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Thinking on the Winding Road To Pai

The winding road that leads from Chaing Mai to Pai, a hippiesque town in northern Thailand, has 762 curves. Travelers are duly warned about the nausea and discomfort they will inevitably experience on the way up to this magical town as Thai drivers are concerned with neither “safety first” nor “keep your breakfast in.” The locals are not shy about profiting on tourists’ weak tummies either—the mid-way toilet stop is a small restaurant in the middle of nowhere, selling various remedies for motion sickness.

Fortunately my belly was tough enough to stomach the curves, but the constant sliding from left to right with each turn thwarted any attempts at catching much needed sleep, leaving me with no option but to stay put and think.

I forget to think sometimes. Instead I worry, mostly about insignificant decisions. Day-to-day life takes over and I realize that all of my thinking for weeks on end have focused on mundane tasks like paying this bill or editing that paper, and needless deliberations such as what to eat for dinner (i.e., I haven’t had protein today!) and whether to take a bike or walk to a friend’s place.

Moments of clarity associated with constructive thought need silence, which is hard to come by without force these days, especially with an iPhone providing the distraction of the entire virtual world on my fingertips. Thinking, in a way, is fueled by boredom. Like that moment when you find yourself sitting on the toilet, without a book, without a phone, and no shampoo bottle on which to read the fine print. Fortunately, you finish your business before thinking can cloud your mind.

Being stuck in a very unstable van going to Pai was much tougher on my mind, which has long mastered the art of thought-evasion. It was like being locked in a bathroom for four hours. As the van swerved right and left, so did my thoughts go to places they had long been denied entry. Ideas began to rush to my mind from all directions. I felt a smile on my lips. I wanted to write my thoughts down, but any attempts at typing anything on my phone or even opening my backpack for a piece of paper instigated the first signs of nausea, prompting me to give up. Just one look around the van was convincing enough that I did not want to join in with the car full of bodies with queasy eyes.

Then I started thinking about Howard Zinn, the author of A People’s History of the United States. In the fall of 2002, the famous American historian came to Brown University for a guest lecture. I was a freshman studying for my BA. The Salomon Hall was way overcrowded to satisfy any fire-regulation with students squatting on every available surface. Instead of ushering out the eager students who were unlucky to secure a seat, the administrators in charge of the event broke a bundle of safety regulations by letting everyone stay in a surprising bout of very un-American stepping-over of rules.

One of the first things Zinn did after he took the stage was to rebuke the students in the front rows sitting with their notepads, ready to take down every word from Zinn’s mouth. He told them all to put their pens away and said, “If I say anything worth remembering, you will remember it.”

I don’t recall anything Zinn said that day except for this quote. I remember the excitement in the room, the cheers, his energy and overall happiness on that stage as he addressed a bunch of liberal college students who revered him for revealing history from the point of view of those whose stories don’t get told. The paradox of taking notes when experiencing something significant is that the act of recording increases the chance of missing that very important thing you wish to later remember.

With the memory of Zinn standing on the podium, wearing a faded jean shirt, grinning with every applause and cheer, I relaxed a bit more in my seat, locked my eyes at the moving road ahead and continued to think. Predictably, I don’t remember most of the places where my thoughts took me over those four hours from Chang Mai to Pai. I thought about Israel—whether and how I consider it home after living in Tel Aviv for seven years. I thought about my job, which I wanted to quit for a long time but lacked the courage to do so not because I depended on it financially or saw my prospects as limited, but mainly due to fears of not knowing what else to do. I thought about my family and my decision to live apart from them. I thought about traveling and writing.

This house on the way to the Mae Yen Waterfall was for rent!

When we arrived in Pai, it was already dark and raining. My friend Levent figured we could walk to our hotel in under 10 minutes so we decided to brave the rain. We put on the single-use raincoats we had bought at 7-eleven for 30 baht (and had used at least 5 times!) and began dragging our bags towards the hotel we had booked only hours before boarding the van in Chain Mai. I could barely see anything, as my eyeglasses were completely wet. I just followed the sound of Levent’s splashing footsteps with my head down looking at my soaking feet, my beaming lips dripping with sweet rain. I have no idea where I am going, I thought, and that’s just fine.


Biking in to the WWII Memorial Bridge in Pai – We never made it to the bridge, which apparently wasn’t even built in WWII.