Portuguese Dreams

You can read guidebooks and plan all you want, but it’s only when you step foot in a place that you know whether it resonates. And I don’t mean a pleasant vacation experience. I’m taking about that mysterious alchemy when a place clicks with you deeply.

Portugal has been like this for me. Which is funny, because I came to this country for purely utilitarian reasons: close to Spain, pretty cheap, good seafood. So when the lumbering bus, with me as the lone passenger, drove over the bridge between Spain and Portugal, I was surprised by my heart lifting.

Typical architecture of the Algarves.

It all began with the views out the bus windows. Something in that poignant combination of white-washed walls, sea light, husky stone hills, and ruins. The ruins of buildings were everywhere, left standing even in the middle of towns. They seemed a testimony to human history and the slow erode of nature: bare bones of homes crumbling under the sun.

This connection deepened when I checked into my hostel in Raposeira, a village in the Sagres region near Cape St. Vincente, the most south-west point of Europe. “Good Feeling” is a chilled out place run by Portuguese surfer dudes who wanted to be near the sea while making a living. Porch hammocks and communal clay-pot dinners by the village chef added to the homey appeal.

Good feeling hostel! Complete with beat-up bootaround car.

Good Feeling hostel: complete with beat-up bootaround car.

This became my homebase for hiking through the surrounding natural park of Costa Vicentina. And, lucky for me, low season meant long hikes without seeing a soul.

The most memorable walk was down the West Coast to Cape Vincente. My new friend Christian and I trekked in silence for hours through varied landscape. Sheer coastline, and huge fields of golden shrubs and shale. Strangely alien satellite stations, rye fields, abandoned farms. It was my kind of pilgrimage.

Step by step

One detour led us to a ruined fort with only three walls; the fourth opened to the sea. A steep cliff with wrought-iron handholds set into the stone led us down to the ocean. We sunned on the rocks and steeped in that ancient place: wild, but with a strong sense of human past. The rough hewn steps were well-worn, and I could picture boats docking in the crash of waves.

As it turned out, that location was built in the 1400’s as protection from the Moors across the way in Morocco. And because the way down was steep, it has remained outside of tourism’s reach, lending to its timeless atmosphere.

Soon after our detour we arrived at the cape — a tourist circus, but stunning nonetheless. I actually kind of appreciated the food and booze trucks parked along the road to the lighthouse. The “Last Sausage before America” provided a surreal carny contrast to the seascape.

Sausage for sale.

Following that hike to the Cape, walks in the nearby hills sealed my love affair with the region. Through research, I discovered that the Cape Vincente area has been considered sacred for centuries, marked by stone megoliths in the neolithic era, while the ancient Greeks called it a portal for the Gods. On the footpaths, hearing only melodic cowbells, birds, and occasionally passing a Sheppard and his flock, I could understand why.

Barbara Kingsolver (whose book I was devouring while in Raposeira) talks about how humans are primarily visual when falling in love, ignoring the importance of the other senses. But the beauty of countryside is a full-bodied experience. This is why photos don’t always do justice to a landscape: even if a place isn’t immediately visually stunning, it can resonate on so many other levels.

The Sagres region is, in fact, blessed with good looks. But my feeling of connection came from breathing in the spicy scents of wild lavender and rosemary and the sun burnished rocks. It was the fresh air on my face, the texture of the path beneath my feet, the low sound of wind in the pines.

A week later, when I travelled up to central Portugal for a yoga retreat, I had the chance to connect to a different landscape. Vale de Moses yoga centre is in a remote area in the mountains, with the nearest village being only a couple hundred people, and the second nearest, called Figuero, an abandoned town that is slowly crumbling back into the rocks.

Back to the land.

Figuero village: back to the land.



When you arrive at the retreat centre, a potholed gravel road winds down to the farmhouse set into the mountainside. A river runs at the bottom of the property, and the only sounds in the valley are water over the rocks, and birds to wake us in the mornings.

Each morning we did a silent walk and meditation along the narrow paths nearby. One day, our yoga teacher Tashi had us move along slowly, touching and connecting to the textures of the place, not just using our eyes. She explained it further: “Imagine that everything you touch is receptive. Your feet, your hands, are in active reciprocity with what is around you.”

So we walked along in single file and I put my hands on smooth rocks and the massive pine cones that had fallen onto the path. Touched new green leaves, spiky mountain shrubs, and raindrops on the spider webs hammocked between flowers. I felt the path come up to meet my feet in a different way; it was refreshing.

Later that day, sitting on the porch by the river, I kept thinking: what if I were always able to see myself as part of a nourishing ecosystem, like I do here? It’s old wisdom, but if I and everyone else thought this way, it would alter how we use the land. We couldn’t help ourselves.

Tashi’s meditation also brought to mind John O’Donohue’s book “On Beauty”. In one chapter, he talks about how landscape remembers us. How perhaps the land responds to our presence and our footsteps, and that living in a natural place is always living in active engagement.

When I first read his words, they made intuitive sense to me – growing up on our farm, working in the fields, I always felt I was in relationship with the land around me. Writers like Michael Pollen, Jay Griffiths, Joanna Macy, and many more, provide varied perspectives on this reciprocity.

The difference comes when you actually feel it. The experiences I’ve had in the Portuguese countryside has reminded me of my life-long/life-line connection to land. Even on another continent, across the Atlantic.


“What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach…when we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us.” ~ John O’Donohue


Spanish Muse

It’s been a very full month and a half. In this time, I’ve travelled from Barcelona to Sevilla. I’ve learned survival Spanish, attempted flamenco, and varnished windows in an ecovillage. I have met some wonderful people.

But every time I go to a new country, I get unexpected insights which weave through the entire journey. And I’m not just talking about sight-seeing or language-learning or guidebook bits of knowledge. It’s often much more ephemeral than that.

In Spain, it began with going to Barcelona’s La Sagrada Famillia, Antonio Gaudi’s most famous and controversial creation.

For those who haven’t been, it is a giant cathedral by the genius architect, which has been in the making for a hundred plus years. I bought my ticket, and stood in line, feeling rather ho-hum, another tourist attraction. But when I walked in through the archways, I was blown away.

Vaulted ceilings, massive pillars like tree trunks, and stained glass that was different from any church I’d ever seen.

sagradaThe Gaudi museum explained that the architect was very much influenced by the natural landscape of his childhood. Trees, honeycomb, lavender, shells – these organic forms were transformed into elaborate stone pillars and roofs.

The pillars in the cathedral are strengthened by stone 'burls' modelled after what  trees form to heal wounds.

The cathedral pillars are strengthened by stone ‘burls’ – modelled after what trees form to heal wounds.

The top of the cathedral has peaks that look like the lavender that grows wild in Spanish countryside.

The outside peaks of the cathedral modelled after lavender that grows wild in Spanish countryside.

I had sensed that natural connection as soon as I walked in: from the sculpted ceiling that looked like giant stars to the massive pearled seashells that hold the holy water.

I’d never been around such inspiring human-made beauty before, and didn’t think it was possible to dream up something so surreal yet stunning. It was a powerful experience. (I will admit that I might have cried a bit!)

My engagement with art continued in Madrid. While in the capital, I had the chance to go to a number of galleries, including the famous Prado and Reina Sofia. (Having free art gallery hours should be part of all civilized countries, by the way).

However, the exhibit that stuck out for me was a photography exhibit by Jose Manuel Ballester, a Madrid artist. It was called “Forest of Light” and was housed in an old tobacco factory called La Tabacalera. It was a massive, cold labyrinth of a factory that still rang of physical labour and smelled of cured tobacco. The photos were huge, and often of industrial landscapes, so the exhibit mirrored the setting (ingenious).

Two photos captured me in particular. One was a simple portrait of light falling on a wall, which I have posted about before. What I loved about that photo is that Ballester somehow caught on film a light that is so familiar, yet somehow divine in it’s afternoon normalcy.

This ability to illuminate ordinary beauty reminded me of a Spanish still life I’d seen at the Prado museum the day before. One of the first still lives painted in Spain, it was completed in 1602 by Juan Sanchez Cotan.

still life_Juan Sanchez Cotan 1602The photo above doesn’t do justice to a piece that has been described as having a “mysterious intensity, simplicity, and symbolic humility.” Which is also a perfect description of Ballester’s photo of that abandoned factory wall…

The other photo I loved in the Tabacalara exhibit was of a small ship dwarfed by cliffs. I had turned the corner in the factory, being the only person in the cavernous place, and there on the wall was this portrait:

boat_Jose Manuel BallesterAfter many industrial images, the natural scene immediately captured me. I appreciated the difference in scale, as well as the implicit motion of the piece: ancient nature slow-moving, and the sturdy, determined boat which would soon pass out of view.

Finally, in the south of Spain, I had the chance to go to the Alhambra (1333 AD) in Granada, and the Alcazar (1100’sAD) in Sevilla. Both castles are examples of ancient Arabic architecture. The Alhambra was the last Muslim stronghold in Europe, and the Alcazar remains in use as a royal palace in the ‘mujadar’ style.

I have no training in the core elements of Arabic architecture, and won’t wikipedia so I can impress you all! But what I loved about both of these historical places was the sense of order and peace that somehow emerged in the way the castles were constructed.


The Alhambra

In both palaces, as you walk through, hallway melts into hallway and secret courtyards with bubbling fountains emerge green and calm under the sky. So it is not just a visual experience — there is a full-bodied atmosphere that can only be described as tranquil, timeless, and much more in harmony with the surrounding landscape then the Christian buildings from the same time period.

I was also amazed by the level of brilliance in the practical details, including the fact that in Granada, the Moors invented a mechanism that allowed all the fountains to run constantly with pure drinking water—hundreds of metres above sea level, way before the ‘invention’ of indoor plumbing.

An example of an Arabic aljibe, or water cistern.

An example of an Arabic aljibe, or water cistern, in the ancient Albayzin neighbourhood of Granada.

Another one, from Plaza Nueva, Granada.

Another aljibe in Plaza Nueva, Granada.

Finally, added depth in both castles came in the transparent accounts of the  reconstruction work that has taken place over the centuries. It was fascinating to read about the different scientific, artistic, and research techniques used to peel back (re. interpret) history. The architecture has been conserved but is never static; both remain living works of art.

All of this to say — Spain has got me thinking.

I’ve realized that beauty, for me, has always meant nature — art was always a separate category. Visiting Gaudi’s cathedral, Ballester’s “Forest of Light”, and the gardens of the gleaming Alcazar has made me question this easy distinction.

It has also made me think about my own connection to beauty. (So easily lost in the busyness of life!) One of the best parts of travel is that it opens your eyes, and you can keep falling in love since you are always going somewhere new.

However, I wonder if a strong sense of beauty has to be tied to novelty. Although honeymoon love is thrilling, I want to keep developing my relationship with beauty to allow for cities, changing seasons, second viewings, and everyday life.

But, for now, I am grateful for this chance to be challenged and inspired!

Dining in Đà Nẵng

On the side of the green mountain is a statue of Quan Am, the boddhissatva of compassion. The statue gleams white and rises as tall as a lighthouse. She looks over the bustle of industrious Danang Bay, and oversees the resorts springing up from cement dust to become tourist beacons.

The Vietnamese people who visit the Chùa Linh Ứng pagoda are small beneath her gaze, and so am I. The mountainside, the polished stone floors, low-sounding gongs, and sea breeze conspire to create a sense of spaciousness.

However, at this point, I’m too distracted to appreciate: I’m running late for dinner.

My friend Hoa calls Thang to explain why we are late. I feel jittery and nervous. Thang is the matriarch of the family I lived with in Danang in 2006, and am staying with for my current visit. She is small, passionate, and at times, fierce. And I seem to have a special reserve of guilt when it comes to disappointing my VN family.

So, off we rush, Hoa weaving expertly through the swarm of motorcycles. Over the bridge, to the plaza, where I meet Thang and jump into her friends’ vehicle, our destination a mystery restaurant somewhere outside Danang.

As mentioned, I used to live with Thang, and when she adopted me, so did her wide community of friends. What I had expected to be an isolating experience working in central Vietnam became the first time I gained a family outside of my blood relatives. Familiar, intimate, and beloved people, despite not speaking a lick of the same language.

I had shared many meals with the couple in the vehicle; Xum and Khánh are two of Thang’s long-time friends. The husband, Khánh, can speak a little French, so we managed to cobble together enough English, French, and Vietnamese for him to explain we were going to eat in a village just outside of Danang.

When we turn off the main highway, we enter into another time. Tiny school boys in white uniforms bike in front of us, oblivious to the patient car behind. Bright green rice paddies line the narrow road. A cow wanders by. Even the light seems slower, more pure, lighting up the bamboo rising from the ditches.

We finally arrive at a low concrete bungalow beside a rice paddie, where more of Thang’s friends are waiting for us. Sitting down around the long table, the feast began.

It was a bring-your-own-whiskey kind of place, so we cracked open a bottle and made a couple of toasts. “Chúc sức khỏe” (Good health) was followed by another sort of toast: “Cent percent!” A cheer harkening back to the French influence in VN, also translated as ‘Chug’ — which I graciously declined.

After we drank together, I sat back and listened. The weave of Vietnamese spoken among the group of friends was comforting to me. It’s interesting when you can’t communicate, but are accepted as part of a community.  When you have to get to know  someone non-verbally, rather than through the stories we tell, it creates a different sort of intimacy.

However, despite the language barriers, my friends applauded my pidgin VN, and are always eager to teach me more. Often, this means learning the names of what we were eating.

As per tradition, that night the dishes were placed in the middle of the table so we can share, using chopsticks to dish bite-sized pieces into our individual bowls. And, unfortunately for my aching belly, a gesture of respect is to fill up your friends’ bowl with food as soon as it is empty. So my bowl was always brimming with the evening’s special delicacies.

First, marinated snails still in their shells. Then baby birds with tiny, crunchy bones (and heads still intact!). Followed by crispy fried rice cake, which is rolled into balls and eaten with specific sauces: hot chili sauce; nuoc mam (fish sauce); and a sweet brown oyster sauce. And then frog legs, which took a long time for me to identify, as I thought the hopping motions my friends made to explain meant we were eating bunnies.

Post frog-legs, there was a deceptive pause, and then out came the noodles and a savoury hotpot of tender river fish, eaten with plates piled with fresh herbs.

All of this food was harvested and grown locally, from the village rice paddies. In fact, when the frogs started croaking as the sun went down, everyone pointed to their plates and then to the fields, grinning.

It was when we were on the final course of sugared ginger and fresh bananas, that an older woman showed up. I could tell right away she was someone respected, because Thanh, the man sitting on my left, immediately stood and began to serve her. She only wanted a little noodles, a bite of fish. And half a cup of coca cola to wash it down.

Thanh looked at me, and said: “Chị Gái”. Older sister, he explained, pointing to himself and then to her. Khánh told me that the two of them were from a family of eight, all whom had grown up in this small village.

It was an unexpected piece of information. Thanh is a well-off, important man in charge of the cultural (re. communist) content on Vietnamese TV. Imagining him raised here, in the concrete bungalows and humility of the village, gave me a different view. All of a sudden I understood why this specific location was chosen, adding another layer of meaning to the evening meal.

All the while, Thanh’s older sister sat and sipped her coke. She wore a brown business woman’s jacket over the traditional VN evening wear of silk pajamas. A scrunchie held back her gray hair. Her teeth were stained by betel, a nut containing a mild narcotic that women eat to improve their beauty (though it turns the teeth black!).

As a sign of respect, I asked our new visitor’s age, and then addressed her by the proper Vietnamese pronoun– or ‘co’.

Khánh then explained why the energy in the room had changed when she arrived. Everyone stopped to listen when he said the word “Hero.” Even the men who had not been able to speak to me all night, somehow knew the English word: “Hero,” they said, pointing at her. “Hero.”

Over the remains of the meal, as everyone chatted away around us, Khánh told me her story, again cobbling together English, French, and Vietnamese so we could understand one another.

The woman was celebrated as a Viet Cong war hero who saved this very village from American tanks.

“How?” I wanted to know.

Khánh then asked me if I heard of the Chinese students in Tianamen Square. I said, yes. Holding up both hands in front of him, Khánh made a strong ‘Stop’ gesture. Unarmed, and with her bare hands, the woman sitting at the table had faced off the American tanks. They had turned around, and left, not to return.

And, Khanh said with a smile, she saved all the many Viet Cong soldiers who were hiding in the village.

I was suitably impressed and quickly said how Canadians didn’t agree with the Vietnam war, and how I was glad I could met a VC heroine.

Khanh looked at me and then put another piece of frog leg in my bowl. “There are many different opinions on the war,” he said slowly, “Vietcong, American, Vietnamese who live in America, and all the other countries. Many different views.” He looked down, concentrating on his noodles, and the story was dropped.

When the woman left to go for an evening stroll, we all toasted her, the men naming her again as “Hero”. We ate some more, and then collected the bill, which is never split, but paid only by one person, who is treated the next time everyone goes out, when it is someone else’s turn to pay.

As we walked out, I could hear the frogs thrumming right beside the road. The family who owned the restaurant were sitting in the nearby building, eating their own dinner, looking at me curiously.

When we parted ways to head back into the city, I said goodbye to friends I hadn’t seen for seven years, and am not sure when I will see again. Sitting in the back of the car, we sped along beside the black ocean. I knew Quan Am shone to my right, a landmark, even if I could not see her.

fishingFishing, Da Nang Bay

Street Dog

Not sure how I missed them the first time I came to Thailand, back in 2005. I was probably so enthralled with the orange-robed monks and the blare of life lived outdoors that I overlooked the true city rulers, the street dogs.

There are feral cats here too. Bone-jutting felines that slink between small spaces, sniffing for tourist crumbs and whetting their parched tongues on freshly watered plants. Most of these cats are minus their tails: unhealed stubs where a dog or tuktuk or human caught at them. And all are wideeyed and darting shy, hiding away when you so much as look at them.

But—the dogs.

There are two main types I’ve seen. Ones that are small but fierce. Erect little generals leading their comrades towards the best places to eat, beg, hump, sleep. Flea infested and unhomed, maybe, but get out of their arrow-straight, well-honed paths, because they are on a mission.

It’s the other type of street dog that has my heart. This second group is where my friend falls into.

Every day, I walk twenty minutes from my guesthouse on a quiet soi to reach the traveller’s haven and hell of Khao San road, and the pretty, but equally dodgy, Rambuttri village.

And because life is lived outdoors in Thailand, I step over and around industry with each foot fall. A motorcycle mechanic conducting business on the sidewalk. A makeshift restaurant featuring chicken wings pierced by sharp skewers. Beer in buckets and dishes washed right in front of you in day-old water. Ice crushed, fruit chopped, intestines glistening for sale, meat grilling, sweets carefully lined up on carts fringing the roadway. One side of the river is food stalls; the other side sells plants and chattering windchimes.

I walk through this intense life, and about halfway to my destination, I see him. Laying there, unaffected by the industry around him and the ambitions of fellow street dogs, his fur crusty with road dirt and dog grease. His eyes sealed nearly shut, sides heaving with slow breaths. Limbs splayed, scavenging thin shade from nearby plants.

He has staked that specific section of sidewalk as if some old master left him there, and he’s patiently awaiting return. As if he could die any second, or outlive us all.

Each time I pass him, I send a well-wishing prayer. Something like: “I get how you feel.” or “I love you.”

He holds his own, that dog. He knows what home is, and claims it. Is it loyalty, or just not being able to rise on those creaky old stumps?

One early eve, I was walking back to my guesthouse after a hot day had washed my brain clean of thought. And I decided to take a picture of the old god of Samsen Road.

As I snapped photos from a few angles, he slept on. I moved a bit closer. His head lifted a few inches and he squinted as if to say don’t get too near, or hurry up already. That’s when I noticed a dirty collar, buried under all that thick, crackling fur.


New Life

I am planting papayas. The small black seeds cupped in my hand are expensive, and grow into trees with the most sensual fruit imaginable. The variety is “Red Lady” and there is a picture of the fruit on the seed packet, split open to reveal ripe, ruddy flesh.

Yet, my back aches from bending over, and there are silver-coloured spiders hiding in the soil-filled bags. Lucas the Brazilian is planting beside me, cursing because the lines of pots run crooked, and we keep losing track of what has been seeded. It’s hard work planting papayas.

This is my fourth day volunteering at the New Life Foundation.

New Life is a 20 baht bus ride and 2 km trek from Chiang Rai, one of Thailand’s northernmost cities. It’s a fairly new organization, founded in 2010 by a Belgian man who detoxed at one of Thailand’s many monasteries. The experience inspired him to build a ‘mindfulness-based recovery community’ where people from all over the world can come heal from addiction and mental illness.

On my first day, I was dropped off by the local bus at the side of the road. Heaving my backpack on my shoulders, I prepared to walk. However, luck was with me and I was picked up by some Thai villagers who dropped me off on the Foundation’s doorstop.

I have to admit that when I went to bed that first night, I wondered what the hell I was doing. I had gone from a lazy travelling schedule to a regimented day involving:

6am: yoga/meditation

7am: breakfast

8am: group meeting

8:30-11: work

12noon: lunch

1:30-3:30: work

4&5:00: yoga/meditation

6:30: dinner

7:00: group meeting

8:30: bedtime

And repeat.

But now, a week later, I’m into the rhythm. It’s a fascinating model: yoga and meditation provide the framework for the day. Volunteers are expected to be mindful during their work, whether in field, kitchen, or cleaning up. The residents work alongside volunteers in the morning and then attend life coaching and workshops in the afternoon.

My body feels amazing: the yoga is stretching and challenging me, the food is abundant, and much of it comes fresh from the organic garden. I weed lettuce in the morning, and harvest it for dinner. Feed the ducks, and then use their eggs to bake a delicious quiche. After weeks in the city, it is a relief to have silence pool around me and to sleep under a full canopy of stars.

But it’s not all idyllic — people are here to heal from some serious issues.

“My family intervened because I tried to kill myself.”

“I will never be able to go back home.”

“This is the deepest depression I’ve known, I’m very sick.”

“I spent years hating myself, so to say what I like best about myself is hard.”

One woman explained this as a ‘secondary recovery’ centre, since most residents go to detox first, and then come here to further heal body and mind. People quit jobs, families intervened, money suddenly appeared so that residents could be here.

Despite these good intentions, this place isn’t for everyone. One man left in a rage a couple mornings ago. Last year, someone threw all the dining room furniture in the pool. Another person described New Life as a ‘nice prison.’ While staying here, we are careful to lock our doors and keep our valuables safe.

Yet, struggle is recognized as part of the process. And with all the ups and downs of a transient community, New Life still manages to be a healing, joyful space. Two residents left this weekend, one woman who is battling an eating disorder, and a young man who has been an alcoholic since he was eighteen. Both expressed that New Life has changed their lives, and that the people here have become family.

I can already feel this too. Being here gives me perspective on my own struggles, but also connects me to pure joy — whether planting papaya seeds or doing yoga as the sun rises, red and full in front of me.

The Rules of Travel

It’s high season in Thailand. This means that a glut of tourists, accounting for about 6% of the annual GDP*, descends to feast on the consumable aspects of Thai ‘culture’. The beaches, particularly in the South along the Andaman coast, are the biggest draw. This is where I find myself one Friday night. In Phuket, waiting for a flight.

Phuket Island, for those unfamiliar, is one of the most notorious tourist circuits in the country. If you enjoy getting wasted out of your mind and eating french fries on the beach while shooing off Thai touts, this is the place for you.

Not so much the place for me. But, I did find old town Phuket very charming. And Phuket is also where I met Herbie the German.

As I strolled along Thalang Road, looking for a place to eat dinner, I admired the Sino-Portuguese architecture – red lanterns in arched doorways, and sleek tiled sidewalks. After a bit of walking, I happened upon a cute little restaurant and waded my way in to find a table.

One spot remained: a chair beside a rotund older man, who looked to be in his late sixties, alone and eating with great satisfaction.

“Can I sit here?” I asked. He nodded and grinned, his hair framing his face in big white gusts.

At first we sat in silence. I got my meal, he nursed his Chang. We smiled at the cute Thai kids. And then Herbie got his bill from the waitress.

“Papa!” he exclaimed, squinting at the writing on the top of the bill. “Is that what you call me here?” The waitress laughed and confirmed.

After she left, he turned to me, “Well, when I was travelling in India in ’87, they called me ‘Buddha’ because I concentrated so hard when I ate.”

“So I can call you Buddha Papa?” I asked. The ice had been broken.

Herbie then began to share travel stories. How he’d been adopted by a yellow dog in Honduras, and how the dog had waited outside his hotel every day and trotted beside him everywhere Herbie went: “I think it made people not throw things at him.” How Herbie had nearly been tricked in Varanassi by a man who took him on a tour of the ghats and then asked him to buy a carpet from a family business.

“Wait,” I interjected, “Was the man down at the burning ghats?”


“How old was he?”

“Well, this was in ’87, and he was in his twenties”

“Maybe I met him” I said, “Exact same thing happened to me in Varanassi in 2006, but with a man in his forties.”

We grinned at the idea of this.

Herbie has smoked pot in Brazil; been to Vietnam before the doi moi market reforms; rode the long open roads of Mid-west America.

“I learned all about travel from my wife.” Herbie explained. They had met in their forties, married, and since traveled all over the world. Sometimes together, sometimes separately. “This time, I am on my own.” he told me. “When I get back to Germany in April, she said on the phone yesterday that she goes to South America, and will travel 5 states in a month.”

“There are two rules of travel,” Herbie continued. “Never stay in one place for longer than four days. And never go back to the same place twice. My wife says it never gets better.”

We begin to debate these two points for a while, and our voices get more rambunctious. People are looking over and grinning. I realize we must make an odd pair. I notice Herbie is wearing his passport bag around his neck, ‘hidden’ under his faded limegreen t-shirt. It makes a strangely shaped lump against his gourd-shaped belly.

“Okay,” I say finally, as we continue to hash out the rules of the road. “Then tell me what the difference is between a tourist and a traveller.”

Herbie harrumphs and pauses, sipping the last of his beer. I look up and see that all the faces have changed in the restaurant; a whole new wave of eaters have sat down and busied themselves with their meals.

“First. Tourists go to the same places. Never anything new. Always clearly marked and costing alot.”

“Second, tourists say things like ‘You know, the beach isn’t as beautiful as it was in the photos’ And ‘I miss my cheese and bread, the only thing they have here is rice, rice, rice.”

He turns to me and asks what I think the third distinction is. I think about it, and note how tourists never want to meet the people who live in the countries they are visiting.

Herbie interjects: “Yes, the only locals they meet are the ones serving them! Their servers!”

The two of us are satisfied with these three distinctions and have a good, long, (potentially obnoxious) laugh.

“Good, good.” Herbie says, patting his belly and finishing his beer. After he leaves, I sit and finish my drink, watching the action on the street outside. When the waitress comes over with my bill, we share a smile.

“He’s hilarious!” I say.

“Papa? He’s a very nice man,” she says. “He eats here every night for many days now.”

Many days at the same place, hey? After we’d debated these points heatedly. Him being very adamant on ‘Never stay; never return’. I think to myself: how beautifully and frequently the rules are broken.

NOTE: *This 6% of GDP from tourism is purportedly the highest in all Asian countries.