead on the flight from Kuala Lumpur into Chiang Mai. Once we found an ATM and a bank willing to give us some change, actually getting into town was a breeze,  inside an air-conditioned taxi that cost a lofty 120 B ($3.70 USD, at 32 Baht to the dollar). We arrived at our hostel in a mere ten minutes, left our shoes outside the front door with what looked like twenty-five other pairs, and entered the large, warm common area, filled with smiling Aussies enjoying breakfast and hashing over last night’s drunken exploits. Steve and I recovered slowly, making visa photocopies on the hostel printer for the Indian embassy and digesting toast and instant coffee. Before 11 am, we boarded a tuk-tuk to the Indian embassy on the east side of the city, our passports and applications in hand.

I felt so energized by the breeze and the fresh morning feel of the city as we passed through these new streets, excited to be on the road again and curiously amused to find myself making comparisons between Thailand and Taiwan, instead of Thailand and the States. The small, green bananas we also snacked on at the hostel tasted incredibly flavorful and sweet, and their taste lingered in my mouth, reminding me that this was an entirely different country where even the fruit tasted different. Our trip to the Indian embassy was mercifully uneventful, and we spent an hour and a half waiting our turn to prove that we were mild, self-sufficient travelers eager to pay our respects to the subcontinent, and in no way intended to work under the table, take up the cause of Kashmir or Pakistan, or otherwise become rabble rousers. Finally, we returned to the hostel on a red songthaew, the unofficial public buses or taxis of Thailand (and other places like the U.S. Virgin Islands), a pick-up truck outfitted with an awning and leather benches. I held hands with Steve, watching bits and pieces of the old city wall around Chiang Mai flash by, so glad to be done with this long twelve hour day that had begun with boarding a flight out of Taipei at 11:55 pm.

For lunch, we stopped at a Thai restaurant next to our hostel, where they served up a bowl of tom yum seafood noodles that I can only describe as a transcendent experience. Back at the hostel, Steve took a short nap while I stayed awake, reading a book, and we both finished the afternoon with a bag of potato chips and a Thai beer in the shady backyard of the hostel, where five hammocks are strung up under banana trees.

It’s too early to proclaim that this is paradise, but it is so truly different from Taiwan, where life was easy and interesting. I had a combined four hours of sleep last night, and yet, I can hardly wait to wake up tomorrow to see more.


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