And so there I stood, my first morning in Chiang Mai, a labyrinth of a city scattered with crumbling temples. The journey north required a truck, a boat and two trains, but it only took ten minutes of wandering the streets before I turned a corner and found a weathered woman who offered me three birds in a cage. A mere one hundred Baht and I could free them, she explained through a toothless grin, and metaphorically free myself as well. I turned her grin into a smile as I purchased the birds and set them free across the sunny temple grounds. The next 48 hours unfolded as much of the last three years of my life has: disconnected, unpredictable, and utterly satisfying.
From my experience, when you make a genuine effort to learn about others, you learn more about yourself in the process. I had been working for close to four years since graduating college, had learned everything I could about how to be good at my job, and yet knew little about the things I cared about in the big picture. With each passing day, the questions inside raged louder, until it was less of a choice and more of a necessity to respond. So, I took a leave of absence from my job, traveled 6000 miles, and made a decision to share experiences with new people in a new place.
As the birds flapped their wings to the beat of freedom, I couldn’t help but yawn. I was exhausted from yesterday’s 700 miles of traveling, and my old self would have indulged in the luxury of napping, and the isolation it offered. Defiant, I forced myself to continue on and rented a bike instead.
Whipping through side streets I saw two men drinking beer over a makeshift cardboard coop. Inside was the tail-end of a bloody cock fight. The men explained, in broken English, that training was in progress, and that these little animals trained like this daily as part of a six-month program before being given a chance to fight for their lives. My stomach turned from the vapid display of animal cruelty, but was placated by a morning beer with two friendly locals.
After the practice bout, I uncrumpled the map from my pocket and ventured North toward an icon of a monkey. I threaded through traffic for an hour, pulled in a deep breath of pollution, and gave up my search for monkeys. It felt like it was time to head back to the safety, and isolation, of my room, but instead of heading back, I found myself pedaling towards a gun range conveniently situated on the side of the road.
It was expensive to shoot, so I ordered a fresh juice and sat in the stands behind the range. Invigorated by my drink, and empowered by my earlier camaraderie with violent locals, I struck up conversation with a man who was enjoying a day with his guns. His English was good. We swapped a few stories, and shot at a few targets for over an hour. A relatively new feeling rose up inside me. I was having fun, sure, but it was uninhibited in a pure way and of my own making.
As we cleaned his guns I told him I wanted to see monkeys and he offered to ride with me and, with a wink, mentioned that he partially owned the monkey attraction. He pushed my bicycle from behind with his left leg as his right leg shifted the gears on his motorbike. Within minutes my wheel was slowly becoming unhinged; a reminder that I was going above the suggested speed limit for a bicycle rental. The chaos of the dusty road seemed lethal on this side of the world. Also, there’s the chance this man was in the business of human trafficking. I let the reaction pass through me and followed my gut. We arrived. Entering the attraction the security guard saluted him. With another wink, he informed me he was a sergeant in the Thai military on his day off and we watched the monkeys put on a show. On the way back to the city center we stopped by his base and received some more solutes from his officers. I probably looked like a suspicious companion next to the sergeant with the stupid grin etched on my face.
That evening, after a tasty local dinner at a restaurant without a menu, we arrived at my hostel and I thanked him sincerely for the great time. The travelers at the hostel witnessed my unusual entrance and asked about my day. We exchanged stories, went bar hopping and danced to live music until sunrise. It’s easy to forget how tired and insecure I am when I’m happy. With a few hours of sleep, I managed to make it to the truck that was waiting at the front of the hostel at 9:00 am to take me, along with a group of nine other people, to the mountains for a trek through the jungle. By noon I was riding an elephant. After lunch we hiked through the dense Asian jungle up mountains and past waterfalls. As the sun set, we set up camp with a local mountain tribe and, following dinner, I found myself in a bamboo den doing drugs with the chieftain.
It was a good few days by my account. I felt unlimited and connected at the same time. I explored the boundaries of my power, and discovered they stretched further than an arbitrary degree I had long ago imposed on myself. And, it all happened within a three month stint when I made an intentional choice to abandon convention as a crutch, did not make a phone call, or wear proper shoes. I was on my great adventure, and it was an outcome of deliberate choices I had to make to get me to where I was-- in that country, in that city, with those people.
A fence had always existed that insulated me from what was outside my community, and, while doing so, provided me with what was inside – structure, context and support. There was a clear distinction being made, and my choice was crossing to the other side of that fence. Now, as I peer back over, I oscillate between enjoying the benefits and contemplating the costs.
A naturally curious person, it has always been hard for me to have one foot on each side of the fence: on the one side, a modern world of questions, and on the other, a traditional world of answers. It was a delicate balance I was never able to strike, and it seemed disingenuous on both sides. I was losing my footing.
I felt compelled to explore. When I considered myself a religious person, I certainly learned new things and had fun. I think it’s even possible for an observant Jew to have a similar adventure as the one that took place over those few days in Chiang Mai. But, I never could figure out how. As a result, I began to position myself to the world first as a genuine person, rather than an observant Jew. Although the difference is subtle, and probably says more about how I relate to myself than to others, this shift was significant for me. My motivation was not to abandon my values, but rather to tweak a personal code that just wasn’t working. I made an attempt to address the source of my discontent, a pure motive, which made it a decision I can tolerate.
The decision was not instantaneous. It was something that evolved over a few years and, since then, I’ve strung together the wide range of experiences with a diverse set of people. This was a major development for someone who graduated from a state university without a single friend not of my faith.
That day in Chiang Mai, and many other days since, I made a choice not to isolate myself, but rather to engage with people I find interesting regardless of their background. Now I feel as though I have achieved what I set out to do. I can enter a new environment and bring forward a fundamentally different attitude: open and honest. The results have often been exhilarating. Uninhibited curiosity, while it often led to unstable circumstances, actually made me feel like a more stable person. I attribute this to the fact that by exposing myself, I learned to interact with people in a genuine manner and see them through a lense that was unobscured by expectations I never personally set.
The cost is that I’ve compromised the foundation that supported me through most of my life.
A series of unorthodox decisions rendered me in the position I am in today – non-observant, single and generally unsure of what I want to do. Through my travels I have played the role of the only Jewish person to many people, and I still maintain a connection with my religion, culture and history. I admit, though, that I may be further away now to knowing what I wanted then when I was younger, and observant, and in a serious relationship. I confess that my existence may have less depth than it did when I tried to live on a spiritual plane. But, this is the only side of the fence that makes me feel like me. Before it felt like trying. Now it feels like doing.
Not knowing the answers to such questions is a scary prospect, but so is the prospect of living my life for the sole sake of being born into it. I freed my birds. Because of this, I feel like a more authentic version of myself. Perhaps that makes me a worse Jew, or perhaps a better one. Regardless, I acknowledge the cost was steep; far steeper than the 100 Bhat it appeared to be that morning in Chiang Mai.
As for where the road leads, I try to stay optimistic. All groups, on all levels, from a basketball team to an entire nation, require individuals to play different roles. My aim is to play my role, whatever it may be, as a more complete, honest Jewish person. I’ve elected to take a path that wasn’t prescribed to me and that makes things more complicated. The destination is unknown, and, therefore, there are countless paths.
What I do know is that while my anchor currently is in New York City, in close proximity to a Jewish community, my next adventure is going to be a new place, with new people. It may be in a third world country, but it won’t be a mission to find myself. It’ll be another experience, along a line of experiences that stretches far ahead, which I’ll look back at with some apprehension and a bit of pride. Hopefully, soon, I’ll be able to see if the line is truly moving toward a fulfilling and happy place -- a place where my anchor and my adventure are one and the same.
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