Sunday, May 20, 2007

Kat: giant squids, painted schoolbuses and the quest for Microwave.

One of my models of modern travelers was Kinga Freespirit, a Polish hitch-hiker that for 5 years travelled the whole world. During the first half of 2006, I had followed his African adventure on his website There I learnt that Kinga had met another three girls, two of the hardcore hitch-hikers, and the other travelling with a truck. I am talking about Kati, Rebeka and Aknes (the French girl with the truck). In his stories about the trip through Mauritania and Burkina Faso, Kinga had presented them as such lovely beings, that I wanted to meet this girls in real life. I had met Kinga in Poland in 2005, in the beginning of this trip, t I wouldn’t see her again. She would unexpectedely die from malaria in Ghana in June of 2006. Now, also unexpectedely, Kati, one of the girls, had found my website and we were in touch. Aknes and her were in Thailand! Since the three of us had met Kinga, we decided that we had to meet.

To be faithful to true events, the arrival of Kati was also anxiously awaited by the Cyclowns, as a sort of Santa Claus. The reason was that Kati wass bringing a load of circus costumes from New York, ols stafff that he wanted to dispose off. And what better than presenting it to a circus? Raffi even stopped playing the violin to peep what was inside the magic bag that Kat had dropped in the clobbledstone pavement of Tha Pae Gate. In the bag, everybody found something interesting, as in a scavenger hunt. There were tuxedo tail jackets, clown shoes, velvet pants embroidered with butterflies, all sorts of staff. And even a pair of pois that I had specially requested her from NY, the ones that change colours. Now I must learn to spin them… And there was also Aknes, the girl that hd traveled Africa with her truck. Not a VW van or mini bus, but a real size Mercedes truck. In the back, she carried a large inflatable castle that she had stolen from a McDonalds in Europe.She thought it would make its job better in Africa than in Europe, where kids are overspoiled and already have more toys than they could play with. And we were proud of her. Suddenly, the girls became aware that they had met each other exactly a year before, in a music festival in Mali. That night I was grateful for having met Kati and Aknes in real life.

The first matter for conversation was naturally Kinga, her sensibility, the love he professed for all the being she met on her way, her tolerance. Kat told the story of Kinga to Manu Chao, whom she knows to some extaint, after a concert, in the lobby of a luxurious hotel. Moved by the story, Manu Chao spilled some of his red wine over the carpet, as though offering it to Pachamama, and said: “For Kinga!”. Kat has always been living on the road. Having started to talk about Kinga, now I only wanted to listen to her stories. (Btw you can check them out yourself at

On the road since 15 years ago, Kat can afford to include in her biografy some charming facts, as having toured the US with the Grateful Dead and met Ken Kesey, and having owned her own school bus, painted according to the canons of psicodelic art, which he bought for $500, painted to fit her taste, and sold it on the E-bay for $10.000. The buyer had been the wife of the president of Coca Cola, with whom they are now friends. Kat speaks perfect Spanish, which she learnt in South America (She claims Banios, Ecuador as her second home). She has hitch-hiked in more countries than she remembers, and has a specific taste for exotic destinations that suits her nicely.

Some people would understandably rate Thailand as an exotic destination, but for Kat and me was the closest to the West we had seen in a while, full of tourists, and far too easy to travel to provoke any phantasy. We spent the whole time talking about Mauritania, Ecuador and Afghanistan. For the road’s sake, however, we decided to leave Chiang Mai with any destination. I had already been in Chiang Mai for months and needed to go back to my element. We were soon on the road, sharing the road, which is not something that happens often. It’s easy to ahev a travel aompanion, but having the sameperpective of the road is all together another thing. Then Kat told me about giant squids. It seems that there is a rare species of squids whose existence was until recent rgarded as a myth. They can be as big as a house and live more than a hundred years. These squids can travel for decades in the depth of the ocean without crossing paths with another specimen of the opposite sex. Being so rare, when this happens, evolution forces them to notice each other…

We were less than motivated by the map of Thailand, but we randomly started traveling westwards, to the Burmese border. We then spotted a village on the map with a more than curious name. It was called “Microwave”. We started to discuss hypothesis of why a town could be named after a kitchen appliance…. And decided to go there and check it out. On the way we were given a ride and hosted by an Israelian Buddhist monk who had been living in Thailand for years. We stayed overnight in comfortable bungalows. On the following morning, when we said goodbye, Yudi (so his name) was explaining a disciple that the breakfast table was not only a table, but it was the whole cosmos. Yudi seemed to us a very talkative monk, too talkative to embody the spirit of Buddhist wisdom…but a really great guy! We finally reached Microwave, which owned its name to a nearby telecommunication tower. As the local Mong people wereless than inviting and didn’t even acknowledge our presence we left for the main road and eventually arrived to Pai, where Lonely Planet backpackers outnumber locals in the streets. A little depressing…

In Pai we understood the irony of having met in Thailand. What a shame! –said Kat And she was right. With all its pleasures and facilities, it was really a boring place for two lovers of adventure. We could only wish to be tele-transported to Yemen, Ethiopia or at least Marrocco. But we were in Thailand and we tried to accept it. Lying on the hammack, Kat laughed at the book she was reading, a compilation in which young female authors narrated how they had bought medicines without prescriptions in India, and expected their stories to be thrillers… “I prefer to meet people that don’t travel that people who believe they travel” –said Kat, and I had to agree.

For the mountains and the rivers of Georgia…. (another way to say hello)

Photos: The Canvas Cafe, our headquarters in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and the Vespa of our landlady.

Chaning and Rocio, who had been touring Laos with a local circus for a month, finally made it to the Canvas Café in Chiang Mai, where we were all staying. The meeting between Chaning and Raffi, who hadn’t seen each other for months, was that of two absolutely mad souls. They began by tosting in the way that they had learnt in Georgia, where packs of men in bars would rise their vodkas and exclaim: “For the mountains of Georgia –which are the mightest, a choir of drunkmen would assure in the background- for the rivers of Georgia….for the women of Georgia… predictibly end up tosting for the street dog of Georgia. Chaning and Rocio, who were in the pavement, stood up and started to chase each other and kick each other’s asses, a scene that had a good rating among the market vendors that at the time were packing their staff. At one point Raffi grabbed a stick from the ground and used it as a walking stick, pretending to be an old babushka. When Channing reached him, he pretended to be breking her bones. This was our heroes’s way to say “hi! How are you?” While all this goes on, Raffi’s violin lies still on the ground, sorrounded by a loonies, strangers or known, cheap whiskey bottles and cans of beer, constellations only seen from lands reachable handstanding and dressed in rags.

On the following morning, no wonders, the same people that were playing as kids on the streets were talking seriously about the possibility of playing Jazz for the king of Thailand, himself a pofessional saxophonist. The letter requestiong an audience should be written in a special formal language that nobody knew and following certain rules. Naturally, the project was dooomed to sink for its own weight. In any case, the King of Thailand seems to me more of a tyrant than a cool guy to hang around with, since he allows to punish with death those criticizing him.

Some days before the arrival of Rocio and Chaning there had been a party at Canvas Café, and that had been the ocassion of my first performance with the circus. No, I was not juggling. In a way I was juggling with words, to create worlds. Somehow I had to make poetry fit in the circus frame. I read a prose titled “Circus in the dark”, which had been written under an unproper dosage of malaria medication and can be found by scrolling down a couple of entries in this blog. During the day, some of the people we would meet during the performances would come to hang around for a while, some of them also circus artists. Philips, just to name one, was a German guy devoted to making a 1 euro coin roll over a parasol being spanned. Way or another, we soon moved to Jerry’s house. Jerry was an American philantropist who worked with Burmese refugees and had a house big enough to host an army. Instead, he hosted the circus, so the tribe could sleep comfortably….

Chatting over the pavement in Chiang Mai with the Cyclown Circus.

Photos: Raffi, the violinist, and his instrument, more used to constelate with whiskey bottles over the pavement than with partitures.

For several weeks I woke up with Johnnie’s bass and Raffi’s violin as a soft cushion softening the comeback of reality. On the afternoon my time would be divided in two tasks. Firstly, early afternoon, work on “Vagabonding th Axis of Evil” my coming booklet of travel stories. After 6pm, when tourists are already in the cafes, I would hit the streets to sell some of my old books (Harmony of Chaos), as to be finnance the day’s food and accomodation. Invariably, at night, we ended up on Tha Pae Gate with the Cyclowns, chatting with co-dreamers and curious alike, down in the pavement, often barefoot. Beer bottles would ooz out of plastic bags as flowers in spring. It was spring all night long.

No attempt to reconstruct one of such conversations could ever be succesful, but here it goes a random patchwork of images that one night I happened to put down in a notebook.. Somebody had abandoned a cello in Istanbul, because she wasn’t god enough at playing it. The abandonment of musical instruments is something terrible for Rachel. Music is a matter of comitment. When Rachel met Raffi he was barely able to hold the violin and had none of the skills he has now. Raffi says that there is a difference between the Chinese farmers that spend their lives in the ricefields, and them, who travel around the world with a violin over the shoulder trying to understand mankind. Truth is beauty, beauty is truth. Still, the people who will be touched by the unpredictable end of the chain we unleash each time we make somebody question reality, will always be strangers to us. We have always been there, from Diogenes on. A warehouse art space has been inaugurated in Minneapolis, and its mentor want Spanish to be the only language spoken within. Raffi says he is too lazy for yoga, mainly due to the fact that he wants to play music 8 hours a day. We were betting to which of the ladyboys would be picked up first. Maybe when I am 40 –said Raffi- I may want to settle down and have a house I can call my own. No way –answered Johnnie, who was 44- when you will be 40 you will want to continue to tramp around this world like me! Raffi recalls that when they cross a country by bike he feels like stopping at each stupid village they bump into and play music. When they enter a cantina or bar to offer their show it is Johnnie, the tidy mature man with the bass, who walks in alone first to make the deal. A tidy man with contrabass scandalizes less the bar owners than Raffi and Channing who rather look like two punkies with their instruments, and would be kicked away inmediatly.


Photo: borrowed from the Cyclowns' website. The circus in full action. Behind, the police afraid of happiness without barcodes.

“Joining a circus is something that everyone should do, at least once in a life time” – my old friend Matias had said when I confessed my plans of joining the Cyclown Circus. Chiang Mai was the place where I would begin that transition, from travelling alone to becoming part of a caravan of exiles. In my mind, the first obstacle on the way was that poetry seemd to me something to implicit and elaborated to include in a circus show. Words are spells. They evoke, but never have the same weight of a juggling number. They require more concentration than relaxation, and so on.
Presenting poetry to the same audience was going to require some adjustment to the kind of staff I was writing at the moment.

But I had only arrived to Chiang Mai. With the backpack still on I was looking for the circus on the streets. It is actually just too easy to find them. When you see a pack of people fighting to see something, that’s them. Chiang Mai was, to my eyes, the most touristy place I had found on my way until then (I hadn’t reached Bangkok yet). With the time, though, I think we even started to like Chiang Mai. For street artists like us, it was actually a good place to earn fast money, plus the steady stream of travellers makes for a good spot to meet people. The mmeting with the rest of the circus took place in Tha Pae gate, where very evening at 8 pm the Cyclowns were doing their show. I had last seen them in October 2005 in Turkey. There it was Johnnie, the Bass player from Minneapolis, Shanty throwing and catching a constellation of ping pong balls with his mouth (!), Raffi, violin player, and Jannine, who was at the time working on some magic tricks. They were staying in the Canvas Café, where the landlady was a painter who was happy to offer them the place for free, for a while. “But now that while is kind of over, that’s always the problem with us, the while is soon over”. – explains Johnnie as he hits the thick strings of his bass. In order not to complicate the situation further, I decided to be a paying guest in the Canvas Café. We would stay there longer than planned, and the are near Tha Pae Gate would become and arena to parade our picturesque marginality, an arena where to meet other travellers attracted by the mutant tall bikes, by Johnnie’s bass and Raffi’s punkie violin…


Photo 1: That's the less than orientating sign I saw when I first stepped into Thailand. I didn't have a mpa and only knew I wanted to go to Chiang Mai. Photo 2: camping in my driver's house.

Thailand must be one fo the easiest places in the world for hitch-hiking. I was delayed for a while in the Laos side of the border. Although I initially thought there was something wrong, it followed that the officer on duty simply didn’t know how to proceed with a foreign passport. After a few phone calls an officer of higher rank showed up, and I got my exit stamp.

On the Thai side, the road improved to Western standards. A narrowed but paved road, with a central yellow line was ahead of me. As usual, or worse than usual, I didn’t have a clue of where I was, or where Chiang Mai was. When I asked the first driver I see for directions for Chiang Mai he nodded in sorprise. “That’s more than 500 km away”. But what why??? He simply insisted that I had to go there by bus. It was just out of his frame of mind that I wanted to hitch-hike there. When I got to the first fork on the road, I chose the one that seemed to go in direction north. All I knew was that Chiang Mai was in that direction. As Gaboto, I was navigating by the sun…

Things became clearer when the woman who worked in the petrol station of the first town I reached happened to speak English. She showed a road map of Thailand and even teached me how to ask for a ride in Thai! Now I knew where I was going. Also, I started to notice that Thailand wasby far the most developed country I had been to since I left Europe. Seven-elevens’s in every corner, Tesco supermarket bags blowing with the wind, pavement almost everywhere, people speaking English…

I started to get very smooth rides in the back of pick ups. A Toyota Pick Up is the average car in this country, by the way. The last driver of the day was a tourist policeman from Bangkok. He allowed me to camp in his garden, and we spent the whole night drinking whiskey wih him and his family!!!



Two weeks passed before Chaning and Rocio from the Cyclown Circus showed up in Luang Prabang, Laos. It followed that soon after having crossed the Chinese-Laos border they had met a local circus that traveled in a truck. This local circus consisted of 25 artists, all of which were crammed in in truck, which also carried all the equipment, stages, instruments, etc. In every location they would stop, the circus would proudly annonunce the performance of two “falangs”, as foreigners are known. As this was a very particular opportunity for them, we agreed that we would meet up again in Chiang Mai, where by the way the rest of the Cyclown Circus had already been working for a month. They would tour Laos with the circus on board of a hino truck and then come down.

January 2007. My God…two calendars are gone and I am still traveling. I left Lao for Thailand through an unusual border crossing, where until a few months ago tourists were not allowed to show up. Route 4 had more traffic than expected, and I was soon in Sayanbuli. The truck that had given me a lift crossed the Mekong river on board of a ferry decorated with communist flags. We are after all, in Lao Democratic Republic!

In Sayanbuli I tried to find free accomodation at a monastery. The young monks and novices said there was no problem to sleeo there, but then their English teacher came to ruin my plans. The man went by the book, and was afraid that the police would come to check or something like that. He was the “Foreigners should go to a hotel” type of person. Enough to demonstrate how ineffective religious institutions can be confronted with reality. As the novices were more than happy to test their English with me, their tutor had to let me stay for a while. The orange-clad razor shaved boys came up with some English books that seemed extremely complicated for their level, and I was supposed to read the sentences. Besides the meaning, they were really interested in learning phonetics, since unlike their pairs in Luang Prabang they rarely have the chance to listen to native speakers. Some of the sentences of the book seemed alltogether inadecuate for future monks, for example “The beautiful girl is wanted by a youngman” Take it easy little Buddha, avoiding attachments was your choice, not mine….


On the way to Pak Lay, the last big town before the Thai border, elephants march on the roadside with their carers. Elephants are still used in th forest industry for carrying loads. In Pak Lay, by the Mekong river, a few old French colonial buildings stand with faded splendor. Unlike Luang Prabang, there are no tourists here to witness them. In the Bureau de Finance (all official signs are in French) the folks play voleybal. I wish that people would play voleyball in all the bureau de finance of the world… One of the men asks me if I speak German. “I lived three years in DDR” –he comments proudly. Next to the Mekong river, not really far from a communist red flag, a man from Lao is speaking to me in German about the DDR. Evidently, the universe is about to collapse and I am witnessing the first twists of the last metamorphosis. At a restaurant wher I have had lunch, the old landlady waves to me: “Merci monsieur!” I am still surprised at how universal history has allowed communism and French language to sneak into a tucked away realm of jungle and elephants. The one thing missing was a 1935 Citroen Avant Traction speeding through the dusty main street…

Pak Lay was also the place where I got rid of my boots. They were felling appart. I had bought them in Egypt for 30 dollars, they had crossed Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Tibet, and Laos…only to join the unnoble trash cycle. I stayed overnight in a guesthouse with the only porpouse of doing my laundry. I had heard that Thai border officials had been known to turn away foreigners entering on foot who looked like broken, and I certainly did. In spite of my efforts to look tidy I was covered by a cloud of dust as soon as a hit the road the following morning. After five minutes I had got a ride in a tractor, and a truck coming the opposite direction turned me into a sepia image that resembled a 1920s portrait. When I reached the border, I seemed straight out of the bushes…

Thursday, May 17, 2007


Watching tropical landscape roll by from the back of a pick up. A pleasure for a hitch-hiker worldwide.

Folks in Pak Lay play an old game inherited from the French, called "petanque". And they are really serious about it. The picture is taken in the back garden of the Bureau of Finnances. Not much accountancy to do around here it seems.

The mist and the road on the early morning.

A road builder smiles when photographed with his work on the back. The bridge may have been borned in the board of an engineer, but it's still the road builders' work.

Tradition and change.

Peasents process and pack corn by the roadside.

Curious type of oil pump widespread in Lao countryside.

Rural workers wait to be called for their shifts atop an old  Hino truck.