and Other Buddhist Truths
On my post Group Travel or Group Therapy two years ago, I shared my trepidations of “Group Travel” when I went on my inaugural group trip to Patagonia. I knew full well the vagaries of Patagonian weather so I was concerned mostly about a tight itinerary that would make me miss what I traveled so far to see. I was also nervous about being with a group of people for three weeks that “drained” me. In the end, my concerns were partly valid. If I were travelling independently, I would have seen what I wanted to see in better weather, but the people I travelled with were stellar, and despite significant geographic chasms, have maintained relationships and even met up with many of them since.
So … when my friend suggested we go to Thailand on a two-week excursion with the same outfit I thought … what could go wrong? Weather here in January is a non-factor, and if I’m with a group of jack-asses – at least I’m with my friend. A risk worth taking.
I’d always wanted to get to Thailand/Cambodia/Laos/Vietnam for lots of reasons. If food is a major criteria for your travels, then Thailand has got to be on your list. From home cooked meals, to street food, to restaurants – every mouthful was exquisite. I also found the Thai people to be exceptionally friendly and kind. Downtown Bangkok was as busy a place I’d ever been. Buses, trucks, cars, tuk-tuks, bikes and pedestrians competing for space on sidewalks and streets with lines on them that seemed to be nothing more than vague suggestions. No honking horns though. No one shaking their fist at anyone else. No accidents. No one cutting each other off. None of the road rage that would be seen at home with half the traffic. One of our travel mates who got there early shared the story of him leaving his iPhone in a Tuk-Tuk. When the driver realized it, he chased him until he found him walking on the street to return his phone. He hadn’t even realized he left it! He was stunned and speechless. Making an effort to take care of others (or not) emerged as a theme on this trip.
This particular itinerary had the right mix of adventure: biking (through Bangkok, Ayutthaya, and Kanchanaburi); hiking (north of Chiang Mai on a Hilltribe Trek); and then kayaking in the South near Krabi. The guides we had throughout each leg were awesome, especially Lop – our guide that was with us throughout the two weeks. They all taught us a lot about the culture and history of Thailand and Buddhism, in addition to serving us hand and foot 24/7. There are obvious benefits to “being taken” and “being taken care of” on a trip.
Nothing was going to take that experience away, even the group – which was regrettably much different from the Patagonia group. It didn’t take long at all for cliques to form and it also took me no time to figure out who I wanted to avoid and who to hang with, which were all of three people.
On our second evening, the group stayed on a houseboat. It was a beautiful warm evening as the hot sun was sinking behind the hills surrounding the lake. I went in for a swim to wash off the day’s sweat and grime. Hayley from Bermuda jumped in soon after and we struck up a conversation while wading in the cool water. It resumed after dinner and went late into the night. The conversation was easy. It went beyond the typical “where are you from?” “what do you do?” that you have with everybody when you first meet them. We could sit comfortably in silence, with our thoughts, without the need to yap incessantly. Your average Buddhist would tell you that to have a life worth living, you must go through suffering. Hayley had been to the dark side of the moon and had emerged from the other side, stronger and wiser. People who have learned hard lessons by tasting the bitter fruit of life, seem to have the most interesting stories to tell. I was somewhat relieved to have made such a nice connection early.
Micheal, an Irishman, took me a while longer to warm up to. He was the token “class clown” that needed to be the centre of attention. A simple guy that would give you a glassy-eyed look whenever you said a word that contained more than three syllables. He would often vocalize what I was thinking and despite my constant suggestions he use his “inside voice” more often, he said what he wanted and didn’t care who heard it. I grew to like him. Truth tellers who are brutally honest with others, seem to be equally considerate and thoughtful when they are in need. He literally lent a hand while crossing streams or climbing hills. He bought a cheap hammock for the beach part of our trip. Lots of us used it, but I never once saw him in it. He was the first (of many) in our group to catch a cold. Early in the trip, my own throat became “scratchy”. He asked me when he was making a stop at a pharmacy if I wanted lozenges but I was convinced it was more breathing big city smog in hot humid weather. He came back with lozenges for me anyway. He knew I had a cold before I did.
And then there was my friend Mark. This wasn’t our first rodeo. We had traveled to the Yukon together, Baja with our spouses, and numerous canoe expeditions. When I introduced myself to our group, I joked he was “my bitch” for the trip because somebody had to carry my bags. It took a few days before people concluded we weren’t a “couple”. It didn’t help I suppose when I admitted at our inaugural group meal that I had “eaten” testicles before – and that they were succulent. It was like no one even heard I was talking about a dish of “bull testicles” I once had in Buenos Aires. I was somewhat pleased with myself that I gave people something juicy to chirp about right away.
It’s inevitable that group dynamics play themselves out. Within two days the group fell into two basic camps – Group 1: the complainers and Group 2: the people who complained about the complainers. The fact is, the two groups were pretty much the same with the only exception being Group 2 loved to gossip about people in Group 1, were more self-righteous and obviously not really aware of the concept of “projection”. Psych 101: You spot it, you got it.
No question, Group 1 complaints were pretty rich … so please, allow me this small, yet necessary, cathartic rant.
Our group leader sucks, he’s so wishy washy. He can’t be specific. He’s vague for a reason you moron. He can’t tell exactly when we are going to get “there” – Thailand has this thing called traffic; there’s 16 of us with different biological needs. There’s 16 people with divergent expectations to manage. “Colder in the mountains” doesn’t mean he knows how cold you will feel. “Spicy” is subjective. Shit happens. Why do think he’s not being specific?
Why do we have to tip the drivers and guides, don’t they get paid by the company? This from the wife of a guy who was bragging the night before about the Porsche in his driveway. The young German doctor and the Swiss dentist readily agreeing, all happily whipping each other in a lather of complaints. Two weeks in Thailand – hotels, flights, ground transportation between all our destinations, and many meals all included for $2,000. And you pretentious, wealthy – even by Western standards – miserable SOBs are whingeing about a $1 optional tip for a driver or a guide that has fed you, cleaned up after you, has kept you safe, has educated you, and has patiently answered all your inane questions? Too much.
Where is the nearest KFC? What I’d do for a good burger! Wow! You have got to be flipping kidding me. You are in Thailand! A Whopper is a better alternative than authentic Thai food?! Gah! One day I might just have enough patience and compassion for the ignorant. Not on this day.
I’m not a beach person. This being said on perhaps the most spectacular beach I have ever been on in my life, on a hot sunny day, lying prostrate on the finest of fine white sand you will ever put between your toes, with dramatic rocky hills surrounding us and warm equatorial waters to fall into – and also, a solemn place where hundreds died in the 2004 tsunami. If you are not a “beach person” and can’t chill for a day, there’s a rock face over there to climb. With any luck, you’ll plummet to an unceremonious end.
“Just a pile of bricks” is how one imbecile described Ayutthaya, the jaw dropping ruins of the former capital of Siam. A site that some compare to one of the “Wonders of the World”, Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia. Really? Are you kidding me? Just a pile of bricks. Sigh.
“If I have to go in another temple … “ “It’s too hot …” “These mosquitos are killing me …” “It’s smoggy …” “This food is too spicy”…“I’m not shitting in THAT …” “The beds are too hard …” “The beds are too soft …
Travel is a privilege, not a right. You don’t deserve anything. If you want the comforts of home, stay at home! – Bruce Poon Tip, founder of G Adventures
“You were snoring last night.” This from my roommate – just about every morning.
On and on. It was constant. Now, I already said “if you spot it, you got it” so I have to concede that I had my own issues. We had a “homestay” as part of our Hilltribe Trek North of Chiang Mai, and we happened to arrive at their “New Year’s Eve”. Lop bought Chinese lanterns to lift into the night sky and fireworks were going off, which created a festive and memorable evening. The problem was, it didn’t end. Throw in barking dogs, crowing chickens, and pigs being slaughtered for the upcoming feast, and you might guess how much sleep I got that night. Not a wink. It didn’t help that I had only three hours sleep the night before as we had to get up at 3am to travel back to Bangkok for our flight to Chiang Mai. When we got to our private beach in the South, we were sleeping in tents (which I much prefer over cheap hotels) and our guides said they had mats for us to sleep on, so I didn’t pack mine. They were about as thick as paper towels. No sleep, added to no sleep. “Adventure” is an overused term. I like Yvon Chouinard’s (founder of Patagonia) defintion – “Adventure only happens when something goes wrong”. For me, things start to go wrong with sustained sleep deprivation. It was my biggest issue on this trip. And it led to much bigger ones.
Sleep deprivation makes you crazy. You forget things (like people’s names, where you are etc..), imagine irrational thoughts, make horrible choices and everything you are feeling is more intense. The anniversary of the death of my nephew was approaching at the end of this trip and I noticed the heaviness I usually feel on the day was profoundly more intense than it usually was. What Will Your Legacy Be?
Now, I know what you’re thinking dear reader – didn’t you say Mark was complaining about your snoring? Well the only way I can square that hole is when my heavily congested, and increasingly delusional head got to sleep, it would tend to snore
like a rutting moose when it finally reached the blissful state. I’ve slept with many rutting moose in tents, and it ain’t fun, so I can sympathize with Mark – but I couldn’t think of anything I could do to make it better, except get my own room. When I told him I was going to do that in Chiang Mai, he snapped back “don’t do that on my behalf”. Lucky for him (I guess) there was no more rooms available. Things going real smooth with my buddy on this trip.
My early connection with Hayley also dissipated as quickly as it came. Not-so-subtle gestures left me wondering (obsessively) about what social scrape I must have created to deserve this Karma. I was at a loss.
The Buddhist principle of Karma is the law that every cause has an effect. Our actions have results.
At one point, I checked in with her to ask her if we were OK. She said that we were and “you need to relax”. I had good reason not to believe her. Michael had earlier quipped “what did you say to Hayley”? and Mark had already confirmed my (reliable) intuition. He said that she thought I was “negative”. I could label her a bold-faced liar, but she was smart and I got it right away. It makes no sense to process relationships with anyone on a two-week vacation. But for days … I was with a group of people doing nothing but complain in paradise. And I’m negative?! Moi? I resemble that remark! Er, I mean … I resent that remark. Okay, maybe I resemble it too but … if withdrawing from a group that could not appreciate Nirvana when they are in it, you can call me whatever you want.
It’s not that I never slip over to the dark side by myself. Truth be told, I’m a bona fide curmudgeon. (Can you tell?). Though I do not possess the intelligence of a Christopher Hitchens or the humour of Jon Stewart, I do wear the badge honestly. My birthday is the day before National Curmudgeon’s Day! I’m “Grumps” to my granddaughter for god sake!
I also get that curmudgeons are not always great company. Who likes having reality thrown in your face when you’re working so hard on your sunny disposition. But I can tell you, we’re misunderstood as “negative”. If you’re not a writer … or a comedian, … or have some avenue to rant … or Bernie Sanders … the rest of us just shake our head at the blissful and willful ignorance of others, plug in our ear buds and try our best to steer clear. This is our simple coping mechanism to avoid throttling people, or creating other unpleasant scenes in public. Withdraw. The stereotypical reputation of being a “grumpy old man” that simply notices more because they live their lives with their eyes open, is too convenient for those that don’t have the courage to face reality once and a while, or break from conventional thought.
“The opposite of courage in our society is not cowardice, it is conformity.” – Rollo May
Though we don’t possess much tolerance for ignorance or lack of critical thinking, the god-honest truth is, we care. Perhaps, we care too much. We worry. There was truth in that “you need to relax” comment from wise Hayley, but the sorry fact is, curmudgeons have a tough time “relaxing”, especially with others. I’ve tried to “relax” or “meditate”, but my mind usually ends up being as noisy as a room full of kindergarten children. The only thing that makes me relax is my Repressitol prescription, and clearly I forgot to pack it on this trip.
I was certainly becoming irrationally obsessed with the emerging dynamics with my only “friends” on this trip. My much bigger obsession became why I cared? This is a two-week relationship, yet I was consumed by Hayley’s “negative” remark. Curmudgeons don’t work hard at being “popular”, and have disdain for those that do. We prefer being someone’s shot of whiskey, than everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t do groups well. I never did. In every group picture that I am in, you will spot me on the outside. Being on the outside is not an unfamiliar place, mostly because I often put myself there. The group may have wanted to vote me “off the island”, but the reality is, I voted myself off. It got to the point where I just could not speak to anyone. That uneasy feeling of loneliness, only comes to me when I’m in a crowd.
To be clear, Hayley’s sudden cold shoulder was not unlike what I was doing with everyone else. (You spot it, you got it). The difference though is the people I was avoiding, probably didn’t know I was making an effort to avoid them. The magic of not giving a fuck about people you want to avoid, usually works well enough when you’re not being openly unfriendly. Afterall, there were brief moments of one-on-one conversations with others that were nice. I didn’t make friends on this trip, that’s for certain – but I wasn’t being hostile or rude to anyone. I wasn’t recording people snore and having a laugh with others at their expense. I didn’t slander, tease or gossip about anyone behind their back, or snap at them to their face.
On the flight from Chiang Mai to Krabi I was sitting next to Dan and Susan, a 60+ year-old couple from California, married for 40 years and still openly affectionate with each other. It hit me then like a ton of Ayutthaya bricks – I missed my wife. One of the few people who understands, and more importantly, accepts me as the curmudgeon I am (well, most of the time). I started to feel a palpable envy given Ruth can no longer go on trips like this with me.
The uninvited gift of sleep deprivation created an emotional vulnerability, which was necessary for me to realize I needed to renew my faith in the 25 years of building a life together with the person that mattered most. All relationships have their ebbs and flows. In the last few years our “nest” emptied, I lost the business that I built for 14 years and was passionate about (InCourage), and serious issues with Ruth’s health have emerged. This I’ve come to know in my advanced years – turbulent waters will capsize your boat if both of you are not working hard at keeping it afloat. “Accepting things as they are” or “riding the waves” is passive and will have you in the drink in no time. Rather than blaming the wind (and other non-metaphorical things outside my control) for unwanted waves, hard paddling and the long-term focus on the shore has got me through most storms. I reckon Dan and Susan have figured this out but, I needed the reminder.
For too long, I’d been taking the easy way out by feeling sorry for myself for the impact Ruth’s health had on our lives. Playing victim is a breeze. It’s harder, and takes more work and courage to have compassion for the person who is the one suffering. If there is one word that encapsulates Buddhism for me, it is compassion. The first Noble Truth of Buddhism is that life is suffering, and that includes psychological suffering like loneliness, frustration, fear, disappointment and anger. The appropriate response is compassion for others (or self) – to give comfort, sympathy, and concern.
I learned much about Buddhism I did not know before. To begin with, it’s more a philosophy than a religion. It’s a practice to reflect and spread good karma, not a list of dogmatic rules to obey. Buddhism is developing the “middle path” of wisdom and compassion to seek truth. Your truth. Part of that wisdom can be attained when we better understand ourselves, and only then can we begin to understand others. In fact, unless you live in a vacuum, you can only understand yourself when it is in relation with others. Curmudgeons would prefer to forget we’re “Thai’d” with others all the time. My Noble Truth as a “negative” grumpy ol’ curmudgeon is that I’ve been only interested in the relationships that matter – not the superficial ones that people invest so much time and energy maintaining. The disdain Hayley and Mark had/has for me is not my issue. It’s theirs. Buddhism has taught me to continue to be friendly with them, reach out to them, and even support them. You are what you love, not what loves you. That’s a recipe for good Karma.
To be sure, I’m a “work-in-progress” and abundantly human. I am not reserved, I put myself out there, which has left me open to be judged and ridiculed. It has also created my share of social scrapes. I can be negative. From time to time, I have a spectacular ability to offend others. I am a recovering people pleaser. I don’t always know what’s going on, or even know what the hell I’m doing. Even at my “advanced” age, I still have plenty to learn about myself.
For me, travel has enabled my ongoing quest for “truth”, and Thailand was certainly no exception. I’ll get closer to complete enlightenment when I learn to have compassion for those that judge me and all the “the difficult people” that come in and out of my life. But really, I could start, and do better, with those I love.