Jul 13, 2015

Parallel Journeys

I rolled out of bed at 2, brushed my teeth, and took the hotel elevator down to the pool deck. Double americano, three days in a row now. Not exactly roughing it yet.

The pool’s peaceful weekday emptiness is less disturbed by the two chain-smoking middle-aged Americans than by the music — TLC and Bruce Springsteen and everything in between — squeaking treble-only out of tinny waterproof speakers. Put another speaker here, they said. A speaker by every chair, they said.

It’s otherwise idyllic on the 10th floor of the Aloft Hotel Sukhamvit Soi 11 Bangkok. The water warm, the view captive. "Music" aside the environmental intrusions are benign, enough to make me wonder why I thought to mention them anyway. Old habit, I guess.

Time for a quick cool-down in the pool.

It’s 98° at 46% humidity. In Celsius that’s 35°, also at 46% humidity. The percentage humidity is the same either way. Isn’t that neat?

How grateful I am for the universality of percentages, and, when conflicting bodies of standards don’t bump into each other, numbers. Why again don’t we have this for words?

Weather acclimatization has been slow but steady over these twelve days. The first, you can imagine, were the hardest. If you were mid-afternoon at any point between Wat Pho and Sukhamvit Soi 23, a jaunt stretching over 5 miles, you would have seen the image of a calico-colored foreigner distorted by a layer of his own sweat, stopping to wipe off his glasses before attempting each increasingly perilous intersection. Perplexingly, you would also have seen him smiling and froggering along, appearing to enjoy himself thoroughly.

Sweaty but smilingSweaty but smiling

I loved that walk. I loved it because it was odd and challenging, not in spite of it. I loved it because it was mine, my idea and my execution. Probably not one for the travel sites though, I get that. I can imagine posting a Suggested Activity now — Sweat Yourself Senile Along Bangkok’s Five Hottest Mid-Afternoon Miles. There would be only one review, and it would be mine. Five stars though!

What each of us enjoys about travel, and life, is highly subjective. But that’s not to say we can’t express what we love about something to another and be understood, even if they don’t love it quite the same, or at all.

One thing I’ve been wrestling with is how to define the quality of travel, objectively where possible and subjectively otherwise. If you’ve read either of Robert Pirsig’s novels, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals, you’re free to imagine me writing the word Quality with a capital Q, as he does. If you haven’t read ZMM or Lila I invite you to, but I’ll try not to assume you have and therefore explain the concepts I borrow. I should really do that anyway; I still want to demonstrate to myself that I can explain and work with these concepts usefully. For now, all you the reader need to know is that capital-Q Quality means about the same thing as the everyday word quality, but elevates it to the core of a philosophy from which all kinds of moral, good vs. bad, inquiries can be made.

I find Pirsig’s exploration of Quality extremely compelling, but at times I’ve been shy to lean on it in writing or conversation because it’s viewed as a sort of pop philosophy, as opposed to a Real Philosophy of the academic sort (which requires the philosopher to be dead for a much longer time than I am interested in). The account of Pirsig’s personal struggle with critics from Real Philosophy (and Real Anthropology) is recounted in *Lila. *His defense is convincing, the coinage of the word philosophology magical, and in his triumph I find my inspiration.

Back to quality and travel, here’s what I want to understand. What makes a trip good? What comprises a high-quality experience? How can one trip be compared to another? How can we say if a visit to one neighborhood, or one landmark, or one country is better than another? What should we do when we travel? Who should listen to our recommendations, and who shouldn’t? Running parallel to my geographical journey of South Asia is an intellectual expedition into such matters.

These are the questions I feel invited to ponder by my surroundings, by the travelers of my human ancestry, and just the pure opportunity to do so. Relatively few get to travel in this open-ended way and I’m grateful to be counted among them. The fact that I can begin this journey — circumstantially, educationally, financially, technologically-empowered with health and able-bodiment and freedom — makes me feel like I should. And so I am, and so I will. So lots more to come.

Ok, pool time is over. Skip and I have to figure out where we’re staying tonight.

This photo turned out to be a premonition, for Skip has indeed been living the Smooth Life, select episodes of which I hope he decides to share soon, before I am overcome by the burden of being the only other person to possess such juicy details.

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