What is it about hippie towns? Like Elvis Costello, I want to push against the cynical tide and ask, "What's so funny about peace, love, and understanding?", but whenever I find myself surrounded by "hippie" or "rasta" culture my skin crawls. That may be because part of the culture seems to hinge on a distain for bathing- though herbal soaps would seem to comprise at least 20% of hippie GDP. But I think it has more to do with the "velvet glove of oppression" exerted in hippie towns, that and the inevitable shallowness of the reality. Yesterday I rented a fantastic Kawasaki 650 and drove to the mountain town of Pai. If Chaing Mai is Boulder, a huge sprawling city with an excellent university and a lot of yoga and fresh fruit smoothies, Pai is Sedona, Arizona- people trading on a beautiful geographic location and a lot of superficial religiousity to sell generic handicrafts and classes in things like massage and cooking. And somewhere smothered in Pai is a genuine Shan hilltribe culture, which is sold, naturally, in the stalls wedged between the tee shirts and the latte shops. I know because I supported them by buying a handmade toothbrush bag.
The trick is you let your hair get to point of dreads ( too late for me I am afraid- too thin on top now) and then you grow some kind of terrifically unique facial hair that only 800,000 other groovers from Goa to Nimbin sport, and then you load yourself up with tattoos and piercings that proclaim what a fantastically interesting and rebellious person you are deep down. Once your outfir is complete you do what? Work alongside natives? Give away all your worldly possessions? Commit yourself to a deep philisophical study of the meaning of life? No silly! You go shopping for your uniform! Hemp pants are a nice choice- with some kind of natural wood or bone buttons. And then it is off to the jungle zip lines! So fun and the company is certified Green. All that is terrifically tiring- especially all the caring about the world; caring about poor children, the environment, your spirit, and most of all your body (breathe in, deep healing breaths), so some time at a spa is something you have earned. And then...Ice Cream! That goes with everything, especially being good and stoned.
So yes, the bike ride was phenomenal and filled with memorable moments and brief encounters -getting in a race with a mini-van, navigating the city traffic, laughing with a flock of children at a fruit stand desperately trying to figure out what I wanted because there mother was not there- and the mountain valley was spectacular. I rode up to a high point and had a beer and watched the setting sun. But walking through the town, seeing the others all too like myself, left me melancholy and anxious to move on, Peggy Lee's voice echoing in my head, Is that all there is?
Maybe it was different back in the day, when things were raggedy and a little less rapaciously capitalistic. Before the real estate boom. LIke Burning Man back in what, 90 when I first heard a murmur of this wierd thing which no one could really describe. But how did those first hippies support themselves? What did they do besides shop and drink smoothies and beer? Tomorrow I head back to Isan, and though I have enjoyed this region and met some very nice people, I can't wait to go. I am typing this in an internet shop. There are 5 of us in here including a young man to my left with his baseball cap on backwards and a skull on his black tee shirt. He has a beer perched next to him and on his wrist are multiple rope and leather braclets. To the right of me is a tanned, middle-aged woman, her silver grey hair cropped short, her skin glowing, dressed in india print sailor pants, her copy of Eat, Pray, Love tucked into her satchel. The tall German behind me to the right is looking at some kind of stock price page, and the young French woman behind me to the left is skyping with her chums in Paris, nattering on about the fun she is going to have at the big waterfestival next week, when every hotel will be doubled up with white people from around the world who have flocked here because they read about it in some guidebook or on the net. I don't blame them- in fact I wish I could forget myself and join in the revelry instead of being locked in the Holden Caulfield wax museum.
Here is an interesting take on dangerous travel by Paul Thoreaux with some nice bits of wisdom:
In my own “Tao of Travel,” the fact that a place is out of fashion, forgotten or not yet on the map doesn’t make it less interesting, just more itself, and any visit perhaps more of a challenge. But travel maps have always been provisional and penciled in, continually updated. The map of the possible world being redrawn right now — parts of it in tragic and unsettling ways — might soon mean new opportunities for the traveler who dares to try it. Travel, especially of the old laborious kind, has never seemed to me of greater importance, more essential, more enlightening.