We hadn’t meant to drink. But with Redbeard and I it was almost an inevitability. One last night to see out our brotherhood and our livers could finally have the rest they cried out for. So there we were, back on the beers and dressed in our finest party attire: bucket hats and waxed mo’s aplenty.
The last two weeks had been a bit of a struggle, with waning stamina and the ill health that six months of self-abuse can create. But we pushed on, chasing the dragon, night after night. At this point we didn’t know really know anything else.
Tired bodies aside we were in fine form and lapping up the beautiful combination of sun, sand and skin that makes southern Spain such a magnet for tourists. Rise late, rub face and sneak past the cleaning lady – feeling strangely in the way given that I had paid to be there. Then the beach for countless swims and a touch of paddleball before hunger drove us back to Cadiz’s warren of shops and the now familiar booze aisles of the supermarcado.
The night was all we knew and we pursued it relentlessly.
Going on exchange is good for a whole host of reasons, including the significant amount of free time you find yourself confronted with. Being an avid tripper and having chosen to study in Holland (for obvious reasons) it seemed only natural to combine their readily available hallucinogens with a spot of sightseeing.
So there we were: my ever-keen friend Redbeard and I, chewing a handful of psychedelic truffles (White Diamonds – for the experienced tripper) as the bus left Tilburg. Our destination was Efteling: a fairytale inspired theme park nestled amid the green pastures of southern Holland. Notoriously zany, it seemed like the perfect place to combine the euphoria and other-worldliness of truffles with all the adrenaline of roller coasters.
Two weeks in Italy with the family was just the tonic to the ills of Rock Werchter and by the time Mum flew out of Rome I was back on track. Fortunately, because my next stop was another festival and all the glory and horror of four days in your own filth.
To celebrate being alone again I slept on the floor in Rome’s Fiumicino airport with the other temporarily homeless, before rising early to fly to Bilbao. Redbeard and I were soon reunited and back trying to figure out another unorganised festival set up. In contrast to the Belgian precision the Spanish were positively ambivalent. We wandered up the hill behind the stage and, with no one to tell us any better, joined the rest of the people trying to make sense of camping on a slope. While the view was spectacular the novelty of angled camping wears off pretty quickly when you are constantly sliding out the bottom of your tent.
My final days in Holland arrived with the relentless speed of a Dutch train. Like everyone else I was caught, swept up in the temporal momentum and chaos of exams, last minute guests and goodbyes. What had I taken from this time? Would I ever be back to this cycle-mad place? Answers fell by the wayside as the days slipped away and then I was off for one last bike to the station, sweating under the heat of a continental sun and the sum total of my possessions.
Our first morning in Prague had been a struggle, albeit one of our own making. But we were determined to make the most out of our 800 koruna donation to the Prague Municipality Office and so headed out again to brave the aged concrete of this former Soviet state.
Fortunately we were no longer unaided, with an old workmate agreeing to show us some of the city’s less touristed spots. It had been a while since I last saw Erza, a slew of unpaid parking fines and a drink driving conviction ensuring that it will be a while before he returns to New Zealand, if ever.
But the recognition was instant and we were soon headed in the direction of the old town. Erza and his friend explained that they wanted to take us to a place where you can smoke; Erza obviously remembering a few post-work sessions in the car park behind the bar and the big doobies of summer days in Western Park.
But the shop was shut and we opted for dinner instead, willingly led into the depths of a cosy pub and its smog of cigarette smoke. I copied Erza and ordered the local stew, quaffs of Pilsner Urquell perfect for washing down the hearty dumplings that came with the meal.
Our first day in Prague started bright and full of promise. We had arrived late the previous evening and gone through the now-standard routine of figuring out public transport and the local currency, shuffling through an ever-dwindling wad of euros at the bureau de change.
“How much much money you reckon we’ll need?”
The smartphone proved invaluable again and we followed its advice to a hostel that turned out to be considerably more pricey than promised. Glad to have a home base we agreed to the extortion (why does it always feel like you are getting ripped off when you arrive somewhere new?) and wandered up the hill for a bite.
In Berlin we had largely avoided paying for the S-Bahn and had consequently developed the dangerous belief that no-one really checked public transport this far east. This assumption was affirmed by a free ride home after yet another Italian dinner in a country that wasn’t Italy. Local culture, like.
It’s funny thing, chance. What could have been the human equivalent of two ships passing in the night insidiously creeps into something much more: a global series of encounters, often occurring with little other planning than a casual “see you.. around” – be it a few hours, days, or months later.
So here I am – a million miles from the mountain oasis of Pai, cultural light years from sweaty Khao San road, and a few train trips from a frozen Amsterdam – sitting on the train out of Dusseldorf, trying to piece together exactly how I got here.
It always strikes me how much of a role circumstance plays in romantic encounters. Despite our human tendency to claim control over the world, it is often just as much a product of time and place as it is anything else.
The remainder of our time in Pai slips by under a warm haze of Tramadol and weed. The weather is stunning, and we laze by the pool, reading and napping the days away.
We scooter out to some underwhelming hot springs and laugh at the signs forbidding you from cooking eggs in them. Later we discover the pool where you CAN cook your eggs, and it is a curious scene indeed. You emerge from forest into a small clearing and are confronted with half a dozen Thai tourists. They crowd around the steaming pool, cooking eggs suspended in plastic bags that swing from the end of bamboo rods. We laugh some more, and photo bomb the chefs standing proudly with their cooked lunch.
Brother Fox and I go for an excellent walk into the mountain jungle and follow a river upstream for several hours. The forest is lush, and different enough from the nature back home that we constantly find ourselves pausing to admire a different mushroom or strange plant. Our lazy pace fits perfectly with our mental space and we yarn contentedly, reaching the rewarding depth of conversation that comes easily to kindred souls.
The bus slowly winds up the hill, breaking, as the driver prepares for yet another hairpin turn. The road from Chang Mai to Pai is known for its huge number of corners, and we are not disappointed. Our ride climbs higher and higher, and the verdant jungle of Chiang Mai gives way to sparser mountain vistas.
Pai is the very definition of laid-back, a small hippy town where life meanders by for the relaxed locals and backpackers that stroll the main drag. At night the street turns into a food and clothes market that offers a wealth of tasty snacks and tie-die, the samosas and banana pancakes winning particular favour amongst our number.
Our hostel hosts, the eccentric German, Peter, and his Thai wife, Darling, are hilarious and almost certainly on opium. Their response to our query for board is extraordinarily laconic and at odds with the tourist trail’s usual hard sell. We are eventually provided for: VIP accommodation no less, one room complete with four thin swabs spaced out on the floor. We are given a “special price” by a manically grinning Darling, who explains that it is because “you are tall, like my son, veery tall.”
Spirits were considerably lower in the days that followed the events at Vang Vieng. We struggle our way from the bus station into town in a dusty red songthaew, and I remember just enough to get us to a former hostel, which of course we can’t check-in to until lunchtime.
We wander while we wait for the promised respite of a room, and play some frisbee in the park. An old Thai man enthusiastically joins Fox and I, but he isn’t much chop and soon gives up. He heads on his merry way, unfazed by the complete language barrier that prevented us from explaining how to play.
Our serotonin slowly recuperates and we venture an excursion to the night markets. There is nothing unexpected: just more fake Rolexes, ray bans and vans; Thai-themed t-shirts and hippie pants – accoutrements for the travelling glitterati.
The following morning we decide to hire scooters and set off to explore Chang Mai from the road. The scooters are 110cc and fully automatic, and in no time we are blasting along, zipping in and out of traffic, speeding towards Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep. We have no trouble pulling ahead of the locals as red lights turn green, their burdened 50cc steeds no match for our enthusiastic acceleration.