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Diary of a Globetrotting Family: New city excitement… but also sad news from home
I’ve never held with the idea that travel is about “getting away.” Wherever you are, there you are, and so are all the other parts of your life. Even when something is far away, it’s still part of you, distant but not absent. Just as we revel in the joys of travel, so too must we make time to pause for difficulty, sadness, and grief, no matter how far away the news has come.
Travel doesn’t take us away from life’s challenges, but it can help us meet them.
The Minecraft grave
Jodie, the kids, and I had just closed the hotel room’s door and taken off our shoes after an incredible lunch, but I had a feeling I needed to check my inbox. Even on the hot Bangkok afternoon, the email’s subject line stopped me cold.
When I read the first line of the email from our next-door neighbor, I put my hand on Jodie’s shoulder and looked her in the eye.
“You and I need to talk in private. Right now.”
Jodie told the kids we would talk with them soon. Closing our bedroom door behind us, I handed her my phone.
“It is with a heavy heart,” our neighbor wrote, “that I write to tell you that Jasmine passed away this week.”
Jodie and I both slumped, and the tears started to come.
Jasmine. Our family cat. Jodie had gotten Jasmine as a kitten in 2003. Jasmine had accepted me into her and Jodie’s lives in 2005. Over the years, Jasmine had welcomed baby Connor and baby Aster, and our cat regularly came to them for snuggles, pets, and treats. As we planned our global travels, our neighbors had kindly offered to foster Jasmine. One of our last tasks in Eugene had been to get Jasmine settled into the home next door.
“We noticed early in the week that she had lost some vigor and was spending more time sleeping, but still eating and drinking water,” the email continued. “Later in the week, she lost some interest in food which (as you know) was unusual. So, we were determined to keep an eye on her. Sadly, when we woke up on Saturday morning, she had passed.”
Gone. Jasmine had been 19. A truly senior kitty.
“I wish I knew more of what happened, but at least it seems to have been a peaceful passing.”
Not unexpected either. A 19-year-old cat lives in anytime territory. We’d known she could die at any time, especially once we started traveling. Still. Even expected bad news travels like a silent punch. Nothing can prevent it knocking the wind and the spirit out of you.
For her age, Jasmine had been in overall good health. Whenever the kids were reading on our front room’s blue couch, odds are one of them had a purring kitty on their lap. More often than not, the kids would try to keep the middle of the couch open. Jasmine could curl up between them, and they would call, “shrimp kitty! Shrimp kitty!” Cozying up with Aster and Connor was one of Jasmine’s favorite things to do, the comfort of loving youth to an old lady who knew she was winding down.
Our neighbors had grown fond of Jasmine over the years. Their toddler son had learned to gently pat her on the head. When they had offered to foster our geriatric yet healthy cat, we knew we couldn’t have asked for a better place for Jasmine.
But we also knew that leaving, and Jasmine figuring out we weren’t coming back anytime soon, just might be what tipped her over into being done with this life. As we absorbed the news and explained it to the kids, we all cried. Not only were we grieving, but we had also sometimes hoped that whenever Jasmine did pass, it might be once we had returned, or perhaps during a visit.
We felt guilty that we weren’t there. Did she know that we loved her and missed her, and that finding a good home for her, and deciding to travel now, was one of the hardest decisions we faced? We also knew that odds were Jasmine would pass away while we were traveling. That was a risk, a grief, a guilt, that we had to accept—and now it was time for those complicated, messy, pure feelings to run their sobbing course.
Our neighbors buried Jasmine’s body under the apple tree in their backyard.
After many sobs and snuggles, the children asked if they could do some art projects in Minecraft. A little later, they showed us what they had made.
In their Minecraft “Jasmine World,” there were chests and barrels full of cod and salmon. Aster had set up books, and written in them about our cat, from how Jasmine liked to run and play, to how she loved to snuggle and purr. The kids even had set up little activity areas, full of climbable pillars, jumpable platforms, and other ways a nimble cat could play.
Large red hearts inlaid with kitty faces floated in the air. Tall sculptures of sitting cats, the equivalent of 30 feet tall, kept watch over Jasmine World. Over a dozen cats roamed, maybe wandering the hills or taking a nap in the kitty rest area. And from one part of Jasmine World, a gray edifice rose, surrounded by flowers and Minecraft chests full of raw salmon, raw cod, and tropical fish.
“Jasmine St. Clair,” it said. “Age 19. Year of birth 2003. Died in sleep.”
“May she rest in peace.”
Of all the things I have considered Minecraft for, I had never realized that it could be a tool for working through grief. Since we and the kids couldn’t be with Jasmine in her final moments, they had worked with what they had: a game where they could express themselves, their love and their grief, for a furry family member who had been part of their lives from the moment they’d first come home.
“We will all miss her,” our neighbor concluded in her email, “but I know she had a long life filled with love.”
That she did. Even at the end, with us so far away, we hope Jasmine knew how much we loved her. Or maybe, just maybe, Jasmine decided that if she couldn’t travel with us one way, she’d figure out another way to follow us around the world and keep an eye on her favorite humans.
Eat the street food
Connor and I went out to pick up lunch. Standing in front of the hotel, I asked him, “Should we go left or right?”
Connor pointed left. Then he turned to the right and started walking.
After a lot of laughing, he clarified that he meant us to go right, he had just gotten mixed up. The best part though? The direction ultimately didn’t matter. Whichever way we had turned, whatever direction we chose to go in Bangkok, we would have found delicious, fresh, affordable street food.
For many of our meals in Bangkok’s Din Daeng neighborhood, we have had to look no farther than the street out front of our hotel. In fact, if we just cross the street in the morning, we can secure iced coffees from one cart. Right next to that one, for about fifty cents we can secure fresh-from-the-fryer bags of fried slices of bananas, sweet potatoes, and even pineapple.
Turning left another morning, we wandered down to a noodle soup shop we had previously lunched at. Along with platters of spring rolls, we ordered huge bowls of fresh soup, packed with noodles, vegetables, pork and fish. For what you might pay for a fancy coffee in the US, we can feed our entire family a fresh, tasty, healthy meal in Bangkok.
That comes with a free etiquette lesson too. In Thailand, chopsticks come out typically only when eating noodle dishes. Otherwise, most Thais use a spoon in the right hand, and a fork in the left hand. The fork helps you get food to your spoon, and you eat from the spoon. Over one meal, Jodie stabbed a morsel of chicken with her fork and ate it.
“Mama!” said Connor. “You’re eating from your fork!”
On a typical morning, I have gone down to figure out breakfast from the various stalls and carts along the street. One morning, I happened upon a husband and wife making waffles with kernels of sweet corn mixed in. They were in the midst of cooking a fresh batch though, and told me it would be a few minutes.
When they put the piping hot waffles in a brown paper bag, they added a couple of miniature waffle discs, as a way of acknowledging the wait. Not that I minded. Quite the contrary; it was a joy to feel, hear, see, and smell the city in its morning motion. Wandering back up the street, I saw a gentleman scooping bright yellow pieces of jackfruit out of what looks like a green, halved dinosaur egg, and picked up a bag for a little over a dollar.
We have selected fresh fruit from storefronts, where shopkeepers compliment the children and offer them free samples. Peeling off the brown, dry, bumpy skin of cherry-size longans, we unveiled whitish jellylike fruits with a mild, sweet flavor. Our morning favorites? We breakfasted on chicken skewers, marinated in a sweet-savory sauce, and grilled over charcoal before our eyes. Also on the plate, slabs of white-fleshed dragonfruit, concealed behind pink peels.
Our last few days in Bangkok, Connor and sometimes both children would help me find the day’s breakfast. We might pick up fried dough that has taken on the appearance of knobby, big-fingered ginger root, but tastes like crispy clouds. A family sets up large aluminum steaming urns, cooking bao, or Chinese-style steamed dumplings, full of your choice of barbecued pork or ground pork with hard-boiled egg.
A cart next to the bao shop specializes in breaded and fried pork and chicken, some savory and garlicky, some a bright, fiery red from the chiles that have been worked into the batter. Served up with rice, it can start your day faster than a cup of strong black coffee.
Just slightly caddy-corner to our hotel, across the street, an evening spot has shown us day after day that it is THE place to be. I wandered by one afternoon, to see swaths of clay bowls, filled with liquid bubbling away over charcoal fires. After an evening or two of seeing how packed out the place was, we went there not once, but twice for dinner, including our last night in Bangkok.
They served up hot pots, you see. Once you order, they would bring a conical clay brazier of charcoal to the table, topped with an open terracotta pot where the freshly made broth simmers. You add in your choice of protein—pork or chicken have been our favorites—and mix in vegetables to simmer, usually stalks of morning glory greens. Once portioned into bowls, you can customize your hot pot with anise-hinted leaves of Thai basil, crunchy mung bean sprouts, and spoonfuls of chile sauce.
Connor even tried some of the chili sauce. He thought it was too spicy. But he tried it.
Some people consider street food terrifying. But here’s the thing: Street food is where you find a city’s soul.
Want a hint? If lots of people eat there, odds are it’s safe. That’s doubly the case if you see families there, parents and children. Parents are the same the world over: We all want a good meal—and no one will go somewhere they think it’s going to make them and their kids sick.
In a place like Bangkok, the options are extensive, fresh, affordable, incredible—and safe. Our entire week in Bangkok, we dined on street food, and felt healthy both in body and in budget.
So for us? We eat the street food. It’s how we get to know a place, one meal, one moment, one bite at a time.
When a vision becomes what you see
I’m going to tell you something that I haven’t even told Jodie.
This is what it looks like.
As the sun goes down, the bright, multi-colored lights of the skyline twinkle. Tall buildings stand over a bustling, broad city that seems as endless, as boundless as the imagination.
In a tall, broad rectangle of dark glass, the reflection of a man smiles.
I’ve held this moment, this mental landscape selfie of myself, for years. The vision has always been a little dreamlike snapshot that I carry in an inner folder of personal hope. I’ve never talked about it with anyone. Until now.
For years I’ve also wondered what is happening around the me in this vision. There were years where I thought maybe it was the solitary alternative version of Anthony St. Clair, who never met Jodie. Perhaps this was a lonerish Anthony, who focused only on career, and now was in, say, a high-rise condo somewhere, alone and sometimes lonely, but, I hope, overall content and happy.
The things we learn about ourselves.
For now, you see, I know exactly what this dreamlike snapshot is. The dream has shifted from my mind, to what I actually see before me.
In Bangkok one evening, I stood out on the balcony of our hotel room. To the south, the skyline stretched from edge to edge of my vision. Bright lights danced, even as low clouds obscured some of the high towers. The sounds of the city rose.
But now, as I looked over one of the world’s great cities, I saw something I hadn’t seen before.
Life is not a snapshot. Life is 3D, three hundred sixty degrees, lived in round fullness in all directions and senses.
My long-held snapshot had only shown me what was before me, and a little glimpse of reflection.
Looking at ourselves can be the most limiting way we see the world.
Now I could see no longer the snippet and snapshot, but what surrounded it and encompassed it.
I saw the full picture.
Stepping back inside our room, I closed the sliding door and saw myself in the dark glass’s reflection. Behind me, Jodie and the kids were on the couch. She smiled at me. The kids told her how much they loved going out to eat earlier that day, wandering the street food of our neighborhood.
What’s best about a vision of yourself, is when you use it as a seed, not something to mimic. I always wanted to see a city the way I was seeing it now. But what made it happen? Being with the love of my life. Being determined to show our children some of the world. And following our hearts to a place we knew we all would love.
That old vision of me will always be there, in my mind. I can keep it tucked away, like an old photo that’s good to keep, but no longer necessary to keep close.
I have a better vision now. Not the dream, but the reality. Not the snapshot, but the full picture. In Bangkok, the smiling traveler—with my family.
Night bus to Chiang Mai
When I was a kid, road tripping with my family, the dark, nighttime parts of a drive were my favorite.
Driving during the day? Sure, that was wonderful too. I’d stare out the windows at the ever-changing landscapes. Forests, hills, towns, beaches, plains; landscapes from a vehicle at highway speed become a study in time, space, and constant transformation. As we drove, I’d wonder what the people were like in different towns we passed through, or what hidden worlds lay beyond the wall of trees screening the highway from the unseen beyond.
At night, though, my perception shifted. Driving during the day is a time of pondering the world outside. In the dark, where anything visible beyond the window is a study in shades of black, the drive becomes a time of pondering the worlds inside. Darkness made the world a blank canvas, yet it also made brighter the realms of my mind and heart.
During those dark times driving, I could think. Imagine. Hope. Dream while awake.
As much as I love driving, as much as I have enjoyed being behind the wheel during thousands of miles of road trips with my own little family, over these past couple of months I have rediscovered my love of being a passenger. To drive is to stay in constant awareness and readiness. I can imagine and ponder to a degree, but it is always interspersed with checking directions or scanning for signs of potential hazards.
Along for the ride on buses, trains, planes, and various automobiles though, I had forgotten how all there is for me to do is sit back, relax, and do, well, pretty much whatever. Lately, during our various bus rides and other conveyances between places, I have decided that part of what I want to do is return to that inward state I knew so well from my childhood.
I do not, however, want to rediscover childhood thoughts. The scared, insular, out-of-place boy I was is something I remember, but have no need or desire to relive. During all those family road trips though, I discovered, amidst the turbulence of my outer life, an inner calm. Inside my mind and my heart, I found an oasis, a haven, a bay safe from all storms. Inside that space, I started to understand not only the sort of person that I was, but also who I wanted to be. My imagination grew in the fertile garden there. Inside that inner space, I wove maps, maps of the fantasies, the great story of my boyhood life.
More importantly, though, I also sowed seeds of the sort of man I hoped to be. Creative. Decisive. Always moving forward. My adult self, like any grown garden, is imperfect, but overall, I like to think my seeds have grown decently true to vision.
On our last day in Bangkok, Jodie, the kids, and I finished packing, left our bags with the front desk staff at the hotel, and spent a couple of hours exploring Lumpini Park. Jodie and I relaxed in waterside chairs while the kids took a swan paddle boat around a serene lake. Later, our driver steered us through traffic and downpours to the bus station far in the northern part of the city.
We had attempted to book a train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, but the trains had been full. So, we opted for a 10-hour overnight bus ride. We’d leave Bangkok around 6:50pm, and arrive around 4:30 in the morning.
“I’m so excited for the bus ride!” Aster told us. Inside the bus station, we passed by a monks-only seating area, where four men in saffron robes sat, waiting for their own buses. Finding the area where we’d head outside to our platform, and realizing we were in the midst of various stores and food stalls, we settled into chairs around a table.
I was grateful to hear Aster’s excitement. Clearly our rather barfy bus ride in Oaxaca had not put her off buses, and from what we could tell the road to Chiang Mai was much more of the straight and smooth variety. Nonetheless, Jodie and I had stocked up on anti-nausea meds, and had the pills at the ready.
The kids and Jodie clunked plastic cups, and the kids cheered, “To proper bubble tea in Bangkok!” I nursed my coffee—a black, large, double americano—and we watched the rain come down outside.
Then Connor committed a great and terrible wrong.
He grabbed my coffee cup.
I pulled the steaming dark goodness closer toward me. “If you mess with my coffee I will donate you to the monks,” I said. “There was a seating area full of them. I bet they’d love to have a long-haired boy they could turn upside down and use to clean the floors.”
Connor chuckled. “I’m pretty sure you have to shave your head to be a monk.”
“You wouldn’t be a monk,” I replied. “You’d be a mop.”
After ham and cheese sandwiches, chicken noodle soup, and chicken and rice, we headed to the door that led to the bus platform area.
I leaned down to Aster. The weight of my backpack pressed against my torso. Rain and diesel fumes wafted through the air underneath the corrugated metal roofs high above us.
“I need your help, Aster,” I told my daughter.
“What is it?”
I pointed upward. “See those signs, with the red backgrounds and the white numbers?”
“You are so good at spotting things. Can you lead us to number thirty-eight?”
“Come on, Daddy! Mama! Connor!”
And she was off. Her own wee red backpack bounced up and down. Strapped to the front of her pack, Aster’s squishy cat pillow and her little horse bounced too. She led us with confidence and a sure step—though her cozy friends might have started to wish for their own dose of anti-nausea meds.
“There it is!” she called, and brought us to a group of people, all standing under number 38.
At the back of the bus’s top level, Connor settled in with his own squishy dog-faced pillow. He took the bus-provided blanket out of its plastic bag, put back his seat, then pulled up the arm rest between his seat and my seat.
“I want more room to snuggle you,” he told me, and rubbed his shoulder up against mine.
“I get to snuggle up with my favorite guy,” I replied. He nodded. He even let me kiss him on the top of the head.
Leaving Bangkok itself took around an hour. The city went on and on, as if it didn’t want to let go and just become landscape. We passed by incredible landmarks, such as a massive, orange, lit-up golden figure—presumably a king or the Buddha, but as we zipped by I couldn’t quite tell. Huge markets had roofs but no walls, and inside we could see their bright lights, laden tables, and bustling shoppers.
A little past Don Mueang International Airport—the airport I flew in and out of in 2003, and which we would use in a few weeks, when we would fly to Cambodia—two pale gray concrete dinosaurs were lit with flood lamps. An apatosaurus and a tyrannosaurus rex, teamed up to thrill or terrify us hapless, surprised travelers.
Move over, little dwarves. Thailand is the land of lawn dinos.
And nighttime is the time of calm travel. The four of us settled in—the kids with an appropriate dose of anti-nausea medication, and me and Jodie with a deep, deep hope that this bus ride would go better than the one in Oaxaca. Then again, given the state of our stomachs on that trip, the only way the ride could go worse this time would be if the bus crashed.
Now and again Jodie or I reached across the aisle and squeezed hands. Next to Jodie, Aster conked out after the first couple of hours, and slept the entire way to Chiang Mai.
Connor stared out the window, his head on his little pillow cozy friend. And I saw, in my son’s eyes, the same gaze of my own boyhood, traveling in the dark along highways that all led down into one’s deepest heart.
He was doing the same thing I did as a kid.
“You want a snack, son?” I asked him
“Okey dokey, not artichokey,” he replied.
“How about okey dokey artijokey?” I said.
He chuckled and shook his head. “You are unfunny.”
“Perhaps,” I said, “but at least I’m a good dad.”
“That’s true,” he replied.
A few minutes later, he was asleep. The bus wound its smooth way toward Chiang Mai. My son’s thoughts turned to dreams, and I sat there, gazing at my sleeping, snuggly, cozy son, wishing that each of his dreams was as pleasant as my hopes for him and his incredible life to come.
Small world lesson
When it came to living in Eugene, Oregon, I used to say that the adage that everyone is connected by six degrees of separation was incorrect. In Eugene, you had two degrees.
Fortunately for me, travel is a patient teacher.
Our night bus to Chiang Mai had arrived around four thirty in the non-morning dark. By the time we had taxied to our place, settled our luggage, and collapsed into waiting beds, it was around five thirty in the almost morning. By early afternoon, I was down at the pool with the kids. However, my role today was strictly supervisory. While the kids splashed in a pool that was around two hundred meters long, I holed up at a nearby table. My daily writing beckoned.
People were scarce. Now and again someone might walk by, on the narrow asphalt walking and jogging track that surrounded the pool. The occasional swimmer lapped their way to our end of the pool, then back to the farther end, unseeable from our vantage. A woman got into the pool. From the corner of my eye, I thought I noticed the kids chatting with her, but I was too absorbed in my imagination to pay any more attention than was necessary, which at the time, was not the slightest bit at all.
So when Aster came over the table, grinning wide as a significant volume of pool water dripped off her onto the patio, I was most surprised.
“Daddy!” she told me, “you’re not going to believe this.”
I saved my file and gave her my full attention. “Try me.”
“There’s a woman in the pool, and she’s from Oregon!”
Then Aster was gone.
Another Oregonian? Well, it was only a matter of time.
Moments later, Connor came over.
“Did Aster tell you about the woman?”
“She got in the water and said it was cold,” he started to tell me. “And Aster I told her that we’re used to cold water. We live in Oregon.”
“And she said she’s from Oregon,” I added. “Did she say where from?”
Connor beamed as much as Aster had.
“She told us she’s from Oregon too,” he said. “She lives in Eugene.“
My jaw fell and I leaned forward. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
But I realized I wasn’t all that surprised after all. In its own low-key, quiet way, Oregon has a way of showing up all over the world. Eugene, even with a population of less than two hundred thousand people, can be even quieter, yet just as prevalent.
“She’s not just from Eugene,” Connor continued. “She lives off River Road and was telling us about how much she loves Emerald Park.”
Emerald Park is our park. The park closest to our house. That park, in fact, was one of the reasons Jodie and I moved to the neighborhood. We’ve taken the kids there since they were barely out of newborn stage.
And now, in Chiang Mai, my kids had met someone who lived not only in the same state, not only in the same city, but was no more than ten minutes from our own purple front door.
“I told her what you told me,” Connor added.
“What was that?”
“I told her that my dad told me that while we traveled, we shouldn’t be surprised to find connections to Oregon all over the place.”
Connor left and got back in the pool. I sat back in my chair and imagined my adopted home, thousands of miles to the east, across the vast Pacific Ocean.
Six degrees of separation. That’s the concept. Based on an experiment, done in the 1920s, that demonstrated that just about any person could be connected to any other person by no more than six other people. It’s phenomenal. During the twenty-two years I’ve been an adopted Oregonian, I’ve encountered Oregon everywhere from a remote island in British Columbia, to a small town in southeastern Thailand (on my prior visit though, not this trip).
I’d been convinced that when it came to Oregon, even when it came to Eugene, there were, in fact, two degrees of separation. In Thailand, I learned that I was wrong. Eugene is my quirky, funky, adopted Pacific Northwest home. It’s tucked away in a valley people can’t pronounce, in a state that people tend to forget exists. Yet, Thailand showed me, the entire world is connected to Eugene not by six degrees of separation, nor by two—but by one.
We live amidst such vast distances yet are as connected as cells or atoms. For such a big place, it really is such a small world.