Thirty kilometers outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand you hardly feel there’s a city nearby.
This is home for a little while, in a little room, in a little house, in a little clearing in “the jungle.”
After weeks of growing more and more grumpy on the road I think the Universe’s message has finally gotten through my thick Armenian skull.
Slow down, do it your way, let go of expectations.
Because here’s the thing, as much as I love meeting a new city, climbing a new mountain, or riding the train across a new country, I also like being settled down.
I like to have a roommate or two.
I like routines.
I like running errands.
I like getting to know the neighborhood.
I like Home.
Home is Where the What is
Home. It’s come up 22 times in 5 blog posts, which stuns me because it was the last thing on my mind when I set out to travel for a year.
When I packed up what was left of my belongings (12 boxes, 2 suitcases) and drove them from Oregon to my parents’ garage in California last summer, home was the last place I wanted to be. I was done with home. Home hurt. Home was where my heart was broken and I didn’t want to go back there. Ever. I was going to wander the globe in a state of bitter, self-imposed exile, a solitary adventurer swathed in cold hordes of strangers. Dramatic much?
But then I found myself clinging to places that felt like home. After my first week of travel, where I floundered in the heart of Shanghai, I retreated to a homestay in the less hectic suburb of Jiading. My most memorable stays in China were my couch surfs in Qingdao, Chengdu, and Guangzhou, and the room I rented for a few days in a Hong Kong artists’ collective. From there I stayed with friends in the Philippines and continued on to Vietnam where I couch surfed and found homestays again. Even during my time in hostels I’ve connected with people and been able to meet up with them later, essentially to have friends and a sense of home when I go to a new country.
Obviously I didn’t do well with my self-imposed identity as a loner. Even though I spend hours alone writing most days, or perhaps because of it, I like having people around. Homestays let me feel like I’m part of a larger community and definitely give me deeper access to the culture wherever I am, whether I’m staying with a local or an expat.
And since I’m not one of those people who has a dying need to see every (or any) attraction on the tourist map it’s great to have people to spend time with (like my hosts and their friends) and make myself part of the neighborhood (take walks in the park, drink tea with the neighbors, and find my favorite vendors to shop from every day).
Indeed, it has started to matter less and less where I am on the map, and more who I meet and how connected I feel to the everyday pulse of a place. Which brings me back to Chiang Mai… or its outskirts.
I am miles from the main road. The only shops within walking distance are wooden shacks selling a few meager piles of vegetables, instant noodles, and single use packets of shampoo. When my roommate’s away at work I’m sort of stranded here, which is perfect. I haven’t even ventured much outside the acre property without her. As long as there is food in the fridge and too many words in my head to know what to do with, I’m happy. So happy I wake up giggling some mornings.
Life feels pretty normal, and I like it that way.
I make breakfast, do laundry, sweep the front porch. They are little things, but tinted with just enough of the new to make them interesting.
In the morning I toast my own raisin bread and slather it with peanut butter. So normal. Except that it’s still Thailand and I am on the vigilant lookout for ants. Miniscule, dust-sized ants that crawl into my plate, onto my hands, up my arms while I eat.
I look out the window for another reminder of where I am. The neighbor’s floppy-eared cows are running through the banana trees again. A pickup truck, its bed full of orange-robed monks, pulls up at the temple around the corner.
In the evenings, local announcements are broadcast to the village over a loudspeaker.
My roommate has become a good friend. We run errands to the market, the hardware store, the mechanic. We cook, talk, watch movies, go hiking, sneak into the local resort to swim in the pool, or take joy rides on her motorbike around the countryside. We head into the city for events, to meet up with her friends, and even go bowling. And I’ve learned so much about the ins, outs, and undercurrents to life in Thailand. I know not everyone has the time or inclination to travel this way, but for me it’s been perfect.
How to find Home on the Road
There are many websites that will connect you to a local host. The two that I use frequently are couchsurfing.org (although I’ve never stayed more than four nights with one host), and airbnb.com. Not all properties on airbnb include roommates or families. Many are entire apartments or vacation homes, but I look for shared listings since that’s what I prefer. I’ve heard of other sites like tripping, roomorama, and global freeloaders, but haven’t tried them.
Make sure to read the profile and references of who you intend to stay with before committing, and remember that not every host has time to spend with you or take you around. If you’re unsure about the person or the space, reserve for a couple nights and extend your stay after you’ve tried it out. I always exchange a few messages with my host through the website to make sure we click and have enough in common to get along.