The Cafe Incident in Chiang Mai
Every traveller has a low point in their travels.
These are the stories that travellers don’t share with you. Their stories involve smiling benignly with ethnic minority children for a perfect photo op to secure bragging rights via Facebook profile pictures. They extoll the challenges and rewards of street food, nodding sagaciously at you as you hold onto a badly-made Western burger in rural India, gripped by food neophobia. They casually mention how they got married on the summit of Kilimanjaro. Yes. The last statement is an actual story.
No one writes travel stories about locking themselves in a hotel room for one week in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, lying in the fetal position and eating cookies while sobbing until the tears mix in with the chocolate crumbs, caking melancholic, sunburnt lips. Nobody wants to hear about Mental Breakdown Cookies.
But I am such a travel writer. Instead of temples and enriching experiences with locals, I talk about such situations.
Such as the time I was kicked out in Thailand for ordering only one milkshake.
At twenty-nine, one expects one’s life to be imbued with a certain dignity. I was a former English instructor, trying to inspire passion in students’ hearts about adverbial clauses and the complex brilliance of Elizabethan sonnets. Failing miserably every time, but trying with the zeal of a South Asian Michelle Pfeiffer à la Dangerous Minds.With the small exception that I was not working with hardened inner city children but overworked Asian virtuosos. Pretty much the same situation though.
I left all that syntax-soaked fulfillment to pursue my dreams of travelling the world with one pair of pants and an increasingly fractured grip on reality. It’s a devastatingly glamorous life, smelling of excitement, adventure, and failure — or that might just be the one pair of pants I own. It’s difficult to tell sometimes.
I was having another one of those glamorous days as I was sitting in a café in Chiang Mai, typing fervently on my laptop as I sipped a banana shake. I slipped into a fantasy where I was Bill Bryson or Jack Kerouac, a renowned travel writer. Changing the world with my witticisms about the rabid dog I had just seen on the street or the rancid street food that made me hallucinate I was on a spirit quest for two days. They were words that would inspire future generations to abandon sensibility and choose the life of being a putrid vagabond with dwindling savings.
I was in a euphoric trance. I was a female Ernest Hemingway, clattering away on a typewriter in Spain, writing about masculine stories that involved bullfighting and cold beers and taut, simple prose. And by this, I mean I was drawing triangles in Paint Shop.
I took a long sip of my delusion shake. So absorbed in my genius, I hadn’t noticed that the hours had been ticking by. After all, I was in Europe, wasn’t I? Where people lingered for hours over a cup of coffee, enjoying life and not cramming sandwiches into their mouths in cubicle s as they worked bleary-eyed towards an early grave?
The owner of the café came over. I blinked and realized I was in Thailand. He was glaring at me.
“You need to leave,” he spat.
I stared back, dumbfounded.
This hardly should have been a surprise. If I hadn’t been floating in the frothy imaginative seas of self-aggrandizement, I would have noticed that the owner had come around and passive-aggressively let me know of his discontent. He had told me I couldn’t lie on the chaise lounge. After all, who lies on a chaise lounge? That would be like wearing shoes on your feet. Completely insensible.
He had walked by several times and sighed or stared at me pointedly. I had beamed at him graciously, thinking he must have been clearly inspired by my two-toned nose, which had occurred as a result of my whirlwind romance with the sun.
He was not bewitched by the clearly important work I was conducting. I had just finished drawing a sheep. He wanted me out. Immediately.
Ears burning, I sheepishly turned off my laptop. Angered by my tortoise reflexes, he began launching into an angry tirade about how my presence was losing him customers as I was taking up a table. He had a valid point. There were two other people in the café with about twenty empty tables. All my imaginary friends had been sitting at the other tables, taking up space in this thriving business. I motioned for my invisible entourage to follow. We would take our business elsewhere, sharing one banana milkshake between the fifteen of us for five days.
As I paid my bill, I realized that this, this might possibly be the rock-bottom moment in my travelling journey.
When I was a teenager, my friends and I would spend hours loitering in public spaces, uneager to go home and actually open our books to secure a future for ourselves. Instead, we fueled the ire of mall guards as we spent hours after school, slowly drinking fountain pop and screaming incoherently without regard to our surroundings.
Now, at almost thirty, I had the exact same thing happening. Except I wasn’t screaming at aural-blasting volumes about the personal details of my first kiss as a scandalized senior citizen tried not to pass out in her tepid Italian Wedding soup. Instead, I had been sitting quietly in a café, typing contently, only smelling slightly repugnant. I had done my laundry in the hostel sink two days before, after all. I am considerate like that.
I thought of how I had once had a job, more than six outfits, a home, and dignity. Well, the dignity part was debatable – but it was a nice feeling to clutch onto. I did so as I put down change for the libation I had spent two hours excruciatingly draining.
Then, my gadfly sensibilities, a remnant of my youth, took hold. I began thinking that while drinking a milkshake for an eon no doubt irritated the ponytailed man glowering in front of me, there were far more actions I could undertake that would cause him to spontaneously combust in a ball of enraged fury.
I imagined myself frequenting this establishment. The next time, I would order one peanut and eat it painstakingly for six hours. The day after, I would ask for three dashes of pepper and laboriously consume them for half the day. There was so much fun had to be had. We had just begun.
As I slumped away, dejected, I walked past the numerous Thai massage parlours that dotted the street of my guesthouse. As the nubile masseuses called out to me, I thought of opening my own massage shop. A Tear Massage. Instead of oil, I would use my tears as I massaged away the knots and stresses of my clients
Travelling on the road has its life-affirming moments. This was not one of them. I laughed, thinking of the new wonders ahead of me. There was still the possibility of running the gamut of stolen organs and gambling my passport away for beans in an inebriated stupor.
I felt better. And thought of how the owner had no idea how he had just missed out, because I had been minutes away from ordering green curry, and eating it for six hours as I typed about the airplane-themed restaurant I had been to in Taipei.
There was always tomorrow. A girl’s gotta eat.
And I would be back to order a cube of ice.
This article was written by The Irreverent Traveller. Check out her site to read more.