About 30somethingRTW

30-something guy who some how missed out on experiencing most of what life has to offer due to workaholic nature. Planning a long term travel adventure.

That Time in a Thai Emergency Room: Part Three

Part One

Part Two

So at this point, I’ve gotten out of the hospital and been taken to a nearby guesthouse in which the only English speaker in town owns and lives.  I have no bags, no passport, no change of clothes, no glasses, and no idea where I even am.

The innkeeper was a white, middle-aged woman with shoulder length brownish-gray hair.  She had a tan and spoke English with what sounded like a German accent to me.  Her name was Gabi, and she asked me if I wanted a room with or without air-conditioning.  With air was around $15/night, and without was around $10 (the prices were actually in Thai baht, of course).  I wanted to be comfortable since I was already pretty miserable, and $5 isn’t that much more, so I got a room with air conditioning.  She asked for how many nights, and I wasn’t totally sure.  My plan was to just stay one night, and then find a way to get to Pai.  There didn’t seem to be very many, if anyone else, staying at the guesthouse, so I figured could play-it-by-ear how long I would stay.  She showed me the room, and apologized that the television only had stations in Thai.  Gabi then said this wasn’t a place where they saw any Westerners… “Only Thai’s come here”, she said.  The t.v. stations at the hostels I had stayed at in the country probably got satellite feeds or something, because in addition to the Thai stations, they had plenty of stations in English as well… BBC, CNN International, and a few sports channels where everyone but the Americans and Canadians were interested in soccer games.  (Yes, I know it’s called football by everyone else).Gabi left me to get settled, and I just kind of hobbled over and collapsed onto the bed. I was left alone to my own thoughts for the first time since the accident.  My left leg was now a hinderance.  My knee had been sewn together, and the layers of bandage wrapped around it made it impossible to bend.  I wasn’t really in pain at this point, but I was just very uncomfortable, miserable, and a little worried how I’d get out of this.  This was without a doubt the lowest moment of my entire trip.  It made me question everything about traveling by myself such a long distance.  I really just felt like going home at this point.  I wanted to be back in Ohio with my family, resting in my own bed (in the house I no longer owned).  I felt like such a fuck-up.  I had gotten too confident and comfortable with what I was doing, and now I was in a bad spot.  I really couldn’t do much more but just feel sorry for myself at that point.  It really sucked.

About half an hour after getting the room, there was a knock at the door.  It was Gabi, and she had a toothbrush and one of those little travel tubes of toothpaste (they were both new, and in packages, not like someone’s old toothbrush).  In that moment, other than my glasses, this was the thing I wanted most.  I hate going to bed and not being able to brush my teeth.  Something so small and trivial like that made me feel a little bit better.  Gabi asked if I was hungry and wanted any food.  I told her no, I wasn’t.  Food was the last thing on my mind.  She said she would come back in the morning to see if I wanted breakfast.  I said that would be fine, but what I really needed in that moment was to be able make a call or use the internet.  The guesthouse had no WiFi (I was so spoiled from all the hostels I had stayed in).  She said she had WiFi in her unit, and would let me use it.  I was so grateful.  This was an emergency.  I needed to call Sam to give him an update and figure out the situation with my bag.  So I hobbled over to her part of the complex which was basically a small one-story home on the same grounds as the motel-ish guesthouse area.  I don’t remember much about her home, other than she had a dog who didn’t seem to like me very much.  Gabi gave me the password to the WiFi, and that gave me the ability to make a phone call.  In hindsight, I probably could have asked if she had a landline, and since Sam had a Thai number, I probably could have called him that way.  But I used my Skype account instead.  If you call from Skype to Skype it’s free.  But if you pay for Skype credit, you can call any phone number for a flat fee that is ridiculously cheap (I used $20 of skype credit in 13 months, and I called home regularly to give them updates).  Sam had given me his number right before I left with the policeman and doctor to go to the hospital.

I felt a sense of relief hearing Sam’s voice on the phone… it was like I had some communication back with what was going on.  Sam said the group had made it to Pai okay.  He asked when I planned to come up.  I told him I wasn’t sure, and that I was pretty banged up.  There are some details here I can’t quite recall… I think Sam mentioned something about how I might have to pay a fine for my bike to get collected by the rental company.  I can’t remember exactly how that got sorted out, but I’ll have more on that later.  I think when I wrapped up that first phone call with Sam, all we knew was that the group I rode with had my bags, and I was going to try and make it up the next day.  However, I remember being worried about the future of my knee.  I really wanted to get to a good hospital or doctor and get a second look at it.  I talked with Gabi about finding a good medical facility, and she said one of the best private hospitals in the country is actually back in Chiang Mai.  The only photo I have from that day (after the accident) was a photo I took of the name of the hospital Gabi had brought up on her computer.  Not much else I could do at this point, but wait and see what the next day would bring.

After getting an update from Sam and finding a place to get my knee looked at, Gabi made me some tea and we talked a bit.  I was curious about her life there and how she ended up living in the middle of nowhere in Thailand running a guesthouse.  She said that twenty years ago, she had been a backpacker like me and she just fell in love with Thailand.  She was from Germany (which confirmed what I had guessed).  She apologized for her English and said she doesn’t get to practice it much.  Honestly, it was near perfect, and I was so happy to have landed in her guesthouse after such a terrible day.  Gabi told me that she never gets any Westerners, only Thai’s visited her place.  She did mention one other Westerner who had been there… another backpacker who had been injured in a motorbike crash.  I had a good laugh.  Maybe she should rename her place, “Idiot Busted Up Backpacker Inn”.  She went on to tell me after her trip, she back to Thailand to live, eventually learning the language and marrying a Thai.  I saw her husband briefly, but I’m guessing because he didn’t speak English, he didn’t come out to talk.  Gabi said she would come by in the morning to check on me and see if I wanted anything for breakfast.  We said our goodnights, and I hobbled back to my room.

I have no memory of how well or if I slept at all that night.  I imagine it was a lot of tossing and turning.  The next morning,  Gabi came by to ask if I was hungry.  I was actually.  She apologized for not having anything like a continental breakfast, and said she only had Thai food… noodles, shrimp and rice.  I kind of laughed… a hallmark of my entire trip was to always eat the local food.  I had eaten shrimp and rice several mornings back in Bangkok at this little hole-in-the-wall place around the corner from the hostel.  I said a noodle bowl would be fine, and about half an hour later had some breakfast.  I began to reassess my situation.  The toll my body had taken the day before wasn’t pretty.  I felt broken, and when I took off my shirt, I could see all the bruising and road rash on my body from when I rolled after spilling my bike.  I was in no shape to continue on to Pai and meet with my friends from the trip.  I really needed to get back to Chiang Mai.  I needed to get my bags and my passport and get situated in Chiang Mai again.  That became my focus.

After breakfast, I asked Gabi if I could use her internet again to call Sam.  I got ahold of him, and told him that I was too messed up to make it to Pai, and I just needed to get back to Chiang Mai.  I asked if he could have my bags sent back there, and I’d work out a way to pay him, maybe through paypal or something.

(MEMORY FOG ALERT – So it’s been two and half years since this happened, and I can’t remember some details, but think this is around the time I figured out how the bike situation was going to be handled.  I think the police had notified the rental bike place they had my bike, and in turn, they told Sam what was going on.  Sam then told me… basically, I would have to pay a fee when I got back to Chiang Mai for the bike to be transported.  My bags and passport would be waiting for me at the same motorbike rental place we had left from the day before.  It would take about a day for all this to happen, so even if I got back there that day, I wouldn’t have had any bags or passport, and a lot of guesthouses ask for your passport when you check-in).  It’s never a good situation to be in a foreign country without access to your passport.  You have almost no way of proving who you are and when you arrived.  It’s the only time in my entire trip that this happened.

Since my bags wouldn’t be in Chiang Mai until the next day, and because I wasn’t in any mood to travel, I told Gabi I would stay another night.  I hobbled back to my room to sulk again.  I had been given some pain meds, and I took them as my knee hurt like hell.  This was a pretty boring day.  I tried watching TV… it was all in Thai, and appeared to be news and local interest stories.  I ended up just laying there staring at the ceiling and wondering how the hell this was all going to work out.  Gabi came by at lunch and dinner with more noodle bowls.  I was actually pretty hungry and eating gave me something to do.  I would try and get some rest that night, and reassess my situation the next morning.

The next day, I woke up, and I had this kind of new attitude and resolve… I was getting the hell out of there, and back to Chiang Mai to recover.  Gabi had been an awesome host, and I was immensely grateful for her help, but I was tired of being in the same dirty and bloody clothes for three days without the ability to see properly (remember, my glasses were destroyed when I wrecked, and I recall Sam telling me that fact during the call the previous day).  I asked Gabi how to get back to Chiang Mai, and she said there was a bus that picked people up about a kilometer away.  I could barely hobble out of room, let alone a kilometer.  Gabi said I could get a ride on the back of her assistant’s motorbike.  The assistant was a Thai woman, probably 30 years old with short hair.  I had seen her around the last couple days at the guesthouse.  The idea of getting back on a motorbike (even for just a quick trip) wasn’t appealing.  Gabi could see my hesitation, but read the situation in a completely different way.  Thailand is a very patriarchical society, and she assumed I was above getting on the back of a motorbike driven by a woman.  She responded with, “Oh, don’t worry, she’s a lesbian.  She’s good with the motorbike”.  That might have been the strangest line I had heard my whole trip.  I thought about how offensive it was, and tried to explain that my worry was more around getting back on the same type of machine that had put me in this awful mess.  I realized it wasn’t worth the effort, and conceded to having her assistant take me to the bus stop.  I paid my bill for the room and food, and I might have even given Gabi a hug and thanked her for helping me out in this situation.  She had been my guardian angel during that time, and I wanted to reach out again to her at some point in the future.  I didn’t even know where I was in Thailand, and asked Gabi several times.  She said the name for the area, but It was such an unremarkable name to my native English tongue that I just couldn’t remember it. I really wanted to know where I had been so I could look it up on a map. Gabi gave me a business card for her place, but it was all in Thai (at least I thought at the time).  I would figure out where I was at some point, and maybe write Gabi a message of thanks some day.

At that point, I hopped on the back of the bike with the guesthouse assistant, and off we went to the bus stop.  What was called a bus stop was really the side of the road.  There was no one else there, but I was assured the bus would come by there.  I gave the assistant (whose name I never learned) a tip of probably like $5-$10 (in Thai baht, of course).  I remember her eyes lit up, and I realized that was probably a pretty big tip for a 1 km ride.  I didn’t care, and was happy to give it to her.  She left, and there I was, left on the side of the road with my busted knee, alone.  About 5-10 minutes later, a woman showed up at the “bus stop” as well, followed shortly by another.  This was likely the right place.  A bit later, a white pickup truck came by.  These types of cabs are common in Northern Thailand.  They’re pickup trucks with covers on the back, with benches on both sides.  There’s room for probably a total of eight people.  The driver asked where we were going (I’m guessing).  I said “Chiang Mai” and they quoted me some price.  What else am I going to do?  I hopped in the back and tried to situate myself so my unbendable knee wouldn’t be in the way.  On the way to Chiang Mai, a woman on the “bus” noticed my bandages and looked at me with her arms gesturing a position one would have riding a bike.  “Motorbike?”, she said to me.  Was I that obvious?

The ride from a few days prior from Chiang Mai to where I crashed had felt like all day, but we had been stopping.  Without any of the delays, we arrived in probably an hour on the bus.  I still had my functioning iPhone, and I had cached a map of Chiang Mai in there before leaving.  The GPS radio on most smart phones works without a carrier, and so I was able to confirm from the blue dot on my cached Chiang Mai map, that I had indeed arrived where I requested.  I was making progress, and was now more resolved than ever to get through this.  I was going to get everything sorted, get better, and then figure out my next move as far as travel plans.

I’ll wrap-up the story in Part 4… promise!

 

That Time in a Thai Emergency Room: Part Two

This is part two of my crazy Thailand emergency issue.  Go HERE for part one.

Ok, so to summarize things at this point, I’ve wrecked on my motorbike somewhere in a mountainous area of Northern Thailand, on my way to Pai with a group of complete strangers that I met in my hostel… some just that morning.  My left knee was opened up and bleeding profusely.  My hands and forearms were scraped to hell with road rash.  I lost my glasses in the crash, so I couldn’t see very well.  My main bag with all my stuff I had been traveling with, save for a day bag with just some water and food, was headed to Pai.  I also didn’t have my passport because I had to give that up to the rental place until I got the bike back to them.  I did have some cash (Thai Baht) and my credit and debit cards which I had been using to pay for everything.  Still, the situation felt bad.

Things get kind of foggy for me around this time.  I’m going to recount the story as best as I can recall, but it’s also hard.  When I think back to that moment, it all just feels so pitiful, but I’m also mad at myself for getting into that situation.

So, eventually, the other riders with me from the hostel had gathered around to help, and we took stock of what was going on with me.  I didn’t want to prevent them from continuing on to Pai, so I asked for some help to get to a local medical facility, and then I’ll figure things out from there.  I still had my lone-wolf world traveler mindset, and really out of everything I had at the moment, it was the most valuable.  We eventually tracked down a passing motorist who indicated there was a clinic nearby that we could follow him to.  It was decided the rest of the group would go on to Pai since it was probably just another 30-45 minutes away, and I would ride on the back of Sam’s bike to get help.  I didn’t know what to do with my bike, but figured I’d get it sorted later.  I left it on the side of the road where I had wrecked.  I needed help with my left knee.  So I rode on the back of Sam’s bike as we followed the passerby who stopped to help.  I don’t remember how long it took, maybe 10 minutes or less, but it felt like an hour.  When we arrived at the medical facility, I could see right away it wasn’t what I was expecting.  It was just an outdoor kind of setup.  There was some kind of structure, but from my memory, I recall feeling like I was in an outdoor medical facility.  The Thai man who seemed to be a doctor came out to help didn’t seem phased at all, and almost looked at me like I was the third person that day he had treated with the same injury.  (motorbike accidents are extremely common in Thailand).  Sam and the doctor helped me hobble to a room where the doctor began to cleanup my wound.  It was clear he was going to start working on my knee without giving me anything for the pain.  Sam asked if they had anything like anesthesia to numb my knee, and from what I could make out, the doctor said something about how this was just a local rural facility, and they didn’t have such things.  He began placing some kind of sterilized gauze ball dipped in something into my knee, and then I think I passed out.  All I remember is that when I came too, Sam and the Thai doctor were shaking me to wake up.  Then a nurse put something that I guess was smelling salts under my nose (you know, like in the movies from the 80’s where they put something under your nose for you to smell that will bring you back to consciousness.)  Yeah, that’s what it was, because it apparently woke up.  As I came too, I had the realization this was all real and actually happening to me.  I remembered the accident and riding on the back of Sam’s bike, and the gauze ball being jammed into my knee.  I also realized I was going into shock.

Sam stopped the doctor and told him my injuries were somewhat severe, and needed to be treated in a proper hospital.  The doctor said the closest place was like 15-20km away and would require getting a ride.  They didn’t have an ambulance, and we asked for alternatives.  The doctor called the local police, and they came.  Amazingly, they were kind enough to take me to the hospital…. Thai hospitality was awesome.  So, the doctor and Sam helped load me into the back of this SUV the local Police had.  My knee was still opened up, and I asked if there was some bandages we could use to at least give me some kind of first-aid.  The doctor gave Sam some gauze type wrap, and he wrapped up my knee… enough to keep me from bleeding all over the back of the policeman’s truck.  I told Sam to continue on to Pai with the rest of the group.  He gave me his phone number so I could keep him posted (he had gotten a local Thai number when arriving in the country which is a smart thing to do, and I later did while living in Bolivia).  At this point, the idea was that I would get treated, and find a way to get to Pai later that evening or the next day.  I had hung around enough Aussies at that point, and I just said, “thanks mate” to Sam.  He laughed, and commented out about how I was now speaking his language.  We said our goodbyes, and off I was to the hospital.

I don’t remember much about that ride to the hospital.  I do recall the doctor from the outdoor clinic rode with us to the hospital.  I remember feeling more and more in pain as we drove to the hospital.  When we arrived (which I have no idea how long that ride took), I saw what looked like a real hospital, and I felt some relief.  The policeman or doctor had apparently called ahead to the hospital because they had a gurney waiting to carry me in.  In hindsight, it must have been a slow day because even in a US hospital, they probably wouldn’t have done that.  I really needed it, because at that point, I didn’t feel like I could even hobble in.  The tumble my body had taken in the crash had caught up to me, and my whole body ached like someone had just punched the hell out of me.  They got me on the gurney, and wheeled me into the hospital emergency room.  There was a doctor and a few nurses, and they began taking an assessment of my injuries.  One of the first things I remember someone saying to me was a nurse pointing out that this was a private hospital, and I’d have to pay for everything.  I’m a little ashamed to admit, I pulled the Westerner card, and said something along the lines of how I was an American, and I had money and resources, and would pay for whatever, just please help me.  I didn’t feel like I should receive any more treatment than anyone else in that situation, but when you’ve got a medical issue, all you think about is yourself.  Everyone went to work.  They could tell I was in pain, and a nurse said she could give me some pain meds that would take a while to work, or she could give me a shot in the butt to relax me right away.  I realize now that it was probably a muscle relaxer.  Anyway, I was in so much pain, I had no shame, I rolled over and pulled my pants down, and the nurse stuck me in the butt.  About 15 seconds later, I began to feel better… I don’t know if muscle relaxers work that fast, or there’s a placebo affect of getting a shot in the ass, but either way, I was doing better.  The nurses set to work cleaning out my road rash.  It was so disgusting… just dirt, grime and gravel mixed in with mangled skin, tissue, and blood.  There was a nurse on each side going from wound to wound, cleaning them with what I’m guessing was saline, and then bandaging it up.  After cleaning and patching everything up, there was the issue of my left knee to deal with.  The doctor said he would have to stitch muscle and skin to treat the wound due to how deep it was.  He gave me a shot of something in my knee to numb it, and then went to work stitching me up.  I lied there wondering just how much damage I had done, and I would be able to walk right afterwards.  I wondered if I’d have to go back to the US to get some rehabilitation therapy.  I worried I’d never walk or run quite the same way again.  I think out of everything, this was my greatest fear… having my mobility affected.  I had come pretty far on my trip at this point, and now I would be disabled.

After I was all stitched up and wounds treated, they got me into a wheelchair, and took me to get x-rayed.  I had been wearing a helmet, and I didn’t hit my head in the crash.  I was lucid the whole time, except for that brief moment I went into shock and passed out.  I don’t remember getting my head x-rayed, but they definitely did my knee and leg to see if anything was broken.  After the x-rays, I was taken back to the emergency room, and I just lied there waiting.  After a little while, someone came in and put two x-ray photos on one of those light boards that let you see the results.  I asked if those were mine, and no one answered me.  It’s possible they didn’t understand, but in looking at the photos, I could clearly see my iPhone in my pocket.  I completely forgot about my phone, and didn’t even think to check to see if I lost it after the crash.  But there it was, on the x-ray confirming I still had it, and that those x-rays were probably mine.  I thought, well, that phone has to be destroyed because it was in the pocket on the side I crashed on and I couldn’t imagine it survived.  I reached in my pocket, and pulled out a perfectly fine looking iPhone.  I hit the home button, and everything came on and worked perfectly fine.  I think I kind of chuckled in that moment that something so easily breakable didn’t have a scratch on it after having been in my pocket during the crash.

Eventually, someone confirmed that my knee was going to be ok, and nothing was broken.  Still, I worried a lot about tendon or cartilage damage that would affect me permanently.  Time would tell.  At this point, I asked if I was going to have to stay in the hospital overnight, and they said no.  They gave me some pain meds, and something to fight infection, along with instructions to return to the hospital in two days to get my wounds looked at, and re-bandaged.  I began to wonder where the hell I was going to go.  They asked about my “friends”, and that’s when I told them I had just met those guys in my hostel, and I was actually traveling alone.  They didn’t seem to believe or understand me at first.  Like, why would you travel around by yourself like that?  I then realized the policeman and doctor who brought me to the hospital were still there… unbelievable.  Even to this day, I just can’t believe it.  They were going to make sure I got treated and situated before leaving.  While they figured out what to do with me, there was the issue of the hospital bill.  They had an ATM machine in the hospital, and said they’d wheel me over if needed to pay.  They brought the bill, and I was preparing myself for a bit of shock.  I don’t remember the exact amount in Thai baht anymore, but I had gotten really fast at doing currency conversion calculations in my head at this point, and I remember looking at the bill and thinking, “that’s like $34 USD”.  I kinda laughed inside at that price.  I had x-rays, wound cleaning, stitches to mend muscle and skin, and pain meds…. $34.  That’s not a copay.  That was the full amount of my treatment.  I know the cost of living is quite a bit less in Thailand than the US, but it’s not 100X less.  I always think about that bill whenever I get treated in the US for anything now.  Not to rant about US healthcare, but the system is broken.

After a bit of relief at the bill, I took out the appropriate amount of Thai baht and paid my bill.  That may seem like a small amount to have on you, but when you can buy a meal for a $1.25, and a beer for 50 cents, I didn’t carry more than $10.  At that point, I was informed they would take me to a nearby guesthouse since I didn’t have anyone else they could leave me with.  I asked about my bike, and the policeman said they had already collected it, and it was at their station.  That was kind of a relief.  But I wondered how I’d get it back and exchange it for my passport.  I still didn’t have my bag, passport, glasses, or even a change of clothes.  My shorts and shirt were bloodstained, and I was sweaty and smelly.  They then wheeled me out to the police truck again, and I crawled into the back with the doctor.  We drove for a bit to a motel-ish looking complex, and a woman came out to greet us… not a Thai woman… a caucasian woman named Gabby who ran the place.  I was told she was the only one in the area who spoke any English, and that’s why they brought me to her guesthouse.  This is where I would have to put things back together.

I’ll stop there for now, and continue with part 3 soon.  Promise to finish this!

That Time in a Thai Emergency Room: Part One

I’ve been meaning to post this story now for over two years.  It’s more out of a sense of duty and completeness to the trip I had that I write this now.  My trip ended in August 2013, and I feel like I never really wrapped up this blog, or told some of my final thoughts and memories of traveling around the world for a year.  I’m going to attempt to wrap things up with the next couple posts that talk about some experiences I never got around to talking about, as well as talk about my thoughts of being back.

Without a doubt, the craziest story of my trip involves somewhere around the midway point in my trip to Thailand.  So here it goes…

I arrived in Thailand after being in India for about three weeks. India was pretty wild, and felt like a different trip to me.  I’ve never felt so foreign in a place in my life as I did India, and might have to recount more of my experiences there.  Compared to India, arriving in Bangkok, Thailand felt like I was in any Western country at first.  The airport, roads, buildings and infrastructure were all very modern, at least in appearance.  I spent my first week in Bangkok in a hostel.  I had an awesome time in Bangkok.  The hostel I was in was small, and I had no trouble meeting other travelers to go exploring with.  I did all the classic tourist things in Bangkok… I went to the temples, I walked around the markets, I ate Thai street food, and just had fun exploring Bangkok.  After about a week, I left for Chiang Mai which is a city in the North.  I stayed at yet another hostel that was filled with the usual… Brits, Aussies, and some Canadians and Americans.  I did a day long cooking class here that was fun.  I also went on a jungle trek for three days that was really cool.  A lot of hiking, and we stayed in local villages and slept in bamboo huts.  If I haven’t written about that, I’ll need to.

Prior to leaving for my jungle trek which was just outside of Chiang Mai, I had met some other travelers planning to ride motorbikes to a sleepy mountain village called Pai.  Pai is kind of known as this chilled out place that’s very touristy.  It requires getting on a bus from Chiang Mai for a few hours.  My new hostel buddies were planning on checking it out, but wanted to make more of an adventure out of it by renting motorbikes.  This would allow them to see more of the countryside, and stop at various places and check things out.  They were planning to leave the day after I got back to Chiang Mai, so I might have a chance to join them.  Now at this point, I should say a few things:

  1. I don’t know the Thai traffic laws, and don’t have a license
  2. I’ve never ridden a motorbike, scooter, or anything remotely close in my entire life
  3. Pai is roughly 84 miles from Chiang Mai

Ok, so what would make me think I could ride a motorbike for the first time ever in a foreign country where they drive on the opposite side of the road of what I’m used to?  Well, I think at the time, I had been on the road for 8 months, and nothing really scared me.  I was looking for adventure and to do something different…. really different.  Riding a bike in Thailand sounded like fun.  I liked the people I had met in the hostel, and the whole idea just seemed cool.  So after getting back from the jungle trek, I found my friends were still planning the trip, and so I joined them.

IMG_6381

The day started by going to the rental bike place.  The plan was to pay them to transport our bags up to Pai, and then we’d get them back (along with our passports) when we arrived in Pai.  So see… this was an actual service that was provided… lots of people do this in Thailand, including idiots like me probably.  We got our bikes, and one of the guys in our group, Sam from Australia, gave me a quick tutorial.  At the time, Sam also commented that it looked like a had really nice and fast bike.  Foreshadowing.  After my little tutorial in working the gas, brake, and gears (thankfully it was an automatic, or maybe I might have been able to end the trip right then and there), we were off.  I should also probably point out that this bike was more of what we would call a scooter in the States.

IMG_6390

Our first stop was to get gas.  As we set out on the busy streets of Chiang Mai, my first thoughts were… “What the hell are you doing?  This is a little nuts”.  However, after a few minutes and some turns through intersections, I was starting to relax.  We got to the gas station (which looked like just about any other gas station I’ve seen in the US), filled up, and then headed out again.  I was starting to get comfortable on the bike, and by the time we were outside the city, I felt like this was going to be a fun day.  Riding in the countryside was beautiful.  We saw landscapes, waterfalls, and plenty of Buddhist temples.  Riding our own bikes gave our group the ability to stop and see things along the way as we wanted… total freedom to explore, and I was thinking, “Wow, what an awesome experience”.  That was what my trip had become at that point… collecting more amazing experiences.  I didn’t really care about tourist sites anymore.  I had seen enough amazing stuff at this point that I was overstimulated and needed to do more adventurous things to get the same thrills I had earlier on in the trip.  Probably about a little past the halfway point on the trip to Pai, we found a roadside cafe, and stopped to eat.  Our group was small from what I remember.  Other than Sam, I actually don’t remember the names of anyone else at this point.  I remember there being a girl from Austria, but I can’t remember if there was one or two more other people with us.  I didn’t take many photos that day, and I honestly can’t even see the face in my mind of the other person I kind of remember.  Sam and the Austrian girl were leading us since they seemed to know the way and had tons of experience on bikes.

After the cafe, we rode a little further and found what in the States would be a National Park.  It even had one of those big brown wooden signs with yellow lettering you find in US Parks.

IMG_6392

There was this waterfall, and we actually took the chance to get out and get into the water.  We wouldn’t have had this experience on a bus.  We would have just arrived in Pai, and hung out, but nothing else.  It might have been fun, but it wouldn’t have been the experience we were now having this day.

At this point, I was feeling pretty chill.  We had been riding our bikes for what felt like all day.  We had stopped at several places, seen some cool sites, swam underneath a waterfall, and just generally enjoyed the experience.  I was pretty comfortable on my bike at this point, and glad I made the decision to join my hostel buddies on the this trip.

IMG_6399

After the waterfall, we got back on our bikes with the plan to continue riding without any more stops to Pai.  Probably half an hour to 45 minutes after leaving the waterfall, we were getting into some mountainous terrain.  The road was getting really curvy and a little dicey.  Also, I had been riding for a while, and was probably going a little too fast.  Not knowing how to properly handle turns on a bike, I wasn’t properly leaning into turns and letting the my body and bike do the work.  I was over turning the steering, and on a really tight turn, it caught up with me.  I just remember this point where my bike slid out from under me.  I was probably only going 25 mpg, but bike when sideways, and I hit the pavement hard on my left side.  My left knee and arm took the brunt of the fall.  The bike slid in a straight line from where I had lost it, and I just barrel rolled, tearing myself up along the way.  Luckily, I had a helmet on, but I don’t think I hit my head anyway.  When things came to a stop, I just remember thinking, “You’re an idiot”.  I looked down to assess the damage, and I saw what was probably the worst gash on my knee I’ve ever seen.  I mean, my knee basically opened up and I think I could see my knee cap.  I looked at my left arm, and there was just a huge road rash down my entire forearm.  Both of my hands were torn up pretty bad too.  However, I noticed right away that I was able to stand which made me think I hadn’t broken any bones.  It was probably the only good thing I could find at that point.  I knew I couldn’t go any further with the trip.  I was so banged up, and sore.  I also realized that my glasses had fallen off in the crash.  I started looking around, but couldn’t find them.  Luckily, there was someone in our group riding behind me (think all the others were ahead).  Eventually, Sam and the Austrian girl realized I wasn’t with them, and rode back.  I felt so bad for wrecking the day like that for them, because now I had put them in a situation of having to help me which I hated.  I went over and checked out my bike, and other than some scratches, it seemed ok.  I looked at my knee and just couldn’t believe that was a part of my body.  It looked like a mess, and would absolutely require medical attention.  But where?  I was in the middle of what felt like a Thai jungle with the worse injury of my life.  I didn’t want to panic, but I just didn’t know how this was going to work out for me.  It’s actually kind of hard to write about this now because it’s all starting  to come back.  What an awful and pitiful situation I found myself in.  I think I’ll stop here for now, but promise to pickup the story in another couple days.  Promise!

Sucre Bolivia Wrap-Up

IMG_7380

So I’ve returned to the States after spending almost four months in Bolivia.  I was pretty bad about keeping this blog up-to-date while in Bolivia.  It wasn’t intentional, and it wasn’t as if I didn’t want to write about my experiences there.  It basically came down to three things… 1) Not having much time in between my Spanish classes, 2) Having a social life and 3) The painfully slow internet.  It was almost physically painful to use the internet in Bolivia for anything other than checking email.  Sometimes it would take a couple minutes just to login to my WordPress account.  Add in the fact it took a few minutes to upload a single photo and you get a lack of updates about what I was up to there.

Ok, enough of the whining.  I’m here now doing an update, so here we go.  First, I just want to thank everyone who messaged me after my last update.  I was having a bad time and was getting discouraged with my inability to learn the language faster.  Life with my local family there wasn’t going so well either.  I guess everything I was experiencing was normal, and part of the process.  I’m really happy to report that in the nearly three months since my last update, things definitely improved.  A lot of it had to do with a change in my perspective, but also my Spanish has improved as well.  There was also an incident in the home that reminded me of why I was there.  In June, another student like me who was taking Spanish lessons, moved into the same family home I’m staying in.  He knew absolutely no Spanish and was planning on living with the family for two weeks.  However, within an hour of arriving, he left citing the lack of internet.  I also sort of think he got a little spooked that the family hardly spoke any English.  I tried convincing him to stay and offered to translate when necessary, but he wasn’t interested and just wanted to move into a hostel.  The family had spent money on a cab ride to pick him up from the bus station, and now he was just going to leave.  The money for the cab is trivial for a westerner, but not for a Bolivian family.  The mom, Rocio, was on the verge of tears.  She took it personally that he didn’t want to stay in her home.  It was a complete jerk move on the part of the other student and I felt bad for the family.  There’s no better way to learn a language than to be completely immersed in it, living in it everyday with no option to use your native tongue.  Life in a hostel in another country is basically like being in America, Canada, Ireland, UK, or Australia.  Those places are filled with people speaking English all the time and lots of other distractions to keep you from focusing on learning the local language if that’s truly your goal.  The whole incident reminded me of why I was here.  I’ve had months of adventure and exploring other lands, meeting people from different countries and even a little partying in the most famous cities in the world.  But Bolivia is different.  It’s about making a serious attempt to learn the language and culture.  All families have their problems, and things will never be perfect.  However, at the end of the day, my situation there was perfect for my objectives.  From that moment on, I knew I would just stay with the family.  I really became something like another child here.  The two little kids always called me “hermano” (brother) and it’s quite touching.  It was very sad for all when I left.

So after almost four months in Bolivia, I still feel like I can’t say I’m fluent in Spanish.  However, to say I can only “get by” is definitely an understatement.  I can hold my own in most conversations, however, when native speakers start rambling to each other, I’m usually lost.  My vocabulary is pretty huge, though.  I have all the vocabulary I need for fluency, it’s just a matter of practice, especially when it comes to verb conjugations.  A lot of verbs that aren’t used with high frequency still require thought to conjugate correctly.  There are, of course, other aspects of the grammar that are difficult and will take years to fully master, but all in all, I’m very pleased with where my Spanish is at this point.

I plan to do at least one more update on Bolivia with photos since I couldn’t do that while in Bolivia due to the internet bandwidth.  I’ll then do one more update to wrap up the trip with final thoughts.  It was a hell of a ride, and I’m still processing it.

Halfway Point in Sucre

I can’t believe I’ve been living in Sucre for over six weeks already.  The plan all along has been to stay here for three months and hopefully leave with a level of fluency in Spanish.  I’ve been away from home for 11 months now, and I’m tired of the usual hostel life and seeing the big attractions in each city.  I wanted to do a deeper dive into a particular locale and hopefully walk away with a valuable skill.  It seemed like a great way to wrap things up for my trip.  However, now that I’m at the halfway point, I have a lot of mixed feeling about the situation here.  There’s a lot that’s happened in the three weeks since my last update.  There have been changes in everything from my Spanish, my feelings toward my living arrangements, the school I’m attending and my feelings towards coming home.

For starters, my Spanish has definitely improved a lot in the last three weeks.  I’m in a phase in second language learning commonly referred to as “speech emergence”.  I understand a great deal of what is said to me, and I’m able to have basic conversations with people.  My vocabulary has really grown a lot in the last three weeks… probably doubled or tripled.  I’m getting faster with verb conjugations and I’ve also broken away from only using the present tense in my speech.  I’m fairly comfortable with one form of the past tense, and working on two others.  Future tense in Spanish is actually a little easy, and not that much of challenge to work into my speech when needed.  I’ve even started reading a book of short stories.  Of course, I need my dictionary nearby to read it, but I understand a great deal, and can usually identify the words I don’t know as verbs, nouns or adjectives prior to looking them up.  All of that said, I still feel like I’m a very long way from fluency.  For me, fluency is being able to speak with little to no effort.  It’s speech that’s automatic.  Everything from correct conjugation, to correct usage of adjectives, articles and pronouns is what makes a person fluent in a language.  It also means being able to understand every conversation heard.  That means personal conversations, chatter in cafes and on the street as well as what’s on television.  Television remains a mystery to me.  I don’t know why it just seems like noise to me when I hear it.  The spanish is so fast on TV and I still only pick out a few words.  While my ability to understand what’s being said in personal conversations or in my lessons has improved a great deal, my ability to understand what’s on TV is virtually unchanged after six weeks of working on the language.  It’s actually depressing to think about.  I realize now that my original goals were a bit overinflated.  The fact of the matter is that I’m kind of old, and my brain has hardened a bit.  Learning a new language at the age of 38 is quite the challenge, even being in-country only helps to a degree.  I’m not completely discouraged, and don’t mean to sound negative.  I still have six weeks of Spanish immersion and hope to realize more gains.  However, I’m not going to beat myself up if I’m not fluent in Spanish when I leave Sucre.

As for my lessons and the school, I kind of have mixed feelings on the place.  I’ve had some professors who I didn’t care for, and actually didn’t teach me very much.  They were often late for lessons, or cut our time short.  In one particular case, my teacher simply gave me handouts to work on in class while she went for a cup of tea.  It really made me mad and I said something to the owner of the school.  She said I would never have that teacher again, but I feel like I lost a week of lessons on a bad teacher.  For the following week, I felt like things improved.  However, my lessons lately have mainly involved practicing what I’ve learned and not learning anything new.  I guess it’s part of the process, and I understand the importance of practice, but I feel like I’m spinning my wheels at the moment.  I’m contemplating changing schools, but wonder if that might be counterproductive to the time I have left.  I have another week and half of lessons that I’ve paid for at my current school, so I have that much more time to decide if a change is in order.

I’m really sorry to continue what feels like a rant, but I’m also having some issues with the family I’m staying with.  For starters, about two weeks ago, the mom was really upset at breakfast and started telling me about a financial problem they were having.  I don’t like financial speak in English, and in Spanish, it’s ten times as painful.  However, from what I was able to grasp from our post-breakfast conversation, the family is in danger of losing their home of they don’t come up with $10,000 USD by the end of the month.  The words my host mom used to describe their mortgage situation don’t have translations in English.  I also wonder after hearing the description of the situation in Spanish if such things are now illegal in the States.  It kind of sounds like the family has an arrangement with the bank where the loan on the house can be called in at anytime.  The whole situation really bummed me out because I like the family and routine I have with them.  I don’t want to change families halfway into this project, nor do I want to move into a hostal with a bunch of English speaking backpackers.

Fast-forward two weeks now, and it seems like everything is normal again.  The family isn’t talking about it anymore, and there doesn’t seem to be any rush to find a new place to live.  I honestly don’t know what’s up, but before I pay for another month of accommodation, I’m going to make sure there will be a place to live.

In other family news, a pattern of behavior has emerged that I find disturbing.  I currently pay $13/day (paid a month in advance) for my room and board in the home.  From time to time, I do buy additional food to share with the family.  Middle class existence in Bolivia would be considered borderline poverty in the US, so I don’t mind helping out beyond my required contribution.  I’ll buy the kids snacks at the corner store, and even the occasional beer to enjoy with the parents on the weekends.  14 cents for a pack of cookies or $1.50 for a 40 once beer isn’t breaking the bank.  However, it’s reached a point where it’s expected, and being taken advantage of.  This past weekend, the mom asked me to go buy all the food for Sunday dinner.  I kind of expected to be reimbursed, but I wasn’t and there’s this general sense that I’m the wealthy American traveling around the world, so I can afford it.  Grant it the amounts were talking about aren’t that much, but it’s the principle.  I think it could all be related to the family having financial problems, but not sure.  I feel like a bit of an ass even posting about someone else’s personal problems on the internet, but I think this blog is only read by friends and family anyway. I’m pretty sure none of you reading this will ever meet anyone in the family anyway during your lifetimes.  Bolivia is a bit of an exotic destination and I recommend Portland, Seattle, London, Paris, Prague or Budapest before visiting Bolivia.

So that’s the situation.  Sorry if it sounds like one big rant, but I’m really just stating the truth of what’s going on.  I’m actually really beginning to think a lot about coming back to Columbus.  I think about it every day, and even wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it.  It’s not helping that the situation here isn’t as good as it was in the beginning.  Hopefully I’ll have more positive news in my next update.

Hasta pronto… ciao

Tres Semanas en Sucre

photo (5)So it’s been three weeks already that I’ve been living in Sucre, Bolivia.  The city has definitely turned out to be the ideal spot for learning Spanish.  There are tons of schools and home-stay options.  Almost every foreigner I meet here is taking Spanish lessons.  The city also seems to have this magical quality of trapping people here.  It’s not uncommon to find someone who came here for a few days, but ended up staying a few weeks.

My lessons are coming along quite well I think.  The school is setup in this old building with lots of little rooms that the classes are taught in.  I’d say almost every student is taking private lessons since it’s so cheap… around $6 per hour.  I’ve had a different teacher each week, and they all instruct in spanish only.  It’s interesting when there’s a new word I don’t know because instead of just telling me the word in english, they describe what it is in spanish until I get it.  For example, the word “llave” was taught by telling me “you need this to open a door that is closed but you can’t open”.  Sledgehammer fits the description, but I correctly assumed my teacher meant “key”.  I even started taking my notes in Spanish to complete the classroom immersion.  I get the sense my teachers speak english, but I honestly couldn’t tell you what level they’re at since we always speak in spanish.

As for my home-stay, that’s going pretty well too.  I have my own room and have settled into a daily routine.  I even took all my clothes out of my backpack and put them into the dresser drawers I now have…photo (4)

I eat meals with the family, and even tag along for outings to the market.  The mother, Rocio, speaks slowly when she talks with me, and we have lots of conversations about food and cultural differences between the US and Bolivia.  I think I need a bit more fluency in my spanish before I can talk with the dad, Luis.  He’s kind of quiet, and doesn’t say too much to me.  As for the kids, they’re cool, but the six year old speaks a bit fast, and uses “kid’s spanish” which often involves sticking “ita” or “ito” to the end of words to emphasize how small something is.  However, in the last couple days, I’m starting to understand her more.  She definitely understands everything I say which I feel good about.  As for the four year old, Pablito, I almost never understand him, but that’s understandable.  He sounds like any other four year old to me.  I made dinner for the family this past Saturday… tacos and guacamole… it was a huge hit and I think will become a staple in the household.  Here’s a shot of the meal with Pablito.photo (2)

I realized after I published my last blog post that I forgot to mention the grandma living in the home.  She’s Rocio’s mom, and unfortunately, I never understand her either.  I’ve always heard from people learning English they have trouble understanding older speakers, and I’m no exception.  Hopefully in time, I’ll understand more, but for now, I’m left constantly saying “pardon” when ever she speaks to me.

There has been an interesting development this week in the family home.  A couple from France has moved in and is also taking lessons at the same school as me.  They’re spanish is a lot better than mine as they’ve had other lessons recently and have been traveling in South America longer than me.  I have to admit, I’m a little envious of their ability to carry on pretty much regular conversations with the family.  Although, it’s good listening practice for me, I don’t always know what’s being said, and feel left out.  I also feel like a bit of an idiot when a question comes my way and I need it repeated once or twice before I understand.  That’s part of the learning process I guess, though.

So overall, how’s it going?  I have good days and bad, but overall, my vocabulary and ability to communicate have increased greatly in three weeks.  I’d say my vocabulary has at least tripled, but it needs to triple again before I have enough words for everyday speech.  My listening comprehension has taken off as well, but sadly my ability to speak hasn’t kept pace.  I still have a very robotic way of talking.  I have moments where my speech flows, but normally, my brain needs to do a lot of work to construct each sentence.  The gender of the nouns and adjectives, the plurality of the articles, and the correct conjugation of the verb add up to a big equation that needs calculated every time I speak.  There are moments where it comes together automatically, and I feel like I get a glimpse of what it will be like to speak fluently.  But those moments are definitely not the norm… yet.  My immediate goal right now is to ramp on verbs and verb conjugation.  I’m hoping when I reach the six week mark to be at a beginning level of fluency and carrying on normal conversations with the family.  We’ll see… ciao

Sucre, Bolivia

After NYC, I had a series of flights over 25 hours that brought me to what could be my final stop on my year long trip… Sucre, Bolivia.  So why did I come all the way here?  It comes down to two main reasons… The main one being that I finally want to get fluent in another language.  If my travels have taught me anything, it’s that most of the people in the world speak multiple languages, but back home, it’s pretty much just English.  All the native English speaking countries are guilty actually… Australia, England, Ireland, Canada.  English has become the language of the world, and that means those of us who already speak it don’t need to learn another language to get a better job, move to a better neighborhood, or improve the lives of our families.  We’re lucky.  However, you can only go so deep in a country if you don’t speak the language.  You can’t read the paper, a menu or most of the signs.  Ordering food usually involves a lot of pointing with a stupid look on your face.  You can’t understand the conductor on the buses and trains, and you certainly can’t understand the conversations of everyday people on the street or in cafes.  I’m tired of that, and want the ability to dig deeper into a country.  That said, I’m really motivated now more than ever to get fluent in Spanish.  I had three years of it in high school, and ramped up on it during my one month in Spain.  I enjoy the language, and feel there are lots of countries I can use it in.  It really makes the most sense to choose this as my second language.  So that’s the motivation for this next adventure.  

When I was in Thailand recovering from my motorbike accident, I gave serious thought to what I would do after my brother’s wedding.  Would I call it quits after nine months and go back to Columbus, OH?  Or, would I continue the adventure, and keep my promise to myself to travel for one year?  I felt exhausted from all the travel, and the accident didn’t help.  I was also tired of only spending a week at most in a single place.  I wanted to experience living in another city.  Also, hostel life had become tiresome and incredibly dull for me.  The idea of meeting new people for a day or two of adventures, followed by never hearing or seeing from them again wasn’t appealing.  Couchsurfing is a good alternative to hostels for getting more of a local feel, but you can’t live in stranger’s home for months on end.  I needed another type of accommodation.  I did a home-stay in India with a family that was a pretty cool experience, so I thought about trying to incorporate something similar into my next adventure.  When you add in my desire to finally get fluent in Spanish, it was pretty easy to decide my next move… I needed to find a city and family to live with where I could devote an entire three months to nothing but learning Spanish and experiencing daily life as a local.

There are basically four main locations in the world I have for this latest project… Spain, Mexico, Central America and South America.  Spain would be awesome, and probably my first choice if possible, but it’s a bit expensive.  Mexico just seems too dangerous right now, even though I’ve met travelers who’ve been there recently, and didn’t have a problem.  Central America seemed a little iffy as well, and all of my research seemed to be pointing me to South America anyway.  I met a couple in Spain who had taken private lessons in Argentina and really got a lot from them.  South America has a few other things going well for it.  One is that it can be really cheap.  It’s possible to find private lessons for only $6 an hour.  For anyone else looking to do this, here’s a quick summary of what I found, but may not necessarily be true in every part of every country….

Chile – The Spanish is really odd here and difficult to understand.  It’s also really expensive.

Argentina – Can be a bit pricey as well, and there’s a unique accent you might pickup.

Columbia – Awesome quality of Spanish, perhaps the best in the world, but it’s really expensive to take private lessons there.

Ecuador – Great quality of Spanish, cheap, but also really dangerous.

Bolivia – Awesome, clear Spanish, cheap, and there’s a city filled with great Spanish schools that’s really safe to live in.  The schools also arrange for home stays which allow you to live with a local family and be totally immersed in Spanish.

I have two friends with Bolivian roots as well, so it felt like all signs were pointing me to Bolivia.  I found a school in the city of Sucre, Bolivia with insanely great reviews on Trip Advisor.  Sucre is considered the cultural capital of Bolivia and is home to the country’s best universities.  After several emails with the school, I felt comfortable with booking a flight to Sucre.  As I’m writing this, I’ve now been in Sucre for about a week and half.  I’ve been taking four hours of private Spanish lessons every weekday.  The lessons are taught in Spanish since the school has a “no english” rule.  I was a bit intimated by this at first, even though I knew it would be for the best.  I’ve been surprised at how much I can understand from my teachers.  If I get really stuck, the teacher will usually say a word or two in english to keep me on track.  Best of all, the school helped arrange for me to move in with a local family.  Between my lessons, and life with the family, it’s Spanish 24/7 for me.  The only time I get to speak English is during the 15 minute break at the school during my lessons when I get to mingle with the other students.  It’s a bit overwhelming at the moment, but definitely what I want.  My vocabulary has skyrocketed in just one week.  I also have moments here and there where I’m in a zone and understanding everything being said and I’m able to respond quickly.  However, most of the time, I’m still struggling to get the words out of my mouth.  Hopefully, after three months, I’ll be able to speak fluently.  That’s the plan anyway.  I like the family I’m living with a lot.  There’s the dad, Luis, who works in a bank in the city center of Sucre.  There’s the mom, Rocio, who is a great cook, who I have lots of good conversations with (on those rare moments when the Spanish is flowing from my mouth).  There are two kids as well, Pablo who is four, and Adriana who is six.  Talking with kids in a new language is awesome practice for me as well.  We play games and make fun of each other like any other family.

The only downside at the moment is that the internet in Bolivia isn’t so good.  Neither the family I’m living with, nor the school have it, so I have to go to a cafe which is a pain.  Between life with the family, and my daily Spanish lessons, I just don’t have time to get to a cafe to do updates.  I’m not here in Sucre for adventure anyway.  It’s really about experiencing life in another city and learning Spanish.  Hence, the blog has really taken a backseat.  However, now that I’ve cheated and summarized two months of travel in a single post, I’m going to try and find time to go a cafe once a week and post an update on my experiences in Sucre, life with my host family, and attempts to speak Spanish.  I’m actually really motivated to write updates on this experience since I want to document it, so hopefully I’ll make time for tracking down various cafes with decent Internet.  Ciao