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By Tom Holmes
Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
I was so absorbed in journal writing in the open air dining room at the Riverside Bar in Lampang, that at first I didn’t see the man who sat down two tables away from me. It was when I looked up to take a sip of my iced coffee that I noticed him.
He was a farang, a westerner like me, about forty years old. At first I didn’t even feel like saying hello. I was enjoying my solitude. But he looked pleasant enough, and I started to feel like I should at least acknowledge that he was there. I decided to make contact.
“Have you been in Lampang long?”
He looked up from reading his Lonely Planet guidebook and smiled. “Just got here yesterday—my wife and daughter and I. Leaving tomorrow. Not much to see in Lampang.”
“I know what you mean, although today the teak house and the Burmese style wat were interesting.”
“How long will you be here?”
“Arrived yesterday and will leave tomorrow.”
I asked him if this is the first time he had been in Lampang. He told me that he had travelled in Asia for a whole year before he was married, but hadn’t been in this part of the country before. He introduced himself as Mark from Great Britain and invited me to sit at his table. We began a conversation which lasted an hour and a half.
I felt attracted to him from the start. He had been divorced when he was 31 and felt a need to explore the world and learn from it, he said. He had cashed in his savings—around $15,000 U.S.—and had purchased a one way ticket to Beijing in 2000. He had no destination in mind back then. The journey was the destination.
He told me about his year of travelling alone in China, Nepal, Thailand and that he had met a woman in Cambodia who was now his wife. Along the way he would bump into people who would tell him about a place which sounded interesting, so using a lot of charade like hand motions, he would find a bus which he thought was heading in the right direction.
Often, because of the difficulty with communicating, he would never get to where he wanted to go, he said, so he would think, “OK. Here is where I am, so what can I experience here?” He said that he had learned a lot by getting lost.
In his travels, he had met a lot of nineteen year olds who had flown to beach towns like Pattaya in Thailand and spent their whole time drinking and patronizing sex workers, never getting out and seeing the rest of Thailand or Cambodia or whatever country they had gone to for their holiday. That naturally led into comments about how travel can open your mind, that is if your mind is open enough to venture out into a foreign culture.
Then, looking at his watch, he said, “I’d better get going. My wife will be waking up from her nap.”
After Mark left, I went back to my table and started writing furiously in my journal, trying to remember everything we had talked about and digest it. I suppose that from his point a view, what had just happened was two guys passing the time in a small town in Thailand by swapping travel stories. For me, what had happened went much deeper. This man whom I had never met and would never see again had given me a narrative I could live in.
The story he told me was in many ways my story as well as his. It felt like much of my life had been lived in a foreign country where I was constantly misunderstanding the directions, not picking up on the cues, being the one who “didn’t speak the language.” I had laid out big plans for where I wanted to go in my life’s journey but often wound up far from my intended destination.
Sometimes I had felt stupid, incompetent at traveling this journey called life. At other times I felt like the people giving me directions were either lying or making them up to hide the fact that they didn’t know how to get to where they wanted to go either.
Yet, time after time I, as my father would often say, fell into a pile of manure and came out smelling like a rose. When Mark said that some of the best experiences in his journey came out of the times he had been lost, I felt my heart leap for joy. Without realizing the gift he was giving me, he was telling me my story in a way that I had never heard it told before.
That’s the power a narrative can have. It doesn’t reveal truth in terms of concepts to be understood, and it doesn’t empower everyone all the time or in the same way when it does. Rather, a profound narrative creates a spiritual world in which hearers can actually live and thereby gain a kind of orientation which frees them to move forward on their journey of discovery.
I always had trouble understanding the Bible as a kind of religious trip tic in which the fastest, safest way to get from here to there was laid out clearly for everyone who took the time to read it carefully. Certainly, it contains a lot of commandments and directions which had in fact helped along life’s way at times.
But, when I hit walls in my life—those painful times which I neither understood nor felt I deserved—the rules felt to me like either lies or fantasies incapable of providing direction in my time of disorientation.
Instead, I had found comfort and a way forward in those great stories like the Exodus which, to those Israelites stumbling around in the desert, had felt I’m sure more like a punishment than a liberation. I was able to identify with those disciples who couldn’t make themselves believe the women who told them that Jesus had risen. Those stories were my stories. I lived in them, and they lived in me.
The Greek word for angel in the New Testament is angelos, the root meaning of which is messenger. I’m sure Mark was not thinking of himself as an angel while he was telling me his story, but from my side of the conversation he was indeed a holy messenger giving me the gift of truth in the form of a narrative. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,” says the Letter to the Hebrews (13:2), “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Those who are supposed to be able to understand the signs of the times say that one characteristic of the Post-Modern times we are living in is a disillusionment with reason’s ability to figure everything out, a distrust of the capacity of science to free us from our existential predicament.
I am coming to believe that the Bible is at heart a Post Modern document. More profound than the commandments and concepts are the stories which, as Quakers like to say, “speak to our condition” in different ways, at different times in our lives.
I looked up from my writing to watch the shadows lengthen and enjoy the reflections on the Wang River. Two single person racing shells came into my line of vision, moving at a leisurely pace. The rowers were not in a hurry. The long, slender craft added to the romantic effect of the scene..
I got to thinking, though, how hard it must be to turn those things around. That kind of craft is built for speed, not for maneuverability. Racing shells would be useless in whitewater. I was brought up to believe that my life would turn out well if I walked the straight and narrow. As my life unfolded, it was neither straight nor narrow. What my life required of me was maneuverability more than speed.
Mark’s story was meaningful to me, I realized, because in part it was a metaphor for how to navigate through the changes and chances of life.