By Emily Erickson
The plane wheels screeched to halt, jarring me from my cricked-neck sleep. Massaging the base of my head, I wondered why the hell I hadn’t yet invested in one of those neck donuts, especially because I was now convinced the Air China seats were exceptionally smaller than the US-grade to which I’d grown so accustomed.
Concluding that I felt the pillow too indulgent for a scrappy, airport-bench-sleeping, perpetual-seat-next-to-the-bathroom traveler like myself, I clutched my passport and headed into the Bangkok customs line. As the red ink of the stamp reading, “Thailand” was pressed on the page next to the green of Ireland, I was filled with a wave of conviction. I was officially a solo international traveler.
I tugged at the straps of my 70L backpack, threw my one-way ticket into the nearest receptacle and marched into the terminal with gumption. But as I strode out of security, the gumption quickly drained into panic. It was 1 a.m. I was completely alone. I didn’t have a plan or a place to stay, and the handful of Thai phrases I’d scribbled in my travel diary days before now felt useless. What the f*** was I doing?
The decision to buy an open-ended ticket to Southeast Asia came the summer after I dropped out of college. I had spent four straight months getting soaked to the bone holding a, “Take my Tour,” sign in Skagway, Alaska during one of the region’s record-breaking precipitation spells. After a stretch of 21 days without a single ray of sunshine, I had marched into the library and used the wifi to buy a ticket somewhere far away and warm.
My intention was to test the new theory I’d contrived since forgoing the traditional path that was graduating college in the four years following high school. It was the idea that the only way to become the person I wanted to be (someone confident, capable and gutsy enough to travel in foreign countries alone), was to buy a plane ticket and do it. I would be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But standing in the heat of the night in a city of 9 million, trying to hail a cab while simultaneously practicing the greeting, “sawadeekaaaaah,” in my head, I had to question – maybe there were more requirements to being the fearless adventurer that I’d failed to acknowledge.
Finding my way to a hostel, I slept off the 24 hours of traveling from the day before and woke with newfound clarity. I was capable, and all of the discomfort, the fear, the failures, and the missteps to come were the things that I would remember most. The things that didn’t go to plan (although I had very little plan to begin with) were the things that were going to help me grow the most.
This became most evident as I made my way farther from the English-translated signs, putting hundreds of miles between me and the closest McDonald’s. I purchased a nearly-antique Nokia cell phone and a snapped a photo for an ID at a 7-11 in Chiang Mai that would legally permit me to rent and drive a motorbike.
Double checking the road map, I navigated myself out of the city and toward a small village called Pai. As I was winding through the northern Thai mountains, past rushing green jungle foliage, I stole glances between breathtaking vistas and watched as my gas tank got lower, and lower… and lower. WHY HAD I NOT THOUGHT TO FILL THE TANK ON THE RENTAL BIKE BEFORE TRAVELING TO PAI?
As the engine puttered to a stop, I found myself stranded in a foreign country, without reception or anyone to call, in a remote jungle region, 20-plus kilometers from the nearest town (sorry Papa).
Sticking out my thumb in the way I’d learned from my Alaska summers, I waited. Finally, the tires supporting the rustiest truck I’d ever seen crunched the dirt beside my motorbike. A woman looked at me with a quizzical face as I exclaimed my poor rendition of Thai “thank you,”
“Kapunkaa!” followed by, “English?”
She shook her head.
My stomach churned as I contemplated how to best navigate my predicament, and settled on pointing at the gas tank and back to her truck. She confirmed. Feeling a perfect storm of sheepish and thankful, I turned to her once more, and used the flat part of my palm to hit myself in the forehead, silently explaining, “I’m an idiot.”
As she nodded with a small laugh, it was clear that she understood, and likely, agreed. Apparently, “lesson learned,” translates across the globe. I was going to be alright.
Emily Erickson is a freelance writer and bartender originally from Wisconsin, with a degree in sociology and an affinity for playing in the mountains.
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