motorbike in Thailand

2018 Grateful 11

I’ve never been so grateful to have faith, to believe in my God. I needed Him this week more than I have in a long time.

Sitting on the back of our Thai motorbike, I was reminded of a book I read many years ago, when living in California: God on a Harley. High literature it ain’t. The hunking-up of Jesus (just call me Joe) didn’t sit too well with me. But I remember that for all its kitschiness, it repeated the basic tenets of good living.

  • Live in the moment
  • Take care of yourself so that you can then take care of others
  • Don’t build walls
  • Be real
  • Everything is possible
  • Keep it flowing – if you get/have then give

This week, in Thailand, I read Barry Dunning’s account of how religion is waning in the west and waxing in the east. From my experience over the past month or so, Thailand has a very active religious population. Compared to the half-empty pews of Irish churches, temples and mosques are relatively full. One argument in the comments section noted that the richer we become, the less need we have of religion. I wonder.

Surveys and census tell us that an increasing number of young people say they have no religion. I find that incredibly sad. If I had no faith, no god, to whom would I turn in times of crisis? In whom would I trust? I need to believe and while I recognise that this isn’t for everyone, it is very much the case for me. Call it what you will. Disparage me. Think me mad. But I’d be lost without my faith.

On Koh Yao Noi, the only feasible way to get around is by motorbike. Each day, we’d take off, somewhere. Himself would drive. It’s been on his bucket list for a while. I’d ride pillion, hanging on for dear life, repeating my mantra – Oh most Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in Thee. I mantra’d myself into a fugue and thanked the good lord every time we arrived at our destination unscathed. We only ditched it once. No harm done.

Other drivers. Other bikes. Flash rains. Potholes. Muddy patches. Ruts in the road. Old machines. Old-lady racers. None of these made for a relaxing journey. Relinquishing control didn’t help either. But then, I’ve been so scatty lately that I didn’t have much faith in my hand-eye coordination and I didn’t want to drive myself.

Although helmets are mandated by law, few locals wear them. Few tourists, either. But I insisted. We might be puttering along way under the speed limit being overtaken by 10-year-old veterans, often three or four on the one bike, but I had to have a helmet. Last month’s concussion is too recent to have been forgotten.

I know I was being selfish. Himself wanted to release his inner ‘Easy Rider’. It can’t have been easy for him to see the kids whizz by but thankfully, he’s not one to care much about what others think of him. So each day, for a couple of hours, I’d stay home and let him away, to go as fast as he liked, to lay flat turning those corners, and be lighter on the brakes going down those steep hills. I’d stay home, praying that he’d come back in one piece and trying to decide if I’d bring back his body or just cremate him if he didn’t.

He felt better. I felt better. And I’m sure God was having a right laugh, used as He is to riding a Harley.

Scream, Shout

I’ve had a string of bad news lately. Death and dying are featuring heavily in my conversations. Death notices are more frequent than marriage announcements and funerals more commonplace than weddings. It sucks.

It sucks to see people spirited away before they’ve had time to finish what they’d started. Granted, many of us haven’t a clue what it is we want from our time on this earth, other than some vague notion we have to be happy. More of us as so focused on the next goal that we lose sight of the life unfolding around us. All too few of us manage to strike a workable balance.

Thinking about drive and ambition, what came to mind was a seesaw, with that duo balanced by the twins, value and worth. I recalled an interview I did about a year ago with a 22-year-old from Gyomaendrőd who was set to take the music world by storm. She goes by the name of AGGI (the caps are all hers). What struck me about her was her determination to be herself, not a carbon copy of some other 22-year-old, pressurised by expectations to fit someone else’s preconception of who she should be. She didn’t want to be told what she should or shouldn’t do with her life. She had a plan. She knew what she wanted. In need of affirmation that the world was working for someone, I thought I’d see how she was getting on.

Photo by Bardócz Letti

She’s still writing, still recording, still singing. She went back home in April and topped the bill at the Gyomaendrődi Nemzetközi Sajt és Túrófesztivál and was thrilled to see her 91-year-old great-grandmother up front and centre along with 700 or so proud locals who’d come out to see their girl on stage. In May, she played a more intimate live gig at Legenda, and in September, she opened for The Hooligans when they played Barba Negra Tracks. That’s some progress. AGGI comes into herself when she’s on stage. She has stuff to say and she wants the world to hear it.

Already a regular on local and national radio, a sponsorship deal from a Japanese guitar company, Guyatone (and another with their US parent company DeMont), led to AGGI getting lots of airplay in Japan of all places. They love her. She has a regular slot on Radio FM RaRa (in English) on the third Saturday of each month and judging by the amount of fan mail, her 10-gig Japanese tour scheduled for spring 2019 will be a sell-out. ‘My voice is in Japan’, she told me, understandably excited. People 9000 km away have heard her sing, like what they hear, and want to hear more.

In February, on her birthday, she got the present of her dreams – a record deal from a record company in Italy. But AGGI chose not to unwrap that particular gift. Rather than jump at the deal just to have a deal, she and manager Terry V decided to hold off and wait for the right one to come along. And it will. It’s just a matter of time. The girl has plans. And she’s making them happen.

Last time we spoke, she told me she was doing her dissertation on Stephen King’s novel, Rose Madder, in which he deals with the bruising issue of domestic violence. I remembered that she’d had a keen interest in gender issues and woman power and was determined her voice would be heard.  I asked her if she’d graduated, if she’d finished the dissertation. The completer-finisher in me was a little disappointed to hear that she’d taken a gap year to focus on her music, and was only now returning to complete her final year of study. ‘But’, she said proudly, ‘my voice was heard.’ She and Terry V had written a song to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Scream, Shout was released on 25 November and for a few hours that day, AGGI’s video featured on the UN website. It tells the story of a young woman who takes back control and finally says Enough! It’s a simple, powerful video that stands on its own.

Although she’s not yet a household name, AGGI seems far too grounded to let the recognition that comes with national and international airplay, the sponsorship deals, the live gigs, the upcoming tour, the strong video following on YouTube, and her growing fanbase go to her head. But while she likes the intimacy of smaller gigs, she thrives on big crowds. When facing a teeming audience visibly engaged with what she’s doing on stage, she’s in her element. ‘It’s feedback’, she said. ‘I need feedback.’  At one gig, a former colleague came up to congratulate her on how far she’d gone since they’d worked together. She was chuffed. A classmate who’s also studying music told her that hearing her play gave the younger girl the confidence to keep pursuing her own dream. Her family is still as supportive as ever and goes to all her gigs. Her brother and sister have been in both her videos. She’s playing to nobody’s tune but her own.

Photo by Bardócz Letti

AGGI, along with her co-writer and manager, Terry V (guitar), Bence Kocsis  (drums), and Benedek (Beni) Nagy  (bass), has been busy doing what she told me she’d do. She’s making things happen. Listening to her music, it’s evident that she has a very strong sense of worth. At 23, she knows what she wants and knows the hard work it’ll take to get it. But most importantly, she wants it all for the right reasons: She has a voice, she has something to say, and she’s determined to be heard. Music was her hobby. Now it’s her life.

Is the world working for AGGI I wondered? I think it’s more case of AGGI making her world work for her. An example to us all. Catch her at Dürer Kert on 22 November.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 October 2018

Ko Yao Noi bungalows

2018 Grateful 12

We’re more than half-way through our four weeks in Thailand and I’m missing home, just a tad. It’s a peculiar feeling, not one I’m used to. I’ve been trying to figure out what exactly I’m missing though. It’s not as if I’m completely disconnected from the world or even travelling solo. I’ve had lots of train time to think and I’ve come to the conclusion that what I’m missing is stuff I do routinely and take completely for granted.

Today is the third successive Sunday that I’ve not been to mass. I’m what others refer to as a pick-and-mix Catholic and perhaps disagree more than agree with the Church’s teachings. But I’m fully aware that it’s a man-made institution and therefore don’t feel bad at all about not subscribing blindly to all its tenets. But going to mass breaks up my week. It marks the end of one and the beginning of another. For a freelancer who doesn’t have a set Monday to Friday workweek, that’s more important than I’d imagined. For the last few weeks, I’ve never been quite sure of what day it is. And mostly, it didn’t matter. But on occasion, when that loss of centre comes to ground, it’s important.

I’m still working. I’m never completely off the clock.  I’m keeping an eye on stuff from regular clients and doing what I can when the Internet allows. Yet I find myself missing it. Wow. That’s definitely something that would never have happened when I was working in the corporate world. I must like what I do to be missing it.

Right now, we’re on the island of Ko Yao Noi having made our way from Bangkok to Ayutthaya by train. Then north to Chiang Mai by train. Then to Chiang Rai by bus, Kanchanaburi by plane and car, and here finally by songthaew, local bus, train, car, and boat. We’re clocking up the miles.  And the experiences.

Today, himself is off exploring the island by motorbike. I’ve opted to stay back and do some work. Sometimes difference needs to be metered by sameness. Sometimes the familiar is more appealing than the new. Sometimes reality is a welcome intrusion.

This week, I’m grateful that I enjoy what I do and get to do it pretty much wherever I am in the world, as long as I have an Internet connection. And while both my offices in Hungary are in the smallest and darkest rooms in the flat/house, I’m getting a kick out of working outdoors, by the water, with a view. Wouldn’t want to do it every day, but today, it’s good.

Catch up on my travel stories on www.anyexcusetotravel.com

Santiburi, Chiang Rai, visitor or tourist

2018 Grateful 13

I’ve been trying to figure out how long it’s been, he said. Seventeen years, I replied. Almost to the week, I added. Mad really.

Having bumbled around Bangkok, assimilated Ayutthaya, and cooked in Chiang Mai, we arrived in Chiang Rai earlier this week as visitors rather than tourists. And there’s a difference.

Visitor or tourist?

As tourists, we’re at the mercy of guidebooks, search engines, and guest reviews. We read other peoples thoughts on what to do and where to go not knowing if we share similar tastes or ideals or are complete opposites. We make educated guesses as to what we’d like to do and see based on the experiences of others. Perhaps we’re guided by a Top 10 list of things to do or Top 10 list of things to avoid. Perhaps we’re simply into ticking boxes, taking photographs, and then tweeting the world to let them know what we’ve been up to.

Our meals are usually taken with our fellow tourist(s). Our conversations revolve around what we’ve done today and what we’d like to do tomorrow. We become each other’s world. Our phones, giving us audible directions, betray us as strangers. The maps that we fold and unfold mark us as tourists. We’re on a mission of sorts, a mission to see and do and record that same seeing and the doing.

But when we visit friends, even friends we haven’t seen in 17 years, we’re visitors, not tourists. We share their days, their routines. We see places not on the tourist route, places locals go, like a tiny Thai restaurant that only opens on Fridays to serve fresh pizza until they run out. Or a local pub owned by an ex-copper, where you bring your own whisky and buy your soda there. Or a small shop, packed with handmade traditional skirts and shirts and teas and all sorts, where fair trade is a fair deal. We get the inside scoop on protocols and preferences. We get to hear about life and living and how cultures mix and mingle. We get to relax, knowing that if we don’t get to see it this time, we have a bigger reason to return.

So much has changed in both our lives in the years since we last met in Valdez, Alaska. There’s a constant catch-up going on that involves rather than excludes our partners. Backstories become part of the explanations. A mutual appreciation grows. I came to meet one friend and will leave with two. Evening meals have turned into cooking lessons for me. I’ve Pad Thai down, and Lad Ka, too. We will, of course, reciprocate their hospitality when they visit Europe. I’ll need to brush up on my pörkölt and my csirke paprikás and learn a little more about Hungary’s history so that I do the country justice. I’m already looking forward to having them stay.  

So, visitor or tourist? Well, I enjoy travelling. And I enjoy being a tourist. But I prefer being a visitor. This week, I’m incredibly grateful to J&P for being so generous with their home, their time, and their knowledge of all things Thai. Kapun ka.

2018 Grateful 14

This day, about 13 years ago, I was lighting candles in St Thomas’s Cathedral in Chennai. The lovely SF was very ill at the time and I was lighting one for him, even though he’d told me repeatedly that he wasn’t a believer and that the candles I lit were for me and not for him. All was good. As I touched the taper to the wick, time stood still and I was overcome by an anguish I’ve not felt since. I went from smiley, happy, to gut-wrenching hysteria. A quiet hysteria though – I wouldn’t have wanted to make a scene. It was over in seconds. I hadn’t a clue what had just happened.

Later that day, when we got back to the hotel, I had a message from SF’s mate to say that he’d died earlier about the time I was lighting my candle. I reckoned he’d passed through on his way over just to say Ha! Told you!

This week, while in a temple in Bangkok, I came across a prayer bell of sorts. People had bought charms and hung them from a bell-shaped form to create a bell of prayers. Many had written their names and the date on them; more again had written their prayer. And from those I could make out, career topped their list above health, wealth, love, and family.

Never having had a stable, trajectoried career myself, I found this difficult to relate to. I’ve never wanted solid, steady, secure, preferring the ifs and maybes that allow a little flexibility in the hours and days I work and the places in which I choose to set up shop. I like new. I like different. Or at least I thought I did.

Perhaps I’m still jet-lagged. Or maybe it’s the heat. Or then again, it could really be the strangeness, the newness, the difference that I’d thought I wanted, but five days into this Thailand trip, I woke up wishing I was in the village, in Balatonmagyaród, far from the teeming masses. I have a knot in my stomach the size of a baby elephant’s eyeball wondering if the train tickets we have for today’s 10-hour+ journey north to Chiang Mai are fake. I woke up anxious, no longer trusting my ability to spot sincerity and separate the genuine from the disingenuous. The events of the past few days have been a little  much. No threat to life or limb but my soul got a bit of a bashing. If I could fast forward 24 hours, I would. And that’s not good.

It’s been years since SF passed and yet my one wish for us would be that we could have just one more pint and say the unsaid. Had I added my prayer to that bell, it wouldn’t have been for career or health or wealth or love but for a little more time with those who matter, and more appreciation for the mundanities of life.