What can you see from 20,000 feet in the air? Are you even looking? You’re head buried in that guidebook, worrying if you filled out your arrival card properly, or how you’re going to get from the airport to the hotel. On a plane I usually sleep, and most people hate me for that. I once landed somewhere and the flight attendant had to wake me up, feeling stupid, stumbling down the jet way, forgetting where I was…
No problem, this traveling thing, unless you’re packed on Air Asia, a flying bus, or traveling on one of those cut rate Indonesian airlines where the planes are known to fall from the sky for no apparent reason.
Paul Theroux said the best way to travel is overland, crossing boarders, real ones. Borders are always the same, a concrete house on one side, and men in green or khaki uniforms, and then a concrete house on the other side, with men in the same green or khaki uniforms. In between a no man’s land, where you actually feel you’re in a country of your own, a place you can’t really stay in very long…
That’s the beauty of it. You see the real comings and goings of people and commerce, something you won’t see from 20,000 feet up in the sky. You get to see ordinary people living real lives.
I always have a friendly chat with the Cambodian border guards, because I dress well, and I look like I know what I’m doing. Which seems suspicious to them.
They invite me in for a brief chat, because they assume (I guess) that i have nothing better to do.
“Where are you from?” “America,” I say in Khmer…“Oh, foreigner can speak Khmer, he, he, ha, ho, ho (lots of hardy laughter)…” “Have wife?” “No.” “Girlfriend?” “No.”
(Confusion, not mine, theirs—I never get confused)
“I come for work and to see friends…” “Oh, foreigner can speak Khmer, ho, ho, he, he, ha, ha, ha” (pause) “Excuse me, can you give us money for a few beers?” “No.”
(Laughter all around) “We’re only joking.” “I know…”
(This is to save face, theirs as well as mine, which is popular in Asia—Back in New York I would have told them to flip off)
Yes going overland is a beautiful thing. In Nepal I had a M-50 machine gun pointed at my car. In Vietnam a border guard made me dump all my stuff out on the table, looked through it, stole a pair or Rayban knockoffs, and then yelled at me for not packing fast enough. In Poipet, I paid five dollars for the front seat of a car. Little did I know that three other people paid the same five dollars for the same front seat. After two weeks in Laos, I crossed into Thailand and decided I deserved a real bed so I checked into a 4 star hotel. The woman at the front desk looked at me as to say, “Did you just roll around in the dirt as a joke? I don’t think it’s very funny.”
I got the room then had a beer. It’s a beautiful thing indeed.