Tharp On: Travel
I came to Korea to savor Asia and see more of the world, and I must say that I’ve succeeded marvelously, though what began as a benign passion has now raged into a full-blown addiction. I’m hooked. I got the travel Jones real bad. It consumes me, coursing through my veins like hot whisky. I am compelled to throw wads of cash at airline tickets with every extended break that comes my way. And during the static periods—those times when I’m not traveling—there is but one thought reverberating through my big head: Where am I gonna go next?
Why is this? Why do I want to see so much? Why do I need so badly to go somewhere else? Is it just the concentrated fun? The utter lack of responsibility? After all, who doesn’t like not having to go to work every day? Who doesn’t enjoy long meals every night and the thought of going to a brand new place the next morning? Traveling is a privilege, a luxury of the highest order that sometimes borders on the obscene. It’s often done in countries where the people are so destitute that, for most, it’s not even on the menu. I recall once floating down an emerald river on an inner tube while locals waded in the shallows, picking weeds for dinner. This is a gulf, I thought, and was grateful to be on the good side, though I couldn’t help feeling a sticky sense of shame take hold in my gut. I realized then and there that I was a very lucky, pampered ass.
Like many expats in this part of the world, I often head down to Southeast Asia. It’s hot, cheap, and fantastically beautiful. I love the languid rhythms of the region. I love tromping through the jungle, swimming beneath waterfalls, buzzing through back road villages on 100cc motorbikes, and the bliss of an ice-cold beer after a day in the withering heat. Going there is always a thrill; life goes on at a natural pace in such places. There’s something about visiting these countries that feels genuine.
I’m not the only one who feels this way, of course. Strap on a backpack and hit the circuit, and you will find many kindred travelers. Many of these folks are among the best that their respective countries have to offer—genuinely kind people who have ventured outside of their borders to connect with others. This doesn’t apply to everyone, however. Southeast Asia is a known haven for miscreants and scumbags. One visit to Phnom Phen or Pattaya is enough to drive this point home. You don’t have to look too far to see troggy old dudes with distended guts wandering hand in hand with scandalously young girls. It’s a pervert’s paradise. And there’s also another breed of traveler, that brand of vagabond with superior dreadlocks and a sheen of smugness, who, despite the trappings of broad-mindedness, never fails to chafe my sack:
“Yeah, man. I went to Cambodia in ’92, before it was ‘cool.’ People walked down the streets with rocket launchers. You could buy land mines at the bar. It was real then. Now it’s overrun with yahoos. I wouldn’t even bother going. Cambodia sold out a long time ago. Did you see that guy with the melted face and two stumps for arms begging outside of the S-21 prison museum? I know for a fact that he has a business manager.”
I was once hanging out with some backpackers on a river island in southern Laos. When I told them that I was just out for one month, one of them—a hulking Swiss girl—rolled her eyes and chimed in:
“Ja. Ven you are just going for one month, you are a tourist; Ven you do it for nine you are a traveler” (points to herself). Let me tell you now that I fantasized throwing her chocolate-eating, clock-making, neutral, Holocaust-gold hoarding ass into the Mekong for the next five torturous days. I have never understood this sense of one-upmanship — this need to prove superiority — that is more prevalent among the backpacker set than heat rash or scabies.
Growing up, I remember often hearing about the Ugly American, but I have yet to see a lot of that guy in Southeast Asia. Instead, it’s more often the Europeans who act like jackasses. I’ve been castigated by Scandinavians for paying twenty cents too much for sunglasses; I’ve witnessed fiery Spaniards wage war over an apparent overcharge on a seven dollar guesthouse bill; once, in Vietnam, I saw an emaciated, chain-smoking Frenchman hurl his plate at the terrified waitress, shouting:
“I have waited ONE HOUR for zis SHIT food!!!”
But it’s all part of the gig, right? Traveling shouldn’t be easy all the time. Sometimes you’ll get ripped off. Sometimes you’ll get lost. Sometimes you’ll crap your pants on a fourteen hour bus ride over a hellishly rough road. Sometimes you’ll meet an incredibly rude couple from Belgium who blame you personally for the Second Gulf War, but when balanced against the good things—against the thrill, against the wonder, against the pure joy of exploring this amazing world—it’s very, very worth it.
So throw on your pack, grab your passport and get out there, while we still have a world to see.
Chris Tharp’s upcoming book, “Dispatches from the Peninsula: Six Years in South Korea,” will be available on Signal 8 Press later this year.
You can also check out his blog Homely Planet.